BEST SONGS OF 2010: 5-1

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5. “Conversation 16” by The National

This was the song that finally got me.  I somehow didn’t “get it” for a while with The National.  I was like so many other lost souls.  I thought they were boring, or dull, or that every song sounded the same.  I appreciated the loud songs or the good piano songs, but I didn’t really understand.  And then the creepy chill of “Conversation 16” knocked me right over.  The warbling bass line and the pinpoint drums finally made sense.

But what I ultimately realized were the details.  The organic singing, the reeds playing, the haunting “ooo” behind the chorus, the emotive lyrics, the lightly plucked background guitar.  It took me long enough, but everything worked and that made every other National song work.  If you are how I was, I beg you to try this song.  It might change everything.

4. “Suburban War” by Arcade Fire

“Suburban War” is the most complete standalone song from The Suburbs and that’s why it lands so high.  Unlike the rest of the album, the mood and feeling of this song are retained in any setting, not just in its proper place.  The obvious draw is the plucked guitar that covers the majority of the song, but everything else leaves you holding on for more.

I personally love the little drum fill at the very start of the song, the sweeping strings, and the excellent harmonies.  But the song becomes so much more when it finally takes off, with thunderous drumming, desperate wails and a massive volume increase.  This gives the track real character, and leaves it as a very holistic composition.  This is the ultimate turning point on The Suburbs and the true highlight on a brilliant record.

3. “What You Know” by Two Door Cinema Club

I just can’t avoid this song or this band.  It defies simple dance rock by adding strong emotional depth.  While it starts with a “typical” guitar and drum figure, that high ringing guitar that enters at the 14-second mark changes everything.  Instead of just pushing with a grungy guitar and bass, the ringing guitar cries out with real strength and power.  It seems overkill, but it really makes the song.

But is one guitar enough to make it the third best track of the year?  It does when piled above an infectious beat, a great breakdown halfway through and enthusiastic singing.  Really, Tourist History does very little wrong, and this is the ultimate high point, with the whole track just popping out beyond almost all others this year.  Dance to it, feel sad about it, enjoy the whole thing.  It’s amazing.

 

2. “Desire Lines” by Deerhunter

I’m not the world’s biggest Deerhunter fan.  I don’t really think Halcyon Digest is the pure masterpiece that so many others claim.  I don’t know that I could seriously sit through one of their albums more than once.  They’ve awfully experimental and dense – which isn’t a bad thing, it just doesn’t fit my tastes all the time.  Of course, they’ve managed to make two insanely huge exceptions in singles.  The first was “Nothing Ever Happened,” a purely brilliant song and fifth best of the last decade.  The second is this song.

I can’t really pinpoint why I love the song so much, but it’s crucial to note what a late entry this track was.  I hadn’t listened to any of the new Deerhunter record until Christmas, and somehow didn’t get all the way to this track.  Oh boy was I missing out.  There are such haunting and genuinely bothersome voices.  There is a real sense of escape, but you can’t tell if that’s a good thing.  The chorus is centered around the phrasing “Walking free, come with me / Far away, every day,” which would seem nice enough, but a very subtle “whoa-oh” follows after every three syllables.  It’s mildly liberating and terrifying.

But the true release is in the final half of the song, a lengthy guitar solo and instrumental breakdown, almost fullfilling the initial promise of freedom.  The production is stellar, the pacing perfect, and it just sticks with you the whole time.  I cannot say enough about this song, but it does fall short of the overall top status.

1. “Don’t Do It” by Sharon Van Etten

Here we are at the best song of the year.  I was introduced to Sharon Van Etten through the All Songs Considered NPR Podcast (an excellent way to find new music) and completely blown away by her voice.  Van Etten sounds confident, but not conceited, and emotional without being whiny.  She strikes one of the most perfect vocal balances in current music, and her warmth just draws you in.

From here, the song sweeps you away.  Sparse composition creates a strong backbone for the singing to work around.  It’s all about mood in the instrumentals, and they develop a very strong one.  Light and effective drumming keeps a consistent pace while gradually adding cymbals as the song builds.

The subject matter also pushes the song beyond a simple vocal reflection.  “Don’t Do It” is effectively about suicide, with the singer pleading with the afflicted to not take their own life.  It is sobering, yet ultimately optimistic treatment of such a difficult topic.  Particularly poignant is one of the first lines, “Want to take you outside / Want to show you the sky to remind you why you shouldn’t.”  The song drops you right into the situation, and begs you to interact.

“Don’t Do It” isn’t a pure pop piece like 2008’s “A-Punk”, it’s not baroque pop like 2009’s “While You Wait for the Others” and doesn’t have the tone of the decade-best “All My Friends,” but it stands tall with these songs.  The reflective song and powerful voice push “Don’t Do It” into such elite company, and deep into your mind for months and maybe years to come.  Give it a listen, and enjoy the best fruit of such a good year.

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BEST SONGS OF 2010: 20-6

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20. “Go Do” by Jonsi

Much like the best Sigur Ros songs, this track just fills the brain with a sense of wonder.  It simply feels like flying above a landscape and viewing the whole beautiful world.  The song is both pretty and epic – those thudding drums are amazing, and the voice combines perfectly with flutes and strings to push forward and into the mind.

19. “Compliments” by Band of Horses

When I first heard this, I didn’t realize it was Band of Horses – the voices and guitars were slightly different.  But after 20 listens, it was clear that this was a new height for the band.  Strong, exploratory lyrics and a slightly swung meter make this song stick.  Of course, without those great guitars, this wouldn’t be on the list.  This song stands with even “The Funeral” in their catalog.

18. “F*** You” by Cee Lo Green

Delightful profanity is always fun, but this time it’s universal.  “F*** You” was everywhere last year, and with good reason.  The song itself is a pitch-perfect blend of 1960s style and modern production.  It’s a great cousin to “Hey Ya” and seems to have just as much air time.  What puts it over the edge is Cee Lo Green, with excellent singing and playful wit (“Just thought you should know n*****”).

17. “Everlasting Light” by The Black Keys

This is tight.  Blues rock was supposed to be dead unless it was done by Jack White.  Instead, these guys out of Akron lay down some of the most muscular, passionate music in years.  The song is very simple, but it just works.  A very focused guitar, a straightforward drum and a great singer make this one of the best songs of the year.  Be sure to see these guys live too – they rock.

16. “Cousins” by Vampire Weekend

It’s unlikely that the band will ever capture the pop perfection of “A-Punk” but this song certainly taps a similar vein of brilliance.  Psychotic guitars drive the song, and it always feels just on the edge of collapse.  Instead, they push the pace forward, making this wild track one of the most satisfying in their short career.  It certainly helps that the final-lap close is an exceptional release.

15. “Let it Sway” by Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin

This is pure pop near its best.  Light jangling guitars, catchy melodies, easy-to-hear lyrics and a reasonable song structure are all crucial.  But the most important parts are the intro and outro.  That opening guitar salvo is very welcoming and danceable, and the closing breakdown has some excellent handclaps.  Fabulous track.

14. “Something Good Can Work” by Two Door Cinema Club

These Irish guys can summon up some infectious music.  Focused and consistent drumming help push the piece forward while the vocalist enthusiastically explores a potential relationship start.  Of course, the content doesn’t really matter so much here.  Those brilliant gutiars and synths make this one of the most upbeat tracks all year and works great on repeat.

13. “Lemonworld” by The National

One of the most complex and emotionally weighty songs on this list.  It’s certainly The National, but it’s better than most of their works.  Lyrically, this is a powerful reflection on the sorrows of modern life and escapism, and it blends perfectly with Matt Berninger’s baritone.  The straining strings and monolithic drums only help to give the song a distinctive and touching feel.

12. “Written in Reverse” by Spoon

Spoon is at their best when stripped down and rocking out.  “Written in Reverse” is just that type of song, and the true best off the underrated Transference.  Britt Daniels works the vocals with his typically confident style, the piano keys get beaten to lovely effect, and the guitar is simply attacked.  This has quickly joined the status of classic Spoon songs, and rightfully so.

11. “All of the Lights” by Kanye West

The most exciting (and exhausting) song on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is also the best.  Rihanna doesn’t suck, Kanye is sharp, and the horns are awesome.  Of course, it’s the speed and percussion that matter here.  It feels like going downhill, especially in that chorus.  And, oh that chorus.  Almost makes you want to buy some new light bulbs.

10. “Tightrope” by Janelle Monae

Janelle Monae had one of the most successful breakouts in music this year.  She managed to juggle an appearance of part-diva, part-artist, and all-round entertainer.  “Tightrope” is her brightest point in what is practically a supernova of a debut.  She sings like Aretha, has artistic integrity, and had a phenomenal backing band.  If you can somehow avoid the power of “Tightrope” you’re not human.  This is what happens when R&B is truly great.

09. “I Don’t Believe You” by The Thermals

There isn’t a particularly strong reason for why this song is so good.  It might be the pop-punk precision.  In only three minutes, The Thermals display great presence and personality.  Maybe it’s the guitar.  They’re exceptionally tight, offering a relentless melodic background.  Or maybe it’s those vocals, slightly strained and generally angry.  Or maybe it’s all of it at once.  Punk is fun, but when it’s refined it is great.

08. “All I Want” by LCD Soundsystem

This is the most emotional song on This is Happening, and also the best.  James Murphy sounds at the brink of pure breakdown throughout the song, and you can’t help but share his pain when he describes a breakup, noting “It’s too late to make it [the relationship] strong.”  Yes, the musicianship is all there, but the sad, pathetic cries push this to a different plane of song.  Murphy is human, and you cry with him as he wails “Take me home.”

07. “Chase Scene” by Broken Social Scene

Right from the start, it’s clear you’re in for something wild.  That strange guitar strum is pretty cool, and it quickly develops into an interesting multi-vocalist effort.  Of course, it hits hardest when heavier drums start to pick up.  And from there, it sounds like beautiful chaos.  Massive, unrelenting horns and strings just build, growing to a point of explosion.  Thankfully, the band gives us that release, with one final epic chord.  It’s tiring to listen to, but insanely awesome.

06. “I Want the World to Stop” by Belle & Sebastian

Such a beautiful, delicate song.  It exists in real fragility for so much of its first few half, feeling very dependent on itself.  Without those vocals, the keyboards or lightly plucking guitars, it would just fall apart into nothingness.  But then, strings and horns pick up and give the structure real meat.  Everything picks up, and the gorgeously catchy piece becomes powerful and infectious.  But the one constant, and the clincher, is the drumming.  Everything feels so unified, and this is the center point.  It’s a shame it took me so long to find this band – they’re amazing.

Song Roundup 8: Club Music–Indie Mix

Let’s not even talk about the massive gap in posts this time.  Maybe later.

I hate club music.  I try not to hate much music, but club music just represents some of my least favorite parts of sound and sonic mentality.  Club music represents sweaty parties full of people drinking to be drunk and dancing only for the sexuality.  I appreciate fun, but this style of music turns heavy bass into a disgusting sensation, rather than an invigorating one.  So on this latest Song Roundup, I want to look at indie music that would make me more comfortable at that next awful party (if only for a few minutes).

There weren’t truly limits on this list, but I did purposefully avoid “indie” techno, as Daft Punk and Justice are essentially definitive dance music.  I can hope that they’re a given for this type of list.

“Idioteque” by Radiohead

Sometimes they’re guitar gods, other times they fiddle with electronics.  Radiohead is a proven musical powerhouse that can touch many genres.  “Idioteque” is one of the most singular songs in their catalog.  That’s quite an accomplishment, but it goes further, making disaster sound exhilarating.  The terrifying sound of primordial computer composition blends perfectly with the rest of the band.  I always get chills, but the rhythm keeps me from a statuesque state.

“Daft Punk is Playing at My House” by LCD Soundsystem

Most LCD songs would be fair game here, but “Daft Punk” is one of the group’s most muscular efforts.  The song really pops with good speakers or headphones and deserves to be played loud.  I’m personally very fond of the version on the London Sessions release, but whatever rendition you get should do the trick.

“Whoo! Alright – Yeah… Uh Huh.” by The Rapture

Dance punk died too quickly in the early 2000s.  That is to say, I wasn’t really aware of it until it was already dead.  But we do have artifacts like this to keep us happy.  The tastefully complex variation on a simple disco drum is the real foundation of this song.  It keeps everything moving at a high tempo and lets the funky guitars work their magic above the rhythm.  But what pushes this over the edge and into greatness is that last bit of lyrical breakdown at the 2:34 mark – almost makes even me want to dance.

“I Can Talk” by Two Door Cinema Club

Two Door Cinema Club has been my guilty-pleasure band-of-choice ever since I first heard them.  Their debut record (Tourist History) is nothing innovative, but it’s simply brimming with energy.  “I Can Talk” is amongst the highlights.  The song has a blistering guitar attack, fun vocals and a massive disco drum/bass pattern filling all the space.  Embrace this Irish band – I think they’re in for big things.

“Dancing Choose” by TV on the Radio

I normally associate TVotR as dense, thinking music.  But at least a few tracks off their most recent record have worked to break my mental stereotype.  Dear Science has some heavy soul power, and tons of personality, and “Dancing Choose” highlights all of that.  Impassioned vocals blend with a propulsive tempo and wild horns to make the art-centric TVotR seem loose and fun.

“Heads Will Roll” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Many have discussed this before, but it’s always shocking to listen to YYYs change from a raw garage band to something more like glam rock or disco rock.  In particular, singer Karen O has removed some of that punk edge and suddenly sounds like a powerful diva.  “Heads Will Roll” is the most powerful example of this change, and makes a strong case for why we should embrace the “new” YYYs.  They do this kind of music the right way.

Playlist: Car Music 1

Today, we start a new series here at Essential Listening: looking at situational playlists.  One of my favorite hobbies is to organize music prior to a big trip.  Here is a look at a 10-song lineup that would be great for a quick 30-minute ride.

Car Music 1 (in order):

  1. “Pieces” by Dinosaur Jr. (from Farm)
  2. “This Boy” by Franz Ferdinand (You Could Have it So Much Better)
  3. “Two Weeks” by Grizzly Bear (Veckatimest)
  4. “Adventure” by Be Your Own Pet (Be Your Own Pet)
  5. “Wicked Gil” by Band of Horses (Everything All the Time)
  6. “Paper Thin Walls” by Modest Mouse (Moon & Antarctica)
  7. “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone” by Ted Leo & The Pharmacists (Hearts of Oak)
  8. “Getchoo” by Weezer (Pinkerton)
  9. “Time Bomb” by Rancid (And Out Come the Wolves)
  10. “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” by The White Stripes (Elephant)

Car Music is a strange animal – it needs to be bright, loud and engaging, but without becoming too mental or distracting.  For me, this makes reflective jazz and classical pieces off-limits in a car.  Yet this list features some stuff from crafted, difficult albums.  What gives?

The key lies in the songs.  While they often fit the dynamics needed for their source, they also manage to stand out (even if only slightly).  Let’s take “Two Weeks.”  It certainly has the lush beauty offered by the rest of Veckatimest, noted in the soaring harmonious voices.  But the pulsing keyboards are the hook here, and they manage to carry throughout.  Volkswagen was wise to use this song in their ads: it is fun and interesting.

Some of these songs are here just for the guitar parts.  That’s typical of good car music (like Led Zeppelin).  “Pieces,” “Adventure,” “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone,” and “Time Bomb” are all fairly quick songs that have captivating guitar lines.  That’s useful on two levels.  The guitars are captivating, but also don’t require the concentration that complicated instrumentation would demand.  We’re so used to the guitar that these songs only need to seem slightly different to be fun.

Finally, it’s important to note that this list only features one song longer than five minutes.  Fortunately, “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone” is not bogged down in self-serving musical slop.  Instead, the song manages to feel slick and the five minutes just slide by.

Essential Listening hopes to get back to a more regular schedule in the next month or so.  Summer is a better time for writing, and it’s always fun to discover new music on random road trips or while reading scientific papers.

Link to the Web: Band of Horses

Shut up.  I don’t want to hear about it.  I am completely aware of how long it has been.  Just deal with it.

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A few years ago, I projected Grizzly Bear as the next band with the power to reach dizzying OK Computer-type heights.  To be honest, there wasn’t another band that struck me as having that kind of potential.

Now, I would like to apologize to Band of Horses, and pick my jaw up off the ground.

Please hurry up and go to their website: http://www.bandofhorses.com/

The Past

Okay, now that you’re there, let’s talk.  Band of Horses is most noteworthy for their heartbreaking indie classic single “The Funeral.”  I viewed it as powerful enough to be the 13th best song of the past decade.  The rest of their first album was filled with similar excellence, landing it at number 27 on my Best of Decade list.

Their follow-up release was arguably better in cohesion and construction.  However, Cease to Begin just didn’t have the punch offered by their debut album.  The album didn’t really seem a sophomore slump; instead it sounded like a band finding a groove.  Well, grooves be damned.

Infinite Arms and the wait for May 18

All three songs that are currently available for hearing on Band of Horses’ website are unexpected, massive and exceptionally crafted.  Let’s start with the weakest of the bunch, “Factory.”  This tune is the most similar to the rest of the band’s catalogue, offering a slightly twangy feel with a relaxed rhythm.  But the orchestration is very surprising, giving a majestic and optimistic tone.  The grand scale fits the band with surprising success, and it’s a very inviting song.

But it doesn’t even start to explain how awesome this album might be.  Enter the insane duo of songs: “Laredo” and “Compliments.”  These are perhaps the greatest songs written in Band of Horses’ career.  Yes, that includes “The Funeral.”

“Laredo” first.  The opening guitar keys you in right away, sounding like a ringtone, pulling you toward song.  Then the whole thing opens up as the drums, bass and voice all start up.  Now we hear a song of personal pain, lost love and self-reflection.  Some of the lyrics are a bit tough to decipher, but the clear sections are obvious, and the inflection even more so.  The musical skill and talent displayed here is extraordinary, far beyond anything the band had previously done.

This leads to the crown jewel of the pre-album material, “Compliments.”  This one is seen in video form, and it’s haunting.  Bouncing guitars and a pulsing keyboard are refreshing and totally unexpected.  Vocal delivery and harmony make this sound unlike any other Horses song, leaving me in total disbelief.  By the end of the song, I can’t help but be moved by the vocals even as I am stunned by the whole package.

Quite simply, May 18 will be awesome, and I really look forward to hearing the rest of Infinite Arms as either more is released or the whole album comes out.  This may be a contender for best of the year…

Song Roundup 7: Revisiting Old Friends

A few weeks is quite a long time in modern musical terms.  In that time span, countless albums will have surfaced (legally or otherwise) and artists will be shifting and working to get your attention.  The internet is rather to blame.

When I ignore a song for months this is like an eon.  Music can go away so quickly, forgotten in favor of the “next best thing.”  I’m glad to say I occasionally go through my collection on random or on Genius from iTunes (a lovely feature) to see how it all comes together.  Here are a few songs I’m glad to be hearing again.

Losing My Edge” by LCD Soundsystem

I hold a deep respect for what LCD Soundsystem does.  They manage to bring dance music into my life without letting me realize such an intrusion.  The dance-as-rock idea has shown up through the guise of semi-disco before, but I don’t think anybody executes the trick as well as this band.

The best trick in thrown out in this song is the drumming.  About a third of the way through, the drums just explode with crashing cymbals, but only briefly.  The bass carries on with this heavier tone, but you’re left wanting more, like the Dance Police caught you in banging your head in some rock show.

LCD Soundsystem rewards your patience by bringing the drums back around a few more times, but only after getting you totally hooked on the groove build from that booming bass.  Finally, by the third time through, you can stop anticipating the drums quite as much, and appreciate the great lyrics.

But they’ve still got you by your rock-ears.

The Engine Driver” by The Decemberists

Colin Meloy has a distinctive voice, seemingly built to tell stories.  Here, Meloy carries you through a light melody of false love and regret.  The song really hits you in the refrain, as he becomes a “writer of fictions.”

The description is apt, fitting the band’s act perfectly.  But this gem doesn’t just stand tall through personal observation.  The instrumentation fully supports the melancholy verses by offering introspective guitars, accordions and brilliant backing vocals.

The Decemberists had many great tunes on Picaresque, but this stands one of the most memorable, leaving the listener with a yearning for Meloy’s lost love.  Yes – he brings you into the character.

“Short Fuse Burning” by Less Than Jake

The song bursts right at you and lacks a large number of the lovely horns of most great Less Than Jake songs.  But “Short Fuse Burning” is among my favorite from the band because of the drums.

It’s such a derivative punk song: take a few chords, play it fast, make it short, and talk about some sort of angst.  But it works so well here.

That fast drum part as they sing “So I’m looking tonight / For some peace of mind” just sends the punk fan in me over the edge.  If I had a pogo stick, I’d be bouncing off the walls during that phrase.

Nothing about this song is overly special, but it’s just so immediate that you can’t help but fall for the hooks.  Take a listen to this song and you will also become a fish.  Even without the amazing horns!

Song Roundup 6: The Live Writer Edition

So, it’s fairly clear that I’m a slacker blogger.  After a wonderful plan to blog every day in May or something like that, I never did.  So here I am, inspired to write again by this Windows Live Writer software.  Previously, I’d blogged on Microsoft Word 2007.  I actually liked the interface, as it gave me the freedom to do what I wanted and I could still publish to the internet.  Now I’m giving this thing a shot and discussing the songs that are on my mind right now.

“Jingle of a Dog’s Collar” by Butthole Surfers

A seemingly nonsense song, the melody is really the catch here.  Jangly guitars seem almost like R.E.M. as the odd non sequitur chorus repeats the phrase, “The jingle of a dog’s collar would be good right here.”  Random phrasing about love only seems to further the insanity.  But this song becomes a real winner slightly after the two-minute mark.  A guitar breakdown brings out a smile and forces you to bob your head.

“Gronlandic Edit” by Of Montreal

The disco/rock/pop from Of Montreal is near-hypnotic.  “Gronlandic Edit” features a great bass line that drives an excellent groove.  Nothing particularly wild goes on in the song, but the piece is very relaxing while never allowing your attention to slip.  Nice vocal work from the band also keeps the song on my playlist.

“Haushinka” by Green Day

Green Day excels through hooks.  The band has a strong talent at getting a particular lyric, guitar riff, or even drum line stuck in your head for days.  “Haushinka” manages this feat through a soaring introductory melody.  Ringing guitars and bombarding drums combine to create one of the most unique songs in the Green Day catalogue.  Even the derivative lyrics manage to impress in this fearless basis of sound.  Nimrod is often overlooked in the Green Day canon for having that one song (you know… the one on adult contemporary radio).  That’s really unfortunate  – the whole thing is fairly adventurous and willing to explore the bounds of pop-punk.