December 26, 2013

Tapes on the Floor's Favorite Tracks of 2013 (Pt. I)

In 2013, I found myself getting attached to individual songs more so than the albums from which they originated. It's strange, because I've always thought of myself as the type of person who appreciates records as a sum of all their parts, rather than being defined by a handful of tracks. Have I finally succumbed to the piecemeal, playlist culture that surrounds services like Soundcloud, Spotfy and Rdio? Or am I just becoming increasingly sentimental about three-five minute moments in time? Who knows.

This is all a lengthy way of saying that when I sat down to list my favorite tracks this year, it was a longer list than usual. As such, I've increased the scope so that it encompasses my 50 favorite tracks from the past year. It's a longer read, but I think it provides a more accurate encapsulation of my listening habits over the past 12 months. You'll be forgiven if you doze off while you peruse it.

Here's the first half of the list, arranged alphabetically by artist, as usual:

"Miasma Sky" - Baths
One look at the foreboding cover of Baths’ Obsidian and its clear that the album comes from a much darker place than the pastel tones of his debut LP. A sleek chip-tune groove underscores Will Wiesenfeld’s brooding confessions on “Miasma Sky,” a track that finds upbeat melodies amid persistent gloom.

"Burning Bridges" - Willis Earl Beal
With his powerful voice booming over a bed of droning woodwinds, “Burning Bridges” is the antithesis of last year’s lo-fi introduction to Willis Earl Beal. The Chicago singer-songwriter belts out his nonsensical lyrics with a clam inflection that demonstrates his range, lending an earnest simplicity to this deeply hypnotic cut.

"A Tout A L'Heure" – Bibio
The French phrase that provides the title for this song means “a moment in the recent past or in the near future.” It’s an appropriate descriptor for a track that simultaneously blends the fingerpicked guitars of Bibio’s early work with the bright synths and spry beats that he has come to favor. His past and present blend together to form a sound that is unmistakably his own.

"New Seeds" - Boards of Canada
This year’s unexpected release from Boards of Canada included plenty of atmospheric odes, but I found myself coming back to the otherworldly echoes of this particular track. A pastiche of haunting electronics set to a driving beat, it sounds like a transmission from the future that was dubbed to a VHS tape.

"Crooked Beak" – Brainbow
I breathed a sigh of relief earlier this year when I heard the familiar opening strains of “Crooked Beak” on Brainbow’s swan song LP. For me, it’s the track that encapsulates the group’s range, with soaring riffs giving way to atmospheric interludes several times over in the course of seven minutes. I’m still bummed that this band has ceased to exist, but I’m glad that it decided to leave us with a song like this.

"Strictly Reserved for You" - Charles Bradley
When Charles Bradley sings, you can’t help but believe him. There’s an unmistakable conviction in his voice when he promises, “I’ve got the love” on this choice cut from his sophomore release. Backed by the Sha La Da’s, the Screaming Eagle of Soul delivers another track that sounds as if it has been pulled from a dusty corner of the Motown archives.

"Will Be Arriving" – Brokeback
The sprawling electric guitar vistas of “Will Be Arriving” aren’t what I expected when I heard that Tortoise bassist Doug McCombs had released a new record. After latching on to a simple melody that permeates the track, McCombs goes on journey through the desert with Ennio Morricone as his guide.

"Every Weekday" - Camera Obscura
You can turn on the radio and hear a song that was written about a lover, but the world is sorely lacking in music dedicated to best friends. Camera Obscura answers the call with this peppy, surf-pop ditty about the kind of pal that writes songs and travels the world with you. It’s a little schmaltzy, but that’s the way I like my Scottish indie pop.

"Javelin Unlanding" - Bill Callahan
If they ever make a musical version of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, I think Bill Callahan is a shoe-in for the role of HAL. He’s the kind of guy that can deliver a line like “You looked like worldwide Armageddon,” and make it sound calm, collected and meaningful. I have no idea why he’s singing about javelins, but I can’t stop listening to him.

"However Long" - Brendan Canning
Like so many others, this year Canning caught the Fahey bug and put out a record filled with intricate fingerpicked acoustic guitar. “However Long” is reminiscent of a more subdued Broken Social Scene cut and is one of the few songs on the album that breaks out of the American Primitive mold. Even without Canada’s premiere super group at his side, Canning still has a knack for writing gorgeous pop melodies.

"Canopy" - Cave Singers
I have a hard time differentiating between Cave Singers songs. There, I said it. The instrumentation is always similar and Pete Quirk seems incapable of varying his voice’s cadence. I can’t promise that I’ll never confuse “Canopy” with another Cave Singers track, but I’ll definitely realize my mistake by the time the great unison chorus kicks in.

"Cindy" – Connections
Connections is a band of guys from Ohio. They listen to Guided By Voices; they drink beer; they recorded an album. Actually, they recorded two. They’re not quite as prolific as Robert Pollard, but they’re trying. They wrote a song called “Cindy” that makes you want to crack open a Miller Lite and reminisce about the good old days.

"Fragments of Time" - Daft Punk
The robots didn’t really give life back to music or save disco, but their long-awaited fourth album did contain some great soft rock tunes. Chief among those was “Fragments of Time,” a track that sounds as if it was plucked from Donald Fagen’s notebook and retrofitted with some of the Daft Punk’s obligatory synth and vocoder accompaniment. You can dance if you want to.

"Heart" – Darkside
Not quite electronic and not quite rock n’ roll, this standout track from Darkside’s full-length debut exudes a gritty, soulful quality that struck a chord with me almost immediately. Many producers tasked themselves with “reinvention” in 2013, but Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington made it look easy.

"Back to the Middle" – Deerhunter
I didn’t think I would like a Deerhunter record that stripped away the spacey jams and effects-heavy production of its past few releases. “Back to the Middle” is the song that proved me wrong; a simple rock song that shifts between crunchy chords and bouncing keyboards, showcasing Bradford Cox’s pop sensibilities without a delay pedal in sight.

"Golden Silver" – Dosh
Another trip into the subterranean keyboard lair inhabited by Martin Dosh reveals that Minnesota’s master of loops has not lost his touch. With “Golden Silver” he steps back to the days of his early solo records, crafting a song layered with sonic reminders of his more recent work.

"Love Illumination" - Franz Ferdinand
I listened to the latest Franz Ferdinand LP expecting yet another collection of warmed-over dance rock singles that yearned for the mid-aughts. Instead, the Glasgow outfit channeled the quirky post-punk of the Talking Heads and layered the steady beat of “Love Illumination” with swelling horns and delightfully off-kilter vocals.

"Loose Sutures" – Fuzz
Ty Segall maintained a relatively low profile this year by only releasing two records, one of which was full of down-tempo, acoustic tunes. The other one contained this song, Segall’s tribute to the heavy, stoner rock of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. Don’t even think about skipping the drum solo.

"Help Me Out" - Jacco Gardner
I saw Jacco Gardner more times in 2013 than any other artist on this list. Each time our paths crossed, the plaintive strains of “Help Me Out” stood out against the rest of his harpsichord-riddled catalog. It’s a perfectly measured portion of Dutch psych-pop that captures much of Gardner’s charm in less than three minutes.

"Engines" – Grandkids
It’s particularly satisfying to place this song on my list of favorites because not only am I friends with the folks who made it, but it’s a piece that I heard evolve over the course of a year. What started as a simple, driving track blossomed into a gorgeous ballad replete with flowing string arrangements. Just like the record from which it hails, it sounds like a band coming into its own.

"This Is Life" - Heidecker and Wood
It’s hard to tell when to take Tim Heidecker seriously, but this ‘70s soft rock tune from his latest album with Davin Wood is more tribute than parody. Channeling Steely Dan with a full horn section at its back, the duo creates a polished track that could almost be passed off as a long lost b-side.

"Horns Surrounding Me" - Julia Holter
Amid a tapestry of intersecting brass and woodwinds undercut by the rustling leaves of a field recording, Julia Holter’s voice rings out as clear as a bell. The Los Angeles singer-songwriter doesn’t hold anything back as she layers texture and melody until the song begins to take shape. It’s the kind of deliberate songcraft that you expect from a composition major.

"Form and Function" – Hookworms
The psych revival (continuation?) spreads to Leeds, bringing droning organs and swirling guitars to yet another corner of the world. Somewhere between the reverb and ricocheting riffs, Hookworms unite form with function on this aptly titled track.

"Imitation of Life" - Eiko Ishibashi
I can’t understand a word that Japanese multi-instrumentalist Eiko Ishibashi sings in the title track from her stateside debut. Thankfully, the song’s lush production (courtesy of Jim O’Rourke) and twisting structure bridges the language barrier. Ishibashi isn’t interested in imitation—she's busy breaking new ground.

"Defense" - Sarah Jaffe
If you listen closely, you can hear the strum of Sarah Jaffe’s guitar amid the pounding drums and pulsing synths that occupy the front of the mix. Thankfully, these additions aren’t covering up a lackluster track. Instead, they add a bit of chutzpah to one of Jaffe’s most memorable compositions to date.

End of the year listing will return in Tapes on the Floor's Favorite Tracks of 2013: Part II.

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