Sunday, December 22, 2013

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2013

 What lessons did we learn from the music scene in 2013? That was this a year for tantalization, courtesy of Miley Cyrus? Or controversy, by way of the always unpredictable Kanye West? Perhaps it was the element of surprise (thank you, Beyonce), or the need to expand your boundaries (tip of the hat, Arcade Fire), or the year of the comeback (Daft Punk, we missed you so). Whatever it was, you couldn't say 2013 was a boring year, or a complacent one.

Normally I listen to at least new 25 albums a year and whittle it down, usually based upon recommendations and reviews. This year, however I raised that number; there was always one noteworthy album that I completely overlooked or made aware of, and I wanted to avoid as many glaring omissions as possible. There was only one album of critical merit (Miley's Bangerz) that I just couldn't bring myself to listen to; the clash of positive and negative press was just too much to bear.

1. Yeezus, Kanye West. This album should have been a train wreck. The hype and secrecy behind Yeezy's sixth album, not to mention the insurmountable task of succeeding My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, should have proved once for all that West was fallible. Instead West produces Yeezus, his most challenging, non-commercial effort yet. This "new" Kanye is more political than extroverted; he is clearly not concerned with what constitutes good or bad taste. Someday, West will collapse on the weight of his massive ego, but it didn't happen this year.
2. Random Access Memories, Daft Punk. If Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" dominated radio in July and August 2013, Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" owned May and June. Strangely, Daft Punk's return from a lengthy hiatus (unless you count the "Tron: Legacy" soundtrack, no new studio offerings since 2005) sounds hardly anything like the infectious leadoff single. It's a personal work, with the French EDM duo collaborating with the artists who inspired them (Giorgio Moroder, Nile Rodgers) while composing songs for a wishlist of left-field guest stars (Paul Williams, Julian Casablancas). Memories, indeed.
3. Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend. Downplaying the showiness and smartass rich-kid rhetoric of their first two albums, Modern Vampires is the final third of a trilogy (so says frontman Ezra Koenig) and a statement of maturity. The hit single "Diane Young" sounds like the been-there, done-that cousin of "Cousins," and "Obvious Bicycle" might remind one of The Kinks circa Muswell Hillbillies. The over-educated brat is still there, but his tastes are diversifying.
4. Reflektor, Arcade Fire
5. We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, Foxygen
6. Trouble Will Find Me, The National
7. Sunbather, Deafheaven
8. m b v, My Bloody Valentine
9. The Electric Lady, Janelle Monae
10. Once I Was an Eagle, Laura Marling. Speaking of maturity, it's amazing how much this singer-songwriter has grown and blossomed in six short years. "Precocious" does not apply anymore; Marling's Joni Mitchell-meets-Regina Spektor sound is fully honed, and her fourth solo album is her most virtuosic effort yet. Her 2010 effort I Speak Because I Can may have had stronger songwriting, but Eagle has the edge on songcraft.

11. Days Are Gone, HAIM
12. Amok, Atoms for Peace
13. ...Like Clockwork, Queens of the Stone Age
14. Silence Yourself, Savages
15. The Next Day, David Bowie. I'm not sure what amazes me more: that Bowie could record such a strong album in the late stages of his legendary career, or that he never repeats himself. Sure, his first batch of original songs since 2003 alude to his '70s and early '80s output, but the Thin White Duke is not here to navelgaze or wax nostalgic. In fact, he refracts his portrait of Dorian Gray. Physically Bowie is a bit older, but his croon has barely aged.
16. Long.Live.A$AP, A$AP Rocky
17. Overgrown, James Blake
18. Doris, Earl Sweatshirt
19. The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight..., Neko Case
20. The Chronicles of Marnia, Marnie Stern. One of the most distinctly dexterious guitarists working today, Stern presents herself like Colbie Caillat but plays like Robert Fripp. Where her earlier work comprised mostly of unpredictable, prog-rock shredding, Marnia is looser and more expansive. To dismiss this as pedestrian and easygoing is an injustice. Stern is giving herself time to breathe, putting the melody ahead of the technical prowess, and it still sounds as effortless as ever.

"Royals," Lorde
"Super Soaker," Kings of Leon
"Default," Django Django
"Inhaler," Foals
"I'm In, I'm Out, and I'm Gone," Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite
"A New Life," Jim James
"Harper Lee," Little Green Cars
"Right Action," Franz Ferdinand
"Sun Blows Up Today," The Flaming Lips
"Yellow Purple Red and Blue," Portugal, The Man
"Pompeii," Bastille
"Oh My God," Kate Nash

1. "Q.U.E.E.N." Janelle Monae feat. Erykah Badu. Everything you need to know about Monae, her music, and her cult of personality, summed up in six fabulously funky minutes. If getting your clip on MTV meant anything anymore, this might our generation's "Billie Jean."
2. "Wishes," Beach House. Character actor Ray Wise is incredible in everything he does, mostly because of his remarkably expressive face. This hypnotic video, playing some type of cult leader leading a pastel-colored pep rally, is sold on Wise's face and what it conveys amid the madness. And it sells marvelously. That Eric Wareheim of Adult Swim fame directed this is almost ancillary to this clip's beautiful madness.
3. "Bagboy," The Pixies. Another one of the pleasant surprises of 2013 was the first new Pixies single in over 20 years, and the accompanying video is a both an anarchist romp and a mesmorizing glance into juvenile delinquency. The ending will make your jaw drop.
4. "Sacrilege," The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. If Paul Verhoeven and Lars Von Trier joined forces on an indie movie, than shot it backwards, the end result would probably be this.
5. "Reflektor" (version 2), Arcade Fire. Anton Corbijn takes a few cues from Fellini, than assembles a gloomy yet lighthearted clip for a notoriously gloomy yet lighthearted band. Taking note of the Butler brother's newfound playfulness, this surreal, papier-mâché happy video plays well with the funky leadoff single of Fire's fourth album. Just watch out for the mirrored suit guy.
6. "Shot at the Night," The Killers. If you're looking for a relatively wholesome, enchantingly romantic video, look no further than this Vegas-set Cinderella story. The glorious cheese of the Strip is further accented by Brandon Flowers' attempt at the best song not released in 1986.
7. "Open," Rhye. Another love story, but this one plays out like a short story in the New Yorker. It almost makes you want to run off with your lover to a faraway retreat. Almost.
8. "White Noise," Disclosure feat. AlunaGeorge. At the complete opposite of the spectrum from "Shot at the Night" is this Detroit-set charmer, featuring perhaps the strongest love story of them all. Sometimes you'll find diamonds in the roughest conditions.
9. "Wild for the Night," A$AP Rocky feat. Skrillex. The cliche-heavy "rapper living the good life" video gets tweaked again. I don't know what's more impressive: that Rocky speaks fluent Spanish, or he's seen City of God.
10. "Hopeless Wanderer," Mumford & Sons. In the recent deluge of celebrity cameo videos, no one did it better than these angsty British folkies. Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Ed Helms, and Will Forte goof around with banjos and pianos, and that's all you need to know.

Honorable Mention: Diane Martel's boob-arific clip for Thicke's "Blurred Lines."

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