Graffiti originally spotted on Bedford Ave., Williamsburg in 2002–soon followed by copycat crimes on Silverlake Blvd. and San Francisco’s Mission District. Now playing at a Hot Topic near you. For spread-the-wealth reasons, this list was restricted to songs from albums that did not make the Top 50 cut. As for Christmas wish lists: let us all pray that “indie” is never again wielded as a malapropism. No arguments when this exists.
The Gothenberg, Sweden duo known as Air France call their balearic-suffused tropical pop, “Socialist roof-top music.” Indeed, there’s something inescapably high about “No Way Down.” Not in a druggy way–though the track references the Happy Mondays–and it, plus a spliff and warm Carribbean waters, could make for an unbeatable combination. Nor does this perceived flight stem from the band’s nomenclature. No, gravity is negated by the effervescence of its rhythms–the white sand synths, littoral hand drums and insouciant island whistling. As the track’s elysian haze dissipates, a gentle refrain of “Hallulejuah” provides a fitting denoument. Air France make church music for atheists. They understand that when there’s no way down, you have to figure out how to levitate. –Jeff Weiss
Chugging along with insistent Technicolor guitars, “Gamma Ray” was one of Beck’s strongest singles in years. Like much of Modern Guilt—a seemingly tossed off collaboration with the ubiquitous Danger Mouse—this catchy slice of quasi-krautrock is markedly less opaque than much of Beck’s prior output; the lyrics, referencing melting icecaps, hurricanes, smokestacks, and heat waves, are nothing less than a twisted pop reflection of 21st century pre-apocalyptic malaise. Danger Mouse’s dense production finds room for surf guitars, gurgling synths, and chiming tambourines ornamented with Laurel-Canyon-style harmonies, but despite all the 60s signifiers, “Gamma Ray” sounds thoroughly modern. If Beck started out as a jokey, genre-hopping pop collagist, he’s quickly maturing into a classicist songwriter, building one of the most consistently varied and interesting catalogues in pop. Looming apocalypse or no, that’s no reason to feel guilty.–Patrick McKay
Black Mountain may wear their Quaalude-friendly influences (Floyd, Zepp, Sabbath) prominently, but there’s something inimitably sinister–and original–to their projection of the dark side of the hippie dream. Like Crowley-worshipping elder brothers of Brightblack Morninglight, Black Mountain’s “Wucan” might be stoner music, but it’s certainly not the laissez faire Harold and Kumar edition.* Instead, it summons the malevolent spirits latent in every trip–vivid hallucinations, tongue limp and listless as a log, pores oozing oil, and a stomach like a cesspool. The moment when you’re struck by the sickening suspicion that you’ve ingested too much and need help.
Frontman Steven McBean mutters Mephistolean incantations: “The haunted ones howlin’ in your head/’yeah it’s a broken scene’/that won’t bring you home.” Amber Webber chimes in with her ectoplasmic coo: “But we could come together.” The video helps to explain: the band shrouded in shadow, fascinated by the most atavistic elements–sky, mountains, plants, desert, and ancient Indian drums. It’s dualism at its most stark: the manichean struggle between light and dark, heaven and earth, life and death.
*That would be Wolf Mother
By midnight on the final evening of SXSW last Spring, I had eaten a fistful of mushrooms, drank a half dozen shiners and inhaled about eight thumbnails of dirt weed from a battie. Somehow, I’m not exactly sure as to the logistics, I found myself inside Bourbon Rocks, watching a guy in a silk shirt, cowboy boots and a bald penis-shaped head try to run Pick-Up Artist game on a pair of blondes in front of me. Meanwhile, onstage, quite possibly the shittiest band I’ve ever seen rocked a rapturous audience. I wish I were exaggerating but I’m not. Here is The Matches’ photo. See what I mean.
For five minutes that felt like five hours, my outlook on humanity sank to a nadir only matched during those two weeks when it looked like Sarah Palin was going to become the next vice-president. Distraught and heavily medicated, I staggered outside onto the patio area where Parisian noise/electro outfit, Cheveu fortuitously unleashed a show so powerful that all I can remember about it is that it felt like 50 mile per hour gusts of wind were bowling me over. I was reasonably certain I had stumbled onto the next greatest band. The world was temporarily saved, good had defeated evil, I was free to employ the insanely dubious logic that downing two Sparks consecutively was the only logical option to stay drunk and wired.
When I got home and actually played Cheveu’s enonymous album, I realized that they weren’t the French Stooges. Like Hansel realizing that he’d been smoking peyote for six days and had actually never been to Mt. Vesuvius, I understood that the drugs had helped embellish. “Lola Langusta” is the exception, a thrashing, horn-filled, psych-guitar workout that might be best lo-fi noise pop* song in a year filled with strong competition. Plus, it’s proof that I’m not completely crazy.
* I mean, am I really supposed to use the phrase Shitgaze?
Past rock heroes making Surprisingly Good new records is about as boring as songs about songs, and this is one, but David Byrne, his age-flattened voice the peculiar croon of an ex-neurotic (and his gentle alienation still the mark of the mild autistic he probably is) narrates the creation of “Strange Overtones” like it’s a love note (to Brian Eno, I guess). More importantly, Eno deserves it – like most of Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, the track he provides is a rich, curious groove, atop which Byrne floats and coos like the weirdo butterfly he’s become. A dangerously light song, yeah, barely there – but Byrne’s always been halfway to vanishing. The trick (Zeno’s, I think) is making it a very long halfway.–Theon Weber
I suppose it’s tantamount to being a lit critic and admitting you like Atlas Shrugged, but I prefer Diplo when he’s less adventurous. I don’t need the Baltimore club stuff, the Brazilian baile funk and [gasp], the early M.I.A. material. Call me Bill Kristol all you want–I’ll take this re-working of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation,” and/or the Dub mixtape with Santogold, any day.
Unveiled at the dawn of summer for the Roots BBQ in Philly, the transplanted Illadelphian lifts Phife Dawg’s, “I like ‘em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican and Haitian” line and blends it with the graceful glide of original sample source, Ronnie Forster’s “Mystic Brew.” Adding some fierce, clapping drums and out of the crates comes, “Brew Barrymore,” a track that only has one thing in common with its namesakes: you want them both at your party.–Jeff Weiss
I’ve had it with this band. You should know that. I live in their fucking city and I was at their fucking Obama rally (half a mile back, delicately euthanizing a margarita) and for several months I dated a girl whose roommate learned their songs meticulously, one at a time, on the fucking ukelele. But we’re not dating anymore. So loving the hook of their love-troubled-by-espionage song (which by the way is like their third one, for goodness’ sakes) was a little like admiring our fading President’s shoe-dodging acumen earlier this week: a pithy, surreal return, now the real danger’s past, to a place I’d grown humorless about. “Oh, Valerie Plame / If that really is your name” is actually cathartic, eight years’ disasters made a jaunty joke. Of course it’s confusing to love a spy – poor Joseph Wilson! Why didn’t we think of this at the time? Someone find a ukelele.–Theon Weber
“No One Does It You” is the kind of song that makes you feel stupid writing about because even stripped down to its most simple parts (see the video above), it’s pretty much perfect. And nothing in life is perfect, so how can a song be. And really, what a cliche. But it is–along with Grizzly Bear’s “While You Wait For the Others (see blurb bel0w) and “Two Weeks,” Danniel Rossen has been a part of three perfect songs in one year, more than many songwriters see in a lifetime.
According to my iTunes, this is the 20th time I’ve listened to, “No One Does It Like You.” I still couldn’t tell you what the song is about. Probably love. It sounds like it. But why am I supposed to analyze lyrics when you can feast for days on The Beatles-worthy harmonies (yes), effortlessly breezy bounce and straight-out-of-the oven keyboards. And the moment just after the 2:00 minute mark where the song comes to an unnatural end, before exploding into even more colorful constellations. Really, the only line you need to pay attention to is the chorus: Nobody Does It Like You. Exactly. –Jeff Weiss
Perhaps its the rabidness of Dr. Dog’s fan base that elicits such fierce jabs from their detractors—like all of their records, Fate received drastically mixed reviews. Of course, their weaknesses are out in the open: an all-too familiar aesthetic that overly swipes from The Beatles, The Band and The Dead. Lyrics occasionally capable of making Jim James’ lesser work on Evil Urges look like Blood on the Tracks. But that’s missing the point. Like My Morning Jacket, the band that took them on their first national tour, Dr. Dog are linchpins of the Bonnaroo set, with jam band leanings, sometimes inconsistent studio albums and a salient Muppet Show fascination.
All you hope for is a half-dozen strong songs to work into an already stacked setlist. Fulfilling those modest expectations, Fate delivered “The Ark,”a tune making up for in atmosphere what it lacks in lyrical acumen. Toby Leaman belts his great beards and burlap voice, backed by cozy Fender Rhodes keys, crisp guitars, glowing organ lines and three-party harmonies–the result is that few songs in 2008 made for such rich comfort food. –Jeff Weiss
Let’s just get this out of the way now: There’s nothing inherently original about Fleet Foxes. They aren’t prophetic, they aren’t cerebral, and surely aren’t the most photogenic bunch. However, you can’t deny that these guys are sharp. Take “Mykonos” for example. It’d be easy to classify this song as “laid-back,” but on closer inspection, you can hear the force with which the band plays every instrument. The harmonies are lovely, sure, but what are they trying to convey? This is a song about brotherhood, about trust; the harmonies are epitomizing the theme of togetherness that runs through the track’s undercurrent (“Brother you don’t need to turn me away/I was waiting down at the ancient gate”). These are not weighty themes, and lyricist Robin Pecknold doesn’t try to make them out to be. In a James Mercer-like fashion, Pecknold merely abdicates to the tranquility of the music—the words are merely to advance the story, but aren’t the story in themselves. No, “laid-back” isn’t the right word. That would insinuate that this song, and this band, is lazy. Perhaps a better word would be “precise,” or better yet, “great.”–Andrew Casillas
I admit to being unfamiliar with these guys aside from this song, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by the Spectorish atmosphere, but Grizzly Bear use it for entirely different purposes than most of the Wall of Sound-loving contemporaries – not for nostalgia or even for emotional impact, but more to create a charged but sparsely populated space within which the sighing chorus of “While You Wait for the Others” suddenly smacks you upside the head. It’s a protean song – you could go walking in the rain to it, or indulge in some making out, or drift off to sleep, and that subtle organ, the twisting guitar, and whichever one of the Chrises is singing remains just as casually devastating.–Ian Mathers
According to Gareth, this one is basically about the fact that even Los Campesinos! know they won’t be this good forever (you can’t be the kind of passionate fan he is and NOT realize how things burn out, no matter what). There are so many great, and perfectly performed, half lyrics here – “but they loathe me and I hate them,” “you say he’s got his teeth fixed, I’M GONNA BREAK THEM,” “Charlotte says it’s more productive than the one you did in Canada,” and of course the already much remarked upon, mass chanted “Oh, we kid ourselves there’s future in the fucking, but there is no fucking future,” which is less Significant than the more po-faced commenters would tell you, but luckily is also much funnier too. And it ends perfectly, talking of your own body breaking down with age and wear and care and then “I hope my heart goes first, I HOPE MY HEART GOES FIRST!” For as long as they do remain this good, it’s that kind of damn-the-embarrassment conviction that makes LC! truly great, and the fact that it comes packaged, as on this song, with at least six separate hooks just seals the deal.. –Ian Mathers