We're a quarter of the way through the year, and heck, this has been a pretty good year for tunes so far! Instead of just saying what they like, our resident musicologists Rob and Mike decided to challenge one another to listen and react to the songs and albums that have stood out to each of them this year. Eight songs, 2 albums, 20 takes. You're welcome.
Hookworms, "Each Time We Pass"
Mike Nelson: I got really into this song right around the third stanza, and then it switches to a male vocalist halfway through the song, and it kinda bummed me out. The first couple minutes build me up so much, then there’s an unnecessary lull before trying to make a comeback at the end for like, 20 seconds. Man, this song was such a tease!
Rob Masiello: I don’t know anything about Hookworms, but this single is a weird little gem that I find irresistible. It has a timeless feel, in that it probably could have been released at any point in the past 15 years, but it’s innovative enough to sound more refreshing than dated. Bouncy, wistful electro-pop with a slight shoegaze sheen.
Kim Petras, "Heart to Break”
Mike: Rob, it is not summer yet. This song is wildly out of place in whatever season this is. Thank you for bringing me this joy. I look forward to years of listening to this song at the gym while I put on a scowl to throw everyone off my scent.
Rob: This song bangs, and pop music needs more trans-representation, so it’s a win-win. Realistically, it’s the type of track you listen to on repeat for two weeks, and then never need to hear again. But did I mention it bangs?
Mike: The best part of this song is in the middle of the song when you just randomly hear dogs panting in the background. The worst part of this song is when you realize it’s a sad and hopeless song, and at some point during the song that dog probably died of some terminal illness. Can’t verify that’s actually what’s going on here, but I assume it is, and you are a sick man.
Rob: Loma’s self-titled debut is one of my favorite albums this year. The tracks vary a bit in tone and texture, but the whole thing gives off an unearthly vibe that belies its outward prettiness. “Sundogs” is one of the more ethereal cuts, and it’s equal parts sad and creepy. The lyrics melt out of singer Emily Cross so smoothly that they almost wash over you, but the images she evokes are worth a close listen.
CupcakKe, "Cinnamon Toast Crunch"
Mike: What happened to you? Did you get in a fistfight? I need details. (P.S. I don’t ever want to hear this song again in my life.)
Rob: CupcakKe is a beacon of light in our cold, withering world. I got bitches wanna box me like I’m Cinnamon Toast Crunch. That is all.
Lucy Dacus, "Night Shift”
Rob: I love this song. Dacus is a brilliant songwriter, and the way this long track meanders without ever losing momentum is breathtaking. The coda is wonderfully fatalistic (“you’ve got a 9-to-5, so I’ll take the night shift / and I’ll never see you again if I can help it”) and it ends so monstrously you practically need to catch your breath. She’s somehow only 22 and already writing rock songs that put older artists to shame.
Mike: This is my song of the year right now, for sure. The first four minutes are gorgeous, painful, relatable, and it could all end there and be a really good song. But then the last two minutes feel like Lucy ripped them straight from a 1990s grunge anthem and brings optimism while she takes ownership of her future. It’s also a sneaky little shredfest, which, man, I needed. But maybe not as much as she did.
MGMT, "When You Die”
Rob: Wow, I don’t think I’ve listened to MGMT since “Congratulations,” which was kind of a cool album. I had no idea what to expect with this, and I’m not mad at it. I’m glad they’re still weird, and I can totally get behind the full-on horror camp lyrics. Musically, it’s not what I was expecting. I was under the impression that with this album, MGMT got back to their synth-pop roots. This sounds more like the Beach Boys in a haunted house (in a good way).
Mike: MGMT is back. Like, back-back, not just making more music. This whole album is fantastic and lives in this space between dark and catchy. Best part of this song is obviously the rhythm, and the little fills like in the last verse between repetitions of, “You said it twice.” Great work by my guy Ariel Pink on the guitar plucking there. He is a super weirdo, and you can feel a bit of his flavor baked into this one.
Kyle Craft, "Fake Magic Angel”
Rob: I guess we can file this alongside Sam Herring and Benjamin Clementine under “Dudes With Weird Voices That Mike Nelson Enjoys.” Shall we call it Dylan-esque? It sounds lush, but mostly just made me want to listen to Kevin Morby instead.
Mike: I honestly don’t have a lot of useful words to say about this song, I just think it’s a jam and really wanted to give a shout out to Kyle Craft, who has quickly become an artist I anticipate getting new music from. His style is a little rough and disheveled and aggressive, and I just really appreciation the direction he’s taking indie rock. And honestly, I gave you two songs I thought you’d like and one song in-between, so I had to give you something. Especially since you barred me from submitting any Ty Segall.
Neko Case, “Hell-On”
Rob: It’s probably hard to sing about God, but leave it to Neko to pull it off. This is a cool sound on her—I imagine her singing it in a seedy, smoky basement lounge.
Mike: It goes without saying that Neko Case has one of the best voices out there. And it makes me happy every single time she pries it away from the clutches of The New Pornographers, who I can listen to approximately once per year. I cannot wait for this full album. Haunt us, teach us lessons, whatever you want to do Neko, give me the other 10-ish songs already!
Sorority Noise, “YNAAYT"
Mike: I love that you acted like you were throwing me a bone in this assignment by saying you wouldn’t ask me to listen to the new Mount Eerie album, and then you threw me this literal suicide bomb. This album is all about a dude’s friends killing themselves. I hate you.
Anyway, this is actually pretty solid musically, creating a few beautiful moments through the string arrangements and piano that distract you while the lyrics sneak their tentacles through your chest cavity and latch onto your heart, pining to see what it looks like on the floor.
My highlight without question is “A Portrait Of.” At the end of the first minute of “A Portrait Of,” you get a sample of the outro through a few simple taps of the piano keys. As those strokes get more intense and catch up with the strings at the end of the song, they take you to a beautiful and haunting place.
Rob: I wasn’t sure whether to include this. It’s technically a reworking of the band’s 2017 album “You’re Not As ___ As You Think,” rather than proper new music. But it’s a stunning portrait of grief, and the arrangements truly feel like new songs rather than rehashes. It’s far more subdued than any of the their prior output, swelling in just the right moments to make your heart skip a beat.
There’s enough emotional baggage here to leave anyone reaching for a Prozac, but it’s also uplifting, and even oddly humorous at times (“This is the part where I ascend / This is the part where I did cocaine to impress each one of my mouth-breathing friends”). The centerpiece is a fragile piano-led cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel #2” that drives home the album’s obsession with the cruelty of time.
Calexico, "The Thread That Keeps Us”
Rob: To be honest, I went into this one a little nervous. I typically listen to music at opposite ends of the spectrum. I’m drawn to sounds that either lull me to sleep or throw me against a wall, so a lot of this mid-tempo indie rock gets (unfairly) overlooked by me. I was pleasantly surprised here though. There’s a certain dreaminess that vaguely reminds me of Grizzly Bear, and the traditional Latin sounds are nicely woven into the music without seeming gimmicky. Naturally, the more somber cuts are my favorite. There appears to be a political edge to the album, which makes it feel timely and urgent.
Some of the lyrics are disarmingly beautiful, especially on tracks like “Voices in the Field” and “Music Box.” The real standout for me though is “Eyes Wide Awake,” which beautifully merges the personal and political while chugging along a classic Americana vibe. Overall, it’s a meticulously crafted and important album that I probably would have missed otherwise.
Mike: Okay, so just to knock out the elephant in the room quickly—yes this, album is too long. By about five songs I’d say. Sorry for taking up about 20 more minutes of your life than I needed to, Rob. Great, elephant’s dead, let’s move on to the good stuff.
I’ll admit upfront I’m a little bit of a Calexico stan. What I love about them is that you can tell every song of theirs is a Calexico song, but they have such different tones and emotions. From their most aggressive highs (“Bridge to Nowhere”) to their most somber lows (good Lord, “Thrown to the Wild,” is everyone okay over there?), you know it’s them. Push the lyrics in “Wild” aside for a listen, and you can see an injured cowboy alone in the night, riding towards his final confrontation. That lengthy outro is perfect.
The reason I enjoy this album is as much for the feature tracks as it is for the transitional ones. Short instrumental transition tracks like “Unconditional Waltz” and “Inside the Energy Field” help control the tone between tracks, which is something I appreciate a great deal as a person who typically listens to albums just as much as individual tracks.