2021: A Music Odyssey

Hi everyone, it’s Ryan. You’re forgiven if you don’t remember, because it has been a literal trip around the sun since I have posted here last. I’d like to tell you that this will be the “post to end all posts”, my magnum opus, or a transcendent Pulitzer-winning work that justifies the long absence because it is the fruits of a whole year’s worth of labor (a labor of love). It won’t be any of those. However, I have been giving it the old college try to bring you guys some good content. So without further ado, let’s get into it.

Best 50 Songs of 2021

To avoid holding anyone in suspense, I’ll first give you the playlist: the 50 best songs I heard this year, each from a different artist.

Because I have a lot of free time on the holidays and don’t have any productive use for it, I made a simple histogram tracking the distribution of number of streams each of these songs had on Spotify.

[these are as of the date 12/20/21]

I realize it’s crude, but this is work that is exactly at my pay grade. What I thought was interesting was that 13 songs I thought were the best of any song I heard all year had only been streamed 500,000 times or less, whereas a mere 5 songs had over 7.5 million plays. The majority (32) of songs fit somewhere in between 500,000 and 7.5 million.

The low numbers may be a product of simply the songs have not been out for that long. However, Taylor Swift’s 10-minute song “All Too Well” (at the time of writing) has garnered a big ol’ 140 million streams since being out for only 38 days. So inescapably, I did not select the most popular songs as the best.

There are a lot of potential reasons for this. 1) I could be horribly out of touch with society, and the songs I picked are nothing close to the best, meaning that streams is an appropriate barometer of quality. 2) I could have an accurate gauge of the “best,” and the people only appreciate hot, hot trash and don’t listen to the “best” music.

3) It could be that I actually do have good taste, but society would also like it and reward these songs with streams if only they knew about it, and it is purely marketing and lack of information that keeps these songs from Taylor Swift-level stream numbers.

I think the obvious answer is that all 3 apply to varying degrees, but part of the reason I do this is because I genuinely believe in phenomenon 3); that these artists deserve a little publicity because they are doing great, great things and are underappreciated. That is not to say that I try to lean towards songs with low streams to be altruistic. I do actually think they are the best in their own right. Especially so because me advocating on their behalf is not going to move the needle for their popularity literally at all.

Genre du Jour

In compiling all of the best music this year, I have noticed that there are some genres of music that are especially en vogue this year as compared to others. Whether that is more a reflection of my tastes, general industry trends, or some combination of the two, is up to you. I thought I would highlight them.

Post-Punk

Correct me if I’m wrong, but in my mind, post-punk as a genre really came into its own in the late seventies. It’s kind of a blanket term to describe alternatives to the general raucous punk acts of prior years (Ramones, Sex Pistols, etc.) and so there’s not a very specific sound. To me, it’s kind of a spectrum that ranges from Joy Division (a la “Unknown Pleasures”) to Talking Heads.

On the former end, it preserves the angst of punk but without the energy: bass melodies, guitar rhythms, and vocals closer to talking than proper singing.

On the latter end, punk was taken to it’s more exuberant side. It’s not as angsty, the beats are bouncier, and (like Joy Division) it’s talk-singing; but it’s in a better mood.

Jump to 2021, we’ve got acts who are implementing a combination of the two to good effect. They’re incorporating the buoyant melodies, talk-singing, and irreverent humor of the Talking Heads, but with some of the social malaise and angst that Joy Division provided. Here are the main offenders:

Yard Act

The new group out of Leeds’ best song, “Dark Days,” is driven with thumping drums and a disco-leaning guitar riff reminiscent of Talking Heads’ “Making Flippy Floppy.” However, frontman James Smith’s blunt and sardonic talk-singing disassociates them from David Byrne’s group. Their social commentary on paper reads as cynical, but the wry delivery from Smith lets you know they’re in good spirits regardless:

Copper’s ‘copters / Stopped us and shook us up and down / We know the graph too, we know the due process / They started discussin’ whether to let us off for doing nothin’ or / Maybe pop us for luck, like we might be hiding something and / The radio buzzed in / “They can’t come here man, we’re full up” / Thank fuck I bought you enough time not to get shot

shame

Hailing from South London, shame bring less of the of the languidness in some post-punk, and more of the brazen confidence that’s the calling card of irreverent youth. The melodies are boisterous and the singing is at a yell. However, it has a certain catchy funk that makes the aggression inviting too.

Dry Cleaning

Dry Cleaning, another London group, brings out bass-driven melodies with understated vocalism that makes lead singer Florence Shaw seem unbothered, even apathetic to even be singing. Add the left-of-center lyricism, Dry Cleaning’s songs are emotionally unavailable words with afflicting melodies. A groove for the jaded. The words themselves reflect this dichotomy:

“I’ve come to learn how to dance / I’ve come to join the knitting circle”

“Do everything and feel nothing”

Viagra Boys

These Swedes might be a bit closer to plain punk as opposed to post-, but I had to get them in here. This song just feels like one big joke, and there’s nothing more punk than taking down the establishment of sincere songwriting. It’s crass, it’s unmannerly, and we love to see it.

New Wave

That’s right; get your legwarmers on and your Tab soda out, we’re getting tubular with the synth, 80’s inspired songs that came out this year. I think this genre trend, more than others, has commonly influenced music that his come since it was “in.” However, this year it seems that acts are really giving full-blooded tributes to the era. And nothing is more 80’s than fully committing to the bit.

Mitski

Mitski, Japanese-American singer-songwriter, historically creates more analog indie rock, with folk or pop tendencies. However, with 2018’s album “Be the Cowboy,” Mitski starting utilizing synthetic sounds in the song “Washing Machine Heart.” That song went pretty well for her (with over 167 million streams on Spotify) and now she’s back with her second single from the upcoming album “Laurel Hill,” “The Only Heartbreaker.” Her sound most reminds me of Kim Wilde, singing over fast-paced, crescendo-ing electric riffs that are songs of heartbreak you can dance to. (The Spotify sample will only show the chorus for “Kids in America” – and it only really sounds similar in the verses. I recommend the full song so you don’t think I’m crazy.)

It also has some of this magic:

Mitski more or less follows this melodic framework, but lyrically and vocally distances herself from the passionate gravitas and gives us a cooler, more emotionally-detached performance.

Nation of Language

Nation of Language are a Brooklyn-based band who really lean into the 80’s aesthetic. Their sound heavily leans into the new wave milieu with an electronic, atmospheric sound. What really brings it into nostalgia is lead singer Ian Richard Devaney’s melodramatic, croon-y voice that captures new wave staples such as Morrisey, Simon Le Bon, and so many more. Influences that come to mind are the energetic, sharp synth beats of Devo, as well as the atmospheric, anthemic quality that Tears for Fears has.

“Across that Fine Line” really melds these two dynamics in their new wave homage, and doesn’t skimp out on the impassioned lyricism that makes the 80’s hit different. Here’s that sappy chorus:

And I’m watching you walk
Across that fine line
I died a hundred times
I reckon you could
Let it bleed
‘Cause I’m resigned

Beach House

Beach House has been making acclaimed electronic indie pop for over 15 years, and thankful for loyalists they did not overhaul their sound for the upcoming album “Once Twice Melody.” The Baltimore duo capitalize on their hugely successful hit “Space Song” and make another shoegaze-y, galactic track that could score your LCD trip to the Milky Way. In my mind, “Superstar” sounds like these slow-burn, new wave hits courtesy of Kate Bush and ‘Til Tuesday. The sounds differ in that they are more rock-based, but it’s more a mood thing. These songs make you feel like your life is a movie in the same way.

Beach House creates a similarly majestic or cinematic sound with their 6 minute track “Superstar,” however it gets there in a slightly different way with orchestral strings to create that expansive, dramatic feeling.

Sam Himself

Sam Himself, a Swiss transplant living in Brooklyn, embodies the new wave with the single “Nothing Like the Night” off of his debut album, “Power Ballads.” An aptly descriptive title, as Sam Himself delivers powerhouse songs through a combination of his Bruce Springsteen baritone and montage-ready, swelling arrangements. Here are two songs that, in my mind, are surely direct influences on Sam Himself and “Nothing Like the Night”

Alternative Rock Anthems

Some songs are just made for arenas: songs with the slow build-up, inspirational lyricism, and vocals that start soft but end in impassioned balladeering. They’re the kind of songs that are made with 10,000 swaying lighters (or more modernly, iPhone flashlights) in mind. And no matter what point in history, there’s always a place for a song with dry ice and light beams that brings the house down.

I’m sure I’m wrong, but I can’t think of a song that embodies the rock anthem as we know it today before The Who did it with Baba O’Reily.

Now that the genre has been established, enter Bruce Springsteen. The Boss made his brand on the kind of uplifting, heartland rock that Gen X’ers still get teary-eyed over.

Fast-forward to the 80’s: rock has died, pop dominates the charts. With synthesizers, disco, and the impending dominance of rap, rock has been relegated to the “alternative.” However, U2 is about to make the alternative mainstream with the worldwide sensation, “Joshua Tree.”

Into the 90’s, grunge and slacker culture dominate the rock scene and “the lost decade” doesn’t see enough action to inspire much of the glamor of arena rock. However, the 2000’s came along and The Killers with it. After initially making polished garage-rock for their debut album “Hot Fuss,” the group changes their sound for “Sam’s Town,” bringing back the anthem to the masses like it never left.

Now, today we’re seeing a little revival of acts picking up the mantel of where these stadium-fillers left off.

Sharon Van Etten &
Angel Olsen

Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen are two established rock stars in their own right. Long-time friends who formerly collaborated for a cover track on the recent Velvet Underground tribute album, the two team up again and recreate the vintage anthem. The song is a heavy dose of nostalgia, both in theme and in genre. There’s this tinkly music-box piano which creates a childhood-memory, reminiscent effect and there is the overt rose-tintedness of the lyrics:

Lighting one up like I used to
Dancing all alone like I used to
Giving it up like I used to
Falling in love like I used to

Open my heart like I used to
Making out long like I used to
Holding hands openly, rights to
Taking what’s mine like I used to

TORRES

TORRES, the stage name of Mackenzie Ruth Scott, embodies the sweeping emotion of an anthem song but with a different emotion. While “Like I Used To” was a dichotomy of the good times then and the bad times now, “Don’t Go Puttin Wishes in My Head” is about the love of someone who won’t commit to you. It’s romantic, but resentful; hopeful but defeating. Here’s the chorus:

I know promising forever’s not your thing
But now, if you don’t want me to go dreaming
Don’t spend your mornings and your evenings in my bed
If you don’t want me believing that you’re never gonna leave me, darling
Don’t go putting wishes in my head

Sam Fender

“Seventeen Going Under,” the title track of Fender’s second album tells of his experience attempting to financially support his mother after she couldn’t work due to illness. Having a tumultuous childhood, Fender takes that strife and flips it, making a cathartic ballad of identity and lessons learned. Fender cites Bruce Springsteen as a direct influence, and it’s evident.

Best Albums of the Year

While it’s one thing to make a single hit, but these artist put together cohesive albums that keep their zest through 9-12 songs. These are the albums of 2021 that are all rippers, no skippers.

1. Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend
On their third album, the London group doesn’t transform their sound so much as enhance it. With lush arrangements, overlaid vocals and slow-burn crescendos, Wolf Alice’s sound here is cinematic and simply big. While some songs are mosh-ready, hot and heavy punk songs (see “Smile” and “Play the Greatest Hits”), the album really shines with its emotional confessionals. Whether the songs are about taking back a cheater (“Lipstick on the Glass”) or a scathing attack on a man’s ego (“The Last Man on the Earth”), Ellie Roswell’s incisive lyrics and balladeering match the occasion of the dramatic compositions.
Favorite Track: The Last Man on the Earth
If you like: Alvvays, Yeah Yeah Yeahs

2. St. Vincent – Daddy’s Home
Annie Clarke with this album (and subsequent tour which I saw a show of) earned herself a spot on my list of “People Who I’d Thank for Punching Me in the Face.” Her sixth solo LP, Clarke reinvented her persona and look with a blonde shoulder-length bob and 70’s style; and the music matches. With inclusion of funk, soul and jazz to her typically experimental repertoire, Daddy’s Home is nostalgic but fresh at the same time. There is a distinct mood to the A-side versus the B-side, as Clarke starts the album with swaggering, sexy songs (see “Pay Your Way with Pain” and “Daddy’s Home”). However, the B-side is my personal favorite part of the album (maybe even because of the juxtaposition to the A-side) because it is more intimate and lounge-ier, with minimalistic instrumentation. This way, you’re more confronted with the lyrics of the song, such as Clarke’s reservations about motherhood (“My Baby Wants a Baby”) and a vignette about a 60-70’s transgender icon (“Candy Darling”) that are affecting.
Favorite Track: My Baby Wants a Baby
If you like: Weyes Blood, Alexandra Savior

3. Lunar Vacation – Inside Every Fig is a Dead Wasp
Lunar Vacation is a four-piece indie rock band from Atlanta, and IEFIADW is their debut. Though they have been releasing music since 2017, this is their first full-length album. The delay has served them well, as the album distinguishes itself from the typical indie rock album with it’s polish and eclectic-ness. Some songs have pop-sensibility (see “Mold” with a groovy bassline running through it, and “Cutting Corners” with a fast indie pop riff akin to heyday Two Door Cinema Club), while others are chill and contemplative (see “Making Lunch (Not Right Now)”).
Favorite Track: Mold
If you like: The Greeting Committee, Sjowgren

4. illuminati hotties – Let Me Do One More
What’s to love about Sarah Tudzin’s second album under the illiuminati hotties moniker is that you never get the impression that she is compromising or making any concessions (one song is titled “Mmmoooaaaayaya”). Every song you know is unabashedly her. Because she takes risks with every song, I don’t think they all hit; but the majority do and are a ton of fun. Tudzin makes high energy, irreverently humorous indie rock that is influenced by 00’s pop-punk (self-proclaimed “tenderpunk”). Some songs are more straight-forward pop-punk archetypes (see “Knead,” “Pool Hopping”) but some are more experimental. “u v v p,” featuring Buck Meek adds some Americana elements, while “Joni: LA’s No. 1 Health Goth,” a tribute to the idyllic “cool girl,” is a blistering shredder of pure punk. There’s even time to calm down with a slower track, “The Sway.”
Favorite Track: Joni: LA’s No. 1 Health Goth
If you like: The Beths, Beach Bunny

5. Snail Mail – Valentine
Snail Mail, A.K.A. Lindsey Jordan, follows up her self-titled debut (which came out when she was 18) with “Valentine.” Jordan says she titled it “Valentine” because there’s “nothing more tender and innocent” than referring to someone as a valentine in a “love-lost” way. It is an apt way to title it, as Jordan relies almost exclusively on romance thematically. However, Snail Mail shows more range musically this time around. With R&B beats (“Ben Franklin”), Orchestral strings (“Light Blue”) and Synthesizers (“Forever (Sailing)”), Jordan graduates from lo-fi indie rock to good effect.
Favorite Track: Madonna
If you like: Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus

6. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
Japanese Breakfast (A.K.A. Michelle Zauner) releases her third album in the wake of having written a New York Times bestseller. “Jubilee” as a title sets the tone for the buoyant, polished indie pop album. “Be Sweet” is the obvious radio hit, with catchy hooks and bouncy arrangements. It’s more subdued tracks still radiate charisma, equipped with toe-tapping melodies under Zauner’s intimate singing. (see “Slide Tackle,” “Savage Good Boy”)
Favorite Track: Be Sweet
If you like: Alice Phoebe Lou, Clairo

7. Remi Wolf – Juno
Wolf’s debut album is a fresh introduction. “Juno” is a slick pop album injected with humor, making it contagiously fun. “Sexy Villain” is basically a string of jokes about being hot and bad, “Grumpy Old Man” about being emotionally unavailable akin to curmudgeonly geriatric, and “Quiet On Set” is a self-assured homage to 00’s hip-hop (think “Run to the Sun” – N.E.R.D). It’s evident Wolf is enjoying herself in making these, and it’s infectious.
Favorite Track: Sexy Villain
If you like: [I dont know; what can I say – she’s one of a kind]

8. Durand Jones and the Indications – Private Space
Durand Jones’ group is exclusively his only by title, as it is really a two man co-ownership. In addition to Durand Jones’ Sam Cook-esque soulful vocals, there is also drummer Aaron Frazer, who released a solo album of real quality himself this year. Aaron Frazer joins in on lead singing on a couple of tracks (see “The Way That I Do” & “Ride or Die”). They make a complimentary pair, as Jones’ deep, scratchy vocals are juxtaposed by Frazer’s smooth falsetto, keeping every track interesting. The group follows what seems to be the natural progression for neo-soul groups: initially a 60’s Motown sound, and then progress into a 70’s funkier, sexier, disco-inspired album (see St. Paul and the Broken Bones & Leon Bridges). However, just because it’s been done doesn’t mean we all shouldn’t be appreciative.
Favorite Track: The Way That I Do
If you like: Leon Bridges, Black Pumas

9. Art D’Ecco – In Standard Definition
Art D’Ecco, hailing from Vancouver, British Columbia, is a glam rocker that has a knack for hook. Derivative of acts like T. Rex and Sparks, D’Ecco’s debut album is a piece of 80’s nostalgia that is brazenly confident and danceable. Which is only expectected from an artist that has songs titles like “I Am the Dance Floor” in his debut.
Favorite Track: Head Rush
If you like: T.Rex, Sparks (redundant, I know)

10. Nation of Language – A Way Forward
Nation of Language’s second album isn’t really very different from it’s debut, but hey – when it works it works. The Brooklyn band isn’t really reinventing the wheel here, but it’s a damn good wheel. It’s synthetic, new wave 80’s pop, and although filled with artificial sounds, lead singer Richard Devaney’s empassioned croon adds the humanity to make all of these tracks welcome advancements on the sounds of groups such as New Order and Devo.
Favorite Track: Wounds of Love
If you like: Future Islands, Black Marble, machinegum

New Artists to Watch

Again I also wanted to highlight a couple of artists that are new on the scene, and I think we should expect some exciting stuff from them in the future.

Wet Leg

Wet Leg chose their name by simply toying around with different emoji combinations, and the water droplets and leg combined stuck for them. This is the kind of nonchalance that makes the duo from Isle of Wight, UK so compelling. They blew up immediately after releasing their first single, “Chaise Longue” which typifies their unbothered, self-assured humor. With post-punk guitar riffs like The Strokes but with the attitude of No Doubt, “Chaise Longue” is an emphatic introduction to the scene.

Wet Leg follow it up with their second released single, “Wet Dream.” Another bona fide hit that alternates between grooving and rocking out, it’s bounce-around fun that is suited for both the garage and the big stage, somehow.

Their self-titled full debut is released April 8, 2022.

CMAT

CMAT has made a liar of me to all the people I’ve told “I don’t like that modern, pop-country.” To be fair, no one has done it the way Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson (thus CMAT) is. Dublin-born, and never yet having been to Nashville, CMAT makes what she calls “basterdized” country music, describing her style as “Dolly Parton meets Weird Al Yankovic, mixed with Katy Perry.” It’s goofy but sincere, extravagant but down to earth. And most of all, it’s catchy. CMAT first came to my attention with the 2020 single, “I Wanna Be a Cowboy, Baby!” which earned my ear by being based on an ICONIC vine:

“Oh, I wanna be a cowboy, baby

I wanna be a cowboy, baby

Spin round on the playground”

CMAT followed that up with “I Don’t Really Care for You,” a genuinely funny pop song about loathing both herself and the ex in the wake of an ended relationship.

I just spent seven hours looking at old pics of me

Tryna pinpoint where the bitch began

Somewhere after the Passion of Christ

And before I had an Instagram

In her latest single, CMAT warns herself against dating any more Virgos because they’ve all been bad news. Over 80’s synthesizers, she departs a little from the country genre but there’s no complaining from me.

Watch out for her full length album debut, February 25, 2022.

The 2020 Recap

As we’ve all trudged through 2020, slogging through each subsequent contradiction to “at least it can’t get any worse,” I know there has been a light at the tunnel keeping everyone going: my famous year-end recap!

Here is the second installment of my annual playlist, the best 50 songs by 50 different artists that I’ve heard this year, highly curated for public consumption. Not ranked or in any particular order.

New Artists to Look Out For

This year I’d like to highlight some freshman faces to the scene. So get out your poncho, you’re in the splash zone and these artists are going make a big one!

Sam Himself

Sam Himself is a Swiss artist that blends a baritone voice having the emotional gravitas of Matt Berninger with the new wave, atmospheric sound of The War on Drugs. The result is personal, cinematic music ready for a coming-of-age montage. Here’s him in drag in an awesome video.

Aaron Frazer

It is a little more dubious to include Frazer as a new musician, as he has sang and performed drums for Durand Jones and the Indications. However, this year he has released his first real foray into solo music this year (beyond the odd singles in 2017). The end result is an easily danceable jazzy blue-eyed soul sung with a smooth falsetto.

Feng Suave

A Dutch male duo (What ever happened to male duo pop groups?) consisting of Daniel De Jong and Daniel Elvis Schoemaker, the double-Dans make beachy stoner soul that is just audio catharsis. Yet to send out a full album, their most recent 2020 EP is like riding down a lazy river with nowhere else to be.

Albums of the Year

1
  1. The Strokes – The New Abnormal
    After a seven year hiatus, The Strokes have returned. Produced by Rick Rubin, The Strokes have made their best since Room on Fire in 2003. They honed the new wave influences that were explored in Angles and Comedown Machine and melded it with the tried and true post-punk of their peak. It’s Casablancas’ best singing performance, coming out of his typical understated croon with emotional balladeering and use of a falsetto. The album mixes the angst of garage or punk with the pop sensibility of 80’s synth hits, maybe no more evident than “Eternal Summer” which sounds like Phoenix covered Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The homages to the 80’s are intentional and acknowledged in the lyrics (“Oh the 80’s bands, where did they go?” and “The Rubik’s Cube isn’t solving for us”). The period-piece-ness is most obvious with “Bad Decisions,” their obligatory radio-hit, that is really fun and enjoyable despite being clearly derivative of The Cure and Generation X (they gave Billy Idol writing credit on the song).
    Favorite Track: Why Are Sundays So Depressing
  2. Adrienne Lenker – songs
    The lead singer of Big Thief goes solo again. A stripped down, acoustic, archetypal singer-songwriter album, with such few tools it’s difficult to differentiate yourself. Lenker’s candid and afflicting lyricism is sung with a melodic ease akin to Nick Drake’s Pink Moon that makes the heavy themes go down smooth. The album is uniquely emotionally powerful and calming at the same time.
    Favorite Track: zombie girl
  3. Car Seat Headrest – Making a Door Less Open
    Will Toledo’s frenetic, low-fi indie rock gets a polished revamp. While Toledo’s vulnerable, angsty lyricism may be better fitted to his previous work that leans towards punk or post-punk, he still has his feverish rock anthems with the more slickly produced “Martin” or “Deadlines (Hostile).” Also in the album are synth tracks, however they still have the CSH’s trademark sound that dramatically swells and crescendos (“Life Worth Missing”).
    Favorite Track: Deadlines (Hostile)
  4. The Undercover Dream Lovers – It’s All In Your Head
    The brainchild of Matt Koenig, UDL makes shimmery synth pop that is like Tame Impala with some extra dopamine. Koenig’s slick falsetto hovers over funky arrangements that, true to his moniker, have atmospheric, dreamy haze while being extremely danceable.
    Favorite Track: You Don’t Have to be Lonely
  5. Matt Berninger – Serpentine Prison
    The front man of The National gives us his first solo album, and it’s about what you’d expect. It doesn’t stray much from the general mood or style of his band, though the beautiful arrangements are more minimalist and accentuate Berninger’s distinctive, middle-aged ennui baritone. This emphasis highlights Berninger’s sometimes esoteric lyricism, and sentiments that lean in on Morrisey-level self-pity (“Its so hard to be loved so little.”) But sometimes those vibes just hit the spot.
    Favorite Track: All For Nothing
  6. Fenne Lily – BREACH
    BREACH is an album that is a great example of the vogue Gen-Z, emotionally intelligent indie rock via Phoebe Bridgers and Big Thief. The album switches between slow-burn, heart-on-sleeve tracks (“Berlin” and “Somebody Elses Trees”) and angstier rock tracks (“Alapathy” and “Solipsism”) that are all erudite, vulnerable, and compelling.
    Favorite Track: I, Nietzsche
  7. The Nude Party – Midnight Manor
    The Nude Party, like their name suggests, is a tongue-in-cheek group that produces fun, careless sleaze rock that has influences of the Rolling Stones and The Velvet Underground. While sometimes leaning towards the blues or to country , the whole album rocks and is simply a lot of fun, fit for a dive bar jukebox dance on top of the pool table.
    Favorite Track: Nashville Record Co.
  8. Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
    With Kevin Parker, you can always expect a meticulously crafted album. The Slow Rush is no different, as Parker actually remixed “Borderline” after its initial single release for the album to make the bass more prominent, evincing him a perfectionist. While lacking the consistency of “Currents,” Parker’s lush arrangements are a great time whether they’re club-ready radio hits (“Borderline” and “Is It True”) or smoldering slow-builders (“Instant Destiny” and “On Track”) as all tracks are the passionate synth that Tame Impala has made its name by.
    Favorite Track: Borderline
  9. Muzz – Muzz
    A supergroup including Paul Banks of Interpol and Josh Kaufman of the National, Muzz creates Radiohead-esque, shoegaze-y alt rock. Banks melancholily drones over moody, atmospheric arrangements that are beautiful in a jading way.
    Favorite Track: Everything Like It Used to Be
  10. Bahamas – Sad Hunk
    Afie Jurvanen, or Bahamas, doesn’t stray too far from his tropical feel-good vibes with his latest work. Probably his grooviest contribution to date, he channels John Mayer to provide slick guitar riffs with smooth, breathy vocals for a catchy, easy-listening experience. What makes this album especially good is Jurvanen’s intimate lyricism, baring his insecurities and self-failings in a reflective personal commentary.
    Favorite Track: Done Did Me No Good

Honorable Mentions

Colter Wall – Western Swing and Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs
Charley Crockett – Welcome to Hard Times
For some reason I felt loathe to include country music into the rankings, maybe because many fans of the 1-10 albums would be country adverse. However, these two albums are fresh but nostalgic country albums that starkly contrast from what’s on the radio. I love outlaw country, and both these artists are modern cowboys that elicit imagery of the wild west with charming storytelling and folksy but poignant lyricism to jaunty instrumentation of 60’s and 70’s country.
Favorite Tracks: Big Iron, Heads You Win

Country for the Non-Believer

Howdy, Pardners. Greetings from Music City, The City That Never Sleeps, The Big Apple, The Windy City… Nashville, Tennessee. That’s right, I stuck the stirrups in and giddy up’d all the way to the sonic south. And to indoctrinate my first post as a resident of the country capital of the world, I figured I might make an effort to show some southern hospitality to a genre I’ve long neglected: country.

You may be skeptical! You might be like I once was, shirking country all together because I had only ever known pop songs thinly veiled with exaggerated drawls and sleeveless flannels as the anthems of conservative America . You may be shuddering at the songs that soundtrack commercials of Ford F-150 or play to slow motion Clydesdales pulling Budweiser. You may think of the genre as rich celebrities pandering to blue collar sensibilities by recycling tropes of alcoholism, barn hoedowns, idolatry of country, and an over-enthusiastic romanticism of the “good ole days.”

There’s some of that.

However, I’m here to make the case that there is something for everyone in there, if you know where to look. So in an effort to make a case for the genre to every disposition, I’ve compiled a playlist of songs that may appeal to those that didn’t find what they were looking for on the radio.

In promoting the genre to those resistant, I’ve included two categories: First, I’ve included some of the established icons of the genre. If you don’t find Cash, Prine, and Van Zandt to your fancy, then you might want to forsake the genre completely. The rest of the list is what I would categorize as “alternative country.” These are songs that are country, but will incorporate some other genres that you know and love (folk, blues, rock, soul) to ease your transition into country-dom.

Yee haw and godspeed,

Ryan

Songs of Summer 2020

My phone’s been ringing, my inbox has been flooded, my mailbox is stuffed, and my DMs are like a slip n’ slide. What’s going on? After the wild success of last summer’s playlist, the people are out in droves demanding the second annual installment.

I am no one to deny the people what they want, and have conjured up almost two hours of sunny songs that pair nicely with vitamin D. This year, I’ve made a cocktail that’s equal parts new releases and older favorites of mine (it’s goes down smooth).

So here’s that.

Social Distancing Soundtrack

Hello hermits. I, like many of you, have found myself with a great deal of time due to our current pandemic. In order to create a false sense of productivity in these times, I created a playlist of songs that resonate a little more than we’d like them to nowadays. Hitting on themes of social distancing, boredom, loneliness, and even appreciation of being home and alone, here is the curated quarantine playlist to get you in the mood for flattening the curve.

Best Albums of the Decade

As eras of music are invariably defined by the decades, it feels necessary to provide a retrospective of the past decade and investigate which albums the ‘10s have produced are our favorites. With the revivals of folk and soul, innovations in rock and r&b, and genre-defying novelties the ‘10s offered a lot of choices but these are my decided favorite, for now.

  1. Currents – Tame Impala (2015)

Kevin Parker’s psychedelic third album is a masterpiece that meshes r&b vocals, funk basslines, and disco drums under a electronic motif. Add in lyricism that’s introspective and emotionally afflicting, the album becomes somehow both delightful and melancholy. “The Less I Know the Better” is the star of the album, potentially the most dance-worthy song of the decade. However, the album truly shines with smoldering confessionals like “Yes I’m Changing” and “‘Cause I’m a Man.”

2. Malibu – Anderson.Paak (2016)

Paak’s second studio album, Malibu seamlessly transitions between raspy-voiced, melodic soul (“The Bird”), swaggered west-cost rap (“Come Down”), and infectious funk-injected R&B (“Put Me Thru”).  A multi-instrumentalist but prominently a drummer, Paak’s crafted compositions, smooth singing, and infectious energy make Malibu the best summer album of the decade.

3. Hozier – Hozier (2014)

The Irishman’s debut album was a stratospheric commercial success because of the radio-ubiquitous hit “Take Me To Church”. However, the entire album commands attention as Andrew Hozier-Byrne’s mixture of stomping percussion, inspired, gospel-esque belting, and lyrical wordsmithing make for spiritual and dramatic commentaries on the heights and depths of romance.

4. AM – Arctic Monkeys (2013)

The English outfit’s fifth album, the directional shift sees the quartet make their best rock album to date. A darker and bass-ier album compared to their previous, the band shows range with the sultry, slow-burning “Do I Wanna Know?”, the up-tempo rock-out “R U Mine?”, as well as the vocal pop, nightclub ballad “No. 1 Party Anthem”. What makes every song of the album work is Alex Turner’s smooth croon and poignant wordplay, storytelling love life as only he can.

5. Half The City – St. Paul and The Broken Bones (2014)

The Alabamans’ debut, Half the City is an emphatic performance of true soul. Hitting the normal tropes of devastating heartbreak and ecstatic romance, frontman Paul Janaway’s impassioned singing will emotionally invest you. Soul music hasn’t been done this well since the 70’s.

 6. And The War Came – Shakey Graves (2014)

One-man-band singer/Songwriter Alejandro Rose-Garcia’s second album is both fresh and familiar under his dust bowl, outlaw persona. Lo-fi folk reminiscent of Woody Guthrie, Shakey’s clever and charming storytelling ability like that of John Prine make the album’s nostalgic genre an individual standout.

7. Modern Vampires of the City – Vampire Weekend (2013)

With the indie pop band’s third effort, it feels like the group ascends from being a precocious college outfit into adults. Diversifying sound and mood, the album’s inclusion of harpsichords and organs make the album feel darker and more sophisticated. The more minimalist tracks showcase Ezra Koenig’s pertinent songwriting. The album still reassures that the band can make a summer indie hit as well as anyone, with radio-ready “Diane Young” and “Unbelievers”

8. An Awesome Wave – Alt-J

An unconventional and supremely original debut, Alt-J’s experimental alt-pop cinematically swells and softens over the course of 49 minutes. Songs like Breezeblocks and Fitzpleasure are dramatic, grand compositions accompanied by folky, understated and melodic reprieves such as Matilda and Interlude 2. Sung in falsetto harmonies, the cryptic lyrics and lack of annunciation make it even weirder… and more interesting.

9. Brothers – The Black Keys (2010)

In their sixth album, the blues rock duo exercise some restraint to good effect. While there is no debating it is a true rock album, the album exceeds its predecessors (and successors) by being measured. Carney’s kick drum is the backbone of each track, and Dan Auerbach ranges from a romantic falsetto to a yearning growl as this album embraces the blues as much as any of their albums.

10. Melophobia – Cage the Elephant (2013)

Cage the Elephant’s third, the band uses a range of influences to see how many ways they can make rock, well, rock. From the disco-inspired “Take it or Leave it,” the lo-fi garage rock of “Teeth,” or the introspective acoustic indie darling “Cigarette Daydreams,” the group hits the mark on each try for its most complete album to date.

11. Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett (2015)

Indie rock driven by wry, irreverent lyricism that’s so personally specific, it resonates with everyone.

12. Changes – Charles Bradley (2016)

An inspired soul album brimming with raw emotion, made of experiences mined from a long and troubled life.

­13. Boys and Girls – Alabama Shakes (2012)

Southern R&B that front-woman Brittney Howard wills into excellence with performances of passion and charm

14. Good Thing – Leon Bridges (2018)

Smart, charismatic R&B culling from jazzy 70’s Gaye, groovy disco Michael Jackson, and smooth and sensitive Sam Cooke.

15. New Lore – Sean Rowe (2017)

Singer/Songwriter Rowe pours his heart and wise old head out with a reverberating baritone and haunting lyricism.

16.  ­Tearing at the Seams – Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats (2018)

Southern, blue-eyed soul that equal parts grooves and simmers with introspective themes and smooth serenading from charismatic Rateliff.

17. Beast Epic – Iron & Wine (2017)

Beautifully composed folk with vocals to match, Sam Beam makes every emotion whimsical and enchanting.

18. Torches – Foster the People (2011)

A buoyant, hit-laden album of contagious indie pop.

19. Channel ORANGE – Frank Ocean (2012)

An album of cinematic, groundbreaking R&B confessionals.

20. Trouble Will Find Me – The National (2013)

Introspective, moody rock with the resonating voice of Matt Berninger.

The Best First Tracks of Debut Albums

In honor of Ryan and Garrett’s first blog post on our first blog, it is only appropriate to include the firsts of creative, influential artists just like us. Like these musicians took these mighty first steps in their craft, we too will begin our illustrious careers of hobbyist blog writing. Simon and Garfunkel, Hall and Oates, Sam and Dave, and even Wham! all had to start somewhere. So here’s to the next great male duo. Below is my list of the undisputed, objective, not-for-debate, best first tracks of debut albums. The firsts of firsts.

  1. Purple Haze ­– The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Since this is a list of firsts, we’ll start with number one. Jimi Hendrix opens his debut album with a song epitomizing what has made him idiosyncratic long past his life. A track of deft musicianship and bluesy, soulful vocals, no one else since has made an impact like this from the start.

2. Take Me To Church – Hozier

Hozier introduced himself to the world in emphatic fashion starting his self-titled debut with this track. Certified 5-time platinum, this song catapulted Hozier into a household name, and its no wonder why. With his reverberating baritone, the song is a seamless blend of rock, gospel, soul and blues. It’s bare lyricism and sultry religious metaphor make it both powerful and intimate.

3. Loser ­­­– Beck

Some of you Beck super fans may say “Hey, he had albums before Mellow Gold!” Well, this was his major label debut and it’s included because I make the rules because it’s my (and Garrett’s) blog. A true original, Loser is a song that blends hip-hop, rock, folk and blues. Its absurdist, self-deprecatingly comic lyricism offers wry smiles each listen (of which there are many).

4. Time To Pretend – MGMT

This escapist anthem was indie for the masses. A song that undoubtedly inspired many mid-life crises for those with office jobs and long commutes, this song does psychedelic electronica with pop sensibility to get any party bouncing.

5. I’m Torn Up – St. Paul and the Broken Bones

Less a household name than the aforementioned, this is very much a personal pick. It took enormous restraint for me not to make it number one. The first track to my all-time favorite album (Half the City), Paul Janaway’s scorching vocals lead the soul band to an impassioned debut. A nostalgic R&B group that brings to mind the like of Otis Redding with Stax-esque horns, the retro soul group’s “I’m Torn Up” crescendos into a emotional fervor that stays with the listener quite awhile after.

6. Hold On – Alabama Shakes

Keeping with the genre, Alabama Shakes is another compelling soul band with a dynamic vocalist, Brittney Howard. Supported with a jaunty baseline and guitar riff, the song bounces along as the theme song for resilience through struggle.

7. I Saw Her Standing There – The Beatles

This song is just 7, if you know what I mean. This track began the band which irreversibly changed the world of music since. It’s got all the elements of an early Beatles hit, with harmonized vocals, romantic idealism and a melody that makes you want to dance jive in a diner with your hair slicked back.

8. Rhymin’ and Stealin – Beastie Boy

Few acts are as idiosyncratic as the Beastie Boys. Fusing Punk and Rap parodically, these phenom frat stars bring the angst. That’s not to say they aren’t having fun, relishing in the rebellion they create party anthems for menaces to society.

9. Do What You Gotta Do – Clarence Carter

Affectionately dubbed (by me) “The Third Blind Mouse of Soul,” Clarence Carter missed out on the acclaim Stevie and Ray got. The song is a cover of a song sung by both Al Wilson and Nina Simone, but he sings it like it’s his own heartbreak. His deep baritone makes you feel the pang of star-crossed love.

10. Is This It – The Strokes

While the title track isn’t necessarily emblematic of the rest of The Strokes’ iconic garage-rock/post-punk debut, it’s subdued sound introduces Julian Casablancas’ refreshing lyricism as the honest anti-hero of romance.

11. Blue Suede Shoes – Elvis Presley

Another cover song, Elvis emphatically introduced himself as the King-to-be with his rockabilly rendition of Carl Perkin’s successful track. Also recorded by Buddy Holly, “Blue Suede Shoes” showcased the jovial charisma that propelled his fame.

12. Jenny Was a Friend of Mine – The Killers

Mr. Brightside was the second track on Hot Fuss! So close! In any case, this song introduces these icons of the 00’s with the kind of gritty, hook-laden arena rock that still draws massive crowds. Mashing sounds of previous rockers like The Who, The Cars, The Strokes and Duran Duran, the end product are sing-a-long anthems fit for stadium crowds like this.

13. My Name is Jonas ­– Weezer

Starting off the “Blue Album,” Rivers Cuomo enthusiastically yells his way through this infectious garage nerd-rock track that seamlessly switches between mellow lulls and rambunctious highs. I had an absolute blast clicking these riffs on Rockband for the Wii.

14. Take It Easy – The Eagles

Introducing the Eagles’ eponymous album, this breezy, Californian country-rock jam makes me nostalgic for that one time I didn’t cruise down the Pacific Coast Highway in not my Shelby Convertible.

15. Steady as She Goes – The Raconteurs

“Do side projects or supergroups count!?” Of course they do, imaginary reader! Jack White teams up with Brendan Benson and the Greenhornes to create the elusive, modern, straight-up rock track. While certainly not original, few have rocked out quite this well.

16. The High Road – Broken Bells

Did someone say supergroups? While we’re here let’s bring out “The High Road,” the introductory track of The Shin’s James Mercer and producer Danger Mouse is just well-crafted indie pop. Synth melodies and the soaring choir chorus make it an infectious classic.

17. Animal – Miike Snow

Miike Snow opens their account with a song that pairs somber, introspective lyricism with lively synth beats to make this staple of indie pop.

18. New Life – Depeche Mode

While we may have come to know Depeche Mode for their moodier, darker pieces later on, I’d like us to always remember their innovative synthesized dance pop that the group brought us with their debut album Speak & Spell.

19. Next To You – The Police

Distinct from the new wave hits we associate with The Police, this punk number one track still captures Sting’s romanticism and knack for a great hook.

20. Suzanne – Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen wrote this song as a poem before he recorded it as a song, and exactly zero people are surprised. A bare track about his own platonic relationship with a real Suzanne, there’s a lot to unpack. The transparent, poignant lyricism complimented with the angelic choir make for a compelling listen.

21. Return to the Moon (Political Song For Didi Bloome to Sing, With Crescendo) – EL VY

My last side project inclusion, this is The National’s Matt Beringer with Brent Knopf. This song finds Beringer in a considerably better mood he usually is with his main act, as this alternative rock borders on disco at times. Beringer’s deep, barrel-aged voice compliments it like a fine wine pairing.

22. Your Song – Elton John

“But Ryan, this is his second album!!” Well, I sit typing this in America, and his self-titled album was actually the first album released in the US although he had already released one in the UK. So there. Anyways, this song is vintage Elton, with heartfelt piano melodies and a swelling string section. I can’t believe he wrote it for me.

23. 40 Day Dream – Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros

A good old-fashioned stomp and clap, jaunty hippie folk song that makes you long for summer and ditching your responsibilities to buy a Volkswagen Bus and join a commune… just me?

24. Good Times Roll – The Cars

Joining the new wave of new wave, The Cars add synth to their rock n’ roll debut with a feel-good track.

25. Blame it On Me – George Ezra

Ezra’s smooth baritone is brought out for the first time in this catchy, romantic pop track.