A little late but always on time, Anyways, Enjoy presents its 10 favorite albums from 2013. But first, a preamble for some quick shoutouts.
First, a roll call of the albums I have yet to give a proper listen, but who I presume would have deserved a mention somewhere on this list had I followed through:
- Jason Isbell – Southeastern
- White Denim – Corsicana Lemonade
- Thundercat – Apocalypse
- Futurebirds – Baba Yaga
- Deafheaven – Sunbather
Second, some honorable mentions without comment or explanation, albums I enjoyed immensely (or at least more than most) but for whatever reason didn’t sneak into the top 10:
- Speedy Ortiz – Major Arcana
- Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt
- Matthew E. White – Outer Face
- Charles Bradley – Victim of Love
- Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
- Portugal. The Man – Evil Friends
- Yo La Tengo – Fade
- Canary Oh Canary – Sleep
And now the top 10 favorite albums of 2013:
After Cage the Elephant’s first album, it was easy to imagine the future for this band. This straight ahead bluesy rock outfit that somehow snuck onto the airwaves would continue to put out slightly refined versions of their first, only without the hit, whereupon by album three underground rock pundits would completely ignore it while mainstream publications would give it a half-paragraph write-up before we collectively soldier on, leaving a few stragglers as a devoted fan base that would be the basis of an unheralded crowdfunding campaign 10 years from now. Or maybe that was my cynical mind wondering how a band with a solid but unspectacular album and a legitimately popular single could possibly proceed. Fortunately no one gives a shit what I think and Cage the Elephant have carved their own niche in the shady gray area that is a rock band who consistently puts out radio singles without being pop-culture popular. Melophobia is another batch of highly enjoyable indie rock that sees the band dipping their toes ever deeper into the “weird as fuck” water, while staying in the “idiosyncratic and interesting” end of the pool (that is, not drowning in the self-indulgent deep end). Singer Matt Schulz’s mad man falsetto is in full effect, while punctuating horns, demented piano bridges, sudden waltzes, and spoken word passages with equal parts resignation and lingering anger (not an easy mood to convey) twist and turn among these songs. Cage the Elephant are not reinventing rock and they’re not fading away, they are simply putting together a compelling and highly rewarding catalog of rock & roll albums.
The running headline for Random Access Memories: reigning champions of EDM come to claim their throne and instead storm dance floors with a top notch 70’s disco album. That’s not entirely untrue, Random Access Memories really does sound like a Chic-Steely Dan super group, but that perception may just be a compliment to how masterfully the electronic elements are integrated with the top-notch session musician shine. Witness centerpiece “Touch”, where each section is dismantled and each instrument squeezed into their component pixels and whooshed away (sometimes by digital airplane, other times Tron-like cargo elevators ) before being replaced by an arrangement even more breathtaking (and with an ever more prominent children’s choir). “The Game of Love” never features any less than 5 melodies playing within each other, yet never feels crowded or busy, it simply invites you in. And that’s the genius Daft Punk executed on this album; you thought they were gunning for the dance floor, but instead they delivered an endlessly entertaining headphone experience for one.
This one was certainly unexpected for me. Like most people, I first heard Lorde on the radio, piping barely audible out of the car speakers. Then that head nodding chorus of “Royals” comes in and I cranked the volume to hear what the hell came on after a fucking Avenged Sevenfold song. For the first time in years, my rides home consisted wading through radio hits waiting for a song, wondering if it cracked the nightly countdown and I’d get the chance to unapologetically shimmy my shoulders to the snapped beat and ascending hook, hoping against hope that the windows were tinted just enough to keep me invisible. The rest of the album did not disappoint. Downcast, stark instrumentals that allow Lorde’s magnetic voice to overtake. What’s most impressive though, is the personality and insight on display. It takes most artists years to find a voice, a personality that comes through their songs. On Pure Heroine Lorde has nailed it from the get go, a stunning, personal reflection on changing times and growing old. Sung by a 17 year old such laments can ring hollow, but the record is a reminder that the pang of regret surveying lives left behind is universal, not entitled to those our age and above. And yet, it’s the anticipation of what’s next that might be most exciting about Pure Heroine.
Dr. Dog is not the kind of band that critics rave about. They are not the kind of band that reaches year-end top 10 lists. Their music doesn’t help define pop culture or underground trends. They don’t drastically change their sound to be in or out of vogue. In short, you can’t use them to write about other things, and that means they are grossly undervalued by most critics. What they do exceedingly well, however, is write rock and roll songs. And on that front, B-Room is another resounding success for this group. The one story line you could come up with for this album is that before recording they built their own studio from the ground up, dubbed it the B-Room and recorded this fine slab of music. The album is an exhibition for what they can do in their new space as they shift from style to style with gusto nailing everything from Philly soul to Americana vibes to gut punch, bottom of the bottle acoustic soul to their signature brand of psychedelic tinged rock and roll. While they’ve moved away from the ragged glory of last years excellent Be the Void the songs here still show a vitality in the instrumental chemistry that only comes from capturing a band in a room. And at the center of it all is “Too Weak to Ramble”, an acoustic song with just two guitars and co-front man Toby Leaman’s soul baring voice. Co-frontman Scott McMicken spoke of how it represented a moral victory for the band, the first time they didn’t feel the need to add layer upon layer of harmonies and instruments and instead let the song speak for itself, on its own terms. The same could be said of Dr. Dog the band, when listening to B-Room the narratives and story lines don’t matter, what’s important is that this band has made a damn good rock record that deserves to be listened to.
It was easy for me to cynical about this band. A rock band making dance music at a time when rock bands sounding like rock bands is taboo. When anything with a four-on-the-floor house beat can be hailed as the next big thing because for some reason Whitney Houston ballads are an acceptable reference point for people who actually give a damn about music (CHVRCHES rant over). But I defy you to listen to “My Number” and not be convinced by this band. My personal single of the year, it’s an insistent, danceable beat propelled by a ricocheting keyboard melody and ringing triads as kinetic single note melody lines bore into your ears and guitar chords scrawl themselves across the wall. Literally every instrument that comes into the track is a hook, revealing new details every listen while never dulling the blunt force joyousness of blasting this track as loud as you possibly can. Aside from one of the best songs of the year though, what makes this album special is how it subverts its own expectations. Dance-heavy, yes, but the album isn’t so much made for the dance floor as the lonely apartment just above, the bass drum pulsing through the walls. An album of late night remedies, laments, and revelries, the party below rages while “Late Night” builds to catharsis-skirting climax, turns to impassioned plea, then fades away to a funk guitar solo and that incessant, pulsating beat.
Most bands embed their hooks into melodies. Hummable bits of songs that stubbornly lodge themselves into your brain. For The National, though, hooks come in the form of lyrics and the poignant, surreal, or mundane images they bring. I could be minding my own business when suddenly I have the feeling that “I’m just a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park,” and despite not really knowing what the hell that means, I’m determined to hear that song again (off of “Pink Rabbits”, and that line is followed by the excellent “I was a television version of a person with a broken heart”). That’s kind of what The National excel at. At their best, their albums have a sort of world building where the music wraps you up, divulging it’s details and intricacies at it’s own pace while myriad images and short vignettes of broken hearts, lost souls, and bored-but-skeptical longing race by. Trouble Will Find Me is hardly new ground for this band, but it’s one of the finest distillations of what they do best.
The Arctic Monkeys very well may have done the impossible here. A former British buzz band making music 7 years later, and it actually sounds fresh. Far removed from the pub crawling garage rock of their debut, AM subsists on smoke-filled rooms, late night phone calls, and questionable seduction. Ever since convening with Josh Homme in the desert for 2009’s Humbug the Arctic Monkeys have been a changed band, and while that album and their 2011 followup were both worthy tries AM is the first time they have truly sounded at home with their new sound. An album full of cocksure swagger, sexual frustration, and barely contained lust. “Do I Wanna Know” is smoke billowing under the door, “R U Mine” is more declaration of purpose than relevant query, “#1 Party Anthem” the sharp tongued response to rejection, “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High” the push away. “Knee Socks” either the triumph or fever dream of such. And finally, “I Wanna Be Yours”, a cover that turns the cheekiness of the original to a sensual reminder of the eternal lust and possible love lost.
As it has been noted many times in the lead up to …Like Clockwork, the album was written and recorded in the wake of lead Queen Joshua Homme dying on the operating table. Personally, I would have hoped that would mean a convening with the devil and a record full of the nastiest riffs and guitar solos this band has ever dreamed up (see Jack White’s story on the making of Elephant). Instead we got something much more surprising, the first Queens of the Stone Age album where Homme tones down the cocksure bravado and sounds vulnerable. “To be vulnerable/is needed most of all/if you intend to truly fall/apart,” might well be the thesis statement here, where blunt trauma riffs and hip shaking swagger is juxtaposed with piano dirges like “Vampyre of Time and Memory” and the title track. …Like Clockwork is an album about the dissolution of relationships and presence of death, all the while hiding doubt behind bravado, opining “does anyone ever get this right?/I feel no love” then announcing that “I blow my load over the status quo”. This isn’t the album we may have expected, but it’s all the more triumphant for it.
J Roddy Walston and the Business don’t beat around the bush. When the opening notes of “Heavy Bells” ring time stops for a moment. A six note arpeggio, simple enough, but it builds anticipation. Even on the hundredth listen you’re not QUITE sure what’s going to happen next. Then J Roddy Walston’s voice bellows out of the speakers (I suppose maybe out of your headphones, but this is a record made for either annoying neighbors or making them dance) and you realize what’s happening. You’re listening to a fucking rock & roll record, and there’s no turning back. Essential Tremors follows one of my favorite rock albums of the past few years, and as such I was kept my expectations in check in case of a let down after a debut so strong. But this record delivers in every way possible. Walston’s manic piano work is regrettably downplayed but the songwriting is sharper than ever. This band isn’t just playing for the club circuit, their aiming to make every man, woman, and child nod their head and dance in the street. If rock music is going to survive going forward we need bands like this, artists making smart but physical music that looks to attract the non-converted. But none of that really matters because once that thunderous drum beat hits Walston screams out the chorus, these boys lock into unison and you’re not thinking rational thoughts, you’re too busy dancing and singing yourself.
I’ve already written extensively on this album and I don’t have much to add to that. This record is spectacular, a peerless execution of vision, passion, and intent. Musically ambitious, sprawling yet focused, soul both cerebral and gut-bucket; a magnum opus centered by a core of fiery passion, wavering pathos, and bold ambition. Listen up!
Janelle Monae’s debut from 2010, The ArchAndroid, was an astonishing display of ambition bringing in elements of funk, soul, hip-hop, rock, folk, and pop both rambunctiously weird and radio friendly, all executed with the freak-flag-waved-high oddness of Outkast in their Stankonia heyday. The Electric Lady follows up in much the same vein. Representing parts IV and V in her sci-fi odyssey and similarly restless musically, in many ways this is the record we expected; but it’s also different, for the first time in her career Monae seems to be singing about herself, ever eager to inspire, here she’s also eager to connect. Whether that’s by making you dance to barn burning funk or swoon to a soul baring ballad depends on which style she’s decided to master next, but the effect is consistently stunning.
The range of styles on display here really is impressive, but it never feels like genre hopping. That’s because every excursion feels like an extension of her already established sound. The orchestrated string interludes aren’t jarring because somehow they feel like they SHOULD follow high energy funk. Latin percussion, spy-movie themes and classical guitar were clearly designed to lead into sketches (more on these later) about robot DJs. I don’t know why these work, but in the midst of this album the juxtapositions are above reproach. You could argue (and many do) that this is possible because of the overarching concept. Much has been made of the narratives at work, and the world building is commendable, but what seems to be lost in any conversation about Monae is how well put together the music really is.
Take “Victory” as an example. A nimble but stout bass line opens with a kick/snare boom-bap from the drums introduce and establish the low end. Descending piano melodies, harp swoops, string swells, and violin plucks are all introduced as motifs. Monae’s voice slides in as guitar and organ are added to the rhythm section. Then the chorus. Her voice soars, the piano and harp parts tug against her, bring her down to earth. A spidery yet silky guitar line is added, we’re launched into the chorus again. The guitar solo from Kellindo Parker, the Mick Ronson to Monae’s David Bowie. His guitar prowess has been Monae’s secret weapon throughout both albums and here he goes straight for the gut. Every melodic sample from the beginning is brought back, Monae digs deep and tells us we’ll find a “greater love in the little things”, and though I have to imagine it’s meant to be interpreted in broader terms the message rings true in regards to her own music. There are very few artists operating on this level*, and even fewer able to pull it off with music this accessible.
Still, with all that said it’s the aesthetic and the story that get the most attention and that drive the story here. Lyrically, The ArchAndroid was very much concerned with the outside world. Robotic and human overlords, programming and other nameless powers were continuously forcing her to conform, and the music was a stand against it. Protest music that scanned as interstellar funk, the characters in these songs were more concerned with escaping the present, finding solace. The Electric Lady does away with any defined narrative constraint, as most of these songs don’t make a direct reference to her Wondaland universe. Instead we’re given a handful of skits to move the story along, and while they can admittedly drag down repeat listens they give us possibly the best summation of Monae’s current mission: “We are jamming, dancing, and loving/don’t throw no rock, don’t break no glass, just shake your ass”. The threats at hand are no different, but the approach is new. Instead of raging against the powers that be she’s chosen to create on her own terms. In the latest incarnation of Wondaland there is no running from threats, instead it’s a call to create, inspire, and share, a focus on building a new world, not tearing down the old. There are very few artists working with such grand ambitions, but with The Electric Lady Janelle Monae is leading the way.
* And much of this credit should be given to producers Chuck Lightning and Nate “Rocket” Wonder