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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Reflections: Kanye West at TD Garden

KANYE@GARDEN

To begin, there was a mountain. But you probably already knew that. Still, it was the only thing I was aware of going into it. If you use the internet and have a pulse, it’s been pretty hard to avoid Kanye West-related news recently. And by recently I mean for the better part of the past decade. Naturally things reached a freakish fervor when he dropped Yeezus on the world with a lack of ceremony fitting the raw beatscape and nightmarish imagery it contains. Things went real apocalyptic when tour dates were announced. The tour was promoted as Kanye’s first solo tour in five years. The last one was the Glow In The Dark Tour for the critically undervalued 808s and Heartbreak (2008),  the undeniable black sheep of West’s prolific output. I regrettably missed those performances and abstained from the Watch The Throne tour a few years later. Somewhere along the way in the mid-2000s, while I was still in high school, West was supposed to play a show in Gilford, NH which he cancelled because, well, it was in New Hampshire. Nobody was terribly surprised. Continue reading