Sunday, March 1, 2009

100 Songs for 2009: Contenders

Most of this post, like my previous "Contenders" post, will be devoted to awesome new songs. Before we get to that, however, a few words of hate:

Holy Lord, U2's No Line on the Horizon is a train wreck of an album. It is just start-to-finish awful, and this is coming from someone with a tendency to really enjoy U2 albums that don't garner all that much critical acclaim (Pop, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb).

Maybe No Line on the Horizon isn't that bad. Large parts of it are just boring. Most of these songs could be cut in half without losing effect. Maybe it's not gawd-awful. Honestly, I would have let the whole thing go if it weren't for the 5 star (out of 5) review this overproduced load of pretentiousness got in Rolling Stone. It could be that I have more problems with that review than I have with the album itself. It's just so incredibly obvious that the reviewer went into this whole exercise with the mindset that this album, which he had not heard, was going to be a modern classic and, if it wasn't ... well, that wouldn't stand in his way. The whole review grasps at straws, spending whole paragraphs on individual lyrics, doting on things like Bono's tone of voice without actually identifying any good songs (because there aren't any). Maybe I just don't get the intricately crafted soundscapes or whatever else I'm missing here, but this album is boring and hateful. A few things that stood out:

1) "Unknown Caller" is, as far as I'm concerned, the worst song U2 has ever made, with techno-babble lyrics that sound like your grandparents trying to make a joke about email. Sample lyrics: "Force quit and move to trash ... Restart and reboot yourself." I can't wait for Bono to devote an entire album to the intricacies of the SuperPoke.

2) "I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" has the awkward distinction of being both the best song (in terms of actual listenability) and the worst-named song on the album. Seriously, it sounds like a PG version of a thrown-away tune by Jet or Buck Cherry. I think once you're Time's Man of the Year, you give up your right to talk about how hard you party.

3) And here's the thing with U2: it's always asking for trouble to make fun of their lyrics. I've just called attention to two songs I think are vapid and pointless, but I know that at some point in the next few weeks Bono is going to give an interview and explain how "Unknown Caller" is a metaphor for ending hunger in sub-Saharan Africa ... and then I'm going to feel like a dick. I guess that's a chance I'm willing to take.

4) This is just nitpicky, but the guitar harmonics toward the end of "FEZ-Being Born" sound exactly like that annoying Duracell commercial.

Okay ... moving on to things that are awesome. As always, all of these songs should be available on Hype Machine.

1) Hold Steady - "Atlantic City" (Bruce Springsteen cover)

TheHoldSteadyTheHoldSteadyTheHoldSteady!!! It's true, I'm a total fanboy when it comes to Craig Finn and Co., so I encourage you to take any Hold Steady recommendation from me with a grain of salt. But please, go listen to this song ... because it's incredible. Haters have always claimed that The Hold Steady were a bit of a Springsteen knockoff, but I think this song dispels that notion by showing both the debt that the boys owe to Springsteen (Finn's gritty storytelling and character-driven lyrics are the big thing, but even instrumentation and chord progressions) but also the ways in which the band improves on the Springsteen formula, really making it their own. This song is both entirely a Springsteen song and entirely a Hold Steady song. And this makes it great (for another example of this, check out the band's cover of Bob Dylan's "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?")

This song is from the War Child: Heroes compilation, in which the charity asked about a dozen musical icons (from Paul McCartney to Iggy Pop) to choose a current band to cover one of their songs. It's a cool idea, and it's for a good cause (I'm not telling you to go buy it, but it wouldn't hurt ...) Obviously, "Atlantic City" is my favorite from the record, but other excellent songs include TV on the Radio doing David Bowie's "Heroes," The Kooks doing The Kinks' "Victoria" and Lily Allen doing The Clash's "Straight to Hell" (which is the song that MIA sampled on "Paper Planes"). In fact, I had planned on giving "Straight to Hell" its own "Contenders" write-up, but Ilana doesn't like it, and she has a really good ear for girl-pop. So I'm going to give it a few more listens before giving it my official seal of approval.

2) The National - "So Far Around the Bend" (Pavement cover)

Somehow, there were TWO indie rock charity compilations released last week. This song comes from Dark Was the Night, a double-album (featuring just about every relevant indie act) released to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS. If you're looking for a kind of primer on the current indie scene, I highly recommend this album. It contains this song, which is good. The National are just an excellent band. Colonel Honey Mustard agrees. I'm waiting for him to subtly reference "Looking for Astronauts" in a sandwich review.

3) The New Pornographers - "Hey, Snow White" (Destroyer cover)

Another great tune from Dark Was the Night. So far, we just have three covers by three of my favorite bands. Nothing too shocking here. I'm confused by this song for one reason. Destroyer is the stage name of Dan Bejar. Dan Bejar is IN the New Pornographers. He writes songs for the New Pornographers. So I'm not sure how this song counts as a cover. If nothing else, it sure isn't much of a stylistic detour for the band. I guess I'll just leave the question for the Bejar biographers of the next generation.

4) Phoenix - "1901"

When I first met Ilana, she had a copy of Phoenix's It's Never Been Like That in her car. I was very excited about this, and asked her about it. Her reply: "Oh yeah, some guy burned that for me." Needless to say, I was less excited after that response. Luckily, it turns out that she has impeccable musical taste all her own, though I don't think we've ever talked about Phoenix since then. Regardless, this is probably the best new song on this list.

5) AC Newman - "The Palace at 4 AM"

Saw AC Newman last night at the Independent. It was a good, but not great, show. Workmanlike (also, for anyone who wants to go to a show with me - I really do plan on going to every show mentioned in the blog sidebar ... so go get a ticket). The same could be said for Get Guilty, his sophomore album. His solo stuff will never be a substitute for his work with The New Pornographers, but it's solid in its own right. "The Palace at 4 AM" is the standout track on the album, and its title is a reference to a short story by Donald Barthelme that I have never read. I like my rock stars to be more literate than I am. Other songs worth checking out include "The Collected Works" and "Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer."

6) Junior Boys - "Parallel Lines"

At the end of my "100 Songs for 2008" list were a few songs (Dan Bejar, Old 97s, maybe others) that were almost placeholders, reminders that good bands released solid albums that didn't really have one standout track. "Parallel Lines" will probably serve that function in 2009. Begone Dull Care, Junior Boys' third album, is probably their weakest, but its still better than most. This song is likable enough, but it's certainly no "In the Morning" or "High Come Down" (if you can find old Junior Boys stuff, check it out). The new album sounds less like the Postal Service than past offerings. It sounds much clubbier and more European. This probably means Pitchfork will love it. For me, though ... meh.

7) The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - "Everything with You"

I think I'd lose my blogger's license if I didn't mention these guys, as they are everywhere right now. I'm not sure what else to say except that they sound exactly like The Smiths. And I like The Smiths. So ...

8) Animal Collective - "Bluish"

This was going to be its own post, but ESPN's own Paul Shirley kinda stole my thunder on it. Let's go about it from a different angle.

I just finished reading an incredible book called This Is Your Brain on Music, which attempts to explain, through neuroscience, why we like the music that we do. Basically, music can be defined as organized noise (also the name of Outkast's production team, a fact not mentioned in the book). However, we don't want our music TOO organized - a ticking clock would be the most organized noise of all, and no one's downloading MP3s of that. On the other hand, pure chaos is equally unlistenable, though it seems like every year some avant-garde artist tries to pass off street noise as something beautiful. So we need something in between. We need to have to guess at what's coming next, but we also need to be right almost every time we guess, or we'll get frustrated and chalk it up to noise.

From an evolutionary standpoint, we perceive noise just like anything else in our surroundings. It could be a clue to danger, or food, or sex, or anything else we need to know about. This is why Pavlovian responses work (ringing a bell makes the dog hungry) and also why people can learn to live with the most intrusive background noise (like people who live near airports, or merely those who work near the copier). Simple pop music becomes like that background noise, and you learn to filter it out. Hearing Katy Perry in Walgreen's provokes almost no response. You've learned that it means nothing, and so you ignore it.

Let's try this from a little bit different angle: I recently had a very short argument with Colonel Honey Mustard about whether good music is by nature somewhat difficult. I said that great music can't be too easily accessible. He said that he wanted his music to be as accessible as possible. I told him that I hated Tom Petty. He told me that he hated Radiohead. I think it's possible that we're both right (though he's wrong about Radiohead). My point, now that I've had time to think about it, is that all music, from a commercial jingle to a symphony, will eventually become played out in the mind of the listener. We can get sick of anything. For me (and, I assume for most people), we get sick of simple songs far sooner. I will never again feel any attachment to "Free Fallin.'" It has given me everything it has to give, and in fact it had probably done this by the time I was in about 8th grade. Conversely, every time I hear Kid A, I hear something new. It gives me a new experience, some new emotion. Obviously, there's a time and place for everything, and there's nothing wrong with occasionally desiring the familiar, but I think that music should be about the quest to hear something new. That's why I'm giving you this list of songs, after all.

So let's talk about Animal Collective. This album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, has an obscenely high Metacritic rating. Many knowledgeable music people are already calling this the album of the year. It came out in January. And the truth is ... it's difficult. There's very little structure to most of the songs. They simmer, and, every few minutes, the bubble over into a truly inspiring musical moment, a kind of super-psychedelic Beach Boys sound that I'm sure Brian Wilson was searching for the whole time. The first time I heard the album, very little stuck, maybe one moment every other song. It was complicated. It was organized noise, but it wasn't predictable on the level I wanted it to be. With each additional listen, though, I came to understand it, and every time I listened to the album, I was able to feel it a little bit more. "Bluish" is the most accessible song on the album, and I encourage you to listen to it. If you like it, check out the album. Listen to it a couple times. If you want to be challenged by music, spend some time with this album.

And, really, if you don't want to be challenged by music ... check out the rest of the songs on this list. For the most part, they're pretty simple, and still entirely awesome. As a music fan, you don't have to choose a constant degree of difficulty. Honestly, if you actually read this far, you've probably been put through enough difficulty today.


  1. So, I have to post anonymously, but this is Ferrario. As a die hard Beach Boys fan, I must take issue with your comments concerning them and Animal Collective. First of all, Animal Collective is that band that tries to pass off street music as something beautiful. I saw them perform at the South Street Seaport in New York, and even in a concert setting with thousands of fans, it was still garbage. Their songs lack structure and melody and while I can appreciate that a lack fo structure is still a kind of structure, I find their music altogether unapproachable and get nothing out of it. Kudos to those that do.

    The Beach Boys, on the other hand, pretty much revolutionized the way we understand melodics. In the mid to late 1960s, no one was mutilayering tracks the way Brian Wilson was. Every vocal harmony, every additional bit of noise was organized in a way that fit with the general meloday. Listen to "Good Vibrations" and you'll get a sense of how not just the vocal, guitars, drums, and bass get along, but also the cellos, tamborines, organs, harps, harpsichord, and even electro-theremin (the weird ghost-like noise) align to promote the melody. I have no doubt that Animal Collective create their sounds from a broad range of instruments (and perhaps that is their Brian Wilson influence), but their understanding of harmony and melody is absolutely primative.

    Furthermore, Brian Wilson was such a tortured soul, that most of his songs (the meaningful ones anyway: "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times", "Don't Worry Baby", "God Only Knows", "In My Room", etc.) are all about searching for a home in this world and trying to find inner and outer peace. Animal Collective have written nothing of such meaning. Pardon the rant, but I truly dispise Animal Collective and I really love the Beach Boys, so I died a little when I saw you comparing the two.

  2. Appreciate the comment, Ferrario. This one's probably my fault, as I think my statement "a kind of super-psychedelic Beach Boys sound that I'm sure Brian Wilson was searching for the whole time" was poorly worded.

    I'm not trying to say that Animal Collective are better than the Beach Boys (they aren't, not even close) or that they somehow improved on the Beach Boys formula.

    All I'm saying is that, given what we know about Brian Wilson (the months in bed, the vats of liquid acid, the breakdowns, the fact that it took him 50 years to release Smile), it's fair to say that he was always struggling to translate the craziness in his head into music. As you point out, much of the genius of the Beach Boys rests on their ability to take a simple pop song and give it such incredible musical and lyrical density. Brian Wilson would never have written am Animal Collective song. He was trying to use music to bring order to his own chaos. Animal Collective embraces that chaos, and so they get a totally different result, even if they may have been hearing the same music. Does this make them lesser artists for not trying to fit it into more structured songs? Maybe. Probably. But sometimes they come off a little more organic, a little more unguarded, and I think those moments are worth the chaos.

    Also, I can't believe that I'm the first person to compare the two bands. Who else would you use as a comparison for Animal Collective? Summery pop vocals, frequent use of harmonies (not as good as Beach Boys harmonies, sure, but definitely in the same vein). I know they're completely different when it comes to song structure, but for 30 seconds, or a minute, when Animal Collective is locked in for a few seconds of structure, they DO sound like the Beach Boys.

  3. Don't get me wrong, I like being challenged by music, but not initially. Good music to me is music that is easy to listen to initially and the more you listen to it the more you discover. I find this the most rewarding experience and enjoyable start to end. I am sure a majority of Radiohead's stuff is great as evidenced by their large following mostly composed of people I consider knowledgeable about music. I may like Radiohead if I listened to there their album a few times, but then again I may not.

    My problem with Radiohead is the high cost of entry. Why spend 2 hours listening to an album I don't initially find applying when I could go to Aaron and he could recommend 10 albums, 9 albums I'd like right off the bat? I also think it's a time issue. I would say I listen to 30 minutes of music a day on average. I just don't spend enough time listening to music to make any of it work.

  4. first off, nice rant on U2. i liked them back in the days of joshua tree and think that a few songs are pretty decent. that being said, i can't stand them now mostly due to just how much of an insufferable prick bono is. god i hate that guy and his stupid red/light gray/light blue glasses. i think U2 has gotten to that point where anything they put out is going to get rave reviews just because they're U2. it's like the beatles. if we could somehow resurrect the maggoty corpses of john lennon and george harrison, get the 4 of them together and have them record the sound of them taking a shit into a bucket of melted cheese, you just know that 15 million people are going to call it amazing. i'm sorry, but "i am the walrus, coo coo cuchoo"? what the fuck does that even mean? goddamnit. some of the beatles stuff is good, true, and yes they did do some crazy stuff for the time (maybe), but just because they're good doesn't mean everything they do is good. same goes for U2. reviewers need the balls to say something sucks, and it seems like no one who does mainstream reviews is going to say that. it's totally an "emperor's new clothes" scenario...

    now that that's out of the way, i'm gonna have to agree with colonel honey mustard here. i want my music to immediately hit me. if i have to listen to a song 3 times before i actually like it... well... that would never happen, because i wouldn't listen to a song a third time if i didn't like it the first two times. also, if a song is good based on its lyrics, then you've either A) read the lyrics online, or B) listened to it enough times to actually be able to decipher the lyrics. seriously, most songs are either fast enough or garbled enough that you have no fucking clue what people are saying the first time you hear it. so unless that beat/melody/sweet drum solo catches you, why make the effort to figure out if the musician (loose term) is writing some meaningful poetry (even looser term)? you shouldn't have to work for music unless you're making the stuff. music is a release from work, like many other pleasurable things. if i turn music into work, i'm gonna end up hating it like i hate other work...

    and radiohead sucks. they're only cool when you're on A LOT of drugs, or clinically depressed. now that i think about it, the two of those go together...

  5. Ferrario speaks:
    I see your point -- I can understand how the layering of melody in Animal Collective's music can sometimes remind one of The Beach Boys. As far as superiority though, that's really subjective. Personally, I think the Beach Boys are so far ahead of AC it's not even funny, but there would be a legion of plaid pants-wearing hipsters that would disagree with me.

    I do see the point above about the cost of entry for Radiohead. I like Radiohead ... a lot, but they're starting to slip in my book. My favorite Radiohead album is The Bends and their sound has evolved so much since then that it's almost like they are 2 separate bands. I really disliked The Eraser (from Thom Yorke), and it seems like the typical Radiohead album these days has to be so obscure that only the songwriters actually know what everything is supposed to be about. While that may be satisfying for them, it does alienate their fans to a certain extent. It takes me so long to dissect Radiohead these days that most of the time it isn't that rewarding. I spent hours listening to "Paranoid Android" back in the day, but doing that was fun because "Paranoid Android" has melodic strucutre that (to me, at least) is pleasing to hear. I don't get that with a lot of newer Radiohead (say from Amnesiac onward). I do enjoy trying to figure their albums out, but like what was mentioned above, the cost of entry is so high that's is starting to become not worth it -- the music isn't the same.

    Unlike Honey Mustard (who I assume is BK), I spend a lot of my day listening to music (2-3 hours), but I also believe that their has to be something initially appealing upon the first listen, otherwise why would you listen? However, if there is something that I think I should like (Animal Colelctive was this way for me) I will devote the time necessary to figure out if it's worth it. In AC's case, I found the time I spent listening to their music to be completely devoid of value.