Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, and Dirty Projectors had some of the year's best songs
1. Jay-Z and Alicia Keys
”Empire State of Mind”
The art of album-making isn’t dead, we promise. Despite the end-times squawking of the music industry’s Chicken Littles, records worth submerging yourself in from beginning to end have not yet gone the way of the eight-track or Orlando boy band. Still, 2009 belonged to singles. You may not prize the contributing factors that made it so — iTunes, YouTube, ever-shortening attention spans — but that doesn’t mean their ascent isn’t something to celebrate. The pinnacle? Jay-Z’s chart-storming ode to his hometown, ”Empire State of Mind.” Who knew a rapper on the cusp of 40 — he just marked the milestone this month — could return to the top of the charts with a song that felt so vital, immediate, and full of American promise? ? What might sound at first like a MapQuest dictation (”Yeah I’m out that Brooklyn/Now I’m down in Tribeca”) becomes a rich, multifaceted narrative of the city, hinged on Alicia Keys’ mile-high vocal hook (even if the grammar on that chorus, ”New York/Concrete jungle where dreams are made of,” made conscientious English teachers blanch). ”Empire” plays as well at major-league ballparks and on swanky awards shows as it does on the street corners and car speakers that it sprang from. ? Sure, it takes what New Yorkers love to call chutzpah to dub yourself ”the new Sinatra,” but the song isn’t just about Jay-Z’s bragging rights; it’s about making everyone who hears it feel both transported and invincible. And that’s just what a great pop song does.
2. Lady Gaga
While ”Poker Face” finds the Lady ”bluffin’ with her muffin” and ”Just Dance” celebrates, well, just dancing, ”Paparazzi” offers a deeper Gaga: canny commentary on celebrity obsession (”I’m your biggest fan/I’ll follow you until you love me”), genuine displays of human longing, and a haunting melody line. Before, we’d seen only her elaborately constructed Gaga persona. ”Paparazzi” provides a tantalizing glimpse of the girl named Stefani Germanotta who built it.
Cultishly adored French synth-rock revivalists Phoenix toiled for years on the pop fringes until this year’s breakout Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, their fourth studio album. It’s no wonder the music is used in those omnipresent car ads: Their giddy blend of le disco and sweet guitar gallop is riding-with-the-top-down freedom personified. But ”Lisztomania” sends even cubicle-bound listeners on a fizzy, pro-pulsive road trip of the mind — no Cadillac required.
4. Keri Hilson feat. Kanye West & Ne-Yo
”Knock You Down”
After three underperforming singles, the R&B siren struck gold with the fourth track from her debut, In a Perfect World…. From the opening synth stutters to the airy, expansive chorus and nimble cameos from her bold-faced backup players, the tenderhearted hip-pop ballad is a bona fide KO.
5. Grizzly Bear
A band known for its beautifully textured, meticulously layered folk-pop jewel boxes finds its finest moment yet on this swooning slow waltz of a song. Its captivating, unclassifiable combination of loopy piano jangle, frontman Ed Droste’s lithe vocals, and drowsy falsetto harmonies begs to be heard on endless loop.
The dance-punk iconoclasts’ Rick Rubin-produced major-label debut, Music for Men, may have been a minor letdown, but ”Heavy Cross” provides four minutes of supreme rock awesome. A bass line ripped straight from Stevie Nicks’ ”Edge of Seventeen” explodes in a blues-boogie combustion hot enough to singe your eyebrows.
7. Green Day
While 21st Century Breakdown offers plenty of the Berkeley, Calif., punks’ now-standard three-chord rebel yells, yearning power ballad ”21 Guns” hoists the white flag: ”Lay down your arms/Give up the fight.” Except what sounds like defeat feels more like a celebration. They can still have the raging-against-the-machine antics of their youth. It just turns out that surrender is even sweeter.
”Never Forget You”
Until Amy Winehouse works out her issues, we’ll be listening to this British trio’s transcendent slice of retro soul from their album Wild Young Hearts. Over jaunty wall-of-sound swells, Anglo-Zimbabwean singer Shingai Shoniwa pulls a long-lost someone (friend? lover?) down memory lane with a story involving silver boots, booze, and unnameable adventures. In the end, when she croons, ”I’ll never forget you/They said we’d never make it/My sweet joy, always remember me,” it’s like Shoniwa is singing for an entire era of blissful bygones.
9. Miley Cyrus
”Party in the U.S.A.”
Call it whatever you want: tween dreck, cultural cyanide, the only sign of the impending apocalypse that was missing from 2012. We’ll be in the corner, moving our hips like yeah. Miley plays the nervous Nashville bumpkin overwhelmed by L.A. glamour until the sounds of Jay-Z and Britney save her: ”So I put my hands up/They’re playing my song/The butterflies fly away.” Even though she has since admitted in interviews that she’d never actually heard a Jay-Z track, her blithe tribute to the power of pop radio makes us so freakin’ happy, we forgive her.
10. Dirty Projectors
”Stillness is the Move”
The cerebral Brooklyn collective known for its twisty sonic spelunking nails a rare pop moment. Nothing here should work: The melody is a harpsichord squiggle straight out of a Renaissance fair. The band’s three female vocalists sound like a Mormon women’s choir moonlighting as Purple Rain-era Prince protégées. And yet — ”Isn’t life under the sun just a crazy, crazy, crazy dream?/Isn’t life just a mirage of the world before the world?” Indeed.
…And 10 More (Because We Just Couldn’t Help Ourselves)
1. Passion Pit, ”The Reeling”
2. Carrie Underwood, ”Cowboy Casanova”
3. Mayer Hawthorne, ”Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out”
4. Alicia Keys, ”Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart”
5. Sleigh Bells, ”Crown on the Ground”
6. T.I. feat. Justin Timberlake, ”Dead and Gone”
7. Pink, ”Please Don’t Leave Me”
8. Marina & the Diamonds, ”I Am Not a Robot”
9. Cass McCombs, ”Dreams-Come-True-Girl”
10. Shakira, ”She Wolf”