You’ll notice one conspicuous absence in this week’s 5 Best Songs. To be clear: We didn’t forget about The Life Of Pablo, nor were we collectively lukewarm about those songs premiered at yesterday’s outsize MSG event. QUITE THE OPPOSITE. We were basically sitting here at Stereogum HQ, huddled around speakers boosted to 10, in stunned, slack-jawed amazement from the moment Kanye introduced “Ultra Light Beams” all the way through till Frank sang us out on “Wolves.” (Then ‘Ye hit play on “Facts” and we were returned to reality, reassured that our man is in fact human after all.) But we didn’t include any of those songs on this list because the dude is still tinkering with them, and we wanted to hear the final product before attempting to make sense of that music relative to all the other music in the world. Next week? It’s a pretty safe bet Mr. West will find his work included in this space. This week? These were the 5 Best Songs.
The best bands are the ones who can spread out their sound in all directions without losing their sense of self. Count LA rockers Dirty Dishes among those ranks, and consider “All Of Me” the latest proof of their vast potential. Last year’s great Guilty skipped across the spirit of everyone from Nirvana to My Bloody Valentine to Liz Phair on side A alone. Now they’re back with a triumphantly plodding lurch that finds beauty in a wide spectrum of ugliness: feedback screeches deployed like a metronome, gnarly distortion churns threatening to suck the whole song down the drain, shrill voices joyfully vying to drown each other out, all of it piling up atop this monolithic party glacier. Makes sense to me! –Chris
The fucked up thing about capital-I institutions — religion, government, patriarchy, commodified love — is that they’re so large, so pervasive, so seemingly impossible to dismantle that it often feels like there’s no point in even trying to fight back. But what’s refreshing about TWIABP, and “Katamari Duquette” in particular, is that the band takes that powerlessness as a challenge, and they craft empowering and massively incisive songs as a means to combat apathy, all while recognizing the insurmountable pressures to be passive. “Katamari Duquette” begins in one of those down moments — “the city’s failed,” “the court says you’re guilty,” “find the bribe” — and digs even deeper, as they realize it’s impossible to escape these oppressive and unjust forces no matter how far you run: “Visit a new town/ Shake your fist/ You still have to follow all of them around.” But the song rises up out of that, builds a new call-to-arms: “Away with God, away with love/ Our hands are tied and stepped on.” We’re still constrained by society, but there’s a way to push forward. There’s got to be. –James
Yesterday was supposed to be Kanye’s day. And it was! But two other forces of nature, gravitational waves and a skinny British guy named James Blake, decided to make it their day too, confirming Einstein’s theory of general relativity and generally fucking shit up, respectively. “Modern Soul” isn’t the first new music we’ve heard from James Blake since his 2013 opus Overgrown, but it is the first to feel like James Blake in full-on album mode — James Blake the electro-gospel singer-songwriter instead of James Blake the bass music experimentalist, making a song instead of a track.
The title “Modern Soul” could describe most of Blake’s recorded output, but it certainly fits here: This is modern soul, soul music deconstructed and rebuilt from the ground up in real time. It starts out old, almost faded, piano chords echoing through the cavernous silence and that otherworldly voice sounding more human that it ever has. But then a clanging industrial beat comes in, followed by a swelling tide of electronics, and suddenly the whole thing feels downright futuristic. By the time the climax finally rolls around, all these elements have coalesced into a sublime melding of organic and digital, beauty and noise, joined together at the nexus of human emotion. “I want it to be over, I want it to be over,” Blake croons repeatedly as the song dies down. I don’t. –Peter
The cult of Sheer Mag has grown in numbers over the course of the past year, and I suspect that by the time the Philly-based band releases an album, they’ll be a full-blown religion. Last year, I saw Sheer Mag play a bridge show at SXSW. This year, they’re playing Coachella. Their name is on that poster in the small font, of course, but still: This band is going to be A Thing. Sheer Mag sound like classic rock for a kids who grew up listening to classic rock, but might not have identified much with its makers. On “Can’t Stop Fighting,” Christina Halladay tells a story about a girl gone missing: “Paloma walks home at night from the maquiladora/ Eight days later, no one has saw her/ Sometimes she worked late/ Don’t that show you just what’s at stake?” That small analogy evolves into a warning; it’s the kind of story most women are told to remind us that we are vulnerable. That no, we still haven’t taken back the night, and yeah, it’s safest to walk home with a can of mace in your bag and a set of keys in hand. That’s your makeshift weapon; aim for the eyes. This is a haunting song, but Halladay concludes it with a message of empowerment: “All my life I’ve felt the eye of the catcall/ We’re striking back baby, and you can find me in the vanguard.” It’s a call-to-arms that’s a joy to listen to, and it doesn’t make me want to fight. It makes me want to dance. –Gabriela
“You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation,” Beyoncé mutters at the end of “Formation.” She knows what’s coming. Before she recorded those words, the song hadn’t yet stopped the world, but Beyoncé knew what she was doing. Almost immediately after “Formation” popped up on YouTube, the thinkpiece-industrial complex rumbled to life, and it didn’t slow down for days.
Much of that conversation surrounded the imagery attached to “Formation”: The stunning video, the ridiculously badass Super Bowl performance, the spectacle of Fox News ghouls competing to see who could get the most upset about it. But the song at the center of all this conversation is a whole lot more than an afterthought or a frame on which to hang those images. It’s a snarling, larger-than-life piece of image-projection, an unmistakable statement of dominance from one of the biggest stars on this planet.
Beyoncé never really shows off her remarkable voice on “Formation.” And while she’s capable of generating enormous empathy on a straight-up pop song, this isn’t that. Instead, it’s a weird and leftfield club-trap pose brought to life, a haughty trip through Bey’s family tree, a sugar-mama declaration forceful enough to affect Red Lobster’s corporate bottom line. It’s a weird song, and yet it scans as a world-conquering pop anthem because the woman singing it has that effect on everything she does. This is a song based on a hiccuping keyboard riff that’s among the most avant-garde things Mike Will Made-It ever made, and yet it’s vast and immediate that Beyoncé could perform it in front of millions, when the song was only hours old, and it still managed to upstage “Uptown Funk.” –Tom