Friday, December 11, 2009

100 Songs Week: 1-20

100 Songs for 2009: Aaron’s Listening Guide

It was a strange year for me. I suspect it was a strange year for a lot of you, too. On one level, I can list a pretty good number of once-in-a-lifetime accomplishments. I ran the Boston Marathon, passed the California bar exam, and spent eleven weeks wandering in South America with a girl who amazingly still loved me when it was all over. I saw two concerts at two different venues on the same night, then went to Coachella two days later, where I saw those same bands again. I sat in a hostel in Rio de Janeiro and watched the Minnesota Twins make the playoffs in the most dramatic way imaginable, and I also attempted to watch twenty-four consecutive hours of college basketball. I have a new job and a new apartment and a new television. I said goodbye to the sub-human filth of 332, but kept all the great memories. Decades later, I will undoubtedly see this year as an unmitigated triumph.

And yet, when I think of these songs, and the feelings and memories they inspire in me, a different picture emerges. These are the songs I listened to while sitting in coffee shops for eleven hours a day, struggling to stay awake, fighting to stay focused on the minutiae of the law. These are the songs I listened to at three in the morning on the all-night bus down the coast of Brazil, wondering if my stomach would ever settle, wondering if I would ever make sense of Portuguese. These are the songs I listened to while I worried about my future. These are the songs I listened to while everything changed, and I wondered if it was changing for the better.

In a nutshell, these are the songs that brought those two paragraphs together, the songs that got me through the hard times, the songs that allowed me to eventually find some level of happiness and success. This list really is the best possible summary of my 2009.

As I wrote in my blog, overwhelmed by the enormity of studying for the bar:

I am naked without headphones. I spend at least eight hours a day sitting in public places, yet I maintain almost zero contact with the outside world. I do not talk to people. I actively discourage them from talking to me.

I have one more week of this.

And the music helps. When I’m not listening to baseball, I have had plenty of time to discover great new songs. When I AM listening to baseball, I’m mostly muttering “stay in the park … STAY IN THE PARK!!!” to worried strangers at the Royal Ground on Fillmore.

So the music helps.

People like to debate whether Year X was a good year for music, or if it was better that Year Y, or what the best time for music was, and this has always seemed kinda foolish to me. It seems similar to arguing about what the best year was for food. How could you even attempt that? There was so much great food out there that you didn't eat. What's more, the food you did eat was a direct result of your efforts in seeking that food out.

Right now, I think it's a great time for music, but that's just because I have an almost unlimited time in front of a computer, on the internet, with headphones. There is no new music that I am not aware of. And so it is a great time.

And it WAS a great time, but for me it was a great time in an unfamiliar landscape. The collective output of my favorite bands was as follows:

- The Hold Steady: live album, Bruce Springsteen cover song on charity compilation

- Los Campesinos!: two singles, album due out Jan. 2010

- Vampire Weekend: two singles, album due out Jan. 2010

- New Pornographers: AC Newman solo project, b-side on charity compilation

- Drive By Truckers: Rarities album, Patterson Hood solo project

- The National: one song on charity compilation

- Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio, Architecture in Helsinki, Rogue Wave: Nothing

So, while there were excellent albums from old favorites like The Mountain Goats, Phoenix, Islands, and Wilco, on the whole it was a year for seeking out the new.

Here is what I found:

1) Free Energy – Dream City

I have no idea what this song does to me. On some level, I can be objective about it. It might be the most derivative song on this list (“Spirit in the Sky” plus “Get It On (Bang a Gong)” equals 2009 song of the year? That math may not add up). It’s recently been featured in a Flip phone commercial, which means it could hit some kind of over-exposure threshold soon. I can psychoanalyze myself for clues about why I love it so much (the guys are transplanted Minnesotans just like me, the song’s classic-rock-revival sound makes me nostalgic for the “All new music sucks” mindset of my own misplaced musical youth). There are a lot of reasons why I shouldn’t love this song so much. Also, Curt doesn’t like it.

But … if we ignore all that … if we just look at which song has given me the most happiness this year … it’s this one. It’s absolutely this one. And that’s all I want from a song. That it makes the early-morning drives to Bar/Bri tolerable. That it inspires Ilana to make up wonderful nonsense lyrics about lasagna. That its “Na na na” singalong outro makes you forget where you are and what you’re doing. That it makes you smile. This song makes me smile. And it always did, even at times when nothing else would.

2) The Very Best – Warm Heart of Africa (f/ Ezra Koening)

One part Malawian singer, one part British production team, The Very Best gave us an excellent mixtape last year, sampling Vampire Weekend, Architecture in Helsinki, and “Paper Planes,” and creating a one-of-a-kind African sound that was all primal happiness. For their 2009 full-length album, the guys brought Ezra from Vampire Weekend on board, and the result is the perfect mix of authenticity and homage. This song is like a tribute to itself.

I first played this song for Ilana as we sat in the car during a bar exam lunch break. Her response: “Can we please download everything these guys have ever done?” That pretty much sums up my feelings about The Very Best. I always want more, and right now if possible. The “Warm Heart of Africa” vs. “Dream City” debate went back and forth more than a few times. This song should be numbered 1A.

3) The National – So Far Around the Bend

I have now written 99 song reviews, and I’m coming back to #3, looking for a way to describe the simple brilliance of this song, an ode to searching for someone within the shifting landscape of parties and bars, of smoking weed with an apple pipe and praying for Pavement to get back together (and apparently they are, in 2010!).

This song is the unchallenged highlight of the two-disc all-star charity comp Dark Was the Night, and it reminded a lot of people that this one song is the only new material the band has released since 2007. I’ve missed them.

And there’s no leaving New York.

4) Passion Pit – Little Secrets

I don’t know if I can be objective about these Passion Pit songs. There was a time when this one was a serious contender for the #1 spot. I love the children’s choir sing-along chorus. I love the near-perfect blend of rock and dance. I love that Passion Pit started out as one guy making songs on his computer, that originally all he wanted to do was make a CD for his girlfriend. I should have nothing but good feelings associated with this band and this song.

But … Passion Pit put on the worst live show I’ve ever seen (well, worst rock show … still not worse than either Snoop Dogg OR Nelly). I don’t know how the singer could sound this good on record and this bad on stage. This album must have required a thousand takes to record, because, live, within the normally acoustically-excellent surroundings of Bimbo’s 365 club, he sounded like a reluctant karaoke performer. It’s the only concert I’ve ever left early in disgust. I’ve never felt sorry for a performer before.

Still, the song is the song. And, considering it in a vacuum, it is brilliant. And so it still makes the top five. But I will always be conflicted.

5) Phoenix – 1901

I love Bill Simmons. I really do. I read his entire 700 page “Book of Basketball,” and I even stood in line to have him sign it. The man knows basketball. He does not, however, know music, and it’s so awkwardly wonderful when he tries to talk like he does. I’m pretty sure he still thinks The Killers are an obscure indie band that only he knows about. Recently, he got all “Just check this song out … you’ll thank me later” about MGMT’s “Kids” (which had reached oversaturation levels by the time it made my 2008 list), and acted incredibly disappointed that “1901” was now featured in a car commercial, like his little musical secret was out. Can’t wait for him to introduce me to the Arcade Fire sometime in 2015.

From the blog (4/1):

“1901" might be my song of the year as of right now. The part where the synths rev up right before the chorus and dissolve into that "Fallin' / Fallin' / Fallin'" section is definitely my favorite individual music moment of the year.

From the blog (3/1):

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.

6) Hockey – Song Away

The greatest radio station in the world originates in Montevideo, Uruguay. Urbana 92.5, playing nothing but brilliant English-language indie pop. Check it out, they have a streaming feed that I listen to sometimes at work.

Ilana and I hit Uruguay after ten weeks in the wilderness, and the two things I was missing the most about America were (a) eating burritos and (b) downloading obscure music. So, when we walked into our nondescript Montevideo hotel and heard Little Boots’ “New in Town” and Miike Snow’s “Animal” back to back, it was like the sounds in my head were now being broadcast to the city as a whole. Hearing this song, for the first time, under those conditions, was an incredible moment, like it existed just for me.

While we’re finding personal significance to random coincidences, this song came up on shuffle as I walked from the train to my first day of work, and the “Look what your man has done to the world / Look what the world has done to your man” line hit with force previously reserved for Talking Heads’ “Well … how did I get here?”

Hockey made the list last year, with their Stokes-ish “Too Fake,” and this song takes that formula and improves on to the point of near-perfection.

7) The Thermals – Now We Can See

Oh, Thermals, your Jesus-as-overlord, church-and-corporation obsessed dystopian dreamscape narratives are almost too close to the scenes playing out in the darkest recesses of my brain.

Also, I like the fact that you have a cute, mixed-race girl bass player (whom, interestingly enough, Ilana does not appreciate), and that you like to play at Bottom of the Hill, where they have that ledge near the side of the stage that Ilana can sit on and see everything.

Also, I think it’s adorable that you play angry, anti-social punk rock but your parents come see every show you play in San Francisco. I’m not sure that’s how my parents would react to me being in a band with this kind of lyrical content.

8) Dirty Projectors – Stillness is the Move

From the blog (7/22):

I almost saw Dirty Projectors open for TV on the Radio about a month ago, but we got there late and missed their set. Turns out this is just as well, as the majority of this record is just about unlistenable to me. I guess it’s the brainchild of a Yale-educated composer, and you can really hear the attempts to be difficult for difficult’s sake.

On the other hand, “Stillness is the Move” … I’ve listened to this song so many times in the last week, mostly because something is supposed to happen at the end of the chorus, and it doesn’t, and it’s driving me crazy. I may have to start a band just so we can cover this song in a way that I understand. Only then will I have closure.

Anyway, if you can imagine the whitest, indie-est band of all time trying to write Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” … you’d pretty much get this. Which is wonderful.

9) The Hold Steady – Atlantic City

From the blog (3/1):

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?")

10) YACHT – Psychic City

From the blog (7/22):

There are, somehow, two competing Pitchfork-approved, minimalist-to-the-point-of-being-almost-intentionally-oversimplified, novelty summer jams. One is Das Racist’s “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” The other is this one. I dismissed both on first listen, but somehow this one found its way onto my iPhone in a big chunk of new music. And I kept listening to it. And I listened to it in the car. And Ilana composed an excellent interpretive dance to it. And we kept listening to it, this and Free Energy’s “Dream City” on the way to Bar/Bri, and so for ten minutes every morning our souls weren’t slipping away quite so fast. And now I really can’t imagine living without this song. Most of you will probably hate it.

11) La Roux – Armour Love

From the blog (7/22):

Retro-80’s British girl pop. While La Roux’s dance-ier singles (namely “In for the Kill”) are getting all the love on the blogs, I’m infatuated with this ballad, the last track on the album. It’s the perfect soundtrack for that spot in every great, terrible 80s movie where our hero has made his play for the girl, but she can’t see how great he is, and she’s staying with the evil rich kid, and there’s the sad montage where our hero walks home in the rain, sits in his room, and stares off into the middle distance.

It’s hard to explain the significance of individual moments in music, but I’m going to try with this one. There’s a moment in here, at about 3:35, when we’ve heard the chorus a few times, but it comes back for a third time, and she changes the phrasing of it, really spitting out the last syllable of “You seem to believe you belong to someBODY else” as the backing vocals show up for the first time with the defeated line “you know what it’s like, you shouldn’t have to be told,” and it’s just the perfect combination of anger and sadness and it’s as poignant a representation of what a breakup really feels like as I’ve ever heard. And it all happens in about five seconds.

12) Discovery – Osaka Loop Line

One of the guys from Vampire Weekend and one of the guys from Ra Ra Riot make an electro-pop synth-R&B album featuring gems like this one, a song about falling asleep on a train in Japan. All great songs sound ridiculous in capsule summary form, don’t they?

Anyway, there are four Discovery songs on this list, tied for the most by any band, which would lead you to believe that this is my favorite record of the year. It’s definitely top five.

13) BBU – CHI Don’t Dance

Hip hop song of the year! Why wouldn’t it come from an all-but-unknown militant-anarchist group from Chicago whose name is short for “Bin Laden Blowin’ Up”? Listen up, revolutionaries, this is how you do it: verses attack the evils of society, chorus ditches the protest and heads for the clubs, and the whole thing is wrapped in what Pitchfork called “a crack-addictive, Goodie Mob-inspired shout-along hook.”

All we do is juke.

14) The Harlem Shakes – Strictly Game

The saving grace of that disastrous Passion Pit show described earlier was seeing these guys open. Between sets, I picked up their album, and the lead singer was standing around the table, so I had him sign it. He wrote “Cool dreams and warm love forever,” which sounds exactly like what the ditziest girl in school would write in your yearbook (“Stay cool … have a KA summer!”). This makes me question his artistic gift somewhat.

This song is all Talking Heads’ big-city joy filtered through Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s twenty-first century update, but I can’t help thinking that the line, “Make a lot of money, take a lot of shit, feel real bad, then get over it … this will be a better year” is going to sound more and more prophetic as I hit the working world.

15) The Mountain Goats – Sign of the Crow (Live in San Francisco)

I have 492 officially-released Mountain Goats songs on my computer. Seriously, almost 500. I have probably listened to the majority of them, but just barely. When it comes to songs I could identify if I heard them again, that number is even lower. John Darnielle is absolutely the most prolific songwriter of our time.

This is why I will always drop whatever I am doing to see The Mountain Goats perform live. You will hear something wonderful that you have never heard before, and you will hear Darnielle interact with the crowd in a way that may be unique in all of rock and roll.

I saw The Mountain Goats perform at the Swedish American Hall back in February, and this previously-unreleased gem was among the highlights. In fact, it only exists in this live recording, which also includes two minutes of classic Darnielle banter, discussing, among other things, “the tragedy of Warrant.” It is such a tribute to Darnielle that he could write a two-minute burst of brilliance like this (the couplet “Of the several things you have to do today, you’re gonna regret one / This generation asks for a sign, it isn’t gonna get one” is so concise and intense, it’s almost a Mountain Goats mission statement in two lines), only to decide that it didn’t even belong on an album. Thankfully, there are obsessive fans that record shows. And there are obsessive fans who download those shows and put tracks on their year-end “100 Songs” lists.

16) Passion Pit – Moth’s Wings

Combined with “Little Secrets,” the best one-two punch any band delivered in 2009. And, as discussed in the “Little Secrets” section, partially ruined by the fact that this guy couldn’t sing his way out of a paper bag.

17) Big Boi – Shine Blockas (f/ Gucci Mane)

In the same way that history has shifted toward Paul on the “Who was the true genius in The Beatles?” debate, I think future generations will wonder why we ignored Big Boi for so long. And I love Andre 3000 as much as anybody, but Big Boi’s half of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was better, and here in 2009, he’s dropping classics like this, while Andre is … what IS he doing? Is he still doing that cartoon show?

18) NASA – Strange Enough (f/ Karen O, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Fatlip)

The versatility of this song is just staggering. Running mix? Sure. Studying mix? It fits. Taco Tuesday? Poker Night? Halloween Party? Put it on the playlist. First song Ilana and I listened to in the car coming home from taking the bar? Yup. This song works in any circumstance.

From the blog (2/18):

Hey, everybody, it's the latest victim of the Pitchfork Hype Spiral! After months of breathless news reports anticipating the album, everybody's favorite taste-makers gave The Gift of Apollo a 1.8. 1.8? That's just mean. And you guys were so excited about it ... Anyway, this album is the project of two DJs, one from North America, one from South America (that's where N.A.S.A. comes from), and it's basically a grab bag of hipster icons. Kanye West, Santigold, and Lykke Li on one song? Check. David Byrne and Chuck D together? Sure. Kool Keith and Tom Waits? Absolutely (Tangent: I'm not a huge Tom Waits fan, but Ilana's visceral, fingernails-on-a-chalkboard hatred of Tom Waits is not to be missed. I don't think I hate ANYTHING as much as she hates Tom Waits).

Anyway, most bloggers loved this album when it leaked. If you've been coming to Taco Tuesdays recently, I've been playing it. "Strange Enough" is my favorite track. Karen O's vocals make me wish I liked the Yeah Yeah Yeahs more, and ODB's verses make me wish he wasn't dead.

19) Antlers – Two

Okay, I hate this song. I really do. This is hard to square with the fact that it’s number 19 on a list of what are supposedly my favorite songs of the year, but I’ll try to explain. It’s going to take a minute.

I don’t get into too many extended conversations about the nature of art, but every once in a while, someone at a party will start ranting about Jackson Pollock or someone like him with an “Is that art? That can’t be art! Is that good? How am I supposed to know if it’s good?” theme, and I wonder, deep down, what the point of art really is, and how to decide which art is good. It can’t simply exist to confuse the philistines.

After some thought, I decided that good art exists to inspire joy in its audience, but that definition doesn’t tell the whole story. I’m not saying that the only good songs are happy songs. A listener can derive joy from a song on a number of different levels: listening to an exceptionally talented singer or guitarist is always a pleasurable experience, even on a sad song. You can find joy in the craft. You can find joy in something done well.

More than that, though, there’s a joy that occasionally comes from the sadness of songs themselves, from the feeling that the songwriter has accurately captured the intense and nuanced emotion, this shock of recognition, that this is what it feels like to be miserable, that someone truly understands where you’ve been. It’s comforting.

It must be so hard to write a good sad song. It must be so easy to slip into clichés, or heavy-handed sentimentality, or overwrought sappiness. And, for the most part, sad songs don’t really get to me. Breakup songs are only truly sad if you yourself are currently experiencing a breakup. With a little perspective, you can see that the heartbroken will always move on, and there is always something reassuring about sadness that is destined to pass. Somewhat similarly, songs about death always come off as tributes to me – sad on one level, sure, but always pointing back to good times had, to people who managed to leave their mark, even if they’ve since passed on. Something must have inspired the artist’s mourning.

There is, however, one type of song that just destroys me, and there aren’t many of them out there. There’s a feeling that is rarely captured lyrically, and it is this:

There is a chance that you will never get it right. There is a chance that you will never figure it out, maybe because there is nothing to figure out. Your life is not going to resolve like a movie script. There will not be a third act that will tie up everything nicely. You may not find meaning, happiness, or anything. You might just struggle and struggle and struggle and then die. That might be it. This sadness may not pass. These fears may never go away. The worst may not be over. There may not be anything valuable about your life at all. You may think there’s a point … but there isn’t. This could be your life.

The Mountain Goats do this song incredibly well, and far too often for my emotional well-being, but … they’ve never written a song on the level of this one. This song is just searing. This song is visceral. I can’t listen to it if I’m alone in the apartment. I can’t listen to it late at night. It makes me feel more fragile than I ever want to feel. It hits me on a level I’m not sure any other song has ever achieved.

Honestly, it just about makes me cry every time I hear it. So … is that good? Why would I want that? I am going to spend my entire life consciously trying to avoid this feeling. Everything I do is geared toward minimizing sadness. But here it is, right there in my iTunes “Contenders” folder, and I keep coming back to it again and again. Why?

Honestly, I could try to summarize it, but I don’t think the emotions involved can be distilled any further. I’m including the lyrics to this one:

In the middle of the night I was sleeping sitting up,
when a doctor came to tell me, "Enough is enough."

He brought me out into the hall (I could have sworn it was haunted),
and told me something that I didn't know that I wanted to hear:
That there was nothing that I could do to save you,
the choir's gonna sing, and this thing is gonna kill you.
Something in my throat made my next words shake,
and something in the wires made the lightbulbs break.
There was glass inside my feet and raining down from the ceiling,
it opened up the scars that had just finished healing.
It tore apart the canyon running down your femur,
(I thought that it was beautiful, it made me a believer.)
And as it opened I could hear you howling from your room,
but I hid out in the hall until the hurricane blew.
When I repapered and tried to give you something for the pain,
you came to hating me again and just sang your refrain:

You had a new dream, it was more like a nightmare.
You were just a little kid, and they cut your hair,
then they stuck you in machines, you came so close to dying.
They should have listened, they thought that you were lying.
Daddy was an asshole, he fucked you up, built the gears in your head,
now he greases them up. And no one paid attention when you just stopped eating. "Eighty-seven pounds!" and this all bears repeating.

Tell me when you think that we became so unhappy,
wearing silver rings with nobody clapping.
When we moved here together we were so disappointed,
sleeping out of tune with our dreams disjointed.
It killed me to see you getting always rejected,
but I didn't mind the things you threw, the phones I deflected.
I didn't mind you blaming me for your mistakes,
I just held you in the doorframe through all of the earthquakes.
But you packed up your clothes in that bag every night,
and I would try to grab your ankles (what a pitiful sight.)
But after over a year, I stopped trying to stop you from stomping out that door,
coming back like you always do. Well no one's gonna fix it for us, no one can.
You say that, 'No one's gonna listen, and no one understands.'

So there's no open doors and there's no way to get through,
there's no other witnesses, just us two.

There's two people living in one small room,
from your two half-families tearing at you,
two ways to tell the story (no one worries),
two silver rings on our fingers in a hurry,
two people talking inside your brain,
two people believing that I'm the one to blame,
two different voices coming out of your mouth,
while I'm too cold to care and too sick to shout.

You had a new dream, it was more like a nightmare.
You were just a little kid, and they cut your hair,
then they stuck you in machines, you came so close to dying.
They should have listened, they thought that you were lying.
Daddy was an asshole, he fucked you up, built the gears in your head,
now he greases them up. And no one paid attention when you just stopped eating. "Eighty-seven pounds!" and this all bears repeating.

I … I need a hug. I need to go tell my parents I love them. Honestly, I never want to hear this song ever again. Maybe it should have been #1.

20) Little Boots – Earthquake

I want my musical tastes to rub off on all of you. I really do. I want you to be as excited as I am about that fact that 2010 will almost definitely include new albums by Vampire Weekend, Los Campesinos!, The Hold Steady, Free Energy, and The Arcade Fire. I want you all to have your own personalized Hype Machine Watchlist feed. I want you all to be checking the concert calendars at Slim’s and the Fillmore as obsessively as I do.

For obvious reasons, the person who absorbs the brunt of my evangelism is Ilana. And she had pretty solid taste in music before we even met. She’s good about putting up with my obsessions, but they don’t always rub off on her. She doesn’t read Pitchfork first thing in the morning. Really, as far as I can tell, the one real musical change I’ve brought about in her is that she listens to more bubblegum girl pop now. She loves Little Boots. Two years ago, I don’t think she would have. So yeah … because of me, Ilana has moved even closer to having the same musical taste as Perez Hilton. I have probably made my girlfriend even girlier. I guess I’m okay with that.

1 comment:

  1. The progressive review is complete ...