Song 349: Stephen Colbert, “Another Christmas Song” (2008)

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Is “Stephen Colbert” (as opposed to Stephen Colbert) the most fully realized fictional character in history? It’s certainly possible, as Colbert has placed his alter ego into as many arenas as he possibly can: politics, Olympic competition, ice cream.

My favorite thing Colbert has done so far is his Christmas special, A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift Of All! The highlight from that special is this song, the spectacularly self-aware “Another Christmas Song,” in which Colbert informs the listener that he decided to join the cashing-in fray and try one of these Christmas songs himself. It’s amazing how carefully Colbert’s supposed laziness is plotted: not only does he include impeccably rhymed lyrics about how the song will be the “heart of [his] retirement plannin’,” but seemingly tossed-together lines like “the manger’s on fire, the holly’s aglow, hear the baby Jesus cryin’ ho ho ho!” It takes a lot of talent to make cynicism sound so delightful.

“Another Christmas Song” was written by Colbert Report writer David Javerbaum and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger. Schlesinger’s always been a witty writer, and it’s fun hearing his lyrics in such a blatantly funny setting. Good work all around.

I tried my damnedest to find a video of this song as it was featured in the televised special, but it seems that Viacom is holding onto it pretty tightly. In the meantime, you’ll just have to imagine Colbert’s insane grin as he dances around in joy.


Song 297: Marnie Stern, “Transformer” (2008)

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This song is absolutely bonkers, and that’s what I love most about it. It is completely unhinged, and Marnie Stern plays the shit out of her guitar as if she’ll die is she stops. It’s brutal and it’s unrelenting, like a weather event.

In many ways, this sound matches Stern’s lyrics, which include both frustration and empowerment. “I cannot be all these things to you,” she says many times, but it’s the lyrics that stop the song in its tracks that grab me most: “The future is yours, so fill this part in.” It’s both empowering to herself and the listener, because she’s shaking off her responsibilities and telling the listener to take control. I can’t do everything for you; it’s your turn to be in charge of your actions.

Marnie Stern is obviously a technically amazing guitarist, but she’s not showing off; Stern uses this speed and precision as an opportunity to embolden everyone around her, including herself. She may have let her limbs go slack, but it seems to be out of release, not desperation. She’s turned duty into opportunity, fury into freedom. She’s a transformer.


Song 289: Yeasayer, “No Need To Worry/Redcave” (2008)

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A lot of things could have made Yeasayer’s running-around-Paris performance of “Redcave” too precious to stomach. If the band had taken itself too seriously, if they had thought they belonged in the middle of a subway car, they would have appeared too presumptuous, too conceited.

Instead, in their installment of Vincent Moon’s Take Away Show, Yeasayer looks downright thrilled to be wandering around French metropolitan streets like a bunch of musical vagabonds. They look like they’re having a blast getting away with something, making something happen. (My favorite part is when bassist Ira Wolf Tuton slides down the escalator railing, making frontman Chris Keating giggle.)

Yeasayer sound equally at home among digital aesthetics and subway cars, which is a rare thing. I personally like it best when the band has feet in both worlds, but when they venture far in either direction, the results are just as exciting.

But nothing Yeasayer has done matches the excitement of watching the band wander around the city, eager to surprise and continuously delighted about what they can do.


Song 250: M83, “Kim & Jessie” (2008)

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M83 makes music that sounds like the past, but it never sounds like a blatant nostalgia trip. It just sounds like memory, like past car trips and ice cream runs at dusk. I’m not sure how that works. Is it the synths that do it? The larger-than-life drums? The faraway vocals? Or does this simply sound like a song from a past recent enough for me to vaguely remember?

“Kim & Jessie” in particular reminds me of youth and memories. Something about that synth line just sounds like the past, and not even because it recalls the ’80s. It just is the sound of nostalgia. Again, I have no idea how that works, but M83 mastermind Anthony Gonzales apparently does. (The fact that Saturdays=Youth was produced by former Cocteau Twins producer Ken Thomas doesn’t hurt.)

The band also has an amazing ability to create space; every song sounds like it contains landscapes, and each song has its own geography. On “Kim and Jessie,” that geography covers high hills and low valleys. (Or, if you’re going by the video, the high and low points of a skate ramp.)


Song 233: Delta Spirit, “Trashcan” (2008)

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Delta Spirit builds “Trashcan” from the ground up, like a house: the clicking percussion lays a foundation, the piano surrounds the site like walls, and the rhythm section caps everything, like a roof.

I love the way this song introduces itself, and the way that the drums and bass unexpectedly cut the rhythm in half. Until that moment, you’re not sure whether the entire song will be as frantic as its first eight bars. Of course, the song isn’t unfrantic, it’s just frantically self-assured. Matt Vasquez sings the hell out of this song, especially in the chorus, when it sounds like he’s reaching an epiphany about what he wants. I hear lots of influences in this song, but I think the Rolling Stones come most to mind, from the wry lyrics (“My mother’s well-spoken, no I didn’t get that gene”) to Vasquez’s Jagger-esque commitment to his vocals.

“Trashcan” was reportedly named after the object that provided part of the song’s percussion, but I think it works as a description of the song as a whole. Not because it sounds like garbage, but because it sounds like a big mess in a small space. Even though I said it was a house. OK, I’m mixing my metaphors. Just listen to the song.


Song 212: Sia, “Day Too Soon” (2008)

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Whenever I hear this song, I’m struck by how full it sounds. The drums are big, the guitars are warm, the bass is a strong, heavy foundation. It’s not bland – you can hear each instrument doing its distinctive thing – but it’s very comforting. It envelopes like a blanket.

When Some People Have Real Problems, Sia’s third record, was released, this sound was something of a departure for her. A couple of years prior, her song “Breathe Me” hit big, largely thanks to the series finale of Six Feet Under, which used the song in its final scene. “Breathe Me” is gorgeous, but it’s anything but warm. It’s cold and brittle, a January ice storm to the May sunshine of “Day Too Soon.”

The common factor, of course, is Sia’s versatile voice, which here sounds strong and thankful (on “Breathe Me,” in contrast, she sounds weak and desperate). Everything in this song just works, and I love how her voice complements the arrangement: both the vocals and instrumentation are light but steady. The lyrics, too, fit right in, from the general idea of “I’m so happy you found me” to lines like “Baby I will stitch you, darling I will fit you in my heart.” I love those lines, which hint at past injuries and emptiness but promise future comfort and fulfillment.

One other note: that album cover up there? Ridiculous. It makes me laugh every time I see it. I don’t know exactly what Sia was going for, but I don’t really care. Whatever it is, she nailed it. As usual.


Song 208: Dr. Dog, “From” (2008)

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Much has been made about Dr. Dog’s knack for making new music that sounds like old music, and I can’t deny that it’s an impressive talent. I love the way the band plays and sings, and how their contributions make one big ol’ chunk of old-sounding folk/rock, the kind The Band used to make. It’s as if everything is covered in sawdust.

“From” is my favorite Dr. Dog song, and I can’t quite explain why. I suppose it’s just that I like the melody, which is very pretty and very simple, and complements the song’s lyrics about hopelessness and despair. (Dr. Dog may not have any lyrics that are less hopeful than these: “Oh my God, he listens to me/and I ain’t even talkin’ out loud/Oh, oh my God/And he says ‘My son, now listen to me’/’Listen while the listening’s good’/’You’re not my son.'” Oof.)

That awesome cover up there is a painting (with sewn-on outlines) by Chicago artist Ken Ellis. It’s inspired by a photograph of Bonnie and Clyde. The fact that the cover is new artwork based on an old photo is perfect for a band like Dr. Dog, who make music that sounds both modern and vintage. It’s a unique role in indie rock, and they use it well.