While the Lenka song may seem to stand out even amongst my esoteric tastes, I have a lot of respect for good bubblegum pop. It has its purpose and it can be as hard to hit it in all the right ways as it is to make a good rock or indie song. I tweeted a while back that although it's not usually my beat, I would recommend it to anyone looking for that kind of lightness in their life, and I may even do a full write-up of it in the future. And while it might actually be better at what it does than "Move On" by the Rentals is at what it does, I fall for that gentle Moog hum every time.
Winner: "Move On"
Van Halen, "Running With The Devil" vs. Styx, "Mr. Roboto"
"Mr. Roboto" by Styx is a song about a rock musician named Kilroy - specifically Robert Orin Charles Kilroy ("ROCK") who escapes imprisonment by an evil, anti-rock lobby group in the future by disguising himself as one of the ubiquitous robotic janitors present in this future setting. Anything potentially symbolic about this premise is undercut by the incredibly literal lyrics, which go from describing the plot of the rock opera, Kilroy Was Here, to sermonizing its point, in the opening track. I also think Styx might not be the right band to extol the virtues of rock as a voice for rebellious youth, "Renegade" or no. The opposition is a genuinely defiant rock statement demonstrating the true virtues of rock and roll: running with the devil.
I mean, "Mr. Roboto" is still a lot of fun to sing in the shower, but come on.
Winner: "Running With The Devil"
Tom Waits, "Underground" vs. Doors, "Love Her Madly"
I kinda regret not getting much further into the Tom Waits catalog, as of yet, than Swordfishtrombones. I really dig this twisted piece of cabaret, primally-grunted imagery of a literal underground village that brings to mind cave dwellers but also the freaks of the night, the "underground" folks in Waits' audience... I think. The Doors themselves are no strangers to bridging the cap between the center and the outsider, and have probably made more jocks and nerds alike take up recreational drugs than most bands. Is there anything particularly demonstrative of that in "Love Her Madly?" It's a jangly piece of 60s rock, but it still has that Doors bite to it.
Winner: "Love Her Madly"
Pretty Girls Make Graves, "Something Bigger Something Brighter" vs. Feist, "How Come You Never Go There"
Not an easy choice, between the twisted, hyperventilating, high pyrotechnics of PGMG and the slow burn of Feist. I think Leslie Feist just uses her vocals and her arrangement skills for best effect all over that album and that song in particular.
Winner: "How Come You Never Go There"
Stevie Wonder, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" vs. Who, "Love Reign Oer Me"
With my particular tastes, the choice seems pretty clear but I want you to know it wasn't as easy as all that. I hate the idea that "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," or any Motown hit, is "merely" a good pop song. That's all they set out to do, not win irrelevant internet contests or reach decades of acclaim, and they did so perfectly. What an ebullient pop single, wrapped around the premise of crawling back to a partner, on hands and knees, and offering yourself right up to them. It feels like a spiritual experience, like all great music does. But the Who, as they are always in their best moments, are so grandiose, so inescapable. I don't think you have to be a larger-than-life rock epic to win this tournament, but it helps.
Winner: "Love Reign Oer Me"
Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, "Dream On" vs. R.E.M., "Sitting Still"
It almost feels like Noel Gallagher shouldn't be permitted another song in this tournament, since we've already had Oasis. But no, on a technicality, this is a "different artist," and a damn good song. Noel knows his business an every inch of his solo debut seems calculated to be the best, most immaculate possible version of his music. And that's cool, I liked it, I'd recommend it. I'd also recommend R.E.M., for pretty much any time and place. Their classic 80s sound was so organic-sounding that it sounds like they grew them, and picked them when they were ripe, rather than wrote them like anyone else would.
Winner: "Sitting Still"
Barenaked Ladies, "The Old Apartment" vs. Dum Dum Girls, "Yours Alone"
Much love to the Dum Dum Girls, whose glossy garage sound is something fresh. They've got the tunes and the attitude and the lyrics to back them up. Personally, I've just always been way into Barenaked Ladies, who are kind of a "you dig it or you don't" prospect. I like how they express their perspective on this, that skewed sensibility about relationships and human quirks, habits, hangups. The narrator of the song is hung up on the past: not an ex-lover, but literally a different time in his life when he was still with that person, just living in a different place. It's a weird form of nostalgia and self-examination (or avoidance thereof) that isn't often seen in pop music, and done in that attention-grabbing three chord bash out. These guys were just great at what they did.
Winner: "The Old Apartment"