SUMMER JAMS 2K14
by Samuel Tolzmann on June 14, 2014
Posted in: Music
What up Radioheads. It’s been a year since I made an appearance on the WRMC blog, but it seems during these sweltering summer months, I just can’t keep away from the supposedly idyllic faux-rural hamlet we like to pretend to call home. WRMC is almost up and about to be running, and as has been our (my) tradition, we’re launching the summer blog series with some nominations for jam of the season. Of course, you never know when a hit will strike, so this is far from a comprehensive list, but at the very least, it’s a starting point for soundtracking all yr boring internships and nights sleeping naked ‘cause it’s just too damn hot (or ‘cause you do that all the time anyway). And you know, we’ve (I’ve) got a pretty good track record with this series: Lorde’s “Royals” was NOT yet a Global Smash Hit™ when it placed on our list last summer. What’s cooler than seeing OutKast live at GovBall? Literally nothing, sorry, but these are some pretty good tunes…here’s to summer! Presented countdown-style with some commentary, here are 20 (probably premature) picks for WRMC Summer Jam 2K14.
20. Eagulls, “Possessed” Every summer needs a bratty punk anthem to crush beer cans to, and this year, snarling, pugnacious U.K. troupe Eagulls are gamely filling FIDLAR’s large, sweaty Vans lace-ups.
19. Allie X, “Bitch” A sharp, hyper-caffeinated electropop song that will yr ass out of bed in the morning, Allie X’s “Bitch” is fun and clever. The singer-songwriter starts out with a laundry list of gendered domestic stereotypes, but just when it gets uncomfortably 1950s in the worst way, she savagely twists it all in a new, unexpected direction, flipping that suburban imagery on its head. There’s no chorus this year quite as simultaneously sweet and sour as “I’m your bitch, you’re my bitch!” Everyone is everyone’s bitch! Fun!!!!
18. La Roux, “Let Me Down Gently” Lest you think every big summer song needs to have a racing BPM, here’s the first thing we’ve heard from La Roux since King Krule stole Elly Jackson’s hairdo. “Let Me Down Gently” is a big, warm, lovelorn slowdance number that hits the perfect balance between clubby momentum and bedroom mopiness.
17. Iggy Azalea, “Fancy (featuring Charli XCX)” No introduction necessary, you know the drill. Deluxe, classic, expensive, you don’t get to touch. Faaaaaaaancy.
16. Robyn & Royksopp, “Do It Again” These Swedes’ collaborative mini-album prioritizes Royksopp’s post-techno know-how over Robyn’s usual brand of wrenching emotional electropop. But on the title track, the trio turns the knobs all the way to the right for a clubby burst of synthesizer confetti, and Robyn proves that even when she’s spouting unforthcoming Euroclub diva-for-hire platitudes, she still sounds like she’s telling heartbreaking, life-affirming stories. Seems she can’t pick up a mic without a little sorrow bleeding through the strobe lights. Not that we’re complaining.
15. Shamir, “If It Wasn’t True” Can’t get enough of this brokenhearted Vegas singer-songwriter-producer’s infectious post-Knife disco vibes or his gorgeous androgynous vocals. Good thing his Northtown EP just hit the ‘net. Consider us fans.
14. The New Pornographers, “Brill Bruisers” It’s been a long time since we’ve heard from the Canadian supergroup that counts Destroyer and Neko Case as members, but listening to the title track from upcoming sixth LP Brill Bruisers, it feels like their mid-‘00s heyday never faded. It’s just the kind of witty, sugary, absurdly catchy ‘70s-pop-meets-’90s-rock anthem the New Pornographers made their name on, a little scraggly and bumbling, maybe, but ultimately a triumph.
13. Parquet Courts, “Instant Disassembly” Maybe it’s the intuitive protopunk chord progressions, the witty and relatable lyrics, or Andrew Savage’s Lou Reed-indebted speak-sing, but when Parquet Courts slow things down, they’re just so perfect for those afternoons when you’re lying on the sofa with four fans blowing on your face, questioning whether rolling a joint is worth the effort.
12. LAFAWNDAH, “Chili” Born in Tehran, raised in Paris, doing whatever she wants to do, gosh, anonymous female vocalist LAFAWNDAH and her producer pal Garagem Banda are cornering the market on homespun pan-global dance-pop. “Chili” swarms with a beehive’s worth of dark, buzzing synths and bottoms out with a warped click beat. It’s so minimal and off-kilter, it’ll take a few listens for your body to learn how to react to it, but when it does, I promise you’ll never want to stop.
11. Jeremih, “Don’t Tell ‘Em (featuring YG)” Don’t you dare try and tell me Jeremih’s a “faceless” performer, a set of pipes with “no personality.” I don’t think there’s another male singer in R&B these days who could glide so effortlessly through the DJ Mustard-produced labyrinth that is “Don’t Tell ‘Em.” The basic composition – subtle beats, lightweight staccato synths – is nothing fancy, but, shit, have you heard the way his silky tenor zigs, zags, slips, and slides through the double-timed chorus? That’s a feat, all the more so since the track demands Jeremih shift back and forth from that mode to others: the slow come-on of the opening gives way to strident declarations that the singer competently handles with elegant delicacy even though they’re pitched to the top of his range, before downshifting into the moody wind-up of the pre-chorus – and all the while, he’s doing these insane vocal pirouettes around a ruthless, trappy drum track. When Mustard’s main man YG shows up to bellow his way through a rap verse that seems calculated to sound dumb by comparison (“I got a missed call from yo’ bitch!”), it only makes this fact more clear: haters be silent, Jeremih can sing. PS. This song is really fun to dance to!
10. Lana Del Rey, “Brooklyn Baby” Most listeners probably won’t realize this is self-satire, but whatever. On her unexpectedly magnificent new collection Ultraviolence, Lana Del Rey’s cheap shots work as well as her dark confessions for the same reason: she sells it all equally straight, and she sells it all equally well. “Brooklyn Baby” has all the things that make Ultraviolence great: a strong performance from the singer, immaculate production and guitar work from the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, lush atmosphere, an indelible melody, an (un)healthy dose of outsized pathos, its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, and a rich bizzaro-Americana mythology drawing heavily from sources like Mulholland Drive and Lolita.
9. JJ, “All White Everything” JJ finally went all-caps on their name, and they went all-caps on their sound, too. “All White Everything” has the perpetually stoned Swedish troublemakers’ fingerprints all over it – the lush atmosphere, wisps of pitch-shifted vocals, maudlin emoting, and cadences and slang torn straight from contemporary rap – but it’s never been mounted on a scale this enormous before. The drum track is big and booming and over it, Elin Kastlander’s voice soars: “All white everything, from my face to my wings…what you know about that? No, you don’t know a thing.” It’s gorgeous, overwhelming, and stone cold. Some next level stoner-pop shit. And the (yes, all white everything) video is like six kinds of fucked up, which, sure, okay.
8. Mr. Twin Sister, “Out Of The Dark” Grooveyard ’13 headliners Twin Sister are now Mr. Twin Sister, and they’re back with a leaner, meaner take on their usual Stereolab-worshipping dream-pop. “Out Of The Dark” is the closest Mr. Twin Sister get to the center of the dancefloor, but rest assured they haven’t gone easy on us. If you can get a whole partyful of people singing along to the song’s big line – “I am a woman, but inside I’m a man, and I want to be as gay as I can!” – then you win the summer.
7. Drake, “0 To 100/The Catch-up” Wow, Drake nailed it. Dude knew what he was doing when he smooshed these tracks together into one six-minute monster that hits both of his strongest spots. The front half sounds a lot like a “Started From The Bottom” redux, all braggadocio and wordplay and bad-boy celeb antics – and then the second part is the other thing Drake does so well, a somber, introspective comedown sunk deep inside a James Blake sample. It’s the party and the after-party and the after-after-party 4AM insomniac self-loathing, all in one song. Who could hate on that?
6. Future, “Benz Friendz (Whatchutola) [featuring Andre 3000]” This is basically not even a Future song. It’s like, Hi, Future, get out of the way. Has Andre 3000 ever met a stage he couldn’t make his own (plz don’t bring up Idlewild rn, thnx)? Stealing “Benz Frenz” right out from under Future’s feet, 3K uses the song to parse exactly what kinds of friendships he thinks are worth having and what kinds aren’t. It’s a hilarious and entirely reasonable kiss-off to a toxic ex-pal, and it doubles as the ideal anthem for bicycling season. All together now: “Until then, I will ride my fucking bike, or walk!” A-fucking-men to that.
5. Ariana Grande, “Problem (featuring Iggy Azalea)” LOL we’re trying to predict summer hits, do you think we’re stupid? “Problem” kicks ass without breaking a sweat or, hell, even batting a perfectly mascara’d eyelash. This Max Martin-produced confection is, you might argue, playing it pretty safe (I mean, sax loops were left-field like two years ago, right?). But sometimes safe feels goooooood. Plus, after the two-year tyranny of Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” it’s nice to hear a party-oriented hit that doesn’t demand we destroy our vocal chords on the refrain.
4. Grimes, “Go” Yeah, I know it hasn’t been released yet, but the bootlegs are enough. Grimes debuted this song at Higher Ground in South Burlington, VT (take that, GovBall!), and I was there, and I can confirm it was the best ever. She and Blood Diamonds wrote it for Rihanna, and you can tell: it definitely sounds like a song someone wrote for Rihanna, that Rihanna then declined. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing – Grimes’s whole spooky, druggy, Mariah-/Aaliyah-via-Dungeons & Dragons schtick interacts in tense, thrilling ways with those big-tent EDM drops, and she reinvigorates the stale forms of today’s Top 40 radio. Plus, Claire Boucher’s voice is quite suited to Rihanna’s piercing register. If Grimes can pull this kind of synthesis off with every song she writes, she has a potential crossover masterpiece on her hands with her (presumably upcoming) fourth record following her breakout third one, 2012’s Visions. So even if “Go” never materializes in a recorded form that could make it a legitimate contender for song of the summer, it’s still one of the best things we’ve heard since school got out. Oh, also, when Grimes performs live now, she has an unseen fan blowing up on her so that her hair is always mysteriously billowing. Just so you know. It’s magical. (To be fair, by this logic we should be including Kanye West’s “God Level” as well, but we’re trying to cool it a little on the Yeezus love seeing as he supposedly will be dropping a new LP on us later this summer….)
3. A. G. Cook, “Beautiful” A. G. Cook runs PC Music, a London-based clique/label that takes the candy-coated 8-bit neon gloss of DJs like Unicorn Kid and Sophie to their most extreme incarnation, in a kind of sickly-sweet funhouse of distorted voices, demented synths, and corroded beats. We’re pretty sure they’re the Next Big Thing, and Cook’s “Beautiful” is probably the logical entry point into their imposing (but mostly free!) body of work thus far, a playful twist on conventional rave-pop structures and EDM textures that takes things just a liiiiiiittle too far….
2. Vic Mensa, “Down On My Luck” Vic Mensa, who stunned with last year’s INNANETAPE, just finished a tour with U.K. deep house favorites Disclosure. It shows. “Down On My Luck” is an elegant, subtle, and immensely likable slow-burning slice of bouncy bass music with a dazzling, absolutely star-making turn from the charismatic and gifted Mensa, who nails the kind of half-rapped, half-sung cadence that always helps to sell this kind of genre-straddling crossover bid (see also: “Hold On We’re Going Home,” everything by Chance The Rapper).
1. Real Lies, “North Circular” Maybe I’m stretching the definition of “summer jam” (does that phrase actually have a definition?) a bit here. After all, the incantatory “North Circular” is not likely to be a hit: it’s haunting, devastating, rambling. But it’s stubbornly hopeful and very beautiful, too, and laid as it is over a feather-light Balearic foundation, it has just enough momentum and spring in its step to keep you following its every twist and turn even as the lyrics strike you below the belt again and again. “North Circular” is a swirling, serendipitous synchrony of hard truths, wistful nostalgia, and evocative imagery, that spoken-word poetry blurring at the edges and fading into the backdrop, that throbbing pulse – so unobtrusive and yet so insistently alive with a nocturnal urban energy.
But, I mean, look, what else have I been trying to do with this list, these lists that come every summer now, but live up (via pop music) to the idea of what “summertime” is supposed to be? “Summertime”: an idea that’s really only viable now, for people who are still in school, whose many privileges include structure, the fact that we still have distinct start and end dates for the lives and selves we live nine months of the year at college. Even a year or two down the line, this is all mere nostalgia for a lot of folks, even as the sun gets irreversibly hotter and hotter with each pass our certainly doomed planet makes around it. We maybe still cling to some kind of halfway-articulated, wildly mythical, mercifully terminal sense of what a season even is, what it means, how a person should act during one and not another. It’s all bullshit of course, but for most of the people reading this post (assuming y’all are also college students) it’s bullshit in real time. Among its many purposes, pop music has always been around so that we might all the more convincingly stage that bullshit and fool even our own damn selves into thinking that we feel the way Vic Mensa’s “Down On My Luck” or Ariana Grande’s “Problem” (or Japandroids’ “The House That Heaven Built,” or M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” or what-have-you) sound.
“North Circular” is not that kind of “classic summer song.” It will not help you be the carefree college kid on summer break those songs prompt you to imagine yourself being. It will not bring meaning to the muggy air or romanticize the mosquitoes or give purpose to your inherently purposeless socializing. “North Circular” will not help your daydreams come true, but in moments of disillusionment, disorientation, or disbelief, it will help you remember what they were and why you ever cared at all. There is a breeziness to it, but there is the real, hard fact of gravity too. Listening to it can be as easy or as challenging, as personal or as communal, as hopeful or crushing as you’re willing to let it be in the moment it reaches you. You should still give it a chance even if it doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, because although it might not run the clubs in the coming months, like a true friend it will keep you company on the long, bleary-eyed trip home against the lightening sky. It’s about the lure of the past and the weight of the future, but it’s utterly tethered to now, and to the everyday, even the mundane. It’s humble, a gently affirmative squeeze on the knee for all those times when you couldn’t bring yourself to speak. And, hey, if we’re all listening to it, maybe that’s a feeling we could share.
Summer Jams 2k14, Spotify Edition: