The third of five installments covering 50 standout tracks from 2013. Arranged in alphabetical order, this segment extends from spunky Scots Franz Ferdinand to experimental dance maniacs The Knife. Click the track names for music videos. Enjoy.
My admiration for Scottish post-punk revivalists Franz Ferdinand came swaggering back this year with the release of their fourth album Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions. It’s been quite a journey for the band from their pitch perfect self-titled debut to the vaguely hippy-ish You Could Have Had It So Much Better (the influence of which hangs around on tracks like “Fresh Strawberries”). After the middling Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, I was ready to accept that Franz had run its course. Right Thoughts doesn’t quite reach the heights of Franz Ferdinand (2004) but it’s definitely their strongest effort in years. The title track finds the group returning to the disco beats, energetic guitar riffs and nimble bass lines at which they excel. The band has been making mantras into catchy choruses for nearly ten years and hearing Alex Kapranos’ raconteur bark of “right thoughts, right words, right actions,” I’m convinced they still has a few surprises up their impeccably tailored sleeves.
For all the endless comparisons, what gets overlooked, more so than any sonic similarities, is that Haim, like their symbolic predecessors Fleetwood Mac, makes pop music on their own terms. This is a pop group in the active sense: three ambitious young women, sisters, who write and perform their own songs. And unlike much of what counts as pop these days their debut Days Are Gone is actually fun. A few BPMs short of being danceable, Haim nevertheless offers big drums and rusty punk bass in “Forever,” a track that oscillates from light and springy to raw and crisp. Haim skip the traditional strums of guitar-based groups in favor of riffs and lines, at times landing impressively close to pop maestros Phoenix and their unique blend of analog and digital sounds. Yet, what I like most about Haim is the way they play with phonetics. Sometimes they’re bubblegum fun (“Trigger the sound, let’s figure it out”) but elsewhere the sister’s studied approach to repetition serves the emotional heft of their music. “Go go go go get out, get out of my memory/No no no not tonight, I don’t have the energy,” finds the song’s spare breakdown getting real about the way some old flames never truly die out. Pop princesses like Miley and Taylor, alternatively lusted after and celibately worshipped, are little more than cardboard cutouts of the real women of Haim.
Haw didn’t make as much of an impression on me as last year’s Poor Moon. To be fair, I experienced the latter in Durham, NC, the hometown of the band’s mastermind, MC Taylor. Walking through the wooded streets around Duke University or the hills of my temporary suburban homestead, breathing the thick, hot air of summer, passing the feeble churches with their steeples pressed toward the swollen sky, I felt like I understood a little of what inspired MC Taylor to write those songs. The new album found me in rural Vermont in early spring, still walking. Haw is full of the same great songwriting and spiritual exploration that made Poor Moon so personal and revelatory. It also has increased production values, which occasionally limits the feeling of listening in on some private fireside sing-a-long. Yet, one can’t complain about the way the strings on “Sufferer (Love My Conqueror)” slide and bend exotically across a bed of shuffling drums, psychedelic flange and distinctly southern bass as Taylor’s thick vocals plead and proclaim with tender passion. The music of Hiss Golden Messenger is transportative in the best possible sense: it will take you where you’ve been and where you’d like to go all while exploring where you are.
I’m not a label guy, really. I’m into Stones Throw and Sacred Bones but not to the point of buying any of their releases without doing some research first. The closest I get to label envy is DFA, the dance-punk label spearheaded by Tim Goldsworthy, Jonathan Galkin and LCD Soundsystem brainchild, James Murphy. Having released disco hits from Hercules and Love Affair, Hot Chip, Yacht and The Rapture, the group that best represents the label’s current tastes is Holy Ghost! A synthpop duo that excels at hooks and remixes alike, their sophomore record, Dynamics, took a sharp left turn with “Dumb Disco Ideas,” an 8+ minute disco odyssey. With its dry repetitive bass line, vintage synths and touches of auxiliary percussion, “Dumb Disco Ideas” is classic DFA even as it forges new territory for Holy Ghost! The influence of LCD Soundsystem is evident in the studious, dynamic build and speak-singing invocation. Though it lacks Murphy’s wry insight, “Dumb Disco Ideas” has all the ambition of its predecessor with plenty of room for growth.
J. Cole may not be one of my favorite rappers but I would like to believe that the titular track from his most recent album is not on here exclusively because it reminds me of the gospel-informed early days of Kanye West. Cole is an undeniably talented rapper with a penchant for selling himself short. He makes no secret that this track, one of the strongest on the album, is derived from an oft-quoted Notorious B.I.G. lyric. Elsewhere his idol worship descends into masochism. Fittingly, “Born Sinner” is about the effects of a childhood and adolescence spent idolizing gangsters. Cole dodges “Takeover”-style diss tracks from potential antagonizers by being pretty truthful about his background as a mixed race, college educated, guilt-ridden womanizer. For all his flaws, when Cole gets raw it can be chill inducing, “Pops came late/I’m already stuck in my ways/duckin’ calls from my mother for days/sometimes she hate the way she raised me/but loves what she raised/can’t wait to hand her these house keys with nothin’ to say.” Cole’s strength lies in his sincerity. But like a freshman at a frat house, he seems to more often choose to cop a feel than compose himself.
The mystery surrounding the leak of Jai Paul’s self-titled debut has yet to be resolved. Somewhere in the world there are kids deep in the web still putting the pieces together and elsewhere journalists are composing wordy think pieces on identity in artistry and drawing comparisons to fellow enigmatic Brit, Burial. But all that falls away when you actually play the record. Though it contains previously released gems “BTSU” and “Jasmine,” the real attention getter is “Track 2,” which has been identified as “St8 Outta Mumbai.” The track opens with a snippet of dialog between two unidentified DJs that perfectly illustrates Jai’s position in the music world. “What’s his name?” one asks. “Jai Paul…one of the best in the game,” the other responds. “Best in the game,” the first parrots back out to a sea of presumably eager listeners. Who knows who this guy is? More importantly: who cares? The tracks lands with Jai’s signature blend of muffled vocals, chopped samples, and homemade guitar tones. It’s difficult to discern where the sample ends and the handcrafted musicianship begins. But if you can think about shit like that or “identity in artistry” while “Track 2” blasts its bouncy beats between your buds then you’ve missed the point altogether.
The bloated retirement album of the year, Magna Carta Holy Grail sought to redefine what it means to be an embarrassment of riches. 2013 successfully defined what a rough year for a hip hop mogul looks like: releasing your album to coincide with a jaw dropping, genre-obliterating release from your protégé, inking a deal with a luxury retailer who then gets accused of racial profiling, touring with Justin Timberlake, being married to a woman who has a better release strategy than you. Take it as you will. Even if the record was a wash, Jay still succeeds when he lets his hair down. Though “Somewhere in America” may bear the unfortunate burden of referencing Miley Cyrus’ twerking incident at the VMAs, it also contains Great Gatsby levels of swagger. Its infectious enough to let you forget, even for just a few minutes, that Jay Z just might be the senile grandpa of rap.
In a year of Big Deals, the return of JT was certainly one of the biggest. While Daft Punk may have doubled or tripled their fan base while Kanye swapped his devotees for a new crowd of increasingly sadistic youngsters, Justin Timberlake returned to the music world in his own special way. In two installments, spanning nearly two and a half hours, The 20/20 Experience is definitely an experience. Variously excellent, indulgent and boring, it’d be fair to say the album(s) didn’t live up to the expectations set by lead single “Suit & Tie.” While Justin wasn’t the only one channeling Marvin Gaye this summer, his soulful groove is brilliantly offset here by Timbaland’s woozy breakdowns (and a low energy verse from Jay Z). While, Futuresex/Lovesounds (2006) established that brevity wasn’t really JT’s thing, The 20/20 Experience as a whole could have learned some lessons from “Suit & Tie.” Clocking in at five and a half minutes, it’s the second shortest track on the album. Perhaps, Timberlake is attempting to combat our ever-shortening attention spans. Or maybe “Suit & Tie” was just the home run he needed to get back on his songwriting shit. Either way, one thing is certain: this track will be a staple of wedding receptions and high school proms for decades to come.
Sorry haters: Kanye West won 2013. And it’s not like he didn’t have competition. If this list is any evidence, it’s been a good year for big and small artists alike. But his impressive marketing strategy, nationwide art-spectacular tour and heart-stopping follow up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) proved once again that Kanye’s relentlessness knows absolutely no boundaries. Yeezus is practically unprecedented. Dirty, dark and dangerous, it’s closest analogous this year was The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual. I’ve documented my various experiences with Kanye West this year and there isn’t a lot left to say. In a career of unparalleled artistry, “Blood On The Leaves” might be the best thing West has ever done. A bold, spare reimagining of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” that infuriated and inspired in equal numbers, “divisive” doesn’t even begin to define “Blood on the Leaves.” Yet, more impressive than West’s audacity is the sincerity of the doomed romance that Kanye unravels as the song swoops from beat drops to the elasticity of Simone’s inimitable voice. Even moments that sound like typical self-bolstering reveal painful details. “Two thousand dollar bag with no cash in your purse,” suggests the painful position of anyone who has bought the impeccably packaged lie of consumerism. “Blood on the Leaves” isn’t the only track on Yeezus that draws controversial parallels between economic disparity and slavery but if West’s career illustrates anything it’s that controversy can be a virtue when executed properly. If the last decade is any indication, two years from now fools will be copping the Yeezus approach to dissemination and implementation. But Yeezy will undoubtedly be on to his next big thing, floating above them all.
It’s fitting that I was going to use this space to talk about Kate Boy’s absolutely phenomenal first single “Northern Lights” (note: it was released in 2012). Swedish duo The Knife didn’t invented the kind of dark electro that’s been impossible to miss in the last few years. Yet, their influence clearly extends to a lot of similarly sleek, dance-oriented groups like Kate Boy, 2013 standout Chvrches and gothic romantics Purity Ring. The Knife’s narrative is not unfamiliar to anyone paying attention this year though their emphasis on detail does set them uniquely apart: a reclusive group with (relatively) secret identities who disappeared for years before reemerging with a full-scale epic and plans to conquer the world with live performances that include something called “Absurdist Aerobics.” I mean that makes Daft Punk’s legendary LCD pyramid look pretty normal, don’t you think? While Shaking The Habitual may be the only direct competition for The 20/20 Experience in the category of “Full Length Albums Longer Than Woody Allen Films,” The Knife’s opus is more or less like an interpretive musical of Dante’s Inferno. Alternatingly terrifying an infectious, it makes Silent Shout look like chart bait (hoo ha ha). Though I shudder to think about the kind of Eyes Wide Shut party that would find “Full of Fire” blaring out of speakers to a crowd of kinky, masked sadists, I also kinda want to be there. That’s the thing about The Knife: they take you to the edge of your tastes and know you enjoy the view. You superfun sicko.