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The Best Songs of 2017: Honorable Mention

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.

Pitchfork Music Festival 2011: Day 2 Recap

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.

Album Review: Destroyer – Kaputt [Merge]

Cheesy things and kitschy things are all about perspective. What’s one man’s treasure is another man’s trash and vice versa, and with this ever-changing world of ours, there’s generational gaps and disconnections that help to support that. As a child of the 80s, I find a particular amount of horror in some of the “mistakes” made during that decade, which includes things like shoulder pads, leg warmers, perms, an AIDS outbreak and some serious crap that some artists tried to pass off as pop music when it was anything but. To this day, synth pop or soft rock done in a certain way still really irks me if it dredges up some bad 80s memories. It’d be nice if bad 80s music were confined strictly to that decade, but with so many artists reaching backwards to find and exploit sounds of the past and adapt them to more modern conventions, now and then somebody goes to that spot and tries to pull it off yet again but with fingers crossed for a different result. Chromeo has been working that angle for a few albums now, and while there’s certainly a market for their brand of exploitation, most of the time it disgusts me. One of the people I would never expect to take a crack at bad 80s music would be Dan Bejar aka Destroyer, but on his new record “Kaputt” he does exactly that. Of course if anybody could pull it off with any sense of legitimacy, Destroyer would also be high up on that list.

Over the course of what’s now nine studio albums, Dan Bejar has proven himself to be a brilliant composer and songwriter, piecing together avant-pop melodies that are obtuse but still work in the exact ways they’re needed to. What was a little troubling about the last Destroyer record, 2008’s “Trouble In Dreams” was that it continued to use the same sorts of influences and approaches as the couple records prior to it, thereby turning an oft-unpredictable project into an utterly predictable one. 2009’s “Bay of Pigs” EP was a huge step back in the right direction. The nearly 14-minute title track was spacey, psychedelic and synth-infused with a large brushstroke of disco for a dance party should you desire one. It was a nice curveball that seemed to suggest the next Destroyer album would be in a similar, equally creative vein. With a shortened-by-two-minutes version titled “Bay of Pigs (Detail)” listed as the closing track on “Kaputt”, there was plenty of reason to believe that a more electro or disco-themed album was on the way. As it turns out, “Bay of Pigs (Detail)” is a standout track on the new album, but less because of how great it is and more because it’s the only one that doesn’t fully gel with everything that came before it. Instead of mixing 70s disco with modern electro tropes, “Kaputt” is Destroyer jumping to the late 70s/early 80s by pushing soft rock with a touch of jazz and a hint of pop. As I wasn’t very aware of much of the styles back in that era given that I was somewhere between infant and toddler, the way I generally define music from that era is via classic film soundtracks. While attempting a more John Hughes movie soundtrack probably would have served Destroyer well, “Kaputt” comes off more of a cross between the dark, brassy jazz of the “Taxi Driver” soundtrack mixed with the synth-pop of the “Scarface” (1983) soundtrack. By equating much of what happens on this record with those two classic films, it makes the whole thing that much more bearable and fascinating to listen to.

Opening track and first single “Chinatown” is a shock to the system from the very start, sputtering for a couple seconds at the open before what’s either electronic drums or a drum machine comes in with a steady but unnatural beat. Mixed with a lushly strummed acoustic guitar, the two fare well together until some heavy synths and wobbly keyboards take over the melody as the first verse begins. By the time the chorus strikes, a lone trumpet is fluttering in and out and around thanks to some echo effects. Bejar also gets some serious backing vocal help courtesy of Sibel Thrasher, and this is just the first of many appearances she’ll make on the album. The second verse welcomes a saxophone to the party for an extra touch of jazz. With a tempo that’s a little faster than a heavy ballad but a little slower than something you can tap your feet to, at its core the song is very much a condensed version of what the rest of the record will sound like. If “Chinatown” doesn’t thrill you, “Kaputt” is probably not going to be your record. On “Blue Eyes”, Bejar may make reference to New Order, but the song sounds very little like that band, though it might serve him well if it did. Instead, similar to how eyes come in pairs, you can pair up the different instruments on the song as each is essential to the other’s success. For example, the thinly plucked electric guitar isn’t as effective without the heavy bass as a counterpoint, just as the trumpet holds back some of the jazzy mood without the saxophone to compliment it. The chorus of female voices backing up and providing harmonies for Bejar are equally important as well, while the synths and percussion have their own thing going too. Among other things, those pairings alone are testament to the impressive and intricate way these songs are composed. But speaking of the last track’s reference to New Order, “Savage Night at the Opera”‘s towering synths and bouncy bass line actually does pay legitimate homage to the band. The electric guitar that comes in at the halfway mark is classic New Order as well, and the lack of any brass along with the solid tempo makes for one of the less interesting songs on the album but one of the easiest to fall in love with.

Two minutes of ambient, shimmering electronic sounds with some light acoustic guitar and piano begins the 8.5 minute “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker”, just before the flute shows up for some smooth jazz action. The flute is gone by the time Bejar starts singing though, as the track morphs into some late 70s funk, with a bass, piano and drum machine combination that works well with the brass section that hangs around for awhile before breaking into full-on free form solo mode for the last two minutes. Lyrically the song is significant as well, given that’s Kara Walker’s contribution to the track. She’s an artist specializing in racial history, and Bejar sings her unconventional words to interesting effect here. The six minutes that make up the title track “Kaputt” are remarkable in how they effortlessly blend some 80s-leaning dancefloor beats with brassy, smooth jazz. Without a doubt it’s challenging to pull off something like that, not to mention while Bejar sings the lines, “Wasting your days, chasing some girls alright/Chasing cocaine through the backrooms of the world all night”. When you really think about it in context with how the music pairs together a sexy saxophone melody with a coke-fueled dancefloor beat, there’s nothing more appropriate both for the song and the album as a whole.

There’s so much about “Kaputt” that absolutely screams corny, cheesy, out of style, and tacky. Pull some of the brass out of this record and you’ve got something much more new wave and on the righter/better side of 80s music. Take out all the synths and leave the brass, and you’ve got something severely soft rock/jazz that’s just about the worst sin you can commit to record (in my humble opinion). When placed together as they are on this album, the natural conclusion to draw is that it falls somewhere in between those two parallels. The thing is, “Kaputt” is not an okay record, or a simply good or bad one. Instead, it’s a miracle of an achievement – one of those rare cases where two separate and unequal parts can combine to create something greater than either could hope or dream to accomplish separately. Perhaps the best way to describe it is by saying that the worst elements present here take a nosedive so far down that they fall into the “so bad it’s good” category. It’s a new found appreciation for camp value, and a gambit that on paper appears to make no sense. Hell, reading about it now probably makes very little sense as well. Yet listening to it feels strangely familiar even though you’ve probably never heard anything like this before. This is not only one of the most original Destroyer albums to date, it’s also one of the most original albums you’ll hear this year – that’s virtually guaranteed. What else can satisfy fans of both Roxy Music and Kenny G in one sitting? Or maybe the better question is, why would anyone even want to attempt such a feat? Only Dan Bejar knows the answer to that one.

Destroyer – Chinatown

Buy “Kaputt” from Amazon

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