Archive | December, 2017

The Top Five Songs of 2017: Nikhil’s List

31 Dec

It’s been a good year for music and culling contenders for this list needed a fair bit of soul-searching. There were both big name releases and stunning debuts that, while fantastic, just could not find a place on this list. It took some tricky filtering, but these are our top five songs of 2017.

5. Chanel

I’m truly grateful for this new phase in Frank Ocean’s career. First of all, getting singles from him so soon after he released a pair of albums feels almost like excess after his long quiet period. Secondly, this more subdued sound works really well. He’s never been the most overstated of singers, but “Chanel” is stripped down like nothing before.

This focus pays off. It’s a very evocative song. It is both dense and wandering and so listening becomes an almost pointillist experience as you pick phrases and words from the stream. It is trademark Frank Ocean that it works so well. No one can make creating the future look as cool as he does.

4. Spice Girl

It wasn’t that long ago that you would need to go pretty far left-field to find someone like Aminé, and even further to find a song like “Spice Girl”. A love letter to the Spice Girls is just not what rappers were doing back then. Aminé actually not only got all five of the actual Spice Girls to sign off on this, but literally went to a Spice Girls show at age 5 and got a Sporty Spice Barbie right after.

The result of all of this dedication is an almost bubblegum pop-rap ode to his perfect girl. It’s just incredibly catchy. Interpolating the earworm of a hook from “Wannabe” to list out what he’s looking for is both clever and effective. Like its inspirations, this song is neither deep nor profound. It feels thrown together quickly, and justly so. However, it is also a lot of fun and something unique in a year which pushed all the boundaries of rap.

3. Mask Off

Rap has been the new rock for years, but this may have been the year where it begins to vie with pop for dominance. If so, “Mask Off” is one of the reasons for the shift. This is one of the defining sounds of 2017. Trap has come to stay.

That grimy, submerged beat is some of Metro Boomin’s best work. That flute lick is insistent and endlessly listenable. Future’s viscous flow is the star of the song though. That central boast of “Mask on / Fuck it mask off” could have very easily come off as empty, but Future keeps far too dark and heavy for that. This is the rare song that’s better without the Kendrick remix.

2. Rican Beach

Hurray For The Riff Raff’s album, The Navigator, is a lot of things at once. A folk-rock concept album is already out of place in 2017, but a Nuyorican one is unique anywhere. These layers and more come in to play in “Rican Beach”, which somehow keeps them all moving together at once. It benefits from a really strong folky spine and wraps it with idea after idea.

It’s a complex piece with huge swathes of fascinating sounds and human for all of that. It’s a singular achievement and a compelling statement. It’s quite easily one of the best songs of the year.

1. XO TOUR Llif3

I remember the first time that I heard this song. I was in a fairly crowded office and just trying to keep my head down and get some work done. I don’t think I actually did anything that day but listen to this song. I played it on repeat for the next couple of days. Just this song and nothing else. There was no question for me that this was going to be the song of the year.

This is the year of trap and that’s proved divisive. Mumble rap has been used as a pejorative more than a descriptor. In a way, this is understandable. Lyricism has long been a hallmark of rap and the seeming repudiation of that by some of the newer rappers was naturally going to meet a backlash. However, rap is more than lyricism and to judge a genre by a single lens can only ever be limiting. “XO TOUR Llif3” shows why.

Taking the hook of “Push me to the edge/All my friends are dead” and making an anthem of it just to slur it past comprehensibility is the cleverest thing that I have seen all year. The space this song has to be raw and emotional feels unprecedented in the genre and it fills it completely with Uzi’s story of his ex and substance abuse.

This is the song that I’m going to keep coming back to. There are a few songs that I return to over and over again, because while situations change, and while I change, these songs remain true. Coltrane, Kanye, Joy Division and now Uzi. These are the songs that make me.

@murthynikhil

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L.A. Witch – L.A. Witch

21 Dec

L.A. Witch

The entirety of L.A. Witch, the eponymous debut album from this Los Angeles all-women trio, sounds like it should soundtrack the impossibly steep cliffhanger of an addictive drama series. The fuzzed-out guitars clash alluringly against the reckless vocals: a carefully-pruned discord that hints at mysterious backstories and exciting future plots. (Excuse us as we write an email to Better Call Saul.)

According to L.A. Witch, the “witch” part of their moniker stems from their ability to conjure up the sounds and vibes of yesteryear Los Angeles – a promised land with impossibly good weather that attracted eager future residents from all over the country. And certainly, the weather plays an element in L.A. Witch’s sound. Sade Sanchez’s woozy drawl elicits the nearby desert – dusty and sultry – while her jangly guitar and Irita Pai’s surfer-rock bass paint the other side of the picture. The music sounds like Jefferson Airplane featuring a very drugged-out Jim Morrison, so L.A. Witch definitely deliver on their sound as well. (Perhaps the best showcase of their aesthetic is the music video for “Drive Your Car”, which features the three women driving vintage cars through the desert while dressed head-to-toe in black clothing.)

L.A. Witch exudes a dreamy yet chaotic vibe, like a bokeh photograph of a highway crash, and the lyrics paint half-pictures that intrigue more than explain. Album opener “Kill My Baby Tonight” is an atmospheric meditation to kill one’s lover if he’s late again. What’s the full story? Is he cheating on her? We never find out. “Baby in Blue Jeans”, a sultry dream of a love song, has a slow-burning intensity that suggests there’s more than meets eye to this relationship. On “You Love Nothing”, the reverb-heavy guitars and distant tambourine trick you into thinking it’s sunny times at the beach, but Sanchez dampens the mood by singing about doomed love (“You love nothing, you want nothing / Why do I want you? Why do I need you?”).

Earlier this year, the band played at Joshua Tree as part of the Desert Daze music festival. In our opinion, the festival should just ask the band to curate the entire event, because no other artist better exemplifies the term “desert daze” than these three women. L.A. Witch’s debut album is a moody, jealous album that enthralls with its half-completed stories and 60s psychedelia vibes.

Best songs: “Kill My Baby Tonight”, “Baby in Blue Jeans”, “Drive Your Car”

 

Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference

20 Dec

Harmony of Difference is that strangest of creatures, a jazz album of intermediate difficulty. As a genre, it tends to high difficulty naturally. There are also plenty of approachable works, from the more friendly Louis Armstrong stuff to even the smooth jazz of Kenny G. Finding an album in the middle is very unusual and this album is quite the valuable find if you’re looking for something of its nature.

The centerpiece of the album is actually the closing piece. At thirteen and a half minutes, “Truth” is close to half of the length of the album and is good enough to justify the length. It’s challenging and shifting and takes full advantage of the space that it’s given to explore. It is also surprisingly gentle. The vibraphone playing around a couple of minutes in is the aural equivalent of a warm bath. It is somewhat undercut by the honestly overwrought vocals though, but not enough to severely mar a great jazz piece.

The other half of the album is similarly variable, but mostly good. “Desire” starts things off in a gentle manner and sets the stage perfectly for the opening descent and fiery solos of “Humility”, and then both are mirrored by “Knowledge” and “Perspective”. These are all acceptable songs and they each have their moments, but they also lean a little too hard on sounds established both by the work of other people and by the songs themselves. While they are well done, they would have greatly benefited from a few more ideas each. Even “Integrity” suffers from the same flaw, despite the initial promise of a South American tinge.

This is not an album for raw beginners however. Some knowledge of jazz is requisite to experience Harmony of Difference. However, I can’t fully recommend it for the experienced listener either due to a very slight paucity of ideas. If you’re somewhere in the middle though, this is the perfect album for you, and even if you tend to either extreme, the sheer ability of the musicians may be enough to justify the listen anyway.

@murthynikhil

Royal Blood – How Did We Get So Dark?

15 Dec

Royal Blood

In 2014, Royal Blood was the subject of a massive amount of hype. On the back of a truly electric debut, the band rapidly built a fanbase comprising drunk teenagers, rockstars and living legends alike, and Royal Blood truly deserved all the hype. Their music is elemental testosterone with enough energy to consume stadiums, but it shocks the senses to realize that the sound comes from two people. Mike Kerr shreds a distorted bass to fill the dual role of a guitar and a bass, while being canny enough to sing great tunes as well. Ben Thatcher launches an array of weapons into your eardrums through, well, his drums. And that’s it. No other instruments, no other people.

Royal Blood sounded like the perfect mix of a grittier White Stripes, a leaner Queens of the Stone Age and a more masculine Franz Ferdinand. How Did We Get So Dark?, their sophomore album, doesn’t stray too far from the formula, but don’t get us wrong – that’s a good thing. While most bands tour to promote their new album, Royal Blood literally releases new music to get more people to come to their live shows. So yes, this album feels similar to the first, but that’s entirely by design. And given the fact that the moshpits have gotten bigger and crazier, we’d say Royal Blood is doing very well.

While the sound is similar, their talent has really progressed. The eponymous track starts off with the three Royal Blood tenets – sneering voice, magnetic riff, crazy drumming – but picks up texture through polished vocal layers. “She’s Creeping” slows down the pace, with Pixies-style languid vocals melting into an almost bluesy chorus. If you soften the bass, “Hole in Your Heart” almost becomes radio-friendly indie rock, a la Kaiser Chiefs or the Killers.

The lyrics have changed, too. Royal Blood seethed with the violence of an abusive relationship (“I’ve got a gun for my mouth and a bullet with your name on it,” went one memorable line), but they seemed to have moved on to a richer story. The title track paints a picture of a fitful relationship, and we learn on “Sleep” and “I Only Lie When I Love You” that both parties are cheating on one another. Kerr realizes that she’s not much beyond her looks (“Lights Out”) but he can’t just stay away (“Hook, Line & Sinker”).

Of course, being a Royal Blood album, the lyrics matter only to a certain extent. At the heart of it, the band makes absolutely kicker songs that can rev up large masses of humanity into a rock-induced frenzy. “Lights Out”, for lesser bands, would be a career-defining array of riffs and raw sex appeal; for Royal Blood, it’s just their first single. The opening riff on “Hook, Line & Sinker” might elicit a tear of pride from Ozzy’s eye. The galloping drums on “Where Are You Now?” give way to a riff so classic-rock that the Stones are probably head-banging to it somewhere. Need we go on?

On their sophomore album, Kerr and Thatcher espouse a very similar sound to their lean debut album, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Queens of the Stone Age continue to be a key touchpoint for Royal Blood’s sound, but there’s a happy evolution in the vocals, writing and arrangement to portend a thrilling future.

Best songs: “Lights Out”, “I Only Lie When I Love You”, “How Did We Get So Dark?”

Spoon – Hot Thoughts

12 Dec

Hot thoughts

No band embodies the idea of independent rock better than Spoon. Since 1996, the Austin band has churned out a great album every two to three years (see: Gimme Fiction, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga).

Every other band with similar discography and enduring success (U2, RHCP) inevitably seems to fall prey to arena rock and millions-strong fan followings. Not Spoon though. They don’t wear leather pants. They don’t talk about their fame in songs. They never moved en masse to LA or NYC; one of them still lives in Austin, where he’s been a key element of the city’s music scene for decades. After all these years, Spoon’s self-worth seems to stem not from the limelight, but from an innate source of cool. And that’s what makes them truly indie rock.

Lead man Britt Daniel doesn’t like the “indie rock” label, though, and it kind of makes sense. In in our present understanding of the term, indie rock often refers to great-sounding upstarts that shot to fame through a combination of luck, marketing and the Internet – but whether their fame endures beyond the debut is a different matter. Spoon grew up in a different world, painstakingly building their sound (and fan base) without sacrificing their passion.

Hot Thoughts, their ninth full-length album, is the latest fruit of this passion. It’s full of the typical Spoon sound – punchy drums, wailing guitars, feverish bass lines and Daniel’s megaphone-via-voicemail singing style – peppered with a certain Spoon-y quirkiness that makes it a unique new album in their discography.

It’s the quirky details that make the songs stick: the first listen may entertain, but the fourth will truly intoxicate. On “Do I Have to Talk You into It”, the swaggering drums over a nervy piano are enough to make a great song, but Daniel’s idiosyncratic renditions of the song title is what stays with you. He shimmies up and down the scale one time; shout-asks in another; fades into the overpowering drums in a third; a magnetic presence on a magnetic track.

One of the verses on “First Caress” talks about a girl who likes to tell Daniel that coconut milk and coconut water are the same thing; it’s such a weird detail, but you somehow end up replaying the song just to hear him say that line. “Pink Up” has a dreamy, atmospheric sound, full of light xylophone touches and folksy maracas, as Daniel exhorts the listener to live life in the moment by taking the train to Marrakesh.

Of course, Spoon isn’t all about the quirk – some of their songs are just pure rock classics. The eponymous song is a good old-fashioned paean to a girl who gives Daniel some sexy ideas, set over fretty licks and Jim Eno’s confident drums. The frenetic energy of the drums and bass on “Shotgun” could and probably will incite a riot at some point, which is fitting because it’s about getting into fisticuffs. “Can I Sit Next to You” thumps along to a funk guitar and dance beats, a strutting theme song to Daniel’s unabashed pick-up line (“Can I sit next to you? Can you sit next to me?”).

Hot Thoughts is a very enjoyable album through and through by the guys who basically invented the genre. You’d be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t give it a listen.

Best songs: “Do I Have to Talk You Into It”, “Can I Sit Next to You”, “Shotgun”

Moses Sumney – Aromanticism

10 Dec

Moses Sumney is a 27-year-old from Los Angeles, but he doesn’t belong at that intersection of space and time in so many ways. While his fellow millennials are eager to jump in – and out – of relationships at literally the touch of a button, Sumney is hesitant to move forward even with someone who loves him. He’s introspective, melancholic and shy to the point of physical discomfort – clashing garishly with the showy extraversion of LA. Sumney doesn’t fit in, and he can’t bring himself to be vulnerable enough to love someone, despite his human need for affection. And worst of all, he’s aware of all of this. The culmination of these themes is his debut full-length album, Aromanticism.

Although the premise may sound too depressing to warrant a listen, Aromanticism is actually a gorgeous and immensely repeatable album. Sumney has an ethereal voice that is amplified in beauty by a moody guitar and a masterful falsetto. His gossamer-silky vocals twist, snake and turn, in line with the churning thoughts in Sumney’s deeply introverted mind. He’s also a great writer; Aromanticism is full of evocative metaphors, references, and a penchant for the dramatic.

Take, for example, the first single “Plastic”. Within the first minute, Sumney’s voice effortlessly flutters across half a hundred notes as he sympathizes with a fellow lonely soul (“I know what it’s like to behold and not be held”) over a barebones guitar strum. He reveals his secret at the end of the sole verse (“My wings are made of plastic”), sung a dozen times but each so nuanced that the message sinks in twelve times deeper. Orchestral drama then segues his other big reveal: “My wings are made up, and so am I”. Sumney is a present-day Icarus, complete with plastic wings to replace the wax of yore. His fragile attempts to connect to another human often end with the melting of his metaphorical wings – and himself, too.

“Quarrel” takes place during one of these wing-melting moments. It’s an achingly beautiful song – a choir of layered voices (all Sumney) blend quite luxuriously with the harp. “He who asks for much has much to give / I don’t ask for much, just enough to live” goes the opening doublet – Sumney tries to keep a low profile in relationships, because he can’t be vulnerable enough to give someone else a lot of love. Unfortunately for him, his lover seems to have put his fragile soul at edge. “If I don’t have tools to fight, calling this a quarrel isn’t right,” he laments, before sinking into the almost-indignant chorus (“Don’t call it a lovers’ quarrel”).

Experiences like these have made Sumney sort of anti-love over the years. In his own words, Aromanticism is a rejection of “the idea that romance is normative and necessary”. But it’s clear that he does wonder about what it means for him, long-term, as a human being that cannot love. “Am I vital if my heart is idle?” he wonders on “Doomed”, so plaintively that it’s impossible to not share his fear.

However, as we’ve stated before, don’t be disheartened by his melancholy, because this man literally has the voice of an angel. His languishing wails on songs like “Lonely World” are almost enough to make one weep, and his falsetto alone has more range than most artists’ singing range. Aromanticism is a flawless debut by a deeply tortured genius.

* In case you were wondering about the album cover, it seems to be a reference to Plato’s Symposium, in which Aristophanes posits that humans were once four-legged, four-armed, and double-sexed, but Zeus cut them in half. Since then, humans have been trying to find their “other halves”, but Moses is pictured on the album cover as a human that’s missing his complementary half. More info here.

Best songs: “Quarrel”, “Plastic”

SiR – Her Too

8 Dec

170210-SiR-Her-Too-Art-800x600

R&B has been making quite the quiet comeback over the past few years. It’s not as flashy as the stuff that’s going on in the rap world, but it’s definitely there. This EP from SiR, the new TDE signee, is a brief burst of traditional R&B and a quite good one at that.

The standout here is the wonderful “Ooh Nah Nah”. Full of a soft heat and absurdly languorous, the song is just captivating. Additionally, Anderson.Paak shows up well in the opener “New LA” and is fun as always. I keep coming back to the closer “W$ Boi” though. It’s almost entirely the chorus, which is nothing more than a chant of the words “I’m a Westside Boi”, but imbued with serious energy.

At nothing more than 18 minutes, this EP is compact in all the best ways. SiR’s debut album has yet to drop, but he’s already clearly an artist to watch.

@murthynikhil

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