Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Top 10 Albums of 2013

10. Kanye West--Yeezus

Everybody goes through a rap phase. It's that time in high school when you think that it's cool to roast tires and blast the clunky base from your shitty factory speakers. I never would have guessed that--over 10 years later--the year 2013 would prove to reinvigorate some of my first passion with the musical style. And I never would have guessed that I would be enjoying a Kanye West album. But, alas, I bow down to the cockiest of cocky rappers, whose album Yeezus is short and sweet and totally rips your throat out with its aggressive beats and angry rhymes. This is not the Kanye West that sang "Gold Digger" (thankfully). Its a completely reinvigorated and reinvented Kanye: it only takes a few seconds into opening track "On Sight" to realize this. It's quite a step, producing an album that's so ugly for a casual listener such as this, for a rapper that has compared himself to many current and past historical figures, including God himself on the track, "I Am A God". And sure, Yeezus is full of misogynistic and politically incorrect rhymes, and sometimes the lyrics are laughably simple ("Hurry up with my damn massage / In a French-ass Restaurant / Hurry up with my damn Croissants") and that's partially the reason why the album works: matched with the abrasive and distorted electronic fuzz beats, Yeezus seems like the psychotic Id of the world's most egotistical rapper, an album stripped down to his basest wants and desires.

Listen to Kanye's "New Slaves" Here.

9. Foxygen--We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic



     Foxygen is one of those bands that has a distinct trait that makes them very hard not to enjoy, no matter your musical tastes: familiarity. Building upon their short LP (released last year), Take the Kids Off Broadway (containing one of their best tracks, "Make it Known"), We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic never falls into the trap of being too "retro" for retro's sake. It sounds like a band that has been influenced by dozens of different styles: from the weed-hazed buoyancy of hippie music to thrashing acid rock to the best aspects of current pop, Foxygen surprises around every turn of the next track, like when the steady and funny "No Destruction" changes gears into the tempo-switching "On Blue Mountain". No doubt Foxygen, and specifically lead singer Sam France, have an undeniable swagger and carefree attitude that make the album's nine tracks fly by seemingly without effort--and rumors have circulated that the success of the band has been causing tension between the two main members, with France becoming a bit of a loose cannon on stage. So there's no better time to be listening to Foxygen than right now, before they crash and burn. Though they invite comparisons to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, Foxygen have found a creative niche--experimental retro rock that gives you that ol' familiar feeling.

Watch the video to Foxygen's "No Destruction" Here.

8. Earl Sweatshirt--Doris


     California rap group Odd Future are only getting more popular: led by I'll-Say-Anything-For-Shock-Value Tyler, The Creator, Odd Future have become the new Wu Tang for young skateboarding kids--each member has a distinct personality and rapping style. None of them have a greater flow than Earl Sweatshirt. Doris, Earl's first studio album, cements his status as the most worthwhile member of Odd Future. Featuring production by himself, Pharrell, and RZA, Doris contains beats that trend more toward underground samples and base thumps than poppy radio hits. His lyrics and rhyme schemes are even better, and instead of relying on shocks and horror like Tyler and Eminem do more often than not, Earl's raps deal with his real-life issues--sitting on his sofa smoking weed, wondering if his father still loves him, and pondering on the success of his rap career that just began. Take his opening verse on "Chum": "It's probably been twelve years since my father left, left me fatherless / And I just used to say 'I hate him' in dishonest jest". Or listen to him show off his funny and intricate rhyme scheme on the 2nd verse of "Whoa": "On the hunt for clues, more food, and some floozy women / Bruising gimmicks with the broom he usually use for Quidditch / Gooey writtens, scoot 'em to a ditch, chewed and booty scented / Too pretentious, do pretend like he could lose with spitting / Steaming tubes of poop and twisted doobies full of euphemisms". It's this combination--Earl's delivery of flow and well-written rhymes--that make Doris the best rap album of the year, a wordplay puzzle that I keep coming back to.

Watch the video to Earl Sweatshirt's "Hive" Here.

7. Bill Callahan--Dream River

     I have a confession: I had never listened to Bill Callahan before downloading Dream River earlier this year. That's pretty incredible, because this is his 15th studio album (the 4th released under his own name--he used to record under the name Smog). If Dream River is any indication, I've been missing out: with eight songs that contrast Bill's beautiful baritone voice with incredibly vivid arrangements that feature guitars, flutes, fiddles, and congas, the album is the perfect bookend to any cold winter day as the sun slowly sets below the horizon. Callahan is a storyteller with simple lyrics that evoke America and Americana in its natural beauty and splendor. Whether the song focuses on a summer spent painting names on boats ("Summer Painter"), seasons changing and sensuality ("Spring"), or a contemplative winter ride home ("Winter Road"), Callahan is a master at slowing us down and having us take in a moment. He can be funny too, like in the opener "The Sing", when a man in solitude states that "The only words I said today...were 'beer'...and 'thank you'". Dream River is music as eloquent poetry, as a transfixing painting, as a goddamned work of art.

Listen to Bill Callahan's "Summer Painter" Here.

6. Pissed Jeans--Honeys

     I'm not sure if we could take music in a more opposite direction, from Bill Callahan to Pissed Jeans. If Callahan's record is good for a thoughtful and contemplative look at the simple things in life, Pissed Jeans' Honeys is the guy that walks up behind you, screams in your ear, and kicks you squarely in the nutsack, telling you to man up. A noise rock / punk band from Pennsylvania, Pissed Jeans makes music for when you feel trapped in the monotony and hilariousness of our messed up world. No punk band is worthwhile without a talented and charismatic lead singer, and that's never more true with Matt Korvette and his ear-piercing shrieks, vein-popping enthusiasm and truly funny and head smashing song subject matter. He sets his male gaze on many daily situations, no matter their importance, and shreds them with sarcasm. Feeling like he "won the Superbowl" upon hearing about the death of an office co-worker in "Cafeteria Food", sneezing because of cat allergies in "Cathouse", or staying healthy by avoiding the doctor in "Health Plan"--Korvette's shows that he's master of picking apart daily life with his noisy rock. Honeys is the 4th Pissed Jeans album, and it only feels tighter and more compact--36 minutes of music that--if you dare approach it--rewards a listener with a smile and bleeding eardrums.

Watch the (hilarious) video to "Bathroom Laughter" by Pissed Jeans Here.

5. Speedy Ortiz--Major Arcana


      I saw Speedy Ortiz open for Pissed Jeans at The Sinclair in Cambridge, MA, and in the days post-show I found myself thinking more about the opening band than the main act: hailing from Western Massachusetts, Speedy Ortiz is an indie rock band led by front woman Sadie Dupuis, and their album Major Arcana is an assured debut that shows that the band has major staying power in the New England rock scene. This album doesn't try to impress or show off: it's just straight up great tunes with gnarly riffs and clever lyrics. Dupuis tackles subjects with a wit and originality that is rare in the douchey indie rock scene. Take "Tiger Tank", where she states that her "mouth is a factory for every toxic part of speech I spew", or the insecurities of a young woman in "Plough": "I was never the witch that you made me to do be / Still you picked a virgin over me"--it's this vulnerability mixed with humor that propels Dupuis into a class of indie rock singers that actually add positives to the band. Supposedly, Dupuis fronts an all-female Pavement cover band called Babement, and though I'm not a fan of the band, one can't argue their status as Indie Rock Gods. Speedy Ortiz will probably never make it that high: but with Major Arcana--their first try--they're giving it their best shot.

Watch the video for Speedy Ortiz's "Tiger Tank" Here.

4. Future of the Left--How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident

     One day, a few years ago (maybe it was six or seven), I was randomly searching the Internet for some new music to buy. Sometimes your daily selection just seems stale, and you need something new and exciting to spice up your day. I happened upon a review of a band called Mclusky and their album Mclusky Do Dallas. That day, my life changed (and my face melted off). Led by frontman Andy "Falco" Falkous, the welsh post-hardcore band rarely left my CD player for months on end. There was a minor problem, though: Mclusky had broken up before I had even gotten into their music. Fortunately, realizing that the world (me, anyway) couldn't deal without their tasty riffs, Falco and Mclusky's drummer formed a new rock band, Future of the Left. How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident is their 4th (and 2nd best) album. Future of the Left have always had a slightly different feel than Mclusky--especially the use of a synthesizer. But Falko has always kept his trademark humor and biting aggressiveness. It's never more apparent than here, on tracks like "Singing of the Bonesaws", a humorous look at the absurdity of modern civilization, and opener "Bread, Cheese, Bow and Arrow", with Falco sneering "I'm Just a Man!" in a take on modern masculinity. Both Mclusky and Future of the Left have always been political, never afraid to share their opinions while the listener is carried by a kick-ass bass line. And Future have never been more Mclusky-ish than they are here: funny, brutal, and surprising.

Listen to FotL's "Bread, Cheese, Bow and Arrow" Here.

3. Arcade Fire--Reflektor

     How does one of the best bands of the past 10 years follow up their Grammy-Winning (not that the Grammys mean anything at all) album, The Suburbs? Apparently, by releasing a double album of 13 epic-length songs produced by LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy. When the band released the video for the title (opening) track "Reflektor" prior to the album's release, I was blown away: it was a perfect combination of Murphy's sonic skill with electronic rhythm and Arcade Fire's married lead singers' (Win and Regina) call-to-each-other lyrics, all with a relevant wink at social media. And that's just the beginning: throughout the span of both discs, over an hour of some of the year's best music comes forth. The first disc showcases the funky groove of "We Exist", the Haitian influences of the beautiful "Here Comes the Night Time", and the most-rocking "Normal Person". Disc two becomes more ethereal and expands sonically, though it still totally rocks: "It's Never Over (Oh Orpheus)" features Regina at her best, "Porno" continues a funk that's even funkier, and standout "Afterlife" is Arcade Fire at the top of their game, one of the best songs of the year. Though I doubt that I'll love any Arcade Fire album as much as their first, Funeral, Reflektor reveals that the band is not playing it safe and the direction they are heading in is an unequivocally exciting one.

Watch the video for Arcade Fire's "Reflektor" Here.

2. Savages--Silence Yourself

     Seeing Savages at Middle East Downstairs in Cambridge, MA was my live highlight of the year (if not of many years), and their corresponding debut album, Silence Yourself, solidified itself as one my favorites of the last 12 months only a couple of weeks after first listening to it. A post-punk band from England consisting of four incredibly talented women, Savages' debut album is fast and furious and nearly every track is a killer exercise in rocking skill. Two of the women shine in the spotlight a bit brighter: guitarist Gemma Thompson's skillful vitality propels most of Savages' songs like a The Bends / OK Computer-era female version of Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, and singer Jehnny Beth's anarchic charm boils down to her animal-like ferociousness and lyrics that immerse you into the music rather than cause you to think too hard. Savages are not classified as easy listening: the guitars and base are forceful and fast-moving, and the percussion slams and shakes and propels the songs forward quickly (except for the three slower--yet still stellar--songs, "Strife", "Waiting For a Sign" and "Marshal Dear"). All of the elements come together best in the albums three best tracks: "City's Full", with its androgynous and sexy lyrics, "She Will", where "She" gets hooked on loving hard and forcing the slut out, and "Husbands", which completely pulverizes. Savages state that their music is "best heard loud and in the foreground". I happily agree.

YouTube videos of Savages do not do the band any justice. Here are two anyway:
Performing "Husbands" on Jools Holland
Performing "She Will" Live at KEXP

1. The Drones--I See Seaweed

     The Drones, Australia's best band, notoriously don't receive much fanfare from the Yanks in America. Their last few albums were released on an American label (most notably their 5th and 6th studio albums, Gala Mill and Havilah), but their newest, I See Seaweed, was released independently and can only be obtained through special ordering or on ITunes. It's an absolute shame: I See Seaweed's eight epic rock songs are arguably some of their best to date, and there is no music in the year 2013 that is better written or more relevant to the world that we all share. In only takes the opening line of the title (and first) track to see that The Drones are not a band with frivolous or meaningless lyrics--"I see seaweed on the lawn / There's no point coming here no more". Echoes of the world coming to end (whether by war, disaster, or global warming) have always been a prevalent force in The Drones' apocalyptic rock songs, and on their newest, it's still pushed to the forefront. The album is bookended by two of the best written songs of the year. "I See Seaweed" builds to a goosebump-inducing crushing rock explosion with its over-population theme, and closer "Why Write A Letter That You'll Never Send" is powerful enough--with its spitball lyrics that cover no less than the Holocaust, the Pope, and people not giving a shit anymore--to bring tears to your eyes. The middle six tracks are far from forgettable: two in particular, "A Moat You Can Stand In", about people standing on their high horse and spouting garbage, is brutal and pounding, and "Laika", about the first animal (a dog) shot into space, is full of loneliness and regret. Many people simply can't get into The Drones due to singer Gareth Liddiard's unique delivery and (very) thick accent. My advice: get over it. No one in music today is writing better and more relevant rock songs.

Listen to The Drones' "I See Seaweed" Here, the title track off of their new album.

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