Tuesday, December 24, 2013

13 Great Things About Music in 2013

1. "212" by Azealia Banks featuring Lazy Jay in The Heat and The Bling Ring I love me some Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy (together and separately), but Azealia Banks' brief soundtrack cameo (via her 2011 debut single, which hit No. 12 in the UK) was what I liked most about the Oscar winner and the Oscar nominee's 2013 hit screen collaboration. It was my favorite marriage of music and movies since 2012's This Is 40 (which also featured McCarthy) gave us Fiona Apple's "Dull Tool."

2. "Applause" by Lady Gaga There's nothing like a healthy dose of self-awareness to drive a good electro beat home. I prefer Gaga in ironic self-deprecating mode than when she's trying to make grand statements ("Born This Way"? Blah) or shock us into watching and listening. "Applause" was a bigger hit than you might think (peaking at No. 4 and spending months hovering in the Top 10), but considering the inferior female-driven pop that cruised right past it to the top (Katy Perry's "Roar," Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball"), it wasn't nearly big enough.

3. "The Way" by Ariana Grande featuring Mac Miller As 2013 pop's new teen queens go, Grande's wasn't as fresh and inventive as Lorde ("The Way" sounds like the kind of debut single Mariah Carey might have made had she debuted circa 2000 instead of 10 years earlier), but while I never need to hear "Royals" again (it sounds cool, but how am I supposed feel it when she sounds so detached singing it?), I love the way "The Way" still makes me feel like hearing it over and over. Play it again, iPod!

4. Music from the second season of Girls Of all the great songs that season two of Girls introduced me to in 2013, including but not limited to Icona Pop featuring Charli XCX's "I Love It" and Tame Impala's glam-rocking "Elephant" (from the current Best Alternative Music Album Grammy nominee Lonerism, which would have made my 2012 best-of list had I known about it back then), Icona Pop's worldwide monster hit was the one that the rest of the world couldn't deny either.

5. Texas The Conversation It came out on May 20 (13 days after my birthday, which would have made it the best birthday present since Keane's Strangeland was released on the big day last year), but somehow I managed not to know about it until nearly four months later, on September 15 (my brother Alexi's birthday), when I consulted Wikipedia to see what my favorite Glaswegian band was up to. I spent most of 2013 slacking off when it came to keeping up with new releases, and it had been so long since Texas had offered one (2005's Red Book), I'd sort of given up hope.

Sometimes, though, good things do come to (and from) those who wait. The long hiatus meant that The Conversation didn't quite pick up where Red Book left off but rather blended elements from every phase of Texas's musical history, from the rootsy Americana-style rock & soul of early Texas (particularly Rick's Road) to the Motown-inflected blue-eyed soul of the band's commercial peak (White on Blonde and The Hush) to the glossy pop of its later efforts and frontwoman Sharleen Spiteri's two solo albums (2008's Melody and 2010's The Movie Songbook), while standing on its own as a singular statement in the group's body of work.

I've always found it interesting that Texas insists that it's named after the 1984 Wim Wenders-directed film, Paris, Texas, and not the Lone Star State, as if distancing itself from the U.S., yet Texas's music has always been so unabashedly American-influenced: There's no question what (or rather, where) inspired "Detroit City," the second Conversation single, which rocks like Vegas's The Killers covering Jersey's Springsteen, quotes Detroit's (and Motown's) own Martha and the Vandellas, and shares its title with a country classic co-written by Tampa, Florida's Mel Tillis and made into a 1963 crossover hit by Ohio's Bobby Bare. The album's other two singles, "Dry Your Eyes" and the title track, were probably too elegant, understated and American-sounding to reverse Texas's diminishing commercial returns in the UK and become hits with pop fans who are now too busy getting their kicks from former The X Factor contestants (like One Direction -- ugh!) to enjoy an adult Conversation. Their loss.

6. Britney flops! I so didn't see this coming: Britney Jean sold a relatively paltry 107,000 copies its first week out, which was only good enough for a No. 4 debut on Billboard's Top 200 album chart. Ouch! Now she knows how Christina Aguilera feels! But for both, there's life after multi-platinum pop stardom on other people's songs: Britney Jean scored with will.i.am on "Scream & Shout" this year, as did Aguilera as a guest on Pitbull's "Feel This Moment" and A Great Big World's "Say Something," currently cresting in the Top 5. Aguilera deserves more (like her very own hit), but if Britney is going to keep insisting on not giving us Blackout 2, she deserves exactly what she's finally getting.

7. "Flourescent" by Pet Shop Boys The best song on PSB's excellent Electric and one that was inspired by former teen queens like Britney herself ("You've been living in a looking glass scene/Since you were seventeen"). The Australian-expat DJ who shocked me by playing it one Saturday night at Bar Saint Jean in Berlin (the same place where I'd discovered Solange Knowles's "Losing You" weeks earlier) clearly agreed.

8. Vincent Powell's performance of Lenny Williams' "Cause I Love You" during the Top 40 Las Vegas semifinals on American Idol Nicky Minaj hated him because he was too "old-fashioned," but what the hell does she know?

9. Kree Harrison's performance of Faith Hill's "Stronger" during the Top 20 Vegas semifinals on American Idol I loved Candice Glover, but her much-celebrated take on The Cure's "Lovesong," though well sung, was shapeless and dull. Kree's gentle, effortless reading of Faith Hill's "Stronger" was stronger -- than Glover's "Lovesong" and Hill's own 2002 version.

10. Bob Marley & The Wailers Rastaman Vibration The album actually came out in 1976, but I didn't discover it until 2013. Marley's only Top 10 U.S. studio album (it hit No. 8), it also includes his lone charter on Billboard's Hot 100, "Roots Rock Reggae," which hit No. 51. Oddly enough, though Sinead O'Connor covered "War" on her 2005 reggae tribute album Throw Down Your Arms, none of the songs on Rastaman Vibration are among the "hits" for which Marley is best known. In other words, you won't be hearing any of them at your next frat party, and they're so much better because of that.

11. Radio Capital TV The soundtrack to my month in Rome, which introduced me to the aforementioned masterpiece, via the video for Marley's "Positive Vibration."

12. Those Polish kids singing along to Rihanna at Glam Club in Warsaw Music, like love, is a universal language, and when I heard the twentysomething crowd at the other Glam (not the one in Buenos Aires!) nailing the lyrics while watching Rihanna perform "Stay" live in concert on Polish TV in July, I got it: a sad song for a sad people. Bonus points to Glam for being the place where I heard Lykke Li's 2011 European hit (curiously, everywhere except in Denmark, the UK and her native Sweden) "I Follow Rivers." May she and Norway's Mr Little Jeans become the next big Scandinavian things in 2014.

13. At last: Linda Ronstadt gets into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! Too bad it had to happen in the same year that she announced her Parkinson's diagnosis, which might give the impression that she garnered some sympathy votes. But considering that Daryl Hall and John Oates are getting in, too, maybe the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is finally thinking outside of the classic-rock box. Better luck next year, Chic!

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