Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top Ten Songs of 2009

By the end of two-thousand and nine, not just the end of a year, but the end of a decade and literally "an era," music was in a strange and wondrous place. In addition to the myriad "best of" music lists floating through the internets, crammed with the voices of both mainstream and independent audiophiles ad nauseam, I would like to add my own paltry two cents by submitting ten little ditties that had me no less than obsessed in 2009. And as for the past decade and what it's meant for music, I'll let the editors at Rolling Stone sum up that one:
"It was a decade in which we saw our leaders squander the peace and prosperity of the previous decade. We watched as they sold us into an endless war, stomped civil liberties and trashed the economy, all while the icebergs kept melting and the seas kept rising. It was a decade of lost chances, which we can only hope are not last chances. The ’00s really began on December 12th, 2000, the day the Supreme Court blocked Florida from recounting ballots and anointed George W. Bush. Other bad days were to follow — most famously 9/11. But we never recovered from 12/12, spent the rest of the decade trying to forget it and mostly succeeded. Before you knew it, we were at the airport, waiting in line to take off our shoes. Why? Who knew? We just were. Yet music offered shelter from the storm, even if it was just for one three-minute song at a time."

I know that this list may make those with a more sophisticated musical palate contemptuous, but I'm going to go with what hit me the hardest on an emotional/visceral level. Without further ado:

1. Radiohead: "Hearing Damage"
Like me and my "going rogue" top 10 list, Radiohead doesn't care what you and Matthew Friedberger think. Radiohead is gonna rule the world while giving away albums all up in the internets's face, and they're gonna kick out the jams by producing a track for a teenybopper vampire flick. Because you know what? They just don't give a fuck. As a result, their music is always timeless and utterly original. "Hearing Damage" is a powerful salvo of Krautrock with it's 4/4 beat and dark bass-heavy synths. And Yorke's minimal, disaffected lines interrogating themes of alienation and schizophrenia are pitch perfect, appealing to film viewers and beyond.
And okay, I'll be the first to admit it: I really enjoyed Twilight: New Moon. Kristen Stewart is the Keanu Reeves of her generation, and I can't wait for her next move as Joan Jett in that Runaways biopic. The music for Twilight was absolutely amazing, it captured the otherworldliness of the supernatural running amok in a small Pacific Northwest town so well that it seemed to give hints of a Twin Peaks aesthetic. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club deserves an honorable mention here, as does the collaboration between Bon Iver and St. Vincent, and The Killers's "A White Demon Love Song." Also, Lykke Li's song "Possibility" was utterly heartbreaking and haunting, and it really fit well on this soundtrack. All I had as a preteen was the Cocktail and Dirty Dancing soundtracks, just a pile of odd '50s nostalgia crap in the creative void that was post-Reagan America. To the naysayers, I say be glad younger generations are getting turned on to exciting new artists. Perhaps one day we'll live in a world without Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers (a girl can dream).
Anyways, enjoy this clip from the movie. Srsly. The music is incorporated into this badass vampire v. werewolf scene really well.

2. Bat for Lashes: "Daniel"
Considering how well Natasha Khan's last two albums have been received, and her unmistakable imprint on music trends over the last few years, I've really been surprised that her work has been overlooked in many a retrospective. Consider her conceptual trademark: she's dark, mystical, obsessed with the '80s and seems to have risen from Mordor to unleash her siren call. Will you respond? How could anyone not to a song like "Daniel"?
And when the fires came
The smell of cinders and rain
Perfumed almost everything
We laughed and laughed and laughed

...And as my heart ran round
My dreams pulled me from the ground
Forever to search for the flame
For home again
For home again

Khan's powerful pipes, easily fluctuating from deep, Cat Power-esque molasses to soaring soprano heights, easily make her my stand-in when going through Kate Bush withdrawals. "Daniel" really seems to highlight the great leap Khan took from her first album Fur and Gold, whose primary ambient device simply consisted of cold, dark keyboard arrangements that seemed to come straight out of a Dario Argento horror flick.

It should also be noted that Bat for Lashes was a major player in the whole Halloween aesthetic of many emerging bands in '09. The obvious example being actor Ryan Gosling's much-lauded Dead Man's Bones, where dark piano ballads calling upon Edward Gorey-inspired imagery featured a chorus of children, who were of course all wearing Halloween costumes while performing. Other bands creating goth '80s-inspired sounds more on the electro side were Cold Cave and Horror Disco. And then, of course, there's Fever Ray, which I will get to...

3. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes: "Home"
This song came completely out of left field. I thought it was an old country tune drudged up and remastered upon a quick listen, but when I found out it was new I soon became obsessed. My love for this song, and this band, however, is bitter sweet.

When I found out that lead singer Alex Ebert is actually the former lead singer of Ima Robot, a supremely dreadful Los Angeles-based electro punk outfit, I felt a bit cheated. I really wanted Edward Sharpe to be a real person, and for him and his family of musicians to have lived in a Partridge Family bus, scouring the deep south for grubby watering holes to showcase their roots country souls. In fact, about three months ago I bumped into the lead singer on Market Street here in San Francisco, as he was stumbling out of the Four Seasons at three in the morning (disclosure: I, too was stumbling out of the Four Seasons). I ran up to him and screamed "Edward Sharpe" and he, in turn, gave me a big old hug in his white linen '60s cult leader uniform, and Jesus hair pulled into a bun.

Apparently, Edward Sharpe is simply the name of a character in a book Ebert wrote after a meltdown and subsequent rehabilitation program. And after hearing about his motivations for the album, I can't help but respect his vision. When asked by the Onion AV club about recording on a 24-track with 12 musicians, Ebert said:
"We were all experiencing a feeling of stupidity and fragmentation, feeling disjointed in some way and especially fuzzed out by technology and staring at screens. Musically, I was looking for authenticity in my life and I guess that quest spilled over into the actual process of recording it. It made sense to me that we recorded [the album] in a way that was simpatico with the whole concept of the music."
Technically, from a musician's standpoint (disclosure: I am not a musician), this band is not good. I've seen them live, and about four of the band members appear as nothing more than human props, standing around pretending to play instruments that the microphone doesn't seem to pick up. And the trumpet player that belts out the solo halfway through the song is a terrible hack. But despite it all, this band gave one of the best live performances I've ever seen. The way they worked the crowd with call-and-response and foot stomping was magic, pure magic. My hands were so sore from clapping, and my feet so achy from stomping that it was ridiculous. All I can say is, the overwhelming spirit of this band is undeniable, and this song so classic and memorable, that it deserves to be on this list.

4. Cass McCombs: "You Saved My Life"
This waltzy country number snuck in as the closing track on McCombs' Catacombs, the most accessible, pop-friendly album of the singer/songwriter's career. It's one of the most heartwarmingly romantic songs I've ever heard, and I will no doubt play it at my wedding whereby my bridesmaids will all slit their wrists, and the priest will shoot himself in the face upon listening to it. What I'm trying to say is: this is a really sad song. But my gawd I wish all country music sounded like this--so pure and heartfelt, with the only country twang to be heard coming out of a guitar; not someone's obnoxious voice.

5. The Dirty Projectors: "Stillness Is The Move"
This song is on everybody else in the world's list, and rightfully so. The Dirty Projectors made a quantum leap from experimental indie rock, to more mainstream sounds seeped in West African guitar stylings and, as in this song, warped hip-hop beats. Their sound is so original that it's nearly impossible to explain to someone in a few sentences, and I've been grappling with it all year. This song is also, conceptually, beautiful and moving, and the yearning that background vocalist-turned-torch singer Amber Coffman evokes seems both primal and carefully punctuated--you can literally picture her belting it out on a mountaintop. I'd also seen this band live, and it was absolutely mesmerizing. The female vocalists were harmonizing with inhuman precision that made me contemplate the possibility that they were in fact androids from the future.

6. Bill Callahan: "All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast"
If you don't find yourself zoning out and contemplating your own existence while gazing out the window and imagining birds taking flight every time the strings in this song set in, you just don't have a soul.

This song makes me want to learn guitar so bad it hurts. The lyrics here are so stunning and gorgeous, that it makes me wonder if Callahan has a book of poetry floating about. If so, I need to steal that shit and read the hell out of it:
The leafless tree looked like a brain
The birds within were all the thoughts and desires within me
Hoppin' around from branch to branch, or snug in their nests listenin' in

An eagle came down over the horizon and shook the branches with its sight
The softer thoughts: starlings, finches and wrens
The softer thoughts, they all took flight
...Sweet desire and soft thoughts, return to me
Sweet desire and soft thoughts, return to me


7. Phoenix: "1901"
I don't know how/why/what could possibly compel a group of Frenchies in the '00s to create such poptastic hits that sound straight out of '80s, but they've done it--really well. I don't think anyone can understand the mangled English they claim to utilize throughout this album, but in "1901," the momentum that builds up to the lines: "It's twenty seconds to the last call/you're going hey hey hey hey hey hey hey" --it hits you real hard from there, and doesn't let up. Before Cadillac stole this ditty for their crappy commercials, this album, Wolfgang Amadeus, for me brought to mind images of neon-tinged aerobics fads and John Hughes films. This summer I spent a few weeks down in LA, and blasted the album in my rental car while heading down Beverly Drive, which has a width of a football field and is lined with palm trees so tall that they must have been planted during the Jurassic period. Cruising by pastoral front yards and palatial, obscene colonial bastardizations made me feel like Axel Foley, and that spirit couldn't be complete without this song. All my fondest memories of being a kid in the '80s seemed to be captured in this album.

8. Fever Ray: "Seven"
If I may, I'd like to paint a picture of walking in on this song as it was being performed in a grand ballroom here in San Francisco a few months back: A synthesized voice sounding akin to Siouxsie Sioux blasted along with a bass line so strong it made my intestines vibrate. Although I couldn't even make out the silhouettes on stage, they seemed to be conjuring spirits with tribal celtic intensity from behind a foggy neon glow on a stage emitting laser beams. As lasers weaved and crossed through the tops of the audience's heads, a woman dressed as a futuristic Indian chief flailed her arms around in the corner near the bar. Was I at the Regency Ballroom or the Mos Eisley Cantina?

This song is freaky and sounds like nothing else out there; quite simply I love it. It really seems to pick up at the second movement, at "I know it, I think I know it from a hymn/They've said so, it doesn't need more explanation." Word.

Watch the video only if you want nightmares.

9. Taken By Trees: "Watch The Waves"
Unfortunately, the only track off Victoria Bergsman's side project, Taken By Trees (Bergsman is most commonly known as the female vocalist for Peter Bjorn and John, or from her own bands, El Perro Del Mar, and The Concretes), to gain any attention was a cover of Animal Collective's "My Girls," entitled, "My Boys." Too bad. This album was as gentle as a lullaby, as environmentally-conscious as Green Peace, and as fascinating as a Middle East travel diary. The Swedish artist, inspired by the music of India and Pakistan, actually set out and recorded the album, East of Eden, in Pakistan, with the help of local Sufi musicians. The result, a masterful collection of real deal regional rhythms and harmonies gently sprinkled with the sounds of birds and insects, is Bergsman's most impressive project to date. Side note: this is the only modern, studio-recorded song where I find the use of the Pan flute actually acceptable. Listen to "Watch the Waves" here, and watch this short National Geographic documentary about her journey:

10. Real Estate: "Suburban Dogs"I don't know why this song gets me, with its clichéd, low-fi garage band sound. I don't even think it stands out as something nearly as unique as the aforementioned songs on my list. And there have been several notable garage bands that really stood out here in the San Francisco scene like Girls, Grass Widow, Thee Oh Sees, etc. This was truly a remarkable year for localized, low-fi garage and psychedelic rock. Maybe it's a backlash against all these mash-up movements, and re-imagined versions of the '80s--perhaps we're overdue for a grunge revival? At any rate, there is something striking about Real Estate, and something undeniably universal about the mood and atmosphere that "Suburban Dogs" evokes. The twinkling, harmonizing guitars seem to undulate and drift like waves along the shores of Atlantic City (that's just what I imagine, since the band is from Jersey). But I could also see this song as providing the perfect soundtrack for so many lazy summer days in Santa Cruz, or any suburban town in California, nay anywhere, for that matter. But I think what made me fall in love with this song is the lyrics:
Suburban dogs get afraid when it rains
Suburban dogs bark at slow moving trains
They'll run from your house and come back the same day
Suburban dogs are in love with their chains

This song gives me a strange kind of nostalgia for teen angst and romanticized depression; I wish I could have penned a poem like this as a youth.

I also thought of this song when I read a recent news item about how more and more Americans are chained to their current residences, unable to relocate for better jobs because they can't afford it. Again: sigh.

Well on that cheery note--that's it! All ten. Happy New Year!


Philip Cosores said...

Good list Amity! You like a lot of music I have been looking for, but can't find (sharpe, cass)...i would totally put Daniel and 1901 in my top 30, I think they are better songs then i give them credit for. P.S. i am now a staff writer for consequence of sound! A real music journalist!

Amity said...

Awesome! I really enjoyed yours too! And congrats on the site, I may be contributing to a Brooklyn-based site once they get their SF launch sorted out, it's called Jezebel Music.

Your list was great because it really opened me up to some under the radar stuff that passed me by this year. I also shared your post with my friend and fellow audiophile blogger Sean ( who really enjoyed it as well.

Anonymous said...

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