Across the Margin presents a mid-year report on the state of music, offering up its candidates for the best songs of the year (so far)….
Hot Chip – Atomic Bomb
On Record Store Day 2014, David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label released a tribute to the 70’s African synth master William Onyeabor, entitled WHAT! – William Onyeabor Remixed. The opening track to that album is a cover of Onyeabor’s 1978 hit song “Atomic Bomb,” performed by Hot Chip. The song is superb and genial, a magical concoction which opens with a catchy synth rhythm that playfully births a concussive explosion, and quickly gets to work captivating the listener with its rhythmic beauty. From Hot Chip frontman Alexis Taylor’s soft soothing vocals, to the ever pervasive rolling wall of sound – drums, guitar, horns, more drums, a deeply-droning bass, synths, triangles, backing vocals – it’s all there, richly layered and blending perfectly to lull the listener into an auditory form of bliss. This is definitely one of those songs meant to be played often, and on repeat.
Real Estate – Had to Hear
Real Estate’s latest album Atlas is the band’s most beautiful to date. While their sound has remained largely the same across three spectacular albums, its the landscapes they have created within each album that has changed. Real Estate is a band that found its roots, and its clean straightforwardness, in suburbia, a place that is often spoken of with negativity and disdain, a cultural cul de sac, if you will. However, within the confines of those beautifully manicured lawns and pickett white fences, Real Estate delves into themes that people, no matter what their walk of life, struggle with daily: heartache, aging, death and being alone. With “Had to Hear,” frontman Michael Courtney sings of what he knows, of the “subtle landscapes” that make up the neighborhoods of his youth, of not needing to see the horizon to know exactly where the sky ends. It is this unique brand of simplistic expressiveness that allows Real Estate to charm its listener again and again, their twirling, soaring dreamscapes evoking suburban nostalgia, reminding us that beauty can be found everywhere you look.
Isaiah Rashad – Heavenly Father
There’s no doubt that Chattanooga, Tennessee has the hip hop game on lock, right? While that is far from the truth, Chattanooga does have the privilege to tout itself as the birthplace of one of hip hop’s future stars. Isaiah Rashad’s coming out party was undoubtedly the BET Awards in 2013, where he performed with label mates Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Ab-soul, and Jay Rock. But it wasn’t until the release of Cilvia Demo that we were provided with the opportunity to grasp the talent of young Isaiah, and get our head around the depth of feeling residing within him. Throughout the album Rashad, employing introspective narratives, R&B melodies, and soulful beats, methodically shares his peculiar coming of age story, one that is exemplified in the heartfelt, reflective “Heavenly Father,” as honest and soulful of a hip hop track as you will come upon this year.
Mac Demarco – Brother
Mac Demarco’s stylings have, time and again, made us feel like we were on drugs. The funny thing was, we were never sure which ones. With Salad Days, his latest release, it’s readily apparent, especially amongst the comforting confines of “Brother,” the most soothing cushion of the summer – hell, of the year (so far) – what specifically we are on. It’s clear from the pacifying drumroll that commences “Brother,” that we are awash in a sea of benzodiazepine, draped in a comforting haze of mellow. This is not implying that “Brother,” or any of the remaining parts of the exquisite Salad Days are sleepy in any way, shape or form. Oh contraire. “Brother” whisks you away on a journey whilst swaddled firmly within the embrace of your lover’s arms, free from the worries of the world about you. It’s bliss re-packaged in musical form and a reminder of how good music can make us feel when we relinquish ourselves to its spell, and “take it slowly brother, let it go now, brother. Let it go…..”
Woods – Moving to the Left
“Moving to the Left” is one of those songs that exists somewhere between the Flaming Lips “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” and every single Shins song where James Mercer’s employed the use of vocal effects, with a tiny bit of Portugal the Man thrown in for good measure. But that’s not to say that the song isn’t distinctive or special, for it most certainly is. It’s more of an attempt to suggest that “Moving to the Left” is Woods still endeavoring to find that crossover hit that made acts like The Shins or the Flaming Lips famous. That Woods knows their way around a drum circle or their annual get together in Big Sur, the Woodsist Festival, is not in doubt. But with songs like “Moving to the Left” and the bar-raising greatness of their latest album With Light and With Love taken as a whole, one gets the sense that Woods is poised on the verge of greatness, of finally crossing over and becoming appealing to a wider audience of fans. It’s a level of success that their tireless work ethic and impeccable consistency across five albums has surely entitled them to.
Jungle – Busy Earnin’
If you don’t know…brace yourself. And may we suggest that you begin the introduction to your new favorite band with the feel good track of the summer, “Busy Earnin’” (Sorry Chromeo, we just “can’t get enough…”). Jungle, one of the most exciting new bands to emerge from Britain in years, remains sort of an enigma, but there is no question that they bring the heat, dropping smooth, mid-tempo 1970’s-style funk with ease. It’s urban tribal music at its finest, invoking the lustrous stylings of Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder. Jungle, it seems, has a knack for forging mesmerizing beats, encircling them in exquisitely detailed sonics, laced with a coating of hypnotic vocals. July 15th, the release date for their debut album “Platoon / Drops,” cannot come soon enough.
Warpaint – Love is to Die
Warpaint’s latest album, the self-entitled Warpaint, came to us on vinyl as part of a record of the month group that we had joined. It was the first record the well-curated club had sent and upon the very first listen we were was hooked. Nary a day went by that we didn’t send our turntable’s stalwart needle spinning around that disc and no one song got more playtime at our crib than “Love is to Die.” A bellwether for the albums soaring, hollow ethereal sound, “Love is to Die,” the albums first single, is a poster child for the type of stylish, capable music that the four females who make-up Warpaint can create. For those of you in the know about Warpaint, let’s not be fooled here, Warpaint is a jam-bad, albeit an unconventional one. Whereas stadium-capacity acts like The Allman Brothers or Phish routinely ply their crowds with solos, layered walls of sound, extended musical improvisation and sets that cross musical genres, Warpaint is squarely focused, methodical and dialed-in. Thier ability to summon music effortlessly into existence as if sorceresses, painting their soundscapes around the listener in great sweeping arcs, belies their talents as musicians, because making music as expressive as this shouldn’t appear so easy. Ego doesn’t exist in a band like Warpaint and the talented women who fill its ranks interplay flawlessly, seamlessly weaving their disembodied, collective sound.
Freddie Gibbs / Madlib – Deeper
Who’s more eccentric? The aggressive Gary, Indiana born gangsta rapper Freddie Gibbs, or a man who refers to himself as “Beat Konducta, an American comedian best known for his starring role on the television sitcom Quasimoto and Son who is 3/4 African-American and 1/4 Blazed?” It’s impossible to say, but luckily we aren’t talking about a competition, but rather a welcome collaboration between these two oddities often referred to as MadGibbs. Their album Pinata finds Gibbs as straightforward as usual, but more reflective on some of life’s more profound subjects, like (get this…) the pain of love lost. In “Deeper” Gibbs laments “Maybe you’s a stank ho, maybe that’s a bit mean/ Maybe you grew up and I’m still livin’ like I’m sixteen/ Like a child running wild in these sick streets/ Man I put that bitch up on her feet, she cut a nigga’ deep.” Gibbs’s flow, as powerful as ever, glides steadily over Madlib’s funk fusion and soulful jazz break beaks. It’s a unique collaboration to say the least, but one that we are hoping to hear more from….but for now the deep cuts of Pinata will do just fine.
Phantogram – Howling at the Moon
Would you crucify your dreams for someone you loved? Phantogram certainly would, and it’s readily apparent on their uptempo smash “Howling at the Moon.” Terming their unique brand of dream-pop/hip-hop “street beat,” their latest album Voices flirts with themes of personal chaos and mental instability, its cadre of songs searching for strength amongst an uneasy mind. With “Howling at the Moon,” we are treated to a tough-as-nails, drum-laden groove that bridges dynamic elements of the song, the rushing intensity of the its chorus, sung powerfully by Phantogram’s femme fatale Sarah Barthel’s, reminding us of humanity’s instinctive nature as she sings, “At night I sit and ho-wl at the moooooon.” This song is at its core wild, as if it has escaped from years of captivity. And all that pain, all that longing and regret that has been locked-up inside has finally been released, its formidable hold lessening upon each successive howl.
Sun Kill Moon – Dogs
Everything about Sun Kill Moon’s album “Benji” feels weird. The cousin love, the Bates-esque motherly admiration, the unflinching forthrightness – but fuck if it all doesn’t also feel so right. “Benji” consciously streams of feeling, its authentic tales recounted aloft ominous and sparse musical arrangements. Rarely do we come upon an album so introspective and intimate, one that feels as if Mark Kozelek has clawed open the deepest of wounds, allowing all his emotion to gush so freely out. It’s a reflective masterpiece of an album with the gutty “Dogs” acting as the core, and a haunting tribute to love’s bi-polar nature.
St Vincent – Psychopath
It’s St. Vincent’s world, we’re just living in it. Or so it seems, on the heels of the release of her latest self-titled album. Her wildly unique sound has made her arguably the most thrilling solo artist in indie rock at the moment. St. Vincent is an extremely accomplished record ((She has described it as a “party record you could play at a funeral.”)), a true contender for the year’s best, and “Psychopath” exhibits everything that is extraordinary about her sound. All the spooky synths, the strange burst of guitar noise, the breathless vocal melodies, the abrupt yet welcome recoilings to the choruses, the jittery and moody rhythms, and the perturbing transitions from smooth to biting- are a lasting reminder that St. Vincent has truly arrived, and will be steadily crafting celestial dreamscapes for us to waft in for years to come.
Parquet Courts – Black and White
There is a story, one that reads more like an urban legend than truth, that tells of Stephen Malkmus hearing one of Parquet Courts’ songs in a Portland burger shop and for a moment he confused it for one of his own. While true their earlier albums recall Malkmus’s earliest works, but whereas Pavement proudly broadcast an air of detachment, Parquet Courts are assertive and boldly combative. On Sunbathing Animals, the follow-up to their 2012 breakthrough album Light Up Gold, Parquet Courts sound hungry, and none more so than on the high-energy, raw-nerve punk track “Black and White.” Punk rock songs are so appealing because of their ability to strip rock music down to its core, serving it in its most uninhibited form, and “Black and White” is a fine example of this tendency. Its muscular, distinct guitar chords, paired with a closing coiled guitar breakdown, reveal the ambition and talent of a young band just hitting its stride.
Conor Oberst – Artifact #1
Asserting that Upside Down Mountain is a return to form for Conor Oberst doesn’t give credit to his last two solo releases ((Cassadaga and The People’s Key)), that many deem inferior to his illustrious undertakings with Bright Eyes ((As well as his self-titled solo release, which is hailed by fans as his greatest work outside of Bright Eyes.)). But truthfully, UDM is indeed a far superior effort than the prior two albums, transporting us back to Conor’s earliest works where plain-spoken, nuanced tones were breathed to life with the erosive affection only possible from one of our generations greatest and most introspective storytellers ((“This is a return to an earlier way I wrote.” – Conor Oberst)). “Artifact #1” is as poignant as it is beautiful, expressing a yearning to hold onto what has most undoubtedly slipped away (“So when I set myself to wonder/ All the questions that remain/ The only one that even matters/ Is when I’ll see your face again”), and a song rife with timeless wisdom about change and certainty, which allows one moments of contemplative thought while indulging in its beautiful melodies. You know, the type of music we grew to expect from Conor, a welcome revival from the man we have been commiserating with about life’s burdens for almost two decades now.
Future Islands – Seasons (Waiting on You)
If you haven’t viewed Future Islands recent performance of “Seasons (Waiting on You)” on The Late Show with David Letterman then do it now. And if after watching it you’re left wondering how a man dressed all in black, with a fading hairline and his t-shirt tucked into his pleated khakis can look so goddamn fascinating and sing so intoxicatingly that you’re moved to emotion, then understand that this is part of the bands allure. It may seem like a bit much to some listeners, but that is entirely alright with Future Islands. In fact, they welcome it. The power that Future Islands front-man Samuel T. Herring possess, and the tangible nature of the energy that he brings onstage, only serves to strengthen its listeners connection to their music. To forge a bridge with its audience based solely on their seemingly rampant impulsiveness. But it isn’t just Future Islands onstage presence that draws you in. On “Seasons (Waiting on You)” and the entirety of its latest album Singles, we are treated to a synthpop-laden tour de force. It’s an album that demands your respect. That channels the resurgent popularity of the post-millenial synthpop beat and serves it with an introspective punch to the gut. Singles songs are heartbreaking yet warm. Unconventional and bold. “People change,” Herring laments on “Seasons.” “But some people never do.” “And when people change”, he cries again, “they gain a piece but they lose one too.” If Future Islands ever changes, I’m okay with that, because I’ll be right here, basking in the splendor that is their latest offering of songs.
The War on Drugs – An Ocean Between the Waves
It’s fitting we close this half-year ode to the year’s musical best with The War on Drugs, as their latest release, Lost in a Dream is one of 2014’s crowning achievements. And the creme de le creme amongst of this superb offering of songs is the audacious campaign that is “An Ocean Between the Waves.” A track dripping with enough moments of tension and release to render one unhinged, leaving your nerves shot and your pulse hammering in your head. It’s a stampede, a whirlwind that builds to a crescendo for an absorbing seven minutes and then, without warning, brings you to an abrupt and paralyzing halt. A stunning achievement, and easily one of the best songs of 2014 (so far)….