17. Katy Perry’s “Roar” and Sara Bareilles’ “Brave”
Many have accused Katy Perry of ripping Sara Bareilles’ “Brave” off to make her new hit “Roar,” which is fair because the two songs sound basically identical. Also, Katy Perry at one point acknowledged in a tweet how much she liked “Brave,” which is somewhat incriminating. The outrage has been pretty minimal, though, and maybe because no one takes either singer very seriously, lots of people just started making mashups of the two songs. In some cases, you end up with a far more beautiful song in the process. This all just proves that no one is really demanding authenticity in vaguely inspirational major key pop ballads. – Ryan Broderick
16. Diarrhea Planet, I’m Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams
The poop jokes end here. There will come a time when pop-punk won’t be marginalized as a teenage obsession — a pit stop on the race to exquisite, adult music taste. When that day comes, we’ll have Diarrhea Planet to thank for helping to spearhead this movement. The Nashville band uses power chords generously, crafting songs that read like forgotten, happier Titus Andronicus demos. Plus, I’m pretty sure no one knows how many guitar players are in this band. It might be hundreds. – Maria Sherman
15. Julia Holter, Loud City Song
Loud City Song is Los Angeles songwriter Julia Holter’s most ambitious record yet, a lushly produced art pop record that thoughtfully engages with ideas about sexuality, identity, and social anxiety in an urban setting. The record’s most impressive songs are “Maxim’s I” and “Maxim’s II,” twin compositions inspired by a scene in the 1958 musical Gigi in which the title character enters a popular restaurant with a famous man, and patrons immediately begin to gossip about her. You don’t really need to know the film to appreciate the songs, but it helps — Holter flips the scene inside-out by emphasizing the woman’s internal monologue and turning the jovial, bombastic arrangement into a blaring, disorienting haze of horns and clatter. She makes you feel as overwhelmed and excited as Gigi. – Matthew Perpetua
14. Dean Wareham, “Love Is Colder Than Death”
Sometimes you need something small to keep in your heart, song-wise, in order to keep yourself from falling apart entirely. This subtle beauty has got that feeling down pat. From the little strings to the almost-nothing percussion to the pared-down vocals, every element of it is a lovingly crushing whisper confirming the exact thing you were afraid of, romantically, but also making it beautiful in the process. Do you know the tiny fatalism that comes with waiting and waiting for someone you adore to text you, or fucking up your chance with your lengthily-held crush, or not being able to talk to the person you love because you know it’s not emotionally healthy to do so anymore? Well, then you know that love, on occasion, can be colder than death. So does this song, and it’ll make you feel just the slightest better about it. – Amy Rose Spiegel
13. John Mayer, Paradise Valley
From those initial jangly guitar notes on “Wildfire,” the first track on John Mayer’s sixth album, you can immediately sense things are better. The vibe is much more hopeful than 2009’s Battle Studies: relaxed, yet buoyant with an underlying peace — a sound that carries through the rest of Paradise Valley and is no doubt inspired by Mayer’s relocation to Montana and the personal centering he seems to have experienced since recovering from his second battle with vocal granuloma. After all of the said-more-than-he-maybe-should-have interview fracas of 2010, Mayer had surgery for the issues with his vocal cords, moved to Montana, recorded a lovely, folky album — last year’s Born and Raised — and then promptly had to deal with a resurgence of his health issues before he could go on tour. So, in many ways, Paradise Valley feels like a continuation of Born and Raised — the thought that was never completed, a sonic and visual evolution in progress (the oversized cowboy hat gave way to an oversized poncho). Mayer’s “Born and Raised” summer tour brings this concept to life, merging songs from both records with his back catalog under the real-life night sky that it’s easy to imagine yourself under while listening to the record. – Erica Futterman
Guess what you really, really want to see right now? Why, Kathleen Hanna and Grimes doing an impromptu Fleetwood Mac duet, of course! In this pre-VMAs interview, they also discuss the frustrations of feeling like totems for all of feminism just because they’re sometimes vocal about sexism, the boundless glories of Beyoncé, and how guy bands who consider themselves allies to feminist causes should really be stepping up to the plate a bit more. This is basically a perfect meeting of the minds caught on tape, and we’re pretty lucky that we get to watch it. – A.R.S.
12. Destruction Unit, Deep Trip
It’s not uncommon for bands to evoke geography in their music; Tempe, Arizona’s misanthropic punks Destruction Unit are no exception. The psych-heavy five-piece run their desert landscape through a handful of distortion pedals, resulting in undeniable raw energy. Frontman Ryan Rousseau’s (formerly of Jay Reatard’s band the Reatards) unintelligible howl focuses with primal intention around three guitars, echoing with intensity. “Deep Trip” is paranoid punk at it’s best, perfectly captured on record. – M.S.
11. Lady Gaga, “Applause”
There’s a lot to say about “Applause,” Lady Gaga’s comeback single after nearly two years away from the limelight. One, it was about time someone delivered us an absolutely bonkers, symbolically dense, over-the-top video. It’d been way too long, and Gaga never fails to deliver in terms of visuals. But so much of Born This Way and The Fame Monster were songs that really failed to hit the same kind of chord that “Just Dance” did — fun, joyful dance music. “Applause” is not a song you immediately fall in love with at first listen; it’s a little jarring, a little loud, a little weird with her David Bowie reading of the verses. But before you know it, it’s stuck in your head and that’s that. It’s ecstatic, fun, celebratory music that makes you want to get up and dance. “Judas” certainly didn’t make wanna do that. I’m glad she’s back. – Aylin Zafar
Unmade Bed is the new band featuring Dorian Cox, the guitarist and lyricist of The Long Blondes, one of the most underrated bands of the past decade. The new group is a natural progression from that body of work — he’s still obsessed with sex and glamour and seediness, but he’s dropped the punk and indie aesthetic almost entirely in favor of fully embracing the dance and disco elements that he was playing with a bit on The Long Blonde’s final album “Couples”. To some extent, he’s responding to his new singer, and casting her in a role appropriate for her style and voice. Whereas he typically played Long Blondes’ frontwoman Kate Jackson as a bitter, unfaithful femme fatale, Unmade Bed’s Hannah is presented as more of a sexually aggressive vamp type. In both cases, Cox humanizes his archetypes, and puts a lot of emphasis on the insecurities and fears that drive his characters without necessarily judging them. That last part is really crucial — he’s not asking anyone to pity or shame these characters, but to respect their realities and recognize yourself in them. – M.P.
9. Washed Out, Paracosm
Okay, I know: You can’t really afford a tropical vacation right now. But you know that heavily-GIFed visual of the sun glittering on the ocean? If that movement made a noise, it might sound a little like the new Washed Out album. It’s basically a chillwave (hard emphasis on that second syllable, take note) meditation tape in the best possible sense. Listen to “Don’t Give Up” — or, better yet, watch the exotic animal-laden video — and get ready to visualize. Who knew you could get so New Age, ya cynical bastard? Washed Out did, that’s who. – A.R.S.
8. Drake featuring Majid Jordan, “Hold On, We’re Going Home”
Drake said he wanted to create something classic, and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to want to listen to this on my wedding night. TMI? Whatever. Drizzy says that he and producer Noah “40” Shebib channeled the partnership of Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson for the track, and it shows. This is slinky, disco-lite influenced R&B, and it’s one of those songs that immediately becomes a visual and overall sensory experience. You know those songs where you can just create your own music video in your mind? This is that: rolling through the sheets on a lazy Saturday morning, eyeing a crush from across a party in someone’s back patio late at night, driving down the coast in your car with the windows rolled down. I mean, this song is literally perfect for every setting. Even the club, I tell you! Now, I love “Started From the Bottom” as much as the next person (maybe even more), but it’s nice to have swoony, crooning Drake back, too. – A.Z.
7. Miley Cyrus, “Wrecking Ball”
The same weekend Miley Cyrus caused the Internet to fold in on itself, she released one of her best songs to date, the Dr. Luke-produced power ballad, “Wrecking Ball.” Cyrus sings of a lost love with a grit and force of which her peers could only teenage dream. But it’s in the song’s bridge when Cyrus coos, “And instead of using force/I guess I should’ve let you in,” that she shows an adult side we haven’t seen before. She’s not an angry teen with a shitty boyfriend, she’s a woman dealing with bitterness and longing. She completely sells it. “Wrecking Ball” is the karaoke song of August that’s just waiting to be dedicated to all of your exes — just forget about the twerking already. – Myles Tanzer
6. Neko Case, “Night Still Comes”
I can’t listen to this song without feeling convinced that Neko Case is singing about clinical depression. The hopelessness, the self-recrimination, the inertia, the alienation. The lyrics are the things you think and say to justify it all, because it feels like the only thing that is possible. Case’s voice keeps the song from tipping into gray, blank misery. There’s just something in her voice that always sounds strong and stubborn and authoritative, and there’s a suggestion in the way she delivers her lyrics — and the ambiguous, possibly optimistic chorus — that she has some distance on these feelings. “You never held it at the right angle”: Is that what you say to yourself to push yourself away from the negative thoughts, or what you tell someone else to convince them that your negative thoughts are the truth? – M.P.
5. Rob Sheffield, Turn Around Bright Eyes
Full disclosure: Rob Sheffield is a friend of mine. But if you read his third book, Turn Around Bright Eyes, or either of the two memoirs that preceded it, you will come away feeling like Rob is your friend too. Turn Around Bright Eyes picks up where his debut book Love Is A Mix Tape leaves off, with Rob relocating to New York City after the death of his first wife. He starts off as a lost, bitter man, but finds a new confidence and enthusiasm for life by embracing karaoke. The book alternates between Rob’s funny and insightful observations about karaoke and the story of his romance with his second wife, a karaoke-loving goth scientist named Ally. Rob’s voice is so casual and effortlessly witty that he constantly leaves you feeling blind-sided by the moments when he’s either blowing your mind with a new way of thinking about artists like Neil Diamond or Rod Stewart, or making you tear up with some of the most moving arguments in favor of being a devoted husband you’re ever going to read. – M.P.
4. Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke’s performance of “Blurred Lines” at the MTV Video Music Awards
If we’re being very honest about it, the MTV Video Music Awards is basically just an annual contest to see which pop star can do the most outrageous, memorable thing. This year’s winner is unquestionably Miley Cyrus, who delivered a surreal, hyper-sexual performance of her hit “We Can’t Stop” and a duet with Robin Thicke on “Blurred Lines” that left many people furious at her glib appropriation of black culture and/or skeeved out by the 20-year-old singer grinding her ass on the crotch of Thicke, a 36-year-old married man. It’s a huge moment for Cyrus — not only did she outshine more established stars like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Kanye West, but she is now more famous for her current image than for her tween stardom as Hannah Montana. Like it or not, Miley is an icon now. – M.P.
3. Kendrick Lamar’s verse on Big Sean’s “Control (HOF)”
It was the verse heard ‘round the world: Kendrick Lamar stole the show on Big Sean’s song, “Control,” which also features Jay Electronica. It’s not like the other two delivered bad verses; it’s just that Kendrick delivered his with a ferociousness and intensity that they did not, and in a world of “molly this” and “molly that,” it’s easy to forget that, like, people can rap with the focus of a machine gun. His verse got people excited again. In it, he essentially calls out his class of peers and tells them to step the fuck up: “I’m usually homeboys with the same n****s I’m rhymin’ with / But this is hip-hop and them n****s should know what time it is” — then going on to namecheck everyone from both Big Sean and Jay Electronica to J. Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Drake, Tyler, the Creator and Mac Miller. “I got love for you all, but I’m tryna murder you n****s,” he raps. And then he calls himself the “King of New York.” Well, then. It’s hardly much when you consider actual battle raps and the beefs and disses of yore; but this is the millennial generation, and Kendrick, well, he just wants everyone to do their best and rise to their potential! It’s been fun to watch the responses roll in, and thanks to K. Dot for making this into something of a sport again. – A.Z.
2. Earl Sweatshirt, Doris
I honestly never thought this day would come. Three years ago, it seemed like Earl was maybe just never going to come back from wherever mysterious place he was sent to (a “therapeutic retreat for at-risk kids” in Samoa) by his mother. The rousing chants of “FREE EARL” began to slowly lose momentum when you could see that, actually, it eventually became painful for everyone involved. To us, he was the most talented rapper of Odd Future by far and a prodigious young MC in his own right; to Odd Future, he was family. When I saw him perform in one of the first few performances after he eventually came home, I cried. It was bizarre. I still feel that way every time I see him perform or hear a new track — this almost felt like it was never going to happen. Doris is named after Earl’s grandmother, who passed away while he was making the album; the record in turn is a self-reflection and meditation on life and death, family, and expectations.
On “Chum,” he opens up about his relationship with his Nigerian poet father for the first time without a hint of irony: “It’s probably been 12 years since my father left, left me fatherless / And I used to say I hate him i dishonest jest / And honestly I miss this n***a, like when I was six / And every time I got the chance to say it I would swallow it.” The accompanying video captures the general feel of the album: a feeling of suspension, as if all of Earl’s thoughts and anxieties have been emptied into a pool that we’re floating in. Earl produced much of the album himself, under the name Randomblackdude, and created a cohesive work that’s dark, and sometimes slightly menacing, but decidedly Odd Future in its use of synths and live instruments. OF members Tyler (who also produced one of the album’s strongest cuts, “Sasquatch”), Frank Ocean, and Domo Genesis all make appearances, as do OF affiliates like Vince Staples and Casey Veggies (who delivers a crushing verse on “Hive”); Mac Miller and RZA are also in the mix. Earl pummels through it all with the same precision that had so many in the rap community in awe of him in the first place, but now, after all that he’s been through, he has some real things to say. – A.Z.
1. King Krule, 6 Feet Beneath the Moon
Archy Marshall, the musician known as King Krule, only just turned 19 but has the weary, rugged baritone of a man three times his age. He’s a skinny, somewhat gawky ginger kid, and watching him sing can be a somewhat disconcerting experience — you just expect his voice to be coming from some gruff middle-aged working class Brit, or at the very least someone along the lines of The Clash’s Joe Strummer. Marshall’s music is even more unlikely for someone so young. 6 Feet Beneath the Moon, his first full-length album, is a seamless blend of jazz, punk, electronic music, and hip-hop that feels vaguely familiar but doesn’t sound quite like anything that’s come before. The songs are romantic, but also incredibly bleak — Marshall spends an alarming amount of time dwelling on depressive thoughts or outright fantasizing about his own death.
The record’s most formally inventive and emotionally devastating cut is “Neptune Estate,” an elliptical, sexy trip-hop ballad in which Marshall tries to convince a girl to stay the night with him. There’s no separation of sex and self-loathing, and trauma just becomes some kind of turn-on. As the song goes along, Marshall reveals the real reason why he’s so eager to keep her around, and to “feel used.” He’s terrified of feeling numb, or as he puts it, “The brain lives on but the vibes are dead.” This is the emotional core of an album in which the young artist fumbles about searching for moment of true connection and undiluted feelings, but ends up distraught when he comes up short. – M.P.
- And watch a man react to the modern world after spending 44 years in prison. ›