by Devin William Daniels
While 2013 is all but a memory, we’re not quiet ready to completely let go just yet. That’s because there was so much great music from 2013 that you didn’t see on the Grammy’s (if you call that music) or that you may have missed during the course of the year. Therefore, for at least the next few weeks we’re going to be looking back at the best of 2013. The Best Songs of 2013 playlist series focuses on fantastic tracks from mostly well-known, signed and popular artists and bands, and this is the third installment of that series. But there is still plenty of terrific music from unsigned, under-the-radar and DIY artists and bands released in 2013 that most music lovers, unless you follow IRC intently, missed out on when we first featured them at different times throughout the year. We’ve been working diligently on putting together a full breakdown of the top DIY songs, albums, artists and bands of 2013, and we’ll be publishing those as well in the coming weeks – you don’t want to miss them because there is so much amazing music, and so many talented artists, that must not be forgotten.
But in the meantime, stream or download this third installment of the Best Songs of 2013, with the compelling insight of Mr. Daniels. All of the songs in this playlist series were originally posted as part of the Top 10 Songs playlist which are determined by the number of streams and downloads by IRC listeners throughout 2013. This third installment includes singles from Foals, The Spinto Band, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Guards, Low, Mary Onettes, Crime & The City Solution, Bowie, Atoms for Peace, Iceage, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. In case you didn’t hear them before, listen to Volume I and II of the Best Songs of 2013.
This catchy, danceable Foals‘ song, “My Number,” from the band’s 2013 release, Holy Fire, features surprisingly subversive lyrics that celebrate the individual by tearing everything else down. The song title begs for the assumption that it’s the story of getting a number, or at least trying to, but those quests are immediately rejected with the opening lines: “You don’t have my number/We don’t need each other now.” In turn, Foals reject creeds, culture, the city and the streets, stressing that “we can move beyond it now.” Though I suspect the song’s lush and refined arrangement is more likely to inspire sweaty, anonymous masses of humanity than rejections of our surroundings. But perhaps anonymity is the ultimate means of freedom for the individual, the only way to escape streets, cultures, and numbers.
Guards invert the typical dream pop tones into a somewhat unsettling anthem of optimism. The refrain of “I want to live forever/I don’t care,” set over upbeat instruments creates an odd tensity. It’s hard for me to tell if the echoed, detached voice is coming from the dreamscape or the afterlife, if “we’ll live forever in the sea/ just you and me” is a heartfelt invitation to liberation or the parting words of a drowning man’s ghost. “Silver Lining” provides the soundtrack for a montage of summer frolicking and a surreal funeral all at once.
“Silver Lining” – Guards from In Guards We Trust
This old school track – “Shake It Off” – by The Spinto Band sounds like a deep cut playing on a classic rock station at first. Simple but precise riffs are executed by carefully chosen instrumentation, combining with the yelpy vocal arrangements and love-scorned lyrics to form a brand of power pop that’s really the soul of suburbs, or at least the suburban white youth experience for which the Spinto Band serves as house band. The declaration that “it’s worse to be strung along” is romantic gospel to this audience, and the decision (and by extension, advice) of the chorus – “shake it off, I’m leaving” – is a fitting anthem for the doomed romantics of the housing development.
“Shake It Off” – The Spinto Band from Cool Cocoon
The Motel Beds hail from Dayton, Ohio, and the parallels with Dayton’s favorite sons, Guided by Voices, are there to be drawn (or traced, as the case may be). It’s fuzzed, buzzed and doesn’t take itself too seriously (watch the great music video to this song for a laugh) – the title “Smoke Your Homework” even recalls Robert Pollard‘s many school-based tunes, but they expand the sound beyond GBV’s classic lo fi stylings. The vocals resemble Dan Boeckner a bit while even slipping into Spencer Krug territory for some falsetto “ooo”s, so I’m reminded of some of the less poppy Wolf Parade tracks, and when the guitars wander from the main riffs they get angular and really interesting for moments. That distinct intensity of Midwestern rock is on display, not satisfied but not depressed; the noise isn’t meant to fill an internal void but instead bleeds out from the soul to fill the empty space around it.
“Smoke Your Homework” – The Motel Beds from Dumb Gold
Nick Cave is an elder statesman, a legend and perhaps the last true gentleman of alternative rock. He’s also a uniquely eclectic artist, so it’s both surprising and not that the mellow, clean guitar lines that open “Jubilee Street” remind me more of a chill Pavement B-side than Cave’s recent work with Grinderman or his classic Seeds‘ records. “Jubilee Street” is a whole a haunted record; the tonality is otherworldly and the song seems inhabited by resigned spirits. This song describes “a girl named Bea,” a prostitute or madame who “had a history, but she had no past.” The narrator sings of her, and himself, with an air of regret, and his language, while tied to the physical world through the street, becomes increasingly abstract and grandiose as the music turns operatic. Sweeping, funereal strings take over, and the narrator becomes less interested in relating his mistake (though the line “I got a fetus on a leash” suggests it) than in his own metaphysical, transcendent circumstances: “I was out of place in time,” “I am alone now/ I am beyond recriminations,” “I am flying/ Look at me now.”
Recapturing the intentions of the original punk rock bands but with far more skill and precision, Iceage‘s “Coalition” is a hardcore track that’s impossible to ignore and liable to reduce its surroundings to dust. The sound is angry and nihilistic but never quite gives way to total chaos. The words are there, if hidden under the sounds of trashing and the somewhat odd musical phrasing of the Danish-but-English-singing band. They express the quintessential punk themes of alienation and detachment, though the oft-repeated lines “Somehow things are still not lost/ But I sure feel alienated” suggest something sort of total nihilism. I’m not sure if the repeated screams of “EXCESS” are a call for indulgence and noise or an indictment of predominant consumer cultures, but regardless of your dissatisfactions, Iceage provide an appropriate soundtrack.
In spite of its status as a supergroup, Atoms for Peace really is (and sounds like) a follow-up to Thom Yorke‘s solo debut, The Eraser, and it fits alongside that album and Yorke’s recent Radiohead material rather seamlessly. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as much as a case of untapped potential. What we’re left with is an intricately constructed electronic music paired with Yorke’s crooner-of-the-future vocals delivering obtuse thoughts on transformation and identity: “I felt completely free,” “silent double/ A pawn unto a queen.” Throughout a career in which he’s alternatively been described as everything from a savior/transformer of music-as-we-know-it to a pretentious false prophet, Yorke has “made [his] bed/ And [he’s] lying in it,” but the constant analysis has clearly affected him, as he sings: “it’s eating me up.” A healthier dose of Flea‘s iconic bass work might make Atoms for Peace more distinct, but Yorke, for all he’s done, continues to offer a vision of “future music” that is all his own: mechanistic, Orwellian and elusive.
David Bowie doesn’t miss a beat in his triumphant return, The Next Day, and this highlight single, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight).” In a spectacular maneuver, Bowie went from rumors of his immanent demise to releasing one of his greatest albums ever. Without hyperbole, The Next Day is probably his best record in 30 years (or longer, depending on your opinion of Let’s Dance and Scary Monsters [and Super Creeps]). “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” challenges Bowie’s prime material, from the 70’s glam albums to the Berlin Trilogy, and while it won’t be remembered on the same level, it possesses and level of immediacy and edge I’m not sure we’ve ever heard from the master of modernist pop music. Perhaps those death rumors, or more likely just his age, heightened his urgency – though the outdated reference to Titantic‘s “Jack and Kate” makes you wonder how long these lyrics were sitting in one of his notebooks. Bowie has always been one of the most hyperaware stars of pop music, and this track sees him recognize and consider the importance and immortality of stardom. Stardom is a distant yet ubiquitous phenomenon (“We live closer to the Earth/ Never to the heavens/ The stars are never far away“), yet, while the legacy of a celebrity outlives the celebrity him or herself, it is not a legacy of pure art. Bowie sings, “Stars are never sleeping/ Dead ones earn a living,” expressing the dead celebrity’s largely financial existence as royalties and media empires, a potential future for himself that Bowie must meditate on. Bowie is hopeful of a more artful immortality however: “We will never be rid of these stars,/ But I hope they live forever.”
The band Low work within the restrictive genre of slow-core, but still manage to produce really amazing work twenty years later. “Just Make It Stop” (and The Invisible Way in its entirety) sees Mimi Parker thrust into a starring role, and it’s greatly welcome. Her vocals are beautiful and make the repetitive lyrics sincere and affecting. Lines like, “If I could just make it stop/ I could tell the whole world/ To get out of my way” and “You see I’m close to the edge/ I’m at the end of my rope” are loaded and could devolve into high school poetry, but Parker is so elegant and the harmonies so rich that the song becomes genuine, heart-breaking and untouchable, rather than as base and obvious as it might seem in less skilled hands (or voices, as the case may be). Parker begs to stop, yet we’re propelled forward by the wonderful, reverberating guitars Low is known for and a triumphant piano arrangement that pushes Low’s slowcore tendencies to the brink.
“Just Make It Stop” – Low from The Invisible Way on Sub Pop
Ironically, it takes tragic circumstances for the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club to take off the leather jackets and vacate their usual dimly lit corner of the bar. The death of bassist Robert Levon Been‘s father, and BRMC’s sound engineer, Michael Been, former frontman of the Call, inspires this cover of “Let the Day Begin,” the Call’s “I Hear America Singing”-lite anthem of the American worker last seen as Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign theme song. With Peter Hayes‘ Bono-meets-Brian Molko delivery and the classic rock riffs processed into disintegrating particles of sound, the song feels less populist and inspiring and more foreboding and ironic, giving it a second life in those shadowy whiskey joints BRMC shoot for, if not one as Rick Santorum’s 2016 campaign song.
The post-punk band Crime & The City Solution resurrected itself in 2013 with a new LP recorded in their new home base of Detroit. The stand out single, “My Love Takes Me There,” is a journey, as the listener is invited to accompany the narrator to “a world beyond words” – wherever that is. Simon Bonney is a perverse crooner whose lyrics shift between poetry and other worldly journalism. His prognostications forecast defeat, but not misery, as he reports, “You will see me fall in a world beyond words.” Perhaps Bonney’s sangfroid comes from the knowledge that any prophecy based in words, no matter how doom-ridden, would be inadequate. Instead he relies upon the music, in which angular guitars, a chorus of ethereal voices and moments of dissonance layer into a malfunctioning music box from Hell (not the town of Hell, Michigan, but the other ‘Hell’ that everyone has heard about), before the song’s garage rock riff pulls the song back into reality.
– Crime & The City Solution from on Mute
A carnival organ lets loose and transports us to Coney Island or some other beach-side amusement park; feedback in the background recalls the screams of roller coaster passengers or the screeches of greedy seagulls. Just as the imaginary roller coaster seems to reach its apex, we’re plunged into a excellent, well-produced piece of pop that recalls The Cure‘s finest moments. A distant guitar bends distorted notes deep in a rich mix, and an impressive beat provides background for Philip Ekstrom‘s pleading vocals. In spite of its title, I’m not sure that “Hit the Waves” is a song for surfing, or even the beach itself, as much as it is for watching the waves from the boardwalk, longing to cast off your shoes and socks and run to the water, but held back. When Ekstrom sings: “It’s something buried deep inside shaking me/ We’re gonna let it grow cold/ ‘Cause we hardly ever speak to what we feel,” he feels that shake, or pull, but allows his chest to cool, regretting that we don’t listen to our impulses, which might “speak to what we feel” more than reason.
“Hit the Waves” – The Mary Onettes from Hit the Waves on Labrador Records
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.