Vampire Weekend’s reputation as erudite, oddball citizens of the world was completely inverted on “Hannah Hunt,” an intimate retreat into a pinpointed moment in time. Narrating a story of a road trip and interactions with the strangers met along the way, Ezra Koenig’s lyrics read like a novel. Two-thirds through, they song detonates gorgeously into a barroom sonata; it’s the most heartfelt moment of Vampire Weekend’s career thus far. “Hannah Hunt” is life affirming in the most inconspicuous of ways, yet another hidden talent from a band that has now completely eradicated any lingering suspicions of gimmickry.
– Brendan Frank
“The Wilhelm Scream”
[Polydor / Atlas; 2011]
James Blake turned heads in 2010 by revealing that he could sing on Feist cover, “Limit To Your Love.” Refusing to leave his voice shrouded in mystery, “Love” lifted the curtain to reveal, not merely a passable croon, but a downright outstanding baritone. As strong as that track was, it held closer to the chillier side of his earlier tracks, more “CMYK” than “I Only Know (What I Know Now),” and therefore failed to truly connect on a deeply emotional level. That all changed with the release of his self-titled debut album the following year, on which fans were treated to the profundity of soul that Blake is able to convey vocally. This is hardly more apparent than on “The Wilhelm Scream,” arguably Blake’s finest track to date. Still holding dear to his roots in post-dubstep production techniques, “Scream” expands upon his previous work by demonstrating Blake’s ability to word-paint as he develops a musical texture that is equally appropriate for lyrical dance as it is for introspective headphone listening. When he bemoans that he is “falling, falling, falling,” the melody coils downwards with him, allowing him to logically conclude with “might as well fall in.” There is a coherence in both the trajectory of this phrase and in the piece as a whole that is rarely seen outside of classical music. Few releases in the past five years have shown a more keen synthesis of lyrics and musicality whilst still managing to be heartbreaking, powerful, and downright fascinating. Without question, “The Wilhelm Scream” is a peerless standout in this very narrow field.
– Ricky Schweitzer
“All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast”
[Drag City; 2009]
Based on a poem he had written, “All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast” (from 2009’s Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle) takes the themes of trees, birds, and the correlation between nature and our own often murky personalities and works them into a mantra of overt self-awareness. Using these ideas of trees, eagles, and humanistic representation, Callahan paints an intriguing portrait of our need for companionship and the realization that our personification of the natural world is merely the distillation of our own experiences within that world. The eagle in the song chases away the smaller creatures – or “softer thoughts,” if you will – and leaves the tree barren, a lonely respite for a creature so consumed with its own importance. And while he is not condemning people for such action in an explicit way, the intent is pretty clear. Through gently swaying strings, gently plucked acoustic guitar, and rumbles of subtle tribal percussion, he ties both worlds together in a interwoven net of rhythms and communal thoughts.
– Josh Pickard
My Bloody Valentine
“She Found Now”
[m b v; 2013]
It was the 404 Error Heard ‘Round The World, but once the impatient mouse-click mania to download and consume subsided, our impatient ears were graced with the first notes of “She Found Now,” and it was glorious. m b v may have played it safe by channeling Loveless in its first half before moving into more experimental waters in its second, but “She Found Now” is still the crown jewel of the album, a lovely pseudo-sequel to “Sometimes” that was surely met with a sigh of contented pleasure from the faithful. Not only was My Bloody Valentine back, but they were still as awe-inspiring and beguiling as they were two decades ago.
– Zach Corsa
“Sing About Me, Im Dying Of Thirst”
[Top Dawg / Aftermath / Interscope; 2012]
The past couple of years have witnessed the continued resurgence of a hip-hop stereotype as old as the genre itself: that one surefire way to make your voice heard above the racket of a cluttered field was to front a ruthlessness that bordered on recklessness; basically rap game Roman Abramovich. Invariably a load of hot air, even the tiny fraction of artists able to back their chat couldn’t match Kendrick’s ability to send shivers down one’s spine, and on “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” he delivered unquestionably the coldest track of 2012. It was all too evident on the wince-worthy gunshots that clip the first verse short and the unsettling manner in which the defiant refrain of “I’ll never fade away” is rendered futile in real-time as the vocals sink deeper into the black recess of the mix; no matter how many times I try to test the fallibility of the song, being fully aware that Dave’s brother and Keisha’s sister will both fall prey to their respective fate doesn’t make me any less likely to stop dead in my tracks as the track unfurls. There’s so much to be said for Kendrick’s lyrical dexterity which must have been endlessly revised over to ensure every last word was imbued with some greater meaning, as well as his flawless embodiment of multiple personas, from cadence to candour, that makes the entire album as a whole so endlessly fascinating. Add that to the backdrop, which fits Kendrick’s narration like a glove. Elegiac strings hover uneasily above the chorus, further embellishing the funereal tone in the first half, while the choral undertones neatly complement the urgency that comes with the amplified beat in the second. But as good as the production is, this track rests on Kendrick alone.
Somehow “Sing About Me” manages to be the centerpiece in a record hardly short on heart-stopping and jaw-dropping moments, but its not merely the 12 minute length that cements this. Here we find an end to the incessant time-stretching and narrative layering, where the thematic ley lines converge and K.Dot’s transformation to Kendrick Lamar is fully realised. Both deeply personal and broadly affecting, Kendrick’s disarmingly candid approach helped avoid any semblance of preachiness, especially in the ‘Dying of Thirst’ section which would have surely been little more than an irritating skit in almost anyone else’s hands. good kid, m.A.A.d city is staggering from front-to-back, but if really pressed to call it, “Sing About Me” just about edges it as the strongest cut on the record; as such, it will remain one of 2012′s finest pieces of music across any discipline.
– Gabriel Szatan
“If I Had A Heart”
Fever Ray has to be the coolest mom ever. Other parents sing their kids to sleep with boring-ass lullabies about mockingbirds and itsy-bitsy spiders. But Karin? You just know this is what she whispers to her children right before bedtime, maybe while Eraserhead is being projected on their bedroom ceiling and blood’s still leaking from the walls. “If I had a heart I could love you,” she sings, and she somehow makes it sound at once soothing and kind of scary. “If I had a voice I would sing.” Funnily enough, Fever Ray does indeed have a voice — and a lovely, bizarre, pitch-shifted one at that — and she sings plenty. There’s a simmering emptiness to this song—to most of her self-titled solo album, really — that makes it all the more eerie. Other parents feed their toddlers baby food and formula; I can only hope that Karin grinds up grasshopper eyeballs and silk scarves and coal and Sriracha, sprinkles some paprika and powdered Vitamin A on top, and makes her kids eat it with their hands Medieval-Times-style, to help build their character. Like I said, coolest mom ever.
– Josh Becker
After the relative success of their fourth album Boxer, thanks in particular to the widespread use of the track “Fake Empire,” The National had finally started their deserved climb up the ladder of popular bands. With the announcement of High Violet a palpable buzz grew, and when the lead single “Bloodbuzz Ohio” was set to premier on the radio I can remember listening intently and patiently, just hoping they didn’t fumble it. I needn’t have worried; as soon as those booming drums took to the airwaves I knew The National were truly back and sounding as strong as ever. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is arguably the most anthemic song The National have recorded; that booming percussion held up by the lofty piano lurch, the unstoppable chug of the guitar, and Matt Berninger’s speak-singing has never sounded more heroic than on the broken and beaten chorus. The National’s live shows are spectacular from beginning to end, but “Bloodbuzz Ohio” still manages to stand out as the song where everyone sings along their hardest to the line “I still owe money, to the money, to the money I owe” and when the song pares back for Berninger to announce “I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees” you can hear everyone there with him. For a band that produces anthems filled with antiheros, the vagabond of “Bloodbuzz Ohio” emerges from the scuffle as one of The National’s most beloved and personable characters in their catalogue.
– Rob Hakimian
[4AD / Jagjaguwar; 2011]
“And at once I knew I was not magnificent.” The humility and honesty of Justin Vernon’s words on “Holocene” would function beautifully as spoken word. Instead, there’s a dizzyingly layered tone poem buried under a dozen instruments. The guitars – a reinterpretation of Vernon’s 2006 song “Hazeltons” – etch out a delicate latticework that allow every other sound, sigh and gesture to fall gently into place. The story is brilliantly equivocal, full of obtuse details that mandate further investigation: “Third and lake it burnt away the hallway/ Was where we learned to celebrate.” “Holocene” is lighter than air, but it carries the weight of the world.
– Brendan Frank
What does it say about an act that shortens a word to form its name – and the group’s self-titled EP – from seven letters to five? One thing: urgency. TNGHT, the jaw-dropping collaboration between producers Hudson Mohawke and Lunice, cannot be bothered with vowels. They are too busy distilling trap and hip-hop beats to their most essential elements. In the case of the crushing “Higher Ground,” that would be rave-worthy handclaps, sinister-sounding horns, and some tight ass production. How good is this song? Besides the acclaim the group earned behind their own efforts, the consummate production perfectionist Kanye West co-opted the horns to provide the breakneck crunch for his Yeezus track, “Blood on the Leaves.” Someone tell TNGHT they can stop reaching for higher ground — they’ve attained it.
– Brian Hodge
The Radio Dept.
“Heaven’s On Fire”
In opening with some choice countercultural pied piper profundity courtesy of Thurston Moore’s turn in 1991: The Year Punk Broke, Sweden’s The Radio Dept. set up what would eventually become their biggest single with some false expectations. “I think we should destroy the bogus capitalist process that is destroying youth culture,” intones Moore. Cue drums. Cue synths. Cue dead-eyed love song. “Heaven’s On Fire” explores the trio’s ideological concerns no further, instead launching into an atypically infectious take on their anesthetized dream pop. It could have been heavy-handed, but The Radio Dept. have always seemed like they gave more of a shit about what was closer to home anyway. Love, loss, and longing are the primary concerns of the band and they’ve never handled them as eloquently or as catchily as they have here.
– Colin Joyce
“The Battle Of Hampton Roads”
The most blazingly obvious thing that outlines this track as seriously great is the way Titus Andronicus taps into the raw kinesis that so many bands either lack or fail to express properly, and actually shape it into something worthwhile both lyrically and instrumentally. Coming off a group perennially on the cusp of breaking up, here we find every shot nerve, spasming muscle and shattered iota of confidence laid bare. Illogical extremes are met – have you seen the track length? Did you hear that bagpipe solo? – while Patrick Stickles’ voice shakes in tandem with his pathetic, debased subjects, barely able to suppress the defeatist streak within. Now more than even three years back, the lyrics stand up: a treatise on the modern condition of line-blurring bros that resonates across the board, articulated with spittle-flecked intensity. Remarkably, lurking underneath all the beer-soaked mania, forced relocation and desperate mentality is a plaintive plea to remain fixed. But with that glorious final guitar run? Not the easiest thing in the world.
– Gabriel Szatan
“Kush Ain’t Loud”
[Lit City Trax ; 2012]
Chicago’s DJ Rashad style is concocted in a blender, chopping up elements from juke, house, disco, footwork, and ghettotech music together served up in a double cup for own consumption. Teklife Vol. 1: Welcome to the Chi‘s standout track “Kush Ain’t Loud” is a scintillating rework of Roy Ayers’ “Brand New Feeling” meshing new sounds with the classic soul cut. Rashad opens with a pulsating bass and chops and screws the vocal of an individual insisting that the haters on the side have mean looks on their faces because their kush isn’t loud. The pulsating intensifies and builds hauntingly until climax when Rashad unleashes “Brand New Feeling”‘s trumpets and an interpolated sample of Sylvia Cox’s passionate vocals from the track, subduing the tension. Rashad has put together an underground classic that reminds us to judge our neighbor not just by the volume of their kush, but also the quality and content of their music.
– Evan Kaloudis
The recent excesses of dubstep and R&B came to a grinding halt on “Climax,” a sublimely restrained collaboration between two titans in their respective fields. Never one to shy away from his upper register, Usher breaks out a falsetto so delicate it could shatter like crystal, as the relationship that he laments does just that. Diplo’s production is a master class of control, eschewing the flotsam for a wonderfully naked beat that lends a serene clarity to the words: “Don’t want to give in/ So we both gave up/ Can’t take it back.” With an inescapable sense of turbulence that never fully materializes, “Climax” places you in right in the eye of the quiet storm.
– Brendan Frank
Tyler, The Creator
When looking back on the period in hip-hop, it is almost impossible to find a hip-hop song that even comes remotely close to reaching the magnitude of “Yonkers.” Tyler, the Creator’s Odd Future had already built a solid foundation of blogosphere buzz, but it was this song — and yeah, the video helped too — that legitimized everything. This wasn’t a scratchy mixtape cut and it wasn’t a regurgitation of whatever was hot on the radio at the time. When “Yonkers” first hit, it was a white hot shot over the bow of hip-hop. The beat is staggeringly brilliant in its simplicity and potency, while Tyler’s verses are delivered with a tongue so sharp it could cut right through the diamonds he claims on the track he doesn’t need. But most of all, Tyler sounds poised, methodical, and unlike anyone else spitting bars anywhere.
– Andrew Bailey
It was always clear that Martin Courtney and co. wrote good songs. Beneath the haze that their debut offered were shades of solid songwriting. With 2011’s Days Real Estate shed the reverby facade that they so carefully constructed around their self titled debut, and with exceedingly positive results. As the lead single, the Courtney penned “It’s Real” provided early indications that Real Estate would be further showcasing their actual playing on this album. The vocal hook is one of the best that Real Estate has put forth so far. The guitar hooks which would have been previously buried in the mix in reverb-soaked form are here allowed to be downright bouncy. Real Estate’s debut was a lot of things, but it couldn’t have predicted the sprightly, catchy chorus present here. Though Courtney alongside Matthew Modanile — who has more recently come to fame under his Ducktails — have crafted good songs over the past few years, “It’s Real” proves to be an astounding achievement steps above these other works.
– Colin Joyce
By Four Tet standards, nine minutes isn’t that long. But if you every thought “Love Cry” was a well executed but drawn out affair, then you should see (and hear) Kieran Hebden play it live as he teases out the drum track and that essential vocal snippet over a few extra minutes. But even after taking a live version of the track in, you realise that “Love Cry” has plenty of playfulness of looseness about it on record. Hebden plays with this quite clearly, spending the first half of the track toying about with the mood and feel of the track, but once it kicks into gear (that snare drum…), it feels like it’s all whirled together beautifully. Heck, so confident of his strut, Hebden even has time to throw in a thirty second coda of guitar and reverse effects.
– Ray Finlayson
One of the most impressive aspects of Burial’s recent run of EPs is how they manage to retain Burial’s unmistakable musical identity while expanding its scope to soaring new heights. Of the eight songs that make up Burial’s recent musical output, this expansion is most evident on the Kindred EP’s opening title track. The song transitions from the dingy, beat-driven atmosphere of old about halfway through its runtime, giving way in to an ethereal, almost angelic electronic symphony that’s a thrill to behold. It serves as a fantastic introduction to the wildly different and impressively massive soundscapes that dominate the rest of both Kindred and follow-up Truant/Rough Sleeper.
For those that thought they had Burial all figured out, “Kindred” served as a brilliant new mission statement of a seismic shift in tone and approach many had thought the artist incapable of. It’s a rare moment in music when an artist so tied to one sound can manage such an impressive upheaval, and for many music nerds, “Kindred” will now and forever serve as a reminder of how thrilling, unpredictable, and flat out brilliant this art form can be.
– Cole Zercoe
Cloud Nothings’ follow up to their impressive debut was a wildly different affair. The happy-go-lucky pop punk feel of the former and given way to a darker more aggressive sound. Even lead singer, Dylan Baldi’s voice had undergone a transformation from its almost whiny beginnings to something rougher. In between all this change, “Stay Useless” felt familiar. Simple, catchy, head-banging fun. The song was still something different with its less than optimistic lyrics but it was a smaller change than the screaming of “No Future/No Past” or 8 min jam in “Wasted Days.” Attack on Memory is remarkable for being so different from its predecessor but still being remarkably good. But its best song still had the basic recipe that put Cloud Nothings on the map in the first place.
– Leslie Fernandez
Like Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks,” and many other tracks before it, much of the success of Grimes’ “Oblivion” off of her stellar 2012 Visions LP stems from the contrast between the track’s musical tone and its lyrical content. Musically, the track is a perfect summation of everything Grimes does so well: it’s all melody-driven, bouncy electronic work with an insanely poppy, yet strangely off-kilter vibe.
Yet underneath the surface, it’s also one of the darkest tracks Grimes has ever put to tape. The song details an incident in which Claire Boucher was the victim of assault, and the trauma that stems from that is evident in both lyric and vocal approach. It’s strange hearing this song in a live setting and witnessing the crowd rock back and forth to an exploration of very real suffering – the same sort of artistic trick that leads many to stick “Every Breath You Take” on a playlist dedicated to their lover. At the same time, much of Boucher’s intention behind the track was to free herself of such a sordid memory, and in this context, “Oblivion” works as both a documentation of trauma and a rallying cry against it. So dance away – I’m sure Boucher decided to do so long ago.
– Cole Zercoe
[Sub Pop; 2010]
No Age could always write Bangerz, but when their 2010 effort Everything In Between dropped, nestled somewhere between “Fever Dreaming”’s belt sander screeches and “Valley Hump Crash”’s shitgaze lumber was “Glitter”; a torpid, waterlogged take on the LA duo’s usual tunes. Drummer Dean Spunt traded the sticks for 808 kicks and claps and guitarist Randy Randall set about conjuring a slipshod bedrock of watery noise. No Age always held onto opiated drones as one part of their fractured personality, but “Glitter” was (and is) the most clear melding of that side with their more familiar work. “Glitter” was high-minded and immediate in equal measure. This was Punk Goes Pop: Experimental edition.
– Colin Joyce
[Sub Pop; 2008]
One of my best mates, and someone who I’ve seen No Age in the flesh with more times than any other, claimed that their most recent album An Object “broke his heart.” It’s a telling indictment, where a dud proves more of a reason to mourn than scorn. That no-one truly flipped their wig over what was a bad album from a very good band boils down to something quite simple (beyond the fact the duo are super friendly dudes): when you make music like this at your peak, there’s an ever-present belief you can bounce right back. ‘”Teen Creeps” is an intense, noise-smeared punk pressure cooker, full of trapped energy with no option except to boil over. Like a shitstorm in a heathaze, the track thrashes around indistinctly against conformity culture, gaining momentum as it goes – even that noodly hook appears turbocharged the second time around. Then comes the ambient textures at the end to compliment the track, washing away what they’ve created after they’ve actually created something worth erasing. Fittingly, Mssrs Spunt & Randall inspire the kind of devotion pored into the ’80s alt.zine favourites they emulate, so no-one’s writing them off yet… but better get your #pray4noage tweets at the ready just in case.
– Gabriel Szatan
[Mom + Pop Music / N.E.E.T.; 2010]
Perhaps the finest example of “noise pop” on this list, “Rill Rill” is the standout track from Sleigh Bells’ awesomely inventive debut album Treats. It accomplishes this not by boisterously melding harsh beats and nursery-rhyme melodies like the rest of that album does but rather by doing just the opposite: slowing things down, getting mellow, riding that Funkadelic sample as far into the psychedelic sunset as it’ll go, turning down the distortion and letting those finger snaps take care of the attitude. This is an ode to the fondly remembered (but gladly long since passed) world of teen drama, where the most pressing issue one might face is hoping your boyfriend doesn’t hate your braces. The song is every bit as giddy and over-the-top as adolescent romance, and even Sleigh Bells know that hormones speak louder than amps.
– Josh Becker
Over the course of her three albums under the name St. Vincent, native Oklahoman Annie Clark has covered a surprisingly ample sonic ground. Whether in the sprawling plod of tracks like “Year of The Tiger” or in the screeching art-punk squalls of “Krokodil,” Clark has set out most clearly on pushing the boundaries of her already expansive songwriting voice. In comparison to the aforementioned tracks, “Cruel” is a hanging slider–an apparent departure that Clark nevertheless subsumes into her oeuvre and knocks out of the park. Galloping guitar chords and lolling vocal takes coalesce into some of the most instantly memorable moments of her career. Just listen to the way she tortures and mutates the title from one syllable to six. Maybe someday there’ll be a style she can’t quite tackle, but it hasn’t happened yet.
– Colin Joyce
“Thinkin Bout You”
[Self-released / Def Jam; 2011]
I was going to write some stuff about how much of a standard this already has become, how Channel Orange is the new Voodoo or whatever, but in the spirit of the age, I’m just going to pluck ten comments posted on the official video in the past couple of months instead:
Followmyfailsnormies!: “deep bro. this song is so soothing yet …deep” || lolaLuvvBunny: “Mom: why is your room such a mess?! Me: A tomato flew ar- wait FUCK” || buttuh cups: “luv this song” || LMAAAAYOOO: “Dat falsetto” || endoftheroad: “Got high as fuck, listening to this song about 20 times in a row. The bridge is fucking mystical.” || Christian Schultz-Chapman: “check out a chillstep remix of this song on my page!” || Ronin: “I move a lot, and every time I leave a girl behind. When I listen to this song i think about all the girls i used to know and what we could have had, and i’m hoping there thinking about me to.” || Kieran Powell: “dang” || Justin Ledet: “HEY EVERYONE SHUT THE FUCK UP ABOUT RELIGION BULLSHIT AND JUST LISTEN TO THE GOD DAMN SONG FUCK SAKES SMH.” || Filipe Albuquerque: “gays or not is a nice beat bro!!! PORTUGAL”
So there you have it.
– Gabriel Szatan
“Solitude Is Bliss”
In many ways “Solitude Is Bliss” pre-empted the main themes of Tame Impala’s second album, Lonerism. An anthem for introverts, it seems that Kevin Parker is equal parts euphoric about his independence, yet there are certainly tinges of longing for company; “nothing else matters, I don’t care what I miss, company’s okay, solitude is bliss,” he sings, only semi-convincingly. However, when it comes down to the song’s main hook of “You will never come close to how I feel” careening over vortexes of guitars carefully panned and placed between measures of blistering drums, it’s hard not to think that he feels pretty triumphant – and when you find yourself in a similarly autonomous state of mind, it’s a song like this that you can put on and make yourself feel indestructible.
– Rob Hakimian