“Monster” – Kanye West featuring Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Bon Iver & Nicki Minaj
Take a bare-bones electro pump beat, filter out the higher frequencies so it sounds sedated, throw in a bizarre, Coen brothers-esque cast of hip-hop buzz-names, and what do you get? The fall’s best track: a six-and-a-half-minute exploration of the creatively cracked-out recesses of Kanye West’s mind, ushering him back into the spotlight with uncharacteristic humility. As opposed to the self-touting, King Crimson-sampling “Power,” here West takes a huge step back, allowing the eccentricities of his guest stars to breathe life into the deceptively simple beat. No one commands the track more than Nicki Minaj, whose verse cycles through a cast of improvised personalities and colorful vocal inflections as if the song was built specifically for her. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon performs his best soul imitation, Rick Ross booms for a couple of seconds, and yet “Monster” never feels too chaotic or overblown. If “Monster” is any hint of how West’s upcoming My Dark Twisted Fantasy might unfold, I’m already a believer.
“We No Speak Americano” – Yolanda Be Cool & DCUP
Although technically a February release, “We No Speak Americano” took several months to conquer the listening world. It’s a surprising accomplishment for such a simple idea; a bump-injected take on Renato Carosone’s 1956 hit “Tu vu f l’Americano,” an Italian swing classic whose cartoonish refrain incorporates perfect beat-dropping pauses into the dance hit. Listening to the thin horn section repeat itself as pianos set on fast forward briefly interrupt the thump, one wants to hate the song. Given its simplicity, the inherent catchiness feels suspicious, like a guilty pleasure. But in the end, no track this fall has matched the nascent power of “We No Speak Americano” on the dance floor.
“We Used to Wait” – The Arcade Fire
After a painfully long three-year hiatus from recording and touring, The Arcade Fire dropped its substantial 16-track third effort, The Suburbs, just a few weeks before school started. Off the bat, listeners swooned for “Sprawl II”’s celebration of New Order-inflected, candy-electric disco-pop and the wiry, relentlessly driven guitar lines of “Ready to Start.” But as The Suburbs settled in for the semester, “We Used to Wait,” previously tucked away in the belly of the album’s B-side, gradually stepped into the spotlight in a beautifully surprising way. It certainly didn’t hurt that the band commissioned esteemed music video director Chris Milk to develop an interactive Google Chrome-based music video that creatively whisks the viewer back to his or her childhood home for the duration of the song. A perfect example of The Arcade Fire’s signature dramatic drive, “We Used to Wait” builds operatic tension around a steady, staccato piano, drastically heightening the anxiety before imploding into obscurity. In the process, the song becomes The Suburbs’ “Rebellion (Lies),” an emotionally fraught, frighteningly optimistic generational anthem that jolts the album toward its final cathartic stretch.
“Fuck You” – Cee-Lo Green
Bouncy, both enthusiastic and vulgar, and blessed with an unexpected sense of charm, “Fuck You” burst onto the blogosphere with all of the shameless sincerity of an instant classic. And an instant classic it has become, as the song’s vehemently catchy take on sugared soul, coupled with Cee-Lo Green’s brashly explicit lyrics, caught on like wildfire. Initially, “Fuck You” stood out as three and a half sensationalizing minutes of viral novelty, the latest online in-joke that your friends would throw on at parties for a good laugh. But somewhere beneath the gimmick of it all, lines like “Yeah I’m sorry; I can’t afford a Ferrari / But that don’t mean I can’t get you there / I guess he’s an Xbox and I’m more Atari / But the way you play your game ain’t fair” convinced us of Cee-Lo’s emotional integrity, and “Fuck You” earned its spot as one of the fall’s breakout hits.
“Helicopter” – Deerhunter
A clapping drum machine introduces a sparsely saccharine, mandolin-esque refrain, and Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox gently coos until a therapeutic wave of instrumentation washes over the emptiness. Cox wails about his loneliness, but the atmosphere incongruously defies his depression, pumping his self-deprecating lyrics through a slumbering haze of tranquil noise. Remixed many times over by DJs such as Diplo and Star Slinger, “Helicopter” stands out as a gem of shoegaze-infused ambient pop on one of fall’s standout albums.