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Best tunes of 2012: #1 Of Monsters And Men “Little talks”

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What is it with Iceland, this tiny island country with a population hovering between 300,000 and 400,000, that keeps producing not just talented, but groundbreaking musicians? Is it something in the volcanic ash or all those dang waterfalls? First, it was The Sugarcubes and Björk in the late 80s, followed by Múm and Sigur Rós in the late 90s, and then, in 2012, Of Monsters And Men were suddenly the darlings of the indie rock world.

The group formed in 2010 when singer/songwriter, Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir decided to flesh out her sound with a full band and flesh it out she did. By the time they were signed to Record Records in 2011, they were up to six members and typically added a couple more on stage for good measure when performing live. Their debut album, “My head is an animal”, was actually released in 2011 in their home country but it wasn’t long before they were generating buzz outside the small island’s borders, mostly on the back of the song that is the reason for today’s post. I’ve included “Little talks” as my number one favourite song of 2012 (despite being released the year before) because this is the year it was officially released in North America and just a few months earlier was when I came across them and quickly fell for them.

I actually have work colleague, Jean-Pierre, to thank for turning me on to Of Monsters And Men*. He mentioned their band name one day as we passed each other in the office hallway, as we were wont to do, back when we were actually working in the office. Indeed, we often shared the names of bands and especially, the names of songs to which we were currently listening and typically, name dropped other band names as points of reference. In this case, The Decemberists and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros set off alarm bells in my head so I made a mental note and set about investigating later that night.

As I already hinted above, “Little talks” generated tons of buzz with the indie hipsters, on the net, in blogs everywhere, and on college radio. And with very good reason. “Little talks” is one of the catchiest pieces of pop gemstones that you might ever hear. It definitely benefitted from the surge of interest at the time in indie-folk music, mostly generated by bands like The Decemberists, The Lumineers, and Mumford And Sons. “Little talks” shared some of the qualities of these types of acts (“Hey!”) but the female/male vocal interplay also had me drawing comparisons to The Beautiful South and the varied instruments and big sound was reminiscent of Arcade Fire.

It’s a beautiful, whimsical, and uplifting song. It’s happiness. It’s magical. It’s timeless. It’s love.

“Though the truth may vary
This ship will carry our bodies safe to shore”

Amen.

*Although, given how big they became, I’m pretty certain I may have noticed them eventually.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2012 list, click here

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Best tunes of 2012: #2 Blur “Under the westway”

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As some of the more frequent visitors to this blog may already be aware, I’m something of a Blur fan and have been since the beginning.

I borrowed a copy of their debut album “Leisure” shortly after its release and dubbed it to a C90 cassette tape*, one which I darned near wore through. Their next two albums, “Modern life is rubbish” (1993) and “Parklife” (1994), were amongst the first CDs I would ever buy and I pretty much ate up everything they served thereafter. Even though Blur’s seventh album, “Think tank”, was my least favourite to that point, I was still very saddened at the news of the hiatus they announced in 2004.

They kissed and made up** at the end of 2008 and played a number of huge shows throughout 2009. Then, for the 2010 edition of Record Store Day, they issued a brand new 7” inch single called “Fool’s day”, which was distinctive for being the first recording to include the work of guitarist Graham Coxon in almost a decade.

Then, in February 2012, the band were deservedly recognized for their “Outstanding contribution to music” at the Brit awards. I don’t typically watch awards shows so I found out about it a few days later and while reading up on it and watching video clips on YouTube, I learned some even more exciting news. Apparently, Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon had performed a three-song set at a Brits pre-show put on in support of War Child, two nights earlier, that included a brand new song called, “Under the westway”. It was so new that Damon was reading the lyrics from a sheet of paper because the song ‘had a lot of words’. I remember tracking down a shaky fan filmed video of this performance. Then, I watched it more than a few times, easily enough to fall for this new piano-heavy number, a tune that reminded me somewhat of a David Bowie ballad. Needless to say, I liked what I heard and began to hope that there was more new material where that came from.

I started seeing ambiguous tweets from the Blur camp a few months later. When they finally came clean, Blur announced that they would be releasing two brand new tracks, the aforementioned, “Under the westway” and another called “The puritan”, on July 2nd. To add to the excitement (like I needed more), Blur was to perform both songs, live, at a ‘secret location’, and stream them over the Internet, the first song at 6:15pm and the second at 7:15pm BST. Immediately afterwards, the songs were made available for download on iTunes with a special edition, double A side, 7″ single to be released later. It was all a brilliant ploy by a band that pre-dated the ‘Internet’, embracing technology and the brave new world of music.

But it wasn’t just all fireworks and no substance. Both of these were great tunes, especially “Under the westway”, which ranks up there with my all-time favourite tunes by the band.

It’s sad but glorious. Old veteran soldiers of Britpop and London town, looking down at it all, the smouldering wreckage, the changing times, the ghostly memories. It’s like they’re revisiting home and realizing they can’t go back, only forward, and though it hurts, they sit down and write a song about it all.

“For the way I feel about you
Paradise not lost, it’s in you
On a permanent basis
I apologize
But I am going to sing”

It is seamless and easy and perfect. And I can just listen to it over and over and over.

*On the other side of which was recorded Chapterhouse’s debut “Whirlpool”.

**Not literally, of course.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2012 list, click here.

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Best tunes of 2012: #3 First Aid Kit “Emmylou”

<< #4   |    #2 >>

If you had asked me in my youth if there was a type of music that I disliked, I would have answered without hesitation: Country.

To be fair, it was the music of my parents* and teenagers rarely pick up on the music of the previous generation, at least not right away. Then, the “new” country hit the fan in the 80s and 90s, spraying the music of Shania Twain and Garth Brooks – really more pop than country – all over the radio. Is it any wonder, then, that I wasn’t a fan of the genre? Still, as more time has gone on, I have found myself being drawn in by more bands flying the alt-country banner, music influenced by the country music of old.

Back in 2012, some of the bands that were putting out my favourite music were all rocking this sound, bands like Cuff the Duke, The Wooden Sky and yes, First Aid Kit. This latter act may have considered themselves more of a folk band but if you listen to the twang and slide guitar of today’s song, “Emmylou”, you certainly couldn’t discount their country influences. Then, of course, there’s the lyric content. The song metaphorically references legendary country duos Johnny Cash and June Carter-Cash and Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris** to bolster the comparison of singing partnerships with entangled lovers.

“Oh the bitter winds are coming in
And I’m already missing the summer
Stockholm’s cold but I’ve been told
I was born to endure this kind of weather”

And, yes, you read and heard that right.

First Aid Kit’s twin driving forces, sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg, are both from the northern climes of Sweden. It shouldn’t be that surprising that a band of such quality comes from the Scandinavian country**, but that they sound like this is somewhat unexpected. And it’s their sound that gained them such popularity. They first cracked popular attention with a YouTube video of them performing a cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger mountain peasant song” and perhaps because of this, many writers had First Aid Kit stealing the helm of brilliance from that same band. All you have to do is listen to the angelic vocal harmonies sung by the sisters to understand why the critics raved.

“Emmylou” was the second single off of First Aid Kit’s second album “The lion’s roar”. I remember liking the album enough when I first heard it but was far too preoccupied with so much new music being released to spend enough time with it. Then, later in the year, the album happened to come up randomly on my iPod while doing some spring cleaning and it suddenly clicked with me. I must have listened to “Emmylou” a half-dozen times on repeat. I was so hooked that I had to share it with my wife, Victoria. Once she got over the initial shock at the country sound, she really enjoyed the song as well. It really is a beautiful tune and captures the yearning and pure pleasure of love.

“No, I’m not asking much of you
Just sing, little darling, sing with me”

*The music of long road trips and hence, forced agony.

**Back in 2015, First Aid Kit performed this song with Emmylou Harris in attendance and the legendary songstress was moved to tears.

***There have been plenty of excellent Swedish bands over last couple of decades.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2012 list, click here.