Monday, 6 January 2014

Play Off: Picking 2013's Best Song - Rounds 2 & 3

2013Tourney Round 2 Results
Last year is starting to feel like a lifetime ago, isn't it? Bugger. 

I'll endeavour to post the final two rounds, which will see us naming a Best Song of 2013, 
as soon as possible, but today's installment is the most ruthless of the lot. 16 songs become eight, and very quickly four. Let battle commence.

Round 2 Pt 1

As I warned last time around, Fat Tony feat. Kool A.D. & Despot – Hood Party is off to a stomping start, crushing under foot all that lies before it.

Kavinsky – Rampage is the first to go, despite being the perfect expression of a feeling we don't have a word for: roughly, that sudden synchronicity where doing something mundane feels cinematic and you can practically feel the camera on you, close in over your shoulders, rapid cuts as you do up your shoelaces, a power-up for your soul.

Meanwhile, Daft Punk – Giorgio by Moroder and Autre Ne Veut – Ego Free Sex Free make for an interesting pairing. Both are about exploring sounds, little aural doodles tied together by some semblance of structure. In Ego Free, it's all tied together with Ashin crooning close to your ear, sounding truly alien but singing about stuff that's totally, painfully human.

Some people have picked out the 'click on the track' bit as Giorgio's big Moment, but I reckon it comes around the two minute mark, as Moroder finishes his story with “...but everybody calls me Giorgio”, which turns out to be just the nudge the song needed to push it over the top. And it all quietly explodes, these lazy fireworks of sound arcing off in a dozen directions that we follow for the next five minutes.

It's a narrow victory for Daft Punk, then, but it's quickly felled by Hood Party, the victory secured by Kool A.D.'s guest spot alone.

The verse feels slightly detached from the rest of the song, zooming in from the bigger picture about gentrification and race relations to this one guy who's actually at the party. A.D. sidles over and drops a non-sequitur by way of introduction, before firing off a series of conversational gambits ranging from Tom Hanks trivia to potshots at Drake.

Round 2 Pt 2

Without too much discussion, The Juan Maclean – Feel Like Movin' trumps Anamanaguchi – Prom Night, and Kanye West – Black Skinhead trumps Major Lazer – Jessica. From there, though, it starts to get painful.

There's a point on West's previous album, as Runaway comes to a close, where the whole song starts to implode. This single piano note steers the listener through the last three minutes as the song around it folds noisily in on itself. It's the sound of being pulled over an event horizon.

Black Skinhead, and Yeezus as a whole, feels like the music that exists on the other side of that black hole, from that Beautiful People-referencing intro to the repeated shout of GOD!. The way the hook severs ties to the rest of the song, floating out of grasp for a few seconds. That heavy breathing and Kanye's pauses – a constant awareness of dropping oxygen levels – emphasising physicality and creating a sense of danger.

The song debuted with an SNL performance, which is even more industrial, rawer, out of control. That version would probably take Song of the Year hands-down, but the song that appears on the album is more chiselled down, more refined and – in spite of SNL editing out the cusses – somehow better behaved.

As it is, the victory goes to Feel Like Movin'.

It's a song which exists free of any context. I'd never heard of The Juan Maclean before, and haven't felt the need to investigate, and the single cover – just red text on a silver disc – offers no further clues. There's no fiction being built up here, no personality or history to grab hold of, and that feels appropriately pure.

The lyrics are simple, a chant delivering instructions from higher beings on how to have the best possible time. Feel Like Movin'. You really should.

Round 2 Pt 4

One of the very first notes for these blog posts was simply 'music vs lyrics'. Honestly, I've been frustrated at how much it has haunted my scribblings, but it's an undeniable theme of the year. 2013 was the first year I could really look back on the music listener I was a decade ago, and weigh up how I've changed. And something I'd love to explain to that serious young man is how I don't really care about the words anymore. I'd hand him the Kavinsky and Ghostface Killah albums and point out how they build worlds through the music alone, how they actually work better without vocals.

And then, smart little bastard that he was, he'd probably point to Los Campesinos! – Glue Me
and Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Gustavo. Okay, yeah. Like all grown-ups, I am of course a massive hypocrite.

Like most of No Blues, Glue Me only truly clicked when the accompanying Heat Rash 'zine arrived and I could pick out – and pick apart – the lyrics. I'm still not sure the “paint me like one of your fence, girls” line makes much sense, but I love the symmetry of the opening and closing verses, the way it's as likely to be cracking a bad joke as it is torturing a metaphor, how much stuff – emotion and images and intertextuality and football references – the song is squeezed into the song.

Gustavo feels sparse by comparison, but there's actually even more on offer. The song never bothers with choruses, rarely repeats itself, just pushes on with the narrative. And that sparseness, I'd argue to my sneering younger counterpart, is down to the artfully light touch of LaValle's backing. (It's here that I know for sure that Gustavo is our winner.) The music conjures a ravaged wasteland, where we meet Kozelek at a crossroads, trading food and company for his tale.

And he'd rightfully point back to the other bracket, which I'm sparing these scant few words. The joy of both Tegan And Sara – Closer and Major Lazer – Get Free lies in their sound. The way the Quin sisters' voices bounce off one another Closer hands it a clear victory but against Gustavo triumphing over the mighty Los Campesinos!, it doesn't stand a chance.

Round 2 Pt 3

One of the reasons I've been listening to more instrumentally-driven music of late is that it's compatible with other activities. I find myself too caught up in the vocals of hip-hop to concentrate on, say, my job.

Which is part of what makes Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge – The Rise of the Ghostface Killah (Instrumental) so great. The song is truly excellent on its own, but it's even better alongside a complimentary piece of pop culture. My serving suggestion: play Twelve Reasons to Die while reading Michael Chabon's blaxpoitation Middlemarch Telegraph Avenue, as I did this summer, and try not to imagine it as the soundtrack to a Luther Stallings daydream. Two great tastes that taste great together.

I was tempted to give the victory to Summer Camp – Fresh just to further annoy Miles 'Fuck No, Spencer' Bradley, who memorably dismissed the song as “piss weak detergent-advert music”. He's wrong, of course – its lightweight bubblegum qualities are all part of the illusion, a thin iridescent film over what lies beneath – but I still couldn't bring myself to do it. I take even more pleasure from The Rise of The Ghostface Killah than pissing off Miles. That's not something I say lightly.

Arcade Fire – Reflektor and Ciara – Body Party, honestly, are two of the songs on this list that have lost some of their sheen from overuse. Though I still admire its statement of intent, I can't lose myself in Reflektor's grooves like I did the first hundred times. Body Party wins.

At the year's halfway mark, it was my frontrunner for Best Song, but it was just too addictive, and the side effects included me not listening to it much any more. The Ghostface Killah claims another victory.

I hope Body Party somehow pulls an Icona Pop and becomes one of next year's biggest hits, so I can rediscover it at parties. It deserves to be performed drunk, with a thrust and a wink, to an appreciative audience. Singles-buying public of 2014, won't you please give me that chance?

Tournament Round 4

And there we have it. Just four tracks remain. I'll be pitting them against each other and sharing the results in the next couple of days. See you at the aftermath.

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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.