Friday, December 27, 2013

Top 40 Albums of 2013 (30-21)

Welcome back to part two of the four-part countdown of the "Top 40 Albums of 2013." In part 1, we were filtered through: psychedelic kaleidoscopes, hopscotched into gospel reawakenings, and experienced a career revival. Part 2 has just as much to offer in the variety department, from positively giddy "rappity rap" to ambient experimentation and blistering punk-rock. But before we "get on with it," let's take a look back at what we've seen so far.

40. Kveikur- Sigur Ros
39. Dual- Sampha

38. The Terror- The Flaming Lips
37. ...Like Clockwork- Queens of the Stone Age
36. Whenever, If Ever- The World is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die
35. Wolf- Tyler, the Creator
34. Nobody knows.- Willis Earl Beal
33. The Next Day- David Bowie
32. Fade Away- Best Coast
31. Wondrous Bughouse- Youth Lagoon


30. Ketchup- DJ Mustard

Yup de-facto ratchet-music producer DJ Mustard, best known for tailoring the beat of the colossal "Rack City", has a mixtape called Ketchup. Yes a lethargic unknown named Royce the Choice shouts out "chai tea" and swears "I'm never off, Garth Brooks hat" on the bass-wobbling closer "Midnight Run". Up-and-coming R&B artist Ty Dolla $ign mumble croons the nonsensical "your b**** look like a bug of waf" for the shadowy ping-pong of "Paranoid". Bay-area royalty E-40 drops in on the rusty-swing rhythm of "4Gs", ostensibly to tell us all how his "pockets are so pregnant... they need a C-section."

If you're looking for firebreathing or verbally dexterous hip-hop, you're out of luck with Ketchup. This is blissfully low-stakes rap, that's as much about showing off unheard of talent as it is demonstrating Mustard's prowess behind the boards. Mustard's aesthetic is reliant on the idea of "addition by subtraction." You could drive a Range Rover through the gaps he leaves in these beats. When he adds a flourish, warm Fender Rhodes or baroque strings are as likely to make an appearance as a chattering drum-machine. "Bounce That" seems tailor-made to be a strip-club anthem, though the minor-key piano Mustard splices in effectively bars it from any champagne rooms. A threatening title like "F*** That N****" is rendered harmless by harp plucks and Teeflii's breathless talk of "sex faces." "Burn Rubber" carries a weathering Gameboy beat and leaves plenty of room for Joe Malone to bark "
I’m in the great Bentley, doin like a buck 50." If you're still shaking your head, thinking anyone could do this, no less an authority than Timbaland shows up on the intro to remind us all, "there's only one Mustard."

"F*** That N****" ft. Teeflii, Constantine, & Ty Dolla $ign

29. Repave- Volcano Choir


Justin Vernon can pretend
that Repave, the second offering from Volcano Choir, isn't a new Bon Iver album, it is. The moment his quavering voice and a delicately plucked guitar ascend on the wings of militaristic drumming in opener "Tiderays", we're in the familiar territory of Bon Iver, Bon Iver opener "Perth". The carryover though is most apparent in the lyrics. Parsing Vernon's lyrics amounts to a fool's errand, though certain themes do emerge that continue Bon Iver, Bon Iver's narrative intimacy. Instead of a locational detail "3rd & Lake", Repave is rife with Saturdays spent "toasted, roasting in your room," as in the imperious synth feature "Almanac" or muted Auto-tune pleas to "give it another fortnight" during "Comrade". The backwoods, romantic hero of For Emma, Forever Ago has become a "folly-ridden Romeo".

Love, particularly lovemaking is a prominent focus of Repave.
The skulking guitars and dawdling pianos of "Byegone" carry Vernon down the mountain to the "north end of monogamy," where lying down in bed with the same person every night starts to feel like you're "sleeping in a coffin." "Alaskans" well-placed sample of Charles Bukowski's "The Shower" proves a voracious sexual appetite masks fragility. While Repave focuses on the physical aspects of sex, the mental is paid equal attention. Vernon's unearthly holler in the midst of stomping highlight "Dancepack" reminds us anyone can be reduced to a bundle of nerves when they meet the right person. A steely resolve of "I'm already never gonna fail you" could either be momentary lust speaking up or an eye-opening realization that the dating days are done. All of the drunken dancing in footsteps must cede to sobriety. When you find something real, you can't keep living for yourself.


28. Bankrupt!- Phoenix

Could the conceit of Phoenix's fifth album Bankrupt! be any more clear after seeing the album cover? If you're looking for dark treatises on the human condition, you've wandered into the wrong tent. What we have here are ten tracks of seamlessly constructed synth-pop. Opening number "Entertainment" has the Frenchmen blending Strokes guitar flits and rallying K-pop percussion to craft an earworm where lead-singer Thomas Mars throws caution to the wind, promising "I'll take the trouble let you have my mind." Despite the seemingly agitated shouting of the title, stand-out "S.O.S. in Bel Air" plots a similar course; a jet-setting Mars is instantly sympathetic to the first lonely girl he sees. And that "show-off" streak continues in follow-up number "Trying to Be Cool", rendered infinitely more enjoyable by an endearingly goofy video and a stellar R. Kelly remix. "Mint julep testosterone" fueling him, Mars cycles through a series of personalities, hoping to the stick the landing on a persona someone might want.

When the identity crisis seems to reach its peak amidst the jagged synthscape of "Oblique City", Mars joyous resolve conquers. Mr. Sofia Coppola hardly bats an eye when the odds read 50000 to one, his question of "am I gonna do this alone?" is largely rhetorical. Of course he'll have help when the rubber meets the road. Slow rolling "Chloroform" has Mars convinced "my love is cruel," but the final interrogation of "is it up to you?" registers as oddly hopeful. Following the massive success of 2009's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, which featured at minimum two stone-cold classics, it's clear that life is a peach for the French group. And for now, there's nothing that can sour it.

"Trying to Be Cool"

27. Long.Live.A$AP- A$AP Rocky



A$AP Rocky is a cipher. And I don't mean that in a world-conquering, Kendrick Lamar sort of way. I mean the man born Rakim Myers is an apparition people pass through, an amalgamation of: designer tags (Taz Arnold TI$A, Jeremy Scott, and Margiela come to mind), swag-era slang ("guapnese" and "trilluminati"), and chest-puffing threats.
Singles are the best excuse for a few friends to trot out and steal the spotlight. Nowhere is this better seen than Gothic-string sampler "1 Train". Rocky and guests: Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, and Big K.R.I.T. play lyrical chicken; every verse seemingly better than the last. (Though Brown's stream-of-conscious verse namecheking the villianous Penguin in the worst way possible remains my favorite.) These proceedings of course spell trouble for Rocky who has first, meaning he'll be forgotten by the time the posse cut reaches its coda. "F***in Problems" beasts on a shuffling "40" beat and an infectiously snarled hook courtesy of punchline machine 2 Chainz.  "Wild for the Night"s chopped and screwed introduction is mere table setting for Skrillex's laser-guided electro blasts.

  The music of Long. Live. A$AP conceal right along with the lyrics. Rocky abandons his NYC-heritage for a drugged-out Dirty South style where clouds of smoke bury his voice. "LVL" brings Clams Casino's murky ambient production to new lows, only when a gunshot bursts or Rocky screams "f*** a copper" does anything come close to slicing through the dense fog. Santigold aims for an anthemic chorus in "Hell" only to drown in aqueous drums and miasmic white noise. When the picture finally comes into focus for the melodic rumination of "Phoenix" it's disarming. "3 to a bed, sheets, no covers n****" he bluntly puts it. And autobiographical "Suddenly" dwells more on the disrespectful roaches Rocky had to fend off as a kid, than the Testarossas he's wheeling around in. Rocky ceases to be a cipher when he lets his guard down.


26. Oh My God- Louis C.K. (By Michael Delcau)

“It gets better” veteran comedian Louis C.K. inspirationally promises in his new standup special, Oh My God. A follow-up to his 2012 special Word: Live at Carnegie the performance is set in Phoenix, AZ, a locale C.K. simultaneously compliments and insults, commenting there is “nothing in any direction for miles.”  If this seems all too familiar for a C.K. set, it is and isn’t. Louie’s material grows darker, proven early when he dives into a description of a frail old lady who only has a dog to comfort her.  The difference, as offered by the comedian himself, is the diverse age demographic. The first half of the work deals with a common theme – getting older and the decay of the body, which C.K. has a fascination with. He details at length his inability to put on socks and how sitting has become light years better than f***ing.

This age-obsession is brilliantly showcased in flagship bit “Getting Older Makes My Life Better” where C.K. confronts his youthful self. Describing how he’s looked the same and been “vaguely heavy with no face,” he imagines developing ads for teens who aren’t “young skinny guys,” promising them “it gets better.” Just as things start to seem hopeful, he shoots down the common notion of there being “someone for everyone,” with a cold, simple “NOPE.” From that moment on, C.K.’s embraceable darkness takes hold. "A whole bunch of bad thoughts right in a row" as he says himself. He salutes men for the courage it takes to ask a girl on a date, which is dwarfed by the “insanity” in women to say yes to men, the “worst thing that has ever happened to them.” And instead of marriage becoming a blissful institution, Louis renders divorce the ultimate aspiration because “divorce is forever.” Even an innocently named track “Of Course, But Maybe” becomes an introspective bit of black humor; cataloging the two categories in his mind: “of course” and “but maybe”. These are the good thoughts and the bad thoughts we all have blissfully intermingling. It’s best if nothing is spoiled for this portion of the show, just know kids with nut allergies and soldiers don't fare well. Lucky Louis shows the world he's still writing and performing well beyond anyone else’s capabilities. Considering its performer’s unease with everything, Oh My God finds its place comfortably in 2013’s year end list.

"Of Course, But Maybe"

25. Push the Sky Away- Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

Ladies and gentleman welcome to being buried alive put to wax. Where past outings of Nick Cave's most-distinguished band spoke of Biblical figures who refused to die (Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!) or saw them kicking and scratching to fend off death's cold embrace, they now seem resigned to their ultimate fate. Opener "We No Who U R" adopts modern text-speak to tell an ancient ghost story. Cave's hushed rattle as he speaks of trees "burning with blackened hands," hints he's already walking through the valley of the dead; doing his best to not wake anyone. "Water's Edge" chugging bass whisks us away to a nightmarish land where the only way to speak is to shriek and love is robbed of its warm connotations. "The chill of love," as Cave calls it. In the hypnotic strum of "We Real Cool", a romance on the rocks becomes a funeral; the opening salvo of "Who took your measurements, from your toes to the top of your head?" may as well be addressed to an undertaker preparing the burial suit.


Cave & the Bad Seeds have dealt in musical noir before, but never like this. Guitars curlicue into smoke rings; when percussion appears it evokes the clatter of bones. "Higgs Boson Blues", the record's thematic centerpiece carries on for nearly eight minutes with a heroin-fed riff riding shotgun. In his midnight rambling, Cave comes across Robert Johnson walking with the devil and a fallen Martin Luther King at the Lorraine Motel. Miley Cyrus is found floating in a swimming pool in Toluca Lake, as scientists carry on in a religious quest to find the "God particle." The placement of Cyrus betwixt such luminaries shows the dismissive tone Cave takes with any "life-changing event." It's all cyclical, only the names and dates change. At this point, the only real news would be if the death rate dropped below 100%. With that realization, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds stop fighting and settle in; awaiting life's only inevitability.

"Higgs Boson Blues"

24. Silence Yourself- Savages (By Dylan Zielonko)

For an album titled Silence Yourself, there’s nothing remotely quiet about this debut album from the all-female British/French quartet Savages. Through 11 abrasive tracks, Savages craft their own independent sound; shedding early comparisons to Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux, and the contemporary benchmark of raucous women: Sleater-Kinney. Despite being stripped down to the bare essentials, (vocals, drums, bass, guitar), Silence Yourself serves some of the most refreshing, furious, and downright fun music of the year. “She Will”s three-and-a-half-minute sneer showcases the band’s greatest talent, the ability to mix musical precision and aggression. Front-woman Jehenny Beth leads the blitzkrieg, while bandmates:  Ayse Hassan, Fay Milton, and Gemma Thompson do their best to keep up.

Though there is occasional fun to be had, Silence Yourself’s overarching tone is one of gloom. “Hit Me” encapsulates the fragile psychology of a woman trapped in an abusive relationship, while “Husbands” delivers a taunting gesture towards men’s oppressive nature. The ambient intermission “Dead Nature” and “Marshal Dear”s  gothic texture call timeout on the chaos; allowing listeners to breathe. Despite this lingering dread, a faint glimmer of hope can be seen throughout Silence Yourself. In a year crowded with female chart toppers like Lorde and veterans like Beyonce, as well as newcomers Haim, Savages differentiate themselves by frankly dealing with gender identity, female sexuality, and the societal norms of women. Long live the matriarchy!

"Hit Me"

23. Trouble Will Find Me- The National


It has to be a put on in "Don't Swallow the Cap" when National frontman Matt Berninger bellows in his sepulcher timbre, "I can't get the balance right." No band swimming in the turbulent seas of indie-rock receives the label of "monotonous" more frequently than the Brooklyn-based quintet. Somehow for the National, reliability isn't a state to be lauded. It's hard then to blame the band for Trouble Will Find Me's restlessness.

The downcast "Slipped" puts distance between Berninger and an ex; his restless ways developed as a defense mechanism against "spilling my guts out." "Graceless" grows weary with the present and slinks off into the past, courtesy of a Joy Division aping bassline. The post-punk pioneers are an appropriate reference point for the group. "Disorder" saw the troubled Ian Curtis waiting to "feel the pleasures of a normal man." Berninger can't afford to stay in place, so he turns to pills and powders to tip the scales. When waiting to find someone who isn't hopeless comes up in the gentle strum of "Fireproof", Berninger caustically dismisses "there's no one." Remarkably the restless streak comes in handy for "Hard to Find". Up all hours of the night, Berninger is scanning organ-soaked skies for the glow of a former flame. Whether he finds her is a moot point. The lesson learned, that when we wait to win the lottery (as Conor Oberst once sang) we miss the hidden treasure in front of us, is far more important.


22. The Man Who Died in His Boat- Grouper

Writing about ambient-noise artist Liz Harris for the past three years, I'm running out of ways to describe her sound. Every synonym for "aqueous" has been exhausted. I'm not sure I could conjure any more adjectives that evoke loneliness or isolation. How many ways can you say: "haunting" before you become a broken record? From that other questions spring up. Does something you once heralded as "mysterious" lose its mystery the more you write about it? When you're spending so much time in this world, does the natural distance Harris puts in her work start to disappear?

Listening to Grouper is equally as exhausting as writing about the work, and this "new" release recorded at the same time as 2008's stunning Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill is no different. Harris hasn't lost any of remarkable ability to describe her sound via song title. "Clouds in Places" reduces her voice to a thin whisper; the only thing that can cut through is the soft picking of a guitar. When Harris double-tracks her silent cry to deliver "Cover the Long Way", each part works to obscure the other. And "Vanishing Point" disappears under an indeterminate judder and an ill-tuned piano being played from the bottom of a lake.
While her song titles act as spoilers, there's still plenty to discover. "Towers" drifts closer to ballad-territory than anything Harris has previously done. One of the few decipherable lines reads "to be found," suggesting that for all the musical hiding Harris does, she doesn't want to disappear in the real world. The theory's confirmed in closer "Living Room". All obfuscation vanishes, leaving a reverbed Harris alone with her guitar. "I'm searching for a place where spirit meets the skin," she murmurs. When the track floats away like a breath of warm air on a cold winter night, a new adjective comes to mind. Desirous. Longing to belong. To fit in somewhere, anywhere.


21. Blue Chips 2- Action Bronson & Party Supplies



*A hush gathers as the final award of the night is announced.* "And the award for best rap album sequel in 2013 by a comedic white rapper goes to...ACTION BRONSON." Get a grip Marshall, you didn't even stand a chance with this one. You're dealing with Bronsolino, who's "rocking guns like Wyatt Earp." With the body of Bam Bam Bigelow, the aspiring chef makes all competitors look like Doink the Clown. A reincarnation of the still-living Rick Pitino, dude’s moving white "like David Spade in a sauna," as Shamisens are plucked to soothe him. Superhuman lungs, he’ll smoke the shark "Greg Norman s***" and roll blunts "thicker than Pinky's butt." A mastodon was scientifically engineered solely to give his car a new interior.  Dare interrupt him while watching Se7en and he’ll send a machine-gun wielding dolphin your way. This on a track where he features himself.

You're no better off with indispensable partner-in-crime Party Supplies. Messing with Supplies, you’re stepping to someone who could give a damn about high-value production. You can hear him turning up the volume on his Mac multiple times. Early highlight "Pepe Lopez" doesn't sample the Champs 1958 instrumental classic "Tequila", it pistol-whips the thing.  An entire Jason Sudeikis Applebee's ad is left in, proving this dude has nothing but time on his hands, so imagine the revenge plot he’d concoct if challenged.

These two slapdash artists fully coalesce on "Contemporary Man", a self-contained mixtape of 80s beats. Party Supplies underhand tosses: "Sledgehammer", "Sussudio", "Jack & Diane", "Another Day in Paradise", "I Wonder If I Take You Home", and "Simple As That" and Bronson knocks them all out of the park like a McGwire/Sosa/Bonds hybrid. “I’m a wild freak" he warns in his Ghostface Killah affectation. Understatement of the year.

"Contemporary Man"

If you already think something is too high or too low or some grand omission was made, feel free to say so in the comment section, and look for 20-11 to drop Monday.

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