1. The National, “Terrible Love”
“Terrible Love” is the perfect start to The National’s new album, “High Violet,” which came out in May. Just as “Fake Empire” – arguably The National’s best song – began “Boxer” with a graceful lament – “let’s not try to figure out everything at once” – this song starts “High Violet” with a beautifully constructed, emotional four and a half minutes.2. Jónsi & Alex, “Indian Summer”
Jón “Jónsi” _ór Birgisson, the lead singer of Icelandic legends Sigur Rós, and his partner Alex Somers teamed up in 2009 to release “Riceboy Sleeps,” a brilliant collage of ambient music. “Indian Summer” begins with slow strings and builds – without a crescendo – to a full middle accompanied by Jónsi’s soft vocals. This is a song that can make anything beautiful.
3. The Kronos Quartet, “Flugufrelsarinn”
The Kronos Quartet, a very talented and certainly the most famous string quartet in recent history, recorded a cover of Sigur Rós’s “Flugufrelsarinn” – “the fly’s savior” – in 2007. The original song, which has lyrics in the band’s native Icelandic, is a marvel on its own, but the quartet’s cover is a masterpiece. The nearly vocal persona of the violins captures the original’s lyrical fervor and manages to be somehow more humanizing and personal than Jónsi’s falsetto.
4. Florence and the Machine, “Dog Days Are Over”
English pop artist Florence Welch and her collaborators created the perfect end of summer jam with “Dog Days Are Over.” I realize that it’s now November, but I’ve been listening to this one since late August and I’m not willing to let it go just yet. The song is a fusion of pop and soul with a bit of an ’80s ballad structure to it. However it’s classified, it’s nearly impossible to find a song with more soul distilled through voice and a flurry of instrumentation.
5. Clint Mansell, “The Last Man”
This track is from Clint Mansell’s 2006 soundtrack to “The Fountain,” written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. I generally think of “The Fountain” as a 96-minute music video for Mansell’s creation. He scored Aronofsky’s previous two films wonderfully, but this is probably my favorite soundtrack of any movie, not just Aronofsky’s. “The Last Man” is mostly piano with strings courtesy of the Kronos Quartet added in later. It’s sweeping and peaceful – just right for tired winter evenings under dim lights.
6. Zbigniew Preisner, “Reprise – Julie on the Stairs”
This piece is part of the score for the 1993 French/Polish film “Bleu,” written and directed by the late Polish master of cinema Krzysztof Kieslowski. This film is the first in his “Trois Couleurs” trilogy about the principles of the French tricolor. Not only is “Bleu” one of the greatest films ever made, but its soundtrack, composed by Zbigniew Preisner, is the reason I had to add “probably” into the comment on my admiration for the soundtrack of “The Fountain.” The score is largely comprised of variations on the composition the protagonist’s husband wrote in celebration of the end of the Cold War. The deaths of Julie’s daughter and husband haunt her for the majority of the film. With that emotion comes this leitmotif in various formulations. I chose to include the 70-second “Reprise – Julie on the Stairs” for its subtle take on the theme and its masterful evocation of intense grief.
7. Eluvium, “The Motion Makes Me Last”
Matthew Cooper, monikered Eluvium, released his first album with vocals and percussion earlier this year. This foray into the verse-chorus form is a departure from his earlier music, but it’s a majestic, successful departure of the highest quality. “I’m a vessel between two places I’ve never been.”
8. Regina Spektor, “Aprs Moi”
ReSpekt and her family left their home in Moscow in 1989 due to antisemitic persecution. They settled in The Bronx. “Aprs Moi” calls up this heritage with reference to a poem by Russian Nobel laureate Boris Pasternak. The song adheres to Spektor’s characteristically unusual lyrics, with lines like, “be afraid of the lame; they’ll inherit your legs. Be afraid of the old; they’ll inherit your souls.” It’s a smart mix of English, Russian and French that only the infinitely talented Regina Spektor could pull off.
9. Bon Iver, “Lump Sum” – Daytrotter Session
Bon Iver, the Justin Vernon plus whoever-is-around project from nearby Eau Claire, Wis. recorded this version of “Lump Sum” from “For Emma, Forever Ago” at the Daytrotter Studio in July 2008. While my favorite song on the album is actually “Flume,” this recording is absolutely amazing. It begins without instrumentation – Vernon and his companions set the stage with their well-matched voices as acoustic guitar, then piano, and then percussion are added one-by-one. The prominence of the piano in this recording is a pleasant departure from the original; it lifts the song just like the soaring highs of the band members’ voices. “Lump Sum” is available in this form for free download from Daytrotter.com.
10. Sufjan Stevens, “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)”
The music of Sufjan Stevens, who hails from my home state Michigan and attended the same boarding school as I did, holds a certain nostalgic quality that makes me want to leave Chicago and move back to that peninsular state. However, I also enjoy Stevens’s most famous song, named for Chicago. “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)” is from his 2003 album “Michigan.” The song is written for the memories of a small town on the east side of the state where his grandparents lived. It’s an instrumental ode to childhood and also the music that plays in my head when I cross the border into the Great Lakes State.