Finicky Ears

Best of ’09 – The 17 Best Songs of the Year

Posted in Best of '09 by finickyears on December 21, 2009

Pretty much every other music publication has posted its year-end lists, so it is only fitting that Finicky Ears follows suit. Seriously, this is the reason I started a blog. I like to list things. You like to read lists. Everyone wins. I will try to get all of these posted before the 1st, but I have a real job, too – and unless you want to start sending donations, I am forced to create insightful (though, maybe, not completely original) lists in the late hours of the night.

Why 17 songs? Well, that just happens to be the amount you could get onto one mix CD. We are sorry to Phoenix and Handsome Furs, who got bumped. Blame The Decemberists for writing such long songs. They are listed in order, but honestly, I gave 366 songs released this year the distinction of five stars in my iTunes, so there is something to be said for a number of artists this year. You could give these 17 a good shuffle, and I probably wouldn’t object too much  So let’s get into it!

1. You Go on Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II) – Sunset Rubdown

When Sunset Rubdown recorded an early version of this song for Black Cab Sessions a couple years back, it came off as intimate and passionate, with lead singer Spencer Krug singing with his eyes closed and the kind of earnestness that is impossible fake. The song was unmatched by anything in his catalog (which includes his better known band Wolf Parade and lesser known super-group Swan Lake), except for maybe Wolf Parade’s “I’ll Believe in Anything.”  So, it was with much joy that I discovered the song properly recorded and hidden in the middle of this year’s Sunset Rubdown album, Dragonslayer. And it delivered.

Musically, i was unprepared for how well the song moved. The combination of bouncing drums, muted guitar strums and gentle keyboard leads creates a completely fun vibe. But as it builds and builds to the eventual (and satisfying) payoff, the listener doesn’t remember a fun song, but, rather, a track that seems immediate and heartfelt. Krug knows how to write a complicated melody, he knows how to write vivid and dream-like lyrics, and he knows how to layer his band to create a big sound without sounding overwhelming or over-produced. But perhaps most importantly, he knows how to fire a lyric through the fog that will stick on the listener. In “You Go on Ahead,” I can’t imagine hearing the line “the days add up to weeks, add up to months, and add up, and add up…” without feeling the burden and the beauty of time slipping away faster than expected.

2. Stillness is the Move – Dirty Projectors

2009 should be known as the year art-rock went pop. Last year, I wouldn’t have believed Dirty Projectors had it in them to write the best pop melody of the year. This is a band that’s previous album was a version of Black Flag’s Damaged recorded from memory. But what a difference a year makes. In February, they released a very memorable collaboration with former Talking Heads’ singer David Byrne for the Dark Is The Night charity compilation. Then, with the release of Bitte Orca in the spring, well, I’ll save that for my best albums of the year list.

“Stillness is the Move” is a gigantic hit in an alternate reality. The first time you hear it, you can imagine a singer like Beyonce singing over a slightly varied arrangement and the VMAs rolling in. So, it was both a surprise and completely understandable that Solange Knowles recorded a cover version a few months after the original was released. However, this song doesn’t need a Knowles to be amazing. Amber Coffman, usually second fiddle to main-man Dave Longstreth, takes the microphone and absolutely kills it. And, after seeing them live in October, I can honestly say that nothing she is doing with her voice on this song is bullshit. Though some purists may not completely like this more accessible Dirty Projectors, there is no compromise in sound or creativity here. It just seems like the band is hitting their stride. Next stop, top 40.

3. My Girls – Animal Collective

Speaking of art-rock, Animal Collective also released their most accessible album this year. Maybe you heard about it? Well, Merriweather Post Pavillion seems to have found a comfortable place at the top of most music critics’ best album of year/decade/all-time lists. And, it is deserving. But, it’s not like Animal Collective was a stranger to critical praise. This time, though, people actually bought a few copies of their record.

But, I’m not totally buying the more-accessible Animal Collective thing. On one hand, Animal Collective isn’t as intimidating as people make them sound. They have quite a few numbers in their catalog (“Fireworks,””Grass,””Leaf House”) that are catchy and great art-pop songs in their own right. On the other hand, this song and album weren’t as listener friendly as many writers make it sound, either. Animal Collective is still weird as all hell. That is how we like them.

“My Girls” reminds me of Outkast’s “Bombs Over Bagdad” in a way, only released ten years later. It seems like a dance song in many ways, but I’ll be damned if I can find a reasonable way to dance to it. But, it inspires people to move and to sing along, even if it makes them look or sound stupid. The lyrics about a man’s wish to provide for his family in the wake of his father’s death (with a tinge of environmental consciousness and anti-consumerism, because, well, it’s an Animal Collective song) are thoughtful and personal. But when all is said and done, this is just another notch in a very impressive belt from a band that is a true original. How many bands can you really say that about?

4. Little Secrets – Passion Pit

Passion Pit are a safe bet in you office’s next-indie-band-to-go-mainstream pool (if you work at a used bookstore or Urban Outfitters). Like Phoenix before them or Modest Mouse or The Arcade Fire, they possess the right blend of catchy tunes, interesting looking people and a modern sound. Also, like these bands, they may be able to trick the public into enjoying some creative, high quality music. For a band that started as a mix-tape love note, their first full length, Manners, is full of infectious, fun songs for riding around in cars or moderate sized gatherings.“Little Secrets” should satisfy fans of pop, electro and indie. Complete with children backup singers, the song moves along with energy to spare. Also, I just heard one of their tunes on a cell phone commercial. It’s already starting…

5. Two Weeks – Grizzly Bear

This list is already filling up with bands that are mastering the art of harmony (Dirty Projectors, Animal Collective), but none can touch Grizzly Bear. All the members contribute to the vocals, but not as your run-of-the-mill backup singers. They all really sing. Also like Dirty Projectors, these guys seem to really be finding their identity this year and produced their best music yet. Oh yeah, they also had a top 10 album. And Jay-Z and Beyonce were spotted at a recent NYC concert. And I’m still pretty sure the people who were buying the other 9 albums in the top 10 while Grizzly Bear was charted at number 8 have no idea who the hell Grizzly Bear are.

“Two Weeks” is a monster success on a technical level, where it combines subtle beauty with dense texture. Seriously, I find it hard to find a better produced song this year. But, it also passes the ear test. The melody is infectious and ultimately quite beautiful. For a band that often goes with the less is more approach, sometime more is more.

6. Rain On – Woods

There was a point a few months ago when I realized that “Rain On” had become my all-time most played iTunes song. Was I depressed? Maybe I just like songs with heartbreaking yet empowering lyrics about the passing of time (See #1)? Whatever it was, this song’s simple beauty still hits hard with every listen. Low-fi these days is surly an aesthetic choice, not a necessary evil like decades ago. But most bands that use it prefer to take the sound in noisy directions. Here, Woods shows a lesser heard style of low-fi and it works with haunting perfection. Every time the lyric “how the days will rain on you” is repeated, it is chilling. Also, the guitar leads in this song kill.

7. Northern Lights – Bowerbirds

Every year needs to have a best song that borderlines on sappy. Bowerbirds are not going to blow anyone away with their creative style or lyrical inventiveness. The central thesis of this tune (I don’t need you to be this, I don’t need you to be that, I just want you) is just about as played out as it gets. It might have been played out when Shakespeare was doing it, who knows? But, somehow this song still manages to cut through every cynical fiber in me. Sometimes, simple and played out is also quite romantic. Songwriter Phil Moore clearly has the heart of a poet and his wife, Beth Tacular (these can’t be their real names, right?), plays a mean accordion. Now imagine them exchanging knowing glances while they play this song. You’d have to be a puppy hater not to give in to this song’s charms.

8. Psychic City – YACHT

YACHT released their first album on DFA this year and clearly they got the “fun” memo upon joining. What could be cheesy or too cutesy in lesser hands, comes across as charming and kind of adorable. This track was released in the summer and was a perfect soundtrack for an outdoor barbeque, a road trip or a bus ride to work. I, personally, like the bus ride idea. Can you imagine hearing the lyric “I told you your dreams would come true” repeated and not having your mood lifted just a little?

9. Young Hearts Spark Fire – Japandroids

Remember when I was talking about the noisy low-fi music? Well, I give you Japandroids. This Canadian two-piece seemed to come out of nowhere this year. And they are pretty much a love them or hate them proposition. They play loud, fast and raw. But, behind the rough, post-punk exterior are quite catchy melodies and surprisingly insightful lyrics. The anthem Young Hearts Spark Fire” wins over the kids with promises of “staying up all night” and “finishing off the wine,” but those of us who are a little older know the flip side of life. So when they note “we used to dream, now we worry about dying”, the 25+ crowd gets a little reminder that growing up doesn’t have to be as bad as we make it. And best of all, this song refrains from being nostalgic. Rather, it is a call to arms in the punk tradition. And, it has a pretty rad title.

10. Two – The Antlers

Maybe The Antlers started as a bedroom project from a reclusive and suicidal singer who decided to channel his pain into an album, self-release it and recruit a band to perform it after it becomes a surprise indie-hit. But even without the back-story (like the first time I heard them), The Antlers created a pretty remarkable concept album about losing a loved one to bone cancer. I’ll spare you the whole narrative for now, but yeah, it’s pretty sad stuff. Either way, the songs themselves hold all these details together with epic grandeur. “Two” is pretty vivid in its depictions of watching the girlfriend waste away. But, the music compliments the sentiment perfectly with its intensity, using the builds to illuminate and emphasize the lyrics. Sure, they sound like The Arcade Fire. But, well, sounding like one of the best bands around is cool with me. And, The Antlers clearly have their own bag of tricks they bring with them. Or, at least, some pretty sad shit to sing about.

11. Hellhole Ratrace – Girls

Hold on there, Antlers. Girls might out due you with their back-story. Lead singer Christopher Owens fled a religious cult at a young age, lived on the streets until he was befriended by wealthy benefactor who encouraged his musical aspirations. So, in “Hellhole Ratrace,” the refrain “I don’t want to cry my whole life though, I wanna do some laughing too” may hold a little bit more weight for him than it does for the average listener. In stark contrast to The Antlers, Girls’ Album reaches toward normalcy, with a number of songs concerned with being a young man like any other. “Hellhole Ratrace” is simple enough in structure, but it makes its money on a slow build that turns a folky number into a shoegaze anthem. And the melody, sung with a remarkable resemblance to Elvis Costello, is instantly familiar in the tradition of Dylan, Lennon and any other of the greats you can think of. Girls is clearly the best debut band of the year and I honestly can’t wait to hear what they make next.

12. The Longest Day – Megafaun

The best country song of the year, “The Longest Day” invokes a classic southern music tradition from bluegrass to Alison Krauss. Of course, you would never hear this on country radio and I’m sure Megafaun is just fine with that. Probably best known as Justin Vernon’s (Bon Iver) former backing band, Megafaun has delved into one of the most difficult genres to find an audience: experimental Americana. With too much country for many rock and roll fans and too much feedback and weird sounds for a county audience, they are forced to attract listeners with truly eclectic taste. “The Longest Day” is one of the more traditional songs on Gather, Form & Fly and features guest vocalist Christy Smith. The track feels like a classic and stands up to pretty much any country duet I can think of. The boys of Megafaun are excellent musicians to boot (Justin Vernon says he learned how to write songs from them), allowing a banjo accompaniment to sound effortless and natural. Well, I guess for them, it probably is.

13. Velvet – The Big Pink

The Big Pink had huge buzz prior to the release of their debut A Brief History of Love (Note to new bands: don’t title you album A Brief History of Love. You got to work your way up to an album title that pompous). And though it was pretty well received, it seems like the buzz has quelled a bit. The biggest enemy of The Big Pink seems to be themselves. They are not making fashionable music. Their record is filled with individual tracks that make great stand-alone singles. But, as a whole it seems really hard to peg down their sound. Still, though “Velvet” sounds dated, there is no denying its infectiousness and craft. If this were 2001, it might be at the top of this list. And, you can’t penalize a group too much for being out of touch with songwriting and production as strong as this.

14. This Tornado Loves You – Neko Case

Though I wasn’t as in love with Neko Case’s 2009 album, Middle Cyclone, as the blogosphere seemed to be, “This Tornado Loves You” ranks among the top songs of her strong career. Whether you read this song as literal or metaphor (and I’m sorry, but a literal song from the perspective of a tornado is way cooler than tornado as a metaphor for love), the lyrics are packed with vivid details and imagery and, well, tornados are cool! Haven’t you ever seen Twister! And, how is Neko Case the toughest artist on this list!? (sorry Japandroids)

15. Fables – The Dodos

The Dodos also failed to deliver on an album that I was hoping for big things for. If only they had the pop sensibility of “Fables” throughout the record. “Fables” manages to showcase The Dodos at their strongest: great interworking between guitar and drums, the band’s two principal instruments. And both the guys have tremendous chops (in fact, if you ever get a chance to see Logan Kroeber on drums, it is a real treat). But perhaps my favorite parts of this song are the subtleties. In the chorus, Logan’s backup vocals compliment Meric Long’s in a manner so perfectly fitting, you hardly even notice it occurs. Also, the presence of the vibraphone player and new third bandmate is a welcome (if unnecessary) addition and does give the song some added texture. If anything, at least “Fables” proves their debut wasn’t a fluke.

16. Insane Lullaby – Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse (featuring James Mercer)

The song that launched one of next years most anticipated music projects. After collaborating on this track for the David Lynch photo book soundtrack Dark Night of the Soul, Danger Mouse and The Shins’ singer James Mercer have recorded an album for a March release under the name Broken Bells. If this song is any indication of what it will sound like, we can all start getting excited. With an organized chaos, it’s great to hear Mercer expanding his sonic ranged, without losing his greatest attribute; his ability to craft a memorable tune. Unfortunately, due to Danger Mouse’s ongoing legal issues, there is no way to get this album legally. But, I guess people don’t really do that anymore, so I’m sure you can find it if you want to.

17. The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid – The Decemberists

I’m not going to bother trying to fill you in on the plot of The Hazards of Love, The Decemberists’ underrated stab at a rock opera. I also don’t really have much to say about Colin Meloy’s serviceable half of the song. There is one reason this song made the cut for best songs of the year: Shara Worden. The woman behind My Brightest Diamond lends guest vocals to this stoner rock jam and absolutely destroys it. Seriously, click on the link down below. Watch this tiny woman with a giant voice and a swagger to match. I fall in love a little every time I watch it. Second biggest badass of the year. So if we learned anything, we now know that the boys creating the best music around need to toughen up.

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The Big Pink/Crystal Antlers @ Detroit Bar – 11/20/09, Costa Mesa, CA

Posted in Live Reviews by finickyears on November 27, 2009

I purposely decided not to buy my ticket for The Big Pink in advance. Though I risked running into a sellout, the fact is that I never want to be at Detroit Bar during a sellout. I saw Deerhunter in these conditions a few months back and they simply do not have the space to accommodate large crowds. But when the crowd is moderate, like it was last Friday, Detroit Bar can be an excellent place to check out bands without having to go to L.A. But, even though the evening provided an intimate and enthusiastic showcase for a band playing only their second American show EVER, the crowd was ultimately reminded of the major drawback in playing a small room.

The Big Pink present themselves as a band much more experienced than their resume reads. Their debut album is only a couple of months old (the quite good A Brief History of Love), but already they feel obliged to bring strobe lights, smoke machines and lasers. And, indeed, in their brief existence they have opened for the likes of Muse and TV on the Radio in Europe. These tricks that most bands take a while to grow into fit The Big Pink perfectly, invoking both new wave and industrial influences that are readily apparent on record. However, one of the unfortunate things about this show was the emphasis on the crunching guitars and lack of strong synthesizer sound. This is one of the drawbacks of seeing this band in such a small room. Not only was synthesizer too low in the mix, but the use of live drums drowned out what little of it you could here. This is sad because this is the major appeal of The Big Pink.

The Big Pink did bring some pretty rad jams to the table, though. “Velvet” and “Dominos” (the show closer) were the clear fan favorites, but I was more impressed by two songs I hadn’t really paid much attention to previously. Album closer “Count Backwards from Ten” was a revelation with its slow and steady build and the suprising effectiveness of its “better off dead” chorus. And “Tonight” seemed like it should be this band’s most well know song. It actually benefited from the heavier guitars and found the band at its loosest and most fun.

And one brief note, who the hell was the guy who really wanted to hear “Dominos.” In fact, he wanted to hear it so badly that he felt the need to make really annoying sounds when the band got quiet and make obnoxious imitations of lead singer Robbie Furze. You, sir, are a tool and a main reason I want to see this band at a bigger venue, where assholes like you fade into the background.

All in all, a promising debut from a band that will be interesting to watch develop.

Here are The Big Pink’s videos for “Velvet” and “Dominos”

Crystal Antlers provided support. I had seen them before and was not a big fan, but I have to admit they have improved in the last year. But, they still seem pretty pedestrian (except for that pretty awesome bonus percussion dude) and cannot hold my interest for more than three songs. But I am not going to write these guys (and girl) off. It seemed like they were as big of a draw as The Big Pink, so really, what do I know?

Enjoy my photos from the show!

Visit The Big Pink here!

Visit Crystal Antlers here!

Purchase music from both of these bands at Insound!

I guess their first U.S. show wasn’t that great.

Visit The Detroit Bar here!