I have this Sam Brown (aka Exploding Dog) signed and framed print in my office directly in front of my desk. It’s called “I Love This Music.” I look at it all day long.
I still love this music, though — in some ways — 2011 may have been one of my least-musical ever; singing “Twinkle, Twinkle” to Maggie notwithstanding, I recorded just one song (“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”), played only two shows (Martin Rivas’ Backscratch Session and the fifth and final “Holiday Benefit”), and attended just one concert (Jay-Z and Kanye West at MSG). But it still means everything to me.
As always, though, there were a few songs that saved my life. They enabled me to power through the finish, and push through the tough stuff. They lifted my spirits. They moved me.
Here they are, my Top Ten Songs Of 2011.
10) Hate To See You Like This, Fountains Of Wayne – Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger are best known for kitschy confections like “Stacy’s Mom” and “Radiation Vibe.” “Hate To See You Like This,” though, picks up where “Troubled Times” and “The Senator’s Daughter” left off — plaintive, beautiful, sad — but rockin’.
9) Shell Game, Bright Eyes – Conor Oberst tends to be too-obtuse and un-melodic for me, but this synth-pop rocker propelled me for many, many miles of what may be my final marathon season. “We’ll be everything we wanna’ be / Everyone on the count of three / Altogether now.”
8) Every Day Is Yours To Win, REM – Even before I knew “Collapse Into Now” was REM’s last record, I was dubious; where some said it was the band’s best since “Automatic For The People,” “Collapse” struck me as uneven, dashed-off, and derivative. Above all, it was Michael Stipe’s lyric that left me cold. Nonetheless, “Discoverer,” “All The Best,” and “Uberlin” won me me over on energy alone. But it was one early, heart-broken morning drive to JFK that cemented this one for me. “Every day is new again, every day is yours to win. That’s how heroes are made.” (See also: “REM: Life & How To Live It.”)
7) Gone Gone Gone, Bryan Dunn – For a few days this fall, I listened to this one on repeat, over and over and over. It builds effortlessly from a harmonium and backbeat to a pad of vocals and strumming guitars. And when the banjitar and bass kick in after the first chorus, it’s really on. “So polite and insincere / Nothing whispered in your ear / Who said you could disappear for so long?” A beautiful, lush racket from an immensely talented local musician — and pal.
6) In Your Head, Casey Shea – If “Gone, Gone, Gone” builds like a dust storm across the arid Texas plains, “In Your Head” hits like a swirling, gale-force hurricane. This is pure rock radio gold from Brooklyn’s finest. It provided the force to get me through more than one dark day. (See also: “Casey Shea’s New LP Gets “In Your Head.”)
5) American Dreams, Andy Wagner – The balls! When I first scanned the liner notes on my cousin’s third LP, I couldn’t believe the first track’s title, “American Dreams.” It’s a massive subject, ambitious terrain reserved for our most revered rock poets: Dylan, Springsteen, Mellencamp, and … Wagner? Kid pulls it off in spades: the soaring, dense landscape, the pedal steel, and the poetry. “There are places we were never meant to see / There will always be mystery / Imaginary times we’ll be chasing the rest of our lives.” My cousin.
4) A Hopeful Transmission / Don’t Let It Break Your Heart, Coldplay – This is music for emergence, for climbing from the bowels of the city, fighting through the crowd, and breaking into the light. This is transcendent, arm-swirling, Jesus-posing, stadium-stomping rock. Worked for me.
3) No Church In The Wild, The Throne – There’s nothing in the DNA of this middle-age, middle-manager from middle-America that warrants me an ounce of swagger, but the floor tom-fueled guitar loop in “No Church” makes me walk different. Makes me think this town is mine for 4:33, anyway.
2) Walk, Foo Fighters – “Wasting Light” was the soundtrack to the fast and furious parts of 2011; propulsive, aggressive, dense, hooky and melodic, it gave me what I needed to power through these crowded, hostile streets, and . “Walk” gave me something more, though: it’s nostalgic, it’s thoughtful, it’s seeking something, and moving towards it. (See also: “Learning To Walk Again.”)
1) The Great Unknown, The Damnwells – From start to finish, “No One Listens To The Band Anymore” is a masterpiece. It’s deep and simple, smart and sensitive. It’s moves you forward, and moves you inside. “The Great Unknown” is the standout: pensive, wistful, and uncertain, with a huge, bleeding heart. “I will drive you home / Though we’re both drunk and stoned / Just for the stars and speeding red cars / Into the great unknown.”