Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The 10 Best Albums of 2013

This is one of my favorite posts to write all year, because who doesn't love to write about things they love? It's a very indulgent blog post, saying at least as much about me as it does the artists I have picked. It's a snapshot of what moved me this year (though I try to provide some second opinions to prove I'm not nuts), rather than some definitive word. Hell, I still haven't listed to Lorde's album, which is apparently New Zealand's new gift to the world.

So, what I'm saying: feel free to tell me ones I missed. Share what you loved. Go read other "Best of" lists out there. Amazing to see how American Songwriter handles things compared to Rolling Stone, for instance.

If you walk away from a list like this with a new artist to check out, then you win. So enjoy!

Onto the list...

This year was awesome! Seems like there is an ebb and flow to music and this year was definitely on.

Honorable Mentions
And this doesn't even include albums by Deerhunter and The Neighbourhood that were real good...

The National - Trouble Will Find Me - A classic case of "It's not you, it's me." This is amazing music, albeit on the sadder side of things (Who else could sing "When I walk into a room, I do not light it up?"). I'm not always up for music this down. My moods aside, this is a great album and worth your time.

Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks - At this point, the fun part for Trent Reznor must be that everything he was doing 20 years ago is still pretty cool and still sounds good in today's mix. Much like Portishead sounded still-fresh a couple years ago, this album fits right in now.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Mosquito - I just looked it up... this album is 47 minutes long? Sure didn't feel it. Sacrilege is going to be what people remember, but leave it to the YYYs to remind me Dr. Octagon is still alive.

Soundtrack - The Great Gatsby - Tarantino and Luhrmann get soundtracks. Luhrmann's just go with of-the-moment acts. Beyonce and Andre 3000 doing "Back to Black" is ridiculously good, but fits right into a soundtrack that runs more like an album that a set of songs meant to go with pictures.

Alight, here we go...

10) Pearl Jam - Lightning Bolt
Second Opinion: Entertainment Weekly

There's a dearth of bands playing straight up rock these days and fewer yet doing it well (more of this up the list, too). At first listen, I was concerned this was going to be a vehicle simply for Pearl Jam to tour behind, after all, previous disc Backspacer isn't going to top a lot of best-of lists, including the list of best Pearl Jam albums. Lightning Bolt, upon more and more listens, keeps unfolding itself with new moments to enjoy. "Sirens" is sure to be part of the concert catalog for as long as the band is together. "Infallible" manages to be a pretty catchy pop tune when all is said and done. "Pendulum" is a tremendous song that I didn't think Pearl Jam did anymore: sparse, tension-filled and arresting. The shredder that "My Father's Son" is was initially too jarring for me, but then, I don't know, it just clicked. So why is this #10? Because in the year 2013, I was able to slam out a paragraph about a Pearl Jam album and why it was good and relevant. More creative music was out there this year, but when the rock band of your generation is still punching the clock and making music worth talking about, it demands your notice.

9) Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
Second Opinion: American Songwriter

Rolling Stone thinks it's album of the year, which, well... it's not one of the worst. Give Vampire Weekend some credit for losing some of the pretension. This is music for the proletariat, or at least as close as we figure to get from this outfit. Much has been said about this being the "grown up" album from VW, but I say you can't argue with the songs. "Unbelievers" is as straightforward a song as you can imagine, as much as "Step," the following track, is pretty. The track that gets all the critical attention, "Hannah Hunt," deserves it, to the point that the album suffers slightly. As good as the remaining songs are, it feels like denouement after "Hannah." It's a compliment to the band that what follows that track is strong enough to keep the listener going.

8) Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
Second opinion: Pretty Much Amazing

The album of the summer and certainly the winner of best promo campaign this year, Random Access Memories hit some major high points. From the opening chords, this was music designed to get you moving. I'm pretty sure my car moved faster when "Giorgio by Moroder" came on. On "Lose Yourself to Dance," Pharrell asked me to lose myself to dance and, to quote my friend Trent, "I have and you must!" If you did a shot every time you heard "Get Lucky" this summer, you're probably still drunk. Or dead and reading this from beyond (tell my grandpa "hi!"). Still, I think there are a handful of flaws that we glossed over (or, at least didn't hit my ears the way they did others). As much as "Instant Crush" comes to life in the hands of Julian Casablancas, I thought "Touch" was little more than the year's best show tune without a show. You can tell a lot about when you pay attention to where you hit the skip button on your digital music player of choice. Overall, that didn't happen much on this album, though.

7) Washed Out - Paracosm
Second Opinion: Drowned in Sound

I want Ernest Greene to do the soundtrack to my life when I'm not at work. Because it would be fucking beautiful. From the guitar that really gets the album moving on "It All Feels Right," the album paints picture after picture. Greene's voice is almost an instrument here, as much as a lyric delivery device. Good music should be able to transport you and Paracosm certainly does that. "Great Escape" is just that, evoking some faraway-place fantasy in my head every time I hear it. I defy you to find a more exuberant song from this year than "All I Know," which has me making up words to parts of the song that I can't figure out the lyrics simply because I can't help myself but to sing when I hear it. I don't know how many more tricks Washed Out has in its repertoire, but sometimes, I'm not sure they need anything new.

6) Kopecky Family Band - Kids Raising Kids
Second Opinion: American Songwriter

A band that is not afraid to make a lot of noise - and oh how the noise sounds. Smart pop/rock with a twinge of that seasoning you get when you're a Nashville-based band, Kids Raising Kids is full of moments that explode through your headphones. Most come from the interplay of Kelsey Kopecky and Gabe Simon. Boy-girl harmony can win you a lot of points on this blog and these two do it right. They also play their tails off (something they do live, too, if you see their name in your local concert listings). They also play the loud/soft game better than just about anyone right now and it's showcased on "My Way" like crazy. Go download that song. I'll wait... ... ... SEE? I know! "Are You Listening" has been getting some deserved love from Starbucks with in-store play. "She is the One" is a grinder that sticks in your head all day, once again because of the Kopecky-Simon harmonies. Plus, someone's up to no good in that song and... who's not up for that?

5) The Arcade Fire - Reflektor
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

Must be fun to be a band that has never made a bad album. After hitting such heights on The Suburbs a couple years ago, the band is back with... I guess it's a double album. If there's a complaint to be had, that's where it is. We run a wee bit long here, though, this is a sin that can be forgiven since there really isn't any filler here (save for the reprise of "Here Comes the Night Time.") That said, in the era of streaming and the download, do we really need the long pause between the two parts of the album, complete with audio cassette style beep signals? So, yes, it is a damn good thing that songs like "We Exist" are just ridiculously good. In a band that can make so much sound, Arcade Fire does a great job making every little part of the whole matter. On "We Exist," it's the little guitar line in the chorus, just driving things forward with simple little chords. "Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)" propels us fully into the second part of the album, where standout track "Afterlife" is getting all the press, but let's back up and hear it for the first go of "Here Comes the Night Time," which shows off everything this band does so well, from simple to complex, loud to soft and hitting you with the unexpected... until you know the song and then you're excited for the part that used to be unexpected. Arcade Fire wants you to work for it a bit, but after a few listens, the payoff is tremendous.

4) Matthew Good - Arrows of Desire
Second Opinion: Open Til Midnight

I've gone on at length about Matthew Good to friends before. The bottom line is that it's criminal that the vast majority of Americans have no idea who he is. One can only imagine if Vancouver-based Matthew Good Band had put out Underdogs in today's digital music world, where a few clicks can bring you the hottest band from any country in the world. If you missed out on those early albums, this might be your entry into the catalog. Where previous release Lights of Endangered Species was Good's most experimental album sonically, here Good instead gets right into anthem rock that from the first chords of the opening title track. And what an effort it is. Making straightfoward rock sound fresh and exciting, every tracks connects. Always-political Good gets in his smacks, particularly in "Guns of Carolina" but it's rarely hit-you-with-a-sledge-hammer stuff. "Garden of Knives" is quite possibly the best rock song of the year. Good also never slacks on his closing tracks and "Letters in Wartime" is one of his best album send offs in his collection. Good has been making amazing things happen on his records for more than 20 years and I hope he's got another 20 in him.

3) Tegan & Sara - Heartthrob
Second Opinion: Drowned in Sound

Quite possibly the most perfect pop album you'll ever hear. Danceable and so loaded with hooks I just got "Goodbye, Goodbye" stuck in my head by just thinking about the song's chorus, Heartthrob could get by with inane lyrics. The Quin sisters do not do inane lyrics, though, which makes it all the better. We had pop stars making a spectacle of themselves this year and putting on whatever persona they needed for the moment. Tegan & Sara run laps around them just by being so damned genuine. This nearly-flawless album manages to spend 10 songs balancing the pain and hurt that come from a variety of relationships with melodies that make you think songs should be about sunshine. On "Now I'm All Messed Up," they go at this even more directly, with our song's protagonist yelling at her partner to "Go!" and "Please stay!" at the same time. What's being said? What's being said in her head? Who hasn't been there? And when I was there, why didn't it sound so amazing? "Closer" captures that early-relationship tension and excitement perfectly. Pop with a brain is always something to enjoy. That this album came out in a year when same-sex marriage seemed to finally turn the corner in the minds of a majority of Americans is more coincidence than anything - T&S have never hidden from their sexuality on their albums. But, let's do stop and realize that in 2013, an album chock full of songs with singers singing rather openly about same-sex relationships hit #3 on the Billboard album chart and was widely acclaimed for all the right reasons (the music).

2) Chvrches - The Bones of What You Believe
Second Opinion: AV Club

The year's best debut album is very nearly the year's best album. Internet hype means so little. Delivering on it does. A few good songs show promise. An album so well-done, so well-thought-out shows there's more at work. Down to the V in their name (to make Googling them easier), everything Chvrches does seems to be well planned and considered... and they make it all look effortless. "The Mother We Share" guarantees the album is going to start off well. What's crazy is how they follow it up. First up, it's "We Sink," an absolutely infectious track with an unforgettable chorus ("I'll be a thorn in your side, 'til you die...") about a pretty dark topic. And then it's "Gun." And surely it's going to slide down from there... nope, "Tether" just kills, closing with a movement that one critic noted M83 would be in awe of and... THINK ABOUT that last phrase! It keeps rolling. I could go track by track, but things don't ever get down until "Science/Visions" and you're almost 30 bloody minutes in. Singer Lauren Mayberry (who, judging by YouTube sounds just as good live) doesn't bury her voice under effects, instead letting it be one of the primary instruments of the band, a natural sound surrounded by endless electronic chords, beats and tweaks (how do two guys make that much sound?). Surrounding it all is a real feeling that maybe it IS this easy for Chvrches. As good as the songs are, as good as the album is, as smart and savvy as they all seem to be... what if...? That's what pushes this album so high: combining an out-of-the-box amazing album with a potential that's bigger than any hype could promise. These guys are just getting started.

1) Kanye West - Yeezus
Second opinion: Pitchfork

I bet you don't like Kanye West and I bet it has nothing to do with his music. I hope you're a sports fan who only cheers for the athletes that meet your standards for conduct, too (unlikely). Because if you are ignoring this music because he said something stupid in an interview, you are keeping yourself from hearing things that... just transcend genres. That the album has been called "Industrial Rap" should be enough to prove that. Many years ago, Trent Reznor gave an interview where he talked about trying to incorporate elements from hip-hop into his music. Kanye has moments on here that, take the lyrics away and you've basically got a Nine Inch Nails song. That alone provides a fresh sound, which is also notable. This is a guy that could go through the motions for an album, have some hit singles and go to town. Instead, as he raps on "I Am a God," "As soon as they like you, make 'em unlike you." Kanye has challenged himself to make a different record, and has challenged you to go along with it. Unapologetically sexually graphic at times, Kanye leaves everything he has on the floor when he's done here. After shocking you into the album with tweaks and a Marilyn Manson sample with "On Sight" and "Black Skinhead," things really get down to business. "I Am a God" and "New Slaves" make up the best eight minutes of music of the year on an album that rises above the pack. A dark, grimy opening welcomes us to "I Am a God," featuring a sample of Capleton's "Forward Inna Dem Clothes" and gets moving quickly from there. Kanye is boasting, but he makes being a god sound like a stressful job, punctuating it all with screams. Segue into "New Slaves" where Kanye lashes out at the very stereotypes he knows he helps support through his consumerism (man is conflicted) before telling us all to go look up the CCA and get pissed off about that. It all wraps with a Frank Ocean outro that just about knocks you over. I could barely talk the first few times I got through all that and that's just two songs. I could only listen over and over. "Guilt Trip" finds Kanye looking inward and "Blood on the Leaves" describes a breakup in such an emotional manner that you can forgive the excesses of "I'm in It," and even that song is so well crafted as to force you to listen to it all even though it's probably the only skip-worthy track here. Like I said, you may not like Kanye. I've seen people rail against him,  "how dare he call himself a god?" - and then turn around and call Jay-Z "Hova" without realizing they just contradicted their own point. Get over it and listen. Because amazing things are happening.

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