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.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 5

The Year In Music: Tracks Pt. 5

The final installment of the 50 standout tracks from 2013. Arranged in alphabetical order, this segment extends from hip-hop bromance Run The Jewels to perennial weirdos Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Click the track names for music videos. And be sure to read Parts 1-4 as well. Enjoy.

Run The Jewels | “Banana Clipper” (ft. Big Boi)

RUN_THE_JEWELSI don’t want to jinx it but I think this past year saw the return of real rap. I mean there were always a couple of dudes here and there going rogue but these days rap seems to suffer from a seemingly endless splinter of divides most of which aren’t terribly interesting or fruitful. 2013 will undoubtedly be remembered as the year of Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse but what he pointed toward in that track was little more than common knowledge to rap veterans Killer Mike and El-P who make up Run The Jewels. If contemporary hip-hop is like an old folks home with a handful of the game’s foremost seniors overseeing an ever growing multitude of untamed grandchildren, Mike and Jaime are the sensible, fruitful adults ready to give the kids a whooping and bawl out grandma and grandpa for spoiling them. Furthermore, as an autonomous couple they seem quite content to spend their days “going for the throat.” And they do just that on “Banana Clipper,” one of ten airtight jams from the duo’s stunning self-titled debut. El-P’s dense rhymes are offset by Killer Mike’s decadent cadence while Big Boi lends the track his unmistakable braggadocio. The beat here is just as aggressive as the three MCs featured on it. It’ll make you feel the noose around your neck or the  grip pliers on your teeth. Listening to Run The Jewels is literally the only time I’m glad I’m not a rapper.

Savages | “Shut Up”

SILENCE_YOURSELFPoint: Savages are an aggressive band. Evidence: the austerity of their black and white album cover, the reports that cellphones have been banned from use at their concerts, the fact that their debut is called Silence Yourself, the lead track from said album is called “Shut Up.” Yes, all signs point to a band that may be more about the message than the music. Yet, the minute that distorted bass line pushes away that eerie sample from Cassavette’s Opening Night (1977), all doubts regarding the quality of the content should be put to bed. In their music, Savages present a very convincing analogy to the current state of media saturation. It’s a topic that gets trotted by everyone from full-scale luddites to parents who are frustrated with their children’s addiction to the iPhones they got them for Christmas. Savages are not against distortion or communication, their songs are wordy and loud enough to prove that. They simply believe that it needs to be focused. It’s better to do one thing well than ten things poorly. Savages do several things very well and singer Jehnny Beth is clever enough to suggest that if the world just “shut up” for a little while that we might hear “the distant rhythm of an angry young tune.” Whether it’s clever self-aggrandizing or philosophical grandstanding, Savages got the world’s attention this year.

The So So Glos | “Son of an American”

BLOWOUTEach year, in my quest to balance my personal stake in my own tastes while constantly gauging and measuring my expectations, I’ve become more successful at openly embracing disappointment as well as surprise. So I delight in finding the kinds of records that I may have passed by or incidentally missed in years past. Blowout from Brookyln-based The So So Glos is just one of those records. I knew I was going to love this record from the second I pressed play. “Son of an American” opens with a tape-recorded snippet of a young Alex Levine relaying the news of Kurt Cobain’s passing. There’s an excitement in his voice that defies Cobain’s traditional tragic narrative. That excitement translates directly into the song’s gleeful punk rock energy. The band sounds like they could light your couch on fire and make you feel like they’d done you a favor. Several shades lighter than former tour mates Titus Andronicus, The So So Glos remind me more of middle school days spent listening to “Maxwell Murder” on repeat and playing in scrappy, short lived cover bands. There’s a joy to this music even as it mocks itself. “I wanna root for the losing team!” Levine hollers before launching into a chorus that feels like the 21st century’s answer to “Fortunate Son.” The So So Glos may sound like they just stumbled upon one of the best songs of the year but that assumption belies the expert songcraft that the band has in spades. Funny without being self-deprecating and smart without being cynical, The So So Glos rambunctious rock n’ roll will knock the wind out of you. In a good way, duh.

Speedy Ortiz | “No Below”

MAJOR_ARCANA

I categorize music a lot of different ways but one of my favorites is by season. Summer bands and albums are easy to identify: breezy, light, catchy, full-blooded. Fall is a season characterized by wistfulness and longing. Winter is dry, dark and cold. Spring is tentative and soft. But this kind of thinking defies the logic of the musician’s calendar. An album that gets released in the summer might have been written and recorded over the winter. Hence, when Speedy Ortiz released their magnificent Major Arcana this summer, it felt like an album in the process of becoming frozen, fighting and clawing against some unstoppable force. Rough and jagged, visceral and acerbic, the single reprieve against this relentless punk onslaught is also the album’s deepest and most affecting track. “No Below” is the odyssey of a damaged vessel; a sad, searching story of loneliness and perseverance. Singer/guitarist Sadie Dupuis captures moments of childhood and adolescence with grace and simplicity. “I didn’t know you/when I broke my knee/spent the summer on crutches/and everybody teased,” she murmurs before giving voice to a thought that many hopeless kids have felt: Wouldn’t it better just to be dead? Yet, the song marches forward through time as the rhythm section pounds away with measured temperance. When Sadie finally arrives at the conclusion that she’s “ glad for it all if it got us where we are,” the song erupts into catharsis. The realization that everything you’ve suffered has been redeemed in a single person is profoundly disorienting. “No Below” is the kind of music that someone in trouble really needs. It’s direct, honest and empathetic. I imagine this song might be the friend a lot of people didn’t realize they were waiting for.

Swearin’ | “Dust In The Gold Sack”

SURFING_STRANGEThe Crutchfield sisters had a great year. While Katie cleaned up Waxahatchee’s sound with Cerulean Salt, sister Allison seems content to muss things up with Swearin’, a band that follows in the tradition of Pavement by shifting their sound from song to song. “Dust In The Gold Sack” kicks off their second record, Surfing Strange, with a bit of plaintive strumming before launching into thick gritty rock. This track is emo revival in the spirit of Cloud Nothings: loud, frustrated and catchy as hell. The imagery is bleak yet there’s a strangely comforting quality to the underlying angst and frustration. Like a new bicycle rusting in the rain, there’s potency in the image of a useful object going to waste. The Crutchfield sisters share a symbolic language that is intensely personal and poetic without ever being pretentious. But if you want to punch a hole through your wall or tell someone to fuck off rather than drawing a hot bath to sit in until you’re wrinkled, then Allison is the Crutchfield for you.

Thundercat | “Oh Sheit It’s X”

APOCALYPSELike Andrew W.K., Thundercat’s Stephen Bruner makes inspirational party music. The title pretty much says it all, “Oh Sheit, It’s X” is about an evening spent dancing at a club while on ecstasy. Skipping the sickening obsessiveness of The Streets’ “Blinded by the Lights,” Thundercat’s bubbly disco moves outward, seeking friends and lovers to connect with. “I just wanna party/you should be here with me,” Bruner demands with cheerful insistence like a friend tugging you away from the bar and into the crowd of sweaty bodies. Bruner’s narrative is definitely on point, from his fascination with a woman’s purse to literally forgetting who his friends are. At one point he simply lets out a long guttural “uhhhhhh.” It’s Gonzo journalism for your ears. My advice: for your next party, take several doses of Thundercat’s music and don’t call me in the morning.

Torres | “When Winter’s Over”

TORRESOne of the roughest, richest and most heartbreaking records of the year, the self-titled debut from Torres is music for tough times. The album is raw in its approach to instrumentation and haunting in its capacity to capture the dark corridors we travel down in our endless search for the light. “When Winter’s Over” is as intimate and shattering as a mental breakdown. Like Sharon Van Etten before her, singer and guitarist Mackenzie Scott’s greatest strength is her expressive performance. Her ability to go from deadened mumble and airy whisper to full-throated howl will leave you wide-eyed, imagining the kind of tortured romance that gives voice to this many faces of troubled love. “Go find some place warm, I’ll still be here when winter’s over,” she cries. Alternately desperate and resilient, the line can be read one of two ways: either as a promise to wait faithfully or as a sign that she is free, at least for the time being, of love’s wicked ways.

Vampire Weekend | “Hannah Hunt”

MODERN_VAMPIRES_OF_THE_CITYIt’s hard to write about a song like “Hannah Hunt.” That’s because there isn’t language yet invented to describe the invisible minutiae of human life. Is there a word that can summarize the great odyssey of a single romance, from Waverly and Lincoln all the way to Phoenix and Santa Barbara? “Hannah Hunt” plays like small cinema: rich in exquisite detail, it’s innocuous and inconclusive. It’s a series of scenes shot from the perspective of a dreamy lover who invariably finds himself wondering why his idle fantasies don’t match their off-color realization. Hoping for perfection inevitably leads to disappointment, schisms and fallout. “If I can’t trust you then damn it Hannah/there’s no future, there’s no answer,” Ezra Koenig hollers, giving voice to futility and frustration. Yet, it’s the mixed metaphor that follows this proclamation that really ties the song together. “Though we live on the US dollar/you and me, we got our own sense of time,” beautifully illustrates the feeling of falling out of love. The feeling isn’t unlike having the world’s greatest collection of 8 track tapes or a library of classics written in a language that no one speaks. What do you do with all that’s happened that no one but this other person knows or really understands? I guess the answer is in the asking: write a song.

Waxahatchee | “You’re Damaged”

CERULEAN_SALTOf all the tracks on Waxahatchee’s Cerulean Salt, “You’re Damaged” most closely resembles the emotional devastation and sonic starkness of American Weekend. I’m not ashamed to admit that this might be the reason I like it more than anything else on the record. As with so much of singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield’s lyrics, “You’re Damaged” seeks to discern where the rifts between her and others lay. The language she uses to describe them is by turns vivid and abstract. Just as you’ve wrapped your ears around “vomit and water,” Katie tiredly declares that “God’s buried under your damaged wonder.” What it all means is a mystery but, like so many troubled artists before her, there’s a feeling of philanthropy in listening to Katie’s music as if in empathizing we might help shoulder some of her silent, pervasive struggle.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs | “Sacrilege”

SACRILEGEAs attention-getting opening tracks go, you can’t do much better than “Sacrilege.” From a light shamble all the way to heavenly exultation, this track is a journey from simplicity to insanity. While so much about Yeah Yeah Yeahs has changed since their startling and still-excellent debut, lead singer Karen O seemingly arrived fully formed. What I love so much about Karen O is the fullness of her vocal performance. From a sweet midrange all the way to the fried peaks, her voice is an instrument she treats the way the legendary No Wave bands of yore used to treat their guitars. Her voice has character. In a music world dominated by well-meaning amateurs working up their best impression of Mariah Carey or Josh Groban, it’s refreshing to hear a voice that is strong yet imperfect. Though it lacks the sheer power of someone like Jeff Mangum, Karen O more than makes up for it in her versatility. And she needs it, as her band’s fourth album is delightfully undecided in its musical direction. Daring, bold and original, all the great qualities of Yeah Yeah Yeahs are captured with confidence and bravado in “Sacrilege.”

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4