This week on Tracking––a weekly series in which we discuss our favorite songs of the year (you can check out the official list as the year progresses)––you can listen to additions from Frank Ocean, Fiona Apple, Peaking Lights, Charli XCX and The Tallest Man on Earth. (Click on the arrows to navigate through the songs.)
Frank Ocean: Pyramids (1 of5)
Frank Ocean is really stretching the limits of the term “song” on "Pyramids". There are more ideas on this track than on most albums. They may not all come together cohesively, but they are all epic and that's really what matters. The opening segment sports the beautiful, warped R&B that Ocean has become known for. But from there we get a smattering of electro-house synths, MJ style pop, spaced out electronic segues, UK bass breaks, saxophone, and, finally, a crunchy guitar solo (courtesy of John Mayer). The whole track is excellent but it really touches on something special at around 5:30. The drop – with that crisp percussion, that balance of grimy and bubbly synths, that lovingly sung refrain – is as sophisticated as it is head snapping. It would be the pinnacle of any normal song but here it is just one frame of a larger picture. Lyrically, one could say that “Pyramids” is a love ballad. A love ballad in the sense that Frank basically spends the whole time discussing the ins and outs (ha) of making love to “Cleopatra.” He has some clever lines throughout but the real gem is the insistence that she is “working at the pyramid tonight.” That line will henceforth be a euphemism for a girl going to bed with someone; and the world is a better place for it. –– Drew Malmuth
Fiona Apple: Anything We Want (2 of5)
Fiona Apple's excellent new album is so stuffed with original and startling moments that its hard to pick out songs that are particularly affecting. However, “Anything We Want” is a good place to start. The opening percussion sounds like a penny being tossed into a box of tin cans. These unique details are indicative of what makes Apple's work so treasured by so many. She goes through great pains to find the exact sound that she is looking for – the exact sound that will compliment the tone she is trying to create. In this case, “Anything We Want” is bluesy, intimate track. It tells a story through small moments and metaphors. Being kissed on the neck. Drawing on the wall. Growing up to find that the person you want to be with is someone you've known since you were young. All of this sung by Apple's deeply emotional voice and set to a subtly uplifting piano arrangement. There is a timelessness to the song but at the same time, as with most of Fiona's work, it captures something fiercely unique. One doesn't usually think to turn to Miss Apple for an inspirational pep talk; but as she repeats the line “we can do anything we want” it becomes hard not to believe her. –– Drew Malmuth
Peaking Lights: Beautiful Son (3 of5)
We’ve always been most into Peaking Lights’ devotional tracks – 936 highlights “All the Sun that Shines” and “Amazing and Wonderful” are still favorites – for lack of a better word for their gorgeous and sweepingly epic declarations of love. “Beautiful Son” is another of that kind, and our favorite track from the duo’s new record Lucifer – Indra Dunis sounds like she’s singing a lullaby (maybe she is?); her husband Aaron Coyes’ hazed-out psych-y guitar riffs sound like falling asleep in the sunshine; the whole thing, all effortlessly layered over a percolating background sample, sounds like a transmission from another, brighter, easier time. To call it a perfect summer song is true but also diminutive: this is just a perfect song. –– Genevieve Oliver
Charlie XCX: You're The One (4 of5)
Charli XCX’s “You’re the One” is special for the reason all her songs are special: the Londoner still can’t legally drink in the US, but the way she looks at and reinterprets modern pop through an industrial, goth-y lens is endlessly fascinating. But “You’re the One” is also Charli’s most unabashed showcase for her voice to date, and that’s what makes it so good: over those chilly, woozy drones, her verses sound like demon-summoning incantations; over the sweeping strings in the track’s chorus she breaks into top-40 diva mode: she sings the words “dancing in the dark” like she’s running out of breath. And toward the end she quasi-raps, and it works: everything sounds good on this girl. –– Genevieve Oliver
The Tallest Man on Earth: 1904 (5 of5)
Whenever Swedish singer-songwriter Kristan Matsson releases new music, he is confronted with an inevitable onslaught of Bob Dylan comparisons (we, too, are guilty of this). While the tonal similarities are evident, the association does neither party justice. Better known as The Tallest Man On Earth, Matsson is the swoon-inducing master of a breed of folk entirely his own. Sparse and painfully heartfelt, Matsson’s music never fails to hook new listeners—and the first single off his latest album is no exception.
On “1904,” Matsson exhibits his stunning vocal clarity and minimalist tendencies, lightly trilling over positive, Simon-esque guitar. Delicate and poetic, “1904” is not so much a departure from Matsson’s previous work as it is an improvement. “I wanted a sound that has that brittle [quality], that feeling that it might just fall apart,” he told Rolling Stone in a recent interview. With this nostalgic single, The Tallest Man On Earth certainly meets his goal. Fragile and evocative, this deceptively simple track conveys both melancholia and hope. “1904” is a tenuous tune that hints at something sinister, and ultimately proves that Matsson is no mere Dylan mimic.