Year End Music Countdowns #14: 2015

Donald Trump hearing my picks for the best songs of the year.

As much as I like lionizing the past, the fact is that finding the best songs of the year has always been a hassle. Even during the best years there were long dry spells where I’d spend hours shovelling through garbage to find one great song. So for all my bellyaching about the state of music this year, I ended up with a pretty solid year-end list that’s actually better than the past two years’ lists. There were, in fact, some good tunes this year among the many many disappointments.

Here they are:

The Top 25 Songs of 2015





25. Te Amo Camila VallejoDesaparecidos— Bright Eyes may be gone, but Conor Oberst continues to write and deliver masterful lyrics with his long dormant punk band.

Such Things




24. Bad IdeasSaintseneca— It was worrisome when the band called this their “most minimal, sparse song to date”, but that turned out to be a red herring and this is far from minimal. If anything there are more layers in this song than on most of their other material.

Angels & Ghosts




23. All of This and NothingDave Gahan & Soulsavers– A little time away from Depeche Mode did the frontman some good, as he churned out this triumphant rocker rather than another lifeless dirge found so readily on his main band’s last album.

Uptown Special




22. Uptown FunkMark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars— This song is just one hook after another. Not just that, but it’s one meme after another. It’s endlessly quotable and an instant classic.

Better Nature




21. ConnectionSilversun Pickups– The band goes back to shorter, more uptempo rockers after the sprawling, unfocused previous record and it pays off nicely with tracks like this one.





20. Psychic Reader– Bad Bad Hats– A sort of compromise between early 2000s music trends. It’s Vanessa Carlton meets Rilo Kiley.





19. Wildest Dreams– Ryan Adams– Imagine if the band Real Estate actually knew how to write a good song? It might sound like this. A golden-hued alt-country rendition of the Taylor Swift single that suits the melody far better than the original arrangement did. Particularly great is the way Adams revises the vocal hook, integrating the falsetto note into the lyrics rather than the weird hiccup-sigh Swift does in her version.





18. Emily– San Fermin– The band’s bid for the mainstream may not have gotten them the attention they wanted/deserved, but it gave us a pretty great song nonetheless.

Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance




17. The Party Line– Belle and Sebastian– There’s an air of ineffable coolness to Stuart Murdoch’s vocals that help sell the band as a dance act as opposed to their usual folk leanings.





16. Irish Margaritas (RAC Mix)- Harriet– Some remixes simply add a new beat or speed up a song. This one fundamentally reshapes the original, changing the chord progression so that the song actually has a chance at being catchy. Harriet ought to be very grateful to RAC.

VEGA INTL. Night School




15. 61 Cygni Ave– Neon Indian– Tucked away the the end of a miserably bad album, this mutant funk track redeems the record by recalling the band’s history as a chillwave act.

Pray For Rain




14. Pray For Rain– Pure Bathing Culture– A good example of the fact that familiar parts can still be added up into a new and interesting song.

The Sunshine of Your Youth - single




13. The Sunshine of Your Youth– Cheerleader– Is there anything rarer in modern rock than three people with guitars, one on drums, making songs with two verses, one bridge and three choruses? Cheerleader recall a simpler, more straightforward time when songs ended with the fade out of guitar feedback. They’re also good at wistful melodies- but we’ll get to that later.

The Gates




12. Mercy– Young Empires– It seems like every band nowadays has to write their own adrenaline anthem, and this is Young Empires’. Fortunately they put their own spin on the formula and throw in some chopped indie-R&B vocals that give the track some nice accents.

The Desired Effect 1




11. I Can Change– Brandon Flowers– Flowers’ first use of a sample works out incredibly well, with a surging, straightforward piece of electro-pop.


10. Half Life– Twin Shadow








Eclipse was thrashed severely upon release, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on any “Most Disappointing Albums” year-end lists. Make no mistake, the album is largely a trainwreck. But even though George Lewis Jr. failed at making a pop crossover hit, he also failed at being a failure. Buried amongst the 80’s soft rock ballads were two legitimately great songs- “Alone” and this one.

They seem to reinforce the notion that Lewis works best when he’s wounded. Dark drama has fed his best songs, and this one is no different. When his voice gets hoarse as he yells the last climactic chorus it shows that he actually cares about what he’s singing about. Let’s hope he keeps that sort of passion in mind for the next album.


9. First Song– Heyrocco

Teenage Movie Soundtrack







Although there’s been a lot of commotion about the “emo revival” scene, there hasn’t been much quality music to justify it. A few decent songs here and there, but no breakout stars or crossover hits, especially not from the Topshelf label that’s purportedly the epicentre of this revival. It’s unclear whether Heyrocco want to be grouped in with this scene, considering the connotation the label “emo” has taken on over the past decade, but “First Song” is a genuine, straight up emo song. It’s a throwback both musically and lyrically, and could have fit just as easily on a playlist in 1994 as it could have in 2001. It’s the undistilled essence of youthful angst, without the baggage of the “scene” to weigh it down.


8. Witness– Mew

+ -







The album…largely a mess. But thankfully there were two big, reliable Mew tracks on it, this being the best. Mew have long dealt in “epic”, but this is the first they’ve ever sounded “heroic”. That’s undeniably the best descriptor for the guitars that burst onto the scene at the start of the track. There’s someone else singing the verses, but Jonas Bjerre jumps in at the choruses like Harrison Ford in The Force Awakens, a welcome return to form that makes those parts sound even better.


7. Fade Out Lines– The Avener feat. Phoebe Killdeer

The Avener EP







One of the most underrated radio hits of the year, this rework of Killdeer’s 2011 song is a future club classic. It’s all the best parts of dark house wrapped up in one song Sultry vocals, a sinewy bass riff, smoky guitars and a string section all work together in one concise, perfectly climactic pop package.


6. Perfect Vision– Cheerleader–

On Your Side - EP







Imagine for a moment that One Direction hadn’t won a televised talent show and instead squirreled away in a flat somewhere listening to turn-of-the-millennium alternative rock. That’s what Cheerleader sound like. A more artisan version of 1D, or perhaps a less cheesy update of BBMak. Like the Replacements’ legacy taken to its logical conclusion. It’s straight-up-no-holds-barred pop rock, but there’s just enough haze in there to keep it from landing on the other side of the dial. The guitar hook here is much more simple than on “Sunshine of Your Youth”, but its simplicity works in its favour, bouncing along with the power-pop drums with an authenticity that Styles and co. have yet to display.


5. Glory– Jean-Michel Jarre feat. M83

E Project







As bizarre as it is to write, M83 has been having some bad luck with cinematic music lately. The master of widescreen electronic anthems had a terrible experience scoring the indie flick Black Hole, then had an even worse time scoring big-time movie Oblivion. Plus, the last two songs he’s done were for the Divergent movies and they’ve both been incredibly boring. He’s the king of music meant to be played in movies, but Anthony Gonzalez and movies just don’t mix.

Here he’s just a featured artist, teaming up with his role model, the inimitable Jean-Michel Jarre. The pairing works fantastically and shows that both French composers still have the touch. The video is once again iconic. Perhaps Gonzalez just needs to stay away from movies and focus on the music.


4. Pay No Mind- Madeon feat. Passion Pit








I’ve made no secret of the fact that I really dislike Daft Punk‘s “Get Lucky”, and most of the accompanying album that was Random Access Memories. Not only did they betray their fanbase by completely ditching the groundbreaking sound they established, but they did it by taking on reductive, derivative funk. If that’s not bad enough, the sound caught on and soon every artist, pop and indie alike, were noodling around on jangly guitars. Even artists who had absolutely no business doing so, like Death Cab for Cutie and Nickelback.

“Pay No Mind” is what Daft Punk’s 2013 release should have sounded like. It does incorporate a few funk signatories, but it melds them with modern sensibilities so the song actually sounds like something new, something fresh. It’s also the best Passion Pit track of the year, miles ahead of their stinkbomb of a new album. Madeon is a talent to watch out for, as he’s part of a new wave of EDM artists (along with Urban Cone and Porter Robinson) more concerned about melody and structure rather than pumping a crowd of drug-addled kids up. In time he could be as celebrated as the now-stale Avicii. Let’s just hope he doesn’t take a bizarre left turn like Daft Punk.


3. REALiTi- Grimes

Art Angels







When it was released as a demo earlier this year, the whole indiesphere was perplexed. “This is a demo?” they asked, referring to the decent production value and incredible songwriting. Grimes took the positive feedback to heart and rerecorded the song for her new album and for a moment there was hesitation among the fanbase. Would the song still be good? Or would Claire Boucher have the drum track drop out during the chorus? Or turn it into a minimalist dirge?

The fears were unfounded and the song went largely untouched, but it was cleaned up and the difference between this and the demo version makes clear why the first take was a demo. Everything about the new version is crisp and more confident, a strong and florid collection of hooks upon hooks. It’s exciting to be around during an artist’s best years, and it looks like Boucher’s are just beginning.

(note: link goes to demo version as album version not available on youtube)


2. Begin Again- Purity Ring

Another Eternity







Before Daft Punk came around and derailed pop music with funk, the rising sound was maximalist electro. It yielded some great, huge, big hits and was on the cusp of evolving before everyone ditched it to pretend they were back in 1975. It’s starting to get back on track- pop singer Sia is a fan of the sound, and Purity Ring have adopted it as well.

It’s paid off immensely. While their debut album was interesting, it leaned a little too far into xx-aping territory, and the dark minimalist sound got stale over the course of the record. Here, they’ve gone from timid to unstoppable. A devastatingly powerful hook is coupled with a crushing chorus that explodes unlike anything on the radio nowadays. But let me tell you exactly what it is that makes this song great-

During the first part of the chorus, the chords stop and start. They’re dry. It’s still big, but then it gets bigger. The second part of the chorus lets the chords blend into each other, continuous. It also throws in a skittering hi-hat that makes the flow even stronger, and increases momentum tenfold. That is exactly what elevates this song to great status, and what music in 2015 should sound like. Why don’t other bands get this? This is essentially a perfect song, and what every artist should strive to create.


And the best song of 2015 is….



whoops my bad it’s actually

1. Can’t Deny My Love- Brandon Flowers

The Desired Effect







When Flowers released his first solo album, he didn’t really know who he wanted to be. As a result, Flamingo felt unfocused and strangely rough at times, a sort of demo collection that wasn’t really fleshed out. On The Desired Effect, Flowers knows exactly who he wants to be. He’s the Dragonball Z style fusion of Bryan Ferry and Bruce Springsteen. A lounge lizard with a heart of gold. A Vegas crooner with dreams of the heartland. The album itself gets spotty at times, but it produces some of Flowers’ best material to date, with or without The Killers. It’s doubly fresh because the last two songs the Killers released before the hiatus were total soft rock duds and it seemed like that was the direction any new material would head.

Instead we’ve gotten a dark, almost sinister cut of 80’s-indebted synth-rock. It’s a kitchen-sink single where every part fits so well (that one flute part!) that it’s almost too much of a good thing. There’s almost too many hooks. There’s almost too many accents. But Flowers knows to rein it in and keep it from getting overly crowded, setting himself apart from overproduced contemporaries. It’s a fantastic song and hopefully a sign that The Killers will one day slay again.



The 10 Best Albums of 2015

Here are the most well-rounded efforts taken into consideration as a whole piece of work:





10. [Kintsugi]- Death Cab for Cutie

(Choice Cuts: “Little Wanderer”, “Ingenue”, “Black Sun”) 

How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful




9. [How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful]- Florence + The Machine

(Choice Cuts: “Pure Feeling”, “Hiding”, “Queen of Peace”) 

What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World




8. [What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World]- The Decemberists

(Choice Cuts: “Make You Better”, “Cavalry Captain”, “Beginning Song”) 





7. [ONE]- Kate Boy

(Choice Cuts: “Northern Lights”, “In Your Eyes”, “The Way We Are”) 

Savage Hills Ballroom




6. [Savage Hills Ballroom]- Youth Lagoon

(Choice Cuts: “Rotten Human”, “Highway Patrol Stun Gun”, “No One Can Tell”) 

As If




5. [As If]- !!!

(Choice Cuts: “ooo”, “Lucy Mongoosey”, “Every Little Bit Counts”) 

Another Eternity




4. [Another Eternity]- Purity Ring

(Choice Cuts: “Begin Again”, “Flood on the Floor”, “Heartsigh”) 

E•MO•TION (Deluxe)




3. [E-MO-TION]- Carly Rae Jepsen

(Choice Cuts: “I Really Like You”, “Run Away With Me”, “Your Type”) 

Better Nature




2. [Better Nature]- Silversun Pickups

(Choice Cuts: “Connection”, “Tapedeck”, “Pins and Needles”) 


Art Angels







1. [Art Angels]- Grimes

(Choice Cuts: “REALiTi”, “World Princess Pt. II”, “Flesh Without Blood”…and the rest of the album) 

[It’s hard to begin describing how good this album is, but the key point to take away here is that every single song is listenable. This is a true front-to-back record, which is unthinkable in 2015. Where other albums struggle to have 50% good songs, this one easily goes past 90%.

Claire Boucher has crafted an instantly recognizable sound with meticulous production, but more importantly, she has written good melodies to back up all that production. You can throw all the patches, samples, and augmented chords you want into a track, but it will amount to nothing if the song doesn’t have a catchy hook. This album has hooks in spades, outclassing not only every album this year, but possibly every album from the past 5 years. It’s a big middle finger to all the MOR indie-alternative acts trying to be experimental and failing miserably. The only problem is that now there is absolutely no reason to accept any less than this from anyone. Why listen to horrible music when something this good is capable of being made? Tolerance for generic music should now be at zero.]



I change the format of this section nearly every year, sometimes even forgoing it. This year… it’s going to be just a short bit of me being right, followed by a list.

I’ve already done plenty of moaning and groaning about the sad state of affairs in the music biz, so more would be repeating myself. But just as proof of how bad it is, these were the only “hit” songs of 2015:

Uptown Funk– Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars

What Do You Mean?– Justin Bieber

Can’t Feel My Face– The Weeknd

Hello– Adele

Hotline Bling– Drake

That’s it. 5 songs for the whole year. Nothing else burrowed its way into public consciousness like those 5 songs. And just like in 2014, there was no song of the summer. This was one of the lowest years for #1 turnarounds on the charts (Uptown Funk stayed there for the better part of early 2015). Music as a commodity is almost completely dead.

But really, who can blame people? When the majority of albums released are as terrible as the following few, perhaps it’s time to pare down what is developed by the industry and place songwriting over marketability.

These are the most disappointing albums of 2015. Not necessarily the worst, because that would just be a lot of underground bands like Diamond Youth, Night Beds, and Painted Palms.

These were albums that were anticipated, hyped, and failed to deliver. So although they might be better than other albums as a whole, the listening experience was worse because of the magnified failure.


10. [Poison Season]- Destroyer— [This is some straight up goofy pretentious nonsense.]

9. [California Nights]- Best Coast— [Bethany Cosentino faces her second failed attempt at stardom with an album songs that are almost good but then… aren’t.]

8. [Wiped Out!]- The Neighbourhood— [Once again the band ruins incredibly interesting sonic
textures with embarrassing lyrics and flat, meandering melodies. Title track is a huge total mess

7.[Descensus]- Circa Survive— [A sad reminder that nearly all hard rock bands from the 2000s are now long past their prime.]

6. [Bones]- Son Lux— [You’d think being in a Gillette commercial would give him the idea that making music people like to listen to is a good thing, but nope, Ryan Lott prefers to self-sabotage every single song and turn it into an incoherent mess.]

5. [Death Magic]- HEALTH— [We waited 5 years for this? All that talk about new sounds and pop crossover hits for a half-baked, unfocused filler album?]

4. [Drones]- Muse— [Muse have almost completely devolved into total meathead rock.]

3. [Kindred]- Passion Pit — [Lacking the emotional core of their previous album, Kindred displays Passion Pit as a shell of their former selves.]

2. [Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper]- Panda Bear— [An unlistenable mess that seems intent on proving Panda Bear hates writing enjoyable music.]

1. [Wilder Mind]- Mumford & Sons— [Ditching the banjos is one thing, but aping every “big indie” act on the radio is another, leading this album into entirely disposable MOR rock territory. Every single song sabotages itself somehow, whether it be with unconventional song structure (“Believe”), an anticlimactic ending (“Snake Eyes”), or terrible sound mixing (“Wilder Mind”). ]


On that note, bye!


Everything’s Wrong With Modern Music

I’ve made no secret of my distaste for most current music; in fact I’ve frequently opined about the end of music itself.

It’s come to a point however, where nearly every single piece of new music that is released is incredibly awful. Because every artist (particularly more visible artists) wants to stay relevant, they continue to ape trends that have run amok through the scene, in turn influencing more artists to follow these trends. The problem is that these trends are kind of terrible and detrimental to music and ruin songs. It’s almost a deliberate self-sabotage. These trends are the following:

– “lo-fi/analog” recording

– unconventional song structure

– late 1980’s influence

– anti-climactic choruses

– folk-pop

You’ll find at least one of these present in most singles in 2015, and it pretty much explains why there are barely any hit songs any more (as of this writing, the only huge hit of the year has been Mark Ronson‘s “Uptown Funk”.)

Let’s go through these trends and see why exactly they’re wrecking music.

Lo-fi/Analog Recording:

Who started it: Daft Punk, 2013, “Get Lucky”

It was supposed to be a revolutionary statement. EDM godfathers Daft Punk rebelling against mainstream and going all-natural for their long-awaited new album. Instead of crisp, clean modern production, sparkling synths and cutting edge beats, the world got…reductive disco-funk. Later that year Arcade Fire pulled the same trick, no thanks to studio help from lackluster producer James Murphy. The towering Springsteen melodrama and massive statements from 2010’s The Suburbs were gone, replaced by lithe funk and earthy rhythms. The idea of “going back to basics” spread and more bands decided to purposely make their recordings sound worse. Muffled guitars, tinny drums, and record hiss popped up all over the place. Mumford & Son’s latest record Wilder Mind employs some of these tricks, most noticeable on the title track. Right from the start the drums sound weak and amateur, making listening in headphones uncomfortable. Nate Ruess of fun.  went old school for his first solo record as well, and one can immediately hear little raw bits come up throughout the album.

The Last Straw:

Diamond Youth are a band that’s party of the much-lauded “emo revival”, which would be a legitimate revival were it not for the insistence of most of these bands to muck up their guitar tone for some misguided aesthetic reason. Most of these bands come from a label called Topshelf, and not one has broken through to the mainstream because of their obsession with garage-style recording. The reason Diamond Youth stick out is because they LITERALLY REGRESSED their sound. Here’s an example of their 2012 material, with polished production:

Pretty good production! But here’s their LATEST single, from 2015.

Why?? Why go backwards? “No Control” isn’t even the worst offender, as some songs on the new record are even muddier.

Unconventional Song Structure:

Hey new bands, let’s not try to re-invent the wheel. Verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus works PRETTY FINE and has for years. Even classical music had defined recurring motifs- you’re telling me you’re going to mess with the formula used by “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”?? Sure, sometimes you get a “Bohemian Rhapsody” that works as an exception, but let’s not kid ourselves, there aren’t any Freddie Mercurys or Brian Mays in today’s crop of artists.

Who started it: This one’s tough. There have been plenty of weirdos writing unstructured messes throughout the ages, but pinpointing the one that started the influx of current disasters is difficult. What I can tell you though, is how you can spot it without even listening to the song.

Screen shot 2015-06-26 at 2.39.11 AM

The waveform of a track is very telling about what’s happening in there. As you can see above, this is an example of the experimental wankery that I’m talking about. Where’s the structure? Why are there two long parts, and then three separate parts at the end? There’s no cohesion at all. You can tell there is no chorus in this song.

Screen shot 2015-06-29 at 12.07.46 PM

This song just went up today, and is another example of obvious indulgence. This one comes from self-proclaimed “pop expert” Owen Pallett, who literally doesn’t know how to write a regular song, let alone a catchy one. Seen above is his contribution to Adult Swim’s annual summer singles collection, which sadly used to be really good. As you can see, there’s about a minute of one section, then suddenly a switch to two minutes of another, and finally another third section at the end. Listening to it you find that only the middle section has lyrics, and the whole thing is just a vague, shapeless electronic fart. These kinds of songs can also be found on the latest albums by Active Child (“Stranger”) and How To Dress Well (“A Power”).

It’s not just one-man electronic projects that follow this trend though- many bands from the aforementioned Topshelf label have bizarrely structured songs as well. Other more known acts to use this are:

Mumford & Sons, in “Snake Eyes”

Brandon Flowers, in “Lonely Town”

Nate Ruess, in “What This World Is Coming To” (indeed!)

– Everything JJ (or are they jj now?) has ever done

The Last Straw:

But the worst perpetrator of this trend is a Montreal native who goes by the name Mas Ysa. This guy, along with having a grating bleat of a voice, simple can’t write ONE normal song. All his songs are giant messes, filled with barely connected parts and long stretches between singing. Just look at this waveform:

Screen shot 2015-06-05 at 3.50.20 PM

Is that even a song?? How does this engage listeners in the least bit? Waste of internet space.

Late 1980’s influence:

We’ve been stuck in an 80’s revival for what seems like forever; in fact we’ve been reliving the 80’s for longer than the 80’s were around.

Who started it: Again, hard to track down the original sinner because the 80’s have been around for so long. Bear in Heaven seem like a good person to blame, as all their work has that rubbery-bass, staccato single-guitar-string-noodling, major key synth stab sound to it.

The sad part of this is that there are so many parts of the 80’s that are better suited for mining. New wave and post-punk ran their course twice, but nobody’s touching epic reverb guitar or colossal drums. The only time I’ve heard that combination used was by The Panic Division. Bands, try this sound on! It’s cool and interesting! No, instead everybody just wants to sound like Mariah Carey’s “Emotions”. (Which is from ’91, I know).

And when I say everybody, I mean everybody. Indie bands like Bear Hands, Delorean, The Wombats, CYMBALS, Painted Palms and Blood Orange are all fans of the sound, but so are mainstream acts like Carly Rae Jepsen, Walk the Moon, Charli XCX and Sky Ferreira.

It’s nauseating. Did anyone want to hear bands like Nickelback or Death Cab for Cutie make “funky” music?? NOPE. But they made the songs “She Keeps Me Up” and “Good Help Is Hard To Find”, respectively. And yeah they are just as embarrassing as you might think.

The Last Straw:

Kate Boy have been releasing dark, mysterious electro for about three years and today announced their debut album, preceded by a single. So far their record has been spotless; every track they’ve released has been nothing short of great. Except this one, which sounds like a Paula Abdul B-side. It throws away their whole brand for the sake of fitting in. RIP in peace, Kate Boy.

Anti-climactic choruses

You’re listening to a song, it’s inching up towards the chorus, ok here it comes, here we go…..nothing. There’s no payoff, no reward for the listener. It’s a complete betrayal by the artist.

Who Started It: As far as I can tell, this trend originated in the bowels of frat-EDM. Some DJ bro decided that a snare build-up shouldn’t end with a release, and instead some disparate bass synth riff. You can hear it most noticeably in Baauer’sHarlem Shake“. The problem is that most other EDM performers usually hide the monotonous chorus by creating a melodic verse to get your hopes up before the stupid breakdown.

Countless indie bands started using the anti-climactic chorus trick, but some of the more obvious examples are Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor”, Other Lives’ “Reconfiguration”, and AWOLNATION’s “Windows”. It didn’t help that minimalist artists like James Blake and the xx popularized the lack of dynamics and using silence in songs as well. Nobody wants to write BIG choruses anymore.

The Last Straw:

It’s coming from inside!  That’s right, this insidious practice has entered mainstream. This year both Taylor Swift and The Weeknd have resorted to it, which means that now more artists are going to see this as something “to do” in songs and it’ll just keep on happening in a sick cycle.

Taylor Swift uses it in “Bad Blood”. (1:10)

The Weeknd uses it in “Can’t Feel My Face” (0:38), not only killing the dark futuristic vibe he builds up in the first verse but also starting on the wrong chord, destroying all momentum.


Who Started It: Mumford and Sons. Duh.

At first glance this trend doesn’t seem to be harmful at all. For every Lumineers or Vance Joy that slithers out into the spotlight, there’s a dozen upbeat folksters that are forever relegated to the iTunes up-and-coming section (Hi, Great Lake Swimmers and Lord Huron!)

But there’s a deeper problem with this trend, and that’s because when folk entered the fold, it opened the door for every other genre to come in and be mashed-up with every other genre. It created a monogenre, a melting pot of sound perfectly exemplified by…

The Last Straw:

X Ambassadors. Their latest single “Renegades” has everything off the modern rock checklist: folksy strumming, shuffling hip-hop beat, positive yet rebellious lyrics, and of course, whoa-ohs. It’s not particularly offensive, because it sounds like everything else. Everyone’s using all of the ingredients now, resulting in a soundscape where nobody stands out, and nobody will be remembered for a specific sound in a generation.

So that’s why I don’t listen to music anymore; it just doesn’t matter.

AWOLNATION @ Sound Academy

awolrunnapoleonAfter a 4-year wait electro-indie pioneers AWOLNATION have returned with the new album Run, and familiarized the city of Toronto with it at Sound Academy on June 22nd. Supporting them were Parade of Lights and Family of the Year.

Parade of Lights kicked off the night with their brand of energetic electro-pop, pumping up the crowd with hits like “Golden”, which you’ve probably heard in one commercial or another.

Following them were Family of the Year, which seemed like a strange choice for a supporting act considering their biggest hit to date was the wistful, yearning alternative country hit “Hero”. Used extensively as promotion for last year’s award-winning film “Boyhood”, it’s not exactly the sort of song you’d put on a playlist with AWOLNATION. However the band’s newer material proved to be much more beefed up, bringing to mind a synth-tinged version of Tom Petty. They were still an unconventional choice of opening act, but unconventional is AWOLNATION‘s game.

It’s not at all hyperbolic to say that AWOLNATION are one of the most influential bands of the 2010’s. If you recall the halcyon days of 2010 you’ll realize that modern rock was caught in a loose, directionless void that wouldn’t gel until the spring of 2011 when “Sail” came onto the scene. It wasn’t so much of a direct influence sonically as it was behaviourally. “Sail” redefined what “rock” meant in the new millennium and broke down borders between nearly every genre imaginable. Prior to the song’s release, acts that were primarily synthesizer-based were relegated to the fringe; now they’re the norm. Bands are experimenting with every style of music imaginable, and scoring huge radio hits with these styles.


AWOLNATION‘s latest record switches things up again. Frontman Aaron Bruno showed a penchant for raucous, frenetic arrangements on the first record but things have gotten wild on Run, as seen and heard at the show. For every moment of danceable indie-pop at the concert there were two metal breakdowns, replete with hardcore-style screams and muscular guitar riffs. Adding to the dissonance was the fact that despite all the flashing lights, the band remained cloaked in shadows for the whole set. Aaron Bruno threw in some more genre mash-ups; songs like “Windows” merged prog-rock with nu-metal, while “Dreamers” sounded like a punked-up version of Mindless Self Indulgence. “I Am” was another confidence anthem sure to be a single down the line.

Of course the hits were present. “Not Your Fault”, “Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf)”, “Kill Your Heroes”, and “Sail” all made an appearance, albeit in much louder forms. “Sail” was the obvious closer, topping off a night that left the crowd sweaty and satisfied. Looks like AWOLNATION‘s bold experimentation paid off yet again.

Lana Del Rey @ Molson Amphitheatre

Kicking off the 2015 summer concert season with the Endless Summer Tour, sultry songstress Lana Del Rey took over the Molson Amphitheatre and brought in a massive crowd to hear her dark brand of cinematic pop. Opening for her was homegrown talent Grimes, a similarly magnetic artist with a very singular image.
Grimes is the brainchild of Montreal native Claire Boucher, and to date has made a name for herself playing an effervescent blend of J-pop, K-pop, and U-S-of-A pop. Though she’s indicated that her next album, due this October, will be drastically different, she stuck to her electronic repertoire for this show.
Most of the selections were from her breakthrough 2012 album Visions, including the darkly playful “Oblivion” and glitchy “Be a Body”. The crowd went wild for the ethereal space pop of “Genesis”, which sounds like a modern take on the futuristic sounds of French composer Jean-Michel Jarre. Also popular were newer songs like last year’s “Go”, which was originally written for Rihanna but ended up as a Grimes track instead. The mysterious track “REALiTi” released a few months ago made an appearance too, to huge applause.
Grimes and her energetic dance crew then made way for the towering drama-core of Lana Del Rey, who seems to operate solely on the “grandiose” setting. True to her “gangster Nancy Sinatra” image, the stage was decked out in all manners of retro-Americana, from marquee lights to a replica of a 1920s style cityscape.

It’s actually pretty admirable how she’s fashioned an ironclad brand for herself and stayed true to it. In an era where most bands hop around from genre to genre, often on the same album, Del Rey has stuck to her fifty-shades-of-film-noir sound for two and a half albums now. Painting her widescreen canvases with swaths of Golden Age nostalgia, she’s refused to go the upbeat route of her peers in the industry.
Her set then was as expected, all swelling strings and effortless cool. Her lyrics evoked bygone eras as she prowled around onstage, the embodiment of her “good girl with a dark side” persona. Of course both “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games” made their way into the performance, as did follow-up singles “Born to Die” and “Summertime Sadness”. Last year’s hazy “West Coast” made the cut as well, as did a cover of Leonard Cohen‘s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”.
And though the tour is called “Endless Summer”, it was not an endless night, and after “Off to the Races” Del Rey graciously thanked the crowd and went gently into the night. It probably won’t be long before we see her once more, as new album Honeymoon is due later this year and will likely bring her through our neighbourhood again.

Thursday Thinkpiece: One-Hit Wonders and the Incredible Thirst of Carly Rae Jepsen

The notion of a “one-hit wonder” might seem simple at first: a performing artist who is only recognizable for one massively popular song. They scored a huge hit and then disappeared from the public’s consciousness, only to reappear on snide and degrading future compilations and lists of other unlucky artists. The problem is that most of these artists aren’t actually one-hit wonders, and the parameters for labeling an artist as such are vague and arguable. And as we enter an age in which the music industry and radio are flailing towards their demise and many massive artists don’t even have “hits”, the label becomes completely meaningless.

At first blush it’s easy to come up with a list of publicly deigned one-hit wonders:

– Gangnam Style- Psy
– Somebody That I Used To Know- Gotye
– Float On- Modest Mouse
– Flagpole Sitta- Harvey Danger
– The Way- Fastball
– I Believe In A Thing Called Love- The Darkness
– Crazy- Gnarls Barkley
– Macarena- Los Del Rio
– Blurred Lines- Robin Thicke
– Nothing Compares 2 U- Sinead O’ Connor
etc, etc


Whether they deserve it or not is up to the individual, but the majority of people only know the one song by its respective artist. This is the sort of playlist a radio station might compile for a themed segment, which is kind of messed up considering it’s the radio stations that decide whether or not to play more than one single by an artist. It’s also messed up because most of the aforementioned artists actually did have more than one radio hit, as most artists in general do.


– Gentleman- Psy
– Eyes Wide Open- Gotye
– Dashboard- Modest Mouse
– Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo- Harvey Danger
– You’re An Ocean- Fastball
etc, etc

It’s usually a novelty or charity ensemble group that only ever release one single (Live-Aid/Band-Aid, Liam Lynch,  whoever did “Disco Duck”). Regular artists tend to have these things called “albums”, and after they land a big hit they chase it with one or two or three other songs. You know, to keep them in the public eye. Sometimes these songs even chart pretty high! Does nobody remember that Psy’s “Gentleman” was a hit as well? Or that Robin Thicke, Gotye, and Psy all had careers before their big singles? Gotye was already a huge deal in his homeland of Australia with the song “Heart’s a Mess”! Psy was five albums into his career before Gangnam Style! Why is he considered a one-hit wonder?

Furthermore, does this mean that artists that never have that one big song are no-hit wonders? Because there are a lot of artists that are doing just fine without one, including:

– The Script
– Colbie Caillat
– Sara Bareilles
– Christina Perri
– The Tragically Hip
– Jack Johnson
– The Jonas Brothers
– Lady Antebellum


If you asked the general population what any of those artists’ “big song” was, you’ll get blank stares. But they’ve all got comfortable careers with consistently high-selling albums and reliable fanbases. Colbie Caillat, above could release a greatest hits based on all her singles, even though most people don’t know what she looks like (I didn’t until about five minutes ago). It’s not really that big of a deal that they’ve never reached the pinnacle of the Billboard Top 100. Although even that achievement doesn’t matter in this day and age, especially when you consider how few legitimate hits come out.

To date this year, there have only been a handful of big songs, with one (“Uptown Funk”) languishing at the top for 16 weeks. Streaming music has segmented audiences to the point where there may never again be a true “Song of the Summer”, because everyone’s got their own songs of the summer. There are now “micro-stars” who are hugely famous thanks to industry pushing despite not yet having…any recognizable songs.


Who are Austin Mahone (above), Rita Ora, and Five Seconds of Summer? I can’t even picture their faces, much less tell you what they sing or even what KIND of music they play. But I know that they’re rich and famous because I see those names everywhere. They’re doing fine. In fact it seems like these days, NOT having the “one big hit” is more beneficial than having it. Stars have to be careful not to make their songs too good. (note: maybe that’s why music is so bad nowadays cuz they’re purposely making it bad, tee hee)

So WHY is Carly Rae Jepsen so thirsty for another hit?


The halcyon year of 2012 brought us the inescapable “Call Me Maybe”, which is her one big song. The thing about its success however, is that it was a complete accident. A single by a third-place runner up on the 2007 season of Canadian Idol and produced by the former member of a hard industrial group (Dave Ogilvie)? It was a fluke and that’s partly why it was so refreshing. Nobody was expecting it to be huge and its viral spread was completely natural. Jepsen followed it with a guest spot on Owl City’s “Good Time” and another song later in 2012 called “This Kiss”, and could have continued releasing low-key pop and had a stable career like Colbie Caillat or Christina Perri.

But she didn’t. She went away for a little while and started planning a BIG comeback. Which could in turn backfire in a BIG way, as the desperation for another huge hit is palpable. Everything that’s come out of the promotion for her new material has been a transparently obvious grab at the limelight.


– “I Really Like You” was released in March, a calculated date when artists wanting to score a “song of the summer” drop their songs.
– The video had a celebrity cameo in Tom Hanks.
– A big deal was made of Jepsen’s quest in making this album, from the wide range of producers and songwriters to the hundreds of songs she wrote for it.
– She performed on SNL, Ellen, and Castle (??).
– Another (kind of embarrassing) “viral” video was released with a bunch of famous friends (Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande) singing the song.
– Another song called “All That” was released.
– Both songs were very much in the late-80s style that is en vogue right now (as opposed to the timeless sound of “Call Me Maybe”)

Despite all this, as of this writing the song has not charted very well (39 on the Billboard Hot 100). It’s nowhere near the ubiquity that “Call Me Maybe” had and it doesn’t seem like it will be the huge summer hit Jepsen wanted it to be. The corresponding album has no release date due to this tepid response. No doubt the producers are going through the “hundreds” of recorded songs trying to revise them for another hit, possibly with a guest appearance. And it’s all a little sad, because “I Really Like You” is a pretty fun song and didn’t need this massive circus surrounding it. Jepsen could have just released it normally, had the album out by now and toured without pressure and expectations. Her quest to avoid being a one-hit wonder has turned into MORE of a one-hit wonder, something I think she was really, really really, really, really, really trying to avoid.