MUSIC: The Half-Decade That Was

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ONE LATE 2014 ADDITION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FAVORITE BANDS, OLD AND NEW

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

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

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

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

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

IT WASN’T ALL GREAT…UNFORTUNATELY

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

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

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

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

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

MY TOP 50 FAVORITE SONGS OF ‘10-’14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. WILD NOTHING – “NOCTURNE” (2012)

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

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

2. REAL ESTATE – “CRIME” (2014)

1. M83 – “MIDNIGHT CITY” (2011)

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

MY 10 FAVORITE CONCERTS OF ‘10-’14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY 10 FAVORITE ALBUMS OF ‘10-’14

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

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

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

9. Haim – Days Are Gone (2013)

DaysAreGone

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

8. Real Estate – Atlas (2014)

atlas

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

7. Wild Nothing – Nocturne (2012)

wildnothing

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

6. Cut Copy – Zonoscope (2011)

zonoscope

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

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

lostinthedream

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

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

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

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

TroubleWillFind

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

2. Passion Pit – Gossamer (2012)

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

1. The National – High Violet (2010)

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

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

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LIST: My 10 Favorite Albums of 2013

It’s the moment about a half dozen of you have been waiting for! After unveiling my favorite songs and concerts of 2013 earlier this month, I’m now ready to share with you my 10 favorite albums of the year. For reference, here are my favorite albums lists from 2011 and 2012.

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. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (“Lose Yourself to Dance”)

19. Toro y Moi – Anything In Return (“So Many Details”)

18. Kings of Leon – Mechanical Bull (“Family Tree”)

17. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady (“Can’t Live Without Your Love”)

16. Kanye West – Yeezus (“Bound 2”)

15. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II (“Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)”)

14. Washed Out – Paracosm (“All I Know”)

13. Arcade Fire – Reflektor (“Afterlife”)

12. Phoenix – Bankrupt! (“The Real Thing”)

11. Foals – Holy Fire (“Inhaler”)

Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2013.

Jimmy_Eat_World_-_Damage10. Jimmy Eat World – Damage

I’ve counted on Jimmy Eat World to deliver the melodic rock goods since freshman year of high school. Every three years, they release a new album of pop-rock tunes. They tour, make a couple Boston stops, then head back to Arizona to cook up more. This year, the result was the superb Damage. Like 2010’s Invented, there’s a common thread here, with lead singer Jim Adkins calling it an “adult breakup record.” Adkins is rarely oblique with his lyrics, with hooky opener “Appreciation” evoking someone moving out (“We build / We box / We carry on / As people we forgot”). The landscape of Damage is littered with these heartfelt rockers: the frantic “Lean,” with its fuzzy riff; lead single “I Will Steal You Back” carrying a signature ripping Tom Linton guitar solo; straight-forward rocket “How You’d Have Me” with the best drum work here from the underrated Zach Lind. “No, Never” enters my Jimmy Eat World pantheon, hitting an emotional pitch with breakup lyrics, ringing guitars and their unmistakable pacing. “No, Never” could be on any Jimmy Eat World album, which is no small feat. And, for the first time ever, they end an album without a grandiose closer: in fact, they went completely counter with the sparse “You Were Good,” a beautiful acoustic ditty masking the most scathing lyrics in their catalogue. Adkins sings that “it was good, it was good, and it was gone.” The same goes for the 38 minutes of Damage. I can’t wait until they come back around in three years time.

SoftWill9. Smith Westerns – Soft Will

Smith Westerns were bound to grow up at some point. Sure, their hair still gets in their eyes, they still have a general pissant attitude, and, hell, the best song on their third album, Soft Will, is called “Varsity.” Yet it’s impossible to listen to this more complete, more polished body of work and not be happy about their direction. While lacking some of the anthemic punch of Dye it Blonde lynchpins like “Weekend” and “All Die Young,” Soft Will shows a band maturing around the ever-expanding songwriting chops of Cullen Omori and the playing of his bassist brother Cameron and lead guitarist Max Kakacek. The newfound growth takes Soft Will in surprising and rewarding directions. “Idol,” with its shimmering, liquidy licks, appears to be Omori speaking fondly of a father figure in his life who later does him wrong. Faster-paced “Glossed” sounds so George Harrison-esque I suspect several Rickenbacker 12-strings were used in its production. “White Oath” has a funereal feel until the guitars really kick in around the 2:55 mark, when budding virtuoso Kakacek takes over. There’s even a super-ominous instrumental, “XXXIII.” On the aforementioned closer “Varsity,” Omori goes to new glam-rock inspired heights with his lyrics (“Safety came in numbers / But all I needed was just one”) and longing guitars and synths from beginning to end. Now that Smith Westerns have finally started growing up, there’s no telling where their new wisdom will take them.

 FreeYourMind8. Cut Copy – Free Your Mind

I’ll say this about Cut Copy: they’re not afraid to take chances. After their last two successful LPs, Zonoscope and In Ghost Colours, the Australian electro-rocking quartet went in a different direction with Free Your Mind. Lead singer Dan Whitford said they drew influence from the two Summers of Love in 1967 and 1988-1989 and that’s palpable throughout. The blow-away title track is an explosion with congas, keyboards and lyrics that could have been conjured by Timothy Leary. That’s followed by the dance stomp of “We Are Explorers” that still has euphoric blasts and a mid-song conga solo, then trance-like “Let Me Show You Love,” a hypnotic jam with major Whitford voice effects. Already, this is the most unusual Cut Copy music ever put to record and we’re not at the weirdest aspect of Free Your Mind yet. That would be the absurd spoken word interludes that unfortunately bring the album down as a whole. Making up for that is the brilliance of bass-driven “In Memory Capsule,” acoustic-fueled “Dark Corners & Mountain Tops,” and Zonoscope-ian “Meet Me in the House of Love.” But they chart new territory on “Take Me Higher,” a joyous take on the acid rock inspired by that latter Summer of Love. “Take Me Higher” could have been a Stone Roses song from a day they messed around with a synthesizer in the studio. Free Your Mind isn’t Cut Copy’s best, yet the results can’t be denied when they’re at their most focused.

mbv7. My Bloody Valentine – m b v

And then one night, it existed. Kevin Shields, the genius of noise who created My Bloody Valentine’s flawless Loveless, announced to Earth his 22-years-in-the-making follow-up was finally ready in early February. m b v isn’t Loveless, nor does it aim to be, nor is it possible for any album to be, even by the band that brought it to life in 1991. Instead, m b v stands alone, oblivious of anything else currently in the pop music consciousness. Shields draws from a most logical source, the only one that’s ever mattered to his painstakingly-complex style: himself. So many highlights are reminiscent of the past: opener “she found now” has the longingly beautiful balance of “Sometimes”; poppy triumph “new you” is a redux of the highly-regarded “Soon”; and the bone-crushing “nothing is” harkens back to the Isn’t Anything era. But relying on the past doesn’t stop Shields from looking forward. While the trippy, synthed-out, daring “in another way” is a breath of disquieting air, closer “wonder 2” bears no resemblance to anything I’ve heard in my life. It sounds like a helicopter stuck inside a washing machine. Yet somehow it’s melodic and listenable, just like everything My Bloody Valentine has done. Some view m b v as a gift merely for existing, with many of these songs originating at various points over the last two decades of work by Shields. But I hope beyond all hopes that Shields is nowhere close to finishing his exploration of the possibilities of guitar sound.

BonesWhatBelieve6. Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe

What Scottish trio Chvrches are attempting to do isn’t easy. To occupy a spot in the crowded electro-pop scene in 2013, a band or artist really has to stand out. How can you get notoriety when near every other band was weaned on New Order and Depeche Mode? And, truth be told, Chvrches debut full-length is a relatively no-nonsense effort in this space. What makes them different? It’s simply the quality of the songwriting, their fully-formed maturity as a band, the sheer number of outstanding songs and the distinctive vocals of lead singer Lauren Mayberry. Her fantastic voice makes songs like lurching opening “The Mother We Share,” frantic and fast “We Sink,” cool and creeping “Tether” and hard-stomping “Lies” so indelible and part of an outstanding stretch that opens The Bones of What You Believe. The only missteps on this album are the ones where Martin Doherty takes lead and on future releases I suspect Mayberry will be the sole vocalist. What I find so impressive about Chvrches here is their ability to alternate between catchy electro-pop in songs like “Recover” and “Gun,” then go to a much more dark, moody and dramatic place with “Night Sky” and “Science/Visions” in effortless motion. The way they move between the two makes me believe Chvrches will go as far as their talent will take them in the coming years. Bands like M83 and Passion Pit better watch their backs; these Scots are for real.

AM5. Arctic Monkeys – AM

It’s been fun to not only watch Arctic Monkeys grow but to grow with them. Amazingly, they’re already five albums into their career as they, like me, approach 30. There’s a sense in AM the once-wild boys are ready to settle down, but not without a fight. While some of the songs really rock, like very early single “R U Mine?” and building crusher “Arabella,” there’s something new linking most of the songs together: a killer groove. It starts early on slinky opener “Do I Wanna Know” with its heavy riff and lead singer Alex Turner’s unmistakable croons. With images like “spilling drinks on my settee” and that “nights are meant for saying things you can’t say tomorrow,” Turner hits the theme of getting over late, drunk, pointless nights out. On similar creeper “One For the Road,” Turner “thought it was dark outside” when his potential partner felt much differently about their prospects. The album’s one slow song, the disguised-titled “No. 1 Party Anthem,” is about a prowling, collar-popping douchebag trying to score, only the way Turner tells it, that sunglasses-indoors a-hole is you. “Call off the search for your soul / Or put it on hold again,” Turner advises. Now that’s a definitive statement worthy of a generation that can’t make up its mind. There’s also the classically-long titled “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” that’s the closest thing to funk in their catalogue. Once we get to the finale, “I Wanna Be Yours,” Turner is finally ready to declare love to his one and only. But again, there’s a catch: the words aren’t his, instead belonging to legendary English street poet John Cooper Clarke. Still, Arctic Monkeys continued their growth on AM, and there’s no doubt we’ll be respecting them in the a.m. now, too.

 ModernVamp4. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Vampire Weekend haters piss me off. “Oh, Ezra Koenig is SUCH a TOOL.” “They make music for people who wear boat shoes and drive BMWs.” “How FREAKING pretentious can a band be?” Spare me. Each Vampire Weekend album has represented a step in the development of a great band, with their debut establishing a unique Afro-pop sound and their second pushing their boundaries in numerous-if-disparate directions. Modern Vampires of the City finds Koenig and his compatriots settling into an area of creative cohesion among their influences and touching on a score of worldly topics, among them God, faith and existence. Anyone who still hates Vampire Weekend after this is just trying to be cool and needs to try harder. Plaintive, piano-driven opener “Obvious Bicycle” saunters into the acoustic guitar and organ jaunt of “Unbelievers,” which is the first of Modern’s songs to explore faith and the speaker’s place on Earth. “Step” is faux-funky; “Diane Young” is a frantic pop marvel with its play-on-words title and chorus; “Don’t Lie” is 2013 chamber pop at its finest. “Hannah Hunt” is the album’s emotional center, telling the story of a cross-country break-up with Koenig’s best-ever and most tortured vocals. “Everlasting Arms” comes off like a stripped-down take on Paul Simon’s iconic Graceland, harkening back to Vampire Weekend’s early African-influenced era. Quirky and fast “Finger Back” (with its great couplet “I don’t wanna live like this / But I don’t wanna die”) and “Worship You” follow before theological anthem “Ya Hey,” yet another great play-on-spiritual-words. Koenig pulls no punches with his lyrics “through the fire and through the flames.” The hype was right in every way on Modern Vampires of the City. If critics of Vampire Weekend still exist, it can’t be possibly on artistic merit anymore.

hummingbird3. Local Natives – Hummingbird

In 2010, Local Natives burst onto the indie rock scene with their fantastically-great debut Gorilla Manor. It was the soundtrack to a summer spent traipsing around Seacoast New Hampshire, providing welcome hard-rocking, somewhere-between-Grizzly Bear-and-Fleet Foxes melodies for the many miles I logged thanks to my job. For 2013, follow-up Hummingbird was a soundtrack of its own, representing the entirety of this year because of its January release. There isn’t a breakout hit from Hummingbird like Gorilla Manor’s knockout opener “Wide Eyes.” Instead, Hummingbird is stocked with impressive highlights showcasing a natural sophisticated progression of their sound, stoked by producer Aaron Dessner of the National. It’s marked by both quiet and loud moments, melded together for maximum emotional exposure. There was a lot of sadness surrounding the creation of Hummingbird, between the departure of original bassist Andy Hamm and the death of guitarist/keyboardist Kelcey Ayer’s mother. That sadness is felt most fervently on penultimate masterpiece “Colombia,” where Ayer openly wonders if his love in his mother’s final days is enough. It’s so personal, it’s like you’re eavesdropping on a conversation you shouldn’t hear, making it a moment of stunning courage for Ayer to share with us. Other lighter spots include opener “You & I” and its great Ayer vocals; “Ceilings” and its beautiful guitar arpeggios; “Three Months” with its soft piano and guitar colors. There’s also mid-tempo wonder “Heavy Feet,” where co-lead Taylor Rice takes over with Matt Frazier’s scattering drumming. Then, we’ve got the rockers, like the clash of Breakers, the catchy guitar romp of “Black Balloons,” and the urgency of “Wooly Mammoth.” They all come together in a serious sound crafted by these Los Angelenos and their well-versed producer. I got the chance to meet Local Natives in March and I told Frazier, quite bluntly, that I although I loved Hummingbird, there were still heights his band could reach. Instead of getting defensive, he was pleased. Matt said, “That’s good. That means we can still get better.” I have a feeling Hummingbird won’t be the last soundtrack for my life to come from Local Natives.

DaysAreGone2. Haim – Days Are Gone

I discovered Haim earlier this year when they were scheduled to open for Vampire Weekend at BU. Either the schedule was incorrect or the three California-based sisters never made it to Agganis that night, because I never saw them. Little did I know Haim, with guitarists Danielle and Alana and bassist Este, would become my favorite new band of 2013 and make one of the best pop-rock albums this decade with Days Are Gone, working with VW producer Ariel Rechtshaid. The sisters who range in age from 22 to 27 have played together most of their lives and while being a “new” band in a popular sense they’ve worked hard to develop an eclectic, rock-based sound so polished it’s downright scary. It starts immediately with world-beating opener “Falling,” a perfect Thriller-era marvel of dramatic pop. Things get more fun on the next few tracks, with “Forever,” “The Wire” and “If I Could Change Your Mind,” each with their signature pop flair and all three sisters taking lead vocals at various times, showing off the full range of their talents. A lot of the lyrics deal with scorned or soon-to-be-scorned lovers, with “The Wire” particularly venomous. (Have we figured out exactly what the hell Danielle is saying during the choruses?) Things go a bit deeper on “Honey & I,” the at-times quiet loomer that builds to a crashing crescendo. Lighter and underrated pop ditty “Don’t Save Me” is followed by two semi-experimental rockers, the synth-propelled title track and the out-of-this-world “My Song 5.” It’s hard to believe anyone besides Justin Timberlake could pull this off and call it pop, but “My Song 5” (that title had to be influenced by GarageBand, no?) is just weird enough to be a classic. Next, “Go Slow” is the album’s bedrock, a beautiful catharsis about a failed relationship with incredible Haim sister harmonies. Days Are Gone closes with fast-moving “Let Me Go” and the almost-celebratory “Running If You Call My Name,” capping an unforgettable debut. It’s hard to believe this is only the beginning for Haim.

TroubleWillFind1. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

For many reasons, I found myself in a much better place in 2013 than any other year of my life. Because of that, I wondered how I’d receive new music from the National. In 2011, I tweeted the National were the perfect band for “a white 25-year-old college grad who lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment.” It’s hard to call anything the National released on their previous four albums as sunny or bright. On 2010’s unimpeachable High Violet, song titles included “Sorrow” and “Terrible Love.” This spring brought news of a new album to be called, of all things, Trouble Will Find Me. How could I identify with Matt Berninger, the Dessners, the Devendorfs and their dour tones if I was no longer dour myself? It didn’t matter. Trouble Will Find Me finds the National as masters of their indie rock domain, at worst on par with their finest work, showcasing what they do best. As with all their slow-burning albums, you have to live with it over time to appreciate it. From the opening acoustic strums of “I Should Live In Salt” to the expressly downbeat and more-monotone-than-normal “Demons”; from the “Bloodbuzz Ohio” callback of “Don’t Swallow the Cap” to Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers power chords of “Sea of Love”; from the exhausted yells of “This is the Last Time” to Bryan Devendorf’s typical galaxy-shifting drumming on “Graceless”; from the sad shuffle of “Slipped” to the lilting longing love of “I Need My Girl”: you’re in the presence of greatness with each listen and with each listen you want more. Berninger is either at his most brilliant or most mad with his lyrics, his common contrast taken to extreme. “I was teething on roses / I was in Guns ‘n Noses” he blurts out in brooding opus “Humiliation.” Yet penultimate stunner “Pink Rabbits” has downtrodden Berninger as “a white girl in a crowd of white girls in a park” and “a television version of a person with a broken heart.” It’s both perfect and so terribly broken. Sentiments like those helped me realize connecting with a great album isn’t necessarily about identifying it with a place and time in your life. It’s about finding something that simply connects. Over the last six years no band has done that for me like the National, with Trouble Will Find Me perhaps the best collection of those connections yet.

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.

MLB: A Sox Fan’s View of Derek Jeter

Robert Sabo/NY Daily News

While my stathead brethren would probably find a way to disagree, the true essence of baseball is the base hit. It’s what every hitter who’s ever picked up a stick of ash or maple (or aluminum, yecccchh) has tried to do at the plate. It’s what every pitcher on the mound and every fielder on the diamond has tried to prevent.

Some years ago it was decided 3,000 hits was the gold standard by which hitters in Major League Baseball would be measured. Before Saturday, just 27 men in history had reached that plateau. Derek Jeter blew the number away on Saturday, collecting five hits and notching 3,000 on a third-inning dinger off David Price.

Jeter made his MLB debut on May 29, 1995, a month after I turned nine. I’m now 25 with a job and bills to pay, but Jeter is still hitting, maybe not at the same clip as during his peak years of the late ’90s and early ’00s, but he’s still Jeter.

As a Red Sox fan for the last 20 years, I’ve watched Derek Jeter’s entire career from the other side. I’ve watched thousands of his at-bats, hundreds of those 3,003 hits and innumerable plays from his perch at shortstop for the last 16 years.

Immediately after he got his 3,000th hit, I tweeted a congratulatory message, but I couldn’t resist throwing in a barb about how Jeter is the most overrated player in baseball history. I believe this to be true: considering the attention paid to Jeter and the Yankees for the entirety of his career, the team and city for which he plays, his position on the field and the adherence so many baseball observers still hold to “intangibles” like leadership, class and “being a true Yankee,” Jeter’s play has been significantly inflated by media and fans through the years.

If Jeter had done the same things in Houston, or Kansas City, or Pittsburgh, there’s simply no way he’d have received the same accolades and pronouncements of immortality. Sure, Jeter is an all-time great shortstop. But he’s not the greatest, and he might not be in the top five, either.

The fact that Jeter is overrated isn’t his fault. And it could just be my anti-Yankees bias that informs this opinion. Really, I wish I could hate Derek Jeter. I wish I could have hated everything he’s done these past 16 years. I wish I could say he’s a jerk and an asshole and someone I despise with every fiber of my being.

But I can’t. Because none of that is true. It’s because of who Derek Jeter is that I sit here, having watched more of him than any non-Red Sox player in my two decades following this game, that I sit here in praise, and awe, of his accomplishments.

I define Jeter by his excellence in October (and November). Jeter has missed the playoffs just once in his career and sports an .850 OPS in 679 postseason plate appearances. I’ve seen so many of his playoff triumphs that it’s hard to remember them all: the Jeffrey Maier homer; the single most heads-up defensive play in baseball history; when he became Mr. November; his double that touched off the rally against Pedro in 2003 ALCS Game 7; and every time they won the World Series over the last 15 seasons, every time I was in the fetal position because of the Yankees’ successes, Jeter has been at the center of each moment.

I wish I could hate him for those moments. I do. But I can’t. And I know I’m not the only Red Sox fan that feels this way.

Jeter is a throwback. Every one of his 3,003 hits have been collected in the same uniform. George Brett can say that. Cal Ripken can say that. So can Robin Yount, Tony Gwynn and Craig Biggio. Those are five of my favorite players of all-time, and five guys who were loyal to one city and one group of fans during an era of rampant free agency. Jeter can now etch his name among them. The Yankees had the foresight to lock up Jeter to a 10-year pact during his absolute prime and they’ll probably wind up regretting his current deal based on the kind of performance they’ll get.

But I realized early in Jeter’s career that he would be a Yankee for life. He will never play for another team. He’ll quit before that happens. And that’s what I respect about him the most. I might hate the team he plays for and the fans he adores, but I love his devotion to that team and those fans. It’s palpable in everything he does.

In 16 years, I’ve never seen Derek Jeter give up on a play. In 16 years, I’ve never seen Derek Jeter not run out a ground ball or a pop up. In 16 years, I’ve never seen Derek Jeter show up a teammate or another player. In 16 years, I’ve never seen Derek Jeter disrespect anything except a hanging slider or a belt-high fastball.

If I ever have a son, and that son were to play baseball, there is no player that I’d want him to emulate more than Derek Jeter.

As a Red Sox fan, it’s a hard thing to admit. But as a baseball fan, it’s the highest compliment I can pay to any player.

Warning: NSFW language in video.