Tuesday, 8 April 2014

What I'm Playing: HEARTHSTONE

And so we return to my ongoing attempt to write about every game I play this year, a project which became quickly complicated by the realisation that I don't play one game at a time. 

If I've recently mouthed off to you in a pub about something I'm playing and you fancied reading about it, fear not - there are another five or so half-written blogs just looking for a spare moment to polish and push out the door.

For now, though, let's talk about my great obsession of 2014 so far, the game that has made me thankful for sick days and waking up obscenely early at weekends. The game known, slightly awkwardly, as...


A free-to-play collectible card game for PC, translating Magic: The Gathering from cardboard to silicon and populating it with the dwarves, orcs and anthropomorphic pandas of Blizzard's Warcraft games, all relying on virtual packs of random cards bought with real money as its business model.

Except for that bit about the pandas, Hearthstone sounds absolutely awful, doesn't it? I mean, just look at this screenshot:


I'm right there with you. Most of my teenage years were spent running away from the awkward flabby kid I was when they began, and from all the interests I'd built up. At age 15, I'd renounce fantasy as a genre to anyone who would listen. I'd cringe at any mention of Games Workshop. I'd hide the fact that I was reading comics or worse, insist that people called them 'graphic novels'. At the time, I thought this was putting away childish things.

But as I get older, and as my gut grows back to the size it was before I spent a summer replacing meals with milkshakes, I've come to terms with the nerd inside. After a few drinks, I'll tell anyone who'll listen about the latest goings-on in the Marvel Universe, or about my latest board game purchase that we've just got to try out. If I understood the message of The Lego Movie correctly, I think this self-acceptance is an important part of growing up.

Honestly, though, fantasy is still something of a sticking point for me. The naff painted art, names like 'Malfurion Stormrage', every card faintly marked with the odour of sweat-starched band t-shirts, sporadic facial hair and dice with more than the usual number of faces. Hearthstone's fantasy trappings are more than a little off-putting.

But actually playing it, I've been reminded that the defence mechanisms I spent those years building up are horrifically shallow, because the game underneath is excellent.


Hearthstone is remarkably simple to play. Your objective is to chip down the heath of your opponent's hero from 30 to 0, using the cards in your hand, before they do the same to you. You get three cards to start, and draw one each turn, and they split roughly into two types:

Minions come with their own health and attack points, and can do damage to other minions or direct to the other player.

Spells, meanwhile, might pluck a card from your opponent's hand, or transform the fearsomely-statted minion who's about to bite a huge chunk out of your health into a harmless sheep, or just freeze them on the spot for a turn.

There are other types of cards, too, but minions and spells are your bread and butter: a handful of attacks, blocks and counters which mesh in all sorts of surprising ways.


All the best minions have special abilities of their own. One of most common is Taunt, which means every non-spell attack has to be targeted at them – effectively blocking your opponent from causing damage where they really want to. Plenty have buffing abilities of some kind, healing their fellow minions, or boosting their attack value, or even granting them special abilities of their own. Put a healing-ability minion next to another with a respectable pool of hitpoints and Taunt, for example, and you've got a sponge that will mop up a few turn's worth of damage.

That's just the beginning. Playing my first couple of dozen games online, and getting consistently annihilated, practically every new match saw some new combination that stopped me in my tracks, made me laugh at its audacity or mutter swearily to myself over its elegant bastardry.

I remember the first time I saw an opponent throw an attack spell at one of their own minions. It was a Gurubashi Berserker, which gains three attack points every time it takes damage. By chipping away at the Berserker's health one point at a time, then healing it back to full health, they were able to win the game in two brutal turns.


Thing is, I'd forgotten how exciting it is to learn by mistakes. That moment where you realise you've made a small but vital error, that if only you'd played that second card before the first then victory would be yours, is almost as thrilling as successfully pulling off the perfect three-card combo.

Hearthstone features unlockables, daily quests and all that lizard-brain stuff, but it doesn't rely on them to get its hooks into you. There's a tangible sense of getting better at the game, and even better, the rare feeling of 'what if I tried...?'.

I've hardly touched the deckbuilding, and my initial efforts have turned out to be nigh-unplayable, but I still find myself bombarded by ideas for how a card might work. Not just while I'm playing, either; I'll be struck by inspiration on the tube, or in the shower, or sat on the loo. Eureka!

It takes me back to when I started playing Spelunky, where perma-death meant every slip was a tiny, lethal lesson. Similarly, just by virtue of it being a multiplayer game, every decision you make in Hearthstone is irreversible.

Luckily, each move is picked out with such clear lines – a little history of moves running down the left side of the screen, arrows to show what's affecting what, skull icons to show when an attack will prove fatal – that it's easy to spot when you've made one of these mistakes, and mentally rewind a turn or two while you watch the disastrous results play out.

The game also goes to great lengths to highlight everything your opponent is doing. You get to see them drawing those arrows then changing their mind. You can see them fiddle with a card, hesitate, then make the exact move you were hoping they would – or, more likely, the one you were praying they'd miss.

The game only lets you communicate with your opponent using six pre-canned phrases, which cuts out some of the usual horrors that come with playing against strangers online. It's also surprisingly satisfying, especially when you encounter someone who greets you at the start of a match and compliments you on a well-played turn.

Together with the neatly illustrated decision process, this means you can get a read on your opponent's personality almost as much as you would sat across a table from each other. It's just one of the ways that Hearthstone skilfully adapts the pleasures of an analogue boardgame.


The menu screen is an ornate wooden box, every skeuomorphic sub-menu stashed away in a drawer or behind a hinged panel. During play, you can see the grain of the table beneath the elaborate board. Even the loading bars say things like 'wiping off table' and 'glaring at innkeeper'.

The game never tries to convince you it's simulating a real battle. Instead, it's set firmly as a game within the Warcraft universe, played in the pub between adventures. You're an orc, playing with cards with trolls and wizards and draculas on them, rather than an orc leading a ragtag army which for some reason enter the battlefield one at a time.

All that high-fantasy silliness is just set dressing, which is lucky because the game doesn't really work as a representation of anything. It works as a game. The cards don't signify much in particular, aren't telling any story. They're just a set of tightly-honed mechanics which interlock satisfyingly.


Working so hard to emulate the feel of a non-existent card game in a digital medium is a peculiar decision, but Hearthstone manages to pull it off, because it makes a virtue of being virtual.

Being digital means Hearthstone can handle a lot of the maths that is intrinsic to playing this kind of game - think of the little skulls I mentioned earlier - leaving your brain free to make decisions rather than crunch numbers.

There's a certain amount of ceremony to the whole thing that simply wouldn't be possible with a cardboard version - not least the amount of explosions. Opening a new pack of cards, whether bought or won, requires placing them onto a glowing altar. The pack bursts dramatically open, showering you with particle effects, and asks you to flip the five cards you've gained over, one by one. When you win a match, your opponent's avatar shatters into pieces, while tiny fireworks go off above the board.


The ugly sneery bit of me is grateful Hearthstone is a PC game because it would never let me touch a card game which looked like this. If I did, I certainly wouldn't ask any of my friends to play it with me. But playing online, you can find an opponent at any time of day, and play a game lasting 10-15 minutes. In theory, it's a perfect game for filling small gaps of downtime. In practice, I've found myself arriving late to every social engagement for the last two months.

I haven't really warmed to the way Hearthstone sounds and looks. I'm not interested in the world it presents beyond the few square feet of table directly in front of me. But I love playing it.

As a kid, I used to read fantasy books and have to stop every dozen or so pages so I could run up and down my grandparents' back garden, my head full of talking animals and huge battles. These books weren't even necessarily stories - I'd consume maps and character guides and rulebooks for games I had no interest in playing.

I've since come to realise that it was never really the fiction I cared about. It was just fuel, a framework that I could use for play. It was the same thing as a desperate-to-be-cool teenager, adopting an interest in skateboarding that went no further than hours-long sessions of Tony Hawk's. It was about the chance to play, and videogames just provided a way of doing that without dressing up in a cloak or running around with a stick.

This was meant to be a quick review; it's ended up a small manifesto. The point of which, to be uncharacteristically brief, is: Games are meant to be played. The other stuff, whether it's wonderful or naff, is just set dressing. There are no guilty pleasures. Have fun.

Hearthstone is a good way of having fun.


Other games I've been playing:

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The Playlist: Q1 2014

There is a clubnight which exists only in the space between my headphones and spinal cord. Where people dance all night, even to the songs you can't really dance to. For the months of January, February and March 2014, this was that club's setlist.

Charli XCX – SuperLove
This passed me by first time around, until Sam 'Afternoon Delight' Willet chucked it my way on Facebook. And ka-clunk, it was the soundtrack to the next month of my life.

And look, I talk about the imaginary clubnight, but this was the one song that made me want to actually take my creaky, clumsy body out and find a dancefloor where it's playing. Every time I hear it, I want to grab the right friends just as it kicks in and shout the wrong words and debut the private macarena I've been practicing in bathroom mirrors.

And mouthing "I think your hair looks much better pushed over to one side/How do you feel about me?" to my reflection in a particularly shiny shop window, I've caught myself figuring out exactly how much work it would be to set up that clubnight for real.

Belle & Sebastian – Suicide Girl
I love when Belle & Sebastian talk dirty. 

Suicide Girl - which I first encountered on their rather uneven collection of B-sides and rarities The Third Eye Centre - takes the typical brittle indie-boy unrequited romance and reconfigures it into something more physical. The song asks the age-old question: Would you photograph your crush naked so the pictures could uploaded onto the internet for the enjoyment of strangers?

"Once she takes off her clothes, we'll never be the same again", the song concludes as it reaches an all-too-sudden climax, just two and a half minutes in. Well, quite.

Joanna Gruesome – Secret Surprise
A song that sounds like it could be taking place inside someone's chest cavity. Whether sweely whispering or all-out screaming or divebombing between the two, Alanna McArdle's vocals constantly draw attention to the breath each line is using up. The drum is a basic pounding heartbeat, building to a minor attack by the end of the track. Each stab of guitar is like a shudder running up your spine, the whole messy thing echoing off the inner walls of your ribcage.

Secret Surprise takes that all-too-familiar unrequited love subgenre and flips it so our protagonist is the object, rather than the subject. Or, maybe it's an entry in the fairly new suffocating-your-other-half-with-a-pillow-while-they-sleep subgenre.

Broken Bells – Holding On for Life/St. Vincent – Digital Witness
Two songs for which I have to thank the BBC Radio 6Music playlist.

Remarkably, despite 6Music being my office's station of choice, meaning while they were playlisted I heard these tracks three or four times a day without any choice in the matter, neither has really worn out its welcome. It helps, I think, that they both sound slightly alien in their own way, whether it's Holding On for Life's pitch-shifted Beegees chorus or the bits of Digital Witness that sound like they're being played backwards.

Sophie – Bipp
The lyrical heart of Bipp, "I can make you feel better", is half a promise being made by the narrator to you, the lover, and half a contract the song is making with you, the listener.

A few dozen listens in, it's a guarantee Sophie is yet to break.

Johnny Foreigner - In Capitals
In Capitals has me reaching for the toolbox of music journalism clich├ęs.

It's an absolute Frankenstein of a song, pieced together from scraps of four or five other half-songs. It's a rollercoaster of a song, repeatedly climbing to a peak, sitting on the ledge just for a moment, then plunging down, slowing and starting over. It's a finely-tuned firework display of a song, a series of little explosions, big and small, working in perfect concert.

Just because I can't talk about it adequately doesn't mean the song isn't great, mind.

Ibibio Sound Machine - Let's Dance (Yak Inek Unek)
"1, 2, 3, 4. Let's dance." As far as I can tell, those are the only English words in the whole track. Frankly - and this would be the case even if the rest wasn't in Nigerian Ibibio - they're the only ones that matter.

I'm a sucker for songs that are this explicitly instructive, as long as they've got the beat to back it up. And this really, really does. 1. 2. 3. 4...

Chromatics - Lady
Listening to Lady, I sometimes feel like I can hear through the song itself to the instruments it's made out of, great fictional instruments which fill the sewer systems of entire cities, which were built at great human cost, entirely for the purpose of making an androgynous love song and giving me something to dance to when I'm in the flat on my own. I don't know about you, but I like that kind of arrogance in my synthpop.

Neneh Cherry feat Robyn - Out of the Black
Robyn's the reason I listened to Out of the Black enough to put it on this list (I just miss her, that's all), but she's not the star. Honestly, she might be the weak link. I love the way her voice braids with Neneh's on the chorus, but the way she delivers some lines ("I'm Robyn on the microphone, into the speaker") is actually quite ugly.

No, the star here is that beat, sneaking, oppressive, a shadow looming in your peripherals. Delicious.

Burial - Hiders
Having read some reviews of last year's Rival Dealer EP, Hiders seems to be consistently singled out for its accessible. Or, if it's that kind of publication, a bit too pop. A bit tacky. It's probably no coincidence, then, that's it the first Burial track to make any real impression on me.

There are moments throughout where Hiders constantly threatens to crystallise into a spectral pop song, before moving on, shedding the skin of the last hook to drop in a new voice, a new sample, some environmental sound tweaked just so.

By doing that, it manages to sound bigger than any one song ever could. Just flashes of radio from passing cars in the slightly darker, slightly cooler world where all Burial songs take place.

Twista feat Kanye West – Slow Jamz
You might have worked out by now that not all of these tracks are brand new. They're just songs that recently clicked with me. So, to make that absolutely clear, here's Slow Jamz, first released in 2004.

Just about my favourite thing I've done all year is setting up a sort of informal records club with Sam 'Aforementioned' Willet, Dom 'MVP' Parsons and Sam 'The Importance of Being Earnest' Lewis. Together, we've been digging through and discussing Kanye's back catalogue (in case you were wondering, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy YeezusCollege Dropout > 808s & Heartbreak > Late Registration > Graduation).

This is the track that stuck, a ode to that one playlist you keep in reserve, fully stocked with Gaye and Green and White, for when it's time to get busy.

The whole song pivots on this absolutely killer moment around the 1:30 mark. Kanye and Jamie Foxx ease us in, playing it so soft they practically melt into the Luther Vandross sample underneath. But then his companion chips in, pleading with 'Ye to pick up the pace, faster, faster.

"Damn, baby, I can't do it that fast," Kanye replies. "But I know somebody who can". And instantly Twista kicks in, syllables moving like the hands of a con man where each verse is one of those games with the pea and the shells.

The rest of the song is great, but for me really it's just a structure to support those few seconds, the punchline where Kanye hands the baton over to the guy whose name is on the cover, just for the duration of the song, before he takes the limelight for good.

The Spotify playlist is available for you to cut out and keep here.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

What I'm Playing: NIDHOGG

With January consumed by the Play Off tournament, a high-concept test of my ability to write about the same song over and over, I thought my next project should be something simpler. Welcome to What I'm Playing.

Basically, I'm going to try and write a little something about every single game I spend any significant time playing this year. Starting with...


Nidhogg is a competitive multiplayer combat game in miniature.

Two opponents – let's call them Left and Right – face off on a two-dimensional battlefield, each armed with a sword. Their goals are equal and opposite and brutally simple: get to the other side.

See, a game of Nidhogg doesn't rely on the abstractions of a gradually depleting health bar or a numerical score. It takes a single successful jab to off your opponent, and the only time you see how many times you ran your opponent through with your sword and how often you forgot about the conveyor belt floor and fell into the abyss is after each game is over. You just win, by being the first to make it through four screens and reach the endzone, or you lose.

Fig. I: A Nidhogg match (Click to enlarge)

While the game might not score you on kills, each one is vital.

At any time, only one of the players can be pushing in their chosen direction, left or right towards victory. That player is the one who most recently dispatched their opponent, rewarded with a giant 'GO!' arrow in their colour. More than that, it takes three seconds to respawn: three long seconds during which the surviving player can flee unopposed towards the endzone.

So with two evenly-matched players, the game's rhythm is a constant push and pull: Left gains a couple of screens with a single well-timed stab, a three-second headstart and some outrageously lucky dodging, before Right stops them in their tracks with a thrown sword to the head. But Left respawns just in time to block Right's exit, and the two engage in some cautious swordplay, thrust, parry, thrust, parry, neither giving an inch.

At first glance, you might expect Nidhogg's closest relative to be something like Super Smash Bros, a 2D fighting game, but each game has the feel of an FPS Capture the Flag match, or even FIFA or Pro Evo. Strip away the combat, and it's a game of football: midfield possession constantly changing hands, until eventually someone breaks free and makes a run for the goal, the constant respawns allowing you to play both offence and defence.

The game features just four maps, all picked out in Messhoff's distinctive jagged edges and pastel colours. Effectively, that's three more, I'd argue, than the number of levels offered by any edition of Pro Evo.

After consecutive hours of play, honestly, I did find myself wishing for a couple more (especially because, frankly: fuck the cloud level and its obfuscating colour scheme, which which requires to tilt your screen to just the right angle to discern your character from the background) but at the same time, I admire the decision. It feels like not like an admission of limitations, but a statement of intent.

Nidhogg is precise as a surgeon's scalpel, compact as a .zip file, and that runs all the way through the game. Its lo-fi visuals, which bring the two blocky duellists to life through evocative animation; the simplicity of its controls, which feel like a reaction to the convoluted finger-contorting button combos required by the likes of Street Fighter; and, yes, its four levels.

In each level, the smallest geographical feature - a step, a gap, a patch of long swaying grass - becomes a hard-fought choke point to be fought over, death after death.

Some screens will limit movement to a narrow tunnels, making sword-throwing and jumping over an opponent's head impossible. The twice-damned cloud level features some admittedly nifty platforms that melt away if a player stands on them too long, perfect for luring your rival onto. And the doors. Sun Tzu could write a whole other book about this game's doors.

After a few hours with singleplayer, I was impressed by the elegance of Nidhogg. It's a game which brilliantly evokes that action-movie moment where a gun drops to the floor and skids just out of reach and the two combatants wrestle to seize it back, made with the minimum of fuss and a watchmaker's precision.
Fig. II: Combat

It was only after playing it with friends that I appreciated how messy it is.

The handy gif above depicts a typical Nidhogg encounter. Seen one from one perspective, it's a taut cat-and-mouse guessing game, each blade outmanoeuvring the other, until one player catches the other off guard and delivers the deathblow.

From another... well, just look at it. The game is perfect slapstick, and playing Nidhogg post-pub, post-kebab, gathered round a laptop, really brings out its sense of humour.

The overwrought Wilhelm screams and explosions of colour-coded juices that mark a player's death, before they pop right back up again, Wile E. Coyote-style, for another duel. The discovery that you can keep someone impaled on the end of your sword, wiggling it up and down, as an increasingly unlikely quantity of vital fluid sprays out of them. The victory screen, which has the winning player running past a cheering crowd, before the phallic worm-dragon which gives the game its name swooshes across the screen and snaps them up in its jaws, the game sarcastically declaring WINNER.

Whole games were won on the strength of one player laughing too hard to keep up.

2014-01-18_00023All my singleplayer training, the tactics and patient playstyle I'd developed, were quickly rendered obsolete against the power of someone spamming the crap out of the divekick for three, four, five games of winner stays on, before I finally think to raise my sword and - splat - bring its reign of terror to an end. I'm eager to improve, to strike a balance between chaos and nuance, but mostly just to play more.

I can't wait to take Nidhogg on tour with my laptop over the course of the year, breaking it out with different sets of friends. It's too early to tell if this small package has the longevity to enter the drinking/hangover game hall of fame alongside Spelunky, Peggle and the sainted Worms 2, but I find myself praying to the mighty Nidhogg himself that it does.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Play Off: Picking 2013's Best Song - The Final

Tournament Final
32 tracks entered. That got whittled down to 16, then four, and finally just two contenders to the title of my Song of the Year 2013. 

So here we are, finally, at the end of the line. In the pale blue trunks, The Juan Maclean's Feel Like Movin'; in the red-of-an-unbidden-dawn trunks, Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle's Gustavo.

Only one can emerge triumphant. Who will it be?


Late last year, I found myself, at 4am, in a drained bathtub with Chris 'Total Man Crush' Sparrow, a gin & tonic and a single portable speaker. The bathroom was the only room in my flat not occupied by a sleeping girlfriend, and we sat for an hour or so, passing the cable back and forth and rattling through our favourite songs of the year.

When we finally called it a night, and climbed out of the tub, I stuck on one last song: Feel Like Movin'. And we started to dance, a little self-consciously – we're two awkward guys, directly facing each other in a tiny bathroom – but irresistibly, arms above our heads, hands describing endlessly complex tesseracts in the air.

Feel Like Movin' is less the song's title, and more a list of associated side effects. I'm listening to it as I type this, and tugging Corgiton, our rotund stuffed corgi, around by one paw to the music, always rising, pushing towards the sky, as Nancy Whang sings “good time's going to take you to heaven”. And Corgiton is keeping perfect rhythm.


Given that I'll defend with my life the position that all culture – films, games and especially pop songs – are best when they're short, it's pretty odd that my two contenders for the year's best song both clock in over the seven minute mark.

With Gustavo, I barely feel it. It's too easy to get caught up in Kozelek's elliptical storytelling, an ear always tuned to what happens next, waiting for the next killer line (the bit that landed as I wrote this sentence: “My house ain't done but it's alright/Floors ain't level, but I ain't some suburban/Who cares about bathroom tiles/Straight lines and building codes and Chinese wind chimes.”)

But Feel Like Movin' wears its lengthy running time a lot more obviously, pretty much entirely because my enjoyment of the song is more physical.

Jumping back to dancing in the bathroom: it was great, but by the sixth minute we'd started to burn out. The flesh is weak, after all, and suddenly Nancy Whang's refrain of “Get your feet on the dancefloor/And show me what you're made of” started to feel like a challenge. Apparently, what we were made wasn't enough.

(There is a radio edit, which shaves a minute and a half off, which is actually a full from-the-ground-up remix. Weirdly, though it's not the version I first heard on the radio – Lauren Laverne's 6Music show, specifically – and it messes with the delicate balance of the full song, which is structured with the intricacy of a Stewart Lee set. Once you've listened to it a few times, you realise it's constantly builds up punchlines. The rest of the song teases, pulls away just as you think it's delivering on the set-up and moves on. Then, just as you're forgetting, all the punchlines are triggered at once.)


The aforementione Chris Sparrow is also responsible for introducing me to Mark Kozelek.

Sparrow's the kind of person where the question “what are you listening to?” can fuel pub conversation for hours. He was off on a tear about the Perils from the Sea album, sharing wry lines with that uncanny accuracy of his, laying out the vague overarching story, explaining where it fit alongside Kozelek's other work.

I was ready to dismiss it as just more Chris Sparrow Music: old American men being seductively miserable, glass of whisky in hand, as the dust creeps in through the cracks. But then he mentioned Jimmy LaValle's electronica-infused beats, and my ears pricked up.


I still haven't dipped into the rest of Kozelek's output, the stuff without LaValle. Partly because there's a fearsome amount of it – the guy released three albums in 2013 alone – and partly because... do you remember how in a previous post I mentioned how I was avoiding anything else by The Juan Maclean? It's the same deal.

These songs feel pure, untouched by anything else, and I worry that nothing else could live up to it.

But honestly, I'm romanticising my stubbornness and ignorance. Tomorrow, once this is all behind me, and 2014 officially begins in my head, their respective back catalogues are going to be my first port of call. I already know I'm wrong about Kozelek, anyway:


Jumping back again, a couple of hours before climbing into the bath: We're in the living room, enjoying the full aural benefits of our soundsystem. Sparrow stuck on a demo of You Missed My Heart, a track which very nearly ended up representing Perils From The Sea in this tournament, but this version is an acoustic live thing. Just Kozelek's voice and the occasional plucking of a guitar – exactly the kind of music I'd identify as having no interest in.

The room goes silent.

The song is stunning, in the literal pin-you-to-your-seat sense. The four of us just sit there for six minutes, listening. Maybe it's the gin, but there's a lump forming in my throat.

The second it finishes, the girlfriends chide us for being so bloody intense, ask can we have something with a beat and words we can actually sing along to please?


The other day, Kirsty 'Esteemed Colleague' Styles asked me what metric I could possibly use to pick the winning song in this ridiculous venture of mine. I shrugged the question off, but it kind of got to the heart of the idea behind the whole thing.

End of year lists are silly. They pretend on some kind of objectivity, that Song x is definitively better than Song y, even if the writer doesn't believe that, because if you acknowledge the arbitrariness it all falls apart. A knock-out tournament felt it like it carried that to its logical extreme.


So, having already talked your ear off about it, I can't really explain to you why Gustavo is the winner, why it beat all those other equally great songs to become my official Favourite Song of 2013.

Honestly, it's not the song I'd expected to pick. As far as I was concerned a month ago, when I began this, it was pretty much a two horse race, and the horses in question were Feel Like Movin' and Hood Party. But right now, it feels perfect.

I never officially picked a Song of the Year for 2012, but I think it's pretty clear that it was either Swift's We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, or Jepsen's Call Me Maybe: perfectly-formed gleeful, lightweight, short pop songs which were both huge hits and felt deeply personal.

Nothing ever took that crown in 2013. Instead, we had Robin Thicke. There was Get Lucky, of course, but it wore out its welcome. I had my fingers crossed for Ciara's Body Party or Tegan & Sara's Closer, but neither made a dent on the pop consciousness, and eventually melted away.

You could draw personal comparisons, too, if you hadn't already spent hundreds of words telling stories from your boring life. Suffice to say that 2013 never felt quite right to me. It was an in-between year, with few highlights and a lot of challenges.

Picking a softly melancholic album track, that's at least double the right length for a pop song and you can't dance to? A song which, in short, couldn't be much less Me?

Yeah, that feels perfect.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Play Off: Picking 2013's Best Song - Semi-Finals

Tournament Round 4

There's a nice symmetry to how these semi-finalists are paired. The Rise of The Ghostface Killah is practically wordless, and given its lyrics' nutritional value, Feel Like Movin' might as well be. The pleasure is all in the sounds. In the case of their competition, however, while the beats are attractive and evocative, it's the lyrics which are the real draw: Gustavo's sustained soliloquy, and Hood Party's polyglottal grab-the-mic rush. Words and music – that familiar theme again.

Fat Tony feat. Kool A.D. & Despot – Hood Party
The Juan Maclean – Feel Like Movin' 

Partly for the reasons outlined above, there's much more to grab hold of in Hood Party, at least at first glance. The song manages to cram three rappers with very distinct voices into four minutes: Fat Tony, setting the scene and putting gentrification firmly on the agenda, hostility and anger always bubbling just under the surface. Despot, who sounds like he's straining, right at the edge of running out of breath, the whole time, and who takes home this this year's Kanye West Award for Eye-watering Sexual Frankness with a couple of lines about fists, anal cavities, and washing his genitals with hand soap. Kool A.D., basically a grinning pop-culture trickster god shooting off lighter-than-air rhymes while a second head echoes each line in slurred agreement.

Feel Like Movin', meanwhile, is fairly minimalist in the way it lays out a small handful of ideas and sounds, and takes its time playing around with them.

That's something I love in dance music, and something I really enjoyed with Get Lucky – and when that finally started to fail me, under the weight of overexposure, it was Feel Like Movin' that picked up the slack. The arrangement feels a lot looser and more complex than Get Lucky, though, so that listening to the song is like getting lost in deep horror-movie fog, passing familiar landmarks again and again, a snatch of vocal or a spike of synthesised brass, until you realise the only explanation that the scenery is shifting around you.

The structure of Hood Party is a lot more rigid. The beat is a constant – the sound of a dozen stacked speakers being pushed way past their limit, an affront to neighbours and police – while each voice, neatly partitioned and contained, shines a different light on the central theme. The chorus' wider view, the song crash-zooms to the people at the party, chatting about politics, money and conservative Drake lyrics.

The problem is that Kool A.D.'s urgent charismatic ramble entirely steals the show. Concentrated in one place, it imbalances the whole song.

Feel Like Movin', though, maintains its woozy beauty throughout, perfectly simple until you stare hard enough and notice the complexity. A limited series of sounds, arranged in just the right order, that works on my body, brain and soul equally. It's a great reminder of how true the old 'music is magic' mantra is – which, conveniently, is pretty much what the song itself seems to be about.

Winner: The Juan Maclean – Feel Like Movin'

Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Gustavo 
Ghostface Killah – The Rise of the Ghostface Killah (Instrumental)

All four of these have an excellent sense of atmosphere, but this pairing especially are just dripping with it.

Stick on a pair of decent headphones, and The Rise of The Ghostface Killah is a sumptuous treat, from the heavy percussive heartbeart that begins the song onward. There's a physicality to the production that lets you hear not just the instruments being played, fingers tapping wood, but the recording equipment, the room it's being played in – which makes it all the more remarkable when the music is cut up, folded around the few trademark  'Ghostface Killa-a-a-ahh' yells that are left intact.

The non-instrumental version is pretty great too, Ghostface's calligraphic rhymes maintaining the vibe (“Tommy guns are irrelevant, I'm bulletproof now/I could fly through the air and duck your chick-a-pow”), as is the crackling Brown Tape version. But the best thing I can say about Younge is that he renders Ghostface pretty much surplus to requirements.

On a similar note, for all I've talked about Gustavo's storytelling, it occurs to me now that I think I'd still love the song if it was in a foreign language. Not only that, I think I'd still get the gist of what was going on.

That's partly down to the texture of Kozelek's voice, the way he contracts certain words, draws others out into a sigh, syllables slurred or croaked or popped, and partly down to LaValle's expressive soundscapes, which stretch out to a distant horizon. Strings fall like steel raindrops, punctuated with obstruent clicks.

Scenery is the only way I can think of this music. It's background, yes, but think of There Will Be Blood, or a Coen Brothers film: We sit, studying in stark detail the cracked lines of the star's face, the world behind him blurred into impressionism, before the depth of field shifts, pulling the landscape into clear focus, and we realise they're the same damn thing.

But I worry I make Gustavo sound too serious and glum, and here's the thing: it's catchy too. I often find myself humming or singing snatches of the song and the album it's taken from. That's what elevates it. That's why I find myself opting, entirely against type, for its heightened realism over the pure fantasy of The Rise of the Ghostface Killah.

Winner: Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Gustavo 

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.