Monday, December 5, 2011

100 Songs for 2011

Did you guys know they're going to re-make Logan's Run?  It's true.  According to the internet, it will be out in 2014.  Ryan Gosling is going to star.  If you're not familiar with the original 1976 cult sci-fi classic, it depicts a dystopian future society in which population and the consumption of resources are managed and maintained in equilibrium by the simple expediency of killing everyone who reaches the age of thirty, preventing overpopulation.  Those who don't willfully submit to this process are called "runners," and must be tracked down and brought to justice.

I mention this because I turned thirty this year.

Cliched as it sounds, the milestone did provoke some existential soul-searching in me.  If it wasn't a foregone conclusion before, turning thirty means that I am definitely never going to play third base for the Minnesota Twins, no matter how lost Danny Valencia looks at the plate.

I mention this in the context of this essay because most people give up on the concept of discovering new music well before age thirty.  I'm younger than Klosterman, and probably most of the Pitchfork guys, but I think I'd be on the wrong side of the median at The Singles Jukebox.  Only my boyish good looks and my complete inability to grow facial hair keep me from looking like an outsider at the Fillmore already.  Statistically, I'm already a runner.

A few months ago, an old friend of mine sent me this comic and asked me the same question:  What was the best year for music?  The question is obviously ridiculous, but its the blatant impossibility of a right answer that makes the question fun.  Even if we could objectively measure music, the question would still be unanswerable.  What makes for the best year?  Is it the year with the best song?  The best album?  The best 100 songs?  The lack of really bad songs?  Paul Simon's Graceland came out in 1986, but does that mean I have to vouch for Eddie Murphy's "Party All the Time" too?

So what was the best year for music?  As an unabashed pop music optimist, I always want to say:  "This year."  I guess another acceptable answer would be "Next year."

If I'm completely honest with myself, though ... it's 2005.

I can easily name twenty albums from 2005 that are more important to me than anything that came out in 2011.  Seriously:  Architecture in Helsinki - In Case We Die; Atmosphere - You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having; Bloc Party - Silent Alarm; Bright Eyes - Digital Ash in a Digital Urn; Bright Eyes - I'm Wide Awake It's Morning; Coldplay - X&Y; Death Cab for Cutie - Plans; Decemberists - Picaresque; Devin Davis - Lonely People of the World, Unite!; Fall Out Boy - From Under the Cork Tree; Hold Steady - Separation Sunday; Kanye West - Late Registration; Marah - If You Didn't Laugh, You'd Cry; Mendoza Line - Full of Light and Fire; Mountain Goats - The Sunset Tree; The National - Alligator; New Pornographers - Twin Cinema; Robyn - Robyn; Rogue Wave - Descended Like Vultures; Ryan Adams and the Cardinals - Cold Roses; Stars - Set Yourself on Fire; Sufjan Stevens - Illinois!; Voxtrot - Raised By Wolves EP; Wolf Parade - Apologies to the Queen Mary.  I think that's twenty-five, actually, and I'm sure I'm forgetting a couple.  2005 was incredible.

As I'm sure you already understand, this statement has much more to do with me than it does the objective quality of music released in 2005.  Or 2011, for that matter.

Musical preference, more than any other form of artistic expression, seems to be inextricably tied to personal experience.  My generation adores Saved by the Bell because we were the perfect age to experience it, both the new episodes while we were in middle school, then the endless re-runs while we were in college.  And maybe we'll still watch an episode every now and then for ironic kitch value.  But no one would claim that Saved by the Bell is better than The Wire, Mad Men, or any of the great shows we fell in love with once we got a little older.

Compare that to music.  Take an informal survey of your office.  I'd bet that most people would tell you that the music they listened to in high school and college is the best music that has ever existed.

I've discussed my own musical evolution at length elsewhere on this site, but here's a quick sketch to get us to 2005:  I grew up listening almost exclusively to Christian rock.  This lasted well into my teens, eventually giving way to classic rock and jam bands by the time I graduated high school.  It wasn't until college (thanks to the miracle of internet piracy) that I began to interact with music being made in the present moment.  For this reason, those seminal 2000-2001 albums (Radiohead - Kid A; Outkast - Stankonia; The Strokes - Is This It?) are very important to me.

Still, I was stuck in the wasteland of central Minnesota, attending a university I grew to resent in a city that never felt like home.  I wasn't really ready to feel anything.  My life was going to happen somewhere else, later on.  I would interact with reality at that point.  I graduated in 2004, and moved to California months later.

For two comically uneven years, I lived in a house near the campus of San Jose State University.  I was a graduate student, then a waiter, then a bartender.  I wrote freelance music reviews.  I ran my first marathon.  I edited a literary journal.

In 2005, everything was coming together just as fast as everything was falling apart.  I was constantly drunk, celebratory drunk followed by self-pitying drunk in often rapid succession.  I worried about the future constantly.  I was always meeting girls.  I was always terrifyingly lonely.  Everything was incredibly important.  Every song was about me.  Every night was going to be the first night, the one we looked back on as the night where everything changed.  Every thought was an epiphany.  And then, every failure was the end.  Every hurdle was insurmountable.  Every setback was a sign that this would never work.  I was moving back home.  I was never going home again.

I made instant, intensely visceral connections to music.  I could do this because I often had days on end with nothing to do but listen to music and think about myself in the most melodramatic ways possible.  I fell asleep with headphones on.  I woke up to an exploding new world of music blogs.  I started going to concerts for the first time.

I don't feel like that anymore.  I don't want to feel like that anymore.  I don't want to look back on this exact moment as the moment where everything changed.  There are a lot of things that I don't ever want to change.  I don't want to feel like I've been lit on fire anymore, even though sometimes that felt really good.  And maybe there's something zen about this striving to avoid desire and pain and everything else, but I can't help thinking I'm avoiding life sometimes.

So what do we make of music in 2011?  What if the best days of our music-listening lives have passed us by?  There's going to be a list of 100 songs at the bottom of this page.  What should we do with them? 

Well, we should listen to them.  And we should enjoy them.  And we should fall in love with them.  And we should play them over and over again.  And we should make up little interpretive dances to them.

We should take a short breath, and we should look into the future.  And we should think of ourselves ten years from now, twenty years from now, fifty years from now, with kids and grandkids and lives lived.  And we should think of our future selves looking back on the 100 best songs of 2011.  And our future selves will remember, with barely restrained amazement, the incredible nostalgic immediacy of those songs.

In 2011, I look back on 2005 and wonder if it will ever be like that again, and I know that it won't.  But someday we'll look back on 2011.  And we'll look back in wonder.

100) Smith Westerns – “All Die Young”
99) Acid House Kings – “Would You Say Stop?”
98) Mates of State – “Palomino”
97) Patrick Stump – “Coast (It’s Gonna Get Better)”
96) Destroyer - Kaputt”
95) Fountains of Wayne - Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart”
94) Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues”
93) Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – “Yellow Missing Signs”
92) Team Me – “Dear Sister”
91) Guillemots – “I Must Be a Lover”
90) The Very Best – “Super Mom”
89) AraabMuzik – “Streetz Tonight”
88) Death Cab for Cutie – “You Are a Tourist”
87) The Roots – “Make My”
86) Fruit Bats – “You’re Too Weird”
85) Pains of Being Pure at Heart – “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now”
84) Ford & Lopatin – “Emergency Room”
83) Bright Eyes – “Haile Selassie”
82) Kurt Vile – “Ghost Town”
81) The National – “Think You Can Wait”
80) 8th Grader – “Heavy Without You”
79) The Joy Formidable – “Cradle”
78) Azealia Banks – “212”
77) Architecture in Helsinki – “Desert Island”
76) Los Campesinos! – “By Your Hand”
75) Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – “Same Mistake”
74) Miranda Lambert – “All Kinds of Kinds”
73) fun. – “We Are Young” (f/ Janelle Monae)
72) M83 – “Midnight City”
71) The Bear Coat – “Steady Til Stuck”
70) Radiohead – “Codex”
69) Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire – “Huzzah!” (Remix)
68) tUnE-yArDs – “Bizness”
67) Black Keys – “Little Black Submarines”
66) The Horrible Crowes – “Crush”
65) Hooray for Earth – “No Love”
64) Foster the People – “Helena Beat”
63) Submarines – “Shoelaces”
62) Phantogram – “Don’t Move”
61) TV Girl – “Girls Like Me”
60) Summer Camp – “Better Off Without You”
59) Team Me – “Me and the Mountain”
58) Portugal. The Man – “Got It All (This Can’t Be Living Now)”
57) Henry Clay People – “California Wildfire”
56) Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – “Codeine”
55) Get Up Kids – “Shatter Your Lungs”
54) Yeasayer – “Swallowing the Decibels”
53) Small Black – “Two Rivers” (f/ Heems)
52) The Horrible Crowes – “Behold the Hurricane”
51) Kanye West/Jay-Z – “New Day”
50) Generationals – “Tell Me Now”
49) Kooks – “Carried Away”
48) We Became Actors – “I Fee Like This Summer Is Gonna Be One Long Hold Steady Song”
47) Class Actress – “Weekend”
46) Purity Ring – “Belispeak”
45) Arcade Fire – “Speaking in Tongues”
44) Emmy the Great – “Paper Forest (In the Afterglow of Rapture)”
43) Coldplay – “Hurts Like Heaven”
42) New Pornographers – “A Drug Deal of the Heart”
41) Generationals – “Goose & Gander”
40) Jim Jones – “Believe in Magic” (f/ Girl Talk)
39) Death Cab for Cutie – “Some Boys”
38) Ting Tings – “Hang It Up”
37) Fountains of Wanye – “A Dip in the Ocean”
36) Penguin Prison – “Fair Warning” (Oliver Remix)
35) Coldplay – “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall”
34) Florence and the Machine – “Shake It Out”
33) Craig Finn – “One Single Savior” (Live)
32) Icona Pop – “Manners”
31) CSS – “Hits Me Like a Rock”
30) Adele – “Rolling in the Deep”
29) Yuck – “Get Away”
28) Yuck – “Shook Down”
27) When Saints Go Machine – “Kelly”
26) Dominant Legs – “Hoop of Love”
25) Craig Finn – “Honolulu Blues”
24) Handsome Furs – “Repatriated”
23) TV on the Radio – “You”
22) Mountain Goats – “Damn These Vampires”
21) EMA – “California”
20) Antlers – “I Don’t Want Love”
19) Slow Club – “Two Cousins”
18) Portugal. The Man – “So American”
17) Ghost Beach – “Empty Streets”
16) Decemberists – “Don’t Carry It All”
15) The Strokes – “Under Cover of Darkness”
14) Veronica Maggio – “Jag Kommer”
13) Diddy – “Ass on the Floor”
12) SBTRKT – “Wildfire”
11) The Rural Alberta Advantage – “Stamp”
10) Pains of Being Pure at Heart – “Belong”
9) Herman Dune – “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know”
8) Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – “An Ugly Person on a Movie Screen”
7) Penguin Prison – “Don’t Fuck With My Money”
6) Beyonce – “Schoolin’ Life”
5) Bon Iver – “Calgary”
4) Decemberists – “When U Love Somebody”
3) Patrick Wolf – “The City”
2) Purity Ring – “Ungirthed”
1) Architecture in Helsinki – “Contact High”


  1. Aaron, I look forward to your top 100 every year. I think I can sing along to just about every song on each of the last 3 lists and am preparing to learn this new set as well. But even more than the music, I like getting a glimpse of you in your writing for the year. Your 2008 music guide showed your unabashed affection for music, 2009 and 2010 read more like love letters to Ilana which, as a friend who cares about you both, was so neat to read. This year is an ode to getting older - a feeling I am sure a lot of your peers, including myself, is feeling as we segue into our third decade with careers, debt, marriages, mortgages, planning for retirement, preparing to be a parent one day, anticipation, worry, excitement. And because of you, we lucky ones get to do it all with a sweet soundtrack. Thanks friend - cheers to 30. - Desa

  2. ^ Strongly agree. You also professed love of Sweden ... a lot.

    To me, the lesson to be learned from your experience in 2005, is those moments occur (the first night/one we looked backed on, etc.) but you realize it later when the day/evening/series of events has been fragmented in your mind. For me, you can replace 2005 with 2001-2004 with heavy influence from yourself and Elliot on my musical growth. How many nights did we sit up, under the influence or not, debating the outcomes of a series of events that have no impact on our life today? It was constant, it was endless. The series of events were always tied to an album or a song. Why else would we listen to Ryan Adams so much? Brilliant, but depressing.

    I think you may have just killed my iTunes clean-out project I had planned. I uploaded most of my songs to Google Music and stream them at work. Do I need that Eve 6 single anymore? Probably not. But the girl on skates in video is hot and I can remember that and laugh at that. Do I need the angry-metal album from RHS days. Again, probably not. But I enjoy working out to some of the songs, so why not keep the whole album? It’s tough, at least for me, to justify deleting the albums. Random singles I have less issue with. If I haven’t listened to that song in years (perhaps Junior Senior), and it’s not on a running or working-out mix I’ll likely delete it.

  3. Ellard - obviously that same time period is very important to me as well, but I feel like the difference is a kind of ironic detachment we had in St. Cloud that I didn't have when I was on my own in San Jose. Obviously, there was a lot of music we listened to that we genuinely thought was good (Ryan Adams is certainly an example), but it seems like there was a lot of stuff we listened to even though we kinda knew it was terrible. Think about the number of times we listened to "Pinch Me" by Barenaked Ladies. I'm sure I could sing that entire song from memory right now, yet at no point did I ever think it was a GOOD song.

    So, when I think of 2001-2004, I feel like I'm more likely to think "novelty which brings back a flood of great memories" than "the best music ever made, which I will defend to the death."

  4. Excellent listing, Aaron. I made it through in two days and will certainly listen again and again. Thanks for the work and for sending the link this year!

    Reading a little further, I guess I should loan you a mix-tape a friend made called "How Swede It Is" which is full of catchy Swedish-bred pop music.