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The Best Headphone Songs of 2013

Originally posted on The Billfold

When we write the history of how technology has made us happier, I hope there’s a whole chapter about headphones. Life in the pre-headphones era was a dystopia of un-entertained silences, un-podcasted public transport. Bus rides without TED Talks, old magazines in waiting rooms, flights spent deflecting extroverted strangers. Going for a jog meant listening to yourself breathe. 

Me, I have my headphones on basically always, and my life is objectively the better for it. I know the internet is the place where we’re supposed to complain how we’re cut off from each other, how we hide between earbuds instead of interacting, how we soundtrack our lives rather than experiencing them.

But really, how much solitary reflection do we actually need? And isn’t it better with Robyn singing over it anyway? I still take long, lonely winter walks, but now I listen to a MOOC about the Civil War on the way! The un-examined life isn’t may not be worth living, but the un-distracted one goes by a lot slower.

Anyway, here are all the ways I retreated from the world this year:

Julianna Barwick – ‘Forever’

It’s weird to pick one track off this album, since all the songs are basically the same wavy, overlapping vowel crescendoes. Still, if you want to feel like you’re attending a Methodist Easter service at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, Barwick’s got you covered.

Kanye West – The last minute and a half of ‘New Slaves’

Most of the tracks on Yeezus would be noticeably better without Kanye West rapping on them. ‘New Slaves’ is the only song where wishing ugh Kanye just shut the fuck up for a second actually pays off. Two minutes and 45 seconds in, he finally does, and for 90 seconds gives us the album’s only glimpse (‘I can’t lose, I can’t lose’) of the vulnerability behind all that Versace.

M.I.A. – ‘Y.A.L.A.’

Just because your politics are daft and your lyrics are incoherent doesn’t mean you can’t make a bangin’-ass club jam. The only way to enjoy this song is to resist the temptation to get all Pitchfork about it (Julianne Moore?) and just enjoy the swagger.

Azealia Banks – ‘No Problems’

Azaelia Banks has built a career out of being the girl who beat you up in middle school, and this song (‘you’re a ham in the pig shack’) is the bullyingest three minutes of the year.

Phosphorescent – ‘Ride On / Right On’ & ‘Song for Zola’

The world needs more alt-country. Haha I’m obviously kidding, but this band exists, and by now they’ve established that they have a right to.

Kavinsky ft. The Weeknd – ‘Odd Look’

Because the Drive soundtrack needed more R. Kelly.

Dan Deacon – ‘Why Am I On This Cloud?’

You know that theme that plays in Kill Bill whenever Uma Thurman is about to murder someone? That is what this song is for.

James Blake – ‘Retrograde’

Sometimes I think James Blake only releases albums to see what genre music critics will assign to them. Is this Electro-folk? Emo-step? Why are the lyrics so tender when the music around them is so mean? I’d better play it again to find out.

Lubomyr Melnyk – ‘Pockets of Light’

If I hadn’ta seen Melnyk play this song live earlier this year, I’d think he was using some sort of software to hit the keys this fast. But no, it’s just him, analog, plinking like a court stenographer and reminding you that your talents are generic and unworthy. Like most of the others on this list, this song defies explanation (just when it’s getting boring it’s like hang on, lyrics what?!), but it’s great for making you feel like whatever you’re doing is in slow motion.

Daft Punk – ‘Contact’

After we all got sick of ‘Get Lucky’ and started listening to the rest of the album, it turns out Daft Punk still has a few climaxes left in them. The rest of the album might take place in the 1970s, but these four minutes toward the end are a little reminder that it’s still 2013 somewhere out there.

Tyler Fedchuk – ‘White Light Mix’  

The whole point of listening to headphones is to make you feel like whatever you’re doing is epic and spectacular. Fedchuk, who has been making crackerjack electro mixes at Radiozero for years, created an hour that evokes the feeling of driving through downtown LA, looking for prostitutes to kill.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – ‘Little Moments’

You know how when we talk about economic development, it starts with poor countries attracting a bunch of low-wage sweatshops, then ‘moving up the value chain’ to stuff like design, processing, consulting, etc? The indie-band equivalent is the transition from cheap acoustics to fancy synthesizers, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah finally did the equivalent of joining the WTO this year.

Hunters & Collectors – ‘Talking To A Stranger (Avalanches Remix)’ & The Avalanches (feat. David Berman) – ‘A Cowboy Overflow of the Heart’

So in 2000, The Avalanches put out one of the best albums ever, (Since I Left You), then some of the best mixtapes ever, then disappeared into oblivion (Australia) for more than a decade. Now they are back with a remix of an off-brand Mumford & Sons-a-like and a … poem?

Neither of these should work, but somehow they do. Like the best songs on Since, ‘Talking to a Stranger’ bears almost no relationship to its source material. And this fucking poem. Jesus, if you didn’t already feel alone listening to your headphones around other people, well, now you do.

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Why I Could Never Move (Back) to Denmark

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The problem with visiting Denmark in May is that it makes you think you regret leaving.

I moved to Berlin almost exactly two years ago. Last week, I visited Copenhagen for four days, the longest I’ve been there at a stretch since 2011. The buildings were adorable, the sun was slanty, the locals were height-weight proportionate, I started to have moments like ‘why did I ever leave this magical place?’

Then reality kicked in and I realized why I left and I would never move back.

The Drinking

On Friday night, on my way home from dinner, 9 pm, 10 tops, I biked past three different groups of people carrying someone too drunk to walk. Sure, it was Friday, and fine, if I lived in a country whose most famous export was Aqua I’d probably be drinking too, but get it together, Denmark.

One of the reasons I quit drinking three years ago was how normal it is here, how essential for basic social life to function, how acceptable Danes find slurred Fridays and slept-through Saturdays. All week no one spoke to me, not even to hold a door open or say pardon me. After 10 pm, with grandpa-breath and teetering, they won’t shut up.

Which brings me to…

The Social Culture

One of the things I was looking forward to about my little trip was visiting all my old haunts, places I used to drink coffee or smoke shisha or—OK, those are basically the only things I ever did when I lived here. But anyway, I visited my old cafes and everything looked exactly the same, right down to the baristas, but there was never a flicker of recognition, never an acknowledgement that I came to these places regularly for years.

Then I remembered that at the coffee place closest to my house, the one I went to probably twice a week for two years, no one ever once remembered me, never once remembered my order, asked me if I lived nearby. I would sometimes try to start it off, all ‘how’s business?’ after I ordered my same old Americano. We would chat for a few minutes, then next time I came in it was Memento, no recognition, no ‘Americano, right?’ After awhile I stopped bothering. Six years into this country, I realized that resignation, that learned misanthropy, is called ‘being Danish’.

The Racism

Ahhh, Denmark, the Mississippi of Europe. While living here I was constantly confronted by casual ugliness (‘you’re visiting Turkey? But it’s full of Turks!’), bone-headed public policy (If you want to marry a Dane and get a visa to live here, you have to speak Danish and your spouse has to pay a $10,000 bond), and Mad Men-era political discourse (one of the political parties ran an ad this year that published the names of all the foreigners who had been granted Danish citizenship with the tagline ‘One person on this list is a danger to Denmark’s security’).

Just in the four days I was visiting, two friends told me about ethnically motivated beatings that had taken place in their neighborhoods and two other friends told me they were moving to the suburbs because the local schools didn’t have enough white kids left. Another friend got mugged recently, and the first question everyone asked when he told them was ‘were they black?’

This shit is exhausting. Sometimes living here is like following your Republican friends on Facebook.

The Expats

There’s nothing more depressing than living somewhere no one wants to be. Expats in Denmark are so miserable that the government launched a state-funded website specifically to create diversions (singles nights, English book clubs, flat landscape appreciation societies) to make living here more bearable.

But expat unhappiness in Copenhagen is so dense, not even light can escape. Get three expats together and it’ll be about six minutes before it descends into variations on the gripes I’ve just named (and I didn’t even get to the weather!). Get two together and they’ll you their secret plans to move back home, maybe start over again somewhere as rosy as Denmark once seemed. Get one alone and he’ll tell you he’s desperate to leave, but the jobs are too good, the romantic partners too perfect.

Yeah yeah, I’m being too harsh. Every country has problems, Denmark’s are just different from the ones I grew up used to. Overall, Denmark is quiet, introverted and socialist, my three favorite things. Also, if I ever want to spend a weekend being drunk, mean and discriminatory, at least now I know where to go.

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The Best Longreads of 2012

Originally posted at Longreads.com

I read news when I want to be entertained. I read features when I want to learn something. Here’s nine articles I read this year that changed the way I look at the world, and made me wonder how I seem when it looks back.

“Diary of a Mad Fact-Checker,” James Pogue, Oxford American

It’s been a bad year for truth. From Mike Daisey and Jonah Lehrer to Rush Limbaugh and Mitt Romney, 2012 felt like a yearlong debate about the role of exaggeration, hyperbole, fact-checking and outright fabrication in the pursuit of an argument. Pogue’s piece, a kind of letter from the extreme-pedant end of the spectrum, illustrates how fidelity to facts can obscure the truth, and how embellishment can reveal it.

“Lost in Space,” Mike Albo, Narrative.ly

Maybe I only feel like I learned something from this essay because I’m in essentially the same position as Albo. I’ve been single for almost 10 years, and I’m realizing that that if I had applied all the hours I’ve wasted on the promiscu-net to something useful, I could have knitted a quilt, learned French, mastered Othello and read all of Wikipedia by now.

If our society has learned anything from the first 20 years of internet access, it’s that looking for what you want isn’t always the best way to get it, and that getting it is a great way to stop wanting it. Albo’s essay couldn’t have been written by any gay man in America because they’re not as good at writing as he is, but I get the feeling it’s been lived by most of them.

“The Innocent Man,” Pamela Colloff, Texas Monthly

and

“The Caging Of America,” Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

OK, so it’s not exactly earth-shattering news that America’s prison system is problematic and that “Texas justice” is an oxymoron. But this year brought a new impetus for action, partly due to new numbers (the widely reported stat that 1% of America’s population is incarcerated), legislative action (Obama’s plan to combat prison rape, scorchingly reported in the New York Review of Books) and, qualitatively but no less essentially, longform pieces like Gopnik’s and Colloff’s.

People are always quoting the MLK-via-Obama line “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice,” and articles like these—one a macro view of the problem, one micro—is what that bend looks like.

“Does Mitt Romney Have a Soul?” Wells Tower, GQ

It’s easy now to forget that this was an election year, and that we spent basically all of it squabbling, speculating and pontificating about its outcome, which we now say we knew all along.

Most election reporting is disposable, either gaffe play-by-plays (“Binders Full of Women: Interactive Timeline”), instantly obsolete hypotheticals (What if Romney picks Christie for VP?) or politically orchestrated profiles (“Obama’s audacious plan to save the middle class from Libyan airstrikes”). If you remember these articles past ctrl+w, it’s only until events catch up, and then they poof out of your consciousness forever.

Towers’s Romney profile is one of the few still worth reading after the election. Nominally a standard “let’s hang out in the campaign bus!” piece, it transcends its premise by capturing the conflicting forces tugging at the hem of the Republican party, and how Romney’s sheer empty-vesselness managed to please, and displease, everyone at once.

“Gangnam Style, Dissected: The Subversive Message Within South Korea’s Music Video Sensation,” Max Fisher, The Atlantic

Maybe it’s just the ubiquity of its subject, now the most-viewed-ever video on YouTube, but no article stuck with me this year quite like Fisher’s. In a culture that strains to call itself postracial, sharing “Gangnam Style” on Twitter and Facebook was a safe, quiet way to shout ‘look how weird Koreans are!’ and invite your friends to gawk alongside you.

According to Fisher, “Gangnam” isn’t an expression of Korean culture, but a satire of it. Psy was saying the same thing we spectators were, only in a visual language (and, obviously, a verbal one) we couldn’t understand. He was laughing at his culture too, he just had no idea how easy it was to get the rest of the world to join him.

“The Truck Stop Killer,” Vanessa Veselka, GQ

It’s all in the execution, they say, and nothing demonstrated that this year better than Veselka’s harrowing investigation into whether the guy who kidnapped and then released her on the side of the road in 1985 was a serial killer.

She never finds the answer to her question. But who cares! It’s a great piece, super interesting, suspenseful, creepy, introspective in all the right places. We all know that compelling stories don’t always need happy endings. In this case, it doesn’t need one at all.

“The Bloody Patent Battle Over A Healing Machine,” Ken Otterbourg, Fortune

and

“How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work,” Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher, New York Times

I admit it: I have no idea how the international economy works. I used to feel about this the way I feel about not being able to describe asexual reproduction, or the Spanish Civil War, or how to grow tomatoes. I can see why somebody’s got to do it, I just can’t see why it’s got to be me.

Since the 2008 crash, though, knowledge of economics has gone from nice to have to can’t miss, and things like competitiveness, productivity and efficiency have taken a place in politics previously reserved for life-and-deathers like sports doping and the Ground Zero Mosque.

Patent trolling and outsourced manufacturing aren’t the only issues facing the US economy, of course, but both these articles demonstrate how businesses, governments and consumers have made the wrong thing too easy, and how the hard thing might not be the way back.

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tl;dw: Movies I Couldn’t Be Bothered to Finish in 2012

The best thing about streaming movies is that there’s no sunk costs. I don’t have to sit there and suffer through another sequel, another superhero, another indie misanthrope just to justify the $8 I’ve already spent. Ever since I started watching movies on my laptop, I start more than I used to, but my completion rate is down to like 50 percent. Now that I have a smartphone, a second screen to distract me, it’s pushing 25.

Anyway, here’s 12 movies I watched this year that failed to be more interesting than whatever I found an alt+tab away.

  • John Carter: After watching this for 20 minutes I stopped to do an image search for ‘taylor kitsch rippling shirtless’ and never unpaused.
  • We Bought a Zoo: So the title’s not a metaphor? It’s, like, the actual premise for the movie? Oh yeah fuck this.
  • Friends With Kids: We know you’re a playwright, OK, now can every line of dialogue stop telling us that?
  • The Hunger Games: I told everyone I know, like ‘It may not be High Art, but it’s a genuine cultural phenomenon, we have the obligation to see it.’ Like all intellectual pledges I made this year, this required a longer attention span than I possess, and I turned it off to read articles about it 25 minutes in.
  • We Need to Talk about Kevin: After Tilda’s third metaphor-rich juxtaposition with her environment, I figured my time would be better spent experiencing mine.
  • Your Sister’s Sister: I made it like 90 minutes in, and I was all proud of myself for concentrating on nutritious, prestigious Cinema, then the third-act twist was so bonkers and implausible that I shut down my Macbook and set it on fire.
  • Shut Up and Play the Hits: Love this movie and love this band so much that I turned it off to go dancing at Berghain after 25 minutes.
  • Shame: If I wanted to watch hot guys go jogging, I’d go hang out in Tiergarten. Oh wait, that would be more interesting than this, seeya.
  • This Means War: Five minutes went by before my middle school social studies teacher, in my head, went ‘Is this how you want to live your life?’ and I returned to watching cooking videos on YouTube.
  • Brave: This hurts. Pixar’s been good to us, as a society, and we owe it our attention and our allegiance. Still, halfway in, I wasn’t seeing anything I haven’t seen before. Sorry little hopping lamp, I let you down on this one.
  • Twilight: Is this a TV movie? Why does everyone look like they have the flu?
  • The Campaign: I love it when dick-joke comedies spend the last 30 minutes trying to convince me of the wrongness of their villains’ political opinions.    

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The Best Headphone Songs of 2012

I don’t know if everyone else is like this, but for me, music has gone from something social to something solitary. I listen to music when I work, when I walk, when I bike, when I read, when I write. Almost the only time I don’t listen to music is when I’m with other people, and if I do, it’s something backgroundey and ignorable.

This has created this weird dynamic where the more important a song is to me, the less I want to share it. When I was younger, all of my social activities had soundtracks. Now, they have footnotes. And what I hear on the way there and back feels like mine rather than ours.

I don’t know if this is an actual trend or just feels like one because it’s happening to me. I don’t really care. These songs are how I spent most of my nonsocial time in 2012. Don’t tell anyone I know!

 
Ekki Mukk – Sigur Ros

Why listen to the mindless clacking around you at work when you can listen to a twinkling drone and soprano vowels instead?

 

Express Yourself – Diplo

Because sometimes you just want to listen to something that sounds like a homeless person shouting at a fax machine.

 
Anything Could Happen – Ellie Goulding

Try to listen to this song without tweeting something optimistic, just try.

 
Lots – Dan Deacon

No matter what you’re doing, this makes you feel like you’re jogging up a mountain to an orgy.

 
Four Seasons – Max Richter

I crave this album whenever I’m walking around London because it makes me feel condescending and imperial.

 
Dangerous and Sound – Tingo

I refuse to believe indie artists are making albums without rap mashups in mind

 
& It Was U – How to Dress Well

This makes me wish I dated ladies, just so I could clench my fists when they left

 
Bad Girls – M.I.A.

Listening to this in public will turn your walk into a swagger, I promise.

 
Four Walls – Burial & Massive Attack

You can tell this song is dark and profound because it is longer than your commute to work.

 
Third of the Storms – Mike Simonetti

This shit is so catchy you’re amazed it isn’t a cover of a Sesame Street song.

 
Ms Jackson (Jean Tonique Remix) – Outkast

Can we keep remixing our favorite songs from the ’90s, to keep reliving our teenage years forever? No seriously, can we?

 
Grimes – Oblivion

Every single hipster who biked past you on a fixie this year was listening to this song.

 
Bang – Rye Rye

You know that anxiety, when you’re late for something you don’t even want to go to? Now that feeling exists in musical form!

 
Wrath of God – Crystal Castles

This will not only drown out your surroundings, but also your feelings.

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