The Ultimate Playlist #8: Beautiful Day

U2 are a weird band. In recent years, they sound as if want to make big, bold sounds that preach to the masses and appeal to everyone. It’s a tough balance to achieve for even one track and all too often the effort results in vacuous songs. Accordingly, it’s pretty exciting when I find a song that manages to strike the kind of wide-reaching messaging along with the personal, detailed touches. On occasion, U2 fails miserably. “Magnificent” seems exciting on the surface, but the dynamics rarely change in the meat of the track even when shifting from verse to chorus. And then the meaningless lyrics, making the titular adjective seem entirely plain by the time all is said and done.

On the other hand, “Beautiful Day” always hits me the right way. Instead of over-exuberance, the lyrics draw from the same basin as R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts,” eventually landing the earnest encouragement, “What you don’t have, you don’t need it now.” More importantly, the sonic content is more exciting starting with a hushed introduction and allowing for a proper pop in the chorus. And looking for depth in detail? The echoing synth is lovely, the Edge’s guitar chugs with satisfying distortion for the refrain, and the late-song “See the…” verse is refreshingly un-clunky (a powerful compliment if you consider the how the location description could have gone).

But for me, the real highlight is that drum fill prior to the first chorus. Oh, it’s hilariously reductive to put so much of a song on four percussive sounds; the effect is outstanding every time. It is the point in which the track always manages to win me over and pull me in for the long haul. “Beautiful Day” finds a sweet spot as an effortless pop song with appeal that last beyond first listen.

Find the whole Ultimate Playlist in Spotify-form here, or check out all the articles in one place here!

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The Ultimate Playlist #7: No Cars Go

I trust we all know who the band is by now, but the particular nuance of selecting an Arcade Fire song on the Ultimate Playlist is a challenge. This song skips over the best album and, in fact, their best songs. And I’m sure at least one of those will make an appearance here someday. It’s the balance of wonder and terror and percussive propulsion make this a very easy pick.

“No Cars Go” did first appear on the Arcade Fire EP, the very first official release from Arcade Fire. The initial version of the song almost sounds as a demo, a slowed-down, bare-bones version of the thing off Neon Bible. It is, of course, that version which is added to the Playlist. Increased tempo hints at urgency and desperation, orchestration and production (especially the bass and drums) are warm and familiar. The repeated lyric that “We know a place” only lends to the comfortable confines, all the while pushing out into the unknown (that place where cars don’t go, after all). It’s a fascinating blend of exploration and certainty, almost soul-searching set to a soundtrack.

The Ultimate Playlist #6: I Want the World to Stop

Belle & Sebastian make quirky, delicate, beautiful pop. They tell stories, try to achieve emotional resonance, and have a satisfying instrumental prowess. But the very first adjective is the tricky one. Despite being so impressive, Belle & Sebastian are a band that seemingly requires a particular setting for extended plays. Sunday morning drives, days of quiet reflection lend extra importance and pleasure to their sound. Those times can be hard to find.

At their funkiest (half of the exceptional The Life Pursuit) or their most breathtaking (If You’re Feeling Sinister) this problem can be avoided. But at their tightest and most focused, the band takes on completely different guise, a dark and powerful unit that delivers and devastates.

I Want the World to Stop,” the fourth track on their 2010 record Write About Love, does just that and is an easy addition to any playlist. The hook, of all places, is in the rhythm section. A tightly wound groove is built of sparse drumming and forceful bass and carries the entire song. In the verses, pained organ pulses hum just below the drums and a wandering guitar pick dances below that. A quasi-chorus eventually picks up as the guitars rise, strings build, and vocals grow and harmonize.

But the real highlight of the song comes at the 2:30 mark. After a lush sound is established, it all drops out except the drums and bass. No organ, no vocals, no strings. And then they rebuild, bit by bit. First the vocals and keys. Then the guitars and strings, until it finally grows and reaches a (proportionally) massive instrumental coda to carry the song to its end. It’s the most effective dropout-rebuild I’ve heard this side of Interpol’s “PDA.”

The Ultimate Playlist #5: Gamma Ray

I have mixed feelings about Beck. When he connects, his songs are outstanding, but that doesn’t happen enough. Working through the raw emotion of Sea Change is the closest I’ve ever come to enjoying a full Beck album, but even his high-water point loses steam at times. Thankfully, the musician is particularly good at penning single tracks, and one we’re including on the Playlist is “Gamma Ray“.

“Gamma Ray” clicks on multiple levels and is all the more impressive for it. The song is catchy on first listen thanks to the high energy bass and drum shuffle that drives the melody. It’s swung enough to have a dance feel and quick enough to give direction. It’s also addictive long-term thanks to the little things like the ringing hollow-body guitar, the lyrical turns, and that “dot dot dot on the ground” line mixed with staccato drums (just try to dislike it, I dare you). It’s a fun song with enough smoky atmospherics and layers to keep things interesting after dozens of listens. This is an easy choice for the Ultimate Playlist.

Also, be sure to check out the Ultimate Playlist page, either by clicking that link or looking at the top of the blog. It has a Spotify playlist with all the songs and a list with links to all the tracks!

The Ultimate Playlist #4: The Sweat Descends

I’m sure there are hundreds of songs that have been described as “perfect” by somebody. It’s a confusing label, completely clouded by individual judgement and personal taste, so of course it’s something I’m going to touch on for my Ultimate Playlist. This is one of the few songs I consider perfect. The band Les Savy Fav exists in a state between pure punk and artsy-indie, and succeed by borrowing from the best of both worlds. Their raw energy is entirely punk rock, but their guitar style and noisy explorations are decidedly indie.

“The Sweat Descends” knocks it out of the park by refusing to meet you halfway. It knows full well that you’re going to fall right in from the very start. The ringing, echo quality of the distorted opening guitar creates a sense of immense size. That allows the rest of the band to fill right into the gaps 23 seconds in. Then it all pumps up. The propulsive disco-esque drums, the air-tight vocals that move from whisper-and-melody to shout-and-command effortlessly.

But the kicker is how that chorus just explodes. It’s a tried and true method of songwriting, but this variation almost moves your hand for you… all the way to the volume knob so you can crank it. The layers of thrashing guitar and pretty high notes just build and build and wash over you. But don’t mistake this for aimless noodling: the furious drumming and the impassioned voice maintains the punk force until it all ends. Get this on your playlists ASAP.

The Ultimate Playlist #3: Subterranean Homesick Blues

I don’t really like Bob Dylan. Let that sink in for a bit. Now that you’ve gathered your torches and pitchforks, let’s calm down and realize that I have good reasons for my views. Strictly speaking, Bob Dylan is not a strong central source of the music I enjoy today. Yes: Dylan is an invaluable musical pioneer who pushed boundaries and innovated lyricism in popular records. But he roots too heavily in folk styles for me. And his voice sucks.

Oh for goodness sake, will you put the weapons down? “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is still so good that I still put it on nearly every playlist I make. The driving, chugging rhythm builds from drums and a loose guitar and fits well with the sound of tires on the highway at 70 miles per hour. Dylan’s voice is also shockingly tolerable here. Rather than trying to convey nuance or emotion, he’s using that trademarked sneer to punch out lyrics that evoke a kind of disenfranchised free-association. The whole thing ends up being expertly assembled, highly focused, and very impressive. I’m sure the music snobs out there have already heard this; if you haven’t yet, go check out the best of Bob Dylan.

The Ultimate Playlist #2: Another Morning Stoner

The second entry into the Ultimate Playlist is “Another Morning Stoner” by …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. The band name is completely unwieldy and over the top, which isn’t too far off from their musical style. Bombastic, big, heart-on-sleeve, quasi-hardcore, quasi-punk is their forte. Trail of Dead are particularly known for their exceptional 3rd record Source Tags & Codes, and “Another Morning Stoner” is the high point of that release. It works because in part of the massive guitars, but very often because the song’s motor never lets up: the drums. The percussive power manages to keep just ahead of the anticipated pace and gives an apparent acceleration to the whole affair.

It also helps that the vocals push toward the edge of screaming but never quite get there. Screaming rarely works quite right, so Conrad Keely’s raw performance on “Another Morning Stoner” comes across as both powerful and appropriate. When you blend the whole package, it’s an explosive release of rock power, emotion, and art. Certainly a great cornerstone for any playlist.