The Rules: The songs need to have been released this year and not be on any album that makes my best of the year list.
Final Fantasy - Hard to Explain
The internet has become great at facilitating bizarre cover songs. Thanks to blogs trying on Magazine-size scope and ambition, compilations of strange and marginal bands covering the hits they were influenced by has become something of a reliably pleasant surprise every few months. Several of those covers made have the sort of unrelenting pleasantness that make them unforgettable, a kind of pocket of urgency because the band needs to not only justify his inclusion in a Nirvana tribute record, but also justify the whole endeavor. Owen Pallett taking on The Strokes' "Hard to Explain" sounds utterly mad until you listen to it and indeed your glad Stereogum bothered paying tribute to a record that has amounted to a promise delivered broken regarding one of Rock's great unrealized debuts. But between those furiously sawing violins and Pallett's beautiful whine, this song is, to me, even more essential than the original.
Telekinesis - On A Plain
Except knowing that the AV Club adored them I'd no idea who Telekinesis was or why they were deemed important enough to cover one of the most highly regarded modern albums. Now, I don't go around singing the gospel of Nirvana. I'm a casual fan at best and I can only listen to them in waves. Yet something about Telekinesis' straight forward take on one of the band's lesser hits grabbed me in just right the way. It's simplicity is its saving grace, delivering the hook with a little of the band's personality as a filter, and passing it's running time quickly and with a kick.
Dum Dum Girls - September Gurls
It wouldn't be a best songs list around here without something from AV Undercover, the AV Club's great idea-turned-phenomena where they invite bands into their round room to play something from an ever-dwindling list of songs. The highlight this year (narrowly beating out Of Montreal doing "Fell In Love With A Girl," Sloan doing "Cars," The Fruit Bats doing "The Other Woman" and The Decemberists playing "If I Can't Change Your Mind") was definitely the sunglass-clad Dum Dum Girls doing a better job on Big Star's "September Gurls" than Big Star. The icy reverb that the girls seem to keep in massive store serves them splendidly as they harmonize their way through the easy rocker.
The Kills - Future Starts Slow
I wanted to like The Kills' new album more than I did because I'm sick to death of The Dead Weather and want everyone to go back to where they came froml; respectively The Greenhornes, The White Stripes and The Kills. I like those bands better than the sludgy side project they've become mired in. The White Stripes are no more and the Hornes are erratic at best, so I was definitely looking forward to the new Kills album. And I do really like it, but just not enough that it made my top twenty. Some of the group's best material is hidden throughout, including the growling opening number, which "Howls, screams and wails" in just the right way. This is what I want from Allison Mosshart.
The Chemical Brothers - Container Park
The Chemical Brothers joined Daft Punk in that odd section of purgatory labeled Bands Whose Soundtrack Work Kicks The Shit Out Of The Film It Was Composed For when they delivered a vibrant and angry electronic album to support the horrendous actioner Hanna. The film was a mess, a rash of embarassing stylistic choices, horribly earnest performances and cringe-inducing dialogue, but the score came this close to redeeming it. Take the film's unbearably pleased-with-itself action set pieces. In what should have been a thrilling, high-stakes fight scene Hanna and some thugs have it out in a Spanish shipping yard. Instead it barely registers because you everyone can't stop letting us know that they're making a film. The blistering song beneath the fight scene almost saves it. Almost.
Austra - The Beat & The Pulse
Austra's Feel It Break was almost compelling enough to make it on the list and I still love it dearly, for when the former Opera hopeful gets it right, it's a thing of beauty. "The Beat & The Pulse" is a dark wave wet dream, a latex-coated fantasia both old and thrillingly new. And when Katie Stelmanis goes for the full-throated chorus, my spine melts.
Susanne Sundfør - Black Widow
I didn't know anything about Sundfør when Cooper McKim handed me her album The Brothel. After hearing it, I chose not to do any research because the majestic otherness of songs like "Black Widow" might not have the same edge to them. I want to keep a blindspot up in front of her face so that I can continue to be confounded and tempted by her gorgeously warped voice and compositions.
My Morning Jacket - Circuital
After Evil Urges I'm just thankful that Circuital wasn't a goddamn tragedy. Better still, there are great songs on this new record, most notably the rollicking title track which starts as smoke wafting through mirrored halls until it explodes into the kind of rocker I'd come to expect from the hairy southerners captaining the ship known as My Morning Jacket. It's good to have them back, even if it's only for seven awesome minutes.
Radiohead - Staircase/Little By Little [Shed Remix]
As it wouldn't exactly be fair to give two spots to songs by band whose album made my best of the year list, I've decided to split it halfway between their b-sides and gargantuan remix album. There was enough Radiohead to fill a cruise ship this year and though it wasn't all gold...a lot of it was. "Staircase" is my favourite of the non-album tracks and never more entrancing than when they performed it on SNL. And from the Remix album, I like Shed's remix of "Little By Little", maybe the least genius song on the album. To see it given a make-over that me appreciate its original context better was rather exciting.
Feist - Undiscovered First
Feist came this close to nailing the album form this time around, but someone keeps telling her to put those watery jazz numbers in between her soul-scorching rock songs. There are great songs on Metals ("The Bad in Each Other," "Graveyard," "How Come You Never Go There," "A Commotion") and then there's "Undiscovered First," which I'm prepared to say is her best song. Primal, loud, boisterous and catchy, it's everything she's good at, cranked up loud enough to kill someone.
Sondre Lerche - Private Caller
Yes, it's a wafer-thin little pop song, but sometimes that's all I need from Sondre Lerche. He's already given me an album that is a fusion of his best instincts in Phantom Punch, so I can't ask him for another masterpiece and am just thankful for every little gem like "Private Caller". God speed you beautiful Norwegian boy. Your pop songs make me smile.
We Avalanche - Ornette
Admittedly I don't know when this song was actually written, but I'm including it because I heard it for the first time this year and the band's only got one album, so I'm calling it kosher. The three folk shredders of We Avalanche are never more fleet fingered than on this song and Brady Custis' voice soars over the weaving and winding string playing, all deft, brazen and warm.
Devotchka - All The Sand In All The Sea
It's a hundred miles from what their known for, but the echoing, screaming, galloping "All The Sand," the song that properly kickstarts DeVotchka's little loved but pretty great 100 Lovers, is just as heartsick and loveable as their best early material.
The Decemberists - Calamity Song
For the record, no I don't hate or even dislike The King Is Dead, it's just a massive comedown from the nerdgiastic heights of The Hazards of Love. Hazards was a career-defining epic that outdid and expanded on everything they'd ever done. It's probably their best album to date. So no it's that there's anything wrong with The King Is Dead, per se, it just isn't nearly enough after The Hazards of Love. The case in microcosm is "Calamity Song". It's a great little pop song with its guitar sound borrowed from early R.E.M. albums (indeed they even borrowed early R.E.M.'s guitar player to do it) and it's impossible not to hum after you've heard it, but it sounds like it could have been written and recorded at any stage of the band's career. It sounds like it could have been a Tarkio song. Which, when you consider how massive a step The Hazards of Love was after The Crane Wife, is as good as a step backwards. They can do better than this, even if they don't have to. They sound good when they tread water, I just wish they'd tackle giant waves again
Dan Mangan - Post-War Blues
I don't know what you'd call the production on this song, it's definitely its own thing and dozens of artists have adopted the sound before, but I don't know what to call it. Anyway, Mangan's "Post-War Blues" is like a classic Dylan tune supercharged and shot through space. I love its momentum, I love Mangan's voice and how it builds on top of itself.
Coldplay - Hurts like Heaven
I'm not the biggest fan in the world of Coldplay's latest album, but shit can they write a pop song when they care to. "Hurts Like Heaven" is what I've taken away from Mylo Xyloto and if it was the only song on the album, it'd still be an achievement. I love how sweet Jonny Buckland's guitar sounds when he plays the lead-melody thing after the first chorus. And there is a hugeness that these guys just get right everytime. That pre-chorus instrumental build-up is unbeatable. The chorus itself ain't bad either.
Lykke Li - Silent My Song
Lykke Li's Wounded Rhythms was 21 on my list. It's very good. My only issue was that all the songs weren't as good as "Silent My Song". And frankly my issue with that song is that it doesn't sound as good on the record as it does live. I've listened to her performance on the Late Show at least a dozen times since I ripped it from a youtube clip. Her well-deep voice carries you ever downward as the brilliantly minimalist arrangement clangs in the deep, half-whale song, half-bell from hell.
The Dears - Thrones
I feel for The Dears. They make consistently great albums that are constantly compared to their first album, as if somehow they've been tarnishing their own legacy. Fuck that. Every album since No Cities Left has been achingly human and heartbreaking and stays with me for a long, long time. "Thrones" has a huge chorus that's not even as good as it's paranoid verse. A fine song in a career full of them, as always under-appreciated.
Cults - Abducted
Cults are occasionally too saccharine for me, but "Abducted" has enough sneer to cut through the sweetness. This is hands down my favourite song from their self-titled debut, a will-they-won't-they tale of hearts stolen and lost again.
Ok Sweetheart - Before You Go
Ok Sweetheart are a little out of my area of expertise and if it weren't for tragic news I'd never have heard of them. TCM's touching In Memorium segment was scored by the Tulsa, OK band's sweetly melancholic "Before You Go" this year and something about it stuck with me as I was watching the faces of actors I'd never work with, craftsman I'd taken for granted and directors who I'd never be able to tell how much they meant to me.