Amplifier magazine had me pick some favorite songs last year. Hear goes…
Joe Henry – â€œOur Songâ€ (Civilians)
The greatest lyrics I heard all year, the kind where you can’t tell if they arrived fully formed in a flash of genius, or if they were painstakingly carved out of stone over the course of a lifetime. Personal, patriotic, barely-polemical, deeply wounded, defiantly hopeful. I don’t need to include a Randy Newman song on this mix tape now because Joe Henry’s song is so clearly influenced by Newman’s brilliant, cynical-optimist tone. It makes me want to cry. Only someone who truly loves his country could sound this disgusted and heartbroken.
Animal Collective – â€œWho Could Win a Rabbitâ€ (Sung Tongs)
By contrast; I find it hard to imagine these lyrics mean anything at all. But that is OK. When these guys get down to the business of writing actual songs, they’re hard to ignore. This particular track makes me curious about the personalities of the band. It conjures the image of a gaggle of mad children frolicking free in some hidden, government-funded, Technicolor romper room. As they dance and sing, plastic flowers grow in the wake of their movements. Giddy and menacing at the same time.
Nilsson – â€œMiss Butter’s Lamentâ€ (Aerial Pandemonium Ballet)
Lately I’ve been obsessing over the dulcet tones of syrupy orchestral pop as well as the dark clank and clamor of junkyard Americana. Nilsson Vs. Tom Waits. For this mix, the former wins out, and probably always will. Virtuoso vocals, the hopeless arc of some sad Victorian tale, awesome rhythmic tension; but never taking itself too seriously, either. This a major compositional achievement, and I think in the end it was only included as a “bonus track”. That is how good Nilsson was. Bastard!
Rachel Taylor Brown – â€œOrmoluâ€ (Ormolu)
A song about a fake golden baby from the perspective of a strained and ambivalent mother. Creepy, but entirely human. This whole album reminds me of PJ Harvey’s beautiful “White Chalk,” but with better lyrics and a more sophisticated use of chords and dissonance. Ormolu is a sparse and haunting “piano ballad” (though itâ€™s really more like Lieder) with tonality stretched to the Pop limits. And then there is that one crescendo of wailing vocals towards the end! Damn. Like if a Scottish Banshee took voice lessons from a Gospel singer.
The Kinks – â€œThe Way Love Used to Beâ€ (The Great Lost Kinks)
I love this one because it seems so uncharacteristically Kinks. Itâ€™s more like a Paul McCartney song about nostalgia and regret, but with Ray Davies’ earnest vocals. The string arrangement is amazing, too. Not sure who scored it or who produced the session as a whole but this song demonstrates the craft and care I wish the Kinks employed with all their material. Another tear jerker.
TV on the Radio – â€œI Was a Loverâ€ (Return to Cookie Mountain)
Don’t know if those are distorted trombones in the beginning, but I’m jealous as hell of whatever kind of thing created such a cacophony. I love how these guys manipulate sound and tension, but stay focused on melody and form at the same time. Pretty kick ass beats, too. They never condescend to the listener, and when the melody at the end rides atop an ambiguous flood of noise, the band is certain you’re not lost, but floating along with them. TV on the Radio and Battles need to release an officially sanctioned mash-up album.
Thelonious Monk – â€œBlue Monkâ€ (Monk’s Blues)
Once upon a time there was a musical element called “melody” and T. Monk was the king of its domain. I love that he was a Jazz guy who favored the tune above all else; above solos, feel, even skill. His use of chromaticism and syncopation is still unmatched. He was like America’s Wagner, and only slightly more likeable a guy from what I’ve read. His “sloppy,” angular piano style was pretty rad, too. He and Marc Ribot would have made a good pair.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer – â€œTaste of My Loveâ€ (Love Beach)
My friend Jeff put this song on a tour-mix he made for the Fear of Heights. He added the disclaimer that â€œTaste of My Loveâ€ is, hands down, the single worst Rock song of ALL time. His estimations did not disappoint. This colossally desperate mistake in musical history is filled with so many horrid audio assaults that your ears tingle with pleasure. Laughter soon follows. But unfortunately, the laughter will cause you to miss the next tasteless moment of classless come-ons. The lyrics border on sexual harassment.
Here is a sampling:
Call up room service, order peaches and cream
I like my desert first – if you know what I mean.
Yeah, taste it, taste it, taste it.
Take all you need from the taste of my love.
To be fair, this was their last album and they made it simply to fill their contractual obligation. But still, at that point, why even bother rhyming?
Daft Punk – â€œDigital Loveâ€ (Discovery)
My friend Dave introduced this song to me, saying that it has THE best synth solo of all time. He was correct. Itâ€™s so over the top and fun that you wonder how much further they can take it. And, of course, further it goes. This whole album guarantees a smile. The Keytar lives! Plus, that video with the hands is pretty sweet.
John Vanderslice – â€œLunar Landscapesâ€ (Cellar Door)
Out of all the albums I’ve heard since the new millennium, I’ve listened toÂ Cellar DoorÂ the most. Vanderslice is a really creative, terse arranger. His characters are always vivid and untrustworthy. His voice is always distressed. I like the song “Pale Horse” best, but â€œLunar Landscapesâ€ is a far better mix tape conclusion. Itâ€™s a soothing, melancholy lullaby, sung to a horse that is about to be put down. Its sound matches the lyric so fittingly that you can feel the gray shroud of sleep closing in from all around. Itâ€™s not frightening. Itâ€™s warm and full of love.
The new album is finally finished. It’s called “Movie Theatre Haiku” Â and it’s a collection of songs about measuring distances. The official release is in late March, but you can pick up a copy now by clicking here. Also, we’ve gotten some great advance press from local papers like the Portland Mercury, the Willamette Week, and the Oregonian.
Also, keep an ear out. “User-Friendly Guide” from the upcoming album has been serving as the theme song for the CD Baby DIY Musician Podcast. I’ve also contributed a brand new song to the compiliation (D)early Departed: True Lies in Song Unearthed from Lone Fir. Portland artists such as Storm Large, Ritchie Young, Nick Jaina, Pete Krebs, and mony others each wrote a tune about a real live dead person buried in the historic Lone Fir cemetery. It was a blast. My tune was about Capt. Jim Turk, a scoundrel and crime lord who introduced the practice of crimping to Oregon and even Shanghaied his own son. A live recording of “The Love I Fake” from Drunken Dance was included on Mississippi Studios Live: volume III alongside songs by the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses, the Everybodfields, and Weinland. Lastly, whenever you see an AMC commercial for a horror movie, listen closely for my song “Mantra of a Melting American” (from this is the) playing in the background. Boo!
Planning a Spring tour now. Stay tuned.