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.
2. Lorde: “Perfect Places”
Lorde’s latest album, the excellent Melodrama, is supposed to loosely be about a house party. We’ve already examined the opening to that party, “Green Light,” and now we tackle the end of that party, as the night (or early morning) comes to a close with “Perfect Places.” Lorde examines how we spend these moments of our youth looking for “perfect places” to be — at that party, with those friends, etc. — but how it’s all fleeting and elusive.
The last minute of the song is pure perfection. The track builds to an absolutely epic ending, as Jack Antonoff’s excellent production broadens and reaches catharsis. Then, at the very end, all of a sudden, everything drops out except for the piano and Lorde’s voice, as she sings: “All the nights spent off our faces / Trying to find these perfect places / What the f— are perfect places anyway?” I can’t express how brilliant it is. I’ve heard the song MANY times by now, but I just re-watched the video and that last minute gave me goosebumps yet again. It’s awesome. I highly recommend listening to this song on headphones and getting lost in your mind as you listen to it (and a clean version can be found here, if you so desire).
3. The War on Drugs: “Strangest Thing”
The War on Drugs speak to my soul like no other band. The Philadelphia-based group put out the best album of 2014, and I think their forthcoming follow-up album, A Deeper Understanding, may actually top it, if “Strangest Thing” is any indication. One of the more impressive things about the War on Drugs, and “Strangest Thing” in particular, is they can make what basically amounts to an ’80s rock ballad, but manage to strip away any superfluous cheesiness that has become so closely associated with the genre. “Strangest Thing” is a slow song that starts softly and then gradually picks up steam, building to a satisfying wordless chorus and an epic (but extremely tasteful) guitar solo. The whole song is beautiful and exhilarating and easily one of the best tracks of the year.
4. SZA feat. Travis Scott: “Love Galore”
You all need to be listening to SZA. Of the many artists out there doing what is often called “alternative R&B,” SZA’s new album Ctrl stands out with its expert songwriting and her distinct personality. The production on “Love Galore” feels like sweet molasses, slow moving and aurally pleasing. SZA’s vocal performance is top-notch, and Travis Scott adds the occasional joyful “YAH!” and a smooth verse.
5. Fleet Foxes: “Third of May/Ōdaigahara”
After long last, including a stint at Columbia University, Robin Pecknold and the rest of the Fleet Foxes released their third album Crack-Up a couple months ago. It continues their career trajectory set forth by the simple structures of their debut self-titled album in 2008 (Fleet Foxes, featuring the well-known “White Winter Hymnal”) giving way to the more complex, but still thoroughly melodic Helplessness Blues in 2011. Crack-Up furthers the mission of Helplessness Blues, rich with intricate soundscapes and meandering melodies, with “Third of May/Ōdaigahara” as the album’s emissary. Brimming with sweeping strings, quick changes from loud to soft (and back again), and a bit of grandeur, “Third of May/Ōdaigahara” is confident, beautiful, and full of surprises.
6. Sheer Mag: “Just Can’t Get Enough”
Sheer Mag introduced themselves to the world with a trio of rip-roaring, female-led, DIY, good-time punk rock. On their official debut album, they keep those elements of their EPs, but infuse their sound with an undoubtable “classic rock” feel. “Just Can’t Get Enough” comes from a lineage of excellent ’70s style riffage, with a groove that’s guaranteed to immediately improve your mood.
7. Hoops: “On Top”
Hoops would have been at home about 8 years ago, when chill guitars and subdued vocals dominated indie rock. In 2017, Hoops feel nostalgic and welcoming. For me, it specifically takes me back to my undergrad years, walking through the Berkeley campus. “On Top” maintains a shuffling rhythm and a melody that will burrow in your head.
8. Japanese Breakfast: “Diving Woman”
The new Japanese Breakfast album is supremely impressive. Michelle Zauner’s sound has somehow grown exponentially from her already fully-formed debut (which included the jangly upbeat pop of “Everybody Wants to Love You”). “Diving Woman” is a song to get lost in — the bass-heavy groove takes over your mind and body, and serves as a perfect complement to Zauner’s dreamy voice.
9. Mac Demarco: “This Old Dog”
Mac Demarco is a weird dude, but he makes the most chill music possible. On “This Old Dog,” Mac addresses lost love and growing old over a wistful acoustic guitar and easy-going rhythm section.
10. Jamila Woods: “Holy”
Jamila Woods emerged from the same Chicago scene as Chance the Rapper, contributing vocals to “Sunday Candy” and “Blessings”. “Holy” is an immensely satisfying piece of sweet, heart-warming soul music celebrating finding peace in oneself — “I’m not lonely, I’m alone / And I’m holy on my own.”
11. Slowdive: “Star Roving”
This song is magic. Slowdive were pioneers of dreamy, shoegaze rock in the early ’90s along with My Bloody Valentine, and have finally returned for their first album since 1995. And let’s just say they have not lost a step. “Star Roving” is a captivating work of art, propulsive and awash in amazing guitars.
12. Hazel English: “That Thing”
Along the lines of what I said about Hoops earlier, Hazel English has a musical style that would have fit 2009 like a glove. English, the 26-year-old Australian-born Oakland resident, has an alluring, reverb-heavy sound and an endless collection of catchy songs. Most of her material has been fairly guitar-focused, such as “Love is Dead” and “Make it Better”, but on “That Thing,” English puts the synths front and center (don’t worry, the guitars still play a major role). The song is clearer and less hazy than her other songs, but no less hypnotic and engaging.
13. Broken Social Scene: “Halfway Home”
Broken Social Scene, the indie rock collective from Toronto, has consisted of as many as 19 members at one time (including someone you may have heard of named Feist). The Canadian supergroup just realized their first record since 2010 and it is very good. The lead single, “Halfway Home,” is a thrilling anthem that wastes no time getting your blood pumping. It’s four and a half minutes of euphoria. When I played the song for my sister with no context, she said it sounded like U2, which is weirdly kind of true if you’re thinking about the 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind era, albeit with a little less polish. Take that for what it’s worth. Either way, it’s excellent.
14. Jaws of Love.: “Jaws of Love.”
Jaws of Love. is a new project from Kelcey Ayer, one of the key vocalists and songwriters for Local Natives. His new song, also called “Jaws of Love.”, is a gorgeous piano ballad that builds to a satisfyingly cinematic closing groove.
15. Jay-Z: “Marcy Me”
There’s a lot of talk surrounding Jay-Z’s new album, 4:44, and how it functions as a response to Beyonce’s Lemonade. The album’s narrative is compelling, especially as he personally confronts the alleged affair, but I’m especially impressed with the record musically. He did something that’s rare nowadays by enlisting just one producer, the legendary No I.D., to make beats for the whole album, while also keeping it to just ten songs, resulting in a cohesive and concise statement. And after some of his most recent albums, bloated and mediocre as they are, this new addition in the catalog is very welcome indeed.
My current favorite is “Marcy Me,” with it’s casual, piano-infused beat and Jay’s reminiscence of the Marcy Houses in Brooklyn, the housing project where he grew up. Of course, I like the line where he says “Back when Rodman was a Piston, Mike was losin’ to Isiah, but he soon would get his sixth one,” in order to establish how far back in time he’s going on the track. In the recent past, Jay’s rhymes have been almost completely oriented around how much money he has, so it’s incredibly refreshing to hear him be real and talk about his rough childhood.
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).