Today, we begin our 2013 Annual Report by looking back at the year in news and its 10 most defining stories. It took just eight days into the new year before history was made with the return of David Bowie. In the proceeding months, we witnessed countless other long-desired musical comebacks, as well as the emergence of a new crop of superstars, highlighted by a 16-year-old from New Zealand and a 26-year-old from Compton. A former Disney star reinvented herself with a foam finger, while others reinvented the album release process as a whole. Some of music’s biggest names waged war against streaming music services, two French robots were behind the biggest non-appearance in television history, and Death Grips continued to be Death Grips. The year wasn’t without its tragedy; MDMA became a household name for all the wrong reasons, and New York City lost its most courageous rocker.
If there was one thing to take away from 2013, it was this: today’s music spectrum isn’t all that different than it was 50 years ago. Consumption might be different, but underlying themes remain the same: the innovation, the controversy, the discovery, the tragedy, it’s all still there. Instead of The Clash battling their record label, it’s Thom Yorke spouting off against Spotify; instead of Mick Jagger drawing newspaper op-eds on sexual promiscuity, it’s Miley Cyrus inspiring Tumblr blogs. Music remains the defining force in our culture, whether for inspiring innovation, prompting self-realization, or bringing together 60,000 like-minded individuals together in one field.
All of us are guilty of taking such a reality for granted; but, the great thing about these year-end roundups is the perspective they provide. Now, join us as we highlight the year’s most important stories, the ones you’ll be recounting decades from now.
The Return of Bowie, Daft Punk, et al.
What happened: The Mayans were actually right: the world did end on December 22nd, 2012, thus spawning an afterlife of the most unbelievable returns and reunions imaginable. Of course, none of that happened (we think, we hope), but 2013 did become The Year of Demystification. Everything any diehard music fan pined over came true: The Thin White Duke reemerged, My Bloody Valentine actually followed up Loveless, Daft Punk ended years of teasing with Random Access Memories, Paul Westerberg and The Replacements shook off over two decades of dust, Neutral Milk Hotel reupholstered millions of hearts, The Postal Service embarked on a proper tour, Justin Timberlake released two albums, and Trent Reznor rebooted Nine Inch Nails. In between, Queens of the Stone Age made amends with Nick Oliveri, The Breeders waxed nostalgic, Boards of Canada threw our minds for a loop, both Mr. Show and The Kids in the Hall wrote new stage shows, Andrew Stockdale decided he’d rather be called Wolfmother, ‘N Sync sighed, Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr got Electronic, Fleetwood Mac entertained arenas worldwide (with Christine McVie, no less), and there was a Tale of Two Flags for punkers everywhere. Hell, Will Smith and Jesse and the Rippers even hopped aboard the nostalgia train.
Why it mattered: It felt like a purge, really. For years, we’ve been begging for all of these things, our wishlists reading like an uninspiring, disappointing obsession with the stuffy past. And, with the exception of The Smiths and/or Talking Heads, there’s technically not much left. Yeah, we’ve already seen two big reunions for 2014 in Outkast and maybe Sleater-Kinney, but those hardly feel as rustic as the aforementioned. In a way, it’s like we can move on to newer names and start prioritizing music of today over relics from yesteryear. Of course, we’ll always pine for the things we don’t have, but in the meantime, it’ll be rewarding to allow our nostalgia to reconfigure. Having said that, don’t be surprised to keep hearing pleas like “The White Stripes for Coachella!” or “James Murphy needs to revisit LCD Soundsystem” ad nauseam on message boards everywhere. Who knows, maybe even R.E.M. will get tired of life that doesn’t involve R.E.M. or 3/4ths of a reunion. –Michael Roffman
Daft Punk’s non-appearance on Colbert
What happened: Of 2013’s beefs, the one pitting Daft Punk against Stephen Colbert proved the most perplexing. Colbert promised to have the French robots appear in an unspecified capacity as part of his StePhest Colbchella week. The duo, though, canceled their appearance at the last minute (literally whilst in mid-air to New York City), citing a contractual obligation with MTV to serve as “surprise” presenters at the 2013 Video Music Awards. Colbert went on air to deride Daft Punk for their flakiness, stripping them of the coveted “Song of the Summer” and bestowing it upon Robin Thicke. From there, the whole sordid saga got all that more dramatic, with rumblings that it was all a ruse by Viacom (the conglomerate that owns both MTV and Comedy Central) as a way to bolster ratings for both The Colbert Report and the VMAs. While Colbert later confirmed it was not a publicity stunt, his admission of receiving approval to verbally lay into MTV head Van Toffler only cast further doubt and confusion, leaving this late-night soap opera to end just as it began.
Why it mattered: Because it got people talking. Labels, television shows, bands, and anyone else in the business of disseminating art to the public are working in a period of great transition. With increasingly savvy consumers directly connected to a network of information and resources via the Web, how does anyone surprise anyone anymore? Can promotional campaigns still be truly guerilla and overwhelmingly shocking with the great seeing eye never blinking? Where other organizations have struggled, Viacom found a way to get people building hype and interest in two sizable projects by dropping a few rumors, casting a little doubt, and having Colbert sell it with more comedic gold. If the rumors were true, and the whole thing was a stunt, then Viacom genuinely tricked a rather knowledgeable population of media consumers and boosted their ratings with little effort on their end. If the whole thing wasn’t a stunt, then the company proved to have true foresight and took tremendous advantage of a situation that few other outlets could. In a way, controversy was the currency of 2013, with calls of racism helping sell pop songs and fashion elitism moving concert tickets. But, unlike those moments, as profoundly effective as they were, few left folks feeling as confused and uncertain as Daft Punk vs. Colbert. And, in an increasingly cynical industry, that kind of magical unknowing is a rare and beautiful commodity. –Chris Coplan
Lorde dominates the charts
What Happened: Following the modest release of two EPs, 16-year-old New Zealander Ella Yelich-O’Connor, a.k.a. Lorde, quickly stormed the Billboard charts with her single “Royals”. Since then, the hit — a catchy and clever takedown of pop culture’s disgustingly lavish lifestyles — has remained in the #1 spot for nine consecutive weeks, both solidifying its status as an easy candidate for song year of the year and indicating an insanely bright future for the young artist.
Why It Mattered: The Billboard reign of “Royals” is not only the highlight of Lorde’s truly remarkable 2013 rise from mere Auckland export and pop newcomer to total U.S. music phenomenon, but a true artist accomplishment that’s one for the history books: she was not only the youngest solo artist to top Billboard since 1988, but also the first from New Zealand to do so… ever. It was also the longest-running No. 1 song by a female on the Alternatives Chart in its 25-years of existence.
“Royals” paved the way for her excellent album, Pure Heroine, an impressively fresh, insightful, and mature debut for any artist, let alone a teenager. The song, as well as the record, easily shrugged off doubts that Lorde was a one-hit wonder and gained her widespread acclaim not only from mainstream audiences, but industry veterans and legends alike (David Bowie!). Whether listeners are drawn to her unique croon, painfully honest but wise-beyond-her-years lyric perspectives, or progressively minimalistic approach to songwriting, one thing is for sure: Lorde is one of the most exciting and promising new artists to come along in so long, and the perfect antidote to an otherwise stale and stagnant pop scene. — Michelle Geslani
Dear Miley, it’s Sinead… again
What happened: What started as an artistic homage morphed into one of the more stubborn online feuds of the year. In her video for “Wrecking Ball”, Miley Cyrus mirrored Sinead O’Connor’s iconic tears from the much-parodied visuals accompanying “Nothing Compares 2 U”. But Cyrus didn’t stop with a straight homage; in between shots of her crying face, she titillated a sledgehammer, stomped through concrete debris in underwear and work boots, and swung around on an oversized wrecking ball in the nude. It’s not exactly unprecedented to see a singer wearing little to no clothing in a music video, but the direct line to O’Connor’s work struck a nerve with the Irish singer. In a series of open letters to Cyrus, she admonished the young singer for flaunting her body for the sake of selling records at the behest of older, male record execs.
Why it matters: There still really isn’t a script for how to be both famous and female, especially if you come from Miley Cyrus’ bubblegum-washed Disney background. But the back-and-forth between the two performers, which saw Cyrus taunting O’Connor for her history of mental illness in a nasty subtweet, showed that there’s still plenty of dialogue to be had about women in the public eye. Do you really lose your claim to being a good role model once you show skin on YouTube? Is sexuality really ever used as a proxy for “talent”? How much are female celebrities in control of their own images, and how much comes from pervy record company employees sitting behind the scenes? Does Amanda Palmer really need to chime in on every scandal involving nudity? There were plenty of daggers hastily thrown between Cyrus and O’Connor, but at least they got us talking. –Sasha Geffen
The Throne goes solo, teaches us a thing or two about marketing
What happened: Jay Z and Kanye West are more than mere friends and collaborators; Kanye is Jay’s one true legitimate protégée, and as such they share common creative DNA and worldly opinions. That’s what made 2011’s Watch the Throne so effective: it transcended two buddies making music together and played out like the mass accumulation of ideas and energies from two of music’s most compelling voices. Flash forward to this year, when both rappers announced plans for new solo albums, and though they remained close, The Throne’s teamwork-centric vibe gave way to two very different approaches. For Magna Carta Holy Grail, Hov teamed up with Samsung, releasing one million free copies as part of one of the most sizable music corporate sponsorships of the last five years. As a result of the deal, the entire album release played out like Pepsi was merging with Apple, with almost as much talk of songwriting and production as there was of sales points and synergy. Moving in the diametrically opposing direction, Kanye’s Yeezus was the result of a complete separation from the corporate model, with the album rolled out sans radio plays, press releases, cover art, pre-orders, or even a traditional lead single. If Jay Z was the poster boy for corporate America, Kanye was the angry cultural protester, picketing from outside big glass skyscrapers with a megaphone, spewing anti-consumerism rants, and rallying the cause of individualism.
Why it mattered: It was the biggest rap beef/battle of 2013, and almost no one knew it. Without firing any direct shots or engaging in “standard” confrontation, Jay and Kanye’s albums made for one of the most intriguing and informative interactions in all of rap. On the most basic level, we saw just how important marketing campaigns and sales models can be: Jay’s first week sales of 529,000 copies over Kanye’s 327,000 is worth meriting as a superficial demonstration of their respective “success.” (Alternatively, Kanye’s LP did damn fine numbers without any marketing, while Jay’s only did fair numbers despite the monumental partnership.) More importantly, though, we see how the two men deal with the creative opportunities afforded by an increasingly desperate music industry battling tooth and nail for album sales. Jay Z went and fortified himself with the safety of a corporate sponsor, furthering his development as a businessman and embracing his status as a viable brand. Despite wanting to be perceived as a wild-eyed rebel, Kanye made a truly thoughtful and levelheaded decision by finally having the courage to do away with backers and supporters and stand alone against the onslaught. As an extension of that, their varying approaches have loads to offer about the future of both men. Whereas Jay Z is clearly moving in the way of increasing commercialization, Kanye is the one finally pushing new boundaries, serving as the face of a new cultural movement in very much the same way Hov did in the mid-’90s. –Chris Coplan
Death Grips stage concerts sans Death Grips
What happened: Going into 2013, Death Grips had established themselves as rebels and industry outsiders, leaking their own album, NO LOVE DEEP WEB, just to get out of their deal with Epic Records. But, in August, having finally seized their own creative destiny and sense of independence with the formation of their Thirdworlds imprint, their career path took a sudden turn toward the bizarre. During Lollapalooza weekend, the band held a Lolla pre-show at Chicago’s Bottom Lounge, but with a few unannounced lineup changes: there would be no band on stage, nor was there an actual performance, just a loop of music backdropped by a suicide note sent to the band. Fans reacted by demolishing a drum set, while Lollapalooza announced the band’s cancellation from the festival. Days later, news surfaced that the band had never planned to appear, and the mysterious piece of performance art was their intention all along (whether that plan included the ensuing mayhem was never made entirely clear, but one could guess based on their rebellious track record). Just a week later, with fans still reacting with a mix of confusion and irritation over the event, the band further stirred the pot by canceling their remaining shows of 2013.
Why it mattered: Short of giving fans $1,000 dollars each, it was difficult to see how Death Grips could muster any further support for their rabble-rousing ways. In a stroke of brilliance, the band went the opposite direction, instead pissing off their loyal followers, managing to somehow out-punk themselves by shifting their personal paradigm and altering their perception to that of pretentious, preening artists. Flash forward a few months, and when the band “suddenly” releases Government Plates, they once again appear to be the brilliant and unpredictable collection of rebels that fans flocked to in the first place. So much of promotion involves getting fans either excited about a new product because it’s amazing or groundbreaking, or by going away long enough for fans to miss you and herald any new material. Death Grips proved that you can have more of a back-and-forth with your audience, and even if the album’s not as innovative, there’s something refreshing and entertaining about hating and then appreciating a band all over again. You can’t make a second first impression, but Death Grips proved you can come damn close. –Chris Coplan
Musicians Declare War on Spotify
What’s the story: As Spotify celebrated its second year in America, musicians were coming out of the woodwork to take aim at the streaming giant. Thom Yorke and his Atoms for Peace cohort Nigel Godrich pulled three records off Spotify: AfP’s Amok, Yorke’s The Eraser, and the debut from Godrich’s Ultraísta. Meager artist royalty deals Spotify had worked out with record companies were cited as the reason for yanking the records. Godrich stated the “small meaningless rebellion” wasn’t about griping over his personal income, but standing up for new musicians. Similarly, David Byrne reasoned that while a band like Daft Punk can make $26,000 off 104,760,000 Spotify streams of “Get Lucky”, that doesn’t nearly cover production costs of Random Access Memories and are numbers rising musicians will likely never see. In addition to questioning Spotify’s financial model, Beck decried the audio loss issues with streaming music, saying, “It’s like watching Citizen Kane on your phone.”
Why it matters: Musicians like David Lowery and Damon Krukowski have been questioning the royalty practices of streaming services and online radio for years. When it’s the frontman of the biggest band in the world calling bullshit, though, people start listening. Streaming was supposed to be the next evolution of music consumption, but if the royalty models are really as bad as they’ve been made out to be (and by all accounts, they are), that particular evolutionary branch may be stunted. In the end, that might be for the best: a financial model that doesn’t support new artists will, inevitably, cripple the music industry. Yorke called companies like Spotify “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse” and said, “What happens next is the important part.” This is where Neil Young and his long in-development PONO music service might have to step in. Set to launch next year, PONO reportedly solves the audio loss issues Beck pointed out, though there hasn’t been much word on pricing models. Still, Yorke remarked that musicians “can build the shit” themselves, and Young’s company may be the first step in a new direction. Either way, the medium listeners absorb music is going to keep changing for everyone involved. –Ben Kaye
Kendrick’s “Control” verse, and hip-hop was never the same
What happened: Big Sean released “Control”, and the rap world imploded faster than you can say, “The Internet is a catalyst for mass overreaction.” But, no, really, Kendrick’s verse is sensational. The Compton rapper dropped a number of traditionally combative lines (“If Phil Jackson came back still no coachin’ me”), but also called out a grand total of 11 fellow stars — not for any personal or musical flaws they might have (“I got love for you all”), but because they’re his worthiest contemporaries. The fallout included an endless string of freestyles from rappers of all walks (with particular offense taken by East Coasters spurred by the “I’m the king of New York” line) and words of contention from Drake, who, in an interview with Elliott Wilson, suggested the verse was only a viral concern. At any rate, as an act of instigation, Kendrick delivered an instant classic.
Why it mattered: Ah, the art of peer pressure. “Control”, like the NBA All-Star Game, is a spectacle more than anything: It’s too flashy, neglecting basic ideas of what makes a piece of music work. But, the seven-and-a-half-minute monster had bigger implications. If you’re like me, you only checked out a handful of the early responses, and maybe a couple of the bigger ones that arrived late. More telling was the sheer volume of the backlash, testimony to the competitive spirit that has and hopefully always will pervade rap. They call this genre a game, don’t they? –Mike Madden
MDMA leads to tragedy at summer festivals
What happened: Drugs and music festivals have always courted controversy. The overdose death of a 15-year-old girl forced Electric Daisy Carnival out of L.A in 2011, and then there was Madonna’s infamous “Have you seen Molly?” declaration at Ultra Music Festival last year. This year, however, the uproar reached a new pitch as numerous incidents involving the drug cocktail known as Molly (or MDMA) surrounded EDM culture. Two individuals in their early 20s died from Molly overdoses at NYC’s Electric Zoo, with at least four others hospitalized. After the third day of the festival was canceled “due to serious health risks,” word came that a 16-year-old girl had been sexually assaulted in a parking lot. Deaths at shows in D.C. and Boston occurred in the same week. Further fatalities and hospitalizations were connected to the drug at Washington’s Paradiso Festival and Australia’s Defqon1.
Why it matters: Such stories of tragedy have become far too familiar lately. Last year it was stage collapses, and now it’s MDMA and the EDM scene. The connection between drugs and dance music is nothing new, but as both Molly and festivals gain an increased presence, the microscope is zoomed in tighter than ever. We all want music festivals like EZ and EDC to thrive – they’re good for fans, music, and even local economies – but something’s gotta give. As Derek Staples pointed out in his piece Why MDMA is Destroying EDM, there are solutions, and the only way to find them is dialogue. The challenge is out for festival organizers as well as attendees to resolve how we can sustain these events while keeping everyone safe. We’ll have to wait and see how the story unfolds next year when festival season returns. —Ben Kaye
The death of Lou Reed
What happened: On October 27th, influential rock artist and former Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed succumbed to liver failure at the age of 71. Reed underwent a liver transplant earlier in the year that appeared to be successful, but his death was otherwise no major shock, as he had lived a life hard on the body, which was heavily documented in his often divisive, but forward-thinking music. Unfolding somewhat poetically, Reed passed away at home in his longtime home state of New York, next to his wife, Laurie Anderson. He was active in music through his final days and was still performing shows as late as 2012. This was his last official portrait, taken just weeks before his passing, while his last official album was his 2011 collaboration LP with Metallica, Lulu.
Why it mattered: As obvious as it sounds, crowning the death of Lou Reed with a title like “story of the year” is somewhat of a contradictory claim, knowing what Reed thought of a music journalist’s idea of a “story”. Were he here to comment, he’d likely reprimand such attempts at quantifying the impacts of nuanced situations, and maybe the fact that our list includes his death but not those of Jeff Hanneman, or Jason Molina, or the fallen members of Yellow Dogs – not out of humility, necessarily, but as another measure of removing power from the media’s hands and transferring it to those with the balls to deal in lyrics, rhythms, and/or chords (just one was fine). Or maybe, like, can you imagine working for a fucking lifetime, and you get a spot on some list from some asshole on Consequence of Sound?
Reed was one of a select few whose deaths probably already have the spots atop these lists reserved for them, rightfully or not, but the operative word here is “year” just as much as “story”. Reed was daringly honest his entire career both in and outside of his music, and the significance of how his death transpired, at a time when pop and rock music could use more uncompromisingly principled figures, a year when its direction seemed so unpredictable that any development was plausible – even a Replacements reunion – shouldn’t be ignored.
Neither should the connections, both deliberate and synchronistic, between Reed and 2013’s loudest pop culture figure, Kanye West. West’s Yeezus earned Reed’s surprise endorsement last July in his final published piece (and, forebodingly, one of his only stabs at publishing criticism), perhaps even due partially to its textbook execution of the “Junior Dad” method: Make an album that the majority will write off instantly as cheap shock art, but reserve the last track for the most affecting song you’ve got. It’s all too appropriate that the man who was handed Andy Warhol’s approval would hand his own to the guy going on radio shows shouting “I am Warhol” right now – and that Kanye West would bow right back to Lou Reed.
When Reed finally passed away on a Perfect Sunday Morning in New York, 2013 became his beautiful, carefully written conclusion to a career often defined by noise and brashness, but more importantly, consistent integrity. –Steven Arroyo