If the world were to end on the 21st of December, you can be confident in knowing that the year produced some fantastic new music. Well, it wasn’t the year exactly, but the artists that made and performed the music that makes it to your ear for you to enjoy that produced the music. I’m making this way more complicated than it should be, but it should be said, that 2012 was the year that music industry bounced back a bit. Financially, music almost stabilized; it stopped losing money hand over fist, if it really was. Or, that’s what we’d been led to believe. And strangely, I found myself listening to more rap and hip hop this year, a genre that I’ve never related well to. In fact, this may be the most diverse list of music I’ve ever listened to. So, here’s to a great 2012 and let’s hope that 2013 is even better!
When Kid Kudi released his rock album…yes a rock album…it wasn’t met with high regard, except for me, maybe, and People Magazine. Let’s just say that I’m not a fan of People Magazine’s “Review” sections and I feel like they stole a bit of my swag. Also, I was an idiot when it came to reviews and in that time, I have learned quite a bit.
“Teleport 2 Me, Jamie” sets itself apart from the rest of WZRD, relying on samples, synths, and great background vocals from Desire. The guitars, which were pushed heavily on this album take a back seat, providing to the aesthetic of the song rather than being the focus. That was Kudi’s biggest problem; stepping out of your comfort zone is alright, but you need to be able to streamline the sound effectively. With this song, WZRD focuses on what they know, and it works, and it got stuck in my head many times this year, so they did at least one thing right. I will give them credit, WZRD was an ambitious failure, take it as a learning experience and channel it into future projects of a similar nature. If they chose to do so, this song is the blueprint!
If ever there was a set of songs that had me guessing , it was Say Anything. A band that I’ve come to associate with having never sacrificed their music to make it more appealing or commercial. With Anarchy, My Dear, fans were either rubbed the wrong way or they were exposed to a concept not unlike that of what Fun. did on their record Some Nights. That’s not to say it was a complete ripoff, but anarchy here seemed to be aiming for that commercial appeal. Fans of the band will understand and hopefully did.
This is also the first and only album I’ve ever reviewed twice.
With, “Say Anything,” aside from entering the hall of musicians who have written songs named after themselves, along side Bo Diddley and Bad Company, the band takes irony to a whole new level. The song goes through a series of statements that could be construed as Reductio ad Absurdum; for example: “condemn my race to genocide, if it meant that I could lay with you.” The playful nature of the song, coupled with the tight, but rapid melody make it a great love song parody, and produced one of the greatest music videos of the year.
Psychedelic folk is not a genre that I frequently visit, but it was free, how could I resist? What I was in for was one of the more unique musical experiences I’ve had this year. Big Blood got their start with acoustic psychedelic folk music, going so far as to release five albums in 2007. On their 2011 album, Big Blood & the Wicked Hex, the band began to sprinkle electric elements on their songs, and continue that tradition here.
“Old Time Primitives” is a very strange song; it has a very urgent melody created by distorted musicianship, creating a paranoyed, psychedlic feel, but it also gives the sense that someone is running away from something. In my head, it creates this image of an expedition team in some dense jungle, who brought records along, enjoying a long deserved day off only to be preyed upon by local “primitives.” Further adding to this is the country classic, “She Never Knew Me” by Don Williams playing in the background, ratcheting up the creep and paranoia factor of the song. Still gives me the creeps.
“Fly Over States” is a song that seeks to celebrate the American landscape, how diverse it is; as diverse as its people. Country music is often overlooked for its simplicity, but every now and then you come across a gem that celebrates what’s so great about this country. The objections to country music are as old as its song content; a matter concerned with men being done wrong, tractors, trucks, dogs, and muddin.’ There IS that, but there’s also great tunes that are overlooked, like this one. Call me a romantic if you want, but many of us take for granted the things that make this a great country to live in. The landscape is so wide, and diverse, that there is literally a little bit of everything for everybody.
The song begins with a few buddies on a plane, taking for granted the landscape; Jason then takes the listener on a journey of shifting perspectives. While it may not be the greatest sight you’ve seen from the air, if you’ve seen it closer to the ground, all the hard work that people have put into it, making this country great, you’d be able to appreciate it a hell of a lot more. The song’s accessible, Americana based melody is catchy, fully of sympathy; you sure as hell could hear it on a Chevy commercial. Sure, it could be cheesy, but if you grab it just right, you’ll see there is nothing wrong with this kind of appreciation. It should never be shameful for one to take pride in their own country.
I’ve always considered ATO records an underrated record label, but in the last decade they have given us great artists, such as David Gray, Dawes, Drive-By Truckers, and this year’s great new addition, Alabama Shakes. The Shakes’ bring a southern, soulful style to the stage. The band is led by Brittany Howard, who’s stunning vocal performances provide the soul of the band. Not to take anything away from the crew, but it’s her voice that makes this music as compelling as it is.
“Hold On” has one of the simplest melodies – I know, it’s practically becoming a theme – but, in this case, it aids the song’s message. The droll of life may not be that great for some, but Brittany assures us that there is something great coming, that you have to wait, and more importantly, “hold on.” The song’s easy relatability makes it a comfort, kind of like a soulful Zac Brown tune. The biggest criticism the band endures is that it doesn’t live up to its live performances. If you can’t hear the passion in those songs, well, take another listen. Still don’t get it? Well, you’re doing it wrong.
Sidney quartet, The Jezabels embrace everything that was great about the 80′s. Granted there wasn’t a lot about the 80′s I was thrilled with, but strong artists like The Pretenders, Joan Jett, and the underrated ones, like the Motels shine through the Jezabels music, the focal point being front woman, Hayley Mary’s, stunning vocals. Even if they’re over the top, it’s still believable, and the same holds up here. The layered instrumentation allows Mary’s vocals to stand out and likewise, add to the emotion of the song. At times, the songs from Prisoner try to aim a little too high, but this one fits nicely, grandiose, but never overreaching it’s boundaries.
Welcome to breakfast, a meal complete with the line: “you think you’re steppin’ but you on a stair master.” More than laughable, Chiddy Bang brings it hard with this hard rap song about serving up crafty responses to haters, which has been phrases as serving them “breakfast,” which is served with O.J. thankfully. In Chiddy Bang’s young career, their music represents a young, but very talented duo that feel more experienced than they really are. The cover adds to the fun that the group likes to have; the beats on the other hand are finely crafted and show a great level of maturity. With an established record of great mix tapes, Breakfast continues that tradition, without the sacrifice of ideals or sounds. See also “Ray Charles.”
Imagine Dragons took the mainstream by storm with the huge hit, “It’s Time.” The “Continued Silence EP” presented a band with an indie-electronic vision, one that didn’t quite live up to itself on the band’s major label debut album, Night Visions. The song opens with a great acoustic/electric guitar intro that kicks into a simple drumbeat and electronic sample. Dan Reynolds vocals and the subsequent vocals effects used on this track, aid in the bands vision quite well, creating a futuristic kind of sound. This track is the EP’s most underrated, painting the perfect picture of what Imagine Dragons are and the vision that they’re trying to achieve. Not to mention, this song is catchy as hell.
Brooklyn’s The Men came back in 2012 with THE album of their very young career. 2012′s Open Your Heart captures the spirit of a band who didn’t quite know what it wanted to do previously. 2011′s Leaving Home was a mainstream hit, but was so hodgepodge that the band almost looked like a tacky colored chameleon; colors just for the sake of colors, no focus. With their latest, the music has retained it’s noise-rock elements, but now featuring purpose! “Open Your Heart” is blistering, unapologetic, and just a fun song to rage dance to. The riff is catchy, fast paced; full of longing despite itself. Just a really great track from the Men; it stands out as one of the best in their catalog.
This. Fucking. Song. Yes, this fucking song; that is what I will call it, and it’s one that has wreaked havoc in the entirety of my 2012. It garnered me my first hateful comment on an album review, and it’s become my most viewed post of my tiny career at Team Hellions. “Safe and Sound” became the face of The Hunger Games film, but more so, it became Taylor’s first journey outside of country/pop and into folk. Aside from a couple of minor problems, the song still holds up as one of her best, and teamed up with The Civil Wars, currently defunct, was a pairing. The song’s light, airy melody is stripped clean, adding to the aesthetic of the film and the song’s success. Less is more here, a fragile moment, wavering on a knife. It’s beautiful, tragic, and hopeful.
It had been five years since we’d heard from The Shins, though James Mercer was busy. He’d gone on to do a project with Danger Mouse (Broken Bells) and even did the cover art for Unearth’s 2011 disc, Darkness in the Light. When he returned as the Shins in 2012, Mercer gutted the original lineup of the band and decided to record music with the people he wanted, kind of like one of those dream sessions, recording music with the people he admired most. “Simple Song” is a punch of positive force; its huge wall of sound style is overwhelming. Mercer’s vocals have always aided in this style of music; he could sing about anything and most people will eat out of the man’s hand. Strangely enough, there is still room to breathe upon listening, and the song’s infectious nature makes it fun. It also produced one hell of a hilarious music video.
I’ve heard Todd Snider called a poor man’s Bruce Springsteen once, and it made me angry. Sure, the guy was talking out of his ass, but you take that kind of shit personally, especially with music like this. Snider is a little rough around the edges, but he’s more relatable, even than Bruce most of the time. His tunes are certainly “rough ready” which can be a nice, fresh break from the monotony. “In Between Jobs” is the working man out of work ballad, looking for the payoff. Snider’s story is one that is not unlike most people’s in this country; more apt to a liberal democrat than most, but, when the rich are rich, and the poor are poor, it makes some people angry. This is an angry song. Amanda Shires provides the violin, and brings the lighter side to Snider’s gruff. If it’s not for you, just remember, you can’t go wrong with this lyric: “I might have been born yesterday, but I was up all night.”
Dr. John’s career has seen quite a revival this year and a departure from his more recent stylings. Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys put on his producing hat for this revival of sorts of Dr. John’s, largely dwelling in a 70′s psychedelic sound. Auerbach handpicked the musicians himself for this project and plays on it as well. His signature guitar sound can be heard all over this track. “Locked Down” sounds exactly like it stepped out of the 70′s. It’s nostalgic flair catches you off guard for an opening track, considering how diverse Dr. John is, it’s almost as if the Mayan Calendar had come to an end and things had reset. The musical interludes contain psychedelic fills that spiral on through, and the main guitar riff sounds like it just doesn’t fit in this time period. A great, solid return for Dr. John; the best music he’s put out in decades.
Last year’s Mission Bell found Lee introspective per usual, but dropping the long standing R&B from his repertoire. He followed that up this year with his “As the Crow Flies EP,” much in the same vain of Mission Bell’s aesthetic. “Simple Things” isn’t about the instrumentation, more than it’s about the message. He puts on his singer/songwriter hat, relying on acoustics and a simple piano melody to deliver his message of endurance and finding something to hold on to. Here, it’s the simple things, and while they may not have the greatest impact, sometimes it’s just enough to keep us here. Lee may be the strangest artist on the Blue Note label, but the more and more that I listen to his music, the more I find him to be their greatest treasure.
NTNT are a band that you never quite see coming, and if you’ve ever heard I’ll Find You in the Colors, you know just what I’m talking about. They’re a band, like Dr. John this year, that seem to have fallen out of the wrong decade; the 80′s this time. “The Way Back” opens the album with a stunning array of synths, echoed drum fills, and a set of vocals that would be comfortable coming out of the 80′s European pop scene. Colors key feature is its uplifting message, that being down does not mean being out. However, “The Way Back”s” protagonist seems a little less hopeful, at times the sentiment feels like a story line out of Scrubs, but it’s sincere and it’s compelling. If you haven’t tried out this band, I highly suggest you do so!
The long awaited solo album from Jack White, Blunderbuss, was met with wide regard. I was one of the few that just didn’t go nuts for it. The second single, “Sixteen Saltines,” who’s debut was first heard on SNL, is more White Stripes tune than a solo selection. Granted, it’s fitting here, as the subject of the song seems to be like it could be tailored to Meg White. With “Saltines,” White creates one of the most memorable guitar riffs of his career, certainly blowing “Seven Nation Army’s” out of the water. It’s raunchy, rough, and everything you’ve come to expect from White. This is one of the best tracks from the album, an album that grows on me more and more as I listen to it.
Jimmy Fallon’s impression of Neil Young is impeccable, so much so, at times it’s hard to tell the difference. With the release of Blow Your Pants Off, and it’s comedy stylings, it’s easy to head for the laughs. I’m not saying take this whole thing seriously, but this track, the opening of the album stands out. This doesn’t feel like a funny song, though it is. It may be sentimentality, but the laughs just feel kind of awkward to me. The Fresh Prince theme is a weird one, because it doesn’t seem like it would lend itself to a singer/songwriter-ish approach, but works surprisingly well. Fallon’s vocals highlight it so well, he sells it, humor and all. This is a track that deserves to be on everyone’s year end lists.
M. Ward has been making a name for himself in recent years with groups like Monsters of Folk and She & Him. His first disc in three years, A Wasteland Companion, fells like a dream of sorts. Many of the songs are wispy, this song included. “The First Time I Ran Away” is an aural fairy tale, packed with visual splendor and a breezy melody to sweep you away for three minutes and eighteen seconds. This visual translates into what is one of my favorite music videos this year. There is nothing to hate about this song!
The first time the Avett Brothers tapped Rick Rubin, they created the greatest album of their career. The second time around, the band decided not to top it. Instead, they went around the side and embraced a few more diverse avenues. “Down with the Shine” plays to the Avett’s typical strengths, but even more so, this album is a bummer, death embraced throughout. The “shine” here refers to moonshine, and it’s introspection here leads our protagonist down terrible roads, losing control, being “taken for a ride.” We’ve all got demons, and we’ll take care of them in our own ways, but there is always a way out. The Brothers seem to provide just that, more and more, on every track. If you need a remedy for anything, pop in The Carpenter, and you’ll be cured of all that ails you!
For Jeff Martin enthusiasts, hearing that he had another project in the works was a miracle in its own right. The last we had heard, he teamed up with Steven Padin for an album called First Joke & Other Matters, where both artists would traded off song for song. With Pompton Lakes, this is more of a spiritual project, focusing on themes that concern God, forgiveness, and deeper meanings. “Home,” the lead single from the band’s 2012 album, Rest, is a beautiful slice of what they bring to the table. The musicianship between members, even in it’s simplest moments, is an utter joy. In a world that is now without the David Crowder Band, they fill the gap nicely, not that they’re trying to accomplish that. I love how their songs make me think; this is a band I get excited to see more and more with time.
Upong releasing Wrecking Ball the world heard what an angry Bruce Springsteen sounded like. He’s not just concerned, he wants change and he’s bound and determined to get it. “Shackled and Drawn” is very much inspired by Irish folk music, a steady back beat, representing the beating heart of man; knocked down, but resilient. As I’ve said before, with Springsteen, his songs are largely ambiguous. More so, and especially with this song, he speaks to everyone, not just a select few, the common man and he’s been doing that for years. Most of all he provides an inspiring message and melody to take with us, to keep going on, keep singing songs. There is healing for everyone even if it is temporary. Music can provide that healing and much more. If Rage Against the Machine is that extreme end, Bruce is the opposite. He’s composed and he’s here to inspire, tell you he knows how you feel. Feel inspired, and do great things, sometimes, that’s all you can ever do.
The ending of the Format, especially with Dog Problems being as great as it is, has always rubbed people the wrong way. Fun. almost makes up for that. I’ve heard many critics call them the Foster the People of 2012, but they’re more than that. The music is a bit more gimmick than serious. That’s not bad by any means, it’s just a matter of style. One that embraces a Queen, over the top style or the sake of over the top style in order to have it’s “fun.” Their name says it all; that period is a lot more than just aesthetic. “We Are Young” is a tribute to those nights out with friends, and you run into an ex or you realize that maybe you’re not the best thing for your particular significant other in your current relationship. But fuck it! You’re young, you’re immortal for just a little while, so why not just live it up. That’s what this song embraces, and you could be worse off…at least you have someone to carry you home by the end of this.
Dr. Dog’s Be the Void may be the band’s most commercial record yet. The great thing is though that it still embraces what makes the band great, like catchy hooks and introspective lyrics, and a sense of urgency. “These Days” is about not wanting to let go of the past, very much living in the moment. Who doesn’t have memories like this? Scott McKinney’s vocals have a tone to it similar to Caleb Followill. The album itself may be the closest you’ll ever get to a live performance captured in studio, it contains up tempo, fast style recordings, and “These Days” falls well into that category. It will be interesting to see if Dr. Dog follows this format on future recordings or will depart. Whatever they decide, it will be compelling and it will be great.
Most will know Craig Finn as the enigmatic front man for The Hold Steady. On his first solo disc, Craig is trying to release a few of those demons and lament on better times. “Rented Room” is a lament, whereas the album title - Clear Heart Full Eyes – is more a mantra to try to live up to. This song is about moving out after being with someone for so long, into this rented room; a confining space that’s as haunting as the protagonist them self. Finn’s protagonist is an interesting one, because he almost projects all of his thoughts on this room, looking for comfort and finding nothing but pain. It has a twinge of twang, but is better than any country lament you’ve heard before. Finn’s solo material is as compelling as anything he’s ever done. His characters are so right and pained, but written in such a way that your heart just goes out to them, or maybe I’m just a sucker. Whatever it is, his solo career will burn as bright as his time with the HS.
Everybody remembers where they were when the Needle Drop (Anthony Fantano) proclaimed The Money Store a 10/10 album. It almost felt like he was serving the hipster crowd, but then you actually picked up the album and your jaw just dropped. Even on their first mix tape, Exmilitary, Death Grips were a group that were pushing hip-hop beyond boundaries that had never been crossed before. Sure, there was some Wu-Tang in there and some Public Enemy, but this kind of music is nothing you’ve ever heard before. “I’ve Seen Footage” is about police brutality, as seen through MC Ride’s eyes, and hell is it brutal. The imagery Ride uses is so stark and brutal that I wouldn’t blame you if you needed counseling after listening to it. The song is made even more raunchy through the distorted melody provided by Zack Hill and Flatlander. This is a chilling album on the first and fiftieth listen.
This mostly Swedish super group, consisting of Bloodshy & Avant, as well as Andrew Wyatt, have been releasing music , periodically, as the group Miike Snow. “Paddling Out” is their latest album’s - Happy to You - first single. The track kicks off with a distorted piano riff, catchy, and ready for the dance floor. The lyrics are strange, as are the lyrics to most dance music, but Miike Snow have fun with it. It’s rare that side projects work so well together, but Miike Snow sound so natural in their element. The future is bright for this group, let’s hope it doesn’t only come out every three to four years.
Philip Moore and Beth Tacu23.lar have seen some trying times since their last effort, Upper Air. They broke up, and then got back together. This seems to have been for the better, as the band shrug off its past successes to make its greatest record yet. “Tuck the Darkness In” kicks the record off, and is a style of track that presents itself as trying to “get things off its chest.” The nice, breezy melody is full of appeal, which leads to the eeriest string section on tape this year. All of this leads to a journey of rebirth, a walk through the woods that’s refreshing. On this stroll, Bowerbirds found itself and in finding themselves have created quite the monument to stand on.
T. Swift’s departure from the pure country pop genre had come earlier in the year, courtesy of The Hunger Games. She continued this trend with the first single from her album, Red. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is Swift having fun with the type of songs she writes. This tune is supposedly about Jake Gyllenhaal, but regardless, she pokes fun at herself, her music, and her relationship experience. The melody is light, and easy to enjoy. It has hints of her country past, but only slightly. The lyrics are infectious and very sing songy. This is a song that will have you at “hello” or at least the first play. It’s fun, it’s T. Swift, get over it.
Among all the songs I’ve heard this year, “Springsteen” frustrates me more than any of them. Most of the conversation about it sounds like this: “well, it’s about Bruce Springsteen, isn’t it?” Well yes, and no; and then it becomes a forest for the trees situation. “Springsteen” is a song about remembering, and the part that music plays in it. The song boasts the line, “funny how a melody sounds like a memory,” a so, simple stupid lyric, that I’m surprised that nobody has written it before. That’s not an insult, it’s the truth. I kick myself for never writing anything like it before. That’s another nice element to this song; its simplicity, embraced in such a complex way that, once you embrace it, you’ll have chills. Whatever, I like this song, damn it!
Call me a sucker, but I like to support my local artists. At one time, Lana Del Rey (Lizzy Grant) or as she was know at the time, May Jailer, was a local artist I was enamored with. Fast forward a few years later, and she had become a viral video star with the song “Video Games.” I was amazed with her prowess and presence. Then she released “Born to Die” and it gave me chills. Say what you want about her, she’s got talent, a vision, and she’s achieving it. “Born to Die” is heartbreak on an extreme level, even if stereotypical at times. If it’s cliche to say that your relationship is born to die, well then so be it. It’s unique in it’s take, and the instrumentation is something refreshing for the pop genre. Whatever your reservations, this is great music, period.
Bible belt indie rock was something new for me, but the fact that it’s performed by a British band is all the more intriguing. Dry the River, despite it’s beautiful album art, made a light splash on the scene this year. “New Ceremony” is an infectious tune, full of big melodies and big imagery. The song’s content references a relationship that has ended, and even more so, embraces how scary it can be for it to end. The imagery used here is very symbolic and beautifully written, that it’s hard not to fall in love with that element. When the strings kick in, the song becomes even more heartbreaking. There’s a lot to love about this song and this band, truly one of the most underrated new bands of the year.
Shelton has had a huge year, especially with NBC’s The Voice, but this may just be his crowning achievement. “Drink on It,” from his 2011 album, Red River Blue, is full of so much swagger, but on a sympathetic level, that if the chicks aren’t falling for him after this, I call bull shit. This song has night time written all over it, and details one man’s exploits to be there for a woman after her relationship ended. Being there, that could lead to more, but he’s not moving too fast. The beautiful guitar on this track is as attractive as the woman in the official audio video for this track. I could stare at her for hours…okay back on track. If you think country is all about bull shit stereotypes, try this on. I think it will change your mind.
Who didn’t go nuts for this song at some point this year? Or at least hear it once? It was all over the web as part of the Internet Explorer 9 commercial, but damn its catchy as hell. Alex Clare’s brand of indie electronic music is sonically breathtaking, sprawling, and ambiguous. There are elements of dubstep all over it, but there are soulful elements as well, emanating from Clare’s great vocal range and style. It took nearly a year for this music to catch on in the U.S., but I’d say it was well worth it.
“Show Me the Place” is a time test kind of song, given the career that Cohen has had, it’s not surprising to hear a song like this come forth. This song plays out like a hymnal, with accompaniment from the organ and light piano touches, Cohen is bare, his voice is at the end of its tether. Not since “Hallelujah,” a song so haunting, and covered by a myriad of artists, has he been this personal or haunting on disc. The greatest thing about Leonard Cohen is his ability to take old themes and make them new again. Make them affecting, simple, and relatable to all of mankind.
Nick Zammuto, formerly of the Books, embarked on his first solo outing with great results. “Groan Man, Don’t Cry” showcases Zammuto’s quirky, but precise side. Granted, vocoder vocals aren’t for everybody, but on this track, they fit quite well with what the band is trying to accomplish. The organ flourishes add an element of Pink Floyd, “Welcome to the Machine” flair to the track, a gamble of sorts. Similar to George Lucas’ gamble on classical music in the Star Wars films. The guitar parts, played the way they are, are a brilliant additional asset to the aesthetic of the song, as is the bass to the track. More than anything, this track, as well as many others on the album, are well thought out, to the tiniest detail. One need only get lost in the sound.
Mirage Rock may be one of the easiest albums to fall in love with. After making their most stellar album to date - Infinite Arms – the group doesn’t skirt around it, but takes a slightly different direction. “How to Live” is Jayhawks inspired country pop, that you can take on the road, or at least feels like you’re traveling in a car all on its own. Similar to “Laredo,” but more introspective in looking back on life. The opening melody has a feeling of being stuck on repeat, or more precisely, of a scratch on a CD. That little aesthetic enhances the meaning of this song, especially as it returns toward the end of the track. Band of Horses are a tough group to find fault in, which is why I generally choose not to.
Chan Marshall, better known as Cat Power, speaks of Koyaanisqatsi on the opening track to her 2012 album, Sun. This track and subsequent album marks Cat Power’s foray into the world of electronic sampling, and though it’s so subtle, it’s pulled off exquisitely well for a first time venture. “Cherokee’s” themes are distinctly Native American, but the imagery is haunting regardless. It speaks to a society living out of balance with nature; Marshall’s delving into instrumentation adds further to the aesthetic of the track, as she’s kind of living out of balance, or at least was, with herself. Chan has always had an ability to reinvent herself when the need arose, or flat out, when she just wanted to. She’s always successful at it, and her records are proof positive of what an artist, that sticks to their guns, can accomplish.
Classically trained Andrew Bird has been bringing his unique style of pop music for years, and with Break It Yourself, possibly his finest set of tracks to date. “Give It Away” may be the most inventive bitter breakup song sonically created. Bird channels this bitter breakup into diplomacy between two nations as it were. Her nation, where she has a “worthless currency” and he asks her if she “gives it away for free.” It’s serious nature shouldn’t lend itself to laughs, but I can’t help but laugh at the mentality here. He even goes to extremes, hoping for asphyxiation in a pile of hay. Bird’s not for everybody, but his blend of pop with beautiful string arangements makes for some of the most inventive and genuine music on the scene.
Grizzly Bear is a band that has struggled to rectify its image with success and wide appeal. Their 2012 record, Shields, attempts to appease both sides, and does so with mixed results. “Yet Again” is the second single from the record, and carries with it a dark tone that is catchy, and easy to fall for. This song is a simple case of want vs. self-preservation or protection. The song comes off as a conversation with two emotionally damaged people. The melody plays out like an “end of the night” kind of tune, while the vocals here sound like they’re coming from someone who is apprehensive and nervous, trying to make the right decision. While this single is more widely appealing that “Sleeping Ute,” it’s still brilliant, and offers a lot for fans and new comers alike.
Jack and White are a group that’s heavily influenced by singer/songwriters of old and it shows in the music. “Winter EP” is their second set released since forming, and may be their best. “XYZ” is its crowning achievement; a comforting song about growing up, and just what life has to offer. Brooke White’s voice becomes this comforting affair, but one that tells you how its going to be and in turn, tells you what you need to hear. Jack Matranga’s guitar on this track is as soothing as the words that White offers up. The melody is something right out of a winter scene and in turn, causes me to reflect on where I live and just generally, where I am in life. This is my second most listened to song of the year. I can’t get it out of my head, and I love it.
Frank Ocean made a big splash last year with the “Nostalgia, Ultra” mix tape, a release that offered up a lot of promise to the R&B genre. Aside from working with Odd Future on its second mix tape, – “The OF Tape, Vol. 2″ – Frank dropped Channel Orange, a rebirth of sorts to R&B. He took R&B and brought it back to basics, this time with modern instrumentation. In short, he brought the simple stupid approach to R&B, focusing on his lyrics and vocal delivery more than the song’s instrumentation. There are so many places where he can fail, those high notes faulter, but he hits them, every time, in genuine fashion. His performance is top notch, and if he doesn’t have someone eating out of his hand with it, then its a crime.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis is a dream team of sorts, especially with the release of two smash hits last year, “Wing$” and “Same Love.” The long awaited release of this group’s debut album, The Heist, has led to one of the most hilarious singles to be released this year, “Thrift Shop.” The song is “thrifty” in nature; it’s a funny take on going shopping, but instead, we’re talking thrift stores, as the title suggests. Macklemore is hilarious as he buys “clothes that smell like R. Kelly’s sheets,” complete with an extended “pissssssss.” This song is more than just a hand-me- down, Lewis brings it with great production. He uses a “fill the spaces” kind of mentality, but does it with precision; even Pink Floyd could have been jealous back in the day. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis make one impeccable team, filling a void left by Outkast…well, not completely, but still, “this is fucking awesome.”
Killer Mike has been in the game for well over a decade, but, R.A.P. Music is his debut release. The album is in the vein of Public Enemy and N.W.A., if only… Killer Mike takes this further. If those previous bands mentioned are the inspiration, than Killer Mike is pulling the trigger. The sample to the song is filled with so much tension that it feels like a getaway chase, like one man on the trigger about to shoot, only to realize that he had already fired the gun. Killer Mike has the ability to tell you how it is, he prefaces the song by saying, “homey, I don’t play around.” His vision scares the shit out of me, but with good reason. This isn’t the apocalypse, this is real fucking life. You can’t listen to this song, and not come out unchanged. You also can’t watch this music video without wondering why it wasn’t taken off of YouTube
Stasia “Stas” Iron and Catherine “Cat” Harris-White, known simply as THEESatisfaction, got their start on Shabazz Palace’s 2011 offering Black Up. Since then, Sub-Pop signed them, creating a more diverse label, formerly know for embracing the singer/songwriter sub-genre. Their debut album, awE naturalE, is a masterpiece infusing disco, funk, soul, and everything great that the 70′s had to offer. “QueenS” feels like it stepped right out of 70′s era disco and given a modern take. You could feature it on Soul Train, God bless it, and it would fit right in. It has a bit of a trance element to it, as the song repeats, “whatever you do, don’t funk with my groove.” The next step in THEESatisfaction’s evolution should be an interesting one. I don’t quite know what to expect, and that makes them a threat.
Converses’ “3 Artists, 1 Song” series has largely fallen on deaf ears, that was until these three artists got together to create “Do Ya Thang.” This series is known for taking three artists that don’t have anything in common, sticking them together, and hoping that they come up with something worthwhile. The success of this project, comes in Gorillaz and Murphy’s similarities, but also in catering to Andre 3000′s vocal abilities. Damon Albarn, from the Gorillaz, kicks of the track with ambiguous lyrics, lacking deep meaning, but sends it to Andre 3000 who puts forth some of the hardest hitting raps of his career. His flow is ON point, on the edge of a knife, one slip and it could end, bloody. The Gorillaz production is top notch too, as is Murphy’s; so seamless that you can’t even tell who’s is who’s. You’ve never heard a track like this, and you never will again. If you’re up for it, check out the 13 minute version on YouTube!
2012 saw the debut album of Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d. city – drop this year. A pseudo concept record, the album focuses on young Kendrick Lamar, going through adolescence and being forced to make decisions that are common to many of us. From drinking to drugs, violence and women, this album touches on various vices that many of us are exposed to in our youth and even later. This single specifically deals with succumbing to alcoholism. The sample here sounds like something out of 90′s East Coast/West Coast rap; it’s a melody that immerses the listener in a drowning sensation. Kendrick raps about why people drink and sure fire methods to immerse yourself in your beverage of choice. The hook to this track references getting “a pool full of liquor and you dive in it.” Kendrick has one of the brightest young careers in Hip-Hop. The future can only burn bright for him
In the wake of Nickel Creek, Chris Thile embarked on numerous solo-ish projects. The guys in Punch Brothers came together after Thile assembled them for one of those projects. Three albums later and the Brothers have finally harnessed what the true vision of this band is. “Movement and Location” is a blistering showcase of the band’s musicianship, Thile’s vocal abilities, and one of the best sounding banjo’s you’ve ever heard on tape, or digital, or whatever. The song builds, and builds over time, to a towering crescendo and torrent of banjo; if you’re not in banjo heaven by the end of this track, have another listen. With part bluegrass and part pop, Punch Brothers occupy a unique niche in music. There’s no telling where this will go, but the possibilities are endless.
Joshua Tillman, better known as Father John Misty here, cut his chops in the acclaimed group Fleet Foxes. Here, Tillman pays tribute to life in the way he see’s fit, celebrating with sex of course! This song, instrumentally, is the most radio friendly in the collection on Fear Fun, but the way Tillman pulls the album together and presents it, is similar to a novel. Even the liner notes have a quote of inspiration at the beginning, although this one in particular is depressing. The story goes, with “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” that Tillman was forced to go to a funeral for one of his grandfathers, and just didn’t think the way they pay tribute to the dead was fitting. On Halloween, in a cemetery, he got the idea that sex would be a better tribute, as so it unfolds here. FJM’s blatant use of imagery, sets him apart. He’s not afraid to be open, and that openness has led to one of the best tracks of the year.
K.R.I.T.’s streak for spectacular mix tapes continued this year with the release of 4EvaNaDay; which served as a window into the man’s daily life. “Boobie Miles” refers to James “Boobie” Miles, the subject of the book, Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream. K.R.I.T. does a great job referencing James through the sampling; a late night saxophone with subtle drumming. The sound is so crisp, that even the quality is much to admire here. K.R.I.T. takes the song and a bunch of sports analogies and metaphors, and turns them into an inspiring message of taking opportunities when you can, and what it means to be a leader. There is a lot to love about this track and this mixtape. K.R.I.T. is easily, Hip-Hop’s greatest secret weapon.
Vance Kotrla, Jody Stark, and Kurt Bloom, collectively known as Sci-Fi Romance, are one of musics most unknown and under-appreciated groups out there today. Most likely, you know nothing about them, and THAT is a shame. The Ghost of John Henry serves as one of the more genius compilations in music today, a concept that takes John Henry, from the legends, to real life; aurally, beautifully, and with so much passion, that it bleeds through the speakers. “We Used to Sing” is brilliant song of sorts. The songs in reference here, the ones that John Henry used to sing, were old slave spirituals, ones about how the promised land was coming soon, a hope to look forward to. Since John fell in love, he can’t sing these songs anymore, at least “the way he used to.” Kotrla and company does a fantastic job, isolating the character of John Henry, making his story more tragic, giving it heart, and other relatable qualities. Stark’s cello soars over this track, making it catchy in a creative way. Kotrla’s uniquely, deep voice announces the track in a spiritual sort of way, similar to those songs that he used to sing. Bloom, the ever steady back beat. If there is one album, one song you hear this year, it’s this. This is a band that shouldn’t go unnoticed.