Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Best Tracks of 2013: Our Top 3

3) Kanye West - New Slaves

The first time I heard New Slaves was probably the same way as many others - watching a YouTube clip of one of Kanye's series of projections around the world - just his face blown up on the sides of buildings, mouthing the words, his blackness accentuated. It was a real Event, in the way precious little can aspire to be in an era of click-bait and low attention spans. I honestly wasn't sure what to make of the song at first. The production was initially off-putting - an austere bass synth assault where other hip-hop tracks would have the drums. But Kanye's delivery has that raw 'one-take' intensity to it, and the lyrics kept me coming back until the point where I realised how crucial the beat was to my enjoyment of the song.

The first verse details how racism is endemic to consumer culture - as a black man, Kanye's been on the receiving end, whether broke or filthy rich. Money can buy you expensive clothes, but it can't necessarily break you into the fashion industry. Ultimately though, whatever colour, we're all slaves to materialism ("Used to only be n*iggas, now everybody playing / Spending everything on Alexander Wang, new slaves").

Kanye thinks the second verse of New Slaves is "the best rap verse of all time in the history of music. Period." This is only a ludicrous statement if you're hung up on technical skill - after all, he rhymes "I see the blood on the leaves" with itself three times. What he says, though - well, no other artist with his level of fame and exposure is making a statement anywhere near as bold as this. Kanye goes after the fashion industry, the news media and the prison-industrial complex, all before threatening to screw the wives of all those rich white CEOs living in the Hamptons. What the fuck they gon' say now. A beat of silence.

Then, at the end, the song blossoms into life like the first flower emerging from a charred battlefield. Kanye turns on the Auto-Tune and Frank Ocean turns up for a spot of crooning. It's one of a handful of genuinely beautiful moments nestled within an album of relentless sonic provocation. A brief chance to take stock of everything you've just heard, before you're plunged into the darkness once again.

2) Kanye West - Bound 2

A lot has been written about Bound 2, and with good reason - like little else released this year it demands compulsive replays, over and over again. It sticks in your head. It's insanely quotable (personal favourite: "Rock Forever 21 but just turned thirty"). It's a welcome moment of light and levity at the end of a challenging album. It's a cheeky nod to Kanye's old production technique of using pitched-up soul samples, yet weirdly heavy on the treble. It might just be his best song ever.

The meme-ready video that we got recently was really just the icing on the cake. Deliberately baiting notions of good taste, we see Kanye getting steamy with his 'home movie' wife against a landscape that looks like a computer screensaver. Crucially, this all takes place while riding a motorcycle down an empty highway, just one of a number of symbolic subversions of white American masculinity. See also: Kanye's lumberjack shirt, and those clips of running horses bringing to mind the land of Marlboro Country, as well as Richard Prince's clever appropriations revealing just how meticulously constructed that advertising language really was.

Bound 2 feels messily constructed, its parts initially failing to synthesise. The lyrics are easily criticised by hip-hop purists who care that Kanye rhymes 'reputation' with itself four times, and the video is seemingly a joke for those internet bores who whine that Kim's hair is blowing in the opposite direction to the wind. Both the sampled hook, "Bound to falling in love", and Charlie Wilson's soulful bridge stand in stark contrast to Kanye's talk of screwing in the bathroom. Ultimately though, Bound 2 is a fine tribute to monogamy and true love, albeit an unusual one. But what else would we expect from Yeezy at this point?

1) Glass Candy - Warm in the Winter

Italians Do It Better are my favourite label in the world right now. The uncompromising quality of all their releases, their stylish aesthetic, their willingness to engage with their fans - all masterminded by label head Johnny Jewel, whose in-depth interviews might be the most eloquent ruminations on music that you've read this year. Johnny produces pretty much every release on the label, as well as being a member of at least four IDIB projects - most notably Chromatics and Glass Candy.

Warm in the Winter was first released as a single back in 2011 - imagine my joy when a free copy got tucked into one of my mail orders from the IDIB site and, having never heard the song, it turned out to be even better than the stuff I'd actually purchased. This year, a slightly different edit became the first track on the label's new compilation 'After Dark 2', where it shone yet again amongst a whole roster of talent.

The song's sheer danceability lies in its bubbling synths and steady bass pulses, but its real power comes from Ida No's cheerleader exhortations ("We love you! You're beautiful!"), and the lyrics - a simple, nonspecific, utterly universal declaration of love. Malleable to your thoughts, versatile to however you're feeling. "Love is in the air", comes the repeated mantra, but it can be Ida's love, or yours, or it can belong to everyone in the room.

Halfway through, Ida starts talking. She's talking to everybody who's ever listened to the song, and everyone who will discover it in the future, but at that moment it always feels like she's just talking to you. Nothing else exists for a minute, and you've never felt more at ease, but so giddy at the same time. The synths start to tower up and spiral around each other, until the drums finally come back in, and you dance out the last two minutes with a huge smile on your face. Complete ecstasy.

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