The fourth of five installments covering 50 standout tracks from 2013. Arranged in alphabetical order, this segment extends from trans-continental pop sensation Lorde to melancholy R&B enigma Rhye. Click the track names for music videos. Enjoy.
Once I start, it’s very hard for me to stop talking about Lorde. In an article by Ann Powers of NPR Music, she compared the New Zealand teen to Kurt Cobain. While I still feel that these kinds of comparisons keep music criticism locked in the “it’s like ______ only with _______ instead of ________” mode that NPR is infamous for, I can pick up what Powers is putting down. “Royals” is easily the most inspiring earworm on the pop charts this year. While she may not have had the clout to compete with Miley Cyrus on the level of cultural ubiquity, Lorde inserted herself into the conversation about the state of pop and feminism in 2013 in much more effective, ingenious ways. This is the point where I usually say, “what can get lost in these kind of intellectual discussions is the actual quality of the music.” Luckily, that has not been as much a problem for Lorde as it has been for, say, Savages. With her vivid language (“tigers on a gold chain”) and her ability to channel the ennui and delight of adolescence, Lorde has captured something fleeting yet timeless. It is nothing less than youth itself.
Gareth Paisey is indie rock’s unofficial king of figurative language. The lead singer and primary lyricist behind Los Campesinos!, Gareth’s metaphors are not only clever and highly original but also personally insightful and regularly packed with emotional roughage. “Avocado, Baby” derives its title from a comparison that you might have otherwise credited to Colin Meloy or Ben Gibbard. “A heart of stone/rind so tough, it’s crazy/that’s why they call me the avocado, baby,” Gareth hollers while fellow Campesino’s chime in about love so heavy that it explodes rib cages and breaks backs. Elsewhere Gareth brilliantly illustrates the terrible feeling of self-serious isolation and sadness when he casts himself as the host of a game show where the guests, all famous celebrities, won’t answer any of the questions. The punch line is just how important those answers are, signaling the crushing burden of feeling like everyone in your life is holding out on you. If metaphor, simile and poetry in general aren’t really your thing that, you might find comfort in Gareth’s promise that though things might not get better “that doesn’t mean it’s gonna get any worse.” A dour romantic, he still knows when to throw an arm around someone else’s shoulder if only to take his mind away from his own problems.
Rock goddess Marnie Stern makes metal for people who don’t like metal. Intricate guitar work balanced by sugar-sweet vocals, Marnie’s known for her dexterity if not necessarily her economy. This year’s The Chronicles of Marnia (the best-named album of the year) found her paring down her sound, stripping away a few tracks of guitar theatrics and focusing on atmosphere. Of course, if you’ve never listened to Stern and turn on “You Don’t Turn Down,” you might not immediately think “ah yes, this is frugal.” Kicking off with her characteristic string tapping followed by a cascade of drums and rugged guitars, “You Don’t Turn Down” contains several sharp changes of direction. It is a credit to Marnie’s improved songwriting chops that the different parts of this song don’t sound disparate. Rather, the entire song plays like a totally badass patchwork quilt of awesomeness. The problem with virtuosos is that they sometimes can’t write songs that deserve their own technical brilliance. With each new album, Marnie Stern’s songwriting is quickly catching up to her abilities as one of the best guitarists in indie rock.
While Ty Segall took it easy this year with only two full length LPs (one solo, the excellent Sleeper, and the other as the drummer of side project #472, Fuzz), fellow San Fran collaborator and garage rock all-star Mikal Cronin released just one record, albeit a truly excellent one at that. “Weight,” the lead track from MCII, may have the same chord progression as and similar themes to Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You into the Dark,” but it’s also one of the few stone cold classics to emerge this year. An infinitely replayable slice of exquisite pop bliss, existential doubt has never sounded this good. While nothing else on MCII quite reaches the same peaks, it hardly matters since “Weight” establishes the tone of celebration and reflection which permeate the entire record. While many people muse on their favorite tracks of a given album, in “Weight” you could find yourself arguing with a friend over the single greatest element of the song. Is it the pensive reflection in the lyrics that reaches down to the core of our uncertainty about our purpose, personal, artistic or otherwise? Is it the sweeping grandeur of the instrumental melody during the song’s climax? Is it the instrumental instinct that chose to start a garage rock stunner with cascading piano arpeggios? Ultimately, “Weight” is greater than the sum of all its impressive parts and demonstrates that while quantity can be a virtue, quality always takes the day.
“Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” doesn’t resemble a single. For starters, it’s entirely acapella and its biggest moment contains a well-timed f-bomb. I suppose that hasn’t stopped other people. Still, the track was the first on Case’s latest album that really caught my attention. Neko is no stranger to original wordplay. Whether she’s taking a bus to the outskirts of the fact that she needs love or imploring God with candied fists, her lyric sheets read like songwriting guides written in a language only she can speak. Yet, “Nearly Midnight” stands out for how direct it is. Addressing the child of an abusive parent, she follows him/her through time in a wistful effort to ensure that they never silence their own voice. “But don’t you ever shut up/please, kid have your say/’cos I still love you/even if I never see you again.” Case hurls her powerful voice against the bottomless pit of time and space to reach her listeners. Whether or not she is the most humane songwriter living is not really for me to say. However, she is undoubtedly one of the great talents of our generation, a veteran who continues to inspire and amaze.
Palma Violets sound like a prep-school version of The Walkmen or maybe a Libertines cover band: snotty and romantic yet incapable of getting into real trouble. In a year of popular experimentation, Palma Violets debut 180 feels like going back to work after spending the weekend at Burning Man. To call it “safe” might sound condescending but next to albums by The Knife, Kanye West, Danny Brown, Tyler the Creator, Boards of Canada and Beyonce, Palma Violets seem positively quaint: rock crooners in the tradition of The Doors without the masochistic streak. The album’s high water mark, “Best of Friends” proves that there’s nothing wrong with reinventing the wheel. A rousing, dynamic love song about not falling in love, “Best of Friends” is one of the great guitar leather jacket rock songs of the year. If the existence and success of Palma Violets indicates anything it’s that, in these times of aesthetic abundance, clean and simple is sometimes the best way to get noticed.
It’s impossible to choose a representative song from Parquet Court’s outstanding Light Up Gold. While “Stoned and Starving” may be getting much deserved attention as the zeitgeist ennui anthem, Light Up Gold is, ahem, alight with brilliance that can be easily missed. Take for instance the 1:07 “Careers in Combat,” a surprisingly affecting reflection on what’s been lost in the digital dead sprint toward perfection. “There are no more summer lifeguard jobs/there are no more art museums to guard,” singer Andrew Savage intones before adding, “there are no spots left for park rangers/cos there are no more bears to save you from.” If all that has you feeling a trifle nostalgic don’t worry because there are still careers in combat, my son. Like LCD Soundsystem before them, Parquet Courts are informed by a number of disparate musical genres. They fill those gaps with intelligent, insightful lyrics that reflect a deep, unwavering sympathy for humanity and all its lost causes. Parquet Courts may become the next “cool” indie band to straddle the underground and mainstream music worlds (whether there’s still a distinction between the two has yet to be decided) but it’s not likely to change anything for them. You simply do not arrive at a record like Light Up Gold by giving even a single fuck about who does or does not like you. Like their music, this attitude doesn’t come from a place of superiority or tired ambivalence but rather utter certainty and conviction: the essence of punk rock. Matching confidence with excellence, Parquet Courts are poised to take over the world or maybe just go grab a snack.
Perhaps the most ill fitting name for a track by the suave European pop gurus, “Trying To Be Cool” is the standout track from Phoenix’s follow up to 2009’s excellent Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. So much of the storied difference between these two records is in their cover art. Wolfgang embodied its cover’s bright pop art bombs in radio-ready hits “1901” and “Lisztomania.” Meanwhile, Bankrupt! is frequently as dull as its still life fruit and grey matte. The new album lacks the experimental streak of Wolfgang while missing the pure pleasure of It’s Never Been Like That (2006). Phoenix essentially excels at two different styles: the red lining electro pop of “Entertainment” and the restrained swagger of “Trying To Be Cool,” which matches musical left turns with hip-shaking grooves. Though I’m sure it wasn’t meant as a mission statement, when Thomas Mars kicks off the song by pointing out that “city and desert coexist/depending on the things you’re wearing,” I can’t help but wonder if he knows that his band is at its best when persistence and pleasure co-exist in their music. Bankrupt! is a little overripe as a whole but “Trying To Be Cool” definitely achieves its self-declared goal.
Full disclosure: I’m still not sure what “trap” is. But if it’s anything like Pusha T’s “Numbers On The Boards,” I may have found my new favorite subgenre. My Name is My Name, Push’s second major label release, follows on the heels of Wrath of Caine, a quickie mixtape from earlier in the year. Where that album featured the Rick Ross-assisted “Millions,” an ode to “dope boys and stash spots…that energy,” according to Push, “Numbers On The Boards” successfully demonstrates the difference between mixtapes and records. Not a banger in the conventional sense, “Numbers” finds Push boasting like the best of them (“Givenchy fitting like it’s gym clothes”) over a thick, insistent beat from Don Cannon and Yeezy. Amid a torrent of impressive wordplay, Push references Michael Jordan’s legendary slam dunk contest win in ‘88. But if you think about it, that couldn’t have been the first time Jordan attempted the feat. Like most impressive acts, it had to have been rehearsed obsessively so that, when the time came, there’d be no mistakes or false starts. That is the real difference between Wrath of Caine and My Name is My Name, “Millions” and “Numbers on the Board,” and those that want to be great and those who are.
Rhye’s Woman feels like the bookish cousin of Autre Ne Veut’s lovesick party starter/tanker Anxiety. When details regarding the project were slight there was some confusion as to whether the singer was a man or woman. Even when the identity of the duo was later revealed, the enigma surrounding Rhye persisted. The androgyny and melancholy of singer Milosh’s delivery finds its match in the sensuality of “Open.” Bristling with warmth and sexuality, the song implores its “faded” subject to “stay open.” Orchestrated with restraint and performed with tenderness, “Open” has all the earmarks of a love letter never sent. It’s personal yet ambiguous, bittersweet and resigned to a life spent wondering “what if.”