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.

Preview:

Full song:

 
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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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Five Quality Tracks: August 2016 (+ July 2016)

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The transition from July to August brought vacations and final exams and a LOT to do, so apologies for no previous July edition of Five Quality Tracks. But never fear — after going over the five tracks from August, we’ll double back to July and make up for lost time with five additional tracks.
 
AUGUST

1. Frank Ocean: “Self Control”

Frank is back! It’s hard to believe this actually happened. I still can’t shake the feeling that we’re all living a fever dream and Frank Ocean’s two new albums (yes, two new albums!) will be yanked away from us when we wake up. But my iTunes still has 35 more Frank Ocean songs than it did a couple weeks ago, so it’s real!

Two days after releasing a “visual album” called Endless (a project largely full of vignettes and a smattering of really good, but also really short ideas), Ocean released Blonde, his proper follow-up to channel ORANGE. As a whole, Blonde floats along with less immediacy and fewer hooks than channel ORANGE, but it washes over you with ambient moments of unadulterated beauty, punctuated by bursts of brilliance. “Self Control” can be classified as one of those “bursts.”

On “Self Control,” Ocean opens with a jarring chipmunk effect on his voice before going into his gorgeous, raw croon over a rhythmic electric guitar groove. Ocean’s ability to create a thick, fully realized atmosphere in the studio is enough to put him in the upper echelon of songwriters, but then he has that extraordinary voice to go on top of it. He’s a talented dude.

The song then gives way to an absolutely stunning chorus of Franks singing “I I I know you gotta leave leave leave.” It’s the kind of thing that makes you stop in your tracks and pause to take in the beauty.

Frank is back. Let’s enjoy it.

 
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Five Quality Tracks: June 2016

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1. The Avalanches: “Colours”

In Stereogum’s review of the Avalanches long-awaited sophomore album, Wildflower, Chris DeVille points out the group’s knack for creating a “sensation of somehow simultaneously swimming and soaring.” After captivating the underground music community with their thrilling, unique debut Since I Left You in 2000, the Avalanches fell off the face of the earth for 16 years. They would occasionally tease a follow-up album, but nothing would ever come of it — until now. That swimming and soaring sensation DeVille mentioned is what makes the Avalanches so special, and the wait for Wildflower completely worth it.

“Colours” is a vibrant smorgasbord of swirling sounds, floating in an out of focus, resulting in a song both stimulating and soothing. “Colours” demonstrates another quality unique to the Avalanches: their ability to make a song that can soundtrack a party as naturally as it can drift through your ears as you fall asleep. Unbelievably, counter to the Avalanches’ usual modus operandi, the track contains no samples, so the backmasked vocals and whirlwind of sound were all recorded by the group. The flutes, bells, strings, and airy vocals combine to form a kind of ice-cream truck psychedelia.

 
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