1. Sleigh Bells, "End Of The Line" The band Sleigh Bells most resembles (conceptually, anyway) are my dimly remembered high school faves Snake River Conspiracy (most notable for an incredibly literal cover of "How Soon Is Now?," in which actual birds chirp when said sound is mentioned): dominant producer auteur male, token female industrial chanteuse who's integral to the project. "End Of The Line" is probably one of the most hyperbolic songs about the end of a relationship in recent years, complete with teenage lyrics ("CAN YOU HEAR ME? CAN YOU SEE ME?") It's Melancholia in song form, a black dog depressive damnation with epic drums, a syrupy embrace of depression and guilt, with massive drums and a manic pixie dream girl sighing. I love it.
2. Metric, "Long To Live" My girlfriend lives across the street from Brooklyn's Prospect Park, which has bands all summer. When Metric came, we stood outside and listened (it's more than loud enough to be immersive). As I flipped out a bit, the g/f bemusedly observed "You're a teenage girl." She was completely correct: the Twilight series had to exist to allow Metric to write a theme song to a vampire romance for self-consciously gloomy tween girls.
Metric's one of the few bands I feel self-conscious about liking (Sleigh Bells, with their large contingent of haters, are still more putatively respectable). This is mostly Emily Haines' fault: her father, Paul Haines, is apparently a respected Canadian poet (so Wikipedia and Emily tell me; I wouldn't know), and she takes her words/angst QUITE SERIOUSLY. In "Long To Live," Haines' nightmare vision of a world imploding is...picturing herself in "a room with no makeup." (The horror!) But it's a great song, with a thumping drumbeat from Metric's incredibly professional rhythm section (live, they rock like resigned LA session players, professionally bloodless and distanced from their own effects), riffing off Howard Shore's score to exciting effect.
3. Menomena, "Pique" You all know (or should, jeez) R. Kelly's "Real Talk." So how's this for real talk? "I'm a failure/cursed with male genitalia/a parasitic fuck/with no clue as to what men do/impossible to love (x4)." Menomena are a pretty great band and have been for some time now: they're classically "indie rock" (i.e., they're a band heavy on guitars and bass, resistant to overproduction, writing songs slightly trickier than they need to be). They've hinted at the darker parts of the generic male psyche before (as on "Five Little Rooms," with its bachelor party and a hooker for every man). In "Pique," they connect their sexual/personal unavailability/upbringing with their upbringing: specifically, guitarist/saxophonist Justin Harris' mom, with whom he he has a complicated relationship, to say the least ("You brought me into the shitshow without a penny or a plan"). I don't have a confessional bone in my body, but let's just say I get this song.
4. Stars, "The Theory Of Relativity" Stars should be past their sell-by date: even at the peak moment of 2005's Set Yourself On Fire, they were behind the curve. But they still have some good songs in them, and this is one of them, a rueful admission of their aging potential irrelevance ("It can't be '93, sadly, though I wish it could forever/You call it luck, I call it tragedy"). Time passes, and the partying instinct is slowed by the body ("One more ovation please for the dude who sold us Ecstasy/he's building homes down in the new third world"). It's the usual Stars boy-girl duet, with a wistfulness that doesn't seem forced. This is what aging with musical dignity sounds like.
5. Saint Etienne, "Finisterre" "Use a bank? I'd rather die." I can't remember in what order I've listened to Saint Etienne's albums, which makes me vaguely sad, but they're for sure one of my favorite bands. This year, last.fm tells me I listened to them more than anyone else (675 scrobbles to Sleigh Bells' 292), and "Finisterre" must have been my last first-time stop in their discography. It's a fabulous album overall. "Finisterre" is hauntological urban spelunking, whose lyrics make sense to anyone living in a big city where real estate turnover is constant ("Finisterre/Tear it down and start again," with a nice nod to Orange Juice as well). The album's cover points to a darker meaning, but Sarah Cracknell's grateful embrace of urban anonymity ("I love the feeling of being slightly lost") strikes a melancholy chord. Also: "Imagine the 19th century never happened. Just a straight line from Beau Brummel to Bauhaus."
I guess I should mention that Saint Etienne is one of two bands I saw live this year (aside from my friend Gryphon's terrific project Phone Tag). They played a tight 75 minutes: Cracknell preened adorably with her boa and sparkly dress, while Dolly Mixture's Debsey Wykes sang modest back-up and the two men lurked in the background, manipulating nobs with Pete Tong headphones on. The set was all upbeat tracks, allowing Saint Etienne to pretend they're a light pop band rather than one of the more melancholy curatorial critics' projects around. It was underwhelming and exhilarating simultaneously.
6. "You Lost Me," Sleigh Bells More melancholy; I mope a lot, whatever. "I don't want you to see me this way, but I'm ready to die."
7. "Instigator," M.O.P. I have no idea why this song came back with such a vengeance this year; I've known it for years. But it's on a playlist I keep called "MOTIVATION," composed entirely of aggressive hip-hop. This is such a socially irresponsible number, calling for more violence in the rap world. ("BLAST THAT MOTHERFUCKER/DAMN THAT MOTHERFUCKER/GET AT THAT MOTHERFUCKER"). My id is happy.
8. "I Don't Like" Chief Keef ft. Lil Reese The things which Chief Keef doesn't like seem pretty universal ("a fart," "thirsty bitches"). Chief Keef''s taken a lot of heat for his various misdeeds and incitements to violence. His apologists claim that he's a victim of the system, numbed to the carnage he calls for, while his critics claim he's just making money off of needless street violence. I don't have anything responsible to say or nuanced to say (that part of my brain is focused on Django Unchained); this is the sound of pure, crass negativity, at deafening, repetitive volume. DON'T LIKE. DON'T LIKE. (Facebook "like.")
9. ABBA, "My Love, My Life This is the year I first listened to ABBA consciously (Arrival, specifically) and boy are they terrific. It's a great album, but this song stood out because a) it's not a single, and that contrarian side of my personality dies hard b) IT'S SO SAD. (A pattern may be emerging here.) I especially love the gramatically correct but unidiomatic second-language English, whose frustrated politeness hints at roiling turmoil underneath. "I know I don't possess you, so go away God bless you."
10. Sleigh Bells, "Crush"
What's weird is I hate all the elements normally: the cheerleader chanting, monotonous handclapping, the teen girl gleefulness ("I'VE GOT A CRUSH ON YOU/I'VE GOT A CRUSH ON YOU"). But sometimes joy comes in unexpected packages.