Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Daniel's 2013 in Review

My Very Favorite Albums of A.D. 2013

20. Mikal Cronin - MCII
MCII is a starkly straightforward guitar album. It won’t make you think. It won’t make you wince. It’s not going to rearrange your definition of rock and roll. It won’t change you. But it will make you want to take a walk. It might get you looking out a window for longer than you even realize. I woke up the other day with a tune in my head. It was early in the morning, earlier than I normally get up at least. It killed me for about 20 minutes (including a failed attempt at googling fragments of lyrics). Then, I realized it was “Weight,” the first track from this record. I sat down in a chair with some headphones and put it on. 40 minutes later the album was over, and I had barely moved at all. It’s been a while since I’ve started a day so fresh. Mikal Cronin’s music is so god-damned everyday, but it’s the most spectacular kind of everyday I can picture, a no-holds barred assault of perfectly timed pop-music cheap shots that will wind you (the crowd goes wild!) and make you feel proud to be everyday human you are. 

Standout Tracks: "Weight", "Am I Wrong"

19. Pretty & Nice - Golden Rules for Golden People
For some reason, Boston’s Pretty & Nice seem so goddamn brave to me. To make excellent, brainy indie music and hardly ever dip into the basin of indie-coolness for stylistic hints - it’s just fantastic. It struck me on my first run through of the band’s most recent, Golden Rules for Golden People, that they sound a hell of a lot like the bands I was listening to when I was barely a teenager, if those bands were struck with a higher calling and compulsed into artistic ambition. Golden Rules for Golden People is a tapestry, beautiful, ugly, funny, tight, sporadic, and joyful here, there and all at once. The primary relationship in the album is between the band’s penchant for frilly and fantastical (almost bourgeoisie) theatrics and the consistent stream of irrational, illogical, slap-in-the-face spontaneity that has defined American avant-guitar rock since Captain Beefheart. If that doesn’t sound kind of awesome, I don’t know how to sell you.

Standout Tracks: “Yonkers”, “Q_Q”

18. King Krule - 6 Feet Beneath the Moon
Maybe I’m exaggerating because it’s not really my world, but you know British rock is in dire straits when NME is forced to throw their entire lot behind a soggy outfit like Palma Violets. Archy Marshall, AKA King Krule, could represent the Second Coming (*wink wink* Brit-rock people). Just examining the pieces and parts, this record could seem perfect. Marshall is such an incredibly unique musical voice, a full-force locomotive of style, swagger and character all of his own. He’s taken tapped into the incredible potential of being a low-budget solo artist in 2013 in a way no other artist has even approached. Instead of a simple outlet for 2-4 minute melodic endeavors, he’s turned King Krule into an Imax-level exhibit of his psyche, blanketed in a flawlessly psychotropic layer of hazed out production that is literally lo-fi but doesn’t sound it, ever. Moving along the same vector, Marshall’s next record could easily end up 10-15 beats higher on my 20somethingteen list. As it is, 6 Feet Beneath the Moon does have a few weak spots that, I think, derive mostly from format. The record is a kind of self-made best of collection comprised of Marshall’s favorite compositions since he was about 12. Accordingly, the album suffers from lack of cohesion and consistency. 10-12 new tracks from the astoundingly talented, matured Archy Marshall that walks off into the London dark at the end of “Bathed in Grey” could be a revelation.

Standout Tracks: “Easy Easy”, “Borderline”, “Neptune Estate”

17. Jenny Hval -  Innocence is Kinky
Even the cover design of Innocence is Kinky is enough to make you shift in your seat a little bit. First off all, turn your brightness down. It’s white as hell, and in a way that hurts. Hval’s cheek blends with the type and fires high contrast beams at you mercilessly. Furthermore, it looks wet. No, creamy. Moist. Alright, It looks a little rank. This is fair warning. Jenny Hval is... a very expressive person. I would quote the first line of the first song, but I think everybody who’s written anything about this record has already done so. Go listen. If she was just crude, it might be annoying. Her voice is beautiful. Her popcraft is brilliant. She makes me jealous as a guitarist. Her style stings just enough to stir, but it’s enjoyable and entertaining through and through. If there could be a “next” Patti Smith, it’s her. Sharp, philosophizing poems set to sharp, urgent music. And she’s got that voice. 

Standout Tracks: “Innocence is Kinky” 

16. William Tyler - Impossible Truth
Here’s #1 on the list of 2013 albums that should have been movie soundtracks. That could be tough for the director, though. Impossible Truth conveys such a vivid image, no film would be strong enough to resist the pull of its own underlying narrative. The best way to go at this record is by making a film in your head. Probably plotless, or at least so jagged that theater-goers would fall asleep and art students would laude you later. Forget dialogue. The hum of the slide, the chirping of the strings struck in Tyler’s complex finger-dance, that’s all the conversation you need. The film’s bound to be pensive - lots of wide shots of the desert, maybe with a few solemn figures looking out over it for the “human element.” Remember that they don’t need to speak. Also, I’m not talking about the Sahara. This is the desert that’s America’s scratchy half-beard, scrawny and hard and flat, filled with holes and covered with rocks from Mars that god-damned if they don’t look like people. Enjoying Impossible Truth, like staring long and hard at the Great American desert, doesn’t provide any sort of concrete revelation like reading an essay that changes your perspective on relationships or welfare or Democrats or Facebook, nor does it impel you to live life different like maybe a profound short story or novel that knocked you to the wall. The insight is something intangible and abstract, and it provides a sense of peace that can’t be justified with words. 

Standout Tracks: “Geography of Nowhere”, "Cadillac Desert"

15. Youth Lagoon - Wondrous Bughouse
I’m trying to shy away from blanket statements, but Trevor Powers just seems to overcome me. His second record as Youth Lagoon, Wondrous Bughouse, seems to be the pinnacle of a certain psychedelic music that’s preoccupied the 2010’s. Firstly, this is very psychedelic psychedelic music, not psychedelic in the tangential way that a lot of music taking that label is. It is very clearly genealogically linked with the ancients - old-school Pink Floyd for the circus-tunes that walk the line between psych and schizophrenic, the Beach Boys for the finely-tuned production, and the Beatles for that astral something that helps the album transcend time. If you want to feel good about doing nothing with your day, look no further. Wondrous Bughouse is the ultimate championing of a certain state of mind in which simple awareness of the world moving on around you while you are absorbed by the couch is enough to constitute a certain enlightenment. 

Beyond philosophy, which is not something Powers is trying to push, the songwriting is downright excellent. Most of the tracks are courageously long, churning events that work out ideas to their fullest before moving on to new ones. Powers isn’t afraid to pack them in. His greatest skill, though, may be saving the best for last. Each and every song has its distinct climax, each powerful in its own way. Sometimes I find it hard to make it all the way to the end of the record, not because I’m dozing off but because I can’t get enough of some specific denouement. Youth Lagoon stands alongside Built to Spill as sonic proof that Boiseans know something we don’t. 

Standout Tracks: “Dropla”, “The Bath”, “Mute”

14. Matmos - The Marriage of True Minds
The Marriage of True Minds is, on its face, an electronic album. Maybe more specifically it’s Intelligent Dance Music, or something. That kind of categorization just doesn’t work, though. This album is simply too weird. Its genesis was a project where the guys from Matmos, satirically or not, performed a series of old-fashioned pseudoscientific ESP tests circa the 1960’s on some of their friends, asking them to ascertain through sheer aetheric mind power the focus of the new Matmos album (which, of course, would be the results of these tests). The results are compressed into vocal samples on the album, and each of the album’s tracks is inspired by something the test subjects said. There was an odd pattern of talk about triangles, green triangles or just triangles in general, that, satirically or not, seemed to present a revelation to the duo. Out of all the wackiness appeared the year’s most creative, funnest album. The whole thing is undeniably a gimmick, but as wowing as any on par with professional big-ticket magic shows, and with more staying power. 

Standout Tracks: “You”, “Teenage Paranormal Romance”

13. Iceage - You’re Nothing
Maybe I have a soft spot for angst, but from my first listen through You’re Nothing  all the way up to my 30th (or so) on one late Summer afternoon, I was always having an Iceage show in my head. Elias Ronnenfelt’s voice is just the right amount ugly, just the right amount ambivalent, and maybe a little too aggressive. In other words, it is punk. The band themselves play as if possessed, furious and sharp, yet they pull it off with such apparent ease it’s like the skill just fell out of them. In other words, it’s punk as hell. To me, in 2013, Iceage’s You’re Nothing is punk. So I guess I should have seen the show coming. All things considered, it was pretty punk. Other people seemed to enjoy it. Besides this one time I saw a Minutemen coverband that was so beyond off point, I’ve never been more disappointed at a show than when I saw Iceage at a Richmond club. I’ve never been more annoyed. Instead of this community-molding experience I heard on the record, Ronnenfelt managed to craft the most impregnable wall of assholery between himself and the audience I have ever seen, and, dude, you’re not Roger Waters. 

It took me a while to get back to Iceage. Actually, it took me until I had to write a list like this. Surprisingly (maybe not), the record had lost little of its pissed-off magic. Maybe the men behind it all just come at it from the wrong perspective, or maybe I just don’t like punk anymore. Regardless, if you’ve got something to be upset about and you’re not sure you can take it, this is the thing to put on. Weirdly catchy jackhammer hooks, somehow-tuneful tuneless vocals, and enough energy to throw you through a window... just make sure there’s nothing fragile around. 

Standout Tracks: "Ecstacy", "In Haze", "Coalition"

12. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
There’s something more to Daft Punk’s comeback record, Random Access Memories, than the ubiquitous “Get Lucky” that dominated airwaves almost unchallenged until the draconian overlords of the radio conglomerates agreed with the draconian overlords over big music that it was time people spent 99 cents on something else. That song is excellent. It’s not the most important part about RAM. Actually (stunning for such a successful, well-selling release), it may be the album itself that’s the most important part. It’s a high-concept effort by the guys who before have been focused solely on producing tunes that maximize the amount that people shake it. Random Access Memories is sonic chivalry. “Give life back to music!” the duo drone on the opening track over a seamless groove. 

Stylistically, the album does a good bit of looking-back, to disco, to early electro. There’s the impression that Daft Punk are hoping to give contemporary pop a shot in the arm - to remind people of a time when music, they think, was more authentic. They’re not stuck in the past. They aren’t using modern recording methods, but songs like “Motherboard”, “Doin’ It Right”, and the epic “Touch” show how the painstaking-route can make slick, future-sounding music that’s as full as anything we’ve heard on commercial airwaves for years. What slaps me in the face more than any of the methodology or philosophy behind RAM, though, is the heart. 

Standout Tracks: “Get Lucky”, “Lose Yourself to Dance”, “Touch”

11. Grumbling Fur - Glynnaestra
Skipping a brief introduction track, Glynnaestra begins proper with Protogenesis, a wormhole twisting churner of a collage that flows smoothly from one ear to the other and back as the two guys of Grumbling Fur intone with mantra-like consistence: “I saw you stand up and take eight steps across the floor.” What does it mean? Probably just what it sounds like. Glynnaestra is packed with music celebrating the time-transcendent, ever-flowing beauty of the mundane. Yes, the probably needed drugs to fully come to terms with ideas like that and turn them into music, but you don’t need any to listen! This album is in keeping with a few low-key trends in music at the moment, particularly preponderance of acid-house revival acts and a certain brand of heavy psychedelia that is in no way marijuana related. In the context of these movements, though, Glynnaestra blows away their peers. It’s effortless, the looping sonic environment of each track seeming to emerge naturally as if it couldn’t be any other way. More than that, it’s fully formed. Grumbling Fur have learned how to manipulate their music for maximum impact. It’s a diverse record, packed with drama and insight, but also an endless amount of good, exciting ideas. Glynnaestra stands alone. 

Standout Tracks: “Dancing Light”

10. Fuck Buttons - Slow Focus
My favorite electronic album of the year snuck up on me just about a month ago in a year when the gods and upper level royalty of EDM (Daft Punk and the Knife respectively) were turning away from synthesized music entirely. For years (ever since I picked up at a guitar around age 13), I’ve been told that guitar music is over, that electronics are the new horizon and the wave of the future. Talk about disconcerting. It’s hard to back this guitarmageddon alarmism with history. The modern conception of electronic music is really only a few years younger than the modern conception of its guitar counterpart. The difference between then and now is ease. Technology has made guitar music easier, but in a pretty one-dimensional way, in that it’s very easy to make music like Shoegaze with your guitar now. Electronic music is easy in infinite dimensions, thus explaining the many aghast facebook-reading faces of teens across America: “he makes music? Him? And it’s not terrible?” That’s the phrase. It’s not terrible. In the age of laptop music, its easy to make music that’s not terrible. That shouldn’t cheapen the impact of music that’s completely dazzling. 

In a recent interview discussing similar issues, Fuck Buttons’ Andrew Hung said he thinks guitar music will live on because it conveys best the feeling and emotion of the artist. Hung is not a rock and roll apologist. Fuck Buttons do not play guitars. This record is so arresting because it captures that element, that factor of which Hung is keenly aware, of humanity in a way few EDM producers have managed. Slow Focus is tactile in a way that makes you feel submerged, weightless. The plowing, thick-frothy haze of sound carries you where it will. There’s no need to struggle, though. It’s a thrilling ride. Nowhere does the duo better scorch the skin than on their long-form numbers, the pounding opener “Brainfreeze” and the time-warping combination-closer of “Stalker” and “Hidden Xs.” What a way to say goodbye. Each time “Hidden Xs” comes to its climax, I’m sure Fuck Buttons will take over the world, or at least provide the soundtrack for the one who does. 

Standout Tracks: "Brainfreeze", "Stalker"

9. My Bloody Valentine - m b v
I’ve written a lot about m b v. That’s just kind of striking me now. It’s not that my writing has been illustrious or published or studied or anything like that. It’s possible only one particularly perturbed commenter besides myself remembers any of it. More than any other piece of music, I didn’t write about m b v to get the writing read, or, really, even because I wanted to. I had to. My review of the album was the longest I’ve ever written. I couldn’t come to a good stopping point because I was having an intense argument with myself. More than any other release in 2013, m b v made me reconsider the way I think about music. 

Loveless was, to me, the ultimate proof of that there was such a thing as genius in music. I don’t mean genius in the hyperbolic way it’s sometimes used to describe anything great or surprising. I mean Nietzchian, almost otherworldy gifts in the field of music. For me, it was Brian Eno and, of course, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine who represented the ultimate genius, but this idea is thrown around a lot in rock music discourse, with some likely targets being Dylan or Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. There’s an interesting point right there: what I thought of as being musical genius was firmly entrenched in the compositional camp, excluding people like guitar prodigies or unshakable vocalists. This is almost surely because my own musical life is focused on composition. I’m interested in technical guitar skill, but it’s not what enchants me, and I’m certainly no Sinatra. So, Brian Eno and Kevin Shields, certainly members of the pantheon of modern composers, were everything I wanted to be and nothing I didn’t. Most of all, their genius was unattainable. 

But most of that last paragraph was in past tense, and the reason is m b v. This record is really, excellently great, and I mean it's superb, but it's so far from genius-level perfection that it's... well, it's inspiring. Does that sound backwards? I would argue that act of genius-worship is more so. For me (and maybe it's not everyone's experience), the use of genius, specifically in this context, suddenly occurred to me as a euphemism, my own personal euphemism, for godlike. M b v opened my eyes, because it screams so loudly of a human being trying to follow-up on the un-follow-up-able. 

"She Found Now" is mesmerizing, but, sitting in the opening slot, it almost feels like a concession, or a well-planned diplomatic move. "Look guys, we're still My Bloody Valentine!" Then there's the ill-fated branch out attempt, "Is This and Yes," that got me really excited in its initial moments because I thought I had finally reached the part of the record that would turn into the perfect cutting-edge shoegaze electro-dream. Alas. "New You" feels like the work of a band trying to make a crowd-pleaser, but who haven't spoken to or even seen the crowd in decades. Then the last 3 songs on the album smack you hard on the face in the most satisfying way. But the hiccups can't be unheard, and I think that's lovely, because, do you know what that means? By some kind of property of logic, if the guy who made Loveless is human, a human like myself might have a chance too. 

Oh god, I've done it again. When will I shut up about this album?

Standout Tracks: “Only Tomorrow”, “In Another Way”, “If I Am”

8. Typhoon - White Lighter
Were it released in a year less seemingly jam-packed with existential drama in pop, White Lighter would surely take the cake in terms of meditations on mortality. These songs are one heart-break after another, and you never see the next one coming. Is this record as good as Funeral? Maybe. I can’t say. That album came out a decade ago. It’s had time to percolate and find its own place in culture, and of course it had the privilege of a wave of hype. Typhoon have been around about as long as Arcade Fire, and they’ve enjoyed no such luck. In fact, hearing White Lighter, I had one of those moments of cold terror where I realize how much incredible music languishes in the hidden pools of unhype the industry started digging out in the 60’s, how much of it I’ll never hear. 

White Lighter is the kind of album that just won’t stop going. It has a developed aesthetic, but it never doubles back on itself. While its subject matter is definitely depressive, something in the utter beauty of the arrangements seems to validate all the torment. Kyle Morton belts in his unaffected tremolo: “I am hoping for a song that will come to me while I’m asleep, ‘cuz I can’t lie, and so I can’t write.” But here it is, out of his and other mortal minds, a record as strong and steady as it is nervous, and as surely lasting as it is fixated on impermanence. So yes, it’s sad, but it does a bang up job of making me feel less alone in the world, of fighting the very parts of the nature of reality that brought it into being. 

Standout Tracks: “Young Fathers", "Hunger and Thirst"

7. Julia Holter - Loud City Song
Julia Holter’s Loud City Song comes on slow and uncompromising. “World” essentially stars Holter’s crooning for 5 minutes of slow motion David Lynch red-velvet-curtain surrealism. It’s not exactly the most welcoming thing. It’ll sink you back into your chair with easy but persistent force. “Maxim’s I” begins the flood of sounds that punctuate the dreamscape from there on. The record is fixated on place, the city to be specific, but an ambiguous city, one half awake and half asleep that exists only transiently as the setting for Holter’s jittery discourse on her own mind. This is a city filled with millions but seen only through her eyes. Worse, it seems all its other denizens might be something an inch off from human, some species forcefully other and frighteningly familiar. In other words, she’s alone. But she’s confiding in us! 

More than any other album on this list, Loud City Song feels like a work of fine art. It’s not that she’s eschewing basic elements of pop or denouncing them, she simply doesn’t work in that medium. Her music is something above and beyond. When these songs get stuck in my head, it feels eerie more than comforting. But I keep coming back. 

Standout Tracks: “Maxim's I", "In the Green Wild"

6. Parquet Courts - Light Up Gold
Like the next entry on this list, Parquet Courts’ Light Up Gold isn’t on here because it breaks barriers, but because it makes me feel so goddamn good. It’s also punk, like Iceage, but let no one tell you that Parquet Courts are angsty. They’re not agnsty. They’re snarky. Get it right. The two feelings (worldviews might be a better word, concerning these bands) are related in that they are reactions to a world seemingly opposite the angst-er or snark-er in every way. Angst indicates a belief that something can actually be done about it. Snark is the real of the enlightened but jaded. Parquet Courts are the princes of snark. Their idols, the Fall, are the kings. But don’t worry, these guys have their own bag of tricks. 

Hopping from one of the nation’s most desolate states to its most human-packed collection of islands, Parquet Courts have, maybe unwittingly, created a crystalline snippet of young American life in the early 21st century. It’s easy to see through the snark, really, into deeper feelings of disappointment, aimlessness and confusion that seem insurmountable. Questions like “even if I knew what to do, would I be able to do it?” haunt the backdrop of songs about walking and smoking and eating sitting around. Despite all that negativity, the first 10 songs on this record represent one of the finest examples of the continuous DJ set in guitar rock form this side of the year 2000. If the guys in the band have no direction, their work certainly does. It’s careening towards some target and it’s too late to sop. What a stroke of ironic genius to make a piece of art about going nowhere and have that piece of art be really exemplary. 

Standout Tracks: “Stoned & Starving”, “N. Dakota”

5. Kurt Vile - Wakin’ On a Pretty Daze
If this list was categorized in terms of sheer listening quantity, Kurt Vile's Wakin' On a Pretty Daze would be numbers 1 through 5, without question. When nerves are high or maybe just when the world decides it’s time to make plenty clear just how strange and large and out of control everything is, humans have a tendency to stuff the feeling in a bag. Some need a breath of fresh air, some a cigarette. When nameless dread hits me, I think of Kurt Vile. 

The first 10 seconds of the title track rush at you with the weird immediacy of high-power painkillers. You’re kicked back before you even realize you’ve been calmed down. Of course, this has a lot to do with Kurt's pharmaceutical-grade chillness. If he's to be remembered for nothing else, it should be that. It comes out in his slur and through his fingers, but the production of the record, which is utterly sexy and damn near flawless, ties it up, emanating from him like a thick slow-motion cloud to coat every inch of sound. Cruise the strip with Kurt Vile, I beg you. You'll be honked at, tailgated, and passed, but it won't matter because you'll feel alone on the road, and because god it feels good to slow down.

Standout Tracks: “Wakin’ On a Pretty Day”, “Girl Named Alex”

4. The Knife - Shaking the Habitual
Five years ago, the Knife put out Silent Shout, a record that effectively converted me from a rock-centric dolt into a lover of beepy-boop robot dance music. The sound was smart, slick and antiseptic, appealing and catchy while at the same time detached and self-aware. Karin Andersson said in an interview that she and her brother Olof Dreijer only put out Shaking the Habitual under the Knife name because they thought it would be “funny.” That’s fair. One listen through even the first half of this record will have any long time fan at best confused, at worst fuming (this case more likely if you purchased the double-album for whatever they’re charging). On one hand, this is only electronic music in the sense that it was made by an electronic music group. Certainly, there are some synthesizers, and some weird noises and loop-sounding structures, but much of the sound is clearly acoustic, and Andersson has also ambiguously stated that a lot of the parts that do sound synthesized are not. There’s no real way to tell. I guess it doesn’t matter. However this album was put together, one thing is certain: it’s not for the faint heart. Or, I guess the easily bored. 

Two tracks exceed 10 minutes, and one almost hits 20. They are not, I’m afraid, long riffs on a catchy disco groove either. If you’re really, really trying to make something out of it, they sound like Knife songs put in unbelievably slow motion. As in, the first 10 seconds of a Knife song extended over 20 minutes. There are explosions of painful, scattered energy, but mostly, these tracks are masterly examples of nightmare ambient. Time’s going nowhere, and you can’t get out. It shouldn’t take until “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized” to figure out that the band had no intention of creating a pop album, that they don’t give one or two turds what you think about their methods, just so long as you’re thinking, but there’s no getting past this point without knowing. 

A 20 minute, seemingly-endless, tuneless aside is abrasive, and maybe annoying. To me, though, the greatest sin is the way it could overshadow Shaking the Habitual’s strengths, which are impressive and many. On the best tracks, the Knife sound more aggressive and intent than ever. That’s quite the statement. They’ve always *sounded* like they were on a critical mission. It’s never been more well-defined than here. This intentness comes out in the lyrics, in the pace, but certainly in the music. “Networking” and “Full of Fire”, two of the most furious tracks, feel like campaigns all to themselves, and ruthless ones at that, smashing into listener after listener with no remorse and no tapping of the brakes. On these tracks, the duo’s compositional genius is clear. Their selection of noises and textures are violent and precise, and they conduct their army of buzzing, howling, growling machines and strings faultlessly. 

The themes of Shaking the Habitual are clear (inequality, gender, sex, hate, post-modern hopelessness), but the record is not a manifesto. While the structureless, unprecedented form might throw people off, nothing is being shoved down anyone’s throats. Instead, the bluntness, the uncompromising anti-pop, it all exists to make us think. If you’re a musician questioning accepted social structures, economic systems, and political ideas, why not do your best to tear down cultural norms in your own medium. If pop can die without the world falling apart, could capitalism be next? 

Standout Tracks: “Full of Fire”, “Without You My Life Would Be Boring”

3. These New Puritans - Field of Reeds
If you want to have the true Field of Reeds experience, go somewhere very quiet and isolated. I don’t mean like a tiny dark room. A regular place. A habitable place, just somewhere where maybe you can’t hear the din of the interstate or streetlife. Preferably a human structure. This way, you can listen to the record as it was supposed to be listened to - as if you were the last human on earth. At least that’s sort of how it went down for me. I didn’t make any arrangements. I was just sitting on my bed. The view out my back window is distinctly lifeless, so that didn’t hurt. Just a disclaimer: this was a psychologically trying experience. As in, a heavy weight in the chest trying experience. That’s when I knew this was something special. Does that make me a masochist?

For a while, my go-to point of reference for this album was the late British New Wave group Talk Talk, whose two late-80’s/early-90’s records went a long way towards inventing a totally new genre - post-rock. It was music focused on texture over melody and structure, dreamy, but ethereal and not drugged out. Like Talk Talk, TNP came to this album out of a totally different sound. For them, it was post-punk reminiscent of the Fall, and for Talk Talk, heady New Wave a la XTC. As I listened again and again, I began to notice more difference between the two, though. Eventually, I stopped thinking about Talk Talk altogether and just let myself be overwhelmed by Field of Reeds’ power. 

For one thing, where Talk Talk’s post-rock is spectral and far-away, Field of Reeds is chillingly of-this-world. It’s a lonely world, a beautiful, lonely, irrational world, but it’s ours. The fact that they pulled off that atmosphere is impressive. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of over-production on music like this. These New Puritans didn’t only jump the potholes, they applied the tricks and magic spells of modern production with such incredible discretion that it vaults their work easily to the level of the masters like Talk Talk themselves. With the sharpness of the notes, you’ll feel like you’re in the room with the grand piano at times, before being sucked away into a place wholly unfamiliar and then drawn back in, slowly but surely, to your room. Jack Barnett’s vocals are particularly present, and lend every track a human quality that makes even the most manipulate segments remarkably tender. 

In terms of creating a world, 2013 saw nothing better than Field of Reeds. Whether you’re swept up in the rip-tide of “Organ Eternal” or watching as “The Way I Do” pushes slow-crawling cumulous shapes overhead, this record will leave you at the mercy of its powerfully delicate composition. I can’t recommend it enough. 

Standout Tracks: “V (Island Song)”, “Fragment Two”

2. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
Around the same time I became obsessed with music, I became obsessed with cities. As an East-Coast Americanski, that predilection automatically means an unhealthy adoration of the greatest Metropolis on planet earth (shut up, Tokyo!). Along with all the normal human moods, happy, sad, angry, saucy, I have a special, secret and less common one called “New York.” Accordingly, I keep a tiny portfolio in my mind of albums that are the most “New York,” for just such times. Television, the Velvet Underground (that’s grimy Manhattan), Nas, the Wu-Tang Clan (for the tough outer boroughs), LCD Soundsystem (Williamsburg, not colonial), the Strokes (drunk rich and from the burbs), and of course the National (depressed in New York). There’s room for ‘em all in the pot, but I’m very selective. You can’t just be from New York to be a New York band and make a “New York” album. For example, Animal Collective will never make a “New York” album. It just can’t happen. Matt & Kim? You can fuckin’ forget about it. So, imagine my surprise when I suddenly realized that my newest New York City album was by a bunch of refugee Cape-Codders whose music before I’d met with kinda pleasant disdain. I guess love-hate is more appropriate. I can now confirm, the hate is gone. Modern Vampires of the City is a slice of New York to me, yes, but it’s also perfect. 

Standout Tracks: “Hannah Hunt”, “Step”, “Don’t Lie”

1. Kanye West - Yeezus
The world is divided into the people who see Yeezus at the top of end of year lists and say “obviously,” and the people who see the same thing, sigh, roll their eyes, and say, with bitterness, “obviously.” I’ve had my reservations about the illustrious Kanye West before. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s the most exciting figure making music right now by a long shot. Little... well... actually, fairly big parts of his constructed public persona have rubbed me the wrong way. Here’s this guy who makes some of the most thrilling music I’ve ever heard, music that puts the vast majority of his contemporaries to shame, but he’s engaged in this seemingly endless cycle of self-parody, presenting himself to the media as the ultimate human, transcending basic social concepts like respect, empathy, and dignity because, well, he is Kanye muthafuckin West and he owes the public nothing, like fucking J.P. Morgan. 

Anyway, that’s how I thought about him. I think I was wrong.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was Kanye’s self-conscious response to a substantial crowd of haters that included writers for two of the time’s most popular comedy shows (is SNL still on?), a veritable army of Taylor Swift fans, and at least two U.S. Presidents (I feel like Clinton would probably have a soft spot for our guy). If the haters have become less/more numerous in almost four years, I haven’t noticed. It doesn’t make a difference. No doubt their screams are being drowned by the literal droves of people who don’t find the main claim of “I Am a God” to be too ridiculous. Critically, with MBDTF, Kanye made it. Financially, he’d probably already made it, but he made it again. Most importantly, in 2010, the dawning of the Age of I Dunno, Kanye West made it culturally. All that shit talk actually paid off, and when somebody finally gets it and puts together a Grecian-scale Hip-Hop museum, Kanye will have his statue line up with other greats in the main hall. 

None of this changes the fact that some people love him and some people hate him, that he’ll keep talking shit and saying ridiculous things and spinning world affairs so that it seems like the touch-off point of everything ever is Kanye West. These kind of things bothered me a little. Then I saw Kanye live on the Yeezus tour. By the time I walked into the Verizon Center, this was already my favorite record of the year, even in light of my misgivings. Kanye seemed at the helm of a quiet movement from a social zeitgeist of disillusionment to one of discontent, and, finally, to action. Put this up next to releases further down on this list by the Knife and Jenny Hval and you’ll hear something bubbling. Maybe the protest song is making a comeback. But there was still the problem of Kanye West himself... Kanye West, who thinks only of himself, right?

In the middle of one of two lengthy on stage monologues, Kanye, backed by a very MBDTF piano loop, asked us why we thought he named the album Yeezus. “Because you’re comparing yourself to Jesus and the name is bound to stir up controversy, Ye,” thought everyone in the audience unanimously. Kanye looked at us (I'm assuming, since he was wearing a jewel-studded designer face-mask) for a minute and then said:

“Yeez is us.” 

And then I said: “Shit.”

That’s when it hit me. Kanye West is a role model. Further ranting provided context. He is an asshole. But he’s our asshole. He’s “living proof,” he said, “that dreams do come true.” He went on to tear down various multinational corporations, talk show hosts, and cultural institutions that have done him wrong, in his mind. Is he he justified? I have no idea. But he’s giving the finger to some of richest, most powerful people in the country, and, in doing so, proving that we can do so too. Kanye West is the ultimate individualist. He is zenith of that philosophy which Americans talk-up so big and yet hardly endorse at all through action. He uncompromisingly does what he pleases artistically, and in life. He is Kanye West, and he thinks Pacific Rim is one of the greatest movies ever made. He hired an orchestra to play Lana Del Ray as he proposed to his fiancé. He was inspired, more than anything else, to make his latest album by a minimalist lamp from the early 20th century, and I think that’s all amazing. 

Yeezus is the culmination of this development in Kanye West’s career, into a person unswayable on any side by anyone. In that, it is inspiring. I read somewhere that Yeezus is the most overanalyzed album of 2013. Are you kidding? Don’t be lazy! I’ll be thinking about this record for years, squirming at the implications of “Blood on the Leaves” as I marvel at the nuance of the production, feeling a bit of heaven at the soul break-down of “On Sight” before having it clawed away, and, of course, drinking the psychic fuel that is “Bound 2” to help put the world back in perspective when things start feeling skewed. Really, what else can I say besides... Thank you, Yeezus.

Standout Tracks: “Bound 2”, “New Slaves”, “Hold My Liquor”

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