Best Songs of the Half Decade: 10-1

Here’s the conclusion to the Best Songs of the Half Decade list I started 2 weeks ago. You can find the first part of the list here, and you can find a Spotify playlist with all the tracks here. You don’t even have to read this stuff if you’d rather just listen!

Anyway, here’s the list. Thanks for reading!

10. Brill Bruisers by The New Pornographers (2014)
Do you enjoy explosions of jubilance? Oh good, then this song’s for you. “Bruisers” bursts into being and never lets up. Everything about it distills the delightful essence the New Pornographers. Vocal harmonies, sing-along sections, and booming drums combine to a wonderful pop concoction. At the center of it all is Carl (AC) Newman’s wonderful singing and ear for melody, something underrated in a band with Neko Case and Dan Bejar.

09. Is this How You Feel by The Preatures (2013)
For the thousandth time since I first heard the song: it’s the chorus. There hasn’t been a refrain this explosive since Kelly Clarkson turned Interpol guitars into a pop volcano. The difference? The Preatures’ track takes a different emotional direction from “Since U Been Gone.” Instead of relief and freedom, Isabella Manfredi’s story explores the tense anticipation of future love. In that way, the release in “How You Feel” is a more distilled form of pure bliss. This isn’t a weight being lifted, it’s new joy being formed.

08. Heavy Feet by Local Natives (2013)
I like to imagine that Local Natives are indie engineers. They’ve managed to design a song that features many indie rock hallmarks, assemble them in a sensible order, and pull it off without any feeling of false manufacturing. Consider the checklist: chiming guitars, soaring (and harmonizing) vocals, general emotional resonance, handclaps, a memorable chorus. You’re almost tempted to dislike “Heavy Feet” for shooting so directly at the audience. And then you hear it again and remember how much you like it.

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Best Albums of 2013: 10-1

We’re about to turn the calendar over to Ja… wait… June? Oh. You don’t say. Well, here’s a list of great albums from 2013 because I enjoy this nonsense and it’s fun for my own dumb reference anyway. Feel free to complain.

Best Albums 2013

10. San Fermin by San Fermin – What would happen if you mixed The National and Dirty Projectors while cranking up the “baroque” knob? Now you can find out! Oversimplification aside, the debut effort by San Fermin is uneven and lovable. The pacing is a bit odd and the instrumental breaks aren’t always memorable. Paired with those weaknesses are some breathtaking highs. Opener “Renaissance!” sets an amazing tone, “Torero” boils deliciously, the drums in “Bar” simply must be experienced, and you’ve already heard the great single “Sonsick.”

09. Make Good Choices by Sean Nelson – You probably remember the song “Flagpole Sitta,” that fun 90s one-hit-wonder by Harvey Danger. This is the debut solo effort by that band’s singer, and it captures the same kind of charm and style found in the releases from his former project. And if you’re like most people, you won’t realize the strength of that compliment. We get thoughtful lyricism, strong melodies, and that distinctive voice, all packed and delivered to a 2013 audience.

08. Cerulean Salt by Waxahatchee – There are two ways to approach Cerulean Salt. The first is to love singer-songwriter/folk fare, and to gravitate to the slow burn energy of the quiet songs. Powerful singing and haunting melodies are sure to hit home with you. The second (and my way) in, is to fall for those brilliant loud tracks, soak in the glorious guitar fuzz. No matter the path you pick, the record is likely to grab your ears. And before you know it? All the other tracks will rise and add to a great whole.

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Live: Japandroids at Newport Music Hall 6/12/13

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Japandroids at Newport Music Hall, photo by Matt

I am consistently amazed by the prevalence of crud guitar rock. Commercials, and particularly sporting events (especially my beloved hockey) often seem to revert to a crunchy, derivative rock sound when attempting to build a brand soundtrack. It’s a shame, really, when such high-energy rock is at their fingers and, for hockey, very Canadian. Yes, Japandroids (those responsible for last year’s Album of the Year) are the perfect tonic to the listless parts of their genre. Exciting, explosive, and anthemic songs can all be found in the band’s catalog so I thoroughly anticipated their arrival in Columbus to bring their sound to the live setting. Luckily, very little of the entire night disappointed.

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Live: Grizzly Bear + The xx at The LC 6/11/13

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The xx at The LC, photo by Matt

On a perfect (essentially) summer night, two relative giants in the world of indie rock descended on Columbus and put on a fantastic show that only left me wanting more. Coming off their fourth and second albums in 2012, Tuesday saw Grizzly Bear and The xx co-headline with outstanding performances of their best material.

As a disclaimer, Grizzly Bear are one of my favorite bands and I though it a shame that they didn’t headline this show. Thankfully, their music managed to shine brightly. The last time I saw Grizzly Bear live, they were the opener for Radiohead on the In Rainbows tour in Camden, NJ. This was pre-Veckatimest and the band seemed nervous, almost shocked at the call to play for the World’s Greatest Band. Tuesday, Grizzly Bear seemed at ease, even amused with themselves.

Songs were bombastic and energetic, taking on the kind of urgency that the live setting provides. The newest pieces from Shields were dense and pleasing, while the earlier material was well-polished without losing any weight or sincerity. Between songs, the band was light and jovial. Stage banter was playful, offering remarks about riding on swings, “keeping it real,” and eating Jeni’s ice cream. The highlights were their best songs, “Knife,” “Two Weeks,” and particularly astounding “While You Wait for the Others.” It’s hard not to get washed away in the echoing guitar as the song finishes and it was the true high point of the evening.

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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!

Celebrating 24 Years of Doolittle

Yes, I’ve somewhat disappeared here. You would too when your down time involves dealing with this or maybe with this. Hopefully more posts soon. But today, the birthday of one of the best albums ever.

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Image via Wikipedia

Every year I make and write about “Best of” year end lists, both for songs and albums. It’s a silly activity partially driven by blatant pandering, but mostly done because I think it’s fun to reflect on another year of artistic exploration by musicians I’ve encountered. The lists also serve as a kind of personal reflection point. Music (that mystical, ethereal thing considered as a whole) is a powerful memory trigger for me. Within a single year, I can place where I was when I first heard the sounds. Listening to The National’s High Violet takes me to Ithaca, New York where I spent the summer in 2010. That record’s disillusioned lyrics were both disheartening and encouraging to me.

But it goes beyond a single twelve month span. When I hear Linkin Park (I know, shut up) I can close my eyes and see a grey couch, a GameCube controller, my sister and split-screen Sonic Adventure on the television. R.E.M.’s Out of Time takes me on car rides in Upstate NY, sitting in the back of a silver Chevy Tahoe, on the way to some state park and camping with my family. And every year, I like to reflect on where on of my favorite recorded works has been with me: Doolittle.

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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.