Don’t forget part 1. And part 2.
10. You Got Me Wonderin’ Now – Parquet Courts
Here’s one way to describe Parquet Courts:
You know that band from the ’80s that gets way overrated by your current romantic partner’s ex-partner? (Gotta keep the pronouns vague when I use the second person. Could be talking to anyone) Anyway, this is the ex that shows up to all the parties and shows up alone and in the mood to talk. Imagine if that band, beloved by your ex’s ex since their first EP, had held actual merit-based auditions in which talent, guile, lovable resignation, and exactly one article of fringed clothing won out over (admittedly) legendary haircuts.
Here’s one way to describe this song:
Though not a “dance” song, of all the songs played at a 2015 wedding reception by a DJ who is also the groom’s kid brother, this is the song that will be most popular among people that dance to exactly one song.
Before I move on, let me address some comparative statements made in the song’s lyrics:
In verse 1, we learn that “Toothache’s better than heartache.”
In verse 2, we learn that “Seasick’s better than heartsick.”
And in verse 3, we learn that “Sunburn’s better than heartburn (barely).”
I’ll take these in reverse order. Regarding verse 3, I’ll concur that it’s very close. I would have given heartburn the faintest edge, though I can easily accept either one as the winner.
I totally agree with verse 2.
And as far as toothache and heartache are concerned, it depends on:
-the persistence of the toothache
-the ability of other teeth to carry the load
-whether you have dental insurance (and the quality of that insurance if you do)
If I had to pick one, I’d go with toothache because, in extreme cases, you can live without a tooth but not (it’s been said) without a heart. Interestingly, as painful as both of these things are, they can, without any warning, self-heal and never bother you again.
9. That Awful Sound - Jackson Scott
I have very little to say here, other than: I like this song a lot.
8. III. Telegraph Avenue (“Oakland” by Lloyd) – Childish Gambino
Am I biased because Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino) might just be my favorite actor? (He’ll be missed on Community. His performance on the episode when Troy (his character) meets LeVar Burton is absolutely perfect, encapsulating joy, shock, humility, tenderness, and a bit of unhinged madness).
No, he makes this list not because of his acting but because Childish Gambino, once good for the occasional listen and occasional laugh, is not a sonically daring hip hop force to bow down to.
7. Hannah Hunt – Vampire Weekend*
Screaming is tricky. Whether the scream is meant to convey anger, frustration, or terror or just to get someone’s attention, it’s not always easy to pull a good scream off.
A story: One time, I was eagerly awaiting a second date with a girl who I won’t reveal other than to say her name is a month. I had two hours to kill in an unfamiliar city before we were to meet for dinner. Anticipation was crawling all over me. Anyway, I walked the busy blocks of a neighborhood I’d never been in before, hoping to find a cafe with some empty space and a place to plug my iPhone 2. You know – listen to some sadcore, jot down some blog list ideas, the usual 2008 idling.
Before I found such a cafe, I saw the very girl whose name is a month walking about 30 feet in front of me. I called her name. But it was a busy street, with the steady rumbling urban roar of late afternoon. And cars and buses, with engines and horns. She didn’t hear me. So I called her name – a month – louder.
Why I didn’t play it cool is beyond me. I wasn’t that young and unworldly. What could possibly be gained by an unexpected meeting two hours before the agreed upon meeting? I should have let her walk away.
I readied myself to call her one last time. This time, in my ridiculous enthusiasm, I screamed that month of a name. It was a wretched scream that skittered down Valencia Street on that San Francisco Saturday.
As I screamed her name, I waved my right hand like the most uncertain man at a confidence auction.
The poor girl looked horrified.
We had met on the internet and then spoke by phone six or seven times before we met. She had complimented me on my phone voice and she seemed to take to my in-person softspeak when we saw that first date mumblecore film. But this…this nasal banshee wail from this confused man she was now pity-staring at, this would not work out. No, not at all.
I tried to save the situation, play it off legit like. But no.
Still, nothing prepared me for her amazing (in retrospect) improvisation. Considering she had texted me no more than 20 minutes earlier to eagerly confirm our quick approaching burrito date, the on-the-fly decision she would make had to have been ideated at the very moment it was spoken. Spoken without pause, spoken all smooth like I wasn’t…she said “Oh I’m glad I saw you. Look, I have to cancel tonight. I’m feeling a little under the weather. I don’t think I should be going out tonight.”
Keep in mind that she says this while she is already out, with the sun about to set on an unseasonably cold October day. She also, to me, looks like the healthiest person alive. She’s a vibrant technicolor pomegranate is what she is.
April then walks away. We are never to see each other again.
So yeah. Screaming effectively is not easy. It’s been six years and I have not even attempted to approach that vocal register since.
Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, on the other hand, delivers a perfect scream at the 2:59 point in this song. Now, his scream is not a pleading helpless yawl like mine. It is not a plea for attention. It is not a delivery of rage. It is not a guttural wordless thing. It’s just him delivering some lyrics more emphatically than he has done so up to that point in the song. But his “more emphatically” just so happens to propel his words from quiet to scream-dom.
The fact that the listener isn’t expecting the scream makes it even more powerful. It’s on subsequent listens that the scream – and the song – really resonate. With each listen, the little tensions and poignant conflicts in the first 2:58 take on a deeper meaning.
Before I leave this song, I have two more things to discuss. Sorry. Go ahead and scroll down to #6 if it’s all too much. You need to descend about three screens’ worth of smartphone space or 1.5 computer screens. Still with me? Back to the two more things.
First, Ezra Koenig says he named this song after Hannah Hunt, a college classmate that he did not know very well. He just liked the name. It’s a nice story.
I then learned that Hannah Hunt, who really did go to college with Ezra Koenig, is dating singer Christopher Owens (and sings in her own band, Dominant Legs, which I’ve never heard but: Great name! Also, she does well with Twitter).
I have some questions though: Is the world really that small? Does Hannah Hunt just have this ability to find herself in the company of (current or future) critically lauded indie rock singers? Or is it that the singers are drawn to her, finding her aura impossible to resist? I don’t know but I hope Christopher Owens can take solace in knowing that he ended up with the girl Hannah Hunt, even if his song is 10 spots lower on my list than the song Hannah Hunt.
Second…finally, I must discuss how much this song had to overcome.
Hannah Hunt is preceded on the Modern Vampires of the City album by Diane Young, arguably the worst song ever made by anyone, ever.
If that wasn’t enough to overcome, the first line of Hannah Hunt is “A gardener told me some plants move.”
Let’s skip the veracity of that statement. I want to focus on the “gardener” part of it.
Is there anything less rock and roll than quoting a gardener? Because if you’re quoting a gardener, that means you either have a gardener or interact with people who do.
Now, don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing wrong with having a gardener, knowing a gardener, or being a gardener. It’s just that talking about your gardener in a rock song, even if you’re Vampire Weekend and have no problem sharing your Ivy League origin story or championing preppie authenticity, is not an easy thing to do without seeming a bit…assholish. Because, really, the fact that the person being quoted is a gardener isn’t really that important to the lyric.
Sure, you’d expect a gardener to have some insight regarding the ability of plants to move on their own. But I bet other people – botanists, observers of nature, people with private gardens, people who visit public gardens, Peter Sellers – would also possess this knowledge. So, he doesn’t need to say that a gardener told him how plants move.
I realize he might be trying to establish something about the character of the narrator. And I know the song may not be purely autobiographical. But that opening line still comes across a bit entitled. That the song manages to overcome this presumed entitlement, not to mention its proximity to the crappiest crapfest in crapsong history, Diane Young, is impressive.
(Prior to Hannah Hunt and the gardener, the least rock and roll moment in any song I’d heard was on Lifter Puller’s Double Straps, from their 1994 debut album, when a young Craig Finn sang of his college dorm bunk bed and his backpack with the double straps. But mostly the bunk bed, the existence of which is casually mentioned just once but once is enough. Because no one over the age of ten, not even a wide-eyed college freshman eager to tell his diabolical tale, wants to admit he sleeps in a bunk bed. Unlike the wisdom-imparting gardener, the bunk bed was important to the Lifter Puller song, as it established the youthfulness and naivete of a narrator being asked to engage in unfamiliar criminal behavior.)
(We’re not done with gardeners.)
6. Billy – Prefab Sprout
I won’t call it a comeback. Because it’s bigger than that. I did not expect such good music from a band that was pretty much my favorite band for a quarter of my life (from, roughly December 1984 to when I had that really bad back problem in early 1995). I did not expect Paddy Macaloon (who is pretty much what we think of when we think of Prefab Sprout) to rise out of the creative fog shrouding his past couple of decades. It seemed too big of a thing to ask. And I wouldn’t ask such a thing – after all, the Sprout have given me so much happiness for so many years.
Then, mid-2013, I heard rumors. Deep in the fifth and sixth pages of comment threads on non-sanctioned Sprout fansites. Rumors of The Devil-Came-A-Calling, a new unreleased Prefab Sprout album, one that people were….PRAISING. Effusively.
So I searched. It took days (the equivalent of years, pre-Internet) but I was able to locate and download all ten tracks. And they were right. This was good stuff.
It was so hard to believe that these songs could just…..appear. And that they could be so damn good. Some said they couldn’t be “new.” That these must be unearthed studio recordings circa 1984 or 1991. But Paddy’s voice told the truth. Over the years, his songwriting diminished but not his voice. He could always sing. But the passing of time allowed his voice to evolve into this rich warm honeyed thing. And the voice on these 10 songs was clearly his new voice. Singing songs that were the best ones he’d written since Moonlighting was a TV show.
Does it matter when the songs were recorded? Or written? Well, as someone who believes in the provenance of “genius,” it can be a bit sad when the genius stays silent for so long or when the quality of someone’s work changes. And I’m well aware that “quality” and “genius” are subjective words, and that one person’s Steel Wheels is another person’s Tattoo You. But…. oh come one you’ve read my shit before – of course it matters!
That said, it doesn’t matter that much and this song – about Billy, a trumpet in the snow, the joy of repetition, Susan, and some other things – would still find a place in my heart and on my list if I learned that it was really recorded in 1985. It just gets a higher place when I find out that Paddy’s still got it and genius, once spent, can be rekindled.
Postscript: In October, the 10 mystery Sprout songs were officially released (in the U.K., at least), with a new title, Crimson / Red, and new artwork, to an enthusiastic reception.
One final note: maybe you know this already but, if not, it’s worth a mention. Paddy Macaloon just gave the world a batch of great new songs while struggling with some very real health problems. This includes an inner ear disease that has, at various times in the past decade, led to vertigo and partial - and sometimes complete - deafness. Which of course can be devastating to a musician. It makes what he’s accomplished even more impressive.
And the beard. The beard.
Before I get to my top 5 - each of which would have been number one if released in 2012 (sorry Avi) or 2010 (sorry Ron) - let’s give some recognition to some of the best songs not to make this list. We can call them honorable mentions because we’re mentioning them and I suppose there’s some honor in being likable songs that just couldn’t crack the top 33:
There were the daddy songs: Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer by The Dismemberment Plan and Everybody Knows About Daddy by the Happy Jawbone Family Band.
There was Shuggie by Foxygen and (the rereleased 1975 oddity) Wings of Love by Shuggie Otis.
Benny Goodman by Saint Motel. New You (and most of mbv) by My Bloody Valentine.
Everything on Modern Vampire of the City that didn’t make my list…but not that one song.
New Slaves and maybe some others by Kanye West.
Right Words by Franz Ferdinand. Is That Enough by Yo La Tengo (which really should have made the list; sorry guys - you get a picture below, okay?).
Lots of songs on the Childish Gambino, Growlers, Prefab Sprout, and Friedberger albums (though they all got a song on the list).
High School Girl by Cuyacas. Too Dry to Cry by Willis Earl Beal. Monomania by Deerhunter. Some song by Waxahatchee. And, okay, the Haim song.
Back to the real songs.
5. Down, Down the Deep River - Okkervil River
I don’t know what happened to that night back in the ’80s. When the authorities and the parents arrive together, it can’t be good. I understand that they were best friends. I realize promises were made, back at an age when promises mean something. A river, a house, friends, a rescue team. A favorite song but the cassette ends before the song does.
An uncle and the uncles friend = “very bad men.” Uh oh. Not alright. Not even close to alright. It was relentless. Injuries. A death perhaps. Authorities called in. Dad calling his son “kid.” Wounds requiring more than bandages. Country roads. Favorite songs taped off radios. Kids being best friends. Houses that shouldn’t be approached, much less entered. Flights of stairs, halls in houses.
Keyboards. A river and a rescue party. A deep river and the worst thing they’ve seen. Dad calling his son “son.” Viper pits. Something in the air. BACKGROUND SINGERS. I don’t know what happened. It was important though. Not alright. Not even close to alright.
It’s safe to say that this is the least spare song ever recorded. It sounds like 12,000 people took part in the recording of this song. But what I take from it, more than anything, are some words buried in the third iteration of the chorus.
"We can never go back.
We can only remember."
(You may remember these words as the descriptive tag line for this very blog, once.)
"We can never go back.
We can only remember."
That doesn’t stop Will Sheff and Okkervil River from trying anyway.
From going back (but not fully). From remembering (but not everything).
4. Song For Zula - Phosphorescent
You thought #5 was intense? This one will not provide any relief.
Matthew Houck introduces us to “love.” At first, it’s the relative safety of that familiar love, from many legendary old songs. Not that love as a “burning ring of fire” is all that gentle and safe of course. Still, it seems more accessible than love using its gnarled hand to disfigure this nice young gentle kind-seeming man, calling him to a cage from which he will not escape.
But the song is not over. Redemption is possible. Maybe love can do better by him.
When he sings “I will not open myself this way again,” you hope it’s not true. Redemption seems less likely. If only he could keep going back to the carefree days of the album cover.
When, in his final words, he sings “I could kill you with my bare hands if I was free,” you know it’s true. He could kill you. There will be no redemption. He’s not getting out of the cage.
You can’t listen again, not for a while.
3. Pink Rabbits - The National
When I started my list, this song was not on it. Oh sure, I liked this gentle rollicking reckoning, a showcase for the velour & velvet vocals of Matt Berninger. (The other four guys in The National- talented musicians, all of them, get to take it easy on this song; the instrumentation is so slow and simple, I could do it.)
A few days before Christmas, I heard the song with fresh ears. It all worked for me. In a “holy crap - The National just blew my mind again when I didn’t think they would” way. It soared to the number one spot (of my mind’s list), from Christmas Eve until the third of January.
Then, I had to break the news to Matt and the gang: No number one this year. Sorry. You guys were soooo close. Just like in 2010, when Bloodbuzz could only make it to #2.
Being successful rock stars with Brooklyn mansions, model wives, and creepy-loyal lifespan-level fan bases, The National took the news well.
Back to Pink Rabbits. At first I thought the lyrics were a lengthy first-person narrative, the typical National “knowing sadness half-masked by world-weary armor” story. As is often the case with these guys lyrically, an odd reference (Morrissey’s Bona Drag album, playing for eternity in the pool party of our minds) slips in and an against-type moment of comedy gold (baritone Berninger identifying as “a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park”) becomes the favorite takeaway.
(You’d think if you Google Imaged “crowd of white girls in the park” you’d get some photos of a crowd of white girls in the park. But there are no such pictures on the internet.)
But wait. An interesting pronoun switch alerts us to the possibility that this song is a dialogue. A man relates a memory. A woman (the white girl) gives her perspective. Confidence and vulnerability take turns, on both sides. And we end with a refrain.
That we only hear one voice, pre-refrain, makes interpretation a challenge. There are no different intonations. The girl isn’t breathier than the guy. The guy isn’t more abrupt or morose. It’s all Matt. You might have to take notes to make sense of it all. Or maybe you just want to listen to a lovely slow song about something important to its two principal characters and not stress too much.
Whether you listen, primed to note-take, or you just bliss-out via headphones, please take heed of my favorite element of Pink Rabbits: Matt Berninger breaks his own (seemingly unbreakable) record by singing - without a pause, without a full moment of breath - for two minutes and 55 seconds, breaking the standard he set on The National’s Lemonworld by one second.
Okay, this might not seem like much of a feat: nearly three minutes of constant singing. But I urge you to listen to as many songs as possible, old or new, in any genre. You will discover that this simply is not done. A singer will pause between each line of a verse. If not, the the traditional verse-to-chorus vocal handoff nearly always comes with a pause of at least a full beat. And then there are all the dramatic pauses that singers (especially the British ones) have used since the 1960s (yeah Macaloon – I’m talking to you).
Now, I doubt that Matt Berninger is bypassing vocal pauses for ego reasons, that he can’t bear to imagine a National song that isn’t wall-to-wall himself. The National’s other songs feature plenty of pauses between vocals, more than enough time for a singer to breathe and step away from the microphone. But not this one, at least from 0:18 to 3:13, or two minutes and 55 seconds.
Still, I’d have to say The National’s 2010 song Lemonworld contains the more impressive vocals-without-pause accomplishment, even if it is a second shorter, lasting from 0:22 to 3:16, or two minutes and 54 seconds. It’s a faster, more densely worded song, one in which the narrator doesn’t really know where he’s going next but he gets there anyway, without hesitation. Though the Lemonworld train never derails, the threat of derailing is always there. Pink Rabbits is more a leisurely stroll that goes on much longer than you’d expect.
2. Avant Gardener – Courtney Barnett
My late-2013 (okay, I’ll admit it, early-2014) discovery of Courtney Barnett made me happy. Her languid tales of early 20s Australian life make me jealous that I wasn’t born two 20 years later, on the other side of the world. Her gift with words (just check out the double pun in the above title) is evident all over the 12 songs on A Sea of Split Peas, her double-EP debut. Her gift with a guitar and mention her band’s lovably shambling coherence are also evident.
This song pretty much blew me away the first time I heard it. The story in the song starts out quaint and cute, as Barnett offers what seems like a fun story of her mundane Monday - her oversleeping, her messy yard, and her helpful neighbor. Then, a health scare, a panic attack maybe, an ambulance ride, and a failed hit off the “asthma puffer” and you just hope she’s okay. But she’s young and smart and that’ll get her out of this mess, you’re pretty sure. Her vocal delivery is the same – deadpan, charming, and warm – whether she’s being wry and clever (as in the first half of the song) or unsure and scared (as in the second half). Rather than cause the listener to take her less seriously, this has the effect of adding richness and context to the entire song.
Now, let me turn attention to Courtney Barnett’s upcoming U.S. tour. Because somebody has to. Poor girl. First time doing a full tour of the states and this is what she’s asked to do:
February 18 Chicago, IL - Empty Bottle
February 19 Washington, DC - DC9
February 20 Philadelphia, PA - Boot & Saddle
February 21 New York, NY - Mercury Lounge
February 22 Brooklyn, NY - Rough Trade
February 23 Los Angeles, CA - Bootleg Bar
February 24 San Francisco, CA - Rickshaw Stop
That’s seven shows in seven cities in seven nights.
Three time zones.
Dead of American winter.
Grimy clubs with words like “bottle” and “boot” and “bootleg” and “rough” and “rickshaw” in their names.
But mostly this is about seven shows in seven cities in seven nights.
Okay, let’s say six cities, with the two NY shows providing her a brief respite. But then a cross-country flight, with a show in Los Angeles the very next night. I know, she’ll gain three hours but give this budding troubadour an off-day or two! And starting out in Chicago after, presumably, flying in from Melbourne, doesn’t seem logistically ideal. I’m guessing the Washington-Philly-NY-NY block of shows will eschew a plane for a bus, so whatever advantage their relative proximity offers is limited.
Considering that her breakout song features a first-person panic attack, ambulance ride, and shortness of breath, you’d think her first American tour wouldn’t be designed to crush her.
Anyway, Courtney: On the 23rd of February, when you fly in to LA after your Brooklyn show, you’ll be tired. Very tired. Six hours in the air is not easy. Six hours after five shows in five nights is definitely not easy. If you want, I can pick you up from LAX, take you out to a nice quiet protein-rich breakfast, maybe treat you to a spa package if I can swing a Groupon deal.
1. Ya Hey – Vampire Weekend
We’re 10,000+ words into this list. Time to let the song speak for itself.