Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
What was your favorite song of 2013?
I don’t love all of Phosphorescent’s latest record, Muchacho, but I really, really love “Song For Zula.” It’s airy and epic, cinematic and heartbreaking. Plus, its reference points are really exceptional: The scope of the track reminds me of another of my favorite jams, Broken Social Scene’s “Lover’s Spit,” and even quotes from Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire.” It’s a beautiful song about love and heartbreak, and it’s perfect. In fact, I think I’ll go listen to it right now.
I’d be lying if I said anything that wasn’t Lorde’s “Royals.” Ever since that song popped up on my radar in June, it’s earned a spot on almost every playlist I make. Most of the time, a pop song lasts for about two months in my rotation before I get sick of it. “Royals” is still a song I regularly want to hear and a song with lyrics I still enjoy trying to unravel. (All that slang was hard for me to decipher the first 500 times.) It’s danceable and singable and drivable, so it’s easy to see why it resonates: The song is built like a house, with a gorgeous, bold hook and a thudding beat that frames Lorde’s sensuous, full-throated voice. It’s a season-defining song for me, a song I’ll probably remember 20 years from now. I couldn’t ask for anything more. It’s my hands-down winner.
I’m glad Sonia said “Royals,” so I can cheat and say something else. I found Neko Case’s latest album, the one with the super long name, to be a titanic achievement and the best album I’ve heard in several years. It’s difficult for any artist to bring the person consuming the art into a depressive headspace, because so often, depression pushes other people away. But Case did so beautifully, and never more so than on the album’s second track, “Night Still Comes,” a short, but gut-wrenching song that puts all of the feeling of a life ripped away by forces not entirely understandable in one line, repeated over and over again. “You never held it at the right angle,” is the sole line in the chorus, and Case uses her powerful voice to turn it into a howl from the bottom of a well.
I liked other music in 2013, but over these last few months, it’s all been an interlude between spins of Four Tet’s “Aerial.” The surprise release of Beautiful Rewind—which abstract electronic artist Kieran Hebden teased would drop with no pre-orders, no trailers, no preview streams, “no last minute Rick Rubin”—lent his seventh album a guerrilla atmosphere mirrored in its static-filled sampling of pirate radio transmissions. And “Aerial” in particular feels like a stuck-between-stations accident, beginning with frenetic hand-drums and fractured house synths before ending in a 4/4 grime thump. As an MC barks lines like “You wanna get fucked up / You wanna smoke drugs,” Hebden cuts and reverses them, until they’re a messy, propulsive splatter of energy, all ending in a signal fade that instinctively makes you reach for the tuner to lock it back in. I could listen to this on a loop for hours. I have listened to this on a loop for hours.
The announcement of Radioactivity, a band featuring both Jeff Burke and Mark Ryan of The Marked Men, had me unreasonably excited. As a Marked Men devotee that enjoyed each member’s pursuits outside of that band, seeing them come back together for an LP of Burke-fronted songs proved to be just as punchy and memorable as anything they’d done prior. No song on the album encapsulates the dynamic better than “World Of Pleasure,” a brief pop-punk by-way-of garage rock affair that demands repeat listens with a chorus so hooky it must be hummed, sung, or screamed whenever the opportunity allows. Sure, that may be annoying for everyone in my general vicinity, but this is just a new personality trait they’re going to have to come to love.
As far as I’m concerned, it wasn’t a great year for singles: There was no “Thinking Bout You” or “The House That Heaven Built”—no anthem that wormed its way into my brain or heart. And while I’d love to wave the flag for the heavy stuff, the best metal of 2013 moved in album-long chunks, not song-length bursts. So I’m going to let iTunes playcount do the soul searching for me and go with the track I listened to the most these past 12 months. No surprise, perhaps, that the winner turns out to be the most metal-leaning pop tune of the year: Kanye West’s stomping, venomous fight song, “Black Skinhead.” Just about everything about this feel-bad highlight of a feel-bad record appeals to me: The infectious, fuzzed-out blare that opens and closes the song; the none-too-subtle nods to Marilyn Manson (a hero of my pimply youth); even the way Kanye kind of, sort of sounds like Napoleon Dynamite when he says “God!” Yeezus is an admirably abrasive record from a star as big as West, but only “Black Skinhead” makes that antagonism moshable. Plus, it’s just nice to encounter a song that my 14-year-old self and I could agree on.
If I’m honest with myself, the song I listened to most often this year was the “Scream & Shout” remix. In theory, I should hate this song. It features at least three artists whose respective solo work I cannot stomach and uses the world “YOLO,” but it somehow stuck with me from jamming to it before I went to work every morning as a high school English teacher to listening to it as I edit copy for The A.V. Club. It must have something to do with the gratuitous swearing, especially the part where Diddy yells, “Motherfuckers, I said put your hands up. Turn the fuck up, right motherfucking now.” (Sorry, Lorde, I’m still okay with those sort of demands.) That, or I’m just happy to insert my Twitter handle into the Waka Flocka Flame lyrics, making it, “It’s Wrecka Flames / You know my style / This little chain like 40,000.” Either way, it’s a generically good song to bop to throughout the day.
It’s “Get Lucky.” It’s always been “Get Lucky.” (Sorry, “Bound 2” —at least Kim Kardashian is there to break your fall.) It’s been “Get Lucky” since that first Saturday Night Live ad break. It’s been “Get Lucky” since I requested the song at a wedding reception in May, and it’s been “Get Lucky” at five or six other wedding receptions since. It’s been “Get Lucky” since “Get Lucky” finally smuggled Daft Punk into the Top 40; it was “Get Lucky” when Daft Punk puckishly stuck “Get Lucky” in the middle of a 78-minute tribute to the duo’s scattered musical inspirations. Radio ubiquity wore down some of the track’s charms, but repetition is one of the charms of “Get Lucky.” It’s itchy, it’s hypnotic, and it’s a much better Pharrell-fronted impression of a disco-era hit than “Blurred Lines.” It’s ”Get Lucky.” It’s ”Get Lucky.” It’s ”Get Lucky.”
Although I technically heard “The Mother We Share” by Chvrches in late 2012, it wasn’t officially released until 2013, but when I wrote about it for Hear This in January, I was already obsessed. As of mid-November, my work iTunes shows 18 plays since I imported it in late July, my phone shows another 18, and that doesn’t include any number of other plays I gave via YouTube or the album stream I received to review Chvrches’ debut, The Bones Of What You Believe. I love the whole song (and album for that matter), but the chorus just kills me. The BBC described it as “undeniably sad, but also euphoric,” a perfect description for how Lauren Mayberry’s voice works with the wash of synthesizers from multi-instrumentalists Martin Doherty and Iain Cook. “The Mother We Share” is this year’s “The House That Heaven Built” in the Ryan household, though “We Sink,” which follows “The Mother We Share” on The Bones Of What You Believe, is a close second.
If Justin Timberlake had any editing sense at all, I’d be writing about the surprisingly dense production-heavy successor to “Cry Me A River” that is “Mirrors” (radio edits don’t count). But instead, I’ll go with Haim’s “The Wire,” the catchiest song on the hookiest breakup album in recent memory. The first four songs off Days Are Gone are all among my most played of the year, but “The Wire” stands head and shoulders above the others, a wallop of crunchy instrumentation and soaring harmony. But, like most of the songs on Days Are Gone, behind the immediacy of the melodies and hooks are some truly depressing lyrics, matching sour and sweet in equal measure. Shifting the focus from the guitar riffs, to the frustrating experience of growing tired of a relationship and having to gingerly let the other person down, to melding the two has been one of the more rewarding listening experiences I had this year. Reductive and patronizing Wilson Phillips comparisons aside, the Haim sisters are accomplished pop songwriters and musicians who crafted an absurdly catchy sad song for good and bad times alike.
For me, this really was a toss-up between The National’s “Graceless” and “Problems” from the Hustle Gang mixtape, if we’re judging purely on play-count numbers (“There’s a science to walking through windows.” “Shawty, show ya right.”). So I decided to use this opportunity to succumb fully to the 2013 hype machine and spotlight two artists who don’t actually need that much more exposure ’round here, but check this out anyway: Lorde covered one of Yeezus’ most lackluster tracks, “Hold My Liquor,” at the iHeart Radio Festival in September, and it was fantastic. She handles all three parts (Kanye, Justin Vernon, Chief Keef ) admirably and makes that song listenable. I’m back out my coma.
Oranssi Pazuzu’s latest album, Velonielu, made my top 25 albums of 2013—but as great as it is, the disc’s opening track, “Vino Verso,” sums up everything the band is about in a potent, five-minute burst. Mixing everything from black metal to post-punk to space rock, the song chisels and scrapes away at the membrane between this dimension and the next. Not to mention sharp-eyed sanity and ritualistic abandon. If Hawkwind had been born 40 years later and cut its teeth on Darkthrone, it might have sounded like this.
It is always easier for me to boil down my possible answers to this question in a year when The Handsome Family put out an album that has new songs on it. (In years when they put out a live album full of older songs, my favorite track of the year is likely to be one of Brett and Rennie bitching at each other between numbers.) I have several favorite songs on Wilderness, but I have just decided that my favorite of my favorites is “Frogs,” which conveys the magic of nature’s bounty with just the right degree of homey awe, energized by a guitar solo that sounds a little like “Cortez The Killer” with mud up to its knees and a few beers in it. Besides, I like frogs, and this song convinces me that Brett Sparks was put on Earth to sing, or croak, about them.
I think I’m more torn by this question than in years past, when I had an outright favorite that hit me on a gut level immediately. I’d say I’m at a four-way tie, but for the purposes of this feature, I’ll go with Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor,” partially because I was so pleasantly surprised by it. I’m a known contrarian on this, but up until “Reflektor” came out as a single, I would have preferred if Arcade Fire called it quits after Funeral (I think The Suburbs is mediocre, and I hate Neon Bible with a burning rage usually devoted to people who talk in movies and despots). So to hear a song of the band’s that was catchy, didn’t suffer from Win Butler’s usual pretentious lyrical issues, and had a David Bowie cameo?!?! It was a new start for my relationship with a band that pretty much defined my experiences as a teenager, then destroyed any good will I had towards it. “Reflektor” is a song you can dance to, but that also manages to explore issues of faith in both God and man in ways that reflect (har har) our particular modes of consumption in Western life. It’s a nice change of pace for the overly obvious Butler, and hell, any song that uses Bowie that well is going to be a personal favorite.
I’m a sucker for a Southern guy with a guitar, so it was probably inevitable I’d fall head over heels for Jason Isbell’s stunning and very personal album Southeastern. The standout track is the gorgeous “Cover Me Up,” a sparse, heartfelt ode to how love can save your life if you let it, and absolutely my favorite song of the past year. Simultaneously happy, sad, thankful, and achingly desperate, all grounded in Tennessee imagery, “Cover Me Up” hits almost all of my musical sweet spots in one quick package. Isbell’s August show at the Ryman Auditorium proved I’m not the only fan, as the sustained applause at the close of this number lasted well over a minute even though he played it mid-set, in one of the most amazing displays of pure audience love I’ve ever witnessed at a concert. “Cover Me Up” is the kind of song you want to listen to while lounging on your porch on a warm summer night, glass of whiskey in hand and a lover by your side. And if there’s ever been a more Southern lyric than “Girl leave your boots by the bed, we ain’t leavin’ this room; ‘til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom,” I haven’t heard it. But I’d probably like to.
I don’t have an opinion about Miley Cyrus. I mean, I’ve tried; I am, after all, a person who types things on the Internet, so it stands to reason I should’ve written six or seven think pieces by now on the Hannah who is no longer in Montana anymore. But I’ve got nothing. The arguments over her cultural appropriation, her flailing (although surprisingly effective) attempts at rebellion or attention getting or shocking us out of our complacency or whatever—all fascinating stuff, and I’ve read some good ones. Good enough that I feel like I ought to take a stand, but the whole thing is complex enough to require serious consideration, and quite frankly, I am too busy doing, well, whatever the hell it is I do. So I don’t know about Miley Cyrus the media superstar provocateur/spoiled monster. I do know that I really, really like “Wrecking Ball.” It’s bombastic and sappy and fun to listen to, like something Jim Steinman might’ve written if he was running low on words. I just wish I could watch the video and not feel like my name was going on a list somewhere.
Back in July, when we were asked to consider our picks for the best music of the year up to that point, I referenced a previously-unreleased Prefab Sprout album, which had been leaked online, declaring, “If it ever earns an official release, there’s no doubt that it’ll be in my top 10 of 2013.” Well, the album that was originally making the rounds under the title Devil Came A-Calling did indeed earn official release—albeit under the title Crimson/Red—and having given Paddy McAloon my money, I have to say that it’s only gotten better with subsequent spins. My favorite track, though, is the opening track, which also serves as the first single: “The Best Jewel Thief In The World.” The band may be little more than a McAloon solo project at this point, but the music coming out under its name still sounds like classic Prefab Sprout to me, the kind of smooth, catchy pop music that warms my heart whenever I hear it. (It’s also a fun little video.)