Friday, July 10, 2015

Contenders Report #3: July 10, 2015

New URL, new blog name, same three months between posts.  But there has been so much great new music since my last post in April, so here's an even-more-unwieldy Contenders Report with SEVENTY-FIVE awesome songs, including the only four possible choices for Summer Jam 2015 ("Trap Queen," "Lean On," "Can't Feel My Face," and "Cool for the Summer").

As it looks like I will be confined to my office for the remainder of 2015, I request that you schedule a BBQ in my honor and listen to all of these songs in sequential order (the BBQ will take four and a half hours).  It doesn't seem like too much to ask.

(1)  DVS - "Tomorrow is Here"
(2)  Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment - "Sunday Candy"
(3)  Titus Andronicus - "Dimed Out"
(4)  Jason Isbell - "24 Frames"
(5)  Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin - "Step Brother City"
(6)  Desaparecidos - "City on the Hill"
(7)  Hudson Mohawke - "Ryderz"
(8)  Destroyer - "Dream Lover"
(9)  Carly Rae Jepsen - "Your Type"
(10)  Trails and Ways - "Jacaranda"
(11)  Jason Isbell - "Palmetto Rose"
(12)  Titus Andronicus - "Fatal Flaw"
(13)  Champs - "Vamala"
(14)  Torres - "Cowboy Guilt"
(15)  Natalie Imbruglia - "Instant Crush"
(16)  Jason Isbell - "If It Takes a Lifetime"
(17)  DMA's - "Your Low"
(18)  Mikal Cronin - "Turn Around"
(19)  Titus Andronicus - "Come On, Siobhan"
(20)  Fidlar - "40 Oz. On Repeat"
(21)  Bully - "Trying"
(22)  Neon Indian - "Annie"
(23)  Fetty Wap - "Trap Queen"
(24)  Major Lazer - "Lean On" (feat. Mo and DJ Snake)
(25)  The Weeknd - "Can't Feel My Face"
(26)  Demi Lovato - "Cool for the Summer"
(27)  Tori Kelly - "Nobody Love"
(28)  Little Mix - "Black Magic"
(29)  Florence + the Machine - "Ship to Wreck"
(30)  Brandon Flowers - "Can't Deny My Love"
(31)  Miguel - "Hollywood Dreams"
(32)  Kacey Musgraves - "Dime Store Cowgirl"
(33)  MewithoutYou - "Magic Lantern Days"
(34)  Craig Finn - "Newmyer's Roof"
(35)  Third Eye Blind - "Everything is Easy"
(36)  Leon Bridges - "Smooth Sailin'"
(37)  Topher Mohr - "Keep it Coming"
(38)  Carly Rae Jepsen - "Run Away With Me"
(39)  Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment - "Familiar"
(40)  Jaymes Young and Phoebe Ryan - "We Won't"
(41)  Desaparecidos - "Te Amo Camila Vallejo"
(42)  The Wonder Years - "Cardinals"
(43)  Brand New - "Mene"
(44)  Unknown Mortal Orchestra - "Can't Keep Checking My Phone"
(45)  Passion Pit - "Five Foot Ten"
(46)  Frankie - "New Obsession"
(47)  Beck - "Dreams"
(48)  Mates of State - "Staring Contest"
(49)  Metric - "The Shade"
(50)  Beirut - "No No No"
(51)  Hudson Mohawke - "Scud Books"
(52)  Phoebe Ryan - "Mine"
(53)  Robyn & La Bagatell Magique - "Love is Free" (feat. Maluca)
(54)  Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin - "Full Possession of All Her Powers"
(55)  Hop Along - "Waitress"
(56)  Makeshift Shelters - "(This Song Is Definitely Not About A Boy")
(57)  Turbo Fruits - "The Way I Want You"
(58)  Carly Rae Jepsen - "Emotion"
(59)  Leon Bridges - "River"
(60)  Miguel - "Coffee"
(61)  DVS - "You Goddamn Right"
(62)  Jamie xx - "Loud Places"
(63)  Tanlines - "Pieces"
(64)  Allie X - "Prime"
(65)  Phoebe Ryan - "Dead"
(66)  Skrillex & Diplo - "Where Are U Now" (feat. Justin Bieber)
(67)  Wet - "Deadwater"
(68)  The Weepies - "Crooked Smile"
(69)  Iris - "I'll Wait for You"
(70)  Beach House - "Sparks"
(71)  Alabama Shakes - "Dunes"
(72)  Mas Ysa - "Margarita"
(73)  Desaparecidos - "Backsell"
(74)  XYLO - "America"
(75)  DVS - "Invincible"

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Contenders Report #2: April 13, 2015

(1) Kendrick Lamar – “King Kunta”
(2) Fred Thomas – “Cops Don’t Care Pt. II”
(3) Waxahatchee – “Poison”
(4) Leon Bridges – “Coming Home”
(5) The Mountain Goats – “Choked Out”
(6) Trails and Ways – “Skeletons”
(7) Carly Rae Jepsen – “I Really Like You”
(8) Waxahatchee – “Under a Rock”
(9) Courtney Barnett – “Elevator Operator”
(10) The Mountain Goats – “Foreign Object”
(11) Purity Ring – “Heartsigh”
(12) Hot Chip – “Huarache Lights”
(13) Carly Rae Jepsen – “All That”
(14) The Colourist – “When I’m Away”
(15) Chic – “I’ll Be There”
(16) Madeon – “Nonsense”
(17) Kanye West – “All Day”
(18) Leon Bridges – “Better Man”
(19) Christine and the Queens – “Tilted”
(20) The Tallest Man on Earth – “Sagres”
(21) Tanlines – “Slipping Away”
(22) Fred Thomas – “Every Song Sung To a Dog”
(23) Sufjan Stevens – “Should Have Known Better”
(24) San Fermin – “Emily”
(25) Courtney Barnett – “Depreston”
(26) Leon Bridges – “Lisa Sawyer”
(27) James McMurtry – “Carlisle’s Haul”
(28) Kathryn Calder – “Take a Little Time”
(29) Blur – “Lonesome Street”
(30) Kacey Musgraves – “Biscuits”
(31) Grimes – “Entropy”
(32) Marina and the Diamonds – “I’m a Ruin”
(33) Madeon – “Pay No Mind”
(34) Kendrick Lamar – “The Blacker The Berry”
(35) Tame Impala – “Let It Happen”
(36) Mas Ysa – “Look Up”
(37) Christine and the Queens – “Saint Claude”
(38) MisterWives – “Hurricane”
(39) Passion Pit – “Until We Can’t (Let Go)”
(40) Twin Shadow – “I’m Ready”
(41) MS MR – “Painted”
(42) We Are Scientists – “Make It Easy, Under the Sea”
(43) St. Vincent – “Teenage Talk”
(44) Young Fathers – “Shame”
(45) Tanlines – “Invisible Ways”
(46) Hot Chip – “Need You Now”
(47) Toro Y Moi – “Run Baby Run”
(48) Unknown Mortal Orchestra – “Multi-Love”
(49) Satellite Stories – “Painted Arms”
(50) Rihanna – “FourFive Seconds”

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Contenders Report: February 5, 2015

Welcome to 2015, blog.  Hope everyone has had their fill of 100 Songs for 2014, because 2015 is shaping up to be an unbelievably great year for new music.  We are thirty-six days into the new year, and I had no trouble putting together a list of FIFTY awesome new songs.

And, because I want to make sure that every one of you listens to every one of these killer tunes, I even put together an MP3 mix.  So really, you have no excuse.

2015's Concert Calendar looks equally promising.  In the next few months, I think you should check out:

Beach Slang - February 17 @ Great American Music Hall (opening for Cursive)
Trails and Ways - February 20 @ Cafe Stritch (San Jose)
New Pornographers - February 28 @ Fox
Restorations - March 5 @ Milk Bar
Andrew Jackson Jihad - April 7 @ Slim's
Belle & Sebastian - April 12 @ Greek
Kacey Musgraves - April 25 @ Fox
Waxahatchee - April 29 @ Great American Music Hall
Decemberists - May 1 @ Greek
San Fermin - May 21 @ The Independent
Mountain Goats - June 1 @ Fillmore
Purity Ring - June 19 @ Fox

I have tickets to the bolded shows, and would absolutely go to all the rest if I can find people to go with me. You could be those people!


(1) The Mountain Goats – “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero”
(2) San Fermin – “Jackrabbit”
(3) Belle & Sebastian – “Play for Today”
(4) Petite Meller – “Baby Love”
(5) The Very Best – “Let Go”
(6) Bjork – “Stonemilker”
(7) Waxahatchee – “Air”
(8) The Decemberists – “Mistral”
(9) Mark Ronson – “Leaving Los Feliz”
(10) The Sidekicks – “Summer Brings You Closer to Satan”
(11) Mikal Cronin – “Made My Mind Up”
(12) The Sidekicks – “The Kid Who Broke His Wrist”
(13) Years & Years – “King”
(14) Lapsley – “Brownlow”
(15) Beach Slang – “Too Late to Die Young”
(16) Sleater-Kinney – “A New Wave”
(17) Courtney Barnett – “Pedestrian at Best”
(18) Purity Ring – “Begin Again”
(19) Twerps – “I Don’t Mind”
(20) Justin Townes Earle – “Farther from Me”
(21) Kanye West – “Only One”
(22) Modest Mouse – “Lampshades on Fire”
(23) MisterWives – “Our Own House”
(24) The Go! Team – “The Scene Between”
(25) Torres – “Strange Hellos”
(26) Sleater-Kinney – “No Cities to Love”
(27) Death Cab for Cutie – “Black Sun”
(28) Geographer – “I’m Ready”
(29) San Fermin – “Parasites”
(30) Belle & Sebastian – “Nobody’s Empire”
(31) Ellie Goulding – “Love Me Like You Do”
(32) The Wombats – “Greek Tragedy”
(33) Idlewild – “Come On Ghost”
(34) The Sidekicks – “Deer”
(35) The Decemberists – “The Wrong Year”
(36) Matt and Kim – “Get It”
(37) Django Django – “First Light”
(38) Twerps – “Back to You”
(39) Common and John Legend – “Glory”
(40) Mark Ronson – “Heavy and Rolling”
(41) Bipolar Sunshine – “Daydreamer”
(42) Jose Gonzalez – “Leaf Off / The Cave”
(43) Mikky Ekko – “Riot”
(44) Toro Y Moi – “Empty Nesters”
(45) Modest Mouse – “The Best Room”
(46) Viet Cong – “Continental Shelf”
(47) Twin Shadow – “Turn Me Up”
(48) Tove Styrke – “Ego”
(49) The Very Best – “Hear Me”
(50) Say Lou Lou – “Nothing But a Heartbeat”

Monday, January 5, 2015

Guest List Week 2014: Carl's Top 20

It's the triumphant return of Guest List Week!  Every day from now until I run out of lists, we'll take a look at 2014 through the eyes of people who are not me.  (My list, if you missed it, is here).  I'm lucky that my friends have such uniformly exquisite taste in music. 

Kicking off Guest List Week Three, it's Carl Anderson!  Carl's 2013 Guest List is here, his 2014 Guest List is below.

(1) Alvvays – “Archie, Marry Me”

This could be the college rock track of the decade, if college rock was still a thing, which it isn’t because everyone in this band is younger than college rock itself.  I love them for carrying forward the banner of write-it-record-it-release-it albums, and for doing it so well.  Lyrics with just the right amount of pretense to crush it once in a while: “So honey take me by the hand and we can sign some papers. Forget the invitations, floral arrangements, and breadmaker.”  The first time I heard that I knew I was hooked. 

(2) Colony House – “Silhouettes”

As much as I like bands who take the necessity of low budget recording and somehow turn it into a virtue, I’m in awe of the sound these guys achieved.  I guess it shows what you can do if you grow up in a musical household learning to play on incredible instruments (their dad is a Christian music star).  And never listening to anything that suggests a need to improve on the music of the 50s?  I bet they know some of the most talented engineers in Nashville.  This makes me wish everybody recorded there.        

(3) MisterWives – “Reflections”

A perfect match of Mandy Lee’s on-the-edge-of-crazy delivery with a narrative of being on-the-edge-of-crazy.  Right from the opening: “You didn't close the door/Left a crack open, I couldn't ignore the/Faint possibility/Of having hope in this insanity that/We still could be.”

(4) Parquet Courts – “Black and White”

These guys put out a lot of music and spend a lot of time trying be the reincarnation of the Velvet Underground.  This track strikes 70s gold (in the VU sense). 

(5) Cathedrals – “Harlem”

Every San Francisco band with ambition takes a similar arc: we’re on bandcamp, we got a record deal, Hype Machine loves us, and now we only play here at music festivals.  These two kids did the whole thing in like six months.  Listening to this, you can hear how they did it. 

(6) Generationals – “Black Lemon”

Generationals is back on stride, consistently writing pop songs that you swear you heard in commercials even in the rare case that you really didn’t.  Just don’t go see them live.

(7) Zola Jesus – “Dangerous Days”

Don’t know much about this except that it is possible to enjoy it for months without feeling any need to find out who Zola Jesus is.  It’s that kind of thing, the music you want in the background all the time.

(8) Lake Street Dive – “You Go Down Smooth”

If you didn’t hear this in 2014, you must have been living in a cave.  At the bottom of the ocean.  And dead.  Basically, you were Osama Bin Laden.  Easier to respect than to love, you can forget how good their new songs are. 

(9) Emma Blackery – “Perfect”

Emma Blackery is not the music industry.  She’s just a musician, which is pretty much synonymous with being a victim of the music industry.  She is also a YouTuber.  That means her day job is posting her thoughts and then coping with torrents of bile that flood back at her.  She is fighting the good fight, and we should pay more attention to people like her and less to the extremely boring people who are the music industry. 

(10) Grimes, Blood Diamonds – “Go”

I aspire not to care what the Internet says, but when the Internet says trite and stupid things about a new song I like, I probably listen to the song more.  That happened here. 

(11) Röyksopp – “Something in my Heart”

Röyksopp takes over the charts. There will never be a more Röyksoppian hit than this.

(12) St. Vincent – “Birth in Reverse”

This year’s CD from St. Vincent broke through for me.  The earlier stuff was just over the line of trying too hard to be different, and I’m kind of over that.  This is just on the right side of the line.

(13) Bilderbuch – “Maschin”

Here’s this year’s most anticipated Austrian electro-prog rock single, and it is also the best.  I know you are thinking: I did not know that.  And also: because why would I care?  Bear with me.  One cool thing about listening to euro music is that some concepts that would be instantly fatal here are viable there.  In Vienna, everyone listens to electronica and apparently there’s a lot of respect for progressive rock, so combining the two doesn’t seem like a bad idea.  No label in the U.S. would buy studio time for this, but it works. 

(14) Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – “Coming Down”

Apparently Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is now just Alec Ounsworth and everyone else is a replacement. What a huge improvement.

(15) Knox Hamilton – “Work It Out”

This track is my bandcamp find of the year. Although the sound hints at Sweden, the video suggests something a little different.  It just goes to show, anyone you meet could be spending weekends playing synth and xylophone in an indie band. 

(16) Bleached – “For the Feel”

Girls who like the Ramones, there can never be enough.  This sounds like a Santa Monica bar.  Or rather a movie version thereof.  If you could really expect to hear this in a Santa Monica bar, I would move there.

(17) Broods – “L.A.F”

I only heard this CD recently.  I'm not sure this is the best track on the album but so far it is my favorite.

(18) Lykke Li – “Heart of Steel”

Lykki Li the contrarian.  She made a long playing record.  There really is no single.  The whole is better than any particular track.  I picked this one to represent because it comes near the end, and we are nearing the end of this list.

(19) Foxygen – “How Can You Really”

I was listening to this when I read that Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 reached number one on the Billboard album chart.  It made me think that if these guys could find a way to try on a whole album’s worth of material, they could be number one too.

(20) Nick Mulvey – “Fever to the Form”

A singer and his acoustic guitar make a natural final entry.  Happy new year, everybody.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Guest List Week 2014: Scott's Best of 2014

It's the triumphant return of Guest List Week!  Every day from now until I run out of lists, we'll take a look at 2014 through the eyes of people who are not me.  (My list, if you missed it, is here).  I'm lucky that my friends have such uniformly exquisite taste in music. 

Closing out Guest List Week Two, it's Scott Lawson!  Scott's 2013 Guest List is here, his 2014 Guest List is below.

Following is a selection, in no particular order, of song samples from albums I find to be among the best released in 2014.  If anyone wants my entire list of the top 150 albums of the year, just let me know and I’ll email you.

Sharon Van Etten, Are We There (“Afraid of Nothing”)

This was the album of the year.  For that matter, Sharon Van Etten’s last three albums form the best three-album stretch of any artist over the same 2010-14 period.  From the first notes, these alternately soaring and intimate portraits swoop beneath the surface and immediately and mercilessly swirl the deep sands.  The album as a whole sounds like a giant dare—or, perhaps more accurately, a threat.  “Afraid of Nothing” is a startling opener, announcing the dramatic emotional stakes to come.  It’s almost impossible to pick one song from this collection, so please listen from start to finish.  Van Etten’s songwriting confidence is remarkable.  The artist she most clearly resembles is Patti Smith (listen, particularly, to “Your Love Is Killing Me”), but the overall result is more approachable—albeit with caution.

Elbow, The Takeoff and Landing of Everything (“New York Morning”)

Elbow’s 2011 album, Build a Rocket Boys, was an eye-opening coming-out party for a band that had, in fact, been around for years (those in the know had thought The Seldom Seen Kid in 2008 or Cast of Thousands in 2004 should have broken them as pop stars of a U2 level).  Still and all, while big in England, the band has never fully caught on here.  That’s a shame.  This record is utterly gorgeous—a fully-realized masterpiece of restraint and drama.  Guy Garvey’s beautiful poetry is again on display, backed as always by a subtly progressive musical underpinning.  The album is almost novel-like—a series of portraitures and delicate social commentaries that feels a little like Joyce or Sherwood Anderson.  “New York Morning” is, to quote my wife, “the best song Peter Gabriel has done in years.”  It develops slowly and dramatically, adding new rhythmic and melodic elements over a steady repeating harmonic base—like Philip Glass or Steve Reich if they hung out in British pubs—until, by the end, it’s a vast post-modern kumbaya. 

Steve Gunn, Way Out Weather (“Milly’s Garden”)

Steve Gunn is a longtime sideman and journeyman guitarist who hits his stride on this record.  His new 8-song album, Way Out Weather, is a beautifully-recorded amalgam of country, blues, rock and (sorta) pop.  His anguished voice sounds slightly choked, as if he recorded the lead vocals in a fit of asthma.  As exemplified by the track here, “Milly’s Garden,” much of the album sounds like the long-separated conjoined twin of the Stones’ Exile on Main Street.  The interplay of the lead guitar, slide, bass and drums sounds so much like what oozed out of Nellecotte in 1972 that it’s almost eerie.  There is a relaxed ease about this record that begs repeated listening.

Jeremy Messersmith, Heart Murmurs (“Heidi”)

Two years ago, Jeremy Messersmith’s sole “Bay Area” concert was an appearance at a 12-table family-run Thai restaurant in Davis.  Sad, considering that his then-current album was arguably the best record released that year.  Some justice that with his new album, Heart Murmers, he got an appearance on Letterman this year.  Heart Murmurs is a fantastic slice of power and baroque pop.  “Ghost” was a minor hit (very very minor, although Campbell, my 12-year-old daughter, can pick it out on the radio), but every song is a miniature masterpiece.  “Heidi” is everything I want a pop song to be—romantic yearning, unrequited love, beautiful melody, and a Spector-like closing build that ends up drenched in melancholy and reverb.  A master class in pop arrangement.  Fantastic.

Jenny Lewis, The Voyager (“The New You”)

I’m not sure anyone would have predicted this, but what Jenny Lewis apparently needed was the production hand of everyone’s favorite rock-and-roll bad-boy genius, Ryan Adams.  This album is a timeless marvel.  I dare you to place it in any particular era.  It seems clear that Adams learned a lot of lessons working with Glyn Johns on his 2011 album Ashes and Fire.  Lewis’s The Voyager is infused with an insistent-if-idiosyncratic groove and a low-key energy, emphasizing a rock-solid rhythm section and perfectly understated vocal harmonies.  On it, Lewis comes into her own, realizing the promise of her Rilo Kiley albums and the sometimes-brilliant work she did with Jenny and Johnny.  Every song is good, but “The New You” is as good a place to start as any, as it highlights four key elements of the album:  Lewis’s smart, sardonic lyrical imagery, a spot-on pop arrangement, lovely vocal harmonies, and Adams’s subtle jangly lead guitar playing.

Bob Mould, Beauty and Ruin (“Low Season”)

Twenty-five years into his post-Husker Du solo career, Bob Mould has hit his stride.  Bolstered of late by the rhythm section of bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster (Superchunk/Mountain Goats), this record continues the great work of The Silver AgeBeauty and Ruin combines the melodicism and subtlety of his solo debut Workbook with the sheer electric power of the best of Sugar and early albums like Black Sheets of Rain.  There’s a reason Mould is one of the godfathers of Post-Punk, and this album shows it off in spades.

The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream (“Lost in the Dream”)

Adam Granduciel is ready to share, and share he does on this ambitious tome of a record.  Song after beautiful song, this record reveals Granduciel’s melancholic world—full of hope but draped in despair.  The production and engineering, by Granduciel himself, is exquisite.  With the possible exception of the coda to the lovely “Under The Pressure,” which lingers like a pesky houseguest who stays a week too long, the arrangements are subtle and powerful.  The guitars are spare and evocative, bathed in delays and tremolo, a pedal steel here and there for atmosphere.  Hard to pick any one song here (“Eyes to the Wind,” for example, is a phenomenal piece), but “Lost in the Dream” is a good example of the craft at play here. 

Hotel Lights, Girl Graffiti (“All My Asshole Friends”)

Although Hotel Lights continues in much the same vein as its previous outings, new intriguing elements are added here—strings, Mellotron, keys and banjo—and the result is a fuller realization of Darren Jessee’s quirky and often hilarious songs.  “All My Asshole Friends” makes me laugh every time I hear it.  It’s a song every songwriter wishes he/she’d written.

The Hold Steady, Teeth Dreams (“The Ambassador”)

After a pretty lackluster last album, THS is back on this record.  Craig Finn remains one of the best lyricists on the planet, and the energy of the music here—particularly the layered guitars, which would make Bob Mould proud—finally again matches the energy and inventiveness of the tales Finn is so adept at spinning.  The rock songs here truly rock, but the heart of the record is “The Ambassador,” the ballad of the year.  Beautifully recorded, arranged and produced, this one song makes the album one of the best of the year.  It sounds like a Denis Johnson short story set to music—desperation, aimlessness, confusion, with a vaguely sinister overlay.  To properly use the term so currently misused, it is EPIC.

New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers (“Champions of Red Wine”)

I admit that I’m fonder of the power-pop version of New Pornographers than I am of the more prog-rock  leanings of the last few albums, but Brill Bruisers strikes a nice balance between the two.  On “Champions of Red Wine,” the Rick Wakeman-inspired keyboards and Carl Palmer drums are balanced by Neko Case’s subtle-yet-soaring vocal, the beautiful layered harmonies supporting her, and the four-to-the-measure power chord backing.  Taken as a whole, the work of this band over the last ten years is pretty amazing (even if you don’t consider the solo works of the band’s members).

Jeffrey Dean Foster, The Arrow (“The Sun Will Shine Again”)

Jeffrey Dean Foster is an old-style purveyor of power pop and lush ballads—underappreciated but remarkably talented.  Here, with the help of “old-school” producer Mitch Easter (of early-REM fame), he covers a lot of musical ground, but every song is marked by exquisite production, tasteful playing, and perfect arrangements.  “The Sun Will Shine Again” is a good example—a return to the great sophisticated pop records that came out of the Athens scene in the early 80s.  Check it out.

Gruff Rhys, American Interior (“Walk into the Wilderness”)

Gruff Rhys, formerly of Super Furry Animals, was fiddling around on and discovered that he is a descendant of a Welsh explorer named John Evans, who in the last decade of the 18th century undertook a voyage across the still-untamed American continent.  Rhys decided to duplicate the journey and this album is the quirky-yet-affecting result.  It is the kind of record that makes you think music will survive whatever may happen to the so-called “record industry.” 

Field Report, Marigolden (“Home”)

Field Report’s first album remains one of my favorite records ever.  It is my standard airplane listening fare—utterly absorbing and perfectly distracting.  After a long long wait, Marigolden came out this year displaying many of the same traits evident in the earlier effort, including odd enigmatic song subjects and countless curious couplets.  The album rewards repeated listenings, as its highly-literate writing is not first-listen friendly.  That said, “Home (Leave the Lights On)” is a pretty darn poppy song that may permeate the membrane of what passes for AOR radio (e.g., XM’s The Loft) these days.  A great album—again.

Cory Branan, The No Hit Wonder (“The Only You”)

On The No Hit Wonder, Cory Branan realizes the promise of his inconsistent earlier records.  This great record defies categorization.  Drop the needle in one spot and it’s a stone country record.  Drop it in another spot and it’s pure punk revelry.  In still another it’s old-school rock.  Throughout, the songwriting is excellent.  On “The Only You,” Branan sings “I hear you got another boy / I hear he looks a lot like me / Did this one come with some kind of guarantee? / Well, I got me another girl and she looks like you at 23 / While she sleeps I trace the places where your tattoos used to be.”  You can’t go wrong from there.

Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (“The Promise”)

This album was the revelation of the year.  It would seem to have fallen from outer space.  Simpson’s voice is startlingly like Merle Haggard’s and the production has an occasional Bradley’s Barn sensibility to it, but the lyrics are genuinely odd and not a little psychedelic.  “The Promise” is arguably the oddest song on the record, as it is a very very country cover of an 80s post-New Wave song.  But Simpson so owns the song that it is not even fair to call it a cover.  The album is undeniably one of the best of the year, and one of the best country records in years.

The Antlers, Familiars (“Palace”)

I still haven’t recovered since, at Aaron’s recommendation, I first heard “Two” five years ago.  It’s hard ever to top that song, but the collection of songs on Familiars does its best and some come pretty close, although it’s unlikely any of them will be the theme music to an Anthony Robbins seminar any time soon.  The instrumentation has expanded, and the song structure is broader than on previous efforts, but the lyrical content remains deeply affecting.  “Palace” is a wonder of a song.  The trumpet line is somehow both mournful and hopeful, and the singing is fantastic.  The song builds persistently and leaves you in a place that, although not so dark and almost a little optimistic, is not unlike the heap of despair I find myself in whenever I put “Two” on.

Real Estate, Atlas (“Talking Backwards”)

I don’t know enough about the members of Real Estate to say why, but something happened between their first two albums and their latest, Atlas.  Although offering up much of the same instrumental lightness and cheery Vampire-Weekend like chiming guitars of the earlier efforts, the emotional heft of Atlas is significantly increased.  Suddenly I find myself stopping along the frat row of their music and actually interested in what they’re singing about.

Frontier Ruckus, Sitcom Afterlife (“Sad Modernity”)

Although silly record industry folks use the term “Americana” to describe the band, Frontier Ruckus’s new album proves that to be utter nonsense.  Although there are banjos here and there and a honky-tonk piano or two, this is primarily a power pop/jangle pop record—and a good one at that.  “Sad Modernity,” with its lilting horn riff, slinky Stratocaster licks, and Philly-sound stringbed on the chorus, is a perfect example.  If any of you didn’t listen to this record because of the genre label associated with this (Detroit-based!) band, toss away your preconceptions and take a listen.  Good stuff.

Justin Townes Earle, Single Mothers (“White Gardenias”)

It can’t be easy to be the son of an ex-con, former heroin-addict, absentee father who also happens to be one of the most acclaimed songwriters of the last thirty years.  It would seem that Justin Townes Earle has tried a number of different ways of working through whatever issues have plagued him, including a pretty significant drug problem of his own.  But he seems more together now than in past years, and this album reflects both a coming-to-grips and a certain kind of artistic directedness that his prior records have occasionally lacked.  This is an excellent collection of songs that ranges from obvious kiss-offs (“Single Mothers”) to swaggering guitar-driven rockers (“My Baby Drives”) to contemplative what-if ballads (“White Gardenias”).  With Single Mothers, dare I say it, JTE threatens to become the songwriter his father was.

Strand of Oaks, Heal (“Goshen ‘97”)

First of all, I don’t have any idea what “Strand of Oaks” is supposed to mean (did he mean to name the band “Stand of Oaks”?).  Regardless, this is a great collection of songs by Timothy Showalter.  The album deftly explores a broad swath of emotional territory—and it rocks.  I personally like that he refers not only to “singing Pumpkins in the mirror,” but also to listening to Sharon Van Etten on his headphones.  Nice.

John Hiatt, Terms of My Surrender (“Long Time Comin’”)

John Hiatt has been one of the world’s great songwriters since the late-1970s.  He has popped his head up into the world’s consciousness a few times—most notably during the period from 1987 through 1990, when Hiatt produced a set of albums (Bring The Family, Slow Turning, and Stolen Moments) that well showcased both is lyrical finesse and his various bands’ (particularly the slide work of Ry Cooder and Sonny Landreth) remarkable flexibility.  He hasn’t produced a crappy album for 30 years, which is remarkable considering the subject matter he takes on.  Terms of My Surrender is no exception.  Low-key and casual, but at the same time harrowing and hilarious, the songs have the feel of a bunch of musical compatriots sitting around a campfire.  His vocals justify the long-held critical belief that his is among the most soulful and expressive of all voices in contemporary music.  This record rewards repeated listens.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Guest List Week 2014: Desa's Best of 2014

It's the triumphant return of Guest List Week!  Every day from now until I run out of lists, we'll take a look at 2014 through the eyes of people who are not me.  (My list, if you missed it, is here).  I'm lucky that my friends have such uniformly exquisite taste in music. 

Today, ring in the new year with Desa Warner!  Desa's 2013 Guest List is here, her 2014 Guest List is below.

Hi! Desa here.  I have two main playlists I add to on Spotify: “Living Room Dance Party” and

“Not Quite Dance Songs.”  Although my dance party mix tends to get more plays, my Guest List
this year is a bit less dance-y than I would have initially expected.  I recognize this list is not for
everyone.  I jump (unapologetically!) from country (Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, Eric
Church and Little Big Town) to hip hop (Kevin Gates and Kendrick Lamar), indulge in catchy
sugar pop (G.R.L and Jesse J) and even pay tribute (via The Chainsmokers) to all of those who,
deep down, just want to be like Kanye.

Big thanks to Aaron for providing a platform for this list.  The opportunity encourages me to sit

for a couple hours to look back on my year and give it a soundtrack that will resonate with me
for years to come.

(1) Miranda Lambert - “Somethin' Bad” (f/ Carrie Underwood)

(2) Ella Eyre - “Comeback”
(3) The Chainsmokers - “Kanye”
(4) Bishop Allen - “Black Hole”
(5) Walk the Moon - “Sidekick”
(6) Jessie J - “Bang Bang” (f/ Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj)
(7) Kendrick Lamar - “i”
(8) Robert DeLong - “Isabel Street”
(9) G.R.L. - “Ugly Heart”
(10) Kevin Gates - “I Don't Get Tired (#IDGT)”
(11) Zella Day - “Hypnotic”
(12) Ex Cops - “Wanna Be” (f/ LP)
(13) Frankie Ballard - “Sunshine & Whiskey”
(14) Bleachers - “I Wanna Get Better”
(15) Walk the Moon - “Shut Up and Dance”
(16) Pharrell Williams - “Come Get It Bae”
(17) Eric Church - “Cold One”
(18) La Roux - “Sexotheque”
(19) Little Big Town - “Stay All Night”

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Guest List Week 2014: Gene's Top 15

It's the triumphant return of Guest List Week!  Every day from now until I run out of lists, we'll take a look at 2014 through the eyes of people who are not me.  (My list, if you missed it, is here).  I'm lucky that my friends have such uniformly exquisite taste in music. 

Today, live from Nigeria (and soon to be live from Pakistan), it's Gene Novikov!  Gene's 2013 Guest List is here, his 2014 Guest List is below.

15. Bishop Allen – “Start Again.”  

Lights Out didn’t quite have the oomph of Grr… or The Broken String, at least for me, but I did really dig this catchy little tune, and particularly the contrast between the synthy soundscape and the jangly guitar that propels the song forward.

14. Jeremy Messersmith – “Steve.” 

Because, I mean, come on.

13. Owen Pallett – “Song for Five & Six.” 

Pallett’s hardest-driving song to date, opening with a gorgeous vocal melody and progressing to an absolutely soaring arrangement of violins and cascading keys. If you’ve previously thought Pallett’s stuff was sort of almost there, pop-music-wise, this might be your entry point.

12. The Rural Albert Advantage – “Vulcan, AB.” 

One of the reasons I love these guys is that their quieter songs often pack just as much punch as the jaunty singles. Here’s a case in point, beautiful and melancholy; I only wish it were longer.

11. Together Pangea – “Badillac.” 

Generally speaking this band can safely be categorized under “not my thing,” but there’s something about this shambling rock song that really caught my ear – particularly that triumphant shouty refrain.

10. The Apache Relay – “Katie Queen of Tennessee.” 

Like Blondfire's "Waves" last year, here’s a song that plays to seemingly my every predilection. Swooping violins? Check. Propulsive 4:4 shuffle? Yup. Rousing, wordy sing-along chorus? Roger that. Thanks, guys!

9. Royskopp & Robyn – “Every Little Thing.” 

Wish Robyn would hurry up and record another actual album, but this thing’s shimmering, metallic menace will hold me over nicely. Love Robyn’s vocals here, with what may seem at first blush like vamping instead integrating perfectly into the melody.

8. Generationals – “Black Lemon.” 

These guys’ previous project, The Eames Era, is one of my all-time favorite bands, seemingly incapable of producing a bad or even mediocre song. Generationals is more prolific but also more uneven – the last couple of albums have had more misses than hits, by my count. But when they nail it, they nail it, and here they most certainly nail it.

7. Katy B – “5 AM.” 

Not at all surprised to learn that Katy B has an honest-to-goodness college degree in pop music composition. This seemingly frivolous, radio-friendly single is just impeccably orchestrated, with stabbing synths and Phil-Spector-y girl-group backing vocals complementing an irresistible combo of hooks.

6. Conor Oberst – “Artifact #1.” 

Ho hum, another terrific album from Oberst in one of his many incarnations. What got me here is the acoustic guitar seemingly trying to wrestle the melody away from Oberst himself. I know he’s yesterday’s news to many, but I’m constantly agog at this dude’s consistency and versatility.

5. La Roux – “Sexotheque.” 

This song is idiotic. And I spent much of the second half of 2014 humming it under my breath.

4. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – “Simple and Sure.”  

That's about right, actually. Is there a term for a song that describes itself?

3. Tennis – “Never Work for Free.” 

This is sort of a throwback-y She & Him-like number except… I dunno… better. I mean, that chorus is pretty undeniable, isn’t it? I’m pretty disappointed this song and album got precisely zero attention this year – does no one care about this sort of straight-ahead earworm anymore?

2. Marina and the Diamonds – “Happy.” 

Marina is hands-down my favorite of this new crop of divas we’re presently inundated with, mostly because of her interesting voice (lush and husky) and unerring melodic instinct. When was the last time someone delivered an unadorned piano ballad this immediately compelling? In a saner world this would top the Billboard charts for months.

1. The New Pornographers – “Champions of Red Wine.” 

My favorite song of the decade, really, and the culmination of Carl Newman’s gradual move from angular, inscrutable guitar pop to a style more lyrically straightforward and musically complex. This is probably the most comprehensible NPs song ever, and perhaps the most beautiful – some days the contrast between the bittersweet and mournful verses and the simple declarative chorus chokes me up. And when, at the end, the rest of the band suddenly joins Neko on “we’re coming over” – and the plinking synths respond – it’s a moment that kind of defines why I listen to music, if that makes any sense.