Friday, January 3, 2014

Top 40 Albums of 2013 (10-1)

Welcome to the conclusion of the countdown of the "Top 40 Albums of 2013." Throughout the list we've seen: emo revivals, ambient meditation, and epic-length disco-pop. The final part is equally tumltous, bouncing off from brutally beautiful black metal to giddy dance music and druggy hip-hop. But before we "get on with it," let's take a look back at what has been.

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
29. Repave- Volcano Choir
28. Bankrupt!- Phoenix
27. Long. Live. A$AP- A$AP Rocky
26. Oh My God- Louis C.K.

25. Push the Sky Away- Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
24. Silence Yourself- Savages
23. Trouble Will Find Me- The National
22. The Man Who Died in His Boat- Grouper
21. Blue Chips 2- Action Bronson & Party Supplies
20. Monomania- Deerhunter

19. 20/20 Experience- Justin Timberlake
18. The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You- Neko Case
17. Nothing Was the Same- Drake
16. Government Plates- Death Grips
15. Doris- Earl Sweatshirt
14. Shaking the Habitual- The Knife
13. Run the Jewels- Run the Jewels
12. Days Are Gone- Haim
11. Old- Danny Brown

10. Psychic- Darkside

In 1949, Gilbert Ryle coined the phrase "ghost in the machine" in his book The Concept of Mind in an attempt to critique 16th Century French-philosopher Rene Descartes' "mind-body dualism" theory, which argued the human body is a chemical/mechanical machine that operates causally (not casually) like the rest of the universe, but that there is also "the mind", or the "immaterial soul", which is connected to the body and can influence its actions in some way. Descartes never solved this problem himself, and Ryle's book rejected this notion that mental and physical states are extricable from one another. 

In the intervening years, it has occasionally been used to refer to a computer that has become self-aware. Darkside, a collaboration between electronic musician Nicolas Jaar and multi-instrumentalist Dave Harrington, more closely resembles this looser definition. Psychic, their debut record, is as much mechanical as it is spiritual. Harrington carves off delta-blues guitar riffs in "Paper Trails," while ambient flourishes hang out of sight. Jaar's noir register borders on otherworldly, as he ponders where the apple of his eye has gone. It's a love song, fed psychedelics and dropped off on the moon. "Heart" romanticizes the 80s with rippling synthesizer, though the marching 808s and a rending solo signifies the calendar's always set to 1984. 

Buddhist monk chatter and church choirs join "The Only Shrine I've Seen" in a heavenly ascent; quickly cut off by oscillating drum machines and second-half stereo panning guitar. Psychic never rips you straight out of tranquility, it slowly wakes you until you realize it's night and morning is a long way off. "Freak, Go Home"s metallic groove could go all night, if not for swatches of acoustic guitar and cowbells keeping it from immortality. Closer "Metatron" similarly dares to have a soul. An imagining of what Hot Buttered Soul-era Isaac Hayes singing at a discotheque in Blade Runner might sound like. If nothing else, the track shows a computer take over doesn't signal the death knell of humans. "What the world seems to care about," an immaterial Harrington seems to sigh, never finishing his statement. Somewhere in all that machinery, a soul is whirring about.


9. Settle-Disclosure

is an antithetically titled album. Nothing about the music brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence create pretends to "settle". From the futuristic disco propulsion of opener "When a Fire Starts to Burn" to simmering London Grammar feature "Help Me Lose My Mind", Settle can't do anything other than barrel forward. Even in the quietude of the aforementioned closer, where Grammar is all dulcet sighs, the bass wobble keeps the track off-kilter. You'd think over the course of an hour, the U.K. duo would lose some of their momentous momentum, but thanks to the adroit sequencing they never do.

But more than masterful sequencing or forward motion, Settle is an indelible electronic record because of the humanity the Lawrence brothers, and quite frequently their guests give these tunes. Sam Smith's longing "now I got you in my space I won’t let go of you," atop a shuffling futuristic R&B beat in "Latch" is a shockingly direct and sentimental statements. The muted arrhythmia of grime-leaning "Confess to Me" sees Jessie Ware scouring the ends of the dancefloor for someone to confide in. She's covered by vocal manipulation and still her Achilles heel shows. Howard Lawrence's vocal take in "F is For You" hides a hopeless love in congenial house music. AlunaGeorge's chipmunked voice attempts to start static, before fading back into the shadows of "White Noise". "You just wanna keep me on repeat and hear me crying," she coos. Welcome to a dance-inclined song that's more tearjerker than hip-shaker.

Throughout all of the disappointment, Settle remains resilient. A feathery Ed Macfarlane refuses to lose in the burbling "Defeated No More". "Grab Her!"s great bravery is demonstrated by reaching out and touching someone. New-jack swing stealer "You and Me" depicts Eliza Doolittle on a one-woman mission to keep what she's found. "Rolling with the punches" she chirps as a mantra. The only way to avoid getting caught up is to keep moving forward.

"Latch" ft. Sam Smith

8. Random Access Memories-Daft Punk



Random Access Memories
is an astounding mixtape. Not in the traditionalist rap sense of the word, RAM resembles the charming 80s format where songs would be culled together as a love-letter to a certain style or artist, or perhaps an actual person. Rather than craft their album-length ode to 70s disco, funk, and prog rock inside of a hermetically sealed lab, the two robotic Frenchmen opened their doors and invited heroes: Giorgio Moroder, Todd Edwards, and Panda Bear in.

"Give Life Back to Music"
immediately begins penning the letter with a Space-age whoosh and millennium
keyboard work that would make primo Floyd or Genesis proud. Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers succinct work in the opener adds a new word to the Daft Punk repertoire: "breezy". Breeze isn't all "Give Life Back to Music" is about. Right there in the title, we find the mission statement. This is reanimation of a corpse. Luscious number "Game of Love" replete with of-the-time vocoder effects and woebegone pedal-steel appears dead on first gaze; an affectless piece sung by a robot. And yet, hearing "the one that would be breaking my heart" repeated ad-infinitum cultivates relatability. Maybe this is the album that should've been titled Human After All.

And like anyone with a beating heart, Random Access Memories is mad to live. Strokes by way of Phoenix by way of Daft Punk tune "Instant Crush" features a digitized Julian Casablancas vowing "we will never be alone again." Eternally strutting "Lose Yourself to Dance" which features a buttercream Pharrell delivery arrives with the simple aim of disappearing in the music. Few understand the liberating power of music like Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, and "Lose Yourself to Dance" acts as the jailbreak. And of course few songs bring you to life like "Get Lucky". It's already become impossible to discuss the insta-hit and not bandy about clichéd terms like "effortless" or "silky" when referring to Pharrell's performance. Perhaps the most impressive part of Pharrell's two appearances on the record is that even when he's center-stage he's playing the supporting role in Daft Punk's mangum opus.

And nothing on RAM earns the Latin phrase quite like centerpiece "Touch". The song is a veritable chameleon, moving from 1's and 0's grooves to barrel piano and Latin-inflected horns at the flip of the switch. With a few toggles, 73-year-old Paul Williams' (best known for penning "We've Only Just Begun") weathered voice floats in space with a swelling orchestra as time stops. "If love is the answer you're home, hold on," an exuberant children's choir chimes. Of all our memories, those revolving around love burn the brightest. Inevitably these memories fade  for a wizened Paul Williams to return. "I need something more" he warbles a final time. In our lifetimes we'll forget more than we remember and struggle to reclaim what was once ours. Random Access Memories is the soundtrack to that struggle, music for sifting through a past the sands of time have buried.


7. Sunbather- Deafheaven


These truly are the days of miracles and wonders. In 2013 the best-reviewed album in all corners of the music review kingdom was made by three dudes from San Francisco who are most readily labelled "black-metal". However, that designation alone didn't get them here. Their refusal to play within the rigid framework of the genre did. Soldering together spine-crushing break beats, earsplitting revelations and meandering guitar lines, Deafheaven has constructed an ornate labyrinth where: post-rock, shoegaze, black-metal, and dream pop all wonder around; occasionally bumping into one another sometimes gently sometimes violently.

The violence feels more brutal thanks to the band's decision to include interludes that tease a chance to catch your breath, right before you're hurled back into the abyss. "Irresistible" is an aptly named slice of ambling guitar, harkening back to late 90s Built to Spill or the Modest Mouse of Lonesome Crowded West. Sure enough, when a reflective piano finally establishes itself, the blistering title track smashes it into a million splinters. The true excoriation doesn't come in frontman George Clarke's banshee wail, but what he's saying. This is one of first metal records in some time that will have you reaching for the booklet. "Sunbather" in particular is a lyrical marvel, displaying Clarke's populist-folk/hip-hop obsession with the wealthy class he eyes from a distance. In "Sunbather", their beauty and brutality swirl around in a miasmic cocktail of passages cribbed from My Bloody Valentine and Mayhem. One moment, scenes of verdant trees and white fences appear, the next the bones of the common man are broken "down to yellow," gums into "blood". "I gazed into reflective eyes, I cried against an ocean of light," reads a crucial passage. Sunbather is as much reflective as it is raging.

Interstitial "Please Remember" which features a subdued reading of a passage from The Unbearable Lightness of Being floats to the contemplative side of the fence. Dark industrial ruminations that choke out the first half dramatically loosen their grip by the three-minute mark and shuffling acoustic guitar comes up for air. Few moments in any genre this year are as sanguine as that first strum. Hearing it, an admiration for all the squalor starts to grow. Living isn't nearly as triumphant if death isn't a possibility. So when the spindly guitars and low-end bass of "Vertigo" transmute to an anvil procession of power soloing and hoof beat drums, you hold on to hope when fear would be the natural response. The sentiment is unquestionably true of Clarke, who confesses "he cannot love," and continues to move forward. In the heavily arpeggiated "Dream House" the waywardness he sings of sounds like a strange blessing. If you remain restless and refuse to slow down, the demons of the past (poor childhoods, absentee fathers, failed relationships) can't catch up to you.

"Dream House"

6. Beyoncé-Beyoncé


Every other musician on this list either above or below should envy
Beyoncé. Her bank account shouldn't be what causes this jealousy. Nor should the marital bliss her and Jay-Z share create a green-eyed monster. Forget Super Bowl appearances and Billboard dominance. No, what every other artist out there should grow desirous of is the uniform-effort Beyoncé commanded for her fifth studio album. When Drake hops on the minor-key "40"-production "Mine", any hint of his lothario side disappears, to better mesh with the commitment vibe. That's how magisterial Queen Bey's artistic vision is, when others link-up with her they reconsider their entire presentation.

And make no mistake about it; Beyoncé is an album of grand uniformity. It's conceptual without the inherent dogma that drags down every record with that label. "Haunted" opens on a young Beyoncé winning a vocal-competition and thanking Houston. It's an innocent moment, but soon enough it's upended by thudding-heart bass and New-Age electronica that has Beyoncé's mind wandering. Soon she settles on the shot of a "ghost in the sheets", a far-cry from the childish whimsy of the opening to be sure, still neither piece feels out of place. "Partition"s immaculately timed drum-machine snaps suggest they demanded months of consideration, this in a song dedicated to heat-of-the-moment passion that has Beyoncé asking a limo-driver for some privacy. And somehow her recounting "he like to call me Peaches when we get this nasty," it's not skin-crawling, but oddly endearingly. When she belts "pretty hurts" in the anthemic opener, she'll draw the ire of a few listeners, though they'll forget about it the once the shout distills to a whisper. You can only pull that off when you have the cache Ms. Carter has.

Part of Beyoncé's inscrutability is the stunning "lack" of singles. Forget the album's covered-to-death, that's the truly interesting angle. What are stations going to play? Early returns overwhelmingly suggest "XO", a starry love song penned by The-Dream and One Republic's Ryan Tedder, but a track like "Pretty Hurts" or Frank Ocean feature "Super Power" is equally possible. The latter's infectious "doot doot doot" backing is antediluvian R&B, though the restraint displayed is refreshing futurism in an era when every pop-singer wants to head straight for the high-note. The elegiac "Heaven" would already be dominating Billboard charts, if not for the tremendously personal subject matter concerning Beyoncé's miscarriage. Every piano chord pierces your heart, as Beyoncé somberly declares "heaven couldn't wait for you." In parts, one of modern music's greatest voices is reduced to an incomprehensible moan. And then, through the funereal cloud comes a ray of hope in closer "Blue", a slow-as-syrup paean to the child who survived. "Hold on to me," a dawdling Blue Ivy coos in the outro. With the control displayed here, Beyoncé won't be letting go of anything.


5. m b v- My Bloody Valentine (By Joseph Leiber)

Albums that take 22 years to make are held to very particular standards. Said standards are rather forgiving, making excuse for the album's shortfalls (typically due in large part to an extended breakup, etc) and finding circuitous fashions of praising the relevance of the album. m b v isn't your typical delayed release album- you get a true sense that every bit of those two decades was poured into first conceiving, re-writing, and then re-writing again, and then finally, *finally* beginning to record
some of the most painstaking music ever played behind a microphone. It's the kind of album that you can't possibly turn up loud enough. It's the kind of ocean that only grows more satisfying, more rich and more bottomless as you gradually sink beneath the first waves of layer after layer of guitar.

Let's begin with the guitars, because on m b v, the guitar isn't an assumed weapon of choice- it's a complex machine capable of producing the most intensely layered sounds loving milked to perfectly mixed perfection. With endless micro shifts in density and tone, one could spend all day lost in the ebb and flow. But it's in the sudden details that suddenly shift the whole production ever so slightly- slightly enough- that will yank your ear enough to suck you in deeper, making you wonder how the texture could drop away for that one
moment in "only tomorrow", or how Kevin Shields and company could mold a bit a lulling texture into a throbbing pulse at the right moment in "in another way". It's moments like these that most accurately represent the experience of listening to one of 2013's best albums: An album composed of minute, infinite moments that tosses tempestuously when you least expect it, only causing you to further lose your way in a truly oceanic album.

"she found now"

4. Modern Vampires of the City- Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend's third LP is embedded in such a specific time and place for me, that it's a Herculean task to attempt to extract it from its original context. I can remember shedding a tear late at night walking back to my apartment as "Step"s Renaissance harpsichord bellowed at me for the first time. On the verge of graduating college, "I can't do it alone," was a sentiment that hit far too close to home. The intertwining tribal drums and "rising red Sun" of "Obvious Bicycle" was the first thing I heard as I finally put my college-town in the rearview. I remember hearing vocalist Ezra Koenig tenderly warbling "leave before you lose," and wondering if I'd actually listened to that advice. I'm a classic hanger-on, countdown the final seconds of a game (blowouts included) and I'll be there. While I could go on and continue to describe the tremendous importance the album held for me, I'd being doing a disservice to myself and anyone reading. So now I'll present the original review, posted days after I'd packed it all in. When wounds were fresh and dread was heavy:

On a personal level, this album is almost too perfect for me at this time of my life. The long chapter written in stream of consciousness and known as college comes to an end as I'm left counting down the last few days with pockets of friends, some more terrified than others to admit this is the end. Not five minutes before the "gloom and doom" began, there is nothing but joy to be found. As the final few posters are torn from walls, leaving behind only an empty sense of familiarity, my roommates and I smile, crack open the last adult beverages in the fridge, and toast to past/present/and future alike. Modern Vampires of the City is the sound of that laugh, drowning out the uncertainty that lingers just around the corner. 

The single "Step" is a masterful distillation of the mindset Vampire Weekend craft on this their third record, the ability to smile as you stare headlong into the abyss. The opening drum kick is a portal into another world, as reaffirming as that opening shot on "Like A Rolling Stone." "I'm stronger now, I'm ready for the house," Koenig croons from a distance in the chorus. In lieu of the following lines, "I can't do it alone, I can't do it alone," the line reads as chest-puffing of the highest order, he's attempting to be his own hostage negotiator. The almost ancient sounding harpsichord framing the song protects it from the rudeness of the present, and ponders on the past; "maybe she's gone, and I can't resurrect her," as Koenig force a smiles and looks on the "bright side" "the truth is she doesn't need me to protect her."

"Ya Hey" works as the flipside of "Step," another moment of glee at the impending gallows. On one level the song amounts to finger-wagging of the highest order, aimed squarely at the Big Man upstairs; "the faithless they don't love you, the zealous hearts don't love you." It's one of several tracks on the LP to question religion's role in seeing us through times of trouble, on the frenetic guitar strumming of "Worship You" the group wonders "who will guide us through the end?" and "Unbelievers" embraces the "little warmth" that awaits. "Ya Hey," my early pick for album highlight, can also work on a less celestial level. Replace God's boundless love for a world that spurns Him, with a lover desperately searching for the last ounce of love in a relationship the partner has given up on, and the metaphor comes into focus. Koenig can't fully commit to playing the blame-game, admitting, "I can't help but feel that I made some mistakes," as the song swells into the cathartic chorus. While he goes crawling through the "fire and through the flames," his partner sits in silence. For his lack of faith in a higher power, Koenig is burdened by an overwhelming faith in humanity.

For all the optimism, this album is still tempered by hard-earned reality. "Diane Young," a full-blown rockabilly rave-up that continues VW's ability to make perfect use of auto-tune is bound for the 27-Club, admitting "nobody knows what the future holds." Elsewhere, the "Hudson" plays out as one of the most dour tracks in the entire VW oeuvre, a minimalist affair replete with a ticking clock that's "such a drag," and the faint sound of a sour military marching band. In spite of the unrelenting bleakness the song suggests, Koenig cracks jokes and tells tales of those brave souls who linger on, "rejoicing to the end." That notion of a merry few seeing you through the waning days is what Vampire Weekend incisively soundtrack on MVOTC. This isn't the closing of a book, but the turning of a page, and the story is far from over. 

Experiencing Modern Vampires of the City now isn't the same. I can never recapture the feeling of hearing this story told for the first time. But I'll hold onto the memory, hopefully forever.

"Ya Hey"

3. Acid Rap- Chance the Rapper

2013's most arresting moment in rap belongs to a 20 year old screwball from Chicago. "They murking kids, they murder kids here" he intonates in the "Paranoia" half of "Pusha Man/Paranoia", dropping his pinched-off cartoon voice to magnify the gravity of the situation he's discussing. "It's easier to find a gun than a f***ing parking spot," he says of his native Chicago, speeding through the line at such a rapid pace you can tell he'd rather not dwell on the fact for long. "Where the f*** is Matt Lauer at?" he asks in an insistent tone. "Chi-raq" is a fixation of the national news once the temperature hits 90, but they talk about it from a distance. No one actually goes there to lend a hand. Chance dares to, he knows how terrifying it all can be and doesn't want to see someone face the fear alone. 

But Acid Rap, his second album following 2012's 10 Day doesn't merely dare to speak out about the terrors of being a child in South Side Chicago; it also dares to dream in the most vibrant way imaginable. Musically, Acid Rap is a mélange of sun-soaked jazz, feverous soul/gospel, psychedelic noodling, and interloping chopped-and-screwed aesthetics. Aforementioned "Pusha Man/Paranoia" winds through streams of burbling bass, sprinklings of church organ, and sizzurp-coated chorus of "I'm your Pusha Man". He relates the amount of weed he keeps around to a "house safari", though that sort of adventurous imagery is more descriptive of his music. "Cocoa Butter Kisses" journey is to the past, when Chance clung tight to orange Rugrats VHS tapes and got hugs from his Nana. While a drum machine is drunkenly stumbling throughout the number, Chance and guests Vic Mensa and Twista remain upright. It's no surprise Twista steals the thing, finding just the right pockets to drop his scalding triple-time into. "And I wanna get a hug, and I can't cause I'm stanking, never too old for a spanking," he rat-tat-tats; letting youngblood Chance know some things you never grow out of.

That said Acid Rap features plenty of growing pains. "And you love being Kobe when you make the lay-up till you realize everybody in world f***in hates the Lakers," he elucidates in ragtime meets banger "Juice". A lot of the childhood dreams you chase aren't what you expected once you catch them. "Acid Rain"s lysergic guitars are interrupted by petrifying scenes of "funerals for little girls." When these tragedies threaten to push Chance over a cliff, he "trips to make the fall shorter." Pinched-nerve delivery isn't Chance and Danny Brown share; both embrace the escapist tendencies of drugs.

Those moments of escape don't last forever; you'll float back down to Earth. "Lost" painfully reminds romantics falling out of love is as easy as falling in. "Chain Smoker" deconstructs the YOLO lifestyle and reveals it to be a folly. "YOLO was a lie," he bluntly raps. When you're constantly rushing to doing something because this life's the only one you've got, you're limiting yourself. You could see the world and not remember a single thing by the time you get home. There's nothing wrong about being grounded. How else could a giddy Mr. Bennett and indomitable guest Childish Gambino enjoy the simple pleasure of swaying along to their "favorite song"? "Kicking dirt on the shirts of lames," as Chance squawks in "(So Good) Good Ass Intro" isn't possible unless your feet are dug into the earth. When the juking-brass piece dropped back in May, I hadn't written on the blog in almost two months. Instead of growing lazy, I'd slipped into a minor-case of depression concerning the life upheaval graduation would bring. I had my doubts about music journalism as profession and whether I'd be seeing close friends a month after; let alone years later. Hearing Chance's first line on the whole album "raps just make me anxious" brought me comfort. No matter what kind of patience you possess, you're going to get anxious. Don't freak-out too much, ultimately everything will be good.

 "Pusha Man/Paranoia" ft. Nate Fox & Lili K

2. Yeezus- Kanye West (By Michael Delcau)





At first glance it’s a CD your friend ripped for you; no album art, no CD label, and a red sticker “taping” the case together. This understated presentation doesn’t solely apply to the artwork; it speaks to the austerity of the entire Yeezus project. All of the grandeur of 2010’s MyBeautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is stripped away. It was unleashed with a publicity budget of zero – no release of major singles and a deliberate lack of promotion beforehand. And yet, it remained one of the most anticipated albums of 2013.

Even with all that anticipation, there’s no easing into Yeezus. Aggressive synths welcome the listener on album opener “On Sight”, imaging Daft Punk if set to kill. It’s full of blind-rage and not so subtle misogyny, though West manages to calmly rap “How much do I not give a f***? Let me show you right now before you give it up." Right then, it dives into an angelic choir, the moment doesn’t last nearly long enough and soon we’re back into thrashing electronica. As a mission statement, “On Sight” warns everyone the breathers will be few and far between.

In the bleak industrial of “I Am a God” you hear someone literally struggling for air.  A fitting sync for “Black Skinheads” taunting “C’mon homey what happened, you n****s ain’t breathing you gasping, these n****s ain’t ready for action." Surrounded by nightmarish scenes, Kanye will still pause to finger wag at anyone who doesn’t bring their A-game.  That finger-wagging turns to fist-balling in the angry consciousness of “New Slaves”; a number featuring Kanye’s observations of race in modern-day America. Prisons are built for profit and Jerome continues to get locked up faster than Brandon. The track’s all bleeps and bloops and that minimalism magnifies the desperation. “Hold My Liquor” weds Justin Vernon of Bon Iver’s haunting vocals and Chief Keef’s catchy hook (two people with their own unique brand of “lo-fi”) to muted drums. West admits “I slightly scratch your Corolla, okay I smashed your Corolla” showing that all this restraint won’t ward off every destructive tendency.

Despite such destruction on display, Yeezus’ flow and sequencing is seamless. “Hold My Liquor”s tale of over-consumption leads to a horrifying after-party “I’m In It”. The entire goal is to, as West says “take it too far now.” If anything “takes it too far”, it’s “Blood on the Leaves”, Yeezus’ most powerful recording. Nina Simone’s cover of lynching-anthem “Strange Fruit” is set to a ghostly pitch to compliment Kanye’s disembodied auto-tuned vocals. “Blood on the Leaves” examines West at his most distressed. As the beat drops into a mammoth horn-section, so does the auto-tune’s emotional armor. “We could’ve been somebody, ‘stead you had to tell somebody, let’s take it back to the first party, when you tried your first molly,” West reminisces. Continuing he searches for a better time “before the lime light tore ya, before the lime light stole ya,” the lights he so often sings of won’t die down. “Guilt Trip” keeps splitting between anger and desperation, West brashly calls himself “the top shotta,” before guest Kid Cudi takes him down a peg with the begging “if you loved me so much, why’d you let me go?” Even hiccuping soul performance “Bound 2”, the sunniest song on Yeezus admits “I’m tired.”

Minimalist, brash, daring, unorthodox, oppressive. These all describe Yeezus, but even then, it’s impossible to completely define such an undertaking. Like the pieces of art West frequently discusses, it requires multiple listens to see how everything fits together. It’s already ruffled feathers and inspired new criticisms of West. A few dissenters can’t stop West; he’ll follow his muse no matter where it takes him. He forecasts it himself in “Hold My Liquor”, “I’ve been a menace the longest, but I ain’t finished, I’m devoted.

"Blood on the Leaves"

1. Reflektor-Arcade Fire

There's something deeply comical about Reflektor's grand unveiling. An album so fiercely committed to finding humanity, had music-nerds huddling around their computers when it "leaked”; miles away from reality. Were we all becoming the "reflektors" Win Butler exasperatedly warned of in the jungle-disco groove of the title-track; mere "reflections of our former selves"? "Our love is plastic, we'll break it to bits," goes one line. And while the easier explanation is it's telling us how fleeting love can be in our fast-paced culture, another is to consider "bits" in a digital sense. The "computer age" AF-hero Neil Young fretted over is firmly established, and our love’s been reduced to 1's and 0's. 

Akin to Young, Arcade Fire are imbued with the knowledge they're "more than just a number" and on the sprawling Reflektor they set out to prove it. "We Exist"s cacophonous drums, echoing piano, and spiked guitar runs scream the central conceit. Anyone's who’s ever felt marginalized identifies with: "Daddy it's true, I'm different from you, but tell me why they treat me like this?" "Here Comes the Night Time" searches for a sense of that communitas once the Sun goes down. A pursuit of heaven, the ultimate place of acceptance manages to disappoint. It's a locked-gate and a select few have the key.

"Normal Person" posits the notion of "normality" is the cruelest facet of modern society. Striving to "be cool" has always been around, thriving off of the vacuousness we all possess, but in 2013 it seems particularly abundant. Drake's once laughable critique that social media sites like Tumblr are reminiscent of "those clique-y girls in high school that used to make fun of everyone else and define what was cool," grows more prescient over time. In the song itself, Butler wonders aloud (in the worst Elvis impersonation since Michael Stipe) if liking rock and roll means he's no longer cool. Meanwhile "Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)" stops wondering about what's "cool" or normal, and escapes the noise. Floating past doleful background synthesizer and earthen drumming, Butler tries to see through any artifice to the core. "Please stop running now, just let me be the one for you," he asks always one step behind. Eurydice can't comply and soon she vanishes in an orchestral swell. In the callous digital era, fairy tale endings are as improbable as ever.

Somehow Arcade Fire's perpetual wide-eyed gaze misses "minor" details. The rockabilly filtered through Low approach of "You Already Know", finds the greatest joy in the smallest pleasures. "If you stop to ask, it's already passed. So how can you move so slow? How can you move so slow? You miss it if you don't," the band instructs. This isn't the documentation we're used to now, where we take pictures of events we'll never see again. That tactic robs us of our soul, as Butler points out with utter paranoia in "Flashbulb Eyes" . When an event loses its ephemeral quality, it becomes significantly less vital.

Part of Reflektor’s unflappable vitality is the music. An artistic bouillabaisse, Reflektor doesn't view any style as less important than another. Disco rubs shoulders with Brian Eno art-rock and no one bats an eye. Don't care for the stuffy "Rock and Roll Pt. 2" bassline of "Joan of Arc"? Rewind to "Here Comes the Night Time" and fill yourself with a proletariat-leaning marimba. Leading up to the album drop, Régine Chassagne recounted her earliest musical encounters- spent listening to sounds wafting in from the neighbors. Playing from memory, she tried to recreate them on piano. Reflektor thrives on this method. The way they clash skulking 2000s garage rock and palatial dream-pop in "It's Never Over (Oh Orpheus)" evokes a well-argued dissertation on the two topics that skimmed a couple pages in the research phase.

Penultimate track and album highlight "Afterlife" refuses to skimp on a single detail. Bongos take the low-road in the mix, ringing guitars and hooting sax ride third-rail down the middle, and Chassagne's effervescent "oohs" perch delicately on top. Before I'd seen the emotionally-devastating video, I thought "Afterlife" belonged in the discussion of the year's best songs, so a clip of a father and his two sons struggling to keep up hope after their mother has passed simply confirmed what I already suspected. Without the visual, Butler's eternal pondering still resonates. No matter your religious predilection, it's impossible not to wonder what happens when we no longer exist, when the final flames are extinguished and the last taxi leaves the club. To Butler, attempting to answer the question without any evidence is the height of vanity. Tangible relationships can dissolve into screaming and shouting in an instant, so why should a nondescript locale like "the afterlife" be any different? We keep asking the question though because of the glimpses we get of the life of the world to come. Our humanness is defined by a thirst for knowledge no search bar can satiate. We exist because we think. And we survive because we reflect.


Any list like this is bound to have omissions, ones that stick out in my own mind include: Sky Ferriera's warped-pop debut Night Time My Time, Kurt Vile's psychedelically loping Wakin' on a Pretty Daze, and James Blake's cyrogenic R&B on display in Overgrown, all of which I sadly didn't have time to listen to (maybe in 2014). Even listing these omissions, I'm sure there are others I've made, so please feel free to say so in the comments section. And look for the blog to officially return on Monday.

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