At this party, there’s a guitar in the corner, hanging out, talking with an unlit cigarette hanging out of its mouth; occasionally it turns around to comment on a man’s sad monologue. This guitar is clearly kind of a jerk, but in a way that’s entertaining—like the fans at sporting events that heckle the living shit out of players, but do so with a modicum of wit, taking a little pride in the performance. The man’s monologue is also intriguing, but you keep getting distracted by that guitar—there’s just something about it.
You can complain about your aches and pains, sure. You can catalogue your bruises and your cuts, okay. People get it. But if you refuse to go see the doctor, the nurse, the local sage, the garden healer, the mudman, or even the lettuce supplicants, how are you going to verify this stuff? You keep telling us about your involuntary depilations and other denudings, but do you do anything about it? You can list your pustules and suppurating lesions, why not, everyone can get into that, who doesn’t like a little wound mapping, am I right? But do you have to do it so boastfully? Be conscientious is all I’m saying. Not everyone feels as bad as you do.
Dire Need is dominated by a voice. A voice that’s pitched up and down, slowed, sped up, twisted, degraded, decontextualized. The voice makes the song connect with a listener, it gives it force and dramatic value. Dire Need thrums and throbs along, but it is the voice—in the tone of someone hurt, or at least on the outside looking in—that propels the song. Alex Smoke’s record has songs like this throughout, but also songs that call to mind stuff like Clint Mansell’s soundtracks, power electronics like Haus Arafna, and even Junior Boys (at their most minimal)—it’s an impressive range and it gives the album a sort of narrative that’s both present at times and hidden at others (like some soundtracks).
Dove is a soft soft fight song and a kind of guide as well. This is a disagreement between a man and a woman, set to very pretty music. Pillar Point is saying to a woman: ‘I need to know where your head’s at.’ (I’m paraphrasing). And he’s saying, ‘You know what we have is real and good’ (also a paraphrase). He goes on to say to this woman, “With our love/you’re just a stupefied dove,” implying that she is somehow confused and bewildered by what’s happening between them. Dove is meant as whispered advice, a kind and gentle little piece of persuasive writing, foregrounded against some hot-to-trot synths and a bobbing beat.
I heard Thao went away for a while to get her head right. I heard Thao went to a shack in the middle of the Mendocino Forest to think hard thoughts and discover brutal truths. I heard she’d joined an Oakland slam poetry collective and was working on a cool novel about food justice. Someone told me she wrote this whole album while staying in a friend’s house near Half Moon Bay, watching the waves come in all hella hard from El Niño. She spent time at a farm somewhere making preserves and jellies too. Who was it that said life is what happens while making other jams? Someone, I’m sure of it.
Thao is back and things are good. She has a beautiful voice and she writes wonderful songs. Psyched for her new album.
2015 felt like a better year than most for this site because there were a good number of posts, for one, some of which featured actual new music. That was an improvement in many respects over both 2013 and 2014. Even though this feels mostly like a thing I do for myself anyway and that very few people probably read, it still feels correct to present a list of (some of) my favorite songs from the year here, especially since I haven’t done anything like this in 3 years.
There are some favorites that aren’t represented here, mostly because those songs are unavailable through the outlets I prefer or are only available in odd formats (there was a time when I would have gone through the trouble of converting, like, dozens of aiff files or humongous wav files to mp3s, but those days are long, long gone). I would, however, like to make special mention of D’Angelo and the Vanguard’s “Black Messiah,” which is unbelievably good and moving and sort of mind-blowing, the Jamie XX album “In Colour,” which I listened to probably 40+ times, Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly,” which I’m still listening to and deciphering and which kills me regularly, Cindy Lee’s “Act of Tenderness,” which is strange as hell, and totally beautiful, and Sleater-Kinney’s “No Cities to Love,” whose songs stick in my mind for days on end every time I listen to it. Other artists that aren’t represented here–Tame Impala for instance, whose album I also loved–are ones that are probably on every other year-end list everywhere, and I didn’t think it necessary to include them in my list.
The songs below are the ones that I enjoyed listening to most this year. There are others, as I mentioned, but these are the highlights. Anyone looking for better lists, better writing, or more comprehensive music coverage would do well (as always) to check out Said the Gramophone’s picks, Fluxblog’s survey, and Recommended Listen’s choices too.
“Driving the van home/from some show upstate/snow flakes flying by/like stars in hyperspace.” John D’Agostino’s lyrics are rich with provocative images—particularly on the band’s 2014 album LOSE (which I listened to a lot this year) and on this single, which is about former Cymbals Eat Guitars member Daniel Baer, who died in August. I don’t know that I’ve come across anyone’s songwriting recently that I’ve found as moving as D’Agostino’s—he’s a talented writer and has a way of talking about some difficult shit in a succinct way. “Aerobed” is a phenomenal song.
A woman tears a strip away from an old newspaper and blots her lipstick—that she’s just applied out here, in the hallway—before she knocks on the door of her friend’s apartment. She knocks three times on his door, a dactylic rap. You can’t stand to see what happens. Will he answer? She bites her lip and knocks again. You could stand here for an eternity waiting to see what happens.
Assuming that a lot of folks already know about this band, or at least the folks (~13) who still read this blog, but I want to write about them anyway. Sheer Mag is from Philly, which already counts very much for them, but they are also super fun to listen to, in the same way that Free Energy (the first album) and especially Exploding Hearts are fun to listen to–that is, the fun that this band is having playing these songs is transmitted directly to you, the listener, and you get to take part vicariously in the casual energy and sweatiness and roughness and celebration of these songs. Whose Side Are You On is particularly wonderful because it does not have the exact blown-out jet-engine quality of the other songs on II; it’s a little calmer and more declarative, but no less powerful. It’s a catchy summertime song, and god knows there aren’t enough of those in the world, so why not embrace it for what it is.
You Go Where I Put You is a little less
Mu than Thighs on Vinyl
the first Fitness song
a little more
Junior Boys x NIN (?)
Big neon synths
Smooth louche vocals
“You always wanted something out of reach” (Tantalus?)
and says, politely, understandingly,
“YOU CAN HAVE A FREAKOUT”
And I do. I have many.
Throughout the day.
“You go where I put you
I know what’s best for you.”
This is a song for times of arrogance,
certainty, BIG plans, little grooves, and
the feeling of knowing you might be right
Free and beautiful! A megapiano! Nils Frahm’s Solo is gorgeous and “Wall” is a part of that. If you like pretty sounds, this song and this album are for you. Unadulterated piano. Or somewhat adulterated piano, perhaps. Good to listen to at any time.
Robot piano, or piano played by robot hands. An industrial diamond.
Sauna is the easily the most accessible album that Phil Elverum has released in a while, or at least it’s one of the easiest to listen to. So pretty, all the way through. I like the way that he characterizes this album as almost an assemblage of things he’s been thinking about, or was thinking about when he recorded it last summer. His records occasionally feel a little like books–and this one does especially, with a mix of influences fed through a unique sensibility to produce something aesthetically remarkable. There’s a bit of the darkness of the last three records, but also some of the insane melodic invention of It Was Hot…, Glow pt. 2, Mt. Eerie, Dawn. I can see why he referred to it as the “ultimate” Mount Eerie record, since it definitely feels like a summation of everything he’d explored previously. Perfect winter record.
Like an M83 song or one of Madonna’s Charlotte Gainsbourg collaborations, PPP features sort of cinematic spoken voiceovers but then accelerates, spins, gains altitude, takes off. PPP is such a shifting, moving thing: a handheld carousel, a barn-sized music box.
“Magnetized” expresses a kind of long-term romanticism; a love of being bound together: “I sleep underneath/a picture that I keep/of you next to me,” and “I realize we’re magnetized.” My favorite song on Star Wars and one of the best songs Wilco’s released in a little while.
Whaaaaaa. There is no beating this. Horns and percussion and exhortation. What more do you need?
Recommended if you like. Endurance. Dryness. Static. Secret melodies. Blooms. Songs/not songs. Music with a certain proportion of newness.
Death Grips released Fashion Week, an all-instrumental album, as a free download a week or two ago, and it is–as one would expect from them–pretty wild and thoroughly engaging. The instrumental part of Death Grips’ music has always been (for me) the best part of what they do–I love MC Ride’s vocals and all, but I find the kernel of their songs, twisted, hard, dark, serrated, to be what fascinates the most. Runway A and Runway H are pretty representative of the bleaker/harder parts of the album, and both are really really fun to listen to. This band has done some (debatably) dumb stuff and some great stuff, but it all contributes to a feeling (for me) that I’m listening to the audio equivalent of samizdat every time I listen to Death Grips. There aren’t many acts or bands anymore that exude ‘danger’ in the same way that DG does, and I’d say that, overall, that’s a bad thing–we need more like this.
How can you quantify the energy that flows through a song? Where are the big data advances for aesthetics? We need stats. I want to be able to definitively say precisely how annoying George Ezra’s “Budapest” is, or what the expected enjoyment level would be for someone coming to Aphex Twin’s music for the first time. Cymbals Eat Guitars create music that is 10+ SAR (songs above replacement level). Etc. I say this because Beach Slang’s new record is so good, it makes me wish that I had numbers to back me up. This album just FLIES by too. It’s like going for an almost-reckless ride in a friend’s jeep, it’s quick and rough and open-aired and bumpy. A Philly band that reminds me a lot of the spirit of Philly—passionate, hungry (?), defiant, weird. This album is awesome and loud and fun, and you should get it.
I discovered this song by way of (the wonderful) Last Gas Station. There was no bassline more important to me this year than the (sped-up) one in Paxton Fettel’s “Tripped Out.” The song has verve and style to spare. Entertain the notions of that groove, right, and then let the rest of the song—those vocals—get you carried away. It’s all a rework of Curtis Mayfield’s “Tripping Out” but it is trimmed and polished and cut and fashioned into something new and wild.
I knew Neon Indian for songs like Deadbeat Summer (which, while an OK song, I associated so strongly with shithead blogs and other attendant grossness that I could not get into it at all) and Polish Girl, which I enjoyed when I heard on the radio–but this song, this whole album, is so enjoyable and fun and advances such a defined aesthetic that it makes me want to go back and listen to what I missed out on before. VEGA INTL. Night School seems like a sophisticated re-packaging or appropriation of the best of the chillwave (or vaporwave) aesthetic–the sounds seem disposable and mediated but they’re arranged with such purpose here; this album creates a world in the same way that great videogames create a world–with a lot of atmosphere, color, ambient texture, and compelling details (it is a weird world, sure, but it’s also fun to spend time in it). There is something very ‘arcade’ about this album–it’s dirty and sordid in some ways, dark and goofy too, but it is also a total pleasure-delivery device. Almost every song on the album is a highlight.
Floating Points’ Elaenia is one of my favorite albums of the year, easy, and “Peroration Six” is probably my favorite track from that LP. It’s got the vibe of some unknown jazz record, a furious live cut forgotten in a vault somewhere, a jam deemed too weird to make it to the album. It just grows and grows, adding depth and pace the whole way.
Nicolas Jaar released so much good music this year that it’s tough to pick one track to highlight. Everything on Pomegranates was beautiful, so that would really be my pick, but of the Nymphs singles that he released this past year, “Swim” was the one I connected with most. This song is rain, static, friction, chirring, machine beats, denatured horns, alien sounds (expanding, eventually, into full-on celebration). It’s a good summary of what Jaar can do.
You know you’re getting at least one monster track per album from Hot Chip—often more than that—and Huarache Lights is another one of their catchy club songs. Alex Taylor sings, “When I see the beams of/those Huarache lights/I know every single thing/will be just right,” which is as good a rendition as any of the experience of finding something comforting for unknown/weird reasons.
What a song. If you haven’t listened to any Car Seat Headrest yet, go ahead and do that. Will Toledo is an exceptional songwriter. It was tough to pick a representative from Teens of Style, but “Maud Gone” is so catchy, and Toledo’s singing here is so good that it was hard not to include this one on the list. But the whole album is good, start to finish, lyrically and musically. Dude is a talent. I love these lines: “Sweetheart, please let me hold on/to these old songs/I’ve loved too long.”
Probably not everyone loves music like Yvette’s music, which is abrasive and loud and intense. “Rotten Animals,” for instance, seems like its sonic foundation is a particularly discordant car alarm. But once you learn the shape of their songs, one or two listens in, you ride it, you get it, there is something pleasing about being taught how to listen to a song by the song itself.
Waxahatchee’s “Bonfire” is a sad bass rumbler in form (like, for instance, Weezer’s “Only in Dreams”), superficially brightened by the natural lightness of Katie Crutchfield’s voice–which here, though, is talking some brutally heartbreaking shit. Ivy Tripp was another favorite this year, an album that just kept unfolding.
The Dodos played San Francisco not too long ago, in the middle of the fall–October, maybe. It was a small hometown show at The Chapel, a totally charming and pretty venue in the Mission. I’d never seen them play live before and I was hoping that their songs, which I love, would come through as strongly in person as they do on record. They did not disappoint. This was the most physical show I’ve seen in a long time. I think sometimes that good musicians are able to transmit to the listener (or watcher) the tactile pleasure of their virtuosity, the enjoyment that they take in playing their instruments and making music and doing it all so well. The Dodos definitely are able to do this–on record and even more so in person. Individ, their new record, exhibits this aspect of the band especially well. After Carrier came out last year, I had thought that maybe the band was done, particularly in light of comments that Meric Long had made. But when I saw them play, they looked happy, they were into it, and there was actual joy. Logan Kroeber spoke about how they’d been together so long and how lucky they were to play together. Individ is a totally companionable (and fun) record and one that makes you grateful for bands like the Dodos.
This album and song did not end up on as many 2015 lists as I thought it would; this song is gorgeous. I didn’t think that Women’s aesthetic could be improved upon—it was all imperious guitars, dead-eyed proclamations, filigrees of noise and pretty melodies—but here it is, the hopefully-soon-to-be-renamed Viet Cong did it with higher clarity, different forms, impassioned voices.
I’ve never heard anyone sing with a sneer as effectively as Ought’s Tim Darcy does. He shouts, declaims, mutters, and chants with a raised eyebrow and a curled lip. This was actually what I found most difficult about Sun Coming Down at first—the singing on More Than Any Other Day was gentler or somehow more palatable—but the album has stuck with me so much; what once was annoying is now endearing.
For me, hearing the hard chords and earnest singing of Into It. Over It.’s Local Language is as much a signifier of those years as things like Discmen, Napster, and music listservs. Local Language is such a forceful but tidy song too–unexpectedly accomplished. The whole EP’s a pleasure.
Drew Daniel finally released the YouTube-sampling, pseudo-plunderphonics stuff he’s been working on for years just the other day under the title Why Pay More? One of the tracks on this album was the first track I ever wrote about on the new site (and referenced again here), and it pleases me greatly that 1) there was more music like Party Pills and 2) the rest of the album is all just as fun and fucking weird as that track. You can pay nothing for Why Pay More? or you can pay something, it’s up to you. I will posit that it is worth something. Are You Looking? is a spectacular track (and generally representative of the sound of the album): it is protean, beatful (?), and webbed with odd & entertaining vocal snippets. Get into this if you want to surprise yourself before the end of the year.
Probably lots of stuff out there about Carrie & Lowell, since it’s an incredibly great album, and I will just add about “Eugene” that I love music here and the way Sufjan sings the joke about someone calling him “Subaru,” and “what’s left is only bittersweet/for the rest of my life/admitting the past is behind me.”
The best drone they’ve ever done. I love the whole album, but this section represents why I fell in love with GY!BE in the first place.
I could listen to that drumbeat for a lifetime. It’s a desperate re-awakening, a new beginning, somewhere.