Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Year in Music, 2013: Top 20 Albums

20. Blue Sky, Black Death - Glaciers

RIYL: Really cool sounding background music

The knock on Blue Sky, Black Death's stuff is that it works best as background music, and Glaciers is going to do absolutely nothing to dispel that theory. I really enjoyed the more suite-based approach they went for this time around, though.

19. My Bloody Valentine - m b v

RIYL: Loveless, Gazing at shoes

I can't say that I waited 20 years for this album (Loveless came out when I was 8, and I didn't really gain an appreciation for it until 2007 or so), but damned if m b v wasn't worth any duration wait.

18. Aye Nako - Unleash Yourself

RIYL: DIY pop-punk

"Molasses" would've sneaked on my song countdown if I had remembered that I did a top 30 last year, the rest of the album is just good low-fi hook-filled punkish goodness. Bonus points for giving the album away, but this one's worth buying.

17. Jon Hopkins - Immunity

RIYL: Being enveloped in IDM bliss.

This was my chillout album for a good chunk of the summer. It was the perfect album to throw on after a couple of beers to watch the sunset to.

16. Cults - Static

RIYL: Their self-titled debut

I know what will probably happen here. Cults' first album ended up being a sort of mayfly of an album. This one is probably set for the same fate, and who knows where it would've placed on this list (if at all) if it had been released in, say, February. All I know is that I'm still listening, and it still sounds great.
15. Phosphorescent - Muchacho

RIYL: Folksy Anti-Love Songs

Originally, I dismissed Muchacho as "Song For Zula plus nine other songs". That's a mistake. While none of the rest of the album quite catches up to that song's heartbreaking brilliance, it's still packed with great songs.

14. The Field - Cupid's Head

RIYL: The Field, only a little darker

This album had the benefit of coming out in a year where I finally began to really enjoy The Field's music. It also had the benefit of sounding a little darker. Weirdly enough, it made for good listening at work.

13. Foals - Holy Fire

RIYL: Sunset beaches on horseback, apparently

This album initially suffered in my eyes a bit because there aren't very many clear cut, attention grabbing hooks to it. I love Yannis Philippakis' voice, though, so I kept with it. It turns out that was a good move.

12. Fuck Buttons - Slow Focus

RIYL: Towering, slightly imposing walls of electronic music

Over the last few years, Tarot Sport has wormed its way into being one of my favorite albums, so Slow Focus had a lot to live up to. Initially, it didn't seem to make the cut, but songs like "Brainfreeze" and "Sentients" proved irresistible. I like this album more with each passing listen.

11. Frightened Rabbit - Pedestrian Verse

RIYL: Scottish dudes singing about sadness and death

This one is both more depressing and less immediate than The Winter of Mixed Drinks. Even so, it's a step forward in depth of songwriting. The songs on Pedestrian Verse grow and mature more than they have on previous albums.

10. Tegan and Sara - Heartthrob

RIYL: Really hook-filled pop music

2013 was the year that Tegan and Sara decided to imitate The Veronicas, of all people, and the results were super hooks and pop music delight.

9. The Joy Formidable - Wolf's Law

RIYL: Female-fronted Stadium-Sized Rock

Of all the albums I listened to toward the beginning of the year, this is the one that really stuck around. It's got flaws, but the big songs are HUGE and whenever I needed something to sound BIG, this was my go to.
8. Deafheaven - Sunbather

RIYL: Explosive post-rock-inspired blackgaze

I would not have expected a black metal-inspired album to break into my top 30, much less my top 10, yet here we are. It helps that Deafheaven clearly understands that crescendos are only half of the game with post-rock, the atosphere leading up to those crescendos is just as important. Deafheaven has explosive action in spades, but it knows when to dial it back. Sunbather is the type of album that makes a person search for its brother. I sort of doubt I'll find it.

7. The Haxan Cloak - Excavation

RIYL: Darkness.

No album brought about as stark a reaction as Excavation. Each listen felt like an hour-long odyssey through some long-forgotten crypt, the light having been forcibly sucked out of the room. The door slams shut on the listener in "Consumed". The next 40 minutes is just wandering the halls, waiting for the inevitable.

6. Arcade Fire - Reflektor

RIYL: Sprawling, dancey, overlong, indie rock epics.

There's too much going on here. Does the beautiful, but stuffed "Supersymetry" need to be three hours long? No. Does "You Already Know" need that bit in the beginning and ending with the faux-variety show announcer? No. The whole thing is, in equal parts, maddening and brilliant. The more I listened, the more I realized that the brilliant parts shone through, and the maddening parts just sort of faded into the background.

5. Mikal Cronin - MCII

RIYL: Jangly guitar rock

I've never really gotten into the Ty Segal collective thing. Luckily, that's in no way a prerequisite to enjoying MCII. All you really need to an appreciation for excellent, guitar rock. There's plenty of that to go around.

4. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels

RIYL: Killer Mike, El-P, or any combination therein

What a pleasant little gift this was. Dropped for free on that wonderful July afternoon, I instantly knew that this was going to be top 5. Every song just feels so BADASS.
3. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City

RIYL: Like marsbars said over on rateyourmusic: Like Vampire Weekend, but better

I've always enjoyed Vampire Weekend a fair bit - they make fun music, after all - but this album surprised me. They've always been verbose (one of their breakout songs was about Oxford Commas and Lil Jon, for crying out loud), but on Modern Vampires, they really go for broke. The emotional moments pack a little bigger wallop; the stakes are a little higher (or, as in "Ya Hey", a LOT higher). I wouldn't have guessed that they had an album like this in them, but I'm glad they did.

2. The National - Trouble Will Find Me

RIYL: Sad, bearded indie rock

High Violet was, and remains my pick for best album to come out in the 2010's (have we settled on what the last couple of decades are supposed to be called?). This one was bound to suffer in comparison, as they were never going to be able to top the somber rush of "Bloodbuzz Ohio", or the semi-serene panic of "Conversation 16". Once I was able to move beyond that, I was able to view Trouble Will Find Me as an excellent album made by one of my favorite bands.

1. Sigur Rós - Kveikur


Valtari felt like a return of sorts for Sigur Rós after the "poppier" Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust (not to mention Jónsi's solo album). That said, repeated listens made it feel like something was missing. Whether it was the squall of Ágætis Byrjun or the steady propulsion of ( ), it felt... lacking.

Kveikur is not lacking.

There's a lot of talk of this being a darker album, or that it's more influenced by industrial music. That only seems true when compared to Valtari or Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust. Sigur Rós' earlier stuff could certainly seem pretty like a sunrise, but there was always a tumultuous undercurrent. With large parts of Kveikur it feels like they simply brought it to the foreground. However, deeper listens reveal lots of break sin the clouds. "Ísjaki" is one of the most beautiful songs they've ever written, and that's by no means an outlier.

I had hailed Valtari as a "return to form". Kveikur proves that while that may have been true, it's far more exciting to watch this band head off in interesting new directions.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Year in Music, 2013: Top 20 Songs

...as was the custom of the time, he displayed his picks for best songs of the year 2013 with minimal commercial interruption. He made up a Spotify playlist for 'em and everything.

20. Fuck Buttons - Sentients

19. CHVRCHES - Recover

18. Drake - Hold On We're Going Home (feat. Majid Jordan)

17. Swim Deep - She Changes the Weather

16. The Joy Formidable - This Ladder Is Ours

15. Run the Jewels - Banana Clipper (feat. Big Boi)

14. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Jubilee Street

The National - Don't Swallow the Cap13. The National - Don't Swallow the Cap

12. TV on the Radio - Mercy

11. Sigur Rós - Ísjaki

10. The Joy Formidable - Maw Maw Song

9. Vampire Weekend - Diane Young

8. Mikal Cronin - Weight

7. Tegan and Sara - Closer

6. Fuck Buttons - Brainfreeze

5. Youth Lagoon - Mute

4. Sigur Rós - Brennisteinn
3. Daft Punk - Get Lucky (feat. Pharrell Williams)

2. Phosphorescent - Song For Zula

1. Arcade Fire - Reflektor

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Year in Music, 2013: Top 20 Moments in Music

This might be my favorite of the annual lists. Below are my twenty favorite moments in music over the past year - little snippets of songs that made me perk up my ears or just think "whoa". The definition for "moment" varies in length (ranging in length this year from a momentary background noise to a two plus minute rap verse) and makeup (particularly clever lyrics are always welcome, but even minor chord changes can trigger the right effect).

Without any further ado, let's dig in.

20. Puig Destroyer - Stop Fucking Bunting

It's insane, it's funny, it's poignant, and most of all, it's true. That it's being screamed at you shouldn't dissuade you from taking its message to heart. You hear that, Ron Gardenhire? Play for one (that's all you get).
19. Daft Punk - Get Lucky
The ending funk breakdown

The cherry on top of the disco/funk sundae that is "Get Lucky", and the perfect comedown to the best song to touch Top 40 radio this year.

18. Dessa - Warsaw
"It's a dive bar. Save the game... you drink and you sit"

I'm not entirely sure why some of the lines in 'Warsaw' get me like they do, but I smile every time I hear this one.

17.  Sigur Rós - Brennisteinn
One shimmering note pierces through the darkest, most propulsive Sigur Rós song in years, right before the song soars.

16. Deafheaven - Sunbather
Those shimmering guitars 7:55 in.

A huge part of the reason that I liked Sunbather so much was all the post-rock sensibilities that the band built into it. In between blast beats and screamed vocals, we get sections like this one, where an atmospheric, shimmery guitar fades in.

15. The Joy Formidable - This Ladder Is Ours
The Intro Open Up the Throttle

The intro to Wolf's Law gets things going the right way, transitioning from the epic-sounding string section to a proper stadium rock sound.

14. Phosphorescent - Song For Zula
"...and I could kill you with my bare hands if I was free"

The harrowing end to one of the most perfect anti-love songs ever written.

13. Arctic Monkeys - Do I Wanna Know?
The slinky, swaggering guitar line

It reminds me a lot of the opening to "Godzilla" by Blue Öyster Cult, but it stands up fine on its own. Sure, it makes for a good instrumental for a rum commercial (gee thanks, Bacardi), but it's even better once Alex Turner starts sneering lines like "Been wondering if your heart's still open and if so I wanna know what time it shuts"

12. The Haxan Cloak - The Drop
What is that groaning??

'The Drop' is the final track to the dark masterpiece that is Excavation. It starts out innocently enough (as innocently as Excavation gets, anyway), a fairly simple, relatively non-evil low bass sound, with what almost appears to be a melody line.

Then, at around the four minute mark, it turns.

 11. The Joy Formidable - Maw Maw Song
The sound gets big

'Maw Maw Song' is a stupid name for a song. The song is pretty decent, then, with a blistering snare roll - it decides to go epic. Suddenly, there's guitar theatrics and you wish you were seeing it in a packed stadium.

 10. Vampire Weekend - Hannah Hunt
"Dammit, Hannah"

It's during that last chorus to 'Hannah Hunt', where Ezra Koenig's voice strains as he sings "If I can't trust you, then dammit, Hannah" when you can start to understand how everyone is losing it over Modern Vampires of the City.
9. Run the Jewels - Banana Clipper (feat. Big Boi)
"I said El-P didn't do it, so get the fuck outta here."

Over the past few years, the partnership between El-P and Killer Mike has proven fruitful for both rappers. So, when Killer Mike raps "Producer gave me a beat/said it's the beat of the year/I said El-P didn't do it/so get the fuck outta here." it's both a grin inducing like and probably a sign of good sense on Mike's part.

8. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Jubilee Street
"I'm flying..."

About three-quarters through Push the Sky Away centerpiece and highlight 'Jubilee Street', Nick Cave switches from storytelling to stream-of-consciousness euphoria, singing "I'm glowing/I'm flying/Look at me now/I'm flying/Look at me now" as the band soars to match.

7. The National - This Is the Last Time
"Jenny, I am in trouble..."

The ending to "This Is the Last Time" almost feels like a completely different song, going from a relatively peppy "I won't be waitin' anymore/I won't be vacant anymore" to "Jenny, I am in trouble/Can't get these thoughts out of me/Jenny, I'm seeing double/I know this changes everything" as the background singers sing "It takes a lot of pain/to pick me up"
6. TV on the Radio - Mercy
Synth squiggle

As good as the last couple of TV on the Radio albums have been, it's good to see them doing a little faster tempo song. The little synth line after each chorus is pure awesome, and something I'd like to see them do more of.

5. Capital Cities - Safe and Sound
Cheesy fake trumpet!

Seriously. How much money did this cheesy, fake trumpet sound make these guys? One of the best "cheesy fake instrument" spots ever.

4. The Haxan Cloak - Consumed
Exit light.

I'm shocked that some movie studio hasn't handed Bobby Krlic a blank check and given some horror movie commercial the best background music ever. The slamming sound feels like a crypt closing, forcibly removing all of the light from the room.

I've listened to this album on a bright, sunny day. It does nothing to dull that feeling.
3. Big Sean - Control (feat. Kendrick Lamar & Jay Electronica)
Kendrick Lamar's verse

It's the verse that removed whatever doubt remained regarding Kendrick Lamar's superiority. It's vicious, it's funny, and it takes absolutely no prisoners. It's not particularly rare that a rapper gets upstaged by one of his features, but this is the upstage to end them all.

2. The National - Pink Rabbits
"You said it would be painless..."

Another depressing classic by The National.

You said it would be painless
A needle in a doll
You said it would be painless
It wasn't that at all

1. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
"Thought you were praying to the ressurector..."

What happens in the last couple of minutes of 'Reflektor'

* That great Colin Stetson-led descending brass melody
* David Bowie!
* Some great piano
* The best part of any song this year, or any moment I can think of since maybe 2010.