2013 was another excellent year for albums. So I’ve had to expand the list this year to FIFTEEN! HOLY CRAP!
Let’s get in to it with a couple of honorable mentions, shall we?
Honorable Mention: Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe
Scottish electropop outfit Chvrches’ debut The Bones of What You Believe was a disappointment, but it was still an excellent record. This band fell prey to the same issues that dogged Purity Ring‘s debut a couple years ago; you mine a great sound but it’s hard to make a full album’s worth of that sound and keep things fresh. That said, the highlights are as good as anything released this year.
Song Highlights: “Gun”, “Recover”, “Lungs”
Honorable Mention: Mutual Benefit – Loves Crushing Diamond
There’s something very peaceful and fulfilling about Love’s Crushing Diamond, the debut from Mutual Benefit. It’s a searching record, one that offers no answers, but questions in a very gentle way. The record is carried away (no pun intended) though, by its masterpiece “Advanced Falconry” which will make any given moment of your life feel like a scene in a Wes Anderson movie…
Track Highlights: “Advanced Falconry”, “C.L. Rosarian”
Now for the list proper:
To call Shugo Tokumaru the Japanese Sufjan Stevens is a compliment to both Shugo and Sufjan. Tokumaru makes bright, pinging, glinting pop that incorporates tons of different instrumental flourishes and a wide range of emotional content. At least I assume it does, I do not speak Japanese.
“Katachi”, “Tightrope”, “Shirase”, “Baloon”
Jim James is the frontman for My Morning Jacket, an outfit whose output has been as consistently solid as just about any band that broke through in the early aughts. Regions of Light and Sound of God is his first proper solo album, and it’s the furthest thing from a disappointment. In fact, of all the outstanding albums on this list, Regions may be the most idiosyncratic and evocative of a particular type of feeling. That feeling, namely, is smallness. This record is the sound of James coming to grips with what makes us human in an increasingly spiritless and mechanized world, and it’s wonderful.
“State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.)”, “Dear One”, “All is Forgiven”
Producer and multi-instrumentalist Nicolas Jaar has certainly made a name for himself, and dude’s only 23. Jaar’s solo debut Space is Only Noise arrived at the tail end of 2010 to generous critical praise while he was still an undergraduate at Brown. Since then he’s been doing a lot of remix work and devoting much of his energy to Darkside, a duo comprised of Jaar and his touring guitarist Dave Harrington. The album appears cold and computerized on the surface, but there’s a warm human heart beating beneath all of the wires. And of note: the track “Freak go Home” needs a Thom Yorke remix like plants need sunlight; it is the best Radiohead song not by Radiohead I have ever heard, and I NEED Thom to be singing over it. So make that happen, will ya Thom (we’re tight, you know…).
Track Highlights: “Paper Trails”, “Freak Go Home”, “Metatron”
There was a LOT of good metal released this year, and one of the best albums came from veteran blackened-thrashers Inquisition. Verses is a pummeling waterslide directly to hell. But it’s still accessible, and that’s because not only does Inquisition meld a vast array of influences from all over the metal landscape to form their own version of blackened-death metal, they don’t necessarily take themselves 100% seriously. If you’re looking for a great gateway into the world of brutal metal, this oughta work.
Track Highlights: “Darkness Flows Towards Unseen Horizons”, “Infinite Interstellar Genocide”
The further down this list I go, the more I realize that the members of this year’s group were capital-A Albums. Muchacho is another record that sticks to a theme and puts you in a certain place. In this case the place is the great American southwest: windswept deserts, unfamiliar early morning bedmates in fleabag motels, and the creeping loneliness that the plains seem to reflect back at you. It’s an album with an easygoing sound the belies some anxious and searching thoughts held within.
Track Highlights: “Sun Arise!”, “Song of Zula”, “Ride On/Right On”, “Muchacho’s Tune”
Yeezus is certainly not Kanye West’s best record. But that’s sort of like saying The Wall isn’t Pink Floyd’s best record (which, for the record, it definitely is not). It’s a record that resembles the ones that came before it in tone and purpose, but its execution is strikingly different. With the exception of 808s Kanye’s entire career has been about treading the tightrope between critical credibility and commercial success. On Yeezus he eschews the notion of commercial success (or more appropriately, cums on its Hampton blouse) and delivers a record of grating, industrial fight music. The marked exception is album closer “Bound 2″ which contains one of the smoothest beats of Ye’s career, along with some of his most abhorrent rapping. Yeezus will be remembered less for what it sounds like and more for signalling the stage of Kanye’s career where he’s doing things completely on his own terms.
Track Highlights: “New Slaves”, “Hold My Liquor”, “Blood on the Leaves”, “Bound 2″
Let me start off by saying: if Random Access Memories contained 3 other songs as good as “Get Lucky” it would be an unassailable classic. As it is, “Get Lucky” is the best track on an excellent album. I feel like anything I write about this record will just be redundant at this point, but that’s kind of the point. The marketing campaign leading up to this album’s release was one of the most extensive and impressive ever, so it was easy to be disappointed when the album arrived and there was nothing that quite touched the ecstatic brilliance of its lead single. That said, there are a number of tracks that come close, and Random Access Memories is a very worthy inclusion in Daft Punk’s catalog.
Track Highlights: “Giorgio by Moroder”, “Get Lucky”, “Doin’ it Right”
Haim made a big splash this year, and deservedly. They are 3 sisters from Cali who take the presence and dexterity of the first-wave girl pop groups like Bangles and the Go-Gos and filter it through the sun-drenched ease of Fleetwood Mac‘s best moments. But the record is more than a collection of influences. This is one of the most of-the-moment albums of the year, but you might not notice it at first glance because it’s so easy to listen to. Simply put, Haim have expertly quelled from the best of what came before and released a debut that no other band could have created. I’m very excited to see what comes next.
Track Highlights: “Falling”, “The Wire”, “Honey & I”, “Days are Gone”
How on earth to give this record a genre classification? Let me give it a shot: shoegaze/post-rock/psychedelia with black metal vocals? Even that feels like pigeonholing. There has never been a record that sounds quite like this. It’s heavy, but the music floats overhead like a hurricane in a single cloud. Deafheaven do the “raucous intensity, palate-cleansing calm instrumental, raucous intensity” thing throughout the album and it serves a couple purposes. Firstly it shows that this band can play with dynamics. There’s a lot to be said for pounding, visceral intensity, but when there is no reprieve you come to feel like the dead horse being beaten. Not the case with Sunbather. Secondly it shows that the band is interested in making you feel something. “Wow, this is brutal,” might crest your thoughts once or twice during the duration, but more often it’s “wow, I did NOT expect that, that’s really beautiful”. This is one of the best albums of the year, and certainly the best metal record, though I’m still not sure it’s OK to call it that.
Track Highlights: “Dream House”, “Please Remember”, “The Pecan Tree”
I recently found out that a majority of the lyrics on Anxiety, Autre Ne Veut’s debut LP, were improvised on the spot. That makes a lot of sense and it’s certainly not a bad thing. You see, Arthur Ashin, the man behind Autre ne Veut can emote. There’s nothing aloof or staid about his delivery, he gives you his soul in every line and surrounds those lines with bombastic but calculated keys and drum machines. Ashin’s music feels totally human in a way that a lot of today’s electropop does not, which is kind of ironic because there’s nothing “organic” about the music he produces. He is simply a man, a very anxious man who can tell you enough with the simple sound of his voice that the lyrics aren’t really what’s important.
Track Highlights: “Play by Play”, “Counting”, “Ego Free Sex Free”, “Gonna Die”
Alright I’m just going to say it, I never really got in to Loveless. Once you’ve finished throwing your cabbages I’ll continue.
My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 “masterpiece” was something that always felt too much like a sculpture and not enough like a toy. I was afraid to try and interact with it both because it’s so immediately grating and inaccessible but also because I was afraid if I went all-in and discovered I didn’t like it there would decidedly be something wrong with me. So I approached m b v in a very different way than I do most albums. By the time the official release date had been announced I had already decided I would sit down and listen to the whole thing, but I wasn’t particularly expecting to like any of it. But by the time I’d reached the end of opener “She Found Now” I was already rethinking my Loveless aversion. So yeah, first listen through m b v I really liked it. But then something interesting happened: I kept listening and I went back and listened to Loveless again, and I was shocked and dismayed to discover that I actually like m b v significantly more than “the masterpiece”. There’s no way of knowing how long these songs incubated, how many hundreds or thousands of hours were put in to each individual track, but there’s nothing overwrought about this record. It is a brilliant achievement from a band who, far from tarnishing their legacy, have bolstered it all the more.
Track Highlights: “She Found Now”, “Is This and Yes”, “New You”, “Wonder 2″
James Blake’s self-titled 2011 debut is a masterpiece. It received nearly consensus critical acclaim, won its share of awards, and established Blake as a unique talent in a very crowded market. But like Deafheaven’s music, you’d have a very hard time pinning it to a particular genre. It’s electronic, sure, but that’s not the primary informant of how the music appeals to the listener. No, Blake is capable of doing something much more confrontational than that, he’s whispering in your ear and telling you the story of your own life, whether you’re prepared to hear it or not. That is to say, James Blakes music is not “personal” in the traditional sense, but it certainly is emotional. Tracks like “Lindisfarne” and “Give me My Month”, hinted at an artist who could go the tearjerker path is he chose to, it’s just not an interesting enough path.
Overgrown might be even better than James Blake. It is almost certainly more direct; the tracks here feel more like “songs” and less like “snippets”. But the most glaring difference is that where on the debut Blake’s voice served primarily as just another instrument in the mix, on Overgrown he sounds like a bona fide singer-songwriter. I saw him in Boston a few months back and I was struck with just how effortless his whole persona is. It comes across in interviews and in the music itself. He doesn’t sound like somebody who has to try, and as soon as he does we’ll know it. Right now though, he’s making R&B for the techno kids, or techno for the R&B kids, or something like that…
Track Highlights: “Overgrown”, “Retrograde”, “DLM”, “Voyeur”, “To The Last”
Backlashes are hilarious things. Arcade Fire’s last album The Suburbs won a Grammy for album of the year. Its new one Reflektor just might do the same. Both are essentially double-albums that deal with different subjects, but function more of-a-piece than I think most fans realize. That aforementioned backlash? It started as soon as Reflektor was released. Words like “overdone”, “let down” and “James Murphy”, were tossed around with impunity, and the buzz of the albums arrival overshadowed the album itself.
The good news is, anybody calling this a let down isn’t listening hard enough. On Reflektor the band that was always just a little sheepish finally has its Rick Danko-moment. For its first few albums, you got the impression that the band, while confident, was afraid of sounding masterful, as though doing so would invalidate the vulnerability found in so many of their lyrics. Here they’ve discovered you can sound confident while also sounding totally bewildered.
And that’s really what this album is about, a present where we’re somehow trapped between the past and “the Future”, a moment where it’s not ridiculous to ask a question like “Do you like rock n roll music? ‘Cause I don’t know if I do…”. It’s also all about Win and Regine, about what it means to be in love in 2013, about growing your relationship in a tunnel full of flashbulbs and eye-rolling and coming out the other end without turning around.
Track Highlights: “We Exist”, “Here Comes the Night Time”, “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)”, “Afterlife”, “Supersymmetry”
I know my writing here isn’t particularly formal or structured, but I need to remove myself one more step from that and just do this really quickly:
YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME WITH THE LACK OF ATTENTION GIVEN TO THIS RECORD, TWENTY THIRTEEN!!!
OK, I feel better. John Wizards is a duo out of Cape Town making music that morphs between strains of soweto, glitchy electro, and smooth-as-hell R&B. Sound crazy? It’s totally, totally crazy, but it works! This is an album that doesn’t so much take you by the hand as put you on its shoulders. From there it vacillates between sunny bounce (“Lusaka by Night”), screaming house-y electro (“Finally / Jet Up”), and that-dress-would-look-a-lot-better-on-my-bedroom-floor R&B (“Jamieo”). It’s also a grower; what on first listen sounds cacophonous and scattershot comes to make a lot more sense after more listens. Songs flow in and out of each other and there are recurring melodic themes, giving the whole album a symphonic feeling.
I very nearly listed this as my favorite album of the year. Please give it a couple listens, I think you’ll be glad you did.
Track Highlights: “Lusaka by Night”, “Muizenberg”, “Iyongwe”, “Jamieo”, “Friend”, “Lushoto”
1. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
Every so often you put a record on and you immediately start fearing you’re going to get sick of it. So was the first spin through Modern Vampires of the City. But I wasn’t worried about getting sick of it because the songs wouldn’t hold up, more because I was in love with this album, instantly. I was worried that I would be so enraptured with the listening to it that I would deaden the impact the songs had on me in the first place.
Every so often, though, there comes along that rare record where every song just gets better with each listen, where your interpretation of the lyrics evolves the more you pay attention, and where you can never decide which is your favorite song. Vampire Weekend have always been a self-aware group, but it’s at a new level here. They’re no longer dealing with trifling professorial obsessions or what it feels like to be the only upper-middle class person in a room full of rich people, now they’re looking at much larger questions.
This all comes to a head on the penultimate track “Ya Hey”, in which Ezra Koenig is addressing God directly “I can’t help but feel that I made some mistake, but I let it go”. Ezra and I are the same age, and it’s fascinating to hear him lay bare the anxieties of one’s late 20s. Lots of people our age deal with these anxieties but we don’t know how to articulate them. Fortunately there are albums we can rank as the best of the year that do the job for us.
Track Highlights: “Obvious Bicycle”, “Unbelievers”, “Hannah Hunt”, “Step”, “Ya Hey”, “Young Lion”, all of the other ones