Monday, January 13, 2014

On Warmer Music's 30 Favorite Songs Of 2013 (10-1)

And there they are, the final songs of the year. It's funny, when I first started doing my end of the year list, I was a bit underwhelmed by my choices. Yet as I've gone through writing this, re-listening to the music, I've realized just how strong these songs are. Perhaps my 2013 list is the least flashy or catchy one I've made but I suspect that the grit and heart in these songs will hold up surprisingly well. Oh well, You can be the judge, here, after a brief recap are my ten favorite songs of 2013: 30. Lake Michigan Wind - Jones Street Station
29. Nothing Is Gold - Bare Mutants
28. New You - My Bloody Valentine
27.  Wendy 'N Becky (feat. Chance The Rapper) - Joey Bada$$
26. Lookin - The Dismemberment Plan
25. Uptown Boys - Netherfriends
24. Come Walk With Me - M.I.A.
23. Dreaming Of Giants - Radar Eyes
22. Nightwater Girlfriend - Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin
21. White Girls (Student of the Blues) - Diarrhea Planet
 Joy To You Baby - Josh Ritter

19. Husbands - Savages
18. Coming Through (feat. Cat Power) - Willis Earl Beal
17. I Saw Her Face - The Men
16. Coast To Coast - Waxahatchee
15. Only A Clown - Caitlin Rose
14. Unbelievers - Vampire Weekend
13. Get Back In Love - Carrie Rodriguez
12. Banana Clipper (feat. Big Boi) - Run The Jewels
11. It Can't Be You - Basia Bulat

10. Oil Slick - Frightened Rabbit  Buy Pedestrian Verse
I love Frightened Rabbit albums but I can only seem to listen to them for about four to five months of the year. Scott Hutchinson's tales of loneliness, alienation and sadness, delivered in his deliciously chocolaty brogue are so effective at conjuring up the bleak feeling of a wintry Scottish moor that I'd no sooner throw one on in the middle of July than a couple of heavy wool sweaters. But "Oil Slick", the closing track on Pedestrian Verse managed to buck that trend. Whereas on previous album closers Hutchinson's found himself in the cold water, about to sink, here he finds himself in a boat, trying to plow through the black viscous sadness of his own words and strike out for something more hopeful. Aided by bouncy bass and deft guitarwork, "Oil Slick" manages to bring the Scot's music somewhere that sounds downright vernal.
9. Tell The Truth - Lady  Buy Lady
The first time I saw Lady, I was blindsided. They were opening for Lee Fields and borrowing his band and the combination of that sound with the singers' confidence was nearly overwhelming. Naturally, I flew to the merch table to grab their record after the show and had a similar experience the first time I set needle to vinyl and set "Tell The Truth" jumping through my speakers. The steady piano, soul-rattling bass and brassy horn hits bring everything back to a Soul Brothers session in the early sixties. But its Nicole Wray and Terri Walker who really bring things home with their powerful, punchy harmonies, equal parts anger and sadness. It's a track one, side one that perfectly sets the table for the album about to unfold.
8. Dance Apocalyptic - Janelle Monae  Buy The Electric Lady
Janelle Monae's music is wonderful because it tends to succeed on multiple levels. For example, the lead single from The Electric Lady has specific meaning within the context of the album and our exploration of Cindi Mayweather and her world. But at the same time, the song itself is so wonderfully simple on its own that it needs no explanation - it's about dancing through the end of the world, what's not to love? Built around a simple dance beat and jangly guitar riff, "Dance Apocalyptic" just takes over - as soon as the music starts, you can feel the tugging at your hips, with undertones of rock, funk and r&b playing delightfully well with each other. It all subtly reinforces the lyrical conceit - no matter who/what you are, we all need to dance.

Unless, of course, your chicken tastes like pork. That can be a problem.
7. Pusha Man (feat. Nate Fox & Lili K.) - Chance The Rapper  Download Acid Rap
Oh Chance, that loveable rapper. He seemed to be everywhere this summer, at least in Chicago (although maybe beyond). It's no surprise given how ridiculously addictive Acid Rap has proven to be. It was hard picking a favorite song from that mixtape but I ultimately landed on "Pusha Man" because it manages to encapsulate so many facets of what make the record great. It's got everything, the retro production, the cruisin' vibe, the catchy jokey chorus, followed by the introspective and socially-incisive commentary. It shows just how versatile Mr. Bennett is in one (well, really two) track(s). The second half, "Paranoia", tends to get most of the critical applause and understandably so. It sees Chance looking with a critical eye on himself, his home town, the national media, pretty much anything you can name as he tries to deal with growing up surrounded by the gun violence that plagues Chicago's south and west sides. But the "Pusha Man" first has just as much to recommend itself, with it's undeniably bouncy hooks and braggadocio that highlight the young MC's equally-impressive ear for melody. 
6. Elephant - Jason Isbell  Buy Southeastern
From my posting on PopMatters:
Some songs that are so powerful that they land like a sucker punch to the gut. Maybe it’s because the truths they carry can strike us with the same force. That’s certainly the case with Jason Isbell‘s “Elephant”. Written about a friendship between the singer and a cancer-stricken woman, the song’s unblinking honesty lends it considerable emotional heft. Over a musical bed of softly plucked guitar and plinking piano, the song’s narrator, Andy, chronicles his friend’s slow descent to the inevitable with heartbreaking observations about missing hair and “sharecropper eyes”. The two share joints and one-sided gallows humor as they circle around the inescapable truth alluded to in the song’s title. While Isbell pulls no punches, “Elephant” is saved from bleak hopelessness by its willingness to chronicle people who are unafraid to share in the raw humanity (other’s or their own) that life eventually reduces us to and we’d all rather avoid.
5. Black Skinhead - Kanye West  Buy Yeezus
The first time I saw "Black Skinhead" was late at night on my laptop. I had all the lights off and was catching up on music videos when I decided to check out Kanye's recently SNL performance. It was hard to know what to expect after the darkly maximalist masterpiece that was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy but after seeing the flashing doberman teeth, harsh beats and screaming it was obvious that Kanye had managed to somehow one-up even his own over-the-top work. Although it was a pretty stiff blow to see the song used in a series of cell phone commericals, "Black Skinhead" has been stuck in my head all year, along with "Bound 2", which it was neck-and-neck with for this list. Ultimately though, while "Bound 2" shows that Yeezy still has the old touch, "Black Skinhead" a more accurate representation of where he was in 2013 and what it felt like grappling with the beast that is Yeezus 
4. Night Still Comes - Neko Case  Buy The Worse Things Get The Harder I Fight The Harder I Fight The More I Love You
Neko Case's longwinded but wonderful new album was another record that strained to be contained to just one song on this list. But ultimately, after giving long listens to both "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu" and "Man", I had to go with "Night Still Comes". The song reflects, in equal parts Case's romantic side as well as her utterly anti-romantic side and shows how they can fit so well together. Sung as swaying, soulful lament, "Night Still Comes" addresses, presumably a lover who Case both wants desperately to be the one but also knows unequivocally isn't. It's Case's oeuvre in a nutshell, sweet, loving but just a bit personally removed. The lilting chorus, "you never held it at the right angle" strikes me with just the right amount of poetry, hinting at a mismatch, not in anything effable, but in those subtle, indescribable factors that end up deciding so much of our lives.
3. Rose Of Summer - Robbie Fulks  Buy Gone Away Backward
OK, this might not even be the "best" song on Gone Away Backward, but I choose it because it's the one that hit me the hardest. Tucked at the end of an album full of songs that sound like they've been sung happily for decades, no tune more than "Sweet Rose Of Summer" has that air of timelessness. Perhaps it's the storyline, a classic tale of a man in love with a woman he's unable to marry until her returns from war to find her wed to another. Perhaps it's the wonderful harmonizing that sends tingles down your spine on every chorus. Perhaps it's the tragically old-fashioned morality of the whole thing, wherein each character denies their hearts for the sake of propriety/family/community in a way that we just don't see anymore. Whatever it is though, this song slays me every time I hear it, leaving me often (in my more vulnerable moments) with a tear in my eye for this fictional bridegroom and his lost Rose.
2. Me & You & Jackie Mittoo - Superchunk  Buy I Hate Music
If there was one thing that 2013 lacked, it was the kind of crackling, anthemic punk that makes up so much of my listening, except, of course for Superchunk. I Hate Music is an album as full of wisdom as it is of "whoah-oh" choruses, which is something you don't see often but I've sung its praises elsewhere. So I'll just say that this was a year when I needed a flag-waving guitar jam to ease my jangled nerves and "Me & You & Jackie Mittoo" fit the bill admirably. It comes in the middle of an album about a recently-deceased friend, which lends it an extra layer of poignancy but it has the kind of universally-nostalgic lyrics to touch most any music listener's heart. Mac McCaughan's lyrics about sitting in a van listening to the Skatalites manage to evoke the bonds of music, friendship and memory that help give our lives meaning. Played out over the classic Superchunk guitar-build-into-chorus, the effect can be almost paralyzing, sending me back into various moments in time when specific songs and people meant more to me than I can articulate, even at such a remove.
1. Wise Man - Frank Ocean  Buy Channel Orange
Recently Googling has revelead to me that this song actually leaked in late December 2013. It's also true that this song wasn't actually "released", as such. But there's something about "Wise Man" that has kept in steady rotation all year for me in a way no other song has. Originally submitted for the Django Unchained soundtrack, it's a credit to Quentin Tarantino that he recognized the song had no place in his blood-spackled revenge fantasy and has been given to us on its own merits. Singing over a haunting background of feedback and tremeloed guitar, Ocean bemoans man's inherent failings. Looking back at a history of war, slavery, conflict, the singer concludes that there is no good, no evil, no wisdom, no nothing - just humanity. The idea here being that everything we think of morality, justification, the narratives that give the past shape to us are just spin, PR, ex post facto reasoning. It's Ocean's trembling, delivery that sells the song, imparts it with it's resonating sorrow. It's the kind of song that should hang over every deserted battlefield or play at the end of every tragedy. A dust thou art and dust returneth song that defies you to prove it wrong. Or else asks you to join it in a wake.

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