Songs of 2011, Tracks 40-31

Another day means another ten songs on the list.  This section may have a few surprises, but bear with me.

40. “Baby’s Breath” – Bill Callahan

With a voice and style that has an uncanny resemblance to the late Jackson C. Frank, Bill Callahan truly stuns the audience with this loping, meandering tale.  To be honest, I can’t tell if this details the implosion of a destructive marriage, the realization that he took his wife for granted, or a regretted abortion; the lyrics are so convoluted that they could feasibly involve all three scenarios.  The song begins with a sharp intake of  breath, and the gardening/floral metaphors begin to cascade from Callahan’s smooth bass vocal.  With a tempo that alternates throughout the five minute song, Callahan weaves a story of strain, heartache, and depth in a way that the majority of contemporary artists simply cannot replicate.  This song is truly a triumph.

39. “Lucky Now” – Ryan Adams

Shirking the problem child reputation of his youth, the poster boy for rock & roll excess in an alt-country sound mellowed out considerably for his newest album.  “Lucky Now” specifically is a song obsessed with time, with the opening verse proclaiming, “I don’t remember, were we wild and young/All that’s faded into memory…/Are we really who we used to be/Am I really who I was?”  The painfully introspective track highlights Adams looking back on his 20s in New York.  Originally, the song was intended to be about his friend and bandmate, Chris Feinstein, who died in late 2009; eventually, however, Adams realized that the first draft was too personal.  He revised the lyrics in an attempt to make the song more accessible and succeeded without question.  The echoing electric guitar on the bridge makes the song soar before dropping back down to a quiet, somber tone as Adams repeats the first verse.  The effect is, in a word, poignant.

38. “A Real Hero” – College feat. Electric Youth

You probably haven’t heard electronic music with this much soul since the Postal Service took college radio stations by storm in 2003.  Featured most famously in last year’s film Drive, David Grellier’s collaboration with Electric Youth connects in a way that is simultaneously in your face and nuanced, vintage and ahead of its time. The line “You have proved to be a real human being…and a real hero” is repeated to the point of soothing the audience, with the ethereal vocals lapping at the brain like a low tide. Half of the Canadian duo Electric Youth, Bronwyn’s voice coos, her delivery both breathy and crystal clear as she induces a dreamlike trance in the listener.  Even without the context of the film, the song is affecting in its deceptive simplicity.

37. “Bright Lights” – Gary Clark, Jr.

The driving, reverberated guitars of this soulful blues number slug you like one too many shots at the bar.  Welcome to indie’s new darling: Gary Clark, Jr.  Hailing from Austin, Clark is the only artist in history to ever snag a lead review in Rolling Stone with an EP.  His swagger and bravado on this track are inspiring; the thundering guitars and steady backing drums accompany lines like “You gonna know my name by the end of the night” and “Bright lights, big city goin’ to my head.”  The protagonist is simultaneously arrogant and grounded, shocked that he’s survived all he’s been through so far.  With a full LP following this summer, we can only hope Clark survives for many years and continues to delivers songs as bombastic and charming as this.

36. “Deep Shadow” – T.T.L.

I guarantee you’re scratching your head at this one.  Yes, I’ve included an instrumental piece from the trailer to an as-yet-unreleased film – The Hunger Games.  The thing is, this amalgamation of pounding electric drum beats with an almost Asian-inflected bluegrass string is one of the most original pieces of music to be released in years.  This duo is so underground, the only information I could find on them online is that their initials (allegedly) stand for “Through the Lens.”  When the trailer for the film was unleashed upon the world in November, many praised the score, which conjured images of a dystopian future quite easily, evoking authoritarian regimes and jail cells with its driving bass and agile freedom as fugitives run through the woods with its mix of strings and chimes.  The internet was abuzz not only about the trailer, but also about the song, with many falsely assuming that super producer T-Bone Burnett was behind the composition.  Regardless of how famous you are, comparisons to Burnett are always flattering.

35. “Morning Thought” – Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.

I can’t help but think of Broken Bells, the merger of Danger Mouse and James Mercer, lead singer of The Shins,  when I listen to Detroit-based duo Daniel Zott and Joshua Epstein.  Their harmonies engage the audience as they mix electronic and organic music, with reverb from both swirling around the almost atmospheric vocals.  Nonsensical sampled ululations open the song with broken keyboards and pounding bass.  The lyrics, though vague, seem to imply a need to escape the pressure of the modern world, a need to explain the mundane and banal existence of our contemporary lives.  Given the title, I find it safe to assume that these are the thoughts of a protagonist waking up and preparing for another day slogging through the horrific commute, the vapid work, the insipid conversations wit coworkers.  If this the intention, I know I can relate.

34. “He Said I Can” – Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings

Vintage, funky soul of the best kind, Sharon Jones and her backing band are some of the most talented and consistent musicians creating music today.  If you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing them live, you know that Jones is more than just a singer – she pours her heart into performances on stage, providing a truly transcendent experience.  The surging horns, the wildly eclectic bass, and, most importantly, Jones’s vocal gymnastics transport you back in time.  This song could easily come from an album released in 1974 instead of 2011, and that is meant in every way as a compliment.  Jones sings about a man who loves, supports, and empowers her – perhaps an old-fashioned message, but she sells it with conviction.  Besides, the first verse states that “nobody can kill the pain,” implying that Jones could live without the titular lover, and simply chooses not to.  Either way, the groove on the track is worth whatever misguided message she delivers.

33. “As Bright As Your Night Light” – Nerves Junior

The ornate distortion and layered synth sound of these Louisville natives resulted in constant allusions to Radiohead’s Kid A.  I’m not sure the references are accurate, as I would more readily compare them to Kasabian or even Arctic Monkeys, but I can certainly see why bloggers would head in that direction.  The music laid down for this track borders on cacophonous at points, but similar in construction to, say, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.  The dissonance is entirely intentional, and the resulting song almost retrains the ear to appreciate its refreshing noise.  Cory Wayne croons over the chorus, mastering the auditory sneer throughout the verses, and, while it may take a few listens, you embrace his voice entirely.  With a vocal equal parts acerbic and enthralling, Wayne slowly wins you over, pulling you into the enveloping wall of sound.

32.  “Waste” – Foster the People

Last year’s kings are back with one of the most charming love songs of recent times.  Foster the People’s trio of Mark Foster, Cubbie Fink, and Mark Pontius construct an endearing ode to unconditional love.  It’s not clear if this love is romantic or familial, but I’m not entirely sure it matters, as it does seem to address addiction in the object of love.  References to “monsters,” “reliv[ing] the things that are gone,” and “the devil’s on your back” all paint someone supporting a loved one through recovery from addiction..The melodic dance-infused sound that they cultivated on earlier songs like “Pumped Up Kicks” and “Helena Beats” is present here.  The now familiar sound of keyboards, impeccable drumming, and distorted, fuzzy vocals is here, and while not as successful as on “Pumped Up Kicks,” the result is still absolutely delightful.

31. “Same Mistake” – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

One of the blogosphere’s favorite bands came back this year with a new album, and the opening track is exhilarating.  The unabashedly pop sound of the song utilizes strings and an earnest vocal from lead singer Alec Ounsworth, painting a volatile picture of careless youth and indiscretions that pulses throughout your entire body.  The new album was produced by John Congleton, who has worked with acts like Okkervil River and Explosions in the Sky, and his presence is obvious.  “Same Mistake” specifically recalls Okkervil River’s “Lost Coastlines” for me, an uncontrollable tale without a clear point, but unmistakably upbeat regardless.  I’m not sure if it’s possible to experience this song without tapping your foot, bobbing your head, or indulging in both at the same time.

So is the second section of the list any better?  Maybe you like the emphasis on electronic music here – or you prefer the soulful stylings of Gary and Sharon.  Do you vehemently hate any of the songs?  Sound off in the comments below and tell me if you think I made the same mistakes, or if you love the list so far.

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