The final installment of the 50 standout tracks from 2013. Arranged in alphabetical order, this segment extends from hip-hop bromance Run The Jewels to perennial weirdos Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Click the track names for music videos. And be sure to read Parts 1-4 as well. Enjoy.
I don’t want to jinx it but I think this past year saw the return of real rap. I mean there were always a couple of dudes here and there going rogue but these days rap seems to suffer from a seemingly endless splinter of divides most of which aren’t terribly interesting or fruitful. 2013 will undoubtedly be remembered as the year of Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse but what he pointed toward in that track was little more than common knowledge to rap veterans Killer Mike and El-P who make up Run The Jewels. If contemporary hip-hop is like an old folks home with a handful of the game’s foremost seniors overseeing an ever growing multitude of untamed grandchildren, Mike and Jaime are the sensible, fruitful adults ready to give the kids a whooping and bawl out grandma and grandpa for spoiling them. Furthermore, as an autonomous couple they seem quite content to spend their days “going for the throat.” And they do just that on “Banana Clipper,” one of ten airtight jams from the duo’s stunning self-titled debut. El-P’s dense rhymes are offset by Killer Mike’s decadent cadence while Big Boi lends the track his unmistakable braggadocio. The beat here is just as aggressive as the three MCs featured on it. It’ll make you feel the noose around your neck or the grip pliers on your teeth. Listening to Run The Jewels is literally the only time I’m glad I’m not a rapper.
Point: Savages are an aggressive band. Evidence: the austerity of their black and white album cover, the reports that cellphones have been banned from use at their concerts, the fact that their debut is called Silence Yourself, the lead track from said album is called “Shut Up.” Yes, all signs point to a band that may be more about the message than the music. Yet, the minute that distorted bass line pushes away that eerie sample from Cassavette’s Opening Night (1977), all doubts regarding the quality of the content should be put to bed. In their music, Savages present a very convincing analogy to the current state of media saturation. It’s a topic that gets trotted by everyone from full-scale luddites to parents who are frustrated with their children’s addiction to the iPhones they got them for Christmas. Savages are not against distortion or communication, their songs are wordy and loud enough to prove that. They simply believe that it needs to be focused. It’s better to do one thing well than ten things poorly. Savages do several things very well and singer Jehnny Beth is clever enough to suggest that if the world just “shut up” for a little while that we might hear “the distant rhythm of an angry young tune.” Whether it’s clever self-aggrandizing or philosophical grandstanding, Savages got the world’s attention this year.
Each year, in my quest to balance my personal stake in my own tastes while constantly gauging and measuring my expectations, I’ve become more successful at openly embracing disappointment as well as surprise. So I delight in finding the kinds of records that I may have passed by or incidentally missed in years past. Blowout from Brookyln-based The So So Glos is just one of those records. I knew I was going to love this record from the second I pressed play. “Son of an American” opens with a tape-recorded snippet of a young Alex Levine relaying the news of Kurt Cobain’s passing. There’s an excitement in his voice that defies Cobain’s traditional tragic narrative. That excitement translates directly into the song’s gleeful punk rock energy. The band sounds like they could light your couch on fire and make you feel like they’d done you a favor. Several shades lighter than former tour mates Titus Andronicus, The So So Glos remind me more of middle school days spent listening to “Maxwell Murder” on repeat and playing in scrappy, short lived cover bands. There’s a joy to this music even as it mocks itself. “I wanna root for the losing team!” Levine hollers before launching into a chorus that feels like the 21st century’s answer to “Fortunate Son.” The So So Glos may sound like they just stumbled upon one of the best songs of the year but that assumption belies the expert songcraft that the band has in spades. Funny without being self-deprecating and smart without being cynical, The So So Glos rambunctious rock n’ roll will knock the wind out of you. In a good way, duh.
I categorize music a lot of different ways but one of my favorites is by season. Summer bands and albums are easy to identify: breezy, light, catchy, full-blooded. Fall is a season characterized by wistfulness and longing. Winter is dry, dark and cold. Spring is tentative and soft. But this kind of thinking defies the logic of the musician’s calendar. An album that gets released in the summer might have been written and recorded over the winter. Hence, when Speedy Ortiz released their magnificent Major Arcana this summer, it felt like an album in the process of becoming frozen, fighting and clawing against some unstoppable force. Rough and jagged, visceral and acerbic, the single reprieve against this relentless punk onslaught is also the album’s deepest and most affecting track. “No Below” is the odyssey of a damaged vessel; a sad, searching story of loneliness and perseverance. Singer/guitarist Sadie Dupuis captures moments of childhood and adolescence with grace and simplicity. “I didn’t know you/when I broke my knee/spent the summer on crutches/and everybody teased,” she murmurs before giving voice to a thought that many hopeless kids have felt: Wouldn’t it better just to be dead? Yet, the song marches forward through time as the rhythm section pounds away with measured temperance. When Sadie finally arrives at the conclusion that she’s “ glad for it all if it got us where we are,” the song erupts into catharsis. The realization that everything you’ve suffered has been redeemed in a single person is profoundly disorienting. “No Below” is the kind of music that someone in trouble really needs. It’s direct, honest and empathetic. I imagine this song might be the friend a lot of people didn’t realize they were waiting for.
The Crutchfield sisters had a great year. While Katie cleaned up Waxahatchee’s sound with Cerulean Salt, sister Allison seems content to muss things up with Swearin’, a band that follows in the tradition of Pavement by shifting their sound from song to song. “Dust In The Gold Sack” kicks off their second record, Surfing Strange, with a bit of plaintive strumming before launching into thick gritty rock. This track is emo revival in the spirit of Cloud Nothings: loud, frustrated and catchy as hell. The imagery is bleak yet there’s a strangely comforting quality to the underlying angst and frustration. Like a new bicycle rusting in the rain, there’s potency in the image of a useful object going to waste. The Crutchfield sisters share a symbolic language that is intensely personal and poetic without ever being pretentious. But if you want to punch a hole through your wall or tell someone to fuck off rather than drawing a hot bath to sit in until you’re wrinkled, then Allison is the Crutchfield for you.
Like Andrew W.K., Thundercat’s Stephen Bruner makes inspirational party music. The title pretty much says it all, “Oh Sheit, It’s X” is about an evening spent dancing at a club while on ecstasy. Skipping the sickening obsessiveness of The Streets’ “Blinded by the Lights,” Thundercat’s bubbly disco moves outward, seeking friends and lovers to connect with. “I just wanna party/you should be here with me,” Bruner demands with cheerful insistence like a friend tugging you away from the bar and into the crowd of sweaty bodies. Bruner’s narrative is definitely on point, from his fascination with a woman’s purse to literally forgetting who his friends are. At one point he simply lets out a long guttural “uhhhhhh.” It’s Gonzo journalism for your ears. My advice: for your next party, take several doses of Thundercat’s music and don’t call me in the morning.
One of the roughest, richest and most heartbreaking records of the year, the self-titled debut from Torres is music for tough times. The album is raw in its approach to instrumentation and haunting in its capacity to capture the dark corridors we travel down in our endless search for the light. “When Winter’s Over” is as intimate and shattering as a mental breakdown. Like Sharon Van Etten before her, singer and guitarist Mackenzie Scott’s greatest strength is her expressive performance. Her ability to go from deadened mumble and airy whisper to full-throated howl will leave you wide-eyed, imagining the kind of tortured romance that gives voice to this many faces of troubled love. “Go find some place warm, I’ll still be here when winter’s over,” she cries. Alternately desperate and resilient, the line can be read one of two ways: either as a promise to wait faithfully or as a sign that she is free, at least for the time being, of love’s wicked ways.
It’s hard to write about a song like “Hannah Hunt.” That’s because there isn’t language yet invented to describe the invisible minutiae of human life. Is there a word that can summarize the great odyssey of a single romance, from Waverly and Lincoln all the way to Phoenix and Santa Barbara? “Hannah Hunt” plays like small cinema: rich in exquisite detail, it’s innocuous and inconclusive. It’s a series of scenes shot from the perspective of a dreamy lover who invariably finds himself wondering why his idle fantasies don’t match their off-color realization. Hoping for perfection inevitably leads to disappointment, schisms and fallout. “If I can’t trust you then damn it Hannah/there’s no future, there’s no answer,” Ezra Koenig hollers, giving voice to futility and frustration. Yet, it’s the mixed metaphor that follows this proclamation that really ties the song together. “Though we live on the US dollar/you and me, we got our own sense of time,” beautifully illustrates the feeling of falling out of love. The feeling isn’t unlike having the world’s greatest collection of 8 track tapes or a library of classics written in a language that no one speaks. What do you do with all that’s happened that no one but this other person knows or really understands? I guess the answer is in the asking: write a song.
Of all the tracks on Waxahatchee’s Cerulean Salt, “You’re Damaged” most closely resembles the emotional devastation and sonic starkness of American Weekend. I’m not ashamed to admit that this might be the reason I like it more than anything else on the record. As with so much of singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield’s lyrics, “You’re Damaged” seeks to discern where the rifts between her and others lay. The language she uses to describe them is by turns vivid and abstract. Just as you’ve wrapped your ears around “vomit and water,” Katie tiredly declares that “God’s buried under your damaged wonder.” What it all means is a mystery but, like so many troubled artists before her, there’s a feeling of philanthropy in listening to Katie’s music as if in empathizing we might help shoulder some of her silent, pervasive struggle.
As attention-getting opening tracks go, you can’t do much better than “Sacrilege.” From a light shamble all the way to heavenly exultation, this track is a journey from simplicity to insanity. While so much about Yeah Yeah Yeahs has changed since their startling and still-excellent debut, lead singer Karen O seemingly arrived fully formed. What I love so much about Karen O is the fullness of her vocal performance. From a sweet midrange all the way to the fried peaks, her voice is an instrument she treats the way the legendary No Wave bands of yore used to treat their guitars. Her voice has character. In a music world dominated by well-meaning amateurs working up their best impression of Mariah Carey or Josh Groban, it’s refreshing to hear a voice that is strong yet imperfect. Though it lacks the sheer power of someone like Jeff Mangum, Karen O more than makes up for it in her versatility. And she needs it, as her band’s fourth album is delightfully undecided in its musical direction. Daring, bold and original, all the great qualities of Yeah Yeah Yeahs are captured with confidence and bravado in “Sacrilege.”