Graphic by Leslie Leung
We’ve reached the end of the year and all is wrapping up. I have four lists that will be on here until the end of the year: The year’s best songs, best albums, best acting performances and best movies (in that order). They will appear every Saturday until the 28th.
Movies are still fighting until the bitter end as we have noteworthy contenders still appearing until as late as christmas day. It’d be unfair to conclude a list of the year’s best films already. As for music, we’ve had the radio, music sites, youtube, and even the albums themselves pummeling our ears throughout the entire year. The music worth checking out seems to have come to a close this year, so let us check out what I feel was the best of the best. Before we take on full albums next week, let’s get a start with individual songs.
Here are the singles and non singles that impressed me the most in 2013:
25. Cut Copy-In Memory Capsule
If any band is one to be known for writing incredible hooks, it should be Cut Copy. Perhaps Free Your Mind is their weakest album to date, and the ironically named album seemed to be their most reserved. It still contains one of their most catchy songs to date. In Memory Capsule is the song off Free Your Mind that is most like the band when they were at their best (In Ghost Colours). The song name doesn’t seem so far fetched now, right? This is Cut Copy’s peak being revisited. The luminescent synths are as dazzling as always. The funky bass struts with a swagger. The vocals are more energetic than most dream pop inspired voices. In Memory Capsule is a fuzzy and warm song with a signature Cut Copy climax that will beg to be replayed on the way home from the night club when you are in a similar euphoric daze.
24. Nine Inch Nails-Various Methods of Escape
Various Methods of Escape start off with a bass line that oddly enough reminds me more of Sly and the Family Stone more than it does the typical kind of fare you’d get from Trent Reznor. His voice sneaks in, and it’s the same as always. The song still doesn’t feel too much like Nine Inch Nails despite being interesting. Is this really a song that should bear the same name of his project that churned out March of the Pigs, Head Like a Hole and The Day The World Went Away? Once the beastly guitar riff kicks in, absolutely. Trent Reznor sings that he has to “get away”, but his past will never be forgotten (hence why Nine Inch Nails is back). He then whispers that he should “lose myself in here” when the calm signature Nine Inch Nails xylophone sounds (that can best be heard on The Fragile) sit in place. The song ends with a roar, as Reznor accepts his fate. The result? A song that starts off differently than it ends, and, easily, the best song Nine Inch Nails have created in over a decade.
23. Tyler, the Creator ft Frank Ocean-Awkward
We’re all used to Tyler, the Creator being an asshole, especially with his barrage of insults on Twitter. This makes his more down to earth songs all the more enjoyable. Awkward is a song about the first time experiences we experience when we are first physically embracing someone we have had a crush on. If someone with an ego as big as Tyler admits that he feels he doesn’t “stand [a] chance”, then this battle is a universal one. These nerves had to be approached head on by Tyler; No beating around the bush here. The beat mimics one a heart would make especially when it is racing as it skips, does triplets and even takes over his lyrics as he pauses. This song features some of Tyler’s best production work yet, and its humanistic lyrics contain some weird thought processes (but very much like the same kinds of thoughts we’d think of when we’re on the spot in this position).
22. Danny Brown-Red 2 Go
Danny Brown’s finally becoming a household name. About time. His third album Old does reflect on where he is now as a person and his newly found fame, but Danny Brown wouldn’t be who he is if he didn’t take a step back to his days of youth as he does quite often. If anybody can toot his own horn and make it worth your while to hear, it’s Brown. Red 2 Go is like many perverted and egotistical Danny Brown songs with the usual hilarious hooks and waterfall flow (“Party startin’ monster with the hair like Blanka”, “This Blonde made the dick do the spray outta Contra”). What sets it apart is the full throttle beat that perfectly matches the speed that Danny Brown is going, which matches the persistence of the lyrics. The nice contrast between Brown’s high pitched voice and the subdued melodies is very hard to ignore; If anything, it makes his punches hit harder. If any song will make you feel pumped this year, it’s Red 2 Go: A song so eager that it shortened being ready to go.
Trap is slowly coming, or going (depending on who you are), but it is unquestionably a fad. That doesn’t mean that it cannot have quality musicians with longevity. TNGHT’s critically acclaimed EP of last year experimented with what trap music could get away, with samples of everything from babies to cartoony water droplets. We couldn’t wait for a full length debut from this inspirational duo. Well, we are still waiting. Luckily, we’ve been given a new song this year, and it is by far their best. While their first EP picked sounds here and there and saw how they worked within trap music, their single Acrylics proves that TNGHT know damn well how trap works inside and out, and that their first experiments were not flukes. The song shifts through a number of melodies and exudes a much fuller wall of sound with life threatening bass. The song starts and revisits a music box lullaby with what sounds like yet another baby sample before it becomes a night time patrol on the city streets. Could it be a statement on growing up? It could be very easy to look too deeply into this song. We may as well enjoy this stand alone trap staple while the night, and TNGHT’s career, is/are still young.
20. Deerhunter-The Missing
Deerhunter have set a large name for themselves within the indie community with a very consistent discography. Monomania is yet another album worth checking out of theirs. The standout track is The Missing, written and led by member Lockett Pundt (also known as Lotus Plaza, his side project). Lead singer/song writer Bradford Cox tends to experiment far more than Pundt, so you can expect his contributions to take Deerhunter on unexpected journeys on each album (with spectacular results most of the time). You can always rely on Pundt to be the parachute to help you lad safely after the wild trip around the moon, and his anchored effort on Monomania ended up being the best thing about it. It’s to the point and very reminiscent of the kind of vocal styles and song writing ways that many would have back in the 60’s. Pundt has always gotten a chance in Deerhunter, but his capabilities have never felt more like those of the quiet kid in the back of the class hiding his own talents.
19. Haim-Days are Gone
Haim sound exactly like what they are: A band of three sisters sharing the same musical passion. As expansive as the production may be, the album still sounds like one made inside of their garage (in a good way of course). It is full of unity and tight cohesiveness. The pop melodies stand out from one another easily. The title track on their first album Days are Gone, as such, sounds exactly why the album was named after it in the first place. It can easily be their proudest achievement thus yet. This song that is both dance worthy and emotional is layered with such precision. There was clearly a simple song that was worked on over and over and over again. The hard work here pays off because the song is more than just lovely. It’s actually fairly sad, and the deeper contexts are the only parts of this song that aren’t very literal. The song being exactly what you make of it (aside from the histories of the sisters heard in the song’s pathos) only makes the song all the more inspiring, like we can do this if we try. We haven’t, and even if we tried, we may miss the undeniable musical and mutual bond here.
18. The National-Sea of Love
It is an incredible feat when a song sounds like it was not made inside of a studio (professional or makeshift), and The National’s latest triumph Sea of Love could easily be right in front of us right now as we drink our beers and watch the stage lights highlight their performance. There aren’t any artificial live sounds either. The song’s ferocity and pace just sound anything but manufactured. The drum is a possessed animal kept back on a leash (I have no idea how it was contained for the whole song), and the guitars may as well be as chaotic yet controlled (thank god for the patient strumming). Matt Beringer’s singing, too, feels reserved solely for forbidding a much larger performance from leaping out. Sea of Love hence feels like a ticking time bomb that is about to go off. It never does, so we made it out alive. The bottled emotions here make for a much bigger thrill than any sort of climax in this specific song could have delivered, and if anything the song is more alive because of it.
17. Lady Gaga-Dope
When Lady Gaga announced she was working on a song called Dope with hip hop magnate Rick Rubin, who would have expected a self hating piano ballad? The song was originally “I Wanna Be With U” which was a song for her fans. Somewhere along the line, past Lady Gaga’s usual theatrics and hyperboles, Dope was created. No one can put on a persona virtually every minute of their lives after all (hence why David Bowie created The Great White Duke to bring himself back to earth). Dope is as dark as any mainstream radio artist can get, as Lady Gaga sings about experiencing downfalls, failing, loneliness, self loathing and even the inevitability of death. With some lyrics with double meanings (been hurting low from being high for so long), Lady Gaga’s voice quivers as she reveals her struggle with drugs. The piano being slammed on as Lady Gaga writes in her diary is encroached on by a filthy synth sound as if her addiction is coming back. Dope may be a quick glimpse at the real Stefani Germanotta on an album full of mostly upbeat songs, but now that it’s out in the open, we can come back and remember that there is an every day afraid person here that is on the same level as us.
16. CHVRCHES-The Mother We Share
As I will get into a little bit later, synthpop seems to be coming back rapidly lately. A recent addition to this genre are Glaswegian darlings CHVRCHES (whose witch house-like name is much more threatening than their catchy music) who have a single that put most radio pop songs of 2013 to shame: The Mother We Share. The name can resemble a relation to radio pop through biological (or historical) roots but not through bonding. This same responsibility is found within the lyrics which write of one’s dependency on the narrator. The narrator both urges this companion to go on already (“We’ve come as far as we’re ever gonna get until you realize that you should go”) and grabs their arm so they cannot leave just yet (“Until the night falls, we’re the only ones left”). Either way, these two are separating whether they like it or not. All they will have to relate to one another after this all ends is their mother (whomever it may be, literal or metaphorical). We can all relate to this kind of relationship, so the infectious hooks and multifaceted lyrics mean that the mother here can represent humanity as a whole. We may live in different parts of the world and enjoy different things (even different kinds of music), but we can still be connected.
15. Death Grips-Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching)
Government Plates, the off-the-walls free album Death Grips surprised us with late into 2013, seems very threatening (as per usual Death Grips fashion). Then we arrive at the final song Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching). At first it feels like the song will be the sit down we get from our parents after they have seen the damaged caused at the secret house party. Suddenly the song explodes with a complete sense of rebellion. Then it slows down and we’re back to being given a lecture. Then it explodes again. It’s as if we are inside MC Ride’s mind as his cases of immaturity and maturity are fighting each other. He will yell “Fuck who’s watching” through out the song, and then his final words will be a reassuring “You’ll be alright”. When the song isn’t in your face, it’s slowly brooding like a pop song that has been slowed down 200 times. It’s violent at times and eerie the other times. The entirety of the song is breath taking. It is perhaps the closest we will get to seeing Death Grips approach severity face to face without seeing them give up on who they are.
I usually am not one for compilation albums. I don’t see much to marvel at when songs from different musicians (or albums if it’s a greatest hits album from one artist/band) who have different agendas are plastered together. For some reason, one exception I’ve held dear to for years is when a reggae compilation falls into my lap. The cascading melodies on top of the signature rhythms just seem to compliment one another no matter who made the song. Somehow, synthpop seems to have the same effect despite being much more melancholy. That being said, the second After Dark compilation from the Italians Do It Better label is absolutely magical. The highlight of the album, and one of the year, is from Chromatics (who topped my albums “best of” list last year for their album Kill For Love). The androgynous vocals are something Chromatic fans have experienced here and there before, but on a compilation, and to any new listener, they stand out as mesmerizing (as if they didn’t for us fans anyways). The reverb fades into the distance while the only instruments that remain in tact are those of the disco inspired rhythm section (as if they were the only moments captured by the titular camera). On a compilation album worth checking out and in a genre that’s sweeping the globe, Chromatics have struck gold yet again.
13. Disclosure ft AlunaGeorge-White Noise
Okay, I’ll admit it. I liked Disclosure’s debut album Settle. I didn’t love it like everyone else, though. Did I love moments from it? Absolutely. The prime example of a large highlight on this album is the single White Noise. The true song of the summer, White Noise is a bombastic house track that runs as fast as it can forwards whilst clinging onto a token from the early 00’s. The brothers in Disclosure are clearly lovers of childhood and nostalgia (if the album cover is any indication), and White Noise is a reminder that electronic music used to feel much differently. For some reason, I get the same feelings from White Noise that I had when I was a child and would hear Alice Deejay and DJ Sammy’s cover of Heaven on the radio. We have the calming siren upfront (here it’s the work of Aluna Francis from AlunaGeorge) and the unforgettable melody what won’t get out of your head for days. Oddly enough, I reflect on these songs, yet White Noise feels much more mature. It isn’t because of the improved production qualities (that really take you on a ride as the song progresses). It’s because it’s through the eyes of brothers that don’t want to be here now: They want to be here whenever you are here.
12. David Bowie-Where Are We Now?
David Bowie dropped an announcement on his birthday as a surprise to us all. He was releasing a new album, and to start things off we got a new song. So, what was it like? Was it the eccentric distortion of Aladdin Sane that damaged our ears? Did we get the upbeat dance party that Let’s Dance provided for us before? Did Ziggy Stardust come back? Nope. We got this very straight forward ballad that is somehow much more cryptic than we could ever imagine when we truly look deeper into it. Bowie lists a number of bizarrely named locations as he check points the ways that humans work psychologically. Doubt? Check. Isolation? Check. Fear? Check. Some say this song is about the recent shooting disasters we have seen on the news lately which would explain the fingers being crossed, a man being “lost in time”, and the repetition of “walking the dead”. If the song is not about that, it’s still pretty damn chilling. The first single from The Next Day, Bowie’s return after his heyday, is him wondering what the hell has happened since he left. But not all is miserable. During the triumphant ending, Bowie ends things off in a gorgeous way, proving that not all is evil when we have each other (and that he has his fans to continue his legacy): “As long as there’s me. As long as there’s you”.
11.Earl Sweatshirt ft RZA-Molasses
On Earl Sweatshirt’s first album since his days in a military institution in Samoa, he comes back hard as a gifted lyrical prodigy. Out of so many songs with the kind of wordplay that would shake up any linguist, it is tough to pick just one great song out of the bunch. In the end, the song that may have aged the best on Doris is the RZA helmed Molasses (which was produced by RZA and features three lines by him. Oh well. Sweatshirt’s show stopping lyrics make this easy to forgive). Here, Earl Sweatshirt raps about his position in rap not just standing wise but globally. He raps about distances, being a fugitive, dominating and his progress. In a clever line, Earl Sweatshirt covers his Warholian 15 minutes of fame, his progression from making it at the age of 15, and his refusal to stop at 15 bars within the verse. With molasses being a slow moving liquid, this appropriately named song covers Earl Sweatshirt’s progressing take over in the rap world with a haunting stop-start beat and a lingering dead pan flow.
10. Daft Punk ft Paul Williams-Touch
Phantom of the Paradise was a cult classic that featured the acclaimed song writer Paul Williams as a greedy and evil music producer. Almost forty years since that film, Paul Williams has achieved a legacy within both the film and the music industry. Daft Punk begin this collaboration with bizarre sounds that reflect on the sounds made in Phantom of the Paradise; Williams at his darkest. Williams’ character was trying to give the titular phantom a voice via a voice box, and Touch starts the same way until Williams begins to sing. The hurt in his voice– as if he had to recreate his own words to be able to speak them– is moving. His battle with alcohol addiction can be felt through both words and his reflecting tone of voice. The song is mostly Daft Punk in nature, as it is their interpretation of Williams after all, yet the song comes alive when Williams’ pub piano and gleeful arrangements kick in, proving that even the darkest song on an album can be uplifting and joyous. This personal reflection is a testament of humanity’s addiction to feeling alive, whether it be through substance abuse or through musical passion.
9. These New Puritans-Fragment Two
These New Puritans have delivered a solid success in 2013 with Field of Reeds. It is an exquisite tribute to post rock and baroque pop. Its weapon of choice is the powerful Fragment Two that slowly progresses from a simple piano song into a full blown art rock suite. There is a combination of being on top of one’s form and being a new inexperienced prodigy here. For instance, there will be mindless humming that sounds sloppy yet refined at the very same time. This song, that may as well be the child of Talk Talk’s masterpiece Laughing Stock, is a perfect rendition of how a song idea sparks in your mind and ends up being a finished product. It is a watercoloured picture of pianos, drums, brass, and passive vocals. The crashes on the cymbals disintegrate amongst the flourishes of instruments beside you. Everything here feels so ambitious, yet the core of it all is very stationary. It never goes too far and the original aura of the song is always there to unite all of the flittering sounds as those of one piece. On an album full of ideas and imagination, Fragment Two may only be a small piece of the larger picture, but it was clearly still a broken piece worth keeping separated.
8. The Flaming Lips-Be Free A Way
If any group would try and make a 60’s psychedelic sounding song as referential to its own era as possible whilst being a clear experiment with modern day production, it’d be The Flaming Lips. I don’t mean to say that they’re the only group that would take influence from that style and that era. They sure as hell froze a song of the like in time, though, with Be Free A Way. This song is a wavy experiment that takes what would have otherwise been a fully blown song of influence and turns it into a recording from outer space. Why is the song broken up so much? It is as if we are missing little bits of information, consistently, during the song. It makes Wayne Coyne sound even more lost and abandoned. Once the drum kicks in, it never saves the singer or the suffering music but instead just watches alongside. You can hear it is there to pull you back, but the song remains fleeting. Be Free A Way is an unreal tribute that is out of this world sonically yet is also easily relatable.
7. Kurt Vile-Girl Called Alex
This galloping dream pop song almost sounds like a trippy folk with a dark timbre. The sonic soaring here will carry you off the ground while the lyrics were from the kind of guy that would stand near the punch bowl during prom. We cannot blame Kurt Vile here; The guy’s opening up willingly in this song. Does this girl called Alex really exist? Maybe the song is called “Girl Called Alex” because her name actually isn’t Alex. If she doesn’t exist, she’s an amalgamation of all of the times Vile has been hurt in a relationship. Either way, this song is as if Vile began writing a pretty love song and it became a twisted and bitter song of loneliness. The melody is uplifting but the drums creep up on you. The vocals are soft but speak largely. The noises seep through the ceiling downwards like an old roof during a rainstorm. Essentially, Girl Called Alex is a wonderful dream pop song that is one iota away from sounding like a beautiful nightmare.
6. Arcade Fire-Afterlife
Reflektor is a bubbly and thrilling album that begins to slow down (only a little bit) during the second disc whilst keeping the heart beat of the album alive. It’s as if the world froze when a problem began and we feel that initial sensation of dread for a good fifteen minutes or so. Then comes Afterlife, the instantly percussive celebration of life. The vocal melody is angelic, the guitar riffs are reminiscent of a spaghetti western’s final moments, and the lyrics are of pensive optimism spoken through a pessimist. The narrator is never fully on board; He asks many questions to at least show some interest. He asks “Where do we go?” an awful lot. We never answer him. He is as lost now– alive– as we may be once we perish. His words never shut down the inspiring music that circle around the narrator like a swirling halo. The final song on Reflektor is Supersymmetry, but we know that’s the epilogue. The true ending of that album, and perhaps of 2013, is the memorable late comer Afterlife.
5. Kanye West-New Slaves
Yeezus is a practice in minimalism, and the single New Slaves is no different. Most of the song is made up of a single repetitive melody and a sea of bass reverb. The song is carried by West’s angry lyrics, where each line can either be taken seriously or can become a quotable lyric to share with your friends. In a weird reversal, it is the music that brings the rapper here down to earth and not the rapper that anchors the series of sounds. Kanye West is finally at peace once the ending comes along with a gorgeously distorted finale, one of gospel organs and an uplifting riff. We then have Frank Ocean leading us out with an angelic voice where most of his lyrics cannot be heard but all can be felt. With a radically different ending, New Slaves is as abstract as many other moments on Yeezus. What makes it stand out the most is the beautiful contrast between having radical views and going into the fight with a clearly gorgeous mindset. In the end, if we win or lose the fight, our efforts will reign triumphant, and there will always be something significant to find within the ugliest of natures.
Sunbather is already a masterful album in the metal scene, but it isn’t solely a singular experience. While the album is best heard in full, songs can be dissected from it and messages will still ring true. Case in point: Vertigo. Vertigo is an escalating 14 minute epic that digs deeper and deeper into the pit of human emotions for every step up it takes. When you think the song cannot get any more intense, it shifts another gear without warning. It is a flurrying nightmare that will never end, and in return, it ends up being a trip for us. The guitars whirl in shoegaze fashion, the vocals are pained and embark on the emotions catered by black metal, and the drums pulsate enough to both keep everything in line yet make the heat wave more damaging at the same time. Vertigo perfectly captures the feelings of a dizzy spell one may feel while under the sun. It is a constant battle between hope and despair. It is a rare moment where musicians try to combine heavy and soft where the effort works, and we have a song that is both one of the most intense and one of the most gorgeous songs of the year
3. Vampire Weekend-Hannah Hunt
A gardner told the narrator that “some plants move”, and, contrary to his disbelief, he and his partner Hannah Hunt experience “crawling vines and weeping willows”. That alone depicts the kind of magic someone experiences when their mind is on another planet with a loved one. The song floats between being romantic and being sorrowful, so it’s never quite sure if it is a song about making up or about breaking up. Either way, it is a modern rendition of a song Paul Simon could have easily penned that creeps by with a heart beat rhythm for the most part. That is until the song explodes with wailing sounds and a piano melody that, much like the song itself, tiptoes between being happy and being depressing. The kicker here is that the song ends as if that climax never happened; This fight may as well not have existed. Yet we heard it, loud and clear. The song could end on a calm note for all I care, but it reminded me that every relationship, intact or shattered, will have these kinds of moments, regardless of whether or not I am a disbeliever like the narrator.
2. Yeah Yeah Yeahs-Sacrilege
Mosquito may have been just okay, but to be fair, it wasn’t like any of the other songs on this album could have topped Yeah Yeah Yeahs’s catchy new single Sacrilege. Hell, most of the other songs of the year by other artists couldn’t even catch up. It’s an interesting song that starts off as a pumped up anthem but shows a hint at something else after its first chorus. Suddenly, the song starts feeling more substance filled and different in nature; It’s something more powerful than a simple chant to get us to sing along. Lo and behold, a choir joins in, completely turning this former arena song into an epic rock song that brings the gospel inspired moments of songs by The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd back to life. The song, of which questions whether or not it is worse to make love to a religious being or to pass up on said opportunity, is a great representation of how small thoughts in our head eat away at us and become poisonous (yet also glorious at the same time once we come to a realization of how we really feel).
1. My Bloody Valentine-wonder 2
Wrapping up an album that just got weirder and weirder, My Bloody Valentine plants wonder 2 at the end of their exceptional comeback album m b v. wonder 2, with a name more fitting for a spacecraft than a song (usually), is unlike any song not just this year, but perhaps ever. While rock and drum & bass have been combined before, it is rare to find a song like wonder 2 that sounds solely like its own entity. The entire album leads up to this song as the most fitting climax because there is simply no way something this unusual could be matched. It is highly recommended that this song is first heard along with the entire album to get the full effect of this song.
The drums, which are the most chaotic instrument here, are shoved into the back of the mix, which will propel you through so many layers of guitars and noise (including what sounds like a jet taking off and waving guitars that sound like a tesla coil on the verge of breaking). Kevin Shields plays a bizarre guitar solo that barely even sounds like a guitar solo by using an EBow (an electronic tool that electromagnetically produces notes on the guitar) that shimmer through the buzzing noise like a lighthouse’s beacon. The combination of the polyrhythmic instruments creates both an upbeat jazzy environment and a Beach Boys melody stuck inside of a black hole.
Wonder 2, as proclaimed by many before, is a one time experience you can never relive. The experience you had the first time you hear it will stay with you. You can always relive the moment like looking back at a video of a trip, but the initial revelation of such a track will not come back. This makes the following listens bitter sweet. Like many songs on m b v, wonder 2 will start to become a song of longing whereas it was initially a song of astonishment. This captivation with the first listening session will unravel an emotional connection with the song from round 2 and so forth. Perhaps it’s called wonder 2 because wonder 1 can never be relived again. This soul searching push and the aesthetic pull, are a one of a kind experience when combined that could not be matched, which is why it is the best song of 2013.