It's list-making time, and I've got three of them for you. The list of my favorite records of the year ranges from the nearly universally praised (Arcade Fire, Madvillain), to the underrated (Cee-lo), to the unknown (Flashpapr). As for pop and hip-hop, I'm focusing on what it continues to do best, which is singles, not records. If you read my year in review piece, you know that I don't think it was a particularly exciting or adventurous year for popular music. But even if it wasn't a great year as a whole, there were plenty of spectacular songs. My 10 favorites are below, and some of you may be scandalized to see that Britney, Maroon 5 and (gasp!) even Ashlee made the list. But these are great songs, not guilty or ironic pleasures, so even if you're allergic to commercial radio, listen exclusively to NPR, do your best to shield yourself from the corrupting influence and soullessness of mass culture, give them a listen. They're brilliant.
Lastly, since this column is all about downloads, I've included a list of my 25 favorite free mp3s of the year. Devoted readers have probably downloaded many already. But for the rest of you, it's a nice little mix tape of some of the year's very best music. And in the spirit of the holiday season -- they're all free!
Top 10 Records
1. "Cherry Tree EP," the National
A near perfect EP, both delicate and rugged -- like a beaten and battered but very butch butterfly. Profoundly moving, but without any big emotional gestures, any trace of sentimentality. I expect great things from this band.
2. "Funeral," the Arcade Fire
Passionate, unashamed and bold, arranged with precision and performed with joyful, sloppy fervor. A record worthy of all the hype.
3. "Real Gone," Tom Waits
It all started with Waits beat-boxing into a tape recorder in his bathroom -- how badass is that -- and out comes this clanging, clattering run-down steamroller of a record, welcome proof that Waits isn't losing his edge. His best in over a decade.
4. "Flashpapr," Flashpapr
A hushed, retiring record, all muted sounds melted together.
5. "Madvillain," Madvillain
The best of underground hip-hop in 2004, with Madlib's lush, gently counterintuitive beats, and MF Doom's hypnotic dream logic raps.
6. "La Maison de Mon Reve," Cocorosie
The atmosphere piece of the year, a cloistered, rainy-day reverie of a record made in a Parisian apartment by two sisters with the voices of mournful, aged cats.
7. "Cee-lo Green Is the Soul Machine," Cee-lo
It's a mystery that Cee-lo, one of the great producers and rappers in today's hip-hop scene, not to mention hands down the best singer, has yet to achieve greater success. An up-and-down record, but with some of the highest highs of the year, including brilliant tracks from Timbaland and the Neptunes. The best, though, were produced by Cee-lo himself.
8. "Rejoicing in the Hands," Devendra Banhart
A legend in the making, the charismatic, enigmatic young songwriter is the locus of a burgeoning new folk movement. His perfect miniatures are by turns profound, naive, mystifying and almost always touching.
9. "Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus," Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
The songwriting record of the year, an extraordinary display by a master of the craft, the poetry all banged out and burnished, and shining with the kind of workmanship that only obsessive drive combined with genius can achieve.
10. "Misery Is a Butterfly," Blonde Redhead
The most cerebral of bands gives in to long-repressed romantic urges and creates a dark, cinematic beauty.
Honorable mentions: "Medulla," Bjork; "Not Going Anywhere," Keren Ann; "Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes," TV on the Radio; "Heroes to Zeroes," the Beta Band; "The College Dropout," Kanye West; "Uh Huh Her," PJ Harvey.
Top 10 Singles
1. "This Love," Maroon 5
2. "Naughty Girl," Beyoncé
3. "99 Problems," Jay-Z
4. "Toxic," Britney Spears
5. "Art of Noise," Cee-lo, featuring Pharell
6. "Slow Jamz," Twista, featuring Jaime Foxx and Kanye West
7. "Happy People," R. Kelly
8. "Through the Wire," Kanye West
9. "Pieces of Me," Ashlee Simpson
10. "Over and Over," Nelly, featuring Tim McGraw
Top 25 Free Downloads
1. "You Can't Blame Me," Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum & Durr, Salon Exclusive Free Download
2. "Wasp Nest," the National, Free Download
3. "Track One," Panda Bear, Free Download
4. "Accordion," Madvillain, Salon Exclusive Free Download
5. "The River," Maerz, Free Download
6. "Neighborhood #2," the Arcade Fire, Free Download
7. "Misery Is a Butterfly," Blonde Redhead, Free Download
8. "Leave the Place," Flashpapr, Free Download
9. "Me And Mia," Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Free Download
10. "Paul Ha'Penny," Martin Hayes & Dennis Cahill, Salon Exclusive Free Download
11. "Run Into Flowers," M83, Salon Exclusive Free Download
12. "Motel Sex," Danny Cohen, Free Download
13. "Static on The Radio," Jim White w/ Aimee Mann, Free Download
14. "It's Gonna Take an Airplane," Destroyer, Free Download
15. "The Body Breaks," Devendra Banhart, Free Download
16. "Somersault," Danger Mouse, Free Download
17. "Live Like a River Town," Stars Like Fleas, Free Download
18. "Last Walk Around Mirror Lake," Boards of Canada (remix of Boom Bip), Free Download
19. "Legacy," Maylay Sparks, Free Download
20. "You Make Me Feel," Milosh, Free Download
21. "On Vacation," The Robot Ate Me, Free Download
22. "Diamond Day," Vashti Bunyan, Free Download
23. "One More Time," the French Kicks, Free Download
24. "Support Our Troops," Xiu Xiu, Salon Exclusive Free Download
25. "BMFA," Martha Wainwright, Free Download