Collapse into You: Best Reads of 2014 December 22, 2014Posted by Richard Bolisay in Yearend.
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In these pages are signs of life, its sight and sound and scent, burrowing, making their presence felt—sighs, winks, gasps, pulse, heartbeats, whistles, moans, grace, imbalance, stench—but life is impossible without death, without feeling its wrinkles, portents, exits, departures, and curtains, how life and death are one and the same, reflections of one another, doppelgängers eventually meeting at one point, and these books, read and reread in utter absorption, filled with fissures into which everything and nothing, one in the same, fall, revealing “the quiet sadness of space itself,” the void that keeps on giving, are shared with utmost persuasion.
30. A Russian Doll and Other Stories, Adolfo Bioy Casares, 1991, Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine, 1992
As I prepared bait and flies, I remembered a phrase that I often say to whoever wishes to hear me: for me there’s no greater paradise than an afternoon spent fishing.
29. Parang, Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles, 2008
Kung maaari ibig niyang ipalibing
Anuman ang kaniyang labi
Sa alaala ng naiwan
Ibig niya roong mahimlay hindi
Upang sa naiwan siya tuwina
Makagambala bagkus upang ibigay
Sa naiwan ang kapayapaan
Na gaya ng sa isang libingan.
—”Ang Kapayapaan ng Isang Libingan”
28. The Viceroy of Ouidah, Bruce Chatwin, 1980
Stealing from a white man isn’t stealing.
27. Underground, Haruki Murakami, 1997/1998, Translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel, 2000
Reality is created out of confusion and contradiction, and if you exclude those elements, you’re no longer talking about reality. You might think that—by following language and a logic that appears consistent—you’re able to exclude that aspect of reality, but it will always be lying in wait for you, ready to take its revenge.
26. Human Voices, Penelope Fitzgerald, 1980
There’s two ways to be selfish. You can think too much about yourself, or you can think too little about others. You’re selfish both ways.
25. Into It, Lawrence Joseph, 2005
I want you to watch carefully
what I am saying now—are you
with me? An inch-long piece of steel,
part of the artillery shell’s
casing, sliced through the right eye
into his brain, severely damaging
the optic nerve of his left eye,
spraying bone splinters
into the brain, making him quick to lose
his temper, so acutely sensitive to pain
the skin on his face hurts
when wind blows against it . . .
—excerpt from “Rubaiyat”
24. In the Wilderness, Manuel Rivas, 1994, Translated by Jonathan Dunne, 2003
Memory is a mysterious lady. We do not choose our memories. They live their own life. They come and go. Sometimes they disappear for good. Other memories stick to us like lichen to a stone. They’re bits of life that never faded, that feed on the cold air, and increase slowly on the bark of time.
23. Moy Sand and Gravel, Paul Muldoon, 2002
When I put my finger to the hole they’ve cut for a dimmer switch
in a wall of plaster stiffened with horsehair
it seems I’ve scratched a two-hundred-year-old itch
with a pink and a pink and a pinkie-pick.
When I put my ear to the hole I’m suddenly aware
of spades and shovels turning up the gain
all the way from Raritan to the Delaware
with a clink and a clink and a clinky-click.
When I put my nose to the hole I smell the floodplain
of the canal after a hurricane
and the spots of green grass where thousands of Irish have lain
with a stink and a stink and a stinky-stick.
When I put my eye to the hole I see one holding horse dung to the rain
in the hope, indeed, indeed,
of washing out a few whole ears of grain
with a wink and a wink and a winkie-wick.
And when I do at last succeed
in putting my mouth to the horsehair-fringed niche
I can taste the small loaf of bread he baked from that whole seed
with a link and a link and a linky-lick.
22. Detective Story, Imre Kertesz, 1977, Translated by Tim Wilkinson, 2008
“You amaze me, Dad! You’re still living in hope, even now? But what do you want? What can you still want, after everything that has happened?”
Now there was a sound. A word that I didn’t understand. I had to double the volume to make out the whisper. And even though I am unable to share in it, now that my own future has become decidedly dubious, I’m coming round to an understanding of the rapture that Salinas distilled into this one word:
21. 84, Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff, 1970
The blessed man who sold me all my books died a few months ago. But Marks & Co is still there. If you happen to pass by 84 Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me? I owe it so much.
20. Three Exemplary Novels, Miguel de Unamuno, 1920, Translated by Angel Flores, 1987
One day, exasperated beyond all endurance, Julia attacked her husband, saying:
“You’re not a man, Alejandro, no; you’re not a man!”
“What’s that! I? And why not?”
“No, you’re not a man, you’re not!”
“Now I know that you don’t love me, that nothing that concerns me interests you, that to you I am not even the mother of your child and that you only married me out of vanity to boast of it, to exhibit me, to exalt yourself by my beauty, to. . .”
“Well, well, that’s more literature. Why am I not a man?”
“Now I know that you don’t love me.”
19. Journey into the Past, Stefan Zweig, 1976, Translated by Anthea Bell, 2009
Time is helpless, he thought to himself, helpless in the face of our feelings. Nine years have passed, and not a note in her voice is different, not a nerve in my body hears her in any other way. Nothing is lost, nothing is past and over, her presence is as much of a tender delight now as it was then.
18. District and Circle, Seamus Heaney, 2006
We were killing pigs when the Americans arrived.
A Tuesday morning, sunlight and gutter-blood
Outside the slaughterhouse. From the main road
They would have heard the squealing,
Then heard it stop and had a view of us
In our gloves and aprons coming down the hill.
Two lines of them, guns on their shoulders, marching.
Armoured cars and tanks and open jeeps.
Sunburnt hands and arms. Unknown, unnamed,
Hosting for Normandy.
Not that we knew then
Where they were headed, standing there like youngsters
As they tossed us gum and tubes of coloured sweets.
17. Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico, Javier Marías, 1996, Translated by Esther Allen, 1999
Or perhaps it’s simpler than that, perhaps it’s just that there is never a way of erasing what’s been said, true or false, once it’s been said: accusations and inventions, slanders and stories and fabrications, disavowal is not enough, it doesn’t erase but adds; once an event has been recounted there will be a thousand contradictory and impossible versions long, long before the event is annihilated: denials and discrepancies coexist with what they refute or deny, they accumulate, add up, they never cancel anything out but only end up sanctioning it for as long as people go on talking, the only way to erase is to say nothing, and go on saying nothing for a very long time.
16. The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka, 1915, Translated by Susan Bernofsky, 2014
“It has to go,” Gregor’s sister cried out, “that’s the only way, Father. You just have to try to let go of the notion that this thing is Gregor. The real disaster is that we believed this for so long. But how could it be Gregor? If it were Gregor, it would have realized a long time ago that it is just isn’t possible for human beings to live beside such a creature, and it would have gone away on its own. We still would have been lacking a brother but we would have been able to go on living and honoring his memory. But now we have this beast tormenting us; it drives away our lodgers and apparently intends to take over the entire apartment and have us sleep in the gutter. Just look, Father,” she suddenly shrieked, “he’s starting again!”
15. The Woman Who Walked into Doors, Roddy Doyle, 1996
That’s the thing about my memories. I can’t pick and choose them. I can’t pretend. There were no good times. I can never settle into a nice memory, lie back, and smile. They’re all polluted, all ruined. Nothing to look back at that isn’t painful or sick.
14. 03, Jean-Christophe Valtat, 2005, Translated by Mitzi Angel, 2010
I didn’t like what that word—childhood—conjured up, or rather, I didn’t like the way most people use it: that presumption of innocence and starry-eyed wonder. The only good thing about childhood is that no one really remembers it, or rather, that’s the only thing about it to like: this forgetting. What else could possibly lie beneath that blissful oblivion but shame: a dark knowledge of that terrible badge of weakness, that inescapable servitude (bearable only thanks to the slow revelation that we could inflict cruelty and evil on the weaker kids), a sickening awareness that just about everything there is to understand was beyond us, made even worse by the lies and inaccuracies that adults feel entitled to spread around, deliberately, or because they don’t know any better, about themselves or about the nature of reality?
13. Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood, 1939
Overheard in a café: a young nazi is sitting with his girl; they are discussing the future of the Party. The Nazi is drunk.
“Oh, I know we shall win, all right,” he exclaims impatiently, “but that’s not enough!” He thumps the table with his fist: “Blood must flow!”
The girl strokes his arm reassuringly. She is trying to get him to come home. “But, of course, it’s going to flow, darling,” she coos soothingly, “the Leader’s promised that in our programme.”
12. Hindi man lang nakita, Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles, 2005
Itinuro sa kaniya ang kahulugan ng salita ayon sa diwa nito
sa loob ng pangungusap.
Nang hindi na magkasiya sa natamong kaalaman, at dahil
pangahas, ipinasiya niyang pumasok sa loob ng
Malaya siyang naging paslit na nakipaglaro sa mga salita o
naging munting bantas na naupo sa dulo o nagpahinga sa
gitna ng pagpapahayag.
Higit niyang nadama ang sikip o luwag ng linya at natutuhan
niyang manahimik sa mga pagitan at ligid ng mga parirala’t
sugnay upang maunawaan kahit ang walang kahulugan.
Inibig niya nang lubos ang pangungusap hanggang sa araw
na ito’y ilimbag, at kasama ng iba pang pangungusap,
nanahan siya sa piling ng aklat.
—”Sa Loob ng Pangungusap”
11. In Praise of the Stepmother, Mario Vargas Llosa, 1988, Translated by Helen Lane, 1990
Don Rigoberto gave a satisfied smile. Shitting, defecating, excreting: synonyms for sexual pleasure? he thought. Of course. Why not? Provided it was done slowly, savoring the task, without the least hurry, taking one’s time, imparting to the muscles of the colon a gentle, sustained quivering. It was a matter not of pushing but of guiding, of accompanying, of graciously escorting the gliding of the offerings toward the exit.
10. Building a House and Other Poems, Sid Gomez Hildawa, 2006
Hinge your life on something
as steadfast as a jamb
but know which way to swing.
(Those who swing both ways
belong between the dining hall
and the kitchen.) Hold your breath
when you are locked, inhale deeply
with every knock that isn’t answered
with “come in.” Be still
when there is no reply from the innkeeper
of all things. Your name is Portal
so with your body keep out sickness
and greed, and builders who do not know
how to hammer a house with quiet words.
Let sorrow pass, and youth, and the goldest giraffe
who bends low to nibble from a lady’s hand.
That all may enter who have traveled worlds
to be astonished, weary now of boulevards
that look out to the sea but never wave,
finally stepping in, leaving shoes outside
and shaking hands with all they meet inside, all
who have come before them, all who must dwell.
—”How to be a Door”
9. The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector, 1977, Translated by Benjamin Moser, 2011
All the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It was ever so. I don’t know why, but I do know that the universe never began.
8. Drone, Allan Popa, 2013
On this side of waiting you recognize
his fist when you hear it: his breath
against the door.
You let him in without a word.
You know where to find his wounds.
The doors, the windows
you leave open. Nothing to fear.
Throughout the night you stay with him,
his face in half-light, half-remembered.
Before morning he disappears
without looking back. Without leaving
a stain. The water in the basin is clear.
You wash your hands.
You search for him
in every man you make love to
with a violence you’ve never known.
You bear his memory
until the day you give birth to him.
—”For the Martyr”
7. Who Killed Palomino Molero? Mario Vargas Llosa, 1986. Translated by Alfred Mac Adam, 1987
My little Chubby belongs to a superior race of women: those who don’t wear panties. Think of all the advantages of having a woman who goes through life without panties.
6. The Train to Lo Wu, Jess Row, 2005
I’ve come to see my life as a radiating circle of improbabilities that grow from each other, like ripples in water around a dropped stone. That I became a high school English teacher, that I work in another country, that I live in Hong Kong. That a city can be a mirage, hovering above the ground: skyscrapers built on mountainsides, islands swallowed in fog for days. That a language can have no tenses or articles, with seven different ways of saying the same syllable. That my best student stares at the blackboard only when I erase it.
5. When I Whistle, Shusaku Endo, 1974, Translated by Van C. Gessel, 1979
Far into the distance, the sea had been filled in like a desert. Two cement mixers were driving along the desolate stretch of of reclaimed land. Beyond that there was nothing. Where was the spot where Flatfish, tossed about bu the waves, had pursued Aiko and her friends that day? Where was the beach that Aiko and her friends had raced along, shrieking with laughter? The sea was gone now. The white beach was gone. But it was not just here. Beautiful things, things from the treasured past were now disappearing all over Japan.
4. Mortality, Christopher Hitchens, 2012
I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent solider is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.
3. A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood, 1964
You could know what I’m about. You could. But you can’t be bothered to. Look – you’re the only boy I ever met on that campus I really believe could. That’s what makes it so tragically futile. Instead of trying to know, you commit the inexcusable triviality of saying he’s a dirty old man, and turning this evening, which might be the most precious and unforgettable of your young life, into a flirtation! You don’t like that word, do you? But it’s the word. It’s the enormous tragedy of everything nowadays. Flirtation. Flirtation instead of fucking, if you’ll pardon my coarseness. All any of you ever do is flirt, and wear your blankets off one shoulder, and complain about motels. And miss the one thing that might really – and, Kenneth, I do not say this casually – transform your entire life —
2. Regarding Space, Sid Gomez Hildawa, 2005
I hear yellow and gold
crackle and crunch
like potato chips
as my bicycle rolls over
leaves, discarded dry
on the cold pavement
under a line of trees.
What pageantry I have
seen of autumn
is all beneath me now;
I am green and high
above it all, riding on two
wheels spinning fast
and turning corners
quick. The sound my
passing makes reminds
me of the swelling
ground that beckons
even blue stars to itself,
and that I pedal another
cycle of seasons under which
wheel I am just a leaf. Green,
yellow, sometimes red,
I am growing old.
—”Riding Autumn (Japan, 1997)”
1. The Emigrants, W. G. Sebald, 1992, Translated by Michael Hulse, 1996
Memory, he added in a postscript, often strikes me as a kind of a dumbness. It makes one’s head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.
You are Beautiful and You are Alone: The Top Albums of 2013 December 30, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Music, Yearend.
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Omission or overstatement is always a possibility, and year-end lists thrive in risks, in flaws and fallacies, in misjudgment and misplacement. They exist for these reasons. They conclude a year the same way desserts complete a meal, hence at first they must capture one’s attention, and when eaten must be satisfying, must be gone in only a matter of seconds, leaving the plate and the spoon clean. Well, at least, that’s the idea. And the ideal.
This personal list tries and fails, but it has always believed in trying.
II, Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Carrier, The Dodos
Faint Hearted, Miles
Field of Reeds, These New Puritans
The Flower Lane, Ducktails
Hummingbird, Local Natives
In Focus?, Shugo Tokumaru
MCII, Mikal Cronin
The Messenger, Johnny Marr
Push the Sky Away, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Season of Your Day, Mazzy Star
Slow Focus, Fuck Buttons
Stories Don’t End, Dawes
We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, Foxygen
Atoms for Peace
Contrary to speculations, Thom Yorke has friends. Outside Radiohead the music he makes may not be totally different but it gives way to his lighter side, the gentler and warmer side of his that blooms when he’s not around his usual band mates. Amok is the first LP of Atoms for Peace, but it’s a record so sure of itself, so strong and steady that there’s something humorous in calling it a debut, especially since the people involved in making it are industry heavyweights. The sleekness of it is far from overpowering. One after another, the tracks move with seeming complicity and make sweeping gestures through minimal use of elements. Although it boasts a deftly polished surface, Amok also holds surprises for those who listen closely.
Recommended: “Default,” “Ingenue,” “Judge, Jury and Executioner”
9. The Hurry and the Harm
City and Colour
Although The Hurry and The Harm sounds more refined than Dallas Green’s previous records, to an extent due to the sophistication of its production, one thing hasn’t changed: his ace songwriting. This gift for lyrical flourishes is coupled with melodies that burst at the seams, turning melancholy fears into personal realizations, opening all doors and windows to let the air in. At one moment he sings, “I don’t wanna be revolutionary / No, I’m just looking for the sweetest melody,” and it sums up neatly what he has been doing all these years.
Recommended: “Harder than Stone,” “The Lonely Life,” “Commentators”
8. Hesitation Marks
Nine Inch Nails
The surprise on Hesitation Marks is not its arresting quality, which is expected from almost every Trent Reznor release, but the reason for it. Yes, it’s an album heavy with textures and atmospheres, and its starkness is breathtaking, but there’s less force and fewer demons, less brutality and more tenderness, as shown on its softer rhythms and looser tunes that feel like musical fondues: tasty and scrumptious, forcing the listener to dance in glee. Older but definitely wiser, Reznor has so much more to give.
Recommended: “Copy of A,” “Came Back Haunted,” “Satellite”
7. The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
“This record was really autobiographical because my mind didn’t have room for anything else,” says Neko Case, referring to her latest album. And The Worse Things Get…, driven by the unforgiving power of her voice, the cruelty of its tone, and the burning clarity of her words, swells with the need to be let out, to be remembered less for its stories than for the emotional rawness they carry. Case is many things (a man, a tornado, a murderer) and shows many things (love, aggression, anger, loneliness, fear), and this record presents her at her most vulnerable, which is also her most beautiful.
Recommended: “Night Still Comes,” “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu.” “Afraid”
6. …Like Clockwork
Queens of the Stone Age
The recording of …Like Clockwork is marked by difficulties: the departure of drummer Joey Castillo, Josh Homme’s near-death experience at hospital, and a slew of distractions that have found the band members in a state of ennui, trying to figure things out after several years of not being at the studio together. But there have also been welcoming changes and additions, namely the contributions of former members Nick Oliveri, Dave Grohl, and Mark Lanegan, and the collaborations with Trent Reznor, Alex Turner, and Elton John, among others. All these make it feel like it’s a colossal, mind-blowing record, but it isn’t, for it is propelled by confident restraint and resolve to focus on the music, which remains intense and crunchy without losing that boldness to tread on uneven terrains. Truth be told, there’s not much to say about …Like Clockwork, except that every second of it drips with goodness.
Recommended: “Keep Your Eyes Peeled,” “If I Had A Tail,” “Smooth Sailing”
5. Julia With Blue Jeans On
It’s sad that Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown, arguably two of the finest rock bands from the 2000s, are no longer around. But Spencer Krug—an overly gifted songwriter and crazy singer; a sufferer, a poet of immense talent, and a storyteller of mad predilections—always finds a way to free his work from himself, to find an avenue for his compositions. Leaving Canada for Finland, he continues making records as Moonface, and this year, having gone through many changes like the characters in his songs, releases Julia With Blue Jeans On, a tempered work compared with his previous records. Accompanied only by the piano, this album also happens to be his most heartbreaking: his excesses, instead of acting as flourishes, create a haunting effect, and his voice remains compelling, beer-friendly. The moment the album reaches its final seconds, the listener feels completely heavy, skeptic of playing it again, and that’s how it is with everyone.
Recommended: “Barbarian,” “Dreamy Summer,” “Julia With Blue Jeans On”
4. m b v
My Bloody Valentine
Who would have fucking thought? After 22 years, there’s no way that a fan, possibly in his teens or twenties when Loveless came out, can confront m b v without eagerness, without looking forward to basking in its shoegazing glory, without hoping to place his hands in its embers. Its mere presence is enough to move him to tears. And thankfully m b v leaves no room for disappointment—it’s a constellation that keeps on twinkling, a record so generous that it gives its listeners plenty of reasons to press repeat. It’s an album with a long and rewarding life, with a soul that never leaves. Once people get past the comparisons with Loveless, all that’s left is this huge gratitude to a band that has suffered a lot to deliver this astonishing piece of work.
Recommended: “She Found Now,” “Who Sees You,” “New You”
Record after record, Arctic Monkeys prove one important thing: their growth is never tiring. Suck It and See finds them in a difficult situation as it sets down what seems to be their total strengths as songwriters and musicians, and what comes next may pale in comparison. AM, however, doesn’t, and this is a noteworthy feat that owes to their willingness to develop their sound without losing the verve and vibe that have made listeners cling to them over the years. Driven by the band’s captivating personality and tracks that are too irresistible to ignore, AM simmers after every spin, and the whistle it makes is a reminder that good things may come to an end but that end sometimes connects with better things.
Recommended: “Do I Wanna Know?” “R U Mine?” “Knee Socks”
2. The Next Day
While listening to The Next Day one is tempted to find a moment when it wavers, when David Bowie, a pop icon who’s had many fits of inconsistencies in his career, loses grip and indulges pointlessly, but there isn’t any. It sounds so brisk, spontaneous, and spirited that it doesn’t feel like a comeback record, it doesn’t feel that Bowie has been gone for long, it doesn’t feel that words will do justice to its seeming lightheartedness, to its exhilarating moments. Bowie’s well never runs out of interesting ideas, and every time the bucket emerges, it brims with pleasant surprises. The Next Day stands as proof of this.
Recommended: “Valentine’s Day,” “I’d Rather Be High,” “Dancing Out in Space”
1. Trouble Will Find Me
What the members of The National have been consistently doing since 2005’s Alligator is shape their experiences into beguiling pieces of music, and though most of them teem with anxieties and forebodings of fathers in their thirties and forties, they are likely to strike a chord with any listener who revels in exquisite descriptions of dark feelings, who sees humor in the mundane, and who has always imagined rock music mixed with gentle poetry. High Violet may be a tough record to follow, but Trouble Will Find Me, in its searing moments of inscrutable joy, marks an achievement that is impossible to overstate, a record that only confirms The National’s intolerable kindness, their unbearable and stubborn greatness.
Recommended: “Sea of Love,” “Graceless,” “Pink Rabbits”
February 16, 2013
March 22, 2013
World Trade Center
July 30, 2013
August 19, 2013
Hard Rock Cafe
Explosions in the Sky
Heart Locked Tight: The Top Tracks of 2013 December 29, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Music, Yearend.
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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.