Programming Note: I’ve changed the format for this year’s review. Last year I wrote a longer post about each of the songs on my playlist, but this was laborious to write and, I’m sure, boring to read. If I don’t enjoy writing something, I can’t believe that someone else will enjoy reading it. So, I’ve changed the format for this year’s review. I hope it’s better.

“Chill out, everybody.”

Have you ever thought about how music works? I don’t mean, you know, soundwaves making your eardrum vibrate or that it’s the arrangement of sound and silence in time or anything, but, more, how does it work – what is it about music that affects us so strongly, that speaks to us directly like nothing else?

Along those lines, have you thought about what makes for a good or powerful or affecting piece of music? What differentiates the good from the bad? The substantial from the disposable? What are the hallmarks of musical excellence? What makes for a good song? A good album? Are they the same thing? Do all good songs share something in common? Is there something objectively good about music or a song or an album or is it just in how the individual listener responds to it? Is our appreciation for music or a song inextricable intertwined with our personal experience, or can we talk coherently about the quality of a piece of music?

Well, I’m not going to answer any of those questions, of course, but I’ve thought a lot about them throughout the year. Really throughout all of the years, but this year’s album of the year has made me think about these things a lot.

To sort of address the first question, I think music is the most direct way we have to communicate emotionally. This is not an inconsequential thing. The more we learn about human nature, the more we learn that, rather than being thinking creatures who happen to have emotions, we are really emotional creatures who happen to be able to think. The clearest expression of this I’ve heard is that humans are like elephants with riders on the top.* Your elephant is your passionate, instinctive, emotional side, and it’s “controlled” by your rider, who is your cognitive and intellectual side. But, your rider is no match for your elephant when it’s really stirred up, and you can’t accomplish anything of consequence without engaging the power of your elephant. Music is powerful because it’s the language that speaks directly to your elephant, bypassing the helpless rider.

I’m taking the rider-elephant concept from the book Switch, but I think they borrowed it from someone else. Switch is worth reading – it helped me lose about 30 pounds — though the authors are very obviously ripping off Malcolm Gladwell’s style. That’s okay; I rip off lots of people’s styles.
Careful with that whip, guy.

Well, “bypass” is a little strong, since a good song gives the rider something to do as well. Ideally, the music is interesting enough to keep the rider engaged, and the lyrics provide a narrative or thematic framework for the music’s emotional content. Most good songs tell about something that happened and how it made the singer feel:

  1. I just had the worst day and this is how it makes me feel
  2. I did my baby wrong and this is how it makes me feel.
  3. My baby did me wrong and this is how it makes me feel.
  4. I just met the most incredible girl/guy and this is how it makes me feel.
  5. I like big butts and this is how they make me feel.

Ordinarily it’s the musical content that does the heavy lifting. This is why so many nonsense songs have maintained enduring popularity. “Louie Louie” is moronic, but hearing those three chords makes your elephant dance every time.

At its best, music creates a connection between singer and audience on a deep, instinctual level. Something happens to the singer, triggering a strong emotional reaction, the singer finds a suitable musical expression for her emotions, the listener hears the song, and, if the alchemy’s right, the listener feels the same emotion as the singer. Two elephants are able to talk.

We’ve all felt this at one time or another. Maybe you were moved to tears by the majestic beauty of Beethoven’s seventh symphony, or were thrilled by the joy of James Brown, or heard your pain and confusion expressed through the distorted guitars of a grunge song. Recently, I was driving home after a difficult and dispiriting day at work and I happened upon a song that seemed like it was written for that exact moment. This is the power of music: for the entire expansive spectrum of human emotion, there is a way to express it through music.

If music is fundamentally about expressing human emotion, about feeding the elephant, than it is necessarily not about a number of other things. Music is not about being clever, or having a ridiculous band name, or being rebellious, or showing off your virtuosity, or even advancing the form. Not that cleverness or virtuosity or an edge or originality can’t add substantially to a great piece of music, but they’re not what music is about.

Music goes through cycles where many musicians lose sight of this. Gradually the sideshow comes to dominate the stage and virtuosity or being “punk” or something else becomes the cardinal virtue of musicianship. Recently, cleverness has taken center stage. Driven by the hipster aesthetic, many artists steep their music so thoroughly in irony that they seem to be saying “isn’t it cute that people used to feel things like love and anger and sorrow?”* No, it’s not cute; it’s the essence of being a human being. Love, hate, grief, envy, despair, and disillusionment are not a punch line, they are the most profound experiences of life. Great music always has and always will recognize this.

There are legion bands guilty of excessive cleverness. One that comes to mind for me is Best Coast, whose Crazy for You, features a seventh grader’s diary entries delivered with a knowing wink. Horrible band names have also reached a new depth recently. My two (least) favorites from this year are SBTRKT and tUnEyArDs. I was crushed to discover that SBTRKT is pronounced “subtract” rather than “subtercat.” Subtercat at least sounds like some awesome alter ego for Liono in Thundercats, Subtract just sounds like a dubstep version of the Cure.

So, to sum up, the first rule of good music is that it powerfully engages the emotional side of our nature. But, eliciting a strong emotional response is not enough. The sound of a child crying out in pain will produce the strongest emotional response imaginable, but unless you’re Jerry Sandusky or something, you wouldn’t consider it “music.” So, we need to add a second rule, that good music should actually sound good.

This should go without saying, but anyone familiar with the critical success of Yoko Ono can tell you that it does not.* This is so basic and seems so self-evident that it’s hard to discuss without sounding like an idiot, but much of what gets labeled as good music fails this simple test. But isn’t this what makes something music? That it sounds good? That it’s beautiful, or powerful, or tuneful, or aurally enjoyable in some other way? Isn’t that why we listen to music? Because we like the way it sounds?

The Plastic Ono Band’s 2009 release, Between My Head and the Sky, received an 8.3 rating (out of 10) from Metacritic. I kid you not.

This is where I part ways with most critics, who value innovation over sonic beauty. Look, innovation can be a wonderful thing, and one of the great joys of listening to music is hearing something different or unexpected, something that engages your rider as well as your elephant. Moreover, a marker of great musicians of any tradition is that they are innovators who are willing to take chances and are not content producing derivative art.

But, innovation is not a good thing in and of itself. You can experiment with new sounds and different arrangements all day long, but if it ends up sounding like garbage, it still sounds like garbage. You don’t get points just because no one else thought to record those garbage sounds before you did. All you have is the sonic equivalent to the “jump to conclusions” mat. Which brings me to my album of the year, Adele’s 21.

“I’ll take my Grammys now, love, if you please.”

Given my well-documented views on popular music, this is an unusual selection for me, but 21 reminded me why I fell in love with music in the first place.

Everything about Adele and 21 acts as a rebuke to the excesses of contemporary music. Instead of adopting a ridiculous stage name, Adele is just . . . Adele, a name so old-fashioned it should belong to your great aunt. Instead of either dressing like a hobo or wearing costumes made of stuffed frogs, she comes on stage in a simple, elegant gown. Instead of relying on autotune, gimmicky instrumentation, or studio trickery, she relies on simple instrumentation and the voice of a young Aretha Franklin. Finally, in an era of snark and cynicism, 21 exudes emotional honesty and intensity and is utterly devoid of irony.

21 is about Adele’s breakup with her ex. Breakups have always provided fertile ground for songwriters: it’s easy to imagine our prehistoric ancestors struggling to find a melodic outlet for their angst after breaking up with their cave-dwelling sweetie.

Yet, few albums have explored the range of emotions involved in a breakup as thoroughly as 21 does. From the hell-born fury of “Rolling in the Deep,” through the resignation of “Turning Tables,” the pleading of “Don’t You Remember” and “Take It All,” the misguided hope of “One and Only” and “I’ll Be Waiting” to the final crushing despair of “Someone Like You.” In 21, we see Adele going through the seven stages of grief following the loss of her love, and, through the magic of her songs, we suffer, exult, and despair along with her.

The emotional content is matched by the beauty of the music itself. 21’s music is classic in the best sense; though it would have been perfectly at home in the ‘60’s, it doesn’t sound outdated now. There is tremendous forward motion; each song builds rhythmically and dynamically to an emotional climax. Memorable melodies abound, and the instrumentation is varied enough to engage.

The music is brought to life through excellent performances. The musicianship is first-rate throughout. Listen to the piano part on “Someone Like You.” After the bridge, the vocal comes in and the piano plays a single chord under each phrase, accenting the vocals. Then, slowly, the pianist adds notes until it rebuilds to the arpeggio from the beginning of the song. Throughout, the playing is tasteful, musical, and just so.

Of course, the other performances serve simply to underscore THE performance. On 21, Adele gives the most compelling vocal performance in popular music since . . . who? Jeff Buckley? Marvin Gaye? Aretha herself? From the force of nature she unleashes on “Rolling in the Deep” to the wounded yelp of “Don’t You Remember” and the final defeated lament of “Someone Like You,” Adele’s vocal is searing and majestic from beginning to end.

One of the great joys of music is finding the perfect moment in a song: when a performer does something so right in the musical context it just makes you want to jump up and down on the couch cushions.* There are at least two of those moments in 21. One comes at the end of the musical break in “Waiting for You”: the piano player does a run up the scale that all but exclaims with the joy of getting to play music. The other, the big one, comes at the beginning of the second chorus to “Rumour Has It.” In the pre-chorus, the instrumentation falls away, leaving only Adele’s vocal and a fantastic hand-clapping part. Adele concludes with the question, “haven’t you heard/the rumours?” After the briefest pause, she storms back in with a double vocal part: her voice breaks as she squeals, “Bless your soul,” and the echo comes in like a tidal wave crashing into the chorus. If that doesn’t give you chills, you’re just not listening to music the right way.

To borrow an image from one of my favorite music critics, Andy Whitman.

What of the lyrics? Clearly Adele is no Dylan, but that can be as much a positive as a negative. Her lyrics are simple, but that simplicity should not be confused with a lack of quality. Simple and direct often works best for pop/rock songs. “Satisfaction” was voted the greatest song in rock history, but Mick’s lyrics will hardly be confused with Wordsworth. It’s great because it’s simple and direct: he can’t get no satisfaction. Aretha can’t get no respect. Wild thing makes my heart sing. That is a healthy butt. Keep it simple, guys!

Adele keeps it simple: We could have had it all — I heard you miss me — I’ll wait for you — I’m tired of these games — What did I do wrong — I’ll always love you — I’m still not over it. Yet, the simplicity of the songs holds the secret to their power. We connect with them on an elemental level. Because we’ve all been there; we’ve all felt like that.

This is what great trial lawyers do in the courtroom. Though an informational and intellectual appeal is important, you cannot persuade a jury unless you also connect on an emotional, instinctive level.* That is because you have to convince the jury to act, and you can only do that by tapping into their fight or flight response. By speaking to their elephant.

Confusingly, this is called the “reptile” method, since you are appealing to the primitive “reptile” brain. But, I don’t want to confuse anyone by mixing up the reptile and the elephant.

You do this through simple, powerful words, vivid imagery, and compelling storytelling. You make the jury feel what the victim felt, and you motivate them to act on the victim’s behalf. Adele’s songs are compelling in the same way as a great jury argument. They are simple and direct; they tell compelling stories, and they connect on a fundamental level.

So, yeah, Adele’s 21 is my album of the year. Is it a great album? Time will tell. I think it is though. I think it’s the greatest breakup album since Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. I feel certain that future generations will keep breaking up with people and getting their hearts broken, and, as long as that is the case, I think people will find solace in 21.

My 2011 Playlist

  1. “Don’t Carry It All” by the Decemberists

    After the epic Crane Wife and the epicker Hazards of Love, the Decemberists dialed it back considerably on The King is Dead, which proved a wise decision.

  2. “Black Night” by the Dodos

    If you like these guys, wait ‘til you hear the Passenger Pigeons.

  3. “Federal Funding” by Cake

    Sounds like Cake at their best; sadly the rest of Showroom of Compassion couldn’t live up to this gem.

  4. “I’ll Be Waiting” by Adele

    Adele + horns = yes, please.

  5. “Infamous Love Songs” by Over the Rhine

    An absolute graduate course in songwriting. There is no better songwriter working right now.

  6. “Poison and Wine” by the Civil Wars

    Does anything sound better than a great male-female harmony? Nosir

  7. “Bedouin Dress” by Fleet Foxes

    I love this song, but the refrain kills me. Loses all momentum, and the allusion to Innisfree brings to mind Yeats, and any lyricist will suffer by that comparison.

  8. “Holocene” by Bon Iver

    See below

  9. “Wild Window” by Fool’s Gold

    Wild windows are three times as energy efficient as tame windows and can withstand hurricane-force winds.

  10. “Weekend” by Class Actress

    Does she really say, “you make me late for church?” Uh, she doesn’t exactly sound like a church-going girl in the rest of the song.

  11. “True Loves” by Hooray for Earth

    Sure.

  12. “Heavy Abacus” by the Joy Formidable

    My third most favorite song about abaci, just behind “Subterranean Abacus Blues,” and “Sympathy for the Abacus.”

  13. “Stomp and Holler” by Hayes Carll

    Oh man, I would be the biggest fan of country music if it all sounded like Hayes Carll. Can we elect him the Secretary of C and W or something?

  14. “Everything You See (Kids Count Hallelujahs)” by Portugal. the Man

    You bet.

  15. “Smile” by Smith Westerns

    Love these guys. That George Harrison guitar tone is just so sweet.

  16. “Rumour Has It” by Adele

    See above

  17. “Cheerleader” by St. Vincent

    St. Vincent has always been in the shadows of other artists, having performed with Sufjan Stevens and Polyphonic Spree, but she really came into her own with Strange Mercy this year.

  18. “Breaking Down” by Florence + the Machine

    Florence’s songs are ridiculous in a Twilight sort of way – lots of ghosts and devils and whatnot – but they sure do sound great.

  19. “Surfer King” by A.A. Bondy

    Ode to Kamehameha

  20. Bonus Tracks:

  21. “Parenthesis” by the Antlers

    Brackets. . . Braces

  22. “’Til We Get Home” by Sheriffs of Nottingham

    This is my cousin’s band, and it’s good stuff! So back off.

  23. “Left Hand Rock” by Brian Olive

    Sandy Koufax’s song of the year.

  24. “Screws Get Loose” by Those Darlins

    Phillips-head screws mostly.

  25. ”Everytime You Go” by Release the Sunbird

    A beautiful, mournful song.

Some Albums I Don’t Like Enough

Here are a few albums that some people I trust like a lot, but I don’t for whatever reason. You should listen to them, because I’m probably wrong.

Bon Iver by Bon Iver

This is album of the year in some quarters. I am not the biggest fan of Justin Vernon’s muppet falsetto, and that’s kind of his thing, so it’s hard for me to really embrace his music. At times his voice can be affecting, but more often I find it to be affected. Worse, it garbles his lyrics, which is a shame, because he is a thoughtful and evocative songwriter.

“If you can’t understand what I’m saying, just assume it’s profound.”

Hurry Up We’re Dreaming Hurry Up We’re Dreaming by M83

Struck me as overwrought, and that’s before we even get to the “song” with the little girl talking about the frog that’s going to bring world peace or whatever. I know that’s the ultimate hipster fantasy, for everyone to hold hands and live authentically in peace and harmony with the Wild Things and spontaneous dancing and so forth, but I’ll pass.

The Whole Love by Wilco

Man, I don’t know. It just feels like a chore to listen to Wilco these days.

Mylo Xyloto by Coldplay

It’s hard to tell if they’re trying anymore. They still have the big hooks, but what are the songs on this album even about? A girl couldn’t have the world so she dreams of paradise? Is hurting like heaven better or worse than cutting like a knife? Actually, I think I like this album the proper amount.

My Albums of the Year

  1. 21 by Adele
  2. The Long Surrender by Over the Rhine
  3. Strange Mercy by St. Vincent
  4. Barton Hollow by the Civil Wars
  5. KMAG YOYO (and Other American Stories) by Hayes Carll
  6. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes
  7. Dye It Blonde by Smith Westerns
  8. The Big Roar by the Joy Formidable
  9. In the Mountain in the Cloud by Portugal. The Man
  10. Ceremonials by Florence + the Machine
  11. Burst Apart by Antlers
  12. Leave No Trace by Fool’s Gold
  13. The King Is Dead by the Decemberists
  14. Believers by A.A. Bondy
  15. True Loves by Hooray for Earth
  16. Come Back to Us by Release the Sunbird
  17. Bon Iver by Bon Iver
  18. Belong by the Pains of Being Pure at Heart
  19. Cults by Cults
  20. Two of Everything by Brian Olive
  21. Have Mercy EP by the Sheriffs of Nottingham
  22. England Keep my Bones by Frank Turner
  23. Deerhoof vs. Evil by Deerhoof
  24. J Roddy Ralston and the Business by J Roddy Ralston and the Business
  25. Life Fantastic by Man Man