Friday, December 24, 2010

100 Songs for 2010: 6-10


We're counting down our 100 favorite songs of the year.  Today, 6-10.  Check out previous posts here.


10) The Gaslight Anthem - "The Diamond Church Street Choir"

"Who, who, who does it better than we do?"

If, as the critics say, the very existence of The Gaslight Anthem is an elaborate homage to Bruce Springsteen, then this one is their “Spirit in the Night.”

My favorite concert video of the year is a clip of Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon live onstage with Springsteen in England, trading verses on “No Surrender.” Go watch this video. Look at Fallon, and tell me he’s not having some kind of religious experience up there. No one in the history of the world has ever been as happy as he is in those five minutes. Incredibly, Bruce looks almost as excited. Here are two guys who play music for a living, both fully grasping just how unbelievably awesome that can be.

Pop music is often territorial, and maybe it has to be. Musically, lyrically, thematically … everyone is working with a tiny closed universe of source material. “Derivative.” “Rip-off.” “Copycat.” These are serious insults. And so a lot of bands keep their influences at arm’s length,* acting like they invented music.**

* My biggest problem with Ilana’s new favorite band, Foxy Shazam, is their unbelievable refusal to credit Queen as an influence.

** Or, much more commonly, to reference only a very exclusive canon of unquestionable cool: Iggy Pop, Velvet Underground, Otis Redding. In print, no one loves Oasis or U2 or Coldplay.

I love that Gaslight Anthem have never shied from the Springsteen comparisons, have never downplayed his influence. And I love that the Boss himself has seemingly accepted them as worthy heirs, when I’m sure someone in his inner circle must have seen Gaslight Anthem as a style-stealing threat. Both Springsteen and Fallon are confident enough in themselves to avoid any of that “There Can Only Be One!” posturing. And so we get concert footage that approaches infinite happiness. If that’s the trade-off for a subtle hit to your authenticity, I say take it.


Bruce Springsteen - "Spirit in the Night"
The Gaslight Anthem - "Stay Lucky"

9) Ellie Goulding - "I'll Hold My Breath"

In which we longed to be told we were too young.

In which we attempted to see the whole world in a context of our choosing.

I’ve already expended quite a few words on Ellie Goulding, and I still don’t think I’ve gotten it right yet. It’s not that this song is a glimpse of a perfect world. It’s more that this song presents a world where imperfections simply don’t stick, a world where nothing leaves scars. This song was the closest we came to weightlessness in 2010.


Ellie Goulding - "Every Time You Go"
Ellie Goulding - "Sweet Disposition" (Temper Trap Cover)

8) The Hold Steady - "The Weekenders"

In which we say, “Thanks for Ja Rule, buddy.”

In which these are rock and roll problems. Isn’t that what we wanted?

The conventional wisdom is that you should never meet your heroes. There’s just so much that could go wrong, so much that could fail to live up to expectations. It’s not that your heroes are secretly jerks who don’t deserve your love, it’s just that they are real people, people who are tired, or overworked, or late for something, or hung over, or just distant. It’s won’t mean as much to them as it does to you. It just can’t. Better to maintain the distance. Don’t put all that unnecessary pressure on your one-sided relationship.

My hero, above all others, is Craig Finn from the Hold Steady. To me, he’s more than the frontman of my favorite band of all time. He’s a fellow Minnesotan, and he writes about things like geographical identity and personal iconography and conflicted religion better than I could ever hope. He loved the Golden Gophers but he hated all those drawn out winters. He understands that Sal Paradise was right, but also that Jack Kerouac drank himself to death. He wrote a song about the Minnesota Twins, for the love of God, and he always seems so personable and articulate, both onstage and in interviews. I love everything about him. He seems like exactly the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with. And yet I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to meet him. Everyone knows you should never meet your heroes.

It was a late August show at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz. Ilana’s family goes way back with Joel, one of the owners of the venue. For my birthday, Ilana got in touch with Joel, secured some free tickets to the show, and broached the subject of potentially going backstage to meet the band. Joel said he would see what he could do, but that not all bands really hung around backstage. Some preferred to stay on the bus. Some were in and out, on to the next town. It was a job for them, after all. He would try to help us, but no guarantees.

So we went to the show. And … really no one else did. We’ve seen the Catalyst sold out and packed to the door. Being generous, the place was five percent full for the opening band. It was surreal, being able to overhear the band discuss the set list between songs. Joel wasn’t there, was caught up with other business, would try to make it, no promises. Ilana was upset. She worried I would be disappointed. If anything, I was relieved. You should never meet your heroes. Especially after watching those heroes play to an empty room.

The place was maybe a quarter full when Craig and the guys came on stage, but the band played their usual high-energy set. It was my seventh time seeing them live. I’d love to see them seven more. They never disappoint. Halfway through the set, Joel showed up out of nowhere, handing out free drinks and promising to take us backstage. I couldn’t believe it. Nervous, I started downing beers to calm myself (this always works, of course), trying to think of what I would say to my hero. I’d written thousands of words about the band, of course, but it really didn’t prepare me for the possibility of actual conversation. How many different ways can you say, “Thank you. You are awesome.”

After the show, we immediately headed backstage, which is basically a fenced-in part of the parking lot with a metal roof. Not incredibly glamorous. As Joel predicted, most of the band was already on the tour bus. Only Bobby (the drummer) and the touring keyboardist (who is not an official band member, and whose name I never caught) were hanging around, drinking Coronas and looking bored. There was no backstage “scene” at all. I sheepishly said hi to both of them, shook hands, told them how much I loved the show, and the band, and everything. But past that, I had nothing to say to them. To me, The Hold Steady has always been “Craig Finn and Other People.” I think I probably know enough about Tad, the lead guitarist, to carry on a half-decent interview, but that’s it. Of course I respected the other guys in the band, but I adored Craig. And Craig was already on the bus. So it goes. Maybe it would have been awkward anyway.

And why shouldn’t he be on the bus? He just sang his heart out for a mostly-empty venue in one of the smaller cities on a probably-endless tour, and he had an all-night drive to look forward to, the band on their way to some far-flung SoCal exurb I’d never even heard of.

At this point, a few other fans had gathered, milling around, talking about the band, how much we all loved them, how we totally understood if they just wanted to get on the road. We knew you’re not supposed to meet your heroes.

And then Craig Finn came walking around the side of the bus, big smile on his face, still sweaty from the show, like something we had willed into existence. We were stunned, temporarily frozen, eventually stepping forward for handshakes, pictures, maybe an autograph or two. We all talked baseball, and the Minneapolis music scene, and mostly we talked about how awesome it was to be talking to Craig Finn. It was everything we had wanted. It was more than we had dared to expect. A nice, polite meet and greet, instantly forgettable for Craig, an unforgettable five minutes for the rest of us.

And then one of the girls in the group suggested that we all go out for some drinks. It was a carefully-floated suggestion, not demanding anything, one that came expecting a courteous rejection, one ready for a quick slip into, “Yeah, I know you guys have to hit the road, that’s cool … I just had to ask.” We had already met our hero. We were playing with house money.

So of course Craig instantly agreed that this was a great idea and went to get the rest of the band.

So of course we all wound up upstairs at 99 Bottles,* the place deserted on a Tuesday night, like it was set up and staffed just for us.

So of course we tried to buy beers for the band, but they insisted on getting a matching round every time, and internally we all debated which story sounded cooler: “I bought Craig Finn a beer” or “Craig Finn bought me a beer.” Most of us are now able to tell both stories.

So of course Ilana and I wound up at a table with Craig, talking about Kent Hrbek’s fishing show and the simple pleasures of uncool St. Louis Park bars and Thanksgiving (Craig cooks) and Titus Andronicus (the lead singer cat-sits when Craig’s on the road, and is just generally a fascinatingly weird dude) and Australia and how much my grandparents love both Carlos Gomez and the WNBA … pretty much everything but the band itself. Even in my perfect-world fantasies of hanging out with Craig Finn, I still assumed the conversation would devolve into me gushing about how I love everything he’s ever done while Craig smiled awkwardly and thought of excuses to leave. Awesomely, this did not happen.** People came and went, sat with us, sat with other guys in the band, sat and listened. As far as I was concerned, this was the center of the universe.

So of course Craig seemed far more interested in finding out about us than listening to us praise him. I’m sure he’s gone out drinking with fans on countless occasions, but apparently he never gets tired of meeting new people, not as disciples who worship him, but just as fellow fans of music and beer and staying out way too late on a school night. He was genuinely invested in the conversation the entire time, and I felt like he would have been regardless of the circumstances, even if we didn’t know who he was. More than anything, Craig just seemed like a guy who really likes being around people.

So of course we stayed for hours, me and Ilana and a handful of others, exchanging looks reminding each other that this was really happening, that it was really happening right now, and that if we were lucky, it might continue to happen. And, in re-telling this, I understand that this is the point where we get into minutiae that no one who wasn’t there could possibly care about, so I’ll cut it short. At some point, the band graciously said it was time to get back to the bus.

So of course the next morning was one of my all-time favorite hangovers.

I don’t know how many perfect moments you get. I don’t know if I’ll ever get another one. I don’t know if I’m saying that everyone should do everything in their power to meet their heroes. It’s probably still a risky endeavor. The only thing I know for sure is that I have not stopped smiling in the entire time it took me to write this. I hope I never lose that.***

* Already my favorite Santa Cruz drinking spot from my days bumming around with Clint and Vennessa and a bunch of great people from the SJSU English Department. If any of you wind up reading this … I miss you guys. We should hang out.

** Did I get to hold his iPhone at one point? Oh yes I did. It was awesome. You see, I’m still a borderline-obsessive superfan, I just managed to restrain it for this one glorious night.

*** In case anyone thinks I’m trying to rewrite history a little bit here, I’d like to acknowledge that I also wrote a long essay about having a bad time at a Hold Steady show in May. Still, the best times with the Hold Steady are absolutely worth ignoring everything else.


The Hold Steady - "Ask Her For Adderall"
The Hold Steady - "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window" (Bob Dylan Cover)

7) Broken Social Scene - "World Sick"

I think the first six songs on this list describe 2010 as I wanted it to sound.* And, looking back, 2010 really did sound like that a lot of the time. Energetic. Optimistic. Forward-looking. “World Sick,” though, comes closest to describing how the rest of the year sounded. This song took the top spot on my Halfway 100 countdown, and, in hindsight, I don’t think it was a bad choice. Curt said it was too long. And it is too long. It loses direction somewhere around the five minute mark. There are times when it threatens to collapse under the weight of its exhausted sentiment. It was a strange choice for an album opener. And … I feel like that sometimes. I get world sick. I think we all do. I’m lucky to be able to say, with complete honesty, that I felt this way for a small percentage of 2010. But that percentage was still there, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake it completely, and no song captured the emotion better than this one. It was comforting to hear those words coming from someone else.

* And here we’re talking about the music only. Lyrically, I understand that five out of the first six could be classified as depressing. Sorry about that. The “happy song, sad lyrics” combination has always been a winner with me.


Broken Social Scene - "Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl"
Broken Social Scene - "Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Half)"

6) Cee-Lo Green - "F*** You"

Let’s take a look at this song from a few different angles.

First, and most importantly, this is the closest we’ve come to the Perfect Pop Song since “Hey Ya!” Musically, this would have been a huge hit at anytime since the 1950s. Musically, this is one of those songs you can already hear on the oldies stations of the future.*

* This has nothing to do with anything, but I think Maroon 5 is going to be huge on the future oldies stations. Just so incredibly inoffensive. Nobody’s favorite band, but, more importantly, never hated, either. They will be my generation’s Steve Miller Band.

But … it’s called “F*** You.” Seemingly in the interest of fairness, it manages to work in most of the rest of the popular curse words, too. It’s absolutely un-censorable. (There are rumors of a “Forget You” radio edit, but I’ve honestly never heard it.) It is here to explode the minds of people who equate obscenity with specific genres, like death metal or gangsta rap. My greatest musical regret of 2010 was not being there the first time my Dad heard this song. Mostly because I suspect he secretly loves it.

More than that, though, I think this song is a nice jumping-off point for a discussion of the internet and the shifting role of censorship.

Think about The Sopranos. This is a show that could not have been re-written for network television. It was not an issue of editing out some of the language or some isolated violence … the show would not have worked … at all … under the network censorship restrictions. Luckily, HBO didn’t have those restrictions, and so we all got to see one of the best shows of all-time exactly as it was meant to be seen. Twenty years earlier, in a world without HBO, the show could not have existed.

TV can push the envelope like that. The Wire and Breaking Bad and Dexter obviously, but also shows like Mad Men or Party Down* that maybe could have worked, heavily edited, on a network, but are now allowed to operate unfettered. Why even go to the networks? You could make money and win awards and do everything you want to do without dealing with unnecessary restrictions.

* The best show no one has ever seen. I’m giving you 100 music recommendations, but only one TV rec. Please go get the first two seasons of Party Down.

I don’t know what Cee-Lo was thinking when he decided to write this song, and title it as he did. I don’t know what the label was thinking when the released it as a single. I might be giving them too much credit here, but I suspect I’m not. I think someone from standards came down the hall and said, “This will never be played on the radio. I mean … ever. In any form.” And Cee-Lo just said, “So what?” Because, if you have a song like this one, a song that could absolutely light the internet on fire … why would you need the radio?

And this song hit like I’ve never seen a song hit before. The amount of sports blogs who posted this, totally apropos of nothing, who had never posted a song before, was staggering. Within minutes, it seemed like this song was something everyone knew, something that everyone had always known. And in the process, Cee-Lo went from being a generally positively-reviewed novelty (like Nate Dogg, a nice guest on someone else’s song) to a world-beating force, as close to universally loved as anyone or anything on the internet can be.

It’s always been possible to become a minor viral novelty on blog buzz alone, but Cee-Lo has transcended all of that. “F*** You” has been in the top twenty on iTunes pretty much since it was released. It’s up for three Grammys, including Record of the Year and Song of the Year, which are somehow different things. All of this for a song whose absolute, bedrock starting point was “This song simply cannot be played on the radio.”

If this is where pop music is going … how can you not be excited about that?


Cee-Lo Green - "No One's Gonna Love You" (Band of Horses Cover)
Trick Daddy - "Dro in Da Wind (Remix)" f/ Big Boi and Cee-Lo Green

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