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.
2. Kendrick Lamar: “DUCKWORTH.”
Kendrick Lamar gifted the world with another masterpiece this month, his fourth full-length album DAMN., continuing one of the best winning streaks of all time. DAMN. is breezier than To Pimp a Butterfly, with an easier flow of beats and rhymes, but it’s still full of moments electric, introspective, and ambitious. Though the de facto album opener “DNA.” is uniquely thrilling, my favorite track (as of now) is the closer, “DUCKWORTH.”, so named after Kendrick’s given last name.
The production on “DUCKWORTH.” is helmed by 9th Wonder, one of my favorite beat makers due to his work with the underground rapper Murs (their 2006 record Murray’s Revenge was the first rap album that I ever loved). 9th Wonder is the foremost expert in plundering soul samples for his beats, and on “DUCKWORTH.” he opens with a direct clip of the 1978 re-recording of Ted Taylor’s 1959 single “Be Ever Wonderful.” The sample envelops you in its sweetness before that pitch-perfect beat drop about 38 seconds in — it’s one of my favorite beat drops ever. Over the soulful beat, Kendrick Lamar tells the tale of how decades ago, his label boss Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith planned to rob a KFC where Kendrick’s dad Kenneth Duckworth (known as “Ducky”) worked, but ultimately didn’t because of Ducky’s kindness toward him. 9th Wonder beats are excellent for storytelling, and Kendrick makes good use of the opportunity.
3. White Reaper: “Judy French”
I’ve raved about White Reaper before, calling their style of music “snot-nosed garage punk.” On the Louisville group’s new album, The World’s Best American Band, White Reaper polish and amplify their sound, taking it from scuzzy clubs to arenas. “Judy French” is a joy to behold, full of giant guitar riffs and frontman Tony Esposito’s distinctive voice. It combines different styles of rock from its past — namely of the “hard,” “pop,” and “arena” varieties — to create a treasure of a song that I would have loved to drive around to in high school.
4. Michelle Branch: “Best You Ever”
Remember Michelle Branch? She had a few inescapable pop hits at the turn of the 21st century, most notably “Everywhere” and “All You Wanted.” Those songs aren’t really my cup of tea, but I respect the craft put into them. They definitely capture the feeling of early 2000’s pop very well.
Since then, Branch has gone through a bit of a reinvention, returning with an album produced by new beau Patrick Carney, who you may know as the drummer of the Black Keys. Carney lends his “Black Keys-via-Danger Mouse” touch to Branch’s new single, “Best You Ever,” and to satisfying results. It has a killer, bass-heavy groove that adeptly complements Branch’s impeccable melody. It’s extremely catchy and inviting.
5. Father John Misty: “Ballad of the Dying Man”
Sometimes there’s WAY too much gimmicky news about Father John Misty (né Josh Tillman), whether it’s explaining in a somewhat unbearable manner why he likes a Nickelback song, musings on fashion, or just admitting that he can be kind of annoying in yet another interview. But if that’s the price we must pay for his undeniable talent, then it’s worth it. Tillman’s latest album, Pure Comedy, goes heavy on mid-tempo ballads and low on variety, but every song is executed so beautifully, complete with his expectedly clever lyrics and his amazing voice. Seriously though, that voice. I’ll venture to say that it’s the most beautiful voice currently in indie, and certainly one of the top 10 voices in all of music right now.
“Ballad of the Dying Man” sounds a lot like an Elton John song, except with a heavy dose of sarcastic wit. It tells the tale of a man who spends his life self-importantly critiquing the world, but laments the fact that his imminent death means he’ll no longer get to grace us with his opinions. The dying man sings “Just think of all the overrated hacks running amok / And all of the pretentious, ignorant voices that will go unchecked.” The last verse is particularly thought-provoking, as the man realizes he’s maybe not as all-knowing as he thought: “Eventually the dying man takes his final breath / But first checks his news feed to see what he’s ’bout to miss / And it occurs to him a little late in the game / We leave as clueless as we came.”
It’s all pretty hilarious and hits the nail on the head when it comes to describing our collective obsession with sharing everything we think on social media, regardless of whether anyone else cares or not. The music itself is beautiful, ending with a particularly gorgeous chorus of “ohhs” and “ahh”s from a gospel choir. Tillman can be a tad insufferable, but man if he isn’t smart and incredibly skilled at making music.
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).