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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Best Albums of 2016

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With the gradual proliferation of streaming services and curated playlists, for a while it didn’t look likely that the “album” format would survive. Yet here we are, at a time where the biggest pop stars are releasing cohesive, fully developed ALBUMS, in capital letters. I will always have a soft spot for the album as a concept, whether contained on discs of vinyl or within links to Spotify pages. Smash hits lie alongside deep cuts to form one 30-70 minute statement reflecting the artist’s pain and joy, their view of the world, their quest to express the words in their head and the riffs in their gut. Here are my 25 favorite albums of 2016.

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The 15 Best Live Performance Videos of 2016

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To kick off our year-end coverage, I present to you the 15 best live performance clips of the year. Below, you will find a collection of musicians displaying their craft on platforms ranging from emotional reunion concerts, to late night TV, to stripped-down NPR Music office recordings.
 

15. Kendrick Lamar: “Untitled 2” (Live on the Tonight Show)
It’s a testament to Kendrick Lamar’s unfiltered energy and passion that he can draw in the audience with very little additional fanfare. Just Kendrick, a mic, and a lot to say.

 

14. Lucy Dacus (La Blogotheque: A Take Away Show)
Lucy Dacus radiates warmth on a night in the streets (and subway stations) of Paris. Dacus pairs insightful lyrics with inviting arrangements in this stripped-down performance. One highlight occurs during her second song, “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore,” when a passerby whispers “Play a Janis Joplin song!”

 

13. Steve Gunn: “Full Moon Tide” (NPR Music: Field Recordings)
Steve Gunn was made to play his songs surrounded by trees atop old, rusty train tracks. Gunn’s acoustic guitar work is extraordinary as he channels a little Bob Dylan, a little Grateful Dead, and a little Neil Young.

 

12. Britt Daniel: “I Me Mine” (Live at George Fest)
“George Fest,” a tribute concert to George Harrison held at the Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles, happened in 2014 but clips and a live album were released this year. Britt Daniel of Spoon plays a fervent rendition of “I Me Mine,” the last song the Beatles ever recorded in April of 1970.

 

11. Bruno Mars: “24K Magic” (Live on SNL)
No one has more fun than Bruno Mars. I enjoyed “24K Magic” when it came out, but I started really loving it after watching Bruno and his hype men dance through it on Saturday Night Live.

 

10. The Arcs (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
Dan Auerbach, known as the frontman for the Black Keys, released an underrated album last year with his side project, The Arcs. Early this year, The Arcs played at the NPR Music office for one of their famed “Tiny Desk” concerts, enlisting the help of a Mariachi band called Flor de Toloache. Auerbach’s bluesy voice really shines over the spare arrangements, but the women of Flor de Toloache steal the show, providing backing vocals along with violin, trumpet, and guitar.

 

9. LCD Soundsystem: “All My Friends” (Live at Webster Hall)
It was thrilling to hear that LCD Soundsystem was reuniting to tour this year, after declaring that they had broken up in 2011. The band played their first show back at Webster Hall in New York City in March, closing their encore with “All My Friends,” an absolute behemoth and roller coaster of a song — easily their best, and probably the greatest song of the last decade. Even though the following clip is a somewhat crude recording from some audience member’s phone, the energy still surges through. I wish I had been there. (And here’s a higher-quality recording of their performance of the same song at Lollapalooza this year.)

 

8. Local Natives: “Dark Days” & “Fountain of Youth” (La Blogotheque: A Take Away Show)
Local Natives show their harmonizing chops on a slow, gorgeous version of “Dark Days”, one of the best songs of the year. Then on “Fountain of Youth,” one of the guys takes a little dip in the Seine after the performance.

 

7. Beyoncé (Live at the MTV VMA’s)
Beyoncé’s stage presence has always been a sight to behold, and it’s even more powerful with a cohesive narrative like Lemonade as the subject matter. Her performance of a medley of Lemonade tracks at the MTV Video Music Awards combined enthralling visuals, dancing, and Beyoncé’s persistently amazing voice.

 

6. Anderson Paak (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
Anderson Paak is a stunningly talented musician, and it shows on this Tiny Desk concert. Paak plays the drums and serves as a confident band leader as he layers his voice over some sumptuous funk/soul/jazz grooves.

 

5. Chance the Rapper: “Blessings” (Live on the Tonight Show)
Chance the Rapper wears his good heart on his sleeve at all times, making it impossible not to love him. On the Tonight Show, Chance is joined by D.R.A.M., Anthony Hamilton, Ty Dolla $ign, and Raury on his earnest mission to have everyone recognize their blessings.

 

4. Bon Iver: “Heavenly Father (A Capella)” (Live at the Sydney Opera House)
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver returned this year with an album full of vocal processing, effects, and studio trickery. But for their Sydney Opera House performance of the group’s one-off track (for a 2014 Zach Braff movie) “Heavenly Father,” the group gathers in a circle and relies solely on their blended voices. It’s mesmerizing.

 

3. Pinegrove (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
Pinegrove, the Montclair, New Jersey band led by Evan Stephens Hall, made one of my favorite albums of the year in Cardinal, a blend of indie rock, country and, yes, even a dash of emo. Those of you who know me are probably shocked that I could like anything involving the words “country” or “emo,” but here we are. Pinegrove have stirred something inside me recently and I’ve become obsessed. On the album, the “rock” part of the blend dominates, but in a stripped-down setting like the NPR Tiny Desk concert series, those country tinges shine through a little more. It’s hard for me to adequately express the deep connection I feel with these songs, and this performance in particular — especially when they play “Old Friends” at 4:04, as Hall sings “I should call my parents when I think of them / I should tell my friends when I love them.”

 

2. Choir! Choir! Choir!: “Space Oddity” (Live at the Art Gallery of Ontario)
David Bowie’s death was almost too much to handle, but people all over the world attempted to process it by paying tribute in whatever way they could. The most affecting tribute to me was a short-notice gathering of an audition-less choir in Toronto to sing “Space Oddity.” One acoustic guitar and a chorus of over 500 voices in perfect harmony. They easily could have made the performance too sickly sweet or cheesy, but it’s done with tremendous taste and restraint. It’s a genuinely moving, chill-inducing memorial to a true legend.

 

1. Kanye West: “Ultralight Beam” (Live on SNL)
Kanye is on my “naughty” list right now, but there was no denying the top spot to his Saturday Night Live performance of “Ultralight Beam” back in February. The funny thing about it is Kanye doesn’t even do much here, but that highlights one of his strengths: he knows talent when he sees it, and he defers to that talent when the song calls for it. A full (and extremely powerful) gospel choir accompanies Kanye along with guests Kelly Price, The-Dream, Kirk Franklin, and Chance the Rapper, who all absolutely slay their time in the spotlight. The disparate parts all cohere to make a beautiful statement on searching for light.

Five Quality Tracks: March 2016

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It’s an indie rock/pop kind of month! Except for Kendrick.

1. Car Seat Headrest: “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”

Car Seat Headrest is my current obsession. The band’s mastermind, Will Toledo, has been making home-recorded music since 2010, but after almost 6 years, he’s finally getting some much-deserved attention. Last year’s Teens of Style was #17 on my Best Albums of 2015 list, but after listening to it a lot over the past month or so, I regret placing it so low. In retrospect, it was one of the 5 best albums of last year. Despite the record’s lo-fi, muddled production, Toledo’s songwriting ability and knack for melody still shone through (especially on “Times to Die”).

In May, Car Seat Headrest will release Teens of Denial, the follow-up to Teens of Style, and I can’t freaking wait. With recognition comes access to a real recording studio, and Toledo is taking full advantage on his new singles. He first released the 8-minute epic “Vincent”, but then topped it with “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales.” It’s a sobering song that compares drunk drivers to, you guessed it, killer whales, but it doesn’t do so in any kind of preachy way. Toledo makes his faults and rationalizations abundantly clear, but advocates the song’s subject to listen to the voice in your head: “But you know he loves you, and he doesn’t mean to cause you pain. Please listen to him, it’s not too late. Turn off the engine, get out of the car, and start to walk.” The music itself is powerful — it’s pretty by-the-book indie rock, but so well-executed, paced perfectly, and with an excellent melody. Toledo’s voice is like a cross between Julian Casablancas of the Strokes and Ray Davies of the Kinks. With some people, you can instantly tell whether they have that certain songwriting “spark” — the spark that takes what could be “good” songs to “great, stay-in-your-head” type songs. Toledo has that spark.

 
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Five Quality Tracks: January 2016 + Bonus: Five Great Bowie Moments

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These “Five Quality Tracks” posts stress me out. I want to pick 15 tracks, not 5. January was a really good month, and I’m passing over a lot of good songs from Hinds, Wet, Eleanor Friedberger, and even the guy who you see everyday in the header photo of this very website, Ty Segall! I can’t believe I didn’t include them. That must mean these next five songs are really good. Also, keep scrolling after the tracks for a bonus section with some of my favorite David Bowie moments.

1. Chairlift: “Moth to the Flame”

The indie pop duo Chairlift have been around for a few years, but they’ve always been somewhat of a footnote to me. They had a song in 2012 called “I Belong in Your Arms” that I really liked, but I hadn’t really heard anything else by them. They just released their new album Moth and it’s chock-full of jams. I was *THIS* close to selecting another track, the slightly emo but deeply affecting and equally awesome “Crying in Public” as my Chairlift representative. But I couldn’t ignore the sugary, danceable beat to “Moth to the Flame.” This is catchy, reach-for-the-stars, indie pop at its finest.

 
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Best Albums of 2015

When I was a freshman/sophomore in college, I insisted that my “best albums of the year” lists were unequivocally correct. Whichever top 25 albums I listed were, by all measures, the absolute “best” of the year, no questions asked. With a little perspective, I now know that that was completely ridiculous. The 25 albums represented here are the “best” to me, according to my limited world view. I try to keep that world view as open as possible so that all albums are welcome here. I also try to take into account an album’s importance, reach, and influence on a larger scale. But ultimately, these 25 albums are the ones I loved listening to the most. I immensely enjoyed them, and I hope you did/will too.

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Five Quality Tracks: November 2015

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This was a feature that I used to do for the Daily Californian’s Arts & Entertainment blog. I decided to give it life again here. At the end of each month, I’ll post a feature highlighting five quality tracks released during that month.

This isn’t going to exactly be a ringing endorsement, but I have to be honest. First of all, this is the home stretch for the semester and I have a bunch of assignments due, so I can’t go as in-depth as I would usually like. Secondly, I’ve been hard at work on my “Best Songs of 2015” post, so be excited. The songs below are no less amazing though.

1. Missy Elliott feat. Pharrell Williams: “WTF (Where They From)”

WOW, this song is catchy. But it’s Missy Elliott and Pharrell — of course it’s catchy. Missy Elliott, who hasn’t released new music in a decade, reintroduces herself to the world with a bang. A gigantic, modern, infectious bang.

 
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