Rob Masiello on why The Antlers’ "Hospice" marks a turning point for earnestly sentimental music.
By Robert Masiello
You know those people who say that summer is over after the Fourth of July? I want to punch those people. For Christ’s sake, I just finished digging my car out of the snowbanks a week or two ago. So even though the holiday has come and gone, here’s a playlist of 2014’s best summer songs.
“Don’t Tell ‘Em”
Remember Snap!’s early-1990s single “Rhythm is a Dancer”? Producers DJ Mustard and Mick Schultz have teamed with Jeremih and YG to spin it into a throbbing hip-hop jam. This re-do is, thankfully, neither kitschy nor self-important. It respects its source while thoroughly modernizing it and deserves to be a hit on its own terms, not solely for the nostalgia factor.
To those who don’t know better, Sia’s monster single “Chandelier” will be just another balls-to-the-wall party anthem. But listen closely, and it is easy to hear the deep pathos buried in her lyrics. This is not a track that glorifies partying. “I’m holding on for dear life, won’t look down, won’t open my eyes” she sings, teetering on the brink of sanity. Adding to the lyrical intensity is a killer hook that makes it possibly the best pop song since “We Found Love.” Oh, and did I mention that her vocal performance is one of the year’s best?
Jamaican dancehall artist Popcaan’s debut full-length "Where We Come From" could have been an artistic flop destined for frat party soundtracks, but instead breathes life into the genre. While often inscrutable, the lyrics still convey empathy, and the beats are electrifying. “Give Thanks” is Popcaan’s tribute to the protective power of music that somehow transcends cliché. With smut like “Rude” by Magic! creeping onto airwaves, it’s easy to forget that reggae can have a heart like this.
“Can’t Do Without You”
If Caribou's previous album "Swim" found him transitioning from psychedelic pop to house and techno, new track “Can’t Do Without You” indicates that his upcoming album will continue that trend. The track is euphoric, and demonstrates that there is still magic to be found in sampling and repetition. Unabashedly blissful, Caribou’s latest would be equally appropriate at a sunny cookout or strobe-lit club.
“Do It Again”
Oh Robyn, we’ve missed you. Back after a four-year hiatus, Robyn still has the uncanny ability to break your heart and get your foot tapping at the same time. Her new collaborative mini-album with Royksopp is better than it has any right to be. Sometimes when an artist returns after a break, it feels like a desperate attempt to regain relevance. On the contrary, “Do It Again” will remind you why you loved her in the first place.
Folk musicians Amelia Randall Meath and Nicholas Sanborn have joined forces to create the electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso. The resulting tunes are as warm and enveloping as one would expect from former folkies now dabbling in synths. On “Coffee,” Meath sings longingly about dancing with her partner, and the ambiance is all twilight and red wine. It’s a genuinely sexy song, best reserved for after the guests have left.
The Antlers, masters of sadness, on a summer playlist? First time for everything. This sublime cut off their latest LP "Familiars" begins at a deliberate pace before blossoming into a jazzy, soulful number. Songwriter Peter Silberman weaves a narrative that’s equal parts wistful and disconcerting, while his bandmates embellish the track with a triumphant brass arrangement. “All I know is, this year will be the year we win,” he bellows, and even though it’s hard to believe him, the best summers are often buoyed by a certain naïve optimism.
James Kelly used to be the frontman of the black-metal band Altar of Plagues, but his solo project WIFE has allowed him to explore his electronic and experimental leanings. Produced by The Haxan Cloak, WIFE’s debut LP "What’s Between" is a shadowy, often claustrophobic affair. But Kelly finds beauty and depth in the blackness. Penultimate track “Fruit Tree” is the album’s catchiest number, with a distinctly tropical vibe. In different hands, this song could be a pop smash. As it stands, it’s an oddball ditty that works because of, not in spite of, its ghostly production.
Nothing brought you more joy than hearing “Milkshake” at a high school dance, but you have since forgotten about poor Kelis. While she will probably never be able to shake the one-hit wonder designation, Kelis has actually spent the past few years churning out respectable albums. Her latest release Food is cloaked in southern charm, with Kelis’ voice reaching expressive depths. It’s a shame that the rhythmic single “Jerk Ribs” won’t likely be a Top40 hit, as it would be a brilliant foil to the staid collection of songs currently topping the charts.
Whether or not you follow soccer (I don’t), I think we can all agree that World Cup songs are predictably dreadful. Tearjerker’s anthemic “You Can” would make an infinitely better World Cup song than anything Pitbull regurgitates. The track is an extended climax, ceaselessly building upon itself but never collapsing under its own weight. “You can’t bring it back, but you can make it last” the band howls, sounding more like a prayer than a chorus. It’s pensive, empowering, and irresistibly catchy.
By Robert Masiello
Sadness and sex are inexorably linked.
The French understand this, coining the phrase le petit mort (a little death) to describe orgasm. While this directly references the release of tension following intercourse, there is something philosophical and altogether darker at play here as well. Their choice of words seems to indicate a yearning that remains intact even following sex. The intensity of the moment is met with an inevitable comedown, where we are forced to recognize the impermanence of fulfillment. The songs below capture the dichotomy between love and loss, between want and apprehension. They exist in the space that dominates so much of our emotions, yet remains nearly indescribable.
So maybe you’ve recently experienced a breakup. Perhaps you masturbate like Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive. Or maybe you realize just how fleeting love and sex truly are. Whatever the case, here’s a list of the sexiest sad songs (or is that saddest sexy songs?) you’ll ever hear.
“Bedroom Wall” by Banks
Banks is a young artist who will likely become a major presence this year. Her vocals drip with nostalgia for ‘90s R&B, while the airy electronic arrangements are very of-the-moment. On this track, she pines for another’s attention, wondering why he doesn’t recognize their potential. “Been losing all my shit for you ‘cause I’ve been thinking about putting my body on top of you” she sings alluringly. But she also sounds defeated, nearly torn apart by desire. It’s a spellbinding song that seduces as much as it aches.
“Corsicana” by The Antlers
No band is better at finding beauty in sadness than The Antlers. This track is one of their gentlest yet sultriest, using a burning house as a metaphor for a collapsing relationship. Celestial backing vocals swell over a delicate piano melody, and yet the song manages to stay grounded. It perfectly captures both the smoke rising towards heaven and the ashes collapsing down to earth. “We should hold our breath with mouths together now,” sighs Peter Silberman, seemingly torn between lust and indifference as the walls start to cave in.
“Unfold” by The xx
We are all guilty of embellishing relationships in our own heads. We strive to create meaning, twisting words and phrases to convince ourselves that the object of our desire wants us back. “Unfold” captures this perfectly. “In my head, you tell me things you’ve never said” coos singer Romy Croft over a spacious beat. When her voice entwines with her male bandmate’s for the chorus (“Let it unfold,” they plead), it’s both gorgeous and devastating, like waking from a dream that ends too soon.
“The Wilhelm Scream” by James Blake
“All that I know is that I’m falling, falling, falling…” sings Blake on his signature track, and you’d be forgiven for assuming that he’s falling in love. But halfway through the song, things get twisted. Ominous noises and hazy production envelop the music, suffocating his vocals and creating a sense of dreamy claustrophobia. “I don’t know about my love, I don’t know about my dreaming anymore…” he mutters through the distortion, wondering if he’s in too deep.
“Escape Before the Rain” by How to Dress Well
Songwriter Tom Krell records as How to Dress Well, a woozy electronic/R&B project. Imagine Justin Timberlake on codeine singing in a blizzard. His debut album “Love Remains” pairs his vulnerable falsetto cloaked with crackling, lo-fi production. While subsequent releases have been more accessible and confident, his debut still casts a spell. This standout track drapes a simple piano line over nearly inscrutable lyrics, but the mystery adds to its power; it’s unclear if he’s looking to escape with a lover, or from a lover. A whiff of apocalypse adds urgency and depth to this sparse ballad.
“Michael” by Gem Club
This Boston band’s sophomore album oozes romance and warmth, but their trademark melancholy still runs strong. “Michael” is one of the shortest and most direct songs they’ve recorded. It depicts a daydream, longing for someone who remains maddeningly out of reach. The song ends rather abruptly and leaves the listener wanting more, symbolizing the frustration and ache of unrequited love.
“I Need My Girl” by The National
The National isn’t a band one would typically associate with “sexy,” but they’ve never been more unabashedly romantic than on this track from their stellar 2013 release. The song’s narrator recognizes the imperfection of his relationship (“Remember when you lost your shit and drove the car into the garden?”), yet wants nothing more than to be back in the arms of his lover.
“Body Butter” by Kevin Drew
“Get the body butter baby, let’s go party all alone,” Drew beckons at the beginning of this wistful song, accompanied by a lighthearted strum. At first it sounds like a getaway, a retreat with his lover from the chaos of existence. However, a close listen reveals that he is reminiscing; the body butter and steamy nights are just memories that he’s grasping onto. “You wore my hands out…” he repeats, indicating both longing and exhaustion from a tumultuous relationship.