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.