Best Songs of the ’10s: #10-1

10. The Radio Dept., “Committed To The Cause”
These Swedes almost always appear blissfully out of time—when first hearing “Pulling Our Weight” in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, I assumed it was from 1983, not 2003. So it goes with this unlikely swirl of early ‘90s Madchester dance-rock (with a smidge of Toto!), which lyrically at least remains the most timely and prescient tune of 2016.

9. Daft Punk feat. Julian Casablancas, “Instant Crush”
An instant standout from Random Access Memories, not only for DP’s deepest dive into New Wave, but also for its robot-voiced utilization of The Strokes’ lead singer, of all people. Blame the melody or chord changes, but I have a far stronger emotional reaction to Casablanca’s voice when it’s masked like this. Should’ve been the album’s second single instead of “Lose Yourself To Dance”.

8. Twin Shadow, “Too Many Colors”
George Lewis Jr.’s 1980s-inspired project produced a great run of singles across this decade; my favorite is this track from 2018’s Caer—a soulful/electro combo that I never would’ve thought feasible (at least outside of Alison Moyet.) Still, it all comes together beautifully, from its bell-like flourishes and unstoppable chorus to Lewis’ impassioned vocal.

7. Iron & Wine, “Call It Dreaming”
After a series of ever-more lushly produced albums that bent his folk-pop as far as it could in that direction, Sam Beam returned to form with this straightforward but effective tune. Organically building from lone acoustic-guitar-and-vocal to a full-bodied arrangement, it ends up resounding like a beating heart that has gradually expanded until it’s all you can hear, and it’s everything.

6. Belle & Sebastian, “Nobody’s Empire”
At his peak, Stuart Murdoch sang, “Nobody writes them like they used to / So it may as well be me”; nearly two decades on, he’s still at it on a single as good as anything from If You’re Feeling Sinister, only with the added musical prowess and wisdom gleaned from twenty years of struggle and exhilaration. The song’s gorgeous, chiming hook gives me hope that he’ll keep writing ‘em well into this new decade and beyond.

5. Saint Etienne, “Tonight”
What a way to return after a seven-year hiatus—the central song on an album about loving pop music, it’s an ideal three-minute encapsulation of this veteran trio’s inclusive approach and aesthetic. Early in their careers, the inimitable Sarah Cracknell and her mates invited listeners to “Join Our Club”, but you see, they’ve always been fans as well: “I can hardly wait,” she sings, and her joy is just infectious.

4. Robyn, “Dancing On My Own”
Considering that it never even made the Billboard Hot 100, I’m thrilled to see this song popping up on so many end-of-decade lists. Regarding vulnerable yet defiant crying-on-the-dancefloor anthems, this is easily one of the all-time best for how the groove steamrolls along while also never obscuring the infinite shades of pain and perseverance in Robyn’s bruised but luminous performance.

3. Jens Lekman, “Evening Prayer”
Only Lekman would ever write a song about a man at a bar showing off a 3-D model of a tumor surgically removed from his back to his friend and a waitress; only he could make it both so jubilant and melancholy, inserting almost ridiculously bubbly “doo-doo-doo’s” within a blue-eyed soul arrangement. And there’s something in the way he sings, “It’s been a long, hard year” that nearly destroys me every time I hear it.

2. Mavis Staples, “Try Harder”
Sometimes, the simplest songs are the most effective: twelve-bar blues progression, guttural, insistent one-riff guitar, and a 78-year-old vocalist sounding nearly as robust as she did at half that age. With production support from improbable kindred spirit Jeff Tweedy, Staples is no one’s idea of an old fogey—especially when she repeats the key lyric, “Don’t do me no good to pretend / I’m as good as I could be.”

1. Destroyer, “Kaputt”
Kaputt the album cracked my top five of the decade, but it might not have without its monumental title-track centerpiece, which I knew was something extraordinary from my first listen nine years ago this month. You can liken Dan Bejar’s slight effervescence here to any number of signifiers (yacht rock, synth-pop, etc.), but in the end, “Kaputt” subsists in its very own universe, that incessant dit-dit-dit sequencer noise guiding an evocative quest through time and memory whose precise sound is an impeccable match for Bejar’s acquired-taste vocals. “All sounds like a dream to me” indeed.

Destroyer, “Kaputt”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #91 – released January 25, 2011)

Track listing: Chinatown / Blue Eyes / Savage Night At The Opera / Suicide Demo For Kara Walker / Poor In Love / Kaputt / Downtown / Song For America / Bay Of Pigs (Detail)

One of Robert Altman’s best, most perplexing (and thus, underseen) films is 1977’s 3 Women, a drily-amusing-until-it-becomes-incredibly-unnerving psychodrama regarding female friendship and shifting identities. Infamously, he claimed the plot (such as it was) came to him in a dream—not so far-fetched, given its eerie allure and air of inconclusiveness. I’d like to think that Kaputt, the ninth album by Destroyer, the nom de plume of Vancouver-based singer/songwriter Dan Bejar, similarly came to its maker in a dream—on the title track, he even admits as much, rattling off a list of UK music mags (“Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, NME”) before enigmatically concluding, “All sounds like a dream to me.”

For many listeners, Kaputt will feel strangely familiar as it contains a panoply of identifiable musical touchstones. New Order homages (especially the upfront, Peter Hook-aping bass of “Savage Night At The Opera”) sit besides traces of Steely Dan’s later yacht-rock period insouciance, a measure of Roxy Music-circa-Avalon splendor, the lush, laid-back sweep of mid-80s Brit sophisti-pop groups like Prefab Sprout and The Style Council, and even a little Cocteau Twins-derived ambience, all of it transmitted via Bejar’s outwardly fey warble (somewhat reminiscent of Al “Year of The Cat” Stewart) and a bevy of creamy, cooing female backing vocals.

Upon its arrival, Kaputt seemed a bit out of left field for Bejar. Admittedly, I’d only heard one of Destroyer’s eight previous albums, 2006’s Destroyer’s Rubies; primarily, I knew Bejar as one of the three singer/songwriters (along with A.C. Newman and Neko Case) in the Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers, who had put out five albums in the decade leading up to Kaputt. With few exceptions (“Myriad Harbour”, “Testament To Youth In Verse”) Bejar’s three or four tunes per TNP record were rarely my favorites due in large part to his voice. Meandering and often mealy-mouthed, it wasn’t as seamless a fit for the band’s razor-sharp power pop as Newman’s melodic tone or Case’s siren call.

Thus, Kaputt’s departure from that template was revelatory: finally, Bejar had constructed (or perhaps stumbled upon) a sound that seemed more forgiving and complimentary to his particular voice. Technically, I can’t exactly pinpoint why they meshed so well together; all these discernible influences should have resulted in an album of record collection rock where listeners could spot the pastiche or facsimile. Instead, it came off as an idiosyncratic odyssey, driven by a sensibility you wouldn’t mistake for anyone else than Bejar’s.

Although it arrives just past Kaputt’s midpoint, the title track is the album’s centerpiece; it may also be the key unlocking a good chunk of its secretive pleasures. Its lead instrument, an electronic sequencer (“doot-deet-doot-dit-doot-deet-doot-dit…”) also acts as its heartbeat, a constant that only disappears near the last of the song’s six-plus minutes. Trumpet and sax filigrees bloom throughout, while warm guitar chords, a disco bass line and atmospheric synths color the spaces in between. As usual with Bejar, the lyrics are more tone poem than cogent narrative, such as the opening lines, “Wasting your days / Chasing some girls, alright / Chasing cocaine / Through the backrooms of the world / all night.” He’s simultaneously hedonistic and almost brutally wistful, particularly whenever a chord change results in an emotional crescendo (notably on the aforementioned rundown of UK music mags, of all things.) More than one person I’ve played this song for assumed it was by Pet Shop Boys, which hints at the grandeur Bejar aims for, but he’s far less arch or purposely clever than Neil Tennant. Like the rest of Kaputt, “Kaputt” is very much its own thing, stretched-out with extra texture but still an immediate, arresting pop song.

From there, the album’s other tracks serve as branches, extending in various directions but all connected to one tree. No less than three of nine tracks here each contain the lyric, “I wrote a song for America,” but it’s simply another reoccurring motif, not leaving the impression that Bejar’s run out of things to say. Similarly, Kaputt’s songs are packed with repeated lyrics woven into the arrangement’s fabrics as much as its horns or synths. “I can’t walk away” (from “Chinatown”), “I won’t and I never will” (from “Blue Eyes”) and “Winter, Spring / Summer and Fall / Animals crawl / towards death’s embrace” (from “Song For America”) are but three examples. In keeping with the idea of dream logic, they don’t hold any hidden meaning; they only convey Bejar’s knack for vocal hooks.

However, to dismiss Kaputt as a triumph of sound over content isn’t entirely fair. “Savage Night At The Opera” contains ample savage wit along the lines of, “Let’s face it, old souls like us are being born to die / It’s not a war until someone loses an eye!” Or take the opening lines of “Blue Eyes”: “You terrify the land / You are pestle and mortar / Your first love’s new order (does he mean the band?) / Mother Nature’s Son (Beatles reference?)” His imagery is often puzzling, but rarely is it blank. Case in point: “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker” consists of lyrics Bejar reassembled from text-filled cue cards provided to him from contemporary artist Walker, whose own work deals in appropriation (according to music critic Ann Powers.) It suitably sounds stream-of-consciousness (“Harmless little negress / You’ve got to say yes to another excess / let’s go for a ride today”) but still scans as a pop song, with Bejar crafting sterling hooks out of a few repeated phrases (“Enter through the exit / and exit through the entrance / when you can.”)

Still, both the arrangement and structure of “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker” are its most striking features. The extended opening almost tricks you into thinking you’ve put on a Brian Eno ambient album by mistake—all electro-pastoral new age beauty until, just after the two-minute mark, a perky flute hook appears, soon joined by a gently thumping beat and at 2:36, finally, Bejar’s vocal. It goes on for nearly another six minutes, Bejar rattling off verse after verse until the flute hook returns for an equally lengthy instrumental outro, the beat intact while a flurry of overdubbed sax and trumpet solos play us out. The momentum remains slow-building and steady, as it also does on “Poor In Love”, whose breadth seems to expand exponentially with each verse. “Downtown”, on the other hand, shoots out in the opposite direction, vacillating between bouts of crisp funk and lush rumination heavy with echo and negative space.

Kaputt threatens to floats off into the ether with its eleven-minute closer, “Bay of Pigs (Detail)” which, like “Suicide Demo…” also proceeds from a low-hum ambience to disco epic, allowing room for the pace to gently ebb and flow in between (while also dropping in a brief lyrical interpolation of “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”.) It doesn’t achieve quite the same cumulative build as that earlier track, sort of just abruptly stopping on a cryptic closing phrase (“Nancy in a state of crisis on a cloud”), but that doesn’t distract from or lessen the rest of the album’s achievement (nor does “The Laziest River”, a twenty-minute, mostly instrumental suite that proceeds “Bay of Pigs (Detail)” on vinyl and European CD editions of the album.)

Since Kaputt, Bejar has released two more full-length Destroyer albums: Poison Season (2015) and ken (2017). The former further expands Bejar’s musical scope, containing everything from sumptuous strings to anthemic, Bruce Springsteen-esque (!) rock, while the latter sticks to a mostly electronic sound and closes on his biggest, boldest pop song to date (“Le Regle du Jeu”). But it’s Kaputt that transformed how I view and appreciate Bejar as a lyricist and yes, as a vocalist as well—I even dearly missed him when he didn’t participate on The New Pornographers’ most recent album, Whiteout Conditions.

Up next: (Not just) another Canadian singer/songwriter.

“Kaputt”:

“Suicide Demo For Kara Walker”:

Best Albums of 2017: # 15, 14, 13

15. Sparks, “Hippopotamus”
On their first non-collaborative studio effort in nearly a decade, Ron and Russell Mael offer no head-swerving stylistic shifts like they’ve done throughout their career. Still, it’s awfully hard to dismiss an album with song titles like “So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside From That How Was The Play” as merely more of the same. As always with Sparks, their 23rd (!) full-length forever vacillates between inspired snark (“What The Hell Is It This Time?”) and unexpected sincerity (the wistful “I Wish You Were Fun”), with lovingly arch odes to sexual positions, IKEA and French filmmakers, not to mention the title star of “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)”, to which they lend their most immediate hook in ages.

“Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)”:

14. The Mountain Goats, “Goths”
Glorious, knowingly overwrought opener “Rain In Soho” is everything you’d ever want in a tribute to the black-clad, clove-smoking boys and girls who worship at the altar of Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees; what makes the rest of Goths so startling is that it falls closer to the likes of Steely Dan on the aural/tonal spectrum, albeit with “no guitars!” (as indicated in the liner notes.) John Darnielle may not be above name dropping the lead singer of Sisters of Mercy (“Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds”), but he’s not aiming for straight homage or all-out satire. He’s been in the trenches but is now far removed from them, and the distance allows for uncommon perspective.

“Rain In Soho”:

13. Destroyer, “ken”
In which Dan Bejar throws us another curveball in a career shaped by a batting cage full of them. On first listen, this resembles the Pet Shop Boys meet yacht rock ennui of his best album, Kaputt—especially on New Order-riffic single “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood”. Ah, but you can’t reduce ken to just that as a good chunk of it is much darker and also just plain bizarre, if enchantingly so (marvel at how he repeats the lyric “I’ve been working on the new Oliver Twist” seven times in a row, as if the record’s skipping on “Sky’s Grey”.) On top of all that, he goes out on the most massive-sounding pop song he may ever write—naturally, its title is in French.

“Tinseltown Swimming In Blood”:

Best Albums of 2015: Honorable Mentions

I’m limiting myself to a top ten list for best albums this year. Tomorrow, the countdown begins, one per day for the next ten days. As a prelude, here are a few other albums I really liked that didn’t make the cut, in alphabetical order by artist:

Sarah_Cracknell_Red_Kite-799x800

Sarah Cracknell, “Red Kite”

Bypassing the dance-pop of both her last solo album (1997’s Lipslide) and Words and Music by Saint Etienne, Cracknell returns with pastoral folk rock—not a likely fit for the queen of effortless cool, but it mostly works, especially when she leans towards that spectrum’s poppier side (“Nothing Left To Talk About”, “Hearts Are For Breaking”).

destroyer

Destroyer, “Poison Season”

Dan Bejar was never going to top Kaputt, and although this opts for a noticeably different, more organic, orchestral feel, it generally plays like a logical progression from its predecessor. Still, who would have expected to spot such influences as Bruce Springsteen (“Dream Lover”), Tin Pan Alley (the second half of “Bangkok”) or, um, the old theme to The People’s Court (“Midnight Meets The Rain”)?

José González - Vestiges & Claws

Jose Gonzalez, “Vestiges and Claws”

This Swedish folksinger’s first effort in eight years initially sounds a little monochromatic; however, as with the last Kings of Convenience record (now six years ago!), it’s an intentional part of the overall, intricate design. The irresistibly rhythmic “Let It Carry You” remains the highlight; however, with each spin, additional bits and pieces have begun leaving imprints.

21st-Century-Ballads

Emm Gryner, “21st Century Ballads”

Exactly what the title claims, and admittedly a challenging listen from someone who always balanced out her more introspective moments with gloriously catchy, radio-friendly anthems. Fortunately, opener “The Race” is as good as anything she’s ever done, and much of the rest is interesting enough that she remains a mostly unknown artist still worth seeking out.

Joanna_Newsom_-_Divers

Joanna Newsom, “Divers”

The title track (whose Paul Thomas Anderson-directed video I’ve posted above) may be the loveliest thing she’s done thus far, and while the rest is more approachable than some of her earlier, impenetrable stuff (think Ys), I’m still trying to decipher much of it. As with Gonzalez, I’m willing to work to find those hidden pearls—especially after witnessing how delightful she was in Anderson’s last feature.

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Sleater-Kinney, “No Cities To Love”

Finally, vindication that their last record, 2005’s overrated sludgefest The Woods was not entirely the direction they meant to take. Although this reunion album doesn’t hold a candle to anything spanning Dig Me Out to One Beat, the world of indie rock was a little lacking without Corin and Carrie’s overlapping words and guitars (and Janet’s fierce drumming), so call it a welcome, unexpected return.

eclipse

Twin Shadow, “Eclipse”

Half of this LP plays like a singles collection, and I can’t fathom why the top 40 has turned a deaf ear to euphoric, 80s-inspired gems such as “When The Lights Turn Out”, “Old Love/New Love” and “I’m Ready”, especially in a year when something inferior like Walk The Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” gets played to death. Granted, Eclipse’s other half is moodier and far less consistent, but in the iTunes era, half a great album is nothing to scoff at.