We’re near the end of the year and new releases have slowed to a crawl just in time for that favorite activity of all critics: list-making.
So, in this special edition of the Riff Report, I present PopMatters’ top 10 singles of 2009, selected and written up by PopMatters staff and highlighted by a trio of American indie rock headliners.
10. Miranda Lambert, “Dead Flowers”
It takes a lot of sand to pinch a title from a famous Stones tune, but we already knew Lambert was one tough gal. However, “Dead Flowers” isn’t one of her crazy-girl-with-a-gun songs; she’s lamenting some no-good man, yes, but this time she’s more heartbroken than angry. The song is steeped in pop formulas — a quiet, pulsing intro and a somber verse that swells to a big, round chorus — but the soaring beauty of the melody, the slick-but-not-saccharine arrangement, and Miranda’s scintillating vocal wallop when she kicks it up an octave keep country music’s hottest winning streak alive and well.
9. Jay-Z, “Empire State of Mind” (feat. Alicia Keys)
It took him 11 studio albums to get there, but with “Empire State of Mind,” Jay-Z finally has his own Billboard Hot 100 number one single. It’s fitting that this would be the song to achieve the feat, considering it’s a meaningful ode to New York City with worldwide crossover appeal. Featuring a killer hook sung by Alicia Keys and an uplifting piano sample from the Moments, “Empire State of Mind” is the true highlight of The Blueprint 3, and the ideal hip-hop anthem of 2009.
8. Neko Case, “People Got a Lotta Nerve”
It all comes to an end in a hail of gunfire, and pauses to detail a dismemberment-by-sea-mammal (communicated with a “told ya so” shrug) along the way, but make no mistake that “People Got a Lotta Nerve” is Neko Case’s Big Pop Moment. The classic-R.E.M. guitar jangle is a none-too-subtle hint, but the dead giveaway is in that “I’m a man-man-man-man-man-man eater” chorus. A metaphorical hook indelible enough to have served Hall and Oates and Nelly Furtado quite well before her, Neko finally turns its sexual voraciousness literally violent and in doing so becomes a winking meta-commentary on pop music’s indulgence in its bottomless carnal appetites. That the song itself is so lushly, seductively pretty is what makes it so dangerous.
7. Girls, “Lust for Life”
The age of the two-and-a-half-minute pop single is not over. “Lust for Life” takes staple elements of early rock and pre-rock vocal pop and revitalizes them within the context of timeless themes. Christopher Owens’ purposely erratic singing embodies the restlessness of youth while he romanticizes the same. Beyond the surface images of wine and beach bonfires, it’s about starting over, love as a means of rebirth. The hope in that vision is eternal, and perhaps doomed. Near the end is a wonderfully melancholy harmonica solo, the voice of eternal disappointment.
6. Phoenix, “1901”
It’s three minutes and 18 seconds long and moves at a steady rate of 144 BPM. The beats loudly tick-tick-tick-tick like the hands of a gigantic beefed-up watch. Within the fast-forwarded Robert Altman narrative, two people build a material life together and wait for it to crack, a woman lunges toward her last drink of the night in the 20 seconds before the bar shuts down, and Phoenix vocalist Thomas Mars pines for months of tranquility while falling into something that may keep him on the edge forever. And you — the witness to the French dance-rock band’s triumphant return — are falling in along with him, hurtling through time and space by a gale that doesn’t let you look back. More than anything on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, “1901” infuses the group’s romanticism with the immediacy they’d never quite achieved, using time as a motif to convey the urgency of a generation.
5. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Zero”
Who would’ve guessed that a thundering New Wave homage would’ve resulted in one of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs greatest singles to date? With Nick Zinner’s stutter-rific guitars merging with warm key pads and one helluva synth breakdown, Karen O has found a whole new playground for her expertly cryptic kiss-offs to run free, and the result is a club-ready sugar rush laced with the slightest hint of venom, making us all feel like a mad man on the run, too.
4. The Avett Brothers, “I and Love and You”
The Avett Brothers revealed their major-label reboot with this album-opening, lead-single, title cut. It showcases every grand facet of the Bros’ new phase: piano-based Americana, high-lonesome harmonies, sweeping strings, and pensive lyrics. Each brother — first Scott, then Seth — takes a verse, and the song builds to an epic chorus that details the temperature of the human heart in flux (and the healing balm of Brooklyn). The refrain, “You don’t know the shape I’m in” and the song’s rustic heartland balladry suggest that the ghost of Richard Manuel oversaw the proceedings. At decade’s end, country-rock has new champions. The proof? This and great and song.
3. Grizzly Bear, “Two Weeks”
“Knife” showed us they had pop in them, but it took a peppy piano riff for Grizzly Bear to explode into the mainstream. And explode they did, bursting-with-life in their Patrick Daughters-directed video. As Ed Droste Twittered the minutiae of his everyday life, his music turned more and more outwards, content to dwell in the bright light of day rather than hide in closets and beneath creaky floorboards of remote holiday houses. “Two Weeks” is the culmination — a gorgeous, addictive, celebratory song that luxuriates in its own beautiful melodic lines. This is an almost perfect pop song — and it’s not even the best on Veckatimest.
2. Dirty Projectors, “Stillness Is the Move”
So, late ’90s urban R&B meets West African influenced indie rock. What? This song’s joy is in its contradictions: At once a catchier pop song than anything to grace top 40 radio this year, but also a druggy, psychedelic vision quest: “Where did time begin?” singer Amber Coffman shouts in the bridge. Few musical moments of 2009 have been as sublime as Coffman sounding exactly like Mariah Carey when she belts: “Af-ter all that we’ve been THROUGH!”
1. Animal Collective, “My Girls”
Animal Collective are on record for being confused by comparisons to the Beach Boys. But it’s tough to listen to Panda Bear’s earnest, layered harmonies on “My Girls” without thinking of a certain clan of Wilson’s. The song unfolded in several movements, all held together by a sequencer from another universe. The defining moment, though, was the chanted refrain: “…I just want / four walls and adobe slats / for my girls.” Cue emphatic “whoo!” timpani, and euphoria. Panda Bear’s lyrics revealed that, far more than just an exercise in brilliant arrangement, the song was a heartfelt, touching ode to contentment and domesticity. In other words, an adult symphony to God.