Music

Dark Magics – Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do”

The below write-up is stolen directly from the Top 40 tracks of 2017 countdown I’m currently doing with my boy Tim Maytom over on our new site, Tim + Alex dot com. I’d encourage you to read the whole list – I promise, most of the write-ups are much snappier than this – but I went a bit renegade on this entry and felt like it probably deserved its own space.

2014: Tim’s Person of the Year

We all have a favourite Christmas/New Year tradition. Maybe it’s a Christmas Eve drinking session with people you don’t see as often as you like, or a Boxing Day family walk. For me, it’s Tim Maytom‘s Person of the Year. We’ve recognised five Persons of the Year on this blog, given a boost by the fact that Tim’s a dirty cheat, and last year picked both Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick. This year, I’ve managed to keep his rulebreaking to a minimum. So who will wear the Alex-Spencer.co.uk Sponsored by Tim Maytom Person of the Year crown for the next twelve months? Let’s find out. Taylor Swift is by far the most famous person I have awarded the much-coveted title of Person of the Year to. The previous four entries were far from unknown, but to one degree or another, you had to be interested in them to know who they were. Even Amy Poehler, 2012’s PotY, has a tendency to disappear into her characters, and certainly has a lower profile here in the UK than she does in the States, where SNL put her on more people’s radars. Those kinds of qualifiers don’t apply to Taylor Swift. Even if they’ve never heard her songs, the vast majority of people will have heard of her, thanks to the tabloid machine. And the number of people who haven’t heard at least one of her songs must now be a considerably thinner wedge of the pie chart, thanks to 1989. Swift’s fifth studio album wasn’t the catapult that sent her into the mainstream consciousness (that was 2012’s Red, with its peerless “We Are Never Getting Back Together”, and the press at the height of their ‘who’s Taylor Swift dating?’ mania) but it is the one that cements her position as a global pop sensation. Much has been made of 1989 as her first true pop album, and while there’s elements of truth to that, with guitars swapped for drums and synths and a sound steeped in the legacy of acts from its title year, Swift has always been a pop star, it’s just now she’s embracing that. In the liner notes that accompany 1989, Swift writes about change and coming into her own, addressing the foreword from “the girl who said she would never cut her hair or move to New York or find happiness in a world where she is not in love”. For all the effort people put into working out which ex-boyfriend every given song is about (answer: all of them, none of them) that seems to be the true theme of the album – Swift realising that she has changed and that she enjoys her new status quo in the spotlight. In “You Belong With Me”, from her second album Fearless, Swift pines for a boyfriend from afar, criticising his current girlfriend and singing that “she wears high heels, I wear sneakers”. Now, Swift is the one in short skirts and high heels, happy to add a few more inches to her 5’10” frame so she towers over others. It’s worth noting, though, that even back in 2009, Swift played both her ‘self’ and the girlfriend in the video and cover art for “You Belong With Me”. 1989 is a record about confidence and comfort. That’s reflected in the masterful video for “Blank Space”, satirising those who would accuse her of being a vengeful ex. It’s reflected in the absence of duets with artists who can’t compare with her, two of which dragged down Red (fuck off, Ed Sheeran). It’s reflected in the final three bonus tracks on the deluxe version, demonstrating her song-writing process to all of those who complain she’s a manufactured star. And it’s reflected in the build-up to the album’s release.‘Authenticity’ is one of those ridiculous terms that crops up in music criticism with a cyclic regularity, and Taylor Swift manages to carve through that with impressive assurance. Are her Instagram and Tumblr accounts cynical ploys to engage with the teen girls who form the core of her audience? Was inviting fans to a sleepover at her house and listen to the album ahead of time a marketing strategy?Whether Taylor Swift is actually the global megastar who still manages to be the cool girl next door, or if it’s just an act, does it really matter? 1989 and everything that surrounds it is a resounding “hell no” to that question. So often, our artists arrive fully formed, aesthetic and style set in place from the word go. Watching Swift evolve from country singer to true pop sensation hasn’t been an evolution, it’s been a camera coming into focus, refining what was always there until it shines through clearly. It’s been the act of a young woman embracing her power, her status and her agency, and showing the world exactly who she’s become. It is customary to begin this biog of Tim Maytom by pointing out that he is always my Person of the Year, but that has been aggressively true in 2014. As well as setting up a joint blog about The Wicked + The Divine, we now work together. As a result, I am treated to his witticisms daily – watch out for future bestseller Maytom/Spencer: The Skype Conversations (2013-15) – as well as Twitter, Tumblr and occasionally his own blog. Jealous? You damn well should be.

2014: Track of the Year

Playing my Songs of 2014 mix in the family living room this Christmas holiday, I’ve come to realise: gosh, rather a lot of these songs are about sex. But arguably none more than my single favourite of the year. Before we get into it… I’m listening to this track on Spotify right now, and it’s marked EXPLICIT. We might as well go right ahead and say the same thing about the blog you’re about to read. So stop now if we’re related or something, okay? FKA Twigs – Two Weeks Enthusing about Two Weeks to friends this year, I’ve tended to call it the best pop song ever written about oral sex – a title for which, of course, there’s no shortage of competition. Honestly, in terms of what the song means to me, I could stop this blog right there – but why use forty words when you could use four hundred, eh? Besides, there are a lot of other things going on in Two Weeks which I feel like I should address. The song is a) a triumphant taunt after a break-up, b) a masterful kiss-off to a guy who’s with someone else anyway, c) an irresistible seduction because fuck that someone else, anyway. I genuinely do believe in all those readings, but frankly I don’t have much use for any of them. Anyway, whatever your take on the song, there’s an undeniable common thread: two people, one metric tonne of sexual tension. Because Two Weeks is a genuinely tense song. It begins with indistinct looped vocals that sound like a summoning chant played backwards. On top of that come these incursions of bass, and finally Twigs singing “I know it hurts” with a sense of forced restraint. It’s electrifyingly tense, and one that the song spends its running time breaking and then building back up. The end of the first verse is delivered in a series of staccato gasps, building to “that chaste mouth open like [extended vowel sound describing inexpressible pleasure]”. Suddenly, the music all floods in at once, the song blossoming into chorus. (There may be some subtext here. Speaking of, I love the way the song’s is literally buried under the main vocals, an obscured “I can treat you better than her” in the first verse switching to “I can fuck you better than her” by the second.) But even then, there’s never any sense of a true climax. Two Weeks is Tantric pop, if I can be that gross – the feeling of fingers tracing along skin, of toes bunching together, of involuntary shudders. Over the course of four minutes, precisely who we’re talking about here shifts. The song’s front end promises pleasure, the second half promises she’ll take it from you. Compare and contrast the “I’d quench that thirst” at 00:25 and “I’ll quench your thirst” at 03:17. I guess, basically, the thing I love about Two Weeks is that Twigs keeps telling you that she’ll put you first, but it’s so incredibly clear she actually doesn’t mean it. That applies equally to interpretations a, b, and c but, more importantly, to the other thing. “Get your mouth open,You know you’re mine.“ Oh, and before we go, a quick mention of the video, which is simultaneously: an incredibly confident introduction to an artist emerging fully-formed like Venus; a reaction to Kanye West’s Power video; a spectacular trompe-l’œil, 2014’s foremost incursion of The Wicked + The Divine’s pop-mythos into reality (excepting possibly the Kate Bush gigs); and a perfect encapsulation, in its teasingly slow zoom out, of what makes the song great.

Songs I Loved in 2014 (Actually From 2014 Edition)

It’s Christmas Eve, which in some cultures I believe is actually the main day of gifting.So in that spirit, I’m slipping a special little something into your aural stocking. Forget about tomorrow’s books and sweets and alcohols, here’s a present you can unwrap right now – a playlist of my favourite songs of 2014 (in no particular order except the one I think sounds best). Listen on Spotify here, or using the widget thing below. (Fair warning: the last couple of tracks don’t work unless you already own them. But you really should do anyway.) Or, if you’re not into the whole Spotify thing, here’s the tracklist: Beyoncé – Drunk in Love (Kanye West Remix) Tinashe – 2 On CHVRCHES – Dead Air Hello Saferide – The Crawler Future Islands – Seasons (Waiting On You) Robyn – Tell You (Today) Run The Jewels – Oh My Darling Don’t Cry Rustie – Attak (feat. Danny Brown) Röyksopp & Robyn – Do It Again Kitty – Miss U How To Dress Well – Repeat Pleasure FKA twigs – Two Weeks Nancy Whang – I Was Made for Loving You – Extended Version Alvvays – Archie, Marry Me Zola Jesus – Dangerous Days Lykke Li – I Never Learn The-Dream – Wedding Bells Taylor Swift – Blank Space It’s a pretty good overview of a year. As ever, I haven’t always been as engaged with the Hot New Music as I wanted, which I’m constantly being reminded as I pick through other people’s Best of 2014 lists – but there were at least a dozen songs I deeply loved this year, and that’s all I ever really need. I’ll be going into depth on my absolute favourite of these tracks next week, but for now, happy listening, and merry Christmas!

Songs I Loved in 2014 Not Actually From 2014

It’s my birthday! So, before we begin our two-week look back over the past year, let’s go deeper still into the past. A fortnight ago, I would have told you I’d listened pretty much exclusively to brand new music this year. But then, in preparation for these blogs, I started looking into my play counts, and discovered a whole bunch of tracks from before the year began. So here are 11 songs, released as recently as December 2013 and as long ago as 1985, all of which I fell in love with for the first time during 2014. I picked up in the fire sale of last year’s ‘best of’ lists. Songs from old favourites which had somehow passed me by until now. Songs that have been sitting around for a while, just waiting to click in my brain. Listen to the playlist in the widget below, or find it on Spotify here. Charli XCX – SuperLove Flume – Insane (feat. Moon Holiday & Killer Mike) Star Slinger – Mornin’ Kate Bush – Cloudbusting Joanna Gruesome – Secret Surprise  Burial – Hiders  Kanye West – The New Workout Plan  Moderat – Bad Kingdom  Schoolboy Q – Hands On The Wheel  Wu-Tang Clan – C.R.E.A.M. Bat For Lashes – Laura

The Playlist: Q1 2014

There is a clubnight which exists only in the space between my headphones and spinal cord. Where people dance all night, even to the songs you can’t really dance to. For the months of January, February and March 2014, this was that club’s setlist. Charli XCX – SuperLove This passed me by first time around, until Sam ‘Afternoon Delight’ Willet chucked it my way on Facebook. And ka-clunk, it was the soundtrack to the next month of my life. And look, I talk about the imaginary clubnight, but this was the one song that made me want to actually take my creaky, clumsy body out and find a dancefloor where it’s playing. Every time I hear it, I want to grab the right friends just as it kicks in and shout the wrong words and debut the private macarena I’ve been practicing in bathroom mirrors. And mouthing “I think your hair looks much better pushed over to one side/How do you feel about me?” to my reflection in a particularly shiny shop window, I’ve caught myself figuring out exactly how much work it would be to set up that clubnight for real. Belle & Sebastian – Suicide Girl I love when Belle & Sebastian talk dirty.  Suicide Girl – which I first encountered on their rather uneven collection of B-sides and rarities The Third Eye Centre – takes the typical brittle indie-boy unrequited romance and reconfigures it into something more physical. The song asks the age-old question: Would you photograph your crush naked so the pictures could uploaded onto the internet for the enjoyment of strangers? “Once she takes off her clothes, we’ll never be the same again”, the song concludes as it reaches an all-too-sudden climax, just two and a half minutes in. Well, quite. Joanna Gruesome – Secret Surprise A song that sounds like it could be taking place inside someone’s chest cavity. Whether sweely whispering or all-out screaming or divebombing between the two, Alanna McArdle’s vocals constantly draw attention to the breath each line is using up. The drum is a basic pounding heartbeat, building to a minor attack by the end of the track. Each stab of guitar is like a shudder running up your spine, the whole messy thing echoing off the inner walls of your ribcage. Secret Surprise takes that all-too-familiar unrequited love subgenre and flips it so our protagonist is the object, rather than the subject. Or, maybe it’s an entry in the fairly new suffocating-your-other-half-with-a-pillow-while-they-sleep subgenre. Broken Bells – Holding On for Life/St. Vincent – Digital Witness Two songs for which I have to thank the BBC Radio 6Music playlist. Remarkably, despite 6Music being my office’s station of choice, meaning while they were playlisted I heard these tracks three or four times a day without any choice in the matter, neither has really worn out its welcome. It helps, I think, that they both sound slightly alien in their own way, whether it’s Holding On for Life‘s pitch-shifted Beegees chorus or the bits of Digital Witness that sound like they’re being played backwards. Sophie – Bipp The lyrical heart of Bipp, “I can make you feel better”, is half a promise being made by the narrator to you, the lover, and half a contract the song is making with you, the listener. A few dozen listens in, it’s a guarantee Sophie is yet to break. Johnny Foreigner – In CapitalsIn Capitals has me reaching for the toolbox of music journalism clichés. It’s an absolute Frankenstein of a song, pieced together from scraps of four or five other half-songs. It’s a rollercoaster of a song, repeatedly climbing to a peak, sitting on the ledge just for a moment, then plunging down, slowing and starting over. It’s a finely-tuned firework display of a song, a series of little explosions, big and small, working in perfect concert. Just because I can’t talk about it adequately doesn’t mean the song isn’t great, mind. Ibibio Sound Machine – Let’s Dance (Yak Inek Unek)“1, 2, 3, 4. Let’s dance.” As far as I can tell, those are the only English words in the whole track. Frankly – and this would be the case even if the rest wasn’t in Nigerian Ibibio – they’re the only ones that matter. I’m a sucker for songs that are this explicitly instructive, as long as they’ve got the beat to back it up. And this really, really does. 1. 2. 3. 4… Chromatics – LadyListening to Lady, I sometimes feel like I can hear through the song itself to the instruments it’s made out of, great fictional instruments which fill the sewer systems of entire cities, which were built at great human cost, entirely for the purpose of making an androgynous love song and giving me something to dance to when I’m in the flat on my own. I don’t know about you, but I like that kind of arrogance in my synthpop. Neneh Cherry feat Robyn – Out of the BlackRobyn’s the reason I listened to Out of the Black enough to put it on this list (I just miss her, that’s all), but she’s not the star. Honestly, she might be the weak link. I love the way her voice braids with Neneh’s on the chorus, but the way she delivers some lines (“I’m Robyn on the microphone, into the speaker”) is actually quite ugly. No, the star here is that beat, sneaking, oppressive, a shadow looming in your peripherals. Delicious. Burial – HidersHaving read some reviews of last year’s Rival Dealer EP, Hiders seems to be consistently singled out for its accessible. Or, if it’s that kind of publication, a bit too pop. A bit tacky. It’s probably no coincidence, then, that’s it the first Burial track to make any real impression on me. There are moments throughout where Hiders constantly threatens to crystallise into a spectral pop song, before moving on, shedding the skin of the last hook to drop in a new voice, a new sample, some environmental sound tweaked just so. By doing that, it manages to […]

Play Off: Picking 2013’s Best Song – The Final

32 tracks entered. That got whittled down to 16, then four, and finally just two contenders to the title of my Song of the Year 2013. So here we are, finally, at the end of the line. In the pale blue trunks, The Juan Maclean’s Feel Like Movin’; in the red-of-an-unbidden-dawn trunks, Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle’s Gustavo. Only one can emerge triumphant. Who will it be?              Late last year, I found myself, at 4am, in a drained bathtub with Chris ‘Total Man Crush’ Sparrow, a gin & tonic and a single portable speaker. The bathroom was the only room in my flat not occupied by a sleeping girlfriend, and we sat for an hour or so, passing the cable back and forth and rattling through our favourite songs of the year. When we finally called it a night, and climbed out of the tub, I stuck on one last song: Feel Like Movin’. And we started to dance, a little self-consciously – we’re two awkward guys, directly facing each other in a tiny bathroom – but irresistibly, arms above our heads, hands describing endlessly complex tesseracts in the air. Feel Like Movin’is less the song’s title, and more a list of associated side effects. I’m listening to it as I type this, and tugging Corgiton, our rotund stuffed corgi, around by one paw to the music, always rising, pushing towards the sky, as Nancy Whang sings “good time’s going to take you to heaven”. And Corgiton is keeping perfect rhythm. *** Given that I’ll defend with my life the position that all culture – films, games and especially pop songs – are best when they’re short, it’s pretty odd that my two contenders for the year’s best song both clock in over the seven minute mark. With Gustavo, I barely feel it. It’s too easy to get caught up in Kozelek’s elliptical storytelling, an ear always tuned to what happens next, waiting for the next killer line (the bit that landed as I wrote this sentence: “My house ain’t done but it’s alright/Floors ain’t level, but I ain’t some suburban/Who cares about bathroom tiles/Straight lines and building codes and Chinese wind chimes.”) But Feel Like Movin’ wears its lengthy running time a lot more obviously, pretty much entirely because my enjoyment of the song is more physical. Jumping back to dancing in the bathroom: it was great, but by the sixth minute we’d started to burn out. The flesh is weak, after all, and suddenly Nancy Whang’s refrain of “Get your feet on the dancefloor/And show me what you’re made of” started to feel like a challenge. Apparently, what we were made wasn’t enough. (There is a radio edit, which shaves a minute and a half off, which is actually a full from-the-ground-up remix. Weirdly, though it’s not the version I first heard on the radio – Lauren Laverne’s 6Music show, specifically – and it messes with the delicate balance of the full song, which is structured with the intricacy of a Stewart Lee set. Once you’ve listened to it a few times, you realise it’s constantly builds up punchlines. The rest of the song teases, pulls away just as you think it’s delivering on the set-up and moves on. Then, just as you’re forgetting, all the punchlines are triggered at once.) *** The aforementione Chris Sparrow is also responsible for introducing me to Mark Kozelek. Sparrow’s the kind of person where the question “what are you listening to?” can fuel pub conversation for hours. He was off on a tear about the Perils from the Sea album, sharing wry lines with that uncanny accuracy of his, laying out the vague overarching story, explaining where it fit alongside Kozelek’s other work. I was ready to dismiss it as just more Chris Sparrow Music: old American men being seductively miserable, glass of whisky in hand, as the dust creeps in through the cracks. But then he mentioned Jimmy LaValle’s electronica-infused beats, and my ears pricked up. *** I still haven’t dipped into the rest of Kozelek’s output, the stuff without LaValle. Partly because there’s a fearsome amount of it – the guy released three albums in 2013 alone – and partly because… do you remember how in a previous post I mentioned how I was avoiding anything else by The Juan Maclean? It’s the same deal. These songs feel pure, untouched by anything else, and I worry that nothing else could live up to it. But honestly, I’m romanticising my stubbornness and ignorance. Tomorrow, once this is all behind me, and 2014 officially begins in my head, their respective back catalogues are going to be my first port of call. I already know I’m wrong about Kozelek, anyway: *** Jumping back again, a couple of hours before climbing into the bath: We’re in the living room, enjoying the full aural benefits of our soundsystem. Sparrow stuck on a demo of You Missed My Heart, a track which very nearly ended up representing Perils From The Sea in this tournament, but this version is an acoustic live thing. Just Kozelek’s voice and the occasional plucking of a guitar – exactly the kind of music I’d identify as having no interest in. The room goes silent. The song is stunning, in the literal pin-you-to-your-seat sense. The four of us just sit there for six minutes, listening. Maybe it’s the gin, but there’s a lump forming in my throat. The second it finishes, the girlfriends chide us for being so bloody intense, ask can we have something with a beat and words we can actually sing along to please? *** The other day, Kirsty ‘Esteemed Colleague’ Styles asked me what metric I could possibly use to pick the winning song in this ridiculous venture of mine. I shrugged the question off, but it kind of got to the heart of the idea behind the whole thing. End of year lists are silly. They pretend on some kind of objectivity, […]

Play Off: Picking 2013’s Best Song – Semi-Finals

There’s a nice symmetry to how these semi-finalists are paired. The Rise of The Ghostface Killah is practically wordless, and given its lyrics’ nutritional value, Feel Like Movin’ might as well be. The pleasure is all in the sounds. In the case of their competition, however, while the beats are attractive and evocative, it’s the lyrics which are the real draw: Gustavo‘s sustained soliloquy, and Hood Party‘s polyglottal grab-the-mic rush. Words and music – that familiar theme again.       Fat Tony feat. Kool A.D. & Despot – Hood PartyvsThe Juan Maclean – Feel Like Movin’  Partly for the reasons outlined above, there’s much more to grab hold of in Hood Party, at least at first glance. The song manages to cram three rappers with very distinct voices into four minutes: Fat Tony, setting the scene and putting gentrification firmly on the agenda, hostility and anger always bubbling just under the surface. Despot, who sounds like he’s straining, right at the edge of running out of breath, the whole time, and who takes home this this year’s Kanye West Award for Eye-watering Sexual Frankness with a couple of lines about fists, anal cavities, and washing his genitals with hand soap. Kool A.D., basically a grinning pop-culture trickster god shooting off lighter-than-air rhymes while a second head echoes each line in slurred agreement. Feel Like Movin’, meanwhile, is fairly minimalist in the way it lays out a small handful of ideas and sounds, and takes its time playing around with them. That’s something I love in dance music, and something I really enjoyed with Get Lucky – and when that finally started to fail me, under the weight of overexposure, it was Feel Like Movin’ that picked up the slack. The arrangement feels a lot looser and more complex than Get Lucky, though, so that listening to the song is like getting lost in deep horror-movie fog, passing familiar landmarks again and again, a snatch of vocal or a spike of synthesised brass, until you realise the only explanation that the scenery is shifting around you. The structure of Hood Party is a lot more rigid. The beat is a constant – the sound of a dozen stacked speakers being pushed way past their limit, an affront to neighbours and police – while each voice, neatly partitioned and contained, shines a different light on the central theme. The chorus’ wider view, the song crash-zooms to the people at the party, chatting about politics, money and conservative Drake lyrics. The problem is that Kool A.D.’s urgent charismatic ramble entirely steals the show. Concentrated in one place, it imbalances the whole song. Feel Like Movin’, though, maintains its woozy beauty throughout, perfectly simple until you stare hard enough and notice the complexity. A limited series of sounds, arranged in just the right order, that works on my body, brain and soul equally. It’s a great reminder of how true the old ‘music is magic’ mantra is – which, conveniently, is pretty much what the song itself seems to be about. Winner: The Juan Maclean – Feel Like Movin’       Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Gustavo  vs Ghostface Killah – The Rise of the Ghostface Killah (Instrumental) All four of these have an excellent sense of atmosphere, but this pairing especially are just dripping with it. Stick on a pair of decent headphones, and The Rise of The Ghostface Killah is a sumptuous treat, from the heavy percussive heartbeart that begins the song onward. There’s a physicality to the production that lets you hear not just the instruments being played, fingers tapping wood, but the recording equipment, the room it’s being played in – which makes it all the more remarkable when the music is cut up, folded around the few trademark  ‘Ghostface Killa-a-a-ahh’ yells that are left intact. The non-instrumental version is pretty great too, Ghostface’s calligraphic rhymes maintaining the vibe (“Tommy guns are irrelevant, I’m bulletproof now/I could fly through the air and duck your chick-a-pow”), as is the crackling Brown Tape version. But the best thing I can say about Younge is that he renders Ghostface pretty much surplus to requirements. On a similar note, for all I’ve talked about Gustavo‘s storytelling, it occurs to me now that I think I’d still love the song if it was in a foreign language. Not only that, I think I’d still get the gist of what was going on. That’s partly down to the texture of Kozelek’s voice, the way he contracts certain words, draws others out into a sigh, syllables slurred or croaked or popped, and partly down to LaValle’s expressive soundscapes, which stretch out to a distant horizon. Strings fall like steel raindrops, punctuated with obstruent clicks. Scenery is the only way I can think of this music. It’s background, yes, but think of There Will Be Blood, or a Coen Brothers film: We sit, studying in stark detail the cracked lines of the star’s face, the world behind him blurred into impressionism, before the depth of field shifts, pulling the landscape into clear focus, and we realise they’re the same damn thing. But I worry I make Gustavo sound too serious and glum, and here’s the thing: it’s catchy too. I often find myself humming or singing snatches of the song and the album it’s taken from. That’s what elevates it. That’s why I find myself opting, entirely against type, for its heightened realism over the pure fantasy of The Rise of the Ghostface Killah.Winner: Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Gustavo 

Play Off: Picking 2013’s Best Song – Rounds 2 & 3

Last year is starting to feel like a lifetime ago, isn’t it? Bugger. I’ll endeavour to post the final two rounds, which will see us naming a Best Song of 2013, as soon as possible, but today’s installment is the most ruthless of the lot. 16 songs become eight, and very quickly four. Let battle commence. As I warned last time around, Fat Tony feat. Kool A.D. & Despot – Hood Party is off to a stomping start, crushing under foot all that lies before it. Kavinsky – Rampage is the first to go, despite being the perfect expression of a feeling we don’t have a word for: roughly, that sudden synchronicity where doing something mundane feels cinematic and you can practically feel the camera on you, close in over your shoulders, rapid cuts as you do up your shoelaces, a power-up for your soul. Meanwhile, Daft Punk – Giorgio by Moroderand Autre Ne Veut – Ego Free Sex Free make for an interesting pairing. Both are about exploring sounds, little aural doodles tied together by some semblance of structure. In Ego Free, it’s all tied together with Ashin crooning close to your ear, sounding truly alien but singing about stuff that’s totally, painfully human. Some people have picked out the ‘click on the track’ bit as Giorgio‘s big Moment, but I reckon it comes around the two minute mark, as Moroder finishes his story with “…but everybody calls me Giorgio”, which turns out to be just the nudge the song needed to push it over the top. And it all quietly explodes, these lazy fireworks of sound arcing off in a dozen directions that we follow for the next five minutes. It’s a narrow victory for Daft Punk, then, but it’s quickly felled byHood Party, the victory secured by Kool A.D.’s guest spot alone. The verse feels slightly detached from the rest of the song, zooming in from the bigger picture about gentrification and race relations to this one guy who’s actually at the party. A.D. sidles over and drops a non-sequitur by way of introduction, before firing off a series of conversational gambits ranging from Tom Hanks trivia to potshots at Drake. Without too much discussion, The Juan Maclean – Feel Like Movin’ trumps Anamanaguchi – Prom Night, and Kanye West – Black Skinhead trumps Major Lazer – Jessica. From there, though, it starts to get painful. There’s a point on West’s previous album, as Runaway comes to a close, where the whole song starts to implode. This single piano note steers the listener through the last three minutes as the song around it folds noisily in on itself. It’s the sound of being pulled over an event horizon. Black Skinhead, and Yeezus as a whole, feels like the music that exists on the other side of that black hole, from that Beautiful People-referencing intro to the repeated shout of GOD!. The way the hook severs ties to the rest of the song, floating out of grasp for a few seconds. That heavy breathing and Kanye’s pauses – a constant awareness of dropping oxygen levels – emphasising physicality and creating a sense of danger. The song debuted with an SNL performance, which is even more industrial, rawer, out of control. That version would probably take Song of the Year hands-down, but the song that appears on the album is more chiselled down, more refined and – in spite of SNL editing out the cusses – somehow better behaved. As it is, the victory goes to Feel Like Movin‘. It’s a song which exists free of any context. I’d never heard of The Juan Maclean before, and haven’t felt the need to investigate, and the single cover – just red text on a silver disc – offers no further clues. There’s no fiction being built up here, no personality or history to grab hold of, and that feels appropriately pure. The lyrics are simple, a chant delivering instructions from higher beings on how to have the best possible time. Feel Like Movin’. You really should. One of the very first notes for these blog posts was simply ‘music vs lyrics’. Honestly, I’ve been frustrated at how much it has haunted my scribblings, but it’s an undeniable theme of the year. 2013 was the first year I could really look back on the music listener I was a decade ago, and weigh up how I’ve changed. And something I’d love to explain to that serious young man is how I don’t really care about the words anymore. I’d hand him the Kavinsky and Ghostface Killah albums and point out how they build worlds through the music alone, how they actually work better without vocals. And then, smart little bastard that he was, he’d probably point to Los Campesinos! – Glue Me and Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Gustavo. Okay, yeah. Like all grown-ups, I am of course a massive hypocrite. Like most of No Blues, Glue Me only truly clicked when the accompanying Heat Rash ‘zine arrived and I could pick out – and pick apart – the lyrics. I’m still not sure the “paint me like one of your fence, girls” line makes much sense, but I love the symmetry of the opening and closing verses, the way it’s as likely to be cracking a bad joke as it is torturing a metaphor, how much stuff – emotion and images and intertextuality and football references – the song is squeezed into the song. Gustavofeels sparse by comparison, but there’s actually even more on offer. The song never bothers with choruses, rarely repeats itself, just pushes on with the narrative. And that sparseness, I’d argue to my sneering younger counterpart, is down to the artfully light touch of LaValle’s backing. (It’s here that I know for sure that Gustavo is our winner.) The music conjures a ravaged wasteland, where we meet Kozelek at a crossroads, trading food and company for his tale. And he’d rightfully point back to the other bracket, which […]

Play Off: Picking 2013’s Best Song – Round 1

Welcome back to the somewhat-delayed Play Off tournament, where I’m pitting tracks against one another for the title of Best Song of 2013… but, hey, I explained this already.You can click the above image to embiggen and check out all 32 contenders, but it’s about time we set these bloodthirsty songs loose in the no-holds-barred arena that is Blogspot, and narrowed them down to 16. I recommend listening along on Spotify here.For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to split this into four parts, starting with: Kavinsky – Rampage vs Camera Obscura – Every Weekday We open with a match-up between two tracks from pretty much opposite ends of the spectrum of my taste. Rampage is a condensed package of propulsive energy. No words, just a constant neon beat carrying you on into the night. The details kind of blur as you speed past, and then the song drops a ’70s cop show sting, slams on the handbrake, and is over. The beauty of Every Weekday, meanwhile, lies in the individual moments, and particularly the way that Campbell twists little chunks of lyrics. There’s a real performance to her vocals, which turns a line like “I don’t want to sound like I’ve written us off” into a series of hills and valleys, a whole song’s worth of brittle, beautiful drama in ten words. It’s a song of delicacy and subtlety, two characteristics Kavinsky couldn’t be accused of – but this year, that kind of swaggering momentum was just something I needed more. Winner: Kavinsky – Rampage Fat Tony feat. Kool A.D. & Despot – Hood Party vs CHVRCHES – Recover Chvrches pretty much ruled my year in 2012. I fell for the sharp purity of Mayberry’s vocals, and even more the way each song distorted them into something nearly tactile; as natural as cold silt, as inorganic as a lab-grown hamburger. Unfortunately, they’re about to get knocked out in the first round. Hood Party is the sound of the greatest, loudest party you’ve never been invited to. Its huge blown-out bass doesn’t quite sound like you’re at the party, but just outside of it. In the queue, or across the street, or maybe in the toilets, watching your breath condense on the vibrating warehouse walls, just as you pick out the bassline of that song you’ve been waiting all night to hear. The song has many, many more facets than that, which we’ll get round to in future rounds, but that alone is enough to carry it to victory. Winner: Fat Tony feat. Kool A.D. & Despot – Hood Party Daft Punk – Giorgio by Moroder vs Daft Punk – Get Lucky (Radio Edit) I swear this pairing was a coincidence – and prepare yourself, because there’s another equally unlikely one coming up shortly – but it gives us the perfect chance to talk about the Daft Punk album. Get Lucky was always the obvious lead single, but Giorgio, essentially a musical memoir, is a much better representative of what Random Access Memories is actually like: noodly, unusual, overlong, a little pompous, but never less than interesting. In a way, I think putting Giorgio out first would have lessened some of the disappointed backlash the album faced on release. As it was, we all heard Get Lucky a couple of billion times, and I know for a lot of people that killed it. The song is so familiar to me now that it’s hard to remember hearing it for the first time, to imagine ever being surprised by it. In a way, Get Lucky feels it has always existed, has become part of the canon, and that’s dangerous for a song that’s so much about being joyously alive. But it also feels inevitable. The song, as I’ve argued before, is designed to be played over and over, practically begs for it. It’s a series of interlocking loops, a circular song that fades out but could very well go on forever. Get Lucky‘s magic is still there, but its grooves are worn down by over-use. And while Giorgio has little to offer the hips, there’s plenty for the head – and has the advantage of still feeling brand new every time I come to it Winner: Daft Punk – Giorgio by Moroder Holy Ghost! – Okay vs Autre Ne Veut – Ego Free Sex Free Often, with my favourite songs, it’s all about scratching an itch. There’s got to be something that means you keep coming back to a single track, that makes you crave it in the mornings like a cigarette or a cup of black coffee or a bowl of chocolate-coated Frosties [delete as applicable]. In Okay, it’s this little instrumental call-and-response that opens the song, a moment-long series of interlocking sounds, like a cheat code unlocking something deep in my brain. After delivering your fix early, the song takes it away, dropping occasional fragments throughout but making you wait till the end of the chorus to get the full thing. And, strong as the rest of the song is, for the addict it’s pretty much all a tease – something which fits nicely with the lyrics’ tale of late-night missed calls and lapsing back into an old relationship. “And the punchline isn’t far”, sings Frankel at the end of each verse – but it’s always too far away. Ego Free Sex Free, meanwhile, is all itches. The song is constantly playing every trick it’s got, moment piling on top of moment. Here’s the sound of a choir, ebbing in and out of existence; here’s the crystalline smashing of virtual glass; here’s Ashin’s own voice, sharpened into a spike. There’s structure underpinning it all, yes, but the surface is constantly fidgeting, never letting you – or itself – get comfortable, always making sure there’s something new to engage with. Winner: Autre Ne Veut – Ego Free Sex Free The next lot into the mincer: The Juan Maclean – Feel Like Movin’ vs Vampire Weekend – Step I’ve mentioned before how I really don’t […]