Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011's Top 20 Singles

20) The Jayhawks - “She Walks In So Many Ways” (Rounder)
The reunion of The Jayhawks’ Tomorrow the Green Grass (that LP will come up again later) lineup produced a decent album in Mockingbird Time. (It’s probably my #21 album this year.) “She Walks in So Many Ways” is far and away the best song on that album. It’s two minutes and 36 seconds of great harmonies from Gary Louris, Mark Olson, Karen Grotberg and Tim O’Reagan, jangly Byrds-like guitars and a passel of lyrics about…well, I’m not sure who she is, but she seems to like to walk a lot. Especially in clouds for some reason. Maybe she has a hot air-propelled weather balloon that she bought with credit card points or something.

19) They Might be Giants - “Can’t Keep Johnny Down” (Idlewild/Rounder)
This song—like 127% of They Might Be Giants catalog—is extra catchy. The chorus is something you can sing along to within one listen. And it had two great videos made for it—one by a fan about a guy quitting his job and going nuts, the “official” one starring Rip Torn as, well, an insane Rip Torn street-fighting people kids 50 years younger than himself. Lastly, time and time again I have been impressed by these opening lines. “Outnumbered a million to one/All of the dicks in this dick town/Can't keep Johnny down.” Way to go Johnny!

18) The Figgs - “The Central Stumble”/”All The World Will Fall” (Q-Dee)
This double A-sided single is just a teaser for a double album coming out in 2012 to mark the band’s 25th anniversary. (Crap, which also means 25 years since I graduated high school. Dammit.) Pete Donnelly’s “All the World Will Fall” is a jaunty mid-tempo number that sounds great driving along a country road. (Yes, I did just that back in October.) “The Central Stumble” has an opening line that slays me each with each listen: “Jimmy’s sweating/looks five days dead/like Rod Stewart decomposing/in his bed.” It’s one of my favorite lines Mike Gent has penned in the past decade. This single is part the Q-Dee Rock and Soul Series and was recorded at the label’s Q Division studios. There must be something in the microphones there, because anything that comes from that studio sounds exceptional on the technical side of things. It’s like the high end of my hearing has returned, without that pesky 10K tone ringing in my ears.

17) Gomez - “Options” (ATO)
I love songs that have false starts. You know, a guitar starts playing, and then abruptly stops as the person playing it realizes the rest of the band isn’t ready. (Or perhaps they weren’t really ready to record.) The Replacements (“Waitress in the Sky”) Neil Young (“Downtown” with Pearl Jam), The Gentlemen (“Sour Mash”), Green Day (“Good Riddance”), Matthew Sweet (“Divine Intervention”) and Fugazi (“Waiting Room,” sort of) have all done it. Every time it happens I’m hooked. It’s some bizarre pavlovian reaction. “Options” begins with a false start. Once I heard that, I knew I’d be playing this song over and over again.

(I should mention that in the throes of my writer’s block I asked Facebook nation for some false start songs, and people chimed in with over 50 examples in a couple of hours. Yay thing that steals my personal information! My favorite one came from my bandmate Paul Gil, who wrote, “Almost every song by Bunnie England and the New Originals.” Our guitarist Paul Crane followed that up with, “For the record, the only Bunnie songs that have a false start are the ones I start....which are about 96.64287% of them.”)

16) Sleeper Agent - “Get It Daddy” (Mom + Pop)
Sleeper Agent is a bunch of kids (yeah, I called a bunch of folks in their early 20s kids) from Kentucky that make music that sounds like a cross between Southern rock and The White Stripes. The trading off of vocals between Alex Kandel (she's 18, for goodness sake) and Tony Smith is like nothing else that's on the radio these days. I say that because it's the first time in ages that a band I was supposed to interview for the hard/alt rock part of my job appealed to me personally.

15) The Strokes - “Under Cover of Darkness” (RCA)
Hey, remember when The Strokes put out that great single from their solid fourth album in 2011? Yeah, me neither. If I didn’t build this list throughout the whole year, adding tracks and albums to it as I hear them, I would have totally spaced on “Under Cover of Darkness.” Great little song. I especially love how the guitars of Albert Hammond Junior and Nick Valensi sound just slightly out of tune with another when they play the intro part the second time around. It makes my neck tense up every time I hear, yet in a kind of good way. (The bad way would be the random neck spasms I had about an hour before I wrote this paragraph. Huzzah for getting old!)

14) Mastodon - “Curl of the Burl” (Reprise)
I honestly don’t know much about Mastdon. I hadn’t heard any of their music until 2009’s Crack the Skye. All I do know is that “Curl of the Burl” is the ballsy song on this list. It’s a song designed to get you to put your devil horns up and to put a kink in your neck. Mastodon guitarist Bill Kelliher summed up “Curl of the Burl” best in an interview with my colleague Dave Schulps—“It’s a tongue-in-cheek just kind of goofy song. It kind of sounds like Queens of the Stone Age, a little Black Sabbath-y.” He’s right, and it’s an excellent combination.

13) BOAT - “(I’ll Beat My Chest Like) King Kong” (Magic Marker)
So you’re going to stop your rather catchy tune about love and being domestic with a 12 second sample from the original 1933 version of King Kong? Why yes, I’d like to hear that repeatedly. Also, your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

12) Dawes - “Time Spent in Los Angeles” (ATO)
I saw Dawes perform this song twice before their second album Nothing Is Wrong was released, and each time I thought to myself, “Damn, this song has a great chorus and a great buildup in the third verse. This would be a good single.” Usually I’m horrible picking out singles from album and I would actively tell any band that I would be a career-killer if you went with my choice. Fortunately for Dawes, they never knew what I thought and picked a great song about life on the road and how it can really ruin relationships with the opposite sex. Especially if the other person has “a special kind of sadness.” (I think that’s code for, “She lit all my records on fire.”)

11) Cults - “Go Outside” (ITNO/Columbia)
Technically this song was on the web (and blogged about incessantly) in 2010. The buzz scored the duo of Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion (yeah, probably not his real last name) a deal with Columbia Records. However, I first heard it on the radio this year, so I’m going to count it as a 2011 single. (Hey, at least I’m not like the Grammys and nominating Bon Iver for Best New Artist three releases into a career.) Follin has a timeless voice (I could imagine her being in a ’60s girl group) and her way of singing “I really want to go out/I really want to go outside and make it light all day” would make anyone want to firebomb their cubicle and lounge in Central Park when its that first spring day where there’s not a cloud in the sky and the temperature just peaked at 70 degrees.

10) Lady Gaga - “The Edge of Glory” (Stream/Konlive/Interscope)
  9) Katy Perry - “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” (Capitol/EMI)
I had to pair these two songs together—I mean, it is an ’80s sax double shot. You might be asking yourself, “WTF,” as the kids’ lingo (or the name of a podcast I love) goes these days. Yes, I bought Born This Way. IT WAS 99 CENTS ON AMAZON PEOPLE. Seriously, how much of a risk is it to buy a digital download of an entire album when it's that cheap? It’s not a great album by any standard, but it does have some excellent moments. The half-sung in German "Scheiße" is a hoot and the Madonna-ripping title track is decent. But holy cow, “Edge of Glory” is the best 1986 song that I've heard since, well, 1986. Imagine a single from a sports-themed 80s flick like Vision Quest or Rocky III with the final sax solo by the E Street Band's Clarence Clemons. You have just created this song in your mind. I, without any irony whatsoever, love it.

Perry’s “Last Friday Night” I didn’t have to pay to download (thanks Clear Channel). This track is a total mash-up: music of 2010 + a pinch of 2005 (the “T.G.I.F” chant cribs the breakdown in Gorillaz’ “Feel Good Inc.”) + a sax breakdown from 1987 + lyrics that are quite possibly a sequel to Lit’s “My Own Worse Enemy” = an enjoyable pop treat.

  8) Snow Patrol - “Called Out in the Dark” (Polydor/Fiction/Geffen)
The album this track is taken from, Fallen Empires, isn’t out into January. “Called Out in the Dark” is another entry in the disturbing trend of releasing a single six months before an album is released. It’s one thing to put out a single in November when your album isn’t out until January. It’s just plain odd to put that single out in late August. (Alright, enough complaining about record company strategies.) I first heard “Called Out in the Dark” in its entirety driving in Austin one night. The bouncy synths and weird whispered vocal hook had me bobbing my head as I drove over the road they call Mopac. And the line “Show me now/Show me the arms aloft” seemed rather appropriate since I had just spent three days in a park with people raising their arms to the sky.

  7) Amos Lee - “Windows Are Rolled Down” (Blue Note/EMI)
This breezy mid-tempo track from Philly area singer-songwriter Amos Lee sounds like a natural road trip companion. There’s strummed acoustic guitars, a touch of pedal steel, a swell of piano and organ during the bridge and a drumbeat that clicks like your tires on a road that has equidistant gaps in the pavement. Lee’s collaborators Calexico certainly know how make the atmospheric conditions right for a road trip track. Wait a second, is the first chorus really “Windows are rolled down/Sun is setting high/Windows are rolled down/I'm fixin' to die?” Is this a road trip song that ends like Thelma and Louise? Crap.

  6) Foster the People - “Pumped Up Kicks” (Columbia)
One hit wonder. For real. Did you see/hear them on Saturday Night Live? Gosh, they’re awful live. This song sounds especially bad without the studio trickery. With it, it’s glorious. I can’t see them going anywhere after this album dies out. Oh well, every generation has its own Primitive Radio Gods.

  5) The Head and the Heart - “Lost in My Mind” (Sub Pop)
Since I already proclaimed my love of their album a few pages ago, let me explain how entranced I was with this song. In March I was driving back upstate in my aunt’s car with our dog Aurora in the back. She was sleeping the entire 2 1/2 ride back to her home, so I could comfortably have the radio on the whole way. I was listening to WDST out of Woodstock when the lyrics “Put your dreams away for now, I won’t see you for sometime/I am lost in my mind” came on over a simple set of chords. I turned up the volume, trying to identify it. Then at a minute and 25 seconds, when the drums kicked in, I slowed down, dug my iPhone out of my left pocket, unlocked it, and scrolled through my apps until I got to Shazam. I tapped the app and then held the phone up in there air, praying that I would get a decent recording and that the AT&T service would hold out so the app could identify the song. Thankfully it did. And I didn’t drive off the road. (I told Jonathan and Josiah from the band that story, and they were honored and a bit scared of me, all at the same time.)

  4) Jay-Z & Kanye West - “Niggas in Paris” (Def Jam)
This track is crazy, from the Blades of Glory samples to that little keyboard riff I’ll hear in my sleep for the next decade. It also inspires people to do crazy things, such as this lyrical interpretation by Parks and Recreation’s Aziz Ansari (who appeared in Kanye and Jay’s “Otis” clip) and buddy Matthew Shawver using the emoticon template app Emojis...

  3) Kelly Clarkson“Mr. Know It All” (19/RCA)
I think it is official—I have a new celebrity crush. It’s Miss Clarkson. And that was clinched when I first heard this song and I got to the end of this verse: “Mr. know it all/Well ya think you know it all/But ya don't know a thing at all/Ain't it something y'all.” Y’all? And not in a country song? Sung by someone from Texas that seems like they’d drink Lone Star and do karaoke with you? Swoon.

  2) Foo Fighters with Bob Mould - “Dear Rosemary” (Rosewell/RCA)
I've listened to this duet between Dave Grohl and Bob Mould close to 100 times this year. And I still can't get enough of it. It's the best Foo Fighters song since "Monkey Wrench" in my opinion. (That’s most likely because it sounds like a long lost Sugar song.) I loved “The Pretender” from their last album, but damn, this is just amazing. I tweeted back in February one day that this song gave me goosebumps. It's still doing that.

  1) Adele - “Rolling in the Deep” (Columbia)
I’ve read so much about this song and Adele’s tremendous year that I’m wary of adding anything to the critical mass of critics spinning theses about it. Fuck, heartbreak has rarely sounded this great. I really hope she recovers from her vocal cord surgery and can take a well-deserved victory lap in 2012.

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