Sunday, January 15, 2012

Top 25 Songs of 2011

2011 saw some interesting developments in popular and independent music that I could enumerate or comment on... but I won't. Instead, I'll just offer my 100% Objective List of 25 Absolute Greatest Songs of 2011, plus a couple honorable mentions. And no, "Video Games" didn't do anything for me.

Honorable Mentions:

Burial - Street Halo
It's Burial. I can't not put this on here.

St. Vincent - Surgeon
On "Surgeon," the verses' woozy synths stream into and dance about the come-on chorus: "Best find a surgeon/Come cut me open," the sheer sexiness of which is its own reward.

25. The Field - Then It's White
This patient piano-led electronic soother reminds me of Tomas Dvorak's brilliant Machinarium soundtrack. What a great game.

24. Destroyer - Kaputt
A witty, wispy incantation of prime 80's cheese, recasting long-hated signatures of commercial soft-rock--clean, chorus-y guitars, saxophone--into something engaging and sharp.

23. Girls - Vomit
I'm a Girls fan. I loved their debut, Album: "Lust for Life," "Hellhole Ratrace," and "Headache" were real keepers. Unfortunately, their follow-up, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, while smelling pleasantly of classic-rock evergreen, didn't strike me with the same sense of supple talent and vulnerability. "Vomit," the record's centerpiece, brings some of those feelings back, though. It's a desperate plea for love that swells from hunched whisper to full-blown gospel choir and organ, singer-songwriter Chris Owens chanting, "Come into my heart." Sure thing.

22. Bill Callahan - Riding for the Feeling
This one's all about the voice. That tasteful toasty baritone immediately asserts its hard-won wisdom. You know, from the first "It's never easy to say goodbye," that this guy's bullshit-free. Which makes the seemingly contradictory "In conclusion, leaving is easy" perfectly acceptable.

21. James Blake - To Care (Like You)
I thought Blake's 2010 EP's were interesting, if not always robust. I think his 2011 self-titled LP is pretty decent. He may play the heartthrob well, but in terms of dubstep, he's no Burial. This underrated album cut, though, carves something delicious and emotive from his pared-down post-dubstep ice.

20. Beyonce - Countdown
By now we all know that Beyonce is one of the few pop radio divas with real class and staying power. 2003's "Crazy in Love" is just about canonical, and she proved as far back as Destiny's Child that she has a God-given voice. "Countdown," her ode to domestic bliss, ironically can't sit still; it explodes with fun and creative fire. Like a Beach Boys song circa '66, this is three and a half constantly morphing minutes of lavish pop production, with Beyonce steering the mighty vessel of her voice through seas of schizophrenic drums, plinking keys, obligatory horn bursts and more to arrive in a land of pure nuptial ecstasy.

19. Iceage - You're Blessed
Those chords. Those first fist-clenching, heart-swelling chords. What follows is fairly straightforward punk, propelled by a relentless ride cymbal and fur-chested toms. But it's those ringing guitar chords which open "You're Blessed" and close New Brigade that truly lend the song its invigorating, nay, inspiring spirit.

18. Eleanor Friedberger - My Mistakes
Friedberger's smiling, sunny-but-not-too-sugary vocal delivery lends itself well to the microscopic Brooklyn stories crammed into "My Mistakes." She sounds almost reverent of the tiny human peculiarities she recalls, but there's some regret too. "Why keep time travelling if it doesn't get better on the second time around?" she sings (twice), followed by the self-interrogating chorus. Diary-level detail, emotional complexity, and a sweet-ass sax solo to boot. No mistakes here.

17. Sepalcure - Pencil Pimp
In a year obsessed with all things dubstep, Sepalcure constructed a beautiful dance track absent of wobbly sub-bass menace, buzzing synths, or skittery swing. "Pencil Pimp" is Chicago keyboards, a colorful mix of vocal samples--some chant-y, some Antony-y--reliable hi-hats, and even a few acoustic guitar strums. It's simply some gosh-dang enjoyable (though not at all saccharine) modern EDM.

16. Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Ffunny Ffrends
A crispy, nonchalant disco drumbeat and a hard-to-forget, easy-to-savor riff. The low fidelity and awkward (if warm) singing seems inappropriately underconfident when paired with such an effortlessly strong foundation. That is, until you get halfway through and hear the high-register vocal flourishes flying over that gladly repeated figure. At that point, you know they know how good this thing is.

15. Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica
It was hard picking one representative for OPN's gloomy, sample-heavy Replica LP. Should it be "Sleep Dealer," which could probably be called the album's catchiest moment? Or "Explain," the redemptive closer? Finally, I settled on the title track: a dynamic but dreary piano-driven ode to obsolescence, haunted by synths that buzz and chirp and whistle with plaintive resignation. I can't neglect to recommend the video for this track: the juxtaposition of such depressing electronic music with footage from an old Russian cartoon produces a very weird effect.

14. Jacques Greene - Another Girl
Electronic music is often good at isolating the remarkable elements of older songs and recontextualizing them, allowing them to be savored and elaborated on. G-funk does so with 70's black music, breakbeat does so with, well, dusty soul breakbeats, trip-hop does so with obscure spoken word, dubstep does so with turn-of-the-millennium R&B singers, etc. Here, Jacques Greene takes a couple utterances from a Ciara song and reworks them into a hypnotic, carefully structured thumper aimed right at the dance music pleasure center.

13. Yuck - Rubber
90's blah blah retro blah blah Dinosaur Jr. blah blah Sonic Youth blah blah barely out of their diapers blah blah almost too faithful blah blah blah. Now, about "Rubber," my favorite song on Yuck's self-titled debut. It's good! That deliciously overdriven, incessant electric guitar growl, those charmingly distorted vocals, the... wait... that other guitar figure that pops in at just the right times... the acoustic strumming underneath it all... the slow but sure orgasmic build, chanting "Should I give in?" and then "Yes I'll give in." Hey, this thing is actually a little sophisticated! Well I'll be damned. Not only have these lads done their homework, but they've (with "Rubber" at least) out-performed some of their  essential alt-rock forbears.

12. Holy Ghost! - Jam for Jerry
When it comes to music, I usually prefer my sadness to be dressed in ebullience. Holy Ghost!'s sparkling dance-rock requiem for drummer Jerry Fuchs combines disco-house thump-thump-thump with  a catchy chorus: "I get the feeling I've done something half wrong/It surrounds me and drowns me in it/If I could change it all I would, if only I could/You can quote me and hold me to it." Grief and guilt have always gone best with major-key hooks and danceable drums. You can quote me and hold me to that.

11. Tim Hecker - The Piano Drop
Tim Hecker's Ravedeath, 1972 is a barrage of digitally manipulated organ recordings expertly balancing beauty and terror, each enhancing the other. The tracks aren't super-distinct, and my pick for this list mostly serves to represent the album it opens. However, the choice was deliberate: I feel "The Piano Drop" best illustrates Ravedeath's flattening apocalyptic rhetoric. It's all crumbling skyscrapers, rusting hard drives, botched civilizations imploding all around you as you curl among the rubble, utterly helpless.

10. St. Vincent - Cruel
"Cruel" is a deft and confident blend of alternative and pop sensibilities. Neurotic organ stutters and hiccups under the verses (propelled along by an almost house-like kick drum), occasionally interrupted by disconcerting string swells and insincere falsetto, before the song bursts into a breathless one-word chorus. And then, right at its most radio-friendly, there's this screwy guitar solo that mucks everything up. But the song's weirdo tendencies only serve to heighten the thrill, the ecstatic release, when Annie Clark lets out that indelible refrain: "Crooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooel!"

9. AraabMuzik - Streetz Tonight
Producer AraabMuzik took Adam K & Soha's remix of trance artist Kaskade's calm, afterglow-y "4 AM," concentrated it, and beefed it up with a satisfying hip-hop beat. That weightless, misty vocal gains a real sense of yearning when dropped into AraabMuzik's bombastic, purposeful remix. A powerful dynamic is introduced, with half of the song swaying along to unhurried keys and hi-hats, and the other half speeding along the city's sleeping streets on an urgent kick drum. Trance-hop? It's better than it sounds.

8. The Caretaker - Libet's Delay
The Caretaker's An Empty Bliss Beyond This World sounds interesting on paper: a sequence of instrumental prewar slow-dance 78's, played back with the century of dust that has become their baggage, and then slowly messed with: looped, stripped-down, digitally manipulated. The idea comes from the fact that many Alzheimer's patients are able to recall old songs better than other memories. And so The Caretaker, the alias of one James Kirby, decided to get about as retro as it gets.

Again, at first it sounded like an intriguing experiment and a rather clever exploration of memory. But when I actually listened to the thing, I was devastated. You can just see an old man in a chair in a dim room, sifting through broken shards of his past, deteriorating, wishing more than anything to be young again, to dance to those songs again. It doesn't really help that the numbers themselves are gut-wrenchingly innocent and leisurely, especially on opener "All you are going to want to do is get back there" and my arduously-arrived-at pick for this list, "Libet's delay" (named after Benjamin Libet, a pioneer in the study of consciousness).

The piano on this track kills me. The chords are just perfect. And the lightly strummed guitar... the wistful trumpet melody... the vinyl crackle... the spaciousness... the solipsistic loneliness... Sigh. There are some themes that just don't resonate with me and some that just do. I guess I'm a sucker when it comes to old age, nostalgia, and the passage of time. Which makes listening to "Libet's delay" an exquisitely unbearable exercise.

7. Fleet Foxes - Grown Ocean
Fleet Foxes was my favorite record of 2008. Helplessness Blues is my favorite record of 2011. And it's better than their debut: more personal, more sophisticated, more resonant. There may be nothing as hummable as "White Winter Hymnal," but these baroque-Americana fauxkies (as singer-songwriter Robin Pecknold puts it) have with their sophomore LP delivered something that I believe can stand up to the great rock albums: angelical harmonies, enveloping instrumentation, and lyrics that embark on a stirring quest of self-discovery.

The album kicks off with Pecknold singing--much more intricately than ever before--"So now I am older/Than my mother and father/When they had their daughter/Now what does that say about me?" Where their debut was pastoral and emotionally abstract, Helplessness Blues directly asks the big questions: Will I find everlasting love? Why do we die? What's my purpose here?

The title track may be the album's centerpiece, and "The Shrine/An Argument" may see Pecknold's voice heat into an almost-scream ("Sunlight over me NO MATTER WHAT I DO") that reveals just how goddamn talented a singer he is, but it's the finale, "Grown Ocean" that really seals the deal. Josh Tillman counts down on the sticks, cutting into the drone left over from "Blue Spotted Tail", before the full band blossoms into the track, Sky Skjelset's beatific guitar lead playing counterpoint to Pecknold's voice. Giddy acoustic guitar strums out the rhythm underneath, impeccable harmonies soar overhead, cymbals spray like waves breaking on ancient rocks, and flutes twirl about like doves.

And then, right at the height of its swell, everything falls out but a wind chime and two harmonized voices: "Wide-eyed walker, don't betray me/I will wake one day, don't delay me/Wide-eyed leaver, always going..." This last falsetto note doesn't resolve. It hangs up in the air, away, not finished, not settling, still searching.

6. i3i3 - Midnight Radio
I first heard this track in a post-dubstep themed mix by my DJ friend Nav. Later, I asked him about "that one with the guitar in it." He told me it was called "Midnight Radio," by i3i3. We'd already listened to this thing during so many late night car rides in the middle of his (very well-crafted) mix that when I ended up listening to it on my own, on its own, I couldn't possibly divorce those jittery hats and woodblock strikes from my memories of moonlight, mist, and the chilled delirium of a wound-down Friday.

It's a solid tune, too. There's a swaying, languid beat, faint horns that rise and fall like hilly back roads, resounding hiccups, smoky vocals, and the touch of genius: that indelible echoing guitar. Musically, this thing was a big part of my 2011, and the year was that much better for it.

5. Rustie - All Nite
I feel kind of bad about putting this above something as belabored and soul-baring as Fleet Foxes' "Grown Ocean." I mean, one asks, "What's the meaning of life?" and the other asks, "You feel like dancing yet?" But what can I do? Fun is fun. And "All Nite," the penultimate track on UK producer Rustie's debut Glass Swords, is really, really fun.

Rustie doesn't hail from the minimalist school of post-dubstep: this ain't no "Wilhelm Scream." "All Nite" is not walking under a streetlight, hands in hoodie, cigarette lit, thinking about some old flame. It's jumping on a trampoline made of cotton candy while fireworks boom overhead. It's swimming in a ball pit the size of Lake Ontario as a WWI-era zeppelin flies by with a banner reading, "YOU DA MAN." It's got brostep's brainless buzzing bass synths and chipmunk vocals incessantly shouting "All night!", but it also happens to be good. Every diabetes-inducing synth blitz, snare roll, and orgasm-"oh" is fit with such care and precision that it feels positively effortless, which is of course the mark of true craftsmanship.

So no, it doesn't grapple with existential themes. Yes, it is kind of stupid. But you know what? I love stupid if it's done well. There's a rich tradition of dumb, incredible pop music, and it's some of my favorite shit in the world. Welcome to the legacy, Rustie.

4. Kurt Vile - Runner Ups
I don't know how else to start talking about this song except to quote it: "If it ain't working, take a whiz on the world/An entire nation drinking from a dirty cup/My best friend's long gone, but I got/Runner ups, yeah/When I'm walking, my head is practically dragging/Yeah and all I ever see is/Just a whole lot of dirt/My whole life's been one long running gag..."

It's grubby, grumbly stuff, sung in an almost punk-like sneer, but the fragility of Vile's voice and finger-picked guitar betrays loads of tenderness, and that drawled "yeah!" which follows the barely self-consoling refrain belies a tangible pain. There may be the Dylanesque dismissal of "You shoulda been an actress, you're so domineering/Take two white-gold earrings for your troubles, now," but the next line goes, "When it's looking dark, punch the future in the face," a kind of inspirational anti-platitude utterly alien to Zimmerman.

Still, "Runner Ups" does what the best Dylan songs do: come off at first like they're distant and vaguely damning, but ultimately reveal themselves to be barbed little tangles of hurt and self-deprecation.

3. Jamie xx - Far Nearer
Jamie Smith has been pretty busy. Not only is he the percussionist for acclaimed indie rock outfit The xx, but he's a pretty hot producer/remix artist in his own right. While his Gil Scott-Heron remix album We're New Here, released just months before the influential musician's passing, was a clever and imaginative production, his solo act single released later this year is, in my mind, his masterpiece.

It's clear that Smith is a great re-interpreter. Here, he takes the current obsession in popular music--dubstep (or rather post-dubstep)--and re-imagines it as something saturated and sunny. Gone is the concrete, the introspection, the wobbly paranoia. The difference between "Far Nearer," with its citrus-y steel drums, upward-gliding major key harmonics, and ocean breeze echoes of "You! Me!", and other dubstep is like the difference between Matisse's two Dance canvases: one is inviting, communal, joyous, the other menacing and brutal. Even the pitch-shifted vocals on this track sound happy. Maybe it's because they're not saying, "We could be friends/Away from my heart," but rather, "I feel better when I/You feel better when I/My heart feels better when I/Have you near me" (or something like that...).

"Far Nearer," as its name would imply, is about closeness, fullness (it's miles away from, say, Blake's minimalism), and, well, feeling better. And that's what happens when you listen to it: you just feel better.

2. Cass McCombs - County Line
An instant classic. Full of feeling but inscrutably ambiguous, slow and subtle but more intense by the minute, sung with tenderness but also a strange sense of dread and regret. The narrator's returning to a place he's been away from for a while, and he isn't necessarily loving the idea of going back.

From the first, the place itself is given human qualities: "On my way to you, old county/Hoping nothing's changed/That your pain is never ending/That is, it's still the same." It's a bit unsettling, especially when McCombs mentions being able to "smell the columbine." And then the county becomes a past lover, as McCombs dips into a stinging falsetto: "You never even tried to love me." The half-nostalgic electric piano and gentle hat taps expertly conjure the "passing road signs" on this cross-county trip of mixed feelings.

Actually, I need to talk about these drums. They're perfect. They never explode into catharsis, but their tactful restraint and crisp, foregrounded texture benefits the song the same way B.J. Wilson's drudgy percussion benefits "A Whiter Shade of Pale." There are many other details in the song's instrumentation that are just so judicious and correct: the prickly organ whine, the polite, meticulous electric guitar.

It's McCombs' delivery, though, that steals the show, especially at the track's three-quarter mark, when he sings the title in a stunning nasally twang and then drops down to a soft, round-edged, "Woah, woah, woah, woah." Woah, indeed.

1. M83 - Midnight City
WOO! YEAH! DOO-DOOO-DO-DO! DOO-DOOO-DO-DO! Oh man, this song is too good. An ode to all the possibilities of those strange few hours when the sun is on the other side of the Earth--whether they be found in the imagination or the backseat of a car--"Midnight City" is pure nocturnal dynamite.

M83's Anthony Gonzalez digitally manipulated his own voice to create the electrifying hook on this, the lead single from his ambitious new double-LP, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming. Then he added stadium-obliterating drums, scintillating synths, and tension-building verses. Then he added the most bombastic, life-affirming sax solo to be found in this galaxy. It's the perfect exclamation point to a work that already screams with excitement.

"Midnight City" may draw heavily from the 80's, but its HD grandeur is completely here and now. This isn't a throwback. It's decade-making material.