I typically save my insights for the music industry and music consumption for a section after my countdown. This observation, however, is more personal than anything and will be brought up during the countdown, so I’m going to lead with it:
A large amount of my favourite songs this year were discovered by complete accident.
I didn’t hear them on the radio, I didn’t hear them on iTunes, I didn’t hear them on Spotify, and I didn’t hear them at a concert.
I heard one over the PA in a department store. I heard one playing in someone’s car. I found one through a retweet. I heard in in a YouTube ad before a video.
There’s one that I wasn’t even intended to hear, and I’m technically “not permitted” to have it on my countdown because it was “not available in my area”- but I found a link to it on Reddit.
In fact, my very favourite song of the year I heard while tapping through Instagram Stories.
The common thread? These were all flukes. I was in the right place at the right time. Or the wrong place at the right time. I could have just as easily not been exposed to any of these songs.
That’s the nature of the industry now. You won’t find good quality music through traditional venues. You’ll find it everywhere else. In making music so accessible, the world has also made it that much harder to sift through the filler and find what’s relevant. What’s interesting. What’s good.
So here are the diamonds I’ve dug up from the dirt. The best songs of 2018.
Congratulations! If you’re reading this, you’re alive. Unless you are accessing this page from heaven which I hear has great wifi.
Speaking of being alive, the music industry isn’t. It’s a massive trainwreck. But let’s save the really fun stuff for later and get right down to what you’re here for: this list.
The Top 25 Songs of 2016
25.Somebody Else– The 1975— The 1975 are weird. Just very weird. They’re an unexplainable anomaly in any music climate, but especially this one. They’re simultaneously an overnight success with millions of fans and yet…still kind of nobodies. They don’t have any breakthrough hits, and you’d be hard pressed to find a casual radio listener who knows of their existence. But when they come to town they play arenas, not clubs. And then they play a mix of jangly funk pop and…ambient instrumental interludes??? Shoegaze jams??? It’s actually kind of comforting to see a band that is unabashedly reaching for the limelight and yet refuses to ditch the more ethereal parts of their catalogue. Like this weepy 5 minute electro ballad that (audible gasp!) acknowledges that sadness and jealousy still happen in relationships in 2016. And that takes guts.
24.LMHY– Plaitum— Imagine if Marilyn Manson and Lana Del Rey had stayed together and had a child, and then that child quickly grew up so she was a young adult in 2016. In this bizarre scenario, that child’s music would sound like Plaitum. A neon-lit, sometimes garish take on Del Rey’s soul-noir, it also resembles what Sleigh Bells might sound like in 2016 if they’d stayed relevant.
23.Red Earth & Pouring Rain– Bear’s Den— You’ve gotta be careful when approaching bands with animals in their name, but especially bears. Because a lot of the time you get bands like Bear Hands or Bear Mountain. Both of whom take the most overused, gaudy parts of the 80s to fashion their sound. Bear’s Den on the other hand, take the best parts. New wave’s sweeping melodrama, the heavy reverb, the sunset-drenched guitars- that’s what you’ll find in the title track of their latest album.
22.The Hermit– T.O.L.D— A cursory listen to this band gives one the impression it’s yet another zeitgeist-grabbing pastiche of soul, pop and dance. But then, nestled deep in the album there’s this black-as-night anthem about some sort of nightmarish river. It’s entirely unexpected and kind of terrifying, drawing on both the power of a massive gospel choir and subtle accoutrements like conga drum flourishes. It’s bleak and harrowing and totally deserving of the unsettling album art.
21.He The Colossus– Wild Beasts— Imagine an R-rated take on Muse‘s hit “Madness” and you’ve got an idea of what this song is like. The lyrics and message are a little muddled, being cloaked in layers of irony and subversive intent; in the end you really don’t know what the actual point the band is trying to get across is. If you can get past that though, you get a swaggering monster of a song with one of the best outros in recent years.
20.715 – CR??KS– Bon Iver— Oh man, the lyrics guys, the lyrics. There are so few people nowadays who write with the same eloquence as Justin Vernon, and it’s an absolute treat to hear the man play around with folk poetry and A-Team references. It’s like Imogen Heap‘s “Hide and Seek” for a new generation.
19.New Atmosphere– NZCA Lines— Chillwave is back! Except probably not. But it’s so good to hear that familiar rhythm and tempo, and it’s still baffling as to why the genre’s prominence was so short lived. It’s the quintessential sound of summer all wrapped up into one hazy, Balearic package.
18.Save Your Breath– Finger Eleven— If you’d told me in high school that Finger Eleven would be on my year-end BEST OF list, I’d be like “Yeah man of course they are! They ROCK! Nu-metal forever!!” If you’d told me the same thing anytime after 2010, I’d scoff and dismiss you as some sort of philistine. It’s come to the point where bands that were once the most likely to show up on these countdowns are now the least likely bands to show up, unless it’s on the “regrettable music” list. But I’ve gotta give credit where it’s due- Finger Eleven have written a great song. It’s miles away from their 2010 AOR stinker of an album, a throwback to the aggro-riffs that made them huge. And the band smartly realizes that the haunting pre-chorus is the best part of this song, blowing it up for a suitably huge conclusion.
17.Conrad– SOHN— If crossover breakthroughs were still a thing that happened in the music world, it would be SOHN‘s turn. But they’re not, so we’re just gonna have to be satisfied with this song for what it is: a big, hook-based electro-stomp anthem that recalls the best of Peter Gabriel‘s work in the 80’s.
16.Hard– So Below— It’s almost as if fellow New Zealander Madeline North got tired of waiting for a new Lorde album and said “hey, I’m gonna make my own music, and it’s gonna be even better!” A dark, skittering take on goth pop, the song goes big in all the right ways and sets the stage for a (hopefully) massive debut album in 2017.
15.The Winds of Change– St.Lucia— A song that goes above 120 BPM! In 2016? Yes we have a uptempo jam here, and it’s another new wave revival that mines all the right influences to create a sound that’s simultaneously an ode to 80s production and unmistakably modern.
14.We Stay Together– Kaiser Chiefs— It’s crazy to think that this band’s heyday was over a decade ago now, and the garage/mod scene they sprung out of is long gone. Fortunately they’ve been quietly amassing quite the catalogue in the ten years since, and although they haven’t been in the spotlight they’ve still managed to write consistently solid records. This time around they completely ditched their old sound, but traded it for a massive set of hooks in every part of the song. The intro, the verses, the pre-chorus, the chorus, the bridge- they’re all loaded with so many earworms it’s almost too much of a good thing.
13.Drunk– Viola Beach— How do you respectfully write about an up-and-coming band with a strong debut album…who all tragically died in a car accident before this album was even released? It’s a sad situation, and it’s not hard to imagine them making it big alongside Catfish & The Bottlemen or Two Door Cinema Club based on this solid, prickly, four-to-the-floor jam. It’s a major loss for the UK guitar revivalist scene.
12.Do it, Try it– M83— The new record from Gonzalez and co. was a complicated affair. It was bizarre, and sometimes aggressively uncool. But at the same time it had a lot of strong, strong moments, including this lead single. For all the talk about the band’s changing direction, this is still undeniably an M83 song. It’s steeped in pitch-shifted vocals, popping funk bass, and ragtime piano, but at it’s core is still very much a banger in the vein of “Midnight City”. It’s like that song thrown into a room of silly string, play-doh, and lasers.
11.Lost on You– LP— If Gwen Stefani turned folk troubadour, or if Elle King actually wrote a good song, it might sound like this big city take on a decidedly rural genre. Laura Pergolizzi takes the feel of her hometown New York and perfectly distills it in this sweeping, orchestral ballad.
Lissie‘s been kicking around for a while, and it’s surprising (and strangely comforting) that she didn’t make the jump to electro pop alongside everyone else. That’s not a slight against that genre, but the fact that she stuck to her country-pop roots while her peers all jumped on the more popular bandwagon shows strong resolve. It paid off, as this song really only works as a wistful country pop track. Equal parts Shania Twain and Neko Case, Lissie splits the difference between the two singers’ style and combines the former’s pep with the latter’s plaintive mood. It’s tonally dissonant, but results in a classic pop hit that begs for more recognition.
It seems like every three years Ra Ra Riot become exponentially better songwriters. This time around the New Yorkers grab a rickety drum track and adorn it with the sort of soaring chorus alternative radio hasn’t heard in years. It’s the very definition of an indie gem, a brazenly big tune that demands to be on top 10 lists. Well, here you go, Ra Ra Riot. In 2019 I expect to see you chart even higher.
Anthony Gonzalez relays lead vocal duties to guitarist Jordan Lawlor on this sneakily powerful track that turns 80s lite-rock into a force to be reckoned with. What initially sounds like a cross between ELO and George Michael gradually transforms into a darker, more confident tune, and culminates in a theatrical, world-shaking guitar solo that plays the song out.
Thrice’s career trajectory is a strange one. They started off big in the emo/screamo scene of the early 2000s. Released an absolutely amazing album in 2005. Released an ill-advised QUADRUPLE album in 2008. Followed it up with a series of increasingly poor releases. Broke up. Got back together. Released a really, really good comeback album out of nowhere, with this devastatingly crushing beast of a hard rock tune as a highlight. Singer Dustin Kensrue‘s voice has become tough and grizzled, and when he launches into a vicious chorus the new tone accentuates the anger behind the song. Who’d have thought that environmental issues would be the catalyst for reinvigorating an old hardcore act?
6. Bring me the Head– Operators—
Dan Boeckner is a busy man. He’s got like…a lot of bands, and they’re all good. He doesn’t treat any of them like side projects, and you can always count on him to bring his A-game to the table. Not only did he reform Wolf Parade this year, but he went into full frontman mode with Operators and neither project suffered from the split attention. In fact, Operators’ debut record Blue Wave was kind of really great. This track is a particular standout, with its queasy synth line slowly morphing into a full-fledged hook over the course of the song. The motorik beat changes too, hitting full stride during the chorus and along with the keyboards and Boeckner’s singular voice turning into a dark, confident strut by the time the final refrain rolls around.
You’d think Electric Guest were aiming for some sort of stardom with this song, right? This is one of the most well-written melodies in recent memory, and the song has all the ingredients of an instant classic. And then you’ve got the talented and buzzworthy Haim sisters on the hook. And this is just the promo single! So hey, music industry, maybe you should kind of pay attention to what’s going on right here. If 2017 doesn’t see this band turning into a household name, music industry, we’ll know you’re really actively trying to destroy yourselves.
4. Lost Youth / Lost You– How to Dress Well—
There’s a heartbreaking plainspoken nature to this song, and whether frontman Tom Krell intended it that way or not, it entirely makes the track. From the deceptively simple but intensely specific lyrics to the almost sardonic attitude Krell has towards his experiences, the song manages to stay heartfelt but realistic. It’s melodramatic yes, but it doesn’t lose itself in starry platitudes. It’s actually three words at the very end that sum up his juxtaposition of blind optimism and grounded realism. After singing “I guess there’s no peace / ’til I’m in my grave”, Krell follows it up with a spoken, sarcastic “well that’s great!”. An audible shrug as he realizes that after all the big cinematic moments, life goes on.
Last year Grimes surprised everyone when the album version of “Realiti” ended up taking everything good about the critically acclaimed demo and improving on it in every way, resulting in a sigh of relief from her fans.
It’s sort of the reverse situation here, but one that also has a great result. The album version of “Factory Flaws” was decent, but it sounded weak and underfed. It didn’t have any sort of drive, and for something on an official album was woefully underproduced. The single version of it though- now here’s a song.
From the first five seconds of the song you can tell it’s been fully realized. It pops in all the right moments, it’s clean, it’s concise. It sounds like an indie interpolation of Carly Rae Jepsen‘s “Call Me Maybe”. And it makes you wonder why the band didn’t put this version on their album. Regardless, the fact that it even exists is a boon, and we’re all the better for it.
If you’re gonna be a corporately produced and owned multi-million dollar popstar, you ought to have some pretty great content to back it up. It hasn’t seemed like that lately (more on that later), with very few singers-including Grande– delivering any sort of memorable product. On this track, however, the Grande and co. pull it off. The hooks are platinum plated, the production immaculate. The aesthetic is fairly unique too; a dark pop song with no atonal dance bass, and an actual melody (!) in 2016 is a rare thing. I’ll forgive them for blatantly cribbing Kate Boy‘s style, but only because they put it to good use. It begs the question though- if this kind of straight up old school type of pop song can still be written….why aren’t there more of them???
The iTunes “review” section above every album is very seldom a useful tool. In 90% of cases it’s just bland PR, empty bits of positive fluff with no real value that are most likely written by Apple‘s interns. However there was a line in the write-up for Ivory that compared Colours to “Drake meets Deftones“, and it’s a description so apt that I feel compelled to mention it. This song is essentially if Drake had real actual woes and joined an electronic Deftones cover band.
Pairing ethereal, moody verses with thunderous wall-of-sound choruses with a strictly electronic palette, it’s a fresh new breed of EDM-rock that earns the top spot not for being the most melodic or most well-written song but because it’s so sonically different from everything else out there. If there’s any justice in the world, this sound will spawn imitators and we’ll finally get some sort of new dark electronic genre to shake up a scene that desperately needs shaking.
The 5 Best Albums of 2016 –
Here are the most well-rounded efforts taken into consideration as a whole piece of work:
(Choice Cuts: “Bring Me the Head”, “Space Needle”, “True”)
3. [Integrity Blues]- Jimmy Eat World
(Choice Cuts: “Get Right”, “You With Me”, “It Matters”)
2. [Boy King]- Wild Beasts
(Choice Cuts: “He the Colossus, “Dreamliner”, “Ponytail”)
1. [These Systems are Failing]- Moby & the Void Pacific Choir
(Choice Cuts: “A Simple Love”, “Are You Lost in the World Like Me?”, “Erupt and Matter”)
It’s strange that in a musical climate where anything goes and nearly everyone is taking a polyglot approach to their craft that there’s any sound that would remain unused or rare. But the truth is you don’t hear too many industrial techno acts around, in any capacity. So that’s why hearing former new age/dance dabbler/Bourne franchise mainstay Moby going super hard is kind of funny, very WTF, and pretty awesome. It’s not the most fully realized of concepts, but it’s a creative risk that pays off simple just because Moby goes all in.
THE WORST OF 2016
My favorite part!
I feel like I’ve said this same statement for the past five years, but here it is again: how can I criticize what’s not there? It feels like now that the music industry is effectively dead, pop acts have nearly stopped trying altogether. Bands can get massive cult followings (see: The 1975, Five Seconds of Summer) without any hits. The biggest names in music are rappers who have made their careers on association alone, with radio success not even factoring in to their aspirations. It’s about branding now more than ever, and legacy artists are the only valuable commodity in the broader world. But how do you make legacy artists for future generations when nobody’s developing a legacy?? Who’s gonna headline Coachella 2026?
Let’s drive this thing home. Every year there’s about 5-10 massive pop hits that grab everyone by the ears. Here are last year’s:
Uptown Funk– Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars
What Do You Mean?– Justin Bieber
Can’t Feel My Face– The Weeknd
Hotline Bling– Drake
I was surprised last year that there were only five– imagine my shock when this year we had ONE!!!!!
ONE big hit.
Nothing else from any corner came close to the ubiquity of that song…except for a few novelty viral hits about Pandas and Pineapple Pens (??).
But okay, let’s delve a little deeper and look at some charting songs that weren’t necessarily huge definitive hits but still made some sort of impact. Usually we get about 20-30 of these a year. This year we had:
This Is What You Came For- Calvin Harris feat. Rihanna
Let Me Love You- DJ Snake feat. Justin Bieber
Closer- Chainsmokers feat. Halsey
Treat You Better- Shawn Mendes
Into You- Ariana Grande
One Dance- Drake feat. Rihanna
Starboy- The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk
Work From Home- Fifth Harmony feat. Ty Dolla $ign (note- lol ripoff of Rihanna)
And there you go! In total about ten second-tier songs (not even monster hit singles), and I’m being extra generous. The average person is not going to be able to tell you who Fifth Harmony or DJ Snake are. And every other pop song from this year, regardless of quality, was disposable filler that’s already forgotten. Did you know that oneRepublic released an album this year???
But hey, let’s SAY I’m some sort of out of touch buffoon that doesn’t know what’s actually hip and trending (note: I’m not). Isn’t it pop music’s ONE JOB to make sure that us plebs know the big names?! They are paid billions to shove them and their songs in my ears so that, even if I absolutely loathe them, I still get that they’re a big deal.
Yet, after 4 years I still have no idea wtf Rita Ora is, what she does, what she sings, or what she looks like?
It’s almost as if we’re supposed to take the pundits’ word that these artists are huge just because they say they are huge so they must be huge. It’s the logical extension of the piggyback method used to launch Nicki Minaj and Charlie Puth (and unsuccessfully launch massive failure Skylar Grey).
We’re being forced to like songs by proxy. They’re just there, might as well take them at face value and accept them as hits because there’s nothing else. It’s the same attitude hipsters employ when they say this year was great for music just because a bunch of legacy artists all released albums. Never mind that all those albums were utter trash, but the fact that all these long-awaited “gems” finally dropped means they were good by default!
So, was there anything at all that music in 2016 can be remembered for? Other than werk werk werk werk werk?
Well, the sound-du-jour seemed to be dancehall; everyone wanted in on the Caribbean vibe this year. In second place there was a mix of old school soul, indie-R&B, and low-key electronics, although that sound is already a few years in the making. Analog and back-to-basics recording annoyingly loomed over a lot of releases- hey guys it’s 2016, use good equipment.
Oh, what’s that? You’re going to do the opposite? You’re going to make your instruments sound really bad??
Yeah, that was a trend. The overblown, almost unlistenable- and shockingly intentional- method of recording instruments really hot and dry. See the drums in this Temper Trap song. Or the acoustic guitar lead in Local Natives‘ “Masters”. It literally hurts to listen to in headphones. It’s the residual effect of Kanye West‘s excessively raw Yeezus, and it’s self-sabotage that ruins some otherwise decent songs.
The anti-chorus, my least favorite thing ever, was less prevalent but still around. “This is What You Came For” uses the technique, building up the song only to reward the listener with a wimpy “BUT SHE’S LOOKING AT……….you ouuu ouuu ouuu ouuu ouu”.
But really the worst thing was just the lack of things. Lazy lazy artists. Let’s call them out. Tool. Taylor Swift. Lorde. Brand New. Neverending White Lights. HAIM. If you guys don’t all have albums out by next year, you’re banned from being listened to forever. okay. the end.
if you have a different opinion please feel free to fight me. okay. the end.
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 Vallejo– Desaparecidos— Bright Eyes may be gone, but Conor Oberst continues to write and deliver masterful lyrics with his long dormant punk band.
24.Bad Ideas– Saintseneca— 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.
23.All of This and Nothing– Dave 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.
22.Uptown Funk– Mark 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.
21.Connection– Silversun 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
11. I Can Change– Brandon Flowers– Flowers’ first use of a sample works out incredibly well, with a surging, straightforward piece of electro-pop.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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:
9. [How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful]- Florence + The Machine
(Choice Cuts: “Pure Feeling”, “Hiding”, “Queen of Peace”)
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”)
6. [Savage Hills Ballroom]- Youth Lagoon
(Choice Cuts: “Rotten Human”, “Highway Patrol Stun Gun”, “No One Can Tell”)
5. [As If]- !!!
(Choice Cuts: “ooo”, “Lucy Mongoosey”, “Every Little Bit Counts”)
4. [Another Eternity]- Purity Ring
(Choice Cuts: “Begin Again”, “Flood on the Floor”, “Heartsigh”)
3. [E-MO-TION]- Carly Rae Jepsen
(Choice Cuts: “I Really Like You”, “Run Away With Me”, “Your Type”)
2. [Better Nature]- Silversun Pickups
(Choice Cuts: “Connection”, “Tapedeck”, “Pins and Needles”)
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
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.]
THE WORST OF 2015
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
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”). ]
We’re all adults here, right? If you aren’t, what are you doing on my blog, you weird baby? Get out of here! Go back to weirdbabycentral dot com.
For the adults, I’m gonna be straight with you: it’s getting harder and harder to find good music. Aside from the reliable January, May, and September release windows, quality tunes are few and far between. 2013 was particularly dire, and 2014 took some intense scouring to find audio gold.
Basically what I’m saying is, you better appreciate this cuz it took some crazy prospecting to unearth all these.
The Top 25 Songs of 2014
25.A Beginner’s Guide to Destroying the Moon– Foster the People — Their sophomore record was a challenging listen, but ultimately satisfying. The easy, occasionally lazy hooks of Torches are nowhere to be found on Supermodel, but swirling psychedelia and a definite vision are.
24.Action Cat– Gerard Way — Most solo projects nowadays, particularly those of commercially successful rockers, tend to go in two directions: folk-pop and electro. So it was a nice surprise to find that My Chemical Romance’s former frontman went down neither of those avenues and instead went full 90’s with his first solo record. A little shoegaze can be heard in this first single as well.
23.You Got Caught– Kevin Drew — Broken Social Scene frontman’s understated new record is free from that band’s shambolic, raucous clutter, with more heartfelt lyrics to boot.
22.Bells of Paonia– The Fresh & Onlys — A verdant, sprawling track with almost no rhythm section, this song coasts along on a wash of massive, melancholic guitars that buoy the downcast lyrics.
21.Fractals– Keep Shelly in Athens — The Greek duo’s melodic approach to synth-pop has yielded nothing but sterling singles up to now, with this fourth offering featuring an extended shimmering keyboard outro.
20.First– Cold War Kids — A combination of Band of Horses’ cyclical guitar hooks and Imagine Dragons’ stomp-pop, Cold War Kids follow a great 2013 record with another surprise crowd pleaser.
19.Every Other Freckle– alt-J — The fantastically weird UK band tightened their focus on their sophomore release, reining in their every-instrument-ever approach for a more accessible record that at once sounds diverse and cohesive.
18.Got To My Head– WATERS — There’s a rare immediacy to this song, heard particularly as singer Van Pierszalowski launches into a loud yelp by the third line. It’s almost as if he can’t wait to get to the huge finale of the song where all the hooks converge in a giant high-five party.
17.Archie, Marry Me– Alvvays — Toronto’s biggest buzz band of 2014 deserve all the accolades they get, with their power pop style uncompromising in its authenticity.
16.Talk is Cheap– Chet Faker — Australian loopsmith Nick Murphy’s chilled out jams carve their own niche in the indie R&B scene and this one is a great representative of his sultry style.
15.Seasons (Waiting on You)– Future Islands — It was a pretty good year for Sam T. Herring and crew, becoming a meme on Letterman and scoring the #1 spot on Pitchfork’s Top 100 Tracks of the Year with this song. It seems people have finally caught onto the band’s strong songwriting and Herring’s unique voice, which has only gotten more visceral as the years have gone by.
14.Gimme Something Good– Ryan Adams — America’s most underrated singer-songwriter unsurprisingly releases another great record, with a first single that sounds like a classic rock radio staple.
13.Veto– SOHN — Unjustly shunned by the hipster elite, Vienna-based SOHN is another solid competitor in the indie R&B scene. Smoother than Active Child but not as decadent as the Weeknd, he specializes in cold, sterile atmospheres that evoke strong emotions while remaining sonically chilly.
12.Brill Bruisers– The New Pornographers — Completely unshackled by modern trends, “Brill Bruisers” is a song that could have existed at any time in the past two decades and sounded fresh. It lives up to its name, a muscular alt-rock jam in a climate where most acts don’t dare crank their guitars past 5.
11.I’m Aquarius– Metronomy — A sinister, brooding take on doo-wop, “I’m Aquarius” is a strangely hypnotic throwback that burrows itself into your brain with its two hooks and leaves you wanting to repeat it in order to find more dark secrets in its lyrics and analog hiss.
It’s a criminal offense that in 2014 the most popular “folk” acts are wimps who gently strum their ukeleles and banjos and sing aural pablum about Michelle Pfeiffer. Saintseneca are folk with guts. They’re bombastic and a little off-centre, like a scuzzier version of The Decemberists. “Visions” is pounding folk-punk, and in a just world would be the topmost representative of the genre on mainstream channels.
Most popular EDM songs nowadays get at least one thing wrong; most choruses are boring, or repetitive, or anti-climactic. Sometimes there isn’t even a chorus! This song is the rare exception that gets absolutely everything right. Starting off by taking an already endlessly melodic song, Zedd slaps a full-throttle beat and an even catchier synth hook on the chorus. He then does something rare and doesn’t kill the chorus momentum with stop-start backing synths. He then does something even rarer and puts lyrics over the second part of the chorus! It’s fan service of the best kind, resulting in a song that is a genuine candy-coated rush of adrenaline.
You’d be forgiven for thinking Leisure Cruise are from Australia or New Zealand. The prickly guitars, sprightly vocals, and sun-splashed melody sound like they’ve arrived straight from the Gold Coast. They’re actually from New York, and the band was inspired to form by a HURRICANE. It’s a wonderful ironic contrast to the boundless joy the song exalts.
Critics lambasted Coldplay for “selling out” with this song, produced by Avicii, but the truth is that it’s still essentially a Coldplay song. Tweak it slightly and it would fit on any of their other records; an acoustic version wouldn’t sound out of place on their debut Parachutes. They’ve always had a fascination with the celestial, most evident on 2005’s X & Y, all they’ve done here is dressed up their wide-eyed, widescreen yearning in a hip modern outfit. It happens to fit them very well.
When was the last time you heard a genuine guitar solo in a pop hit? Chances are it was probably Jack Antonoff’s other band, fun. He’s got one in here too and, for lack of a better phrase, it totally rules. Antonoff is the kind of guy who gets both rock and pop conventions and although he leans heavily towards the latter he incorporates as many Springsteen-isms (along with a vaguely Talking Heads-ish chorus) as he can into his craft. It’s an 80’s melody in a decidedly non-80’s song, an unabashed celebration of straightforward kitschy pop with rock sprinkled in at just the right moments.
Leave it to Moroder to effortlessly channel his inimitable style into a low-key indie track and make it sound completely natural, as if this is how the song had always existed. The earth-shaking piano stabs and vocoder are Moroder trademarks but coexist with HAIM’s guitar chug without any problems. The new disco drum track and soaring keyboards filling in the empty space of the sparse original, and the arrangement ends up bringing the melody to the heights it deserved.
Usually when an artist records a song, that’s it. They’re done with it, and it’s up to others to give it a remix. So if the song is good up until a point and then screws up, we as listeners are forever stuck with a disappointed feeling of a wasted opportunity. Dillon Francis himself took control here, realizing that the original “Without You” was good but lacked drive, and recreated it to give us a song that delivers on all cylinders. It’s a full-fledged concise pop EDM banger, better than every other Top 40 dance hit out there. The hook alone puts Avicii’s entire last underwhelming record to shame, and hopefully gets Francis on songwriting and production duty in the upper echelons of the industry.
Toronto’s most popular bands all sound nearly exactly the same: like a jangly, whimsical, upbeat Target commercial. So it’s comforting to hear that there are a few artists in the Big Smoke that break from that tradition. RLMDL is a one-man project that doesn’t really sound like what anybody else is doing. “Wildest Dreams” is simultaneously glacial and balmy, with swaths of deep January synths meeting a voice pillowed in July reverb. It also carries the unmistakeable spirit of Toronto in its blue-hued keyboards and rattling hi-hats. Sure, it’s Toronto 1984 as opposed to Toronto 2014, but it’s hard not to imagine the project’s mastermind Jordan Allen being influenced by the city’s industrial waterfront and flashy entertainment district. Look out for this one, Canada.
The general consensus among the music journalism community: this is, hands down, the best rock song of the year. And that’s an important distinction to make in 2014 where everyone is trying everything and genre crossovers are ubiquitous. This is not a pop rock song, it is not indie rock, hard rock, folk rock, psychedelic rock, or wizard rock. This is unadulterated rock music that contains Adam Granduciel’s heart and soul; a tumbling, effusive celebration of life itself.
After having their 2010 self-titled album critically mangled and losing their bassist, Paul Banks and company took a bit of a breather and dropped out of the spotlight.
They came back this year with the best song they’ve ever written.
A dark, sleek post-punk anthem, it gallops along on an uncompromising rhythm section, powering relentlessly even through the bridge where most songs would reprise a drumless intro. The bass and drums are in lockstep with each other, a tense partnership that proves Paul Banks fills Carlos D’s shoes pretty well. It all culminates with the percussion suddenly getting louder, then ebbing away like the waves in the song’s video, pulling the song out to sea and fading to black. It’s a genial touch and proves that in the end, Interpol were the best band that came out of the early-00’s NY revival.
The 10 Best Albums of 2014 –
Here are the most well-rounded efforts taken into consideration as a whole piece of work:
10. [This Is All Yours]- alt-J (Choice Cuts: “Every Other Freckle”, “The Gospel of John Hurt”, “Left Hand Free”)
9. [They Want My Soul]- Spoon (Choice Cuts: “Outlier”, “New York Kiss”, “Let Me Be Mine”)
8. [Turn Blue]- The Black Keys (Choice Cuts: “Fever”, “In Time”, “Bullet in the Brain”)
[El Pintor]- Interpol (Choice Cuts: “All the Rage Back Home”, “My Desire”, “Everything is Wrong”)
THE WORST OF 2014
What do you criticize when there’s nothing to criticize? As I’ve made perfectly clear, popular music isn’t in the greatest shape. I guess the most annoying trend this year was that there was no trend. A few artists tried to copy Pharrell’s “Happy”, with its 60’s throwback sound (“All About That Bass”, “Shake it Off”, “Bang Bang”), but there was no unifying 2014 theme. There wasn’t even a song of the summer!
There were, however, a lot of blatant corporate attempts at “big events” this year:
– Iggy Azalea’s various squabbles and public image.
– The indie rock Frankenstein that is “Best Day of My Life” by American Authors, a sickening menage of every commercial twee cliche there is.
– Nicki Minaj’s controversial lyrics and videos.
– Ariana Grande’s entire career, but more specifically, the desperate grab at a gimmicky hit song that was “Problem”.
– The engineered “love-to-hate-it” faux-outrage about that “Selfie” song.
– Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift’s hollow re-inventions.
All of these embarrassingly obvious ploys were utterly bereft of any semblance of naturally occurring popularity. It’s a sad display of the industry fumbling to create buzz without anything buzzworthy. They’re shoving these various stories into our faces screaming:
“Whoa! Look how EDGY Taylor Swift is now!”
“Whoa! Nicki Minaj used NAZI imagery in her video!”
“Whoa! Don’t you just HATE that Selfie song!”
There are just no big names anymore. The only legitimate event album of the year was Taylor Swift’s 1989. As far as big songs go, the Grammy nominees for Record/Song of the Year are essentially……the only songs people will remember from 2014. A measly 5-6 tunes, only one of which (“All About That Bass”) reached collective consciousness. Sad.
A few miscellaneous grumpy notes:
– Our Lady Peace tried to channel Modest Mouse/Passion Pit about 10 years too late and made a song so completely out of touch that the drummer left the band. The song was so bad it barely received any airplay. It was a trainwreck!
– Indie powerhouse TuNe-YaRds (or however you stylize it) had a chance for a breakthrough album and……totally blew it. Obnoxious lead single “Water Fountain” instantly killed all hype around the record.
– Pharmakon made what is perhaps the best example of “2 kool 4 skool” noise that people associate with unlistenable hipster drivel with the song “Bestial Burden”. It’s Yoko Ono level bad.