Friday, October 13, 2017

the top ten best hit songs of 2010

I have to admit, when I first added the highest tier option to include requests for a top ten list, I had no idea what was going to be requested. Opening up the vast decades of Billboard history meant this could go in any direction, and that could mean a wealth of new discoveries. And thus our first Patreon request is for the best hit songs of... 2010.

Okay, so here's why this feels uncanny: 2010 was arguably the year I started having any desire to review music, which started on Facebook before I took it to my blog two years later and YouTube in 2013. And while you could argue the birth of the pop music critic in video form came a year earlier, this was the year where real traction was starting to come through. And for a pop music critic 2010 was a goldmine: at least on the surface the Hot 100 was in the throes of the club boom, an avalanche of electro-pop overflowing with garish personality that really hasn't been seen since, and its collapse a few years later would ultimately diminish or destroy a lot of careers. But of course, under deeper investigation there was more to it, as the chart could really be split in two between the wildly hedonistic, wildly stupid party that encompassed pop, hip-hop, and hints of the more dance-leaning rock scene - remember, electronic music wasn't that big yet in the mainstream - and the rest of mainstream music plugging their fingers in their ears and seemingly making the most sedate music possible, from a neutered adult alternative scene to country at its most placid. What this meant is that no matter what genre you were in, the Hot 100 was not looking to seriously engage or challenge the audience, and when you couple it with a lot of production that now sounds painfully dated, there's a reason it's widely held as a pretty bad year overall.

But seven years later, is that still the case? Well, yes and no - it's true that time has not been kind at all to the majority of this year-end list, but there are gems... just not many of them, and it's very questionable how many could stand out against the years with true lasting classics, like 2011 or 2015. But still, I managed to pull together a list from that year-end Billboard Hot 100, even managed to find some Honourable Mentions we'll get to before the end.  So let's get started with...

10. So as I said, this was a moment for some artists that they would never be able to recapture again. And while that was often linked directly to the club boom, there were exceptions - and this is one of them.

I've already talked about Orianthi over on Beyond ARTV when we went through a Seven On Sundays list of one-hit wonders, but I think the bigger miracle is that she even had a hit at all! Let's be real, 2010 was a terrible year for mainstream rock on the Hot 100, namely that the scant few songs that did crossover are not remembered at all... and yet seemingly out of nowhere Orianthi blazed to success with one song that didn't match anything else, abandoning the tiresome trudge of post-grunge or the synth-heavy decline of pop rock for the pure shredding that Michael Jackson recognized and utilized before his untimely death a year earlier. It's not exactly a sophisticated song, and it has faded on me over the past seven years - she never carried a ton of presence behind the microphone and the lyrics very nearly fell in the trap where she was defining her worth based upon her partner's opinion of her - but it made up for it in intensity and an actual guitar solo in a year where that was utterly foreign. Really, it was the definition of a fluke breakout hit that the Hot 100 really hasn't produced since, and while Orianthi would fade in the background as a supporting guitarist, she still has one pretty kickass track to her name.

9. So for as much as I've talked about the club boom already, there are artists that seem to exist outside of trends, and to some extent Alicia Keys is one of them. But in 2009 she released her fourth record The Element Of Freedom, and unlike the more classically inclined soul of her previous show-stopping single 'No One' from two years earlier, this was a more pronounced step into modern R&B. And it's tough to evaluate whether that was a good thing: on the one hand while the album sold like gangbusters it was never a critical darling and of the two singles that made the year-end list, neither broke the top 20. But on the other hand, we got this.

Even when people talk about Alicia Keys people don't talk about this track, and I have no idea why, because it's easily one of her more interesting and textured singles. Taking the heavier percussion courtesy of Jeff Bhasker that had characterized her previous singles, she cushioned it with a thick wellspring of synth that unlike so many of the tones of the era still sound fantastic and full, the perfect support for Alicia Keys using her breathy upper register to gorgeous effect with perfect multi-tracking. And sure, you could make the argument it was an odd tone to pair for lyrics that flipped back and forth between still in pain and taking the right steps forward, there was no anger here, just an unearthly feeling of calm but vulnerable assurance, which fits the maturity Keys has always brought to her best work. It's honestly a shame that she seemed to abandon this path on future records, but as it is, it's an underappreciated gem.

8. Here's a prediction: when music critics make their top ten lists of the best hit songs of 2017, Kesha's song 'Praying' will make a majority of lists. And yet if you had told many of those critics that back in 2010, they would call you crazy, because if you were looking for the common poster child of the club boom, it was Ke$ha, who had four singles this year. And look, in 2010 I would have been there with them - Kesha was obnoxious and her lyrics felt vapid and she abused autotune and even if she was making a parody of pop music it was hard to tell where the joke ended and reality began. But in late 2010 she released a single that would reflect a darker, rougher side of persona and the first sign of what was to come, and well...

At the time, this song alienated a lot of people, critics included - because it was designed to. Folks could get behind 'Tik Tok' and 'Your Love Is My Drug' because vapid club culture and shallow psychedelia was easy, but 'Take It Off' was a step into something rougher and harsher, the after hours club where everything is filthy, everyone is wasted, and we're moments away from a fight or an orgy breaking out. It's also where Kesha made it very obvious she wasn't speaking for the pampered club princesses anymore - with water bottles full of whiskey, broken trash cans, and a harsher synth melody that taunted and teased a wild edge to come, this was music for outcasts and folks who had nowhere else to turn, and that desperate edge translates through how the autotune contorts around Kesha's lower register. Give this track an arrangement with guitars this could easily be a punk song, but since this is 2010 and that was never going to happen - except whenever Kesha performs the track on tour - she had to smuggle it in another way. I'll be the first to admit this took years to grow on me, but with the benefit of hindsight and history, this was the moment where Kesha's trajectory to lasting stardom became most apparent.

7. Of all the songs that'll make this list, I can imagine this will be the biggest surprise - and it makes sense why, given that this artist went on to make music nothing like this in the next seven years - and at least to me, nothing of this quality. And you can definitely disagree on this - I know a lot of you will - but I know that in 2017, Selena Gomez has never topped this.

I think I like 'Naturally' for many of the same reasons I unironically like Miley Cyrus' 'See You Again' - it's grounded in a real rock groove, it's got a massive hook that manages to conceal the artists' biggest flaws as a singer, and the songwriting plays to their strengths. So where for Miley it was exuberance, 'Naturally' is all tight and wiry, with the sharp fuzz of the beatbkeeping the tempo quick as the busy percussion drives the groove - it's not a song that has room for error, it needs to sound sleek but also not, giving Selena just enough room to emote but not embarrass herself - and even the bridge is pushing it. And while long-forgotten and sorely missed backing band The Scene is doing the heavy lifting on this, it's one of the few songs where Selena Gomez actually sounds like she enjoys what she's doing, and for this sort of dance pop that adds up to a lot. It's a song that plays into how easy it feels for her, and it's hard not to get sucked along for the ride. And if you compare this to anything she released after, it's hard not to wish we could get more of this.

6. I debated a lot whether I would put this song on this list, because for me personally it's a complicated song, and not just for the fact that I remember attending a house party where two very drunk people were trying to reenact parts of the music video. No, this is a song that became more interesting to discuss than actually appreciate, and I could only imagine the thinkpieces if either artist put it out today and not in 2010, and even then it was controversial. And then I went back to listen to it, and well...

'Love The Way You Lie' will always have a complicated place in the history of both Eminem and Rihanna, mostly because there's no way to consider the song without the context of their own histories. For Eminem you could tell at least some of the content was rooted in his disastrous relationship with Kim, and with Rihanna... it was 2010, and while Chris Brown's career had started to recover, the public hadn't forgotten the incident. So into all of it comes 'Love The Way You Lie', which shows both sides of a bitterly toxic and likely abusive relationship and the controversy started in earnest, mostly due to framing that seemed more even-handed than many would have ever dared expect. Little did anyone know that it likely held far more truth for both Eminem and especially Rihanna down the road, as her complicated emotions around that incident would resonate into her music for years to come. What all tends to be forgotten is that 'Love The Way You Lie' is a pretty impressive track all the same, nailing an incredibly difficult balancing act in the content and delivery off of one of the better beats off Recovery, a record that even now seems to have aged more badly than Relapse. And there's a part of me that feels a song like this earns points on audacity alone, and the fact that Rihanna and Eminem managed to stick the landing to make something with genuine intensity in a year where nobody wanted it... that says a lot. It's not either of their best work, but seven years later I can still respect it.

5. I've said that there are oddities that stick out on the year-end Hot 100 of 2010, and we still have more of them to talk about, but even despite the fact that this shouldn't surprise me this became a hit, it still does.

So remember when I said how pop was either trying to embrace the club scene or was desperately trying to pretend it didn't exist? What that meant is that adult alternative and easy listening radio started going to weird places, like giving OneRepublic and wannabes like The Script multiple hits, or nearly giving Train the biggest song of 2010 with 'Hey Soul Sister'! But even with that context, putting the Canadian crooner Michael Buble on the radio must have felt far-fetched - it'd be like giving a crossover song to Josh Groban, while his audience is big it doesn't really fit within the context of the Hot 100. And yet I can't deny that I really do love this song: sure, it's jaunty and middle-aged and the brass section plays pretty broadly, but Buble is a savvy enough performer to lean towards a younger demographic with both the production and his content, and he has enough easy charm and charisma to make it feel both earnest and not cloying. And yeah, while part of this was timing on his part, the other half is luck: if Justin Timberlake had not been having an off-year and with no real male pop star to fill in, Buble was able to capitalize on it for a few short months before heading back to selling out concerts your mom would love to attend. And hell, if he's going to play stuff like this, I wouldn't mind going either.

4. So here's the tough thing about doing these lists years later: context. Like it or not I'm seven years removed from 2010, and I'm a very different person, so if I were making this list then, I'm almost positive it'd be different because my own tastes have evolved and shifted as I've grown up. And yet when evaluating a list like this, you want to place individual songs within the context of their era, not based on the goodwill you might develop for the artist years later. But at the same time history is still relevant here, and discussing these songs now without the benefit of the last seven years to shape my gut opinion means I'd be doing these tracks and artists a disservice. And outside of Kesha, I don't think there's a song or artist that has risen higher in my estimations than this.

You have to understand, when Sugarland got big off of 'Stuck Like Glue' there was outrage, especially from the country community. What the hell was this, a gimmicky, cloying pop country tune that cranked up all the little garish elements about the group to cartoonish extremes? And for a time, I was there with them, branding it an annoying sellout tune in an era where country didn't need to be picking up more polish, and the fact it all felt so tongue-in-cheek was even more grating. It wasn't until last year when I reviewed Jennifer Nettles' excellent Playing With Fire, which tilted straight into the same style of pop country that I realized I had been lying to myself. Yeah, the popping mouth noises and accordion and out of nowhere autotune and weird breakdown on the bridge and all the contortions that Nettles put her voice through were odd and cloying... but that was the point, and tapping into a ripe core of emotion I found tremendously endearing. Yes, it's all so damn silly, but it's an infectious silliness the song knows and owns without care, and I can get behind that. What can I say, it sticks with you.

3. So while there are songs that get better in my eyes with the context of history, on the flip side there are tracks that to get why they worked at all you need to understand the time. And in 2010, the chance that indie rock would cross over to the Hot 100 was seemingly a lost cause. Sure, you had quirky upstarts scattered across the previous decade, but the indie rock boom of 2004-2005 was thoroughly dead and the pop rock scene of the mid-to-late 2000s was dying in slow motion. It wouldn't be until 2012 where things would recover... and yet given that this band found follow-up success that year, it's kind of fitting that this was the opening salvo.

Let's get this out of the way: Habits by Neon Trees is an absolutely terrific indie rock debut that does not get nearly the credit it deserves. It's sleek, the grooves are sticky as hell, the new wave flourishes are tight and flavourful but bring real personality without indulgence, and the writing fit exactly the garish retro style the band was targeting. They got flack at the time from critics for maybe too nakedly appropriating the sounds of other acts like The Killers - who the Neon Trees actually opened for - but it's not like The Killers were ever consistent on a full album - and hell, Neon Trees would never be this consistent again themselves. But in 2010 we got the lightning spark of 'Animal' and it was everything the rock-starved Hot 100 needed. Great groove, colorful lyrics, a phenomenal explosion off the bridge, and Tyler Glenn proving he was one well of a frontman. Nobody expected them to have another hit, but they did... and then they faded, but I'm still taking whatever I can get.

2. I've come to discover that people have a weird relationship with singer-songwriters like this one, and probably not one that's fair to them. Looked down on catering to middle-brow tastes in writing and production by the indie set, but often considered a little too smart by the mainstream, they tended to get overlooked or dismissed by a lot of critics on both sides. And yes, it's gotten a little better now, but I was there seven years ago and I remember the broad sweeping dismissals of big chunks of the slowly dying adult alternative landscape - or worse yet the condescension, how so many knew exactly how these acts could either win their approval or win mainstream success. So it's a good thing that one of them knew exactly the right response - and oh boy, did she deliver.

On the surface it's easy to see 'King Of Everything' as an obvious follow-up to Sara Bareilles' smash hit 'Love Song' in 2007, but frankly I've always preferred this: the instrumentation is more diverse with the brass, it doesn't feel the need to rely on rock elements that didn't quite fit the first time around, and the critique is a lot more pointed. Hell, it was arguably ahead of its time in calling out guys projecting their plans and ambitions for girls without really giving her a chance to say what she wants, hitting mansplaining in the gut before it was even a word. And while the words definitely cut, Bareilles' framing is ingenious, empowering but not overplaying her hand, confident but showing real exhaustion and sadness that she has to go through this shit again and again. And I actually like how it does feel more polished, harsh enough to deliver tough words to guys who need to hear them, but done in a way where her exasperation is tempered effectively, which likely proved more effective in the long term. Unsurprisingly this was barely a hit and only just scraped on the bottom of the year-end list... but for 2010, this was a welcome shot of cunning and brains that both the adult alternative of the time and the year as a whole desperately needed.

But before we get to the final song on this list, a couple honourable mentions, shall we?

I think critics were expecting this track to have more staying power than it did, but with Katy Perry's diminishing returns as an artist and the reputation of its primary architect Dr. Luke utterly destroyed, it doesn't quite have the same pathos as it once did. And again, it's hard not to feel like Glee's a capella cover eclipsed the original in the cultural zeitgeist. Still, it was a damn good song all the same.

Taio Cruz, a profoundly limited performer who had his only two hits in 2010. And while they're both pretty good, 'Break Your Heart' was arguably the better one over 'Dynamite', with tighter writing, more charisma, breezier synth thones, and a Ludacris guest verse that didn't feel worthless in a year full of interchangeable Ludacris verses. For the electro-pop of the era, it might be lightweight, but it got the job done.

If this song had been packaged with 'Airplanes Pt. 2' with the Eminem verse, it would have made the list proper, but as it is it's a glaring reminder of all the potential that B.o.B. had that he would squander in spectacular fashion in the coming years. And yet with a great piano line and a killer subtle hook from Hayley Williams, it's no surprise that people remember and mostly like 'Airplanes' to this day. But speaking of Hayley Williams...

Yeah, I know, I've said in the past that i'm no big fan of Paramore, and even this song took a while to grow on me at all - I think I was tainted by the underwhelming Glee cover, that happens. But going back to it now, while that guitar progression always did feel uncannily like something I'd hear in a Coldplay song, its heartfelt and a powerful ballad that Hayley Williams performs excellently. Great track.

Hey, remember when Drake wasn't criminally overexposed? Or when Kanye actually took the time to assemble a layered and complex beat with real texture? And when Drake's R&B brooding actually felt like it carried some weight and complexity? Okay, actually if you go back to 2010 there's a lot more Drake than you'd expect, and a lot of it isn't very good - he was clearly still finding his sea legs - but with seven years of hindsight and a half dozen permutations of Drake's sound, I wish he'd focus more on stuff like this.

...goddamn it, B.o.B., you had so much potential. And yeah the track is goofy and how the synth and vocals constantly have the feel of dropping out can get a little grating, and Rivers Cuomo is clearly phoning it in, but in 2010 this sort of pop rap bounce was infectious and signaled real promise. To go back to that... you don't need magic, you need a miracle.

This very nearly made my list - people tend to forget that Usher had a huge 2010 with multiple hits making the year-end list. Granted, they tend to forget that because most of those hits were pretty bad, especially 'O.M.G.', but this was something special, a razor-tight R&B dance floor jam where Usher was on his game and the groove was terrific and it was the best possible example of what the club boom not named 'I Gotta Feeling'... and then Pitbull showed up. And while the majority of critics have gotten a lot kinder to Pitbull over the past seven years for showcasing real likability and charm, in 2010 it definitely hadn't been refined yet, and he really is the factor keeping this song off the list proper. Still, it was a great moment for Usher, and considering how many acts are still trying to rip him off, that says a lot.

And finally...

1. So when I set out to make this list, I put forward the idea that the Hot 100 chart was split between the club boom and all the songs pretending it wasn't happening, but there was a middle ground and I think it's telling that the best hit song of 2010 captured both sides. And while the group had momentum going in, this was the song that put them over the top in the best way possible, the sort of crossover I don't think anyone could have predicted but captured the zeitgeist of the time perfectly. And thus it shouldn't surprise anyone that this is my pick - some years, the popular consensus aligns the critical acclaim, and in 2010, for Lady Antebellum, that happened.

You know, putting aside the cultural moment that made this track such a tremendous hit - it swept its Grammy nominations, it's gone sextuple platinum, it's now widely considered a country and adult-alternative staple that put Lady Antebellum on the map - it's hard to say anything that hasn't been said about this song. But the fact is that 'Need You Now' is so brutally effective at its primary purpose, the sort of regretful story told from both sides of a shattered relationship finding one more desperate, drunken hookup where the history is implied and the pain is real. It lets Hillary Scott underplay to her credit, lets Charles Kelley's older, rougher voice shoulder the weight, and it carries the acknowledgement that something underpinned all the reckless hedonism of the time, a desire to find any connection in a shallow time, even if its the one that hurt the most. The production is gorgeous and perfectly melancholic in that lingering minor piano chord, the solo cuts in at precisely the right moment, and it ends with enough resolution to continue forward. And even back in 2010 in one of the worst years of my life I still had a place for this song, and where I have to wonder if six years later when I would put Charles Kelley twice on my best songs of 2016 if 'Need You Now' paved that way. But in the end, it might not be the surprising pick, but it's the right one: 'Need You Now', the best hit song of 2010. 

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