This was a feature that I used to do for the Daily Californian’s Arts & Entertainment blog. I decided to give it life again here. At the end of each month, I’ll post a feature highlighting five quality tracks released during that month.
1. Beck: “Dreams”
Beck is back! And in a big way. If you remember, last year he released Morning Phase, a gorgeously melancholy collection of songs that won an Album of the Year grammy and the ire of Kanye West (Kanye apologized soon after and recently reiterated that he was wrong about him). I thought Morning Phase was beautiful to be sure, but I also thought it was probably Beck’s worst album. It was monochromatic and often flat-out boring. Well it looks like Beck is ready to turn up again.
Beck said that “Dreams,” his new single, is the “opposite” of Morning Phase. He couldn’t be more correct. It’s huge and hooky, perfect for dance floors and car stereos. It kind of sounds like MGMT’s “Electric Feel” — in fact, it sounds a lot like it. But we’ll give it a pass, because it’s just so awesome. Beck has been a 90’s alt-rock god, a sampling master, a funk hero, and an acoustic sad sack, but he’s at his best in psych-rock/dance mode. Hail “Dreams.”
2. The Weeknd: “Can’t Feel My Face”
This is the one where The Weeknd becomes a pop star. Max Martin, the brain behind smash hits like “Since U Been Gone”, “Teenage Dream”, and “Shake It Off”, co-wrote and produced “Can’t Feel My Face,” and thank goodness he did. Martin is a master of bringing sound effects in and out on a whim in a way that propels the song forward and keeps the listener guessing. The swinging synth bass here anchors the track and is the primary reason that your foot is vigorously tapping. Abel Tesfaye brings it 100% on the vocal as well. “Can’t Feel My Face” is barely a few weeks old, but it feels timeless — it sounds like Michael Jackson, but sounds wholly contemporary at the same time. Can we just make this the song of the summer, please?
3. The Arcs: “Stay In My Corner”
Dan Auerbach has already conquered the world as half of the Black Keys, so he decided to step out with a side-project called The Arcs. As good as Auerbach is on fast rockers (“Dead and Gone”, “Strange Times”), I think he’s at his best on warm slow-burners (“The Lengths”, “Never Gonna Give You Up”). “Stay In My Corner” firmly classifies as a slow-burner. The track was inspired by the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight, but rather than deal with it specifically, it serves as a plea to a loved one to stick it out with him in the ring: “Stay in my corner babe / I’ll fight for you if you fight for me too.” Auerbach uses just the right touches of production to make “Stay In My Corner” sound full and fleshed-out, but the song relies on a simple, sweet melody to make it great.
4. Florence + The Machine: “Third Eye”
Ever since Florence Welch released lead single “What Kind of Man”, I can’t stop thinking of her as our generation’s Stevie Nicks. She brings the same big-hearted, all-out, ardent vocal performances, as well as the same sense of mystery. Welch certainly goes big on her third album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful — it’s full of a certain kind of grounded grandiosity. “Third Eye” is perfect for it’s placement in the album, right as it’s starting to near the end — it’s not outright “single” material, but it has a subtle catchiness that grabs you as you listen to it. At 3:09, when she repeats “I am the same, I’m the same, I’m trying to change,” everything clicks. It sounds just like a glorious Fleetwood Mac chorus. And just like Fleetwood Mac, Welch fuses pop and rock together on “Third Eye” to create something transcendent.
5. Leon Bridges: “River”
I’ve already extolled the virtues of Leon Bridges and his 1960s soul revival. He borrows heavily from Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, but he does it so expertly that Coming Home, his debut album released this month, is a welcome addition to the classic soul canon. “River” is the slow and powerful closer to the album. It relies on nothing more than a two-chord acoustic guitar pattern, a tambourine, Bridges’ sweet voice, and a mini-gospel choir for the main refrain: “Take me to your river, I wanna go.” One brilliant quality of Bridges is knowing when to step it up and when to pull back — on “River,” he pulls back and lets the steady “river” wash over us.