Each year on this date I bring you a list of my favorite songs of the year so far. This has been a terrific year for new music to this point, with great bands and artists releasing new work at a break-neck pace. These 10 songs have caught my attention the most of all. Here they are in alphabetical order by artist. Enjoy.
CYMBALS – “THE NATURAL WORLD”
The way we consume music in 2013 is a pretty cool thing. CYMBALS is a band I discovered through an indie music torrent and instantly fell in love with their world-beating synth-dance number released in January called “The Natural World.” They’re from London, aren’t famous at all, don’t have an album yet and you can find most of the music they’ve made through their Facebook page. But in this one song they’re able to conjure a sound all their own out of a genre considered by many to be played out at this point and leave an impression on a music fan half a world away. It’s exciting, danceable, enjoyable and memorable all at once. “We can hear the passing of time,” they sing, “And the sound of us in your mind.” You won’t want this sound out of your mind once you hear it.
FOALS – “BAD HABIT”
Foals has grown into one of the most reliable indie rock acts out there, drawing influence from hard rock, ambient and mathy styles alike. They’ve managed to cultivate a worldwide fanbase beyond their English homeland where they’re considered demi-gods. Holy Fire may wind up their most popular album, if not always their most consistent. The first four tracks on the February release are knockouts, culminating in the beauty of “Bad Habit.” It’s familiar territory for Yannis Philippakis and his cohorts as I’ve heard many comparisons to Total Life Forever’s “This Orient.” But “Bad Habit” goes further, taking Philippakis’ already-soaring voice to new heights of longing. And there’s so much to long for here: a wall of guitar sounds, complicated drumming patterns, mountains of arpeggios among the guitar licks. Philippakis wants his bad habit bad, and you can’t help but feel that longing with each listen.
HAIM – “FALLING”
If you haven’t heard of Haim yet, trust me, you will. Like CYMBALS, they don’t have an album to their credit, but the band comprised of three California sisters all aged 27 or younger has one of the most fully-formed, dramatic pop songs I’ve heard in years with “Falling.” This could be a hit in any era since the mid-’70s, and the one band I’ve heard them compared to most is Fleetwood Mac. If you’ve spent any length of time discussing music with me, you probably know I don’t care for Fleetwood Mac. While the similarities didn’t hit me at first, the way the Haim sisters sing is indeed consistent with the deep vocals of Christine McVie, whom I’ve always preferred to the other singer in that band. Haim would be lucky to have half the success of their ’70s predecessors. But with more songs like “Falling,” I wouldn’t rule it out.
JIMMY EAT WORLD – “APPRECIATION”
So, full disclosure for those who don’t know: Jimmy Eat World is one of few bands I have difficulty writing about, or even thinking about, objectively. That’s because they’ve been my favorite band going on 11 years now. Every three years or so they come out with a new album and I love it without much condition. A few weeks ago they made my year by releasing Damage, their most stripped-down effort in recent history. The kick-off track, “Appreciation,” is my favorite of the 10 tracks on the album, at least right now, and represents so much of what I love about these four guys from Arizona. It contains their signature huge guitar riffs, power chord smashes, chime-like harmonic licks in the choruses, solid Zach Lind drumming and, of course, the heartfelt lyrics and vocals of Jim Adkins, the force that has kept Jimmy Eat World building, boxing and carrying on for two decades.
LOCAL NATIVES – “COLOMBIA”
I first got to know the music of California indie rockers Local Natives in 2010 when their debut Gorilla Manor and top track “Wide Eyes” consumed my summer. After their equally-tremendous follow-up Hummingbird was unleashed in January, I got to actually know the guys in Local Natives a little bit, spending time with them after their Boston show. They’re good dudes and their success continues to expand with more exposure. While Hummingbird doesn’t have a song as immediately memorable as “Wide Eyes,” it does have some great ones, none better than Kelcey Ayer’s gorgeous ballad “Colombia.” A streak of sadness permeates much of Hummingbird and it comes to a head on “Colombia,” a song Ayer wrote about losing his mother. His constant questioning (“Am I loving enough?”) and the ever-rising string arrangement give the song an extra emotional punch. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to write “Colombia.” The results are undeniably powerful.
MY BLOODY VALENTINE – “SHE FOUND NOW”
On a cold February Saturday night, My Bloody Valentine, the hugely influential Irish band responsible for 1991’s utterly perfect Loveless, awoke from a 22-year slumber and released m b v. What these shoegaze pioneers produced was worth the wait just for the first song on the record. “she found now” is the younger cousin of Loveless classic “Sometimes” except “she found now” is more sparse, more ethereal, more breathless and airy and warm. So many of MBV’s hallmarks return: the soft/loud, light/heavy dynamics; unintelligible yet moving vocals from mastermind Kevin Shields and what could very well be dozens of guitar tracks making up the entirety of the music. Would it be surprising if this was one of the tracks Shields worked on for the better part of the last two decades? It’d be appropriate if it took so long, because I could certainly listen to it forever.
THE NATIONAL – “SEA OF LOVE”
While Jimmy Eat World is my favorite band, it’s key to make a distinction: I actually think the best band in the world right now is the National and I know I can’t be alone. They returned in May with Trouble Will Find Me, another terrific installment in their already rock-solid catalogue. It’s not easy to come up with one standout track, but I’m going with “Sea of Love,” which rocks incredibly hard and could possibly fit on their earlier albums like Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers and Alligator. (Confession: I had a very meta-moment recently where I listened to this song while driving through Harvard. I swear it wasn’t on purpose. Listen to the lyrics.) It’s one of few recent National songs that really chugs along, carried by the always-outstanding drumming of Bryan Devendorf and the shouts of Matt Berninger. It’s even got some call-and-response vocals from the Dessner twins and freakin’ harmonica! What more can you ask from the best band going?
PHOENIX – “TRYING TO BE COOL”
I considered writing this entire part in French, the native tongue of these indie rock superstars, but figured I’d spare you my rusty skills. Phoenix took a lengthy hiatus after 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix launched them into worldwide recognition but came back this year with Bankrupt!, a much different but still strong effort. More prevalent on this release are synthesizers and mechanized percussion, and that’s hugely evident on “Trying To Be Cool,” the centerpiece of Bankrupt! Considering how heavy the groove is here, I can’t imagine it takes much effort for Thomas Mars and his brethren to be cool as the title suggests. There’s a couple strong breakdowns, a very distinctive guitar sound and Mars’ deep croon keeping the mood set throughout. In short, c’est magnifique. OK, I guess I couldn’t help myself.
UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA – “ONE AT A TIME”
The Ruban Nielson-led power trio Unknown Mortal Orchestra has come a long way in a short period of time, highlighting how rapidly the internet and word-of-mouth mediums can catapult a project to indie fame. From a truly unknown demo blowing up to the stage at Fallon under three years later, UMO have gained their notoriety on the back of Nielson’s badass, funky guitar style. And nowhere is that funk more present on their aptly-titled second album II than “One at a Time,” a short, energetic dynamo with a heavy groove and enough wah-wah guitar sounds to fill an entire album’s worth of material. That’s not taking anything away from the other elements of UMO, with inventive bass playing by Jake Portrait and a killer drum performance by the underrated Riley Geare. And those horns late in the action add a perfect touch to the throwback sensibility of “One at a Time.”
VAMPIRE WEEKEND – “HANNAH HUNT”
Speaking of bands that have come a long way, I submit for your consideration the case of Ezra Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij’s Vampire Weekend. The group many love to hate have kicked into another gear on this year’s Modern Vampires of the City. Gone are many of the treble-ish guitar licks and Afro-pop beats that sustained their signature sound. In their place are varied, more mature notes like those of Modern Vampire‘s show-stopping mid-album wonder “Hannah Hunt,” seemingly about the end of a relationship on a cross-country trip. There’s a shocking amount of restraint early as Koenig sings low amidst quiet bass and piano keys. Then about two-thirds through, drummer Chris Tomson bashes his snare and the song opens up, with Koenig doing something we’ve seldom heard to this point in his career. He yells. “If I can’t trust you then dammit Hannah / There’s no future, there’s no answer,” he belts in an explosion of emotion. This type of naked expression isn’t heard enough in the annals of popular indie these days.