01 January 2014

Cups To The Stars: 2013 in Review – The Songs

I've been reviewing 2013 for quite a while now.  I wrote my first for-publication Best of 2013 albums list (for Magnet) back in October; then another, substantially different one (for City Paper) in early December.  I (just) missed the Pazz'n'Jop deadline (again), but anyway my list has again seen more fluctuation and rejiggering since then.

Basically it's either been a highly competitive year for albums or a highly confusing one – or possibly both: sometimes it's hard to tell if all the reshuffling is due to there being a ton of really strong albums vying for the spots, or a dearth of albums strong enough to really assert their place.  In other words, 2013 was definitely not a 2012 or a 2010 (i.e. a year with a huge, unassailable top 5+ – or possibly just a year with a new Hot Chip album), but it wasn't exactly a 2011 (lower key, smaller scale, off-cycle) either.  Or, maybe it was in terms of absolute great greats: ultimately, nothing stood out as an unmitigated 10/10; a fully satisfying #1 – Kacey Musgraves has held steady in that spot for a while, but it feels a bit like a default, and in any case it's not really representative of my actual year in listening.

Anyhow, there were unquestionably many really good albums that came out last year – enough that I've been inspired to make my list relatively long-form.  I've listed 24 of them below in the next entry, with some commentary (including my blurbs from the CP list), and you can find a whole bunch more over on the sidebar: numbered up to 100, just for fun, and subject to revision whenever I feel bored.  (oh yeah – and I totally reserve the right to list BEYONCÉ in 2014.)  (Actually, screw that...while I'm being revisionist anyway I'm sneaking it in now...no higher than #25 though.  Don't feel like search for any more jpgs plus I'm honestly not that sold on it.  Though maybe I'll live eat those words.)

First though: some songs.  2013 was an exceptionally good year for songs (or, if you like, tracks), but more specifically it was a truly great year for anthems.  Not every song on the list below was even a single, and many that were didn't exactly permeate broader consciousness (even on an indie level) to the extent that plenty of other great, probably equally list-worthy hits – by folks like Daft Punk, Disclosure, Drake, Haim [**big ups especially to the Lindstrøm remix of "Forever"**], Skye Ferreira, Paramore, Robin Thicke, Miguel [er, as featured by Mariah Carey and Janelle Monae] and Rhye [a few year-of-release quibbles there] – but almost every one of them feels, in its own way, powerfully, personally and specifically anthemic.  And, for sure, none more so than this one:

1. Neko Case: "Man"
Neko Case - "Man"

"Night Still Comes" was the instantly familiar, deftly melodic, perfectly formed gospel-soul stunner that already felt like a pre-ordained cozy campfire classic from the first time we heard it (in my case, live at WilcoFest.)  "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu" was the quietly staggering, heart-rending emotional centerpiece whose startlingly unadorned a cappella form precisely matched the stark, searing poignancy of its content.  But there was nothing on The Worse It Gets, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You that compared to "Man."

Maybe it's partly because I heard it several months before the rest of the album, but "Man" stands defiantly apart from the record surrounding it – and really, from Case's entire career.  (Her work with the New Pornographers only grudgingly excepted, because this feels like something else, something emphatically more forceful, even if it certainly takes a few pages from that book.)  It has a directness, a thundering force – like an electric jolt – that she's never really attempted otherwise, and it comes across with an unambiguous, surging certainty – those drums, those cymbals, the teeth-grinding violence of guitars on guitars on guitars – that's very tempting to equate with simplicity.

But as with the brilliant, seemingly baldly self-explanatory lyrics; even given the delicious, pivotal reveal that – no, it's not about gender, and she's not playing a role this time: "Man" is just what kind of animal she is – I get the sense that there's still a little more going on here than she's quite letting on; some evasion or elision in the pronouns and syntax.  (That's the animal part, maybe: just because Neko is, like all of us, a man, doesn't mean she's not still as mysterious as any other beast)  Still, who cares what kind of sense it makes or doesn't; there were few more inexplicably desirable states of being in 2013 than "dipshit drunk on pink perfume," and few assertions more satisfying or self-evident than the Neko-logical corollary to such a situation: "I AM THE MAN IN THE FUCKING MOON"

2. Classixx ft. Nancy Whang: "All You're Waiting For"
Classixx - "All You're Looking For" (Feat. Nancy Whang) Video
In which Classixx – two L.A. electro-scene gadabouts with a handful of quite good remixes to their credit, and little else to speak of – suddenly, shockingly live up to their name, x's and all.  "All You're Waiting For" came a title that was hard to take seriously – oh sure, another synthy, disco-ey burst of upbeat electro-dance blog fodder is exactly what we've been missing – but somehow became self-fulfilling, and undeniable.  This track does absolutely nothing new, but it does absolutely everything it needs to do.  It is a 100% pure, clinical-grade distillation of the ever-beguiling but so often lackluster 21st century dance/pop/house/electro axis – that nebulously shiny, blandly stylish domain of stock neon visuals and endless goofily-named remixers.  Every so often, though, somebody just gets it right.

It doesn't hurt that they enlisted Nancy Whang, who for reasons I have never really been able to understand, let alone articulate, is pretty the undisputed queen of this stuff.  What she does here is not much different from what she's done in the past for the likes of Soulwax, Juan MacLean and LCD Soundsystem (and again on a forthcoming banger from DFA also-ran Shit Robot), which is...not much, really.  Sing the words.  Maybe her voice just functions like a sort of seal of authenticity by this point.  But it does the trick – managing to invest some legitimate drama into the most banal lyrical imagery imaginable ("...got my bags packed, waiting on the driver curbside...")  On the other hand, the synths – inexplicably both crisp and pillowy – have the whole job pretty much sewn up before her voice even enters the scene.

3. D E N A: "Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools"

Nobody heard this.  Nobody cares about Kitsuné any more (if they ever did), which is only fair because most of what they put out really isn't very interesting.  But somebody should really start paying attention to D E N A, or Dena, or however she wants us to write it, because she has mad swagger like M.I.A. back in '05 and because this song is amazing, hilarious both conceptually and musically (that doorbell sample?!? – and that's not even mentioning the video) but without actually seeming like a joke, brilliantly deadpan, and also extremely banging.  And the EP has a bunch of really solid remixes on it too.  I like how, despite the titular mantra, she seems to be interested in the swimming pools far more than the other two items.  And not even because she's hot; most of the song is about how it's too cold in Berlin (and/or Bulgaria) and she'd rather be anywhere else.  I also like how it's a direct appeal to the listener: "If you're listening to this in a hot country, please come rescue me."  If you have a swimming pool, she promises "then we can be hanging."  Hey Dena, I've got a three foot deep inflatable one... does that count?

4. Caitlin Rose: "Menagerie"

Another head-scratcher of a non-hit (indeed, non-single), and this was on an album some people actually heard (and liked.)  I found the bulk of The Stand-In to be fine: well-produced but generally unexciting tasteful, all-purpose Americana.  But this song – for sure, the most power-pop thing on the record, almost but not quite to the point of being unrepresentative – hit me hard the first time I heard it (live at South by Southwest, which was also my first exposure to Caitlin Rose period) and I've been smitten ever since.  It's got a terrific thumping, thundering, shimmering production job (love that slightly grimey electric piano – really the texture of the whole thing are just great), the kind of riff that you can't imagine not having been around forever, and a brilliantly stinging kiss-off of a lyric built around a nicely understated Tennessee Williams allusion.  Simply said: a beautiful thing.

5. Little Daylight: "Overdose"

Another song I first heard at SXSW; more great thumping and thundering; another bone-simple but beautifully-deployed riff.  This is from the new band/project of my high school friend Nicole, formerly of Xylos, and while I still haven't heard much else they've done (and sadly their tour with the stacked line-up of Charli XCX and Kitten got reshuffled, although I did therefore get introduced to LIZ) but they have been playing shows with Bastille, which seems to augur well for their future.

Sort of like the Classixx track, this feels like an archetypal, Platonic ideal of a certain stripe of synthy, catchy, kind of gleefully dumb indie-pop.  (Particularly the oh-oh-ohs doubling the synth riff.)  And it is pretty dumb.  But it works.  What really makes it is how the arrangement keeps switching around to highlight different parts and keep things fresh, and especially the chorus that breaks down to just handclaps and funky bassline.  Plus the kind of unnecessarily epic drums, which push it into anthemic territory and make it especially great for biking to.

6. Dungeonesse: "Soon"

'90s-urban revival-core synth-pop; a semi-slow/sad ballad jam but still with a funky breakbeat, almost freestyle groove.  This one's really all about the vocals, particularly the floaty, self-harmonizing bits when the beat drops out.  Just gorgeous.  Also heartbreaking, in a way that goes beyond standard break-up song tropes ("half a love's not enough for the two of us to live on...soon we've gotta give it up.")  Sort of puts me in mind of Kylie/José's "Hand on Your Heart," another aching, reluctant plug-pulling.  Plus Jenn Wasner sounds so much like Tracey Thorn here and I'm just always gonna be a sucker for that.

7. Chvrches: "Gun"

Could have gone with any of several Chvrches jams really, but this is the first one that really got to me, and besides the other big singles actually came out last year, right?  (Was confused about why they were on the P4k list.)  Everything about this is so perfectly chiseled into place, every build-up and break back down (maybe my favorite is the live-sounding snare drums in the ramp-up to the chorus, as if all the synth instruments in the world just weren't enough to convey the requisite urgency.)  I keep thinking I've gotten sick of it – in some ways it is less sonically/structurally inventive/more pro forma synth-pop than some of their other hits – but then I try biking to it again and I can't help but smile.

8. Cayucas: "High School Lover"
Another big smiler.  More kinda-dumb but effective indie pop.  Sweet bassline, interesting percussion groove, understated surf chords and overall beachy vibe, and I like the syncopated vocal rhythm, with each line relaxed so far behind the beat so that it almost wraps around to the next bar, especially in the chorus.  Which is also really fun to sing.  They probably could have come up with something more interesting to finish it off than just repeating  the title phrase a bunch of times – also, the guy's voice is not the greatest – but whatever.

9. Lindstrøm & Todd Terje: "Lanzarote"

Comedy single of the year!  Travel agency commercial of the millennium!  (And the most durable, versatile "insert-your-own" 2013 running joke between me and E, applicable basically any time one of us mentions "going" anywhere.)  Also, how handy that it comes with a bonus seven minutes of typically immaculate LinsTerje synth-disco squiggles and arpeggios and crazy left-field harmonic shifts tacked on to the beginning.  They had to put that part first because otherwise they would have just kept on naming four-syllable destinations for all eternity, making each one sound more enticing than the last (...Santa Barbara! ...Mississippi!  ...North Dakota!  ...Mogadishu!  ...Sarajevo!  hmm...Purgatory!)

10. Veronica Falls: "Waiting For Something To Happen"

"Everybody's crazy – what's your excuse, baby?"  I probably unfairly underrated this album when it came out.  Yes, it's probably true that all the songs sound more or less the same.  But if they all sound like this, how is that really cause for complaint?

11. Vampire Weekend: "Unbelievers" 
Vampire Weekend Unbelievers
Was this the most boring, most boilerplate-VWs track on Modern Vampires of the City?  Maybe so... at least it felt like the simplest, most straight-ahead pop song.  Which may be why it's the one that ultimately did the most for me.  ("Obvious Bicycle" a close second, just because it's so darn pretty.)  I'm all for musical ambition, but give me three chords, a largely repetitive, ambivalent lyric about religious relativism, and a surprise incursion of vaguely Celtic-sounding pipes and I'm a happy guy.  Also, more people should take inspiration from Buddy Holly generally (and "Peggy Sue" specifically.)  Oddly, the usually annoying and off-the-mark Paul Simon comparisons feel almost appropriate here.

12. Tegan & Sara: "Now I'm All Messed Up"

Gotta love back-up vocals that argue with (and/or straight-up contradict) the lead singer.  See also: "Shame" by Randy Newman; "Hypnotised" by Aberfeldy.

13. Kacey Musgraves: "Follow Your Arrow"

I think my favorite part is the "Or don't!" in the first chorus: wherein she encourages people whose their hearts tell them not to smoke pot to just go right ahead and not smoke pot.

14. Superchunk: "Me & You & Jackie Mittoo"

This feels like the first rock song on this list.  That may or may not be true but anyway this is maybe the purest rock'n'roll song of the year, in spirit and in substance.  So much indie-punk everyband evocation crammed into two short, sweet minutes – crammed into the back of the van, feet on the dash, half an hour at the record exchange..  I feel like it could have been even shorter though; what's all this business about Jackie Mittoo?

15. My Bloody Valentine: "New You"
Screen Shot 2013-11-08 at 3.19.33 PM
2013: wherein I tried in vain to take away the pain of being a Loveless unbeliever, by seeing if I could get into MBV's follow-up record instead.  results: decidedly mixed.  but this swoony floaty gooey loveliness is clearly the best song Stereolab never made.

honorable mention:
Bibio: "À Tout à l'Heure"
Bleeding Rainbow: "Waking Dream"
Neko Case: "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu"
Foxygen: "San Francisco"
Kalabrese: "Purple Rose"
Lucius: "Tempest"
Paramore: "Still Into You"
Saint Rich: "Young Vultures"
Sophie: "Bipp"
Stornoway: "The Bigger Picture"
John Wizards: "iYongwe"

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