The Year In Music: Tracks Pt. 5

Welcome to the final segment of What Cannon’s 50 standout tracks from 2014. Arranged in alphabetical order, this segment extends from the indefatigable Spoon to the supple, earthen, organic Woods. Click the track names for music videos and follow the links at the bottom of the page for more aural/mind stimulation. Thanks again. Enjoy.

Spoon | “Inside Out”

INSIDE_OUTAsk ten people for their favorite track off of Spoon’s 8th studio album, They Want My Soul, and you’re liable to get ten different responses. I’m picking “Inside Out” for a few reasons. First: it was the first the song I heard off the record before its release. Second: I heard the band interviewed on All Songs Considered and Britt Daniels talked about how the track spawned from a desire to imitate vintage Dr. Dre beats. Last and most importantly, “Inside Out” represents the kind of musical left turn Spoon has been making for two decades. Sure, “New York Kiss”, “Do You”, and “Rainy Taxi” are ceiling-smashing pop songs with sustained replay value but there’s just something infinite inside of “Inside Out,” something so worth knowing but harder still to reach. “Inside Out” is warm yet cool. It’s passionate yet vague. It contains the wiley spirit that keeps Spoon among the most important bands in American music and also one of the easiest to enjoy.

St. Vincent | “Severed Crossed Fingers”

ST_VINCENTWhen those synth horns wobble up from the ether and are joined by a harpsichord that’s straight out of A Clockwork Orange, you’d be forgiven for mistaking “Severed Crossed Fingers” for one of the more luridly self-deprecating songs in St. Vincent’s catalog. Instead what emerges is raw and forthright, wrought with emotional turbulence. As St. Vincent, Annie Clark has sharpened and honed her vision of songcraft in the 21st century, locating an arty sweet spot between her intellect and her pop sensibilities. Her self-titled fourth album has something for everyone. Booty-shaking echoes of Love This Giant, her collaboration with David Byrne? Check. Guitar riffs nimble enough to make your favorite hair metal icon blush? Oh yes. Heart breaking confessions of undying love? Indeed. Like equally stunning highlights “Psychopath” and “Regret”, “Severed Crossed Fingers” becomes more arresting with each additional listen. Clark herself admits that she held nothing back. “I sang that in one fucking take, cried my eyes out, and the song was done.” Honesty and beauty often coalesce in strange ways. Is there a better example than a pop album that opens with an exploration of a pointillist desert landscapes in the nude and closes with an image of gothic romance worthy of Henry James or Charlotte Bronte? The truth may be ugly but St. Vincent is anything but.

Sturgill Simpson | “Turtles All The Way Down”

TURTLES_ALL_THE_WAY_DOWNLike so many iconic counter culture icons before him, Sturgill Simpson increases the already-enticing allure of drugs. But does eating mushrooms mean you’ll write a line like “there’s a gateway in our minds that leads somewhere out there, far beyond this plane/where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain”? Will smoking weed statically increase your likelihood of becoming socially liberal? Will taking acid help you understand Thomas Pynchon? Musicians with drug affiliations often draw a short stick when it comes to people’s perception of their music. Trust me, I was a Phish fan in high school, people can be ruthless. But Sturgill Simpson is more Robert Hunter than Trey Anastasio and far more straight country than either of them, which is curious since as far as I can tell most contemporary country music fans don’t seem to have much interest in anything stronger than Budweiser. “Turtles All The Way Down,” the lead track from the awesomely titled Metamodern Sounds in Country Music perfectly encapsulates Simpson’s mix of humor and philosophy. Little on the record is half baked and Simpson is as charming and inciteful on wax as he is in interviews. With just the right mix of twang and Twain, Sturgill Simpson’s music is as enjoyable as it is unlikely.

Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-La-La Band | “What We Loved Was Not Enough

FUCK_OFF_GET_FREE_WE_POUR_LIGHT_ON_EVERYTHINGThrough Silver Mt. Zion and its various incarnations, Efrim Menuck and company keep alive the tradition of grand, bleak experimental music in Montreal. They are in good company on Constellation Records and it’s to the band’s credit that they have largely outlived the shadow of their legendary work as post-rock titans Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Though Silver Mt. Zion works within a similar ethical and aesthetic ideology (political commitment, eclectic instrumentation, a revolving door of band members), their music is largely set apart by the addition of singing. It’s easy to see why Godspeed shied away from using vocals: the voice is an expressive instrument yet lyrics can tie down otherwise ethereal music. For Silver Mt. Zion, the voice proves a powerful accompaniment to their dramatic framework. “What We Loved Was Not Enough” is a song of mourning, the painful cries of loss calling out across a slow, shuffling waltz. Efrin Menuck’s voice has the familiar warble of Win Butler, another Montreal native who knows how to pair a vocal melody with rich instrumentation. The lyrics prophetize the death and rebirth of the world. “All our cities gonna burn/All our bridges gonna snap/All our pennies gonna rot/Lightning roll across the track,” he bemoans. As it moves toward its wrenching climax, “What We Loved Was Not Enough” offers a glimpse of redemption. “So goodnight vain children/Tonight is yours/The lights are yours/If you just asked for more/Than poverty and war/If you just asked for more,” Menuck pleads achingly as a choir of angelic voices quietly intone, “the day’s come when we no longer feel.” What so frequently gets overlooked about these strange, brave Canadians is the hope in the heart of their music. Yet it’s there: beating out, waiting, praying.

tUnE-yArDs | “Real Thing”

NIKKI_NACKLike Paul Simon before her, Merrill Garbus delivers world music to America in the form of deliriously energetic pop music. Her third and best album as tUnE-yArDs, Nikki Nack, is a product of Garbus’ progressive instincts and unpretentious attitude toward all genres of music. As a concept, world music can be tough to grapple with (is America not part of the world? does our musical heritage fall outside the greater traditions of harmony, rhythm and melody?). The label is often assumed to imply a kind of exclusionary, non-Western affiliation that may intimidate potential listeners. Additionally, the genre inspires images of flower child baby boomers in ponchos and tie-dyed long skirts. Either way, this ain’t your aunt’s South American pan flute compilation. Nikki Nack owes as much to Haitian folklore as it does to hip-hop. “Real Thing” is at once an open rebuke of the contradictory messages sent to women about their bodies (“why are you afraid about pants sized 10?” “ugly one, be who you are”) and a defiant rejection of her own newfound celebrity (“they say I’m the real thing/I sound like the real thing”). Along the way, Garbus gets in some solid jabs at her home country’s willful rewriting of history (“I come from the land of slaves/let’s go Redskins, let’s go Braves”). “Real Life” is the sound of one loud, prideful voice sounding out its discontents, painting its pleasures and pains against the broad canvass of cultural tyranny. Garbus is in a peculiar position, at once outside of her culture and yet, as a headline making musician, a defining part of its makeup. And yet she remains undeterred. Nicki Nack is ambitious and yet highly personal, a densely choreographed pop exercise and a pure aural delight.

TV on the Radio | “Lazerray”

SEEDSMore than a decade into their career,  the amorphous TV on the Radio is finally approaching something like sonic homogeneity. Their sixth LP, Seeds, is often restrained to the point of being static, largely abandoning the Pixies punk of Nine Types of Light’s better moments. Maturity is only a virtue if it serves to balance indulgent impulses: the inner adult that knows better than to eat ice cream for breakfast but who will occasionally go on a braincell obliterating weekend bender. It helps if you think of “Lazerray” this way. Coming on hot and fast out of blown out speakers, the track is the cosmic center of the album’s better half. The lyrics are pure acid babble (“well I heard from the psychic sun/that she could fuse us into one”) but it’s a relief to hear the band really laying into the track with the kinetic energy they’re rightfully famous for. Seeds may be ushering in a new period of contemplative restraint and relatively straightforward songwriting for TV on the Radio but let us never forget that behind the veneer of most every responsible adult there’s a kid who’s strongly considering snorting a pixy stick just to see what happens.

Vince Staples | “Hands Up”

HANDS_UPA sun-bright spotlight illuminated the cracks in justifiable use of deadly force this year. Sadly, those most familiar with deadly force experience it on both sides of the law. Vince Staples, a promising MC from Long Beach (and known associate of merry pranksters, Odd Future), knows this paradox all too well and categorizes its effects over the course of his commercial debut, Hell Can Wait. Staples occupies a middle ground between Southern California’s familiar gangsta rap traditions and its current metaphysical preoccupations. You can hear Staples experimenting with these influences all over his album. “Feelin’ The Love” is “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” sans redemption while “Hands Up” is a humid West Coast banger. The latter in particular captures the airless space of L.A., choked by smog and starved by heat. The track demonstrates the slippery slope of simply existing in this state, the participatory nature of gang life essentially compulsory in certain neighborhoods. Yet, Staples’ angst is aimed squarely at the area’s law enforcement and the details of his narrative are all too familiar. “I guess the pigs split wigs for the greater good,” Staples rattles off, his discontent becoming increasingly palpable, “cause I ain’t seen they lock a swine up yet/at most they reassign ’em to prevent protest.” For most of us, the politics of police enforcement is something we glance at on the fringes of our perspective or witness, in modified form, on TV.  For those who fail to understand the tipping point between protesting and rioting, “Hands Up” serves as an open letter. After diagramming a whole world of corruption, a system so convoluted it would take more time and resources to dismantle than anyone seems willing to offer, Staples concludes summarily by noting the irony inherent in the constitutional rights of the oppressed, “And they expect respect and non-violence/I refuse the right to be silent.”

The War on Drugs | “Red Eyes”

LOST_IN_THE_DREAMThe War on Drugs returned this year with the epic Lost In The Dream, a record that further expanded their hazy krautrock-indebted take on Americana. The band’s music manages to be simultaneously urgent and leisurely, propulsive and patient. Lost In The Dream‘s hour run time is ideal for a long drive where the destination is secondary to the scenery. “Red Eyes” perfectly captures the tautness behind the album’s evident effortlessness. For all the words obliquely spared on “Red Eyes”, its finest moments are its instrumental eruptions. The heroic guitar riff of the track’s chorus, its impact redoubled by soaring synths, will send a burst of adrenaline shooting through your veins. You’re liable to gun the gas pedal and feel the wind whipping through your hair even if you’re lounging on your couch in the dead of winter.

Wild Beasts | “Wanderlust”

WANDERLUSTPresent Tense, the latest from Wild Beasts, is a controlled piece of pristine electronica. It’s a formidable record to approach as its self-serious sophistication is decidedly out of fashion. Furthermore, its airtight cohesion means it doesn’t break down easily, its respective parts less fulfilling individually than when taken as a brilliant whole. It’s an unforeseen and largely unavoidable consequence of artistic rigor and focus. With that in mind, there’s no better to place to begin Present Tense than at the beginning. “Wanderlust” charges forward at the behest of an insistent hemiola, a rhythmic technique rarely found in pop music and much less as a core component of a song’s gravitational pull. Yet as a synthetic chorus rises out of the fog and Hayden Thorpe’s agile croon creeps in, the track’s lack of a definitive center becomes an asset. “Wanderlust” is ostensibly about the desire to buy one’s way into artistic integrity and Thorpe’s contempt for this concept is made apparent in his finely chosen words. “Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck,” he spits, as if responding to an unseen heckler, “funny how that little pound will buy a lot of luck.” As a band, Wild Beasts have had to fight against a sea of indifference or worse, their music tending to skew away from trends. Yet in the process they’ve garnered much acclaim, having navigated the treacherous waters of a life in independent music on their own terms. That is experience you can’t buy and credibility you cannot simply adapt. At this point in their career it is, as Thorpe himself points out, a feeling they’ve come to trust.

Woods | “Moving to the Left”

WITH_LIGHT_AND_WITH_LOVEI’ve had this vision for more a year now of a person, having never experienced recorded music, sitting down and listening to “Moving to the Left” by Woods. It’s possible this vision extends from the feeling I get every time I listen to this wonderful song. The Brooklyn band seems to embody the traditional hippie ethos of spiritual connection with the world without indulging in sentiment or overt left-leaning politics. Instead, Wood’s music is deeply personal and often idiosyncratic. “Moving to the Left” reflects an astonishment at the rituals and routines of existence on Earth and that fresh-eyed approach to living informs the band’s approach to songwriting. A woozy, alien theremin joins the earthy ensemble of analog instruments, lending the track an otherworldly feel, as if the boys of Woods truly are from elsewhere in the universe and are awestruck by everything that makes us human. There is empathy in “Moving to the Left” that is, above all, sincere. For what it’s worth, Woods make great festival music. Its easy to picture crowds of people united in their shared love of honest, heartfelt music such as this.

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The Year In Music: Tracks Pt. 4

Almost there! Here’s the fourth of five installments covering 50 standout tracks from 2014. Arranged in alphabetical order, this segment extends from roving stoners Parquet Courts to the white boy/girl soul of Slow Club. Click the track names for music videos and follow the links at the bottom of the page for more aural/mind stimulation. Enjoy.

Parquet Courts | “Instant Disassembly”

SUNBATHING_ANIMALParquet Courts are moving backwards and forwards concurrently and like most things they do its awe-inspiring and a little nauseating. They’ve cast off the cloak of myth they wore throughout the length of last year’s blistering Light Up Gold. But underneath that tattered cape was something weirder still: chops. Sunbathing Animal is a pummeling excursion through the roots and limbs of punk rock. This band is no stranger to krautrock but blues? “Instant Disassembly” doesn’t exactly swagger like Jagger or spill it like Dylan. Instead, it moves queasily through the steps of a half-remembered dance. The song’s subject, an otherwise unnamed beauty, is a poetic figure of some significance. She is savior and assailant simultaneously, at least in our messenger’s mind’s eye. “Instant Disassembly” is a disarming detour, something so commonplace yet so bizarre when placed in this context. Like a pizza in a lion’s cage. What’s enviable about Parquet Courts is how this brilliance just seems to slide out of them and, as such, Sunbathing Animal is a convincing self-portrait of modern day slacker genius.

PAWS | “Erreur Humaine”

YOUTH_CULTURE_FOREVEREverything you need to know about PAWS is made plain by the 30-second mark of “Erreur Humaine,” the opening track on their aptly titled Youth Culture Forever. Then again, their last album was called Cokefloat so chances are you knew what you were getting yourself in to. Either way, after a sulky opening the track explodes into a fist shaking, floor stomping, self-mutilating ballad of unrequited love. Like their emo predecessors, the band’s virtue is in their ability to go from the guy huddled in a corner at a house party sucking down Miller High Life to the same guy smashing a hole in the wall after a heated exchange with his ex during the same party. Youth Culture Forever contains plenty for the romantically unhinged human to relate to and even offers some pearls of wisdom to see you through your dark days the most important of which may be this track’s insistence that “one should never go back and fuck with the past.” Amen.

Perfume Genius | “Queen”

QUEENI’ve always appreciated Perfume Genius’ delicate beauty. Mike Hadreas’ permanently damaged voice pairs undeniably well with a simmering piano or shaky guitar. Hadreas has this sound down to a science, writing one quietly devastating song after another holed up somewhere in his hometown of Seattle. Perfume Genius underwent a profound transformation, sonically and emotionally, between Put Your Back N 2 It (2012) and this year’s Too Bright. “Queen” is the sound of that deeply self-conscious boy in the dark hoody putting on sequins and a little rouge and stepping out, unafraid, into the world. Hadreas’ music has never been totally defined by his sexuality but “Queen” is ruthlessly defiant in its queerness. In a country that is still largely torn up over a person’s right to marry someone of their own gender, Hadreas offers up a wrenching, funny and brilliant counter offer to homophobia and transphobia. “No family is safe when I sashay,” he promises triumphantly. Better run for the hills, haters.

Robyn & Röyksopp | “Do It Again”

DO_IT_AGAINWhat is it about Scandinavia that produces such genre-defying work. Consider the psychic similarities between Ingmar Bergman and Lykke Li, Swedes who reflect(ed) on the burdens put on us by others and those we hang on ourselves. There’s a clearly traceable lineage between The Shape of Punk to Come and Plowing Into the Fields of Love. And then there’s the inexplicable, singular artists whose very existence defies convention. And to top it all off, those of the frigid Northern lands seem to know how to make danceable pop music better than anyone else. After collaborating on her Body Talk series, Norway’s Röyksopp and uber-famous Robyn reconvened this year to put together some formidable dance music. The title track, five minutes of searing, in-the-red synths and bass is as addictive as you’d imagine. The real surprise is how strange the rest of the album is. The decision to bookend the EP with ten minute avant garde odysseys (the first of which closes with a two minute saxophone solo) recontextualizes “Do It Again”, its carnal pleasures lent a sense of urgent necessity. It also helps justify Röyksopp’s decision to break up, having capped their career with some of their best work in years. And yet with all this philosophy and history in mind let us not forget that this is music for the the body, the id and, most of all, the dancefloor.

Run The Jewels | “Early” ft. BOOTS

RUN_THE_JEWELS_22014 will be remembered as the year of Michael Brown, the militarization of police, and the point where the conversation about racism in the 21st exploded on a national scale. The victims of police brutality have many high profile supporters from Rand Paul to Lebron James. Perhaps the most outspoken has been rapper Killer Mike, who’s been trampling the hip-hop world as one half of Run The Jewels, his fruitful collaboration with veteran MC and producer El-P. The duo represents one of the most unlikely success stories of the decade thus far and they put their visibility to good use on Run The Jewels 2, the follow up to their excellent debut. A mid-album highlight, “Early” contains one of the best expressions of universal hopelessness pressed on wax this year. “I feel like the life that I’m livin’ man, I don’t control like everyday I’m in a fight for my soul,” Mike starts out, the sentiment to be echoed later by El-P, before exploring a tragically relevant and depressingly common scene of violent abuse of authority. While Mike’s storytelling on “Early” may lead you to believe that that his loss of faith in the law happened relatively recently, Mike and El-P’s disdain for the police is well documented. The night the St. Louis Grand Jury handed down their decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson, Run The Jewels took the stage at the Ready Room in St. Louis where Mike opened the show with an impassioned speech. “These motherfuckers got me today,” he cries, stunned by disbelief. In a genre that frequently sees real tribulations collide with ambitious visions of glory, Run The Jewels come down firmly on the side of the Real. In the words of Mike’s other half: it ain’t a game if the shit don’t pause.

Rustie | “Attak” ft. Danny Brown

GREEN_LANGUAGEAfter producing three tracks on his most recent album, Old, including “Side B [Dope Song]” which kicks off the album’s decidedly uptempo second half, it seems Scottish wunderkind Rustie decided it was time to turn the tables on rapper extraordinaire Danny Brown. As a producer who knows how to craft a pop song (his work with AlunaGeorge makes particular sense in this regard), Rustie is no stranger to working around the talents of another artist. But even the bangers he’s gifted Brown in the past can’t prepare listeners for “Attak”. Rustie declared early on that he wanted to do something “more serious” with Green Language and his collaboration with Brown is evidence enough. “Attak” represents the difference between producers who write for rappers and producers who write for themselves. In that regard, Rustie is closer in spirit to RJD2 than DJ Khaled. Still, it doesn’t keep him from enhancing Brown’s fire-hot spit, letting loose lines like, “I’m a maniac, brainiac when I’m aiming at/knock your brain out your hat when I cock that/you can’t block that it’s just brain out hat,” with such slippery ease you can imagine him out pacing most rappers in his sleep. The rest of Green Language has to work hard to overcome the historical levels of hype found on “Attak” and, to his credit, Rustie does an admirable job though without Brown things tend to feel only half done.

ScHoolboy Q | “Collard Greens” ft. Kendrick Lamar

COLLARD_GREENSOne of the more disappointing releases of the year, Oxymoron, ScHoolboy Q’s followup to Habits & Contradictions, did give the world “Collard Greens”, a showcase for the boy’s gifts as a party starter and justification for his unofficial title as second in command at TDE. Of course, “Collard Greens” also benefits from a verse by Kendrick Lamar in full on renaissance thug mode (“And I’m more than a man, I’m a God, bitch touche, en garde”). Still, this is ScHoolboy Q’s joint and his gummy flow proves more than adequate, mirroring the track’s bouncy bass. Even if he never seems to rise above sex, drugs and cups of lean, ScHoolboy Q is a solid, often unpredictable force to be reckoned with.

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings | “Making Up and Breaking Up (And Making up and Breaking up over Again)”

GIVE_THE_PEOPLE_WHAT_THEY_WANTThe pride and joy of Daptone Records, Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings have been spearheading a soul revival that is authentic without being overly tied to formalites. If anything, Jones and company’s enthusiasm for a specific period of American soul and funk, one that is no more or less popular now than it was when the group first got started last decade, frees them up to experiment with the sonic toolkit of the most famous studio innovators of the late 60s and early 70s. Recorded on tape, mixed with the kind of aural precision that will leave any audiophile salivating, the band’s newest, Give The People What They Want, falls somewhere between D’Angelo’s Gladwellian chops and Slow Club’s studious, note-for-note take on classic soul. Even when she slows down to lament her own heartbreak, as on “Making Up and Breaking Up”, Jones’ confidence is abundant. The Dap-Kings follow her lead with playful arrangements and clever variations on soul archetypes. Though Jones and her band are blessed with having little to prove, they still rise to the occasion by paying tribute to an era of American music that, like Jones herself, becomes more vital with each passing year.

Sisyphus | “Lion’s Share”

SISYPHUSThe union of Serengeti, Son Lux and Sufjan Stevens was unexpected to say the least but the end result proved enjoyable and occasionally inspired. Split between Serengeti’s vivid stream-of-conscious and Sufjan’s new age flourishes, their self-titled debut can occasionally feel like switching between wide-angle cinemascope and telephoto close up without much warning. There are moments throughout their debut where it seems the collaboration was not only fun but beneficial for its participants. “Lion’s Share” finds Sufjan reining in his maximalist approach and Serengeti giving himself space to think about things like verses and choruses. Sacrificing the airless atmosphere of his solo work, Serengeti’s tale of Banks and Conley (“the two greatest outlaws America’s ever seen,” apparently) is little more than a quickly paced outline of a jailbreak thriller. But Sufjan’s breathy hook and Son Lux’s slinky funk fill in the cracks in this abridged tale. Though it eventually devolves into booty talk (it somehow always does with Serengeti) for a blissful moment the disparate trio works in total synchronicity.

Slow Club | “Not Mine to Love”

NOT_MINE_TO_LOVEThe glut of 90s-indebted indie rock bands made up of dudes who were barely in grade school by the time that infamous decade came to a close goes a long way toward proving our current cultural obsession with decade fetishizing. While the sun shines brightly on all things grunge and the current San Fran-centric garage rock scene continues to spread out across the US, there are other genres and movements waiting (eagerly? in dread?) for the constantly roving searchlight of discovery to land upon them. While Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley, Lee Fields and the whole of Daptone Records are pushing the revival out of “soul revival” through truly progressive arrangements and performances, England’s Slow Club delivered the year’s most shamelessly straightforward homage to classic soul. It’s uncanny to the point of being occasionally comic how the formulas and elements of soul are so carefully and intentionally arranged. In that regard, Complete Surrender can sometimes feel like homage by numbers. “Not Mine to Love” is as straightforward as heart broken ballads come though Slow Club commits to its mechanics admirably. Rebecca Taylor represents the better vocal half of Slow Club, though she can’t quite harness the raw power of her forebearers. Still, the track’s arrangement more than compensates for her lack of presence and the band’s focus on sonic authenticity does pay off. Though they feel implacable in the 21st century, Slow Club, like so many backwards-gazing bands before them, serves as a thoroughly enjoyable introduction to the real thing.

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The Year In Music: Tracks Pt. 3

Moving right along. Here’s the third of five installments covering 50 standout tracks from 2014. Arranged in alphabetical order, this segment extends from British pop royalty Jessie Ware to Ought, aka just another Montreal band with a string section. Click the track names for music videos and follow the links at the bottom of the page for more aural/mind stimulation. Enjoy.

Jessie Ware | “Say You Love Me”

SAY_YOU_LOVE_MEJessie Ware plays every role a pop princess ought to. She’s impatient seductress one minute (“Cruel”) and heartbroken lover the next (“Tough Love”) and somehow finds the time to mine a ripe middle ground between the two (“Kind Of…Sometimes…Maybe”). But when it comes down to it, Ware’s true gift to the world is her ability to absolutely slay a ballad. The best and worst thing about ballads is how generic they can be and yet still leave you a puddle of gooey sentimentality. Ware’s full throated vocal leaves no doubt that she connects deeply to wanting to feel “burning flames” when the object of her attention calls her, a metaphor that has racked up impressive miles over the years. But, to be fair, don’t we all? On her uniformly excellent second album, Tough Love, “Say You Love Me” represents the finest union of her strengths as a vocalist and the intelligence of her highly skilled production team who strip the track to its barest essentials only to have it explode into ecstatic revelry. It stands to reason why this formula works so well for Ware. She excels at intimacy. “Say You Love Me” is meant for bedrooms, headphones, and, ultimately, private moments. It is comfort music from a singer who knows what it feels like to need it.

Joyce Manor | “Schley”

NEVER_HUNGOVER_AGAINThe art of the perfect pop punk song never ceases to captivate. Perhaps its in the fundamental clash between bright, sing-song hooks and violent waves of distortion or the juxtaposition of a bunch of rabble rousing delinquents sitting down to talk structure, harmony and texture. Whatever the case may be, Joyce Manor are purveyors of the finest contemporary pop punk. Critical darlings, perhaps having something to do with their brevity (their latest and longest album clocks in at a whopping nineteen minutes and one second), the band seemingly manages to do everything in half the time it takes everybody else. Take “Schley” for example: over the course of two minutes the band transitions from scuzz punk to jangly guitar pop, effortlessly evading traditional song structure yet still delivering the goods in terms of stuck-in-your-head-for-days melodies and howling sing along choruses. And then it’s over and you’ve got no choice but to just hit the repeat button from here to eternity.

The Juan MacLean | “A Place Called Space”

IN_A_DREAMFor a group generally approaching middle age, the crew at DFA sure do know how to make great exercise music. Of course, you could argue that clubbing is just group aerobics. The club gigs I saw LCD Soundsystem and The Rapture play at were some of the most physically demanding concert experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve never seen The Juan MacLean outside of their cameo during LCD’s final concert but if I ever do I’ll be sure to sport Pat Mahoney’s signature short shorts because this is jogging in place music of the highest order. The opening track from the band’s latest album, “A Place Called Space”, is an arena-sized epic. In the immortal words of Stefon, this song has everything: harmonized electric guitars, pitch-perfect chanting from scene-crush Nancy Whang, a false ending, and a bald man with a beard whose first name is Spanish and whose last name is Scottish. Putting this song on at a party is guaranteed to incite jumping jacks and exuberant joy. You’ve been warned.

Kendrick Lamar | “i”

ICompared to his contemporaries, Kendrick Lamar is in no hurry. The follow up to good kid m.A.A.d. city is long overdue by hip-hop standards. Lamar’s relative silence in 2014 was broken most notably by self-love anthem “i”, the lead single from his as-yet-untitled third studio album. With its unsinkable optimism and soulful bounce, “i” might not immediately register as a Kendrick joint. But listen closely and you’ll hear the recurrent use of biblical imagery (“walk my bare feet/down, down valley deep”), thematic redemption from sin (the metaphorical “city” as the Devil’s playground) and studied analysis of the struggles of black life that are as fundamental to Kendrick’s style as his varied flow and impassioned delivery. If good kid was an interrogation of Lamar’s own well-justified hangups, “i” represents the born-again clarity of passing through the dark night of the soul. And if this track is any indication, Compton’s own native son is set to spread the good word in a big way in 2015.

Lykke Li | “No Rest for the Wicked”

NO_REST_FOR_THE_WICKEDSweden’s Lykke Li makes the case for considering heartbreak not so much as an event or even series of events but rather a chronic condition. Li’s newest album, I Never Learn, and its unshakeable lead single both promote this sense of the inescapable. There’s a level of self-pity on “No Rest for the Wicked” that, in the hands of another, would be cloying and insincere. Though she claims otherwise (“there’s no song for the choir”), Li nevertheless offers a group singalong for the emotionally damaged. An enigma in the world of pop, Li’s albums have an organic, breathing feel. “No Rest for the Wicked” opens with a voice, presumably that of frequent collaborator Björn Yttling, gently counting off the track’s insistent tempo. The vocals are comprised of an early, raw demo and it’s hard to imagine them being any more perfect with added time or distance. Li moved to Los Angeles to record I Never Learn though the inscrutable intensity and personal commitment of her previous records seems to have only increased in the strange space of L.A. There is a tendency to regard a fixed position as coming from a place of stubborn unwillingness. In the case of Lykke Li, it seems more like a cave of infinite passageways, a place she has made her home and explores dutifully but one that is hard to ever imagine her leaving.

Mac Demarco | “Salad Days”

SALAD_DAYSYou may not guess it from his shit-eating grin but Mac Demarco is full of wisdom. He doles out plenty of it on Salad Days, his excellent album about self-confidence (“Goodbye Weekend”), relationships (“Let Her Go”, “Treat Her Better”) and following your dreams (“Brother”). The album’s title track sets this self-help/advice column precedence. In it, Mac laments the uncomfortable bind of being a young soul in a culture that favors meticulous calculation over flighty inspiration. A melancholy atmosphere hangs over all of Salad Days though Demarco is smart not to overindulge. This is hammock and lemonade music, after all. But there’s an emotional undercurrent here that cannot and should not be denied. “Oh mama,” Mac laments, “actin’ like my life’s already over.” Being able to offer yourself level-headed advice is an early sign of maturity. “Act your age and try another year,” Mac offers himself, acting as his own surrogate mother-figure. If the timeless irony about those who give advice needing plenty of it themselves stands true, then one could reason that Demarco’s inner life transcends his music’s breezy exteriors. If Demarco’s salad days are in fact behind him perhaps something richer and even more nourishing lies ahead.

The Men | “Pearly Gates”

TOMORROW'S_HITSThree years ago, The Men were one of the hardest bands around fitting in comfortably beside the sludgy industrial nightmare of Pop. 1280 and blood curdling noise of Pharmakon on Brooklyn’s Sacred Bones Records. It’s pretty hard to imagine that now. Three albums into their take on modern Americana, The Men are closer to psychedelic revivalists Woods than their thrashier labelmates. Tomorrow’s Hits finds the band settling into a kind of middle age, a sweet spot between the anxiety of youth and the disconnect of age. But whatever you do, don’t call it Dad Rock. The mid-album barnburner “Pearly Gates” tears out at a dead sprint and never lets up. A horror show honky tonk complete with grisly scenes of implied violence, it’s impossible to tell whether the mayhem of “Pearly Gates” is mental, physical, spiritual or all three. Adding dimension to their campfire balladeering, the ever-evolving band injects adrenaline straight into the heart of their newfound sound and the result is terrifyingly pleasurable.

The New Pornographers | “Born With a Sound”

BRILL_BRUISERSAnyone who tells you they know what any New Pornographers’ song is about is a liar. “Bleeding Heart Show” is one of my favorites of all time but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what a “golden handshake” is. The Pornographers themselves admit its hardly important, which leaves the listener free to enjoy their highly choreographed take on power pop. Part of what makes their music so distinctive is the quality and quantity of voices in the group and the sonic and emotional results produced by their various combinations. Their latest, Brill Bruisers, is front loaded with hits (in particular the tandem of “War on the East Coast” and “Backstairs”) but things get interpretive on the album’s back half. There is nothing singular about “Born With a Sound”: Brill Bruisers, like most New Pornographers albums, is so good from start to finish that picking one song to represent the bunch is a pretty arbitrary exercise. But the track does demonstrate some fundamental qualities of this continually maturing band. Like a good cheese, Dan Bejar has gotten even sharper with age and his permanently ruffled delivery pairs excellently with the confident warble of guest vocalist Amber Webber (Black Mountain, Lightning Dust). Like everything on Brill Bruisers, “Born With a Sound” bears regular repeating. At least until you can tell me who the Mistress of Tanqueray is.

The Notwist | “Kong”

CLOSE_TO_THE_GLASSThe Notwist sure do take their time. Their latest full length, Close to the Glass, is only their third since the turn of the millennium. After a prolific and genre-bending period in the 90s, The Notwist seem to have settled on being a glitchy, sonically immersive pop group. But Close to the Glass bears so many similarities to its predecessors that it becomes difficult not to compare it to the band’s mid-career masterpiece, Neon Golden, an album that articulated the state of longing in the early years of digital detachment. The Notwist found psychic brethren in The Books and Radiohead just before a whole wave of guitar-driven rock came crashing down on the unsuspecting aughts. As the decade rolled on, Radiohead transformed effortlessly, seemingly above any musical trends despite fitting in nicely with then-current tastes, The Books eventually folded, and The Notwist persisted, albeit only intermittently. More than a decade later, The Notwist offer up “Kong” as proof of their resilience to trends. Stripped of its buoyancy, the track still effectively represents the band: Markus Acher’s unemotional delivery, the emphasis on craft, synth detours. “Kong” isn’t as subtle as, say, “Pilot“, a song that had more in common with late-period Smashing Pumpkins than with the 2000’s infatuation with new wave, but it is another attempt at redefining a band that has refused to stay put for more than a few albums at a time over the course of their 20+ year career.

Ought | “Today More Than Any Other Day”

MORE_THAN_ANY_OTHER_DAYTim Beeler of Montreal’s Ought is a man of many voices. At any given point on the band’s debut, More Than Any Other Day, he’s a dead ringer for any number of indie royalty: Isaac Brock (“Habit”), Alec Ounsworth (“Forgiveness”), Iggy Pop (“The Weather Song”) and David Byrne all get nods. Byrne is a touchstone in more ways than just timbre. Beeler and his fellow bandmates write songs in a particular urban fashion that the former Talking Heads singer would undoubtedly approve of. The “art” in Ought’s art punk can be found in the compositional nature of their songs. “Today More Than Any Other Day” meanders snakily, in no rush to locate the manic Beeler. Of course, when it eventually does, he grabs the song by the wrist dragging it headlong into a hysterical Powerpoint presentation on his equally sardonic and sincere ambitions for living a fuller life, including but not limited to: grocery shopping, milk (2%, whole, human kindness), and random acts of spiritual generosity. The track is less like the ecstasy of, well, ecstasy and more like the kind of illuminating moments that emerge after periods of degradation. It is liberating, at once incredible and incredibly mundane. Which makes sense. After all, as Beeler would point out, we’re all the fucking same, y’know?

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The Year In Music: Tracks Pt. 2

Welcome back! This right here is the second of five installments covering 50 standout tracks from 2014. Arranged in alphabetical order, this segment extends from Eagulls (no not those Eagles…) to Danish princes of punk Iceage. Click the track names for music videos and follow the link(s) at the bottom of the page for more aural/mind pleasure. Enjoy.

Eagulls | “Tough Luck”

TOUGH_LUCKThe year wouldn’t be complete without a story about some fresh young band armed with a couple of hot-blooded rock songs getting caught up in a scandal over some minorly embarrassing word vomit as they fast forwarded into indie music stardom. Of course, with a name based on a homophonic variation on a baby boomer rock icon, what could you expect? Eagulls deliver a refreshing blast of hooky punk with “Tough Luck”, a standout from their self-titled debut. What’s perhaps most respectable about Eagulls is how disinterested they are in playing the role of “band on the rise.” As compared to their eager contemporaries in Palma Violets, Eagulls seem content to rail against their hand selected targets with or without the attention of the international music press. “Tough Luck” contains plenty of arena-rock ethos though you can just as easily picture the band pounding it out inches above a sweaty basement moshpit. For all their unwillingness to pander, “Tough Luck” still comes on like a legend and it’s hard not to feel excited about this band’s potential. Here’s hoping they can keep their angst aimed outward and not disintegrate under the strain of the world stage.

Ex Hex | “Hot and Cold”

HOT_AND_COLDThe iconography of rock’n’roll is decidedly masculine. Think: Bruce’s butt or what made those fingers so sticky. On every page in the history of rock there are boys thrusting and humping, inducing hysteria with every bump and grind. For history’s favorite sons, clothing is optional, wild behavior is celebrated and no price is too high for the magic of music. For girls the story couldn’t be any different. Shamed and discouraged, the women of rock’n’roll (and music in general, for that matter) have never had the same permissions as their male counterparts. Last year there seemed to be a renaissance afoot. It was the year of Savages, Lorde, Perfect Pussy, Priests, Courtney Barnett and Beyonce, along with many many others. Yet, at the time it felt like there was a hesitation to celebrate. To call 2013 “The Year of Women” would have underlined the fact that women have historically been a minority in rock’n’roll, despite having played key roles in its various high water marks. And yet to deny the achievement seemed as unacceptable then as it does now. A year later, you can enjoy the infectious self-titled debut from Ex Hex, an all-women power trio fronted by Mary Timony (Wild Flag, Helium), without acknowledging the context in which it arrives. You can enjoy its sugary sweet kiss offs without recognizing that their debut is probably the best pure rock’n’roll record of the year. You can enjoy its confident craft without considering that it has invigorated a genre that many have been treating like a wounded animal since the guitar-driven glory days of the aughts. Yes, you could do all of those things but Ex Hex are just so good they’re liable to leave you wishing all your favorite bands would let go of their cocks and rock out like girls.

Flying Lotus | “Never Catch Me” ft. Kendrick Lamar

NEVER_CATCH_MEAnyone who’s wanted to share their enthusiasm for Flying Lotus but hasn’t wanted to burden unsuspecting listeners with the thousand-ideas-a-second aesthetic of FlyLo’s albums has been largely out of luck. Despite its quality, “Never Catch Me” works as an entry point to You’re Dead largely because it is the only track that can be gently pulled from its place without tearing the delicate, insanely intricate web that holds all of mastermind Steven Ellison’s work together. If Flying Lotus’ albums are mountain marathons (and I mean this in the best way possible) than “Never Catch Me” represents a moment to catch your breath. Of course, it’s all relative. Kendrick Lamar use the opportunity to demonstrate, via his rapid fire delivery over Ellison’s ludicrous BPMs,  that he is, above all, the most versatile high profile MC alive. Following the thematic arc of “i”, “Never Catch Me” finds Lamar between death and life. It’s a fitting space for him as he navigates his passage from urban poverty to super stardom. And he has found an ideal spirit guide in Flying Lotus who has always been above and beyond total comprehension. Together the two elevate each other’s powers and in doing so form a kind of mystical force with the power to stop time altogether.

The Fresh & Onlys | “Animal of One”

ANIMAL_OF_ONEAs a signifier, “San Francisco” has, in recent years, come to stand for a rather specific breed of psychedelic garage rock. At first glance artists and groups like Ty Segall, Mikal Cronin, John Dwyer/Thee Oh Sees/Castle Face Records seem to be mining a singular vision of Golden Era rock’n’roll. At the fringes of this vision there’s plenty of experimentation though it requires seeing past the Nuggets-biting guitar tones, major chord progressions and wailing blues riffs to recognize it. In these abundant times, The Fresh & Onlys saw fit to release House of Spirits, a record that was no less enjoyable for its eclectic tastes and came to feel like a welcome reprieve from the overdrive onslaught. That isn’t to say this record doesn’t kick ass. The rollicking “Animal of One” aptly demonstrates the band’s ability to write dynamic, captivating songs that use their enigmatic underpinnings to win your attention. “The point of forgiving is so you forget that being forgiven is all in your mind,” singer Tim Cohen intones wearily, the circuitous nature of his logic clearly getting the better of even his best intentions. But “Animal of One” offers redemption in the form of its weightless chorus. Cohen’s cooing blends with a snaky guitar, each climbing toward a state of sheer bliss. Though they may not exert their muscle quite as plainly as their peers, The Fresh & Onlys offer a transportative, “free your mind” take on garage rock that is San Francisco to its core.

Future Islands | “Fall From Grace”

SINGLES“Another synth pop band. Great.” is a sentence that can be read one of a few different ways depending on your tastes. Being a part of something popular is a double edged sword. You may want to be invited to the party but what happens when the party follows you around wherever you go? Some people are liable to think you’re a nuisance. Future Islands certainly benefited from synth pop’s surge in popularity during the last few years and while they may have elements in common with their peers (a predilection for romance, an ear for melody, a heartbeat-like bpm range), it’s their maturity and willingness to make gutsy but earnest diversions into less popular musical territory that set them apart. Samuel T. Herring’s vocals edge toward the darkly melodramatic more than once before he and his band arrive at “Fall From Grace” but there is no better place to appreciate the true dexterity of Future Islands. Lyrically residing in some dusty gothic hallway, the track smolders hauntingly before Herring unleashes a full throated wail. It’s a shocking turn, as unexpected as it is satisfying. After riding the crest of stardom elegantly this year (performing on The Late Show with David Letterman, opening for St. Vincent, landing a spot at Pitchfork Festival’s Paris extension), it is reassuring to know that the momentum that drove the band to their current success was not derived from the need to anticipate a perceived audience. The sincerity of synthpop can sometimes get overshadowed by its trendiness but there are deep layers of substance to Singles that are manifested in both subtle and bold ways. Future Islands are pioneers of nonconformity, addressing, by their very nature, the joys of abandon and the pleasures of personal truth.

Hamilton Leithauser | “Alexandra”

BLACK_HOURSThe Walkmen crooner stepped out on his own this year and the results were mixed in every sense of the word. Black Hours roams airily over the landscape of early pop (50s rock’n’roll, blues, easy listening) with surprising listlessness. Lead single “Alexandra”, a nugget of pure AM radio gold, proved sadly deceptive in this regard: little else on the album gets anywhere near its ecstatic buoyancy. Leithauser finds an unlikely muse in Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij who lends “Alexandra” a hefty dose of charm and musical wit. Yet ultimately it’s Leithauser’s gifts as a songwriter, his crafty choruses and inimitable voice, that make “Alexandra” one of the most replayable songs of the year. If only he had employed the same level of genuine inspiration on the rest of his album, Black Hours may have emerged as a classic instead of a relic.

Hiss Golden Messenger | “Mahogany Dread”

LATENESS_OF_DANCERSThere are few things that have made me happier over the years than seeing success come to MC Taylor and the rest of Hiss Golden Messenger. The first album on their hometown’s most famous label, Lateness of Dancers builds on HGM’s increasingly excellent discography. The band’s intimacy and communion with the spirit of Southern music is only enhanced by the added production values of Lateness and “Mahogany Dread” easily fits in among their best songs. A beautiful accompanying music video reveals what any dedicated HGM listener already knew: family is everything for Taylor though things are never easy. Looking over Taylor’s lyrics since Poor Moon you can identify an increasing sense of solace in the struggle. “The mystery of love is a funny thing,” he muses, “the more it hurts the more you think you can stand a little pain.” Rich and mature, tinged with melancholy yet unsentimentally uplifting, “Mahogany Dread” is absolutely one of the best love songs of the year.

Hospitality | “Rockets and Jets”

TROUBLEAfter their promising twee beginnings, Hospitality took a beguiling turn on their aesthetically divergent second album, Trouble. Flitting from 60s folk to synth-infused prog, Trouble is certainly not without its pleasures. Among them is the longing-laced “Rockets and Jets”, a satisfying mix of what is now old hat for the band and their newer, sharper threads. The band is a shrewd packager of musical detours, often taking you places you might not expect from their outwardly sunny pop songs. “Rockets and Jets” momentarily disappears down a harmonic rabbit hole before emerging once again at the surface, changed in some invisible way. Many of the band’s assets have become more prominent: Amber Papini’s voice has increased its versatility, Brian Betancourt’s bass lines remain as memorable as ever and the songs on Trouble are undeniably ambitious even if they are not always cohesive with one another. The evidence suggests that while Hospitality may not always be consistent they will continue to surprise, which is, in many ways, a more hopeful prospect.

How to Dress Well | “What You Wanted”

WHAT_IS_THIS_HEARTAfter being saddled with the worst subgenre of the still-young decade, How to Dress Well’s Tom Krell has admirably overcome the cultural implications of PBR&B. Like his sonic peers (Drake, Frank Ocean, Autre Ne Veut), Krell works by layering passion and vulnerability, telling intricate and complex romantic tales. While How to Dress Well tends to fall on the ambient side, there is plenty on “What Is This Heart?” that bumps though the various build ups can sometimes be more than the casual listener may be ready for. “What You Wanted” is a perfect example: the track really kicks in only after 2 minutes of bubbly, sparse soul which outlines the eventual figure of the full bodied groove. The wait is worth it for Krell’s dissection of the unrelenting mystery of attraction and the bottomless pit of loneliness. Krell operates in a space within and outside of himself, able to see the faults in his character but seemingly unable to do anything about them. “I know it’s lame, it’s basic, childish, self-obsessed,” he rattles off, “but when I love it, I love it.” Wrapped in a haze that can sometimes feel impenetrable, How to Dress Well offers moments of ecstatic revelation, musically and lyrically.

Iceage | “Forever”

PLOWING_INTO_THE_FIELD_OF_LOVEIf one band truly represented the immortal spirit of “punk” this year it was Iceage. Their latest album, the simply staggering Plowing Into the Fields of Love, finds these Danish lads raping and pillaging their way through the annals of music history to often jaw dropping results. The band wildly mixes tradition with bold experimentation, keeping their own ideas so fresh and raw that many of these tracks feel ready to fall apart from exhaustion by the time they conclude. This is what historians may refer to as “genuine genius” and you’ll find little argument from anyone who’s watched these boys grow up. Take “Forever”: after a breathtaking bridge that finds Elias Bender Rønnenfelt intoning “Dive into the other like it was the ocean/caressed by its waters, I lose myself forever,” the song is ripped in two by a trumpet screaming across a choppy sea of strings and jangly guitars while thunderous drums and bass battle for rhythmic supremacy. It is one of many surprising, provocative and generally disarming moments scattered across the album. Iceage have been great since their inception. Now they have become masters of their craft, fearless pioneers of truth and terror.

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The Year In Music: Tracks Pt. 1

Welcome to the second annual Year in Music review courtesy of What Cannon. We’re so glad you could join us. Herein lies the first of five installments covering 50 standout tracks from 2014. Arranged in alphabetical order, this segment extends from the electrically charged Angel Olsen to Dum Dum Girls’ revamped ass-kickery. Click the track names for music videos & stay tuned for Parts 2 through 5. Enjoy.

Angel Olsen | “Windows”

BURN_YOUR_FIRE_FOR_NO_WITNESSIt’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that when you begin your album with a song as colorfully titled as “Unfucktheworld” that devastation lies in wait. Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness unfurls the tight coils of Half Way Home, swapping her trademark fingerpicked acoustic guitar for a dynamic electric. The change is a revelation as tracks like the sludgy “Forgiven/Forgotten” land with insistence that would have been out of place on her intensely private previous releases. Burn Your Fire finds Olsen willfully stepping out from behind her own mystique. “What’s so wrong with the light?” she sighs on album closer “Windows” and you get the sense she is asking the question of herself. Introspective to a fault, often painfully aloof in performance, Olsen is light years away from being a heart-on-sleeve lyricist and her work is still hedged in on all sides by darkness. But it takes gall to throw one’s shadow down and step into the light as she’s done here. By all accounts, Burn Your Fire For No Witness is not only a musical triumph but a personal one as well.

Aphex Twin | “Minipops 67 (Source Field Mix)”

MINIPOPS_67Even if you don’t care for his idiosyncratic approach to electronic music, it was hard not to get caught up in the hype surrounding Aphex Twin’s return. His first formal release in 13 years, Syro expands on Richard D. James’ signature blend of squelchy noise and harmonically complex pop. The album’s dense 65 minutes can feel daunting at times and James makes a number of decisions shrewdly calculated to challenge listeners (putting an 11 minute odyssey in the slot generally reserved for a lead single, for instance). Yet Syro never comes off as misanthropic. Rather, the album is joyfully coy, clever without being grating and infectiously fun as on the bubbly album opener “Minipops 67 (Source Field Mix)”. Long delayed releases can often come with the burden of expectation but Syro effortlessly picks up where the Aphex Twin moniker officially left off. James generously brings us right back into the fold like a long lost friend who, after returning from a timeless voyage, is only concerned with whether there’s any decent beer in the fridge.

Black Lips | “Smiling”

UNDERNEATH_THE_RAINBOWThe eternally adolescent Black Lips returned this year with another delicious slice of flower punk. It’s fair to say that by 2014 the band has reached a critical point in their popularity. It’s hard to imagine anyone picking up Underneath the Rainbow who isn’t already in love with the band’s delightfully skewed approach to garage rock. A few added bells and whistles aside, each new record fits snugly in with the rest lending Black Lips something resembling a timeless image of perpetual delinquency. Following in the thematic footsteps of “Bad Kids”, “Smiling” is a loving ode to good ol’ fashioned trouble making. As always, there’s a smart ass undercurrent. In this case a fantasy of imprisonment that turns immediately to regret. But most importantly, like so many great garage rock songs before it, “Smiling” can be enjoyed equally from the comfort of a broken-in couch or the center of a beer soaked mosh pit.

Caribou | “Can’t Do Without You”

CAN'T_DO_WITHOUT_YOUDan Snaith has been on a dance music kick this decade. Beginning with 2010’s Swim and its loping, analog grooves, moving onward to his Daphni side project and finally returning this year with his most mature, restrained and intoxicating record yet, Our Love. These are words that really mean something when applied to Snaith who’s been using his Caribou moniker to follow some of his more complex impulses as a constructor of songs. Less of a dance record than its predecessor, Our Love nevertheless kicks things off boldly with “Can’t Do Without You”. The track begins with a looped sample and a click track, slowly adding textural and harmonic elements before building to a heavenly catharsis of synths and disco rhythms. “Can’t Do Without You” is replete with Snaithian touches both new and old: airy falsetto, romanticism, the sense of watching something bloom. Taking on the notion that consistency is synonymous with conformity, Caribou has traced a diverse musical arc. Dropping in at any particular point you get the sense of an artist operating at an apex of their talents yet having only just begun to scratch the surface of all they’re capable of. In this regard, Caribou will continue to clock musical miles long after many artists have petered out.

Cloud Nothings | “I’m Not Part Of Me”

I'M_NOT_PART_OF_MEConsidering frontman Dylan Baldi’s paralyzing lyrical honesty, it wouldn’t be out of place to characterize any Cloud Nothings album as self-conscious. Yet, after the enormous success of Attack on Memory two years ago, the follow-up, Here and Nowhere Else, feels deliberately difficult, a direct challenge to anyone attracted to the band’s perceived accessibility. Cloud Nothings are hardly the first band in history to retaliate against their own success. Here and Nowhere Else is far and away the band’s most musically dense album to date, a 30 minute blast of filthy bass, wild drums and grungy guitars. While there is plenty to be impressed with on a theoretical level, there is little for the ears to grab on to. “I’m Not Part of Me” reaches for the heights of “Wasted Days”, an impressive feat in its own right, and makes a good case for the band’s foremost strength: their thunderous live sound. Still, it marks the only entry point for anyone who bought this album expecting the pop-inclined hardcore of their previous releases. Change is good, inevitable even, and ought to be celebrated but comes at a cost for those who become attached to a particular phase of a band’s evolution.

Chromeo | “Come Alive” ft. Toro y Moi

COME_ALIVERemember last year when the indie music elite and Top 40 enthusiasts alike were united in their shared passion for Lorde, Daft Punk, and Beyonce, each side feeling they could claim those artists as their own? Well that was last year. While 2014 proved to be a good a year for the Ariana Grandes and Charli XCXs of the world, there wasn’t necessarily a lot of crossover potential. During this dearth of worthwhile commercial music, Canadian pop savants Chromeo eagerly stepped in to fill the void. The duo’s latest album, White Women, is noteworthy not only for its ability to pull off that title but for the tight funk underlying its globe-trotting, game-talking dancefloor pop. As songwriters, Chromeo can be counted on for their strong collaborative instincts. In addition to appearances from Ezra Koenig and Solange, Chaz Bundick’s Toro y Moi offers a sobering contrast to Chromeo’s id-in-overdrive party anthem “Come Alive”. “You’re working double just to have a life,” Bundick claims prophetically, “I like to think that it’s just a phase.” Chromeo weave Bundick’s strengths into the fabric of “Come Alive” so as to avoid a situation where the featured artist usurps the guys doing the heavy lifting (ever heard anyone attribute “Get Lucky” to Pharrell?). Pop music constantly runs the risk of being inconsequential and Chromeo avoids becoming empty-calorie radio filler by making choices that are simultaneously clever audience bait and genuine reflections of their talents as musicians.

Cymbals Eat Guitars | “Jackson”

JACKSONI have a theory that geography suggests the shape and character of one’s emotional life. This idea can be applied finely and broadly. For instance, there is something pure and unadulterated about EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints that evokes the crippling spaciousness of South Dakota. Then there’s the desperate ennui of all those California hardcore bands in the 80s rebelling against Ronald Reagan, their parents, corporate culture and pretty much everything else. Somewhere in between there’s Cymbals Eat Guitars. The Jersey band captures a great deal of that captivating American wasteland, a region as famous for inspiring The Sopranos as it is for birthing Jon Bon Jovi. As compared to their more boorish urban counterparts (Titus Andronicus, Screaming Females) and their urbane suburban peers (Real Estate), Cymbals Eat Guitars hail from downstate, closer in proximity to Springsteen’s lovelorn Atlantic City and the City of Brotherly Love than to NYC or, God forbid, Hoboken. Album opener “Jackson,” finds frontman Joseph D’Argentino on his way toward a different American landmark: Six Flags. The physical sensations of the amusement park mirror the emotional ones mapped across LOSE’s stellar 45 minutes. There’s a sense of fatalism in “Jackson”, an ominous precursor for the tough life lessons found throughout the album. “There’s nothing to do when it’s a foregone conclusion, a pool overflowing,” D’Argentino hollers before launching into a straight up jaw-dropping classic rock guitar solo. While so many bands invert and suspend the characteristics of rock’n’roll, often to captivating ends, Cymbals Eat Guitars continue in the the well-defined Jersey legacy of mixing tradition with experimentation, knowing when to kick out the jams and when to freak the fuck out.

D’Angelo and the Vanguard | “Charade”

BLACK_MESSIAHOf all the artists you might have expected to release deeply personal and highly reflective work in reaction to the tragic second half of 2014, D’Angelo was probably not one of them. It’s true: believers everywhere had been preaching his return for over a decade, pointing toward snippets of leaked tracks and insider rumblings as proof of his resurrection. Reading about the journey D’Angelo went on from the height of his stardom in 2001 to the release of Black Messiah at the end of this past year, you begin to realize that it’s an honest-to-God miracle that the album ever saw the light of day. And not for the reasons that typify legendarily delayed albums: the one person holding back the album’s release was the same one that brought it all into existence. “Perfectionist” doesn’t do D’Angelo justice: it is at once too soft and too stern. The album is easily the most complex record to crack the Billboard 200 this year and a track like “Charade” captures the progressive approach to songwriting achievable only with this level of craft. But Kid A this ain’t. Black Messiah bleeds soul and oozes passion out of its sultry analog pores. “All we wanted was a chance to talk/’stead we’ve only got outlined in chalk” is a PR-ready lyric if there ever was one and “Charade” perhaps best represents D’Angelo’s mission with Black Messiah: to truly communicate the struggle. Not just talk about it but cut through the clatter and give people something they can hear in their hearts. In this sense D’Angelo is a perfectionist in the same way Terrence Malick is: rigorously human, profoundly expressive and patient to a fault.

Damon Albarn | “Mr. Tembo”

MR_TEMBOThe respective excesses of Blur and Gorillaz, innumerable side projects and left-field theatrical experiments have kept Damon Albarn busy for the first 20 years of his career. This year things slowed down enough for him to squeeze in the recording of Everyday Robots, his first album under his own name. This move is especially significant for Albarn whose work with Jamie Hewlett on the first Gorillaz album pioneered the act of image creation and maintenance for musicians in the formative years of the Internet age. By comparison to the rest of his discography, Everyday Robots is an informal affair though orchestrated with subtle craftsmanship. “Mr. Tembo” begins with little more than a rollicking ukulele accompanying Albarn’s unmistakable tenor though it eventually expands into a full blown spiritual in honor of a tiny Tanzanian elephant. In many way the song serves as an excellent metaphor for Everyday Robots: deceptively simple, highly personal and, above all, delightfully relatable.

Dum Dum Girls | “Lost Boys and Girls Club”

TOO_TRUEDum Dum Girls have a long history of covering frontwoman Dee Dee Penny’s melancholy lyricism with gallons of sun soaked riffs. That sheen started to wear away a few years ago with the still-devastating “Coming Down”, a song that marked a turning point in the band’s sound and image. After a relatively quiet two years (a lifetime for such a prolific band), Dum Dum Girls reemerged like the quiet, bookish girl who shows up to the first day of high school sporting leather pants and blood red lipstick. The band’s third full length, Too True, doesn’t go completely goth but it definitely mines a specific musical time period for the proper mix of delicate synths, hollow drums and spidery guitars.  “Lost Boys and Girls Club” is a slow burner anthem dedicated to standing still. If that seems at odds with Dum Dum Girls discography take it as a good sign even if the song itself is tinged with uncertainty. Dee Dee has fought her way out of an emotional tailspin and “Lost Boys and Girls Club” arrives triumphantly. It is an undersold narrative: an artist not defined by her suffering but by the act of overcoming it. Too True is as rewarding musically as it is personally for anyone who’s spent the last few years cheering for the beleaguered Dee Dee and her rough and ready cohorts.

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