It’s been four months since my last omnibus music post, and a year that had started strongly for alternative rock has just gotten stronger since then, with even more to come this fall. Maybe some of this is just me feeling better this year and more willing to spend time looking for and listening to great new music, but I think we’re just trending upwards for new bands and sounds getting at least enough exposure to reach my ears even if they’re not breaking all the way through to the mainstream.
As always, song titles are linked to their amazon mp3 pages. I’ve included Soundcloud links for the first time, as an experiment; for most of these songs you can play the track directly, with a few that require going to Soundcloud instead. Suggestions for other songs or artists you think I might like are always welcome.
New Politics – “Harlem.” I mentioned this in a chat a month or so ago, but this might be the song of the year for me, mixing clever imagery, a tremendous hook, and enough musical twists to make it fit better on the alternative charts than on the pop charts, although a crossover feels inevitable. It’s just too catchy to remain on the fringes, and yet combines enough elements from different subgenres to feel fresh yet familiar at heart.
Arctic Monkeys – “Do I Wanna Know?.” I can’t wait for this album to drop in September, especially with how promising this song is, as well as last year’s one-off single “R U Mine?” This one has to be the best slow-tempo songs the Monkeys have ever released, but without giving up Alex Turner’s trademark sneer or wordplay like “Been wondering if your heart’s still open/and if so I wanna know what time it shuts.”
Boxer Rebellion – “Diamonds.” I absolutely love this song, which reminds me of The National but with a vocalist who actually wants you to hear what he’s saying. The rest of the album doesn’t quite measure up, unfortunately, making for better background listening as atmospheric rock (not emo, but atmo?) that lacks the bright definition of “Diamonds.”
Boxer Rebellion’s ”Diamonds” on Soundcloud
Cayucas – “High School Lover.” Also on the short list of the best pop songs of the year, or at least the summer, although its potential for airplay was rather hampered by a superfluous f-bomb in the middle of the second verse. I don’t care if you want to curse on your records, but if you choose to do so, don’t throw them away – make them count. Anyway, the subject matter is silly and fun, just what the title implies, with a twinge of bitterness given the past tense of the lyrics, while the music bounces you along like you’re riding on the back of some guy’s (or girl’s) bicycle.
Atlas Genius – “If So.” Final candidate for song of the year from this batch (on top of a few tracks from the April post). Is smart-pop a genre? If so – see what I did there? – this Aussie duo may define it.
The National – “Don’t Swallow the Cap.” I just want to mention that I think this is a gorgeous pop song, ruined by the fact that the lead singer mumbles his way through the vocals. Dude, if you can’t get up for this song, why the hell should I? It’s begging for a cover version with a singer who lets it out. (The track is available free through that link.)
Fitz & the Tantrums – More Than Just A Dream (album). Overall, I was disappointing in Fitz’s sophomore effort. It’s not as punchy as their debut, and I don’t think it has the breakout potential of that disc’s lead single, “Moneygrabber,” and has one very radio-friendly song in “Out of My League” that’s a little too poppy for me. Their lyrical subject matter really needs to extend beyond thinly-told tales of romance and heartbreak. The sleeper track on the album is the more uptempo “Spark,” which is one of the few songs where co-singer Noelle Scaggs gets at least equal time with Fitz himself; I’d also check out “Break the Walls” and “MerryGoRound” if you liked their first disc and want something more along those lines.
Kid Astray – “The Mess.” (video) She will never/answer your calls, babe/just let it go now. I’m not even sure what to call this song, where the chorus, the verse, and the … um, other verse don’t quite seem to fit together, even though each stands on its own merits. The band is Norwegian and describes themselves as “indie-pop,” but there’s far more of an electronic underpinning here than in what generally gets the indie-pop label here in the U.S.
Bastille – “Pompeii.” Kind of an updated Erasure with vocals more along the lines of Violator-era Depeche Mode. The song has been all over Sirius XM’s Alt Nation, and has been a hit all over Europe and in Australia, making it seem inevitable it’ll cross over here at least to some extent. It’s just a very good electronic/pop song, with an effervescent synth backing behind rising and falling vocals that include the line you won’t get out of your head, “How am I gonna be an optimist about this?”
Beware of Darkness – “Howl.” The PA folks at Petco played the first few bars of this track during the PG All-American Classic, which just about knocked me out of my seat given how under-the-radar and out-of-date this band’s blues-heavy hard-rock sound is. They’re edgier and rougher than their hair metal predecessors, but it wouldn’t be insane to call the song the result of a lab experiment to cross Whitesnake and the Black Crowes. Also, it rocks.
Franz Ferdinand – “Love Illumination.” They just turn out 2-3 pop gems like this on every album, don’t they? The album comes out on the 27th of this month. I’d rate this track ahead of “No You Girls,” but behind “The Fallen,” “The Dark of the Matinee,” or “Ulysses.” It’s more of Franz Ferdinand’s version of a great highway driving song.
Haim – I can’t stand Haim. Go away already.
Rogue Wave – Nightingale Floors (album). First two tracks, “No Magnatone” (in 3/4 time, a Rogue Wave staple that once ended up with the Dancing With the Stars band massacring “Lake Michigan” during a waltz) and “College” are standouts. I could make a case for the closer, “Everyone Wants to Be You,” but it goes on far too long for me to stick with it till the end. Everything in between is filler, some bland, some outright soporific. The deluxe version, linked here, also has a half-hearted cover of one of my favorite tracks from the 1990s, Screaming Trees’ “Nearly Lost You.”
CHVRCHES – “Gun.” Album drops September 23rd. I can’t wait.
Children of Bodom – “Transference.” Death metal song of the year so far, although the upcoming Carcass release may change that. The screaming-and-growling thing feels very silly to me – you sound like Cookie Monster and are as threatening as Prairie Dawn – but the music underneath the vocals here is tight and intense, a rare bit of evolution in the post-thrash/grindcore environment.
Smallpools – “Dreaming.” More synth-pop, with a heavier feel than Bastille but just as strong of a hook and better overall energy. It’s amazing to me to hear so much of the synth-heavy sound of early ’80s New Wave come back around, but with tighter production and less obvious pop-radio pandering. I also like Smallpools’ use of a story, or at least the shell of a story, of being trapped somewhere and under attack, while refusing to surrender, to back up the energy of the guitar and keyboard lines.
These New Puritans – “Fragment Two.” I want to call this jazz, but it’s more jazz in philosophy than in practice. There’s an experimental feel to this, with offbeat piano lines, aposiopetic stops, and internal references to earlier parts of the track. It’s way out there for me.
Queens of the Stone Age – “My God is the Sun.” Three listens to their new album, …Like Clockwork, still didn’t sell me on it, but at least we have this lead track, a throwback to Kyussian slow-jam headbanger days, to keep QotSA alive in our hearts. Or something. I concede this album probably demands more time from me. The track is free through that amazon link.
Beach Fossils – “Clash the Truth.” Less lo-fi than early post-punk/new wave to my ears, a little disinterested vocally (not quite as much as The National), and not as exciting as DIIV, formed by former Beach Fossils member Zachary Cole Smith, just subtle and concise and pulsing with a sort of compulsive negative energy.
Phoenix – “Entertainment.” I know I’m not supposed to say this, but I thought Bankrupt! was a huge disappointment, barely building at all on their last disc, the Grammy-winning Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. “Entertainment,” the lead single, at least boosts the sound from their previous album with a stomping energy, like a song from the soundtrack to a Cirque du Soleil show.
Blondfire – “Waves.” The music frames a perfect pop song, undone by lyrics that turn the band into a bad blonde joke: “Waves/picking you up/pushing you down/they’re always around.” Like, deep, man.
Bleached – “Dead in Your Head.” Inevitable comps to the Go-Gos and the Runaways abound, although I think they’re probably going to end up staring up at the Savages more than anyone else. “Dead in Your Head” stays low in the zone, with a sludgy feeling and lethargic pace under a superficial story of the emotional costs of regret.
Mona – “Goons (Baby, I Need It All).” I get a little “Chelsea Dagger” out of this track, a sort of grimy yet lambent confection that clocks in at 3:13 and would feel too long at 3:30. Sometimes you can just hear a band gunning for more airplay within the confines of their existing sound; this song pretends to machismo, but when Mona drops the “hey hey hey-ey-ey-eh,” they’re quietly hoping you sing along.
Jagwar Ma – “Come Save Me.” I’ve been of the general opinion that the Brits do intelligent, accessible rock music better than we do for years, but Australia is starting to gain on us as well, with Jagwar Ma following the Cut Copy path. There’s a distinctive Aussie-rock sound here, with lo-fi production, stomping percussion, and choruses that feel like they’re holding something back to maintain the tension into the next verse. The track is currently free through that link.
Lord Huron – “Time To Run.” We draw some funny lines around songs and artists, pigeonholing them into specific genres so we know what stations are and aren’t allowed to play them. “Time to Run” finds itself boxed in as alternative music, or folk-rock, when it’s more country than anything else – think David Gray doing country, without the whole my-tractor’s-sexy nonsense that has reduced contemporary country music to antiseptic idiocy.
The Head and the Heart – “Shake.” Similar to Lord Huron with a country-folk-crossover vibe, less overtly country than “Time to Run,” a definite step up from H&H’s last album. Their new disc drops on October 15th.
Youngblood Hawke – “We Come Running.” A straight-up pop song that never crossed over from alternative radio. Solid, better than what you’ll hear on pop radio these days, but not as good as the other songs I cover here.
Walk Off the Earth – “Red Hands.” Worth a listen, mostly for the chorus, although the harmonies have been overproduced to the point that the individual voices are flattened beyond recognition, like someone in marketing figured they’d get more airplay on soft-rock stations that way.
Wild Nothing – “A Dancing Shell.” I loved their last album, Nocturne, which I discovered thanks to recommendations from several of you. This song doesn’t quite hit the mark for me, mostly because of the walking keyboard line that turns a dreamy alternative track into a slightly twee space-pop song. If they just took that one part out, it would be tremendous.
TV on the Radio – “Mercy.” Their best track since “Wolf Like Me” from their 2006 Return to Cookie Mountain album, “Mercy” is a fierce, fast-paced rocker with clever, alliterative lyrics. It seems to be a one-off single for now, with no announcement about a forthcoming album, unfortunately.
Disclosure – “When A Fire Starts To Burn.” This one song is better than the entire Daft Punk album put together. Yeah, the repetitive vocal sample thing isn’t my thing – it’s been fifteen years or so since that appeared on mainstream tracks, so maybe we could try something new? – but that bass line is tremendous, and if you’re only going to have four lines of lyrics, these are good choices.
Still listening to: new albums from Royal Teeth and Braids. Looking forward to: Arcade Fire, Janelle Monae, Islands, The Naked and Famous. It’s been some kind of year for music.