The year-end countdown begins: Between now and New Year’s Eve, I’ll be rattling off my Top Ten favorite songs of 2009. The complete list, along with an especially long-winded essay, will be featured in Thursday’s paper, yours to treasure forever. I’m also hoping you’ll take a moment to share your own favorite tracks. (If all this saves just one life, it will not have been in vain.) So to kick things off, here’s Numbers 10-7, complete with accompanying videos:
No. 10: “Fantasy Man” by the Swell Season (Anti)
Not many artists can capture the austere melancholy of Nick Drake and Antonio Carlos Jobim without lapsing into the solipsism that fuels a thousand bearded and boring indie-folk poseurs. Between the two of them, the Swell Season’s Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová have, in fact, managed one beard, but resemblances end there.
“Fantasy Man” is one of the more unassuming tracks on an album that’s not all that assuming in the first place. Irglová is bascially in charge on this one, with engaging vocals that suggest a less calculated Feist, and a quietly beautiful arrangement of acoustic guitar, piano and handclaps. The song is, to use entirely inappropriate terminology, a grower not a shower, so give it a chance.
No. 9: “Sea Within a Sea” by the Horrors (XL)
Wow, 8 ½ droney, druggy, but not draggy minutes, and not one proper chorus — unless you count the weirdly modulated bit midway through. “Sea Within a Sea” sounds like the Horrors have spent a lot of time listening to the three Js — Julian Cope, John Foxx and Joy Division — but they could do worse (and, in fact, have). The raved-out arpeggiation builds slowly and subtly and, by the end, this is a thing of undeniable beauty.
No. 8: “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” by Mayer Hawthorne (Stones Throw)
Producer Sam Phillips reportedly said he’d make a million dollars if he could find a white boy who could sing like a black man. Ironically, Mayer Hawthorne sounds way blacker than Elvis and looks way whiter, especially with those horn-rimmed glasses.
Hip-hop scenester Peanut Butter Wolf put out Hawthorne’s exceedingly swell debut album back in September, and “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” is a perfect showcase for the singer’s sweet high-tenor vocals that make it sound like the church of Smokey Robinson is back in business. And yes, an earlier version of the song was released as a red, heart-shaped 7-inch toward the end of ’08, but it took a while to, as the Grammy folks say, “achieve prominence.”
No. 7: “When I Grow Up” by Fever Ray (Mute)
Incurably accented and insidiously eccentric, Karin Dreijer Andersson’s vocals are instantly affecting, whether performing with her brother Olof in the Knife, guesting with chillout duo Röyksopp, or masterminding her own solo project called Fever Ray. And while it’s true that the Swede’s disturbing imagery and frequently pitch-shifted singing makes Björk seem stable and reassuring by comparison, her eerily beautiful electronic pop is incredibly alluring if you give it half a chance. “When I Grow Up” is pretty unforgettable, and even more so once you see the video.