Includes free bonus Circumindecision EP:
Five songs that didn’t make the cut but are still attached to the head of the list!
2010 was a very schizophrenic year for me. There were great highs (getting out of the Upper Peninsula, moving into a new house) and great lows (trying to sell our old house, the death of my grandma) and a lot of things in between (living with my in-laws for six months, living rent-free for six months). As I write this from the comfy space of my new home, things ended very well. But it wasn’t easy getting here.
My favorite tunes reflected that a lot this year. For one thing, the frustration and anger I felt this year resulted in me listening to a lot of heavy metal—most of it old, but some of it new. When I feel like shit, I need music that picks me up, and metal has done that for me since I was 10 years old. (Oh, to have a 10-year-old’s problems again).
At the same time, a lot of great stuff happened this year. We moved back to Chicago, which I now realize is exactly where I wanted to end up. We bought a great house, one where I can see The Lovely Becky, Libby, and I growing up and growing old together. After 40 years of changing addresses approximately once every 1.6 years, I could see myself actually dying in this house. That excites me, because it means I’ll never have to pack anything again (although someone will have to shove me into a box). Once those things started to fall into place, I started to feel awesome, and nothing helps keep me feeling awesome like devil horns, headbanging, guitar solos, and studded leather pants.
In fact, that’s why most of what made my Favoritist list is upbeat, because I either needed the boost or wanted to hang onto that feeling. These songs made it to the top because they were the ones that got me through a trying year while also helping me celebrate the end of it.
As usual, I couldn’t cut this down to just 11 songs, so I present the five-song bonus...
“Ghosts of Midwinter Fires,” Agalloch. I love epic music. A beautifully punchy three-minute song is great. But when I am asked to list my favorite songs from bands that might have really long songs, the really long songs inevitably push their way to the top—“Achilles Last Stand” by Zeppelin, “The Camera Eye” by Rush, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” by The Who, “Coma” by Guns N’ Roses.
In light of that and that 2010 was a very metal year for me, it’s not surprising that I loved this song the first time I heard it. In fact, it really captures the year—a fairly calm beginning, a raging and thrashing middle, and a triumphant conclusion that settles into a quiet, satisfying coda. At 10 minutes, it also captures the feeling of a year that felt 36 months long. With the growling vocals in the middle section , it’s not for everyone, but it sure as hell was perfect for me.
“Bang Pop,” Free Energy. My main evaluation for a great summer song is: does it sound even better blaring out of car speakers while driving with the windows down? This bouncy bit of 70s guitar pop not only answers in the affirmative, it actually made me wish the sunroof in my car still worked. It has the catchy gait of taking a summer stroll, complete with a snare drum that almost sounds like bubble-gum popping.
“Appetites,” Les Savy Fav. I find it funny whenever anyone suggests putting the Ten Commandments on display, as if they are a guidepost for America, when we live in a country that was built on violating those Ten Commandments. Stealing, working on Sundays, telling our parents to fuck off, murdering those pesky natives...and especially coveting. This whole country relies on coveting, and nothing screws our economy over faster than living frugally. Coveting seems to have reached a fever pitch, too. We covet riches, sex, food, scandal. It explains our ever-increasing need to imitate celebrities and then tear them down, to buy more than we can afford and eat more than we can burn off. Believe me, I include myself in the collective “we,” as demonstrated the pile of drool I leave whenever I look at home theater speakers the size of the 2001 monolith and picture them in my living room. Anyway, this searing opening track from Root for Ruin captures that coveting, with a furious beat and serrated guitar attack serving as musical cavalry for lyrics like we’ve no shame and we’ve no pride and we’ve got nothing left to hide, ‘cause we’ve got nothing left inside, culminating in the shouted chorus, We’ve still got our appetite! It does what great punk songs should do: make a point while also making you want to slam.
“Don’t Look Back,” Kylesa. I love drums, so a metal band that has two drummers is bound to get at least to second base with me. I also love the Internet, because the Internet makes it very easy to find metal bands with two drummers and, to tell the truth, I’m a big fan of second base. Throw in a heavy sound and a simple yet powerful chorus of Keep moving/Don’t look back, and I’m waving Kylesa home.
“Better Things,” Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. I got tagged with a Facebook meme to list 15 of my favorite albums. My 15 choices in many ways resembled the first four songs I listed today: heavy, rocking, male, and white. Very, very white. In fact, the guy who tagged me made fun of the blinding Caucasianess of my list. I have recognized this before, and I actually have broadened my musical horizons a fair amount in the last few years. Still, when push comes to shove and I have to *heart* my favorite songs, the white cream of Cracker Rock still tends to rise to the top.
However, I used this moment of social networking chagrin to send out another musical expedition to genres I usually overlook. I’m glad that happened, because I otherwise would have missed this soulful, passionate bit of 60s style R&B. Sharon Jones’ voice is simply fantastic, and the Dap Kings groove perfectly behind her. This brilliant kiss-off track stuck with me, to where I found myself singing I’ve got better things to dooo than remember you randomly in the car.
Okay, the final 11, sort of....
11) “The Smidge,” The Hold Steady. I have been trying to write a novel for fifteen years. I daydreamed of literary stardom, of writing a bestseller and quitting the 9-to-5 grind, of being a big, huge, honking success, someone who would even have his one Sans Brando cover font.
I didn’t finish a single novel. I once made it 100 pages through one, but most died much, much earlier.
A funny thing happened a couple years ago. I was staring down my 38th birthday, and I realized I had the very real possibility of hitting 40 without every actually finishing a novel. Me, a guy who talked a big writing game all the time. I felt like a fraud, and I realized how ridiculous all those covers and interviews and movie deals I daydreamed about were when I’d never even reached “The End.” I decided to buckle down, get serious, and get focused. I concentrated on writing the best book I could write, on just getting finished.
I finally hit “The End” for the first time in April.
Now I’m in the middle of revisions, and that hope has grown to just getting an agent and just getting published. I joked with TLB that I’d be happy if I made enough money to put a bathroom in our basement.
The reason “The Smidge” made this list is because it perfectly captured that sentiment. Amid the sloozy (sleazy+boozy) guitar riff and cowbell (yes, cowbell) of this song, Craig Finn sings, We used to want it all, now we just want a little bit. Hot damn if that didn’t hit me on the head. It also illustrates why I love The Hold Steady unabashedly. They take everything I love about the classic rock of my youth—the riffs, the first pumps, the exuberance—and rewrite it for me at 40.
10) “Tell ‘Em,” Sleigh Bells. Another tailor-made summer song and the sweetest bit of ear candy I heard all year. This song had me the first time that staccato drum beat and amped-up guitar came out of my speakers. It’s completely pre-fabricated and posed and assembled—a work of calculation and perspiration more than inspiration—and over the whole course of the Treats album, that super-sweet approach gave me a bit of an earache. As a small bit of dessert, however, this was the tastiest, most ass-kicking three musical minutes of the year.
9) “Snakes for the Divine,” High on Fire. It impossible for me to listen to this while driving and not speed up, which is a sign of quality in my book. Despite its eight-and-a-half-minute length, this is a lean, mean bit of metal. Because the vocals are semi-decipherable, they sound gruff and tough without moving into the clearly-annunciated screeching silliness of something like “The Number of the Beast” or the grumbly absurdity of death metal vocals. Most of all, it makes me want to run through a brick wall, and I’m going to need that energy in 2011 when I get my out-of-shape ass back to the gym.
8) “Birthday Boy,” Drive-By Truckers. I’m not a strip club guy, but being a guy, I have been to a few strip clubs in my life. This song instantly made me feel guilty for every dollar bill I’d ever slipped to an exotic dancer. It does what the Drive-By Truckers do so well, tell tales of working class desperation set to catchy Southern rock, and it adds vivid layers of sleaze, desperation, depression, and even a smidge of hope and happiness. Definitely the message that stuck with me the most this year.
7) “Favourite Colour,” Tokyo Police Club. The first time I heard this album, I thought that these guys sounded very influenced by The Strokes. Then I thought, that’s ridiculous, The Strokes are such a new group, they haven’t been around long enough to influence anyone. This led to another realization that The Strokes have been around for a decade, which made me suddenly feel very old and near death. Despite that highly morose thought process, I got swept up by the youthful vigor of this song and really their whole Champ album. It’s just a fun, fun song that makes me feel like I’m getting ready to go out for a Friday night. I like that feeling.
6) “Straight in at 101,” Los Campesinos! The line We need more post-coital and less post-rock was my favorite lyric of the year because it’s precisely the kind of punning that makes me feel clever and funny (both certainly imagined, but both very real feelings, and that’s really all that matters). It’s also very much like “Favorite Colour,” a song about 20-something romance that’s both narcissistic and self-effacing. Even though I’ve been in a relationship with my wife longer than some of Los Campesinos! have been alive, I find songs of youthful romance keep me feeling young and, more importantly, keep me feeling young toward my wife. That alone makes it a worthy addition to the list.
5) “My Gap Feels Weird,” Superchunk. Three-chord fun camp. Superchunk did what I think Dinosaur Jr did a couple years ago, come out of semi-retirement and put out an album that’s just as good and maybe even a bit better than their classic albums. It’s like they got together and, rather than making some ill-advised stab at musical maturity or an equally ill-advised aping of their past songs, they just decided to be the most Superchunk they could be. It’s the sound of a band that knows its strengths and its limitations and is perfectly happy to stay within those parameters. Aging punks have rarely sounded so vigorous and appropriate. Hands-down, the most cranked song I played this year.
4) “Daisy,” Fang Island. A band that takes its name from an Onion article, which triggered a similar how-is-that-possible-OMG-I’ll-be-dead-by-their-third album moment similar to Tokyo Police Club, until I told my brain to shut the fuck up so I could hear the music. Despite their youth, these kids have managed to combine the geezer rock of heavy metal, punk, prog, and indie rock into a fun and very original sound. I haven’t heard anything else quite like this. The verses bounce along with pop-punk energy, the guitars (all three of them) solo with 80s-lead-guitar abandon, all while an organ that wouldn’t sound out of place on Yes’ Fragile adds a lot of color. To top it off, they don’t sing so much as chant. I can’t wait to hear what they put out next.
3) “A More Perfect Union,” Titus Andronicus. Garage band, concept album, and The Civil War couldn’t be three more disparate concepts, but Titus Andronicus put all of them on The Monitor, the most creative and ambitious album I heard this year. This opening track starts in the 1860s before transforming into what sounds a bit like Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” until the singer screams out, Baby, we were born to die! It’s a challenging song to like, sprawling and noisy much like the Garden State itself, and initially I didn’t get into it. But at one point, that mood perfectly matched what I was doing in my novel, to the point where I started every writing session with at least this song if not the whole album. I’m glad I stuck with it because it’s really stuck with me.
2) “Ready to Start,” Arcade Fire. What Arcade Fire do best is make arena rock for the indie set. They come up with anthems that have the passion and heart of U2 in their prime, but without the overly earnest baggage that comes with Bono. They also write loud, driving songs that can reach the furthest row at the largest festival, but without the heavy-handed musical approach that plagues arena rock. They do all of this on this superb second song on The Suburbs, maybe the best song Arcade Fire has ever written. I found the rest of the album to be disappointing by comparison, but I've played "Ready to Start" enough this year to more than make up for it.
1) “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” The National. Part of the reason this rose to the top of the list was the lyric, I still owe money to the money to the money I owe fit perfectly with my whole year. For the first time in a while, my mind was very much on my money and my money on my mind. That tends to happen when all the equity you worked so hard for disappears in the blink of an eye and you move somewhere twice as expensive while making the same money. The main reason, though, is despite the lament about debt, this song is rich, in its propulsive rhythm, its emotive vocal, its evocative imagery about being carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees. At one point this year, I listened to all of High Violet on the headphones, not while doing anything else, just laying on my bed, because I wanted to take in all of those elements. Music makes me want to do a lot of things, but as I get older and more busy and, frankly, more jaded, it takes something petty special to get me to stop everything and just listen. Whenever I hear this song, that's exactly what I want to do.
Have a great weekend, and here's to a great 2011!