Five Quality Tracks: August 2017

 

1. Grizzly Bear: “Mourning Sound”

The kind of indie rock that was popular from about 2007 to 2011 has fallen out of favor with a lot of music critics nowadays, and the new Grizzly Bear album, Painted Ruins is the latest to fall prey to a lukewarm reception. That’s a shame, because Painted Ruins is a gorgeous work of art, beautiful in its many intricacies. The record as a whole takes some time to reveal itself, but the most immediate track of the bunch is “Mourning Sound.” The song relies on a nice, plodding, round bass line, with countless other instruments adorning it. I wouldn’t be able to name all the instruments on here if my life depended on it — definitely a bunch of different types of synths and guitars, but is that a harp? A harpsichord? Flutes? It’s hard to tell, but they all weave together to form a tapestry of beautiful (mourning) sound.

 
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An Analysis of My First Ever Mix CD from 2002

The middle school years are awkward, and nothing represents that pre-teen angst better than a snapshot of your music tastes at the time. I’m lucky enough to boast the Beatles as my favorite band since the age of 6, but that doesn’t mean I was impervious to the songs of the moment in the early 2000s, and some of those songs were… not so good.

As luck would have it, the first mix CD I ever compiled and downloaded from Rhapsody in 2002 is still intact, which I named KROQ Hits. For those that are unfamiliar with the airwaves of Southern California, KROQ 106.7 FM is the local alternative rock radio station. It’s what my mom played in the car during my formative years, which is why my favorite song at the age of 2 was “Give it Away” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and why it feels like Nirvana runs through my DNA. I would venture to say that whenever you turn on KROQ, 65% of the time they’ll be playing a good song. I wasn’t quite as discerning at the age of 13.

Now, it’s time to dive into KROQ Hits and judge each song. For each of the 15 tracks, I’ll rate the overall quality of the song on a scale of 1 to 10, and then determine whether that song still fits my tastes by answering a simple question: Would I put it on a mix in 2017? I was prepared to annihilate and ridicule this mix, but while listening to it again, many of the songs I assumed I would hate nowadays are still pretty appealing to me. Let’s go through it.

 

1. Sum 41: “Still Waiting”

We’re certainly starting off with a bang. “Still Waiting,” by the skate-punk blink-182 contemporaries, Sum 41, is the epitome of spiky-haired, middle-school angst. Pop punk has kind of received a positive reappraisal since its heyday in the late ’90s and early 2000s, partly due to nostalgia, but also because the melodies and riffs were definitely catchy. I would never choose to listen to anything by Sum 41 anymore, but I still dig the energy and hooks on “Still Waiting.” Plus, bonus points for sending up the Strokes in their music video.

Rating: 5/10
Would I put it on a mix in 2017?: Nope

 
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The Shins: “So Now What” / James Mercer’s Saving Grace

2017 has been a banner year for 2000’s indie zeitgeist-dominating blog rock. We’ve already gotten albums from Fleet Foxes, The xx, Phoenix, Dirty Projectors, and Grizzly Bear, with full-lengths soon to come from the National and LCD Soundsystem. It may come as a surprise to you, due to the relative lack of fanfare, but the Shins actually released a new album this year as well, just a few months ago. I guess they aren’t changing many lives anymore.

The record, entitled Name For You, is pretty unremarkable. It’s not bad per se, but it doesn’t come close to capturing the same sense of possibility and whimsy that defined James Mercer and the Shins of the 2000’s. “Kissing the Lipless” thrills you, “Pink Bullets” drips with potent melancholy, and that underwater synth line on “Sleeping Lessons” is magical. Even Port of Morrow, released in 2012 with a brand new lineup after a five-year hiatus, was solid all the way through (check out the insanely fun “Bait and Switch” or the leisurely and rewarding “40 Mark Strasse”).

Name For You is bland though. Songs like “Painting a Hole” and “Half a Million” are fine enough, demonstrating some interesting sonic touches, but where’s the emotion? Where’s the sense of wonder? It’s all so run-of-the-mill, and it makes me sad.

HOWEVER. There’s one song on Name For You that stands out, called “So Now What.” The track was actually first released three years ago, as a part of the soundtrack for the 2014 Zach Braff movie Wish I Was Here. It makes complete sense that “So Now What” was written long before the rest of the album. Mercer must have been riding a creative high in 2014 that didn’t hold over. “So Now What” is not flashy or attention-seeking, but the mid-tempo groove and simple melody have staying power. Mercer’s voice drifts through the clouds, dreamily singing “I had this crazy idea / Somehow we’d coast to the end.” At their best, the Shins are a band that can take you places other than where you’re currently sitting, and cause you to think about life and relationships and the past. Mercer couldn’t do it for a full album this time around, but at the very least, I’m glad we have “So Now What.”

Five (*15!) Quality Tracks: May, June, July 2017

 
I fell very far behind on Five Quality Tracks, and for that I apologize. Here are 15 tracks from the last three months that grabbed me, surprised me, and moved me. (By the way, I should note that these tracks are NOT in order of how much I like them. The order is arbitrary.)

1. The National: “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”

When I saw that the National had released a new single, I knew it would be good. But I didn’t know it would be this good. The National don’t “rock out” that often, usually opting for more deliberate mood pieces, but they let their hair down a little bit on “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.” The song is built on an insanely catchy drum beat and bass line, with that punchy five-note guitar riff punctuating the song throughout. There’s even a guitar solo! Matt Berninger’s comforting baritone, the one we know and love, is present here, but my favorite part is when he passionately raises his voice an octave, exclaiming “I cannot explain it, ahh-ahhh, any other, any other way!” The song is incredibly gratifying and portends well for the coming album.

 
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Summer Mix 2017

Every summer needs a soundtrack. Whether you’re rolling the windows down on a road trip, mixing it up at a barbeque with friends, or chilling in a paradise somewhere with sand between your toes, the perfect tone-setting music is a requirement. Allow me to be of some assistance, with a collection of choice tracks by everyone from the Velvet Underground and Spoon to Lorde and DJ Khaled.

1. Calvin Harris feat. Frank Ocean & Migos: “Slide”
2. Hurray for the Riff Raff: “Living in the City”
3. Spoon: “Can I Sit Next to You”
4. White Reaper: “Judy French”
5. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever: “French Press”
6. Drake: “Passionfruit”
7. Vampire Weekend: “Bryn”
8. Generationals: “You Say it Too”
9. Mac Demarco: “One Another”
10. The Black Keys: “All Hands Against His Own”
11. Kehlani: “CRZY”
12. The Velvet Underground: “Sweet Jane”
13. Ryan Adams: “Doomsday”
14. DJ Khaled feat. BeyoncĂ© and JAY-Z: “Shining”
15. Lorde: “Green Light”
16. The Courtneys: “Silver Velvet”
17. Father John Misty: “Real Love Baby”

Five Quality Tracks: April 2017

 

1. Rostam: “Gwan”

Sometimes a song is so stunningly beautiful that it stops you in your tracks. “Gwan” is one of those songs.

Rostam Batmanglij was one of the key members of Vampire Weekend, playing an important role in shaping the group’s unique baroque-pop sound, before exiting the band early last year to focus on his solo material, collaborations with Hamilton Leithauser and Ra Ra Riot, and other production work for the likes of Frank Ocean, Solange, and Carly Rae Jepsen. Although I will miss Rostam’s presence in Vampire Weekend, it’s become apparent that he needed to spread his wings.

I’ve always liked and respected Rostam’s music and various contributions, but I didn’t fall in love with him until the release last month of his new single, “Gwan.” It’s built on a gorgeous string arrangement, buttressed by occasional piano, bells, and muted drums. Rostam lets the strings do the work, especially about two-thirds of the way through the song when everything else drops out, leaving those exquisite violins and cellos to capture our imagination, while he sings about “listen[ing] to what your subconscious mind is trying to say to you.” You can feel Rostam’s contentment seeping through the song. He sounds self-assured, confident, and happy to be doing what he does. There’s so much emotion and beauty packed into these five minutes that whenever I listen to it, memories and scenes from my life spring to mind in vivid detail. “Gwan” is incredibly moving, and we’re lucky to have it.

 
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Five Quality Tracks: March 2017

March was ridiculous. Somehow, after all this, I failed to include new songs from Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Fleet Foxes, and Real Estate. That’s honestly a crime, and I apologize. All indications point to Kendrick dropping an album (or at least something) on April 7th, and Fleet Foxes will release their long-awaited follow-up album in June, so they’ll still have a chance to make it on here. And so, without further ado, five quality tracks for March.
 
 
1. Lorde: “Green Light”

A friend of mine recently asked me who makes more ‘anthemic’ songs — Taylor Swift or Lorde? Lorde’s celebrated debut album from 2013, Pure Heroine, was exceptional, full of quietly encouraging, relatable songs (“Team” is an all-time favorite), but I wouldn’t characterize it as anthemic, necessarily. Swift may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but singles like “22,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” and “Bad Blood” are as conducive to late-night, impromptu sing-alongs as anything. So, after judging their musical output as a whole, my answer was Taylor Swift. BUT, on a song-by-song basis, the most anthemic track either of them have ever done is easily Lorde’s new single, “Green Light.”

After four fairly quiet years since Pure Heroine, Lorde, the New Zealand phenom who first deservedly captured our attention at the age of 16, is returning to us with her sophomore effort in a couple months. For her new album, Lorde tapped Bleachers and fun. member Jack Antonoff to produce and help with songwriting. Antonoff has production experience with some of the biggest names in pop, including Taylor Swift, Sia, Rachel Platten, and Sara Bareilles, so I was interested to see how his influence would manifest itself with Lorde.

I was immediately taken aback by “Green Light,” and not exactly in a good way. It is very pop in a reach-for-the-stars kind of way, which is not what I expected from Lorde and her more brooding, subtle style. But the more I heard it, the more the various parts stuck with me, like that enticing rhythmic piano in the lead-up to the chorus, or Lorde’s pitch-perfect lyrics, like her sneer directed at an ex, singing “She says you love the beach, you’re such a damn liar.”

Previously, Lorde deftly straddled the line between electro-indie and pop in a way that was unique at the time. So to hear “Green Light,” which is very much a full-fledged pop song, was a bit jarring at first. But the thing is, “Green Light” aims big — that’s the whole point — and it succeeds tremendously. Taylor Swift has written timeless anthems, but if I were to drive around with the windows down late at night with friends, the first song I would want to hear is “Green Light.”

 
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