2014 is over a month old now, the Grammys have finally aired, and it’s high time for me to compose this before the moment passes and 2014′s release schedule starts to heat up as the year pushes into spring. And what better time is there to catch up on music than a rainy Nashville February?
5) Local Natives, “Ceilings”
Tucked away in the middle of their excellent album Hummingbird, “Ceilings” is a throbbing little nostalgia ache of a song. Every time I hear it I swear that I can smell summer. Sounding like a mixture of equal parts Fleet Foxes harmony-fetishism and The National’s kinetic sense of rhythm — perhaps due in part to the influence of producer Aaron Dessner, the National’s lead songwriter — the song flutters in on a bed of acoustic guitar before being augmented by surprisingly propulsive drums and chiming, ringing keyboards. Local Natives capture the ineffable sense of motion and summer, and the great swell of vocals unleashed on the line, “thinking of what we’d give just to have one more day of sun, one day of sun,” just before the second chorus is both brilliant and unexpected — the two often go hand in hand. Taylor Rice focuses in on tactile sensation in the digital age (a theme that recurs later in this list), opening the song up with the breathtaking line “Haven’t stopped your smoking yet, so I’ll share a cigarette just to feel it in my fingers.” Part of the line’s effectiveness is how Rice sings it: shy, wistful, and desperately clinging for a past that is slipping out of our hands: the physical age. Limits abound in this song; the limits of summer; the limits of memory and dream; most importantly, the limits we place on ourselves. The song ends after a perfectly all-too-brief 3 minutes, with a lingering reminder of metaphorical and literal summertime: “Silver dreams bring me to you.”
4) Justin Timberlake, “Pusher Love Girl”
It honestly disgusts me how talented Justin Timberlake is. There’s no way that anyone can be the best member of NSYNC, write “SexyBack”, be the generally agreed-upon best SNL host of all time, and become a great actor with a dynamite performance in the best film of 2010, “The Social Network.” And now this: “Pusher Love Girl” off of The 20/20 Experience. Timberlake is at his most excessive, brilliant, and dynamic in this multifaceted slow-burn that recently won the Grammy for Best R&B Song. Arriving with the ostentatious swell of Golden Age Hollywood strings, “Pusher Love Girl” cruises on staccato bass, Timberlake’s falsetto vocals, and laser-beam guitar blasts. I could describe all the ways that the first 5 minutes of the song are brilliant, but I don’t feel like writing War & Peace; instead, I’ll address the unbelievably daring final three minutes. After a false ending, the violins and cellos spiral down into a lockstep percussive groove, backward loops, cloying cymbals, and a chopped and screwed buzzsaw of a guitar part that cuts down each measure like industrial machinery. Timberlake raps (and not at all embarrassingly), extending the song’s addict metaphors even more; but honestly, I don’t pay much attention to the lyrics here. Timberlake is a performer, and what he says is less important than how he says it. “Pusher Love Girl” is all ambition and style, and one of the best songs of the year.
3) Arcade Fire, “Here Comes the Night Time”
Arcade Fire blazed back into the spotlight in 2013, dropping the most anticipated album of the year in October after a long media and marketing build up. A double-disc monolith spanning genres and themes unlike anything in Arcade Fire’s catalog, “Reflektor” is somehow an unruly mess and a sprawling triumph. “Here Comes the Night Time,” influenced by Haitian music and the rhythm of Haitian life, is Reflektor‘s best song. The song starts off with a kinetic cacophony before slowing down and settling into a dirge, driven by a sludgy keyboard part that sounds less like a Haitian celebration and more like a desperate foghorn calling out into the mist. How Arcade Fire shift between tempos and vibes in this song is nothing short of masterful; the frantic piano part after the chorus is particularly terrific, giving the song a charming vigor and swagger as the band readjusts to new tones and tempos. Tim Kingsbury’s bass playing is a highlight here as well, but the tempo shifts are the undoubted stars. No matter how many unpredictable shifts “Here Comes the Night Time” goes through, it remains the distinctive personality of Arcade Fire: the inventiveness, the child-like wonder, and the fear of the unknown that has defined their lyrical output. Frontman Win Butler waxes poetic on life and death and heaven, brashly asking “If there’s no music in Heaven, than what’s it for?” He never provides an answer — Butler never has — but he doesn’t need too. The answer is implicit in the work; Heaven is wherever a song as good, fun, and important as “Here Comes the Night Time” can exist.
2) The National, “Sea of Love”
Matt Berninger has never been afraid to ask tough questions, and “Sea of Love” is filled with them; real, lasting, important questions about the self and the other, about the spaces in between humans, old friends, and loved ones. “When you go under the waves, what am I supposed to say?” he sings. How do you save someone who doesn’t want to be saved? Berninger acknowledges that “if I stay here, trouble will find me,” but he stays for the remaining two minutes of the song anyways. Inaction is truly the most powerful force in the universe, and the wonderfully iconic lyric “I see people on the floor who slide into the sea” is a stark reminder of the that. “Sea of Love” was recorded live in one take, which explains its stripped down instrumentation and essential vitality. This is a song that feels alive and that feels important. When Berninger apologizes and says “Hey Joe, sorry I hurt you but they say Love is a virtue, don’t they?” it’s not actually an apology at all, it’s just another way to cloud the gap between us and them. As the songs surges to a cathartic climax, machine-gun drumming, wailing guitars (as a side note, listen to how the quick-strummed guitar at 2:50 alternates channels — brilliant), and harmonica fill up the spaces in the sound, and Berninger sings “I see you rushing down, tell me how to reach you!” It’s a desperate plea for closeness, but also set up against the Dessner’s background vocals: “Don’t drag me in.” The final few seconds roll and crash like a tidal wave, but there’s still that lingering conflict of wanting to be both a part and apart. In otherwords, it’s a song by the National.
1) Daft Punk, “Touch”
After an 8 year hiatus, Daft Punk returned in May of 2013 with an album that no one expected: an EDM album that actually has nothing in common with EDM. Daft Punk has always been ahead of the curve — they were doing things in 1996 that mainstream EDM only started to copy by 2006 — but instead of looking forward with “Random Access Memories,” Daft Punk reached back to the golden days of disco and funk to compose an album featuring almost entirely live instrumentation; even the drum machines, synthesizer, and vocoder were all vintage analog models. “Touch,” the 8 minute centerpiece of the album, brims with more life than any other release this year.
It is also, without a doubt, the most absurd song released this year. It shouldn’t work. It has too many genres; no chorus; no central rhythm or chord progression to come back to; a children’s choir; and schlocky lyrics from Paul Williams, a 1970s songwriter most known for writing some milquetoast songs for the Carpenters, Three Dog Night, and Barbara Streisand. And yet, the song just works. Defying all odds, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo bind several decades of influences into the most wonderfully weird and affecting song of the year. They spend the entire song toying with the listener; they lock the song into a disco groove and then take it away, and transition from section to section with synthesizer swoosh as if a memory is being forcibly pulled out of sight. The song never lets your ears rest and demands focus from the listener. Paul Williams’ vocals and lyrics are particularly striking. Surrounded by anything less than the dreamy haze that Daft Punk created around it, they’d be drivel. Instead they remind of the malleability of memory, of how nostalgia can make anything sound good after the fact. In a digital world, Williams craves tactile sensation just as Local Natives do in “Ceilings”; you can hear in the timbre of his voice the frantic attempt to cling to every single sensation.
Williams’ closes the song with the bombshell “Touch, you’ve almost convinced me I’m real. I need something more, I need something more,” Williams’ voice trailing off before descending into the darkness of human memory. The fundamental point of Touch — what is the base threshold of human existence? — is increasingly becoming the question of our age as more and more time is spent looking at our phones and into a digital void, and less and less time is spent looking at what is in front of us. “Touch” is alive and relevant, musically inventive, and ineffably sorrowful — the musical equivalent of the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It has a presence and a space. This is music you can feel.