Five (*15!) Quality Tracks: May, June, July 2017

 
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.

 
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Five Quality Tracks: April 2017

 

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.

 
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Five Quality Tracks: March 2017

March was ridiculous. Somehow, after all this, I failed to include new songs from Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Fleet Foxes, and Real Estate. That’s honestly a crime, and I apologize. All indications point to Kendrick dropping an album (or at least something) on April 7th, and Fleet Foxes will release their long-awaited follow-up album in June, so they’ll still have a chance to make it on here. And so, without further ado, five quality tracks for March.
 
 
1. Lorde: “Green Light”

A friend of mine recently asked me who makes more ‘anthemic’ songs — Taylor Swift or Lorde? Lorde’s celebrated debut album from 2013, Pure Heroine, was exceptional, full of quietly encouraging, relatable songs (“Team” is an all-time favorite), but I wouldn’t characterize it as anthemic, necessarily. Swift may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but singles like “22,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” and “Bad Blood” are as conducive to late-night, impromptu sing-alongs as anything. So, after judging their musical output as a whole, my answer was Taylor Swift. BUT, on a song-by-song basis, the most anthemic track either of them have ever done is easily Lorde’s new single, “Green Light.”

After four fairly quiet years since Pure Heroine, Lorde, the New Zealand phenom who first deservedly captured our attention at the age of 16, is returning to us with her sophomore effort in a couple months. For her new album, Lorde tapped Bleachers and fun. member Jack Antonoff to produce and help with songwriting. Antonoff has production experience with some of the biggest names in pop, including Taylor Swift, Sia, Rachel Platten, and Sara Bareilles, so I was interested to see how his influence would manifest itself with Lorde.

I was immediately taken aback by “Green Light,” and not exactly in a good way. It is very pop in a reach-for-the-stars kind of way, which is not what I expected from Lorde and her more brooding, subtle style. But the more I heard it, the more the various parts stuck with me, like that enticing rhythmic piano in the lead-up to the chorus, or Lorde’s pitch-perfect lyrics, like her sneer directed at an ex, singing “She says you love the beach, you’re such a damn liar.”

Previously, Lorde deftly straddled the line between electro-indie and pop in a way that was unique at the time. So to hear “Green Light,” which is very much a full-fledged pop song, was a bit jarring at first. But the thing is, “Green Light” aims big — that’s the whole point — and it succeeds tremendously. Taylor Swift has written timeless anthems, but if I were to drive around with the windows down late at night with friends, the first song I would want to hear is “Green Light.”

 
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Five Quality Tracks: February 2017

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1. Calvin Harris feat. Frank Ocean & Migos: “Slide”

You guys, this song is really good. Calvin Harris, the electro-dance producer (and recent Taylor Swift flame), decided to team up with two completely different artists in the introspective and ingenious soul-singer Frank Ocean, and Atlanta trap-rap kings Migos, who are currently basking in the spotlight with their chart-topping single “Bad and Boujee.” “Slide” features an unexpected collision of worlds, but it ultimately works in the best possible way. Harris’s silky, shimmery beat is an immediate earworm — I can already picture it setting the mood for some laid-back July barbecues.

Frank Ocean is the song’s anchor, and I love when he drops the pitched-up “I might!” during the verses as the beat drops out. But my favorite part is the verse by Offset, one of the two “Migos” that appear. His fast flow punches the track up a notch, bringing it from “really good” to “great.”

I was a fan the first time I heard “Slide,” and my love for the song has only grown each time I’ve listened. Now we don’t have to wring our hands over what the 2017 “Song of the Summer” will be. We have it locked in, everybody can go home.

 
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Five (*Ten!) Quality Tracks: January 2017

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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 BeyoncĂ©, 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.

 
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Five Quality Tracks: November 2016 (+ October 2016)

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We’re in the home stretch. The Best Songs of 2016 list is coming soon! But for now, let these ten tracks from the last two months hold you over.
 
NOVEMBER

1. A Tribe Called Quest: “We The People…”

Comeback albums are not supposed to be this satisfying. Or smooth, or cohesive, or playful (at times), or important (at other times). But somehow, A Tribe Called Quest pulled it off with panache.

The Tribe got the whole gang back together for their newest album, We Got it From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service. Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammed, Jarobi, Consequence, and Busta Rhymes all make their mark on the album, along with guest contributions from Kendrick Lamar, Jack White, Andre 3000, Kanye West, Anderson Paak, Elton John, and more. But since A Tribe Called Quest’s inception, the highlight has always been the verbal tango between the two frontmen, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. Most of the album’s tracks feature multiple rappers, but on “We the People…”, Q-Tip and Phife take the keys and run with it. There’s absolutely nothing more pleasurable in the world of hip-hop than Tip and Phife’s chemistry together on the mic. But with such a long (and somewhat acrimonious) period of time since their last album, there was a significant chance that the magic between those two would be gone. But they don’t miss a single (Q-Tip-produced) beat.

On “We the People…”, Tip and Phife trade verses like the old days, but the subject matter is very current. The group directly addresses intolerance that many face today, taking on the part of the oppressors with the chorus: “All you Black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / And all you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways.” While the subject remains consistent, the duo’s unique styles still come through. Q-Tip (the philosopher) brings up empty-headed reality shows, but instead of outright demeaning them, he points out their appeal: “VH1 has a show that you can waste your time with / Guilty pleasures take the edge off reality / And for a salary I’d probably do that s— sporadically.” And Phife (the everyman) is always good for some sports-related similes, going after the unprepared haters who are “like a AL pitcher on deck talking about he hittin’“, or how the Tribe at their best are “like Tony Romo when he hitting Witten.”

Phife Dawg passed away earlier this year of diabetes at the age of 45, eight months prior to the album’s release. Not only is the album impressive in its own right, but it’s a fitting, worthy tribute to his memory. R.I.P. Phife, and Thank You 4 Your Service.

 
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Five Quality Tracks: September 2016

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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.

 
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