In Which Three Young Boys Weigh in on the Best Songs of 2011
The year is drawing to a close, which means it's time for us music writers to puff out our chests -- those chests emblazoned with big red "C's" for "critic" -- and be extra insular, bombastic, and pissy. In our year-end lists and year-end essays and year-end slideshows, pop music's moments of glorious unpredictability will be rationalized in comfortable, arm-chair hindsight. We will out-thesaurus one another and out-douche one another, all while spouting words like "crystallize" and "contextual" and "conceptualize," and spewing phrases like "solipsistic wonder" and "abject fetishism."
Not an actual photo of any of the children subjected to WU LYF for this article.
We will praise the "sonic erudition" of M83 while expressing caution over the "Dionysian superfluousness" of LMFAO. We will pooh-pooh the "parasitic appropriation" of Pitbull -- but then, in an effort to prove that within us exists the capacity for self-awareness, as well as an appreciation of the fact that erudite wordplay can induce migraines (I have one right now, in fact), we will follow up by saying that Pitbull also "sucks gnarled goat taint."
Well forgive me, please, for I'm not participating in such amusement this year.
I'm not going to pick apart pop music in such a way that anonymous readers will be compelled to email me descriptions of ritual hipster beatings and threats of having my Soulseek account banned. I'm also not going to provide fodder for cynics who believe music criticism is all about the anonymous resenting the famous. (Which it is, of course.) What I really want is to attempt something different. I want to recapture the enthusiasm I once derived from the whole listening/digesting/writing process. I want an analytical approach that is novel and unique, but most important of all, permits someone other than me to do all the heavy-lifting.
So for my year-end shenanigans I got the kids prominently involved. I mean really, isn't a child's ability to provide free, accessible labor one of the primary motivations behind having one? I make my children dust knick-knacks and shelves, and put away clean laundry. What's wrong with a little music criticism? It's only slightly more mind-deadening than other mundane chores I force upon them, like raking and bagging leaves. Then again, you won't get blisters on your palms listening to James Blake. (At least until hand-wound Victrolas make a comeback. Wocka-wocka.)
Anyway, what I did was gather my three oldest boys, spin them eight noteworthy tracks from 2011, and take note of the psychotic reactions and the carburetor dung. Some quick background on my little Robert Christgaus: A.(all names have been shortened to protect the pre-pubescent) is 12 years old, plays alto saxophone and adores the Clash so much he's actually made it through the entirety of Sandinista!. L. is nine and considers one of his proudest moments to be mastering on drums the intro to Stone Temple Pilots' "Vasoline." Q. is a six-year-old with a Sam Cooke fetish and a potentially dangerous obsession with the video for Beasties Boys' "Sabotage."
And away we go ...
Battles, "Ice Cream"
Informed that the title is "Ice Cream," A. wonders if the track's grunts and growls are because the vocalist didn't let his ice cream sit for three to four minutes at room temperature, thus rendering it particularly difficult to scoop. Q. thinks otherwise: "Maybe the guy is pushing a really heavy barrel." Whatever the explanation, the boys are sold. Verdict: Thumbs up.
Bibio, "Take Off Your Shirt"
Q. immediately surrenders himself to the song's rhythmic guitars and begins cavorting wildly. I announce the song's title, which then inspires him to remove his shirt and whirl it over his head like helicopter blades. L. says in mock outrage: "Hey, I can see your nipples!" This induces sudden embarrassment in Q., who turns to me and sheepishly asks, "Does your editor know us? What's he gonna say?" Verdict: Thumbs up.
James Blake, "I Never Learnt to Share"
The song's stark synthesizers and painfully honest lyrics swiftly depress the trio. L.: "It's so rude his brother and sister don't speak to him." Then later: "This is sad, sad stuff." A. assures me that he and his siblings will never fall victim to such schisms. Thirty minutes later they're clashing over control of the Xbox. Verdict: Thumbs down.
M83, "Midnight City"
All are enamored with the song's instantly memorable riff. I explain that it's a sample of M83 leader Anthony Gonazlez's heavily distorted voice. Q. gives this some thought and then deduces that there is a direct link between a person's vocal timbre and how much of a danger they pose to society. "Keep on the lookout for this Anthony guy," Q. warns. "He probably needs to be in jail." A. thinks the track's sound is very futuristic. L. agrees: "It's like music from 17,000 years into the future." Verdict: Thumbs up.
Nicolas Jaar, "Space Is Only Noise If You Can See"
Being adolescent boys and all, the three of them immediately associate the song's fat, rippling synths with flatulence. A cursory description of what a synthesizer is prompts L. to respond, "So they're basically keyboards ... That just happen to make gross farting noises." Yeah, buddy -- that's exactly right. At any rate, a song apparently needs more than just hot air to triumph. Verdict: Thumbs down.
Peter Bjorn and John, "Lies"
A. ruminates on how much he enjoys the song's harefooted guitars and drums, and how they remind him of Buzzcocks' "Ever Fallen in Love." However, he's rudely interrupted by a Q. digression that: opens with him proclaiming that Peter Bjorn and John are merely copying the Jonas Brothers; meanders toward theories regarding the boy band's waning popularity ("It's because they peed their pants while playing a concert"); and closes with questions regarding what happens when you have to urinate mid-gig ("Is there a bathroom under the stage?"). My little experiment has officially gone off the rails. Verdict: Thumbs up.
tUnE-yArDs, "My Country"
Q. is enthralled with the song's layered, tottering drums and once more begins dancing, executing a particularly bizarre move that involves him kicking his own hindquarters with his heels. A. praises the song's opening lines, which are lifted from "My Country, 'Tis of Thee." "It's very patriotic," he declares. Q. then asks if the musicians were smiling when they recorded the tune because "it's such a happy song." I tell him that based on what I've read, tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus is probably always smiling. Verdict: Thumbs up.
WU LYF, "Such a Sad Puppy Dog"
As the song's pipe organs dirge away, the boys lose focus and argue over what exactly made the puppy dog sad. A. says he bit his owner and feels guilty. Q. believes it's because no one will play fetch with him. L.'s theory is that he didn't get a biscuit. Not even the song's more energetic second half rouses the boys. A. reacts to Ellery Roberts' deranged vocals: "The singer sounds like he ate the dog's biscuit." Verdict: Thumbs down.
Dad Rock is a column in which Ryan Foley attempts to look at pop music and pop culture from the precipice of middle age. If he ultimately leaps, it's because tiny hands ruined his Galaxie 500 vinyl. Accusations that he's raising five insufferable hipster children can be sent to email@example.com.