Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Play Off: Picking 2013's Best Song - Round 1

2013Tourney
Welcome back to the somewhat-delayed Play Off tournament, where I'm pitting tracks against one another for the title of Best Song of 2013... but, hey, I explained this already.

You can click the above image to embiggen and check out all 32 contenders, but it's about time we set these bloodthirsty songs loose in the no-holds-barred arena that is Blogspot, and narrowed them down to 16. I recommend listening along on Spotify here.

For simplicity's sake, I'm going to split this into four parts, starting with:

Round 1 Pt 1

Kavinsky – Rampage vs Camera Obscura – Every Weekday

We open with a match-up between two tracks from pretty much opposite ends of the spectrum of my taste.

Rampage is a condensed package of propulsive energy. No words, just a constant neon beat carrying you on into the night. The details kind of blur as you speed past, and then the song drops a '70s cop show sting, slams on the handbrake, and is over.

The beauty of Every Weekday, meanwhile, lies in the individual moments, and particularly the way that Campbell twists little chunks of lyrics. There's a real performance to her vocals, which turns a line like “I don't want to sound like I've written us off” into a series of hills and valleys, a whole song's worth of brittle, beautiful drama in ten words.

It's a song of delicacy and subtlety, two characteristics Kavinsky couldn't be accused of – but this year, that kind of swaggering momentum was just something I needed more.

Winner: Kavinsky – Rampage

Fat Tony feat. Kool A.D. & Despot – Hood Party vs CHVRCHES – Recover

Chvrches pretty much ruled my year in 2012. I fell for the sharp purity of Mayberry's vocals, and even more the way each song distorted them into something nearly tactile; as natural as cold silt, as inorganic as a lab-grown hamburger.

Unfortunately, they're about to get knocked out in the first round.

Hood Party is the sound of the greatest, loudest party you've never been invited to. Its huge blown-out bass doesn't quite sound like you're at the party, but just outside of it. In the queue, or across the street, or maybe in the toilets, watching your breath condense on the vibrating warehouse walls, just as you pick out the bassline of that song you've been waiting all night to hear.

The song has many, many more facets than that, which we'll get round to in future rounds, but that alone is enough to carry it to victory.

Winner: Fat Tony feat. Kool A.D. & Despot – Hood Party

Daft Punk – Giorgio by Moroder vs Daft Punk – Get Lucky (Radio Edit)

I swear this pairing was a coincidence – and prepare yourself, because there's another equally unlikely one coming up shortly – but it gives us the perfect chance to talk about the Daft Punk album.

Get Lucky was always the obvious lead single, but Giorgio, essentially a musical memoir, is a much better representative of what Random Access Memories is actually like: noodly, unusual, overlong, a little pompous, but never less than interesting. In a way, I think putting Giorgio out first would have lessened some of the disappointed backlash the album faced on release.

As it was, we all heard Get Lucky a couple of billion times, and I know for a lot of people that killed it. The song is so familiar to me now that it's hard to remember hearing it for the first time, to imagine ever being surprised by it. In a way, Get Lucky feels it has always existed, has become part of the canon, and that's dangerous for a song that's so much about being joyously alive. But it also feels inevitable.

The song, as I've argued before, is designed to be played over and over, practically begs for it. It's a series of interlocking loops, a circular song that fades out but could very well go on forever.

Get Lucky's magic is still there, but its grooves are worn down by over-use. And while Giorgio has little to offer the hips, there's plenty for the head – and has the advantage of still feeling brand new every time I come to it

Winner: Daft Punk – Giorgio by Moroder

Holy Ghost! – Okay vs Autre Ne Veut – Ego Free Sex Free

Often, with my favourite songs, it's all about scratching an itch. There's got to be something that means you keep coming back to a single track, that makes you crave it in the mornings like a cigarette or a cup of black coffee or a bowl of chocolate-coated Frosties [delete as applicable].

In Okay, it's this little instrumental call-and-response that opens the song, a moment-long series of interlocking sounds, like a cheat code unlocking something deep in my brain.

After delivering your fix early, the song takes it away, dropping occasional fragments throughout but making you wait till the end of the chorus to get the full thing. And, strong as the rest of the song is, for the addict it's pretty much all a tease – something which fits nicely with the lyrics' tale of late-night missed calls and lapsing back into an old relationship. “And the punchline isn't far”, sings Frankel at the end of each verse – but it's always too far away.

Ego Free Sex Free, meanwhile, is all itches. The song is constantly playing every trick it's got, moment piling on top of moment. Here's the sound of a choir, ebbing in and out of existence; here's the crystalline smashing of virtual glass; here's Ashin's own voice, sharpened into a spike. There's structure underpinning it all, yes, but the surface is constantly fidgeting, never letting you – or itself – get comfortable, always making sure there's something new to engage with.

Winner: Autre Ne Veut – Ego Free Sex Free

Round 2 Pt 1

The next lot into the mincer:

Round 1 Pt 2

The Juan Maclean – Feel Like Movin' vs Vampire Weekend – Step

I've mentioned before how I really don't know what song is going to win this. That's true, but Feel Like Movin' is a strong contender.

It sounds like a newly discovered dance track from that hallowed period at the turn of the millennium; the missing link between Groovjet and Another Chance. No, better than that, even. It sounds like the way all those tracks sound in my memory. Like one of those perfect summers you never really had.

Anything standing in its path, then, is going to have a difficult time. Which is a pity because while I've never been a huge Vampire Weekend fan – not to the extent that one of their songs would make it onto my top tracks of the year – Step is just lovely. The delicate piano, giving way to kick drum, is the perfect, baroque frame for Koenig's voice, who practically breathes his way through the song.

So it's unfortunate Step had to come up against Feel Like Movin' quite so early. Flawless victory.

Winner: The Juan Maclean – Feel Like Movin'

Anamanaguchi – Prom Night vs The Front Bottoms – Skeleton

'Like the soundtrack to an imaginary John Hughes film' is a phrase I've recently had to stop myself using to describe bands I like. But both Prom Night and Skeleton sound like they're actually set in one.

There's already a level of nostalgia inherent in what Amananaguchi do – "making loud, fast music with a hacked NES from 1985", in their own words – but Prom Night splices that with something else steeped in nostalgia: teen movies. The voice of Bianca Raquel, singing about being loved like it's prom night, like it's the very first time, sounds as if it's been extracted from an all-teenagers world where the twin gods are Madonna and Nintendo.

It's not hard to imagine the protagonist of Skeleton – scruffy hair, flannel shirt, beat-up car parked on the lawn – wandering into one of those red-cups-parents-are-away house party from a teen movie. On the surface, the song is just a dumb stoned grin – instruments just clash in the right way, over and over, for three-and-a-half minutes – but the eyes are constantly darting about – there are some fantastically observed bits of human behaviour in there – and there's real pain in its heart.

That said, the tiny story being told in Skeleton actually feels like its drawn from someone's twenties, and Prom Night isn't really prom night, it's about pretending, loving like it's the first time. Like actors playing high school age as they approach 30.

Which is a roundabout way of saying: it's a draw. Prom Night wins by default, on the strength of the album it's representing.

Winner: Anamanaguchi – Prom Night

Charli XCX – Nuclear Seasons vs Major Lazer – Jessica

Playing these songs back to back is like meddling with the thermostat. Jessica is a muggy summer's night of a song; Nuclear Seasons appropriately ice cool.

The actual sounds the songs use aren't too different – fuzzy production, fluctuating synths, singing that jumps between the highest and lowest registers – but the results are worlds apart. In Nuclear Seasons, it's the buzz of a burnt-out Geiger counter, the glitters of an encroaching iceberg, a voice effortlessly hitting unreachable heights accompanied by the wordless yells of tonight's victims. In Jessica, when Koenig breaks out the falsetto it's a welcome breeze, blowing through the treacley atmosphere, the sucking sound of skin peeling away from skin.

Nuclear Seasons pushes you away, careful not to be hurt again. Jessica greedily welcomes you in, constantly wanting more. It's not hard to reciprocate.

Winner: Major Lazer – Jessica

Kanye West – Black Skinhead vs Kanye West – Bound 2

Another happy coincidence hands us two tracks which pretty much bookend Yeezus – which wins, if not Best Album of the year, then certainly Best First Listen. Following hot on the heels of On Sight (which it very narrowly beat in the qualifying rounds), Black Skinhead is the perfect representative of Yeezus overall.

That claustrophobic minimalism (black), everything compacted down as far as it can be (black), Kanye West does Marilyn Manson (black), back to his grand theme of racism (black), uninterested in pleasing the listener (black), at times outright aggressive to them. That 'Black' in the title isn't just a skin colour, it's the lightless abandoned ghost train the song is set in.

Then, right at the end, Bound 2 is all about relief. To my (still woefully uneducated in Ye's back catalogue) ears, it's the most traditional Kanye track on the album, crashing together gorgeous soul samples into a backdrop for West to ramble over, jumping between goofy (“Forever 21 but just turned thirty”) and honest (“maybe we can make it to Christmas”), crass (“spunk on the mink”) and dumb (“Brad reputation”).

It's hard not to think of that video, now, but it did get some stuff right: understanding that being silly and being heartfelt isn't an either/or proposition, Ye almost in silhouette throughout, and especially those too-blue skies and open spaces. The song is like coming up for air, but it wouldn't work if the rest of Yeezus wasn't such an industrial dungeon of a place.

Winner: Kanye West – Black Skinhead

Round 2 Pt 2

This fell machine never stops; those cogs grinding losing songs to dust, their lifeblood powering it onwards. MORE!

Round 1 Pt 3

Los Campesinos! – Glue Me vs Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Buried Alive

Two bands I've been fond very of for a long while both dropped their fourth album (provided you accept that We Are Beautiful... was an EP). In that match-up, No Blues stomps Mosquito into paste.

It's telling that Glue Me was the final last-minute substitute, replacing Cemetery Gaits, replacing Avocado, Baby, replacing What Death Leaves Behind... No Blues boasts one of the year's strongest volleys of songs, and Glue Me, a LC! ballad packed with football references, just happened to be my favourite that day.

Buried Alive, meanwhile, is the lone track I'd pick from Mosquito – and even it only barely works. The a guest rap from Dr Octagon, who comes crashing into the song's carefully constructed atmosphere like a mecha-suited Robotnik, muttering wildly about conspiracy theories, is one moving part too many. The song should be too busy, and very nearly is. But, partly thanks to the fact that the song has 14 words outside of that verse, it all just manages to hold together.

That tension is thrilling, and it makes for a great song. But Glue Me is a great song picked from a whole host of great songs.

Winner: Los Campesinos! - Glue Me

Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Gustavo vs Camera Obscura – Break It To You Gently

It's easy to dismiss Camera Obscura as purely twee – the memory that sticks is Do It Again playing on Radio 6, a colleague asking what this damn hippie music was. The illusion, I think, all lies in Campbell's vocals, which is rich and soft and charming but, for me at least, never quite comforting. Pretty much every Camera Obscura song exists in this wintry watercolour wash of a world, where everything's as brittle as it is beautiful.

Listen a little harder to Break It To You Gently, to the patronising “little darling” or the way she tells him to at least look on the bright side, and it's a vicious, dispassionate kiss-off of a song.

But next to Mark Kozelek, it starts to look positively cheery. He's the kind of guy who, as on Gustavo, can toss out a couplet like “I got a licensed contractor/But he quit 'cause his wife was dying of cancer” without blinking. Bleak isn't quite the right word – Kozelek is funny, too, in the blackest, most deadpan way – but, like the whole Perils from the Sea album, the lyrics are as dark as they are matter-of-fact.

Each track is like something from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a close curt look at humanity. Gustavo takes us through the protagonist's relationship with the titular immigrant worker, and isn't afraid to cast either in a bad light. It's a fully fleshed-out story, complicated and honest, and though 'dark' is the adjective I immediately reach for, it's actually much more shaded than that.

Winner: Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Gustavo

Ballet School – Heartbeat Overdrive vs Tegan And Sara – Closer

'Ballet School – Heartbeat Overdrive'. These words sound like the product of an Alex Spencer Tracks of the Year Generator.

Honestly, the way the song sounds isn't far off that: a tightrope-walking falsetto female performance stretching simplistic lyrics into a series of catchy yelps over light electronica. It' a slight song, and oh-so-nearly Eurotrash, but the way it moves is stunning.

Closer isn't too different, actually, a more muscular take on the same tricks.

For my money, it should have been the biggest pop song of the year, but I didn't need the radio to overplay it – I did that for myself. The song swells with carnal passion, punctuated twice by a post-coital throwing open of the windows, taking in the shifting night sky, which are both pretty much the best eight seconds of the year.

Winner: Tegan And Sara – Closer

Major Lazer – Get Free vs Blood Orange – You're Not Good Enough

[NB: You're Not Good Enough replaces Hudson Mohawke's Pleasure, which Miles pointed out first came in 2011. 2011!]

Get Free is one of those songs that feels so slick and easy-going that it's difficult to get enough friction to write about it. It's actually a carefully constructed, production-driven adventure through a gorgeous series of sounds, overlapping over each other just enough to give the impression it might've all happened by accident.

At first, I dismissed Blood Orange (on the strength of Chamakay) as an ethically-sourced guilt-free answer to The Weeknd – which, actually, is no bad thing – but it wasn't until I heard You're Not Good Enough, another of those dispassionate kiss-offs I love so much, that Dev Hynes' latest project truly clicked.

There's a wonderful sense of place to the track's final minute, which abandons the song proper for a clip beamed from some Williamsburg basement, friends playing ping-pong and shouting in-jokes back at each other, but it also damages the song's flow. And Get Free is all flow.

Winner: Major Lazer – Get Free

Round 2 Pt 3

The final lot of tunes sacrificed to the tune god:

Round 1 Pt 4

MS MR – Hurricane (Chvrches Remix) vs Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge – The Rise of the Ghostface Killah (Instrumental)

This remix of Hurricane captures what I love about Chvrches much better than their debut album managed to. It turns the original MS MR track – which I've only heard retrospectively, and as a result feels like running through treacle – into something you could genuinely play at a party, while retaining the darkness in its heart.

Meanwhile, Adrian Younge – who is undoubtedly the star on The Rise of The Ghostface Killer – got me finally falling for the Wu-Tang's Ghostface Killah.

Twelve Reasons to Die might not find Killah at the top of his rapping game, but it's not hard to blame him. Why bother, when the beat does all the work for him? On the instrumental version, a spoken intro sets up the incredible B movie premise – “The DeLuca's pressed Tony's remains into 12 vinyl records, one for each member of the family. But little did they know, he would return...” – and lets the music tell the rest of the story.

The movie that plays out in my head every time I listen to it is so crisply imagined, such a perfect genre flick, that I'm glad it doesn't really exist. Film of the Year.

Winner: Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge – The Rise of the Ghostface Killah (Instrumental)

Summer Camp – Fresh vs Run The Jewels – DDFH

Speaking of imaginary soundtracks... Summer Camp. They're a band founded, as far as I can tell, to test my resolve on that 'not invoking John Hughes films' rule I mentioned earlier. Like the best of their tracks, though, Fresh turns all that back on itself.

It sounds like the perfect last dance, Sankey's vocals skating over the top of a playful montage, a dozen fist-pumping songs in miniature – but she's singing about how memories tend to lie, how we simplify the summers of our youth into a series of long warm nights, and forget all the rain and tears. First love is the best love, first love is the dream, says the chorus, before immediately pointing out that it is just a dream, a fairytale held tight between two people happy to lie for the sake of narrative simplicity.

DDFH's concerns are a lot more immediate. Why are you so worried about the past when the future is a mechanised boot stamping on humanity's face, when right now cops are putting kids in the hospital?

Which maybe sounds like it could be an inert lecture of a song, but it deftly handles issues while being just as thrilling as the competition. Killer Mike and El-P take a verse each, tagging over at the halfway mark, and both squeeze a full song into their half, piling on the wordplay and intertextuality and vocal magic tricks. DDFH is so dense, so heavy, that it eventually collapses after three white-knuckle minutes, the track melting out.

By all rights, it should win hands down. But Fresh beat a tattoo into my brain earlier this year and the memories it's bonded to have too much power over me.

Winner: Summer Camp – Fresh

Arcade Fire – Reflektor vs Classixx – Holding On

'Disco' was thrown around as a descriptor an awful lot this year, but it's one I keep coming back to with these two songs, which sound like they should be playing at opposite ends of the same gigantic disco hall, the people in the middle not sure what they're grooving to, but being pulled along by the rhythm in their hips.

Classixx is probably the single most accurate piece of band-naming I've encountered this year. Holding On is the kind of song you'd find buried on a decade-old Club Classics CD, layered with strata of '80s and '70s music.

Whenever I listen to Reflektor, I can't help but picture it as this giant disco ball, the odd tile lost to time. There's the LCD Soundsystem connection of course, but also the multi-faceted glimmer and glitter of the song. Its glamour is so enticing that even if it's meant to be an ironic surface, I'm happy staying shallow. After all, who stares that closely at a disco ball when they should be dancing?

Winner: Arcade Fire – Reflektor

Miley Cyrus – #GETITRIGHT vs Ciara – Body Party

And we finish, happily, on two seduction songs.

#GETITRIGHT is a girl hungrily throwing herself into it, telling you outright what she can do to you, drumming her fingers and working her tongue, trying out all that stuff she's picked up from films and songs and magazines. By contrast, Body Party is seduction as an art form, moving from demure giggles and purposely caught breaths onto confident instructions and encouragement, as her boy Future coos in the background, and that 'my body is your party', with an understanding that it works both ways.

Miley Cyrus' resurfacing as a machine-tooled sex object was foreshadowed by her appearance on Borgore's Decisions, which took me by surprise back in January. Like the multitude of child stars before her, the transition hasn't been smooth, but that's a big part of the charm – as she breaks through from her teens into the low twenties, Miley is trying on a multitude of guises, and that's easy to relate to.

But 2013 was my 25th year, and my taste for that kind of messy inexperience is starting to feel a little skeezy. So, in the interests of being mature, I'm opting for the older woman. It helps that Body Party is a banging tune.

Winner: Ciara – Body Party

Round 2 Pt 4

Let's take at where we are now: 32 tracks down to 16. Once again, click to embiggen.

We'll be back in a couple of days' time, taking it from 16 to the final two. In the meantime, you can listen to my Spotify playlist of the 16 survivors victors here.

2013Tourney Round 2 Results

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.