Posts Tagged ‘best of’

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 2011

Posted: January 3, 2012 by Sean Flinn in Album Reviews, Music

As I said in my “Favorite Songs of 2011” post, I bought and loved more music in 2011 than I have in just about any other year — if my Amazon bill and my annual iTunes “Best of …” smart playlist are any indicators. A lot of other crap could’ve influenced those two metrics. But I’ll stand by that analysis. 2011 was a flat-out fantastic year for new music.

Credit the Arab Spring, the ongoing Great Recession, Occupy Wall Street, or the worst US Congress in American history for inspiring an artistic watershed (the cliche rationale is that art always does well in times of turmoil) … or just credit the career artists and finally-appreciated genres / eras that finally “peaked” after decades of uncelebrated toil.

Not everyone agrees. Several of my friends think nothing good has come out since 1994. The New York Times recently dubbed 2011 as “The Year Rock Spun Its Wheels.”

I consider this list, then, a challenge to all of that thinking.

In 2011, artists like Radiohead, Washed Out, The Roots, and The Rapture continued to push things aggressively forward, each working firmly within a totally modern sonic framework while producing music that will bear years — if not decades — of repeat listening. Others, like Yuck and M83, argued convincingly for the canonization of certain (until recently, popularly undervalued) parts of ’90s and ’80s music culture, respectively — repeating without reducing. Lykke Li redefined what a singer-songwriter’s music could sound like, while Charles Bradley reminded us, amidst a soul music revival, that the best of that genre may still be yet to come. And PJ Harvey made a wartime record to soundtrack the whole history of human conflict … yet somehow managed to candycoat her bitter pill such that the listener would gleefully swallow the medicine.

That said, I unapologetically present my list of 2011’s best albums. Long may they ring in your earbuds.

  1. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
  2. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
  3. The Vaccines – What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?
  4. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
  5. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
  6. Charles Bradley – No Time For Dreaming
  7. Yuck – Yuck
  8. The Rapture – In The Grace of Your Love
  9. Washed Out – Within and Without
  10. The Roots – Undun

Listen to “Best Albums of 2011” playlist for this article — for free — on Spotify.

  1. PJ Harvey - Let England ShakePJ Harvey: Let England Shake
    No other artist in popular music can rival Polly Jean Harvey at her best. This is, in part, because no other artist is as deft at resolving the contradictions necessary to produce timeless art. No one else is simultaneously as experimental nor as listenable as Harvey; as willing to make fearless stylistic change her only stylistic constant; or as capable of writing journalistic observations of a moment in time without making music that sounds forced, awkward, or (as is the danger, always with music that comments on current events) determinedly anachronistic.

    Let England Shake epitomizes Harvey’s ability to resolve all of those aforementioned contradictions while taking current events for its subject matter, leaving us with an album for the times. Inspired by England’s ongoing involvement in global military conflicts (Iraq and Afghanistan) and the economic and social upheaval wrought (in the UK and beyond) by the domino-like collapses of unregulated financial markets, Let England Shake poetically reports on the state of Great Britain at the end of the 21st century’s first decade. And because of Harvey’s deft songcrafting skills — honed over a long and fearless career — it may become an album for all times. Great pop artists typically succeed by taking broad, general subjects (love, for example) and making them feel very specific to the listener. Harvey works in reverse on Let England Shake, targeting very specific events with broad, general language. The result is a unique work of pop genius, music imbued with both a sense of immediacy and a timelessness. A song about soldiers dying on the battlefield in Afghanistan could easily be a song about soldiers dying in the trenches in WWI France. And the music (arranged in part by Harvey’s longtime collaborators, John Parish and Mick Harvey) — the message’s delivery vehicle — remains so listenable and so un-rooted in current genre trends or production techniques that you can put the album on and not feel like you’re sitting down to listen to a collection of ham-fisted protest songs.

    My friends may accuse me of putting this album at the top of my 2011 list because I’ve been such a die-hard PJ Harvey fan since the beginning of her career. I say: they have it backwards. I’ve been a die-hard fan for so long specifically because she puts out albums as good as this.

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  2. M83 - Hurry Up We're DreamingM83: Hurry Up We’re Dreaming

    In the song “Losing My Edge,” LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy confesses a rivalry with kids who borrow “nostalgia for the unremembered eighties.” Examples probably pass him on the streets of Brooklyn every day (the internet has made it possible for everyone to become a pop culture revivalist with minimal effort and maximum acceleration). But he also might have applied the tag to Anthony Gonzalez, whose band, M83, painstakingly crafts music that evokes emotional and sonic memories of a version of the 1980s that may only exist as a shared hallucination. Or rather, a version that’s extremely selective, in the same way that generic “best of” collections that focus on the decade tend only to highlight a very narrow slice of pop music (typically one hit wonders from the “new wave” scene), and ignore, say, the entire post-punk, indie rock, and American hardcore movements that exploded during the same period.

    Other bands attempted the same trick this year — Destroyer and Bon Iver among the most successful. But, while both of those artists eventually fell into the laziness of imitation (usually of late period Roxy Music), M83 took a more expansive route, preferring evocation as an even more sincere form of flattery. Here we have an artist paying tribute to an era by re-painting it with his own sonic palate (swapping guitars to synths, for example).

    Gonzalez and his collaborators also deserve enormous credit for making a double album that never feels bloated, and that flies by far faster than more economically constructed song collections. It’s totally possible to find yourself deep into “disc 2” (if that label even matters in the digital music era), but thinking you’ve barely scratched the surface of “disc 1.” maybe Gonzalez learned something from the hardcore scene after all. Zen Arcade and Double Nickels on the Dime achieved a similar feat, after all.

    The key to success here is that, on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, Gonzalez may have finally struck upon a superior version of the truth. Whether or not you fetishize what, say, shoegazer or early acid house or John Hughes movie soundtracks (think more Dream Academy, less Simple Minds) sounded like in 1985 in the same way that M83 does, you have to admire Gonzalez’s ability to synthesize all of the sounds and memories to create something both evocative, unique, and worth listening to as something other than a pure nostalgia trip. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is a great record, period, whether it was released in 2011 or Nineteen Eighty Never.

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  3. The Vaccines: What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?The Vaccines: What Did You Expect from the Vaccines?

    The story of West London’s The Vaccines is pretty much the same story of every other British guitar-based phenom of the last 20 years: band comes together, band quickly perfects sound that is both uniquely its own but also very much rooted in BritPop / indie tropes, band releases single, band is hailed as “the savior” or “the second coming” of British rock. By now, if you’ve followed the hype around bands like The Libertines, or Arctic Monkeys, or Franz Ferdinand, or any of a dozen (at least) other bands, you pretty much know the career arc of The Vaccines to date.

    Did the band’s debut album live up to the hype? Yes. Will the band sustain the accolades? Well … who knows? But What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? is, on its own merits, about as solid and time-test worthy of a first album as has come out in a while. Front man Justin Young is a flat out great songwriter, matching catchy melodies to rock-solid lyrics like few other artists mining the same vein. It’s tempting to jump on the hype machine and start throwing around “the next Smiths” comparisons, but I don’t know that The Vaccines have quite that variety or quirkiness up their sleeves. What they do have is the ability to make a great straightforward pop record on which every song could be a single, every chorus can be sung along with, and the balance of surging rockers to thoughtful ballads is right on point.

    I hope they can repeat. This album is way too much fun for it not to have a sequel or four.

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  4. Lykke Li - Wounded RhymesLykke Li: Wounded Rhymes

    If you want proof of the power or influence of a producer in revealing an artist’s genius, look no further than Lykke Li’s outstanding Wounded Rhymes. What Li, a singer-songwriter from Stockholm, Sweden, brings to the table: a voice that somehow manages to be both girlish and bold, organic and otherworldly; and a penchant for writing piercing, personal songs that bare bone deep sadness, bravado, and sexuality. What her collaborator (in this case, Peter Moren of Swedish indie pop masters Peter, Bjorn, and John): the skills to make the best sounding record of 2011.

    Wounded Rhymes sounded like no other record by a songwriting or dance pop ingenue in 2011. Li often come at her subject matter from oblique angles (her idea of a come-on is to compare herself, simultaneously, to a shotgun and a prostitute, telling her lover, “You’re gonna get some”). Moren, meanwhile, coats her songs in a grab bag of sonic accoutrements, doubling up Li’s voice to make her sound like the front woman of a 21st century girl group, and, Spector-like, building an instrumental wall behind her that’s all reverbed handclaps, booming kettledrums, and tightened up organ riffs.

    The mix proved potent. Wounded Rhymes spent months at the top of my “Best Albums” list, and it was torture trying to figure out where it fit amongst all of the other great albums that came out. It still sounds like nothing else. It will probably end up being one of my most listened to albums of the 2010s. Too many people I talked to this year, though, either slept on it or didn’t give it enough time to sink in. I hope they change their mind, and find the rewards it has to offer.

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  5. Radiohead - King of LimbsRadiohead: The King of Limbs

    In which Radiohead: enters its Remain In Light period, playing with rhythms associated with experimental artists like Burial and Flying Lotus in the same way that Talking Heads mined afrobeat to make Manhattanites and early ’80s college kids actually shake their asses for once; alienates the part of its fanbase that desperately wants it to just keep re-making OK Computer (which would make great financial sense, given how the ’90s have suddenly blown up as a source of fake nostalgia for twentysomething hipsters); stop playing Cassandra and giving their listeners panic attacks; start actually just sounding honestly, personally heartbroken without worrying too much about invoking neurosis on a global stage; find a way to make Thom Yorke’s falsetto sound beautiful instead of sneering and whiny; continue to build its own parallel record industry, proving that for the time being, the record industry is totally irrelevant for anyone with half a brain; firmly establishes itself as the most important band in popular music by making its eighth record its seventh earth-shatteringly awesome record in a row.

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  6. Charles Bradley - No Time For DreamingCharles Bradley: No Time for Dreaming

    I’m not sure anyone had a better year than Charles Bradley. At 62 years old, Daptone Records founder Gabriel Roth discovered him singing James Brown covers in a bar in the Bedford Stuyvesant area of New York City — where Bradley had landed after a life of chasing his musical passions, coast to coast, through innumerable ups and downs — and pointed him, finally, in the direction of the career he’d always deserved.

    You can read the whole bio on his official website. It’s not, actually, what makes him remarkable. What does make him remarkable is his debut album, released (as reminder!) at the age of 62, and which is, without a doubt, the best soul record of the genre’s ongoing revival. It’s not hard to figure out why; other artists may have soul, and pick the genre as a vehicle for their music for aesthetic reasons. Bradley, on the other hand, has lived soul, spending most of his life studying it and performing it — having already grown up on the streets and spent decades making ends meet as a chef in the at least three of the USA’s four corners (Maine, Alaska, and California). The album, as a result, doesn’t cloak itself in authenticity — it defines authenticity. No Time For Dreaming is no nostalgia trip; it’s the soul of Brown and Cooke and Redding and Pickett reborn — music made by an artist who can’t help but pour his whole heart into his songs in an effort to assuage his — and our — pain.

    Artists and albums like this don’t seem to come around much anymore. Sharon Jones (another Daptone artist) is one of the few who stand on this plateau. Maybe Bradley had to wait until 2011 for his career to ignite just so an artist like him would come around at all.

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  7. Yuck - YuckYuck: Yuck

    The buzz on Yuck, a young fourpiece from England, is that its debut was, “The best album of 1991” … the joke being, of course, that Yuck was made and released twenty years later.

    In truth, the album does indeed mine every inch of alt-rock territory uncovered two decades ago. That doesn’t really make it a stand-out. Lots of bands are returning to that time and its sound (think: the end of new wave, the breakthrough of grunge, the dawn of what pundits called the “alternative nation”), from Pains of Being Pure at Heart to Surfer Blood. It also doesn’t help that the great bands of that era have all cashed in, reformed, and hit the road again. If you haven’t caught The Pixies or Dinosaur Jr. live in the last five years, you’ve been napping. The late ’80s / early ’90s are, in a sense, still going on.

    What makes Yuck stand out amidst all of this is its virtuosity. It somehow made an album that sounds like an amalgamation of the best parts of the Pixies, Dinosaur, Teenage Fanclub, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, The Replacements, Husker Du, Mazzy Star, the Lemonheads, (early) Smashing Punpkins, and too many other bands to name — but that doesn’t sound like some horrid Frankenstein cooked up in the basement of Spin Magazine for the purposes of amplfying the Nevermind 20th anniversary hoopla. The soungrwriting is heartfelt, the playing of the highest caliber. They even manage to toss in veiled homages to Big Star, a common motif among ’90s alt-rockers, and sound honest about it — even though every one of Yuck’s band members was unborn when the first wave of Chilton-inspired artists were cutting their first records.

    All the ’90s references aside, the songs stand alone. “Suck,” “Stutter,” and “Rose Gives a Lilly” or gorgeous low-tempo ballads that leave alone the spaces between ringing guitar notes, refusing to fill them with snarling power chords. “Georgia” and “The Base of a Dream is Empty” both push the pace and the crunch, but decorate the instrumental backdrop with gorgeous guy / girl vocal harmonies. “The Wall” is all wicked snarl, a worthy rejoinder to Sonic Youth’s “The Sprawl.”

    It’d be too easy to crib note Yuck as the ’90s analogue to M83’s ’80s affectation. The real similarity lies in both bands ability to rise above perceived nostalgia to argue for the timelessness of the music created in those eras. If, as a friend recently suggested to me, Frank Black’s Teenager of the Year could have been released last week and not sound out of place, so too might Yuck’s debut sound current twenty years from now. The joy is that this might be true without all of us feeling like we’re just repeating ourselves.

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  8. The Rapture: In The Grace Of Your LoveThe Rapture: In The Grace of Your Love

    The Rapture initially made its mark as part of the dance-punk explosion that engulfed New York City in the mid ’00s.

    Wait. Dance punk: what a weird little genre that was / is. For some people (me), the concept of music that revives the dancier elements of Gang of Four and draws inspiration equally from house music, The Stooges, Joy Division, and deep underground ’80s funk pretty much sounds like the second coming. Problem is: only LCD Soundsystem ever really made good on the genre’s promise, and the scene’s also-rans skimmed the surface of mediocrity purely on the buoyancy of sweaty live gigs and a handful of iconic singles. And now LCD Soundsystem has called it quits, so …

    The Rapture — DFA Records’ flagship act until LCD’s big breakthrough — was one of those also-ran acts, riding high on the strength of its instant classic single, “House of Jealous Lovers.” Almost right out of the gate, the band seemed primed for eventual icon status (in multiple genres, no less) spending time on the road opening for both a Sex Pistols reunion and Daft Punk. And then … implosion. A sophomore slump record was followed by internal struggles over the band’s musical direction, the death of front man Luke Jenner’s mother, and the birth of Jenner’s son — which triggered the singer’s departure from the band. Several months of soul-searching, pep talks from DFA label head James Murphy, and intramural softball later, Jenner rejoined the group (and bassist Mattie Safer, apparently on the losing side of that aforementioned directional argument, left). In The Grace of Your Love is the product of that reunion, and essentially tells the story of Jenner’s time in the wilderness. It also charts a substantial evolution for the band.

    Of course, one wishes Jenner could have been spared the heartache, but his time away (and the song fodder that his travails produced) did the band (and his writing skills) very well. In The Grace of Your Love came heralded by one more dance punk classic, the single “How Deep Is Your Love,” but was comprised mostly of material that branched successfully into new stylistic territory. Several songs slow down the tempo, and gospel music serves a recurring touchpoint (reflecting, perhaps, a spiritual pillar that Jenner leaned on during his times of trouble).

    The added emotional depth and the willingness to diversify its sound have given The Rapture everything it needed to really break through in the first place, making for one of the finest records of the year (and certainly the best “dance” album). The sweaty live shows are still essential (to be honest: this album didn’t fully click for me until I saw the band live in Austin, TX this past October) — but for a genre that places a high premium on dancing, that’s more than OK. Shaking one’s ass can be a fair price for fully realizing greatness.

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  9. Washed Out - Within and WithoutWashed Out: Within and Without

    Washed Out — the alias for Atlanta-based artist Ernest Greene — gives music critics fits, apparently. I say this because the best adjective I’ve seen used to describe his music is, “widescreen,” — which captures the romantic, cinematic, lush quality of the songs — and the worst, “hypnagogic pop,” which captures nothing except the need for a dictionary. You know you’re charting new territory when critics start inventing gibberish new sub-sub-sub genres to describe what you do.

    I wager this is because Greene’s music, produced in the early days entirely in his bedroom, seems intensely familiar (it draws heavily from synth pop, ambient, shoegazer and early ’00s downtempo) while somehow sounding specifically not like any of those sub-genres at all. And that — in addition to all that lushness and romance I mentioned earlier — really is the key to this album’s greatness: like a lot of the standout music made this year, it represents a deep spin through the spiral of cultural history, covering new and familiar territory at the same time.

    As a result, Within and Without captivates from beginning to end. The cover picture provides the best entry point; this is 21st century make-out music, synth-driven downtempo that gets quickly but quietly epic. And if you don’t have someone with whom to un-make the bed while listening, that’s OK — this also happens to be perfect inner-cinema music too, the soundtrack to a night ride home on the train, an evening flight somewhere (hopefully) exotic, or just a night-turning-into-morning spent staring at your bedroom’s darkened ceiling.

    Bedroom-made music for bedroom people? Not quite as bad as “hypnagogic pop.”

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  10. The Roots - UndunThe Roots: Undun
  11. The comedian John Hodgman has tweeted, more than once, that Philadelphia-bred rap group The Roots is, “A national treasure.” And that is, from the comedian, no joke.

    If I count correctly, this is The Roots tenth full-length album, not counting best-ofs, live records, or collaborations with the likes of John Legend or Betty Wright (an R&B signer with whom the band also released an album this year). Most of these albums are solid; a handful are great; a couple (Do You Want More? and Things Fall Apart) are canonical to hip-hop overall. You can’t canonize anything without the benefit of time to provide perspective; so The Roots will have to settle with a merely “great” tag on Undun for a little while.

    This is also The Roots’ first concept record — and one of the most effective concept record ever produced, at that. In reverse chronological order, it tells the all-too common — yet still tragically remarkable (tragic and remarkable because it’s still so common) — story of the short life Redford Stevens, an impoverished kid turned drug dealer from inner city wherever. The subject matter immediately makes the album unusual for a “concept album;” we’ve been well-trained to expect cold, sci-fi themed narratives from the conceit at this point; we rarely hear concept music that’s fully human or that hits us where we live.

    Not so with Undun. The Roots keep the focus on tight songs and world-weary soulfulness, letting the subject serve the song rather than slide into the familiar seduction of the storyline dominating all. Nine of the album’s 14 songs can stand alone — most as worthy singles (particularly “MakeMy,” “One Time,” and “The Other Side”) or mix-tape fodder — the remaining tracks bookending the album with narrative-strengthening atmosphere. One of those bookend tracks happens to be Sufjan Stevens’s touching “Redford,” a piece for solo piano that provides Undun with its title character and inspiration. Here, it begins a four-part suite that concludes the album with equal parts elegiac eloquence and dissonant free-jazz discord, the story of Redford Stephens re-told instrumentally in five-and-a-half minutes. That suite follows “Tip The Scale,” a gut-wrenching plea for escape and understanding from a character who we know will receive neither. All of this, by the way, in 38 minutes and change.

    Forget the hip-hop context or The Roots’ back catalog for a moment; find me another concept album that accomplishes all of this. Like the man said, “a national treasure.”

    The Roots have been aiming for what they accomplish on Undun for several albums now. The Tipping Point and Rising Down were both oppressively grim albums. Perhaps taking Chuck D’s maxim that hip-hop is “the black CNN,” the band weighed down those two albums with efforts to record, as journalists, something besides the immediacy and the faux glamor of “thug life,” instead grappling with the long-term effects of violence, poverty, and denial of opportunity upon generations of inner city residents. That approach didn’t quite work, if only because the gloom made the records as oppressive as the subject matter. Even PE laced Nation of Millions with “Cold Lampin’,” arguing that a little levity can draw more ears and lend the weightier tracks even more impact.

    On last year’s How I Got Over, The Roots reached a turning point. Perhaps focused by the time spent playing ultra-short “sandwiches” as the live band for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” (and collaborating with a wide range of world class rock, rap, and dance artists along the way), the band embraced both economy of composition and ebullience of mood, collaborating with indie rockers and claiming the neo-soul crown it had long been loathe to wear. Undun represents the reconciliation of those two periods — and new high point in a long career that we can now safely say shows no signs of slowing down.

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Honorable Mentions:

Listen to over 300 songs from all of these albums, and more, for free on this ginormous Spotify playlist.

In no particular order …

Fucked Up: David Comes To Life
Black Keys: El Camino
Stephen Malkmus: Mirror Traffic
The Weeknd: House of Balloons
Danger Mouse & Danielle Lupi: Rome
Peter Bjorn & John: Gimme Some
Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde
Raphael Saadiq: Stone Rollin’
The Joy Formidable: The Big Roar
Battles: Gloss Drop
Atlas Sound: Parallax
Black Lips: Arabia Mountain
Thee Oh Sees: Carrion Crawler / The Dream
Wilco: The Whole Love
Little Dragon: Ritual Union
Tom Waits: Bad As Me
Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears: Scandalous
Chapel Club: Palace
Cults: Cults
Girls: Father, Son, Holy Ghost
My Morning Jacket: Circuital
Wire: Red Barked Tree
Wild Flag: Wild Flag

Favorite Songs of 2011

Posted: December 26, 2011 by Sean Flinn in Music
Tags: ,

I bought — and loved — more music in 2011 than I have in a very long time, if my Amazon MP3 store bill and iTunes “Best of 2011” smart playlist are reliable indicators. Some of my friends have expressed incredulity at this, but I think the list below (and my list of “Best Albums of 2011,” coming soon) will either dispel their doubts or just call them out as aesthetic sticks in the mud.

Listen along while you read by checking out my playlist of favorite songs from 2011 now — for free — on Spotify

  • Fleet Foxes: “Helplessness Blues” — Robin Pecknold and company return with an anthem to self-doubt and surrender — fitting in a year when everyone realized that maybe things (economically, politically, interpersonally) weren’t going to get better any time soon. That the songs manages to still sound defiant, soaring, and triumphant provides more than a glimmer of hope.
  • Jessica Lea Mayfield: “Our Hearts Are Wrong” — Mayfield records under the watchful ear of fellow Akron native Black Key Dan Auerbach — and while her music eschews most of the Keys’ gritty gut-bucket rock tendencies, it captures all of the same mournful yet resilient soulfulness that lies beneath. The twangy lead guitar line here is the lure, holding the listener rapt while Mayfield sings a smart, histrionic-free ode to the fact that sometimes we just plain fall in love with the wrong people.
  • Cults: “Go Outside” — The band’s name leads you to expect something heavier or darker, but Cults cranks out pure alterna-pop confections, dripping with Spector-esque wall of sound production and girl-group harmonies (tricky, because Cults are a guy-girl duo, nothing more). Beneath the sugary sweetness: the bitter friction that results when an extrovert realizes she’s dating an introvert.
  • Smith Westerns: “Weekend” — The Smith Westerns are a snotty, punkish threesome from Chicago whose sense of entitlement far outstrips their experience or anyone else’s sense of what they’ve earned. In other words, they are true rock star in the making, whose credibility stems from peerless live shows and their latest record, a flawless glam rock homage to Bowie and Bolan in their primes. “Weekend” is the perfect soundtrack for every Friday from now until the end of time.
  • Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks: “Stick Figures in Love” — Malkmus returned from his 2010 spring / summer reunion tour with Pavement to craft his tightest collection of solo songs to date. “Stick Figures” stands out as the epitome of his new found popcraft skills, so melodic in spots that you’d be forgiven for confusing it for the rockinest song that Belle & Sebastian never recorded. Drummer Janet Weiss, riding a high this year thanks to this and her work with Wild Flag, leads the rhythm section straight into the pocket with subtlety and grace while Malkmus launches his vocals into unfamiliar territory in the song’s back half.
  • Wilco: “I Might” — Wilco’s latest album, The Whole Love plays like a series of tributes to rock’s pop masters, with highlight “I Might” shouting out Get Happy era Elvis Costello. Easily Wilco’s most playful jam, and one of their sharpest, hookiest, best songs, period.
  • The Strokes: “Under Cover of Darkness” — Hey, remember the beginning of the year when The Strokes’s new album (a reunion of sorts) was the biggest thing going? Yeah, neither does anyone else. This song may remind you of why that’s a shame. In what turned out to be a very nostalgic year, The Strokes drew everyone’s attention back to The Cars (who also reunited in 2011) and (with this song especially) The Jam, two bands who convincingly argued that style was substance, in a way.
  • Beastie Boys w. Santigold: “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win” — If anything, this dub-inflected standout from the Beasties’ delayed Hot Sauce Committee, Pt 2 made the even longer wait for Santigold’s sophomore follow-up more excruciating. Let’s just hope Santi doesn’t pull a Minaj and push all her gold into guest spots, leaving nothing for herself but pop dross.
  • Battles: “Futura” — Tyondai Braxton’s departure from Battles before the recording of their sophomore full-length left the band without a full-time vocalist. Gloss Drop showed any concerns over this were unwarranted. The band filled the vox gaps with like-minded guests (including Gary Numan) and proved, on this track, that they’re at their best anyway on mind-melting instrumental workouts.
  • Wild Flag: “Romance” — If you don’t already have a huge rock crush on singer / guitarist Carrie Brownstein, get your big dumb heart ready: this song will woo you, big time. Wild Flag is too much tagged as a post Sleater-Kinney side project (since both Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss are members) or post-grunge supergroup (since Mary Timony of Helium also participates) — but “Romance,” a big bold blast of New York Dolls-esque proto-punk fury in which the band throws down for the life-affirming power of rock, shows the group to be much more than the sum of its parts.
  • The Black Keys: “Lonely Boy” — The Keys have been on a roll so long and so consistent at this point that other bands might have to invoke some kind of mercy rule, forcing them to take a years-long hiatus so someone else can snag some share of the glory for once. Reunited with producer Danger Mouse (who produced the stylistic breakout Attack & Release and who joins the band here as a temporary third member), the band hits another peak with this song. A ripping blues jam that blows by in an economical three minutes and change, “Lonely Boy” is all soaring choruses, snarling lead guitars, pounding drums, and keyed up lovelust. Unstoppable.
  • Peter, Bjorn & John: “I Know You Don’t Love Me” — PB&J will probably find themselves consigned to one-hit wonder status in perpetuity for the relentlessly catchy “Young Folks,” and that’s a shame. At their best — as they are throughout the excellent 2011 album Gimme Some — they are one of the sharpest, most consistent power trios on the planet. Exhibit A: This song, which springboards off of a steady motorik beat and dives headlong into a muscular psych-rock workout. Compare to Death Cab for Cutie’s “Doors Unlocked and Open,” a too polite, too restrained song with which it shares a strong rhythmic and melodic resemblance. It isn’t even close. “I know You Don’t Love Me” destroys “Doors …,” and in a just world, PB&J would take Death Cab out behind the shed and put them out of our misery. Being Swedish, though, they’re probably too nice for that.
  • Thee Oh Sees: “The Dream” — Psych-rock has officially entered a second golden age, with practitioners like San Francisco’s Thee Oh Sees propelling the sub-genre into a sustained overdrive. The falsetto vocals on this absolutely slay me — you expect something burlier given the heft of the instrumentation, but these guys go straight for the light comedy of the upper register. If this song doesn’t have you air drumming in your car, it must be because you a) hate music or b) have no arms.
  • Wire: “Bad Worn Thing” — Wire, as one of the last bands standing from England’s post-punk big bang back in the late 1970s, has an impossibly impressive legacy to live up to. Arguably, the band has spent the better part of its career, post-mind-shattering-debut-album-trilogy, failing to live up to it. This year’s Red Barked Tree came close to reaching the stellar quality of those first three albums, and is a more than respectable entry into the band’s catalog. “Bad Worn Thing” stands as the best of the album’s songs, building to a ferocious rumble from an off-beat, metronomic opening and peppering its chorus with Wire’s trademark catty wordplay.
  • Chapel Club: “Surfacing” — If Creation Records was still cranking out the shoegazer jams and championing the stonier side of Britpop, Chapel Club could be its new flagship band. “Surfacing” kicks off the band’s newest full length with a propulsive drum beat and lyrics intoned with a menacing reverberation. The song’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: the chorus actually belongs to the standard “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” which, while it got the band temporarily enjoined from releasing the song as a single, sounds incredible with feedback-drenched guitars going apeshit behind the lyric.
  • The Joy Formidable: “Whirring” — “Whirring” clocked in on my top songs list last year (courtesy of the band’s “A Balloon Called Moaning” e.p.). It deserves an encore here because of how dramtically the band re-worked the song for its debut full-length. Embracing the “noise” part of its “noise pop” genre tag, TJF add a full three minutes of double kick-drum-powered fury as the song’s second half, transforming it from a standout pop rocker into an absolute speaker melter.
  • DJ Shadow w. Little Dragon: “Scale It Back”: Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano was everywhere in 2011, dropping guest spots on SBTRKT’s debut, for example, and of course fronting her own band’s top flight album, Ritual Union. Nowhere was she better, though, than on this DJ Shadow track (from his album, The Less You Know, The Better). A classic Shadow slow-jam, “Scale It Back” features a truly sublime guest vocal from Nagano and stands as one of Shadow’s best songs ever, recalling his heyday as the king of trip-hop.
  • M83: “Midnight City” — An anthem for misremembered youth, conjured straight out of an imaginary past. The song drips nostalgia for a 1980s that may have never actually happened in quite the way M83 believes. It’s a John Hughes wonderland, where Cocteau Twins jam with Simple Minds on a New Order track, Molly Ringwald slow-dancing with Matthew Broderick in the foreground. Don’t be fooled. The ’80s were never this awesome.
  • YACHT: “Paradise Engineering” — I admit to having a soft spot for DFA Records bands, exclusively because LCD Soundsystem was, for a few years running, my favorite band and I now trust label chief and LCDS front man James Murphy’s taste implicitly. I was well rewarded for this trust with YACHT’s Shangri-La, a theme album (if not a concept album) built around explorations of utopias both found and made. To be frank, I love this track best of all because it’s driven forward by the sort of pulsing rhythm track that built DFA’s dance punk reputation. LCD Soundsystem may be gone, but for one album, YACHT made me believe in a paradise where it never played its final show.
  • Lykke Li: “Get Some” — Aided by Peter, Bjorn & John’s Peter Morén on production, Swedish songstress Lykke Li transformed herself into a one-woman 21st century girl group on her album Wounded Rhymes. Defying any and all pigeonholes, Li came bigger and bolder than any comparable talent this year, mixing singer-songwriter lyricism and song craft with Motown melodies and dance pop aggression. “Get Some” was her shot across the bow, the song’s title a challenge as much as an invitation. Not sure if anyone ever stepped up, but I’m damn sure Li remains unbeaten.
  • Nicolas Jaar: “Problem With The Sun” — A great song for a rainy day, first off, “Problem With The Sun” is the sort of track I wish more current electronic artists were dropping these days. Just glitchy enough to be interesting but not so much that it becomes distracting, it does what only the great DJs ever accomplish: marrying human emotion (in this case, feeling lovelorn) with futurist electronics, giving all that sonic machinery some real flesh and blood warmth. That Jaar’s vocal drips with vaudevillian humor ads unexpected complexity, turning the track into something truly elegant.
  • Radiohead: “Separator” — The more Radiohead makes music like this (read: as far removed from the nerve-racked paranoia that defined its classics OK Computer and Kid A) the more I like ’em. The band now excels at something that it used to keep fairly understated: making unequivocally gorgeous ballads. This is the zone where Thom Yorke’s wounded falsetto mutates from “whiny art-damaged 21st century neurotic” into an instrument of real beauty. More like this, please.
  • The Vaccines: “Wetsuit” — “Wetsuit” mines the same fertile territory as many essential Walkmen tracks that, each year, become more and more like catnip to me (I’m thinking “We’ve Been Had, “Another One Goes By” and even “The Rat”): the hastening of time that catches us all by surprise at some point. We all get old, but we don’t feel it as it happens. We only catch on in those awkward moments, when we suddenly realize that things have changed: it hurts more to fall down; our drinking buddies are no longer up for another night out; we’re up to our necks in situations when we once were only in up to our knees. And yet, there’s still that pull to youthful hedonism, a spirit that keeps us young even as it reflects our advancing age.
  • Charles Bradley: “Stay Away” — So, first, go listen to Wilson Pickett’s cover of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” Marvel at how much better the cover is than the original. Think to yourself, “This should be impossible, because no one topped the Beatles … they were the masters.” But Pickett did it. The cover blows the original out of the water, because Pickett — like any great soul man — can’t deliver a performance without throwing his whole being into it. In doing so, he finds depths of humanity in the source material that weren’t apparent on the original. OK, got it? Now listen to Charles Bradley’s cover of Nirvana’s “Stay Away.”
  • The Rapture: “It Takes Time To Be A Man” — Surprise! Another DFA Records band. To keep the LCD homage going “It Takes Time …” is The Rapture’s equivalent to LCD’s “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down” — a totally left-of-center mid-tempo piano ballad from a band that’s best known for its punk-infused disco infernos. In the context of the album and the band’s recent back story, though, it makes total sense, summing up the personal transformation of front man Luke Jenner following the death of his mother and his time in the proverbial wildnerness that followed. The song’s hip-hop production techniques — looped bebop piano riff, loping breakbeat backing — belie the song’s gospel foundation. What comes off at first blush as a future classic Williamsburg dive bar drinking classic reveals itself, over repeat listens, to be a profoundly spiritual meditation on finding one’s way through grief and maturity. I’m an atheist, but this felt like grace to me.