January 5, 2012

A (mostly) uninformed listening of the top 50 singles of 2011: 1–10

And now, after 41–50, 31–40, 21–30, and 11–20, we come to the end: the best of the best of the best of the year's singles, according to a few music geek manchildren sitting around a plush office on Sixth Avenue. And I missed out on almost all of them. So what do I think now, after their moments have passed? The world waits with bated breath…

10. “Don’t Carry It All” – The Decemberists

Several years back, I was dragged (well, not quite; I was offered a free ticket and accepted) to see the Decemberists at the Bowery Ballroom. I did not have a good time; in fact, during that show, something inside me snapped: The whole thing was just so sedate. I mean, the Decemberists were supposedly a rock & roll band, but in no conceivable way did they actually rock. It was like sitting around a campfire with a bunch of people I didn’t know, at a summer camp my parents forced me to go to. It was then that my frustration with modern “rock” firmly took root, and I vowed to stop caring about boringly introspective guitar-playing people with no discernable personality, and to start truly treasuring the music that really spoke to me.

This is to say that I admit a strong bias against the Decemberists, and while “Don’t Carry It All” has a perfectly lovely melody, I just can’t get excited about what sounds to me like 8 billion folk-pop tunes I’ve heard before, done better and less cloying. Maybe more to the point, there’s hardly an ounce of conviction here. Can someone tell me what’s special and/or exciting about this band?

9. “Six Foot Seven Foot” – Lil Wayne ft. Cory Gunz

I've seen the tattoos, I've read the police blotter, but this is the first time I’ve heard Lil Wayne’s voice. Well, the guy’s certainly talented, though even after reading the lyrics, I have no idea what he’s talking about (something having to do with llamas screaming, and he says “real G’s move in silence like lasagna”). One of the crude barometers I use to judge hip-hop is whether the sample interests me, or whether it makes me roll my eyes. This one—Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song” (cowritten by the Muppets)—definitely works, fitting perfectly into the general structure of the song. In sum, this song makes Weezy come off as a sharp, creative guy, if supremely sleazy. Not sure if that’s a miracle or par for the course.

8. “Countdown” – Beyoncé

Traditionally, I’ve been able to do without Beyoncé. Destiny’s Child struck me as supremely contrived—wow, you’re singing about being a survivor and dancing on a desert island while the entire country is transfixed by a TV show called Survivor featuring people on a desert island! I’ve always found something empty about her, an inch’s worth of star power on top of an attractive but empty vessel. A fine voice, but no soul.

That said, I’ve been warming up to her; maybe it’s the realization that she’s definitely here to stay. And this song/video helps. First of all, she’s smiling! Look at that, some personality. Also, I think as she gets older, Beyoncé’s voice develops a lot more character, expanding upon the robotic trilling and belting of the Whitney template (don’t get me started on her). Musically and compositionally, this is a great-sounding, exuberant song, throwing everything including the kitchen sink into a masterful blend of love-song goodness, and Beyoncé’s voice is right there with it from start to finish. Her energy and her personality never flag, something that simply can’t be said for 99 percent of performers in pop music right now. All right, she wins.

7. “The Edge of Glory” – Lady Gaga

I’m starting to think that Gaga just tries too hard. I’m sure people said this about Madonna 30 years ago and, I don’t know, Petula Clark 20 years before that. But every song with her has to be some big kind of statement from the depths of her soul. I know, this is emblematic of the confessional nature of so much music now, but for whatever reason, it takes on so much more drama when it comes from Lady Gaga, the singular pop music presence of our era. So let’s step back for a moment, and listen to “The Edge of Glory” and imagine it’s not by Lady Gaga, but by Faceless Cheesy Dance-Club Chanteuse No. 17. And…there ain’t much here. A decent sax solo—wow, that was Clarence Clemons's swan song—a pounding, easily programmable arena rhythm, and a belting but essentially lifeless vocal performance. Do you think Gaga really likes singing? Or is it just a means to a fame-obsessed end?

6. “Lotus Flower” – Radiohead

I swear to you, I’ve given Radiohead so many fucking chances. If one more person tells me to just listen to OK Computer one more time, because it’s fucking awesome, and if only I smoke a jay first then I'll really get it, I’m going to beat them over the head with a pair of bowling shoes.

Look, this song is exactly what you think it is (and what I thought it would be): Radiohead continues its steady mutation away from rock band to “musical project.” Thom Yorke is mewling about something unimportant while his bandmates are fiddling with their new software. It’s barely alive. Sorry, nope, not for me.

5. “Rewrite” – Paul Simon

A nice little story about a Vietnam vet trying to write a screenplay. Well-played acoustic guitar, some nicely placed whistling, very charming. But it strikes me as rather tossed-off, maybe consciously so. I imagine Simon would roll his eyes if he knew Rolling Stone was rating it so highly.

4. “These Days” – Foo Fighters

It's ironic that I hadn’t heard this one, since 2011 was finally the year that Foo Fighters broke through with me (in the '90s, I declared more than once that the band would never have gotten a record deal if Dave Grohl hadn’t been in Nirvana). But for whatever reason, last year, “Everlong” caught my ear at the right time and in the right place, and I finally realized what a fantastic, near-perfect rock song it is. So while I’m not a particular fan, finally, I get it.

My sister, however, is a tremendous Foos fan—her kids, seven-year-old twins, have followed suit, and even saw them last year as their first concert. (Mine was these guys, which I’m rather proud of.) So I want to like “These Days,” but it takes me right back to where I was for years with the Foo Fighters: a not-bad but middling rock song that can’t distinguish itself from 90% of the not-bad but middling rock songs that have been released in the past 50 years. Maybe it’ll grab me some other time.

3. “Till the World Ends” – Britney Spears

Britney Spears is a talentless, completely derivative excuse for a pop star. She has never done a single thing with an ounce of originality, and even after 12 years under the microscope, she is utterly lacking in star power; I saw her on the MTV Awards last summer, and she couldn’t even read a cue card (compare with the woman who introduced her, Lady Gaga, whose music may be no great shakes, but damn, she knows how to put on a show). Why millions of people idolize Britney is a riddle on par with Kaspar Hauser and the Chupacabra, and no, it’s not because she’s “hot”; there were a dozen girls in your high school class better-looking than Britney, and half of them probably put out.

“Till the World Ends” is a slice of Eurotrash junk, concocted in a sterile, soulless laboratory staffed by bean-counters and yes-men. Britney’s voice is completely processed; it could be Yoda singing the song, for all I know. It’s not that the song is bad—it is bad, but it’s bearable, and junk does not offend me in and of itself—it’s that it’s so completely devoid of spirit, you could hardly call it music. And this is one of the absolute best songs of the year? Human beings are supposed to feel passion for this? This is what’s wrong with the USA in the 21st century: Britney Spears is what we consider a superstar. Raise your standards.

2. “Niggas in Paris” – Jay-Z and Kanye West

More from the supposed collaboration for the ages, though this one I find a hell of a lot more interesting than "Welcome to the Jungle." The repeating synth line that grounds the entire track is simply mesmerizing, with a hypnotic, creepiness that keeps the entire thing on a razor’s edge. And Jay’s voice complements it—I always found his voice to have a strange, slightly detached element to it that works really well here to heighten the ookiness of the whole thing. Kanye seems a little less suited, but that guy can do anything, and his rhythm and personality are spot-on. The weirdly majestic breakdown three minutes only bolsters the whole thing. It’s not saying a whole lot coming from me, but this might be the best hip-hop song I’ve ever heard.

1. “Rolling in the Deep” – Adele

Yeah, no way I was going to miss this one this year. Everything I said about Adele re: No. 29 still stands. This song is fine, whatever, I have no problem with it being part of the pop-cultural firmament for the rest of my life. What’s next?

So now I’m all caught up, musically educated. Let’s do a little tale of the tape:
Songs I heard before this experiment: 4

Eight percent. Wow, what happened to you, Noah the Passionate Music Guy? But what did I think?

Songs I would say I liked: 13
Songs I would say I hated: 10
Songs I was pretty much neutral on: 27

Let’s see that visually:

So yeah, I basically don’t care. Noah the Passionate Music Guy had checked out once again in 2011. But whose fault is that—mine or the pop music industry? Something to consider in the next 12 months, before I start this exercise all over again.