Feature: The Best Songs of 2013 – Part Two: 20-11


Feature: The Best Songs of 2013 – Part Two: 20-11

by Chad Jewett and Trevor Johnson

(Click here for Part One, Songs 40-21)

20) “Let Me Back In” Rilo Kiley
Recorded some time between 2004’s masterful More Adventurous and 2007’s difficult-yet-winning Under the Blacklight, “Let Me Back In” only surfaced in official form on this year’s RKives, a collection of B Sides and outtakes that might also end up serving as Rilo Kiley’s final statement. I can remember seeing the band perform the song in 2005, back when it was referred to as “I Love L.A.” and showed up tucked between “Portions For Foxes” and “So Long.” Back then it was an interlude of quiet promise, a fascinating glimpse into what Rilo Kiley could become — smoky, pensive, even more country-rock — after the definitive indie-pop statement that was More Adventurous. Revisiting it in 2013, the track is incredibly bittersweet, a melancholy love letter to Los Angeles that ended up being a melancholy love letter to Rilo Kiley. That the song makes you miss so many things about this band, including the secret-weapon touch of Blake Sennett, whose absent lead guitar is replaced by swooning strings (a more analog version of the synth-for-guitar swap that would define Under the Blacklight), seems just about perfect for a band that a lot of us Google with the word “reunion” on a monthly basis. – CJ

19) “L-DOPA” Laura Stevenson
Penned for her grandfather, “L-DOPA” is Laura Stevenon’s rumination on abandonment. Wheel, Stevenson’s third record, muses on a full slate of anxieties: everything from general ambivalence to a decaying planet. None, however, are covered with more delicacy and devotion than her tales of motherlessness on the album’s second-to-final track and emotional peak. Against a beautifully wounded, limping alt-country waltz, Stevenson builds first-person narratives of natural beauty: a spider spinning dew-speckled webs and an egg hatching alone, having incubated in the sun. These events occur in solitude without encouragement from a mother figure. There is no giving in, though, as the arachnid sites an “undying urge to climb,” and no doubt, search for her. “And I’ll wait for my mother,” Stevenson concludes, “Supposing she’d bother to hold me and care for a while.” The band falls back in, all bows breaking and cradles falling as the song comes to a close. There’s no resolve, no rescue; just a fear that no longer seems childish. – TJ

18) “Scared Enough” Brave Bird
On “Scared Enough,” the second track off Brave Bird’s excellent debut full-length, Maybe You, No One Else Worth It, the Michigan trio finds a way to finish what Brand New started, making jittery melodic punk that nevertheless manages to be whip smart. Where Deja Entendu was seemingly shaped around a thesis that didn’t trust adolescent sounds to carry the weight of adult feelings, “Scared Enough” starts off with a verdant guitar and galloping beat, hopscotching right up until the second it’s lurching under the weight of looming adulthood. Lyrics like “I don’t wanna be a better man” betray a band with a lot of anxiety about maturity on their mind. Voices twine; the song moves from swirling emo sugar-rush to broad-shouldered spaciousness and back again, matching a narrative indecision, “ready or not” but maybe “not quite ready,” with music that seems equally unsure of settling. When that “ready or not” moment returns, the beat is a straight-forward march; a few bars later and it’s a half-time swoon. Ultimately, you get the feeling that another minute’s worth of “Scared Enough” and Brave Bird would be changing their mind again. As it stands 2013 didn’t offer a more sweetly melancholic consideration of getting older – even the music seems nervous about it. – CJ

17) “Girls Love Beyonce” Drake
It seems time that we split Mr. Graham into equal parts. The part you’ll find at the strip club and on his “WORST  BEHAVIOR”; that can be Drake. But the one calling up that special somebody at 3am with his head in his hands and the lights off at Yolo Estate has to be Aubrey. And here we have Aubrey flipping gender roles and paying homage to one of the greatest songs ever (fact). Be it Drake or Aubrey, October’s Own isn’t one to be two-timed, so we’re privy to the pleas of a man that simply needs his girl to come back home. He starts out pointing fingers everywhere but at himself, just hoping for pay dirt. But when he reaches deep desperation, Aubrey admits it’s not the new friends, or the girls that have a knack for unsettling your conscience as much as they love Queen Bey. He needs her selflessness and her bravery, someone he can learn from. Say what you want about Jay Z’s recent history but the coolest thing about him for the past ten years has been his relationship with Beyonce. When Aubrey is at his “Marvin’s Room” best, it’s because he’s in search of his Queen and moreover knows that Drake’s bravado probably caused the problems. What’s in a name? Depends on which one you’re saying. – TJ

16) “Good Ass Intro” Chance the Rapper
A slightly less-disciplined me would have about five songs from Chance the Rapper’s outstanding sophomore mix-tape, Acid Rap, on this list. As it stands, I’ll just have to go with “Good Ass Intro;” infectious and exuberant, decked out in Technicolor brass, Pet Sounds-level harmonies, and gospel-grade organ swells, “Good Ass Intro” is an aural marvel that establishes the many-splendored color palette of the tape it kicks off. Chance’s sing-song cadence covers anxiety, drugs, family, touring with Childish Gambino (or “Troy” for all you Community fans), and his own history, borrowing a once-rumored album title from fellow Chicagoan Kanye West for a song that features all of the anxious joy and bright expansiveness that was once Yeezy’s calling card, but has since been relegated to glimpsed light in a deep well of punk nihilism. The Kanye reference is even more fascinating when one realizes that Acid Rap manages all of the introspection, self-critique, drugged-out fantasia, and sociological insight we got from Yeezus, but with a very different sense of fun. The difference between the two is all in that swirling pop bass, that excitable kick drum, all that melody to spare that makes you realize just how damn generous Chance was to give this stuff away for free. – CJ

15) “Days Are Gone” Haim
In an increasingly cynical, over-saturated indie rock landscape, Haim had one of the gutsiest releases of 2013; a debut, no less! A carefully crafted decoupage of your parent’s 70’s arena rock, your first memories of Thriller, and your first copy of The Writing on the Wall, the L.A. trio of sisters gave us an incredibly modern record that has you constantly flashing back. Stuck somewhere in the middle of Days Are Gone, the title track stands as a hint of the quality R&B the Haims are capable of when they want to shed their guitars. On an album with plenty of takes on breakups, this one is pure strength and determination, as the blunt finality of the title would imply. “You can have my past,” eldest sister Este brushes off, “I’ll never get that back.” When an old flame can be reduced to old t-shirt, things are squarely in the rearview mirror. This reads like a lesson you learn from one of your first albums as an adolescent, rather than one your parents picked out before you could reach the needle. It also sounds like an element of Haim we should be happy to come around to again. – TJ
(Read our review of Haim’s debut full-length, Days Are Gonehere.)

14) “Man” Neko Case
It’s the sign of a good pop song when you can’t get the melody out of your head. It’s the sign of a smart pop song when you can’t get the thesis out of your head. Set to a straight-ahead motor borrowed from Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding,” Neko offers a committed and catchy deconstruction of gender that manages to be both incredibly blunt (opening statement: “I’m a man”) and impressively complex. Is Case arguing for a freedom of self-naming? Is “being a man” something beyond the crudity of the biological? Or is she defamiliarizing supposedly “masculine” traits (strength, pride, will)? Is she celebrating a different kind of masculinity, one that’s flexible while somehow also rigidly adhering to a code of pride and honor? Is it good or bad that the narrator singles out “A woman’s heart” as  “the watermark by which I measure everything”? I find myself troubled by the song’s unwillingness to be sure of anything (or at least its unwillingness to let us be sure) besides the fact that, once again, we are all animals. Maybe that’s the point?  “Man” is just the kind of animal Neko Case is for the duration of this sweetly-fuzz-out power pop soaked three minutes and change. I suppose that’s enough said, even if irony and sincerity are both tough to nail down here. Case interjects “It’s that simple,” knowing that just the opposite is true. – CJ

13) “I Got High” Owen
Mike Kinsella is about ten years older than me and the older I get, the smarter he is. Owen records have been privy to some of my best and worst moments as a late teen and early twenties young man. Ghost Town was a little different. It’s beautiful and all, but I don’t have a kid. And now on L’Ami du Peuple, in particular opener “I Got High,” I feel as if I’m helping him back up a bit. There will be times ahead when I can’t resort to lessons I’ve learned from songs or people I love, just like Mike can’t find answers from teachers of his past, their lectures withering and fading in importance. So Mike’s lesson here is self-reliance. Find you’re own boat, your own new scenery. Take who and what you need and have the resolve to improve in spite of what life has already provided. It’s a lesson as easy to rationalize as it is to forget. Now I have a reminder. Thanks, Mike. – TJ

12) “F**ing Problems” A$AP Rocky feat. Drake, Kendrick Lamar, 2 Chainz
Guys, I miss these songs. Remember when you could argue over whether or not Ghostface or Cappadonna owned “Winter Warz”? Or, to place this a bit closer to this track’s center of gravity, debating with yourself whether you liked Puffy or Ma$e’s verse better on “Mo Money Mo Problems”? There’s plenty not up for debate on “F**ing Problems”: those female vocal samples, that subway-deep bass, 2 Chainz’s hook-singing utility-man prowess, Noah “40” Shebib being a radio-single machine, the most perfectly compressed snare drum this year. I could go on. But then there are the verses: A$AP’s playful flow, moving in the pocket way more ably than anyone gives him credit (plus the way he punctuates his verse with a pitch-shifted second track); Kendick’s victory lap bars, still better than most MCs’ best effort, perfectly personified in the straight-forward brilliance of a line like “Girl, I’m Kendrick Lamar,” because in 2013, no one knows more than Kendrick that that’s a lot like just mentioning in passing “Hey, I’m the King of England.” In between we have Drake, who, as co-producer of “F**ing Problems,” could have spent a while on these bars (the game might be a bit rigged), since they’re damn good (“Or we can stare up at the stars and put the Beatles on”), keeping up with and maybe even inching ahead in competition with two of the best rappers active. That it’s that close, that at different times I’ve been all about all three verses, just tells you how peerless all three of these dudes really are right now. – CJ

11) “Wrecking Ball” Miley Cyrus
Miley is just a kid, only recently of drinking age. This was reiterated frequently this summer as the starlet reentered the mainstream in a multitude of new, provocative and controversial ways. Her new attitude and exploits were chalked up to that of the latest Disney teen idol to plummet from grace. Just days after her now infamous MTV VMA performance, the world received her follow-up single, “Wrecking Ball”. Preempted with eye rolls and questions of “what now?”, “Wrecking Ball” proved to be light years past “We Can’t Stop”. Look; I didn’t handle anything well at 20 years old. A flat tire or disagreement with a professor was nearly enough to send me, or any number of my friends, over an emotional cliff. To expect someone in their late teens to gracefully handle a broken engagement and a once bright career, now in question (for Miley, pick the arena), is more than a bit harsh. But there it is: the maturity of “Wrecking Ball.” The admission that whatever mess her life was in, Miley deserved the blame. The weight of that statement is matched only by the transition it accompanies. From the near nothingness of the verse to the straight crusher of a hook, Miley delivers here unlike any other moment in her young career. That harmony that takes it up another notch as the chorus repeats each time, especially. It didn’t take a new persona and dancing teddy bears to make us notice Miley. All she had to do was close her eyes and swing. – TJ

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Half Cloth

Independent Music & Arts Criticism

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