Monday, January 31, 2011

Elliott Smith: My Top Ten

So last night I decided not to go to bed and instead to put together a list of my favorite Elliott Smith tracks. Now I don't go that deep into his catalog, so a few of these may seem obvious, but he has enough work to make such a thing worth while:

10. "2:45 A.M."

This seems to be where the Beatles-y tunes of Smith's later career really started, with a scale, a slow build, and a shit-kicking ending.

9. "Waltz #2"

It really is a waltz, for real, even with those crazy high speed planes landing at the end.

8. "Tomorrow Tomorrow"

Smith has a well deserved reputation for doing a lot with a little, but even when there is a lot happening, certain things can penetrate through a song like they are the only thing going on, which is what the guitar part does right here.

7. "Can't Make a Sound"

Never underestimate the power of power-pop.

6. "Everything Means Nothing to Me"

This one really shows my prog-rock heritage but I don't care. What it really shows is that Elliott Smith is nothing if not versatile, and not just versatile enough to make a passable Radiohead rip-off, but versatile enough to make me listen to this song twenty times before I realized it sounded like Radiohead, among a million other things.

5. "Southern Belle"

Like it or not, Elliott Smith is definitely a product of the nineties, and even he can't escape the all encompassing influence of that decades most influential band. But where others mimicked the noise of Nirvana's power chords, Smith mimicked the sentiment, density, and energy. He even somehow carried the Pixies-inherited loudQUIETloud through with nothing more than an acoustic guitar. Pretty good, in my opinion.

4. "L.A."

Ever wonder what Elliott Smith's biggest influence is? Ever call him a folk singer? Well you don't have to anymore.

3. "Needle in the Hay"

Movie soundtracks can really have a negative effect on some songs, but this one is definitely strong enough to resist association. Smith distills In Utero to its bitterest, pulling the anger back behind his teeth and spitting his lyrics out like leftover vomit, while the lowest acoustic guitar in the world rumbles out in pieces, shaking us off our feet. Where Kurt Cobain needed to scream, Elliot Smith doesn't even need to open his mouth. And did I mention its a little bit like Amerie's "1 Thing"?

2. "Between the Bars"

This is Elliott Smith seemingly at his calmest and possibly most traditional. As much as variations in instrumentation and structure allowed him to spread his brush across so many genres, this track shows the essence of his sound at its most exposed: an unapologetic, heartfelt, and somehow, clearly justified melancholy.

1. "Angeles"

This is the heart of Either/Or and of Elliott Smith in my opinion, the coveted "decoder track" of his genius. I would like to say that this song combines all of his best traits in one place, but its really hard to say that when it really contains so little. With the same sentiment, however, I can say that it exemplifies what makes his music great, in that it is deeply, deeply strange. Every listen reveals unexpected relationships, dynamics, and sounds. What starts out as touching complaint-folk quickly swirls into the abyss leaving hell knows what behind. What is that sound? Train tracks? David Bowie? Are we in space? Steady low tones lead us in circles. Fractured plinks and eventual angelic choirs beg us to stop moving and evaporate. Among all this, Smith walks up behind, somehow whispering in both our ears at once about hunting, poison arms, and economics. Most importantly, who the shit is Angeles? Isn't that plural?

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