25. "Daddy's Girl" - Natalia Kills
This was one of my more unusual finds of the year – I stumbled across it while trawling iTunes for upbeat songs for a sorority recruitment video – but I’m glad I did, because I don’t think I would have found this artist any other way. Because she has one of the weirdest resumes of anyone I’ve ever seen.
Natalia Kills is actually the stage name of British singer and actress Teddy Sinclair, which is the stage name of Natalia Noemi Keery-Fisher. I highly recommend perusing her Wikipedia, which contains paragraphs like this:
She ran away from home when she was 14 and shifted her focus away from acting. She has described her teenage years as "degenerate," stating that she tried to set her ex-boyfriend's house on fire while both were in it. She had frequent legal trouble and periodically experienced suicidal depression. She was also briefly involved with a religious cult.
Her Wiki also features her many other stage names, including Verbal, Verse, Verbalicious, and Natalia Cappuchini (which was her MySpace name, a thing I never thought I would have to type out again), and points out that she won a Grammy for writing a song for Rihanna (though, at this point, who hasn’t? Ester Dean has about fourteen of those by now). It also has a couple paragraphs about she and her husband’s extremely brief and tumultuous stint as judges on X-Factor: New Zealand, which is gone into in more detail here and does not paint either of them in a particularly kind light.
Never mind all that. “Daddy’s Girl” is an infectious pop gem hidden, forgotten, on her extremely catchy second (and final*) record as Natalia Kills.
*Natalia has already moved back to her first stage name, Teddy Sinclair, and then formed a new, three-piece girl band called “Cruel Youth.” It’s hard to keep up.
Starting with a brief sample of Hall and Oates’ “Rich Girl,” the song thumps into a distinct, punk-rock guitar line and a trashed-out snare atop a dance beat, with Natalia’s languid vocals gliding smoothly on top before cresting into emotional pleas on each pre-chorus. It makes perfect sense that she would start writing for Rihanna – their aesthetics are similar, in that they can produce a driving dance track without ever breaking a sweat or even seeming to bother to get up from their chair. It’s inviting in all the ways that Rihanna’s Anti was unfriendly, and I hope she soon finds the sort of success her American peer has in our collective consciousness.
How I Found It: We’d gone through about six or seven different tracks for the closing part of this video, and we were down to the wire. On the final night it was due, I sent the video back in with two different edits – one to a song they’d suggested, and one to the Natalia Kills song, which had popped up as an iTunes suggestion as I was scrolling through Icona Pop tracks. The song ended up saving the video.
24. “Steel Town” – Steve Moakler
Moakler has always been a songwriter trying to make peace with his country affectations and his Pittsburgh upbringing, as if the two aspects were at war within him. It wasn't until his most recent EP that he seems to have found the center of that Venn diagram, exploring the hardness of a Northern upbringing with a lap steel guitar wailing behind him.
The track opens on the grizzled sound of a longtime steel worker talking about his life, before the casual acoustic strum introduces you into his cowboy boot-take on a Carhartt lifestyle. It's a surprisingly natural fit, and it's a good look for Moakler. There's a Springsteen-and-Jersey vibe to his relationship with Pittsburgh, and I hope he doesn't lose it as he goes along.
23. “Panda” – Desiigner
The legend of Desiigner is now fully established - a 17-year-old who hadn't been outside of Brooklyn got signed to Kanye West's Good Music Records out of nowhere, based the buzz he was getting on his "Panda" demo, which he recorded over a $200 beat he bought online. Its boasting is based on nothing but the vaguest sense of the world, which is somehow charming rather than grating (the famous opening line, "I got broads in Atlanta," turned out to be "I knew a girl from Atlanta on Facebook once"). Kanye sampled "Panda" on The Life of Pablo, which led to Desiigner releasing "Panda" as a single late that spring, an event that somehow ended with him in a music video doing donuts in an X6 with West, and his only released song being crowned the Song of the Summer two months later.
Part of the fun here is not having any idea what's coming next for Desiigner - he's yet to work with a real producer or make an album anywhere other than on his laptop. I don't have any idea where he goes from here - and I am absolutely sure that he doesn't either - and that's an exciting prospect to consider.
22. "Rhythm & Blues" - The Head and the Heart
The Head and The Heart just launched this as a single, which I think is a great move. It probably never gets any sort of radio play, but it's the sort of song that earworms itself into your life, appearing in commercials and breaks during sports broadcasts and movie trailers, and all of a sudden the song seems to be everywhere and you don't know why.
As the indie music world as moved dramatically against the Mumford and Sons direction, it's been interesting to see bands that floated on the periphery of that - the acoustic rockers, all harmony and emotion - try and relocate themselves. Everything on the latest record from The Head and the Heart, Signs of Life, is a move towards accessibility; it's packed with warm and friendly melodies, even on the tracks born out of pain (the title track is written by original band member Josiah Johnson, who had to leave the band during production to deal with drug addiction). But the trademark Head and the Heart nigh-desperate earnestness is still there. I can't imagine that ever going away.
Where I Found It: For several years, "Rivers and Roads" was one of those earworm songs, ending up underwriting everything from the series finale of Chuck to the season finale of New Girl (it's a very good ender, which is why they finish all of their concerts with it). I got hooked.
21. "It Could Have Been Me" - The Struts
(Actual song starts at about 1:15, and the first minute or so is mildly not safe for work. Be forewarned)
The Struts are a band defiantly of a different era - they don't just mimic the flamboyant rock sound of their heroes, they fetishize it - and they do it so well that their heroes started calling them up to tour with them. Their lead singer, Luke Spiller, was described by Get To The Front as "the musical love child of Freddy Mercury and Mick Jagger." A year later, Mercury's fashion designer, Zandra Rhodes, was creating clothes for Spiller - and they were opening for the Rolling Stones.
Interscope signed them last year, smashed together their last record with their most recent EP, then had the band write some more songs in the same vein to try and fill out the record. But the best song on the record was the one that was always there, their slow-burning single "Could Have Been Me."
Where I Found It: Drew Magary wrote a piece for the Concourse this summer called "The Struts are F---ing Perfect." I agree.