10 Years in Music

Looking back is looking forward.

I’ve been known to indulge in my share of excavating. As I prepare for my next big move, I’ve been looking back, not only on the decade-long 10 Cities/10 Years, but also on my youth and even more recent history. Writing these chapters from my life has been rewarding, allowing me to scrutinize my memories and re-examine pivotal moments in my history, recontextualizing my history as it relates to my present. But there are other ways to explore the past.

One of my favorite tools for documenting my life in real time is Last.fm, a website I’ve mentioned not infrequently in these pages. It’s the simplest of ideas: the website tracks the music you listen to on your various devices and compiles that information into charts and data points. It’s extremely nerdy and entirely unnecessary, and I love it.

I started using Last.fm just a few months before I set out on my decade of travel, so I have a document of all the music I listened to throughout the entire journey from day one: my ups and downs, my relationships come and gone, my periods of depression and moments of hysteria, all of it soundtracked. It’s the kind of thing that I can nerd out over for hours, and often do.

I decided it would be informative to look at my Top Songs charts for the various years of my 10 city project to get a sense of the tenor of each year through my musical obsessions. I’ve taken a snapshot of my Top 5 tracks, so now, if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to take another look back at my project, this time through song.

Call it 10 Cities/10 Years: The Soundtrack.

Or don’t, IDGAF.

1. Charlotte

Charlotte

How predictable. In my first year of traveling, I was still mostly listening to the artists who had gotten me through college, so Radiohead and Rufus Wainwright had been getting heavy rotation for a few years by this point (and still do). “Fake Plastic Trees” was my go-to favorite song for years, though its stature has diminished some over the years.

In terms of evolving musical tastes, The Decemberists were one of the many new artists a friend introduced to me while I was living in Charlotte. Especially in those early days, the Pacific Northwest band was known for their whimsical and eccentric mix of British folk and sea shanties. I was besotted with “The Engine Driver” which has this one verse:

I am a writer, writer of fictions
I am the heart that you call home
And I’ve written pages upon pages
Trying to rid you from my bones

It’s the kind of melodramatic sentiment that I absolutely adored back then. (Eh, still do.)

2. Philadelphia

Philadelphia

Not much had changed in terms of favorite artists, though I was definitely listening to a more varied selection. “Come Pick Me Up” is my all-time most listened song and has never lost its “Favorite Song” status, but by this point I was starting to seek out more obscure artists. Mirah was another new discovery from my year in Charlotte, and she rapidly ascended into the realm of favorites. Though I’ve only followed her career intermittently recently, I was fortunate enough to see her play live just a few months ago at an intimate benefit show for LGBT youth. She was lovely.

Ghosty, for those that don’t know, is (was?) a band from my hometown in Kansas. They played a set at the famous World Café in Philadelphia and I saw them perform. Staying after to talk with the guys, I was surprised when the lead singer said that he actually knew me because he had seen me read poetry back in Lawrence. That was wholly unexpected and kind of cool.

3. Costa Mesa

Costa Mesa

For a time, Beirut was the musical artist I felt most spoke to my increasingly disparate tastes in music. I used to say that if I had any musical talent (I do not), I would make music exactly like Beirut. It’s interesting how, as especially so-called “indie” music has expanded in form and genre, the once unique Baltic sounds of Beirut have become just another common trope. I still enjoy Beirut, but my fervor has lessened considerably.

4. San Francisco

San Francisco

Starting to see some more female artists gain prominence in this list, though none of these three particular artists would be in my favorites. Still, Beth Orton’s Central Reservation did receive considerable play for a few years. “Concrete Sky,” which is off of a different album, features one-time Orton beau, Ryan Adams, so that probably helps explain its high chart position here. It’s also just a beautiful song.

“No Children” is, for me, the perfect song about a doomed relationship, that kind of love where the two people are terrible for each other but still work in a twisted sort of way. John Darnielle is a storyteller, and the entire Tallahassee album is arguably the best novel he’s ever written (though his two actual novels are worth a read). 

5. Chicago

Chicago

My fifth year was, at times, arduous, as you might recall, so it’s not really surprising that the songs that got the most airplay in that year were in large part downcast affairs. I adore Neko Case’s entire oeuvre, and I consider her song, “Star Witness,” to be one of the defining songs of 10 Cities/10 Years (I’m frankly shocked at its absence on these lists). Although “Don’t Forget Me” is a Harry Nilsson cover, she definitively makes it her own.

Yeasayer’s “Tightrope” stands out from the other songs on the chart with its propulsive and infectious rhythms. It appeared on the Dark Was the Night charity compilation (along with Iron & Wine’s “Die”) and was basically the standout track from two discs of excellent but mostly similar sounding indie rock and folk music. Worth tracking down.

6. Nashville

Nashville

In the wake of a bad break up in Chicago, Nashville’s list consists of a lot of old favorites; comfort food, I suppose. Ironic that the one Adele song that I was really into that year was actually one of her more upbeat tracks. Also, “Dear Chicago”? How on the nose could I be? (Granted, it’s a fantastic song.)

7. Seattle

Seattle

Ryan reclaims the top track, but this time with a song that was never officially released. Both “Karina” and “Angelina” appear on the famously unreleased 48 Hours (bootlegs are available, obviously), which was scrapped in favor of Demolition, a solid but ultimately less cohesive album. I’ve said this elsewhere but, after Heartbreaker48 Hours is Ryan’s greatest album, and the fact that it has never officially been released is a tragedy (a few songs appear on Demolition). “Karina” is his most sympathetic and piercing character piece and deserves to be loved by millions. 

Otherwise, this list clearly reflects the counter-intuitively sunnier times I was having in Seattle. Also, funny to note just how much Childish Gambino has evolved as a writer and performer since those early days. “Freaks and Geeks” is still a banger.

8. New Orleans

New Orleans

This was another hard personal year, but still a year with a lot of partying, which is nicely exemplified in the dichotomy of Justin Timberlake and a pair of The National’s bleakest songs. The Divine Fits’ “Shivers” splits the difference, an old school proto-punk cover with the lyrics:

I’ve been contemplating suicide
But it really doesn’t suit my style
So I guess I’ll just act bored instead
And contain the blood I would’a shed 

Considering my state of mind that year, the song was clearly speaking to me. (The song also includes one of my all-time favorite lines of shade: “My baby’s so vain / She’s almost a mirror”.)

9. Boston

Boston

I’d been a fan of Death Cab for Cutie since college, and yet, somehow, I had never bothered to acquire their most critically acclaimed album, Transatlanticism. I rectified that in Boston and soon after became enthralled with the eight minute centerpiece. I was also still obsessing over Hurray for the Riff Raff, a folk/mixed genre band from New Orleans that you should also be obsessed with. Get on that.

(Also, yes, Justin Timberlake made the list two years in a row; no shame.)

10. Brooklyn 

Brooklyn

And then came Brooklyn. Kanye West is an asshole. Kanye West is too full of himself. Kanye West lacks impulse control. All true. Also true: Kanye West can produce some amazing music. When Boston roommate, Emily, helped drive me to my tenth and final city, “Power” literally started playing the moment we passed the city limit sign. There couldn’t have been a more thematically appropriate song for that moment.

I had a brief fling with a French girl when I first moved to Brooklyn; my infatuation with The Stills’ french-language “Retour a Vega” lasted much longer. At the same time, I fell absolutely head-over-heels in love with HAIM’s debut. Their latest release is very good, but I still play the hell out of Days Are Gone.

Goddamn right JT threepeated.

Album Credits

Notably, while many of my favorite artists are represented in these lists, there are plenty of others that don’t appear (no Sufjan Stevens, no Elliott Smith, no Spoon, no Rilo Kiley), while a number of artists who I barely listen to anymore (Night Terrors of 1927, really?) showed up.

I could have done this kind of list with my Top Artists or my Top Albums and gotten some very different results. For instance, these were my top albums from my year in Charlotte:

Charlotte Album

All five albums came out between 2005 and 2006, yet only one, Picaresque, is represented on the most played songs. I suspect that I was still getting to know these albums and thus listening to them straight through instead of just cherry picking my favorite tracks.

I chose to look at my top songs instead of albums or artists because I think they reflect my moods in those years more accurately. The album lists lean heavily towards recent releases, and my top artists stay pretty static from year to year (Radiohead and Ryan Adams are almost always in the top spots). By contrast, my ever-changing top song lists across my ten year journey illustrate not only an evolving musical taste, but they also provide insight into my mental state in those particular years.

Perhaps this sort of thing is only interesting to me (if so, you probably aren’t still reading, so who cares), but if you have a Last.fm account, I recommend taking a gander into your own past. Maybe you’ll learn something about yourself.

Epilogue

For the completists in the continually dwindling crowd, I’m including my second and third year lists from my time in Brooklyn. As I’ve written about previously, the music of Songs: Ohia carried me through a very difficult post-project year, hence The Lioness charting so many tracks. And then, this current year’s list is a result of my concerted effort to seek out more diverse artists and voices, in particular more women. 

Brooklyn (Year 2)

Brooklyn 2

Brooklyn (Year 3)

Brooklyn 3

Ideally, the list will continue to evolve every year because I will continue to evolve. In that way, these charts serve both as a document of the past and a challenge for the future. Who knows what my playlist will look like after a year in Spain? I look forward to making fresh comparisons next August.

New York City: A Year in Photos

Over the next few weeks, I’ll end up writing a plethora of words about my (1st) year in Brooklyn. Every once in awhile, though, I like to offer a different kind of summary, one in pictures. So, without belaboring the point too much, here are some of the sights of Year 10.

I hope you enjoy.

~L

[Click images to embiggen. All photos © Lyttleton 2015 – and taken on a cellphone, so why would you bother stealing them?]

 Manhattan from Brooklyn BridgeBrooklyn Bridge to Manhattan PanaManhattan Skyline (from the Met) PanaLittle Dancer of Fourteen YearsGuggenheim MuseumMonir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian Mirror CubeBrooklyn WWII Memorial1 World Trade CenterEmpire State from BroadwayJapanese IceThe Dinner Party by Judy ChicagoBrooklyn Museum Beaux-Arts CourtChild PrideBryant Park Frozen FountainChk Chk Chk at sunsetAdam Pally Introduces Death CabSpoon Shimmering DiamondSubway SnoozeEmpty SubwayFlafelSunset SilhouetteQueensboro Bridge 2Manhattan from the CemeteryProspect Park Flare 2X in X ContextNY SelfieEnd of Times

5 Songs I’m Loving Now – 04/10/15

Death Cab for Cutie – No Room In Frame

The newest Death Cab album, Kintsugi, is getting mixed reviews, which is pretty much par for the course for latter day DCFC (or, really, any once critically beloved band), but for my money this is their most thoroughly enjoyable album since Plans. There’s a darkness throughout the album – reflecting Ben Gibbard’s recent divorce from Zooey Deschanel – and that’s exactly what was needed to rejuvenate the band (sorry, Ben). For that reason, “No Room in Frame” is the perfect opener, a bitter kiss off to a lover who is too enamored with her own fame and public appearance to allow room for him. It’s biting, incisive and tinged with hurt, like every great Death Cab song should be. Oh yeah, it’s catchy, too.

The Mountain Goats – Heel Turn 2

Last year, John Darnielle released Wolf in White Van, his first novel. Well, technically his first novel, because in reality most of his albums are so full of details and painfully true characters that it feels like I’ve been reading Darnielle books for years. When the most recent Mountain Goats release, Beat The Champ, was announced, I was a little skeptical: an entire album about wrestling? Well, no shock, Darnielle managed to take a subject I couldn’t care less about and find the pathos and humanity in it. “Heel Turn 2” is the centerpiece of the album, and besides for having his trademark lyrical vulnerability, it makes a genuine left turn halfway through the song: The vocals disappear and all that’s left is gorgeous, haunting piano work. In a career built on unexpected maneuvers, there’s really only one thing you can count on from Darnielle: Beautiful music.

Sufjan Stevens – Fourth of July

If you’re seeing a pattern with these choices this time, there’s a reason for that. This has been a flat out phenomenal year for music so far. I feel spoiled. Not only are some of my favorite artists releasing music, but none have disappointed. Sufjan Stevens came out of hiding with Carrie & Lowell last month, and man does it pack an emotional wallop. Sonically, the album is probably his least varied creation so far – mostly unadorned vocals and piano or guitar with lilting atmospheric tones floating behind him. Yet, each song evokes very specific emotions, like the devastating “Fourth of July” (which brings to mind another holiday song by Stevens, “Casimir Pulaski Day”). If I had any nitpicks with this album, it’s that it was released 3 months too late. This is clearly winter music.

Damien Rice – I Don’t Want To Change You

Dropping back to last year (only because I already mentioned the Decemberists in my last entry in this series), I have to give a shout out to Damien Rice’s lovely return from exile, “My Favourite Faded Fantasy.” Rice vanished after his last, not-quite-critically beloved album, 9. Folksinger with a guitar is always going to risk being a little too ‘soft rock’ for the critics, and admittedly some of his lyrics can be a bit ponderous. But Rice’s gift has always been in the gut-punch manner his songs connect both the saddest and happiest parts of love in one moment. In that way, “I Don’t Want to Change You” is classic Damien and a stand out track on an album that constantly reminds me why I used to listen to O night after night in my college years.

 

And finally…

 

Number 5…

Taylor Swift – Style

Hate if you must (must you?). Question my manhood (you wouldn’t be the first). Think Taylor Swift is annoying (eh) or a bad singer (eh) or has lousy legs (I will fight you to the death), but it doesn’t matter. I could pretend otherwise, but the truth is, I can’t get enough of this song. I thought “Shake It Off” was catchy, I enjoyed the self-deprecating wit of “Blank Space,” but “Style” is where TSwift (I promise I will never write that again) hits it out of the park. I’ve made no secret of my affection for pure pop gold, and that’s what she’s managed to create here. It’s easy to hate Taylor Swift when she’s talking about life in New York City or saying stupid, 14-year-old girl shit in interviews. It’s a whole lot harder to hate her when she just lets the music play (and, also when she’s wearing a “tight little skirt”).

dcfc-kintsugi

5 Songs I’m Loving Now – 11/11/13

Night Terrors of 1927 – Dust and Bones

I would love to say that when they release a full album, Night Terrors of 1927 are going to release the album of the year, but I’ve seen enough bands fail to live up to their early single hype that I really can’t make that promise. That said, man is this song good. So is everything else they’ve released. Their first EP comes out today, and its 5 songs are damn good. Yet there is no question this track is the stand out. I don’t really know how to explain this music other than that it somehow seems to mash 80s pop with early 00s indie in a musical pairing that isn’t at all precocious or annoying. If there’s anything that could be said against NTo27, it’s that they should have released their EP in the summer because they make music for the sun.

Beth Orton – Mystery

Changing it up completely, this haunting, melancholy work by Beth Orton is an excellent showcase for the British songstress’s uncanny voice. Her 2012, Sugaring Season, from which this comes, is so low-key that it kind of faded into the background, even for me whose favorite Orton album is the understated wonder, Central Reservation. Well, I might have let this album slip by me, but this song cannot be ignored. Gorgeous, delicate, brimming with a desperate beauty, Orton is many years into her career but she hasn’t lost her touch.

Neko Case – Nearly Midnight, Honolulu

I’ve already talked about seeing Neko live just last week, so I don’t know what else there’s to be said about it. She’s a force of nature, a tornado, a lion, a flood. This song is the centerpiece of her latest album, not only because it comes smack dab in the middle of the playlist, but because it resonates thematically with so much of her music. It’s a tale of abuse and pitiful human relations, but also a story about finding strength despite everything else, and if that isn’t the quintessential Neko Case song, I don’t know what is. Plus, her voice could resurrect the dead.

Okkervil River – White

To be honest, I wish I could say that the latest Okkervil River grabbed me as much as their earlier stuff, but The Silver Gymnasium, while not bad, isn’t as captivating as their earlier work. When I first listened to OR, I was struck by how immediately the songs hooked into me, and that sadly hasn’t been the case with this latest album. Except for this song. After listening to the album one time, “White” stuck out as the song to beat and after many listens through the rest of the album, it still is. Lyrically and musically, this is what this band does best and I honestly can’t get enough of it. With time, the rest of the album will likely grow on me, but for the foreseeable future this is the standout.

Death Cab For Cutie – Transatlanticism

This year is the 10th anniversary of the album that pretty much marks the high point for Death Cab For Cutie, and this is coming from a guy who unabashedly loves Plans and Keys and Codes. In fact, despite having seen the band on the tour for this album, I didn’t actually get Transatlanticism until less than a year ago, and boy do I feel like an idiot. I routinely heard it said that Transatlanticism was their best album, but I was always a little skeptical. Well, I shouldn’t have been. This album is a focused work of gorgeous contriteness, and I could have honestly put any track in this spot. I picked this one because it’s the title track and because I love long songs that build to a cathartic release. This album represents the definitive experience of being in your 20s, and I hope that restless twentysomethings are still discovering it decades down the road.

Night Terrors of 1927 Guilty Pleas

Song of the Year

It’s that time of year again.  Year End Lists time.  Rolling Stone does it, Pitchfork does it, the New York Times, Washington Post and NPR all do it.  Time Magazine does it in spades.

We’ve come to the arbitrary end of 2011, and so now it’s time to unfurl the lists of the best (and maybe even worst) of any random thing.  Don’t mistake my snark for disinterest.  I actually love reading these lists and will be gobbling them up for the next few weeks.

But whereas I enjoy reading and being enlightened by the lists of major publications because I know their reviewers will have seen or listened to ten times as many movies and albums as me, I don’t have too much interest in the lists of bloggers.

Which is why I don’t do them.  I think I bought 10 albums all year, so I can’t very well make a Top 10 list that means anything, and I know I haven’t even seen 10 movies in theaters this year.  (I have rented a great deal and enjoyed very many of the small releases this year).

When my friends and fellow bloggers make these lists, I’m always skeptical that they’ve experienced enough variety throughout the year to give their listing any meaning.  But then I remember they’re all mostly white, middle class kids with disposable income, so who knows, maybe they really have bought 100 albums in the past 365 days.

But I haven’t.  I’ve experienced a lot of music this year, mostly one track at a time through free mp3s (I scour the blogs this time of year to snag every song I can find), and have frankly been mostly disappointed.  So much of the music has felt emotionless and remote, I just can’t say there are any new bands or artists that have really captured my attention.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed some new acts this year, but just not enough to seek out their albums. 

For whatever reason, there has been a dearth of visceral music this year.  For me.  Maybe for you this has been a great year for songs of resonance and you can illuminate in the comments what I’m missing.

My musical feast largely consisted of work by longtime favorites, with albums from Radiohead, Ryan Adams, Beirut, the Decemberists and Death Cab for Cutie.  All of these albums I have enjoyed thoroughly, though none are my favorite by that particular artist.  I’ve enjoyed the new Coldplay and Florence + the Machine albums, but they didn’t blow me away.

Bon Iver’s self-titled album has probably been the most disappointing album for me, as it feels like a victim of the emotion-vacuum that a lot of indie music has been going through this year.  It’s a solid enough album, but nothing connects the way almost every song on “For Emma, Forever Ago” did.  Plus, that final song, “Beth/Rest” is one of those ‘love it or hate it’ songs that I find myself hating.  (“Holocene,” on the other hand, does stand out quite beautifully.)

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah released an unremarkable album (I really wanted to love it), whereas Nicole Atkins surprised me with a sleeper album that I just keep returning to and enjoying more and more.

All and all it was a pretty damn good year for music from bands I already love, and if I had to pick a favorite album of the year, it would probably just end up a 4 or 5-way tie.  For the record, I really dig “The King of Limbs” and find it to reward concentrated re-listens, the same way Kid A and Amnesiac did.  But I understand if people don’t get into it, it’s a 180 degree turn from “In Rainbows” in that it doesn’t seem at all interested in pleasing a wide fanbase (the recently released singles “The Daily Mail/Staircase” are definitely still worth the $2.25).

For new music, though, I feel pretty blah.  There definitely isn’t a new favorite band for me.  That’s not to say that I won’t eventually come across something from this year that will really spark with me, but at year’s end, 2011 was a year dominated by old favorites, not new finds.

So, no top 10 albums or songs this year.  What I want to leave you with, instead, is the one song that I feel owned 2011.  It wasn’t by one of my favorite acts and it wasn’t by a brand new artist.  You know this song, you’ve heard it a million times.  And there’s a reason for that.  It was the perfect pop song.*

Where the indie landscape felt like an emotionless wasteland, Adele released the most emotionally wrought and true song I’ve heard in a long time.  If “Someone Like You” doesn’t resonate with you, then you have never been in love or had your heart broken.  And aren’t those the two reasons we turn to music?

This song, and the album, will top a great deal of top 10 lists this year, and deservedly so.  In fact, any list that doesn’t have this song in it is pretty much disqualified.  I don’t care how many times you heard it, I don’t care if that annoying girl at your gym loves it, I don’t care if it was used in too many tv shows.  A great song transcends all your dumb reasons for dismissing it, and this is the One Great Song of 2011.

So, maybe this won’t be a year I return to a lot when I’m going through my library, but I guarantee that I, and all of us, will be listening to this song for years to come.  And that’s one badge of honor 2011 can claim.

So there you have it:

2011 Song of the Year – “Someone Like You” by Adele

*I don’t hear the radio or watch a lot of ABC medical dramas, so I don’t hear most of the big songs each year, but I will say another song I’m totally loving right now is Rihanna’s “We Found Love.”  It’s not a guilty pleasure**, just pure pleasure.

**Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks,” on the other hand, is pure guilty pleasure.

Random Video: Stay Young, Go Dancing

I actually saw Death Cab For Cutie in concert before I had ever heard a song of theirs.  I was in college, I knew the name, and a friend wanted to see the show, so I went with her.  What I remember from the concert (other than the repeated refrain of “I loved you Guenivere” which I found particularly stirring) was just how much I enjoyed the show despite not knowing the songs.  Usually, I’d be bored at a concert where the music was all new to me, but the band’s performance and sincerity was completely engaging.

In Charlotte, I briefly dated a girl who was obsessed with Death Cab.  This was at the time “Plans” came out and while a lot of people were dismissing the album for being their first Major Label release, this girl loved it.  Listening to the album over and over again in her truck, the album grew on me so much I had to eventually buy it for myself a few months after I stopped seeing her.

Most recently, Death Cab released “Codes and Keys,” an album that to my surprise has become one of my favorites of the year.  Even more surprising, the song that has become my favorite is the album’s lovely coda, “Stay Young, Go Dancing.”  Proving that a band can transition from morose to uplift without losing a step, this song is the most hopeful and uplifting piece in the band’s catalog, and I love it.

If there is a more satisfying message in a pop song this year, I haven’t heard it.