1. The Shins - "The Rifle's Spiral." James Mercer, the lead singer and mastermind of the Shins, said that this "song is written from the perspective of somebody funding and paying for suicide bombers to engage in that horrible activity. Just the perverse and grotesque thing that that is, and you know, living in the age we live in and my disrespect and fear of religion in general just fueling that intense hatred and appalling violence.” I would've never fathomed this interpretation, especially for such a sunny opening song, although that does explain the chorus's beautifully-written prophesy: "Long before you were born / You were always to be a dagger floating / Straight to their heart." The Shins really do know how to open an album: "Caring Is Creepy," "Kissing the Lipless," "Sleeping Lessons," and now "The Rifle's Spiral" are all catchy, pop-infused gems -- some of the group's best tracks to date. These opening songs also demonstrate the band's progression from its lo-fi, indie roots to its glossier pop sound. The gradual change to a more mainstream genre hasn't compromised the group's music in any way -- in fact, as Mercer's quotation shows, the subject matter of the Shins' songs appears more serious than ever. I haven't given this album enough attention as I should have, but I believe Port of Morrow will, like Chutes Too Narrow, be a staple on my summer playlists.
2. Sleigh Bells - "End of the Line." Following up 2010's awesomely boisterous Treats, Sleigh Bell's Reign of Terror was a major letdown: it's awkward, overly polished, too cute. The only song that stuck was "End of the Line," an alluring pop song about suicide (what's with all these bleak pop songs!). I really enjoy the contrast between the urgent, whispery vocals of Alexis Krauss with the song's searing guitar, which saws through its catchy chorus. I'm surprised that I didn't tire of this song yet, though its lasting value hasn't managed to salvage the rest of the album.
3. Passion Pit - "Little Secrets." On the contrary, this pop-entrenched album (I guess I was in a better mood in April than in March, despite the misery of grad school), is strong from start to finish. However, like the songs from the Shins and Sleigh Bells, the delightfully poppy "Little Secrets" also buries its emotions, concealing anger and disappointment with danceable synths, children's choirs, and infectious choruses. Beneath this instrumental acid trip is the bleak realization that "lifelines wane / and you can't explain / as your friends complain / you've caused all this pain / and you proudly shame / your whole family's name." Almost certainly about drugs--"let this be our little secret / no one needs to know we're feeling / higher and higher and higher," sings the chorus, while one verse claims "now I've hit the mark / stabbing at the dark / And I cannot help but ignore the people staring at my scars"--the song's sonic revelry depicts the selfish hedonism of the drug-user, whose addiction enervates and shames his family and friends. It's still hard not to want to dance to this immensely catchy song--oh, the irony of all the people who've probably danced to this song on E at clubs!--but these major secrets indelibly darken its blissful, carefree sound.
4. Passion Pit -"The Reeling." The same goes for "The Reeling": "we dug these holes we crawled into / now they're my home . . . look at me, oh look at me, / is this the way I'll always be? / oh no, oh no." I'm not sure what to make of the children's choir, since they sing some of the most deceptively sinister lines on the album: perhaps its the voice of the id, the childish, pleasure-seeking urges that drive the subject's addiction.
5. Passion Pit - "Sleepyhead." Likely the catchiest song on the album, with one of the strangest instrumental choruses I've probably ever heard, "Sleepyhead" fittingly has the most opaque lyrics on Manners, as its already-loose narrative is interrupted with surreal, dreamlike images: "You said, 'It was like fire around the brim / Burning solid, burning thin the burning rim / Like stars burning holes right through the dark, / flicking fire like saltwater into my eyes'" I find the subsequent lines endlessly interesting: "You were one inch from the edge of this bed / I dragged you back a sleepyhead." PP has such a fun, unique, and easily digestible sound that their lyrics are often an afterthought, so its extra admirable that these words appear as carefully constructed as the layers of electronic fuzz on the instantly recognizable chorus.
6. DIIV - "How Long Have You Known?" The aquatic guitars and echoy vocals on DIIV's pensive "How Long Have You Known?" scream West Coast "chillwave," but this song apparently gestated in the Atlantic, not Pacific, Ocean. I don't know much about this Brooklyn-based band, but "How Long" captures that nostalgic, reverb-soaked, shoegaze aesthetic (yeah, that one) that I very much adore; it is so easy to get lost in the guitar waves and gentle chants, which act more as an instrument than a distinct voice for much of the song. Though DIIV says little lyrically, the few words --"How long have you known? How long has it shown? 'Forever, forever...'"--lend themselves to endless interpretation: What is being discovered? What kind of discovery is this? By saying so little, so much can be said.
7. Belle and Sebastian - "The Fox in the Snow." I forgot about this song then rediscovered it. I haven't unpacked the wisdom in these lyrics, but it's clear there's much to say about them; there are short stories here about a starving fox, a dissatisfied and intellectual girl, a boy on a bike, and a kid in the snow. Although I do not have a theory for how these stories connect, I can still idly admire the poetry in lines like " Boy on the bike, what are you like / As you cycle round the town? / You're going up, you're going down / You're going nowhere" and "Make the most of it / second just to being born / Second to dying, too. / What else could you do?"
8. mewithoutYou - "Fox's Dream of the Log Flume." They're baaaaaaaack. Finally, after the relatively tame It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's Alright!, lead singer Aaron Weiss retrieves his infamous shout/scream vocal style, while also retaining what one critic brilliantly called his "froggy melodies." Where to begin? How about how in four words the line "mistook sign for signified" makes a profound statement about post-structuralist religious theory? I've been struggling all semester to understand post-structuralism, so hearing such a brilliantly concise lyric instantly gave me goosebumps. The song is structured as a conversation between a fox and bear who've escaped a train crash (apparently they're part of the circus), and here we enter the minds of both characters. While Weiss can scream out brilliant one-liners like, "some with certainty insist no certainty exist,"--(in true post-modern form, this album is constantly questioning truth, certainty, existence, and identity)--one of my favorite passages is the bear's recollection, "in the blistering heat of the Asbury pier we sat quiet as monks on the Ferris wheel / until looking down at the waltzer and out at the sea I asked her, 'do you ever have that recurring fantasy / where you push little kids from the tops of the rides?' She shook her head no and I said 'Oh, neither do I.'" It's a surprisingly comical moment on the album's heaviest song. I love how Weiss maintains the amusement park imagery throughout the song: " I charged at the waves with a glass in my hand / and was tossed like a ball at the bottle stand / and landed beside your remains on the stones / where your cold fingers wrapped round my ankle bone / while maybe ten feet away was a star / thousands of times the size of our sun / exploding like tiny balloons you'd throw darts at." The lead singer of Paramore, for some reason, sings the backup vocals on this song, and she actually compliments Weiss's peculiar voice well. Analyzing this song would require much more energy than I can currently expend, so I'll just say that I couldn't be more pleased with the band's "return to form": impassioned shouts and screams, piercing drums, wailing electric guitars, and massive choruses. This album's about a train derailing; I'm ready for the bumpy ride.