Monday, June 13, 2011

My Top 12 Songs of All-Time...Right Now: #1

"Paranoid Android"
Single from the album OK Computer
Single release date: May 26, 1997
Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All-Time: 256
Pitchfork's Top 200 Tracks of the '90s: 4

It has come to this. Eleven entries and almost four weeks in the making, we do not arrive at the greatest song that has ever been recorded in the history of music. Such hyperbole is ridiculous, knock it off. Rather, after eleven songs of varying age, genre and influence, we have one song and band that may most accurately be described as “my favorite.”

In 2006, on a whim mostly after hearing about their critical acclaim, I went and bought all of the full-length Radiohead albums. That one sentence intrigues me. At a time when buying albums was still the norm for me, I bought a band’s discography without knowing much more than they were supposedly awesome. I listened intently, trying not to become a victim of confirmation bias: Just because these were universally adored albums did not mean I would necessarily love them, too. Naturally, though, I did. Each album was filled with memorable songs and lines, and one album was stylistically distinct from the next. I was in love. I had never been exposed to such music before. Up until this point, I mostly relied on the few local rock radio stations for exposure to new bands. While one is consistently great (WEQX, which actually plays a decent amount of Radiohead and lots of alternative and indie rock), the others were littered with the modern rock schlock that I have grown to despise (the Nickelbacks, the Salivas, the Seethers). Rather quickly, I turned to the internet to unearth other great music on my own, and have not looked back. In essence, Radiohead single-handedly changed how I view and obtain music, as they have entrenched themselves as my gold standard for five years and counting.

Their library is filled with more outstanding albums and standout tracks than any other artist on this list, but “Paranoid Android” has stood above the rest, since day one, as my go-to example of Radiohead’s excellence. First off, the timing and structure were unlike anything previously in the Radiohead canon (and even since its release, only “Supercollider” clocks in as a longer release). It clocked in at over six minutes and featured distinct musical movements, much like Queen’s classic “Bohemian Rhapsody”, a song to which “Paranoid Android” was often compared initially. A standout on the decade-defining OK Computer, it encapsulated all of the themes that the album extolled: Paranoia, uncertainty, insanity. It also represents one of the earliest predictors of Radiohead’s musical range, as it expertly melds their previously-refined acoustic and traditional rock elements with their newly-fashioned electronic experimentation. The first two minutes are chilling and eerie, especially as Thom Yorke wonders “What’s that?” with that guitar lick looming in the background. The second part soon kicks in, which harkens back to a more traditional rock aesthetic. 2:45 is one of my favorite climaxes and solos in a Radiohead song, definitely showcasing that they can rock out with the best of them. Then, suddenly, we witness a slowdown. It is a rather beautiful movement, with the melodic vocal background and Yorke crying “Rain down on me!” As this continues, Yorke sings a few more lines until the memorable last line: “God loves his children, yeah”, which is immediately followed by another rock-out ending, with distorted vocals and guitars until completion. It is a rollercoaster of a song with a lot going on, but it all flows fluidly and excellently to create an evocative experience, even after a hundred listens.

On a personal level, the idea of being the titular paranoid android resonated with me, especially upon first listens. It is in human nature to be unnecessarily paranoid about certain things, but the robotic declaration “I may be paranoid, but not an android” sums it all up: I may worry about things, but it is on my volition and by my own thinking.

Every song on this countdown has held some significance since first hearing it. Most were gateways into the rest of the artist’s expansive discography, and all of them have impacted my overall music taste to certain degrees. However, no song (or artist) has had as much of an influence as “Paranoid Android” by Radiohead, single-handedly pulling me from the depths of modern rock mediocrity and into the realm of great music and talent. I always wondered what I might say if I ever had the unlikely circumstance of meeting Thom Yorke. I am certain that I would fall prey to being starstruck, but after recovering, perhaps I would begin by simply saying: “Thank you.”

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

My Top 12 Songs of All-Time...Right Now: #2

LCD Soundsystem
"All My Friends"
Single from the album Sound of Silver
Single release date: May 28, 2007
Pitchfork's Top 500 Tracks of the 2000s: 2
Rolling Stone's Top Songs of the 2000s: 41

Getting old sucks. I have determined that once you turn twenty-one, having a birthday is no longer necessary, beginning the inevitable slippery slope. “That’s how it starts.”

James Murphy, through LCD Soundsystem, has released plenty of great songs (shit, they’re all great), and it sincerely saddens me to think that there will be no more new music from the recently disbanded powerhouse. On the bright side, the legacy that they have left behind is substantial and something great, and their back catalogue is chock-full of classics. Also, they left on a high note…you know, before they lost their edge. Still, I humbly decide “All My Friends” as their best, perfectly-crafted song.

“All My Friends” starts with those unforgiving, discordant piano plinks that become the backbone of this masterpiece. The rapid percussion kicks in, followed by that beautiful barnburner of a guitar riff. Once all coalesced, it never ceases for seven minutes of musical euphoria. Throughout the song, it is Murphy’s spot-on lyrics and delivery that do the rest of the work. He shows that, yes, he can sing, and sing well and really pull at the heartstrings while doing it.

Although not quite at the crossroads that Murphy alludes to in the song, the heartfelt confessions hit closer to home for me now more than ever. As a recent college graduate, all of the crazy bullshit that was had with great friends is now mostly a remnant of the past as a set of unforgettable memories. These types of memories are interspersed in the narrative of “All My Friends”, as he reminisces about, among other things, staying up late and doing drugs with his friends. It is hard not to consider this song extremely melancholic in this sense, both in its overall sound and the fact that these fond memories are no longer a reality. Nearing the cathartic climax of the song, Murphy rattles off some inevitabilities of life now: “When you’re drunk and the kids leave impossible tasks / You think over and over, ‘Hey, I’m finally dead’”. Then, he repeatedly belts out with all of his might the question “Where are your friends tonight?” and the simple plea “If I could see all my friends tonight.” Many artists employ some type of climactic nature in their music, but no song brings me as close to tears as “All My Friends” does every single time I hear it. That right there is powerful shit.

I was beyond lucky to be able to see LCD Soundsystem at their last show at Terminal 5 this past March, especially after the scalper fiasco and the unprecedented rapidity of ticket sales for the new shows. Murphy and Co. put on a hell of a show, playing most of their catalogue to a dedicated group of fans. Their set list could be divvied up into thirds, and “All My Friends” concluded the first third. Because of its evocative nature, I would have preferred it to be one of the last songs played of the night. However, as soon as it played, it became a moot point as I realized I was being treated to a live version of one of my favorite songs ever. The level of intensity of the impact of the song increased exponentially when witnessed live, and it became a brief moment of nirvana for me. I was definitely bummed when The White Stripes disbanded this year, but I legitimately have been in mourning for the end of LCD Soundsystem. To think: All of this powerful language over some music. All I want is another hit from them! (OK, I’mLink done.)

Full Version of Song

Music Video (Shortened Version of Song)

Friday, June 3, 2011

My Top 12 Songs of All-Time...Right Now: #3

Animal Collective
"My Girls"
Single from the album Merriweather Post Pavilion
Single release date: March 23, 2009
Pitchfork's Top 500 Tracks of the 2000s: 9
NME's Top Songs of 2009: 5
Slant Magazine's Top Songs of 2009: 1

The closest thing to a back-to-back on the countdown, yesterday’s Panda Bear is followed up by the band from which he derives. Animal Collective have taken my listening by storm since I discovered 2007’s Strawberry Jam. Even after sifting through most of their back catalogue, their most recent LP easily stands as my favorite. Like Person Pitch, Merriweather Post Pavilion has garnered tons of plays and obsession, both during and after its year of release. It is not just an album; it is an experience. Although there are no twelve-minute epic centerpieces here, there are certainly prominent standouts. Although there are plenty of excellent Animal Collective tracks, “My Girls” takes the gold as my favorite (and, expectedly, most played) track.

On an album filled with delight over life’s simple pleasures, “My Girls” encapsulates this theme perfectly. It opens with that shimmering fragility, a kind of washing-over effect on the listener. It sounds sugary, like the entrance music to some far-out fantasy land. Initially hazy, the dreamy vocals soon kick in, further enforcing the lullaby aesthetic. The story is quite simple and is fully realized at the irresistible chorus: “I don’t mean / to seem like I care about material things / Like the social stats / I just want/ Four walls and adobe slats for my girls.” After the first instance of the chorus, there’s that piercing, almost celebratory yelp as the chorus repeats with a bit more oomph and stomp-and-handclap…and all is right in the world for a brief moment.

The song is a thing of beauty: It doesn’t do a whole lot and it doesn’t have any crazy “gimmicks” or draws. Yet, it draws you in time and time again. When the chorus repeats several times near the end and everything has coalesced, it could repeat a thousand times more without complaint as they have carved out a slice of beautiful bliss for all to enjoy. Despite listening to it easily over a hundred times (a rare feat for me), words still escape me when trying to describe it. It has almost become one of those indescribable, internal feelings or emotions: You can’t put it into words, but you know what it is and how it makes you feel…and that’s all that matters. Like many of the songs on my Top 12, “My Girls” further cemented Animal Collective as one of my favorite bands, consistently impressing me with their unabashed experimentalism and provoking me to find other bands that try to reach their excellence.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

My Top 12 Songs of All-Time...Right Now: #4

Panda Bear
Single from the album Person Pitch
Single release date: September 4, 2006
Pitchfork's Top 500 Tracks of the 2000s: 48

As this list slowly reaches its logical conclusion, it has become increasingly difficult to rank some of my all-time favorites. Case-in-point: “Bros” at #4 is criminally too low, but three other songs have had even more of an impact on my music preferences today.

Panda Bear is the pseudonym of Noah Lennox, known for his work in Animal Collective. His band has cranked out eight studio albums since 2000, but Lennox has still found time to release four full-lengths, including this year’s great Tomboy. 2007’s Person Pitch, however, has been the rare album that has received spins every year from me since its release. (Let’s be real: Even when an album is great in a particular year, it can be easy to forget about it with the influx of new music or perhaps more “accessible” options from the same era.) The entire album is quite enveloping, an escape, as it produces the extraordinary sensation of wishing it would never end. The undeniable centerpiece of this album is “Bros”, a twelve-minute sprawling, heartfelt gem.

It starts off striking in its lack of immediacy. In fact, it sounds very sweet and sugary in its heavily-layered, slow-paced beauty. Cue Lennox’s unmistakable Wilsonian vocals, hiding meekly behind loads of reverb. As a result, the song almost sounds like some oldies classic that begs to be listened out of an old-timey radio or jukebox. “Bros” trudges onward, continuing through different movements that subtly add more and more elements and effects, trying to outdo the previous in grandiosity. About halfway through, that repetitive guitar strum, simple enough to be used in a million songs for a million different emotions and feelings, kicks in, segueing into the second half. Every time though, it is almost as if it comes out of nowhere. Lo and behold, on and on it goes, as Lennox’s vocals become more indistinguishable…and yet the song progresses. It is wonderfully paced, and the instrumental interludes are almost prompts to appreciate the overwhelming beauty of the song. A twelve-and-a-half minute song might seem like a marathon, but no minute is wasted and, like the entire album, could go on forever without complaint.

Oh, how about those lyrics? Supposedly, Lennox wrote them for his titular brother after their father’s death (along with Animal Collective’s “Brother Sport”), but as is the beauty of music, they can be applied to anyone or anything. The opening line is rather blunt and on paper sounds like something from some radio rock schlock: “Hey hey, what’s your problem? / Don’t you know that I don’t belong to you?” He later confesses that “I’m not trying to forget you / I just like to be alone / Come give me the space I need / And you may, and you may, and you may, and you may find that we’re alright”. Any problematic friendship or relationship could fall squarely into the song’s crosshairs: Look, I don’t want to lose you, but give it some time, and we’ll be okay. In the indecipherable ending, Lennox concludes with “I do love you and / I want to hold on to you for always”. “Bros” is not a song of ending, but rather of new beginning. The entire song exudes positivity, as an almost cheer-up mechanism for the initial difficulty of transition.

I could go on and on. The fact that one song could be so evocative and powerful has always been fascinating to me. What’s even more fascinating: There are still three more songs like this. Not to be overshadowed, “Bros” is a well-crafted masterpiece deserving of every superlative.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

My Top 12 Songs of All-Time...Right Now: #5

Single from the album Mirrored
Single release date: February 4, 2007
Pitchfork's Top 500 Tracks of the 2000s: 42

I do not think I have heard a song that could serve as the soundtrack for so many different activities as “Atlas” can. My most-played song (according to, which started tracking most of my song plays since August 2005) for a reason, “Atlas” is currently my standard for replay value among musical neophytes because of its unflinching flexibility.

The experimental/math rock supergroup (who have just two EPs and two LPs to date), starring the excellent drumming of John Stanier, propel forward immediately on “Atlas”, creating a very robotic percussion background. It is as if the band is introducing some mammoth machine, some well-oiled specimen. Then, those quirky, distorted chipmunk vocals kick in, going on nonsensically about “kitchen is the cook” and “scissors are the barber’s”. There is a brief climax before everything abruptly shuts down before the three-minute mark…of the seven-minute song. The personified robot song gradually regains steam, as one new subtle element gets thrown in after the other until the keyboard alternates and the percussion gets louder and louder. This mythical, mechanical creature is back in full form, reciting its aforementioned SAT analogies until the chorus is repeated.

“Atlas” spurs a lot of imagery, but it almost begs to be spurred. It sounds so mechanical, so rigid, so math-y, it is easy to forget that a group of human beings are creating music here. For some reason, there is an overriding tongue-in-cheek implication inherent in the song. The song is not that funny per se, but it is not super-serious music, and the band knows this (near the end of the song, Robot Alvin mentions “The chorus doesn’t matter”.) Notable or quirky percussion is infectious, and “Atlas” follows suit without being cliché (for example, no stomp-and-handclaps). The progression of the song from build-up to climax to even more gradual establishment of self before back to normal, coupled with its distinguishable sound combine to make it great music for…well, pretty much anything. It is a solid song for the gym, either on the track or in the weight room (although hardcore music was made for the latter). It is an adequate driving song. It makes moving in and out of a room, or cleaning said room, slightly better. It works as good puzzle- or problem-solving music, as evidenced by its use in the phenomenal PS3 puzzler LittleBigPlanet. Above all, it is an enjoyable ride of a song that is difficult in which not to get lost, inducing frantic air drumming for a solid seven minutes. As nondescript as the adjective can be, “Atlas” stands alone as the most fun song on this list of superlative songs.

Full Version of the Song:

Music Video (Shortened Version of the Song):