25. St. Vincent – “Surgeon” [4AD]
To know Annie Clark is to love her. The versatile songstress and musician has been making indie hearts melt since her time with the Polyphonic Spree, and her 2007 debut Marry Me was beloved for its cheeky sense of humor (see: the album’s “Arrested Development”-inspired title) and the sheer skill she exhibited. She’s released two more wonderfully creative records, and of all the brilliant cuts on 2011’s Strange Mercy, lead single “Surgeon” is perhaps the most proficient and inventive song Clark has composed so far.
Especially while she sings her broken little heart out to her lover to come get a surgeon to cut her open – a brilliant suggestion of both physical harm and a creative metaphorical call for the pain to cease, the song’s abstract structure, with short stanzas and extended choruses, also gives an urgency to the song that is subtle but fascinatingly powerful. Combining her talent for vocal rhythm with strong chops, she twirls a woeful tale of love blended with a funky and melodic guitar riff that would make Prince throw shade. Somehow managing to keep pace while the track kicks into overdrive, pounding with ghostly synths and a menacing kick drum refrain, by the time that the squeals and beats crash into silence, it has transformed into a dancy, apocalyptic-sounding tune – something Clark does with distinguished merit. “Surgeon” might be a sad little story, but it’s also an apt description for her precise and immeasurable talent. – Rafael Gaitan
24. Destroyer – “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” [Merge]
Dan Bejar, what is it of which you sing? Clearly you’re a smart fucking guy – and pardon me for saying I’m no slouch – but sometimes your erudition escapes me. And yet that’s part of the attraction of it all; the words just tumble out of you, none of them accidentally, and it’s OK for me to watch them sail by. With you, I choose to absorb rather than decrypt. You’re like a loose-limbed Kerouac, fluid and urbane, drunk like him, transcendent like him, only a little less doomed.
Kaputt’s “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” is a song about… something. Something romantic and impressionistic and imaginatively decadent, something having to do with the Invisible Man, the North Star and perhaps a longing that crosses south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But this track isn’t just about the words; we are ushered in with a nearly two minute instrumental introduction – a searching, single note melody is transposed over a proggy synth landscape until a flute takes over with breezy self-assurance as the song awakens to itself. Is it the contempo horns and the controlled jam of the sax solo that make this eight-plus minute poem sound so academically improvisational? Or is it that dreamy, streamy cadence that curls around me as wicka-wocka disco distortions spin me around? I may not be able to decode all of the meanings here, but with a song like this, you can be sure I’ll follow you wherever you’re going. – Stacey Pavlick
23. Jay-Z & Kanye West – “That’s My Bitch” [Def Jam]
Watch the Throne is an appropriate title for this crème de la hip-hop collab, and the motivation for this namedrop is chronicled in the album’s cornerstone track. Kanye spits, “It ain’t safe in the city/ Watch the throne,” a foreboding sentiment about the threat of up-and-comers, while bragging about life from said throne (“Blew up the world as soon as I hit the club with her…/ My dick worth money I put Monie in the middle”). Jay-Z’s half, a sentimental ode to Beyonce, is no less humble about shoving his superstar status down our throats. He throws scathing barbs about an over-populated roster of Caucasian icons, a category which he lumps his wife into. In the end, these wordsmiths carve a roundabout way of proclaiming their territory, and warning us all hands off.
The true heart of “That’s My Bitch” lies within the adrenaline-pumping Motown beat that sidles with ominous chromatic synths. It’s a perfect rhythmic vessel for both rappers’ fractured, roll-off-the-tongue style – sharp, sexy, dangerous. A catchy chorus sung by Elly Jackson grants us breathing room between their relentless rhymes and grounds a final quality of accessibility. Even with such extensive and impressive catalogs, Kanye and Jay-Z have found their latest milestone with “That’s My Bitch.” – Jory Spadea
22. Cass McCombs – “County Line” [Domino]
Cass McCombs has built a relatively successful career so far on dark, brooding songs that show the shadowy side of Americana. Though this year’s scattered effort Wit’s End was by no means a turn towards the light, it did manage to produce one of McCombs’ finest musical achievements to date. Throughout its slow, sultry and downright seductive six minutes, “County Line” is presented as both a ballad to lost love and a weary ode to hometowns and the beginnings they represent. Over soft, AM-radio keyboard chords, gently strummed, clean electric guitar and a slowly churning bass line, McCombs weaves a tale of relying on the never-changing aspect of small towns. “On my way to you/ Old county line/ Hoping nothing’s changed,” he says, sounding like a man who’s been distant (spiritually, physically, emotionally) for far too long. The warm organ that slips in and out of the chorus fits right in with the comfort of the lyricism, especially when McCombs turns in a stellar falsetto hook. For me, it’s one of the most unforgettable musical moments of the year, as he hits the high notes with equal parts angst and passion. They say you can never go home again, but “County Line” proves the opposite, offering up a whole lot of stability and truth in the lure of the familiar. – Kyle Fowle
21. St. Vincent – “Cruel” [4AD]
A unique atmosphere emerges when musicians mash together dark subject matter with upbeat music. St. Vincent (née Annie Clark) does just that with “Cruel,” the paradoxically peppy single from her third album Strange Mercy. Utilizing muddled guitar to produce one of the most infectious hooks of the year, Clark marries energy with foreboding, crooning “They could take or leave you/ So they took you, and they left you/ How could they be so casually cruel.” Certainly one of Clark’s most pop-oriented offerings, “Cruel” could be a Top 40 radio hit in superior alternate reality in which “black eyed peas” remain on the grocery shelf.
And, in fact, the music video for “Cruel” begins in the aisles of a convenience store, as Clark watches her character’s family eye her slantwise and ultimately bind her and throw her in the trunk of a car before burying her alive. The image of Clark, a gamine reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn, slowly covered with dirt while holding the long notes of “Cruel” is emblematic of her work as a whole, mixing the dainty with the dark. One of the year’s most addictive songs, this poppy single from a solid St. Vincent album will burrow itself into your brain. – Josh Goller
20. Dum Dum Girls – “Bedroom Eyes” [Sub Pop]
The Dum Dum Girls had me before a single word had been uttered. The one string lead line and hazy, chugging guitars that launch “Bedroom Eyes” may as well have been designed specifically to snare me like some mouse trap peanut butter, hitting all the post-Joe Meek garage pop sweet spots I’m always such a sucker for. Jangle and one-two-two drum beats, a melodic bassline fulfilling all the hook requirements, “Bedroom Eyes” couldn’t begin more perfectly – and then it just stops.
And that’s when true bliss appears in the form of Dee Dee Penny’s sleepily needful voice, like if Chrissie Hynde joined the Crystals and talked the Nerves into being the backing band. It’s at complete odds with Dee Dee’s former life as Kristen Gundred, the Phil Collins of San Diego based act Grand Ole Party, a life filled with bluesy howling and low guttural moans and nearly no sweetness. “Bedroom Eyes” by contrast is a teenage come-on, a lustfully simple plea for a partner to return to keep the bed warm, imbued with the optimism of that age, where holding your lover tight for the entire evening is enough to count for a passionate romance and the only dark days are the moments where you’re simply not together.
It’s not rocket science or Shakespeare, it’s just unselfconsciously blunt pop music, a throwback that for four minutes makes you believe all those people saying “things were better when…” are totally right. Love, lust, teenage kicks– as far as “Bedroom Eyes” is concerned, they’re all the same. – Nick Hanover
19. PJ Harvey – “The Words That Maketh Murder” [Vagrant]
Polly Jean Harvey didn’t rush the production of Let England Shake – according to the songstress, the lyrics alone were years in the making. Her research had her consuming the confrontational imagery of artists such as Salvador Dalí, Francisco de Goya and Stanley Kubrick, but more challenging was the research from within: Let England Shake is Harvey’s anguished expression of what it means to be citizen and ancestor. The results are gripping and newly folkloric; though there is much in the way of brutality and grief, Harvey’s songs, always corporeal, smell not of decay but of an Englishwoman’s rapid breath.
“The Words That Maketh Murder” is perhaps the album’s most graphically violent track, as Harvey extrapolates discursive dogma to its bloody consequence. The words of pulpit and press conference rattle the world. As a result of these utterances, “Soldiers fall like lumps of meat/ Blown and shot out beyond belief/ Arms and legs were in the trees.” The song is dark – pitch black dark – in a way that is more mischievous than macabre. The occasional oompah of a trombone and a disturbingly sing-song male counter-chorus that creeps on tiptoes between scattered bodies (vocals courtesy of long time collaborators Mick Harvey and John Parish) make this song shudder with hellacious vitality. An all-seeing angel with an autoharp, PJ sounds wind-whipped and wild and as if she is singing to us through a multiplicity of lifetimes. Which is to say: never better. – Stacey Pavlick
18. Tom Waits- “Hell Broke Luce” [ANTI-]
Waits’ last foray into antiwar composition, “Road to Peace,” was blunt and without artistry, like a CNN news ticker awkwardly married to a funereal shuffle. “Hell Broke Luce” retains all the disgust of that seven-minute slog but marries it to Waits’ usual standard, apocalyptic word-pictures of carnage and horror spit with terrifying ferocity. In keeping with the layout of the rest of the album, “Hell Broke Luce” is short and terse, which only enhances the mood, making the song into an air raid siren just prior to a nuclear strike.
Waits’ post-Swordfishtrombones music has always sounded deliberately decayed and possessed, broken and forgotten instruments given brief, macabre life through his powers. But “Hell Broke Luce” sounds more than ever like a jam in Hades, the pounding war drum marching the damned toward punishment. PJ Harvey put out an elegant, lyrical antiwar record this year with Let England Shake, but Waits manages here to condense her fiery summation of a dying empire with lyrics that could cut through a man as easily as the machine gun sample he uses. By the end, America is in flames, sinking into pestilence and death. And when Waits’ cruelly cuts off after rhetorically roaring, “What is next?” I don’t know whether to follow this prophet or make a dash for the nearest and deepest mineshaft. – Jake Cole
17. Wilco – “Born Alone” [dBpm]
Indie rock giants Wilco have found themselves in an awkward place in recent years. Having fully transcended their roots as alt-country pioneers, endured multiple lineup changes and become a legendary comeback story after the label debacle of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Jeff Tweedy and company seemed to be growing complacent. Fortunately, after a pair of lukewarm records, the band sounds re-energized on their latest, The Whole Love, an album of impressive stylistic range and tight, focused songwriting. And on their best record in years, a deep cut stands out: “Born Alone.”
Opening with the shimmering guitar work of Nels Cline and Pat Sansone, “Born Alone” quickly moves into a propulsive, chugging melody, equally anchored by Tweedy’s voice and a staggered, loose drumbeat. On the second verse, a jaunty organ riff joins in to accompany Tweedy’s typically weird wordplay of “I’ll unwind strange rinds overpower me/ Toss the chimneys in the sea/ I believe I’ve seen the finger/ Divine extremity.” But the real gem of the song is in the chorus, a rushing, needle-like burst of electric guitar that punctuates and penetrates the singer’s mournful voice. Like so many great Wilco songs, it’s both musically complex and captivating, a fusion of elements and expert craftsmanship. It’s good to have the band back at full speed, and “Born Alone” sets them racing. – Nathan Kamal
16. PJ Harvey – “The Glorious Land” [Vagrant]
Arranged for guitar, rather than autoharp like the rest of Let England Shake, you’d expect “The Glorious Land” to stick out as a misfit. But instead of being the record’s black sheep, the track is its dark portal (to follow-up “The Words That Maketh Murder” or the withering starkness of “England”), with a murky rhythm of throbbing bass propelling the song’s inbuilt sonic bite and muffled lyrical plaintiveness. With a minute-long intro of hypnotizing atmosphere and jangly, discordant strumming, it has a certain punk acerbity even while its run-on verses recall Super Furry Animals and its jagged warp evokes Radiohead’s “Reckoner” or Fever Ray’s “I’m Not Done.” Sustained, almost wearying in momentum, it’s one of the year’s boldest musical stances.
Presumably about Afghanistan during the nation’s most recent occupation, the song’s truthful condemnation is not of this or any particular war but of it as a general concept and in practice. In other words, war stands diametrically contrary to any notion of well-being at hand, because with war “What is the glorious fruit of our land? The fruit is deformed children/ What is the glorious fruit of our land? The fruit is orphaned children.” The argument is that if plowshares are upended into swords, the land and its people equally suffer, and the most innocent among the people (women, children, the elderly and infirm) suffer the most. It’s a complex reality that the song succinctly embodies, and that Let England Shake readily communicates as one of the pre-eminent political statements of the last year. – Joe Clinkenbeard