The Key’s Year-End Mania: Sameer Rao’s Top 5 Musical Gut-Punches of 2013

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Photo courtesy of Sean Agnew
Photo courtesy of Sean Agnew

Year End Mania is the Key’s survey of the things below the surface that made 2013 awesome. In this installment, contributing writer Sameer Rao talks about songs that make you feel.

For those who are true monsters, hardened against moments that expose you for the vulnerable and fragile human that you really are, please stop reading here.

For the rest of us, we occasionally crack at the wail of a guitar, the cry of a love-lorn singer, or the naked clarity of a synthline (or, more often, all of the above). I call these moments “gut-punches” – musical cues that can stop you in your tracks or make you uncontrollably sob in the middle of a friend’s Christmas party, screaming “It’s just so beautiful!” as you wipe your snot-encrusted nose with that ugly sweater you bought just for that occasion.

Moments like this confirm why music in the age of digital reproduction can still be powerful and transcendent, and I masochistically yearn for them with every new record I listen to. Fortunately, we had a bunch of great ones this year. I’ll try not to stain my shirt as I run down the list of 2013’s Top 5 Musical Gut-Punches.

5. Little Big League – “Tokyo Drift” from These are Good People

The exemplary debut full-length from Philly’s own Little Big League is filled with moments that compel you to scream out for jilted love, but this song was a personal stand-out. It’s a song that evolved in texture throughout live performances from the past two years, blending classic shoegaze and 90s melodic rock into a volatile cocktail that threatens to overflow through the song’s delay-heavy bridge. Just when you think you’ll punch a hole in the drywall, squeals of feedback withdraw into singer Michelle Zauner’s haunting and understated soprano before the song gracefully shimmers into thin air. You’re left coming to terms with your own power, or your shattered hand in the drywall – either way, you’re still grateful to be alive.

4. Queens of the Stone Age – “I Appear Missing” from …Like Clockwork

I’ve been a fan of this band ever since Songs for the Deaf, but even I couldn’t see Queens of the Stone Age making something fragile and heartfelt – they were always too macho, too sinister. A sad song from them would’ve had all the intensity of a Sons of Anarchy member crying at the sight of roadkill – why would you ever be seen that way? But they surprised just about everybody with …Like Clockwork and its penultimate song, “I Appear Missing”. The song teeters between creepy-crawling subtlety and hard-hitting bombast in ways that would make the Pixies proud, all while Josh Homme probes his own mortality in the hells of hospitalization. You won’t want to hear this before the anesthetics kick in, that much is clear.

3. London Grammar – “Wasting My Young Years” from If You Wait

Despite frequent comparisons to fellow British electro-minimalists The xx, London Grammar might be more appropriately placed in conversation with older pioneering electronic-influenced groups like Massive Attack and Portishead. Between their evocative instrumental atmospherics and singer Hannah Reid’s soaring vocals, London Grammar’s songs echo masterpieces of brooding catharsis like “Unfinished Sympathy” and “Glory Box”. This is most true on “Wasting My Young Years”, a song which should be a top contender for “Gen Y Anthem of the Year” if it isn’t already. We might reach full-on adulthood before we see the followups to Heligoland or Third, but If You Wait will be a more-than-sufficient accompaniment to our collective quarter-life crises.

2. Pattern is Movement – “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” (D’Angelo cover)

Okay, so this is sort of cheating, on two levels. First, Philly’s Pattern is Movement has been playing this song live for years, and it’s only this year that they released a video for it via Stereogum. Second, it’s not their song, and D’Angelo cemented a gut-punching (and gut-glistening) legacy with this song over a decade ago. But with PiM’s fresh interpretation underscoring just how important artists like D’Angelo are to their subtle shades of experimentalism, this song re-entered 2013 with the same heart-on-sleeve relevance it had all those years ago. Plus, with so little time left in the year and no new D’Angelo album (so much for all the hype), this is the best we’ve got. Cheers.

Pattern Is Movement – “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” (D’Angelo Cover) from stereogum on Vimeo.

1. Kanye West – “Bound 2” from Yeezus

Enough has been said about this album, nearly every day since it was released, and you’ll probably see more as it inevitably tops numerous year-end lists. A lot has also been said about its closer, and the ridiculous music video that accompanies it. Is it Kanye’s ode to his musical past, recontextualizing a soul sample against a minimalist chorus that sounds more like the rest of the album? Is it Kanye’s ode to hedonistic days to be sublimated into a loving relationship with the most famous Kardashian sister?

Really, who the hell cares? All that matters here is the chorus, which hits like a beacon of crystal clarity emerging from the abrasive meaning-laden rest of the album. Charlie Wilson’s voice pierces through to the deepest recesses of the emotionally-ravaged listener, fresh off of trying to piece together the rest of an album that takes on new form with every listen. It’s the comedown after the fifth cup of coffee, the impending exhaustion at 2 a.m. when you start to regret the night you just had. All you can do is fight off loneliness as best as you can.

Well, that was 2013. May 2014 have just as many moments of damning emotional intensity!

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