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. 2

The second of five installments covering 50 standout tracks from 2013. Arranged in alphabetical order, this segment extends from stadium-ready Chvrches to 60s sunshine enthusiasts Foxygen. Click the track names for music videos. Enjoy.

Chvrches | “Gun”

GUNThere are at least three songs from Chvrches’ debut album The Bones of What You Believe that could have gone on this list. My instinct is to call this group “electro pop” as I can’t seem to locate an analog instrument anywhere in their sound but I’m afraid the tag wouldn’t do them justice. Chvrches arrived with a huge, well-honed sound that perfectly reflected the sheer amount of time and energy so many young bands spend crafting their first batch of songs. Singer Lauren Mayberry exudes power and confidence. “You had better run from me/with everything you own,” she declares in the song’s opening seconds before later threatening, “I will be a gun and it’s you I’ll come for.” This is a breakup song with teeth. Chvrches are an emotionally and musically dynamic group: sweet, rough, ominous and melancholy. Of their many successes their greatest might be their ability to fuse these varied elements into a sound that is both full and whole.

Courtney Barnett | “Avant Gardener”

THE_DOUBLE_EP-A_SEA_OF_SPLIT_PEASI’m not sure if Courtney Barnett was on my radar before Pitchfork’s 285 Kent documentary but after her psychedelic performance I was hooked. In typical slacker fashion her debut LP, A Sea of Split Peas, is actually her first two EPs played back to back . The album is chock full of playful gems. “Avant Gardener” is rich on details that, under her practiced deadpan, only become funnier with repeated listenings. “The medic thinks I’m clever because I play guitar/I think she’s clever because she stops people dyin’,” gives you a pretty good sense of where this deadbeat anthem goes. Barnett’s storytelling is wildly entertaining even if her delivery makes it sound like she could care less. At the heart of her songs are a number of fairly universal concerns to twentysomethings such as “When are my parents going to leave me alone?” and “How long has it been since I’ve eaten?’ and “Is anything I’m doing even worthwhile?” Digging into her own ennui with humor and fearlessness, Barnett displays her findings with pride, which she in turn uses to shelter herself from the cruel world of mundane Mondays.

Daft Punk | “Doin’ It Right”

RANDOM_ACCESS_MEMORIESOne of the biggest releases of the year, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories generously returned on all the hype surrounding it. Composed with astounding attention to sonic detail and backed by a slew of talented session players, the robots truly came alive on this release. While “Get Lucky” may have infected radios all over the country, the Panda Bear-assisted “Doin’ It Right” has all the same pop potential embedded within a cyclical, slow burning structure. Daft Punk have always been able to imbue lyrical simplicity with such nostalgic force that even cynics could be inspired to celebrate and dance so free. Panda Bear has largely done the same thing, albeit beneath layers of dense, lush reverb. “If you lose your way tonight that’s how you know the magic’s right,” he chants while the robots intone the track’s title. Disparate voices coming together with harmonious excellence is par for the course in the discography of Daft Punk. “Doin’ It Right” is a milestone in a career that continues to happily defy logic.

Darkside | “Paper Trails”

PSYCHICIn a mix I made for my sister earlier this month, I suggested that a music aficionado on hallucinogens might describe Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington’s Darkside project as “a remix album of Tom Waits songs featuring Mark Knopfler.” I have two confessions to make regarding this analysis. The first is that I can’t stand music criticism that relies on broad comparisons. When people say, “it’s like if ________ had a baby with _________” or “it sounds like a long lost tape of __________ with ___________ as their backing band,” I want to point out that proper nouns are poor substitutes for adjectives. The above statement on Darkside’s music is the closest I’d like to get to that kind of writing. My other confession is that said description perfectly summarizes “Paper Trails” and if you’re into that sort of thing you should probably just go listen to Darkside.

David Bowie | “(You Will) Set the World On Fire”

THE_NEXT_DAYThe return of Bowie was a big deal for a lot of people. I wasn’t one of those people. I like Bowie. Somewhere in my early twenties I fell in love with Hunky Dory (1971) and came to appreciate Low (1977). Though I may have missed the boat on the Bowie mythology (though Velvet Goldmine did kinda blow my mind), I definitely appreciate him as a symbol of lifelong creativity. Furthermore, he still sounds light years ahead of everyone else. “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” may find you crediting Bowie for inspiring The White Stripes, despite the 15 year gap between the latter’s eponymous debut and the former’s fiery guitar romp. The takeaway? This is a near perfect rock song from a guy who’s old enough to have already retired from a normal job in a normal life. Bowie may have come back to earth with The Next Day but in doing so he imparted a valuable lesson on the never-ending role of creative people in world culture.

Deerhunter | “The Missing”

MONOMANIADeerhunter’s Monomania is a perfect study in the drawbacks of consistency. While the band may have just completed a musical grand slam, consisting of four “masterpieces” (that word makes me nervous) in a row, you might never have known it. Deerhunter tends to fly under the radar: critically acclaimed, beloved by fans, but always just a few paces outside the current trends. Their albums are equal parts experimentation and studied songwriting. “The Missing,” like Halcyon Digest’s “Desire Lines” and “Fountain Stairs,” was written by guitarist Lockett Pundt. It contains Pundt’s trademark guitar work: gentle arpeggios and deceptively simple melodies. The atmosphere of the track exudes Deerhunter’s characteristic melancholy. Yet it also happens to contain the record’s most uplifting moment. “The Missing” serves as a helpful reminder of how many different bands comprise the singular Deerhunter.

Drake | “Worst Behavior”

NOTHING_WAS_THE_SAMEThe difference between Drake’s Take Care (2011) and Nothing Was The Same is the difference between an album of outstanding, well-sequenced songs and an album of impeccable timing and flow. Take Care’s tracklist felt like a lesser artist’s Best Of compilation, containing hit after blissful hit. Nothing Was The Same feels more like a highly cohesive portrait drawn to reflect its makers many shades. In “Worst Behavior,” Drake is outraged. “Mofuckers never loved us/now you wanna roll one” he proclaims indignantly. It’s a testament to the variety of his subject matter that these diss songs still feel effective after three hugely successful albums. Drake’s saving grace may be his ability to toss off clever wordplay so casually you could easily miss it. For instance: “Open the mail/stare at the check/enough to make you throw up man/it’s gross what I net.” Or perhaps it’s his ability to turn on a dime from over-time bragging (“I swear I could be Serena when she playing with her left”) to personal details (references to his early days on Degrassi) that put his quick ascent into perspective. Either way, at this point Drake’s continued success should be no surprise to anyone.

Earl Sweatshirt | “Sunday” (ft. Frank Ocean)

DORISMy early enthusiasm for hip-hop collective Odd Future has waned over the past two years. Like many others, I’ve put a lot of stock in the group’s foremost outstanding members: Earl Sweatshirt and Frank Ocean. Ocean has always stood apart from the group as the lone R&B vocalist while Earl is universally accepted as one of the great young talents in hip-hop and the collective’s most inspired voice. Unsurprisingly, their collaborative effort on Earl’s dark and woozy Doris is a resounding, addictive success. While Frank playfully speak sings his way through some of his sexual and social predilections (“they called me soft in high school/thank god I’m jagged/forgot you don’t like it rough/I mean he called me a faggot”), Earl explores the imbalance between his creative energy and his emotional connections. “And if I hurt you, I’m sorry/the music makes me dismissive,” he explains though it’s clear he isn’t exactly interested in changing. The shuffling beat moves as if it’s trying to hide from itself while these two talented emcees attempt to navigate their own winding, oblique paths. If they don’t necessarily discover the way through it’s alright. Watching these two explore is pure pleasure.

Eleanor Friedberger | “Stare At The Sun”

PERSONAL_RECORDA collection of pop stunners that should always be played with the windows down on a warm summer night, Eleanor Friedberger’s latest album matches her idiosyncratic storytelling with massive hooks. Personal Record feels like a tribute to the music of New York City in the 1970s and “Stare at the Sun,” isn’t so far from Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll.” It contains some very precise, charming imagery. “Give me your toothpaste/give me your ointment/give me your body in bed,” Friedberger demands to her aloof subject before admonishing them with, “If that was goodbye, you must be high,” a hilarious and yet touching kiss off if there ever was one. As always with Friedberger, its tough to say where the autobiography ends and the exotic parable begins. Yet, that only adds to the allure here as Eleanor whisks us away to the fairytale New York that we all want to believe in.

Foxygen | “San Francisco”

WE_ARE_THE_21st_CENTURY_AMBASSADORS_OF_PEACE-MAGICThe late 60s have always been a privileged period in musical history. Garage rock has seen a thrilling revival in recent years thanks to Ty Segall and his Bay Area cronies. Meanwhile, dedicated weirdoes like The Flaming Lips and Tame Impala keep psychedelia alive. Yet the influence of the folk rock blends that were occurring around this time period is somewhat harder to pinpoint. Except, of course, with Foxygen. Their studious recreation of the shambling love songs and pre-hard rock riffage of this era transcends mere homage. Foxygen are also extraordinarily talented songwriters and arrangers. Consider the evidence of “San Francisco,” from their hugely successful (and amazingly titled) We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic. The album is delicately put together with a wide range of instruments meant to compliment the dreamy imagery it contains. Perhaps meant as a nod to Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” Foxygen gives voice to the lost love who, as it turns out, was quite alright with being left behind. Lacking the self-seriousness of a tribute group and eschewing tongue-in-cheek parody, Foxygen leads a growing field of bands mining the past for sonic and emotional inspiration.

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Libby’s First Mixtape//a perfectly split wishbone//November 2013

Libby’s First Mixtape is an ongoing series of music mixes I make for my younger sister. Her name is Libby. The genesis of this series dates back to roughly 2005. Since then I’ve been putting these mixes together on a 4-6 week basis, give or take. Listen along via Spotify through the link at the bottom of the post.

perfectly_split_wishbone

As an act of reconciliation for the timeless symbol of sibling rivalry I present for your consideration: a perfectly split wishbone. Last time, I was in full blown nostalgia mode, sorting through a season’s worth of musical discoveries that dovetailed nicely with my experience of falling in love during the picturesque beauty and intolerable humidity of the western Vermont summer. This time around I’m (relatively) all caught up with the late fall releases many of which straddle the boundaries of pop and experiment.  Continue reading