Sunday, December 20, 2009
Listening Post: The 20 Best Singles of 2009
Ah, the single -- that staple of modern music. Admittedly the idea of having a hit single almost seems like it shouldn't matter anymore, given that any song from any album by any artist can be bought for around a dollar (or sought out and downloaded for free, if you're so inclined to stick it to the RIAA), basically making the general public the arbiters of what constitutes the most popular, or at the very least "listenable," track on a record. Still, we're Americans -- which means we love to be told what's good and what isn't and we'll follow that recommendation accordingly -- and so the single survives as an art form. Overall, 2009 wasn't the best year for music in recent memory -- which isn't to say that there weren't a few truly great records: Animal Collective, The Big Pink, Neko Case, The xx, St. Vincent, Tegan and Sara, Mastodon and quite a few of the artists whose music you'll hear here over the next twelve days all released spectacular albums -- but it was a very good year for that one great, catchy-as-all-hell tune from a record that made you want to hear more (even if the "more" wasn't always worth hearing in the end). It was a great year for women and bands fronted by women. It was a great year for power-pop of all stripes. It was a great year for little bands making big noise and new bands playing with the kind of assurance that made you think they've been around forever.
So let's get on with it and hear the best singles of 2009.
20. Florence + the Machine -- Kiss With a Fist
You gotta give Florence Welch credit: It takes serious balls to have your very first single -- your introductory bow to the public -- be a brash, two-minute screed about a couple of lovers who regularly (and affectionately) kick the crap out of each other, all set to a playful little dance beat. Such was Kiss With a Fist, the debut from Britain's Florence + the Machine. It's a cliché in rock to say that somebody bursts onto the scene and makes an unforgettable impression, but when you're a woman who's writing lyrics like "broke your jaw once before/spilt your blood upon the floor/you broke my leg in return/sit back and watch the bed burn" you're pretty much guaranteed to get attention. Who knows, maybe that guy who socked Jersey Shore's Snooki in the face was just taking the advice of Florence + the Machine. Either way, this is kick-ass music -- literally.
19. Mos Def -- Quiet Dog
The last time anyone heard a hip-hop album title perfectly sum up the album itself, it was last year's The Renaissance. Q-Tip didn't need to drive home the point that his work was a kind of rebirth of the artistic aesthetic he pioneered with A Tribe Called Quest; likewise, neither did Mos Def need to announce that The Ecstatic marked a return to the exhilarating technique and lyrical flow that made him a hipster hero and seemed to fill him with so much joy. The album's first single, Quiet Dog, was everything anyone's ever loved about Flaco: An evocative jump-up boogie beat that practically pulses in time with the heartbeat of the city -- and borough, Brooklyn -- he loves; verbal gymnastics made to look easy; an über-cool overall vibe that, mercifully, stands light years apart from 98% of the nonsense that passes for hip-hop these days. Quiet Dog got you on your feet, told you to "simmer down," and left you thrilled there are still a few visionaries working in a genre that's proven time and time again to be content to reward assholes over artists.
Tomorrow: 18 & 17