26 December 2014

top 50 traxx of 2014 (50-26)

50. "Mmm Yeah" by Austin Mahone

Sometimes a song is fascinating just because someone had the idea for it to be made. Whoever thought to have an 18-year-old excellent dancer with marginal singing talent cover a relatively unknown '90s house track should be given some sort of pop culture award. Basically, this is on the list because the production team did a nice job with it, and Pitbull was here and I didn't run away screaming.

49. "Little Game" by Benny

A song like this would never have existed even four years ago. The concept is simple but powerful: A teenager lamenting the prevalence of gender roles in no subtle manner. The video is addled with predictable clichés and his voice is pretty weak, but the message is strong and clear. In some ways, Generation Z really does have their shit together.

48. "#SELFIE" by Chainsmokers

It may be the death of EDM music, but I'll be damned if it isn't a perfect snapshot of what it's like to be out clubbing with your friends in 2014. One of those rare pop culture moments when youth culture is represented realistically instead of in some watered-down, processed manner. Admit it: You have a friend that sounds exactly like this girl, and you hang out with her all the time and love her anyway.

47."Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars

Even Bruno Mars' obnoxious stage persona can't outshine Mark Ronson's brilliant production on this callback to Prince's mid-'80s stuff. I even hear a little Zapp & Roger in there.

46. "Who Needs You" by The Orwells

Some songs need to be shouted rather than sung. I fell in love with this track after seeing these dudes tear it up on Letterman. Their sound is an interesting blend of early-'00s indie rock and early '90s SoCal surfer rock. The simple guitar structures and bouncing rhythm make my head nod and put a giant smile on my face.

45. "Chick Chick" by Wang Rong Rollin

Call it experimental, or parody, or whatever you must, but this beat is killer. If you look closely at her face at 2:51, I think you'll see she isn't taking herself too seriously. Side note: I asked a Chinese-speaking friend if there are actual words in this song, or if it's all onomatopoeia, and she said that Ms. Wang is repeating the words for "hen," "rooster," and "little chicken." Go figure.

44. "Shower" by Becky G.

Lots of young talent on this year's list. Singer/songwriter Becky Gomez is just 17 and got famous after posting some of her remixes on YouTube. Dr. Luke produced this debut single for her, and it's a solid pairing.

43. "Closer" by FKA twigs

British trip-hopper FKA twigs' debut LP is somewhere between Cocteau Twins, Julee Cruise's Twin Peaks music, and Madonna's "Ray Of Light" era, and I am here for all of it. Incredible voice, amazing production, and an ethereal ambiance maintained throughout.

42. "Reflections" by MisterWives

MisterWives' lead singer, Mandy Lee, is American, but sings like a Scandanavian, and that's pretty rad. I'd call this track "indie disco" in that it almost directly lifts the riff from The Emotions' "Best Of My Love," but has a definite modern rock tinge.

41."Happy Little Pill" by Troye Sivan

Troye Sivan is a YouTuber who has built a sizable audience with his open-book lifestyle and endearing, relatable personality; he engages his viewers to the point of making them feel like they are his close friends. He also happens to have a pretty damn incredible singing voice, which we all knew thanks to his occasional cover videos. (Here he is covering a song that will appear later in this countdown, in fact.) He very quietly worked on an album and then dropped this debut single near the end of summer, to everyone's surprise. It features his very placid voice over modern minimalist electronic production, and personal yet relatable lyrics.

40. "Say You'll Be There" by MØ

I've been making these year-end top songs lists since 2003, and this is the first time I have ever included a cover. I love it because of all the risks that are not just taken, but clearly dominated. Covering a song is a risk no matter what, and the more well-known and beloved the original, the higher the standard the covering artist will be held to. A solo artist covering a song originally sung by multiple singers is also a challenge. This takes the original to such a different place, and in such a creative way. If MØ's name sounds familiar to you, it's because she is featured on Iggy Azalea's new song.

39. "Solo Dancing" by Indiana

Indiana is British singer Lauren Henson, whose breathy voice reminds me of fellow Brit Alison Goldfrapp. The production on this track actually calls to mind Goldfrapp's 2006 Supernature LP as well. Man, that was a great album.

38. "Ain't It Fun" by Paramore

Emo bands are going through something weird right now. (Have you heard anything by Taking Back Sunday lately?) Their members are getting older and seemingly less angsty, and it's being reflected in their music. They're still just as creative in their songwriting and performance, the music just isn't as angry or sad. It's fascinating.

37. "Holding On For Life" by Broken Bells

This track sounds like someone found a throwaway from am AOR record from 1980 and decided to record it with only slightly modernized production. It has a certain sensibility from that era that I can't discern exactly, but you'll know what I mean when you listen.

36. "Bang Bang" by Jessie J., Ariana Grande & Nicki Minaj

If you don't like this track, you've had a shitty year, because it's the kind of song you hear once and it infects your brain for the rest of the day, even if you hate it. Thankfully, I do not hate it -- Jessie J may be the most understated artist in current pop music. Ariana has had quite a year, and certainly not without reason; her vocal range is quite impressive. There was probably no need for Nicki to be on this track, but no complaints from me -- she's always welcome.

35. "Howling At The Moon" by Phantogram

Phantogram's Voices was one of my favorite albums this year. It has the David Lynch quality that The Raveonettes were always so good at, but with a trip-hop sensibility. This particular cut had my favorite hook on the album.

34. "Visions Of You" by ROOM8 ft. Electric Youth

Twenty seconds into this track on my first listen, I was instantly reminded of the Jon St. James project Bardeux, which is a very VERY good thing. This track is everything I want in a Hi NRG song, from flawless female vocals to razor-sharp drums and synth kisses. Electric Youth's voice may sound familiar to you thanks to the vocals she provided on College's "A Real Hero," from the soundtrack to Drive.

33. "I Don't Fuck With You" by Big Sean

This track produces such a guttural reaction in me. You know that great tingle you get in your stomach after telling someone off when they really deserve it? It's like someone took that feeling and compacted it into four minutes of music.

32. "Amnesia" by 5 Seconds of Summer

Expertise from across the musical spectrum collaborated on this track. Brothers Louis and Michael Biancaniello, who worked with '80s and '90s pop/R&B acts like Mariah Carey, Shanice, and Narada Michael Walden, co-wrote "Amnesia" with Joel and Benji Madden from Good Charlotte, and Sam Watters of '90s R&B group Color Me Badd. The song's lyrics are morose, and the production appropriately builds to emotional crescendos in the chorus while quieting down for the intimate verses. It's a great showcase of 5SOS's talent -- they are actually a real band, after all.

31. "I Wanna Get Better" by Bleachers

Introspection is a rare commodity these days. It was refreshing to hear a song where someone decides to focus on self-improvement rather than blaming an ex or beating themselves up in pointless, unconstructive, self-centered hysteria. The video is hilarious.

30. "All Of The People" by Panama Wedding

Driving synths and breathy, gritty vocals are at the core of this indie pop headbanger. Panama Wedding's debut EP Parallel Play is damn solid, from this rhythmic jam to the softer and more intimate, carefully-constructed synth bubbles of "Uma" and the soft, glowing, "Feels Like Summer," four songs just feels criminally short. This makes my list not just because it's the single, but because it's the best one to crank while driving around at night.

29. "Am I Wrong?" by Nico & Vinz

This track marries several genres in one ear-pleasing package. The beat and syncopated rhythm recall calypso, the guitar riff is super new wave, and it's wrapped in a bow of modern R&B.

28. "Got It" by Marian Hill

There's been no shortage this year of white people emulating historically black musical styles. Very occasionally, it's done in a way that borrows rather than appropriates, such that the artist is doing something unique and artistically relevant, rather than making a cheap photocopy. This is a fine tune -- it's sexy, the production is airtight, and the vocal performance is the ultimate king.

27. "Jealous" by Nick Jonas

He probably has no idea, but Nick Jonas is the modern-day Nick Kamen: a gorgeous face making sign-of-the-times pop music. Note: This is not a complaint. I don't even mean to imply that his work is meaningless; if you were dating Miss Universe then you'd probably be able to honestly sing a song like this too.

26. "Cool Kids" by Echosmith

Upon first hearing this, I thought I'd somehow missed a college radio track from 2007. You can imagine my surprise to learn that this was indeed from 2014 and that the group's eldest member is 21. These kids have a sound that's poppy but still distinguishable from other Top 40 artists -- the kind of sound that lets your brain think, "I'll bet this is an Echosmith song" even if you've never heard it. Family bands are just in sync in a way that bands with unrelated members may find it chemically impossible to be.

Part II (25-1)

23 February 2014

voices || phantogram || 2014

It's a rare and beautiful thing to pull off a truly genre-bending album while retaining a core sound, and that is exactly what Phantogram has done here. I found this album in my inbox, sent by a friend whose recommendations I trust (as he has yet to mislead me; it was he who convinced me to give Daft Punk another chance when Random Access Memories was released last year). I was expecting synthpop based superficially on the band's name and the album cover, but the first track proved a pleasant surprise and the rest of the album went with the flow.

"Nothing But Trouble" is a straight-up trip hop song, the likes of which I've heard nothing similar to since '90s tracks by Sneaker Pimps, Portishead, and Tricky. All the grinding, industrial elements are over a crunchy drum track, which contrasts very nicely with Sarah Barthel's airy vocals.

It's at "Never Going Home" that the album takes its first surprising turn. Suddenly, the trip hop has become shoegaze-style noisy indie rock with Josh Carter singing and sounding very much like a modern Phil Collins. The lyrics are a beautiful desperate plea to a "dying" lover, though it's not explained if this impending death is literal, or merely the potential end of a relationship. It works either way, much like one of my favorite songs of all time: Shakespears Sister's "Stay." Definitely the high point of the album for me.

Barthel is back on vocals for "The Day You Died," another breakup tune but with more traditional pop sensibilities. The trip hop beat still looms in the background.

"Howl At The Moon" is a flawless trip hop track that stands above its peers thanks to its slightly higher-than-average BPM for that genre. Again, Barthel's vocals are flawless and contrast perfectly with the instruments.

Not sure what I was expecting from a song called "Bill Murray," but according to Carter: "We named it ’Bill Murray’ because we always pictured a sad Bill Murray for the visuals of that song. We want him to be in the music video." Hmm, okay, cool. Very pretty downtempo song; I'm sure Bill is honored.

There's something here for lovers of all kinds of alternative pop music. While not every single track has a memorable personality, there are some shining moments, and the overall listening experience is pleasant, almost soothing.


01 February 2014

bad blood || bastille || 2013

I had to wait for the right day to listen to this album, since I knew it would be a moody experience. Prior to my full listen, I'd only heard "Pompeii" and "Laura Palmer," so I was expecting brooding, full-wall-of-sound indie pop that really only works when it's grey outside, and by that benchmark, I'm a satisfied customer.

"Pompeii" is such an unlikely radio hit in 2013, but damn is it refreshing to finally see some new faces charting well on the Hot 100 instead of the career tributes we've been stuck with for the last 6 or 7 years. Every now and then a song like this pops up, something that's unique enough to briefly become a massive hit, but then we never hear from the artist again (see: Tinie Tempah, Taio Cruz, Far East Movement, etc.). I fear that's the path our dear Bastille is headed for, but I can still hope for the best. The song's true signature is the chanting riff that drives through most of it, which I haven't heard since the '90s.

Unfortunately, one of the pratfalls of creating a unique sound is that it's easy to create an album of 12 songs that run together and are indistinguishable. Lorde is an excellent example of someone who escaped this trap, but Bastille seems to fall right into it, at least for the first half of their album. "Things We Lost In The Fire" and "Bad Blood" are both mid-tempo and pretty forgettable. The production on "Overjoyed" ventures into Owl City territory.

My ears didn't particularly perk up again until "Oblivion," the first true ballad on the album. Vocalist Daniel Smith's performance isn't really different here than on the rest of the tracks, but it's a nice change of pace to hear him without loud instrumentation and backing vocals.

"Flaws" could become a college romance anthem if it reaches the appropriate audience. It's by far the most interesting lyrical content on the album, wherein the singer challenges his lover to drop all pretense and have a completely unguarded moment together.

My only complaint about "Laura Palmer" is that there isn't more direct allusion to the brilliant Twin Peaks. It's a pretty song though, and certainly follows the same sonic formula as "Pompeii." The music video is also worth a watch.

Bastille definitely creates a mood with this album and remains consistent through and through. It's worth a listen on a melancholy day.