Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Play Off: Picking 2013's Best Song - The Final

Tournament Final
32 tracks entered. That got whittled down to 16, then four, and finally just two contenders to the title of my Song of the Year 2013. 

So here we are, finally, at the end of the line. In the pale blue trunks, The Juan Maclean's Feel Like Movin'; in the red-of-an-unbidden-dawn trunks, Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle's Gustavo.

Only one can emerge triumphant. Who will it be?

            

Late last year, I found myself, at 4am, in a drained bathtub with Chris 'Total Man Crush' Sparrow, a gin & tonic and a single portable speaker. The bathroom was the only room in my flat not occupied by a sleeping girlfriend, and we sat for an hour or so, passing the cable back and forth and rattling through our favourite songs of the year.

When we finally called it a night, and climbed out of the tub, I stuck on one last song: Feel Like Movin'. And we started to dance, a little self-consciously – we're two awkward guys, directly facing each other in a tiny bathroom – but irresistibly, arms above our heads, hands describing endlessly complex tesseracts in the air.

Feel Like Movin' is less the song's title, and more a list of associated side effects. I'm listening to it as I type this, and tugging Corgiton, our rotund stuffed corgi, around by one paw to the music, always rising, pushing towards the sky, as Nancy Whang sings “good time's going to take you to heaven”. And Corgiton is keeping perfect rhythm.

***

Given that I'll defend with my life the position that all culture – films, games and especially pop songs – are best when they're short, it's pretty odd that my two contenders for the year's best song both clock in over the seven minute mark.

With Gustavo, I barely feel it. It's too easy to get caught up in Kozelek's elliptical storytelling, an ear always tuned to what happens next, waiting for the next killer line (the bit that landed as I wrote this sentence: “My house ain't done but it's alright/Floors ain't level, but I ain't some suburban/Who cares about bathroom tiles/Straight lines and building codes and Chinese wind chimes.”)

But Feel Like Movin' wears its lengthy running time a lot more obviously, pretty much entirely because my enjoyment of the song is more physical.

Jumping back to dancing in the bathroom: it was great, but by the sixth minute we'd started to burn out. The flesh is weak, after all, and suddenly Nancy Whang's refrain of “Get your feet on the dancefloor/And show me what you're made of” started to feel like a challenge. Apparently, what we were made wasn't enough.

(There is a radio edit, which shaves a minute and a half off, which is actually a full from-the-ground-up remix. Weirdly, though it's not the version I first heard on the radio – Lauren Laverne's 6Music show, specifically – and it messes with the delicate balance of the full song, which is structured with the intricacy of a Stewart Lee set. Once you've listened to it a few times, you realise it's constantly builds up punchlines. The rest of the song teases, pulls away just as you think it's delivering on the set-up and moves on. Then, just as you're forgetting, all the punchlines are triggered at once.)

***

The aforementione Chris Sparrow is also responsible for introducing me to Mark Kozelek.

Sparrow's the kind of person where the question “what are you listening to?” can fuel pub conversation for hours. He was off on a tear about the Perils from the Sea album, sharing wry lines with that uncanny accuracy of his, laying out the vague overarching story, explaining where it fit alongside Kozelek's other work.

I was ready to dismiss it as just more Chris Sparrow Music: old American men being seductively miserable, glass of whisky in hand, as the dust creeps in through the cracks. But then he mentioned Jimmy LaValle's electronica-infused beats, and my ears pricked up.

***

I still haven't dipped into the rest of Kozelek's output, the stuff without LaValle. Partly because there's a fearsome amount of it – the guy released three albums in 2013 alone – and partly because... do you remember how in a previous post I mentioned how I was avoiding anything else by The Juan Maclean? It's the same deal.

These songs feel pure, untouched by anything else, and I worry that nothing else could live up to it.

But honestly, I'm romanticising my stubbornness and ignorance. Tomorrow, once this is all behind me, and 2014 officially begins in my head, their respective back catalogues are going to be my first port of call. I already know I'm wrong about Kozelek, anyway:

***

Jumping back again, a couple of hours before climbing into the bath: We're in the living room, enjoying the full aural benefits of our soundsystem. Sparrow stuck on a demo of You Missed My Heart, a track which very nearly ended up representing Perils From The Sea in this tournament, but this version is an acoustic live thing. Just Kozelek's voice and the occasional plucking of a guitar – exactly the kind of music I'd identify as having no interest in.

The room goes silent.

The song is stunning, in the literal pin-you-to-your-seat sense. The four of us just sit there for six minutes, listening. Maybe it's the gin, but there's a lump forming in my throat.

The second it finishes, the girlfriends chide us for being so bloody intense, ask can we have something with a beat and words we can actually sing along to please?

***

The other day, Kirsty 'Esteemed Colleague' Styles asked me what metric I could possibly use to pick the winning song in this ridiculous venture of mine. I shrugged the question off, but it kind of got to the heart of the idea behind the whole thing.

End of year lists are silly. They pretend on some kind of objectivity, that Song x is definitively better than Song y, even if the writer doesn't believe that, because if you acknowledge the arbitrariness it all falls apart. A knock-out tournament felt it like it carried that to its logical extreme.

***

So, having already talked your ear off about it, I can't really explain to you why Gustavo is the winner, why it beat all those other equally great songs to become my official Favourite Song of 2013.

Honestly, it's not the song I'd expected to pick. As far as I was concerned a month ago, when I began this, it was pretty much a two horse race, and the horses in question were Feel Like Movin' and Hood Party. But right now, it feels perfect.

I never officially picked a Song of the Year for 2012, but I think it's pretty clear that it was either Swift's We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, or Jepsen's Call Me Maybe: perfectly-formed gleeful, lightweight, short pop songs which were both huge hits and felt deeply personal.

Nothing ever took that crown in 2013. Instead, we had Robin Thicke. There was Get Lucky, of course, but it wore out its welcome. I had my fingers crossed for Ciara's Body Party or Tegan & Sara's Closer, but neither made a dent on the pop consciousness, and eventually melted away.

You could draw personal comparisons, too, if you hadn't already spent hundreds of words telling stories from your boring life. Suffice to say that 2013 never felt quite right to me. It was an in-between year, with few highlights and a lot of challenges.

Picking a softly melancholic album track, that's at least double the right length for a pop song and you can't dance to? A song which, in short, couldn't be much less Me?

Yeah, that feels perfect.

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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.