It is tradition in my house for me to make my wife a mix-tape (or mix-CD or mix-playlist) for Christmas. Initially the songs I added were love songs or songs that expressed some sort of fealty towards her, but after a few years of this I ran out of good love songs and started mixing songs that I had discovered that year. I am much more of a music obsessive than my wife so she enjoys getting to hear interesting new music without having to do all the work of seeking out new tunes nor listening to all the crap that comes out. I enjoy the entire process of finding choice new tunes and putting them in an interesting order.
You may not know this, (for I've only written half a dozen articles about it here on Blinded By Sound) but my wife and I had our first child this year. What they don't tell you about having a child is that they are an enormous time-suck. If I'm not feeding her I'm changing her diaper or her clothes. If I'm not trying to keep her from crying I'm trying to make her laugh. If I'm not putting her down for a nap I'm waking her up from one (usually not intentionally.) Every moment of every waking day (and more often than not even the non-waking nights) she needs me in some way. During those few moments when she doesn't need me I am all too often way too tired to do anything but lay down myself.
All of this means that I have listened to far fewer music than in my normal, non-baby years. Even the music that I did listen to by artists I love I wasn't able to give them the multiple listens with an attentive mind. Still I wanted to give my wife her annual mix and with a little cheating I was able to. The cheating comes in by way of NPR and a few other year end lists of best songs, plus the iTunes shuffle mode. I took all the songs from 2011 that I have a copy of, made a playlist and hit shuffle. If the song sounded decent it made the initial cut. If one of the lists praised a song it made the initial cut. Then I gave the first cut a quick listen, made a few deletions until I got down to one CDs worth of music and said it was good. This means there are more than a couple of songs on the mix that I've not actually heard more than a couple of times. I may regret that in the long run, but when you are in a pinch sometimes you have to be ready for regrets.
Anyways here's what it became:
"Chicago" - Tom Waits From Bad as Me
I've never played my wife much Tom Waits as I don't suspect his gruff voice will do much for her, but his new album is really good and this song is really short and minus most of his way out there weirdness so it made the cut. Its also a great blustery way to start an album or a mix.
"Even in My Dreams" - Pains of Being Pure at Heart From Belong
I discovered these guys a year or two ago but honestly haven't paid all that much attention to them past an initial liking. This song is much more pop-infused than I expect out of them with some nice fuzzed out guitar during the chorus which also contains the line "even in my dreams/I could not betray you" which sounds like the love songs I used to put on the Missus mixes.
"Honey Bunny" - Girls From Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Back in September I wrote that this song was "a delicious pop shake with enough of a hard edge to make the ironic hipsters dig" and that's still true. Its a throwback to 60s bubblegum with an indie edge.
"Mona Louise" - The Wailin' Jennys From Bright Morning Stars
I've always loved these girls choice of band names and their perfect harmonies. They don't disappoint here with a gentle lullaby that's just about exactly perfect.
"Let England Shake" - PJ Harvey From Let England Shake
There are few musical voices out there today as unique as PJ Harvey's. I love the bouncing jingle bell music mixed with her apocalyptic lyrics.
"The Caterpillar" - The Cure From Bestival Live 2011
A classic song done live. Surprisingly my wife says she's never heard the original.
"A Good Day" - Lena From Good News
Lena was the 2010 winner of the Eurovision Song Contest which sounds something a bit like American Idol. The songs is something along the lines of something you might expect from a winner of such a contest - its upbeat, light and fluffy and while its not likely to last long in my song rotation its a nice bit of pop confection.
"Battery Kinzie" - Fleet Foxes From Helplessness Blues
There was a lot of pressure on the Fleet Foxes to follow up their debut album with something amazing and they did not disappoint. Helplessness Blues isn't a whole lot different from their self-titled album but it focuses on their strengths (tight, but slightly ragged harmonies mixed with indie-rock sensibilities and matures their songwriting. Honestly I pretty much chose this song at random from the album for this mix.
"This God Damn House" - The Low Anthem From What the Crow Brings
This is the only song from this years mix that was not released this year. It comes from the band's very first album which initially was only printed 600 times but wisely the band reissued it digitally this year. "This God Damn House" breaks my god-damned heart every time I hear it. Its deceptively simply in its lyrics and style but its sadness infuses my heart like an old blanked soaked in misery.
"Hard Times" - Gillian Welch From the Harrow and the Harvest
We've waited 8 years for a new Gillian Welch album and now that its come all I can say is it was definitely worth the wait. Welch and her partner David Rawlings don't offer any surprises on the album but they do what they do with a grace and delicacy that no one can compete with. "Hard Times" is typical of the duo with music straight from the hills, lyrics straight from the wells of Sadness, and harmonies straight from Heaven
"Don't Think Twice, Its Alright" - Johnny Cash From Bootleg Volume 3: Live Around the World
Johnny Cash was instrumental in bringing Bob Dylan to the world and I've always loved his version of this classic Dylan song. This is a nice live version from this odd-ball collection of live songs taken from his most recent officially released bootleg. I like how he changes all the "babes" to "gal" for reasons only Johnny knows.
"Rewrite" - Paul Simon From So Beautiful or So What
It is an amazing thing that anyone can write a song that touches millions of lives but to consistently do it for nearly 50 years the way Simon has is nothing short of astonishing. So Beautiful or So What proves that even at 70 years old he's still got it.
"One in the World" Tapes 'n Tapes From Outside
Tapes 'n Tapes is one of those bands that I've known by name for years and that I feel I ought to know, but that I've not actually really ever listened to. I've seen their names in print and probably even heard a few of their tunes, but its really their name that I know and not their music. I grabbed this song based on that knowledge of their name and its a nice addition to a year end mix. Its got a bouncy, dancey groove that will keep the wife's feet tapping long after the new year.
"Listen to Me" - J Mascis From Several Shades of Why
Back in the day I was a huge fan of Dinosaur Jr. I've longed since mellowed and their insanely loud, grunge inflected style of tunage has fallen mostly out of my general listening habits so its nice to see frontman Mascis laying down a mostly acoustic and wholly softer set of songs. The album fades in excellence during the second half but the front of it finds Mascis trading in his trademark squall for some real feeling and nice bit of songwriting and "Listen to Me" is an excellent showcase of his talents behind the wail.
"Down by the Water" - The Decemberists From The King is Dead
After two high concept albums the Decemberists return with an album of straight ahead songs. "Down by the Water" features guitar work by R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and backing vocals by Gillian Welch and sounds an awful like some forgotten R.E.M. song which is to say its absolutely brilliant.
"Dirty Rain" - Ryan Adams From Ashes and Fire
After the mostly miserable Cardinology and a retirement no one took seriously Ryan Adams came back with Ashes and Fire an album I'm still not entirely sure about. There are some really good songs and nothing I'm ready to call terrible but mostly its just perfectly pleasant music that doesn't at all stand out. I'm not ready to make any sort of final judgment on it as I've not given it my full attention, but so far it neither makes me joyful at his post-retirement career nor disappointed. "Dirty Rain" has Adams back in master lyricist mode with gentle tunemanship which is exactly where I like him and why I fell in love with the man in the first place.
"Dawned on Me" - Wilco From The Whole Love
Wilco has had one of the best runs that come from popular music. They've never made a bad albums and even slight misfires like 2009's Wilco (the Album) have more great songs than some artist release in their entire careers. The Whole Love is far from their best album and "Dawned on Me" isn't the best song on that album but its darn catchy and contains some of the most upbeat and loving lyrics of Jeff Tweedy's repertoire and as this is a mix for my wife it makes perfect sense to include it.
"Blessed" - Lucinda Wiliams From Blessed
Speaking of great runs Lucinda has likewise created a string of albums over the last thirty years to rival any of her contemporary peers. She runs that line between country/folk/blues/rock that makes her hard to define or promote but that speaks directly to exactly who I am as a listener. This is one of her best songs. Ever. Its got a gospel back beat infused with soul of the south and lyrics that uplift. Its the kind of song I'd like played at my funeral. Its also a great way to end a end-of-the-year mix tape.
And there you have it. I'm not saying these are the best songs of 2011, I'm not even saying they are my favorite songs. But I think they prove that 2011 had some great songs from new artists, from old artists, from independents and from some long established songwriters. Its also a great awakening to all those naysayers out there that say that music is dead and there's nothing new under the sun.