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 Beyoncé, 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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The Exhilarating Emotional Heights of Jamie xx’s “Loud Places”

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“I have never reached such heights / I feel music in your eyes.”

The ultimate power of music lies in its ability to channel feelings, memories, and emotions. You can be transported back to places you cherish, alongside people you love, at the click of a “play” button. You’re back in the stands at that high school football game, back at that party where you made your crush laugh, back on that road trip you took with your college friends.

Jamie xx knows music has this power. In fact, he knows it so well that his songs don’t just invoke memories — the music is literally about the concept of music invoking these memories. The production on his latest album, In Colour, was inspired by underground London raves in the ’90s, but it’s not meant to actually sound like the trip hop blaring on those club dance floors. In Colour is meant to encapsulate the feelings and emotions associated with going to a late-night rave in the city. The highs and lows, the excitement and the loneliness, the boundless elation and the quiet disappointment associated with a night full of adrenaline and expectations. These aren’t the songs that were playing at that high school football game, or the party, or the college road trip — these are songs that remind you of what you were feeling during those events.

 
Right in the heart of In Colour lies the musical and emotional climax, “Loud Places.” Jamie xx, who rose to prominence as the backbone of The xx, employs his bandmate Romy Madley-Croft to sing about “[going] to loud places to search for someone to be quiet with, who will take me home.” She also reflects painfully on her ex, who “[goes] to loud places to find someone who will take you higher than I took you.” The subject matter is melancholy, to be sure, but the music itself is uplifting in its wide-eyed wonder. A nostalgic haze hangs over the song, as the various electronic and instrumental elements fade in and out of focus — the rhythmic bells and whistles, the handclaps, the single guitar lick. The bass hums so deeply that it feels like it’s coming from inside your chest, with the thumps of the drum machine as the heartbeat. That build-up of thumps eventually leads to the most perfect, pure element of the song: a gospel chorus breaking through the surface and releasing the tension.

The chorus is a sample of Idris Muhammad’s 1977 song “Could Heaven Ever Be Like This.” The lyric goes, “I have never reached such heights / I feel music in your eyes.” It’s a beautiful couplet that furthers Jamie xx’s meta intentions of paying tribute to music. The chorus is not bombastic or attention-grabbing. In fact, you may not find it special or distinctive at all. But it’s the context that Jamie xx gives the chorus that make it truly special — the combination of crescendoing drums and Madley-Croft’s dramatic “didn’t I take you to higher places you can’t reach without me?” line preceding it, along with the bass, piano, and handclaps that accompany it. These sophisticated surrounding touches are what Jamie xx does best.

That chorus appears three times throughout the song (at 1:01, 2:38, and 3:30). In the first two instances, the piano and percussion are also prominent, competing for space right along with the voices. The third time, the piano and additional sound effects are buried in the mix, leaving room for that beautiful chorus to dominate. Combined with the deep and permeating drum beat, the final chorus provides an enduring moment of musical catharsis. You anticipate it coming, but it’s more subtle than, say, a drop in a Skrillex song. It’s gorgeous and blissful in its subtlety. It’s exhilarating.

Jamie xx feels music in your eyes, and he just wants to celebrate it.

D-Brad Music’s Best Albums of 2012

Tame Impala, just ruminating on their epic year

Tame Impala, just ruminating on their epic year

2012 is long gone, but the music lives on. Relive it right here. Luckily for us, music never gets old. Well, okay, when you hear Rihanna telling you to shine bright like a diamond YET AGAIN, then it does get old. But I promise, you’re going to like this stuff.

Singles have taken over for albums as the most important musical medium, with our download-heavy culture now, but there will always be something special about the ‘album.’ The cover, the track order, the high points and low points all contribute to its character.

Notice that each entry has a Spotify link, along with YouTube links to three key tracks from the album. Kick back and enjoy.


25. First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar
Spotify
Key Tracks: Emmylou | The Lion’s Roar | Blue
This Swedish female duo hit it big after covering Fleet Foxes’ Tiger Mountain Peasant Song, quickly showing the world their innate knack for bone-chilling harmonies. The Lion’s Roar is full of mountainous, pastoral folk rock for your next jaunt in the wilderness.


24. Jack White – Blunderbuss
Spotify
Key Tracks: Freedom at 21 | Sixteen Saltines | Love Interruption
The mastermind behind the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather finally released his first solo album. Some of it rocked, some of it burned slow, but overall, it was a solid effort.


23. Melody’s Echo Chamber – Melody’s Echo Chamber
Spotify
Key Tracks: I Will Follow You | Mount Hopeless | Quand Vas Tu Rentrer?
Everything about this album, from the cover to the sound effects, scream 1967. The Summer of Love vibe is thick on this debut album from French singer Melody Prochet, produced by Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker. Personal favorite: “Mount Hopeless.”


22. Titus Andronicus – Local Business
Spotify
Key Tracks: In A Big City | Still Life With Hot Deuce and Silver Platter | My Eating Disorder
Despite what many perceive as a failure to live up to their previous album, The Monitor, Titus Andronicus rocks hard on Local Business. My personal favorite track is “My Eating Disorder,” an 8-minute epic with harmonizing guitars that hearken back to Judas Priest.


21. Kishi Bashi – 151A
Spotify
Key Tracks: Bright Whites | Manchester | I Am the Antichrist to You
Kishi Bashi wins the award for most underrated album of the year. It didn’t get a lot of attention, but it won the hearts of those that listened to it. You may have heard his single “Bright Whites,” but check out the whole album, beautifully orchestrated and carefully crafted. If anything, I encourage you to check out “Manchester”: “Will you be mine? I haven’t felt this alive in a long time.”


20. Ty Segall – Twins
Spotify | YouTube
Key Tracks: The Hill | Thank God for the Sinners | Gold On the Shore
Ty Segall, the garage rock hero from San Francisco via Laguna Beach, is a workaholic. He released three albums this year. Yeah, three. His solo effort, Twins, is a consistent and worthy addition to his catalog, full of blistering riffs mixed with more subdued melodies.


19. Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action At a Distance
Spotify
Key Tracks: Strangers | Eveningness | Remember Our Days
Lockett Pundt, the brainchild behind Lotus Plaza and guitarist for Deerhunter, kind of slipped this album in under the radar, but it won me over with its subtle beauty. Every track is hypnotic, understated, and downright appealing. “Remember Our Days” is one of my favorite songs of the year, perfect accompaniment for introspective. The shimmering guitar riff of “Eveningness” and looping guitars and snare drums of “Strangers” are highlights.


18. Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits
Spotify
Key Tracks: My Love is Real | Would That Not Be Nice | Like Ice Cream
Britt Daniel of Spoon is a beast. Everything he does is gold. His voice is pure rock n’ roll. That’s why everything about his new project Divine Fits, along with members of Wolf Parade and New Bomb Turks, was a shot of swagger and awesomeness. This is what a rock record should sound like. Just listen to that slinking bass line in “Would That Not Be Nice.”


17. Allah-Las – Allah-Las
Spotify
Key Tracks: Tell Me (What’s On Your Mind) | Catamaran | Busman’s Holiday
Allah-Las conjure images of breezy beaches and good times with the greatest of ease. Many bands strive to capture the beach aura, but few are as effective and chill as these guys.


16. The Tallest Man On Earth – There’s No Leaving Now
Spotify
Key Tracks: Revelation Blues | Wind and Walls | To Just Grow Away
Kristian Matsson, the Swede known as the Tallest Man on Earth, is the master of acoustic ballads, complete with nasally Bob Dylan-esque voice. On his third album, There’s No Leaving Now, Matsson continues his consistent run of excellent albums, adding a bit of unique production techniques on this one.


15. Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
Spotify
Key Tracks: Give it Away | Desperation Breeds | Lusitania
Andrew Bird takes the cake for the smartest and most talented guy on this list. A violoin virtuoso with a perfect singing voice, Bird captivates with his poignant songwriting. Personal favorite: “Sifters”, in which he wonders what would happen if he and his lover were born in different eras. “What if we hadn’t been born at the same time / What if you were 75 and I were 9?”


14. Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse
Spotify
Key Tracks: Tell Me What’s Inside Your Heart | I Bought My Eyes | Wave Goodbye
Remember how I was talking about that workaholic kid from Laguna? This is him, again. Complete with backing band. The hardest garage rock out there.


13. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream
Spotify
Key Tracks: Do You… | Adorn | Use Me
Miguel rode the wave of an invigorated R&B scene (see: Frank Ocean, How to Dress Well, “Climax” by Usher, etc.). Although Miguel didn’t reach the popular heights of Frank Ocean, Miguel’s burst onto the scene was in many ways, just as good. “Adorn” is as sexy as it gets. “Do You…” is as catchy as it gets. Not a bad track on this whole album.


12. Chromatics – Kill For Love
Spotify | Soundcloud
Key Tracks: Kill For Love | Lady | Back From the Grave
Chromatics was originally slated to score the movie Drive with Ryan Gosling. Although that didn’t work out, their 2012 album Kill For Love caught me by surprise. I’ve said this a million times before, but it’s perfect for a night drive. Perfect. The mild electronic beats and melodies come in waves, breaking you away from the hypnotic calm moments.


11. Beach House – Bloom
Spotify
Key Tracks: Lazuli | Myth | Other People
Bloom picks up where Teen Dream left off in 2010, improving upon Beach House’s excellent formula. The climactic moments of Bloom, such as at the end of “Lazuli,” are breathtaking. Every chorus on every song brings a huge payoff – you can’t wait to hear it and you never want it to end.


10. The xx – Coexist
Spotify
Key Tracks: Chained | Angels | Sunset
It would have been a supremely daunting task to improve upon xx, the group’s 2009 debut. Instead of building on that album, the xx decided to take a step back and create an even more minimalistic album. Many saw the album as boring, disappointing, a “sophomore slump.” Those assessments are simply incorrect. Coexist is not as exciting as xx, but it is just as beautiful, if not more so. Melodies meander by, simply but impressively. The production shimmers as the two lead singers breathily sing tales of despair. Just check out this stripped down live version of “Fiction”. Amazing.


9. The Walkmen – Heaven
Spotify
Key Tracks: We Can’t Be Beat | Heaven | Line By Line
The boys of the Walkmen have toned it down considerably since their marquee single from 10 years ago, “The Rat”. They’ve grown up and had kids, and their sound reflects it. There is so much introspection and beauty on this one record. “We Can’t Be Beat” contain a pensive acoustic guitar, along with harmonies from Fleet Foxes’ frontman Robin Pecknold. And “Line by Line” is perfect soundtrack for a sunrise (or sunset) over the trees.


8. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
Spotify
Key Tracks: Gun Has No Trigger | Offspring Are Blank | Dance For You
I’ve always thought of Dirty Projectors’ music as excellent accompaniment for a modern art museum. It’s weird and abstract, but still appeals to your emotions. Swing Lo Magellan is the most normal record they’ve ever made though. There’s more meaning and feeling then ever before. Crazy sound effects and unbelievable random bouts of harmony still color the album, but there’s something there under it: heart.


7. Grizzly Bear – Shields
Spotify
Key Tracks: Sleeping Ute | Yet Again | Gun-Shy
“It remains difficult to relate to Grizzly Bear’s lyrics, but Shields’ skillful display of studio wizardry more than makes up for it. Grizzly Bear expertly combine the cerebral, technically tricky art-rock of Dirty Projectors with the pleasant folk harmonies and lush arrangements of Fleet Foxes. We get the best of both worlds — a psychedelic mish-mash of unique song structures, intricate ornamentation and beautiful vocals. Finding this terrain where abstract experimentalism meets catchy melodies can often be elusive, but Grizzly Bear roam across it with confidence. Opener “Sleeping Ute” epitomizes this convergence, featuring varying time signatures and stop-and-go tempos, providing a backdrop to a meandering but captivating melody. Fascinating instrumental flourishes abound — the bass tone on “Gun-Shy” or the flutelike synth line on “A Simple Answer.” And “Yet Again” could very well be the best song the band has ever written, with its swirling, ornate production and founding member Ed Droste’s impeccable melody.” –Daily Californian Review


6. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth
Spotify
Key Tracks: White Cedar | Lakeside View Apartments Suite | The Diaz Brothers
I’ll be honest, John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats blew me away with this record. I’ve always been interested in Darnielle and his incredible ability to churn out copious amounts of amazing songs, but this is the first album by him that really, truly connected with me. I’ll start saying this about every remaining album on the list, because that’s what happens as we approach #1, but dude: every song is good. The chorus and bass line on “Lakeside View Apartments Suite” is catchy, “Cry For Judas” is amazing, and the powerful refrain of “Amy a.k.a. Spent Gladiator” reverberates: “JUST STAY ALIVE.”


5. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
Spotify
Key Tracks: The House That Heaven Built | Younger Us | Fire’s Highway
When Japandroids are firing on all cylinders, there’s no stopping them. Their heart-thumping, fist-pumping brand of rock and roll makes you feel alive. I can’t even begin to describe the excitement that results from listening to “The Nights of Wine and Roses” in the car on a Friday night with endless possibilities ahead. The formula for Japandroids is simple but potent. Give way to your inhibitions and “give me younger us.”


4. Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory
Spotify
Key Tracks: Stay Useless | Cut You | Separation
Attack On Memory came out of nowhere. Cloud Nothings were a pop punk band with nothing very unique to offer on their debut, but then came blistering through the music scene with their sophomore album, completely changing their sound (thanks in part to longtime Nirvana producer Steve Albini). This was by far one of the most consistent releases of the year. Every track is awesome. “Wasted Days” is incredible, “Stay Useless” is catchy, and “No Future / No Past” is absolutely punishing. The intersection of grunge, punk, pop, and garage thrashing never sounded so invigorating.


3. Tame Impala – Lonerism
Spotify
Key Tracks: Elephant | Feels Like We Only Go Backwards | Mind Mischief
“Do not listen to Lonerism on your Macbook’s weak speakers. It will be like viewing a Van Gogh through a screen door. No, you need some headphones — or even better, some car speakers, so Tame Impala can soundtrack your modern-day magical mystery tour. On the second album from Kevin Parker’s psych throwback band Tame Impala, released in October, John Lennon is present in the vocals, Led Zeppelin in the riffs and Pink Floyd in the trippy wordplay. But no band has combined those elements as effectively as these Australian phenoms. Lonerism is heavy on reverb, fat bass tones and wobbly synths. Listen to it a few times so the swirling nuances can wash over you. When it sinks in, it doesn’t leave.” –Daily Californian Review.


2. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. city
Spotify
Key Tracks: Swimming Pools (Drank) | Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst | The Art of Peer Pressure
good kid, m.A.A.d. city is undeniably the best hip-hop album since Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s a masterpiece. The production is smooth and varied, Kendrick’s flow is infectious, and the lyrics paint a vivid picture of growing up in Compton. Every single track has something to offer, whether it be the ominous foreboding beat of “Swimming Pools (Drank),” the silky verse from Drake on “Poetic Justice,” the tales of youthful indiscretion on “The Art of Peer Pressure,” the epic closing to “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” or that Beach House sample on “Money Trees.” Ya bish.


1. Frank Ocean – Channel ORANGE
Spotify
Key Tracks: Thinkin’ Bout You | Forrest Gump | Pyramids
The year 2012 will be remembered as the year of Frank Ocean. He made a splash in a huge way. But here’s the thing: when you strip away all the backstory and the narrative associated with Ocean’s character, you’re still left with a stunning album in Channel ORANGE. Even if Ocean was the most boring and conventional dude on the planet, Channel ORANGE would still dazzle with its range, production, content, depth, and ambition.

Here’s what I said in my Daily Californian review: As Ocean’s perfect croon soaks into the soul on “Thinkin’ Bout You,” it is impossible not to reflect on all of Ocean’s qualities. He’s an immensely talented, creative, good-looking, up-and-coming pop star, but out of all the things going for him, his greatest asset is still his voice. Honestly, those vocal chords could be the eighth wonder of the world. Channel ORANGE is like a swim through a vast sea of swirling currents and serene beauty. With every gorgeous vocal flourish, Ocean’s tales of isolation and lost love burrow into your being. His soothing, pitch-perfect voice is enough to elevate him to stardom, but it’s his ear for sonic beauty and mind for lyrical boldness that carry him to greatness.