By Joel Heng Hartse
Around the time I decided to quit being a music critic (something I do every couple of years for good measure), the content of my “best of the year” playlists changed. They changed from being a record of my insatiable desire to find and consume new things to an attempt to more faithfully curate something smaller, personal, and, usually, thematic.
I spent the first half of the year in a kind of self-imposed mental exile from most of the people around me and the second half in a physical one, and during this year I came to realize just how much I felt acutely how little effort I tend to put into the relationships I value, and how much I wish I spent more time and energy cultivating them.
The songs here, all released during the calendar year 2011, reflect a kind of longing for community which can never be permanent and must always be worked at.
Basically, I neglect the people who matter to me far too often. Nuts to that. Here are eleven songs about how we need each other. Let’s not forget.
“Helplessness Blues” by the Fleet Foxes, from the album of the same name.
Yes, I thought, that’s it exactly, when heard these words float out of a radio speaker earlier this year: “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique / like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, distinct in each way you can see / but now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be / a functioning cog in some great machinery, serving something beyond me.”
“If We Were Only One” by Agents of Future, from the Total Giant Times EP
Most Agents of Future songs tread the line between pretty melody and desperate shouting, and churches should definitely be singing them. Two key things to watch out for: the sneaky one-two punch of the beat (1—OK, we’re getting started, 2—OK, now we’re really getting started), and punch line of a chorus singing “I CAN DO THIS ALONE!” when their point is that no, we can’t.
“In the Grace of Your Love” by the Rapture from the album of the same name
This record was made in response to some personal tragedies, and the press interviews at the time of its release were heavy on mentioning Luke Jenner’s turn to not only gospel music, but actual church attendance. The main thing here, apart from the incessant groove, is the way the mantra of the title sort of spreads to encompass almost all of life. The “you” here is ambiguous (just like in Christian rock, no?), but that doesn’t make the grace or love any less necessary.
“Incredible People” by Joshua Stamper from his album Interstitials
Josh Stamper, whose work you may have heard on mewithoutYou, Danielson, or Soul-Junk records, released a lovely neo-chamber-pop album this year. (Is that what you call it? Music with classical instrumentation and clear vocals with melodies almost too complex to count as pop, anyway). The chorus of “Incredible People” asks “will you still love me? ... will you still want to be with me?” My new year’s resolution: yes.
“It Was A Dark and Stormy Night” by Five Iron Frenzy
Five Iron Frenzy has done exactly what a band should do when they decide to reunite ten years after their initial success: there is no attempt to sound like a caricature of their former ska-punk selves here, just a polished, mature, aggressive rock song bursting with hope. This band has always been clear that their work was largely about their friendship, and there’s a kind of robust camaraderie in the plural pronouns that pepper these lyrics.
“I Don’t Want to Live There” by the Lonely Forest, from the album Arrows
I have never missed a place as much as I missed the Pacific Northwest last year, and then I heard this song by the Lonely Forest, which is about missing the Pacific Northwest, and then I kept playing it again and again, and then I kept crying, and then finally, a few days ago, I woke up to the most beautiful view of ocean and mountains I have ever seen. I know this mix is supposed to be about longing for communion with people, but hey, you’ve got to do that in a place, too.
“Loverboy” by the Prayer Chain, from the album Humb, which is a self-released reissue of the album Mercury
If there is one record I will really not shut up about, it is Mercury by the Prayer Chain. This year, the band issued a previously unheard version, and although every song on it is amazing, this is the one that hit me the most while I was away, with the refrain “I wish I was there / I wish I was with you.” Did I mention that the whole time I was gone, my wife was pregnant? Yeah.
“Roscoe (What a Gift)” by Grand Hallway, from the album Winter Creatures
Tomo Nakayama’s songs are so pretty and fragile that I do not want to break them by describing them. I have been listening to his songs for years, and he one of the most consistent and gifted songwriters I’ve heard. This one floors me every time—ostensibly commemorating a birth, it expands into a celebration of life and friendship.
“Vomit” by Girls from their album Father Son Holy Ghost
This song is named for that proverb about a fool returning to his folly as a dog to his vomit. I know: gross. And not that community-ish. But really, the song is an interminable running after companionship (“lookin’ for you,” “lookin for love”), and while it’s bleak (awesome guitar solos notwithstanding), the ache for love feels right and true.
“You Are All I See” by Active Child, from the album of the same name
Active Child makes some spooky, beautiful music—heavenly with harps and reverb and echoey synths—with a tangible sense of Sehnsucht (inconsolable longing, I think). Another ambiguous “you”: in an interview, the singer says the song refers to the relationship between singer and listener. The music suggests God. Either way, it’s a snapshot of this I-Thou thing that I’m trying to figure out.
“The Nest” by G.T. Thomas, from the album The Luckless Pedestrian Years
Ending the list with a song by an actual friend (albeit one I haven’t seen in years) seems appropriate. I was in one of Gwen’s first bands, and was sad when we stopped playing music together. Sometimes it is hard for me to listen to her music, because it reminds me of people and things I've left behind. But a song like this makes me feel like those things aren’t really gone.