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Top 25 Songs of 2009: 6-10

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.

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Filed under Fred | Unnecessary, Top 25 Songs of 2009