Top Ten Songs from Albums That Didn't Make My List
Best of 2013: Music
The Year 2013 was, once again, an exceedingly good one for music lovers. Narrowing down these lists is always difficult, and when it comes to music, often nearly impossible. In preparation for year-end lists, I listen to days worth of music, and still miss much of the year’s excellent output (as always, feel free to point out favorites I have completely ignored, so that myself and other readers can check them out). The “Top Ten Songs From Albums That Didn’t Make My List” always becomes a smattering of songs from albums that barely made the cut, and a few songs I think are very good from lesser albums. What follows are ten (plus three honorable mentions) songs from 2013 that I think are pretty great. This list is by no stretch definitive, but it should provide some sonic food for thought.
“Trying to Be Cool,” by Phoenix, off Bankrupt!
Over the last several years, Phoenix has become synonymous with solid indie rock music. After their masterful Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, it was almost impossible for Bankrupt! to keep up, and it doesn’t, not really. But on “Trying to Be Cool,” the band recaptures a sense of the new and daring that was missing on much of the rest of the album. With disco flourishes and a funky center, this is a dance song through and through, and it is incredibly infectious. But on an album that often felt like more of the same, it becomes a stand-out.
“Raspberry Cane,” by Youth Lagoon, off Wondrous Bughouse
Youth Lagoon (aka Trevor Powers) has built a career on psychedelic ambience, a sort of dream pop that sounds like what you might hear on the edge of sleep. Wondrous Bughouse is sonically more complex than his previous work, melodically lush and hypnotically spellbinding in ways he has never attempted before. The album is full of complex compositions that feel like a cacophony of instruments laid atop a pop structure and suffused with ambience. “Raspberry Cane,” the album’s soaring penultimate track, feels like Powers has started to find some of the answers he seeks. It is beautifully metaphysical, unsettlingly magical, and sweepingly transcendent. It’s the sound of a person figuring out where he belongs in the universe and finally becoming comfortable in his own skin.
“On My Own,” by Low, off The Invisible Way
Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have been together, musically and romantically, for quite some time, and their chemistry shows throughout The Invisible Way, an album that functions as a two-hander for explorations of their various insecurities and intuitions, played through premises that are haunting and slightly absurd. The album is mostly quiet, hushed, and unplugged, which makes the appearance of a distorted, sludgy guitar halfway through “On My Own,” feel like a breakthrough of its own. It is only once that guitar comes in that the true conceit of The Invisible Way reveals itself—Low has taken the basic structure of one of their songs, with a slow build, and a blazing climax, and stretched it out to album length. For a band two decades into its existence, the space becomes a worthwhile one in which to examine longevity.
10. “The Turnaround,” by The Joy Formidable, off Wolf’s Law
The Joy Formidable is one of the few bands working today who are consistently committed to being epic. They are a surging pop group with a booming style, unafraid of making a song long if it will pull the audience in enough. They are a group built to be playing stadiums—no other venue can contain their sound. Though the whole album is great stuff, it is the ten-minute climax of “The Turnaround,” (which closes the album off, and includes the hidden track that gives the album it’s title) that really brings things home. “The Turnaround” itself is sweepingly romantic, a loud and desperate plea for staying put when things get tough couched in a beautiful, balladic melody that builds to a crescendo. The album could have ended well there, but it doesn’t. Instead, “Wolf’s law” begins, with a quiet piano and a near whisper from Ritzy Bryan. Pulling the same basic build and explode trick not just twice in an album, but twice in one track is bold, but “Wolf’s law” has such a driving piano, it is impossible not to get swept up in its grandiosity and simplicity. It’s crushing, beautiful stuff, and it ends the album with a double helping of The Joy Formidable’s greatest sonic trick. Try not to get caught up. I dare you.
9. “One Way Trigger,” by The Strokes, off Comedown Machine
When The Strokes announced they were doing something different this time around, I got immediately worried. They are one of the most compellingly consistent bands working today, and changing up the format concerned me. Fortunately, I needn’t have worried. Comedown Machine is slower, sweeter, airier. It’s quieter, and a little less dangerous, but it actually builds a vibe all its own and shows that, should they choose to, The Strokes could build a new chapter of their career on a brand new sound that would fit right within their oeuvre. It may not be the best song on the album, but “One Way Trigger” is a pretty good middle-ground between the lose-yourself-to-the-music propulsiveness of classic Strokes and the slowed-down energy of Comedown Machine. It shows that, while some things change, the soul of the band has stayed the same.
8. “Was All Talk,” by Kurt Vile, off Walkin’ On A Pretty Daze
Kurt Vile’s music exists on a wave-length all its own, evoking late summer afternoons draped in a folk-y haze. Walkin’ on a Pretty Daze feels inconsequential compared to his masterful Smoke Ring For My Halo, but it’s long, meandering songs take on the feel of a jam session with one of music’s coolest noodlers. Over nearly eight minutes, Vile transports listeners into his sonic headscape and then sets them free to wander. It isn’t hard to get a little lost, but it’s a pleasant place in which to find yourself.
7. “Wedding Song,” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, off Mosquito
As an album, Mosquito did very little for me, but this was a song I found myself returning to again and again over the course of the year. From it’s ambient opening, the song becomes a beautiful ballad, an ode to love and devotion, a paean to finding a person to call your own. Basically, I’m a giant sap, and while the rest of Mosquito wasted the gorgeous, ethereal, dreamy power of Karen O’s vocals, “Wedding Song,” is an indication that she hasn’t missed a step, even in an album that’s full of mistakes. When things quiet down enough, it’s easy to find your way home, and on “Wedding Song,” home is the place where your person waits for you.
6. “Stormur,” by Sigur Ros, off Kveikur
Sigur Ros was down a member on Kveikur, becoming a trio forced to summon all the power, depth, and bombast of an orchestra. This leads to a lot of experimentation and some new sounds for the group, but “Stormur” is the closest they come to a vintage Sigur Ros song. The band’s best work manages to make melancholy its own form of triumph, turning sadness into an uplifting affirmation of the human experience. “Stormur” is distant, mysterious, ethereal, and romantic. In other words, it’s Sigur Ros at their best.
5. “Young and Beautiful,” by Lana Del Rey, off The Great Gatsby
I strongly disliked The Great Gatsby as a film, and found the accompanying soundtrack vastly better, though still only intermittently successful. Many of the tracks walked a tightrope between evoking the themes of the novel and beating listeners over the head with subtext that rapidly became text. I was surprised to find that, after several listens, the song that most captured the spirit of the book, the one that kept bringing me back to unpack its layers and managed to perfectly mix the idealism and melancholy of the book was Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful.” The song is more abstract in the way it approaches the material (no one is screaming about “green lights” here): this is mostly a love song with a strong undercurrent of doubt. Del Rey sings about being head over heels, but being concerned about whether her love can withstand the test of time. It’s simple stuff, delivered plainly, until Del Rey’s plaintive vocals drip with yearning. In a lot of ways, it captures much about the novel that was lacking in Luhrmann’s film. It’s the closest the album gets to Gatsby level greatness, and while that’s still a far cry from Fitzgerald, it’s incredibly effective nevertheless.
4. “Diane Young,” by Vampire Weekend, off Modern Vampires of the City
In an album full of punk-y ballast and witty wordplay, “Diane Young” stands out as a capstone on what Vampire weekend has called “very much a trilogy” in their first three albums. It has a bit of the African-tinged pop of the group’s earlier output, but it also feels very much like a mature rock song. In that way, its of a piece with Modern Vampires of the City, which is an album all about Vampire Weekend growing up, both musically and thematically. “Diane Young” proves that their still punks at heart, they’ve just spent a lot more time thinking about what that means and how to improve upon it.
3. “Open,” by Rhye, off Woman
The only word that feels even remotely adequate to describe Rhye is sensual. Mike Milosh has an otherworldly voice (which lead many to believe he was a woman when “Open” was anonymously leaked) that elevates the material above standard R&B easy listening. Woman is an achingly romantic album, the sort of earnest crooning that can easily drift into the saccharine, but this one never crosses the line. Perhaps its because the album keeps things simple, leaving most of the ambiguity up to Milosh. In that way, it does become easy listening, though not in anywhere near a derogatory sense. This is the sort of album to put on, lean back, and drift away to. “Open,” will pull you in, but the rest of the album will keep you quietly, subtly riveted.
2. “Sea of Love,” by The National, off Trouble Will Find Me
In a lot of ways, Trouble Will Find Me feels like an echo of, and a commentary on, the three albums that proceeded it, the holy trinity of masterpieces that was Alligator, Boxer, and High Violet. Yet there’s more to it than that, and the album’s forward movement is never more apparent than on “Sea of Love.” The song is bigger than a lot of The National’s previous work, in several ways: musically, its more complex, lyrically it’s of a piece, but it provides room for all sides of lead singer Matt Berninger: his higher register and his guttural side, his propulsive rocker persona and his contemplative dreamer. On an album that often seems to be looking back with a sense of wistfulness, “Sea of Love” is rushing forward.
1. “Can’t Stay Alone Tonight,” by Elton John, off The Diving Board
Ok, I’ll admit, this one is a bit of a cheat. I’d be hard pressed to argue that “Can’t Stay Alone Tonight” is the single greatest song of 2013 from an album that didn’t make my list, but the song earns the top spot simply for how close The Diving Board got to making my Top Albums of 2013 list. Roughly half of the album was in contention for this list, and honestly, “Oceans Away,” “Oscar Wilde Gets Out,” or “My Quicksand” could probably have filled this slot as easily. By stripping down and going back to his piano trio roots, Elton John crafted his best album in decades, a record chock full of songs that fit into his many styles and could stand, without shame, along John’s all-time greats. “Can’t Stay Alone Tonight” most obviously hearkens back to “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues,” both in its blues-y melody and its subject matter, but it’s a song that more than earns its own sense of power. “Time never seems to really fly, and time is never really on my side,” John croons. That’s been true for a long time, but whatever has given him the fortitude to record The Diving Board proves that, at least this once, time is on his side.
Stay tuned tomorrow for my Top Ten Albums of 2013…