Best of Music 2010: The Best Music Videos of the Year

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1. Kanye West – Runaway [dir. Kanye West]

Other music videos might claim it unfair that they had to compete with “Runaway,” as it could very well be considered a short film set to a Kanye West soundtrack as opposed to a music video proper.  But it is not like the other videos could not have also been as long as they wanted to be and included multiple songs.  With “Runaway,” Kanye West could have earned the honor of best music video of the year through sheer ambition alone, but the execution isn’t too bad, either.  The phoenix that Kanye’s character, Griffin, discovers is supposed to be a pure and unblemished creature, and the implication is that the world she comes from is pure and unblemished as well.  But when the phoenix explains that what she hates most about Griffin’s world is how sculptures are phoenixes turned to stone by society, one wonders if she is really the authority on perfection.  Griffin insists that this is not true.  Surely this is hardly the worst deed committed by the people of this world.  But is Griffin too naïve to be arguing with her?  When a guest at the dinner party asks him if he realizes that his girlfriend is a bird, he admits that he does not.  What is absolutely going on is the difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of natives of two different worlds coming to a complete understanding of each other.  The phoenix’s protests sound so wrong to Griffin’s ears because she does not (cannot?) explain it in his terms, nor can he explain what he has to say in her terms.

2. The Black Keys – Tighten Up [dir. Chris Marrs Piliero]

It is the relatively rare video that is not a collection of images to accompany the music, but also a story with a clearly traceable narrative.  And it is the rare video within that category that keeps that story contained to the length of the song.  Usually, you have something like “Thriller” that adds a few minutes before, in between, and sometimes after the song.  True, “Tighten Up” includes an approximately 20-second opening before the music kicks in, but after that, the song does not stop (save for about a second in the middle).  There is quite a bit of whimsy to the storytelling of the Black Keys: e.g., who keep donuts in their pockets?  (What if you get clothing fibers on the donut?  Or flour in your pockets?)  The fact that Dan and Patrick are just as bad as their sons illustrates that stories about love are as old as time and stories about guys fighting over the same girl are one second short of being as old as time.  Of course this little blues rock number is the perfect soundtrack for such a story.  You can hardly blame the boys – that little girl is quite the seductress.

3. M.I.A. – Born Free [dir. Romain Gavras]

Apparently the “Born Free” video was banned from YouTube (although I had no trouble finding it).  I guess some people were a little too disturbed by it.  Unfortunately, I have the sense that those people missed the point, as I heard that it was banned due to its violent content, as opposed to its political views.  As it is, M.I.A. is about the only musician today brave enough – nay, she’s about the only musician who cares enough – to make political allegory out of her videos.  (Were there ever any other musicians making videos like this?)  Like the best allegories, it is a fully realized, unironic fantasy world that looks like our own world.  Of course it is ridiculous that redheads would be taken from their homes, shot, beaten, and blown up, but how is it any more ridiculous than America’s treatment of blacks and Native Americans or the Tamil genocide in M.I.A.’s native Sri Lanka?

4. St. Vincent – Laughing with a Mouth of Blood [dir. Patrick Stanton and Doug Lussenhop]

The music video for “Laughing with a Mouth of Blood” is also part of a series of sketches by thunderAnt.  thunderAnt is Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and SNL’s Fred Armisen (who have brought the Women and Women First Bookstore to their IFC sketch series Portlandia).  This video would work if it was just a one-off, but it is always nice when an up-and-coming artist is in the hands of a group of people that have already got a thing going.  It is all about the indignities of being a struggling musician, with the embarrassment of nobody showing up to an under-promoted gig amplified by the cluelessness of the hipster owners of a feminist bookstore.

5. Lady GaGa ft. Beyoncé – Telephone [dir. Jonas Åkerlund]

Before “Telephone,” Lady GaGa’s videos were mostly a mishmash of images, and nothing else (with the exception of the sophisticated “Paparazzi”).  They were basically excuses for the dancing set pieces, although they did have the eye obscuring and the other Illuminati symbols.  Then with “Telephone,” GaGa decided that she was no longer just going to make silly conspiracy hand gestures, she was going to make a full-blown conspiracy-laden video.  The fact that the assassins of “Telephone” are of the brainwashed variety may be oblique to some, and GaGa’s conspiratorial leanings certainly aren’t reported much on the MTV.  But you got to know that something is up when the Japanese TV style graphics clutter the screen as GaGa prepares the poison.  And let’s not miss Beyoncé’s Mickey Mouse sunglasses.

I’m not entirely sure what Lady GaGa’s stance on mind control by the media is, or if she even wants her fans to notice that element of her artistry, but go ahead and watch The Manchurian Candidate and realize that she is part of a tradition of great brainwashing-related art.

6. Jay-Z ft. Swizz Beatz – On to the Next One [dir. Sam Brown]

All right, more fun from the Illuminati!  Jay-Z’s black and white video is actually filled with a whole host of occult images: Jay-Z making devil horns while surrounded by a halo-esque set of lights, liquid being poured on an encrusted skull, crows, skull face paint, horned skulls representing the pagan deity Baphomet.  The bareness of the set design and the b&w palette are reminiscent of Snoop’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” video, but the occult references make for a creepier end product.  The fact that these symbols have been associated with groups like the Knights Templar and the freemasons that supposedly secretly run society makes it clear that Jay is the one pulling the strings in the rap world.

7. Rihanna – Rude Boy [dir. Melina Matsoukas]

If you are going to subscribe to the theory that the music video should not strive for narrative but should only be a collection of images, then make sure you are working with people who know how to put together a nice artistically minded color palette.  References to iconic art helps as well: Andy Warhol (the silhouetted Rihanna), Keith Haring (the lion figure), and Jean-Michael Basquiat (the crown).  There is also what is to my eyes a visual reference to David Lynch’s Eraserhead (check out RiRi’s hair during the zebra-print portion).  And then Rihanna’s physical wit (curled lips, winks, finger pointing, smiles) ensures that her personality is firmly planted within the images.

8. Janelle Monáe ft. Big Boi – Tightrope [dir. Wendy Morgan]

Epigraphs are often so extraneous.  So when you get a good one, you gotta love it.  This is what Janelle Monáe has to tell us in her doozy of an epigraph: “Dancing has long been forbidden for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices.”  If you are going to make a dance music video, make sure of these three things: everyone can dance really well, the routine is creative and intricate, and there is a style to the video all its own.  “Tightrope” has the first two down with no problems (the dancing does not stop as it makes its way through the asylum), and then the third element is wild: a woman who looks sexy in a tuxedo.  And Janelle adds a little extra, delivering on the promise of the epigraph, as the dancing apparently gives her the ability to walk through walls.  So it is, then, that if we can dance, then we too can walk through the walls of our lives.

9. Drake – Find Your Love [dir. Anthony Mandler]

Drake has been such a sensation in the rap world because he plainly makes rap music and videos that are unlike anything any other MC’s are producing.  What other rapper makes the focus of his video a (realistic-looking) kidnapping and casts a girl with a huge ass as the love interest?  A lot of guys rap about the badonkadonk, but who besides Drake has put a true badonkadonk (and one that isn’t very flattering proportion-wise) in a video?  The girl is not shot particularly glamorously, except insofar as a kiss on the beach is glamorous.  But the image of Drake and the girl is striking nonetheless.  One might think that the kidnapping element would mean that Drake is at his lowest and most frightened, but instead his is a state of melancholy, as he deeply ponders how his situation has come to this.  He is looking for a real, meaningful love when everything around him is telling him that it does not exist.

10. Yeasayer – Madder Red [dir. Andreas Nilsson]

Kristen Bell plays an aspiring actress in a relationship (mother/son? girlfriend/boyfriend? owner/pet? friends?) with a short, stocky creature with stumpy (if any) feet, one oddly shaped arm, and bloody pus drooling out of its mouth.  Her mother looks like she might disapprove, or it could be that she is just worried because she knows how sick this poor little fellow is.  They rush to the hospital, but it turns out to be the creature’s time.  Could this be a statement on racial tolerance? Animal rights?  Based on the look of the creature, it could very well be a truly graphic and fearless depiction of a pro-life viewpoint.  Ultimately, its most essential theme is love. Kristen’s love for the creature is the strongest portrayal of unconditional love I have ever seen in a music video.

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Best of Music 2010: The Best Live Performances of the Year

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There are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of live performances every year.  Obviously I have not seen or even heard about every live performance of 2010, nor has any other music critic.  Even if I stick with only the performances that were broadcasted to a mass audience, there is still only a small percentage that I am familiar with.  Thus, the four performances that I am spotlighting may not be the four best performances of the year, but they are certainly memorable in their own right and would likely at least rank among the top one hundred performances of the year.  As it is, they are the four best live performances of 2010 that I saw.

Kanye West – “Power” on Saturday Night Live (October 2)
The SNL music stage is notorious for bad acoustics, drowning out any artist with a big sound.  It isn’t a very big stage, and history also suggests that the musical acts aren’t granted much freedom in adjusting the design of the stage.  Somehow, Kanye West convinced whoever makes the decisions that that needed to change.  Draping the stage completely in white – draping the stage in any color – is completely unheard of, as is the presence of approximately thirty backup dancers, ballerinas or otherwise.  This is prime video evidence of a musical genius at work, and evidence that he will not let anyone stand in his way as he brings his visions to fruition.

Florence + the Machine – “Dog Days are Over” at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards (September 12)
When you are a recording artist with a great voice, the question is always, do you sound as good live as you do on the record?  Better yet, do you sound better live?  If the answer is yes, then the rest of what you do live is just gravy.  So, it is always nice when an act like Florence + the Machine does not skimp on the gravy.  The blue people and the tribal outfits provided the spectacle, and the choreography was in sync.  Florence’s spinning platform set up a nice counter-synchronicity.  This performance also benefited from astute directorial choices, with plenty of ceiling shots showing off the full spectrum of the act.

Grace Potter & the Nocturnals – “Paris (Ooh La La)”/Ann and Nancy Wilson and Grace Potter & the Nocturnals – “Crazy on You” on VH1 Divas Salute the Troops (recorded December 3, aired December 5)
With a steady pattern of vocal breaks and several relatively instrumentally inactive moments, “Paris (Ooh La La)” – more than any other hit of 2010 – is perfectly structured for a great live performance.  The Nocturnals did not disappoint, hitting their riffs as they saw fit, their spontaneity winning over the crowd despite being the least-known act.  Of course, Grace really explored the space of the stage and had plenty of room to do so.  But the real highlight, no doubt, was the encore.  At the beginning of the show, I was thinking how some of these VH1 Divas, Grace Potter especially, must have been influenced by the Wilson sisters and that it would be great if they were to make a surprise appearance.  Somebody else had that same great idea.  It would have been unbearable if Grace could not have matched Ann note for note on this most vocally striking of Heart’s hits, but she pulled it off, and the reason she was able to was certainly not because Ann’s pipes have gone any bit rusty.  She was even bold enough to put her own screechy spin on the tune.  The vocal tête à tête was enough to forgive the Nocturnals for skipping a few notes on the guitar (it is a tough guitar song as well).
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She & Him – “I Put a Spell on You” on Conan (December 9)
“That was unbelievable.” – Conan O’Brien
On the opposite end of what Kanye accomplished on the SNL stage is what She & Him accomplished on the Conan stage.  This is the sort of performance you have to come up with when you don’t have 30 backup ballerinas.  It’s not like you need 30 backup dancers when you have a voice like Zooey Deschanel’s.  Hell, you barely need a guitar.  Zooey possesses one of the richest-sounding voices in music today, and in this take on the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins classic, she really explored what she could do with it.  She made the risky decision of sounding like a petulant child at several points, but somehow it worked.  And M. Ward did manage to fit in a quick little guitar solo outro.

Best of Music 2010: The Best Songs of the Year

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I have been assembling year-end best-of music lists since 2006 (or since 2007, for the music of 2006, as it were). Up until this year, these collections were a part of my radio show, Jeff Malone’s Magic Mix, on WLOY, Loyola University Maryland’s campus station. Now that I have graduated, the Magic Mix is no longer on the airwaves at WLOY, but that is no reason for me to stop espousing on the best music of the year. The format on my best-of-the-year Magic Mix shows consisted of a list of the top five songs of the year along with a sampling of some of the year’s other great songs, in no particular order. That is the format we will stick with. To be eligible, songs must have been released as singles in calendar year 2010 (or late 2009 in the case of some exceptions).

Top 5 Songs of the Year
After the top 5 took a decidedly indie turn last year, 2010 went in a more mainstream direction.

 1. Jay-Z ft. Swizz Beatz – “On to the Next One”
Jay-Z enjoyed a string of hit singles off The Blueprint 3; in a case of opposite day, the most deserving – “On to the Next One” – was the least successful of the bunch.  Jay’s team-up with Alicia Keys received much of the attention that ought to have gone to his collaboration with her husband.  A barely recognizable sample of Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.” played over and over and the occasional drumbeat provide the creepy, spare atmosphere.  Meanwhile, Jay raps about how he is staying ahead of the game while he does the same, more than on any of his other recent tracks: “Niggas want my old shit, buy my old album.”  He tweaks the excesses of the genre while simultaneously making expert use of them himself: “And fuck that Auto-Tune cause we [cue Auto-Tune] ooo-on.”  Some of the best work in any medium is about the medium itself.

2. Rihanna – “Rude Boy”
Rihanna’s dark gambit Rated R was not entirely successful, but it did produce the most interesting work of her career, and nowhere was that more clear than on “Rude Boy.”  It is quite the bold effort to have a song represent an entire slang term (“rude boy” is common Jamaican slang for a lawless male), but when it works, it works.  “Rude Boy” is ostensibly a love letter to such questionable fellows, but there is surely a wealth of irony, considering the Chris Brown period of Rihanna’s life.  And the musical aspect is as strong and well-produced as it can be: RiRi’s icy monotone is as biting as ever, and that steel drum lead-in to the chorus is perhaps the instrumental accent of the year.

3. The Black Keys – “Tighten Up”
How many wrenching blues-rock numbers about the heartrending nature of love are being made today?  About 15 – the number of tracks on the Black Keys’ latest album.  “Tighten Up” is the best of the bunch.  An opening whistle, musical enjambment (“I’m bound to fall, bound to fall/for you”), and a tempo-changing background that ushers in the final bit are some of the most notable pieces that make up the ultimate tight (appropriately enough) musical package.

 4. Katy Perry – “Teenage Dream”
As I was beginning to realize just how great “Teenage Dream” is, I described it as the best pop song in a while.  By “pop,” I meant to exclude pop-rock, pop-R&B, pop-rap, dance-pop, electropop, and any other non-pop genre with songs that happen to make it on to the pop charts.  Then I was looking through Rolling Stone’s picks for songs of the year.  They also placed Katy at number four, and they described “Teenage Dream” as the “Best Pure Pop” – this was the description I had been looking for.  With a sound reminiscent of Kylie Minogue (particularly “Love at First Sight”), “Teenage Dream” conveys a taste of ecstasy that only pure pop music can pull off. 

5. Metric – “Gold, Guns, Girls”
Are you ready?  “Gold, Guns, Girls” is going to pump you up and get you moving by opening with that guitar riff, then keep things steady with the drumbeat during the verses, and then that riff will jump back in your face for the chorus.  And then Emily Haines’ call-and-response and overlapping vocals are enough to drive you insane.  What is the perfect question to accompany this aggressive sound blast?  You got it: “Is it ever gonna be enough?”

Just Outside the Top 5
Arcade Fire – “Ready to Start”
Rihanna – “Only Girl (in the World)”
Drake – “Find Your Love”
Kanye West – “Power”

And Some Other Good Ones
Paramore – “The Only Exception”
Florence + the Machine – “Heavy in Your Arms”
“Dog Days Are Over” was Florence’s breakout hit, but it was originally released in 2008.  And “Heavy in Your Arms” was better anyway.
Kings of Leon – “Radioactive”
Janelle Monáe – “Tightrope”
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – “I Should Have Known It”
This isn’t a classic act resting on its laurels or being experimental for the sake of doing something different – this is another solid entry in a great career.
Nicki Minaj ft. Sean Garrett – “Massive Attack”
Band of Horses – “Laredo”
Mayer Hawthorne – “I Wish It Would Rain”
Dance Song of the Year: Usher ft. will.i.am – “OMG”
will.i.am presents Usher with the best song of his career: a simple ode to the joys of the dancefloor and the ladies who populate it.
St. Vincent – “Laughing with a Mouth of Blood”
Eminem ft. Lil’ Wayne – “No Love”
La Roux – “Bulletproof”
3OH!3 ft. Ke$ha – “My First Kiss”
Bill Lamb of About.com said that 3OH!3 and Ke$ha “are probably the most gifted artists of the moment at riding a line between performing irresistibly catchy music and releasing tremendously annoying songs.”  “My First Kiss” is the pinnacle of the irresistibly catchy side.
Ke$ha – “We R Who We R”
Silversun Pickups – “The Royal We”
Linkin Park – “The Catalyst”
Muse – “Neutron Star Collision (Love is Forever)”
That’s 2 (two!) songs from the Twilight: Eclipse soundtrack.
Selena Gomez and the Scene – “Round & Round”
“Round & Round” gives no indication as to Selena Gomez’s vocal abilities, but it is a well-produced piece of pop.
Nicki Minaj – “Right Thru Me”
The Temper Trap – “Fader”
“Fader” is standing in a bit for “Sweet Disposition,” which was originally released in 2008, but was a hit in the Temper Trap’s native Australia before it broke though stateside.
Sara Bareilles – “King of Anything”
Most Awesomely Bad Song of the Year: Christina Perri – “Jar of Hearts”
“You’re gonna catch a cold from the ice inside your soul” is 2010’s response to “I’m so two thousand and eight, you’re so two thousand and late.”