Herein lies the first of five installments covering 50 standout tracks from 2013. Arranged in alphabetical order, this segment extends from hip-hop duo Action Bronson & Party Supplies to soul revivalist Charles Bradley. Click the track names for music videos. Enjoy.
The boy’s come a long way since those Ghostface comparisons. Action Bronson’s second outing with producer Party Supplies, Blue Chips 2 some how manages to improve on its predecessor while sticking to its tried-and-true formula of popular samples and ridiculous rhymes. Case in point: “Amadu Diablo” finds Action spitting about sex (“I nutted in like three strokes/now that ain’t no way to rep the East coast,” drugs (“coke shits in the toilet”) and, of course, food (“turkey sandwich in aluminum foil”) over Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason.” What is perhaps most impressive about Bronson is that this album, which sounds initially quite off-the-cuff, reveals, under closer analysis, something more like linguistic Olympics, a phrase I can imagine him using to describe some nasty nighttime activity. Mmm….gross.
On paper, AlunaGeorge doesn’t sound all that interesting. Their take on 90s club music and R&B is fairly repetitious and lacking in conventional dynamics. The production borrows heavily from hip-hop/pop crossover hits while singer Aluna Francis’ voice is admittedly kind of weak. The capstone of their frontloaded debut, Body Music, “You Drums, Your Love” initially stood apart for its use of simple verse-chorus structure. Yet after a dozen or so listens I began to wonder what is was that really kept bringing me back. My best guess it that the track’s verses are as great as its choruses, a trick that’s more difficult to pull off than you’d think when your choruses is as infectious as it is here. Otherwise, it’s an inexplicable, addictive mystery.
Earlier this year, I called the title track from Arcade Fire’s latest album the “speed walking around your old neighborhood anthem of the year.” Allow me to explain: Arcade Fire’s Funeral (2004) was my preferred “aimless driving around with friends” record in high school. An intimate album full of swells and bursts, Funeral’s sing-a-longs were private yet joyous affairs. Nearly ten years later, Arcade Fire have changed their sound but still retain the same ability to inspire emotional and physical movement. In “Reflektor” there’s an emphasis on the latter without sacrificing the former. A disco gem with James Murphy’s fingerprints all over it, this track, like much of the album that bears its name, brings the rhythm section forward to meet Win Butler’s esoteric pronouncements about “the reflective age,” whatever that means. Of course, when the chorus drops with its jangly guitars and big horn blasts, Butler could be reading out of the phonebook and it would still be intoxicating and electric. “Reflektor” has power and control, the signs of true song craft. Listening to it is like traveling forwards and backwards in time simultaneously, much like a quick jaunt through the place where you grew up.
All I have to say is: where the ballads at? I hadn’t spent much time with Arctic Monkeys since 2007’s Favourite Worst Nightmare but AM brought me right back to those post-punk revival glory days when Bloc Party was still burning through hits and the next Franz Ferdinand release was worth getting excited about. Sorry. That was harsh. I actually quite like Franz’s new album. Surprisingly, Arctic Monkeys, who exploded in 2006, have actually gotten better with age. While the riffs may be bigger, the band’s early brashness has been replaced by razor sharp observances, as if the party starters are now the guys hovering around the bar wondering when the last train home is. “No. 1 Party Anthem,” the best-named track of 2013, brings this mood home without ever becoming dour. “I just want you to do me no good/and you look like you could,” singer Alex Turner moans with reluctance. He knows exactly where this night is going but just can’t help himself. And that’s an anthem I think we all know the words to.
I’m still not sure what to make of Autre Ne Veut. Sharing the distinction of an unapologetic love of 80s pop and 90s R&B with Devonte Hynes’ Blood Orange, Autre Ne Veut’s Anxiety is spectacular for how weird and effusive it is, playing like a kind of experimental American Idol. “Play by Play” is a shape-shifting masterpiece, which begins with sparse drums and synthesizers while Arthur Ashin warms up his voice like an aging Olympic gymnast preparing for their last shot at glory. Building up from an epic breakdown, the track launches into its climatic glory. “I just called you up to get the play by play,” Ashin chants adding, “never leave me alone.” “Play by Play” is one of the unforgettable moments of the year, exhaustingly passionate and achingly beautiful. It captures something universal about the nature of longing and independence. It wants like a child and stands tall like an adult. While the music may borrow from the past, the emotion is all now.
Between the piano bass line and the handclaps, the Swiss/German duo Boy easily filled the Feist-shaped void in indie pop this year. “Little Numbers” is full of stray observations made by a lovesick narrator waiting on a call from her special someone. “Red cars are quite rare, I realize,” she notes before following it with melancholy, “I wonder which color you’d like.” A delicious nugget of sing-a-long verses and sweet harmonies, Boy’s best asset is their sense of dynamics: the bare bridge explodes into a chant-worthy chorus, lending “Little Numbers” anticipatory momentum that’ll carry you through your own days of waiting.
Brainstorm got a lot of play over on NPR’s “All Songs Considered” earlier this year. Bob Boilen’s comparison of the band to British post-punk legends Gang of Four had me hooked before you could say “melodica.” While Brainstorm’s post-punk has a little more production meat on its bones than Gang of Four’s lean and dry punk blasts, they retain their predecessors propulsive spirit and predilection for call and response. “She Moves” has a wide, hip-shaking groove driven by a massive bass and syncopated guitar chops. While lines like “I got no money/only tea and honeycomb” lack any sort of concrete significance, there’s an undeniable fusion of melody and rhythm that will keep you shaking for days on end.
Caitlin Rose makes country music for the skeptics. As a genre, country is about as maligned as they come. Talk to enough people and someone will invariably tell you that they don’t like “opera, techno, metal or country.” Each of those genres have impressive, dedicated followings and appear relatively closed to outsiders. If the accessibility and sentimentality of Kacey Musgraves left you cold, then this Nashville-by-way-of-Dallas singer may be more your speed. Rose’s “Waitin’” pairs the singer’s impressive pipes with a spunky slice of authentic Grand Ole Opry-style country. An undeniable stunner, Rose keeps things tight but never rigid as she muses on Cupid’s fickle spirit. “Cause there’s love that’s new and all the rest/ but the love that’s gone, baby, hurts the best,” Rose proclaims. “Waitin’” won’t melt your heart so much as set it on fire.
The new king of free association rap is barely out of high school. Chance The Rapper, a bubbly, energetic talent from The Windy City, is a welcome addition to the growing crowd of fresh-faced rappers from around the country who are ushering the old hands into retirement. “Good Ass Intro”, the opening cut to his latest mixtape, Acid Rap, is instant ear candy. Chance’s playful, rubbery flow (“I keep a tab on my ex’s/keep some X on my tongue”) is augmented by a slippery bass line, soulful background singers and chugging percussion. Chance is a rapper who occasionally gets so caught up in the internal rhythm of his rhymes that it can sound like he is losing the beat. Yet, his skills as an emcee far exceed his age. Brimming with insights over his lost youth and the condition of his home, Chicago’s infamous South Side, Chance brings a good deal of emotion to the table which serves as a breath of fresh air in a field that is chokingly crowded with empty braggadocio.
While the millenials dig through
their older siblings’ record collections the internet to discover Pavement, Dinosaur Jr., Pixies, Sonic Youth and all the other bands that inspired Yuck, Charles Bradley is doing the Lord’s work. Alongside the unstoppable Sharon Jones and the entire Daptone crew, 60s soul is getting a much deserved revival. Bradley has one of the most expressive voices in music and he puts it to great use on “You Put the Flame On It,” a highlight from his second album, Victim of Love. Bradley croons and croaks with tenderness and passion in a display of genuine attraction that’s becoming distressingly rare in popular music. Next time you need to heat things up, forget Drake and Beyonce. Just let Charles in.