I have a tradition of declaring at the end of each year what is the absolute best song I've heard all year. This is a long-standing tradition, dating all the way back to a few days ago when I first thought of it.
My rules are simple. The song doesn't necessarily have to be released this year. Rather, the year in which it's competing will be the year it first came to prominence, which will be loosely defined as whenever I first heard it. I'm deciding on my song of the year now, because after Thanksgiving, my listening is pretty much booked solid with Christmas music. So, it's better to get this out of the way now before my judgement gets clouded by all the holiday songs I'm hearing.
This year, the finalists for song of the year come down to "1234" by Feist and "Falling Slowly" by Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova. I think these are both songs that might have technically been released in 2006, but didn't really get noticed until this year.
"1234" is a song everybody probably knows from the iPod commercials. In the commercial, the video for the song is playing on a bunch of iPod nanos while a disembodied hand stacks and unstacks the iPods. I first heard this song when I saw part of the video for it while flipping through channels earlier this year, but it didn't really register with me until I saw the commercial a few times.
I'm not at all ashamed to admit that commercials have been the venue to introduce me to some of the best music I've heard. The only place I ever heard Badly Drawn Boy before buying his CDs was "The Shining" on that great Gap commercial. And, that same Christmas had another Gap commercial with the Red House Painters' cover of "All Mixed Up" that turned me on to them. Furthermore, I probably would never have got into Nick Drake if not for that Volkswagen commercial. I read something somewhere that said that the Pink Moon album sold something like 10 times as many copies in the months following that Volkswagen commercial than in the thirty or so years that preceded it, and I think that's fine. It's fine because it's such great music that everybody needs to hear it, and whatever it takes to expose it is justified.
"1234"'s beauty lies in it's apparent simplicity, contrasted with the complex layering underneath. It's a light, snappy pop song, and it start outs so plainly, with just a voice and strummed acoustic guitar. But, by the second half of the first verse, the drums and bass have kicked in, and strings start to build. By the time the song reaches the first bridge, the choir's singing and the song's really going strong. That first bridge also introduces the real secret weapon of the song, the banjo. Once the song reaches the chorus, the other secret weapon (a brass instrument that I'm pretty sure is a flugelhorn) kicks in.
The song is able to restrain itself through the chorus, adding only a honky tonk piano break after the chorus. But, at about 2:16, it can contain itself no longer and just explodes in a glorious cacaphony. The choir sings "Ba-da Ba-da-da" over doubled flugelhorns, three banjos, swelled strings, a glockenspiel, and the 1985 Chicago Bears. And then, just before it all becomes too much, the song suddenly cuts back to four bars of strummed guitar and picked banjo and ends.
Even if this weren't the best song of the year, it's easily one of the best arrangements of a pop song in at least the past 15 years.
There's only one problem I have with this song. At the very beginning of the song, when the acoustic guitar is strumming and the vocals come in for the very first time, there's a little bit of ambience around the voice that's not the same as whatever's on the guitar. It makes it sound like the vocals were recorded in another studio, through another set of mikes and console and effects and pre-amp and stuff. It's not uncommon for a song to be recorded this way, but it never actually sounds that way to me like it does on this song. It's not that noticeable, but it's just enough to take me out of the song for a couple of seconds until my ears can adjust.
"Falling Slowly" was written by Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova for the soundtrack of the movie Once, which they both also ended up starring in. It's one of those arty independent films about busking in Ireland. I haven't seen the film, because the only time it was playing here that I knew of was at 12:30 PM and 5:30 PM, which were both times during which I would be working.
Glen Hansard is the lead singer/songwriter for the Irish band The Frames, which is apparently the second biggest band in Ireland (second only to that other Irish band, U something or other). They're not yet big in the US, and I don't know if they ever will be, but they're something good, all right.
Marketa Irglova is a Czech pianist and composer that Glen apparently hooked up with to write songs for the movie before actually recommending her to be in the movie (and then getting cast himself).
This song falls squarely in the category of "plaintive love song". At least I think it's a love song. I don't really listen to the lyrics much when I listen to music; I usually just try to let the music itself do the talking. It's the music of this song, and the quality of Glen's voice that tell me everything: That there exists a pain that's so great it will tear you in half, that there are longings that span the centuries, that through this all there is hope that these things for which we long and dream can still be realized.
I have a few versions of this song. The version that comes from the movie soundtrack is just Glen and Marketa, him playing acoustic guitar and her playing piano. They split the vocals, harmonizing through most of the song. This version is simply beautiful. There's another version off of the most recent Frames album, which is different in that it's given the full band treatment. It's mostly just Glen's voice in that one, although there's a hint of background vocals. The Frames version I like because the tension that builds through the song can be released when the chorus bursts and the band just get's loud and raucous, where in the acoustic version, that tension has to remain contained, which is a bit of the beauty of it. The Frames version also has a loud playout at the end which is really cool. I also have a few live recordings of just Glen and Marketa from various radio or TV things.
The best part of this song, what really makes this song for me, is the extra measure right before the chorus. There's a bit of a build into the chorus, and it would seem natural to just follow the pattern established by the verse and just change chords and start playing the chorus. But, right after the last measure of the verse, they keep on that same chord for just four more beats which is so effective in managing that tension that's bubbling through the song and building it just that much more for the chorus. The thing I like the most is that if I were playing in a band, and somebody brought me that song and said "Hey, let's play this song I just wrote", I would have said "Great, but let's just hold on that chord for one more measure before that chorus". This song is just already in tune with my musical interpretation of what I think this song wants and what this song should be.
So, the winner of Song of the Year 2007? It's close, but I've got to go with "Falling Slowly". It's just a great, great song that still moves me every time I hear it, even though I've already heard it 100 times.