The second of five installments covering 50 standout tracks from 2013. Arranged in alphabetical order, this segment extends from stadium-ready Chvrches to 60s sunshine enthusiasts Foxygen. Click the track names for music videos. Enjoy.
There are at least three songs from Chvrches’ debut album The Bones of What You Believe that could have gone on this list. My instinct is to call this group “electro pop” as I can’t seem to locate an analog instrument anywhere in their sound but I’m afraid the tag wouldn’t do them justice. Chvrches arrived with a huge, well-honed sound that perfectly reflected the sheer amount of time and energy so many young bands spend crafting their first batch of songs. Singer Lauren Mayberry exudes power and confidence. “You had better run from me/with everything you own,” she declares in the song’s opening seconds before later threatening, “I will be a gun and it’s you I’ll come for.” This is a breakup song with teeth. Chvrches are an emotionally and musically dynamic group: sweet, rough, ominous and melancholy. Of their many successes their greatest might be their ability to fuse these varied elements into a sound that is both full and whole.
I’m not sure if Courtney Barnett was on my radar before Pitchfork’s 285 Kent documentary but after her psychedelic performance I was hooked. In typical slacker fashion her debut LP, A Sea of Split Peas, is actually her first two EPs played back to back . The album is chock full of playful gems. “Avant Gardener” is rich on details that, under her practiced deadpan, only become funnier with repeated listenings. “The medic thinks I’m clever because I play guitar/I think she’s clever because she stops people dyin’,” gives you a pretty good sense of where this deadbeat anthem goes. Barnett’s storytelling is wildly entertaining even if her delivery makes it sound like she could care less. At the heart of her songs are a number of fairly universal concerns to twentysomethings such as “When are my parents going to leave me alone?” and “How long has it been since I’ve eaten?’ and “Is anything I’m doing even worthwhile?” Digging into her own ennui with humor and fearlessness, Barnett displays her findings with pride, which she in turn uses to shelter herself from the cruel world of mundane Mondays.
One of the biggest releases of the year, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories generously returned on all the hype surrounding it. Composed with astounding attention to sonic detail and backed by a slew of talented session players, the robots truly came alive on this release. While “Get Lucky” may have infected radios all over the country, the Panda Bear-assisted “Doin’ It Right” has all the same pop potential embedded within a cyclical, slow burning structure. Daft Punk have always been able to imbue lyrical simplicity with such nostalgic force that even cynics could be inspired to celebrate and dance so free. Panda Bear has largely done the same thing, albeit beneath layers of dense, lush reverb. “If you lose your way tonight that’s how you know the magic’s right,” he chants while the robots intone the track’s title. Disparate voices coming together with harmonious excellence is par for the course in the discography of Daft Punk. “Doin’ It Right” is a milestone in a career that continues to happily defy logic.
In a mix I made for my sister earlier this month, I suggested that a music aficionado on hallucinogens might describe Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington’s Darkside project as “a remix album of Tom Waits songs featuring Mark Knopfler.” I have two confessions to make regarding this analysis. The first is that I can’t stand music criticism that relies on broad comparisons. When people say, “it’s like if ________ had a baby with _________” or “it sounds like a long lost tape of __________ with ___________ as their backing band,” I want to point out that proper nouns are poor substitutes for adjectives. The above statement on Darkside’s music is the closest I’d like to get to that kind of writing. My other confession is that said description perfectly summarizes “Paper Trails” and if you’re into that sort of thing you should probably just go listen to Darkside.
The return of Bowie was a big deal for a lot of people. I wasn’t one of those people. I like Bowie. Somewhere in my early twenties I fell in love with Hunky Dory (1971) and came to appreciate Low (1977). Though I may have missed the boat on the Bowie mythology (though Velvet Goldmine did kinda blow my mind), I definitely appreciate him as a symbol of lifelong creativity. Furthermore, he still sounds light years ahead of everyone else. “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” may find you crediting Bowie for inspiring The White Stripes, despite the 15 year gap between the latter’s eponymous debut and the former’s fiery guitar romp. The takeaway? This is a near perfect rock song from a guy who’s old enough to have already retired from a normal job in a normal life. Bowie may have come back to earth with The Next Day but in doing so he imparted a valuable lesson on the never-ending role of creative people in world culture.
Deerhunter’s Monomania is a perfect study in the drawbacks of consistency. While the band may have just completed a musical grand slam, consisting of four “masterpieces” (that word makes me nervous) in a row, you might never have known it. Deerhunter tends to fly under the radar: critically acclaimed, beloved by fans, but always just a few paces outside the current trends. Their albums are equal parts experimentation and studied songwriting. “The Missing,” like Halcyon Digest’s “Desire Lines” and “Fountain Stairs,” was written by guitarist Lockett Pundt. It contains Pundt’s trademark guitar work: gentle arpeggios and deceptively simple melodies. The atmosphere of the track exudes Deerhunter’s characteristic melancholy. Yet it also happens to contain the record’s most uplifting moment. “The Missing” serves as a helpful reminder of how many different bands comprise the singular Deerhunter.
The difference between Drake’s Take Care (2011) and Nothing Was The Same is the difference between an album of outstanding, well-sequenced songs and an album of impeccable timing and flow. Take Care’s tracklist felt like a lesser artist’s Best Of compilation, containing hit after blissful hit. Nothing Was The Same feels more like a highly cohesive portrait drawn to reflect its makers many shades. In “Worst Behavior,” Drake is outraged. “Mofuckers never loved us/now you wanna roll one” he proclaims indignantly. It’s a testament to the variety of his subject matter that these diss songs still feel effective after three hugely successful albums. Drake’s saving grace may be his ability to toss off clever wordplay so casually you could easily miss it. For instance: “Open the mail/stare at the check/enough to make you throw up man/it’s gross what I net.” Or perhaps it’s his ability to turn on a dime from over-time bragging (“I swear I could be Serena when she playing with her left”) to personal details (references to his early days on Degrassi) that put his quick ascent into perspective. Either way, at this point Drake’s continued success should be no surprise to anyone.
My early enthusiasm for hip-hop collective Odd Future has waned over the past two years. Like many others, I’ve put a lot of stock in the group’s foremost outstanding members: Earl Sweatshirt and Frank Ocean. Ocean has always stood apart from the group as the lone R&B vocalist while Earl is universally accepted as one of the great young talents in hip-hop and the collective’s most inspired voice. Unsurprisingly, their collaborative effort on Earl’s dark and woozy Doris is a resounding, addictive success. While Frank playfully speak sings his way through some of his sexual and social predilections (“they called me soft in high school/thank god I’m jagged/forgot you don’t like it rough/I mean he called me a faggot”), Earl explores the imbalance between his creative energy and his emotional connections. “And if I hurt you, I’m sorry/the music makes me dismissive,” he explains though it’s clear he isn’t exactly interested in changing. The shuffling beat moves as if it’s trying to hide from itself while these two talented emcees attempt to navigate their own winding, oblique paths. If they don’t necessarily discover the way through it’s alright. Watching these two explore is pure pleasure.
A collection of pop stunners that should always be played with the windows down on a warm summer night, Eleanor Friedberger’s latest album matches her idiosyncratic storytelling with massive hooks. Personal Record feels like a tribute to the music of New York City in the 1970s and “Stare at the Sun,” isn’t so far from Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll.” It contains some very precise, charming imagery. “Give me your toothpaste/give me your ointment/give me your body in bed,” Friedberger demands to her aloof subject before admonishing them with, “If that was goodbye, you must be high,” a hilarious and yet touching kiss off if there ever was one. As always with Friedberger, its tough to say where the autobiography ends and the exotic parable begins. Yet, that only adds to the allure here as Eleanor whisks us away to the fairytale New York that we all want to believe in.
The late 60s have always been a privileged period in musical history. Garage rock has seen a thrilling revival in recent years thanks to Ty Segall and his Bay Area cronies. Meanwhile, dedicated weirdoes like The Flaming Lips and Tame Impala keep psychedelia alive. Yet the influence of the folk rock blends that were occurring around this time period is somewhat harder to pinpoint. Except, of course, with Foxygen. Their studious recreation of the shambling love songs and pre-hard rock riffage of this era transcends mere homage. Foxygen are also extraordinarily talented songwriters and arrangers. Consider the evidence of “San Francisco,” from their hugely successful (and amazingly titled) We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic. The album is delicately put together with a wide range of instruments meant to compliment the dreamy imagery it contains. Perhaps meant as a nod to Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” Foxygen gives voice to the lost love who, as it turns out, was quite alright with being left behind. Lacking the self-seriousness of a tribute group and eschewing tongue-in-cheek parody, Foxygen leads a growing field of bands mining the past for sonic and emotional inspiration.