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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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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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Our Steps Will Always Rhyme

I’ve been hella digging this dude lately


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I’ve always been a bit disappointed with the narrow emotional range of hip-hop. Rap is a good medium for expressing anger, but you rarely see how that anger feeds, and is fed by, a real sadness. I should have known it would take the French to finally show that side of it.

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