best of 2013: songs

i’m upping the ante and treating you to my ten favorite songs of 2013, as opposed to last year’s five.  my choices don’t necessarily reflect contenders for album of the year, but don’t be surprised if some of the same names show up over the next couple of weeks.

10. oostende – keep shelly in athens: “oostende” was my first true glimpse at sarah p.’s vocal personality, which stretches from hesitant to confident within the duration of a verse and a chorus.  the synth pads are brooding throughout, but the lead line that kicks in three quarters of the way through the song routinely gets stuck in my head.  easily the best track off of the duo’s debut album at home, the power of “oostende” is only bolstered by an incredibly heart-wrenching music video.

 

9. collapse – vancouver sleep clinic: the second of just two tracks released by vancouver sleep clinic this year, “collapse” easily proves what tim bettinson is capable of doing with his voice.  retaining an incomprehensible aesthetic akin to bon iver, “collapse” evokes a frigid winter landscape that has already become relatable.  the production behind the vocals is also impressive, molding some james blake drum pads with soft-rock, folky guitars.  both vancouver sleep clinic songs have been firmly distinguishable so far, but “collapse” flexes the ensemble’s potential the most.

 

8. graceless – the national: trouble will find me still hasn’t fully settled in yet.  while the cohesive aspect of the album may be lacking, i know that “graceless” is probably one of the best songs the national have ever written.  there’s that underlying post-punk tone that harkens earlier tracks off of alligator and boxer, along with a truly anthemic final chorus.  the national is a band that ages well, and a sustained break from their earlier influences helped to add depth to that sound.

 

7. diamond mine – pillar point: i love a good mystery.  when i found pillar point through polyvinyl’s twitter page, the sheer absence of a biography or any sort of personal identity attached to the project made me appreciate the music that much more.  “diamond mine” is a chillwave standout that mixes a multitude of pulses, but that lead synth line is always an earworm, whether syncopated or straight in time.  the lyrics are a bit melancholy, juxtaposing the sunny, up-beat accompaniment, but that only adds to the overall sophistication of the songwriting here.

 

6. tennis court – lorde: i could talk about “royals,” but everyone talks about “royals.”  lorde stands for something that goes against the mainstream materialistic values and idolization of glamorous pop stars, but she’s also still a kid, barely out of high school and three years away from turning twenty.  that doesn’t detract from the fact that she’s very self-aware and intelligent; i think “tennis court” showcases this the best.  its lyrics are less about dissociating from material goods and more about defying social trends and chasing perfection.  “tennis court” is fairly autobiographical, highlighting lorde’s naivete in the music industry, but her skeptic tone suggests that she won’t buy into its extravagancies.  i guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

 

5. savage – majical cloudz: there’s a lot to be said about majical cloudz and their fantastic, under-the-radar year.  devon welsh’s voice is routinely haunting, pairing well with the minimalist compositions that define the aesthetic of the duo.  impersonator was an admirable record, but i was drawn to “savage,” a bonus track released just last month, more quickly than any song found on the album.  the ostinato keyboard part sets the tone for welsh’s lyrics, a fairly direct romantic narrative.  the first time i heard him break from his declamatory phrasing to croon “high on lsd with you,” i was sold, and i’ve felt the same tingling sensation every listen since.

 

4. summer skin – teen girl scientist monthly: someone likened teen girl scientist monthly to the pains of being pure at heart on steroids, a comparison that works especially well for “summer skin,” the opening track on their newest album modern dances.  the opening guitar line sells the song as an instant earworm of powerpop, but the gradual additions of keyboard textures and gang vocals find the brooklyn ensemble as an amalgamation of the answering machine and arcade fire.  “summer skin” is the kind of song you would wait around for hours to hear on the radio, but thankfully, you don’t have to do that.

 

3. comrade – volcano choir: “byegone” garnered understandable praise for volcano choir, with its anthemic folk rock feel reminiscent of bon iver’s sophomore album.  but “comrade” is the essence of what volcano choir has become: the marriage of collections of colonies of bees’ post-rock leanings and justin vernon’s vocal tendencies.  responsible solely for the lyrics and vocals on repave, vernon was in his element, generously modifying his voice to embellish the experimental aesthetic of the band.  the autotuned coda at the end of “comrade” makes the song and is gloriously powerful live; watch the video below for a frame of reference.

 

2. lungs – chvrches: any song off of the bones of what you believe could contend for a spot on this list.  chvrches was one of the most impressionable bands of 2013, seamlessly blending pop hooks with indie sensibility and dance floor beats.  “lungs” is buried deep within the album and is a syncopated gem; lauren mayberry’s voice is subtly doubled with a vocoder, adding a harsh undertone to an otherwise crystal clear timbre, but it’s the quarter note-triplet pattern fed through a filthy bass synthesizer that defines this song.  friends of mine who almost exclusively listen to electronic dance music appreciate chvrches due to this song, further showcasing the band’s accessibility across a wide variety of genres.  “lungs” is on par with every single released off of the bones of what you believe, and is probably better than some of them.

 

1. boat rich – dads: it didn’t take long before “boat rich” was my most-played song of 2013.  clocking in at under three minutes helps, but the fact is that the guitar work is too catchy to not listen to on repeat.  dads started to receive some national attention this year with the resurgence of emo, but the new jersey duo are just as likely to throw a quick meter change into a song as they are to wear their hearts on their sleeves.  the chorus of “boat rich” is anthemic in nature and each repetition builds, culminating in a climax following a triplet-based interlude.  check out dads’ pretty good ep if you haven’t already, and keep your eye out for more material in 2014.  i know i will.

 

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volcano choir – repave

there are two readily-apparent ways to view repave: as a follow-up to volcano choir’s 2009 debut unmap or as a follow-up to bon iver’s grammy award-winning 2011 sophomore album bon iver, bon iver.  for those devastated by justin vernon’s announcement last year that bon iver may be done for the foreseeable future, the latter of these two viewpoints may be the more favorable one to adopt.  but after mere minutes of listening, it’s clear that repave functions as so much more than an extension of either of vernon’s two projects.

volcano choir, for those of you charting into somewhat unfamiliar waters, is a collaboration between vernon and collections of colonies of bees, a wisconsin post-rock band that has long been revered by the bon iver mastermind.  the ensemble’s first effort, unmap, was an angular amalgamation of the distinct sounds brought in by the two camps; vernon’s voice was sweet and hesitant at times, just like on for emma, forever ago, and the instrumentation behind him was multi-faceted and full of left turns into unorthodox sonic pleasure.  some people liked it and some people didn’t, but volcano choir remained relatively obscure its first time around, largely due to vernon’s swelling cult status amidst the indie blogosphere.

while the prefix in their debut’s title seemed to suggest an attempt to lure listeners into unknown territory, the prefix surrounding their second album seems to indicate a desire to reformulate their approach to connecting with their listeners.  aided by the lush orchestrations and soft rock tendencies that permeated bon iver, bon iver, volcano choir dipped their pen into an ink vat of pop sensibility, resulting in a batch of truly accessible tunes.  vernon’s lyrics are also more direct than anything he’s ever produced before.  in an interview with pitchfork magazine, vernon likens standout track “acetate” as an antithesis of “skinny love,” citing its confident chorus as a way of saying “life is too short, and love is beautiful and it ends and there are much deeper and more complex things to be concerned about.”

the lead single, “byegone,” is about as bombastic as anything in volcano choir’s repertoire; its ascending, anthemic guitar riff mirrors the same stadium-ready sounds vernon explored on his sophomore effort as bon iver.  but it’s the sharp contrast between songs and the evident importance of acoustic instruments that proves volcano choir aren’t a one-track minded ensemble trying to capitalize off of a member’s previous success.  “keel” is one of the most beautiful tracks on repave, relying solely on droning acoustic guitar chords, soft piano stabs, and the occasional cymbal crescendo.  the penultimate track gives way to “almanac,” the only song on the album that really approaches post-rock territory, and finds vernon alternating between his brooding baritone and his trademark falsetto.

with repave, volcano choir set out to create a project in higher profile that would inevitably be met by comparisons to its’ members’ other work.  through deft exercises of songwriting, however, the band was able to touch on prior successes as reference points, foraging for new sounds and creating a separate identity.  repave isn’t an extension of bon iver, bon iver; it’s not an obvious collaboration between collections of colonies of bees and justin vernon; it’s a very finely crafted album by a band called volcano choir.

8.1/10

listen to a new song from volcano choir

volcano choir, the gorgeous bastard child of bon iver’s justin vernon and wisconsin post-rockers collections of colonies of bees, are set to release their sophomore album repave on september 3rd.  the band premiered the album’s lead single, “byegone,” on the current earlier this afternoon; now it’s available to hear online.  check it out below.