20FRANK OCEAN – “Novacane”
It isn’t purely coincidental that Odd Future members keep showing up on this list. These Breuxs (in this case Christopher Breux aka Frank Ocean) got it going on. The syncopated trumpet loops and the sensual wails are mainstays in the R&B hook catalog. What’s not for sale is Ocean’s ability to stop, drop an epiphany like a bad joke and pick it all back up again like nothing happened. It’s no surprise that he’s some hot singles for stars like John Legend and Beyonce (he penned “I Miss You” off 4). “Brain like Berkeley”. “She wants to be a dentist”. These are lyrics from a guy who actually takes the time to know his ladies.
19CASS MCCOMBS – “County Line”
“County Line” is wide-eyed in a way that counts James Taylor as its greatest influence – but where Taylor’s croons and propositions always maintained New England as a backdrop, Cass McCombs adopts a sense of wanderlust totality. The song’s titular county line, the one “left so far behind,” could be anywhere, as long as it’s far away from whoever it is who “never even tried to love me,” as McCombs declares, in a falsetto like walking on glass that will put chills up your spine.
18CUT COPY – “Need You Now”
Take the respective vocalists of Tears for Fears, The National and The Strokes, fly them down to Australia, load them up on ex and let them commandeer a Korg M3 Workstation. Throw some cowbells and hand claps in there and you have something that should resemble this electronic maelstrom. If one song from this year embodies a return to ‘80s new wave, this would be it. It takes that synthesized yearning and updates it for a contemporary audience. Unlike Dances with Wolves, this epic is just the right length.
17TYLER, THE CREATOR – “Yonkers”
This is the type of freestyle flow you’d hear on 106 & Park on a Friday afternoon. Except Tyler, The Creator is a rap ninja, stealthy and slick with his ability to sever through your mic with a kitana in silence before challenging his swag. Some food for thought: “Bedrock/Harder than a motherfucking flinstone/Making crack rocks outta pussy niggas/ fishbones” or if you prefer something out of left field “I slipped myself some pink Xannies/And danced around the house in all over print panties.” He’s rap’s Floyd Mayweather, assuming the role of villain with incorrigible guile.
16JAI PAUL – “BTSTU (Edit)”
Say what you want to about Drake’s Take Care, but he and producer Noah “40” Shebib sampled arguably the two most progressive artists on any rap album this year. Without Jai Paul’s haunting B-side two-stepping in the background, “Dreams Money Can Buy” would ultimately be a hollow shell. Never has “don’t fuck with me” sounded so hard and soft at the same time. He knows when to tone down the laser show and get back to dealing with what was obviously a painful breakup.
15PANDA BEAR – “Alsatian Darn”
Alsatia is essentially a restricted domain which respects no laws but its own. Or in Noah Lennox’s world, an insular cloister you never want to leave. This stunner still has a penchant for sampling, but not nearly to the degree of sensory overload heard on Merriweather Post Pavilion. Just the way his modulated voice meshes seamlessly with whatever chord all the digital bells and whistles are chiming is enough to make your jaw drop.
14FLEET FOXES – “Helplessness Blues”
If you’re driving through the mountains, waiting for the sunrise to break through the mist, “Helplessness Blues” is essential listening. You will feel the orchestral rapture of Robin Pecknold and company lift you to a zenith of insignificance when you realize how much you want to be part of that “big machine” he keeps referring to. The mechanics of this dazzler are unmatched. Melody changes faster and harder than the likes of Crosby, Stills and Nash could ever fathom. And I actually believe that “If he had an orchard/He would work til he was sore”.
13ADELE – “Rolling In The Deep” (Jamie xx Shuffle)
Jamie xx is like a kid in a virtual candy store. He has an infinite supply of heavy airplay to deconstruct and make a thousand times better. That’s saying a lot for Adele’s smash hit, but unlike many of his colleagues, if you hear one of his remixes, you immediately know it’s him. Even though he elects not to use it, he wields his digital clarion like a ruthless editor, cutting the glib and fat out of a track until it’s left picked clean and ready to be consumed.
12THE ANTLERS – “I Don’t Want Love”
It’s usually a good idea to follow a morose concept album (equating hospice care with a toxic relationship) with something slightly more upbeat. Not to say Peter Silberman has ditched the heartbreaking honesty of his previous work, he’s just made it more accessible while upgrading its elegance to unseen heights. The slow tempo crooning primes the melancholy heart, but Silberman’s regal tone sounds more like a stand against love. Sure John Lennon, we all need it, we just don’t always want it.
11NERVES JUNIOR – “As Bright As Your Night Light”
For the sake of full disclosure, I gave this album an A+ when I reviewed it almost two months ago. What we are hearing from these Louisville savants is the same sort of ornate distortion we come to expect from a Kid A or Mr Beast, but not a debut album. When Cory Wayne pushes the eject button into the chorus, we know it’s going to be epic. His voice is mesmerizing and sardonic, distant enough to be right in your face. The drums really set this one apart from others in its genre, whether they be a big booming analog kit or digital Rolands they know exactly what obscure tools to use in the studio.