Five (*Ten!) Quality Tracks: January 2017

2017 wasted no time in giving us spectacular music — January was bountiful. To celebrate the new year and new music, I decided to highlight ten of my favorite tracks of the month. You’re welcome.

1. Sampha: “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”

Sampha has lent his unique voice to numerous pop stars, including Drake, Solange, and Beyoncé, and he’s now finally released his debut album, Process. It feels like Sampha’s third single is speaking directly to me: “No one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home.” The piano chords are exquisitely poignant (it sounds like you’re right there in the living room with him), and Sampha’s vocals are bare and full of muted passion and yearning for familiarity.


2. The xx: “Say Something Loving”

The xx’s third album, I See You, has proven to be a sure-footed leap forward for the British trio. I was a fan of the group’s extra-minimalist approach on their first two albums (“Crystalised” for instance), but I love the expansion of their sound. “Say Something Loving” is captivating — the chemistry between singers Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft is as palpable as ever as they sing about fleeting feelings of love battling with their hesitations and insecurities, and Jamie xx’s production pushes his bandmates to new heights.


3. Jay Som: “The Bus Song”

Melina Duterte, the Oakland-based 22-year-old who goes by Jay Som, is a gem. Her talent shines through on “The Bus Song,” where, just like every other song on her forthcoming album, she writes, plays, and produces every sound. It’s a self-assured, nuanced, excellent song, intimate in both its sound and sentiment. I often note when musicians adeptly bring different instruments in and out, and Duterte is a master. She relies on a base level of drums, bass, guitar, and her soft, compelling voice, but occasionally brings in a piano, trumpet, and flute when it counts. My favorite moment is when she strips all the beautiful layers away for just a second at 2:33 — the drums and other instruments drop out at just the right moment, when Duterte sings “And I just want you to neeeeed me.”


4. Ty Segall: “Orange Color Queen”

Ty Segall, the blonde Laguna Beach rocker whose image graces the top of this blog’s home page, is one of the hardest working and most consistent musicians out there, regularly releasing at least one and sometimes as many as three solid albums per year. He is best known for garage rock of varying levels of intensity, but he also has an innate knack for pop songwriting. Instead of going for the gut, Segall goes for the heart on “Orange Color Queen.” Sounding like Brendan Benson (of Raconteurs fame) or a Beatles’ White Album outtake, Segall trades in the electric guitar for an acoustic and sings a love song with an impeccable melody for his significant other.


5. Spoon: “Hot Thoughts”

Spoon, one of my ten favorite bands of all time (you read that right), is back with new music and I couldn’t be more excited. Lead single “Hot Thoughts” is sinewy in a James Bond-theme sort of way. The sudden bursts of guitar interweave with the jangling bells and moving bass line to make a nice groove fit for Britt Daniel’s falsetto. (By the way, the opening note sounds like the beginning of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes”).


6. Cloud Nothings: “Enter Entirely”

Cloud Nothings started out as an indie pop band before turning it up to eleven on one of the best albums of the decade, 2012’s hard-rocking and intense Attack on Memory. Frontman Dylan Baldi goes back to draw from his pop roots on Life Without Sound, the band’s fifth full-length, but maintains the edge he’s gained in the years since. “Enter Entirely” kind of sounds like 90’s Weezer, but darker and a little more introspective. My absolute favorite part starts at 2:58 and takes over the second half of the song — I’m honestly obsessed with it. After riding a great groove, Baldi leaves just an understated guitar and a few snare hits, while singing “Moving on, but I still feel it / You’re just a light in me now.” He repeats the lyric multiple times as he brings the full band back in and builds to an incredible climax.


7. Kehlani: “CRZY”

Kehlani, a rising R&B sensation out of Oakland, has a silky smooth voice and music to match. “CRZY” technically came out last summer, but I’m taking liberties to include it here because of it’s place on her debut studio album released this month, and because it’s freaking good. The huge hip-hop beat pumps me up, and perfectly accompanies Kehlani’s stuttering “I go, I go, I go, I go cra-a-a-a-a-zy.


8. Japandroids: “North East South West”

Japandroids’s long-awaited third album is finally here. The Vancouver duo, made up of guitarist and lead vocalist Brian King and drummer and backup vocalist David Prowse, have released two insanely good albums — Post-Nothing in 2009 and Celebration Rock in 2012. Both records are near and dear to my heart. The band’s fiery passion was not just a breath of fresh air every time I listened, but always gave me life, youthful energy, and a prism through which to experience intense joy. “Near to the Wild Heart of Life,” the superb first single and title track on their new album, portended great things and more of what we’ve come to expect from Japandroids.

It turns out Japandroids are mostly the same band, but they’ve also evolved considerably, relative to the sonic consistency of their first two albums. For example, there are splashes of acoustic guitar and synthesizers, which would be unheard of in the past. But overall, the biggest change is that they seem more relaxed, more satisfied with their place in life and maturity. Instead of music that urgently forges excitement in the moment, this is an album that reflects contentment and satisfaction. The band’s urgency was arguably their greatest strength, so it’s a bit shocking to hear less of it on Near to the Wild Heart of Life — on first listen, I wasn’t that impressed, mostly because their previous output had set the bar firmly at “GRAB YOU BY THE GUT,” and this didn’t do that to the same extent. But as I listened to it more, I found joy in their maturity — it’s no less thrilling to hear them on their new path.

“North East South West” best reflects Japandroids’s new sound and attitude. It revolves around a fast-strumming acoustic guitar and gives off an almost Americana vibe, if you can believe it. The track is an ode to the road — “Coast of California, the highway high / Noise, narcotics, and the New York night” and “America made a mess of me / When I messed with Texas and Tennessee.” There’s also the line, “Canada always answers when I call her name,” which will only ever be adorable to Americans like me. “North East South West” abounds in that energy we’re used to, but the vocals are so prominent and, well, sing-songy. It’s different, and certainly cheesy, but I love it.


9. The Courtneys: “Tour”

Just a good old-fashioned slice of catchy, fuzzed-out pop rock. “Tour” sounds simple enough and breezes by, but its hooks stay with you long after the track ends. “It takes a long, long, long time, and I don’t wanna be alone!”


10. Julie Byrne: “Follow My Voice”

Sometimes we get overrun with indie acoustic folk music that sounds pleasant enough, but ends up being ultimately forgettable. Julie Byrne breaks the mold with songs that are crystal clear and deeply affecting. On “Follow My Voice,” Byrne’s guitar is mystical, and her deeply soothing voice seems to make time stand still.


Here’s a running Spotify playlist of all the Five Quality Tracks songs for each month in 2017 (or at least, all the tracks that are on Spotify).

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