In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re highlighting the songs we’ve listened to the most this year from our iTunes or on our Spotifys, Rdios, or stereos.
According to my iTunes play count, the song I’ve listened to the most this year is Bernard Herrmann’s “Main Title” from Taxi Driver—but I’m fairly certain that’s every year, thanks to the shuffle algorithm that is my iTunes’ deep, suicidal depression. But the song I voluntarily chose to listen to the most this year is an altogether different, though equally noirish vision of rain-soaked city streets: Burial’s “Rival Dealer,” a tune that emerged, as is William Bevan’s now-traditional wont, at the tail end of December, dropped onto the Internet once again with no advance warning or even much in the way of cover art to announce it. And as usual, it was the perfect music to spend a cold, dark Chicago winter unpacking.
Unusually, this time there was actually a legitimate story to unravel. The very private Bevan released a message a couple days after the Rival Dealer EP debuted, saying he saw his new tracks as “anti-bullying tunes that could maybe help someone to believe in themselves, to not be afraid, and to not give up, and to know that someone out there cares and is looking out for them.” But even if he hadn’t released that statement, the songs would have said that for themselves.
Already one of the most emotional producers in electronic music, Burial’s three newest tracks play out like a miniature melodrama, whose fragmented dialogue suggests a loose narrative of teen runaways grappling with sexual identity, and finding courage and acceptance among their peers and, most importantly, themselves. It’s a piece that never fails to put a lump in the throat of even me—a squarely domesticated thirtysomething. I can only imagine how it resonates with people who actually feel like they exist on any sort of fringe.
While it’s best heard as a complete piece, for our purposes here, the title track demonstrates why Burial has been so revered and closely studied, more than any electronic artist since Aphex Twin. It’s a genuine composition—a street-level suite that begins in a straightforward house music rave-up, pitches you out of the club into a nightmarish back alley full of snarling bass and shaking spray-paint cans, then whisks you away from the noise to a reflective hillside overlooking the city, where rain sizzles and a friendly voice murmurs about the stars.
It’s a 10-minute story that establishes a narrative thread that’s then picked up and completed with the EP’s far more sentimental closers, “Hiders” and “Come Down To Us,” songs that pepper their pledges of love and protection with more and more prominent vocal samples urging, “You are not alone” and “Don’t be afraid.” The whole thing ends with Lana Wachowski’s moving speech to the Human Rights Campaign, in which she offers empowerment to anyone else who’s ever been labeled a freak.
Regardless of the specific message Burial is trying to convey, the fact that he’s conveying a message at all is what makes Rival Dealer so special. Electronic music is so typically the province of artists who don’t want to say anything—who choose electronic music, because it doesn’t require vocals or even a proper name affixed to it, where you can instead get lost totally in the sounds and the machine. And yet, Burial, one of electronic music’s most carefully shrouded presences, made one of the most personally affecting records of the year. Marveling at how he did it has been one of 2014’s great pleasures, and I can only hope another one comes along soon to get me through this winter.