Above Average Thoughts From An Average Guy
Sorry for the delay in posting. The deluge of football news and other events (Happy Birthday Mom!) altered my posting schedule, but here is #80-61 on the list, with #60-41 possibly coming later today or this evening. If you missed part one of my countdown of the 111 best songs of 2011, here it is.
80. Lil Wayne Featuring Cory Gunz, “6 Foot 7 Foot”: I’ve always had a weird relationship with Lil Wayne’s music. On the blockbuster Tha Carter III, the singles didn’t do much for me (I grew tired of “Lollipop” and thought “Got Money” embodied everything everyone hates about hip hop), but the album tracks were dynamite (the nearly 10-minute “Don’tGetIt” was like William S. Burroughs with The Animals as his backing band). For Tha Carter IV, it was the opposite: the album tracks fell flat, but the singles were explosive, highlighted by the military-chant procession “6 Foot 7 Foot” that had g’s moving silent like lasagna the whole year through.
79. Real Estate, “Out of Tune”: Real Estate’s Days was one of the year’s most pleasant surprises (and one of my personal favorite records from start to finish). It worked so well because short punchy power-pop singles (as we’ll see later) and songs like this gorgeous, meandering, ethereal, acoustic-driven gem could coexist without costing the album its cohesiveness. I’ve heard some Smiths comparisons with this group, but make no mistake: it’s not imitation, it’s inspiration.
78. Middle Brother, “Someday”: Indie folk kings Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), John McCauley (Deer Tick), and this song’s singer Matthew Vazquez (Delta Spirit) formed this supergroup and paid homage to some of their influences, like…The Ronettes and The Shirelles? What seemed like a stylistic mismatch worked to perfection, as Vazquez uses girl group harmonies to spin a tale of unrequited love. Well, at least he knows it’s unrequited. “I love to give every part of my best / Maybe someday I’ll give you the rest,” he brays in one of the year’s best kiss-offs.
77. Tune-Yards, “Bizness”: This song actually starts off relatively normal for a Tune-Yards song: just a drum pattern and Merrill Garbus’s vocals. Then a bass slinks underneath. By the second verse, a guitar line comes in over multi-tracked vocal distortions. By the final minute, as is par for the course on Whokill, all kinds of noise hell breaks loose. I think I hear either a finger snapping or a potato being peeled. Either way, like all the tracks on this gem, she makes it work.
76. Cass McCombs, “County Line”: Over a sparse arrangement—an unobtrusive drumbeat, gentle keyboard, atmospheric organ, slinky guitar and basslines—McCombs delivers this wistful track in a Jerry Garcia-style falsetto. We don’t know what the “county line” is emblematic of, but it exudes the universal thrill of returning to an old love you know you won’t recognize.
75. Ryan Adams, “Lucky Now”: Adams returned after a three-year hiatus that proved to be refreshing both for his fans—who were unable to keep up with the prolific artist’s output—and for Adams himself, who sounded reinvigorated on Ashes and Fire. The album was highlighted by this track, with its simple acoustic guitar and piano arrangement around Adams’s pensive vocals. “I don’t remember were we wild and young,” Adams asks in the song’s first line. Not sure. But it is reassuring he remembers how to craft ballads this beautiful following his respite.
74. EMA, “California”: EMA is actually Erika M. Anderson, an L.A. transplant from South Dakota (that’s the Dakota with Mount Rushmore, not the one with Chuck Klosterman). I’m unaware of her feelings on either Dakota, but she’s pretty blunt in her assessment of her new home in the song’s opening lines: “Fuck California / You made me boring.” From there, we get the year’s wildest free verse diatribe behind a squall of guitars and reverb that keeps buzzing without ever hitting a crescendo. It’s indebted to Patti Smith and You Are Free-era Cat Power, but that’s just a poor attempt to make a comparison. It might be the year’s most original track.
73. Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks, “Stick Figures In Love”: I got my initial cheap thrills from “Senator,” but the most enduring track off Malkmus’s latest was “Stick Figures In Love.” With a classic glorious Malkmus guitar lick serving as the chorus, the song was the perfect anthem for anyone who just came out as slacker for the first time in 2011. Malkmus penned this track that was produced (along with the rest of the album) by Beck. Lyrically and musically, this is the song either guy could’ve kept for themselves and made it their own.
72. Lloyd Featuring Andre 3000, “Dedication To My Ex (Miss That): Do you remember the “sexually suggestive” lyrics and dancing that outraged the puritanical prudes of the 1950s and ’60s? (Let’s Spend Some Time Together? Really, Ed Sullivan?) Well, Lloyd decided to blow subtext to smithereens and record the year’s best anthem for an anthropomorphized clit, all with a voice that feels like Al Green meets Michael Jackson, served over a retro soul beat that jacks the organ from “96 Tears.” Or, to put it another way: Lloyd gets Bruno Mars’s fame and airplay in an alternate reality where Rick Santorum doesn’t finish second in a primary.
71. TV On The Radio, “You”: R.I.P. Gerard Smith: His bass haunts this entire track, which is a pretty simple but effective detailing of a crumbling relationship. Of course, TV On The Radio couldn’t do your standard breakup song. They pile on the atmospherics and synths until the most human of emotions can seem like it’s coming from some other life-form. Yet despite everything going on around it, the emotional crux stays in focus. The band tries to take the listener to other realms while still keeping the song grounded and somehow pulls off that seemingly impossible task.
70. Megafaun, “Get Right”: Wikipedia describes this band as “psych-folk.” I didn’t know that was actually a thing (or at least I thought it was a pejorative term), but it’s the most apt description for this North Carolina trio. This track, with its celestial harmonies, slinky bassline, and gentle acoustic strumming, has the perfect musical backdrop for singer Brad Cook’s meditations. Cook’s vocals exit the song at the 3:22 mark, but this sprawling track continues for five more blissful minutes. Don’t fear, this isn’t just mindless noise; it’s the perfect delineation of the difference between jamming with a purpose and just showing off. “I try to do it right but I never seem to find a way,” Cook sings at one point. The only thing we know he can’t be referring to is this song.
69. The Decemberists, “Calamity Song”: The Decemberists’ The King Is Dead was their stab at R.E.M.-style jangle pop following the ambitious but polarizing The Hazards of Love. So what better way to carry on R.E.M.’s legacy than by bringing in Peter Buck to play 12-string? This isn’t Adam Sandler-bringing-in-Burt Reynolds-to-soften-the-blow-of-desecrating-The Longest Yard hero worship; Buck works seamlessly into this country-rock throwback. Colin Meloy will always be one of the most erudite literati in indie rock, but sometimes you just need fewer talking rakes.
68. Telekinesis, “50 Ways”: If it weren’t for Adele’s “best for you two” vs. “best for you, too” debate on “Someone Like You,” this Seattle power-pop trio would be responsible for the year’s most vexing lyrical quandary. I still have no idea if, underneath the guitar thrusts on this killer track’s chorus, Michael Benjamin Lerner is singing “fall silent probably stay depressed and true to your 50 ways” or “Paul Simon probably said it the best stay true to your 50 ways.” But considering his tale of the inability to emotionally escape a doomed relationship, he hasn’t even learned one way to leave his lover.
67. Cloud Nothings, “Been Through”: This lo-fi power-pop nugget literally repeats the same five lines at various points (and that’s it), but it still packs an emotional punch. Don’t be fooled by the veneer of aggressive noise; creative force Dylan Baldi is just using it to mask a big heart. It made perfect sense when I later learned he’s from Cleveland. Isn’t every shoulder in that city one to cry on?
66. Bon Iver, “Towers”: I need to issue this statement with the obvious caveat that it’s not saying much, but this was easily the most upbeat number on Justin Vernon’s masterful eponymous 2011 album. Vernon’s lyrics can often be indecipherable, but often it’s more about the mood they evoke, and the imagery and youthful nostalgia pervasive throughout “Towers” is a brief salve for a broken heart.
65. Blitzen Trapper, “Love The Way You Walk Away”: We’re in a new golden age for rootsy indie folk, and Blitzen Trapper’s Eric Earley is in the same class with Matthew Vazquez, John McCauley, Taylor Goldsmith, and others mentioned on this list. “Love” is a toe-tapping album highlight, with Earley’s twang prevailing over banjo, harmonica, pedal steel, and even brief electronic flourishes. A lot of my song selection feature people dealing with the sudden, abrupt end to a relationship. Earley knew exactly what he did to bring about his breakup, and he still shows no signs that he’s ready to change. Think of it as the alternate ending of Knocked Up, where there’s no baby and Katherine Heigl never neutered Seth Rogen, and you get the idea.
64. Shabazz Palaces, “Swerve…The Reeping Of All That Is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding)”: As far as hip hop is concerned, this is as far removed from commercial as you can get. Former Digable Planets member Ishmael Butler delivers a totally out of left-field synth-driven, electronic-inflected, quasi-freestyle over a bouncing yet haunting beat (the drums sound like handclaps). There’s also one particular percolating sound that’s either a sitar or a spaceship landing. The final verse ends with “this shit is way too advanced.” No kidding.
63. Iron and Wine, “Tree By The River”: Just because Sam Beam decided not to record the latest Iron and Wine record in his usual bare-bones manner doesn’t mean he turned into Frank Zappa or Queen. “Tree By The River” livens up his trademark lo-fi sound but doesn’t sacrifice any of its homespun charm. Beam told Spin “It sounds like the music people heard in their parent’s car growing up,” adding in the “early-to-mid-‘70s.” That last part unfairly dates the song, since this simple, enchanting, poppy number feels like it can be plucked out of any era.
62. The War on Drugs, “Baby Missiles”: On first listen, I thought this song sounded like “Walk of Life” if Dire Straits recorded it after downing a six-pack of energy drinks. Then I thought the random harmonica solo in the bridge conjured up memories of Tom Petty. Then I thought the lyrics—seemingly detailing a peripatetic man’s aimless travails—felt reminiscent of a Springsteen character. Then, somehow, this motley mix of sounds and ideas all together felt like something wholly original. In fact, “Baby Missiles” delivers something rarely seen in indie rock but prevalent in the work of the three aforementioned artists: stadium-sized ambition that reaches for the rafters.
61. Adele, “Someone Like You”: As we’ll see later on, I’m partial to the retro-soul side of Adele, as a couple of 21’s ballads felt a little overwrought. But “Someone Like You” is, to quote Pink, “fucking perfect.” The underappreciated part of Adele’s voice isn’t its scope and range, but the fact that she knows when to scale it back; the subtle cracks she lets out on the chorus conveys the dueling emotions of melancholy woe and steely optimism in the lyrics. It’s her ability to rein it in at times rather than go full American Idol audition belter that elicits the tears mentioned in that now infamous SNL sketch.