Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best Songs of 2014: #1

#1. "Red Eyes" - The War on Drugs

At the end of this 25 song, year-end celebration, we're so obviously left with The War on Drugs. And, not just this song, but the entirety of their will-be seminal album Lost in the Dream and it's perfectly qualified collection. Lost in the Dream, and explosive tracks like this one, quietly moved rock forward in 2014. Not the blurry indie-rock, synth-rock, experimental rock landscape; Adam Granduciel's immaculate guitar trickery and handsome howl pushed real rock into its next chapter. His previous cult following moved into the critically acclaimed limelight with him. In all of it's rock purity and crisp production, Lost in the Dream is a grown, broken man, putting himself back together song by song, through all sorts of desolate heartland odes, riff-packed highway jams and retro rompers. While songs like the riotous "Red Eyes" start on familiar, maybe seemingly Dad-rock notes - following Granduciel's best formula, they never stay that way for long. They climb into grand territory, establishing themselves as some of the most formidable new classics in contemporary rock 'n roll. 

I doubt that in his own haze of self-discovery Granduciel knew this would be the case, but reflective collections like these plant seeds you didn't know you needed planted until they're blossoming. Because, similar to Springsteen, Young and Dylan's greatest work, these songs are just as blatantly melancholy, alive, confused and optimistic as the rest of us. I didn't know I needed to hear this album until I was hearing it, and after my first few listens, I was inexplicably invigorated. Which is probably how the 34 year-old felt when he completed this big, beautiful confessional - lost, and then 10 songs later, suddenly a little bit found. He's shamelessly all about the personal journey. And, between the powerful instrument use, obvious pulls from every influential music prophet of the past, and his own simple genius - Granduciel's gospel will leave you wide awake.

Standout tracks: "Red Eyes", "Under The Pressure", "Eyes to the Wind", "An Ocean Between The Waves"

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Best Songs of 2014: #3-2

#3. "Seasons (Waiting On You)" - Future Islands

If you didn't know of Future Islands before 2014, two things: shame on you, and, you definitely know them now. Many will always think the Baltimore-based group are just "the Letterman Show dancing guy," but those of us who have followed the eccentric synth-rock band from their beginnings know that they're so much more - and those kinds of quirky displays are nothing new. If anything, those moments are a huge part of who they are - unabashed, theatrical deliverers of melancholic and upbeat numbers that will both move or groove you beyond belief. The band's fourth album, Singles, might have put them on the mainstream map - likely thanks to, yes, the Letterman performance, and also the beautiful ingredients of this colourful love song - but really, their longstanding musical genius has been a no-brainer landmark in indie-rock hearts for years.

#2. "Inside Out" - Spoon

Similar to the above band, I've had a serious love affair with Spoon for years. Unlike the above band, I can't remember a time I've loved Spoon this much. And, there's nothing wrong with that; it's the sign of a band reaching their career peak - the seminal point in their long, celebrated discography. And, it's thanks to songs like this - lush, soulful graduations from the post-punk-meets-pop sound they nailed with their popular earlier releases. On their eighth (!) album, They Want My Soul, the band ended a four-year long wait for new Spoon tunes with this broader, more eclectic collection of both radio-ready guitar rock and chugging ballads. While the release is threaded together with familiar pieces - namely, Britt Daniel's outstanding rock voice and their coined energetic bounce - it's slow-burners like this one that are clear indication the band's well into their next, very pretty chapter. And at the core of it all, they've still got it.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Best Songs of 2014: #5-4

#5. "Close Your Eyes (And Count to F*ck)" - Run The Jewels

Killer Mike and El-P's sophomore release set the rap game on fire this year. Entering what I like to think is the second golden age of hip-hop, these kinds of relentless, socially-charged releases are just adding to the heaps of exceptional beats. In what can only be described as an epic comeback for Rage Against The Machine frontman Zac De La Rocha, this fierce standout track has every bit of vim and vigour that a classic diss track should have. Regardless of whether or not you enjoy hip-hop of the hardcore variety, there's no way you won't appreciate this verbal smack down.

#4. "Color Decay" - Júníus Meyvant

Although it hasn't landed at #1, it's safe to say this might have been my favourite song of 2014. And, chances are, not many people have heard it yet. Between the poetic lyrics, full brass section and the fact that this is the Icelandic folk artist's first and only single, I'm blown away at the potential he has, and my limitless appetite for this beautiful new classic. "Straight up right now/ Is so wonderful," sings Meyvant with his hushed, handsome rasp, and, although he's singing about love - it's almost as if he's narrating how this outstanding single has kickstarted the beginning of what will inevitably be a long, fruitful career.

Best Songs of 2014: #7-6

#7. "Brother" - Mac DeMarco

2014 was the year of Mac DeMarco - and, not just on his Canadian home turf. With a shaggy head of hair, ever-present cigarette, shoes that are falling apart and his classic, gap-toothed grin, this new prince of slacker-rock might seem unsuspecting. But, whether Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Spin, or me - this Polaris Prize-nominated 24 year-old has, more often than not, been crowned one of the most promising young rock stars. His most recent album, Salad Days, is filled with woozy blue wave anthems like this one, mostly all recorded in his one-room, pig sty apartment in Brooklyn. Aside from his psychedelic guitar melodies and his lethargic croon, it's safe to say that DeMarco's wacky, larger-than-life persona is exactly what the indie-rock game needed.

#6. "10,000 Emerald Pools" - BØRNS

Speaking of young, psychedelic and game-changing. There's been no dreamier addition to my rotation this year than the music of Garrett Borns, or BØRNS - an LA-transplant whose debut EP, Candy, is quickly gaining the traction it deserves. A colourful first glance into the treehouse-living singer-songwriter's existence, Candy is a delectable blend of accessible synth-pop and energetic rock. As if the polished song composition wasn't enough, BØRNS' exceptional falsetto vocal will have you hanging off his every word. Whether you come from Beach Boys or Queen-loving background, or you just like harmonic, sunshine-dripping tunes, you'll fall in love with BØRNS instantly.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Best Songs of 2014: #9-8

#9. "Digital Witness" - St. Vincent

Although any one of the tracks from St. Vincent's self-titled fourth album could have made it into the top ten, the album's funkiest single is unsurprisingly the deserving honouree. As one of the most beautiful and talented songwriters in the indie-rock game, Annie Clark wowed with this release - a polished, genre-sampling show of the Berklee music grad's endless instrumental and storytelling chops. "Digital Witness," one of the more upbeat singles, is a viral tech culture commentary lit up with a groovy brass section, vocal quirk and tidbits of lyrical irony. While the synth-pop-meets-rock genetics are so very Annie Clark, every other element of this album was proof we'd entered a new, fiercer chapter of St. Vincent's career.

#8. "Memories (That You Call)" - ODESZA

When I heard this first single off ODESZA's outstanding second release, In Return - I couldn't remember the last time I had felt so alive in summertime. Soaked in Air-reminiscent cinematic ambience, the song's eclectic synth and sound samples somehow manage to encapsulate warm weather bliss. While a children's choir chants throughout, the psychedelic middle eight reduces the electro track to one of their coined vocal samples - stopping time for a few seconds. Whether through their gorgeous remixes or another LP, the young Seattle-based duo are bound to stand out - but, In Return might just be there seminal work.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Best Songs of 2014: #11-10

#11. "Sanctified" - Rick Ross feat. Kanye West and Big Sean

Although I find myself constantly amused by Ricky Rozay, I don't think I ever could have predicted that one of the big man's tracks would end up on this list, or close to the top ten, no less. Alas, he deserves the hip-hop recognition after assembling this Big Sean and Kanye-assisted gem for his 2014 release, Mastermind. While old soul great Betty Wright's gospel rasp threads throughout the piano-based track, radio-ready Big Sean provides the easy intermissions between Kanye's standout featured verse and Ross' typical wordplay. It'll be no surprise when I admit that Mr. West's deep confessional is what makes this track what it is, and what it is, is likely one of the best songs you'll ever hear off a Rick Ross album. Amen, Yeezus. (Oh, and do yourself a favour and watch this Rick Ross performance, where Kanye surprises the live audience.)

#10. "Can't Do Without You" - Caribou

Upon catching word of the new Caribou album, Our Love, longtime fans waited with bated breath to hear if the first single would satiate our four-year-long hunger for more of his genre-dynamic efforts. After a long, diverse and slightly unconventional musical career, Dundas-bred Caribou (Dan Snaith) focused in, with confidence, on this flashy, soul-oozing electronica anthem as the first taste of this colourful next chapter. The delicately warbled repetition and disco ramp-up of "Can't Do Without You" was just the best reintroduction to Caribou's decade-long legacy, and the stuff of an instant classic.

Best Songs of 2014: #13-12

#13. "The Bend" - Real Estate: 

Sometimes you have to acknowledge an album, not because it was a revolutionary addition to the year in music, but because, in every way, it represents a band's profound growth. If you're like Real Estate, and came to your indie-rock fame as the sunshiny strummers who would decorate your backyard luau or pool party, creating such a reflective and timeless piece of art is a gigantic graduation from what was expected of you. Real Estate did just that when they put together Atlas - a collection of aged hymnals that can quite easily teach us all a little something about living. Sounding equal parts early Shins, Grateful Dead and melancholy Beach Boys, the echoey chords and sunset harmonies are the stuff of grown-ups.

#12. "Blank Space" - Taylor Swift

Gear change! Despite mostly divided opinion, Taylor Swift's 1989 cannot be overlooked as the genius of a pop industry veteran (somehow, at only 25 years old) and excellent songwriter. 1989 was so cleverly conceptualized, written and marketed that no one has even had time to get pissed off about the once-Country-focused star's 180 into unabashed, sugar-caked pop. But, who would want to get mad anyway? Between "Shake It Off," "Welcome to New York" and this grand slam of a break-up anthem, you're bound to throw your T-Swift skepticism out the door at first toe tap. Girl knows exactly what she's doing.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Best Songs of 2014: #15-14

#15. "Club Goin' Up On A Tuesday" - iLoveMakonnen feat. Drake

 It's every 25 year-old underground artist's dream to unexpectedly win a free verse from Drake on your debut single. The Atlantan artist woke up to some life changing news, when he learned that Drizzy Drake himself had caught wind of his sleepy summertime single, tossed in a free verse and officially re-released the track as a single, after an overnight tour bus recording sesh. Hitting an octave higher than normal, Drake sings over the quiet chug of the autotuned party track before Makonnen's lethargic croon kicks back in - officially making Tuesday the best-sounding night of the week. Read the amusing full story of iLoveMakonnen's dream-come-true here.

#14. "Queen" - Perfume Genius

After a few years of hearing the name Perfume Genius float around, it was this song that was my first introduction to Mike Hadreas' lustrous and honest confessionals - often ones that are riddled with brave tales of his experiences in the gay community. The second I heard Hadreas' handsome voice and the anthemic growl of the guitar on Too Bright's dazzling first single, I knew I was in for something else. Thumping forward with patterned psychedelic guitar and keyboard riffs, "Queen" is wholeheartedly anchored by Hadreas' general fearlessness in the face of "gay panic." With tongue-in-cheek lines like "No family is safe, when I sashay," it's clear the 32 year-old Seattle artist will have the last laugh with this smashing single.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Best Songs of 2014: #17-16

#17. "Your Love Is Killing Me" - Sharon Van Etten

Beginning with a distant drum and organ keys, Sharon Van Etten's best track from her most recent album, Are We There, is immediately set to be profound. Her skilled vocal slides in and begins telling the painful story of a love so consuming and toxic that she needs to break her legs, cut her tongue - and much worse - in order to stay away from, and end communication with, the man who broke her heart. It's a lyrical theme we've all seen before - but rarely seen exhibited in such a raw, desperate confession. Although instrumentally gorgeous, the nature of the song may seem inaccessible and hard to stomach - when actually, it's something we all understand to a certain degree.

#16. "When I Get My Hands On You" - The New Basement Tapes

When I caught wind that T. Bone Burnett was assembling an all-star supergroup - including Marcus Mumford, Elvis Costello, Jim James, Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) and Rhiannon Giddens - to bring Bob Dylan's newly discovered Basement Tapes lyrics to life, I was floored. How could it be that the notoriously eccentric Dylan would allow this? How would these five exceptional performers agree on song concepts? How do I get my hands on it as soon as possible? After furiously questioning, and actually listening, it all made sense. With full support from the musical legend himself, the gorgeous folk and blues ballads came to life exactly as I would have pictured - dynamic, melodic and so very Dylan in their essence. This Mumford-led sway is an instant romantic classic, in my books.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Best Songs of 2014: #19-18

#19. "Eyes Shut" - Years & Years

Although already renowned in their native UK, this group of R&B/electro-pop twenty-somethings are only finally gaining the recognition they deserve on North American soil. This could in part be because, on their most recent EP Real, they oddly didn't lead off with the double-sided single's most promising promising song - the anthemic one you'll find below below. Led by Olly Alexander's effortlessly soulful croon - which draws comparisons to everyone from Sam Smith to James Blake - "Eyes Shut" follows the magical formula of a quiet intro that suddenly bangs into heroic percussion midway through. If you haven't heard of Years & Years yet, expect that to change very quickly.

#18. "Never Catch Me" - Flying Lotus feat. Kendrick Lamar

As per most Flying Lotus songs, this acclaimed October single might make you want to lie down. And, somehow, that's a good thing. FlyLo's coined skittering beats and wacky production come out in full force on this old-school-sounding joint. Eventually anchored by Kendrick Lamar's frantic beats, the acid jazzy tune begins to balance FlyLo's characteristically eccentric touch and feelings of true hip-hop genius.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Best Songs of 2014: #22-20

#22. "So Long Sun" - Communions

This shoegaze-tinged summer ode from Copenhagen youngins Communions knocked my socks off this year. As part of a seemingly growing wave of emerging Danish rockers (Iceage, Lower), Communions released this uplifting, echoey rock anthem as part of their debut EP earlier this fall. Listening to the thrashy percussion and layers of huge, sunkissed guitar, you'll feel like you're drinking in the best melodic industrial-rock since Jesus and Mary Chain and Stone Roses.

#21. "Only Son" - Shakey Graves

This album opener off Shakey Graves' (born Alejandro Rose-Garcia) latest album, And Then The War Came, is just one of those songs. One of those songs that, while the delicate Americana chords dance around his seemingly limitless voice, you just feel enamoured. Whatever kind of music you're into, folky ballads like this one are bound to pull a few heart strings.

#20. "Hunger of the Pine" - Alt-J

Following Alt-J's runaway debut album, An Awesome Wave, it was both hard and not hard to imagine the band coming back with an equally intriguing sophomore release. Sure enough, the latter came to life when the Mercury Award-winning Brits dropped the first single off their then-forthcoming album - a haunting, Miley Cyrus-sampling song that lures you in from first quiet keyboard pulse. As soon as Joe Newman's recognizable croon started lightly over the song's exquisite colliding concepts, it was clear Alt-J was back in fine form.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Best Songs of 2014: #25-23

Here we go again! My favourite time of the year on In The Round - the time when I reflect back and meticulously choose the songs that I thought had the most impact on this wonderful year in music. While part of me loves pencilling in, erasing and reorganizing my song choices into my calendar each year, another part of me can't believe I do this to myself. Eleven days of (often eggnog hungover) writing... on my holidays. But, I couldn't imagine not throwing my two cents in.

So, let's get into it!

#25. "Archie, Marry Me" - Alvvays

One year ago, Alvvays were just another ambiguously pronounced Canadian indie-rock band, playing local gigs and accompanying headliners on various tours. With the release of their pristine self-titled debut, however, both Canada and the rest of the world quickly caught on to - and became obsessed with - their brand of summery fuzz-rock and real storytelling. Molly Rankin (yes, of that Rankin family) and her pure, heroine vocal will forever be the staples that walked me, and the rest of their near-cult following, through summer 2014. Side note: You can find this excellent album on both Rolling Stone and Pitchfork's "best of" lists, also.

#24. "Alexandra" - Hamilton Leithauser

Following the pain of The Walkmen's disbanding, the famed indie-rock group's veteran lead singer, Hamilton Leithauser, swooped in with the ultimate soother - news that he'd be releasing his own solo record. Hallelujah. Sure enough, the gorgeous release was filled with genre-sampling tunes that all glistened with Leithauser's coined yesteryear glaze, and this first single was the vocally and instrumentally charismatic sign that everything was going to be just fine.

#23. "Write Them Down" - The Wooden Sky

On another Canadian note, beloved Canuck folk-rockers and extensive tourers The Wooden Sky released their fourth LP this past fall to widespread acclaim. Maintaining their perfect balance of melancholy ballads and roadtrip-ready jams, the Gavin Gardner-led anthems sound more polished and heartwarming than ever.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Kanye's Newest Sign: Kacy Hill

Def Jam tweeted yesterday that Kanye West's latest G.O.O.D. Music sign is Kacy Hill, a striking L.A.-via-Phoenix artist who most recently performed as a backup dancer for the hip-hop superstar during his Yeezus tour. The 20 year-old singer, model and dancer dropped her debut single, "Experience," earlier this fall, and is expected to release more in the coming year.

In an interview with Dazed & Confused magazine, Hill said, “a lot of my music right now is about the genesis or the creation of a person.” You can hear that genesis on her ambient first effort - an impossibly (read: impressively) pitched gem that's decorated by skittering beats and a gorgeous melody.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Petite Noir feat. Yasiin Bey: "Till We Ghosts"

Here we are again! Twice in one week I've found myself talking about Petite Noir, the South African "noirwave" sensation whose musical profile seems to be budding daily.

On the newest version of "Till We Ghosts," Noir's indie-R&B has help from Yasiin Bey (the artist formerly known as Mos Def) - therefore turning this woozy, TV On The Radio-reminiscent track into an energized hip-hop trip.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Comeback Single: Modest Mouse's "Lampshades on Fire"

I was tied up with too many things to comment on this huge new track yesterday, and it pained me, because I must have listened to it 20 times - all the while with a huge smile on my face, because Modest Mouse are so, so back.

Since The Lonesome Crowded West, Modest Mouse have been a unique staple in my musical diet; adding that dose of feisty quirk into my adolescent rock rotation. As is the case with most of my favourite bands, the first time I heard Isaac Brock's theatrical growl paired with surprisingly gorgeous melodies, I remember thinking I'd never heard anything like it. And I also remember thinking I'd likely never hear anything like it again.

Over seven years (!) since their last release (they did contribute a wonderful track to the 2011 Buddy Holly tribute, however), I still haven't heard a group match their playful, yet profound and experimental, indie-rock. Yesterday, the band quenched our need for more Mouse with the comeback single, "Lampshades on Fire," and unlike some of 2007's tracks, this one is both lyrically and instrumentally classic Modest Mouse. Brock reflects hurriedly about life's progression while the funky guitars and piano waltz beneath him - and we all leave perfectly satisfied.

Watch out for the band's sixth studio album, Strangers to Ourselves, on March 3.

Friday, December 12, 2014

TGIF: Petite Noir's "Chess"

If you're like me, and feel like the winter casts a blurry daze over your brain, then this new indie-R&B single is the zone-out track for you. Like some TV on the Radio, Prince, LCD Soundsystem hybrid, South African vocalist and producer Petite Noir has quickly mastered the art of the seemingly slow motion anthem.

A mesmerizing blend of instruments and beats, "Chess" eases you in before shifting into a hurried beat that skips quickly along with that pretty melody. Throughout, Petite Noir (real name Yannick Ilunga) casts his bellowing vocal over you like a spell, and trust me, it's hard to wake from after these 6 and a half lulling minutes.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé Team Up for "Feelin' Myself"

Sometimes it's a two-post kind of day, and that's usually a day when Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj drop a hot new duet. 

Watch out for "Feelin' Myself"on Nicki's forthcoming January release, and, of course, you can expect to hear a lot more of it before then.

No further comment.

Tycho Remixes Spoon's "Inside Out"

Last week, when we were having an unusually dry December, this sunny jam was my soundtrack to happily strutting around town and soaking it all in. Today, as I trudged through piles of snow while my dog became a canine popsicle, it still added a little warmth to an otherwise terrible turn of weather events.

As you may have heard (or read) from me a number of times, Spoon's "Inside Out" was easily my favourite song of summer 2014. The timeless indie-rock ballad, off their outstanding release They Want My Soul, was a soulful slice of heaven fit for six months of straight repeats and recommendation to most people I met.

Last week, California artist/producer Tycho tried his hand at mixing the new classic with some upbeat funk and airy synths. The end product is a fresh new groove that blends the original's slow, dreaminess with his coined ambient touch. Have a listen:

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Best New Track: Júníus Meyvant's "Color Decay"

Oh boy.

Every now and again - and I mean, very infrequently - a song comes along that has all of the particular song elements that make you feel alive. That song will have an undeniably perfect vocal, strings, a robust horn section, breathtaking melody and lyrics, and maybe even just a hint of the 60s. And you'll feel like you've found your musical soulmate in a song.

Some time back, I found that song. But, then I forgot I found it until last week.

Júníus Meyvant is the moniker of Unnar Gísli Sigurmundsson, a young Icelandic singer-songwriter who released his debut single "Color Decay" this past summer. As soon as I heard his first effort, I excitedly downloaded it to my iTunes library - but, because I usually download music straight to my phone - I left it there in the mess of music over the course of the summer and fall, before hearing it again last week and falling so hard in love with it, I couldn't imagine ever losing it again. 

"Color Decay" is one of the most dynamic songs you'll hear this year. Meyvant has painted a picture so rich, so beautiful and so shockingly mature (did I mention this is his first and only single?) - a mid-tempo ode filled with harmonies, strings and jubilant horns that flow alongside the song's subtle retro sway. And, all of that is gorgeous enough, without even mentioning the profound vocal ability of the singer himself - whose raspy vibrato delivers that kind of romantic lyricism you hang off of.

If you think the studio version is something special, wait until you watch Meyvant strip the song down to it's acoustic basics. It's so moving, you'll wish both versions were simultaneously available as singles.

What a fabulous note to end 2014 on; needless to say, you can expect this to land very high on In The Round's "best of" list this year. I can't wait to hear more from Júníus Meyvant.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Best New Artist: Leon Bridges

Hi! Remember me? I used to blog here every single day, until last week, when I started on this trend of (happily) working near-16 hour days. Since I work in music, there has been no shortage of listening, just a major shortage of having time to write about what I listen to. Boo.

Anyway, I have been super into this yesteryear-sounding soul artist, Leon Bridges. His sweet-as-pie numbers throw right back to the 1950s; so much so that it's as if Bridges isn't from 2014 at all, and his lost mid-century records have only just been dusted off now. It's no surprise that the Texan artist recorded his music in an old warehouse he equipped with vintage instruments from the 40s, 50s and 60s.

As such a fan of all things soul and Motown, I've been cozying up to his dreamy Sam Cooke-style vocals throughout the chilly winter so far. Enjoy the crackle of his groovy, slow dancing ballads below, and keep your ears open for more of Leon's timeless numbers.