Every year since I started running down some of the songs I enjoyed most in the previous 12 months, I’ve lamented in the intro about what a chore selecting the songs had become, as I grew more and more distant from the popular tastes of our age.
To my surprise and delight, 2013 broke the streak. I have no idea if that’s due to an improved ability at finding things I would like or an overall increase in quality this year; I have no overarching ideas or unified theories on music in 2013, but the fact that I actually to cut my list down to ten selections was a welcome surprise. Even more surprising is how this year’s selection ran across more genres than in previous years. There are actual guitars, y’all! Enough preamble! Let’s dig into this, in no order.
Crystal Bats: Falling in Love
There is nothing in this song to separate it from the dozens of other synth-pop depression dancing jams that came out in 2013 and sound like they should be scoring the opening credits to a Nicolas Winding Refn movie, aside maybe from the band’s total commitment to the 80’s throwback aesthetic, from music to hair and fashion. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it doesn’t need one. This is just one of those songs that stuck in my craw for absolutely no reason. The icy synths intersected with the oncoming winter to create a perfect storm of beautiful melancholy. That pinched, atonal guitar solo on the outro is just the cherry.
Drake: Tuscan Leather
I never got around to writing a full post on Nothing Was the Same, mainly because I didn’t find the album hung together thematically as well as Take Care did, and because I really don’t find Aubrey that compelling as an MC. What NWTS caused me to realize is that three albums in, I’m not a Drake fan, I’m a 40 fan. Noah Shebib continues to grow into a monster producer, and the album’s five-minute, three-movement opener is exceptional. The song’s second movement is its strongest and possibly the best beat I heard this year, unmasking the Whitney Houston sample and throwing on the type of boombap that would have gotten a stinkface in 1994, let alone in 2013. The existential musings of Curtis Mayfield during the cooldown become Maximus asking if we are not entertained? The type of gloriously weird song Drizzy often gets overlooked for when he’s releasing terrible immature videos.
Hiatus Kaiyote: Nakamarra
Having read their cover story in a recent issue of Wax Poetics and discovering they’ve earned cosigns from people like Erykah Badu, Questlove and Q-Tip, I had high expectations for HK as I started exploring their work. Despite looking like the sort of people I could and would never want to try and have a conversation with (the singer’s name is Nai Palm, friends. Come on!), “Nakamarra’s breezy organ and ear catching 3/4 breakdown that manages to be funky and not waltzy, coupled with Palm’s evocative vocal phrasings brought a welcome return of what was once terribly labeled ‘neo-soul’ [ugh] to my iTunes library.
Pusha T: Numbers on the Board
Ballers! King Push finally had the year he deserved, slam dunking and breaking the backboard on the best beat Kanye made this year. Not bad for a guy who’s been rapping pretty much exclusively about the acquisition and distribution of cocaine for over a decade.
Daft Punk: Get Lucky
Many people tried to make it seem like there was some sort of battle between this song and “Blurred Lines” for the “Song of Summer” crown, but that’s like Mike Tyson at age 20 boxing a one-eyed kitten: No contest. “Blurred Lines” was a fun little distraction carried by a certain level of charisma and the Marvin Gaye-biting; “Get Lucky” felt like it was created by science to be a pop monster: Pharell! Nile Rodgers(?)! Sequin suits! The beautiful thing about the song is that it’s just as much about drinking and fucking as any other pop tart trifle that came out this year, but it never felt cheap or stupid, and still became a hit, which is no small accomplishment in a pop landscape ruled by her Majesty Miley the Tongue Wagger.
Friendzone: Passion Breathing
Friendzone, a Bay Area production duo who hit the national stage doing work on A$AP Rocky’s “Fashion Killa” released an instrumental double album this year filled with throbbing kicks and staccato, pitch shifted vocal chops, and this is the track that brought me to the party. “Passion Breathing” is the soundtrack to the giant robot anime show that exists solely in my head. I’m thinking it plays in that moment when the teenaged hero realizes he’s the only one who can save the world and races for his mecha while his friends are slowly being defeated on the battleground.
I’ve obviously given this a lot of thought.
Laura Mvula: Green Garden
If there’s one thing the music on this list, and 2013 in general proved to me, it’s that there are few things better than being completely taken aback by sounds you did not expect to hear. Laura Mvula takes about a dozen of those sounds and combines them into my own personal song of summer: tubular bells, Zap Mama-esque polyphonic vocals, a marching drum with just a dash of stink on the one, this song was a revelation, from an album perfect for those days when it’s hot but not too hot and a slight breeze flutters your curtains.
Childish Gambino: Telegraph Avenue
Another album I never found the time to write about fully, so I’ll give the condensed version: Because the Internet is not a total disaster, but it’s an unqualified mess. Having now had the full “experience” of the record, reading the accompanying screenplay, I can appreciate what he was trying to do, and his reach occasionally brushes against what it feels like he really wanted to say, but what he wanted to say wasn’t that compelling in the first place [the Internet was supposed to make us closer but really isolates us! zOMG!] and what he wants to say is mired and obscured by art school pretension with next to no respect for things like “coherence” and “a narrative”: lots of feeling alone at crowded parties! Now we’re in Switzerland! Now we’re going to sell drugs for…some…reason. Yeah. Not recommended.
But, the musical side of the proceedings contain some of the best work I’ve ever heard from Childish, including this song, which might be the best thing he and production partner Ludwig Goransson have ever done. Fear of commitment in a long distance relationship is not a new subject, but certainly not the sort of thing one hears discussed in hip-hop, and the bounce of the song, Glover’s iPhone-recorded vocals and galloping flow on the rap break made for the song I probably listened to the most this year. Oh, and fine, this song might benefit from knowing what it accompanies in the screenplay. But since you won’t understand it unless you’ve read everything up to that point…you know, just forget it.
Deafheaven: Dream House
Surprised? You weren’t the only one. Despite my current tastes, I’ve never been outright opposed to metal in all its colours and prefixes; I just need it to make me feel something other than, “UR. RAWK. BREAK. WHISKY.” which is why bands like Killswitch Engage and [especially] Refused always get a pass with me. As that eyecatching pink cover for Deafheaven’s sophomore release Sunbather started popping up all over the place followed by rave reviews, I felt compelled to investigate. What I discovered stunned me.
Those who know better than I tell me that Deafheaven is a black metal band, but Sunbather blends its screaming vocals and blast beats with elements of shoegaze and dreampop to make music that unabashedly reaches for something like transcendence. It’s the sound that Deftones played with from White Pony-onward put through a meat grinder and injected straight to your eyeballs. It’s [and this is no doubt my own biases coming through] a lot like what my own arty rock band tried to do ten years ago. Enlightenment through volume.
Kanye West: Black Skinhead
So hey, Yeezus is terrible. Can more of us admit this?
Look, it is wholly possible to respect the attempt without going all-in on the result, and I love a flagrant artistic middle finger as much as anyone, and I’ve played Kanye apologist over beers and on this blog for years. But one day, I was at the grocery store checking avocados for ripeness when ‘Hold My Liquor‘ came up next in the shuffle sequence and I realized, ‘Well. This is not enjoyable.‘ Fuck up your whole afternoon, indeed. Put it another way: my homie Jeff has legitimate love for rock acts like Mr. Bungle and The Melvins, while also being a considerable Jay-Z fan. After my first run through with Yeezus, I thought to myself, “Jeff is going to love this album.” I was not wrong.
Not to say the album isn’t without flashes of brilliance [I don’t think the man could release anything a listener could dismiss completely]: “Bound 2” is fantastic, yes, but he still can’t stash the uber-id that runs throughout the album for even one song, so hey, everyone can join in on that ‘spunk on the mink’ line.
Personally, though, “Black Skinhead” best blended where he’d been with where he wanted to go, a militaristic shuffle you can dance to, which also has the best overall rapping on the album.
SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS x 3
THE PETE ROCK & CL SMOOTH MEMORIAL AWARD FOR A SONG NOT RELEASED DURING THE CURRENT CALENDAR THAT HAS BLOWN MY MIND.
Da Youngsta’s: Hip-Hop Ride
I know I didn’t miss this song when it came out in 1994, but it somehow fell through the cracks of my memory until it played during the DJ’s warm-up set at Hip-Hop Karaoke one month. It is maybe the most 90’s hip-hop song I’ve ever heard, which makes it glorious. If you’ll permit me to put on my Bastard Hat of Supreme Crotchety for a moment, I’ll point out that in a world where most rappers under 20 barely string together a complete sentence (I’m not saying they can’t, I’m saying the music no longer demands it of them), these kids not only had decent enough flows, they actually spent the whole song paying homage to fellow artists of the day and yesteryear. Good lord, the entire second verse is dedicated to female MC’s! You could put Chief Keef, Soulja Boy and Migos in a room with guns to their temples and they couldn’t get 16 bars out of that subject. It was a different time, friends.
Also? Winnipeg Jets jersey.
ALBUMS OF THE YEAR
To clarify: All of the songs previously mentioned are better than what is on these albums. However, these two records as complete works accomplished that rarest of feats: provide a top-to-bottom, hour-plus listening experience of unbridled pleasure. If you put either of these on, you didn’t have to touch it again, nothing was getting skipped. Any artist who puts that kind of work into the dying album artform deserves special mention
Robert Glasper Experiment: Black Radio 2
Glasper’s decision to scale back the…well, experimentation on his Experiment’s second effort was met with disappointment by some, but what he delivered instead was a wickedly strong collection of soul and RnB featuring vocal turns from artists as diverse as Common, Brandy, Jill Scott, Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump and former Cosby Kid Malcolm-Jamal Warner. Glasper plays his pianos and organs like sample loops, creating moods of quiet melancholy that perfectly accompany those snowy days perfect for hermiting away [not unlike how I’ve been spending my week.]
Janelle Monae: The Electric Lady
Allow me to take this moment to apologize to you, Ms. Monae, for coming so late to your party. I’d dipped my toes in earlier in the year, but hadn’t devoted the time to fully experience the album. I am a fool, please forgive me.
As close to perfection as anything that came out this year [that I cared to hear], The Electric Lady skipped joyously across styles and genres [the 70’s lover’s rock of “It’s Code,” the rockabilly freakout of “Dance Apocalyptic”], hell even the skits felt necessary to the work as a whole [learn from her, rappers]. If the Glasper is a perfect record for sitting still, Monae will never let you off that easily. Because the booty don’t lie.
So that’s what I got, y’all. By no means extensive, many wonderful things got cut (Danny Brown, A$AP Ferg, Run the Jewels, Chance the Rapper, Yancey Boys, etc) but like I said at the top, there was just too much good music to be had this year, and there aren’t many problems better than that. May it not be the last time such hard decisions are called for.