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 (*Ten!) Quality Tracks: January 2017

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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2014 in Music: Album Awards

I hate to start it off like this, but 2014 wasn’t a great year for albums. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of solid releases, but it wasn’t like 2009 or 2011 or 2012, when we were knee-deep in near-classics. Before coming to this realization though, I thought I was going crazy, wondering if music just didn’t provide me with the same enjoyment. Luckily for my sanity’s sake, other music critics also thought 2014 was kind of an off-year.

Here’s Matthew Perpetua, music writer for Buzzfeed:

But just because there weren’t as many excellent albums as years past, that doesn’t mean there weren’t some transcendent pieces of music. To my ears, there were five records in particular that stood out among the rest. Without further ado, my top five albums of the year:
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Album Reviews – Andrew Bird, Sleigh Bells, The Men, White Rabbits

Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
The multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird has a distinguishable sound, and his latest album puts it to good use. Break It Yourself features Bird at his most ornate, providing an even more inviting listen than previous releases. It’s choc-full of a variety of genres, from folk to classical to baroque pop. “Danse Caribe” is a perfect example of this genre melting pot. It begins with a clear Americana influence as the violin quietly imitating a slide guitar. Around the 2-minute mark, Bird employs a more “world music” vibe, reminiscent of attempts by Vampire Weekend and Beirut to do the same, before returning back to the South with an 1800s-era fiddle solo. And that’s just one song. “Lusitania” is a duet with critical-favorite Annie Clark from St. Vincent. What I love about the track is that it doesn’t go about broadcasting its obvious beauty. “Lusitania” is understated, yet gorgeous throughout, ending with a happy-go-lucky whistling melody and string bass that echoes Van Morrison in his Astral Weeks days. Bird excels lyrically as well. “Sifters” is a tale that finds him asking a lover “what if we hadn’t been born at the same time?” He wonders aloud whether they would still care for each other if one of them was much older. And “Hole In the Ocean Floor”, clocking in at over 8 minutes, is simply lovely. Break It Yourself on the whole is very pleasant and peaceful. It’s easy to put it on when the mood’s not right (i.e. like I did while riding a crowded subway to work) and miss the full effect. This album is for a lazy Sunday or a chill drive at dusk. Sit back and enjoy.
Rating: 8.5

Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror
I like Sleigh Bells, despite the hate they get from (rightfully) skeptical critics who consider them a fad, more concerned with style than substance. Their debut Treats had in-your-face singles full of swagger. However, Reign of Terror doesn’t measure up. The songs simply lack the same punch. The double bass drum from the drum machines provide an uninspired and frankly boring backbone to most of the songs. There are some bright spots. “End of the Line” is enjoyable and lead single “Comeback Kid” is awesome, as catchy as anything they’ve done. But it’s surrounded on the album by mediocrity. In an interview with Grantland (plug time: Grantland is the best blog ever), Sleigh Bells guitarist Derek Miller himself admitted that “If every song on the record could be ‘Comeback Kid,’ it would be, but you’re lucky if you get one like that.” They really hit a gold mine on that song. The rest is okay, but nothing special.
Rating: 6.0
Sleigh Bells – “End of the Line”

The Men – Open Your Heart
Much like my post on Japandroids’ “Wet Hair” from their awesome 2009 album Post-Nothing, The Men capture that same raw, youthful energy. I’m tempted to say it’s a very “listenable” album, but just as we call political candidates “electable,” those terms can be kind of hollow. Isn’t every album “listenable” in a way? But the term fits. I’ve breezed through the album multiple times and it’s just a joy to listen to. Opening track “Turn It Around” starts Open Your Heart off with a bang as good as ever, pounding us with a riff that would make Rod Stewart and the Faces proud. The title track is also loud, catchy, and riff-heavy. In my opinion, the seventh song on the record, “Candy”, is one factor that brings this album from good to great. “Candy” is an acoustic Rolling Stones-esque number that provides a perfectly-timed break from the onslaught of electric guitar. Not only does it prove the Men’s versatility, but aesthetically it makes the album more enjoyable as a whole. It’s a welcome drink of ice-cold water before you get back in the game and start melting people’s faces off again. I hadn’t heard of the Men until a week ago, but they’ve made my favorite album of the year so far. Get it.
Rating: 9.0
The Men – “Open Your Heart”

White Rabbits – Milk Famous
Milk Famous sounds like a Spoon album. A lot. And it’s not a coincidence since it’s produced by frequent Spoon producer Mike McCarthy. This Spoon-like (Spoon-fed?) sound is kind of a shock when juxtaposed with their amazing critically-acclaimed 2007 debut Fort Nightly, which is solid enthusiastic indie rock that bears little resemblance to the nonchalant swagger of Milk Famous. Don’t get me wrong, I love this sound, even if it’s blatantly lifted from a superior band. I don’t care so much about that. Lead singles “Heavy Metal” and “Temporary” are straight-up awesome. But the songwriting skill is kind of lacking in the rest of the tracks. Most of them have their moments, like the triplet shuffle in “Everything Can’t Be Confused,” but the songs themselves can hardly be classified as anything more than just that: moments. If you’re not going to have a beginning-middle-and-end verse-chorus-verse structure in your songs (i.e. if the whole song sounds the same throughout), then you need to have a supremely catchy groove to carry your interest throughout. “Heavy Metal” and “Temporary” accomplish this beautifully. The bass and piano/guitar lines are engaging enough that the repetitive grooves of the songs never lose their momentum, much like Spoon’s “Don’t You Evah”. But the thing is, the rest of Milk Famous doesn’t hold your attention. The album’s not bad. It’s actually pretty dang good. But the disappointment lies in the fact that it’s not as great as it could be.
Rating: 7.0

Get the whole albums by Andrew Bird and The Men. Download “Heavy Metal” and “Temporary” by White Rabbits and “Comeback Kid” by Sleigh Bells.