Future Islands is good crying music. That’s high recommendation, for people who deal with their ups and downs by getting drunk and listening to music. Unlike some of the more obvious depression-music favorites, Future Islands stands out for being uplifting. The raw emotion of Sam … Continue reading Spirit
Future Islands make the case that synthpop is really timeless. As opposed to being tied inexorably to nostalgia for the 1980’s. They really elevate a genre that often gets dismissed as floof. They are most definitely not a nostalgia act, but they do evoke the … Continue reading Shadows
Wherever you were in 2014, I hope you fell in love. Like, with a person who reciprocated your feelings and stuff. Me, I actually did the opposite, but I did fall in love with Future Islands, and falling in love with music is way better … Continue reading Seasons (Waiting on You)
And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for. Or dreading. Or, more likely, irrelevant and weeks too late to the party. 2017 is over and no one wants to think about it any more. It was a crap year, but crap years often inspire great feats of creativity. At least we had a tide of good music. Oh, so much good music…
1. Pure Comedy – Father John Misty
This is the album we deserve and need. It’s depressing as fuck, its bleakness relieved only by Misty’s signature hyper-articulate mordant wit. After the wedding album comes the hangover album. It’s the work of a man who’s snapped out of his honeymoon haze, looked around and saw the world all gone to hell. If there was one record I leaned on all year, it was this one.
2. Low In High School – Morrissey
You would think that Morrissey, with his nasty eccentricity and tone-deaf statements and complete inability to learn from controversy, has outlived his usefulness as a public figure. Yet he’s still capable of writing some of his punchiest music, and musically at least, he’s still relevant and on-point. He’s still both narcissistic and self-deprecating, angry at the world, romantic, petty, and inexplicably interested in Israel. He may even have matured a little; some of the new songs are quite sexy, as befits a man with some life experience under his belt, no longer pretending to be a celibate little naif.
3. Woodstock – Portugal. The Man
In a crap year, we kind of need a little escapism, a little fun. These guys have been plugging away for years, to little notice, but this year they finally hit the big time. They’ve always had a knack for great catchy tunes, tempered with a little darkness. They’re more catchy than ever, almost too catchy, like a tweaked out parody of catchy. Which is perfect, because we need to get tweaked on something that looks and tastes like pop sugar.
4. Lust for Life – Lana Del Rey
Well, I certainly couldn’t have predicted that Lana Del Rey would become one of the most consistent artists on the scene. She burst out in a blaze of way, way too much hype, and then she went and lived up to it. She likes to toy with romantic cliche in a way that both knowingly ironic and yet sincerely romantic, and she knows her way around retrofitted reference points. On this album she sounds like she’s beamed in from an alternate-universe Summer of Love, and it sounds nothing but timely.
5. Masseduction – St. Vincent
St. Vincent’s hi-fashion aesthetics may make her look like a ‘fun’ artist, but she’s actually a ‘dark’ artist, one who likes to explore the poses we strike in life. She can be depressing, she can be witty, she can be glamorous or scary, she can be all of those things all in one song. She’s one of those increasingly rare artists who work to please themselves, and end up with accolades they never aimed for, because they’ve hit on something pleases a lot of people.
6. Double Roses – Karen Elson
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been waiting for this record for years. Karen Elson’s first album became an instant classic for me in 2010. Now she’s finally back with her gorgeous voice, sophisticated songwriting and gothic folk/chamber-pop aesthetic intact. You gotta appreciate an artist who knows how to make the most of a harp solo.
7. Lotta Sea Lice – Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile
Courtney Barnett deftly dodges our elevated expectations. And after the big breakout of her debut LP in 2015, the expectations couldn’t be higher. Instead of trying to live up to the hype all over again, she offers instead an informal-feeling collaboration with fellow deadpan songwriter Kurt Vile. It’s just as articulate and insightful as you would expect, with irreverent observations about the mundane and a sense of friends just having fun. Maybe they should form a band.
8. If All I Was Was Black – Mavis Staples
I have a shameful confession to make: I’ve never listened to Mavis Staples before this year. I know that she’s been a force in soul music for decades, and somehow, I’ve never paid attention. Maybe the thing that pushed this particular record into my conscience is its relevance. It’s an of-the-moment piece of work that’s politically relevant, from a veteran of the civil rights movement who can’t believe she’s still fighting the same old battle. But it’s not a work of anger and indignation, but an openhearted and optimistic one; as befits someone who made her name in the 60’s, Staples still believes that love can heal all of our rifts. And if she can, so should we.
9. The Far Field – Future Islands
I can’t get enough of Future Islands’ retro-synthpop romanticism. Their music sounds like a collage of 80’s New Wave elements, but it’s far too emotional to ever be called a retreat. It’s something beautiful and brand new that sounds like something that’s been around forever. That kind of instant familiarity is what we look for in new music, and we rarely find it, but when we do, it’s like an addition to the family. Samuel T. Herring remains one of the most unforgettable vocalists of the moment.
10. Hopeless Fountain Kingdom – Halsey
Halsey is a young songwriter whose work is both intimately confessional and ambitiously high-concept. On her second album, she writes about the effects of fame (it’s no cure for loneliness) and the challenges of challenges of love, quotes Shakespeare, and ties it all together with a loose narrative about disaffected youth in a near-future world. It’s catchy, modern, and ready for heavy airplay on indie radio at least, but satisfying challenging and personal.
11. Every Where Is Some Where – K.Flay
K.Flay is an artist whose work can be called post-genre. She’s been called – nominally – a hip hop artist, but that doesn’t cover it. She’s pulling sonic influences from all over, but her writing is confessional, almost emo. It’s also her strength. Sometimes dark and laced with profanity, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes funny. She’s part of a new generation of female artists who present themselves as unapologetic anti-heroines, telling their stories, taking pride in their honesty and pain, not afraid to be get weird and ugly. This is her second album.
12. Melodrama – Lorde
Last but not least in the series of outstanding second albums by precocious young women. Who could forget about Lorde? She was the teenage prodigy sensation of 2013 and now she’s almost all grown up. Sure, first love and first fame aren’t exactly fresh topics, and, no, there’s no way anything could be as unexpected and original as Pure Heroine was. But Lorde is approaching those topics with her usual wiser-than-her-years aplomb, and she’s still unique in her eccentricity.
13. Salutations – Conor Oberst
Conor Oberst used to be the teenage prodigy sensation of his time. Now he’s just another nearly-middle aged man who’s not as relevant or as cute as he used to be. That could be a cue to drop off the map. Or it could be a cause for renewed inspiration. It’s frankly great to see a major songwriter, who the emo generation grew up with, becoming mature and staying interesting. Also, what best of- list is complete without a shoutout to Oliver Sacks?
14. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream – Open Mike Eagle
This is the first time I’ve featured a hip hop album as one of my favorites. As you may have noticed, hip hop accounts for a huge swath of today’s pop culture, and it’s something I’m slowly educating myself about. This is a great place to start; it’s free of the aggressive posturing and machismo that makes most mainstream rap (and frankly, most mainstream anything anymore) so unappealing. Open Mike Eagle isn’t here to beef with other rappers or name-check the designer brands in his closet. What he offers is smart, personal, relevant songwriting that cuts across genres. Michael Eagle does standup on the side, and his wit lightens every track (and especially evident in videos.) Also, bonus points for year’s best Bowie shout-out.
Remember the name Samuel T. Herring. He may not look like much, but with his group Future Islands, he’s making pop music rapturous again. The phrase “80’s-style synthpop” may be a worn and tired calling card at this point, and “80’s-style synthpop meets gospel” may … Continue reading Ran
I planned to do this last year but didn’t, so now I’m expanding my annual best-of. There were a lot of albums I loved, but many of them didn’t make the official list. So here are my favorite non-album hits for the year. In no particular order.
She Moves (Far Away) – Alle Farben feat. Graham Candy
Debut single from German DJ Alle Farben (real name Frans Zimmer.) A big hit in Europe, which is where I first heard it. A catchy song, a cute video, and a lot of memories.
212 – Azealia Banks
I’m bending the rules here, since technically, this song was first released way back in 2011 (although only in the UK.) Like many other edgy people, Banks had to make it big in Europe before getting a break in America. Her first full length album finally came out in the end of 2014, and this single is making the rounds again.
Boys in the Wood – Black Lips
This got a lot of airplay back in the spring, which is also when I caught these ATL punks at SXSW. They put on a fierce show.
Istanbul – Morrissey
World Peace is None of Your Business was a bit of an uneven affair, but this single is beautiful. The video I’ve included, although handheld and shoddy looking, was shot at Austin Music Hall on May 24 2014, a show which I attended and where I first heard this and many other new songs. Morrissey is in great vocal form.
Coming of Age – Foster the People
Foster the People may never live up to, or live down, their breakthrough hit Pumped Up Kicks, but they’ve done a pretty good job trying. I have driven many a commute to this on the radio, and it’s dang catchy.
“And the stars make love to the universe…” Shakira continues to be both awesome and faintly ridiculous. It takes a special kind of chutzpah to make the phrase “And I’m like – woo woo wooooh” the lyrical focal point of your song. But somehow it works, maybe because she really is all like woo woo.
Coffee – Sylvan Esso
Another one of those songs most often experienced while driving. An unorthodox radio hit, to be sure, but gently hypnotic and irresistible. Sylvan Esso’s debut album was a near-miss on the best-of list. Better luck next year?
Water Fountain – tUnE-yArDs
Did somebody say ‘unorthodox’? Tune-Yards easily takes home the award for Weirdest Hit Single of the Year. Likewise their album.
Warm Water – Banks
Also technically not released in 2014, but very predominant on the radio throughout the year. Banks (no relation to Azealia) released her full length debut, including tracks from previous EPs. The record has been justly acclaimed, and just may be the best bedroom album of the year. (That’s totally a category.)
Holding On for Life – Broken Bells
Broken Bells’ was another one of those standout records that didn’t quite make the final cut. A shining example of New Wave, psychedelic and electronic influences all pulled together in a modern way.
Mother & Father – Broods
Also on the Fake New Wave front, Broods are a breakout duo from New Zealand. There are a lot of promising electropop duos storming the world of indie radio right now, and we’ve still to see which ones emerge from the pack as important talents. Broods is definitely one to watch.
Cookie Thumper – Die Antwoord
Die Antwoord have yet to make a consistently satisfying album, but you can count on them to deliver at least a handful of memorable singles. Say what you will about them – they are very much not for everybody – but they are one of the few acts who can boast of a fully formed and truly original artistic vision.
Seasons (Waiting On You) – Future Islands
Future Islands is distinguished from the rest of the Fake New Wave/Electropop field by Samuel Herring’s unique and emotive vocals. Herring has earned comparisons to early-comeback-era Marianne Faithfull, of all people, and I can hear that. I can also hear a lot of Blue Eyed Soul.
Take Me To Church – Hozier
This song went from local hit in Ireland to total worldwide ubiquity in what feels like moments, although it actually took well over a year. The same goes for the artist; a few months ago Hozier was a complete unknown, now he is presumably well on his way to real stardom.
2 On – Tinashe
I happened to catch a Tinashe show at SXSW last year, having absolutely no idea who she was. That show also happened to be the first time Tinashe performed this song. Since then, her star has been rising. Although the commercial-R’n’B market Tinashe is aiming for is not something I normally want any part of, I do find her success gratifying. She has a great voice and I can attest she puts on one hell of a live performance.