The week began on, like, Tuesday with the launch of Apple Music and it pretty much ended on Thursday because of the three-day weekend, and frankly, not a whole hell of a lot happened in between. It kinda felt like everyone besides Trent Reznor took the week off and nobody even bothered to release any new music. But it just felt that way. Because as soon as we started making this list, we found ourselves trying to fit nine songs into five slots. The one at the very top was a lock, of course, but everything else was a goddamn dogfight. This is what survived.
There’s nothing especially exciting about a song like “Icon Love.” Its big, glossy synths and guitars wrap themselves around each other in familiar ways, striking familiar notes about expansive longing. Frontman Nate Eiesland sends his voice heavenward, while ahh-ahh backing vocals float reassuringly underneath it. “Icon Love” is a slick song that doesn’t trumpet its slickness, and I would absolutely not be surprised to hear it soundtrack a cinematic jeans commercial in eight months or so. But that slickness and that familiarity aren’t problems, not when the band putting them together hits those marks with this level of style and assurance. “Icon Love” is just a great goddam synth-rock song, one put together by people who clearly know what they’re doing. When that chorus surges up from the depths, it feels good. And sometimes, good can be better than exciting. –Tom
No black metal record this year will garner more Enya comparisons than Myrkur’s full-length debut, M. Some of those comparisons will be sincere, others will be snide, but to be clear, they’re warranted: This thing takes numerous turns that are way more Shepherd Moons than Funeral Moon. Those are actually pretty fucking bold choices for Myrkur, aka Amalie Bruun, who also plays in the decidedly non-metal (and IMO inferior) band Ex Cops. She could have made every song on this thing a ripper (and yes, M has its share of rippers) and shut down her critics (and yes, Myrkur has her share of critics) with a sustained frenzied roar. Instead, she decided to balance fury and violence with gentleness and unadulterated beauty, almost at a 1:1 ratio. The two extreme ends of her sound are often reflecting one another rather than interacting, but on “Onde Børn,” they’re sewn together like a quilt. Bruun might be the most capable singer in the history of black metal (I guess it depends on whether you categorize Mercyful Fate as “black metal”), and here, her voice is cascading like a waterfall down a dizzying decline onto a bed full of boulders. Bruun also has an innate facility for perfect hooks and a curatorial ear for metal history, and she employs those tools to give “Onde Børn” not only immediacy and electricity but an overwhelming richness that suggests it, and the rest of M, will be with us for a very long time. –Michael
Garth Brooks once informed us that life is not tried, it is merely survived when you’re standing outside the fire. The family-values Brooks of 2015 probably wouldn’t like the way Titus Andronicus expresses that same sentiment, though he’d probably be very impressed by the seamless way the punk band incorporates fiddles and piano. When the music so exhilaratingly channels Patrick Stickles’ electrifying conviction, how could anyone not be impressed? “Fired Up” is a raging treatise against political, educational, and (especially) religious structures designed to stamp out individual freedom — ironically, many of the same structures that preach the mantra “Freedom isn’t free.” This is unmistakably American music, but as ever, Patrick Stickles is trumpeting a different kind of patriotism here. This weekend you’re bound to hear Lee Greenwood sing that he’s proud to be an American, “where at least I know I’m free.” “Fired Up” powerfully questions that notion, suggesting that actually exercising your freedom can be the most costly choice of all. –Chris
I remember the first time I ever heard Arcade Fire. I was in college in my friend’s car and she was navigating through a playlist that included songs by Granddaddy, Ben Kweller, and “Rebellion (Lies)” off Funeral. From the very first moment of that very first song, I was an Arcade Fire fan. Same goes for Josh Tillman; whether it was as Fleet Foxes’ drummer or his triumphant debut as alter ego Father John Misty on 2012’s Fear Fun with his dagger-twist irony and acoustic philosophizing. So encountering the combination of these two deeply beloved artists via Tillman’s cover of “The Suburbs” was a moving moment for me this week, fraught with memories of college and long night drives down the California coast playing albums both parties were involved with. What is most surprising, on first listen, is how effortlessly Tillman pulls off Butler’s somewhat challenging vocal leaps. Stripped back to its acoustic backbone, “The Suburbs” sounds like it would easily fit on this year’s I Love You Honeybear, from the line about wanting to have a daughter young, to the image of being trapped in a bomb shelter and feeling … bored. Father John Misty and Arcade Fire are two acts that have come to define the malaise and ennui, the irony and rebellion of indie rock in the early 2000s. For me, that happened to coincide with the random isolation of college; my early twenties were soundtracked by these songs of angst, fear and hope. I’m moving past the feeling, but until then, this cover flickers with the five-year-old shadows of memory. –Caitlin
Consistency is a blessing. Over four (soon to be five) albums, Beach House have never faltered. They’ve crafted their own unimpeachable fortress on the dusty backs of the Cocteau Twins and Loveless, ushering in a mid-aughts trend that their own music surpassed and has long since outlived. Sometimes it feels like they’re too good at what they do — for as much as I love them, I can admit that the formula hasn’t changed much at all over the past decade. But try as I might, I can’t fault them for it. Depression Cherry is one in the same as their self-titled debut, just as Bloom and Teen Dream often seem like mirror images of one another. They reach the same heights every time, and somehow the effect is never lessened.
Bloom proper finishes off with “Irene“‘s droning squall, and the two Maryland masters of dream-pop pick things up three years later with more of the same. It’s like they put their instruments down for a second, chugged a bottle of water, stretched their arms, took a deep breath, and dove right back in. Beach House’s progression — from album to album, from song to song, from note to note — shifts like tectonic plates, centimeter by centimeter until the entire continent looks nothing like it did at the onset. The sharp opening notes of “Sparks” pull me back to the first time I heard the roaring climax of Bloom; they move me forward to just a few minutes later, as Victoria Legrand sways in her familiar breathy intonation: “It goes dark again, just like a spark/ But then it comes again…” Because, of course, what else is a spark but the moment before an absence of light? Or, perhaps, it’s the promise of better things to follow, just as soon as we get through the darkness?
If this was my first Beach House song, I’d be blown away. By my count, this is around my 45th. The feeling is still the same as the very first time. That’s how it goes — they’re just so good at what they do. They have no need for a grand transformation. Little increments will do just fine. –James