Tuesday, January 10, 2012

2011 Songs: The Top Twenty

The mildly disappointing finish!

After having 95% of the first 80 tracks on the list, Grooveshark holds to form with 19 of the 20 below, with a youtube link provided for lone holdout.

 2011 1-20 by David Scott on Grooveshark

20. "Powa" by tUnE-yArDs (from w h o k i l l)
"I need you to press me down before my body flies away from me"

Merrill Garbus' second album of experimental and discordant music shines when it all comes together (like on "Powa", as well as "Gangsta", "Doorstep" and "Killa") but is somewhat brutal when it doesn't.  
19. "Marathon" by Tennis (from Cape Dory)
"Coconut grove / is a very small cove"

Good thing you can't judge an album by its cover.   

18. "Mysterious Power" by Ezra Furman and The Harpoons (from Mysterious Power)"Call me up right now / I'd call you but I don't know how"

Furman's vocal similarities to Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah may not win him favor with most listeners as readily as it did with me (see #11).  
17. "Jeopardy" by Dan Mangan (from Oh Fortune)
"Have I always been filled with questions?"

A: A 2011 top 20 song not on grooveshark (listen here)
Q: What is the Dan Mangan song in which every lyric is posed in the form of a question?
16. "Sweet Release" by Wugazi (from 13 Chambers)
< Method Man + Fugazi mashup >

Another year, another song in the top 20 featuring an old Method Man track mashed together with an even older rock track. Like last year's "Uh Huh", "Sweet Release" replaces the original beat (not one of RZA's best) with something faster, giving an otherwise unremarkable song new life.  

15. "Don't Let It Get To You" by Rostam (single)
"I want you / even when it don't make sense / actually, I want you more when it don't make sense"

Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij released two singles in late 2011 that have aspects similar to his full-time gig (this song samples Paul Simon, for example) while also layering in additional elements to create his own sound.  Taken together, it could result in the most entertaining solo album by a non-frontman since Little Joy.
14. "Prophecy" by Adam & The Amethysts (from Flickering Flashlight)
"They say / try not to get worried / try not to turn on to / problems that upset you"

Like #53 on this year's list, "Prophecy" is elevated from being a good song to a great one through the creative repurposing of a well known tune over the closing minute. 
13. "So American" by Portugal. The Man (from In The Mountain In The Cloud)
"They sing / everyone of you will never try to lend a hand / when the policeman don't understand"

Here we have a band named Portgual singing about being American while the lead singer, who sounds a lot like a woman, is The Man. None of this is as strange as the mid-name punctuation.

12. "Serve the People" by Handsome Furs (from Sound Kapital)
"Saying / oh / my god / waiting here so long I feel a change"

An anthem for the disillusioned. Life post-Wolf Parade is manageable as long as both Dan and Spencer (at #6) are releasing music this good on their own. 
11. "Maniac" by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (from Hysterical)
"Maniac / statue of marble / and I don't want to touch your dark thoughts any more"

After a beloved debut and a maligned followup (which nevertheless had my #1 song of 2007), CYHSY broke-up. "Maniac" is not their best track, but it and a few others on Hysterical were still vintage CYHSY, which feels like a miracle given that the band was no longer an active entity at the start of the year.

10. "You" by TV on the Radio (from Nine Types of Light)
"You / threw your hands up and walked away"

A second appearance on this year's list for Tunde and Kyp (they are also on the Tinariwen album). A very hard decision between this and "Second Song", but the weariness of the chorus on this track puts it over the top. One of my favorite bands.
9. "Never Quite Free" by The Mountain Goats (from All Eternals Deck)
"It's all good to know that from right here the view goes on forever"

This standout from a middle-of-the-pack MG album  has a hopefulness that is partially tempered by the song's name. For my money, no one in music history does a better job naming songs (most of which don't come directly from the lyrics) than John Darnielle. 
8. "Montana" by Youth Lagoon (from The Year of Hibernation)
"I looked back and turned into salt / A pillar with a hat"

Youth Lagoon's debut is so consistently excellent and each song follows a familiar enough pattern (indecipherable lyrics, slow build) that picking one song from the album is a challenge. Ultimately, I chose the first one I heard, the one which made me want to learn more. I highly recommend the whole album.   
7. "Barnes' Yard" by The Rural Alberta Advantage (from Departing)
"We're broken down lovers on the side of the road / we're broken down lovers in a city of oil"

Unlike Of Montreal, Architecture in Helsinki, Beirut, Boards of Canada and others, this band's lead singer is actually from rural Alberta.  Canadians are just completely without guile.
6. "Return to the Violence of the Ocean Floor" by Moonface (from Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I'd Hoped)
"Said I got a spirit / made out of sand"

Some quick history. I've been doing this list for 7 years now. Spencer Krug has made the list 3 times with Wolf Parade (#1 in 2008), 3 times with Sunset Rubdown (#1 in 2009), 2 times with Swan Lake (#1 in 2006) and now with Moonface. That is nine appearances in seven years, all of which were in the top ten. So, yeah, I kind of like the guy. 

5. "Holocene" by Bon Iver (from Bon Iver)
"I was not magnificent"

I love the way this song, even upon a first listen, sounds like a song you have been listening to for years. This is not because Bon Iver's sound is derivative or unoriginal (which it is, a little bit), but simply because it is so comfortable and lived-in. "Skinny Love" held the same spot in 2008 and I'd have a hard time choosing between the two.

4. "Under Cover Of Darkness" by The Strokes (from Angles)
"I'll wait for you / will you wait for me?"

Upon release as the advance single for Angles, this song was damned with great praise as sounding like a lost single from Is This It.  After disappointing attempts to evolve their sound on First Impression of Earth and elsewhere on Angles can't we just celebrate how great anything that sounds like an essential cut from Is This It is?  
3. "Belong" by The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart (from Belong)
"But no one else / can make me know there's no one else"

I have never had a song climb the chart throughout the year like this one. I enjoyed elements of their 2009 debut album, but it didn't make the year-end list. When Belong came out I thought the title track would be a strong contender to make the list, but had it pegged in the back 50. As time progressed and the play count rose, it climbed and climbed, until I finally realized that the song was a good as anything released during the year. Great fuzzy guitars a la MBV coupled with lyrics that could be heard as "it is hard / but we still belong" or "it is wrong / but we just don't belong" depending on your mood (it is the latter, but I wish it was the former).

2. "East Harlem" by Beirut (from The Rip Tide)
"And sound of your breath in the cold / And oh, the sound will bring me home"

Like with Youth Lagoon, it is exceptionally hard to choose between the best songs on The Rip Tide, but unlike YL it is not because the songs are eerily similar. The best tracks on The Rip Tide ("Goshen", "Santa Fe", "The Rip Tide", "East Harlem") are unique, with different tempos and mood. Instead, it is hard because they are all just so damned good. Faced with this challenge and no obvious #1 for awhile (see below), I lighted upon with the idea of breaking the "one song" rule and just voltroning several songs together to create a dominant #1. Instead, with Beirut at #2, I drew on my experience of having to play favorites among my own children and selected the more classically "Beirut" of the standout tracks. But any of the above could be here.

1. "Law of Gravity" by Rubik (from Solar)
"Had I fought in a war without you /  I’m sure / I would be dust and bones in a faraway corner of the world / we made all the difference / we were all that mattered / just like an apple around its core / then it finally happened / we got old "

As noted above, this is the 7th year of this list. In the prior six years, the #1 slot has been occupied by three Spencer Krug bands (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown and Swan Lake), Sufjan Stevens, Iron & Wine and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. These are inner circle bands that I truly love; bands I have seen live and own their complete discography of LPs and EPs.  A year ago I had never heard of Finland's Rubik and until December (when I bought a digital download of the rest of Solar) I owned only one of their songs. The prior #1s averaged over 5 minutes long, while "Laws of Gravity" comes in at a brisk 3:26. If none of those make this a surprising top choice, there is also the fact that this is basically a cheesy 80's retro pop song by a bunch of guys singing in their second language. You may hate it. But, at the end of the day, there was no song I listened to more in 2011 and there is no song I want to listen to right NOW more than this wonderful little slice of happiness (especially 1:45 - 2:10).


  1. EPR's top 5 of 1-20:

    1) Barnes' Yard
    2) East Harlem
    3) Under Cover of Darkness
    4) So American
    5) Jeopardy

    Other notes:
    * an album I was delighted to judge by its cover: Zonoscope
    * on a related subject, I agree with Marathon as the best of Tennis' debut. Not meaning to be obnoxious, but I preferred the pre-release "mastered" track version - it had even "more" lo-fi production
    * there is no consistency in my preferences for Krug vs. Boeckner. I would have picked Serve the People over Return to the Violence of the Ocean Floor here. Both are great
    * would have picked...Sleep Rules Everything Around Me...over...Sweet Release
    * would have picked...17...over...Montana

    Missing from the list!
    * Babies Don't Like Blue Anymore - Yukon Blonde
    * Hoop of Love - Dominant Legs

    * two great tracks from two Canadian Bands missing from a list brimming with bright poppiness and influence from the Great White North that to me are top 20 picks.

    * hat tip - or more appropriately - stick tap to KAR on both. Apparently spending a summer in T-dot isn't all about moose surgery and watching the QMJHL draft.

    Final thoughts:
    * this was by far the most surprising DSS top 20 I have heard. Building through the rest of the list felt like I was in a well-known (and enjoyable) "DSS tune zone". The top 20 felt somewhat incongruent, though there were certainly many great tracks (I'm not a big Bon Iver fan, but otherwise liked the rest). Maybe it's just the #1 that's throwing me off
    * had I known about the surprise ending, I might have hurried up!

  2. EDIT:

    Dominant Legs is from SF, not Canada. I was misled by a KAR playlist. Can't take away the stick-taps, but not giving her the game puck.

    1. I don't know what I was thinking aboot...I guess not everybody can be so lucky as to be Canadian. Apologies for the misfire.

      Agree with your Youth Lagoon choice, EPR.

      I would also throw into my personal top 5 of top 20 ring "Never Quite Free" which was to me clean, pensive and a joyful addition to almost every 4 am walk to the subway I experienced last year.

    2. It is a great song. Although to me, the hopefulness is tempered by the menacing "but hear his breath come through his teeth"

      Separately, if someone could run a SUMIF("worst is all behind") on the lyrics in his catalogue, I bet you'd get a million hits