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.
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.
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.
Featuring discussions of the Strokes’ career trajectory, the single most important quality of a great pop song, and more.
1. Radiohead: “Burn the Witch”
Much of Radiohead’s music takes a while to sink in. It took me a repeated listens to fully appreciate the intricate brilliance of OK Computer and Kid A, and the band’s newest surprise album, A Moon Shaped Pool, is proving to be a slow-burner as well. There are exceptions, however. In Rainbows was an album that revealed its pleasures immediately. While most of Kid A took some time, opening track “Everything in its Right Place” was spine-tingling from the start. Similarly, the lead track on A Moon Shaped Pool, unlike the rest of the album, was instantly engrossing.
“Burn the Witch” is eerie, full of an anxious energy that boils over by the time we reach the end. The song highlights multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood’s proclivity for discordant string arrangements. Greenwood’s strings were almost like another full-bodied character in films such as There Will Be Blood and The Master. Greenwood uses the same pizzicato technique on “Burn the Witch,” and as a result, the song sounds huge, important, and cinematic in scope. It forges forward with Thom Yorke’s ethereal voice floating on top until about the three-minute mark, when it kicks up a notch and builds to a fever pitch. Jillian Mapes of Pitchfork said it best when she called it “simultaneously unsettling and gorgeous.” The lyrics match the sonic paranoia — “Stay in the shadows, cheer at the gallows,” “Avoid all eye contact, do not react, shoot the messengers,” and “This is a low-flying panic attack.”