Friday, December 30, 2011

Top 11 Songs of '11 (part one)

11) "How About You" - Ryan Beaver - (written by Ryan Beaver) - This is a heartbreakingly honest song about loneliness. The musical arrangement is, thankfully, sparse -- acoustic guitar and a beautifully played and perfectly supportive dobro -- forcing the listener to focus on the melody, lyric, vocals, and the mood they create. And the mood created is one of despair and melancholy. It's about two people who want to be each others' cure for loneliness even if only for a night. The setting is a bar, and a man conjuring up courage within himself to go over and talk to a girl who catches his eye. But he's never been the kinda man that could ever talk to a pretty thing like you. Tonight, however, he's at his breaking point: But tonight I don't give a damn, I'm at the point where I've got nothin' left to lose. A line like this is refreshing: in a world where it seems that to prove your manhood you have to show off how many girls you can talk to at the bar or bring home within a week, here is a guy who can confess that there is still something about a beautiful girl that wells up nervousness within him, causes him to lose his train of thought, to be unable to speak coherent words at all. So the fact that tonight none of that matters is significant. He's been lonely too long. He doesn't want to impress her with small talk or one-liners, he wants to appeal to her desire for comfort and connection as well; and with this honesty comes confidence, even though it may only be fleeting. Everybody's big on small talk, too scared to play their hands, caught up in lovers' games nobody understands. Why can't we just say what we really mean to? I'm lonely, how about you? If everyone was that honest there might be a lot less frustration between the sexes and a lot more understanding. Nah, that'll never happen. We're doomed to a cycle of meaningless platitudes and misunderstandings. But amongst all the sadness of "How About You" (maybe because Beaver understands it's a long shot too), the song does offer a little bit of hope.

10) "Violin" - Amos Lee - (written by Amos Lee) - I love Amos Lee. I think he is a great songwriter. But I think, with four efforts under his belt, he has yet to master the art of making a quintessential album. I always find myself discovering about three to five truly great songs within each album, while the rest I usually end up discarding. It's not that they are necessarily "bad" -- the great ones quite simply are just on another level. "Violin" is one of those great songs, released on his latest album (and the album with the best artwork, in my humble opinon) Mission Bell. And as with many great songs, its meaning is not abundantly clear; rather, it reveals itself a little more with each listen. The lyrical crux of the song is a plea of sorts: Oh God why you been hanging 'round in that old violin? While I been waiting for you to pull me through. On the surface it seems merely to be about the human experience of spiritual longing and questioning, but then you ask yourself, "Okay, so what kind of violin has God been hanging around in?" It's a line that can leave you contemplating for hours on long drives and sleepless nights. The haunting mood of the song is superbly enhanced by the ethereal background vocals of one Sam Beam of Iron and Wine fame. They are subtle, but once you realize they are there you cannot listen to the song without them standing out. He doesn't come in until a little after the 1:30 mark in the song; and he doesn't simply match Lee's words with his own harmonies, he sings the first words of each line in the second verse, beautifully holding out his last word through Lee's completion of the line. I don't know why I'm trying to explain it. Just listen.

 9) "Jubilation Day" - Steve Martin & Steep Canyon Rangers - (written by Steve Martin & Steep Canyon Rangers) - My two favorite instruments are the banjo and the pedal steel guitar, with the banjo edging out the pedal steel on most days. There is just something about the banjo that is transcendent, even within the simplest strum or plucking pattern. It can convey joy and heartbreak with equal aplomb. "Jubilation Day" has one of my favorite bluegrass banjo licks ever; it's what my ear immediately goes to whenever I hear the song, which is a humorous take on a break-up, a send-off-good-riddance-kiss-my-ass break-up song of sorts. The melody is happy, conveying "jubilation" that the relationship is over and that it really wasn't worth much in the first place. There are some funny lines, spoken by Martin over the crisp and stellar musicianship of the Steep Canyon Rangers, not to mention Martin's own wonderful five-string picking. Great lines include: In my dreams you wear a red cape and a pitchfork; I'll be over you by lunchtime; and Let's remember the good when you were out of town. But Martin's humorous lyricism takes a backseat to his musical chops here. He comes up with a banjo line that you simply can't get out of your head, and not only does it convey the happiness felt from the end of a relationship that was doomed from the beginning, it somehow conveys the humor of it all as well. (What good are we if don't have senses of humor?) I'm grateful that Steve Martin is using his comedic platform to spread the gospel of the banjo, and to more generally spread the word of bluegrass music as a whole. And he's doing it with one foot rooted firmly in tradition, and the other stepping forward to continue to bring bluegrass music to the hearts and minds of the modern music listener, hopefully turning them into lovers in the process. It simply doesn't get much better than the banjo, and musically, you'd be hard-pressed to find musicians more talented than those who pick out a living in a bluegrass band. "Jubilation Day" is a great example. (Great live performance of the song on Conan here.)

 8) "Creepin'" - Eric Church - (written by Eric Church and Marv Green) - The lead-off track from Church's 2011 album Chief starts with a lyric that makes me chuckle every time: Like a honeybee beatin' on my screen door, I got a little buzz and my head is sore. Apparently, the night before was a bit of a long one, and the sun creepin' up doesn't make it much better. "Creepin'," to place it under a genre umbrella for simplicity's sake, is certainly a rocker, but there is a sweet banjo lick that comes in during the first few seconds of the song that not only sounds great but surprisingly compliments the honeybee line quite nicely; somehow, it seems the banjo is lazily buzzing. The song is a about the inability of the narrator to get over a girl; her memory keeps creepin' up on him, and a byproduct of her departure is that he can feel the lonely and hear the crazy just a-creepin'. He's on the brink of breaking down, and heads to the bottle to forget. But it only brings back more of her memory, only magnifies the pain: Head to the future, run from the past, hide from the mirror, live in a glass; what dreams forget the whiskey remembers, kinda like molasses in late December, just a creepin'. Certainly the lyrics convey pain, but the song's general upbeat and rocking nature and the subtle splashes of lyrical humor, though not sending out glorious vibes of positivity and hopeful rays of sunshine, at the very least suggest that eventually everything will be alright, unless he simply chooses to live with strong drink and her memory as his constant companions -- which would be okay as long as there's a good song in the background. The production here is crystal, and as I've already mentioned about Chief in its entirety, the drums sound phenomenal. Here's to hoping Church continues to rise in popularity; though I didn't understand, much less appreciate, him at first, he's about as real and good as country radio gets right now in my opinion.

7) "If I Wanted Someone" - Dawes - (written by Taylor Goldsmith) - After "Million Dollar Bill" it was "If I Wanted Someone" that struck me on Nothing Is Wrong, especially the wonderful chorus: If I wanted someone to clean me up I'd find myself a maid, if I wanted someone to spend my money I wouldn't need to get paid, If I wanted someone to understand me I'd have so much more to say, I want you to make the days move easy. I think that last part says so much about the heart of what we want our girlfriends or wives or significant others to truly be. Life is better when its shared with someone you love, or as Chris McCandless of Into The Wild fame wrote in the margin of one of his books, "Happiness only real when shared." Life technically doesn't become easier, but it sure starts to move like it is when you know someone is by your side, especially if that someone, to be frank, doesn't nag and spend all your hard-earned cash. I've read where people compare the sound of this song to Jackson Browne, The Band, and Neil Young, but the classic this song is most reminiscent of to me is "Mary Jane's Last Dance" by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. The guitar riff at the beginning, at the very least, seems an obvious reference to "Mary Jane." To be honest, I haven't quite figured out the meaning of all the verses in "If I Wanted Someone" because the chorus is so perfect and unapologetic and catchy, but there are some terrific and thought-provoking lines that stand out: ...the only time I'm lonely is when others are around, I just never end up knowing what to say and I took everything I thought from what it means to be a man, we need words to be put to what we do not understand. It's one of those songs where I kind of know what it means on the surface, but there's another level of depth still yet to explore. At the same time, art or a song that exists for its own sake -- rather than as fodder for over-analysis and constant excavation in hopes of finding newer and deeper and more technical meanings -- is quite often what moves us the most. Or as songwriter Goldsmith so eloquently puts it: Like the feeling of a photograph before it's meanings all got told. There is something profound about mystery. (Nice acoustic version performed in an alley.)

6) "Promises, Promises" - Incubus - (written by Brandon Boyd) - An old high school favorite of mine, Incubus returned in 2011 with the album If Not Now, When? after a five-year hiatus. I've taken an interest in everything they've put out, though I'm not as rabid as I used to be, and decided to buy their latest despite negative reviews and after hearing the song "Adolescents." Apparently, because this album didn't "rock" as much as albums past, contained melodies more easily grasped, and in general "slowed things down" a little bit, critics (and probably many fans) thought they had sold out to appeal to your average mini-van driving soccer mom. Okay. All I know is that I really enjoyed If Not Now, When? and my favorite song from it is, you guessed it, "Promises, Promises." Brandon Boyd calls it one of his first "storytelling" songs. It's about a girl who's gotten so used to putting up walls that it's become hard for her to recognize when she meets a guy with the potential for something real. Boyd explains it best (taken from previous link): "And so, I used these metaphors in the song of, like, magic, like she's an illusionist, so she creates these illusions around her. And she's gotten so good at it that she meets somebody who potentially could be someone that could help her break through those illusions and those walls, she can't really recognize that he could be the real thing, or they could be the real thing, so she's asking him for one thing: 'Don't make me any promises.' " My favorite lyric in the song is: Baby could I be the rabbit in your hat? I'd swing if you'd hand me, hand me the bat. It seems to me like this guy has her figured out, knows how and why she's been playing the games and putting up the walls, but it's up to her to give in to the possibility of a real connection and let go of what her creating of these illusions comes down to: fear and the desire for control. By the chorus it seems she does, with, as Boyd says, one condition: I'm on the road of least resistance, I'd rather give up than give in to this, so promise me only one thing would you, don't ever make me promises. What makes the song for me is the beautiful piano line played throughout (certainly different for Incubus) that only adds to the ache and longing contained in the overall melody. Add to that the fact that Brandon Boyd is one of the best, if not the best, rock singers/vocalists of modern times, and the song really is a conglomeration of many elements coming together to compliment each other and make a whole. The linked video to the song above is a flawless live studio version. And believe me when I say that the band, especially Boyd, whom I've never heard go off key, is just as good live.

Top 11 of '11 (part two) arriving soon.


  1. I'm a huge Amos Lee fan, and my daughter recently "discovered" his song "Violin". We were talking about what the song might mean (she has a different interpretation than I do), I Googled it and landed here on your blog. Just wanted to comment that what you said about Amos not yet having a quintessential album isn't entirely accurate. I find that most albums only have 3 to 5 good songs on them, no matter who the artist may be. I think Mission Bell IS his quintessential album, so far. The problem (if you want to call it that) is that Amos is very difficult to pigeon-hole as an artist and musician. Windows are Rolled Down has probably enjoyed the most air play but isn't indicative of the majority of his catalog. I think his lyrics have so much depth they don't always lend themselves to what the masses want to hear on a regular basis. And that's okay with me. Amos is like the secret handshake of true music lovers. I only hope he can earn enough money to continue doing exactly what he's doing without caving in to the pressures of "pop music". Thanks for your observations on Amos, and "Violin"!

    1. Thanks for your comment and for reading!