Heart Locked Tight: The Top Tracks of 2013 December 29, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Music, Yearend.
Let’s begin with a confession: the finest pop song of the year is not on this list. Haim’s “The Wire,” which blends exquisite songwriting and an oddly fantastic fusion of simple melodies, boasts a frenetic cadence that has a life of its own, a sumptuous tune that feels as natural as air, as carefree as a walk in the park. It wears the crown before this countdown starts.
But the Haim sisters exist on a different list, a list that I won’t even bother to make because that kind of list is already done by many. I believe the point of doing juvenile things like this is to let out a voice that would represent a person and not a collective, and that way it becomes less immature and more consequential, the meaning is carried from ears to fingers, from musical notes to descriptive words, seemingly intact.
So I’ve tried to come up with an equivalent list, one without “The Wire” but still satisfies me, a list guided by a familiar tone, and here it is.
20. “People Like Us”
There’s always something iffy about songs of empowerment, for they have a tendency to simplify and give too much credit to themselves. But perhaps the only important point is to make the sentiment believable. And Kelly Clarkson, who has been there and done that, who has been ridiculed for her size many times, who has been caught in an embarrassing situation with Beyoncé, who has starred in a god-awful movie called Justin and Kelly, who else but she can deliver a commanding anthem of rise? “People Like Us” is clear-eyed, straightforward, and pushy, qualities that also make it off-putting, but her voice has always been the highlight of her singles, her voice dictates the beat and tempo, her voice can definitely cause some damage. The formula of “Since U Been Gone” is still here, but the moment her voice lilts, there is no way one won’t be swept away.
19. “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up)”
Fall Out Boy
Save Rock and Roll is a decent comeback, and its lead single, whose title shows Fall Out Boy’s difficulty to veer away from their emo roots, gives them enough muscle to stay ahead of the game. There’s too much going on: the hand clapping, the thundering drums, Patrick Stump’s howling, the second voice, the glossy and brooding atmosphere. Yet this kind of extravagance sounds cohesive—these elements are integrated well to create a convincing whole. It’s only three minutes long, but the feeling of being in a stadium full of people stays for quite a while.
18. “Get the Girl Back”
Despite featuring celebrities, the official music video for Hanson’s “Get the Girl Back” is far from reaching a million mark on YouTube—a number extremely unimaginable in this age of Justin Bieber and One Direction, when YouTube hits equate with marketability and eventual success—and this only means that the brothers can never be as huge as they used to be, regardless of the material they come up with. It’s sad, but at some point it also doesn’t matter—commercial success is something they have already experienced, and in this cruel business they’re actually quite lucky that their return as “grownups” is welcomed with more cheers than jeers. “Get the Girl Back” boasts a big band sound, which serves only to emphasize its pop-rock goodness, Taylor’s vocals, and the squeeze of juvenile love. It flaunts a straight up, rousing tune, loud and proud, no frills, nothing tongue-in-cheek. Just for Hanson’s return to the pop charts after almost 10 years, how can it be so hard to raise one’s glass to them?
17. “Do You Love Me”
Hooks are 2NE1’s best friends, and their entry on every year-end list accounts for their ability to unwrap old-fashioned melodies and rhythms and wrap them new. “D-O-Y-O-U-L-O-V-E-M-E” is a predictable come-on, but when followed by “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me like the way I love you babe?” it turns a drab assembly into an irresistible party, like a centrifuge that puts every item that comes near it in rotation. This is slight compared with their previous singles, but even its slightness can poke all the stimuli in one’s body and cause euphoria of inexplicable heights.
Mariah Carey feat. Miguel
Mariah is a flirt but she’s the best flirt in town, this song seems to say, and its video, full of her booty shakes and vagina monologues, seems to say better. “Don’t stop till you thrill me, oh how you thrill me!” is something said during cunnilungus, but she gets away with it the same way she gets away with her lusty Christmas records: everything owes to the dynamics of her vocal package. Miguel showers her with adulations and she accepts every bit of it—I deserve all of them!—and something happens as they exchange lines, a spark almost imperceptible in the naked eye, a gentle flicker producing strong electricity, something that not even a cheap hashtag can taint. Unmoved by objectification and unfazed by Ariana Grande’s threats, Mariah simply holds her head (and boobs) high.
15. “Bakit Ngayon”
Julie Anne San Jose
Julie Anne San Jose is that rare breed of Kapuso star who doesn’t come across as cheap and trying hard like most of her contemporaries in her station. She’s no fluke. The weaknesses of her songs manage only to show her range and promise, and single after single there always emerges a reason to like her. On “Bakit Ngayon” she clings to the sappiness of ill-timed love, on and on until it reaches that magical middle eight, when she repeats “Dumating, nagparamdam sa akin” four times, each to different effect. And all the feebleness of the previous verses has been worth hearing because of this bridge, as it manages to tie up loose ends through something so dull and dreary, so humdrum in fact, but she sings it as though her world were about to crumble, as though her life depended on that stupid feeling.
14. “Still Into You”
Goddammit, it’s about that guy from New Found Glory! And it’s a profession of love, of all nasty things! But Hayley Williams, almost always in danger of becoming a second-rate Avril Lavigne, is gifted with oomph, with a sparkle of youth that transforms her words into contagious glee, with a voice that over the years she is able to use with flair. It’s hard to find fault with “Still Into You,” for it’s a song driven by genuine emotion. Its candor allows its lyrics to flow flawlessly, and its chorus is cooked to perfection. The moment Hayley shouts “I should be over all the butterflies!” the song becomes a balloon that bursts suddenly, and the sound it makes brings a vibe of celebration: confetti, colors, candles, cake. It’s ridiculous, but what kind of love isn’t?
13. “Best Song Ever”
It’s easy for some people to conclude that most love songs ruling the charts these days are fluff: hits that speak of almost the same thing, hits that take up so much space and offer nothing of value. This judgment is reasonable, but fluff, even at its slightest, is subject to various conditions, which make it interesting. Take the case of “Best Song Ever.” Its composers are accused of ripping off The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” and though the similarities are blatant, the song becomes reduced to such reputation, which is a shame because it’s a single that does not aspire to be anything but be a One Direction song: a formidable piece of fluff, a pastry full of marshmallows. Parts of it are vexing, providing the boys more dead-ends than possibilities, but it’s the moment they are after, a silly fraction of a moment that happens in the chorus, a half-minute of unadulterated pleasure that puts a new spin on feeling blissfully stupid. The emphasis is on the adverb, of course.
Listen to “Wings” and “Move” alternately and there’s this difference between them that’s hard to articulate without reaching a contradiction. The disparity is both subtle and glaring— subtle because they sound almost similar, the group’s distinguishing melodic chops are exhausted on both, though upon closer inspection, it feels as though they were separated by long years, while in fact it’s only 15 months; glaring because the vocals on “Move” are more confident and graceful, the transition between singers more evenhanded, the dynamics among the girls tighter and snappier. “Move” moves in different directions, possessed, happily intoxicated. It’s a banger in the tradition of Girls Aloud and Sugababes, and these young X-Factor ladies take pride in managing to stand alongside these fantastic female groups. Their common denominator? The British fondness for risky song structures. Little Mix? More like Little Minx.
11. “Nasa Iyo Na Ang Lahat”
Failure to acknowledge this hit gives the impression of denying, or even invalidating, the curious case of Daniel Padilla, particularly the hordes of fans who shower him with affection, and to whom a meaningless gaze from him is enough to send them to the mental ward. One fascinating facet of his popularity is that he evokes the peculiarities of a Korean star, from his image of vanity and virility to the way his mere presence prompts screams, which is a welcoming development as far as pop culture phenomena are concerned. His ode to Kathryn Bernardo, “Nasa Iyo Na Ang Lahat,” describes his personality aptly: it’s cute, juvenile, and silly, which means that it is intended only for those who like him. It may not age well, for it gets tiring after multiple listens, but it’s a song that knows the moment, a song whose effect matters only at present, the unreasonable here and now, a comforting reminder that good things don’t leave too soon.
Katy Perry doesn’t want to see you be brave. Unlike Sara Bareilles, she doesn’t offer any piece of advice or words of inspiration. She doesn’t tell you that “you can be amazing” or “you can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug.” That’s not her shit. That’s too churchy. Instead, she talks about herself—me, me, me, me, me—all for the sake of self-congratulation. But Katy has the ability to deliver clichés with exultation. She has the knack for debasing her personal experiences and enjoying it. She must have fallen asleep every time Russell Brand had one of those long discourses on politics, but she managed to catch the keywords for her personal use—rhyming “tiger” and “fire,” “lion” and “champion,” “zero” and “hero”—thereby producing “Roar” and its enjoyable display of narcissism. Perfectly assembled, cleverly foolish. It’s bullshit to call it a song of empowerment, made even more obvious by its facetious video, but it’s proof that charming songs, like attractive people, are hard to resist.
Abra feat. Arci Muñoz
Gloc-9 has been on top of the mainstream rap scene for years, so it’s only about time that someone takes his place to offer something new, that is, to have someone interpret clichés differently. A firecracker onstage, Abra fits the bill—he’s younger, bouncier, freer. In this business where everything that sticks out is scrutinized, his height seems to go unnoticed, overridden by his comely face and briskness. While “Gayuma” announces his arrival, “Ilusyon” confirms his stay. Its rallying cry, “huwag niyo ‘kong gagawing tanga!” captures the fury and resentment of dissatisfied people, a society drowned in poor options and bad choices. His rants are ear-friendly: they do not ask for sympathy; they are meant to make his listeners nod. And all the way through “Ilusyon,” one can’t help but submit to his words, enjoy the rhythm of his tirades, and feel the clutch of its shiny refrain.
8. “Blurred Lines”
Robin Thicke feat. T.I. and Pharrell
So many things have been said about “Blurred Lines,” from the ecstatic reviews prior to its massive success to the scathing comments after the release of its music video, not to mention the 10-paragraph diatribe by Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield that only highlights the song’s infallible appeal, but they all boil down to the basic truth that, indeed, up to this century, sexism sells. And when chauvinism is bundled nicely, when it’s delivered by good-looking men with money, compromise arises, and people get divided by the complexity of their sensibilities. The funniest thing about this whole kerfuffle is that the only person who has been able to break Robin Thicke is Miley Cyrus at the VMAs—she gives him what he wants, she twerks and sticks her tongue out, she makes him nervous, she makes people realize the utter filthiness of being objectified—yet what happens? She is disgraced and becomes the slut icon. People have shamed her for standing up to him. Congratulations, society.
Yes, “Blurred Lines” is misogynist, indecent, and reckless. It is conceived by men who enjoy trivializing women; it is a song that actually understands its message and the impact it will have on listeners. And all of these are already clear at the onset, therefore making it an even more cunning piece of trash. And not to put too fine a point on it: it’s a pop song—teenagers dance to it at parties, it gets blasted at malls and supermarkets, people no longer give a fuck about its lyrics but continue to be carried away by its sonic luxuries, its “modern” beat, its “homage to Marvin Gaye.” Even the need to put words and phrases between inverted commas is its fault. Who says popular music is only about earning money? Obviously it can shake the ground like this.
7. “I Got A Boy”
At some point on Girls’ Generation’s “I Got A Boy” one is tempted to exclaim: Huh, what’s happening? Clearly it’s a song that takes pleasure in defying conventions—it’s messy, ambitious, and confusing; its transitions are loose and bumpy; its hooks sometimes out of place. But one is easily swept away by its demeanor, the way it takes pride in its arsenal of snappy verses, the way the beats keep up with the girls who have no time for lyrical costume changes. In five minutes the song is able to travel places, to enter an arena and exit a cave, to go on a trip with only the senses moving. It’s berserk. It’s magnificently careless. Second after second, “I Got A Boy” looks for rules to break and the girls do so with knives between their knuckles, like characters from a Takashi Miike movie about to run amok.
6. “Get Lucky”
Daft Punk feat. Pharrell
This won’t be an assessment of “Get Lucky” because at this point one is already resigned to its refreshing brilliance, one doesn’t feel the need to discuss why in this industry full of surprises and inconsistencies it is embraced with no questions asked, one listens to it without hesitation and understands every bit of sensation it brings, the effortlessness of its groove, the kindness of its beats, the grace of Pharrell’s presence, the wisdom of Nile Rodgers, the way Daft Punk continue to reinvent their music without changing it, how any annotation on every year-end list does not affect its actual worth, because the song itself is beyond the usual critical appraisal, and sometimes that’s a good thing, for it makes one realize that melodies have the capacity to hold magic, and it’s one of life’s wonderful gifts better left unexplained.
“I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh,” and upon uttering these cold words Lorde makes her entrance, her voice a few steps ahead of her body, her voice more naked than her flesh. She’s 17, she’s from New Zealand, and this is her first record. One is not compelled to decipher her: what she gives is enough. She is straightforward: there is only fog between her lines, nothing with obvious shape. Even the success of “Royals” is unsurprising: all her producers have to do is release it, show her face on the video, and let her sing. The odds are in her favor. Singing about her insecurity has made her secure, has probably allowed her to afford the luxuries she mentions in the song, which is a funny twist of fate but also inevitable. “Royals” provides a sharp contrast to the noise and disorder that permeate today’s music, and it proves that it’s possible to simply come out of nowhere and rule.
4. “The Way”
Ariana Grande feat. Mac Miller
Brenda Russell lends the piano riff that kicks off “The Way,” and it not only sets a distinctly chirpy mood but also complements the texture of Ariana Grande’s thin voice. This backing track is the red lipstick to her soft lips, the bounce to her walk, the frills on her dress. Her initial delivery of the chorus can either be a hit or a miss, and she hits it, graciously. But she holds on to that riff only to gain momentum after Mac Miller’s twaddle—the moment she delivers her breathtaking verses she untangles herself and sprints, light on her feet, exhilarated by freedom. She pronounces every word with delightful flirtatiousness, singing as though she had to choose between holding the crown on her head and holding her skirt that’s being ruffled by the wind. “The Way” is by all means a splendid single, and perhaps no one in 2013 has turned the lights on as brightly as Ariana Grande has, and more importantly: no one has ever stepped on Mariah Carey’s shadow as threateningly as she has done, no one with such vigorous promise at the very least.
Psy may be an anomaly in the landscape of global pop music, but his presence is a welcome deviation, a refreshing change from the tired formulas being churned out by Western music producers in the past couple of years. There’s no way he can top the rumpus brought about by “Gangnam Style,” but with “Gentleman” he proves that at 35, he remains the enfant terrible of K-Pop, and frankly the most gifted composer of joyful hooks. The dominant hook of “Gentleman,” which appears in the beginning, middle, and end, is a spectacle in itself, a quicksand that freezes the rapture contained in the song—the glee, the ecstasy, the gaiety, the fun, basically sucking in all degrees of happiness—and Psy, of all reasonable things to do, puts a hand under his chin and shakes his hips, introducing the world to a dance of utter smugness. There’s a lot to say about his polarizing popularity and his consistent critique of South Korean culture in his songs and music videos, but for now Psy’s genius for silliness of great consequence and magnitude is enough to consider him an icon of the offbeat, the heedless horseman of the bizarre.
There are two live performances of “Ikot-Ikot” that are worth watching before one decides to embrace or dismiss it.
First is its debut on Sunday variety show ASAP. Since it’s unfamiliar to everyone’s ears, there is that atmosphere of tension and anticipation, and even Sarah herself, in her red blazer and red pants, looks serious and uneasy, probably hoping that the color of her outfit would absorb her nerves. But her face is fierce: it’s ready to be wounded. Following her habit, she enunciates words more than what’s necessary, but she brings the beat in, the hand gestures, the body language. Before proceeding to the bridge of the song, she walks to a stage closer to the audience. And then, to everyone’s surprise, she explodes. That bridge resonates deeply to her, and that bridge is meant to be sung that way: manic, hysterical, and greedy, Sarah almost flying off the handle towards the end. It’s a flawed performance—and no bullshit, that’s actually the point: pain isn’t supposed to be perfect—but that last part alone is enough to consider it the song of the year. Or, sadly, the heartbreak of the year, Sarah’s politest way of saying “Fuck you and fuck it, Gerald.”
Second is the performance on Showtime, where she takes more liberties with the arrangement and shows the delicate side of the song. These melodic changes also display its supple quality, which points at the skill of writer Thyro Alfaro and producer Bojam de Belen. But the spotlight is still on her, and in this performance one is inclined to notice the quality of her voice. It’s powerful, there’s no doubt about that, but in her 10 years in the business, it’s obvious that she’s still grappling with it—she is still trying to whittle it. And that nuance is not present in the studio version of “Ikot-Ikot”: that first flush of youth, those jagged edges she thinks sound good live but don’t, that insistence on her established style. The version on Expressions is clean and commanding, with less vocal calisthenics and fewer overtones, but even after multiple listens it continues to throb, and it’s a relief that finally, after several years of middling covers, Sarah releases an original composition worth aching for, worth losing one’s head for.
1. “Wrecking Ball”
“There’s method behind the madness,” writer Robert Copsey says in his review of “Wrecking Ball,” and obviously in addition to method there is motivation. Perhaps not even Miley has seen it coming, but the buzz she has created in 2013 is enough for another artist’s lifetime, and that she is still around, releasing and promoting the superb “#GETITRIGHT” as her next single, continuing to receive endless pieces of advice from self-important celebrities, it’s likely that the worst of it has already passed.
She has Liam Hemsworth to thank for “Wrecking Ball,” for despite being inferior to “We Can’t Stop” as far as novelty and technique are concerned, it has made an indelible icon out of her, which is always a great thing to carry, especially when your father’s biggest legacy is “Achy Breaky Heart.”
What more to say? Which stone to turn? Which angle deserves more light or shade? There’s no way to tell. Sadly, it feels that music critics, who, more than anyone else, should be immune to stigma, are turning their backs on Miley on account of her behavior this year; but truth to be told, it’s for this very reason that she is the most vital recording artist of 2013—not Kanye, not Katy, not Kendrick, not even Beyoncé—and it owes to her stunts that monotony has been dodged. Fortunately, when all her tricks have been exhausted, there still remains a soul in her, some dust to be collected, a completely talented person. Is it worth it? No. But it’s actually by doing something unworthy that worth is redefined, so there goes a perspective.
And “Wrecking Ball” is that unworthy thing that becomes worthy in light of all the fuss. Its ordinariness is striking. It’s a ballad filled with decent hooks, but technical composition is secondary only to the passion that Miley brings to the words and melody. She translates her pain into another form of pain, and her vocabulary of hurt helps her out. When listened closely, it’s the sound of a being about to die but doesn’t die, and Miley, like a word lost among phrases or a sentence hidden in countless paragraphs, lets out this final cry before submitting to rest. They say destruction creates new terrains and selves: in this new phase of her life and career, she may enter it completely hurt but at least she is in one piece.