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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.”


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.


LIST: The 10 Best Concerts I’ve Seen

There’s a new band out there.

Pitchfork gave their debut an 8.4. Twitter and the music blogs are lighting up. Everyone you know has the single.

The group is coming to your town and you make sure to snatch up tickets. You know if you don’t, you’ll look back one day with regret.

You pack into the venue. The first band is good, but the band you, and everyone else, came out to see is a few minutes from taking the stage. You can feel the buzz in the room. The excitement is so thick you can taste it.

The lights go out. The spotlights come up. You dart your eyes to the stage. Everyone around you is cheering at the top of their lungs.

And they take the stage. From note one, to note last, they kill it. They’re everything you ever expected and more. You share amazed glances with your buddies every now and then.

Everyone in that room knows they’re seeing something incredible. Something special. The beginning of something.

It ends. And the breathless exaltation starts. You know something just happened you’ll never forget. Something you may never be able to replace.

That is, until the next band comes along.

I went to my first concert in August 2000. I’ve been to nearly 70 concerts since, which is a lot for some but a small number compared to others. There is nothing on Earth, in my opinion, like the thrill I just described above. It doesn’t necessarily just come from a band you haven’t seen before, or a new act trying to make a name for themselves.

It can come from a great act you’ve seen a a million times, or an old standby that hasn’t stopped rocking. Or it can just be from a great time and great memories you created with friends on a night with music.

As times change, the way we experience music has also changed. Until now, our increasingly socially-connected world hadn’t made its way to concert-going.

My best friend, Sam Mullins, has been working for months to develop an iPhone app that will help you find great live bands, check into concerts, rate and review shows and connect with other people in the crowd.

The app is called TourBus and it’s now available in the App Store on your iPhone. If you have an iPhone, and enjoy the thrill of live music, I urge you to check it out and tell all your friends about it. Check out TourBus on Facebook and Twitter, too.

To mark the occasion of TourBus’ release, and as a reward for your download of the app, I’m offering a list of the 10 best concerts I’ve seen. Narrowing down all the great shows I’ve seen to 10 was an extremely difficult task.

I have based this on a number of criteria, including but not limited to: the greatness of the headliner, the greatness of the entire bill, my personal memories of the show, the overall concert experience, and basically anything else I felt was important.

I’ve listed the shows in chronological order and each show is accompanied by my ticket stub. Thanks for reading, thanks for downloading the app, and keep on listening.


This was my second concert, and my first at Portland’s great State Theater. It was also the first of the seven times I’ve seen Jimmy Eat World, four average guys from Arizona who leave everything they have on stage every night. It was the height of their popularity, with “The Middle” and “Sweetness” burning up the airwaves. With nearly everyone from my high school in attendance, I got to first understand the power of a smaller venue. It was my introduction to the songs from their 1999 opus Clarity, which would become my favorite album of the era. Not only that, but the guys played not one but TWO encores, finishing the set with Bleed American‘s epic closer “My Sundown.”


The first concert Sam and I went to together, we got there early and were leaning up against the front of the stage throughout. Beth Hart and her strong voice made a great early impression, but Michael Franti and his backing band Spearhead stole this show. Franti was wildly funky, traipsing the stage in bare feet. But he was so strong, so believable and so enjoyable from beginning to end. When the set ended, he walked off the front of the stage into the crowd to say hello to people in attendance. Ziggy Marley played a good set, but I was always struck by how much fun Franti and his band had that night.


Las Vegas rock gods the Killers were touring in support of their monster second album Sam’s Town when I was treated to the best arena show I’ve ever seen during my sophomore year of college. The Red Romance were a fun rock act with tinges of ’80s nostalgia, and put on an excellent set. None of us knew anything about the next band, the Silver Beats. It turned out they were a NOTE PERFECT Beatles tribute band from, of all places, Tokyo. I’m telling you it was borderline creepy how good they were. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of any show I’ve seen. Then the Killers came out and made everyone nearly forget about the incredible display they’d just witnessed.


Don’t pretend you’re not jealous: I got to see John Mayer in a casino ballroom and stood a few feet away while he spun hours of blues-rock perfection. Mayer wasn’t touring for an album, but it was my first Mayer experience and it was unforgettable. He played songs from throughout his catalogue, with some of the best coming from his best album, 2006’s Continuum. Certified show-stopper “Gravity” was the highlight of the night. Sam and I saw this show with Sam’s family friend Todd, known as “Toad” to friends. Toad, who loved live music, passed away about a year after this show. If you look really closely at the icon for the TourBus app, you’ll find a tribute to Toad in there.


The Whigs and We Are Scientists both played good sets at this show. With that out of the way, I can now gush about how un-fucking-believable Kings of Leon played that night at the Orpheum. We had excellent seats, just a few rows from the stage. Only By the Night, the Tennessee quartet’s third album, the one that would launch them to super-duper-stardom, was tearing its way through the country while “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody” were in everyone’s heads. Every note they played that night was dripping with Jack Daniel’s-infused rock gravitas. They practically burned that place down. We knew immediately upon leaving we’d never see Kings of Leon in a venue that small again.


This show came shortly after the newly-renovated House of Blues opened. I could think of no better kick-off  than seeing Jimmy Eat World on their “Clarity x 10″ tour. They played only 10 shows that winter showcasing the entirety of their finest album, which turned 10 that month. They played their set with a special energy and enthusiasm. For me, it was an unforgettable chance to see my favorite band play my favorite album. My emotions ran high as they went through favorites like “Just Watch the Fireworks” and “For Me This Is Heaven,” obscure singles like “No Sensitivity” and the incredible re-made closer “Goodbye Sky Harbor.” So many of the songs they played were ones I feared I’d never see again. Instead, they gave me memories in one night I’ll never forget.


The dearly-departed WFNX’s annual holiday show in 2009 had an absurd lineup, despite the disparate styles of the three bands: Passion Pit was a local group that had exploded that year thanks to their masterful electro-pop debut Manners; French rockers Phoenix were also gaining major attention in the U.S. for the first time on the heels of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix longtime Texas alternative demi-gods Spoon were set to release Transference in the wake of immensely popular Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. The result was an astoundingly-great show from beginning to end. Today the only one of those bands who could still headline a venue as small as the Orpheum would be, interestingly enough, Spoon, who headlined that night.


Before the release of their third album, This is Happening, James Murphy-led Brooklyn indie behemoths LCD Soundsystem made clear this would be the end of their band. With this knowledge in hand, there was no way I’d miss them that year. The result was a show at the Orpheum for the ages. We were in the back of the orchestra that night and I remember it being more sweltering than usual inside the old venue. That could have been due to the intensity of LCD’s live show. They blistered through classics like “All My Friends” and I specifically recall “Get Innocuous!” as a highlight of the night. It’s almost certainly the first, last and only time I’ll ever see LCD Soundsystem live. My sadness over that is replaced by the incredible memories of their live prowess.


We didn’t really know what to expect when we got tickets to see Anthony Gonzalez’s shoegaze-inspired synth pop project M83 in concert last fall. Because of demand, the show had been moved from the much-smaller Paradise to House of Blues and we stood in the mezzanine to get a bird’s eye view. It’d safe to say we were stunned beyond belief at just how astounding M83 was that night. From the opening synth drones of “Intro” to the out-and-out amazing closer “Couleurs,” I had chills the entire night. They scampered around the stage like crazed French elves, jamming away on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming staples like “Reunion” and world-beating single “Midnight City.” This was definitely a night like the one I described in my intro. Months later, we were still talking about how great that show was.


I’ve seen Dave Matthews Band five times now, and every time has been awesome, including two fantastic shows at Fenway Park in May ’09. There cannot possibly be another band on the planet who has more fun on stage than these guys, who’ve been crushing it live for over two decades now. They have a chemistry that’s so deeply palpable. The show this past June stands out because of how it ended: After so many years as the DMB concert version of a white whale, Boston-area fans finally got to see “Halloween,” the Before These Crowded Streets deep cut that takes an entirely new existence live. That segued into a joyously euphoric closing rendition of “Tripping Billies” to cap another incredible show. Even if you aren’t a huge fan, you owe it to yourself to take in the DMB experience someday.