Music Review of 2013: This Time, It’s Personal

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Best Tracks of 2013 playlist on Spotify:

I love music. So much so that I almost didn’t write this.

Once again, I’m a year wiser, a year more in tune to the music scene, a year more fatigued.

For years I’ve been writing about music and its underlying meaning, trying to give listeners a reason why they should like a certain album or song. Then, at the end of the year, I attach a number to 10 albums, as if you could accurately measure one against another.

This imperfect science of ranking and rating is what makes people read about music. The debate is part of the fun as it promotes conversation and forces us to engage in the subject matter. You’re going to read some top-10 albums of 2013 lists and wholeheartedly agree or vehemently oppose the results.

It’s wonderful, but it becomes a struggle when you constantly have to read about how Kanye West‘s Yeezus defines our current society. We read too much into a guy who hibernates in a studio and who thinks very little past himself. I have a problem when I’m told that an A-list rapper who knows nothing about the lives of the majority represents the whole. It’s just music.

I feel like a fool when Pitchfork rates Arcade Fire‘s Reflektor a 9.2 and I’m skipping almost every track. But many readers see that number as gospel. And if poor Bloc Party gets a measly 5.2 – GARBAGE. Not even worth your time.

But it shouldn’t be like that, which is why I’m no longer ranking albums as if I’m some authority. The closest I’ll do is post that playlist you see above (side note: I’m on Spotify’s #teamfollowback).

I listen to a ton of music with impossible intentions of better comprehending the whole soundscape. But critics (and I loosely include myself here) haven’t been through what you or the artist has gone through. Music is personal.

If you love Reflektor or Yeezus, you should enjoy them and everything they mean to you. I’m not going to put a 2-star rating on your happiness. People love “horrible” music just like “great” music will be ignored. The value of music is what it means to you. Some of my favorite albums get terrible ratings, but that’s because I wasn’t the rater.

Though I sometimes let it slip, I will try harder not to judge someone on their musical preference since it goes against everything I stand for.

Music is entirely subjective and all numbers do is limit infinite meaning. I listened to the likes of Miley Cyrus, Deafheaven, Vampire Weekend, Danny Brown and beyond. Through it all, I learned something that made me do away with the rankings, something that almost made me quit the discussion altogether:

Even at its worst, music is magic.

My Songs:

The best way I could sum up this year in music while sticking to my parameters was to make it personal. Since music is reflection of self, this section is dedicated to a few songs that touched and inspired me. Share the songs that moved you and maybe we can make a quilt.

OneRepublic – “I Lived”

Last year (2012) was kind of rough: surgeries, layoffs, broken bones, LIFE. But I’m better for it and 2013 ended up being an absolute delight: relatively good health, engagement, new job, LIFE. Break me, I dare you. With Jason Mraz touring and working on a new album, I needed an artist to step up with some audible affirmations. OneRepublic did the job brilliantly on Nature and this track was the best example.

Queens of the Stone Age – “I Appear Missing”

QOTSA frontman Josh Homme had bout with MRSA in 2010 and was clinically dead for a couple minutes after complications. He had to be revived with defibrillator, hence the dreary imagery in the song (“Shock me awake/Tear me apart/Pinned like a note on a hospital gown”).

The album, …Like Clockwork, has several themes throughout and they culminate in “I Appear Missing”: depression, second chances, pushing yourself past your limits, climbing back up to zero, etc. Homme was bed-ridden in a hospital room for four months, and that does something to your psyche.

But he emerged and this album was born from the rubble (there is much more to the story than I can explain here). I can’t name one specific instance where I can connect “I Appear Missing,” but I didn’t have to. It was real.

As long as a piece of art is created with some form of authenticity, it can mean something to anyone willing to accept what it means. This song is a true masterclass of musicianship and was such a refreshing release from the phoniness out there.

Dustin Kensrue – “It’s Not Enough”

One of my friends – strong was he in faith – once said that I was proof of God’s existence. Now, I don’t necessarily endorse this sentiment. I also don’t divulge details of my religious affiliation because it’s built on unorthodox foundations.

There are lessons you learn throughout life and how you apply them makes you who you are. I keep my swearing in check and hold doors open because it fulfills me. I’m not intentionally working towards everlasting grace.

There are sinners bound to the church and saints who stand unaffiliated. This song goes beyond that. It goes above it. The lyrics cut unfathomably deep, deeper than the thoughts and beliefs many fear to reach:

Though I could live for all to lift them higher,
Or spend the centuries seeking light within.
Though I indulged my every dark desire,
Exhausting every avenue of sin.

What if you were the embodiment of good or the most nefarious brand of sinner? What is the ultimate end? Is one better than the other? Does it matter? Much of the content comes from the book of Ecclesiastes, which challenges that everything is meaningless.

It’s one of those songs that has a renewing effect once you hear it. Kensrue’s words are almost uncomfortably direct, something vacant in much of the music out there. “It’s Not Enough” breaks down the barriers of the spiritual and secular and shows that no matter which life you choose to lead, you can still find it inadequate.

However terrifying that may be, I find the sentiment alluring. Stats:

This year, I was like a quarterback who went the entire season without looking at his passer rating or stats. I just played. As the year winds down, let’s assess my stats.

Top-Played Albums

Music 2

This is stunning. Obviously, the earlier the release, the more I will listen to it during the year. But OneRepublic nearly doubles the next album on the list (which is also shocking because I was on the fence about Red‘s Release the Panic). Stephen Lynch struck gold with the comedic songwriting in Lion, but that was one I missed in 2012. Fall Out Boy has the sing-along album of the 2013.

Top-Played Tracks

Music 1

I caught onto that Neon Trees song late, so I totally missed discussing it for 2012. It’s interesting that it still reigns supreme for the entire year. I could have guessed the amount of plays I had for Frank Ocean, though. Despite the song being almost 10 minutes long, it was on repeat all last winter.

As for “Counting Stars,” look at this time log. June 5th was a good day, I can tell you that much. Also, this is a good example of how great my ear is because that song is everywhere now. Dear Interscope Records – I KNOW HITS.

Top Five Billboard Songs of 2013, Reviewed

OK, one last act of cynicism. Did the populous gravitate toward quality radio plays or was this another year of debauchery? I tend to gravitate away from the radio, so my knowledge may be slightly limited here.

5. “Can’t Hold Us” – Macklemore and Ryan Lewis feat. Ray Dalton
As much as I want to dislike Macklemore, I can’t find a justifiable reason for the animosity. He fights for equal rights, is a genuinely nice guy and isn’t a horrible musician. I’m still in the process of becoming a “fan,” but this is my favorite song he has by far. The music video is grand. Also, Ray Dalton is a vocal clone of John Legend while looking kind of like Sean Kingston, so that’s impressive.

4. “Harlem Shake” – Baauer
Dumb. Everyone who has ever partaken in the seizure-inducing Harlem Shake should be institutionalized. I had to make a playlist for a corporate challenge event, something to be played over mega speakers in public, and I was eager for the undertaking until I found out that this “song” was the only necessity. I deleted it as soon as the event was over, don’t worry. Also, Baauer appears on my Best-of-2013 playlist above, and I have no explanation for that. For this particular track to be No. 4 on the list is truly sickening.

3. “Radioactive” – Imagine Dragons
The most overplayed song of the year, joining the likes of “Rolling in the Deep” and “Viva La Vida.” Oh, it was great the first 4,523 times, but the last 6,314,932 listens have been torture. Someone should tell advertisers that there are other beat-sick songs to push their epic product: Zombie 5Ks, LeBron James practicing in a fifth-story basketball court for some reason and The Host movie, which wasn’t even good. To Imagine Dragons’ credit, I have never in my life seen a more radio-friendly album. I guess that would make it radio-active, hey-ooo!

2. “Blurred Lines” – Robin Thicke
This song won 2013 while reinforcing my lack of knowledge of the American people and what they find tasteful. This song is fun, but it’s completely out of control which is why I’m so glad this piece was written. The music video is unacceptable and “What rhymes with hug me?” is the stupidest/greatest lyric ever written. You can hear a subtle giggle on the track during that verse, so even Thicke knows it’s absurd. His resurgent success is good for him, but what does that say about us?

1. “Thrift Shop” – Macklemore and Ryan Lewis feat. Wanz
If this had not have been the first single, Macklemore and I probably wouldn’t have gotten off on the wrong foot. But I spent the first half of the year enduring this nonsense everywhere. Social gatherings were not fun and I have this song to blame. I have no idea what “Thrift Shop” is about since I avoided it at all cost and it could be the message that finally brings us all together. But Macklemore dresses like Cruella de Vil skinned the fur off Tygra from the Thundercats, so I find the thrift shop concept irksome. First impressions are everything, buddy. Our relationship isn’t a lost cause, but the climb is bigger than it has to be.

Going for the benefit of the doubt, I say 3/5 of these songs are acceptable, though just barely. But everyone else liked them, so, as always, I’m probably wrong.

Until next year, friends.

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