Saturday, December 26, 2015

Top 50 Songs of the Year

Hello everyone, and welcome to the 9th annual year-end list! These top 50 songs represent the culmination of a years worth of sountracking every car ride, Saturday morning coffee, and much more. I don't get to listen to everything that's out there, but I make a good effort to try as much as I can. Although every link below opens up the individual song in youtube, and the top ten is embedded in the actual page, the best way to listen is probably to click here on this link and check out the full spotify playlist. Hope you enjoy!

It’s been over nine years since Silversun Pickups’ debut, and this is just their third album, but it’s once again a solid collection of hazy alternative rock. Of a good batch, “Pins & Needles” is the best.

Dan Auerbach, clearly known best for The Black Keys, emerges hear making great music as The Arcs. “Stay in My Corner” has everything: great guitar work, a soft verse over a tinkling piano, and a whole lot of soul.

Here’s a song that makes the list basically just for the guitar line that weaves its way through the course of the song.

Oh Lana, what a career arc you’ve chosen for yourself. You have to give the girl credit. No matter how close she gets to superstardom, she keeps retreating away from the pop and towards the sweeping melodrama. But she’s pretty dang good at that.

This song plays like a raging storm, and the sliding guitars that lead into the chorus highlight the swell that comes next. Foals continue to help lead the way in keeping Brit guitar-driven alt rock alive.

A little sentimental throwback here. “Just Kids” has Kearney going back to his old spoken word style, looking back at childhood, and singing through his marriage. I first heard this song soon after my wife and I were sharing a mattress on our living room floor after making a big life change. The line “If it's just you and me on the floor/Go grab your coat and I'll drive us home” resonates.

As forgettable as Kintsugi was as an album, there were a couple standouts, and no more than “No Room in Frame”, a chronicle of lead singer Ben Gibbard’s breakup with actress Zooey Deschanel. “Was I in your way when the cameras turned to face you? / No room in frame for two.”

Speaking of highlights on disappointing albums, Django Django’s newest album was a bizarrely weak effort that sounded the same to the point where you couldn’t tell the songs apart. The lone bright spot was “First Light”, a song that flashes all the potential they unleased when they first gave the world one of my favorite songs, “Hail Bop”.

There’s a raw quality to “4th and Roebling” that very appealing, Their website announces “We're from a little town called Lititz, Pa. We write honest music and are passionate about doing so.”. That sounds about right.

Japanese Wallpaper provide the hazy, atmospheric track and Airling’s sweet voice expresses great passion even in softness. While the song may immediately strike as nothing more than pleasant background music, it’s a good kind of song for a solo drive.

The subject matter of “Big Decisions”—refusing to help an indecisive friend make tough calls—is a little odd, but the song’s infectious verses are what really carry the song.

Peaking at #1 on the alternative charts this year, Big Data’s “Dangerous” is carried by a slick hook and a great bass line.

You may remember Family of the Year for last year’s revival of “Hero” from the outstanding film Boyhood. On the heels of their breakout, they release a tame-yet-likeable album highlighted by “Facepaint”, a summer jam if you’ve ever heard one.

If you believe in a night driving song as a concept, then you need to hear “Ocean to City”, but only in that specific circumstance. “Ocean to City” is for a rainy night, driving alone, with the streetlights reflecting on the ground.

The most streamed song on Spotify this year? None other than “Lean On”, making it quite the 2015 surprise. It’s a bit of a coup for the anti-Taylor Swift/Katy Perry/all mainstream hip hop crowd. And while 540 million steams may mean you may already find it overplayed, it’s got some undeniable fine qualities. Consider a few of those 540 million streams to be mine.

You saw Mat Kearney earlier, and I haven’t even got to Third Eye Blind yet. Yep, it’s my list and I’m allowed to be nostalgic. Lifehouse is still making music, and not much has changed. In many ways, their newest album was actually better than their last couple. The best of the bunch is “Flight”, which has an ending reminiscent of their early gem “Everything”.

No doubt Michael Angelako has one of the more recognizable voices in alt rock and indie, and here he lends his voice to French producer Madeon’s track, and the result is a song that stands up well against Passion Pit’s best tracks.

My first thought listening to Courtney Barnett was that I’d found the Australian female version of The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, and that is very, very high praise from me. Barnett’s style is detached and thoughtful, and all her best lyrical qualities are on display on “Depreston”, which finds her touring a cheaper housing option in the suburbs (“You said, ‘we should look out further,’ I guess it wouldn't hurt us/We don't have to be around all these coffee shops”). Initially focused on the move, Barnett instead turns her mind towards the house’s previous deceased owners. “Then I see the handrail in the shower/a collection of those canisters for coffee, tea, and flour/And a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam”. It’s the kind of realistic imagery only borne by real experiences, and Barnett is a master at putting them to song.

At their best, The Decemberists crafts songs like these. “Cavalry Captain”, all horns and grandeur and storytelling, is a fictional account that is presumably set two centuries previous. “Lake Song”, on the other hand, is much more personal and traditionally verbose. It’s also a bit fun in its own way, as it tells the story of an angsty and wordy 17 year old (“And I, seventeen and terminally fey”). It’s likely an autobiographical account. The highlight of the song is when Colin Meloy sings the line “You tattered me, you tethered me to you/The things you would, and the things you wouldn't do/To tell the truth I never had a clue”, perhaps summing up 17 year old love as well as can be done.

“Until We Can’t (Let Go”) is a romp, with full energy from start to finish. This is proof that a synth-laden track can still be a headbanger. This one will get you moving.

The Weeknd finally hit the mainstream, four years after four of their tracks cracked my honorable mentions list in 2011. “Real Life” was the best of a strong album, showing what Abel Tesayfe is capable of if his natural vocal abilities are paired with strong production and little lyrical restraint.

Sweeping grandeur is Florence’s calling card, and she nails it here. The strings kick it off and then in rushes in Florence, breaking no ground but showing she’s the master of her game.

“Sedona” is feel good indie, and I hope Houndmouth had as much fun recording this track as it sounds. The group-sing over the simple driving percussion and guitar makes this the most pleasant and loveable hit of the year.

I’m an unapologetic fan of The National, so naturally I picked up Matt Berninger’s side project, EL VY. And just as naturally, I fell in love with the track most similar to The National. Teaming with former list-maker Bret Knopf—whose band Menomena placed a track called “Five Little Rooms” at #26 back in 2010—Berninger gives a haunting effort worthy of matching the very best of The National.

The first time I heard this song I predicted these guys would break out. Maybe they still will. Give it a listen. This is folk with a revivalist flare. On first glimpse, the song is a rousing good time, but on second view it’s some pretty heavy stuff.  Now for seventeen years I've been throwing them back
Seventeen more will bury me“. This is a sincere, toe-tapping romp.

Purity Ring’s solid effort early in the year seems to have been forgotten, but I’m still playing “bodyache”, the most infectious of album’s tracks.

They’ve become less consistent over time, but I’ve yet to meet a 3EB album without a couple great songs. “Everything is Easy” leads off the newest album with a forward-moving track that plays to 3EB’s strengths. Yes, the very idea that I consider 3EB a band worth considering reveals that I came of age circa 1999, but I’ve always felt that of the bands making this brand of pop rock, 3EB did it best.

“Flatliners” is not what anyone pre-2015 would have expected from Twin Shadow, and the album was poorly received for reasons similar to this. But taken on its own, the passionate chorus and the strings that haunt the background around the 3 minute mark make this one of the year’s best tracks.

A song for a broken robot—or a broken a man—Watson’s song is everything the best Watson songs are. It’s heartfelt and moving, emerging with hope from the darkness and brokenness at the beginning. Sonically is where Watson always soars, with his perfect blend of swirling electronics and symphony. Patrick Watson is a solo name, but his band is like an orchestra.

“World Ender” is indie folk, but there’s a gritty old country quality to it too with its stories of dead brought back to life and unforgiving revenge. The percussion pulses and the story races. 

Flowers is a fascinating man. We’ve known now for a while that Flowers is the glitz and cheesiness and over-the-topness behind The Killers…think “All These Things That I’ve Done” or “Human” instead of “Somebody Told Me”. “Can’t Deny My Love” is enormous fun, and is possibly the best manifestation of Flowers’ adoration and unapologetic love for all these things. The dramatic verses, the bursting chorus, and multi-vocalist gospel background singers. It’s amazing.

Probably more known for joining Big Data for a #1 alternative hit, Joywave’s best contribution to the year was “Somebody New” off their own album. This is roll down your window in the summer stuff.

Introspection was a major theme of Tame Impala’s year-best album, and in many ways I found this track to be the album’s emotional center. Kevin Parker’s vocal is one of the keys, with his tone matching the lyrics perfectly. When he sings “I saw it different…I must admit…I caught a glimpse I’m going after it…they say people never change, but that’s bullshit…they do…”, it’s not just what he sings, but how he sings it.

Coldplay keeps churning out consistent album, and on their latest addition the album’s best track is “Army of One”, which brings in all the best of the modernized Coldplay that emerged on Mylo Xyloto paired on the same track with “X Marks the Spot”, a more down tempo track.

The most American rock song of the year was this gritty track, emerging from a funky concoction of bass and lead guitar. Brittany Howard squeals to lead off the track and from there the blues-iest track of the year takes off.

My pick for most hopelessly catchy track of the year is this one. One listen and you’ll be chanting “hella hella hella” all day. Owing much to west coach beach rock acts like The Beach Boys and other followers, this is a Southern California, Coast Highway, indie rock anthem.

Back with his follow-up to the outrageously good “Play By Play”, Autre Ne Veut provides a worthy second placer. All rainy day, loungey horns over electric haze and piano up front, the song finally kicks over a minute and a half into it, and when it finally breaks free after three whole minutes, you have one of the best whole tracks of the year.

I’ve been touting Great Good Fine Ok for a while now, and the show why by teaming with St. Lucia here. To steal shamelessly from someone on the internet, they put the soul back in synthpop.

Short and moving, Fitzsimmons sings in trademarked hushed tones over minimalist instrumentation about the death of his grandmother.

CHRVCHES are masters of the hook in synth rock, and “Never Ending Circles” joins “The Mother We Share” as absolutely irresistible crowd pleasing romps.

10. Kurt Vile – “Pretty Pimpin’”

“Pretty Pimpin’” isn’t just an interesting sounding jam with a great mix of guitar, it’s also a whole lot of fun.  “I woke up this morning/Didn't recognize the man in the mirror/Then I laughed and I said, ‘Oh silly me, that's just me’”.

9. Lord Huron – “Way Out There”

Lord Huron has probably played too long in semi-obscurity in the land of indie folk mostly conquered by the inferior Mumford & Sons. So here it is, Lord Huron’s masterpiece. Enjoy.

8. Majical Cloudz – “Downtown”

I’d never heard of Majical Cloudz before watching the black and white video below. But there’s something about it that gets under your skin. In the end, it’s a love song: “There's one thing I'll do/If it ever goes wrong/I'll write you into my all of my songs.”.

7. MuteMath – “Remain”

MuteMath has been a longtime favorite. They can bring the funk, the soul, the rock, the atmospherics, and everything in between. On “Remain”, though, the mood shifts to song that is equal parts introspection and inspiration. The song builds and builds before bursting into the most anthemic song MuteMath has ever put together.

6. Grimes – “Flesh without Blood/Life in the Vivid Dream”

Describing is fruitless. Grimes can do whatever she wants. Just when you think she’s trippy indie, she’s the master of pop like on “Flesh without Blood”. Just when you think it's pop, it comes with a seedy dark side. And just when you think you appreciate her pop side, she drops a hauntingly beautiful track like “Life in the Vivid Dream” to tie it all together. She may just be a tortured genius.

5. Patrick Watson – “Places You Will Go”

With a title inspired by Dr Suess, “Places You Will Go” is full of lush instrumentation, Watson’s soft vocals, and some of the best moments in music this year. “Walking through the city of too many roads/When I don't know how to walk/Staring all the pretty lights/Get off it starts feeling right”.

4. Modest Mouse – “Lampshades on Fire”

“Lampshades on Fire” is so fun that it makes the top ten without me using a word like “moving”, at least in the emotional sense. The track is a pure toe-tapping force and the best alternative rock song of the year.

3. “Should Have Known Better”/”Fourth of July”

I don’t know how to deal with these songs in a list. They are the centerpieces of an album that is really a diary that should be listened to in full, not popped into a random shuffle. Sufjan Stevens, already the master of sincerity and feelings in modern music, deals with his mother’s abandonment on “Should Have Know Better” (“When I was three/three maybe four/she left us at that video store”). After reuniting years later, he finds himself by her death bed on "Fourth of July" (“I’m sorry I left/but it was for the best/though it never felt right”). There are no drums here, just a song paced by a plucked guitar or a gentle keyboard and backed by a choir or a chilling electronic hum. They are masterpieces, but they are hard to swallow.

2. Brandon Flowers – “Between Me and You” «««««

This is Brandon Flowers, more known for The Killers, at his most honest and earnest. The songs finds him at a crossroads, worried about the future and where his career and passion for music conflicts with his love for his wife. Understanding how Brandon Flowers has always failed to fit perfectly into the world of rock and roll is helped by knowing this: Flowers has been married 10 years, has three sons, is a Mormon, and met his wife in a thrift store before The Killers ever hit the big time. There are couple key elements here: the transition between “thinking” about the future and “worrying” about the future on the first two verses, and the sincerity with which he sings “I think I’m losing it now…” on the second verse. The song is personal, and it’s personal to me too, as it came to me when I was transitioning career-wise and coping with the same money/family decisions. To my wife: “These hours I'm working ain't nearly enough/And chasing every dollar, girl, is this what I was born to do?/But I'm doing my best not to let it get between me and you.”

1. Tame Impala – “Love/Paranoia” «««««

On the surface, “Love/Paranoia” is a breakup song, dealing with the crushing emotional impact of the surprise ending of a cut off relationship (“but it hit me like an avalanche”), but it’s more about insecurity. And musically, this track is so much more than even that. Along with “New Person, Same Old Mistakes”, “Love/Paranoia” anchors the ending of the year’s best album. Kevin Parker hits with one of the year’s best lyrics when he sings “I've heard those words before/Are you sure it was nothing?/Cause it made me feel like dying…inside”. That the line is so impactful is a testament to what is going on musically. The songs quiets to barely more than just finger snaps, before the synths swell back in. The songs picks up pace mid-second verse, with new instrumentation, building on itself and quieting at the perfect moments. Just listen to everything going on after the two minute mark: the strings, the psychedelic guitar, the synth horns. I’ve had it playing non-stop since July.

Honorable Mentions:
Alabama Shakes – “Future People”
Alabama Shakes – “Gimme All Your Love”
Andrew Belle – “Dark Matter”
The Arcs – “Outta My Mind”
Autre Ne Veut – “World War Pt. 2”
Brandon Flowers – “I Can Change”
Brandon Flowers – “Lonely Town”
CHVRCHES – “Playing Dead”
CHVRCHES – “Leave a Trace”
Coldplay – “Adventure of a Lifetime”
Coldplay ft. Tove Lo – “Fun”
Coldplay – “Up&Up”
Courtney Barnett – “Pedestrian at Best”
Courtney Barnett – “Dead Fox”
Death Cab for Cutie – “Binary Sea”
The Decemberists – “The Harrowed and the Haunted”
Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – “Sunday Candy”
Ducktails – “Headbanging in the Mirror”
EL VY – “Paul is Alive”
Elle King – “Ex’s & Oh’s”
Ellie Goulding – “Holding On For Life”
Florence + The Machine – “Caught”
Foals – “London Thunder”
Great Good Fine OK – “Carried Away”
Green River Ordinance – “Cannery River”
Grimes – “laughing and not being normal”
Grimes – “Belly of the Beat”
Grimes – “Realiti (demo)”
Grimes – “Easily”
Jarryd James – “Do You Remember”
Kurt Vile – “Dust Bunnies”
Lana Del Rey – “Salvatore”
Lana Del Rey – “Honeymoon”
Leon Bridges – “Lisa Sawyer”
Lifehouse – “One for the Pain”
Lord Huron – “Until the Night Turns”
Mat Kearney – “Moving On”
Modest Mouse – “Pups to Dust”
Modest Mouse – “Wicked Campaign”
Modest Mouse – “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box”
The Moth and the Flame – “Young & Unafraid”
Muse – “Reapers”
MuteMath – “Used To”
MuteMath – “Stratosphere”
MuteMath – “Monument”
My Morning Jacket – “Only Memories Remain”
My Morning Jacket – “Get the Point:
Natalie Prass – “You Fool”
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – “Howling at Nothing”
The National – “Sunshine on My Back”
Other Lives – “2 Pyramids”
Panda Bear – “Crosswords”
Passion Pit – “Where the Sky Hangs”
Passion Pit – “Lifted Up (1985)”
Patrick Watson – “Good Morning, Mr. Wolf”
Patrick Watson – “In Circles”
Patrick Watson – “Know That You Know”
Priest – “The Game”
Purity Ring – “push pull”
Purity Ring – “repetition”
Ra Ra Riot & Rostam – “Water”
Rob Thomas – “Pieces”
Ryan Adams – “Bad Blood”
Shura – “2Shy”
Sia – “California Dreamin’”
Silversun Pickups – “Friendly Fires”
Sufjan Stevens – “Death With Dignity”
Sufjan Stevens – “All of Me Wants All of You”
Sufjan Stevens – “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”
Tame Impala – “Let it Happen”
Tame Impala – “The Moment”
Tame Impala – “The Less I Know the Better”
Tame Impala – “’Cause I’m a Man”
Tame Impala – “New Person, Same Old Mistakes”
Tame Impala – “Let it Happen”
Third Eye Blind – “Back to Zero”
Twin Shadow – “I’m Ready”
The Weeknd ft. Labrinth – “Losers”
The Weeknd – “Often”
The Weeknd – “In the Night”
White Reaper – “Make Me Wanna Die”
Wilco – “You Satellite”
William Fitzsimmons – “Beacon”
X-Ambassadors – “Renegades”
Zella Day – “Hypnotic”

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Top Ten Albums of 2015

Hello, readers! If you're wondering what music would be worth your money this year, let me recommend starting here. The year wasn't particularly deep, but there's a crop of good albums that stood out. Tame Impala's new album saw them shifting their sound and cranking out an amazing album that is full of greatness from start to finish. Sufjan Stevens, who has never made anything except for great albums, gave us his best work yet. Old favorites like Modest Mouse and MuteMath did it again, while Alabama Shakes and Patrick Watson showed no signs of a sophomore slump. And who saw Brandon Flowers of The Killers putting out such a great album on his second try as a solo artist? There's a Spotify link for each as well as a honorable mentions category for the just-misses. Let me know what you think!

It could have stood to be a little less bloated, but anchored by two of the year’s best tracks—“The World Ender” and “Way Out There”, Lord Huron continue to be the best act in folk rock and the band that all Mumford & Sons fans should be listening to instead.

You want hooks? CHVRCHES can make a chorus soar like none other. As uneven as they can be at times, a good CHVRCHES song is about as good as it gets. Case in point is anthem “Playing Dead” and the soaring “Never Ending Circles”.

Is Alabama Shakes the coolest act in rock ‘n roll right now? Check out the groove and Brittany Howard’s squeal at the beginning of “Don’t Wanna Fight”, the chorus of “Future People”, listen to Howard cry “Gimme All Your Love”, and decide for yourself.

Four MuteMath albums, four winners. Vital is the latest, and it has them pulling from everything they’ve done before. Their combination of synth and blues rock is on full display on “Used To”, their handle on atmospherics is shown on aptly titled “Stratosphere”, and their passion soars through on moving album closer “Remain”.

There’s probably no quieter music out there with more going on than a Patrick Watson album. While his tracks are softer on the surface, listening carefully for all the instrumentation and detail. Live, this is on full display for “Good Morning, Mr. Wolf” when a cascade of sounds drops to just Patrick and his ukulele under a soft spotlight. “Love Songs for Robots” and “In Circles” play in these hushed areas, while “Turn Into Noise” and “Places You Will Go” grow a little lusher.

One of the biggest surprises of the year was The Killers’ frontman releasing 2015’s most earnest, sincere album. Flowers provides an album propelled by “Can’t Deny My Love” and “Lonely Town”, but the centerpiece of the album is the moving “Between Me and You”, a heartfelt song about balancing dreams and age with the love of your life.

It’s commonplace to long for the olden days with Modest Mouse, but doing so overlooks exactly how wonderful their 2015 album was. Bookended by “Strangers to Ourselves” and its quiet opener and the rousing “Of Course We Know”, the album pumps out the gems. “Lampshades on Fire” is vintage Modest Mouse, while “The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box”, “Pups to Dust”, and “Wicked Campaign” carry the middle.

I’ve never heard anything quite like this album, and I mean that as the biggest compliment I can give. Opener “laughing and not being normal” is cinematic and orchestral…angelic even. That it leads directly into shameless pop gem “California” and the French-languaged, aptly-titled “Scream”—forming a mindboggling triple opener—is confusing, genius, and wonderful. Grimes does whatever she wants, and does it well. The real highlight is the incomparable due of “Flesh Without Blood” and “Life in the Vivid Dream”, which together showcase Grimes’ adept handle on all things pop, experiment, and everything in between.

To steal shamelessly from something I read on the internet, sometimes it feels like you shouldn’t be allowed to listen to Sufjan’s most personal album. It’s as if you’re reading a series of painful diary entries heartbreakingly put to music. With all songs surrounding the death of his mother, Sufjan’s wounded vocals strain above guitar, piano, and a distinct lack of drums. “Should Have Known Better” has his mother abandoning him as a child at a video store, but on “Fourth of July” he sits by her bedside as she dies. “I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best, though it never felt right,” his mother says. It’s an emotional journey unlike many you can take in music, and it’s the kind of album that’s meant to be consumed alone, front to back, without interruption, like a film or a book more than an album.

From the nearly 8 minute long opener “Let it Happen” to the pulsing closer “New Person, Same Old Mistakes”, Tame Impala’s newest album never lets up. It’s not only their career’s best work, it’s the best album of the year. Currents sees the band changing and shifting both musically and personally. Still alternative rock and psychadelica, there’s an electronic element that whirls its way through. The impact though, is felt via the introspective lyrics that weave their way through the hooks and grooves. The pep of “The Moment” leads to the slow-tempo “Yes, I’m Changing”, where Kevin Parker sings “yes I’m changing/yes I’m gone/yes I’m older/yes I’m moving on” in a song that deals with loss, acceptance, and moving on. There’s more than a couple core lines on this album that hit right at the heart: “I wish I could turn you back into a stranger” on “Eventually” and the entire crushing last verse of album standout “Love/Paranoia”. This album has everything, and that’s why it’s the year’s best. It’s cohesive, musically creative, lyrically impacting, alternatingly uplifting and sad, and entirely relatable and listenable at the same time.

Honorable Mentions:
The Arcs – Yours, Dreamily.
Big Data – 2.0
Coldplay – A Head Full of Dreams
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Sit
The Districts – A Flourish and a Spoil
El VY – Return to the Moon
Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Foals – What Went Down
Kurt Vile – b’lieve I’m goin down...
Lana Del Rey – Honeymoon
My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
Purity Ring – another eternity
Silversun Pickups – Better Nature
Twin Shadow – Eclipse
The Weeknd – Beauty Behind the Madness
Wilco – Star Wars
William Fitzsimmons – Pittsburgh