Tag Archives: top five songs

Top Five Lo-Fi Indie Rock Songs I Keep Coming Back To

5 Oct

I’m a sucker for a certain style of art. I love books by Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mazzucchelli. I love Machinarium and Old Man’s Journey. I loved the animated movie L’Illusioniste. I also love lo-fi indie rock records.

I love the gentleness and the intelligence and the melancholy. I love the quiet and the lack of hurry and the sincerity. I love the way they feel. And with this list, I’m going to give you 5 (plus a bonus) of the ones I love the most.

Honorable Mention. Sufjan Stevens – Should Have Known Better

This is a delicate, gossamer track. Sufjan’s singing is a caress and that softness animates the track. It’s a very hazy, very ambiguous track and that’s key to the whole aesthetic. You don’t want full sentences or a full story.  The  empty space is the point. This is magical realism as music.

That gentleness and obscurity accentuate the melancholy of the music. The title tells you the emotion that the song wants to convey, but by itself, it would be flat. The attraction of this music is in the texture. It’s in pushing a feeling that you can’t pin down, but can only hint at. He sings “I should have known better / Nothing can be changed / The past is still the past / The bridge to nowhere / I should have wrote a letter / Explaining what I feel, that empty feeling” but his voice doesn’t carry regret, but lightness instead. It’s accepting of what has happened, not recriminating. Melancholy doesn’t have to hurt.

5. Girlpool – Chinatown

This is still lo-fi, still indie, but this is a track with an edge to it. Where “Should Have Known Better” is soft and gentle, this is a track that’s not shy about its pain. It’s a misfit’s song and so sharp it cut itself. “I’m still looking for sureness in the way I say my name” is a razor blade and the loud of “I am nervous for tomorrow and today” after the soft of the chorus has all of the emotion of Nirvana but with millennial anxiety instead of 90s angst and “If I loved myself, would I take it the wrong way” is a line both painfully smart and just painful.

4. Ghostpoet – Meltdown

Ghostpoet may not be the most traditional pick for a list like this, but “Meltdown” hits all the right notes for inclusion. It’s the sadness of a missed opportunity and of the gap between knowing that you should act and acting itself. It’s a hazy and indeterminate song, it doesn’t feel like any particular moment, but instead of a period that blends together in memory into a singular feeling.

It’s also strikingly urban in a genre that’s typically small-town. Normally, these songs are situated in a suburb that’s easily painted sepia, but this song feels like I walk I once took at 2AM in San Francisco as things fell apart. It was cold and the mist muddled the brightness of the streetlights and passing cars and the blurriness contrasted with the sharp, wet pinpricks of the air outside. It’s every bit as cinematic as anything else on here, but with a very different palette and for all of its differences, it holds all the same quality.

3. The National – I Need My Girl

You cannot write a list like this without The National. They’re the poster child of this kind of cinematic melancholy. Indeed, movies of this ilk turn immediately to the National for a reason. I was tempted to pick “Pull of You” or “I Am Easy To Find” off their latest album instead of this track. I Am Easy To Find took the giant step forward of adding female vocalists to their track and so balancing out their biggest flaw, their preoccupation with themselves.

It is for that preoccupation that I picked this track though, to highlight that clear single point of view that so typifies the genre. It’s in choosing self-flagellation over making amends. It’s in how the fault was his and yet he is still centered in the song.  He needs his girl.

That inability to understand animates the song though. This is the music of having made a mistake and being the kind of person who can’t fix it. Were it not for the delicate skill of the music, this song would be nothing, but instead it is the perfect distillation of the wistfulness of past wrongs.

2. Speedy Ortiz – No Below

I spent months singing the chorus of this song over and over again. I didn’t even sing the full thing, just “I was better off just being dead / Better off just being dead.” There’s something about the tone of Sadie Dupuis as she sings that I cannot resolve in my mind and so it sticks to me. Her singing is sweet and rough and jars so sharply against the song’s content, which in turn is so clearly enunciated that you cannot miss a single word and which itself communicates fatigue so cleanly.

Sometimes, things change you and you just stay changed. Some things are permanent. Sometimes, you can have all of the pieces you need to be happy, but you’re just not a person who can be happy in the way you used to be. It’s just not in your range anymore.

The distortion at the end of the song is everything here. The song is built on some very efficient storytelling. It’s honest, vivid narrative all the way through, and then the vocals stop and the guitar’s screech gives you some space for your own thoughts, and as this song describes, there are few better ways to lacerate.

1. Better Oblivion Community Center – Service Road

I’ve written a lot about things like magical realism and cinematic qualities in this list, but no song does that better than “Service Road.” It’s exceptionally clever and that results in truly excellent storytelling. “Asking strangers to forgive him / But he never told them what it is / He did to them that made him feel so bad” is evocative and open-ended and so the best of what the genre has to offer. Truly excellent melancholy is not mere sadness nor mere self-reproach, but needs the intelligence both to trap the singer and to enthrall the listener.

The comes through in the music as well. The simple, effective guitar frames the vocals very well and gives them space to be gentle, human and regretful. Where some of the other songs here have jagged edges, this one slips into you without a ripple and never leaves. I do wish that it had more Phoebe Bridgers though.

It ends on such an open note though. It ends with motion, with the feeling of freedom. Maybe that’s the only way for these to end. These are stories about life and there are no true conclusions there. Things go on.

The sharpness of a regret is not in it happening, but in living with it having happened, but maybe there’s a second side to that. It’s not in redemption or in self-improvement or forgiveness. It’s not even in having a fresh start. It’s just that tomorrow exists. It’s not a new day or a fresh page and it can’t change what happened today, but it still exists, both as blessing and as curse.

Top Five Deep Cuts: Arctic Monkeys Edition

11 Sep

In the fifteen years since Arctic Monkeys emerged on the music scene, they’ve donned a dozen different hats. From their garage rock-style energetic debut album to their most recent space-themed lounge rock album, their sound is incredibly hard to pin down.

They’ve been described as the distilled-down sounds of the Strokes, The Killers and Franz Ferdinand (arguably, three of the most influential rock outfits of the 2000s), but they’re somehow much more than that. With frontman Alex Turner’s expertly written and clever lyrics, and the band’s undeniable musical prowess, the Arctic Monkeys have rightfully dominated the rock scene for years now.

They hit mainstream fame with their 2013 album AM and became a household name, with tracks like “R U Mine” and “Arabella”. These tracks are, no doubt, incredible (and make you feel cool and suave for listening to them), but there are some truly hidden gems in their body of work that showcase a different side of the Arctic Monkeys.

If you’re keeping score, it’s been almost exactly seven years to the day since the release of AM in September 2013. (Note: We at TFR prefer to forget the existence of Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino.) Given the hellscape that is 2020, we thought it was a good time to take a quick, refreshing flashback into the early aughts. Without further ado, here are our picks for the top five Arctic Monkeys deep cuts!

5. “Piledriver Waltz” from the Submarine soundtrack

If anyone should be commissioned to write the soundtrack to a British coming-of-age drama, it’s Alex Turner. He’s incredibly skilled at finding the balance between deeply poignant and casually whimsical: which about sums up the teenage experience for most, we suppose. And how many musicians can write an upbeat heartbreak song with references to Elvis, circuses, Jesus and traffic lights, all while adhering to the incredibly difficult ¾ time signature?

Piledriver Waltz is the least mopey breakup song. It’s certainly wistful in tone, but has a warm fuzziness that leaves you hopeful for the future. The layered instrumental production on this version adds more depth to a starkly three-dimensional portrait of a broken relationship. Though a slightly different version was later released on Suck It and See, this version holds a special place in our hearts and in those of other true-blue Turner fans. Nothing changed too considerably between the two versions: the lyrics and the melody are identical, yet somehow, this one is just a little more cinematic and melancholic than the album version.

4. “Mad Sounds” from AM

Somewhere in the early 2010s, Alex Turner seemingly dropped his Suck It and See-era softboy persona and dove headfirst into a vat of hair gel and leather jackets. The band emerged fully reinvented, as a Proper Rock Band™ that played heavier rock with the catchiest riffs and hooks. It’s no surprise that they blew up with AM; it appealed to fans of rock, hip-hop, pop and R&B all at once. Tracks like “Do I Wanna Know” and “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High” have permanently changed the face of the 2010s indie rock landscape and have quickly become modern classics.

“Mad Sounds”, though, is a sharp deviation from the rest of the album’s British-James-Dean feel. Nestled right in the middle of the album, the track is a gentle, lilting reminder that the Arctic Monkeys are more than a rock and roll band that writes about one night stands and pub culture. “Mad Sounds” feels, instead, like a spiritual sequel to Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes”. If the Velvet Underground were still together, this is what they’d have sounded like in 2012.

Turner’s vocals ring sharp and crystal-clear, and though the lyrics aren’t saying much, it’s a much-needed respite from the verbal barrage of the rest of the album. The lines “And out of nowhere, somebody comes and hits you with an ‘ooh-la-la-la-la’” essentially sum up this track’s place in the album, and in their discography.

3. “Temptation Greets You Like Your Naughty Friend” feat. Dizzee Rascal

Possibly the deepest of deep cuts; even most hardcore fans don’t know about this B-Side to “Brianstorm”. The track features British rapper Dizzee Rascal who, at the time, was at the peak of his rap career. Arctic Monkeys have always cited rap and hip-hop as one of their primary influences growing up, but that’s usually a very subtle contextual layer to their music. This track is unique for a number of reasons. The band almost never features any other artist on their tracks, and they never mix genres to this degree. But somehow, they did it for this track, and somehow, it works.

It’s tough to produce art that transports the listener to an exact time and place, but this track does exactly that. The raw energy of the song makes you feel like you’re a frustrated British teen in the 2000s, which is probably exactly what they were going for (and until recently, were themselves). Turner’s lyrics are, of course, beautifully minimal (“The only roads are cul-de-sacs/ The only ends are dead”) and his voice still has the boyish charm of the band’s early work. The strong riff line and the syncopated drums are a perfect match to Dizzee Rascal’s grime-style rap bridge. “Temptation” might be an anomaly as far as AM’s music goes, but it’s a refreshing reminder that the band can dominate in just about any genre.

Bonus: Amazing live version with Dizzee from Glastonbury 2007. Ah, 2007.

2. “Secret Door” from Humbug

Humbug is, in many ways, a transition album for the Arctic Monkeys’ sound, where the line blurs between upbeat post-punk and romantic indie rock. Consequently, it’s one of their most divisive albums. “Secret Door” is the perfect example of this in-between space. While the verses have that classic high-energy style of the older Arctic Monkeys, the chorus and the outro are haunting,  cinematic and beautiful.

Alex Turner’s lyrics have always been good, but with Humbug, he began to write what was essentially poetry set to music (“Fools on parade cavort and carry on / For waiting eyes” ), yet somehow he manages to avoid sounding cloying in the process.

‘Secret Door” is probably frequently overlooked because it’s just such a shock to the system. As the opening track on Humbug, fans expected a huge, over-the-top audio explosion, like “Brianstorm” on Favourite Worst Nightmare. What they got, instead, was this mish-mash track that sounded like the background score to a sentimental scene in a John Hughes movie. But still, the raw talent of Turner’s vocals, combined with drummer Matt Helders’ impressive percussion make this one of the most engaging and musically interesting tracks on Humbug.

1. “She’s Thunderstorms” from Suck It And See

Alex Turner knows how to write a love song. He knows how to turn a phrase that’s romantic but never cheesy, and it shows on this track. Nobody in human history has ever described their love interest as “thunderstorms”, and yet, you know exactly what he’s talking about.

Suck It And See, Arctic Monkeys’ fourth studio album, is another one that’s heavily debated amongst fans: they either hate it with a burning passion or think it’s their best work. There’s no in-between. SIAS, the incredibly stripped down, softpop follow-up to Humbug, begins with the minor-key sinister opening riff on “She’s Thunderstorms”. Immediately, though, the warm vocals and lead guitars kick in, and you immediately feel cheery and comfortable; like you’re in 500 Days Of Summer.

The track showcases an amount of restraint that the band had never demonstrated before. The lyrics are minimalist, the production isn’t heavy-handed, and the instrumental arrangement is just enough. It’s clear that this is a grown-up version of the angry teenage Arctic Monkeys from the first two albums, but it’s mature in a quiet, self-confident way. They’re comfortable enough to tone it down a notch and still get their point across.

Honorable mentions:

Cornerstone” from Humbug

This may be a personal bias, but it’s our opinion at TFR that this is the best love song ever written. Paired with a hilariously low budget music video, this track really shows the Arctic Monkeys at their best.

Mardy Bum” from Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

This is a simple song from their debut about a tiff between a couple, narrated in a ridiculously strong Sheffield accent. The band comes through with a surprisingly strong guitar solo, about midway, that changes the tone of the song entirely.

Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” by Tame Impala (cover)

It’s tough to improve on a Tame Impala track, but if anyone can do it, it’s Alex Turner. The band has a way to make the song sound soulful and complex, seemingly effortlessly.

The Bakery“, B-Side to “Fluorescent Adolescent”

Very similar in theme to “Cornerstone”, but relayed in a British dialect so strong that you probably don’t know what they’re talking about, exactly. (What is a “tatty settee”?) Turner’s voice is delightfully laid back, and the production is so sparse that it feels like you’re watching your college band run through a practice. Its simplicity is what wins you over. 

Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments!

Top Five Childish Gambino Songs – Neeharika’s List

10 Aug

No matter what arena of entertainment you subscribe to, chances are that you are familiar with Donald Glover. Beyond being a well-known musical artist, Glover is something of a modern-day renaissance man. He’s the award-winning creator / actor of the FX show Atlanta; a big-name movie star for properties such as The Lion King and the Star Wars universe; a prodigious young writer for 30 Rock; a bonafide TV star on cult show Community; and much more.

However, our viewpoint here at Top Five Records is of course on his musical avatar. Last week, our writer Nikhil Murthy took a critical look at the life and times of the artist known as Childish Gambino. Nikhil had choice words against the earliest part of Gambino’s career, especially around the Camp era.

It wasn’t all negative though: Nikhil next listed out his top five tracks from the Childish Gambino discography. Here’s his list if you missed it.

After Nikhil put up his list, we had a bit of a heated internal discussion within the Top Five Records team. Did we agree that “This Is America” is his best song? Did we think that “Les” is the best song from Camp? Which is more impressive: time-withstanding lyrics, or tongue-in-cheek pop-cultural one-liners? And so on (as you may imagine from a group of music nerds).

Ultimately, the discussion boiled down to this: Did his best tracks come at the earlier part of his career, or the latter part? So, with that, here’s another look at Childish Gambino’s best songs; this time from our writer Neeharika Palaka.

Honorable mentions

Heartbeat” from Camp: This is a great song from Childish Gambino’s debut album Camp (2011). Although it starts off like it could be a slow-jam R&B track, Gambino quickly dispels the notion with an angry volley of hurt sentiments at a girl who chose someone else over him. It’s immediately apparent that he’s a comedy writer. For example, these lines in which he puts down his rival for being (of all things) a bad blogger, and backhand-compliments his would-be lady’s figure: “He ain’t cool, he ball and all that, but he just a fake nigga who blog in all caps / You coulda’ wait to date, I’m going straight for your thighs like the cake you ate”. “Heartbeat” is not just about the lyrics; Gambino also impresses with his oscillating emotional delivery, the sludgy synths, and a catchy chorus to boot.

Bonfire” from Camp: This is another track from Camp, and really the first Gambino song I ever heard. One could write a long-form essay on the vast array of jokes, double-entendres, clever brags and other sleights-of-hand that Donald Glover, the professional writer, manages to fit into just over three minutes on this track. “Bonfire” works almost like Glover’s intro-slash-autobiography, of growing up as an artistic Black man in rural Georgia, of not quite fitting in with his heritage while attending the best high school in Georgia, of ultimately making peace with his eclectic scenario. Naturally, being Childish, all of these hefty topics are conveyed through a series of improbable one-liners. “Black and white music? Nigga, that’s a mixtape”; “My dick is like an accent mark, it’s all about the over Es”; “Yeah, they say they want the realness, rap about my real life / Told me I should just quit ‘First of all, you talk white! Second off, you talk like you haven’t given up yet’”; and many more. It’s honestly a fascinating song.

5. “Redbone” from “Awaken, My Love!”

Clocking at number 5 is “Redbone” from the peculiarly-named “Awaken, My Love!” album. I know Nikhil rated it much higher, and I understand where he’s coming from: this is perhaps one of the funkiest, slow-burn songs in Childish Gambino’s line-up. Moreover, the song has deep meaning. The entire album was said to have been inspired by the birth of his child with his non-Black partner; a light-skinned African American child is occasionally known as a redbone, so that’s likely the inspiration for this track. Although this is an undeniably groovy jam – especially the plethora of Gambino’s “Stay woke” wails – it’s perhaps not endlessly listenable.

4. “Sweatpants” from Because the Internet

“Sweatpants” is the first of my picks from Because the Internet (2013). This was the album that moved my image of Donald Glover from his Troy Barnes avatar to his Childish Gambino avatar, although I did take a shine to his debut Camp (2011) when it came out.

The entire track is filled with the kind of slick, clever writing that earlier resulted in 23-year-old Glover being personally picked by Tina Fey to write for the legendary 30 Rock (fun fact: Glover is actually from Stone Mountain, Georgia, which is famously the hometown of immortal 30 Rock pageboy Kenneth).

I’m just a sucker for braggart puns ( “I got more tail than Petco / You faker than some Sweet ‘n Low”), and this song has them by the truckloads. Another favorite line is “And I’m too fly, Jeff Goldblum” which works two ways because Goldblum is indeed super-fly, and also appears in 1986 film The Fly. And so on. The music video is a cracker too, featuring Gambino playing every role at a greasy spoon, from diners to frilly-frocked waitress.

3. “3005” from Because the Internet

Another great track from Because the Internet is that album’s lead single “3005”, which is at its heart a sweet love song about wanting to stay with someone until the year 3005. There are only two verses on this track, but Gambino makes those verses count. His flow modulates impressively between tones, volume, and emotions, while still delivering clever one-liners like “Girl why is you lying, girl why you Mufasa / Yeah, mi casa su casa, got it stripping like Gaza”. Interspersed between these two verses is an extremely catchy (and sweet) chorus: “No matter what you say or what you do / When I’m alone, I’d rather be with you”.

2. “This Is America” (single)

No Childish Gambino list can be complete without a mention of this zeitgeist of modern-day America. Released in 2018 as a stand-alone single, two years into Trump’s presidency, the song summed up so many elements of culture and conversation at that point in time – from Black Lives Matter and police brutality, to a lessening divide between church and state, to America’s gun violence problem. By far, the most chilling part of the song is the ice-cold delivery that Childish Gambino employs at the most deviant lines (“Police be trippin’ now, Yeah, this is America / Guns in my area, I got the strap / I gotta carry ’em”).

The best part of the song, of course, is its iconic, truly memorable music video, in which a crazed-looking Gambino slow-writhes his way through gospel choir, point-blank murder, African dance and too much more to recount. If anything, this song and its visuals have gotten better and more important with time.

1. “Telegraph Ave” from Because the Internet

My personal favorite Childish Gambino song is, for many years now, “Telegraph Ave” from Because the Internet. The song is subtitled “‘Oakland’ by Lloyd”, and there’s a reason for that. Gambino sets up the song as if it were a song called “Oakland” by singer Lloyd, playing on LA’s Power 106 radio as Gambino drives from LA to Oakland. In that way, the song serves two functions: one, of course, as a Childish Gambino song. The other is as a paean to the city of Oakland – and the lover it holds – that Gambino, the character in this song, pens as he drives “up the 5” toward the iconic East Bay city (and its most famous street, Telegraph Ave). Again, I’m a sucker for exactly the kind of multi-layered, multi-media texture that early Gambino excelled in, so perhaps that’s why this song just clicks for me. All in all, this is a lovely song about Gambino meditating on his relationship – settling down, making the distance work, growing up, parenthood – on a long, lonely drive. What’s more relatable than that?

Final thoughts

So there you have it. When it comes to early Gambino vs. later Gambino, I definitely count myself in the former “camp” (get it?). With the latter albums, Gambino has great hits; but I feel that anyone with a gold-plated budget and access to top-notch producers could theoretically produce similar songs. On the earlier albums, Gambino leveraged a distinct point-of-difference, in marketing speak: his undeniable writing talent. And it’s that talent which made for highly enjoyable, layered tracks that I still cherish to this day.

Related:

Top Five Childish Gambino Songs – Nikhil’s List

8 Aug

I just put up a post about the early CG and why I prefer his newer stuff earlier this week and so naturally I have to follow that with an official Top Five list, so here are the Top Five Childish Gambino Songs.

Honorable Mentions

Heartbeat: This was the first CG hit for me. Look at how young the man is here! There’s a lot to like in this too. His beat is aggressive here and he matches it faultlessly. He’s sneering and rough and clearly in pain. There are issues, he just can’t stay on topic and there’s so much here that doesn’t do anything, but it’s still a song that can hit hard.

Zombies: This is a bit of an overlooked song from CG, but he brings so much funk into this one. He is absolutely free in this, there are just the most delightful bits of musical noodling here and it’s really good music. Having fun suits him.

Freaks and Geeks: CG really goes all out with his rap on this one. There are minutes here without a pause for breath. It’s just bar after bar and reference after reference. He moves recklessly across lines and topics. This song is an onslaught.

5. Feels Like Summer

There’s such an incredible lightness to this song. It feels outside of time in the way a summer vacation day outdoors can be. I don’t think he’s ever done as good a job at setting a tone. It’s a song that’s got nowhere to be, it’s happy just to be. It’s also an incredible video.

4. Les

The over-the-shoulder cam as CG deals with dating in the Lower East Side is compelling and he’s at his sharpest when his knives have something to stab. He’s got all of his best lines here and a lot of that is this is too heavy on his mind for him to stray far from. You can see he wants to tell you his side of this and he does it well enough to keep you from straying too.

3. Telegraph Ave.

That sung chorus is everything. It promises so much and gives you so much space to build on. It sticks to you and he sticks to the singing for a good two minutes there. The rap may not be the highlight here, but it does build on the rest. I can’t think of a better song for the city.

2. Redbone

This song alone makes a compelling case for CG as the successor to Prince. Just listen to that scream halfway in and tell me it doesn’t flash purple. CG’s dalliance with funk made for some really good music and this is the best of it.

I’ve never made much sense of the lyrics here, but like the P-Funk it draws from, the pieces that float up don’t really need contextualization. Who can resist the peanut butter chocolate cake with Kool-Aid sobriquet? You don’t need that explained. You just need to stay woke.

1. This Is America

This is a song that’s very difficult to separate from the stunning video and I don’t even want to try. That video is amazing and unforgettable. Not only does it have a lot to say, but it says it loud. It’s crafted impeccably and you cannot take your eyes away from it.

Even with just the audio, that music video comes through, but video aside, the sense is unmissable. The song spoke to the moment then and has only gotten more topical since.

That song also just hits. That choir sets you up every time for the industrial rap right after. “This is America / Don’t catch you slippin’ now” is a fully distilled chorus. It’s the perfect chant.

This is CG showing us what he can do. It’s brave, it’s experimental, it’s smart, it’s topical and it’s excellent music. This may be the peak of his musical career so far, but it feels certain that it’s only a matter of time before he eclipses even this.

Related:

The Top Five Albums of 2013: Neeharika’s List

31 Dec

As I mentioned in my Top Five Songs of 2013 list last week, 2013 has been a decent year for music. There were some great debuts, even better follow-ups and a promise for the future. So, without further ado, here’s my take on the Top Five Albums of 2013.

– Neeharika

5. Shaking the Habitual, by The Knife

Shaking the Habitual

It’s often hard to imagine what ‘textural’ means in the context of music. How can a purely tactile sense be attributed to sound? The word is often thrown about as a vague catch-all for everything from ambient to post-rock, but there is music for which ‘textural’ is a perfect adjective. One such example is The Knife’s fervent fourth album, Shaking the Habitual, which puts you in the middle of a seethingly alive jungle.

On “A Tooth For an Eye”, Karin Dreijer Andersson’s wild, unintelligible chants soar and whoop like tribal cants through her brother Olof Dreijer ‘s electronic safari through a rain-forest. The strongest beat lies on “Full of Fire”, which could form the ominous soundtrack for a dream that wakes you up sweating and disturbed.  You could get lost in the labyrinth of “Raging Lung”, gasping for breath while your masked overlords laugh at your ghastly predicament. It’s like each song comes with its own dizzying music video.

I will freely admit that I wasn’t a fan of The Knife prior to this album; their much-hyped Silent Shout came off as far too pretentious, like early Animal Collective gestated too far into the sinisterly inaccessible. However, after a few listens of Shaking the Habitual, I found myself getting enveloped in the ethereal gauze of “A Cherry on Top”, the busy techno of Networking” and the dark drama of “Wrap Your Arms Around Me”. While it’s still not the most accessible music – case in point, the 19-minute horror-movie diegetic “Old Dreams Waiting to be Realized” – there may hardly be an album in 2013 more imaginative and textural (there’s that word again) than Shaking the Habitual. Recommended, for those willing to stomach it.

Best tracks: “A Tooth For an Eye”, “Raging Lung”

4. Pure Heroine, by Lorde

Pure Heroine

Contrary to what twee stars may have you believe, being a 16-year-old famous pop star is not always easy or even fun. Even a normal teenager’s world seems to change all too rapidly; imminent rise to fame can only cause further confusion. Lorde’s Pure Heroine (full review here) is a meditation on this theme, a sort of commentary piece to the young New Zealander’s sudden rise to fame.

But sudden does not mean unexpected. In her mid-teens, Lorde possesses musical chops like none of her peers. She wields her whip-sharp pen – writing cleverly about teenage romance and suburban life and impending fame – with as much confidence as she sings, sly smirk in place. Add to that a magnetic personality – the hair! the winged mascara! – and you’ve got yourself a true pop star. The difference is that she really doesn’t want to be one. “We crave a different kind of buzz,” she explains on her hit “Royals”, before going on to claim her personal throne: “Let me be your ruler/ You can call me Queen Bee.” She fears fame, too, with the intensity of a small-town girl pushed into big-city spotlights: “How can I fuck with the fun again, when I’m known,” she wonders wistfully on “Tennis Court”. It’s quite a refreshing take on success.

Pure Heroine by Lorde – note the effect of the foisted ‘e’ in both cases – is perhaps the best debut of 2013, and one of the best albums overall. It will be interesting to see where true fame takes Lorde in her follow-up albums. She’s one to watch, for sure.

Best tracks: “Tennis Court”, “Royals”

3. Days Are Gone, by Haim

Days Are Gone

Every once in a while, a true revivalist comes along, making music that sounds like it should have been a famous hit already. On their debut Days Are Gone (full review here), Haim have managed pay perfect homage to a discography spanning synth-heavy hits from the late 70s all the way to glossy-lipped R&B from the 90s.

Haim comprises three attractive sisters – Danielle, Este and Alana Haim – whose first band was called Rockinhaim, composed of themselves and their parents. The girls make sunny, honest, genuine music that speaks of their pedigree as much as it does of their home in California’s carefree San Fernando Valley.

That Days Are Gone is a debut is a little hard to believe at times. Just listen to the sludgy-cool “My Song 5” or the shining hooks on “Honey & I”. This is music that already has a classic feel. In fact, Days Are Gone often feels like a best-of compilation of female-fronted music from pop’s golden eras, which is probably what the Haim girls intended to do.

Whether on the breezy post-breakup title song or on the irresistibly catchy “The Wire”, Danielle, Este and Alana have the confidence of old sessions regulars with nothing to prove, or world-famous musicians with several concert tours under their belts. With that sort of aura, it seems only natural that the Haim sisters are set to be superstars.

Best tracks: “The Wire”, “My Song 5”

2. AM, by Arctic Monkeys

AM

In late 2005, four young British lads released a kicker of an album about life as young British lads that immediately shot to unrivaled success. They hadn’t planned on fame: neighbors Alex Turner and Jaime Cook asked for guitars on Christmas only a few years prior so that they could play some songs together with their high school friend Matt Helders. Somehow, in an accident that involved the novelty of file-sharing, MySpace and a shamelessly salivating British music press, the boys became superstars: shy, ill-suited for fame and too wordy for their own good, but superstars nonetheless.

In 2009, Arctic Monkeys took a break from their witty chronicles of getting turned down by girls in clubs and headed to the California desert with Queens of the Stone Age front-man Josh Homme, who lent a heavy black aura to their music and lyrics. The band lost a legion of their earlier fans with the resulting album Humbug; even I, a devout fan-girl, was tempted to think that the Monkeys were losing their touch with this strange new direction. It didn’t help that the follow-up Suck It and See was lacklustre at best, with elliptical lyrics and a conspicuous lack of blistering indie rock that diverged sharply from their original image.

But now it all makes sense. Themes from their entire discography – the lusty darkness of Humbug and the way lyrics were carefully wrought on Favorite Worst Nightmare  – make an appearance on AM, which may just be their best album yet.

Every part of their act has gotten tighter. Alex has evolved as a vocalist, effecting a sly, jilted prowl on “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” as easily as the whipped desperation on “Fireside”. His lyrics, too, have gotten even better. “It’s much less picturesque without her catching the light/ The horizon tries but it’s just not as kind on the eyes,” Mr. Turner sighs about the eponymous woman on “Arabella”, going on to croon, “And her lips are like the galaxy’s edge/ And her kiss the colour of a constellation falling into place.” Quite the poet he is.

But the band is not a one-man show. On AM, Arctic Monkeys have damn near perfected the art of drawing organically from influences to create a their own new sound. Jaime Cook’s ponderous riff on “Do I Wanna Know?” evokes a stripped-down QOTSA while “Arabella” could be slipped into a Black Sabbath mixtape. The best example, though, comes on “Mad Sounds”, a beautiful ballad that fittingly brings to mind the late Lou Reed, complete with “ooh la las” sprinkled over a sparkling-pop everyman love song.

The Arctic Monkeys’ fifth album is the latest stepping stone on their journey from clever cads with guitars to mature musicians. AM is at once the culmination of everything the band has done so far as well as an exciting direction for the future. One thing’s for certain: as good as this album is, their best is yet to come.

Best tracks: “Arabella”, “Why’d You Always Call Me When You’re High?”

1. Random Access Memories, by Daft Punk

Random Access Memories

Putting Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (full review here) above an Arctic Monkeys masterpiece really made me think. On one hand, I’ve been a rabid Arctic Monkeys fangirl for the past decade; on the other, Random Access Memories is otherworldly genius. In the end, timeless genius won over everything else, and that is why Random Access Memories is, in my opinion, the best album of the year.

There’s very little to say that hasn’t been said already. We can talk about the featured artists – industry legends and indie superstars alike – and how their combined starpower with Daft Punk resulted in perfect collaborations. “Doin’ It Right” sounds exactly like how an Animal Collective-tinged Daft Punk song should sound, while “Instant Crush” featuring Julian Casablancas would fit in uncannily well on the Strokes’ Comedown Machine.

We can talk about the theme – futuristic humans-turned-robots finding their way back to humanity through love and the power of music – and how perfectly every song fits into the overall idea, like robot-manufactured puzzle pieces. The story stretches from the disco heydey on song-of-the-year “Get Lucky” to the magnum opus “Touch”, which is basically a fantastic, musical version of Pixar’s Wall-E.

We can talk about the music itself, ranging from lackadaisical bliss on “Lose Yourself to Dance” to instrumental fantasia on “Motherboard”. But in the end, it’s as Giorgio says on the epic “Giorgio by Moroder”: “Once you want to free your mind about a concept of harmony and music being correct, you can do whatever you want.” This, in essence, Daft Punk’s idea for Random Access Memories.

This is not music. It’s expression: timeless and impossibly perfect.

Best tracks: “Get Lucky”, “Lose Yourself to Dance”

The Top Five Songs of 2013: Neeharika’s List

23 Dec

With about a week to go before the end of the year, 2013 is being hailed by critics across the board as a good year for music. We saw the emergence of new, promising artists like Haim and Lorde, and saw great followups by established acts such as Arctic Monkeys and Daft Punk. My Bloody Valentine made a reappearance twenty-two years (!) after their previous album, while Kanye West released a mad-hatter album whose hype rivals, if not exceeds, that which surrounded his blockbuster from 2010. Chance the Rapper and Earl Sweatshirt, too, released important rap albums. All in all, it was a good year for music. Here’s my take on the top five songs of the year. Hope you like it!

– Neeharika

5. “The Wire” by Haim

Haim

There are a handful of songs in the world where all the elements – the music, the lyrics, the style and the influences – sync perfectly and irrefutably together. These songs are very, very few and far between, and are invariably propelled to ‘instant classic’ status. It can be said, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that “The Wire” is one of these songs.

Haim, a trio of sisters from sunny California, has been making all the right kind of headlines since their debut Days are Gone released in September. Even though they have been compared to everyone from Fleetwood Mac to the Dixie Chicks, Haim has an unshakeable foundation which lets them use their influences as flavoring rather than as the main ingredient. However you look at it, Haim is one of the most attractive and truly talented bands out there today.

“The Wire”, a confessional about wisely letting go of a failing relationship, is an irresistibly catchy example of Haim’s allure. Existing in a universe where The Bangles open for Madonna (or maybe the other way around), “The Wire” is one of the best songs of the year and perhaps one that 2013 will be remembered for, well into the future.

View our full album review here.

4. “Right Action” by Franz Ferdinand

In early 2004, a Scottish indie rock band released an eponymous debut album, smartly titled after a European archduke who catalysed one of history’s largest events. Fittingly, the album provided a similarly intense shot-in-the-arm for the indie rock world, which had been languishing since The Strokes released their unbeatable debut three years prior.

Franz Ferdinand’s post-punk/steampunk hit “Take Me Out”, which was coupled with a video that showcased the band’s monstrously creative art-school sensibilities, remained the band’s song to beat. Now, almost a decade later, Franz Ferdinand has finally created a true successor to their best-known song – and man, it’s good.

“Right Action” is an almost-love song (“Sometimes I wish you were here, weather permitting”) that paraphrases Buddhist tenets (“Right thoughts, right words, right actions”) over a relentless dance-party riff. It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that the song’s a riot and a half. The video, like all Franz Ferdinand videos, is mindblowingly artsy, and the boys are as slick and well-dressed as ever. Alex Kapranos has said that the band’s raison d’etre is to make music that girls can dance to. Franz Ferdinand may be a decade old, but you can bet your skinny tie that they can still own any dance party.

3. “Bad Girls” by M.I.A.

London-via-Sri Lanka swag goddess MIA has always been known for her ridiculous amounts of devil-may-care confidence. But nowhere in her career has she been as swagtastic as in the video for “Bad Girls”. In front of an audience of traditionally-attired Arab men, MIA drag-races – on cars tilted 45 degrees to the vertical – while repeating her feminist, fuck-you mantra: “Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well.”

MIAThe implicit understanding that the video is taking place in Saudi Arabia – where woman drivers, let alone irreverent women atop cars, are forbidden – makes “Bad Girls” one of the rowdiest things that MIA has ever done. The song itself tilts, much like MIA’s cars, between exotic mysticism and gilded braggadocio, and in a way, it’s a metaphor for the artist herself. Whatever the angle, though, it’s just a ridiculously good song.

2. “Royals” by Lorde

Ironically aristocratic teenage sensation Lorde is, ironically, 2013’s It-girl. On “Royals”, her break-out, chart-topping lead single, Lorde sings about her inability to associate with the gaudy extravagance of popular musicians. “We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair,” she asserts, placing herself firmly in the zone of the non-celebrity.

Over a deep-drum, threadbare beat, Lorde eschews the trappings of fame for a more localized aristocracy: “Let me be your ruler, you can call me queen bee,” she says. Ironically, though, this very song catapulted her into immediate pop royalty, charting her over self-indulgent pop mainstays such as Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus. Not bad for a sixteen year old, wouldn’t you say?

View our full album review here.

1. “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk

“Get Lucky” was first released into the world through a 15-second advertisement on Saturday Night Live in early March. The rabid craze that followed that brief snippet foreshadowed the near future: a particularly enthusiastic fan even spun that 15-second sample into an extended 10-hour jam (!).  At that point, the world didn’t even know much about the song – apart from a warm, glittering riff that somehow automatically brought to mind a disco ball. By the time Daft Punk released the song in April though, everyone knew all the words. It was, in mid-spring, already the song of the summer.

“Get Lucky” is musical perfection enveloped in four minutes. It’s the reckless abandon on a disco dance floor. It’s the magic of meeting someone more promising than you’ve met in years. It’s the realization that love keeps the planet spinning, that music rebirths from itself like a phoenix. “Get Lucky” is a gift from a pair of robots to humankind, reminding us of a forgotten truth: that the past is golden and the future holds endless possibilities.

In 2013, musicians around the world made music that impacted some of us in certain ways. In 2013, Daft Punk made a song that could – and should – eventually be sent out of our world into endless space as a symbol of what humankind can achieve… with a little help from robots, of course.

View our full album review here.

So there you have it! Stay tuned for more Top Five lists coming up soon, including our Top Five Albums of 2013!

%d bloggers like this: