By Spencer. Continuing last week’s Singles Club challenge, several of our S&N contributors are compiling playlists of songs from artists or albums we previously considered great, but whose star has faded over time—such that now you only really need one killer song from them in your collection. This week, it’s my turn, and I’m learning that the real challenge here is staying within the rules.
Because while we probably all agree about the greatness of these songs, I suspect I’m going to take some flak for suggesting that a few of the albums they come from no longer hold up. Maybe that’s not an assessment of quality though; sometimes, the best music burns out over time because it feels trapped in its own era, or because its appeal was primarily in its novelty (which of course diminishes once digested), or because you simply listened to it so much that you killed it? Whatever the reason, these songs have earned a permanent place in my library, regardless of whether the artists who made them have lost their hold on me.
1. Sufjan Stevens, “For The Widows In Paradise, For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti” (from Michigan): I’ve maintained for some time that Sufjan Stevens isn’t all he’s hailed to be. While there’s no questioning his adventurousness, his songwriting is at its most powerful when it’s not buried behind clarinet gimmicks and loopy choirs. And there’s no better case for that than “For The Widows In Paradise”—just a perfect melody expressed through the stripped-down glory of a banjo and a voice. The rest of Sufjan’s catalog hasn’t aged nearly as well, but this song will always be indispensable.
2. Arcade Fire, “Intervention” (from Neon Bible): You could argue that Arcade Fire is the defining band of the indie rock era. While Funeral and The Suburbs are still essential listening in their entirety, Neon Bible has become the middle child in the family, not quite managing to stand out from the pack. But “Intervention” might be my favorite Arcade Fire song of all time—the perfect distillation of their penchant for exuberant, emotional anthems. That booming church organ hits with such power, it feels like the point where music and religion meet.
3. Harlem Shakes, “Sunlight” (from Technicolor Health): When Harlem Shakes debuted, it felt like they were going to be a bigger deal. But while they’ve never done anything of note again, “Sunshine” is bouncy pop perfection.
4. Andrew Bird, “Imitosis” (from Armchair Apocrypha): It’s not that Armchair Apocrypha isn’t still a great album. It’s that after four more albums that all basically sound exactly the same, Bird has diluted the noteworthiness of his signature achievement, burning us out on all the qualities that made his music attractive in the first place. Even so, if you had to keep one song for memory’s sake, it would easily be “Imitosis,” whose playful violins and exotic flair capture everything you once loved about Andrew Bird in a single track.
5. Grizzly Bear, “Two Weeks” (from Vickatimest): If Grizzly Bear have faded in our appreciation, it’s only because it’s been so long since they’ve given us new music. And yet, with time and distance, I find myself uninterested in going back to their catalog—it’s like an old flame who, however beautiful, feels better left in the past. Even so, “Two Weeks” is worth keeping around as a snapshot of why you loved them so much in the first place.
6. Band Of Horses, “The Funeral” (from Everything All The Time): This song still punches hard. Band Of Horses weren’t exactly a one-hit wonder, and they put out several more albums of reliable tunes. But this was the one song of theirs that was truly transcendent. And listening to the rest of their material, you suspect they know it.
7. Death From Above 1979, “Black History Month” (from You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine): These guys were a one-trick pony, but they did that trick pretty damn well. Cutting guitars, high energy, oddball humor—it’s all here on this track. The rest of their music holds up fine, but this is the only song of theirs I really need to hear.
8. Menomena, “Dirty Cartoons” (from Mines): I remember ranking Mines as my favorite album of 2010, but when I revisit it now, whatever magic I heard there is just … gone. Except for this track, which blends acoustic and electric so well and builds to a beautiful and aching coda.
9. Longwave, “Tidalwave” (from The Strangest Things): Antony included a different Longwave track from a different album in his Singles Club mix. Truth is, these guys had several good songs to choose from, which is arguably proof they don’t belong here? For my money, the one that still captures my ear is “Tidal Wave”; it’s a shimmery piece of mid-00s post-alternative guitar pop with a memorable vocal hook that holds up well.
10. Cat Power, “Good Woman” (from You Are Free): Chan Marshall is one of those musicians we feel we’re supposed to love more than we actually do. Arguably better known for her covers albums now than her original material, it’s hard for me to fake enthusiasm for her anymore. Except for this one track, an alt-country masterpiece which stands out quite possibly because it really doesn’t sound like Cat Power.
11. The Dodos, “Jody” (from Visiter): Every couple of years, I buy a new Dodos album, listen to it, think to myself, “This is pretty decent,” and then never listen to it again. But “Jody” is something special, with those racing drums and a nifty melodic turn on the chorus that burrows into your ear and stays there.
12. Pilot Speed, “Don’t Stare” (from Into The West): The level to which I would indulge every last mediocre Britpop band in the 00s—Travis, Snow Patrol, Doves, Glasvegas, Turin Brakes, The Veils, Keane, Athlete, Bell X1, Aqualung—should probably be embarrassing in retrospect. Which only partly explains the love I used to feel for Pilot Speed, since they’re actually Canadian. But they sounded British, which was good enough for me, with an emphasis on melody and vaguely Chris Martin-ish vocals that scratched my itch for songs that sounded pretty. “Don’t Stare” is probably the best one from the album, an epic-length builder that rides its soaring choruses for all they’re worth.
13. Grand National, “Peanut Dreams” (from Kicking The National Habit): My appreciation for electronic dance music is somewhat selective, but back in 2007, I fucking loved this album. To be fair, there’s a lot of tracks on it that really hold up well, even if they sound dated now. But the trance-y little guitar loop on “Peanut Dreams” is just so atmospheric that I think I’ll always need it in my collection.
14. Tapes ‘n’ Tapes, “Omaha” (from The Loon): I remember our last year of law school when fellow S&N contributor Mark was fucking obsessed with Tapes ‘n’ Tapes, who sounded like they could be the next big thing in indie. In retrospect, I think we just loved this one song so much that it tainted our judgment. Listening now, it actually sounds like it marks a key transition point between the music of O.C.-lite bands like The Shins or Rogue Wave and the Americana wave that was just on the horizon.
15. Beirut, “St. Apollonia” (from The Flying Club Cup): Beirut were like your eccentric friend who loved to lord it over you that their tastes in everything were just a lot more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than yours—and you kind of knew they were right about it. This gypsy march is probably the best thing they did, sounding like a Federico Fellini movie converted into song form (a description which goes a long way toward proving my point about them).
16. Iron & Wine, “The Trapeze Swinger” (from the In Good Company Soundtrack): You could argue that I’m cheating on this one, since it doesn’t come from an album but rather a soundtrack. But I’m putting “The Trapeze Swinger” on here as a stand-in for Iron & Wine’s entire catalog, which seemed so much more creative a decade ago and now feels completely boring in retrospect. All except for this song, which is ten-minutes of songwriting perfection. What’s amazing is how a song that just plays the same verse/chorus over and over and over never becomes tedious, because the hook is so infectious. I could listen to it on repeat and never get tired of it.
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