Above Average Thoughts From An Average Guy
40. Adele, “Rumour Has It”: With the “ooh ooh”s in the background and the rhythmic hand claps, this song is Adele at her catchiest, with the added bonus that it also sports 21’s cleverest lyrics. On this track, she strings a lover along and out of another relationship just to spurn him, causing us to re-evaluate whether our heroine doesn’t also have a little Miranda Lambert-esque crazy spunk in her. Her voice is always enough to blow you away, but the wicked lyrical prowess, inspired arrangements, and retro-soul swagger Adele exhibits help you truly appreciate her craft.
39. Foster the People, “Pumped Up Kicks”: Who would’ve guessed that the year’s most delightfully surprising success story would also be the most lilting, bouncy shooting song since the Boomtown Rats delivered “I Don’t Like Mondays”? This infectious radio-ready smash had a hook so delectable that a thousand other acts would sell their souls just to get something half as good. The vocals on the opening verse initially led me to believe this was some new project from the guy from White Town (famous for 1997’s “Your Woman”), and since then people have written them off as a knockoff of everyone from Passion Pit to MGMT. But be forewarned: After their ascent to stardom, 2012 will have an onslaught of about 1,200 Foster the People sound-alike bands.
38. Frank Ocean, “Novacane”: On this track from the R&B crooner’s self-released mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, the smooth vocals belie a dark subtext. Lines like “cocaine for breakfast” are one thing, but the most delightfully twisted retort was Ocean’s response to the revelation that the girl in question is doing porn to pay for dental school: “at least you’re working.” Through it all, this is a guy-meets-girl story (with a cameo from some hallucinatory drugs), with Ocean detailing the minutiae of the relationship and making it sound exactly like minutiae, yet still managing to keep the listener transfixed. It oozes crossover potential without ever sacrificing its singular vision. Perhaps Mr. Ocean himself said it best: “This is some visionary shit.”
37. The Roots featuring Bilal Oliver and Greg Porn, “TheOtherSide”: The Roots are always credited for their superior musicianship in the field of hip hop, but this song takes it to another level: a crushing Questlove backbeat and a haunting version of the piano from Kanye West’s “Heard ‘Em Say” support ferocious verses from Black Thought and a killer hook from Bilal about a young man’s inability to escape the fate he’s been consigned to. It seems like the Roots’ best career move would be to make a flop album; maybe it’d get people to pay attention again because we take for granted their string of consistently excellent releases.
36. The Kills, “Future Starts Slow”: Jamie Hince’s piercing guitar work, Alison Mosshart’s prurient cadence, and pummeling drums (coming from somewhere) combine to delicious effect on the lead track from Blood Pressures. The vocal interplay works like a charm, particularly the sexually-charged undertones. “You can holler, you can wail / You can blow what’s left of my right mind,” Mosshart sings over the hook. Too late. Mind’s already blown.
35. Jay-Z and Kanye West, “Otis”: Great moments in cognitive dissonance: In a month where I’m blasting Mayor Bloomberg’s power-grab in evicting Wall Street and income inequality protesters from Zuccotti Park, the most frequently played song on my iPod at the time felt like an audio version of a particularly lavish and nauseating episode of Cribs. I learned what a “Hublot” is, as well as what a “G450” is, and…well, let’s just say I learned what a lot of things I’ll never be able to purchase are. And if I’m not mistaken, possibly the least self-aware person on Earth (West) was able to plant his tongue-in-cheek while delivering a line like “Last week I was in my other other Benz.” Jay-Z and ‘Ye have spent their whole careers telling us how they ascended to the throne; now they’re telling us what the view is like from up there over a sample of the song’s namesake’s “Try A Little Tenderness.” There’s a scream over the final seconds that’s either a poorly-conceived attempt at replicating the wail of the girl murdered on the Ohio Players’ song (kidding!) or a euphoric shout-out toward excess. If it’s the latter, it would make it the most honest, ebullient moment on record all year. There’s no problem being in the one percent if you earn your way in like this.
34. Nicki Minaj, “Super Bass”: What do you want from me? This is the first true testament to Minaj’s potential heard outside of guest spots on other artists’ tracks (even if she did end up unequivocally stealing Kanye’s “Monster”). Her ability to successfully intermingle the sweet side of Rihanna and the punchy side of her rival Lil’ Kim was never executed more successfully than on this smash single. This song falls far outside the musical terrain I normally frequent, but if a song is masterfully composed, I don’t care what genre it’s from. My summer became a lot more enjoyable when I gave in to the “Boom, badoom, boom, badoom bass,” and I have the feeling it’ll be popping up in many subsequent summers as well.
33. Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”: The misleading song title of the year. I went into this track expecting some mawkish ballad about a daddy that done walked out on the Lambert clan, but instead was treated to the feisty, sassy side of the songstress as she erratically unravels after a relationship comes to a particularly sudden demise. “Can’t get revenge and keep a spotless reputation,” she sings at one point. I don’t even know this guy but I wanna tell him to watch out! Miranda Lambert continues to be the Luke Skywalker to Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum’s death star, producing another superb country brawler that threatens those other two and their watered-down pop-country juggernaut. Finally, a female country star that Midwestern Walmarts won’t feel safe playing on a loop in their surround sound department.
32. Beastie Boys, “Make Some Noise”: Seven years since their last album and two since MCA’s diagnosis of cancer in his parotid gland, the Beastie Boys finally re-emerged with this single that drew more attention for its star-studded video than the track itself. But the Boys proved to be in fine form, not resting on their laurels but also avoiding the staid tone prevalent on To the 5 Boroughs. This track refines everything the group does so well over a funky, electronic beat that would’ve been the best track on The Mix-Up if it were just an instrumental. Their overdue return was welcome in more ways than one.
31. Wild Flag, “Romance”: Hey kids, did you know Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein used to be in a kick-ass indie rock group called Sleater-Kinney? Just in case you didn’t, Brownstein returned to her day job this year to remind you. The rollicking “Romance”—which features fellow alt-rockers Mary Timony, Rebecca Cole, and Janet Weiss—doesn’t resemble a hastily arranged supergroup but instead features killer hooks and masterful interplay that can sit proudly alongside the best work in all four of the members’ respective canons. “We love the sound, the sound is what found us / Sound is the blood between me and you,” begins the chorus. That line encapsulates Brownstein’s legacy. With Wild Flag, she’s continuing to add to it.
30. Elbow, “Lippy Kids”: The criminally underrated group Elbow followed their Mercury Music Prize-winning The Seldom Seen Kid with Build a Rocket Boys!, whose highpoint was this poignant, hymn-like reflection on passed youth. This wistful lament for an irretrievable bygone era was like the musical equivalent of the Twilight Zone “Walking Distance” episode. (“Do they know those days are golden?” could’ve been the alternate line 36-year-old Martin Sloan tried to relay to his younger self in the aforementioned sci-fi series’ first season classic.) Singer Guy Garvey readily admitted in an interview with The Guardian, “I’ve recently moved back to my old neighborhood, and that threw up all kinds of childhood memories.” The song is more a general observation than a personal confessional, but that only adds to its power. The younger generation he witnesses faces the same ennui he did, and he views it with both empathy and admiration; he’d do anything for the innocence of childhood ennui. The dagger for me is the simple, understated, plaintive whistle that comes in the hushed opening, middle, and closing moments of the track, almost like he’s futilely beckoning for those golden days.
29. The Black Keys, “Lonely Boy”: The band that once did an EP of Junior Kimbrough songs proves they can just as easily attune their style to the boogie-woogie of ZZ Top. “Lonely Boy” incorporates Dan Auerbach’s tight riffs and Patrick Carney’s pulsating backbeat to craft the song that could single-handedly resurrect moribund rock radio. With two Saturday Night Live appearances and a Rolling Stone cover story, The Black Keys might be the biggest rock band on Earth, and they did so without selling out. That’s because the same band has been around the whole time. Everyone else is just late to the party.
28. Fleet Foxes, “Grown Ocean”: For a band so rootsy they received a Grammy nomination (albeit dubiously) in the “Best Folk Album” category, “Grown Ocean” closed their impressive second album Helplessness Blues in a state of whimsy. The stately number features gorgeous harmonies accompanying singer Robin Pecknold’s recollection of a dream. “In that dream I could hardly contain it / All my life I will wait to attain it” goes the final chorus, before an a capella conclusion ends this triumphant number in the simplest of fashions. It’s almost like a reminder to wake up from that dream, whether consciousness is preferred or not.
27. Tune-Yards, “Gangsta”: On an album full of weird experimentations that all made sense, mad scientist Merrill Garbus’s “Gangsta” was her crowning achievement. In it, she incorporates sirens, menacing bass- and drum-lines, disjointed horns, and vocals that shift between a caterwaul and a coo. Not since M.I.A.’s Kaya has a weirder amalgamation of sounds been utilized more efficiently in the creation of a pop song. The final minute is the highlight, where pretty much every sound on the song comes crashing down at once, with discordant noises sounding like they were meant to be played that way. At the 2:25 mark, she inserts spoken word sound bites which sound like she brought her Jewish uncle and David after Dentist into the recording studio. This might be the only song all year where that idea makes sense.
26. Middle Brother, “Middle Brother”: Deer Tick’s John McCauley inhabits the role of the down-and-out schlub you can’t help but root for; tales of missed child support and heavy drinking are counteracted with the endearing side of him that just wants pride and respect. Veering from rockabilly to country-rock to a bridge that features barroom piano and a Crickets-style guitar lick, this rollicking honky-tonk number also features the best line—“I know my days are numbered but I’m bad at math / I got a dick so hard that a cat couldn’t scratch”—that somehow wasn’t delivered by an underground MC on their debut mixtape. He ends the song claiming he’ll be sending the song to Nashville. Deliver this one at the bar, and drinks are on the house.
25. Foo Fighters, “These Days”: Complaining the Foo Fighters rely too heavily on the loud-soft-loud dynamic would be like a Lakers fan complaining Kareem turned to the skyhook too much; who cares when they do it better than anyone else who’s tried? Proudly being the sole survivor in the dystopian wasteland that is rock radio, Dave Grohl and co. deliver this angsty scorcher that alternates between angry and defiant without ever losing its humanity. Grohl’s just too nice to leave bitter.
24. Tom Waits, “Talking At The Same Time”: The range of Waits’s voice is what’s made him a star, whether it be the aggressive bark we discussed earlier on “Hell Broke Luce,” or here, with the spooky yet oddly comforting upper register it hits on this gloomy standout from his instant-classic latest album. With the subtle horns and barroom piano, the song features Waits spinning a tale of depression-era America that—musically and lyrically—could’ve come from either the ‘30s or today. “Well it’s hard times for some / For others it’s sweet / Someone makes money when there’s blood in the street,” he mordantly observes. Keep fighting amongst yourselves, everyone. That’s just what the plutocracy wants.
23. Paul Simon, “Rewrite”: In a feature this May, Paul Simon told Rolling Stone: “One of my deficiencies is my voice sounds sincere…I’ve tried to sound ironic. I don’t. I can’t.” I’d consider that an asset, with the quintessential example being this gently-strummed acoustic number that would be heartbreaking if Simon’s voice didn’t emote an effusive sense of optimism. The song details a Vietnam war vet working at the car wash hoping he can change the ending for the script of his life before he gets on heaven’s line in “The Afterlife.” Just about any other singer would oversell lyrics like “I’ll eliminate the pages / Where the father has a breakdown / And he has to leave the family / But he really meant no harm,” but Simon’s simplicity and plainspokenness allows the truth to speak for itself and elicit the listener’s response accordingly. (Bonus: He also employs his most successful whistle since the bridge of “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.”)
22. Wilco, “I Might”: While Wilco has proven a mastery of spacy, meandering jams and sonic experimentations—elements seen on The Whole Love in songs like “One Sunday Morning” and “Art of Almost,” respectively—there’s still nothing better than when Jeff Tweedy utilizes the other skill he’s adept at and creates a sparkling, straightforward four-minute rock song. “I Might” is his best attempt at such a song in years, with fuzzed-out guitar and bass giving way to a twinkling xylophone and infectious organ that belie the lyrics, which stray from the sunny optimism the music provides. “You won’t set the kids on fire / Oh but I might,” he sings over the song’s hook, which would sound a bit dark if only that effervescent organ blast didn’t make it so hard to take his threat seriously.
21. Mumford and Sons, “The Cave”: It was a year-long battle between these guys and Foster the People for 2011’s “Band I Should Probably Hate but Find Irresistible” award. (For the record: The sham engagement between frontman Marcus Mumford and Carey Mulligan after just five months probably pushed them over the edge. Also, their name sounds like a moving company.) The thing that jumped out for me about this song after the umpteenth listen was how sparse most of the arrangement is. Save for that immaculate banjo that induced many a-foot-stompings upon its entrance halfway through the second verse, the other elements are scattered: horns are subdued, piano comes in and out, guitars are nonchalantly plucked. But what sells the song is when it all comes together in the propulsive finale, when Mumford’s vocals stop holding back and the rest of the band has no idea what to do and just starts playing as loud as possible. They’re like the wimpy, pasty folkies who show up as long-shots to the Battle of the Bands contest and shatter so many preconceived expectations during their performance that there’s no way they can’t be declared the victors.