Grad school and work at the same time is hard. Sorry for the huge delay in posting my favorite tracks from September. Hopefully you don’t shrug this off as *so last month*, because September was pretty cool, music-wise. Let’s dive in.
1. Local Natives: “Dark Days”
One of the most underrated albums of the current decade is Gorilla Manor, the 2010 debut album from L.A. band Local Natives. In an indie rock genre saturated with cookie-cutter versions of the same band, Local Natives stood out with their wide-eyed songs and incredible, unique gift for complex harmonies. They’ve now released their third album, Sunlit Youth, which features a song we’ve already showcased as a quality track back in May (“Past Lives”), but the album is full of solid songs.
“Dark Days” is a joyous, hopeful, exhilarating 3-minute slice of winsome pop. Vocals, both lead and background, have always been the band’s strong point, and “Dark Days” showcases their vocal talent with subtle beauty. Kelcey Ayer takes lead, sounding vulnerable as he sings about the dark days of summer, while the band harmonizes behind him. They bring on guest vocalist Nina Persson of The Cardigans (the band that brought you the smash ’90s hit “Lovefool”) to sing the second verse and duet with Ayer towards the end, complementing each other beautifully. “Dark Days” gets into a groove right from the beginning and never lets up — the hook is full of guitar flourishes and drum fills, all anchored by a simple, effective bass line. The whole song is just so catchy and well-executed.
2. Solange feat. Lil Wayne: “Mad”
Most of the world still knows Solange as Beyoncé’s sister, but it’s high time for us to give her her due as an artist of her own. Solange surprise-released A Seat at the Table, immaculately produced and contemplatively written. Over the course of the album, Solange deftly deals with political issues facing black Americans in a way that evades heavy-handedness, yet still remains piercing and powerful — a hard balance to strike.
I usually hate skits and interludes on hip-hop albums, but the spoken-word tracks sprinkled throughout provide welcome context to the songs. Before “Mad” comes in, we hear Solange and Beyoncé’s father Matthew talk about racism while growing up on “Interlude: Dad Was Mad” — “…And seeing all those parents, and also KKK members having signs and throwing cans at us, spitting at us. We lived in the threat of death every day… So I was just lost in this vacuum between integration and segregation and, and racism… I was angry for years.” “Mad” then comes in with an incredibly slow, soulful groove (produced in part by Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors), as Solange spouts wisdom: “You got the right to be mad / But when you carry it alone, you find it only getting in the way / They say you gotta let it go.” Even though she has “a lot to be mad about,” she finds that letting it go is the healthiest way to deal with it. (By the way, Lil Wayne adds a nice, low-key verse — one of his best verses in a while.)
3. LIV: “Wings of Love”
Well, this song caught be completely by surprise. LIV is a newly formed supergroup of sorts, comprised of Swedish indie pop heavyweights Lykke Li, members of Miike Snow, and members of Peter, Bjorn & John. Whenever so much disparate talent comes together for a new project, there’s a danger of the product sounding too overwrought — like there are too many cooks in the kitchen, to use a tired analogy. But LIV got it just right on their single, “Wings of Love.” The pop/folk rock track is so viscerally reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac, with a dash of ABBA thrown in. (Comparing them to ABBA could be seen as lazy on my part, since they share the same homeland as the members of LIV, but I heard ABBA in these vocals before I even knew LIV was Swedish!) Every fiber of “Wings of Love,” from the harmonies to the acoustic strums and electric guitar licks, feels like a ’70s radio hit, and I love it. It’s transcendently lovely.
4. Angel Olsen: “Those Were the Days”
I can’t really explain Angel Olsen’s unique charm. The 29-year-old from St. Louis blends folk, indie, ’50s rock, and ’90s grunge in a captivating way. Her new album My Woman is excellent, providing many possible options for Five Quality Tracks. I was *this* close to picking “Never Be Mine” for this spot (which is still probably my favorite track on the album), but “Those Were the Days” has put me under a spell for the past month. Olsen usually sings with a delightfully warbly voice (not too unlike Roy Orbison actually), but on “Those Were the Days”, she sings with a light, airy voice a step away from a whisper. The track doesn’t necessarily break new ground, but it’s so gorgeous. The slow, jazzy blues feel warm and comforting, especially as the season turns cold.
5. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam: “Sick as a Dog”
Few bands are revered among indie fans more than Vampire Weekend and The Walkmen. What would happen if you combined them? Well now we know. Rostam Batmanglij has been a key force behind Vampire Weekend’s sound, especially their more evolved sound on 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City (check out “Step” for reference). He recently left the band to focus on his production work, but will continue to work closely with Vampire Weekend (thank goodness). And Hamilton Leithauser’s band, the Walkmen (responsible for one of my 10 favorite songs of the decade so far) broke up a few years ago, spurring a solo career for Leithauser. After a very underrated 2014 album (I loved “The Smallest Splinter”), he’s now teamed up with Rostam for an album called I Had a Dream That You Were Mine.
While I wasn’t exactly sure what such a collaboration would sound like, it did end up turning out kind of like Leithauser’s voice sailing over Vampire Weekend tracks, which is GREAT. The insanely beautiful “In a Black Out” caught my attention, but lately I’ve been loving the triumphant-sounding “Sick as a Dog.” My favorite part is when it gets quiet about 3 minutes in before Leithauser lets loose as the drums come in, singing “I use the same voice I always had.” Very true, Hamilton.
Here’s a running Spotify playlist of all the Five Quality Tracks songs for each month in 2016 (or at least, all the tracks that are on Spotify).