Thursday, December 8, 2011

On Warmer Music's Favorite Songs Of 2011 [30-21]

End of the year lists are stupid. They're arbitrary (really, this is your 27th favorite song, without a doubt?). They're needlessly competitive. They're certainly subject to change (I doubt there's ever been a year whose list I wouldn't have done a major revision of twelve months later). As definitive statements about the year in music go, they're an inexact and certainly somewhat juvenile attempt where even a good list is bound to fail as much as it succeeds.

But oh, how I love them so. Like so many geeky males, I love lists and arbitrary rankings. I love reading other peoples and thinking how wrong they are while simultaneously compiling my own in my head. I love the months of debate such lists can engender. I love stopping to take stock of the somewhat capricious mixture of new music I've listened to in the past twelve months. I love the time-capsule nature of these lists and how they allow us to occasionally step back and see what we've actually done (err, heard) in the past year while we've been busy living life. 

So with all those caveats in mind, I'm pleased to present the beginning of the On Warmer Music 2011 year-end lists. Throughout the rest of the month I'll be listing my favorite 30 songs, 15 albums and 10 live performances of the past year. I use the word "favorite" advisedly because, even I wouldn't necessarily claim that all of these are the "best" of their respective categories (whatever that would entail) but they're the ones that have made the biggest impression on me and, in case the blog didn't tip you off, I foolishly believe that there is at least some value in my own narcissism. And in that spirit I say, enjoy!

[All songs will eventually be posted in a .rar for those who'd rather not download individually.]

30. Cold Rain - Talib Kweli  Buy Gutter Rainbows
So did you know that Talib Kweli released an album this year? I don't blame you if you don't, a lot of people could say that. Although he gained fame with Mos Def in Black Star and got a lot of play from his collaborations with Kanye, it seems that Kweli doesn't get the same critical love that he used to. I think part of the problem is that he's so consistently excellent that people have started taking him for granted. If that's the case then this track off Gutter Rainbows should set them straight. The soul-inflected production, adept lyricism and defiant hopefulness on display here bring you right back to 2004. In a relatively down year for hip-hop, Kweli joins the Roots as an old master holding down the fort.

29. Summer Song - Matt Duncan 
OK, I think this song just overloaded my defenses by throwing nearly every musical throwback that makes my heart swoon into one glorious track. It starts with a faux Doo-Wop chorus, adds a swingin' 60's bassline and puts it over the top with some absolutely delightful horns. I didn't know anything about Duncan until stumbling onto this song but I was immediately sold. A ditty this infectious with a summer theme and tune sticky enough to be sold as taffy? More please.

28. Baby's Arms - Kurt Vile  Buy Smoke Ring For My Halo
Kurt Vile was an artist whom I'd never come across before this year. However, I read great things about his new album and decided to check out his band the Violators at the Pitchfork Music Festival. It was a glorious set where three shaggy looking young men played their electric guitars at me for 50 minutes in the teeth of July's roiling heat. That gave me no inkling of how beguiling Smoke Ring For My Halo would be. "Baby's Arms" is a song that sounds as soft and delightful as its subject matter. Vile sings about finding solace in love over a bed of softly picked acoustic guitars, tinkling electronics and hushed backing vocals. It's so effective that you could practically sink into this song and take the most contented afternoon nap of your life.

27. Holy Holy - Wye Oak  Buy Civilian
Wye Oak was another band I'd been meaning to give the ol' college try to get into for a while. My attempt yielded mixed results in terms of loving their whole discography, but certain songs have just jumped out at me, starting with "Holy Holy". I think what initially drew me in was the similarity of the opening guitar riff to that of Rogue Wave's "Publish My Love". Like Rogue Wave, Wye Oak creates lush, hazy guitar sounds that you can live in, surround yourself with and be amazed by when they kick into the next gear. I'm still parsing my way through the lyrics, although Jenn Wasner has somewhat spilled the beans as to her initial meaning for the song. Either way its mixture of Byrdsian finger picking and layered guitar crunch will suck you in before powering its way into the back of your brain.

26. Freaks and Geeks - Childish Gambino  Buy Camp
There's a strong temptation to dismiss Donald Glover's rap alter-ego Childish Gambino as a mere novelty act or (as he notes) backpack rap for Community fans. But to do that would ignore his considerable musical abilities and ability to pack as many referentially-astute-yet-hilarious jokes into three minutes as his other project currently getting no love. If you're anything like me, Gambino is a great thing when taken in small doses and "Freaks and Geeks" is the best place to start. Glover's rapid-fire delivery of pop culture references mixed with put-on hip-hop braggadocio is impossible to listen to just once. From the frenetic Power 92-friendly production to the shamelessly self-aggrandizing lyrics it's everything great and terrible about modern radio rap all at once. Except it starts with an e.e. cummings joke. If that's not enough to make you give it a listen, I don't know what is. 

25. I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl - Wavves  Buy Life Sux [EP]
So, as I mentioned in an earlier review, I've been hesitant to jump on the Wavves bandwagon. After seeing them live, however, I've definitely softened to the band's charms and "I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl" is a big reason why. This is a band that throws out knockoff Ramones riffs like roll like the Chinese do female children and they lay the punk-meets-60s girls group love on extra thick here. But that's kinda the point, isn't it? This is an EP song about Dave Grohl, not "Hey Jude" and the band is clearly having as much fun as possible. It's five-and-a-half minutes of pop/punk bliss that feels like two, just press play and enjoy the ride.

24. Midnight City - M83  Buy Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
Stylus once described listening to Kanye West's Late Registration as "akin to eating an entire cheesecake at one sitting" and that's a pretty good description for M83's latest opus as well. To be fair, I've always had a limited tolerance for techno productions, never mind the seemingly endless run times that such dance music also leads to, so I'm prone to such beliefs. But I've also realized that M83 is an electronic act worth listening to, you just need a way in. With overwhelming synths, a dangerously hooky lead and production that sounds just interesting enough to be "new", "Midnight City" has all the hallmarks of a "Time To Pretend" or "1901"-style crossover hit. Here's hoping for that.

23. Time Is Right - The Feelies  Buy Here Before
Oh, the Feelies. One of those classic "never got their dues" bands who (like so many others) are now reuniting for at least moderately more love. I have to say that the new album is nice in that it neither tarnishes nor bolsters their legacy. That being said, any new music from a band with such a uniquely catchy formula who'd only given us 40 songs can't help but be met with enthusiasm. I'd already heard "Time Is Right" when I saw the group give one of the best performances I've ever attended one Monday night in 2009 at Millennium Park. Let me tell you, time and studio work did nothing but improve the song. The guitars sound great, the bass is clear and forceful it speeds along like the Feelies of old. Yeah... that's the stuff.

22. Weekend - Smith Westerns  Buy Dye It Blonde
Even though they're from Chicago, I've yet to catch the Smith Westerns live. And truth be told, they kinda come off as assholes a lot of the time. But you know what? They make such fun, light pop rock that I'm willing to spot them a little bad will. Their new album is pure sock-hop stuff with puppy love lyrics on top of a guitar, bass, keys and drums backing that would give you diabetes if it were any sweeter. "All Die Young" seems to be the consensus favorite from Dye It Blonde, but I have to say that I prefer "Weekend" (or even "Dance Away") which has less soggy balladry and more propulsion, echoey guitars and "na, na, na" choruses. It's not a song that will change your life, but it just might make you feel happier about it while driving with the window down on a sunny day.

21.  Metropolis - Illinois  Buy Lemonade Stand
Ah, the "Boys From Bucks County" (it's my attempt at a nickname, let's hope it catches on!), how we've missed them! Illinois may have only given us an demos collection this year to tide us over till their next full-length, but even that was full of memorable, hard-to-pin-down gems. I mean this song starts with simultaneous wonky keyboards and harmonica that bridge country pop and lo-fi indie pop seamlessly. I'm not quite sure what "Metropolis" is about besides a man wanting a girl (and perhaps fearing losing her to a city?) but I don't particularly care. I've spent many a morning belting out the chorus about not needing a metropolis as I speed by the Sears Tower and Hancock building on the way to work. It never fails to make me smile.


  1. I like your attempt at a nickname, however Illinois resides from 'Bucks County.' Throw that "s" on there and you are golden!

  2. I can't decide what I like more about this - the fact that there's an Illinois fan willing to so scrupulously fact-check this stuff, or the fact that they're doing it at 4:30 in the morning on New Year's night.