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A Medicine for Melancholy: The Fifth-Annual Year-End Album PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 16 December 2010 10:32

For the fifth consecutive year, I present my year-end album – a collection of personal favorite tracks from 2010.

The rules are simple: Each artist is limited to one song, and performers included in the previous four editions of this project are disqualified. (Notable exclusions because of this rule are Shannon Wright, Grinderman, and the Shondes.)

This year’s album is longer than past efforts, but it’ll still fit on a CD. (Previous editions of this project: 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009.)

As much as there can be a theme with a disparate collection, my 2010 album begins with and returns to loss. But I don’t think it’s a downer. Instead, I hope it’s a demonstration of music as therapy or a salve, even when (or especially when) it comes from pain – a medicine for melancholy.

Black Francis, “Bad News.” I can’t fathom how the Pixies frontman’s songs work with the 1920 silent film The Golem: How He Came Into the World (which I haven’t seen), but this straightforward, undeniably contemporary rock track is an effective summation of the gifts of the singer/songwriter/guitarist. Drawn from his soundtrack to that 90-year-old horror movie, “Bad News” out of context operates as a ne’er-do-well’s break-up song. The narrator begins with a sad acknowledgment (“Bad news / That’s all I bring to you”) but follows it with a mystical explanation, as if he’s cursed rather than responsible for his failings: “Something in the stars / Says that we are through.” On a foundation of synthesized strings but built with the standard guitar/bass/drums materials, the song’s real draw is Francis’ voice, full of feeling but shaded – a dawning self-awareness held at bay by anger and disbelief. (Available at BlackFrancis.net; listen here.)

Klaxons, “The Same Space.” Over two albums, the British band Klaxons has produced no fewer than 10 really good songs, all with the same basic aesthetic: energetic, poppy, propulsive, slightly psychedelic, slightly punky dance rock. Looser, more fun, and more adventurous than Bloc Party (whose Silent Alarm was one of my favorite records of 2005), Klaxons make music that’s catchy but built for discovery. On “The Same Space,” I focus my ears on one element (the vocal harmonies, for instance), but they keep getting distracted by the other goings-on. There’s something interesting in every nook and corner. (Listen here.)

Lissie, “Record Collector.” Rock Island native Lissie Maurus (now based in California) broke out over the past two years with a pair of Daytrotter.com sessions and the EP Why You Runnin’, but none of that prepared me for the accomplishment of her debut album, Catching a Tiger. Her expressive and charismatic voice was never in doubt, but the record represents a great leap forward in both songwriting and production. Among several standout tracks, “Record Collector” is my favorite, building on light clanging percussion and its clever play on the title: “But my blue eyes / Cannot see / That their real hue / Is probably green / I should keep records / of these things.” It detours into a slowed central section recounting a conversation with God that gives way to a fevered plea, her voice and the instruments racing back to the chorus – where the words’ initial regret has blossomed into confidence. (Listen and download here.)

The Chapin Sisters, “Boo Hoo.” An ethereal, odd juxtaposition of the childish, often mockingly used title and a sophisticated, earnest vocal treatment of the phrase – simple in concept and lyrics yet complex in its enigma and effects. There’s an unobtrusive, piano-based musical setting, but the voices of Abigail and Lily Chapin are mysteriously alluring in their phrasing and harmonies, creating a tension between immaturity and adult concerns. (Listen here.)

Arcade Fire, “Suburban War.” The Suburbs is showing up on a lot of best-of-the-year lists, and I won’t argue. This, with “Rococo,” is my favorite track from the record, a lovely, poignant, and exact mix of conflicting emotions. Wistfulness dominates from the triple-guitar opening and the vocal tone, but there are hints of regret and anger and triumph, too. It sounds nearly too vague, like experience twice filtered – a memory of a memory of growing up – but it’s verbally and sonically specific enough to work wonderfully. (Listen here.)

Joanna Newsom, “’81.” Have One on Me, the triple album from the idiosyncratic singer/songwriter/harpist Joanna Newsom, might be her most accessible work, but I found it overwhelming. I prefer Newsom in small bits, and as naked as possible; her vocals and harp by themselves cast an intoxicating spell. So I’m partial to the brevity and simplicity of “’81,” which is as pastoral as its opening metaphor: “I found a little plot of land in the Garden of Eden.” Newsom keeps the oddness of her phrasing in check, but that voice and harp remain unmistakably exquisite, evocative, and ancient. (Listen here.)

The Black Keys, “Too Afraid to Love You.” The elemental, primal blues duo uses harpsichord as this song’s primary instrument, and the effect is revelatory. Dan Auerbach’s voice wails into the darkness (“I can’t afford to lose one more teardrop from my eye”), and the whole track echoes with authentic, festering regret and yearning. Bass and drums pump the blood, with undercurrents of guitar and noise, but the committed vocals and plaintive harpsichord could nearly stand on their own. (Listen here.)

Tift Merritt, “Mixtape.” In contrast to the angst and absence that characterize this collection, this song is unfettered by anything beyond the feelings inherent in the construction of a love-born mix tape. There’s some understandable nostalgia for the cassette – impermanent, finite, analog – that doubles as a longing for lost youth, and the soft, pleasant musical setting is decidedly retro, rooted in the 1970s. But Merritt presents the song in present tense, and there’s an urgency in the strings and the build-up that gives it additional emotional pull. (Video here.)

The Dead Weather, “The Difference Between Us.” I’ve had a sense of Alison Mosshart’s visceral vocal power since The Kills’ 2003 song “Cat Claw,” but that duo’s relatively minimalist approach seemed to hold her back. In the supergroup the Dead Weather, her incredibly forceful vocals are matched by equally full and equally aggressive music, and the band’s pinnacle so far is Sea of Cowards’ “The Difference Between Us,” with most of its non-drum sounds falling somewhere between guitars and synthesizers. Mosshart devours the song – the listener is no match for her as she sings, “You can cry like a baby” – but Jack White and company keep up with her, and the return from the bass-led, shrapnel-filled intermission is startling in its warped perfection. (Listen here.)

Jaill, “Thank Us Later.” Opening with and propelled by a slide guitar that disappears once the vocals start, this track from the Milwaukee band Jaill is little more than a solid, well-performed, throwaway pop song, but it’s pretty terrific. You need a break after Mosshart and the Dead Weather. (Listen here.)

Peter Wolf Crier, “Hard as Nails.” In writing about this song in May, I said it “starts patient but anxious, builds and escalates, and closes with intertwined, almost pained harmonies.” Nothing is wasted in this track from Peter Pisano and Brian Moen, whose aesthetic is at once intimate and full, allowing for both quiet thoughts and loud feelings. (Video here.)

Sarah Harmer, “New Loneliness.” It begins with what seems like a metaphor: “There is just one apple on the tree / It isn’t like I hoped it’d be / Yesterday, when there was still you / I looked and I swear that I saw two.” But it becomes clear through the song that Harmer’s narrator is simply viewing the world differently, finding new things “to remind me of my new loneliness.” The mood is less sad than solitary, and the tone is measured instead of emotional; there’s a clinical eye for detail that expresses a certain numbness – awareness prior to pain. (Listen here.)

Retribution Gospel Choir, “Your Bird.” It has the noise, clatter, and furor of Low’s “Everybody’s Song” from 2005, but this track from the second album by Retribution Gospel Choir is a little cleaner, more direct, and more blunt. Alan Sparkhawk leads both bands – this trio trades Low drummer Mimi Parker for Eric Pollard – and his guitar and vocals are in fine form. The lyrics don’t amount to much – it appears to be a condescending anthem directed at wannabe rock stars – but the biting, spitting, screaming, majestic guitar would do Neil Young proud, and the ghostly falsetto croon at the climax pairs with it well. (Video here.)

Kingsley Flood, “Back in the Back.” The swamp sounds of the opening are funneled into a fiddle, and the lead track to the excellent Dust Windows quickly finds its poppy Americana groove, with that fiddle and a banjo backwoods elements in what begins merely as solid, expertly arranged songcraft. The pining singing and lonesome harmonies of the chorus elevate it, and the guitar and fiddle break segues into tremulous desperation: “I’m bound / I’m bound / I’m bound to drown.” (Listen here.)

Sun Kil Moon, “Australian Winter.” With no more than a nylon-stringed guitar and his voice, Mark Kozelek creates a spare but detailed landscape, as cold and desolate as the song’s title would suggest but hardly barren; his playing and singing reveal an emotional history. (Listen here.)

Kaki King, “My Nerves That Committed Suicide.” At the outset, gentle finger-picked guitar underscores a restrained slide guitar that recalls whale calls and occasionally trumpets, and for roughly half its running time, this instrumental track feels like it will be little more than tastefully constructed ambient textures. But then drums kick in, summoning a wave of warm, triumphant tones and an invigorating, bright melody held aloft by the slide. Despite a title suggesting poor mental health, this is a musical exercise in discipline, of choosing just the right sounds and moments for maximum impact. (Listen here.)

Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, “A Familiar Taste.” As with the Black Francis song that opens this collection, I’m at a loss to explain how Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross’ instrumental soundtrack to The Social Network makes any sense in the framework of the film (which it surprisingly does). The movie is made with evident joy and pointed wit, but the score is dark and anxious, typical of Reznor. Guitarist Adrian Belew (of King Crimson) supplies many of the squalls of sculpted noise, and those combined with the prominent beats make “A Familiar Taste” far more aggressive than you’d expect for such a talky movie. Poised comfortably between the background role of soundtrack music and a stand-alone piece, it’s smart and emotionally inert but oddly invigorating – and in that way is an excellent match for the Facebook founder at the film’s center. (Listen here.)

Yeasayer, “Madder Red.” Its big beats and synthetic sounds would make it at home in the cringe-worthy 1980s pop world, as would the tone of the lead vocals, as would the high-pitched-harmony hook. But Yeasayer’s unerring arrangement of these elements produces a miracle: a song that feels contemporary and fresh and organic and not the least bit embarrassing. (Video here.)

Wavves, “King of the Beach.” Simple, dumb, big, fast, loud, spastic, artless jangle rock from the mind and mouth and Nathan Williams. Those are compliments all, and I don’t mean to suggest that any of them is easy to pull off convincingly. The song’s title tells you just about all you need to know. (Listen here.)

Deer Tick, “Twenty Miles.” Without much real competition, my favorite song of the year – a simultaneously gorgeous and gruff love song executed with masterly precision and conviction. John McCauley’s one perfect detail – “And I think of your smile / I’m in love with your teeth” – is indicative of his writing skill, but the song is also populated with universal pronouncements of undying dedication, particularly the refrain: “If you’re runnin’ away / I’m lookin’ for you / And if you lost your way / I’m seein’ you through.” It’s corny, but it works for two reasons: “Twenty Miles” understands the requirements of real love, and McCauley’s voice (with its reedy vibrations) is utterly, shamelessly committed to its sentiments. The arrangement of guitar, cello, and piano is effectively emotive but would be nothing without his sincere pleas, assurances, whines, moans, and croaks. (Listen and download here.)

Laura Veirs, “Little Deschutes.” Following McCauley’s naked, stalker-y devotion, we close with Veirs’ understated, dreamy way of saying much the same thing: “I want nothing more than to float with you.” An organ at one point quietly recalls a carnival – suggesting a reverie – but that’s offset by the stately lead piano, a mournful guitar solo, and subtle strings. The loss is palpable in McCauley’s hands; here it’s implied but just as powerful. (Listen here.)

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