All I ask from modern music nowadays is that I get just one great song per month, so that I have at least 10 solid picks by the end of the year for a countdown. It’s getting tough to find even that many, but luckily this January over-delivered in case things get dire throughout the rest of the year. Let’s look at what we got:
The Good Stuff
- As rock music continues to dwindle, finding specific genres of rock music becomes exponentially harder. So imagine my surprise at finding a band like Moaning and their song “Artificial”, which is basically guaranteed to be on 2018’s Best Of Countdown. A cold post-punk banger, it’s not only distinct in sonic sensibility but as a composition as well. Nobody’s writing bleak stuff like this anymore.
- The Shins’ 2017 record Heartworms. They’ve redone that album entirely, “flipping” each song into another subgenre. “Half a Million”takes on a ska vibe, sounding less like the Cars homage of the original and more like Elvis Costello. It’s hard to decide which version of the song is the better one, but the newer rendition of the chorus does pop just slightly louder and may just edge out the original.
- Oh man, Justin Timberlake, read the room. The wealthy are not exactly being welcomed with open arms in today’s world. So to have a rich guy sing-bragging about having enough “Supplies” to get through the looming dystopian breakdown of America is not a good look. The new song’s lyrics are clunky even without the contradictory message, and the U2-esque bridge is kind of misplaced– but even with those obvious flaws this song is pretty great. Timberlake is without a doubt a singular songwriter, the kind of unique voice that gives pop music a good name.
- At first blush Marshmello seems like a blatant Deadmau5 clone, right down to the stage costume. Thinking back upon that Canadian EDM star’s career though- did he ever really have a hit? It seems like the hype was entirely that he wore the mask through his performances. Marshmello already has a leg up on the mou5e with Top 40 hit “Silence”, where he teams up with fellow rising star Khalid on a sombre EDM jam the latter is becoming known for.
- Not too much is known about Paddy Hanna yet, but he evokes the lighthearted style of Adam Ant or Dexy’s Midnight Runners with his orchestral indie, especially on “Toulouse the Kisser”.
- Carly Rae Jepsen‘s excellent 2015 album E-MO-TION was full of big hooks and big jams, but it did struggle with the more downcast moments. One notably bad entry on the record was her collaboration with the hugely overrated Blood Orange. “All That”. New band Now, Now have written an ersatz replacement for that tune with the song “Yours”, which sounds almost identical to Jepsen both vocally and stylistically.
- Sufjan Steven‘s up for an Oscar, but that’s not the song that should be getting the attention. That honour belongs to “City of Roses” off his latest B-sides compilation. The slight, delicate track sounds almost like Stevens wrote and recorded it on the spot- not entirely impossible considering other tracks on the album are literally subtitle with “iPhone demo”.
The OK Stuff
- What is the indie community’s obsessions with Porches? The guy makes tolerable songs, but they’re steeped in overdone 80s nostalgia that unfortunately looks like it’s going to continue dominating pop music into 2018.
- The Decemberists are back and they’ve succumbed to the zeitgeist. Gone are the accordions and harmonicas, replaced with an arpeggiated keyboard hook that turns them into something more palatable for H&M dressing rooms. New single “Severed” is definitely a grower, but it also lacks the bite it thinks it has.
- Editors’ Tom Smith is another guy who went from Ian Curtis soundalike to full-fledged belter, and now won’t stop oversinging every single syllable. This has resulted in two completely disposable albums and by the sound of generic first single “Magazine”, a third boring (but very well sung) entry is on the way.
- Who knows what the future had in store for Lil Peep, who was found dead late last year. He could have very well followed in the footsteps of Twenty One Pilots with his emo-rap-pop-everything hybrid sound, which sounded basically like MySpace: The Genre. Check the song “Awful Things”, which is basically the year 2008 rolled up into one track. It echoes bands like Hollywood Undead and 30H!3, who must be absolutely furious that they were just a little too early to cash in on the modern genre mash-up.
- The long-delayed M A N I A from one-time emo stars Fall Out Boy and it looks like it’s not gonna result in any hits for the group, unless of course they repackage a deluxe version of it with some totally exclusive bonus tracks. It’s sleek and pristine, but also hopelessly bland. Songs “Champion” and “The Last of the Real Ones” revolve around – literally – the exact same melodic hook. It’s not even an original one either, derived from some watered down interpretation of Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla”.
The Not-So-Good Stuff
- What a disappointment the new Franz Ferdinand album is shaping up to be. Three promo singles in and not one even skirts with quality. “Always Ascending” was a meandering mess, “Lazy Boy” is rote and bland, and “Feel the Love Go” seems almost intent to throw in as many awkward chord progressions as it can, derailing what could have been a passable tune.
- OK, I am officially giving up on Tune-Yards. Merrill Garbus has a distinctive voice and a really eclectic pallet of influences but seems utterly uninterested in writing a crossover hit. There’s not one moment on the new album that signals an entry onto the charts- despite that both it and its 2014 predecessor both made it clear that they wanted to be pop records. Garbus lost the cool looping experimentation of her early work but didn’t bother replacing it with anything memorable.
- 2016’s WayHome Music Festival featured BORNS on a fairly large stage, which seemed kind of unearned considering he had one hit and played two to three covers during his set (including, strangely, Arcade Fire‘s “Wake Up”- something the crowd had heard the night before from…Arcade Fire themselves). The guy must have some connections, because other than 2015’s “Electric Love” and maybe a handful of other songs he is sorely lacking in substance. He’s sort of like a male Lana Del Rey on a much much smaller scale. Coincidentally, she features on new song “Blue Madonna”, which sounds like if M83 played in a major key and got a little too “precious” for their own good.
- What is wrong with The Neighbourhood? They’re some sort of weird Foster the People tribute act now, mirroring not just that band’s artistic decisions but their career trajectory as well. They are also some of the worst lyricists in the alternative/indie sphere. Remember the legendarily terrible “Afraid”? It featured what might be the most cringeworthy pre-chorus known to humanity:
You’re too mean, I don’t like you, f*** you anyway
You make me wanna scream at the top of my lungs
It hurts but I won’t fight you
You suck anyway
You make me wanna die, right when I…
They’ve followed that up with “Scary Love”, which contains the line….”your love is scaring me.”
- Strand of Oaks is some DIY solo bedroom project that all the hipster blogs are loving, but these songs are very boring. “Rain Won’t Come” sounds like Counting Crows or some lite-rock tripe like that.
- While we’re talking about lite-rock tripe, let’s mention the new 30 Seconds to Mars song “Dangerous Night”, which unseats “City of Angels” as the most vacuous song ever written. It is the emptiest cliche one could imagine, seemingly engineered to intentionally hold not one shred of substance. I think at this point Jared Leto might just be an algorithm generating motivational sayings over generic music tracks.