Let’s see what’s on Side B.
Welcome back. Yesterday we covered #50 – #31, which you can find here if you missed them or need a recap, today we blaze through #30 – #11.
Blush – Single
Let’s not beat around the bush: that is one groovy-as-shit bass line. Too many bands nowadays neglect the bass – either by giving it the most boring lines and melodies imaginable, or burying it so low in the mix as to basically negate its entire existence – but a solid bass line is often the foundation for many of the best songs of all-time (and also Chic’s entire career). WHITE get this and build “Blush” around a constantly popping and groovy bass line. From there, the “lights down low, dancefloor at 1am” mood is thoroughly set and it’s just a case of riding that infectious wave out… except that WHITE also add a livewire spark of chaos with a careening guitar part and Leo Condie’s wild over-singing that shouldn’t work yet really does. Also there’s a sax solo. More songs should have sax solos.
Tim Wheeler has been writing Pop songs for 20 years now. 20. Normally by this point, musicians have slowed down and started releasing nothing but mid-tempo lighter ballads or, worse, disappeared up their own arseholes in endless meandering sonic ‘experiments’. Any fears that Ash might suddenly do that are immediately dissuaded when “Cocoon” bursts in through the door and starts firing off party cannons left, right, and centre. It smashes in, spends 2 minutes and 30 seconds bouncing around the room in an infectious burst of pure hyperactive energy, and then vanishes into the night leaving nothing but big grins and good times in its wake.
Leading up to the release of the very-long-time-coming DEATH MAGIC, HEALTH could not stop going on about how much they’ve been listening to pop music, particularly Rihanna and Katy Perry. It sounds odd, since HEALTH’s prior two albums are noise rock monsters, but it all becomes incredibly obvious as soon as “STONEFIST” crashes onto the scene, acting like an early preparation for “LIFE” which is both the prettiest and pop-iest thing that they have ever done. However, crucially, the song still feels like HEALTH. Every beat still hits like a jackhammer, every synth still sounds like it’s heralding the arrival of something otherworldly, and Jake Duzsik is singing about his fears of death and the uncertainty of what he truly wants, but the mode of address has changed from ‘oppressive’ to ‘melancholy’ and with that the band’s secret pop heart comes bursting out for the world to see. They never did release it as a single, though, cos they’re still HEALTH, after all.
27] They Might Be Giants
That melody should be illegal. A melody that incessantly, dangerously, offensively catchy should be illegal. The Johns should be locked up for unleashing it upon the general populace without prior warning. I’m amazed that the various countries haven’t tripped over themselves trying to weaponise the damn thing. All I need is to be exposed to it for just two seconds and then it’s the only thing that will be playing in my head all day, regardless of the situation or mood. They Might Be Giants have always known their way around a good hook, it’s why they’re coming up on 30 years since their debut LP and they still haven’t lost a step, but this is ridiculous even for them. Just MAKE IT STOP!
26] Spring King
They’re Coming After You – EP
I’m a man of simple pleasures, so I like my straightforward three and a half minute indie rock tracks. Yeah, it’s all good to have complex rhythms, intricate breakdowns, and socially-conscious lyrics about difficult subjects, but sometimes I just want to listen to an energetic and fun blast of guitars and perishing indie voices, and I didn’t hear a better straightforward Indie Rock track this year than the first song played by Zane Lowe on Beats 1. That calamitous chorus is particularly fun to sing along to as anybody who’s passed my car in the last three months will be able to tell you.
Escapism – Single
This one came out of nowhere. I stumbled upon it just over a week ago when I let the Soundcloud Related Tracks Autoplay run after a song that was up for playlist consideration had finished, and was immediately hooked. It’s dead-simple, most of the song even runs on just the one chord, but that simplicity ends up working gangbusters as a delivery system for pure peppy joy. It’s basically a three minute example of why power pop is such a wonderful little genre. Honestly, due to this having been released so late, I’m worried that I should’ve rated it higher on this list – it’s been pretty much the only thing I’ve listened to this past week.
“Nocturnal (Feat. The Weeknd)”
If you’re gonna steal, you might as well steal from the best. Frankie Knuckles and Jamie Principle’s “Your Love” is baked firmly into the DNA of the opening track from Disclosure’s sophomore album, with the crucial difference of that endlessly recognisable synth line being relegated to the background. The foreground glides along on those trademark washy Disclosure synths whilst man-of-the-moment The Weeknd busts out his best Michael Jackson impression. It’s a song that creeps up on you, seeming stuck in second gear for so much of its runtime but then, by the time guitars so shiny you could use them as mirrors to adjust your makeup in enter, you find yourself lost in the groove despite the song never really changing. Pretty sneaky, boys.
23] Public Service Broadcasting
The Race for Space
“Go!” is the track that best encapsulates Public Service Broadcasting. To describe Public Service Broadcasting sans evidence of their work – they take old public information films and create songs based around them, heavily interloping said samples into the songs, and their second full-length is a narrative based around The Space Race – makes them sound incredibly stuffy and the kind of band that ‘smart’ people like to listen to to appease their giant swelling intellectual egos. In practice, they’re a fantastic little band whose central hook is no gimmick and are a lot of fun to listen to. “Go!” which tells the tale of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, is where it all works best, the song charging along with genuine excitement and a tangible momentous feeling that only grows and grows as it goes along, eventually heading stratospheric when the guitar riff comes in.
22] Tim Wheeler
“Feels Like Summer”
Shaun the Sheep Movie: Original Soundtrack
Until the end credits of Shaun the Sheep Movie came up, I legitimately thought that this was a lost Britpop classic that I had somehow never heard before. It’s such a dead ringer for that era – and especially The Wannadies “You & Me Song” – that I was convinced that there was no way in Hell that this was a song that somebody wrote in 2015. Then Tim Wheeler’s name came up and it all made sense. Of course the guy who wrote “Girl From Mars” could just sit down and recreate the Summer of 1996, without ever coming off as insincere or sappy, with seemingly no effort whatsoever for a sweet little animated film instead of keeping it for himself. He’s Tim Wheeler, dammit! If this doesn’t win Best Original Song at all movie award ceremonies for all eternity then what is even the point of having movie awards anymore?
21] The Weeknd
“Can’t Feel My Face”
Beauty Behind the Madness
Abel Tesfaye is bad. He’s off the wall. He’s a thriller. I’m legitimately surprised that Michael Jackson didn’t rise from his grave with an army of lawyers as soon as “Can’t Feel My Face” dropped to sue the man, and the song’s four other credited writers, into oblivion. But whatever, everybody has made the Michael Jackson comparison by this point. It’s not new and it’s not original. Plus, regardless of how much of an influence MJ was and whether one considers that a positive or a negative, fixating on that aspect takes away from the fact that this song is just fucking brilliant. Stupendously catchy, booty-shakingly groovy, and immense fun. (It also makes a great companion piece with Childish Gambino’s 2014 single “Sober,” incidentally.)
20] Swim Deep
“Namaste” sounds like the theme song to a mid-90s teatime game show, and I’m not just saying this because the music video’s premise is exactly that. The garish technicolour bleep-bloop synths, the forced high-energy, the cheesy-as-shit vocal delivery by Austin Williams… “Namaste” is absolutely ridiculous and I love it for that. It’s just impossible for me to feel down listening to this thing, such is the level of happiness and silliness it radiates for its entire runtime. It’s joyful, playful, and so singular in its identity that it is legitimately mind-blowing as to how this is by the same band that released one of the most boring debut albums of 2013.
Yes, the demo version is immensely superior to the one that ended up on the finished and really-just-not-very-good-admit-it-folks Art Angels, allow me to explain why. It’s the key. The ‘finished’ version of “REALiTi” is in a different key, everything’s been pitched up, blown out, expanded needlessly to try and turn the song into a big feel-good pop anthem. The problem is that “REALiTi” is not designed to be that. “REALiTi” is a quiet, insular, pretty gem that works through its emotional arc in a lovely subtle way that makes it easy to get lost in. Adding excess touches, throwing in that chipmunk squeak everywhere, changing the tempo, and switching the key loses that insular subtlety and turns the song into an actively annoying and insincere headache. Without even meaning to, Claire Boucher wrote one of the best Pop songs of the year and then proceeded to self-sabotage it. At least we still have the demo, though.
18] Alabama Shakes
“Don’t Wanna Fight”
Sound & Color
I’m probably never going to get tired of that voice. Brittany Howard’s voice is a ten-hundred-tonne steamroller of a thing, and when she unleashes its full force you sit up and take notice. Her delivery of lines like “My line, your line, don’t cross them lines” is just spellbinding, elevating what might seem pat and well-trodden ground on paper into something so much more in practice. Although her voice is the star of pretty much every Alabama Shakes track – because just listen to it – “Don’t Wanna Fight” sees the actual musician side of the equation matching her every step of the way with a deliciously funky step into rhythm and blues based around brilliantly simple lines from each instrument that all complement each other instead of tripping over their various feet.
It’s not exactly fun being an early twentysomething in 2015. Jobs are basically non-existent, the government pretty much regards every teenager who dares to voice some kind of criticism against them as a terrorist waiting to happen, and every new day brings more news about how the world is going straight down the toilet regardless of what you try and do. It’s quite frankly a wonder we haven’t all decided to replicate the ending to the video of Radiohead’s “Just,” let alone keep going with some kind of optimism. Harrison Koisser seems similarly bewildered as he sings about the TV presenting us with “Blood, love, and terror, next: the weather” whilst asking in awe “how do you do it so good?” Of course, we could ask that question right back at Peace as they throw themselves along a super-catchy piece of indie bliss that’s indebted to the halcyon days of Britpop without completely ripping them off. How do they do it so good, indeed.
16] BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah
“Ray Gun (Feat. DOOM)”
BADBADNOTGOOD were born to collaborate with Ghostface Killah. Their brand of dark, slinky, hip-hop influenced jazz basically screamed for a guy like Ghostface to vault in through the roof and spit fire on, especially when last year’s tasters of Sour Soul – including “Gunshowers,” my 11th best song of that year – made the potential reality of such a theory sound just as perfect as it did on paper. Then, with the New Year not even nine days old, “Ray Gun” dropped and the hype shot through the roof. BADBADNOTGOOD’s instrumentation oozes cinematic cool that perfectly complements Ghostface’s delivery before DOOM, whose record has been spotty as of late, drops in and immediately sets all heads in the building nodding in appreciation, ending with the two ceding the floor back to the band as they conjure up the kind of superhero-style theme song that comic book movies need more of. It’s the clear standout on yet another strong late-career Ghostface LP. Now hurry the fuck up and finish DOOMSTARKS already!
15] Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
“You Know We Can’t Go Back”
Nostalgia is a hard feeling to properly evoke on a song, since the typical route that artists take is just to reference something that they’ve already done in the past, and that feels tacky and self-involved. Besides, nostalgia is a feeling. It’s really hard to properly describe, but it is rarely linked to specific tangible things. It’s a time, a moment where everything just felt right, happy, content. It’s abstract, and abstract doesn’t translate well to a 3 minute Pop song. Yet, even though he fell directly into the trap outlined at the start of this entry with “Riverman”, Noel Gallagher communicates that yearning, that desire, that mixed melancholy supremely on the Springsteen-feeling “You Know We Can’t Go Back”. If I were at a party and knew that this would be the last time I was going to see those friends, this would be the song I’d have as the penultimate of the night, one big outburst of quietly scared emotion with the people I love before we have to face the future. A moment in time to look back on. Happy. Content.
14] Florence + The Machine
“Queen of Peace”
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Critics were quick to peg Florence’s assertions that How Big, How Blue… would be more restrained than her previous works as utter bollocks when the title track spent 90 seconds during its outro swimming around in a gloriously excessive orchestral sea of strings and harps, but I feel to do so is rather unfair. How Big… IS more restrained, especially compared to the tiring Ceremonials, with Welch letting her voice cut loose at a much lower frequency than before. Consequently, when she goes BIG, there’s a legitimate impact, and, save for “Delilah,” there are no BIGGER moments on the record than the majestic “Queen of Peace” as Flo flings that voice high and proud whilst singing about a king “gone mad within his suffering” and being driven out with him. The Celtic-reminiscing string arrangements add the extra texture that the song needs and the result is an expansive sophisticated gem of a song that stands out even higher because the rest of the album doesn’t remain in this gear the entire time.
13] St. Vincent
Teenage Talk – Single
You know, when most artists get asked to write a song for the closing credits of an episode of a TV show, they don’t put forward one of the best songs they’ve yet written. Of course, “Teenage Talk” wasn’t written specifically for Girls – Annie Clark wrote it for inclusion on her self-titled 2014 LP but ended up leaving it off the final record – but it originally showed up on Girls and the truncated 90 second format ended up on constant rotation on my iPod for a good 3 months after. It wasn’t until later that I discovered there was a full 4 minute official version lying around and, what do you know, it’s even better now that it has room to breathe. The dreamy synths, Annie’s warm voice, perfectly communicated nostalgia, entering softly and exiting like a dream. Good thing she left it off of St. Vincent. Wouldn’t want to have completely shown up every other artist who released an album in 2014 now, would we?
12] Everything Everything
Get to Heaven
“It’s alright to feel like a fat child in a pushchair” is probably the best lyric I have heard all year. At first, it stuck out like an absolutely ridiculous sore thumb, the kind of line that sounds like a Sixth Form Poetry student who thinks they’re some kind of wordsmith. Did Jonathan Higgs really want people to take this seriously? And are they really going to repeat this one line over and over again for the next three minutes? But then the more they repeat it, the less and less ridiculous it sounds. It starts to feel genuinely comforting, that initial rise being deliberately designed to make you pay attention so that the repetition forces you to think about it. And the more it’s repeated, the more its sentiment – it’s fine to be an adult and yet still feel completely helpless about the world, and crushed by that feeling – becomes clear. Then the instrumentation provides the release that comes with that realisation as the lyrics switch tacks to “Just give me this one night to feel like I might be on the right path” and, together (the listener and the band), we take each other’s hands, look towards the new day and find the strength to go on. Because, really, what’s the alternative?
11] Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
“Downtown (Feat. Eric Nally, Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee & Grandmaster Caz)”
Downtown – Single
This song is a complete mess. Objectively, this song is a total mess. There are three separate songs vying for control of the track. One is a throwback to golden age hip-hop posse cuts where people like Melle Mel and Kool Moe Dee are bragging how they “got your girl going tandem” and are “too damn slick” for you good sir, one is a Broadway-sounding pull-out-all-the-stops cheesy anthem with a deranged yelping vocal from Eric Nally, and the third involves Macklemore goofily rapping about motherfucking mopeds, of all damn things. All of them are playing at the same time, all of them are fighting for the same track space, and none of them really manages to definitively claim total control of the finished product. And you know what? I love it. It is super goofy, and (arguably because of that) I love it to pieces. Come at me.
Tomorrow, we hit the Top 10.
Callie Petch is going to kill a stranger, so don’t you be a stranger.