Happy New Year’s Eve! As we approach the top of our tracks of the year list, a couple of changes to the format. First, both Tim + Alex are writing up each track, trying to explain why we landed on these choices together. And because that means longer entries, second, we’re splitting the top 10 into two halves.
Here’s a playlist of tracks 10-6, but as ever there are embedded YouTube videos for each song below the cut, along with lots and lots of words.
Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds – The Mountain Goats
Alex: In a year when one of my closest friends left Leeds behind, and another did actually move back there, my one regret is that I failed to wheel out this song on either occasion. Still, I’ve had great fun mentally substituting the lyrics. (NB: ‘Samuel Willet’ scans better for ‘Andrew Eldritch’ than ‘Adlai McCook’ does.)
Literally my only problem with the lyrics is that John Darnielle somehow seems to have equated Leeds with ‘bad’. For assorted personal reasons, plus the objective fact that it is a slightly-chilly heaven on earth, Leeds is a city I have long held close to my heart as an eventual reward, not punishment.
But as someone who has just spent a few days in my hometown for Christmas, I can relate all too keenly to the terror of failing at your chosen creative pursuit and being exiled back to the unremarkable place you came from. “Everybody tests the membrane, but no-one pushes through,” as Darnielle sings. It’s a feeling that’s only exacerbated by the wheezing instrumentation, a parochial horror-movie soundtrack about being reclaimed by the failed generation before you.
Tim: If we lean back on the old Phonomantic truism of music being magic, then John Darnielle belongs to the School of Conjuration. The songs of The Mountain Goats are able to bring forth not just emotions and sensations, but fully-realised creations. Portraits woven of memory and invention and experience. The songs on Goths are no exception to this rule, and “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds” taps into a very specific seam for me.
I’ve never been a full-blown Goth, but I’ve been Goth-adjacent for enough time to have established a complex schema around our most looked-down-upon subculture (the “our” in this case being “white people”). Despite the fact that the official Gothest Of All Time were a bunch of aristocratic poets, for me, there will always be a firm connection between Goth and the disaffected working class.
In England, that also means there’s a firm link with the North, and towns like Leeds, Sheffield and Hull, where generations of industry emptied out over the course of the 20th Century. For scores of young (mostly) men, one of the escape routes was picking up a guitar and channelling their anger and frustration into grim, tempestuous rock.
That bargain might take them as far as London, or even my own Norwich, but it would always be to “the unmarked rooms, where the dry dust breeds”, in pubs like The Ferryboat or The Marquee. Before to long, they all return home to populate those same pubs in their own towns and cities. You’ll find them propping up sticky wooden bars in places that smell of sweat and leather, where “Black Betty” is always playing on the jukebox.
That, to me, is the spectre that The Mountain Goats have summoned with their latest invocation. The phantom of Britain’s dying working class, dreams crushed, poisoning itself on nostalgia and cheap bitter.
Boys – Charli XCX
Alex: I wish I was able to say something incredibly incisive about this song, about the way it flips the script on who gets sexual agency in pop music and how it allows Charli to be openly horny in a way that’s about her, not her lovers, but I was busy… well, you know the rest.
So instead, a few quick thoughts on that chorus. When I first heard Boys, I thought it was too slight. Light on verses, light on musical development, light on everything that isn’t “I was busy thinking ‘bout boys”. The song is a one-trick pony, and I thought that trick would wear thin.
Reader, I was wrong.
It’s incredible how much variation Charli is able to get out of the word “boys”. Sometimes she delivers it in a way that’s cheekily playful, other times as lazily as a cat dozing in the sunlight. Sometimes it’s airy, or there’s a quiver in her voice, or she stretches it out rapturously. There are as many variants of inflection as there are types of boys Charli craves (that bad boy to do me right on a Friday, that good one to wake me up on a Sunday).
It’s also the year’s most adaptable lyric. I said in my Taylor Swift write-up that “the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now” was the greatest memetic joke-form of 2017, but this certainly gave it a run for its money. You can substitute just about any single-syllable word for “boys”, dependent on mood. At various points I have been busy thinking ‘bout pugs, towels and, predominantly towards the year’s end, porgs.
Tim: 2017 was the Year of Repurposed Nintendo Sound Effects in Pop Culture. From Baby Driver’s “TeKillYah” trailer to “Mass Text Booty Call” by Kitty to the satisfying click of the game-maker’s latest console, Nintendo has wormed its way into our soundscape and now refuses to leave. But perhaps the greatest deployment this year was in “Boys”, where the iconic sound of Mario grabbing a coin plays a central role in the construction of the chorus, giving Charli XCX more space between the lyrics and allowing her voice to stretch out and luxuriate. There’s a wonderful thematic hook to it too – the boys Charli is hooking up with mean as much and as little to her as the coins Mario chases in the games.
2017 was the Year of the Soft Boy Aesthetic. From Wonder Woman’s Steve Trevor to The Last Jedi’s Finn, the cinema was filled with good-hearted, honest heroes trying their best, and arrogant arseholes took a firm backseat. The video for “Boys” slots in perfectly to this mood, placing the viewer in a pastel pink, fuzzy sweatshirt world of hunks. Whether it’s a milk-mustachioed Joe Jonas eating pancakes, Riz Ahmed getting secrets whispered to him by a giant pink teddy bear or Khalid cuddling up to puppies dyed turquoise and purple, the video created an all-you-can-eat buffet of non-threatening masculinity in a year when it was desperately needed.
2017 still wasn’t the Year of Charli XCX. “Boys” was probably the biggest hit she’s had purely under her own steam, rather than helping to prop up someone less talented than her (*cough*IggyAzalea*cough*) but it still feels like the hardest working woman in pop hasn’t fully broken through to the mega-stardom she deserves. With two new mixtapes (one admittedly only about two weeks old at this point), another single besides “Boys” and four featured spots this year, Charli continues to be pop music’s glittery, alcopop-fuelled swan – graceful and effortless on the surface, but paddling hard underneath. Hopefully this time next year, we’ll be looking back and bearing witness to her domination.
To Know Your Mission – Jens Lekman feat. LouLou Lamotte
Tim: In which Jens Lekman guides us through the most gentle, reassuring existential crisis of all time.
I’m a big fan of music that tackles emotions beyond the obvious topics of love and heartbreak, and the way Lekman frames this song with the death of Princess Diana, one of those big cultural moments that could easily spur self-reflection, is a wonderful touch.
In fact, the whole construction of the song’s narrative is very cleverly thought-through. Lekman’s teenage self isn’t the protagonist here, but a character in someone else’s story, as a Mormon missionary casts aside religion for a moment in hopes of some simple, honest conversation. That Teen Lekman seems to have it all worked out is telling, and begs the question of whether or not he still feels that way. After all, he professes that “in a world of mouths, I want to be an ear”, but here we are, listening to him sing.
It might just be because I’m writing this at the festive season, but there’s something very Christmassy about the whole song, even though it lacks all the traditional signifiers of the season, and is set in late August. It might just be the instrumentation on the chorus, where the piano is joined by bells or perhaps a xylophone, that summons that impression, but given that the new year always seems to inspire some profound introspection in most people, it feels appropriate.
Alex: For my money, Jen Lekman is pop music’s greatest storyteller.
His album from this year, Life Will See You Now, is filled with perfect little vignettes, about not knowing how to handle a friend’s potentially terminal illness or being transported back to an ended relationship by the smell of an ex’s shampoo. They’re all worth your time, but “To Know Your Purpose” is the most immediate: a conversation between strangers on the street which cuts straight to the search for meaning in life.
As you may be able to tell from that description, the song – and indeed the surrounding album – sit right on the precipice of being too twee but, like Mary Lambert’s “Lay Your Head Down” last time out, never fall over it.
Also like that song, “To Know Your Purpose” demonstrates a remarkable ear for little details. While Lambert handles them like a poet, though, Lekman deploys specifics like a short story writer.
This song is a period piece, set at a time so precise – 31 August 1997, with Will Smith and Puff Daddy in the charts – you can mark its anniversary, as the tabloids work themselves up to their yearly froth over Princess Diana’s death. Meanwhile, Lekman sketches out the two characters through a single action each: the missionary removing his suit jacket and loosening his tie, the young Jens leaning against a fence and taking off headphones to introduce himself.
These are enough to fill out the whole scene in my head, but what’s most important is the one thing Lekman leaves vague: what the mission is, what we’re here for.
The song ends with the affirmation that “I’m serving you”, but exactly who that “you” is remains ambiguous. Is it us, the audience? Is it Jens pledging himself to the person he’s telling this story to, or the missionary finding his faith again?
As someone who spent the past year pursuing two possible missions, as I got married and quit a longstanding job to pursue nonsense like this, I appreciate leaving the question open.
Green Light – Lorde
Alex: And lo, after much teasing and invocation, she appears. The year’s most powerful pop-witch, sat on the Sad Singer-Songwriter Girl Pop iron throne with all the pretenders laid out at her feet.
If I had to pick a centre point of pop music in 2017, “Green Light” would be it. A downbeat song that’s somehow danceable, a celebration of feeling empty and lonely in the club, delivered in a voice by turns breathy and powerful, with big punchy synths and Jack Antonoff sat behind the mixing desk.
I’m getting old, so maybe that isn’t an accurate reading of the charts, but it’s certainly a fair aggregate of this one.
Tim: Some small things to appreciate about “Green Light”:
-When it comes to traditional ‘verses’, the song only has six lines. The rest is refrain, pre-chorus, chorus or outro. Vox did a fascinating video about the power of repetition in music, and whether it’s becoming more common (the answer is yes). If you use the software mentioned in the video on “Green Light” (which I did here) you can see how repetitive the song is, which helps it hook into your brain and make it feel iconic. It’s even more impressive, then, how Lorde manages to paint a complete picture of a breakup and two ex-lovers still caught in each other’s orbit with so few words.
-That audacious switch from the ominous, heavy piano chords of the verse and refrain to the impatient, urgent piano in the pre-chorus. Instant momentum, like the hurried rush down a club corridor when you hear a song you love playing from outside.
-While we’re talking instruments, that guitar on the outro, the sound of night-time traffic speeding past you as you drunkenly but determinedly stride down the layby of a dual carriageway.
-The way Lorde stretches “bedroom” out into a three-syllable word.
-The video in general, but in particular: the way Lorde’s pink dress reminds me of the cover to Amy Winehouse’s Frank; the sudden appearance of Jack Antonoff, playing the piano in the ladies toilets; and Lorde going buck-wild on top of her taxi while the driver stands nearby, quietly vaping.
Hard Times – Paramore
Tim: “Hard Times” speaks to two of the projects that dominate my time. The first is one of the role-playing games I run, a hack of an existing system set in a world of my own creation. My elevator pitch when asked to describe the game is “Parks & Recreation, set in a world that’s half Adventure Time, half Scott Pilgrim, with some Mario and Ghostbusters thrown in for good measure”. It features Muppet cops, walking nebulae and musical showdowns that can warp reality.
An easier way to get all that across is just to show people the video to “Hard Times”. With its pastel tones, hand-drawn special effects and neon-lit clouds, it’s a great distillation of the aesthetic I’m hoping to convey with the game.
The other project is depression. Most people wouldn’t really classify it as a project, but I spend about as much time managing it, dealing with it and navigating my way around it as I do with anything else in my life. And like all time-consuming projects, it often gets on top of me and leaves me feeling paralysed, ashamed and pathetic.
“Hard Times” might profess to being about external troubles, but with lines like “All that I want is to wake up fine” and “Walking around with my little rain cloud”, it sure feels to me like it’s talking about the constant struggle for mental wellbeing.
When people think of music about depression, they probably think of Morrissey, not something with tropical marimbas made by former darlings of the pop-punk/emo scene, but there’s a sort of gallows positivity you can find in mental health problems that makes “Hard Times” the perfect anthem for surviving another day, much to your own surprise.
Alex: In what is going to become a theme for most of the remaining entries on this list, I didn’t realise I liked Paramore until I heard “Hard Times”.
Tim has already delved into the beating heart of the song, but none of that reached my ears on the first dozen spins. I was just attracted by how pretty it all was. Specifically, pretty in a way that I’d never expected from Paramore.
For what it’s worth, though, my take on the disjunct between the song’s bouncy sound and its heart-ripped-out lyrics is a little different to Tim’s. Where he hears positivity against the odds, I hear plastering over.
Masking inner pain and presenting as fine is a topic covered by “Fake Happy”, a later single from the same album. On it, Hayley Williams sings: “It’s easy when I’m stomping on a beat/But no one sees me when I crawl back underneath.” But “Fake Happy” eventually reveals itself, baring sharp teeth on the chorus.
“Hard Times” fully commits throughout. The production, instruments, even Williams’ delivery of lyrics about the energy involved in merely surviving – none of them break character once. Which means you get a reminder to peek under the surface of your friends’ public presentation, and also an absolutely banging tune, all in the space of three minutes.