Here Is My Heart and Here Is My Song: Favorite Tracks of 2009 December 25, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Music.
The hipster is back, and instead of a list of films, which takes longer time to make, I have here my picks for the best tracks of the year. These are the songs that more or less define my 2009, from heavenly ups to disastrous downs. This is no easy thing to do, of course, but I tried my best to collect and select songs that I indulged in the past twelve months, to write about them the best I could, and to tell how they have affected me emotionally. That’s the most important thing about music, right? To communicate the affection. Neither the world is changing for us nor we could change the world in our lifetime, so let’s just try to console ourselves with the things that make us happy, like the music that helps us forget our worries. So without further nonsense, let me present to you the best in this year’s music, the songs that continue to hold my hand and comfort my heart, the wind that moves the clouds in my beautiful piece of sky.
25. Pull My Heart Away (Jack Peñate)
Album: Everything is New
A surprising opener from Jack Peñate, surprising in the sense that the other songs in the album don’t come close to its freshness, to its lively tune and emotional lyrics passing through our hearts. . . unable to find an exit. It’s one of those sad songs that celebrate—it shouts: enough wallowing! enough misery! enough heartache!—optimistic right at the first note, looking up, all smiles. Jack sings happier than what he seems, and the trick is that we sing along with that happiness, pretending, moving on. Pulling one’s heart away is easier sung than done, and better by not doing it with a lonely face.
Okay, so Jack White has another band. Is he putting up one every year? Not sure about that, but The Dead Weather got me excited less about Jack but Alison Mosshart—she kills, and she kills just right. “Treat Me Like Your Mother” is a square off between the two—much like its video that shows them shooting at each other—and my bet is of course on her. There is that electrifying energy, that noisy exchange between them, and the hooks M-A-N-I-P-U-LATE! or You blink when you breathe / And you breathe when you lie / You blink when you lie that are just irresistible. You just got to hate this, as much as Jack and Alison seems to hate each other, and bang your head frigging hard.
23. Cousins (Vampire Weekend)
“Horchata” had me doubting on the next Vampire Weekend record. Surely Ezra and the gang could do better than that; unless they want their eponymous album be called a fluke. But “Cousins” puts those worries away for two minutes. The lyrics don’t make sense, like a preschool taking his first shot at composition, random words here and there, good-sounding, rhyming, picking up thoughts at the very least. But there go the riffs, the melody, the hyper-activeness, the things we love about the band. We could forgive their words being lame and unintelligible; in fact, to tell you something, when I first listened to the first album I disregarded the lyrics at all—because I didn’t understand them! The tracks are high on wooing drugs, like every one in the group, and “Cousins” proves why we continue to love them. I say, Contra better be good. January 12, better be 2010-good.
22. You and I (Wilco feat. Feist)
Album: Wilco (The Album)
Feist did not release an album this year, but she did three remarkable contributions to two albums—with Ben Gibbard (“Train Song”) and Grizzly Bear (“Service Bell”) in Dark Was the Night and with Wilco in Wilco (The Album). “You and I” is a beautiful duet, laid-back, gentle, and sincere—like Jeff Tweedy and Feist almost made it together, looking back, reminiscing—and hearing those lines Oh I don’t need to know everything about you / Oh I don’t wanna know / And you don’t need to know that much about me, I imagine they really did. Feist is this year’s enchanting muse; her duets share a love as alluring as her music, as pretty as her face.
21. Fuck You (Lily Allen)
Album: It’s Not Me, It’s You
Bluntness is Lily Allen’s best trait. She couldn’t care less about revealing herself, her dissatisfaction with her lover’s abilities in bed (“Not Fair”) or her thoughts on the life of the famous (“The Fear”). These thoughts flow like she is telling them in public, smoothly even if the message is harsh. Big-mouthed Lily sings “Fuck You” the way “fuck you!” is meant to be said—with feelings, and with absolute sense. It’s an angry song whose message is sent across clearly—and may it be addressed to George W. Bush or the British National Party, all the better. But come to think of it, if you have other fucking people in mind while indulging in this—let’s say, Gloria Arroyo, Chavit Singson, Kris Aquino, Sigrid Fortun, or your frigging co-worker passing her job to you, or your ogrish former boss who keeps coming back to your office to show his ogrish face—that’s just as good. They should be feeling that hate word for word.
20. Relator (Pete Yorn and Scarlett Johansson)
I had to watch a live performance of this to check if Scarlett isn’t really singing through her nose. And she isn’t! But where is that sound coming from? The critics have been carelessly humorless about this; they didn’t appreciate the fun, the hearty courtship, the pettiness, the light beats. The hot chick sings with the cool dude—Pete guiding her to a nice direction, Scarlett yielding to him—and “Relator” best describes the beginning of that relationship, asking out, dating, talking about nothing, the start of the intimacy. That hook gives it life, but the rapport between the two sails it away. Scarlett’s a hit among the French—the way Eva Longoria is so hot in their eyes—and Pete is no longer that one-hit wonder who is compared inferiorly to David Gray. The two of you, never mind those big mouths, go on with your love and tell us what happens. By the way, Serge and Brigitte just called. Congratulating.
19. Cannibal Resource (Dirty Projectors)
Album: Bitte Orca
Brilliance seeps through Bitte Orca from start to finish, and it begins here. The voice is the instrument, much like the guitar, the bass, the keyboard, and the drums provide sounds. The voice gives rhythm, vibrancy, irregularity—a seeming luminescence of a dead star—disarray, and complacency. Mesmerizing like a helix descending endlessly, “Cannibal Resource” is a ride so comfy the illusion of familiarity becomes disillusioned. A voice calls, Next stop: “Naughty Fine”. Now where is that place and where did that voice come from?
18. My Warning Song (Everything’s Gonna Be Alright) (Wheat)
Album: White Ink Black Ink
If a band ages like their music, then Wheat’s fifth album feels younger than what they really are. There’s a mixed quality of newness and obscurity in White Ink Black Ink, particularly in the first half when the band is in more creative control—beautiful hooks, nodding beats, bright lyrics, and a certain strangeness that woos and wins at the same time. “My Warning Song” belongs to that comely first half; the drumbeat serves as the omnipresent element, the guitar follows, the words repeat, and the second voice provides an eerie yet captivating noise. More songs like this and Wheat are sure to be immensely popular, which I’m sure isn’t something they really want in the first place. But if they choose to stay the same, everything’s just gonna be damn alright.
17. Doomsday (Elvis Perkins in Dearland)
Album: Elvis Perkins in Dearland
Elvis Perkins is the son of Anthony Perkins, the actor who’s been in everyone’s nerves after watching Hitchcock’s Psycho, especially while taking a shower. So I can’t help but imagine the older Perkins’ face when I listen to Elvis Perkins in Dearland—not that my thought is relevant to the song but anyway. . . “Doomsday” begins with the sultry sounds of horns, then the acoustic guitar follows, then the drums, then the instruments talk about their plans. . . the big band coming near. Elvis’ voice fits like Cinderella’s feet to her shoes, and the images begin to loom—the dusty road, the sweltering men, the lost cars and trembling hearts driving south, looking for comfort. The song lets them in, promises fun, and delivers. It always feels good to be faraway, engaging in novel things, square-dancing somewhere else—off to a place where this band plays.
16. Roslyn (Bon Iver & St. Vincent)
Album: The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Soundtrack)
These two had resorted to other names to call themselves as musicians; and both had exceptional releases this year: Justin Vernon with his EP, Bloodbank, and Annie Clark with her album, Actor. Of all projects they meet in the most peculiar compilation: the New Moon soundtrack. Bon Iver and St. Vincent sing Roslyn, likely an ode to a city in Washington, but basing it on the lyrics, no one really knows. The vampire movie casts these artists with terrific vampire voices; when they blend they sound like howling, summoning for something. And upon hearing it, one can’t tell which is which—they sing together like one person, inseparable, unthinkable to isolate. Bon Iver and St. Vincent may be giving the teen flick more than what it deserves; and I hope while they’re at it, Team Jacob and Team Edward fans will stop the childish fight and might as well dig this pair’s music to compensate for their taste in movies.
15. Epilepsy is Dancing (Antony & The Johnsons)
Album: The Crying Light
With that voice Antony Hegarty is sure to wake the dead. But us alive we regard that voice as the voice of divinity, of the trees, of the water, of the wind, of the sky, of the moving clouds covering the sun. . . That voice summons images, phantasms crowding inside our heads, paintings, apparitions, specters, vampires, zombie architecture frozen in music. Built not to collapse. Built to last, eternally. “Epilepsy is Dancing” shares some memorable images (I cry “glitter is love!” / My eyes pinned inside and Cut me in quadrants / Leave me in the corner) and Antony sings them like a prayer. The song gives me the creeps and hugs me so tight it always moves me to tears.
14. Wishes and Stars (Harper Simon)
Album: Harper Simon
That it took Harper Simon thirty-three long years to finally release his own album since his appearance with his father on Sesame Street means it must be something. In fact, it is. Paul has a strong influence on him alright, that can’t be helped, but that’s put to good use especially in his songwriting. “Wishes and Stars”, hands down, is the most quoted song of my year. It’s a lonely man’s song, a man resigned to his loneliness, a man crucified on his solitude, and he doesn’t care, he doesn’t want to change. He observes how ironic the world he lives in is, how people around him regard things differently, how he’s content with his little life—he doesn’t complain. Harper sings, I’m not too certain about many things / I’m not too sure who I am, and he sings it like he has met us, his words prudent, tender, commiserating, embracing so tight. And when he whispers, I got no girlfriend to hold my hand, I feel he was exactly the childhood buddy I never saw again.
13. El Caporal (My Morning Jacket)
Album: Dark Was the Night
A friend and I had a conversation. “Oh, I love El Caporal.” “Weh? Eh it’s like MMJ doing Calexico.” “That’s it! MMJ doing Calexico is even better than Calexico doing Calexico.” “No, I love MMJ’s Evil Urges.” “But how can you not be moved! It’s sweet.” That was a few months ago; and I listen to it again now, it still is a very sweet song. “El Caporal” sounds dated, old-fashioned, like a 50s or 60s one-hit wonder—horns and chummy words notwithstanding: Have we played all the chords we can finger / Have we made all the musical shapes / I just hope that my kisses love will linger / On your sweet, confused captain’s face —remembered for all it’s worth, how little it may be, but remembered still. Every time I listen to this I can feel the song is courting me, and by the time the refrain kicks in I have nothing to do but give it a kiss.
12. Lisztomania (Phoenix)
Album: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
They say Liszt—the first classical pop star—is handsome and his music is timeless and audiences scream during his performances, but in an alternate universe what would he say when he hears this? Or yet, what would he say when he sees the movie made about him by Ken Russell? Oh, but I digress. Pounding with energy but sounds like all humming throughout the cheery four minutes, Phoenix opens their album with huge hopes, and if you did have listened to it, they live up to them till the end. A knockout in hooks, trademark repetitions, stupendous beats, and Thomas Mars in deceptive sotto voce, “Lisztomania” defines show time. It’s showtime, it’s showtime, it’s showtime! Time! Time to show it off, time to show it off, it’s time to show it off! See how infectious it is. If I were Liszt I would really be flattered.
11. Dog Days are Over (Florence + The Machine)
It’s like a tornado coming straight in front of you. Whirling, it carries you along, from the calm start to the frenzied middle up to the stunning end. Florence sings, “Happiness hit her like a train on a track,” and her is you—hitting you on the nose, delivering you amid the hypnotic claps, the crazy percussion, the summoning voice of Florence, and all the instrumentation that dances along the build-up—reaching a glorious close that feels more like an affirmation of things to come than a permanent halt. True enough, the coast is never clear; the pounding remains in your heart. The horses, indeed, are coming. This is pop bliss at its finest.
10. Summertime Clothes (Animal Collective)
Album: Merriweather Post Pavilion
Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Deakin, and Geologist are four technically proficient musiclords. Their records attest to that—in fact, that’s the most prominent thing about their sound: the layering, the sweeping use of instruments and foley, the unabashed efforts to experiment and discover new ways to create beautiful music. But in the heart of Merriweather Post Pavilion—undoubtedly their most tremendous album to date—is the exquisite tug of words, particularly in “Summertime Clothes” when the descriptiveness overcomes the technical dexterity, the latter putting up a good fight, of course. There’s a “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” feel in it—the clouds an arm-stretch away, the stars twinkling at their brightest, the constellation like gods of light, forming life-changing shapes and figures—that hypnotizes and transcends the four-and-a-half mundane minutes and turns it into a vast and illuminating spiritual experience.
9. Stillness is the Move (Dirty Projectors)
Album: Bitte Orca
What a shame. I only heard about Dirty Projectors early this year when Bitte Orca got leaked onto the Internet. When I popped the record in, I thought, is this what they call the most “mainstream” the band can get? And what the hell is Bitte Orca? Or Cannibal Resource? Or Temecula Sunrise? Crazy—that while I feel a bizarre disconnect between reading the lyrics and hearing them sung, with all the high-pitched harmonies and colorful arrangements around, there’s still this mind-bending coordination of everything. “Stillness is the Move” walks straight from the unfamiliar and stops right in your face, performing with no regard whatsoever to how you’ll react, the words sounding like a pagan love song. The effect is nothing short of dazzling, extraordinary, and out-of-this-world—like the way I imagine when Sirk finally meets Leone, Dali meets Luna, or Saramago meets Carver. Mariah should record this; and let’s count a million indie converts who are off to dig her classic butterfly-carnival albums.
8. You Are The Blood (Sufjan Stevens)
Album: Dark Was The Night
Sufjan’s version is more than twice the length of the Castanets original—the longest in the album, in fact—but that doesn’t mean he’s just showing off. He’s done the same ‘horsing around’ before, and quite majestically I must say: his version of “A Free Man in Paris” may have baffled and delighted Joni Mitchell, and I’m sure Bob Dylan, if he had the time to listen to I’m Not There’s soundtrack, would be pleased with his charming orchestration of “Ring Them Bells”. Sufjan continues to outdo himself—taking projects left and right, helping co-artists, contributing to wonderful compilations such as this—and with “You Are The Blood” he stays with the same subtle interest; his music never fails to stir our hearts and imagination. Listening to the crazy ornamentation, the elaborate alternation of instruments, the meticulous arrangement—not to mention his alto voice that is rather horrifying—I think the man just deserves our warmest hug for all he’s done this year. I hope he goes back to being cheerful.
7. Ledmonton (Clues)
Much like the Animal Collective album, it’s hard to single out any track from the Clues debut record because every one of them contributes differently, each has its own outstanding quality that composes the album and makes it terrific not only on the first listen but also on the succeeding plays. As I write this I am still trying to make up my mind among “Approaching the Throne”, “Perfect Fit”, and “Ledmonton”. But the last one is playing right now, specifically clocking at 1:29, when the bombastic “La! La la la la la la! La la la la la la. . .” starts to pound like a huge hammer—and without question, yes, I’m sold! “Ledmonton” begins deceptively, un-preparing us for the things to come, but when it did, we are rather thankful. The way it progresses, remains mysterious, and strikes a close like an apocalyptic anthem, I realize, it could never be the wrong choice.
6. Prophets (A.C. Newman)
Album: Get Guilty
It’s all How I Met Your Mother’s fault. This plays in the season finale when Marshall finally overcomes his fear of jumping off from his apartment’s rooftop to his neighbor’s, doing it almost every year just for his dream tub. When he did, the gang follows suit; and this A.C. Newman song plays in the background, Strike ground zero, it says. It’s corny to call the jump metaphoric, but yeah, most truths are corny anyway so might as well say that that finale has left a strange impression on me, due to this song partially. “Prophets” is brief, and you realize it’s barely finished when you notice it. A.C. Newman’s gift shines through every corner of his second album; and “Prophets” amid all the other fantastic tracks will always be special because of that reason I’ve shared above—and damn I know I won’t be able to say anything coherent when it becomes personal. Spontaneous but not immodest, rhapsodic but not overdone, melodious but far from twee-pop, “Prophets” nails the anger and confusion and turns them into a gem of a statement, bursting into fireworks, the beautiful lights scattering and falling down one by one, like fireflies finding their way home.
5. 1901 (Phoenix)
Album: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Why I prefer this to “Lisztomania” is better left unsaid—honestly, I just don’t know—but I would rather dance than explain it, lose myself to its refreshing tune than make sense of its historical references, enjoy the thrilling ride and press repeat over and over again than stay grumpy and ponder the sad day ahead. Listening to Phoenix I would rather be alone; they seem enough as company. And this song in the album stands out as the sunniest, friendliest, and most captivating, always getting me on my feet, raising my hands up, and blowing me away.
4. Heart Skipped A Beat (The xx)
Album: The xx
Everything in The xx’s debut demands another listen. The songs are remarkably polished, sexy in their minimalism, stripped beautifully in their bare skins, revealing a brilliance that is bound to be called classic in no time. “Heart Skipped A Beat” is somewhere in the middle of the record; yet it could just be anywhere to fill the “love gap”. It sounds like two lovers singing faraway, their words so close, their promises spoken under their breath—so intimate they’re like having an intercourse, seducing, clapping, sharing their love. Unknown to us, we just turn into voyeurs.
3. Fables (The Dodos)
Album: Time To Die
The Dodos have always had the knack for simplicity, yet never in their simple arrangements have had a dull moment; instead, their songs shine in their honesty; the plain but graceful blend of acoustic guitar, drums , and vibraphone sounds effortlessly vigorous. In their music, a leaf falling is nothing different from a volcano erupting; actions are not defined by the meaning we ascribe to them. Everything is intrinsic, inherent to the codes of its universe. “Fables” echoes from within, an internal yearning for something unspeakable—too emotional to be put into words—yet we know it, we feel it when we hear it, because we are it. The strumming pattern insists all the way through, the drumbeats follow religiously, and the vibes stay close, complementing the affectionate words delivered like a breeze. I don’t want to go in the fire / I just want to stay in my home / I don’t want to hear all the liars / I just want to be with my own—that’s my 2009, summed up in those four lines.
2. Graze/What Would I Want? Sky (Animal Collective)
EP: Fall Be Kind
Yes, I’m cheating. I’m putting two songs in this spot. I can’t help it, and I am not sorry. You’re just a step away from the summit, anyway! So don’t stop here. These two are inseparable—in fact, they are placed consecutively in the EP, perfectly—and I couldn’t imagine liking the one better than the other.
“Graze” begins with Let me begin, feels good ‘cause it’s early, Avey Tare talking about mornings and ideas; and if you remove the subtle background music it almost sounds like a ballad, a mellow monologue, relaxed like waking up from a long sleep. But then, it suddenly turns all the way around in the middle, drastically, revealing more of what he’s trying to say. A complete change of world, a complete change of everything. Walls are stripped, all bright and sunny, with the dirty leaves on the ground.
Panda Bear comes along and starts talking to Comfort—Why can’t I reach you? / When I most need you / You’re at the beach and / I’m in some strange bed—asking its whereabouts, and we realize he is alone. Where the hell is Avey? Panda’s talking to himself, he has no audience, and he wakes up in such need for answers. This part turns the piece into an agnostic worship, a disarming dance ritual—which reminds me of the dance of death in The Seventh Seal—only much livelier, short but unforgettable.
“What Would I Want? Sky” follows immediately. Similar world, perhaps. Picks up where “Graze” ends, dancing still. Avey, back singing, continues his questioning, rhetorically, but here the answers are more elusive; more like the questions should be left unanswered, for our own good. Images ooze out of the words; and the sound is drowning them with effervescence. Then comes the Grateful Dead sample, and it feels like the lord has showered the earth with its first rain in long years. The lawlessness of breaking time signatures, such crime.
Call it existential, call it philosophical, call it metaphysical, but Animal Collective explode here with frigging vitality and euphoria that I can’t express in words how I feel. This is the Comfort referred to in “Graze”, going every time, running for something. While Avey and Panda share what they are, they also share what they are not—what they are trying to be—their weaknesses, their faults. Old glasses clinking and a / New order’s blinking and I / I should be floating but I’m weighted by thinking, unsure of anything, seeking help from us. In “What Would I Want? Sky” the past is echoed in the same way the present and future are. We are left to distinguish; and to see the need if ever.
I lift this metaphor from some comment online: if Merriweather Post Pavilion is summer, Fall Be Kind is autumn, with a touch of winter. Animal Collective, indeed, are like Midas who turns everything he touches into gold; the alchemy of their music is forever changing, and forever gratifying. In “Graze”, Avey asks, How does a band turn into such a thing? And we’re just too stumped to give him an answer.
1. While You Wait for the Others (Grizzly Bear)
The list culminates here, and rightfully so.
Grizzly Bear are a humble band; nothing about them puts me off in terms of musicality, attitude, or live performances. They are just here to share some music, no less. And that music, especially in Veckatimest, makes me appreciate that modesty even more. They gain the respect of their peers—Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, and Jay-Z to name just three—and 2009 proves to be the most fruitful for them, both commercially and critically.
I listen again to Michael McDonald’s version of the track and as he sings, the band is just behind, doing the harmonies, and doing the second-voice. The collaboration is wonderful; the band can let other people sing their song and help them the best they could. McDonald’s version is as brilliant as Grizzly Bear’s. And that’s the thing about “While You Wait for the Others”. It’s not just a Grizzly Bear song; it is something shared and something collectively personal—and interpretations come out as beautiful as the original. The band creates the music and lets us hear it, trash it if we like, but they will stay and continue doing their craft.
Maybe it’s the lyrics—the way So I’ll ask you kindly to make your way shows a lot of sincerity and respect, or the way Yes you’ll only bleed me dry sounds so immediate and painful that we take them to heart. The song is written like it can only be sung, for if we just say the words prosaically without the tune they wouldn’t come out as emotional as they are when the music accompanies them. But the culprit is not just the words; it is that sublime arrangement that peaks in the coda, that even when Daniel Rossen shouts, his voice still sounds like a whisper, a powerful whisper of some secret, of resignation to breaking up.
Not to put too fine a point on it: “While You Wait for the Others” is both a lyrical and sonic perfection, honed by a band that only gets better record after record, song after song, performance after performance. Nothing comes close to it, and nothing can ever come close to it, this year.
[Honorable mention: These Are My Twisted Words (Radiohead); All for the Best (Thom Yorke); In For The Kill (La Roux); Jackie Collins Existential Question Time (Manic Street Preachers); Brother Sport (Animal Collective); Remember Severed Head and Perfect Fit (Clues); Palace at 4 AM (A.C. Newman); Deadbeat Summer (Neon Indian); Two Weeks (Grizzly Bear); Girlfriend (Phoenix); Hallelujah (Beirut); Nothing Broke (Meursault); Let’s Go Surfing (The Drums); Paparazzi (Lady Gaga); Little Secrets (Passion Pit); Blood Bank (Bon Iver); Two Medicines (The Dodos); The Strangers (St. Vincent); Dek-a-Doodle-Dandy (Duster); Maps (Wakey! Wakey!); Orange Shirt (Discovery); Knotty Pine (Dirty Projectors + David Byrne); Saddle Up (The Boy Least Likely To); Mushaboom (Bright Eyes); French Navy (Camera Obscura); Revenge (Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse feat. Wayne Coyne); Young Adult Friction (The Pains of Being Pure At Heart); Zero and Heads Will Roll (Yeah Yeah Yeahs)]
* With thanks and apologies to A. C. Newman for the title