Best Songs of the ’10s: #10-1

10. The Radio Dept., “Committed To The Cause”
These Swedes almost always appear blissfully out of time—when first hearing “Pulling Our Weight” in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, I assumed it was from 1983, not 2003. So it goes with this unlikely swirl of early ‘90s Madchester dance-rock (with a smidge of Toto!), which lyrically at least remains the most timely and prescient tune of 2016.

9. Daft Punk feat. Julian Casablancas, “Instant Crush”
An instant standout from Random Access Memories, not only for DP’s deepest dive into New Wave, but also for its robot-voiced utilization of The Strokes’ lead singer, of all people. Blame the melody or chord changes, but I have a far stronger emotional reaction to Casablanca’s voice when it’s masked like this. Should’ve been the album’s second single instead of “Lose Yourself To Dance”.

8. Twin Shadow, “Too Many Colors”
George Lewis Jr.’s 1980s-inspired project produced a great run of singles across this decade; my favorite is this track from 2018’s Caer—a soulful/electro combo that I never would’ve thought feasible (at least outside of Alison Moyet.) Still, it all comes together beautifully, from its bell-like flourishes and unstoppable chorus to Lewis’ impassioned vocal.

7. Iron & Wine, “Call It Dreaming”
After a series of ever-more lushly produced albums that bent his folk-pop as far as it could in that direction, Sam Beam returned to form with this straightforward but effective tune. Organically building from lone acoustic-guitar-and-vocal to a full-bodied arrangement, it ends up resounding like a beating heart that has gradually expanded until it’s all you can hear, and it’s everything.

6. Belle & Sebastian, “Nobody’s Empire”
At his peak, Stuart Murdoch sang, “Nobody writes them like they used to / So it may as well be me”; nearly two decades on, he’s still at it on a single as good as anything from If You’re Feeling Sinister, only with the added musical prowess and wisdom gleaned from twenty years of struggle and exhilaration. The song’s gorgeous, chiming hook gives me hope that he’ll keep writing ‘em well into this new decade and beyond.

5. Saint Etienne, “Tonight”
What a way to return after a seven-year hiatus—the central song on an album about loving pop music, it’s an ideal three-minute encapsulation of this veteran trio’s inclusive approach and aesthetic. Early in their careers, the inimitable Sarah Cracknell and her mates invited listeners to “Join Our Club”, but you see, they’ve always been fans as well: “I can hardly wait,” she sings, and her joy is just infectious.

4. Robyn, “Dancing On My Own”
Considering that it never even made the Billboard Hot 100, I’m thrilled to see this song popping up on so many end-of-decade lists. Regarding vulnerable yet defiant crying-on-the-dancefloor anthems, this is easily one of the all-time best for how the groove steamrolls along while also never obscuring the infinite shades of pain and perseverance in Robyn’s bruised but luminous performance.

3. Jens Lekman, “Evening Prayer”
Only Lekman would ever write a song about a man at a bar showing off a 3-D model of a tumor surgically removed from his back to his friend and a waitress; only he could make it both so jubilant and melancholy, inserting almost ridiculously bubbly “doo-doo-doo’s” within a blue-eyed soul arrangement. And there’s something in the way he sings, “It’s been a long, hard year” that nearly destroys me every time I hear it.

2. Mavis Staples, “Try Harder”
Sometimes, the simplest songs are the most effective: twelve-bar blues progression, guttural, insistent one-riff guitar, and a 78-year-old vocalist sounding nearly as robust as she did at half that age. With production support from improbable kindred spirit Jeff Tweedy, Staples is no one’s idea of an old fogey—especially when she repeats the key lyric, “Don’t do me no good to pretend / I’m as good as I could be.”

1. Destroyer, “Kaputt”
Kaputt the album cracked my top five of the decade, but it might not have without its monumental title-track centerpiece, which I knew was something extraordinary from my first listen nine years ago this month. You can liken Dan Bejar’s slight effervescence here to any number of signifiers (yacht rock, synth-pop, etc.), but in the end, “Kaputt” subsists in its very own universe, that incessant dit-dit-dit sequencer noise guiding an evocative quest through time and memory whose precise sound is an impeccable match for Bejar’s acquired-taste vocals. “All sounds like a dream to me” indeed.

The Radio Dept., “Running Out Of Love”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #98 – released October 21, 2016)

Track listing: Sloboda Narodu / Swedish Guns / We Got Game / Thieves of State / Occupied / This Thing Was Bound To Happen / Can’t Be Guilty / Committed To The Cause / Running Out Of Love / Teach Me To Forget

I’ll never forget waking up painfully early on November 9, 2016, reaching for my phone and confirming what I and many others had dreaded—the most inconceivable, worst possible outcome of a presidential election in my lifetime (to date, I fear.) Opening Facebook, I scrolled past one confused, incensed, disgusted reaction after another from assorted friends and celebrities until coming across a link to a YouTube clip from The Radio Dept. for their song, “This Thing Was Bound To Happen.” In that moment, as much as I was in a state of shock, I mentally responded, “Well, of course.” Months of anticipation and assuredness, gradually worn down and defeated by time, determination and dumb luck—all of it led not to the outcome we expected or thought we deserved. It all simply felt inevitable now, like the punchline to a bad joke.

That’s not to say The Radio Dept. necessarily predicted this outcome, but the song and its parent album, released less than three weeks before the election, undeniably tapped into themes and feelings analogous to that of the current American political climate. In fact, said album, Running Out Of Love is essentially an extended protest/warning against the rise of fascism in the band’s home country of Sweden. It was decidedly not an overnight development: one of its most pointed and savage tracks, “Occupied”, was initially released as a single back in the summer of 2015.

Before that, the band, which primarily consists of vocalist Johan Duncanson and multi-instrumentalist Martin Larsson was dormant for a number of years due to a legal battle with its record label. I had come on board with Passive Aggressive: Singles 2002-2010; as comps go, it’s nearly up there with Pet Shop Boys’ Discography and The Go-Betweens’ Bellavista Terrace (it even has a lovely cover of the latter band’s “Bachelor Kisses”.) However, like most people, I had first heard them in 2006 on the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Prominently placed in the film, their song “Pulling Our Weight” fit right in with a king’s ransom of new wave/post-punk classics from the likes of Adam Ant, Bow Wow Wow and New Order. Upon hearing it, I guessed Coppola had unearthed a long-lost gem and was surprised to discover it was then only three years old.

On Lesser Matters (2003), Pet Grief (2006), Clinging To A Scheme (2010) and all the singles in-between, The Radio Dept. conceived of and came close to perfecting their own take on a drowsy but hook-laden, 1980s-inspired dream-pop, their distinct instrumental palette falling somewhere between The Cure’s reverb-drenched guitar attack and New Order’s bass-and-synth driven cerebral dance music. Sonically, Running Out Of Love edges towards the latter of those two poles, with the seven-minute “Occupied” a straight-up “Blue Monday” tribute in its insistent thump, thump, thump beat and klaxon-like pings that eventually build to an anxious, relentless fury.

The song’s lyrical content matches and often exceeds the sound in its vehemence. Duncanson’s an even milder-sounding vocalist than New Order’s Bernard Sumner, so when he sings, “It’s a shame how some people claim to be one thing or another / when in fact, it’s nothing but an act,” such brutal honesty is all the more unexpected and effective. This “speak softly and carry a big stick” approach is all over the album. On “We Got Game”, he complains, “So sick of hearing about that middle ground”, for it doesn’t exist with “racist loons / the kind of guys you wouldn’t like to spoon.” Later, “Teach Me To Forget” rhymes its title with the phrase, “’Because baby you’re so good at it,” as the song’s minor key melody and trance beat heighten an anger and disappointment the singer’s melodic croon can barely mask.

A steady rage courses through the bulk of Running Out Of Love. The single “Swedish Guns” proceeds as a call-and-response between the song’s titular objects and the things one can accomplish with them. “You need a helping hand? Get Swedish guns / Secure a piece of land / with Swedish guns,” Duncanson sings, and on and on over a martial/reggae beat. “This Thing Was Bound To Happen” happily buzzes along like vintage Human League, but it’s deceptive, for the resignation of the song title proves to be just a coping mechanism for utter despair (“Now I just want to get out of here / suffocate this fear.”) The Eno-esque instrumental title track consists of delicate synth and guitar licks and an brittle, singular note repeated, morse code-style for over three minutes. It certainly evokes loss—of love, time, perhaps life itself.

Fortunately, while The Radio Dept. never shy away from the horrors of totalitarianism, nor do they wallow in their misery. Their social commentary is steeped in empathy for the afflicted and a call for resistance. “Sloboda Narodu” (the title is a Yugoslav slogan that translates to “Death to fascism, freedom to the people”) is an energetic, percussion-bolstered anthem that kicks off the album on an upbeat note; “We Got Game” is nearly ebullient in its simulation of circa-1990 house music (Inner City, Technotronic) while “Can’t Be Guilty” gently floats along like a cross between ABC and The Blue Nile, its pretty melodic layers perfect for a melancholy scene in a John Hughes film, only one where a character says, “Wake me when the world has settled / then, just give it to me straight.”

This protest/pop hybrid reaches its apotheosis on “Committed To The Cause”. It begins with a melodic bassline overlapping with a second one, the twin hooks soon buoyed by a very early ’90s beat of the sort you’d find on a Happy Mondays or Primal Scream album (only darker.) Minor key verses shift into a major key chorus where Duncanson sings, “And they’re never gonna give it up,” repeatedly until getting to the title. The sublime melody and chord progression evokes potent feelings: defiance, resignation, a sense of the inevitable. Even during its extended instrumental coda, heavy with irresistible house-music piano and a synth filigree that could’ve been lifted off a Toto (!) record, the song’s momentum is sustained and deepened—you almost don’t want it to end, but it abruptly does, and the spooky title track carries these feelings further, all the way through the closing, quietly seething “Teach Me To Forget”.

I listened to Running Out Of Love incessantly before and after the election; admittedly, it didn’t seem especially more prescient or relevant after November 8 than it previously did—I’m even cautious to say it captured a specific moment, given that, at this writing, we’re decidedly still living in such a moment. Regardless, I seek pleasure in pop music as much as stimulation and provocation. Like most “political albums”, this one has plenty of the latter elements but crucially, just as much of the former. For good and for ill, the concepts The Radio Dept. confront and dissect here will always be relevant.

Up next: “We took your land, and made it our land.”

“Committed To The Cause”:

“Teach Me To Forget”:

Best Albums of 2016: # 1


1. The Radio Dept., “Running Out of Love”

This Swedish duo’s first full-length studio release since 2010 was already this year’s most relevant album before the November elections; the morning after, as many of us recoiled in horror at the results, they posted a link to the track “This Thing Was Bound to Happen” on their Facebook page and, in retrospect, of course it was. The warnings we chose to ignore were loud and clear all along. On “Occupied”, the preceding track here but also a standalone single released back in Summer 2015, they sang, “It’s a shame / how people claim / to be one thing or another / When it fact it’s nothing but an act.”

Running Out of Love is essentially an album-length condemnation of the rise of fascism in Sweden. The opener, “Sloboda Narodu” (Croatian for “Freedom to the people”) is anthem-like and hopeful; the closer, “Teach Me to Forget”, ominously seethes with disappointment and contempt (they follow the title with the lyric, “Because baby you’re so good at it.”). In between, they ridicule the omnipresence of “Swedish Guns”, attempt to rationalize fascist motives (“Committed to the Cause”) and justify their own muted responses (“Can’t Be Guilty”).

Having drawn inspiration from both The Cure and New Order throughout their career, this synth-heavy record tips the scales towards the latter, although it often surprises. Reggae-inflected “Swedish Guns” is the modern equivalent of The Specials’ “Ghost Town”; “We Got Game” recalls early ‘90s house music like Inner City and Technotronic. “Can’t Be Guilty” could be classic ABC (albeit with far more subdued vocals) while “Committed to the Cause” mixes Happy Mondays-indebted dance rock with a just a touch of Toto (!). That last song might be the best thing they’ve ever done, but all of Running Out of Love fully registers both musically and politically. It’s a definitive album of the world we live in now.

Favorite tracks: “Swedish Guns”, “We Got Game”, “Can’t Be Guilty”, “Committed to the Cause”

“Committed to the Cause”:

“We Got Game”: