So I made a very subjective, off-the-cuff list of 36 songs that really stood out to me in the last five years of pop music as all-time favorites. I wanted to leave them unranked and unremarked upon, but who am I kidding, I’m still incapable of doing something as easy-to-read as that. So I’ll keep it as brief as possible, with just a hint of why each one is so special. One song per artist, with one exception. Let’s do it!
1. “Dance Yrself Clean”, LCD Soundsystem I wrote a way overlong, repetitive and reading-too-much-into-it essay on this very blog about this song’s genius. Find it if you want.
2. “Art Of Almost”, Wilco This song is a spellbinding blend of different elements and sounds – rock, classical, folk, metal, industrial – stitched into a very unique beast that sounds like a rhythmic engine slowly scraping and creaking to life and going absolutely out of control in the sensational coda, which is something that any rock fan must hear. It’s like watching an action movie build to a bloodbath of an ending.
3. “Siberian Breaks”, MGMT A shockingly heartfelt and straightforward prog rock epic made of several connected mood pieces with outstanding melodies that surprisingly holds together as a whole. Extremely pleasant and well-paced.
4. “Moves”, the New Pornographers The pop song of the decade. So many hooks, it may be confusing at first to the uninitiated. This band specializes in melodic adrenaline rush. Check it out – there are at least six unique melodic phrases spun off of the same chords and backing music. See if you can spot them all! They’d sound cool overlaid on each other.
5. “Crash Years”, the New Pornographers An almost-as-good followup to the previous track, a Neko Case-belted pop gem with lots of unique and superficially bizarre touches that don’t slow down its momentum or cloud its mood; they just offer tons of replay value. Another thing the NPs excel at.
6. “Dance Apocalyptic”, Janelle Monae Unstoppably creative, impossible to pigeonhole, and sickeningly catchy. Should have been the new “Hey Ya”. This infectiously joyous tune added an indelible and fun new phrase to rock’s onomotopoeia lexicon: “Shalang-a-lang-a-lang”.
7. “Unbelievers”, Vampire Weekend An elementally simple, elegantly arranged composition that speaks volumes with a handful of well-utilized abstract metaphors. It explores the positives and negatives of spirituality in the modern age in a very soulful, extremely gentle and encoded way. But seriously, the groove is what it’s all about. Unforgettable melody, too.
8. “Simple Song”, the Shins With James Mercer, ornate, baroque structures and melodies are to be expected. But he really did go for a simpler through line here, which resonated with me immediately. His voice is still in prime heartwrenching form and his backing has never been more swooning and sunny. Where there was once overly vague and precious poetry, there’s now evocative and minimalist nostalgia. Maybe his best tune?
9. “Rattlesnake”, St. Vincent Give her credit for stealing from the best. Many of St. Vincent’s other tunes and lyrics sound like moderately creative knockoffs of new wave geniuses, most noticeably Talking Heads. But she kicks that David Byrne worship into high gear here, giving it a shimmering, funky musical coat and cool vocal delivery that may just match the master.
10. “The Daily Mail”, Radiohead They were always known for stellar B-sides, but Radiohead’s eighth record left some of its best tunes on the sidelines. This one just rules. It’s a welcome change of pace, a shot in the arm, and a blisteringly straightforward indictment. Recorded live, in a setting that made a slightly lackluster batch of songs absolutely shine.
11. “That’s Who I Am”, Neko Case The instrumental detail on this cut is positively painterly. Just a treasure to listen to. Not to mention the always fantastic Neko Case, putting a conniving spin on the character’s viewpoint.
12. “Am I Awake?”, They Might Be Giants This composition captures a feeling of nameless dread, amnesia and uncomfortable drowsiness better than any other nerdy song about those topics ever has, and with a killer melody to boot. Incredibly clever and unsettling lyrics and an interestingly unsound structure round out this awesome ditty.
13. “Rolling In the Deep”, Adele Seriously, guys, before this thing began its colossal reign at the top of the charts, I first heard it and thought it was some long-forgotten 70s soul classic. On point, mature and, well, you know how catchy it is. Although I can never unhear that single harp “plink!” in the chorus.
14. “Best”, Neil Cicierega I would explain the weirdo shtick of this extremely clever and talented internet musician, but maybe it’s even better if you go in knowing nothing. Let’s just say this is a WAAAAAYYY smarter and more intricate mashup than Girl Talk has ever done. Plus it’s hysterical.
15. “I Sat By the Ocean”, Queens Of the Stone Age I found …Like Clockwork to be a surprising creative rebound, and this seductive/muscular track (that phrase pretty much describes QOTSA’s whole career) was the standout.
16. “The Suburbs”, Arcade Fire AF went big with this tune’s titular album, and it didn’t 100% work, but this track is still exceptional. Also check out “We Used To Wait”, which fittingly toys with the anticipation of emotional release.
17. “Blurred Lines”, Robin Thicke ft. Pharrell Wait a second. I know the lyrics, video and singer of this composition are problematic at best, and terrible at worst. BUT even the most aggrieved individual would be hard pressed to resist Pharrell’s production, just one fragment of a mega-successful comeback on his part. I would say that as far as melodies go, this may be the best this decade will get. So I’m torn between disliking the douche who wrote the words and falling in love with this masterpiece of funk and percussion. Stupid blurred lines.
18. “Scissor”, Liars This is like if the noisy side of Nick Cave and the gloomy side of Nick Cave had a baby, and his music was actually good. Okay, he’s fine, but “Scissor” is amazing. Old-school, no-holds-barred gothic tension and release.
19. “Yet Again”, Grizzly Bear Just a fantastically calibrated and performed song, with pretty harmonies, a great melody (I’m running out of ways to rephrase that), and an unexpected ending.
20. “A New Shore”, Steven Page A niche-y pick, for sure. But I like this guy’s songwriting, admire his growth as a musician, and enjoy his belabored metaphors and wordplay despite myself. After leaving Barenaked Ladies, a group I grew up listening to, “A New Shore” presents the story of him approaching a new horizon. It’s sort of autobiographical, and sort of just an extended riff on nautical imagery (with a strangely barren bridge). But the ending ties the goofball and the lonely soul together climactically.
21. “Do You Love Me”, Guster Man, what a pop song. Perhaps their best tune, give or take an “Amsterdam”.
22. “I Knew You Were Trouble”, Taylor Swift I’m honestly amazed that a teenybopper songstress is trying to establish her own material and I’m finding it to be pretty good, not to mention how fast her transformation was. Folks say this is a nod to dubstep, but I give it more credit than that. It’s a dynamic hit filled with hooks.
23. “Shut Down the Streets”, AC Newman Someone else that nobody will know! This guy is the brains behind the New Pornographers, and his solo career sometimes reaches the same stratosphere that they occupy. This is the finale of a very uncertain and wistful record, and it’s unsurprisingly a very sad song. The lyrics are devastating and the melody works. Good stuff.
24. “I Didn’t See It Coming”, Belle and Sebastian Their latest two LPs were underwhelming, but this is a standout track. Very… Belle and Sebastian-y, I guess?
25. “Bound 2”, Kanye West This is a fascinating and entertaining example of Kanye at his best, mixing the pedestrian with the wholly novel. Also a great example of how great he is at producing and tweaking samples. A very nice comedown from the acerbic Yeezus.
26. “Would That Not Be Nice”, Divine Fits I’m very hot and cold on Spoon, but I randomly heard this track from a side project and was very firmly on the hot side. Super fun, super groovy.
27. “Rope”, Foo Fighters I personally think Foo Fighters are 0 for 2 with comeback records, but this is the kind of awesome throwback cut that would have made a successful one.
28. “Royals”, Lorde The trend of morose orchestrated female singer-songwriter goth pop is wearing me out, but I’ve gotta give props here. Great song.
29. “Somebody That I Used To Know”, Gotye I rarely stick with unfamiliar songs on the radio as I skip by them. They have to immediately grip me and present me with something odd and likable, and this one did. Eventually it became the “song of the summer” and I grew tired of it being everywhere, but I think there really is some substance to it.
30. “You Run Away”, Barenaked Ladies A very personal and idiosyncratic inclusion. Only here because I was a fan of this band until a key member left and this is the remainder’s kiss-off/tearful farewell to him, only made more meaningful by the troubled circumstances of his departure. Its pandering, trite sound and words are simultaneously a metaphor for what the group lost and a totally sincere soliloquy from a guy who was taking a turn toward selling out.
31. “We’re Back”, the Lonely Island After a brilliant debut, their second album was lamentably spotty, and I didn’t even pay attention to the third. But this song is as multifaceted and enjoyable as anything on Incredibad.
32. “Dancing On My Own”, Robyn I think I first heard this in that one Girls episode, which means I’m lame and behind the times. Anyway, very good ambiguous dance pop.
33. “Lonely Boy”, the Black Keys Much of this band’s material is fun, but insubstantial. This is the track that sticks with me the most. It never loses its momentum.
34. “Get Lucky”, Daft Punk ft. Pharrell I have problems with too much repetition, but Daft Punk usually has the hooks to back it up. It’s still a bit too redundant for me, and overplay sort of killed it, but it truly is a good song.
35. “Caffeinated Consciousness”, TV On the Radio This is a band that doesn’t seem to know what they’re going for half the time, and who struggle to make truly captivating music, but they’re on something of a hot streak lately. I like this one because it’s the most direct they’ve ever been.
36. “You’re Welcome”, the Beach Boys Technically an old half-written rarity from a reissue, but I still love it.
Beyonce (Really ambitious, mature and iconoclastic tunes, but in turn, she sacrificed sensible structures and listenability)
Bruno Mars (The opposite problem – very fun, striking & catchy songs from across the spectrum, but each one of them is a faceless ripoff with little beneath the surface)
Rihanna (Sort of a pleasant medium between these two, but her stuff had both of their flaws)