Friday, December 20, 2013
Glitch-pop track from Saol Álainn, which is actually the nom de plume of Foster The People keyboard player Isom Innis. It has a very Notwist vibe to it, so of course it is wonderful.
And finally, here are my top ten favorite albums of 2013:
10. Jon Hopkins - Immunity
Over the course of three solo releases, UK producer Jon Hopkins made beautiful yet fairly unmemorable techno that never seemed to push him into the next level of electronic artists. It wasn't until high profile collaborations with Brian Eno, Coldplay and Underworld and his collaboration with King Creosote on the 2011 Mercury Prize nominated album Diamond Mine that finally started getting him name recognition. These opportunities seemingly have jump started his creative juices, leading him to create his best album so far, and not only that, one of the best techno releases of the year. Immunity is a self-described journey through a night of clubbing, taking the listener through the highs and lows of a evening out on the town, where music is both a release, a tormentor, and ultimately a savior.
9. Disclosure - Settle
UK production duo Disclosure, brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence, occupy a strange position in dance music. They aren't a straight up dance act, their strengths definitely lie more in the pop song area, however, they aren't necessarily solidly in the traditional pop song structure world either, letting things go on occasion with straight up house tracks. It's this tension and flirtation between the two areas that makes them so fascinating. Not to mention, they know how to come up with some killer hooks. Before the release of their debut album Settle, Disclosure release a torrent of hot singles, the slamming club track "White Noise" with AlunaGeorge, R&B leaning "Latch" with Sam Smith, and kooky UK garage referencing "You & Me" with Eliza Dolittle. My fear was that the album would be these singles plus a lot of filler, but Settle actually goes beyond that, revealing itself to be a surprisingly cohesive journey from the duo, flowing like a good DJ set, with lots of highs mixed in with different styles.
8. Boards of Canada - Tomorrow's Harvest
Almost outclassing Daft Punk in the marketing department, Boards of Canada slyly reappeared after a 7 year absence with a viral ad campaign that had secret 12"s being left in record bins, strange bar codes, a Tokyo billboard announcement, and a desert listening party, with everything adding to the mystery of what BoC were up to, and now we are left with the final product, their fourth album Tomorrow's Harvest. Possibly named after a website that deals with food production and preparation for emergency situations, and appears to cater to doomsday minded people, Tomorrow's Harvest has a slightly sinister and dark quality to it that permeates all of the 17 tracks. Likewise, brothers Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin have indicated that their influences this go around went to soundtracks from John Carpenter, Wendy Carlos, and Mark Isham, creating a tension and almost off-putting edge to these tracks that gives the album an uncomfortable air of dread and unease. It is like they wanted to completely distance themselves from the pastoral IDM they put forth on their last record, The Campfire Headphase, and delve further into the darker territory they were mapping out on Geogaddi. The resulting record plays like a compendium of all their works, fractured through their current mood and viewpoint. Instead of drastically reinventing the wheel, Sandison and Eoin have made what is undeniably a Boards of Canada record, but one that expands upon the legacy created and adds a new, almost twisted spin to things.
7. Pet Shop Boys - Electric
Last year's record from the Pet Shop Boys, Elysium, their final record for longtime label Parlaphone, felt like a death knell for the venerable pop duo. Full of lyrics about fading away and aging, the dour atmosphere of the record was a far cry from their more upbeat and fun records. So it was a surprise when they announced the quick follow up to that record, Electric. Promised as a return to their dance roots, the boys enlisted the help of producer Stuart Price (Madonna, Killers) who knows his way around a dancefloor. Over these 9 club friendly tracks, Electric pulses and swoons with dark beats and majestic synths, harking back to their glorious dancefloor masterpiece Introspective. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe seem incredibly inspired this go around, turning out their best record since Very, and while it is not as eclectic, its sleek and consistent tone more than make up for it.
6. Forest Swords - Engravings
On 2010's almost album length EP Dagger Paths, British producer Matthew Barnes expertly blurred the lines between electronic and organic music, seamlessly incorporating elements of house, dub, dubstep, folk, drone, and R&B. It was fascinating listening to how he put rhythms and sequences together, and how just as tracks seemed to verge on too repetitious, he was would slightly alter things to put focus on new or even lesser elements, changing your perspective as one walks around a sculpture. There has been nothing since that adventurous release until now, Barnes suffering through some almost permanent hearing problems (since rectified) and also the bold attempts at creating his music out in nature, which he reluctantly scrapped in favor of studio recording, but subsequently mixed out in the open. Not much has changed with Barnes' musical approach and outlook in those three years, his debut full length Engravings is essentially cut from the same mold, but Barnes' focus has become razor sharp and the way he mixes all the various elements together into a seamless whole is practically brilliant. All of the tracks are built upon loops that gradually unfold, allowing you to hear their purpose, going in certain directions only to be pulled back from again, or driven against expectation, the lines between natural and electronic constantly blurred. Engravings is a deeply emotional and spiritual listen, taking you deep inside your head and thoughts; it is big music, and important music, but never less than grounded.
5. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires Of The City
At times, Vampire Weekend seem to be the easiest band to hate in the world. Dismissed a lot of times as upper-class, pretentious posers who wrongfully appropriated Afro-pop, few have ever really dared to look at how such appropriation itself was an wry, ironic take on just such appropriation. Despite all this hatred towards their J.Crew take on such musical genres, few could really deny that the band has its chops, and the juicy lyrically interplay was enough to stump even the most scholarly of critics. While there is nothing overtly different on Modern Vampires of the City, multiple listens of the record reveal a staggering jump in confidence and approach to their sound. For the first time, Vampire Weekend have dropped their snooty archness and reveal a truly emotional and warm heart that permeates the record. Ezra Koenig inhabits these characters and stories as if they are his second skin. Lyrically, there are still the usual arcane references, in-jokes, puns, and elaborate catalogs of events and place names, but instead of used in a pat-my-own-back style, they are used in a way that integrates fully with the characters and stories. Modern Vampires of the City is Vampire Weekend's most emotionally mature and "adult" record, a chronicle of growing up and realizing that the young always want to be older and the old want to be younger, never fully experiencing life in the moment and with purpose, but sadly with regret.
4. Braids - Flourish/Perish
Braids' debut album Native Speaker was not one of my favorite records of 2011, I will admit. All the elements were there, but for some reason it never really came together as a whole for me. Mainly, singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston's voice tended to fly off out of control, never bringing me into the music, always holding me back from truly connecting me with their sound. Of course, with second record Flourish/Perish, I was not holding out hope that there would be any specific alteration of their aesthetic for me to change my opinion. Somehow my expectations of the record, low as they were, were completely shocked by such a controlled and skilled almost masterpiece of a record. Raphaelle Standell-Preston, whose voice is actually quite lovely, keeps her voice almost firmly in check this go around, which draws you in instead of smacking you across the face with her vocal flights of fancy. And this record, aside from one track, eschews guitars and focuses exclusively on keyboards and electronics, forging a record that appears to almost be a merger of Radiohead's glitchy masterpiece Kid A and Bjork's quiet electronic hymnal Vespertine.
3. James Blake - Overgrown
James Blake almost lost me. Over the course of his initial EPs, Blake showed that he was a new voice in electronic music that needed to be listened to closely. His unique take on UK bass music, adding a more soulful and even folkier vibe, made him stand out from his contemporaries. When he dropped his amazing take on Fiest's song "Limit To Your Love," showing the world that in addition to his sublime production skills he was also an extremely talented singer, I knew I had to play close to attention to whatever Blake would subsequently do. When his debut James Blake was released I was crushingly disappointed with the finished product. Instead of using the EPs and his new found love of the singer-songwriter aesthetic as a jumping off point, Blake fell flat, releasing a record of almost barely formed sketches. It was like Blake was stuck between both of his muses, not knowing how to reconcile them. I tried over and over again to get my head around what he was doing, and just couldn't connect with it. His subsequent EPs did nothing to assure me that this was a mere misstep and that brilliance would be around the corner. Overgrown finally shows that Blake has the balls to do what he wants, and backs it up time and time again with songs that toy with your expectations and emotions. This is music that is expertly constructed, but never goes where you think it will go, making you work for a connection but always providing immense release when you do. Overgrown is a hauntingly sad record, full of regrets, missed opportunities, and deep melancholy; however, it is not a depressing record, the music is too alive and intricately plotted for it to be mired in cheap sentiment. His debut was similarly situated but the songs never felt concrete or purposeful, tending to deal with oblique, looping fragments, never coalescing into something meaningful. Here, almost every track feels like it is carrying the weight of the world, Blake shouldering intense emotion.
2. Local Natives - Hummingbird
The album cover for Local Natives' sophomore album Hummingbird shows a man desperately clinging to the roof of a building, legs dangling out into the clouds, surrounded by two faceless men who seem unable to help. The image sets the tone for the record, a melancholy and bleak collection of tracks full of doubts, fears, and loneliness. A far cry from the upbeat and joyously goofy debut album Gorilla Manor, Hummingbird comes from a darker place, influenced by the departure of bassist Andy Hamm and the death of singer Kelcey Ayer's mother. The characters that inhabit these songs fear abandonment, live through abusive relationships, suffer crippling self-doubt, essentially being thrown out into the cold world unprotected by the youthful dreams of their counterparts in Gorilla Manor. Fittingly, this bleaker and more realistic view of the world comes with a more mature musical and production approach. While Gorilla Manor was loose and free and very lo-fi, Hummingbird, produced by The National's Aaron Dessner, amps up things considerably, featuring a clearer and more polished technique, giving these songs breadth and depth not apparent on their debut. It also seems that touring with The National and with Arcade Fire has given the band greater confidence to expand their sound into grander territory.
1. Chvrches - The Bones Of What You Believe
Scottish trio CHVRCHES burst on the scene last year with two hard hitting electro-pop tracks, "Lies" and "The Mother We Share," which paired dense, over the top club tracks with Lauren Mayberry's soft yet confident vocals adding a nice organic contrast to the machine created sounds. With each subsequent single they kept raising the bar higher and higher for themselves, and now with the release of their debut full length, The Bones Of What You Believe, we now have a year's worth of work to evaluate, and what they have ended up with is the best pop album of the year. Working from a limited palate, merely keyboards and drum programming, CHVRCHES are able to put together a remarkably cohesive sound with subtle changes from track to track that provide textural and atmospheric interest while still smacking you left and right with some of the tastiest pop hooks. While there may be stronger albums released this year, none were as addictive as this record, which I found myself consistently going back to again and again.
Here is my last Videos of the Week post for 2013, hope you enjoy:
Striking clip from Phantogram.
Live performance from Atoms for Peace that shows what a formidable live act they are. Building from an almost minimalist base, the track evolves fluidly, until its breathtakingly overwhelming ending.
Spacey video from Metronomy.
Wonky track from Guerilla Toss gets an odd video featuring text statements from Honda about the popularity of stealing their cars.
Terry Richardson directed clip for the über ballad from Beyoncé's self-titled record.
Evocative video from Son Lux.
Big budget clip from the up and coming singer Chlöe Howl.
Thursday, December 19, 2013
Almost to the end, here are my favorite records of 2013, Numbers 20 through 11:
20. Danny Brown - Old
Danny Brown's mixtape XXX was a messy record about drug-fueled desperation, and he warned that its follow up Old would only get deeper and more introspective. Split into two parts, Old is basically Brown's mind laid open bare, focusing on his past, present, and future selves, warts and all. Ruminations on his past drug use, dealing, and time in jail share space with more party-fueled, festival ready tracks. Brown shows that he is trying to distance himself from his past yet finds it clouds and colors everything he does. Sometimes he's able to get beyond it and sometimes not, all the while showing he is simply human and doing his best to not make the same mistakes. While this sounds dry on paper, Brown matches his lyrical ruminations with some of the most modern and edgy beats and backing you will hear today. Self-confessed to being influenced by records as diverse as Radiohead's Kid A, Joy Division's Closer, and Love's Forever Changes, Old is a rich, sonic tapestry that unfolds like a kaleidoscope, fractured against itself.
19. Beacon - The Ways We Separate
When I was growing up, the only way to hear music was over the radio, and radio stations were rigidly segmented in their own genres. You would rarely hear an R&B track on a Top 40 station and vice versa, and it was completely unheard of for a country song to appear anywhere but on a country station. In the Internet age, the ability in which to consume and absorb new music and genres is staggeringly easy, and it comes as no surprise that you get many new artists out there that combine different genres into one seamless whole. Brooklyn duo Beacon (Thomas Mullarney and Jacob Gossett) obviously benefit from this new found ease, as their first couple of EPs and now debut full length The Ways We Separate combine their love for future R&B, hip-hop, icy synthpop, UK bass music, and Warp-style IDM into a gorgeous mix of their own making. Thematically, The Ways We Separate explores how human beings separate themselves from each other, using a deliberately muted, minimal palate, that is not too far off from the debuts of acts like The xx and Purity Ring, which focus on a signature sound and walk around it like a sculpture, showing off different facets from different angles. The main complaints I have heard about this record is that it all seems one-note. While I understand that criticism, I think overall, it misses the point that the songs here are meant to flow together as a whole, and I appreciated the clean lines and surfaces that act as a foundation for the record.
18. My Bloody Valentine - m b v
I guess we need to see if hell has frozen over and pigs are now flying, as the unthinkable occurred: there is a new My Bloody Valentine record after a 22 year wait. There really is no objective way to review this album, as it comes loaded with so much backstory and history. Following the pretty much perfect record Loveless, there is absolutely no way any other music could even remotely hope to come close to it. Luckily, Kevin Shields and company realized this, and have don't what any rational band should do after creating their masterpiece, they made a record on their own terms. This is not Loveless II, nor is it a reinvention of the wheel. m b v is merely a new My Bloody Valentine record that is unmistakably them, but also has the balls to tinker with their sound in interesting new directions.
17. A$AP Rocky - Long.Live.A$AP
New York rapper A$AP Rocky has been riding a huge wave of hype ever since he released his initial mixtape Live.Love.A$AP and snagged a monstrous $3 million deal from RCA records. For whatever reasons, his debut studio album was pushed back several times leading many people to assume RCA wasn't pleased with the results and now have dumped the release into that purgatorial beginning of the year period. I didn't have high hopes for the record either, but it is actually a very solid debut album from a rapper that knows his strengths and weaknesses and, for the most part, leans towards said strengths. First and foremost, A$AP surrounds himself with top-notch producers that provide him with some of the most interesting and atmospheric backing tracks for his raps. While his mixtape basically highlighted his work with Clams Casino, who is featured on two tracks here, he ventures out to utilize Hit-Boy, Skrillex, Lord Flacko, and T-Minus to provide more diversity while still putting together a cohesive group of tracks.
16. Sigur Ros - Kveikur
Sigur Rós' seventh studio album Kveikur finds the band at a crossroads. Their sound, so distinctive after all these years, had reached somewhat of a rut. After lead singer Jónsi's more jubilant solo record, I was expecting a change in direction (or perhaps even a disbandment), however, last year's album Valtari found the band right back where the started from with more proto-new agey post-rock. While I found myself enjoying Valtari with more detailed listens, I was still disappointed that the band wasn't really charting new territory. When pianist Kjartan Sveinsson left the band, I really thought that would be the end of Sigur Rós as he was such an intricate part of the band's sound and direction. What could have been seen as a hindrance to most bands seems to have been just what they needed, sparking much needed life into what had become too familiar and stale. Kveikur is not a reinvention of the band, but more a shaking off the cobwebs and finding new inspiration in what made them so intriguing and special to begin with. Instead of the songs retreating into themselves, they live, breath, and occupy space with an intensity that I thought Sigur Rós had somewhat lost. While I hadn't necessarily given up on the band, the constant desire from them to something even slightly different and not getting what I needed was beginning to wear thin. With Kveijkur, the Sigur Rós spark is back, and hopefully will continue to grow.
15. Tim Hecker - Virgins
Canadian ambient/drone artist Tim Hecker's 2011 release Ravedeath, 1972 was a game changer for me. I had listened to a lot of minimalist ambient and drone work before but never felt any sort of connection with the music. It was pretty at times, annoying at others, but always kept me at arms length. Tim Hecker, on the other hand, provided such a visceral impact with his compositions, breathing life and fire into each piece. The intensity of some of his work on Ravedeath, 1972 was so palpable it was almost emotionally overwhelming. To me, that seminal record was his masterpiece, and I hesitated to even begin listening to his latest work Virgins, as I feared any loss in quality might somehow lessen the impact of Ravedeath, 1972. It appears I needn't have worried as, if anything, that work spawned a more focused and energized artist, with Virgins offering up some of his most beautiful and haunting work. While it lacks the utter shock of the new that Ravedeath, 1972 provided, Virgins is a more streamlined affair, with many of the tracks hovering around the 3-4 minute mark, and only a few tracks going over 5 minutes. It is a dense and heady work though, yet never feels oppressive or too overly challenging. How Hecker is able to keep all these multiple layers of sound in the air without seeming jumbled is nothing short of amazing.
14. Fuck Buttons - Slow Focus
Through two albums, Bristol noise merchants Fuck Buttons (Benjamin Power and Andrew Hung) have tinkered and tweaked their sound from the claustrophobic interiorness of Street Horrrsing to the skyscraping technicolor of Tarot Sport, and have even found some popular success when part of their track "Surf Solar" found its way into the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. If you were thinking that nod would have changed their focus, you would be sadly mistaken. Slow Focus neither reinvents the wheel nor sounds like a retread of their past records, though it is unmistakably a Fuck Buttons record. Slow Focus finds the duo amping up their sound to Herculean levels, showing a muscularity that was always in the background but never at the forefront. This is not a record to put on for leisurely listening, it demands attention and does not give you any respite from the onslaught like former tracks such as "The Lisbon Maru" or "Bright Tomorrow." This is 7 of the most in your face electronic music you will hear all year, and is mind-bogglingly brilliant.
13. Deafheaven - Sunbather
San Francisco based band Deafheaven are the buzz band of the moment in indie rock circles, as well as a highly contentious part of the black metal scene, getting dissed by their peers as being part of "hipster metal," for their combination of elements such as post-punk, shoegaze, post-rock, and alt-rock into their sound. I can't claim to be an expert on black metal or any metal for that matter (my friend Tradd, on the other hand, is my spiritual guide into such matters and gives me good recommendations and advice), but I generally know what I like and what I don't like. Traditionalist or not, Deafheaven's second record Sunbather is an exciting record that focuses on the band's almost innate ability to flawlessly juggle loud/soft, beautiful/harsh moments and create a record that straps you for a journey that lingers long in the memory. And truly is a journey through alt-rock/metal from the past 3 decades, taking metal and cloaking it with influences like The Cure, The Smiths, Joy Division (in fact, singer George Clarke bears a resemblance to Ian Curtis), My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive (their band name is a homage to them), Explosions In The Sky, Sigur Ros, and Godspeed!You Black Emperor, Mogwai, and even current buzz acts like Fuck Buttons. All these influences make for a more varied and interesting experience than the usual "pure" black metal record which tends to get caught up in the same dynamics over the course of a record, deadening the impact. On Sunbather, Deafheaven masterfully control where their sound is going, but never doing anything predictable. Where you think a song is going to explode, it descends into ambient washes, when you think it is going to fade out into gorgeous bliss, it erupts into pure noise and scrape. There are moments of acoustic metal folk, spoken word interludes, pure alt-rock sweep, surreal samples, and electronic experimentation. That all of these elements mesh into something so intricate and well thought out is a miracle. The production and pacing of Sunbather is practically perfect, its hour run time almost sliding by unnoticed.
12. Baths - Obsidian
From the album cover alone, you know that Bath's second album Obsidian is going to be a darker, more heavy affair than his warm, liquidy debut Cerulean. This record is not so much a startling leap than a culmination of what was already there to begin with. Cerulean alone displayed Will Wiesenfeld’s immense talent as a producer, and his ability to mix together fractured Brainfeeder beats along with glitchy electronics and marrying them to his own skewed pop sensibilities. While Cerulean was a brilliant debut, you always got the sense that Wiesenfeld was holding back, that somehow he was just testing the waters, waiting to see whether his sound could hold up. When he started writing the follow up to Cerulean, Wiesenfeld was felled by a bout of E. coli that left he practically debilitated for several weeks, and that period along with his recovery colors every corner of Obsidian, a fascinatingly dark, obsessive record about life and death, relationships, success and failure, everything a young person would obsess over in the face of a debilitating illness. Obsidian is Baths hitting on all cylinders, a definitive statement of purpose. Musically, Obsidian is not too far off the mark from Cerulean. It is still an electronic record for the most part, however, it is more widescreen and enveloping and less insular than its brother, and is breathtakingly varied and more muscular. Wiesenfeld's voice, a haunting falsetto, was used sparingly on his debut, and often filtered, twisted, and manipulated into something different that took away from its naked purity. Here, Wiesenfeld's voice is prominent in almost every track, wisely kept unadorned for the most part, giving these tracks a more human feel.
11. Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks
Hesitation Marks, the title of the 8th album under Trent Reznor's Nine Inch Nails moniker, refers to preliminary wounds made before a suicide attempt, and here there are plenty of references to being on the brink, trying to pull oneself back. It is no secret that Rezor has faced his share of demons over the years, but now, nearing 50, he's married, with two kids, and an Oscar winner, he seems more grounded than ever and still able to put out some of his most vital work since his 90s hey-days. Over these 14 tracks, Reznor revisits his past in a way, but looking at it from up above and with a more critical eye, touching on many of the same themes he has always worked with, however, much more wiser and kinder to himself. The sound of the record too touches on every facet of his career, from the electro-EBM of Pretty Hate Machine, studio excess of The Fragile, glitchy/claustrophobia of Year Zero, and even his masterful industrial synthpop of The Downward Spiral. This is not Reznor trying to reclaim what he once was/had or simply an exercise in nostalgia, it is an natural progression and amalgamation of all his incarnations, and one of his most vital records in years.
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
We have reach the midpoint of my favorite albums of the year. Here are numbers 30 through 21:
30. Skinny Puppy - Weapon
Three decades into their storied career, electro-industrial gods Skinny Puppy return with their latest record Weapon and strikingly jettison their past experiments with dense layers of samples and return to the basics of their earliest releases Bites and Remission to fashion a more streamlined and sleek Puppy. Weapon still has Skinny Puppy in a pissed off mood though, crafting a loose concept record about violence and weaponry in modern society and how this focus ultimately turns our future path to one of self-destruction and irrelevance. While Weapon may lack the intense, sonic collages that informed their best work, it is still a quietly forceful record that seeks its own level. Furthermore, it is also one of Skinny Puppy's most overtly dance-oriented record, foregoing more experimental drum programming for direct beats. Not to say that this record lacks an adventurous nature, it is still Skinny Puppy after all, with several songs pushing at the boundaries of their sound. But instead of the sonic exploration taking over the direction, it is used in connection with the flow of the record.
29. Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork
Josh Homme brings his revolving cast of support players back to life for Queens of the Stone Age's sixth album ...Like Clockwork. In the past, Homme has sometimes bitten off more than he could chew, littering his work with so many guest stars that you felt like he was crashing Timbaland's studio. A lot of his collaborations make sense, for example adding drum god Dave Grohl in the mix on Songs for the Deaf, to me, QOTSA's best and most consistent record. However, some just plain don't work and feel like Homme leaning on the shoulders of his famous friends, i.e., Julian Casablanca's vocals on "Sick Sick Sick," off Era Vulgaris, or Jack Black's "handclaps" on "Burn The Witch" from Lullabies To Paralyze. But more often than not, he gets it right, and thankfully on ...Like Clockwork there is a seamless quality to the flow of the record, and while there are some very heavy hitters here (Trent Reznor and Sir Elton John), no one sticks out like a sore thumb, and they are nicely integrated into the QOTSA fold. In the past, my main issue with QOTSA albums was the fact that there would be two or three amazing, killer singles and the rest, while not horrible, felt an awful lot like filler. Going into first listens of ...Like Clockwork this weighed heavy in the back of my mind, however, I was pleasantly surprised how cohesive and solid this record was.
28. Blood Orange - Cupid Deluxe
With his sophomore record Cupid Deluxe, Hynes has really come into his own, crafting a gorgeous record that sounds light on its feet but serious at the same time, and meshes all of his musical interests into one satisfying whole. In an interview with NME, Hynes said that Cupid Deluxe was inspired by "New York City, the Big Apple. I lived in Brooklyn for some time and finally made the leap into Manhattan. So a lot of the record is about that, transitions, life transitions. Moving from a stable position to an unstable position. Something we have all been through." The album is full of songs that ache and strain, whether they are about relationships or career, and you feel Hynes stretching his musical voice to fit his aspirations. Where Coastal Grooves was essentially Hynes and his studio, Cupid Deluxe opens things up with a variety of collaborators that never outshine him or simply fade into the background. Working with Chairlift's Caroline Polachek, Kindness' Adam Bainbridge, Friends' Samantha Urbani, cloud rap producer Clams Casino, as well as rap cameos from Queens' Despot and London's Skepta, Hynes utilizes each perfectly to create his lush vision.
27. Burial - Truant/Rough Sleeper
Ever since his landmark album Untrue, William Bevan, a.k.a. Burial, has blazed his own trail, refusing to do anything by the numbers. Instead of following up with another full length album, Bevan has been slowly releasing EPs and singles, and collaborating with artists like Four Tet and Thom Yorke, taking his signature sound and subtly tweaking it. There are never any huge leaps into differing genres, his music is always distinctly Burial-sounding, but there is a greater focus on expanding and fleshing out his sound. On last year's Kindred EP, he basically created a suite of music from three tracks, two of which were well over 10 minutes in length, and moved effortlessly through many emotional highs and lows. Returning only 10 months later with the Truant/Rough Sleeper single, Bevan again plays with length, each of the tracks going over the 10 minute mark. These tracks, however, are fiercely experimental never staying long in one mood, not afraid to be ugly or harsh or off-putting. Truant/Rough Sleeper has almost too much going on throughout its 25 minutes, but somehow Bevan keeps everything in place. It's admirable that he chose not to remake Untrue over and over again, putting out music when he wants and as he wants. At this point, I am not concerned that he has yet to put a full length out. His ability to convey so much with his longer form singles just adds more depth to his catalog, and if he continues in this vein, it will be enough for me.
26. Tegan and Sara - Heartthrob
I will admit that I have never really listened much to Tegan and Sara's other albums. I think I had breezed through a couple of their last records and just never felt any connection to them or desire to listen to them again. It was mostly acoustic/indie folk rock that had some interesting lyrics, but was practically indistinguishable from most similar acts. With the release of their seventh studio album Heartthrob, I was not prepared in the least for their 180 degree change in direction. Enlisting producers Greg Kurstin (Santigold, Pink), Justin Meldal-Johnsen (Paramore, M83), and Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Eminem) the duo have crafted one of the most aggressively pop records of the year, polishing their sound within an inch of its life, eschewing their more traditional guitar based songs for glitzy synth based confections. The 80s are definitely the touchstone with Heartthrob, with a lot of the tracks borrowing from artists like Cyndi Lauper, Prince, & Heart at their most hook laden and catchy. I have a feeling this complete change in sound and direction will irk a lot of their fanbase, and I am sure more than a few people will claim they have sold out. I suppose those claims will be somewhat valid, but seeing as I was not a huge fan to begin with, this change in direction, for me, is a positive thing. Hearthrob is a glossy, well-produced record that is extremely catchy. It is exactly what it is needs to be, a pure pop experience.
25. AlunaGeorge - Body Music
UK duo AlunaGeorge, made up of Aluna Francis (vocals) and George Reid (production), has teased us over the past year with several amazing singles that threw them into the spotlight along with other upstarts like Disclosure who mined the 90s for inspiration. AlunaGeorge's debut record Body Music is definitely the more poppy of the two bands' records, unabashedly calling to mind Aaliyah's work with Timbaland, TLC, Brandy, Sade, and Neneh Cherry with nods to more contemporary artists and styles like The Knife, The xx, and James Blake along with 2-step, glitch hop, and UK bass music. Despite all these varied influences, AlunaGeorge has created a cohesive record with each track standing out individually, but also working with the others to mesh well as a whole. Aluna's vice is simultaneously breathy and controlled, youthful and mature, one that doesn't bash you over the head with its strength but more drawing you in subtly before enveloping you. Likewise, Reid's production is never too showy, always providing the right backing for Aluna's lovely voice, but always being distinctive and not just fading into the background.
24. Charli XCX - True Romance
I am always being accused of being a music snob that only likes "out there" stuff that no one listens to, but seriously that is quite the opposite in fact. I like a wide variety of music that spans many different genres and styles. I love pop music, just not music that is bland and boring without any heart and soul. If a song has a good hook, I am bound to like it. Enter into the picture Charli XCX, the name of 20 year old UK pop singer Charlotte Aitchison, who since 2008 has been teasing the airwaves with dark hearted pop tracks that have come across like the love child of Ke$ha and Grimes, filtering a pop sensibility through more experimental sounds and textures, but always throwing down a killer hook. After an interminable wait, Charli XCX finally releases her debut album, True Romance, and shows the wait was definitely worth it. Over 13 tracks, Charli XCX barely makes a misstep, constantly shifting and morphing her sound, mixing in elements from pop, EDM, reggae, hip-hop, dubstep, you name it, showing a restless sense of artistic adventure.
23. Autechre - Exai
The prolific duo of Rob Brown and Sean Booth are now on their 11th album as Autechre, and instead of resting on their laurels and putting out album after album of similar music, they are still fascinated by what machines can do and push their sound into as many directions as possible. Some critics have complained that Exai is a bloated, directionless mess, and in some respect I can understand that critique, but what those short-sighted people fail to see and hear is that the record is a culmination of what Brown and Booth have done over their storied career, touching on almost every phase of their catalog and yet meshing it all into something fresh and wonderful. Granted, at 2 hours of music, Exai is not for the faint of heart, as it is a very challenging listen; however, it is challenging only in the sense of trying to keep up with the duo's restless, ceaseless creativity, and not in the sense of their more obtuse records like Confield and Untilted. The tracks on the album are perfectly sequenced between traditional IDM fare that Autechre could do in their sleep, abstract/formless works from their Confield era, hip-hop/industrial textured works, and dreamier ambient inflected songs. That Autechre masters all aspects of these genres is testament to their longstanding place as IDM gods. One thing I love about the duo is that their work together is seamless. At no point in any of their work can you discern which piece, part, or whole is made by one or the other. They are simply Autechre.
22. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Push The Sky Away
One would think that after 15 albums with the Bad Seeds, Nick Cave's well of inspiration and creativity would nearly be tapped out. The first listen to Push The Sky Away immediately sets those fears aside. Cave is still a master at spinning a yarn, infusing his songs and lyrics with vivid, unforgettable images. Where he once came across as a tent revival preacher, raining down fire and brimstone onto his listeners, lately his approach has softened, making his audience lean in on the edge of their seats to hear his message. The striking thing about Push The Sky Away is how subtle it is; the music rarely rising above a whisper, as if the hard edges have been worn down after years of abuse from the elements, but yet still how forceful and intoxicating it all is. Push The Sky Away is jam packed with ruminations on the passing of time, nature, science, and where we all fit within the grand scheme of things. Cave doesn't feel the need to rush anything here, allowing the songs to wander where they may, his 55 years earning him the right as one of rock's elder statesmen to do what he sees fit.
21. Iceage - You're Nothing
New Brigade, the debut album from Danish post-punk band Iceage, was a chilly 24 minute blast of scraping guitars, machine gun drums, sloganeering vocals, and a fully formed aesthetic that was much wiser than the band's young age would have indicated. It was such a perfect encapsulation of their sound it was difficult to imagine what they could possibly do for a follow up, rather than more of the same or completely altering their sound. With the follow up You're Nothing in hand, Iceage have not reinvented the wheel thankfully, and have not given us New Brigade 2, though it is really a more fine-tuned version, with interesting steps in new directions. It is still a concise set of tracks, barely making it over the 25 minute mark, but instead of using the bleak, industrial edged tones of New Brigade, the music tends to fall towards more traditional punk squalls, with more subtle post-punk accents to spice things up.
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Continuing my list of top albums of the year, here are numbers 40 through 31:
40. London Grammar - If You Wait
London Grammar, a trio made up of vocalist Hannah Reid, guitarist Dan Rothman, and pianist and drummer Dot Major, made a buzz late last year with the single "Hey Now," which cribbed from the playbook of The xx, sparse instrumentation (delicate trills of guitar, plaintive piano, and dusky percussion) and intimate, emotionally charged lyrics, but went one step further with Reid's powerhouse voice that can go from a hushed whisper to full on wail in seconds. The band wisely realizes that Reid's voice is the star of the show, and steps things back to allow her to be the focus, but she has amazing control of her instrument, never letting it get too out of control, and reigning it back when necessary. Their debut If You Wait collects all of their singles from this past year with new tracks that seamlessly create a gorgeous collection of atmospheric pop that only falters every so slightly with some timidity that only comes with their youth, but foreshadows great things to come.
39. Letherette - Letherette
Wolverhampton duo Letherette, Andy Harber and Richard Roberts, made the best Daft Punk album of the year with their self-titled debut. While Letherette definitely draw their initial influence from the house music titans, it is merely a stepping off point for a record that is so much more than the sum of its influences. Granted, the first few tracks almost seem like Daft Punk-by-numbers, and by that point in listening to their debut I believed I had them pegged. But Letherette is structured more as a deep cuts DJ set, taking you on a journey, with many highs coupled with interesting sojourns into darker, more contemplative territory. With such insanely catchy tracks, Letherette made me forget all about the debacle that was Random Access Memories.
38. Phoenix - Bankrupt!
Phoenix' breakthrough album, 2009's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is still a headscratcher for me. While it is a really good alt-pop record, there is a huge disconnect with me about it. I loved the singles but the rest of the album left me wanting; it was just a little too quirky, and lacked a certain charm. Even more puzzling is how the band has erupted since then into a festival headlining, SNL guesting, sold out touring juggernaut of epic proportions. So with the release of their new album Bankrupt! I was expecting basically more of the same, but perhaps a little more cleanly polished guitar rock. Imagine my surprise on my first listen to Bankrupt! how gloriously weird it all is. Working with Cassius member Philippe Zdar, Phoenix have ramped up the synths this go around eschewing the sleek guitar pop of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix for a more technicolor/widescreen vision.
37. Daughter - If You Leave
When the first lines of an album are "Drifting apart like two sheets of ice, my love/Frozen hearts growing colder with time," you know you are entering dark and lonely territory. London trio Daughter, led by Elena Tonra, have crafted a debut album that picks over the minutiae of a failed relationship in intimate detail, but never feels overwhelmingly bleak. There is a delicate balance at work here, the softly reverberating guitars and intricate percussion work create a gorgeous sweep of sound that elevates these tracks to sublime beauty. There are touches of The xx's minimal guitar palate, The Innocence Mission's shy naivete, and hints of the legends of their past 4AD label mates Cocteau Twins, Dif Juz, and Mojave 3. Tonra's voice is an evocative instrument that is akin to Florence Welch's dramatic beast, but is far more reigned in and subtle. Daughter don't necessarily sound like any of these bands per se, but they are good stepping off points in comparison. With If You Leave, Daughter rise above their influences and create their own distinct sound.
36. The National - Trouble Will Find Me
It is easy to overlook The National. They aren't flashy, gimmicky, or trendy. In fact, they are probably the most reliable band out there at the moment, always putting out record upon record of comfortable, assured alt-rock. I am sure the band is not thrilled about being considered the musical equivalent to a Lazy-Boy chair, but there is something nice in knowing that you are going to get what you get with The National, and their haunting lyrics and subtle way with melodies is never less than stunning. With their last album High Violet, I thought I had reached the saturation point with the band, believing they had reached the ultimate rung in their upwards trajectory, and a much needed U2/Radiohead sound+game changing shift in their output was needed. Several listens in to Trouble Will Find Me, I actually began to think this was true. While most records from The National require a growing period before you understand what they are going for, with this record I just didn't get it. Throwing my hands up in frustration, I began to develop the thought that "gasp" could this be my first review of theirs that would be less than glowing. Trouble Will Find Me is by far the most subdued record from The National, and perhaps that is what struck me as so odd about the record. There were no immediately killer singles like "Bloodbuzz Ohio" or "Squalor Victoria" that grabbed hold of you. For the most part, these songs are languid and tranquil, the subtle shifts in tone and melody are almost imperceptible at times. Although the tag "grower" is often used with The National, here it is very apropos, and it is almost frustratingly so. But once it ultimately sets hold, Trouble Will Find Me is completely rewarding and another stellar release in their canon.
35. Suede - Bloodsports
When Suede's last album A New Morning came out in 2002, the lukewarm response from fans and critics alike essentially killed the band, seemingly for good. Their first two records, Suede and dog man star, were fueled by tensions between singer Brett Anderson's rock star excesses and guitarist Bernard Butler's more reigned in personality. After Butler left the band, the resulting records Head Music and Coming Up were more fueled by drugs and Anderson's almost suicidal need to live the life of a rock star. The inevitable come down from all that resulted in their most toothless record, one that almost faded into the background. In the interim, Anderson worked with some other artists (including some work with Bernard Butler), released some solo material, and also reissued Suede's first albums with the assistance of Butler. In 2011, Suede quietly got back together again and toured in support of the reissues. I was fortunate to see them perform at Coachella that year, and even without the drug soaked excesses of the past to fuel him, Anderson was a commanding presence on stage, showing everyone in attendance what it meant to be true rock star and front man. Against all odds, Suede are now back with Bloodsports, finding original producer Ed Buller back behind the boards, giving this project a much needed focus and burst of energy. This record bursts forth from the opening chords of "Barriers" and pulses with life up until the final notes of "Faultlines." As with David Bowie's new record, perhaps it was a good thing to take a step back and regain the urge to record again. This record is not just a return to form for Suede, it is one of their best records.
34. FKA Twigs - EP2
Enigmatic UK singer twigs, who goes by the rather clunky new moniker FKA twigs (a change at the behest of another artist called Twigs), follows up her first EP with four tracks produced by up and coming producer Arca (who worked on Kanye West's album Yeezus). Blurring the lines between trip-hop, Aaliyah/Timbaland future R&B, UK bass music, and the menacing, sinister throb of Mezzanine-era Massive Attack, EP2 is a thoroughly beguiling, addictive listen. These four tracks effortlessly flow into each other, utilizing the same elements (whispered vocals, warped samples, fractured beats, and haunted silences), but are offered up in different shades and perspectives.
33. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
Say what you will about Arcade Fire, but no one can slag them off as being reticent. If any band these days follows the maxim "go big or go home" they would be the poster child. Following their surprise Grammy award for best album for The Suburbs, Arcade Fire returns with Reflektor, an expansive double album that draws inspiration from the film Black Orpheus, the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, writings of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, Haitian rara music, as well as practically any art-pop record of the past 50 years, from The White Album, Low, and Achtung Baby. It is a go-for-broke record that is in turns brilliant, bloated, icy, hot, awe-inspiring, and head scratching but never less than intoxicating. Using the Orpheus myth as a jumping off part, Reflektor loosely trails through that epic of undying/unwavering love and its sad resolution, but fractures it through our age's over-saturation of media and information overload. It's a paranoid and shaky journey with lots of false steps, restarts, meanderings, but somehow all comes together to be a rewarding listen.
32. Cut Copy - Free Your Mind
Over the course of three albums, Aussie act Cut Copy have subtly been moving from more guitar-centric dance rock to full on electronic dance music, and never more so on their fourth record Free Your Mind, a trippy, sun-kissed love letter to the late 80s and early 90s summer of love in the UK. Drawing inspiration from Primal Scream's Screamadelica, acid house, and the whole Madchester scene (Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Charlatans), Cut Copy have come up with their most consistent and their most fun record. While many people will decry that Cut Copy have abandoned their New Order-hook galore sound for something more ephemeral, these tracks insinuate themselves within in you to where you can't get rid of them, and honestly, the whole record is a grower, with each listen revealing more and more going on behind the scenes.
31. Darkstar - News From Nowhere
I've stopped trying to figure out what UK electronic trio Darkstar are going to do next, as there is absolutely no way to determine it. Starting out on the Hyperdub label, the original duo of James Young and Aiden Whalley made waves with the brilliant track "Aidy's Girl's A Computer" that pointed them in the direction of UK grime/two step/dubstep. With their debut album North, the duo added a third member, vocalist James Buttery, and moved into dark synth pop territory. With tracks like their cover of the Human League track "(You Remind Me Of) Gold," they kept their coolly sensuous sound but added a human touch to their aesthetic. It was a challenging listen and showed the band's depth of talent. I was basically expecting more along the lines of North when word hit the street that their follow up was imminent. Confounding expectations, Darkstar has once again slid into new territory. New From Nowhere is 10 tracks that flow together seamlessly as one. While there are a few "singles" sprinkled in the mix, for the most part the music acts as a complete work. Drawing from more impressionistic acts like Animal Collective, James Blake, and Oneohetrix Point Never, these liquidy tracks bubble and shimmer and glow with a delicate light. Immersing yourself in this netherworld takes some time and effort, but once you allow it access to your mind and heart, it becomes one of the most gorgeous records you will hear all year.