Friday, July 12, 2013

Top 20 Songs of 2013 (So Far) Part II

Back with the final batch of the top songs of 2013 (so far), counting down from 10-1. Like the first crop of songs, the ones you'll find below are all over the map from somber-dance tracks to posse-rap cuts and even a cover making an appearance.   before we press play on the countdown, a quick rewind is in order.

20. "Young & Beautiful"- Lana Del Rey (The Great Gatsby OST)
19. "Living Room"- Grouper (The Man Who Died in His Boat)
18. "Domo 23"- Tyler, the Creator (Wolf)
17. "Power Trip"- J. Cole (Born Sinner)
16. "Where Are We Now?"- David Bowie (The Next Day)
15. "Blood on the Leaves"- Kanye West (Yeezus)
14. "Perfect Form"- Cyril Hahn (Single)
13. "Good Ass Intro"- Chance the Rapper (Acid Rap)
12. "The King"- Tree (Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out)
11. "I Miss You"- the xx (Live Cover)

#10. "Whoa"- Earl Sweatshirt (Doris)

Rare is the moment that Tyler, the Creator's guttural yells offer any semblance of shelter, but Earl's all-out verbal onslaught on "Whoa" makes Tyler's protestations of "nah nah f**k" strangely comforting. To refer to Earl's rapping here as "spitting" is a gross disservice, implying some sort of general spray as opposed to the targeted barbs tossed off, "grab mittens who have to spit blizzardous, actually flick cigarette ash at b***h n***as." If Earl's spitting anything here, its poison dart's like some sort of rap assassin, "spraying then hide away in the shade of his maimed innocence." The B-grade synths that back Earl up only manage to make his calm demeanor on the track more menacing. He goes the whole track without raising his voice once and yet every turn feels like he could snap and start swinging at everything in his sight. He's raiding rubbish bins "at your local loony clinic," and tossing back bars like a "vodka fifth." File it away as another chapter in the "misadventures of a s**t-talker."

#9. "#Beautiful" ft. Miguel- Mariah Carey (The Art of Letting Go)

Excepting Frank Ocean, Miguel had the best year of any R&B singer in 2012. His bold, successful Kaleidoscope Dream was a dense, taut blend of classic R&B tropes and more modern indie trends. Few songs towed this line as well as "Adorn" an infectious bubbling number that's impossible not to crack a smile at. Every yelp and hiccup carries the message of Miguel's love as far as his words, and his sliding wordless vocals seal the deal. Mariah Carey's "#Beautiful" provides a similar lesson in restraint. A guitar riff straight out of the 60s Stax catalog sets the stage for a feathery Miguel. His voice here is as soft as the "kiss of moonlight on your skin." For Carey's part she still slips in a trademark vocal burst or two, though she's plays it cool for the most part. She's feeling giddy here and professes a feeling of invincibility. No nervousness or confusion here, just two people turning in an effortless performance. 

#8. "1Train" ft. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, & Big K.R.I.T.- A$AP Rocky (Long.Live.A$AP)

"Don't be scared n***a is you ready?" A$AP Rocky cryptically asks over the haunted strings and boom-bap drums of 1Train, already a serious contender for the all-time great posse-cuts list. How could you be ready? Rap features have always been about one-upsmanship and a competitive spirit, but everyone here though sounds absolutely possessed. Rocky's clinging to "bags made of Goyard, cheffin' like I'm Boyar-Dee," and taking us back to the days of riding the titular train. Kendrick continues his lyrical gymnastics here, riding up on a skateboard, and gunning down everyone in sight, while still finding time to eat them all like "cooked beef." Joey Bada$$ can be caught "barely even conscious, talking to my conscious," and meeting with Jigga. For his part, Alabama-bred rapper Yelawolf is huddling with "Nubians," and assuring us there's never been "a rapper this cold, since 2Pac was froze, and thawed out for a spot-date at a Coachella show." To the surprise of no one, Danny Brown is thoroughly unhinged, spinning through his verse like the Tasmanian Devil hopped up on "molly." Brown supplies one of the most nauseating, gut-busting lines of the year rapping, "b***h p***y smell like the Penguin, wouldn't hit that s*** with my worst enemy's penis." Action Bronson (he who shall forever be compared to Ghostface Killah) drives by swiftly, "shifting the Bimmer 860," "confetti torching," and somehow finding the time to fix a game between Georgia Southern & Grambling. Then there's Mississippi-native Big K.R.I.T. bearing his "Muddy Water flow, Dixie rebel past." Rocky and Bada$$ both swear by K.R.I.T.'s verse, and it understandable. K.R.I.T.'s verse is filled with flash, packaged inside a classic frame, much like the candy-painted Caddies he can be found in. When the song ends, it's hard to imagine what could conceivably be better than that "1Train."

#7. "Retrograde"- James Blake (Overgrown)  

Few people can make loneliness sound as lovely as James Blake. On his "post-dubstep" debut LP, 2011's James Blake, he made abject isolation a commodity, the solitary life the only sort worth living. On the frigid summits of closer "Measurements," he was wandering through "forests cold," and putting all his doubts on trial in a courtroom of the elements. "Retrograde" maintains the spirit of that lone traveler mentality, but this time out a companion's come along. The isolation has shifted from the first to third person in the course of one winter; "we're alone now." The small ember of the track that Blake's voice clings to in the cold becomes a burning fire in the pit of his stomach by the time his loverman chorus hits. Blake begs, "show me why you're strong, ignore everybody else, we're alone now," wallowing the first time he runs through the line. The clattering drums and keyboards only fan the flames in the dark of night, as Blake is hit by the "starkness of the dawn." If it truly is "darkest before the dawn," Blake's found someone to peer out into the darkness with.


#6. "Started from the Bottom"- Drake (Nothing Was The Same) 

Wherever you think Drake came up or started from is irrelevant right around the time that minor-key piano figure is pushed out of frame by the sturm und drang trap-rap drums stitched up by producer Mike Zombie. Any possible chuckle or headshake at the notion of Drake "keeping it real from the start" disappears. Drizzy doesn't sound assured here, but authoritative. Through his sharp eyes we see arguments at his "momma's house" and late-night joyrides unwittingly sponsored by his uncle asking "where you at." The familiar themes of friends and family are in abundance here. Drake's proven more skilled than most artists at delineating the lines between the friends that'll die for you and those that would prefer to just sit in the car. Here Drake celebrates the success with the "whole team" drafted from the get-go and throws up deuces to any bandwagoneers, "f**k a fake friend." On "Over" he let us know "I'm doing me." "Started from the Bottom" is the ultimate reminder that in spite of everything, the story's stayed the same.  

#5. "Climax"- The Dirty Projectors (Cover)

The original "Climax" released off of Usher's wildly inconsistent (but ultimately enjoyable) 2012 record Looking 4 Myself was one of the greatest thrills in pop last year. Usher and producer Diplo gave us a masterclass in restraint. Usher could've howled his way through the thing, racing for those high notes like a rocket blasting off into space, but he didn't. He stayed grounded in hushed falsettos and dubstep burbles, until the relationship plateaued, and then Usher's voice was right there at the summit, howling in pained agony. On their "Like a Version" cover, the Dirty Projectors forgo any plateauing altogether. Leader Dave Longstreth immediately goes for the gut, if Usher sounded like he could survive another round of love in limbo, Longstreth's already called it quits. Longstreth clings to every note like there was nothing else left in this world. For her part, Amber Coffman (eyes closed) ethereally floats through the notes, feet firmly "off the ground." When Longstreth steps back up his questions of "why do I care at all?" are just as vital as Usher's original interrogations. The grand finale where Usher threw all caution to the wind is more reckless now, Longstreth and Coffman splitting the difference to pull the relationship apart.  Transcending source material and making it your own is never easy, even if the Dirty Projectors make it seem that way.

#4. "Ya Hey"- Vampire Weekend (Modern Vampires of the City)

On the highest of the highest, Vampire Weekend's rousing "Ya Hey" amounts to finger-wagging at the highest on high, the big man himself, the imperturbable Yahweh. "The faithless they don't love you, the zealous hearts don't love you," Ezra Koenig sings, his warm tone hardly masking the frantic finger-wagging he's committed too. Koenig nurtures all his guilt and inner turmoil for a time, but "lets it go," shedding his own crown of thorns and moving on with his life. "Ya Hey" is one of several tracks on the album to question religion's role in our lives when the trouble finds us, against frenetic guitar strumming on "Worship You" the group asks "who will guide us through the end," and "Unbelievers" resigns to the warmth that awaits all its titular characters. But the true beauty of "Ya Hey" is its ability to descend from the clouds and operate on a less celestial level. Trade an all-seeing God for an overly invested lover searching for the last ounce of love in a deflated relationship, and the metaphor comes into focus. Koenig cops to his mistakes in the cathartic chorus and swelters in the heat of the fire and flames. His lover meanwhile just sits in silence, out of sight and out of reach. Lacking faith in a higher power, Koenig is still burdened by an overwhelming faith in humanity.

#3. "Cherry"- Chromatics (After Dark 2)

Yes, in the most narrow-minded and myopic view of list-making this one breaks the rules. It originally made its appearance back in November 2012, but merits inclusion because a. it didn't see official release until After Dark 2, a compilation of moody dance acts from label Italians Do It Better dropped, and b. it's one of the best songs of this (and frankly) any year from the still young decade. I've easily heard the song some 60 plus times now and the crying synths and chugging bass find new ways to surprise me. There are still nights where I press repeat and let the spirit of the song haunt my room as I nod off into the ether. I originally wrote that "Cherry" is a marvelous encapsulation of what Rodney Dangerfield once referred to as the "heaviness" where the weight of the world casts a shadow over every kiss, every relationship, and every regret. Months later, singer Ruth Radelet wearisome "I can't keep crying all of the time," hasn't gotten any easier to lift. "Cherry" isn't an incredible song just for the hypnotic backbeat soundtracking the most sullen dancefloor in the world, but for the tragically pointed and relatable lyrics. Cherry's true nature is revealed in the final verse when Radelet discovers "Cherry can be very sweet when she needs a friend, but it's only a mask she wears so she can pretend." I feel perfectly comfortable admitting I've had the same paranoia creep over me; concerned that all my rushing to someone's side will be for naught when the roles are reversed. Some do it out of selfishness, but others are merely shortsighted, unable to see anything worth sharing with another human being. Hearing the song now, I'm reminded of a quote from a Kafka short-story about a man and woman engaging in a high-stakes game of "judgment." Near the finale, the man remarks "yet you smile-- inviting mortal danger-- from time to time." We've all been put in that danger before and like Radelet we can grow to hate the power it has over us. A way out from underneath the heaviness is possible; if you can summon the strength.

#2. "Mirrors"- Justin Timberlake (20/20 Experience)         

The last time unmitigated devotion and unyielding fidelity sounded this good on record, Rihanna was taking an oath to "stick it out to the end" on "Umbrella." For whatever reason, even in the world of Top 40 radio, martial stability annoys us. Rumours, one of the most successful albums of all time painfully traces the dissolution of relationships. The runaway success of Adele's 21 was fueled by a similar source. Justin Timberlake himself began his solo career with the bitter pill of "Cry Me A River." Despite our best intentions, bliss bores us. Which makes "Mirrors" dominance of the Billboard charts all the more impressive. Holding steady in the top 10, the arena ready track shows everyone how commitment can be done right. Sporting Timbaland's trademark handclap beats and smothered in synths, Timberlake is looking at his other half with emotional honesty, "I don't wanna lose you know," he sings in a buttery falsetto on the hook. The imagery here of two becoming one is simplistic, but powerful aided by Timbaland's hefty bass and soaring synths. Soon Timberlake loses all control, the music's grand scale is re-sized, and JT's devolved into a chorus of "you are the love of my life." There's no mystery in tomorrow, Timberlake's figured it out.

#1. "Get Lucky" ft. Pharrell- Daft Punk (Random Access Memories)

Unless some Earth-shattering, world-conquering song comes along in the next 5 months, "Get Lucky"'s disco-strut won't be stopped. What is already an earworm, has its DNA drastically mutated by Pharrell's silky croon, Niles Rogers' (of Chic fame) choppy guitar playing, and Daft Punk's funky vocoder breakdown. The song's an aural plague; reeking "havoc" on your whole body 'til your up on feet, head bouncing to-and-fro to Pharrell's hook, and voice joining the fight to "get lucky." Seeing Pharrell play this song back-to-back-to-back live makes perfect sense, who isn't pressing repeat as soon as the song heads off into the sunset? As I write this I'm struggling to finish, the smallest ripples in the song distracting me. Another keystroke is halted by the tiny piano figure or the muted bass thud. I can't imagine getting anything do listening to this, let alone a complicated task that commands your full concentration. Daft Punk demand that here, luring you into their all-night funhouse, and never letting you leave. The band's prior pop savvy with highlights "Da Funk," "One More Time," "Harder Better Faster Stronger," and "Make Love" can't hold a candle to what Daft Punk crafted here. "Get Lucky" doesn't just raise the bar, so much as it obliterates it.


Got a problem with any of the selections here or on part 1? Then let your voice be heard! Drop a comment, hit up the twitter account @allfreshsounds, give a stern talking to on Facebook, whatever you've gotta do. And look for a list of the top 10 albums so far this year to drop next week.

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