Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top 10 Albums of 2013 (and a bunch of other stuff)

Last year at this time I wanted to write about how the process, the experience of music has changed. I did, along with my top ten of 2012... but the next day I decided everything I wrote was too influenced by drunken-ness (I published at 2:30 am, if I remember) so I ditched the whole thing.

I am going to salvage the opening because it still rings true. 

The way we listen to music has changed drastically since I started seriously listening to it over 15 years ago. Not to go all old-man on you, but back in those heady days of 1996, the only feasible way to listen to music aside from radio was to buy it on compact disc. If the album was one good single and mostly filler, it went on the shelf. But because that album cost me $15, it more than likely went back in the CD player at some point in a desperate search to find some deep cuts to justify my purchase.

Sometimes it worked (Adore by the Smashing Pumpkins, for instance), sometimes it didn’t. Either way, it sounds a lot like the Brewers trying to get a few more games out of a well past his prime Jeff Suppan -- a stubborn refusal to admit defeat. But it did force us (or at least me) to give albums that weren’t instantly ear-catchers a chance.

The 1999-2000 is where music listening changed forever for neither the first nor the last time. Napster debuted and brought mp3 downloading out from the Internet’s seedy underbelly into the mainstream. It was nice to download whatever you wanted whenever you wanted at no cost (except to the artists, their labels, etc.) but single songs were still king. Whether it was lackluster download speeds or bad CD rips or both, albums were still hard to come by.

One might think iTunes changed all that, but not so much. The 99-cents per song model still ensured you could download the cream of the crop, filler be damned.

Of course, as the Internet is wont to do, it made iTunes and the like moot with the emergence of BitTorrent. Coupled with the explosion of mainstream broadband internet and cheap storage, whole album downloading became a thing. Finding new music was never easier.

Or was it?

Streaming music came on the scene first with Rhapsody, then evolved into the “freemium” service Spotify. For the first time, legally, pretty much any album you ever wanted to hear is at your fingertips. No searching for the torrent with the most seeds. No worrying about the RIAA. No effort required.

Which brings me to my long-winded point.

There is no shortage of good music. It’s easier to find it than at any point in history. But it is also the most disposable it has ever been.

If I punch up an album on Spotify, as I did with many releases this year, and it doesn’t immediately grab me, I can just let it go, never to be heard again. It doesn’t exist on a shelf nor on my hard drive. Music is just out there in the ether now. And I found it quite difficult to find ten albums that really grabbed me, that really made me want to listen again and again. And it’s not because music is shitty. It’s because I don’t have to.

I’m a believer in too much of a good thing -- and in the case of determining the best albums of a given year, I think Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, and the like make it very difficult to do so.

(The only thing different is that this year yielded more albums worth talking about. I don't know if it was because it was a better year in music, or if I just got over the inherent disposability of music in out modern age.)

Without boring you any further: the best music of 2013.

Three female country artists and albums that need to be highlighted: Caitlin Rose (The Stand-in), Ashley Monroe (Like A Rose), and Kacey Musgraves (Same Trailer, Different Park)

Caitlin Rose's album was probably the most musically adventurous (which admittedly isn't saying much), Ashley Monroe might be the most rambunctious (“Weed Instead of Roses”) and Kacey Musgraves showed that modern country ladies can be insightful and even sexually tolerant (“Follow Your Arrow”). They all go against the stereotype of current country music being nothing more than pop music with twang. They all have something to say and all are worth your time if you enjoy such things.

These three ladies may not be forever remembered like known-on-a-first-name basis luminaries Patsy, Loretta, or Dolly, but they sure make suitable 21st century stand-ins for the real thing.

Pithy statements about singles I loved:

Phosphorescent – "Song for Zula" – Really fucking pretty and heartbreaking

Paul McCartney – "New" – He's still got it, as if you doubted him (and if you did, fuck you)

Kanye West – "Black Skinhead" – Kanye's a shithead, but his music is interesting.

Haim – "Days Are Gone" – Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and three Urban Outfitters-looking babes sisters? I'm in. (this one might be my #2 single of the year)

10. Night Birds – Born to Die in Suburbia

Befitting of an album only half an hour in length, I will not offer many words. It's 80's-influenced punk that's not too snotty and not too political. But it does its lyrical themes do include life the suburbs (duh), religion (“New Cults”) and, somewhat perfectly, Mick Foley (“Maimed for the Masses”). After discovering it – thanks AV Club! – I couldn't stop listening to it for days.

Standout track: "Maimed for the Masses"

09. Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks

Don't call it a comeback, because Trent Reznor has mostly taken many years between albums anyways. But Hesitation Marks is the first NIN album in six years, and it is, well, distinctly Trent Reznor. He's always known his way around a hook, and I don't think this record is any different but if you're looking for the searing guitars of Broken or the utter despair of The Downward Spiral you might want to look elsewhere.

But you'd be missing out on an album that yes, doesn't blow you away with noise... it burbles under the surface. It twitches its way into your head. The first half of the album's name is apt; it's not one you listen to for instant gratification. That said, singles “Copy of A” and “Came Back Haunted” are fine entries into the NIN canon.

Standout track: "Copy of A"

08. Arcade Fire – Reflektor

I won't beat around the bush; the marketing behind this album was fucking stupid. That preceding sentence shouldn't matter at all, of course, but it was the sort of thing that made me hate being an Arcade Fire fan. It's not like they weren't pretentious enough, then they went and pulled this shit. (link to dress code)

Then I heard the album. I didn't like it.

But I spent more time with it and it revealed itself to me. Like all double studio albums, Reflektor is messy and sprawling and whatever other adjectives you want to throw at it. (Personally I like the second disc better; its songs seem more realized). But what's more important is that Arcade Fire still has something to say, whether it's about This Modern Life (title track), death (standout “Afterlife”), or sex (“Porno”). Much like Hesitation Marks, it's not a record that you'll fall in love with upon first listen, but it's quite rewarding if you give it a few chances.

Standout track: "Afterlife"

07. Milk Carton Kids – The Ash & Clay

If you haven't been paying attention to popular music, you wouldn't know that folk music is pretty big. You've got The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers and on and on and on.

Milk Carton Kids do it up right with intricate guitar work and achingly beautiful harmonies. (not hurting them is the fact that vocally, they sound like vintage Simon and Garfunkel) The title track is one of my most listened to songs of the year.

It's somewhat odd that I don't have much more to say about an album I like so much. It's the type of record that works well when you want something pleasant in the background, but won't fail you when you want to sink into your headphones.

Standout track: "The Ash & Clay"

06. Black Sabbath – 13

I liked 13 when I first heard it, but I did have some minor quibbles. Ozzy sounded actually dead instead of ethereal as he did on Sabbath't best work; The riffs, though awesome, seemed recycled; and Brad Wilk is no Bill Ward.

But I listened to the album more and more, and appreciated it for what it was: masters of their chosen genre showing everyone how it's done. 13 seemed like it stole some pages from Load-era Metallica's book, but the more I think about it, 70's-era Black Sabbath always had a groove (or at least an audible bass line) to it – so if you want to hate on late-period Metallica, hate on Black Sabbath because from the beginning they proved that metal could be both punishing and catchy. (I would say almost danceable, but I don't want to be crucified)

13 might not be anything new, but it's everything that Sabbath ever was: Tony Iommi's encycopedia of riffs (again, yes, not all original), Ozzy's distinctive vocals (yeah, I know I shit on them before), even a moody, acoustic tune. For a swan song, a capstone on a fantastic career, and, yes, music for young people made by 60+ year-old men, you can't ask for much more, can you?

Standout track: "Damaged Soul"

05. Volcano Choir – Repave

I have about as much to say about an album at #5 on my list as you might expect. I love all of Justin Vernon's work as Bon Iver; his first collaboration with Collections of Colonies of Bees as Volcano Choir less so.

But Repave is something different. It is less weird and experimental and more concerned with making great, enjoyable songs. It is joyous folk rock. You might not believe this, but Vernon's lyrics actually kind of sort of make sense this time around! If you're not a fan of Bon Iver, this record won't change your mind. I can admit that. But if you're on the fence and want something that is pretty and accessible yet not totally radio-friendly, Repave will fill that void.

Standout Track: "Acetate"

04. Eminem – Marshall Mathers LP2

First things first: If you've never cared for Eminem, MMLP2 is not going to change your mind. The beats are mostly the same, save for the EDM-inspired album centerpiece “Rap God,” and the lyrics are full of misogny, homophobia, celebrity takedowns, and shock-jock posturing. It is also overstuffed at 78 minutes and could easily lose at least a few songs. (“The Monster,” “Stronger Than I Was,” and “So Much Better,” I'm looking at you.)

But the remaining 13 songs... – not counting the pointless “Parking Lot” skit – goddamn. MMLP2 is Eminem's most fun album in years. His lyrical acrobatics are on full display, but also his cleverness conceptually speaking. The 7-plus minute opening opus “Bad Guy” is from the point of view of Stan's – yes, that Stan – little brother. Typing it out, it doesn't seem all that clever... but give it a listen and find out for yourself.

Not that Eminem was trying to, but he managed to endear himself to me by sampling several classic rock songs – Billy Squier's “The Stroke” (“Berzerk”), The Zombies' “Time of the Season” (“Rhyme or Reason”), Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders' “Game of Love” (“Love Game,” which features hotshot next big thing Kendrick Lamar), and, finally, Joe Walsh's “Life's Been Good” on my favorite track “So Far...” Not only that, but there are plenty of callbacks to the original Marshall Mathers LP.

MMLP2 isn't really anything different, but it has all the elements that made Eminem great to begin with. 

Standout Track: "So Far"

03. Lorde – Pure Heroine

Don't you think that it's boring how people talk” is how Lorde's debut album begins. Hell of an opening line if you ask me, considering Lorde – a.k.a. Ella Yelich-O'Connor – is a 17-year old girl. The chilly, minimalist instrumentation and hip-hop-inspired beats set the mood and tone for Lorde's worldview, which seems to be wise beyond her years. She rejects hip-hop and celebrity – and really, consumerist – culture on smash hit “Royals,” is scared of getting old on “Ribs” and deals with her impending fame in a level-headed way on “Still Sane.” All of these songs are sung in a sultry, breathy, – and yes – even sexy voice. (Yeah, I'll have a seat over there.) More intriguing than this debut LP is... what comes next? As she grows both musically and personally, it looks as though the sky's the limit for Lorde.

Standout Track: "A World Alone"

02. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

I never cared all that much for Daft Punk. I remember when “Around the World” came out in '97 and thinking “what the fuck is this?” “One More Time” was a decent single, but I never bothered with the album it was from. Daft Punk could have dropped off the face of the earth, and I wouldn't have noticed.

Then the insane marketing campaign happened and I heard “Get Lucky” and I had to see what all the fuss was about. I was glad I did.

Daft Punk created an analog album for a digital age. Instead of following the trends and creating an album on iPad, they looked back at their influences and made a disc both retro and modern.

It's full of different sounds, from the disco-funk of “Get Lucky” and “Lose Yourself to Dance” to the yacht rock of “Fragments of Time” to the crazy fun house mirror atmosphere of “Touch” (which stars Paul Williams of “Rainbow Connection” fame).

But even with the guest stars – and there are many – Random Access Memories still manages to sound like something Daft Punk would create. Certainly it looks back to the 1970's as it was an album produced at great cost, and if you're the dismissive sort you could just call it a disco album and leave it at that. But that would be doing the 70+ minutes of RAM a disservice. It is a surprisingly human album from a couple of guys in robot helmets. I am glad, just this once, that I followed the hype.

Standout Track: "Touch"

01. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

If the first three Vampire Weekend records are considered as a trilogy – and lead singer Ezra Koenig considers it as such – than (this is Koenig speaking again, and I agree) Modern Vampires of the City is the afterparty. This is where some serious shit goes down. (or at least is talked about)

Vampires is worldly – check the Jamaican percussion on opener “Obvious Bicycle” (and damn me for not being able to find the review that clued me into this fact) – without being precious. Koenig still wears his education on his sleeve – I've never heard the phrase “richer than Croesus” before, but then again I went to a public high school and a state university, so maybe I'm just dumb) – but they seem more informed by actually living life itself than by academia.

And that's what Modern Vampires of the City is about: life. It talks about God and faith or lack thereof (“Ya Hey” and “Unbelievers”) and relationships (“Hannah Hunt”), and mortality (“Diane Young”) with all the wisdom of a, well, late-twenty-early-thirtysomething, which is exactly what I am. Koenig has seen enough to be cynical but not enough to be completely hopeless.

And then there's “Step,” my song of the year. There's one line in it, “Wisdom's a gift, but you'd trade it for youth” that made my year. Why? Because we're supposed to grow older and wiser with every passing year and like it, but with few exceptions I disagree with that.

In my younger days I'd much more appreciate music that hits me in the gut. Modern Vampires is an album that hits me in the heart and in the head (much like Arcade Fire's The Suburbs before it) and that's why it's my album of the year.

Standout Track: "Step"

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