Honorable Mentions | 20-16 | 15-11 | 10-6 | 5-1
Autre Ne Veut
“Play By Play” – Anxiety
“I’m counting on the idea/ That you’ll stay” Arthur Ashin cries — no, begs— over a bed of frantic synths and gurgling saxes in one of Anxiety’s most indelible moments, his falsetto oscillating somewhere between desperation and a full-blown swoon. As Autre Ne Veut, the 31-year old Brooklynite crafts a beguiling brand of experimental, electro-laced R&B that’s feels as jittery as it is hot and bothered — like Justin Timberlake in need of an Ativan. But it’s more than seduction music. Ashin finishes the line “I’m counting on the idea/ That you’ll stay/ Alive” and you realize he’s not pleading with a lover — Ashin wrote “Counting” for his dying grandmother, who passed away not long after Anxiety was released. Whether grounded in desire or fear, Autre Ne Veut’s songs tap into universal neediness — a sense of perpetual longing that exists between humans living in the shadow of the technologically-obsessed, psychological pressure cooker that is the 21st century.
Lead track “Play By Play” relieves some of that tension. The song kicks off with a lush shower of melody, drum machines, and bursts of choir, as Ashin breathes over and over again “And I said, baaaaaabbbbby,” as if he’s lighting one scented candle after another to set the mood. There’s no verse or chorus, just two and half minutes of come-on filled build up until the song erupts into one the year’s most memorable climaxes — a hook that goes on and on and on until it borders on tantric. “Play By Play” is the Kama Sutra of songs in 2013, an instruction manual on how to deliver the goods to the brain’s pleasure centers. Autre Ne Veut is translated from French into an obscure but fitting idiom: “I want no other.” No matter whom he’s singing to or what emotion he’s conveying, Ashin has a way of making it feel true.
Chance the Rapper
“Smoke Again” – Acid Rap
It makes sense when Chance the Rapper spits: “Twerk, twerk, merge, swerve, dang, pick a lane” with blazing speed on Acid Rap’s maniacal opening salvo “Good Ass Intro” — the 21 year-old Chicago native can’t seem to sit still. On his latest (and best) mix tape, Chance effortlessly weaves between freewheelin’ J. Dilla-style beats, Adderall-injected electro, and weed rap paranoia to create a mix of something old, new, borrowed and blue — warm R&B/soul melodies, skittering synthesizer blips, and legendary samples that range from poignant (Willie Hutch’s “Brother’s Gonna Work It Out”) to ecstastic (Betty Wright’s “Clean Up Woman”). Numerous references to smoking and an ashtray-charred voice give away Chance’s predilection for puffing, but it actually brings a world-weary composure to his youthful vigor. Chance’s flow falls somewhere between Frank Ocean’s soulful croon and Danny Brown’s squawky yelp, but he shares something else with rap’s new giants — a magnetic eclecticism.
Guest star verses from Childish Gambino, Ab-Soul, and Action Bronson bring a welcome, raunchy edge to Acid Rap, but Chance’s quirky enthusiasm carries the day, his rhymes ranging from nostalgic (“I miss my diagonal grilled cheeses/ And back when Mike Jackson was still Jesus”) to cerebral (“Lean all on the square/ That’s a fuckin’ rhombus!”) In spite of Chance’s personal demons and his depictions of Chicago’s murder rate, there’s a optimistic quality to these songs that reminds you of records from hip hop’s early-90’s Golden Age — it’s the type of music you return to simply because it feels good. For every mention of hardship, there’s a life-affirming observation that comes out of nowhere and touches you deeply — “Everybody’s somebody’s everything.” “I still be asking God to show his face.” — something the best rap music, or any music for that matter, aspires to. Acid Rap was the most astonishing free download of 2013 — even if you had needed to pay for it, it still would have felt like a gift.
“Where Are We Now?” – The Next Day
Bowie’s 24th album may or may not deserve the too often uttered accolade “best work since Scary Monsters” but it’s certainly his most vital — ironic, considering one of the record’s watershed moments underscores its creator’s ever increasing fragility. The Next Day is filled with the most memorable melodies and inspired songwriting Bowie’s crafted in years, but it’s ultimately defined by its acknowledgment of human limitations. At age 67, Bowie is no longer reinventing himself; rather, he’s deliberately leveraging his own iconography (often to great effect.) From the knocked out “”Heroes”” cover, to producer Tony Visconti’s signature snare effects, to “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’s” winking nod to the drum cadence of Ziggy Stardust’s “Five Days,” The Next Day feels like a well-aged blend of Bowie’s numerous sonic incarnations (glam rock, plastic soul, electronic pop, drum n’ bass, and dance) that both draws from and furthers his remarkable legacy.
Bowie suffered a heart attack in 2005, and while most of The Next Day is defiantly upbeat, the album’s pensive, trembling centerpiece remains “Where Are We Now?” During the song’s first half, Bowie sounds shockingly frail and burdened by memory — he recounts obscure Berlin haunts from his Thin White Duke days and speaks of “walking the dead.” But the song blossoms when Bowie discovers new-found strength, singing: “As long as there’s fire/ As long as there’s you/ As long as there’s me,” embracing mortality even while resisting his inexorable decline. Bowie’s renowned for his powers of reinvention and rebellious nature, but his gift as a songwriter always lay in his ability to connect with innate aspects of the human condition — loneliness, desire, vanity, dignity. “Turn and face the strain!” he implored on Hunky Dory’s “Changes,” and here he finally does so. The Man Who Fell to Earth has never sounded so close to returning it, yet “Where Are We Now?” is Bowie staring death right in the face and not blinking.
“Water Me” – EP2
With all due respect to Beyoncé’s heart stopping fusion of experimental pop and crazy sexy cool eroticism, FKA twigs was there first. Since 2012, 25 year-old Tahliah Barnett has been annexing sonic elements from less mainstream genres (trip-hop, post-dubstep, and glitch) into her own warped, undulating take on future R&B, as evidenced on the excellent EP and EP2. She also exerts creative control over the surreal, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it videos that accompany her songs, with images ranging from Barnett’s porcelain doll face manipulated in disturbing fashion (see above) to mesmerizing digital representations of the human body that resemble aliens mating underwater. EP2’s hypnotic beats and startling aural twists turn paeans of traditional desire into more sinister shapes, probing the streak of deviance that separates love from something more lustful.
FKA twigs’ best work articulates intimacy gone awry, both lyrically and through its damaged soundscapes. On EP2 standout “Water Me,” mysterious Brooklyn producer Arca (Yeezus) coats Barnett’s gorgeous vocals in a sheen of FX distortion, contrasting warm suppleness with icy brittleness to enforce her lonely lament: “He won’t make love to me now/ Not now I’ve set a fee.” She’s in complete command yet painfully vulnerable, and “Water Me” mirrors it — the song’s core melody crushed to bits then rebuilt with jagged, processed edges like a heart broken and patched up again, still beating but never the same. From these shadowy emotional reveals to her barely known identity, FKA twigs is adept at clutching you tightly while keeping you at arm’s length. When she translates that power across a full length LP (mainstream or otherwise), the world could very well be hers.
“Quest” – Seabed
The juxtaposition is a bit silly at first. On debut LP Seabed, English trio Vondelpark exude sultriness in a prim, tasteful sort of way, like soft porn crossed with a Dentyne gum commercial — you can practically feel the icy exhale of Lewis Ranisbury’s breath fill the room whenever he croons. The vocals, already laconic and velvety, are ever so slightly stretched and processed into lazy loops that communicate fanciful, twilight-glow longing — think James Blake joining Spandau Ballet for a night of canoodling at the Hotel Costes. But then it hits you — Rainsbury and bandmates Alex Bailey (bass) and Matt Lawrenson (synths) are serious and seriously good, with enough live instrumental chops to match their adept electronic sampling talents and romantic penchant for patiently unfurling pop songs.
Standouts “Quest” and “Always Forever” are built on the warm synths, watery guitar reverb, and gooey melodies that were flag-bearing standards of 80’s yacht rock and smooth jazz. The white-washed R&B of slow-rolling “Dracula” relies more on gentle hypnosis than fang-like hooks to get under your skin — rarely does a song feel so at odds with its ominous title yet remain this beguiling. It’s a neat trick how Vondelpark make Seabed feel situational yet universal, mood music made for lots of things — lovemaking with headphones on, lounging about your flat on a lazy Sunday morning, being chemically-enhanced and seeking the come down. This is easy listening where easy isn’t a put-down but a well-deserved reprieve for the busiest of minds.
Honorable Mentions | 20-16 | 15-11 | 10-6 | 5-1