Ten Songs I Liked This Year and Why

No, these songs aren’t terribly current, only one of them was out this year, but y’know, there’s lots of music, it takes a while for me to find all of it.

Sam Cooke — What a Wonderful World

This isn’t the version of Wonderful World, popularised by Louis Armstrong, but a soul standard by the same name that Cooke first put out. Around the time the song was released/recorded in 1960, Cooke would’ve been around twenty-nine or so, but, perhaps due to his image as a teenage-heartthrob type, the lyrics mostly reference high-school subjects. These changes were Cooke’s; he made them when altering the original. You can perhaps tell from the slightly clumsy ‘don’t know much about a science book/don’t know much about the French I took’. I’d say he about redeems himself by rhyming ‘trigonometry’ with ‘geometry’, even if the former isn’t actually a subject per se. Aside from the trope on which the song depends (‘I don’t know much about anything, but I know what I like’), it otherwise sits really well in Cooke’s oeuvre as a whole; in most of his songs the speaker advances a very image of themselves, usually in some kind of dialogue with his public persona, in an attempt to make himself a more attractive partner for the presumable auditor. Another reason I like this is its prominence in the trailer for Inherent Vice, the best trailer of all time. The film, less so.

Boards of Canada — Music is Math

I’ve always found it difficult to articulate why I like Boards of Canada so much, knowing how long it took me to get to grips with their sound. Mostly it’s about the communication of vibes; I could listen to Boards while watching videos of what people thought would the future would be like in the fifties forever. In this way I supposed it makes me nostalgic for a space-age childhood I never had, a time of techno-utopian plastic brutalism, which conveyed a visionary optimism about the future. But yeah, primarily the communication of primo vibes, particularly in shades of nostalgia, note the only lyrics, ‘the past inside the present’. Also the irony in what is such a sprawling, ambient track being called ‘Music is Math’, as if it were a straightforward composition by numbers.

Plaid — Do Matter

I only started listening to Plaid this year, and the first I’d heard of them was this year’s release, The Digging Remedy. Turns out they are luminaries of the Warp label, which hasn’t let me down yet. The Digging Remedy continues Plaid’s strange habit of putting what is indisputably their best song as the first track, and while their discography as a whole is slightly homogenous, this is rarely a problem when their capacity for producing good songs is consistent since their first release in 1991. There is perhaps a more ominous strain to their work of late, of which ‘Do Matter’ is perhaps the best example, some stuff on Scintilli and Rest Proof Clockwork was too bright for me to tolerate, but the arc of this track’s slow build, prepossessing climax and return to its fundamental structure is very competent, and hella bliss-y.

Milo — Sansoucci Palace

Milo would be among my favourite anti-rappers. Like a lot anti/alt-rappers, he’s remains far more rooted within the tradition of rap than either delineation might suggest. The first verse, with its prominent ambient synthesisers and introverted perspective ‘I have read the Wittgenstein/and sat starting at the ceiling wondering when I’m gonna die’ eventually give way to a beat, a proliferation of pop cultural references and an invective against an otherwise unnamed ‘You’, so frequently a target of any number of rappers ire: ‘You’re the dude in Clerks getting his hand caught in a cannister of Pringles/I’m a Squidbillies animator/rap messiah agitator/chronic bathroom masturbator’. Seeing how Milo moves between deploying the tropes of ‘mainstream rap’, and going his own way is my favourite thing about his music, even if the album as a whole is slightly unfocused.

Kendrick Lamar — A.D.H.D.

As far back as Kendrick Lamar’s first major release, the themes which would motivate To Pimp a Butterfly were in place. Lamar takes intimate, first-hand accounts and details of life in black American ghettos to construct fatalistic and critical accounts of his background and early adolescence. ‘A.D.H.D.’ is a downbeat track, the beat is synth-y and ambient, offset by Lamar’s run-on quick-fire cadence and intermittently ticky-tack beats. This is standard production for Lamar, ‘Swimming Pools,’ probably being the most diverting example of what it is that he does best. But it’s the lyrics that stand out for me here, being an investigation of self-destructive hedonism and dead-end consumerism. The track opens with an introduction to the speaker’s experience of being part of a lost generation of black youth: Lyric sites give ‘Eight doobies to the face, fuck that,’ but I can’t help but hear ‘fuck dot,’ probably a reference to Kendrick’s former stage name, K-Dot, focusing a bit more attention I think, on the self-destructive aspects of the speaker’s character. References to labels and brands are on show here too, easily interchangeable with references to the any number of substances the speaker is consuming during the song’s arc.

Blu — Amnesia

A familiar Blu track in a lot of ways, which a prominent melody and a slow beat, with the rapper muttering understatedly over (under?) it all. The lyrics are again, characteristic, playing with his uncertainty, regarding his personal life and as a rapper, intermingled with some more poetic diction and metaphor, but being totally honest, it is absolutely all about that Billie Holiday sample as the hook

Aphex Twin — 4

For a tune with such confrontationally irascible percussion, ‘4’, manages to reach for a melody that is almost pop-like (with a dash of video-game soundtrack) while being rather beautiful, helped by the violin which sustains what might have been an outro, were this not a track made by Richard D. James. Impatient, compulsive and structurally noncomittal, like the best Aphex Twin tunes.

Tom Waits — Hoist that Rag

I’ve become slightly ambivalent about Tom Waits over time — one too many story-songs that endlessly re-hash the whole ‘Nighthawks with a heart of gold’ thing, which is why I think Real Gone and this track in particular, are among his best. Excluding the extended guitar solo, however ham-fisted, there’s a punk quality to Waits’ throaty vocals, and the threadbare percussion, which sound as if they’re being recorded off objects one might find in any garage. The quiet thumbing of the over-distorted guitar before Waits takes off at the chorus, infinitesimally out of time, is great, and I manage to fall for it every time. And only a glimmer of continuous narrative, present mostly in the second verse, referencing some kind of conflict. This album was, after all, a veiled critique of the Bush regime, the ‘rag’ been hoisted meaning presumably, the flag of any given nation.

Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg —69 année érotique

Sort of a whimsical tune from Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, which seems to imagine the singer/a prosthesis of the singer and the English painter Thomas Gainsborough on some nearly seventy-year love affair and crossing from England to Paris. I like to think of it as having inspired The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs.

Benjamin Clementine — Adios

Clementine’s At Least For Now, which won the Mercury Prize, is a spectacular, and beautiful album. This isn’t the album version, but appeared on an EP. It might not be my favourite track on the album, that might go to ‘Cornerstone,’ but it has one of the record’s best moments, as Clementine breaks off the course of a song with one of his most impassioned deliveries, claiming ownership over some misstep made in his personal life, and mutters some words which are, incidentally, different words from the album cut of the track. In any case, both versions feature him interrupting the song to play a transcendent piece of music once sung to him by an angel, apparently during some manner of vision. It’s beautiful.

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