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 Kendrick Lamar, Tame Impala, Grizzly Bear, How To Dress Well, AlunaGeorge, Crystal Castles and Sky Ferreira.
(Click on the arrows to navigate through the songs.)
Kendrick Lamar – "The Art of Peer Pressure" (1 of7)
Kendrick Lamar is in the upper echelon of rappers working today. Him and his Top Dawg affiliates are constantly reinventing themselves and subverting expectations. Case in point, Lamar is fresh off releasing one of the year's heaviest bangers in “Westside, Right on Time” and now he comes with “The Art of Peer Pressure,” a heady and contemplative story track. Kendrick's rapid-fire wordplay is, in this case, replaced by a silky smooth flow that seems to drip off the bass line. He tells the story of him and his friends driving around in a white Toyota, smoking blunts, and pestering full-bodied women. What would normally be a stale topic for a rap song comes alive on “The Art of Peer Pressure,” as Kendrick uses vivid imagery and a well crafted lyrical approach to subtly comment on the psychology of peer pressure. He raps about how being with his friends makes him more inclined toward mischief (i.e. getting high, starting fights) and that's all well and good, but things quickly get a little out of hand. They pull up to rob a house and “the sun is going down, as they take whatever [they] want.” Kendrick hops out the back window and the getaway car “makes a right, then a left, then a right,” but ultimately they are “just circling life.” On its surface, “The Art of Peer Pressure” is a classic gang-does-whatever-it-wants rap tune (and there are plenty of those that are fundamental to the genre) but the final few bars make clear that Kendrick laments these nights of misguided machismo more so than he celebrates them. He says that him and his friends “try to conquer the city with disobedience/ quick to turn it up even if we ain't got the CD in/ but Jeezy is still playin/ and our attitude is still “Nigga, what is you sayin?” It's an extremely well crafted line from a rapper that only gets better by the day. At this rate, good kid, m.A.A.d city is positioned to be the best rap album of the year.
Tame Impala - "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards" (2 of7)
Lonerism, the fantastic new album from Tame Impala, is in many ways a mind-bending listening experience; but its pop sensibilities also provide some of the most infectious hooks of the year. “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” will weave its way inside your head to the point where you are gleefully humming it in the shower and forgetting entirely that the song's lyrics are painfully depressing. Parker, pining over an unrequited love, sings about how he's “just holding on to the hope that maybe your feelings don't show.” It's a sad song wrapped up in a love songs package, which strikes me as an appropriate format for representing the way romance actually functions for most young lovers. Especially for the “loners” that Parker wants to identify himself with. There is a sense that the songwriter is watching love slowly pass him by so he has reverted into a world of blissful pop as a means for comfort. All of that thematic unpacking is interesting but, ultimately, “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” is just a gorgeous tune that builds a warm melody from 70's era synths, a jaunty bass line, and a lilting falsetto. Throw it on the next time you a need a distraction from the crushing realization that you are never going to find true love.
Grizzly Bear – "Sun in Your Eyes" (3 of7)
Shields is Grizzly Bear's most searching album to date and no song exemplifies that more than “Sun in Your Eyes.” It begins with a reserved piano line that sounds like it's being played on tarnished keys in a dust-ridden room. Daniel Rossen's voice creeps in slowly. Set against the song's quaint opening melody, Rossen's voice is in its natural element. Each note quivers at the end and there is a distinct warmth to his falsetto. As his voice builds, the track edges towards its first explosive peak. And what a peak it is. Built out of nowhere, the horns seem to be celebrating a triumphant moment and Rossen sounds elated to be a part of it. Then the momentum drops off as quickly as it rose. With each new peak over the course of the seven minute track the listener is treated to a more forceful and blissful chorus. The instrumentation becomes more ornate; more voices are added to the harmony; and the drumming becomes all the more energetic. Chris Bear's fantastic drumming isn't always given its due, but it's impossible to miss in this case. For the track's climax, Bear's drumming begins to sound like menacing waves pummeling a shoreline of jagged rocks. It's as fluid as it is jarring; and it is a major piece of the track's success. Rossen has said that “Sun in Your Eyes” is meant to mimic the life-affirming experience of an Ayahusca trip. Right, so, anyone got an Ayahusca guy?
How to Dress Well - "& It Was U" (4 of7)
Tom Krell's music is akin to artists who break down found objects and arrange their insides into visual art pieces. He is adept at stripping the skin off various genres (R&B, House, Garage) and molding them into his own unique world. As How To Dress Well he does this throughout his newest release, Total Loss, but it is perhaps most notable on “& It Was U.” The first half of the track sounds like an R&B track that has had the majority of the instrumentation dropped out of the mix. Krell's voice is the focus of the song. As things unfold, however, a 2-step beat changes the focus from R&B to house, and some might even say that the song becomes dancey. Indeed, this will be the tune that gets the feet tapping at what otherwise might not be the most raucous How To Dress Well show. There isn't much complexity to the track but it has a sly allure that makes it a strong contender for repeat listens. Pop on “& It Was U” at your next cocktail party if your looking for an atmosphere that says “I'm ready to dance but I'm also a fan of Proust.”
AlunaGeorge - "Watching Over You" (5 of7)
AlunaGeorge are killing 2012. The two London teenagers landed a sync on Skins and resultant universal acclaim, then followed that up by seemingly relentlessly dropping even better songs. Case in point: they followed up the ubiquitous and awesome “Your Drums, Your Love,” with new single “Watching Over You,” which is probably the best song they’ve released to date. This time George Reid keeps his production fairly minimal, letting Aluna Francis’ gorgeously singular, liquidly versatile voice take center stage. Gradually, one by one, he chops and shifts her rhythmic vocal hooks into beat elements all their own. Aluna’s tender, hyper-catchy lyrics are reminiscent of classic pop, but we get the feeling no Top 40 songstress could face off so effortlessly with such a complex, hypnotic beat.
Crystal Castles - "Wrath of God" (6 of7)
Crystal Castles have spent years refining a sound that’s fairly well described by the title of their new single, “Wrath of God” – equal parts celestial and cataclysmic, Ethan Kath and Alice Glass craft music that’s sometimes huge and terrifying like a solar eclipse, and sometimes chillingly soft and inscrutable. “Wrath of God” is the latter: Glass’s vocals are almost thoroughly masked by Kath’s mesmerizing array of thunderous effects (ranging from delicate string and xylophone sounds to thudding bass that smacks of post-apocalyptic Ibiza); she sounds like she’s screaming behind a glass wall. You can hardly hear her, but you can almost see her, summoning whatever demons.
Sky Ferreira - "Everything is Embarrassing" (7 of7)
“Everything is Embarrassing” is Sky Ferreira’s big diva ballad, but it’s no typical album-closing heartbreaker – Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes produced the track, and his tender, droning synth swells, clattering drum machine backbeat, and Seinfeldian slap bass throw a wrench in the mix. Ferreira effortlessly follows along with sweet, liquid vocals – in Hynes’ maximalism she sounds like the part she plays in the song, heartbroken, lost, and small, shrinking from the fact that everything is, indeed, embarrassing. She sounds best, though, in the track’s last seconds, when she’s allowed to reign over everything, layered over only her own pitch-shifted voice.