in the spirit of end of year things only a handful of people will actually read and/or give a poop about, here are my top albums of 2013.
FIRST, THE HONORABLE MENTIONS:
speedy ortiz – major arcana
paying strong homage to early 90’s grunge, this album rests on the palette like a tasty nostalgic stew of hole, generous doses of nirvana and smashing pumpkins, a teaspoon of sonic youth, and a sprinkling of pj harvey. a refreshing throwback to a messier, and perhaps more truthful, era of rock and roll music, speaking volumes against the pretensions and affectations that plague a lot of modern music. sadly, the live sound of this band doesn’t quite match the skill of the album’s production. controlled dissonance and creative rhythms become bogged down in poor sound mixing, turning strangely beautiful, unnerving melodic structures into cacophony (at least when i saw them live).
yeezus – kanye west
this album is undeniable, even if it isn’t always the easiest listen. at times it’s truly hard to parse what is even being addressed in some of west’s enigmatic lyrics, but each listen gives richer information about this pop culture phenomenon. west’s public and artistic life almost always seem at odds but are actually, with a little investigation, dramatically in sync. this relatively concise album (the 10 tracks, hitting the 40 minute mark) creates a tone through minimal, dark, and sonically aggressive beats, that is fast, unnerving, and relentlessly bleak. featuring everything from west’s typical skewering of global celebrity culture and his place within it, his vivid and uncompromising analyses of the black american experience, and a kind of manic urgency that is equally disturbing and really impressive.
loud city song – julia holter
julia holter’s angelic voice, descriptively poetic lyrics, wandering and enveloping melodies, make for an album that is so thorough in its execution, you feel you’ve truly been at the mercy of an assured artistic vision. a vision that holter confidently voices as an expressive necessity. this album is beautiful, confusing, utterly unique, and translates so majestically to holter’s engaging and sweeping live performances. she’s experimental without being precious or alienating. it’s an album you can listen to without having to work, but its rewards are really powerful when you let the album carry you through its magical journey.
modern vampires of the city – vampire weekend
vampire weekend with their eponymous debut made an immediate positive impression, that unfortunately quickly became irritating in its ubiquity and left a nasty aftertaste of feeling that they were just trying far too hard. from their faux-afro beats and unsubtle references to their musical influences, it all felt a little too clean, efficient, and calculated. but three albums in, they’ve found a much more relaxed approach to their song-writing that is familiar, but feels entirely genuine and actually inevitable. they had to express these sounds, rather than sounding like they were pushing for a style that is perhaps not their own. this album validates and elevates their previous work, re-framing those albums as part of a process towards this confident grounding. the first half of this album is marvelously accomplished, featuring the grandest and most intelligent melodies they’ve created. the album loses the plot a little in the middle stretches, not unpleasantly, but it is easy to tune out as background music. regardless this album is quality throughout, and when it’s good, it’s really good.
reflektor – arcade fire
on their fourth album, arcade fire decided to throw caution to the wind and make songs without aiming to please, but rather a collection of music they really enjoy playing. this often works, with songs that aren’t afraid of staying in the same melodic and sonic territory for long stretches, songs without any real hooks, songs with completely nonsensical lyrics (though lyrics haven’t ever been arcade fire’s strong point), but overall create a dramatic and ambitious soundscape. however, this also makes for a distance that isn’t always the most welcoming as a listener, you sometimes feel shut out of the party. that being said, this is probably exactly the album arcade fire needed to make between their album of the year grammy winner ‘the suburbs’ and their transition into a more recognizable force in modern music. there are so many arcade fire copy cats these days (large sound, lots of band members, ‘oh ah ohhhh’ singalong choruses) it’s almost as if arcade fire are in the phase radiohead found themselves in post OK Computer, where radiohead looked to be the arbiters of what bands should do to achieve artistic creditability. this resulted in a lot of terrible radiohead-esque bands, and we’re seeing similar consequences to arcade fire’s success. if they are to follow radiohead’s path, they should continue to throw up a middle finger to their copycats and continue to do whatever the hell they want, for better or worse. this album for the most part leans towards better.
AND NOW FOR THE TRULY GREAT:
#5 am – arctic monkeys
arctic monkeys could have easily become a joke of musical history, a band that benefited greatly from the internet hype-machine early in their career, but then had nothing to back up their rampant popularity. their albums haven’t all been great, but this one definitely showcases alex turner’s place in popular music as a deeply creative songwriter (a truly fantastic lyricist) surrounded by really terrific musicians as bandmates who clearly complement his initial ideas (especially drummer, matt helders, who holds so much of arctic monkeys together with really impressive percussion and backing vocals) to create a sound entirely their own. this album isn’t a departure for the band or really a terribly drastic advancement, but it feels like a band settled, writing the music they want to write, comfortably inspired, rather than forced. alex turner’s continually clever rhyming lyrics and blistering critiques of social norms, combined with engaging musicianship and melodies make this band definitely worth the hype.
#4 the bones of what you believe – chvrches
i give (and will continue to give) chvrches a hard time, because their name is unforgivably stupid (why the v?), but their music is really wonderful, deeply satisfying, electro-pop gold. their sound ventures toward been overly dependent on the kind of ear worm hooks you’d expect at home in the ephemeral pop of top 40 radio, but it cleverly balances on this edge without fully falling into sappy, expendable territory. couple this recognizable catchiness with some really lovely lyrical turns and joyously vibrant beats, you get something that is enormously accessible without ever being completely twee. there’s something deeply youthful about this album (in terms of sound, not necessarily the bandmember’s ages), that makes a listener yearn to hear what maturity as a group will bring to their sound. this is a really enjoyable album, easy to return to, but definitely hints at an even more enticing and engaging future for the band.
#3 shaking the habitual – the knife
despite this easily being the hardest listen of the albums that really struck a chord this year, it remains one of the most rewarding and artistically satisfying. it’s not perfect, there are sections that are far too long and feel ultimately unnecessary, but overall the journey of this album is mesmerizing. the knife’s last album 2006’s ‘silent shout’ was one of the greatest electronic music albums ever. with that album they took the sound the group had fomented on hits like ‘heartbeats’ (one of the greatest songs of all time) from their previous album ‘deep cuts’ into strange and dark places. ‘shaking the habitual’ only furthers that mission seven years later into more disquieting territory that isn’t always pleasant, but is unquestionably accomplished. again, i can’t stress enough, this is not an easy album (still questioning at least 15 minutes of the 20 minute long ‘old dreams waiting to be realized’), it’s unforgiving, there’s no easily identifiable singles, or any melodies you can relax into, but the soundscape and overall vision created is fantastical and surrendering to its sweep is a majestic, if unsettling, experience. you’re not going to put this on for fun, it requires patience and a full listen, but it’s worth it.
#2 beyoncé – beyoncé
every time i listen to this album, i’m just astounded it is the work of someone so entrenched in mainstream popular culture. with its playful regard (or lack thereof) for pop tropes, you’ll often find yourself searching for the typical easily hummable melodies, or digestible lyrical phrases, or trite commentaries on society. instead you’re gifted with a really experimental, strange vision, full of unexpected production, joyfully surprising movement, and wonderful artistry. this album is so intimidatingly assured, beyoncé is not trying to please (but she will). every moment of the album feels like the work of someone who knew exactly what they wanted, without ever catering to anyone or losing sight of their intentions. at the same time, you never feel excluded from the music, it feels generous, vulnerable, and welcoming. add to this the companion concept of having a video for each song, this album allows us to witness the rarity of a pop artist taking full control of their creativity. i don’t know exactly how she managed that, but it would behoove any aspiring pop artists to follow her examples, because with beyoncé the art is still supreme, never relying on controversy or gimmickry to elevate its relevance.
#1 silence yourself – savages
this is just the most confident debut of any band i’ve ever heard. its sound encourages the listener to either embrace the band’s intentions and direction or to get out of the way and go fuck yourself, and this is a very good thing. the music is deeply skillful, while still being relentlessly rock and roll, with aggressive guitars, the kind of bass riffs you want to score your life, blisteringly accomplished percussion, and the kind of lead vocalist we’ve been yearning for without even necessarily realizing we were missing the kind of no nonsense directness Jehnny Beth spits at her audience. it’s not precious, or pretty, or fabricated, it all feels raw, very real, and so engaging. the album is perfectly replicated in savages’ live shows, where each of the band members really get to showcase their contribution: a well-formed and in sync unit, on a rock and roll rampage. as a side note, the non-album track ‘fuckers’ which surely features the mantra of the year ‘don’t let the fuckers get you down’ (truly words we can all apply to 2013, but can live by for all time) earns savages extra points just for finishing off their assault on idiocy by delivering a rock and roll kick to the metaphorical face of this sometimes bleakly incomprehensible world. best album of the year!