1) “All For The Best,” Thom Yorke. Long essay planned.
2) “Spanish Gold, 2044,” Swan Lake. Shorter long essay planned.
3) “Throwing Bricks at Trains,” Future of the Left. Just listen, you’ll get the idea. The most enjoyable kind of anger you can have: sarcasm.
4) “The Czar,” Mastodon. The last epic of 2009.
5) “11th Dimension,” Julian Casablancas. A dance-rock-disco more at home in the crowded clubs of Los Angeles than the Lower East Side’s seedy back-alleys. This is The Strokes reprocessed by game boy wielding sugar-high nineteen year olds: baby smooth production, a labyrinth of a melody — never quite the same, always slipping with Casablancas’ drawl, a puzzle of a song. We had to listen back-to-back-to-back before the song even started to come into a focus. This being an immediately accessible, downright catchy track, makes that act even more remarkable. So we have a dance-rock track with a singer who refuses to take the vocal-road most traveled, a maze with innumerable back roads of melody. Never mind that the song was recorded in LA, that’s the least of our clues that the “11th Dimension” is actually 11th Street, which is the best way to get wherever you’re going anyway since the freeways have already become a river of brakelights, traffic on top of tired, predictable traffic, FM radio waves clogging the sky. You’re right, Julian, we wouldn’t go that way either.
In what is surely a cosmic coincidence, Jay Reatard’s estate — one day after his passing — found a recent recording laying around and released it. It’s a cover — if this were fiction we couldn’t have written it out any better — of Nirvana’s “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle.” And how’s this for perhaps the last chorus Mr. Reatard ever recorded: “I miss the comfort in being sad.”
Wasn’t that our whole argument for “It Ain’t Gonna Save Me”? That the song was despair transformed into a comfortable, almost happy, emotional release?
We’ll go ahead and chalk up a few more points for ourselves.
10) “1901,” Phoenix. That synthesizer tone is enough, in and of itself, to force “1901” into the ten-spot. It’s perfect: round, deep, fuzzy, yet clear and taut despite its wall-to-wall massiveness. The song, built as it is on the synth line, sports the same unusual qualities. There’s no wonder the song dances so well in car commercials and as background music for teens shopping at Urban Outfitters — any listener is sold on its charm immediately. The synth, the hard-to-understand (they’re French but sing in English, duh) yet soothing chirps of lead singer Thomas Mars, the heyheyheyhey of the pre-chorus, the parts make a whole so downright satisfying that there just might be an excess of good-songwriting here, give or take a chorus. In short, these guys are hotter than Phoenix, Arizona.
9) “It Ain’t Gonna Save Me,” Jay Reatard. When an artist dies unexpectedly, we return to their songs to hunt — hopelessly — for a few choice lyrics, a certain signifier to provide a guide to understanding their deaths. Nirvana fans, for example, wrestled with Cobain’s morbid lyrics on songs like “Milk It,” where the chorus included the line, “look on the bright side, suicide,” desperately trying to match music with method, as if Kurt’s screams were shotgun shells, loaded as they were by the verse, fired in the chorus.
Jay Reatard died early yesterday morning. No one knows why, exactly. Could be drugs, could be homicide (the police are investigating). His death, at 29, alters this song and his legacy immediately and irreversibly. As for overanalyzing, we’ll indulge ourselves for a few short points and then get to a more important and ultimately compelling point-of-view.
First, the title: Whatever it is, it sure didn’t save you, Mr. Reatard. Second, the song’s catchy post-chorus closing chant of “all is lost / there is no hope / all is lost / you can go home / all is lost / for me” becomes exponentially more of a downer, to the point of almost sounding fucking twisted. Couple that with the album title, Watch Me Fall, add a pinch of paranoia and we’ve got ourselves an ominous little death note in song form.
That said, now is the time to replace that pinch of paranoia with some salt, and proffer a reading that is both serious and supportable. The song’s pleasure emerges from its conflicts and contradictions — its attempt to be simultaneously the catchiest, most upbeat rock song Mr. Reatard has ever written and an absolute resignation to his own melancholy. Accordingly, the form and the lyrics couldn’t be in more opposition. Unless they just, well, aren’t. As in, this is despair as emotional release — short, sweet, catchy. An upbeat earworm born from the most tragic emotions: loneliness, negativity, feelings of low self-worth, melancholy.
It’s funny, too, just how much this form-conflicting-with-content argument about Reatard’s song reminds us of something else that has to do with death. It’s that ritual, inevitably plagued with sadness but which tries to keep the mood upbeat and provide a forum for emotional release and a chance to get rid of all those leftover emotions that linger with death; where we are inevitably told to laugh and cry at the same time and remember all the good times we shared with someone while, at the same time, reminding ourselves that we’ll never have those times, with them, ever again. Celebrate his life; mourn his death. This is the purpose of the funeral.
Moreover, the same purpose maps pretty well onto “It Ain’t Gonna Save Me.” Which is to say, “It Ain’t Gonna Save Me” might be the most unpretentious funeral song we’ve ever heard. R.I.P. Jay Reatard.
8.) “This Blackest Purse,” Why?. Yoni Wolf has become one of the best lyricists in indie rock. What were, early in his career, scattershot metaphors — seemingly random for random’s sake — have become poignant and accurate portrayals of what life really means for a certain segment of society: the twenty-something’s of today, urban dwellers stuck looking for their specific village (hipster, frat, punk, jock, et cetera); hip to outsiders, confused to themselves. Wolf is always drunk and sober at once. He almost undermines our notion of those things as mutually exclusive, his lyrics so desperately without inhibition, so furiously introspective and personal, fused with a practiced, seductive delivery. Listeners are never quite sure whether or not to give Wolf a hug, concede sexually to his advances, or tattoo the lyrics on their biceps like some kind of hipster gospel. This explains Why? their shows have come to include sing-along-horny teenage girls, young moody intellectuals and, at least in Europe, British kids — taxonomically somewhere between hipsters and ex-N-Sync fan girls — snorting coke in the front row.
We won’t parse the song’s lyrics. That’s for you and your British and/or underage girlfriend to do. We’d just like to add that “This Blackest Purse” is Why? in the most revealing clothes they’ve ever worn: nothing more than a simple piano line, a touch of bass and drums, and Wolf’s voice upfront and clear. It’s poetry set to music, or maybe it’s the other way around. We’re not really sure.
7) “Idiot Heart” / “Insane Love Is Awakening,” Sunset Rubdown. We would like to take this opportunity to call anyone who doesn’t like SR — using Krug’s very specific word choice — an idiot.
Two songs chosen here because they were released around the same time and showcase exactly how dynamic Krug’s songwriting is insofar as he can move between rambling, rumbling, busy songs like “Idiot Heart” and the naked, electric-guitar-and-that’s-it pseudo-folk of “Insane Love.” Krug’s resume with Wolf Parade, Swan Lake, Frog Eyes and Sunset Rubdown practically murders the competition — or as he describes it, “flashing silver like the knife of a killer.” (PS: The silver/killer half rhyme is insanely rewarding.)
6) “And The Hazy Sea,” Cymbals Eat Guitars. We will wager that the moment of silence at 3:34 — the point at which “Hazy Sea” falls into an eerie stillness, the only audible sound the buzzing of guitar amps — still stands five years in the future as one of the best moves a rookie band has ever made. The silence breaks a second later, when the vocalist takes a deep breath (to be remembered alongside Cobain’s sigh from “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and Yorke’s panicked “Idioteque” breathing) and lets go of a piercing scream into the cacophony — all at once, crashing symbols, bass, a guitar solo, howling struggling to become recognizable words, and then, sudden and immediate release: The pounding stops, the tension retreats, deep breaths return once again — the illusion of peace. As with life, so goes the song.
14) “Cloud of Evil,” Blackout Beach. Carey Mercer is lost between genres. The praise for ‘avant-garde’ reinterpretation of pop music this year, 2009, has been universal. Dirty Projectors and Animal Collective continue to bask in the post-coital glow of descriptors like “innovation” and “difficulty” and “weird genius”. Fuck that. Mercer is twice as interesting, innovative and difficult as either of those two artists. He’s also twice as good — but difficult to classify. 2008’s Tears of the Valedictorian was a frenetic epic of an album that found catharsis in its song structure — most often by dropping all other instruments mid-song except Mercer’s terrific howls and a quick, pounding drumbeat. These emotional wails (“Bushels”, “Caravan Breakers”) were always precursors to an instrumental climax, formed by a wall of swirling, distorted guitars, pounding drums, and staccato keyboards. “Cloud of Evil” is the inverse, in terms of form, as the climax never comes but rather builds for three and a half minutes without repose. Instead of live drums, the background is electronic beats and heavily delayed guitars. The tension here is altered. Instead of when will the climax come (re: Tears), the question becomes: will it come at all?
The answer is, of course, yes and no. And that’s exactly what makes “Cloud of Evil” ‘avant-garde’ in a way AC or DP could never be. Their resolutions are merely disguised behind polyrhythm, guitar effects, and complicated harmonies. Mercer, that wild magician of a musician, takes the tension of the verse awaiting the chorus and makes it his song. So that when Mercer reaches “Cloud of Evil”s crescendo while crying “decelerate, decelerate,” we now know exactly what he means.
13) “Jake Leg,” Baroness. Like their competitors, namely the far-superior Mastodon, Baroness are helping heavy metal return to clear, clean, unprocessed vocals. It’s a turn, in our opinion, for the better. Screaming, like everything else, is best in moderation. It’s sort of unfortunate that we can now understand the lyrics, what with the over-the-top fantasy gibberish these bands favor (“Crawl past the soft / Spiraled sinewy teeth / ‘Soiled dove!’ steal the fruit of it’s jaws”).
Ignoring the lyrics, which if taken in the right mood are still a lot of fun, “Jake Leg” is a bruising four-minute metal anthem, with a terrific verse-chorus-verse-chorus sing along. The vocals are multi-tracked relentlessly, giving them a brute force unreachable by a single voice. Although we had to miss Baroness’ recent show in SF, we wouldn’t be surprised if the mosh pit also included a raging side-pocket of lustful metal fans hoisting their fists in the air and yelling the words at the top of their lungs. Such is the nature of the best metal these days — so catchy that even Metallica would be jealous. More on that later. [YouTube]
12) “Americon,” Slayer. Not a band comfortable with explicitly political songs, Slayer has stepped out of their comfort metal zone with “Americon”. Although the message feels six years or so off the mark (“it’s all about the motherfucking oil / regardless of the flag upon each soil”), formally speaking the song still rips. Double bass, guitar solos, shrieking vocals. Shit the drums are good. But come on, it’s Slayer. While the USA rips off other countries to become Americon, Slayer is so damn consistent they’re practically robotic. Hello, Slayertron. [YouTube]
11) “Lust for Life,” Girls. A gay little ditty with a title stolen from Iggy Pop (whose actual song was stolen by Jet), the steady bright guitar, harmonica, and clean bass runs underneath make this one of those ‘summer songs’ bloggers have been obsessing over this past year. Despite all the hype, this is the only song that still seems listenable. From the cheesy but memorable lyrics (“I wish I had a sun tan / I wish I had a beach house / I wish I had a pizza and a bottle of wine”) to the short and sweet structure — this song is the best soundtrack 2009 had to offer for those moment when everything just seems so damn crazy. For a song about insanity, it sure feels good to relax with some Girls.
15) “Aisle 13,” Built to Spill. Before the veteran indie rockers released 2009’s There Is No Enemy, this writer appreciated Built to Spill from a safe distance: singles only, please. “Car” was a big hit freshman year of college and for obvious reasons. Lead singer Dough Martsch sounds like a candid sophomore; he’s got advice for you but also a lot of questions. In “Car” reality is, as cliché as it sounds, almost always like a dream (“I wanna see the movies of my dreams”). The whole song pivots between a desire to have the world explained (“I wanna see it when you find out what comets, stars, and moons are all about”) and the deep seeded fear that these things about life are mysterious for a reason (“You’ll get the chance to take the world apart and figure out how it works / Don’t let me know what you find out”). It’s the stoned philosophical babble of a freshman “on a cloudy breezy desert afternoon.”
As for the instrumentation, the song relies an unusual amount on the cello to carry it forward. We don’t like to argue that strings or cellos actually soundlike nostalgia or earnest emotion or anything along those lines. That’s just silly. But, seriously, in “Cars” the cellos aren’t adding just low frequencies — they are what pushes the song past its loud drums and screeching guitars (the traditional instruments of overwhelming teenage emotion; see: music, punk) and into an arena peculiar for guitar-rock bands of the 90s. Perhaps that is the right word for this whole song, its themes, its instrumentation, Martsch’s singing, the cellos — everything is, just, well, peculiar. And catchy too, we might add.
What’s strange too is that 15 years later and BtS finally release another song that catches my ear. Get this: it’s about the same shit as “Car”. The chorus’ second couplet is the exact sentiment the band captured all the way back in 1994: “No one knows cuz no one wants to / know what’s in their minds.” A decade and a half after “Car” and the band is still grappling with the same issues — dreams, the mind, reality — but this time it’s not mystery hiding away, it’s human nature denying us answers. No one wants to know.
Note that this kind of skepticism about mankind fits nicely with caricatures of bitter old men, which BtS could be. Lucky for you, they just aren’t. An older Martsch (maybe wiser, too?) still sings like his senses are overwhelmed, the high tone in his voice and the cadence retaining the bemused style of 1994. And Martsch keeps observing, in a way: “Every day / something strange / I can’t explain / happens to me / often I am called by name to clean up Aisle 13.” The mess, we imagine, is the result of flabbergasted adolescents stumbling up and down the aisles, knocking milk off the shelves. This time BtS assume the role of reassuring father figure, “don’t be all / so all afraid / everyone / has weird dreams.”
Sure, the message isn’t mind-blowing — but it doesn’t have to be. The band knew something all along: that milk, it was built to spill. Don’t worry about cleaning up, 15 years later and BtS still have you covered.
20) “Boombox (ft. Julian Casablancas),” The Lonely Island. Mr. Casablancas, who all but disappeared after 2006’s First Impressions Of Earth, returned with a new sense of humor in 2009, even if it is hard to decipher whether Julian brought the earnest, hilarious delivery to “Boombox” or if TLI pushed him to it. Structurally, the song moves through 4 different scenes — first, a posh country club then a corporate boardroom then Wall Street and finally a convalescent home. TLI push these “old white people” to “let loose”; before we know it, they’re on the floor fucking. It’s a tribute to the power of music (“the music washed away all the hate”), but not really — despite it’s posturing, “Boombox,” is a comedy episode set to music. Unlike so many other attempts, this musical comedy works — as a fucking great song, no less. [YouTube]
19) “False Jesii Part 2,” Pissed Jeans. Clocking in at two and a half minutes, this is Pissed Jeans reappropriating the 21st century pop song for Pennsylvanian garage rock. Even the anguished screams of the chorus’ yeahagyeahagyeahag are catchy enough for the most sludge-adverse listeners. That said, the verse is uncanny in its dialogue, simultaneously celebrating laziness and disavowing it (“I could put on a tight black shirt / but I don’t bother / I could tell a joke and make the whole room laugh / but I don’t bother”). When I saw the band live in Berlin back in 2008, they took the stage at 1 a.m. Nevertheless, lead singer Matt Korvette tore around the room shirtless, hanging off exposed piping, twisting his nipples and grimacing, sweaty and red-faced. Their stage-presence was apathetic to the audience, avoiding eye contact and speaking only to themselves. They could’ve talked to us, but they didn’t bother. Fortunately, in 2009, there’s one thing they did bother to do — they wrote the catchiest song of their career. [YouTube]
18) “Watching The Planets (feat. Karen O),” The Flaming Lips. After making this list and listening through it, I have a confession: this song is too high. “Two Weeks” and “Watching the Planets” are do for an old switcheroo. That aside, what about the song itself? Well, it’s a return to what the Lips did on Zaireeka, that crazy 4 CD ultra-stereophonic experiment released in 1997 with a 0.0 review from Pitchfork. These “planets” Wayne refers to must be a long way off because we’ve got a fair bit of noise in the transmission: the drums, which play anchor to the songs sprawling psychedelia sailboat, reverberate with splashes of fuzz; the vocals, well, they’re fuzzy too. All of Embryonic is a sort of mini-essay on 2009: the lo-fi, the NSFW music video, the only passable singing, the guest spots by MGMT and Karen O (see: Kid Kudi, Beck’s Record Club, N.A.S.A., Where The Wild Things Are, Yeah Yeah Yeahs obv.) and somewhere here Embryonic becomes so much a result of late 2008’s aural preferences that it instead becomes the sound of 2009 itself. [YouTube]
17) “Mature Fantasy,” Drummer. Not too much to stay about this one, just a few notes: #1) thank you, Drummer, for being straightforward. No curve balls here. No spirit-quest for originality with this band, only good old rock played by a band full of drummers rocking out on instruments besides the drums. Ah, fuck. That’s unique isn’t it — the whole band-of-drummers thing? Yeah, it is. You know what else is unique? Numerical lists with no #2. [YouTube]
16) “Only If You Run,” Julian Plenti. Can Mr. Plenti, err, I mean Paul Banks ever not sound like Interpol? The voice is still inseparable from the band — this solo project could be an Interpol LP, and this song a track therein. The guitar tone is straight off Our Love To Admire, the drums are still drums, there’s a few keyboards here and there but nothing to signify that J. Plenti is anything more than diet Interpol. Still, even without that mustached troublemaker of a bassist, Banks is on his game here — the slow-motion punch of the bassline and his signature nasal voice pleading with the listener to take heed (“you will make it / only if you run”) come together seamlessly. He makes a strong case for himself. But we’ll take your advice Mr. Plenti only if you take ours: record another Interpol album soon, but make it better. It’s that easy. [YouTube]
 Except for one lucky drummer who gets to actually play percussion. I wonder if they drew straws (or drumsticks)?
Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes
One of my favorite musicians, Carey Mercer, blogs about all things. In addition to being an astonishing songwriter, he’s a good writer too. I think I read once that he teaches high school English.