LISTS, MUSIC

LIST: My 10 Favorite Albums of 2018

After posting my favorite songs of 2018, I’m now ready to unveil my 10 favorite albums from another outstanding year of new music. For your reference, here are my favorite albums lists from 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Before I get to my long-form thoughts on the 10 best albums I heard this year, here are albums 20 through 11 on my list, accompanied by one song from each.

20. Blood Orange Negro Swan (“Saint”)

19. Robyn – Honey (“Honey”)

18. Kurt Vile – Bottle It In (“Loading Zones”)

17. Big Red Machine – Big Red Machine (“Gratitude”)

16. Hop Along – Bark Your Head Off, Dog (“How Simple”)

15. Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino (“Star Treatment”)

14. Wild Nothing – Indigo (“Partners In Motion”)

13. Flasher – Constant Image (“Pressure”)

12. Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel (“Nameless, Faceless”)

11. Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy (“Nervous Young Inhumans”)

Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2018:

mitskibethecowboy10. Mitski – Be the Cowboy

People loved Mitski’s last record, Puberty 2, but for some reason I couldn’t get into it. That was not this case with this year’s Be the Cowboy, a stunning treatise that flips gender-based tropes on its ear and puts toxic masculinity in its rightful place. These songs are statements from the ever-talented Mitski Miyawaki, spanning all kinds of genres and never losing its pace across a record that just explodes over 32 minutes. My favorite track here is the disco-flavored jaunt “Nobody,” where Mitski’s isolation sounds downright danceable. Be the Cowboy puts Mitski in league with fellow indie iconoclasts like St. Vincent in overall inventiveness and amazingness.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever_ Hope Downs9. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Hope Downs

The five Aussie dudes who make up Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever play with an unbelievable amount of energy at their live shows. It’s an energy that served them well on their full-length debut this year, Hope Downs. These songs are overflowing with hooks, riffs and licks from their three-guitar attack, with none better than the uber-prescient “Mainland,” a song that doubles as an endorphin-rush rocker that also deals with immigrant hardships. They’re a fun band who made an endlessly fun record. Also, if you feel as icky as I have about continuing to listen to Real Estate, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever is a more than adequate substitute.

320x3208. Kississippi – Sunset Blush

Philadelphia has become something of an indie rock Mecca these last few years; it probably has something to do with the cost of rents in Brooklyn. What started with the War on Drugs and Kurt Vile developed into blossomings for Waxahatchee and Sheer Mag and now Kississippi, a tremendously promising rock band led by Zoe Allaire Reynolds. On her full-length debut, Sunset Blush, Reynolds chronicles the journey of self-discovery across 10 standout tracks with none better than the cutting “Cut Yr Teeth,” a jam Reynolds says is her fighting back against the people who held her back for years. Now that Kississippi is out there, nothing should ever hold Reynolds back again.

Hatchie_ Sugar & Spice EP7. Hatchie – Sugar & Spice EP

I typically haven’t considered EPs for this list in the past, but two were so good in 2018 I couldn’t deny them spots. The first you’ll read about comes from Australian newcomer Harriette Pilbeam and her indie pop outfit Hatchie. Across five songs in a brisk 19 minutes, Pilbeam and her crew weave tales of love on Sugar & Spice against sugary sweet guitars and synths and Pilbeam’s multi-layered vocal stylings. It doesn’t get any more melodic and blissful than what she does on “Sure,” “Sleep” and “Sugar & Spice” and more longing and beautiful than her efforts on “Try” and “Bad Guy.” I can’t to hear what Pilbeam can do across a whole album.

Golden hour Kacey Musgraves6. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

I love music. However, for most of my life, I’ve consistently held scorn for just one kind of music: the formulaic and brainless country drivel that’s been churned out of Nashville for decades now. I like a lot of stuff you’d call country, but just don’t play me anything you’d hear on a modern country radio station. So, I was thrilled this year when what was ostensibly a country record scored massive crossover appeal AND turned out to be awesome. Kacey Musgraves flipped those decades of formula on its head with Golden Hour, a daring and richly successful venture. “Lonely Weekend,” “Butterflies” and “Love is a Wild Thing” take new spins on old ideas. “Space Cowboy” is one of the most cleverly-written breakup songs I’ve ever heard. “High Horse” is a genius dance track that doesn’t lose its country roots. Musgraves opened a new world with Golden Hour, one I’m so glad exists.

Soccer Mommy5. Soccer Mommy – Clean

I do wonder if someday, perhaps very soon, 20-year-old Sophie Allison will regret naming her band Soccer Mommy. The quality of the name of the band thankfully has nothing to do with the quality of the band itself. On her studio debut, Clean, Allison displays outstanding songwriting chops across a varied and diverse collection of melodic guitar rock tunes. There’s the breezy and fun “Last Girl,” the contemplative ballad “Blossom (Wasting All My Time),” the vitriolic fervor of the Local Natives-tinged “Your Dog” and the Liz Phair-inspired fare of “Skin” among the highlights. On standout “Cool,” she imagines herself as a high school badass (“I want to be that cool”) amidst rollicking guitar on a song that crackles before whomping to a downbeat finish. If you can get beyond the name, there’s so much to like when it comes to Soccer Mommy. Allison is just finding her stride with Clean.

boygenius_st4. Boygenius – Boygenius EP

For a certain segment of the music-loving population, the emergence of Boygenius this year more than qualifies as a supergroup in today’s landscape. Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus are three insanely-talented singer/songwriter/guitarists, all under 25 with disparate but connecting styles. They recorded their self-titled EP in four days in LA earlier this year and toured this fall, closing each show with their songs blending Dacus’ unforgiving guitar rock, Baker’s contemplative and emotive renderings and Bridgers’ folksy, humorous sensibilities. The result is a reckoning of immense power, leaving a trail of unworthy subjects in its wake. “Me & My Dog,” a Bridgers-led tour de force, examines a failed relationship from start to finish; the Dacus-helmed “Bite the Hand” pulls no punches with a former lover while Baker and Bridgers harmonize; Baker’s “Stay Down” brings her signature emotionality to a song where she observes “I look at you / And you look at a screen.” The biggest collaboration here is the searing, visceral “Salt in the Wound,” a true put-down of the music industry (“Trick after trick / I make the magic / And you unrelentingly ask for the secret”) where all three take the lead and amidst a maelstrom of sounds there’s a ripping solo from Baker. There’s still room for softness, with the three idyllically wishing for an escape to “Ketchum, ID” on the acoustic final track. I hope beyond all hopes these three artists find time to continue making music together. But if not, this EP is a gift certain to age well.

Lucy Dacus_ Historian3. Lucy Dacus – Historian

Lucy Dacus returned to the indie consciousness late last year when “Night Shift,” the first single from her second full-length album Historian, popped up online. Her debut, 2016’s No Burden, was a solid effort pointing towards something more for her as a guitarist, songwriter and singer. With “Night Shift,” it was immediately obvious she’d arrived at “something more.” The track builds behind Dacus’ matter-of-fact lyrics about a former companion. But, midway through, things shift: guitars and cymbals crash while her warm voice maintains composure. In the last chorus, she unleashes a chill-inducing wail, eviscerating her ex in memorable terms. “Night Shift” wound up being the first song on Historian and sets the scene for this incredible effort by Dacus, a record dealing at different turns with loss, heartache, alienation, how relationships evolve and how people change. On “Nonbeliever,” Dacus recounts a friend who left her hometown in search of something more. “If you find what you’ve been looking for / Write us a letter and tell us what it is / Everybody else looks like they figured it out.” On the expertly-crafted penultimate track “Pillar of Truth,” Dacus sets the death of her grandmother against an incredible rock song. “I’m weak looking at you / A pillar of truth / Turning to dust.” Later on her voice breaks again, bringing her grief and pain fully to bear. This is heady stuff for Dacus, and the stuff that makes Historian such a great album. I’m so excited to see her once again go for “something more” next time.

Beach House_72. Beach House – 7

I first became aware of Beach House around the release of Teen Dream in 2010. I was drawn immediately to Victoria Legrand’s room-filling voice and evocative synthesizers and Alex Scally’s spellbinding guitar work. You feel their best songs right in your chest. For the last 10 years or so, the term “dream pop” has been bandied about so much it’s lost any semblance of meaning. Basically, any band that sounds like My Bloody Valentine with synthesizers gets labeled as dream pop. But to me, any dream pop act gets stacked up to the best work of Beach House and ultimately has paled to what they’ve done. Despite this, the two albums they released in 2015, Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars, represented a slight creative lull for Legrand and Scally. It sounded like they were getting bored with their formula. So, for their seventh album, appropriately titled 7, Beach House razed their house to the studs and started over. They took nearly a full year to perfect 7 and throwing out old recording rules allowed them to expand their sound in creative, unexpected and fully rewarding ways from start to finish. There’s the winding snyth romp of “Dive,” the dramatic and charging “Dark Spring,” the creeping dread of “Lemon Glow,” the dreamy bliss of “Woo” and the unforgettable twists and turns of “Drunk in LA.” It’s as successful a reinvention of any band in recent times. Amazingly, a beloved, established indie rock band stripped down their sound to almost nothing, built something completely new that only they could have done and released probably the best album of their career. Guys, this kind of thing just doesn’t happen anymore. Bands don’t, or in most instances can’t, operate this way, not in 2018. We’re so much better for bands like Beach House, willing to take bold chances.

snailmail21. Snail Mail – Lush

Lindsey Jordan, the lead singer, guitarist and creative force behind Baltimore-based Snail Mail, was born 10 months before the Patriots drafted Tom Brady. Whenever you’re done feeling old, I want to tell you about Jordan’s superlative debut album, Lush. Buzz started to build around Jordan and her guitar pop cohorts this spring with the release of a couple advance singles and that buzz still hasn’t subsided. Her skills on guitar are extremely advanced and her gnarly voice emits both a youthful innocence and a wiseness beyond her years. There’s no telling what she’ll accomplish. But for now, we’re just seeing the beginning with Lush. There’s a power here that you can feel on the finger-picked wonder of “Let’s Find An Out,” the longing aching of “Stick” and “Anytime,” the tear-inducing emotions of “Deep Sea” and the indie guitar brilliance of “Heat Wave.” These are songs with something to say beyond teenage angst and heartache. It’s art, on a deep level. As successful as this album is as a whole, it’s the second track that stands out most. “Pristine” comes across with its rolling opening guitar line, crashing chorus cymbals, Jordan’s devastating lyrics about a love never maintained and an outro with blissful, powerful guitar stylings. She’s dealing with perhaps her first taste of heartbreak, and truly understanding her feelings for the first time in her life. It’s breathtaking to witness. “Don’t you like me for me? / Is there any feeling better than coming clean?” She’s finding her way, in her own way, and she found the right way with “Pristine.” After so many listens to Lush, I still can’t believe someone so young could do something so complete, so emotionally-cutting, so perfectly-crafted. It’s the type of record that makes you get down on your knees and thank your higher power of choice that there are still kids who want to make great rock records, who have ambition to be something great and aren’t afraid to show it, and who despite only knowing all the bullshit awful things that have happened in the world this century aren’t so jaded and downtrodden that they can still make art like Lush.

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LISTS, MUSIC

LIST: My 25 Favorite Songs of 2018

All year, I keep track of my favorite music and now that it’s December, I’m ready to share with you what made the cut for my favorites of the year, starting with my 25 favorite songs of 2018.

I’ll let the songs speak for themselves in this post and reserve longer thoughts for my 10 favorite albums post later this month.

I considered songs for this list that had any kind of release (be it on a single or an album) in 2018. And, as always, I only included one song per primary artist to ensure no one artist dominated the list.

Here are my favorite songs lists for 2012201320142015, 2016 and 2017.

Lastly, I created a Spotify playlist of these songs here and embedded at the bottom for your listening pleasure (the playlist is meant to be listened to as a 25-1 countdown, despite the numbers next to each song).

Enjoy these awesome songs and stay tuned for my albums post.

25. SMASHING PUMPKINS – “SILVERY SOMETIMES (GHOSTS)”

24. CHVRCHES – “GET OUT”

23. DAVID BYRNE – “EVERYBODY’S COMING TO MY HOUSE”

22. BIG RED MACHINE – “I WON’T RUN FROM IT”

21. ARCTIC MONKEYS – “FOUR OUT OF FIVE”

20. ROBYN – “MISSING U”

19. UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA – “HUNNYBEE”

18. JANELLE MONAE – “MAKE ME FEEL”

17. JAY SOM – “PIROUETTE”

16. COURTNEY BARNETT – “CITY LOOKS PRETTY”

15. FLASHER – “MATERIAL”

14. WILD NOTHING – “LETTING GO”

13. CAR SEAT HEADREST – “BEACH LIFE-IN-DEATH”

12. KACEY MUSGRAVES – “BUTTERFLIES”

11. JOHN MAYER – “NEW LIGHT”

10. MITSKI – “NOBODY”

9. KISSISSIPPI – “CUT YR TEETH”

8. SOCCER MOMMY – “COOL”

7. JIMMY EAT WORLD – “HALF HEART”

6. HATCIE – “SUGAR & SPICE”

5. LUCY DACUS – “PILLAR OF TRUTH”

4. BEACH HOUSE – “DIVE”

3. ROLLING BLACKOUTS COASTAL FEVER – “MAINLAND”

2. BOYGENIUS – “SALT IN THE WOUND”

1. SNAIL MAIL – “PRISTINE”

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LISTS

LIST: My 10 Favorite Albums of 2012

I recently shared with you my list for my top 20 favorite songs of 2012 and I’m now pleased to share write-ups for my top 10 favorite albums of the year. Before I get to those, here are albums 20 to 11 on my list, with one song accompanying each album.

20. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Psychedelic Pill (“Psychedelic Pill”)

19. Divine Fits: A Thing Called Divine Fits (“Would That Not Be Nice”)

18. Dave Matthews Band: Away From the World (“Belly Belly Nice”)

17. Jack White: Blunderbuss (“Sixteen Saltines”)

16. Smashing Pumpkins: Oceania (“The Celestials”)

15. Sleigh Bells: Reign of Terror (“Comeback Kid”)

14. The Killers: Battle Born (“Runaways”)

13. John Mayer: Born and Raised (“A Face to Call Home”)

12. Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d city (“Swimming Pools (Drank)”)

11. Chromatics: Kill For Love (“Kill For Love”)

Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2012.

hotchip10. Hot Chip: In Our Heads

There’s no question the five guys in Hot Chip are insanely talented. They’re constantly trading instruments during their live show, weaving tremendous tunes through electronic innovation and danceable funkiness. On In Our Heads, their immensely fun fifth album, the Brits led by Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard pick up where they left off with 2010’s One Life Stand. There’s the driving “How Do You Do,” the 80’s-synth pulse of “Don’t Deny Your Heart,” the dance floor jam of “Night And Day,” the longing depth of “Look At Where We Are” and “Now There Is Nothing.” In Our Heads finds its highest inspiration in two songs checking it at over seven minutes. The harshly intense “Flutes” is an opus with a ferocity sometimes bordering on insane (“Nothing’s making sense in my brain”). It has no shortage of different sounds (synths, bass, frickin’ marimbas!), essentially encapsulating everything great about Hot Chip in one song. And the penultimate “Let Me Be Him” is a joyous builder with enough hey-ohhhs to last all of 2012. Throw in bird sound effects and beautiful coos from Taylor during the dénouement and you’ve got a brilliant cap to a fantastic record.

japandroids

9. Japandroids: Celebration Rock

Celebration Rock should have never happened. Brian King and David Prowse’s two-piece Vancouver garage punk outfit Japandroids made their first album, Post-Nothing, as a way to kiss off their lack of success before going their separate ways. Then a funny thing happened: They got indie-huge, stayed together, toured and made Celebration Rock. And the results are nothing short of exhilarating. It’s hard to know if the guys in Japandroids are great musicians. King doesn’t sing so much as he shouts and his guitar playing is far from technical. But, man, do they ever get after it, and the songs on Celebration Rock are just about that: yelling like hell to the heavens on “The Nights of Wine and Roses,” loving with legendary fire on “Continuous Thunder,” colliding hearts on “Fire’s Highway,” feeling a blitzkrieg love with a Roman candle kiss on “Adrenaline Nightshift” and telling ‘em all to go to hell on “The House That Heaven Built.” These are songs about living each day, and night, like it’s your last and not one part of this album feels ironic. “Remember that night when you were already in bed / Said ‘fuck it,’ got up and drank with me instead?” King screams on “Younger Us.” For a band that came so close to dying, few albums in recent years have been as full of life as Celebration Rock.

twodoorcc

8. Two Door Cinema Club: Beacon

So Beacon has friggin’ terrible cover art. Comically bad. However, that shouldn’t deter you from diving deep into the sophomore offering from Northern Irish pop rock favorite sons Two Door Cinema Club. Their debut, Tourist History, probably has a few better songs than Beacon, but there’s a sense of polish, maturity and songwriting development evident here. Whereas Tourist History had songs with grating choruses like “Do You Want It All” and “This Is The Life,” that has been sonically cleansed from Beacon, replaced with better tracks like winding opener “Next Year,” dance-beat charged “Handshake,” and hard-rocking “Wake Up.” There are touches of math-rock influence throughout the album including on tracks like “Pyramid.” Lead singer Alex Trimble has grown significantly as a vocalist, his work best displayed on Beacon’s more tender moments like “The World Is Watching (With Valentina)” and “Settle.” Trimble and his mates hit their height on their best track to date, lead single “Sleep Alone.” At times sleepy and thoughtful, and at times swift and alive, “Sleep Alone” showcases everything great about Two Door Cinema Club. It’s got their signature mechanized drum beats, about a zillion different melodic guitar licks and a general sense of sadness in the lyrics amongst the giddiness of the sound. “And I may go / To places I have never been to / Just to find / The deepest desires in my mind,” Trimble sings. Two Door has all the makings of a pop band with tremendous appeal and staying power. Now if they could just find someone to make half-way decent cover art, they’d have no issues at all.

tameimpala7. Tame Impala: Lonerism

Perhaps my favorite thing about Tame Impala is that when I listen to their songs, I can close my eyes and imagine I’m listening to long-lost John Lennon demos from 1967. That’s because lead singer Kevin Parker has a voice nearly identical to Lennon and these Australians have crafted a sound capturing the best of psychedelic rock. Their second full-length, Lonerism, is a far more complete effort than their debut, Innerspeaker. With it, Tame Impala created a record following a loose theme evoked by its title. Parker’s subject is a man down on himself, isolated from humanity, questioning everything. “I just don’t know where the hell I belong,” he moans on the rollicking “Mind Mischief.” The album is littered with these kinds of sentiments; hell, one song is even called “Why Won’t They Talk to Me?” Lonerism sees the band branching out a bit from its acid-induced influences and that’s best displayed on the bone-crushing “Elephant,” a Black Sabbath-inspired destroyer. I’ve got two favorites here: the lush, spacey “Music To Walk Home By,” which ends in a maelstrom of gorgeous descending guitar riffs; and the enigmatic and trippy “Apocalypse Dreams.” Seemingly on the brink of collapse for its near-six minute duration, it features some heavy piano, distorted Parker drones and a dramatic ending befitting the centerpiece of this terrific album. “Will I ever get there? / Does it even matter? Do I really need it there?” Lonerism doesn’t provide the answers. But with music this good, do you really want to know?

frankocean6. Frank Ocean: channel ORANGE

R&B isn’t a genre I’ve paid much attention to these last few years, but the hype surrounding Frank Ocean’s debut was something I couldn’t ignore. Perhaps the only non-insane member of Odd Future, Ocean’s songwriting chops are on full display on the expansive channel ORANGE. It’s a lengthy one, with over an hour of material and 17 tracks, but Ocean’s soulful, spirited touch makes it an engaging listen throughout. Slow jams like “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You,” “Sierra Leone,” “Pink Matter” and “Pilot Jones” showcase his range. “Bad Religion” is essentially a ballad, and takes on new meaning after Ocean’s courageous revelation this year. My favorite cut is “Sweet Life,” bursting at the seams with soul and recalling the likes of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Ocean croons from his heart about having it all, but not really having what matters. “My TV ain’t HD,” he laments, “That’s too real.” The most memorable track, however, is probably the near-10 minute wonder “Pyramids,” an ultimately forlorn tale told in several disparate parts, the first detailing Cleopatra and cheetahs on the loose over a club beat, the second slowing to a synthesized dirge and Ocean pining for an, umm, lady of the night? It ends with an uncredited guitar solo from John Mayer, who appears several times on the album. Ocean, unbelievably, just turned 25. Here’s hoping channel ORANGE could just be a scratch on the surface of what’s to come.

theshins5. The Shins: Port of Morrow

Early in my teen years, I discovered something we call classic rock. The Shins’ Port of Morrow, the first album for frontman James Mercer’s outfit in five years, is a brilliant collection both 13-year-old me and 26-year-old me can adore. It’s difficult to categorize the music here as anything but a throwback to the classic rock era. Both in terms of sound and subject matter, listening to Port of Morrow reminds me of listening to Styx and Steve Miller Band songs from the ‘70s on WBLM, Portland’s legendary classic rock station. At the same time, the feeling in Mercer’s words and guitar work hit me right where I was earlier this year when this album came out. While the prospect of an album reminiscent of those bands might not sound enticing, trust me, Mercer is more in tune with Alex Chilton than Glenn Frey here. There’s the wistful sing-along “It’s Only Life” that sees Mercer’s subject trying to find common ground with someone having a tough time; the smooth rocker “No Way Down” that grooves along with great bass and drumming; the Billy Joel-inspired ditty “Fall of ‘82” that’s practically a nostalgia volcano; and the haunting acoustic tones of “September.” Penultimate track “40 Mark Strasse” is a shape-shifter, starting similarly to “September” but eventually morphing into a rocker complete with a creepy keyboard solo. But to me, nothing on the album can match the feeling, vigor and excitement of “Simple Song,” one of my favorite rock songs in years. From the opening organ notes to the final crashing exclamations, Mercer unfolds a love anthem with charging guitar lines that give me chills every time I hear them. “Good thing there’s nothing else in our lives so critical / As this little hole,” he falsettos at the end of each chorus. My favorite lyrics of 2012 come in the final couplet: “Love’s such a delicate thing that we do, with nothing to prove / Which I never knew.” My teen years are long since gone. But Port of Morrow gives me a taste of them with each listen.

grizzlybear4. Grizzly Bear: Shields

It’s hard to listen to Grizzly Bear and not be slightly intimidated. When Veckatimest came out three years ago, I was struck by its refined excellence, but also by a clear air of pretentiousness, like I would need a graduate degree and an affection for Bordeaux to fully appreciate it. This year’s Shields maintains some of that sense but aims higher for imagination. Here’s a band with intelligence, confidence, gravitas and ingenuity, ready to try new things but also keep their general aesthetic in tact. Daniel Rossen and Ed Droste are the driving creative forces, with producer/bassist Chris Taylor and drummer Chris Bear adding their distinctive touches. Rossen’s songs are typically guitar-based and often rocking, like tremendous opener “Sleeping Ute” and the crashing “What’s Wrong.” Droste’s more dramatic, sweepingly earnest sensibilities come out on songs like the aching “The Hunt” and the orchestral “Half Gate.” The best moments on Shields are ones where Rossen and Droste’s powers are shared, with two standouts in particular. “Speak In Rounds” is breathtakingly powerful, building throughout the first two verses on Droste’s quivers with Rossen’s forceful acoustic strumming adding to the suspense. Then it explodes as Rossen takes over for the choruses. The band does a beautiful job painting a picture with their sounds without overdoing it. Later on, “A Simple Answer” represents easily the most fun Grizzly Bear song I’ve heard, for at least its first four minutes. While Rossen pounds away at a bouncy piano line, the choruses are augmented by something that sounds an awful lot like a calliope, which completely fits the tenor of the song. Then, two-thirds through, everything grinds to a halt, with Droste commandeering the song with the best voice in indie rock. Droste has the lead on Shields’ best track “Yet Again,” another sweeping, full-sounding tune with his signature amazing vocals and guitar work that reminds me of Neil Young for reasons that escape me. “Take it all in stride,” the band harmonizes. “Speak, don’t confide / We barely have a case.” After Shields, Grizzly Bear have more than a good case they’re amongst the elite indie acts on Earth.

beachhouse3. Beach House: Bloom

Last year I wrote that M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming was an attempt to synthesize dreams into musical form. This year, the album that comes closest to that effort is Bloom, the gorgeous, gauzy, woozy gem of a fourth album from Baltimore duo Beach House. Their last album, Teen Dream, helped them reach indie big-time, but Bloom is a more complete attempt at refining what should be their signature sound. Between Victoria Legrand’s swooning, languid vocals and synthesizer work and Alex Scally’s deeply melodic guitars, Beach House has one of the more unique sounds out there. Bloom starts off with a Murderer’s Row of three spectacularly crafted dream pop marvels, easily the best opening stretch of any album this year. These songs conjure the start of spring, which also happened to be when Bloom was released. Listening to “Myth,” “Wild” and “Lazuli” back-to-back-to-back should come with a Surgeon General’s warning they may lull you into a soft daze. It makes sense the first words Legrand sings on “Myth” are “drifting in and out.” “Myth” is a mid-tempo thriller, complete with massive vocal breaks and huge guitars. “Wild” picks up the pace ever so slightly, with mechanized drums providing a basis over which Legrand and Scally do their ethereal best. Legrand’s delicate handling of this song’s vocals, especially during the choruses, is breathtaking. “Lazuli,” however, is Beach House’s best accomplishment to date. Its scope is astounding, with two separate movements highlighting a tale of longing, comparing love to a precious, blue stone. “Like no other you can’t be replaced,” Legrand sings over and over as the song beautifully builds to a conclusion, “There’s nothing like lapis lazuli.” I can’t tell you how many times I hit the repeat button on that one this spring. The rest of Bloom may not be as incredible as those first three songs, but there’s more than enough to love: the soft arpeggios and keyboards of “Other People,” the deep, forceful charge of “The Hours,” the energy of “New Year.” On the final two tracks, Legrand and Scally reach new depths, with the piano-driven and fantastically melancholy “On the Sea” and the soft building closer “Irene.” As the latter gains steam, Legrand sings constantly about a “strange paradise.” It might not be strange, but it’s hard to describe Bloom as anything but a dreamy, sonic paradise.

wildnothing2. Wild Nothing: Nocturne

I fell hard for Nocturne, Jack Tatum’s second album as Wild Nothing, over the summer and fall months is because it draws influence from just about every corner of the indie world I presently enjoy. At the same time, Tatum wraps every track in his signature airy vocals and 80s-inspired, dream-poppy energy. According to trusty Wikipedia, a “nocturne” is a musical composition inspired by the night. Without a doubt, Nocturne has a nocturnal feel from beginning to end. The album  Opener “Shadow” is lifted high by string arrangements, a lively bass line and the first of many beautiful melodies heard  on Nocturne. “I’ll go with if you ask me to / But we wouldn’t get too far / Two strangers in the dark,” Tatum sings as his vocals get lost in watery guitars. Later comes the title track, which was my favorite song of 2012. It hit me while listening to  “Nocturne” in November this was the one. It’s not because it’s some brilliant exposition on love and life (the song ends with Tatum singing “You can have me / You can have me” over and over). It’s because that opening drum kick and main descending riff, the one that repeats at the beginning and after the verses, will always remind me of all the things that happened in my life this year. And that’s what good music should do, right? It helps that the song’s bass, drums and general feel are tremendous. That leads to the haunting “Through the Grass,” a song with an Animal Collective-style name that also doesn’t stray too far from that band’s aesthetic. “Only Heather,” the best love song on Nocturne, is rife with jangly, Real Estate-like guitars and weaves a beautiful narrative about that the only girl who “can make me feel this way,” whatever that feeling way be. “This Chain Won’t Break” and “Disappear Always” hit on their general retro efforts, with the latter in particular strongly evoking Britpop sensibilities. They lead into “Paradise,” Nocturne’s dance floor standout. “Paradise” would not seem out of place on recent albums by Cut Copy, with Tatum’s vocals sounding like Cut Copy’s Dan Whitford and by extension the monotone Brits that littered the synthpop landscape of yesteryear. But “Paradise” is Tatum’s own creation and I love how much fun this song gets after the breakdown. Nocturne ends on more wonderfully-crafted dreamy synth beauties, closing with “Rheya,” a hazy jam about a girl you can’t forget no matter how hard you try. Nocturne’s brilliance lies in its effortlessness. While this isn’t the most unique territory for any band in 2012, Tatum commands the dream pop rhealm with ease and comfort, making Nocturne one of the more enjoyable indie albums in years.

passionpit1. Passion Pit: Gossamer

A few years back, an unknown singer named Michael Angelakos wrote a few songs for his then-girlfriend, recorded them and gave them to her as a Valentine’s Day present. Fast forward to 2012 and Angelakos is the leader of one of the biggest indie acts in the world, going from playing basement parties in Allston and Cambridge to filling Madison Square Garden. As I’ve watched Passion Pit grow from a regional act to regularly having their music appear in TV shows and commercials, I often wonder how exactly it happened. But there’s no reason here to overthink it. Angelakos makes absolutely incredible music and that’s why his band caught on so much, and will hopefully continue to grow. Passion Pit’s debut Manners was my favorite album of 2009 and to say I was anticipating great things from a follow-up would be an understatement. Following up a strong debut is one of the hardest tricks to pull in music. Some bands like Vampire Weekend and Sleigh Bells were up to the task, while others like the xx and Best Coast were not in recent years. It only took one listen to Gossamer to allay any fears about where Passion Pit would fall on this. On Gossamer, Passion Pit expands on the electronic and synthy pop range of Manners, reaching new, often-delirious heights. Interestingly enough, the song I like least on Gossamer is “Take a Walk,” the album’s first song and lead single. It’s not to say I don’t like the song, but the lyrics beat you over the head with the story of an immigrant trying to make it in America and the choruses are less than inspired. The album truly gets going with the second track, “I’ll Be Alright,” a dance pop sensation that contains the bleeps and bloops so prevalent on Manners. It’s also the first nod lyrically to the internal strife surrounding Angelakos’ life made public this year. When he sings the title over and over, you want to believe him, but the maelstrom of sounds makes that impossible. Next is the bouncy, undeniably fun “Carried Away,” the most energetic track on Gossamer, recalling the enjoyment of “Little Secrets.” The most unique song on the album is the fourth track, the smooth, R&B jam “Constant Conversations.” It takes a moment to realize this is actually Passion Pit, given the measured pacing. But this is Angelakos at his deepest core, his most revelatory. “I’m just a mess with a name and a price / And now I’m drunker than before they / Told me drinking doesn’t make me nice.” From here the album keep building: the frantic “Mirrored Sea,” containing some of the album’s better backing samples; the sad longing of “On My Way,” where Angelakos name-checks his now-girlfriend Christina, who’s been through a lot with Michael; “Love is Greed” has some of those signature backing chorus vocals heard throughout Passion Pit’s debut. They lead into my favorite song on Gossamer, the triumphant, gigantic “It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy.” This song soars from beginning to end, with Angelakos singing once again about his mental state (“I’m sorry I couldn’t be there / I was tied to a rocking chair”) with the chorus focused on the problems of a relationship (“How am I the only one who sees us fight?” and “It’s not fair / But I’m the only one who seems to care”). It feels like an anthem, but a personal one at the same time. Massive closer “Where We Belong” erupts a few minutes into the proceedings, providing a wonderful end to a gorgeous record. Reading the harrowing details about Angelakos’ personal demons makes it clear Passion Pit may not be around forever. No matter what happens, Passion Pit’s work to date will always hold a special place within me, with Gossamer their titanic achievement.

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LISTS

LIST: My 20 Favorite Songs of 2012

I spend all year keeping track of my favorite new music and with year-end comes my year-end lists. Last year I kept my year-end list of favorite songs to my Twitter account but this year I’m sharing my choices here on the blog.

Because I wrote about several of these at the midway point of 2012 and because I’d rather save my long-form thoughts on the year in music for my favorite albums post, I’m keeping this to just the songs themselves with imbedded YouTube clips.

My criteria: The songs must have been released in some way during the calendar year of 2012 and to ensure no domination by a few artists, I allow just one song per artist/band.

Hope you enjoy, thanks for reading, and stay tuned for my favorite albums of 2012 post coming later this month.

20. JACK WHITE – “SIXTEEN SALTINES”

19. DAVE MATTHEWS BAND – “BELLY BELLY NICE”

18. SLEIGH BELLS – “COMEBACK KID”

17. DIVINE FITS – “WOULD THAT NOT BE NICE”

16. ARCTIC MONKEYS – “R U MINE?”

15. TEAR TALK – “SLEEPWALKING”

14. CHROMATICS – “KILL FOR LOVE”

13. TAME IMPALA – “APOCALYPSE DREAMS”

12. HOT CHIP – “FLUTES”

11. DUM DUM GIRLS – “SEASON IN HELL”

10. JAPANDROIDS – “THE NIGHTS OF WINE AND ROSES”

9. TWO DOOR CINEMA CLUB – “SLEEP ALONE”

8. GRIZZLY BEAR – “YET AGAIN”

7. FRANK OCEAN – “SWEET LIFE”

6. THE KILLERS – “RUNAWAYS”

5. JOHN MAYER – “A FACE TO CALL HOME”

4. THE SHINS – “SIMPLE SONG”

3. PASSION PIT – “IT’S NOT MY FAULT, I’M HAPPY”

2. BEACH HOUSE – “LAZULI”

1. WILD NOTHING – “NOCTURNE”

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LISTS

LIST: My Favorite Songs of 2012 So Far

Last year, I came to you with on this date with my nine favorite songs to that point in 2011. This year, there have been 10 songs released I feel similarly motivated to tell you about, in alphabetical order by artist. Enjoy.

ARCTIC MONKEYS – “R U MINE?” 

As they did with “Leave Before The Lights Come On” after their debut album, Arctic Monkeys unleashed this bone-crusher as a non-album single a few months after the release of Suck It and See. “R U Mine?” is a terrific combination of the Black Sabbath-esque power trips they’ve attempted the last few years and the inescapable energy of their early era. When I hear “R U Mine?” I’m reminded of the pissant teenagers who dominated my college musical tastes. Is this a sign they’re moving away from the melodic Suck explorations, and going back to the angry tones that made them famous more than a half-decade ago? We may know in the coming months.

BEACH HOUSE – “LAZULI” FROM BLOOM

My favorite album so far in 2012 has been this Baltimore dream pop duo’s fourth album, Bloom. The first two songs, “Myth” and “Wild,” are tunes I regard as much as any on this list. But it’s “Lazuli,” the third song and the centerpiece of Bloom‘s knockout opening, that makes me fall deeper in love every time I hear it. It’s clearly defined by its two halves with a shift from the first to the second coming literally in the middle. Following the delicate hums of the first part, we’re whisked away by the soft arpeggios of the latter part. The song just feels huge in every spot. Victoria Legrand’s voice soars everywhere and never sounds better when she hits that refrain: “Like no other you can’t be replaced.” There’ll likely be no other song this year that replaces how I feel about “Lazuli.”

CHROMATICS – “KILL FOR LOVE” FROM KILL FOR LOVE

I was naturally smitten with Chromatics when I fired up their fourth album, Kill For Love, and the first track was a synthed-out cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).” It didn’t hurt that the following title track encapsulated everything great about this release from Johnny Jewel and Ruth Radelet’s group. The pulsating drums, the longing guitar riffs, the breathless vocals, the perfectly-timed synth expressions, the general feeling of weightlessness: It boils down dream pop to its essence, a success for anyone attempting mastery of 2012’s most imitated indie subgenre. Does it make me feel like it’s 1988 all over again? Indeed. Yet, I was two years old then. So “Kill For Love” will have to placate me for now, and I’m fine with that.

HOT CHIP – “FLUTES” FROM IN OUR HEADS

London electronerds Hot Chip have established themselves as one of the most consistent, highly-regarded dance rock groups around. The absolute no-doubt-about-it apex of their fifth album, In Our Heads, is the intense, angry, destructive “Flutes.” Clocking it at over seven minutes, it accomplishes two difficult tasks for any song of its ilk: mixing fiery ferocity with delicious danceability. It builds and builds and builds some more until breaking down just past three minutes in. “All this talk is getting me down,” Alexis Taylor croons. “Nothing’s making sense in my brain.” As if we’re inside that brain, the drama rises up once again. There’s so much going on here, with one voice after another, drums that could be real or mechanized, even an ’80s-inspired marimba sound pops up. It ends somewhat softly, but the point is made. Then you hit the play button again.

JACK WHITE – “SIXTEEN SALTINES” FROM BLUNDERBUSS

Jack White has rarely been about subtlety. On his first solo album, “Sixteen Saltines” represents perhaps his least subtle attempt  ever at ear-bleeding rock. The deafening main riff reminds me of what attracted me to White the first time I heard “Fell In Love With A Girl” 10 summers ago. This is certainly one of those songs that doesn’t require a drawn-out explanation: it rocks, it rocks hard and White clearly doesn’t care about anything here but causing hearing loss. The classic organ tinges behind the bridge riffs, the high-pitched guitar squeals leading up to the end, White practically screaming throughout the entire song: it all fits perfectly into exactly what we expect from White.

JOHN MAYER – “A FACE TO CALL HOME” FROM BORN AND RAISED

Born and Raised is not John Mayer’s best work. My initial disdain for the album has been greatly tempered since that first listen, there are more good songs than poor, however some still make me say, “Shit, this should be a B-side.” Yet I couldn’t possibly say that about the perfect, penultimate “A Face To Call Home.” Alongside two previous Mayer epics, “In Repair” and “Edge of Desire,” “Face” is the third in a Mayer self-examination trilogy. Where “Repair” is about not being together (but getting there), and “Edge” deals with being together but with scared uncertainty, “Face” finds Mayer at his most content while still bringing his incredible blues-rock chops to give the song his signature feel. “Maybe I could stay a while / I’m talking like all of the time.” This isn’t a Mayer we’ve heard before. I always wondered what happy Mayer would sound like. I love the answer.

PASSION PIT – “I’LL BE ALRIGHT” FROM GOSSAMER

In 2009 Passion Pit came out of nowhere with Manners, which doubled as the best debut album I’d heard in years and the album that provided me a turning point as a music fan. Gone were the days when I eschewed sounds made by machines. Michael Angelakos, Nate Donmoyer and the rest turned me on to the magic of electropop. There’s no 2012 album I’m anticipating more than Gossamer, which I can’t believe won’t be out for three more weeks. Lead single “Take A Walk” is tremendous, but it’s the second tune released, the gigantic-sounding “I’ll Be Alright,” that takes me back to the best parts of Manners. The frenetic pace, heavenly Angelakos vocals, squawking samples and out-and-out optimism tells me Passion Pit isn’t skipping a beat with their sophomore effort. I can’t wait to hear more.

THE SHINS – “SIMPLE SONG” FROM PORT OF MORROW

I never really listened to James Mercer’s longtime rock excursion the Shins before the sterling Port of Morrow was released this year. What I found was an album overpopulated with future classic rock radio staples for whenever 2012 earns “classic rock” status.  There probably won’t be such thing as “classic rock radio” when that happens, but I digress. “Simple Song” has become its biggest song, bursting with arena-rock, Dennis DeYoung gravitas. It presents itself as a simple song about love, but it’s not entirely clear it ends well. Mercer successfully trumps up those awkward interactions (“Remember walking a mile to your house / Aglow in the dark / I made a fumbling play for your heart / And the act struck a spark”) we’ve experienced while the guitars jam along. Makes you feel like a teenager again, doesn’t it? That’s what good rock should do.

SLEIGH BELLS – “COMEBACK KID” FROM REIGN OF TERROR

Few indie rock acts have been more polarizing in recent years than Sleigh Bells. I haven’t encountered many people lukewarm on the duo’s scorched-earth style. It’s a love-hate thing and for the most part, it’s been a love thing for me. The finest song on their polished second album is “Comeback Kid,” which hits just about everything we’ve come to expect: Alexis Krauss’ sweet vocals meshed with Derek Miller’s power chords, a wild mess of percussion and a time signature you need a degree in physics to figure out. It manages to be far from predictable while still an easier listen than much of freshman effort Treats. Will they ever be more than a niche indie novelty? Will they ever appeal to more than a sliver of listeners? Will they ever get an actual fucking drummer to play with them live? If they keep making songs like “Comeback Kid,” I don’t care about the answers.

TEAR TALK – “SLEEPWALKING” FROM PORT SUNLIGHT EP

I know pretty much nothing about this band. From what I can tell, they are from Liverpool, they have one EP (which I still haven’t heard in full) and their Facebook page had a robust 172 likes as of Saturday (myself included). I came across this song on an indie rock mix torrent that comes out every month. Finding something worthwhile from an unknown artist on one of those is a trying task, but I unearthed a gem in “Sleepwalking.” Quick down-stroked guitar dominates alongside the reverberated vocals and there’s a terrific deep drum sound that reminds me of Bryan Devendorf’s work on High Violet. I love the fun keyboard line that drives the melody amongst hushed vocals. Sometimes it takes a little digging to find good music. This is one dig that paid off.

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In the second half of the year I’m looking forward to new music from Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors, Dave Matthews Band, the xx, David Byrne & St. Vincent, Two Door Cinema Club and Dum Dum Girls in addition to Passion Pit. It’s shaping up to be a very good year.

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