Best Songs of 2013, Vol. I – Surfer Blood, Sigur Ros, Deerhunter, Phoenix, Kurt Vile, Wild Nothing, The National, Daft Punk, Big Deal
As you’ve probably noticed over the past few weeks, IRC has posted playlists of the Best Songs of 2013. Musician and IRC contributor, Devin William Daniels, has picked dozens of his favorite songs from the Top 10 Songs playlists of 2013 and written a series of reviews about the songs. There was no shortage of indie and alternative rock singles from 2013. Many of the singles in this post, and throughout the series, are from the Best Albums of 2013.
This is the first of a series of the Best Songs of 2013 based on the Top 10 Songs playlist; there have been, and will be, other posts and playlists highlighting the other top songs of 2013, including those that did not make it on the Top 10, as well as many amazing DIY songs of the year that you probably won’t hear anywhere else. Stream any playlist uninterrupted by clicking the exfm play button in the bottom right of the page or the first song on the page.
“Demon Dance” – Surfer Blood
The lead single from Surfer Blood‘s solid LP, Pythons, allows John Paul Pitts to flex his guitar muscles a little bit, albeit more tonally than technically. I wish he let loose a little more, as he does in Surfer Blood’s excellent live show, but the restraint gives us a piece of well-crafted, pristine guitar pop. JPP’s guitar kicks things off with a nice clean riff that’s soon interrupted by the sound of airplanes dying or robots screaming, before we’re treated to a tasteful verse, bridge and chorus. The imagery is extremely biblical: the first line recalls the first line, “A word has weight,” is a snarky reflection of the slightly more famous first line of the Book of Genesis, and we also hear talk of apples, snakes, a Pentecostal choir and the hounds of hell. Is the narrator’s offer that he or she “can suck the venom out of [our] bones” an offer of salvation of a temptation to damnation? I’m not sure, but Surfer Blood set this dilemma to three parts that are so well constructed from a pop perspective (when most pop can’t manage two legitimate sections), you’ll mostly just be waiting for the next hook.
“Demon Dance” – Surfer Blood from Pythons
“Dream Machines” – Big Deal
Big Deal embrace dream pop a bit too literally with the aptly titled “Dream Machines,” but the styling serves them well. What could be a sing-songy folk pop number transforms into a textured, slightly obscured single. The drums echo to a bombastic degree, and the guitar plays a memorable, carnival-esque melody before a fuzzy, anthemic power chords briefly explode before fading behind the twin vocalists, who dually confess, “I’ve been dreaming of dropping out/ Will it matter if I’m around?” The boy/girl dynamic of the voices is the highlight here, and while that’s often paired with acoustic guitars and not much else, here the dreamy, drugged backdrop serves as the perfect accompaniment.
“Dream Machines” - Big Deal from June Gloom
“Monomania” – Deerhunter
Done with the dreaminess of past efforts, Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox seems desperate for anything tangible. Oddly, his chosen route to achieve this is prayer, as he sings, “Come on God, hear my sick prayer/ If you can’t send me an angel/ If you can’t send me an angel/ Send me something else instead.” The idea of “something else” seems key in this caustic title track, in which the narrator can’t convince his or her boy to “leave his lady,” pushing the issue as he sings, “let me tell you that/ If you wanna be with me/ I can be your home away.” Cox’s delivery has a jarring, confused quality that’s part tough guy and part seductress combined into some sort of pulp cartoon figure. Perhaps its these conflicting sides of himself, not two characters, he is addressing when he sings, “There is a man/ There is a mystery whore/ And in my dying days/ I can never be sure.” In spite all of the duality and the urge for “something else” – whatever it may be – the song devolves into white noise and the endlessly repeated mantra of “mono, monomania.” It’s an obsession with the “one” – or perhaps the idea that he his multiple sides are supposed to neatly combine into one – that ultimately does Cox and Deerhunter in.
“Monomania” – Deerhunter from Monomania
“Entertainment” – Phoenix
The title recalls the all-time classic hit, “Entertainment!,” by Gang of Four, and while Phoenix aren’t tackling commodification, Great Man theory and the avant-garde with the same intensity and intellectualism as the seminal post-punk group, there’s certainly a deal of meditation on the double-edged nature of artistic success in this track, particularly the parallels between the struggles of fame and the struggles of romantic relationships. Lyrics like “Entertainment/ Show them what you do with me/ When everyone here knows better” could be directed as a significant other as easily as a massive festival crowd. One imagines that Phoenix, late bloomers who achieved sudden success after years and albums had passed by, would find their fame more absurd and arbitrary than artists who’ve been on top from the beginning, and they seem to conclude it isn’t worth it with the chorus’s last line: “I’d rather be alone.” Of course, this confession is set amidst the pop-minded, synth-laden music that brought on that fame, so perhaps Phoenix want the festival gigs to keep coming.
“Entertainment” – Phoenix from Bankrupt!
“Walkin’ on a Pretty Day” – Kurt Vile
Kurt Vile‘s chill tempo and tastefully strung out guitars are almost hypnotizing, so you might miss the pretty enlightened thoughts he mumbles with the voice of a just woken Lou Reed. “Wakin on a Pretty Day” espouses a philosophy of loneliness, championing an existence without connection, present but distant from the concerns of the surrounding world. It’s appropriate then that the song’s main prop is the narrator’s cell phone, which Vile notes is, “ringing off the shelf/ I guess it wanted to kill himself.” The cell phone is both the symbol of and the primary source of our intense, persistent connection to the world and its demands and expectations, so Vile can appreciate the suicidal tendencies a phone might suffer, channeling all that pressure. He encourages detachment, singing: “Don’t worry ’bout a thing/ It’s only dying” and “Floating in place, no need saying nothing.” In fact, the song itself almost escapes the Earth’s grip and float off into space after the last notes of a guitar solo, before gravity pulls it back down with a drum roll and a short instrumental lead-in to deliver the final verse. What follows that verse is several minutes of music accompanied by few words but a series of “yeahs” – there’s no need for language in the world of embraced loneliness.
“Walkin on a Pretty Day” – Kurt Vile from Waking on a Pretty Daze
“A Dancing Shell” – Wild Nothing
Wild Nothing‘s “A Dancing Shell” tells the story of someone who doesn’t know how to love and destroys himself to earn it. The narrator’s fatal flaw is viewing love as a one-way street – he will do nothing – selling himself, being a monkey – “if it makes you love me,” with no concern for the effect on his own soul. His one-sided commitment to the object of his supposed affection destroys himself (“I am not a human/ I’m just a body/ Just a dancing shell here to make you happy“) and as a result he cannot even tell if he is indeed experiencing love. With this reduction to the nothingness of his moniker, Wild Nothing leaves us with nothing but doubts – “Is that the way? I never knew/ Is that the way?” — and the final resignation: “I was a waste.”
“A Dancing Shell” – Wild Nothing from Empty Estate
“Brennisteinn” – Sigur Rós
Sigur Rós recall the classic material of ( ) while forging into new, darker territory. At their best, Sigur Rós often sound like a soundtrack to some cosmic, heavenly plane, or at least a gorgeous, Icelandic mountain view somewhere. The excellent “Brennisteinn” twists our expectations and offers a soundtrack to hell, not in the typical usage of that phrase as someone might apply to a really intense metal song or some other brand of supposedly “tough” music. “Brennisteinn” goes far beyond the earthly concerns of such music, providing us a sound that is just as cosmic as their best recordings but inverted, portraying the darker forces as just as powerful and beyond comprehension as the greater forces, but with an added element of terror.
Again, not the terror of horror movies and cheap scares, but the terror of the incomprehensible, brought on by otherworldly tones and voices. Then, things go quiet, the last guttural tone cuts out, and we’re treated to a brief moment of silence before the opposing force cries out in an ethereal lament over cinematic percussion and long, droning tones. The language here is lofty, but Sigur Rós are a band that, when they’re on their game, should be evoking grandiose prose, and it’s good to have them delivering.
“Brennisteinn” – Sigur Rós from Kveikur
“Get Lucky” – Daft Punk
With the album that came to dominate the summer of 2013, Daft Punk sought to recapture a bygone era and did so with enough success to make this record as divisive as the actual disco material that inspired it. At first glance it seems like either a critique or a misguided tribute, with the conclusion that “we’re up all night to get lucky” a fairly base encapsulation of the disco era. However, the song simultaneously asserts that “we’ve come too far to give up who we are,” which seems to me to suggest that there’s something in this time that, for Daft Punk, is worth fighting for. The idea of “get[ting] lucky” seems thus to be about more than just sex, but about dreams of becoming someone, of witnessing the future. To capture that feeling, Daft Punk goes into the past. Musically, Pharrell Williams provides the hookiest melody of the year, but my favorite part is when he drops out and the vocoding comes in, giving us a more robotic but less seamless transmission of the song’s message.
“Get Lucky” – Daft Punk from Random Access Memories
“Sea of Love” – The National
One of the few contemporary bands approaching “legends in their own time” status, The National‘s sixth LP was yet another excellent entry in what is becoming a colossus of a discography. Evolving from moody post-punk songs to romantic piano pieces to orchestral, operatic alt-anthems, the National offer something more raw with “Sea of Love,” but it is still just as epic and affecting as their High Violet material. Masters of dynamics, the National provide a frenetic verse for the pacing questions of his narrator, cutting loose for a line you can’t ignore if you’ve read the album’s cover sleeve: “If I stay here, trouble will find me.” This is the sad belief of a reluctant nomad, but it reflects the practices that have made the National so great: constant movement forward, no staying behind to enjoy one’s previous successes, to stop moving is to die.
Some things are constant however, such as Matt Berninger‘s penchant for telling highly specific stories (see his use of particular names and places, “Jo” and “Harvard” in this song) in a universal way, without coming off as cheap “Jack and Diane”-esque pandering. The song’s repeated line “Hey Jo, sorry I hurt you, but/ They say ‘love is a virtue,’ don’t they?” never really comes off as romantic, but on examination is a terrifying justification in a song of drowning rationalizations, set to beautiful music. Like drowning – alternatively peaceful and horrifying – the clash of moods of “Sea of Love” is what makes it, and the National’s music in general, interesting and reflective of the often counterintuitive, incongruous nature of human experience. Be sure to check out the excellent music video, a tribute to the equally great Russian post-punk band Zvuki Mu.
“Sea of Love” – The National from Trouble Will Find Me
Devin William Daniels is a writer and musician from Pennsylvania currently teaching English in the Republic of South Korea. Follow him on Twitter or listen to his recordings on Soundcloud. Read more of Mr. Daniels’ posts and reviews via IRC’s archives.