“When I fall, I need someone to catch me, yeah / We can’t leave it to the billionaires.”
From the blog (7/22):
If there’s a melodic line this summer that is going to match MGMT’s “Kids” for recognize-ability and party-starting-ness, I submit that it should be this one. I don’t know if the song as a whole lives up to the potential of the hook, but, then again, I don’t know if anything could have.
22) The Mountain Goats – Romans 10:9
On one hand, every song on The Mountain Goat’s excellent 2009 album The Life of the World to Come is named after a Bible verse. On the other hand, the band often leads crowds in chants of “Hail Satan!” during their brilliant “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.” So, I guess the best you could say about John Darnielle’s spirituality is that the man is conflicted.
23) Fever Ray – Dry and Dusty
From the blog (2/18):
Fever Ray is a side project from the girl half of The Knife, a Swedish electro-pop group that writes some of the most coldly haunting songs you'll ever hear. Some people are scared of death metal. I'm scared of "You Make Me Like Charity." Fever Ray isn't too much of a departure from the standard Knife blueprint, though "Dry and Dusty" comes off as even more fragile, like the most beautiful love song ever written on an inhospitable planet.
From the blog (7/22):
For those of you who enjoy studying to Explosions in the Sky, I highly recommend the Fever Ray album. Yes, it has lyrics, but none of them make any sense anyway. The singer’s voice pretty much just acts as another instrument, one more layer on the spaced-out, spooky instrumentation. This is music for those winter days in northern Scandinavia where it’s dark like 22 hours a day and the northern lights are going crazy at all hours. This is music for the ghosts of Vikings.
24) Gossip – Heavy Cross
I bet a few of you expected me to come back from South America with a backpack full of world music CDs. And, really, I’m kinda surprised that didn’t happen myself. It turns out, though, that I love music of all kinds, but I LOVE American pop music. And nothing else will ever take its place.
And so I don’t have any stories about discovering Brazilian samba bands, but I do have stories about hearing “Heavy Cross” in a hostel in Buenos Aires and being completely blown away. Back in America, it sounds as great as ever.
25) jj – From Africa to Malaga
The other band (along with Discovery) with four songs on this list, jj is an even more unlikely musical success. Released anonymously on the Swedish label Sincerely Yours, this album first exploded onto the internet with lead single “Ecstasy,” a spaced-out ode to drugs that borrowed the drums from Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop.” And everyone loved that song, despite the fact that it is easily the worst song on this album. The rest of the record is a kind of Scandinavian calypso that, as Pitchfork put it, “manages to be pretty, touching, funny, and motivating, in different ways, in all the right places, for nine songs lasting 28 minutes.” I’m obviously not going to reprint lyrics to all these songs, but after the blinding hopelessness of “Two,” above, I’m including the words to this song as a reassuring counterpoint, and the best defense of cautious optimism I heard this year, a song about taking pain and failure and fear of your own inevitable mortality and creating beauty out of it:
It's too easy to cry when everything eventually dies
If not today, then maybe tomorrow
Don’t let that thought slip away, let it come out and play
It takes you down, at the speed of sound
When you’re on the ground, you never think you get up
Up and around, then it goes down
The thought that you found takes you to town
Smashes your face, burns out your heart
Then you go home and turn it into art
It's not easy to die
No matter how down you are, you eventually rise
If not today, then maybe tomorrow
Don't let that soul get away, let it fly high to your dying day
This is the chance for one last glance, one brilliant romance
Don’t cry for the time you lost in your life
The money you spent or those cheap white lies
Kiss them goodbye and see what’s left
I know it’s you
I hope it’s you
I bless the rains and winds coming in, from Africa to Malaga
26) Matt and Kim – Lessons Learned
I heard this song for the first time the day after running the Boston Marathon, so it will always remind me of a wonderful time in my life. Also, I love the lyric “And so I stayed up all night, slept in all day. This is my sound. Thinking 'bout tomorrow won't change how I feel today.” Past that … um … they’re naked in the video. What more do you need?
27) Yeasayer – Ambling Alp
As was the case last year, there were a few incredible songs I heard just days before composing this list. This song here is one of them. It’s blowing my mind right now, but I’ve probably only heard it 7-8 times. How will it age? I don’t know. Where should I rank it? Well … 27, I guess. Seems as good as anywhere.
28) Alphabeat – The Spell
When I talk about my own musical evolution as a fan, there are a few milestones I always mention. I tell people that the first song I was ever truly obsessed with was Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” and this is true, from a rock and roll perspective. However, as an elementary school kid who didn’t know any better, the first song I was ever truly obsessed with was Snap’s “Rhythm is a Dancer.” I would listen to Z-93 for hours at a time just hoping to hear that song.
It’s relevant here because Alphabeat has apparently decided that “Rhythm is a Dancer” was the absolute pinnacle of modern pop music, and have devoted themselves to trying to replicate it. This song is the closest they’ve come yet. 10-year-old Aaron is ecstatic.
29) Los Campesinos! – The Sea Is a Good Place to Think About the Future
Los Campesinos! can do no wrong with me. Sure, the lead singer hit Ilana in the face with a microphone cord at Slim’s last year. But then he chatted with us for a couple minutes at the merch table. And, apparently, when this song was released, he spent a night on the LC message boards, talking about the song and answering fans’ questions. I love this band so, so much. And while this song is sad, it’s visceral, somehow life-affirming in its sadness. I don’t know how they do that.
30) Animal Collective – Bluish
From the blog (3/1):
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 Kass 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 (although 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.
31) Sleigh Bells – Crown on the Ground
I understand that saying a song sounds “loud” is as meaningless a statement as Coors Light claiming their beer tastes “cold,” but … this song really does sound loud at any volume, which I think is a neat trick. Also, I don’t think you can go wrong with any fuzz-rock band so obviously influenced by DMX. This song sounds exactly like “Party Up,” and I mean that as the highest possible compliment.
32) Sambassadeur – Days
The third Swedish act to make the list, and certainly not the last. Even though I will almost definitely die of particle-board lung as a result of all the Ikea furniture I’ve assembled, I feel like Swedish indie-pop more than makes up for it.
33) Deer Tick – Easy
From the blog (6/18):
It still freaks me out that CCR was from California. I mean, they wrote a song called "Born on the Bayou," and all their songs are about Cajuns and swamps and ... shouldn't they be from Baton Rouge or something? Deer Tick is the same way: The band's from Providence, Rhode Island, but their music practically waves a Confederate flag as you listen to it. A dirty, whiskey-soaked good time.
34) jj – Things Will Never Be the Same Again
Next spring, jj is touring the East Coast with The XX. Beyond the fact that this would be a killer show, that kind of novelty tour booking just makes me smile.
35) Drive By Truckers – George Jones Talkin’ Cell Phone Blues
As I mentioned last year, I was late to the party on Drive By Truckers, discovering them in 2008 when Pitchfork had been singing their praises since 2003. 2009 was another year when I combed through the Truckers’ back catalog, discovering a new favorite song every couple weeks. I’ve played “One of these Days,” from 1999’s Pizza Deliverance more than any other song over the last month.
As for new material, 2009 brought rarities and covers compilation The Fine Print, which included such filler as a straight-ahead cover of “Like a Rolling Stone,” and a song called “Mrs. Claus’ Kimono,” which Pitchfork summarizes as “about unrest among the elves and reindeer, who plot to off Santa.” So, some of this stuff could have remained unreleased. “George Jones Talkin’ Cell Phone Blues” is easily the best of the bunch, with the dial on the band’s country-rock equalizer turned all the way to the left.
36) Brother Ali – Talkin’ My Shit
Albino rapper from Minneapolis. Because why wouldn’t something like that exist?
37) Ellie Goulding – Under the Sheets
If the world ever tires of The Ting Tings, I hope they move on to Ellie. British girl-pop really is among the very best things in the world. She’s currently touring the UK with Little Boots, and they really should bring that bill to San Francisco. While this song is definitely her best, the not-undelicious “Starry Eyed” deserves recognition on its own, and was one of the toughest cuts from this list.
38) The Very Best – Julia
Proof that these guys don’t need a familiar sample or celebrity guest spot to make incredible music.
39) Monsters of Folk – Say Please
Folk-rock supergroup? Sure, why not? Conor from Bright Eyes, Jim from My Morning Jacket, and M. Ward combine to make a song that really does sound like three brilliant songwriters joining forces.
40) I Was a King – Norman Bleik
Norway makes the list for the first time (also not the last). Opening line, “People who brought you here are making breakfast downstairs” reminds me of the brilliantly bizarre Mad Men episode where Don Draper goes to California. Then again, I’ve watched so much Mad Men lately that almost everything reminds me of something from that show. When I grow up, I want to be Roger Sterling (Ilana interjects: sans the shameless strings of affairs with teenage secretaries).