My buddy Brian – a music aficionado if there ever was one – once told me, “Any joker can make one or two catchy songs … it’s so much more difficult to make a cohesive album that is strong from start to finish”. He’s right. That’s why ever since I finally joined the iPod revolution 16 months ago, I’ve been listening to albums in their entirety rather than shuffling through songs from different artists.
That said, there’s something rather irresistible about combing through singles, sampling the best offerings from different bands in a short span. Besides, it’s easier – it might take me months to decide just how much I admire a particular album, but I can get sucked in by a single as quickly as anyone.
Which is why the Manifesto’s mid-year analysis of music is focusing on singles rather than albums. Frankly, I’ve legally purchased (as far as you know) so much music this year that I haven’t yet had sufficient time to parse everything, so any attempt at a “Best Of” album list at the year’s halfway would be pure folly. But I can say, with some degree of certainty, which individual songs have stood out to me through the year’s halfway point.
And so, what follows is the Manifesto’s list of the Top 25 Songs of 2009 thus far. Am I taking the easy way out? Absolutely. Is it foolhardy to individually rank 25 songs? Of course. But it’s fun this way.
One caveat: I selected a maximum of one song for any band/artist – it’s my damn blog, and those are the rules. I’ve also included links to videos (or unofficial Youtube clips with appropriate audio) where possible, so feel free to sample, and certainly let me know in the Comments if you’re aggrieved about any songs I’ve excluded. (I offer my own apologies to the following artists for their omission: Antony and the Johnsons, Arcade Fire, Beirut, The Decemberists, Dirty Projectors, Discovery, Handsome Furs, O+S, and St. Vincent.)
Let’s get to it.
25. Wilco – You and I. The lovely Leslie Feist guests on a simple, elegant duet. Sometimes all you need is a guitar and a woman’s beautiful voice.
24. Yo La Tengo – Gentle Hour. The first of five songs on this list from the extraordinary Dark Was the Night compilation, indie rock legends Yo La Tengo offer an achingly gentle love song befitting its title. The sincerity of the lyrics – “It’s such a pleasure to touch your heart / I can hardly wait” – is unmistakable.
23. Matt & Kim – Daylight. Twin keyboards form the backbone of a rollicking clash between pianos and more ambient percussion. Check out the video for some indefatigable spirit.
22. Franz Ferdinand – Ulysses. It might seem odd that I’m championing a song whose most distinctive lyrics are, “I’m bored, c’mon, let’s get high,” but I can’t deny the propulsive power of the guitars.
21. Fever Ray – If I Had a Heart. Moody, creepy, and utterly hypnotic. It’s as if the low-bass gurgles up from its own self-made abyss. Warning: Do not watch the video unless you want to freak the fuck out.
20. Camera Obscura – French Navy. “I wanted to control it / But love, I couldn’t hold it.” The chorus of Camera Obscura’s enchanting single may also describe the band’s approach to their craft. They can’t help making giddy pop music. It’s not their fault.
19. Little Boots – Earthquake. Speaking of uncontrollable. Sure, it’s dopey, and sure, its lyrics aren’t exactly poetic, but here’s a challenge: Try listening to the techno-funk beats of the chorus (“Every little earthquake / Every little heartbreak going unheard”) without bobbing your head. It’s not possible. This song makes me want to dance, and trust me, I don’t dance. (By the way, the fan-made video is A) Hilarious, and B) Loaded with hot chicks. You can thank me later.)
18. Green Day – 21 Guns. It’s odd that Green Day buried this gem of a punk ballad 16 tracks deep into their rather bloated eighth LP, 21st Century Breakdown. There’s plenty of filler on that album, but “21 Guns” signifies everything Green Day can be – epic and intimate, rocking and melodic, bold and beautiful.
17. The Lonely Island – Jizz in My Pants. So we know it’s funny, and we know it’s a perfect parody of the modern-day bar scene, and we definitely know that the “One more thing, I’m gonna pay by check” line is comedy gold. But here’s my question: Does anyone else think that the dance-fueled music is actually, you know, good? Because I find myself admiring the sonic textures as much as the lyrics. Well, almost.
16. Bon Iver – Brackett, WI. My love affair with Bon Iver knows no bounds. It also seems to know no words, and I mean that literally – here’s another Justin Vernon song in which I can barely identify a single lyric. It doesn’t matter. The slow build, the pseudo-chorus, the bridge – it’s all majesty.
15. Neko Case – This Tornado Loves You. Only a siren with a voice as powerful and mesmeric as Neko Case could write a song about a natural disaster and make it beautiful. Yet here she is, singing in a fury about how she’s “Smashed every transformer with every trailer / Till nothing was standing 65 miles wide”, and all I can focus on is that magical voice.
14. Michael Giacchino – Enterprising Young Men. It may be a tad shady to make a list of pop songs and then throw in a track from a summer blockbuster, but Michael Giacchino’s score for Star Trek is the stuff of legends, most notably this epic, brass-laden track. Any time you compose a theme that rivals John Williams’ greatest, you merit a mention.
13. Animal Collective – My Girls. I don’t pretend to be capable of comprehending Animal Collective’s music at large, but I can appreciate the richness of this song, especially when its hazy sheen and imported-from-another-planet background percussion suddenly give way to a marvelous, direct chorus. Maybe someday I’ll understand the rest of the album, but for now this will do.
12. Lily Allen – Everyone’s At It. It was difficult for me to select one song from Lily Allen’s fantastic sophomore album, It’s Not Me, It’s You, especially given that the first six tracks are all single-worthy. “The Fear” received the first video treatment, but if forced to choose, I’ll take this opener, a witty but surprisingly earnest salvo aimed at the contemporary drug culture. “Why can’t we all, all just be honest / Admit to ourselves that everyone’s on it?” she asks, and the strange thing is that she sounds like she truly wants our attention. Maybe it’s the rainbow sirens or the unapologetic power-pop beat, but whatever it is, I’m inclined to give it to her.
11. Telekinesis – Coast of Carolina. I love pop music that’s unabashed, I-don’t-give-a-fuck pop music, and this is that. It isn’t revolutionary, just some guitars and a rhythm section backing a competent lead singer, but there’s something genuine about it. I don’t know how, but the sudden burst of “Turn it up!” midway through the song always compels me to reach for the volume button.
10. A.C. Newman – The Heartbreak Rides. “And so we ride the heartbreak slides … the heartbreak rides for free.” Now those, my friends, are motherfucking lyrics. Throw in the fantastic electric build while Newman murmurs “Ah yo hoh”, then tack on an explosive finish, and you’ve got one hell of a pop song.
9. The New Pornographers – Hey, Snow White. This is a bit of a cheat, as I’m doubling up on A.C. Newman material, but “The Heartbreak Rides” was part of his solo project, whereas this reunites Newman with his band (including Neko Case). Anyway, this track is about as straightforward as the New Pornographers get, with a tender opening (“Hey, Snow White, it’s gonna be alright”) followed by a fiery refrain, but just because it’s simple doesn’t make it any less compulsively listenable.
8. Morrissey – It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore. About seven months ago, I went through a phase where I listened to The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead at least twice a day. It’s a phase I plan on repeating as soon as possible. And while Morrissey’s latest solo album may lack the nuance of that 23-year-old classic, the songwriter still packs a powerful punch. “Did you really think we meant all of those syrupy sentimental things that we said?” he belts out in his British snarl, a voice both elegant and emphatic, full of passion and loathing. For the song’s part, it inspires naught but love.
7. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Skeletons. I can’t write about this song. Karen O.’s voice is just too haunting and painful. Suffice to say it’s beautiful. Let’s just move on.
6. The National – So Far Around the Bend. The National are simply a perfect band, and here’s a perfect song, marrying the bottomless depths of Matt Berninger’s voice with a hypnotic slow-burn intro, featuring resonant lyrics such as, “Take a bath and get high through an apple / Want to get high, but you can’t when you’re laughing”. There’s an effortlessness to The National’s music, and as they croon “Now there’s no leaving New York” during the song’s fadeout, we wonder why we’d ever want to.
5. Phoenix – Love Like a Sunset. Things get a little confusing here, as Phoenix appear to have split this spellbinding piece into two distinct parts after the record’s initial release. Indeed, there’s a clear break shortly after the five-minute mark – till then we’ve experienced little but brooding instrumentation and ambient noise. Still, that noise proves critical in appreciating the majesty of the moment when guitars suddenly break up the fray, in an unrelenting but crystal-clear stream of triplets. When vocalist Thomas Mars finally enters (“Day comes, visible horizon / Right where it starts, it ends”), it’s a moment more breathtaking than any sunset.
4. Grizzly Bear – Two Weeks. Jaunty, layered, rhythmic, inscrutable, arresting, buoyant, innovative, eclectic – pick an adjective. This song has it all. (The video, on the other hand, is, er, pretty weird.)
3. Bat for Lashes – Daniel. This song is so fucking beautiful – so desirous, so grand, so opulent – that it makes me wish I were in love, and my girlfriend loved me so much that she played it whenever she missed me. Of course, if that were the case, my girlfriend would likely be a meth-addled hallucinator who escaped from an asylum and imagined she had to defeat the demonic forces of evil while using only her voice in order to reach my side, but whatever. I mean, listen to this fucking chorus! “When I run in the dark, Daniel / To a place that’s ours, Daniel / Under a sheet of rain in my heart, Daniel / I dream of home.” Combine it with Natasha Khan’s exquisite voice, and it makes me want to weep. This may be the most horribly romantic song I have ever heard.
2. Yeasayer – Tightrope. After I finally convinced my aforementioned buddy Brian to listen to Dark Was the Night, he emailed me in ecstasy with the following declaration: “I can say without the slightest bit of hyperbole that the Yeasayer song on Disc 1 is the greatest song in the history of music”. He was probably kidding. Then again, maybe he wasn’t. Either way, it’s a pretty great fucking song.
1. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Stay Alive. Earlier this year, I started taking the Mass Pike to work. If I dodged a few 18-wheelers and ran a few red lights, I could usually make it to the office in about 20 minutes. I would then pause whatever was playing on my iPod, walk into my office, get settled in my cubicle, don my headphones, and press the Play button on my iPod to resume my music. This was my routine.
There was, however, a one-month stretch during which I listened to the Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s self-titled debut album – a glorious assemblage of shoegaze-tinged melodies – every day during my dreary morning commute. Invariably, I arrived in the parking lot approximately three minutes into the album’s sixth song, called “Stay Alive” and featuring a magnificent refrain of “Don’t you try to shoot at the sky … and stay alive”. Now, in these cases, once I got settled, I would not press the Play button; instead, I would press the Rewind button, thereby starting the song over again. I wanted to listen to “Stay Alive” in its entirety as often as I could. If I ever happened to unpause it in the middle, I always restarted it so I could listen to the entire beautiful, cohesive whole.
And that, dear readers, is how much I love this song.
Here’s to a good second half of 2009.