Top Two Songs of 2011

by Steve

Man singing in the 1970s. He has wonderful sideburns.

Argh, this is difficult. I haven’t even begun, and I’m having trouble. The whole Top Two concept kind of counters any concerns that lists are arbitrary, or crude, or an excuse for me to just be plain lazy with my blogging. Yet I’m now worrying about methodology and definitions and suchlike. I’m pretty sure reading this blog post about how The Wire magazine compiles its end-of-year lists didn’t help. Who knew voting and categorisation and the like could be so complicated?

Well, at least I’m the only one voting. But then again, that means there is no hiding. I’ll have to stand by my choices, there can be no excuses or cover-ups – I can’t say that I had to go along with the majority, or a complicated voting and scoring system.

And categorisation? Well, this should be easy, right? A song is a song is a song. But there is that niggling doubt that my favourite album tracks, say, are sort of different to standalone songs. I am probably digging some sort of horrible semantic hole and should just man up and get on with it, but it is confusing. There used to be albums and singles. Well, there still are, but I don’t think they matter much anymore (in the broader cultural sense, that is. I still like ’em). Individual tracks seem far more important now with yr iTunes and the like, yet the singles charts don’t really feel vital anymore. So, it is problematic dividing songs (as standalone events or cultural artefacts or whatever) and album tracks, that are probably rarely listened to within their original context or a dozen or so other songs from the artist anyway.

Boy, was that paragraph jampacked full of assumptions.

So, I’ve settled on an arbitrary and mysterious-stroke-confusing-even-to-me means of choosing songs, which I can’t really explain beyond 1. They work as standalone songs 2. I like ’em 3. I think I can probably string a few words together about them, which is frankly a relief after the preceding 300+ words of drivel.

So without any further ado, and thank goodness for that, in at Number Two we have…

2. Eleanor Friedberger – I Won’t Fall Apart On You Tonight

I really wanted to like her album, Last Summer. I blogged about it and everything. Now, I don’t hate it a such, but it never really grew on me in the way I thought it might. I think this might be more to do with my contrary nature than any problems on the part of the artist.

See, I’m no Fiery Furnaces connasseur, but when I listen to her day-job-band I like some of the weirder, avant-garde stuff, but am always thinking to myself, “I wonder how they would sound if they played it straight for once?” And Last Summer on first listen sounded like just that – one half of the Fiery Furnaces playing it straight. But on second, third, fourth listens I wanted a bit more weirdness, oddness.

See, there is no pleasing me.

But then I realised that is wasn’t that I necessarily missed the avant-garde touches, it was more that Last Summer was just as much of a pose as any Fiery Furnaces record. It sounded straight, but used all the tropes and tricks of eighties soft rock and pop. And much like the Destroyer album, Kaputt, that used similar techniques, it soon got pretty stiffling and claustrophobic. There was a closeness and a tightness to the playing, singing and production, when I just wanted the songs to breathe a bit. I find that kind of sound suffocating.

Then cue I Won’t Fall Apart On You Tonight. Finally Eleanor Friedberger cuts loose. Finally it doesn’t sound too clever. Suddenly there is that breath of fresh air, that shard of morning light, that cool glass of water and all those other clichés. Here is that classic pop song. Played straight, full of joy and not requiring hours of thought and conjecture to get my head around. Or maybe I just need to listen to the whole record again…

And at Number One, my Song of the Year (drum-roll please):

1. Turf War – Cheers To The Years

I blogged about this one too. I think what I said at the time still stands, is as good a rationale as any for making it song of the year, and saves me typing something new:

Cheers To The Years makes me want to go drinking. I’m not sure if that [is] a strictly healthy response to listening to any song at 10.30am, but there you go. Turf War either trigger the drinking neurons in my brain, or my job is leading me to alcoholism. A little from Column A and a little from Column B, I imagine.

I also like how they look and sound like a proper band. I am aware this makes me sound old and conservative, and that I am probably only a few steps away from sitting in my rocking chair yelling about all those horrible “haircut bands” with their synthesizers or something. But, anyway, sometimes some unpretentious rock and roll is what is in order, rather than any of that clever or polite stuff or whatever.

This band could well be the next Replacements (what I’ve heard of the album is pretty good, but I’m looking forward to what they do next), or they could fade back into obscurity, but they have left at least one classic song.

I’m sure it was one of the guys out of ABBA or someone equally uncool, yet monumentally talented like that, who said a pop song should have at least five hooks to be successful. While Turf War play this pretty loosely and give the impression of it all being just thrown together, there is still that underlying craft so that each section is immensely catchy and leads on to the next big hook. Either that or they did just chance upon the best song of 2011 without even trying. Now that would be frightening. Either way, I’ll raise a glass to ’em.

Image from the US National Archives, via Flickr