Above Average Thoughts From An Average Guy
If you missed Part 1 or Part 2 of my Top 111 songs of 2011, click the links over the “Part 1″ and “Part 2″ in the earlier part of this sentence. (If you don’t understand that concept, ask a pharmacist to explain Internets to you.) With that, we’re on to #60-41:
60. Hayes Carll, “KMAG YOYO”: Call it “Subterranean Warsick Blues.” Carll uses his rapid-fire delivery to issue this tale of a military adventure that transports him from the role of a Dairy Queen employee in Texas to a heroin grower in Afghanistan to a Pentagon lab rat and all the way to outer space. He ends the song declaring he’s joining the Peace Corps. Probably the right move for the protagonist, although I doubt that saga would make for a song as fun as this.
59. Warren Haynes, “River’s Gonna Rise”: Haynes’s steady diet of touring with Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers Band delayed the opportunity for him to make his long-awaited rhythm and blues album. The wait was worth it. The funky bass, gospel-tinged background vocals, and funk-soul fusion of Haynes’s guitarwork is almost overshadowed by the brilliant organ work of Ivan Neville and Wurlitzer of Ian McLagan. This isn’t some ersatz version of R&B done as a vanity side-project; Haynes dove headfirst into the genre and created the real deal.
58. Tedeschi Trucks Band, “Midnight In Harlem”: Haynes’s partner in crime in the Allman Brothers Band, Derek Trucks, joined forces with his wife, Susan Tedeschi, for Revelator. While comparisons were drawn to Delaney and Bonnie, this gentle track pairs a strong vocal performance by Tedeschi (with an assist to Derek Trucks Band member Mike Mattison, who provides harmonies) over an accompanying Trucks slide-guitar performance. Even as a Trucks fan, I thought it was a little insane Rolling Stone already had him at #17 in their recent “100 Greatest Guitarists” list. Then I listened to his virtuoso instrumental performance in the final two minutes of this song and my question became: “How high on a future version of that list will he end up?”
57. Eric Church, “Homeboy”: With Jamey Johnson not putting out an album this year, I wondered who would fill his void as the shit-kicking country star it’s cool for Blue State America to like. Enter Eric Church and the blistering yet rueful “Homeboy.” While the rest of us twentysomethings both listening to and creating indie rock are gravitating toward songs reflecting on our lost youth, the star of “Homeboy” can’t get away from his youth and identity fast enough, with Church warning him of future regrets that’ll come with severing ties with his roots. Unlike many of the characters in this year’s best songs, the “homeboy” still has time to change. This song’s not a lament…just yet.
56. Panda Bear, “Last Night At The Jetty”: There are times when Noah Lennox’s songs can get inundated with noise to the point that it drowns out any emotion. Rest assured, that’s not anywhere near the case on this peerless doo-wop-inspired ballad that could be a wedding song or prom theme in a less safe and predictable world. The song features a possible callback to “Comfy In Nautica” when he inquires “Didn’t we have a good time?” But Lennox’s vocal performance crests on the line “Now who could say / We’re not just as we were / No one could deny my mind”; after the delivery of this line, you don’t know if your heart is broken or you’re about to put your hand on someone’s shoulder.
55. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, “Belong”: With a squall of guitar thrusts plucked from Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins, these guys are proving to be worthy successors to that group while Billy Corgan continues his decade-long identity crisis. The title track from their latest LP, “Belong” features dual vocals from Kip Berman and Peggy Wang chronicling an on-again/off-again relationship and expressing the notion that just because something feels right, it doesn’t mean it’ll necessarily work.
54. Atlas Sound, “Mona Lisa”: A pretty straightforward pop ditty by Bradford Cox’s standards—and that’s considering it features lyrics that are a hybrid of fine art and interstellar fantasies. Assisted by MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden, Cox uses his Deerhunter side project the way every side project should be used: to challenge yourself beyond the constraints of your day job. Mission accomplished.
53. Smith Westerns, “Weekend”: Like a souped-up version of their glam rock forefathers, Smith Westerns relish in making spacy psych-pop sound as simple as a few buddies fooling around in someone’s bedroom. The insanely catchy “Weekend” features slick, glossy production and mellifluous vocals that leave the listener with the same sugar-rush the group surely had when recording it.
52. Cage The Elephant, “Aberdeen”: These Kentucky rockers joined Yuck in perfectly encapsulating both sides of the ‘90s spectrum. While Yuck followed the lead of Pavement and Dinosaur Jr., Cage The Elephant sounds like Nirvana by way of the Pixies. But rather than coming across as a pale knockoff, songs like “Aberdeen” exhibit such authenticity in their mastering of the loud-soft dynamic and rock radio-ready hooks that they feel like they’re filling a necessary void rather than trying to recapture others’ past glories. This song worked so effectively for the same reason Beavis and Butt-Head’s new season did: Rather than trying to modernize the sound, they just picked right up where everyone else left off.
51. Wye Oak, “Holy Holy”: One of the most tightly-wound arrangements this year, Wye Oak’s Civilian proved to be all about building tension. This scaled-back number features a slyly coiled guitar lick as Jenn Wasner’s vocals melt into a soft, almost inaudible coo over the first chorus. Finally, at the 1:16 mark, we get a real chorus, a burst of guitar, and the epic payoff that slowly begins winding back down. As the group proved on the equally brilliant title track “Civilian,” they have no problem abandoning conventional song structures. Wye Oak basically tells you they’ll get to the hook whenever they damn well feel like it…if ever.
50. James Blake and Bon Iver, “Fall Creek Boys Choir”: The meeting of the dubstep king and the rustic Wisconsinite (with an intermittent cameo from what sounds like a single dog bark) produced this soulful low-key wonder, which uses auto-tune to such resplendent effect that it makes you think Jay-Z gave it a premature burial. It still feels more like a James Blake song than a Bon Iver song, but it also feels like Vernon’s voice alongside Blake’s arrangement was the missing piece the Brit needed to create a truly transcendent classic.
49. Destroyer, “Kaputt”: Dan Bejar is bringing saxy back! The title track from Kaputt, the New Pornographer (always fun to write that as an adjective) delivers a soft rock ode to Roxy Music that we’d be laughing at if he weren’t so deadly serious in his dedication to the craft. Bejar removes the cheese from those songs that played over ‘80s movie credits and replaces it with pure splendor.
48. Fucked Up, “The Other Shoe”: The foreboding lyrics emanate a sense of impending doom (and when we follow the rest of the album’s narrative conceit, it makes sense), but like even the darkest numbers on David Comes To Life, Fucked Up always allows just enough light to shine through. In fact, guest vocalist Jennifer Castle turns her refrain of “dying on the inside” into something you want to sing along with. We’ll eventually get to the album’s protagonist David’s grief. It’s powerful enough when he simply lets us know it’s coming.
47. Lupe Fiasco Featuring Skylar Grey, “Words I Never Said”: Yes, we all know the story of Lasers, the follow-up to Lupe’s brilliant The Cool that became a victim of record industry meddling just so it could see the light of day. And in the spirit of his hit “Dumb It Down,” that’s what he did on tracks like “Out of My Head,” etc. So that makes it all the more remarkable something as brazen lyrically and production-wise as the ferocious “Words I Never Said” made it on the album. Featuring a killer hook from Skylar Grey and attacks on everyone from Barack Obama to Glenn Beck, “Words” shows what a force he can be when left to his own devices. Record label sanitizer: You missed a spot.
46. Portugal. The Man, “Everything You See (Kids Count Hallelujahs): A carnival funhouse organ? Trippy, oblique lyrics? A name-drop of Rubber Soul? Why the fuck not? This psych-pop noise freak-out established the perfect identity for a band that’s tried a lot of them (they’ve put out one album per year since 2006). The capper might be the echo-strewn trumpet that slowly dissolves along with the rest of the sound as the track comes to a close. Poor Sarah Palin: even she couldn’t have guessed she’d end 2011 as the second most successful thing to come out of Wasilla, Alaska.
45. Saigon, “The Greatest Story Never Told”: Saigon’s debut has been in limbo since Atlantic Records shelved it in 2007. It finally was released in 2011, with soulful bangers like the title track proving it to be worth the wait. Saigon lashes out at politicians for their exploitation of the African American community, as well as calling on parts of black culture to stop fulfilling the stereotypes unfairly attributed to them. Saigon’s ready to lead the movement, but he has to reconcile his desire to achieve fame and fortune without selling his soul: “It’s gonna teach the hood and at the same time make my pockets elephant fat.” So far, the album’s remained only an underground hit, but the noble ambition pervasive throughout made it one of hip hop’s few triumphs in 2011.
44. Yuck, “Get Away”: On their self-titled debut, the progeny of the ‘90s created a paean to the decade, best exemplified by “Get Away.” This angst-ridden number—which sounds like it’s coming from a group weaned on a steady diet of Pavement and Dinosaur Jr.—recalls romantic trials and tribulations over a lo-fi sonic blast. While Beavis and Butt-head‘s revival, Teen Nick, The Lion King 3D, and a thousand bands that reunited just to play the greatest hits and receive the hefty paycheck were among the many trying to cash in on the ‘90s nostalgia boom, Yuck decided to not just recapture the triumphs of their elders but recreate the whole damn era all over again. Get your flannel ready.
43. The Weekend, “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls”: This song significantly samples Siouxsie and the Banshees “Happy House” but turns the jittery, frenetic original on its head by slowing it down immensely, with Abel Tesfaye adding his out of breath croon over the hook. It also sounds like they looped a steel drum that could’ve just as easily fit into the original. The song captures the mood prevalent on the rest of the mixtape—the feel of cleaning up the damage the day after the party ends. The repeat of “Oh this is fun” was one of the great moments in musical sarcasm all year.
42. Iceage, “White Rune”: This hard-charging Danish quartet produces a sound combining Joe Strummer’s vocals over Minor Threat-style hardcore and Joy Division-style post-punk. (Fittingly enough, Joy Division has a track in a similar vein titled “Ice Age.”) The primal energy of “White Rune” and other tracks on their impressive debut go down quickly—this song clocks in at 2:41—but not easily.
41. Lykke Li, “Youth Knows No Pain”: I actually had to check if Ray Manzarek did a guest spot on this track (no, he didn’t) because the organ that prevails throughout this highlight from the Swedish singer’s second album, Wounded Rhymes, invokes the spirit of the Doors’ legend. The organ, along with the calls to “Come on get down,” help this slab of psych-pop set the mood of a ‘60s dance rave. Her incantation is so tempting, I’m ready to adhere to her call to “cut yourself to pieces.”