Sunday 5 July 2015

The 50 Best Songs of 2013

From January 2014. I don’t know if the Youtube links are still active.

Almost all of the songs below can be found in the spotify playlist here:

50. Richard Thompson – Good Things Happen to Bad People
A snakepit of coiled muscle and bile. Quintessentially English blues which, for all its mid-tempo gentility, drips with the leering threat of violence. “You cried the day I walked you down the aisle/ and I know you've been bad from the way you smile”.

49. They Might Be Giants – Call You Mom
They Might Be Giants are always at their best when their witty pop turns sour and dank. This is 2013's best openly oedipal singalong.

48. Steve Mason – A Lot of Love
Shimmering miserablism in a Scottish accent. Steve Mason (formally of the Beta Band) reaches in vain for some sort of fragile conclusion, assisted by the pale ache of the piano.

47. King Creosote – Ankle Shackles
Plunging deep into the city, drowning in the rain and the cold. You remember you were looking for something. You're not quite sure what it was. Perhaps you'll remember when you find it. Somewhere in the distance, the sea rolls on.

46. Tom Waits – Shenandoah
Tom Waits (Tom Waits!) sings a Sea Shanty (a Sea Shanty!). No other reason for inclusion in this list is required. The sound of a drunken oak tree. Also: features Keith Richards.

45. Paul McCartney and Dave Grohl – Cut Me Some Slack
Things that actually happened: Paul McCartney fronted a Nirvana reunion for a charity concert. The resulting song is actually pretty good: proper, old-fashioned face-smashy rock music, with McCartney reminding us that he was always more capable of nastiness than you'd think.

44. Red Baraat – Halla Bol
New Orleans jazz/bhangra fusion. Thundering, joyous stuff which probably gets played at the parties where all the cool people are.

43. Hair Police – We Prepare
The entire point of Hair Police is fear. They don't really do rhythm or melody, just crawling, broken atmospheres – vague, unsettling transmissions that no machine should be able to produce.

42. The Crooked Fiddle Band – The Deepwater Drownings Part 2
[Not on Spotify]
The Crooked Fiddle Band have long been moving away from their trad-folk influences and embracing a stranger, more expansive sound. Virtuoso classically trained violin swoops gracefully and then holds court over a furious acoustic clatter. All this, and a hard rock nyckelharpa solo.

41. Derrick Hodge – Message of Hope
Liquid jazz bass, constantly threatening to disperse into empty chaos, always holding back.

40. Mother Falcon - Marigold
Gallumphing orchestral silliness with far more instruments anyone needs. The sort of pop song a swarm of Cocker Spaniels would make. I'm not sure how it manages to keep on the right side of ingratiating, but it definitely does.

39. Olafur Arnalds – Old Skin
From Iceland, the glimmer of a sparkling piano. If it ever begins to veer dangerously close to a cheesefest, the cracked falsetto conviction sells it.

38. Moon Hooch – Tubes
Two saxophones and a drumkit attempting to replicate the feel of contemporary dance music. Tight, guttural midnight grooves; much stranger than anything else on the usually partying album.

37. Atoms for Peace – Stuck together pieces
[Not on Spotify]
Thom Yorke is trying to hypnotise you, gently integrating a pulsating bassline and a gently morphing guitar until all of his deadly psychic messages are firmly lodged in your brain.

36. Tunng - So far from here
Tunng are at their best when their plainly told tweeness begins to spark and fracture. You are following the cracks where melody and arrangement break off and merge, glimpsing other half-glimpsed possibilities.

35. Sigur Ros – Kveikur
I'd essentially given up on Sigur Ros. Last year's Valtari was pretty much the definition of treading water, relying on their well-worn floaty atmospherics and refusing to grab anyone's attention. Which made Kveikur rather surprising, pushing their usual warm washes of sound into darker places filled with high winds and hammering. Behold the Jonsipocalypse.

34. Faustus – Blow the windy morning
Its been a disappointing year for trad folk. Last year we had magnificent albums from Lau, Sam Lee, Kan and Bellowhead. This year I haven't seen anything of the same quality. But thankfully, Faustus arrived with a good-natured English Summer.

33. The Hold Steady – The Bear and the Maiden Fair
I love The Hold Steady so damn much. Even when Craig Finn isn't waxing poetic about Catholicism or down-and-outs in the Twin Cities, and is, for instance, adapting a song from A Game of Thrones about a bear, the ramshackle crunch and swaggering vocal drawl are more than enough.

32. Bellowhead – Christmas Bells
Yes, I'm enough of a squealing Bellowhead fanboy to stick their novelty Christmas single on this list. But look, I'm currently writing this at 26 past midnight on what will very shortly become Christmas morning. From this temporal standpoint, I can comfortably state that there is nothing more festive than loathsome dragons.

31. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Arcade Fire's high watermark was the proggy excess of Neon Bible. Since then, I've found it difficult to understand the critical adulation, and if that gets me ostracised by the dangerously fashionable, then so be it. But if Reflektor the album's good ideas were smothered by mid-tempo sludge and disco fetishism, Reflektor the song is still great. A coldly endless corridor of rhythm, arranged with oppressive detail, obsessively reiterating the same ideas in the way that classical minimalism would do if classical minimalism was likely to unleash sudden Bowie cameos, it's a properly entertaining night journey.

30. Volcano Choir – Byegone
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver leads Volcano Choir, and at first its difficult to distinguish between the two projects. This is a much looser, more spacious band though, and this song's wind-up-and-aim-for-a-crescendo theatrics show cavernously earnest indie-rock at its best.

29. Hallelujah the Hills – Confessions of an ex-ghost
Trumpet hooks and badly-recorded vocals frying you with five thousand volts of major key positivism. Instant good time guaranteed.

28. Aidan O'Rourke – Hotline
O'Rourke (of Lau and Kan) is the most brilliantly experimental fiddler working today. Here, he is working with sound collage, jazz, folk, and contemporary classical influences to create a nervously angular instrumental, inspired by the phone line that carried messages between the White House and the Kremlin.

27. Villagers – The Waves
Starts as a bleepy electronic-acoustic lullaby. Then crescendos, hard.

26. Bonobo – Cirrus
Bonobo were once described to me as being “smooth, like milk”. Meditative loops of chiming bells, and a growing bass guitar, swelling through a twilit landscape.

25. Melt Yourself Down – We Are Enough
Along with Red Bharat and Moon Hooch, Melt Yourself Down have the third and best brass-riffed oddball party song on the list. This one boasts African and Jazz influences, squelchy synths and inexplicable shouting.

24. Nick Cave – Jubilee Street
Cave in full elder-statesman mode. Measured, cautious, almost infuriatingly patient, but by the time the strings are circling like buzzards you realise that he has enough experience to know when time is worth taking.

23. Cloud Cult – Complicated Creation
Two and a half minutes of intense positivism, rhythmically punched skullwards in a way that should be irritating but is actually properly invigorating. As soon as you look at their backstory (overcoming personal tragedy, 100% carbon neutral, painting artworks during their sets) Cloud Cult's wide-eyed irony-free directness starts to look less like hippy nonsense and more like something worth rooting for.

22. Public Service Broadcasting – Night Mail
Wins this years award for “best appearance of WH Auden in dance music”. Public Service Broadcasting's rhythmic, electronic post-rock is driven by samples from 1940s and 1950s public information films, rewriting the 1950s as a decade burning brightly with culture and technology.

21. Dessa – Fighting Fish
Hip-hop that exudes a comfortable authority and has a damn catchy chorus. Also, Greek philosophy.

20. Tim Hecker – Live Room
So called because it was recorded live in the room, with almost no electronic after-effects added in production, and because it doesn't sound like it. An unsettling wash of creaking, metallic atmospheres; the sound behind locked doors in forgotten childhood dreams.

19. Steven Wilson – Luminol
[not on spotify]
Old fashioned blood-pumping prog rock from Wilson, lately of Porcupine Tree. You can play the spot-the-influences game all day (Look, it's Yes! Crimson! Tull!), but while many of his contemporaries in the neo-prog game are content to be no more than pasticheurs (c.f. The Tangent, The Flower Kings), Wilson's releasing stuff that could easily stand up to anything released in 1972.

18. Vampire Weekend – Diane Young
So what the hell happened to Vampire Weekend? I liked their first two albums (if you're going to write chirpy pop music, you may as well rip off Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon), but the exuberant what-on-earth-is-this inventiveness of their 2013 album is kind of new. There's some sort of 50s rock and roll hidden in here somewhere, but it's been blasted into every direction at once, and we're ending up in a bounding technicolour wonderland.

17. Pharmakon – Crawling on Bruised Knees
In the distance, the bombs are falling, but it's 4am and I don't know if it will ever be morning. So I ride through the endless concrete tunnels, neon signals flashing through the walls, drunk on the smell of burnt tyres and burnt rubble. The nightmares are singing.

16. Darkside – Heart
Psychic wins the dubious honour of being the album I've most often fallen asleep to this year. It's a strange, slippery thing: easy to forget about while it's playing, hard to remember in detail after it has finished, but always leaving a ghostlike echo. Heart is its finest moment – a smoke wreathed, pale blue stretch of forest, with a hint of Pink Floyd lurking in its lazy, snakelike guitars.

15. Son Lux – Lost it to trying
There's more than a bit of a recent Sufjan Stevens influence in this boisterous mix of thump and flutter. Absurdly detailed production creating the best kind of exhausting sensory overload.

14. FKA Twigs – Water Me
Creepy, sensuous, off-kilter warbling; electronic music that's the precise opposite of robotic. Sounds like the end-of season montage on your favourite TV programme played through underwater speakers, or how most other music sounds when you're half asleep.

13. The Blind Boys of Alabama – Every Grain of Sand
Here, The Blind Boys of Alabama have guest vocals (and production) from Bon Iver's Justin Vernon (who seemed to appear on everyone's album this year). Vernon's immaculate indie-precision slowly gives way the ebb of the older, rougher sound of gospel at a shimmering crossroads.

12. Kanye West – I Am A God
Let's ignore the egomania and the croissants, and focus on how terrifyingly abrasive this thing is. West's voice is one of power, holding together a nightmare of steel and shrapnel. I don't know much about hyper-successful Radio 1 music, but if anyone else of that ilk is producing anything this ambitious and strange, please let me know.

11. Savages – She Will
If I wasn't so ignorant about post-punk, this probably wouldn't sound so original to me. But the muscular, hooky nastiness of this feels startlingly fresh. The relished unpleasantness of the lyrics, and the clang of spiked guitars lies halfway between bitterness and exultation.

10. Kacey Musgraves – Merry Go Round
“If you ain't got two kids by twenty-one/ you're probably going to die alone” isn't necessarily the most appealing of opening gambits, but the precisely observed small-town misery is made palatable by perfectly judged lyrical wit and a sweetness that flirts expertly with sentimentality. Poppy contemporary country of the most unfashionable kind, I had no idea I was capable of loving a song that sounds like this as much as I do.

9. Fuck Buttons – Sentients
History does not record Henry VII's reaction when he first faced the delegation from the Queendom of the Insect-Gods. It does not mention whether his armies, bedecked in their most imposing finery, flinched when they saw the retinue of the hive-queen: her countless hordes fluttering in mathematical unison, staring out with angular eyes beneath their grey exoskeletons. We do not know if their stomachs turned when they first caused sight of the diplomatic corps, vast, sluglike, and sweating endless grey ichor. But we do know the sound that the alien retinue made: a shuddering, churning military howl; dark, terrible, and very very loud.

8. The National – Don't Swallow the Cap
On Trouble Will Find Me, The National aren't doing anything we haven't heard them do before. But that's fine, because they're still dredging up lyrics from the subconscious' most private rooms and unleashing the best percussion in the business. This song is an intricately webbed anxiety dream where the vulnerabilities of a newborn baby and a first-time father shift and merge.

7. The Front Bottoms – Au Revoir – Adios
I mean, it's less than two minutes long, and it's basically just a joke, but it's also a breakup song, a character portrait, and a hymn to the power of rock music. I've probably listened to this more than any other song this year, which goes to show that just because a song is throwaway fluff, you don't necessarily have to throw it away.

6. Jon Hopkins – Immunity
The last page of David Copperfield is really weird. As the novel reaches its end, coincidences pile upon coincidences, the same characters keep showing up in new roles, and the narrative strains to fight against the forces of rampant unlikeliness. But at the close, when there is nowhere else left to go, reality literally melts, and the title character is suffused with the golden light of the woman who loves him. It doesn't make any sense at all – the realist novel collapsing under the weight of its own imagination, flowering into something much more abstract – a peace free of meaning. This sounds like that.

5. Matthew E. White – Big Love
Reeks of quality. A ramshackle carnival of gospel choirs, pianos, strings, horns, and a hell of a bassline; it never feels over-busy, never screams for attention. Instead, it's sunbleached, with all the restraint of the effortlessly cool – the maximalism transformed into a guarded precision.

4. Jason Isbell – Elephant
Normally, if my brother recommends some introspective alt-country from a man with an acoustic guitar, I will run away quickly. But this is incredible. A bleak, brutally honest death song, you'll come away from it much less happy than you went in, but this is some of the most exhilarating, crushing character writing you'll find in any medium.

3. Deafheaven – Dream House
The heavy metal scream never made sense to me as a signifier of power. It's too contrived, too obviously genre convention. As a signifier of anguish or pain, though, it's ideal. Deafheaven cross death metal with oversized post-rock of the Godspeed/Mogwai variety, and Dream House is loud, a furious aural assault, only relenting to redouble its efforts. The screaming of the lead singer sounds trapped, broken, lost between blizzard-swept mountains.

2. Phosphorescent – Song for Zula
Song for Zula is almost sickeningly perfect: the slow ache of broken desire, lit like gliding dust motes. It's so complete, so very clear, that it's difficult to find anything to say about it: in a single listen, everything is revealed.

1. Typhoon – Young Fathers
[Not on Spotify]

The perfect pop song, smashed up with hammers and reassembled one note at a time. A friend described it as sounding like a melody was being passed between an army of different bands who each got a few seconds to play with it, but that's unfair: each perfectly timed stop, each new spark of instrumentation, each sharply choreographed dynamic shift transforms the part into a whole, transforms the song into a world. If the lyrics seem bitter or obsessive, then the sheer bursting communality of the music denies them the final say. It's a kaleidoscope of different meanings and ideas; by the time we reach the finale, soaked in horns and choirs, an impossibility has been reached: a joyful melancholia.

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