This year was the year I made peace with only listening to a song or two by an artist and abandoning the rest if, indeed, the rest didn’t move me. This despite my starting Evening with an Album, a project dedicated in part to appreciating an artistically or/and culturally significant album in its entirety – the argument being that we neglect a certain part of ourselves when we are merely consumers of singles. A finely wrought album is as much a work of art as a novel, a symphony, or a grand portrait.
Yet at the risk of hypocrisy, there is something unique about a single song and how it can transport someone both in time and space. A finely crafted song (and far be it for me to define what makes a song finely wrought – there is no formula), in all its layers of instrumentation, voice, theme, and nuance, is infinitely dimensional. That is, it fills the space and the time needed to be filled for the listener. Someone hearing “Sonsick” for example, might not be placed immediately in a clear warm evening in fall, but that’s where that song takes me. And the next time I hear it, regardless of the hour or the date, I will be brought back to that warm October evening, and the breeze will be blowing. A different listener will find a different dimension in the song, and this is as it should be.
These 26 songs are all songs that stayed on repeat for extended portions of the year, or that I came back to continually throughout the year. They come from both sides of the fence: there are plenty of songs here from this year’s favorite albums, but there are also plenty that I consumed singularly, found either on the radio or from a music blog or simply in the ether.
I suppose, this being my blog, I could have put as many songs as I wanted on this list, but that would have meant a list that went on and on (I might still be composing it), so the completely arbitrary number of 26 had to suffice. It’s an unclean break (why not 25?), and it does mean very qualified songs by the Wood Brothers and the Black Lillies (to name only two) and additional songs by Neko Case or Rhye or Blitzen Trapper didn’t make the cut. No disrespect intended, but other than the fact that I didn’t list more than one song by any artist (I really could have put every Rhye song on here, or half the tracks from Har Mar Superstar’s album), each of these songs deserves mention as I reflect on what was the year in music for me – a year when a varied collection of songs spoke to me at a time and in a place when and where I needed to listen.
That I allowed myself to find new dimensions in a single song this year speaks volumes about 2013 for me. Were these songs meant to help me escape? Or were they meant to help ground me? I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of presence, and I know just how cliched it is to say that I’m being present to the moment. Being present, though, is not a switch: it is not something I can tell myself to do or not do. Being present, to me, is much more transformative. So in answer to that question above: these songs were both to me – they helped me escape the grief I was in while they also grounded me to who I was at that moment, and to who I truly am – which is, I believe, a type of presence.
Plus, they’re just damned good songs.
(below the Spotify playlist is a description of each, in alphabetical order.)
“Angeline” by Bombadil (Metrics of Affection) : I like the seeming childish simplicity of this song, with its single-key piano in the background and the call and response of the chorus. Even the drum beat seems juvenile. The overall result is one of naivete, and there’s nothing wrong with that when the result is as endearing as this one.
“Buzzcut Season” by Lorde (Pure Heroin) : The hit (“Royals”) from Lorde’s debut album created quite a buzz, but “Buzzcut Season” is a better representation of the nuances of the entire album. While most Pop is thematically flat, either a party grinder or a pity party, Lorde’s songs fit in the more natural muddle of the human condition, where confusion, vacillation, and striving for some kind of answer or meaning are more common that pure joy or pure betrayal. “I live in a hologram with you,” is a line I wish I had in my back pocket when I was Lorde’s age, searching for my place in the world.
“Cheater’s Game” by Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison (Cheater’s Game) : I discovered Cheater’s Game way too late in the year, but the title track stuck in my craw once I heard it. A standard alt-country tune, complete with fiddle and lap steel – so what sets it apart from the rest? Just call it a feel: I think it’s the perfect country song. All those stereotypical aspects come together in a song fit for late-night loneliness. Which is the definition of country, isn’t it?
“Come on, Illinois” by Houndmouth (From the Hills Below the City) : Any number of the tunes from Houndmouth’s debut could have made it onto the list. A straight ahead roots-rock band, Houndmouth write catchy tunes and tightly knit harmonies. “Come On, Illinois” has all this in spades, even an a capella moment to show off those harmonies. A tight three and a half minute gem from an album full of them.
“Dark Knights” by Rapsody (She Got Game) : Of my many musical regrets of 2013, not spending enough time with Rapsody and the rest of the new hip-hop generation (like Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar) is at the top of that list. I grew up with hip-hop of the early 90s (A Tribe Called Quest, the Pharcyde, etc) and Rapsody seems to me like the direct descendant of that era. Her name dropping is impressive, wide and well-read: from Kevin Bacon to Idi Amin to Pope Benedict. Her rhymes are tight yet expansive – instead of simple rhyming couplets, she’s carrying an idea across verses and the song entire. It’s excellent songwriting.
“Don’t Be a Stranger” by Blitzen Trapper (VII) : To me, Blitzen Trapper have always been the heir apparent to the great roots rock bands of the 70s. “Don’t Be a Stranger” has that roots rock sensibility (can’t you picture guys in corduroy jackets and long wavy hair?) with a touch of keyboards hinting that it is, indeed, the 2nd decade of the 21st century and not, in fact, 1973.
“Fall Winter Spring Summer” by Carolyn Malachi (GOLD) : I don’t typically listen to this type of smooth R&B, but something about this song makes me want to sink into a worn leather chair with some kind of brown liquor on the rocks. And after this song plays, yes, I’ll probably put some Monk on the turntable and slowly finish that drink.
“Gallup, NM” by The Shouting Matches (Grownass Man) : The Shouting Matches are just one of Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon’s side projects and the haphazard, inconsistent Grownass Man proves just how inconsequential this project might be in Vernon’s future. But “Gallup, NM” (which numerous reviews have referred to as Wilco-esque) is a great song. And, really, how many people who didn’t know would have said that the guy singing is the same guy in Bon Iver?
“Get Lucky” by Daft Punk (Random Access Memories) : Enough has been written about this band and this song that there’s no need for me to muddy the waters any more. But, damn, I had a great time dancing to this song at a friend’s wedding last summer.
“Hollow” by Cloudeater (Purge) : I only know about Cloudeater and this song from NPRMusic’s Heavy Rotation blog. Again, this is not music I usually seek out on my own, but something about the cadence of the vocals drew me in when I first heard it. Apparently, Cloudeater have disbanded, so I’ll have to go back through the archive to discover more.
“Hunger” by Rhye (Woman) : Any number of Rhye songs could have made it on this list. Why this one? For one, it’s very indicative of Rhye’s sound, with the R&B rhythm section, Milosh’s vocal falsetto, the heavy bassline, and the brass and keyboard/synth punctuations. All these work together to create a sound that to me is aural sex. And that’s the second reason.
“Lady, You Shot Me” by Har Mar Superstar (Bye Bye 17) : If you tell me you expected such an amazing sound from this guy:
I would know you’re lying.
“Live Oak” by Jason Isbell (Southeastern) : Just a great song on a solid album by one of alt-country’s best songwriters. You could put this on repeat and hear a new nuance each time.
“Love Letter” by Clairy Browne and the Bangin’ Rackettes (Baby Caught the Bus) : This was the year I fell in love with a lot of white people showing their R&B chops. How stomp-in-your-face badass is this song!?
“Morning Song” by the Avett Brothers (Magpie and the Dandelion) : The Avett Brothers era might be coming to an end (as many of their songs are beginning to sound the same ), but they still can write songs that go to the heart of the human condition, as I explained here.
“My Hands” by Grey Reverend (A Hero’s Lie) : Another song I discovered through NPRMusic’s Heavy Rotation. When I first heard it, I thought I was back in college, first discovering Eliot Smith or Mark Eitzel.
“Night Still Comes” by Neko Case (The Worse Things Get…) : All of the songs on The Worse Things Get… could have ended up on this list, but “Night Still Comes” was the first that I put on repeat. There’s something about the way Neko’s instrumentation, rhythm, vocals, and lyrics form the ambiance of a song that is unparalleled in music these days. So to just write out the lyric “I’m gonna go where my urge leads no more, swallowed waist deep in the gore of the forest, a boreal feast let it finish me please” seems incomplete until you hear it in the context of the song and think, “Yes, Neko, exactly.”
“Sonsick” by San Fermin (San Fermin) : Wow. Wow. Wow. I’d like to invent a new music genre (even if genres themselves are a relic): Alternative Pop. And I’m a convert.
“Suit & Tie [featuring JAY Z]” by Justin Timberlake (the 20/20 Experience) : The worst part about this song is JAY Z, and it still made my list of favorite songs. That says something about how infectious Justin Timberlake’s music (hell, his whole personality) is.
“The World it Softly Lulls” by Haitus Kaiyote (Tawk Tomahawk) : I downloaded this song for free somewhere along the way in 2013 and it kept coming up when I’d hit shuffle. As I listen to it more intentionally right now, it reminds me of something I’d hear in some high-end boutique in a hipster town – which probably does some disservice to the song. It ended up in my collection and I never once thought of removing it.
“Turn it Around” by Lucius (Wildewoman) : Much about Lucius is a throwback, and I feel like I heard this band in 1983 – which isn’t a bad thing. If you recognize in this song the same voices from “Sonsick,” you’d be one smart cookie. Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe are Lucius’ two luscious voices, and they lent their talents to San Fermin. So I’ll say it again: I’m a convert to Alt-Pop. Lucius might be leading the charge.
“Unbelievers” by Vampire Weekend (Modern Vampires of the City) : I’ve spent way too much time trying to figure out why Vampire Weekend is a great band. I’m done trying to rationalize it; Vampire Weekend write really infectious songs. Just enjoy it.
“Was it You” by Joy Kills Sorrow (Wide Awake) : “Was it You” is an example of a song that led me to a band that I just couldn’t, no matter how I tried, fall for. I really like this song, a perfect embodiment of the new roots sound championed by Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers – neither of whom I can get into. All the songs just start to sound the same to me. So I’m keeping this one on the shelf as the archetype and discarding the rest.
“Wasted and Rollin’ ” by Amanda Shires (Down Fell the Doves) : Jason Isbell’s wife and fiddle player is an accomplished songwriter herself. I have to admit that I don’t love Shires’ voice (like, say, I do Neko Case’s); it has a bit of that stereotypical non-definition that plagues a lot of female vocalists in the alt-country scene. But I love what she does musically. I’ll drive roads with Amanda Shires’ songs any day.
“We Exist” by Arcade Fire (Reflektor) : Practically every song on this album feels like an opus, and I had a hard time choosing between “We Exist,” “Reflektor,” and “Awful Sound.” There’s just something about the songs on this album that sound simultaneously new and age-old. For example, the final third of “We Exist,” when the new guitar part comes in: I love songs that surprise me, and that coda to the song is a surprise while also feeling completely organic to the song. To me, that’s good songwriting, and it’s rare.
“Workin’ Woman Blues” by Valerie June (Pushin’ Against a Stone) : Was there any new voice more refreshing than Valerie June’s in 2013? Her whole album is a mash-up of folk, blues, old-time, roots rock, R&B – you name it. And it’s just a pleasure to listen to. Again, I love a surprise in a song, and “Workin’ Woman Blues,” the album’s opening track, has a Donald Byrd-style trumpet piece that’s fresh and clear and vibrant. I could listen to June’s voice and that trumpet all day.
You can read previous posts in the 2013 Year in Music here (an overview of the year) and here (my favorite moments). And check back in the coming days for the final post in this series – the albums of 2013.