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The Top Five Albums of 2016

1 Jan

2016 has not been a kind year for musicians. We lost many greats this year, starting with David Bowie in January, to Prince in April, to the double-whammy of Leonard Cohen in November and George Michael on Christmas Day. However, a year that has seen the death of so many singer-songwriters has also been a year that has let loose some of the greatest solo music in recent years: a silver lining, if any. Without further ado, we present below our top five albums of the year.

5. Sept. 5th: dvsn

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dvsn have been shrouded in mystery from the start. When the band first signed on to Drake’s OVO Sound record label, it wasn’t even revealed who the singer was. Since then, they’ve lifted the shroud a little – the voice belongs to Daniel Daley and the beats and words belong to Nineteen85 (real name Anthony Paul Jefferies). The mysterious nature suits them, creating an allure that perfectly compliments their sparse, lusty R&B.

And lusty it is. Sept. 5th is essentially about doing the deed with your significant other. Popular music is rife with this topic, but dvsn takes a very respectful approach to the subject matter. “In + Out” (yep, it’s exactly about what you’re thinking it’s about) refers to the partner’s body in royal terms: thrones, highnesses and crowns. On “With Me”, Daley respectfully asks his partner to come over to quench his lust.And on the titular track, Daley knows he messed up and pleads to make it up through – yep, you guessed it – sex.

Beyond the tone of their lyrics, dvsn really excel at creating music that’s sparse and dense at the same time. On “Too Deep”, Nineteen85 layers subtle handclaps, funk sounds, downtempo beats and Daley’s lusty croon, with enough space to co-exist and build off of each other. “Hallucinations” also features just a handful of sounds, but there’s also immense gravity in the negative space – in what isn’t said or heard. It’s almost like dvsn have taken a leaf out of the xx’s book.

Sept. 5th is a highly enjoyable R&B album from a mysterious and highly talented duo. We’re definitely looking forward to hearing more from them.

Best tracks: “With Me”, “Too Deep”

4. Blonde: Frank Ocean

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Frank Ocean’s efforts to release Blonde are nothing short of a drama. The story begins in 2009, when the soft-natured, velvet-voiced Ocean – then inexplicably part of the violent rap crew Odd Future – signed with Def Jam Records. In 2011, Ocean released his critically-acclaimed mix-tape, Nostalgia, Ultra. Although its follow-up album Channel Orange was well-received, it was not comparable to the quality and cult following of Nostalgia.

Ocean seemed to have lost his mojo for a couple of years after Channel Orange, although rumors of a follow-up have been surfacing since 2014. Finally, on August 18th and 19th of this year, Ocean streamed a visual album called Endless, effectively completing his recording contract with Def Jam. The very next day – August 20th, 2016 – free of a record label’s controlling hand, he released his real offering: Blonde.

“Smoking good, rolling solo / Solo, solo” incites Ocean on “Solo”, yet another example of the endless battle between creative artists and corporate labels. The freedom suits him, though.

Blonde on the whole is more mellow and meditative than his previous two offerings. Moreover, although Channel Orange and Nostalgia had gospel tinges, Blonde is drenched in them. Nowhere is it more apparent than on “White Ferrari”, a dreamy R&B classic with psychedelic nods to the Beatles. The serenity of the white car offers a nice contrast to the orange Lamb on his mixtape, providing a clue into the singer’s growth since those days. “Sweet 16, how was I supposed to know anything?” he incites, perhaps speaking of the fame that was to follow Nostalgia.

On Blonde, Ocean uses minimalist, introspective music to frame his chocolate-smooth voice and troubled thoughts. Great for rainy, moody evenings.

Best tracks: “Nikes”, “White Ferrari”, “Close to You”

3. “Awaken, My Love!”: Childish Gambino

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Donald Glover challenges the very idea of a triple-threat, a term usually reserved for singer-dancer-actors like Justin Timberlake and Jennifer Lopez. Glover, however, spreads his creative talents far further. He got his first break as a writer for Tina Fey on the legendary “30 Rock”. After whittling his comedic talents behind the scenes, Glover moved to the other side as Troy on the equally-legendary show “Community”. As if that weren’t enough, Glover released a critically-acclaimed album, Camp, in 2011. Whatever the Donald does, he does it to perfection (well, this Donald at least).

It seemed for a while that Glover would continue in a mildly-hipster route in music, as he did with writing and television. After Camp (and in between his myriad other creative commitments), Glover released Because the Internet, a Grammy-nominated ode to the World Wide Web – fitting of the world that Troy and his friends resides in. And thus it comes as a true surprise that “Awaken, My Love!” is, at its core, a thoroughly accessible album.

The creative impetus behind the album seems to be the recent birth of Glover’s first child, with a woman that the world knows next to nothing about. The baby seems to have mellowed out Glover, replacing the smug references with feelings and emotions. The deliberate and intense “Me and Your Mama” is a weed-infused love song for his baby mama, sung with the same passion that created his baby boy (“Girl you really got a hold on me / so this isn’t just puppy love”). At the same time, he seems to understand that his days with the baby mama are limited. On “Baby Boy”, Glover speaks alternately to his baby and to his baby mama.  (“I’ve never lied about us / we were never supposed to be together”), but expresses permanent, unconditional love for his child.

Apart from songs written for his baby, the other key notable theme on this album is Glover’s formidable tribute to old-school funk. On album stand-out “Redbone”, plucked staccato notes support Glover’s surprisingly adept falsetto. His lyrics, too, are top-notch. Redbone is slang for someone with mixed African, Creole and Native American ancestry, characterized by the reddish undertones in their skin. Glover calls his redbone woman a “peanut butter chocolate cake with Kool-Aid”: metaphorical, funnily accessible and sweet at the same time. “Boogieman” is a perfectly-named double-entendre: a musical homage to the Boogie but a lyrical homage to the Bogeyman.

Overall, “Awaken, My Love!” is a great new direction for Donald Glover the Musician. Glover’s other personas are doing incredibly well – he’s slated to star in a new Star Wars movie and play a part in the new Spiderman movie – so let’s hope he can still spend some time on his music. Because we love what we’re hearing.

Best tracks: “Redbone”, “Me and Your Mama”

2. Lemonade: Beyoncé

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of years, you’ve heard of the elevator incident. In May 2014 at the Met Ball, Beyonce’s sister Solange physically assaulted Jay-Z with almost inexplicable rage. Few things seemed to explain the intensity of her rage, but the most plausible explanation was that Jay had cheated on her sister.

Beyonce and Jay-Z largely kept mum about the elevator incident. All seemed well in the household of the second-most powerful black couple on the planet (at least by omission). On April 23, 2016 – days shy of the two-year anniversary of the elevator incident – Beyonce broke her silence with a record heard around the world. Lemonade was born.

Accompanied by an HBO film of the same name, the visual album is an exploration of Beyonce and Jay-Z’s extremely high-profile and lucrative relationship. It’s unclear whether the album is a state-of-the-nation report or an “inspired-by-real-life” relationship drama. Whichever it is, Lemonade has got us hooked from start to finish.

The album starts off with a two-level prayer: Beyonce prays she can peep into Jay’s cheating world, and also prays that Jay understands that she knows he’s cheating. The first half of the album fleshes out these ideas. On “Hold Up”, she warns Jay that she’s the best he’s going to get – braggodocio and a plea at the same time. On “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “Sorry”, the braggodocio takes over. In the former song (which features Jack White), Beyonce sneers at Jay as a weak man who had to cheat and in the latter, she goes full Queen Bey (“Middle fingers up, put them hands high / Wave it in his face, tell him, boy, bye”).

After the rage and fury of finding out about a cheating husband, Beyonce comes back to her family-centered values on the second half of Lemonade. On “Sandcastles”, she is willing to break her promise to leave him. “All Night” is a cease-fire: Beyonce has come to terms with Jay-Z and is willing to take him back, because she knows their love is deeper than that.

Lemonade is an exceptionally well-produced concept album that articulates complex feelings like few pop albums have. Its hooks are irresistible, and its lyrics are well-crafted. Clearly, Lemonade is what Beyonce made after life gave her lemons.

Best tracks: “Hold Up”, “Sorry”, “Formation”

1. The Life of Pablo: Kanye West

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In popular culture today, Kanye West is many things. First, he is a famed rapper, producing beats and albums that are way ahead of the rap game at the time. Second, he is the husband of the woman who is by far the most famous in the entire glittering category of women who are famous for being famous. Third, he is a budding designer, whose shoes and clothes capture the fine line between madness and genius: a line that is basically his home address.

In short, Kanye West is famous. Really famous.

Where does all that fame land him?

It lands him in bed (literally) with a host of other really famous people: Kim Kardashian, Taylor Swift, and Donald Trump to name a few. These are the world’s foremost leaders at running the hype and fame game. (See: 2016 presidential elections.)

It gives him a fascination with several incarnations of Paul. Pablo Escobar, famed druglord with an alter-ego as a Robin Hood for Colombia’s poor. Paul the Apostle, carrying forth Jesus’ words and, in essence, his fame.

It provides him a deep, undying love for the thing that matters most: family. Even if that family includes a woman whose claim to fame is a sex tape with another black man. Kanye loves Kim and Nori and baby Saint very, very much – no matter what the naysayers may say.

It also shows him the underbelly of fame: cousins stealing laptops as ransom, acquaintances fronting as friends, friends fronting as real friends.

Life of Pablo is about all of these things. It is a greatly stripped-down album compared to the flamboyance of his previous albums. Much like Childish Gambino, Yeezy has been changed by the birth of his children. But in essence, Life of Pablo is a highly accurate painting of Kanye West as he is right now. It’s a masterpiece, as always.

Best tracks: “Famous”, “Real Friends”, “No More Parties in LA”

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The Top Five Albums of 2015: Nikhil’s List

1 Jan

2015 has been a good year. A lot of very good music has made it on to this list and lot more didn’t make it. One particular album killed everything else, as was expected, but we’ve had a lot of pleasant surprises as well. For instance:

5. Carrie and Lowell

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Given that this album is named after Sufjan Stevens’ mother and stepfather, it is no surprise that it is a deeply personal record. However, it handles its confessions with a deftness and tenderness that most could not manage. It frames its tales of depression, self-abuse, dissatisfaction and, for a brief moment in “Should Have Known Better”, happiness in gossamer threads of music to give the album a gentle, exploratory feel. This album slips ever so softly through the skin and straight to the heart. Carrie & Lowell distills a personal loss and acceptance and makes it a part of you.

4. Surf

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Hip-hop can actually be this fun. Chance the Rapper is nothing short of jubilant throughout. Chanting “I Don’t Wanna Be Cool” is freeing in the way that Kanye’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” is, but so much bouncier. The jazz solos are not the most engrossing and the album lacks a little punch, but all is forgiven when things are this upbeat. Surf puts a smile on your face and keeps it there as long as the album is playing.

3. No Cities To Love

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No Cities To Love is rock and roll. Anthemic, full of fight and always ready to go, this is music that burns away the mediocrity you didn’t realize you were tolerating. Primal but intelligent, raw but proficient, No Cities To Love is punk rock at its best.

2. The Epic

Kamasi Mike

This is 2015, we should not get a new Coltrane-era jazz album. That we did and that it is this good is unreal. At three hours, the album justifies the name handily. It draws from all across the jazz spectrum, picking up pieces of Miles, the fusion of Weather Report and even touches of Latin Jazz and gives each pieces its due before melding the whole into something entirely its own. This would be nothing without the passion and virtuosity of the band. Not a note falls out of place or lacks in energy. There have been enough jazz greats to make the term “classic” a high bar, but for an album of this caliber, nothing else will suffice.

1. To Pimp A Butterfly

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It took me something like a week when To Pimp A Butterfly came out to actually figure out if I liked it or not. As it turns out, I really did. good kid, m.A.A.d city was much more straightforward, you can see the brilliance in it immediately. To Pimp A Butterfly has singles, “King Kunta” will make you move, with or without your consent, and both “i” and “The Blacker The Berry” are the work of a craftsman at his peak, but “For Free” is almost spoken word poetry. I’ll accept that from Gil-Scott Heron, but it mystified me from Kendrick Lamar. Similarly, the funkiness of the album came out of nowhere and the lyrical content has no precedent.

Listening to it now, it’s hard to believe that there was ever a moment where I didn’t like it. It’s a struggle now to find what I once found questionable. The album justfits together so well. Ideas, both musical and lyrical, are layered deeply into this album and yet it flows seamlessly between them. The album manages to encompass contradictions like the self-castigating ‘u’ and the upbeat ‘i’ without blinking an eye. Similarly, the album holds the full musical spread of the near-funk of “Hood Politics” to the hip-hop clinic of “King Kunta”. At this point, there really is nothing that Kendrick Lamar cannot do.

I thought three years ago that good kid, m.A.A.d city was Kendrick at the top of the game and I thought the same when he dropped “Control”. I’m not going to make that claim after To Pimp A Butterfly, it’s clear that Kendrick is going to take us further still and I can’t wait to see where he goes. This is the greatest rapper of his generation and he has just gotten started.

@murthynikhil

The Top Five Albums of 2015: Neeharika’s List

31 Dec

2015 has been a great year for music, particularly for solo artists. Adele released 25, a follow-up album to her groundbreaking age-denoted 19 and 21 that immediately rose to the top of charts and minds. Attention-grabbing British superstars aside, the underground scene saw the meteoric rise of gender-fluid pop stars, solo ventures of established bands, and a general proliferation of great individual-driven acts. So without further ado, here are the Top Five albums that caught our attention this year.

  1. Multi-Love, Unknown Mortal Orchestra

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The Auckland-Portland collective, driven by singer-songwriter Ruben Nielson, has been a critic favorite since the release of their self-titled debut album in 2011. In early 2015, the band released Multi-Love, an album that defies the psychedelia genre by incorporating minimalist versions of vintage pop elements. For example, the eponymous track is a shimmery mix of Lonerism-era Tame Impala and your favorite Scandinavian pop from the 80s. On “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”, a slinky horns section segues into a syncopated interpretation of a disco-heyday track.

In fact, both tracks highlight the stylistic theme that pervades the entire album: the fact that Nielson has a damned good ear for understanding how to turn a musical trope inside out. Take “The World is Crowded”: it’s counter-intuitive that the song could be that sonically pleasing when it has so much potential to be sped-up and jazzed-up into, say, a Maroon 5 hit. But Nielson makes it work, and with great confidence. The same with “Puzzles”: there’s enough snaking bass on there to pique Josh Homme’s interest, but Nielson tames the beast with his chosen pace.

Overall, Multi-Love starts off as a fresh take on psych-pop and ends as a stand-alone great album. Guaranteed to stay with you a few years.

Best track: “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”

  1. Art Angels, Grimes

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Grimes shot to the top of the charts in 2011 with her absurd, literate brand of synth pop. The music video of her viral hit, “Genesis”, was inspired by a Judgment Day painting drawn by a 15th-century Dutch religious painter, and she considers Hustler Magazine CFO’s daughter Brooke Candy as her personal muse. Her idiosyncrasies may paint her as purely an art-pop phenomena, but with Art Angels, Grimes successfully crosses over into pop that can be enjoyed by all, no matter personal dispositions towards abstract art.

What surprised us on first listen is the fact that almost every track on the album could be a bonafide pop hit, if only exaggerated with a few mainstream flourishes. However, Grimes’ eccentric touches – whether it’s the vocal trills on “Flesh without Blood” or the K-pop-inspired AutoTune on “Kill V. Maim” – elevate the album much beyond its mainstream confines.

Art Angels really rises above the bar set by Visions because of the sheer number of new landscapes that Grimes has explored. “Venus Fly”, featuring the inimitable Janelle Monae, has a bomb-ass beat that could be the soundtrack to an advert by an impossibly-cool fast-fashion brand. If “California” came on the radio, you would be sure that it was a remixed version of a Taylor Swift-outtake from her country-darling days. Essentially, Grimes has managed to surprise us by being, well, normal.

Art Angels sees Grimes evolve from a wildfire underground act to a unique pop star that is okay with taking a wider audience into her fold. And that’s definitely a good thing.

Best track: “Venus Fly”

  1. Ratchet, Shamir

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Shamir and his home-town, Las Vegas, have one key aspect in common: they defy normality. Vegas is the world’s playground, a campy, adult-sized amusement park with rides that revolve around desperation and addiction. On Ratchet, Shamir defies age, gender, orientation and our expectations by creating ten tracks that succinctly sum up his generation.

“Vegas”, the album opener, is an ode to this very connection. With an androgynous voice as fluid as his gender, Shamir gives us an insider’s view into life in Sin City (“You can come to the city of sin and get away without bail/But if you’re living in the city oh you already in hell”) over a sparse beat that bubbles and pops. Vegas is the spiritual backbone of many of his sparkly dancefloor tracks, as well. For example, “Hot Mess”, with surreal Hot Chip-esque beats slathered against an acid house bass, hides anguish behind hypnotic Technicolor, much like Las Vegas does.

Shamir also stands out as the best representation of his post-millennial generation, a group that has never known life without the endless possibilities facilitated by the Internet. On “Make a Scene”, a dizzying ode to poor teenage decisions, Shamir exhorts you to kiss strangers in lust-fuelled nights while simultaneously thumbing his nose at superficial Tinder culture. He expands on this theme on “On the Regular” – “Don’t try me, I’m not a free sample”, he chides, atop a dazzling mash-up of boasts reminiscent of Le1f and Azalea Banks. It’s only fitting that the song has been used for Android Wear commercials!

With Ratchet, Shamir has proven that he has a future as bright as his hometown’s glittering Strip. Expect more from this guy, for sure.

Best track: “On the Regular”

  1. In Colour, Jamie xx

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Jamie xx, one-half of Britain’s foremost minimalist act the xx, is a master of repition. He knows how to balance a layer, carefully and precisely, until the track becomes a chaotic, living beast – like a Jenga tower in reverse.

While the xx is mainly known for breathy vocals over sparse beats, In Colours shows off the range of Jamie xx’s textural arsenal. Jungle beats form the perfect, if unlikely, minimalist element on “Gosh”, which reels you in with chant-like thumps that belie a melody forming right in front of your ears. On “SeeSaw”, a trip-hop pulse creates the perfect anti-thesis to xx bandmate Romy Croft’s signature dreampop vocals. “Obvs” is a four-minute electronic paean to the steelpan; it’s even more magical than it sounds.

The album-standout “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” just serves to prove Jamie’s hypnotic dexterity. Although the song features Young Thug spitting lyrics that would make Lil Wayne blush, and wonky dancehall beats from Popcaan, the genius lies in Jamie’s skill in synthesizing these elements into a summer-time radio hit.

On In Colour, Jamie xx displays layering wizardry that hasn’t been seen since this side of Merriweather Post Pavilion. A musical roller coaster, if there ever was one.

Best track: “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”

  1. Currents, Tame Impala

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If you’ve been reading our articles for a while, you know that we’re great fans of Tame Impala. The Perth pysch phenomenon’s Lonerism earned numerous mentions on our articles throughout 2012 and eventually topped our year-end list. It’s déjà vu, then: Currents is, in our honest opinion, the best album of the year.

Over the three years since Lonerism, Kevin Parker – the one-man army behind Tame Impala – has grown considerably. His words have sharpened, his beats are more full-bodied and his anguish is far more complex. While previous records allowed us not-so-fleeting glimpses into his brooding mania, Currents shows him alternatively trying to let go more and hold on tighter – a fascinating combination that leaves you hooked from start to end.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the haunting album-opener “Let It Happen”. Parker speaks of a voice telling him to let his paranoia go, but undercuts his would-be catharsis with gloom that chills you to your bones: “If my takeoff fails, make up some other story/And if I never come back, tell my mother I’m sorry.” It’s a train-wreck, slowed down to a speed that underscores the stark beauty in destruction.

He shows progress, though. On “Cause I’m A Man”, he accepts his faults as the man in the relationship, slicing away at self-hate by handing over the reins to his woman (“You see, I have a conscience and it’s never fooled/ But it’s prone to be overruled”). “Eventually” sparkles with liberation, after a break-up that would have left erstwhile-Parker in a death spiral (“But I know that I’ll be happier/And I know you will too”). It’s an interesting turn of events.

Currents lies at the exact sweet spot of lyrical genius and musical innovation, alongside its two predecessors. It’s also perfectly-named: Kevin Parker is changing as a person, and his music circles him like an eddy in a flowing stream. Aptly, Currents will change your life – if you just let it happen.

Best track: “Let It Happen”

A Wednesday’s Mix – Five Records to Get You To The End of the Week

11 Mar

It’s the middle of the week! Top Five Records is here to break up the monotony of your depressing existence with 5 (sort-of) new songs that will hopefully tide you over until the weekend!

 

Fuck Art, Let’s Dance! – “Atlas”

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 Fuck Art, Let’s Dance! bring more to the table than just a colourful name and a call-back to Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “Atlas,” FALD!’s title track from their debut album (released in mid-2014), is a gorgeous testament to the art of understatement. The Hamburg-based quartet eschew their moniker’s call-to-arms (or legs, at least) and instead have created a song that mixes Nico Cham’s half-swallowed voice with simple drum-loops, clean guitar lines and some heavenly synth sounds that urge you to sit down and quietly contemplate your life. The song’s music video takes the urge further with its sparse visuals of chinese martial artists and dragons; all the action and movement somehow leaves you standing still.

 

 

Shubh Saran – “Mission Man”

Shubh Saran

India’s jazz scene is arguably one of the most malnourished of all the already-starved non-Bollywood music scenes, despite the existence of the Mahindra Blues Festival and sporadic city-based attempts to create a culture for it. This may explain guitarist Shubh Saran’s decision to seek greener pastures at Berklee College of Music. His debut EP, however, is an emphatic underlining of why this was the right call. A Room With a View is a beautifully crafted work of smooth jazz and neo-soul, with just enough world-music to not be obnoxious. Mission Man stands out as a killer track that makes amazing use of a saxophone, creating a jazzy hook that’s coupled with just enough piano and bass to fill out and accentuate the song. Admittedly not without a few rough edges and odd phrasings, Mission Man (and indeed the entire EP) is a great way to shut critics up who lament the modern jazz scene.

 

Young Wonder – “Intergalactic”

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Ireland’s musical gifts to the world just don’t seem to stop coming. Young Wonder are an electronic pop due from Cork whose new single is vibrant, haunting, and all other good things associated with the word “sparkling.” “intergalactic” dreamily begins its space-bound journey right from the first screeching synth sound, guided shortly thereafter by Rachel Koeman’s reverb-laden vocals that are dripping with whatever the ethereal version of honey is. Just shy of 4 minutes long, Intergalactic makes full use of both Rachel and Ian Ring’s considerable talents before allowing you to float gently back to the round, hungry for more.

 

Pond – “Man it Feels Like Space Again”

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What is the city of Perth smoking? It’s hard to imagine, but Western Australia’s capital is home to some of the most talented psychedelic bands in the world right now. Pond have not quite managed to break into the cultural parlance beyond the island nation to the extent that their contemporaries Tame Impala have, but they’ve arguably pushed the psychedelic envelope a good deal further with their single “Man It Feels Like Space Again.” It’s 8 minutes of sheer, unadulterated bizarreness; a cacophony of discordant, disjointed instruments and effects and voices that fall just short of being grating and instead end up in a surreal, blissful territory that is its own. It’s so good it’s good. The only thing more perfectly twisted is the music video: it would be unfair to describe the outlandish, almost unsettling faux-kid’s show as Kafkaesque or Dadaist because that would just be lazy writing unworthy of the lysergide-infused spectacle.

 

The Bots – “All I Really Want”

There must be an inverse relation between band-size and overdrive, because two-piece LA outfit The Bots have some of the fuzziest, grittiest, energy-driven tracks this side of the White Stripes. It’s unfair (though quite common) to make such a comparison, though; where Meg and Jack White often seemed held back, caged, brothers Mikaiah and Anaiah Lei are unfettered and free to unleash their zeal. Their first single “All I Really Want” blazes by in two-and-a-half minutes and demands another listen, if only to keep those energy levels up. A jacked-up bass-line kicks in only to quickly segue into fuzzy guitars and Mikaiah’s deliberately-bored voice. What follows are crests and troughs of shout-singing followed by periods of short refractory, that are over all-too-quickly. The song is arguably anthemic for the milennial generation not just because of its lyrics (“Make a cup of tea/sit down and stare at the screen until I see something that relates to me/but it’s all so boring”) but with the music video: A Mac scrolling through a click-bait-titled Buzzfeed article. Literally the only time that image has made me happy.

 

 

And that’s our list! Love it? Hate it? Swept up by some third emotion we’ve failed to grasp? Leave comments below! 

 

 

The Top Five Albums of 2014

1 Jan

It’s that time of the year again. As 2014 winds to a close, we take a look back at some of the music that awed and enthralled us throughout the year. The year was filled with remarkable debut albums by musicians that came into the world as fully-formed artists – here, we must remark that four of our top five albums are debut albums. So, without further ado, here’s our Top Five Albums of 2014.

5. LP1 by FKA twigs

FKA Twigs - LP1

As we’ve previously said, LP1 is a complex, intelligent and greatly satisfying record. At 26 years of age, FKA twigs has created a mirrorfor the lust, love and fractures in the relationships of her generation.

Refreshingly, FKA twigs does not tell us about soppy, overly-poetic relationships, as described by many an indie band, or about hollow, unrealistic hook-ups, as described by most EDM artists. Instead, she describes genuine stories that strike far closer to home. On the hauntingly sparse “Hours”, she’s in awe of her new man: “I could kiss you for hours/And not miss a thing”. On “Lights On”, she hints at setting aside her vulnerability to let her lover see her uglier shades (“When I trust you, we can do it with the lights on”). And on album-highlight “Two Weeks”, she seethes with lust over a lost lover(“I know it hurts/You know I’d put you first/I can fuck you better than her”), helplessly displaying the self-degrading vulnerability that she cautiously revealed to him earlier.

LP1 is an emotive essay on the most intense moments of an exceptionally passionate relationship. It manages to rework the most common themes in pop and R&B – passion, heartbreak, blinding love – into truly original, soulful music.

Best track: “Two Weeks”

4. Sunbathing Animals by Parquet Courts

Parquet Courts - Sunbathing Animals

Earlier this year, we praised Brooklyn-based Parquet Courts’ album Sunbathing Animals, complete with a laudatory comparison to the Strokes’ Is This It?.

Parquet Courts’ forte is their ability to transcribe the intensity of a live show straight into your headphones. On “Black and White”, lead singer Andrew Savage articulates the very intensity of their music (“Nothing makes my heart so wild as being in possession of a potent night/Racing down the stairs in a nude descension shedding and discarding my hide”) with a gunfire-like flow worthy of his surname. Quieter moments, too, are transliterated as fluidly: the laid-back “Dear Ramona” and “Into the Garden” act as much-needed breathers between frenetic pieces like the eponymous “Ducking and Dodging”.

Overall, Parquet Courts strike us as a promising band with a few things to iron out, foremost of which is Andrew Savage’s penchant to sing-shout furious, unintelligible lyrics (see: “Sunbathing Animals”). On the whole, we are certainly looking forward to more from this young, talented band!

Best track: “Black and White”

3. Jungle by Jungle

Jungle - Jungle

The opening riff of “Busy Earnin’”, the third track from Jungle’s eponymous album, elicits an image of an American cop show from the 1970s, perhaps set in Brooklyn or Queens, maybe starring an African-American actor as one of the cops. In reality, Jungle couldn’t be farther from the truth. Originally started by two childhood friends from London, the band has now become a soul-infused collective of seven musicians that strives for something rare in this time and age: honesty.

Founding members Tom McFarland and Josh Lloyd-Watson have stated that Jungle is “a collective and collective energy”, a tribute to the collaborative, borderless nature of music. It’s entirely fitting that their music videos usually feature dancing, exuberant people of all ages and races, perfectly exemplifying the essence of their music. From start to finish, Jungle is a seamless album of great integrity and true earnestness.

Take “Julia”, an ode to falling heads-over-heels with the eponymous woman (“Julia I don’t know a thing about you/Soon enough you’ll be all I ever need”). The lyrics are not complex, and the theme of falling in love at first sight is not uncommon. Yet, somehow, Jungle’s sincerity shines through ‘70s-influenced syncopated beats. Jungle is all about this kind of beauty, enshrouded in simplicity and plainness.

Much like 2013’s matchless Random Access Memories, Jungle is the must-listen album of 2014: it fills the listener with awe and joy of music’s great, unifying power.

Best track: “Busy Earnin’”

2. No Mythologies to Follow by MØ

MO - No Mythologies to Follow

At Top Five Records, we’re huge MØ fans. Her early single, “Pilgrim”, featured on a must-listen list way back in October 2012, and her full-length debut album topped our mid-year round up of 2014 albums. Almost a year after we first heard it, Karen Marie Ørsted’s debut album continues to enthrall us with her particular brand of Danish-English hypnotic pop.

Using sparse background beats and layered vocals, MØ uses the album to showcase her soaring, impressive voice in a stunningly aesthetic manner. On “Dust is Gone”, she sings about heartbreak with tear-jerking melancholia. On “Maiden”, she croons with about unveiling her vulnerability, utilizing the outstanding fluidity in her voice to create the effect of a naïve young girl. On our old favorite “Pilgrim”, mesmerizing handclaps and a lean brass section give MØ all the space she needs to fill the song with her soulful voice.

MØ is a true artist: she’s not afraid of singing stripped-bare, acoustic versions of her songs on an equestrian field, nor does she seem to be concerned with her appearance as a selling point for her musical talents. If No Mythologies to Follow is what she could show us in just her debut, we are extremely eager to hear more from her.

Best track: “Fire Rides”

1. Royal Blood by Royal Blood

Royal Blood - Royal Blood

Here’s an experiment to try at home. Play Royal Blood’s “Little Monster” to someone who has not heard the band previously. The song opens with a ridiculously hard-hitting riff that jolts the listener directly into a moshpit-like craze. Wailing guitars fight for space with intimidating drums, and the bassline purrs and growls like a caged beast. Ask your listener who the artist is: many would hazard a guess at a White Stripes B-side or a Muse take-out, and some would perhaps guess at a heady Queens of the Stone Age track. Now, watch the amazement dawn on your friend’s face when you explain that the arena-sized sound on “Little Monster” is, in fact, created by two people – on their debut album, no less.

Such is the immense power of Royal Blood, who have rightly been hailed as the Arctic Monkeys’ successor in the arena of massively popular British rock bands. Consisting of childhood friends Ben Thatcher and Mike Kerr, the band has been known to wreak destructive chaos in British clubs, moving fans into almost a drugged frenzy.

“Little Monster” is not an exception on Royal Blood, which clocks in at just over half an hour. Every song on the album is a seething, lean monster of hard rock riffs and Mike Kerr’s Reznor-esque, angsty voice. Arrogance is distilled into song on album opener “Out of the Black”, featuring lyrics that hint at a manipulative, abusive relationship (“So don’t breathe when I talk/’Cause you haven’t been spoken to/I got a gun for a mouth and a bullet with your name on it”). That a song of this intensity can have such darkly poetic lyrics is just another intriguing, intoxicating element of Royal Blood’s vortex.

It’s impossible to just stop at “Little Monster” and “Out of the Black”. The sixteen-note opening riff on “Come On Over” coils and uncoils with a reckless abandon that matches the song’s lyrics (“Let’s run away, get out of here/ I got no money and I don’t care”). “Figure It Out” is a sick ode from one partner of a love-hate relationship to the other; Kerr’s vocals drip with derision and self-disgust until he breaks into a toxic-sludge riff that will send chills through your spine.

Clearly, we could go on. Here’s the bottom line: listen to Royal Blood. We guarantee that it will be, without question, the best 32 minutes and 38 seconds of your day.

Best track: “Little Monster”

Five Reasons to Watch Goldspot’s Desk Gig at 5PM Today

23 Apr

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UPDATE: After a massive 3 and a half hours of playing and talking about his life, his work, and a hundred other things, Siddhartha Khosla’s gig is over. But thanks to the magic of Internet, you can still watch the concert online at the link provided below!

Whenever someone questions how I’m able to fall in love with and obsess about something as abstract as music, I toss them a Goldspot song; it tends to shut them up quite quickly.

Goldspot has remained a critical darling since their public introduction by New York’s DJ Nic Hardcourt in 2005; since then, their music has featured in countess “Top Ten” lists. Siddhartha Khosla and his constantly-changing line-up of musicians have done everything from touring India and the US to singing at the White House Diwali celebrations to crooning to a flock of geese, and won countless hearts at their live shows on both sides of the Atlantic.

Siddhartha Khosla’s ability to mine his past to use as an influence for his current music endeavours makes his music incredibly relevant and accessible to a wide audience. His lyrics speak of the positives and the negatives of his life, and translate them in a way that makes them relatable to his listeners. It’s the sort of work that reminds you why music is considered art.

It’s been 2 years since Goldspot last came to India, and though it may be a while yet before they’re back in corporeal form, Siddhartha is bringing us the next best thing:

At approximately 5 PM Indian time (GMT + 5:30) today (23rd April, 2014) Siddhartha will be playing a live gig from his desk, to be broadcast live thanks to Pepsi MTV Indies. Siddhartha’s charisma and talent makes for a compelling argument as to why you should tune in, but in case you need reminding, we’ve provided 5 more songs to showcase why you need to watch this gig:

If The Hudson Overflows

“What’s the use in worrying about the ways in which the world might come to an end? When all along, there’s been a book on the side of the bed that you’ve never read instead?”

“If The Hudson Overflows” was featured on Season 8 of CBS’ How I Met Your Mother in what I would argue is the single best musical moment on the show (rivaled possibly only by Season 5’s “Rewind,” again by Goldspot).

The song has a simple, clear message: Don’t worry and don’t wait. The way this message is presented, however, is anything but that.

Over the course of four minutes, Siddhartha Khosla’s time-displaced, reassuring voice sends us on a beautiful journey to bring us face to face with our own mortality; upon doing so, however, he calmly reassures us that everything’s going to be okay, and for these four minutes it’s almost believable.

Backed by a barely-noticeable repetitive harmonium, softly picked guitars and a constantly present booming percussive drum that hides within itself, “If The Hudson Overflows” is perfect for those late night moments of panic about where life is heading.

“If the Hudson Overflows” was also downloadable as a single on iTunes with all proceeds going to help in the post-Hurricane Sandy reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts, because Goldspot is just that wonderfully nice a band.

2. The Border Line

It’s hard to pick which aspect of “The Border Line” is more appealing: the song itself, or the accompanying video. “The Border Line,” another song off Aerogramme, follows the theme of most of the other songs in the album in talking about the dichotomy of being born in one place and raised in another, and the mix-and-match of cultures that this results in. Siddhartha Khosla’s sense of being split down the middle comes through strongly in the song:

“Atoms escape in the middle of the night when my heart and head collide.”

All of this is done against a jangly, foot-stomping, hand-clapping rhythm and melody that takes the best of modern indie sensibilities and steeps it in ‘60s pop from both the East and West, making a musical tea that leaves you warm and glowing hours after the last foot-stomps fade away. The Border Line works brilliantly as a song, but works even better when heard while watching the gorgeous, gorgeous video by long-time collaborator Nick Collett. The video features a montage of clips of people from all over the world engaged in that common unifying factor: dance. Nick Collett’s video brings people together across time and distance with a sincerity and earnestness that no Coca Cola advertisement could. Also watch out for the interspersed shots of Khosla jamming while channeling his finest ‘60s Rajesh Khanna!

3. Foundations

 

 “I hear there’s a wind that takes these plans and runs, but don’t worry; don’t worry, we’ll make new ones.”

Goldspot is often compared to the Beatles for their musical sensibilities and their ability to elevate what should be a straightforward pop song into something that is sublime and deep.

It’s not a talent that’s held by a lot of people, and it’s what makes listening to Siddhartha Khosla’s live sets so enriching: his ability to strip down, layer, mix, chop up and altogether rework the basic elements of his music in countless different ways and still present something fresh and attractive.

“Foundation,” which was written for the indie film Today’s Special, continues the jangle-pop mélange of styles and sounds that Goldspot espouses, only this time in the form of a love song. Siddhartha Khosla captures your heart with both his voice and his bouzouki, backed by a full and rich mix of rattling drums and guitars.

And continuing in his tradition of being an all-around stand-up guy watch this video of Siddhartha and his bouzouki singing for Aidan, a young boy with cancer:

 

4. Emily

 

Goldspot’s second album, And the Elephant is Dancing deals with some very complex and sometimes dark themes in the guise of sugar-coated indie pop, and “Emily” is a great example of this.

Lurking beneath the surface of the song, which features the same ever-present booming-drum backbone found in “If The Hudson Overflows” mixed with classic RD Burman string flourishes and a magically velvet keyboard, lies a story of profound loss. It’s impossible not to empathize with the protagonist’s attempts to reconnect with his lost love:

“See, I tried to kiss you through the pillow on my right; and oh, Emily, will you marry me again?”

 

5. Friday

“Friday” represents the perfect case for the argument that Goldspot is what the Beatles would sound like today. Despite being more than 8 years old now, “Friday” is as timeless and fresh as it was in 2005. It was played in heavy rotation both in India and in the US back then, and deserves to have the same attention now.

The song starts with swishy strings straight from ‘70s Bollywood that segues into a catchy rhythm guitar that is altogether transformed by Khosla’s voice. “Friday” is straightforward, but earnest; simple but sincere. It’s impossible not to like it, because it does absolutely everything right. The conviction and clarity with which Khosla implores “give me a sign” is unrivalled, and the Kishore Kumar strings that reappear during the breakdown and in the outro is goosebump-inducing, for all the right reasons.

“Friday” also comes in a Hindi acoustic version sung to a rapt audience of ducks and geese in Regents Park, because sometimes life really is just that awesome:

 

Take a break from exams. Skip a class. Sneak in a break from work (or better yet, call your boss over! They may give you a raise in the process).  Grab a friend, a lover, a loved one, a pet. Watch this gig! And maybe make some noise online to try and get Siddhartha and co. to come back to India soon!

 

Gig Link: http://www.youtube.com/PepsiMTVIndies

Unfortunately, it’s incredibly tough to find CD issues of Goldspot’s music in India, but their latest album Aerogramme is available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/in/album/aerogramme/id722046205

Five Fresh Songs for Your Feel-Good Sunday Morning Fix

13 Apr

We have already expressed our deep and undying love for Saturday mornings soundtracked to new music, so here’s a companion piece to that. This list is about those magical hours of optimism on a Sunday morning, right after a Saturday night party and right before the weekend rapidly fades away. And what better way to make the feeling last than with five fresh new songs? So, without further ado, here’s our suggestions for a soundtrack to your feel-good Sunday morning. And we promise it’ll only take 22 minutes and 6 seconds of your life to listen through it. Go on, then.

“Alley Cats” by Madboy/Mink

Madboy/Mink is a jazz-dance outfit from Bombay that has been blowing our minds since their debut EP All Ball dropped on SoundCloud last week. The group comprises the young and talented pair of Saba Azad (“Mink”) and Imaad Shah (“Madboy”). Azad has the perfect voice for electro funk/jazz: velvety, eccentric and deliciously retro at the same time. She’s worked with the legendary Blackstratblues before (source: Rolling Stone), and she seem to carry along that band’s nonchalant sense of joy in music with her. Shah has already created quite a following for himself as Madboy, courtesy a raw talent for musical arrangement (see: “Martinis in the dark”). He’s also otherwise known for being Naseeruddin Shah’s son (!).

Azad and Shah.

Azad and Shah.

“Alley Cats” is about snazzy, bowling cats with snazzy bowler hats, and the fun doesn’t stop there. The duo tells the silliest tale – of fish-stealing, rat-chasing cool cats – with such verve that you just can’t help feeling great just listening to the track. Madboy/Mink boasts at the end of the song, “Yes, this band is pretty tight/We’re the kings and they’re the rats,” and they may really be onto something there.

“Dont Stop” by Tankbund

The first minute of “Dont Stop” features lead singer Ritwik De vocalizing what could be the soundtrack to someone’s unsaid feelings on a rainy, lonely Saturday evening. His gauzy, warm voice lulls you into a false sense of introspection, so that when the song suddenly breaks into six-beats-a-second, you tend to feel just a touch of disorientation. De’s soulful, deep voice syncs perfectly with the stop-start, almost trip-hop electronica in the background. His plaintive request (“No, don’t stop”), stretched over several heartwrenching seconds, is persuasive, emotive and entirely lovely. If you loved this track, be sure to check out “Tres Bien”, also from their debut EP Inside. We’re definitely listening to more of this New Delhi band.

“Good to You feat. Siddharth Basrur” by Sandunes

Sandunes, aka Sanaya Ardeshir, is one of the most intriguing artists in the country. Her music is an eclectic confluence of influences: there’s a lot of Air and Zero 7 in there, with playful hint of old-school jazz thrown in for good measure. “Good to You”, featuring Goddess Gagged lead singer Siddharth Basrur, seems to be a post-break-up ode of promises and thinly-veiled remorse, backed by Ardeshir’s top-class production sensibilities.

Sanaya Ardeshir

Sanaya Ardeshir

“Good to You” breaks and crests and pulses at exactly the right places for exactly the right amount of time. There’s a point in the song, about two and a half minutes in, when Basrur’s repeated “I’ll be good to you” precisely syncs with splashes of woozy electronica, that especially blew our minds. Listen to it on a Sunday morning, and we promise it’ll leave you feeling chill the whole day. What more could you want?

“Fire” by Machli

Bangalore-based electro-acoustic outfit Machli is made up of design students who, true to stereotype, have an uncanny sense of aesthetics. “Fire” is a lush, ambient tapestry carried by Sandhya Visvanathan’s despondent, lilting voice and Aniruddh Shivakumar Menon’s percussive talents. The song is addictive and just perfect for half-sleepy Sunday mornings. Also check out their ‘Tigerbalm Mix’ (found here) for a more dreamlike, trip-hop take on the song.

“Epileptic” by 30ton Capacity

Bangalore has seen its fair share of talented post-rock bands lately: Space Behind the Yellow Room and Until We Last come to mind. With their debut EP Season One Episode Nil (you know, like S1E00 like at the beginning of a series), post-rock-veering-on-prog band 30ton Capacity joins the growing list. Our favorite track from the EP is “Epileptic”. The track starts with a quirky, Radiohead-like spoken-word sample (“Try to relax your toes, Gloria. Feel them tingle. Relax them one by one…”) that immediately sets the young band apart. Robin Srivastava’s shrouded vocals create a beautiful, delicate wall (curtain?) of sound, complemented ably by drummer Sumanth. We’ll definitely be listening to this band a lot more!

Here’s the full playlist for your easy listening pleasure.

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