Songs Of The Year: Endless Window 2013 Review, Part Two
Posted on Friday, 20 December 2013 | No Comments
Well, wasn't that last list lots of fun?
So much fun, that here's another one for your delectation. Just below lies the official Endless Window list of favoured songs from this year. In all honesty, the way I listen to music has almost always been more album/format driven that track driven - something that might become clear when the album list (finally) hits the page. But this list has its own story to tell, one that sometimes entwines with my personal narrative of LPs, one that sometimes diverges wildly (because hey, what good yarn doesn't contradict itself every now and then?) It's the same tale, just told from a different angle.
As for the ordering? Well, aside from number 1, I can't say there's all that much separarting number 20, say, from number 7. But this is the order that seemed right, and sometimes that's enough.
25. John Grant - GMF
One thing that John Grant cannot be accused of is holding back. Following the immaculate despair of The Czars, his two solo albums to date have elevated self-loathing bloodletting and passive-aggressive snark to an art form, and GMF might be the best example of the Grant modus operandi. Over a bed of lush soft-rock backing - a change from the electronic and synth-pop dabbling of much of Pale Green Ghosts - his grand baritone weaves it way around a lyric that finely balances sharp wit and genuine hurt and an unforgettable chorus. Ain't he just the greatest motherfucker you've ever seen?
24. Lorde - Royals
The first time I heard Lorde, I just wrote her off as bland MOR nonsense. Well, I wasn't listening closely enough, because while she might not be the pop saviour some corners hail her as, Royals is one of the most infectious and refreshing songs to hit the chart in recent years - and one that, beautifully, takes aim at the vapid, consumerist four-to-the-floor-on-the-human-face shit that was pummeling all the joy out of the airwaves. Over cool, minimal R&B hits, she mocks the soulless lifestyle aspirations of her generation but - and here's the crucial bit - turns it all back on the dubious royals who would lord over them, and punches up rather than down. She's on their side, which is really our side, against them. That a few cynically chose to declaim the song as racist shows an alarming inability to actually understand basic communication on the part of some listeners (as well as the ongoing intellectual bankruptcy of the online left), but forget about them. Here's someone who's out to fix the charts, and for that Lorde should be applauded.
23. James Blake - Retrograde
If the boy Blake had wanted to get rid of that whole 'blubstep' tag, then way not to go. There was that howlingly bad original artwork for Overgrown, hastily replaced after the inevitable internet pile-on, and then for the big lead single, a song as resolutely un-bro as Retrograde. If some listeners still don't want to get on board though, then more fool them. This icy ballad was an ideal showcase for both sides of his work: the soft voiced piano crooner and the cool production whizz-kid found a perfect half-way house on Retrograde, the song's unusual structure serving the perfect launch pad for that incredible extended chorus. His immersive, evolutionary take on dance-pop remains the gold standard.
22. Sophie - Bipp
Sophie almost certainly isn't called Sophie: hell, Sophie almost certainly is a bloke (even if no-one quite knows for sure). But who cares? Bipp is dance music at its most joyful and pure, a liberating burst of glee purpose built to get a smile out of you. It takes the fluorescent, anything-goes attitude of Rustie and Hudson Mohawke but goes for a sugar hit even those producers wouldn't dare to aim for. The pitch-shifted female vocals burst with childhood glee, while the deceptively simple mix pushes the beat to the foreground to led those bright synth melodies lead the way. Rather than the euphoria-by-numbers of modern rave, this was three minutes of pure innocent happiness, slapped down onto wax.
21.The Fall - Jetplane
In rock and roll history, there's the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old was the word of the late, great Lou Reed, and the new is the ever-expanding, ever-confrontational gospel of Mark E Smith. Their two 2013 releases, Re-Mit and The Remainderer, saw the band's longest stable line-up continue to deliver the goods and bringing some of the genuine weirdness back that had gone lost around Ersatz G.B. For proof, just check out a track like Jetplane, a mix of rolling drums and loopy synth lines that operates only on its own skewed logic, while Mark E. Smith turns the airport waiting lounge into a hot bed of surrealism, as a strange new business idea of tattooing people's flight details onto them mixes with withering observations on the Italians and, "to make matters worse / Some kind of rock group holdings things up..." No matter how many might have tried over the years, The Fall still operate in a language only they know. We should feel privileged to be listening in.
20. Suede - It Starts And Ends With You
Oasis aren't coming back any time soon, Pulp are teasing but aren't planning to go home with you any time soon, and Blur...well, fuck knows what's happening there. Of the returning Britpop icons, it's Suede who have proven the hungriest - after leaving the first time on A New Morning, they had the most to prove - and it's them who've actually managed to pull off the comeback with aplomb. If Barriers might have left a few doubters, the imperial might of It Starts And Ends With You could have left no doubt that Brett and the gang had re-ignited the Suede flame in style, finding the perfect balance between the glamour and drama of the Suede of old whilst still working within a more mature mindset. A guitar riff that could have come straight off Coming Up, a chorus for the ages and even a classic Brett lyrical clusterfuck for full authenticity ("Like a hairline crack in a radiator, leaking life" - er, come again?). A stylish and glorious phoenix flight.
19. Death Grips - Birds
Count the birds in the sky. No, drink this bleach. No, do whatever you want to do, we’ll do whatever we want to do. Behind the fury and paranoia of Death Grips, there’s always been a great emancipatory quality both for the artists behind the music and for those who willing to tap into their wavelength. Birds acts on one level like a bizzaro parody of Drinking in L.A., slackerdom burned itself out into coiled tension. Yet that sun warped guitar running through the track seems eminently real, and there’s something Bukowskian about MC Ride’s declarations. One of the most exciting tracks on the invigorating Government Plates, Birds was the sound of Death Grips expanding their scope whilst keeping true to the millennial antagonism that’s defined them thus far.
18. The Haxan Cloak - The Drop
You don’t put a noose on the front of your album for no reason. The Haxan Cloak seems safe from dinner-party appropriation or chattering class simpering for quite some time: his deep, menacing electronic compositions are the sound of a world running parallel to ours, a dark place found only in some nocturnal terror. Yet on The Drop, the underworld themes of Excavation opened up to something else, the possibility of an island amidst the storm. The slow, ascending synth theme that defines the piece was one of the most spine-chilling moments in music this year, but the sense of imminent epiphany that it crystalizes is undeniable.
17. Chvrches - Recover
Great pop music has often been about the barbed wire fist residing within the velvet glove: think The Shangri-La’s, late period Abba, The Smiths, Depeche Mode. It’s that last act which Chvrches have been compared to the most frequently, and not without reasons – their big, polished take on synth-pop owes something to the masters of the field, and a few summer dates supporting the Mode this year could be read as a passing of the torch. If so, Recover is the moment when Chvrches rose to look their mentors in the eye. There’s great melodies and hooks buzzing throughout the track, but if you tune in to what Lauren Mayberry’s actually singing, this shining love song reveals itself as a depiction of a break-up in process. It’s time to add another name onto that procession.
16. Run The Jewels [feat. Big Boi] - Banana Clipper
The unlikely but dazzling chemistry between Killer Mike and El-P already delivered two great albums in 2012: Killer Mike's El-P produced knockout R.A.P. Music and El-P's Cancer 4 Cure. For 2013 though, they upped the ante and formed a new collaborative project, Run The Jewels, that would deliver perhaps the most entertaining and compulsively re-playable hip-hop record of the year. On opening cut Banana Clipper, the two trade off hilarious kiss-offs and riffs with giddy aplomb (Mike winning out with "Producer gives me a beat, says it's the beat of the year / I said El-P didn't do it, so get the fuck outta here") over a rampaging beat. The Big Boi seal of approval was just the cherry on the cake for this treat for the rap purist. Infectious, ingenious fun.
15. Savages - Marshall Dear
In Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time, sees war in reverse. The bombs get sucked out of the ground and the buildings implode themselves together, while the bullets are sucked out of the bodies and people come back to life. It’s a concept used for the video to Marshall Dear, the disquieting conclusion to Silence Yourself. The metallic post-punk that is Savages’ forte is side-stepped for a more subtle death jazz, while the lyric concerns itself with the mandated suicide of [name], a conspirator in the failed 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. The almost loving lyric leaps from the perspective of the enforcer to the condemned, from the victor to the loser (with the full irony of history, of course), sliding away from easy answers. It’s a summation of the album’s concept of destruction as a process of artistic and psychic renewal, where power, choice and ultimately life are rejected – and then, in true existentialist fashion, the real truth emerges. Savages destroy to heal, and as the Marshal finally silences himself, we are asked to find a new voice to speak with, one capable of processing and conveying a different truth. No wonder Michael Gira's a fan.
14. Melt Yourself Down - Fix My Life
On paper, Melt Yourself Down reads like the most comically Record Store Guy formation imaginable: a hipster jazz musician (Pete Wareham, best known for his work with Polar Bear and the sadly missed Acoustic Ladyland) recruits a bunch of electronic and psych-rock luminaries to explore afrobeat and African jazz. Can you feel the beard stroking yet? In practice though, this underground supergroup kicked out some of the wildest party music of the year, and Fix My Life in particular stands out as one of the most enthused and wild cuts of the year. Try listening to this and not want to dance yourself ragged.
13. Bill Callahan - Small Plane
Bill Callahan's recent career has been a slow process of weeding out, of cutting out any excess verbiage to craft a distinct songwriting vocabulary with plenty of room to breathe. Dream River was the latest in a run of great records from the man, but of the several small miracles found on it, the most fragile and beautiful of all was Small Plane. It's been a long road from the despairing misanthropy of his work as Smog to here, but here it is: a moment of peace and idle happiness, all the sweeter for the lengths it took to get there. The music just floats by, offering subtle shading for economic writing that Hemingway would have been proud of. "Sometimes you sleep while I take us home / That’s when I know we really have a home" Callahan intones, and it sounds like a dream come true.
12. Iceage - Ecstasy
This is why you don't put your record out at the start of the year: everyone forgets when it's list time eleven months later. Iceage's second album You're Nothing has been conspicuously absent from the polls, and it's certainly not the fault of these Danes. Building on their noisy, invigorating debut, their scrappy yet immaculate punk makes them one of the only groups in that field actually trying to do anything interesting. Even on such a consistent album though, opener Ecstasy stood out as a fantastically loud and immediate blast. Guitars and drums lock into a frantic race to the death, collapsing at the end of each chorus only to dust themselves off and run another lap, while charismatic vocalist Elias Bender Ronnenfelt led the charge with passion.
11. Future of the Left - Bread, Cheese, Bow and Arrow
Thud. Thud thud thud! Thudda thudda thudda thudda thudda. One of the most gleefully ugly hooks of the year, the swamp of comically detuned guitars that kicks off Bread, Cheese, Bow and Arrow in media res was proof if proof were needed that Andy Falkous's gang weren't ready to mellow out just yet. On their second album as a quarter, Future of the Left have gelled into a malovent groove machine, ruthlessly efficient in cranking up the noise while Falkous laid down some of his funniest lyrics to date. In a year marked by endless cold-hearted fuckery from the ruling classes and a torrent of bullshit from every possible avenue, a band like Future of the Left are more of a vital public service than anything else - and in the satirical, stomping Bread, Cheese, Bow and Arrow, they wrote an anthem for the rest of us to rally around in the midst of a world gone mad.
10. Danny Brown - ODB
As if it wasn't clear which member of Wu-Tang Clan was his favourite. The libidinous and chemical excess, the unforced eccentricity and the mutated flow that Danny Brown possesses had already make him the logical heir to Ol' Dirty Bastard's throne, but here he came just to underline the point. A tall task to live up to, but then he had his finest moment to date to back up the claim: Paul White's twisting, pitch-shifted production is the perfect out-of-control carnival ride soundtrack for Danny Brown's fevered stream of semi-consciousness, equal parts delighted boast and furious scream. That this track didn't make the final cut of Old due to sample issues robbed the album of its logical peak. But this fantastic, fevered roar still snuck out, ready to stun.
9. Glass Candy - The Possessed
In my review of After Dark 2 earlier in the year, I singled out The Possessed for particular praise: "between the glorious synth melodies and Ida No's perfect and detached vocal delivery, it might just be the most anthemic and glorious track Jewel's conjured up to date", I opined. Gladly, this is a review I can easily stand by, because with half a year's distance this track still stands out as a real diamond. It's the unhurried pose it strikes that makes it so alluring: it doesn't demand your attention rather than attract it, luring you in subtly. If, as the common criticism goes, the Italians Do It Better roster is all aesthetic, then if only all aesthetics could hold this kind of weight and drama. This song would have been a great in any year - since it's released in 2013, it's a great for this year.
8. Vampire Weekend - Ya Hey
Even if I didn't really admit it to myself for a few years, it was somewhere around the age of 12 or 13 that I lost the faith I had as a child. (Hey, high school wasn't great for me.) Even as a confirmed atheist though, I still sometimes think of a higher power I can't believe is real: maybe it's the lingering need to believe that there's something beyond the bricks and mortar of reality, or to have something else to blame. For me, it's that impulse that drives Ya Hey, a song which proved to be the calling card of a previously gimmicky band finding a whole new sense of purpose and running with it. It's a big, hulking slice of post-Graceland pop that deals with religious doubt and blame with intelligence and a light touch without skirting around, a song that asks which is worse: no God, or a real God who just doesn't care? Playful and desperate, Ya Hey was the greatest fruit from one of this year's most welcome and surprising artistic turnarounds.
Post-Blixa, post-Mick, post-mustache, post-Grinderman...where was there left for Nick Cave to go? As Push The Sky Away demonstrated, the answer was there all along: deconstruct the Nick Cave character. The swelling, powerful Jubilee Street was a fine demonstration of the might of the current Warren Ellis-led iteration of the Bad Seeds, but underpinning it was a finely-tuned lyric that placed the Nick Cave persona in the real world in a way that was new. The old preoccupations of sex, power and violence were all there, but with a sympathetic, street-level perspective of a Nick Cave's that "too scared to even walk on past." At fifty-five years of age, he's only gone and written one of his best songs yet.
6. Janelle Monae [feat. Erykah Badu] - Q.U.E.E.N.
I have this conspiracy theory that really, when it comes down to it, the music industry would much rather Janelle Monae didn't become a star. Everything she does puts the lie to what the pop machine has become: as a talented, highly musical songwriter with brains and ambition to spare, a sense of old-school showmanship and who's not afraid to ask some difficult questions, she's absolutely everything that the hit factory of 2013 isn't. Just stop it kid, you're making the rest of us look bad. In a year where Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus grabbed the headlines, here was someone absolutely bringing the goods: precision-cut pop with its own look that swam against the bullshit and actually wanted you to feel powerful and good about yourself. Unlike a Beyonce, Monae isn't out to lord it dismissively over her audience: in her world, anyone and everyone can be a Q.U.E.E.N. And doesn't that sound so much better?
5. Daft Punk [feat. Pharrell Williams & Nile Rodgers] - Get Lucky
By now, we should be able to admit to ourselves the complete artistic fiasco that Random Access Memories turned out to be. Millions of dollars and several years in the making, what we were lumped with was an album that was at best pointlessly meandering and thuddingly dull, and at worst frighteningly reactionary, the sound of two very rich men locking themselves up in their time machine and heading back to the cocaine days of the seventies because they're afraid of their children. The greatest tragedy of all was that it could all have been so different. And how do we know? Because of Get Lucky. Ignore the functional but charmless Pharrell vocals, and lock in to that classic Nile Rodgers groove, one of the best damn riffs ever written by one of the best damn riff men out there, backed up with a sumptuous groove that the Daft Punk boys then send back to the future. It's like tuning in to some parallel dimension where disco did what psychedelia couldn't, and turned the world on to pure universal love. This is what we could have had, and for a few beautiful minutes we get to live the fantasy for real. It's just so sad that when the robots returned with more, it turned out so sour and bitter.
4. Hookworms - Away/Towards
Let's just put it out there: Away/Towards is the best start to any album this year. Some scratchy guitar, slowly crawling into the scene from stage left. Muffled screams and yells build in the background as a mass of drums starts to make itself heard - let us out, let us out! And when we let the genie out? Rock music at its most primal and endless, a ceaseless groove that somehow keeps finding new gears to shift to as it goes along. Even when the track finally stops dead at the nine minute mark, it feels like it could have gone on for another twenty minutes easily (and don't you just want it to). Pearl Mystic was a frequently enjoyable if flawed debut, but this is a cut for the ages.
3. Kanye West - New Slaves
Sorry Kanye, but no: New Slaves does not have the best second verse in rap history. What does it have though? Oh, plenty. Messy and baffling as it often was, Yeezus was the sound of an artist, already successful commercially and critically beyond anyone else's wildest dreams, tearing up the rulebook he made and chancing his arm on new sounds and new ideas. Maybe people like to call Kanye crazy because it's easier than having to actually listen to the provocation being made right in front of them. New Slaves was the sound of someone using his status and position to pull back the curtains and reveal how rigged the game is, how precarious his position still is within the West's underlying, furtively hidden institutional racism. Booming synth minimalism is the order of the day as Kanye throws some reality back at the White America that elevated him: sure, he's famous enough to be pursued by the paparazzi, but he still sees "the blood on the leaves", still sees his fellow citizens incarcerated on an industrial scale, and he's not going to keep quiet anyone. He's going to rage and rage until - until Frank Ocean bursts in, ushered by a chipmunk-ed up prog sample, the sound of victory rolling out over the speakers. And why? Because Kanye is biting the hand that fed him, and because he can get a track like New Slaves out - not just out, but out globally, on his terms and his terms alone - he's already won this battle.
2. These New Puritans - Fragment Two
Beat Pyramid was a nice, left-field take on nu-rave, Hidden 'did a Bends' and showed an ambitious, arty band ready to leapfrog the scene from which they sprung...isn't it time for the arena anthems now, Jack Barnett? No such luck. Fragment Two was the first sign that These New Puritans were about to make a very different kind of leap, from the mind to the heart. The immaculate, fussily precise sense of arrangement remains - there is absolutely zero chance of anything being left to chance here - but suddenly there was this sense of openness, of honesty. Not the bullshit, I'm a nice guy coffee-house strummer sort of honest: the sound of someone looking deep inside themselves, to their dreams and wishes and fascinations and longings, and making their internal architecture visible for all to see. All those horns, pianos, drums: all in service to the sound of someone trying to realise just who they are, why they're here and trying to make something beautiful out of that. The wide-scale shunning of this by the industry and by listeners can only be described as a scandal, a turn of events that says far more about the state of a public unwilling and/or unable to hear an honest statement when it comes into view than it does about the astounding levels of artistry and feeling that have gone into the work.
1. My Bloody Valentine - Only Tomorrow
"It'll be out in 1993. No, 1995. 1997 or 1998...definetly. I'm working on it now. 2008...it's almost done. 2012, yes, finally, 2012 for sure this time. ...okay, 2013 then."
In an age where Chinese Democracy is a dull statement of fact rather than an un-ending punchline, where you can buy two (!) different versions of SMiLE and anyone with internet access can find Prince's Black Album, the third My Bloody Valentine was one of the few remaining ghosts in the musical world. After so many years of hoping in vain, the increasing buzz of rumour surrounding this most mythical of releases was met with equal amounts hope and good-humoured doubt by the Valentine faithful. Kevin Shields' self-imposed 2012 deadline might have just been missed, but come the night of 2nd February 2013, and the impossible happened - MBV LP3 was real, and ready for the world to hear.
Whatever nerves, hopes, cynicism or impossible dreams the listener may have come in with, they all fell away when m b v hit the second track and Only Tomorrow bloomed into life. That classic Loveless reverie of guitars zooms into focus, that aquatic sound where chords and melodies blend into each other, into beautiful and omnivorous new life, that was present for sure. But below the surface, something else was happening: complex, intricate webs of Bacharach chords, pop complexity warped into new shapes when put through the Kevin Shields filter. Bilinda Butcher's somnambulant coo is processed, changed, sent out into the heavens as it peaks into bliss, the drums keep landing in subtle, unexpected places, a jazzy feel miles away from the pounding of Feed Me With Your Kiss. And then, four minutes in, a genuine Kevin Shields guitar solo. It's not flashy, it's not showy, but it speaks at length. Whatever had so ravaged his muse for two decades was finally gone, his gloriously optimistic guitar phrasing a new language for his playing. As the track keeps on, player and listener get to walk together, into a bold new future that both had longed for but could never quite reach. And as it happens, when we got there, it felt like we had found home.