LISTS, MUSIC

LIST: My 10 Favorite Songs of 2018 So Far

It’s time for my annual July 1 mid-year favorite songs post! There’s already been a ton of great music this year so cutting it down to 10 wasn’t easy.

Below you’ll find YouTube clips of my favorite songs of 2018 so far and an embedded Spotify playlist as well. You can also find that playlist here. The songs are presented in alphabetical order by artist.

Enjoy!

BEACH HOUSE – “DIVE”

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

FLASHER – “MATERIAL”

JIMMY EAT WORLD – “HALF HEART”

JOHN MAYER – “NEW LIGHT”

KACEY MUSGRAVES – “BUTTERFLIES”

LUCY DACUS – “NONBELIEVER”

ROLLING BLACKOUTS COASTAL FEVER – “MAINLAND”

SNAIL MAIL – “PRISTINE”

SOCCER MOMMY – “COOL”

 

Standard
MUSIC

MUSIC: The Half-Decade That Was

With five years nearly down for this decade, I thought I’d share some thoughts about the music that mattered most to me during the five years of 2010 through 2014. There’s certainly been some outstanding music these years and there’s been a lot to digest. I’ve been to many great concerts and come across so many incredible artists through friends, websites like Pitchfork and the A.V. Club and by always keeping my ear to the ground.

This will be something of a hodgepodge of superlatives and random thoughts on these past five years, but at the end I’ll provide lists of my 50 favorite songs, 10 favorite concerts and 10 favorite albums of the past half-decade. These will be presented without much commentary since you can read what I’ve had to say about most of these artists and their work in other places on my blog.

I’ll open up with some general thoughts on what’s happened in music since 2010.

At no time in history has it been easier to access music. That can be both a terrifically awesome and horrifically calamitous thing, for both listeners and artists. I won’t get into the debate about how the streaming services potentially screw over artists, but it’s pretty amazing for listeners to have access to a massive library of music at any given time as long as they have a stable Internet connection.

Where I find this troublesome is that listeners have so many options at their disposal and such quick access to those options that I wonder how many people really take the time anymore to get into a single artist or album, but instead just jump around from song to song willy-nilly. That I make such a huge deal about albums at the end of each year and write 3,000 words about my favorites puts me in a distinct minority, at least among people around my age.

We’re rapidly entering a phase where the 50-plus-year-old album-based model for popular music is deteriorating. When I come back to write a decade retrospective in five years, will albums still be a thing? Will artists revert to a model of releasing more EPs or individual tracks? Deep down, I don’t think albums are going away anytime soon. I think there’s still a large enough group of people who like to dive deep into the minutiae of how songs interact with each other in a bigger picture to keep the album alive. At least that’s what I hope.

That easy access to music helps diversify and evolve the tastes of people like me who really get into this stuff. It makes it so much easier to find out about (and sample the sounds of) new artists, to know when that new band you like is coming to town and to connect with others about what you like (or don’t like). This is how I have artists as different as Kendrick Lamar and Mark Kozelek show up on my year-end lists. Not only are more people listening to music now than ever, they’re also listening to more different kinds of music and appreciating things they never would have imagined without that access.

Take a band like Neutral Milk Hotel. Their last album was released in 1998 and unless you read indie magazines or alt-weeklies like the dearly-departed Boston Phoenix, or just so happened to pay attention to the Georgia freak folk scene of the late-’90s, odds are you never knew anything about them when they were together in their initial run. Their last album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea eventually grew into a cult favorite and by the time the band reunited for tours starting in 2013, they had enough of a fanbase to sell out theaters and play to festival crowds.

Today, it would be exceedingly rare for a band like Neutral Milk Hotel to go unnoticed. Quality music tends to spread like wildfire thanks to social media and the finely-tuned ears of those who run music blogs and websites. That’s not to say an album with initially-tepid reception won’t find second life later on these days. It’s just that if you’re paying attention, good music doesn’t get overlooked so much anymore.

So while the paradigm is shifting in some respects, there’s still amazing music of every flavor imaginable being made and it’s never been easier to get it. For that we should all be thankful.

ONE LATE 2014 ADDITION

One of the problems with putting out my year-end lists before the year actually ends is there’s always a chance something will come out late in the year that I either don’t give enough consideration (I typically start writing my albums post in mid-November), or it arrives after everything’s been written and posted. The latter happened this year.

On Dec. 15, the elusive neo-soul/funk legend D’Angelo released Black Messiah, his first album in 14 years in the best possible sneak-attack on our senses. D’Angelo worked on this album off and on over the last decade-plus and it was worth the wait.

D’Angelo went through lots of personal strife to get to this point, plus I think he really wanted to shake the persona as “that guy who was naked in that music video way back” and be known for what he really is: a virtuoso who very much belongs in the same breath with guys like George Clinton, Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder.

Although Black Messiah was slated to be released next year, D’Angelo reportedly asked it be pushed up to this month because of the ongoing protests around the killings in places like Ferguson and Staten Island. His engineer told the New York Times the album is “pretty much right out of the oven – it’s still hot.”

“Hot” is definitely a great way to describe Black Messiah. The songs touch on numerous topics, some are politically-charged while others are simply about love. The influence of everyone I listed above is present here, in addition to many others, like the Hendrix guitars of “Prayer” and the Miles Davis-inspired flamenco sketches of “Really Love.” And you can’t help but love the classic funky strut of a song like “Sugah Daddy.”

When it all comes together, Black Messiah feels like a capital-A album, with everything working in concert and one song flowing perfectly into the next in a way few albums do these days.

I know I only have a couple weeks of listening to Black Messiah under my belt, but if I could re-do my favorite albums list for 2014, I’d slot this third, just under Atlas and ahead of They Want My Soul. As for a favorite song, it’s a tossup between the full-bodied shuffle of “The Charade” and the gorgeous, epic closer “Another Life”, but you really can’t go wrong with anything here. I’m just thrilled D’Angelo is back in all of our lives.

FAVORITE BANDS, OLD AND NEW

This is not going to come as a shock to anyone who pays attention to what I write here, follows me on Twitter or knows me at all, but my favorite band of this half-decade is, without question, the National. I wrote about them at length here when I named Trouble Will Find Me my favorite album of ‘13 and I don’t have much more to add now. They’re so rock solid, write incredible songs, sound unbelievably great live, get behind causes I believe in, Bryan Devendorf is the best drummer on Earth and I can’t wait to find out what they do next. It may not be until ‘16, but here’s hoping we get a taste sooner than that.

For anyone who hasn’t, I highly recommend checking out Mistaken For Strangers, the documentary piloted by lead singer Matt Berninger’s brother, Tom, when Tom worked as a roadie on one of the National’s recent tours. You don’t have to be a fan of the National to appreciate it, but it gives you an interesting view into band dynamics, how a tour works, and above all, the relationship between two brothers at very different places in their lives.

Also check out this awesome Song Exploder podcast where Berninger and guitarist Aaron Dessner discuss how they wrote Trouble‘s seminal track, “Sea of Love.”

Other artists/bands that really stand out to me during this stretch include: Arctic Monkeys, the band who has come of age alongside me and finally hit the mainstream bigtime in ‘13. I never expected it would be a song like “Do I Wanna Know?” that would push them over the top. I’m excited to see what they have in store…Cut Copy, the electro-pop heroes from Australia who can seemingly do no wrong (except for those weird interludes on Free Your Mind, but I digress) released two strong LPs and I believe will continue their world-conquering ways in the next half-decade…Local Natives defined what it means to be a workmanlike band in the ‘10s, producing two outstanding albums in Gorilla Manor and Hummingbird, drawing from the best of bands like the National and Grizzly Bear and touring their asses off. Their best work is still to come…Vampire Weekend continues to grow by leaps and bounds, following up their great debut by releasing the varied Contra and then last year’s refined Modern Vampires of the City, which I expect will help launch them into the type of career reserved for the best of the best…Other artists I want to make sure I mention here include Passion Pit, TV on the Radio, Spoon, Two Door Cinema Club, Bombay Bicycle Club, Real Estate, St. Vincent, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Haim, Japandroids, Dum Dum Girls, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Wild Nothing, Beach House and Hot Chip.

It was also great to see some reunions and comebacks over these years, including live revivals for the Stone Roses, Pavement and, as mentioned above, Neutral Milk Hotel. David Bowie returned with his first album of new material in over decade but didn’t tour, while My Bloody Valentine finally followed up Loveless with an album and an equally-acclaimed tour. Now, if only we could get Talking Heads back together…

IT WASN’T ALL GREAT…UNFORTUNATELY

I know at this point Festivus has passed, but I’d like to take this opportunity to air some grievances and say how certain things in the world of music have disappointed me in the last five years.

In ‘09, no band was more on top of the indie world than Animal Collective. After several critically-acclaimed releases through the 2000s, they unleashed Merriweather Post Pavilion early in the year and the album exploded behind standout single “My Girls.” Their experimental electronic sound dominated by psychedelic synthesizers was imitated in many places and their producer, Ben H. Allen, was suddenly one of the most in-demand producers in the industry. At the time I felt Merriweather Post Pavilion was the closest thing to Pet Sounds I’d heard in years, both in terms of subject matter and overall feel. Later that same year, they released an EP of leftover songs, Fall Be Kind, that was similarly lauded.

Unfortunately, the band didn’t really capitalize on this success. As a “collective,” members slipped in and out over the next few years, with Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox and Dave “Avey Tare” Portner releasing solo records before reuniting in 2012 for the wildly underwhelming Centipede Hz. Only the album’s first two songs, “Moonjock” and “Today’s Supernatural”, represented anything close to the depth and innovation from Merriweather Post Pavilion. The rest was mostly incoherent noise splattered across the canvas. I did see the full band live in March ‘13 and they were excellent, however, this was just before they had to cancel the rest of their tour due to an illness for Panda Bear.

There’s been no indication Animal Collective plans to record again anytime soon, with Panda Bear (who’s always been the McCartney of the group) set to release another solo album next year. The first track from that, “Mr Noah”, is promising. But it’ll be sad if the band never comes close to their creative high of ‘09 again. They certainly haven’t so far in this decade.

Other disappointments: It took me a while to warm up to the Black Keys and I was finally on board after mostly liking Brothers and loving El Camino, but they took a major step back with Turn Blue this year. How about getting back to rocking, guys? And don’t think I haven’t noticed the same trend in you, Kings of Leon…At some point in ‘10-’11, John Mayer stopped making accessible blues-rock and turned into Harvest-era Neil Young in just about every way. Normally, I’d think this is a great thing, but I really miss the Try!/Continuum/best parts of Battle Studies-era Mayer who destroyed everything in his path with his Fender (I bet he secretly wishes he’d been the one to come out with something like Black Messiah). Here’s hoping he reunites with Steve Jordan very soon…Arcade Fire is one of my favorite bands, they were outstanding live when I saw them a few months ago and I generally have very few bad things to say about their music. However, they botched the rollout of Reflektor, waited way too long to announce a tour and went to exorbitant lengths to build up an album that to me didn’t really live up to the hype. Maybe scaling things back for the next album won’t be a bad idea…and finally, I’m generally disappointed by the break-ups or indefinite hiatuses for LCD Soundsystem, the White Stripes, Girls, Fleet Foxes, the Walkmen and, most recently and perhaps most dishearteningly, Smith Westerns. I say that because of how young they are and I don’t know if any of them will reach the band’s lofty promise on their own.

MY TOP 50 FAVORITE SONGS OF ‘10-’14

The full list of my 50 favorite songs is here in a Spotify playlist and, unlike my usual yearly lists, includes more than one song from an album in some instances. One missing song is My Bloody Valentine’s “she found now”, which was No. 24 on the list and isn’t available on Spotify. Otherwise, it’s listed in order from 50-1.

Here’s the top 10 with embedded YouTube clips, and some words about the #1 song at the end:

10. THE NATIONAL – “CONVERSATION 16” (2010)

9. PASSION PIT – “IT’S NOT MY FAULT, I’M HAPPY” (2012)

8. BOMBAY BICYCLE CLUB – “TAKE THE RIGHT ONE” (2011)

7. THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART – “BEAUTIFUL YOU” (2014)

6. THE NATIONAL – “SEA OF LOVE” (2013)

5. WILD NOTHING – “NOCTURNE” (2012)

4. LCD SOUNDSYSTEM – “ALL I WANT” (2010)

3. CYMBALS – “THE NATURAL WORLD” (2013)

2. REAL ESTATE – “CRIME” (2014)

1. M83 – “MIDNIGHT CITY” (2011)

“Midnight City” endures for me as the best song so far this decade and one of my favorite songs ever because of how excited it still makes me even though I should be tired of it by now. Everything works together so well, from the blaring melody siren throughout, the lyrics about seizing the evening and the surprise saxophone solo that I still love hearing. There’s something for everyone in “Midnight City.” I hope M83 and its leader, Anthony Gonzalez, return guns blazing soon with something remotely as spellbinding as “Midnight City.”

MY 10 FAVORITE CONCERTS OF ‘10-’14

There’s no way I could rank these concerts, so I’ll present them to you in chronological order. Like I did with my overall list a couple years ago, I’m basing this on the greatness of the headliner, the greatness of the entire bill, my personal memories of the show and the overall concert experience.

9/28/10 – LCD Soundsystem with Sleigh Bells at the Orpheum Theatre, Boston MA

11/20/11 – M83 with Active Child at the House of Blues, Boston MA

6/6/12 – Dave Matthews Band at the Xfinity Center, Mansfield MA

9/23/12 – David Byrne and St. Vincent at the Orpheum Theatre, Boston MA

5/26/13 – Youth Lagoon, Dirty Projectors, the Walkmen, Of Monsters and Men and the National at Boston Calling, City Hall Plaza, Boston MA

6/4/13 – The National with People Get Ready at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, Providence RI

8/11/13 – Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake at Fenway Park, Boston MA

11/16/13 – Cut Copy with Larry Gus at the House of Blues, Boston MA

4/17/14 – The War on Drugs at Paradise Rock Club, Boston MA

9/5/14 – Future Islands, Neutral Milk Hotel and the National at Boston Calling, City Hall Plaza, Boston MA

MY 10 FAVORITE ALBUMS OF ‘10-’14

Thanks for reading this far. My 10 favorite albums so far this decade are as follows:

10. Bombay Bicycle Club – A Different Kind of Fix (2011)

differentkind

 

Top songs: “Take the Right One”, “Lights Out Words Gone”, “Shuffle”

9. Haim – Days Are Gone (2013)

DaysAreGone

Top songs: “Falling”, “Forever”, “Go Slow”

8. Real Estate – Atlas (2014)

atlas

Top songs: “Crime”, “Had to Hear”, “Past Lives”

7. Wild Nothing – Nocturne (2012)

wildnothing

Top songs: “Nocturne”, “Only Heather”, “Paradise”

6. Cut Copy – Zonoscope (2011)

zonoscope

Top songs: “Pharaohs & Pyramids”, “Take Me Over”, “Alisa”

5. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream (2014)

lostinthedream

Top songs: “Burning”, “Red Eyes”, “Eyes to the Wind”

4. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

homepage_large.831179e9 

Top songs: “POWER”, “All of the Lights”, “Runaway”

3. The National – Trouble Will Find Me (2013)

TroubleWillFind

Top songs: “Sea of Love”, “Graceless”, “Pink Rabbits”

2. Passion Pit – Gossamer (2012)

passionpit

Top songs: “It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy”, “I’ll Be Alright”, “Love is Greed”

1. The National – High Violet (2010)

highviolet 

Top songs: “Conversation 16”, “Lemonworld”, “Bloodbuzz Ohio”

With that, I’m done. Happy New Year and happy listening!

Standard
LISTS

LIST: My Favorite Songs of 2014 So Far

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.

Standard