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 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.
The 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.
For 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.
Compared 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.
Sweden’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.
You 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.
Three 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.
Anyone 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 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.
Tim 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?