Favourite songs of 2013 (so far)

We're half way through the year so it's a fitting time to take stock (and make a list obv.) Very rough order because I've yet to fully digest everything on here (not to mention the slowly unfolding qualities of the Boards of Canada and Zomby albums). Lots of cheating regarding timings as well, paying attention to release dates rather than anything else (so there's stuff that I imagine has been floating around for a while on here). Same rules as before, adored albums push up individual entries:

1. Cassie feat. Jeremih - Sound of Love
[Updating '773 Love' for 2013. The best bit is Cassie gasping for breath after confessing she finds it hard to breathe when around her illicit romantic liaison.]

2. Stylo G - Soundbwoy
[So ubiquitous and undeniable that even the UK broadsheets have annointed it this year's consensus summer jam.]

3. Dawn Richard - Tug of War
[Repping for most of the Goldenheart album, the choice pick changes every month or so – was 'Gleaux' until recently. There's going to be another one at the end of the year as well? The whole project is a bit overwhelming but definitely worth the work.]

4. Charli XCX - Take My Hand
[Repping for most of the True Romance album. Have been following Charli since her 2011 singles, which I liked, thought not as much as other things. Now her whole output is becoming far more vital for me. The DIY imperfections overcome by earnestness – my kind of pop star.]

5. Friction & Skream feat. Scrufizzer, P Money & Riko Dan - Kingpin
[P Money's latest mixtape was a bit crap, wasn't it? His verse here is also a let down, they should have just given Riko a go (Riko should have a go on everything, living legend doesn't get his due). Meanwhile Scru starts out aping Dizzee and slowly speeds up into the hyper-fast flow that made his name. A joy. Probably my favourite thing Skream has been involved in, which is funny b/c he threw it out there and then started doing house like the rest of the world. Ah well.]

6. DJ Q feat. Louise Williams - Trust Again
[Better than anything Disclosure will ever put their name to. Eagerly awaiting the album.]

7. Wen - Nightcrawler
[Always associate Royal-T with Rockwell for no good reason other than they came up at the same time, their names begin with the same letter, and they are the best racehorse in their particular stable. Now Wen and Woz are tied up together in exactly the same way. Funny the way the mind works.]

8. Le Youth - C O O L (Ben Pearce Remix)
[This is just another in what must be endless millions of billowy house trax sampling Cassie vox, but it's my favoured selection, so there.]

9. Kidnap Kid feat. Sinead Harnett - So Close
[Low-key pining about failing to be your beau's dream girl, but you keep trying and trying and trying to approximate and get as close as you can. Lovely and loving the way it quietly aches. Digging through Black Butter back catalogue at the moment, it's proving to be well worth it.]

10. Kahn feat. Flow Dan - Badman City
[Updating 'Say Nothin' for 2013. Flow Dan's small but significant output can definitely support a case for him as the best dubstep MC of all time.]

11. Walton - Homage
[Demented 2-step is how I reacted when I heard it played out. This is El-B worship filtered through hardcore / jungle, kinda reminiscent of the Grievous Angel release on Keysound ages ago. I'm totally down with this sort of thing.]

12. French Montana feat. Nicki Minaj - Freaks
[Amazing beat, Nicki should have stolen it for herself. Not sure who this Montana guy is but he is terrible.]

13. Instra:Mental & dBridge - White Snares
[The oldest and best thing on the the latest Autonomic compilation. Reminds me of Death Cab For Cutie. dBridge basically makes drum and bass for emos, no?]

14. Toddla T Sound - Worst Enemy
[Yet another sonic exploration of pleasure so intense it numbs and slows the senses until there's barely any movement left (cf. Nina Sky's 'Comatose'). Much preferred to the similarly conceived 'Body Party' by Ciara.]

15. Helix - Whoosh Ice Dispenser
[What I have to turn to now that Ramadanman has stopped delivering the rhythmic goods.]

16. TC4 - Mango
[New discovery of the year for me. One of the best artists on Big Dada's Grime 2.0 compilation, which was ok though lacks highlights? Their EP is front to back fire.]

17. Aaliyah - One In A Million (Flava D Remix)
[It's a perfect song already, but this 2-step remix makes it a bit more club-ready.]

18. Rockwell - Detroit
[Thankfully leaving the Rustie synth stuff behind, this is Rockwell doing what he does best.]

19. Paramore - Anklebiters
[Most of the album still not clicking, but this is a rush. Brand New Eyes had about six smashes that I absolutely adore, and I'm hoping that the new one yields up similar delights.]

20. Kelly Rowland - Kisses Down Low
[Ode to cunnilingus with celebratory synth flourishes courtesy of Mike WILL Made It. I know this is insanity and Bey is supreme empress of all she surveys, but I confess I'm secretly a bit more invested in Kelly.]

Another 10:
P Jam - Arizona Skyz
Dizzee Rascal x Zomby - Stand Up Aquafresh (Oneman Edit)
Kingdom feat. Kelela - Bank Head
Royal-T feat. D.O.K. - Saints
Terror Danjah & Champion - Explode
DJ Eastwood - U Ain't Ready (Untold 2010 Remix)
Pev & Kowton - Raw Code
Mumdance & Logos - Drum Boss
DJ Rashad - Let It Go
Roska feat. Jamie George - Secret Love


Much Ado About Nothing

I haven't read or seen the play before watching Whedon's adaptation, although a brief bit of research afterwards uncovered that the text does provide some support for the opening scene in which we see Benedick and Beatrice wake up after a night together. The conversation which hints at their estrangement is included in the film ("you have lost the heart of Segnior Benedick"), but I didn't clock it when I watched it. It's a smart addition not only because it explains the bitterness between the two at the start, but also because it links in with the broader themes of the adaptation. Whedon is open about the sexy places he wanted to take the story, and switching Don John's follower Conrade into a female lover was done purposefully. The license displayed at the parties in the mansion serves to highlight the hypocrisy underlying the accusations levelled at Hero at her wedding. Male pride demands that the wives men choose for themselves remain chaste, and yet these rules are frequently (inevitably) flouted, hence the obsessive talk about cuckoldry. Moreover, accusations of impropriety are weapons used to inflict harm on political enemies, women being used as discardable tools in the struggle between male lords.

If there is one possible misstep in the whole film, it is in the portrayal of the grossest example of this behaviour. Margaret is seduced by Borachio, and the way the scene is shot suggests that he might be raping her. Later on, Whedon includes Margaret's jab at Benedick "Give us the swords; we have bucklers of our own", which echoes Beatrice's speech at the film's climax, and it's a quiet moment rather than a funny one. But the weddings at the end brush past Margaret's experience a bit too swiftly – perhaps Whedon could have lingered just a bit longer on Ashley Johnson before the party starts swinging again at the end.


Tokyo Decadence

The film was made in 1992, just as the Japanese asset price bubble burst. In fact, a dominatrix asks her client how his real estate business is doing in these tough times, and he replies that he's weathering the storm pretty well. Later on she tells us that Japan is rich, but that Japanese men remain anxious about their wealth, and this fuels their depravity. For the masochists this may be a yearning for order to be imposed by an imperious great mother. Perhaps the sadists lord over whores in order to feel a sense of control over their lives.

Ai ("love" in Japanese) is the meek doe-in-the-headlights protagonist learning her way around decadent Tokyo. She lacks confidence, believing she has no distinguishable talents, and she is hung up on a guy who left her. The dominatrix who befriends her after their session together is far more independent. She talks about having the blood of the first creatures that crawled out of the oceans, and how she also wants to evolve so that she can survive in many places. But then she puts on a karaoke show in which she runs through a pastiche of feminine poses. While she exploits her clients, she is also reliant on them. At the beginning of the film, a John describes the wives of lawyers and politicians as the "real whores". Marriage is servitude, the film seems to suggest, but whoring offers some independence.

Another discarded lover, decaying in front of our very eyes, sings to Ai near the end of the film, it seems about their mutual doom. Relying of fantasies of powerful gentlemen who can take you to London and care for you leaves women in the gutter. The courage pill the dominatrix gives Ai doesn't result in the disorientating surreal quest, it gets all of that crap out of Ai's system, magic rings included. Stained white dress, face caked in mud, Ai has to face the music. And at the very end of the film, the music cuts out as Ai stares coldly at the bathroom mirror, turns sharply and pushes past us with a new sense of purpose. All innocence gone, she's ready to make the most of what decadent Tokyo has to offer.

It's a bleak picture. Empowerment isn't possible because chaos turns us all into savages or simpering cowards, and women have to carve out a space in these dark days by seeing themselves truly, with all illusions stripped away. The film is at its best in that final arc, where the fantasy takes flight and there is still some mystery and wonder in Tokyo. Everything else is grim, unpleasant and frightening.


Arrested Development Season 4

One of the reasons The Office works is that Ricky Gervais's self-flagellating cringe-inducing antics are approached in part from the perspective of Martin Freeman's normal dude in the madhouse, and his sweet relationship with Lucy Davis (Stephen Merchant's influence, I'm sure). The contrast between the likable and the horrific is what makes the series so poignant. Rightly or wrongly, I approached the first three seasons of Arrested Development in the same way – the absurd family nonetheless being kept together by the one son who acted as the straight-man for all the japery. We even had a kind of doomed romance between Maeby and George Michael to invest in.

Season 4 ends all sympathetic attachment with any of the characters – Michael and his son become just as bad as everyone else in the family. I guess this is what everyone means by the show becoming "darker". But I wonder whether Mitchell Hurwitz really finds nothing of worth in the characters he writes. Hungering for some sweetness in the season's black liquorice flavour, I found it in several of the characters choosing to waste their energy on projects they clearly have no hope of achieving rather than leaning back on their legal or medical qualifications and leading comfortable, responsible lives. I think there is a fondness for the resolute rejection of normality the Bluths represent. The satiric elements in the show (the corrupt Republican politician, the software companies built on nothing, the sub-prime mortgage crisis) are reminders that the real world is far from free from the idiocy, delusions and petty jealousies the Bluths display.

The comedy isn't even the point anymore. It's true, there are fewer LOL moments than before. Rather, the new structure where the same events are revisited and retold from the perspective of different characters forgrounds the tangled plot above everything. The lightning-fast assembly of hair-brained schemes is what the show is all about. This was always present in Arrested Development, and in fact I remember thinking that Michael was probably the true crazy for not embracing the lunatic freewheeling energy of his family. In season 4, he finally has.


Flex Mentallo

As a treatise on the history of superhero comics, this has the virtue of brevity. I'm not well-versed in the distinctive qualities of the golden-silver-copper ages of comics, only really being interested in stuff that came out in the 90s and 00s. Flex Mentallo does provide some clues as to the different properties and enjoyments of each age, tho in general the narrative links up all four issues pretty tightly so the distinctions aren't especially clear (the introduction does help a bit in getting more of the flavour of each age).

While the comic's formal and thematic content is pretty interesting, the central character isn't especially accessible – perhaps because unlike Grant Morrison, superhero comics do not have the ability to fundamentally alter my perception of reality. Wally's suicide attempt is due to a fatigue at how bleak and depressing comics (and by extention the world) has become. Oh, and nagging from his girlfriend – not v well explained, that. All of which makes me think that All-Star Superman is a more affecting statement of Morrison's case.

What's most interesting in Flex Mentallo is the villain – the 16 year old teen dismissing superheroes as "pathetic fucking power fantasies for lonely wankers". The source of this ire is actually self-hatred and envy at the guys with girlfriends and awesome life experiences. What's missing is Morrison's belief that ideas are there to be realised and superheroes are there to be emulated. You can become that power-fantasy, basically, if you will hard enough (and have the appropriate sigils).

One little craft effect I liked is the way one panel would bleed across the whole page, with the other panels being laid over it – quite a nice way of emphasising how the different strands of the story intersect together. Also the great opening sequence across the first two pages – muddling up the creation of the universe and the creation of the comics page while also linking in with the later symbol of ideas as eggs. The comic ends on a splash of a kind of apocalypse-turned-rapture, with superheroes finally coming down from heaven to save us from our imperfections and construct utopia. It's a superhero holy text, starting with Genesis and ending with the Book of Revelations.


Game of Thrones Season 3

I still made time for Game of Thrones despite pretty much quitting television. Why, though, is the question. Perhaps because I've read the first book, I felt like I had a pretty firm grasp of the first season's theme and methods. GRRM's project was to use his medievalist nerd knowledge to inject some realism into the high fantasy genre. We have dragons and zombies stirring over the border, sure, but the real story was at the centre – the political "game of thrones" where the kings of Westeros struggled to assert authority over several powerful barons they nominally ruled. Season 1's beheading of Ned Stark was a shock because it went against trad fantasy expectations – Sean Bean was the Aragorn guy rather than the Boromir guy this time, and in the ASOIAF universe THAT'S what gets you the chop. Season 3's infamous Red Wedding played the same trick over again – and here the lesson of the bloodshed (revealed in the last episode) is that barons also need to manage their knights properly if they want to continue to order them about.

Or it would have been, except that Game of Thrones tends to overlay these (rather interesting) matters about the effective practice of medieval lordship with the OTT trappings of operatic drama. Srsly the look on Roose Bolton's face when his treachery is revealed is straight out of panto. GRRM wants his realism on the level of world-building and social structure, but his characters are cut out pulp figures with only the shallowest of depths. They are all introduced quickly and undergo very slight changes despite being put through colossal hardship and strain (Sansa is now less whiny, Daenerys is more assertive, Tyrion is monogamous). GRRM's style is less to initiate change, but rather to reveal new shades of the same personality in different scenes and conversations, something the TV show has taken onboard. So we have revelations about Jamie, Tywin, Varys and Littlefinger this new season. And part of the joy of watching the series is seeing how this cast bounce off each other.

Nevertheless, what we end up being put through is the blatant maneuvering of characters and tweaking of sympathies over and over again. And to what purpose? How much longer is the show going to keep teasing us before shit gets real and we start to see some meaning behind the madcap adventures. Basically, I'm starting to worry that we're building towards a Battlestar Galactica-level epic disappointment where the threads weaved so far end up in a mess rather than, I dunno, a satisfying tapestry. Bad metaphor aside: what is GRRM trying to do with this story apart from wheel us about the seven kingdoms? However the game ends, whoever wins, will be significant. And I'm wondering whether GRRM will choose to tie everything up with a long-lost king of the north marrying a long lost queen of the desert as per fantasy tradition, or will he end on something real.

The only meaning to be found in season 3 is in the convo between Varys and Littlefinger. The former serves the realm by nudging and balancing the players of the game to achieve as much peace as possible, the kind of thinking the republican Machiavelli would champion. The latter on the other hand is an unprincipled Machiavellian prince climbing up that greasy pole – he confidently calls it a ladder, in fact. Perhaps the game is really between these two opposing wills, one selfless and conserve-ative, the other self-interested and revolutionary. It would really be saying something if Littlefinger is the one who wins, or if Varys is the one to stop him. And we're gonna have to wait an awful long time before we find out. Will it be worth it?


Special Forces

Difficult to tell where the satire begins with this comic. The final page contains what must be a heartfelt dedication to the "mentally handicapped and / or felons who have given their lives in the service of freedom" – awkwardly phrased but laudible enough. But then Kyle Baker also makes abundantly clear that much of the comic is simply a thrill ride stuffed with shooting and explosions, and I'm not sure how much the exploitation elements (the cheesecake Lara Croft heroine, the GTA-in-Bagdad action sequences) is meant to make us feel bad. Even the political stuff is ambiguously phrased. The terrorists' motive boils down to "we hate your freedom" – a laughable characterization dreamed up by the discredited neocons in Bush's White House. But then in the CBR interview, Baker goes on about how his collection of misfits are "bringing freedom and democracy to the oppressed savages of Iraq", hardly a more nuanced viewpoint.

When I visited the World Trade memorial in New York last year, we were shown around by a survivor of the 9/11 attacks, one of the many volunteers who share their story of the day and try to keep the memory of the events alive. His account was very moving (not a dry eye when he described how he ran up Manhattan looking for a phone to call his wife), but when he came to talk about the terrorists he reproduced the unsatisfactory "they hate our freedom" explanation. Baker (also a New Yorker, perhaps even an eyewitness on 9/11) may also have found it easier to accept this "freedom vs. terror" rhetoric rather than probe deeper into the dynamics that produce such belligerent anti-Americanism.

The dedication at the end expresses the hope that "we will someday be worthy of your sacrifice", suggesting that Baker's beef is with the way the war is being fought, rather than the justification for it. There are shots at Dick Cheney, Halliburton and Blackwater, and also the recognition that nuclear weapons are a front for securing Iraq's oil fields. This critique is confused, however, when it turns out that the terrorists do actually have nukes and are planning on using them – exactly the nightmare scenario used to sell the 2003 invasion. Ultimately, it looks like Kyle Baker doesn't know what to believe, and rather than try to tease out the conflicting narratives and arrive at something meaningful to say, he mashes everything together into a kind of grey satirical slurry. "All the best comic books are about fights and teenage angst. You want messages, buy a phone" says Baker. Terrible joke aside, fact is by setting the action in Iraq and calling the comic a satire you suggest that you DO have a message. Indeed, it would be a dereliction of duty as a storyteller to NOT have something to say with such a set up, no matter how enjoyable the shooting and explosions are.