1. Built to Spill - "The Plan." Maybe I'm progressively growing lazier, but I now only occasionally seek out lyrics to songs to try to decipher their meanings. On songs like "The Plan," I am instead moved by the urgency of the opening (it's the first song on their 1999 album Keep It Like a Secret) and the various guitars, which crank out all kinds of noise (some harmonious, some dissonant). "The Plan" just flows naturally; not only do the harsh/soft sounds play off each other, but the pacing of the song, from its fast beginning to the middle's noisy instrumentals to the ending's comedown, captures a kind of free-flowing, almost syncopated spirit with endearingly modest restraint. It's actually easier to show how "The Plan" succeeds by showing how other songs fail. Many really good songs get stuck at their choruses and have to slow down or add fluff to extend their track times. Take Sleigh Bells's "End of the Line," a song I highlighted last month; after the second emotionally-charged chorus, the song (at the 2:42 mark) tacks on a slower, whispery section that, to my ears, seems cut and pasted and artificial, thus awkward. I really like that song, but that one moment sounds sloppy. This problem, again, is in no way limited to Sleigh Bells; I hear this all the time, especially in mainstream pop songs, which really only need a catchy chorus to succeed. But that's what makes BTS' "The Plan" so special; their technical mastery allows the song's different elements to flow and cohere. Even though I'm not sure what "plan" they're speaking of throughout the song, musically, they certainly fulfill it.
2. Japandroids - "Younger Us." Ah, this song. I absolutely love this song. I first heard it in 2010, yet it still sounds as fresh and as compelling as ever. These lyrics just scream high-school/college keg party, yet they're also deeply nostalgic; "Younger Us" is not about "saying things like 'we'll sleep when we're dead' and thinking this feeling was never gonna end," it's about remembering those feelings, which apparently have ended. Despite this, the song exudes a youthful, triumphant feeling of invulnerability. The song thus operates on both young/impulsive and experienced/reflective levels: it can represent the "night you were already in bed, said 'fuck it' got up to drink with me instead" as it happens or when those moments, sadly, become unattainable. Even if one identifies with the latter, "Younger Us" is still a jolt of electronic energy: the guitars crackle like lightning on the chorus, raising the group's brand of fuzzy noise to new levels. The song also never wavers in intensity, seemingly crescendoing during each chorus as well as during the middle's instrumental breakdown. Even when the song appears to slow down, a bolt of guitars gives way to the energetic chorus and Japandroids's chanty moans, which can be understood as joyful exclamations and/or wistful wails. Only 3 minutes, the song is one of Japandroids's shortest, but I guess that's the point: our youth seems to pass by in an instant -- only here, in Japandroids's carefully-constructed musical world, can we press rewind.
3. Jack White - "Freedom at 21." Jack White makes cool sounds on his guitar. I like cool sounds. So I dug this album. I'm really interested in Jack White's persona; I think he embodies the dying/dead rock-star image: he's a ubiquitous-yet-enigmatic guitar virtuoso with a definitive musical (and even clothing) style and almost mythical origins (the seventh son). "Freedom at 21," and all of his 2012 solo debut Blunderbuss, for that matter, gives some insight into this mysterious character, as a bitter White sings, with some not-so-shocking misogyny, "No responsibility, no guilt or morals cloud her judgment, / Smile on her face, / She does what she damn-well please . . . Cause she's got freedom in the 21st Century." Ouch. White's sound doesn't exactly fit into my aesthetic of choice, yet I'm intrigued-- by him and his music.
5. Modest Mouse - "The World at Large." This song touches on many of my literary interests: meandering/walking/wandering and driving/drifting. It makes me think of Dickens and Kerouac, two writers who probably do not have much in common besides their penchants for wandering/escaping. "The World at Large," which precedes Modest Mouse's most successful song, "Float On," does its share of floating/wandering through the seasons; Brock begins in a frigid "ice-age heat wave," which sounds like a pretty way of describing a stuffy room in winter, states that "the days get longer and the nights smell green / I guess it's not surprising but it's spring and I should leave," admits that he likes "the autumn but this place is getting old," and describes the "breeze to the summer nights." Brock sounds restless; he yearns, like Sal Paradise in Kerouac's On the Road, to escape to the road, or anywhere outside of domestic entrapments. But it seems, as was the case for Paradise, that despite Brock's incessant wandering ("Gonna find another place, maybe one I can stand. / I move on to another day / To a whole new town with a whole new way"), he can never escape what haunts him. Fittingly, as the song progresses, it doesn't change much musically; the lyrical meandering doesn't take him anywhere new: "Walked on off to another spot / I still haven't got anywhere that I want / Did I want love? Did I need to know?"
6. Modest Mouse - "The View." Brock wrestles with some major psychological issues here. I'm not sure if I/he agrees with the logic he discovers, but I can't help but love the frankness of his lyrics:
If it takes shit to make bliss,7. Explosions in the Sky - "Postcard from 1952." This music video opened my eyes (I guess literally and figuratively!) to the power of this song. The video romanticizes/aestheticizes the past, re-creating the ostensibly innocent, racially pure, American 1950s. Yet the video reveals how this romanticized past is actually fraught with violence, sadness, and negligence in addition to innocence, love, happiness, and togetherness. When we romanticize the past, we limit it to "snapshots," so when these pictures come to life we can better see things for what they are. The image of a bubble bursting is pretty telling here. The video, then, challenges its viewers to demystify nostalgic images (like photographs); for instance, the boy who knocks down and senselessly strikes another boy becomes the figure of marriage and undying love. I can't help but be skeptical of this happy ending; is the juxtaposition of images showing that love and violence aren't as oppositional as we'd like to imagine? Perhaps. All I know is that the video challenges its audience to dig deep, far beyond simplistic/cliched/"snapshot"-y conclusions.
Well I feel pretty blissfully.
If life's not beautiful without the pain,
Well, I'd just rather never ever even see beauty again.
8. Elliott Smith - "A Fond Farewell." I let Elliott break my heart over and over again this month:
The dying man in a living room
Whose shadow paces the floor
Who'll take you out in the open door --
This is not my life;
It's just a fond farewell to a friend.
It's not what I'm like;
It's just a fond farewell to a friend,
Who couldn't get things right.
I can see you're leaving meCan the final line be any more haunting? It sounds as if a deceased Elliott wrote this song to his living self.
And taking up with the enemy.
The cold comfort of the in-between,
A little less than a human being,
A little less than a happy high,
A little less than a suicide,
The only things that you really tried.
9. The Smiths - "I Know It's Over." I always read about the Smiths on "Best Of" lists, so I checked them out. I'm not totally crazy about them, but I really like this song; Morrissey's voice captures the gloom of knowing some terrible end is imminent. As shown in the staggeringly poignant opening lines, "Oh mother, I can feel the soil pouring over my head," something/someone is dying. This song isn't all heartbreak, though; there's jealousy evident as well as self-deprecating introspection. More than anything, though, "I Know It's Over" plays as the perfect sappy post-break up (or near break-up) coping mechanism, from the despair in the repeated wails at the song's closing minute to the bitter recognition that "love is natural and real, but not for such as you and I, my love." Oof.