”I couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move, couldn’t push him off. As black engulfed me, I thought, ‘This is how I die’…”
Somebody once said that the song stories in this unique year-end list are ”like the printed version of Behind The Music”. These stories are important, to me at least, but hopefully also to both the artist and the listener. Often very informative, an opportunity to have a candid look at Picasso’s sketches. Always ear-opening and sometimes quite humourous. However, they rarely contain sentences as harrowing as the one above.
What’s really behind the music is life. Sadly, sometimes also the opposite. Marie Danielle‘s painful recount of how domestic violence nearly ended hers gives evidence to the true power of music: by what’s told in the time span of three minutes, the trauma of near-death experience gets almost too vivid. In addition to hearing the song, reading the story behind Slave Ships takes you on a journey back to that particular moment and the rocky road that led up to it, so much so that you can feel the tension and horror surrounding its culmination. The first time I heard the song’s chorus my heart took a deep stab right at the centre:
”Please kiss me while my eyes are still open, I’ll be anything you want me to be…”.
It was 3 AM in Stockholm when Marie sent her story from Los Angeles and by coincidence I happened to be awake. As I laid there in the cold light of the cell phone screen reading, it became almost too much to bear. My eyes welled up with tears in no time. It was a very personal moment that I’m so grateful she shared with me, although thousands of miles apart. I hope you’re all able to feel the same.
Not every story is as dark, though. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be behind the wheel of Jeremy Fury‘s imaginary car on his way to see about a girl? Or be a fly on the wall at one of those boring dinner parties Ben Bridwell of Band Of Horses has to attend for the sake of his wife’s social life? Relive the ”fruity dance fight for a girl’s honor” that Sean Tillman (aka Har Mar Superstar) dreamt of, anyone?
This list isn’t one that just lines up who did best this year, nor is it for listening only. It’s a list you take great pleasure reading while listening. Use this rare opportunity to visit the creative minds of your favourite musicians. It’s a world you wouldn’t want to be without, I promise.
Now, dig in and enjoy.
N.B. My deepest gratitude(and apologies for the stalking…) to all the artists and musicians for taking time to contribute the stories told in this list by giving their songs a personal touch, additional dimension and even a new life. You are all number one.
100. The Limiñanas feat. Peter Hook ”Garden Of Love”(from Malamore)
99. Shura ”What’s It Gonna Be?”(from Nothing’s Real)
98. Angel Olsen ”Shut Up Kiss Me”(from My Woman)
97. Kaytranada feat. Syd ”You’re The One”(from 99.9%)
96. Bon Iver ”00000 Million”(from 22, A Million)
95. Sturgill Simpson ”Oh Sarah”(from A Sailor’s Guide To Earth)
94. Chairlift ”Crying In Public”(from Moth)
93. James Blake ”Radio Silence”(from The Colour In Anything)
92. NAO ”Fool To Love”(from For All We Know)
91. Pinegrove ”Cadmium”(from Cardinal)
90. case/lang/veirs ”Best Kept Secret”(from case/lang/veirs)
89. BadBadNotGood feat. Sam Herring ”Time Moves Slow”(from IV)
88. JMSN ”Power”(from It Is.)
87. Tegan And Sara ”U-Turn”(from Love You To Death)
86. Holy Esque ”St.”(from At Hope’s Ravine)
85. dvsn ”Hallucinations”(from Sept 5th)
”It must have been after one of those damn dinner parties where I had to be polite. I guess it was my way of getting through with it. I don’t suspect I’ll be invited to too many more in town after this…”
84. Band Of Horses ”Casual Party”(from Why Are You OK)
”There’s this double-life kind of thing we’re living here. Playing rock music, slightly adored at times. Anything you want is handed to you anytime you want it, you know. It’s a terrible way to live, really, getting exactly what you want all the time. So then the coming home thing, my real life isn’t like that at all. My wife’s making friends and I have to go to some dinner party with people that you don’t know or you do know, but they might be a tough hang. They might be strictly conservative or anti-progressive. You feel like “oh, this is going to be brutal!”, some of that stuff. You have to bite your tongue through some of the topics that come up during conversation, because you’re in someone else’s home. I’m not so blunt myself, I tend to be a bit of a pleaser. I can usually grin and bear it but sometimes better than others. At times people are terrible and you feel like leaving, always knowing you’re soon going to cause an argument. So I try to air on the side of just getting through it for my wife’s sake, at least. There are all kinds of things, like dealing with parents at school events having to endure all kinds of people that are, like, functioning members of the society, not neck tattooed rock’n’rollers. It’s a little bit different. I hate small talk.
A lot of times I’ll get on to a song using weird tunings I once made up. I didn’t know how to play the guitar so I put my hand on the strings and then I detuned the pegs to whatever was comfortable for my hand in that position. Now I’m stuck with these very strange tunings that make no sense to anyone else. I need to get it tattooed on my arm so I can look at it while I tune because it’s kind of hard to remember. And that tuning has been like a cash cow for me, man, it’s given me some of the best songs we have. It lends itself quite well to open strumming and you can be a bit sloppy with it, it’s hard to go wrong with it. I say that now, touch wood! So I could tell that was going to be a bit of an uptempo number, a rock song.
When I was trying to figure out how to sing the chorus to the chords, the only song I could reference it to was one of Guided By Voices’ from Under The Bushes, Under The Stars called No Sky. It’s got this great lift to the chorus but they sound nothing like each other. So I used that as at least a reference for Casual Party, like “that’s how you lift a chorus!”. The rest of it, I don’t know how I got those words. It must have been after one of those damn dinner parties where I had to be polite. I guess it was my way of getting through with it. I don’t suspect I’ll be invited to too many more in town after this, if this one gets popular enough!”
– Ben Bridwell
”We had a few days off during a tour with Empire of the Sun, so we went in to our friends studio in Sydney to record some of the main elements. Some friends came in to sing the ”ooohs”…”
83. High Highs ”Catch The Wind”(from Cascades)
”Catch the Wind was the first song we wrote after finishing the ‘Open Season’ LP. The verse dates back to January 2013. We slowly assembled the song over the next six months or so playing around with it in soundcheck on tour.
We had a few days off during a tour with Empire of the Sun, so we went in to our friends studio in Sydney to record some of the main elements. Some friends of ours came in to sing the ”ooohs” in the chorus and contribute the handclaps… those sessions felt very natural and open, compared to the insular/intimate nature of the first record.
The overall chordal movement and structure is slightly unusual and exploratory for a High Highs tune. We didn’t really have a drummer playing on the first record – there’s very little percussion on Open Season. Possibly as a response to that, Catch the Wind had a certain swagger – the few days in the studio in Sydney felt like we were stepping in to a bigger space as a band, which really set the tone for writing the rest of the record.
Lyrically the song is a series of abstract questions. The only idea behind it was to carry over a few motifs from the first album, and then let them go, in a way. This song bridges the gap between the first record and the second.”
– Jackson Milas
82. Hope Sandoval And The Warm Inventions ”Liquid Lady”(from Until The Hunter)
81. White Lung ”Below”(from Paradise)
80. Sir Sly ”Expectations”(single)
79. Jack Garratt ”Far Cry”(from Phase)
78. Cass McCombs ”Bum Bum Bum”(from Mangy Love)
77. Laura Mvula ”Phenomenal Woman”(from The Dreaming Room)
76. Daniel Romano ”Valerie Leon”(from Mosey)
”…at some point during the day you realize you just have to put that thing down and enjoy the moment. What are these people going to do with all these videos and photos?”
75. Allah-Las ”Famous Phone Figure”(from Calico Review)
”That’s Spencer’s song, the bass player. He wrote it and he sings it. It’s kind of a modern look at the way our generation is looking at social media. The “famous phone figure” is someone who maybe has a lot of likes on Instagram or Facebook, so it’s a little bit of a character study of somebody of that type. Maybe sort of like a Ray Davies kind of character study. In my eyes he’s the master of these character studies, people that you might not know but have an opinion about. The line “Mona Lisa smiles at the Louvre” comes from us touring so much and actually being able to explore these places. These words and phrases get stuck in our heads on tour. That’s one nice thing about touring, it adds more ideas to songwriting. Another thing is all the people taking pictures the whole time with selfie sticks, like when we were in Venice. It was just people taking photos of people taking photos, you just couldn’t get a single shot where there wasn’t somebody in your photo taking a photo! I always travel around with four cameras, Super 8 and everything, and enjoy taking photos but at some point during the day you realize you just have to put that thing down and enjoy the moment. What are these people going to do with all these videos and photos? Unless there’s somebody in that photo to remember it. It’s an interesting time right now. I haven’t really noticed it so much at our shows but when I’ve been to shows I’ve obviously stood behind others doing it. I just hope people get to be in the moment more, be present. I mean, it’s okay to take a couple of shots and then put it away. I’ve seen maybe twice somebody being on their phone recording the whole set which just seems silly to me, but it’s not distracting though. I just wouldn’t look at them.
It’s a song that we’d been experimenting with for a while and then decided to take back into the fold. We’d used mellotron on a couple of other songs to see how it came out. That came out pretty alright and we have friend called Laena who plays in couple of bands in L.A., one of them is called Feels. She’s a great violinist so we asked her to come in and just hang out and see where it led. We had decided that we wanted strings on a couple of tracks and weren’t really sure which ones so we had to experiment a little bit. There’s actually a B-side I wrote which is coming out on one of the singles which also has strings. We tried it on a few songs and some worked, some didn’t. I feel like Famous Phone Figure is meant to have that and to hear our sound evolve. There’s plenty of albums we love that have strings on it and we hadn’t got to a point where we had a song that it would be good for. It’s like finally we’ve been able to use this thing that we have enjoyed so much in songs we’ve heard for so long. I think it works in this song.”
– Matt Correia
”I wished I could have helped more but sometimes someone is going to drive that car straight off the cliff and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
74. Still Corners ”Down With Heaven And Hell”(from Dead Blue)
”A song about the battle between good and evil. My friend struggled with it his whole life and eventually lost. It has the lyric: ”it’s a long way down Icarus.” I wished I could have helped more but sometimes someone is going to drive that car straight off the cliff and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s my favorite song on the album.
Recording wise it was done in two stages. We had the main body with the bass and keyboard melody and top line but it needed a third part. The gallop beat after the chorus came a few months later. We knew it needed something more and that fit in really well. The end with the guitar outro was just a place holder to begin with. We tried to better it with other parts but nothing ever stuck and we just ended up preferring that. We did all the vocals on our (new at the time) Manley tube mic which I think is crystal clear but warm, lending a more powerful sounding vocal.”
– Greg Hughes
73. Ulrika Spacek ”Porcelain”(from The Album Paranoia)
72. Julia Jacklin ”Leadlight”(from Don’t Let The Kids Win)
71. Tacocat ”The Internet”(from Lost Time)
70. Holy Ghost! ”Crime Cutz”(from Crime Cutz)
69. Gallant ”Bourbon”(from Ology)
”I have a certain complexion, a certain demeanor that for some reason makes cops want to fuck with me. I can’t help it, I’m a polite person for the most part, I’d like to say…”
68. Night Beats ”No Cops”(from Who Sold My Generation)
“That song was actually written when I was locked up for a little bit… I was in jail on three different occasions, none of them longer than 48 hours. The most recent time it was for assaulting a police officer and it was because a police officer got into a fight with me. I didn’t start the fight; they started it for whatever reason. I wasn’t provoking shit. They started to attack me and my crew.
That wasn’t the whole inspiration for the song, though. There was a lot of stuff going on in the United States about police brutality and trigger happy cops. I decided to say something. If you listen to the lyrics they’re pretty literal: ‘Even ‘the cops gonna give me a hard time, I’m not gonna lose my cool, I just gonna find a good line’, that’s to get out of it, you know. Which is pretty much how you get out of trouble for the most part with police. But I have a certain complexion, a certain demeanor that for some reason makes cops want to fuck with me.
I can’t help it, I’m a polite person for the most part, I’d like to say. Generally, I live by the golden rules; treat others like how you want to be treated. There’s been too many times when I’ve not only seen myself but friends of mine being fucked with by the cops. So ‘No Cops’ is pretty bold, but it doesn’t mean that every police man or police woman is a bad person, it just means the institution. I mean no more of the bad ones. We need the police to a certain standard, but at the same time this is a commentary on the way it’s been going on so far and how that can’t continue.
We can’t have unarmed young black men being killed left and right in America for no reason except for the assumption of some wrong doing. That’s a real problem in our country. I guess it’s just my interpretation of how I feel about the whole thing. All I can do is try to instill some sort of idea into people who are down with my music to make sure we’re observant of things and make a change.
It’s got a stompin’ feel to it. My friend Robert Levon Been from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is one of my closest friends in the world and he helped record that song with me. He did just a lot of great things with it and really understood what I was trying to say, supporting me through and through. Playing it live with the acoustic guitar gives me a so much more visceral experience like the recording.”
– Danny Lee Blackwell
67. School Of Seven Bells ”Ablaze”(from SVIIB)
66. Glass Animals ”Life Itself”(from How To Be A Human Being)
65. Whitney ”No Woman”(from Light Up On The Lake)
64. Mild High Club ”Tesselation”(from Skiptracing)
63. Yeasayer ”I Am Chemistry”(from Amen & Goodbye)
62. Teleman ”Düsseldorf”(from Brilliant Sanity)
61. Catfish And The Bottlemen ”Glasgow”(from The Ride)
60. Eagulls ”Lemontrees”(from Ullages)
59. Futurebirds ”Bad Man”(from Portico I)
”Two hours later I woke up from an incredible dream of a fruity dance fight for a girl’s honor on some California pier. I remember the song that was in the dream was really good…”
58. Har Mar Superstar ”It Was Only Dancing (Sex)”(from Best Summer Ever)
”I was trying too hard to write a song one night. I was going in circles and nothing good was happening on paper, guitar, or piano. I really wore myself out trying to write, so I laid down for a quick nap. Two hours later I woke up from an incredible dream of a fruity dance fight for a girl’s honor on some California pier. I remember the song that was in the dream was really good, and I realized I had completely soundtracked my own sleep movie. I wrote down all of the lyrics immediately. I sang all of the melodies into my notepad. It was a complete song in minutes. I think the bridge was the only thing I had to add. The complete melody, lyrics, and even the lead synth part was all there for me in the matter of one nap. I wish it was always like that. Ha! The dream definitely inspired the video too.
I definitely wanted the song to sound like 80s soundtracks especially Romancing the Stone/ Jewel of the Nile era. I love that zone. I think those early soundtracks in my life are what introduced me to such a wide variety of music that still informs my wiring today. Back in when Loggins was king.”
– Sean Tillman
”…played around with a couple of chords that sound like they’re sawing and chopping their way through the whole song. A stomping garage rock number.”
57. exmagician ”Job Done”(from Scan The Blue)
”I started collecting field recordings of sounds in and around Belfast and managed to capture a great clip from a guy playing bagpipes. Tuned the guitar down to the pitch of the pipes and played around with a couple of chords that sound like they’re sawing and chopping their way through the whole song. A stomping garage rock number. A song about begging for forgiveness”.
– Daniel Todd
”It’s a look into the dark side of when relationships go wrong and people treat each other badly, either intentionally or unintentionally.”
56. Night School ”Last Disaster”(from Blush)
”‘Last Disaster’ is a song written from the perspective of someone in a dysfunctional relationship/breakup, the lyrics are fictional. I wrote this song based on the idea of how people’s thinking tends to becomes distorted when they’re going through heart break from the loss of a relationship. It’s a look into the dark side of when relationships go wrong and people treat each other badly, either intentionally or unintentionally. The song was written in pieces over a matter of 6 months or so. I wrote the lyrics, vocals, guitars/song structure,then Baylie added in her drum parts and Cheyenne contributed to the writing of the bass. Cheyenne, our bassist, sings harmonies when we perform this song live. It’s one of my favorites from the record Blush.”
– Alexandra Morte
”…it gave me an idea to go into a sorta trippy “5AM” section at the end, Remix-To-Ignition-style. I’d been messing around with some new tempo/pitch manipulation tricks in Logic…”
55. Bad Wave ”3AM”(single)
Patrick: ”So the way Tucker and I usually write songs is I’ll make a track, get it maybe 80-90% done, and send it to him. He writes lyrics and melody and records his vocal parts, sends it back, we exchange notes, and then I’ll mix. (Yes we are neighbors, and yes we do this over the internet.)”
Tucker: ”We finished 3AM and then Patrick said he had an idea for an ending. Except it wasn’t an ending but a whole other section to the song with a new tempo and a new key and would require a whole new set of lyrics. At first I fought him on it because I thought it was too weird for the song to shift like that, and I was lazy and just wanted the song to be finished. But Pat was relentless and we ended up with a track that I’m very very proud of. And that’s why I’m in a band with him. Like iron sharpens iron, man sharpens man.”
Patrick: ”Aw thanks! I wasn’t that into the track at first, but I really liked Tucker’s contribution, and it gave me an idea to go into a sorta trippy “5AM” section at the end, Remix-To-Ignition-style. I’d been messing around with some new tempo/pitch manipulation tricks in Logic, and they worked really well for this. In my head this section was going to be really dark, like the worst time you’ve ever had at 5AM, but his lyrics totally caught me off guard, and reminded me instead of those nights that go in weird and hilarious directions. We had to do more tweaking than usual on this one, if I remember correctly, trimming the length down a lot and dialing up the reggae. Man-sharpening.”
– Patrick Hart & Tucker Tota
54. Roosevelt ”Colours”(from Roosevelt)
53. Hiss Golden Messenger ”Biloxi”(from Heart Like A Levee)
52. Cymbals Eat Guitars ”Have A Heart”(from Pretty Years)
51. Ladyhawke ”Let It Roll”(from Wild Things)
50. Heron Oblivion ”Sudden Lament”(from Heron Oblivion)
49. D.D. Dumbo ”Satan”(from Utopia Defeated)
48. Lucy Dacus ”Strange Torpedo”(from No Burden)
”I had to figure out what to do. Do you really need to wake up in the morning, start drinking and heading to a venue with my friends, doing nothing all day long?”
47. James Vincent McMorrow ”One Thousand Times”(from We Move)
”The other songs on the record seem to be more of standouts on than that one. I think it’s got to do with the tempo. It throws people where they don’t listen to the lyrics that much. The whole album on a general level was based on the last three or four years including the process of making my second record. Around that time, I wasn’t necessarily talking about the things that was happening while I was making it, and with this album I was sort of going back to that period and even before as well, thinking about certain things.
When my first record came out and started to do really well, I was someone that wasn’t really used to being in the public eye or on stage, it wasn’t an easy thing for me. When you’re on tour with your friends on a bus, things tend to go upside down, you wake up in a venue and don’t know where you are. Everything becomes a bit disjointed and then you’re having too much fun but the fun quickly descends into something horrible. During that period I was questioning what I was doing there. In my relation with everyone, everything kind of fell apart for six or seven months. I wasn’t really talking to anybody, a bit self-destructive. I wasn’t reconciling the two halves of myself; me as a person and me as a musician. I had to figure out what to do. Do you really need to wake up in the morning, start drinking and heading to a venue with my friends, doing nothing all day long? Or is it some cliché hoisted upon you?
I wouldn’t call my personality addictive, but at the same time there are crutches. Like if you’re shy or introverted, just drinking on the day was a way of getting up on stage and doing it, then I got to a point around 2012 when I realized I had never been on stage without having a drink for my nerves. That song documents that period, at least for me, when I listen to it. It was the highest moment and the lowest moment of my career at that point.
There’s no bass in the verses, no. I grew up on The Neptunes and they led me to Prince to a degree. When you listen to “Like I Love You” by Justin Timberlake, the bass is almost non-existent in the mix. It’s impact, isn’t it? My love of music is based around impactful moments. My favourite records are all quite melodic, even though I listen to some more hardcore stuff and some hip-hop. Everything has a melodic thread that runs through it. It’s all about dynamic to me, like “When Doves Cry” has no bass at all. That’s quite a common thing if you listen to “Starfish and Coffee” there’s no bass on it and the drums… There’s a regular drum pattern in there and there’s a weird stereo sucking noise coming across the mix. It’s really odd and you think at some point he’ll sync it up and it never does. If you want things to stand the test of time you have to think bolder and braver than the orthodox arrangements, like muting off a bassline and having just one piano.
If someone hears that and thinks it sounds different, they don’t necessarily know what it is, thinking ”Why is that chorus hitting me harder than it should do?”. Those tricks, I guess, have always compelled me. How do you make a chorus hit without ramming vocals down someone’s throat? It’s a reductive method, isn’t it? You know, I’m a big Kanye West fan and I like a lot of the conversations that he had around the Yeezus album. The important role Rick Rubin played, where it almost was saying ”Reduced by Rick Rubin” instead of ”Produced”. How do you say the things you want to by using the least amount of parts?”
– James Vincent McMorrow
”I like the symbolism of a couple of punks going into a disco bar and having the greatest night of their lives. There’s something really cool in that. ”
46. Beach Slang ”Punks In a Disco Bar”(from A Loud Bash Of Teenage Feelings)
”When I first started writing it I came up with that riff and I was just trying to rip off Cheap Trick, all those Rick Nielsen kind of things. In my dreams we’re a power pop band. Anyway, so I had that little thing and was in the headspace of two sorts of things coming together that seemingly don’t belong and then they surge each other forward. The work becomes better, everything benefits from these two things that aren’t supposed to collide. I like the symbolism of a couple of punks going into a disco bar and having the greatest night of their lives. There’s something really cool in that. I refuse to believe that we all don’t belong, because we do. We just have to have the moxy to believe in it. Then I just wanted to nod at The Replacements with the little scream at the end, ‘I’m a bastard but I ain’t no one’s son’.”
– James Alex
”…I was obsessed with watching true crime documentaries like The Staircase and Paradise Lost. I was very interested in creating a narrative culled from that dark, dark area of life…”
45. Matt Kivel ”Violets”(from Janus)
”That song was written in the basement of my old house in Angeleno Heights. My brother had just lent me this Roland drum machine and I was messing around with the presets a bit and, very quickly, I wrote two songs, ‘Violets’ and ‘Velveteen’. I used ‘Violets’ on Janus and saved ‘Velveteen’ for Fires on the Plain.
The lyrics for ‘Violets’ were written at a time when I was obsessed with watching true crime documentaries like The Staircase and Paradise Lost. I was very interested in creating a narrative culled from that dark, dark area of life we tend to experience second-hand, via the news media or movies or books. It’s real, but to an unconnected observer, feels hyper unreal at the same time. For the song, I wanted to write a little miniature portrait of a relationship torn apart by violence – both extreme and subtle. It’s a simple tune and I like how the chorus is just a guitar line instead of a vocal melody.”
– Matt Kivel
”…a song of reflection on my life at large as a traveling musician, and named after my guitar – Dorothy…”
44. Kevin Morby ”Dorothy”(from Singing Saw)
”This is a song of reflection on my life at large as a traveling musician, and named after my guitar – Dorothy, who is named after my grandmother on my dads side. Being a musician, when you find yourself at home and off of tour – all the people, places and things you encountered on tour seem like some wild dream. Dorothy, my guitar, represents the people I’ve encountered and experiences I’ve had over the past 7 years of touring – for Dorothy has always been there with me.”
– Kevin Morby
”I thought it was all silly scratch takes at the time and I sent it to Ian, thinking he’d say, ”good start, but needs work.” But he said, I love it, it’s nearly done.”
43. Trails And Ways ”Happiness”(from Own It)
”‘Happiness’ was made a totally new way from how we normally made a song. Usually, I start writing a song on guitar or synth, then vocals, and then we figure out a beat; I had already written (and we’d mostly tracked) 9 tracks of our new album that way. But Ian (drummer/co-producer) had been wanting forever to send me beat ideas, and have me write on top of those. So he went to our practice space and tracked 30 different 8-bar loops of drums and sent me all of them. Happiness was beat #30, and it just gelled for me fast; in a single hour or so I tracked the three layers of guitar on a telecaster, and then sang out scratch lyrics for the chorus and first verse, trying to channel a stupid amount of punk sass and slyness into it, for fun. I thought it was all silly scratch takes at the time and I sent it to Ian, thinking he’d say, ”good start, but needs work.” But he said, I love it, it’s nearly done.”
So what you hear in the released version includes every layer I tracked that first afternoon. (FYI, we made ”The Answer”, last track on the new album, through this same beat-first process.) Then Madeline (Kenney) came and did the back-and-forth vocals that added lots of force and tension, and Rebecca (Drawing Water, Soar, Coherence) and Ian did more vocals, and Max (Miller-Loran) and I layered on some sugary synths. I wanted a sound that had a lot of surface buoyancy and brightness but with some overdriven, spiky edges and sparse moments where it all falls apart uneasily; I think we got that pretty right.
The song is about whether happiness is impossible if you have to try to get there. Is it fake happiness if you’re trying and choosing to be happy? That’s what a close friend of mine always insinuated; it was a core conflict for us. It wasn’t totally fair of me, but on one hand I saw that as her defending her own unhappiness–at least she had a hip and genuine depression!–and on my side I felt pretty harshly judged in those conversations, since I always felt like I had to try to be happy to get anywhere close. When I wrote this song it was at the end of a rough year that had broken down a lot of the ways I’d defended and fooled myself (and friends) I was doing fine when I wasn’t. So now trying to get honestly happy felt stupidly harder; a true happiness seemed to require intense honesty with myself as a foundation. But through my work to find that honesty, I started to find a kind of rocknroll confidence in owning my problems and everything else; there was a bold, merry, punky feeling that was coming up. ”Happiness” is my try to embody that spirit and respond to my friend: if you choose to get honestly happier, you’re gonna find that’s the hardest, riskiest inner path of all–and for me there’s no question it’s worth it.”
– Keith Brower Brown
”I had just started dating this gal and I was going completely crazy for her… I knew when I played it for her she would either run away or let me stay.”
42. The Cactus Blossoms ”Queen Of Them All”(from You’re Dreaming)
”I never thought I would write a song like Queen Of Them All. I didn’t know that I could fall in love like that until it happened. I heard the melody in my head on a summer day while I was drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette and daydreaming in my brother’s front yard. I went up to the house, grabbed my guitar and sang it through a couple times to see if it was any good.
I had more coffee then food that morning and the idea I was coming up with was making me a little nervous. Some times simple songs can cut to the core and be so direct, which kind of scared me with this one. I had just started dating this gal and I was going completely crazy for her… I knew when I played it for her she would either run away or let me stay. It’s been a few years since then and she still hasn’t run away. I’m a big fan of love songs.”
– Jack Torrey
”I’m a big fan of simple sad songs, even sappy ones. I’m a sucker for that stuff. I could listen to ‘tear in my beer’ style country songs all night.”
41. Psychic Ills ”Another Change”(from Inner Journey Out)
”I borrowed the lyric from Don Nix, who was in some ways was a big influence on this record from a stylistic stand-point. I like the gospel element in his music. Anyway, he’s got a song called ‘Goin’ Thru Another Change,’ it’s nothing like ours but an inspiration nonetheless. Lyrically the meaning isn’t very veiled, it’s just asking yourself if you’re ready for what you’re getting yourself into. I’m a big fan of simple sad songs, even sappy ones. I’m a sucker for that stuff. I could listen to ‘tear in my beer’ style country songs all night. That’s not exactly what this is, but maybe it’s a cousin to that.
Musically it came together pretty quickly. It was based on a demo I had recorded at home at 3 o’clock in the morning. I think we had to cut it a couple different times because we’d do one that seemed too fast, then we do a slow version, and on and on like that. They all seemed like they could work but they weren’t exactly right until about the third time we went back in and tracked it. It was one of the first songs that I knew was going to have gospel back up singers at the time I was writing it. I heard it in my head…”
– Tres Warren
”If you look at it musically, the synth melody doesn’t work over that first chord – it doesn’t make musical sense. If you play it on a piano, it sounds wrong. But it felt good to inject something fresh…”
40. NZCA Lines ”Two Hearts”(from Infinite Summer)
”Some tracks just come right out pretty fully formed – the production might change, but the basic song is identifiably there from start to finish. That was not the case with ‘Two Hearts’. If anything, this song for me is a testament to the fact that, if you believe something is good and you keep returning to it, you’ll get there in the end.
Some of the key elements of the track were there from the start – the bassline has always been the same, and the space-y chords that come after the first chorus were there in the first demo (with a very different sound, though). The initial demo was much slower – around 100bpm – before I realised it needed to be more of a ‘dance’ tempo. The biggest changes, though, were in the vocals. I must have gone through three or four whole different sets of lyrics and melodies for this track! I went a long way down the wormhole and had to claw myself back. There were periods when I just abandoned the track for months, then tried to return to it fresh. Charlie March (who produced the record) really helped shape the sounds, and also pushed me to approach the track in different ways. I did a version using only vocoder, a version using electric bass and real drums.. we even did a Timbaland-inspired version (which I listened to again a while back – it was pretty good).
Of course, the final version ended up coming full circle to elements of the initial demo. Whilst I was on tour with Metronomy in 2014 I carried around a microphone and some other studio bits, so I could set up in hotel rooms to work on my music. I remember having a day off in the city of Graz in Austria, and digging out the last version of the track – at that point still called ‘envelope’, because of the sound I used on my Prophet 600 on the first demo – and finally putting down some vocals that seemed to reflect the spirit of the music. In this way, the music informed the theme of the song. Infinite Summer is a concept album, about a far-future Earth in which the sun is dying and everyone loses themselves into a hedonistic oblivion. This track felt like it belonged to the city – a place called Cairo-Athens – and always suggested some kind of late-night melancholia. Crying on the dancefloor, if you will. The lyrics are about just wanting a lover to stay, even though what took place between you might now be over. So, this was the first stage of finishing the song – getting a vocal and lyrics I felt happy with. Once I was back in London, I added the synth part under the bridge – ”if there’s a part of you” – for which I managed to get the filter on my Prophet modulating in time with the track. This was total fluke, and I didn’t actually save the sound at the time, so what you hear on the track is the first take! I then got together with Charlie and we replaced some of the sounds using his Rhodes Chroma (an amazing, complicated ‘status’ synthesiser). He figured out some cool sounds to make the track more atmospheric – notably the burbling sound in the second verse, which is then running through a Quantec reverb unit. We also decided that the chorus was too boring, harmonically, as the chords just continued from the verse – this kind of minor thing, which I was very attached to, and had to let go of. It’s difficult to see an alternative when you’ve lived with something for so long, but I went home and messed around with some distorted chords, ending up with this slightly discordant ‘major’ chord at the start of the chorus. If you look at it musically, the synth melody doesn’t work over that first chord – it doesn’t make musical sense. If you play it on a piano, it sounds wrong. But it felt good to inject something fresh into the track. We then replaced the chords with a stack of sounds on the Chroma, which is such a huge sounding synth.
The final element which really helped the song, I think, was having Sarah (Jones, NZCA drummer) singing on it. We’d just started working together at that point, and I was getting her to sing all over the album as she has such an amazing voice. I liked it so much that I sent the label a version with just her vocal singing the whole thing, which I thought would be really cool. They weren’t so into the idea, so unfortunately my lead vocal went back in … We’re actually both singing in the chorus, but something about the frequencies in her voice just totally cancel out my falsetto.
I actually did a Future Music video in which I go through the different versions of the song, if you’re interested in hearing the journey! It’s about 40 minutes long though, so clear some time in your schedule for it.”
– Michael Lovett
39. Fruit Bats ”From A Soon-To-Be Ghost Town”(from Absolute Loser)
38. Kristin Kontrol ”X-Communicate”(from X-Communicate)
37. Kendra Morris ”Le Snitch”(from Babble)
36. Minor Victories ”Scattered Ashes (Song For Richard)”(from Minor Victories)
”…that demo stayed with us for a while. People who heard it seemed to like it and I didn’t grow tired of it, which is unusual.”
35. Grapell ”Don’t Turn Into A Memory”(from Love Chamber)
”Like most of the songs I write that are actually completed and released, I wrote this song very quickly. I recorded a demo right away and that demo stayed with us for a while. People who heard it seemed to like it and I didn’t grow tired of it (which is unusual).
As time passed new songs, which had a lot in common with this one, popped up and the song had found its context. After quite some time we recorded it with the whole band and it now feels like a natural part of our EP Love Chamber.
To me the song is nostalgic but at the same time rational. It is holding on to something that it also knows that it will have to let go of soon. That is what created the vibe, I think.”
– Emil Erstrand
”We did probably 25 different versions of this song… At first it was slow, then super fast, eventually it just hit the groove we were looking for.”
34. Public Access TV ”On Location”(from Never Enough)
”We did probably 25 different versions of this song… At first it was slow, then super fast, eventually it just hit the groove we were looking for. I’m really psyched on how it turned out. We also recorded it in probably 10 different studios. In the end we recorded it with friends and that was the missing element.”
– John Eatherly
”That song definitely has the most complicated arrangement of all our songs. I love how Jessie’s guitar stays on one note and all the instruments change around it.”
33. Bleached ”Keep On Keeping On”(from Welcome The Worms)
”We went out to the desert (Joshua Tree) to write for a weekend in this little cabin. It was all very stressful and kinda funny getting there. My car got stuck in the dirt and we had this local desert dude pull my car out with his belt and truck. Anyhow we finally got settled in the cabin and started jamming together. The next morning we really liked what we had come up with as the verse and I added a chorus that I had written prior. It worked really well. I didn’t really do the vocals till I got back to LA. I wanted to be alone so I could do whatever with my voice and no one listening. I was kind of experimenting with melodies and range, styles I wasn’t used to singing. We finished the demo and it ended up being Joe Chiccarelli’s favorite song. We experimented with a lot of arrangements. That song definitely has the most complicated arrangement of all our songs. I love how Jessie’s guitar stays on one note and all the instruments change around it.
For the lyrics I was thinking no matter what happens in life the world keeps spinning and we all keep moving on. Don’t dwell in the past and don’t stress out over the future but work for it. Similar to the title of the album ”Welcome the Worms” it means life is full of good and bad and we have to accept it all as a package and that is beautiful.”
– Jennifer Clavin
”The song is a study in contrasts, as I observed her delight with everything set against my own depression.”
32. Marissa Nadler ”Janie In Love”(from Strangers)
”When I began writing Janie In Love, I was writing with imagery that was inspired by books about natural disasters and the end of the world. At the same time, I was spending time with a friend of mine who was continuously falling in love to the extreme heights of ecstasy. I had become quite disillusioned with many parts of my life and was feeling isolated and lonely at the time of writing Strangers, and slightly agoraphobic as well. The song is a study in contrasts, as I observed her delight with everything set against my own depression. I was also writing with a band in mind as I wanted Strangers to be very different from July, both sonically and in terms of subject matter. There’s only so many songs that you can write about relationships and heartbreak.
When I came in with songs about the world ending, the producer of Strangers and July, Randall Dunn, said to me, ” I don’t think this album is about the end of the world. I think it’s about the end of your world.”
– Marissa Nadler
31. Field Music ”Disappointed”(from Commontime)
30. Nada Surf ”Cold To See Clear”(from You Know Who You Are)
29. MSTRKRFT ”Runaway”(from Operator)
28. Kishi Bashi ”Hey Big Star”(from Sonderlust)
27. Wild Nothing ”Life Of Pause”(from Life Of Pause)
26. Gang Of Youths ”Native Tongue”(from Let Me Be Clear)
”…I’d been pondering why the 16 beat wasn’t so prevalent in pop music these days. There was a period when it was everywhere, but I guess that was in the 80’s and early 90’s.”
25. Metronomy ”16 Beat”(from Summer 08)
”The song 16 beat began life as a relatively complicated 16 beat that I was practicing. I think for a few days previous I’d been pondering why the 16 beat wasn’t so prevalent in pop music these days. There was a period when it was everywhere, but I guess that was in the 80’s and early 90’s. In any case I was deriving a huge amount of pleasure from playing it, so figured I should build a song around it. The next thing that came along would have been the bass line, it wrote itself really. I think there are certain rhythms that just naturally lend themselves to quite catchy bass riffs, 16 beats seems to be one of them.
Now, around about this point, the song hit a wall, I hit a wall…whatever. I probably had a few melody ideas, but I had no idea what to actually write the song about. So, me and the song entered a kind of stale mate for a few weeks. This is actually quite common (for me at least) and the cooling off period gives you some time to think about what you really want.
I came to the conclusion that the whole reason for the song existing was because of that beat, so why not write a song about the beat?
And so, that’s what I did. I guess that’s a quite simplified version of things, obviously the way it was recorded and mixed played their own important roles. But, at it’s heart its just a simple song about a drum rhythm.”
– Joseph Mount
”Even with all the love in the world, there is so much uncertainty when you say goodbye. It’s unsettling and difficult and, in the end, too simple a word.”
24. Charlie Hilton ”Long Goodbye”(from Palana)
”I wrote ‘Long Goodbye’ for my husband, a man called Todd Fulscher. I was about to leave for Blouse’s first long tour, and Todd and I had never been apart for over a month. Before I left, I wanted him to feel loved beyond belief.
The song is made up of four verses, almost like four sturdy walls, or a fortress of comfort. The professions of love are big and matter-of-fact. But in the chorus, there’s hesitation, a question mark–there is no roof on the fortress. Even with all the love in the world, there is so much uncertainty when you say goodbye. It’s unsettling and difficult and, in the end, too simple a word. So the song has some serious tension, a longing, a reaching for something that’s getting further and further away from safety.
Because of all that longing, it always felt like a sad song to me, something that would sound really quiet and heavy. But in the studio, we decided to lighten it with hand claps, synths, a woodblock. The production is really steady and relaxing, which I think makes the lyrics feel like they’re a million miles away. Maybe they’re just a memory of something sad, something that already happened and then got all tidied up and resolved. I have the record’s producer, Jacob Portrait, to thank for that. I always like when a song ends up with that kind of contrast, a sad song that sounds happy. It gives the listener some room to feel however they’d like.”
– Charlie Hilton
23. Frightened Rabbit ”I Wish I Was Sober”(from Painting Of A Panic Attack)
22. Lera Lynn ”Shape Shifter”(from Resistor)
”…it’s this claustrophobic, one-sided relationship where one person has all the power and yet the person who has the power tends to be the needy one. I have sometimes been that person…”
21. King Creosote ”You Just Want”(from Astronaut Meets Appleman)
”It was written the year we released From Scotland With Love. When I have a new record out I find it difficult to listen to any music by my peers. It either makes me paranoid about what we’ve just done or if there’s music that is way more successful than ours. I find myself tuning into Radio 3 or where they play things like drone or even A-Ha, classic pop and amazing songwriters. I was driving from Fife when I heard a program about choral music, reinterpretations of unrecorded music they found manuscripts of in monasteries. They played a madrigal, religious piece that was slowly building up with melody and vocals and I thought it was incredible. I couldn’t figure out the time signature. It was a loop but I couldn’t tell how many bars.
So when I got home from the drive I tried to get a similar thing out from my memory, came up with the chords and had a line I wanted to use which happened to be nine bars long. A lot of reviews of the album have asked if I’m into sadomasochism in this song. Silly, really. If you listen to it you can hear that it’s this claustrophobic, one-sided relationship where one person has all the power and yet the person who has the power tends to be the needy one. I have sometimes been that person who pushes it to the limit and then gets absolutely devastated when the other one’s gone! I think everyone has that desire in them to be in jail and then be the one who broke out. Like people who are in jail for a long time and when they are released the want to get back in again. People condition themselves to be either the doormat or the one who’s constantly wiping their nose on it. It’s very rare that two people are on the exact same page and end up in a very equal partnership.
Last year we started our live shows with ‘You Just Want’ as just a three-piece and afterwards people would come up and ask what that song was. We recorded it as a stripped back version which was about two minutes shorter than the album version. Since we recorded it live, the tempo of the song goes up the further into it we got and I had this idea that we would take out the middle section and loop it. Andy and I started in a skiffle/bluegrass band where every instrument got a chance of their own up at the microphone. I thought it would be a great album opener if we let everybody show themselves except for the bagpipes.
The ‘ah-ah-ah-ah’ bit, an old Laurie Anderson trick, usually has got three or four vocals live, but our backing singer didn’t show up, so on the record it only has a single vocal from Hannah who is the violinist. But it turned out good, now it has that boy-girl feel to it. My vocal part consists of two takes chopped up and put together. The pattern in Pro Tools looks like a knitted sweater!
When my manager heard the song he said it was commercial suicide but I knew that Domino would fall over themselves for it. I’ve done this trick once before on an album called Flick The Vs, I took the song that was the biggest shock and shoved it up front. Domino love that shit!
There are only four lines of lyrics on it. The two first are best and are repeated at the end where I felt it needed to get back to that mesmeric feeling again after the middle section. Reinforce the S&M mindset on people! The difficult part when playing it live is to know how long it should go on, because nobody keeps track of how many rounds it’s run!
The lyric could be seen both as being in the present but also as what will be in the future. It can be meant just as much as a promise. Like the line ‘When you need someone to cry on in the depths of despair, I shall be elsewhere’. I will be elsewhere. It could be read in two ways. Is he nice or a total arse? I like that duality. Is the subject the doormat or not? Then it’s confirmed in the last couplet that it is the doormat. There’s lot in those four lines!”
– Kenny Anderson
”I had kinda forgotten about the song and was surprised that of all the demos, that one stood out to him, but I thought we’d give it a shot.”
20. Frankie Cosmos ”Sinister”(from Next Thing)
”I was at Hunter Davidsohn’s studio in Binghamton NY recording with Porches, and Cameron Wisch was doing drum takes. I was on my computer doing homework and I ended up having an idea and typing up some lyrics. Then, while they were recording, I went into the hallway of the studio with a little keyboard of Hunter’s and wrote the melody and chords to Sinister. I recorded it as a video on Photo Booth. Later, when I got home, I recorded a better demo of the song on guitar, and I edited out a verse. I sent it with a bunch of other demos to my friend and then-bandmate Gabby, but I kinda thought I would scrap the song. Later, Gabby told me that her boyfriend Oliver really liked that demo and thought we should play it in the band. I had kinda forgotten about the song and was surprised that of all the demos, that one stood out to him, but I thought we’d give it a shot. When I brought it into the band, we arranged it and added a small keyboard + guitar solo in, and it became the version of Sinister which ended up on our record.”
– Greta Kline
”In the choruses I took a stab at the Everly’s close harmony. I’ve always been a gut level fan of that style of harmony and seem to always fumble my way back to emulating it.”
19. Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster ”Laid Low”(from Constant Stranger)
”In hindsight I’m pretty sure ”Laid Low” is essentially my poor and half-conscious attempt to write an Everly Brothers song. Structurally and as far as the arrangement it’s very simple in that old way, just super basic guitar, bass and drums. In the choruses I took a stab at the Everly’s close harmony. I’ve always been a gut level fan of that style of harmony and seem to always fumble my way back to emulating it.
As far as content, again it’s very much an attempt on my part to take a simple, known, and helpfully alliterate phrase and spin from it a story that includes those old themes of deep sudden romance, distance, choices, and wishful thinking. And to do so in three and a half minutes, which actually is even longer than the Everlys would have done but still. I tried!”
– Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster
”It observes what you’re doing. So if you were to have the wrong opinion at some point it could be possible to manipulate those things. And what would you do? It’s all already in place.”
18. The Posies ”Squirrel Vs. Snake”(from Solid State)
”It’s political in a broad sense. Basically like “Where do we fit in?”, “Where do I fit in the grand scheme of things?”. In a sense it’s more of an existential song. The way things work now there are many places we brush up against existential concerns. This is going to start sounding a bit far out, but there’s a technology that’s out there. Phones and all manner of devices that we’re constantly being observed and tracked and right now it’s all a little bit open and easy. You don’t feel pushed around too much, but this can change in a heartbeat. So that’s an existential question.
If I mean it in a George Orwell kind of way? A Big Brother syndrome? Yeah, it could definitely happen! Stuff they’re implementing right now are really far out. It’s so far out that people don’t even believe that it would work. The stuff that’s happening with this oncept they call The Internet Of Things, where your microwave, your refrigerator, your alarm, your door lock, everything communicates to a central grid. It’s not only just one way, it’s all two way communication. It observes what you’re doing.
So if you were to have the wrong opinion at some point it could be possible to manipulate those things. And what would you do? It’s all already in place. I mean, we enjoy a lot of freedom in general as humans in most countries, in some countries they don’t enjoy freedom at all. Here, we generally do but it’s very tenuous, you know. It’s like everything that’s put in place is trying to push it the other way. Lots of laws, like counter-terrorism has had a great way to move in. They changed the constitution in France like two days after the attacks in the Bataclan. That’s quite something and it’s always going a little bit in favour of less freedom of movement.
They’ve done this in the States. You know, there was the shootings in California with that couple and the government wanted to unlock their phone and Apple said no. Personally, I think it’s total bullshit. I think there’s total collusion at all levels at all time and I think that was a big show. But that’s just my personal opinion. You know, I get up in the morning, I go to school with my daughter, I do my things with my music, I travel around. I do what I feel like doing. In this song I’m going “that is a very pleasant illusion I’m allowed to participate in”. Am I going to run into a wall or are we all going to hit a wall with that and end up very unhappy with the result?”
– Ken Stringfellow
17. Daughter ”The End”(single)
16. Warpaint ”New Song”(from Heads Up)
”…the greatness of Muhammad Ali; we wanted to pay homage not only to his excellent athleticism but also his dedication to social equality and contribution to the anti-war movement.”
15. KING ”The Greatest”(from We Are KING)
”‘The Greatest’ is a song inspired by the greatness of Muhammad Ali; we wanted to pay homage not only to his excellent athleticism but also his dedication to social equality and contribution to the anti-war movement. It was written about a year before his passing, and it was an incredible and sobering moment to have paid a timely tribute to someone we honor so much.
Texturally, we were imagining a retro theme that captured all of the essence of the things we loved growing up in the 80s and early 90s- the synthesizers, the vibe of the music, the energy; and we were thrilled to specifically honor the gaming tradition by creating an Atari-style 8-bit music video.
The song was recorded at our home studio, was written by the three of us and produced by Paris- it went through many evolutions to become the version that made it on the album. We spent time exploring different rhythmic concepts and kept the background textures very creative- it was a great process to bring the energy and drive out of a piece where the vocals are cool and laid back, but the lyrics tell a story. Our hope was to inspire every listener to embrace their own greatness.”
– Amber Strother, Paris Strother & Anita Bias
”The first 9 had come steadily, but for some reason we started running into walls when going for a 10th…and we both agreed the album needed one more song.”
14. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam ”The Morning Stars”(from I Had A Dream That You Were Mine)
”It took about 2 years to make our record. We wrote, recorded and mixed as we went along. In the first year we wrote 9 songs, and in the 2nd year we wrote “The Morning Stars”. The first 9 had come steadily, but for some reason we started running into walls when going for a 10th…and we both agreed the album needed one more song. We were both in DC over the holidays (we both grew up there) and one late December night we wrote The Morning Stars in just a few hours in Rostam’s childhood bedroom. It came together really fast. Then we got this incredible pedal steel player to play on it once we were back in LA. I actually ended up playing some of the drums on this track eventually too.”
– Hamilton Leithauser
”I fell in love with a trouble maker, a real wild creature of the night. But I was totally crazy about him, even if it wasn’t good.”
13. Weyes Blood ”Do You Need My Love”(from Front Row Seat To Earth)
”The story is such: I fell in love with a trouble maker, a real wild creature of the night. But I was totally crazy about him, even if it wasn’t good. To me the value was that he restored a sense of feeling to me, of passion and longing. Its like a fuel you can live off of when your heart swells with love for another person. I wrote it in a few months, but the words changed a bit overtime. ” Do you need me the way I need you ” came about when I realized the love was mutual.”
– Natalie Mering
”As we recorded it on record after record, and scrapped it on each one, we found an excellent coupling for this extreme minimalism in 1970’s German music, and reworked the song…”
12. SUUNS ”Translate”(from Hold/Still)
”Translate” is the exhumed and reanimated corpse of one of the first songs that our band ever wrote a good nine years ago; it represents a specific field of the band’s influences as we found our sound; and it suggests possibilities of things to come in the future. It references our early approach in that the rhythm section paves on one note and one note alone (when we started we thought of ourselves as extreme minimalists). As we recorded it on record after record, and scrapped it on each one, we found an excellent coupling for this extreme minimalism in 1970’s German music, and reworked the song accordingly.
There are the single note delays on a monophonic keyboard, from Kraftwerk, the boxy funk of the drums from Can, the linear guitar line, unrelenting and hypnotic. And then the middle section of the song: more serene and open, representative of the approach we discovered on songs like ”Edie’s Dream” or ”Infinity”, as we had digested Krautrock and were ready for other things, maybe something more like SUUNS than a collection of our influences. The song has also proved to be a malleable and unpredictable aspect of our live show, which qualities have been the lifeblood of SUUNS from the beginning. Sometimes I think the longer you incubate a song, the deeper the fermentation, and when it is born it has strong, fast legs. It’s good to have healthy songs like this that run away on you – they keep you spry, in pursuit.”
– Liam O’Neill
”We had to EQ out the squeak on the sustain pedal as it was a really dry, hot day and no amount of WD40 would stop the pedal from squeaking!”
11. The Anchoress ”Bury Me”(from Confessions Of A Romance Novelist)
”‘The agony is exquisite is it not? A broken heart. You think you will die but you just keep on living, day after terrible day.’ – Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
This is one of the oldest songs that I recorded for the album and was always intended to be part of a 3-song suite, in the vein of Kate Bush’s The Ninth Wave, with ”Intermission (Notes to the Editor)” and ”Waiting To Breathe” forming the book-ends on the album sequence. We recorded the main piano in my front room on my 1960s Challen baby grand, completely free-form, with no click track – which was a nightmare for editing later on. We also had to EQ out the squeak on the sustain pedal as it was a really dry, hot day and no amount of WD40 would stop the pedal from squeaking! The finished production sticks pretty closely to my original multitrack demo of the song and we actually ended up importing a fair amount of the original audio and I felt I didn’t want to try and recreate some of the more improvised moments of my original recording. I actually started writing the song on the guitar before shifting the whole thing over to a piano instrumental I’d been developing. It’s really difficult to play live as not one of the sections repeats itself and it’s structurally much more like a classical piece than a pop song.”
– Catherine Anne Davies
”After the film we came out of the cinema and I remember looking up, punching my arms into the sky. I really believed I was going to take off, but I didn’t, obviously.”
10. Steve Mason ”Planet Sizes”(från Meet The Humans)
”The lyrics were written by me, as well as most of the song when I took it to Iain Archer who helped me out on the chorus.
Do you remember the first Superman movie with Christopher Reeve? It came out around 1977 and I was about six or seven years old when my dad took me to see it. I thought it was amazing. After the film we came out of the cinema and I remember looking up, punching my arms into the sky. I really believed I was going to take off, but I didn’t, obviously. So my heart was kind of broken and I’ve never gotten over it, really. A lot of things like that happen to you when you’re a kid. Since society hasn’t told you, you think that anything’s possible. Unfortunately flying is out of the question for human beings. That’s what Planet Sizes is about, trying to keep alive your imagination, the wonder and beauty that you had when you were a kid and thought anything was possible. Looking at the stars and just being in awe of the heavens. Someone saying that every star you see is a sun and that it has planets around them and that universe is just full of life. Then scientists say “no, no, no, no”, the only thing that has living things on it is planet Earth. Then they find traces of living things on Mars and you realize they have no bloody idea. But it’s also about being indoctrinated into a way of fitting into a kind of very dull, very narrow spectrum of living where you’re just taught to be a capitalist. To work, to earn money, to buy crap. Is that what living really is about? I don’t think so.
There’s nothing wrong with being a dreamer, having imagination and stepping aside to the prevailing way of thinking. Society is very difficult to live in for most people. All the pressure to just try and survive. Try to keep that child inside you alive. Being an adult is really fucking boring…
I worked out the best way of playing it with my drummer and my bass player, recorded guitar, bass and drums first and laid everything else on top of that. Very straight-forward really, layering things. It had this magical quality to it which I really, really love. Originally we had the chorus in full time but it just didn’t work. We worked hard and suddenly it just became something else. You just have to try things and see what happens.”
– Steve Mason
”The driving theme of the song is a bit funny being that I don’t own a car and no one really drives here in NYC besides Ubers and cabs. The driving theme more so came from the pulsating rhythmic guitar.”
9. Jeremy And The Harlequins ”Into The Night”(from Into The Night)
”I started writing ‘Into the Night’ in my apartment in Manhattan late one night about two years ago. It’s about being apart from the one you love and desperately wanting to get to them. Even though I wrote it about my girlfriend at the time (who was Swedish coincidentally), I think it’s really about pushing through the dark times in order to make it into the light.
The driving theme of the song is a bit funny being that I don’t own a car and no one really drives here in NYC besides Ubers and cabs. The driving theme more so came from the pulsating rhythmic guitar line. We recorded the tune early on in the recording process for the album and were really pleased with how it came out. It seemed like the perfect introduction to the album… so much so that we ended up calling the album ‘Into the Night.'”
– Jeremy Fury
”…its description of ‘when I was beautiful’ or ‘we’re the kids who got kids at parties’ are relative to societal judgements of age, especially for women and the loss of freedom with parenthood”
8. Haley Bonar ”Kismet Kill”(from Impossible Dream)
”Kismet Kill started as a ballad. More than that, it started as a strand of melody with no words years ago… and every once in a while it would surface and I would try and figure out what to say with it and pack it away again. Finally, one day, something clicked, and the story became entwined around the melody. I believe it’s important to put pictures to words, and in songs, the instrumentation and melody serve that purpose.
The story revolves loosely around the subject of two young lovers who are spirited away until a pregnancy occurs. The reality sets in, with no money and having to let go of certain aspirations one often has upon finishing high school. However, the story is not hopeless. It is also playful in its description of ”when I was beautiful” or ”we’re the kids who got kids at parties”, because these ideas are all relative to societal judgements of age, especially for women, and the loss of freedom with parenthood. It scans, rather than participates in, these measures of youth, beauty, and freedom being given up- because we all know someone who has been a young parent, and not all of them bury their dreams of running.
The nature of love being ”kismet”- fate- is something that I cannot deny, whether the relationship works out or not. All people that we come across in our lives will teach us something about ourselves, and in that regard, there really can be no mistakes. We fight this idea throughout our lives, despite the lessons that we are given. Some love dies a cruel death, others are ghosts that we can still see in our present relationships, and some, as is the case in ”Kismet Kill”, will bind you to one another, literally, for life- ie, if you create a child.
Though the words sound disparaging to the idea of ”fated love”, I really just love the way they sounded together, the way they antagonize one another. Kismet isn’t always what it seems, and sometimes killing it opens up the doors to the eye of the self, a reward rather than a price to pay for following your own heart.”
– Haley Bonar
”The song is about temptation. Someone begging you to come with them to their idea of heaven, you knowing that you can’t really go there ‘cause, you know… ‘I’ve got enough to lose…’.”
7. Benjamin Francis Leftwich ”Mayflies”(from After The Rain)
”I wrote and produced that song with my friend Joe Janiak. We were on tour together in the UK at the end of 2013. Living in the tour bus together we became friends. My dad was ill at the time and me and Joe set up a studio in my dad’s living room so I could work from home. The song is about temptation. Someone begging you to come with them to their idea of heaven, you knowing that you can’t really go there ‘cause, you know… ‘I’ve got enough to lose…’. So it’s about temptation and self-reflection. Mayflies are animals who after they mate, they die. I made the opening sample on the (Akai) MPC. I just woke up one morning and it was there, a result of messing around making sounds and I just loved that one, so we built the track from it.
I remember thinking about a lady I’d met called Carolyn who became a really close friend of mine. She’s actually from Denmark, I think. We met at a show in America outside of Los Angeles somewhere a couple of years ago. It turned out she lived just five minutes from our house in York. She was in the back of my mind when I wrote the song, she’s someone I’ve felt really close to although I’ve never spent much time with her. I think the spark for a song always comes from a personal place.”
– Benjamin Francis Leftwich
”…the lyric that came to mind of someone just sitting there, crying in a corner (or in a closet) about something they did not have enough courage to do was: boo hoo.”
6. Nite Jewel ”Boo Hoo”(from Liquid Cool)
”As detailed elsewhere, I recorded Liquid Cool in a couple walk-in closets in LA. ‘Boo Hoo’ was recorded in the first one. I remember it clearly because I remember sitting down in my small space, closing the sliding door and thinking, ‘let’s start with a really simple beat’. I wanted something that could sound somewhat upbeat but the underlying tone would be one of yearning or sadness. There was this real pathetic desire ingrained in the lyrics I initially wrote; in particular considering oneself a ‘devoted lover’ of someone who does not care or think about you. And a person so timid in their ability to confess their love yet so confessional, the lyric that came to mind of someone just sitting there, crying in a corner (or in a closet) about something they did not have enough courage to do was: boo hoo. Once I heard that in my head, the song unlocked itself.”
– Ramona Gonzalez
”I was listening to Otis, Sam Cooke and Bobby Womack, these people I really felt like I could identify with and we were pulling from those inspirations so it just came out really funky, man.”
5. Anderson .Paak ”Put Me Throu”(from Malibu)
”I think that I have a habit of being a glutton for punishment in regards to some of the women I’ve liked and dated in the past. Some of the women that I’m attracted to are sometimes detrimental and bad for my health. Then there’s the whole thing that I was going through with being a musician, being someone who chooses to live life outside of the norm. You have to be a little bit crazy sometimes or masochistic to be that in order to go through some of the themes willingly as you do as an artist. I mean, once I was in the situation where we’d go traveling to play these long hours, put all this time in but didn’t get compensated and we got treated like trash. I don’t know, we just loved it still. Sometimes it felt like life or women, either literally or in my art, couldn’t care less for me but I still needed to have it. I think that’s what the song is about, essentially.
Initially I wanted to make the song a blues, like Heartbreak Hotel, that type of tune. I wanted something like that for myself. My boy Kelsey Gonzalez who’s been playing with me for years took out that bassline and the progression. I wrote on keys when I was going through different eras that I really liked in music and settled on the sixties. I was listening to people like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and stuff. You know, Otis, Sam and Bobby Womack, these people I really felt like I could identify with and we were pulling from those inspirations so it just came out really funky, man. We spent some time on the hook. I remember the hook was different, the chorus had a different feel to it. When you hear it now it opens up to this driving thing but it wasn’t like that at first, we had to find it. It’s one of my favourite tunes.”
– Anderson .Paak
”…you don’t know whether you want to keep putting yourself through pain or want to find someone whose company you enjoy, which is also difficult for me because I really enjoy my own.”
4. Keaton Henson ”Comfortable Love”(from Kindly Now)
”I had to write a description of all the songs and I was kind of stuck on that one! It may be to do with my age but you get to a point where you’re starting to see a lot of people finding that kind of comfortable love, a kind of co-existence that means you just don’t have to be lonely again. That song is me railing against that, I guess. I’m thinking “Is that the best thing? Do you want to find the comfortable thing or is the painful thing the real thing?”. Wondering what love would be and what it’s there for.
I’ve been in a lot of relationships which are explosive and it’s kind of addictive, isn’t it? If it’s laced with danger or pain and I think it can be quite damaging. I think that song is quite confused for me, I’m at a point where you don’t know whether you want to keep putting yourself through pain or whether you want to find someone whose company you enjoy, which is also difficult for me because I really enjoy my own company. There’s almost an envy of people who seem so comfortable and content but there’s also a feeling of “Do I want that? Is that vibrant enough?”
As on Birthdays, I feel that the quiet moments in an album aren’t as powerful if it’s just them and to have a quiet moment really means something and it’s nice to have something loud before it. Also, people tend to fall asleep to my albums and I felt like I should have something loud just in case…”
– Keaton Henson
”Is the song title a double entendre for ”horny”? Well, everybody puts his own things into it… Maybe that was the state you were in when you were listening…”
3. Justice “Randy”(from Woman)
”One of the funny things is that the singer, Morgan Phalen, lives in Stockholm! He used to live in the US, he’s originally from Mexico but was raised in San Francisco and then lived in New York and Los Angeles. When we met him he lived over there but then moved to Europe which made everything much more easy to work with him.
There are always a couple of tracks on each album where, instead of making it by the two of us playing piano and bass in a traditional way, we start them by just trying things with sounds and electronics and based on how they react, the response of the sound. “Randy” is one of those songs. Our first idea when we made it was to play it sort of industrial, EBM. So we had all these loops that were generated by software and we were sequencing them in different ways. Then we started playing on top of that and found this chord sequence that worked on it. We immediately felt that it could go in a much more interesting direction having this almost R&B cruising music blended with these very cold electronic sequences. The first session of writing this song was one afternoon and we had almost everything, but we felt the chorus was not good enough. That’s when we called Morgan and he flew to Paris where we began writing lyrics and different options for choruses. The three of us found the chorus while just playing something to which he was singing whatever it was. The difficult part comes when you have to replace those gibberish words you sing when you find the lines to replace with lyrics. We sat for maybe two or three days to write the lyrics. It was really fun working with him, we’d know him for eight years now since he worked with us on the previous album. We don’t let a lot of outside people participate in our records. For us, it’s really a weapon to have a guy like this that we know we can spend fun time with.
Is the song title a double entendre for ”horny”? Well, everybody puts his own things into it… Maybe that was the state you were in when you were listening to it, or maybe this song was making you randy and you started imagining it… Personally, we never thought of that, never ever…”
– Xavier de Rosnay
”He was all rage and bluster for an eternity wrapped in a month. Then he went suddenly calm. Standing in front of me as I sat on the sofa. Then, his hands were around my neck.”
2. Marie Danielle ”Slave Ships”(from Hustler)
”I’ve always been fascinated by the ocean. The enormous power and beauty of waves crashing on the beach, fury and rhythm, hypnotizing in their ferocity. The wind whipping you with the scent of salt air. You dip your toe at the lip, the mouth threatening to swallow you whole.
It’s this same sort of pull that has lured me to the type of darkly brooding man to whom I’ve always been attracted, their wounds so thinly veiled, simmering just below the surface. It was no different with Ian. We had grown up together in a sad suburb of a broken-down rust belt city. We were cut from the same cloth so we recognized the thread of each other’s making, and all the flaws within.
The beginning was enchanted, it was a lightning strike in the night sky. Countless hours in glistening barrooms, silent evenings spent watching Los Angeles glimmer from high atop the Hollywood Hills. Days lingering in the haze next to the ocean as we settled into oblivion. Back to that ocean – chaos and order, hand in hand, just like us. I’m always trying to reorder things, glue the pieces back together in a tattered approximation of their original shape. And Ian was shattered, I wanted to repair him, to rein in his chaos. Maybe my own as well. But, there’s no fixing anything: it is what it is.
Ultimately, the light gave way to the darkness we kept inside. Everything unraveled. Squabbles bloomed to all-out war. Pleasure lost its appeal. So, we looked for the softest parts of each other in which to press the blade, blood needed to be spilt. Chaos broke the shackles, hands turned to fists.
All I remember from that last day is the quiet. He was all rage and bluster for an eternity wrapped in a month. Then he went suddenly calm. Standing in front of me as I sat on the sofa. Then, his hands were around my neck. He pushed me into the fabric of the lush, brown couch. The place where we had lain entwined in softer times. I was submerged. I couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move, couldn’t push him off. As black engulfed me, I thought, ‘This is how I die.’ At the last moment, he let go. Stood up, then sat down, then laid down next to me on the couch. I caught my breath and ran out of the house.
The part that came between that day and the writing of Slave Ships was the hard part. A part I won’t revisit now, or likely, ever. That was the final battleground that led me to write the song in question. It was all that warring that made me see relationships of this kind as servitude, each person enslaved to the other, slaves to the bottle, slaves to anything that could maybe save us. That’s the ultimate shackle. The belief that anyone can liberate us. Freedom comes only from within.”
– Marie Danielle
1. Mitski ”Your Best American Girl”(from Puberty 2)
(Mitski was approached with a request to share her story behind ”Your Best American Girl” but she was unfortunately unavailable due to travelling and other commitments.)