With Every Heartbeat

Robyn and Kleerup

Robyn (2008), Kleerup (2008)

Robyn has a knack for unconventional song structures, and for bringing out the best in her collaborators¬†(her other song on the list achieves both of these things as well). “With Every Heartbeat” marries strings and electronic beats with grace, and is particularly memorable forRobyn’s staccato mourning of the title line — “and it hurts with every heartbeat.”

Also check out: Kleerup’s collaboration with Lykke Li, “Until We Bleed”


Black & Gold

Sam Sparro

Sam Sparro (2008)

It’s a peculiar thing that, aside from diva dancefloor anthems, electronic songs rarely feature skilled vocalists. Sam Sparro, on the other hand, has a powerhouse set of pipes and has no qualms about mingling with synths and beats galore. His best song, “Black & Gold,” even goes one step further, combining not just a great beat and a great voice, but truly thoughtful lyrics as well.¬† The “you” in this song is not a lover as one might think, but rather God, while the lyrics reference evolution and the frightening emptiness of the universe. I don’t personally feel the same as Sparro (“If you’re not really here / Then I don’t want to be either”), but I can certainly understand the sentiment of wanting to find your place in the world and fearing that evertyhing is¬† “all just a bunch of matter.” Overall, this is just a great song from a very promising new artist. I can’t wait to hear more.

Also check out: “Ready for the Floor” by Hot Chip


Shut Up and Let Me Go

The Ting Tings

We Started Nothing (2008)

The Ting Tings have reincarnated the spirit of Toni Basil (of “Mickey” fame) and managed to make hits out of an unlikely blend of sing-song rhymes, playful guitar riffs, and danceable rhythms. “Shut Up and Let Me Go” was simply an incredibly fun pop song that brightened up the radio airwaves. Kudos go out to follow-up “That’s Not My Name” as well, a near-equally good sing-along with lyrics that are easy to alter for any situation (“That’s not my drink!” “That’s not my wig!”).

Also check out: “Le Disko” by Shiny Toy Guns, a similar boy/girl vocal trade-off but with a hard electro edge


Lose Yourself


8 Mile Soundtrack (2002)

I did not want to like an Eminem song. I pretty much hated the guy when he first came out. If he wasn’t acting like a fratboy-child, he was acting like a homophobic brute. But then he had to go and record one of the best rap songs ever, and I had to concede that the man may personally be a turn-off but the talent is there. The lyrics do an amazing job of putting you in the scene, right off the bat: “His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy / There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti / He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready.” Eminem is good at getting into character, it’s just that this is the first time he sings as a character you want to root for.

Also check out: Eminem’s “White America” – perfectly distilling the (irrational) fear so many parents had




A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002)

Coldplay is one of those groups who follows what I’ll call “the inverse popularity ratio,” where as they have become more and more commercially successful, I have found their music less and less interesting. (Sorry everybody, I don’t get the “Viva La Vida” love.) “Clocks,” from their sophomore album, is probably their most definitively shining musical moment (followed closely by “Trouble”). The song itself is ridiculously simple, composed primarily of a repeated piano arpeggio with a chorus that is mostly just harmonized “ooh”s, but it’s that very simplicity that makes it so compelling.

Also check out: “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane, a sort of Coldplay Jr.


Such Great Heights

The Postal Service

Give Up (2003)

Ben Gibbard was a bit of a cottage industry in the mid-’00s, churning out a wealth of material for the emo-college crowd via Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service. Although Death Cab is the band he has put more energy into, it was his long-distance emo-dance-pop side project that had the most success (he and collaborator Jimmy Tamborello famously worked by sending demos back and forth through the mail, hence the name The Postal Service). “Such Great Heights” is the most notable song from their lone, near-perfect album. It’s earnest without being sickly sweet, it’s catchy without being cliche, and to paraphrase American Bandstand, it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.

Also check out: The most obvious successor to this now-defunct band is Owl City. “Fireflies” in particular sounds nearly identical to “Such Great Heights,” for better or for worse.


Die Another Day


Die Another Day Soundtrack (2002)

It’s easy to forget this now that we are in Madonna’s post-”American Life” career, where in the last 7 years she has managed a whopping TWO top ten singles total, but before that 2003 commercial disaster, Madonna was still tearing up the charts. I am still astounded that “Die Another Day” was a smash hit. Listen to this song. Freaky auto-tuning. Barely a hint of a melody. Chopped-up dramatic orchestral strings. This is not the recipe for a hit. But she put the whole thing together (with the considerable talent of producer Mirwais), dumped the tired old Bond theme template, and dragged us all into the 21st century. This is also probably Madonna’s most bizarre set of lyrics: “I’m gonna wake up yes and no / I’m gonna kiss some part of / I’m gonna keep this secret / I’m gonna close my body now.” A good chunk of the song makes no sense, but the parts that do are all about defiance and self-control. If there is anyone who could actually force death away, it’s Madonna. And when I listen to this song, I kind of feel like I could too.

Also check out: “Easy Ride” from “American Life” — the logical extension of this song, featuring the line “I want to live forever”


When Love Takes Over

David Guetta featuring Kelly Rowland

One Love (2009)

This was definitely a big year for David Guetta. The DJ, who had previously had quite a bit of club success with songs like “Love is Gone,” crossed over in a major way in 2009, producing the biggest chart hit of the year (Black Eyed Peas’ rather dreadful “I Gotta Feeling”), earning his first top ten in his own right (“Sexy Bitch” with Akon), and hitting a personal artistic best with “When Love Takes Over.” The song made me wonder why Kelly Rowland was never able to really kick her career into high gear like Beyonce, as she’s got an incredible voice and a good musical instinct (she also guests on 2 other songs on Guetta’s excellent “One Love” album). Right from the song’s opening piano arpeggio, it’s got you falling in love with it, while the lyrics convey that weird way that love can be both suffocating and liberating (“Head underwater / now I can’t breathe / it never felt so good”). This was the raise-your-hands-in-the-air club jam of the summer.

Also check out: “Rock That Body” by the Black Eyed Peas, also produced by Guetta – the only truly great song from their “The E.N.D.” album


Love Lockdown

Kanye West

808s & Heartbreak (2008)

He may have a gigantic ego, but Kanye West actually has quite a bit of talent to back it up. Were this a top 100, he could easily have 3 or 4 more songs on the list. In fact, I’m still not even sure if “Love Lockdown” is his best (“Jesus Walks” and “Stronger” both come to mind as strong alternatives). But this song completely caught me off guard when I first heard it — the boastfulness has been replaced with, well, “heartbreak” as the album’s title implies. And Kanye is… singing, instead of rapping, albeit with the heavy assistance of auto-tuner. Of all the things I ever expected to get from Kanye West, “emotionally raw” was never on the list. And yet here it is, and it is beautifully well done.

Also check out: Kid Cudi’s “Solo Dolo (Nightmare)” – a similarly sad turn from another otherwise pop-inflected rapper


Disco Science


Production (2000)

Music is generally a passive experience — it doesn’t really take any effort to listen a song. “Disco Science” is an exception. Beyond the “mm-mm” Cannonballs sample, the song is completely instrumental, and when that screaming siren finally comes in for the “chorus,” it practically dares you to keep listening. It is not, in itself, a particularly appealing sound – kind of like a fire alarm – and there is pretty much no way to have this song on “in the background.” But the sinister bassline and whip-like percussion that leads to it turn that noise into the more fable-like version of a siren – something that irresistably calls you to it (potentially to your demise). I’ve never taken drugs, but I imagine this is the kind of dance song that could make you completely trip out.

Also check out: Mirwais’s side project Y.A.S., which takes his trademark catchy electro and combines it with Arabic vocals