LISTS

LIST: My Favorite Songs of 2013 So Far

Each year on this date I bring you a list of my favorite songs of the year so far. This has been a terrific year for new music to this point, with great bands and artists releasing new work at a break-neck pace. These 10 songs have caught my attention the most of all. Here they are in alphabetical order by artist. Enjoy.

CYMBALS – “THE NATURAL WORLD”

The way we consume music in 2013 is a pretty cool thing. CYMBALS is a band I discovered through an indie music torrent and instantly fell in love with their world-beating synth-dance number released in January called “The Natural World.” They’re from London, aren’t famous at all, don’t have an album yet and you can find most of the music they’ve made through their Facebook page. But in this one song they’re able to conjure a sound all their own out of a genre considered by many to be played out at this point and leave an impression on a music fan half a world away. It’s exciting, danceable, enjoyable and memorable all at once. “We can hear the passing of time,” they sing, “And the sound of us in your mind.” You won’t want this sound out of your mind once you hear it.

FOALS – “BAD HABIT”

Foals has grown into one of the most reliable indie rock acts out there, drawing influence from hard rock, ambient and mathy styles alike. They’ve managed to cultivate a worldwide fanbase beyond their English homeland where they’re considered demi-gods. Holy Fire may wind up their most popular album, if not always their most consistent. The first four tracks on the February release are knockouts, culminating in the beauty of “Bad Habit.” It’s familiar territory for Yannis Philippakis and his cohorts as I’ve heard many comparisons to Total Life Forever’s “This Orient.” But “Bad Habit” goes further, taking Philippakis’ already-soaring voice to new heights of longing. And there’s so much to long for here: a wall of guitar sounds, complicated drumming patterns, mountains of arpeggios among the guitar licks. Philippakis wants his bad habit bad, and you can’t help but feel that longing with each listen.

HAIM – “FALLING”

If you haven’t heard of Haim yet, trust me, you will. Like CYMBALS, they don’t have an album to their credit, but the band comprised of three California sisters all aged 27 or younger has one of the most fully-formed, dramatic pop songs I’ve heard in years with “Falling.” This could be a hit in any era since the mid-’70s, and the one band I’ve heard them compared to most is Fleetwood Mac. If you’ve spent any length of time discussing music with me, you probably know I don’t care for Fleetwood Mac. While the similarities didn’t hit me at first, the way the Haim sisters sing is indeed consistent with the deep vocals of Christine McVie, whom I’ve always preferred to the other singer in that band. Haim would be lucky to have half the success of their ’70s predecessors. But with more songs like “Falling,” I wouldn’t rule it out.

JIMMY EAT WORLD – “APPRECIATION”

So, full disclosure for those who don’t know: Jimmy Eat World is one of few bands  I have difficulty writing about, or even thinking about, objectively. That’s because they’ve been my favorite band going on 11 years now. Every three years or so they come out with a new album and I love it without much condition. A few weeks ago they made my year by releasing Damage, their most stripped-down effort in recent history. The kick-off track, “Appreciation,” is my favorite of the 10 tracks on the album, at least right now, and represents so much of what I love about these four guys from Arizona. It contains their signature huge guitar riffs, power chord smashes, chime-like harmonic licks in the choruses, solid Zach Lind drumming and, of course, the heartfelt lyrics and vocals of Jim Adkins, the force that has kept Jimmy Eat World building, boxing and carrying on for two decades.

LOCAL NATIVES – “COLOMBIA”

I first got to know the music of California indie rockers Local Natives in 2010 when their debut Gorilla Manor and top track “Wide Eyes” consumed my summer. After their equally-tremendous follow-up Hummingbird was unleashed in January, I got to actually know the guys in Local Natives a little bit, spending time with them after their Boston show. They’re good dudes and their success continues to expand with more exposure. While Hummingbird doesn’t have a song as immediately memorable as “Wide Eyes,” it does have some great ones, none better than Kelcey Ayer’s gorgeous ballad “Colombia.” A streak of sadness permeates much of Hummingbird and it comes to a head on “Colombia,” a song Ayer wrote about losing his mother. His constant questioning (“Am I loving enough?”) and the ever-rising string arrangement give the song an extra emotional punch. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to write “Colombia.” The results are undeniably powerful.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE – “SHE FOUND NOW”

On a cold February Saturday night, My Bloody Valentine, the hugely influential Irish band responsible for 1991’s utterly perfect Loveless, awoke from a 22-year slumber and released m b v. What these shoegaze pioneers produced was worth the wait just for the first song on the record. “she found now” is the younger cousin of Loveless classic “Sometimes”  except “she found now” is more sparse, more ethereal, more breathless and airy and warm. So many of MBV’s hallmarks return: the soft/loud, light/heavy dynamics; unintelligible yet moving vocals from mastermind Kevin Shields and what could very well be dozens of guitar tracks making up the entirety of the music. Would it be surprising if this was one of the tracks Shields worked on for the better part of the last two decades? It’d be appropriate if it took so long, because I could certainly listen to it forever.

THE NATIONAL – “SEA OF LOVE”

While Jimmy Eat World is my favorite band, it’s key to make a distinction: I actually think the best band in the world right now is the National and I know I can’t be alone. They returned in May with Trouble Will Find Me, another terrific installment in their already rock-solid catalogue. It’s not easy to come up with one standout track, but I’m going with “Sea of Love,” which rocks incredibly hard and could possibly fit on their earlier albums like Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers and Alligator. (Confession: I had a very meta-moment recently where I listened to this song while driving through Harvard. I swear it wasn’t on purpose. Listen to the lyrics.) It’s one of few recent National songs that really chugs along, carried by the always-outstanding drumming of Bryan Devendorf and the shouts of Matt Berninger. It’s even got some call-and-response vocals from the Dessner twins and freakin’ harmonica! What more can you ask from the best band going?

PHOENIX – “TRYING TO BE COOL”

I considered writing this entire part in French, the native tongue of these indie rock superstars, but figured I’d spare you my rusty skills. Phoenix took a lengthy hiatus after 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix launched them into worldwide recognition but came back this year with Bankrupt!, a much different but still strong effort. More prevalent on this release are synthesizers and mechanized percussion, and that’s hugely evident on “Trying To Be Cool,” the centerpiece of Bankrupt! Considering how heavy the groove is here, I can’t imagine it takes much effort for Thomas Mars and his brethren to be cool as the title suggests. There’s a couple strong breakdowns, a very distinctive guitar sound and Mars’ deep croon keeping the mood set throughout. In short, c’est magnifique. OK, I guess I couldn’t help myself.

UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA – “ONE AT A TIME”

The Ruban Nielson-led power trio Unknown Mortal Orchestra has come a long way in a short period of time, highlighting how rapidly the internet and word-of-mouth mediums can catapult a project to indie fame. From a truly unknown demo blowing up to the stage at Fallon under three years later, UMO have gained their notoriety on the back of Nielson’s badass, funky guitar style. And nowhere is that funk more present on their aptly-titled second album II than “One at a Time,” a short, energetic dynamo with a heavy groove and enough wah-wah guitar sounds to fill an entire album’s worth of material. That’s not taking anything away from the other elements of UMO, with inventive bass playing by Jake Portrait and a killer drum performance by the underrated Riley Geare. And those horns late in the action add a perfect touch to the throwback sensibility of “One at a Time.”

VAMPIRE WEEKEND – “HANNAH HUNT”

Speaking of bands that have come a long way, I submit for your consideration the case of Ezra Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij’s Vampire Weekend. The group many love to hate have kicked into another gear on this year’s Modern Vampires of the City. Gone are many of the treble-ish guitar licks and Afro-pop beats that sustained their signature sound. In their place are varied, more mature notes like those of Modern Vampire‘s show-stopping mid-album wonder “Hannah Hunt,” seemingly about the end of a relationship on a cross-country trip. There’s a shocking amount of restraint early as Koenig sings low amidst quiet bass and piano keys. Then about two-thirds through, drummer Chris Tomson bashes his snare and the song opens up, with Koenig doing something we’ve seldom heard to this point in his career. He yells. “If I can’t trust you then dammit Hannah / There’s no future, there’s no answer,” he belts in an explosion of emotion. This type of naked expression isn’t heard enough in the annals of popular indie these days.

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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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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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LISTS

LIST: My Favorite Songs of 2011 So Far

2010 was an epic year for new music, at least in my opinion. Three albums released last year rank among my all-time favorites (The National’s High Violet, Jimmy Eat World’s Invented and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) with two others hot on their heels (LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening and Local Natives’ Gorilla Manor). There were so many great albums last year that I had to spend at least a portion of this year listening to some of the 2010 awesomeness I’d missed (like Total Life Forever by Foals and Tourist History from Two Door Cinema Club).

So six months in, how does 2011 stack up? It’s hard to judge at this point, but it doesn’t appear it’s going to be quite as prolific as 2010. However, there’s been a lot excellent music so far. Here’s a rundown of nine of my favorite songs in 2011 to this point, in alphabetical order by artist.

ARCTIC MONKEYS – “THAT’S WHERE YOU’RE WRONG” FROM SUCK IT AND SEE

The finale from Arctic Monkeys’ Suck It And See, the British band’s fourth album in six years, is perhaps their strongest overall song to date. It’s a far cry from the speed and intensity that marked Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, which back in 2006 was the fastest-selling debut album in UK history. Alex Turner, Jamie Cook, Nick O’Malley and Matt Helders have experienced some real growing pains over the years, but on Suck It And See, they’ve finally figured out who they are. “That’s Where You’re Wrong” is literally the culmination of their career to this point. Cook’s melodic lead and Helders’ timely beats perfectly match the feeling in Turner’s croon. Who knew a two-chord chorus could hold so much power?

CUT COPY – “ALISA” FROM ZONOSCOPE

If you aren’t listening to Cut Copy, you’re definitely missing out. Informed by ’80s nostalgia and pages taken directly from the LCD Soundsystem playbook, their third album, Zonoscope, has definitely been my favorite album of 2011 so far. Every song feels like another step toward mainstream relevancy for electronica, a magnificent blending of all the styles that have become so vogue in indie these past few years. On deep cut “Alisa,” I think this Australian quartet hits their peak. Lead singer Dan Whitford sounds like Ric Ocasek and David Byrne’s lovechild while the band chugs along at an Aquanet-inspired backing track. This is a band with a lot more interest than just what’s going on out on the dancefloor, and it shows here.

DUM DUM GIRLS – “WRONG FEELS RIGHT” FROM HE GETS ME HIGH EP

On March 1, all-chick California surf-pop quartet Dum Dum Girls released four-song EP He Gets Me High. Three of the four songs are fantastic, including the aces title track and a rollicking cover of the Smiths’ iconic “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” But it’s the first track, “Wrong Feels Right,” that I just can’t stop listening to. I’ve always been a huge sucker for Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders, and this embodies what I’ve always enjoyed about Hynde. Lead singer Dee Dee hits a deep-voiced female confidence that Hynde has trademarked for the last 35 years. And while Dee Dee sings with such depth, the song is so bright and happy-sounding that I always find myself upset the song is only 2:31. Wrong does indeed feel right.

LADY GAGA – “THE EDGE OF GLORY” FROM BORN THIS WAY

It took two albums, one sorta-album, a zillion tweets and campaigns, a boatload of headlines and questions that had nothing to do with music, but it finally happened. On “The Edge of Glory,” the finale of her latest record, Lady Gaga realized her artistic potential. Everything works perfectly here: the feeling conjured by her lyrics, the largeness of the hook, the epicness of the overall sound, the simplicity of the chorus, the attitude in the message. I’ve grown partial to calling Gaga “The Last Pop Star,” because that’s really what she is, and she finally earned it with “Edge of Glory.” Of course, the song would be incomplete without the astounding work of Clarence Clemons on what sadly became his last musical contribution to this earth. What a way to go out.

THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART – “HEART IN YOUR HEARTBREAK” FROM BELONG

You wanna talk about fun? Look no further than this crew of New York nerds, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Their name might be complicated, but their tunes are anything but. On their first self-titled album they explored the vagaries of 80s noise pop and on this year’s Belong, they jump forward a few years, embodying the most fun of the 90s alternative rock singles I was weaned on. That fun shines through best on “Heart in Your Heartbreak.” It’s flippin’ adorable! Come on, tell me you don’t love the chorus of “She was the heart in your heart break/She was the miss in your mistake.” A perfect pop tune in any era, it’s capped off by a phenomenally not-ironic-at-all synth solo. PLEASE listen to this album, if just for the pure joy of “Heart in Your Heartbreak.”

PANDA BEAR – “FRIENDSHIP BRACELET” FROM TOMBOY

Noah Lennox, the Paul McCartney of Animal Collective, went four years between the release of his landmark Person Pitch and this April’s equal-if-not-better masterpiece Tomboy. The standout track from this terrific collection of genre-bending electronic indie is “Friendship Bracelet,” which is without question the most complicated track on this list. By the time the first chorus comes to a close, it sounds like Panda Bear is playing three different songs at once. Yet all the varied sounds come together, strung along by Lennox’s trademark harmonic inflections. I can’t even begin to guess what kind of instruments he used to put this song together. All I know is it sounds amazing. The next song on the album, “Afterburner,” is also excellent for much different reasons.

RADIOHEAD – “GIVE UP THE GHOST” FROM THE KING OF LIMBS

Let’s face it: The King of Limbs is not a great album. Certainly not up to the impossibly lofty standards Radiohead has set for themselves. Releasing three generation-defining albums (The Bends, OK Computer and Kid A) makes the rest of your career awfully tough. That’s not to say Limbs is without great songs. One that I believe immediately enters their canon is the haunting, circular “Give Up The Ghost.” Here Thom Yorke pays tribute to someone we share as a hero: Neil Young. The influence of Neil’s attention to detail and minimalist recording techniques is felt throughout, right down to the way Yorke sings. I can totally imagine this as some long-lost outtake from the On the Beach sessions. Its proves sometimes the best crib from the best. That willingness pays off immensely on “Give Up The Ghost.”

SMITH WESTERNS – “WEEKEND” FROM DYE IT BLONDE

These are young, brash Chicagoans I saw in Boston earlier this year. They played great but displayed immaturity and a lack of professionalism at the end of the set by bolting the stage before playing an encore. Like I said, they’re young and brash and will learn from their rookie mistakes. It may take some time before their personal maturity catches up to their musical maturity. “Weekend” is the Beatles-drenched opener of their second album “Dye It Blonde,” which is loaded with songs of its throwback ilk. “Weekend” is rife with catchy hooks and guitar licks and beautiful, longing minor 7th descending chords and tinges of young romance in the lyrics. There’s so much to love here. It’ll be nice when Smith Westerns start to love their fans back.

TV ON THE RADIO – “NEW CANNONBALL BLUES” FROM NINE TYPES OF LIGHT

Outside of the extremely funky “Golden Age” from Dear Science, I guess I never thought of TV on the Radio as a particularly funky band. I mean, a lot of their songs are about sex, but when you look at the guys, they don’t exactly scream “deep funky sexiness.” The first time I heard their new record about a month ago, I thought it was very good through the first six tracks. Then out came “New Cannonball Blues.” Holy. Crap. This song is the hottest thing this side of Kate Upton. It sounds like it was baked in a kiln before being applied to disc. It’s so smooth yet so forceful at the same time. And it’s nothing like anything TVOTR has put out before. I was worried Nine Types wouldn’t stand up to its prolific predecessor, Dear Science. But Dave Sitek and crew assuaged any of those fears solely based on “Cannonball.”

What have I missed? What have you listened to this year that I may not have heard? Let me know. I expect to be doing some reviews here in time, I can tell the first one I do will be Bon Iver’s new self-titled album. Hint: It’s amazing and you should listen to it.

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