I am in the midst of a siege of amazing music unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I used to wonder what it was like for my parents when bands like Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Pink Floyd and The Beatles would release albums within months of each other. Now I know.
DISCLAIMER: I don’t know that much about music proper; I’m writing this more as a fan than a critic.
The National – Trouble Will Find Me
The National has been a tricky band for me. Maybe it’s just me, but I simply could not get into their other albums quite the way I got into Boxer. They are where music would be if everybody kept making that wonderful kind of rock that existed between Momentary Lapse of Reason and Automatic for the People. True Alt-Rock. Having said that, I’m enjoying this album a lot. Things seem more refined. People tell me that the lyrics are denser here than normal, and I’m going to have to take their work for it. I’m more concerned with the twangs alongside the heavy piano at the beginning of Heavenfaced, the faint strings in I Need My Girl, or the echoing drums underpinning Demons. Automatic for the People is one of my favourite albums of all time, and for me this album grabs its baton from its previous holder – Boxer.
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
The first time I heard Contra, I thought they had totally dropped the ball. Their self titled debut was one of the most fun things I’d ever heard, a garage band that made baroque pop. The opening of Walcott remains one of my favourite 24 seconds in music. But at some indefinite later point, I realized I was in love with it. Diplomat’s Son in particular blows me away. So I didn’t know what to expect from Modern Vampires.
This album is, I think, the high water mark for hipsterism. No, no, hear me out. The music is good. It’s still Vampire Weekend; it is for the most part fun, slightly african, pop. But it’s more mature. It’s heavier at times, more complex, and more precise. So why do I say it’s the height of hipsterism? There’s a track where they sympathize with God, playfully distorting “Ya-Weh” into Hey Ya. “Oh, sweet thing” directed towards god should be a nausea-inducing level of pretentious. “Who could ever live that way?”
But it isn’t. This whole album is sincere. Which I say in my head as though it surprises me, but I suppose it shouldn’t. For their ivy league BA in English singing about Oxford Commas and Horchata and Cape Cod, Vampire Weekend has never given any indication they’re doing anything than making music because they love it. And the music has never tried to be anything it isn’t.
This is it. Everything in your head about hipster-indie-pop is true, and it’s really, really good.
Anamanaguchi – Endless Fantasy
This is just fun. There’s really no two ways about it. It’s genuine, honest fun. If chiptune isn’t your thing, then this probably isn’t for you. But if you’re even slightly okay with it, this is it man. There’s a track called “EVERYTHING EXPLODES”, which is followed by an interlude subtitled “STILL ‘SPLODIN THO”. This album is a box overfilled with fun, bubblegum, SNES games, punk guitar and confetti that’s barely held together with packing tape.
Har Mar Superstar – Bye Bye 17
Before about a week ago, I had not heard of Har Mar Superstar. Which is probably a good thing. Bye Bye 17 is Har Mar’s return after a transformational 4 year hiatus. What he was before was a beer-gutted vulgar Weird Al, from what I can gather. Which is fine, but not really my thing. In the reddit thread where I discovered him, someone recounted this lovely tale: “I saw him open for The Strokes in Hamilton, Ontario way back when he was fatter. He fucking gyrated all over that motherfucker like he owned it, tore off his greasy wife-beater and tossed it into the audience. Someone threw it back. I fucking love Har Mar.” A quick glance at his twitter profile will confirm the image you’re forming in your head.
This image would’ve likely ruined the magic of Prisoner, the first song I heard off Bye Bye 17. A show stopping funk number featuring the drummer from The Strokes, Har Mar’s slightly distorted vocals carry us through the kind of funk imagine in your head when you think of a cop show from the ’70s. But it’s so on. When it hits the chorus, there’s an explosion of amazing sounds. Brass, synth, guitar…It’s all here.
So I checked out the rest of the album, and what do you know, Har Mar has decided to reinvent himself as a really good funk artist. He jumps around a bit, hitting doo-wop crooning on www, and his old self shines through just ever so slightly(A track titled Don’t Make Me Hit You) but for the most part this is just a solid collection of extremely catchy funk. I am extremely happy I checked /r/listentothis that day.
Fitz and the Tantrums – More Than Just a Dream
I have less to say about this one, but it’s worth checking out. For their second album, Fitz and the Tantrums evolved and discovered the wondrous synthesizer. Perhaps this is bad news for fans of the soul-ish “Pickin’ Up The Pieces”, but I’m enjoying this album a lot.
Phoenix – Bankrupt!
While lacking a true superstar like Lisztomania, fans of Phoenix shouldn’t be disappointed by their newest. They continue to churn out some of the glossiest synthpop around, and it remains solid.
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Ah yes, the one we’ve all be waiting for. There’s a lot to be said about RAM, and there’s a lot being said, but one thing worth doing is to put it in context. Daft Punk have never, ever, ever done what’s expected of them. After they brought EDM to the fore with Homework, nobody expected them to turn around and make a pop-y collection of rock and funk samples. Though unimaginable now, there were people who were pissed at Discovery. Then after another few years, they came out with Human After All. Pitchfork gave it a 4.9/10. Only later did we learn that it would find its calling as a collection of material for other uses. Then instead of returning to their roots, they went to score Tron Legacy. And now we have RAM.
Daft Punk kind of exists like a one way mirror. A lot of younger Daft Punk fans who came late to the party, myself included, thought Daft Punk was creating insane, original material. In reality, a lot of their biggest hits are homages. Where we’re looking at Daft Punk, they’re looking at the past. This isn’t meant as a knock on Daft Punk at all, just to put this album into context.
In pre-launch interviews, Daft Punk said they are sick of where EDM is. They have been waiting for someone to break the mold, and in fact lauded Skrillex for at least making something that sounds unique. So you know this wasn’t going to be the successor to Discovery.
The album starts with the stellar Give Life Back To Music. The album’s direction is instantly intimated; The opening sounds like something you’d hear on an Eagles record, maybe. Sharp guitar licks underneath Daft Punk’s signature vocoder vocals punctuated by a repeating crescendo, the last of which leads into the distant sounds of an ’80s dance party. The track is followed by The Game of Love, a delicate robot love song, but the heavy hitter on the A-Side is Giorgio by Moroder.
When I first started hearing about this album, I was concerned. Who were they bringing in? Panda Bear? Julian Casablancas? They’re doing a track where Giorgio Moroder just talks? This was bad news. I had faith, but still.
In a stunning upset, Giorgio by Moroder is being lauded as the best track on the album. Giorgio’s storytelling is fun, mood-setting, and succinct. But what takes the show is the music itself. Daft Punk’s collaborating with the guy who did the soundtrack to Scarface is every bit as amazing as it should be. As lame as this sounds, the song is a journey. At a beefy 9 minutes, it transitions from Giorgio/Voyager-esque snyth into strings into a cataclysmic and cinematic clash of the two before transforming again into something you might’ve heard on Homework.
A quick side-note, maybe the most impressive thing about this album is that they’re using what they learned when they scored Tron Legacy.
The lovely Within features Chilly Gonzalez on piano, transitioning us to the the Julian Casablancas track Instant Crush, which is quite solid. After that comes the equally impressive Lose Yourself to Dance. Pharrell Williams carries us through until we hit the “come on come on” repetition which may be the most Daft Punk-esque individual element of the album. It’s insanely catchy.
Then we hit Touch. There’s been a lot of talk about how this album is an homage to Funk and Disco. However, Touch, the centerpiece of the album, owes more to David Bowie than anyone else. It starts with a haunting, almost creepy minute and a half of robots seeking Touch. Then we get Paul Williams giving us vocals worthy of a 1985 #1 single for a while before we hit the wonderous middle. Jangly piano, strings, sax, trumpet…It’s just wonderful. It belongs on an Elton John album, maybe? It’s hard to say, but it feels so wholly unexpected and wonderful you don’t care. This is the strangest track Daft Punk has ever given us, and it doesn’t stop there. It proceeds to pull at your heart strings with classic vocoder longing over simple drums. Softly, a choir comes in behind it. Then a piano. Then strings build, and build, and build before it gives way to a simple friggin’ keyboard carrying us through the clouds. Drums. Strings. The choir’s back. It’s all unbelieveably emotive, and very impressive. I will understand if Touch isn’t your thing; it’s a very unusual track. But I refuse to believe anyone can seriously not be impressed by the thing.
Then we get the “song of the summer” in Get Lucky. Certainly the most radio-friendly of the tracks, I’ve heard so many permutations of this song it’s hard to know how I feel about it anymore. It’s certainly good though. Which is followed by Beyond. Opening with strings, it then turns into what I can only call Daft Punk doing an Eagles song. This is followed by Motherboard, which is, oddly, the only track written solely by Daft Punk(Other than the Japanese bonus track Horizon, which remains unheard). Motherboard is what would happen if Daft Punk scored a Wes Anderson movie. It’s bouncy and whimsical. It’s the same theme chewed on by different groups of instruments. Then we get Fragments of Time, which is maybe not the worst track on the album, but probably the most forgettable.
Personally, Doin’ It Right is my least favourite track. I don’t blame Panda Bear, even though his vocals ruin what is probably one of coolest vocoder Daft Punk repetitions since Around The World. Even though I’m not a big fan, this is the track that’s stuck in my head most often. I’m just not sure this song called for vocals over it. I can tell you that some people like it, but it’s just not for me.
The whole thing ends with Contact, and boy what a finale it is. As a standalone song, it’s almost unbearable; It opens with a sample of Apollo mission astronauts talking about a UFO sighting, and proceeds to become the sequel to Aerodynamic. And it builds, and builds, and builds. It sputters, but it keeps climbing, higher and higher, until it falls apart. As the finale to the album as a whole, and as the mirror of Give Life Back to Music, it’s perfect, but I can help but feel it’s a wasted opportunity.
All in all, yeah. RAM is amazing. Give it a try, a good honest try. Don’t do in with expectations about it being a continuation of their previous work. They changed the album art for a reason. This is something new, something unexpected, and it’s great.