A Look Back at the Best Songs of 2009

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.

Honorable Mentions
Drake: “Best I Ever Had”
Grizzly Bear: “Southern Point”
Animal Collective: “Summertime Clothes”
Raekwon ft. Cappadonna and Ghostface Killah: “10 Bricks”
Phoenix: “Fences”
Jay Sean ft. Lil Wayne: “Down”
The Rural Alberta Advantage: “The Deadroads”
Bon Iver: “Blood Bank”
Japandroids: “Crazy/Forever”
Dirty Projectors: “No Intention”
The Thermals: “Now We Can See”
Mayer Hawthorne: “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out”
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: “Inspiration Information”
Basement Jaxx: “Raindrops”
Animal Collective: “Brother Sport”

Let’s get to it.

50
Regina Spektor
“Dance Anthem of the 80’s”

Built on a simple one-note-at-a-time piano riff, “Dance Anthem of the 80’s” is whimsical in a way that comes natural to Regina Spektor, the Russian-born indie pop master. Spektor has deeper, more well known tracks to her name, including “Eet” from the same album, but the effortless blend of playfulness and poignance in “Dance Anthem of the 80’s” has always charmed me most.

 

49
Atlas Sound ft. Noah Lennox
“Walkabout”

“Walkabout” is a meeting of the minds from two of indie’s most celebrated artists — Bradford Cox of the band Deerhunter, who made music on his own as Atlas Sound, and Noah Lennox of Aninal Collective, who also goes by Panda Bear. Got it straight? “Walkabout” is based on a sample of the Dovers’ 1965 single “What Am I Going to Do?” — Cox and Lennox turn it into a psychedelic dreamscape.

 

48
Rihanna
“Rude Boy”

I’ve had multiple debates with people over who has the best discography, Beyoncé or Rihanna? My stance is Beyoncé has the best albums (not to mention an unimpeachable voice, work ethic, and cultural impact), but Rihanna has the best singles. I like “Rude Boy” a lot (obviously enough to put on this list), but I see it as a waystation between the dazzling singles from Good Girl Gone Bad, like “Umbrella” and “Don’t Stop the Music,” and the unstoppable slew of show-stopping singles soon to come, like “Only Girl (In the World),” “What’s My Name,” and “We Found Love.”

 

47
Cage the Elephant
“Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked”

Alternative rock radio mainstays Cage the Elephant scored their first hit with “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked.” It’s one of those songs that immediately sounds like a decades-old classic, especially with the chorus’s catchy, chanting mantra — “Ain’t no rest for the wicked, mooooney don’t grow on trees!”

 

46
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
“Young Adult Friction”

Some bands have a cohesive, killer sound but lackluster songs. Other bands have good songs but nothing interesting to do with them. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart had both sound and songs fully developed on their debut album. “Young Adult Friction” is all jangly guitars, bouncy drums, and dream pop melodies conjuring the nostalgia of ’80s and ’90s college rock.

 

45
Silversun Pickups
“Panic Switch”

I was never quite sure if Silversun Pickups were an “indie” rock band for the hipsters or an “alternative” rock band for the radio listeners. Maybe that’s part of what made them so good. “Panic Switch” (which, according to the band, is supposed to sound like a nervous breakdown) wouldn’t sound out of place on an indie kid’s iPod at the time, but it also hit #1 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart. Best of both worlds.

 

44
Phantogram
“When I’m Small”

Phantogram, and “When I’m Small” in particular, embody a certain “millennial cool,” which is probably why the song was heavily used in a Gillette razor commercial. It’s dark and sinewy but in a palatable, broadly appealing way, with just the right touches of synths and breakbeats.

 

43
The Dead Weather
“Treat Me Like Your Mother”

As the White Stripes slowed to a halt, Jack White let out his creative energy through side projects like the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather. While I found the Dead Weather’s songwriting to be a bit lackluster, White’s team-up with the Kills’ Allison Mosshart resulted in slices of hard-rocking magic, like “Treat Me Like Your Mother.”

 

42
Drake ft. Lykke Li
“Little Bit”

Drake has dominated the culture for a decade now. But before the ubiquity, before the non-stop parade of hits and features, he was an up-and-comer, improbably making a credible crossover from soap opera acting to sing-songy rapping, which was beginning to rise in the wake of Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak. The Lykke Li-sampling “Little Bit” was a preview to Drake’s moody R&B ruminations that would stand side-by-side with his rap songs.

 

41
Miike Snow
“Silvia”

I said in my intro that “1901” by Phoenix was the first new song I was exposed to after I got back. “Silvia” was the second one, thanks to my cousin, who told me to look it up on YouTube. It’s an electro-pop song with tons of swirling sound effects, but my favorite aspect of it is its analog backbone — those stark, pulsating piano chords.

 

40
Dirty Projectors
“Cannibal Resource”

Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca is what a modern art exhibit would sound like if music oozed out of its walls. “Cannibal Resource” is Bitte Orca’s clarion call, the appetizer to Dave Longstreth’s abstract reveries, where odd time signatures and jagged instrumental interpolations mingle with moments of harmonic beauty.

 

39
Grizzly Bear
“Two Weeks”

It can be argued that the apex of popularity for 2000s-style indie music was when Jay-Z and Beyoncé showed up at a Grizzly Bear concert in ’09, and thereby christening the movement. Grizzly Bear’s breakthrough into popular consciousness was largely on the back of their stuttery, deliberate, baroque, harmony-laden single, “Two Weeks.”

 

38
The Very Best ft. Ezra Koenig
“Warm Heart of Africa”

Vampire Weekend was still a brand new entity in 2009, but Ezra Koenig already had his mind on side projects and other diversions. He lent his voice to the lighthearted and extremely fun “Warm Heart of Africa” by The Very Best, a duo comprising a DJ from London and a singer from Malawi.

 

37
Lady Gaga ft. Beyoncé
“Telephone”

My time away from music exactly coincided with the meteoric rise of Lady Gaga. I remember seeing her on magazine covers at the grocery store, but not having any idea who she was (besides the fact that, based on those covers, she was clearly a fashion icon). I’m a big fan of “Just Dance” and “Poker Face,” but those were released at the end of 2008 and thus didn’t qualify for this list, but “Telephone” is right up there with those hits. The delirious production and Beyoncé feature send the song into the stratosphere.

 

36
Gucci Mane
“Lemonade”

I can’t help but crack a smile every time I hear “Lemonade” from Atlanta’s trap statesman, Gucci Mane — a bouncy, piano-heavy track where Gucci extols the many yellow-colored luxuries he owns, including a yacht, Corvette, jewelry, polo shirt, and lemon pepper wings.

 

35
Kurt Vile
“Blackberry Song”

Kurt Vile has really come into his own this past decade as everyone’s favorite super chill uncle with the good vibes, good grooves, and probably the good record collection. “Blackberry Song” is a beautiful, abstract painting. Vile has never been in a hurry to get where he’s going, and “Blackberry Song” is no different. He’s content just inviting you to join him in his perpetually pleasant, guitar strumming hypnosis.

 

34
Japandroids
“Rockers East Vancouver”

Sometimes a song will have a specific two to five second moment that really hits the spot for inexplicable reasons. The example I always think of first is in “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, there are four repeated guitar strums between “I don’t ever want to feel” and “like I did that day.” Check it out when you get a chance. In “Rockers East Vancouver,” it’s even more subtle. It’s that recurring pattern in the middle of the song (at about 2:08) of two quick guitar/drum stabs, at the end of each time he sings “WHAT YOU WANTED” or “WHAT YOU NEEDED.” It’s just so energizing. It also gives me a headache from the requisite headbanging.

 

33
Dan Auerbach
“Goin’ Home”

“Goin’ Home” is a low-key, poignant, twinkling solo tune from the Black Keys’ frontman, released just before the Keys made it big with “Tighten Up” the next year.

 

32
Beirut
“The Concubine”

This was when Zach Condon of Beirut began to subtly shift his sound. “The Concubine” is still like a classic European song of old, as is his forte, but it has a more propulsive beat carrying you forward.

 

31
Matt and Kim
“Daylight”

No one does “unadulterated joy” better than Matt & Kim. There’s a preciousness about “Daylight” and the childish taunt of its main piano lick that I would maybe chafe at if it came out today, but I fully embraced it years ago and still love it for the memories it evokes of a more carefree time in my life.

 

30
The Rural Alberta Advantage
“Don’t Haunt This Place”

When I went back to school, my friends introduced me to the Rural Alberta Advantage (a.k.a. the RAA), and I went to see them at a tiny venue in San Francisco — my first concert since coming back from the mission. I was absolutely floored by their drummer. The speed of his drum fills is astonishing. (Random fact: Lord Huron opened for them at that minuscule show, and they’re getting high billing at festivals now.) The RAA play a brand of earnest, twee indie rock that is no longer in vogue, which is a shame. They’re extremely talented and adept at eliciting strong emotions.

 

29
Mayer Hawthorne
“Maybe So, Maybe No”

Where did this white guy come from with such a keen ear for ’60s and ’70s soul? Mayer Hawthorne signed with the independent label Stones Throw Records, home of enigmatic rappers and producers like Madlib and J Dilla, with the intent of putting together some soulful tracks for other rappers to sample if they so chose. But he was convinced to sing over the tracks and release them as his own album, despite not having any vocal training. The end result was pretty immaculate.

 

28
Wilco
“You and I”

My favorite flavor of Wilco is the more experimental essence the band displayed on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but Jeff Tweedy and crew are highly capable of more straightforward fare too. “You and I,” centered around a duet between Tweedy and featured guest Feist, is an eminently charming, acoustic love song that gives off major Beatles vibes (or at the very least, has the potential for a Beatles-esque mass appeal).

 

27
Passion Pit
“Sleepyhead”

Anyone remember Cactus Cooler, that orange-pineapple soda? I used to down those in high school. They were sweet and fizzy and addicting. I tried Cactus Cooler again recently for the first time in years and it just wasn’t the same. I still liked it, but it had become a bit too sweet to my taste. “Sleepyhead” is the Cactus Cooler of indie pop — a psychedelic sugar rush that I loved at the time, and still enjoy and appreciate, but sometimes it’s just a little too sweet for me. When I’m in the right mood though, it’s really a wondrous song.

 

26
Japandroids
“Sovereignty”

“Sovereignty” is the most wistful song on Post-Nothing, and there’s nothing I love more than a good, wistful song. “I’ll sing the Beatles, and you’ll sing them better, forget all our friends back home” is my favorite Japandroids lyric, for obvious reasons, but I also just love the catharsis of the chorus — “It’s raining in Vancouver, but I don’t give a f***, because I’m far from home tonight.”

 

25
Big Boi ft. Gucci Mane
“Shine Blockas”

When the spigot of creative output from OutKast slowed to a halt, everyone expected André 3000 to be the one we cared about most in a post-OutKast world, but Big Boi surprised everyone by being the more prolific, more vital solo star. “Shine Blockas” was the song that officially kickstarted his solo career. The opulent beat is very much of its time, influenced by the soulful stylings of 2000s Kanye West.

 

24
Girls
“Lust for Life”

Girls differed from the other indie art-pop darlings dominating 2009. They had more of a manic edge. “Lust for Life” is extremely raw — I don’t even know if that jangling guitar is in tune — but it harnessed this unbridled energy.

 

23
Aventura
“Por un Segundo”

Of all the 50 songs on this list, “Por un Segundo” is the only one I knew very well and listened to quite a bit right when it came out, in the year 2009 itself. I was serving in a community that primarily spoke Spanish, and was spending time learning the language everyday, and the people I would come in contact with would rave about the Latin American genre of bachata, and Aventura specifically. I was immediately taken with a number of Aventura tracks, “Por un Segundo” chief among them, with its beguiling rhythm. “Por un Segundo” certainly doesn’t fit under the definition of “church-appropriate” music, which I was supposed to be listening to exclusively at that point. But with very limited knowledge of Spanish, the lyrics never really penetrated me in the way an English song would, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

 

22
Raphael Saadiq
“100 Yard Dash”

It’s a crime that this song is only a hair over two minutes. I could groove to that bass line until the end of time. Saadiq conjures the spirit of Motown with “100 Yard Dash” and imbues it with all the easygoing warmth and swagger it deserves.

 

21
Kid Cudi
“Day ‘N’ Nite”

Even though Kid Cudi’s breakthrough hit “Day ‘N’ Nite” came out when I was already in college, my thoughts veer over to the stoners I knew in high school whenever I hear it. Most of them were listening to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath at the time, but I think they would have found comfort in the subtle trippiness of “Day ‘N’ Nite.”

 

20
Generationals
“When They Fight, They Fight”

If this song came out in 1966, it’d be a hit. Instead, it came out in 2009 from a little-known New Orleans indie duo. It’s classic ‘60s pop at its best — handclaps, trumpet accents, repeating piano chords, a fun Motown style bass line, and those perfect “ooohs” in the background.

 

19
Miley Cyrus
“Party in the U.S.A.”

What kind of millennial wedding would it be without “Party in the USA” dropping in on the dance floor? It wasn’t until I came back in 2011 that I came to appreciate good pop music. Even then, “Party in the USA” would have been classified as a “guilty pleasure” — but no more. There’s no guilt involved now. I just put my hands up, they’re playing my song (sorry, I had to).

 

18
Grizzly Bear
“While You Wait for the Others”

Music critic Ian Cohen recently wrote, “Used to be there was an unwritten rule in music criticism: Only employ ‘Beatles-esque’ as a last resort.” Well, consider this a last resort. Grizzly Bear’s aptitude for tastefully artful production and harmonies recall the 1966-68-era Beatles, which is on full display on “While You Wait for the Others.” The harmonies in the chorus, in tandem with the brilliant jabs of guitar, are what make this song.

 

17
Jay-Z ft. Alicia Keys
“Empire State of Mind”

“Empire State of Mind” was made well past Jay-Z’s creative peak. His nonsensical lyrics are proof of that. But the song still achieved transcendence, primarily due to two factors: (1) the triumphant, piano-heavy beat and (2) Alicia Keys’s exultant chorus and bridge. As a wide-eyed non-New Yorker, I’m still beguiled by the city’s charm, and Keys taps into that charm tremendously.

 

16
Taylor Swift
“You Belong With Me”

“You’re on the phone with your girlfriend, she’s upset.” And so starts the biggest hit to that point for an up-and-coming star named Taylor Swift, breaking into the mainstream with her unique brand of country pop. From the beginning, Taylor Swift has had a knack for lyrics that were relatable to a regular teenager — she’s the most popular woman on the planet, but somehow she made the geeky t-shirt-wearing, bleacher-sitting girls feel like she was one of them.

 

15
Dirty Projectors
“Stillness is the Move”

Not many songs lie in the middle of the Venn diagram between “catchy” and “freaking weird.” “Stillness is the Move” is one of the few that straddles that line. There are a million little elements whilrling around over that, dare I say it, danceable beat, but the driving force is Angel Deradoorian and Amber Coffman’s beautifully odd vocals. Apparently some people are able to hear color — I’m no expert, but I imagine “Stillness is the Move” must look amazing to those people.

 

14
Japandroids
“Heart Sweats”

By now, you can probably tell that I love Japandroids and their debut album, Post-Nothing. They tapped it into an angst inside me that didn’t come out often, as a largely even-keeled individual, but it still needed release. “Heart Sweats” was as good a song as any to help with that release, especially given its relentless undercurrent of drums (perfect for air-drumming), and of course, the centerpiece refrain, to be yelled from the rooftops: “Some hearts bleed, my heart sweats!”

 

13
The xx
“Crystalised”

Nowadays, there are plenty of artists with whispery vocals and drum machines. But in 2009, no one sounded like The xx. “Crystalised” is as elemental as a song can be — every individual instrument is, well, “crystal” clear. And yet, somehow, despite its minimalism, “Crystalised” also has an incredibly rich atmosphere. The vocal chemistry between Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft is off the charts, and they sing with a world weariness that sounds so natural, despite barely being 20 years old at the time.

 

12
Florence + The Machine
“Dog Days Are Over”

“Dog Days Are Over” has a special place in my family. It was the song my wife played on loop right after racing to finish her last paper as an undergrad. It’s also the subject of one of our favorite YouTube videos, giving us dreams of a son or daughter who likes music as much as this kid. “Dog Days Are Over” crackles with life, harnessing the energy and elation you feel after finally turning in that irritating term paper and being rid of it forever.

 

11
Bibio
“lovers’ carvings”

“lovers’ carvings” has been a trusty soundtrack piece for me during many a slideshow or wedding processional. It’s the kind of serene, vibrant, heartwarming song that causes you to take joy and find peace in your surroundings. The lilting waltz in the first half gives way to a 4/4, woodblock-infused celebration. It’s a wholesome, inspiring romp.

 

10
Washed Out
“Feel it All Around”

“Feel it All Around” was not just the iconic theme song for Portlandia, but also has the distinction of being the best chillwave song of all time. Chillwave, the soft and fuzzy genre of choice for wannabe bedroom indie auteurs during the turn of the decade, is a bit of a punchline now. At its worst, chillwave was derivative and toothless, but at its peak, the best chillwave songs could achieve transcendence. The synthetic drums, deep bass line, and foggy vocal harmonies on Washed Out’s “Feel it All Around” act as an immediate transportation device to a hazy, hypnotic dreamworld.

 

9
Free Energy
“Free Energy”

If you inserted a Free Energy song from 2009 into a late-’70s or early-’80s high school movie, you wouldn’t even blink. But the boys of Free Energy are not trying to be pioneers. They’re not here to give you sounds you’ve never heard before. They just want to make good-time, familiar, pop-flavored rock and roll, and boy do they succeed. Their self-titled song “Free Energy” is a riff-heavy, cowbell-infused hook machine. If you’re looking for a song to kickstart a highly-anticipated road trip, might I suggest “Free Energy.”

 

8
Jay Electronica
“Exhibit C”

“Exhibit C” is one of the greatest rap songs of all time, full-stop. I had no access to the world wide web when this song came out, but I’ve heard tell that the rap internet was “shut down” like never before. It makes sense. The beat, which samples Billy Stewart and was produced by Just Blaze, is epic on its own. Tell me five beats in the history of rap that are better than this one. You can’t. And then on top of that, Jay Electronica brings the heat in both his flow and his lyrics. His storytelling is captivating, progressing from “When I was sleepin’ on the train, sleepin’ on Meserole Ave out in the rain, without even a single slice of pizza to my name, too proud to beg for change, mastering the pain” to a hopeful ending: “My light is brilliant.”

 

7
Phoenix
“1901”

If “1901” is the second-best song on your album, you’re in pretty good shape. That’s where Phoenix found themselves when they released Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix — the band’s first album to really permeate the mainstream, over a decade into their career. “1901” is just a perfect pop song. If you don’t like it, then I seriously doubt your judgment. It’s ear candy.

 

6
Animal Collective
“My Girls”

Animal Collective specialize in brilliantly esoteric, experimental soundscapes, but those soundscapes were never as accessible as on Merriweather Post Pavilion, the band’s landmark 2009 album that had the indie zeitgeist wrapped around its finger. “My Girls” is deeply weird, but through its weirdness lies otherwordly aural beauty and a sweet sentiment. Noah Lennox, otherwise known as the artist Panda Bear, wrote “My Girls” from a deeply personal perspective — one that is highly relatable for me in my present stage of life. “There isn’t much that I feel I need, a silent soul and the blood I bleed. But with a little girl, and by my spouse, I only want a proper house.” Tell me about it. And then, that glorious chorus: “I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things, like a social status. I just want four walls and adobe slats for my girls.” I’m ashamed to admit that I want a little bit more than adobe slats for my girls, but hey, you have to start somewhere.

 

5
The xx
“Islands”

“Islands” is both understated and powerful. Tones are hushed, but the feelings expressed are strong. The singers are pledging commitment to each other — “I am yours now, so now I don’t ever have to leave. I’ve been found now, so now I’ll never explore” — but the musical atmosphere is dark and seductive, with a touch of foreboding. It is a song best heard in the quiet shadows of midnight.

 

4
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
“Heads Will Roll (A-Trak Remix)”

Any dance party should have a well-placed barn burner — one song that serves as the climax for the whole night, usually played about 75% of the way through the allotted dancing time, when the dance floor is bumping and the collective mood is at its apex. If your dance party is Halloween themed, might I suggest A-Trak’s remix of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Heads Will Roll” as your climax? The razor-sharp synths, Karen O’s piercing vocals, and the fast, no-thought-of-tomorrow beat will be a guaranteed hit. Very few songs make me feel more alive than this one.

 

3
Japandroids
“Wet Hair”

“Wet Hair, expertly captures the angst and optimism of youth. When I was in the height of my Japandroids fandom at the beginning of the decade, I wrote that “Wet Hair” “sounds like an adrenaline rush. It sounds like a Friday night with endless possibilities. It sounds like graduation and finally escaping your prison-like high school. It sounds like getting over the girl (or guy) that dumped you last week. It sounds like a party on a hot summer’s night. It sounds like messing around with your friends in the parking lot behind the movie theater and deciding what the night still holds in store.” As someone approaching my 30s, I don’t get those same visceral feelings that I did then. But “Wet Hair” takes me back to that time, and it sounds just as thrilling.

 

2
Julian Casablancas
“11th Dimension”

Julian Casablancas is not always dialed in. So it goes when you’re the coolest guy in the world, but your coolness relies on a certain nonchalance. But when the on-and-off-again Strokes singer is dialed in, there are few better than him at what he does. After the members of the Strokes had had it with each other, they all broke off and did their own thing for a while. Clearly, Casablancas must have felt stifled if he was able to bestow us with “11th Dimension” when he went solo. The track is immensely satisfying — a function of those resolving chord changes in the form of hyperactive synths, as well as Casablancas’s melody (I especially love the way he sings “And don’t be shy, oh no!”).

 

1
Phoenix

“Lisztomania”

Somehow, Phoenix topped “1901.” “Lisztomania” is the bounciest, fizziest, most jubilant song I’ve ever heard. The booming drums, the wall of synths, the impeccable guitar licks, the double-tracked melody, the loud juxtaposed against the soft — it’s all simply perfect. The lyrics are nonsensical, but hey, the band is French. I’ll give them a pass. Granted, I don’t give an iota about lyrics if the music is spectacular, so it doesn’t really matter anyway.

“Lisztomania” is one of the best party songs of all time. It’s just brimming with ebullience and joy. The only reason I don’t play it at every gathering is because I don’t want my friends to get sick of it. In that spirit, I truly hope that “Lisztomania” can stay fresh forever.

Best Songs of 2009 Spotify Playlist:

The Grooviest Punk Song Ever: “Why Can’t I Touch It?” by the Buzzcocks

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.

An Analysis of My First Ever Mix CD from 2002

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

 
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50 Years of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the Greatest Pop Song Ever

An examination of what makes the Lennon-penned Beatles track so special

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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

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.

screen-shot-2017-02-07-at-12-01-42-pmAs 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:

Full 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.”

Ranking Led Zeppelin: A Countdown of Every Song from the Hammer of the Gods

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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.

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Five Quality Tracks: January 2016 + Bonus: Five Great Bowie Moments

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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.

 
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Our Unique David Bowie Experiences

We can agree on why we all miss him. But we can’t agree on his best work. And that is beautiful.

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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.

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