MIX XL — In This Theme There Is Wonder and Fear.

Spotify Playlist.

YouTube Playlist.

Apple Music Playlist.

Willie Hutch — I Choose You I’ve been trying to be more of a student of the motown sound. Often the way I’ll be introduced to this sound is through a sample on a hip-hop track and I’ll do a little digging. I’ll catch the bug and listen exclusively to this sound for days. The raw and authentic nature of these songs is poetic in their choir. The pleading, the crooning, desperation, it’s all so resonant. There is something in these songs that seem personal, like there is nothing to parse through or dig among, there are only these words from the artist to the one woman he has in mind. A framed photo on the nightstand or the black and white portrait kept in the breast pocket for eternity. It’s a romance and a love I long to recreate and to nurture. The “whoa” in question in this song really illustrates every emotion in the prism I attain for. (YouTube)

Portugal. The Man — So American So, before this was The Ubiquitous Car Commercial band, Portugal. The Man had a wild spectrum of records that seemed to reach back into different pockets of time, the most potent of which is the folksy and bucolic era of the 60s. This song perfectly borrows the production style of the drums, with the loose and rolling sound of the snare and the tubbing and handmade sound of their toms. I feel headbands, I feel round-framed glasses and long, wide prairies in which to sit and listen to this song. It’s a sunbaked high, one that parachutes you down in the aftermath of psychedelics, once all that has melted has reassembled. (YouTube)

Yumi Zouma — Bruise This is a lush pop song, one that hangs loose in the pocket. One that changes the way you walk, changes the way your feet hit the floor. Your gait gets lankier, sexier, coaxes a different breed of attention. Thick and shadowy synthesizers dawn on the second half of the song, painting the atmosphere of the song in impossibly deep purples, indescribably internal blues. The urgency of wounds. The plucking guitar creates rungs of a ladder deep into something Below, something underneath our ego that gives way to a freedom the many nations of our desire wish to inhabit. We give way. (YouTube)

Mallrat — Groceries This is such a cute song about the frustrating weakness we experience in having microaffairs with people that we share experiences with. We carry the weight of the deep crush we have, even when we don’t want it. Our chemistry is more powerful than reason. What a fucking catchy song. The hook is bigger than anything we can hold in our hands, irresistibly giving us the excuse to dance, the invitation to let loose, arms in the air. “This sucks. I’m lovesick.” is an ANTHEM. I want to be out with you when this song comes on. (YouTube)

S — White House I discovered S (Jenn Champion) this year on a walk with my dog during one of the hottest summers I can remember. There’s a sadness that I don’t want to feel while I’m creating a pre-sweat under a layer of light clothing. But the album stole my attention, utterly swept my consciousness under a rug and would not let me concentrate on my environment, on my dog, on my feet. It set me afloat. There is an earnestness in the dagger-voiced delivery of the song that’s punctuated by the high-hat penetrating with exclamation points. The pauses hang heavily, painting a suspense, like an attack of words you long to endure. “I feel alive, it’s always you, so you broke my heart, i would do it again, it’s always you.” Beautiful. (YouTube)

The Cure — Catch This song has come with me for DECADES. There is a reason that, despite my spiral into an omnium gatherum of underground scenes, I will always cite The Cure as one of my top five bands. It begins with Staring At the Sea and Galore, a couple of greatest hits records that showed me the weirdness, the longing, the glamour and the sadness of what these goth kings would create. There were so many songs on Galore though, that hit a feeling that I couldn’t ever cage in. Feelings that had no vocabulary equivalent. This song (and Letters to Elise) sum these emotions up perfectly. Something with sadness that has no measurable depth, but with a sense of musical rejoice(?), a memory that is the color of pure bliss, one whose temporal nature is exactly what made it perfect, but also the loss of that moment, our inability to recapture it bringing a wave of grief. We seek the high for the rest of our life, and while we find a hundred thousand new experiences that make us see new and inexpressible pieces of how happiness can feel, we become junkies to our greatest, lowest moments. (YouTube)

Ice Choir — Two Rings Oh? You haven’t discovered your goth-night, elaborate, no strings attached, unironic dance personality yet? Cool. Cool cool. You can skip this one. This track will either sound wildly ironic to you or a majestic throwback to glossy neon pop. Polished chrome keys and drum machine adorn this Quicktime Environment, while Feldman’s time-warped vocals elevate this throwback to authentic proportions. This feels like huge pleated pants and casual suit jackets with enormous shoulder pads bursting from beneath. Big haircuts and weird shoes. Dave Gahan dancing on an infinite loop. (YouTube)

Dire Straits — Money For Nothing I can’t fathom the tone on these guitars. The riff alone is flawless, a driving and repetitive loop that floats somewhere in the ZZ Top/Grateful Dead realm, something a little jammy that spills out just long enough before receding into the fuzzed out ocean and becomes part of the body that revealed it. But it’s the distortion of that sound that really makes it something special. It’s heavy in some way, the precursor to some kind of outboard motor revving to its max capacity. This one comes from when my Dad was even younger than me, a possibility that I hadn’t come to grips with at the time, and he was blown away by the music video. The Minecraft-esque giant block people moving through a squared space that wasn’t grounded in any reality, a computer artist rendering a manufactured space that we could never visit. There was a brief period where my father had MTV on pretty regularly and while I never loved the music, I loved the videos. I think I asked too many questions, so MTV stopped playing in our house. BTW, I just found out that Sting was on this track. (YouTube)

Lord Huron — Not Dead Yet I probably say this three dozen times a year. But I truly believe this is my song of the year. The cuffed shirt, the cuffed jeans, the Presley stamping foot. The sadness of booze and death, the days of unshaved facial debris. This song taps into the natural rhythms of the American Human Spirit, into the reptilian reaction within our core that summons movement in time with percussive noise. I don’t think much is said in the lyrics, but there’s a magnetism in this raw presentation of an Inhibition Free Culture that we unleash when we head out into the night, empty glasses on the bar, cold beer in our bellies and a throng of great company. This is the song that will keep me young while I’m older day by day, by and by. There’s a light in my eye when this song comes on and it’s a fire that will not expire. There’s a stranger in my eyes again. I swear to God I don’t know him. (YouTube)

Into It. Over It. — We Prefer Indoors This is the beginning of a stretch of songs that pushes me to the brink of safety and what it means to listen to music responsibly. There’s sunlight here, the heat of the outdoors. There’s a sense of rebellion in the explosion of music as it climbs higher and higher in Evan’s voice. I’m not the same as the bore you brought around before. I don’t deserve that resentment. The scrambling guitar and the scattershot drums marry perfectly as in most of the IIOI song writing catalog, showing off dynamic unions of impossible finger dexterity and exquisitely precise percussive execution. There’s an communal skillset that Weiss has acquired that has allowed him to speak in distinct lengths in which he will allow harmonics, dissonance and rattles to hold out, something akin to the way that Trent Reznor has unmasked the digital absconditus to allow things to hang and be extinguished at just the right time at just the right angle. (YouTube)

Tigers Jaw — Hesitation This track is coming off of one of the frontrunners for my record of the year. This song is filled with rejoice, big and expressive. I love the guitar sound on this song, like it’s coming out of a huge ornate body, resonating with gorgeous, lush notes. The words tell a story about a suffocation, a candle burning away at both ends and the confusion surrounding the need to keep a process alive. Man, those opening notes are heavy in a way that betrays the lightness of its tone. That chorus is enormous and simple, but the refrain of those opening chords coming back right after it opens up such a wild energy. This is a song that has a bright sound, a facade that dissolves the harder you look at the subject matter, complete with the solitary return trip on the back end. This is the happiest sounding song to ever make me want to throw a spin kick. Why do we keep going anyway? (YouTube)

Circa Survive — Carry Us Away An enormous sound. Circa Survive’s glacially slow progression has eroded a passage with unknown terminus, yet it sidles forward, carving a design deeper and more elegant with each step forward it takes. There’s something spiraling and internal about their music, a hypnotic cauldron of sound that reveals designs which lie deep within umbral obscurity. Something about the frequency of the notes, the length that they’re held out, steals away rational concentration and makes way for more intrinsic and complex observations. I swear, their songs are like psychoactive agents that begin to dissociate sound and voice. The higher the detail, the further the sinkhole. Near the three minute mark, the chorus returns but everything else is at half speed, spiraling like some perspective has stolen my attention, and I fall through gravity into my pupil. This song and many others from them bring me to the precipice of understanding, like listening long enough to the songs of whales to translate into a hidden language of the earth. Aural hieroglyphics. (YouTube)

Hopesfall — Bradley Fighting Vehicle I don’t think I’ve clenched my fist tighter in my life than while listening to this song. The opening riffs blast out of the gates like some kind of transport equipped with a thousand gallons of fuel. This entire album is something universally special, a comeback record for a band that had fallen into a legendary rearview, one that I’d long buried and put to bed. When they returned with something like this, a sound that resembled some kind of time capsule that had orbited vast regions far off from what our imaginations could fathom, it sat in a place reserved for deep ocean myths. Things past the galactic horizons felt more attainable, more actualized. And digging into their lyrics, it seemed that they’d come back with a message of affirmation, transmissions that don’t confirm what they’ve seen but shimmer in their eyes with a knowledge that they might not have been ready for. Staring at the sky for years. (YouTube)

At the Drive-In — Ticklish At the Drive-In are the closest I’ll probably get to a “punk” band, though from album to album, they are an avant garde act, through and through. From their roots as an indie-leaning hardcore band to a post-punk dynamo, there has always been a sense of defected art to their sound. Omar’s coloring-out-of-the-lines guitar work highlight in the hangover of the verse to this one, where Jim Ward’s more digestible hooks pick up is exactly the framework that makes this band an iconic outfit. The spastic and ruptured nervous system of Cedric’s vocals scream a resistance. One of the great and faulted timings of my timeline is that I was introduced to the band at the same time much of the world was, with Relationship of Command’s release and they broke up shortly thereafter and I was never able to see what their live performance would have yielded. I can only imagine a cardio routine unlike one I’d ever experienced. (YouTube)

Arlo Parks — Black Dog This was the first record of the year that I was truly excited for after Parks released some singles late in 2020. The album will definitely be one that I want to talk about in retrospect of the year’s best records. Delicate vocals that walk the hallways of the song and leave no surface untouched are really what make this song so special. The narrative here is powerful, crafting ways to drag someone up from the muck of depression, from the seduction of addiction by any means necessary. I’d lick the grief right off your lips. This song sums up exactly what it feels like to bargain for eye contact, to throw tides of positivity and action at a loved one’s fortifications. To negotiate with them time and again to allow a good thing inside. Attrition is the only way. This song is heavier than it intends. (YouTube)

Madvillain — 3.214 Hard to argue ‘the greatest’. The things we love, especially when it comes to music and art, are all tied inherently to nostalgia and our experiences. When DOOM passed, no question, I think we lost the greatest. From the sheer volume of output, from clarity of flow, from creativity and authenticity, DOOM was the truth. I could have picked a dozen songs or more to represent the man, but this song just seemed to embody one of the best exhibits of his style and his skill, not to mention the collaborations with Madlib are what I will always put on top of the heap. His rhymes boasted but never glowed with arrogance. They told stories but never got lost in narrative. Throughout his songs, there was always a sense that his words were driving the vehicle and his voice was just shaping the concept. We won’t get another artist quite as unique as MF DOOM and if we do, I don’t think we’ll be lucky enough to have him fall into the perfect clique that he did. All caps when you spell the man name. I don’t think anyone has ever tucked me so deeply into the nebula of their cortex as this artist has. I don’t think anyone has ever brought me so close to the genesis of thought. (YouTube)

Radiohead — Idioteque I read a Radiohead book this year, one that spoke more about what it means to follow Radiohead, one that spoke more about the history surrounding Radiohead than the band itself. What it means to be a fan of the band, to be a fan of music, to be a fan of anything. And I think that experience came full circle. Before I became one of the initiated, I only truly heard what was going on around Radiohead. I could never hear the band themselves. I promise you, it wasn’t until I actually saw them live that it clicked with me. And on the floor in New Jersey, 10 feet from Thom Yorke, it all started to make sense. Albums fell into place, songs became flourishing gardens. OK Computer became an anxiety refuge. The big snare hit of Idioteque drumming forward like a march in the midst of the technomancy illustrates such a missing piece of what the band was always about that I was missing. Three or four vocals soaring overhead at once, shining streams of electronic hail threatening to bash in the very windshields of the frequency highway you’re driving down. It’s as damaging as any aggressive record you’ll find and just as punishing. It just doesn’t use its fists, instead relying on digital espionage. The wound an idea can open is more horrifying. I’ll laugh until my head comes off. I’ll swallow till I burst. (YouTube)

Foxing — Lich Prince Just barely beating out Hopesfall’s record in 2018 for album of the year were these boys. What poetry this band has created with strange and abstract songs, with noise and orchestrations. The pitch of Conor Murphy creeps along the outsides of the rooms of the house, a long shadow cast through a hooded lamp, long fingers stretched and elongated in the meager light. Repeating in his own stupor, rocking back and forth in a jaundiced metronomic plea I just want real love for you. There’s a special place in the palm of my foot that I will rock back and forth upon when hearing this song, spiraling inward on myself, examining timelines and internal cave drawings, allegories of shadow that have crafted a reality before me. Murphy’s voice becomes a woodwind, a howling glacier catching nautical gusts and shaping them into poltergeistic verbs. Is it my tunnel vision that has captured the ability to translate these shaped sounds into theses? Is this the opiate lullaby that tilts the chin? Like debating radio frequencies in an ion storm, the way the guitar and the vocals genuflect and cruciform at the end of the song is such a wild finale. (YouTube)

Phoebe Bridgers — Kyoto I’m not sure I can rightly convert this song to words to describe it. One day, this song’s preview came on the radio while sitting in a parking lot with my wife and I started getting choked up before the song even began to play. There’s something marvelous, miraculous about what this song does. The barely squeezed diaphragm of lyrics pouring out onto a foreign pavement like a knocked over bottle of liquor with no one to watch it, no one to drink it, no one to save it, so we witness by inheritance. “This song suns me for days to the point of brittle contact, then drops me onto frigid sheet of dead plastics and I shatter into a goddamn trillion memories.” I hyperventilate. I can’t control what this song means. The way He got her brother’s birthday wrong. The way He might be getting sober. The letter and how she doesn’t have to read it. I wanted to see the world through your eyes until it happened, then I changed my mind. I guess she changed her mind. I guess I changed her mind. I’m going to kill you, if you don’t beat me to it. When she says she changed her mind after flying over the ocean, and she lets out a vocal breath, a sense of relief… I collapse. (YouTube)

Zella Day — Holocene (feat. Weyes Blood) This song has a timeless quality to it, like recycled oxygen in an airplane, like the way sound feels numbed when your sinuses inflate. It feels sterile like smooth space station plexiglass, but warm and organic like a hand pressing up against it, if only for the warmth of our skin on the other side. The way that the vocals harmonize and hum into each other the way a hive fills with the buzz of a hundred drones is organic in an ASMR recreative way, twin larynxes chiming wind mathematically in a sequence generated for hypnotic gesture. (YouTube)

Last Days of April — Two Hands and Ten Fingers This song fades in and out of reality. The song dawns on itself in the beginning, a building light that reveals an entire landscape that already exists but we’re just being exposed to it as the volume rises. I’m sorry so damn sorry. There is an illustrative dialog at play, one entity trying to convince another that it can survive without it, can thrive without it. All or nothing. This song sounds sad not because it sounds like it’s been sung forever, but because it’s been being waged endlessly like some kind of didactic proof. (YouTube)

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store