Wednesday, October 3, 2012

September Mixtape

Highlighting the songs I've discovered, rediscovered, or repeatedly played each month. The order reflects an attempt to create a cohesive mixtape, not to rank the songs in any way. 

In one month, Spotify has opened my eyes to so much new music, especially recent work from artists I've enjoyed in the past but recently neglected.  So let's get to it:

1. Passion Pit - "I'll Be Alright."  Another devastating song whose title could end up being the ironic epitaph of troubled lead singer Michael Angelakos.  Like almost all of PP's music, though, this bubbly pop track is catchy and enduring.

2. Crystal Castles feat. Robert Smith (of The Cure) - "Not in Love."  I always liked the original of this song because of the waves of synths that kick in during the chorus.  But it felt understated (as does the large majority of Crystal Castles's electronica) because of Alice Glass's murmured vocals.  Smith's addition totally reinvigorates "Not in Love," transforming the pessimistic line "I'm not in love" into a triumphant anthem.  I've listened to this song over and over again; it's so catchy, builds up gradually, and has a huge payoff at the chorus.  I need check out The Cure now.

Crystal Castles (left) with Robert Smith.

3.  Passion Pit - "Mirrored Sea."  The ghostly yet zany synths that open this song are perfect.  It's such a unique, evocative sound that somehow blends seamlessly into the frenetic keys on the verse.  These discrete parts then intersect at the chorus, and it somehow works.  Sonically, this may be as dark as PP is going to get, but it's impressive new ground to tread, and it importantly balances out the sugary, "gossamer" sounds on this sophomore album with something weightier, more brooding.

4. Hammock - "You Lost the Starlight in Your Eyes."  I was heading up 9th Avenue on my way to a Two Door Cinema Club concert while listening to Hammock's hazy dream-pop, and I felt more like I was floating than walking, teetering between reality and dream.  The song reminds me of M83's surreal "I Guess I'm Floating" because it reproduces the effect of hovering over your surroundings.  The orchestral sound here is very cinematic--either there's a lot of reverb or those are sliding guitars (either way, I like them both, and I'm sold here)--and the 4 minutes of echoing singing (on a mostly instrumental album) increase the song's emotional punch, marking the album's climax.  "Starlight"'s title balances ambiguity with poignancy, which I think is the appeal of most instrumental music: its sounds evoke visceral reactions, but each reaction is largely subjective.

5. Bon Iver and James Blake - "Fall Creek Boys Choir."  I am really enjoying what I am hearing by James Blake (stay tuned for next month's mix!), but I stumbled upon this song in my Spotifying of Bon Iver.

I love everything about "Choir": the wolf on the cover and its repeated, solitary howl evoke that woodsy atmosphere Bon Iver's music is so often associated with; the abundance of auto-tune maximizes the emotional impact of the song; and the thunderous bass makes me car tremble as I blast this brooder on my way to school.

6. Two Door Cinema Club - "Handshake."  I think this is my favorite cut from TDCC's new album, although after hearing "Sleep Alone" live, I think I may have to reconsider.  But anyway, this song has all the elements that fans adore and that have brought this group such heavy (and almost instantaneous) acclaim: big synths, screechy, trickling guitars, dance-inducing beats, lucid vocals, and an expansive but not over-the-top pop sound.  I can dig it, though right now I think their debut is more impressive.

7. Silversun Pickups - "Bloody Mary (Never Endings)."  I'm glad I finally gave this album some spins; it's not nearly as bad as the critics made it out to be.  It's uneven, that's for sure, but it has it's moments, like on the impressive "Bloody Mary" single, where synths build only to dissolve again and again until the chorus finally barges in around the 2:30 mark.  It's a nice show of restraint, which I didn't think Silversun had in them, and I really enjoy the chorus, especially how the bass booms over the twinkling keys.  This is also one of the strongest vocal performances on the album.

8. Chromatics - "Back from the Grave."  This was the one song I got into in late August and put on the mix before Spotify shook the whole game up!  As their name implies, Chromatics are a bright band; even when their sound is sparse, their music still bursts with color.  Their multicolored album cover reinforces this idea. So it's not all too surprising that this dirge has a palpable vitality to it, even though it's hard not to be emotionally drained by a devastating like, "When I look at the sky / Well, I wish I was gone / Because mother you're gone / Father you're gone / Lover you're gone / And other you're gone." Ruth Radelet's crystal-clear vocals evoke to me a childlike innocence, which makes these simplistic yet depressed lyrics all the more painful to hear.  They're not burdened with excessive pity; it's just the pain of loss and the desperate wish to become lost yourself.

9. Jens Lekman - "She Just Don't Want to Be with You Anymore."  Ah, more sliding guitars.  Here's another bummer from one of my favorite singer-songwriters: the funny, perceptive, witty, and all-around-awesome Jens Lekman. Jens's newest album is predictably excellent, but it focuses around an apparently dark time for the singer: his struggles coping with a broken heart. I really appreciate the brutal honesty in this song; it would be easier to scapegoat the girl as a whore or liar, but Jens has to accept the harsh reality of rejection as both an individual and artist: "You look up her name on the party last night / You'll find her with another lover, / But there is no lover. / She just don't want to be with you anymore." The delicate keys, sliding guitars, and jazzy sax solo all elicit a feeling of isolation, and Jens is definitely wallowing in his pity here, but he's too endearing of a guy for me to criticize -- and besides, wallowing can be admirable if it's honest. It's hard to pick out a song for this mix because his album flows so well, but I suppose I was originally moved by how painfully honest and surprisingly straightforward this song was from a usually playful and metaphorical lyricist.

10. Jens Lekman - "The End of the World Is Bigger than Love." You know how some artists just have an identifiable sound? Those strings at the beginning of this song are so Jens Lekman. Jens described this album as "aerodynamic," which I definitely hear that on this song: "You know how in the early 90s, a lot of the songs were very focused on the verses being very quiet, and the choruses being super loud, like Nirvana? I was looking for the opposite of that, where you hardly notice where the chorus starts; it's just like an airplane taking off from a runway, smooth, and all of a sudden you're in the air." The list that ends this song reminds me of Bright Eyes's "I Must Belong Somewhere," only here Jens enumerates the quotidian things he sees, reads, or experiences that can distract him from his heartbreak and remind him that his suffering is, after all, "not the end of the world." I don't think these two songs really do this album justice because it's really something that needs to be listened to front to back-- something I've done numerous times this month.

11. The XX - "Angels." I love the XX's debut. I think it's an extraordinary album and probably will be remembered as a landmark of the 2000s. Yet for all the talk about the group's minimalist aesthetic, I still found myself wanting to hear them pare their sound down even more; I felt that, overall, the album could have been starker, less poppier, and more intimate. Every note could've resonated and the silences could, as many journalists have discussed, have sounded (even more) like instruments/meanings of their own. "Angels," the first single from the tepidly received (IDK why!) Coexist does just this. This is as bare-bones as you can get, with Jamie XX's trademark reverby guitars in sync with Romy Madley Croft's intimate whispers. The song thunders, crackles, and commands your attention for every second; there's no fluff to be heard here.

12. The XX - "Missing." And now for the male vocals. More super intimate, stripped-down excellence, only here we get more fluctuations in the vocal dynamics.  I also love how the song reaches a stasis, then the single guitar suddenly fills the empty spaces with an electronic wail.

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