Thursday, December 5, 2013

From the Archives: 100 Songs for 2011

[We'll be premiering 100 Songs for 2013 on December 9.  Between now and then, we'll be re-visiting the 100 Songs collections of previously years, now with Spotify playlists!]

DECEMBER 5, 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 WireMad 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.

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