Here’s the conclusion to the Best Songs of the Half Decade list I started 2 weeks ago. You can find the first part of the list here, and you can find a Spotify playlist with all the tracks here. You don’t even have to read this stuff if you’d rather just listen!
Anyway, here’s the list. Thanks for reading!
10. Brill Bruisers by The New Pornographers (2014)
Do you enjoy explosions of jubilance? Oh good, then this song’s for you. “Bruisers” bursts into being and never lets up. Everything about it distills the delightful essence the New Pornographers. Vocal harmonies, sing-along sections, and booming drums combine to a wonderful pop concoction. At the center of it all is Carl (AC) Newman’s wonderful singing and ear for melody, something underrated in a band with Neko Case and Dan Bejar.
09. Is this How You Feel by The Preatures (2013)
For the thousandth time since I first heard the song: it’s the chorus. There hasn’t been a refrain this explosive since Kelly Clarkson turned Interpol guitars into a pop volcano. The difference? The Preatures’ track takes a different emotional direction from “Since U Been Gone.” Instead of relief and freedom, Isabella Manfredi’s story explores the tense anticipation of future love. In that way, the release in “How You Feel” is a more distilled form of pure bliss. This isn’t a weight being lifted, it’s new joy being formed.
08. Heavy Feet by Local Natives (2013)
I like to imagine that Local Natives are indie engineers. They’ve managed to design a song that features many indie rock hallmarks, assemble them in a sensible order, and pull it off without any feeling of false manufacturing. Consider the checklist: chiming guitars, soaring (and harmonizing) vocals, general emotional resonance, handclaps, a memorable chorus. You’re almost tempted to dislike “Heavy Feet” for shooting so directly at the audience. And then you hear it again and remember how much you like it.
07. Another Night by The Men (2014)
“Another Night” sounds out of time. It’s a romp based on a piano line and features a horn section, bringing faint hints of Springsteen (albeit without the self-serious stuff). Somehow, that familiarity doesn’t come across as stale. Instead, it’s vibrant and essential. I think the key is in that pounding rhythm. It sounds like something you’d hear in a tiny venue or a divey bar, the right kind of song to shake loose your bones. Or maybe it’s the horns themselves. They accent the guitars and give an incredible atmosphere. No matter the exact reason, The Men have found the balance and created a perfect song from yesterday for today.
06. The House that Heaven Built by Japandroids (2012)
Celebration Rock is exactly as the title advertises and “The House that Heaven Built” is the best cut of the bunch. The defiance of “House” is the part you’ll often see highlighted, and for good reason. “And if they try to slow you down, tell them all to go to hell.” It’s righteous anger directed at some unknown outside force and delivered with such conviction that it feels justified. The “whoa-ohs” and back-and-forth parts give a sense of community even if the song’s only playing in headphones. You’ll get swept up in the emotion of the band and maybe, just maybe, if you’re in the right (or wrong?) place, “House” can play as your own personal anthem.
05. Country Clutter by Dolorean (2011)
Through “Country Clutter,” Dolorean delivers a pleasant mid-tempo piano and guitar number. The sounds are reason enough to enjoy what’s happening, highlighted by the way the refrain pops up with tasteful tambourine and the post-chorus breakdowns add flourish. The real reason to love the song? The piercing lyrics. This is an angry middle finger of a composition, the vicious reaction to an unhappy breakup. It’s in the pace and wording of the chorus that we find the central disgust and an attempt at emotional wounding. “To call out into the dark and get no reply, that’s something you should feel.”
The cut goes even deeper, “If you find anything I left behind, well, you can have it. Let it clutter up your life the way you cluttered up mine.” Dolorean’s Al James reduces a once-warm memory to an active and painful distraction. What was once his now becomes poisonous, as heartfelt and remarkable a hate as you’re likely to see in music. Strangely enough, this bile makes the track incredible.
04. Sleeping Ute by Grizzly Bear (2012)
Shields came with a misleading buildup. Pre-release, we were treated to “Sleeping Ute,” a song that took its root from the band’s greatest composition (“While You Wait for the Others”). The rest of the album? Nothing like the single. Not necessarily bad, mind you. The album was lacking the fury and power Grizzly Bear seemed to hint at in their best moments on Veckatimest. Instead, we saw a half and half affair, a band pushing in two directions at once.
The song that hit hardest with me was the advance. “Sleeping Ute” is crashes to life with the drums just 5 seconds in and never slows its attack. Thundering percussion and echoing electric guitars create a soundscape that strikes at what I love about indie rock. Daniel Rossen’s singing continues to impress here, rising loud to fit the chaotic first half and then cooing carefully to emote in the coda. Between this and “While You Wait,” you’ll find what I view as the great potential of Grizzly Bear. “Ute” is why they’ll remain a vital band for years to come (even if they’ll have a few clunkers like “gun-shy”).
03. Desire Lines by Deerhunter (2010)
An offer of escape and return to simpler things sets the core appeal of “Desire Lines.” The scene is established by the singer recalling the past and worrying for the present. “When you were young, and your excitement showed / But as time goes by, is it outgrown?” Lockett Pundt takes the lead here (instead of usual frontman Bradford Cox), giving a gentle delivery without losing the concern for the situation.
And then the refrain cuts in and washes away any the fear. It’s a peaceful offer, a welcoming hand to us. “Walking free, come with me.” Guitar flourishes and “whoa-ohs” intensify the emotion, creating a sense of scale that lends power to the personal message. Pundt is giving us a way out or a better way and the path is all that more appealing here.
This verse-chorus pattern would be enough for a pleasant song. Deerhunter refuses “just enough” and launches out from the final chorus into a hypnotic coda spanning the final 3+ minutes. The centerpiece is a guitar solo that begins and closes the section. It’s not a show of fretboard wizardry or burly feedback. Instead, the guitar takes a lyrical approach and sings out the notes, high points chiming out above the swirl. It’s a lengthy experience and well worth the time.
02. This is Why We Fight by The Decemberists (2011)
Like so many things Decemberists, this hinges entirely on your opinion of Colin Meloy. Do you like his semi-Jeff Mangum approach? Are you fine with his picky phrasing and specific vocabulary? If the answer to these is “yes,” then you’re already a Decemberists fan and probably nodding about the song choice. If you can’t get past the key idiosyncrasy of the band, we’re at a bit of a breaking point.
I suppose the good news for non-believers is that “Why We Fight” stands as a slight outlier from the normal catalog. This is a self-contained song, noisier than the rest of The King is Dead and all the better for it. Dread harmonica sets the tone early and ringing guitars flow beneath throughout. The drums grab attention with an every other beat snare drum pop, or the fills after and during the refrain. Instrumental performances are delivered with urgency enough to push the song ever forward.
Of course, I love this song so much because of Meloy. His delivery is impeccable, digging into the fire as he seeths, “Come the war, come hell.” The final go-around of the refrain explodes into being to close the song and Meloy leads the charge, yelping out “So come to me, come to me now!” “Why We Fight” hits harder than most other Decemberist songs, all while retaining the bookish charm and distinctive flair.
01. Don’t Do It by Sharon Van Etten (2010)
“Don’t Do It” is a smoldering flame that enters your mind to little initial fanfare. You’ll remember it for the gorgeous vocal delivery, and somehow that will be just enough to drive another listen. Then you’ll note the atmosphere of the thing, a strange foggy place that opens and swells and swirls as the track moves forward. I think it’s in the way the extra singing voices are mixed. On the third playthrough, Van Etten’s lead vocals will catch again, only this time the lyrics will be the takeaway.
There’s pitch-dark subject matter here, to the point where “Everybody Hurts” sounds like a celebration. “Don’t Do It” is a plea against suicide. Early on, she tries to impart reason through the beauty of nature (“Want to take you outside, want to show you the sky, To remind you why you shouldn’t”). As the song progresses, the tone grows ever more desperate. Van Etten begs, “Look me in the eyes, say you can’t do it.” The conclusion is given serious weight by the 5 minutes prior. “I wish I could make you right,” a devastating sigh to close the song.
And then you’re in for the long haul. The crescendo accents of the cymbals build the tension. The guitar stakes a middle ground between acoustic number and full-on distortion, somehow managing to draw ears closer without alienation.
This is the best song of the decade (so far) because of its balance between deep instrumental beauty, intoxicating singing, and a moving lyrical message. “Don’t Do It” is perfect.