1. Vampire Weekend - "Step"
In 2013, Vampire Weekend went to war with time and themselves. On "Step," the best song off their career-defining third LP, Modern Vampires of the City, they shaped this argument about growing up and how best to live in an age of anxiety, head-whipping narrative and counter-narrative. Little was left out on Modern Vampires, as Ezra Koenig and his band addressed God on "Ya Hey", mortality on "Diane Young" and "Everlasting Arms", the powers of love and nostalgia on the stunning "Hannah Hunt". But their best work came on the urban baroque "Step" where Koenig wrote directly to linear time itself in an attempt to make sense of his own aging, art and modernity.
It is both a long and short leap from Vampire Weekend's emergence as undergraduates at Columbia in 2006 to their current position as indie rock icons. Their first record, the self-titled, was beautiful if a bit academic. I still remember seeing Koenig and his band for the first time at the Bowery Ballroom in March of 2007. He wore Top-siders and a blue button-down shirt, the least rock and roll moment ever, even as a pit of post-adolescents lost their minds to the songs on what was then called "the Blue CD-R". Fast-forward to the summer of 2007, Vampire Weekend toured as the 9pm opener for Ra Ra Riot and Tokyo Police Club. They were good at a half-full Middle East in Cambridge, another Ivy town, the review I wrote then is now lost in a defunct website's 404 blackhole, but they were not the most promising band on the bill that night. Even the most optimistic among us would never have predicted two Billboard number one albums, and perhaps more importantly, the achieving the sweet spot of popular and critical acclaim. Now, it is both credible to like this band and many people like them, a rare feat at this advanced stage of critical history. In 2007, my circle of friends called our sleepless weekend nights in Bushwick and the Lower East Side, "vampire weekends", a mutual reference to the band and to days and nights that seemed to slip together out of time. Then we all got old together.
Koenig opens "Step" in direct address couplet, "Every time I see you in the world, you always step to my girl," a lyrical rebuke to an unknown adversary, an opponent that eventually emerges as chronology itself. Whipping us back in time, Koenig sings "Back, back, way back", carrying the listener through his own childhood and teenage years, a lyrical imperialism that grants brief views of lived and unlived lives: Narrator flying from Mechanicsburg to Dar es Salaam in the span of four words. This fantasy life, of "champagne and disco tapes", allows Koenig an opportunity to explode his own nostalgic dreams, "tapes from LA slash San Francisco but actually Oakland and not Allemeda" finds the narrator trying to call things by their correct names, trying to find a right place in between these visions. But it is time, not place, with which Koenig takes issue. Depicting himself in the bedrooms of his youth, his "girl" was "entombed in boombox and walkmen", making "Step" a love song to music, finishing the rhyme with "but girl that was back then," revealing time as the enemy and accessory of art. It is time that steps - and this word works on two levels, as slang and rhythm - to Koenig's music.
In the chorus, Koenig professes his readiness for a committed relationship with art, his unfolding age offering him new insight and stability. It is conversation with himself and when listening with headphones, the ungrammatical lyric, "What you on about?," a colloquialism for "What do you mean?," comes exclusively out of the right channel before reunifying with the left: It is Koenig talking to Koenig about Koenig. He is "ready for the house", a spatial metaphor for monogamy with his music, now that the "gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out," signals of his transition from adolescence to adulthood. These things need no traditional grammar, they are visceral: Gloves off, teeth out, he feels it in his bones. Even the reference to Modest Mouse, a band who made their last good record in either 2004 or 2007, when Koenig was 20 and 23 respectively, signals this transition from music fan listening to disco tapes and Isaac Brock in his bedroom to the artist himself, creating the worlds of now in which other kids will play and dream.
Answers are not found in the past for Koenig, they lie in creating the present. Though he converses with time, he leaves the grammatical past tense almost entirely after the second verse, his last trip through history. Here he dismisses ancestors who claim the superiority of their "girl", the "stale conversations of a past life", the poorly dressed punk reactionaries of Astor Place laughing at Koenig and his music as he spins in a snow globe of his own lyrical creation. This is the power of the artist, the protection of "the house" of the chorus: Critics and the Old Guard have their dated myths - Koenig's use of Croesus, a rich and fallen Lydian king from 2500 years ago, is intentional and biting - and the punk kids have their outsider critique, but neither holds the power to create. Returning to the first verse, "your girl was in Berkeley with her Communist Reader", the dreamy and academic optimism of a radical is set against art; Koenig's "girl" was in his stereo. At this stage, the third track of his third album, Koenig makes his own universe, "snow falling slow to the sound of the master," a bit of double entendre referencing recording master tapes - noticeably not the tapes of others from his youth, but likely his masters - and the "sound of the master" meaning the beat and rhythm of the creator. Creation in the present provides the answer, the way to dress for the weather, the house for which to be ready.
The bridge, the prettiest and most evocative thirty seconds of music in 2013, finalizes the argument. This marketplace of time is not easily navigated: Wisdom isn't worth youth, age is honor but not truth. Koenig isn't 23 anymore, the blithe Ivy League optimism of the first record replaced with bigger ideas, more uncertainty. But music has given Koenig the power to see, even the power to glimpse what others cannot. He sings, "We saw the stars when they hid from the world" providing the rhyming contretemps to "you cursed the sun when it stepped to your girl." The passing of time is inevitable, our response to this reality provides our only control, the only generative, creative quality in modern existence. You can curse the sun or see the stars, an easy choice for both artist and listener. "Everyone's dying," he sings after admitting he holds no power to resurrect, only to build and mitigate in real time. Time is killing us, killing art, killing the artist. The album's most confessional lyric, "the truth is she doesn't need me to protect her", names Koenig as lover but not savior of art and time, creator but not Messiah, an artist finally a bit more free from the past and the future.
Everything is dying all the time. This is, at best, an ignored tautology, and, at worst, the coldest reality of modern life. Each moment, each beat, frustratingly uncapturable, drives us further into the past and forward toward the uncertain future. Scott Fitzgerald, another New Yorker destroyed by his memory and dreams, instructed his readers to beat on backwards against the current of time. "Now" was and is the enemy. The unfolding present becomes the hole in our lives, the iteration of ourselves we understand the least and struggle most to grasp. To wrestle with modernity is to admit that we are far more likely to be crushed by winsome Instagram nostalgia of the past or by out-sized dreams of the future than anything happening in the rough approximation of this moment. But while danger lies ahead and behind, we barely understand the contemporary, let alone hope to hold it. When it comes to the present, it is always there, even when we aren't.
Koenig rages against time, against our past and future selves, offering a moment, a little over four-minutes on "Step", where we both can dream and create this unfolding instant of our lives to the dulcet tones of harpsichord and choir. We can pull our significant others closer in a slow dance as time steps to us. Koenig needs music and the listener, singing, "I can't do it alone." Together in this moment, only then are we ready to claim that to which we are most entitled and most fear: now, and now, and now again.
Welcome to our annual countdown of the 50 best songs of the calendar year. Songs must be from an EP, LP or demo released during 2013, and no band may appear twice. Today, we count down 10 to 2.
10. Pure Bathing Culture - "Dream The Dare"
It was nothing but post-Beach House jams from Portland's Pure Bathing Culture on "Dream The Dare". In a swimming and viscous arrangement, they still plead, "give me forward motion". The chorus proved to be this propulsion, caring the listener to a sophisticated chord progression and resolution in the second verse. The enduring lyrics, "Come on" and "It's a cage, your chest, do you like what you find?", both urging us forward and outside of ourselves, a most important message in the age of the Snow Globe-sized kingdom of the self.
9. First Rate People - "Dark Age" and the Challenger remix of "Dark Age"
In a rare (and cheap) tie, First Rate People ties with itself and the Challenger remix of "Dark Age". Another song about getting older in a terrifying age of modernity and isolation - they call this, "a note on your phone to remind you tomorrow, 'new keys for a new cage'" - FRP saw their original source material done with even greater bombast and nostalgia by John Ross of Challenger. While we await the 2014 material from FRP member Jon Lawless and Ross (the band name Jo(h)n seems like it would work here), the two synthesizer masters occupy a dual spot for one of the best songs and best remixes of the year.
8. Marika Hackman - "Bath Is Black"
Recalling the harp tones of Joanna Newsome and the British austerity of Laura Marling, Marika Hackman provided one of the most promising breakthroughs of 2013 with "Bath Is Black". It is a world of cold water and old soap, bodies covered in tar and stuck together. The second movement, a little synthetic woodwind push-up, snaps against Hackman's lilting vocal. Full of layers and complexity, "Bath Is Black" never concerned itself with making anyone feel good; the justice proved poetic at best. "You're not coming home tonight," the last and most important lyric, was either edict or realization, and either way it killed.
7. Rainy Milo - "Deal Me Briefly"
If there's a likely and currently unheralded heir to the Lorde throne in 2014, Rainy Milo presents a compelling case beyond her precocious age (18), her solid production connections (Chet Faker here), her label association (EMI to Lorde's UMG) and her winsome but take-no-prisoners voice. Lily Allen isn't a bad comparison save its obvious limitations. "Deal Me Briefly" held one of the best choruses of 2013, a body-rolling, "You let me go so slow" as Milo fights with and against herself in the refrain. It was immediately addictive, demanding attention and a slow dance in the age of the diminishing attention span. In 2014, she may well be living the fantasy.
6. Wet - "U Da Best"/"You're The Best"
Wet wasn't kidding with the title, "U Da Best" when this dropped in the spring. By the time they were Columbia signees with the Neon Gold imprint, the title had changed to "You're The Best", the first sign that the band positions itself for a dominant, corporate 2014. "You're The Best" demolished itself on lyrics like, "All I know is when you hold me/ I still feel lonely, lonely when you hold me", resisting easy treatment and crafting a complex modern love song. Even in an era of increasing superlatives - everything is now "the best" or "the worst" or "the funniest" or the "dumbest" ever - "You're The Best" and its final edicts of "figure out the rest"
and "quit while we're ahead" suggested a rich landscape beneath. The hook stabbed and stuck, a bubbling guitar arrangement that held the transformative vocal of Kelly Zutrau. The listener falls in love with her immediately, left, like her, to figure out the rest later.
5. Born Ruffians - "Needle"
"Needle" bore the marks of being a hip-hop song disguised in rock garb. Born Ruffians opened the locus in a Fleet Foxes-homage before "Needle" lifted off with propulsive guitars and head-nodding rhythms. It was more of a tweaker than anything the Foxes would have made, an enormous and washing chorus that sat on the ceiling looking down at the listener quixotically. The visual simile proved alternately bizarre, "I belong to no one like the watermelon," and meta-cognitive, "I belong to no one, a song without an album." Strange and instantly singable, "Needle" offered the way "away" as final edict of the chorus suggested, alone as the new together.
4. Haim - "The Wire"
Formally and informally, I said enough disparaging things about Haim that I shouldn't be allowed to include them on this list, but, "The Wire," like all great pop, is simply undeniable. The lyrics are generic, and this is one of the great strengths of this song as it transitions to heavy-rotation at Top 40 radio sometime in early 2014. "The Wire" ripped and pulsed, a borrowed Thin Lizzy guitar and a clap-track designed to break necks, the yelps and undulations of the chorus resounding as the singable modulations of a modern teenage wasteland. For the worse, 15 years ago teenage girls idolized Britney, Christina and Jessica. Now, they have Haim and Lorde, two artists who largely write their own music and are comfortable being perceived as weird, girls who successfully recast what being girls can be. For that alone, "The Wire" and "Royals" should be the two most important songs of the year.
3. Lorde - "Royals"
I remember where I was the first time I heard "Royals," always a mark of a song's durability and impact. Ready to hate it - Lana Del Rey leaves this writer immensely flat - "Royals" instead charmed instantly. I quickly became a Lorde Birther - there was no way she was actually 16, I thought - before becoming a Lorde evangelist: This girl, who cares how old, was the absolute Truth. It was just "Royals," the rest of the Love Club EP was promising, as was "Tennis Court" and then her debut LP. They were songs where the image was about destroying imagery. Maybe a partial closing argument for postmodernism, this teenager could make meaning out of the abscence of meaning. More accurately, she could salvage meaning from imagery. Above all, "Royals" was a great jam, the hottest and most essentialized version of the R&B diaspora.
2. Arcade Fire - "Afterlife"
"Afterlife" was the "Sprawl II" of Reflektor, the second-to-last song and proof that the band still had a great pop song in a challenging record. For an album about division and the terrible forces of modern life, "Afterlife" was the most human of songs, privileging our screams and shouts, proving that these tiny human voices could make something from the madness. It made you want to fall in love, or to struggle in saving the love you had, asking the pregnant question, "When love is gone where does it go?". The answer was nowhere, as Butler sang, "Afterlife, what an awful word," there was no next movement, just this. Of course, given the stakes of life and death, or maybe, more accurately, figuring a way to live coherently while alive, "Afterlife" asked for, maybe even demanded, our energies.
Welcome to our annual countdown of the 50 best songs of the calendar year. Songs must be from an EP, LP or demo released during 2013, and no band may appear twice. Today, we count down 20 to 11.
20. Okkervil River - "Down Down The Deep River"
No one did intimacy and nostalgia better in 2013 than Will Sheff and Okkervil River on "Down Down The Deep River". He took us into the tents of his past, using the the imagery of his childhood in a deeply cold New Hampshire, Sheff dished lines like, "We can never go back, we can only remember" which were tautological and still important. We are submerged by memories, his and ours, as the song, surges past six minutes, undeniably Okkervil River's best work since 2005, another memory we can only remember.
19. TV Girl - "She Smokes In Bed"
TV Girl described attractive self-destruction on "She Smokes In Bed". It wasn't a new idea, more like a trope really, a woman, fecund, damaged and damaging, sitting blithely in bed smoking the cigarette that will kill you both. Explosive femininity of this type does little to reason through why this woman is so compelling - see the chorus here, "Ba ba ba" - but "She Smokes In Bed" and its pumping soul-loops built a universe in which we were all happy to burn.
18. The National - "Demons"
What was surprising on the National's latest offering, Trouble Will Find Me, was the relentless ability of Matt Berninger to be miserable in public. With a hefty six-figure income playing music to an adoring fan base that fills arenas, a brother who seemed to outweigh his problems in easy measure, Berninger still managed to dish lines like, "When I walk into a room, I do not light it up ... fuck." It was work being this sad, or maybe it was the pathos we expected from the band, Berninger providing us what we wanted even when he and we had undeniably changed.
17. Shy Girls - "Second Heartbeat"
2013 was the last days of the R&B craze and Shy Girls arrived as one of the last best pieces of the Empire with "Second Heartbeat". It was simple, quiet even, a reminder of the bizarre beauty of the 1990s of our memories. The chorus wrapped itself together in two parts, the drums almost a hair off-beat, the alleged "Second Heartbeat" of the title. It was, briefly, unity.
16. Wolf Alice - "Bros"
The Joy Formidable never went away, they just had their sound hijacked and turned up by Wolf Alice, among others. It was part Silversun Pickups, it was part the Pretenders. The explosion of the first movement, guitars and vocals erupting from some unseen location provided the magic of the Prestige that emerged over and over again. "Forget everyone", they told us, and this was easy. Nothing sounded as big and brash as "Bros", as the band sang, "there's no one quite like you," we suitably reflected the sentiment back. "Are you wild like me?" provided the best bridge of 2013, the last quiet movement before a wave of destruction returned.
15. Phosphorescent - "Song for Zula"
No song had the power to make you more miserable in 2013 than "Song For Zula". Pulling threads from Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia", string loops designed to cut, and lyrics like "I saw love disfigure me into something I am not recognizing," "Song for Zula" was a punch to the chest, a stab to the side, a caved-in knee; pick you visual metaphor here. "I will not open myself up this way again", Phosphorescent sang to us, explaining all the weakness he wouldn't let "Zula" see, though "Song for Zula" was exactly this window in his heart. "I do not lay here in the dark waiting for thee," he sang, though he would and did exactly that.
14. Emily Reo - "Coast"
It was the best unsigned LP of 2013, Emily Reo's seasick, laptop symphony, Olive Juice. Its best song, "Coast" stuttered over seven minutes, a mixture of Grimes and Beach House, the charm of Computer Magic and the baroque brilliance of the Postal Service. Modernity never sounded so broken, dated or beautiful as Reo's charming vocoded vocal soared out over a sea of keyboards. There were hints of menace and dystopia, a song that took too many shots of digital cold medicine before walking the world a trailing and dizzy mess. This is what 2013 sounded like for some of the hyper-literate and increasingly distant elite. It was, for seven and a half minutes, beautiful.
13. Mt. Wolf - "Hypolight"
Mt. Wolf jumped out of the gym this year, and then broke up, leaving us with a few scant songs and the promise of things to come that never would. "Hypolight" proved a brilliant and troubled composition, made all the more dour by the band's later break-up. "Put another light out", ringing as one of those lyrics so general that their application is only a matter of having a meaningful relationship with the aesthetic and emotive worlds. There was no debating the soaring, crystalline head voice of the first chorus, the onset of the drums reminding us that this all began on the ground. "Hypolight" was already tragic as a piece of art, and became more tragic still, now that its creators are no more.
12. Mary Cassidy and Jon Lawless - "Make It Do"
There was a particularly languid evening this August spent listening, largely, to Haim remixes and Jon Lawless and Mary Cassidy's "Make It Do". The dominant reflection of that night was a head-nodding, "This is just so good," twinkling keys set against Cassidy's delicate soprano. The two iterations of the chorus, trafficking in a rap-video chic (something Lawless did well before Lorde was a teenager), were finally united in a figure-eight weave through the arrangement's last moments. Cassidy was a dream and Lawless, a genius, as "Make It Do" evaporated from view in the same ethereal manner which it arrived; it was and is so good.
11. RAC - "Let Go" [ft. Kele and MNDR]
The RAC finished remixing other people's work by remixing their own. "Let Go" sounded like a Kele song, or a MNDR song onto which the RAC threw a sheen and a backbeat. But this was the debut RAC single, original work that sounded like a remix already. Were the lines between the remix and the mix blurring when a DJ sought out to two solo artists to guest on his own music? Of course, narrative is dead; the call was coming from, as it were, inside the house. Still, "Let Go" held one of the best hooks of the year, MNDR at the top of the room on the title lyric, Kele occasionally mumbling beneath. It wasn't quite a dance floor burner - it didn't have the BPMs - rather, it was one of the best pop songs of 2013, the kind of thing that Top 40 radio should well have put in heavy rotation, and, for you, thankfully didn't.
Welcome to our annual countdown of the 50 best songs of the calendar year. Songs must be from an EP, LP or demo released during 2013 and no band may appear twice. Today, we count down 30 to 21.
30. Prides - "Out of the Blue"
At the moment when you're reading this in March or June of 2014 and you've Google searched "new Glasgow band Prides" and you're realizing the "Out of the Blue" was one of the best songs of the previous year, don't feel guilty or ashamed. "Out of the Blue", like its title, came from nowhere and crushed the listening public at the point of its release in early 2013, a public still likely drunk on the success of CHVRCHES, and provided a slamming and singable synth symphony to dance yourself clean. That's the word from the future and the past.
29. Local Natives - "Heavy Feet"
In a year that Vampire Weekend thoroughly dominated the mainstream indie rock World Music scene, it was unfortunately easy to forget the dense success of Local Natives' second LP. "Heavy Feet", an alternatively plaintive and storming treatise, rode the back of friscalating drum riff and the soaring vocals of two lead vocalists. The hook lyric, "After everything", though "Heavy Feet" was much more about the present than anything else.
28. The Zolas - "Invisible"
"Invisible" emerged as a yippy and misbehaved single, a one-off from Vancouver power-poppers, the Zolas. Of course, like their other work, the chorus stabbed you in the chest and demanded utter complicity. It wasn't necessarily about Gyges' ring, but it did concern itself with the collapsing architecture of modernity. An incomplete but beautiful treatise on destruction, the listener found themselves singing, "When you need some oxygen, jump into the fire with us", an implication that burning it all down was a collective project.
27. Frightened Rabbit - "Backyard Skulls"
Frightened Rabbit, what else could they possibly have to offer? Listeners rode the misery plane into the hillside, absolute CFIT, on Midnight Organ Fight, before the band told us they weren't "miserable now" on the subsequent LP. It was a head-spinner as we arrived at their latest and its best track, "Backyard Skulls". Were we here to be destroyed or not? The lyrics concerned themselves with the things, the bodies, buried in our metaphorical backyards. Someone always finds these terrible memorials, "a long lost soul, like a skull beneath the ground". The pathos was turned to 11 even if we all, band and listener, knew we didn't feel feelings like that anymore.
26. Smith Westerns - "Varsity"
It was necessarily regrettable that the Smith Westerns best ever song, "Varsity" didn't merit more positive press. The record from which it originated was, unfortunately, poor. Containing only two good songs, "Varsity" was left nearly alone to fend for the band's credible and critical future. "I guess it's a point of view", they sang like relativists in the pre-chorus. The arrangement recalled a high school experience no one ever lived, a remembered self that never existed and a world that was only in dreams.
25. Junip - "Walking Lightly"
The menace of the drums belied the lyrics of "Walking Lightly", which largely concerned the responsible tread with which we collectively traipse the land. Jose Gonzalez whispered his whispering best, ushering the listener into a world, self-contained and complete, where he suggested something and nothing at once. It was one of the great and forgotten songs of 2013. Gonzalez, likely, wanted it this way.
24. Waxahatchee - "Brother Bryan"
If you didn't much care for Liz Phair, despite the endorsement of NPR, you weren't much for Waxahatchee in 2013. If Phair made you uncomfortable, if the hooks were too irremovable, Waxahatchee was a derivative version of a difficult thing. But if you loved Phair, this was as close as you could come to 1993. "Brother Bryan", the best song off a transcendent record, isolated a lonely bass riff and a few splashy drums beneath the singular vocal of Katie Crutchfield. The last lyric that shuts everything down, "In this place I think about you", one more measure and it was over.
23. Small Black - "Free At Dawn"
It didn't make a lot of sense, and it didn't need to. Like most great pop, "Free At Dawn" rooted itself in an initial loop, expanding the idea in imperial fashion, adding a down-beat and then storming through an echoing chorus that never totally got its due in 2013. The substance proved ethereal - "I was feeling as reckless as rain" - and the final movement, an invigorated low-end and a doubling of the first impulse suggested a celebration this describing the freedom of the morning.
22. Phantogram - "Black Out Days"
Phantogram never find themselves far from a huge loop, and "Black Out Days" did not disappoint. Buzzing synths competed with the fecund vocals of the lead singer, who sang things like, "I don't ever recognize your face", before the the chorus exploded into a sky of unrecognizable sounds. While they surely lifted the initial loop from Freelance Whales' "Generator", no one knew and no one cared. It was about the explosion of the short term memory, a discursiveness on modernity that sounded destructive and was.
21. Sky Ferreria - "You're Not The One"
Everyone loved the Sky album - even if it was dark, NSFW and needlessly devoid of hooks in places - and "You're Not The One" surged as lead single and one of the best songs of the year. The pre-chorus ("It's the middle of the night ...") was good enough to be a hook on most other songs but here it merely set up Ferreria at the top of the room on the title lyric. It was a John Hughes slam for an era that barely knows who John Hughes is, a Breakfast Club for a generation that never went to detention for anything. Suffice it to say, negation is the new affirmative and, "You're Not The One".
Welcome to our annual countdown of the 50 best songs of the calendar year. Songs must be from an EP, LP or demo released during 2013 and no band may appear twice. Today, we count down 40 to 31.
40. Challenger - "Back To Bellevue"
The synthesizer work from John Ross remained enormous in 2013, "Back To Bellevue", a single from a forthcoming 2014 LP slamming in and out of a few different movements, never ceasing its desire to traffic in Reading Rainbow aesthetics. The burnt neon of the song's second half, the most intentionally elevating bit of independent music this year, left the listener near the top of the room. It was also about an insane asylum.
39. Salt Cathedral - "Move Along"
Like an ethereal Tune-Yards, Brooklyn's Salt Cathedral presented one of the most compelling cases for the future of "World Music" in the body of single, "Move Along". A series of dreamy modulated pitches, the arrangement lifted off the ground, crackling with energy and insistence. The friscalating guitars chased each other around, but it was ultimately a IDM finishing kick to recall Aphex Twin that transfixed the listener.
38. Magic Man - "Paris
When we wrote about Magic Man in 2010, there was no sense that they would one day attract the eye of Neon Gold and Columbia Records. They were a small band with a tight debut record. Poised to have an enormous 2014, a year where they will likely be pushed to have a Passion Pit-sized debut LP, the band turned in one of the great singles of 2013 with "Paris", the moment after the moment but before The Moment.
37. ALVVAYS - "Adult Diversion"
Like a pumped up Tennis or the reconstituted and cuter Pains of Being Pure at Heart, ALVVAYS stormed out of Toronto with a winking odes a twee and post-punk aesthetic. "Adult Diversion" proved exactly that, a song that lead the listener toward something more adolescent, maybe less serious. Of course, the stakes emerged as higher than expected in the final movement, a doubling of the previous impulses in layers and intent.
36. PAPA - "Young Rut"
It was all Tom Petty for LA's PAPA this year. "Young Rut" held one of those down-stroke guitar patterns that erupted into something explosive in the chorus, Americana with an edge of the coast. It wasn't as simple as "Won't Back Down", but "Young Rut" described some of the atrophy of youth, an underrated trope of the past two generations.
35. GEMS - "Medusa"
A head full of snakes proved an appropriate visual metaphor for the sultry rhythm and blues of DC's GEMS. "Medusa" shared a bit of menace with its low-end, but the essence was in the crystalline and untouchable vocals of Lindsay Pitts. In the second half, she sings, "All the dreams become haunting memories", which sort of sums up the project, the density, beauty and terror of "Medusa".
34. Blood Cultures - "Indian Summer"
No one knew much about Blood Cultures in 2013, a strange and undeniable track, "Indian Summer" from the wilds of New Jersey. The synth-stabs were as good as any since, "Dance Yrself Clean", though the intent here proved vastly different. The essentializing of the lyric, "I'll have to let you go" in the final movement was exactly the departure the listener sought, a recession that was far more explicable than the arrival of "Indian Summer".
33. Fancy Werewolves - "Ghosts of Detroit"
"Shut up, get in," went some of the first lyrics of Fancy Werewolves' "Ghosts of Detroit", one of the best unsigned songs of 2013. The synthesizers showed up for the pre-chorus, just in time for the drum fill that carried the listener to the chorus for the eponymous lyric and one of the refrains from a rock band you hadn't heard of this year.
32. Laura Marling - "Where Can I Go?"
With her obvious love for the folk of the 1960s West Village, Laura Marling, in additon to being an irreconcilable heartbreaker, sounded a lot like cleaned-up, pretty, female Bob Dylan on "Where Can I Go?". However, the initial melody borrowed more from "Afternoon Delight" before spiralling into a full-blown folk trope buffet. The difference was Marling, a vocalist and guitar player of such dignity and power that these old paths felt new again.
31. Wise Blood - "Alarm"
"I can't think," sang Wise Blood on "Alarm" before claiming he needed his "personal space". The arrangement recalled Moby's Play, a soulful piano that plowed along in the background. Of course, the wake-up here was the the horn loop at the top of the arrangement. As news reports, literally, poured in, Wise Blood held the cacophony together with a melody that was as memorable as it was instantly singable.
Welcome to our annual countdown of the 50 best songs of the calendar year. Songs must be from an EP, LP or demo released during 2013 and no band may appear twice. Today, we count down 50 to 41.
50. Youth Lagoon - "Mute"
Youth Lagoon took his listeners out of the bedroom in 2013, and it wasn't a universally pleasant experience. Seemingly more determined to freak everyone out, a drunk carousel creeps its way in at the edges of mounting of psych-out, "Mute". Still, the sea-sick quality of sophomore LP, Wondrous Bughouse managed to stick, like the final movement of "Mute", a weird and lost battle cry in an age of distortion.
49. Highasakite - "Son of a Bitch"
"Oh grand gesture, enter the room" opens the lens on Highasakite's "Son of a Bitch", before lead singer Ingrid Havik sings, "hold my hair while I vomit". This is the type of reversal that "Son of a Bitch" traffics in without regard for the listener's potential whiplash. This isn't about making you feel good, even if the tumbling chorus spills out of Havik like the puke of the opening line. No one, least of all the band, can hold back here.
48. Field Mouse - "Tomorrow Is Yesterday"
For everyone who prayed for the salvaging of the Silversun Pickups shipwreck, New York's Field Mouse brought "Tomorrow Is Yesterday". A fecund and funny lead singer mixed with the echoing shoegaze jam, a sort of anti-anthem for the death-spiral gentrification of the Williamsburg waterfront, an era and a band both in and out of time.
47. Waylayers - "The Hook"
Waylayers got more out of four notes than most other bands in 2013. A wind-swept synthesizer creation, "The Hook" was full of its namesake, lines like, "I'd rather live my life inside my dreams." From an LP entitled, Fault Lines, "The Hook" debated the silent perils beneath our feet, all the invisible deaths we can bear to consider, a final movement and duet that just vaguely resisted the fatalism suggested in the opening movement.
46. Amity Beach - "Sunday Nights to Infinity"
If youth is soft oft wasted on the young, Amity Beach used it well. "Sunday Nights to Infinity" trades in adolescence as currency: the explosive nights by the lake that feel like they happened to you, whether they ever did or not. The guitars exploded from every direction, a seeming desire to say yes to every impulse at once, the absurd House of Yes that is being young.
45. Night Flowers - "Night"
No one did 1990s guitars like Night Flowers in 2013. "Night" opens like a lost Sundays or Cranberries track, a winsome and lonely guitar line that eventually opens to Hester Ullyart's undeniable vocal. It was something that belonged on the Reality Bites soundtrack, a smoldering kiss between Ethan Hawke and and a stunningly adorned Winona Ryder.
44. Flyte - "Over and Out"
Once you got passed the "Right Back Where We Started From" paralells and the wanton flight metaphors from a band called, Flyte, "Over and Out" held a breezy progression and a number of sticky hooks. Some mixture of the Cars, the Police, and the Talking Heads, Flyte could well dominate 2014, even in the face of their eponymous lyrical symbolism.
43. Polly Hi - "Carousel"
Polly Hi was as close to the old Shins as anyone got in 2013, and "Carousel" held one of those cloud-clearing choruses that Mercer used to write three of before getting out of bed in the morning. Not complex but immensely satisfying, the refrain held everything together. Music wasn't ripe for changing anyone's life this year, but Polly Hi's "Carousel" reminded you of what that must have felt like.
42. ON AN ON - "Ghosts"
Slow was the new fast from ON AN ON's "Ghosts" this year. Like a lost analog to "Where Is Mind?", the power was in the downstroke guitars and the wilting little hooks that grew up and died in the same moments. The final movement seemed to go one forever, a receding vanishing point for a song that never concerned itself with anything but the past.
41. Alice Boman - "Waiting"
It was nothing less than heartbreak on Alice Boman's "Waiting". Pathos dialed to 11 on lyrics like, "I want you more than I need you / I need you so bad", as Boman's little alto steamrolled the listener. There would be no absolution here, nothing but pain in the middle of a long afternoon.
Jon Lawless and Mary Cassidy collaborate with Torquil Campbell of Stars on Prefab Sprout cover, "Best Jewel Thief In The World". Campbell is a near evangelist for Prefab Sprout's 1980s Britpop jams and turns up here with gravitas and delicacy in duets with Cassidy. Lawless and Campbell first connected when Lawless spun a Prefab song at a party and Campbell rushed over to high-five him, asking, "How old are you?" - two brilliant musicians separated by nearly two decades of age and united in the love of a marginally famous band from the 1980s. "Best Jewel Thief In The World" is nominally about a transcendent cat burglar spanning the roof tops, lyrics like, "Down below, down below, what do any of those assholes know?", and Lawless crafts a simple acoustic progression that sustains the organizing allegory about theft and beauty. It's about hiding in plain sight, it's about the heists that happen right in front of us, it's about love. "Rooftops are for dreamers" Campbell sings, reorienting the listener to consider the narrator: Only he can see the thief.
Decent Lovers, an Asheville outlet in the process of moving north to the Providence area, ride a woozy guitar and synth line around on "Keep It Together". The denouement - and it's worth noting this goes on for more than half the arrangement - is the realization lyric, "Our love makes everything so much better." The band tries a few iterations of this idea, voices joining in harmony, at times in cacophony. The guitar bubbles up, heaving into view before passing back beneath the surface, an animated, distorted and moving target; synthesizers stab away with playful deliriousness. There lies joy in the chaos, these two halves - "We can keep it together" - mixing easily with its counterpart - "Our love makes everything so much better" - even the structure rhymes.
A lost and lonely chord progression initiates John Ross' latest work as Challenger on "Year In Review", a song that premieres here this morning. Trading his traditionally bombastic synthesizers for a baby grand, "Year In Review' proves to be a crusher of a different kind, resolving on the lyric, "I never loved you more". The song comes from latest EP, The Confetti Tree, a small teaser of the work the mastermind may have in store in the new year with the anticipated Back to Bellevue sophomore LP. Here, Ross' whispered vocals up the ante, finally removing the words all together in the final movement, the piano singing like George Winston's December in the moments between and beyond the vocals. "Year In Review" leaves space for the listener, a cold season of reflection and retrospective, a holiday EP for people who resent the very idea of holiday EPs.
The EP is out everywhere tomorrow and, for New Yorkers, they play Bowery Electric on January 29.
Try as I might to hate Lincoln Jesser's second offering, "Tops" with its winking gestures to the EDM community and wub-wub synth stabs, it is simply irrepressible. Tripping through the Passion Pit idea, Jesser finds himself in a universe of bold colors and sharp relief - Jesser starts the chorus with space imagery as one of the catchiest synth lines you'll hear in 2013 bobs up and down in modulated fashion behind him. Those notes, maybe there are four or five of them, are the soul of "Tops", the element that refuses marginalization. The imagery is heavy-handed (according to Jesser, we are "dice spinning around in space" and "tops spinning around on plates") but the music undeniable and satisfying, a major label sound from a guy who could, quite reasonably, dominate 2014, or your dance floor next weekend. As Jesser says, "ain't no time for common sense" as the dumbest drum-fill ever rockets you toward the first chorus. An obscenity, it is terrible and awesome at once. Who cares about criticism when you're having this much fun?
LA outfit Satchmode takes their listener to a dying lights of downtown on "Best Intentions". The burnt neon of the synths recalls something of a slower drive version of the Killers' "Human", though the hooks prove more muted here. The centerpiece is a crushing chord progression and resolution on the lyric, "Wouldn't trade your love". Beginning at the 1.30 mark, Satchmode explores the upper third of a crystalline falsetto as the synthesizers stab below. Returning to this idea again, the last gasp of the refrain before the arrangement spirals off on its own, the band suggest a pleasing world of absolutes, bits of magical realism where it is still worth telling someone what you would never, ever do.
The War On Drugs return with wide-open road song, "Red Eyes". Their signature acoustic guitar operating as the base of the layers, adding a subtle synth progression and drums that recall Tom Petty's most pastoral blur. The chorus proves transformative, taking this organized and discrete architecture and allowing it to spiral up and away, a measure of loosely directed chaos before the next verse reasserts order. "Red Eyes" is one of the better rock songs of 2013, an enticing foreshadow of coming LP, Lost In The Dream.
Two of the best independent pop artists operating on the American West Coast, Wild Ones and Trails and Ways unite on "Rivals" to recast the original with more dreamy guitars and a fist full of blinking, opiate synths. Wild Ones, who do a quite nice renovation of the Rilo Kiley idea, built "Rivals" to be a tiny keyboard jam with wistful guitars inserted at intervals. Trails and Ways have none of it, filling the guts of "Rivals" with flickering guitar riffs and an over-sized back beat. The result is a measure of extra bombast for a band, Wild Ones, who do small so well.
Rachel Thomasin's voice on lead track, "Gravitate" from the outstanding Gravitate EP. Largely about the forces of spatial attraction contained in the titular track and album title, Thomasin's haunting vocals and lush acoustic arrangements elide into compositions that sound at once distant and crushingly intimate. The hook pounds against the guitar progression, "I want to elevate, I want to move", the implication being, perhaps, that so much holds us down against ourselves, or maybe how much weight and power draws us toward others. The soft electrics of the Gravitate EP are on full display here, simple folk-infused arrangements infused with reverb and loops, all orbiting around Thomasin's singular, rich voice. This last force is the most undeniable one.
For New Yorkers, Thomasin plays Rockwood Music Hall (Stage One) tomorrow, Monday, December 2 at 8pm.
For New Yorkers, Thomasin plays Rockwood Music Hall (Stage One) tomorrow, Monday, December 2 at 8pm.