Featuring special guest, Another 7 of '11
Happy Mayapocalypse! Who’s ready to party like it’s 999 AD?
My brother Tickle stayed with me over the holidays, and he was lamenting a bit about a gift he received: $70 worth of iTunes gift cards. He had no idea what to buy, in part because he doesn’t like new music nearly as much as old music. (I helped him on both fronts by suggesting the new Black Keys and Physical Graffiti).
I do not have that problem, and I’m not sure if I’m thankful for it or cursed. You could give me a $700 iTunes gift card, and while I would be very grateful and sprint into the digital stacks with the zeal of a meth addict in a Walgreens, I guarantee I would hit a wall of regret at $699 because I would think of something else I would HAVE to have. (“I could really use that live Big Star reunion record!”)
I would say overall that’s a blessing. Music has been such a huge part of my life that I would hate for my musical interests to be perpetually stuck in the past. Sure, I will have soft spot for the songs I played when I had sex for the first time/drank for the first time/got high for the first time/rolled a 20-sided dice for the first time (hello, Rush!). But every year I find a bevy of new personal classics that get added to the Playlist of My Life (formerly known as the Mixtape of My Life).
This past year was no exception. The following are my favorite 11 songs of the year, plus an opening act of honorable mentions because I got to 18 and couldn’t bring myself to cut any more. These are not necessarily the “best” songs of the year, although I have a disturbing number of similarities to Pitchfork’s list. There are instead my favorites, songs I played the most, sang the most, and air-drummed the most.
Another 7 of '11
“Video Games,” Lana Del Rey. There are a couple of funny things about this year’s list. First, I am aware than my previous lists tend to be helmet parties (not to be confused with a Helmet party, although they have the same gender ratio). But I had five female artists make the cut this year, which is progress for me. I am slowly moving my male-female balance from D&D convention to Star Trek convention. Baby steps.
The other funny thing is that I have always been more music oriented than vocal oriented, which explains how I have been a Rush fan for more than 30 years. This year, though, I was drawn to a lot of songs with strong vocal performances. In fact, dare I say this year’s list is wank-free, with one possible exception in the #2 song. And this song by Lana Del Rey encapsulates the year. It wowed me the first time I heard it the same way Neko Case did. Lana Del Rey could sing about tax returns and I’d listen just to hear her sing “child-care tax credits.”
Although the song is called “Video Games” and her last name is the same as a popular science fiction publishing imprint, so I haven’t exactly escaped the shackles of male nerdom.
“The Thanksgiving Filter,” Drive-By Truckers. Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This song exemplifies what the Truckers do so well: provide such level of details that you feel like you’re having Thanksgiving with this unhappy family and hoping that singer Patterson Hood has saved you a few puffs off his joint so you can get through the holiday without beating someone with a drum stick.
“You Can’t Say Kingston Doesn’t Love You,” Title Fight. Sometimes I just need a great two minutes of rocking (as The Lovely Becky will sadly verify).
“Shake It Out,” Florence + the Machine. Holy shit can she sing. That note she hits at 3:08 at the start of the final chorus gives me goose bumps every time I hear it. But more than that, I love that this song sounds big without sounding like some autotuned club mix monstrosity. It raises the roof without requiring you to raise your blood alcohol content to make it interesting.
“Down by the Water,” The Decemberists. When I got on Facebook, I did it because I had a high school reunion and was connecting with a lot of old friends. The funny thing is that I wound up not talking much with my closest HS friends, in part because I think we didn’t get over losing touch (admittedly, 90% my fault). Instead, I wound up interacting more with other non-BFF classmates who have become some of my best Facebook contacts, in part because we tend to have entertaining high school interactions—lots of jokes, puns, and entendres. In fact, I have a hard time dealing with Facebook when something serious happens to one of my FB friends, because the format feels so goddamned trite for anything beyond funny cat videos or dick jokes. The reason why I like this Decemberists song so much is because it’s like making a great FB connection with an old friend. It sounds just like I remember The Decemberists I knew and loved, and we’ve picked up right where we left off after we lost contact after The Crane Wife.
“Weekend,” Smith Westerns. I had the same reaction to this I had to The xx: how does a group of embryos make such killer music? Seriously, had I been more reckless and fertile in my youth, I could have fathered this entire band. And why are they smoking in the video, and carrying axes, and holding guns? WHERE ARE THE PARENTS? So, great song, but docked a few spots for making me feel old.
“Livin’ in the Jungle,” Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears. I heard this for the first time in Vegas, when I went for my cousin Youngblood’s bachelor party. I didn’t write about that trip for a couple of reasons: one because, while entertaining, it didn’t really break any new Vegas blogging ground, and two, because there was actually a serious moment that I wanted to keep private, yet would feel dishonest if I wrote around it.
However, there is one great story from that trip. My brothers Tickle and Snake Anthony joined Tickle’s friend Smoke and his buddy Bruce at a bar that opened out on the Vegas Strip. Bruce, not knowing the power of Tickle, bet my brother that he could not get 20 random pedestrians to come out from the Strip and into the bar to either shake his hand or hug him. The time limit: one hour. “One hour?” I laughed. “He’ll be done in 20 minutes.” Sure enough, Tickle went full Tickle and started calling out and waving people over. Sure enough they came and shook hands or hugged him. One guy came over and asked if he knew Tickle, because he looked familiar. “No, I’m just a random guy trying to win a bet,” Tickle said. “Oh,” said the man, “Well, this is my wife,” and just like that Tickle hit a two-fer. He got another guy who was wearing a T-shirt with Oscar the Grouch and the word TRASHED written across it to come over. It was such an awesome shirt that Smoke tried (unsuccessfully) to buy it for $50. The best was a group of older tourists who came over and asked us, “Are you Canadians?” We said no, and they said, “That’s funny, because you’re acting like Canadians.” Tickle wracked up seven hits in about ten minutes, at which point Bruce called off the bet. So this song makes the list because it makes me think of friendly, drunken, hugging Canadians, even if it is a booty-shaking bit of James Brown R&B.
Okay, onto the finalists….
11) “Helplessness Blues,” Fleet Foxes. Like Lana Del Rey, they could literally sing about anything as long as they do so in harmony. This makes me feel like I do when I drink Fiji Water after a hangover, especially if I get one of the liter bottles that’s extra cold from the back of the case. I am instantly rejuvenated and purified, and whatever mental toxins I have floating around get flushed out.
10) “Marked,” EMA. Of course, rock music is not all shiny happy people and sparkling clear water. It’s dirty, druggy, and deathly, and that’s what made me stop and take notice when I heard this song the first time. The screeches of the fret board are the sound of angels losing their wings, one horrible mistake at a time. But then she turns it around at the end and offers just enough hope to stave off musical suicide. The harshness of it makes it hard to enjoy, but I can’t think of another song that grabbed me quite like this one.
9) “Birthday Cake,” Lucky Ghost. I’ve been on a gaming message board for years, long enough that I have gotten to know a number of the guys (100% helmet party). When the guy who is Lucky Ghost mentioned he had released an album as a free download, I did my virtual friend duty of downloading it and giving it what I figured would be one polite listen. What I didn’t expect was to play this album over and over this year. Could this really be from the same guy who whupped my ass in Madden? It’s a completely infectious mix of indie rock, crunchy 90s alternative, 80s synthpop, and in some places even some sprinkles of 70s prog—something that the title Sex Griddle would not suggest. This is the final track and a perfect coda to the album, a stirring cityscape of a love song that I almost always have to play again when I hear it. You can get the whole thing here for free.
8) “Holocene,” Bon Iver. A real challenge for Bon Iver would be to make an album I don’t love. For Emma, Forever Ago is a bona fide classic, and the Blood Bank EP has what I think is his best song in the title track. So even with autotune and drum machines and fucking with the cabin-in-the-woods formula, he managed to give me another album of everything I loved about those two offerings without just sounding like he just followed his past formula. I honestly don’t know how people can’t be moved by this.
7) “Barton Hollow,” The Civil Wars. Maybe it’s the influence of the band’s name, but this song makes me think of Cold Mountain, of a man and a woman separated not just by distance but tragedy and terror and trauma, walking hundreds of miles in the hopes of escaping into each other for five minutes. The other thing I love about this song is that I don’t mind the male singer’s voice. On a lot of male-female duets, I often want the dude to get the hell out of the way (cram your leather, Hendley, I’m here for Nicks’s lace). But The Civil Wars really complement each other and blend together perfectly. I could have easily picked a half dozen tracks from this album, but this is the one that jumps out at me the most.
6) “Pumped Up Kicks,” Foster the People. I know that some people are going to probably skewer me for this, and I admit I feel like a hipster cobag for liking this song. At the same time it was the catchiest fucking thing I heard this year and I was singing along about shooting kids by the second chorus. I suspect I’ll have an MGMT reaction to this down the road, an empty tequila bottle of nausea and regret, but damn if it isn’t fun getting down to the worm.
5) “Heart in Your Heartbreak,” The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. I am going to just come out and admit it: I need a little emo in my life. I find that funny because I am at 25 years past the target demographic for stuff like this and, if I may be immodest for a minute, I have nothing to be sad about. (I apologize in advance to TLB for making her fall out of her chair.) I am happily married, I have a wonderful daughter, I am back in a city I love, and I make a decent living while working out of my house. The only thing I really regret is not having published a novel yet, but if I may again be immodest, I think that is going to change, possibly before the Favoritist of 2012 gets written. Yet I feel a need for some sadness in my life because there is a part of me that enjoys feeling a little miserable. So songs like this give me a little huff of heartbreak, packaged safely in an upbeat tempo and a doctor-approved four minutes.
4) “Get Away,” Yuck. Pure college rock gold. This sounds like it was recorded live at a left-of-the-dial station sometime around 1993, when the band was making its catchy-but-noisy indie-label debut, before signing a three-album deal with Geffen and multitracking out the rough edges. This a great song from a great album, and I only wish I could still fit into my button-fly Levis and Late Night With David Letterman t-shirt so I could fully immerse myself in the alternative rock universe Yuck came from. Plus, have you seen the drummer's hair?
3) “Midnight City” M83. Playing this after Yuck makes me feel like I’m traveling back in time, a fact heightened by the fact that the Chicago suburb where I live served as the location for every John Hughes film from the 1980s. (We live about a mile from the house Cameron kicked the Ferrari out of in Feris Bueller’s Day Off.) Even the sax outro feels like it stepped out of a fusion-powered DeLorean. However, the reason why I and so many other armchair critics have flocked to this song is that it just kills. It is perfectly constructed, from the sound of the synths to the Euro-ish vocals to the digital tom rolls of the drum machine, with the saxamaphone opening up the skys and taking us to retro heaven at the end. Simply put, this would have been a favorite in 1982, too.
2) “Rope,” Foo Fighters. No one makes rock albums anymore. They try, sure, but they either come out like Nickelback or like Queens of the Stone Age, which winks a bit too much to go to 11 for me. There’s a special blend of womp, melody, and swagger that rarely get blended together these days. So leave it to one of the few modern music stars who understands how to be a rock star, a gum-chewing, arena-playing front man who writes songs with choruses that should be coming out of Camaro speakers at high volume. He also just happened to make the best album of his Foo Fighters career, an album that has an analog sound even when coming out of my hard drive. This is my favorite song from that album, in no small part because there’s a bit of tricky 2000s Rush wank at the beginning, a thumpy riff that twists and shouts, “Are you ready to rock?” before delivering chorus that climbs to the top of Marshall Mountain. Nothing got a double-arms in the air Fuck yeah from me this year like “Rope,” except….
1) “Whirring,” The Joy Formidable. I was sure when I first heard “Rope” that was going to be the song at the top of this year’s list. Songs like that are why I am a life-long rock fan. But then this song randomly came across my ears one day, driving in my un-rocking Volvo station wagon, kid in the back and WXRT on the radio. It was big and heavy, but balanced with the light and sweet female vocal. I made a note to remember “Joy Formidable,” went home, and bought the album. To my pleasant surprise, I found that the album version was even better, with a jamming four minutes of swirling guitars and double-bass pedal beats tacked on. No sooner was the big fat finish finished, a peel of feedback fading into my speakers, then I hit repeat. So it turns out I was completely wrong, that they do make big fat rock albums, it's just that they are sometimes made by blond Welsh women who sing like the Cocteau Twins but rock like the Foo Fighters. It’s finding songs like “Whirring” that make me happy I love music more than nostalgia, that I still get a giddy high from digging through new releases hoping to find a new addition to the Playlist.
Have a great weekend and a great 2012! If the world does end, I hope you at least have your iPod handy when it does.