Thursday, December 26, 2013

Top 40 Albums of 2013 (40-31)

In the world of music, a lot happened in 2013. Albums 20 years in the making arrived in the dead of night and exceeded expectations. Multiple records materialized out of thin air and threatened to burn the blogosphere to ground. In the spirit of #FactsOnly, cell-phones became a new launch point for music. A sister act brought classic rockers, indie R&B kids, and the electronica-indebted all into tent. All the way in New Zealand, a 17-year old  had her life figured out better than individuals twice her age. Musical provocateurs grew even more divisive, a Canadian sextet engaged in the one of the most audacious album campaigns ever seen, and a French duo finally seemed more human than robot. Cataloging all of this would be impossible, something taken into consideration when you see the list provided below. Over the next few days, you'll find forty individuals documents of this tumultuous year in music. Like the year they were birthed in, they're: scattershot, sprawling, deeply personal, emotionally resonate, sincere, and even funny. All that said; in the word's of one of our 40 entrants, "let's get on with it."  

40. Kveikur-Sigur Ros

Words like dark, aggressive, or foreboding have rarely been apt descriptors of Sigur Rós. For a band accustomed to the frigid cold of Iceland, their songs are warm and inviting. All of that changes with Kveikur, a “hasty” follow-up to last year’s slow-moving Valtari. Opener “Brennistein” razes the Earth, every cacophonous blast scoring a 50-foot monster’s rampage. The English translation of “Brimstone” is appropriate. Jonsi’s vocals hang out of reach, mired in a swamp of reverb. His vocals have often been described as alluring and otherworldly; here they sound trapped. The cymbal-washed
“Hrafntinna” is the forgotten sibling to tracks from their Agaetis Byrjun and ( ) days. Jonsi’s falsetto reaches for the heavens, but is denied by the clattering percussion. Percussionist Orri Páll Dýrason is more palpable on “Ísjaki"” whose glacial name is a misnomer. The song has a flits and flashes of a dance number, thanks in no small part to the aforementioned stomping percussion and Georg Hólm’s steady bassline.  

Sigur Rós are more adept than most bands at intently capturing their home in song, a few moments spent with Jonsi’s ethereal vocals and the group’s ornately crafted string sections, and you’re staring out across an endless fjord. Kveikur reconstitutes that mythology to include some of the uglier aspects of the island: never-ending winters, perpetual darkness, paganism, and enough blood-letting to make George R.R. Martin jealous. The title track is a portal into that past, guided by the fist of the distorted bass. Pushing through the industrial swell, Jonsi covers his ears and shuts his eyes tight. Sometimes when the storm hits, it’s the only thing you can do to defend yourself.


39. Dual- Sampha

London-native Sampha Sisay's debut EP, Dual, works as an exercise in restraint. Rather than chase after his "wishes" in opener "Beneath the Tree", he simply pleads "don't fail me now" in a hushed tone over
a hazy concoction of: muted drum beats, twitching maracas, chorded pianos, and soft "anvil" strikes. He wails "let it all work out" on the gut-wrenching "Indecision", but all that expended energy leads to more whispers from the post-dubstep balladeer. In that silence, we're reminded too often our loudest cries go unheard. "Without" tumbles and clatters, as echoing pings bounce back and forth between speakers. Sampha repeatedly intonates "say say say", though his own storytelling on the track is an abstraction. He retreats into the recesses of his mind, only to wait in another realm. All that restraint disappears on closer "Can't Get Close", which concerns the death of Sampha's father at age nine. Choirs of voices can't mask his pain. Understandably, he pleads for more time, and it never arrives. Calm can't buy you everything.

"Can't Get Close"

38. The Terror-The Flaming Lips


At least Embryonic had feedback and freakouts to interrupt the bleary-eyed ruminations on life and loss. 2013’s The Terror, the thirteenth album in the Flaming Lips’ increasingly experimental career, is thoroughly without. Squall exists in sullen opener “Look… The Sun Is Rising”. A piercing guitar figure punctures the cloudy synthscape that looms over the track, never quite descending into madness. We’re given the auditory equivalent of teetering on the edge, without falling in. Love becomes not something to embrace, but to run from, “to fear.” The sun of the opener is a cursory note on the understated “Be Free, A Way”. That great mass isn’t a comforting presence, it's a cruel body, bringing darkness to magnify our loneliness. 

Even the “miraculous” metamorphosis of the butterfly is rendered a bleak affair here. “Butterfly, How Long It Takes To Die”s processional percussion finds Wayne Coyne counting down in his disaffected falsetto to the moment the butterfly falls from the sky. “Try to Explain” searches for answers in a crumbling relationship, though none can be found. “Try to explain, why you’ve changed, I don’t think I’ll understand,” Coyne defeatedly admits. “You Lust”, the album's droning centerpiece is a reductionist exercise; intensely scrutinizing the nuclear fallout of a relationship laid to waste. It can be tempting to focus on Coyne’s threatening “you’ve got a lot of nerve to f**k with me,” though that’s missing the forest for the trees. The album’s mission statement is in plain sight, “the brightest light is the first to go.” We don’t cease to be when the filament fails, we soldier on through the shadows. True “terror” isn’t the absence of anything, but having to continue on in that absence.

"You Lust"

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

I don't know why that brief hesitation exists in the title of Queens of the Stone Age's latest offering. Nothing about the band's raucous sixth LP ...Like Clockwork hints at nuance. Especially with Dave Grohl manning the drumkit for the first time since 2002's magnum opus Songs for the Deaf, this thing didn't stand a chance at being labelled subtle. Piano-laden tracks such as the eerie "The Vampyre of Time and Memory" or "Kalopsia"s  hallucinatory swirl constantly threaten to burst forth into balls-to-the-wall rock. A title like "Smooth Sailing" is rendered a misnomer from the word go, as a broken synthesizer is stuck in a loop and covered in lava by a molten guitar riff. "If I Had Tail", which flirts with a melody a half-step away from "Mr. Brightside", forms into a mid-tempo boogie where Josh Homme and Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner bellow about an image-conscious society "with no heart." 

Amidst all this chaos, a common thread can be traced. Recording sessions for ...Like Clockwork saw the departure of long-time QOTSA drummer Joey Castillo, and in 2011 Homme was hospitalized for 13 days and bedridden for four months, following complications during a routine surgical procedure on his knee. ...Like Clockwork frequently captures that helpless feeling, when everything is following down around you and you can do little to stop it.  "Fairweather Friends", featuring Sir Elton John of all people, catches Homme in a despondent mood, though that despondence is shaken off by piercing guitar feedback and Grohl's infinite drum fills. And then there's chugging opener "Keep Your Eyes Peeled", which details an individual caught in a nightmarish hell-hole where monsters reign supreme and the images you see are "smoke and mirrors." "If life is but a dream, then wake me up," Homme screams during the chorus. Consider ...Like Clockwork the wake-up call.

"Keep Your Eyes Peeled"

36. Whenever, If Ever- The World is a Beautiful Place and I am No Longer Afraid to Die


Consider 2013 the year emo made a full-fledged comeback. When it stopped being a dirty word, referring to self-pitying chronic oversharers, and was reclaimed by thoughtful groups who knew better than to boil down their existential crises to a few screams and a well-placed guitar blast. Not that there isn't plenty of screaming and lacerating guitar on the Connecticut eight-piece's debut LP. "Fightboat" offers angular guitar riffs and full-throated roars, granted they're introduced by a somnolent trumpet sound and electro-pop keyboard playing, signaling we haven't fully returned to emo's halcyon days. Despite dripping in neuroses, follow-up track "Picture of a Tree That Doesn't Look Okay" reminds me more of post-rock than any benchmark emo band. Eventually the world weary, detuned guitars barrel ahead, suggesting what might've happened had emo progenitor Guy Picciotto said "no thanks" to Fugazi and linked up with Godspeed You! Black Emperor.  

"Low Light Assembly" with its communal singing and reflections of a parking lot that's become "more than home" will engender a few comparisons to Funeral era Arcade Fire. And when they seem "in danger" of shedding the emo label, in comes closer "Getting Sodas". At an unwieldy seven minutes, the lurching track goes through several permutations of echoing guitars and rallying drum beats without ever settling down. And just at the crest of this wave, comes the band's mouthful of a name, "the world is a beautiful place but we have to make it that way. Whenever you find home we'll make it more than just a shelter. And if everyone belongs here it will hold us all together. If you're afraid to die, then so am I." Forget an emotional album, Whenever, If Ever gives us something spiritual. A soundtrack for what happens when we throw caution to the wind and jump headfirst into the great beyond.

"Picture of a Tree That Doesn't Look Okay"

35. Wolf- Tyler, the Creator

Somehow the schlocky, B-movie conceit of the video for Wolf's Spartan first-single "Domo 23" stands as an appropriate metaphor for Odd Future mastermind Tyler, the Creator in 2013. Glitz and glamor accompany him to the ring, but they can't carry him once he steps inside. When the bell rings, he has to come out swinging or risk getting bowled over by mounting hype and near consistent public-scrutiny.

It turns out the key to victory this time out is consistency. Wolf doesn't come with the immediate highs that made Goblin so audacious. There's nothing as eternal as "Yonkers" or repulsive as the stomach-churning synthfest "Tron Cat". Instead, we have a steady stream never dipping in quality. And while consistency can quickly become boring, it doesn't on Wolf. It helps that the LP's overall sound is alluring, an adjective that would never be appended to the dungeon-like Goblin. Bruisers like "Jamba" possess synth-lines more hypnotic than harrowing. Aforementioned single "Domo 23" sounds colossal, though that extra muscle comes from a golden horn section. "48" soberly reflects on crack-dealing; however Frank Ocean's warm hook makes constantly looking over your shoulder for rivals sound palatial. And the vitriolic "IFHY", where Tyler pointedly raps "you turned to a bitch, who let the dogs out?" rectifies its toxic sentiments with a stately organ figure. "Treehome 95", featuring a soulfully cooing Erykah Badu, recalls the "teenage symphonies to God", Beach Boy Brian Wilson so often spoke about. "All the Tron Cat fans are getting sick of the lakes," Tyler snarls in posse-cut "Rusty", knowing the fans who flocked for the ultra-violence are growing increasingly disappointed by such melodic material. Tyler can't be all things to all people and Wolf narrates that painful realization.

"48" ft. Frank Ocean

34. Nobody knows.
- Willis Earl Beal


We just finished talking about learning you can't be all things to all people and now we're onto a soul-singing, indie-leaning folkie, who divides his attention between the carnal desires of this world and the righteous pursuits of the hereafter. A journeyman artist would fold under such pressure, not a showman like Willis Earl Beal. On this his second effort, the Chicago-native's eclecticism runs rampant, while the dusty lo-fi of last year's Acousmatic Sorcery is markedly improved. Beal's gospel holler rings clear as a bell on boot-stomper, "Too Dry to Cry", a number that'd be right at home in the delta-blues scene of the 1930s. "White Noise" sounds primed to run into Jandek territory, revolving around a spindly guitar part, Beal's voice rings out of some dank catacomb. Closer "The Flow" sees Beal trying his hand at modern R&B, aided by muted drum beats and steady finger snaps. It's clear though Beal's at his most comfortable when he's stuck in the past, as seen in standout "Coming Through", featuring an understated vocal turn by Cat Power's Chan Marshall. A slice of motivational 60s pop, Beal croons over a tambourine and shimmery guitar. "A lot of people think that the lives they lead are the truth, they think that what they believe is the truth, they think that what they see is the truth, well I'm your boy Willis Earl Beal and I don't believe all that", he knowingly declares in the intro. With such profound confidence, it's clear that Beal at least believes in himself.

"Coming Through" ft. Chan Marshall

33. The Next Day- David Bowie

I can remember having a conversation about David Bowie's 24th studio album, The Next Day, with a teacher of mine not long after it came out. He was insistent that calling the LP "a comeback album" was absolutely ridiculous. It's his first in over a decade, since 2003's largely uninspiring Reality, how could it possibly be seen in any other light? Listening to the record now, I see what my professor was saying. The Next Day isn't so much a comeback, as it is a continuation; finding Bowie picking up the pieces of his seemingly inhuman 70s run and fitting them together into a new mosaic. Of course there's the obvious Heroes-aping album cover, but that's just the beginning. The title track's fitful skronk has the rock chameleon fitting into his Aladdin Sane phase with surprising ease. "Boss of Me"s motorik sax solos, provided by longtime collaborator Steve Elson conjures the ghost of "The Thin White Duke", Bowie's coked-out personae that clung to the dense Station to Station. Galloping second single "The Stars Are Out Tonight" addresses the myth that rock stars are invincible, "they're broke and shamed or drunk or scared" he sings in his wobbly voice; firmly grounding the mythic Ziggy Stardust in normality. And perhaps no song this year reminds us of the temporal nature of celebrity quite like "Where Are We Now?" Bowie's tone is shaky, refusing to hide a single one of his 66 years. Not indebted to any past styles, the languishing lounge-effort captures present day Bowie reflecting on a colossal five-decade that's brought him from Brixton to Potsdamer Platz.  "As long as there's sun, as long as there's sun. As long as there's rain, as long as there's rain. As long as there's fire, as long as there's fire. As long as there's me. as long as there's you," he quavers in the ascendant bridge. Throughout all the stylistic transitions and scenery changes, there's still the man in the middle of it all.

"Where Are We Now?"

32. Fade Away- Best Coast

When Best Coast singer Bethany Cosentino half-snarls "the haze is on my mind, I'm running from myself this time," above
rippled power-chords and Bobb Bruno's 1-2 drum beat in "This Lonely Morning" my first impulse is to call b.s. Within the confines of the bracing track, the sentiment makes sense. No one wants their life to become routine to the point of being predictable. And for all the running Cosentino does on the EP, she can't help but return to the power-pop/surf-rock style she staked her reputation on.

A self-described hybrid baby of the ragged Crazy for You and the more considered The Only Place, Fade Away borrows the former's indelible hooks and the further stretches out the widening palate of the latter. The identity crisis countdown of "Fear of My Identity" is kickstarted by an entreating tambourine and a static-addled guitar occasionally breaking into a ripple. "Fade Away"  wisely takes it name to heart and instead of burning out in a blaze of jangly glory, slowly withers. And then there's finisher "I Don't Know How" where Cosentino arrives in country garb to say she can't find the words to express herself. Soon enough, she shed's the act and launches into breakneck punk. Why run from the familiar when it's this lively?

"I Don't Know How"

31. Wondrous Bughouse- Youth Lagoon

When I was writing my initial review for Wondrous Bughouse, the second LP from Trevor Powers' Youth Lagoon project, me and two of my closest friends were crammed into my boxcar Scion heading towards Texas and the "mythical" promise of Spring break. A dense, kaleidoscope record, Wondrous Bughouse appeared to offer the perfect soundtrack. Sure Powers was croaking about the devil's endless attempts to enter our brain amidst "Mute"s stuttering drums and meandering guitar lines, but he assured us "he can't get inside."

On that trip, one friend had his eye pulverized until the point that he couldn't see out of it for several days. The other managed to wind up in jail for public drunkeness, no small feat considering almost everyone appeared to be drunk in public where we were. And though nothing nearly as bad happened to me, I still felt an unmistakable dread creep over me. As I sat in the police station at 5 in the morning to pick up my friend, Powers' already sarcastic repetition in "Dropla" of "you'll never die," was even more laughable. Married to ecstatically ringing sleigh bells and wonky synthesizer part, the single delicately negotiates the rocky terrain between living and surviving we had failed so miserably at. Acid-fed dancehall party "Attic Doctor" openly laughs at the proclamation "I won't die easy," that Powers delivers under mountains of reverb. As pianos ring out in the penultimate "Raspberry Cane", Powers finally waves goodbye to the youthful idea of eternality and toasts to the inevitable aging process as he drowns in a psychedelic sea. We come the closest to death when we're convinced we can live forever.

"Raspberry Cane"

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 30-21 to drop this Friday.

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