Because it never snows in Los Angeles, we’re forced to romanticize it. The first draft of “White Christmas,” originally chided a spoiled Angeleno,”longing to be up North on December 24,” surrounded by sunshine, green grass and swaying palms. The closest you get to white winters are weekend trips to Big Bear, truckloads of artificial snow carted in for winter wonderlands, and the bathroom stalls at Hyde.
Jack Burnside, front-man for the severely slept-on, Mezzanine Owls, is the anomalous native in a city of transplants. So it’s only natural that the stand-out song from the band’s epononymous JaxArt EP, opens like Citizen Kane, focused on minature flurries of snow inside cold, curved glass. It’s an appropriate metaphor for a slippery place, equally guilty of every bad stereotype and none at all. Backed by the band’s Mr. Plow-worthy rhythm section, Burnside’s wounded vocal and palpable desolation helps you realize how thin the glass is that separates an outsider looking in, from an insider looking out. –Jeff Weiss
It took nothing short of uncut blind faith to trudge through the midsection of Evil Urges- and what better to support that claim than an eight-minute, italo-inspired track turning out to be the pot of gold at the end of a sugar-rotted rainbow. Kentuckians Do It Better? Maybe it’s how “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt. 2” managed to retain My Morning Jacket’s greatest and indisputably potent strengths in an unfamiliar setting- Jim James’ nonsense lyrics somehow achieving a cavernous quality, the rhythm section locking into a dynamic and telepathic groove and, most importantly, a real element of surprise replacing the obvious dilletantism of nearly every song that preceded it. Did “Touch Me” truly salvage one of the year’s most rightfully maligned turkeys? That it managed to make My Morning Jacket’s next exploration seem like a welcome risk other than a frightening night terror that “Highly Suspicious” was a demand for more of the same makes it better than that.–Ian Cohen
Not accustomed to praising Of Montreal, a band that can be occasionally and extraordinarily irritating, it’s no coincidence that Kevin Barnes’ sex album is where we can meet halfway. “Wicked Wisdom” is a mess, but those same, self-conscious, over-the-top qualities make it compelling. The surrounding vignettes sound like the Fiery Furnaces at their most indulgent. Eventually, the five-minute suite swirls into a hooky, stuttery chorus that quotes Queen over a staticky beat and R&B-lite organ stabs. But not before he memorably raps “I’m just a black shemale/And I don’t know what you people are all about.”–Dan Weiss
It’s easy to hate on effervescing electro-pop like Sam Sparro’s, which sounds like it should be the soundtrack to the kind of decadent coke-fueled narcisissm bloggers can’t enjoy sitting at a computer (well, some can). He’s singing about ladies’ dresses and jewelry–we think–the colors he sees in an overpriced nightclub full of repulsive jerks, where this music exists. Black and Gold are twin colors he sees when he steps outside and stares at the stars–when he thinks about faith and evolution and the why? He’s fine with rhyming matter with matter, because it doesn’t. This is Sparro, not Sartre, but “if vision is the only validation then most of my life isn’t real” remains a smidgin smarter than “I get all the girls, I get all the girls,” which the DJ has cued up next.–Ally Broon
For those not flailing ostentatiously in the mire of some insulated art scene someplace, “L.E.S. Artistes” may come off as a sly, self-mocking joke about, well, insularity, about listless identity-shaping, and about dreams that are slightly less than lucid. But for those of us who are, it’s really a sly, self-mocking treatise about a safe haven, a plant for one’s freak flag, and about dreams so close one can taste them. “I can say I hope / it will be worth what I give up” means one thing to me, and something very different to my parents.
Such are the perils and joys in writing about faith in the face of real and not-inconsiderable doubt, which is the world of this massive tune (that, and the formlessness of hipsterdom, but let’s not belabor it). Following the above, in that massive, glass-shattering chorus, redolent of the best Big Time Pop Rock can offer, “if I can stand up mean / for the things that I believe” strikes like a quick left hook (“mean”) in the middle of the passion play, Santi grew up in that place, and knows both sides, the dreamers and the dilettantes, how fine the line is between the two, and how often they are one and the same.–Jeff Siegel
Finally, Sigur Rós come up with an adequate definition for what “Hopelandic” really is; prove that they can play something other than austere, droning alien cries and weeping guitar echoes; and gallop, rather than glide, through songs. The Animal Collective comparisons only hit it halfway: the key here isn’t that they crib Sung Tongs’ campfire chants and stereo panning, it’s that they relate to their inspiration’s youthful innocence, ebullience, and intimacy through wordless recitations from a different aesthetic viewpoint. For all the snide accusations claiming that Sigur Rós are esoteric one-trick ponies, “Gobbledigook” affirms that they’re masters of creating melodies that nudge crowning emotions out of the womb, hitting synapses that one didn’t know existed. And this time, they do it in three minutes.–Tal Rosenberg
Having traveled vast distances since 2003’s muddy, The Horse, Londoners the Chap have always taken a high-brow, detached stance on popular music. However, their tongue-in-cheek lacerations of, to paraphrase, oozing emotion and international dance-pop sensations, always smacked a bit of envy to go with their smirking post-modernism. With this year’s Mega Breakfast, the Chap seems to finally got a budget that doesn’t make their record sound like it came out of a Happy Meal. The blue-eyed cyber soul of “Surgery,” retrofit with a retro guitar riff and squirmy beat, might just have fallen ass-first off the back of an XTC record, or it might have spent the last 20 years hiding out in some London bell tower as Fine Young Cannibals’ evil twin. “Surgery” preaches not only with its skewed 80s signifiers, but with its cagey lyrics: “Hello hello / blood blood blood / We will perform surgery / Your body has things that throb” is as good a self-referential dance anthem as anything since, perhaps, “Get Physical.”–Mike Orme
If the video for Mae Shi’s “Run to Your Grave” – a room crammed with G.Y.T. (grungy young things) wilding out in what might actually be a very deceptive American Apparel ad – seemed to encapsulate the song’s shouty communal vibe perfectly, it ran antithetical to the subject matter. We’re used to capital-A artists working out their God issues in song, but it’s always on a very personal level – Kanye, Jack White, Beck. It’s more difficult to imagine 19 of your best art-bros banging around ideas about God and mortality over a case of Miller High Life and the best Casios Craigslist has to offer. Of course, the Mae Shi are young and loud and seem to avoid earth tones so they leave the “Kumbaya” shit to Fleet Foxes and attack lines like “Don’t hold on to your riches/ ‘Cause when you die you’re a slave” with mosh-worthy guitars, Muppet-drumming, and irreverent volume. It sounds a little like a Field of Dreams for every kid with a No Age rainbow t-shirt self-conscious enough to know she needs a place to wear it besides No Age shows: “If you build it, they will come.”–Andrew Gaerig
“Extinction” is proof-positive that for all our post-modern fuckery–the baroque ensembles incorporating harps, glockenspiels and fretless zithers, the Sparks sauced, neon knuckleheads clanging out pre-school riffs on Pro Tools and a Goodwill Yamaha; you can still write a great song with just two guitars, a singer and some drums. With Cro-Magnon simplicity, The Muslims (now re-christened The Soft Pack), unleash the surf guitar riff that Lenny Kaye never uncovered, drummer Brian Hill smacks the skins with proto-punk fury and lead singer, Matt Lamkin takes aim at the most well-worn topic: the ex that screwed you over.
The lyrics are as fury-filled and gutter as the music, starting off with the declaration that “if you give me a gun, I’ll point at you.” Later, he taunts, “I don’t owe anything to you.” It’s over in two minutes and all that’s left to do is play it again. Until we become Zoloft-zonked cyborgs and as long as there are garages to thrash in, this type of song will never go extinct.–Jeff Weiss
Jack White is a traditionalist at heart–a description often maligned in a critical environment opting for progressiveness over craft. But White’s genius lies in his ability to make the old sound new, to mine the deep blues, mountain country folk and all the usual FM suspects and wring out wonderful combinations with all the same words. An ethos best articulated on Icky Thump’s sly “Rag and Bone,” as he and Meg inhabit the personas of junk collectors reveling in all the lost treasures people are foolishly giving away.
“Carolina Drama” is the best song on another serviceable Raconteurs effort because of the way White unabashedly borrows from the usual tropes: a rogue milkman, a preacher, an abusive boyfriend, little kids attempting to defend their embattled mother. One drummer, three guitarists, nothing fancy. But none of his peers can match White’s ability at exhuming all this dead matter and re-animating it with bold, earth colors. –Jeff Weiss
The string stabs that kick off this song course through the track like a rush of blood; to the head perhaps, but from the sound of things, the burst of intensity is driven by passion located around regions more nether. Lisa and Jessica Origliasso’s lust reduces them to spouting gibberish in the verses, but they eventually manage to spit out what they’re trying to say: “Don’t even talk about the consequence because right now you’re the only thing that’s making any sense.” Unlike many sex-themed pop songs sung by women, “Untouched” is about the desires of the singer rather than those of the listener; the Veronicas here have more in common with Mick Jagger moaning “I can’t get no satisfaction,” than, say, Christina Aguilera teasing, “You’ve got to rub me the right way.”
So if the Veronicas seem a little blank here, it’s because they’ve got other things on their minds. It isn’t as if they need to tell you what they’re thinking anyway; the surging electro beat and throbbing synths convey that more than effectively. The instrumentation pounds in unison, mounting the tension to unbearable levels as the chorus kicks in. “I feel so untouched right now,” the Origliassos gasp, as around them, the maelstrom swirls, culminates, and then subsides. When the strings return, it’s as a release.–Jonathan Bradley
For a band like TV On The Radio, whose previous records often privileged a thoughtful, ponderous insularity, “DLZ” is an impressive reading of the marketplace: where once we mumbled about the state of affairs, now we acted. “DLZ” is a screed, but it’s not a bad thing for the rest of us if TVotRadio learns to be this strident in the future. More hearteningly, they’ve joined the body politic, which as November’s election results showed, expressed its dismay that for eight years this dog called America has lost a bone. The body politic also likes to dance, and “DLZ” is the band’s most realized hybrid of synthethic and organic beats to date: ominous background synths, falsetto harmonies, and pingponging percussion frame Tunde Adebimpe’s frenzied vocals. I don’t know what the hell a “long-winded blues of the never” is, and “DLZ” may limn a private apocalypse that’ll bore the rest of us, but as a committed member of the body politic I understand perfectly when Adembimpe barks, “Never you mind, death-professor,” drool running down his chin. Anger is an energy.–Alfred Soto
In which a band whose name could be either an ironic or totally serious fashion statement essentially does Minutemen covering a track off Nuggets with a video shot in kitschy 70s styles where the lead singer—who bears an uncanny resemblance to Lester Bangs—takes his funerary wagon to a car wash. Need I say more?–Tal Rosenberg