Don’t let the numbers fool you: These songs aren’t necessarily being presented in any real ranking or heirarchy other than the order they take in my iTunes playlist. And if you haven’t already, be sure to read Part 1 and Part 3, too.
When I think about the duo of vocalist Karolina Komstedt and multi-instrumentalist Johan Angergård, the one word that comes to mind is “immaculate.” Their pop is absolutely perfect, in the way that only Swedish pop seems capable of being. Their melodies and harmonies are so catchy as to be uncanny, their production as polished as silver, their vocals effortless and affecting. Also impressive, they’ve accomplished this with a truly diverse sound that ranges from folk to disco to, in the case of “Hot Sun,” dub-influenced tropicalia. The shimmering tones and beats might make you yearn for beachside drinks in warmer climes, but the lyrics about romantic ambiguity and confusion — as delivered by Komstedt’s wispy voice — imbue the song with a poignancy belying its effervescent sound.
Every year, there are artists that I discover by complete happenstance, sometimes even when I’m looking for something else. French post-punk band Pan Aurora was one of those artists in 2013. Much like Wild Beasts, Pan Aurora excel at creating dizzying songs full of emotive vocals, brooding lyrics about the destructive nature of relationships, brittle guitars, and seductive structures. “Fact” is a great example of this, as the band masterfully plays up the tension within the lyrics before culminating in a complex interplay of guitars and synthesizers. It’s an exhilarating moment, and with it, Pan Aurora definitely establish themselves as a band to watch for fans of mature, atmospheric pop.
I knew “Brennisteinn” was going to be something special when I heard a live recording of it back in November 2012, and the ensuing months have done nothing to diminish its awesomeness for me. Put simply, “Brennisteinn” is what you hope a band will do when they reinvent their sound: come up with something new and interesting that still remains faithful to whatever it was that caught your ear in the first place. In “Brennisteinn“ ‘s case, Sigur Rós took their trademark elements — bowed guitar, soaring orchestral arrangements, Jonsi’s angelic voice — and dirtied them up with distorted, skronky electronics. Seems simple enough, but the result is a stunning example of a band smashing their trademark sound and making it anew.
I almost missed out on this track; somehow I’d missed that Henriksen was releasing a new album this year. But I heard this track, bought the album, and well, this song still haunts me. Henriksen is technically a jazz trumpeter, but his trumpeting is heavily influenced by Japanese shakuhachi flute music, which means his music is slower, breathier, and more contemplative than what you might normally think of as “jazz.” On “Saraswati,” his trumpet is joined by gentle percussion and piano, while electronic atmospherics swirl and bubble around. The resulting song wouldn’t sound out of place in a Wong Kar-Wai movie, thanks to its elegant, exotic, and sensual quality.
Like a lot of drone/ambient music, “Move Through Night“ ‘s formula seems almost laughably simple if you lay it out on paper: strum a guitar really slowly, play a few piano notes just as slowly, get slowly louder, and repeat for 7+ minutes until everything coalesces into a shimmering wall of noise. And while that’s all true, it’s also beside the point. What counts is the emotional effect, not the complexity per se — this goes for any musical genre, really — and to that end, Amir Abbey’s ambient piece is spellbinding in its sense of pacing and restraint, and the vast expanse that its echoing sounds conjure up.
There’s certainly a time for subtlety and restraint in music. But sometimes, you just need to aim for the sky, punch the afterburners, and go for broke. Infinity Shred understands this well, and with “Sanctuary,” they do everything they can to achieve escape velocity. From the endlessly arpeggiating ’80s electronics to the massive wall of guitars to the exultant horns and strings, “Sanctuary” has “epic” written all over it. (Somewhere, Anthony Gonzalez is turning green with envy.) Even better, the song tugs hard on the heartstrings even as it’s doing its darndest to send you into low Earth orbit.
When compiling these lists, I usually put my favorite song first. This year, however, I’m putting my favorite song last, lest it overshadow the others. When I listen to music, I want to be transported and taken on a journey, and that’s precisely what happens when I listen to the aptly titled “An Infinite Horizon.” This song evokes vast cosmic expanses — dark places that are ominous, harrowing, and reveal humanity’s insignificance. But they are also majestic and sublime places that dare you to explore deeper and further than previously seemed possible… or wise. (Can you tell I’ve been watching space documentaries with my kids lately?) It’s an evocative and melancholy track, and quite possibly the “dreamwave” genre’s emotional zenith. Suffice to say, Makeup and Vanity Set’s upcoming double-album about “death and technology and function and failure” is officially one of my most anticipated releases of 2014.