And here we are at the top 10. What a ride. Or something. This list will probably undergo some transformation before the end of the year, naturally, but it’s hard to say how radical that change will be. Especially the top 10, although I’m certain some of it will shift before we call it quits on 2013. And if you haven’t bought my book yet, you should do that before the end of 2013, too. Or, say, before the end of today. That would be nice too. HINT HINT: http://amzn.to/19HF1tc
#10: Baths – “Obsidian”
Cerulean was such an amazing debut that it was hard for me to imagine Will Wiesenfeld topping it. Yet, here we are, with the stellar sophomore album Obsidian. The terms are darker, this time around; the aching beauty is souring, turning in on itself, yet never once does it become a drag to listen to. It will leap out of your stereo and ask you to commiserate with it, and you will.
#09: FIDLAR – “FIDLAR”
Here we are, sweating through the summer of 2013, and to aid in this we have an album that breathes sweltering punk abandon, from the opening shots of “Cheap Beer” (I DRINK CHEAP BEER SO WHAT FUCK YOU) through each and every classic L.A. skater punk nugget. They win no points for originality, and they don’t need to: this is pure, raw rock ‘n’ roll, and if you need more than you should simply have another beer and repeat until you don’t care any more.
#08: Daft Punk – “Random Access Memories”
I heard “Get Lucky” on an Easy Rock format station the other day. That’s how ubiquitous this album is getting: your mom has heard it, your office secretary has heard it, the middle manager at your firm has heard it, all the kids in your class are blasting it from their bedroom windows. My neighbours are doing that, possibly right as we speak. It’s not the most pretentious or artsy funk album, but it’s certainly the most effective. Daft Punk Everywhere: that’s the Summer of 2013, folks. Now lose yourself to dance.
#07: Parquet Courts – “Light Up Gold”
Barely an album from 2013, but technicality is the soul of life, or something; regardless, the album counts (thank you mid-January re-release) and is top-to-bottom impressive. This is a album of poppy punk, but not pop-punk; it lacks the genre’s characteristically annoying adolescence and sk8r-boi mentality and substitutes smart melodic sense and a refreshingly full brevity. These songs will stick in your head and they will take up residence there.
#06: Foxygen – “We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace And Magic”
There are albums that are derivative and this is a bad thing; they wear their influences like riot shields, proclaiming that they’re just like Band X in an attempt to woo people who are looking for bands just like Band X. Then, there are bands like Foxygen. Foxygen is not original. One listen to “No Destruction” will tell you immediately that they are heavily indebted to the magic of the Psychedelic Sixties. At the same time, it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly which bands they’re ripping off at any one given time. Instead, it’s safest to say that they’re ripping off the entire decade at once: We Are is a distillation of every great moment the decade produced, solidified into one hell of an homage.
#05: Boards Of Canada – “Tomorrow’s Harvest”
There are a number of bands releasing albums in 2013 that haven’t released albums in quite some time. It may not have been as long an interval from The Campfire Headphase as, say, Loveless, but it’s safe to say that, of all the classic bands, few have or will approach the level of quality offered up by this Scottish duo. That Campfire alienated a lot of long-time fans is a matter of public record; to the group’s credit, Tomorrow’s Harvest sounds like it takes up where the much better Geogaddi left off back in 2002.
#04: The National – “Trouble Will Find Me”
The band’s sixth album finds them settling into a serious groove, where the style is their very own and it’s done to perfection. It continues on perfectly in an evolution of sound from Alligator onward, mellowing out slightly from High Violet but retaining the crushing sense of sad-eyed aplomb. It’s hard to name a better pop band operating today.
#03: Deafheaven – “Sunbather”
An immediately gripping set that combines the best parts of black metal with the best movements of post-rock and creates something that may not be entirely wholly new but is definitely the most cohesive statement of such music ever made. The bleak, winter-driven howls and blur-of-shoegaze guitars are there, but the suite-sets and crescendo-patterns are pure post-rock; the result is something that is not black metal, but can be considered to be truly post-black metal. Definitely a junction-point in the fringe of music, and an album that will be pored over and discussed for years to come.
#02: Kanye West – “Yeezus”
The most divisive album of the year: those who like it, like it a lot, and vice versa. The distorted synths and electro drums gained fans and enemies in equal measure. The fact, however, is this: even when it was obsessive online haters trying to dominate the conversation, it still meant that people were talking about Kanye and only Kanye. The man is likely the premier artist of our musical times, a juggernaut that is helping to bring hip hop into its artistic phase, much as the Beatles helped usher in the artsy phase of rock ‘n’ roll. The album is a winner, though, repetitive internet shitposters be damned; it is a brutal blend of swag rap, pummeling post-OFWGKTA production, and trap music, touched off with a classic Kanye soul sample in the end.
UH HUH HONEY 😉
#01: Deerhunter – “Monomania”
Deerhunter have been the most consistently impressive rock band in recent memory; Cryptograms, Microcastle, and Halcyon Days are all stone cold classics, utilizing devastating rhythms, obscure vocals, and a deliciously smoky sense of haze to craft the very definition of cutting-edge indie rock. Monomania finds them stripping away a lot of that haze; the idea this time out seems to be to craft a much more stripped-down, straight-ahead version of Deerhunter, and the results are nothing short of stupendous. It’s a leather-jacket album, touching on garage, freewheeling spirits, and a newfound love of the Grateful Dead. For longtime fans of the band, this can be somewhat off-putting at first, until that first rhythmic groove kicks in; from then on, you realize it’s Deerhunter, larger than life and fifty times tougher. Much like Microcastle, it’s become my go-to album: when all else fails, I reach for Monomania, because I’m always in the mood for it.
Silent Shout was a glittering example of how effecting pop could be forged out of Eurotrance cheese. Shaking The Habitual is an example of how to advance social justice through pure dark noise. Less a darkwave/pop album than it is a black ambient record, the Foucault-referencing, hyper-radical tracks found on here seem at times to eat light. The perfect soundtrack for when your radical gender studies study group starts to get druggy.
#19: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – “Push The Sky Away”
If Dig Lazarus Dig!!! was the raucous, garage-blasting record that rejuvenated the Bad Seeds, Push The Sky Away is the contemplative record that digs through the ashes of that barnburner and finds peace, serenity, and further reasons to remain unsettled. There is a core of strength at the heart of all of these songs that sustains the listeners for long after the last notes of the hymn-like title track fade out.
#18: Oblivians – “Desperation”
Sixteen years after their last record, the legendary Memphis garage punks have put out an album that sounds like a direct evolution of the point that they left off at. The band slashes along with more verve and energy than a thousand younger bands. It’s funny, though, in an existential way, that the band couldn’t drop this album until well after the death of super-fan Jay Reatard; it sounds pretty much like an album that late juggernaut would have recorded, had he matured slightly before killing himself with coke.
#17: Savages – “Silence Yourself”
The hot buzz band to watch for the year, Savages take a, uh, savage look at the modern rock scene and ask you to despair. They then cobble together a mix of post-punk, electro-pop, and krautrock and ask you to drink of it. When you complain, meekly, that it tastes bitter, they tell you that the taste is merely your own tears. And you weep again.
#16: Var – “No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers”
The Copenhagen band does pretty much everything I just said about Savages, but does it slightly better. Also, can I take a moment here to express my undying love for whomever designs the LP covers for Sacred Bones? The unity of design makes me want to die of sheer happiness.
#15: Thee Oh Sees – “Floating Coffin”
The veteran garage band rolls on, crafting an album that is at once heavier and more cohesive than anything that they’ve released before. Don’t be fooled, though: the San Fransisco band still throws out moments of sheer psychedelic bliss , a skill with which they have no equal today.
#14: Kurt Vile – “Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze”
Kurt Vile makes gorgeous, sprawled-out stoner pop seem absolutely effortless. Even when the tracks stretch to the nine minute mark (as on the opener, for example) they don’t lose their way; the maintenance of cohesion is nothing short of amazing.
#13: Grouper – “The Man Who Died In His Boat”
Liz Harris’ newest album is, at it’s heart, merely tracks that were recorded during the sessions for 2008’s Dragging A Dead Deer Up The Hill. The trick, however, is that the album never once sounds like a collection of cast-offs or b-sides; it is a strong, shimmering, beautiful collection all on its own.
#12: Pissed Jeans – “Honeys”
Honeys is a motherfucker of an album, in a way that their previous effort, King Of Jeans, came close to but never quite achieved. I first caught this band on a Sub Pop sampler in 2009, and Honeys fulfills the sheer weight of smashing ambition that leapt out of that disc and tried to strangle me. Not for the faint of heart, or for anyone who dislikes crushingly heavy hardcore riffs.
#11: Jon Hopkins – “Immunity”
My wife keeps asking me why I’m listening to house music. Like the terrible music snob I am, I have to tell her two things: first, it’s ambient electronic, and second, it’s jaw-dropping. Jon Hopkins has been kicking around for a while; he’s collaborated with Imogen Heap, hooked up with Brian Eno, co-produced Viva La Vida (Or Death And All His Friends), and most recently teamed up with Scottish singer-songwriter King Creosote for 2010’s diamond-in-the-rough Diamond Mine, which is where he first caught my attention. Immunity is possibly the best ambient album released in a decade, without hyperbole. I literally cannot stop listening to it. Someone help me. Please?
As we rapidly hurtle towards the mid-day of 2013, we reflect on the greatness of the music that has, so far, been presented to us. We marvel in the past, present, and future of hip hop, and we witness the return of a powerhouse legend. We head on over to http://www.amazon.com/Disappearance-ebook/dp/B00DL123N2/ where we buy a copy of my book, because it’s a fun post-apocalyptic romp. We bear witness to the enduring strength and resilience of rock ‘n’ roll. Let us bow our heads.
#30: Ghostface Killah – “Twelve Reasons To Die”
With a production very similar to executive producer RZA, and the familiar flow and bite of the veteran MC, Twelve Reasons To Die pays dirty homage to the sound of the Nineties while offering up one compelling track after another. A concept album involving an Italian mobster resurrected as the Ghostface Killah, it’s both utterly unsurprising and stridently riveting.
#29: The Men – “New Moon”
“Maturity” can be such a dirty word, but in the case of Brooklyn’s The Men, it fits like a well-worn work glove. On their fourth album they balance the booming punk rock energy with a more contemplative, Neil Young-esque sense of style, and the results take their sound to a very heartfelt level.
#28: Camera Obscura – “Desire Lines”
Their best album since Underachievers Please Try Harder, the Scottish indie pop band crafts a delicate, wistful album of gently affecting music to listen to on a quiet night with good coffee. Any situation, really, where you can appreciate Tracyanne Campbell’s deliberate style of sighing, wink-and-nudge humour and devastating lyrical observations.
#27: Beach Fossils – “Clash The Truth”
Laid-back stoner pop that walks a fine line between trying and not trying. It has much more punch and energy than most albums that come out sounding like this, likely due to the band’s background in hardcore punk.
#26: Youth Lagoon – “Wondrous Bughouse”
Dreamy psychedelic noise, like a dark LSD trip converted into an album. Gorgeous, even when it might be trying to kill you.
#25: My Bloody Valentine – “m b v”
After 22 years, it could have been another classically tragic exercise in “why bother?”. Instead, it proved to be worthy of the MBV legacy, cranking the heavier end of shoegaze into high gear and making those melody-obscuring vacuums sound even more massively dreamy than they ever had been before.
#24: Milo – “Things That Happen At Day/Things That Happen At Night”
The lord and master of sensitive nerd-rappers, Milo presents here a double EP that manages to art up hip hop for the internet age, reworking the genre through the filter of ambient production and deadpan rhymes. This is not party rap, in the best possible sense.
#23: A$AP Rocky – “Long. Live. A$AP”
The swag rap present of hip hop, A$AP oozes confidence over a series of next-level productions, including some of the best stuff Clams Casino has come out with to date.
#22: Mount Kimbie – “Cold Spring Fault Less Youth”
Remember when dubstep was a British invention revolving around dub and 2-step garage? Burial? How did we get from there to Skrillex, again? Joel Zimmerman, is this your fault? Anyway, Cold Spring Fault Less Youth finds the British group throwing out post-dubstep in favour of cross-genre pollination with pop and rock, making for an album that feels as innovative as it does familiar.
#21: Mikal Cronin – “MCII”
Oh, what a shock: raw, punk-inflected garage rock has, once again, saved rock ‘n’ roll from irrelevancy. Another generation has decided to go dig up the corpse. The sometime Ty Segall collaborator’s first album for Merge has some real crossover appeal (sort of) with a heavy emphasis on Seventies power pop studded in amongst all that squalling amped-up stomp.
Woah, here we are again, going from 40 to 31 for fun and profit (no profit). Again, a gentle reminder to check out my book located here for all of your post-apocalyptic Toronto fun.
#40: Bonobo – “The North Borders”
Bonobo’s 2010 album, Black Sands, was a godsend of minimalist ambient downtempo production, and while The North Borders doesn’t quite scale those lofty heights, it is still very, very good work. There’s a sense of flow and form here that can be often lacking in his contemporaries.
#39: Autechre – “Exai”
The British duo are up to eleven albums now and they never quite get easier. Exai further explores the realms of noise and dissonance within an electronic setting, and is probably their strongest work since the late 1990s.
#38: Waxahatchee – “Cerulean Salt”
Singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield’s second album, which ups the gambit on very personal songs and improves the quality. Humble weariness, mundane disappointment, and wavering fragility abound.
#37: Jello Biafra & The Guantanamo School Of Medicine – “White People And The Damage Done”
The punk legend blasts on with his new band and his new, post-Occupy sense of purpose. Slashing power chords and strident anger bring to mind the best of the Dead Kennedys, with shiny new production values.
#36: Cayucas – “Bigfoot”
A big blast of a summer album. Nothing original or innovative, but still great fun regardless.
#35: Ghostpoet – “Some Say I So I Say Light”
The man’s name is completely appropriate: this is ghostly ambient hip hop with a blurred urban eye for poetry. Something to contemplate through headphones in the dead of night.
#34: Dirty Beaches – “Drifters/Love Is The Devil”
Part lo-fi rave-up, part ambient noise experiment, all Canadian road warrior, Dirty Beaches brings that sweltering night rush to life. Equal parts dread and abandon.
#33: The Flaming Lips – “The Terror”
The experimental psychedelic rock band (the Pink Floyd of our times?) forges on with a spacey, dread-filled album obsessed with the central terror of existence: that, even without love, life muddles on, empty yet filled with its own hideous vitality. How many people thought, after picking up Transmissions From The Satellite Heart on the strength of “She Don’t Use Jelly”, that we would be here twenty years and a legendary career later?
#32: Pheonix – “Bankrupt!”
The French art-pop band returns with another solid collection of dancey radio-ready hits. Hard to deny, even if you’re not normally into this sort of thing. The band takes the synths, shoves them to the front, and crafts a gigantic stadium festival dance party.
#31: Chelsea Light Moving – “Chelsea Light Moving”
Post-breakup, Thurston Moore brings out the big guns, releasing an album of classic indie stomp with dollops of that signature Sonic Youth searing skronk. The legacy of a classic band is in good hands.
So here we are, at or near the halfway point of 2013, and there’s been a deluge of music so far (this is true of every year of course, but I digress…); I humbly present to you my favourite 50 of the year, in chunks. I haven’t been this into a year, musically speaking, since 2010, and in many ways it’s felt like a do-over of that storied year: big releases from Yeezy, Deerhunter, Bonobo, Thee Oh Sees, The National, Baths, a full-album cover from the Flaming Lips, and a new Arcade Fire album lined up for September 9th. Let’s get this started. Do me a favour, though, and check out m’book, Disappearance, on Amazon – it’s good stuff, I promise, especially if you’re into post-apocalyptic fiction or you live in Toronto. Leave a review, if you do.
#50: Still Corners – “Strange Pleasures”
As solid as dream pop gets, Strange Pleasures floats above the haze on a bed of synths, reverb, and sleepy melodies. Each listen brings new pleasures to the forefront. Cinematic driving music for muggy summer nights.
#49: Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats – “Mind Control”
Occult hard rock with more than a whiff of the Seventies about them, Uncle Acid stand head and shoulders above their hard rock contemporaries, utilizing groove and tone with heady results. Perfect listening for the precious kids who think they were born in the wrong generation.
#48: John Grant – “Pale Green Ghosts”
The former singer for the Czars delivers a smart, sassy synth-pop album with a great sense of humour and a writer’s eye for lovingly detailed lines. Like a bouncier version of 69 Love Songs, it’ll appeal to the drunk English major inside of you.
#47: Vampire Weekend – “Modern Vampires Of The City”
How was it? It was okay. There’s a great big gaping mushy middle on this record that makes me wonder, but there’s also a some stellar tracks at the beginning and end that almost make up for it. “Steps” and “Ya Hey” are both great summer tracks, and “Diane Young” grows on you after a while. “Everlasting Arms” is still absolute crap, though.
#46: Unknown Mortal Orchestra – “II”
A funky little album that is perfect for those moments where you need some background sounds to motivate you. The sound is lo-fi, but the psychedelic adventures stride well beyond that.
#45: Pantha Du Prince & The Bell Laboratory – “Elements of Light”
I swear, the whole album reminds me of the song that plays throughout the first two Fallout games, the creepy bell-driven tracks that I first noticed when wandering through the ruins of Los Angeles. Proof that bells can make exciting art, thousands of years after their creation.
#44: California X – “California X”
Hard-edged, 90’s indie-influenced rock n’ roll that hits like a punch to the gut. They’re from the same town as Dinosaur, Jr, and they sound a hell of a lot like Dinosaur, Jr (although less than, say, Yuck), and it could be a hell of a lot worse, let me tell you. California X tends to go in a more Miles Davis direction than the blizzard-of-Coltrane that J. Mascis works in, leading to a much more Neil Young-esque style of furious, dirty guitar work.
#43: Akron/Family – “Sub Verses”
Noisy, difficult experimental rock with pop sensibilities: it’s a strange brew, and with seven albums under their belt, one the band is intimately familiar with. Exciting and restless, like a druggy night in a big city you don’t really know that well.
#42: Low – “The Invisible Way”
The pioneering slowcore band keeps on their path of lush, luscious rock hymns, providing another set of bedtime melodies for the ages. The tempos actually pick up a little here, too, although this is, of course, relative.
#41: The Haxan Cloak – “Excavation”
Creepy, noisy drone, like crawling dread brought to aural form. I made the mistake of listening to this while playing Minecraft, deep in the bowels of the earth, and I have not been back to the game since.
Before achieving a critically lauded pinnacle with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the consensus pick for #1 album of 2010, there was a little game-changer called 808s And Heartbreak. When Kanye put it out, it was shockingly different from anything he’d done previous to that. He’d spent his first three albums gaining solid wall-to-wall success as a purveyor of soulful, masterfully produced hip hop that opened a new lyrical avenue for the game as it was presented on radio. As he stated on “All Falls Down”, he wasn’t the first to be insecure, he was just the first to admit it. 808s took this even further: it was a depressed, minimalist album full of pain masked by AutoTune, more post-punk than hip hop. People were unsure what to make of it at the time, but the resulting success of people like Kid Cudi, Drake, Bruno Mars, and emo poster-child Tyler, the Creator showed that it was an album that was definitely ahead of its time. For my money, it’s one of the 100 best albums recorded in the last 30 years, but it’s a starkly divisive album: those that hate it, hate it a lot.
Enter Yeezus. Hot on the heels of his career pinnacle, it harkens back primarily to 808s, in that it is sharply different from anything he’s done before (except, of course, for that album), it sharply divides listeners into lovers and haters, and it completely changes the game.
Or does it? Much of the derision in certain circles revolves around the fact that some believe it to be very reminiscent of the art-damaged noise-rap group Death Grips, who blew up on the internet over the past two years and have become cult favourites to some. The term “Death Grips dickriders” is thrown around a lot, although the evidence that it is just “lukewarm milky DG” is scant, to say the least. Before Yeezus dropped, Kanye was throwing hints around in interviews that he was influenced by Chicago’s acid house scene during the writing process, and from the beginning this hint seems to bear fruit: the Daft Punk-produced opener, “On Sight”, is an unholy marriage of hot house synths and West’s usual mixture of blunt anger and tongue-in-cheek jokes. Elsewhere he picks up an affinity for trap music, especially on the TNGHT-sampling “Blood On The Leaves”, a hot track made all the hotter by a controversial sample from American lynching lament “Strange Fruit”. The most that could be said is that both Kanye and Death Grips crib from the same sheet: “Black Skinhead” features a beat straight out of Trent Reznor’s old playbook (Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People”, to be exact).
The album’s biggest surprise, however, is the closer, “Bound 2”, a soul-sampling track that harkens directly back to Kanye’s College Trilogy. After spending an album pummeling the listener with industrial beats, acid house samples, trap music, and general abrasiveness, for him to end it on such a nostalgic note is the sort of sudden about-face that the album as a whole represents.
Where the man will go from here is anyone’s guess (although my guess is Watch The Throne 2 after big bro Jay-Z gets around to dropping Magna Carta Holy Grail) but it’s a sure bet that it won’t be a retread of anything he’s already done. Kanye today is less an entertainment figure than he is a force of nature, and like the weather, you can only make predictions, you can never tell for sure. It’s enough that Yeezus is one of the best albums released in 2013, haters be damned.
There were a few years recently where Ghostface seemed to be going through an existential crisis of sorts. Fishscale made him into a critical darling all over again, while The Big Doe Rehab found him treading water, hoping to trade that acclaim in for some crossover appeal (especially on the wings of Fishscale‘s great single, the Ne-Yo backed “Back Like That”). When that failed to materialize, he groused publicly in interviews about people not buying his albums and his reticence at doing hip hop for much longer. This period ended with his decent attempt at a sexed-up R&B album, 2009’s Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry. His work since then (Apollo Kids, Wu-Massacre, and now 12 Reasons To Die) seem to harken back to his golden age, when gritty hip hop production was king, and Ghost was the undisputed master of detail-rich mafioso rap with a sense of humour. That is to say, Ghost seems to have rediscovered his edge. 12 Reasons is by no means an innovative album (Adrian Younge is the producer here, but RZA is the “executive producer” and guess who it ultimately sounds like), but it is an album that remains sharply on point. The concept is entertaining as well; based on a comic book, it features a 1960s Italian mafia man named Tony Starks who is murdered and comes back as Ghostface Killah, a revenant hell-bent on vengeance. If that sounds familiar it should; it’s familiarity is one of its strong suits. In a world that seems to demand constant change, it’s nice to know that Ghostface will always be there, with a blackly hilarious gangland tale to spin.
We’ve been living through an Eighties-indebted synth pop revival for, what, nearly five years now? There’s a lot of music from that wild, coked-up, experimental decade to mine for inspiration, but for some bands the inspiration is beginning to stretch a bit thin. Case in point, Young Galaxy: here we have a band with a great vocalist and a good sense of that gently exploratory, somewhat numb vibe, but they ultimately can’t think of anything new to do with it. Ultramarine goes over the same pop-structure safety that countless other bands have already done, with nothing new to add into the mix. So why bother? It’s nice enough if you’re in a synth pop mood and want to make your playlist as big as possible, or if you’re putting together a hip chillwave night, but otherwise there’s very little to recommend itself here. Ultimately ho-hum stuff.
So, as it turns out, Hendrik Weber loves the bell. He used the instrument to great effect in places on his 2010 minimalist techno masterpiece Black Noise, and cranked that up a notch with a live set in 2011 that collaborated with other bell players to make a sort of intensely bell-focused minimalist suite. Elements Of Light is the studio attempt to recreate that set, and while it succeeds in making the bell exciting for longer than I suspected that it could be, it still ends up dragging by the end. There is only so much you can do with the instrument, after all, and in a minimalist setting there are only so many paths that you can take with it. Still, it reminds me strongly of the creepiest moments of the Fallout 1 & 2 soundtrack (reprised in New Vegas, of course), which only adds points on my end. Good stuff but not everyday listening.