LISTS, MUSIC

LIST: My Favorite Songs of 2015 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, and whittling this list down to 10 was very difficult. But these 10 are the ones that caught my attention the most. Here they are in alphabetical order by artist. Enjoy.

BEST COAST – “FEELING OK”

The leadoff track from Best Coast’s fourth album California Nights, “Feeling Ok” is an early entrant into the Song of the Summer sweepstakes for me, although I’m sure I’m in the minority. Maybe in another universe where surf rock-influenced indie pop is listened to by the greater populace, I would have a case. But alas, “Feeling Ok” is just here for those of us lucky enough to find it. Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno kicked off their latest album with a real shot of life, a perfect opener with an arpeggio melody running throughout over power chords born from the beaches of their native Golden State. Despite the sunny music, Cosentino seems broken in her lyrics, but there’s hope here too: “I know someday I’ll find it / Where I least expect it.” For now, roll down the windows, turn it up and you’ll feel ok, too.

KENDRICK LAMAR (FEAT. BILAL, ANNA WISE & THUNDERCAT) – “THESE WALLS”

It doesn’t feel right to pull just one song from Kendrick Lamar’s outstanding To Pimp a Butterfly for this list. Unlike just about all the other songs on this list, “These Walls” fits into the bigger narrative of an album so beautifully and to assess it outside that context seems cruel to the artist’s intent. But, “These Walls” deserves to be singled out thanks to its melodic guitar licks, easy flow, soulful construction and Kendrick’s verses about…well…just listen. It should be pretty clear. The overall feel is reminiscent of many of Kendrick’s breakout songs from his first two albums. “These Walls” takes an interesting turn late where he references a gang shooting that was a major subject in Kendrick’s opus good kid, m.A.A.d. city. No question, “These Walls” is a complicated song, from a complicated album by a complicated but hugely talented artist. All that informs its greatness.

MADEON (FEAT. PASSION PIT) – “PAY NO MIND”

French house and electropop producer Hugo Pierre Leclercq, aka Madeon, is just 21 years of age, but his debut behemoth of an album, Adventure, was made with the precision of someone with twice his experience. He amassed an impressive roster of collaborators for Adventure including Foster the People’s Mark Foster and Bastille’s Dan Smith, but his best collaboration is with Michael Angelakos of Passion Pit. The resulting “Pay No Mind” is a wickedly energetic pop ditty with huge choruses, bigger guitars (from Two Door Cinema Club’s Sam Halliday) and even more enormous synths. It’s my favorite song of the year so far, because it simply brings a smile to my face every time it comes on. It mixes Passion Pit’s sweetness with a killer dance beat not often heard on Angelakos’ own work. Thanks to songs like “Pay No Mind,” Madeon will follow in Disclosure’s footsteps as the next huge electropop star.

PASSION PIT – “WHERE THE SKY HANGS”

Speaking of Passion Pit, they’re back. I use the term “they” loosely: thanks to numerous lineup changes, it’s obvious Passion Pit is just Angelakos’ solo project these days. Despite that, Passion Pit still churns out excellent electronic pop songs his Angelakos’ signature angelic vocals. Kindred is likely Passion Pit’s weakest effort to date on the whole, but it has many high points, including the R&B groove of centerpiece “Where the Sky Hangs.” From that opening bass run to ending melody fade-out, “Where the Sky Hangs” slinks along unlike any Passion Pit song to date. The out-and-out electronic smashes of the first two albums don’t appear here, but that’s fine. I wish there’d been more songs like this on Kindred, but we can be thankful for “Where the Sky Hangs.” “I’ll take all that I can get / Just don’t make me go,” Angelakos sings in this one’s great chorus.

SLEATER-KINNEY – “A NEW WAVE”

After a decade on hiatus, Sleater-Kinney reunited this year to reclaim the riot grrrl throne they had a major hand in building in the ‘90s and early-’00s. Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss released No Cities to Love in January with more polish than any of their older releases, clearly drawing influence from contemporary rock like Arctic Monkeys in addition to their own gloried, gritty punk rock past. Of the songs to first appear in 2015, I like “A New Wave” the best, with its fuzzy guitar lines and Weiss’ phenomenal crashing drums. Brownstein’s voice darts out of the speakers and socks you in the face with its primal intensity. When Tucker and Brownstein shout “No outline will ever hold us” in the chorus, it feels breathtakingly true. The new wave in some ways feels like the old wave from Sleater-Kinney, but it’s great to have them back.

TAME IMPALA – “LET IT HAPPEN”

Tame Impala is ready to conquer the world with the soon-to-be-released Currents. Kevin Parker took his band to awesome heights on 2012’s Lonerism, but anchored by the psychedelic wonder of “Let It Happen,” don’t be surprised to hear Tame Impala mentioned in the same breath as the most popular rock acts out there soon. With “Let It Happen,” Parker and his mates go on a wild eight-minute journey, complete with every synth sound you can imagine, voice effects, distinct movements, a heavy guitar line that shows up late and Parker’s typical Lennonish vocals. This song is insane, and I love every second of it. You won’t hear anything quite like this from anyone else this year. “Something’s trying to get out,” Parker croons during one of the breakdowns, “And it’s never been closer.” Yes, Tame Impala is close to something huge, and “Let It Happen” is an incredible realization of their potential.

TOBIAS JESSO JR. – “WITHOUT YOU”

Are singer-songwriters making a comeback? If so, I’d expect the lanky Canadian Tobias Jesso Jr. to lead the charge. With his outstanding debut album Goon in tow, Jesso has drawn comparisons to ‘70s stars like Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson. I hear Nilsson most when Jesso sings, and hell, they both have signature songs called “Without You.” Jesso’s “Without You” is a gorgeous, tender piano ballad with sparse instrumentation that can bring even the hardest of souls to their knees. With his pal Danielle Haim tapping at the drums, Jesso loses himself singing about a love he can’t bear to lose. “I can hardly breathe without you / There is no future I want to see without you.” It’s so simple but says so much. And after you listen to “Without You,” be amazed by this: Jesso learned how to play piano only two years ago. I know, right

TORO Y MOI – “EMPTY NESTERS”

People who’ve read me here know I always appreciate when artists try new things. In the case of Chaz Bundick and What For?, his fourth album as Toro y Moi, this is an instance of an artist trying something old that sounds new for them. Here, Bundick eschews much of the electronic/chillwave music that established him as an indie star this decade for a very straight-forward rock album that harkens back to ‘70s-era classic rock. While it seems some critics dismissed this turn, I love it, and the change sounds no better than on “Empty Nesters.” The guitars are so full of life, the synth runs so fun, the higher-register vocals of Bundick so earnest rhapsodizing about growing up and moving on. “Covered and smothered by my high schools dreams / Call Mom and Daddy ‘cuz the nest is empty.” Bundick doesn’t just try something new on “Empty Nesters,” he dives in head first to outstanding results.

VIET CONG  – “SILHOUETTES”

If you can get past the controversy about their name, Viet Cong is one of the best up-and-coming guitar-rock bands out there at the moment. These Calgary guys released their self-titled debut LP in January, overpopulated with dramatic guitar lines recalling Joy Division/New Order and Paul Banksian vocals from bassist Matt Flegel. That sense of building drama through awesome, ‘80s-tinged guitar rock comes through brilliantly on penultimate track “Silhouettes.” In several spots during “Silhouettes,” it feels like the band is about to burst at the seams. The shifting time signatures alone make it feel like a roller coaster ride. Drummer Mike Wallace does a great job keeping it all together with a sprawling drum performance that never lets up. “Relay, reply, react and respond / The simple task of turning it on / Only receiving electrical shocks.” Somewhere Ian Curtis is listening to this song cranked up as loud as he can.

WAXAHATCHEE – “UNDER A ROCK”

Katie Crutchfield doesn’t sound particularly pleased with the subject of “Under a Rock,” the best song on Ivy Tripp, the third full-length album from her indie rock project Waxahatchee (so named after a creek in Crutchfield’s native Alabama). “Maybe I let on that I was interested / In your brand of lonely,” she sings over the smashing cymbals and crunchy alternative-era guitars from her backing players. Amidst the rancour she directs at a probably soon-to-be-former lover is quite a bit of fun. “Under a Rock” a quick rocker reminiscent of Pavement and their ‘90s contemporaries both in sound and somewhat quirky wordplay. There’s something unique about a song this simple-sounding that sports a metaphorical lyrical riff about breaking into “a brick house you’ve built around your cranium.” Ivy Tripp goes in several different directions as an album (including several with very few instruments), but Crutchfield is at her best with the full-bodied rock of “Under a Rock.”

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LISTS

LIST: My 20 Favorite Songs of 2013

I spend all year keeping track of my favorite new music and with year-end comes my year-end lists. I’ve added a few new wrinkles this year, including a new post coming early next week, before I unveil my top 20 albums of what was an absolutely stellar year of new music.

But first, I present my top 20 favorite songs of 2013. Because I wrote about many of these songs at the midpoint of the year and I’d rather save my long-form thoughts now to the aforementioned albums list, I’m keeping this to just the songs themselves with imbedded YouTube clips.

In addition this year, I’ve created a YouTube playlist of these 20 songs, starting with number 20 counting down to number 1. It’s a pretty damn good playlist so you should probably listen to it.

My criteria: The songs must have been originally released during the calendar year of 2013 and to ensure no domination by a few artists, I allow just one song per artist/band.

Enjoy the list and stay tuned for my special post next week as well as my top 20 albums coming up after Christmas.

20. UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA – “ONE AT A TIME”

19. JOHN MAYER – “WILDFIRE”

18. JANELLE MONAE – “Q.U.E.E.N.” (FT. ERYKAH BADU)

17. PHOENIX – “TRYING TO BE COOL”

16. KINGS OF LEON – “WAIT FOR ME”

15. WASHED OUT – “DON’T GIVE UP”

14. SMITH WESTERNS – “VARSITY”

13. BEST COAST – “FEAR OF MY IDENTITY”

12. VAMPIRE WEEKEND – “HANNAH HUNT”

11. JIMMY EAT WORLD – “NO, NEVER”

10. CHVRCHES – “SCIENCE/VISIONS”

9. ARCADE FIRE – “REFLEKTOR”

8. FOALS – “BAD HABIT”

7. ARCTIC MONKEYS – “ARABELLA”

6. LOCAL NATIVES – “COLOMBIA”

5. MY BLOODY VALENTINE – “SHE FOUND NOW”

4. HAIM – “FALLING”

3. CUT COPY – “FREE YOUR MIND”

2. THE NATIONAL – “SEA OF LOVE”

1. CYMBALS – “THE NATURAL WORLD”

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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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LISTS

LIST: My 10 Favorite Albums of 2011

I’m happy to finally update this blog for the first time in months with write-ups for my 10 favorite albums of 2011. Before I get to the 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 that album.

20. Cold Cave: Cherish the Light Years (“Confetti”)

19. Washed Out: Within and Without (“Amor Fati”)

18. Radiohead: The King of Limbs (“Give Up the Ghost”)

17. The Strokes: Angles (“Taken For a Fool”)

16. Wilco: The Whole Love (“Dawned On Me”)

15. Cults: Cults (“Abducted”)

14. Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (“Grown Ocean”)

13. The Black Keys: El Camino (“Lonely Boy”)

12. Panda Bear: Tomboy (“Friendship Bracelet”)

11. Real Estate: Days (“It’s Real”)

Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2011.

10. Dum Dum Girls: Only in Dreams

We’ve seen an influx the last few years of girl-driven California indie pop, including Best Coast, Vivian Girls and Dum Dum Girls. The latter group, led by the velvet-voiced Dee Dee, became my favorite of the bunch this year with the aces EP He Gets Me High and their second full-length, the perpetually-jangly Only in Dreams. There isn’t much variation to the song structure and the drumbeats on several tunes are virtually the same. But the surf-guitar sound on tracks like opener “Always Looking” and single “Bedroom Eyes” make this record stand out. In a year when so many acts were attempting to mask their words, Only in Dreams is refreshingly straightforward. There’s depth here too, with three-chord sermon “Coming Down” and the melancholy sadness of closer “Hold Your Hand,” which conjures the feelings of being with a loved one as they slip away to the great gig in the sky. For my money, Only in Dreams hits its peak on mid-album rocker “Heartbeat.” Dee Dee’s voice has been endlessly compared to Chrissie Hynde, perhaps my favorite female vocalist. On “Heartbeat,” Dee Dee reaches Hynde-like heights of beautiful, deep confidence. “Take it away,” the chorus pleads over and over. On Only in Dreams, Dee Dee and her ladies only give, and they give just about everything.

9. Girls: Father, Son, Holy Ghost

The story of Christopher Owens, the genius behind Girls, reads like The Blind Side but with a white kid with a guitar. Born into the Children of God cult, Owens had an older brother who died due to the cult’s beliefs and a mother who prostituted herself on its behalf. Later, Owens was taken in by a Texas millionaire and then moved to San Francisco, where he started Girls. Their debut album, fittingly titled Album, was a ‘60s-style rock triumph, but Owens takes the more fleshed-out group further on Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Opener “Honey Bunny” is an honest examination of Owens’ shortcomings over with one of the happiest-sounding guitar tracks of the year. “Alex” is about a girl Owens pines for, with the common refrain of “Who cares?” describing feelings going both ways. “Die” rocks unlike anything on Album while the building “Vomit” takes the band to a mountainous crescendo. There’s plenty of playful tracks like “Saying I Love You,” “Magic” and “Love Like a River,” but the album also displays an incredible amount of depth, nowhere better than on “Forgiveness.” You can hear Owens’ heart break as he croons “nothing’s gonna get any better” and “no one’s gonna find any answers.” His acoustic guitar and the plodding keyboards tell the story before the mid-tune breakdown and emotional solo. The song’s final words always give me chills: “I can see so much clearer / When I just close my eyes.” Without a doubt, Father, Son, Holy Ghost is one of the best albums of year to just sit back, close your eyes and love.

8. Bon Iver: Bon Iver

Speaking of back stories, this is one you may be more familiar with: Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon wrote and recorded the project’s debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago in a remote Wisconsin cabin. For his second act, Vernon went quite a bit bigger. A cabin couldn’t possibly hold back Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore effort. Every song on Bon Iver feels massive. From the marching drums and guitar of “Perth,” the soft arpeggio brilliance of “Holocene,” the folky touches of “Towers” and the quiet strength of “Wash.,” it’s no wonder this is the record where Vernon crossed over into mainstream accolades. My biggest issue with Bon Iver is Vernon’s continual insistence in recording with multiple tracks of his lead vocal, which masks his incredible falsetto voice and typically mangles understanding of what he’s singing. Vernon’s live performances are usually more powerful than his recorded work. Still, it’s hard to not be enraptured by Bon Iver’s soft sonic mastery from beginning to end. And it’s the end that seems to get people talking. Easily the most divisive indie rock song of the year, closer “Beth/Rest” very easily could be mistaken for an easy listening ballad in the mold of Bruce Hornsby or Richard Marx. But, dammit, the song is amazing. You have to respect the hell out of Vernon for taking a chance like this and pulling it off in a totally non-ironic and completely earnest fashion. The degree of difficulty, and effortlessness of Vernon’s sound, makes Bon Iver an indelible highlight of 2011. He sure is a long way from that cabin now.

7. Foster the People: Torches

Admit it: a year ago, you’d never heard of Foster the People. Now, it’s impossible to exist without hearing them. Their debut, Torches, exploded this year in a maelstrom of viral hits and tunes you’d hear everywhere from movie trailers to coffee shops to car commercials. For 2011, they were next in a line of synth-dance-indie-pop-rock groups to gain insta-fame, following in the footsteps of MGMT and Passion Pit. The common thread of the groups is that beyond the hype and the annual chorus of fans saying “I knew them back when…” it really comes down to the solid sounds they’ve forged. At first, I wasn’t crazy about Torches, thinking songs like “Color on the Walls (Don’t Stop)” cribbed a bit too much from the MGMT playbook. But unlike many albums I heard this year, there wound up being cohesiveness to the overall product that simply worked. Mark Foster and Co. created a sound that so many millions will closely associate with where they were in 2011. Each song is different but so clearly comes from the same place: “Waste” brings heavenly choruses; mega-smash “Pumped Up Kicks” creeps along a bouncy beat and tells a story about why you probably shouldn’t play with guns; “Houdini” and my personal highlight “Call it What You Want” are whacked-out dance-a-thons that undoubtedly birthed hundreds of unplanned hipster dance parties this year. Truth is, to some, it’s probably already uncool to like Foster the People. Anyone who tries to say that is trying too hard to be cool themselves. Love Torches now, and wait to see who’ll be the Foster the People of 2012.

6. Arctic Monkeys: Suck It and See

Arctic Monkeys were the first band around my age I loved. Debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not and sophomore Favourite Worst Nightmare defined my college years with tight punkishness while 2009’s Humbug was a step back with mostly hardcore sludge. It came out after college during a strange time for me. This year, Suck It and See was released when I was starting to figure things out. Clearly, Arctic Monkeys also figured things out, with an album that culls from their best work. Lead singer Alex Turner, who mostly yelled early on, is now a bona fide hard rock crooner. Standout tracks “She’s Thunderstorms,” “Black Treacle,” “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala” and “Reckless Serenade” combine bouncy riffs with rocking attitude. Heavier tunes “Brick By Brick” and “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair” were the best songs not on Humbug. “Library Pictures” is a blast-from-the-past, an angry rant befitting the Sheffield boys’ early days. But it’s the end of the album that hits home hardest, showing the band’s maturity as they enter their mid-20s. Closer “That’s Where You’re Wrong” (starts 1:50 into video) is their best song since “Fluorescent Adolescent.” This sounds of a band that’s waged the battles of youthful expectations, coming out the other side with their talents and brains intact, reaching a point where they’ll be supporting the Black Keys on a 2012 arena tour. “That’s Where You’re Wrong” shows how far they’ve come with Suck It and See. Two-and-a-half minutes in, Jamie Cook launches into a high-pitched solo as the song turns triumphant. “Don’t take it so personally,” Turner says. “You’re not the only one.” Maybe getting older, and wiser, isn’t so bad.

5. Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde

I’m pretty sure the guys in Smith Westerns are tools. I saw them at Great Scott and while they played well, the long hair of brothers Cullen and Cameron Omori were in their respective faces the entire time. Cullen quickly unplugged his microphone and ran off stage at the end of their set without playing an encore. These Chicagoans, weaned on Beatles and T-Rex records, will soon realize their audience is the wrong group of people to piss off. But with Dye It Blonde, they’re at least in a mature place when it comes to their recording style. George Harrison is smiling in rock heaven, knowing his signature guitar sound lives on. “Weekend” is a piece of glam perfection that goes a bit deeper than just having fun on a weekend. Because to Cullen weekends are never fun “unless you’re around here too…” Showing a bit of their age and feelings of mortality, mid-record masterpiece “All Die Young” winds down with a massive chorus and a truthful refrain: “Love is lovely when you are young.” “Dance Away” is awfully danceable, “End of the Night” chugs along with some really fun riffs, “Only One” recalls the Britpop of the late-80s and early-90s. The final tune, “Dye the World” has perhaps the best guitar work on the entire album and ends with an awesome melancholy riff. Dye It Blonde is the work of a band trying to find its way in the wide world of indie rock. Between their garage-y debut and this very polished second effort, I’d like to think their best work is to come. I’d also like to think they wouldn’t be douchebags when I see them again in January.

4. TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light

The fourth studio album from these Brooklyn indie heavyweights was released on April 12. Eight days later, bassist Gerard Smith died following a bout with lung cancer. Nine Types of Light was likely written and recorded with the knowledge Smith was undergoing the fight of his life. Because of that, an odd darkness permeates much of the album and gives it an aura unheard on their other records. Even upbeat songs, like ironically titled opener “Second Song,” lead single “Will Do” and the truly repetitive “Repetition” all feel like something is desperately wrong. This album lacks the star power of 2008’s Dear Science but works nearly as well. The frantic “No Future Shock” introduces us to a brand new dance craze conjuring the plight of many today. “Keep Your Heart” features lengthy coos from Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, who come into their own as vocalists. The finest moments come in the form of a mid-album sandwich with “Will Do” providing the tasty filling and two of the best pieces of bread ever baked up by TV on the Radio. (OK, that was lame. Sorry.) “Killer Crane” is similar in feel to the epic Dear Science ballad “Family Tree” and explodes with sad beauty. It includes what has to be the most depressive use of banjo I’ve ever heard. The light touches of synthesizer, followed by slight acoustic strumming take it to another level. Just one song later, they strike a decidedly different tone. Dripping with sex, “New Cannonball Blues” reaches down into the deepest recesses of their funkitude. Only “Golden Age” can rival this song’s access to the dirty and forbidden. There aren’t many bands with the range of TV on the Radio. Nine Types of Light is an incredible exhibition of that range. Although things will never be the same, I hope they never lose their ability to reach for new places.

3. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Belong

Over the last few years my musical tastes have made a significant shift. There was a time when I hated anything that wasn’t guitar-bass-drums with no frills. You could play piano, but it better not be plugged into anything. As you can tell from this list so far, and the two albums to come, I’m way more open to machine-made sounds. Yet Belong, the second album from New York indie cool kids The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, is an effort I would have appreciated at any point of my life. Their self-titled debut touched on many of the late-‘80s fuzzy British themes. On Belong, they creep forward a few years, pumping up variations on the ‘90s alt-rock I grew up on. Working with ‘90s mavens Alan Moulder and Flood probably had something to do with that. These short guitar-pop joys fly by quickly. The first three tracks are wonderfully breezy, with single “Heart in Your Heartbreak” the most adorably fun song of the 2011. “The Body” frenetically recalls yesteryear, with a video that will make you hate yourself for growing up. There’s a deep longing in “Even in Dreams” not previously experienced by this band. “Even in dreams,” Kip Berman wails, “I will not betray you,” followed by the crashing Clinton-era guitars and cymbals. The final two songs here, “Too Tough” and “Strange,” harkens back to their My Bloody Valentine-tinged debut with some of the finest shoegaze you’ll hear anywhere. Do The Pains of Being Pure at Heart do anything supremely different or special? If this were 1994 I’d say no. But in an indie world where nostalgia rules the day, they used Belong to separate themselves from the thundering herd. “Our dreams are coming true,” Berman coos over and over on “Strange.” Here’s hoping this band’s dream continues to come true for years to come.

2. M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

Two years before his death, Irish literary titan James Joyce published Finnegans Wake, a novel considered incomprehensible at the time and only slightly more understood by readers and scholars more than seven decades later. One thing is universally recognized about Finnegans Wake: Joyce was attempting to synthesize in words what we experience in dreams. He spent 17 years writing the book, mostly in France. That also happens to be the home country of Anthony Gonzalez, the progenitor of M83, a group now six albums into their career. Unlike Joyce, Gonzalez spent just three years crafting this breakthrough release, the double-disc Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Gonzalez has tried a similar feat here: a musical form of what happens when we sleep and dream the things we dream. Don’t mistake what you hear on this album for anything close to reality. Over the course of 79 minutes there’s little Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming doesn’t possess: huge synthesizers, frenetic guitar work, perfect drumming, beat-you-over-the-head obvious lyrics, what-the-fuck-is-he-saying unintelligible lyrics, unreal bass fills, well-placed saxophone solos, train sound effects, clarinet bursts, heavenly choruses on heartfelt ballads, a song named after a ‘60s movie star, ghastly instrumentals and a little girl yammering about magic frogs. Yet so many songs are based on simple chord changes and themes, things you know you’ve heard before but just never placed like this. “Intro” is a grand opening with gigantic synths; “Reunion” rollicks with tremendous guitar work; “Claudia Lewis” lives and dies on an astounding bass line and a vibe straight out of 1987;  “Steve McQueen” probably has nothing to do with Steve McQueen but sounds damn amazing. M83 reaches their peak on the second song and lead single “Midnight City,” which was far and away the best song I heard in 2011. The unmistakable synth hook leads into an awesomely fun jaunt that always gets my head weaving. “Waiting for a car,” Gonzalez and company sings, “waiting for a ride in the dark,” and later, the most affecting line of all, “the city is my church.” From there the song elevates along a simple progression, leading to the final heightened refrains and the sax solo everyone’s been talking about since it came out. Is it out of place? Does it belong in any song released in 2011? That’s the great thing about Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Nothing Gonzalez does here is what you can expect because, well, we can never expect what we see in our dreams. The album has flaws; it could have been shortened by a few indulgent instrumentals and the dirge of slow ones like “Wait,” “Soon My Friend” and others make the pacing somewhat odd. But there’s no denying Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming will go down as one of the classic indie albums of this era. James Joyce would indeed be proud.

1. Cut Copy: Zonoscope

I had never listened to Cut Copy, the Aussie electro-pop quartet of nerdy-looking dudes led by Dan Whitford, before their third album, Zonoscope, was released in February. That’s probably why I never got caught up in the “oh, it’s really good but not as good as In Ghost Colours” line of thinking that seemed to pervade the criticism of this near-perfect album. Listening to this for months without being influenced by the greater star power of In Ghost Colours allowed me to fully appreciate Zonoscope‘s ‘80s-inspired indie electronica for what it truly was: the most complete, most listenable and most memorable album of 2011 for me. Leading off with the builder “Need You Now,” Zonoscope contains everything we want from indie pop these days: catchy hooks, well-placed drums, synthesizers everywhere, sneaky-great guitar and bass work and lyrics that leave the deciphering up to you. The bassy fun of “Take Me Over” includes wonderful synth work through the choruses. There’s the clap-along stomp of “Where I’m Going,” the Bananrama vibe of “Blink and You’ll Miss a Revolution,” the Cars recalling on “Alisa,” the longing of “Hanging Onto Every Heartbeat.” It finishes on 20 minutes of deadly serious dance-punk, a stretch Cut Copy picks up the baton from the dearly-departed LCD Soundsystem as purveyors of raw emotion in the electric indie world. “Corner of the Sky” hits a funky verse about 2:30 in that makes you feel like Whitford and his drones are going to reach out through the speakers and grab you. The final 15-minute jam “Sun God” is borderline creepy, with obsessive lyrics sung over and over: “Please please please please please / Won’t you give your love to me?” and “Are you gonna give me your love? / Love won’t be enough” among them. Eventually the lyrics go away and we’re left with a kraut-rockish jam that dissolves into a barrage of synth blasts. Again, no band I heard in 2011 released anything like this. Where Zonoscope separates itself from the pack is the astounding “Pharaohs & Pyramids,” a dance romp that takes the listener to Egpyt and beyond. There are prickly synths, cryptic lyrics and excellent percussion leading up to a breakdown with Whitford yapping about disco sounds and lights (which is something he does a lot). The breakdown zooms into a wild build-up then a euphoric burst of energy, a veritable volcano of sonic bliss. A plaintive guitar solo even shows up midway through. Every amazing sound on Zonoscope, everything great about the album and everything great about music in 2011 is rolled into these last two minutes of “Pharaohs & Pyramids.” So many different tastes have resulted in the creation of so many different sounds. Maybe disco indie rock isn’t your thing. But there’s a ton of diversity on Zonoscope, and the quality of all the different sounds makes it my favorite of the year.

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