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|Digging Out the Gold: Two 2013 LPs with a Bonus CD|
|Music - Feature Stories|
|Written by Jeff Ignatius|
|Thursday, 26 December 2013 05:17|
I’m no vinyl purist, but for this year’s selection of my favorite songs, I decided to limit myself to the length of an LP and sequence it for two sides. The primary benefit of brevity is that it can be more easily digested, as a side can be consumed in 25-ish minutes.
But this approach resulted in a “main” album of only 10 songs – which is admittedly meager for a year when I had 11 albums with at least three songs I loved.
To correct for that, I’m also offering a second album collecting 15 songs that are, generally speaking, more pop-oriented – which isn’t to say they’re not just as weird in their ways as the first 10 songs. That’s also LP length, and also offered on two sides.
Finally, to highlight some additional favorites that didn’t make those two slabs of vinyl, I’m giving you a CD-length collection of 20 more songs. You’re welcome.
The master list of favorites from which I worked was 76 songs – 26 of which were ineligible for my main album because the artists were featured in one of the previous seven year-end lists. I further limit myself to one song per artist on the main album. These rules are arbitrary, but they’re designed to keep things fresh each year.
Without further ado, here’s my favorite music of 2013 in 45 songs – two vinyl records and a bonus CD. You can listen to many of these songs by visiting this article at RCReader.com/y/2013music.
The 2013 Album
Willy Mason, “I Got Gold.” I won’t claim that this is the best song on Willy Mason’s Carry on, but it’s perfect in its way – celebrating inherent potential rather than dwelling on misfortune. From the lightly chugging drum machine to the cheesy keyboard solo, it’s at core an unsophisticated ditty. But that’s in keeping with its lyrical conceit, as the narrator can’t be bothered with the complications of everyday life: “Bill collectors ring my phone. / They keep me on the run. / But they don’t know the ways I’ve got / The ways of having fun.” Everything here is carefree and casually cheery, until the chorus introduces an unalloyed confidence in both the singing and the words, with a charming little vocal hiccup in the stressed central word: “I’ve got go-o-o-o-old underneath the ground.” Mason has mined it here.
Caroline Rose, “America Religious.” You’d be right to be leery of this song. The title (correctly) hints at a polemic, the acoustic guitar that begins it seems to be searching for a tune, Rose’s singing is admittedly a folksy acquired taste (my wife compares it to a South Park character), and those vocals seem a good match for the songwriter’s perhaps-overly-literate lyrics. But the Americana gallops amiably through her torrent of words, leading into a gem of a chorus: “It’s a wonder I got two legs to stand on. / I drink myself blind uncurtailed by moderation.” There’s the strangely gorgeous unconventional phrasing – “uncurtailed” is broken mid-word – a great vocal melody, a soft bed of backing vocals, guitar, and fiddle, and loads of soul, full of feeling but not any sort of judgment or prescribed interpretation.
Cults, “We’ve Got It.” So many different elements, references, and styles are at work in this song that it’s amazing it never feels the least bit disjointed. It is in many ways a sunny mishmash: old-school-girl-group vocals with the directness, sweetness, and innocence of a teenage girl, detailed retro guitar-and-organ rock, and a soaring chorus. But a jagged blast of guitar is the biggest clue to dig into the sugar, as Madeline Follin’s endlessly pleasant singing masks lyrics that vaguely threaten a loved one with permanent isolation, like a parent disowning a child: “We’re not here waiting up for you. / Just you remember that. / We’re not here praying just for you. / There’s no more tears to cry for you.” But terms of endearment turn the song subtly devastating, as the choice of separation leaves both the narrator and the subject wholly alone: “There’s no one else for me but you. / There’s only you, my love.”
Kurt Vile, “Girl Called Alex.” The odd thing about the plentiful, wispy mood of “Girl Called Alex” is that it’s built from steel and concrete. Every sound on “Girl Called Alex” can be traced to a core rock instrument played and added to the mix conventionally. Yet Vile’s song remains ethereal and hard to pin down. That’s largely a function of the dreamy reverb treatment of the guitar and vocals, the thick keyboards, the serial fragmentation and progression of the song, a light quavering in many of the instruments, and some shooting-star musical flourishes. But it’s also reflected in the lyrics – a potent blend of memory, obsession, and fantasy in which things feel much more solid than they actually are: “She and Mark they were happily wed. / Hey at least in my head. / I think about them all the time.”
Laura Stevenson, “Runner.” In truth, my love of “Runner” is entirely a result of the secondary chorus, repeated twice, that takes up about 40 seconds – roughly 20 percent of the song’s length. That’s not to say that I don’t like the rest of the song, but that chorus is so transcendent that I’m always impatient to get to it. In the verses, singer/songwriter Stevenson stretches her lines with a honeyed vibrato, and the initial chorus is sung with light melancholy – “This summer hurts.” We return to the verse, and after that comes the second chorus – partly effective because it’s a surprising twist on pop structure, but mostly great because tension and release are achieved simultaneously: Along with an explosion of guitar, the main vocal line gets all tangled up with the background vocals in a messy, joyous jumble.
Keaton Henson, “You.” Without knowing anything about Keaton Henson, you can see the title of this song and know that you’re in for something aspiring to poignance; the question is whether it hits that elusive mark or becomes insufferable. Let me assure you that Keaton Henson’s hushed, tremulous voice could make hardened souls weep at “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and “You” ain’t “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Here’s the first verse: “If you must wait, / Wait for them here in my arms as I shake. / If you must weep, / Do it right here in my bed as I sleep. / If you must mourn, my love, / Mourn with the moon and the stars up above. / If you must mourn, / Don’t do it alone.” Two more verses follow, so grab some damn tissues.
Müscle Wörship, “A Firebreather Carefully Sobs.” The title in which none of the major words seems to fit with the others is actually more appropriate than should be possible: Deliberate and dense, incendiary with threads of sorrow, “A Firebreather Carefully Sobs” is the meaty centerpiece of Müscle Wörship’s wholly excellent self-titled debut album. But I won’t lie: The show here is Sean Bergman’s guitar, with his near-constant use of tremolo and live loops – particularly the anchoring backwards guitar of this song – creating a rich, thick wall of sound that is at once idiosyncratic and familiar. The myriad influences – from Neil Young to Sonic Youth to My Bloody Valentine – are obvious, but Bergman’s instrument sings with a voice all its own. (Listen here.)
Vampire Weekend, “Hudson.” One of the many percussive elements here sounds like somebody repeatedly trying to generate a spark from a bum lighter. It lasts for less than 40 seconds – a lost cause, I guess – but it’s the perfect touch for this icy, martial, entirely bizarre effort in which light and warmth are hard to come by. The morose tone is established with its first words – “Hudson died in Hudson Bay. / The water took its victim’s name” – but I’m hard-pressed to feel anything but excitement at the sparsely expansive treatment. Ezra Koenig’s measured and cool but alluring vocals are paired with choir vocals (which are in turn matched with quiet woodwinds), while the bass lurks heavily below. Whatever it means, a bit of clever wordplay holds it together, defiantly alluding to betrayal: “All you who change your stripes can wrap me in the flag.”
William Tyler, “County of Illusion.” The lead track of guitarist William Tyler’s Impossible Truth is a lovely, layered illustration of the album’s title – mysterious, contradictory, bold, and a bit full of itself (but not without justification). At nearly nine minutes, the country-tinged instrumental is spacious and patient, lightly invoking a wide variety of feelings and images. Sparsely augmented (mostly by bass and pedal steel), Tyler’s guitar is sharp but never showy, meticulous but always grandly eloquent. The overall vibe is pastoral and warm, but it opens with a thread of foreboding that is carried through the piece and tugs at it, while yearning pulls it in other directions. (Listen here.)
Grant Hart, “Is the Sky the Limit?” It took me many years – and many Bob Mould solo albums – to realize that when it comes to Hüsker Dü, I’m much more a Grant Hart guy. Mould provided the fury, but Grant baited the hooks that captivate me to this day – “Green Eyes,” “Flexible Flyer,” “Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill,” “She Floated Away,” ... . Alas, Hart hasn’t been nearly as prolific as Mould in the meantime, but his adventurous concept album The Argument more than makes up for his intermittent output. “Is the Sky the Limit?” is little more than rich textures that build – slow harp strums eventually supplanted by (Mould-like) electric guitar at the forefront – framing and providing urgency to the title’s question. Those words are already inherently doubtful, and Hart’s voice seems torn between confidence and resignation. But when he appends two words (“for me”), the question is transformed from universal to personal – and to heartbreaking.
A 2013 Pop Album
It should be self-evident, but these are not necessarily songs that were popular, nor would some of them ever be played on over-the-air radio. But they’re sterling examples of the art of pop songcraft, and within their styles – from dreamy to aggressive – they go down easy but reward repeat listening. (My wholly arbitrary rules don’t apply here, incidentally.)
Bleached, “Searching Though the Past.” A chorus so good that’s pretty much all there is – with bonus points for a toy piano.
Caitlin Rose, “Menagerie.” Her impossibly sweet voice vows to “dance over broken glass and destroy all of these beautiful things.”
Queens of the Stone Age, “My God Is the Sun.” It’s no “Little Sister,” but as hard rock’s most consistently expressive guitarist, singer, and songwriter, Joshua Homme is his own god.
Franz Ferdinand, “Goodbye Lovers & Friends.” Throbbing and pulsing, it denounces pop music (and other throw-away pleasures) while embodying it.
Eisley, “Drink the Water.” Treated piano and strings set the table for otherworldly chamber pop, but the chorus brings it literally to the earth: “Drink the water from the mud.”
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, “Holy Roller.” A banjo filtered through the East, lots of shakers, and an undeniable rock groove.
Willy Mason, “Pickup Truck.” Still mining that gold.
The Cerny Brothers, “Ohio.” You’d be correct in thinking its nostalgia is a bit simple ... until the closing lyrical and vocal sucker punch. (Listen here.)
Kopecky Family Band, “Heartbeat.” Climaxing in some thrilling manipulated whistling that sounds like a theremin and rocks.
Neko Case, “Man.” As Case’s first real guitar-rock song (featuring M. Ward), it stands out on her wildly iconoclastic 2013 record for being so damned conventional – but for the profanity and the harpsichord.
Courtney Barnett, “History Eraser.” A flood (rather than stream) of consciousness – more spoken than sung – over a slinky barroom racket: “I stayed drunk and fell awake and I was cycling on a plane and far away I heard you say you liked me.”
Guards, “Home Free.” A potent burst of freedom shaded ambiguously by darkness.
Surfer Blood, “I Was Wrong.” Weezer would be proud.
Wavves, “Demon to Lean on.” Nirvana would be proud.
Laura Veirs, “That Alice.” Neil Young and Pearl Jam would be proud, but they’d also be jealous that Veirs can actually sing.
Presented in alphabetical order by artist.
Arctic Monkeys, “Do I Wanna Know?”
Richard Buckner, “Mood.”
The Cerny Brothers, “The Mountain Song.”
Deer Tick, “Thyme.”
Grant Hart, “The Argument” and “I Am Death.”
Kopecky Family Band, “Wandering Eyes.”
The Lonely Wild, “Banks & Ballrooms” and “The Sun as It Comes.”
Willy Mason, “Show Me the Way to Go Home.”
Müscle Wörship, “Eleanora” and “Psychonaut’s Prayer.”
The Pixies, “What Goes Boom.”
Queens of the Stone Age, “Fairweather Friends” and “I Appear Missing.”
Frankie Rose, “Heaven.”
The Strokes, “50/50.”
Laura Veirs, “Ten Bridges.”
Kurt Vile, “Pure Pain.”
Shannon Wright, “Surely, They’ll Tear It Down.”
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