I told myself all year that I wouldn’t create a “Top Songs” list for 2012. In years past, I’ve invested massive amounts of time to create what had over the years turned into a list of the Top 100 (!) songs, a list that pretty much no one every read or cared about (here’s last year’s list!). I decided this year that my time was better spent focusing solely on my albums list. Then again, as the month of January has crept forward, I kept getting the itchy typing finger to still throw a list of songs together. I’m not quite sure why I ever made a song list considering I’ve always been an “album” kind of guy. Then again, there are always those tracks that stand out and get revisited when I’m not listening to an album in its entirety. Most commonly my favorite songs from the year are found on mediocre albums that I’m not interested in revisiting in their entirety, but you will also find familiar tracks that can be found on my definitive “Top 40 Albums of 2012” list. What you read below is far from definitive. Simply put – it’s a collection of songs that you may enjoy as sweet little morsels of dessert to follow my 40-course meal of albums.
Category Archives: Top Songs Lists
You are about to read through what I deem the top 60 tracks of 2011. Yes, 60. For some reason, lists need to fit within the confines of the top 100, top 50, top 40, Top 20, or Top 10. Any other number seems arbitrary. I had the same uncertainty with the number 60. When I first assembled my list it consisted of 87 songs. I had a decision to make: force 13 more songs onto the list and create another monolith like I did last year (it was a lot of work by the way), or attempt to whittle the list down to 50. I went with the latter, but when finished, I found I still had 67 songs. I struggled and struggled and eventually had it to the number we have now: 60. At this point, I couldn’t remove one more song. None of these songs could be tossed aside, each holding a special meaning, memory, or melody that helped me through another year.
Last weekend a few friends and I took a three-day canoe trip down the Des Moines River in Iowa, starting in Estherville and ending up in Rutland. Since this experience, I can’t get the river off my mind (I have water on the brain). The journey packed a jambalaya of emotions: fear, exhilaration, calm, joy, and enlightenment. Many around Iowa look at the Des Moines River as a dirty cesspool of cow dung and pesticides, but they’ve obviously never gotten to know those murky brown waters. Now, I can’t help but feel a connection to the river.
Realizing I need to post a blog before BDWPS.com dries up like a riverbed, I contemplated different albums I could review. Nothing excited me though, and without passion, my writing sits as lifeless as a dead fish on the banks. Instead, I followed my recent enthusiasm from my river experience and decided to write a list of the “Top 20 River Songs.” As I started compiling the list I began to realize that rivers have been the subject of many, many, many songs. And it isn’t any wonder: rivers are mysterious old souls that can look serene and inviting while hiding beneath their vast power and unpredictability. They are both beautiful and terrifying at the same time.
Honorable Mention:“River”Akron/Family “Lazy River” Louie Armstrong “Green River” CCR “Yes, the River Knows” The Doors “The River” Dutchess and the Duke “Roll On Columbia” Woody Guthrie “How Deep is that River” Mason Jennings “River” Killdozer “River of Deceit” Mad Season “All the Gifted Children” Lou Reed “Mississippi River” Muddy Waters
20. “Proud Mary” Creedence Clearwater Revival
I hate this song (probably because it has been so over-played), but I felt compelled to include it on the list. If you asked the average person to name five river songs, this song would undoubtedly come up. If I left it off the list I would be deceiving the readers based solely on my bias. I prefer the CCR version over Tina Turner’s. Then again, that’s like saying I prefer liver and onions over a Spam sandwich. Regardless, you made the list CCR. Take your #20 ranking and roll with it.
19. “River, Stay ‘Way From the Door” Frank Sinatra
“River, Stay Away From the Door” is a plea to flood waters to stay away from the narrator’s cabin. The song takes on a double meaning as a plea to an ex-wife or girlfriend, asking her to stay away and leave him with the few items that he still has: his bed and a fire. And really, that’s all a man needs, right?
18. “Dam that River” Alice in Chains
As with 90% of Alice in Chains songs, “Dam that River” is about heroin addiction. In it, Layne Staley sings of someone trying to dam the river (stop his addiction), but despite their efforts, the river still washed him away. Damn.
17. “Down in the River to Pray” Alison Krauss
There has always been a connection between rivers and religion, one that goes beyond baptism. With “Down in the River to Pray” Allison Krauss sings about going to the banks to speak to God. And why wouldn’t she? Just like God, the river is deep and mystifying, cleansing and strong, ceaseless and never-ending. It makes you wonder why anyone who lives within 20 miles of a river goes to church to pray.
16. “Ballad of Easy Rider” Byrds
On the “Ballad of Easy Rider,” the Byrds draw a connection between riding a motorcycle and riding a river, and I guess it makes sense. During our trip down the Des Moines last weekend, we often didn’t know where we were or where the curving waters would take us next, but we never really cared just as long as we kept moving. I imagine this is the same experience those roving bikers felt in “Easy Rider,” letting the journey lead their way toward freedom. The only difference being (spoiler alert) we didn’t have a bad acid trip or get murdered by hillbillies. (Side note: Bob Dylan helped write this song)
15. “River of Sorrow” Antony and the Johnsons
No other voice could pull this song off quite like Antony. His croon always captures the spirit of a desperate soul. On “River of Sorrow” he begs the endless river to stop swallowing many things: sorrow, love, and time. Now if only he’d tell the river not to swallow my cell phone and wallet (which it did!).
14. “Ol’ Man River” Beach Boys
You knew “Ol’ Man River” would make the list. It’s a staple of the river song catalog and has been performed by artists such as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Ray Charles, but my favorite version comes from the Beach Boys off their album “Friends/20/20.” It’s probably inappropriate to like their version the best considering it originated as a slave song with lyrics like “let me go away from the white man boss.” Oh well, I’m a sucker for Bryan Wilson harmonies. I guess I would draw the Beach-Boys-slave-song-line at “Strange Fruit” (although I imagine it would even be pretty incredible).
13. “Pissing in a River” Patti Smith
I first discovered this song when I read Nick Hornby’s Songbook. In the chapter on “Pissing in a River” he recounts an incredible show he caught of Patti Smith and how her performance of this song still remains in his mind. Hornby says it best: “…the song was called ‘Pissing a River’; and it was played on guitars, and it lasted four or five minutes, and its emotional effects depended entirely on its chords and its chorus and its attitude. It’s a pop song, in other words, and like a lot of other pop songs, it’s capable of just about anything.”
12. “River Euphrates” Pixies
In “River Euphrates” the narrator finds himself stranded, out of gas, on the Gaza Strip. I used to think his solution was to ride a tire down the Euphrates river, which would be pretty sweet, but doing research for this blog I discovered that he actually says “Ride the tiger down the River Euphrates!” Riding a tiger down a river?! And I thought riding a tire was bad ass.
11. “Five Feet High and Rising” Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash has several river based songs (“Big River,” “Run Softly Blue River”) but the one I like the best is “Five Feet High and Rising.” I love how the song goes up a key each verse, a subtle touch that adds to the narrative. Plus, Cash somehow makes a disaster like a five foot flood sound fun.
10. “Watching the River Flow” Bob Dylan
When I started compiling this list, Bob Dylan’s “Watching the River Flow” was one of the first songs to come to mind, but when I searched through my i-Pod for the song, it was nowhere to be found. “What album was it on?” I wondered, searching one album after another. Then I realized I first heard it on his second edition of greatest hits, which I didn’t load to iTunes for redundancy reasons. With all of Dylan’s bootlegs and rarity albums you’d think there would be another place to find this great song, but it has only be seen on that one greatest hits compilation. It’s a testament to Dylan’s songwriting talents; an awesome song like “Watching the River Flow” is just a leftover.
9. “Shenandoah” Pete Seeger
A song about as old as America’s rivers themselves, “Shenandoah” once served as a shanty for river men and has changed over time as people from across our great nation changed and added lyrics to fit their region. Over the years, the name “Shenandoah” in the song has represented a plethora of things: a river, an Indian chief’s daughter, and a small Iowa town. Pete Seeger’s version is my favorite. While others spruce their recording up with orchestra swells and back-up choirs, Seeger captures the folk soul of the song simply with his voice and a guitar (there’s also a live version with a banjo - yes, a banjo).
8. “Black Water” Doobie Brothers
“Black Water” has an upbeat, blue grass feel that captures the sensation of rolling down the river with friends, taking the experience all in. It also hearkens back to Huck Finn’s journey down the Mississippi on a raft and how those black waters led his way. Some have suggested that the black water represents anything from bong water to moon shine, but I tend to believe it is simply about the Mississippi River. And if it is about drugs or alcohol, why are they riding on a raft? Does that symbolize a bean bag? And are the catfish pot brownies?
7. “Whiskey River” Willie Nelson
I don’t think there is an actual Whiskey River, but the metaphor is pretty obvious. With a broken heart, Willie turns to whiskey to wash away his pain and take his mind off of his problems for just a while. The river makes for a great whiskey analogy because while riding the Des Moines we were disconnected from the real world of responsibilities. It was just us and that amber current (Note to self: bring a bottle of Jack next year).
6. “River Guard” Smog
This song always reminds me of “Shawshank Redemption.” Not that there are any rivers in the film, but Bill Callahan’s story of these prisoners being free for just a moment conjures up the image of Andy Dufresne and his gang drinking beers on the rooftop, finding joy and freedom for an instant. The river serves that same purpose in “River Guard,” giving these criminals a chance to be “unburdened and relaxed.”
5. “River” Joni Mitchell
I find it strange that Joni Mitchell’s “River” has become a Christmas song. It was never intended as such. Sure, it speaks of decorations and songs of peace, but the message is anything but joyful. Joni wrote “River” about the remorse she felt when thinking back on the daughter she gave up for adoption. Instead of most songs on this list that speak of flowing waters, Joni wants a frozen river to “skate away on.” That’s a Canadian for ya.
4. “Down By the Water” PJ Harvey
What happened under the bridge is still in question, but there is no doubt that innocence was lost. Whether it was the narrator who lost her childhood to sexual abuse or her actual daughter, she stands on the banks of the river and begs the fish (Christ) to bring back her purity. The fact that many think this is just another riverside murder song shows just how much depth there is in PJ Harvey’s songwriting.
3. “Take Me to the River” Talking Heads
This is originally an Al Green song, and as much as I respect Mr. Green, I prefer what the Talking Heads did with it. The Green version was based in religion with him turning to the waters to wash away his sins. In a genius move, David Byrne took these lyrics and tweaked them to be about a lover who the narrator can’t resist. He’s willing to give up everything just for her to “dip (him) in the water.” Leave it to Byrne to make baptism sound racy.
2. “Down by the River” Neil Young
One of Neil Young’s most mysterious songs, “Down By the River” has a chorus of “Down by the river, I shot my baby.” This would suggest that this is another song about a riverside murder, but the rest of the trippy lyrics speak of “taking a ride” and being dragged “over a river.” While Young has stayed pretty mum on the subject of the song, some have suggested that the river represents heroin (a motif discussed earlier with “Dam the River”) and he’s shooting himself up in order to take the ride. Again, it’s probably just about a river, but it’s fun to think about. Whatever the case, it’s a damn catchy song with distinctive guitar break-downs throughout. Just like a river, Young’s guitar solos are always erratic, fierce, and unrelenting.
1. “The River” Bruce Springsteen
As with most Springsteen songs, “The River” tells the story of the struggles of adulthood. This particular song tells the story of a couple who has been together since high school, spending their youth down at the river swimming and sunning. As the song progresses both the river and their lives change with time. By the end, the river that once tied them together and brought them joy is gone. It’s hard to imagine a river dying; about as hard as it is to see teenage dreams dry up.
25. “Tuning Out”
Eddy Current Suppression Ring
On face value, this is just another punk rock song, but if you listen a little longer you’ll hear exactly what makes Eddy Current Suppression Ring different than others within the genre. While most bands would wrap this song up at the two minute mark, ECSR have just begun. The next four and a half minutes of “Tuning Out” Eddy Current takes front stage, manipulating his Stratocaster to its limit, making a gluttonous amount of squeaks and howls, showing exactly why this is his band.
24. “Crank Resolutions”
Back in Septemeber, I wrote of Meursault and this song: “While most bands are forced to rely on a more polished production value to push the sense of urgency to a higher level, Meursault rely solely on a strange mixture of popping beats and crunching piano riffs that are reminiscent of a CB radio broadcast. ‘Crank Resolutions’ features a beat that is beyond description (which is a good thing).”
23. “Don’t Look Back”
Usually, Kylesa are pretty damn scary, but on “Don’t Look Back” they sound strangely inspirational. Tony Robbins better watch his back (on second thought Tony, heed Kylesa’s advice and don’t look back).
22. “Like the Ocean, Like the Innocent Pt. 2: Innocent”
I saw Besnard Lakes perform this song at SXSW this past year, and since then, I haven’t been able to remove the soothing chorus of “Ooh, you’re like the ocean” out of my head. You can put your ear up to my cranium like it’s a seashell and hear the sounds of “Like the Ocean” softly echoing inside.
21. “Hey Cool Kid”
“Hey Cool Kid” is a story of an outsider, realizing that his idol is nothing but an asshole who will “beat me back into the ground”. Despite this, his insecurity pushes him to still keep asking for the cool kid “to come around”.
20. “Suburban War”
When I first heard this song I liked it because the guitar lick reminded me of The Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter”. Then of course I made the mistake of listening to the lyrics, and this once upbeat song spawned sorrow for those friends I’ve lost in their pursuit of adulthood:My old friends I can remember when You cut your hair We never saw you again Now the cities we live in Could be distant stars And I search for you In every passing car
19. “Sleepless in Silver Lake”
Les Savy Fav
As far as I’m concerned, there are way too many songs about Los Angeles. Where are the songs about Bozeman, Montana for Christ’s sake!? Despite the saturation of “I Love L.A.”s and “Under the Bridge”s, Les Savy Fav present a fresh take on the City of Angels with “Sleepless in Silver Lake”:The walking wounded wrap their face in gauze. These kids’ll kill ya just because they can. Their teeth are bleached and their tits are tan.
18. “Black Bubblegum”
I’m 86% sure that this song is about Sherry Becker who chewed Black Jack bubblegum, wore an orange dress, and witnessed Jerry Seinfeld returning Tropic of Cancer to the library in 1972 (or was it Dentyne?).
17. “The Tree”
Blitzen Trapper (featuring Alela Diane)
Another highlight of 2010 for me was my last minute trip to Portland with my brother. The two of us rented a little Vibe and drove around the area, hiking whatever peaks we could fit in within our three-day stay. While hiking along the Cascade Ridge, we came upon 300-year-old Sitka trees – an army of menacing patriarchs, standing judicious and strong, looking down upon all that pass by. Whenever I listen to the 2010 release from Portland’s own Blitzen Trapper I can’t help but think back to that trip, more specifically this song with its lyrics of a tree that “grows never-ending”. Upon each listen, I’m brought back to that day, standing with my brother and looking up at the majestic beasts that surrounded us. The addition of Portland’s first lady Alela Diane to the song only sweetens the song’s enchantment.
16. “Take It Easy”
Starts off with a tropical feel, moves into an early 90s alternative chorus, and ends with an 80s U2 outro: this is what we call a song quilt.
15. “The Boys are Out”
Whenever I play this song I feel guilty. I bought the Hanoi Janes latest release, and after listening to it all the way through a couple times, I found myself continually going back to this song (ignoring the rest). There is just something about the little freak out that arrives at the 30 second mark- maybe it’s the drumstick cracks, or it could possibly the call-and-response guitars that reverberate from one speaker to the other- whatever it is, “The Boys are Out” is the most fun you’ll have in under a minute thirty.
14. “The Winner”
“Twistable, Turnable Man” was an album of Shel Silverstien covers that came out this past year, and despite an impressive list of bands featured on it (My Morning Jacket, Andrew Bird, Lucinda Williams) the best cover is performed by old reliable, Kris Kristofferson. His raspy baritone naturally works with Silverstein’s narrative songwriting. When I listen to this song, I imagine the narrator is LeBron James and Tiger Man the Cool is Michael Jordan. It just seems fitting after finding out this past summer that James doesn’t understand what it takes to be a winner.
13. “My Gap Feels Weird”
I would prefer if this song were about having a pain in your taint, but it ends up ol’ Mack wrote it about going to a show and realizing you’re the oldest one there. I hate to admit that I can relate. At least I can take comfort in knowing old folks are always welcome at a Superchunk show.
12. “Night, Night”
Big Boi (featuring B.o.B. and Joi)
“Night, Night” is one of the finest rap call-outs you’ll ever hear, not pointing out one specific MC, rather annihilating all the fools that can’t hold themselves up to Big Boi’s standard. To back up his flow built on intelligence rather than empty threats, Big Boi blends a funky bass with a spunky female choir that is completely devoid of auto-tune. It truly is “something new.”
11. “Marimba and Shit Drums”
Earlier this year, I wrote of this song/album: “There is only one 20-minute song on Moonface’s EP “Dreamland” and it is called “marimba and shit-drums”. The title is straight to the point because, in fact, the song is comprised of just that: a marimba and shit-drums. Of course, you also hear Spencer Krug’s voice, but otherwise it is simply a marimba and shit-drums; nothing more, nothing less. The constant pulse of the marimba gives the song imminence; a feeling that the echo of the wooden bars being struck by a mallet is building towards something, racing toward a culmination. Then, of course, the shit-drums kick in and it’s on. The crackling of the harsh rhythm plays as the perfect antithesis to the happy-go-lucky marimba. Krug has taken the joyful sounds of the African instrument and somehow given it tension, made it angrier, made it sound more, dare I say, hardcore. With only two simple instruments Krug creates music that is just as dramatic and heartfelt as anything by Explosions in the Sky. Creating explosions with only two instruments? In essence, Krug is the MacGyver of the music world.”
When Dean Spunt sings “I want you bad underneath my skin”, he’s encapsulating addiction. It could be a dependence to drugs, alcohol, food, sex, or maybe even an abusive relationship; whatever it is, the speaker knows it will cause harm yet craves it. For me, the addiction is to the screeching distortion that lurks in the background of this song. To many, I’m sure this sounds like simply noise, but I keep coming back. Not because I enjoy pain, but because I’ve found beauty within that dissonance. I can’t get enough of that needling noise underneath my skin.
9. “Dance Yrself Clean”
I present to you an auditory cleansing. The first three minutes will help you relax, help raise your spirits. And then, well, then it’s time. James Murphy’s pumping beats and throbbing bass line burst through the speakers and spray you with an energy you didn’t have moments ago. Suddenly, without warning, you’re on your feet moving; washing away your worries; shaking away your negative energy; dancing yourself clean.
8. “Desire Lines”
If you asked me a year ago to name the top ten songs of the past decade, Deerhunter’s “Nothing Ever Happened” would have easily made the list. Its fluid movements from one riff to the next continues to leave me in awe. I didn’t think the band could ever top the song. Then along comes “Haclyon Digest” with the song “Desire Lines”, and I’m thrown for a loop. Not only does this song follow the same transformational model (three minutes in the madness is unleashed), but it also features an even catchier chorus to start things off. “Nothing Ever Happened” probably remains the quintessential Deerhunter song for me, but they are sure making things difficult.
7. “Post Acid”
Only a year ago, everyone hated Nathan Williams for his meltdown in Barcelona, even his drummer. But now it’s officially time to exonerate him of his past mistakes. Not only are his songs more instantaneously satisfying, but he’s also apologizing in “Post Acid” when he sings “I was just having fun with you.” Ah shucks Nathan; we forgive you.
6. “Wide Eyes”
The harmonizing voices, the machine gun drums, the twinkling guitar riffs: “Wide Eyes” is an example of a band finding their true potential. While much of “Gorilla Manor” is milk-toast mediocrity, this song proves that when all the pieces are put in the right place, Local Natives are capable of making extraordinary music.
5. “Round and Round”
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti
All of the parts of “Round and Round” work together like a merry-go-round of melody, moving round and round, up and down, creating an experience that will have you begging for another ride through simpler times.
4. “Snakes for the Divine”
High On Fire
The metal anthem is not dead, despite what sports arenas around the country would suggest. They’d like you to believe that fist pumping and head banging died with AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, and Metallica. Wrong. Imagine if you will, your favorite sports team running onto the court/field/ice as the opening to “Snakes for the Divine” rumbles through the stadium, building a frothing mass of furious, energized fans, filled with bloodlust for a win, shaking, twitching, standing on the verge of a completely chaotic riot…. actually, it’s probably a good idea to keep High On Fire out of the stadiums (especially Detroit).
Kanye West (featuring Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nikki Manaj, and Bon Iver)
When Kanye West sang his song “Runaway” at the VMA’s, most thought it was an admission of guilt to Taylor Swift. Not so fast my friend. Soon after “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” came out and all thoughts of apologies disappeared. On “Monster” Kanye erases any suggestions of humility or guilt When he spouts, “I’m living in the future so my presence is my past. My presence is a present kiss my ass.” This is the musical version of Hulk Hogan joining the NWO; Kanye takes pride in his villainous portrayal. The scariest part of “Monster” is not the flows of Rick Ross, Kanye, Jay-Z, or even the soothing vocals of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. That honor goes to Nicki Minaj’s venomous verse that electrifies and brings this monster of a song to life.
2. “A Cold Freezin’ Night”
Set to what resembles the theme music to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, “A Cold Freezin’ Night” features samples of a little boy ranting about how he will kill you with a rifle, a shotgun, and cut your toes off. In response, a little girl admits that boys are better than girls, even going so far as to wish she was a boy. And somehow, all these chauvinist, psychotic threats are joyful due simply to a great dance beat (and a short harmonica solo never hurts). If only it was this easy to make little kids tolerable in real life.
Earlier this year I bought a record player and soon after found myself with a vinyl obsession. Most of my records were used purchases, but I also dabbled in buying the vinyl of new releases. With many labels including a free download code with a purchase, it just seems to make more sense to get the larger than life packaging/artwork. One of my earliest purchases was Ty Segall’s “Melted”, and it quickly became a mainstay on my turntable. Every time I listened to the album, I would get up and push the arm back to the beginning of “Caesar” to hear it one, two, maybe even three times in a row. A month ago as I was compiling this list I put “Melted” on again only to find that during “Caesar” my record now skips. While the loss of this song saddened me to no end, the scratch also symbolized my undying affection for this pop-punk gem. Fortunately for you, you can listen to the clip above as many times as you like without fear of a scratch (but you won’t get the full effect without it crackling out of a record player).