Year In Review: Music in 2013

CollaborationsCollaborations between hip-hop artists have been a frequent feature on the music scene, even before Dr. Dre and 2Pac teamed up for “California Love”. It continues to be a popular choice for the hip-hop genre; however, it is becoming increasingly popular for electronic artists to mix soul and dance.Disclosure added depth to their sound with the inclusion of Sam Smith, Jessie Ware and Eliza Doolittle on their innovative debut album Settle. I did not include “Latch” in my Top 100+2 Songs countdown due to the single being released in 2012; however, Eliza Doolittle’s appearance on Disclosure’s “You & Me” earned her a spot on the list at number 68. Further complicating the song’s inclusion on the list is the fact that it is a Flume remix. Flume’s version of the collaboration between Indigenous folk singer Gurrumul and Australian producers Yolanda Be Cool also made the countdown, with “A Baru In New York” at number 18. The Australian lad really sums up the influence of electronic DJs/Producers. I have never been one to lavish praise on the new wave of remixes, but his incredible efforts continually disprove the former label of overhype I had pinned to his chest.R. Kelly remixed Phoenix’s irrepressibly adorable “Trying To Be Cool” to fine effect, pushing it up to number 66. Like Sampha’s “Too Much”, “Trying to Be Cool” would have made it onto the list without the addition of another voice. Drake utilised Sampha’s heart-wrenching chorus in his own number of the same name. It is hard to decide which song should go into the countdown when this occurs. Should we honour the original product and ignore the potentially improved product, simply because it borrows from something else? In these cases, I thought the original versions were better and not overindulgent, and chose to include those.Hip-hop artist collaborations are an omnipresent feature of the industry, so much so that I reckon Kendrick Lamar has been featured on more rap songs this year than he has actually produced himself. It seems the man is everywhere. He’s featured with Big Sean, Chance The Rapper, J. Cole (“Forbidden Fruit”, No. 99), Eminem, A$AP Rocky (“F**kin’ Problems” was a shoe-in had the album been released in 2013) and Pusha T (No. 65). Frank Ocean too found success with stablemate Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, The Creator, with the former collecting position 67 for the track “Sunday”. Ocean personally struggled with vocal cord trouble throughout the latter half of 2013 and as any singer knows, this could spell an extended hiatus for the man who fronted my favourite album of 2012, Channel Orange. Without doubt, however, the collaboration of the year was Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” featuring Niles Rodgers and the ageless Pharrell Williams. Rodgers — a cancer survivor, Chic lead guitarist and featuring musician to the stars — was so influential in the hit that it became both a critical and mainstream success for the impossibly likable helmeted duo. The song came in at number 14, but the album was definitely in the top 10 of the year. AustraliansUntil I began a music program on community radio, I did not hold a particularly strong sentimental feeling toward Australian music. I have always been attracted to soul music that predominately came out of the States and English indie-rock bands, such as the Arctic Monkeys, Grizzly Bear and Franz Ferdinand (“Fresh Strawberries”, No. 50).This has been a bumper year in terms of my growing fondness for Australian releases and the bands that deliver them. Andy Bull (“Keep On Running”, No. 90, and “Baby, I Am Nobody Now”, No. 17), Cloud Control, Empire of the Sun (“Alive”, No. 9), The Preatures (“Is This How You Feel?” No. 8), Vance Joy (“Riptide”, probably an underrated No. 26, and “Play With Fire”, No. 86) and Dan Sultan (“Under Your Skin”, No. 89) are all Australian artists with releases within my Top 100+2 Songs countdown. It may illustrate my bias as there is a strong underground youth network of artists in every country across the globe, but it filled me with pride when I included young artists such as Safia (“I Listen To Soul, I Listen To Blues”, No. 25), RY X (“Berlin”, No. 101) and The John Steel Singers (“Everything’s A Thread”, No. 81) in the proceedings.Matt Corby, Flume, Big Scary and Lorde (she may be from New Zealand but we will claim her) are another load of Aussie artists in my top 100+2. Big Scary have had a big year and would be satisfied with the album they have released; “Luck Now” is a super number coming in at number 59. Jagwar Ma have seemingly blown up in the UK with “Let Her Go”, from debut album Howlin’, jamming its way into the chart at number 11 and “Man I Need” following up at number 92. And how good is “Head on/Pill” (No. 79) by locals King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard? The band name and song sound like something that could come out of a compression session.Honourary Aussies Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s off-the-hook release was a piece of psychedelic magic, with the Sgt. Pepper’s-inspired “From The Sun” coming in at number 94 and the mellow “So Good At Being In Trouble” in at number 29. The Top TenThere were several songs that simply stood out from the pack this year. One of the first albums I reviewed on my radio program was The Drones‘ magnificent I See Seaweed. It actually proved a divisive album among listeners. Some refused to classify it as music, others claimed it as the greatest Australian album of all time. It really is one of those enigma albums that you must listen to and assess for yourself.The standout track on the album was “Why Write A Letter That You’ll Never Send”, a heart-wrenching, brutally honest appraisal of modern day society. For pure songwriting, this is one of the greatest songs I have ever listened to and certainly my number one for 2013. It is timeless in its commentary and although it is politically driven, it does not feel forced or even judgmental; it is simply one man’s opinion, be it the songwriter or the perspective of a friend delivered in a compelling manner.New York producer/songwriter St Lucia follows at number two with the rapturous “Elevate”. Then comes the elusive Thundercat with the deftly heartbreaking “Heartbreaks + Setbacks”the bouncy and immersive “Play by Play” from Autre Ne Veut, and rounding out the top five is the pure elegance of London Grammar with the touching “Wasting My Young Years”. The theme here is certainly one that cuts close to the soul. Each of the songs listed in the top five stresses certain desperation to connect or lament. “Elevate” does just that, lifting the listener into a blinding region of tenderness as Jean-Philip Grobler’s composition is clearly inspired by 80s acts such as Genesis. Thundercat’s contribution to the list is a story created on the back of utter frustration by bass virtuoso Stephen Bruner. Like Janelle Monae, his music is very experimental and this track picks a spot in between nu-soul and electronica. Adding to this are his warm vocals to create one of the triumphs of the year.Autre Ne Veut is an odd name for an artist. But how good is the build up to their climatic chorus in “Play by Play”? The song is zany and, like “Elevate”, is inspired by the ilk of Prince and other 80s pop, which played with a mix of funk, soul and gospel to create something new and exciting. It is an anxious, needy song that leaves nothing in the tank, and the line “Don’t ever leave me alone” matches their album title Anxiety perfectly.Hannah Reid’s voice in London Grammar’s “Wasting My Young Years”, undeniably similar to Florence Welch, is enough to win over any casual music fan. The instrumental backing is minimal, though enough to create a solid foundation for Reid to do her work. The seesawing track hits the emotional and delirious confusion that is, whether hidden or all too visible, in all of us.Arcade Fire‘s “Reflektor” and Queens of the Stone Age‘s “The Vampyre Of Time And Memory”, also in the countdown, remind us that classic rock bands still walk the earth and create brilliant music. Win Butler and Josh Homme, the lead singers of their respective bands, have continued to reinvent themselves with each album and they have succeeded with distinction with their latest efforts. Dominant songs from dominant albums, these are two class-act bands.In at number eight is the pop-rock sounds of Sydney act The Preatures. A rambunctious, flirtatious and infectious song, “Is This How You Feel?” captures the essence of summer love and will keep you moving until the early hours of the morning. Number nine is “Alive” from one of Australia’s premier dance acts, Empire of the Sun. The hooks are catchy, capturing a winter wonderland within a sound built for the summer. It simply hums along with glistening synth and heavy bass—a knockout.Number 10 is the divine “Lay Me Down” from Sam Smith. Some may consider it just another ballad and they are welcome to that opinion, but Smith’s future greatness will come with his absolutely outstanding voice—it is head and shoulders above most current male voices and the guy is only 21. “Lay Me Down” drips with vulnerability and desperation. Smith’s chops simply sneak under my defenses to break my stupid little heart time and time again.This is an edited work derived from a blog post by William Balme and has been republished here with his William Balme

December 20th 2013
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