TOP 50 TRACKS OF 2011: 20-11

Holy taking forever to post a year end list, Batman, time to trudge on with the top tracks of the year.

20: M83- OK Pal

M83 released one of the stronger albums of the year, which is no way a surprise.  While Anthony Gonzalez’s project usually finds each album going in a different direction than the last, you know that if M83 is going to release something, it’s going to be good.  It’s going to be enjoyable.  Wow, I just barely stopped myself from making a Dr. Who reference there (like how each doctor is different but inherently the same and…oh fuck, I’m too late already, aren’t I?)

“I’m afraid so, Jeff.”

The one “fault” of M83 is that they don’t strike me as a band where you’re meant to get overly fixated over a single song.  There’s enough of an ethereal quality to their music that I know many people who love M83 that simply put one of their CD’s on as a way to idly listen to something enjoyable in the background for the next hour.  They’re not really a band that’s going to have stand out single tracks for me, and usually it’ll take a good stand out single track to make it into my top 50 list.

Well, this is a pretty damn good track.  It has a glossy, synthetic 80’s feel with shoegaze sensibilities, a dream-pop feel to it, with chords just tangible enough to give yourself something to hold onto when you’re looking for some head-bobbing moments.  Honestly, many might swap “Midnight City” with this on their own personal list, but I think it’s just an issue of preference.  This track feels a little more grounded to me, and helps it stick out as the best effort of one of the better albums of the year.

19:  Ivy- I Still Want You

A late minute addition to the fray, Ivy is a band that’s been around since 1994, and who I had no idea was still making music.  Ivy is New York based band, featuring Adam Schlesinger, the bassist of Fountains of Wayne, Andy Chase, the guy who co-produced and engineered the FREAKING TITLE TRACK to That Thing You Do (seriously, I just found that out now and I cannot express how excited this knowledge makes me feel.  Oh and yeah, Schlesinger was the other producer on that song.  THAT THING YOU DO, guys!) and Dominique Durand, who has a pretty voice and is from Paris.

But apologies to Dominique Durand, I’m not going to talk about you because OMG THAT THING YOU DO!  THAT THING YOU FUCKING DO!

You remember how That Thing You Do so perfectly nailed that 1960’s one-hit wonder pop sound?  You pick up hints of that in Ivy’s soft and simple track, “I Still Want You.”  Soft guitar and a simple, whisked drum line allow what’s-her-name-you-know-the-one-that-didn’t-help-make-the-song-That-Thing-You-Do’s vocals to shine through, like a crisp breeze on a foggy day.  The occasional tinkering piano adds a nice touch, but really the basic melody almost feels like a slowed down version of a female-led Beatles song.

If this were, say, a song to be used in a battle of the bands, you could imagine the drummer deciding, on a whim, to double the speed, turning it into a raunchy 1960’s dance rock song that’ll climb the charts and SERIOUSLY HOW GREAT IS THAT MOVIE YOU GUYS!?

18:  The Joy Formidable- Whirring

Like most adult males with an appreciation of Indie rock and fully functioning genitalia (laaaadies), I appreciate the hell out of a band that gives you a female lead singer who just belts the shit out of a song.  I also appreciate the hell out of funny names, foreign accents, and long walks on the beach where we talk about our feelings and stuff.  Ritzy Bryan so far has managed to pull off all but the last one.  Swoon.

Another year, another creepy hopefully-he’s-joking Indie crush.

The Joy Formidable have managed to make a decent name for themselves this past year, with “Whirring” really leading the charge (to the point that it actually was charting in the US).  Hailing from Wales, they come at you with a big sound, all belting and soaring instrumentals, “Whirring” is the ultimate example of Indie Stadium Rock, the type of sound that’s suited for the Madison Square Gardens of the world, but sounds better because it’s being played in the Beacons out there.

This song never really slows down, taking you on a raucous ride for the first half of the song before devolving into an instrumental close-out of shredded guitars and seizing drums that almost leave you out of breath by the time it’s done.  Almost.  Because then it’s time to start the song all over again, because damn this is good.

17:  Okkervil River- We Need a Myth

Goddamn I love me some Okkervil River, but you probably knew that already.  The thing with Okkervil River is that, though they’re easily one of my top five bands of all time, each song is either going to be the greatest song to happen to alternative-folk-indie-rock-punk(?), or it’s going to be…okay?  It’ll be pretty.  I won’t give it much thought but I’ll enjoy listening to it.  But, but, when they hit it out of the park, they really hit it out of the park.  “We Need a Myth” is one of those songs.

Starting with a flurry of strings and band leader Will Sheff’s earnest croon, this track spends its first minute as a softly orchestral song with the occasional flurry of piano…until it spends the rest of the song building in intensity, slowly but surely, first with the introduction of the drums, then with guitar, and then some backing vocals.  “Desperate measures point to desperate times/ And that’s why we need a myth,” Sheff strains to the heavens as orchestral flurries mix with the more standard alternative instrumentation throughout.  The song pushes through the whole way, never pausing to take a breath, resulting in a truly exhilarating four and a half minutes that gets better every time you hear it.

16: Bodies of Water- Rise Up, Careful

I’d refer to the fact that I make the same joke about Bodies of Water each time I write about them (reading it in real time, the steps involved would be “Say something about them sounding like Arcade Fire and Polyphonic Spree making a baby, rim shot, wait for laughter, laughter doesn’t come, get flustered, say something ethnically offensive about Albanians, comedy career ends before it begins”) but this band hasn’t released a damn album since 2008 (largely thanks to some of the band members’ brief foray into Music Go Music) so I almost feel like I have to re-explain the awesomeness of this band to everyone.

Bodies of Water is a band from LA (eww) that is signed to the independent label Secretly Canadian (yay).  They’ve been around since the mid-Aughties, but again, were fairly inactive for a few years, only to come out with Twist Again this past year.  Also their website is sort of trippy.

No, seriously, what is this doing on your band’s website, guys?

While Twist Again was a marked step down from their first two (awesome) records (it’s a lot more lax, where their first two releases were urgent and almost hyperactive) it still leaves us with “Rise Up, Careful,” which is among the better songs the band has put together.  “Jeff,” you say with a level of familiarity that implies that you’re one of the people reading this who actually knows me personally (which is to say, you represent 80% of my readers at this moment), “I just listened to this song by clicking on the link in the title, by the way thanks for going out of your way to give me a chance to listen to each of these great tracks.  Anywho, I get the feeling that you mainly like this song because it has a big pick up after about a minute, and you always go on and on about how much you like that in your music.  Also, you are very attractive and talented, though that last statement had little to do with the rest of what I just said.”

Well, first of all, thank you, clearly fictional reader I just made up.  Secondly, you are right.  That’s totally what does it for me.  When the song picks up and brings in the saxophone, it really distinguishes itself from the fold.  From then on you’re just along for the ride, and it serves as a pleasant reminder just how good Bodies of Water can be.  I could have made a really bad pun there, like “you can sea how good they can be” or like, uh, “it’s as gentle as the ocean oh shit that doesn’t even make sense” so consider yourself lucky that I wasted my extended joke bit in this review on that “meh” fake reader thing that I threw in there just to artificially boost my self-esteem.  Oh shit did I type that last part down?

15:  CSS- City Girl (song starts at :55)

I don’t know when Cansei de Ser Sexy (which is Portuguese for “I’ve grown tired of being sexy”) fully dropped their full name to only go by the abbreviation of “CSS” but it has to have been at some point after their self-titled album dropped in the states in 2006.  I say this because I absolutely did not listen to their second album, and barely managed to stumble upon their third album, the “eh, it’s pretty good I guess” La Liberacion.

CSS hails from Sao Paulo, Brazil, and they try their best to fit into that niche of “cheeky electronic indie dance rock oh and also Jeff you’re a tool if you make up a genre that’s just four different genres and decide to call a band that.”  They were one of those bands that would stand out because they were from another country but still would do things like write a song called “Let’s Make Love While Listening To Death From Above” back when Death From Above 1979 was still around, or songs like “Music Is My Hot Hot Sex” which were okay but kinda funny, right?  Hell, my biggest association with CSS was that the year they played at the Pitchfork festival, one of my friends ended up standing next to them and described them “very sweaty, very smelly Brazilians.”

Though I suspect he must have been mainly referring to that dude on the bike.  Look at that ‘stache. 

“City Girl” is literally a song that I should loathe with every inch of my being.  The lyrics are not only trite, they’re trite in that “Oh man, you’re trying to do a female empowerment song, you had sooooo much potential here” way.  The general beat is a pretty generic club beat that is hardly unique, and reminds me of 30 songs that I hate that I’ve only heard while pressed up against sweaty strangers as I awkwardly try to hold onto my whiskey-diet on the dance floor of a club (laaaadies).  But dammit, if this song isn’t catchy.  It’s catchy enough that I can forgive it for all of its faults.  I like the trumpet segments that get tossed into the club beat to give it a more of a latin feel.  I like the chorus (I really like the chorus), I just like this song.  It’s easily a contender for the title of “2011’s Best Track For An Awkward White Boy To Blare Through The Stereo Of His Mini Cooper (laaaadies).”  Easily.

14 Art Brut- Ice Hockey

Oh, Art Brut…what happened?  If Pinterest existed three years ago, and you had me create a…uh…corkboard (I honestly have no idea how Pinterest works, as I’m not a 27 year old housewife) of bands that, no matter what, would make my top 10 albums of the year list if they released an album, I’d already have to, uh, “un-pin” (seriously, I know it’s popular, but I don’t do recipes or arts and crafts projects so I’m sort of at a loss) two of those bands.  Last year The Hold Steady came oh so close to cracking the top 10, but ultimately fell flat.  And now, Art Brut will fail to make my top albums list with this year’s disappointing Brilliant!  Tragic!

While I appreciate a band making alterations to their sound, it’s never a good sign when, three tracks into an album, I start asking people, “Did someone give me the wrong album, or…?”  Supposedly Frank Black decided to give Eddie Argos singing lessons, and he took it to heart.  Which was a horrible idea.  Seriously.  Just awful.  I don’t mean to beat a dead horse here, but Eddie Argos was not put on this world to sing, he was put on this world to gleefully shout at you.  Seriously.

Seriously.  Eddie Argos is far better when he yells.

In his press release about their second album, It’s A Bit Complicated, Eddie Argos confirmed that the band ages two years, thematically, with each album.  “The first album was kind of me when I was 17, and I suppose this one is when I’m 19.  If we do another one, I expect it will be me when I was 21,” Argos confesses.  Which makes sense.  Bang, Bang, Rock and Roll was driven by youthful excitement, loud music, and fumbling attempts at sexual encounters.  In concert, Argos confesses that his love with the titular Emily Kane was not a real infatuation, but rather “[being] in love with being 15, and my only worries being hungry.”

By It’s A Bit Complicated, the band is bolder, more confident, but also strutting with a swagger and a false bravado of someone who doesn’t understand the implications of their own youthfulness.  In “Nag Nag Nag” Argos presents a glorious “fuck you” to those who would criticize him, saying, “I’m nothing to my peers but envy and hatred/ How many girls have they seen naked?” but at the same time muses, “Older, but wiser?  This song’s the decider.”  We’re all geniuses at 19.  At least, until we look at our 19-year-old selves from the safe vantage point of 20.  And on and on it goes.

Art Brut vs. Satan finds the band legally able to drink in the states, but they’ve been legal for three years in England, so that’s rather arbitrary.  What we focus on instead is watching the band watching their adult preferences shaping while clinging onto their immaturity as a way to stay youthful.  “DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshakes” refuses to let go of those simple pleasures that sustain a childhood, while “Mysterious Bruises” talks about the physical pain the day after a night of heavy drinking.  “I don’t know how I managed to do this/ But I woke up this morning covered in bruises,” Argos offers, the first of several hints of guilt towards the fast-living of a 21 year old.  “There’s so many people I might have upset/ I apologize to them all with the same pretext,” begins “Alcoholics Unanimous.”  It’s still fun and carefree, but there’s a hidden question behind the album.  How long can we sustain this?

Eddie Argos’ upper lip asked the same question in regards to his choice of facial hair.

Brilliant!  Tragic!  Shows Art Brut at 23.  And 23 is not always the best age to be.  You begin to think that you’re older than you really are (no doubt Art Brut’s next album will center around regretting not taking advantage of the youthful feeling of being 23 while at the age of 25), you’re old enough to have suffered at least one true heartbreak in your life, and your life is likely stuck in a transition period.  Simply put, there’s a good chance you don’t know what you’re going to do with your life.  And that shines through in many of the songs, especially those with Eddie Argos singing.  My first reaction to hearing the album was, “Jesus, did Eddie Argos break up with that girl in the States he was dating last time I saw him live (~2009)?”

At 23, the world shows itself to be the terrifyingly large monster it can be, so maybe that would explain why the album has more of a “morose singing” feel to it, but that’s just not the Art Brut we know and love.  We want Eddie Argos shouting at us!  Clever lyrics!  Yes, the cleverness is still there, but we miss the joy.

With that whole thesis aside, “Ice Hockey” at least represents the closest return to form for the band, and it’s enjoyable, even if it’s not a full on amped up rock song like the best Art Brut tracks.  Acoustic guitar starts things off, along with the squeak of fingers moving on the fret board every time they play a new chord as Argos (thankfully) speaks the lyrics and we get treated to a few slightly morose but still enjoyable guitar riffs, before the song lets Argos loose, and the final few songs involve Argos screaming and reminding us why we loved Art Brut so much in the first place, and why we hope that the next two years treat the band a little nice.  Though hopefully they don’t grow up fully just yet.

13:  Wilco- Art of Almost

What’s that?  A post-2005 Wilco song making it this far up on my list!?  Who could have dreamt of such things?

As I mentioned earlier in my year end list, Wilco surprised the hell out of me with The Whole Love, and a lot of that credit goes to the daring, interesting, and lengthy opening track, “The Art of Almost.”  You can’t even tell it’s a Wilco song to begin with, as it’s just off kilter drums with the occasional strange noise tossed in for a full minute before some strings appear softly and meld into Jeff Tweedy’s vocals.  In the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, former member Jay Bennett (RIP) famously (well, to me at least) said, while working on the track “Poor Places” that without adding any sonic strangeness to the song, it’d just turn into “a fucking folk ditty.”

This song gets that.  It’s seven minutes that doesn’t feel like seven minutes, there’s enough bubbling beneath the surface to keep you enraptured the whole time, and, really, it’s their best song since “At Least That’s What You Said.”  Which is high praise coming from someone who has been insulting them fairly frequently for the past 5 years.

12:  Frightened Rabbit- Fuck this place

You Scottish sons of bitches, don’t think you can escape my year end list just because you didn’t release any album.  Frightened Rabbit decided to release a three-song EP as a free download, which was right proper of them.  Also right proper of them is the fact that this song, the angstly titled “Fuck This Place” is both one of the best songs of the year, but it also features guest vocals from one Tracyanne Campbell, the double-first-named lead singer of Camera Obscura.

Tracyanne Campbell, the daughter of Glenjohn and Candicesusan.

This gorgeous duet starts with a stomping rhythm and the ever-present background of a gentle horn section.  After two minutes of “oh this is pretty,” Scott Hutchison and Tracyanne begin building, belting out the question, “Would you be good enough to take me home?” as the horns begin to blare, the instrumentals pick up, and finally we’re left with an echoing accordion and a sense of catharsis (at least, if you were belting along).  The dirty little secret is, had this song been placed on The Winter of Mixed Drinks, it’d have been the best song on the album.  But for now, we’ll just have to appreciate it for being the twelfth best song of 2011.

11:  Rural Alberta Advantage- Muscle Relaxants

The difference between The Rural Alberta Advantage’s debut and their nearly-as-strong sophomore effort is the pace of the most memorable tracks.  While Homelands got the most impact out of slower, more melancholic songs (I love “Frank AB” as much, if not more, than the next guy, but it’s a song that ends in haunting A Capella about a town that got buried by a goddamn rock slide, for God’s sake) while Departing gets the most out of more upbeat songs (that of course, still lyrically have a hint of sorrow).

“Muscle Relaxants” is a rampage of a song, uptempo and driving and never pausing to take a breath.  Of course, to call this song joyous would be a misrepresentation- Rural Alberta Advantage doesn’t do happy songs, and if they did they wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.  “You don’t know what you like,” Nils Edenloff croons while at the same time confessing, “I never know when I’m holding you too much.”  It’s a song about the uncertainty of love, or at least the loss of control it affords you.  But damn if it doesn’t managed to say all that while being catchy as hell.

——————

And just under the wire before May, we’re left with just two more articles.  The top 10 songs and the top 10 albums will…probably come out before June.  Probably.

Maybe.

Professionalism!

About Jeff GoodSmith

I write on occasion. Sometimes it ends up here.
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