The Songs That Messed Me Up This Year
As the end of the year approaches, people start talking about what’s going to make the best-of lists. That chatter got me thinking about what makes my top ten every year. It is rare that new releases constitute that list, but there’s no question that I (like everyone) have a soundtrack underpinning certain years or periods in my life. Having spent the last five days listening to only one song on repeat on my commute, I suspect when I hear it in the future, I’ll think back to the fall of 2011 in Toronto.
So I came up with a list this year of the songs that have made me the most crazy, either for musical or personal reasons, or some mix of the two. I don’t think any of them were actually released this year, but they have occupied the majority of my musical thinking since January.
10. “Vengeance is Sleeping,” Neko Case
Surprisingly, I’m attracted to the lyrics in many of these songs; I’m not normally a lyric listener. I promise myself all the time that I will learn the picking pattern of this song, which has a lovely waterfall effect that pours over the words. But it is the words that first caught my attention. I don’t know that they are explicitly mean, in fact Case’s characteristic poetic turns kind of obscure what the actual narrative of the song is, and it gets all gender mixed up (or is quoting a guy) near the end with “Not the man you thought I was.” The words do feel mean in a sense, though (I guess the title is a bit of a giveaway), and then they kind of melt into a bittersweet ending. Both are satisfying for thinking about all your own little mean thoughts or past affairs, those things that end up blurring together in a confused invention of reality in your head.
9. “Feel Like Going Home,” Matt Andersen
For all Andersen can be blustery and exciting in performance, there’s something that is inherently more satisfying about this simple arrangement for just his voice and piano. The remake of the Charlie Rich original features John Sheard on a soulful piano part that complements Andersen’s voice. And I think it has multiple functions: it’s a nice, dreamy piece for actually coming home alone and pouring a glass of wine on a rainy night, or it’s a rich commentary in the classic spiritual vein on the suffering weights felt by the downtrodden. Or it fits somewhere in the middle of those two disparate experiences.
(Oh, and it was released this year.)
8. “The Dolphins,” Linda Ronstadt
Were I ever to become a great singer, this would be one of the first songs that I’d sing. My dad always says, “Hey, have you ever listened to Fred Neil,” when we’re talking about 1960s music, and I still haven’t really gotten around to it. I was aware of “The Dolphins,” though, and the beautiful melody of it really shines with Ronstadt’s treatment. I don’t think we listeners know how hard a good melody is to come by until we hear something like this, and realize that everything else pales in comparison.
7. “Hallelujah,” k d lang’s version live
I actually have nothing to say on this one; the first entry I wrote on it was difficult enough.
6. “The Long Way Around”/ “Easy Silence,” Dixie Chicks
So, I go back and forth on the Chicks. I can’t listen to them endlessly, but I’m always pleased to find some more interesting things on my next pass through their material. I have always liked these two songs though, because if there’s one thing that the Chicks do well, aside from write kickass songs and play like kickass players, it is represent their generation of ambitious, smart, conflicted women. I can’t really identify with being totally gorgeous, talented, and wildly successful, but I can identify with the kind of paralyzing fear that accompanies eschewing the expected path for women in their 20s, and doing things in the most complicated, convoluted way possible. I think that’s true of most women, if not most people, my age, and many others beyond my generation – and that’s not to suggest those who follow a more traditional path are exempt from the existential angst supplied by our era’s rhetoric of endless possibilities.
“Easy Silence” is a nice partner to “The Long Way”; a love song to the man who understands when you’ve made a total mess out of your life or said yes to too many things and demands no returned emails, no explanations, and no makeup is something that always makes me a little teary when I hear it.
5. “Try a Little Tenderness,” Otis Redding
My amazing dissertation supervisor wrote an article on this song, is a Stax Records expert, and gets nominated for teaching awards when he does a lecture on this song. So, he’s got me convinced that it’s great. It is the perfect pop song – starts slowly and quietly and builds in intensity throughout. It’s got that anxious chromatic chord climb twice near the end of the song, and great little organ and sax interjections throughout. And nothing compares to Redding’s sweet melody and the way he shifts his timbre and delivery to the completely urgent, chaotic climax at the end. It’s a telling example of how Stax differed from the slick Motown sound of the era.
4. “Passing Dream,” Carolyn Mark and NQ Arbuckle
Well, I had to throw this in there, ‘cause it’s my wedding song. I think I’ve probably talked about it before. Initially, it reminded me of the sweet, quiet little moment when we got engaged, but over time, it has come to represent the comforting plainness of domestic partnership. It’s hard to get married – why don’t people talk about this more? – not just because of the ridiculousness that accompanies wedding planning, but because of the enormity of a love pledge that is to last one’s entire life, erasing a portion of one’s hard-earned independence. When I got over all of that and settled into nice, pleasant, regular married life, I realized that this song speaks to that just as much as it does to the romantic dreaminess of deciding to be together forever. Aw.
3. “Beyond the Reef” and “El Paso City,” Marty Robbins
Sigh, Marty Robbins. I finally found you this year. I knew all about “El Paso” and “Red River Valley” and “Devil Woman,” the songs that have made you a hero, but I didn’t know about these. “Reef” has such a great, evocative arrangement, that in any other context might be cheesy (background for a “visit Hawaii” commercial? Elvis movie?), but with Robbins’ voice is totally beautiful. And in case you were wondering about what happened after “El Paso,” “El Paso City” continues the story in just as smart and exciting a manner as the first edition, though maybe not with quite the same catchy melody.
2. “House of Valparaiso,” Calexico
Joey Burns might have the greatest voice in roots music right now. I don’t think he gets enough credit for his singing ability and range. That range is evident on “HOV,” where he begins with his characteristic whispery style in short phrases, and then continues in the middle section with a soaring melody that actually makes my heart skip. And, you know, Calexico is such an amazing group of musicians with incredible, careful arrangements; the right placement of trumpet lines and subtle, driving rhythms, but Burns’ voice always stands out above all of that for me. My only complaint about this song is that it’s too short. Bless the repeat function.
1. “Student Visas,” Corb Lund
I dare anyone to write a better song than this. The subject matter alone is gut-wrenching enough; add to that the melancholy, hollow guitar picking and echoing bass and percussion that exacerbates the isolation of the main character suffering from private post-traumatic stress after secretly supporting rebel groups in the Nicaraguan Civil War. The strings that enter partway through the song contradictorily augment the character’s plain-speakin’ way of dealing with the torturous experience, finishing with an eerie postscript that leaves the tension unresolved.
Okay, I have another #1.
1. “Static on the Radio,” Jim White and Aimee Mann
I think it’s pretty rare that a song totally messes you up the way this one did with me. I don’t know what it is, the winding, unfinished bass, the comforting, chugging thwack of the drum, the building texture of warm timbres, but every time I listen to this song I feel like I’m drowning. It’s a miracle I’ve gotten anywhere on time with this playing in my ears. White’s and Mann’s voices fit together so well, and they sing to each other like they’ve been thinking the same ideas for years.
I love the contrast of the lyrics too, oscillating between dreamy confusion and self-assured philosophical resolution:
“Was I dreaming or was there someone just lying here
Beside me in this bed…
And I know/It’s a sin putting words in the mouths of the dead…
And I know/The blind will sometimes lead the blind”
Or the really evocative, poetic lines:
“In the flicker of the neon light
She kissed me goodbye
In the mirror of her eyes
I saw my own reflection”
I’m not much for the trumpet solo, but at least it gives me a bit of reprieve in this 6 ½ minute song. Because after it’s done, the best line comes up:
“Don’t time change those inclined
To think less of what is written
Than what’s wrote between the lines”
And then their voices join in for the climactic coda. White gasps in for air as they trade lines in the chorus, creating a picture of two lovers entwined, breathing the melodies in and out of each other’s mouths, finishing with Mann’s seductive twist to finish her final line.
I could spend ages figuring out what musical elements of this song (and the others’) make me so crazy, but it would never be enough. That’s why I continue to study music, because I’ll never really know why I like it. We can analyze what we hear to death and still not find the magical thing that draws us in repeatedly.