best of 2015: songs

vscocam barn copypicking just ten songs to represent an entire year in music is no easy feat, but such is the plight of a minimalist music website.  the following tracks shaped the dimestore’s trajectory in 2015, from unexpected email submissions that proved riveting to a wide swath of midwest hip-hop to gorgeous post-rock soundscapes.  our picks run in alphabetical order, and you can click on the title’s link to navigate away and hear each track; dig in below.

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shake it loose coverastronauts, etc. – “shake it loose”

almost every track from mind out wandering would have pulled its weight in this slot, but “shake it loose” is a particular hallmark due to its kaleidoscopic union of pop and psychedelia.  anthony ferraro and his quintet of astronauts lock into an indelible groove right on the initial downbeat, the interplay between the guitar’s rise-and-fall motif and the rhythm section’s meticulous subdivision at the end of each phrase informing both the framework of ferraro’s vocal and the ensemble’s gradual abandonment of structure in favor of a more textural exploration.  if “shake it loose” sounds almost unfairly organic during its dreamlike sequence, that’s because it is; the entirety of mind out wandering was recorded straight to tape without ever passing through a computer, allowing each note on the album to resonate with an extra degree of authenticity.

chairlift ch-chingchairlift – “ch-ching”

caroline polachek worked with beyoncé during chairlift’s interim between full-length projects, a fruitful partnership that may have dictated the duo’s first new single in nearly three years.  “ch-ching” subverts chairlift’s penchant for constructing massive sing-along hooks by trimming the first two choruses down to sultry finger snaps and eerie vocal twists on the song’s titular sound.  still, even as the final refrain hits in all its harmonized glory, “ch-ching” retains the notion that chairlift are now comfortable outside the nostalgic confines that defined their earlier work.  there’s genuine potential for moth to be a truly cosmopolitan album.

day wave headcaseday wave – “drag”

jackson phillips drew a lot of justifiable comparison to dylan baldi’s early output as cloud nothings this year: both projects hone(d) in on home-recorded pop songs and a reverence for the guitar as a pivotal melodic instrument, but phillips’ work as day wave occupies remarkably different sonic territory.  to illustrate this point, look no further than “drag,” the earworm that first put day wave on the internet’s radar in 2015.  phillips, a percussionist by trade, puts faith in an old drum machine to anchor the song’s robust foundation while he turns his attention to an ostinato guitar motif that molds the concrete of “drag” into a majestic skyscraper.  effervescent synth countermelodies soon blossom from the track’s confident chorus, dutifully weaving throughout phillips’ slightly-downtrodden lead vocal and the bevy of arpeggios he stacks on top.  day wave takes unabashed influence from the beach boys and new order; “drag” proves that to be quite the winning combination.

foxing – “the magdalene”

st. louis quintet foxing crafted one of this year’s most affecting post-rock albums.  dealer is largely devoid of the agitation that pervaded its predecessor, the albatross, but the tension that is released is done so with remarkable poise.  “the magdalene” is a deeply personal confessional that exposes the psychological trauma conor murphy suffered during a religious upbringing, wrought with sexual suppression and guilt.  but foxing is incredibly deft at turning grief into catharsis, and “the magdalene” eventually spills over into a lush b-section where simple melodies of all timbres intertwine, propelled by a surging and syncopated rhythm section.  when murphy cries out “watch me come / undone” in his falsetto, chills linger.

isaac vallentin hederaisaac vallentin – “stewardess”

isaac vallentin wins our informal award for best blind album submission via email; if you haven’t heard hedera yet, go listen.  “stewardess” is the track that got us hooked, with its arpeggiated blueprint slowly morphing into an exquisitely subdued post-dub groove.  vallentin thrives at moving fluidly between genres throughout hedera, and “stewardess” is a microcosm of that ability; his deep, sonorous lead vocal ties everything together and ushers in a chorus of chiming synth pads for a final triumphant statement.  in a year when james blake remained dormant, vallentin delivered murky musings with equal aplomb.

kendrick lamar – “king kunta”

what’s left to write about to pimp a butterfly that hasn’t already been written?  kendrick lamar’s lauded third album reigned relatively unchallenged as the definitive piece of hip-hop in 2015, trading out the grit of good kid, m.a.a.d. city for soul samples and jazz-inclined collaborators from a resurgent l.a. scene.  “king kunta” brings the funk in the most defiant way possible, as kendrick accosts industry opportunists and fair-weather fans over a swaggering thundercat bass line while maintaining his status as a dominant lyricist in the game.  but the song’s oxymoronic title is a reference to the notion that a man is only as powerful as his the color of skin; despite achieving financial and critical success, lamar’s very existence is often systemically viewed as sub-par.  “king kunta” is an easily digestible snapshot of an incredibly dense and experimental personal odyssey, a suitable gateway into the strain of hip-hop kendrick lamar created for himself.

ick jenkins wave[s]mick jenkins – “your love”

mick jenkins teamed with a handful of producers on his new ep wave[s] for a plethora of directions; perhaps not surprisingly, his union with the perpetually in-demand kaytranada yielded the most enduring results.  “your love” is a far cry from the introspective consciousness that pervaded last year’s the water[s], with jenkins crooning and rapping about a potential transcontinental romance over an aqueous bass line paired with warm synth interjections.  it’s the closest thing to blatant r&b that jenkins has ever proffered to his audience, and “your love” slowly became our low-key song of the summer.

sayth body pillowsayth – “under water • under ice”

sayth’s collaborative work with north house across body pillow is the result of a budding friendship, but it’s also a glorious intersection of two critical young voices in minneapolis’ diy scene.  “under water • under ice” is the ep’s resolute opening statement; north house’s wobbly arpeggios stumble through his diligent snare work while sayth constructs a grim narrative for the “generation of ‘i’m fucked when i turned twenty-seven.'”  but the track’s hook fights valiantly to make the strongest impression, with sayth staring adversity and listlessness in the face and offering more positive – albeit sometimes defiant – alternatives.

out may 5th via ruby yacht/the order labelscallops hotel – “lavender chunk (ft. hemlock ernst)”

it’s a testament to rory ferreira’s unwavering dedication to create provocative and indelible art that one of his projects is represented in year-end contention for the third year in a row.  scallops hotel feels like a cleansing alternative to ferreira’s more recognized output as milo, a no-risk solution for him to explore new facets of production or to alter his songwriting approach.  plain speaking yielded some of ferreira’s most readily accessible and pointed work to date; “lavender chunk” cycles through a simple ostinato with an extended guest verse from samuel t. herring’s alter ego hemlock ernst, but ferreira hops on just in time to deliver a remarkably fluid stream of consciousness, largely devoid of the non-sequiturs that had been his crutch.  more than anything, “lavender chunk” will endure as poignant, with the outgoing statement quickly morphing into an unsettling mantra that reflects the state of things in 2015.

tame impala currentstame impala – “yes i’m changing”

tame impala was our shameless self-indulgence of 2015.  during the waning days of summer, when the dimestore headquarters packed up again and moved back across the country, currents supplied a palette of driving music that was more than adequate.  “yes i’m changing” soundtracked sunset ventures through the cascades one night and sunrise journeys through the rockies the following morning, its undeniably pristine arrangements only slightly quelled by a sub-par car stereo and a flighty aux cord.  kevin parker deserves some sort of award for writing the most prominent bass lines on psychedelic records, as “yes i’m changing” rumbles through a closing chapter in life under the direction of a low-end presence that continuously flirts with melodic territory.  in a year marked with a handful of new beginnings, “yes i’m changing” hit home.

best of 2014: songs

welcome to day three of our year-end best-of week, an especially interesting day in which we attempt to choose, dissect, and justify our favorite songs of 2014.  obvious pop heavyweights like sia’s “chandelier” and taylor swift’s “shake it off” were removed from consideration in order to recognize some lesser-known artists, the ultimate ethos of dimestore saints.  we’re pretty satisfied with the following ten tracks, but we’d love to hear arguments for any we may have neglected in the comments section below.

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pillar point album cover10. pillar point – “cherry”

scott reitherman’s first solo venture as pillar point touched on nostalgia in all the right ways, with sleepy pop music powered by vintage roland synths and drum machines that still retained an acute sense of originality and inventiveness.  all nine songs on pillar point are earworms in their own right, but the album’s third track, “cherry,” particularly stuck with us throughout the year.  a punchy, fluid bass line pulsates underneath a stuttering vocal sample before finally giving way to the song’s verse, which finds reitherman’s understated approach to lyricism thrust into the spotlight.  an influx of rich, gorgeous textures often distracts from pillar point’s lyrical content, but the hesitant, poignant examination of a blossoming relationship found in “cherry” just can’t be ignored.

jamie xx sleep sound9. jamie xx – “sleep sound”

the xx have been taking their sweet time writing and recording the follow-up to 2012’s coexist, but apparently jamie xx is very skilled at multi-tasking.  the brooding sound architect has yet to release a solo full-length of his own, but the three tracks he did offer up this year were nothing short of monumental.  while “all under one roof raving” drew the most attention, jamie xx’s absolute best work came in the form of “sleep sound,” an aptly-titled nocturnal journey with a punishing subterranean bass line countered by very patient drum programming, which waits nearly four minutes before guiding in the song’s crucial segue to its b-theme material.  if “sleep sound” is any indication, both the xx and its most prolific member are slated to have a very rewarding and important 2015.

8. alvvays – “adult diversion”

molly rankin’s apathetic drawl is one of the most endearing traits of fast-rising toronto upstarts alvvays, but it’s not the band’s most important.  the quintet’s wonderful self-titled debut largely hinges on the stellar guitar interplay between rankin and alec o’hanley, and “adult diversion” sets the tone.  it takes multiple close listens to discern where the song’s main riff splits off into separate countermelodies, and rankin & co. move on to new ideas and arpeggiations before true appreciation can set in.  and then the final component of the alvvays trifecta settles in: rankin’s blunt, polarizing lyrics.  “adult diversion” clearly outlines unrequited love – at best a crush, at worst a full-blown case of stalking – but its delivery is tongue-in-cheek, its trajectory unpredictable, its content slightly morose.  after all, not many college-radio bands can get away with singing about dead girls in closets, even if it’s only a passing reference.

cloud nothings album cover7. cloud nothings – “just see fear”

dylan baldi is dangerously close to becoming an infallible voice in the modern alternative rock climate.  whether or not that voice is discernible is another question entirely.  baldi’s fourth round at the helm of cloud nothings yields an intense but concise result, and “just see fear” is a perfect snapshot of the visceral nature of here and nowhere else.  seemingly over before it even starts, the song finds baldi singing confidently, almost gently at times, though the accompanying onslaught of buzz-saw guitar and drums immediately offsets any potential vulnerability.  the fact that cloud nothings has slimmed down to a power trio doesn’t seem to phase baldi, either; he points to the absence of a second guitarist with the unabashedly thin melody in the first half of the chorus before reminding listeners that a wall of distortion is truly the only indispensable member of cloud nothings.  oh, and his screams never fail to send shivers down spines.

shyne coldchain ii cover

6. vince staples – “nate”

vince staples has come a long way from his earliest role as earl sweatshirt’s especially vulgar side-kick, far enough to coax def jam into releasing his excellent debut ep hell can wait earlier this fall.  despite its warm reception, staples’ pivotal fourth mixtape, shyne coldchain ii, was arguably his most critical effort of 2014.  staples paints blunt, vivid images of less-than-ideal experiences throughout the mixtape’s ten tracks, and it peaks with “nate.”  visceral accounts of an abusive, drug-dealing father resound in his lyrics, but an inner conflict arises inside staples; though he concedes that “all i wanted was a hundred grand,” staples aptly recognizes the consequences of his father’s lifestyle.  the bridge on “nate” is crucial, as james fauntleroy essentially functions as an objective third party, summing up the cyclical hopelessness staples witnesses and examines in his music.

caribou our love cover5. caribou – “our love”

dan snaith spoke of the profound impact stevie wonder had on the creation of our love, his latest effort as caribou.  though their work couldn’t be more different from an aesthetic standpoint, snaith did manage to capture the sheer grandeur that wonder routinely brought to pop music.  our love is an unabashed pop record, and its title track is the surging centerpiece.  hell, the back half of the song is better than 95% of music released this year, but the importance of the front half’s static build elevates “our love” into the ninety-ninth percentile.  the bass line that snaith twists and warps into the song’s prevailing theme is just a measly four notes, but it’s his treatment and intense delivery that make it stick to whatever crosses its path.  ever the master of tension, snaith refuses to resolve the theme at the song’s close and leaves the fourth and final note hanging in the balance, forever tonicizing the figure in everyone’s heads.

lana del rey west coast cover4. lana del rey – “west coast”

lana del rey played us all.  an artist once dismissed as vapid and of middling talent was, conversely, lauded this year, thanks in part to her excellent sophomore effort ultraviolence.  but focus also shifted towards the understanding that lana del rey is a character, interested in exposing gender-based double-standards by fully indulging in them, forever daring us to critique her, to tear her to shreds.  most took the bait.  ultraviolence largely found del rey moving away from the technicolor hip-hop that dotted born to die, instead favoring a more nostalgic monochrome aided by dan auerbach’s production.  amidst ballads and grandiose ambitions lies “west coast,” an understated yet compelling song that is by and far del rey’s best piece of work to date.  she pushes ahead in earnest during the verses, but a little palilalia and a descending guitar lick is all it takes for her to lay back into a gorgeous half-time chorus, laden with reverb that figuratively recalls the hazy, beach-centric imagery conveyed on the single’s cover.

three love songs cover3. ricky eat acid – “god puts us all in the swimming pool”

the entirety of ricky eat acid’s arresting three love songs is emotive, but “god puts us all in the swimming pool” is especially heart-wrenching.  the song is a polarizing contrast to its predecessor, the drake-sampling, house-indebted “in my dreams we’re almost touching,” with its static motion pumping the brakes on any semblance of momentum the album had managed generate up to that point.  this poignancy is crucial, as it allows ricky eat acid’s mastermind sam ray to a moment to breathe before ushering in the erratic final quarter of three love songs.  all functions aside, the manipulation of the vocal loop on “god puts us all in the swimming pool” is one of the most beautiful musical moments of the year.

fka twigs lp1 cover2. fka twigs – “pendulum”

in theory, about half of the ten tracks on fka twigs’ stunning debut lp1 could occupy this slot; only one song really stood in the way of her total conquest of this segment.  tahliah barnett’s artistic persona transcends both her initial career as a backup dancer and the current temptation to lump her in with other singer-songwriters.  her output is largely autonomous, sure, but what sets her apart from those who might be considered her peers is her unabashed dedication to center her music around female sexuality.  and as a wonderful article on no fear of pop pointed out earlier this year, that focus on sex and sexuality is so large that it can’t be confined to twigs’ lyrics; it has to consume the rhythm and tonality of her music and the visual aesthetic and tone of her videos.  “pendulum” winds up in this slot because it directly embodies so much of that mentality.  the even-keeled, predictable beat that pans from one speaker to the other is as repetitive and reliable as a pendulum, while the song’s opening lyric clearly establishes sex as the lyrical catalyst.  but there’s a searing presence of cynicism as twigs ultimately is using “pendulum” as a platform to call a vapid, unresponsive lover on his shit.

a toothpaste suburb cover1. milo – “objectifying rabbits” (ft. open mike eagle)

milo’s career over the past two years has been fairly well-documented here at dimestore saints.  from his pair of eps to his cavalcade mixtape to his side-project scallops hotel, we haven’t missed much.  while milo’s first proper album, a toothpaste suburb, delivered some incredibly satisfying moments, it ultimately felt drawn-out and a bit uneven, perhaps because we’re used to consuming his thoughts in more concise doses.  that being said, the highlights of a toothpaste suburb are some of the finest works found in milo’s catalogue.  “objectifying rabbits” arrives just past the half-way mark of the record, and is the second part of a sequential triptych milo previewed before the album’s release date.  following the positively tender “you are go(o)d to me,” “objectifying rabbits” immediately reintroduces momentum into a toothpaste suburb with swelling synth progressions, setting up milo to deliver the finest opening line of 2014: “echolalia / lisztomania / i played my ukulele on the way to la grange, bruh.”  the non-sequiturs are there, but the lyrics are best-examined as an introduction to the song’s subject matter, which seems to find milo advocating for an appreciation of art and a positive outlook on life above all else.  milo dissents against hedonists and plato in his never-ending quest to convey his philosophical views, and open mike eagle’s closing verse compounds these thoughts in falsetto.  milo is a young artist with very complex thoughts, thoughts undoubtedly watered down to fit within the lyrical confines of a song.  although intensely personal songs radiate across a toothpaste suburb, “objectifying rabbits” is milo’s best effort in proclaiming his philosophical ethos.

 

best of 2013: songs

i’m upping the ante and treating you to my ten favorite songs of 2013, as opposed to last year’s five.  my choices don’t necessarily reflect contenders for album of the year, but don’t be surprised if some of the same names show up over the next couple of weeks.

10. oostende – keep shelly in athens: “oostende” was my first true glimpse at sarah p.’s vocal personality, which stretches from hesitant to confident within the duration of a verse and a chorus.  the synth pads are brooding throughout, but the lead line that kicks in three quarters of the way through the song routinely gets stuck in my head.  easily the best track off of the duo’s debut album at home, the power of “oostende” is only bolstered by an incredibly heart-wrenching music video.

 

9. collapse – vancouver sleep clinic: the second of just two tracks released by vancouver sleep clinic this year, “collapse” easily proves what tim bettinson is capable of doing with his voice.  retaining an incomprehensible aesthetic akin to bon iver, “collapse” evokes a frigid winter landscape that has already become relatable.  the production behind the vocals is also impressive, molding some james blake drum pads with soft-rock, folky guitars.  both vancouver sleep clinic songs have been firmly distinguishable so far, but “collapse” flexes the ensemble’s potential the most.

 

8. graceless – the national: trouble will find me still hasn’t fully settled in yet.  while the cohesive aspect of the album may be lacking, i know that “graceless” is probably one of the best songs the national have ever written.  there’s that underlying post-punk tone that harkens earlier tracks off of alligator and boxer, along with a truly anthemic final chorus.  the national is a band that ages well, and a sustained break from their earlier influences helped to add depth to that sound.

 

7. diamond mine – pillar point: i love a good mystery.  when i found pillar point through polyvinyl’s twitter page, the sheer absence of a biography or any sort of personal identity attached to the project made me appreciate the music that much more.  “diamond mine” is a chillwave standout that mixes a multitude of pulses, but that lead synth line is always an earworm, whether syncopated or straight in time.  the lyrics are a bit melancholy, juxtaposing the sunny, up-beat accompaniment, but that only adds to the overall sophistication of the songwriting here.

 

6. tennis court – lorde: i could talk about “royals,” but everyone talks about “royals.”  lorde stands for something that goes against the mainstream materialistic values and idolization of glamorous pop stars, but she’s also still a kid, barely out of high school and three years away from turning twenty.  that doesn’t detract from the fact that she’s very self-aware and intelligent; i think “tennis court” showcases this the best.  its lyrics are less about dissociating from material goods and more about defying social trends and chasing perfection.  “tennis court” is fairly autobiographical, highlighting lorde’s naivete in the music industry, but her skeptic tone suggests that she won’t buy into its extravagancies.  i guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

 

5. savage – majical cloudz: there’s a lot to be said about majical cloudz and their fantastic, under-the-radar year.  devon welsh’s voice is routinely haunting, pairing well with the minimalist compositions that define the aesthetic of the duo.  impersonator was an admirable record, but i was drawn to “savage,” a bonus track released just last month, more quickly than any song found on the album.  the ostinato keyboard part sets the tone for welsh’s lyrics, a fairly direct romantic narrative.  the first time i heard him break from his declamatory phrasing to croon “high on lsd with you,” i was sold, and i’ve felt the same tingling sensation every listen since.

 

4. summer skin – teen girl scientist monthly: someone likened teen girl scientist monthly to the pains of being pure at heart on steroids, a comparison that works especially well for “summer skin,” the opening track on their newest album modern dances.  the opening guitar line sells the song as an instant earworm of powerpop, but the gradual additions of keyboard textures and gang vocals find the brooklyn ensemble as an amalgamation of the answering machine and arcade fire.  “summer skin” is the kind of song you would wait around for hours to hear on the radio, but thankfully, you don’t have to do that.

 

3. comrade – volcano choir: “byegone” garnered understandable praise for volcano choir, with its anthemic folk rock feel reminiscent of bon iver’s sophomore album.  but “comrade” is the essence of what volcano choir has become: the marriage of collections of colonies of bees’ post-rock leanings and justin vernon’s vocal tendencies.  responsible solely for the lyrics and vocals on repave, vernon was in his element, generously modifying his voice to embellish the experimental aesthetic of the band.  the autotuned coda at the end of “comrade” makes the song and is gloriously powerful live; watch the video below for a frame of reference.

 

2. lungs – chvrches: any song off of the bones of what you believe could contend for a spot on this list.  chvrches was one of the most impressionable bands of 2013, seamlessly blending pop hooks with indie sensibility and dance floor beats.  “lungs” is buried deep within the album and is a syncopated gem; lauren mayberry’s voice is subtly doubled with a vocoder, adding a harsh undertone to an otherwise crystal clear timbre, but it’s the quarter note-triplet pattern fed through a filthy bass synthesizer that defines this song.  friends of mine who almost exclusively listen to electronic dance music appreciate chvrches due to this song, further showcasing the band’s accessibility across a wide variety of genres.  “lungs” is on par with every single released off of the bones of what you believe, and is probably better than some of them.

 

1. boat rich – dads: it didn’t take long before “boat rich” was my most-played song of 2013.  clocking in at under three minutes helps, but the fact is that the guitar work is too catchy to not listen to on repeat.  dads started to receive some national attention this year with the resurgence of emo, but the new jersey duo are just as likely to throw a quick meter change into a song as they are to wear their hearts on their sleeves.  the chorus of “boat rich” is anthemic in nature and each repetition builds, culminating in a climax following a triplet-based interlude.  check out dads’ pretty good ep if you haven’t already, and keep your eye out for more material in 2014.  i know i will.