I found Strange Mercy,
St. Vincent’s third album, to be a bit of a mixed bag – some of the more experimental stuff didn’t quite work, to be honest, and Annie Clark’s writing generally wasn't up to the same standard as it was on 2009’s brilliant Actor. There were still quite a few standouts, though, and “Cheerleader” is one of the best; it starts out innocuous enough, luring you in with some sweetly-sung vocals, then unleashes an absolutely massive chorus all but commanding you to blare it from the speakers in your car. Clark’s lyrics here are some of the best, and most piercing, of her already-stellar career; if you can’t relate to ‘I don’t wanna be a cheerleader no more’ in some way, shape or form, you’re probably a robot as far as I’m concerned.
4. “Misty” – Kate Bush
If I had my way, “Misty” would probably be at the top of this list, but I feel like it’s such a tremendous song that I have to give the other ones a chance. There’s not a lot to say about “Misty” that wouldn’t border on the rabidly superlative, but let me tell you that no-one else but Kate Bush could take a thirteen-and-a-half-minute song about falling in love with a snowman and make me feel like it’s the most visceral, heartbreaking thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Bush’s voice is playful, enigmatic, bitter, and seductive all at once and I don’t know how else to describe the song but just tell you to listen to it. Yes, it’s almost fourteen minutes long. But you’ll be glad you did.
3. “Bust Your Knee Caps” – Pomplamoose
Maybe it’s just my natural inclination towards all things off-beat, but I’ve always loved Pomplamoose – Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn have the same sort of indefinable chemistry and solid musical sense I look for in all my favorite indie bands, and their covers LP Tribute to Famous People made my Top 10 list last year. But lately they’ve become known more for their covers than for their excellent original material, which makes me worry that they’ll never be seen as a truly legitimate band.
Well, thank goodness they wrote “Bust Your Knee Caps” – it’s one of the most infectious songs I’ve heard all year, due in no small part to its irresistible blend of dark humour, doo-wop, and ‘60s girl-group harmonies. Dawn’s voice is as compelling as ever, but on “Bust Your Knee Caps” she hits a halfway point between ‘sweetly angelic’ and ‘subtly menacing’ that banishes all notions of her being “passionless” for good. And the song’s narrative is brilliant, with hints of Salome and West Side Story in the mix, not to mention that Dawn singing the titular phrase is one of the most endearing, yet unsettling, things I’ve heard in a long, long time.
2. “Someone Like You” – Adele
While I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one that felt 21, despite selling like hotcakes, didn’t represent Adele’s innate talent as well as it could have, I have the feeling I’m in the minority when it comes to “Rolling in the Deep”. The song never really clicked with me; I got the sense that, while it was definitely inspired by very real emotions, the lyrics and instrumentation weren’t necessarily conveying those emotions as effectively as they could have been. “Someone Like You” is that song’s polar opposite, in a sense: Adele’s lyrics perfectly evoke the emotions she intends, and the piano underscoring her voice both enhances Adele’s singing and provides a compelling narrative of its own. It’s not easy to keep the listener’s attention with just vocals and piano for five minutes, especially with a “pop song”, yet, somehow, Adele has done it.
1. “The Undiscovered First” – Feist
I have a feeling that most critics would rather have, or will have, “Someone Like You” (or even “Rolling in the Deep”) in the place occupied by Feist here. Yet Feist’s album Metals kept on calling me to engage with it on increasingly more personal levels, making me realize just how stunning a record it is, and the song with the loudest voice was “The Undiscovered First”. The chorus of voices near the end hooked me on first listen, but the song itself, on repeat, felt more and more like a perfect summation of its parent year, with an encouragement to seek out new territory anchored by its cautious, even pragmatic, lyrics – words, music, and vocals that revealed more and more the further I delved in.