Their Bated Breath | Best 50 Songs of 2013
Let’s end the year off with a bang. I’ve already posted Their Bated Breath’s list for the “Best 16 Videos”, the “Best 15 EPs”, and the “Best 25 Albums” of 2013. Now it’s time to end the year with the “Best 50 Songs”. The only rule I set for myself was to try to limit duplicate artist selections. Granted, some records had two tracks that stood out, but I tried to avoid it where possible, to get more artists’ names out there to inspire you to buy their records or search out their tour dates. Also, I list the bottom 40 tracks in no particular. It’s too silly to rank them. So, only the Top 10 are ranked. But these are my favorite 50 songs. I also wanted to give a big shout out and thanks to everyone who visits this blog. I appreciate all the visits and hits, but really that’s never been my purpose here. I’ve been given chances to write for known music publications because of your attentions, and I’ve also gained some spotlight and made connections with bands, labels, and writers I’d never dreamed I’d know or talk with. But ultimately, I only stick to this blog. It’s a one-man show, and I like it that way. The goal of this blog has been and will remain pushing talented musicians and music. It’s a pretty simple goal. I hope you enjoy the best songs list, and I hope you buy as much of the music as you can afford. It’s worth it. Music has never been so plentiful and so good. There’s so much out there for the offering. The artists are talented, devoted, and creating more than even a crazy audiophile like me can listen to . But I do try. Happy New Year, everyone! — David D. Robbins Jr.
10. Waxahatchee “Dixie Cups and Jars”
I’ve written about this track a few times this year, so I’ll try to avoid repetition. Waxahatchee fans are familiar with the content: Basically, the song is a story about a restless person watching a wedding-gone-wrong, realizing it’s an example of everything they want to escape, including the town itself. As for the song, there’s a droning, garage beauty to it all. It’s confident, poetic, guttural — emerging from what I think is the greatest thing about modern music in the last 15 years — the continued rise of the female musician. “Dixie Cups and Jars” is part of the same genus of work by artists such as EMA, Cat Power, Kate Bush, Scout Niblett, The Kills’ Alison Mosshart, and ultimately Patti Smith, P.J. Harvey, and Courtney Love.
09. Deerhunter “T.H.M.”
This is a masterpiece of orchestration built on jangly pop-melody hooks and upbeat, soft-brush drumming. It interweaves a bizarre tale of a kid brother gone insane, something about a murder or suicide (“Two bullets to the brain”), all wrapped up in a creamy half-light music. The beauty of the song is in how initially form seems contrary to function. A dreamy instrumentation seems to hide the horror story. But I’ve listened to this song so many times, that I’ve begun to hear hints of something sinister in the music, that acts like a sneer. There’s a mystery to it, how it works, and what it’s about. For that matter, I don’t even know what the initials stand for. Whatever it is, it feels like a hallucinatory breakdown.
08. The Removalists “Better With Age”
Writing about music I like is often about promoting little-heard acts, and not just pushing artists everyone already listens to. I mean, who really wants to read the 50th review written by some writer guru about the new record by Radiohead, the Rolling Stones, or Beyonce? Those folks are going to sell record regardless of the critic. That being said, even diehard music listeners are probably wondering who the hell are The Removalists. Well, frankly, I don’t know. The artist is from Australia. I’ve been listening to the cheekily-titled EP “Semi-Professional” all year, and my opinion hasn’t changed. Some record label better get to The Removalists quickly. Year after year, it amazes me just how much good music exists out there, and how some of these talents still find it difficult to make a career of it, bouncing around from squat to pad, or changing bands as frequently as one changes socks, all in the hope of catching the public’s music hunger, which seems content to diet on American Idol and the 10 artists that actually get radio airplay. But I’ve also learned that artists promoted by bloggers do get label deals and better live gigs — as evidenced by sites like this pushing the xx, Julia Holter, City Calm Down, Chance the Rapper, and The Weeknd. “Better With Age” is a two-and-half minute thrust of guitar rock. It has a rough but wonderfully natural recorded quality, a wicked guitar solo, marvelous pace and rhythm, and a cool sense of songwriting: “Every opinion that I state contradicts a former one / As soon as I hear the words come out of my mouth / You keep repeating and confirming that there’s nothing new under the sun / Your self-fulfilling well of wisdom is weathered, cracked and running dry.”
07. Chance the Rapper “Everybody’s Something”
I suspect the biggest, most popular hit off Chance the Rapper’s 2013 release was “Cocoa Butter Kisses”. And it’s a sweet track. But “Everybody’s Something” is his real showpiece. It’s flat-out the best rap song of the year. Yes, I placed Kanye West’s “Yeezus” at a higher position than “Acid Rap” — mostly because it’s more consistent. But the very best cuts of “Acid Rap” are better than the best of “Yeezus”, and frankly the same is true if you compare the songs on “Acid Rap” to Danny Brown’s “Old” and Earl Sweatshirt’s “Doris”, two fine rap records. Where lesser rappers stick to familiar and played-out topics, Chance takes off into the spiritual (with humor) in this track, “What’s good, good? / And what’s good, evil? / And what’s good gangstas? / And what’s good people? / And why God phone die every time that I call on him? / If his son had a Twitter, wonder if I would follow him?” And he also proves he can knead words, making witty connections that feel less like freestyle than stream-of-consciousness: “Swallow them synonyms like cinnamon Cinnabon / Keep all them sentiments down to a minimum / Studious gluteus Maxim models is sending him / Pics of they genitalia / Tallied up 10 of ’em / I slurped too many pain-killers down, I’m off a lot / I got a lot off days, but it ain’t often that I’m off the clock/ Y’all know what I mean?”
06. Tim Hecker “Prism”
For years now Tim Hecker has amazed his fans with the sheer range and breadth of his experimental electronic compositions. It might sound like noise to your average pop-radio listener. But it’s music like Hecker’s that seems to be finding more pathways into the mainstream. He’ll never sell albums like Miley Cyrus, but that’s not the point. Who would have thought that 10 years ago, Hecker would be on Top 25 album lists, and that he and artists like Julia Holter would find themselves the king and queen of avant-garde music with a voice on sites like NPR.com? “Prism” is the opening track on Hecker’s “Virgins” record, and it sets the standard. Do yourself a favor and get some over-the-ear headphones, press play on the video below, and crank it up as loud as it goes. (That’s what I did listening to the full-version of the album thanks to NPR.) “Prism” is an intense wave of noise samples that converge, break away, and come back again. Bells ring furiously, combining into a single note, white-noise layers blend with scraping sounds and drone, which bursts into shards like grenades, forceful blasts of sonic beauty. It’s powerful, unsettling, and completely mesmerizing.
05. FTHRSN “Middle School Dance”
FTHRSN’s EP “Middle School Swag” is a wonderful retro rumination, with the song “Middle School Dance” taking the crown on the album. It’s clearly an 80s throwback, but better. Like I’ve written before, you can easily hear Simply Red’s “Picture Book” in this song. It has moments that will remind you of Culture Club with a few hints of The Dirty Projectors. But it’s not a static homage or mimicking. The song takes elements of the past and expands on it. For example, the warped synth begins simply, branching out into warm, thumping electronics (melodies pinging around like bouncing popcorn kernels) — while the lead vocals are criss-crossed over the top of themselves with an added backing vocal. It’s accessible and gorgeous.
04. Mutual Benefit “Strong Swimmer”
This floored me when I first heard it, and it still does. Partly because of the warmth of its instrumentation, but also its gorgeous way of making complex baroque seems pleasant and easy to create. But my favorite thing about “Strong Swimmer” is that lilting string sound Mutual Benefit use as a bridge between the vocals, that reminds me of the style of notes I hear more often played with a Japanese shaminsen. It’s lush, woozy, romantic and lovely. To quote the lyrics themselves, this song “rolls along with such simplicity”, like a river.
03. Banks “This Is What It Feels Like”
This track by L.A. musical newcomer, BANKS, is truly phenomenal. It’s the dusky, atmospheric, sexy, downtempo club romp of the year. The vocals are hot, the beat is erotic, the synthesizing of her vocals is just right. But it’s the 2:30 mark, with full-on synthesized strings that really rockets it into the stratosphere. That’s most likely thanks to the production help of Lil Silva and Jamie Woon. “This is What It Feels Like” is the kind of music that could appeal broadly to listeners who enjoy anything from Beyonce to Lorde to FKA Twigs.
02. Laura Marling “Take the Night Off”
Marling’s record as a whole is fantastic, so it’s difficult to pick a favorite track, especially given that there’s an unbreakable continuity through the first four songs, so much so that one can’t seem to exist without the other three. It’s a record of dark places, night songs, devilish encounters, soft beauties, and soulful searching. When I first heard this record it was the song, “Devil’s Resting Place”, a track outside the opening suite. So, initially it was my favorite. Then I quickly switched my allegiance to “Breathe”, with its breathy, uniquely broken vocal rhythms, dark acoustics, and sinister strings. But in the end, I always go back to the beginning, “Take The Night Off”, because it sets the tone for the record, and it’s infinitely pretty and endlessly stunning: “Didn’t ask you to save me / Not when you knew me well / Wouldn’t ask you even to behave for me / I know there’s no helping hell / Take the night off / And be bad for me.”
01. Thee Oh Sees “Toe Cutter – Thumb Buster”
It’s screeching, loud, ugly, melodic, chaotic and yet right on path. In other words, it’s everything you want in a great rock track. I can’t begin to imagine the number of times I played this cut. It seems the music I fall for the fastest often pairs two competing or disparate sounds. I feel like that’s one of the tricks to great songs: In this case, Thee Oh Sees manage to blend harsh and heavy buzzsaw guitar with beautifully anesthetized high falsetto. The song ebbs and flows, then explodes into a rush of sounds and textures. Beautiful.