Friday, December 13, 2013

My Favorite Albums of 2013

This blog page of mine, though many years old, has now basically become a place for me to comment on the year's best music. Really, it's for my own enjoyment and serves as an annual check-in on my mind to make sure it's still there and hasn't been melted away from hours of Nintendo and the occasional binge of abusing my liver and lungs. Mostly I felt the need to write this due to the decay of thoughtful writing and the rise of BuzzFeed hacks. I included a blurb about each album and not a video with the caption 'Because 'Merica' on each selection.

BUT ANYWAY - here's another year-end-list to throw on to the seemingly endless scrap heap of content out there. Couple of surprises this year and plenty of good albums made it an interesting one but incredibly satisfying.

High Honors:

Alkaline Trio - My Shame is True
Foxygen - We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic 
Los Campesinos! - No Blues
Ra Ra Riot - Beta Love
Parquet Courts - Light Up Gold (technically from 2012, which is why it ain't in the Top 10) 
Washed Out - Paracosm
Speedy Ortiz - Major Arcana
Surfer Blood - Pythons
Youth Lagoon - Wondrous Bughouse
Yo La Tengo - Fade

Top 10 of 13

10. Arctic Monkeys – AM

Everything I’ve read so far praising this album has been all, “the Arctic Monkeys are back” and “How Alex Turner got his groove back,” but the truth is that they’ve never went anywhere. Sure, they spun their wheels too much on “Humbug,” but since that record their songwriting and balance of style has only increased – and this is that record that perfectly balances it. Opener “Do I Wanna Know?” has a seductive hook that gives way to a traditional exploding Arctic Monkeys-style chorus, and even the chilled out “No. 1 Party Anthem” sounds like you’re just taking a break between parties at 3 am. But if that’s not quite your style, it’ll still sound great on a dark road at night.

9. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

For the first time, the National put out a record that I didn’t have to wait until daylight savings time to listen to. Not to say that the subjects in Matt Berninger’s 13 songs weren’t heavy or troubling, but more so at how laid back the band songs. “I Should Live In Salt” has a gentle strum in a 9/8 time signature that takes time for the band to all coalesce, while “Graceless” and “Sea of Love” soar in swelling crescendos that should be weighted by the subject matter, instead sound triumphant (unlike most of their last record High Violet). Probably the best thing about the band is that they can combine the bummed out with the humorous in their lyrics and the gentle and abrasive in their music. They’re not ‘dad rock,’ yet, bro. Let’s just enjoy it.

8. Arcade Fire – Reflektor

What do you do when you win an unsuspecting Grammy award (and get a nod from this guy athankyouverymuch) for ‘Album of the Year?’ This, apparently, because that was everyone in the blogosphere’s most anticipated question for the last three years. They didn’t need all the hype campaigning, but it sure got people talking about what working with producer James Murphy was going to do to them. For better or worse, that’s almost what this double album is verbatim. The first disc shows off their adventurous side, showing off a Haitian disco style of the band that they picked up after a trip to that country (cause they won a Grammy, right?). Disc 2 has a bit more of the band’s sound they’ve honed over the years, which isn’t a bad thing. Still, songs like “Here Comes the Night Time,” “Normal Person,” “Afterlife” and the title track rank with some of their best work thanks to all of that eclectic inspiration.

7. Danny Brown – Old

Since his verse on (RIP) Das Racist’s “Power” in 2011, I’ve been fascinated with Danny Brown. Likely because the second I heard his unmistakable snarl he’s been impossible to ignore, but more so because of his natural ability to shape-shift and make any style all his own – which is exactly what he does on Old. Side A of the album finds him at odds with himself - reflecting on his troubled Detroit upbringing, spinning detailed stories of getting jumped on his way to buy Wonder bread (“Wonderbread”), hearing relentless gunshots that sound like fireworks (“Torture”) and living off of his mom’s hair cutting money (“25 Bucks,” which features beat from the uber-hip Purity Ring).  The second side is all drug-fueled Danny Brown debauchery that anyone familiar with his previous efforts can expect. And really, just look at that cover art. 

6. Dr. Dog – B-Room

It’s almost unfair how Dr. Dog can make putting out another great album in a year seemingly effortless. In fact, from my count, they’ve been doing it since 2005’s Easy Beat, and this year’s B-Room is yet another stunning addition to the already brimming Dr. Dog canon. Singer-guitarist Scott McMicken’s opener “The Truth” seems to slowly emerge on airy strings and drifts along a catchy hook and eventual sing-along coda, while bassist Toby Leaman follows up with his boozy howls on “Broken Heart.” It’s that back and forth vocal play and overall soulful sound of the band that perfectly balances this record. “Distant Light,” “Cuckoo,” and “Nellie” are definitely some of Leaman’s best works vocally, and McMicken is not so bad himself with “Minding the Usher,” “Phenomenon,” and “Love.” Dr. Dog is and has been one of the best bands we have out there, and B-Room is no exception…and I think it’s safe to say that if they haven’t gone the Mumford route by now, they won’t be anytime soon.

5.The So-So Glows – Blowout!

In which the hometown hero brothers of Brooklyn step out of the boroughs and destroy everything in its path, Blowout! Is the group’s best and most concentrated effort to date. Its complete lack of pretense and a genuine garage punk swagger make it sound like a band that rose from the ashes of CBGB’s. Infectious guitar hooks and chorus sing-alongs are abundant on “Son of an American,” “Diss Town,” and “Wrecking Ball.” Brothers Alex and Ryan Levine’s songwriting skills have put the band in a place – that not unlike their good buddies Titus Andronicus – could earn them a crossover crowd of punks and hipsters alike. Don’t be worried, though, cause there is still a ‘fuck Hollywood’ song, and that’s some true east coast punk rock shit.

4. Kanye West – Yeezus

There are enough reasons to not want to acknowledge Kanye West as a person at all, so when I was looking at my top played songs in iTunes and saw “Bound 2” coming in at fourth I knew there was no denying the insanity that is Yeezus. At this point, somehow, all of his arrogance has proven to be simultaneously ridiculous, hilarious and brilliant. Who really knew what his next move would be after 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy except him, keeping the making of this record completely hidden and it’s guests (including now-bro Bon Iver) sworn to secrecy. Yeezus is an even darker, more raw Kanye then we’ve seen yet on opener “On Sight” and then gets even deeper on the following “Black Skinhead.” One of Kanye’s best songs might be “Blood on the Leaves,” it booms with production by soon-to-blow-up duo TNGHT and a Nina Simone sample. Oh, and it also compares a pregnant bitch sitting court side opposite you and your current girl to Apartheid (that I truly hope hip-hop fan Nelson Mandela was able to hear before he passed away). Then there’s the aforementioned closing act “Bound 2,” which is all soul-sampling, back-to-rapping Kanye that squashes any doubts that this is still a hip-hop album and West isn't going anywhere.  Damnit.

3. Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse

A band’s third album can often be the most difficult, especially when you have a pretty good following and other folksy British bands are in the Top 40 all over the world. Not to say that Glasgow, Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit’s last album was a clunker, but it seemed to leave fans wanting more based upon singer-songwriter Scott Hutchinson’s previous output and maybe a bit worried they’d become a soccer mom band. Luckily, the band refocused on Pedestrian Verse, choosing song craft over sound to great effect and produced their most concise album to date. Hutchinson’s lyrics and ear for melody have rarely been stronger than on “Backyard Skulls,” “Holy,” and “Late March, Death March.” Purists will be glad that they haven’t lost any edge in word choice either, as Hutchinson is still ‘that dickhead in the kitchen/Stealing wine from your best girl’s glass,’ he sweetly proclaims on opener “Acts of Man.” He even feeds off of the stadium energy the band aimed for on that last album in the towering “The Woodpile,” one of their best songs to date on an album that perfectly blends all of their strongest skills.

2. Queens of the Stone Age - …Like Clockwork

On a recent episode of Marc Maron’s popular podcast WTF, QOTSA mastermind Josh Homme revealed to Maron that in the six years since the group’s last album he almost died. Not in the Keith Moon or GG Allin kind of way that you’d expect from a rock and roller, but instead by a MRSA brought on by his constant working schedule and the number it did on his immune system. Homme understandably took a few years off and seemingly distilled his demons into his best work in a decade. …Like Clockwork is another record that champions song over sound, as longtime fans won’t hear any extended tracks that ‘pound rhythms into your head.’ Slow-burning opener “Keep Your Eyes Peeled” rides in on a dark wave and soars with driving guitar and drums as a panicked Homme yelps “Over and over/gasping in horror/so breathless you surface” as he literally comes back to life. Follow up track “I Sat By the Ocean” and “My God is the Sun” sound as if they’re leftover from the Songs for the Deaf sessions in the best way possible, and falsetto and creshendos make tracks like “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” downright thrilling.

1. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

This was easily the best album that I’ve heard this year for plenty of reasons, but even the first time I hit play on the opening track “Obvious Bicycle” I could almost sense that this was a special one. Modern Vampires of the City is the first Vampire Weekend album that plays like an actual album rather than songs strung together, mostly thanks to front man Ezra Koenig’s lyrics about growing up, getting old, and swooning over the sound of someone spinning Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” into the Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown.” Swirling organs and hand-claps lighten things up on “Unbelievers” and “Step” is a perfect song that captures everything that the band does well with a hip-hop beat and harpsichords. “Diane Young” is definitely the liveliest track on the alum and works this album’s version of ‘Cousins.’ “Ya Hey” ponders over religion with help from some vocal effects and and synth skills courtesty of keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij. Most importantly, this is the kind of album this band needed to make if they wanted to remain at the forefront of the music landscape. And so now that they did make it, it seems safe to say we don’t have to wonder if they’ll be able to do it again.

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