Monday, March 10, 2014

My (Belated) Favorite Albums of 2013

The impetus for starting this blog was twofold. First, my friend Scott was all "hey, you should make a blog." But it was also spurred by what has become a yearly tradition for me: the creation of my "favorite albums of the year" list. I spend an inordinate time every December thinking about all the new music I consumed over the previous year and subsequently ranking them in terms of greatness. Typically, I just share this list with my aforementioned "Safe as Milk" radio co-host, Bob, over gchat and then improvise comments about each album. However, this year I decided to write actual blurbs to accompany the albums on the list and then email them out to a bunch of my friends and family. I enjoyed writing these blurbs very much, and it reminded me how much I used to like writing about music. So, I think it is appropriate that my first substantive post include that list. Without further ado, here is what I emailed out back in December 2013:

Honorable Mentions:
Neko Case, Janelle Monae, Boards of Canada, Yo La Tengo. Also, Parquet Courts would be top 10 on this list if I’d elected to include them, but their album technically came out in 2012 and was re-released this year. But yeah, that album is great. March 2014 Edit: I have since become familiar with Cate Le Bon's excellent album Mug Museum which also likely deserves a top ten spot on this list.

20. The National- Trouble Will Find Me
19. Sky Ferreira- Night Time, My Time
18. Savages- Silence Yourself
17. Phosphorescent- Muchacho
16. The Knife- Shaking the Habitual

15. Postiljonen- Skyer
Nice shoegaze/dream pop record from Sweden—kind of in the M83 vein. Good stuff, and overlooked by most this year.

14. Daft Punk- Random Access Memories
A tad overblown, but also extremely entertaining to listen to. I dug the disco influence—the breakdown midway through “Touch” was one of my favorite musical moments of 2013. It was also nice to see a musical artist of this quality achieve huge commercial success this year.

13.  HAIM- Days Are Gone
The second-best party record I heard this year (behind Chvrches). Plus, they're Jews!

12. Deerhunter- Monomania
A bit of a decline from their previous two albums, but still quite good. Bradford Cox and co. moved away from the more atmospheric sound they nailed on Halcyon Digest and indulged in their punk/garage influences. Raw, unpolished, and pretty damn badass. I still regard them as one of the most exciting bands in indie rock, and though this record was more of a lateral move, I remain intrigued by what they will have in store in the future.

11. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds- Push the Sky Away
Solid-as-usual offering from one of my favorite musicians. I always enjoy Cave’s more melancholy work, and this album leans in that direction—though there are some rockin’ moments (namely in the awesomely titled and generally awesome “Higgs Boson Blues”). Cave also delivered the best concert I saw this year.

The Top Ten
10. Chvrches- The Bones of What You Believe
The most “fun” album I heard this year, and an impressive debut from these Glasgow synth poppers. They aren’t doing anything that hasn’t been done before, but the world is always in need of catchy dancey synth songs, and this album has that in spades. I anticipate “The Mother We Share” and “Gun” remaining fixtures on my party playlists for a long time to come.

9. Darkside- Psychic
I’m not the biggest fan of recent trends in electronic music, but Darkside made an electronic album that resonated with me tremendously—probably because they incorporate some rock and roll aspects into their sound. This album has some fantastic grooves throughout. Sounds particularly good late at night.

8. Majical Cloudz- Impersonator
This is one of the more original albums I heard this year. It’s a synthpop album, but I’ve never heard an album in this genre that is so…unsettling. This is not a dance record—more of a confessional singer-songwriter album that is uncomfortably (but fascinatingly) intimate at times. Alluring stuff.

7. Torres- Torres
I probably have a somewhat irrational love for this album due to having a lovely conversation with the main lady in this band after a show at the Empty Bottle and having her tell me “you have no idea how much that means to me” when I told her that her album was the best thing I’d heard all year (which was true at that point- this was back in February). Anyway, it’s no longer the best thing I’ve heard this year but it does hold up as a very well constructed singer-songwriter album with a nice mixture of both intense and beautiful moments. If you like Fiona Apple you’d probably appreciate this record.

6. Arcade Fire- Reflektor
I have tremendous respect for this band and what they’ve been able to do over the past decade. No, they probably will never top Funeral but they’re still churning out excellent albums and pushing their sound in new directions. We’ve known since “Neighborhood 2 (Power Out)” that these guys can make dance music when they please, and here they more thoroughly explore that side of their sound. They don’t quite maintain the quality of the opening “Reflektor” throughout the record but the album is consistently engaging. Arcade Fire are one of the few modern bands that can successfully play to the rafters and this album gives them many more arena anthems in which to draw from.

5. My Bloody Valentine- mbv
I loved this when it came out and then kind of forgot about it for a good six months. Recent re-listens confirm that this is just about the best “comeback” record we could have expected from this band. It basically starts where Loveless left off but by the end of the album is somewhere totally different. Like Portishead did back in 2008, they managed to add another satisfying album to their oeuvre without harming (and in fact, adding to) their legacy.

4. Kurt Vile- Wakin on a Pretty Daze
I’ve always enjoyed Vile’s brand of hazy, laid-back rock and roll but he really upped the ante with this one. This is a sprawling record of guitar jams that never sounds overwhelming or overlong. As the title implies, it just kind of passes you by as you soak up the good vibes.

3. Vampire Weekend- Modern Vampires of the City
Vampire Weekend win this year’s “most improved” award. I enjoyed their first two releases but never cared much about them overall. I recall watching them from afar at the 2008 Pitchfork Music Festival feeling somewhat bewildered by the massive crowd that had gathered to watch them- “they aren’t that good,” I remember thinking. It took five years but I am now on the same page as the rest of that crowd. They took what they did well on previous albums (catchy melodies, smart/funny lyrics) and fleshed that out with impeccable production and some downright pretty songs (“Obvious Bicycle,” “Hannah Hunt”).

2. Bill Callahan- Dream River
Anyone who knows me well knows I am an unabashed fanboy of this guy, but I just continue to be in awe of his talent—and the fact that he’s only getting better with age. The dude is 47 years old and his last three albums have been incredible—with Dream River possibly being the best of the lot. I can think of approximately two rock musicians ever who operated on this level at Callahan’s age: Tom Waits and Nick Cave. Seriously, that’s it. Everyone starts to release shitty music in their 40s, but not this guy. Dream River is stunning in every sense of the word. What sets it apart from his prior work is that he sounds, well, kind of happy here. He’s even smiling in the press photo that accompanied the album. But rather than channeling that happiness into a boring album (i.e. like Wilco did with Sky Blue Sky after Tweedy got sober), Callahan created a beautiful ode to contentment. As he states on the stunning closer “Winter Road”: “I have learned, when things are beautiful, to just keep on.” This album shattered my previously held belief that most truly affecting music is only created by musicians who are suffering, and also cemented Callahan’s status among my very favorite singer-songwriters—right alongside the aforementioned Waits and Cave.

1. Mikal Cronin- MCII
In some ways, this is a peculiar choice for my favorite album of the year. It certainly wasn’t one of the more ambitious albums I heard this year. Nor is it particularly unique or groundbreaking. And yet I found myself coming back to this record again and again (iTunes indicates at least 12 spins of this record since May, which is an insanely high number given my typical listening habits). There’s something about Cronin’s songwriting on this record that I find exhilarating, even if, on a surface level, MCII is just another entry among countless singer-songwriter/power pop albums that have been released over the years. First off, his sense of melody is incredible. The album is chock full of songs so catchy and hummable that it’s downright amazing to me that these songs hadn’t already been written. Indeed, there is a timeless quality to this record. It could have come out in 1975 and fit in right alongside what Big Star and Nick Lowe were doing around that time. And yet Cronin manages to channel that “timeless” sound into something that sounds fresh and exciting in 2013.  MCII was also far and away the best driving record of the year—perfect for driving around on a sunny summer day. Simply put, MCII consistently made me feel joy in a way that no other album did this year. I expect this to be one of my go-to "let's rock out" albums for many years to come.

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