Best tunes of 2010: #1 Broken Bells “The high road”

After almost a full year, we’ve finally come to the number one song on this best of 2010 list. So many great songs but this single off the self-titled, debut album by Broken Bells wins it all for me hands down.

I remember first hearing about the Brian Burton and James Mercer collaboration and thinking (whether rightly or wrongly) that this was all made possible by another collaboration six years prior by Jimmy Taborello and Ben Gibbard, called The Postal Service. Still, when I first gave “Broken Bells” a spin and first heard the opening seconds of the opening song, this one, I was hooked. The album then spent a lot of time with me after that, keeping me company with its hooks and multi-faceted magic.

Apparently, the seeds were sown for this collaboration when The Shins’ frontman, James Mercer met producer/musician/wizard, Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) at a music festival in 2004 and they got to talking and discovered each other’s mutual respect. They didn’t actually get around to working together for another four years and the first album came a couple of years after that. By this time, Burton had already been riding a wave of successes, such as his collaboration with Cee-Lo Green as Gnarls Barkley and the production of albums by Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad and The Queen, Beck, and The Black Keys. Indeed, he was becoming like a musical Midas. Mercer, for his part, had put his own band, The Shins, on hiatus, citing fatigue after three relatively successful albums and achieving a sort of cult status. Working together, the two members of Broken Bells brought their own styles with them to the workshop and seemingly reinvigorated each other, creating beautiful, otherworldly music in the process.

“The high road” is hipster funk for martians. It opens up with synths that feel like free jazz random notes played on an underwater harpsichord, filtered through a C64’s speakers. Then, that laidback beat kicks in and you can just imagine Burton and Mercer coolly walking down a back alley with graffiti on the walls, decked out in bandannas and jean jackets with the collars turned up. Mercer’s vocals here are unlike anything he had previously done with The Shins, which I suppose is the point, affecting a devil may care attitude, almost to the point of irony. The whole thing is so much fun, right down to the backing vocals that invite you in to be part of the gang. That’s right. Step right up and join the choir that is the human race.

Cheers folks and thanks as always for reading.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2010 list, click here.

Best tunes of 1991: #25 Pearl Jam “Jeremy”

I started off this Best tunes of 1991 series with an honourable mention post on Nirvana’s “Smells like teen spirit”, ruling it out from my top 30 from the outset. In that post, I touched on how I quickly grew to dislike the Seattle scene and any of the bands associated with that sound, whether or not they actually came from that particular geographical area. And it was completely irrational, being less to do with the bands themselves or their music than it was the industry machine and the music press. It was these bands that brought ‘alternative’ to the mainstream and the focus on them effectively narrowed the scope and sound of the genre in North America for way too many years. But before I start ranting again, let me just say that Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” was one of the songs that somehow transcended all of this for me and I couldn’t help but like it.

It was definitely the music video that caught my attention. Considered one of the most controversial of all time, it has been rarely seen on television in recent years. It’s a touchy subject for sure. Teenager brings gun to school. The video, of course, is an extension of the song lyrics which Eddie Vedder wrote based on an article he had read about real events. It was just a short paragraph in a newspaper that he expanded, imagining a back story for the troubled Jeremy that hinted at the not uncommon stories of neglect and bullying.

The song was the third single off Pearl Jam’s debut album, “Ten”, and due to heavy rotation of the video, became a hit for the band, selling tons of copies of their album and kickstarting their career as one of the more important bands in alternative rock. And yeah, their music sounds commonplace enough nowadays but it was just that much different back in 1991. It’s aggression matches the subject perfectly and Vedder’s soulful moan is now iconic and all the more harrowing when he sings lines like: “Daddy didn’t give affection and the boy was something mommy wouldn’t wear.”

But the beauty of it all is that Pearl Jam does not distance themselves from Jeremy, Vedder admitting that he remembered picking on the boy and acknowledging that “we unleashed a lion”. We are all the bullies and the bullied and I think that universality haunted a lot of people. It certainly did me.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1991 list, click here.

Best tunes of 2010: #2 Arcade Fire “Sprawl II (Mountains beyond mountains)”

And here we are finally at the penultimate track on this best tunes of 2010 list and we have a second song from what many consider to be Arcade Fire’s masterpiece: “The suburbs” (the title track appeared at #12). For myself, I don’t know if I can decide between this one and their debut album, “Funeral”, it’s really too close to call. I liked both albums from the start, though they are quite distinctly different.

“The suburbs” is a bleak, post-apocalyptic rendering of suburbia, but it is done with love. In many cases, the songs are brighter and shinier than those on the darker “Funeral”. Indeed, “Sprawl II (Mountains beyond mountains)” is a perfect example of how Arcade Fire twists it’s subject matter into something more uplifting and almost joyous.

“They heard me singing and they told me to stop,
Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock,
These days, my life, I feel it has no purpose.”

The sixth and final single released off the album features Win Butler’s partner in crime and in life, Régine Chassagne, on vocals and she is star of the music video as well. She leaves her suburban home with a pair of headphones on and she starts the music immediately. Then, we see suburban folk doing typically suburban things, like hanging out in lawn chairs and watering the lawn, except they’re all wearing masks, some of them faceless, and all the while, Régine just sings and dances away any fear and loathing she might have. It all culminates in a fearless night time dance party on a football field, where she leads the way with cheerleading streamers.

I’ve often felt that she was channeling Björk a bit here and not just in the video, where the humdrum world becomes a sort of Hollywood musical, albeit a twisted one, once the music starts. But in the song itself and how she sings the song, right down to the vocal mannerisms.

And it is on “Sprawl II” more than on any other song on “The suburbs” that we get a hint at the direction Arcade Fire would take on future albums. Music that Régine could dance to was how Win Butler explained the sound on “Reflektor”. Well, she’s dancing all over “Sprawl II“ and it’s super contagious.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2010 list, click here.