Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Another Irrelevant List: My Favorite Music of 2013

Might as well get it out of the way: 2013 was not an especially strong year for music. It was the year when the celebrity status of musicians very much eclipsed their creative output -- you know, the reason they are famous in the first place. People snapped up new records by Katy Perry, Jay Z, Eminem, Justin Timberlake -- all pop music royalty -- only to find a collection of thoroughly mediocre tunes in each case. Even diehard fans wouldn't call any of these 2013 top-sellers a career highlight of their favored artist. Is it any wonder record sales continue to plunge when the marketing strategy of an album -- gold-plated trucks, smartphone apps, bizarre Brent Musberger interviews -- creates more of a buzz than the actual album itself? And it's certainly not a good bellwether when the most buzzworthy, zeitgeist-iest musical moment of 2013 involved a Disney-princess-turned-suckubus grinding a teddy bear during a performance of perhaps the most inane pop song of the year. (No link needed -- you can already picture the scene in your head, can't you?)

All this without mentioning Kanye West, the other contender for musical firebrand of the year, whose 2013 might wrongly be more remembered for his Kardashian kourtship, baby naming fiasco, wildly silly music video, and concert rants than the most aggressively anti-pop pop album of the year (Yeezus), which hasn't even sniffed a million copies sold. Drake has no business selling twice as many albums as Kanye West. None. But that's 2013 for you. It sure seems like Justin Timberlake would rather be making movies than music these days, and I can't say I blame him, what with the Coen brothers knocking on his door. He -- like the rest of the pop music royal court -- is too famous to *just* make music. They have brands to promote, thrones to watch, empires to build.

Perhaps, then, it's no surprise that the best album of the top selling albums of 2013 is Daft Punk's Random Access Memories -- the famously un-famous duo who lets their music (and/or Pharrell Williams) do their talking for them. Even the Grammys -- easily the most arbitrary and out of touch awards show in existence -- seems to agree, nominating the reclusive Frenchmen for Record and Album of the Year (a distinction I've never understood). But then again, "Blurred Lines" is also nominated for Record of the Year... which brings me back to my original point. "Get Lucky" or no, this was not a strong year for music. So much so, in fact, that I couldn't quite pin down a top-10 list I was satisfied with. So I decided to change it up a bit this year. I mean, if I'm going to hand out irrelevant distinctions, the Grammys already have a pretty good model. This year, instead of my usual top-10 list, instead I present to you my equivalent, replete with arbitrary categories, genre bending, and surely some controversy. So, as the Grammy-winning (!) man once said, "Let's get it started in here."

Best Ska/Punk Album
Alkaline Trio - My Shame Is True
Big D and the Kids Table - Stomp/Stroll
Less Than Jake - See the Light
The Night Marchers - Allez Allez
Streetlight Manifesto - The Hands That Thieve
Honorable Mentions: The Copyrights - Shit's Fucked, The Dangerous Summer - Golden Record, Direct Hit! - Brainless God

I almost exclusively listened to ska/punk my first few years of college (having graduated from my nü metal high school days... ugh), and I still go back to that well now and again. Although I don't necessarily keep up with the "new" bands in the scene (all five nominees are old hands), a number of old favorites released records in 2013. The best of the bunch and a perennial favorite back in the day is Streetlight Manifesto. The Hands That Thieve, Tomas Kalnoky and Co.'s third studio album (they're on a robust 3 albums per 10 years pace -- not including unnecessary re-recordings and covers albums), continues in the exact same brainy, immaculately-arranged vein as their previous efforts. My personal favorite track, "Ungrateful," is a throwback to Kalnoky's Catch-22 days. It has a healthy dose of punk-rock backbone amid the bombastic horns and serves as a peek into an alternate universe where C-22 never broke up. What a wonderful world it could be!

As for the rest, the new ALK3 is another batch of somewhat overproduced goth-punk jams, many of which are too clever by half. Not a ringing endorsement, I know, but it's perfectly listenable and plays well live. Big D's latest, a double album, is more filler than killer, but brings the swagger (Stomp) and the groove (Stroll) in equal parts. LTJ's record is their best since 2003's Anthem and is fun live (even if I had to fly solo at the show). Finally, Rocket From the Crypt may be no more, but John Reis is back with The Night Marchers, another balls to the wall punk-rock outfit that does the San Diego scene proud.

Best (Indie?) Rock Album
Arctic Monkeys - AM
Fitz and the Tantrums - More Than Just a Dream
Franz Ferdinand - Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action
Superchunk - I Hate Music
Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
Honorable Mentions: Dawes - Stories Don't End, Jimmy Eat World - Damage, Los Campesinos! - No Blues, Portugal. The Man - Evil Friends

That's right -- the best "rock" record of the year doesn't even feature a single guitar. Instead, Fitz and the Tantrums are built around jangly keys, jaunty horns, handclap percussion, and the interplay between Michael Fitzpatrick's and Noelle Scaggs's vocals. The result is a charming and confident throwback sound that will make you think your Spotify turned into an AM radio station. More Than Just a Dream sees the group leaving behind the tinges of Motown found on 2010's Pickin' Up the Pieces and moving onto the blue-eyed soul stylings of Hall & Oates. The group wears the studio gloss well. "Fools Gold" has enough heart to fill a stadium and a chorus to bring the house down. I'm bummed I missed the chance to see them live this year (and at the Crescent, even -- d'oh!). A Fitz show is going on my 2014 to-do list. Better get my dancin' shoes shined...

A couple of the other records had a solid case. AM is the Artic Monkeys' best record since their debut -- a down 'n' dirty set that's an octave or two short of The Black Keys' best stuff. Modern Vampires of the City had all the hipster blogs a-flutter (it's Pitchfork's #1 album of the year) with its arresting swirl of irreverence, verve, and pathos. A bit morose at times for my tastes, but a fine album nonetheless. The other two are just solid. I've never been much of a Franz sympathizer, but Right Thoughts... wormed its way into my ears, while Superchunk's '90s indie for hipster parents made me want to dig into their old stuff. (As far as Reflektor goes... I just couldn't get into it. If this is what happens when you give indie rock royalty a Grammy, I'm fine with Adele or whoever winning the next eleventy Grammys.)

Best Electronic(-ish) Album
Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
Kavinsky - OutRun
The Naked and Famous - In Rolling Waves
Sky Ferreira - Night Time, My Time 
Tegan and Sara - Heartthrob 
Honorable Mentions: Blood Orange - Cupid Deluxe, Chvrches - The Bones of What You Believe In, Icona Pop - This Is... Icona Pop, Poliça - Shulasmith

2013 was a banner year for electronic-leaning, eminently-danceable music with female vocals (see: 7 of the 9 albums above). If I were to have told you that Tegan and Sara would put out the best album in that mold at this time last year, you'd probably have said I'd had too many Molsons. Yet Heartthrob is absolutely the synth-iest, most dance-friendly record of the year. Heartthrob sees everyone's favorite Canadian lesbian sisters abandon any hints of indie-folk or post-punk that marked earlier releases and fully embrace the New Wave/'80s synth-pop side that cropped up on 2009's Sainthood. For the full effect, listen to "I Was a Fool," a stunning piano ballad that could play over the closing credits of a lost Tony Scott (R.I.P.) masterpiece, the kind where the brooding hero gets the girl and they kiss in the rain. Heartthrob is the most cinematic record of the year and a welcome evolution in the band's sound. I'll be interested to see where they go next.

T&S edged out Daft Punk, whose Random Access Memories spawned "Get Lucky," a Song of the Year candidate with or without the capital letters and the official distinction they represent. If only the album itself weren't so uneven -- did the nine-minute spoken word piece *really* have to be the third track? I mean, really? But back to the whole "most cinematic record" thing -- Kavinsky's OutRun, aka Drive: The Album, has a pretty convincing case for that title as well. You won't find a better record for driving in this year or any other any time soon. The Naked and Famous pulled an inverse Tegan and Sara, eschewing the pop flourishes that buoyed 2010's Passive Me, Aggressive You in favor of moody atmospherics, acoustic guitars (!), and a generally lovely downtempo aesthetic. Lastly, Sky Ferreira does her brazen, bewbs-baring album cover justice with her set of raw, intimate drrty grrl pop numbers that Lana Del Rey isn't talented enough and Lorde isn't old enough (cue uncomfortable silence) to pull off.

Best Rap Album
Chance the Rapper - Acid Rap
Childish Gambino - Because the Internet
Kanye West - Yeezus
The Lonely Island - The Wack Album
Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels
Honorable Mentions: Danny Brown - Old, Eminem - The Marshall Mathers LP 2

I mean, come on. Like it could be anything else. Yeezus is a singular statement from a singular artist, an id-fueled romp through the subconscious of one of today's most scrutinized artists. It invites bold comparisons, dares listeners to take his bait -- "Wait, does Yeezy *really* think he's a modern-day Jesus?" The answer, as it always is with Kanye West, is complicated -- "I know he's the most high / But I am a close high." Like its creator, Yeezus is brash, disjointed, and uncompromising, seemingly designed -- yes, designed, and carefully -- as a rejection of the very aesthetics that made him a star in the first place ("Soon as they like you / Make them unlike you"). It's a fascinating piece of emotional agitprop -- yet it fittingly ends with "Bound 2," which, aforementioned silly music video aside, hearkens back to the Kanye West of old with its samples and *gorgeous* hook. It's the kind of 180 that makes you say, "Wait a minute -- was Yeezy fucking with us the whole time?" Maybe. If so, a cruel joke never seemed so clever.

In just about any other year, the Killer Mike and El-P collaboration Run the Jewels would have been the frontrunner for best rap album. It's every bit as hyperbolic and bombastic as Yeezus, but delivered with a wink rather than a snarl. And if there is a rap album with better, more bone-rattling beats in 2013, I have yet to hear it. The Lonely Island also deserve a shout out for their guest star-laden, grin-inducing 2013 offering. It's one of the only albums I listened to as much as Yeezus this year, albeit for very different reasons. Chance the Rapper and Childish Gambino both appear on each other's albums and nabbed the last two spots on the list. Chance sports a jazzy, free-flowing style and a generally much more sunny disposition than most other MCs these days. Childish's second studio effort is a mess -- a sprawling, over-produced clusterfuck of a mess -- but it also has a certain insistence, a certain draw that makes me want to wade in a little deeper with each listen.

Best (Female) Pop/Rock Album
Best Coast - Fade Away EP
Haim - Days Are Gone
Paramore - Paramore
Rilo Kiley - RKives
Sara Bareilles - The Blessed Unrest
Honorable Mentions: Camera Obscura - Desire Lines, Katy Perry - Prism

Most critics/bloggers seem content to give this slot to the lovely ladies of Haim. Don't sleep on Paramore's new record, I say. Although it's on the shortlist for Worst Album Cover of the Year and was released way back in April, Paramore is an assured and fully realized release by a band that has worked hard to perfect their craft. It is not a waif-thin ray of SoCal sunshine borne on the wings of blogger hype and the wobbly legs of an unpolished live show. (Note: I LOVED the Haim record. This is just better.) The album highlight here is "Ain't It Fun," featuring dynamo Hayley Williams at her most brassy, a slinky guitar riff, crystalline percussion, and a sing-along gospel chorus that has to be a blast live. If there's a song that out-"Wires" "The Wire," this is it.

That said (and as I mentioned above), Days Are Gone is an excellent album. Stevie Nicks meets Wilson Phillips? Sign me up. They have a ways to go as a live act, but their studio work is polished to confection. Best Coast's EP adds a new layer of maturity to the duo's oeuvre, and disc-closer "I Don't Know How" is one of my favorite tracks of the year, Rilo Kiley by way of Social Distortion. Speaking of my favorite defunct L.A. indie rock outfit, their b-sides and rarities comp, RKives, is a worthy addition to their discography, another winsome infusion of cynicism and sunshine. And I always have to give love to Sara B., that mistress of the mid-tempo radio ditty. She might never write me another "Love Song," but she doesn't need to.

Best Singer-Songwriter Album 
Lucero - Texas & Tennessee EP
Matt Pond - The Lives Inside the Lines In Your Hand
Mikal Cronin - MCII
Sundowner - Neon Fiction
Waxahatchee - Cerulean Salt
Honorable Mentions: Brendan Benson - You Were Right, Josh Ritter - The Beast In Its Tracks, Laura Marling - Once I Was An Eagle, Laura Stevenson - Wheel

Aka "Best Sad Bastard Music." And in the sad bastard game, nobody comes close to Ben Nichols, the lead singer and chief songwriter of Lucero. Although I was a bit underwhelmed at the time by 2012's Women & Work, it has since grown on me as I have come to accept that 2009's mostly exuberant 1372 Overton Park is a bit of a black sheep in the group's discography. Lucero does sad bastard music and does it better than anyone. Texas & Tennessee is just the latest proof. Born out of the W&W recording sessions, as well as the band's contributions to Jeff Nichols's -- brother of Ben -- excellent film Mud, T&T is an acoustic 4-song paean to the one who got away and the things you do instead of chasing her. ("I picture her dancing with the boys in the bars all night / She might not be theirs, but she sure as hell ain't mine.") The title track and standout track "Union Pacific Line" are heartfelt slow-burners while the final two tracks add a bit of twang and bounce. It may only be 4 songs, but Texas & Tennessee is one of the year's best releases.

Chris McCaughan also has a claim to the sad bastard crown -- 2007's Four One Five Two was the soundtrack to the worst of my own sad bastard days. Neon Fiction, his third album, isn't as raw or vital -- and I more and more find myself missing the contributions of vocalist/cellist Jenny Choi -- but it's certainly a welcome contribution from the Lawrence Arms axe man. I'll fully admit: I only checked out Waxahatchee after seeing it cited on year-end list after year-end list, but man if Katie Crutchfield isn't the crown queen of the sad bastard-ettes. Soulful, mournful, and plenty caustic, Cerulean Salt more than lives up to its evocatory title. I was never much of a fan of Matt Pond PA, but for some reason I'm on board when you take away the "PA." The album title (and certain song titles) make him more of a sensitive bastard than a true sad bastard, but the record is worthy of a listen either way. Rounding out the field is Mikal Cronin, who adds a garage-rock flair to the sad bastard template to good effect -- he could be an honorary member of The Raconteurs.

Song of the Year
Daft Punk - "Get Lucky"
Fitz and the Tantrums - "Fools Gold"
Kanye West - "Bound 2"
Lucero - "Union Pacific Line"
Tegan and Sara - "I Was a Fool"
Honorary Mentions: Best Coast - "I Don't Know How", Haim - "The Wire", Paramore - "Ain't It Fun", Streetlight Manifesto - "Ungrateful", TV on the Radio - "Mercy", Vampire Weekend - "Diane Young"

Even if I wasn't particularly impressed with the musical offerings of 2013 overall, that's a pretty killer selection of tracks. And yes, yes, I know -- 2013 was the year of "Get Lucky." Preaching to the choir here -- I can't think of the last major radio hit that I liked as much. It's an absolutely transcendent song. But have you HEARD "I Was a Fool"? It opens with a tinkling piano melody that doesn't so much tug at your heartstrings as tie them into a neat bow that's undone by the time you get to Tegan Quin's first forlorn "I was a fooooool..." chorus. Add in Sara's playful harmonies, the lush, layered production, the masterfully-executed fadeout, and Ann $%#&ing Veal in the music video and you've got a song that transcends the transcendent. There was not a better song in 2013. There just wasn't. "Get Lucky" is a worthy runner-up and the party song of the year, "Union Pacific Line" might be the prettiest song Ben Nichols has ever written, "Fools Gold" is the "singing in your car" song of the year, and Charlie Wilson's hook in "Bound 2" might be the best musical moment of the year -- a real parting of the clouds moment on perhaps the darkest album of the year.

Record Album of the Year
Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
Fitz and the Tantrums - More Than Just a Dream
Kanye West - Yeezus
Lucero - Texas & Tennessee EP
Tegan and Sara - Heartthrob
Honorable Mentions: Arctic Monkeys - AM, Haim - Days Are Gone, The Lonely Island - The Wack Album, Paramore - Paramore, Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels, Streetlight Manifesto - The Hands That Thieve

The was easily the most difficult category to decide -- probably as it should be. There were two big internal debates -- Kanye vs. Tegan and Sara for the #1 spot and the battle for the #5 spot. I'll tackle the second debate first. Ye, T&S, Fitz, and Lucero were always going to be in. As you can surmise, I eventually gave the fifth spot to Daft Punk. Now, if I were doing the standard top-10 list, Random Access Memories probably wouldn't be my #5 album. But that's the problem -- I'm not sure any of the honorary mentions would be either. They all feel they should be in the 8-10 cluster. Like I said, not a strong year for music. So I eventually went with RAM, as it gave us "Get Lucky" and is the critical consensus "best" album of the bunch. It's a cop-out, sure, but get back to me in six months when these records have all had a chance to settle and I'll probably have a better answer.

Now, for the first debate. I was all set to go with the upset -- the Canadian mavens of plaid turned lip gloss synth-pop vixens over the croissant king of hip-hop himself. But then I started writing about the albums. I found I had more -- and more interesting -- things to say about Yeezus than Hearttthrob. (The Quin sisters will be content with their Song of the Year win, I'm sure.) It's probably a close call as to which I'll be listening to more in a year, 3 years, 5 years -- Heartthrob has a timeless feel while there's no telling how well the industrial-punk-rap of Yeezus will age (it probably depends on Ye's next evolution) -- but I can say with certainty that I -- we, really, culturally-speaking -- will be talking and thinking more about Yeezus. More so than any other album this year -- more than Random Access Memories, more than Magna Carta Holy Grail or The 20/20 Experience (either volume), and more than (please God) Bangerz. For that reason, it gets my vote for Album (Record?) of the Year. Suck it, Grammys.

P.S. - I was in the house for that rant. I was going to add a category for Concert of the Year, but nothing I saw came close to the epic insanity of the Yeezus tour. Chalk up another win for Yeezy.

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