My turn to play amateur music critic…
I’ll admit, I’m influenced by the behemoth that is Pitchfork.com. I cannot deny this. When I was younger, the gospel that was Rolling Stone and Spin Magazine, helped lead me to music in the 80’s and 90’s that I would have never heard on my own or heard mentioned by mainstream media. To a young music adventurist, they acted as a treasure map for my curious mind. Take Pavement, for instance; my choice for heaven’s house band. There’s no way in hell I would have found these guys while aimlessly perusing the aisles of record stores, without first being tipped off to their greatness by the good folks at Spin.
Pitchfork now satisfies that role for me. Granted, being in my mid-30’s, I’m most likely at the outer edge of their demographic, but I would have missed a great deal of worthy music over the last couple of years if not for them. And they dig much deeper into the musical underground than the aforementioned paper-based predecessors. They’re like a pastry chef from a far-off, mysterious land, making wonderful batches of new, exotic cookie dough and allowing me to take a nibble. All I have to do is decide whether or not I want to put the cookies in the oven and make sure they don’t burn. I’m not even sure that makes sense. You can tell where my mind is this holiday season.
These are the songs I enjoyed listening to the most throughout the year. There is no attempt to say these are the best songs of the year, just my personal favorites. Let me rephrase that slightly…these are my personal favorites right now. In a couple of weeks, this list could look different, but the brush had to come off the canvas at some point.
#20: Au Revoir Simone “All or Nothing”
#19: The Rural Alberta Advantage “Drain the Blood”
#18: Handsome Furs “All We Want, Baby, is Everything”
#17: Major Lazer “Can’t Stop Now”
#16: Black Moth Super Rainbow “Born on the Day the Sun Didn’t Rise”
#15: Late Of The Pier “Random Firl”
#14: The Thermals “I Let It Go”
#13: Cymbals Eat Guitars “And the Hazy Sea”
#12: Jason Lytle “Brand New Sun”
#11: The xx “Islands”
#10: Radiohead “These are My Twisted Words”
Every town in America has a kid in Little League who is miles ahead of the rest of the league talent-wise. He can pitch, field, throw, run, and hit better than everyone else. When he comes up to bat, opposing pitchers tighten up, infielders take step into the outfield grass, and the outfielders back up to the fence. It does not matter who pitches to them or what type of defense the other team plays, this stud will find a gap or hit a home run damn near every time he comes to bat. Now, imagine that kid decides to sit out most of the game, but takes just one at-bat to keep his reflexes sharp. Of course, he hits a long drive to left-center that easily clears the fence. That is Radiohead with this song. They are better than every other band currently playing today and they can hit a home run every time they come to bat, even if the only thing they release all year is a single.
#9: Atlas Sound “Walkabout”
I’m not sure whether I like this song so much because Bradford Cox, as Atlas Sound, has finally allowed a bit of fun and whimsy to creep into his solo music, or because it prominently features Noah Lennox, a.k.a. Panda Bear, from Animal Collective. I think I’ll go with the latter. This almost sounds like a missing track from Panda Bear’s own solo album Person Pitch album from 2007.
#8: Sonic Youth “Antenna”
During my freshman year in college, the Goo album sucked me into the Sonic forcefield, and they’ve had me locked in their tractor beam ever since. They’ve released a ton of albums since then, some good, some not so good, but this year’s The Eternal is right up there with the best. It’s not quite Sister or Daydream Nation, but it’s pretty damn good. This song is a throwback to that era of Sonic Youth. It would fit on any album from Sister to Dirty. It’s that solid.
#7: White Rabbits “Percussion Gun”
I’d never listened to the White Rabbits until this year’s album It’s Frightening. “Percussion Gun” is the first song on the album and it’s fucking great. I love this song. I love how they convey a sense of nervous anticipation, I love the wonderful harmonies on the chorus, I love that Britt Daniel from Spoon produced this. The rest of the album is well worth the listen, but this is the keeper of the bunch.
#6: Discovery “Orange Shirt”
Similar to Atlas Sound, this is another song by 2 guys who are members of more popular bands, Ra Ra Riot and Vampire Weekend. If you get excited over 80’s synth-pop sprinkled with hip-hop, dance, and Jamaican undertones, then this album is for you. “Orange Shirt” is the best example of how fun this whole album is. You cannot feel bad after spending 40 minutes with Discovery, and like Neon Neon last year, they have tongue firmly in cheek. “Sleep on the train to Tokyo, Google yourself when you get home” may be the lyric of the year.
#5: Phoenix “1901”
There were 3 songs, in particular off the Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix album, that stuck in my head: “Lisztomania”, “Love Like a Sunset”, and “1901”. Yet, “1901” is the song that I kept coming back to from an album that got played more and more on my iPod as the year progressed. From the first time I heard it, it sounded like a thousand songs that I’d heard before. And I mean that as a tremendous compliment. It’s on my list of songs that seemed like they were freshly plucked from the branches of a ripe tree bursting with juicy pop gems.
#4: Animal Collective “My Girls”
In 2009, if you listened to music, you had to love Animal Collective, or so I’m told. So, here is my requisite AC song. In all seriousness, this song would make any top list over the past 10 years without a problem. I’ll skip the superlatives with Animal Collective. They’ve all been used and I’ll end up being accused of plagiarism. The problem is, all the superlatives are justified, especially for this song, their most accessible and catchy yet.
#3: Girls “Summertime”
As with Animal Collective and the superlatives, I’ll skip the whole back story of Girls leading up to this debut album and just stick to the songs. “Lust for Life” and “Hellhole Ratrace” seemed to be the critics’ go-to choices from this amazing album called, appropriately enough, Album. They’re amazing tracks in their own right, but my choice is “Summertime”. Oh man, from the instant I heard this, I knew that I could put this song on at any moment and disappear. My thoughts fade to a sun-kissed, golden California beach as friends gather in the sand…drink, smoke, get merry, grab a guitar, put your arm around your girl…it’s totally intoxicating. Then the distortion and fuzzed-out guitar waves crash over you as you’re enveloped in the sound like a warm blanket and slowly, slowly ride it back home.
#2: Jay-Z “Empire State of Mind”
If you’re a filmmaker and you want to have your movie seen for years to come, it’s best to make a Christmas movie. Even if the movie is so-so, there is a built-in audience of millions every year who’ll watch any halfway decent holiday movie during that month between Thanksgiving and Christmas. You have the classics, like It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story; of course those will be on every year. But you’ll also see Deck the Halls or Surviving Christmas or Christmas With the Kranks every year. If the subject matter didn’t involve Christmas, these movies would be long forgotten. Instead, they’ll be on TBS for years to come. Writing a song about a geographic area or location could be the same way, i.e. “Miami” by Will Smith or “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” by George Strait. The great ones, like “New York, New York” or “I Love L.A.” stand the test of time and would be heard for years even if they weren’t associated with their respective cities. Add “Empire State of Mind” to that list. Jay-Z’s ode to his hometown is letter perfect, the beats are right on, and Alicia Keys just kills on the chorus. It also helped that the Yankees won the World Series as this song reached the peak of its popularity. Plan on hearing this for the next 50 years.
#1: Grizzly Bear “Two Weeks”
Supposedly, Brian Wilson took 6 months to record his greatest song, “Good Vibrations” in 1966. Between the multi-part harmonies, countless session musicians, and his crazy paranoia, he created a 3-minute, 30-second masterpiece that 40+ years later still sounds fresh and innovative. If Grizzly Bear had recorded “Two Weeks” back in 1966, it would have taken them at least 6 months. It’s such a simple, yet complex song. It aims for the heavens and, in the process, rockets with ease into outer space. The vocal arrangements are second-to-none, the musical pacing is just right, but the secret weapon is the drumming (as is usually the case with great songs). It grows on me the more I listen to it. I can only hope that I’ll find as much pleasure in this song 40 years from now.