Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On Warmer Music's Favorite Songs of 2011 [10-1]

So here it is, the thrilling conclusion. Although 2011 felt like a little bit of a down year for music compared to 2010, I was surprised by how difficult cutting songs off this list proved to be. It's a testament to the incredibly open and accessible nature of modern technology and media that even a "down" year is so fulled with exciting, interesting, catchy, happy, depressing and otherwise amazing music.

Download On Warmer Music's Favorite Songs Of 2011
[See Tracks 30-21]
30. Cold Rain - Talib Kweli
29. Summer Song - Matt Duncan
28. Baby's Arms - Kurt Vile
27. Holy Holy - Wye Oak
26. Freaks and Geeks - Childish Gambino
25. I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl - Wavves
24. Midnight City - M83
23. Time Is Right - The Feelies
22. Weekend - Smith Westerns
21. Metropolis - Illinois
[See Tracks 20-11]
20. Video Games - Lana Del Ray
19. Shaking Hands - Title Tracks
18. Codeine - Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
17. Never Quite Free - Mountain Goats
16. Pulaski - Drive-By Truckers
15. Waiting For Kirsten - Jens Lekman
14. War's Blazing Disciples - The Eternals
13. The Leibniz Language - Le Butcherettes 
12. Nat Geo (feat. Chris Lee) - G-Side
11. The Summer Place - Fountains of Wayne

10. Cruel - St. Vincent  Buy Strange Mercy
"Cruel" floats in on the same ethereal, Disneyesque musical bed that started so many songs on St. Vincent's last album, Actor. That's actually fitting, because it may be the song that sounds the closest to the past incarnation of the band on this year's Strange Mercy - the link between A and B, if you will. The keyboard bassline, however hints at the new sound of St. Vincent before Annie Clark's blurpy guitar sound starts poking in around the edges, lending color and mystery. The lyrics are half sung by a hushed choir of Clark's voice and half by the singer by herself, ending in a wavery falsetto on the one-word chorus. The music video is the perfect visual embodiment of the lyrical themes themes, starring Clark as a restrained housewife of a painfully WASP-y clan. The family's cool, unemotional abuse of her plays on the theme of casual cruelty that is inherent in so much of seemingly innocent aspects of everyday that Clark sings about. St. Vincent's successful mixture of weird, beguiling, catchy elements seems to only be getting stronger with each new album. Slate this tune for the eventual greatest hits album.

9. Romance - Wild Flag  Buy Wild Flag
First it's the keyboard and guitar playing a fun little riff. Then the drums come in, oh yeah, it's Janet Weiss! Then finally, Carrie Brownstein starts singing with a "hey, hey" and everything's off and running. So begins the first song on Wild Flag's long-awaited debut album and fittingly enough, it's a love song to music. "Romance" bounces along with such ease and joy that it's easy to miss the passion behind the singing. Wild Flag happened because Brownstein, after years of sabbatical, decided that she needed to be playing music again and this song is perhaps the manifesto of that feeling. Amid ridiclously fun keyboard fills, drum rolls and handclaps are lyrics like "we love the sound / the sound is what found us / the sound is the blood between me and you". They could be singing about love between the band members, between musician and audience or just two people, either way it's infectious. Also, thank you, Wild Flag for bringing "shake shimmy shake" again. It's been too long.

8.  Art Of Almost - Wilco  Buy The Whole Love
I really hemmed and hawed about which song off of The Whole Love was my favorite for this list. Like most people, I fell pretty hard for fuzzy bass of "I Might" over the summer, then it was the unstoppable pre-chorus of "Dawned On Me" for a while before "Born Alone"'s poetic lyrics and Cline guitar work won my heart. Ultimately, though I went with "Art Of Almost" because it succeeds so brilliantly at creating a sonic landscape in your mind for the rest of the album to play out over. Like the lead songs on most Wilco albums "Almost" is the album in glorious microcosm. Also, though it's not immediately "hooky", this song is incredibly musically exciting. The keyboards set a dark, futuristic tone over which everyone else in the band does something incredible. Stirrat's bass has never sounded so menacingly funky as during the first part of the song before he steps into the background to let Cline viciously assault his strings for a few minutes, giving his best performance since "Impossible Germany". While kraut rock, R&B, arty lyricism, blippy electronics and Television-style guitars are all familiar ingredients in the Wilco stew, they've never tasted like this before. Seconds please.

7. Taken For A Fool - The Strokes  Buy Angles
Holy shit, has it really been ten years since Is This It came out? Are the Strokes "classic rock" enough to get their own tribute album? I think that part of the reason this seems so odd is that the Strokes kinda burned out after two great albums, releasing the overblown Electricityscape in 2006 and then just kinda... going away. We'd never said goodbye to them, yet they were gone. Until this spring, that is, when Angles was released to middling reviews. While it's not as good as their first two records, it's no flop either with songs like "Under Cover Of Darkness", the awesome summer jam "Gratisfaction" and, of course, "Taken For A Fool". To me, this sounds like nothing so much as a step back to 2001 for the band, and I mean that in the best possible way. Although there is a little keyboard in the mix now, most of what I hear is the chugging neon bright guitar lines, get along bassline and soaring chorus that you sing along to in the car even though you couldn't tell anyone the words if asked. Perhaps you can't go home again, but the Strokes sound like they at least know how to visit.

6. Recollections of the wraith - Shabazz Palaces  Buy Black Up
"Clear some space out / so we can space out". That's just about the most fitting description possible for this song and perhaps Shabazz Palaces' music in general. "Recollections of the wraith" is laid-back with a less-is-more production approach. The song glides on a simple, bass-heavy beat while featuring an oohing female background singer, Ishmael Butler's low key rapping and... that's about it. But like the rest of the album, "Wraith" is just an excuse to relax and let your mind float free. "Tonight", Butler keeps promising, setting a nocturnal scene perfect for the cosmic chill-out that is Black Up.

5. Miss K [Single Version] - Deer Tick  Buy Divine Providence
Deer Tick released the single version of "Miss K" as a teaser for Divine Providence and it was almost a terrible idea because the pure pop joy contained in this song is enough to overpower the rest of the album (or nearly any album, for that matter). All brightly strummed acoustic guitars and jumpy bass, "Miss K" gallops out of the gate and never looks back. It's a giddy love song whose music managed to embody that life-is-perfect giddy rush that comes with young love flawlessly. The band manages to smudge just enough dirt on its face with lines about "drunken arms" and "talk[ing] dirty" to avoid total mush and then just got the hell out of the way. Hey, did I mention it should probably go on that next mix you're making if you want a chance smush you boo

4. California - EMA  Buy Past Life Martyred Saints
You know how when you're a teenager life feels like it's coming at you too fast to process and you're always angry and upset and you never know which way is up? Well, Erika Anderson sure as hell does and she's made a song that's managed to capture that exact feeling with a white-knuckle grippingness that's almost scary. "California" is stream-of-consciousness, free-associative romp through her romantic and personal past that doesn't always stop to connect that dots but leaves the emotional footprint stamped firm in your brain. 

Over a filthy rumbling beat and some airy feedback, Anderson speak-raps her way though a litany of complaints which touch on everything from the closet to schizophrenia to a gun-wielding holy family. She does this while skipping between vocal rhythms and melodies in a fascinatingly unpredictable way as if she's always circling around the real hook. She even manages to pull off a fatalistic John Lee Hooker line a few bars away from a "Camptown Races" reference while sounding absolutely assured and fearless. Unlike almost every other California song ever written Anderson rejects the state as a symbol of the empty promise of escape to something better, a false beacon for the American dream. That's an feeling we can all relate to even if we need to change the names and faces to protect the inno... those involved.

3. The Other Shoe - Fucked Up  Buy David Comes To Life
Fucked Up was, to quote Jay-Z, "so necessary" in 2011. As the long-running hostage situation that was the budget talks played out between the weak and the stupid while America teeterd on the brink of ruin all summer was enough to drive a sane man biz-erk. Each of the next three artists on this list provided emotional release and intellectual validation but none more in a more bluntly cathartic manner than these Canadian hardcores.

David Comes To Life was a tragic love story set against the backdrop of a collapsing dystopian alternate reality. On the album, "The Other Shoe" underscores the bleak reality that unites our lovers in a plot to build a bomb and fight back, setting the scene very effectively. Of course, you're welcome to ignore all that and just enjoy the scratchy, devastating riffage and inescapable chorus. It's a monster jam and Damian Abraham's brutally rasped lyrics paint a sufficiently dark but recognizable picture to match. How many unemployed people feel like they "finished first but missed the start" or "watch[ed] all go down the drain" these past few years? And how many disillusioned liberals feel like we "need a Peter but we got a Paul"? 

It's a song of intense menace and dread, where you're wracked with equal parts anger and powerlessness. At least for people like me, watching the news these past few years has certainly enough to make you feel like "you're dying on the inside" and hearing those feelings sung so directly is like breathing fresh air again. It's songs like this that help move the lump from your throat and assure you that what you're feeling isn't crazy. After all, it can't be comfortable when the whole thing's about to fall.

2. Gangsta - tUnE-yArDs  Buy w h o k i l l
Look, I know that a project like tUnE-yArDs is gonna be divisive, ok? A part of my brain is aware that everything from the spelling to the production to strident vocals and noisy interludes, makes this a project bound to inspire intense reactions going in both directions. I'm just so in love with Merril Garbus' songs that I want to believe that she can be like, freaking huge. When I first heard "Gangsta", I was already impressed by w h o k i l l thus far, but when the tinny drum patter gave way to the crushing bass and vocal loops, I knew the game had been raised to a whole new level.

I think it's fairly safe to say that there has never been a pop hook quite like this before. Gone is the lo-fi haze of BiRd-BrAiNs, replaced with a pulsating, organic mix of live instruments that sound both fully realized and charmingly ramshackle. Nate Brenner's bass is rich, melodic and sly, driving the song and providing a perfect counterpoint to Gerbus' wild drumming and singing. "What's a boy to do if he'll never be a gangster," she asks, a question repeated once more (with a different gender) and clearly meant to be asked, not answered. Besides this question the track is nothing but glorious horn noodling, drum bashing and enough noise to almost bring things to a halt before one final triumphant reprieve. 

A part of me knows that there's something about this song that's just a little too weird and too full of potentially off-putting influences, (especially seen on a white girl) like rap, jazz, dub and art rock to really cross-over. But there's also still a part of me that wants desperately for that not to be true.

1. Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes  Buy Helplessness Blues
This song keeps bringing me back to Don McClean's description of the Baby Boomers as "a generation lost in space". The Millennials (which is I guess what they're calling people vaguely 10-30 these days) aren't lost in space so much as in time. Born of parents who mixed the personal affirmation parenting of the seventies with well-intention focus on educational achievement, the current recession has made the decline in the latter temper to promises of the former. It's people with the progressiveness of sixties without anti-government baggage. The Fleet Foxes managed to capture the spirit of people that age (at least the ones I know) better than anyone else this year.

Robin Pecknold manages to tap directly into the sense frustrated ambition and maddening powerlessness against larger social, political and economic forces that control your present and future. He also nails the quicksand feeling of the moral compromise and oceans of grey area inherent in diagnosing and fixing problems. And who would've thought that anyone could make a line like "I'd rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery / serving something beyond me" sound so brash and alluring?

The Fleet Foxes also create music strong enough to carry these words. They're smart enough to start with a slow, "Pinball Wizard" acoustic build, to highlight the rousing opening verse. From there the song shoots off in several directions at once, shifting from rollicking Simon & Garfunkel singalong one minute to Beach Boys style psychedelic barbershop the next and back. It's a beautiful backdrop but with none of the slightness that plagued their debut album.

"What good is it to sing helplessness blues," you ask? Well Robert, if it's powerful enough to speak for a generation, it's probably something that needed to be said.

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