Friday, January 3, 2014

Top 50 of '13

Listed from 1-50, though Clams Casino's "Lvl" isn't included at #47 because Spotify doesn't have it.  Enjoy!

  1. Vampire Weekend - "Step."  The best song Vampire Weekend has ever released.  With its icy synths and descriptions of snow and cold bodies, "Step" captures the frigidity of winter, yet its intimate vocals exude an incredible warmth.  It's a puzzling dynamic--to be so cold yet so comforting--and I'm not totally sure how these guys achieve it.  But what an achievement it is.
  2. Kanye West - "Blood on the Leaves."  My most memorable musical moment of 2013 is hearing Kanye unleash the booming, brassy beat of "Blood" for the first time. And the fact that he pairs this beat with a distorted sample of Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit" is, much like the rest of Yeezus, shocking and stunning and provocative.  
  3. Wavves - "Beat Me Up."  The chorus on this is like grunge visits the beach -- Seattle meets SoCal.  The handclaps recall early Beach Boys but the drawling, echoing vocals and fuzzy guitars are much more rooted in 90s alternative rocks.  Surprisingly, Wavves blends these seemingly disparate genres in one up-tempo, self-deprecating summer jam.
  4. Kanye West - "Hold My Liquor."  The architecture of this song is absolutely stunning and transcends any generic limitations. For instance, after Kanye's long verse, he interpolates some robotic vocal on the bridge, which blends with Justin Vernon's auto-tuned falsetto and baritone.  Vernon's vocal arrangement ultimately leads to the song's purely instrumental crescendo, which features layers of synths and guitars that sound more fitting on Pink Floyd's Animals or Wish You Were Here than on a rap album. 
  5. Deafheaven - "Dreamhouse." I don't ever really listen to metal, yet I'm completely fascinated by this unbelievable hybrid of a song.  From the opening minute of "Dreamhouse," Deafheaven reveal their genre-fusing intentions, as a surge of shoegazey guitars meet black metal vocals and relentlessly heavy drums.  The two genres complement each other in surprisingly successful ways: the textures and vibrant colors of post-rock harmonize beautifully with black metal's frigid, curdling vocals, and P-R's ruminative elements make the generally epic metal feel uncannily introspective and brooding. 
  6. Earl Sweatshirt (feat. Frank Ocean) - "Sunday."  Earl Sweatshirt and Frank Ocean always produce together, and here they drop some of the most memorable moments of the truly excellent Doris.  Frank Ocean, in particular, steals the show-- perhaps as payback for Earl doing the same on Frank's "Super Rich Kids."  Listen to his triumphant attack against Chris Brown, and enjoy the charm of a line like, "I empty every canteen just to wear that straightedge varsity."  After he says that, there's a quick kick of a tinny drum -- a small detail, but there's something so joyous and carefree about it that I can't help but smile.  Because the subject matter of "Sunday" focuses on dependency, emotional disconnects, and violence, this light moment offers a brief respite from the sadness, and it also serves to highlight, by contrast, the deep darkness pervading the song.
  7. Arcade Fire - "Afterlife."  I don't love Reflektor.  I might not even like it.  But hell, this song is amazing.  Here Arcade Fire aims for and achieves the cathartic music for which the group is acclaimed (see also "Wake Up," "No Cars Go," "Neighborhood #1").  Not coincidentally, the band unleashes some strong emotions on this song; when Win Butler pleads "I want to know, can we work it out?", that urgent cry makes me want to know (the after-)life's great mysteries, too.  Simply put, Win makes me care here because it sounds like he does, too.  Arcade Fire is also wise enough to know when to let this song end, which is a nice break on an album that, like The Suburbs, is woefully over-inflated.
  8. Vampire Weekend - "Ya Hey."   I had no idea what to do with this song when I first heard it; sure, it starts off brilliantly, with Koenig's clear vocals echoing over a lightly foggy backdrop, but that chorus seemed like a buzzkill, interrupting the flow of an otherwise crisp and catchy song.  And the spoken interlude seemed like a deliberate attempt to withhold the song's most gratifying elements: the funky bass, ghostly chants, and Koenig's perfect delivery.  Yet the gratifying elements kept me returning, and eventually the things I didn't like became strangely addicting.  Maybe this is the way to keep ephemeral pop fresh and interesting, as the song ages for the listener with time.  So far, so good.
  9. Phoenix - "Drakkar Noir."  With its bouncing synth, massively catchy chorus, and no-frills introduction, "Drakkar" is the takeaway from Phoenix's Bankrupt!.  Mars's vocals sound as pristine as always, and he particularly shines on the chorus when he sadly confesses, "I'm just too glad to say 'no.'" The song speaks to a notoriously dissolute person ("Light a cigarette for two / You're too close to get to / How come everyone knows you before they meet you?"), yet Mars's radio-friendly voice and "Drakkar's" dance-worthy tempo belie the song's gloomy lyrics.  Nevertheless, it is these contradicting sounds and emotions make the climax so powerful: the swelling synths, amplified guitars, and splattering drums simultaneously produce happiness and discomfort, since Mars's despair seems to rise with the euphonic instruments' volume.  The listener ultimately finds solace during the track's final seconds, as piano keys flutter through the climactic noise, ending an unsettling pop song reassuringly (which is not always the case with these guys).
  10. James Blake - "Retrograde." When James Blake announces "Suddenly I'm hit!" and that eerie synth plays, you'd think he was about to release the best album of the year.  It's such a powerful moment that the rest of the album almost inevitably had to fall short of it.
  11. Daft Punk (Feat. Panda Bear) - "Doin' It Right."  From first listen, the gargled, robotic vocals of "Doin' It Right" immediately had me hooked--even as I struggled to register the unlikely pairing of Panda Bear and Daft Punk.  The combo does work, though, producing tremendous results, as PB's breezy vocals float over the track's looped noise and tiptoeing keys.  The chorus is brilliant and timeless, and probably speaks to the transcendent experience of DP's live show: "If you lose your way tonight that's how you know the magic's right." Yet the song is also tinged with sadness, as the robot occasionally sputters "You're not doing it right," perhaps critiquing the current state of EDM or, even, lamenting music's inability to consistently conjure the "right" magic for its listeners.

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