And finally, it comes to this. Another year passes, and another year sees me taking longer and longer to post my year end lists. I suspect this is some sort of cruel mental self-flagellation on my part, as in the time it takes me to decide to finally sit down and churn out these lengthy descriptions, I end up discovering releases from the previous list that I wish I could include on this list, but alas, it’s too late. So they cycle through my playlists as I type, haunting, nay, judging me. Saying “where was I when you made this list back in December of 2011?” and “Hey, I know that 20,000 words is a whole lot of typing, but it’s not six months’ worth of typing!” And you’d be right.
Oh well, we live and learn. Maybe next year I will be more on top of this whole music list situation. Or maybe you’ll get the last entry of my 2012 piece when the Mayans invade the planet (to be honest I might not have the firmest grasp of what the Mayan Apocalypse would entail).
Well, anyway, if you’ve stuck with me this far, through two website, I might as well give you what you (maybe) want.
10: Fishboy- Aspen2k
Listen, I write about Fishboy a lot. I enjoy his quirky-fun-I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-more-popular-nationally-than-it-is brand of Indie pop. But believe me when I tell you that this song’s high placement on this list is in no way influenced by the use of a Muppet in this music video. That has nothing to do with it. I have my integrity, goddamn it.
Pictured above- integrity
The first track that I heard from 2011’s awesome Classic Creeps is one of the best, as well as being one of the few songs that really lets us bathe in the melody for longer than three minutes. As I’ve mentioned previously, Creeps is an album where each song follows a character whose name begins with A, and all of these characters are connected through various complicated means.
“Aspen2k” gives us possibly the most pure “chorus” in the album, or at the very least one of the more catchy ones. It keeps a steady, upbeat pace until about the three minute mark, at which point the song is interrupted with a spoken word interlude that allows the instrumentals to build up, peak, and drop in one of the song’s most effective moments. Of course the whole concept is goofy. For example, in the interlude, after being clubbed unconscious, we are told that “Millennium awoke tied to the enormous rocket.” This is not a world that exists in reality, sure, but if a goofy fantastical world is going to exist, we might as well give it a quirky, upbeat soundtrack. And that’s why we have Fishboy.
9: Childish Gambino- Outside
Donald Glover is a former “30 Rock” writer, comedic actor (Represent, Community), and occasional young Tracy Jordan. That said, I’m pretty sure that’s the last thing he’d want you to focus on in his rap project, Childish Gambino. In fact, he probably wouldn’t want some random white raised-in-the-suburbs-of-Chicago blogger trying to decipher his lyrics in between jokes about Vampire Weekend and, I don’t know, Midnight in Paris. That said, “Outside,” the opening track from Glover’s debut studio album, Camp, is a bit of a tour de force. While some of his songs are filled with killer hooks and racing beats, “Outside” is more of an introduction, somewhere between a polite but distrustful handshake and a stern “who the fuck do you think you are?” lecture.
A choir of “ohh-oh-ohh” starts things off as soft synth beats lay the background before Glover comes in tales of his childhood memories that are painted in equal shades 80’s nostalgia (“playing with this Land Before Time toy from Pizza hut”) and racial existentialism (“They talking hood shit and I ain’t know what that was about/ ‘Cause hood shit and black shit is super different/ So now I’m talking hood shit and cool it now like New Edition.”)
The backbone of this song is inherently one of a racial identity struggle. While the track describes a familial struggle to make ends meet, it also shows Glover trapped between racial worlds. Glover talks of his family, saying “Workin’ two jobs so I can get into that white school/ And I hate it there/ They all make fun of my clothes and wanna touch my hair,” while then going on to address those in his old neighborhood by saying, “And he mad ‘cause his father ain’t around/ He lookin’ at me now, like/ ‘Why you so fuckin’ lucky? I had a father too/ But he ain’t around so I’mma take it out on you.’”
There’s an identity crisis at the roots of this song, but it also powers each verse into the gorgeous, choir choruses which all eventually ends with Glover singing to the heavens, “Can you hear me now? Oh, help us Lord.” All the pieces combine to make a deeply personal, effective, and profound track.
8: Rural Alberta Advantage- The Breakup
I talk a lot about the Rural Alberta Advantage. And you’ll see more by them later on in this post. “They’re at their best when they focus on the drums and backup vocals,” you might hear me say. Or, “they manage to make very personal sounding music about various Alberta cities,” might ring a bell. But sometimes, you just have to appreciate a song for being tender and sweet.
In “The Breakup,” the song opens with little but tinkering keyboard notes and more-subdued-than-they-could-be drums, until the final 40 seconds where the drums let loose a little wilder, and Amy Cole gets to make an always-welcome vocal appearance. As for the lyrics of the song, it’s both as straightforward and as metaphorical as you’d expect. It’s also relatable, as many of us have had that winter relationship that abruptly ends as soon as the weather clears and the need for warm comfort during the cold months fades away. In this case, the breakup of a relationship is discussed in tandem with the breakup of ice as spring arrives. It’s simple, and effective.
I can’t particularly add too much in my review of this song that hasn’t already been said by “Anonymous” in the comment section of the lyrics88 posting of the track’s lyrics.
Yes. Boobs indeed, anonymous. Boobs, indeed.
7: Dreamers of the Ghetto- State of a Dream
One of the top “I will blare this in my car” tracks of 2011 was easily this track from the debut of Bloomington, Indiana’s own Dreamers of the Ghetto. One thing that helps of course is Luke Jones’ booming pipes deeply belting out the lyrics through anthemic yet slightly murky instrumentation. Of course, the lyrics aren’t the most decipherable either, but that’s hardly relevant for this track. Big, sloppy drums dominate the mix while sharp guitar stutters and pinballs throughout the track, and by the time the chorus states, “The state of a dream is not what it seems” you’re already immersed in the track. While I could easily slide into some bullshit English major conventions of how it’s “like you’re in a dream yourself” but no. Screw that. Just chalk this up to a solid track with a write-up that doesn’t fully do it justice.
6: Childish Gambino- Freaks and Geeks
While the previous Childish Gambino track can almost be taken as solemn—it’s the funny man being serious, dissatisfaction with a classist racial unregulated segregation put to a beat, an announcement that Donald Glover has emotions and those emotions are real, “Freaks and Geeks,” from an EP released early in 2011, doesn’t set out to do anything more ambitious than string together a series of clever, boastful lyrics over a solid, high energy beat.
Glover does hip hop ballads of identity struggles with an incredible mix of artistic finesse and necessary bluntness. It’s something that borders on masterful at times. But every once and a while you just need some good old fashioned sexual bombast mixed with some Indie references and literary puns. “Alright, Gambino is a mastermind, fuck a bitch to pass the time” Glover blurts to start things off, and the track races through top line after top line. Really, this review could just be a series of lines from the track. “Chillin’ with my n-words, say it like a white kid,” “Take the G out your waffle, all you got left is your ego,” and “E.E. Cummin’ on her face, now that’s poetry in motion,” are all the lines that remind you that, yes, Glover is in this rap game for real, but it helps that he knows how to write and spin a clever phrase or seven.
Oh, and also, he gets laid a lot, apparently. A lot.
5: Scott Hutchison & Rod Jones- I Forgot the Fall
Throughout the past year I have been saying that this track is a collaboration between Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit and Rod Jones of Twilight Sad, written for a charity CD. What I’ve forgotten to mention is that I’m a fucktard, and that Rod Jones is actually the South African lead singer of Idlewild. So, uh, go me.
That of course doesn’t change the fact that this song is quite stellar in all the things I look for the song. It’s upbeat, has a soaring chorus that includes mismatched lyrics harmonizing over soaring violins, and crams an epic Indie-folk-tinted-rock-song into three and a half minutes of pure joy. It’s a bit more orchestral than anything Idlewild or Frightened Rabbit have put out, but it’s not gaudy about it, striking that perfect balance that makes for a truly beautiful track. And it also serves as a reminder for me not to just assume that if a guy with an accent is singing with the lead singer of Frightened Rabbit that he must be Scottish too (because really, if you’re going to have a Scottish band that deals with lilting folky-rock, you’re going to be choosing between Twilight Sad and Frightened Rabbit).
4: Fishboy- Aaron the Afterthought Astronaut
I don’t know how I feel about the fact that the best song on Fishboy’s latest album also happens to be the shortest, while also being the one track on the album that isn’t stand-alone, instrumentally. While Classic Creeps is most assuredly an album experience that is greater than the sum of its admittedly great parts, it still had enough great stand-alone songs to warrant multiple entries in this year’s top-1o list alone. But while I’m normally firmly in the camp of “the more Fishboy you’re offering me, the better” I guess I can just embrace that notion with this particular track by repeating it three times in a row. Clocking in at a hefty 2:08, this is one of the catchiest, peppiest, quirkiest songs on an album chalked with catchy, peppy, quirky songs. Oh shit, you’ll have to excuse me, I just said the word “quirky” twice in one paragraph, which means that 2012 internet hack comedy writing laws dictate I have to insert a picture of Zooey Deschanel.
“Warble Parble Weeble, it’s a fake language I invented using tin cans with strings attached to them! ADORKABLE!”
“Aaron the Afterthought Astronaut” starts with 30 seconds of an upbeat guitar and vocal introduction, but really kicks things up a notch at the 40 second mark when the drums kick in and the rest of the instrumentals fill in, and you are treated to delicious lines such as, “At this point in my life only two things matter: 1- becoming an astronaut, 2- it’s you, my dearest Ava, you’re the only thing I’ve got.” While this track works in the utilitarian aspect of establishing characters you’ll see throughout the album (“Our neighbor Adrian built a rocket, he’s a master of everything that flies” nods to the following track, “Adrian Simmons”, and Aaron’s dear Ava gets seven minutes for herself to close out the album in “Ava Aviaria.”) The song kicks it in high gear all the way through, until the final section of the song sees Eric Michener repeating with increased urgency, “I don’t think I could ever find another,” until the song finally breaks it’s breakneck gait and settles to prepare itself for “Adrian Simmons.”
“Like a cartwheel that lasts two weeks”, this track might seem brief but it fills enough ecstatic energy to last well after music has settled into the bass line that melds so seamlessly into the album’s second track. And even with an ending meant to introduce you to the following song, this still stands as easily one of the best tracks of 2011.
3: Okkervil River- The Valley
Much like sex, pizza, and Hellen Keller jokes, when Okkervil River is good, they’re really good. And when Okkervil River is bad, they’re still pretty good. Anytime this Austin outfit releases an album, it’s a safe guarantee that at least one track will be worth adding to the pantheon of “awesome Okkervil River songs that I’m going to make into my super awesome John Cusack take-me-back mix as soon as I find a chick who is super into Okkervil River” tracks.
“Boop bee doop! I like that one song where they use a mandolin!” Dammit quirky Zooey Deschanel, leave me alone!
Like a precious snowflake, each Okkervil River Cusack-Mix-Track is different and special. You might have a pick-up centered track about killing a woman, or you might have a peppy jaunt about overcoming past heartbreak. This track is no different, offering a refreshingly unique Okkervil River sound centered on pounding drums and layered vocals, the rhythm of the track literally feeling like a march through a valley to some unknown destination. There’s no real chorus to the track, which just further enforces this song’s feeling of an almost militaristic musical march, peppered with sickly smooth violin riffs. Will Sheff rattles off cryptic lyrics such as, “I hear a breeze that wheezes through the tips of the pines, where there’s laughter and screaming to the rafters in the night,” as the song carries on, never dwelling on one particular lyrics motif over another, before ending in a sea of overlapping lyrics and string-aided cacophony. All this comes together to make the best song on the latest Okkervil River album, which of course has to be worth a top-5 spot. Of course. This is rookie, people.
2: Man Man- Spooky Jookie
So yeah, “Spooky Jookie” and I used to date for a bit back in 2006 and 2007. It got pretty serious. I was known as “that dude who was really into ‘Spooky Jookie’” and everything.
Okay, back story. Man Man has been playing “Spooky Jookie” live ever since 2006, which was at least one incarnation of the band ago. I booked Man Man to play a show back in 2007, and basically chatted his ear off about “Spooky Jookie” to the point that, a few years later, he recognized me as “that kid who is obsessed with ‘Spooky Jookie.’” When I contacted Honus Honus for an interview that ended up never getting set up, shortly after the release of 2008’s Rabbit Habits had exactly zero instances of “Spooky Jookie,” I was patiently informed by the bandleader that the track was going to make it on their next album. Sure enough, three years later, they followed through with their promise.
Of course he kept his promise, with such an honest and hearty mustache.
But here’s the problem. It’s not the same track I fell in love with those years ago. Gone are the saxophone solos, the crazy yelps, the xylophone opening that made the song so memorable. In fact, if you want to know what the far superior, earlier version sounded like, go here. If that was the song they had taken to the studio, this track would easily have been the best song of the year. Instead Man Man treated us to a great song…that’s not as great as it once was. For a song I’m so used to loving in its raw, live state, it takes some getting used to, hearing such a polished version of the track. The “oo oos” to start off are less haunting than the original vocals, the guitar picking less precocious than the use of xylophone, Honus Honus’ vocals lightly layered adding a studio-based touch that I don’t think is particularly necessary. It’s strange to hear a Man Man song that seems has frills of strings and flutes adding musical depth to the track and complain that their instrumentation seems a little too “safe,” but in comparison with the original live version, you can see that, as the rough trilling saxophone gave the song a roughness that went along beautifully with the theme of the song.
But don’t interpret my kvetching as an indictment of this finished product—it’s still up here for a reason. An upbeat song with a sinisterly dark undertone, the track describes a woman’s fall into drug addiction, sauntering through such lines as “She broke her teeth on an unsheathed piece of hard-tasting candy,” and even more distressingly, “She can taste his tongue in her mouth and it’s tasting like deceit,” it’s the deconstruction of a wrecked life, spread over a four and a half minute period. It’s songs like these which remind you that, despite all of Man Man’s instrumental high-energy Tom-Waits-Meets-Captain-Beefheart-Meets-Frank-Zappa conventions, they’re still an impressive lyrical band at heart, able to tell a story that just happens to be centered around off-kilter music.
“Spooky Jookie” ends up showing Man Man at their very finest…it just leaves me wondering, what if it had made the cut for Rabbit Habits back when it was one of the last songs cut from that album in 2008. How would this song feel if it had three years less to fester in songwriting purgatory? We’ll never know, but we can still appreciate the end product we received. But, damn. What could have been.
1: Rural Alberta Advantage- Stamp
The older you get, the harder it is to find that song that emotionally grabs you upon your very first listen. I’m not saying that we become musically jaded as we find life giving us more and more obstacles trying to limit our ability to discover new music, I’m just saying that life, and music, can get so crammed with associations and implications that it takes more time to foster a truly emotional response to something that is novel to your system. It’s easier for us to fall in love at 16 than it is at 26, and it’s easier to replace that love at that younger age. Think back to your favorite bands from your formative years. Some still leave you with nostalgic reminders of past dreams and aspirations, some you just laugh and say, “I don’t know what I was thinking.” That’s why on the rare occasion that you find an artist or a song that instantly connects with you, it’s truly something special.
Listen, I’m not even going to delve into the variety of cloyingly-self-deprecating jokes that I’m want to do to liven up this review. I’m not even going to make borderline outdated topical references. And I’ll even say that this song might not be everyone’s favorite song of the year. Might not even be your favorite song from the album. But this song resonated with me in a way I did not expect, and that’s coming from a band who I know tends to write songs that resonate in me. When I first stumbled across this music video, after an incredibly tumultuous early-2011, I latched onto this song in all of its frantic-Paul-Banwatt-led-drumming, Amy-Cole-harmonies-assisted-builds glory. The track takes you on a ride, soaring through the first two and a half minutes before reaching an apex, as Nils Edenloff and Amy Cole sing, “Hold on lover, you’ll find another…” before they both belt out in harmony, “But I don’t need you, and I won’t need to.”
The lyrics serve as a sort of anti-love song, sending a letter to once and for all bid farewell to a relationship, mapping out the ambivalence you feel towards a relationship you once cherished that you now want nothing more than to flee. “Hold me close while you can/ try to remember the End of December” Edenloff sings before pining that, “the hardest thing about this love is that it’s never gonna last/ And the hardest thing about this love is that you’re never coming back” before ultimately coming to the decision that “this love” was something that you no longer need.
The song is the accumulation of a series of poignant moments that, over the course of just three minutes, merge together to form the best song of 2011. Because ultimately, the best music of our lives is just that. A series of moments that strike us as profound, that dare to reach into our hearts and spark emotions from where it’s still pure and undiluted. And, at least for me, this song does that more than any song of the past year.