December 30, 2011

A (mostly) uninformed listening of the top 50 singles of 2011: 50–41

Let's try this again. Last year, in the waning days of '10, I realized that my divorce from modern culture was almost so complete, I was nearly a virgin to the past 12 months in pop music. Especially poignant, considering my previous love affair with rock and its attending genres (recounted here).

So with the advice of my old buddies at Rolling Stone (where I learned to love music, where my love went to die), I endeavored to listen to all 50 of the year's "best" (take it as you will) singles, and give my brief, honest and mostly unresearched reactions. It was a fun and enlightening experiment, hopefully interesting to some, so here we are once more: the top songs of this year, again almost totally unknown to me. RS's list is here; I doubt I'll finish by the end of 2011 (I've been abroad for a while, still a few more days), but we're starting with the first ten, and I'll keep going till we've reached the big No. 1. No spoilers, please.

50. “The Adventures of Raindance Maggie” — The Red Hot Chili Peppers

How wildly successful is prototypical party band Red Hot Chili Peppers? Ask yourself this: How many bands that emerged during the '80s can still fill an A-list live venue? R.E.M., Metallica, U2, probably one other I’m forgetting, and RHCP. Kind of amazing, especially considering how thin I always considered the Chili Peppers’ music to be; serviceable good-time grooves go only so far, particularly if you stopped smoking weed in the late ’90s.

But whatever, I’m never going to be a major fan. So let me approach this song as a middle-of-the-road 2011 rock tune. And it’s…surprisingly palatable. Anthony Kiedis’s voice shows virtually no wear all these years on, they’re as musically competent as ever (perhaps a reason for their consistency, at least compared with other white funk bands), but the Chili Peppers are breaking no new ground. Almost 15 years ago, they showed admirable maturity with “Scar Tissue” and “Californication” (despite that title), and they’re still treading that same water. Maybe that’s all their fans need; maybe that’s all a rock song needs.

49. “Heart in Your Heartbreak” – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

I swear to God, I’ve listened to this band a thousand times, and they sound completely different to me each time—until five minutes ago, I would’ve told you Pains of Being Pure at Heart was a Killers rip-off band. Not the case, so here’s what I think now: You can get away with that whisper-singing-over-loud-guitars thing only if you’re a terminally depressed British mopester in the late ‘70s, not if you’re a fey Greenpoint cool kid in 2011. Still, this band knows that the guitar is the most important element of any rock song, and they keep the melody sticky. Good song title too. So measured praise for this one; remind me that when I’ve completely forgotten about it two weeks from now.

48. “The Death of You and Me” – Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds

Ah, Oasis. I guess I never got the big deal about them. They weren’t bad, just…unremarkable. It seemed to me Oasismania was predicated on the idea that there was something novel about a ‘60s-obsessed rock band that did drugs, shagged groupies, caused lots of trouble, and was from England. Wow.

Liam had the star power, but Noel was apparently the only Gallagher brother with actual talent. This song is another slice of acceptable Beatle-biting, including a George Martin–reeking horn solo. It’s pleasant and fine, with none of the danger Oasis’s best work benefited from, let alone the buoyant personality of the Fab Four.

47. “Mona Lisa” – Atlas Sound

“Dream pop,” they call it. And yeah, this thing sure is dreamy. Sparkling guitar, and the melody is a minor masterpiece of repetitive simplicity…for the first two minutes. It’s then when Atlas Sound (nomme de solo for Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox) begins to run out of ideas and just marks time for another minute. This is the first example of the perpetual problem I had with last year’s top 50: a good idea that isn’t developed satisfactorily, a sign of laziness. Really too bad about this one.

46. “The Last Huzzah” – Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire feat. Despot, Das Racist, Danny Brown and El-P

Oh, hip-hop, will I never love you? Probably not. I mean, I don’t know; the snippets of lyrics I catch seem clever (“Arrested development” rhymed with “irrelevant,” “tick tock” with “suck my cock”), the repeating hook is appealing, these guys have powerful and interesting voices…what do you want from me? I do think “Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire” is a uniquely annoying name, though. Also, I have zero patience for videos full of biches and ho’s. It's a cliché that needs to die and not just for the obvious reasons.

45. “The Same Thing” – Cass McCombs

Another whispery-voiced poet. The song sounds nice, with a psychedelically muted energy, but it goes absolutely nowhere for two minutes. The bridge shakes things up, with wacky keyboard figure straight out of the late ‘60s, but then we’re back where we started for another two minutes. Then bridge again, extended this time, to ensure that we get absolutely bored of it, and that takes us through the last two minutes. This song screams rough first draft. Aren’t there A&R people anymore?

44. “The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie” – The Joy Formidable

The band is called “the Joy Formidable,” and the song is seven minutes and 45 seconds. Oh, and the first 50 seconds consists mostly of the sounds of balloons popping. Brace yourselves…

But then it builds into a satisfying, darkly shaded, muscular rock melody, in the Arcade Fire vein. Not my favorite thing, and the female vocalist has absolutely nothing special, but there are no half measures taken here. Even the last minute and a half, a huge noise-rock breakdown, comes off as more emotional than lazy. If they’d condensed it to a solid five, we might have had a winner on our hands.

43. “KMAG YOYO” – Hayes Carll

“Wait, we need to add a token country song to the list.” Actually, this tells a great little contemporary story about a soldier in Afghanistan going AWOL, way more Dylan than Hank Williams. I suppose this is what modern country should be—honest, clever and rebellious—but it’s hard to develop a taste for it this late in life.

42. “My Mistakes” – Eleanor Friedberger

Solo fun from the gal in the Fiery Funaces (who once lived on the couch of a former BQT regular). I’ve always loved her voice, and I’ve enjoyed the more bizarre corners that the Furnaces ambled down, but they always seemed more animated by arty randomness than any true sense of creative inspiration. This song holds together a little better than that structurally; still, I’m not sure if her voice works as well in such a context—it’s a little too emotionally distant to carry a relatively direct romantic pop song. Great melody and instrumentation, though, so it deserves a second listen—that sax solo is inspired.

41. “Paradise” – Coldplay

Never been a fan, but also never understand the extreme antipathy toward this band; not everyone can be Bono, and you’re kidding yourself if you think no one’s going to ride on his coattails. A little sunnier and less overwrought than I’m used to from Coldplay, and it suits them. Credibly pleasant and competent; I won’t mind this when it’s playing at H&M.

Will try to handle the next ten tomorrow. Stay tuned, friends.


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