Before I got The Wounded Jukebox rolling, I used to make my own lists of favorite songs and albums from every year. Since TWJ didn’t exist, what usually ended up happening is that I made mixes for friends with each of my top songs on it, sometimes in different orders just for fun. In those days, it seemed easy to grab the 20 or so songs I liked best, even midway through the year, and put together a mix. Even in 2009 and 2010, the process, though slightly harder, was still fairly simple.
Enter 2011, a year that’s had plenty of big-name releases just six months in. I was going to try and name them, but inevitably I’d leave someone out. And maybe that’s the point. I feel blessed to be listening to more music now — and consequently, more good music (volume and quality don’t always go hand in hand) — than ever before, but it makes compiling lists like this increasingly difficult. I know, I know. An awesome problem to have. And that’s true enough.
I suppose my point is, were I to make a friend a mix CD of what I considered the best songs of the year so far, I’d have more than enough material to work with. Plenty of wonderful music has graced our inbox, and I’ve sought out the new material from all kinds of slightly more established bands. This Top-15 list was harder than any before, because I could name 20 or 30 more that were in contention and might have cracked the list if they struck in a new way tomorrow (this happens more often than I care to admit). We’ll save those for a much bigger end of the year list.
15. The Hit Back – Me And The Kid (Jan. 24)
14. Snowmine – Penny (May 23)
13. Sweet Sweet Moon – Smoke Up (April 28)
12. Generationals – Ten-Twenty-Ten (March 11)
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – Morning Thought (March 14)
10. Thao & Mirah – Rubies and Rocks
9. Keegan DeWitt – Thunder Clatter (May 9)
8. 1,2,3 – Work (June 2)
7. Hey Sholay – Dreamboat (Feb. 18)
6. Tyson – Love’s On The Line (May 18)
5. Team Me – Dear Sister (June 9)
4. The Rural Alberta Advantage – Tornado ’87
Departing, the album from which this song comes, is likely to be near the top of my list when the year is through. As for “Tornado ’87,” it’s got all the simple elements that make TRAA so irresistible to me: Nils Edenloff’s nasally register, Paul Banwatt’s thunderous percussion and Amy Cole’s ghostlike background vocals and smoky chimes. Oh Lord I lost you, I held you tight, oh I… and the black sky will come for us tonight. And our hearts shakin in the empty night, oh why. Let’s lie down in the basement tonight. Ohhhhh…
3. Cults – Never Heal Myself
Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion are two 21-year olds from San Diego. The pair manage to capture both the youthful exuberance of 21st century twenty-somethings and meld it seamlessly with the melodic sense and energy those doo-wop groups of the 50’s and 60’s harnessed on stage. Follin’s capable alto bounces back and forth between thinking she can please this mystery man (or woman) and being resolved that she can never please. I won’t stop blasting this song from my car stereo until the infectious tune and beat get old. So probably never.
2. Tune-Yards – Bizness (Feb. 17)
1. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Jan. 31)
This song stole my heart like a thief in the night. The first few times I heard it, I liked it okay. But then one day, I was listening to it while shuttling my belongings to my second residence in just under two months (that’s another story), and I found myself starting it over each time it ended. I began singing along as loudly as I could in the car, mostly with the windows down. Suddenly I knew all of Robin Pecknold’s words. And they resonated.
This song — and truthfully many of the wonderful songs on Fleet Foxes’ new record that bears the same name — are about that stifling smallness and uncertainty we all feel at one point or another. I’ll be something, but I don’t know what. I’ll love you, but I don’t know how. I’ll fit into this world somewhere, but I don’t know where. Or when that will be.
Pecknold and co. harmonize like nobody’s business, and when “Helplessness Blues” breaks wide open near the 45-second mark, I’m lost in its warm, gentle grasp. And when the breakdown happens, and the song shifts, and Pecknold sings of yearning for simplicity in a complicated world: If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore. And you would wait tables and soon run the store, I actually pictured myself picking fruit in an orchard, going home every day to have dinner with my beautiful wife at sunset. No other song has taken me away like that. I hope to find more that do before 2011 is over.