Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best 25 Songs of 2013: #2 and #1

While I sit here by the fire with the snow blowing outside, I have to say - I'm a little excited for 2013 to hit the road, and 2014 to ring on in. This year was one filled with a whole lot of magic, but, it's time to begin what I think just might be the best. year. ever. And, what better way to send off 2013 than with two songs that made a gigantic impact. One album-less single, featuring the golden boy from hip-hop, stopped the rap game dead in its tracks - scratching their head about where this bloodthirsty voice came from. Our number one, a standout symbol of maturity off one of this year's best albums, had all the fixings of a classic - coined sounds from the band's past, mixed in with every bit of evidence that their ready for their prime.
Have a wonderful end to 2013, a special New Year's eve, and cheers to the many good things to come tomorrow. Happy New Year!

#2. Control - Big Sean featuring Kendrick Lamar and Jay Electronica
You see, the last thing Kendrick Lamar wanted was anyone thinking he peaked during his 2012 debut. Big Sean asked K-dot and Jay Electronica to cameo on "Control (HOF)" for his new album, before the single got scrapped from the listing due to clearance issues. Nonetheless, the single was released and within hours of the track dropping, the internet erupted in response to the groundbreaking second verse. Don't get me wrong, Big Sean and Jay show up on this track - but Kendrick's uncharacteristic declarations of supremacy and growling attacks on just about every other MC (including his pals) sent everyone into either a knee-slapping or wall-punching fit. While his whiny peers attempted rebuttals in their own right, nothing topped the brilliant shock of hearing Compton's "good kid" explode onto a verse in a way he hadn't previously with his concept storytelling debut. It's safe to say we saw a mind-blowing, and welcome, side of K-dot when he barked:"...And that goes for Jermaine Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Wale, Pusha-T, Meek Mill, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Big Sean, Jay Electron', Tyler, Mac Miller/ I got love for you all but I'm tryna murder you n***as/ Tryna make sure your core fans never heard of you n***as/ They don't wanna hear one more noun or verb from you n***as." That's what we're talking about.

#1. Hannah Hunt - Vampire Weekend:
From one of the best albums of this year, Modern Vampires of the City, "Hannah Hunt" embodies everything that I love about music. For one, this song really symbolizes how Vampire Weekend - a band I was never thrilled about before this release - have grown to become seasoned, purposeful musicians with an understanding of thoughtful songwriting and melodies. But, more importantly - everything about this song feels right. These dazzling four minutes, like so many others from the rich collection, timelessly grabs your undivided attention with its dainty Paul Simon-style introduction and Ezra Koenig's precious pronunciation - talking about growing up - before rising and crashing all around you. A musical crash like this one washes you over. And then, more than ever, do we totally listen to and understand the searching and transformation Vampire Weekend's talking about. This whole album, about religion, relationships and just trying to actually grow up, is so utterly believable because of songs like this. Their vulnerability - often painted through honest admissions and Ezra's sweet coo - is fine by them, because they challenge it right back with big, enchanting moments like the one that ends "Hannah Hunt." Even if their lyrics modestly claim they're still figuring "it all" out, along with characters like Hannah, expansive revelations like this one really convince us they're closer to getting there than they think.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Best 25 Songs of 2013: #4 & #3

As we get down to it, the magic is about to happen. We really start dabbling in different ends of the genre spectrum. From here on out, the pairs of songs I've chosen couldn't be anything less alike - save for the fact that they were all exceptional additions to music in 2013. With my third and fourth place choices, we've got one of hip-hop's most influential (and psychotic) players, and one surprisingly veteran Americana cowboy who shacked up in dusty, small-town Mexico to write his best album yet.

#4. Black Skinhead - Kanye West:
Off Yeezus, the most recent, most fiery installation of boundary-pushing hip-hop that materialized from Kanye West's increasingly cynical psyche this year, "Black Skinhead" is the prime example of West's fierce approach to political and social commentary. Or industry commentary. Or both. Either way, one thing is clear: similar to the more recent Batmans, and perhaps in response to the blossoming hip-hop game around him, Yeezy has gotten a lot growlier, and a lot angrier. Despite his then-pregnant girlfriend, West still used parts of Yeezus to contest conformity and boast misogyny - the kinds he trained us to stomach with 2010's brilliant My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Antagonizing, making everyone uncomfortable and increasingly rejecting the mainstream - while claiming he is a God - have become expected symptoms of the guy's genius. Coupled with his thumping beats, gutteral scream and the impossibly ear-catching sample heard on "Skinhead" - it's hard not to start believing that West really isn't making it all up.

#3. Song for Zula - Phosphorescent:
Some of what Phosphorescent's Matthew Houck has done in the pursuit of peace and musical ingenuity might seem cliché; a tired singer-songwriter takes a hiatus after his few albums under the moniker Phosphorescent, to hide away in Tulum, Mexico and pen a collection of heartfelt drifter's anthems about redemption and the road. However, nothing about Houck's latest Americana endeavour, or his process, turned out the same way the other booze-blued, rambling men's have in the past. Muchacho was everything and more - a moving collection of achy, soul-searching hymnals ("Terror in the Canyons" and "The Quotidian Beasts") and rousing, woop-filled country-rock stomps ("A Charm/A Blade" and "Ride On/Right On") that paint this expansive picture of a broken man's journey towards salvation. Most notably was the uncharacteristic (and stand-out) revelation called "Song for Zula" - a magical synth and violin-backed number in which Houck's trembling yodel whispers in and around the romantic instrumentation. His vulnerability, yet his conviction, are stunning when his voice rises to croak "See honey I am not some broken thing/ I do not lay here in the dark waiting for thee," making it clear Houck has found his sound, and himself, on this one.

Best 25 Songs of 2013: #6 & #5

Here are two songs from two albums that I easily consider to be two of the best releases 2013 hosted. A Danish/Canadian neo-soul duo released one of the smoothest, most accessible tastes of R&B I've ever heard (if I've listened to it once, I've listened to it 1000 times), while the forefathers of American indie-rock released their sixth eclectic collection to (more) critical acclaim.

#6. I Need My Girl - The National:
What more is there really to say about The National. The Matt Berninger-fronted group has wowed audiences with their extensive collection of honest indie since they were underdogs in the early millennium, only to stick with their unique concoctions to now effortlessly rule the genre in their middle age. With "I Need My Girl," one of those heart wrenching National ballads that reveals a challenging or impossible kind of love, the flickering guitar loop and Berninger's coined baritone are totally arresting as the beat of the song marches forward into classic National territory.

#5. The Fall - Rhye:
With what I would describe as one of my most overplayed songs of 2013, "The Fall" perfectly embodies everything that allowed Rhye to mysteriously slide onto the scene this year and bring everything around them to a screeching halt. In a year over-saturated with pop-infused everything, the Canadian-bred/L.A.-based duo quietly released Woman, a blend of minimalist funk and soothing soul numbers, to widespread acclaim - keeping everything (including their faces and stories) other than their music out of the spotlight. Confused over the sex of Sade-soundalike lead singer Mike Milosh and where he came from, the industry had nothing to do but sit back and soak in the tender soul classics heard on Woman, ultimately determining that singles like this one are rare diamonds in the indie rough.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Best 25 Songs of 2013: #8 & #7

On a particularly celebratory day, I couldn't be more jazzed that these are the two songs I get to share. One of these, dreamed up by a budding Canadian indie duo, was undoubtedly a part of my staple soundtrack this year; I still can listen to it anytime, anywhere with a smile on. And while we're talking smiles, this other track from one of the decade's greatest rock contributors is just about the happiest thing we came across all year.

#8. What That Was - Majical Cloudz:
Majical Cloudz came out of nowhere. When I first heard "What That Was," the stunning ode to friendship that appeared on his Turn Turn Turn EP, it felt as if the Montrealer's distinctive bellow and gorgeous synth were polished enough to have been around for years. However, save for some work with Grimes and a quiet debut release, Welsh and his partner Matthew Otto flew relatively under the radar up until now. Something happened with 2013's Impersonator; the duo found their voices, and a way to tell poignant stories over some of the most emotive electro-pop out of Canada in ages.

#7. Wakin' On A Pretty Day - Kurt Vile:
With so many things, I believe that minimalism is key. While Vile's low-fi rock is rich in feeling and melody, his easygoing drone and sublimely chill chords seem like the bare minimum ingredients for feeling good. When the former War on Drugs band member and critically-acclaimed indie rocker released his fourth solo LP (and the follow-up to his doozy of a record Smoke Ring for My Halo) this year, his overall contentedness was blissfully apparent on this cathartic 10-minute package of sunny strums and easy drawls.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Best 25 Songs of 2013: #10 & #9

As we edge into the top ten of the countdown, I'm going to toss out two huge moments in music this year - one which should likely be everyone's cup of tea (who can resist that voice?), and one that might only appeal to a small portion of the music-loving population. In either case, both blew the industry away. Lezgo.

#10. New You - My Bloody Valentine:
In February, My Bloody Valentine crashed the internet with the release of mbv - their first album in 22 years. Following the 1991 release of MBV's seminal shoegaze album Loveless, some of the world's greatest musicians (ranging from Trent Reznor to Billy Corgan) credited the band with forever shaping their approach to alternative-rock music. MBV's famously distorted vocals and droning guitars are only one piece of the puzzle - their dreamy rock melodies (and this uncharacteristically accessible track) are what made coming back to them after two decades simple. For more Loveless reminiscent MBV, download "Only Tomorrow" or "She Found Now."

#9. Retrograde - James Blake:
Let's face it, James Blake is already one of the classics. That effortlessly creamy croon (which doesn't seem like it could possibly belt out of the 25 year-old's frame) has skyrocketed the experimental producer into collaborations with some of the world's reigning musical acts, and led to his exceptional album Overgrown winning the coveted 2013 British Mercury Prize. On "Retrograde," the gloomy, downtempo production is softened by Blake's vocal acrobatics, but don't be fooled - his music has as many challenging dark corners as it does soulful glimmers.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Best 25 Songs of 2013: #12 & #11

I would imagine everyone needs a big ol' drink after the Boxing Day chaos, so let's kick back with a full glass and two hip-hop/R&B jams that made quite the splash in 2013. Whether it was released late enough to throw a wrench in everyone's end of year listography, or continued to define our new golden age of young gun hip-hop, both of these songs deserve to be right on the cusp of the top ten.

#12. Favorite Song (feat. Childish Gambino) - Chance the Rapper:
On yet another release that proved hip-hop has officially entered a new era, this 19 year-old's jazzy samples and distinctive croak work hand-in-hand to reassure the next generation of MCs have no problem dabbling in successful recipes of decades past, without sacrificing an ounce of their own originality. On "Favorite Song," the bouncy melody is the perfect undertone for both Chance and (the equally talented) Gambino's witty spits, and similar to the playful blend De La Soul and Naughty By Nature pioneered, this mindful hip-hop feels so good for the soul.

#11. XO - Beyoncé:
You know, I've had a lot of people ask me my opinion on Beyoncé's self-titled visual album - thinking that, as a music writer, it's my obligation to shit on anything mainstream. Well, I'm not sure where anyone got that idea, and, if you visit any of the critics' "best of" lists this year - you'll find a plethora of feel-good, boundary-pushing pop mentions. And, that was exactly the feedback I had to give about Beyoncé announcing and releasing 14 new songs with accompanying music videos - exactly what everyone else (critic or not) was already thinking. It's inventive. It has depth. And, with songs like this expansive pop anthem, it feels pretty damn good. They don't call her the Queen for nothing, and if you're discouraged by what might appear to be her least accessible, hook-filled album yet, you haven't yet let this love song's unequivocally moving melody, and Queen Bey's growly declarations, soar at full volume. PS. I consider myself lucky I had the chance to include part of this album on this list - considering her late December release threw off everyone else's countdown.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Best 25 Songs of 2013: #14 & #13

On the most festive day of the year, I'm happy to give you the gift of ultimate feel-good music. Two songs, in particular: one that will transport you from the snowy stretches of wherever you (most likely) are to the botany-lined beaches of summer, and one that, in a decade saturated with meaningless dance music, reminded us how powerful a genius, thoughtful beat can be. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from me and these guys.

#14. You and Me - Disclosure (Flume remix):
With what I've already mentioned is quite possibly the best remix of 2013, we were gifted a combination of two of the year's youngest, yet most influential, rising electronic producers. On the Disclosure side of things, the barely-drinking-age Lawrence brothers' debut album Settle was a breakthrough game-changer; a fresh, accessible smorgasbord of both up and downtempo beats for any audience. Then there's 22 year-old Flume, the Australian beatsmith who twisted the original into what he calls this "orchestral crunkwave" anthem, proving he and the Disclosure boys - combined or apart - are in this for the long run.

#13. It All Feels Right - Washed Out: 
If this was a 'best albums of 2013' list, Washed Out's Paracosm would have easily been in my top ten. I felt this album in my bones. Ernest Greene, the mastermind "chillwave" pioneer behind Washed Out, practices the musical equivalent of the mantra "act how you want to feel." He paints his paracosm for us with sunny streaks of synth and psychedelic keyboard, resulting in a lush, utopian dreamworld that feels within reach after one song. As his nonchalant vocal sways beside the soaring melody on "It All Feels Right," Greene builds us a glimpse of the minimalistic, romantic daydream he calls home - where the sun always shines and music never stops. To watch a beautiful short video about Greene's music, check this out.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Best 25 Songs of 2013: #16 & #15

On one of the merriest eves of the year, let's listen to two very important ends of the music spectrum: the sweet, harmonic croons of a modern-day girl group and the nasty rap of one of this year's youngest (and most influential) hip-hop artists.

#16. Sunday - Earl Sweatshirt featuring Frank Ocean:
With an all-star song credit like this one, it's hard to disagree that this single from Sweatshirt's acclaimed 2013 release, Doris, was bound for critical attention. While lyrically, the album is sometimes as much cringeworthy as it is mindblowing, "Sunday" and its ominous-turned-triumphant melody is impossible to turn off. Not only because hanging off the dribble of the 19 year-old's lethargic rhymes is easy, but because the anticipation of Ocean's cameo is palpable right before last year's breakout R&B star swings in with his simplistic declaration over that twinkling sample.

#15. Until We Get There - Lucius: 
Although undoubtedly beautiful, this single might sound (to some) like nothing to write home about. But, if you listen a little closer - to the trained harmonies of female leads Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, and the piles of instruments working together to create the whimsical melody - you'll hear just how talented and hard-working this contemporary Brooklyn girl-group is. If you're still not sold, I can guarantee you also haven't relished in Lucius' fascinating live show - one filled with the female leads' bouffant hair-dos, their explosive vocal collaborations and the backing band's ambitious instrumental experimentation. See that, and not a shred of convincing will be necessary.

Best 25 Songs of 2013! #25-#17

OK, SO. This has been a bit of a ridiculous week, considering I slept in three cities in four days and then was without power during the days I had scheduled myself to start counting down my annual list of noteworthy songs. Normally I would say that's no excuse for a delay in beginning my favourite series of the year - but, anyone in Ontario who's been a victim of this ice storm, knows that it's actually the best excuse.

Anyway. The power is back. My Christmas shopping is done. My glass of wine is full. And, most importantly, my speakers are happily cranked and ready to recount this year's most incredible singles. Since missing three days of counting means that time is no longer exactly on my side, I'm going to simply list the bottom of the list in brief - and continue from here on out in detail. Deal? Deal! Here we go:

25. Instant Crush - Daft Punk ft. Julian Casablancas

24. Beautiful War - Kings of Leon  (see here for previous ITR article)

23. Hold On We're Going Home - Drake  

22. Reflektor - Arcade Fire  (see here for previous ITR article)

21. Royals - Lorde

20. Southern Sun - Boy & Bear  (see here for previous ITR article)

19. Even If We Try - Night Beds  (see here for previous ITR article)

18. Strong - London Grammar  (see here for previous ITR article)

17. Chamakay - Blood Orange (see here for previous ITR article)

Friday, December 20, 2013

My Favourite Christmas Song: Otis Redding's "White Christmas"

Back when I was a wee tot, I began demanding the classics around the house. I wanted The Big Chill. I wanted Aretha. I always wanted Otis.

And, to this day, I still want Otis in any way I can get him. So, as the holidays quickly approach (and I currently sit in the air, in a bright white cloud) nothing sounds better than Otis in all of his soulful Christmas glory. Although he's spun a number of holiday classics into his own, it's his oh-so-perfect rendition of "White Christmas" that's my absolute all-time favourite Christmas ditty. That perfectly strained howl and the shaky doo-wop organs are all I need to be suckered into an impromptu slow dance.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Holiday Countdown: My Morning Jacket's "Xmas Curtain"

It's the most wonderful time of the year! And, what better way to start my holiday countdown than with some festive favourites. More specifically, what better way to kick off a holiday countdown than with one of the greatest rock bands of our time and "Xmas Curtain" - their tasty little treat of a contemporary Christmas classic.

PS. Fun fact: Jim James is my favourite live performer. He puts on a show like no other. (Well, other than the Queen Bey, who I saw live last night and who sort of changed life as I know it).

Friday, December 13, 2013

2013 Cover & Remix Week: Disclosure vs. Flume

There isn't much to say about this remix other than the fact that it was one of the best ones I've heard in years. English duo Disclosure's debut album Settle was undoubtedly one of the most influential electronic albums of 2013 (in my mind, one of the best dance albums of the decade) - and, when its release was celebrated with the birth of this explosive Flume remix, their stock rose even higher. Beginning with a pulsing, melodic synth before a body-heaving beat drops under Eliza Doolittle's soulful wail - this experimental "You and Me" remix set the bar for inspiring new spins in years to come.

(The Mix)

(The Original)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

2013 Cover & Remix Week: The Acorn vs. The Flamingos

Since it's Thursday, the day of the throwbacks, but I'm dedicated to celebrating new covers and remixes all week - I think it's best to blend the two and share a contemporary cover of an old-school jazzy classic.

The heartfelt ballad “I Only Have Eyes for You” was written in the mid-30s, before skyrocketing to soul standard fame thanks to 1950s versions from hit-makers The Flamingos and Peggy Lee. Recently, Ottawa indie-folk group The Acorn tried their hand at the oldie, spinning it into a slow-churning, melancholy ode that chugs along via downtempo strums and Rolf Klausener's lovelorn croon.

(The Cover)

(The Original)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

2013 Cover & Remix Week: Phosphorescent vs. Vampire Weekend

This is easily one of my favourite covers of this year, simply because it combines two of my favourite things from 2013: the brilliant Phosphorescent and this song off Vampire Weekend's latest, and greatest, album yet.

Although I've always had a soft spot for Phosphorescent's Matthew Houck, he completely stole my heart in 2013 with his sixth album, Muchacho - comprised of new age country-rock hymnals penned from a small town in Mexico. And, while I haven't always been thrilled by Vampire Weekend in years past, they won me over with just about every song on this year's eclectic and lush Modern Vampires of the City. Put the two together, and boom - you've got a twinkling and bare-bones Americana take on Vampire Weekend's indie lullaby "Ya Hey."

PS. If you want more of the beauty that is Phosphorescent - check out his "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye" cover. Swoon.

(The Cover)

(The Original)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

2013 Cover & Remix Week: Caveman vs. Vacationer

I love a good cover song, I love a good remix, I love any excuse to hear a song I love (or haven't previously loved, for that matter) twisted and turned into something completely different. It helps the music come alive again.

This week, I thought I would look back on some of the shiniest covers and remixes of 2013; the songs that were borrowed by industry peers, only to be transformed into new little pieces of musical magic. Whether added beats, some imposter sax or newly voiced by the opposite sex  - a re-vamped tune doubles the life of the original.

The first of the week goes to New York indie-rock outfit Caveman, whose striking single "In The City" was recently mixed by Vacationer - a band who shared the bill with Caveman while playing Bowery Ballroom last week. Vacationer's summery spin hardly resembles the original, but is the perfect soundtrack to a snowbird's escape from the throngs of cold winter and onto a white sand beach. Enjoy the jazzy take, from a fittingly titled crew, below.

PS. I had the pleasure of chatting with Caveman earlier in the year - and their dispositions are just as lovely as their songs.

(The Mix)

(The Original)

Friday, December 6, 2013

Farewell (for now) to The Walkmen

"I don’t think any of us wanted to write another Walkmen record. Maybe that will change down the line, maybe it won’t, maybe we’ll play shows. I think it’s weird to make a hubbub about something if there’s nothing to really make a hubbub about. At the same time, I don’t think we’ve been a gang properly for a long time, so there’s not much to break up, I guess…
It’s been almost 14 years now. I think that’s enough, you know?"

While that's one of the most lackluster goodbyes I've ever received, I still have nothing but big, beautiful love in my heart for my very favourite band, who yesterday announced an "extreme hiatus." For over a decade, I have loved The Walkmen through every album, every song and every single one of the eight times I've seen them live.

The New York City indie-rock outfit have, essentially, guided me through my exploration of contemporary rock for as long as I can remember; releasing eclectic compilations bursting with grungy garage, waltzing keys and soulful balladry that all sample the endless rainbow of real rock 'n roll sounds. All led by lead singer Hamilton Leithauser's skilled croon, their seven stacked LPs were a classic model of a band's progression and maturation - beginning with messy post-punk bites and ending on the cohesive, reflective rock notes heard on Heaven. From the 2012 release (their best yet), the title track and "We Can't Be Beat" exuded an endearing contentedness - which maybe should have foreshadowed their rather nonchalant conclusion  yesterday - materializing after 14 years of touring, marriage and children. In the end, I guess they've just been had.

That being said, I'm hanging my hat on the hope of a reunion (as we've called the bluff of many so-called breakups before), and can look forward to the solo albums three of the bandmates (including Leithauser) plan to release in the coming year.

For now, farewell to the band I loved the most.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Winter Throwback Thursday: Lord Huron

Although not an extremely far throwback, moving forward, this 2012 single will always be one worth mentioning at the beginning of each winter. Lord Huron's gorgeous indie-folk album Lonesome Dreams is likely the best medicine to soothe any winter blues you might be having - and will forever remain part of my gift-giving list for those who haven't heard it. A poetic folk journey alongside a wanderer who's pursuing organic love and adventure, each song revolves around travels to "the ends of the earth" (heard below) to live the fullest. With howling harmonies and rolling chords that evoke memories of Fleet Foxes' first release, Ben Schneider memorably chants, "What good is livin' this life you've been given, if all you do is stand in one place." How lovely.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Avett Brothers: "Apart from Me"

Whenever the temperature starts to drop, all I crave is some Americana music to go with frosted windows and a toasty fireplace. It's those rustic, heartfelt melodies that sound perfect this time of year.

Lately, my playlists have consisted of Lord Huron (Lonesome Dreams will forever be my staple winter album), Norah Jones, Boy & Bear, The Staves and these guys. The Avett Brothers are undoubtedly one of my very favourite bands - and their most recent roots-rock album, Magpie and the Dandelion, sent me right over the moon this past fall. "Apart from Me," which tells the story of life on the road through Scott Avett's handsome vocals and a band of plucked guitars, has quickly become a cozy winter classic that's bound to make the season just that much more special.