By: Daniel Reynolds
Here’s the thing about a music list: you can’t win. With a top ten list of films (coming soon!) there is always going to be some – some – agreement. Maybe you have Captain Phillips in at #3 and I have it at #6, but we’re at least both talking about it. There are only so many movies that are widely seen, only so many movies that achieve a certain level of quality. But with music, things are different. With music, I could easily come up with a list (like the one we’ll get to in a second) that has no songs on it that you like, zero songs you even know. Forgive me if I sound like I’m condescending; with music there is just so much diversity in style and genre, in marketing and reach, in accessibility, that to try to quantify it seems hopeless. A list of favourite songs from 2013 just highlights a person’s taste, as narrow or broad as it may be.
These are the songs I listened to the most this past year; it’s my personal soundtrack of 2013. That’s all there is to it. And, well, you probably won’t like it.
Black Milk – Money Bags (Paradise)
It’s that crash at the beginning that does it. What the hell is that? A wildly modulated cymbal? A static burst? It sounds like a shopping cart being thrown down some stairs. This is the sound that marks the thunderous beat on Money Bags. Welcome to Black Milk’s America. As the final song on his newest record, No Poison No Paradise, Black Milk gives us the straight goods, narrates a way of life – the hustle – and essentially ironclads his beat making reputation.
Fuck Buttons – The Red Wing
Fuck Buttons are a hard act to explain (let alone name out loud). Consisting of Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power, Fuck Buttons are concerned with musical texture to the nth degree. Listening to The Red Wing, a sonic assault that grows bigger than seems possible, is proof of this. Get the volume up and listen to the roaring bass, the jagged electronics. This is the music of annihilation, of release. The pinging echo overlaid on top beckons in from a different plane. Yeah, turn this song up loud enough and I’m convinced you can see God.
Boards of Canada – Reach for the Dead / Come to Dust
With the Internet forever sapping our sense of mystery it is nice to know that a duo like Boards of Canada can still exist. I put both the second and second last track from their latest album, Tomorrow’s Harvest, up here because they work in tandem. The structure of both songs is similar; introduce a pattern, layer, layer, crescendo, outro. It sounds almost like a mathematical equation, a known. But there is nothing knowable about Boards of Canada or where their sound is being beamed in from. Listening to these two songs is like hearing from the past and the future at the same time. Somehow it is electronic and unnatural yet tonally warm. The titles of each track invoke some feeling of death, but listen to each song and tell me you are not enlivened.
Kanye West – New Slaves
To be fair, Yeezus really exists as a piece. The songs rip and run into each other, thematically linked by Kanye’s manic ego, fear, insecurity and grandiosity. But goddamn, New Slaves. Bass, operatics, sonics, passion, anger, rage. When the song finally breaks into Kanye wailing over that sample from Omega, a successful Hungarian band, you are completely wrung out. You are also asking: how the hell did they find and settle on using that sample? That’s Kanye.
Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Day
As an album opener, Wakin on a Pretty Day is a bold choice. Kurt Vile warms up by strolling through a nine and a half minute guitar opus. It is rare for this tactic to work. People usually need to be eased into nine minute songs. Better to put them as a bridge into side two, or as the dramatic closer. But Vile is all ease. No one in 2013 made rock music (I’ll stick with that descriptor) better than he did. One of the first couplets he sings, “Phone ringing off the shelf / I guess he wanted to kill himself”, tells you everything you need to know about Vile’s music, disposition and thoughts on modern life. Now enjoy the guitar solos.
Arcade Fire – Reflektor
I have to admit that I haven’t actually sat down and listened to the entire Arcade Fire album, Reflektor. I’m too scared. I’ve ingested too much negativity about it already. Yet the single, Reflektor, is right what I want it to be. Sure, sing some lyrics in French, get those drums going, toss in a little synth stylings, and here comes Win Butler belting it out like it’s the end of the world. Like the best of Arcade Fire, Reflektor is musically dense, lyrically heavy, emotionally overwrought (in the best possible way!) and provides only the most serious of catharsis.
A$AP Rocky – 1 Train feat. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Action Bronson, Big K.R.I.T.
Pure, uncut confidence. 1 Train works as both a centerpiece to Rocky’s victory lap of a debut album, Long Live A$AP, and as a statement on rap right now. Go ahead, listen to it and then try to pick your favourite verse. Is it Kendrick’s mean mugging two-word toss? Danny Brown’s rantings? Wait, wait, I know: Action Bronson’s odyssey into whatever fantasy version of NYC he lives in. Whichever one is your favourite (I’m a fan of K.R.I.T.’s supernaturally calm work on the exit), we can all agree that we’re in good hands.
Daft Punk – Lose Yourself to Dance feat. Pharell
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. To pick a favourite song from Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories that is not Get Lucky is insane. I hear you. I get it. I like Get Lucky; it’s fun. But then again, there is something about the desperation on Lose Yourself to Dance that is better. Daft Punk is still cranking out an amazingly dance-able beat, Pharell is doing his Pharell thing, but the robot voices urging you to ‘come on come on come on come on’ are almost pleading. Then Pharell amps it up, and it becomes real. You have to lose yourself to dance. Daft Punk isn’t giving you the choice.
James Blake – Retrograde
I first heard the standout track from James Blake’s latest album, Overgrown, on tinny speakers. Do not do this. The bass was barely coming through, but I was still blown away; the intent was there. Blake’s style is one of maximizing combinations of the minimal. His best songs – and Retrograde is clearly one of the best – are like an intersection of two planes that suddenly resolve into a concentrated beam of musical pleasure. Listening to this one again, with the (now) amped up descending bass line, the wailing synth sirens and – above all – Blake’s soulful croon calling out is revelatory.
Drake – Hold on, We’re Going Home feat. Majid Jordan
I’m not sure how it happened but I became a big Drake defender in 2013. Yeah, I know, I’m shocked too. What you’re listening to right here is the peak distilled essence of our Toronto ambassador to the world. It is emotion writ large, the kind of cheese you would enter into a competition, emotion that draws from some impossible well. Discussing this song on any rational basis feels kind of foolish (this sounds very complimentary, I know), but that’s completely besides the point. You’re just riding that beat, holding on.
Atoms for Peace – Amok
It’s clicks and whirs and a thrumming bass line and a rim shot that snaps. But those are just Amok’s component parts, its pieces. Like a well put together machine, Amok (and Atoms for Peace) gains a perfect bit of momentum once all those moving gears and cogs are put together. Yes, there is Thom Yorke singing about who knows what, Flea is on the bass, there is the ubiquitous Nigel Godrich. The song crescendos, your brain buzzes and then it ends. I have no idea what it means. No one really knows what Yorke really thinks about (ask the other members of Radiohead, you’ll see). But there he goes, wandering off into some musical oblivion, just about as stark and cold as you can imagine. Amok is that final glance into the abyss.
Run the Jewels – A Christmas Fucking Miracle
Man, am I glad that Jaime Meline and Michael Render met each other. We’re running long so I’ll keep this short: my favourite moment in music in 2013 comes here when Killer Mike really gets going on the last verse of this track. It’s enough to get you to leap off the couch and take to the streets. You’ve been having problems? You got issues? Mike’s got you. Then that final guitar scream comes in, the song flickers out and that’s it.
Happy New Year.