In the end, it all came down to pleasure for me. Not that there's no melancholic surfeit here, there was the need to mope and to rant, mostly over the loose ends every year leaves you with, the ghosts I can't give up, the wolves at my door, all that. But the release you get from the songs you mope and rant to should count as pleasure,too. This list is unapologetically biographical as the connections I make with pop music cuts closer and closer every year, and I can only hope it's also bullish and solipsistic and contrarian, inadequate as cultural dowsing rod, charting rather the turmoils and ecstasies of my year and the reprieves inbetween. The far more burning urge was to dance, or rather, to reconnect with what made me fall in love with music in the first place and the small wonders that love can do for me: the hook-happy endorphin surge. I figure if the world really is coming to an end this year, then none of whatever troubles us now matters, except perhaps what little burst of pleasure we can muster in the face of it, partying, even if it's only in our heads, while hurtling to our doom on a headful of butterflies
Let's do this, then. Albums first, the records I listened to as wholes, then songs. As per usual.
1. Wild Beasts, SMOTHER
2. King Creosote and Jon Hopkins, DIAMOND MINE
3. The Indelicates, DAVID KORESH SUPERSTAR
4. Perc, WICKER AND STEEL
5. Rob Crow, HE THINKS HE'S PEOPLE
6. Mogwai, HARDCORE WILL NEVER DIE BUT YOU WILL
7. Fleet Foxes, HELPLESSNESS BLUES
8. Korallreven, AN ALBUM BY KORALLREVEN
9. TV On the Radio, NINE TYPES OF LIGHT
10.Taken by Cars, DUALIST
40. Panda Bear, Last Night At The Jetty: Tomboy was not so much sonic upgrade as it was sonic upsize, less a taking in of new colors but more a robust re-iterating of old ones, but while it doesn't get as obtuse as Young Prayer, it doesn't get as touching either, only this doo-wop colossus, with Noah Lennox grasping at a failing memory in full-on harmonic grandeur, does stand out, by a transcendent Brian Wilson mile.
39. Woodkid, Iron: Turns out I listened to this more times than anything off the new Beirut, which is surprising given how much of a Zach Condon fanboy I am but is no way meant to imply it was his failure or that Yoann Lemoine, who is all of Woodkid, is a rip-off artiste, just that I was distracted, and that this shares that similarly archaic old world aura.
38. Childish Gambino, My Shine:" . . . why nobody wanna admit they like me just a little bit?" I'm not sure if the ramshackle nature of Donald Glover's rap is an aesthetic so much as a diffidence that works in his favor, here in particular where he vents his frustration at not being taken seriously with the sort of heightened bravado you find in the heat of the moment but tends to dissipate after you've flustered yourself saying your piece, which in this case, is a spot of bother I'm intimate with myself. " . . . when these motherfuckers gonna understand I'm serious?. . ." I feel you, man. I so feel you.
37. Toro Y Moi, Still Sound: Death Cab for Chromeo, something like that, and apologies to Chaz if that comes off reductive as his funk-lite inversion is fancier than the mashup implies, tempering the opaque introspection of his words by turning up the warmth of his sound for sound's sake ethos that's obviously residue from a love for Stereolab, making it perfect for a song about the comforts that come from the shapes sound makes.
36. Frank Ocean, Swim Good: Love breaks down, as it tends to do, and either Frank's committing suicide or merely using it as a metaphor for how much he's had it and is moving on. The title's an exhortation, of course, to himself, to anyone in the same rut. It also describes the sensuous way the song moves.
35. Avril Lavigne, What The Hell: For the rinky dink organ and the hollaback propulsion and Avril going all punky naughty frisky sexy on us and dispensing truths while she's at it. ". . .love hurts whether it's right or wrong . . ." Damn right.
34. Owen, The Armoire: The center not holding, when the place you call home grows clammy with un-belonging, is a hurt that’s hard-up for solace, and in using junk furniture to articulate the displacement that comes from it, Mike Kinsella doesn’t really offer any, but he does one-up his own tiny gift for quotidian minutiae, one-ups even Dallas Green, whose new one as City and Colour lacked the catch it used to the first few listens in. Not that I've given up on it, or on Justin Vernon, but I'll have to get back to you on those two. Mike's got this covered anyway.
33. An Horse, Know This, We've Noticed: Their Sleater-Kinney auras disperse a little here, but not my much, and not that it needs to. I’m thinking it has a shot at being my Our Deal for this year even if it lopes rather than smolders, if only for how emotive the rah-rah in its chorus gets and for how it invokes Dusty as much, even if it's only in spirit.
32. Adele, Turning Tables: It really was the year the world threw its arms around Adele, wasn't it? Oh, she's earned it, been earning it since 19 , and ubiquity aside, the pissed-off exuberance of Rolling in the Deep can withstand the neutering a thousand talent show contestants can visit on a song and is something whose swampy voodoo curdles with age. But this was the one that got to me, and gets to me still, the song not even Glee could butcher, the song that could possibly top Chasing Pavements as her career-high. " . . .close enough to start a war, all that I have is on the floor . . . " All that minor key roil, all that simmering indignation.
31. Wild Flag, Romance : In which Carrie Brownstein and Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole and Janet Weiss form a supergroup and rekindle their collective punk-pop perk and feist by attaching hooks on them big enough to haul cargo on, which in the 90s, at the height of their powers, or at least of their hipster relevance, would come off like some fluke post-grunge crossover, but in 2011 felt no less than truly alternative.
30. Fucked Up with Madeline Follin, Queen of Hearts: Pried loose from the massive punk rock opera it’s embedded in, you do get a sense of autonomy that gathers its own brunt without sucking at the teat of the big picture, which is to say you could make a single out of it, which is precisely what they did. Riffs with traction catchily pile-drive to its own blaze of pop rapture, and being the part in the story where boy first meets girl, the shaft of light near the end when Madeline from Cults opens her mouth makes both narrative and aesthetic sense.
29. Chad VanGaalen, Peace On The Rise: Feelgood hit of the summer turned lo-fi lullaby for the rest of the year, as disheartening as it is comforting, as broken as it is pretty.
28. Lykke Li, I Follow Rivers: She may not have the same husk and wallop but this girl group mutation had as much, if not more, gumbo and raunch as Adele's stompers, and as I'm not really in any mood to pit one against another, I'll take both, thank you, but give this a few nudges up the list, as I prefer Adele when she torches it down, and because that tinpot drum figure that snakes throughout is as exciting a use of percussion as the digital castanets on Robyn's Dancing On My Own.
27. Shabazz Palaces, Are You . . .Can You . .Were You? (Felt): " . . .my mind hides behind the music . . .” And that music is the sort that begets coinage along the lines of avant-chiaroscuro and dub-noir and prog-hop, the beats stretching and spacing out as if into a stoned soul fugue. If this is indeed MC Palaceer Lazaro a.k.a. Digable Planets’ Ishmael Butler’s manifesto, the music’s just the thing for hiding behind : nocturnal, obscure, sexy.
26. Drake with Rihanna, Take Care: Fuller of sound, and somewhat more assured, over time, the new Drake record might reveal itself as the closest he's gotten to a masterpiece, but given the limits of my immersion, and also given the catchiness of its hook, it's the title track that I lived with for quite a bit, more than Marvin's Room, more than Crew Love , if only because the he said-she said volley between Drake and Rihanna gets so delicious, I hardly notice when Gil Scott Heron butts in on the conversation and by the time I do, they're at it again. " . . .if you let me, here's what I'll do, I'll take care of you . . .", sings Rihanna, words she filched from Bobby Bland, of course, but is an endearment as eternal as it is cliched that also happens to be my last word on certain matters myself.
25. Niva, Ghost In My Head: That tasty R & B chorus repeating " . . .I think about it all the time . . . " as if it were a mantra of something Niva both dreads and relishes, should feel incongruous but isn't, infusing the spry little synth(dream)pop bubble instead with a buoyant prettiness that sends me for no reason and is on here for even less.
24. M83, Midnight City: That riff, that ebullient synthesizer clarion call like OMD sans the intolerable sappiness,the riff of the year full stop, cracking the song open and grabbing you by the loins then bolting and letting you chase it across the verses, half leitmotif half fugitive, until you back it into a corner near the end, throbbing in the backdrop teasing you to come closer, just before it detonates and takes you, willfully, gleefully, in its ecstatic blast radius.
23. Metronomy, Everything Goes My Way: " . . .when I took you back, I thought you'd up and run away, but you're still here, you're still here . . ." Halfway through, Anna Prior comes down from her disbelief as if to countenance her giddiness with a dash of reality-checking doubt by telling us how bad a boyfriend her ex was, but it's really only to give him room to sing a few lines to corroborate her optimism, before she goes back up into its ether. As irony-free a reunion of exes as Peaches and Herb, but at least twice as bubbly with delight at the thought.
22. Summer Camp, Better Off Without You: " . . .I'm better off without you . . ." so Elizabeth Sankey sings, and you know she's trying to convince herself as much as us, but the euphoric swell with which she sings it wins you over so, you take her word for it and hope she does, too.
21. Arctic Monkeys, The Hell-Spangled Shalala: Could be the tunnel vision that comes from being a fan, which is sometimes the point and the fun of being one, but Humbug and Suck It And See were not as regressive as the world claims, more like spurts of forward motion, really, albeit one bigger than the other. The pining on Love Is A Laserquest does get epic and has dibs on poignancy but this bouncy, impressionistic love song manages to slake my throwback fix without drowning me in my nostalgia, reminding me what made me love them and why it's a good thing they didn't stay that way, not to mention that it has the line that is not only my second favorite lyric of the year but what my year essentially boiled down to: " . . .I took the batteries out of my mysticism and put them in my thinking cap . . ."
20. Meyer Hawthorne, A Long Time : Rigorously old school as his artifice comes off, the touchstone here is really Hall & Oates, and that fertile period when they were mashing every mutant subgenre within arms' reach into the Philly soul that was their base matter. This earnest paean to Detroit may not be as protean nor as arch, but it has a keyboard riff so sexy it would've been sufficient to clinch this one for me, in case Meyer didn't have either the chops nor the largesse to write a song to go with it, which of course he does.
19. Mastodon, Curl of the Burl: There's the sci-fic erotica of Stargasm, sure, wearing on its sleeve as much as it can the prog they seem to be eschewing for now. Or perhaps the devastating elegiac prettiness of The Sparrow. But for each new vein they tap on the new record, I kept coming back more and more to the meat and potatoes, which in this case, is the Skynyrd/Sabbath crunch of the single, which opens with what could well be the couplet of the year: " . . .I killed a man 'cause he killed my goat, I put my hands around his throat . . ."
18. Those Dancing Days, Help Me Close My Eyes: " . . .I breathe with a hand on my mouth, I refuse to get poisoned and I swallow my shout . . ." A song that's not only about trepidation but also sounds the way it feels, its verses nervily pulling back, as if gathering the courage to build to a chorus that's not quite as sure of itself as it wants to be but has enough rouse in it to feel as if it is.
17. Jennifer Hudson, No One Gonna Love You: " . . . don't dare send me straight to voice mail, babe,I'm just gonna text you, hope it ain't no issue . . . " And she's telling you she's not going, boy. But don't be so quick to walk away. " . . .I've been through some things, please don't hold that against me . . . " She has and you shouldn't. Insensitivity aside, though, that throb of meta does help nuance what gets by on how underdressed her approach to R & B has always been, not letting any production garnish cross the path of her voice, which, like her love, is all she's got and often all you need.
16. Slow Club, Horses Jumping: Rebecca and Charles have always traded in everyday despair but passed, at all times, through a sieve of hope only here it gets so jubilant as to be almost defiant. "Good love is hard to regret, when you know it was real . . ." goes a line here, before it comes to the emotional boil near the end that's nothing shy of inspiring: "I wanna live where each hand you're dealt is enough so you never feel like you want to bluff, and every road that you drive gives you the crashes that keep you alive . . ." Hands down my favorite lyric of the year. You can't always get what you want but if you try sometimes, maybe you can.
15. The Streets with Claire Maguire, Lock The Locks: Mike Skinner's last bow. Wistful yet unrepentant, wry yet poignant, the last track on his last record is a last goodbye to the pop life, evoking the weariness he claims is his urge for leaving , buoyed by the certainty of his departure and the smoky way Claire makes that torchy chorus stick.
14. Destroyer, Chinatown: I suspect Dan Bejar's above mocking his own devices and that his tongue was as far away from his cheek as it can get when he sang this, veering as it does into a China Crisis by way of Walter Becker soft-rock haze right down to the cryptic lyrics and a sax solo that may be more Spyro Gyra than Bill Evans but goes on anyway to defy its predisposition for elbowing a song dangerously past anyone's thresholds of cheese, giving it updraft instead. Sibel Thrasher's harmonies are an unironic, unsurprising boon, too.
13. Radiohead, Separator: " . . .every woman blows her cover, in the eye of the beholder . . ." The last track on what turned out to be the second Radiohead album after Hail To The Thief that would inexplicably recede from both my attention span and eventually my memory mere weeks after first listen, but for this love song as hallucination, crooned oddly, mysteriously, gorgeously.
12. Memory Tapes, Wait In The Dark: " . . .this is how it ends we just stand each other up . . ." Dayve Hawk, like anyone with a pop gene as skittish as his, understands the protocols of pop heartbreak , how the lyrics confess pain and the music signifies relief, it's the most elegant of structures, the most empathic of co-dependencies. He also says insomniacs are like ghosts, two conditions I found myself in and find myself still, and this is a love song sung through the eyes of one or the other, about the separation anxieties of being so close and yet so far, set to his most effervescent singsong yet.
11. Fando and Lis, Nang Gabing Umiyak Ng Dagat: Full disclosure: I directed the video for this and my name does pop up on the album sleeve as "associate producer",which really only means I heard the tracks before anybody else did, but yeah, I'm biased, but then I also am with the 39 other songs here, and nepotism aside, this song and I do have a fair amount of history. I've always heard it stripped to the bone but adorned now with Khavn's piano curlicues and the way Ledh's voice aches and comforts and wounds, it becomes a song of unfathomable regrets for me to drown my own in.
10. Asobi Seksu, Perfectly Crystal: " . . .we've become what we've never wanted . . ." Almost a pastiche but not really, the way the latter-day Cocteau Twins swirl melds with the tasty My Bloody Valentine guitars that come in at the right moments and never overstays its welcome, and over which Yuki wails dreamily about the clarity that sometimes comes from disillusionment.
9. Flaming Lips and Neon Indian, You Don't Respond: Pardon the hipster obscurantism, as this was buried inside a one-off collab EP, one of many Wayne Coyne seems terribly fond of doing. I confess to never having been taken with their experimental nerve as I am by their pop fluency and a little pissed they could never quite manage the graft on these detours, as that would be wondrous, or at least sounds like it could be. This isn't quite that but it does come really, really close. Much as it's a cul-de-sac of a song, going around in circles, its glitchy anticlimax is weirdly catchy.
8. 2NE1, Lonely: It was only a matter of time before they slowed the party-hearty down, and not to say that this lithe, and rather grand, ballad doesn't have the goods, in and of itself, but it really is their unique alchemy that gives it a boost, and proves itself capable of turning anything Dara and Minzy and Bom and CL touch into gold.
7. Mates of State, Unless I'm Led: If you assume that every time husband and wife Kori and Jordan sing about a relationship, they're referring to the one they've been stalwart in maintaining all these years, then the minor key anxieties here are a glimpse of what they constantly find themselves up against and what they find the grace to overcome.
6. Low, Especially Me: Low has this utilitarian dependability that makes being a devotee less contingent on blind faith, and makes the occasional game change go down like magic. Having been a fan for so long, I never doubted their capacity for beauty and the way they draw forth balm from it. But this ghostly? This majestic? And this attuned to the truth? " . . . 'cause if we knew where we belong, there'd be no doubt where we're from, but as it stands, we don't have a clue, especially me and probably you . . .”
5. Rihanna, We Found Love :" . . .we found our love in a hopeless place . . ." Don't we all? The eight words that everybody will be singing and that rather ingeniously nails the way woe and desperation and euphoria push and pull at and sometimes bleed into each other inside not only nearly ever love song but nearly every relationship. Go by the words alone and it does seem doomed to futility, only Rihanna sings it with a strident sense of purpose to flip the script, which Calvin Harris' rapturous disco synths not only encourage but celebrate.
4. The Antlers, Putting The Dog To Sleep: ". . .my trust in you is a dog with a broken leg, tendons too torn to beg, for you to let me back in . . ." Peter Silbeman proves himself a few stations above the one-hit miserablist I always took him for, as every verse of longing, every cry for love teetering on meltdown, every plea for mercy met unheard on this tearjerky waltz, reveals a blade tucked in its folds, taking little nicks, drawing blood, hurting so bad, which is to say, so good.
3. Jay-Z and Kanye West with Frank Ocean, No Church In The Wild: Frank Ocean breaks the math down for you: " . . .human beings in a mob. What's a mob to a king? What's a king to a god? What's a god to a non-believer, who don't believe in anything? . . . " And Kanye and Jay-Z's spiritual crisis has to do with religious excess and existential voids and the obscene grandiosity of their own multimillionaire lifestyles, appropriately charged with apocalyptic urgency by that sinister Phil Manzanera blues riff.
2. Yuck, Get Away: Dinosaur Jr. for voltage plus Sebadoh for sustain plus Teenage Fanclub for immediacy, meaning its energies will dim over time but will re-up over time, too, and when it does, nothing can quite touch its catchy din for ecstasy, as is the case with it now.
1. Cold Cave, Confetti: Reining in the anthemic bombast that gave the new album crank, but hanging on to the Wayne Hussey affectations that serve him well, Wesley Eisold reverts back to the New Order he rode in on, milking a doomy sultriness from his overwrought melodrama, which, in all matters new wave and goth, is not a redundancy of excesses but a principle of faith.