Archives for category: Best of 2013

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Writing that top 50 album list last year almost killed me. About two fifths of the way through it I realised that that writing a magazine length end of the year feature all alone, without a giant staff of writers to help me find more synonyms for “awesome”, wasn’t the smartest idea I’ve ever had. But my desire to write about Slaughterhouse and Tramp kept me going. I don’t regret it, but just the idea of trying to write another makes me nauseous. Hitting publish did give me a certain perspective on those kinds of year end features though, and I’ve kept that in mind as I’ve been scrolling through each sites list in the past few weeks.

Those first few lists show that this year has been as wealthy as any other, but they also made me realise that most of the major-think-piece-inspiring albums left with me with at least a vague sense of hollowness. I’d happily wipe The Next Day out of existence for a Bowie megahits tour, and–even though his guest slot on the title track is one of my favourite moments of the year–something about Reflektor didn’t quite do it for me. And doesn’t it already feel like My Bloody Valentine’s return was 22 year ago? I came to enjoy the months were the release calendar slowed all the way down and I could delve into my backlog. I’ve most enjoyed getting lost in Bill Callahan’s discography for the first time and The Replacement’s for the millionth.

It’s pretty clear that deciding on an album of the year is insane. I haven’t given the majority of my 2012 top 50 a spin since last December. As desperate as I am for a new Sharon Van Etten album, I only gave Tramp a few full listens after placing it in my top spot. I returned most frequently to Ty Segall’s fantastic trio and Lower Den’s Nootropics. That makes me apprehensive to even bother trying to put my thoughts down and needlessly rank 50 things that I love. Given the fluidity of taste, it’s a much too final and overly definitive statement.

But I still read every list I can find, there fun to read. You can relive the year, maybe find something you missed, or just search for personal validation. So I’m doing it again, just not with 50 (if you really want to know what my full top 50 is you can find it here). So here’s my list of top 10 favourites, plus a few honourable mentions. Just don’t take it too seriously; I made that mistake last year.

Two Scrappy Rock Reissues:

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Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold
People quickly warmed to the Lo-Fi Swagger of Parquet Courts after a quick January reissue of their 2012 debut album gave them a second chance to come bursting through the gate. Their somehow equal parts loose and tight sound snaps together perfectly on the 1-2 rush of “Master of My Craft” and “Borrowed Time”, blending a precise percussive drive with a detached but domineering vocal style. The sustained pounding repetition of “Stoned and Starving” slams the song’s drug addled desperation straight into your brain. Each song is carried by their ceaseless momentum; they use pure energy to build an intensity that most bands find in volume or heaviness. It’ll be a joy to see how far it can carry them.
Best Songs: “Borrowed Time”, “Light Up Gold II”, “Picture of Health”

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King Tuff – Was Dead
King Tuff’s apparently beloved (but seldom heard) debut Was Dead is a sweet and scrappy record that I couldn’t stop playing. After initially being released to quiet acclaim in various cassette and vinyl forms since 2008, Burger Records finally made it available in a non-nefarious way. With glossy guitar lines and syrupy vocal hooks it’s probably the most rocking thing ever recorded in a bedroom. 2012’s eponymous release was full of all-around good time rockers, but on Was Dead Kyle Thomas’ underdog spirit flies. He took his Lo-Fi means and fixed his eyes firmly on the radio, resulting in an absolute classic that’ll always have a place on my shelf.
Best Songs: “Connection”, “Freak When I’m Dead”, “So Desperate”.

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The “pissing in the face of my 15 year old self” album of the year award: Paramore – Paramore
My 15 year old self scoffed at Paramore’s “Misery Business” simply because it wasn’t an Iron Maiden song. But I secretly liked it, (how could you not?) and this year I stood in a crowd of something thousand and sung along to it. Those thousands were largely other 15 year olds who are far less self-serious than I was, and who definitely don’t give a shit about some flat out wrong self-definition of “authenticity”. I don’t know what I was thinking anyway because Paramore are pretty damn authentic, they’ve been writing bona fide hits for years now and just released their best ever album yet in the self-titled Paramore. It made them impossible to ignore, and endlessly enjoyable to my older (wiser?) and more open minded self. Pop shards blend with hair flailing theatrics and then transition into space rock opera outros, creating a sonically huge album that’s perfect for the sold out arenas that they’ve made their home. You might find yourself in one of their crowds one day like I did, so you might as well give it a listen so you can at least sing along.
Best Songs: “Grow Up”, “Ain’t It Fun”, “Part II”.

Muscle Memory

Best Comeback: Jamie Lenman – Muscle Memory
Judging from Reuben’s perfectly titled final mic dropping B-side and rarity release We Should Have Gone to University, the chances of them returning was unlikely. So the news of Jamie Lenman going solo with a lengthy 22 song double album was something I just didn’t expect. Reuben were one of my super favourite bands, but they grew sick of being dirty poor and gave up on their rock and roll dreams to get proper jobs. The hand draw cover of Muscle Memory may be an advert for Lenman’s new illustration job, but the unrelenting harshness of the record’s first disc is definitely something you wouldn’t expect to come from someone who once quit the screaming business to become a for real professional. The albums bold split/double album concept is mind bending, taking you from sweaty bar thrashers to swelling concert hall crooners within the space of 45 minutes.

He takes Reuben’s heaviness up close to Converge levels on the albums Muscle half, screaming himself hoarse over a crushing riff on “The Fuck of It All”. He seems to default to a kind of old man rambling on his hardcore lyrics, repeatedly decrying the banality and cowardice he sees in this young millennium before sounding furious as he demands his 20s back. There’s an argument to be made other whether this makes him out of touch, but this is an album made outside of any scene and free of the pursuit of a popular sound. This gives Lenman the freedom to write a song as sincere as “Pretty Please”, the Memory disc’s big band detour. It’s the sort of record that could only be made by someone who’s beholden to nothing. If you wanted a new “Alpha Signal Three” or another “Song for Saturday” you got it, but probably not to the extreme you would’ve expected. But forget about those songs if you can, they use to be all we had, but now we have the excitement of seeing what he’s going to do next.
Best Songs: “Shower of Scorn”, “The Fuck of It All”, “Pretty Please”.

Top Ten:

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10) Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus
Slow Focus is a scuzzy, filthy noise rock album made on hard drive fried in kerosene. Destroying and reassembling themselves with synthetic rapidity; the seven tracks boom with mini explosions that force you to grit your teeth through the gut churning aftershock. It reaches higher and higher apexes, pulling everything into its wake. Lines become blurred when organic drum sounds crumble and merge into the megabyte wash, and guttural sounds emanate from something inhuman. There’s nothing to guide you but an imperceptible cacophony of digital decay.

The Bristol two piece’s third album has all the ingredients of a deliberately difficult and abrasive work — which you might expect from the pair behind one of the most notable acts of band name self-sabotage — but they steer clear of any haughty use of subversion by maintaining a beatific focus on each song’s feel. It’s a purely visceral and immediate form of ‘rock’, and when the oscillating hell synth of “Stalker” reaches its crescendo you can feel the neurons pulsing in your brain.
Best Songs: “The Red Wing”, “Stalker”, “Hidden XS”.

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9) Bill Callahan – Dream River
There isn’t another album opener from this year that’s as memorable as “The Sing”. The image of Bill Callahan enjoying a drink with the silent company of strangers sets Dream River’s tone as perfectly and as vividly as anything ever committed to celluloid. Callahan uses deep guitar strums, and his even deeper voice to capture his version of a door opening onto Monument Valley, picking choice words in both his song writing and his narrative: “Well the only words I said today are ‘beer’ and ‘thank you’”.

Dream River may fit logically into Callahan’s traditional post-Smog output, but it’s a restful album even by his modern standards. Taking inspiration from his dreams, Callahan becomes each of the figures that he carefully paints with his lyrics. His words can show him overcome with love in his happiest moments, or at his most lost, standing persecuted as an outcast who was just trying to make an honest living on “Summer Painter”. Then he follows an eagle along the river with his eyes before peering out across the land through those of a seagull.

Dream River is the result of a workman’s approach to creativity, with Callahan forcing himself to write and record it in shifts. But it’s rooted in the brains deeply inspirational moments of inactivity, a record made by and for a relaxed state of mind that proves Bill Callahan can still write majesty with his head on a pillow.
Best Songs: “The Sing”, “Spring”, “Summer Painter”.

 Ty Segall Sleeper

8) Ty Segall – Sleeper
Ty Segall has spent at least a song or two of his young, productive career looking inwards, but he’s always expressed his anxieties in the most outward and loud ways possible, condensing them into raucous pop phrases that are a blast to scream along with. But following the difficult loss of his step-father and a move to L.A, Segall had to be honest with himself; he didn’t have another album of his trademark hip shaking fury in him. The idea was almost repulsive to him, so he did what felt natural, he picked up his acoustic guitar and started writing. His work quickly became Sleeper, a comparatively low key and relaxed album that exudes a strong feeling of time, place, and state of mind. Some of its songs were written and recorded right in the moment of inspiration, his hurt is palpable on “Crazy”, a beautifully cryptic account of souring relationships and loss-inspired ugliness.

Segall mixes several of his garage rock hallmarks into Sleeper’s acid-washed version of folk, hissing to build up a grimy electric solo on “The Man Man” and giving “Queen Lullabye” the same retracted mega ton stomp he used on 2012’s “Ghost“. The fierce creativity that flows through Segall’s side projects have always been a perfect measure of his versatility, but his solo records generally provide a fantastic but safe reset. Sleeper marks the first time he has tried to do something radically different within his own solo discography, he pulled the shoot and steered away from stagnation just in the nick of time. That stagnation should’ve been inevitable considering his breakneck creative pace, but Ty Segall remembered that his name sits alone on that record spine, and made album that’s as honest to his fans as it is to himself.
Best Songs: “The Keepers”, “Crazy”, “The Man Man”.

Haim Days Are Gone

7) Haim – Days Are Gone
Este, Danielle and Alana Haim were everywhere this year, giving delightful interview after delightful interview, storming through standout set at every major festival on the planet, and even singing backup vocals with Primal Scream. It seems crazy that most of this was from before their album had even dropped, and it makes their Forever EP songs and its follow up singles at least feel like the giant radio hits that they deserved to be. When Days Are Gone finally arrived in late September they got to debut again as fully formed and furious Rock/Pop professionals.

Their music hooks both definitions of R&B together into an irresistible form of personality driven pop. Danielle Haim’s earns centre stage position with voracious staccato vocals and her measured interpretation of fiery rock star guitar leads, which blaze under the outro of the “The Wire” and moves with a bluesy stomp on “Let Me Go”. Danielle’s off hand vocal ticks on the indelible “Don’t Save Me” are just as enjoyable as the moments where the three sisters’ voices come together on the hook and split off again, and that’s just one song off on an unbelievably stacked side A. There’s also “Honey & I”, which dazzles with summer night atmospherics and sets your heart racing when it finally kicks in, it’s one of my absolute favourite songs of the year.

Days Are Gone producer Ariel Rechtshaid has had an equally eventful year sitting behind the board for excellent records from Vampire Weekend and Sky Ferreira, two artists I’d previously never had much affection for.  When you pair someone with that much talent with the current title holders of “most likeable band in the world” you’ve got yourself a guaranteed hit.
Best Songs: “If I Could Change Your Mind”, “Honey & I”, “Don’t Save Me”.

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6) Deafheaven – Sunbather
I’d bet most people paused for a second when they came to the genre field on their mp3 copies of Sunbather. Black Metal, Post-Metal, or Shoegaze? Do you just stick a bunk of slashes in there? The San Francisco band is a thrilling blend of all three, a vortex of ecstasy that most people probably would have missed out on if only one of those tags were appropriate. The uncompromising nature and humourlessness of Black Metal survives in the anguished screams of vocalist George Clarke, who shouts his incomprehensible poetry into the abyss. His splintering vocal chords are a welcome reprieve from the childlike vocals that some Shoegaze bands chose to contrast their heavy guitar leads. The way Clarke uses his voice to push the band ever higher at Sunbather’s peaks is a revelation.

Deafheaven blow the claustrophobic elements of Black Metal wide open, answering the traditionally tinny and buzz saw-like percussion sound with loud, well recorded drum tracks. The spatial production lets the speed of the bands playing form into a transcendent drone, and awe-inspiring sections of true melody tap into the beautiful expanse that lies behind their steely eyes intensity. There’s real serenity to be found in the soaring outros of “The Pecan Tree” and “Dream House”, the way they naturally segue and evolve from moments of pure aggression to pure bliss is nothing short of outstanding. It lets you stare back at the journey’s footsteps as you’re overcome with the beauty of the imagery that the music is inspiring in you. Genre doesn’t matter in those moments, and whatever Sunbather is, it’s never sounded better.
Best Songs: “Dream House”, “Sunbather”, “The Pecan Tree”.

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5) Fuzz – Fuzz
The mystery of who was behind Trouble in Mind’s “This Time I Got a Reason/Fuzz’s Fourth Dream” 45 lasted all of about two minutes. They tried to bill Fuzz as some unearthed treasure, which might have been believable if you’d never heard Ty Segall sing a syllable. But this longshot attempt at anonymity makes sense, after his trio of releases in 2012 Segall was probably sick of being asked about his prolificacy.

The full self-titled LP didn’t arrive until September, by which time Ty had already recorded and released Sleeper, a solo album that is seen as Segall catching his breath. Well I disagree with that. Even though it’s a hell of a lot louder, faster, and heavier, Fuzz is the true sound of Segall chilling out. Revelling and drawing soothing ragged breaths in the rhythm section as he backs Ty Segall Band cohort Charles Moothart and bassist Roland Casio. In a surprise to no one, he’s a fantastic drummer. He plays fast and loose, putting a powerful emphasis on fills as Moothart is ablaze with mammoth riffs. He seems to be having a blast smashing along on the drums to some crushing guitar leads, only stopping when he’s waiting his turn to dizzily trade solos on “Loose Sutures”.

Fuzz is a just a jam-heavy dusty throwback record, with the kind of cover that you want to spray on the side of a black van. It’s unapologetically old-school, taking its inspiration most clearly from Blue Cheer, Hawkwind, and early Black Sabbath. Casio, Moothart, and Segall just seem like they wanted to put some good grooves on wax. They’re not looking back; they’re living in the moment, just having a blast playing rock and roll at a volume that’s loud enough to blow your windows out.
Best Songs: “What’s In My Head?”, “HazeMaze”, “Preacher”.

Wakin On A Pretty Daze

4) Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Daze
Walkin on a Pretty Daze sees Kurt Vile becoming the sort of guitarist people obsess over, the kind that makes gearheads fight over the spot that has the best view of his pedal board. This seems to be the result of a few certain major changes in his life within the last few years. Playing for an hour and half every night during the widespread touring he embarked on after 2011’s Smoke Ring for My Halo couldn’t have hurt. The stage gave him countless chances to reinterpret each of his notes until he could probably play his songs backwards. But his major source of inspiration seems to have come from being home; Pretty Daze was written and recorded in the lead up to the birth of his second daughter, when he was still adjusting to the arrival of his first. You can imagine him overtired and anxious, wanting to lose himself in his swelling guitar loops whenever he had a spare moment.

He faces the tour guilt of almost being paid to be an absentee father on the beautiful “Too Hard”, it’s a self-portrait of his most conflicted inner thoughts set to gorgeous finger picked acoustic riff that’ll let you escape to wherever it is Vile wants to go. His song’s drift on and become side spanning epics as Vile becomes intoxicated by his own heady interpretation of classic rock. But the refrain of ten minute closer “Goldtone” puts an end to any talk of him being a for real stoner: “Sometimes when I get in my zone, you’d think I was stoned/But I never as they say, touched the stuff. I might be adrift, but I’m still alert/Concentrate my hurt into a gold tone.” That’s pretty much the M.O. of his entire career. Vile’s an escapist who made his own world, and if you listen to it in the right frame of mind, you’ll even forget about the pedals he used to build it.
Best Songs: “Wakin on a Pretty Day”, “Shame Chamber”, “Goldtone”.

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3) Torres – Torres
The reverberant concrete echo on Mackenzie Scott/Torres’ self-titled debut album makes every note and rare snare strike sing along with her like a choir. The giant room comes alive and begins to glow as her warm voice draws you closer and closer, transforming her intimate ballads into something truly grandiose with nothing but the quake in her vocal chords. It’s honed and mastered, sounding just as full even when it’s forced to stand naked with a hissing tape, or when it comes out as an unpolished and desperate cry when Scott stabs at your soul with lyrics of tragic beauty.

“Moon & Back” directly addresses an anonymous adopted child, the year mentioned seems to rule out the chance of it being her child, but the deep connection conveyed with her words and expressions make it hard to believe that the song is a complete work of fiction. You feel her pain in an immediate and real way. Scott perfectly vocalizes her narrator’s desperate plea on closer “Waterfall”, choosing a numb tone of worn out acceptance as the figure stands on the edge of a final terrifying form of freedom. It leaves you in need of the albums final silent seconds of contemplation. Torres is a sincere collection of aching ballads sung by one of the year’s best new voices, a slow motion blaze lit from the smouldering, sparking embers of a young and fiery heart.
Best Songs: “Honey”, “When Winter’s Over”, “Moon & Back”.

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2) Mikal Cronin – MCII
From co-penning riptide thrashers on Reverse Shark Attack, to providing ripping bass and cooing harmonies on the oppressive Slaughterhouse, Mikal Cronin has been a long-time friend and ally of garage rock savant Ty Segall. They’re huge celebrators of each another’s work —and Cronin released a pretty excellent debut album somewhere within their collaborative history—but this was the year he finally seemed to step out of his friend’s long shadow for good. Into what happened to be a very sunny spotlight.

His lyrics aim for your heart even when his guitar moves your body. He deals with his insecurities in the light and anthemic “Shout It Out”, which rings with sugary ooos and sharp handclaps, and delves deeper on the profound “Weight”; exploring the easily relatable lost and directionless feelings of young adulthood. Cronin’s clear musical talent and multi-instrumentalist prowess makes MCII an endlessly rich album. Gnarly guitar ragers sit right next to sweet acoustic ballads, and he even lets his string section get in on a rock out during “Change”.  The heart stopping and hopeful ballad “Piano Mantra” closes it out, but not before an earthy guitar crash parts the clouds for a final ray of glory. Cronin has a tinnitus ridden ear for pop; a seemingly intuitive sense of the perfect tune and the skill to wrap it in the right amount of fuzz and volume to make it shine ever brighter.
Best Songs: “Weight”, “Shout It Out”, “Piano Mantra”.

Personal Record

1) Eleanor Friedberger – Personal Record
There’s a distinct matter-of-factness about Eleanor Friedberger’s lyrics. She doesn’t seem to feel the need to disguise her feelings inside of vague poetics or allegory, and is happy to just come out and say: “I don’t want to bother you, but there’s something to say that I want you to know”. Personal Record is a pretty straight forward songwriter-orientated kind of album; it makes wonderful use of traditional song structure, with verses, choruses and bridges all where they’re meant to be. Yet it’s hard to imagine anyone but Friedberger singing these beautifully constructed songs. Her wordy vocal style is almost like narration, it’s deeply evocative of specific times and places. Even when there’s not much to her lyrics you get a real insight into her frame of mind.

On “My Own World” she sings: “I was living and breathing and sitting quite quietly / Watching the TV and minding my diet / While I moved from my desk on to my treadmill / And I tried to move mountains or nothing but molehills”. It’s mundane. Yet when it’s combined with a light country guitar lead you get everything from it.  You can see what her apartment looks like and you can feel her conflicted feelings of boredom and relief as she tries to enjoy a quiet moment alone. There’s no way you could strip those songs down, or give them to The Byrds.

This—and the fact that the album is called Personal Record—is probably why I was so surprised to learn that the whole album was co-written by John Wesley Harding. Harding helped Friedberger move further in the direction outlined by her solo debut Last Summer; which condensed the fussier and intricate parts of her band The Fiery Furnaces into something much more immediate. If they can keep producing moments as sublime as the soaring horn-lead bridge of “She’s a Mirror”, and pop songs as good as “Stare at the Sun”, I hope their collaboration is long-lived. Their partnership doesn’t do anything to make the title any less perfect. The songs are irrefutably hers; you’re in the back of that taxi with her, and you’re there to desperately help her search for Soft Machine in that Oxford street basement.
Best Songs: “My Own World”, “I Am the Past”, “She’s a Mirror”.

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Favourite Albums 50-11:
50) Veronica Falls – Waiting for Something to Happen
49) Retribution Gospel Choir – 3
48) Steve Gunn – Time Off
47) Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe
46) Mazes – Ores & Minerals
45) Windhand – Soma
44) Kylesa – Ultraviolet
43) Pissed Jeans – Honeys
42) Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time
41) Pond – Hobo Rocket
40) Kvelertak – Meir
39) Hookworms – Pearl Mystic
38) Diarrhea Planet – I’m Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams
37) California X – California X
36) Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks
35) Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II
34) Palms – Palms
33) Low – The Invisible Way
32) My Bloody Valentine – mbv
31) Jamie Lenman – Muscle Memory
30) Touche Amore – Is Survived By
29) Purling Hiss – Water on Mars
28) Julianna Barwick – Nepenthe
27) Phosphorescent – Muchacho
26) Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 – Another Self Portrait (1969–1971)
25) Joanna Gruesome – Weird Sister
24) Foxygen – We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
23) Laura Marling – Once I was an Eagle
22) Superchunk – I Hate Music
21) Paramore – Paramore
20) King Tuff – Was Dead (Reissue)
19) Yo La Tengo – Fade
18) Thee Oh Sees – Floating Coffin
17) The Men – New Moon
16) Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob
15) Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
14) Kanye West – Yeezus
13) Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
12) Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold (Reissue)
11) Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt
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Waxahatchee

Best Singles/B’sides/Songs from albums not on my top 50 list:
Arcade Fire – Afterlife
Arctic Monkeys – R U Mine?
Black Sabbath – Damaged Soul
Bombino – Amidinine
Coliseum – Sister Faith
Cut Copy – In Memory Capsules
Daft Punk – Get Lucky
Danny Brown – Lonely
Deap Vally – I Can Hell
Deerhunter – Back to the Middle
Disclosure – When a Fire Starts to Burn
Eagulls – Nerve Endings
Fidlar – Gimmie Something
Foals – My Number
Futurebirds – Virginia Slims
Fuzz – You Won’t See Me
Haunted Hearts – Something That Feels Bad Is Something That Feels Good
Hebronix – Unreal
The History of Apple Pie – Mallory
In Solitude – Sister
Jagwar Ma – Uncertainty
Jonathan Rado – Faces
Janelle Monáe – Electric Lady
The Joy Formidable – This Ladder is Ours
Katy Perry – Roar
King Khan & the Shrines – Pray for Lil
Kurt Vile – The Ghost of Freddie Roach
Lana Del Rey – Young and Beautiful
Laura Mvula – Sing to the Moon
The Lonely Island – Spell It Out
Lorde – Royals
The Lovely Bad Things – Fried Eyes
The Mallard – Just an Ending
Marnie Stern – Nothing Is Easy
Motörhead – Heartbreaker
Nails – God’s Cold Hands
The National – Sea of Love
Neko Case – Nearly Midnight, Honolulu
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Jubilee Street
Nightlands – So Far So Long
Paul McCartney – I Can Bet
Phoenix – Trying to Be Cool
Pickwick – Lady Luck
The Preatures – Is This How You Feel?
Red Fang – Blood Like Cream
Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines
Royal Headache – Stand and Stare
Run the Jewels – No Come Down
Savages – She Will
Screaming Females – Poison Arrow
Sebadoh – State of Mind
Speedy Ortiz – Hitch
Thee Oh Sees – What You Need
Torres Y Moi – Rose Quartz
The War on Drugs – Red Eyes
White Fence – Pink Gorilla
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Sacrilege
Yuck – Middle Sea