Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Best Songs of 2014

Posted: December 22, 2014 by Sean Flinn in Music
Tags: , , , ,

After a full year of absolutely NO music writing whatsoever (WEEP!), I’m crawling out of semi-retirement as a music journalist/blogger to uphold an annual tradition: posting my list of favorite songs from the past year.

This year’s mix is a slow burner. It starts off with a triple header of neo-shoegaze anthems before diving into the sublime (Spoon, in an uncharacteristic turn, and Angel Olsen’s subtle update of old country torch songs). It sort of reaches its nadir with Sharon Van Etten’s instant breakup classic (which may double as a lament for the addicted) before starting to pick up and get a little more positive with Beck’s ode to morning time and Temples’ impeccable reconstruction of Mark Bolan-era British glam and psychedelia. Ty Segall’s remarkable “Feel” marks the crest of the hill (imagine Aladdin Sane-era Bowie covering early Sabbath), and you’ll feel the wind in your hair the rest of the way down until the whole things glides gracefully to a stop via the back-half trifecta of Hamilton Leithauser (RIP: The Walkmen), Real Estate, and Sweden’s First Aid Kit.

You can listen along with this free Spotify playlist, or watch some of the performances and incredible music videos for most of these songs via the YouTube playlist below.

Some notes:

  • I decided to use the official video for Warpaint’s “Keep It Healthy,” which is actually a double-header with “Disco/Very” (also from the same album); I thought the entire video was so interesting, and such a distinct snapshot of that band, its aesthetic, and LA, that the whole thing was worth viewing. “Disco/Very” is a great song too, so everyone’s the richer, I suppose.
  • Defying all sense and reason (or maybe just reflecting the artist’s desire to get paid an adequate royalty), the Ty Segall song “Feel” is unavailable on Spotify, so I’ve substituted with Swans’ brain-burning “A Little God in My Hands,” maybe the most uncharacteristic song in that band’s 30-year catalog and one of the most subtly incendiary songs of the year. You’re well rewarded for listening in either case.
  • I’ve also had to swap slimkid3 & DJ Nu-Mark’s “No Pity Party” for “I Know, Didn’t I” from the same album on YouTube for similar reasons, and with similarly excellent results.
  • I could have plugged a YouTube recording of the BADBADGOOD remix of Future Islands’ “Seasons” into that mix, but the band is so incredibly compelling in live performance that I decided it deserved a showcase for those talents. You should absolutely NOT skip that remix, though.



  1. Warpaint: Keep It Healthy
  2. Honeyblood: (I’d Rather Be) Anywhere But Here
  3. Dum Dum Girls: Lost Boys and Girls Club
  4. London Grammar: Hey Now
  5. Spoon: Inside Out
  6. Angel Olsen: Lights Out
  7. Sharon Van Etten: Your Love Is Killing Me
  8. Beck: Waiting Light
  9. Temples: Colours To Life
  10. The War on Drugs: An Ocean In Between The Waves
  11. Ty Segall: Feel / Swans: A Little God In My Hands
  12. The Budos Band: The Sticks
  13. Benjamin Booker: Violent Shiver
  14. Eagulls: Yellow Eyes
  15. The Horrors: So Now You Know
  16. Zero 7: Simple Science
  17. The Juan Maclean: A Simple Design
  18. Aphex Twin: minipops 67 [120.2] (source field edit)
  19. Sylvan Esso: Coffee
  20. Slimkid3 & DJ Nu-Mark: No Pity Party / I Know, Didn’t I
  21. Cibo Matto: MFN
  22. Future Islands: Seasons (Waiting On You) [BADBADNOTGOOD Reinterpretation]
  23. Hamilton Leithauser: 11 O’Clock Friday Night
  24. Real Estate: Had To Hear
  25. First Aid Kit: Silver Lining

Best Songs of 2013

Posted: December 20, 2013 by Sean Flinn in Music, Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

Here it is … my picks for the 25 best songs of 2013. I’ve included an embedded YouTube playlist below for those who want some visual stimulation; or, you can listen to this Spotify playlist. Either way, enjoy! Note that this list is not in “best to worst” order, but has been custom mixed for flow. Oddly, the song at the very end, King Krule’s “Easy Easy,” would be my pick for song of the year.



  1. Johnny Marr: Upstarts
  2. Diarrhea Planet: Separations
  3. The Men: Half Angel, Half Light
  4. Bleached: Searching Through The Past
  5. Thee Oh Sees: I Come From The Mountain
  6. Queens of the Stone Age: My God is the Sun
  7. Savages: City’s Full
  8. Yo La Tengo: Ohm
  9. Vampire Weekend: Unbelievers
  10. Glass Candy: Warm in the Winter
  11. Smith Westerns: Varsity
  12. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Jubilee Street
  13. Kurt Vile: Walking on a Pretty Day
  14. Phosphorescent: The Quotidian Beasts
  15. Neko Case: Night Still Comes
  16. Local Natives: Ceilings
  17. The Socialites feat. Tesla Boy: Only This Moment
  18. CHVRCHES: Gun
  19. David Bowie: Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich Mix by James Murphy for the DFA)
  20. Nine Inch Nails: Copy of a
  21. Disclosure feat. AlunaGeorge: White Noise
  22. The Juan Maclean: Feel Like Movin’
  23. Daft Punk: Get Lucky
  24. Franz Ferdinand: Right Action
  25. King Krule: Easy, Easy

Best Albums of 2012

Posted: December 29, 2012 by Sean Flinn in Album Reviews, Music
  1. Grimes: Visions
  2. Beach House: Bloom
  3. Purity Ring: Shrines
  4. The Men: Open Your Heart
  5. Alabama Shakes: Boys and Girls
  6. Quantic & Alice Russell: Look Around The Corner
  7. Tame Impala: Lonerism
  8. Poolside: Pacific Standard Time
  9. Heartless Bastards: Arrow
  10. Lotus Plaza: Spooky Action At A Distance

Honorable Mentions

  • Kendrick Lamar: Good Kid, m.A.A.d City
  • Frank Ocean: Channel Orange
  • Diiv: Oshin
  • Tennis: Young & Old
  • Cat Power: Sun
  • Grizzly Bear: Shields
  • Ty Segall: Twins
  • Neil Young: Psychedelic Pill
  • Swans: The Seer
  • The Walkmen: Heaven
  • The Chromatics: Kill For Love
  • The Raveonettes: Observator
  • Jack White: Blunderbuss
  • Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros: Here
  • First Aid Kit: The Lion’s Roar
  • Dum Dum Girls: End of Daze
  • Japandroids: Celebration Rock
  • Jon Spencer Blues Explosion: Meat and Bone
  • Divine Fits: A Thing Called Divine Fits
  • Cornershop: Urban Turban

After a considerable break — and with the Coachella Festival now just about a week away — we’re back with more reasons to get psyched about this year’s lineup.

Before I dig into this week’s picks, however, I want to call out that I’ve been curating these posts into one giant YouTube “Coachella 2012” playlist for your viewing / listening pleasure. You can tune in here. I’ll be adding more clips on a near daily basis as the actual festival approaches, so keep checking back.

Seeing as we’re getting down to the wire and all, I figure I’ll start focusing on bands that I’m particularly excited to see, personally (rather than the tack I’ve been pursuing, which has been to mix up stuff I love with stuff I’m interested in and think everyone should know more about).

The Black Keys: Sinister Kid

Shocking nearly everyone and pissing off quite a few holier-than-thou hipster types, The Black Keys nabbed a headlining slot on the first day of the festival this year. This really shouldn’t have come as much of a shock, though, for at least three reasons: 1) the Keys have already played the main stage at Coachella at least twice, and delivered the goods both times; 2) the band’s last two albums have been critical darlings and best-sellers; 3) they just plain fucking rock. Yeah, I know there’s this weird contingent of folks who ironically equate success with sucking, and hate it when their favorite indie bands hit the big time, with commercials licensing their music and what-not … but Jesus. Get over it. The Keys can play, they write great songs, and they put on an uncompromisingly sharp live show. That should be the end and the beginning. It is for me at least.

The Hives: Walk Idiot Walk

I was just beginning to wonder what happened to Sweden’s The Hives when I saw them pop up on this year’s festival lineup. Here’s a band whose records never quite delivered the sales that the group’s record company hoped for, and never quite became the cult icons that everyone just sort of took for granted that they’d become. I mean … look at ’em on paper: impeccable Swedish pop music writing chops; garage rock at just the right time; garish and charismatic front man; synchronized formal wear. They seemed to have it all. It never quite caught on. That’s a damn shame though, because, as this clip demonstrates, The Hives put on one of the deadliest live rock shows on the planet. There’s not a single second that doesn’t deliver maximum, jump-around-like-a-complete-idiot entertainment. The selfish part of me is hoping they play a closing slot at the Outdoor Theater so I can be one of the two hundred folks with sense enough to see them play, and the luxury of enjoying them in front of a small, die-hard crowd.

The Black Lips: Family Tree

I’ve seen The Black Lips live twice now, and can safely evaluate their performances thusly: they are just about the best band in the world to see when you’re drunk. Not, like, falling down ready to pass out drunk. More like, “I’ve had a shot and three or four cheap beers and I’m ready to get rowdy” drunk. Not in a douchebaggy way. Not in a dumb jock way. Just in a loutish, scruffy, miscreant way. Crap. All of those words are really too polite to convey what I mean here. Just imagine, as you listen to this, that you’re pretty buzzed, you’re in a crowded punk rock bar with five or six dozen folks, you’ve all been drinking cheap beer for a couple of hours, and now you’re going to jump and slide around a booze-soaked dance floor while four slightly unhinged garage punkers play intensely loud, intentionally sloppy rock ‘n’ roll for you. At some point, some drunk 22-year-old girl punches you in the stomach, mumbles something incoherent, and you achieve, in the words of Bill Murray channeling the Dalai Lama, “total enlightenment.” The Black Lips will make sure you’ve got that going for you.

Yuck – Get Away

Yuck’s self-titled debut made my end of year top 10 list in 2011. Three months and change into 2012, I’m still really enjoying it. One of my favorite periods of “alternative” music — the late ’80s / early 90s’ (when “alternative music” actually acquired that tag, having evolved from “college” rock, and eventually broke through to mainstream success) — became fodder for heavy duty nostalgia trips last year. Kids a generation younger than me started DJing all 90s setlists at parties, and bands like Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Yuck did an admirable job of not so much mining the past for inspiration as convincing everyone that they’d simply picked up the torch from bands like The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, Nirvana, and REM. Are they breaking new ground? Sonically, no … but think about how they found whatever small degree of fame they’ve acquired.

Twenty years ago, a band like this would have been a hero to the British indie kids reading NME, but would have spent literally years touring America in crappy Dodge Econolines trying to scrape together rent money, gas money, and enough scratch to maybe record the next record. The new wave has Facebook and YouTube to leverage as it builds a fanbase,and can score a record deal with international distribution after just a handful of gigs. In 1986, you were lucky to have a zine, a taping trading network, and an independent label that had pieced together a national distribution deal with Caroline or the like.

It’s weird to think about how far it’s come, and I don’t begrudge bands like Yuck their seemingly instant success. Not when their music is this good, and their live chops this sharp.

fIREHOSE – Brave Captain

Speaking of that Dodge Econoline … Mike Watt, erstwhile bassist for LA hardcore heroes The Minutemen, is perhaps the godfather of touring on a dime and returning home with fifteen cents. fIREHOSE formed in the wake of Minutemen vocalist / guitarist D. Boone’s tragic, accidental death, with Watt and Minutemen drummer George Hurley bringing their unparalleled rhythm section skills into a new power trio. Ed Crawford filled in the vocal and guitars in what may be the most flukey story in all of rock (no, really: legend has it that the members of the band Camper Van Beethoven conned Minutemen superfan Crawford into believing that Watt and Hurley were auditioning a replacement for D. Boone; Crawford’s persistence turned the con job into reality, luring Watt out of mourning and retirement to form a new band). fIREHOSE went on to make five albums between 1986 and 1993, in the process garnering a fan base nearly as maniacally loyal as its predecessor (and presiding as elder statesmen of alternative rock as several burgeoining regional underground movements finally coalesced into something of national — even international — significance). If you believe in something hard enough, kids …

Anyhow, I’m a HUGE Minutemen fan, and Mike Watt is something of an icon to me, having played not only with one of my all time favorite punk bands, but also having served time in Porno for Pyros and the reformed Stooges. He and Hurley are an absolute beast of a rhythm section, as evidenced in this live fIREHOSE clip, and Crawford more than holds his own on the front end. CAN. NOT. WAIT.

Although Coachella has become better at getting headline hip-hop acts in the big font category, the festival has typically thrown its weight behind a wide swath of rock acts and tents full of electronic music heavy hitters. Last year’s lineup (with the exception of a memorable if divisive act from Kanye) felt at least a year or more out of place, with nostalgia act Lauryn Hill, tragically late Bond villain Cee-Lo, played to death Wiz Khalifa, and a respectable set from Nas and Damian Marley (whose album had dropped a full year previous). The hyped up and “edgy” Odd Future took what could have been a signature set and turned in a clusterfuck of a performance, cursing out the sound man in a set that was more incompetent than punk. The festival that brought amazing past performances from Jurassic 5, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, MF Doom, and Roots Manuva didn’t promise to be notable in this last year of the Mayan calendar.

The 2012 lineup brought a surprise though; this year is the first in ages where I don’t have a single thing to complain about. That stems largely from my reverence for late 90’s underground NYC act Company Flow, who are emerging from retirement, but has just as much to do with the last West coast representatives to own hip-hop, Dre and Snoop. Throw in hip-hop affiliate DJ’s like Shadow and Girl Talk; leftfield (in geography and music inclination) producers Gaslamp Killer and Flying Lotus; forward looking soul singers Frank Ocean and The Weeknd; and up and coming acts like Childish Gambino, A$AP Rocky and Kendrick Lamar, and you’ve got a ton of hip-hop gems at the polo fields. Unless you were holding out some sad, misbegotten hope for an Outkast reunion (just let it go, let it go) rap fans have a solid outing ahead of them in 2012.

Dre and Snoop: Gin and Juice


Coachella’s recent savvy in dropping a mainstream hip-hop act along with its lineup of rock and electronic acts has been admirable. While Kanye and Jay-Z brought significant star power, that was a warmup for kings of Southern Cali rap Snoop and Dre to bring their G-Funk to the desert.

Sure, it was gangsta, but with production chock-full of Parliament samples, and subject material just as devoted to weed smoke and backyard cookouts as shootouts in Long Beach and Compton, Dre and Snoop provided a more uplifting vibe than the relentless G’ed up stylings of predecessors like N.W.A.

Dre’s production chops reached beyond the West coast to unleash Detroit’s Eminem on the world and provided bounce to East coast stalwarts like Nas and Busta Rhymes; his synth lines could infuse SoCal sun into tracks like “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” or foreboding yet flippant undertones on “The Next Episode”. Snoop’s domain was less cosmopolitan and more pure West coast (let’s forget his Master P No Limit period); his laid back tales of G riding and weed smoking flexed with dextrous flows and tight delivery (his single guest verse on “Deep Cover” was sufficient to launch a sea of hype) defined Southern Cali hip-hop in the 90’s. Though Dre’s recent output has been largely limited to Dr. Pepper commercials and overpriced headphones, and Snoop’s lyrical prowess has been undermined by questionable producer collabs and lazy writing, the two rocking the stage in the Indio desert seems like a preordained classic Coachella moment.

Frank Ocean: Novacane


Odd Future’s rise could be dissected from no surfeit of angles, whether it be the questionable influence of hipster blogs (even Tyler calls out Pitchfork, as one must bite the hand that feeds you to be properly outré); the interesting intersection of hop-hop with skate and animated culture (check that Adult Swim collab); whether they’re horrorcore or punk or just stupidly juvenile. The far reaching collective is not strictly defined by the flagrant members, and perhaps no one shows more promise than the quietly rising star of soul singer Frank Ocean.

You won’t be floored by his voice but there’s a certain informed insouciance and intelligence to Frank Ocean’s lyrics that elevate him to notable status. His two hook contributions to Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch the Throne are standout moments on an album that impresses despite (and thanks to) its indulgent largesse. If you want to get with the hip crowd and cop his unavailable mix release (if it was good enough for Danger Mouse’s “Grey Album” it’s good enough for … everyone now) Google your way to nostalgia.ultra.

On “We All Try” Ocean belies hip-hop’s typical atypical conservatism by propping up love that’s not just between a man and woman, and a woman’s right to choose (rappers hate the Man but don’t mind bullshit patriarchy). “Novacane” offers a strangely wry tale of a romance originating on the Coachella polo grounds with somewhat off brand drug use and the first of several Eyes Wide Shut name drops. The highlight might be copyright flaunting “American Wedding”; Don Henley is a bit miffed as it samples (takes) the beat from “Hotel California” in whole. If he listened to it, he’d hear a elegiac track that brilliantly juxtaposes a young marriage doomed to failure before it begins with a tattooed wedding ring that he “might just die with”. Frank Ocean thinks the notion of the The Eagles suing him as “fucking awesome“; more likely it will be a footnote to a career that should afford him a better sample clearance budget in the very near future.

A$AP Rocky: Purple Swag

A$AP Rocky hails out of Harlem, the same spot that brought us Cam’Ron and the Diplomats, who dropped gangsta tales of murder and hustle while flossing with pink b-ball jerseys. That juxtaposition informs the chill vibe of Rocky’s world, rather than follow the gun clapping music of Queens rep 50 Cent, he follows the weed first, guns second vibe of Wiz Khalifa and the inventive codeine haze of Lil Wayne.

It helps the cause tremendously that he’s got solid producers including Clams Casino (also heard donating beats to The Weeknd) contributing a grip of tracks that are moody and spacey; stripping out the lyrics would sound something like the XX remixing an MF Doom Special Herbs instrumental album. Rocky doesn’t try to grab you by the neck with his hooks like Wiz Khalifa’s stoned but aggressive patter; he’s content to confidently stroll through his chorus and trust you to hypnotically bob your head along.

Today’s hip-hop world has gone more swag than gangsta (a zeitgeist that’s somewhere between metrosexual and hipster); the proving ground has moved from underground radio freestyle sessions to free mixtapes on the Internet. A$AP Rocky comes out remarkably fully formed for a guy that copped a 3 million record deal off the strength of two singles; out of any hip-hop act on the roster this Harlem rep needs to be playing at dusk, crowd full of weed smoke as the slow tweaked strings of “Purple Swag” wafts over the atmosphere.

Childish Gambino: Bonfire


You don’t need to be a fan of the so-clever-it’s-doomed sitcom Community to appreciate Childish Gambino, but it helps. His recent album Camp is both better and worse than you might expect from a rapping comedic actor (Donald Glover) who took his nom de rap from an Internet Wu-Tang name generator.

Glover does a lot of his own production, which is polished with choral flourishes, informed by modern electronic music (what isn’t at this point?) and wouldn’t be out of place on some of the recent emo-hop from B.o.B. or Drake. His flow and intonation is serviceable except for a tendency to drop into a squeaky growl that might be aggressively playful from Kanye’s windpipes but is cringeworthy from the Gambino.

As with a standup set you’re here for the punchlines – instead of dropping it like it’s hot, Gambino’s gonna ask you to “drop it like the Nasdaq” and will name check NPR’s Terry Gross, Carmen Sandiego, John Mayer before you hear him comparing himself with Biggie Smalls. There’s also serious tones and aspirations to outsider status, like when he points out “you’re not not racist cause the Wire’s in your Netflix queue” but ultimately Childish Gambino’s black but alternative (and relentless self-awareness) doesn’t break new ground beyond what Odd Future, or Lupe before them, or the Neptunes before them have put on ProTools. Donald Glover ultimately will settle into a middle ground; he’s not renaissance actor-rapper Mos Def, but his musical and acting chops outshines the likes of Tyrese.

Company Flow: The Fire in Which You Burn


1997 saw the stunning, sublime release of longtime hip-hop artisan Will Smith, whose Big Willie Style album and the particularly erudite “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” defined the mainstream rap music landscape. For those seeking somewhat grimier fare, an indie label renaissance was at work spreading music to a more niche audience. Fondle ‘Em brought the world the origin supervillain story of MF Doom, while Rawkus Records launched an astonishing roster including Mos Def, one of the earliest appearances from Eminem , Kool Keith sidekick Sir Menilik, and the “independent as fuck” Company Flow.

While Puff Daddy was honoring (exploiting) the fallout of the West coast – East coast beef, appearing onstage with Sting, Co Flow was kicking off their Funcrusher Plus LP with “Your eyes get wide like Tupac getting shot in the lobby”. The lyrical semantics may have been driven by standard anti-mainstream sentiment and edgy punchlines, but the paranoid sci-fi bent, noisy production, and forays into more personal material like the haunting domestic abuse tale “Last Good Sleep” elevated the album into classic realm. Prominent member El-P went on to have his own sonically uncompromising career; as to Co Flow, while the group only had one LP proper and they get small font billing, they stand as one of the most important hip-hop acts of the 90’s and should not be missed.

Coachella 2012: GET PSYCHED (Part 4)

Posted: March 4, 2012 by Sean Flinn in Music
Tags: , ,

This week’s “GET PSYCHED!” is for that large percentage of my Coachella crew who attend the festival each year primarily to bask in the beats at the Sahara tent. Oh sure, they’ll make the occasional foray to the main stage to catch a major artist — but the real allure of the festival is the (usually) killer lineup of DJs and electronic music acts who keep the Sahara bumpin’ all the way up to curfew.

I’ll confess, however, that I wasn’t SUPER impressed with festival electronic music lineup this year. I mean … David Guetta? Calvin Harris? I suppose they’re both a step up from Tiesto, but damn. Charitably, I’ll call those obvious choices. Anyhow, I’ve learned to trust Goldenvoice’s taste implicitly at this point, and I figured that any fest that booked both Amon Tobin AND Atari Teenage Riot probably had some amazing acts lined up to get people movin’ without playing 100% to the cheap seats.

And, upon further inspection: my hunch paid off. And so, I present to you a short list of artists who will get asses shakin’ AND brains racing in the Sahara (and points beyond) this year.

Justice: ON’N’ON

OK, OK … yes. Justice is a fairly obvious choice here. The more observant among you will note, however, that the French duo, often lazily referred to as a sort of “Daft Punk lite” (because they’re a twosome of French DJs), is making its second Coachella appearance since Daft Punk made its one legendary stand at the Sahara in 2006. Points for staying hungry and not drifting into “flash in the pan” status. And, while Justice’s first album didn’t do a whole lot to dispel the DP comparisons, “ON’N’ON,” the first single from its 2011 album Audio, Video, Disco points to a very different direction — fewer driving grooves, more borrowing from big riff ’70s rock’n’roll and prog rock (as well as some small riff classics, e.g., CSN&Y’s “Ohio.”).

That makes for a VERY promising return to Sahara headline status, in my opinion. We’ll all be getting a high dose of the crazy stage set routine from Amon Tobin’s “ISAM” and DJ Shadow’s “Shadowsphere,” so the pressure is really just on Justice to show up with a crate full of ROCK. After listening to “ON’N’ON” about two dozen times this past week, I’m confident it can deliver.

The Rapture: Sail Away

It took seeing this Brooklyn-based dance punk group live for its music to actually grab me fully by the throat and make me pay attention. Sure, its 2011 album, In The Grace of Your Love (a “come back” of sorts) got a spin or two just on the merits of The Rapture’s rep, and (truthfully) because of its return to the DFA Records fold. Then I caught them live in Austin last fall, and the album quickly clicked for me in a big way, surging onto my list of “Best Albums of 2011.”

The Rapture had a strong following and tons of credibility already, thanks to its instant classic single, House of Jealous Lovers, and its “pioneer” status as part of the wave of Brooklyn bands that started fusing dance music with punk and post-punk back in the early ’00s. But, like most of those bands (and unlike LCD Soundsystem, which surged with each successive album), The Rapture eventually succumbed to “too much too soon” syndrome and followed up its breakthrough album with some mediocre records. When front man Luke Jenner departed the band to do some soul-searching in the wake of some heavy duty personal issues, it forced The Rapture to take a much-needed break.

In The Grace of Your Love was more than a return to form; it was the return of a band that had grown and evolved to realize the potential promised by its earlier work. Playing with variations and tempo and adding gospel and choir music into the dance / punk mix, The Rapture crafted nuanced, emotional record that still packs a hefty dance floor wallop. Having seen the band live now, I can testify to its undiminished power to get people moving. I’ll absolutely be one of those people, again, at Coachella this year.

SBTRKT: Right Thing To Do

I’m not sure who pioneered the practice of DJs and MCs wearing masks to create cartoonish alter-egos for themselves. I can say that, in general, these masked crusaders generally make music worth paying attention to. For reference: MF Doom, Dangermouse, dedmau5 (admittedly, opinions may be split here) and, lately, Aaron Jerome — AKA SBTRKT (pronounced, as you probably guessed, “subtract”) — a British DJ who creates a hypnotic blend of Chicago house, two-step and RnB. My first reaction to his music when I heard it was, “This sounds like Zero 7, if Zero 7 actually made me want to dance instead of fall asleep.” Think deep, soulful vocals layered over spacey electronics, driven forward by funky, FUNKY house grooves. In short: exactly what I want from a late night set at Coachella.

According to at least one interview, SKTRKT actually dons his particular set of masks (all of them, according to Wikipedia, “modern interpretations of native society ceremonial masks” in order to “subtract” his identity from the experience of hearing his music (a valid concern; Jerome has a career as a “nu-jazz” producer and musician, and probably figured that any new music put out under his own name would be judged according to impressions of his previous work). That flips the script on the typical motivation the drives most performers to costume up (dedmau5 has turned his giant mouse head into a global brand, for example), and it certainly gives Jerome freedom to explore different genres and musical textures without fear of violating preconceived notions of what his music should sound like.

Live, Jerome partners up with vocalist Sampha and jumps behind the drumkit to give his music a stronger kick and more room for improvisation; think house music or two-step as be-bop, a live act working through modern dance music forms, but calling back to DJs and crews like the Reprazent drum ‘n’ bass collective (which wasn’t afraid to stand its decks next to a drum kit to see where the beat could go next).

Santigold: Big Mouth

I’m probably more excited to see Santigold than any other act playing Coachella this year. I’m so swept away by her music — particularly her new tracks, like “Big Mouth,” that I consider the rationale for my excitement to be self evident. I mean … just listen to that song! But I suppose I should spend a minute breaking it down.

Santi White is a gifted MC, and her music is undeniably hip-hop … but she pulls in elements from so many different genres, and accentuates her own gifts (a distinct voice, an ability to drop instantly and credibly into Jamaican patois, a love of dance and old-school hip-hop tropes, like b-boying) such that she has emerged as a singular voice in the genre. I love that she pays homage to dub and new wave and old school rap in equal measure, and that she manages to work with so many different producers without sacrificing the consistency of her sound.

“Big Mouth” in particular has me totally jazzed. A slow builder, the song shows off some masterful use of rhythmic loops, each slowly entering the mix until they find a place in the arrangement, which gradually crescendos at the chorus. At that point, everything bursts wide open, and you’re swimming in frenzied tribal beats, reverbed “ooo ooo ooos” and “waa waa waas” and just generally catharting yourself all over the place. Then the whole piece resets and rebuilds to the next climax.

Mostly, though, I think her music’s just flat out great, and that she’s a ton of fun to watch perform. The inclusion of two b-girl dancers flanking her to perform synchronized routines, a la Public Enemy’s S1-W, adds immensely to her live show’s charm, as does the occasional gold lame track suit.

Modeselektor: Evil Twin

Big gigantic confession time: researching this article gave me my first real exposure to Modeselektor. I went hunting through the Coachella lineup in search of something other than dubstep or pop DJs who crank out predictable club bangers, and Modeselektor seemed a likely candidate. Oh sure, I’ve heard of them before, but I’d never taken the time to listen deeply.

Modeselektor have been saddled with the “IDM” genre tag, which is a tricky proposition for a show like Coachella. It generally implies something a bit more cerebral or experimental (read: not, in the strictest sense of the word, “fun”) than what you normally hear on the dance floor. I generally tend to gravitate to it when I need heavy focus to do things like write or to perform tedious, repetitive tasks. Modeselektor tends to skew a bit more toward IDM’s roots in Detroit techno, however, which means their sound is stripped down, pointed, and a bit bass-heavy — but that it’s also built for movement.

Or maybe I’m wrong, and the set will be more about head than heart. In any event, I’m intrigued, and always glad to hear different flavors of electronic dance music on the festival fields. It’s also worth noting Modeselektor’s popularity as a remixer; the duo has provided mixes for Bjork and Radiohead, and recorded a couple of excellent, moody tracks tracks with Thom Yorke. That provides some interesting potential for on-stage team-ups, given Radiohead’s headliner status at the festival.

This week’s entry in the “GET PSYCHED” series is the first of a two-parter focusing on UK bands playing the Coachella Festival in 2012. Not sure if you noticed, but there’s a sort of mini British Invasion taking place in the desert this spring. And it’s not just reflective of some new trend exploding in England; it’s more like a lesson in the history of modern British pop, starting with the punk era (and its roots) and plowing straight through to the country’s “newest hit makers.”

In this first part of our look at these bands, I’m going eschew lumping bands together by era or style, and instead whip-saw from past to present to give you some sense of the breadth of coverage that the festival will attempt this year. We’ll hit the ’70s, we’ll hit the ’90s, we’ll hit the ’00s, traveling by way of Manchester, West London, and Sheffield. We’ll have our hackles raised as we keep our pinkies up. And, as alternatively inclined Anglophiles, we’ll find a lot to love in this year’s Coachella lineup.

Buzzcocks: Orgasm Addict

It’s so hard for me to pick just ONE Buzzcocks song to represent the Manchester band’s thoroughly awesome, totally essential catalog. I went with “Orgasm Addict” because it was the first song I ever heard by the group (courtesy of legendary Los Angeles DJ Rodney Bigenheimer‘s weekend radio show on KROQ … Jesus, remember when KROQ was worth listening to? What the hell happened there?), and because it so perfectly encapsulates everything that’s great about punk rock.

I was probably 13 or 14 when I first heard this song come blasting out of my boom box speakers, stuck in my bedroom on a Sunday night doing homework to the sounds of whatever Rodney had chosen for his show that week. And by that point — ’88 or ’89 — “Orgasm Addict,” which the Buzzcocks released as its first US single in 1977, was already a “flashback” track. You’d never have known it to listen to it though, then or now. Even by the late ’80s, brash, bratty talk about self-abuse and sex addiction was NOT the stuff of mainstream pop lyricism. And that was the point: confrontation, delivered like a bitch slap via subversive lyrics whose sting was amplified by slashing Telecaster guitar tones and stop-start rhythms cranked way past what was acceptable for rock music in the mid-70s. All of this made the song sound immediate and current a full 12 years after its release. I’ll argue that’s true today as well; “Orgasm Addict” could have been cut last week without sounding anachronistic.

You can look up the band’s history elsewhere online — but it’s worthwhile to note here that the Buzzcocks’ appearance at Coachella seems like it will feature the full, “classic” lineup of the group (including co-founders Steve Shelley and Howard Devoto) that recorded singles like this and other seminal tracks (check out “Ever Fallen in Love,” “What Do I Get?,” “Harmony In My Head” and “Why Can’t I Touch It” for starters).

Arctic Monkeys: Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair

I’m not really sure that Arctic Monkeys have sustained the justification for the hype surrounding its first album (or their second … both of which hit #1 in the UK pretty much the minute they were released), but I am sure that front man Alex Turner has evolved into one of the finest lyricists in all of rock. His wordplay has been at the center of each of the band’s four albums, and it just gets better — more intricate, more epic — with each turn.

What makes the Monkeys appealing as an act to see at Coachella, however, is just how effing good the band is live. It played the main stage during the mid-afternoon in 2007, right as its second album was being released, and absolutely floored me (and everyone else, if I remember correctly). It doesn’t quite come through on record, but the band more than matches Turner’s dextrous lyrics with its playing. This clip offers a more recent taste of what it brings to the stage, something a bit more muscular that what fans of the group bouncier early work might expect. Recent albums have been inconsistent but listenable; I still expect the live show to be incendiary.

The Vaccines: Post Break-Up Sex

The Vaccines debuted last year with just about as much buzz as Arctic Monkeys, all of it justified. Heck, I even put one of its songs (“Wetsuit”) on my “Favorite Songs of 2011” list, and slapped its album, What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?, on my “Best Albums of 2011” list. So, I’m clearly impressed. I really just love everything about this band, and I can’t wait to see them play live.

The Vaccines have sort of inherited the “hot new thing” torch from the Arctic Monkeys, for whom they once opened — so, if the Monkeys are Coachella’s representatives of British rock in the ’00s, The Vaccines represent where it’s at in the ’10s. It seems like every decade, a new band makes a grand unifying statement that rolls up everything that’s great about independent British rock, aand waves the flag for a new batch of bands to rally around. This decade, that batch of bands is led by The Vaccines. You’ve got front man Justin Young’s smart, sensitive, smirking lyrics (see: the clip above), the driving guitar rock aimed at the cheap seats (check “Wolf Pack”), and the soaring, sing-along choruses (“If You Wanna”) — all of it wrapped up in a package that’s undeniably influenced by punk and post-punk.

If you want to witness this year’s “State of the Union” for this particular genre of music, don’t miss The Vaccines’s set.

Pulp: Common People

You know what’s really awesome about this clip? That Richard Hawley — who played guitar for Pulp back in the 90s, without much fanfare, before going on to become on of Britain’s most acclaimed songwriters / performers — is right there with the band, ripping out power chords for this 2011 reunion appearance. Slim chance he’ll show up at Pulp’s Coachella gigs (despite also having ties to Arctic Monkeys) … but damn. I’m a HUGE Richard Hawley fan, so I’ll hold out a music nerd’s outsized hope for a surprise appearance.

ANYHOW … I’m going to go out on a limb and label “Common People” the “How Soon Is Now?” of the mid-90s. Every BritPop fan I knew (and I include myself in there) regarded this song as an anthem and unanimously went ape shit on dance floors and at living room parties whenever it hit the decks. In England, I totally get its massive, enduring popularity (listen to the lyrics; though deftly written, it’s not hard to score big by taking a swing at the posh class). In the US, however, where we live in perpetual denial of our own entrenched class system and regularly invite the wealthy to piss all over the middle and lower classes, its popularity seems … less likely.

What you quickly figure out when you just let go and listen, however, is that “Common People’s” success — both in the US and the UK — came down to its strengths as a song, pure and simple. The mounting tempo (which builds to a furor by song’s end), the built-for-dance floor rhythms, and the not-so-vague sense that it was an angry underdog’s anthem (albeit, written for the slightly twee set) comprise the DNA of a classic. There’s actually something Springsteen-esque about it, when you really listen.

So yeah … I’m looking forward to going completely mad when the band rips into this in Indio, and re-living all those sleepless Thursday nights dancing with my friends at PopScene in San Francisco.

Radiohead: Good Morning Mr. Magpie

Does anyone still think of Radiohead as a “British band” anymore? While its first two albums sat strong alongside mid-90s releases from Pulp, Blur, Oasis, etc. as solid representatives of a nation’s popular musical output at that time, each album it’s put out since then has been a more singular statement’s of the band’s own evolving aesthetics. Radiohead have become, as QuestLove of The Roots recently commented to Spin Magazine, the Remain In Light era Talking Heads of the 21st Century.

I’ll confess that my affection for Radiohead tracks inversely alongside its core fanbase’s; The King of Limbs, the group’s most recent, is my favorite album of its catalog. I like the band better and better as its sound drifts further and further away from the pre-millennial angst of its biggest hit, OK Computer. I especially like that Thom Yorke seems to have stopped crawling up his own asshole, lyrically (there’s something about his tone now that reminds me of documentary filmmaker Errol Morris; it’s more journalistic than accusatory, despite the fact that he hasn’t stopped confronting the great bogeymen of modernity). And I really dig the band’s exploration of poly-rhythms, glitchy electronic music, and ambient beauty. Radiohead is a much strong band — maybe the most interesting band working in popular music, at present — now that it’s learned to stop worrying and love the dystopia.

How all of this will translate to a headlining spot on the main stage at Coachella, I have no idea. The last time Radiohead played this spot, several years ago, it totally let me down by failing to bring sufficient enough rock to really drop the festival to its knees. It’s an even quieter, weirder band now — but also, one whose members’ musicianship has increased severalfold. I’ll be watching not just because I love the new material, but also to see what happens. Radiohead have made it impossible not to be curious.