It’s one* more favorite than 10!
I have been working from home now for more than two years. I have a great space to go to, a finished attic with a view of Lake Superior and, starting this past August, a view of a nice new plasma TV courtesy of The Lovely Becky. (We’ve established a pattern where I get a new TV every time she sells a book. That’s called a win-win.)
Monday through Friday, I walk up the stairs to my office, plop at my desk, and start being alone. Granted, I’m not alone all the time. My daughter is just downstairs, and TLB has the lovely schedule of an academic, so she is often home in the morning or the afternoon. I also am on the phone and especially on e-mail with work, so it’s not as if I’m a hermit taking a vow of silence in my man-cave, the only voices I hear coming from overly animated sports analysts on ESPN.
However, it’s not always easy, especially when the cold hand of winter starts to wrap itself around my house and I’m even less likely to leave than normal. Some days that feeling of solitude (good and productive) turns to feeling alone with a 50% chance of stir crazy. I can get up and leave for a bit, sure, but this is my home office, and it’s where I have to work. I have to deal with it.
More than anything, music helps me deal with it. I’ve always listened to music at work, slapping my headphones on whenever I needed to escape the distractions of cubicle life and get creative.
(I tended to turn my headphones up because, as Ted Nugent once said, if it’s too loud, you’re too old, and I didn’t want to get called out by The Nuge. This led to my friend and cubicle neighbor Michelle getting exasperated when she would ask me for something and I couldn’t hear her over Geddy Lee, so she would throw a rubber ball into my cubicle like some kind of white-collar catapult. Nothing pulls you out of a twenty-minute, seven-part, science fiction dystopian rock fantasy like getting bopped in the noggin with a ball during the sixth guitar solo.)
These days, music has gone from a musical shield and pleasant background soundtrack to an essential companion. My computer comes on and my iTunes comes up, ready to rock my day. Music used to help me work. Now music makes me work. My feet tap as I tap out e-mails, my fingers sometimes keeping time with the music (although I’ve had to explain to some confused colleagues that qwer ghjk vbnm is just my version of an e-mail drum fill). It’s my co-worker, throwing a rubber ball of rock at me all day long.
That’s what makes this more than just a list of my favorite songs from the year. These were tunes that got me through the year, that kept me entertained and focused and feeling like I wasn’t in an attic working by myself. There were many, many other tunes—new and old (I’m looking at you, Outfield)—that blared out of my desktop speakers. These, however, were the new ones that were on constant repeat throughout the year.
*Not-at-all-hidden-bonus track 1: “Ships With Holes Will Sink,” We Were Promised Jetpacks. I had this list at 40 songs at one point before whittling it down to 13. I really wanted to cut it to 11, because I hate when you read a “Best XX songs of the year” list and some cobag reviewer has added X-XX additional songs to the list, usually under the wuss category of honorable mention. But I couldn’t cut these next two songs, so consider me a wussy cobag.
“Ships With Holes Will Sink” comes from a Scottish group with one of the most annoying names in recent annoying name history. I’ll admit to often being biased against a band if I find their name annoying, so it’s a testament to We Were Promised Jetpacks that I played this song a lot. In American hands, this would be earnest, overwrought emo: loud, fast, screamed out, and hopelessly serious. Tarted up with a thick Scottish accent and a delivery that says, “Cut the snide comments and listen up, ya fookin bastard,” however, and this becomes a yearning, churning piece of rock that gets cranked in my headphones at the gym. Music like this keeps me feeling young, and that’s enough to overcome any stupid band name.
Not-at-all-hidden-bonus track 2: “The Mountain,” Heartless Bastards. I owe a certain zombie a heartfelt thanks for alerting me to the Heatless Bastards. What makes this is the vocals from Ericka Wennerstrom—who has a delightfully Midwestern name, which endears me the way a bad band name turns me off. She has a bluesy howl that sounds as if it is coming down from a mountain, washing over me in a sonic avalanche. The music is a great mix of slow-churned, Zeppelin-esque thump mixed with some guitars that sound like they are from a lost Built to Spill song. Really, these two tracks could have easily been in the proper 11, and that’s why I had to include them.
11) “Over It,” Dinosaur Jr. Speaking of Built to Spill, there were three major disappointments from major-label bands that I have major crushes on. In my original list, I had tunes from the new Built to Spill, U2, and Green Day records. I wanted to like these records, really, and the new Built to Spill still has some promise. U2 and Green Day, though, fizzled out. Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown sounded like American Idiot with different lyrics, and as much as I liked the latter, I’d heard it enough in the last five years. U2 was the real clunker, with only one song on No Line on the Horizon—the terrific “Moment of Surrender”—standing out. The rest of the album was like the cover: bland and gray.
That makes me sad because I like following a band’s career, seeing them succeed or, if they have a few missteps, seeing them come back. Well, no one has stormed back like Dinosaur Jr. For the second album in a row, they have sounded tighter, harder, and better than ever. Farm has all the youthful energy and manic playing that made them great in the first place, but with an added focus and confidence you only get when you get older and see a few things. They know their place in music—a band that will forever be indie heroes but never one of those major bands—and they’ve accepted it. “Over It” is an anthem for the shoulda-been-bigger-but-still-did-pretty-well artist, the sound of a band saying fuck it, let’s just play. I think that’s pretty damn good advice for all of us. (Plus, a Triple Lindy bonus for making a great video.)
10) “1901,” Phoenix. Record stores are dying everywhere, but for the first time in my life, I live someplace that doesn’t have a record store. In fact, the best place for me to buy CDs is Target. Not Target Music, not Target Tunes, not Target Records. Tar-jey. There are at least three tattoo parlors here but not one goddamned record store.
However, Target has actually served up some good CDs for me. They have an end display where they put out a dozen hipster discs, and one day they had this record from Phoenix. The reason I bought it was because I read a rave review in Entertainment Weekly. I rarely do that anymore—buy a new album based solely on a review—but I like to do it because it’s always a terrific surprise when you find something great you didn’t expect.
Phoenix didn’t disappoint, and “1901” was my summer song in the way Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma” was last summer. It’s a sunny bit of synthpop that mixes things up a bit with some tom-tom beats and a plinky guitar that give it a human, rock band feel. It wins big with a pre-chorus that makes a mini-crescendo to the soaring chorus. A great song to listen to with the windows open on a warm summer day.
9) “Bear,” The Antlers. Who’s ready to rock out to a concept album about cancer treatment?
The Antlers Hospice is a downer, no doubt, a haunting cycle of songs about the diagnosis, treatment, and death of a cancer patient. It’s one of those albums you appreciate immediately, but find hard to like immediately because it’s so gut-wrenching. At the same time, I kept coming back, because rock music is rarely this dramatically intimate, unfolding a taught, weeping, touching story before my very ears. “Bear” is the best entry into this album, a bouncing tune that doesn’t lose any of that punch despite the catchy melody.
Also, as an aside: I realize physical albums may eventually go away, but I hope album art never does. Hospice is one of the best album covers in recent memory and tells you everything you need to know about this record.
8) “Anonanimal,” Andrew Bird. The most ambitious and complex song on this list, “Anonanimal” does more in five minutes than most albums do in fifty. I like it for the same reason I like Sufjan Stevens: it’s baroque without being pretentious, complex while still being accessible, and catchy while being unconventional, with Bird’s vocal holding it all together. It’s also the first album I ever bought because of Facebook, and I have to give a shout out to Trevor Jackson for posting it.
7) “People Got a Lot of Nerve,” Neko Case. Who’s ready to rock out to a song about being devoured by animals?
This is the catchiest song I heard this year, and it goes to prove that Neko Case can really sing about anything and make it sound awesome. Here she sings about how a killer whale “took half your leg and both your lungs,” which is so metal, yet she wraps it up in an infectious pop package, so that I’m la-la-la-ing along while some poor schmuck is bleeding to death at Sea World in front of dozens of horrified and permanently scarred children. That takes talent.
6) “Blood Bank,” Bon Iver. Pitchfork.com—your one-stop shopping source for music review cobaggery—loves to put songs from EPs in its top songs of the year. That’s annoying, because EPs are often not worth the effort to find and buy. Really, they should often be called TSPSOS, which stands for The Single Plus Some Other Shit. That is definitely the case with the Blood Bank EP. However, the title track is every bit as powerful as Bon Iver’s work on last year’s phenomonable (sic) For Emma Long Ago. His voice again takes center stage, plaintive yet commanding. This time, however, the music is more muscular, building with every verse until there’s a powerful tide that drags me along at the end. And thanks to this digital age we live in, you can skip over The Shit and get The Single.
5) “Moth’s Wings,” Passion Pit. Some of us like to dance, perhaps with our hands over our heads in our kitchens when our kids are away or on tables when we’re away in Vegas. Passion Pit made an album for dancing with your hands over your head, and I haven’t been so inclined to do so since Franz Ferdinand took me out. Most of the songs on Manners sweep you off your feet with their instantly memorable rhythms, bopping synths, and falsetto vocals that demand club lighting.
“Moth’s Wings” stands out, however, because it takes a break from all that dancing. It’s has a lot of the elements of the upbeat songs, but those elements are slowed down and diverted into a delicate, beautiful little song. Like “1901,” it’s a perfect summer song, but suited for sitting on the deck at dusk, watching fireflies dance in the air and seeing the stars starting to peek out from the darkening sky.
4) “Misery,” Brendan Benson. (apologies for the idiot intro in the vid.) Best known as that other guy in The Raconteurs, which is too bad, because Benson’s My Old, Familiar Friend is the kind of well-crafted power pop that should be filling the airwaves and/or Internets.
I dedicate this song to Blue Girl, because it reminds me of reading a Blue Girl post. See, BG does this thing where she writes a post about something that’s pulling her down, making her crazy/sad/angry and leading to her sitting on the couch, drinking wine and watching Mad Men deep in the halls of Blue Girl Manor. But despite writing about her misery, she can’t help but make it sound kind of happy. There’s an innate cheerfulness to her writing that always surfaces, and that’s what makes reading her so worthwhile: the negative never extinguishes the positive.
“Misery” does just that. Here’s Brendan Benson singing about how miserable he is, yet he’s doing so in a shimmery, power-pop package, complete with do-dododo-do-dos. The song is also a good theme song for me, too, because it’s really about how all that misery is self-inflicted. I’ve come to realize that’s so true in my case, and this year I’ve had a way to sing about it.
3) “I and Love and You,” The Avett Brothers. I moved to Brooklyn in 1994, diving headfirst into the Big Apple with a mixture of fear, excitement, trepidation, and hope. When The Avett Brothers sing “Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in,” it takes me back to that time, feeling New York’s unique pulse, soaking in the vibe, but also being a little remorseful about what I left behind to come there. Eventually I felt I had to leave, because as amazing as New York was, it wasn’t home. The experience was well worth it, though, because I left not just a changed person, but a better person.
I don’t think that’s what The Avett Brothers are really singing about—there’s much more regret in this song. The beauty of music, though, is that we get to take songs and craft our own personal narratives around them. What I hear amid the soft piano and soulful vocals is a love letter to a city I loved and left, but that’s still a part of me today, even as I sit alone in my North Pole office. It’s a beautiful song to accompany those memories.
2) “Can’t Hardly Wait,” Justin Townes Earle. Covers are tricky business, and covering a signature song from a band like The Replacements sets an artist up for failure. How can you take something that so clearly belonged to Paul Westerberg, one of his best odes to youthful love and longing, and make it your own?
By transforming it from a horn-soaked bit of late-80s pop/rock into a warm, chicken-fried bit of country, complete with the delicious homemade gravy of Earle’s voice. He pulls off the trickiest move in tricky covers, taking a great song and making a unique, equally great version. As much as I’ve played The Replacements version, I forget that Earle’s version is cover because he owns the song.
1) “Young Hearts Spark Fire,” Japandroids. I think I’ve broadened my musical horizons in the last few years. I’ve branched out a little from my guitar-rock base, listening to country, dance music, even some rap. At the same time, I know what butters my bread, and that’s loud guitars, pounding drums, and wailing vocals. I am a rock guy at heart.
Japandroids rocked me more than any band this year, in part because they are just loud guitars, pounding drums, and wailing vocals. There’s no room for bass or keyboards or horns or strings, just eight driving songs about girls and life and growing up. In the way that We Were Promised Jetpacks makes me feel young, Japandroids make me feel good about growing old. There’s plenty of youthful vigor in their songs, but also a knowing nod to thinking about dying and all that other grown-up stuff we all have to deal with. Those young vs. old waves come crashing together in this song, creating a loud, awesome splash that says, We could worry about this shit or we could just rock. So fuck it, let’s rock. Once again, damn good advice, and damn good advice I have sorely needed.
* * *
Holy guacamole, I didn’t think this would be that long. Just wait until next week, when I do my Favorite 11 of The Aughts! I’ve got 200 candidates to whittle down to 11 songs—and I’m sticking to only 11. Unless I just can’t cut them down.
I hope you find a tune or two or 13 that you like here. Even if you don’t, I hope the radio plays a song that makes you demand the dial not be touched. Have a good weekend.