FAVORITE MUSIC RELEASED IN 2013
[Director's Cut (long (better) version)]
2013 may very well be remembered as the best sad music year since Nam and folk music happened at the same time. If our musicians aren't making mind-numbing or intentionally disorienting dance music, they're letting their human side bleed out through their tunes, and they are sad. They are very, very sad. But oh man is the music incredible. Here are my favorite new releases of 2013. Prepare to be broken!
In no particular order:
The Head and the Heart came out with a favorite ten CD in 2011 with their self-titled. With a track record like this, they're on their way to being one of my favorite bands of all time! (But knowing my luck with favorite bands they have maybe one more good one in them. See also Streetlight Manifesto, Civil Wars, and The Refreshments) This year they released "Let's Be Still". The Head and the Heart sway toward the indie folk/rock side of the spectrum, but not aggressively so. The violin, guitars, and drums weave smoothly behind the smokey, southern-sounding vocals of the lead, making perfect coffee-drinking music, to which one can close their eyes and tap their foot. The lyrics derive from a longing for the past and... well... trees. They sing a lot about trees. Which, honestly, I love.
Crucial Tracks: "Let's Be Still"- a very 70's folk-esque song about the need for stillness in a world that "just keeps spinning." When the female vocals come in on this song, my skin flushes with goose-bumps. It's catchy, important, simple, and really easy to play along and listen to. Easily, it's one of my favorite songs of the year. The other song you'll need to hear is "Shake". This tune brings a jubilance to the CD I don't think it could do without. I have trouble not smiling during the chorus when the lead whoops- or whatever sound he makes there... It sounds like youth and purity and summer and freedom. Keep them coming, THATH. Please.
Eminem's secret weapon has consistently been the ability to perceive himself precisely as others perceive him, and then use that perception to really mess with our heads. He has an impeccable sense of self-awareness, which is rare with his level of celebrity. He used these weapons this year to make The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (complete with a sequel to Stan). How he does not make this a desperate tribute to himself, I don't know. How none of this is CD derivative, I don't know. How this doesn't reek with the stench of familiar wells, I don't know. Shady hits all his strengths evenly to balance his chemical imbalances with his juvenility with his vulnerability with his lyricism with his passion with his rage, and the result is somewhat astonishing. It's a hate-heavy release (even for Slim), but with the stickiness of the hooks and inspired poetics, somehow his hatred just feels right at home. If you liked Eminem at one time, but no longer do, give this a listen. If you've always been a die-hard, you're in the same pool. If you've never liked Eminem, oh you'll just hate this (but give it a listen anyway, you could surprise yourself). It's also worth mentioning, this was the only CD I heard this year that made me laugh out loud in my cubical.
Crucial Tracks: This 21 track LP is not short on content, so it's difficult for me to hone in on a couple, but two that stick out to me are "Love Game" featuring the previously disliked Kendrick Lamar and "Desperation" featuring a powerful Jamie N Commons. "Love Game" is melodramatic and hilarious. "Desperation" is a force vehicle for the core-shaking vocals of Mr. Commons. I'm a fan. "So Far" and "Brainless" are also standouts.
While we're talking about rap, I'd like to shuffle my feet, stare at the ground, and talk about Kanye West. This review will be full of disclaimers because I really hate how much I love this CD. Yeezus is kind of this masterpiece or whatever. West is cursed with the most unfortunate personality a person could possibly have. His sense of entitlement, self-centeredness, detachment from absolutely everything, and his preference for his success (and life in general) to appear utterly void of effort is just appalling. Or. He's an Andy Kaufman. This is all the result of careful cultural observation and character construction. Although I hope it's the latter, either way he's I guess this genius or something whatever. He acts as if this incredible creative muse he has is a demonic possession. I think he hates how good he is at what he does. Which doesn't make him less deplorable. Ok, but this CD does things not only rap has never done before, but music altogether. It's had some help, it's been produced to hell and back. The tones skip maniacally from bowel-shaking bass to twinging lasers, tempos layer, keys change and change and change, all the while West is saying something truly awful and simultaneously undeniably poetic. It's disorienting. Yeezus is one of those CD's that breaks down time. An undeterminable amount of time should be measured as one Yeezus. But, how a bastard monster like Kanye West can get sensible people like us to not only enjoy, but LOVE something like Yeezus is his joke on us. And it's a damned good one
Crucial Tracks: "Blood On The Leaves" is one of a few songs that's about Kanye's perception of modern-day slavery and racism. The tragic, racial lamentation that's sampled throughout this song is about a group of black people who were hanged; "Strange fruit hanging from the popper trees." But his lyrics are about a passed relationship and they're not even that good on paper... but somehow this makes for an incredible song. I'm uncomfortable too. I think that's the point. The other standout is "Black Skinhead." It's called "Black Skinhead," and the last lyrics read "GOD!" [11x]. Play it loud, give into your discomfort, and let Yeezus eat you.
Earl Sweatshirt is free!!! The Odd Future member survived his stint in a boarding school and apparently the nineteen-year-old rapper has harbored away a few things to say. His new CD, Doris, set the underground rap scene aflame this year. As it turns out, the hype and the wait were not in vane. Slow, cold, and jazzy, Earl's style let's itself right into the listener's head. The lyrics pertain to reformation, confidence (and the lack there of), and tales from the violent concrete valleys of the proverbial (and maybe literal) streets, which beg the question, was he really just in boarding school this whole time? Sweatshirt has either lived a frighteningly full criminal life already or he's channelling a character who's done so. Either way, the way he describes it is effortlessly poetic, smooth, and vocally soupy. Golf Wang and company naturally throw their sauce into the project as well. I'm looking forward to more from Earl Sweatshirt down the road. Listen to this CD while cooking something delicious and complex.
Crucial Tracks: "Chum" is an amazing sum-up of Earl's life up until now. It also has very honest and relatable things to say about redemption and the sense of being overwhelmed. "Hive" is a stingier (pun acknowledged) track, in which Earl expels some impressive anger with no small dosage of old-soul wisdom.
One more rap one. Cage has been creeping around the underground since about '97, but he might have outdone himself with this year's Kill the Architect. While his last one, Hell's Winter was charged with social rage, Kill the Architect is more melodic and inflective, which gives this horrifying sincerity to the shock rapper's lyrics. Horror isn't exactly renowned as a popular music genre, but if it was, Cage would be the one to put it on the map, especially with KTA. I'm concerned about his mental health, (genuinely, there's some insane stuff on here), but I'm really enjoying his spiral. Creepy, violent, clever, moody, sticky, great for driving slow at night.
Crucial Tracks: "Fuck This Game" has a super addictive melody, and really sets the tone for the whole album in both mood and lyric. I also love "I Don't Know You", the song where Cage actually sings. It's slow, smooth, and it made me feel painfully small. it's a little difficult to describe and the lyrics are beautiful and abstract, but this track left a feeling that lingered.
When The Civil Wars broke up after Barton Hallow due to "disagreements in ambition," I was confused and a bit shattered, honestly. They make one CD that's a borderline masterpiece and call it quits? So I was a little concerned when they actually decided to pull their suspenders back up onto their shoulders for a second album. It felt like they decided to keep going because people would have complained if they didn't. The result, their self-titled, is NOTHING LIKE THAT. It's inspired, organic, emotional, and simply gorgeous. There are drums in this CD, which caught me a little off-guard, but I'm good with it. They put a ton of work into The Civil Wars, their harmonies are dead on, and the melodies attack their intended tones with a vengeance. The tones range all over the place. It felt perfect to put this CD on while I worked in the yard, then equally perfect when I put it back on to take a nap after. If they disappear after this one, it would be bittersweet satisfaction.
Notable Tracks: "Devil's Backbone" is a love song that gave me shivers. "Oh Henry" is where the vocals shine the brightest. Their cover of The Smashing Pumpkins' "Disarm" at half-tempo is seriously heartbreaking.
Ska/Punk super-power Streetlight Manifesto wrapped up their stride with their farewell album this year, The Hands That Thieve. The way Streetlight Manifesto writes their songs is brilliant. They write each song as if it were the last song on their only CD. It has paid off. Their entire catalog has enough energy to power the universe forever. The Hands That Thieve is no exception. The band's theme is revolution and that is made apparent here. Songs from self-actualization to having the courage to skank upstream power the album from front to back. The Hands That Thieve plays out like a journey, where the first song states a theme of never bowing down to anything. The second song, "Ungrateful," has the classic ska sound and is a thank you/tribute to their listeners and fellow revolutionists. The hooks and riffs are as catchy as ever. Band founder and lead Tomas Kalnoky also founded the band Catch 22 way back in ska's prime, so needless to say, his next band, whatever that will be, will also be incredible. In fact, I take comfort in knowing that all of the members of Streetlight have promising music careers ahead of them. Streetlight Manifesto will always be one of my favorite bands of all time for their energy, complexity, and potent philosophies, and I'm sad to see them go. But I'm elated to see them go like this.
Crucial Tracks: The aforementioned "Ungrateful" is human fuel. If a person listens to this song three times a day, they won't need to eat. I'm pretty sure. But food is delicious, so it's your call. Why not do both? "With Any Sort of Certainty" is my other favorite. It has that classic Manifesto anthem feel that just makes my heart want to punch something in happiness. (Special note on this one. Their label is really screwing them over (surprise) so if you would like to support Streetlight Manifesto, steal the CD and buy a shirt or buy directly from their site).
Man Man dialed back the absurdity and tweaked the accessibility inversely for this year's On Oni Pond. Oh, don't worry, it's still ridiculous, but they keep the cartoon voices an noisy outbursts to a minimum for an awesome, structured, skillfully crafted rock set. Most of the piano waltzes we came to know and love from Six Demon Bag have been left behind for something to which listeners can spazz dance (it's difficult NOT to spazz dance). The lyrics are still absurd and wonderful, the arrangements are creative. But lurking underneath the initial manic sounds and often silly lyrics, there's this deep, intense sadness, which punched me right in the ventricles. They sneak up on me and I like a band that can surprise me.
Crucial Tracks: This is tricky because all these songs get me very excitable, but the ones that jump out at me are "Pyramids" for it's insanely awesome lyrics and danceability and "Loot My Body" for similar reasons. On Oni Pond is an all around indestructible album, and if it's not your flavor, at least appreciate the amazing album art. If that doesn't make you smile, enjoy not having a soul.
The national is EVERYWHERE with their new one Trouble Will Find Me. This one took a while to grow on me. Um. It's really, really sad, even vocally, it sounds like the lonesome dirge of a lonely loser, but here's what helped me. I loved their previous album, Alligator, right when I first listened to it. So I like approaching Trouble Will Find Me with a running start by listening to Alligator first. And they try to make it easy to approach they really do. Their song-writing style is such that they find the most compelling line of lyrics in the song and just repeat it for a while. Then they find another line they like and repeat that for a while. Each song has at least two choruses. So there's going to be repetition, which will either drive you insane, or drag you down with their demons. The lyrics aren't beat-you-over-the-face sad either, they're actually really funny sometimes, in a vulnerable sort of way. Think Beck without the desperation for weirdness. The fact that this album was hard for me to get into, yet I kept wanting to listen to it really says something. It's a fantastic, unbelievably honest piece of work.
Crucial Tracks: I try to refrain from putting lyrics in my reviews because the way they're put to music can really change their meanings... with that said, these are some lyrics to the second to last track (statistically the best song on most CD's), "Pink Rabbits".
You didn't see me, I was falling apart
I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in a park
You didn't see me, I was falling apart
I was a television version of a person with a broken heart
(Repeated of course).
I love that. Another wonderfully soul soaking song from Trouble Will Find me is "Demons". Here's a bit from that:
Passing buzzards in the sky,
Alligators in the sewers.
I don't even wonder why,
Hide among the under views.
Huddle with them all night long,
The worried talk to god goes on.
I sincerely tried to love it,
Wish that I could rise above it.
But I stay down,
With my demons.
It haunts me so good.
I'm not going to talk about awesome sad music from this year and not talk about the prolific Nick Cave! This man's creative resume is its own haunting novel, but I think this year's Push the Sky Away is his most compelling contribution to the creative world in decades. This album is saturated with moments where I've simultaneously cringed and shivered in excitement. Listening to this CD is like participating in the fever dream of a delirious sea captain. Push the Sky Away alludes constantly to mermaids, water, and women and woes of the past. It's cohesive, brutally descriptive, honest, and is delivered more as a collection of poems on tape than a musical album. The lyrics are what shine (and shine isn't the right word for what they did to my heart) in this CD, as the instrumentals from The Bad Seeds shake and groan faintly behind Cave's deep, aged, narration style vocals. It's a notably beautiful output from a man who is far from dry. Listen to Push the Sky Away while drinking whiskey on your porch on a cold, clear night.
Crucial Tracks: "Wide Lovely Eyes" is Push the Sky Away in a nutshell. It's vaguely romantic, surreal, severely descriptive, and deeply unsettling.
For ten, I'm just going to lump together and summarize my other favorites of the year that I didn't quite know how to rank or describe.
David Bowie is still incredible, in case you were still wondering. His voice sounds soulful and wizardly in his new CD The Next Day, his 80's party art rock style is timeless and solid, so he sticks to that. He sounds like he might be Nick Cave's happier, more caffeinated persona... think about that.
Jimmy Eat World actually blew me away with this year's Damage. It's exactly like a girlfriend at a summer camp, if you've ever had that experience. It's so easy to listen to and love and it makes so much sense! Then it's really kind of heartbreaking, and you can't wait to go through it again. But, alas, just like the summer camp girlfriends, I overdosed on it pretty quickly.
Grizzly Bear and My Morning Jacket didn't put anything out this year, (well Grizzly Bear put out a great B-Sides CD, anyway) but have no fear. Phosphorescent will fill that cavernous, harmonious void in your ears' heart. Their 2013 release, Muchacho, is really gorgeous.
Queens of the Stoneage is all grown up... and it's kind of a bummer. We know Homme is sad, but the lyrics are pretty vague, and we're not sure about what. The songs on Like Clockwork are brooding to the point where I'm sure if QOTS even want us listening. Even the catchy licks just seemed to bounce off of me. I was looking forward to loving this one, and I kind of didn't, which makes me kind of hate it. I'm complicated. It's still a number ten though, because technically speaking, it's very good music if only for the amount of attention paid to detail.
Daft Punk's Random Access Memories is amazing for driving with your windows down, but it's about as deep as anyone wearing white sunglasses.
About a thousand post rock bands emerged this year, and what's annoying is they're all actually pretty good. But Boards of Canada has been around for a while and they came out with Tomorrow's Harvest, which sounds like listening to a sci-fi book on tape soundtrack... It makes sense of you listen to it. They also reissued ALL of their CD's this year... shrug. Cool?
They're still making metal music! It's really, really silly. But I did find a CD that I actually enjoyed this year by The Dillinger Escape Plan, called One of Us Is the Killer. I suppose they're calling this sub-genre "math-core" (silly), but I actually ended up listening to this one like ten times this year. I kind of love it. It's not vocally Cookie Monster voice, old jock rocker, OR mad panther, which is hard to avoid in the metal scene. Kudos. I'd also like to bring to everyone's attention that there is a metal band called Noothgrush, which is the best metal band name there will ever be.
Ok, fine, I'll talk about Reflektor. Arcade Fire is going to be around forever. They've found that timeless sound that's so free of noticeable influence, yet so accessible, that I see people listening to Reflektor in the future as they storm the laser gates to overthrow whatever space dictator takes over NewMerica. I found this album amazing to sleep to. Which is to say, I found it very boring, which ISN'T to say, I found it bad. Like The national repeats a compelling line, over and over, Arcade Fire does that in this album, except for the least compelling lines. Sure, I'll pad this a bit; how they have that many instruments in one CD without making it sound like a muddled title wave of one noise does amaze me. The way they record, arrange, mix, and produce is flawless. The sound is wonderful, timeless, dream-pop voodoo disco, but I really wanted better from the songs themselves. Thaaat's allll.
Well this ended up being kind of a chunk to read, I wonder if any of you made it. If you think I forgot a CD or just disagree or would like to discuss or recommend, I would love that.
... Still to come out this year:
Perfect Circle: Three Sixty
M83: You And The Night (soundtrack)
Shearwater: Fellow Travelers
Childish Gambino: Because the Internet