[Tri Angle; 2011]
The cover art to Balam Acab debut album is seriously enchanting, luring your eyes into a new world, or just offering a glimmer of coloured light amidst the darkness. With the rich, relaxing blue colour, a fantasy garden of some sort seems ahead and with that comes new life. The high pitched voices on “Oh, Why” sound like elves of some sort hopping about amongst the rocks and a settling repeated vocal sample almost whispers the titular phrase, like a reassuring voice in the back of your head. It sounds worried, but the light piano motif releases any tension that exists as sonic details come and go, like a well-captured moment from múm’s career. All these happenings are common in a Balam Acab track, but “Oh Why” captures something serene, a calm amidst an already calm day, evocative of memories and times thought lost to our mind.
– Ray Finlayson
“Between Friends (Feat. Earl Sweatshirt)”
[Self-released / Adult Swim; 2012]
At this point last year we didn’t even know who Captain Murphy was and “Between Friends” had us against a wall. Originally released as a Flying Lotus track featuring Earl Sweatshirt and Captain Murphy, it was a weird beast of a beat — something was too specific. Before the news broke the whole thing already felt like another life of Flying Lotus, seeing a return to unusual methods of rap production, which he had already been streamlining for Hodgy Beats’ EP earlier in 2012. Something unusual was bubbling inside his production endeavors, and no matter how unsurprised we pretended to act when Flying Lotus turned out to be Captain Murphy, the lyrical feats weren’t something to be expected from him at all. “Between Friends” is still one of Captain Murphy’s most quotable tracks, from Earl’s bombastic yet mild declaration “first off, i’ma start charging y’all per compliment you give to me/ see how much purse I could earn off of it” to FlyLo boasting about eating ramen with a shaman in the parking lot — too cute for someone with no prior track experience. As weird of a song “Between Friends” is, the whole idea is simply a fool-around between two artists with solid chemistry.
– Andrew Halverson
“No Hope Kids”
[Fat Possum; 2009]
The world and its dog has moved on from the hyper-lo-fi thing that textured (lol geddit) 2008/9’s alt.whatever scene, with Nathan Williams playing the pied piper role. It’s worked out well for the guy as he chases that MTV money to no small success, but the smear of distortion still lends the track a sinister quality, positively peeling at the edges, that has been partially wiped clean on future (and better) releases. Realistically “No Hope Kids” and “So Bored” are the only two worth salvaging from the wreckage of Wavvves, both tracks rising well above the mire to become staples of a sort; this one regularly closes out Wavves’ live shows to raucous scenes, even after almost every other signifier from five years back has been consigned to the gutter. But the gutter shouldn’t be written out of Williams’ story entirely, given that the bitter ennui and despondency he felt while encircling it inadvertently gifted him a whinnying melody and a mantra to pin his career on.
– Gabriel Szatan
“Reach A Bit Further”
Forever condemned to walk the earth as a love-it-or-hate-it experience, the pomp and theatricality of Smother certaintly wasn’t for everybody. But it’s hard to listen to its penultimate track without, at minimum, a kind of baffled admiration. “Reach A Bit Further” is the kind of track that meets you halfway if you let it. It retained the best aspects of Smother – ribbons of guitar, pockmarked drums, quivering vocals from Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming – and kept only what it needed. With candid lyrics (“I was angry and brash as a bull/ You were devastatingly beautiful”) and a stunning arrangement with a multitude of moving parts, the tempered prettiness of “Reach A Bit Further” almost makes you forget how outlandish Wild Beasts can be.
– Brendan Frank
“The Great Pan Is Dead”
“The Great Pan Is Dead” is an instant smash to the face with obliterating drums that sound like the gunfire on the front line in a war. Appropriately Wesley Eisold’s commanding voice delivers lyrics that match. When it comes to the chorus of “YEAH! I WILL COME RUNNIN’! RUNNING THROUGH THE YEARS, HUNTING HEARTS, CRUSHING FEARS” (caps entirely necessary) while a heroic keyboard line rises in the background, it’s easy to picture a Rambo-like hero running intrepidly through an array of heavy gunfire to reach and save his beloved. In short, “The Great Pan Is Dead” is an ass-kicker of the first degree that will stomp its imprint irreversibly on your eardrums.
– Rob Hakimian
[Self-released / XO; 2011]
Abel Tesfaye is an asshole, a real odious sort. It’s especially infuriating because unlike, say, the remarkably un-PC, transgender-baiting Action Bronson who, when Tesfaye does something like this it genuinely appears as if he has little else to him. What we believed to be critiques of a certain kind of dead-eyed fucker turned out to be little more than mirrored reflections. So why do we continue to give him a free ride? Because for a good few months he was everything, the white-hot epicentre of left-leaning pop culture. This stands out as his best track, chock full of standout moments that add up to a standout event: the manner in which the opening guitar lick is set against the amorphous underlaying fog; the way the verse slaloms sideways and clatters into the chorus, a sudden switch-up into his crystal-clear falsetto after calling other people “pussy-ass”; even his odd enunciation of “ambiance.” It is flat-out fantastic, a malevolent slow jam that has lost none of its sheen; unlike Abel, who ironically appears to have bought into his own myth about being a money-motivated “zombie of the night.” He’s evidently talented enough to redeem himself, but for those of us who wish he’d remained cloaked in 2011’s shroud of mystery forever, there’s always “The Morning.”
– Gabriel Szatan
“Eyesore” is all about contradictions, twisting this way and that in a manner purposefully meant to confound. Every time Women ratchet up the tension, seemingly on the cusp of a fierce breakdown, they pull back into a doo-wop beat slathered in distortion, vocals obscured. The pauses in rhythm dovetail neatly with the lone struggler on the cover, come to think of it. It’s difficult to pick out on the first few run-throughs given the thick mix, but a cascading bassline anchors the first half – good as the more structured opening may be, it’s really the extended coda that dazzles. A timeless groove is teased out in amongst the sharp chiming guitars. Sadly, following the death of guitarist Christopher Reimer a mere 18 months after parent record Public Strain dropped, this will now emphatically have to remain timeless, the lasting impression of a band with immense promise.
– Gabriel Szatan
“Dancing On My Own”
[ Konichiwa; 2010]
In a world where pop banality runs rampant across radio and TV, Robyn remains one of music’s most overlooked overachievers. Her glistening harmonies and bright, spacious dancefloor rhythms are perfect examples of over-the-top pop music, but they’re done with such a loving hand that it comes across as inclusive rather than simple sensory overload. On “Dancing On My Own,” we find Robyn at the club, all dolled up and watching her ex with another woman. But she isn’t pining away for him; she’s dancing on her own – she’s hurt but confident that everything will get better. And nothing is going to stop her. If ever there was an empowerment song that didn’t pander to simple sentimentality and rote generalization, then “Dancing On My Own” is it. And she hasn’t been turned off from love, but just for tonight, she’ll keep her own self company.
– Josh Pickard
[Secretly Canadian; 2010]
This specimen here is the closest Yeasayer have gotten to channeling their eccentricities into something genuinely loveable, floating at the junction between their love of Middle Eastern music and pop heaven. Groovy, vacillating synthesizers and fragmented vocal clips lay the groundwork, but it’s Chris Keating’s melodies that truly give this song its soul: “Stick up for yourself, son/ Never mind what anybody else done,” he coos. “Ambling Alp” is also Yeasayer’s finest moment as producers, cramming massive sounds, an acid-funk bridge and a jerky keyboard solo into a brief four minutes. That the whole thing doesn’t sound like a self-indulgent mess is a testament to just how good every musical idea contained within really is.
– Brendan Frank
Let’s face it: OK Computer solidified Radiohead as a sociopolitical rock group — fully embracing the underlying hypocrisies of the information age and the monotonous qualities of suburban life. The record’s complex narrative consisted of an uncompromising yet no-nonsense depiction of the future dehumanized by congestion, technology, paranoia, and consumerism. And its aura of impending doom — furthermore emphasized by Radiohead’s daunting atmospheres — continued to develop on subsequent records like Kid A and Hail to the Thief. However, in looking at the pay-what-you-want In Rainbows — arguably their softest record to date — one might argue that the band abandoned their accustomed tonality for a tamer, more gentle sound. Was music’s most dystopian band becoming more user-friendly and, dare I say, romantic?
If “Lotus Flower” solidifies one thing, it solidifies Radiohead as a sexier, more self-composed band. Gone are the post-apocalyptic imageries of the future and in are the amorous lyricisms of a surprisingly loose Thom Yorke. Colin Greenwood provides an infectious bassline that descends and ascends in a dexterous fashion; also admirable is Phil Selway’s drumming, who progresses his repetitious feel from In Rainbows with great precision. Still, nothing catches your attention like Thom Yorke’s vocals, who’s never sounded this self-assured and this open-hearted as a vocalist or lyricist. As he sings “there’s an empty space inside my heart where the weeds take root/ And now I’ll set you free,” you can’t help be taken away by his striking candor. While “Lotus Flower” isn’t as groundbreaking as “Paranoid Android” or “The National Anthem,” it showcases a different kind of Radiohead — perhaps less engulfed by the world’s problems. For a band of this magnitude, that’s something to behold.
– Ryan Studer
Burial / Four Tet
British electronic underground’s ever so elusive drum virtuoso Burial teamed up with IDM producer Kieran Hedbden, better known as Four Tet for the first of many collaborations under Hebden’s very own TEXT label. Being limited print, we missed out on the original 12″ vinyl (it later saw a cleaner repress in 2011) but were delighted when the “Moth” / “Wolf Cub” made its way on to the internet for the world to hear. The two producers’ individual styles are both so distinct it was hard to imagine what the two would producers would create but it turned out each’s best features — Burial’s haunting ambient two-step beats and Four Tet’s melodic eccentricities — would be perfect complements. “Wolf Cub” meshes the two styles under the netting of Four Tet’s shimmering bells and is brilliant in its own sense but it’s the A-side, which sounds like neither artist — zenned out house track “Moth” — that takes the cake. Its driving bass and synth motif, and its layers full of intricate subtleties make it one of the most infectious tune of the past five years — all in 4/4 time.
– Evan Kaloudis
Smoky, abstract, ambient, ethereal, hauntingly bittersweet: there sure are a lot of ways to describe such brief and minimalist songs as those found in Perfume Genius’s back catalog. The title track from his 2010 debut, “Learning” is at once beautiful and terrifying: beautiful because of that musky piano and Mike Hadreas’s quivering voice, and terrifying because it seems to be sung from the perspective of a child abuser whose best attempt at consolation is promising that “you will learn to survive to me.” Plus, I think it’s a charmingly punk move to include “blah blah blah” in the lyrics of your own song. Hadreas has a gift for letting the listener empathize with otherwise unpalatable characters (see also: “Mr. Petersen”) without laying on the pathos or sentimentality too thickly. Like a rainbow in an oil slick or that damn plastic bag scene from American Beauty, Hadreas uncovers the beauty in the mundane and traumatic parts of life most of us would probably rather ignore.
– Josh Becker
Waka Flocka Flame
“Hard In Da Paint”
[1017 Brick Squad / Warner Bros. / Asylum; 2010]
Hip-hop’s gone in a lot of seriously interesting places these past five years, right? Well, “Hard In Da Paint” hasn’t. It rolls up, hits you like a ton of bricks(quad) and takes off. This is music made for bending corners and putting asses to sleep, a ridiculously quotable banger that stands out at a time when lunkheaded shoutalongs aren’t exactly in short supply. Lex Luger’s been treading water for a minute but off the back of the seriously lowwwww 808 hits on this and Rozay’s “B.M.F.” he seemed game to conquer the world. When Death From Above 1979 came through for their first reunion show in London, they dropped this at deafening volume as both entrance and departure music, sending the crowd ballistic twice over, irrespective of severely depleted energy levels. Says it all really.
– Gabriel Szatan
There probably wasn’t a slicker way to end a major label-released Death Grips record than “Hacker.” Like other Death Grips tracks, it doesn’t want you to ask for lyrical clarification, you’re just going to figure it out for yourself. “Hacker” is one of the first Death Grips tracks that could play at a rave with no questions asked, give or take a few people turning their heads at “the table’s flipped, now we got all the coconuts, bitch.” The sole connection between its savage, danceable production is the demand of riot telling the listener to grab their chains and “throw up a black hole at the entrance of Linens N Things” but MC Ride’s call to arms is not immediate. He ties present lines to previous lines that normally wouldn’t translate: “Make your water break in the Apple Store/ Sink or swim, who fucking cares/ Cut the birth cords/ Press send.” After that they call out Lady Gaga for not being raw enough for them, which lyrically seems pretty fair. That chorus though. The motive at first sounds like “my rapper is in town and I can’t wait to see him,” but “I’m in your area” is a threat of being inside what’s most personal to you: your data. “Hacker” serves as a hyper-indirect diss track that is targeting anyone and everyone, and their public actions since its release prove that they are not bluffing.
– Andrew Halverson
“Shutterbugg (Feat. Cutty)”
[Def Jam; 2010]
After years of moving between the drawing board, Jive Records’ negotiation rooms and the studio, Sir Lucious Left Foot finally reached our ears in 2010. It’s as eclectic as anything OutKast has ever done, and “Shutterbugg” is the lustrous centrepiece that holds it all together. Big Boi’s slippery flow is as charming as ever and every detail –from the choice of samples to the vocoder effects– is perfectly sketched out and executed. For an artist who is still “shittin’ on niggas and peein’ on the seats” he’s aging as gracefully as you could hope.
– Brendan Frank
[Roc-A-Fella / Def Jam; 2013]
A slow zoom on Kanye’s 100-foot face on buildings around the world and a hilariously censored SNL performance that got lost in translation. We didn’t have the smoothest introduction to “New Slaves.” Then again, Yeezus isn’t exactly a smooth listen. It wasn’t just Kanye’s anti-pop album, it was his anti-Kanye album; stubbornly un-commercial, with lavish, billion-dollar production switched out for electronics in a blender. “New Slaves” makes the most of the aesthetic while remaining recognizable and quotable (“I’d rather be a dick than a swallower”). Kanye spits out three increasingly aggressive verses over a wholly formless beat, covering everything from the effects of race on consumerism to ejaculating on trophy wives. The man can pull off insightful, funny and foppish really well, but we like angry Kanye too.
– Brendan Frank
“Ode To Viceroy”
[Captured Tracks; 2012]
Slack rocker Mac DeMarco loves the shit out of Viceroy cigarettes. Not only did he include four packs of red king-sized Viceroys on the rider for our CMJ show last year (along with whiskey and McDonalds filet-o-fish sandwiches) but he also happened to write an anthem about the cork-tipped cigarette.
Despite the absurdity of it all there’s something both inherently charming vulnerable about DeMarco’s songwriting here as he croons about his love for these discount cigarettes and their role in his life, “Viceroy, early in the morning/ Just try to let the sun in/ and open up my eyes.” It’s the truth. In interviews past he claimed, “Every morning I have a cigarette pretty much right when I wake up. Then, I go in the bathroom, hock a loogie, brush my teeth, and try to start feeling normal.”
It’s not clear how self-aware DeMarco is until he churns out the chorus: “and oh don’t let me see you crying/ ’cause oh honey I’ll smoke you ’til I’m dying.” It’s the relationship every smoker has with cigarettes; they’re just too alluring. But perhaps even more addictive than cigarettes themselves is the arpeggiated riff that closes off the track as Mac lackadaisically screeches over the track to remind us all that he’s going to keep on doing what he’s doing despite the consequences.
– Evan Kaloudis
“Lust For Life”
[True Panther Sounds; 2009]
What an opener. Catchy and jangly, short and sweet, wistful and funny and all too relatable, “Lust For Life” is as good an introduction as any to the bizarrely warped world of vintage pop-rock tones that constitutes the (dearly departed) world of Girls. I don’t know which part gets me more, the line about pizzas and bottles of wine or the “Good Vibrations”-esque wheezing outro. Or maybe it’s just the combination of that rattlesnake tambourine, crunchy and simple guitar riff, and the salty air of the beach at night. I honestly can’t quite put my finger on it, but something about “Lust For Life” satisfies me on a visceral level in a very life’s-simple-pleasures sort of way, like freshly baked McDonald’s fries or squeezing the last air pocket out of a Ziploc baggie.
– Josh Becker
In 2011, I had the pleasure to catch M83 headlining Laneway Festival in Singapore. They came on at the tail end of a eight hour long festival almost exactly at the stroke of midnight. And without a moments pause they proceeded to belt out their monster hit “Midnight City” to a mass of wildly screaming bodies. It was one of those rare perfect concert moments that reminds you why go through all the trouble of seeing a band live and it couldn’t have happened without one of those rare songs that is so big, it becomes the soundtrack of your life, if only for a little while.
– Leslie Fernandez
The Morning Benders
[Beggars / Rough Trade; 2010]
Pop Etc. has been dealing with an identity crisis, but they insist that the name change (a change for very understandable reasons) has nothing to do with it. Every band has their right to a departure to, but listening to their most recent record Pop Etc. and comparing it to something like “Excuses” seems not as fair. “Excuses” digs between beach nostalgia and huge sound enables hopes for Californians to rip themselves away from the mainland to experience island life and provide other states the benefit of an ocean view. “Excuses” breathes like a lot of Morning Benders songs, but it’s tough to find that anywhere on Pop Etc., a significantly more stifling bunch of tracks. It is likely difficult to return to breathing today, since most of us have become swallowed by our work. That breath “Excuses” takes is powerful enough to remind that it’s truly healthy to ease up and let the more fantastical feelings have a chance.
– Andrew Halverson
“Need You Now”
Cut Copy isn’t interested in doing things on a small scale. And on the opening track to their 2011 album Zonoscope, the band filters a pristine pop production through layers of pulsing rhythms and technicolor synths. “Need You Now” uses a slow-burn build-and-release structure to draw out every bit of nuance and emotion from its pop core. Beginning with a few slight synth oscillations and some punchy percussion, the song quickly grows into an all-out synth explosion, with frontman Dan Whitford’s voice hovering ethereally in the middle of all the bright lights and throbbing melodies. Climaxing in a cascade of pop crescendos and starry-eyed harmonies, “Need You Now” finds itself standing as a perfect example of the use of synth-pop as a cathartic device. We may consider this kind of sugary musical treat lightweight or of little honest emotional heft, but Cut Copy show us a world where the synthetic and organic lay side by side without ever imposing on one another.
– Josh Pickard
“Sea Within A Sea”
A lot of the blurbs you’ll be perusing will have some element of beneficial hindsight, a contextual embellishment of an artistic watermark that may not have originally even seemed that important upon initial release – which makes sense, given that this is a look back at the past five years of music. I’d argue that “Sea Within A Sea” more than most traded on sheer impact. The premiering of the stark video caused a collective jaw-slackening amongst pretty much everyone, given that their early schlock-rocking was well past its shelf-life before their debut hit the stores. They even managed to repeat the trick when “Mirror’s Image” opened up Primary Colours, the ethereal swirls clearing the fog as people processed that the band had done the unthinkable and created a seriously brilliant record. Because while “Sea Within A Sea” struck like a jackhammer on first play, it has lost none of its lustre over countless spins in the interim time, bucking the trend of watercooler moments that seem passé in retrospect. Amalgamating the finest elements that left-of-the-dial guitar music has brought us in the past 40-odd years, the eight-minutes are a tour de force, smudging snatches of vicious guitar, pristine basswork, Faris Badwan’s ominous vocals and the Krauty chug into something much greater than the sum of its collective parts. And the closing run? Fuck. It’s probably the finest example of a ‘drop all the elements then bring them back in’ moment since Interpol’s “PDA,” letting the track spin off into the ether. The Horrors are now rightly regarded as one of the best alternative rock outfits going, which is a very good thing, but people getting comfortable with them being in the frame has diminished the element of surprise that really sold them as capital-I important. It’s hard to succinctly capture the impact of “Sea Within A Sea,” but it’s the kind of bottled-lightning moment that inspires total devotion. Here’s one from the vaults to prove it.
– Gabriel Szatan
“I Feel Better”
This song already has a terrific (and hilarious) music video, but in my head, I envision something totally different. I picture a 19th century ball, Pride & Prejudice style, with all the guests wearing their finest suits and gowns and doing those one of those choreographed line dances, back before line dances were relegated to middle school gym classes and the Bar Mitzvah circuit. I think it’s the juxtaposition of the old-fashioned strings and the new-fangled Vocoder effects Alexis Taylor employs to make him sound as alienated as his narrator feels. (I mean really, what kind of love song features lyrics like, “And maybe if we’d never come this way, then we would live and prosper…but I doubt it”?) Funky and pulsing and catchy as all get-out, this is the Hot Chip track I return to more than any other—and yes, that includes “Ready For The Floor” and “Boy From School.” What can I say? The steel drums get me every time.
– Josh Becker
Mesita is James Cooley and is a moniker that has thrived on the internet, and many (myself included) have taken joy in watching him grow up and blossom over the past five or so years. If there ever was a moment that captures his ambivalence leaving his body, and the real, pure light shining forth, then it’s hard not to give “Ken Caryl” first prize. As the opening track to his stellar third album The Coyote, the track marks James Cooley wiping the slate clean, and pushing forward. He might be lamenting on his younger self, but those glimmering piano keys keep pushing him forward, like a tide returning a cast away to shore before the drums kick in and he’s practically walking on water.
– Ray Finlayson
[Sub Pop; 2010]
It’s no surprise that Volkswagen wanted (read: took) “Take Care” to soundtrack an over-long advert about the journey we take through life, watching loved one grow up, etc. Beach House come up with a perfect A.M buzz that feels as warm and fuzzy as Sunday morning sleep ins, a pleasing and lulling collection of vocal melodies to fall into, and a retro drum track that starts opening up avenues of nostalgia in the back of your head without you realising. “Take Care” captures that loved feeling we all (hopefully) have somewhere inside of us, whether it be the embrace of a partner, or the reassuring sight of your parents during the holidays, or just that light-headedness we feel when we’re head over heels for someone. The track might evoke all those, but it’ll see you through the experiencing of them all too.
– Ray Finlayson