Of the thousands of songs I heard this past year, narrowing a list down to my favorite 50 was exceptionally tough. There was plenty of heartbreak and disappointment upon the realization that some great songs were being left off of that final list. So in the spirit of giving attention to even more great music, please take these extra 25 tracks and give them a listen if you aren’t familiar with them already. They’re listed in alphabetical order so as to not prioritize any one over another. The only rules are that the tracks must have been part of a 2017 album, soundtrack, or single release. While you can click on the play button below any song title to hear it streaming (via YouTube), there’s also a Spotify playlist embedded at the very bottom of this post should you prefer to listen that way. Cool? Cool. And make sure to keep an eye out for my Top 50 Songs of 2017, which will immediately follow this post.
Tag: zola jesus
This Top 50 Songs list is not organized in any other way than by perceived order of excellence, so when you have a look at the set of 10 below, you may be surprised at how thematically related almost all of them are to one another. It was a total fluke things worked out like that, and in fact I didn’t even notice myself until writing up this introduction. The overarching theme is love, whether you’re falling into it, out of it, or somewhere in between, which is a subject matter as old as music itself. I just looked it up, and apparently about 60% of all songs written today are about love, so I guess the similarities aren’t all that shocking after all. Anyways, let’s get right into it, shall we? This freight train keeps rolling on with #40-31 of the Top 50 Songs of 2014! Oh, and in case you missed it, here’s #50-41.
90% of double albums are failures. In more recent years, everyone from Foo Fighters to the Red Hot Chili Peppers have attempted to show off creatively by unleashing multi-disc efforts. Some claim the music is all thematically sound, tied to a concept or something else, and therefore entirely necessary to extend beyond your traditional single album length. Others say they went into the studio and got far more recorded than anticipated, and because everything was so great, instead of cutting tracks they just left it as-is, bleeding it out into dual records. You’ve also got a band like Radiohead, who made “Kid A” and released that, then followed up 8 months later on with “Amnesiac”, essentially more new songs from those same sessions but contextually different. A staggered release schedule forming two separate albums tends to be the smarter move, particularly in this day and age when albums are largely down for the count and singles reign, the attention span of music fans growing increasingly shorter by the day. Still, there is the occasional double album that works, generating enough positive response to go down with the status of “legendary”. We’re talking Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” or the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”. It was reportedly that Pumpkins record which served as the main inspiration for M83’s main man Anthony Gonzalez to craft his own double album “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”. This may be one of the worst times in music trends to unleash 73 minutes of music intended to be heard in one sitting, but let’s just be thankful somebody has the balls to keep trying anyways.
The first thing you look for in any double album is filler. Instrumental tracks? That’s typically the first sign of filler, but if you know M83 then you also know they do a fair share of instrumentals on their single disc records. Their electro-synth sound is built to where instrumentals can be not only welcome, but sometimes encouraged. One listen to “Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts” will teach you all you need to know about M83 and instrumentals. There’s somewhere around a half dozen instrumentals spread across the 22 total tracks here, and almost all of them are wholly engaging or serve a particular purpose other than apparent filler. This isn’t a record with an overarching theme or concept holding it all together, outside of just a generalized dream state it otherwise seeks to achieve. Yet there are so many big pop songs and dramatic ballads that transitional pieces and more minor moments are almost required as balance. “Train to Pluton” or “Fountains” may not be the most exciting or brilliant pieces of music, but they are fully functional set-up pieces and never really hurt the overall pacing that gets established. You can also look at moments like “Where the Boats Go” and “When Will You Come Home?”, the former which aids the adjustment from the red hot “Reunion” into the massive drift that is “Wait” and the latter which serves as the start of a trio of songs that effortlessly blends the first disc with the second.
Long time fans of M83 should automatically feel comfortable with “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”, as the 80s synth-pop motifs continue to permeate everything Gonzalez touches. That’s his thing, crafting a soundtrack to an imagined version of his teenage years. The last record “Saturdays=Youth” felt like musical accompaniment to a long-lost John Hughes film, and while there’s still some resemblance to that on the new double album, it comes across as far less cinematic in nature. That doesn’t mean it’s any less expansive or epic though, as it’s tough to call 74 minutes of music minimal or small. But those bigger, arena-style melodies were explored in a similar fashion on “Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts”. To bring out the full M83 past album retrospective, fans of “Before the Dawn Heals Us” will find the darker, more urban pop of that record bearing an influence here as well. Darkness would be a theme on this record, as any record with the word “dreaming” in its title hopefully implies sleeping and night time. Despite all this looking back providing a “complete picture” of what M83 has been all about, there’s still the future to be concerned with. In response to that, Gonzalez has taken to expanding the number of instruments on this record to include the occasional saxophone (“Midnight City”) or flute (“New Map”) while pushing his own vocals into entirely new territory.
Past singles like “Kim & Jessie” or “Don’t Save Us From the Flames” provide great reference samples featuring Gonzalez keeping his vocals restrained at an almost whisper-like level. It becomes apparent from the very first track on the new album, the aptly titled “Intro”, that those days of calmly reserved, passive singing are over. Gonzalez’s voice may not be the most impressive thing when he’s belting out songs at full volume as his newfound range and key reveal some limitations, but you’ve got to give him credit for laying it all out there. He sounds a full octave higher than he used to, now fully up-front and brimming with confidence, taking the reins like he’s ready to conquer the world. For once his singing matches the scope of his arrangements, which is probably why cuts like “Midnight City” and “Steve McQueen” also make for some of M83’s best songs to date in a catalogue dense with highlights already.
If you’re not prepared for it, “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” might seem like a chore to listen to from start to finish. There’s so much material to digest that it can be a little overwhelming at times, making it that much harder to become enraptured with important moments because there are quite a few. To Gonzalez’s credit he spreads them out fairly evenly to continually engage the listener for the duration, though the first five tracks of each disc can feel like a pileup of pure sonic delight. There may not be a storyline or abstract concept linking these tracks together, but like the two halves of “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”, each separate disc has a sonic counterpart on the other. Consider them then like fraternal twins – different, but inextricably linked to one another. The more carefully you listen, the more obvious it becomes. It would seem then that going the double album route has worked out remarkably well for M83. Count this was one of those rare cases where a multi-disc effort is worth the time and money you invest in it. There are not really any bad songs in this bunch either, and even the child’s spoken word moments of “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire” can’t derail the momentum this beast generates for itself. Will it go down in history as one of those rare double albums that still gets talked about 5, 10 or 50 years down the line? Probably not, if only due to technology. Up until the early 00s, album releases were regarded as events, and people’s options were confined to physical mediums such as vinyl, cassette tapes and CDs. You couldn’t really skip any tracks on The Beatles’ “White Album” because at the time that luxury didn’t exist. With the advent of the digital era, not only are people skipping or cherry picking, but access to music itself has become so fluid there’s far more music to take in than any one person can even begin to digest. Hence the rise of the single, so we can listen to that song and get on to the next artist. But here’s a piece of work that while created today is distinctly 80s in sound and scope. If you’re a child of the 80s or earlier decades, that’s something you can understand, even as you may have a hard drive filled to the brim with other music. Calm yourself down and set aside 74 minutes to take in “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” at least once in full. Hopefully it will speak to you and maybe even reinstill a faith in the long player. The death of the album (single or double) has been greatly exaggerated, and M83 makes for some great evidence in support of that. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to try and find the exact time when this album and the film “The NeverEnding Story” sync up perfectly.
In some respects, it’s helpful to have a dictionary on hand when listening to Zola Jesus. Essentially the moniker under which Nika Roza Danilova operates, Zola Jesus has a tendency to use big or scientific words for song and record titles. Last year, she released the “Stridulum” EP and an expanded version of that which was lovingly called “Stridulum II”. The title is remarkably obscure to find a meaning to, but reportedly it’s a Latin word that means the sound a bird or an insect makes when rubbing its wings together. The vocabulary fun continues on the new Zola Jesus record “Conatus”, the title of which is another Latin term referring to the inclination of a thing to continue to exist and enhance itself. More on that later. Other fun track titles on the new record include “Hikikomori”, a Japanese word meaning a reclusive person, and “Ixode”, which is a genus of hard-bodied ticks. Let it be known that Zola Jesus is doing more than just schooling you in dark pop melodies. Do you need to know the deeper meanings behind these titles in order to fully understand what they’re trying to accomplish? Nah. It’s likely that Danilova simply chose those words because they look and/or sound cool, not because they had an influence on a particular sound or lyric. Don’t write the record off as somebody trying to sound smart to mask glaring idiocy either – “Conatus” excels no matter if you’re using 10 dollar or 10 cent vocabulary.
If you’re familiar with past Zola Jesus efforts, “Conatus” comes across like a slight upgrade in a number of ways. Her sound is often described as gothic, with strong pop sensibilities and heavy synth/industrial tones. If Lykke Li and Natasha Khan (aka Bat for Lashes) were to have a blonde-haired musical baby, Zola Jesus would be the result. You could say the same thing about Siouxie Sioux and Kate Bush. It’s also a little surprising what with her similarities to these other pretty popular acts that she isn’t achieving that same level of success. Perhaps the new record will change that. The arrangements are bigger and more dramatic than ever, and Danilova’s voice is much clearer and up-front compared to past recordings. She belts it out to the rafters with some tour-de-force singing that is highly emotional and passionate. That sort of power comes from being a trained opera singer, even if the style of music she makes is pretty far removed from your traditional opera.
After the echo-laden, electro-glitch minute-long “Swords” provides a lovely intro to the record, “Avalanche” pairs heavy drum machine beats with ominous synths. It is by no means a thrilling, club-ready hit, and its eventual descent into a capella vocals during the final minute very much keeps to that mentality. Not every album needs to start in a fun and or even commercially viable fashion, and the first two tracks are more darkly beautiful than they are easy to like. That’s only a problem if you choose to make it one. Things go industrial on first single “Vessel”, and amid the electro-squelches and heavy piano, you can’t help but feel that Trent Reznor would greatly appreciate the track. The verse-chorus-verse structure of the track also goes a long way towards making it more likable and catchy in the face of abject oddity, particularly as the track dissolves into chaotic static in the final 45 seconds. The pulsating synths of “Hikikomori” are paced briskly enough to make the track a potential club hit, even as it wallows in despair the entire time. It’s just the beginning of a remarkably energetic midsection of the album, one that slowly moves out of its depressing funk and into something a little warmer and a little brighter, though Danilova’s intensity and focus never really lets up. “In Your Nature” is fascinating in particular for Danilova’s wounded and vulnerable vocals, along with its liberal use of strings, which aren’t as widely used across the rest of the record. The saddest moment on “Conatus” strikes right near the end, where the piano ballad “Skin” sounds a whole lot like somebody hitting rock bottom. When Danilova sings, “I’ve had enough”, she emotes it with such pain that it’s not hard to believe she’s truly given up. That pain finally overwhelms her completely on closing track “Collapse”, with a trance-like synth dominating the melody, she keeps coming back to the line, “It hurts to let you in”. Yet in spite of the agony it causes, she still surrenders herself over to it because it provides relief. Call it self-abuse if you like, but sometimes we all need to let our dark sides have free reign to keep us sane.
Where “Conatus” ultimately winds up in trouble is in commercial viability. No, easily likable music is not a requirement for success nor does it make a record better or worse. The moody vibes that dominate this album are largely offset by strong beats and interesting melodies. It’s the structure of the songs themselves that feel formless at times that bring a very wandering nature to the record. That’s funny because this is the first Zola Jesus album that exudes confidence and power, and the first where Danilova seems to fully know what she’s going for. There’s a glue that makes “Conatus” feel like a whole thematic journey from darkness to light to murky resolution, but there are missing chorus detours and unbalanced verse dark alleys on that path providing the occasional mixed signal. For the most part though, this record shows growth for Zola Jesus. It is, as the Latin word title of the record means, something that has the inclination to continue to exist and enhance itself. This might not be the work that finally graduates Danilova to the big leagues of the darkwave subgenre, but she’s certainly on her way.
As the weekend wears onward, I only wind up more and more tired at the end of each respective day. In other words, if I was super tired when doing last night’s Day 1 recap, today is a whole other level of pain. Still, I shall push past the sleep demons to provide you with a play-by-play of all the action I absorbed on Day 2 of the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival.
Normally I’m a full set kind of person, as I am also a full album kind of person. It’s the sort of feeling like once you start something you need to see it through to a full conclusion. Well today I went a little schizophrenic and watched a lot of half sets. Too many great bands to see and too little time will do that to you. But to start the day, I strolled in past the gates and caught Julianna Barwick in the earliest stages of her set. Yes, Chrissy Murderbot was across the park on the smaller stage, but you could hear his beats pumping all the way where Barwick was playing. Not her fault, though the fact that her songs aren’t the loudest, most upbeat things in the world didn’t help matters. I immediately started to sweat in the 80+ degree temperatures, and a few times during Barwick’s set I felt like the sun had purposely increased in intensity. But in spite of the sweltering heat and noise interruptions, Barwick put on a great set. It likely would have been much better off in a small, dark venue than at this festival, but such is life. The songs were absolutely gorgeous as she worked at looping her vocals over and over and over again until there were these haunting harmonies that just spoke to you.
Woods was next up on the list of bands to see, but I didn’t plan on sticking around for long. That was partly because word on the street was that they were very boring live, and also Sun Airway seemed like they could be good. The first thing I noticed about Woods was that prior to starting their set they spread incense everywhere on stage. Then one of the guys in the band used a pair of headphones as a microphone, with one earpiece on his mouth and the other wrapping around to the back of his neck. Keep in mind this was NOT the singer Jeremy Earl, but rather “tape effects technician” G. Lucas Crane. The best part is that in the title “tape effects” they mean cassette tapes. With all this going on, it’d seem maybe Woods wasn’t a boring band live after all. But once the novelty and strangeness wore off, everything else about the band seemed old hat. Five tracks into their set, I skipped out.
Sun Airway was a band I had high hopes for. They’ve only got one record out, but it’s a good one and there was something about it that felt like they were hungry to succeed on every possible level. Unfortunately, that did not turn out to be the case, as the first part of their set was beleaguered with bouts of normalcy. They were bringing a little more energy to the stage than their cross-park time slot rivals Woods were, but not a whole lot more. At least they seemed like they wanted to be there. Being such a young band, maybe a couple years’ worth of touring experience will help turn their somewhat pedestrian set into something that grabs your attention and refuses to let go.
One of the more amusing moments of the festival came when Cold Cave began their set and emerged on stage wearing thick black leather jackets, among other things. They must have been hotter than hell in those outfits, given the extreme temperatures outside at that hour. The interesting thing is, Cold Cave absolutely went all-out to put on a lively and entertaining show. The trio danced, shimmied, shook, and every other crazy move while their synth-pop melodies soared through the air as if they were so big no room could fully contain them. The bass shooting out of the speakers was nothing less than intense to the point where it put all of your internal organs on vibrate mode. It was heartening to see a band truly give 110%, in particular as a pseudo-response to the general malaise of the sets that came before it on Saturday.
Not willing to be outdone, the crowd was clearly primed for No Age. After a few minutes of technical issues, the mosh pit started almost immediately when they started to play. Things got super intense super fast, and security was just a tiny bit overwhelmed trying to keep it all contained. Water started to get passed around at a fast and furious rate, and people started to open the bottles and whip that water over the crowd to try and keep everything cool. Meanwhile, Randy Randall was and Dean Spunt were laying it all out there, giving back to the crowd what the crowd was giving it. After chatting with a security guard later in the day, he told me that while things got wild during that No Age set, injuries were minimal and everyone took care of one another. That is what this festival is all about, having a good time while showing some love for your neighbor. I left No Age’s set mid-way through to go see Wild Nothing, but came back before the end. Spunt had abandoned his drum set and was climbing the barricade in front of the stage. Best set of the day? Quite possibly.
In terms of going to see Wild Nothing, my hopes were not that high. Their album “Gemini” is great, and most assuredly it’d translate well to a live show, but after two bands in a row that were seriously kicking ass, I didn’t think they could muster up that same sort of energy. Turns out I was right, though Wild Nothing’s set was in no way poor in quality. Their vibe was just totally different, in a more laid back and relaxed sense. If you were hanging out in the shade over there with a light breeze blowing through, I’m sure it made for a nice time. Personally, I was still on an energy high and after a handful of songs had the strong urge to go back over to No Age, which I eventually did. Still, Wild Nothing, if the situation were different, I’d absolutely recommend their live show.
Then came Gang Gang Dance, a band that I like but am still struggling to fully comprehend. Much like Woods earlier in the day, GGD had a guy come out and spread incense all over the stage. Unlike Woods though, that guy was not a member of the band, outside of the fact that he stayed on stage the entire time, dancing around with a flag and more incense. If the band feels like they need a full time incense guy, well, then that’s their preference. When budget constraints hit you though, I’d think the incense guy is the first one to get fired. Anyways, outside of the crazy incense, the band put on a very interesting set. It was less energetic than I anticipated, but more technically sound. Lizzi Bougatsos played her frontwoman role to a T, and surrounded herself with percussion instruments of every sort. Whenever she wasn’t wailing into a microphone, which was often, she was banging on something or teasing some chimes. Percussion is an essential part of Gang Gang Dance’s live show, and I’m pretty sure every band member had drum sticks and was beating on something at one point or another. Not that I expected them to be bad, but I’d call the set surprisingly good. I was initially disappointed at what it appeared to be, and then once I had accepted what it was, learned to love it.
After really wanting to check out OFF! but finding myself unable to break away from Gang Gang Dance, I held up and just went straight to Destroyer. Dan Bejar has got plenty of albums to his name under that moniker, and most of them, while great, are not what’d best be described as “energetic”. I was expecting with the heat and late afternoon sun to just be bored out of my mind with his set. OFF! was likely giving a scathing, old school punk rock set, and here was Bejar and his band of saxophone and horn players ready to break out most of the soft rock stylings on his most recent effort “Kaputt”. Upon opening with the single “Chinatown” though, things seemed perfectly okay. There was something infinitely engaging about the performance, an almost indefinable quality to it that charmed in spite of its relatively subdued nature. Maybe it was the passion with which the band played. Maybe it was Bejar’s odd performance style of wandering and singing with his eyes closed. Whatever it was, there was magic involved. It only would have been better had I found a shady spot to sit down and just listen.
As it stood though, I was overly excited to check out The Radio Dept., so yet again I abandoned another artist mid-set. Having never seen The Radio Dept. live before but desperately wanting to, this was my big chance and I was not prepared to waste it. Imagine my shock then at finding out the trio was not very good live. Maybe it was the outdoor festival setting, or maybe they’re just plain inexperienced (prior to the last year or so, they had barely played any shows despite releasing 3 full lengths). The way I saw it was that their set lacked the showbiz word known only as pizzazz. It’s the indefinable quality that makes somebody engaging. Those three guys looked awkward on stage, like putting the spotlight on the shyest guys in a room. The keyboards didn’t bounce with any sort of vigor, the guitars lacked ferocity. The song “Keen On Boys”, perhaps my favorite Radio Dept. song ever, limped along, lacking any real muscle. The volume sounded like it was turned down to its lowest level too, and I almost wanted to stand at the back of the stage area to see if I could still hear the band. All this translates to The Radio Dept. sucking. My most anticipated set of the day, and it turned out to be one of the worst of the entire weekend thus far. Too bad, because I still really like the band. Maybe next time in a small, dark club it’ll be much better.
The Dismemberment Plan was next up, and having seen them already once earlier this year, I was intrigued to see what they’d do in front of a festival crowd. Turns out they’re just as, if not more exciting than ever before. They pumped through their classics like a band fresh off their first album and eager to please. They also looked like they were having a blast doing it. The huge smile on Travis Morrison’s face said it all. Naturally, the stage banter was overly witty as well, even at one point having Morrison attempt to do a verse of “You Are Invited” in the same heavy Cuban accent as Al Pacino in “Scarface”. Hilarious? You’d best believe it, even if much of the crowd had puzzled looks on their faces. Reports say that The D Plan also covered Robyn’s “Dancehall Queen”, but I skipped out for a short bit to go see some Twin Shadow. Still, I loved and continue to love The Dismemberment Plan. Their set was one of the top highlights of Saturday for me.
Early on in Twin Shadow‘s set, frontman George Lewis told the crowd that he was amused by his band’s placement in the day, playing opposite “my favorite band from when I was 18 years old”. The D Plan were still playing one hell of a show, but Twin Shadow seemed to both know that and want to equal or best it. The crowd was dancing up a storm, Lewis was pulling all sorts of rock star moves with his guitar in hand, and fun naturally came along with that. The high degree of energy served the whole band well, and the songs from “Forget”, along with a couple new ones sounded nothing short of great. It was technically unfair to put Twin Shadow up against the Dismemberment Plan, because that made it impossible to see two super great full sets. I feel privileged to have caught a majority of both bands.
I hung out at the smaller Blue stage for a bit to wait on Zola Jesus because DJ Shadow is NOT my thing. I wasn’t anticipating sticking around longer than a few songs for Zola Jesus though, lest I waste too much time and wind up in a super bad spot for the evening’s headliner Fleet Foxes. So the few songs I saw Zola and her band perform were solid. Great doesn’t quite define it, but very good and interesting probably do it justice. Zola’s a strong live performer, wearing a lovely ruffled dress sans shoes and dancing around from end to end of the stage. She played a couple new tunes in the time I was there, and they sound like a good continuation of what she’s accomplished on her last two efforts. I’m genuinely excited to hear her upcoming album now. The only fault I really found with her live set was that I’m not a huge fan of her music. As I’ve already stated, seeing her live made me have a greater appreciation for her records, but I didn’t have much of an appreciation in the first place. I was there because I had nothing better to do, and it turned into something more worthwhile. I’m quite happy it worked out that way, and if you saw her set, I hope you walked away liking Zola Jesus more too.
Finally it was Fleet Foxes time. The first thing I noticed when they came out on stage was how the entire band (save for the drummer) was lined up in a straight line across the stage. Yet instead of setting up on the front of the stage like every single other band, they only occupied the back half of the stage. It was like they were trying to distance themselves from the crowd. Don’t ask me why they chose to do it that way. As you may or may not be aware, I’ve said some not-so-nice things about the fact that Fleet Foxes were headlining a night of this festival, in particular because I felt like they were not yet worthy of headliner status. Two albums and 3 years shouldn’t earn you such privileges, even if those two albums were both completely amazing. What still consistently amazes is how they’re able to pull off all those dense harmonies in a live setting. It’s incredible to watch and to hear, even as the guys do nothing but stand in the same place the entire set. They rolled through their requisite great songs, from “Mykonos” to “Grown Ocean” and “White Winter Hymnal”, all the way past the “Blue Ridge Mountains” before finally ending with “Helplessness Blues”. I’d call the set triumphant if only it were just a little more engaging. As it stood, everything was very nice and pleasant, but the band could use just a little more spark in their performance in order to fully justify their headliner status. After a very long day in the hot sun, it was extremely nice to kind of relax and let Fleet Foxes take you away. THAT was the real benefit of their night closing set.
Okay, that wraps up a lengthy Day 2. Day 3 kicks off in another few hours, so if you’re headed out there, best of luck to you. Hot temperatures await, but so does fun. Stay hydrated. I’ll have my recap of Day 3, and one final full festival wrap-up for you once this whole thing draws to a close.