Sunday, December 20, 2009

Top 10 of the past 10: Songs

What makes a good song? A lot of this lies in personal taste and in choosing this list each of these songs seem to connect with me in some sort of way. I dig songs with meaningful lyrics and some on this list mirror that. I dig songs that convey a particular emotion especially well, some of the songs on the list reflect that. I also dig songs with a groovy guitar rhythm or layered, dense instrumentation and some of the songs reflect that. Pretty hard to pick 10 songs from 10 years of music listening (my online music stats tell me I've listened to over 50,000 tracks in 3 years....) There's no rhyme or reason but here's my top 10 songs released in the past 10 years.

If you click the link you can hear the song over at Grooveshark! Except for #8 :( Sorry.

1. Sufjan Stevens - John Wayne Gacy, Jr. - Illinoise (2005)

Lyrical snippet: "He dressed up like a clown for them/ With his face paint white and red/ And on his best behavior/ In a dark room on the bed he kissed them all/ He'd kill ten thousand people/ With a sleight of his hand"

Sounds Like: Poetry, meet history. History, meet song. Song, meet greatness.

Off the award winning disc Illinoise, this track is based on the life of Chicago's 1970s serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr. He killed a couple dozen young men/boys and buried them under the floorboards of his house. When he was discovered the neighbors were in shock because they all loved him and thought he was a swell chap because of the great block parties he would throw where he would dress up as a clown for the kids. This track is powerful in its sparse storytelling poetry detailing the serial killer's exploits but the whole song hinges on the last lines which state: "And in my best behavior/ I am really just like him/ Look beneath the floorboards/ For the secrets I have hid". The song speaks to the inherent evil of man, how we sensationalize certain crimes, and how we all have things hidden which we don't want exposed. The way he weaves the storytelling, the music, and the message is masterful and is hands down my favorite song of the decade.

2. Iron & Wine - Such Great Heights - Such Great Heights EP (2003)

Lyrical snippet: "I am thinking it's a sign/ that the freckles in our eyes are mirror images/ and when we kiss they're perfectly alligned/ And I have to speculate/ that God himself did make us into corresponding shapes/ like puzzle pieces from the clay"

Sounds Like: Heartbreakingly sparse guitar meets deep whispery vocals that hit all the right notes.

It's not even Sam Beam's (the man behind Iron & Wine) song but it's the perfect fit. It's a remake of the Postal Service song and appeared on the same disc and ended up blowing the original out of the water. It's the equivalent of Johnny Cash taking NIN's "Hurt" and owning it; Sam does the same. It has a soft, aching feel that emphasizes the beautiful (though slightly cheesy) writing. Sam has a ton of other good songs but this one just seems to be one I keep coming back to and listening to over and over again.

3. Josh Ritter - Girl in the War - The Animal Years (2006)

Lyrical snippet: "You gotta rock yourself a little harder/ Pretend the dove above is a dragon and your feet are on fire"

Sounds like: Anti-war protest song mixed with biblical and romantic imagery

What the heck is this song about? Is it about the guy who has a girl in the war who has "eyes like champagne" and who he wants back? Who are these Pete and Paul guys who are talking back and forth to each other? Who is the dove above and why does we need to pretend he's a dragon?

Can't say I am sure but I love this song! I see it as a call to action: from the beginning where the biblical "rules" are the firs to go to the call to "rock yourself a little harder" it seems to call for action rather than simple faith, and I dig that. Besides, who wants lyrics that simply tell you what the message is. Beyond the lyrics the music is simple yet elegant, it seems more like a love song than a protest chant.

4. Sufjan Stevens - You are the Blood - Dark was the Night (2009)

Lyrical snippet: "You are electricity and you're light/ You are sound itself and you are flight"

Sounds like: Pure, unadultered epicness.

I know, when I started I thought to myself that I wasn't going to put two tracks from one artist on the list but I couldn't help it. In fact, I struggled to not put more of my Sufjan favorites on the list! But this one is different from the others. First, it's new. Sufjan hasn't released a regular full-length album since Illisnoise in 2005. This song off the "multiple artists" album is the newest release from him. It's also different in that there's not many lyrics - it's mostly music.

And it's the music that brings it to this list. It's an epic 10 minutes and 14 seconds that soars and then drops, rises and then falls. It explodes in a cacophony of sound to work down to the bare piano. It mixes folk, indie pop and symphony music with a background electronica beat. Every time you listen to it something else comes out. It's brand new so it hasn't stood the test of time that the others on the list have but I'm just digging it so much right now that it had to make the list - It's brilliant.

5. U2 - Yahweh - How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb (2004)

Lyrical snippet: "Take these hands, teach them what to carry/ Take these hands, don't make a fist/ Take this mouth so quick to criticize/ Take this mouth, give it a kiss/ Yahweh, Yahweh/ Always pain before a child is born/ Yahweh, Yahweh/ Still I'm waiting for the dawn"

Sounds like: A song all church worship teams should learn.

It's one of U2's most explicitly faith-based songs and normally I prefer a little more guesswork and artistry but, lucky for me there's that too. It's a call to action but it's also the call of a questioning soul who looks to the pain and the dark and asks 'Why?' with the knowledge that the answer is not there but will be revealed in due time - the pain before the child is born. We sang it at our past church in Victoria and I loved it because even though it's more explicit and didactic than most of what I listen to it still has nothing on your average church song!

6. Bright Eyes - Land Locked Blues - I'm Wide Awake It's Morning (2005)

Lyrical snippet: "And there's kids playing guns in the street/ And one's pointing his tree branch at me/ So I put my hands up and say/ "Enough is enough/ If you walk away I'll walk away/ (and he shot me dead)"

Sounds like: A long winded, rambling lament abou the state of the world.

I've been told you either love or hate Conor Oberst (the man behind Bright Eyes) and his slightly whining, wavering voice but I think I'm somewhere in the middle - though this song I love! It's the images that he pens that draw me. The image of kids playing and mimicking grown-ups, the image of what he calls a "televised war", playing "musical graves", etc... It's a protest song for GWB's "televised war" and a cry for some sense to made of the world. As Oberst states though, there's no sense to be made. I often feel that way and this song taps into that.

7. Wilco - Jesus, etc... - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

Lyrical snippet: "Tall buildings shake/ voices escape singing sad sad songs/ tuned to chords strung down your cheeks/ bitter melodies turning your world around"

Sounds like: Private musings penned at night while in a particularly introspective mood.

Another song that I don't or can't pin a particular meaning to but every time I hear it the images and words strike me. It's both sad and soft and speaks of longing to me. I can dig that. I guess you just have to hear it to understand...

8. Jeremy Fisher - Lay Down (The Ballad of Rigoberto Alpizar) - Goodbye Blue Monday (2007)

Lyrical snippet: "Let my eye be the jury and the judgement/ Let my gun be the one to set the score"

Sounds like: News report meets ballad.

Another song that tells a story, this time the one of Rigoberto Alpizar, a Costa Rican American who was shot down in Miami airport because security thought he had a bomb. Turns out he didn't. It's a bit of a protest song against the powers given to people to identify certain bodies as threats and has a more modern, practical tie-in in light of the recent taser death in the Vancouver airport. Ironic because is Jeremy Fisher lives in Vancouver and the song was released right before the Vancouver incident.

9. M. Ward - Sad, Sad Song - The Transfiguration of Vincent (2003)

Lyrical snippet: "Oh I went to the whale, I said killer whale please/ what do you do when your true love leaves?/ He said, I only have but one trick up my sleeve/ I sing [a sad song] over and over 'til she comes back to me"

Sounds like: A lilting, shuffling sad, sad song.

No real lyrical significance to this one but I love the shuffling groove that this song has. It follows a pattern as the singer asks various figures how to deal with losing his true love. It just progresses nicely, feels so sad and almost feels like a modern take on a sort of ancient chant.

10. Dave Barnes - Love in the Remains - Three then Four (2002)

Lyrical snippet: "I can't tell you how this hurts me so/ See, without you I'm half of me/ So with the same mouth I used to put you down/ I offer up this apology"

Sound like: A boy at home trying to say sorry with just his guitar and his raw emotion.

Just Dave and his guitar. Nothing else. Nothing too fancy here but I relate to the emotion, the realization that you screwed up and there's simply nothing you can say to make it right in that moment. Yet, there's love in the remains and the song ends saying "It takes two to rebuild". Yep, been there.

So that's my top ten songs released in the past 10 years. Honorable mention goes to:

Ryan Adams - Desire; Belle & Sebastian - The Blues are Still Blue; Monsters of Folk - Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.); and at least a half dozen other Sufjan songs.


Anonymous said...

really liked your post, so i made a playlist for it:

The Renegade Librarian said...

Great list, brother! I, too, love Sufjan and that Gacy cut is pretty haunting, but incredibly beautiful.

The irony of the lyrics in "Jesus Etc." (as you know, Wilco is one of my very favourite bands!) is that the original release date for YHF was September 11, 2001. Creepy, eh?

As for M. Ward, he was a new discovery for me in 2009 and I love all his albums. The latest, 'Hold Time', is killer as you probably know.

And U2? Well, enough said. However, you should ask your wife about them.