I have a unique experience with the music of 2009 — I didn’t hear any of it until December 30, 2010. Well, I didn’t hear most of it, at least. How could you not be exposed to “I Gotta Feeling” and “Run This Town” blasting out of various cars and backyards in the summer of ‘09?
I served a two-year Mormon mission that started the last day of 2008 and extended all the way through the last week of 2010. On a mission, you’re only allowed to listen to church-related music, and maybe some classical (as long as it doesn’t get too wild, like “Ride of the Valkyries” or something). Those music restrictions were… incredibly hard, as you can probably imagine. I would cope by periodically meandering over to the magazine rack in Walgreens and thumbing through Rolling Stone and Spin to get a sense of what was happening. It was there that I read album reviews for Bitte Orca and Brothers, learned that Jack White was forming a new band called the Dead Weather, and that Kanye West released a masterpiece called My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
The very first sanctioned “new” song I heard when I got back was “1901” by Phoenix, and my mind was blown. I learned later that most people in America were sick of that song by then, since its appearance in an ever-present Cadillac commercial. But to my fresh ears, it was glorious. Was that a guitar or synth riff at the beginning? Were they singing “Fallin’, fallin’, fallin’, FALLIN’” in the chorus? Or “Ballin’, ballin’, ballin’, BALLIN’”? Who knows, but it sounded incredible.
And that’s how it was with the music of 2009 and 2010. It was like Tom Hanks finally returning home in Cast Away, except instead of learning that your wife married someone else, you get to just experience a whole two-years worth of music as if it were brand new.
Indie art-pop was a big presence in 2009, with Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, and Dirty Projectors carrying the torch. Rap was still coasting a wave of soul samples, popularized by Kanye West in the early to mid-2000s. And Max Martin was just on the precipice of his second wave of pop dominance, with hits from Katy Perry and Kesha soon to come the following year.
I started making year-end best songs lists in 2006, but for reasons outlined here, I never made a list for 2009 and 2010. Now that 2009 is ten years away, it’s time to rectify this glaring hole in my music list inventory. One added bonus is that I guarantee the list I’m making now, with ten years’ worth of hindsight, is much better than whatever I would have made in 2009 itself.
Before we get to the top 50, here are 15 honorable mentions.
The incredibly catchy punk track, its role in 20th Century Women, and the joys of discovering music through movies.
As a teenager, I had a self-important habit of thinking the only valid method of musical discovery was going straight to the source. You had to seek out an album or artist’s catalog and listen to it directly. Finding out about songs through movies or TV shows or video games wasn’t “legit.” “Oh, you only know that song because of the Elizabethtown soundtrack?” Or, “I can’t believe the only reason you know ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ is because of Guitar Hero.”
This was a stupid and reductive way for me to think. Movies are a perfect conduit for hearing new music — the visuals and backstory give even more life to a good song. What better way to discover “Bohemian Rhapsody” than Wayne’s World? Or “Tiny Dancer” from Almost Famous? Or “The Sound of Silence” from the freaking Graduate? Besides, the road you happen to take to discover excellent music does not matter in the slightest.
I watched 20th Century Women on a recent plane ride. The movie, set in late-1970s Santa Barbara, follows a teenage boy named Jamie and the women that play crucial roles in raising him. Abbie, played by Greta Gerwig (the mastermind behind last year’s critically acclaimed Lady Bird), is one of the women, a twenty-something photographer who lives with Jamie and his single mom. Punk music plays a significant role in the movie, as Abbie introduces Jamie to the genre, making him mixtapes and taking him to punk rock clubs.
Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Jamie (Lucas Zumann) in 20th Century Women
The whole soundtrack is excellent, but I am eternally grateful for one inclusion in particular. As the end credits rolled, one of the catchiest songs I had ever heard started to play. “What is this?” I thought. It had a sense of swagger that I hadn’t really encountered in punk music before.
Punk comes in all shapes and sizes — the movie itself addresses how “art punk” kids who liked Talking Heads were at odds with the more aggressive punks who were into Black Flag — but the punk music I had previously come across, no matter how disparate, always had a certain neurosis to it. Whether it was the ominous underbelly of the Clash, the overflowing wound-up energy of Gang of Four, or the ugly brashness of Dead Kennedys, classic punk (and all punk, really) was usually restless, fidgety, sweaty.
But this song was different. It was self-assured, comfortable in its skin. The bass line — oh man, that bass line — is the song’s anchor, joining forces with the funky drums to settle into an unshakable groove. That’s not to say it doesn’t have that restless quality that binds all punk together, especially with those ringing stabs of guitar. But the underlying groove gives the song a sense of laid-back coolness and poise. It’s a perfect song for strutting.
Turns out that song I was hearing was “Why Can’t I Touch It?”, a 1978 single by power pop/punk pioneers the Buzzcocks. I enjoy classic punk quite a bit, but I’m far from an expert, and the Buzzcocks had eluded me until hearing that glorious groove. “Oh, you only know that Buzzcocks song because of 20th Century Women?” Yes. And thank goodness for that.
The middle school years are awkward, and nothing represents that pre-teen angst better than a snapshot of your music tastes at the time. I’m lucky enough to boast the Beatles as my favorite band since the age of 6, but that doesn’t mean I was impervious to the songs of the moment in the early 2000s, and some of those songs were… not so good.
As luck would have it, the first mix CD I ever compiled and downloaded from Rhapsody in 2002 is still intact, which I named KROQ Hits. For those that are unfamiliar with the airwaves of Southern California, KROQ 106.7 FM is the local alternative rock radio station. It’s what my mom played in the car during my formative years, which is why my favorite song at the age of 2 was “Give it Away” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and why it feels like Nirvana runs through my DNA. I would venture to say that whenever you turn on KROQ, 65% of the time they’ll be playing a good song. I wasn’t quite as discerning at the age of 13.
Now, it’s time to dive into KROQ Hits and judge each song. For each of the 15 tracks, I’ll rate the overall quality of the song on a scale of 1 to 10, and then determine whether that song still fits my tastes by answering a simple question: Would I put it on a mix in 2017? I was prepared to annihilate and ridicule this mix, but while listening to it again, many of the songs I assumed I would hate nowadays are still pretty appealing to me. Let’s go through it.
1. Sum 41: “Still Waiting”
We’re certainly starting off with a bang. “Still Waiting,” by the skate-punk blink-182 contemporaries, Sum 41, is the epitome of spiky-haired, middle-school angst. Pop punk has kind of received a positive reappraisal since its heyday in the late ’90s and early 2000s, partly due to nostalgia, but also because the melodies and riffs were definitely catchy. I would never choose to listen to anything by Sum 41 anymore, but I still dig the energy and hooks on “Still Waiting.” Plus, bonus points for sending up the Strokes in their music video.
Rating: 5/10 Would I put it on a mix in 2017?: Nope
An examination of what makes the Lennon-penned Beatles track so special
A mellotron, three cellos, four trumpets, a bit of sound engineering mastery, and the inner workings of the mind of John Lennon. These are some of the special ingredients that constitute “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the best pop song ever created, which turns 50 years old today.
THE LEAD-UP “It’s getting hard to be someone, but it all works out”
In late 1966, the Beatles were at a crossroads. They had unanimously decided to stop touring, weary of both the slog of the road and the inability to hear their own instruments over the screaming crowd. Lennon had just given an interview where he said the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus,” a quote that incensed America’s heartland. (Later, he clarified that he meant the Beatles’ popularity had risen to such a level that their influence on youth had eclipsed that of Christianity.)
Regardless of his intention, many fans had already turned on the Beatles. Combined with the unsatisfying chaos of their live concerts, morale in the group was at an all-time low. After what became their final concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in August 1966, the band decided to take a much-needed break from the three-year-long whirlwind of Beatlemania. Paul McCartney wrote a film score, George Harrison went to India, and Ringo Starr relaxed with family, while Lennon went to the coast of Spain to act in a film by Richard Lester called How I Won the War.
In November, the Beatles reconvened in the studio to start work on what would become Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The first track they tackled was a pretty little slice of a song Lennon had written and demoed during his time in Spain, called “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
Even before it germinated into the full-sounding, multi-instrumental version we know today, you can hear the seed of something special in this demo. Lennon’s lyrics are part nostalgia and part uncertainty. The lyrics are built around memories of playing on the grounds of Strawberry Field, a Salvation Army children’s home close to where he grew up in Liverpool, but it’s full of stops, starts, and stutters — “I think, uh, no, I mean…” and “That is, I think…” Lennon once said, “The second line goes, ‘No one I think is in my tree.’ Well, what I was trying to say in that line is, ‘Nobody seems to be as hip as me, therefore I must be crazy or a genius.'”
RECORDING “I think, uh, no, I mean, uh, yes, but it’s all wrong / That is, I think I disagree”
It took a significant amount of ingenuity and persistence for the final version to come about. George Martin, the group’s producer since the beginning and true “Fifth Beatle”, regularly worked with Lennon and McCartney (and occasionally Harrison) to help them execute their vision for a song.
John Lennon with Beatles producer, George Martin
McCartney was usually relatively specific when relaying to Martin the sounds in his head and how he wanted them represented on the record, often suggesting specific instruments and even helping with the arrangements. Lennon was much more vague, indicating certain feelings or emotions he wanted to convey in the song, and expecting Martin to follow through with the specifics. When recording “Tomorrow Never Knows” earlier that year, Lennon said he wanted it to sound like “a hundred chanting Tibetan monks,” leaving Martin to figure out how to realistically accomplish that.
After recording a few takes, Lennon wasn’t satisfied, frustrated that none of the recordings exactly matched the sounds in his head. This discontent resulted in the most remarkable technical aspect of the song, something that goes largely unnoticed. Indeed, the very fact that it goes unnoticed is what makes it so remarkable. Lennon decided he wanted to use the first part of an early take and combine it with the second part of a later take — the only problem is the two takes were recorded at different tempos and in different keys. Melding the two together appeared to be impossible. When Martin expressed his strong doubts, Lennon nonchalantly told him, “You can fix it, George.”
He was right. Lennon’s naïvety produced brilliance. The group’s sound engineer, Geoff Emerick, sped up the first take and slowed down the second take so that the pitches matched, and somehow the tempos miraculously matched as well. Right at the 1:00 minute mark, the track shifts to a completely different take recorded two weeks later, with seamlessness. The dreamy first part gives way to the busy, more varied second part, contributing to the uniqueness of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
WHY IT’S THE BEST “Let me take you down”
My taste has changed and evolved in my quarter century of loving music, but one thing has remained the same since about the age of 10 — “Strawberry Fields Forever” has been my favorite song of all time. Not just my favorite song as a child, or my favorite song by the Beatles, or my favorite song of the Sixties. My favorite song by anyone, ever.
It’s never easy to explain why a particular song is your favorite song. So much of it is tied up in emotions and memories and experiences that only you’ve had. Certainly the technical genius needed to make the final version of the song work contributes to the song’s lore, but that doesn’t fully account for why I love it.
In part, “Strawberry Fields Forever” represents the most dramatic turning point of the Beatles’ career. The sheer speed of their transformation has always amazed me. In August 1966, they were playing a Little Richard cover to screaming fans with suits and clean-shaven faces. Three months later, they were sporting mustaches, wearing colorful frills, and blazing a trail for complex psychedelic rock in the recording studio. The Beatles’ innovation and trend-setting were at their peak as 1966 transitioned to 1967, and “Strawberry Fields Forever” was the period’s soundtrack.
As far as the specifics of the song itself, the melody has always transfixed me. Unlike McCartney, whose melodies went up and down and spanned many notes across the scale (just listen to “Yesterday”), John Lennon’s melodies always had a small range of just a few notes. Listen to when he sings “Living is easy with eyes closed” — every syllable of that line is sung on the same note. But it’s cathartic. Like the way he stretches the word “low” into three notes on “I mean, it must be high or lo-o-ow” — I always appreciated the way he sung that.
But what it really comes down to is this: I love every single moment that every single instrument plays. I relish every time a new trumpet line comes in (like when they soar in the second verse as he sings “No one, I think, is in my tree”), or a new cello line (at the end of the third verse, during “That is, I think I disagree”), or when I hear those backwards cymbals, or Ringo’s manic drumming in the chorus. Each individual part is perfect on its own, but they’re also perfect as part of a whole. The interplay between all the instruments and the beauty that springs up from the cohesion always made me feel like anything in music was possible. I remember listening to it as a 12-year-old on my Discman (that was a CD player, kids) and being completely blown away. It’s gorgeous, it’s mind-opening, it’s supremely weird, it’s unlike anything I’ve heard before or since.
Ian MacDonald, the late music critic and Beatles scholar, wrote of the song, “While there are countless contemporary composers qualified to write music hugely more sophisticated in form and technique, few if any are capable of displaying feeling and fantasy so direct, spontaneous, and original.” That directness, spontaneity, and originality is why I consider “Strawberry Fields Forever” to be the greatest pop song of all time.
First 1:23 of the song:
UPDATE: I would be remiss if I didn’t include this clip that I just watched in an excellent Consequence of Sound post on the Beatles’ stark 1967 reinvention. After playing the promotional video for “Strawberry Fields Forever” live on his show, Dick Clark goes into the audience and asks what people think of the Beatles and their new look/sound. Let’s just say they are NOT fans. Luckily there’s one individual at the end who goes against the wisdom of the crowd, and says, with an awestruck smile: “I thought it was great.”
If you attempted to craft the perfect rock band in a laboratory, you probably still wouldn’t be able to come up with something as powerful and timeless as Led Zeppelin. The sum of Zeppelin’s parts were spectacular, but each part on its own was just as impressive. There was no weak link. Take each part on its own and what do you have? John Bonham’s crushing drums, John Paul Jones’s reliable but innovative bass, Jimmy Page’s inspired, sludgy guitar riffs, and Robert Plant’s other-worldly, ethereal vocals.
Chuck Klosterman once wrote that every man “born after the year 1958 has at least one transitory period in his life when he believes Led Zeppelin is the only good band that ever existed.” I can’t speak to the general truth of that statement, but I can tell you that as a man born after 1958, I certainly had that Zeppelin phase. I was 14, I was a freshman in high school, and I bought some iron-on t-shirt transfer paper to make my own shoddy Led Zeppelin t-shirt. (This was just before the proliferation of classic rock tees at JC Penneys and Targets everywhere.) As anyone with a Zeppelin phase in their past can attest, eventually your music tastes expand. But for a moment, Led Zeppelin was all that mattered. And that always stays with you.
To celebrate Led Zeppelin’s influential and illustrious career, I have decided to rank every Led Zeppelin song. Every single one.
These “Five Quality Tracks” posts stress me out. I want to pick 15 tracks, not 5. January was a really good month, and I’m passing over a lot of good songs from Hinds, Wet, Eleanor Friedberger, and even the guy who you see everyday in the header photo of this very website, Ty Segall! I can’t believe I didn’t include them. That must mean these next five songs are really good. Also, keep scrolling after the tracks for a bonus section with some of my favorite David Bowie moments.
1. Chairlift: “Moth to the Flame”
The indie pop duo Chairlift have been around for a few years, but they’ve always been somewhat of a footnote to me. They had a song in 2012 called “I Belong in Your Arms” that I really liked, but I hadn’t really heard anything else by them. They just released their new album Moth and it’s chock-full of jams. I was *THIS* close to selecting another track, the slightly emo but deeply affecting and equally awesome “Crying in Public” as my Chairlift representative. But I couldn’t ignore the sugary, danceable beat to “Moth to the Flame.” This is catchy, reach-for-the-stars, indie pop at its finest.
We can agree on why we all miss him. But we can’t agree on his best work. And that is beautiful.
David Bowie passed away two days ago after an 18-month battle with cancer. I have never been so sad and shocked at the death of an entertainer, which took me a bit by surprise. I’ve never considered myself a Bowie expert or anything, but I’m realizing just how strong of a personal connection I had to the man and his music.
Why do we miss him so much? I think we can agree on a few reasons.