Best Tracks of 2009 – Part I

January quickly approaches, which means it’s time for me to discuss my favorite music of the past twelve months.  Last year, I had created a list of my favorite fifty tracks, but for some reason, I never got around to publishing them.  Quick sidebar – for the record, MGMT’s “Kids” was number one. This year, though, I was determined to do a list for tracks in addition to full albums.  Note that I used the term tracks and not singles, because some of these were simply songs on albums that I enjoyed, while most were actually commercially released as singles.  My list details the top fifty songs of the year, with an extra ten as honorable mentions.  For all intents and purposes, here the lowest ranked songs of the group, tracks sixty through forty one.

Honorable Mentions

60.  Tegan and Sara – “Alligator”
The Canadian twins are back with a light-hearted song declaring independence and strength at the end of a relationship.  The protagonist sings “No hissy fits, mind my manners/Won’t make a scene, oh, over you.”  The lyrics are witty and fun, with a almost arrogant smirk sung throughout the perfectly manicured and energetic beat.

59.  Neko Case – “This Tornado Loves You”
Neko Case continues to showcase her abilities as a talented singer/songwriter.  Her metaphor of natural disasters for people in a relationship blurs the line between literal and figurative.  Part of the reason she can succeed with such a metaphor is because her voice itself is a force of nature.  Swirling instrumentation, including a banjo, shaker, and keyboard, helps to create the feeling of a charging train or, perhaps, a tornado.

58. A.C. Newman – “The Palace at 4 AM”
A third Canadian musician in a row, and the second member of the New Pornogaphers on the list so far, Newman paints a wild night out on the town with this song.  He delivers a song that is well layered musically with thumping percussion and an infectious drum section.

57. Will Hoge – “Even If It Breaks Your Heart”
Fellow Nashville resident Will Hoge, who’s a perfectly nice guy in person, sings an excellent ode to growing up with the dream of a musical career.  The song builds on itself as it progresses, highlighting the love of the song itself as the chorus reels you in, hook, line, and sinker.  Hoge is a rare talent in the way his voice really conveys an emotion behind the lyrics, unlike other, more popular artists.

56.  Real Estate – “Green River”
The first half of the song is purely instrumental, as swirling guitars, tambourines, and countless other instruments create a sonic metaphor of a river.  Once the lyrics cut in, distant and soft, you can practically feel the sunshine on your arm and the smell the grass on the banks.  The song really is that transcendent.

55.  Coldplay – “Life in Technicolor ii”
The biggest band in the world delivered the EP Prospekt’s March technically back in 2008, but this single was officially released in February, so I am totally counting it.  One of several gems embedded within the EP, “LiTii” has strings, drums, and reverb build on each other for the first minute or so, and then Chris Martin begins to describe the world around him on an epic night on the town. “Oh, love, don’t let me go/Won’t you take me where the streetlights glow?/I can hear it coming, I can hear the sirens sound/Now my feet won’t touch the ground.”  With some of the band’s most enthralling lyrics, it reminds me of U2’s “City of Blinding Lights,” if that song were actually good.

54. Telekinesis – “All of a Sudden”
Not the last song on my list that’s perfect for a trip to the beach or a rainy day, this British group puts addictive claps, catchy lyrics, and introspection together for a classic summer jam.  The opening notes fake you out, as shades Death Cab for Cutie’s “No Sunlight” materialize, but then the distinctive lyrics and stuccato hand claps kick in, and you’re in an entirely new place.  “All of a sudden it’s the summer time” still works at the end of December – trust me.

53.  Karen O and the Kids – “All is Love”
The brash lead singer of The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s struck out on her own this year with the soundtrack to the film Where the Wild Things Are.  This is the standout song of the album, with Karen and a choir of several children singing lyrics like “L-O-V-E/It’s a mystery/Where you’ll find me/Where you find/All is love…is love…is love…is love”  The whoops and yells in the middle of the song, followed by an adorable attempt at harmonizing and whistling simply adds to the charming sensibility of the song.  If I had a kid, this would be our theme song, hands down.

52. Feist and Ben Gibbard – “Train Song”
Two of indie music’s finest representatives duetted on this classic 1966 track from British songbird Vashti Bunyan.  The two sound incredible together, and while it adds a certain je ne sais qoui to the piece for having what are presumably two lovers sing to each other, Vashti’s original rendition is still far stronger.  There’s a resigned grace to the song that Leslie and Ben kept here, Leslie especially rose to the occasion to imbue real emotion in the lyrics.

51. Portugal. The Man – “Work All Day”
The blatant rhythm that courses through this song is an instant head bouncer, and the chorus is refreshing in its references to work songs field laborers used to sing.  It’s almost as if they took the lyrics from a 19th century field song and added psychedelic, poppy notes to cascade around them.

Tracks 50-41: The Real List

50.  Jay-Z and Alicia Keys – “Empire State of Mind”
The  ubiquitous megahit was popular for a reason – Jay-Z knows to produce a rhyme.  The lyrics aren’t his best, but Alicia’s soaring chorus works with the piano-drive beat to produce a love song to one of the best cities in the world.  How can you not love a man who claims he made the Yankee cap more popular than a Yankee can?

49.  Little Boots – “New in Town”
This British poptart creates an opening track to her album that served as a bit of a summer anthem for me.  “I don’t have a penny/But I’ll show you a good time” is just one of the outstanding lines she delivers over a pounding background of synthesizers and police sirens.  Great song for drunken college dancing or big city walking on a sunny day, as the momentum of the music is sure to inspire a boost in energy.

48.  Lady Gaga – “Bad Romance”
Gaga is clearly one of the dominant forces in pop music after her obscenely successful year.  This song, her fifth single, doesn’t have her best lyrics (that distinction goes to “Paparazzi’s” rich satire), but the catchy hooks of “Bad Romance” are all consuming as they attach themselves to your brain.  I love how the discordant synthesizers symbolize her shaky mental state throughout her infatuation.   The call-and-response bridges and the unapologetic over-the-top energy of the entire piece only make the track more diabolically perfect in its pop construction.

47. Animal Collective – “My Girls
I think I’m one of the only indie-bent people in America who doesn’t swoon when I put on Merriweather Post Pavilion, quickly hailed as the best album of the year when it was released in January.  That said, I can recognize good construction when I hear it, and “My Girls” utilizes its intricately layered, nearly hallucinogenic synthesizers to full effect.  The pace of the song picks up considerably in the second half, as simplistic but endearing lyrics fold in on each other from multiple members.

46.  Julie Peel – “Unfold”
The calming and effortless French folk of Julie Peel comes through best on this song. “Yeah I feel lost…lost like I’ve never been before/I can’t unfold and my dreams are gone and buried” connects on a truly elemental level.  Her soft guitar, cello, and harp, among other instruments, wrap the alienation of the lyrics in an easily digestible package.  The song in lesser hands would sound whiny, or even bore the audience, but Peel truly excels with this piece.

45.  Kidz in the Hall – “Jukebox
Effortless flow from the hip hop duo Kidz characterizes this flawless track that’s perfect for work out mixes and party playlists everywhere.  One of the best beats of the year supplements an impassioned plea at the dance club for some love from a stranger.  “See your body could be my hobby” is followed up by a request for a Blue’s Clue; outstanding lyrics make you smirk as much as dance.  Listen to it once and try not to love it.

44.  Kelly Clarkson – “Already Gone”
There were a lot of pop divas with strings/hard percussion songs this year – Beyoncé’s “Halo,” Jordin’s “Battlefield,” and Leona’s “Happy” come to mind.  Clarkson trumped all of them with this heartfelt gem about a doomed relationship, despite Knowles stealing the arrangement when she heard Ryan Tedder working on it last year.  Clarkson was so embarrassed this was released as a single (because of it’s similarities to “Halo,” not because of any flaws in the song), that she completely rearranged the construction for live performances, and it’s still haunting.  Her vocal instrument is at its peak in this track, and the lyrics she wrote with Tedder still resonate nine months after its release.

43.  Generationals – “When They Fight, They Fight”
A timeless song that could just as easily be from 1969 than 2009.  The harmonies from the members between verses help balance out the hand-clapping throughout the rest of the song to create an indie pop-standard for years to come.  The piano builds on the drums which builds on what seriously sounds like someone banging on empty Mason jars.  Maracas, hand claps, and horns all contribute to a perfectly layered song that will make your foot start tapping immediately.  Everything collapses in on itself near the end, and the result is melodious bliss.

42.  The Raveonettes – “Last Dance”
These Danish friends create a sick, morbid version of 60’s doo-wop that must be heard to be believed.  With lines like “And every time you overdose/I rush to intensive care,” this song is a dysfunctional relationship, to say the least, summed up into three and a half minutes.  The chorus is so superbly composed, however, that the odd lyrics are forgiven – hell, even embraced – as a token of love between these two characters.

41.  M. Ward – “Never Had Nobody Like You”
Coming off the heels of last year’s Volume One as half of She & Him and before his collaboration this year in Monsters of Folk, M. Ward creates an outstanding alternative country/folk song about the love of his life.  His voice is detached, almost removed physically from the song, and the electric guitar is excellent.  Bonus points?  I’d put money down that background singer is Zooey Deschanel.

What do you think so far?  Ten more songs to come tomorrow…

For those of you who may not have the songs, why not just head here for every single one?

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Best Tracks of 2009 – Part I

  1. Sara-ra-ra-raaa

    Two Thumbs up, my friend!

    Thanks for the support, Lady Sara. Hope you enjoy the rest of the songs.

  2. Eric

    Bad Romance should not be included in any lists this year without reference to the music video. The video helps you look past her terrible lyrics as you marvel at her command of the pop culture world. It is certainly not the lyrics (“I want your love/love, love, love/I want your love” which sounds more like “I want your love/BLAH, BLAH, BLAH”) that have kept her in the spotlight.

    Otherwise, the rest of the list looks pretty sound thus far.

    I agree that the video certainly proved to be her best, but the track itself is a superbly constructed pop song. The lyrics aren’t particularly brilliant (again, I point to “Paparazzi”), but there’s something insidious about “Bad Romance” that you can’t deny. It really does crawl under your skin.

  3. Pete

    Nicely done, J. Re: Lady Gaga, the one thing I’ve consistently noticed in assessing “Bad Romance” is that whenever I think of it, even in a critical manner, my mind immediately shifts to the visuals of the video. And I agree that while it is a very well-constructed and executed pop song in its tug-of-war between dark and light, love and hate, the fact that the video resonates so much (for the first time in a long time for mainstream pop, I might add) is a testament to just how much she’s achieved with the entire project. Golf claps for her–and I seriously cannot believe you and I have thawed on our previous shared opinion of her.

    The video has become iconic, and it was hard to judge the song without thinking about the video, as well. That said, I stand by the production of the song itself as a great creation of the pop lexicon. And agreed on the golf clap – I never thought I would appreciate her in the way that I do today.

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