Picture for a moment an all-night bender through the glistening neon of Los Angeles with the insatiable desire to dance. Despite friends’ warning to “eat something,” you refuse to heed their warnings and instead still march to the dancefloor until – eventually – you have to admit “Oh, shit. I’m fucked up.” All you’re missing, besides water, is the perfect soundtrack. Thankfully, Thundercat has got you covered. On a bouncing bass and ecstatic production with help from Flying Lotus, “Oh Sheit, It’s X” is a wild ride through the minds of the Brainfeeder duo from Thundercat’s excellent Apocalypse album. After all, who can’t relate to the chorus of “I just want to party/ You should be here with me.” So hydrate, feel the funk, and hit the dance floor. With this track, you’re in ecstasy.
– Brian Hodge
Wild Flag’s “Romance” opens up their first album with a chance to show off everything that the group does well. From the opening mirrored guitar and keyboard lead, to Carrie Brownstein’s commanding and distinct vocal idiosyncrasies, to the stop-on background singing from the rest of the group, to the infectiously light lyrics — it’s a song that won’t even take you the duration of it to realize where you stand on Wild Flag. The song also features one perfect moment, where Brownstein deviates from the plotted melody to shout “you” in the second chorus’ “we’ve got our eyes straight on you.” It’s a rockstar move that implies a leg kick, a windmill, or a punk jump. Don’t worry. See them live and you’ll get all of these.
– Philip Cosores
Try for a moment to forget the hype surrounding this song, the cultural phenomenon it spawned, and its already-iconic video. You’ll find yourself left with is an oddly minimalist R&B track featuring a weird, whimpering synth line and handclaps seemingly source from the most rhythmically talented schoolyard in the world. In other words, instrumentally speaking there’s not as much going on here as one may think. What sells this song is Beyoncé’s incredible voice, equal parts boastful and scorned, a versatile tool that can go from mellifluous to ferocious at the drop of a hi-hat. My favorite part is when it gets real low at the end of the bridge. Showing off one’s vocal range is hardly unusual in R&B music, but usually it’s towards the higher and louder end of the sound spectrum. But here, Beyoncé doesn’t need to shout to get her point across. “Say I’m the one you want. If you don’t, you’ll be alone, and like a ghost, I’ll be gone,” she warns, and we believe her.
– Josh Becker
[Night Slugs; 2010]
Arguably the best track from arguably the best label of the period – and with source material so strong Claude VonStroke spun arguably the best remix out of it to boot – “Wut” was/is/forever will be an absolute monster, one that lit the fuse on a tinderbox that blew up both sides of the Atlantic. Parent label Night Slugs’ early run was unassailable, and while the Milli Vanilli referencing [fun fact for fact fans: “Unit” was originally an acronym for the 1989 Grammy rescindees] Londoner’s earlier “I.R.L.” was a banger too, this is truly the jewel in their crown. Those luminescent synths, pitched-up vocals, cute keyboard twinkles and crashing breakdown are going to stay with me for life. Seriously, do you know how many times I heard this track wheeled up in 2010? Even if I told you, you wouldn’t believe it. It’s so good he gets a pass for trap, in the same way we forgive Crystal Castles for Salem (sorta). Girl Unit, one million dollars – you feel me man? Holla.
– Gabriel Szatan
Amidst all the celebrations, all the spectacle, and the widespread joy of the 2012 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony in London, those sitting in the stadium and those watching at home were likely bemused by about thirty seconds or so of shimmering drones being spat out by the speakers. Chances are they didn’t notice, but what they were hearing was the glorious centrepiece to Fuck Buttons’ second album, a song (appropriately titled for the occasion) called “Olympians.” It really was just a snippet they heard, though, as the full thing runs at eleven minutes, and not once does it ever stop enthralling. Even when the harshest tones drop away to a bobbing melody that could have been a piano or guitar in a past life, the drums are still punching away, building to a magnificent comeback of all the noise that brings to mind Dan Deacon’s also lengthy “Wham City.” In some alternate world, this was the iconic soundtrack to Chariots of Fire, uplifting and inspiring the scene as athletes run across the overcast sandy beach.
That brief playing of “Olympians” probably is the most commercial airtime the song will get (you’ll only so far in the mass media with a name like Fuck Buttons), but it was significant, showing that someone out there (Danny Boyle, probably) someone is listening to the joyous harsh tones of the band. They’re reach is wider than you probably give them credit for, and with a track like “Olympians” to call their own, rightfully so.
– Ray Finlayson
On October 28 2011, M83 was scheduled to play the Black Cat in Washington, DC and I was lined up to cover the show. Active Child, who we’d had some stories and reviews about throughout the year, was set to open, so it was a great opportunity to finally see what our staff was so fond of. But it almost didn’t happen. Traffic was bitch, I was running late as it was, and the press list was late to arrive at the entrance. It seemed almost certain that I would miss part of, if not all of, Active Child’s set. However, in what was truly one of the year’s most fortunate twists of fate, the list arrived and I got through the doors with a few minutes to spare — it’s a good thing sound check ran a bit late. Had I missed that show, I probably wouldn’t have discovered one of my favorite songs of 2011. “Playing House,” which boasts a feature spot from Tom Krell aka How to Dress Well, is easily one of the three or four most instantly addictive songs of the year, combining key electronic foundations and slick rhythm and blues vocals, foregoing Active Child’s signature harp strumming. Even after repeated listens — and in this case, “repeated listens” quite literally means “a one-song playlist strung out for an hour or so” — it still has every bit the impact it did hearing it for the first time, which came startlingly close to not transpiring at all.
After a three year wait for the bizarro spirograph-core New York outfit to follow up 2008’s colourful Saint Dymphna, Gang Gang Dance clearly took immense joy in making everyone hold out a tiny bit longer; six minutes, to be precise. Any impatient stamping of feet and exasperated checking of watches concerning the ridiculously drawn-out intro to “Glass Jar” quickly subsided into hushed awe at how perfect the tension was realised. Cunning dummy tactics like deploying trickling water effects and the odd drum thwack to false flag the actual drop added to the dazzling mystique, ratcheting up the chest contractions before the track actually swings into glorious Technicolor view. When it does, you want it to be twice as long anyway, given they spend the best part of two minutes winding it down. For all their bluster about it being everything time, we’re never allowed to experience it, and that’s what makes it so frustratingly brilliant. Come back GGD, you’re due.
– Gabriel Szatan
[Sub Pop; 2011]
Dreams have long been the subject of interpretation and inspiration, and you can add Robin Pecknold’s rich description and lush imagery on “Grown Ocean” to the canon. Backed by Skyler Skjelset’s glistening guitar and Josh Tillman’s propulsive percussion, Pecknold “could hardly contain” the dream’s contents as the evocative incantation seems to jump out of the track and deep into the listener’s collective unconscious. The final track on 2011’s Helplessness Blues, the song comes to a close with a gorgeous acapella vocal breakdown and forlorn windchimes that echo into silence, effectively putting the finishing touches on the band’s impressive album and gorgeous song – a capstone on a truly impressive work of art. And if by some infinitesimal chance you are still sleeping on this group or this gorgeous record, let this song be your wake-up call.
– Brian Hodge
[Yours Truly / Adidas; 2013]
Over the course of their respective careers, LA’s Shlohmo (neé Henry Laufer) and Chicago’s Jeremih Felton have each settled in on moody corners of the smoky R&B community. Laufer finds himself as the ambient-minded beatmaker and enters the proverbial bedroom with a whisper. Felton, the crooner/lothario, makes his way with a bang. Their warped paths through familiar genre trappings first intersected on a Shlohmo remix of Jeremih’s untouchable 2012 single, “All The Time.” That was then parlayed into the their first proper collaboration “Bo Peep (Do U Right),” a slinking boudoir set piece that’s near the pinaccle of each of their careers. Textured and sexual–though never quite sexy–this is pure 808s and Gothbreaks. Jeremih’s #sadboy machismo transmutes into spectral balladry courtesy Laufer’s weightless production. Here’s hoping that this collab isn’t just a one night stand.
– Colin Joyce
Shortly after the Thebe Neruda Kgositsile (aka Earl Sweatshirt) released his first mixtape at age sixteen, he was boxed up and shipped off to Samoa. Contrary to the legend, claiming he was “Sent to Earth to poke Catholics in the ass with saws and knock blunt ashes into their caskets and laugh it off” had naught to do with it. To say that “Earl” is precocious is like saying that Madvillain’s second album is taking a long time to make. That the grotesque wordplay in display here was amassed with control that no kid his age should possess made it all the more unnerving. Odd Future’s antics were amusing and disturbing enough to amass buzz within the hip hop community, but more than any other member, Earl proved there was talent beneath the firestorm.
– Brendan Frank
[ V2 / Glassnote; 2009]
One could try to create a formula for it, but the fact is that the components that make up “Lisztomania” (or any other great Phoenix song) are just put together in such a way that one can only revert to the word “ineffable.” When that jittery keyboard begins the song, it seems like it’s that that make it flow, that that is the life energy. But then the nimble guitar work comes in with the rallying drums. And there’s the easy-to-understate subtle crunch of the bass. And then Thomas Mars slides in, gloriously sublime as he ever was, changing from (ahem) discouraged deadbeat hero to a monumental figure that everyone wants to sing along with. Everything on “Lisztomania” seems essential to make it work, yet if you take them separately (which the band allowed listeners to do, releasing all the individual studio tracks of the album), they still sound near-perfect, mainly because in your head you’ll be filling in the gaps. You can take the keyboard out of the track, but you can’t take the track out of.. well, you get it.
– Ray Finlayson
Perpetually (often criminally) underrated, Liars have toiled quietly at their sound for the past decade and change, building onto edifices here and stripping away to the raw membrane there. The trio are relentless tinkerers and experimenters, never content with settling down into an identifiable sound before getting antsy to shake things up all over again. “No. 1 Against The Rush” is a deceptively simple song for Liars, a gentle synth throb and a plaintive melody set against a late-night beat that laps at the edges of consciousness like a half-remembered dream. Further proof that Liars need not bellow and roar to make seismic rumbles across the sonic landscape.
– Zach Corsa
Make no mistake, “After Light,” one of the best cuts from Rustie’s chameleonic 2011 dance record Glass Swords, was already a banger, and you’d have been hard pressed to say it was missing anything — it was practically bursting at the seams with a dense array of sounds and textures. But I’ll be damned if this year’s collaborative revamp with AlunaGeorge vocalist Aluna Francis doesn’t feel more… complete? Credit to Francis for that one — it’s incredible the way she finds a way to weave her twisting melodies around the intricacies of Rustie’s instrumental, finding plenty of room to breathe in spaces that the untrained ear wouldn’t even have known existed. This track seems to be almost too perfect of a match — Francis’ sultry coo melds perfectly into the almost hypnagogic mood Rustie cultivates, and his neon swaths of synths are at the same time the perfect nest for her shy delivery. Each of its collaborators sharing an equal hand in its success, “After Light” is that most elusively perfect marriage of forward-thinking pop and forward-thinking dance, neither party’s ambitions compromised in its creation.
[ Mexican Summer; 2009]
“Feel It All Around” is a classic. Period. It’s the sort of track that, in another world, you’d hear so endlessly on the radio you’d be forced to flip the switch off. It’s the sort of single that perfectly summarizes an entire musical genre in one fell swoop. It’s M83’s “Midnight City,” Sleigh Bells’ “Rill Rill,” or any of the other countless tracks that transcend the artist that created them or the genre that spawned them and breathe a life of their own.
Who would have thought that Washed Out’s Ernest Green, whose career has been built on bedroom recordings often so low-key and gentle in nature that they inspired a genre label with “chill” in the title, would create a single so massive? But “Feel It All Around” is just that – an immaculately constructed piece of pop perfection that is near-impossible to resist. Whether it’s tied to a memory or a friend or the opening credits of Portlandia, “Feel It All Around” takes hold and never lets go. And that, really, is all you could ever ask for in a pop single.
– Cole Zercoe
“Apocalypse Dreams” dropped in summer 2012 and immediately told the world that Tame Impala meant serious business on their upcoming second album. Less reliant on the guitars that dominated their debut, “Apocalypse Dreams”’s sucking and shivering piano paired with a marching drum line set up the perfect canvas upon which Kevin Parker drew together his own fears from his dreams and his life, giving himself a lost-in-the-world aura that we could all relate to. “Oh it feels so real in my sleep” he sings in the expansive bridge, before reaching the chorus where it all feels like it’s raining down over his head in spacious bursts of synthesizers: “Everything is changing, and there is nothing I can do/ My world is turning pages, and I am just sitting here.” There isn’t a moment to catch your breath in life, and in the song when it takes an ever so brief pause, it all comes crashing down again so quickly and colourfully with a vibrant burst of sound that you feel completely disoriented, but rapturously so, and you are carried on these tumultuous waves of sound until the song eventually fades.
– Rob Hakimian
[ Fine Fabric Delegates; 2011]
Culinary references? Check. Drug talk? Check. Solicitation of sex? Check. Namedropping athletes from the ’70s and ’80s? Check.
On “Larry Csonka” gourmet-chef-turned-rapper Arian Asllani, better known as Action Bronson, leaves all his calling cards in this standout from his debut studio album Dr. Lecter. Bronson stampedes to the finish line like a Hall of Fame running back over Tommy Mas’ soul sample laden beat with no hook — the way rap is supposed to be — and adds new definition to the New York rap scene while putting Queens back on the map. Bronson’s choice to work with one producer per project is refreshing in today’s convoluted rap sphere and his super smooth Ajax flow is augmented further with these references to the food and drugs he indulges in and hip name drops of cultural icons —with execution that has not been successfully replicated since the Beastie Boys. “Larry Csonka” was my first exposure to Action Bronson and following his work since has been sweeter than having a fine piece of Tiramisu in the East Village on a drug binge.
– Evan Kaloudis
There’s something special about Cymbals Eat Guitars that resonates with you upon first listen, especially so is the case with “Wind Phoenix.” Whether it be the timelessly warm tone of the guitars, the infectious keyboard melody, the driving rhythm section, or frontman Joe D’Agostino’s fearless crooning that does it, there seems to be some underlying x-factor that gives you the same feeling you got when you first put on a Pavement or Guided by Voices record for the first time. That feeling was further amplified for me when I stumbled upon Cymbals Eat Guitars on Myspace in early 2009 and shortly after emailing the band became one of the first people to get a listen of their debut Why There Are Mountains — most definitely my favorite discovery as a music critic these past five years on the site. And I even got to leak the album.
– Evan Kaloudis
The opening and (nearly) title track from Kurt Vile’s 2013 opus is the perfect entryway to a long and glistening record. The track stretches to nigh on ten minutes with little change, but its main guitar hook which unfurls repeatedly throughout is indelible, shining like golden rays of sunlight coming in through the morning window, and continuing to bathe our protagonist in sunlight as he gets up and goes out and about getting on with his day. Vile’s vocals read almost like an inner monologue of thoughts about being “fried,” “dying” and “laying low,” but delivered in such a laid back way that you feel the beauty he sees in life and how little it all matters in the grand scheme of things, as long as he’s alive and he’s loving. When the song falls back into its simplistic and perfect hook of “yeah yeah”s you can lean back into it and let it wash over you, seemingly infinitely.
– Rob Hakimian
[Young Turks; 2009]
The final song in an amazing first half of The xx’s debut, “Heart Skipped A Beat” set the bar too high for the rest of the album to keep up with while perfectly ending an amazing five song combo. Its ethereal feel, pulsating rhythm, the soft interplay of voices between Romy Croft and Oliver Sim, and its simple, yet effective, drum beat make it a perfect example of what makes The xx so great and so different. Musical minimalism at its best.
– Leslie Fernandez
[Captured Tracks; 2010]
All this eighties retro-nostalgia worship means a great deal of sincere songwriting is overlooked beneath the surface aesthetics. Wild Nothing’s Gemini was filled with such hidden-gem moments, none more striking than “Live In Dreams.” Jack Tatum’s blend of C86 jangle and dream-pop flurry meets its apex here, a song owing as much to R.E.M.’s sense of gothic Southern mysteriousness as to Cocteau Twins’ knowing charm. Being familiar with Wild Nothing’s hometown of Blacksburg, Virginia, the song conjures pastoral mind-movies of rolling hills and isolated farmhouses scrolling past an interstate, but as the best songs usually go, everything here is hazy enough to be left open to lovely, personal interpretation.
– Zach Corsa
The Dø’s brilliant second album Both Ways Open Jaws was packed with quirky and catchy pop songs, many of which could have made this list. “Too Insistent” stands out from the rest for being the most outstandingly infectious of the lot – while conversely telling a story more of sadness. Olivia Merilahti’s vocals flutter and wallop as they dally about in the bridge to the chorus before she emotes in the most earnest of deliveries “why won’t you let me go?” The point being that she’s not as ready to be as close to her admirer as she wants, and the way she tempers the hook is packed with both pity and resolution that delivers quite a punch, that is then softened by bright trumpet blasts and a purpley and resonant guitar line that carries the song along. Altogether “Too Insistent” is a brilliantly constructed song that is an extremely simple pleasure.
– Rob Hakimian
The Mountain Goats have a formidably big back catalogue, so it’s difficult to say that one single song is unique within it, but “High Hawk Season” is exactly that. It’s an acoustic ballad, but its specialty comes in the form of the barbershop-sounding backing vocals that back up John Darnielle. The song is about time coming for people to step up and take control. It could be seen as a call to a whole group, like a generation, or to a singular person, but in either instance it doesn’t lose any of its power. The song starts off calm enough (with the low-key passion that Darnielle always brings to his songs), but by the end the song is more direct, and when everything cuts out for Darnielle to yelp “we are young supernovas and the heat’s about to break!” you can cut the tension with a knife. This is an unpredictable and original song, and the fact that John Darnielle can still produce curveballs like this 13 albums (and countless other releases) into his career is something that should be applauded.
– Rob Hakimian
[Rough Trade; 2010]
The chugging guitars that open “Undertow” instantly cast you into a vast, dry, deserted and flat landscape, that is further emphasized by the opening lines “your brown eyes are my blue skies, they light up the rivers that the birds fly over.” But just as this alluring image glides into view it’s quickly wrenched away: “better not to quench your thirst.” Throughout “Undertow” the Warpaint girls manage to sound simultaneously teasing, alluring, patronizing and sexy, especially in the chorus of “What’s the matter? You hurt yourself? Opened your eyes and there was someone else?” The way it’s delivered through the dual vocals of Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman – one passionate and up front, the other detached like an inner monologue – makes it unpredictable and all the more appealing. As the song gallops off in its second half you’re taken along for the ride before it circles back around into that tantalising hook once again. By the time it’s done you’ve been thrown through a loop – but one you’ll be more than happy to repeat multiple times.
– Rob Hakimian
The amount of songwriting fire in Local Natives is enough to send a hot air balloon into space; their near-flawless harmonies, polished guitar lines, and the energy they maintain through a given record feels like they’re purposefully holding back for a specific moment or two and “Sun Hands” is the biggest of all. “Big” might not be the first thing to come to mind while listening to “Sun Hands” for the first time — for two and a half minutes the song is powered mostly by Taylor Rice’s calm voice and intricate guitar work in front a tight drum beat, but the track takes a turn. The guitars descend until it’s the just whole band yelling over the drums and all of a sudden the entire mood of the song is thrown into the sky, blaring distorted guitar in a way that resurrects a . It’s an honest to god thrashable instance in a Local Natives song or to sigh a breath or to simply let out a sigh relief and say “yep, rock music is going to be just fine.”
– Andrew Halverson
[Frenchkiss / Transgressive; 2011]
As the final track on Burst Apart, The Antlers return to the elegiac, cathartic pop that was the hallmark on Hospice. In fact, with its chorus revolving around “dying alone”, the track would’ve been right at home on the band’s debut. Instead, it pulls down the final curtains on the band’s groovier, more accessible second album and music fans are better for it. Clocking in at nearly six minutes, its the longest on the album and they make good use of every second. From its slow build to the heartbreaking alteration of the chorus (“You said I can’t prove to you/ You’re not going to die alone”), this is a death march that’s not only sentimental, but also therapeutic. The Antlers are stretching themselves out here, asking for an outstretched hand, begging the listener to meet them, until the sentimentality swells and the record ultimately dissipates and fades to black.
– Brian Hodge
Plugging away since 1999, The National finally hit mainstream success with the release of their 2010 album High Violet. Of course, this entailed their first world tour, but in the new documentary Mistaken For Strangers, it’s only the backdrop for the relationship between lead singer Matt Berninger and his younger brother Tom, who had no idea that these short videos he was shooting would turn into a public document of their troubled, if still loving brotherhood.
We talk with Israeli rockers Vaadat Charigim about some of their favorite records.
We talk with Yvonne Ambree and Jesse Barnes of Take Berlin about some of the records which influenced the recording of their debut EP, Lionize.
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