Rob Masiello reviews Grouper's "Grid of Points."
Two music gurus. A year's worth of musical talent.
One epic draft.
This is going to be hard.
The first pick that comes to mind is Kesha, for many reasons. It's an injustice that for most of her career, Kesha was noted more for her party-girl aesthetic rather than her underrated songwriting and vocal chops. After a lengthy legal battle resulting from ongoing abuse by her producer Dr. Luke, Kesha finally released her new album “Rainbow” last year. The album isn't perfect—it's too eclectic and brash to strive for perfection—but it shows Kesha coming into her own as a songwriter. Her forays into country are genuinely intriguing, and lead single "Praying" could elicit shivers from a brick.
Aside from the music, Kesha deserves credit for her bravery. The latter half of this year has seen many courageous actors and musicians take a stand against the abuse the entertainment industry has long permitted. Taylor Swift made the cover of Time Magazine for her legal victory against an assaulter this year, so it's not hard to wonder why no one was apparently listening when Kesha first made accusations against the major producer back in 2013. As it stands, “Rainbow” is as vibrant as its namesake, and as endearing as its creator. More important than sounding perfect, Kesha sounds triumphant.
Alright, so my first pick I'm actually scrapping because I was mistaken on when her big song came out (that was going to be Bishop Briggs, for whatever it's worth), and so I move right to my originally-second-pick, but if you're reading this you were totally my first pick the whole way...Sampha!
I've been keeping tabs on Sampha for over half a decade at this point, but this was the first year he came out with his own full-length album, and it had some instant classics on it. "Blood On Me" is an aggressive banger. "(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano" is something else though, man.
He wrote this while he was taking care of his sick mother. It was the last song he sang to her before she passed. Its beauty is in its simplicity. Sampha's voice has a natural strain that makes the song's simple elements and simple narrative cross you up and hit you with incredibly complex and raw emotion. Having previously only been exposed to Sampha's work with SBTRKT ("Something Goes Right" is an all-time jam) I loved being exposed to this Sampha.
Sampha gave us his debut album and the most beautiful song of the year. This was his breakout year, and he's going to be around for quite some time, I hope.
*extremely Mike Nelson voice* "I'm 97% sure we will not overlap."
Well Mike, you already nabbed one of my picks. Sampha’s album is gorgeous, and well worth the long wait. "(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano" might be my favorite song this year. It's so good and pure. There's no irony or overwrought attempts to create drama, just a beautiful tribute to his mother. Thanks for the lovely write-up on it—even though I'm bitter you swiped it.
I'm going to follow-up with Phil Elverum (who records as Mount Eerie) for releasing one of the most devastating albums in this, or any, year. Written in the months following his wife Genevieve's death from pancreatic cancer at age 35, “A Crow Looked at Me” explores the end of life with such intimacy that it borders on perverse. "Death is real," Elverum repeats at several points over the course of the album, as if the most profound meaning he can draw from her passing is also the most banal.
There's no great philosophical musings in his words, and no earth-shattering insight into what it means to live or die. Instead, it's his observations of the world around him that leave a listener breathless. In "Forest Fire," he mutters, "I remember thinking the last time it rained here you were alive still / and that this same long heat that I was in contained you." It's a couplet so saturated with grief that listening is almost unbearable.
In a way, there's never been an album (that I'm aware of) quite like “A Crow Looked at Me.” It's so raw and visceral that the songs almost don't seem inspired by death, but rather some strange in-between world where a loved one's breath still lingers and their scent clings to a pile of clothes. In the first song, a package Genevieve had ordered arrives the week after she passes. Death is real, but we're left to make sense of the shapes and spaces our loved ones continue to fill after they're gone.
Allow me to address a few things:
- Apologies for the 10-day delay in continuing this chain.
- I take back my apologies, it was Christmas, you savage.
- I remembered seeing you and Ford talking about Sampha in some Twitters, and that dawned on me right when I was making my pick. Had to go for the jugular. I regret nothing.
- Mount Eerie, man, I have many thoughts after the three songs I got through on that album, but I will respectfully say that we have plenty of areas we don't overlap in our music loves. There's a level of despair I care not to access on this day, and he is the portal trying to suck me down to it.
Okay, I'm on to my second pick, and I'm totally sure how to phrase it. I'm going to play it completely unfair here and say it's Future Islands/Sam Herring. Herring is the lead singer in Future Islands, and we'll get to his singling-out in a few sentences, but let's talk about the full band for a minute. I saw Future Islands back in 2014 when they were touring for their album Singles. I only knew one song at the time—“Seasons (Waiting On You)"—and I left knowing I would actively try to never miss another concert of theirs. Now, we're not doing our Top Artists of 2014 here, so let's flash forward to 2017, the year we're actually discussing.
In 2017, Future Islands put out what I consider both their best album to date and the best album of any artist this year. It is a complete, beginning-to-end ‘80s-style dance party fueled by synth and the most passionate, must-see frontman in the game right now, Sam Herring. It was surprising to me to be so entertained by a studio album from them, knowing it only gets better to see Herring belting out their songs on stage, gliding back-and-forth as if on ice skates and dropping his vocals at times to let the devil in. This was the year everyone knew they should go see the spectacle that is Future Islands in concert, which is why they got dropped onto the main stages at festivals all summer.
Meanwhile, Herring popped up on a couple of my favorite collaborations of the year, "I Don't Know" by BadBadNotGood and "Paper Trails" by Celebration. The latter of which is an absolute beauty—one of my favorite tracks of the year. Here's hoping that if you're reading this, this was the last year you didn't go see Future Islands. Rob, I'll grab you a ticket next time they tour, and we can dance all these emotions out.
Now you're forcing me once again to defend my indefensible aversion to this band. I appreciate that Herring's signature howl is a unique force in the modern music landscape, but I can't bring myself to enjoy listening to it. He's featured as the vocalist on the Clams Casino track "Ghost in a Kiss," and I would love the song if it was anyone else singing.
I'm going to pull another 180 and give props to Lorde as one of my favorite artists this year. Lorde's debut “Pure Heroine” feels like a lifetime ago, but it holds up. The sleek, dubby production of that album was unlike anything else on the radio back then. The fact that she scored major chart hits with such understated songs is a small miracle, even more so considering she was only 16 at the time. Lorde at 16 was cooler than I can ever hope to be.
Last year’s follow up “Melodrama” is brighter, poppier, and louder than her debut. In other words, the shades of Burial-esque production have been wiped away by Jack Antonoff. But Lorde's songwriting is stronger than ever, and the whole thing has a warm, sticky vibe that gives the songs a feverish quality. It feels like the messiest night out of your life, with all the peaks and valleys that entails. Her lyrics sometimes even reveal a subtle sense of humor that belies her age.
I'm not sure that any of Lorde's recent singles have done well on the radio, and that's a shame. Not because rotations equal success, but because this is music that deserves to be heard by a wide audience. In a year that saw several A-list pop stars make self-conscious attempts to rebrand (Miley, Katy, Taylor), Lorde's confidence and talent leave her standing above the rest.
Lorde is a fantastic pick. While it didn't latch on with me as much as some other albums did, I recognize that was a strong album and understand why everyone fell in love with it. "Liability" was my personal favorite there.
Okay, so my next pick is regrettable in a number of ways. First, ugh, I can't believe I'm doing this. Second, this will either be someone you were hoping to pick or someone you'll be greatly disappointed in me for picking. And third, I really need to pick a woman at some point in this exchange. I am confident in saying I listened to and enjoyed more female-led music this year than any other year in my life, and yet here I am...picking another dude probably subconsciously because he's such a babe. I'll get around to it, but first I have to make sure you don't steal this guy while he's still on the board.
2017 was the year of...Harry Styles?
Here's what just happened. I picked my nose, and you saw me pick my nose, and even though I'd love to wait and see what your reaction is before I shove this booger into my mouth, I'm just shoving it in.
The first song I encountered from the One Direction graduate's solo debut is a song called "Carolina." It sounds so much like T. Rex that I was immediately a Styles convert, and his album only reinforced that with a bunch of songs that sound nothing like "Carolina." There is some legitimately beautiful music on this album, with the ballad "Sign of the Times" being the favorite of the audience-at-large. Personally, I'll take the harmonies of "Ever Since New York" as my highlight and the lonely and desperate chorus of "From the Dining Table" as my second favorite. My issue with the album as a whole is that it's kind of all over the place. But he's a 23-year-old putting out his first record, he'll find his way, and if he pieces together a more complete album it's going to be a knockout.
And to top it all off, he was one of the main characters in “Dunkirk,” a movie and a theater experience I loved even though I [spoiler link alert] completely misinterpreted one of the story lines. Have yourself a freakin' year, young Styles.
I'm not even sure where to begin. I'll keep it short and just say that your booger metaphor is going to stay with me for the rest of my life, in the best way possible.
I wouldn't have thought to include Harry Styles, but have no reservations about him being on our list. Normally I'd scoff at a young artist going for such bigness on a debut album, but he pulls it off. It's especially refreshing compared to other young men like Ed Sheeran and Shawn Mendes who find legions of fans despite churning out disposable little ditties. Plus, he just seems like a decent guy.
Now that we've officially squashed any semblance of indie cred Writer's Bone may have had, I'd like to offer my praises for Kelela. We've waited an eternity for her to finally release a proper debut album, and “Take Me Apart” is a stunner. The comparisons to FKA Twigs are inevitable, but while Twigs' music sounds claustrophobic and urgent, Kelela's latest batch of songs takes on a more ethereal quality. Each artist has crafted her on unique take on contemporary R&B, but with FKA Twigs staying mostly quiet this year, it was Kelela's turn to shine.
Kelela injects a Bjork-like experimentalism into the album's best songs, and even the more straightforward R&B cuts are sublime. In the sultry lead single "LMK," she asserts her control in a relationship by reminding a lover, "it ain't that deep, no one's tryna settle down." My personal favorite is "Enough," which stutters over a gunshot beat before melting down into a mesmerizing, hypnotic coda. Music (of any genre) doesn't get any sexier than this.
I love it when you give me new stuff to listen to. Even if it's Mount Eerie. BRB, gotta listen to this one.
Alright, I gave Kelela a whirl, and I see where the Twigs comparisons come from, but I wouldn't have made the connection myself. Kelela has a sound that I find much more accessible. While I recognized it was an album I would need to give multiple listens to let it latch on, I was still enjoying the beats. Nice pick, I'm gonna give that record a little more time before I have anything useful to say about it.
I have a big pile of artists I'm still looking at here and only two picks left. This is like going through a breakfast buffet. I know what's going to cover the base of my plate, but I'm going to try stacking a bunch of mini chocolate croissants on top and balance this thing as I walk back to my table.
I mentioned earlier that I want to make sure I get a female artist or a female band in here, and I'm going for it. You picked the two monsters of the year already in Kesha and Lorde. I really enjoyed SZA's debut album, and I know she would be a lot of people's first pick in this here draft. Same goes for Big Thief, though I'm in the minority who likes their last album better. Alvvays would also be on a lot of people's lists, and rightfully so because they came out with a big pile of good tunes this year. Katy Perry had one of my top songs of the year. Dua Lipa had a couple major hits. Sylvan Esso released their most challenging music to date. I really liked what Rose Elinor Dougall and Middle Kids and Weaves did this year on the rock side of the house.
That was too many croissants, I know, but I needed to make sure I stacked them nice and high and give credit where credit is due. But one of my top albums of the year came from a little band called Hurray for the Riff Raff, so they're my next pick.
Start to finish, “The Navigator” is one of the best listens of the year, whether you're like me and just want pleasing sounds or you're like you, Rob, and pay closer mind to the lyrics and the message being sent. It essentially happens over the course of two acts, with the second half being a powerful look at gentrification that gives strength to those who are displaced. I have a really tough time picking out a favorite from this album because it's just all so good. Purely on sound, I have to go with "Rican Beach," but the obvious highlight from the album is "Pa'lante," which gives countless nods to Puerto Rican heritage, from which the front-woman for the band—Alynda Lee Segarra—descends. Easily one of the most powerful songs I heard this year, especially when you package the message with it.
I feel comfortable saying this was their best album to-date, and I'm excited for them to continue to grow as musicians and as storytellers in the years to come.
I'm going to start collecting your metaphors and similes, and assemble them into a page-a-day calendar. Now you have me wanting a mini-chocolate croissant. My artist of the year is mini-chocolate croissants. A brunch plate full of them.
Finishing this piece off is stupidly hard. I normally like to stand up for the little guys, but I haven't exactly done that so far. I've definitely noticed myself going soft with age. If you told me five years ago that I'd spend most of 2017 listening to Kesha and Lorde, I would have keeled over. But more than allowing myself to enjoy pop music, I realized that to view all pop as nothing more than a commodity is reductive at best, and can quickly descend into sexism.
I initially went into this last slot with an agenda to pick an experimental artist (Ben Frost, Blanck Mass, Yves Tumor), to prove that I haven't lost my edge. But instead, I'll be more honest and highlight the young woman who created my flat-out favorite album of the year: Julien Baker.
Julien Baker's sophomore album “Turn Out the Lights” isn't for everyone. It's almost relentlessly dour, riddled with letdowns and losses and addictions. But it's also beautiful. Not "pretty." It's lump-in-your-throat, head-in-your-hands beautiful.
Baker tackles issues like mental illness and queerness with such grace that her songs approach a spiritual level of transcendence. She finds poetry in the bleakest moments, singing lines like, “I could have sworn the sirens were the Holy Ghost just speaking in Morse code." Every second of the album is exquisitely timed, whether it's a distortion pedal, string arrangement, or whispered male vocal harmony. Baker herself sounds on the verge on vanishing, but determined to exist.
2017 was a tremendously awful year for the world at large. “Turn Out the Lights” was born from one woman's journey, but reflects back the worry and desperate beauty of our planet.
Honestly, I can't say anything about “Turn Out the Lights” you haven't already. It is a beautiful listen, and it may be my favorite album you've brought up so far. AND. And. It's not super depressing. Then again, my definition of "super depressing" music has changed drastically since you introduced me to that Mount Eerie album. Nice list, Rob.
And now to list all the artists I didn't pick before getting to my #5. I had a lot of trouble narrowing this down, but it came down to a single principle I've been following throughout this conversation. Is this the best year this artist has ever had? This eliminates almost every band I was considering for this spot. Kendrick Lamar, Grizzly Bear, Action Bronson, Real Estate, Algiers, The National, Dan Auerbach—I really enjoyed what they did this year, but they've done better.
And so I come to group of artists who I haven't talked about yet but I really wish I could talk about. De Osos, Black Joe Lewis, Moses Sumney, Ásgeir, Alvvays (I know I already mentioned them) Jay Som, Greta Van Fleet. To me, they all broke out this year. They exceeded what they have done in their past, and when all is said and done with their careers this will either be viewed as their peaks or a part of their peaks. I can't wait for more from each one of them.
But even more than them, I can't wait for more from Benjamin Clementine, my final selection. Clementine delivered what is simultaneously some of the most beautiful and most challenging music I listened to in 2017 in his second full album, “I Tell A Fly.” It's an album that has such a strong start—from "Farewell Sonata" through the epic and erratic "Phantom Of Aleppoville"—you almost lose track of the rest of the album. "Phantom of Aleppoville" is just so stupid good. It's about eight different songs in one, and I'm sure at least half the people who listen to it will not love it, but I can tell you if you're one of those people you are both wrong and dumb. It's conflicting, it's emotional, it's silly, and Clementine shows massive range within the course of one long and simple message against bullying. I know this was not Clementine's breakout to the masses, but it was his breakout to me, and I am thrilled to have an eccentric of his talent in my listening rotation.
Adam Vitcavage liked lists long before Buzzfeed figured out how to monetize them. So now he wants to share his love of lists with you. Each week, he’ll round up a list featuring anything anything pop culture related from literature to music to cool designers that you should buy prints from. Welcome to LISTcavage.
Are you over all of those end of year lists telling you why the same group of songs are the best of the year? Okay, I get it. Kendrick Lamar is king. Kesha went from that singer with a dollar sign in her name to producing one of the most beautifully heartbreaking albums of all time. Those are great. But here are 17 songs from 2017 that might have flown under the radar. Or not. Either way, check out this playlist.
“Yours” by Now, Now
Their first single in half a decade—“SGL”—was NPR’s seventh favorite song of the year and my first. Their second single was more synth-filled, but just as catchy. Cacie Dalager’s vocals over Brad Hale’s instrumentation is alt-pop heaven.
“Same Dark Places” by JR JR
After an episode on stage, Josh Epstein wrote this infectious song about how we all might have similar demons, which is okay as long as we know where to find the light. He and Daniel Zott have been slaying for years, but, according to Twitter, they plan on just releasing a slew of singles for the next year or so.
“Runaway” by A.W.
A.W. released quite a few albums under their previous name Allison Weiss. Those albums were lovesick ego power ballads that were terrific. Now, they shifted their sound and wrote one of the catchiest songs of the year alongside Tegan Quin from Tegan and Sara.
“Call It Off” by Chvrches (Tegan and Sara cover)
Since I mentioned the twin sisters earlier, I figured I should include one of the covers from their 2007 album that was re-released with unique covers. Lauren Mayberry is one of my favorite vocalists right now and this is one one my favorite Tegan and Sara songs. It was a perfect match.
“Recite Remorse” by Waxahatchee
Katie Crutchfield's "Out in the Storm" album got a lot of recognition in the indie world this year lead by “Never Been Wrong.” It was the slower burning “Recite Remorse” that resonated with me so much though. Her vocals and the ambient chords are the perfect sonic blend that I’m always seeking.
“Management of Savagery” by Richard Edwards
He was the leader of a pretty popular (in the cult sense) band called Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s. This is a random song off his official debut album that I just really love. He told me in an interview that it was inspired by how awful ISIS made him feel. So that’s… pretty different
“Objects” by Big Thief
They’re is another premiere indie band from 2017 with a lot of songs getting a lot of street cred. This song is a deep, deep, deep cut from their album that just has a lot of short, sweet guitar riffs.
“Never Start” by Middle Kids
These Aussies have five songs to their name and I’m cheating by suggesting you definitely listen to their most popular “Edge of Town” along with this song. Both are just the type of indie rock that you would imagine being in a Michael Cera movie ten years ago, but with the refined taste that the indie blogosphere has come to demand now.
“North South East West” by Japandroids
These guys were topping all of the "best of" lists a few years back, but I haven’t seen too many people crushing on their recent album as much. Maybe it's worse? I don’t think so and this song is definitely catch. Check out their older stuff if there’s even an inkling of “oh yeah, that’s nice” when listening to this song.
“Take It” by Jay Som
Jay Som was actually the breakout band in the alternative world. Melina Duterte created it all herself from the crunchy guitars to the no-gimmick drumming. “The Bus Song” was in most people’s (including myself) top indie rock songs of the year. But I always had a soft spot for this track that’s nearly at the end of the album.
“Guardian” by Tigers Jaw
These guys sound like your favorite band from high school. They perfected that power pop punk vibe and have a lot of fun playing live. It’s easy to turn on any of their songs and feel nostalgia even though they released this song in 2017.
“Ride It Out” by TW Walsh
This man is criminally underrated in mainstream rock. The stuff he does my layering so many pleasant sounds but giving them all space to breath is outstanding. He’s a jack of all trades and he has mastered them all.
“Hot Thoughts” by Spoon
Speaking of giving room to breath, this song does so much, but it’s not in your face. It’s fun, but in the kind of way that sneaks up on you.
“Treasure” by Company of Thieves
Company of Thieves put out two unique records a few years ago and then basically disbanded. Genevieve, their lead singer put out some ultra pop music, but they reunited this year and recorded this single that blends their old quirky rock with some poppy undertones.
“Inner Lover” by Land of Talk
While everyone is shifting toward poppy synths, Land of Talk keeps it absolutely dreamy on this song. From Elizabeth Powell’s vocals to the soft snare drum hits. It’s relaxing without being tiresome.
“Shades” by Alexandra Savoir
I don’t actually know too much about Savoir and honestly haven’t listened to her album that much, but this song kills me. That funky bass tickling my ears in the background is just… *mwah*.
“Praying” by Kesha
Screw what I said in my intro. This song is too gorgeous not to put on this list.
Editor’s note: Toward the end of the summer, I asked music gurus Rob Masiello and Mike Nelson to compile a list of fall music. It turned into a weepy email exchange that lingered for weeks. There are some great tunes on this list, but brace your heart for whatever palpitations, longings, or stirrings that may result.—Daniel Ford
Rob Masiello: I should preface by saying that I'm at my moodiest during the fall, and my playlist selections will shamelessly reflect that.
Mike Nelson: The things I associate most with the fall are apples, foliage, and getting sick for an uncontrollable amount of time. My criteria for music that fits the bill here is going to be super weird.
Rob: I'm going to take your apple reference and run with it, even if that makes this selection a bit too on-the-nose. Fiona Apple's "Parting Gift" is the perfect soundtrack for regretting your summer fling. "Oh you silly, stupid pasttime of mine" she scoffs, full of scorn where other songwriters would be tempted to imbue such a line with wistfulness. Apple's trademark sardonic wit ("you looked as sincere as a dog does when it's the food on your lips with which it's in love") pairs exquisitely with that crisp autumn air.
Mike: We're only one song in, and you've already introduced me to a beautiful song I had never heard before. Without even glancing at the lyrics, you know it's a song about heartbreak (or at least a break-up) from the style and from her changes in cadence and volume. Like Fiona, I, too, associate the fall with breaking up. I don't know why; I can't recall any major breakup in my life happening at this time of year. At least not after like, eighth grade, and if I'm going to sit down and figure out who of the many out-of-my-league ladies dumped me during the fall in middle school, we're going to be stuck on this email for months.
So if we're talking breakups, heavy emotions, and not wanting to let things go, I have to make my top pick "Bell Bottom Blues" by Derek & The Dominos. There's no better musical manifestation of hopeless, forbidden love than D&TD's “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.” And if you don't know the story behind that, I highly recommend you look back on it.
But like, if we want to keep things light, let's just pretend "Bell Bottom Blues" is about summer going away and how sad Eric Clapton was that summer was leaving. Yeah. Summer.
Rob: I'm glad we've wasted no time delving into the depressing aspects of the season (I certainly played no part in steering it that way). For me, fall has always been about leaving, about endings. My inability to process summer's passing is no doubt somewhat juvenile, but I am who I am.
Anyway, "Bell Bottom Blues" aches. And it's a more fleshed out rock song than anything I'll likely offer up over the course of this conversation, so anyone reading this who doesn't feel like falling asleep would be wise to check it out.
I'll also dig back into the ‘70s and submit Nick Drake's "Place to Be." Anything in his catalog would be suitably autumnal for these purposes, but when Drake sings, "I was strong, strong in the sun" on this track, that glimmer of hope amplifies the tragedy of a talent gone too soon.
Mike: Yes. The acoustic bouncing around the room and the soft voice with a little hint of "raspy" at the start makes you feel like Drake just woke up and started singing this as he rolled out of bed in the morning. I, personally, have never slept with a guitar, but I imagine if you do it enough times you figure out how to snap right into a tune.
I want to dive down this rabbit hole with you and just scream Ray Lamontagne's "Like Rock & Roll and Radio," but these first few songs have me down, and I'm sure they have the seven readers of this post down as well. Fall isn't just coming down from the summer, there's a certain excitement to fall. Sure, nature is dying all around you, and winter is com…winter is close. But going back to school was as fun as it was dreadful. For me, I liked only the whitest of music when I was in school. Classic rock. Grunge. Dave Matthews Band. But over time being a DMB fan exposed me to a bunch of great other musicians they had on as guests or as opening acts.
Which brings me to Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. I could spin a wheel and pull out any song of theirs, but I'll roll with "The Sinister Minister," which was their first song I had ever heard a clip of. I once heard this band described as the Harlem Globetrotters, and I have a tough time disagreeing with that except "Futureman," which is a pirate that plays a "drumitar."
I'd love to take a deep dive into the lyrics for you, Rob, but...well...there aren't any.
Rob: I'm glad you think we'll get seven readers. I'm thinking maybe five (including me and you) and then Daniel can read it two more times and get us to seven. Not to try and one-up you on bad taste, but my favorite band in high school was Evanescence, so...
I won't pontificate anymore about why fall is the worst season, but I'll never forgive you for calling it exciting. I'll have to give a listen to the Fleckstones when I'm not at work. I'd try to roll with something sonically similar for the sake of ~flow~ but since I've never heard them, I'll just have to wing it. (Side note: somewhere in the course of this week, I remembered that Fiona Apple has a song called "Pale September," and I'll never forgive myself for not using it.)
I'll evade the singer-songwriter fare for a moment for something a little more lush (but still hushed and lovely). Mutual Benefit's songs always let the light peek through, even though the passage of time never seems far from the band's thoughts. "Advanced Falconry" is probably the closest thing to a straight-up love song I'd ever put on a playlist, but it makes me swoon even in these chilly months.
Mike: My third pick is going to be extremely literal and come with a great deal of recency bias. Last night I saw one of the great live acts around: Future Islands. Their album, “The Far Field,” is easily my top album of 2017 so far, but I have to roll with their biggest hit: undeniable all-time jam, "Seasons (Waiting On You)." Not just because it's an awesome song, but also because the lyrics sync up pretty perfectly with this weird little "what is fall?" discussion we've had. This is what fall is: just whatever comes between summer and winter. We're being tugged between these two rascals:
"As it breaks, the summer will warm/but the winter will crave what is gone/will crave what has all...gone away"
As for your Mutual Benefit tune, it's funny, I had never heard them (him?) before, and I had the new Andrew Bird album queued up right behind it. And from the first 20 seconds or so, I thought it had skipped "Advanced Falconry" and jumped right into the Andrew Bird album. Beautiful tune. I'm saving that one to the archives. Thanks for the listen.
Rob: I just have never been able to get on board with Future Islands. Probably simply because some horrible guy I knew in grad school always told me how great they are. It's not fair, but it is what it is. But "Seasons" is a jam, and the band's performance of that song on Letterman a few years ago is a must-see for anyone who hasn't yet.
The ‘80s/new-wave-y sound of Future Islands is inspiring me to get straight up corny with this next song. I can't listen to Rod Stewart's "Forever Young" without crying (fight me), so it'll be the only track I skip when listening to our completed playlist. But summer is over, the kids are going back to school, youth is fleeting, etc. It's maudlin and maybe even tasteless, but so am I, so whatever.
I've now sat with this email open for about 30 minutes, debating if I really want to hit send and include Rod Stewart on our playlist. Here goes nothing.
Mike: Somebody hurt you real bad once, didn't they?
I don't mind having Rod on the list one bit, though my song choice would have been a little different, and here's why! I've been binging on “The Office” for a little while now, since I never watched the show in its entirety, and I can only assume Netflix will pull the plug on it before the year is through. The British version—aka the original, aka I can hold it over every basic chump that I watched that before the American adaptation—has a phenomenal theme song, pulled from Rod's "Handbags & Gladrags."
And so now I come to a theme we have totally flown past here: the fall means television is back! Or, at least, it meant that when most TV shows were watched on a weekly basis and not just dumped into an app for us gluttons to ravage without any consideration to the elements of pacing and time in art. There are some shows I still watch on a weekly basis—most notably “Survivor,” which I will likely never stop watching—but it feels like forever since the last time I gathered around the TV to watch a show's premiere besides “'vivor,” and that brings me to college when I would gather in my friend's dorm every Thursday night to watch “The O.C.” I never had a fake ID, so I wasn't old enough to get out to the bars yet on Thursday. Get over it.
Anyway, the show's theme song, Phantom Planet's "California," is one that not only stands out as a real song that could hold its own without the "theme song" tag, but it puts you directly in a place and time in life. And for most of the show's viewers, I think it also means you're being suffocated by enough drama to make you cry.
Rob: Wow, with TV premieres you've uncovered a whole new dimension of the season I hadn't even thought of. That Phantom Planet song is perfect because it's pure nostalgia, both for the memories it unearths in anyone aged 25-40, as well as the general wistfulness of the song itself. My dream job would be deciding which songs to put in TV/movie credits. How do I land that? Anyone know a guy? Actually, it's probably better for the world that I don't have that job. No one would want to hear "Forever Young" as the theme song for “Rugrats.”
So I guess this will be my fifth and last song. I believe Daniel's original request was for five each, and any more than that would probably be self-indulgent anyway. I could throw a curve ball here, finish with something buoyant and optimistic. But instead I'll stay planted in this weepy niche I've carved for myself.
“Songs About Leaving” by Carissa’s Wierd (intentionally misspelled) is perhaps my favorite album of all time, and contains the most autumnal music you will ever hear. It is one of those albums that just feels special, and you want to hold it as close to your heart as possible. The track called “Low Budget Slow Motion Soundtrack Song for the Leaving Scene” feels like the most appropriate way for me to end this piece.
The cascading melody and piano flourishes are as delicate as one last leaf clinging to a bare November tree. Singers Mat Brooke and Jenn Champion blend their voices, but sound like they’re each singing the same words from seedy hotel rooms on opposite sides of the country. The whole album is exquisite, and in all seriousness, I hope it touches at least one person reading this the way it touched me.
Mike: Okay, ya know what, Rob? I tried. I tried to bring you up and make you happy, and now I'm giving up. Yes, that song was beautiful, but come on man, all is not lost. It's perfect weather outside, basketball season just started...you're not going to drag me down with you into the winter music pit. Not yet, at least.
I had so many options to consider with my last pick. Do I pick a song where I can tell a great story to go along with it? Do I pick something ironic? Do I pick something I discovered in the fall, making this selection unnecessarily literal? No. I do none of these things.
The fall, for most of my life...hold on, let me do the math on that real quick...okay, yeah, for most of my life has meant going back to school. And when I think of the music I listened to in school, I think of ‘90s rock. Grunge, alternative, washed up classic rockers trying to get one last paycheck, it was all there. And despite the many, many contenders for this slot, I have to go with "Interstate Love Song" by Stone Temple Pilots. No song embodies the music I grew up with quite like it. If I even just hear someone say "the '90s," that song comes in my head. It's probably some kind of disease, but it's not one I'd ever want cured. On the scale of 0 to Perfect, this song comes as close to Perfect as possible for me.
Follow Writer’s Bone’s fall playlist on Spotify!
By Robert Masiello
One of the most beautiful, strange, and harrowing scenes in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” occurs at Club Silencio. It’s a dark, seedy theatre where the film’s protagonists witness a series of surreal performances. The evening’s host warns the crowd, “It is all an illusion,” adding mystique to the already feverish production. The finale is a thunderous rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” sung in Spanish by Rebekah Del Rio, which leaves the audience visibly shaken. In Club Silencio, nothing is what it seems, and nothing is without meaning.
In some ways, Laurel Halo’s new album “Dust” sounds like it could be an appropriate soundtrack to Club Silencio. It’s all moving parts, shifting shapes, and elusive voices that create a sound as sophisticated as it is unfathomable. Nothing is ever quite what it seems, as even the bright bounciness of a track like “Moontalk” is offset by a disconcerting queasiness. It’s fun, but not careless.
This sense of atmosphere isn’t necessarily new for Halo, and yet “Dust” still feels like a rebirth of sorts for the artist. Her voice makes an appearance for the first time since “Quarantine,” and she’s joined by collaborators such as Lafawndah and Michael Salu. It’s warmer than the icy throb of “Chance of Rain,” and perhaps more organic sounding than anything she’s released to date.
But the earthiness is somewhat of a front. By confronting a listener with familiar sounding instruments, Halo manipulates our perception of familiarity. With lyrics such as, “My eyes, back there in the mirror where I left them,” the human voice often disorients more than it comforts in these songs.
Back in Club Silencio, in one of the most famous lines of “Mulholland Drive,” the performing magician informs viewers, “No hay banda. There is no band.” He’s admitting that the cinematic music playing is synthetic, a pre-recording. But more importantly, he’s alluding to the illusion of our own universe, and perhaps hinting at dimensions yet undiscovered by humans.
By turns inscrutable and transcendent, “Dust” raises similar questions about the nature of our existence. Voices decorate the collages of sound, but not always Halo’s own. Everyday noises (such as a dropped call tone) appear in alien contexts, forcing a listener to re-examine what we accept as normal. The album’s penultimate track asks, “Did this ever happen?/Do you ever happen?”
Halo clearly had fun creating this music; it’s chaotic, energetic, and collaborative. But like a funhouse mirror, it just may distort your reality a bit.
By Mike Nelson
What’s your song of the summer? It’s a question everyone always wants to know right before Bieber drops new tracks that give us a direct answer.
I consider myself “very qualified” to recommend good music. I consider myself “barely qualified” to predict what will be a hit song, as my music judgment typically ignores commercial success and radio airtime.
So instead of giving you a list of contenders for “Song of the Summer” and just re-hashing the work Rob did (okay, we do overlap on one song...come at me, Rob), I’m giving you something a little different.
Summer presents many different situations and emotions. Being outdoors more and interacting with humans will do that. So to prepare you for those interactions—with me, for yourself, for you to encounter, whatever they may be—I give you my Situational Songs of Summer 2017.
If this comes on at a wedding, I’m going absolutely bananas, and my gin and tonic is inadvertently spilling all over your nephew please get him off the dance floor right now I promise this will be quick.
I'm throwing a hipster dance party, which is really just an '80s dance party with stupider hair and less attention to hygiene for whatever reason.
I don’t care if it came out last year, this is the first summer this song has been around, and I’m going to embrace it because it is universally enjoyable and fits summer perfectly.
I’m an aged hipster and I want in on this '80s-style dance party, but I kinda fell out of touch and shower every day. These guys are still cool, right?
I can’t stand “stadium country,” but I like a little twang, and this is a good compromise for me and my country-loving friends while we take a long drive.
My friends visited from overseas two weeks ago, and they introduced me to this song...soooooo good!
Sitting on a porch, staring out at a lake with a bottle of moonshine, and I have no idea how I got here.
I need something on my summer playlist that says I’m cooler and more culturally aware than I actually am.
My son and his friends want to drive around and play “mailbox baseball,” but they only have their learner’s permits, so guess who gets to drive and has no say in what we listen to.
By Robert Masiello
There’s a lot to worry about these days. This summer hardly seems to be rolling in with the joyous optimism we’d typically associate with the season. There’s much to be said about our country’s political and social climate, but it’s all been said elsewhere and better. At the risk of triteness, we ask our readers and friends to please remember to please take care of yourselves in these times. You can worry, you can be angry, but dance when you want to dance. On that note, Writer’s Bone presents to you the definitive Summer 2017 Playlist.
Carly Rae Jepsen: “Cut to the Feeling”
If you haven’t given Carly Rae Jepsen much thought since her ubiquitous single “Call Me Maybe,” now is your chance to fix that. This recently-released track is essentially an outtake from her impeccable sophomore album “Emotion,” and it’s euphoric in a way that that much modern pop music has abandoned. In contrast to the cool indifference that has yet to unleash it’s grip on pop stars, Jepsen’s unabashed excitement is infectious. “I wanna play where you play with the angels,” she begs in the chorus, but she’s already there.
Drake’s “Passionfruit” is the musical equivalent of Valium. It’s so smooth, so hypnotic, that’s it’s barely there. And yet, miraculously, it somehow dodges slightness and becomes almost transcendent. It would sound equally appropriate in the club, on the beach, or in the bedroom. That seductive beat seems inspired by dancehall as much as Chicago house, and it’s a testament to Drake’s skill that he turned these influences into a track that feels so effortless.
Lorde: “Green Light”
Did “Green Light” flop? The first taste of Lorde’s upcoming album lit up the Internet blogosphere upon release back in March, but never really made an impact on the radio charts. Even though “Green Light” lacks the dub-influenced production qualities, which made her debut album so compelling, it's an intoxicating banger that captures a night out in all its messy glory. Despite teetering close to cliché with lines like “I hear sounds in my mind” mumbled over a jangly piano, Lorde’s grasp on the arrangement keeps this song dazzling until the last note.
Mary J. Blige: “Find the Love”
If anyone can pull a song like this off, it’s the queen herself, Mary J Blige. Nothing groundbreaking here, just MJ doing her best to keep hateration and holleration out of the dancery. This cut off her latest release is rhythmic, groovy, and unerringly optimistic. The words might be a little on-the-nose, but her relentless pursuit of unity is perhaps just what the world needs most.
Francis and the Lights: “May I Have This Dance (Remix) [feat. Chance the Rapper]”
Francis and the Lights’ neon-bright production has attracted the attention of big-name stars like Kanye and Bon Iver. Here, he teams up with Chance for a remix of album highlight “May I Have This Dance.” It’s almost shamelessly un-hip, proudly recalling Phil Collins or Peter Gabriel. But the booming chorus, tropical beats, and subtly apocalyptic undertones (“we are bound to inherit the sins of our parents”) keep it grounded firmly in the present.
Danny L. Harle: “1UL”
The PC Music label has been nothing if not divisive since it’s inception in 2013. But it would be unfair for even the label’s most devout naysayers to argue with Danny L. Harle’s infectious club anthems. “1UL” might be his best song yet, with a drop so monstrous that you just may miss the achingly lovesick lyrics. No one said you can’t cry at the club.
Ian William Craig: “Contain (Cedar Version)”
Here’s one for after the guests have left. Ian William Craig typically drapes his classically-trained tenor over atmospheric drone and tape-hiss. On this version of “Contain,” however, a gentle guitar strum is the only thing accompanying him. Existing somewhere in the overlap of love song, lullaby, and lament, “Contain (Cedar Version)” sounds best when paired with the glowing embers of a fading bonfire.