As promised, after the jump: numbers 7 through 1 on my list of favorite songs from this past year! (I promise they’re not all from the new Beyoncé album. Even though they probably should be.)
7. Kanye West – Bound 2 (from the album Yeezus)
A few tracks into Yeezus—in the same verse where he demands you hurry up with his damn croissants, for context—Kanye West utters the lyric “as soon as they like you / make them unlike you.” After My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which was more-or-less an entire album of self-reflection and apology for being Kanye West, Yeezus makes you unlike Kanye. It’s sonically aggressive, with hugely distorted industrial-sounding beats–“On Sight” is one of the most uncompromising instrumentals on a major-label album this year—and the lyrics are blunt and grotesque. Yet this all serves a larger purpose, allowing Kanye to address the age-old racist stereotype of the black man as aggressor and channel it towards a scathing critique of racism in modern America. (See also: “New Slaves.”)
And then the album ends with “Bound 2,” a song that’s a warm soul sample and little else. It’s in total juxtaposition with the rest of the album. It immediately hearkens back to the production from Kanye’s first few albums. But then you get to the chorus, and that sample drops away, leaving nothing but Charlie Wilson’s hook and this deep, ominous rumble of a bassline; it’s like you’re listening to an old Kanye song and halfway through, Yeezus comes crashing back in. It’s playing with his legacy in a really entertaining way.
6. Tegan and Sara – Closer (from the album Heartthrob)
Tegan and Sara were remarkably open about their intentions with their album Heartthrob. After fifteen-plus years together they wanted to try something new, something poppier. In an interview around the time of the album’s release, Sara said that after seven albums, she wanted “to have a song played on the radio.”
Heartthrob came out last January. Nine months later, on the highway outside UNT, my roommate and I heard “Closer” on one of the Dallas top-40 stations. We screamed. There was much celebratory flailing of limbs, and lots of singing along. Because frankly, as far as pop songs go, “Closer” is amazing. In trading in their guitars for huge 80s synths, the band didn’t give up their penchant for songwriting or their trademark vocal harmonies. They just channeled them into this hugely catchy, earnest pop song about being in love with someone (and possibly wanting to make out with them). A world in which they play “Closer” on the radio is a world I’m happy to live in.
5. Janelle Monáe – Q.U.E.E.N. (feat. Erykah Badu) (from the album The Electric Lady)
There’s no way I can do Janelle Monáe justice in a paragraph, so I’ll cut to the chase: she’s one of the most fascinating musicians working in pop music right now, and if you aren’t listening to her you should be. The lead single from The Electric Lady is an anthem for the “ostracized […] [and] not accepted by society” that’s this giant funky monolith of a song. The last forty seconds, where a string section shows up while Monáe issues a call to arms—“March to the streets ‘cuz I’m willing and I’m able / Categorize me, I defy every label”–is breathtaking, and probably my favorite forty seconds of any song from 2013.
4. Lorde – Ribs (from the album Pure Heroine)
In order to talk about this song, I’ve got to talk about another song for a second, the one that’s “on repeat” in Lorde’s first verse while she gets a drink spilled on her: “Lover’s Spit.” It’s by the Canadian band Broken Social Scene, a gorgeous, achingly slow ballad. The central lyric, the mantra the song builds towards and lingers upon, is about knowing that it’s “time that we grow old.”
That adds a whole new layer to “Ribs.” It’s not just a song about being terrified of getting old, it’s a song about being terrified of growing old whose narrator is listening to a song about getting old. I’m obsessed with this little detail, and not just because I remember listening to “Lover’s Spit” and getting chills back in high school. It’s so precise, so autobiographical, that it makes the song all the more visceral. (Lorde has even specified that she’s talking about the original Broken Social Scene version and not the later cover by Feist.) It’s those little details that make “Ribs” and the rest of Pure Heroine able to convey the confusing rush of emotions that comes with being a teenager. It’s my favorite song off of one of 2013’s strongest debut albums.
3. Daft Punk – Get Lucky (from the album Random Access Memories)
There was no way this wasn’t going to be on this list. You might have heard this song once or twice, back when it absolutely dominated the radio all summer. It hasn’t lost any of its power since it was first used on Saturday Night Live to tease the release of Random Access Memories, and despite how completely ubiquitous it was I never got sick of it. It doesn’t sound like anything else that was popular this past year, or maybe ever; Nile Rogers’ guitar riff is really 70s, it’s basically a fantastic disco song, and the vocoders in the bridge are classic Daft Punk, but none of that helps pigeonhole it into an era. “Get Lucky” exists in a world of its own. It always has been and always will be. It is all-knowing and all-seeing. It is eternal. It is up all night to get lucky.
It’s also a perfect pop song, in the sense that it feels like you’ve known it all your life, and singing along with Pharrell’s stupid falsetto in the chorus never gets old.
2. Anamanaguchi – Japan Air (from the album Endless Fantasy)
Near the end of an interview that discusses Bitcoin, the Hover-Round, the band’s wifi-password (“4dudes4u”), and group toilets, the members of Anamanguchi were asked about nerds becoming mainstream in pop culture. You can feel the tone of the interview shift from silly to impassioned. They talk about the victim complexes of the stereotypical nerd–“Jocks are just nerds about sports,” they reason–and declare that the message of their music is about “[getting] over this idea of personal sovereignty and ego” and “[channeling] the euphoria of the shared experiences we all grew up with because of the internet.” It’s the band’s entire ethos in one paragraph.
Endless Fantasy taps into that euphoria. Anamanaguchi’s shtick is that they’re a punk band that uses hacked synthesizers from the Nintendo Entertainment System and other old consoles. Their past work has been excellent, but the prospect of an 80-minute-long Anamanaguchi album sounds a little exhausting. Yet the band spends the album’s 22 tracks stretching its sound in new directions, doubling down on the sense of childhood nostalgia an NES sound chip can bring. It’s an album that incorporates both a rendition of minimalist composer Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie no. 1” and a song full of cheesy synthesized cat noises and makes both make perfect sense. It seems ridiculous (and it sort of is, one track’s name is literally just an emoticon of a dude giving a thumbs-up) but it’s incredibly sincere, vital music. “Japan Air” is my favorite song off the album. It builds gradually, taking over a minute before the abrupt appearance of a lead vocal about falling in love during winter, and then this huge wall of synths shows up and it gives me chills.
(Two more important bits of trivia: this is the most-played song from 2013 in my iTunes library, and while filming a music video for this album, Anamanaguchi strapped a piece of pizza to a weather balloon and launched it into space. They speak to me on a deep, personal level.)
1. Superchunk – Me and You and Jackie Mittoo (from the album I Hate Music)
There are two major moments of realization in the music video for this song. The first one comes about fifteen seconds in, after you wonder what the deal is with all the still photos of people overlaying the video clips—they’re people holding up their favorite albums. It becomes really entertaining to try to see what you can read about the people from the albums they’re holding up: the little girl holding up Ziggy Stardust, a Bowie album decades before her time, the woman who brought in a copy of The Muppet Movie soundtrack, the chubby kid with glasses grinning as he clutches Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, who might have just found the first album that’s truly his. There are hundreds of stories I’d like to hear.
The second moment comes at the end of the video, when you realize why the photos are suddenly way smaller and grouped into clusters—they’re people holding up the same album, or the same artist. The old bald guy and the 20-year-old hipster holding the same album, the big group of people with Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the members of Superchunk with their individual picks—including an album by, yes, Jackie Mittoo. (For the record, that’s the part where I started bawling the first time I watched it.)
So this is a song about music as a passion. (A geeky one, if you will.) It’s song about how music brings people together, and even though it may not be able to bring anyone back to this earth, it still gives us something to bond over and memories to share. Except, by the end of the song, it’s become a lament about how music can’t bring you back to this earth, the you in “Me and You and Jackie Mittoo.” It’s simultaneously an intense, personal recollection of someone departed and a statement about music’s universal power to make us feel and connect.
It also manages to do all this in two minutes.
That’s it for my top list of 2013! Check back in future posts as I take on the new releases of 2014 with reckless aplomb!