Top 10 of 2011 - Best Little Bits In Music
People doing Best of 2011 things usually go for albums and songs. But sometimes the best bits in music are the little moments, the bits that last for a few seconds. So I’m going to talk about some of the little moments that mattered to me.
Cass McCombs – ‘County Line’ (from Wit’s End, 2011)
‘County Line’ sort of sounds like yacht rock, what with its early ‘80s electric piano sound, the fancy chords, the complicated melody, and McCombs’ higher register vocals. Except that, the way McCombs does it, it sounds like yacht rock made by someone having a serious depressive episode. This juxtaposition between the smooth sounds and McCombs’ desperate loneliness pulls at my heartstrings. And it never pulls at them more than when McCombs follows up the line “You never even tried to love me” with a "whoa, oh oh oh oh" (for the first time at 1:04 in the recording on 'Wit’s End'). McCombs wrote the song, and so wrote the "Whoa oh’s". But the way he sings them, he sounds so resigned, as if the "Whoa, oh"'s are beneath him and he can’t quite bring himself to try and fill them with life.
Nicki Minaj – ‘Super Bass’ (from Pink Friday)
The kind of pop music that sits at the top of the charts these days is very often all about losing yourself in the crowd in the Club; thus the autotune obliterating the personality of the vocals; the melodies that could be sung by anybody; the disco-beat backing tracks that sort of all sound the same. And so it’s a testament to just how big Nicki Minaj’s voice is that when you hear ‘Super Bass’ that her personality doesn’t just poke through the sound of the song (which generally follows the pop formula, but which also somehow reminds me of ‘Hyperballad’ by Bjork). Instead, her personality completely obliterates the rest of the song. Nothing else in the song matters except for that voice, and the sense of not having any idea what will come next.
It was disappointing to me that it never quite got to #1 in Australia and so I never got to write about it for my Number Ones column, though it has already gone triple platinum in Australia. The most exciting thing about the song for me is how she tries on about half a dozen different voices over it's length, all of which somehow still retain her personality.
There’s 1) The little tendrils of R&B vocal melisma which start the song; 2) The dreaminess in the way she sings the best hook in the song (‘boom bo-dum boom boom bo-dum boom bay’); 3) The way she apes autotune in the middle 8; 4) The confident clippiness of her voice when she raps “When you come up in the club you’ll be blazing up”, which for some reason reminds me of Kanye West’s flow. But the two best voices she use come one after another, and the transition between the two at 0:32 is the kind of moment this list is made of. When she sings “And yes you’ll get slapped if you’re looking, ho”, it has the same kind of anger and force that she had on her verse on Kayne’s ‘Monster’; but suddenly she swaps voices and she’s almost coquettish as she sings “I mean, excuse me, you’re a hell of a guy, I mean my my my my, you’re like pelican fly”.
(A live acoustic version – only thing I could find on YouTube)
Mike Viola – ‘Closet Cutter’ (from Electro De Perfecto, 2011)
Mike Viola’s voice reminds me of Neil Finn or Jeff Tweedy, with its ability to simultaneously sound pure and sound gritty; I hear it and wonder why he isn’t as well-known as, say, Aimee Mann or Rufus Wainwright. He’s probably best known for being the kind of behind-the-scenes producer/songwriter type, having written songs for Mandy Moore and for the movie Walk Hard, as well as singing the theme tune to That Thing You Do!. And hearing Viola’s professional muso smarts as they illustrate an incredibly bleak tune about a propensity for self-harm is pretty unnerving. After all, the first line of the song is “stuck my fingers down my throat to start my day, start my day – what a way to start my day” – and instead of the kind of emo guitar squalls you’d expect with lyrics like that, the backing music is pure Beatlesque pop. Which in my mind makes it so much more affecting: the bright melodies and harmonies only make the darkness seem darker. And perhaps that’s why the most affecting bit of the whole song is when he sings, at 2:54-3:00 (on the studio version – the YouTube above is a live acoustic version) “don’t blame your parents, blame the Beatles and the Rolling Stones“; when the harmony vocals swell up as his sings ‘the Beatles’, you get the distinct impression that, while he says to blame the Beatles, he is really blaming the parents. And it sends shivers down my spine.
Gillian Welch – ‘Dark Turn Of Mind’ (from The Harrow And The Harvest)
I could very easily have filled this list with songs from The Harrow And The Harvest, an exceptionally strong album in which Welch and her partner Dave Rawlings really nail their sound into tightly constructed folk songs which never outlast their welcome. But ‘Dark Turn Of Mind’ was the one that originally caught my attention, and made me explore the rest.
The song is so elegantly constructed that it could be the kind of Tin Pan Alley standard that you could imagine Frank Sinatra covering in the 1950s, back when he could drain the emotion out of you with his voice alone. But strangely, the bit of the song I always find myself waiting for is the very last note on the guitar, at 4:00 or so, after Welch has finished singing the title of the song for the last time.
It’s strange to pick it as one of my top 10 songs one where I literally can’t wait for the song to be over! But the reason I can’t wait for it to be over is because, up until that point, Welch and Rawlings never let the song stand still musically. The end of the chorus is always subverted, never sounds finished and rested. The end of the song is the only time where it finally comes to a rest, complete, where it finally resolves the tensions it had been building up. And when it finally hits that last note, it feels damn good indeed.
Dawes – ‘If I Wanted Someone’ (from Nothing Is Wrong)
Dawes, on the surface, are amiable-enough alt-country along the lines of My Morning Jacket or Fleet Foxes. Musically, ‘If I Wanted Someone’ is a total Neil Young pastiche, and a fairly accurate one too – there’s the famous Crazy Horse drum beat, there’s the overdriven guitar sound, there’s the CSNY harmonies. But what makes it special in my eyes is how great Taylor Goldsmith’s lyrics are, full of hard-won wisdom and clear-headed, thoughtful ideas – these are lyrics which subvert the sound of the music.
‘If I Wanted Someone’ is Neil Young pastiche, sure, but it’s a Neil Young pastiche because Goldsmith is challenging the lyrics of Neil Young’s ‘A Man Needs A Maid’. In 1971, at least, Young was convinced that as far as women were concerned, men mostly need a maid to clean after them – possibly losing a fair few feminist fans as a consequence. But Goldsmith’s chorus suggests this is rubbish, that different men are different – some might want or need a maid, but he wants someone to “make the days go easy”.
But the best moment in the song comes just before the chorus, at 1:02-1:11, when Goldsmith sings “but the only time I’m lonely is when others are around – I just never end up knowing what to say”. There’s something about that line that resonates maybe a little too deeply with me – and I suspect an emotion that a fair chunk of you will feel this way around Christmas as you have to communicate with family members with which you ultimately have little in common, however much you love them.
(Continued next page)
Join the conversation below