Shortlist: Summer Anthem 2013
by Samuel Tolzmann on June 18, 2013
Posted in: Music
Summer is upon us once more, and you know what that means: summer jams! Summer jams are great because every time you hear them, you will immediately be plunged into a rose-tinted reverie regarding the summer in question, which has the double benefit of making the summer seem nicer than it really was and dispelling the chill of the meteorological shithole Middlebury, Vermont becomes for most of the academic year. But, built upon and forced to somehow reconcile the shifting sands of fashion and timelessness, summer jams are quite difficult to make: they work best with beats laboratory-manufactured to sound best on boomboxes and easy melodies stickier than melted ice cream, but they need to stand out from the crowd, too. Oh, and release date is everything, of course; if it came out before April, its chances are slim at best, but if it hits in July, it may have already missed its shot to pick up the necessary momentum.
Below, take a look at some tracks WRMC is either expecting to become ubiquitous this summer or believes deserve to despite the odds — from tough-as-nails singer-songwriter Lorde, to 2013’s feel-good hip-hop artist of choice Chance The Rapper and beyond. Hear most of ’em on a Spotify playlist with a few other worthy 2013 numbers here. Did we leave off an obvious choice that you’re already rocking out to this summer? Let us know in the comments!
14. FIDLAR, “Stoked And Broke”: FIDLAR’s album dropped in January, so this is mostly wishful thinking – but then, FIDLAR are punk as fuck and don’t give a what about your “months” and “seasons.” “Stoked And Broke,” moreover, has an irresistible refrain and a seriously rotten attitude, which will make for good fun in guitar-smashing, marijuana-friendly, don’t-wanna-grow-up circles.
13. John Wizards, “Lusaka By Night”: The first single from this new South African duo isn’t even sung in English — Emmanuel Nzaramba, who shares vocal duties on all John Wizards tracks with partner-in-pop John Withers, performs it instead in his native Kinyarwanda. But that doesn’t mean those of us who can’t understand it can’t get down to it. A very easy-to-listen-to intersection of dub reggae, African pop, tropicalia, and electropop, “Lusaka By Night” sounds charmingly low-key and appealingly homemade, what with its cheap beats, vaguely scribbled guitars, and autotuned vocals. When they eventually pan widescreen near the end of the song, it gets huge in the most unpretentious way a pop song can. Not even their melodic aspirations can make these guys give up their laid-back style.
12. Jagwar Ma, “Uncertainty”: Australian newcomers Jagwar Ma are a band in danger of being so easy to RIYL that they never develop a personality of their own. Here, I’ll do it right now: !!!, MGMT, Fang Island, Boy Crisis, Friends. And all of those bands are themselves in a similar situation. There’s the angular ‘80s thing rubbing shoulders with the scrappy ‘90s thing; here a fluorescent synth tone, there a psych-ish accent, everywhere a jungle-rave vibe tricked out with suggestions of dub. However, that kind of criticism probably won’t affect the commercial performance of Howlin, which is embarrassingly derivative but, fortunately, just way too ridiculously fun. “Uncertainty” nails a certain evil-twin model of the beach party track perfectly, and once its chorus gets in the heads of the masses, it is likely to be unstoppable.
11. Smith Westerns, “3AM Spiritual”: The refrain of this song is a harmonized group-wide exclamation of, “Whoa, yeah!” and it might be the most Smith Westerns-y chorus this band has written yet: simple, enormous, straight out of the late 1960s or early 1970s, and guaranteed to set off your nostalgia detector. The band has updated its scrappy garage-meets-glam aesthetic with a generous helping of new wave — check those airy synth peals — and exchanged its pronounced youthfulness for…okay, they’re still pronouncedly youthful. But their age now scans as twenty-something instead of high school. Anyway, “3AM Spiritual” is one of those songs where you can tell exactly how it’s manipulating you, but it’s so easy on the ears that you sit back (on your deck chair) let it do its thing anyway.
10. Beyonce, “Grown Woman”: Beyonce’s a grown woman, she can do whatever she wants. And if what she wants is to be 1) perfect and 2) famous, who are we to deny her that? And hey, if she wants to get there with a song that sounds weirdly like toddlers wrote it, who are we to protest? Actually though, Terius Nash (known to most as R&B singer The-Dream) wrote it, Timbaland produces…ironically enough for a sing with this particular message, the crack team assembled here means we really haven’t been given much choice in the matter: we just have to love “Grown Woman.” And we really do! It’s even making Pepsi look appealing, which is downright scary, because obviously Coca-Cola is better.
9. Vampire Weekend, “Diane Young”: Because nothing says “SUMMER!” like a psychotically Autotuned 2-minute pop song about the Kennedys and premature death…right? Though they’re as bent as ever on provoking upper-class listeners by talking about all the upper-class things that are usually kept mum, Vampire Weekend have come a long way since 2008’s self-titled debut with this year’s Modern Vampires Of The City; now, rather than simply namecheck Saab or an expensive brand of champagne, they release videos of Saabs being lit on fire and champagne bottles being shaken and sprayed all over reveling Manhattanites. The temptation to equate the actions is irresistible and, of course, deliberately planted by these four clever young men. Savagery abounds on Modern Vampires Of The City, an often bleak album filled with philosophical musings, tense abstractions, and general gloom. In such a context, “Diane Young” — spoiler alert, the actual lyric is “dyin’ young,” GOTCHA — sounds at once like fairly close kin of the band’s original strain of lightly carbonated indie pop, in that it’s a brief and hook-filled delight, and like its antithesis, in that it’s utterly bonkers, seething and flailing where the fresh-faced Columbia grads of 2008 tread delicately, one Sperry before the other. True, grace is still and probably always will be one of Vampire Weekend’s defining traits, but one of the most exciting things about being a fan these past few years has been watching them figure out how far from predictable being graceful can take them.
8. Mariah Carey featuring Miguel, “#Beautiful”: Miguel is super hot right now (even though he recently landed crotch-first on an unsuspecting woman’s face at a live show), and Mariah has been super hot since God made her on the sixth day (is that not how it happened?), so it’s only natural that they’d collaborate. Dumb hashtag of a title aside, this song is just absurdly good, so pleasant and warm and sexy and fun and catchy. “You’re fucking beautiful” is actually the chorus. How has it taken this long for someone to write that chorus? Good thing it did, though, or we wouldn’t have these two excellent R&B singers performing it together.
7. Eleanor Friedberger, “When I Knew”: The reigning queen of pop-rock with a “retro NYC summer” vibe, full-time Fiery Furnace Eleanor Friedberger pens songs that are bizarre without being off-putting, instantly catchy without being ingratiating, and heartbreaking without being maudlin. She’s probably the best lyricist working in pop today (I’d put Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend at #2): every verse is packed to bursting with jokes, non-sequiturs, wordplay, and just enough proper nouns to make it feel just personal enough to be unmistakably genuine. What I’m trying to say is, Friedberger nails just about every important balance we demand from the best pop songwriting. Her new album Personal Record (check that pun!) is a bit more somber than her first, but the intensely self-aware teenaged falling-in-and-out-of-love number “When I Knew” has enough wistful bounce to earn a place on your Summer 2013 mix no matter what these months come to mean for you.
6. Kanye West featuring Daft Punk, “Black Skinhead”: Kanye’s latest album, Yeezus, is awesome, but it’s also not very user-friendly, relatively speaking. Kanye’s sound has almost always had a kind of comfort-food appeal, from the pitched-up soul samples of his early days to the glitzy synths and strings of Graduation and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Yeezus takes its cues from the grimmer aspects of the latter, folding in the icy electropop of mostly-forgotten 2008 sidestep 808’s & Heartbreak; the result is, at any given moment, more forbidding or more threatening than any of the rapper-producer’s past material. Not many of the new tracks has much broad appeal, which might be one reason why no singles were officially released from Yeezus. “Black Skinhead” is probably the closest thing, with its galloping rock drums, mile-a-minute stream of socially conscious invective and narcissistic braggadocio, and a production credit to Daft Punk who hit the synthetic bass like they released Human After All this year instead of Random Access Memories. It’s not a pleasant song, but it’s possible to see it being perversely fun, and if anyone has the rabid fanbase to make that happen, it’s this guy. PS: Check this New York Times interview with Yeezus himself; wonderful, hilarious, or distressing?
5. Lorde, “Royals”: The sparse, warm synthesizers that form the bedding of “Royals” beg vocals from a Kate Bush acolyte a la Niki & The Dove, but the terrible cover art of her debut EP The Love Club is the only thing even vaguely Kate Bush-esque about Lorde, who “drives Cadillacs in her dreams” and “cut her teeth on wedding rings.” More of a distant relative of Robyn at her sassiest, Lorde nearly raps her way through the semi-melodic playground singalong of the verses on “Royals” before shooting for the high notes during the richly harmonized chorus. The track is a homespun commentary on and counterpoint to the me-first materialism of contemporary pop and its attendant culture. Exemplary of but also better than everything else on The Love Club, it’s is a breezy delight with staying power and just enough of a weird side to keep Lorde’s listeners on their toes.
4. Daft Punk featuring Pharrell, “Get Lucky”: It’s already ubiquitous to the point of being overplayed, but do you really expect a song this easy to love is going anywhere soon? Nope. Surprised at how much you find yourself craving Pharrell’s voice? Me too. Whatever. This writer holds that “Get Lucky” is one of the only good things about the disturbingly overrated, overhyped, undercooked Random Access Memories, so we’d better milk it for all it’s worth to avoid losing faith in Daft Punk completely.
3. Disclosure, “When A Fire Starts To Burn”: This summer, the only thing rising faster than these British brothers’ profile as go-to dance producers is going to be club-/festival-goers’ heartbeats when they hear this opening salvo: “When a fire starts to burn, right, and it starts to spread?” Disclosure have collaborated with vocalists to excellent effect in the past, but none of those tracks manages to integrate the voice with the music as well as “When A Fire Starts To Burn” weaves in its titular sample. The cadence of that voice is structurally inseparable from the swagger of the rhythm lines, ensuring that this number won’t just have hips shaking but also dark roomfuls of people screaming, “Bring that attitude home!” Then Disclosure’s tautest beat yet slams underneath and their aqueous keyboard tones burble to the surface; if you’re human, every alarm bell in your head probably goes off around this point, and you start moving. On another note, how refreshing is it, after years of dubstep-fostered dread and misery on the popular electronic circuit, to hear bass-centric club sounds this celebratory? Disclosure are finally doing what someone badly needed to do: putting a sense of fun back into British dance music. What’s more, they’re doing it without the help of the rudimentary 4/4 Euroclub assault or stomach-rumbling brostep drops that have invaded American pop radio, and likewise have snubbed the equally tempting lo-fi smudging that mars the surface of most cuts out of indie culture’s recent deep-house revival. What’s to dislike here?
2. Chance the Rapper, “Chain Smoker”: An instantly gratifying beat, cloudy pastel-colored synth lines ricocheting off every surface, a flow that, um, flows: Chicago’s Chance the Rapper makes smart, appealing hip-hop. This whole mixtape, Acid Rap, has a good shor at placing on “Best Albums of 2013” lists all over the internet, but the marvelous “Chain Smoker” is the clear highlight.
And now for the season’s best track so far…
1. Janelle Monae featuring Erykah Badu, “Q.U.E.E.N.”: A stylish Bowie-esque pop pixie with the ability to do whatever she feels like without really changing or damaging her personal brand, Monae’s certainly earned a reputation for being audacious. Everything about her is either ambitious, wacky, or both. That outsized pompadour! Those capri-length tuxedo trousers! Her insistence that her music is the soundtrack to, not a “motion picture,” but an “emotion picture”! The fact that her debut LP The ArchAndroid was two discs long and referred to events narrated on the preceding EP that never made it onto the radio! The very post-OutKast way she blended hip hop, R&B, soul, gospel, classical, electro, funk, glam, psychedelic, rock, and probably a few other genres I’m forgetting into one ecstatic, unified pop explosion – and still found the time and space (spacetime?) for an of Montreal collab and a ukulele-led rendition of “Happy Birthday”! The dense sci-fi concept that runs through all her work and which doubles as a religion-suffused allegory for the history of black America! The video for “Cold War,” which one-ups Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”! The video for “Tightrope,” which is set in an insane asylum called the Palace of the Dogs guarded by figures from Maya Deren’s 1943 experimental short film, Meshes Of The Afternoon!
So it actually means something to say that, if we’re counting its video (and with this artist, to do otherwise would be to miss the point entirely — click the link above to watch it), “Q.U.E.E.N.” is denser, bolder, and better than anything Monae’s tried before. I mean, the new video’s got a futuristic museum, a complex plot, terrorism, a poodle, multiple Monaes, and a visually striking monochromatic color scheme, and it’s the least busily inventive thing going on here. From the insanely danceable bassline and the provocatively restless but still accessible structure right on up to third-millennium soul goddess Erykah Badu’s sea-parting guest verse, “Q.U.E.E.N.” is always inventive and never anything short of thrilling. Plus it’s sassy as all hell: “They be like, ‘Ooh, let them eat cake.’ / But we eat wings and throw them bones on the ground!”
The song’s title is a multivalent reference to the political position, the doomed French monarch Marie Antoinette, drag performance, homophobic slang, and that same slang reclaimed as an in-verb by gay culture, not to mention an acronym for a revolutionary terrorist cell in the ongoing narrative communicated by Monae’s unapologetically verbose songs. Indeed, by far the best thing about the wonderful “Q.U.E.E.N.” is that it substantially develops Monae’s favorite lyrical conceit, the encouragement of individuality to the point of politicized deviance through the metaphor of dance. “Am I freak for getting down?” she asks on the infectious chorus, before answering herself not in the predictable negative, but the affirmative. The Monae project isn’t about normalizing the marginalized subject, it’s about radicalizing that subject through the power of music, and whether such a political objective is appropriate to or possible in major-label pop (coming from a CoverGirl spokeswoman no less) is a question for another time. However it plays out amongst the critics, there’s nothing wrong with the radio broadcasting mantras like “No matter if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am!” and “Categorize me, I defy every label!” And there’s certainly nothing wrong with hearing Erykah Badu murmur that “the booty don’t lie.” So – “Is it peculiar that she twerk in the mirror? And am I weird to dance alone late at night?” If the track playing is “Q.U.E.E.N.” then the answer is obvious: yes, but in the best way possible.
All images via Google Images. All audio and video via YouTube.