Saturday, December 17, 2011

Best Music Of 2011: The Leftovers

This is awkward. It's been six months since I abandoned my "best of the decade" countdown with less than a quarter of it done. Sorry about that. I got distracted by how lazy I am. Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" was going to be the #1 album, for those of you seeking closure.

I read an article once about how the internet is destroying the critic industry. With everyone blogging, youtubing, twittering and... friendstering their every opinion, the voices of actual critics get overwhelmed by the nonsensical din of teenagers' important opinions on My Little Pony and dubstep. In a society that's already more splintered and divided than a middle school dance floor, this is threatening to make the idea of critical consensus a quaint notion from a simpler era.

Anyway, it's the end of the year, which means it's time for me to make things worse by tossing my own opinions into the churning maelstrom. Like the rest of the amateur critics out there, I don't expect to be taken seriously or even agreed with. In the end, I just want to make a mark, a statement, something that says "I was here. I mattered. And I thought that Bon Iver record was a bit overrated."

And now to the point! As tradition dictates, before the best album list, here are ten great songs from albums that didn't make it. The full list will be up sometime this week, and you can hold me to it this time. (Please don't hold me to it. I'll probably forget.)

blink-182 - "Heart's All Gone"

After almost a decade of watching Tom DeLonge try to save the world by waving his arms while dancing, I was a bit apprehensive about the idea of a new blink-182 album. But, awkward Tom lyrics about God aside, Neighborhoods was a pretty tight album. "Heart's All Gone" is the best song, but it's less a song and more like a time machine designed to take you back to 1997. It sounds exactly like a Dude Ranch b-side, which means it makes me feel like I'm 15 again. And by that I mean it makes me want to run around like an idiot and slam into people. Ah, youth.

Childish Gambino - "Freaks And Geeks"

What do you do when you've already accomplished way more than most people ever will? What do you do after you've starred on a brilliant TV show, won an Emmy for writing and developed a successful stand up career? If you're Donald Glover, you strap on a Lil Wayne beat and make sure the world knows exactly how big your dick is. It's catchy, ridiculous, stupid and brilliant at the same time. It'll give you the weirdest boner.

Destroyer - "Suicide Demo For Kara Walker

This song is like floating gently on a cloud with a guy who's improvising a poem about race and gender relations in America. It also sounds a lot like Steely Dan/Michael McDonald yacht rock, complete with flutes and tasteful horn arrangements. It manages to make "dated" sounds seem fresh and original, and it was a perfect soundtrack for last winter's slow thaw.

Dropkick Murphys - Peg O' My Heart

The Dropkick Murphys have covered enough traditional Irish songs to turn a dozen wakes into fist fights, but there's something special about this one. The band sounds as energized as ever and their excitement is completely infectious. Plus, Bruce Springsteen shows up to sing a few verses. Maybe that has something to do with it.

Kurt Vile - "Jesus Fever"

"Jesus Fever" is a song that can make me happy one day and give me the creeps the next. The crisp guitar sounds like the first crisp day of autumn feels, but Kurt Vile's Velvet Underground-mumble gets more and more haunting by the line as he repeats "I'm already gone." It's like getting a hug from a ghost.

Panda Bear - "Surfer's Hymn"

"Surfer's Hymn" doesn't hide its Beach Boys influence - it's called "Surfer's Hymn," for fuck's sake. But it looks past their pop sensibilities and ends up sounding like the distilled essence of a good vibration. On headphones, it becomes a soundscape of crashing waves and sunsets, with singer Noah Lennox's voice sounding almost holy. This is Brian Wilson's "teenage symphony to God" updated for a generation that needs this kind of musical optimism more than ever.

The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart - "Heart In Your Heartbreak"

The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart (which is a terrible name for such a good band) went added some Smashing Pumpkins and My Bloody Valentine to their tool kit this year and pretty much erased the "lo" from their lo-fi sound. The transition could have been messy, but they brought their a-game and made a pretty great set of songs. This one is probably the best pop song of the year.

R.E.M. - "We All Go Back To Where We Belong"

This one's going to be long. First some background - six months ago, R.E.M. were one of my favorite bands. Then they announced their break-up in September and I decided to listen to all their albums chronologically. Then, somehow, I didn't listen to a single other artist for a month and a half. At one point I listened to their "Murmur" album fourteen times in one day. When I finally came out of my R.E.M. bender, not only had they become my favorite band, they were my favorite-favorite band ever. No other band has ever resonated with me quite this much, spoken to me on quite this deep a level. My musical tastes shift around constantly, but I have a feeling this one might stick for a long time.

So, a couple months after the band announced they were retiring, they put a cap on thirty years and fifteen albums with this song, their final single. And it's pretty much perfect. They're not trying to recapture any past glories here - there's no hint of shiny '80s guitar jangling or somber '90s mandolin strum to be found here. Instead, it sounds like a group of people looking back on a lifetime of making great art and feeling content. And yeah, the first time I heard it, the "is this really what you want?" lyric made me cry great big manly tears. You know when a great closing song always makes you want to start the album again? This one always gets me reaching for 1982's "Chronic Town" EP to hear everything one more time.

Rise Against - "Satellite"

Rise Against and I aren't as close as we used to be. Back around the time "Siren Song Of The Counter Culture" came out, I counted them among my favorite bands. Then the crowds got bigger, the stage got further away, and they released an album ("Appeal To Reason") that's been waiting three years now to start growing on me. Their latest, "Endgame" is a slight improvement, but still doesn't quite reach the heights of their early work. Except this song. When the album came out early in the year, "Satellite" seemed like a standout track not just on the album but in the band's career. Now, after a year full of Americans waking up and beginning to stand up and speak out against our society's injustices, the song sounds like a generational anthem.

Thurston Moore - "Circulation"

I swear this year was trying to kill me. Less than a month after R.E.M. called it a day, Sonic Youth basically announced that they were coming to an end. In other words, as of this fall, music sucks. Even if we can't have the full band, at least singer Thurston Moore's acoustic album kicked ass earlier in the year. This isn't the kind of solo acoustic album where the singer tones it down and delivers a bunch of relaxing, easy-going songs. The album can be as intense and experimental as Sonic Youth's best was, and it strikes the best balance between tense and melodic on "Circulation," which sounds like a brilliant lost track from "Daydream Nation."

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