My Top Songs of Summer 2013 (15-1)

Without any preamble, here are my favourite 15 songs of the summer:

I plead the fif. I plead the fif-teen.

I plead the fif. I plead the fif-teen.

15. Placebo – Too Many Friends

“Too Many Friends” is a rock solid comeback song from the incomparable Placebo. I think the lyrics could’ve been a bit better/tighter/more polished, as the overarching premise is a smart one, but that’s picking nits. The melody is teflon-strong and Brian Molko’s dark humour with a dollop of sadness is as charming as ever.


14. Lady Gaga – Applause

“Applause” hit quick and hard. Gaga is still on top of her game. Maybe it’s not everyone’s favourite — it’s always going to be hard for her to top “Just Dance”, “Bad Romance”, “Poker Face”, “Alejandro” or “Papparazzi” — but “Applause” is still a monstrous pop tune, and she seems to be continuously striving to up the wacky quotient in the name of art. I’m down with wherever her path leads next for one main reason: it’s clear she cares a hell of a lot about her music/art/image. Gaga is preposterous, but the best of pop music should be.


13. Disclosure – When A Fire Starts To Burn

First listen: This is a catchy tune. Second listen: Why are my legs moving to the beat, and why do I have no control over them? Third listen: Why do my lips keep mouthing, “when a fire starts to burn, right” and why do I have no control over them? Thirtieth listen: My god, I’ve just listen to this song 27 times in a row. Yup, that’s what I call one of the songs of the summer. For me, “When A Fire Starts To Burn” is far and away Disclosure’s best song. Bonus points for the simple, funny, awesome video.


12. USS (Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker) – This Is The Best

Catchier and catchier with each listen, “This Is The Best” is USS at the top of their electro-pop-madness game. They get a tonne of bonus points for constructing a song that’s equally inviting whether played normally or at 1.5x speed. (Go ahead, click on the link to the lyric video below and try it for yourself. My world view was shattered when I first discovered I could change the playback speed on certain Youtube songs.)


11. Sia & David Guetta – She Wolf

Maybe the proper title is “David Guetta f. Sia – She Wolf”, but I’ve chosen to list the participants in order of who I deem to be most responsible for its song-of-the-summer worthiness. Granted, “She Wolf” is Guetta’s best track in maybe 10 years (the only other one that comes close is “Love Don’t Let Me Go”), and the way he’s constructed the ebbs and flows, the build-up, the climax, the come down, is pristine and perfect. Sia’s vocal is beyond perfect though, so much so that it renders the pristine moot. There’s an emotional depth in her vocal that you almost never find in a dancepop song. It almost sounds like she’s crying the hook (which is every word she sings by the way). I’m in awe of and hanging onto every syllable she utters.


10. White Lies – There Goes Our Love Again

Let’s just forget White Lies’ second album, Ritual, ever happened. Going from “To Lose My Life” and “Death” to anything from that LP is, to put it nicely, a fruitless endeavour (read: the album’s a barren wasteland with nary a good song to be found). Thankfully, it seems that White Lies have forgotten about it too, jumping right back on the Killers/Joy Division/New Order train with their mammoth comeback single, “There Goes Our Love Again”. It’s big, bold, bombastic, with an indomitable chorus and hooks to spare. Welcome back lads. This is where you belong.


9. Grouplove – Ways To Go

I didn’t expect this. Grouplove’s debut, Never Trust A Happy Song, was an enjoyable album with some really good tracks (see: “Colours”, “Tongue Tied”, “Itchin’ On A Photograph” and “Betty’s a Bomb Shell”). Yet, despite Grouplove’s zealot-like commitment to fun, their debut was a relatively straightforward guitar-pop record. Two years later, the times they’ve changed, and Grouplove have gone full-synth on their latest, Spreading Rumours. “Ways To Go” retains the frolic, fun and troublemaking charm of its predecessor, but it takes the gitch to a whole new level. It’s a delicious earworm, and one of the best songs of the summer to boot.


8. Jacques Lu Cont – Safe With You

“Safe With You” is a missile of a dance track. It’s all seek and destroy. And what a weapon it is. The Thin White Duke has done a lot of good work over the past decade, but I think this is his best ever single. These days, dance tracks this immediate and overpowering are few and far between.


7. Drake – Hold On We’re Going Home

Whoa. Didn’t think Drake had a track like this in him. I’m not a massive fan; I’ve liked some of his past work, but I’ve never been infatuated with anything he’s done before (“Take Care” is quite good, but I didn’t go apeshit over it). Scratch that record. “Hold On We’re Going Home” is an a ascendant rejoice: in melody, songcraft, and flipping the script. Gone is Drake’s usual bravado, any semblance of rap, and any posit of a prima donna. In its place is modesty, restraint, and pop mastery. Drake and producer Majid Jordan sought to craft a song that would stand up at weddings. I think they’ve done that and more.


6. Lorde – Royals

It took me a few listens to really warm to “Royals”. Now, it’s got me so hot I can cut sheet metal with my index finger. (Sure, I had to go the hospital, and I lost my right index finger, but I proved a point. When keeping it real goes wrong.) “Royals” is simple, direct, and catchy as hellfire and brimstone, while Lorde stands above her contemporaries, alone. I don’t quite understand how a 16-year-old has a voice like that, with a tone so full of depth and experience. Nor do I fully grasp how a 16-year-old has written lyrics so smart, simple, and representative of a common feeling. I do grasp one thing though: Lorde is already a huge star, and deservedly so. “Royals” is a brave statement that achieves a neat trick. Lorde might not be street legal, but she’s straight regal, even if she’s asking to be anything but.


5. The Boxer Rebellion – Diamonds

My vishnu, this band deserves to be huge. The London quartet already have two sensational songs to their name, “Evacuate” and “Semi Automatic”, from 2009’s unfortunately unheralded Union. Now, they have a third, the soaring triumph, “Diamonds”.

I got lost in this track many a time over the course of the summer. It’s sweeping. It sounds like it’s weeping. It’s at once uplifting, pensive, foreboding, and melancholic. It’s the sound of falling, rapidly through the clouds of days gone by, only to end up inverted and dazed, landed on the here and now.

The stand-out guitar work melds beautifully with the understated synths. This song will not get the listens and views it deserves. That’s a shame, but the effort the London lads have put forth is not. It’ll stand as a career highlight, I’m sure.


4. The Vaccines – Everybody’s Gonna Let You Down

When I hear “Everybody’s Gonna Let You Down”, I hear Dandy Warhols, a tinge of Nirvana, some Cage The Elephant, and a pinch of Weezer. Or The Vaccines 2.0 as it were. “Everybody’s Gonna Let You Down” is a chemical weapon that’s been used on the unassuming public, but it’s been done so slyly there will be no UN inspection.

The West-London quartet have built a nice space for themselves in the crowded indie/pop/alt world. They’ve differentiated themselves from their peers by being, well, kind of weird. The music on their first two LP’s is almost always catchy, but many a time the tunes zig when you think they’re going to zag. Until now, The Vaccines have kept the listener engaged with great melodies that always risk deviating from the beaten path — a tremendously difficult task that they accomplish with apparent ease.

Things are now a little different though. On their new EP, Melody Calling, things are decidedly more straightforward. The band are not trying to bury or subvert the hooks; they’re at the fore and they’re fantastic, especially with what’s probably their most melodic and earwormy song to date, “Everybody’s Gonna Let You Down”. I could listen to it 100 times in a row and not tire of it. Hell, I think I’ve come close. It’s a monumental beast with layers upon layers of hooks (I think the guitar work alone accounts for approximately 67 hooks). I believe The Vaccines have attempted to write the perfect pop song, and the crazy thing is, I think they might have done it. What an absurd thought. What pinpoint execution.


3. Alt-j – Taro

“Taro” took the long route to get to my home. It’s from Alt-j’s stunning debut, An Awesome Wave, which was released in 2012, and it wasn’t a single. I spent so much time obsessing over “Something Good”, “Tessellate”, “Breezeblocks”, “Fitzpleasure” and eventually “Matilda” and “Dissolve Me” that “Taro” was sort of a forgotten treasure. That is no longer the case.

It’s a marvellous, disorienting, poetic piece of art. The chorus, with its eastern imbued guitar riff, is a colossal hook. Melody is strewn all over the god-damn everywhere, like the blood of a septuple homicide smeared across a vast, pearl-white wall. The melodies are so relentless because they’re given shape not only by the impeccably executed music, but by lead singer Joe Newman’s varied, serene-come-ominous voice.

I am in awe of “Taro”‘s lyrics. They tell a story of two war photojournalists in a poetic style that I’m not sure I’ve heard before. The lyrics are mystifying, confounding, and complex. The structure of the composition is such that it doesn’t necessarily read rhythmically, yet Alt-j have (miraculously, I might add) found a way to weave it seamlessly with the music, to the point where it seems like one could not exist without the other. It’s pure, inspired artistic expression.

“Taro” forewarns: “Do not spray into eyes, I have sprayed you into my eyes.” Alas, I couldn’t help myself. I sprayed “Taro” into my eyes. It’s like a second pair of eyelids that I never knew I had have been lifted, making my eyes lighter, allowing me to see the world in colours and shapes I’ve never seen before. What a sight to behold.


2. Mutya Keisha Siobhan – Flatline

Mutya Buena, Keisha Buchanan, and Siobhan Donaghy are back. In case you’re not familiar with those names, they also go by the founding, original members of the seminal girl group Sugababes. I believe Sugababes are the best girl group of the past 15 years (subject for another day), but despite their popularity (mainly in the UK and Europe), their impact has been somewhat tempered by the revolving door of a lineup they’ve seen throughout the years. Siobhan was the first to go, lasting only one album, and the band, although they had a number of awesome hits without her, were never quite the same after that. One Touch, their debut record, still holds up spectacularly, almost 13 years later. It was a bone-rattling statement from three teenage girls who could do one thing better than 99.99% of their contemporaries: sing.

After a 13 year break from each other, they’re back as Mutya Keisha Siobhan (MKS for short). Certain clichés ring true: they sound wiser, rejuvenated, and ready to conquer the pop world once again. But does the thing that made them famous still ring true? Can they still harmonize better than pretty much anyone else? The answer to both questions is a resounding yes. And beyond their sparkling, shimmering, and more mature voices, they’ve come back with a song just as strong. “Flatline” is an unassailable pop masterstroke. That chorus. Holy shitting shithawks, that chorus. It might take one listen for it to devastate, it might take a few. But facts are facts, the Sugababes are back. Maybe without the name, but with everything else that made them superstars in the first place.


1. Vampire Weekend – Ya Hey

“Ya Hey” is my favourite song of the summer of 2013, for one simple reason: it gave me chills time and time again. I love the music. I love Ezra Koenig’s voice. I love the subtle electronic touches that make the song wholly unique, from anything else Vampire Weekend have done or anything else in music right now. I love the lyrics. I guess you could say I love it all. And the thing is, I care (sorry Icona Pop). I really care. About what I think the song means, about how it makes me feel, about Vampire Weekend.

I liked the first two Vampire Weekend records, but something’s changed, either in me or in them. Probably both. I think their latest LP, Modern Vampires Of The City is by far their best work. They’ve culled all of their charms and eccentricities into an irresistible concoction; they’re now a superpower of a band, on the short list of best bands on the planet.

“Diane Young”, “Obvious Bicycle”, “Step” and “Hannah Hunt” (among others; the album is glazed all over with awesome) are highlights, but there’s something different altogether about “Ya Hey”. It’s an examination of the spiritual. It’s filled with questions that allude to answers that beg more questions. If one were to be needlessly reductive, one would say it’s intellectual Indie. Maybe the problem lies in saying that it is anything.

Maybe it just is. Maybe, through the heart, and through the flames, “Ya Hey” says only, ‘I am that I am.’ Eureka. I think that’s it.

Osheaga 2013: My Top 10 Performances

Now, to what really matters, the music. I’ll begin below with a short list of the bands I saw each day, along with who I did not see that I’d hoped to, because I haven’t quite transcended the whole one-body, two-ears, two-eyes thing.

To clarify, my definition of “seeing” a band/act is being present, aware, and lucid for at least 2 songs, preferably 3, so as to discern the vibe of the crowd, tunes, and band/act with some manner of confidence and clarity. So, for example, I wouldn’t say I “saw” Beck, as I only heard one of his tunes as I was making my way for the exit. After that, I’m including my top 10 favourite performances of the festival. Here goes:

On Friday, I saw: Capital Cities, Millimetrik, Guards, Hyphen Hyphen, DIIV, Ben Howard, Alt-J, Kidnap Kid, Two Door Cinema Club, Ellie Goulding, Vampire Weekend, Phoenix, and The Cure.

I unfortunately missed out on: Majical Cloudz, Beach House, Diamond Rings, Rich Aucoin, Jake Bugg, and Baauer.

On Saturday, I saw: Raine Maida, Grouplove, The Heavy, Jimmy Eat World, Cajmere, Soul Clap, Azari & III, Frank Turner, K-os, Imagine Dragons, Style of Eye, Jacques Lu Cont, and Porter Robinson.

I unfortunately missed out on: Tegan & Sara, Stars, Beck, Wild Nothing, Explosions In The Sky, C2C, and We Are Wolves.

On Sunday, I saw: MNDR, Atlas Genius, Frightened Rabbit, Jessie Ware, Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires, Silversun Pickups, Big Boi, Grammatik, The Lumineers, Kendrick Lamar, Disclosure, New Order, The Neighbourhood, Hot Chip, and Mumford & Sons.

I unfortunately missed out on: Icona Pop, Father John Misty, Dusted, Hollerado, DVBBS, Tommy Trash, and Pretty Lights.

Honorable mention: Mumford & Sons (Marcus Mumford killed it on the drums during their final pre-encore song, and I got to see my favourite track from their latest LP, “Babel,” so I was pleased with what I saw from them), Jimmy Eat World (always reliable), Hot Chip (always danceable), and The Neighbourhood (their hits sounded great).

10. Cajmere/Kidnap Kid/Grammatik

Cajmere dispensing Chicago House tunes

Cajmere dispensing Chicago House tunes

The piknic électronik stage was consistently banging the entire weekend, but for me, there were 3 acts that stood above the rest. Cajmere delivered delicious house tunes, and his head bopping to the beat lifted spirits even higher. Kidnap Kid was similarly engaging, and the music was irresistible. Grammatik was different than the other two. Firstly, his beats were more varied. Secondly, what put his set over the top was the live electric guitarist who accompanied him and riffed in perfect symmetry with his songs. Even though his set finished about 10 minutes early because of technical problems, the damage had already been done. He slayed.

9. Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar on fire.

Kendrick Lamar on fire

I’m not a massive fan, but decided I’d check his set out as I’d heard good things about his live act. He did not disappoint. He was in complete control the entire time and had the crowd bowing to his every whim. His flow was precise and varied; his ability to shift the dynamic (pitch, volume) of his delivery was extremely impressive. Probably my favourite part of his talent is how he would seem to be telling a story (without a beat — this is a dicey proposition that can lose the audience’s attention very quickly if done for too long), but all he was doing was setting the crowd up with a lyrical tie-in to the song that followed. Also, he would often be silent for a few seconds at a time to take in the moment, to look at the crowd or whatever, and while that might not work for other artists, it seemed to energize the crowd even more. If he had more “hits” (I’m not too worried, I think they’re coming), it’d pretty much be a perfect live show. As it stands now, he’s already a vicious and extremely talented emcee. Impressive stuff.

8. Silversun Pickups

Brain Aubert postulating

Brain Aubert postulating

I’d seen Silversun Pickups live many times. Yet despite Icona Pop (I hadn’t seen them before) calling me from across the Parc, I stuck with my gut and hopped in the Pickup truck one more time. Boy am I glad I did. They played a rocking good set (as they always do). “Skin Graph” sounded brooding and menacing, while “Royal We” and “Panic Switch” proved to be additional highlights.

But, something happened in the second half of their set. Nature decided to pay us a swift, wet visit, and holy shit, am I glad it did, as what followed was utterly magical. During the latter half of SP’s set, the rain started coming down, and then it came down even harder after that. Did the crowd sulk? Nope. Did they bitch? Nope. They cheered. And how. The louder the pitter patter, the louder the cheering clatter, at which point, nothing else mattered. Sensing an opportunity to commune with the crowd, lead singer Brian Aubert decided to shred the fuck out of his guitar, and in a show of solidarity, move forward to the front of the stage so he could get wet too. As the rain poured, SP’s marquee hit (and one of the best songs of the last 10 years I might add), “Lazy Eye” exploded with ferocity, and it seemed like Aubert played the riff at the end of the song for an hour. Indeed, it was one of those moments where time stood still. As the song faded to a close, the rain seemed to dissipate, as if mother nature heard everyone’s prayers and was satisfied. As the set came to a close, people started to look behind them. A rainbow had formed.  It was an experience I’ll never forget. That’s why I go to festivals. That’s why I love music. That was transcendence.

7. Charles Bradley & The Extraordinaires

Charles Bradley getting the funk down

Charles Bradley getting the funk down

No biggie. Just a 65-year-old former homeless James Brown impersonator waxing sexuality and soul up and down the entire main stage. I don’t think it was physically possible to look away during his set. Charles Bradley is a bad, bad man, and he’s got soul to spare. Boy I’m glad I decided to check him out.

6. Big Boi

Big Boi on his throne

Big Boi on his throne

Big Boi, as a performer, was solid. His flow is still quick and hits hard in many spots, but the reason he was one of my favourites is because of the songs. To hear “ATLiens” and “Rosa Parks” and “Skew It On The Bar-B” live — songs I grew up with and obsessed over — was an unforgettable experience. Those songs were classics the moment they were released, they still are now, and they’ll always be. I can only imagine how it would be if ‘Dre 3000 were still in the mix. One day, we can only hope.

5. Grouplove

Grouplove rocking out

Grouplove rocking out

I had a feeling they were an act not to be missed, and they proved me right. They performed like they were fuelled by 50 cases of Red Bull, and they sounded great. Four members of the group sang, and they all held their own. Highlights were “Tongue Tied,” “Colours,” and the absurdly catchy new single, “Ways To Go.” They seemed to be having the time of their lives, and they’re smart enough to know that sort of thing is contagious. I think Grouplove are just getting started showing the world how good they can be.

4. The Cure

Robert Smith, Boss

Robert Smith, Boss

Last year, I attended Rock Werchter, a music festival in Belgium, and The Cure were one of the headliners. I was so stoked to see them. For reasons out of my control, I didn’t end up seeing them, and it ate away at me for a while that I may have missed my chance at seeing the Crawley legends. I knew they still toured with some regularity, but one can never assume that there will “be a next time” when a band has put in so many years; they could decide to hang them up at any time. So when I saw they were headlining this year’s Osheaga, it pretty much clinched my attendance. I was a little surprised that the crowd seemed a little sparse on the outskirts, but I get that The Cure are kind of an acquired taste, even though I think you have to be a fucking drone to not feel something when the opening riff of “Friday I’m In Love” plays. Alas, there are bound to be a fair number of drones gliding aimlessly around a festival of Osheaga’s size. Not my concern. I got to hear the aforementioned “Friday,” “Pictures of You,” “Lovesong” “In Between Days,” “Just Like Heaven,” “A Forest,” and “Close To Me.” Indeed, that Friday, I was in love, and though the experience was fleeting, the memory won’t soon leave me.

3. Vampire Weekend

Ezra regaling

Ezra regaling

I think they could very well be the best band on the planet. I can’t verify this, but they’re on the short list. I’ve seen them before, but not since their latest, and for my money, best album, Modern Vampires Of The City, came out. It’s a magnificent piece of artwork, and despite it being relatively new, I already feel a deep connection to several songs on the LP. At this moment, I’m touched greatly when I hear one particular part of “Ya Hey,” the part where incomparable frontman Ezra Koenig laments, “Through the fire and through the flames, you won’t even say your name, only, I am that I am.” And just as I’d hoped, the song was a juggernaut live too. Rostam (Batmanglij) and Ezra are a formidable duo of composers, and the band as a whole are incredible musicians. They breezed through a hit-filled set, including opener “Diane Young,” “White Sky,” “Step,” “Oxford Comma,” Giving Up The Gun,” “Cousins,” and “Walcott.” Only 3 albums in, Vampire Weekend are already a behemoth of a band and live act.

2. New Order

Bernard Sumner, joyous division

Bernard Sumner, joyous division

The 80’s produced some amazing music. The best of Michael Jackson and Madonna. Depeche Mode. The Smiths. The Cure. Tiffany. Prince. U2. Wang Chung. Whitney Houston. And countless earwormy one-hit wonders. I have many favourite songs of the 1980’s. But there’s only a select few that I have considered and would consider to be at the top of the heap. New Order’s “True Faith” is one of those songs. I won’t get into all the things I love about that song, because this post would go on longer than Lindsay Lohan’s rapsheet. Knowing New Order would play it, and then having it be all that I hoped it’d be (they performed a super-dancey version of it and I loved every second of it) was a very special moment for me. To also hear “Crystal,” “Regret,” “Ceremony,” and “Bizarre Love Triangle” put the experience way over the top for me. New Order were a definitive anchor of my Osheaga experience.

1. Alt-J

Alt-J, The Magicians

Alt-J, The Magicians

Their set was my favourite performance of the entire weekend, and quite frankly, it wasn’t even close. Alt-J was one band I greatly anticipated seeing. I’d not seen them before, and I love An Awesome Wave, so one could say I was really stoked to see them. I had no idea what was in store for me. Firstly, Alt-J consist of 4 brilliant musicians. After their set, I heard a guy in front of me say that he was extremely impressed because Alt-J just issued a note perfect performance. If that’s what he said, I would wholeheartedly agree with him. I say “if” because I was still in shock, and I can’t be sure I heard him correctly; I don’t think I came back to this world very quickly after they finished their set.

Alt-J are, in a word, unique. They don’t sound like anyone else making music right now and each of their songs sound so distinct and different from one another. They tap into so many disparate styles, it’d be hard to name them all. Alt-J are also a bit mysterious and quirky. On record, lead singer Joe Newman’s lyrics are sometimes imperceptible, and live, the issue is exacerbated. Except it’s not really an issue. In fact, the sometimes unintelligible lyrics fit perfectly with the vibe that Alt-J have hitherto constructed. Alt-J are a vibe, or to fit even better with their work, a wave. An awesome wave at that. When I saw Alt-J perform, I was taken aback by the control, the precision, the subtlety of their presence. None of the four Leeds lads run around thumping their legs or pounding their chest. There is a reserved, quiet dignity about the band, and it makes them all the more special because sonic masterpieces like “Something Good” (Oh my god does this song soar live), “Fitzpleasure” (Oh my god does that deep synth come-in beat the hell out of the listener), “Matilda” (Oh my god is this one of the most haunting, beautiful songs I’ve ever heard live), and set-closer “Taro” (Oh my god, that eastern guitar rhythm) speak louder than any bravado or braggadocio could. (I’ve included a non-Osheaga link of one of their live performances below, and though it can’t mimic a live experience, it does give a good sense of their incomparable power.)

Lead singer Joe Newman is a magnet. His calming sways are hypnotic, and his delivery is beyond compare. Technically, his call-and-response vocals and harmonies with keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton are a joy to listen to. This is a band, one album in (one fucking album in!) that could already be one of the best in the world. That shit should not be possible. But it is. Thank god they’re real (and they’re spectacular).

Perhaps Alt-J’s style, delivery, and sound aren’t for everyone. No music does or should please everyone. What I do know, is that on the first day (in the afternoon no less) of Osheaga, the world-class festival with so many highlights, I was floored by a band I’d never seen before. The festival’s been over for several days now, and I still don’t think I’ve fully recovered from their performance. That is why music is art. That is how art connects. When a circle of creativity invites you in, you shut up, give thanks, and enter. It’s how I always want to live.