Sunday, December 22, 2013

End Of The Year: 25 Songs From 2013 I Really Liked

When I look back at the year, I see it in songs: there were more great songs over the past twelve months than I can count, but this list covers most of the ones that have stuck with me. Some of these came straight from my albums of the year, while others snuck into my life via the radio or Internet (look at the amount of pop music on this list if you don't believe me); all of these songs, however, are wired into my DNA now.

Without further ado, here are 25 songs from 2013 I really liked. (In no particular order.) Thanks to everybody reading this silly little blog, and I hope you all find a song that captures your heart and mind here!

1. Typhoon - "Artificial Light"

"Artificial Light" is primarily concerned with mortality: it throws off allusions to human history, the inevitable approach of death and the ways in which time slips out of our hands. It hurls itself every which way as Kyle Morton sings about asking his father about whether there's life on Mars before looking into the mirror and seeing his own son, a hurricane of trumpets and thundering percussion rendering the past and present into one surreal whole. Yet there is also room for serenity, where the band navigates the eye of its own storm and the focus turns to the possibility of settling for the sun shining in your loved one's hair, where maybe if you take a good enough picture or write a good enough description you can cement this fleeting moment of happiness into something eternal--but right when the song has lulled you into peace it bursts back into flames. Is this meant to be triumph or is it tragedy? After dozens of plays, I can't make up my mind, but one thing's sure: no song (or band) left as indelible a mark on me this year.

2. SNSD - "I Got A Boy"

"I Got A Boy" is absolutely jam-packed with hooks (just try singing along to that ridiculous chorus and see how you feel), but the best thing about it is how many different sides to Korea's most powerful girl group it shows. There's Broadway belting, silky-smooth maneuvering on top of wubstep wobbles, piss-take rapping, and even a spoken-word interlude or two. Granted, the way the song plays into harmful and sexist stereotypes of women takes it into iffier territory, but taken as a ball of concentrated sonic energy it's scarily empowering.

3. Janelle Monae - "Q.U.E.E.N."

Katherine Thompson over at Radio Palava wrote a wonderful piece on this song, but I'll just add a couple of my own thoughts: subverting "freak" by spinning it into empowerment is a common move, but it's a joy to see it done with such a sense of confidence and solidarity. Monae has a gift of touching on heavy themes (religion, sexuality, and social exclusion) with playfulness, and she makes room for everybody to join in her escapades. Plus, her rap at the very end gives me shivers every single time.

4. IU - "The Red Shoes"

On "The Red Shoes, Korean pop star/songstress IU segues into a jazzier sound and delves into more mature themes without losing her strongest attributes as a singer and storyteller: the elements of fantasy tinging her work, her playfulness and resolve as a vocalist, and her ability to take feelings most of us have relegated to childhood and make them feel exciting and painful and real again.

5. Temi Dollface - "Pata Pata"

Brassy, playful, and delightfully subversive in just about every way. I won't be surprised when she breaks out come 2014. Credit to The Singles Jukebox for covering this.

6. The Boxer Rebellion - "Fragile"

Nothing on The Boxer Rebellion's latest sticks out to me quite like "Fragile," a straightforward song about optimism in the face of life's imperfection that has one of the most unexpected and powerful builds of any song this year.

7. Dorena - "Young Hearts Of Summer"

I'll have more to say on Dorena when I have my albums of the year list up later this week, but "Young Hearts Of Summer" does a fantastic job of showing the album's juxtaposition between soft, warm instrumentation and melodies and traditional post-rock dynamics, allowing for complex emotions. The song's atmosphere is as layered as its composition: heavy-hearted but happy all the same.

8. Little Mix - "Move"

"Move" is kind of fabulous. I have a lot of fun imagining it as a response to "Blurred Lines," because there's this ridiculous, super-corny male voice in the background that sounds exactly like Robin Thicke, but he can't get in a single word because the combined force of Perrie, Leigh-Anne, Jade and Jesy is too much for his sleazy ass to deal with. I like the nuanced perspective on female power here: the girls don't shy away from romance here, but they respect themselves too much to fall over you and you'll have to impress 'em before they give you the light of day.

Oh, and they can dance.

9. The Foreign Films - "Fall Of The Summer Heart"

"Fall Of The Summer Heart" is Inception in song form, eight movements unfolding over thirteen minutes and touches on everything from brooding orchestral folk to sunny guitar-pop. Both a compact history of pop and an epic in its own right, the masterful songwriting makes for a emotionally resonant journey through time and love.

10. Beyonce - "Pretty Hurts"

I like Beyonce, but her perfection (unflattering Super Bowl pictures aside) always kept me at arms' length: her fifth album, however, is full of personal revelations wrapped into dark, intricate tunes. "Pretty Hurts" hits harder than any song she's ever written, though. The idea of Beyonce, human goddess, speaking out against destructive beauty standards is silly on paper, but here she turns the message inward, focusing on her own self-doubt rather than sermonizing, and it feels like an examination of herself--and perhaps, at the same time, of a culture starving itself to death.

11. Farewell Fighter - "Bridges"

If the chorus of this song ("I'm ready to burn this bridge for a better way!") doesn't embody the feeling of being seventeen and pissed off, I don't know what does. What a song.

12. Katy Perry - "By The Grace Of God"

First, props to Will Adams, who wrote a really insightful reading of this song.

Personally, I wasn't a huge fan of Prism: I feel like Katy Perry's stuck between the songs her label wants her to perform and the songs she wants to perform. "By The Grace Of God," the last song on the album, is a ballad about refusing to let your problems consume you, and Perry fills the song's blank space with poignant details and her raw but resolute voice. It's a quiet moment on an album that, if anything, needed to be more quiet, and it stands out as the most honest, valuable song Perry has done to date.

13. Pentatonix - "Daft Punk"

I could honestly just flip in any song from Pentatonix this year, but right now this one's doing it for me.

14. OneRepublic - "Counting Stars"

There's always been a moral gravity to OneRepublic's music, but the band benefits from getting a little adventurous on "Counting Stars," which opens the excellent Native. Tedder's voice finds a home in the song's ragtag arrangements of guitars, strings, eerie synths and handclaps, while the hints of gospel peeking through here and there get the song's existential questions crackling.

15. Crayon Pop - "Bar Bar Bar"

The first time I heard (or rather, watched) "Bar Bar Bar," I, along with thirty of my classmates, fell out of my seat dying of laughter. The second time, I was on my own, and I grudgingly admitted to myself that the chorus was pretty darned catchy. Now I'm listening to "Bar Bar Bar" for the ninety-seventh time, I have memorized every part of the best K-Pop dance this side of "Gangnam Style," and I know the names of all five members of Crayon Pop. Bow down.

16. Lights & Motion - "Drift"

Lights & Motion's music is mostly various iterations of the same feeling, and it won't work for everybody, but "Drift" is the formula at its most potent. Hazy guitar chords set a deceptively quiet stage before mounting snare drums and strings all but take over; like a roller coaster the song builds and builds, only leaving brief room for a piano-led lull in the middle, before stopping for four beats--catch your breath--then whooshing down into an explosive finale. How fast can this thing go? I wonder. And what am I doing standing on the kitchen counter with a frying pan in my hand?

17. Nine Muses - "Wild"

"Wild" wasn't the best pop song of the year , but it was certainly one of the most compelling, taking a perfectly good ballad and pumping it full of industrial dubstep; Nine Muses ride the whiiiirrs and blips with gusto, filling the vocal sections with heartache and throwing off rap verses like ex-lovers. The balance between humanity and machinery, it has been found.

18. The Dear Hunter - "Bring You Down"

Simply irresistible. I marvel at how Casey Crescenzo's vocals can be so reserved yet so expressive; how he channels fiery abandon in the song's bridge before tapping back into a more vulnerable side. "Don't let me bring you down," he sings on the chorus, and the trumpets burst right in, as if they've been waiting for this revelation and can barely contain their excitement. This is not a farewell; this is a liberation. This is a triumph.

19. Two Door Cinema Club - "Changing of the Seasons"

I always appreciated Two Door Cinema Club, but I didn't quite connect emotionally with the band's sleek indie-rock until "Changing Of The Seasons." Sometimes just one moment is enough to tip the scales, and here it's a small shift in the chorus: just after Alex Trimble sings "And when you say you won't forget me, well I can tell you that's untrue / 'Cause every day since you've left me I've thought less and less of you," a razor-sharp guitar line kicks in, cutting through the chilled-out haziness of the beats and synths, and against all expectations I find my heart thawing.

20. Winter Dust - "Undertow"

Piano arpeggios swirl into your periphery before guitars crunch 'em to bits, ferocity and beauty in one devastating display.

21. Campfire OK - "When You Have Arrived"

A dark and compelling tale of a break-in that soon becomes something else: an exploration of jealousy, expectations, and the vital, dangerous desire to be something more. As an aside, in a year that was freaking amazing for trumpets, this song may have the best use of trumpets in 2013.

22. Thao and the Get Down Stay Down - "We The Common (for Valerie Bolden)"

We The Common is an album about community, and its title track, dedicated to a prisoner Thao Nguyen met while serving at a state prison, embodies many of its best qualities: Nguyen's compassion for her neighbors in the stories she chooses to tell, a bustling collection of instruments to bring them to life--and above all a sense of celebration in the struggles of the people we meet everyday.

23. Hellogoodbye - "Everything Is Debatable"

This wins me over right at the start of the chorus, when the guitar pitches in, the subdued beats explode into something more propulsive, and Forrest Kline rises into his higher register and hits me where the sun don't shine.

24. Maria Mena - "Fuck You"

Usually those two words are laced with malice: here, though, the titular curse is more about Mena than the person she's directing it to. She will not let hate keep her down; she will go on living. I spent 2013 fighting through a lot of my more destructive feelings, and this song was an anchor throughout that process.

25. Wa$$up - "Wa$$up"

According to iTunes, since August of this year this has been my seventh most-played song. I'm not even sure why. To wit, seven gals from Korea deliver every boast in their arsenal over an ugly mass of playground claps and squelchy synths. "EVERYBODY IS STARING AT MY DANCING AND MY BUTT," screeches leader Nada (whose presence, while grating, does not amount to nothing), and that's only in the first twenty seconds. Later, another member delivers a quick rap in which she makes clear the following things:

1. She can "be the answer" but there is no reason you should expect her to reply. She never mentions what the question was in the first place.

2. Her life is "first claaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaass."

3. Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton. There is no reason for her to mention these brands other than the fact that they are very expensive brands.

4. Her flow is "Louboutin swag," the latter word pronounced as if she is about to vomit.

5. She walks like a model.

6. Her name is V-I-C-T-O-R-I-A. Write it down.

Basically, this is ridiculous and amazing and I'm listening to it right now and why.

Thanks to everybody who has made my year at MuzikDizcovery so meaningful, and please check back later this week for my top 50 albums of the year!

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