best of 2013

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 […]

Play Off: Picking 2013’s Best Song – Intro

So: I have no idea what my favourite song of 2013 is. This year’s music failed to crystallise into a neat handful of songs like it normally does, which is both a good and a bad thing. Yay, because it’s a symptom of just how much fantastic music there’s been. The 32 songs we’re going to be talking about in these posts are only a small (hopefully representative) fraction of the stuff that I loved this year. But also a mild boo, because it also means the year was lacking in truly definitive songs. I guess it was the year of Get Lucky, but while I clung onto my love of that song long after most had burned out from over-use (more on this in later posts), you’re not going to find any Call Me Maybes on the list this year. With that in mind, this approach seemed like the obvious choice: take a tournament-sized chunk ofsongs, and pit them against each other, one on one, until we have a winner. Y’know, like they do in Pokémon and, I believe – am I pronouncing this right? – ‘Sports’. It’s also neatly reflective of the way I used music this year. The format is adapted from Tom Ewing’s Mincer which, for two months in the spring, ruled everything around me. You can read all about it elsewhere on this blog, but basically: randomise your tracks; listen in pairs; pick a winner as quickly as possible after the tracks end; delete the other; rinse and repeat. But my listening habits have been strangely competitive in general all year. Possibly thanks to the sheer quantity of quality releases, possibly out of a sense that last year slipped through my fingers slightly, but I found myself pretty much refusing to listen to anything that wasn’t current, my increasingly labyrinthine sets of Spotify playlists felt like an exercise in narrowing down everything I heard and liked into shorter and shorter lists – which is exactly what we’re doing here. We should probably establish some ground rules, baggy as they are. During the selection process, each artist was limited to two songs – and there had to be a good justification for doubling up, which we’ll touch upon when we hit those tracks. Each song had to be one I heard for the first time this year, and it had to have a clear 2013 release date. I’m sure we’ll realise I unconsciously cheated on some tracks along the line. Some tracks are here representing the entire album they’re lifted from, but they’re inevitably here on merit. It’s just that In lieu of a seeding system – which seemed foolish, given that I’d be choosing both the seeds and the winners – I gave the tracks a couple of randomisations until it felt ‘about right’. This means there aren’t any hot contenders facing off in the first round, as far as I can tell, and the neat thematic pairings are genuinely random, sort of. I’m letting myself listen to each pair of tracks on repeat as many times as I want during the writing process, which makes the decision process less spontaneous than the Mincer’s one-shot policy but also, that would likely drive me insane. I haven’t listened to the Beyoncé album yet, because I suspected it might screw the whole thing up. You can follow the tournament live on Challonge here, listen to our 32 contenders on Spotify, and I’ll be back on Monday with commentary from the first round of matches. To reiterate, I have genuinely no idea which track is going to win. I hope you have as much fun finding out as I do.