This is a personal list, a retrospective, not an attempt at a best-of. I can’t say that this was particularly a year of new music for me. Not in the sense that the music was produced or released in this year. (Well, some of it was.) But this is the music that moved me, that held me, that I fell into in 2009. (And, yes, those tactile metaphors are deliberate. Music-as-overwhelming-physical-sensation, that thing that makes me bang on the steering wheel as I drive to and from work, you know?)
Paramore — Riot
My musical year opened with the band Paramore. Their album Riot had ruled my winter. Here’s what I said about them in my Fandom in Review post for 2008:
“I love this band. I love this band. They are these, these kids out of Tennessee, and they play such goddam rock. And Hayley Williams, she sings, okay? She SINGS. Here’s the thing. Paramore is not emo. Not depressed. Paramore is not worried or scared or alone. Paramore is vibrant and alive, an exaltation in song of everything that blazes in light and hope. Sure, some of the songs are about loss and hurt. But at least half the songs on Riot are these battlecries of hope. Of not giving in to fear or depression, of not giving up idealism and strength.
I saw them in concert this summer. I grinned like a stupid idiot for days. I cried when Hayley sang “Let the Flames Begin.” I hopped up and down with the rock-horn-fingers like an absolute idiot when she said “I wanna see some hooooorrrrrrns!!!!!” I shrieked in glee. I was likely the second-oldest person there who had not brought teenagers. But I didn’t care. Those teenagers, that crowd, that band, those kids — they believe, with all their hearts, that they are going to make the world a better place. Starting right now.”
This was music to get a person through a cold, dark Minnesota winter.
“Circus,” by Britney Spears
Well, I wrote about this one, here. I still say that I think Spears is a damn sight more self-aware than people give her credit for. I wonder, in a montage-flashback-movie way, how Spears would have fared under the old Hollywood studio system. How MGM or Warner Brothers or Paramount would have handled her. I can see her in one of the old Warner gangster movies, a moll or a winsome waif to be rescued. Britney Spears, The Girl In Over Her Head.
“L.E.S Artistes,” by Santogold
I can say I hope it will be worth what I give up / If I could stand up mean for the things that I believe
This song grabbed me in the late winter days of February. I remember driving the kids to Gleason’s Gymnastics for open play morning, listening to this as the snow blew across the road in front of us. It is, as far as I can tell, a song about creative integrity.
In February I was working on getting my first comics made, trying to figure out how to find artists, trying to figure out how to pay them, and trying to write something worth seeing in print. I found this song spoke to me, even though it wasn’t entirely applicable.
“Paris is Burning,” by Ladyhawke
A great song about how lonely it is to be out partying. You know, there are so damn many songs about this. About how isolating it is to be there with your friends, drunk. About how devastatingly alone it is to have a crush on one of your friends, and they either don’t know or don’t return the feeling. About how everyone around looks happy and no-one has ever felt how you feel.
“Anti-Anti,” by Snowden
On the strength of my love for this song I downloaded the album from Zune. And none of the rest of the songs grabbed me the way this one did. But this one, “Anti-Anti,” stuck with me through the spring.
Gettin down in the town that makes no sound / You say there’s nothing wrong but I don’t hear it
It capture every dead-end moment in a dead-end social circle. The way all relationships end up crashing against the reality that no-one really likes themselves, let alone anyone else. The way everything sounds like it would be more fun if you were high, but then it’s all worse once you’re there. It’s not just ennui, it’s not merely a disaffection — it’s a depression that can’t be bothered to muster up ennui or disaffection.
“Future Foe Scenarios” and “Waste It On,” by Silversun Pickups
It was the snarling cry of “Future Foe Scenarios” that caught my ear initially, but there’s something about “Waste It On” that keeps me coming back for more. The circling drum-and-bass line underneath the lyrics inspires thoughts of repeating one’s actions, of never getting out of something. Of being trapped. Combine that restless feeling of imprisoned motion with the lyrics of waste, fitting it, and futility, and it’s a damn depressing song. Sung in the smoke-and-whiskey tones of Nikki Monninger, it’s an anthem for knowing you aren’t using your life wisely.
“Stuck on Repeat,” by Little Boots
Mmmyess. This is the kind of song that my partner, J, calls “whumpa-whumpa music.” Getting an earworm, getting a song stuck in your head as a metaphor for being unable to let go of a relationship. The beat of the song cycles (endlessly?) through, under and around the repeating lyrics of being stuck.
Now, a short digression.
I like a lot of music about being stuck. That always strikes me as odd, since I’m not particularly stuck or trapped or unhappy at this time in my life. But then I remember that when I have, in the past, felt stuck and trapped, the music I liked was music about taking action, usually angry or violent action. I listened to a lot of Korn for a while, a lot of Fred Durst, a lot of Linkin Park. In retrospect I would say that listening to music about people taking (violent) actions and expressing anger in forceful, demanding ways was connected to my refusal to deal with my own life. Feeling powerless, I liked music about power. Feeling out of touch with my emotions, I liked emotional music. Such is the power of hindsight!
So, I like a lot of music about people being stuck. I think that has something to do with the writing I’m doing. In early 2009 I was finishing up the Cool Kids scripts, plus Secret Steampunk Project. As I write this blog entry I’m working on a Secret Science Fiction Project. But all these projects have narrators who are — literally or figuratively — stuck. I like driving to and from work and listening to the music and thinking over the next part of the script. The, the numb emotions of stuck-music, the confusion and helplessness and sense of pulsing anger under the depression, these get my mind moving towards the characters I need to write.
I got to see No Doubt perform over July Fourth weekend. Paramore opened for them, which was the only reason I was going. But in advance of the show, No Doubt made their entire catalog of music available to anyone who had bought a ticket, downloadable legally and for free. Damn. This move floored me. I immediately downloaded everything and started listening to it. And No Doubt is still on the top bands of the 90s, easily and by far.
Being in the audience, on the floor, for that, was an odd sort of flashback to my youth. This is the sort of music I came to adulthood with. This is the sort of music I learned to dance to at First Avenue nightclub. Jane’s Addiction, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Dead Milkmen, Nirvana. Music to which you don’t exactly dance, you sort of lock your feet in a guarded position and try to keep your balance and people slam into you while everyone is hopping up and down. I am now thirty-six years old. My moshing days are so far behind me it is, honestly, hilarious. But I found myself at the No Doubt concert standing in the same position, locked and ready for a mosh pit that never formed. When No Doubt broke into “Don’t Speak,” and the whole venue seemed to be swaying in time, I realized I wasn’t the only person there who had brought the shade of their former self to see the show.
Lady Gaga — The Fame
Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” is one of the most depressing club dance hits I’ve heard. It’s a song about getting so drunk while out clubbing that the protagonist is nearly sick — clothes inside-out, lost phone, blackouts, an inability to track what is happening around her. Her only recourse, she decides, is to keep dancing and hope that things turn out okay. Wow. Night after night, this was one of the most requested hits on the local pop station, KDWB. I have to presume that the people requesting this song are not all idiots. Perhaps some of them like the music and don’t notice or care about the words. And perhaps some of those who know the words find them funny or clever. But I have to think that some of those requesting to hear this song knew exactly what it was. Desperate, lost, and numb. Why does this make it a big club hit? I wish I knew the answer to that.
It strikes me, just a little bit, as similar to the way songs about nuclear warfare were top ten pop hits when I was a kid. Singing about something that is awful, but uncontrolled. “Just Dance” sounds a little bit like that to me. Like there’s something inevitable about the protagonist getting so drunk she can’t stand, that she’s just hoping to ride it out and hoping that nothing too bad will happen to her. A lack of agency, a missing sense of control in the song. I find it fascinating.
“Heads Will Roll” and “Soft Shock,” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs
No matter what the lyrics are, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs always sound like they are singing about something terribly important. Something that demands my attention. I first heard their song “Maps” on Rock Band. I liked it enough to go buy their albums — Note to Music Industry Executives: If you let me listen to your songs for free, I am more likely to buy them — and then liked those enough to buy the latest release. “Heads Will Roll” has a pounding insistence, a footsteps-approaching-inexorably feeling to it. Wet streets, glitter over everything, the lyrics say. Heads will roll. Why? Over what? I have no idea. But the song strides forward without stopping, frog-marching the listening towards the inevitable conclusion.
The Ting Tings — We Started Nothing
This whole album is just . . . fun. I can’t explain better than that. It’s simply fun. A driving beat, some good hooks and repeatable lyrics. Fun music for singing along with while driving a car in summer sunshine.
Jennifer’s Body soundtrack
Out of solidarity with Needy and Jennifer, I skip the two Low Shoulder tracks when I listen to this album. Because I don’t want to be spending my time listening to the band that destroyed them.
Here’s the thing. I reviewed the movie here. I love it. And the soundtrack . . . the soundtrack was written just for me. “Kiss With a Fist” by Florence and the Machines? Love it. Panic at the Disco? Like them just fine. “Teenagers” by Hayley Williams? She’s the singer from PARAMORE, or course I squealed in glee on hearing this. Little Boots, Cobra Starship, Hole, Silversun Pickups — I own these songs already. “Toxic Valentine” and “Ready for the Floor”? New favorites.
Despite knowing that this is not true, I wonder if Diablo Cody possibly went to my college. Heck, she’s from Minnesota, even . . .
“New in Town,” by Little Boots
Little Boots came out with an album this year. I mean, in addition to Arecibo from last year. The new album, Hands, is pretty good. But the single, “New in Town,” is great. It’s an ominous song, looming around the listener/object of the narrative. It’s an electropop version of Guns n’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” once you get right down to it. And that is one of my favorite songs of all time.
“Good Girls Go Bad,” by Cobra Starship
I’d been reading about Gabe Saporta and Cobra Starship around the internets for at least a year now. When Zune suggested I might like the song, I downloaded it. Um. This is possibly the catchiest thing ever. And it has Leighton Meester, of Gossip Girl fame, singing along. How can I resist?
“Sober,” by P!nk
I didn’t watch the MTV Music Video Awards. I did, however, watch all the clips online the next morning. And when I saw Pink doing a trapeze act while singing this, I was hooked.
I listen to all of my music in the car. Often while driving with the kids in the back. So, frequently, they ask me what the songs are about. Usually the answer is, “wanting to have sex with people,” or “being mad at how a romantic relationship has ended.” For this song I got to say, “it’s about knowing you have a problem drinking too much alcohol, and hoping you can figure out how to stop.”
When my six-year-old daughter wanders the house singing “Good Girls Gone Bad,” or “Sober,” it’s totally my fault. But it’s NOT my fault when she or her brother sing Sondheim lyrics.
“Help I’m Alive,” by Metric
Oh, y’all. This song. This song. It’s one of the best songs I’ve ever heard about panic. But that’s not what drew me to it initially. What caught my ear is the hypnotic throbbing of the instrumentals under the words. That pulsing drum and guitar, the surging synthesizer chords, they speak of blood rushing in one’s ears, of adrenaline, of a body translated into music.
Paramore — Brand New Eyes
And then, this fall, Paramore released a new album. \o/ While this entire album didn’t grab onto me the way Riot did, the album is very, very good. It’s better musically, I think — more complex, with greater risks in range and tone. The single “Brick by Boring Brick” is catchy, it’s heartfelt, and the determination and muted anger in the “ba-dap-bap-ba-dap-ba-da-dap” part comes through perfectly well, despite the lack of lyric.
Like a lot of good rock songs, “Brick by Boring Brick” can be about a variety of things — it’s subject to interpretation. The story I hear in its words may not be the story you hear. but I like the story I hear, about the allure of escapism and the determination to stay grounded. I wonder, when I listen to it, if the band means it somewhat as a metaphor for their rising rock star.
Tegan and Sara — Sainthood
I’m not sure what to say about Tegan and Sara. I like their albums, possibly even love their albums, yet I don’t understand what they are singing about. People, certainly. Relationships, yes. But I have trouble unraveling what they are trying to say about relationships and people. Maybe that’s just it – maybe complication is their point and purpose. That people are hard work, that things don’t happen the way we want things to. That we falter and fail. Yet I think that they also sing of the quiet moments of contentment — not of the dizzying heights of falling in love, the pinnacle at the top of the roller coaster. Tegan and Sara sing of the glance across a quiet room, of satisfaction and the peace of being known by another. That’s the only way, I think, that they can so readily sing of the crushing pain when that person who knows you stumbles into betrayal.
Another brief digression.
These last few months of 2009 have been full of music about looking back on relationships that have failed. I think this is in part because the music is good, but also because of the stuff I’m working on writing. These characters are at moments of regrouping after failure. This is ideally suited to The Long Blondes and Tegan and Sara.
The Long Blondes — Someone to Drive Me Home
This is the fault or credit of writer Kieron Gillen, who wrote an issue of Phonogram based on The Long Blondes. The album is one of the best descriptions I’ve heard of being in relationships which make you a person you don’t like. The lyrics manage to convey that sense of recognizing what you’ve signed up for, what you’ve wanted, but also recognizing that it makes you smaller, lesser. And then the album goes on to describe how utterly painful it is to leave a relationship, even a not-very-good one.
Rhianna — Rated R
This is the album I have been listening to most recently, so it’s sort of stuck in my head. There is, of course, the press and controversy about the subject matter and its relation to Rhianna’s life. Leaving that aside, this is a great pop R&B album. But stuck in amidst the songs about abuse and temptation and fear is a song about love. It’s “Te Amo,” and it is arresting in both music and lyric. The Latin-based beat and rhythms underscores a love song in which the narrator turns down the advances of a woman who loves her. The narrator in the song clearly states that she loves this woman back — but just not that way. The song manages to convey the complexity of the relationship, with the narrator dancing in clubs under the spotlight so her friend/lover can watch her — an attempt, however misguided, to give what she can to this woman she cares for. It’s complicated, it’s sad, and on this album in particular it’s bittersweet. I know I listen to it and wonder what other course Rhianna’s life might have taken.
Filed under: Autobiography, Music Tagged: | britney spears, cobra starship, jennifer's body, lady gaga, ladyhawke, little boots, metric, Music, no doubt, paramore, pink, rhianna, santogold, silversun pickups, snowden, tegan and sara, the long blondes, the ting tings, the yeah yeah yeahs