Wednesday, January 1, 2014

This One Goes to Eleven: My Favorite Records from 2013 (plus a few more)

They’re ranked, but you know the drill - on any given day… There are a few things that made my list that weren’t featured on many other lists I saw. I don’t take pride in this; it just leaves me confused and frustrated. Conversely, there are a lot of best-of-2013 favorites from other lists that aren’t on mine. You can probably tell more about my list from what’s not on it than what is.

1. Austra - Olympia: I think this was my favorite record of the year. The fact that I haven’t seen it on a single “best-of” list yet is incredibly depressing. How could I be that out of step? How could what’s offered here appeal to so few others? I don’t understand how people can go crazy for Metric, another female-lead Canadian group with electronic undertones, but not pay this any mind. To me, Metric are dull, boring as musical oatmeal, and have lame, corny lyrics. Austra are musically sharp and inventive, and have fantastic lyrics. I think the hurdle for most people is lead singer Katie Stelmanis’ voice. The hurdle being that it’s a fantastic and dynamic voice and most people have no taste. This is the kind of music that The Knife (also on this list) used to make (see: “Heartbeats”) and I kind of miss it. There are several examples of similarly hook-laden tracks like “Forgive Me,” “Painful Like,” “We Become,” and “Annie (Oh Muse).” However, I love the patience of opener “What Have We Done?” which starts slow and low, before building to a rousing crescendo three minutes in. For all the buzz around Zola Jesus or Bat for Lashes (both of whom I like), or even Lorde (who… meh), Austra do it better.

2. Alice Smith - She: Again, another record I didn’t see on almost anyone else’s list. This was a great, self-assured record stocked with amazing songs. I liked it instantly. I assumed this would be a huge hit. To my knowledge and great confusion it wasn’t. Maybe it was a case of record being too soulful and not retro enough for rock audiences and not urban enough for R&B audiences. At a time when these types of labels mean less and less I don’t understand how this doesn’t just connect with everybody. I didn’t hear a vocal performance that meant it more, that wore it’s heart on its sleeve more than the one in “Another Love.” It’s one of the best songs of the year, an upbeat tempo and a tank of hurt. There are great melodies everywhere on this and the arrangements are completely classy.

3. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories: It's a cliche to say that they don’t make them like this any more, but in this case it’s accurate. People don’t shell out the cash to make an album that sounds this organically lush. This really isn’t an electronic music record. The drums are real drums played by session musicians in real studios. At a time when faux dubstep is making electronic music sound cheap and trashy, Daft Punk created a pop record that really begs to be heard on a good stereo system. The Nile Rodgers tracks on this are perfect. The Giorgio Moroder-spoken intro has grown on me, while the rest of that track (“Giorgio by Moroder”) floors me. Although it challenged some of their core audience, I think it was a necessary for whatever will come next.

4. Grant Hart - The Argument: This record was a surprise. It plays to the part of me that wants to hear an album as a whole, complete with high concept and literary pretensions. Grant Hart has created a musical adaptation of William Burroughs’ treatment of Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” and to my mind he’s done it extremely successfully. Whatever reputation Grant Hart has personally, you can’t deny the man’s talent. There are few people in contemporary music that would have attempted something like this much less pulled it off. Hart manages to communicate real pain, loss, and humiliation in the characterization of Milton/Burroughs’ Satan. There are songs that work well as standalone tracks (“Morningstar,” “I Will Never See My Home”) and those that are more setpieces to serve the story of the whole (“I Am Death”). However, even the songs which are more plot-movers are interesting musically, often with arrangements crossing genres in a way that Stephen Merritt was able to do with 69 Love Songs. This album received good reviews on its release, but it’s been largely forgotten by the end of the year which is a shame. We need more rock music with this sense of ambition.

5. David Bowie - The Next Day: This album is complicated. There’s a very good record hidden in the one that was actually released. Five tracks on the official album are not very good. The good news is that if you buy the deluxe edition, there are enough superior bonus tracks to craft a record that plays great all the way through. I've suggested a running order in my previous review although I’m not sure I’ve quite nailed it. I did get the songs right though. The bonus tracks here: “God Bless the Girl,” “So She,” “I’ll Take You There,” and “The Plan” are a better fit with the rest of the record than the ones I would eliminate. Why should you have to do so much work to listen to an album? Because it’s Bowie and he’s worth it.

6. Arcade Fire - Reflektor: For all the bluster about James Murphy’s production and AF’s new disco sound, this record still sounds like the progeny of Springsteen and Bowie to me. It’s the first disc of this album that makes the bigger initial splash, but it’s the softer and more restrained second disc that has stayed with me in songs like “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus),” “Afterlife,” and “Supersymmetry.” I’m guessing this record was designed to let a little air out of their high drama, ultra sincere image ala Achtung Baby! What’s funny is that like U2, Arcade Fire’s idea of scaling down their own self-importance still equates with a grand epic statement like releasing a double album and an expertly coordinated, pre-release promotional roll-out (in U2’s case it was the Zoo TV tour). I like that this band are adding New Order to their palette. Now they just need to be able to create something on the smaller scale of say Power, Corruption, and Lies or Low Life. They’re one of the few bands that could use a couple throwaway tracks on their albums to cast the better songs in greater perspective.

7. Blood Orange - Cupid Deluxe: This record should probably be ranked higher than it is, but I only recently discovered it so I’m tempering my judgment a bit. This is a funky, deep British soul album that is both rhythmically and melodically compelling. There are hooks all over the album metered with sadness wearing a mask of heroic romance. You could make the argument that it’s a little retro, very 80s, but the songs themselves are strong enough to bear the weight of comparison. There’s a smooth sax likeness to Destroyer’s Kaputt that inhabits some of these tracks, “Chosen” in particular. In fact, you could make the case that Blood Orange is just an indie-soul update of Al B. Sure. Maybe so, but go back and listen to In Effect Mode and tell me what’s wrong with that.

8. Thundercat - Apocalypse: This is a classy record by a distinctly talented musician. It’s not jazz or dance or R&B. Thundercat exists within his own genre. Although the record is dedicated to a departed friend, there is a joy and love to this music which is warm, uplifting, and inclusive. As a bassist, Thundercat lets his instrument lead these tracks in a way that is unique outside of dub reggae - it even informs the vocal melody. Like any truly great music of the present it feels both futuristic and retro at the same time, blending fusion, funk, and disco together in a way that is really harmonically distinctive. I feel a little weird making this comparison, but what he’s doing is not that different from Esperanza Spalding although he isn’t as tied to tradition as much as she is. I’d love to hear Prince’s opinion of this record. I’d love to hear him do a song with Janelle Monae. I really want to hear what he’s going to do next.

9. Solange - True: Solange’s sister Beyonce just put out a new record and was met with worldwide fawning fanfare. I couldn’t care less. I’ve never liked Beyonce. I’ve never really dislike her. There have been occasionally good Beyonce songs (“Independent Woman,” “Love on Top,” and begrudgingly “Single Ladies”), but she always sounds like she’s working really hard. Solange has sounded calculated in the past, but she has always seemed cool and laidback by comparison to her sister. “Losing You” is Solange’s first great song. Hopefully more follow in its wake. The other songs on this EP are also good aside from some slightly silly lyrics. They don’t sound desperate to impress; they just do.

10. Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clorkwork: This is another record that I heard too late in the year. These guys might not be to your taste, but to me this line-up of the band (including contributions from Grohl, Lannegan, and Oliveri) do intelligent hard rock better than anyone else right now. The grooves on this record are slinky with real hips on them. The arrangements have a lot of room to them which is so rare these days. This might be the best production of any record that’s ever been released on Matador. Josh Homme is one of the best rock singers right now with a range going from a deep croon to a silky falsetto. Auerbach is the only one who comes close, but Homme doesn’t hide his vocals under vintage mic filters. Homme has a better drummer too.

11. Parquet Courts - Light Up Gold + Tally All The Things That You Broke: Hey, you guys remember indie rock? Like, American indie rock circa 93-94? I could run through a list of bands that this one references (Sonic Youth, Pavement, Pixies, Dead Milkmen, Camper Van Beethoven, King Missile, Butthole Surfers, Cows, Archers of Loaf, etc.), but that’s a lot less fun than listening to these guys. And that’s the central word to this music, fun. There’s a sense of self-aware, self-deprecation here that a lot of indie rock has been missing since the millennium. Indie rock of the last 15 years has seemingly disappeared up its own art-damaged, Brooklyn-bred bum. When/why did everyone get so serious? I initially didn’t give these guys the time because I figured them for another empty hipster group. Maybe they are hipsters. I really don’t care. They’ve got good jokes. The best recommendation I could make for them is that they sound like a band that the Kids in the Hall would have been into.

The Best of the Rest:

Zeus - Busting Visions: Badfinger? Oh yeah. I can forgive these guys their retro stance because the tunes are good. It’s not really that direct of a copy/target. There are other influences at work: Beatles (duh), Big Star, Faces, Emitt Rhodes, etc. They fall into the Dr. Dog pile for me.

The Ocean Blue - Ultramarine: The first two songs are excellent and rest is merely good. New Order definitely won’t release a record better than this ever again.

The Knife - Shaking the Habitual: To be honest, these guys haven’t really moved me since Silent Shout (Fever Ray notwithstanding). They are brilliant, but far too often they sound abstract for the sake of abstraction. If they so chose to wade in those waters, they could make Lady Gaga irrelevant overnight. Call me nuts, but I want this transgressive duo to make a pop album.

Forest Swords - Engravings: There’s a lot of mood to this record. I’m almost tempted to call it trip hop. Whatever you call it, it’s really beautiful, hypnotic music.

Janelle Monae - Electric Lady: I wanted to like this record more than I did, which isn’t to say that there's not a lot to recommend it. Specifically, “Primetime” and “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes” are magnificent. On the whole though there are too many guest stars. Janelle is more than talented enough to carry her own record.

Active Child - Rapor EP: It’s not as focused of a statement as You Are All I See, but this is very catchy. “Calling in the Name of Love” and “Feeling Is Gone” are my jams.

King Krule - 6 Feet Beneath the Moon: This kid is 19 which makes me sick. He’s like Scott Farkus grown up, pouring out his pain through his voice and guitar. I actually think he needs to leave behind the electronic elements and go for a more sparse Billy Bragg sound. “Easy Easy” is killer.

Savages - Silence Yourself: I resisted this for a good long while as I do with most current records that approach the same genre as my former group. They have the sound, style, and swagger down for sure. They just need a few more songs. “Shut Up” and “Husbands” are a good start.

Fort Romeau - Stay/True EP; Jetee/Desire EP; SW9 EP: This guy is the touring keyboardist for La Roux. It’s house. I like it.

Sebastien Tellier - Confection: This aims to be of a piece with the Cosmic Machine compilation (below). It’s close. It’s not his best, but it’s nice.

Foxygen - We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic: These guys are young and incredibly precious. Their meltdown earlier this year didn’t help their cause. They’ve done their homework though. Anyone who can rip off the Stones ("Under My Thumb"), Elvis ("Suspicious Minds"), and Iggy (take your pick) in the same song ("Blue Mountain") at least show they have moxie. If they grow some thicker skin they could be good as long as they don’t fall prey to their own Brian Jonestown complex.

Ducktails - The Flower Lane: These guys seem like twee dorks, but I can dig it. I’m surprised that this record didn’t come out on Captured Tracks.

Burial - Rival Dealer; Truant/Rough Sleeper: It’s bizarre to me that this guy falls under the same umbrella as Skrillex; and considering the potential comparison, it's a riddle how some people still take the latter seriously.

Jose James - No Beginning, No End: Local guy makes nice Sunday morning music.

Pere Ubu - Lady from Shanghai: You should know by this point if this is for you or not.


Various Artists - Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound: I’m surprised “Just Another Sucker” isn’t on here, but this is both a great listen as well as an important document. Amazing packaging too. The Alexander O'Neal tunes and the Flyte Tyme cuts make it worth it alone.

Various Artists - Cosmic Machine: I’ve been looking for stuff that’s like Alain Goraguer’s La Planete Sauvage soundtrack (which is represented here) and here it is. Now I just need to track down all the records individually.

Craig Leon - She Wears a Hemispherical Skull Cap: Super important producer makes great proto techno with ethnic overtones. Think Byrne/Eno, but earlier and with more krautrock. Easily as vital as 23 Skidoo.

Here's a playlist of everything except Thundercat and Craig Leon because they're not on Spotify. I included a couple videos for those two below.

Lou Reed

I started writing a piece during the summer on Lou Reed's critique of the new Kanye West, but I never finished it. Basically, it was going to be a primer on Lou for Kanye fans who had no idea of who this cranky old guy was. When Lou passed away I was recording vocals for a new record. Needless to say, it was difficult to process that day. I wrote the following on Facebook, but I thought I might like to share it here as well.

I’ve taken Lou Reed’s passing harder than I would have expected. Like many people, his music was hugely important to me. I was surprised how much coverage his death received and the range of people who paid tribute. I admit some surprise at seeing Miley Cyrus’ and Josh Groban’s tweets. Perhaps most celebrities simply realized that a giant had fallen and they felt compelled to comment. Maybe they were fans though. Who am I to judge?

A lot of people posted what their favorite song was or just that he influenced them. However, I didn’t hear a lot of specifics about why they loved his music. Here’s my story about how I found his music and what it meant to me.

I found Lou the summer after my senior year in high school. It might have been earlier except for a hair metal music clerk at my local Great American Music. I had read an article in Spin a couple of years earlier which stated that The Byrds were the most influential American rock group outside of the Velvet Underground. I thought it was strange that I had never heard of the most influential American group of all time. I was buying Led Zeppelin II at the aforementioned G.A.M. when I asked the Dana Strum clone behind the counter who the Velvets were, mentioning the Spin article. He reacted with disgust and told me the Velvet Underground were a terrible band. He played me the beginning of what I later recognized as “Heroin.” It sounded dark and different, but Mr. Strum turned it off before the vocals started, telling me that I was better off sticking with Zeppelin.

I didn’t make my way back until I had found Bowie and learned of the connection. The summer after high school I had to have reconstructive jaw surgery because my dentist was convinced I would develop huge polyps on the sides of my face since my teeth didn’t touch in the back, meaning the jaw muscles were never at rest. I learned later that the surgery wasn’t necessarily needed.

Since the post-surgery recovery would be two-weeks spent at home my mom said she would buy me a couple of tapes. I picked out Walk on the Wild Side: Best of Lou Reed (the one with the Rachel Polaroids on it) and The Best of the Velvet Underground: Words and Music of Lou Reed.

I brought the tapes and my Walkman with me to the hospital to listen to post-op. I remember waking up in the hospital room with my jaw wired shut and my face newly swollen to the size of a basketball. I was told I wouldn’t be able to feel the lower part of my face for at least a few weeks. There was a lot of involuntary drooling over my fat, cracked lip covered in dried blood. My brother and sister had a hard time looking at me without crying when they came to visit. I felt like a monster, like Joseph Merrick. To be seventeen is to be self-conscious, but this was something else entirely.

That first night in the hospital I listened to the Velvets cassette, finally hearing “Heroin” in full while I was hooked to the IV drip. I didn’t sleep much that night. I had to keep going to the bathroom from the constant infusion of fluids. There was something monstrous in this music which I related to, which gave me some comfort. Ever since Lou Reed’s music was a source of comfort for me when I felt scared, confused, overwhelmed, humiliated, or disappointed in myself.

Obviously, my life is far from tormented – I’m a pretty lucky guy, in fact. And likewise, Lou's music is not all grim. There’s a lot of joy in it. As the liner notes to that Velvets best-of stated, Lou’s mantra could have been condensed down to his reassurance that “It was alright.” Essentially, Lou's music found beauty in things that other people thought were weird or ugly, and that can be a reassuring thing when you're feeling low.

Everyone knows the Velvets are great, but Lou’s solo stuff often gets short shrift. For those who are unfamiliar, here’s a playlist. It’s not the most obscure, but it’s a start from my own personal bias.