I was tempted to limit this to a top 30 songs of the year, but in the past couple weeks I’ve discovered quite a few new tracks that have convinced me this year was a bit stronger than I had initially expected.
I would still say that the list this year is weaker than past ones. Not because there wasn’t enough good music this year. It’s just that there were a lot fewer peaks. There were a TON (as many or more than ever before) good to very-good songs and albums out this year, but very few transcendentally good ones. I’ve got ‘best of the decade’ lists coming and you’ll notice that 2009 makes very few appearances there. Don’t get me wrong. I love every single track here – just maybe a little bit less than a corollary number from a previous year.
As always, it’s limited to one song per artist. And I’m continuing my tradition of not really talking about the whole song, but instead focusing in and highlighting the single best moment.
40. The Mayor (ft. Ghostface Killah, Scarface, The Cool Kids and DJ AM) (youtube link) – NASA
I’m not gonna lie. I couldn’t pick any of the folks on here out of a crowd, and don’t even know who is responsible for which verse or anything. But this bit from the Detroit one hits me the hardest.
39. When Brakes Get Wet – Julie Doiron
1:28 – I’ve always loved Julie Doiron’s voice but never found myself too excited about her songs. Here, the counterpoint is spot-on. The gentle syncopation and strummed guitar provides some uplift that blends with her world-weary tone, offering some comfort against the pressing of a heavy fog.
38. The Ocean (youtube link) – Tegan and Sara
0:46 – My main complaint about the whole Tegan and Sara record is that there are very few distinguishable moments. So, weirdly enough, my favorite moment is right here – in the interlude between verse and chorus, when the basic riff that drives the song gets a little chance to breath.
37. Boy 1904 – Jonsi and Alex
Just a lovely, lovely song. It’s pointless to try and pick a single moment from a song this ethereal and encompassing. So I’ll just have to recommend the entire thing.
36. Watercolor Ghost Town – The Blueflowers
0:30 – Nothing complicated. Just a very nice folksy riff and a little movement in the vocals. Sometimes you get a whole lot more when you aren’t pressing too hard.
35. Central Standard – Banner Pilot
1:18 – Love the guitars here. They move up just a bit – but are still struggling against the frontloaded vocals. And then you get the bass way up high in the mix. The result is an awesome piece of grungy pop-punk.
34. Bang (ft. M.I.A.) – Rye Rye
1:25 – The percussion on this song is completely out of this world. It’s spastic and aggressive and insanely catchy. It’s almost impossible to hear this track without starting to move like crazy.
33. Boy Lilikoi – Jonsi
2:52 – Not breaking my rule on two songs from the same artist. The first Jonsi track was part of his solo project with his partner. Hence, Jonsi and Alex. This one (album due out next year) is a true ‘solo’ work. Though, honestly, I’m not sure how it’s really any different from a regular Sigur Ros record. Anyways, he’s singing in English now which is cool and all, but I still think he’s at his best in the wordless chorus, like this one. No pesky structured to get in the way of the real point. Which, in this case, is the transcendence of both space and time.
32. Dancing In A Minefield – Plushgun
2:27 – Sure it’s overwrought. But give up your ironic distance, really give it a listen, and return to the place where you truly believed in endless possibility. Where a silly song about dancing really did seem like it meant something.
31. Sam Rudich – Snowing
0:52 – All shouts, frenetic drumming, and that guitar that makes you feel like you’re getting punched repeatedly underwater. In a good way, of course.
30. Bones – Foam Castles
2:37 – The folk beginnings transform themselves into a cavalcade of sound and energy. It’s big and glorious, and is the finest summer mixtape song you probably never heard this year.
29. Beach – Mew
1:01 – It does seem magical.
28. Happy Banjo – Dark Mean
1:19 – “And I woke up here alone…and I feel so happy” – so pretty, so pure. And then you get the little bit of pedal steel. It’s enough to melt the coldest of hearts.
27. Summers – Loney Dear
2:50 – He’s the modern master of the slow buildup and glorious release – and while this one doesn’t match “I Am John” it’s still mighty impressive. There’s the initial burst at 1:40, but for me the best moment is here when the pace has been set and the only thing left is the na na na’s.
26. Wrecking Ball (youtube link) – Bruce Springsteen
2:30 – The one, two, ONE TWO THREE FOUR! bit is classic Springsteen – and about a million times better than the album he put out at the beginning of the year. Sure the metaphor is a bit clunky, but who cares? Stand tall and face that wrecking ball!
25. Much More Than That – Sharon Van Etten
2:19 – Everything that ever needed to be said, stripped entirely of the accouterments.
24. Another City, Another Sorry – The Answering Machine
1:10 – A drum-burst that catapults you forward. Fast, furious, messy guitar lines. Explosions, fireworks, and a bunch of sweaty kids on a London dancefloor.
23. Quiet Dog – Mos Def
1:16 – He lays deep grooves but manages to skip and dance among them with total freedom and clarity. It’s both infinitely smooth and totally intense
22. March 4, 1831 – Balmorhea
0:45 – This song is so short and so complete that it’s hard to pick any particular moment. None can really be experienced without the rest. Still, I absolutely adore these final few seconds before the main theme emerges. The little cello movements in the background and the gentle guitar – they fit together so perfectly.
21. Drowning in Amsterdam – Vanessa Peters
2:14 – I’m such a sucker for transitions. This one, where the slow and gentle bridge emerges back into the glorious sunlight of the verse is a particularly fine version of the genre.
20. The Fear (youtube link) – Lily Allen
0:15 – So many great lines in this song – including “I am a weapon of massive consumption” and “But it doesn’t matter cause I’m packing plastic, and that’s what makes my life so fucking fantastic” – but none are better than this one. She perfectly captures the sort of reckless self-indulgence that is so tantalizing about our society’s pop culture obsession.
19. Dying Day – Brandi Carlile
1:19 – One of the finest moments of the year. Her voice is just…beyond it all.
18. Just A Silhouette – Ex Lovers
1:34 – It just makes me so damn happy to hear that guitar line emerging out of the most carefree and earnest little interlude you’ve ever heard.
17. History Sticks To Your Feet – Modest Mouse
3:16 – The guitar tears everything apart – just like the staccato blade they used to wield back in the day.
16. Belated Promise Ring – Iron and Wine
1:06 – “Time may give you more than your poor bones could ever take” – It really can. I’ve been an Iron and Wine skeptic over the years, but this track is good enough to convince me that there’s something seriously good going on here.
15. Potemkin City Limits – Propagandhi
2:11 – The most strident musical defense of veganism this year. It rocks like the Propagandhi of old. I just love that guitar.
14. Daniel – Bat for Lashes
1:54 – Ethereal, gentle, with the beauty of a fog rolling in over the hills in the steely light of dusk. It’s the sort of song that settles over you like a diaphanous veil, almost ghostly in its weightlessness.
13. A Down and Dusky Blonde (youtube link) – God Help the Girl
1:29 – Stuart Murdoch at his very best. I’m tempted to put the final chorus, when all the singers get in on the action and you get a real crescendo. And while that’s probably the most *satisfying* part of the song, I somehow find this to be the purest part. There’s just something about the innocence in her voice.
12. Optimist Vs. The Silent Alarm (When The Saints Go Marching In) – Casiotone for the Painfully Alone
0:57 – Escape: the thrill of the adrenaline, and the nostalgia for a simple life that you can’t help but realize you’ve left behind.
11. Bad Romance (youtube link) – Lady Gaga
1:15 – This song has no right to be this good. This part in particular ought to be terrible. And yet, here we are, with one of the best pop hooks of the year layered right in with all the ga-ga ooh-la-las and everything else.
10. The Devil And Maggie Chascarillo – Lucero
1:58 – Ben Nichols can really belt it out, and that’s never been more obvious than here. It hits you so hard that you never even have time to notice that all this tension is over a girl from a comic book.
9. Me and Mary – Asobi Seksu
2:13 – Okay, so I ranked this last year, too. But I’m including it again because my opinion of it has gone up dramatically. It’s big and glorious and magical and the best moment is any time she’s singing, or any time the guitars are cascading around you. Which is to say: pretty much the whole song.
8. Dear Corinne – Ferraby Lionheart
3:15 – “If the wind rushes into my bones, picks me up and delivers me home.” I’m an absolute sucker for the thing he does with his voice when he says home. That little descending ripple…oh man, it gets me every time.
7. Oslo Novelist – Grand Archives
1:25 – I love love love the way the pedal steel sings along in the background. It makes an already beautiful harmony absolutely perfect.
6. Suicide – The Raveonettes
0:29 – Potentially, the best thirty seconds of the whole year. What a chorus! Absolutely stunning.
5. Gimme Sympathy – Metric
0:45- If the chorus for “Suicide” isn’t the best of the year, then it has to be this one. Oh, and obviously I’d rather be The Beatles. Duh.
4. Moth’s Wings – Passion Pit
1:11 – Aaaaaaaaaaah. What else can you say? Just play it loud, and play it over and over again.
3. Hindsight – Built to Spill
2:40 – ‘What about Canada?’ A question I’ve been asking myself all year.
2. Sad Birthday – Bombadil
2:09 – I just love how they emerge from that little drum bit. It makes me smile. A lot.
1. People Got A Lotta Nerve – Neko Case
1:25 – So, so good. The silvery voice, the jangly guitar. The buildup and release. Good god this is a great song. It was also my contribution the Contrast Podcast year-end list.