Well, it’s the end of the year. Pitchfork has counted down their bazillion favorite songs and billion favorite albums of the year, Rolling Stone has done the same, and nobody’s got it right yet, have they? And nobody will, will they? No, you’re better off making your own list. You have the exact same authority as Pitchfork, you just have fewer people who believe it. I, for one, am not going to let that stop me.
However, I’m not going to count down my favorite songs of 2009 – I’m going to mention them at random and you can, from my remarks, try to quantify them if you wish. I’m going to use a lot of random bold type to make this shit seem more important, too. Let’s get arbitrary:
I really love “Watching the Planets” by the Flaming Lips. It’s a great way to close an album like Embryonic, largely because it sounds like the sort of thing you’d hear at a nudist rave. It has lots to admire – lines about “killing the ego” and “burning the Bible.” I’m pretty sure I could only love it more if Wayne Coyne sang it while gargling Guinness.
“Watching the Planets” features background vocals by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who opened their It’s Blitz! album with the stellar (and catchy as fuck) “Zero,” a song which helpfully suggests that you get your leather on. Granted, “Zero” loses some of its luster when someone asks you to explain the lyrics, but the vibe is strong with this one.
I don’t know where to begin loving Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone, but I guess I’ll start with its lead single, “People Got a Lotta Nerve.” It’s not my favorite song on that (amazing) album, but it does get stuck in my head all the time. The chorus is a catchy little “no shit, Sherlock” for folks who think that animals exist to be cute. “I’m a man eater/ but still you’re surprised when I eat ya” could also function (I suppose) on the level of a predatory woman, but I’m choosing to ignore that in favor of the more explicit animal imagery offered in the song.
Here’s another song I love: “Done” by Built to Spill. One of my favorite things about it is that its most indelible feature is that subtle wah-wah lick that introduces and then meanders through the song. It gives me chills every time I hear it and it reminds me of Doug Martsch’s absolute authority on the guitar.
I mostly haven’t gotten into the new Cribs record, but the opening track, “We Were Aborted”, is pretty badass. There’s another tune toward the end that’s right good as well, but the rest of the album fails to live up to the promise of the opener.
I’ve heard that YACHT is far less than awesome live, which is a shame. I enjoyed See Mystery Lights quite a bit, and my party playlist for the foreseeable future will feature “Psychic City.” LCD Soundsytem’s James Murphy saw YACHT’s potential and signed them to his label. I’m hoping the follow-up to See Mystery Lights sounds more like “Psychic City” and less like the lazier “Don’t Fight the Darkness.”
YACHT, being an Oregon band, stands in some great musical company: the Thermals released a phenomenal album this year (that’s two in a row for them – 2006’s The Body, the Blood, the Machine is indescribably awesome) and “I Called Out Your Name” was a loving spoonful of pop from that album. The Shaky Hands waxed spiritual on Let It Die, an album that (happily) got stuck in my CD player for about half a month. Its title track is still one of my favorite things to wake up to. The Decemberists, one of Oregon’s most famous bands, made a fairly inevitable record that was basically a rock opera. As such, it didn’t crank out the hit singles; however, “The Rake’s Song” is a sinister delight.
The Thermals give me hope for the future of punkish music, and so does the Future of the Left. Travels with Myself and Another is aggressive, abrasive, and hilarious. Andy Falkous spends most of the album hitting home-runs, but he’s at his best on “The Hope that House Built”, where he tells us “don’t despair/ life is just a dream” before suggesting we “re-imagine God as just a mental illness.” In the end, everybody wins.
While we’re being sacrilegious, I should mention that “I Would Rather Sacrifice You” by the Minus 5 is one of my favorite songs of the year. “I will die a Christian soldier/ if I ever die at all,” sings Scott McCaughey, after admitting to spreading the gospel with his gun. It’s all done up as country/bluegrass number with excellent harmonies and a sing-along lilt. The overall effect borders on complete fucking genius.
I might lose some street cred for this but, uneven as their album is, the Avett Brothers’ “I and Love and You” really is a beautiful song. The album never regains the heights it reaches on its title track, though I’ve heard their older stuff is better (I’ll probably discuss I and Love and You at greater length later).
Jim James rescued the Masters of Folk album from the depths of tedium this year, infusing his tracks with an almost effortless beauty. “His Master’s Voice” is James at his best and it was probably a smart choice to close the album with it – it gives you the impression that you’ve just heard something special. In the case of the closing track, you have; in the case of the album, you haven’t. Still, Jim James is definitely on the list of people whom I will gladly buy a beer should our paths ever cross.
Speaking of uncommonly beautiful songs, Yo La Tengo’s “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven” certainly qualifies. Gripe about the length all you want, but I could tolerate it at an hour or longer. It captures every one of Yo La Tengo’s strengths, it builds to a lovely climax, and the harmonies are superb.
My love of “More Stars” notwithstanding, brevity is typically the soul of pop music. I’m not sure any band understood that better this year than Metric, whose Fantasies album is a meager but meaty ten tracks. My favorite is “Front Row,” which strikes me as exactly the sort of song I should be hearing everywhere instead of that fucking “Poker Face” song. Can someone get to work on this for me?
Perhaps the best question asked in music this year was “Oh Mommy/ what’s a Sex Pistol?” The Manic Street Preachers asked it on “Jackie Collins Existential Question Time”, one of several excellently named tracks on Journal for Plague Lovers. I hadn’t listened to the Manic Street Preachers before this year, but I’m quite keen to check out more of their stuff.
“Smoke” by Lucero.
And “Natural Disaster” by Andrew Bird.
Let’s end on a sad note, can we? I spent the better part of Christmas morning scouring the internet for news of Vic Chesnutt’s condition (he died Friday after being in a coma for several hours) and listening to his music on Lala. That’s where I discovered At the Cut and “Flirted with You All My Life,” a song wherein Chesnutt contemplates death and his many run-ins with it (he was rendered paraplegic in a car accident when he was 18 and had apparently attempted suicide at least once before succeeding), finally deciding that he’s “not ready.” The song would be heartbreaking even if Chesnutt hadn’t just died, but his death makes it all the more poignant. He’s the second great songwriter I discovered because of his death, Chris Whitley being the first. I’m trying to track down a fistful of Chesnutt’s albums as we speak and will report on my findings later.
I probably forgot a lot of songs, but that doesn’t mean I love them any less. The list of my favorite albums of the year will be more ordered; here are some albums that definitely won’t be on that list:
Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion
Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
U2, No Line On the Horizon (this was number fucking one on Rolling Stone’s list this year. Do you need further proof that 1) Rolling Stone is completely useless and 2) year-end lists are bullshit?)
And so on.