Above Average Thoughts From An Average Guy
A quick backstory: A few months back, there was this year called 2011. Your humble blogger was attempting to reflect on some of his favorite songs from that year and analyze how they defined the year in music as a whole, only for him to get distracted by NFL Playoffs and breaking sports stories right on the precipice of finishing the list. Maybe publishing it on the 13th of January is absurd (even if publishing lists in the middle of November like other blogs did when the year had over a month left wasn’t absurd for some reason), but he still figured he couldn’t leave you in suspense. Thus, here is the finale of my year in music and top 111 songs. This will conclude this feature and then this new pop culture column can branch off into other things like movies, TV, cartoons, video games, and other music stories for 2012 (like how many months I can make it without formulating any kind of opinion about Lana Del Rey, for example). If you missed Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, or Part 4, click the links. Otherwise, let’s take one final look back at the best of the best and the cream of the crop in what was another strong year for music:
20. Real Estate, “It’s Real”: 2 minutes and 48 seconds. That’s the length of this song. In the time it took you to microwave your Hot Pocket for dinner—and if you’re reading this, you definitely microwaved a Hot Pocket for dinner at some point last year—these Jersey boys started and completed the most hummable song of the year; two verses, a couple stabs at that insatiable hook, a glorious guitar lead above simple but essential acoustic strumming, the most effective use of “whoa whoa whoa”s from any of the acts that tried, and then they’re out the door—all while leaving you wanting more. Plus, the lyrics are reflective without dragging the whole song down to an interminable pace. Real Estate stripped pop music down to its most bare-bones elements and using those same elements, rebuilt it into something sublime.
19. PJ Harvey, “The Words That Maketh Murder”: While Tom Hanks and Ken Burns have hogged World War II and every 21st-century act has put out an Iraq/Afghanistan song, PJ Harvey decided to fuck it and go all the way back to the Great War. The highlight from her concept album Let England Shake, “Words” defies conventional wisdom associated with anti-war songs; while the tone is far from somber or angry and the autoharp, horns, and bubbly vocals are a misleading façade, the lyrics effectively convey the horrors and atrocities of conflict in this or any era. (For some particularly vivid and disturbing imagery, “soldiers fall like lumps of meat” and “Arms and legs were in the trees” come to mind.) But the toll this bloody battle took on the outside observer narrating the song is relayed most effectively in the simple line, “I’ve seen and done things I want to forget”—sentiments echoed by anyone who’s ever been on or near a battlefield. The song concludes with Harvey’s creative partner—and on this track, background vocalist—John Parish referencing Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” by shouting, “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?” For the record, this being World War I, it would’ve been the League of Nations after that conflict, but going after historical anachronisms is really nit-picking when the song is this powerful.
18. Drake, “Marvins Room”: Drake released this song from his excellent second album Take Care as a single, I’m guessing to fuck with Hot 97 and see what they would do when hip hop’s biggest rising star hands them something completely non-commercial. Needless to say, this one isn’t designed for the clubs. This is a downcast drunk-dial, with a nearly unquotable chorus (Friendly advice: Skip this track on your iPod when walking through Bed-Stuy at night. Don’t take the chance you start singing “Fuck that ni…” yeah.), and navel-gazing that teeters on the edge of uncomfortable. Producer 40 delivers an appropriately moody beat for a song that doesn’t deliver something even close to a rap until the third verse. The song ends with Drake sighing “I hope no one heard that / Cause if they did, we gonna be in some trouble” as he resumes the party after the call ends. It’s an appropriate coda to the earlier line “Having a hard time adjusting to fame.” Drake’s not fooling anybody. This call probably happened before, and it’ll probably happen in subsequent nights. Yet it’s also necessary catharsis for Drake and his conflicted emotions over the unfulfilling, empty nature of his decadent lifestyle. Through it all, he remains so damn earnest. There might not be another rapper alive who can despondently utter the line “After a while girl they all seem the same / I’ve had sex four times this week” and make it seem not like a humblebrag but rather something worthy of empathy.
17. Girls, “Vomit”: I don’t know what’s more misleading: this song’s title—which you’d expect from a hardcore band, not lo-fi indie rockers—or the tranquil acoustic guitar and vocals that lie somewhere between a whisper and a coo which open the song. Any signs of a weepy lovelorn ballad quickly vanish as a whirlwind of fuzzed-out guitar helps produce a lush, expansive sound atop splashes of organ, a buzzing bass line, and languid vocals from Christopher Owens as he confronts the emptiness he faces with the absence of a lover. But the kicker comes in the final minute, which is when this song truly transcends to levels of epic grandeur as the focal point shifts to the organ and a gospel-infused backing vocal that recalls Merry Clayton on “Gimme Shelter” or Clare Torry on “The Great Gig In The Sky.” Yet “Vomit” never feels like multiple songs in one since each subsection is designed to build up to that sweeping finale. And it’s worth the wait.
16. St. Vincent, “Cruel”: The most spirited, sprightly moment on Annie Clark’s (a.k.a. St. Vincent) Strange Mercy also might be the most paradoxical song of the year: it’s beautiful and melodic while somewhat messy; the repeated refrain of the song’s title is both wry and chipper; and there’s an avant-garde structure that nevertheless leaves you bobbing your head instead of scratching it. The melody is oddly becoming even as the lyrics would suggest something more dour (e.g.: “They could take or leave you / So they took you, and they left you”). The undisputed highlight comes at the 1:20 mark, when Clark unleashes a fuzzed-out guitar solo that sounds like it wants to break out the Peter Frampton talk box while stopping short of doing so. On her whole album and this track in particular, Clark has a blast experimenting while never sacrificing tunefulness. (Bonus YouTube clip: Clark does an acoustic version of “Cruel” live at Good Records where she recreates the song’s signature bouncy, fuzzed-out hook with a melodica, resulting in something way less twee than it should’ve been.)
15. The Joy Formidable, “Whirring”: This song starts off as the kind of high-octane, sugar-rush noise blast that fellow Welshmen Los Campesinos! no longer seem interested in writing—with bells and peppy vocals intact. But rather than just unleashing a punchy 2 minute and 30 second monster and calling it a day, the Joy Formidable hang around for another 4 minutes. We should be glad they did, because there’s one thing that few bands on this list, or any list, and particularly in indie rock, tried to do this year: get loud! (There’s a reason Dave Grohl called it his song of the year.) The sprawling guitar is all buildup for that final 2 minutes when this promising group quits holding back and reaches for the stars—or at least shatters a few windows trying to get there. Singer Ritzy Bryan begins the chorus with the line “turn the dial.” Best advice all year.
14. Radiohead, “Lotus Flower”: Radiohead epitomizes the term “victims of their own success,” as fans splintered off into two equally unacceptable factions when evaluating The King of Limbs: The people who loved their new album loved it a little too much, while its detractors’ shrugs came across like spoiled fans setting a completely unattainable standard for greatness that even the most influential band of the 21st century couldn’t meet every time. (Hell, even the Beatles made Yellow Submarine.) But “Lotus Flower”—the album’s de facto first single—was the neutral territory everyone could agree was great, and not just for the viral video with Thom Yorke’s awkward dancing. Lyrics like the chorus’s “There’s an empty space inside my heart / where the weeds take root” are par for the course considering the usual cold, desolate imagery prevalent on Radiohead releases. But the song actually veered away from any harsh, uncompromising arrangements (“Codex” was next to make up for it), instead building around a buzzing bass line, Philip Selway’s stuttering drums, handclaps, some atypically warm atmospherics, and Yorke’s signature falsetto, which reaches its pinnacle after the chorus. Radiohead is the master of minimalism, doing it to chilling and goosebump-inducing effect better than just about anyone in the business. But sometimes it’s okay to just let loose and dance. Or at least try to.
13. Dawes, “Time Spent In Los Angeles”: The Dude from The Big Lebowski was famous for his “I hate the fucking Eagles, man!” screed. I hope he doesn’t have some illegitimate son with shared musical tastes or else that kid might be saying “I hate fucking Dawes, man!” in the back of a hovercab in about ten years. (Just kidding, there won’t be hovercabs in 2022. We’ll be lucky if there are cabs. Or oil. This is getting depressing, let’s move on.) Doubling down on the early-‘70s, Laurel Canyon, country-rock stylings that gave them their breakout hit “When My Time Comes,” Taylor Goldsmith and crew have comfortably settled into their role as the successor to the acts that emerged in that era, specifically Jackson Browne; they went as far as having Browne sing backup on their equally brilliant track “Fire Away” AND even went on to tour as his backing band. “Time Spent In Los Angeles” is the simple tale of a road-weary rocker hoping to escape the hollowness of the touring life by finding fulfillment with the one he loves back home. With its mix of acoustic and electric guitar, gentle harmonies, and organ rolls carrying the load in the background, this song proudly carries on the legacy of the man they called an inspiration and peer in 2011.
12. Kurt Vile, “Jesus Fever”: This discursive standout from Vile’s Smoke Ring For My Halo sets a breezy sound alongside some cryptic imagery; the refrain of “but I’m already gone” seemingly refers to questions of both his own mortality as well as his artistic legacy. While not exactly epic, this slab of folk-pop’s intricate acoustic guitar work exudes a fuller sound than the stripped-down tone that was equally effective on other album highlights like “Runner Ups,” “Baby’s Gone,” and “Peeping Tomboy.” “If it wasn’t taped you could escape this song” Vile sings in the song’s waning moments. We’re glad this track, as well as the whole album, was.
11. My Morning Jacket, “Holdin’ On To Black Metal”: Imagine if the much-maligned “Highly Suspicious” off 2008’s Evil Urges wasn’t channeled through Prince and Frank Zappa but was instead designed as a psychedelic, over-the-top tribute to a musical genre few of the band’s fans probably listen to, and you’ll get an idea of what this Circuital standout delivers. Rather than using the style of black metal titans like Celtic Frost or Rotting Christ (always fun to write that band name), My Morning Jacket sets James’s ode to his favorite underappreciated genre against a backdrop that sounds like it should be soundtracking the blacklight-lit scene from some campy ‘60s Halloween dance party special. The song is replete with bursts of horns, James’s falsetto, a children’s choir, and fuzzed-out everything (from guitars to Bo Koster’s keyboards). Credit Jim James: Never has a weirder mix of shit been thrown against the wall, only for every last bit of it to land.
10. Florence + The Machine, “Shake It Out”: On “Shake It Out,” Florence Welch seemed to issue herself a challenge: Can I inundate the song with every embellishment imaginable and would my voice still rise to the top? The answers? Yes and yes. That’s not to say the songs on Lungs were reserved, but the gospel-influenced, bombastic, ornate “Shake It Out” holds nothing back: bells, organ, strings, guitar, and disjointed drums that gradually rise in intensity just to keep up are all arranged around Welch’s epic, celestial vocals in this redemptive tale. “It’s hard to dance with a devil on your back / so shake him off” ends the chorus. The song feels like a revival, and Welch’s soaring voice is sure to shatter anything obstructing the light trying to pass through.
9. The Black Keys, “Little Black Submarines”: Stairway to Akron? Babe I’m Gonna Keys You? The thrill of the Black Keys is that not only does each album harbor its own identity, but it often evokes a touchstone of music history. El Camino was their successful attempt to officially move out of the Delta and pay homage to the rock stars that were “influenced” by the music of all the bluesmen they’re indebted to. “Little Black Submarines” begins with nothing but the acoustic picking and bluesy drawl of Dan Auerbach until the psych-folk first half slowly starts to build to a crescendo. At exactly the halfway point, there’s a complete breakdown when thick, nasty riffs from Auerbach join Patrick Carney’s arrival, as he pummels the drums like he’s been waiting interminably during those first 2 minutes to come in and unleash. Organ and haunting harmonies also emerge at points but don’t overstay their welcome. 2010 saw the Black Keys shockingly conquer rock radio. Classic rock radio, you’re up next.
8. The Decemberists, “Don’t Carry It All”: Colin Meloy must’ve decided that if he was taking the foray into rootsy country-rock, he was doing this Ocean’s Eleven-style with the right hired guns. That meant recruiting Annalisa Tornfelt to add beautiful supporting violin, getting folk/bluegrass mainstays Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings to sing backing harmonies, and even getting Peter Buck to bust out the freaking mandolin for God’s sake! Of course, what stands out most is the vintage Tom Petty-style harmonica, which Meloy plays himself. Keeping with the Petty theme, John Moen’s pounding, steady drum channels “You Don’t Know How It Feels” in its ability to carry a song without overpowering it. But the reason “Don’t Carry It All” is such a triumph is because through all the flourishes and guests, it’s still at heart a Decemberists song, and the band never sounds uncomfortable in this guise. The King Is Dead was arguably the band’s best album but it was certainly their most impressive, considering their versatility in being able to switch from bookish tales of engine drivers and crane wives to the unadorned, idyllic imagery of “Don’t Carry It All” without missing a beat.
7. TV On The Radio, “Second Song”: The opening of “Second Song” features tribal drumming and a synth that sounds like a mix of sitar and didgeridoo, making the listener think we’re about to become immersed in some kind of Eastern raga chant. But before we can get into indie rock’s version of “Within You Without You,” the guitars kick in; eventually a deluge of noise pours out and Tunde Adebimpe’s pitch hits a Prince-like falsetto. The incorporation of a bevy of sounds from piano to horns to maraca only further infuses life into a song that sounds like they just reanimated a comatose party jam. While Nine Types of Light would prove to be the album where TV On The Radio tackled love, sex, and heartache, everything about “Second Song” exudes celebration, with the repeated calls to head “into the light” relayed through a funky cacophony of ebullience. Dear Science had us partying through the rapture; Nine Types of Light was the heartache album that had us partying through “Second Song.” Who knows what new ways they’ll find to repurpose despair into something dance-worthy?
6. Jay-Z & Kanye West, “Niggas In Paris”: The standout cut from the much-hyped collaboration between the hip hop kingpins finds the duo as boastful as they were on “Otis,” but a bit more nuanced and introspective. The song is built around a simple but infectious beat that sounds like the music from some demented nursery rhyme; it also features some out-of-left-field sound clips from Talladega Semi-Pro of Glory. (Sorry, Will Ferrell’s whole post-Anchorman stretch started to run together. Step Brothers was an excellent rebound though. Now we’re on a tangent.) But between the name-drops of Gucci and Audemars comes some perspective, such as when Jay mentions “We ain’t even sposed to be here” before adding “I’m shocked too, I’m supposed to be locked up too / If you escaped what I’ve escaped / You’d be in Paris getting fucked up too.” The song is now infamous for its spirited, fan favorite live performances, which makes sense seeing as it truly is the apotheosis of everything Watch The Throne embodied: the opportunity to show two veritable geniuses trading barbs and rhymes while reflecting on the journey that placed them in the chair high atop all other challengers.
5. R.E.M., “Uberlin”: The glass half-full approach to looking at R.E.M.’s surprising September split was that Collapse Into Now was a continuation of the solid return to form that began with 2008’s Accelerate, allowing the band to go out on a high note; the glass half-empty view was that R.E.M. was settling comfortably into the role of elder statesmen and stepped aside after a career rejuvenation. But whether they had a lot left in the tank or took a John Elway-style victory lap at the perfect time didn’t detract from the appreciation long-time fans had for Collapse Into Now. The album’s essential highlight was “Uberlin,” the track that perfectly encapsulates everything the world grew to love about Athens, Georgia’s own in their 30-year career: Peter Buck’s jangly guitar, Mike Mills’s precision bass playing and essential backing harmonies, and the impeccable voice of Michael Stipe, who deftly moves between rockers and stripped-down tracks as effortlessly now as he did on Murmur. As an added retrospective bonus, the enigmatic, cryptic lyrics make for a solid retirement letter, with references about “flying on a star into a meteor tonight,” making “it through the day,” the point when “the day becomes the night,” and “I know that this is changing” conveying the idea that the twilight of an era is something you know has arrived even if you weren’t expecting it. Perhaps most appropriately, the song keeps at a steady pace before ending abruptly without overstaying its welcome. Metaphors abound.
It was fitting that two weeks after R.E.M.’s announcement, it was rumored The Simpsons might be coming to an end because of a contract dispute. (If both these events occurred, and say Dan Marino admitted using steroids his entire career, 12-year-old me would’ve retroactively been prescribed Zoloft.) In ways, R.E.M. became like The Simpsons: they certainly stayed on past their prime, but they also had every right to, and fans consistently penalized them for being unable to sustain the immaculate standard of greatness they established for themselves. Collapse Into Now and “Uberlin” were like the late-period Simpsons episode that makes you realize how much you’ll miss them when they’re gone. Their “mediocrity” is better than the magnum opus of 99% of other artists.
4. Fucked Up, “Queen of Hearts”: Nothing about this should’ve worked. A track like this should’ve been a throwaway number, a statement of purpose for Fucked Up’s punk rock opera David Comes To Life that we would all have been okay with because it laid the groundwork for the rest of the album. But somehow, with the juxtaposition between Damian Abraham’s world-weary lyrics and piercing, aggressive vocals as well as the unbridled optimism and genuine uplift the story’s protagonist experiences, the start of the listener’s journey was also the emotional high-point. A huge assist goes to guest vocalist Madeline Follin of Cults; the innocence in her voice helps balance the character of Veronica’s dual nature, allowing us to see how she can harbor left-wing anarchistic beliefs but still act in such a loving manner toward David.
The album is supposed to take the entire running time to complete David’s transformation, but the transformation really takes place on the second track. From the first verses that describe workers like David that are “beaten down and dragging their feet” and lamenting how “life’s a waste” and “nothing’s ever gonna change” to the man describing when “The dam bursts open, we suddenly live” and “The boot off my throat, life is returning,” it’s evident that Veronica has already infused life into him by reinvigorating his dormant soul. The rest of the album is about getting back to that place.
The song ends with a radiant 90-second instrumental coda awash with gently dueling guitars and thumping bass and drums coexisting gracefully. Things wouldn’t stay that rosy for David—even Veronica tells him they’ll be together only until “the water swallows us” or “we’re all finally crushed,” which becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy—but for him (and us), that 90 seconds feels like a blissful eternity.
3. Bon Iver, “Holocene”: “And at once I knew I was not magnificent.” The most eloquent yet plainspoken line on record all year also had the ability to send a thousand daggers into even the most hardened soul. There’s a spirited and fair debate about whether Bon Iver’s critically acclaimed follow-up to For Emma, Forever Ago is even as good as its predecessor (I’ll cop out and say it’s a draw), but the sterling “Holocene” is the new career high-point for Justin Vernon—even winning the Arcade Fire Award for “Indie Song The Grammys Got Behind To Show They’re Hip.” And why not? Lyrically, it’s a complex enigma, with the pastoral imagery supporting a pensive meditation and recollection from Vernon. But the nebulous, esoteric lyrics wouldn’t elicit a flurry of emotions if it weren’t for the pitch-perfect sounds accompanying them: chiming guitars; a muted saxophone; listless handclaps (picture “Jack and Diane” drained of every ounce of enthusiasm); haunting pedal-steel from Greg Leisz; and vibraphones so essential you can’t picture the song without them. (He even gives a frenzied clarinet a brief solo.) The only constant is Vernon’s hushed falsetto, which exudes a sense of wistfulness and vulnerability that lingers on as the surrounding noises come and go. Vernon’s composition works so perfectly because the disparate elements coalesce into a glorious ambience. You never want to spend a second trying to solve the puzzle because you’re content wallowing in the beauty and splendor.
2. M83, “Midnight City”: At around the 0:16 second mark of former Colts bust receiver French musician Anthony Gonzalez’s career pinnacle, there’s a brief sound that feels like a spaceship blasting something down to Earth. What comes after is indeed otherworldly, the most beautifully shrill sound you’ll hear all year, one that transcends the boundaries of electronic music to the point where trying to pigeonhole it in that genre would only marginalize it. Is it synth pop? Dream pop? Perhaps it’s simply pop music, if the genre had more forward-thinking and ambitious people. But the genre doesn’t have a great deal of those kind of people, hence why “Midnight City” felt so jarring and out of left-field.
The song details Gonzalez’s travails through Los Angeles but only features a couple verses. Mainly, it’s built around that aforementioned sound. In an interview with Pitchfork, Gonzalez described the opening as simply “my voice under heavy distortion…I was feeling so dumb doing those high-pitched vocals while my girlfriend was sleeping downstairs. Now, I love it.”
That high-pitch and the synthesizers would be enough to carry the track, but what helped garner “Midnight City” so many accolades was the most necessary inclusion of saxophone in a non-Jazz song since the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band. Clarence is the obvious touchstone, but the contrast of the soaring sax solo with the moody atmosphere of the lyrics conjures memories of something else: it feels like they plucked Raphael Ravenscroft out of the year 1978 to do a sequel to “Baker Street”. (It’s actually Fitz and the Tantrums’ James King on that prodigious saxophone solo.) But whereas Raffety described a city that “makes you feel so cold” since “it’s got so many people but it’s got no soul,” Gonzalez’s Los Angeles is certainly not devoid of soul, with glowing eyes, “neon signs,” and the “sparkling twilight” hewing closer to a Los Angeles that’s both brooding and vivacious, where shattered dreams and endless possibilities can live side by side.
I have no earthly idea where the ride in this song is going or where it’s coming from. But goddamn it does Gonzalez make me want to take it when it gets there.
1. Adele, “Rolling In The Deep”: Imagine, if you will, the preposterous notion that a song could display the audacity and bold vision prevalent in bands playing for niche audiences and obscure subgenres, only that song exceeds its seemingly self-imposed limitations and becomes the record that got the moribund music industry to, if not escape its death bed, at least sit up in it. Only this scenario wasn’t just the far-fetched byproduct of Neil Portnow’s wet dream. It actually happened.
There’s a reason Adele’s 21 and “Rolling In The Deep” in particular defied all expectations: it was brilliant. Her scathing kiss-off to an ex was the perfect synthesis of retro throwback discofied soul and contemporary R&B in the post-Winehouse pop music landscape. 21 went on to sell over 5 million copies; albums sales were up 1.3% for the year—the first rise in total sales since 2004—in no small part thanks to Adele.
Perhaps “Rolling In The Deep”’s biggest accomplishment was its ability to serve as a unifying force. As terrestrial radio continues its bloodletting, iPods and streaming services continue to create an even more insular environment where you only hear your music, and the experience is not corrupted by exposure to outside forces (i.e.: anyone not sharing the same genome as your Pandora artist of choice). But somehow, defying everything we thought we knew about the music scene in 2011, we had a song that sounded equally great coming from parties, car windows, department stores, and waiting rooms. The art of the crossover pop single was a dying art. Adele resuscitated it.
Compartmentalization is fine if that’s what’s required for an artist to maintain their integrity. But if you could take artistic risks, not compromise your singular vision, and still create a crossover sensation that transcends every notion of genre, sells 5 million copies, garners multiple Grammy nominations, receives airplay at multiple formats, feels appropriate being played at weddings and sporting events, blasts on the stereos of everyone from hipsters to grandmas, and was so grand in scope that even the most icy-hearted, pretentious, douchebag indie blog couldn’t leave it off their best-of list, I don’t need the Godfather to tell you it’s an offer you can’t refuse. The music industry is currently configured to cater to niche marketing; if an artist sells one a la carte iTunes track or has a single land on a Spotify playlist, it’s deemed a success. Adele blew the whole concept of low expectations to smithereens by aiming big. Every other artist in 2011 had no idea that they could’ve had it allllllllllllllllllll.