January 3, 2012

A (mostly) uninformed listening of the top 50 singles of 2011: 11–20

More fun: I listen to the the top singles of the year (per those irritating arbiters at Rolling Stone) after listening to (most of them) for the very first time. Check out 41–50 here, 31–40 in this place and 21–30 in the location indicated by this link. And love me.

20. “Welcome to the Jungle” – Jay-Z and Kanye West

Sorry, nope, nothing about Guns N' Roses here, except that Jay refers to himself as "black Axl Rose," which sounds like the character the world has been waiting for. Naturally, I knew about this collaboration, though it did strike me as a touch desperate. I mean, these guys are teaming up now, while they’re still pretty much on the top of the world? Shouldn’t they wait till they’re washed up and most of the universe doesn’t give a shit about them anymore?

As usual, I’m a horrible judge of hip-hop, but nonetheless, I find this a bit underwhelming. Jay and Kanye are peerless performers with outstanding voices, but they say nothing new about the urban experience, and musically the song never gets out of the starting gate. Shouldn’t the two of them together be, like, the biggest story in music ever? Shouldn't I care even though I don't want to?

19. “Blessed” – Lucinda Williams

Back when I actually worked at Rolling Stone (believe it), Lucinda Williams released Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which got everyone I worked with all hot and bothered and declaring it the greatest album of the past trillion years. One of the clear signs that I wasn’t cut out for the rock-critic world was how uninterested I was in this supposed piece of pop music perfection; I was busy trying to convince everyone that Fastball had staying power. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite have the guts to be an iconoclast, so if I wasn’t going with the flow, I was dead in the water. And thus, I shifted to the ever-secure career of quizmastering.

This song is more of the same, from my point of view. Which isn’t to say it’s bad—I actually enjoyed Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, to a very modest, okay-fine-I-believe-you're-actually-heartbroken-and-feel-for-you degree. But I find nothing particularly remarkable about Lucinda Williams, at least when compared with many other homespun singer-songwriters handy with an acoustic guitar groove and a Dylany tale to tell. Actually, I always found her voice a little overwrought, and that has not changed. But hey, don’t let me stop you, have a good time.

18. “Little Black Submarines” – Black Keys

Another one of those bands I feel like I’ve heard thousands of times but never entirely processed mentally. Listening to this song brings it back to me: garage rock, garage rock, garage rock. And I give these guys full credit for authenticity, as “Little Black Submarines” sounds fresh, honest and untouched by big-money studio contrivance (even if it actually is pretty touched, I’d figure). The first two minutes keep it sedate and creepy, with a quiet crescendo, until it explodes into a strident bash-and-jam freak-out. Not bad at all; this is what we mean when we say rock & roll, children.

17. “I Might” – Wilco

Wilco has traditionally bored me silly, though only in terms of songwriting; I positively love their Woody Guthrie projects with Billy Bragg (which featured Guthrie’s words and Bragg’s music, and you just can't argue with either of those guys). So I never denied the skill of this band, and considering that even the songwriting losers get lucky sometimes (e.g., my love for Stone Temple Pilots’ “Interstate Love Song”), it looks like they hit it here. “I Might” is a steady-marching rock confection that doesn’t wallow in the self-seriousness of Wilco at its cultishly adored worst. A great guitar line traces the contours of the song, making up for Jeff Tweedy’s typically weak vocals, and hey, that might even be a xylophone in the last minute. Solid, creative stuff.

16. “Lorelai” – Fleet Foxes

Great band name; I’d been meaning to listen to this group. "Lorelei" (not a Styx cover) is very “now” in that it’s purposefully constructed to sound old: waltz time, faded background vocals, an almost Renaissance-sounding folk guitar riff. It’s very pretty, but it seems a little too much like hipster jerking off to sound authentic.

15. “You” – TV on the Radio

Never connected with this band (how many of these acts can I say that about, geez…). This song has some nice sounds to it, a pleasant melody and interesting instrumental noodling, but the musicians sound like they’re half asleep. I’m sure that sedate vibe worked for the band as they wrote and recorded this song, and it’s ideal for plenty of their bong-hitting fans, but never being a hard-core pothead, it just doesn’t jibe with my entire approach to music. Also, this video is way more annoying that funny; it’s about 20 years late to poke fun at Prince without at least trying to find a new angle on it. (Dave Chappelle got it, though.)

14. “Get It Daddy” – Sleeper Agent

Wholly derivative modern teen punk-pop; I’m extremely depressed to realize that this singer was probably born around the time I lost my virginity. But it’s a great melody, great spirit, great ragged musicianship. It says something that this is the first song on this list that remains running through my head five minutes after I stopped listening to it. I’m not convinced this band has any other decent songs in it, but this is an excellent start.

13. “Circuital” – My Morning Jacket

This band never really showed me what all the fuss was about, so let’s try again… Not a promising start: Yet more fey finger-picking and gently curious vocals. It comes to life two minutes in, powerfully and confidently, and I do appreciate that. But ultimately, nothing really happens—the song marches along, majestically, but never coalesces into something I care about. Oh, Arcade Fire, what hath you wrought?! (Yeah, yeah, I know, MMJ was around before Arcade Fire. Leave me alone.)

12. “Dedication to My Ex (Miss That)” – Lloyd ft. Andre 3000 and Lil Wayne

Some flashback Motown-style R&B, with a fellow who sings way, way too much like Michael Jackson. But hey, it’s a lovely voice, and a solid, powerful groove. Then the chorus reveals why everyone gets so excited about this song: “Oh no, tell me where that pussy gone." Ah, yes—Lloyd is the man who is mainstreaming "pussy." Look, I'm glad someone's doing it, but do you really need to repeat the word more than 30 times? It's not a bad song musically, but pounding the naughty word into our heads just makes you seem desperate.

11. “Pumped Up Kicks” – Foster the People

This one I had heard, ad infinitum for some reason. It’s perfectly serviceable sunny-day beach pop, though I find the subject matter—some kid is fantasizing about going on a shooting spree—to be highly incongruous (though that never stopped me from liking “I Don’t Like Mondays”). It also strikes me as pretty contrived, though that may be just because my main association with this song is a TV commercial for it. Still, it’s a well-written tune, catchy and unique; we could, and often do, a whole lot worse.

Only ten more to go. I must confess: I peeked ahead, and there’s bad news and good news. Bad: I was wrong about knowing a lot of the year’s hits, and nothing in the top ten gets me excited. Good: “Friday” isn’t there. Nor is “Moves Like Jagger” or (sorry) “Born This Way.”