2011 has come and gone (seriously, it’s February already, I’m continuing my streak of taking forever with these things), and much like one of the various horrific natural disasters to strike throughout the globe this year, it came both forcefully while also not quite meeting certain expectations for carnage. How’s that as a way to start a year end list? Yes, 2011 saw some bands that have never failed to make an year end list suddenly dropping off the deep end (what happened to Art Brut? Who is responsible for telling Eddie Argos he can sing?) while certain bands managed to launch themselves back to respectability (Welcome back, Wilco, we thought we had lost you!). Oh, and I think the Strokes released something. I don’t know, I’ve stopped paying attention to them ever since they killed Indie rock in 2006.
But to get “real” and “personal” for a second, 2011 in life was almost the opposite of 2011 in music. Musically, 2011 started gangbusters, dropping some of the best albums of the year before March, including solid albums by bands that are personal perennial favorites. Toward the end of the year, things kept churning, but the year got it’s best stuff generally out of the way early on. Meanwhile, personally, 2011 started less than great, and ended incredibly well. I’d say that I was being vague enough about my personal life to instill mysterious curiosity but honestly, my name is on the article, if you really gave a shit you’d be able to google my facebook, twitter, and probably the personal notebook I keep under my bed in about five minutes. One of you probably already did that and, going back to the beginning of the year, just laughed and said, “Ha, looks like this here Jeff feller ain’t putting no Decemberists on this here list of his,” to which I say two things. First- holy shit, I have a southern reader? Email me, I’m dying to know how you found me! And second- you’d be surprised.
In fact let’s rip that first band aid right off as we get underway with…
ELITISH’S TOP 50 TRACKS OF 2011
50: The Decemberists- Down By the Water
I’m going to start right off the bat and say this- I’m fairly sure I hate the latest album by The Decemberists. Not the “Oh, I can see why people like it, but I’m not feeling it yet” sense I got when I listened to The Crane Wife, no, I’m talking about the pure, unadulterated loathing that makes you think, “Damn, they’ve stopped making good music. I’ll miss them dearly” that I felt when I first heard The Stroke’s First Impressions of Earth (see above).
In The King is Dead, the band changes from “Quirky smart Indie folk with a rock edge” to “We’re country western, y’all” while forgetting the Jeff GoodSmith rule of making Jeff GoodSmith like your folk music (Banjos? Encouraged. Fiddles? Get that shit out of my house). Making matters worse, this follow up to the best album of 2009 so outsold its predecessor that this is probably going to be the permanent direction of the band now. Fuck.
I think I finally know why educated people get caught up in the drama of celebrity rumors and tabloids. At first, you think, “I don’t like this” but it just gets thrown at you over and over until finally it becomes familiar enough that you just accept it. What I’m trying to say is that the only reason “Down by the Water” is on this list is that I’ve had to listen to it so many times I no longer hate it. I have begrudgingly learned to accept the harmonica, the honky-tonk rhythm, the fact that the accordion is practically wasted behind the drums. When all that is forgiven, the song is enjoyable, just so long as you let yourself forget that this is only a few years removed from “A Rake’s Song.” Uh oh, I’m starting to dislike this song again…wait, okay, it’s suppressed. The song is fine. It’s good. It’s the 50th best song of the year.
Now can you please stop making country music, The Decemberists? I mean, seriously.
49: The Wombats- Our Perfect Disease
The Wombats are one of those bands that would have been much more popular if they had come out about three years earlier. 2007’s A Guide to Love, Loss & Desperation was British power pop glory, from the tight hooks to the cringe-worthy lyrics. The band members met at the Liverpoiol Institute of Performing Arts, which was founded by Paul McCartney, and they made their presence known with catchy as hell tracks such as “Kill the Director” and “Let’s Dance to Joy Division.” They are a Brit rock band that comes in equal parts energy, hooks, cleverness (“If this is a Rom-Com/ Kill the Director/ This is no Bridget Jones”), and awkward filler lyrics (I mean, seriously? “Carrots help you see much better in the dark/ don’t talk to girls they’ll break your heart?”). It took them three years to follow up their legitimately great debut album, and the results are…well, good, but not great.
“Our Perfect Disease” is a great example of what the Wombats are still doing right…as well as where they’ve sort of departed from their best work. It’s a little less straight-forward instrumentally, trying to be more “club-dancey” than “rock-dancey,” though they still craft catchy songs with sharp hooks. But the lyrics are a little more serious and a whole lot less earnest. While The Wombats have never been a particularly great lyrical band (the term “bad lyrical band” comes to mind) they always had a youthful earnestness. Not so in their latest album. Seriously, they have a song called “Anti-D” which has the lyrics “Let me be your anti-depressant.” That’s the chorus. That’s terrible. “Our Perfect Disease” is nowhere near the height The Wombats reached with “Let’s Dance to Joy Division” but, at the very least, it’s a reminder that they’re still capable of crafting a good pop song. Just not a great one.
48: Cymbals Eat Guitars- Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)
Back in 2009, I predicted that Cymbals Eat Guitars would go at their sophomore album gangbusters. Just an incredible sophomore effort that took their work to the next level. And I was…not wrong, but not right either. Cymbals Eat Guitars pretty much stayed on par with their first album. And I’m not complaining, they are a high energy, intriguing group, and I give them credit for not only starting their album with an eight and a half minute song, but for making one this good. Yes, “Rifle Eyesight” is long, rising and falling affair. It’s great for a long song. Of course the main problem for Cymbals Eat Guitars remains. Musically, the song is a lot like rice. At first, it’s exciting, and grabs your attention. And while it maintains that quality for duration of the song, eventually it starts to sort of fade in the background, and it’s not grabbing your attention so much as being pleasant in the background as you focus on other things. Like, uh, peas. This metaphor is falling apart.
The first three minutes are going to be incredible for you, the next four minutes will be forgotten about as soon as you hear it, and the last minute will amp things up to end on a high note. You’ll wonder where the last 8 minutes went, and you’ll remember hearing exactly four minutes of an awesome song with some gaps in your memory. But those four minutes? Well, they’re absolutely good enough to include this on my year end list.
47: Los Campesinos- Hello Sadness
You know when an acquaintance that you are secretly but strongly attracted to changes their appearance in some way (a new piercing/hair cut/ hair color/etc) and while you still find them attractive you have a hard time coming up with a way to compliment them on their new look because, quite honestly, they were hotter before? Los Campesinos! are great. They really are. But they’ve done that slight cosmetic change, and while they’re still better than 99% of the stuff out there, that remaining 1% (Ha, remember Occupy Wall Street, you guys?) does include their earlier work.
Los Campesinos! made a name for themselves due to the contrast between their somber lyrics and their youthful exuberance. This is the band that would gleefully shout angry ejectives to the Universe, the band that could take lines like “We kid ourselves there’s future in the fuckign, but there is no fucking future” and make it sound like a gleeful battle cry. Then last year they released Romance is Boring, with the standout track “The Sea is a Good Place to Think of the Future,” where we found a somber and profound band spinning a beautifully tragic yarn. Remember that? I liked it so much I made it one of the year’s best songs for the year before the actual album came out.
The problem was that they continued into that direction a little too much. Hello Sadness as a title seems too direct to have effect, which is why the title track from this album gives you a very enjoyable Indie rock song that doesn’t have a single particularly memorable lyric to take it up that notch to put this in the top 10, 20, or even 40 songs of the year. But don’t interpret my negativity to be me saying this song is no good. It’s quite good, there’s a reason it’s on this list, Los Campesinos! can craft a quirky Indie anthem with their eyes closed. It’s just that, well, I liked them a little better before the haircut.
46: The Wombats- Techno Fan
Hey there, Wombats, look at you! Being all meta! Was that on purpose? Did you write a song with the chorus line “I never knew I was a Techno fan” specifically for an album where you diluted your sound by adding the synthesizer aspect of techno music to it? And when you said, “Shut up and move with me…or get out of my face” was…was that a dig at me? I mean, that’s fair, I am being unduly hard on you guys.
The truth is, this song is the one that best takes the new elements that the Wombats are working in and combines them with the best elements of their earlier work. The Wombats clearly disservice themselves by not having any guitar for the first minute and a half (some “dah da dahs” and alternating synth notes are in the forefront of the vocals and minimal drumming before the song stops pussyfooting), but when things actually pick up, it’s pure Wombat power pop gold. Upbeat and catchy, this is what the Wombats do best. It’s like they saw my reaction to the sophomore slump this album represented (this honestly should have been a top 10 album, dammit!) and placed a gentle hand on my shoulder as if to say, “We got this, asshole writer. We got this.”
45: Los Campesinos- Songs About Your Girlfriend
At this point you are saying “Jeff, is this list only going to be British bands? It’s starting to feel that way.” Well jokes on you, the Decemberists only pretend to sound British, so they don’t count. Ha! Sick Decemberists burn. Okay, so I spent most of the last Los Campesinos! song description bemoaning how they’ve gone from “freaking amazing!” to “great, but not always freaking amazing” in this most recent album (the most succinct way to describe it would be to ask “where they better when they hadn’t grown up?”) but “Songs About Your Girlfriend” actually emulates the old spirit of the band more than many of the tracks on their album. This is the second best song on the album, but you could see it fit in on, say, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed (It’d probably be the fourth or fifth best song on that album).
I don’t know why I feel more prone to praise this song while only begrudgingly complimenting “Hello Sadness” (come on, man! Title track! Where’s the love?!). Maybe it’s the stark emptiness of the opening slightly-fuzzed guitar solo. Maybe it’s the frantically driving beat and the schoolboy energy. But probably, it stems from the lyrical dichotomy you see when you go from lines like “You do not like us ‘cause your girlfriend likely does” to the chorus of “Songs I’ve written about your girlfriend/ Are just psalms of spite since it came to an end.”
Wait, they wrote an upbeat song where you expect it to be a rock and roll brag song, but instead is cleverly inverted to be a song pining for an ex-lover? Los Campesinos!, you’ve done it again!
44: BOAT- Bite My Lips
BOAT is from Seattle. How do I know that? Because every band that’s from Seattle can’t stop talking about other bands that are from Seattle. Seriously, look at that cover art up there for their album Dress Like Your Idols. You see some pretty easy to spot allusions up there. You see Built to Spill in the upper left corner, the middle is obviously the Velvet Underground, and the top right is…wait, The Long Winters? I mean, yes, I love the Seattle-based Long Winters as much as anyone, but powerhouses of popular Indiedom they are not.
Yes, BOAT has been bouncing around the fringe of the Seattle (and to a lesser extent, Chicago- TFA represent!) for years. So it only makes sense that Seattle musicians are going to have an important part to play in their quite excellent fourth album (stay tuned for the track featuring former Harvey Danger lead singer, and Long Winters backup singer, Sean Nelson). But don’t interpret “fringe” with “divisive.” BOAT writes catchy Indie pop songs like it’s their job (…which, it kind of is).
This song is all about the hook, which is simple but peppy and effective. The first two minutes power forward before the song fades, leaving you to think “huh, that song was pretty short…” until the band picks things up to take it into overdrive for the last song. It’s easily digestible, and sure, easily disposable, and it might not stick with you for the rest of the day, but for those three minutes where you listen, it’s absolutely worth a spot on this top 50 list.
43: M83- Wait
M83 has been around forever. Forming in France in 2001, by band went from a duo to “one guy with his brother sometimes helping out” back in 2003. So while M83 has been one of those bands that’s been fairly established for, Jesus, over ten years, but it wasn’t until Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming came out (which happened to be after Cut Copy sort of borrowed their sound and got popular) that they started really charting everywhere. Did you know this album was the 15th top selling record in America for a week? I didn’t think so.
Anthony Gonzalez, who is M83, moved from France to Los Angeles before recording this album, and he tried to create a fusion between the synthpop and ambience of his previous albums. “Wait” is absolutely one that falls more into the “ambient” category of things, as the song is nearly six minutes of slowly rising electronica, basically with the lyric “No time” repeated over and over again. If you love painfully gorgeous songs (which I do) and you like a song that slowly but consistently build to a beautiful crescendo (guilty again) you’ll want to make abomination-against-God babies with this track. Of course, all of these are exemplified by the final minutes, which see an almost unearthly electronic yelp permeating the music in a haunting yet effective way.
I may have already beat you to the punch.
This song is soft and delicate, gingerly holding your hand as it guides you through six minutes that you’re not even aware of until the song ends and you ask yourself, “where did the time go?” Such songs are hard to find, but it’s always a breath of fresh air when you do.
42: Rural Alberta Advantage- Tornado ‘87
The Sophomore Slump is a problem for most bands. They find some modicum of success with their first album, and they either try too hard to get the follow up out too soon (see also: The Hangover Part 2) or they try so hard to duplicate the sound that made them popular in the first place that they produce a cheap imitation of their debut work (see also: The Hangover Part 2). It’s hard to really nail the Sophomore album, and a well done follow up to a breakout album can either establish a band as legitimate (take a bow, Arcade Fire) or you’ll come off as more of a flash in the pan talent (hey, do you guys remember The Go! Team?).
The Rural Alberta Advantage managed to navigate their sophomore effort relatively unscathed for the effort. While the highs on Departing aren’t quite as high as those on Homelands, and while there are fewer songs that fully take Nils Edenloff’s drumming (he is very possibly the most technically proficient drummer in the Indie Rock game as of now) and Amy Cole’s delicate harmonies (swoon). And while “Tornado ‘87” doesn’t feature much more than keyboard and “ooos” from Cole, and just a fairly standard (for him) drum pattern for Edenloff, Paul Banwatt’s lyrics and vocals for the song still make it a song worth consideration in the canon of truly great RRA songs (sure, there are less than 25 songs by them out there, but they’ve still managed to get quite a few memorable ones).
The song itself is upbeat and drives along at a nice pace, while thematically it’s pure Rural Alberta Advantage. For a band that’s proven to be quite adept at spinning personal and effective yarns about events occurring in Alberta area, this song describes (surprisingly enough) a Tornado that went through Edmonton in 1987. While the event is a personal event from Banwatt’s childhood, he manages to transcend the basic story and add some universality and depth to it, as the chorus of “I let you go” goes into the closing line of “Black sky comes and I hold you,” creating a real sense of urgency and futility, of life and love against forces out of one’s control.
So yeah, given that this isn’t even the only RRA song to make this list, I think we can safely say that they managed to avoid that whole “Sophomore slump” thing.
41: Mr. Gnome- Bit of Tongue
When I first listened to Mr. Gnome, I always was under the assumption that A- there were at least four people in the band and B- that it was an all-girl band. I can explain my reasoning here- as Nicole Barile layers her vocals to create a haunting, ghost-like effect, it’s not too much of a stretch to assume that there are two women singing in the band. As for the accidental diss on drummer Sam Meister, uh, sorry bro. I don’t know what to say other than the fact that I’m so used to band gimmicks that I assumed the old Indie rule of “if the band has less than 5 people, and there are at least two women in the band, then the whole band will be women so it can be a girl band.” So to get this out of the way, no, it’s a two person band, with full guitar, vocal layering, and drums being the primary tools at the band’s disposal.
Hailing from Cleveland,Ohio, Mr. Gnome has already put out three albums, so they’ve had the proper time to get their sound down. While their first two albums are solid, with a handful of truly great tracks, Madness in Miniature is proably their most cohesive album to date. “Bit of Tongue” is a fun example of their sound here, starting off very light, feeling like a fairy tale, only to let things really take off in the second half of the song after a brief lull. The last minute and a half races forward with manic intensity, like going from a calm jog to an endorphin-pumping sprint to close things out. This song does a good job establishing what you should expect from Madness, and as you’ll see later on in this list, they’re not quite done yet.
And that’s it for this segment of the top 50 songs of 2011. Look for songs number 40-31 to come out sometime between late February and Early October.