Don’t let the numbers fool you: These songs aren’t necessarily being presented in any real ranking or heirarchy other than the order they take in my iTunes playlist. And if you haven’t already, be sure to read Part 2 and Part 3, too.
“Reflektor” by Arcade Fire
Coming off three album’s worth of massive critical acclaim and an “Album of the Year” Grammy, Arcade Fire was surfing a wave of hype, making Reflektor one 2013’s most anticipated releases. But like many, the album ultimately left me conflicted. On the one hand, it’s too long and self-indulgent; there’s no reason it had to be a double album. But then you listen to “Reflektor” and it becomes clear that Reflektor also contains some of Arcade Fire’s most exhilarating material to date. The title track blends the pulsing electronics first heard on “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” (one of my favorite songs of 2010) with Talking Heads-style tribal rhythms. Meanwhile, Win Butler and Régine Chassagne sing of modern technology, romance, and alienation. Oh, and David Bowie makes a guest appearance. It’s a monster of a track that seems like too much on paper, but it succeeds wonderfully. Almost too wonderfully, in fact; much of the rest of Reflektor is never quite able to get out from under its shadow.
“Years” by The Mary Onettes
The Mary Onettes have always been a pretty melancholy band, but I’m not sure they’ve penned anything as mopey as this before: “At the end of the day, I’ll never get what I want/And I keep on forgetting pain is my way to live against the tide… I wanna chase what I want/As I wait for direction, years never tell the way people let me down.” Hoo boy… but thanks to the band’s impeccable sense of style, and the influence of producer Dan Lissvik, that mopiness becomes something glorious. And while the band has always had an affinity for the sounds of the ’80s (e.g., The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Smiths), that love becomes well nigh cinematic here. Indeed, one can practically see the quintessential ’80s movie about teen angst, high school alienation, and unrequited love that should’ve been made so that critics writing three decades later could reference it in their reviews of this song.
“New You” by My Bloody Valentine
It only took him 22 years, but after countless rumors and false starts, Kevin Shields finally gave us an honest-to-goodness new My Bloody Valentine album. Sort of. Yes, it’s technically new, but the band sounds like not a single day has passed since Loveless was released two decades ago. Those looking for something as earth-shattering as Loveless was in the early ’90s — and I admit, I sort of was — will probably be disappointed. But that overlooks the fact that, taken on its own terms, MBV still contains some gorgeous tunes. Case in point, “New You,” which finds Shields’ inimitable “glider” guitar drifting over head-bobbing rhythms, crunchy bass, and Bilinda Butcher’s coo of a voice — which still sounds as coy and charming and seductive and effortless as ever.
“Pendulum” by Pure Bathing Culture
I wish I could convey to you just how perfect this song sounds to my ears. True, it contains the usual sonic elements that are always guaranteed to perk me up: a little shoegaze here, a little Cocteau Twins there, and so on. Even so, “Pendulum” is something else, a song that is truly more than the sum of its parts. The more I listen to it, the more I’m convinced the song’s “X factor” is Daniel Hindman’s guitar. His playing is dreamy, ethereal, etc., etc., but more than anything, it’s elegant and sublime. Listen to the sterling passage starting at the 2:09 mark, or the little flourishes Hindman hides for you to discover on your 17th or 23rd listen, or how he perfectly accents Sarah Versprille’s vocals with the simplest of melodies. It’s spellbinding stuff that I never tire of. Case in point, I must’ve started and restarted “Pendulum” a dozen times while writing this blurb alone, and I’m ready for a dozen more listens.
“Bala” by Rainer Veil
It’s currently 2:17am as I write this — the perfect time to listen to Rainer Veil’s muted, atmospheric electronic music. Partly because it’s downbeat and chilled out, but also because there’s a skewed, hypnotic quality to it that is fitting for the state of mind you achieve at this late/early hour. “Bala” begins with a skeletal beat and a choir of ghostly voices that have been distorted to the point of being indecipherable, but just barely (and they’re all the more haunting as a result). But then it all comes to halt and is replaced by a gorgeous, brightening ambient denouement that sounds like the first few rays of dawn poking over the horizon. Through it all, Liam Morley and Dan Valentine display a remarkable level of control and precision in their music, without which “Bala” would not be nearly so affecting.
“The Game of Love” by Daft Punk
There was a period of time in 2013 when you could hardly go anywhere online without encountering Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” The nu-disco single, which featured Pharrell Williams and Chic’s Nile Rodgers, was one of 2013’s biggest songs, and Daft Punk’s biggest hit since 2001’s “One More Time.” But Random Access Memories turned out to be a much more interesting, diverse, and idiosyncratic album than its first single indicated. Consider “The Game of Love,” a forlorn song about heartbreak that features the duo’s trademark vocoder and programming work… and pedal steel. Pedal steel on a Daft Punk song! The mind boggles, but the duo makes it all sound so smooth, so effortless, and more importantly, so emotional. You might even shed a synthetic tear or two by the song’s end, as the robotic voice plaintively sighs “I just wanted you to stay.”
“IV — The Drone of Earth” by Jay Tholen
By now, I thought I had sort of figured out Jay Tholen’s Holy Ghost-filled brand of psychedelia. Then he went and released The Low Drone of Earth, his darkest and most disturbing album to date. Yes, the chiptune-influenced beats and retro electronic sounds are there, and Tholen’s voice is as off-kilter as ever. But the songs are more desperate, and whereas previous albums were oftentimes worship albums, The Low Drone of Earth is a concept album about the loss of faith — albeit one involving a boy and his robot wandering across a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The title track is a conversation between the album’s protagonist and God in which both make their case for the protagonist’s feelings of isolation, and culminates in God crying “Why do you think I took your sickness?! All for me, all for you, all for you and me!” amidst distorted noises, shivering synths, and clattering rhythms. It’s a stirring moment, and one of the most potent in Tholen’s considerable discography.