Well, I'm glad that
year is over! Weirdly, I personally had a fairly good year. My mental health has improved to a point where I feel more consistently energetic, productive, and borderline happy than I have since fourth grade
, and I have discovered a genuine passion in acquiring CDs and donating them to the Orrington Public Library
, which did not offer a CD collection until my sister-in-law, Audrey, became the town librarian this past summer. However, just about all of my loved ones have gone through really rotten times this year. Obviously I'm not going to enumerate the problems everyone has encountered, but suffice to say the nonstop litany of health, social, and employment woes suffered by people whose happiness I wish more than anything in the world I could ensure has put a substantial damper on the year, making me eager to euthanize it. I really hope that 2012 will be a 180-degree turnaround for everyone but me! (And any of you who had a less-than-nightmarish year, I guess
.) Anyway, one more year to go, if the Mayans had anything to say about it! Which they didn't
Though I very much dislike the holiday season and attendant phenomena such as snow, televised Christmas specials, and cheer, I do always look forward to assembling my teal-deer favorite-songs-of-the-year playlist, at least until my self-imposed obligation to write up each song in detail becomes a burdensome albatross! So to kick 2011 in the butt on its way out, here is Coyotes Ate My Chayotes! The Best I've Heard of 2011
. The annual disclaimer: I haven't heard every album from 2011 that I want
to hear, let alone all the albums the year dropped upon us, so these are my favorite songs from the small cross-section of records that I had time, resources, and energy enough to investigate. 2011 albums I enjoyed that are not represented here include Bill Callahan's Apocalypse
, John Maus's We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves
, Modeselektor's Monkeytown
, Kurt Vile's Smoke Ring for My Halo
, Wild Flag's Wild Flag
, Pajama Club's Pajama Club
, James Pants's James Pants
, Washed Out's Within and Without
, Other Lives' Tamer Animals
, Electric Six's Heartbeats and Brainwaves
, Africa Hitech's 93 Million Miles
, Hauschka's Salon des Amateurs
, Royce Da 5'9"'s Success Is Certain
, Arrange's Plantation
, Disappears' Guider
, Ethan Gold's Songs from a Toxic Apartment
, M83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
, and Pulseprogramming's Charade Is Gold
. Less worthy albums include Esben and the Witch's Violet Cries
, R.E.M.'s Collapse Into Now
, David Thomas Broughton's Outbreeding
, Jonti's Twirligig
, Daedelus's Bespoke
, Hospital Ships' Lonely Twin
, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra's self-titled album. Yes, I hear about most new bands via Pitchfork these days.
If you would like a ZIP file of this mix, right-click these blue letters to download it, assuming I did this correctly. (I'll plan on keeping this link live for a month or so. Probably longer, since I will likely forget to take it down! Or possibly for less time, if I start getting arrested under the idiotic and dangerous Stop Online Piracy Act
! Who knows what twists and turns this crazy world will take.) [UPDATE 1/26/12:
I've taken the file down since I figure pretty much everyone who wanted it has it by now. But if someone should happen upon this post in the future and want a copy of the mix, let me know and we'll figure out a way to get it to you.] As always, if you have a rebuttal or your own playlist, reply and I'll post it on the appropriate page
on my site. Prestige!1. Felice Brothers: "Fire at the Pageant"
(3:33) The Felice Brothers' Celebration, Florida
was a surprise left turn from the deservingly well-regarded, dark country/folk rock they'd previously trafficked in, exhibiting the band's heretofore secret facility for weirdly-structured indie-rock. The album opener--and an easy choice to kick off this playlist--retains the Brothers' tobacco-dripping Appalachian harmonies and finger-picked acoustic instrumentation, but it also piles on sinister, leaden rhythms and chaotic sound effects. It's all in the service of a tale that I think is about a zombie stalking some townsfolk, who attempt to take him down with an ill-thought-through application of fire that quickly rages out of control, but I can't be certain; the ellipses in the storytelling don't keep it from being scarier than anything on this season of The Walking Dead
, though. "Fire at the Pageant" does verge on becoming too busy for its own good (that half-measure rhythm change on the line "Harlan's girl will catch a glimpse" is a bit of show-offy frippery that could have come from the Dirty Projectors' pompous playbook), but its catastrophic confusion enriches the story, and the main hook--a chorus of schoolchildren shouting, "Go on, run! Call 911!"--is the most memorably chilling thing you're going to hear for at least a couple years. From Celebration, Florida
.2. Beans: "Deathsweater"
(4:01) Based on the visual evidence provided by Google Images, Antipop Consortium MC Beans is indeed one fine-looking young man, albeit a shade dorky. If we are to take seriously the amusingly loving rundown of his own appealing characteristics he raps out in this track, however, it seems that when Ol' Beany looks in the mirror, he sees a model of physical perfection even more glowingly sexy than Dolvett Quince. Or, to put it another way, he is "golden like Estelle Getty," as claimed in one of the many memorable formulations that appear within his studiously stumbling flow. (His verbal skill is also the recipient of copious kudos here.) The production, by DJ Nobody, is an all-dessert mixture of shuffling beats, buzzing bass, and a clonky, vaguely melodic percussive pattern that sounds like a set of wooden windchimes in the background, and the chorus, in which Beans exalts his own fashion sense while harmonizing with himself in a very nifty way that straddles the line between tunefulness and talking, is 20 seconds of music as flawless as Beans's perceived pulchritude. From End It All
.3. Mountain Goats: "Estate Sale Sign"
(2:47) Another year, another masterfully brainy album of acoustic rock from John Darnielle. The particular magnetism of All Eternals Deck
lies in the rhythm section of Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster, who have by now been fully integrated into the band, clearly boosting Darnielle's confidence in his ability to pen songs that sound more accessibly fleshy than the comparatively thin (which is not to say lacking) arrangements of the past. I personally always gravitate most toward the Mountain Goats' songs that have a breakneck tempo to match the lung-wringingly powerful vocals, and "Estate Sale Sign" may be the most believably punky song in their oeuvre
. It has Darnielle's trademark mix of lived-in heartache and blame topped with black humor, this time focusing on a couple splitting up and selling the possessions with which they used to practice some sort of occult worship together. The notion of items purported to have enormous dark power lying unsold at a suburban garage sale is an amusingly mundane one, and the pinprick details like "Some guy in an Impala shakes his head as he drives by" are even more mordantly funny, but the magic of John Darnielle is that the characters' rueful emotions are totally relatable in the most unlikely way. (NB: Future of the Left's apoplectic noiseball "You Need Satan More Than He Needs You" is another hilarious song on this topic.) From All Eternals Deck
.4. KORT: "A Special Day"
(2:59) Kurt Wagner, impresario of the wonderful indie-country-soul-pop cooperative Lambchop, and Cortney Tidwell, whose parents and grandfather ran Nashville's Chart Records country label in the '60s and '70s, teamed up this year for a casually gratifying album of covers of old singles from the Chart catalog. The highlight is this romantic, unabashedly sappy sigh of a song in which the narrator eagerly awaits the homecoming of a lover who has been away for quite some time. I haven't been able to locate Karen Wheeler's original recording, but it can't possibly top the honeyed sweetness of Tidwell's singing and Wagner's exemplarily thoughtful, deliberate arrangement. (If it's deceptively placid emotional depth you're going for, a pedal steel works every time.) The unhurried calmness of the song evokes a scene of Tidwell rising at sunup, sitting on her porch in her bathrobe and sipping her coffee, savoring the anticipation, and it's majestic in its happy-hearted excitement. From Invariable Heartache
.5. Brown Recluse: "Impressions of a City Morning"
(2:01) The once-great Of Montreal has been on an increasingly unlistenable trajectory since Kevin Barnes developed a poorly-fitting fixation on funk and disco around the time of 2005's The Sunlandic Twins
. Thankfully, Brown Recluse have neatly stepped in to fill the gap Of Montreal's mutation left in the world of giddy, prismatic indie-pop. Frontman Tim Meskers has more than a little of Barnes's reedy humanity in his voice, but the latter's influence is more conspicuous in the elegantly cascading melody of this irresistibly catchy tune. Not to harp on the similarities, but while there's not a single element of this song that distinguishes Brown Recluse from, if not Of Montreal specifically, any number of frolicsome, psych-pop-minded rock geeks from the Elephant 6 collective (Great Lakes, the Essex Green, the Sunshine Fix, ad infinitum), originality of sound hardly matters when you have such a lovingly-crafted, rollicking ode to the vibrancy of city living that's nothing short of inspirational. From Evening Tapestry
.6. Dengue Fever: "Cement Slippers"
(3:35) Though this LA band generally models its recordings on the rock music from vocalist Chhom Nimol's native Cambodia, this song dispenses with any specific geographic signifiers, instead tossing together a goody bag of punchy stylistic details from the '60s and '70s. You've got traded male/female vocals and a punkish energy that recall X, new wave keyboard confetti, and a lead guitar with that flat, overdriven distortion that was obligatory in the psychedelic era. It even has an authentically wicked distorted saxophone solo that deploys the instrument to the greatest effect I've heard since "Danger! High Voltage" by the Electric Six. All that accessorizing wouldn't add up to much, though, if the actual tune weren't sturdy; luckily, the basic foundation of "Cement Slippers" is as adamantine as its title hints. The sneeringly passive-aggressive verses, in which Nimol and guitarist Zac Holtzman come out with backhanded assessments of their respective lovers' open-mindedness ("My girlfriend loves everything at the beach except the water, the sand, and the sun") to the accompaniment of a cocksure bassline, are expertly set off by a summery chorus to keep the attitude from reaching toxic levels. I've gotta move on now because otherwise this track may never stop looping in my head. From Cannibal Courtship
.7. Cheveu: "Push Push in the Bush Bush"
(2:50) Cor blimey, what a mess this is. Cheveu specializes in teetering piles of clanking, cheap sounds that somehow hold together as dance fodder (similar to bands such as Experimental Dental School and The Blow, though I'm not sure how popular any of these acts are, so I don't know whether that comparison is helpful or just makes me sound pretentious), but this one is far out even compared to the rest of the hoarder-art junkpile that is their 2011 album 1000
. The vocals are run through a silly harmonizer even though they tilt more toward speech than singing, the backing musicians shout a sarcastic "Woo!" every couple measures, the lyrics flirt with an uncomfortable grossness, and the arrangement is a ramshackle eyesore. (A sloppily ugly guitar figure is repeated over and over, there is no bass at all on the track until the keyboards come in midway through the song, someone starts going buckwild on a cowbell toward the end, etc.) And it's the most addictive oddity I've heard all year. From 1000
.8. Dead Milkmen: "Caitlin Childs"
(3:33) The first album from the Dead Milkmen in 16 years is mostly a letdown: though Rodney Anonymous's lyrics successfully amplify his typical angry sarcasm and trashy pop-culture obsessions with highbrow literary allusions and mature political fulmination, the absence of bassist Dave Blood, who committed suicide in 2004, is keenly felt. New bassist Dandrew is in an admittedly impossible and thankless position, but where Blood's basslines were melodic and inventive enough to often surpass Joe Jack Talcum's already-hooky guitar lines, Dandrew retreats and seems afraid to do more than simply hold down the songs' low end, leaving the spare punk arrangements wanting. The record's only real success is this anthemic celebration of the titular progressive activist who became an unjustified target of the Department of Homeland Security at a peaceful protest outside a HoneyBaked Ham outlet. In a year that saw a truly heartening number of Americans taking to the streets in (futile, granted) protest of our corporate plutocracy--and a discouraging number of them arrested or otherwise abused, with the spectre of many more possibly to come now that our increasingly power-mad president can just imprison anyone indefinitely for any or no reason
--Rodney's barbed call, "I'm proud to relate 'enemy of the state' is the greatest praise!" seems particularly relevant and galvanizing. Now, Rodney still can't sing worth a cuss, and even the cadence of his yelling here is perplexingly sloppy, but Talcum's surf-rock-derived churn and the vigorous rhythm are every bit as powerful as the lyrics' call to action. From The King in Yellow
.9. Decemberists: "Rox in the Box"
(3:09) Colin Meloy's ever-multiplying brood of pretensions threatened to overwhelm his band's more accessible pleasures in the latter half of the '00s, but with The King Is Dead
, the Decemberists have thankfully backed away from their more risible artiness and have delivered an enjoyably straightforward tribute to folk rock. Though most of the album is Americana-based (to the point of employing guest vocals from the great Gillian Welch and Reckoning
-style guitar from R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, two important contributors to the shape of popular American music), this accordion-and-violin-dappled anthem seems to draw its inspiration from Down Under. The most obvious debt here is to Midnight Oil's "Blue Sky Mine" in its description of the Rand Paul-approved, absurdly perilous working conditions of a crew of miners, but its stoic blue-collar hooks suggest Meloy has also been listening to some Aussie folk-rockers like Weddings Parties Anything. Though the chorus counts out a morbid assembly line chant that emphasizes the potentially fatal dangers of the job ("If you ever make it to 10, you won't make it again"), the fleet performance goes about its duties with matter-of-fact determination. It's not the dour downer that this critique might imply, but its bobbing tempo is belied by the sense of foreboding underneath. From The King Is Dead
.10. Radiohead: "Codex"
(4:46) For the better part of two decades now, Radiohead have correctly received entire galaxies of approbation for their ability to write rock songs that appeal to a surprisingly wide swath of listeners while coming up with arrangements that rely on unusual, frequently dissonant timbres and combinations of sound that cram your ears so full it's a wonder big, waxy globs of rumpled music don't dribble back out. But lately I've been finding the band's simpler material more gripping than their distinctive, viscous floods of guitars, odd percussion, craggy harmonies, and electronics. My favorite song on 2007's In Rainbows
, for instance, was "Videotape," which limited the musical backing to a deliberate piano pulse and an insistent percussive flam. This song, which I think is by far the high point of The King of Limbs
, pares the rhythm track down even further, to a looped bass dot, and again lets the piano murmur its way through the song, supported only with an icy trumpet, while Thom Yorke fragilely describes leaping into a body of water that's "clear and innocent." The effect is both peaceful and almost unbearably brittle, as though the water itself is trembling in fear of its mirrored surface being broken with a splash. From The King of Limbs
.11. Grouper: "Alien Observer"
(3:56) Liz Harris, who is
Grouper, is one of the more fuel-efficient musicians I've heard lately, with her ability to conjure the enormous, purple-black clouds of the cosmos with just her disconsolate, distant voice and a few silken threads of guitar or keyboard. Here? It's a keyboard. A keyboard that sleepwalks through a misty arpeggio, occasionally hiccuping in a way that makes "Alien Observer"'s dreamlike structure just
slippery and elusive enough to resist one's efforts to call it mood music. From beneath this vast fog, Harris breathes a plaintive wish to leave this world behind and visit other civilizations in which, as an impartial tourist, she won't be expected to hold an emotional investment. Her three or four vocal lines mesh beautifully but don't really sound aware of each other's existence, like several isolated stalactites glistening in a newly-discovered cavern. For a piece of music that is so careful about keeping light years of personal space between itself and the listener, though, it achieves a remarkable emotional sharpness. From A I A: Alien Observer
.12. The Caretaker: "Libet's Delay"
(3:26) Ambient electronic composer James Kirby, who records as The Caretaker among other names, has long been obsessed with memory disorders and their ability to cruelly rob the afflicted of even the most basic touchstones that enable one's life to make sense. His most recent album, An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
, was inspired by research that suggests the memories that are easiest for Alzheimer's sufferers to access are those that are somehow linked to music. Kirby has thus taken a number of gentle old ballroom records and almost imperceptably scrambled them in an attempt to re-create what it must feel like to experience such a phenomenon: some songs jauntily assert themselves from beneath clouds of hiss and reverb, some parts of the songs are swapped illogically or come to an abrupt halt, and bits of the album can reappear several tracks later, triggering a feeling of unexpected familiarity. Even without knowing the concept behind the album, it's a grippingly ghostly listen, but once you know what Kirby is attempting to capture in these fractured collages and you give yourself over to the experience of actually feeling
mental trapdoors open, it's pretty difficult not to become overcome and weepy with empathetic helplessness. The album does demand to be heard as a whole, since it is a single astonishing piece about nothing less than the delicacy and insurmountable transience of everything we humans are, but I do like this track in isolation. The contentedly swaying piano and trumpet are pleasant to listen to on their own terms--in the hands of a DJ like Kid Koala, they'd be paired with a breakbeat and make a zesty little indie-kid dance number--but the entire thing keeps circling back on itself and starting over, never able to progress beyond a certain point. Rather than being frustrating, though, it's such a pretty moment to be stuck in that it nearly qualifies as a meager consolation prize for the disorienting maze of dead ends that has pushed up through one's life experiences. From An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
.13. Tinariwen: "Tenere Taqqim Tossam"
(4:14) Tinariwen is a collective of former Tuareg rebels who play a uniquely entrancing style of Mali music infused with Western rock (or vice versa). On this song they're joined by Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio, and it's a joy to hear a voice as distinctive as Adebimpe's in particular strutting through the English verses with seductive bravado. Tinariwen's usual vocalist isn't blessed with a voice anywhere near so special, but the Tuareg (I guess) verses benefit from the band's chorus of backing vocals, and the entire track boasts a sensual, grinding rhythm that stays exciting even if you listen to the song multiple times on "repeat." The handclaps and polyrhythmic interplay of several acoustic guitars actually do recall TV on the Radio's groovier moments, but the communal-yet-intimate vibe, which thankfully remains shy of orgiastic scuzz, is a singular delight. From Tassili
.14. Mike Doughty: "Into the Un"
(3:21) I don't think I've ever remembered to share this story, but a couple years ago, Bev and I saw Mike Doughty perform on his Sad Man Happy Man tour
. Before the show began, audience members were invited to write questions for Doughty on slips of paper and drop them into The Question Jar, from which he would select queries to answer between songs. Because a thought has never entered my head that didn't first appear on The Simpsons
, I commanded, "Please explain the inspiration for your next song without using the letter 'E.'" Upon drawing my paper, Doughty chuckled, thought for a second, and said, "Happy-go-lucky fun. Lying!" He then played the heartbroken treasure "The Only Answer" from Skittish
. This has no bearing on my review of this song, but I thought it was amusing enough to relate. Doughty has always had a tendency to repeat himself, whether it's falling back on the "gangadank" rhythm that he's favored ever since the first song on Soul Coughing's Ruby Vroom
or reusing the same chord progressions more often than any artist since the Ramones. So the fact that he released two albums this year (this one and the mostly-instrumental sample-fest Dubious Luxury
) that mostly avoid feeling like complete retreads of old songs is in itself a modest victory. The programmed drum machine and slick synths of this song, for example, don't comprise a bold new style for him--though it is my favorite setting for his nose-dependent vocals, closely recalling his frequently-superb 2003 EP Rockity Roll
--but the whisking melody is one we haven't heard before, and it's a good one! The meaning of lyrics like "Press-gang yourself/It's a shuck, it's a fake scare" may not be known even to its author, a common occurrence to which he readily copped during that same Question Jar session, but the air of the track is all determination; neither optimism nor pessimism but a square-jawed willingness to face the future as life shuttles us along its rickety subway tracks. From Yes and Also Yes
.15. Lisa D'Amato: "Pot Ledom (Top Model Backwards)"
Wait no hold on here...15. Nicolas Jaar: "Colomb"
(3:22) Want to hear something depressing? (I assume you do if you're reading anything I've written.) Nicolas Jaar, whose debut album Space Is Only Noise
is by far my favorite disc of the year, was born in flippin' 1990
. What creative milestones had you
reached by age 21? Myself, I had just figured out how to record things backwards on my eight-track, written notebooks full of ghastly, self-pitying lyrics, received polite rejection letters from Merge Records and Astralwerks, and that's about it. Jaar, meanwhile, has recorded a minor masterpiece of ambient pop, produced with both the restless enthusiasm of youth and the self-assurance of a practiced hand twice his age. "Colomb," one of his many essential compositions, is efficiently modern and mysterious, like a dimly-lit, state-of-the-art factory. (Think the meth superlab from Breaking Bad
, I guess.) Ironic, slow-motion handclaps and keyboard apparitions back a lonely, glitchy computer who is singing into the darkness. The lyrics it generates are all in French, and although there are any number of perfectly valid reasons to write songs in languages other than God's English, I choose to believe that the computer, upon spontaneously achieving consciousness, has written some vividly moving poetry about the struggle to come to grips with the often-incomprehensible illogic of feelings it has just discovered, in the tongue of its default settings, only to have its melodic, resonant philosophical observations go unheard because not only is the factory in which it sits all but vacant for the night, it's located in Dallas, where there isn't a French-speaking human for 400 miles. Anyhow, the track concludes with samples of ping-pong balls being dropped onto a table, for no reason other than the way the sound of the balls quickly bouncing to a halt is so pleasingly tangy to one's ear. For a spare, deserted-sounding electronic track, Jaar coaxes a surprising amount of personality out of the atmosphere, curse his prodigious little mind! From Space Is Only Noise
.16. They Might Be Giants: "Can't Keep Johnny Down"
(2:20) The days of They Might Be Giants surprising us with effortlessly unique and brainy pop puzzles like "Ana Ng" are long behind us, but in spite of their reliance on de rigeur
production over the past decade, TMBG can still turn out the catchiest (and frequently some of the funniest) songs around when they try to. And from the moment John Flansburgh's unusually nimble guitar intro kicks in, it's clear that they're really
trying on this frothy anthem of misguided self-actualization. I've always suspected nasal accordionist John Linnell of being something of a misanthrope, and while the protagonist of this song is way too dumb for it to be autobiographical, Linnell brings a certain obvious relish to lines like "Beneath my dignity to flip off the guy when he pulls up alongside to say my gas cap is unscrewed." This Johnny is an enormously defensive headcase, congratulating himself on taking the high road and not bending to the persecutory efforts of those who he imagines look down on him... which is pretty much "all of the dicks in this dick town." Lucky for us, the tune itself isn't anywhere near as artificially inflated as Johnny's inner monologue: it's a concise, snappy two minutes and 20 seconds, which is the perfect amount of time to spend with this clown. From Join Us
.17. Wire: "Bad Worn Thing"
(3:33) As time has unswervingly hurtled on, keeping us strapped in the back seat and refusing to so much as pull over for us to stretch our legs and get some crappy vending machine coffee to recharge, Wire has mostly drifted to the wrong side of the line that separates invigorating minimalist punk from two-chord laziness. They do momentarily perk up, though, on this uncharacteristically bouncy number. The theatrical recitation of the lyrics sounds more like the winking jests of XTC's Colin Moulding than the band's usual serrated censures, and the words themselves are jokey, Beck-style free associations alluding to our grubby, disposable culture. ("Jam sandwich filled with Uzied peelers/Frisking pimps and dawn car dealers.") It's a peppy sixteenth-note bassline that bears the weight of the arrangement, while Wire's vaunted guitar noises are relegated, with wise restraint, to jovial, scribbly shading. "Bad Worn Thing"'s easygoing economy is a far cry from the revelatory way Wire could unsentimentally field-dress a rock song in 30 seconds back on Pink Flag
, but good luck trying not to chant this chorus to yourself all the livelong day. From Red Barked Tree
.18. PJ Harvey: "The Glorious Land"
(3:34) Early in PJ Harvey's furious album-length indictment of Britain's insatiable, slavering war machine, "The Glorious Land" offers the listener a literal wake-up call that would be thuddingly heavy-handed if employed by a less gifted artist (say, any of the contestants on Work of Art: The Next Great Artist
). Specifically, the intro is interrupted a few times by "Reveille" tootled in a key that doesn't mesh with the rest of the song at all, but after a few listens of finding that choice atypically sophomoric for Harvey, it started to make sense to me thematically: in a song about the way American and British citizens are expected to allow our respective militaries to do whatever the hell they want, at literally any financial cost (or cost in lives), and to say "thank you" as the armed forces preserve themselves to the zero-sum detriment of the majority of the citizenry who could really use those resources, what better darkly comic way to illustrate this monomaniacal arrogance than to let a symbol of the military burst unbidden into the song itself? From there, it's a pretty direct number, with unadorned guitars and an anxious bass chittering as Harvey condemns the way England's military operations have despoiled the land, "plowed with tanks and feet marching." It all builds to a harrowing finish; Harvey doesn't mince words as she hollers, "What is the glorious fruit of our land? The fruit is deformed children!" Her point is unmistakable but the whole song is deceptively artful in its bluntness. From Let England Shake
.19. Barr Brothers: "Deacon's Son"
(5:48) The debut album from Montreal's Barr Brothers is a rewardingly rich indie-folk stew, setting up camp (as stews do) in a middle ground between the hushed intimacy of early Iron & Wine and Paul Simon's mild eclectic streak. On this standout ditty, intentionally blasé singing ("I'm the deacon's son/Lazy as the day is long") imparts the vibe of a Matthew McConaughey-style slackass floating through life like a forgotten pool noodle, but listen close and a surprising amount of care is evident in the assembly. A hypnotic reggae rhythm provides the setting for a bluesy guitar riff so cozy and warm that its endless repetition is a blessing rather than a bore, and the guitar plays straight man to a variety of subtly clever musical goings-on and a-doin's which reach their apex with a clanky call-and-response tiff between a harp and a steel drum. "Deacon's Son" might be a touch jammy for some listeners, but I myself think that the precise selection of timbres and its balance between nonchalance and mindfulness offer an unexpected cornucopia of joys. From The Barr Brothers
.20. Fergus & Geronimo: "Where the Walls Are Made of Grass"
(2:36) I generally loved living in Ann Arbor, but as many of my friends have noted since I moved away, its downtown area--once an enviable hub of terrific independent stores like Shaman Drum and Schoolkids Records--is slowly but surely being ceded to ugly chain restaurants and corporate retail franchises that trawl for clients who express their unique personalities through the purchase of mass-produced items designed to look quirky. And if the de-individualization of Ann Arbor required a theme song, this boppy track from the wiseacre duo Fergus & Geronimo would be perfect. A 21st-century update of the hippie-filleting in which Frank Zappa indulged on his classic We're Only in It for the Money
(in both tone and content), "Where the Walls Are Made of Grass" trains its crosshairs on those hippies/hipsters whose ostentatious subscription to a superficial anti-materialist philosophy slowly gives way to ostentatious yuppie materialism as they age: "Treating people rude/Organic food like the natives used to eat/Telling bums that I couldn't spare a dime/Buy a paper I won't read." The bass is woody, the electric guitar is out of tune, and the saxophone sounds like a beat-up beginner model on loan from a sixth-grader, but the melody is so strong and the snark so well delivered that the whole tune achieves a jury-rigged cohesiveness that recalls the Violent Femmes as well as Zappa. The hipsters, they are fooling nobody. From Unlearn
.21. Stephin Merritt: "The Sun and the Sea and the Sky"
(2:09) Stephin Merritt (of the Magnetic Fields, 6ths, Future Bible Heroes, Gothic Archies, Zinnias, and who knows what else) unearthed a whole sarcophagus of pleasures from his past on this year's Obscurities
compilation, but this one is by far the most scorchingly fatalistic of the bunch. It was recorded for the Magnetic Fields' opus 69 Love Songs
but ultimately omitted, Merritt claims, "because it wasn't actually about romantic love." Like many of Merritt's public comments, this seems somewhat disingenuous (some 69 Love Songs
toss-offs like "Experimental Music Love" are hardly the sounds of Aphrodite and Cupid making the beast with two backs), but he's right that the song has too much on its mind to fit neatly in with three discs of songs about fleeting infatuations and unrequited longing. When you're a big-picture person, it can be difficult to behave in a manner that approaches "carefree" because it's tough to shake the knowledge that everything and everyone you love is impermanent; somewhere along the line, one or more of the loves of your life--be it a lover, relative, animal, or friend--is going to be taken from you and you will have to somehow go on despite an unfillable void in your heart. (Unless you die first, in which case you'll be breaking the heart of everyone who loves you.) It's impossible to predict and it's unavoidable, and I personally don't know how anyone lives without the low-level horror of these facts pressing down on them at every waking moment. It seems to weigh particularly heavy on Merritt, as this skeletal acoustic track finds him expressing a hopelessly sad desire for a love that's both eternal in a way humans can't offer and concrete in a way religion can't offer. So he finally, emptily settles on directing his love at soulless natural phenomena: "The sun and the sea and the sky/They will never make you cry/You can love them and they don't die/They don't just die," even as he concedes, "Yes, I know it's meaningless." As I write this, I have two little dogs at my feet, gazing up at me and wagging their tails, confident that if they do so for long enough, I will relent and give them a Dingo snack. And this song is making me cry. For all the beauty of the world, life itself is absurdly unjust in a lot of ways. From Obscurities
.22. David Lowery: "I Sold the Arabs the Moon"
(4:04) The title makes this song sound like some sort of dated, cringy joke about the '80s stereotype of Keffiyeh-wearing sheikhs buying up every available property in the universe, but the soft touch of this temperate waltz quickly snuffs any such expectations. Instead, it's a very abbreviated history of the Persian Gulf, from Arab settlements to British colonialism and American military incursions. Really, the lyrics are not especially notable, but the pensive arrangement and singing can almost trick you into thinking they are. As ever, Lowery's secret weapon is letting his voice jump an octave in the final verse, from his keenly observational California deadpan to a raspy, impassioned bleat, taking the melody to heights that it seems somewhat ambivalent about occupying. More confident up there is the violin of Ferd Moyse, which hang-glides above the song in a mesmerizing whorl. Though, like the rest of this album, the song is among Lowery's least substantial work--it lacks the intellectual heft of Camper Van Beethoven or the musculature of Cracker--that doesn't mean it's not lovely in its graceful breeziness. From The Palace Guards
.23. Wye Oak: "Plains"
(3:45) This melancholy, hypnotic ingot may be stingy with the amount of notes it's willing to dole out, but Jenn Wasner's singing, distractedly muttered with the aural equivalent of a thousand-yard stare, cuts agonizingly through the repetitive minor chords that slowly tumble over and over like a cement mixer on its last legs. Wasner's guitar shivers with the tiniest touch of tremolo, a piano repeatedly fails to muster the strength to assert itself, and the hollow echoes that appear on the rhythm track add to the sense of barren dreariness. Upon first listen, the bashed-out measure that keeps appearing to waylay the rhythm is extremely annoying, like a child who keeps stomping its demands for attention while you're trying to read, but once you know to expect the interruption, it makes sense as a representation of the mental potholes captured in lines like "I am ashamed and every day is just the same." For those days when you don't have the emotional energy to do anything but follow the tracks of raindrops down your window, "Plains" will be a sympathetic compatriot. From Civilian