Top 25 Songs of 2012
A great song is a singular entity — something that stands out from the pack on a record, that distinguishes itself from everything it touches. The following 25 songs all happen to appear on albums that I liked, many of which I enjoyed largely because of the strength of these individual tracks and others. Some were huge singles, and others were local anthems. Some were big budget hits, and others were simple demos. Some made me laugh, more of them made me cry, but all of them made me feel something real inside. Behold, my 25 favorite songs of 2012.
Stream the 8tracks mix featuring all 25 songs in reverse order at the embedded link below. Read on and enjoy each song individually below that. As always, thank you for being supportive and reading my work. I appreciate it more than I can articulate.
25. The Magnetic Fields - “Andrew In Drag”
In a way that no other track on Love At The Bottom of the Sea succeeded, “Andrew In Drag” perfectly blends modern synths, beats, and textures with the lyricism of Stephin Merritt’s very best material as The Magnetic Fields. “Andrew In Drag” hits all the marks of being a classic Magnetic Fields track, from its twee bleeps and bloops to its unexpectedly soaring chorus, and its inclusion of gay humor for both romantic and comedic emotional appeal. It’s also got one of Merritt’s best lyrical characters in years — not Andrew, the cross-dressing titular subject, but rather the frustrating, confusingly lovestruck observer.
24. Joey Bada$$ - “Survival Tactics” (feat. Capital STEEZ)
While going over my completed list, I was actually listening to this song when I heard the news that Joey Bada$$ collaborator and Pro Era member Capital STEEZ had died of an apparent suicide at age 19. The effect was rather chilling, and probably not unlike hearing about the death of any of the now deceased 90’s hip-hop legends that Bada$$ and the Pro Era crew idolize. Before I heard the news, I was thinking about how STEEZ’s verse is what makes this song so great — such a stellar combination of 2012-nowness (to the point that it already almost feels dated) and childlike nostalgia. Bada$$, of course, is the star of the show throughout most of his 1999 mixtape, but right now, I think it’s probably more important to honor the awesome feature guest, who will sadly never grace another terrific track with his rhymes.
23. WHY? - “Sod In The Seed”
Far and away the best cut that the ever-unpredictable hip-hop act WHY? put out this year, “Sod In The Seed” is a hard-charging, fist-pumping anthem the kind of which Yoni Wolf & Co. have never before released. It drives along, driven in equal measure by a terrific bassline and Wolf’s nasally, bleeted raps, spat faster than nearly anything else in his discography, solo or otherwise. It’s a tour-de-force of a track from a strictly musical perspective, but Wolf’s hilarious lyrics are the real highlight. A road veteran, Wolf knows what he’s talking about when it comes to insincerity and vulturism in the music business, and is quick to call out all the “wordy blogger thugs” and their equivalents in the world with as much spite as he has humor. It’s self-aware, comedic, and laughable, but there’s more than a grain of truth to Wolf’s lamentation of the “first world curse.”
22. The Human Fly - “Moth”
“Moth” is the most pure and pristine distillation of the product that The Human Fly was trying to craft on Everything Feels Bad All At Once, the emotionally crippling debut from Robert Mathis’ solo project. Hell, its lyrics are even insect-themed. It’s really rather heartbreaking, posturing Mathis as the utterly insignificant ‘fly on the wall’ and subtly, beautifully conveying that feeling of total helplessness through its slowly overlapping guitars and Mathis’ deep, hushed vocals. He re-recorded this track and others with a punk band shortly after the release of the debut album, channeling that complacent grief into anger, but the effect is lost in that context. On the original, Mathis grieves solemnly, and is all the more evocative because of it.
21. Titus Andronicus - “In A Small Body”
This track may deserve its spot primarily for a single line, which happens to be my favorite lyric throughout all of Titus Andronicus’ new album Local Business. In between memorable figurative punchlines like “your dick’s too short to fuck the world” and references to Titus’ pals Diarrhea Planet, Patrick Stickles delivers some cold, hard truth: “What do you know about being no sort of slave?” he screams over dueling guitars, “I know some kids who’d kill for this kind of cage.” With that verbal wrecking ball, Stickles ideologically demolishes a number of his newfound Brooklynite peers, but he also cuts himself down to size. Stickles himself is the cage — a flawed, damaged, but still remarkably privileged one at that. If there’s anything that I wish Local Business would have done more of, it would be to acknowledge that more thoroughly.
20. Elvis Depressedly - “Road Side Memorial (repeat)”
Out of the context of his 2012 album Mickey’s Dead, Elvis Depressedly’s grim closer “Road Side Memorial (repeat)” paints a bleak and powerful portrait of a vague, tortured individual. In the context of the album, though, the listener realizes that it is a portrait of Mat Cothran himself — the remarkably damaged songwriter behind the Elvis Depressedly project. This knowledge doesn’t necessarily increase our perceived quality of the song, but it does make me at least very worried about Cothran’s stability and wellbeing. There is something so perilously honest about “Road Side Memorial,” from its reverberant, single chord throb to Cothran’s hard-panned multitracked vocals almost casually dropping lines like “burn my wrists with cigarettes / wash the blood out of my dress” and “I don’t want or need your fucking help.” Cothran, it seems, doesn’t literally need the “self portrait painted in vomit” that he describes in the second verse; this track is as wounded, flawed, and true as any self-portrait could be.
19. Hostage Calm - “Woke Up Next To A Body”
Hostage Calm want to be a pop band, but they can’t quite shake their punk rock roots. “Woke Up Next To A Body,” from this year’s Please Remain Calm, is something like their Archaeopteryx, miraculously blending a sunny, power-pop verse melody with one of the year’s greatest stage dive-inducing, fist-pumping shout-along choruses. It’s also one of the most personal tracks on Please Remain Calm, conveying the universal struggle for romantic validation through a distinctly millenial lens. The track’s closing line, “No longer young and in love and at war with the world,” may actually describe Please Remain Calm more accurately than the band’s chosen descriptor — “The punk rock album of the Great Recession.”
18. Dum Dum Girls - “Lord Knows”
All the praise that is being heaped upon Dum Dum Girls for their new EP End Of Daze, and its lead single “Lord Knows,” seems to focus on how much frontwoman Dee Dee has developed as a songwriter. I, however, maintain that at least since the Dum Dums’ second LP, she’s always been mature, poised, and hugely talented. If I had heard Only In Dreams last year, I guarantee that “Coming Down” would have graced the top 10 of my Songs of the Year list for 2011. “Lord Knows” doesn’t quite reach the highs and lows of that aforementioned drugged out lamentation, but it’s definitely a terrific track, floating breezily on a reverb-heavy chord progression that gives way to a terrifically unexpected chorus. Dee Dee may have always been a great songwriter, but now she makes it sound easy.
17. Grimes - “Oblivion”
At the Pitchfork Music Festival this year, I skipped Grimes’ set to get a spot in the front row for Godspeed You! Black Emperor. I don’t exactly regret it, but I do feel like I missed out on an important aspect of my potential 2012 experience. Even if it was just to hear this song, I would have liked to be a part of that communal existence — to take part in something that would only ever mean as much as it did in that very moment. Every year has a song like this, but no song I’ve heard has ever been like this, exactly. “Oblivion” is far-reaching in its appeal, accessible and catchy, bolstered by the year’s best video, and yet, it still feels like a great secret. I still feel like I could put it on a mixtape and not feel ashamed. In its best moments — the deceptively ominous chorus, the first time the “la la las” come in from the back of the mix, the “girl you know you’ve got to watch your health” line — it almost makes me want to love Visions as a whole. It doesn’t quite succeed at that, but it comes close.
16. Serengeti - “Go Dancin”
If Serengeti’s pitch with this year’s C. A. R. was for originality, then “Go Dancin” is his most successful sale. In its frantic, image-powered depiction of a decaying relationship (probably a marriage, given the context that the rest of the album provides), “Go Dancin” achieves in four minutes what countless minimalist indie films struggle to do in two hours. Geti’s constant lyrical contrasts, his increasingly emotional delivery, and the song’s brilliantly simple concept leave the listener struggling to decide whether to root for the narrator or to abandon him like his partner eventually does, as Geti’s last-ditch efforts for a meaningful life turn into empty promises and eventually selfish kiss-offs. It’s an emotionally wracked song that achieves remarkable pathos from relatively meager means.
15. Slow Warm Death - “Sleep”
The 2011 dissolution of emo revival firebrands Snowing left many wondering what direction frontman John Galm would take with his next project. He answered those questions to a certain extent when he dropped Slow Warm Demos, a demo collection released under the name of his new band Slow Warm Death. The record is perilously lo-fi, and mostly comprises gritty garage rock numbers in the vein of Ty Segall’s early material. One track, however, stands so tall above the rest that it would be criminal for Galm not to explore this style more in the future. “Sleep” begins with hollow acoustic guitar and strained vocals, calling to mind Galm’s rare solo material, but at exactly the one minute mark, the track goes supernova, evoking the massive sonic weight of Have A Nice Life with maxed-out guitars and a thunderous drum machine. Despite its demo quality, no other track blew my brains out the way that “Sleep” did this year.
14. Jens Lekman - “I Know What Love Isn’t”
Like Giles Corey, my #1 album of the year pick for 2011, Jens Lekman’s I Know What Love Isn’t is best appreciated as a full album, not as a collection of songs. Unlike Giles Corey, I Know What Love Isn’t is a lot of fun to listen to. On an album full of great tracks, the song “I Know What Love Isn’t” is one particular highlight. Lekman throws caution to the wind over a jaunty acoustic guitar, shooting the shit with a best friend, ogling girls from afar and, for 3 minutes and 33 seconds, forgetting about the one who broke his poor little Swedish heart. By the end, you’ll realize that he’s still miserable and alone, but each time that the glockenspiel signals the beginning of the song, I can’t help but feel that there’s hope.
13. Beach House - “Lazuli”
Beach House have distilled their formula for dream pop bliss so perfectly on “Lazuli,” that the track doesn’t even need a chorus. The effortlessly beautiful and cool Victoria Legrand’s smoky falsetto simply hums along each time the verse gives way, arching skyward over a constantly rising synth loop while Alex Scally layers harmonic textures. They’ve been building towards “Lazuli” for years, and from here, I honestly don’t see how their aesthetic could get any better or any more refined. Given the quality of this track and the rest of Bloom, for that matter, I’m nevertheless excited to see what they do next.
12. Carly Rae Jepsen - “Call Me Maybe”
If I had released this list a week ago, nobody would have minded this choice. You might even have thought that it was ‘cool’ of me to include such a sugary, maximalist pop song on a list that mostly comprises music released on independent labels. But now that everyone from Pitchfork to Stereogum to probably Rolling Stone or something like that has included Carly Rae Jepsen’s summer smash “Call Me Maybe” on their end of the year lists, a lot of people are throwing the ‘pop tokenism’ card. I can’t say I blame them, given the track’s utter ubiquity, but to dismiss this as a token pick would be a disservice to just how great “Call Me Maybe” is. Although she goes for the ‘innocent teen girl’ market, 27 year old Jepsen’s anthem is remarkably empowering and even quite mature. On top of that, this synth-heavy treat is endlessly appealing. Even after hundreds of plays, on the radio, at parties, and in the comfort of my own home, “Call Me Maybe” has yet to grow tiresome for me.
11. Purity Ring - “Fineshrine”
If I can write about Carly Rae Jepsen for a little longer, I have to admit that I was made a little uncomfortable when I found out about her age. I had been imagining her as 19 at the oldest, and the realization that she was 26 when “Call Me Maybe” was released made me aware of just how powerful marketing can still be. Afterwards, the song made me feel kind of creepy and weird in a way that was definitely unintentional. Around that time, though, I was just starting to get into Purity Ring, another terrific pop act that also made me feel creepy and weird, but in a decidedly purposeful manner. “Fineshrine” is on par with Jepsen’s hit as my favorite straight up synth pop song of the year, but Megan James’ eerily sexual lyrics and self-imposed, childlike fetishization make “Fineshrine” the superior dark horse, despite its considerably lower budget. I’ve had “cut open my sternum and pull my little ribs around you” uncomfortably stuck in my head for six months, and that chorus shows no sign of leaving any time soon.
10. Self Defense Family - “Self Immolation Family”
I think we can stop calling them End of a Year now. The latest music from the newly re-christened New York band Self Defense Family bears little in common with the DC post-hardcore worship of the records released under their former name. The new Self Defense Family is decidedly more experimental, heavier, and much, much better, as their recent output indicates. The perfectly-titled “Self Immolation Family” is the a-side to a 7” they released on Deathwish, Inc. this year, recorded at Sigur Ros’ studio in Iceland. True to its Nordic origins, “Self Immolation Family” is frost-bitten and, at over 6-minutes, glacially paced. The band’s endearingly tuneless frontman Patrick Kindlon barks his bitter heart out with vigor, but the real highlight is the pummeling instrumentation, with interwoven guitars and bass that evoke post-rock more than the band’s once-signature post-hardcore style.
9. The Music Tapes - “Takeshi and Elijah”
Much has happened to the Elephant 6 collective in 2012. Jeff Mangum continued his second year of solo touring after a very successful return to the spotlight in 2011, and has possibly hinted at a Neutral Milk Hotel reunion for 2013. The Olivia Tremor Control continued their reunion, including a stop that I witnessed at Pitchfork Festival, until the untimely and mysterious death of frontman Bill Doss. Honestly, I think the best thing that happened to the closely-knit Athens, Georgia collective was the release of The Music Tapes’ new album Mary’s Voice. It’s really the first great album from Neutral Milk Hotel ex-pat Julian Koster’s longtime pet project, and the closing track “Takeshi and Elijah” is far and away the best song he’s ever written. It’s mostly a solo cut, featuring Koster’s strummed banjo and nostalgic lamentations and remembrances about his life, including his time with his old band. It’s actually rather sad, for the most part, but once the full band comes in at the end with Rob Cucchiaro’s horns blaring, it’s clear that there is still hope — for Koster, and for all of us.
8. One Hundred Year Ocean - “1576”
Often, the most profound memories are set off by the simplest remembrances. In “1576,” the heartbreaking standout from One Hundred Year Ocean’s Poison Smoak EP, Derrick Shanholtzer-Dvorak describes fumbling around in a messy car for a dropped marijuana joint, only to find “burned CD-Rs” and other mementos of a former life that now seems so distant. It’s a bittersweet paean to the confusion of life, the unfortunate necessity of companionship, and the bittersweet comfort of home. Shanholtzer-Dvorak wrote “1576” about his current home in the small town of Willimantic, Connecticut, but it could just as easily be about my hometown of New Haven, or any other town in America. “All cities are coffins,” he sings along with vocal harmonies from his wife, Katie Shanholtzer-Dvorak. The lyric is grim, but the sentiment is transcendent. “We’ve all got to die somewhere,” he sings in the guitar pounding final movement. He’s right.
7. Suns - “Crocodile”
“Crocodile,” the best track from Suns’ debut full length The Engine Room, creeps up slowly in a manner not unlike the animal that its title describes. Lithe, and swimming just beneath the surface, the track lures the listener into complacency with its spindly guitar line and soothing vocals, before exploding in a cataclysm of spiteful virulence at the end. There are lyrics there, but only two lines are discernable. “WHY DON’T YOU GET IT?,” screams frontman Will Rutledge. Later on, the sentiment is even more desperate and angry — he’s simply shouting “Oh my god.” The violent final minute of this song is my favorite 60 seconds of music from 2012, but it’s only so powerful because of the preceding three minutes of slowly building, restrained urgency.
6. Kendrick Lamar - “Swimming Pools (Drank)”
Last year I was at a party where somebody asked me to put on some music. I put on a track from Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80 mixtape, and within a minute or two, somebody had exchanged it for some other song by a different artist. It was kind of depressing, but I understood it. Section.80 wasn’t party music material. From a certain standpoint, neither is anything on good kid, m.A.A.d city though, ESPECIALLY “Swimming Pools (Drank),” the super depressing alcoholism study that Lamar released as a lead single from his major label debut earlier this year. Why then, does Kendrick’s reedy flow and “Swimming Pools’” cavernous bass hum seem to follow me to every party I attend? Probably because it’s the best track he’s ever released. Hip-hop purists might prefer the 12-minute suite “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst,” but to me, this single has the perfect combination of eeriness and accessibility, pleasure and pain, and happiness and misery.
5. Spirit Night - “The Last Time”
Spirit Night’s “The Last Time” strikes a very similar emotional chord with me as One Hundred Year Ocean’s “1576,” which is appropriate considering that they were both released on Derrick Shanholtzer-Dvorak’s label Broken World Media this year. Like OHYO’s anthem, “The Last Time” is a sweeping piece of emotive, mid-tempo indie rock. It courses with the viscous, tangible energy of desperation, opening up slowly as frontman Dylan Balliett describes with just the right amount of vagueness a harrowing teenaged realization. “I don’t want to have to kill you,” Balliett stammers in the first chorus, “I don’t want to have to kill anyone…” By the time the chorus rolls around again, he sounds stronger in his convictions. The listener never learns exactly what “The Last Time” is about, but the music is so incredibly powerful that one can’t help but feel its innate confusion, sadness, and pain.
4. Frank Ocean - “Bad Religion”
So much of Frank Ocean’s breakout album channel ORANGE is effortlessly great, from the buttery soul of “Sweet Life” to the borderline rock chug of “Lost.” Of all the great tracks, only “Bad Religion” seems to take a genuinely painful emotional toll on Ocean. On “Bad Religion,” the California-based singer abandons his philosopher’s mentality for the first time and bares his soul to a humble taxi driver, unraveling a truly unexpected outpouring of sorrow and conflicted pain through his achingly gorgeous falsetto. The album’s accompanying letter gives Ocean’s pathos context, but more than all the other tracks on channel ORANGE, “Bad Religion” truly speaks for itself. No other song in 2012 made the tried and true topic of unrequited love so real, so intimately human, more than Frank Ocean’s solemn, quiet masterpiece.
3. How To Dress Well - “Ocean Floor For Everything”
“Ocean Floor For Everything” is the most formless song on How To Dress Well’s stellar Total Loss LP, but it’s also the most powerful, favoring pristine, nearly divine-sounding atmospheres over songwriting chops and structure. In that way, it almost seems like ‘post-music’, or perhaps something more pure and ancient, untouched by the musical conventions that humanity has developed over thousands of years of making noises just for the pleasure of it. Philosophy student Tom Krell, the mysterious electronic/R&B project’s unassuming mastermind, is still singing words of course — lamenting “the worst of things” that no amount of planning could prepare for. And yet, this isn’t a song about sadness, or even particularly a sad song. It’s an experience in and of itself: not a conveyer of emotions, but an objective constant from which emotions may come. It’s art for the sake of art, untouched by the perversion of the surrounding totality.
2. Title Fight - “Head In The Ceiling Fan”
Much as Grimes’ “Oblivion” video did a lot to increase my appreciation for that song, so too did Title Fight’s clip for “Head In The Ceiling Fan,” the breathtaking, anomalous standout from their otherwise merely solid Floral Green LP. That grainy VHS footage of friends laughing, jumping off rope swings, and playing baseball in empty parks contrasts in such an intensely heartbreaking way with the slow, building chaos of the song’s shoegazing guitars. When the drums crash in, godlike in their sonic density and heft, it’s hard not to be emotionally moved. All of this joy that comes with everyday life, the song seems to suggest, will fade just as unexpectedly as it arrived. “Head In The Ceiling Fan” is the sound of that happiness dying out. It is the sound of your entire life’s experiences meaning more to you than you possibly could have imagined at the time. It is the groaning, glacial progression of existence towards a formerly unwanted but ultimately welcome end.
1. Japandroids - “The House That Heaven Built”
I have been waiting for so long — at least since I first started consciously paying attention to new music — to find a new album like Japandroids‘ Celebration Rock that is as good as Celebration Rock, with a song as good as the lead single “The House That Heaven Built.” My favorite songs of the year for the past two years have essentially made me want to kill myself, but this is different. This is flawless, unforgettable punk rock makes me want to stay alive forever, and I couldn’t be more gratified that it exists. I could have chosen “Adrenaline Nightshift” or “The Night Of Wine And Roses” or “Fire’s Highway” or nearly any of the album’s eight near-perfect tracks to put in this place, but “The House That Heaven Built” somehow stands out in particular. It is the apex of an album about living life to the most ridiculously intense degree, about forgetting the rules and breaking them inadvertently, and ultimately, about transcendence. Isn’t that what we all want, at our deepest core? I can’t speak for anyone reading this, but if I ever achieve that primal goal, “The House That Heaven Built” will be blasting on my record player in the clouds.
Left of the Dial Radio Playlist - 12/7/12
My broadcast of Left of the Dial on Friday was the first of a three part radio series in which I’m informally spinning some of my favorite tracks from this year outside of the rigidly formal ‘year end list’ context. I will, of course, be dropping a Songs of the Year list in addition to an Albums of the Year list and a bunch of other goodies in a matter of weeks, but I wanted to preface those lists on the radio in this way.
If you missed the show, give this playlist a listen to get a taste of some of my favorite 2012 tracks. Parts 2 and 3 of this series will take place on the coming two Fridays.
- 1. The Babies - “Alligator”
- 2. Cat Power - “Manhattan”
- 3. Cloud Nothings - “Stay Useless”
- 4. The Act of Estimating as Worthless - “Bones”
- 5. Dirty Projectors - “About To Die”
- 6. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti - “Only In My Dreams”
- 7. Literature - “ARAB SPRING”
- 8. Dan Deacon - “True Thrush”
- 9. Fang Island - “Make Me”
- 10. Purity Ring - “Saltkin”
- 11. Great Caesar - “Rearview”
- 12. The Magnetic Fields - “Quick”
- 13. Mac Demarco - “Ode To Viceroy”
- 14. Woods - “Cali In A Cup”
- 15. Grimes - “Genesis”
- 16. Grizzly Bear - “Yet Again”
- 17. Wild Nothing - “Only Heather”
- 18. S O H N - “Oscillate”
- 19. DIIV - “How Long Have You Known”
- 20. Death Grips - “I’ve Seen Footage”
- 21. Lower Dens - “Brains”
- 22. Desaparecidos - “Backsell”
- 23. Liars - “No.1 Against the Rush”
- 24. Jason Lytle - “Dept. of Disappearance”
- 25. David Byrne & St. Vincent - “Who”
Stream via Spotify:
Left of the Dial Radio Playlist - 10/12/12
Thanks for tuning in to last night’s broadcast of my radio show Left of the Dial on WNHU. Last night’s show was of the autumnal musical persuasion, featuring some perfect fall songs by artists like The Tallest Man On Earth and Yo La Tengo. This is the kind of music that Mr. Autumn Man probably listens to this time of year.
The full playlist is below, and most of the songs are available to stream via Spotify at the embedded link at the bottom.
- 1. Jens Lekman - “Black Cab”
- 2. Belle and Sebastian - “Come On Sister”
- 3. The Velvet Underground - “Sunday Morning” (Live at Max’s Kansas City version)
- 4. A.C. Newman - “There’s Money In New Wave”
- 5. Benjamin Gibbard - “Bigger Than Love”
- 6. Jason Lytle - “Matterhorn”
- 7. Lower Dens - “Brains”
- 8. Poliça - “I See My Mother”
- 9. Purity Ring - “Saltkin”
- 10. S O H N - “Oscillate”
- 11. Sharon Van Etten - “Sychophant”
- 12. The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die - “Gig Life”
- 13. Elliott Smith - “Son Of Sam” (Requested by blueshadedays)
- 14. Perfume Genius - “Dark Parts”
- 15. The Tallest Man On Earth - “The Wild Hunt”
- 16. Violent Femmes - “Hallowed Ground”
- 17. Wilco - “Jesus, Etc.”
- 18. Yo La Tengo - “Tears Are In Your Eyes”
- 19. WHY? - “Kevin’s Cancer”
- 20. The Mountain Goats - “Steal Smoked Fish”
- 21. Titus Andronicus - “In A Small Body”
- 22. LVL UP - “TOPSIDER”
- 23. Destroyer - “Your Blood”
- 24. Morrissey - “Speedway”
- 25. Radiohead - “Let Down”
- 26. The Microphones - “I Felt Your Shape”
- 27. Okkervil River - “John Allyn Smith Sails”
- 28. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - “Biomusicology”
Stream via Spotify:
Lewis and his Blog August 2012 Mix
(Photo by Tom Wolff)
August is on its way out, and with it, Summer 2012 is effectively coming to an end for me. This summer was a pretty intense and rich experience in both a musical and personal sense, and August was perhaps its apex. Here are ten new tracks that I loved this month. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
Feel free to stream this month’s mix at the embedded 8tracks link below, and check out all of the previous monthly mixes for this year HERE.
1. I Kill Giants - “Life Instead Of Sleep”
The Massachusetts group I Kill Giants doesn’t like to waste anybody’s time, which might explain why almost all of their songs are under the 1-minute mark. At only 44 seconds, “Life Instead Of Sleep” is no exception to that trend, but it is exceptionally great. After a brief intro, the band launches into just over 20 seconds of cathartic emo-informed math rock, and just like that it’s all over. But hey, there’s a replay button for a reason. I Kill Giants latest EP We Can Live In The Exact Same Place is up now on bandcamp.
2. White Lung - “Take The Mirror”
Vancouver’s White Lung have one of the freshest takes on punk rock that I’ve heard this year. On “Take The Mirror,” the opening track of their excellent new album Sorry, the group pays homage to The Replacements and riot grrrl in equal measure with their lucid riffs, hardcore two-step beat, and singer Mish Way’s emotive punk howl. Sorry is out now on Deranged Records.
3. Desaparecidos - “Backsell”
Conor Oberst’s politically motivated punk band Desaparecidos caused a big stir this summer by reuniting after ten years, just in time for a very important election year. Earlier this month they released a double a-side single featuring two stellar new tracks, one of which was “Backsell,” a barnstorming, brutally sarcastic indictment of commercial radio and the music industry with which Oberst has certainly had some negative experiences. The lyrics are pretty clever, if forced, and the punk bite of Oberst’s earlier years clearly hasn’t lost its venom. The “MariKKKopa” / “Backsell” 7” is available for purchase from Desa’s website.
4. Dum Dum Girls - “Lord Knows”
Dum Dum Girls’ ringleader Dee Dee displays her impressive, maturing songwriting ability on this new single from the California noise pop group’s new EP End Of Daze. It’s a somber mid-tempo stunner with gorgeous guitars, vocals, and a soaring chorus that will have you simply sighing at its relatable, desperate lyrical message. “Lord Knows” is a rare mix of refined lyricism and pop perfection. End Of Daze is out September 25th on Sub Pop.
5. Spider Bags - “Friday Night”
Dan McGee’s Spider Bags turn down the twang and up the garage rock grit on their new full length Shake My Head, and no song exemplifies this revving up of energy more than the lead single “Friday Night.” This is a classic indie rock anthem that harks back to the alcohol-powered fervor of reckless 80s groups like The Replacements, while still retaining some of the band’s country rock roots. The ‘Mats connections run especially deep in the chorus, which sounds like it could have been written and sung by Paul Westerberg himself: “Baby it’s tough / Falling out of love.” It’s the kind of statement that’s been said before, but means a whole lot more when delivered with the conviction that McGee has. Shake My Head is out now on Odessa Records.
6. Dan Deacon - “True Thrush”
Dan Deacon’s latest LP America is an ambitious record with a huge, trans-national scope, and yet it also bears some moments that are deeply affecting on a much more personal, relatively microscopic level. The single “True Thrush” is one such moment, a homespun electronic jumble of very real, very relatable emotions that are delivered with relative subtlety. It’s a bit of a gentler direction for the typically zany composer, and one that he might want to explore more in the future. America is out now on Domino.
7. Liars - “No.1 Against The Rush”
“No.1 Against The Rush” is the centerpiece of Liars’ latest experimental odyssey WIXIW, a chilly electronic record that disturbs with unexpected minimalism rather than abrasion. “No.1 Against The Rush” is as moody and dark as anything else on the record, and yet it still operates as the album’s pop song — the lone moment where an earworm hook transcends the self-imposed darkness and almost threatens to shine. WIXIW is out now on Mute Records.
8. Purity Ring - “Fineshrine”
I’ll be damned if this isn’t one of the very best songs I’ve heard all year just in terms of sheer pop stunning power. Delightfully creepy lyrics and beat elements aside, “Fineshrine” simply has one of the best hooks I’ve heard in a long time. I can tell that this will be stuck in my head right up to and during list-making season. Purity Ring’s Shrines is out now on 4AD. Read my full review of the album HERE.
9. Jens Lekman - “I Know What Love Isn’t”
The title track to Jens Lekman’s new album I Know What Love Isn’t is an expectedly excellent piece of indie pop brilliance; it’s as perfect a song as any that the Swedish singer/songwriter has written to date. Some tracks on the new album are more sweeping, more ambitious, or more affecting, but nothing can match the simple genius of Jens’ storytelling, his full-bodied croon, or his gentle guitar playing on this track. Listening to “I Know What Love Isn’t” is always a thoroughly wonderful experience. The new album is out September 4th on Secretly Canadian.
10. Defiance, Ohio - “Horizon Lines, Volume and Infinity”
The folk punk legends Defiance, Ohio celebrated their 10th anniversary this month by releasing 6 new songs on their bandcamp page, which have since been compiled into an EP named The Calling. “Horizon Lines, Volume and Infinity” was among the first of the new tracks to drop, and remains easily the best. Theo Hilton’s songwriting is in top form, and the no-fuss acoustic guitar arrangement is breezy, nostalgic, and slightly sad — a fitting end to a remarkable summer. Pick up The Calling on bandcamp HERE.
Be sure to check out all of the previous monthly mixes HERE.
Purity Ring - Shrines (2012)
Until very recently, Purity Ring were just another buzz band to me. Their first few singles flew by in a flurry of hype with little lasting impact, and even when I saw them play at the Pitchfork Music Festival in July, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d been down a similar road before with countless other bands. And yet, after I compulsively downloaded their debut full length Shrines, released last month on 4AD, I found myself unable to stop listening to it. As I have since found, there is a lot more substance and depth to this album than it might initially suggest.
The concept of purity is a complicated one, and one that has undoubtedly been tainted by centuries of archaic moral standards and practices. If you can ignore all of that, the essence of purity is still a rather beautiful idea; it evokes childlike notions of innocence and clarity that procure a strong feeling of nostalgia from anybody who has experiences the transition from child to adult. It’s culturally understood that every individual must make such a transition at some point in life, and many adults find themselves yearning for that purity of innocence soon afterwards. On Shrines, the aptly named Canadian duo Purity Ring — which comprises two precocious 20-somethings — explores their newly nostalgic adult relationship with innocence, and, perhaps more importantly, they make some pretty damn good pop music while doing it.
The first thing you’ll notice upon listening to Shrines may be the spacey, cacophonous beats or the sweet-sounding vocals — both staples of the 2012 future-pop sound. Musically, this album certainly shines and glistens as much as anything else released this year. Bright, clear production gives Shrines a sweeping gloss, punctuated by dense hip-hop influenced beats and Megan James’ shockingly pretty vocals. Experimental producer Balam Acab seems to be a big touchstone for a lot of the instrumentation, particularly on tracks like “Amenamy” and “Grandloves,” which features a rare vocal performance from Purity Ring’s resident beatmaker Corin Roddick. Nods to post-dubstep producers like James Blake and Burial pop up occasionally as well, most notably when Roddick experiments with vocal manipulation on songs like “Loftcries” and the two-stepping “Saltkin.” It’s a glossy and pretty record that glimmers with sonic sophistication.
That said, what strikes me about this album most when compared to records made by Purity Ring’s immediate peers is how much the lyrics come through. Unlike, for example, Grimes, who manipulates her impish vocals to the point of incomprehensibility, singer Megan James’ vocals are treated with relative sanctity on Shrines. Although her high, reedy voice is occasionally chopped up and transmogrified into the beats, her lead vocals remain effectively pure throughout these eleven songs. Consequently, James’ lyrics stand out, especially thanks to how catchy most of the melodies are. As a lyricist, James’ style is kind of hard to pinpoint, but her penchant for dark imagery and blurred vagueness verges on confessional at points. Certain key phrases and lines tend to stand out amongst the stuttering electronics and earworm hooks on tracks like the creepy opener “Crawlersout” and “Ungirthed,” implanting a sense of darkness into the otherwise almost sickeningly sweet musical mix. “Belispeak,” one of the highlight tracks on Shrines, has such a hummable melody that you won’t even necessarily realize that it describes a life-threatening sickness and potentially an abortion. Meanwhile, the definitive album standout “Fineshrine,” one of the absolute best pop songs I’ve heard all year, bears some disturbingly symbolic sexualized lyrics in its undeniably great chorus hook. There is something that feels enticingly dangerous about hearing dark, eerie lyrics paired with such welcoming melodies, and that contrast speaks to what makes Purity Ring such an interesting project.
Listening to this record gives me the same rush that I used to feel as a child, telling a white lie or stealing something from my parents. It’s a fleeting high, and one that ultimately leads to regret, but making those mistakes and losing that purity is essential to the transition into adulthood. As both nighttime brooding music and party playlist fodder, Shrines provides a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking soundtrack to that inevitable loss of innocence.
Left of the Dial Radio Playlist - 8/17/12
My radio show last night ruled. It was so great to have so many people tune in and send in requests. Thanks for making my night, evenbody! Here’s the full playlist from the show, which you can stream via Spotify at the embedded link below.
- 1. Jens Lekman - “Maple Leaves (EP Version)”
- 2. of Montreal - “Neat Little Domestic Life”
- 3. M83 - “Kim & Jessie”
- 4. Glocca Morra - “Ya’ll Boots Hats? (Die Angry)” (requested by Milkshakes)
- 5. Milkshakes - “Kalabar’s Revenge”
- 6. Joyce Manor - “Violent Inside”
- 7. Into It. Over It. - “Gin and Ironic”
- 8. Spider Bags - “Friday Night”
- 9. John Galm - “Drugs Are Appealing”
- 10. Dan Deacon - “Prettyboy”
- 11. The Flaming Lips - “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1”
- 12. The Magnetic Fields - “100,000 Fireflies”
- 13. Cat Power - “American Flag”
- 14. Purity Ring - “Fineshrine”
- 15. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti - “Kinski Assasin” (Requested by rainbowsrillusions)
- 16. Mount Eerie - “Ocean Roar”
- 17. Man Man - “Van Helsing Boombox”
- 18. Echo & the Bunnymen - “The Killing Moon”
- 19. Cat Power - “Ruin”
- 20. WHY? - “Shag Carpet”
- 21. Agent Orange - “Too Young To Die” (Requested by anon)
- 22. The Magnetic Fields - “The Luckiest Guy On The Lower East Side” (Requested by anon)
- 23. Frank Ocean - “Pilot Jones”
- 24. Sufjan Stevens - “Come On! Feel the Illinoise! Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition / Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream”
- 25. Sean Milo - “Hollowpine”
- 26. Ty Segall & White Fence - “I Am Not A Game” (Requested by anon)
- 27. Animal Collective - “What Would I Want? Sky” (Requested by anon)
- 28. Nana Grizol - “Cynicism” (Requested by magicinthemundane)
- 29. Jay Reatard - “Wounded” (Requested by dharmaronin)
Stream via Spotify:
Pitchfork Music Festival 2012: Day 1 Recap
The Olivia Tremor Control
The introduction. We arrived via El Train at Union Park before 3 PM, only to be met with a torrential downpour. We stood in line for upwards of half an hour, getting soaked with hundreds of other misanthropic festival attendees. Hearing that the gates were going to remain closed until 3:30 elicited a number of groans from the line, but soon enough the rain stopped and the gates were opened. Lower Dens delivered a strong set on the red stage that got more impressive and engaging as it went on. We cut out slightly early to get a decent spot for The Olivia Tremor Control — an Elephant 6-affiliated psych rock revival band from the 90s — who happened to have Neutral Milk Hotel’s Scott Spillane playing sousaphone and trumpet for them. Jeff Mangum was nowhere to be found, unfortunately. I’m still hoping for a full on NMH reunion in 2013. Before the OTC wrapped things up on the green stage, we bunny hopped one stage further to catch Willis Earl Beal on the blue stage. During the portion of his set that we caught, Beal delivered songs ranging from foot stomping, bellowing dirges to slow, heartfelt ballads. His versatility as a songwriter and his hoarse, mighty voice drew comparisons to Tom Waits, as did his affinity for liquor; Beal downed the majority of a freshly opened bottle of Jack Daniels during his set.
We felt the need to run over to the red stage once Beal finished in order to catch A$AP Rocky, but, of course, Rocky and his crew didn’t go on until well after their posted set time. That turned out to be par for the course with most of the rappers I saw at the fest, but I’m not complaining. Rocky’s set was actually pretty great, even though his crew looked a little ridiculous onstage playing hype-men (Also, who’s that one white dude? He sucks.). Unfortunately, we had to jet before we got to hear “Peso” because we wanted good spots for Japandroids. We arrived just at the end of Tim Hecker’s set, which was pretty depressing and miserable. Honestly, I like Tim Hecker on record, but I don’t think a single person there gave a fuck about him in that moment. The vast majority of the crowd was definitely there to catch Japandroids, who were supposed to play at 6:15 but ended up going on late.
Because of the late start time, Japandroids’ set was clipped to just 8 full songs. Nevertheless, it was an awesome and intense experience that will probably go down as the most enjoyable (if not the absolute best overall) set from Pitchfork 2012 for me. Plus, as both Post-Nothing and Celebration Rock prove, sometimes 8 songs is just the right number. Highlights included the opener “Adrenaline Nightshift,” which incited a mosh pit within 5 seconds of its opening chord, and the closer “Young Hearts Spark Fire,” which segued into “Sovereignty” at the end. The segue was a nice way of acknowledging the band’s older fans, many of whom recognized the deep cut.
Bruised, battered, and absolutely loving life, John and I managed to crawl our way over to the red stage just in time to catch the beginning of Dirty Projectors’ set. The setlist mostly focused on stuff from Swing Lo Magellan (which is excellent, by the way), but they also busted out some Bitte Orca art rock classics, including “Useful Chamber,” which was extremely intense live. Other highlights included the rousing new single “Gun Has No Trigger” and the gentle love song “Impregnable Question,” during which frontman David Longstreth and guitarist/vocalist/Longstreth’s girlfriend Amber Coffman seemed to be making heart eyes at each other. Mostly, I was just amazed at how tight the band was instrumentally and vocally. The four part harmonies, which are so jarring and angular on record, are equally attuned live. It’s almost scary how good they sounded.
Dirty Projectors were the last band on Friday that I really wanted to see, so after their set, John and I just hung around for a while, catching the first half of Purity Ring’s set before heading over to the green stage to catch the rest of Feist’s. I’m not a huge fan of either group, but both their sets were enjoyable. The highlight of the latter set came at the end, when Leslie Feist and her band transformed the gentle title track from 2004’s Let It Die into an arena rock-worthy power ballad. Watching from a distance, I was able to appreciate the scope of Feist’s vision, and in that moment I understood exactly why she was headlining Day 1.