Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Totally Unauthorized: 2013 Album of the Year Awards

How great of a year was 2013? Here's a quick and easy barometer for you: if you like hip hop, if you like to dance, or if you enjoy seeing your favorite band from 20 years ago get back together, odds are this was an incredible music year for you.

All told, 2013 was possiby the best music year of the decade yet. It will be an interesting conversation this time next year, when we hit the midway point of the decade.   Hip hop was one of the inarguable winners, with key releases from Run the Jewels, Danny Brown, Pusha T, and of course the impossible to ignore Yeezus.

But the year also boasted one of the best classes of newcomers in years. Dance duo Disclosure, all female post punkers Savages, all sister pop trio Haim, and Irish synth pop newbies Chvrches headed up a staggering freshman class. Odd Future cohort Earl Sweatshirt wowed us all with his long awaited major label debut, while Matthew Barnes tripped us out with nostalgic electronic under the name Forest Swords.

In other trends, 2013 was easily the year of the comeback. Nine Inch Nails, My Bloody Valentine, and even the mythical Neutral Milk Hotel made their grand returns to the fore this year, but perhaps no artist reappearance was more unexpected than David Bowie, who dropped the excellent The Next Day in March.

But it didn't end there. Daft Punk, Queens of the Stone Age, and Mazzy Star released new work after long layoffs, while the year end saw a reemergence from Outkast and even Garth Brooks. Stars this year proved there's no better way to build buzz and fill thier register drawers than by a well executed comeback.

As I do each year, here are my picks for some miscellaneous categories, followed by the list.

Most Disappointing Album of 2013
Yeah Yeah Yeahs

After a threesome of impressive records, including their out of left field turn toward dancepop on 2009's It's Blitz, the Brooklyn rockers ran out of steam on latest. The came across like a band that's gotten too old for their scene, leaving many wondering what directions are still open to them at this point in their career. 
Most Overrated Album
Kanye West

You knew it had to be this. After building a career around the concept of being polarizing, West drops argubaly the most divisive record of the decade. It's a good album, and deserves credit for pushing industrial/noise/whatever rap into the mainstream eye. But there's a failed experiment for every moment of brilliance, which makes most of slavish praise and album of the year nods seem a bit over the top. 

Best New Artist

This category was razor thin between Disclosure and Savages. I have no clue which artist will go on to provide us with a more fruitful career, but it's really a win/win scenario either way, right? Disclosure got the nod for being more fun to listen to, for its great collaborations, and those undeniable beats. 

Song of the Year 
Patty Griffin
Go Wherever You Wanna Go 

Written in the wake of her father's death, folk singer Patty Griffin employs all the hand crafted turns of phrase that will tug at your heart strings and make you feel like you knew the man. This song is on another level.  

25. Kvelertak - Meir

Kvelertak's sophomore release spotlights one type of sound that was conspicuously absent from 2013: swaggering, good time rock and roll. Meir is steeped heavily in the metal traditions of their native Norway, but is also rife with the sounds of blues, metal, and classic 70s rock and roll.

24. Forest Swords - Engravings

Cold, industrial, but still highly organic, Engravings is one of those records that rings out like echoes from the past, creating a sense of longing about things lost long ago, but still maintains an overall sound that pleases present day sensibilities.

23. Paul McCartney - New

One of rock's most transcendent figures releases a great new album doing what he's always done, but this time he's got four different producers to make sure he does his damage in different ways.

22. Arctic Monkeys - AM

Alex Turner and the boys are up to no good as usual, but this time they've got some slick R&B grooves to power one of the year's best guitar rock records.

21. Chvrches - The Bones of What You Believe

This Scottish synth pop trio have managed to release the best 80s pop album of the year. But more captivating than their sound is the sense of determination and passion that they pour into it. In addition: Lauren Mayberry is just too damn cute.

20. Deerhunter - Monomania

Atlanta indie rockers Deerhunter were on a clear shoegaze coated trajectory for the better part of their career. That all changed with their fifth LP, Monomania, a brash celebration of all things America proudly coated an inch thick in dive bar grime. Behold Bradford Cox's rambling traveling narrative on "Pensacola," the raucous junkyard crunch of "Leather Jacket II," or the chilling brilliance of "Nitebike." Deerhunter not only wears the label of one of today's best bands, but also one of the most unpredictable.

19. My Bloody Valentine - MBV

I was really, really enamored with this album when it first came out,  especially so considering I didn't have much of a history with the band and never listened to Loveless that much. Unfortunately, this was one of the albums I started to get bored with as the year progressed, yet looking back now it's hard to argue its status as one of the year's landmark albums. There are no major surprises, but there is plenty of energetic drum work, loopy synthesizer experiments, and, of course, plenty of Kevin Shield's haze filled instrumental soundscapes.

18. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels

Killer Mike and El-P, the two emcees behind Run the Jewels, both cracked the top 5 of last year's list with their respective solo releases, and their first collaborative record is brash, confrontational, and is another undeniable gem as well. El-P's beats are a little more subtle here than what he's done in the past, but Mike's intensity will force you to show respect.


17. Bad Religion - True North

Aging artists tend to talk a pretty good game when it comes to making a return to form album. Then there is Bad Religion, whose latest record not only captures the spirit of their early material but actually rivals it. Anyone who's heard Suffer, No Control, or Against the Grain knows what to expect, yet it's still revitalizing to hear that they still have a record like this in them. Greg Graffin and Brett Gurewitz, meanwhile, unleash their ire on a wide variety of topics, ranging from the Citizens United Supreme Court decision to the degradation of American education.

16. Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks

The first post reunion album from Nine Inch Nails is much quieter and more restrained than its predecessors, but it works because Trent Reznor finds plenty of ways to work with the quiet space and gentle ambiance. Aside from "Copy of A," there aren't too many songs here I get that excited about on their own merits but played from start to finish, it's remarkable how well these tracks work with one another. Whether it's the damning violin in "Disappointed," the muted mechanical tinkering on "In Two," or the bold uplifting chorus of "Various Methods of Escape," Reznor has done a terrific job of crafting an album that is much more the the sum of its parts.

15. Kanye West - Yeezus

Hands down the most hotly debated/talked about album of the year, and a #1 pick for many publications. A fair listen to Yeezus should be enough to convince a great many listeners that isn't the year's best. In fact, there are too many outright bad tracks here for it to even be top 10.  Yet Yeezus is bringing elements to the fore that haven't been heard in mainstream music in possibly ever, and the first four tracks are about as strong of an opening as I've heard on any album this year. 

14. The Knife - Shaking the Habitual

There is no shortage of longtime listeners of The Knife who had problems with the duo's latest album. To be fair, it is incredibly arty and obtuse in places, but it also in many ways is a work of arresting brilliance. Tired of formulaic music? Shaking the Habitual is about as far from a formula as you can get. Their previous release, 2006's Silent Shout, was weird but accessible, but everything was more or less laid out on the surface. The sugarcoated dream lands are few and far between here, however, as Karin Driejer Andersson and Olof Andersson cull the deepest recesses of our subconscious, crafting sounds that play on fears and anxieties locked away in deepest recesses of our subconscious, while weaving in a minor political theme regarding social customs in their native Sweden. Too much for some to swallow, no doubt, but what's brilliant about Shaking the Habitual is you never know where it will go next.

13. Earl Sweatshirt - Doris

Doris is the type of album that sucks you in the more you listen to it. On initial blush, it's clear that the production is album's strength. Hazy and dreamlike, it's easy to find some situation where you just want to slip away into some chilled out, mellow beats. Earl's delivery is usually pretty understated, but rather than being a detriment as some have claimed, it actually suits the album almost perfectly. Earl is calm, collected and thoughtful, but able to show you the strains he is under. It's not intended to make you feel sorry for him, but to get you to respect his inner strength. 

12. HAIM - Days are Gone

What HAIM is doing isn't new or original, but they do make damn fun and carefree pop, and do it better than just about anyone else at the moment. The vocal interplay between the sisters can be staggering, most notably during the title track's middle eight, or on the acid tinged tones of "My Song 5." But one of the biggest triumphs is that it is like a musical blender -- the Haim sisters weave together a diverse array of styles and influences a make it work out fantastically.

11. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

Few albums from this year have been as thoroughly disassembled as Daft Punk's Random Access Memories, and opinions vary wildly over the French dance duo's fourth album. Yet once you cut through all the hype, it's difficult to deny that Random Access Memories is solid from top to bottom, and is among the year's most ambitious recording projects. The highly sought after duo let their EDM roots fall by the wayside, opting for a bold approach toward 70s disco that paid off in spades. Meanwhile, guests such as Pharrell, Animal Collective's Panda Bear, and Paul Williams did more than just add a slew of fancy names to the guest list -- they delivered legitimate awesome performances that rounded out Daft Punk's sound and helped make this one of the year's best albums.

10. Deafheaven - Sunbather

Arguing over its status as a black metal album, or even whether it's metal at all, seems to me to be beside the point. I'll admit this: when I'm in the mood for metal, Sunbather isn't the record I'm going to reach for. When I do play Sunbather it's going to be because I want to listen to that record specifically, which I think is much higher praise. "Windows" surely must have been inspired by Godspeed You! Black Emperor's "Blaise Bailey Finnegan III." Deep, dark, wandering, and exploratory. It's extremely dense but always offers something new to jump out on each repeated listen. If you have any interest in music like that at all, there's really no one who did that better than Sunbather.

9. Patty Griffin - American Kid

This album has plenty of songs that break me down. It's something about the way her voice rings out, and the power behind it, that cuts through me. This is Griffin's seventh album (discounting Silver Bell), and is perhaps her most personal to date, focusing on stories of her father and her link with family. She offers a few stylistic detours here and there, but when you deliver passion like this people will follow you en masse.

8. VV Brown - Samson & Delilah

What a difference an album makes. It was always evident Brown had immense talent, but Samson & Delilah marks her first true artistic statement. The generically catchy pop of her last album had merit, but on initial blush everything seems to have changed between this album and the last. Dark, futuristic, hazy R&B replaces the 50s and 60s influence of Travelling Like the Light, sounding bold and passionate and frightening at the same time. Even the way she sings is different, dropping her Northampton accent for a deep and imposing contralto. What hasn't changed, though, is the infectiousness and mastery of hooks. "The Apple," along with the title track are the type of songs Top 40 radio wish they had the balls to play.

7. Janelle Monae - The Electric Lady

Monae's second album advances the storyline of wacked out android Cindi Mayweather, but it's not the concept that sells this album for me. The Electric Lady will be remembered for its indelible sense of the funky; it knows how to be zany in just the right way. The first suite is packed with high energy dance tracks with an overwhelming sense of individuality. The second suite was harder to get into, but ringing cuts like "Victory" are also songs that show off the tremendous raw power of her voice. She also weaves in themes of rising from tough times/street life on cuts like "Ghetto Woman" and "Electric Lady," while championing feminist causes on "Sally Ride." Few albums recently have been as effective at making you kick up your heels, dance, and sing along, while also forcing you to think.

6. Savages - Silence Yourself

In 2013, Silence Yourself was that was scary, gritty, and dangerous album in a year that was somewhat lacking in that department. It took an all girl band to make one of the records that had the most balls of this year.  Just when the album seems to be tapering off, it hits you with an incredible burst of energy of some of frontwoman Jhenny Beth's most frantic and frenzied screeching and shrieking. Guitarist is capable of gentle brushstrokes and jagged edge riffing, while the rhythm section churns and gurgles like an industrial strength factory. The tempo relaxes a bit during the middle part of the album, but it opens and closes with a bang, and their message of defiance will be one that continues to reverberate within your earlobes.

5. Arcade Fire - Reflektor

The 80s are often maligned for the being the progenitor of a lot of largely disposable new wave. But Arcade Fire have made a record that is this diverse, and pulls influences from so many corners of the 80s that with Reflektor, they have subtly but powerfully made the case that perhaps this decade is much more nuanced that many of us have been willing to give it credit for. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a mind like James Murphy at work, and perhaps it's no coincidence that Reflktor offers a sharp left turn from the triumvirate of Funeral, Neon Bible, and The Suburbs.

At first, I thought the album was inconsistent, but the more I listened, the more I appreciated the diversity that each track offered. The raging Jamaican feel of "Here Comes the Night Time, the frenzied group shout along of "Joan of Arc," along with the heavy 80s synthesizer vibe of "We Exist" are all among the top music moments of the year. Reflektor is one of the deepest, most varied, and challenging albums of recent memory, and no doubt one we'll be discussing for some time.

4. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City

When listening to some of Vampire Weekend's earlier work, it often sounded like something made by a super smart Ivy League grad who wanted to make sure you knew how smart he was. Modern Vampires of the City, conversely, sounds like a record that could only be made by someone with the brilliance of Ezra Koening, and he is employing his genius to craft something we wouldn't have been able to enjoy otherwise. Rife with religious, historical, and intellectual references, the album sounds like something that could have been dreamed up after an all day study session in a university library. But it also represents the most overt maturation process in the band's history.

For a long time, Vampire Weekend have teetered dangerously on the precipice of genius and irrelevance. Modern Vampires is a legitimate turning the corner album for the band, and one that we're as fortunate to have as they are. They stagger the senses with their sense of imagination. Within each song, Koening is able to paint a short story about some type of character, setting, or event and make you feel like you were actually there with them, if only for a moment or two.

3. Disclosure - Settle

Do you like beats? You'd better, because English duo Guy and Howard Lawrence have what you need to keep your booty moving. Unlike some of their contemporaries, they don't overwhelm you with a wall of synth and they don't craft dream covered soundscapes. But they do pump out the BPM you need to dance, dance, dance, into the early morning hours. Settle is a great mix of British dancefloor club beats along with shimmering electronic pop songs that never lose their danceclub sensibilities. Sounds fresh, stimulating, and like they're having a great time. Many of their pieces, including "Tenderly," and "Stimulation" show an emphasis on 90s throwback with the ecstatic vocal samples.

They also have a thing for collaboration. They have snuck in some of the best electronic pop songs of the year, "White Noise" and "You and Me," which will stand out to fans of synthpop, and pop music in general, but these have a definite dancefloor philosophy ingrained into them. Then you have the demented "Confess to Me," featuring soul singer Jessie Ware, along with the bold and majestic song with London Grammar, the closest the duo have come to mounting an answer to Orbital's "Halcyon + On + On."

I'm not too much into dance music, but these songs have a freshness and creativity in them that gives them a broad appeal, along with the fact that they pay enough attention to melody to make these songs great bangers for the club or in the car. I haven't heard a dance album I liked this much since Orbital's In Sides.

2. Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork

Queens of the Stone Age began significantly modifying their sound on 2007's Era Vulgaris after four rock heavy records in a row, but never have they pulled it off like this. Coming off a six year hiatus, Josh Homme took his creative offspring in his hands and redefined everything we thought we knew about this band.  The grooving riff rockers are there, to be sure. Lead single "My God is the Sun," along with "I Sat by the Ocean," are two of the tastiest rock songs the year has to offer. Yet the album's other eight cuts paint a much different picture. There is a move toward the manly piano power ballad territory, the type of song the band has rarely written, but also the type of song a singer like Homme was always meant to sing.

His gentle, lilting croon easily carries the day through "The Vampyre of Time and Memory" and the album's title track, creating rare tear jerking moments in the band's catalog. The experimentation doesn't stop there, however. Rollicking, Elton John piano rockers and Trent Reznor inspired sexual dreamscapes also push QOTSA's sound in directions rarely hinted at. ...Like Clockwork is one of those rare albums where every track is a bonafide winner. Homme and crew's ability to pull off this many styles and do it as well as they've done makes Like Clockwork one of the year's best albums.

1. Steven Wilson - The Raven that Refused to Sing

I did not know what to expect from this album leading up to its release. Wilson has long numbered among one of my all time favorites since his days with Porcupine Tree, but his last few releases had been somewhat disappointing. His third solo album, The Raven That Refused to Sing, saw a major overhaul affecting everything from album's thematic concept to the backing band behind him. His previous release, 2011's Grace for Drowning, presented a more churning, chaotic, King Crimson pattern of attack, while his latest mellows out the vibe considerably and gives the songs room to breathe. One of the best decisions Wilson made to was to give the album a theme and structure each song around a story about ghosts or supernatural elements.

And while thematic concepts in popular music don't always work out or tend to get overlooked,  it actually provided the perfect foil for Wilson, as well as a great framing device. It's no secret that there's plenty of meaningless lyrics these days, but he proves it doesn't have to be overly cerebral or politicized to get the job done. The cast of musicians surrounding him also enable him to explore new musical territory. Guitar magician Guthrie Govan can scorch you with the power of his solos, but also knows how to slowly wind out a passage and allow a solo to develop nice and slowly. Also notable are the clashing cymbals of new drummer Marco Minneman drive the madness up to the 11th degree, while Michael Shuman deploys basslines capable of carrying songs by themselves.

Some say that Wilson is too into hero worship, and discount much of his solo work on those grounds, but I don't care. I love the way Wilson presents the material, with the bleak, dissonant atmosphere that he has been perfecting ever since his Porcupine Tree days.

Raven is an album that amazes in every phase of the game, but what I like best about it is that every song excels at something different. From the crazed jazz fusion of "The Pin Drop," to the spacey ethereal wash of "Drive Home," the fluid, flowing bassline and blitzing guitar solos of "Luminol," or the magical soul tinged title track, Wilson has pulled off a dazzling turnaround and released an album with vivid musicianship and plenty of food for thought.

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