Top 50 Songs of 2013 :: [Number One]

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.

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