The Year In Music: Tracks Pt. 5

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

Spoon | “Inside Out”

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

St. Vincent | “Severed Crossed Fingers”

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

Sturgill Simpson | “Turtles All The Way Down”

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

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

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

tUnE-yArDs | “Real Thing”

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

TV on the Radio | “Lazerray”

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

Vince Staples | “Hands Up”

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

The War on Drugs | “Red Eyes”

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

Wild Beasts | “Wanderlust”

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

Woods | “Moving to the Left”

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

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The Year In Music: Tracks Pt. 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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