(Note: I meant to post this piece in early July. At least I got it up before September.)
For me, the most striking aspect of the half-year in music is the playful inventiveness on display throughout its two defining albums, Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City and Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. That’s not all these two irresistible records have in common; encouragingly, each is a critical and commercial landmark. And if they make convincing cases for the continuing viability of the album as a unified, immersive experience, Modern Vampires and R.A.M. also sound like greatest-hits collections, so loaded is each with embraceable individual songs.
That leads me to the overarching theme of the last six months: an across-the-board, pan-genre recommitment to the classic pop hook. It’s at the core of “Get Lucky,” which relies as much on session legend JR Robinson’s sublime drumming as it does on Nile Rodgers’ trademark rhythm guitar figure, resulting in a record that would’ve been a smash at any point in the last 40 years. Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke dig even deeper into the gilded past for the grooves and feels of “Suit & Tie” and “Blurred Lines”—to Motown-era Marvin Gaye. This cherry-picking of vintage soul moves, for which Pharrell Williams is largely responsible on both “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines,” ramps up the anticipation for his solo album to the level of an Event Record.
At the other extreme, this newfound passion for the phat groove and the big payoff has swept through indie rock like a runaway virus. Credit the intersection of advanced, affordable digital recording technology and a host of artists and producers who’ve learned how to use it to lay down tracks that sound like a million bucks for a tiny fraction of that amount. Everybody’s going for the killer hook on their latest offerings: established practitioners like VW and Phoenix; savvy veterans like Divine Fits, Tegan and Sara and Dawes; crafty newcomers like Atlas Genius, Cayucas, The Neighbourhood and Rhye. The impulse to connect emphatically is precisely what unifies the following playlist of memorable—and extremely listenable—music from the first half of 2013.
1. Daft Punk, “Get Lucky” (Random Access Memories): I’ve been hearing this smash nonstop for two months now, and it still hooks me from the opening Nile Rodgers riff to the purring robot harmonies that pop up near the end of the six-minute full album version. This is a true rarity—a record with no apparent burn that everybody seems to love unconditionally. Have you heard Wilco’s faithful live version from the covers set they played at their Solid Sound Festival last month? It’s as welcoming as an exuberant puppy, tail wagging away. But that’s primarily because the song and arrangement are so brilliantly designed in the first place.
2. Vampire Weekend, “Everlasting Arms” (Modern Vampires of the City): Since I’ve been playing around with this compilation, I’ve had a half-dozen VW tracks in this slot, but I settled on “Everlasting Arms” because it offers such a full-bodied experience in the space of three minutes, and because it doubles as an expertly executed homage to the band’s avatar, Paul Simon.
3. Divine Fits, “Chained to Love” (single): “Ain’t That the Way,” one “side” of what’s billed as a double A-sided single from the “indie-rock supergroup,” is prime Britt Daniel groove pop, and as a hardcore Spoon fan I’ll take that in a heartbeat. But Dan Boeckner’s flip is more surprising for this great-from-the-getgo band—a cut with the throb, gloss and quirkiness of the first Cars album; think “Dangerous Type.” And yes, that’s saying something.
4 Phoenix, “Trying to Be Cool” (Bankrupt!): Lead single “Entertainment” sounded like a smash to me—as if Phoenix was doing its take on a Coldplay-style arena rocker. But the follow-up is subtler, more insinuating and more relatably linear in its premise than we’ve come to expect from verbal collagist Thomas Mars. It makes a perfect segue with…
5. Atlas Genius, “When It Was Now” (When It Was Now): On which the Aussie siblings (who remind me at some moments of INXS and at others of KOL, brother bands both) throw a change-up and commune with their inner Hall & Oates. Regrettably, I only gave this album 7 out of 10 when I reviewed it for Uncut early this year on too few listens; since then it’s become one of the 2013 LPs I’ve plundered most deeply for playlist goodies. Indeed, I could’ve just as easily gone with “Electric” (now a staple in spin class), “If So” and “On a Day.”
6. Boy, “Little Numbers” (Mutual Friends): When it hits the whoa-oh, whoa-oh chorus, this track from the coyly named German female duo doesn’t merely deliver the hook but catapults it.
7. Tegan and Sara, “Closer” (Heartthrob): Producer Greg Kurstin (The Shins, Foster the People, The Bird & the Bee) capably pulls off the Quin twins’ metamorphosis from acoustic indie rockers to mainstream pop act, placing the emphasis squarely on the duo’s knack for catchy refrains and mounting their aggressive, estrogen-powered two-part harmonies atop a high-sheen, synth-based setting driven by Joey Waronker’s treated drums. Also worth a listen: the Philly soul-referencing “Now I’m All Messed Up.”
8. Haim, “Forever” (Forever EP): These sisters from L.A. haven’t just listened to a ton of Prince, they’ve fully assimilated his sense of rhythm and dynamics.
9. Atoms for Peace, “Before Your Very Eyes…” (Amok): Sure, Thom Yorke’s side project is about manipulated rhythms than songs or standard performances, but Amok’s opening track is as tasty a blast of carbonation as a Dr. Brown’s cream soda.
10. Sean Rowe, “Joe’s Cult” (The Salesman and the Shark): If Tom Waits still used conventional rock instrumentation and still thought in terms of traditional song structure, he might sound like this guy.
11. The National, “Don’t Swallow the Cap” (Trouble Will Find Me): If ever a band needed a powerful drummer, it’s this group of sad sacks. Here, as he’s done so often for The National, Bryan Devendorf brings an MMA ferocity to an introspective song, transforming what otherwise would’ve been a lugubrious slog into an exhilarating romp.
12. Cayucas, “High School Lover” (Bigfoot): The groove—a skittering bassline with countering snare hits—keeps yanking you by the collar, setting up another irresistible whoa-oh chorus.
13. Jake Bugg, “Lightning Bolt” (Jake Bugg): Gotta commend the iTunes geniuses for hitting the bull’s-eye several times over the last year, a list that also includes Ivan & Alyosha’s “Running for Cover,” Churchill’s “Change” and Kacey Musgraves’ “Blowin’ Smoke” (all three on the extended version of this playlist). But I’ll always associate this cherry bomb from the fully formed 19-year-old retro-futurist with March Madness, where it played over a Gatorade spot; same with Tame Impala’s “Elephant” (see below), which is doing a lot better at the moment than the band’s benefactor, BlackBerry.
14. Bronze Radio Return, “Shake, Shake, Shake” (Shake! Shake! Shake!): Sounds like it could be the next organically catchy record to cross from Triple A to Top 40.
15. The Neighbourhood, “Sweater Weather” (I Love You): Hits are hits for a reason. With this alt chart-topper, masterfully designed by these L.A. newcomers and beatmaster Emile Heynie, who co-produced, it starts with the evocative title itself, continues with the slithering beat, the insouciant vocal and the pre-chorus build, and seals the deal with the chorus. But there’s more—a mood and tempo shift that turns the whole thing fittingly autumnal. I’ll bet this one will be on the radio till the trees are bare.
16. Dawes, “From a Window Seat” (Stories Don’t End): Taylor Goldsmith’s mind wanders on a flight back home to L.A., imagining the other passengers’ stories and peering down during the descent on “the rivers and “the rivers and the freeways…the buildings and a million swimming pools,” before engaging in some lively guitar-piano interplay with keyboardist Tay Strathairn. Here and elsewhere on the band’s assured third album, Dawes comes into its own as an articulate, self-assured modern-day SoCal rock band.
17. Tame Impala, “Elephant” (Lonerism): The 2012 track with the longest legs…and trunk. The riff is indelible, in the manner of “Seven Nation Army,” and the guitar freak-out between 1:10 and 2:43 is like a conveniently brief but extremely intense acid trip.
18. Eric Clapton, “Gotta Get Over” (Old Sock): On which EC recaptures the exuberance of his first solo LP with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends 43 years ago, sounding more engaged and kinetic than he has in ages.
19. Richard Thompson, “Stony Ground” (Electric): Noteworthy both for Buddy Miller’s punchy production and for an extended solo from the master guitarist as jaw-dropping as anything I’ve heard this year—although it has competition from the same album’s “Good Things Happen to Bad People.”
20. Patty Griffin f/Robert Plant, “Ohio” (American Kid): Would’ve slipped seamlessly onto Raising Sand—and there’s no more compelling recommendation than that for giving it a spin when you’re in the mood for moody.
21. The Civil Wars, “The One That Got Away” (The Civil Wars): From the sound of the lead single off the duo’s upcoming sophomore album, once again produced by Charlie Peacock but this time in partnership with Columbia, they were only beginning to plumb their emotional depths on Barton Hollow. Whoa—intense doesn’t begin to describe this song and performance.
22. Steve Earle & the Dukes, “Calico County” (The Low Highway): A thrilling three-minute tangle of electric guitars and drums that kicks like a mule, reminding us once again that Earle remains as adept at rock & roll as he is at country and folk, though he turns it up to 11 only occasionally these days.
23. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Melinda” (The Live Anthology): Threw in this rarity, recorded 10 years ago in New Orleans and appearing only on this collection, because it was the most unexpected highlight of this great band’s run of performances at the Fonda in early June. Starting as Petty’s take on an Appalachian murder ballad, it morphs into a Benmont Tench-featuring Little Feat/Allmans-style jazzbo workout that’s playfully virtuosic.
24. Dent May, “Born Too Late” (Warm Blanket, 8/27): Heard on SiriusXMU en route to a Fourth of July pool party. The wonderfully named Mississippian, whom I’d never heard of till that moment, instantly hooked me with this continuously shape-shifting track. Love the way he chops up the word “late” in the chorus into nine distinct syllables.
25. Iron & Wine, “Caught in the Briars” (Ghost on Ghost): The opening cut on Sam Beam’s musically ambitious fifth album encapsulates its key elements: gilded acoustic guitar plucks, a horn section evoking the creaminess of Van Morrison’s Woodstock-era band, a chugging soul groove from the rhythm section, silky female voices floating over Beam’s mellifluous tenor and a brief but intense free jazz coda.
26. Boz Scaggs, “Pearl of the Quarter” (Memphis): The masterful soul stylist recorded his latest LP at Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studio, where Al Green made his magic, with producer Steve Jordan providing in-the-pocket snare whomps that seem to channel Al Jackson. The deep gut grooves deepen the moods of several well-chosen covers, none more intoxicating than this early Steely Dan gem. The Moments’ “Love on a Two Way Street” and Green’s own “So Good to Be Here” also fit Boz’s smoky voice like a velvet glove.
27. Rhye, “Shed Some Blood” (Woman): Yeah, it sounds like Sade and it’s just as boudoir-ready, but the track (like everything else on this seductive debut album) is designed and delivered with more subtlety and sophistication.
28. Caveman, “In the City” (Caveman): Like Simple Minds with synthesizers; poignant and epic at the same time.
29. Vampire Weekend, “Step” (Modern Vampires of the City): We come…
30. Daft Punk f/Julian Casablancas, “Instant Crush” (Random Access Memories): …full circle.