Pop/Ed

We’re all busy working on our Best Albums of 2011 lists, and as a preview of sorts, I thought I’d share my favorite songs of the year. Notice I didn’t say “best songs” and in some cases, these bands aren’t even close to being on my top album list. But, these are my poppy, hook-laden favorites (in no particular order)…

  • Thurston Moore – Benediction
  • Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – Senator
  • Fucked Up – The Other Shoe
  • Cass McCombs – County Line
  • Wild Flag – Romance & Endless Talk
  • Alessi’s Ark – Time Travel (really the whole damn album)
  • Death Cab for Cutie – Doors Unlock and Open
  • Tune Yards – Bizness
  • Wire – Please Take (really the whole damn album)
  • MGMT – I Found a Whistle, Only a Shadow (Daytrotter Live Sessions)
  • The Weeknd – House of Balloons – Glass Table Girls
  • EMA – Marked
  • Mogwai – Mexican Grand Prix
  • Tom Waits – Chicago
  • Horrors – I Can See Through You
  • The Strokes – Machu Picchu
  • Girls – Just a Song, Vomit
  • PJ Harvey – Bitter Branches (really the whole damn album)
  • Decemberists – Calamity song
  • Dum Dum Girls – There is a Light
  • The Kills – Future Starts Now
  • Beastie Boys – OK & Lee Majors Come Again
  • Destroyer – Chinatown
  • Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Into Your Alien Arms (really the whole damn album)
  • Deerhunter – He Would Have Laughed (Live)
  • The Field – Burned Out
  • Atlas Sound – My Angel is Broken
  • Ice Age – White Rune
  • Sallie Ford – Cage
  • St. Vincent – Northern Lights (really the whole damn album)
  • TV On the Radio – Second Song
  • Typhoon – The Honest Truth
  • M83 – OK Pal

Just over a year ago, I learned about Vic Chesnutt’s suicide on the radio:  “Those of us who work on Fresh Air were upset and shocked…” The usually unflappable Terry Gross sounded shaken by the news, having interviewed the enigmatic singer just a month prior. He had told her the story of his southern childhood and its sudden about-face when he was partially paralyzed in a one-car accident. He had played “Flirted With You All My Life,” explaining that the intensely personal and bittersweet tune was a “break-up song with death.” He had even told her about his past attempts at suicide, joking, “it didn’t take.” Vic’s ability to craft stories with quirky wordsmithing and self-deprecating humor came through just as much in his interview as in his song-writing, and Terry Gross, like so many fans he left behind, was clearly charmed.

I first came across Vic Chesnutt in 1993’s Drunk, a carousing album that showcases Vic’s style in full-blown fury. An acquired taste for some listeners, for me his strained vocals over minimalist guitar chording (both aspects were due to the physical consequences of his accident) created a mesmerizing effect. This album swings from eccentric musings to raucous outbursts, and it brought to mind what would happen if David Sedaris were locked in a room too long with Tom Waits and Shane McGowan of The Pogues. Witness the fucked-up glorious spectacle in “Gluefoot”:  “Cross my heart/ Cross my eyes/ Stick a needle in my thigh/ Drop kicked my unscrewed lid and fiddled fiddled fiddled with what’s inside/ A rusty mass of mechinations….” The title track that follows is what might result if that same crew crashed an AA meeting. Denial it ain’t.

I was lucky to see Vic in concert several years later, sharing the stage with his friend Kristen Hersh (of Throwing Muses and 50foot Wave). They took turns playing acoustic songs, one building on a theme from the other.  Both were remarkable, but even Hersh would acknowledge that her poetic mania seemed dim alongside Vic’s scintillating wit, as he joked with the audience and sketched stark images with his lyrics. It is perhaps this latter quality that has attracted the most attention over the years—some have likened his songs to classic southern novels. Whether this is apt or not, he certainly was able to evoke a sense of time and place as so few of his contemporaries can (my favorite example is 2009’s “Sewing Machine,” recalling a childhood in a simpler time).  His songs are sometimes melancholy testaments to decay (as in “Degenerate”), at other times veering toward the downright goofy (“…we were laughing at Dapper Dan/ We were happy as giant clams…We were bumping our birth-marks/ we were happy as lilting larks” –“Society Sue”). As Michael Stipe pointed out, it is the unusual turns of phrase at the core of his songs that make them so oddly compelling. (more…)