It’s July 1, so that means it’s time for my list of my favorite songs of the year as we hit the midway point. It’s been a great year so far, with more and more artists old and new making an impact. These 10 songs have caught my attention the most of all. Here they are in alphabetical order by artist. Enjoy.
THE BLACK KEYS – “GOTTA GET AWAY”
The new album from Black Keys, who quickly became one of the biggest bands in the world after nearly a decade of obscurity, is a letdown. Bands are entitled to clunkers every now and then and I hope Turn Blue, which is overpopulated with mid-tempo rockers reminiscent of recent Kings of Leon albums, is just a bump in the road for this immensely well-regarded duo. There are a few bright spots, none brighter than closer “Gotta Get Away.” The three-minute rocker has an air of summer kick-assery that arrived just in time for warm weather this year. It’s definitely a roll-down-the-windows-and-shout-the-lyrics-whilst-not-caring-if-anyone-sees kind of jam. Dan Auerbach sings about getting the hell away from a bad lover over terrific licks and throwback Hammond organ tones. If only the rest of Turn Blue was half as awesome as “Gotta Get Away.”
BOMBAY BICYCLE CLUB – “LUNA”
I appreciate bands willing to take a chance. Sometimes it works, sometimes it fails. For Bombay Bicycle Club, whose critical breakout A Different Kind of Fix is undoubtedly one of my favorite albums of the last five years, they took their indie rock stylings in a direction that included sampling, electronica and world music on So Long, See You Tomorrow. Lead singer Jack Steadman, taking the controls for the first time as producer, did masterful work especially on the album’s standout track “Luna.” With tribal rhythms, voices from around the world, an outstanding bass line by Ed Nash, and a general sense of adventure, “Luna” is the London band’s most ambitious and daring indie-pop effort to date and they succeed with flying colors. A great song can make you feel like you’re going on a journey, and I’m ecstatic these guys took a chance on the journey of “Luna.”
CYMBALS – “EROSION”
During a year that saw new music from the likes of the National, Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, My Bloody Valentine, Arctic Monkeys and so many others, my favorite song of the year came from a little-known London band called CYMBALS who produced the awesomely-gripping dance rocker “The Natural World.” They followed up that gem with an album full of excellent songs on The Age of Fracture. The best of the non-“Natural World” bunch is “Erosion,” a sprawling wonder tying together many of CYMBALS’ most obvious influences, including ‘80s-era sounds from the Cure, New Order and Depeche Mode. The lyrics from Jack Cleverly (what a great name) present the speaker as a metaphorical ocean, eroding away the bad feelings from a failed relationship. “I’m getting over this thing,” he signs, while the synths and high-pitched guitars squeal behind his Robert Smith-intoned vocals.
DUM DUM GIRLS – “ARE YOU OKAY?”
Behind the velvety soft voice, poignant lyrics and accessible guitar strums of lead singer Dee Dee, Dum Dum Girls are a personal favorite of mine among unheralded indie rock bands. Each of their recent releases has contained at least one song I couldn’t listen to enough and they continued that trend in 2014. On Too True, the Girls took a more poppy turn and released my favorite pop-rock song of the year so far in album centerpiece “Are You Okay?” Dee Dee channels the artistic pathos and feel of Tom Petty at his most laid-back here. Many different popular ’80s and ‘90s musical styles have returned to vogue recently, but I can’t recall any other band taking on one of that era’s most successful rock songsters in Petty. Dee Dee goes for it and the results are beyond worthy.
EAGULLS – “TOUGH LUCK”
If you haven’t heard much from the cleverly-named Eagulls (no Don Henley need apply, thankfully) to this point, you probably will. That’s not because they’re going to be hugely popular. They’re just really, really, loud. The lads from Leeds who all look so different that I highly doubt they hang out together much offstage are taking the post-punk indie rock world by storm with a sound that combines early Cure at their most hardcore and the Clash at their most angry. “Tough Luck” is my favorite track from their self-titled debut, jamming along at a breakneck pace while lead singer George Mitchell (not THAT George Mitchell) doesn’t sing as much as he shouts the lyrics. I love the 80s-ish guitar fills throughout that sound like they were doused with Aquanet. I don’t know what the future will hold for Eagulls. I just know it will probably involve earplugs.
JACK WHITE – “LAZARETTO”
Jack White is settling nicely into the fourth act of his fantastic career as one of modern rock’s preeminent visionaries. Following his legendary run in the White Stripes and side dalliances with the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather, White is finally just himself and doing a great job differentiating his solo work from his previous incarnations. That continues on Lazaretto, with the title track lead single standing out strongest to me. Here we get White exploring a great groove and getting downright funky in spots, something we haven’t heard much from him through the years. With fuzzy guitar riffs and a piercing solo, drumming Meg White could never pull off, utilizing rare synthesizers (for White) and even tossing in an out-of-nowhere fiddle solo, Jack White blazes a new, fun trail with the best parts of “Lazaretto.” Sometimes fourth acts can surprise you.
THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART – “BEAUTIFUL YOU”
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart returned in April with a revamped lineup and their first new album in three years, Days of Abandon. Each of their three albums carries a different tenor of indie pop wonderfulness from leader Kip Berman and while Days of Abandon has plenty of the sugary 90s-infused clean-guitar rock heard on 2011’s Belong, the band really hits its stride on several softer tunes this time around. My favorite is the longingly amazing “Beautiful You.” Berman has clearly grown up some with his lyrics, imploring his subject in this song that maybe they aren’t as young as they think they are. But there’s still room for falling in love. “So far from me / Still all I need / Is you / Beautiful you,” he sings over that perfect little riff that runs through the song. Call me a softy, but these guys can sure write a great song.
REAL ESTATE – “CRIME”
One of the most unassailable bands going today are New Jersey jangle-rock masters Real Estate. Creative forces Martin Courtney, Mark Mondanile and Alex Bleeker are the core of a band that will surprise you with their chops and wow you with their sounds. They’ve reached their highest peak as a band on this year’s Atlas, with “Crime” possibly their the best song to date. Everything works here with such fluidity and harmony, between Courtney’s clean chords, Mondanile’s tender arpeggios, the perfectly sparse rhythm section and a guitar solo befitting its chill nature. It reminds me of an island in the sun and being “so drunk” in the August sun as well. “I remember when / This all felt like pretend,” Courtney coos midway through. A song this outstanding can sometimes feel like pretend. But this time, as Courtney once sang in one of Real Estate’s past greats, it’s real.
ST. VINCENT – “REGRET”
Annie Clark probably doesn’t get as much attention as she deserves. Four albums into her career under the moniker St. Vincent, Clark keeps progressing as an eclectic virtuoso who learned at the feet of Sufjan Stevens, the Polyphonic Spree and David Byrne. Seeing her touring with Byrne a few years ago was a revelation, stealing the attention with her performing, singing and guitar-playing. Her eponymous fourth album contains several strong rockers, none better than “Regret,” which draws from her Byrne/Bowie influences. There are heavenly choruses, with acoustic guitars sounding like harps. There are heavily distorted guitar riff breaks that feel like jagged edges amongst the beauty. And then there is the voice, one of the best going in rock right now, switching between dirty and clean sounds, carrying the day. “Regret” hopefully will contribute to Clark’s emergence from indie darling to mainstream force.
THE WAR ON DRUGS – “BURNING”
Choosing one song from the War on Drugs’ newest album, Lost in the Dream, for this list was tough. I reserve the right to change my mind on what will make my year-end list, because at least half the songs were worthy from this phenomenal album where leader Adam Granduciel culls the finest ‘80s work of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. I chose “Burning” for its grandeur, its ambition and its success. It’s in a perfect spot on the album, just before the closers and opens with building synth notes before exploding in a maelstrom of ‘80s-rock tinged euphoria. Amidst the triumph is despair. During the second verse, he wails “When you release me from your heart again / I’m just a burning man, trying to keep the ship / From turning over again.” Granduciel is a broken hero on a last chance power drive and while the highway may be jammed with many other similarly talented artists, “Burning” helps him, his band and this great album stand out.