Our 20 Favorite Songs of 2014

Although we’re already a few days into the New Year, we’ve been asked to select our top 20 songs for the past year. We’ve been pretty happy with the choices of indie music of 2014, which has been arguably the best year since 2009.

So for all the goodness without a lot of loquaciousness, here’s our Favorite 20 of 2014 (in no particular order).

1.  Future Islands – “Seasons (Waiting On You)”

This is the number-one song on Sirius XMU‘s Top 41 of 2014, and for good reason.  This up-beat indie gem has all the chord-changes in exactly the right spots, a powerful chorus, and one head-scratchin’ ironic video to accompany it. This should be destined to be a classic.

2.  Perfume Genius – “Queen”

Dark, brooding, and absolutely beautiful, Perfect Genius came up with the perfect angst-anthem of the year.

3.  Che-Val – “My Beat”

We are completely smitten with the debut song we found on Twitter from husband-and-wife duo Kenny and Laura Cash from Connecticut. Che-Val‘s fun retro romp harkening back to ebullient pop of the ’80s is an impressive way to bust out of the gate.

4.  TV On The Radio – “Happy Idiot”
5.  TV On The Radio – “Careful You”

Synth-pop is rarely better than what TV On The Radio has put out in the past year on their sixth album “Seeds.” They knocked two out of the park with the perky “Happy Idiot” and the hypnotic “Careful You.”

6.  tUnE-yArDs – “Water Fountain”

This is truly Merrill Garbus‘s world we’re living in, and we’re okay with that. The Connecticut puppeteer has come up with an eclectic, eccentric, and completely original sound filled with intense passion and hilarity. While the album is great, tUnE-yArDs must be seen live to fully appreciate.

7.  Sylvan Esso – “Coffee”

We first heard Sylvan Esso when they opened for tUnE-yArDs at the Republic New Orleans.  Singer Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn were rather scruffy, looking like they stopped by the venue to play a few tunes between loads of laundry.  Regardless, the North Carolina duo were thoroughly mesmerizing, and their song about our favorite beverage only made us love them more.

8.  Alvvays – “Archie, Marry Me”

There’s something seriously ’60s about Alvvay‘s “Archie, Marry Me.” Is she singing about Riverdale’s favorite red-headed doofus? Probably not, but we’d like to think it’s Betty Cooper pining over Archie Andrews while gazing out the window into a warm afternoon rain and holding her Pee-Chee close to her sweatered breast. Ah, innocence…

9.  Empathy Test – “Throwing Stones”

Simply gorgeous. The debut single from Isaac Howlett and Adam Relf of Brooklyn’s Stars & Letters label is reminiscent of delicious ’80s synth pop like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Depeche Mode. We look forward to great things from this London-based duo in the years to come.

10.  We Are Temporary featuring Misfit Mod – “Machine Love”

We’re mad for this dark thriller that’s a collaboration of two severely underrated Stars & Letters acts, We Are Temporary and Misfit Mod (stage name for Sarah Kelleher). You should be, too.

11.  Foxygen – “How Can You Really”

Break out the go-go boots and hot pants, the sounds of the late ’60s/early ’70s is back! California-based Jonathan Rado and Sam France‘s sound conjures up long-lost audio images of Haight-Ashbury salad days pop at its finest.

12.  BABYMETAL – “Death”

Nobody, and we mean absolutely nobody, knows what to make of Japanese death metal act, BABYMETAL.  Fronted by three super-cute teenage girls (Suzuka Nakamoto as “Su-metal,” Yui Mizuno as “Yuimetal,” and Moa Kikuchi as “Moametal“) and backed by the hardcore grind of exceptionally good death metal riffs, you just don’t know how to react when you experience what is being slapped across your face. This genre is ordinary ruled by hairy ghouls who sound like Cookie Monster and look like one of Satan‘s minions, not fresh-faced angels in pig tails. BABYMETAL is a great novelty bringing a breath of fresh air to a rigid genre not known for irony, but it will only last as long as the girls are teens.

13.  Saint Pepsi – “Fiona Coyne”

If you hail from some snowy areas like most of us here, you may have childhood memories of riding in your parents’ car on sunny winter Saturday afternoons listening to really cool songs on the local radio station, and everything in Kid-dom is perfect. This song reminds us of that.

14.  Sleater-Kinney – “Bury Our Friends”

The Portland trio Sleater-Kinney is back. Wow, are they ever back. This teaser was released just before the year’s end in advance of their Jan. 20 release of their new album No Cities To Love.

15.  Interpol – “All The Rage Back Home”

That Jimmy Finnerty really knew his bands. For those who don’t remember, he was the Interpol-loving middle child played by Griffin Frazen in the underrated, off-beat ’00s TV show Grounded For Life. Interpol hasn’t lost a single step from their earlier days, and this masterpiece juxtaposed with dark and upbeat riffs is evidence of that fact.

16.  Phantogram – “Fall In Love”

How can anyone not fall in love with this tasty bit of synthpop? The only thing we didn’t fall in love with was Phantogram‘s overuse of strobe lights at their live shows, but they hit the mark perfectly with this dreamy tune.

17.  Sun Kil Moon – “Ben’s My Friend”

Perfect song for a summer road trip.  It made us want to be 20 and irresponsible again so we could drive our crappy cars across Jack Kerouac‘s America discovering angel-headed hipsters and cool jazz kicks.

18.  SBTRKT/Ezra Koenig – “New Dorp, New York”

So New Dorp is actually a place in New York. Who knew? I want to go there. Is it just me, or does anyone else think this would fit nicely on a Paul Simon album?

19.  Chelsea Light Moving – “Groovy and Linda”

We always thought the hippies of the ’60s were mostly posers along for the ride, but they seemed to have a great time regardless. Thurston Moore, formerly of the legendary art-noise band Sonic Youth, captures that pretty well in his own uniquely dissonant way.

20.  Spoon – “Do You”

A great comeback, a great song, and a great way to end a Top 20 list.

Ten questions with Empathy Test

Empathy Test’s Isaac Howlett and Adam Relf
Super-smooth British synthpop masters Empathy Test have caught our attention recently during a Twitter scan of new music with their vibrantly textured melodies and haunting lyrics that stayed with us like a bittersweet memories of teenaged loves. The duo of singer Isaac Howlett and producer Adam Relf deftly blend ’80s-style electronic pop inspired by brilliant movie soundtracks like Drive, Terminator, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind along with modern indie groups like CHVRCHES and Purity Ring to create a stunningly layered and satisfying sound.
Empathy Test will publicly debut the entire new EP Throwing Stones live at a November 28 release party at Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen in London. Tickets are available online for £6 or at the door for £8. Fellow London synthpoppers New Arcades are slated as the opening act.  The EP will be available through the Brooklyn-based Stars & Letters label on December 9.
Throwing Stones cover art by Adam Relf
1.  Gentlemen, congratulations on your gorgeous new EP Throwing Stones. You both seem to be in perfect synch with each other musically. What do you attribute to that success?
Well, we’ve known each other since we were kids, so we’ve had a long time to get to know each other! We share a mutual love for a good hook and a catchy chorus and we both enjoy music that’s dark and uplifting. We have our roles in the band well-defined, we play to our strengths and we respect each other’s opinions about how best to do things. That’s it really. 

2.  You two have been together as Empathy Test for less than a year.  What did you do previously?
Isaac was an acoustic singer-songwriter and Adam produced dance records for a few independent London labels. We attempted to work together before but it never really got off the ground. With Empathy Test everything just clicked. In synth pop we found a genre that suited us both, and we finally had the skills and experience to make it work. 

3.  Although you have been childhood friends, you just recently decided to play music together. What drew you together for this project?
Isaac took a two year sabbatical from London, spending a year in Brighton and a year and Barcelona. He came back to London and we started hanging out again. One day we were at Adam’s place talking about movies and music, and we were just inspired to make some new music. We recorded Losing Touch, and quickly realised we were onto something.


4.  You mentioned your shared love for ’80s synth pop, and your music does seem to echo shades bands like of Depeche Mode and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. What are your influences from that time period?
We can’t say that either of us really listen to any of those bands now, although we are aware of them and the influence they’ve had on the current electronic music scene. Adam is particularly into the movie soundtracks of that time and as we use ’80s analogue synth samples we’re bound to sound a bit like the bands you mentioned. 
5.  There has been a resurgence of synth pop over the past decade or so with innovative bands like yours and also those like M83, Sylvan Esso, and Hot Chip. Is this a continuation of what was started 30 years ago, or do you see this as a completely new direction for the genre?  How do you see the genre progressing?
Again, we don’t really see ourselves as part of a particular genre or movement. Synth pop has seen a big resurgence as part of the 80s revival in all areas of culture. It’s great to be riding this wave but we like to think that as our career progresses our music will develop and change, as it already has done. We wouldn’t be surprised if the bottom falls out of the synth pop thing quite rapidly now because we’re nearing saturation point. We hope to stick around a bit longer.
6.  Visual art is an important component to your music. Can you explain more about that?
Adam is an illustrator as well as a music producer so he was always going to do our artwork. The artwork is inspired by the music we make and Adam likes to create a new piece for every track. We made a conscious decision at first, not to put up any “band photos” or too much info about us, we wanted to give the music a life of its own. The artwork was and is part of that. 
7.  You also both share an appreciation for movie synth pop soundtracks like Drive and Aliens. What about those soundtracks drew you to that music, and what made you want to expand on it?
There’s something primal and deeply evocative about analogue synth sounds that we find really moving. They’re alien and synthetic but at the same time somehow organic and human. They immediately give a dream-like quality to a track; we wanted to build on that. Essentially, we wanted to work those cinematic soundscapes into proper, memorable pop songs. I think we achieved that immediately with Losing Touch.

8.  You’re kicking off your tour with an EP release party on November 28 at the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen in London. Can you tell us where you will tour and what to expect at your live shows?
We haven’t actually booked a proper tour yet, as such. We’re looking to sign with an agency because booking tours is a logistical nightmare we’d rather not deal with! We’ll start with a UK tour, then Europe and finally America, it’s all a question of how big we get and how soon! The live show is something we’re developing at the moment. We’ve got a new set-up where all of our instruments, including the drum pads, will be on three separate tripods. We’re auditioning a drummer to join us on stage. 
9.  You recently signed with the U.S. indie label Stars & Letters Records in Brooklyn, New York, which seems to be a great fit for you.  They boast a rather impressive stable of indie acts such as Shocking Pinks, Bad Blocks, and Misfit Mod.  We know you are about to release the new EP, but can you tell us what’s on the horizon with Stars & Letters (e.g., new album, videos, etc.)?
Everything depends on the success of the Throwing Stones EP really. Once the EP lands and the dust settles it’ll be a case of taking stock and sitting down with Stars & Letters to decide the next move. Stars & Letters are very keen for us to release a début album with them – they wanted an album as our first release, but it had always been our plan to release at least two EPs before a full-length album. For us it’s about building an audience. The last thing we want to do is to release a whole album and no one to hear it! 
However, we’ve plans for a Throwing Stones Remixed EP in the new year, with some really exciting bands lined up to do remixes. The first one, by Sweden’s Lost Years, has already previewed on Soundcloud. We’re also working with Richard Swarbrick, who did the Liverpool FC animation featuring Losing touch on our first music video. We’ve seen his ideas for it and it looks incredible.

10.  Any chance you’ll bring your live show to the States?  Specifically this blog’s hometown of New Orleans?
Yeah, definitely, I’m guessing we’ll make a preliminary trip over to NYC as Stars & Letters are based there. We’ve applied for SXSW too, so maybe if we get picked we’ll be over for that. As we say to everyone that asks, we will get to you as soon as we are physically able to! 

Tasty synth-pop from London’s Empathy Test



One of the better offerings from the synth-pop world is coming from the duo of Isaac Howlett and Adam Relf, collectively known as Empathy Test.  In their latest offering Throwing Stones, the title track from their forthcoming EP due in November, Howlett’s haunting voice floats through Reif’s beautiful electronic landscapes for a satisfying electronic pop slice not heard since the genre’s golden age of the 1980s.

Taking their name from the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner, producer Relf seem to disprove the movie’s premise that advanced machines lack empathy.  His deft use of electronic media demonstrates a mastery of warm melodies that envelop you like a warm down comforter on a chilly country evening.

Empathy Test will throw their EP release party on November 28 at the Hoxton Square Kitchen and Bar in London.  We look forward to hearing more from these two.

Charli XCX covers Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible”

British indie singer Charli XCX teams up with soul singer Janelle Monáe to create a bouncy, high-energy remake of the late Robert Palmer’s 1988 rocker “Simply Irresistible.”  Even though we’ve heard the song more times than was necessary during Palmer’s salad days, Charli XCX’s rendition is just manic enough to make it fun again.

Keep an eye out for this week’s Friday 5 Across the LIps when we explore five original songs with very imaginitive cover versions.