Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The List of Lists 2013

All of the lists below were constructed retroactively around the time I started this blog but have not been revised for their inclusion here. Thus in some ways they are time capsules, but they do incorporate discoveries I've made since then. I plan to do a sweeping overhaul eventually, probably after this 'version' of my favorites has been fully posted.

1960s ALBUMS
1. The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds (Capitol '66)
2. The Beatles (Apple '68)
3. John Coltrane: Giant Steps (Atlantic '60)
4. John Coltrane: A Love Supreme (Impulse! '64)
5. The Beatles: Rubber Soul (Parlophone '65)
6. The Velvet Underground (MGM '69)
7. The Beatles: A Hard Day's Night (Parlophone '64)
8. The Kinks: The Village Green Preservation Society (Reprise '68)
9. Love: Forever Changes (Elektra '67)
10. Otis Redding: Otis Blue (Volt '65)
11. Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (Columbia '67)
12. Sly & the Family Stone: Stand! (Epic '69)
13. Miles Davis: Sketches of Spain (Columbia '60)
14. With the Beatles (Parlophone '63)
15. Miles Davis: Seven Steps to Heaven (Columbia '63)
16. Beatles for Sale (Parlophone '64)
17. The Byrds: Sweetheart of the Rodeo (Columbia '68)
18. The Velvet Underground: White Light/White Heat (Verve '68)
19. The Zombies: Odessey and Oracle (Columbia '68)
20. John Coltrane: Ballads (Impulse! '62)
21. Howlin' Wolf (Chess '62)
22. Van Morrison: Astral Weeks (Warner Bros. '68)
23. John Coltrane: Om (Impulse! '65)
24. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia '65)
25. The Beach Boys: Friends (Capitol '68)
26. The Kinks: Arthur (Reprise '69)
27. The Beatles: Abbey Road (Apple '69)
28. The Kinks: Something Else (Reprise '67)
29. John Coltrane: Africa/Brass (Impulse! '61)
30. The Beach Boys: Wild Honey (Capitol '67)
31. Ray Charles: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Vol. 1 (ABC '62)
32. The Beatles: Please Please Me (Parlophone '63)
33. The Byrds: The Notorious Byrd Brothers (Columbia '68)
34. Sam Cooke: Night Beat (RCA '63)
35. The Flying Burrito Brothers: The Gilded Palace of Sin (A&M '69)
36. Howlin' Wolf: The Real Folk Blues (Chess '66)
37. Miles Davis: In a Silent Way (Columbia '69)
38. The Beatles: Revolver (Parlophone '66)
39. Dusty Springfield: Dusty in Memphis (Atlantic '69)
40. Bob Dylan: Nashville Skyline (Columbia '69)
41. Aretha Franklin: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (Atlantic '67)
42. The Kinks: Face to Face (Pye '66)
43. Songs of Leonard Cohen (Columbia '67)
44. The Beach Boys: Smiley Smile (Capitol '67)
45. Miles Davis: Miles Smiles (Columbia '67)
46. Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde (Columbia '66)
47. The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Parlophone '67)
48. John Coltrane: Ascension (Impulse! '66)
49. The Beach Boys: Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) (Capitol '65)
50. Bob Dylan: Bringing It All Back Home (Columbia '65)
+ (and how it breaks my heart to exclude:)
Vince Guaraldi: A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy '65)
The Beach Boys: 20/20 (Capitol '69)
The Byrds: Fifth Dimension (Columbia '66)


1. Yo La Tengo: Summer Sun (Matador)
2. Sufjan Stevens: Greetings from Michigan (Asthmatic Kitty)
3. Great Lake Swimmers (weewerk)
4. Jay-Z: The Black Album (Def Jam)
5. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Fever to Tell (Interscope)
6. Missy Elliott: This Is Not a Test! (Elektra)
7. The New Pornographers: Electric Version (Matador)
8. Over the Rhine: Ohio (Back Porch)
9. Casiotone for the Painfully Alone: Twinkle Echo (Tomlab)
10. The Postal Service: Give Up (Sub Pop)
The Shins: Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop)
Blur: Think Tank (Virgin)
Andrew Bird: Weather Systems (Grimsey)
Belle & Sebastian: Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Matador)
Goldfrapp: Black Cherry (Mute)
Cat Power: You Are Free (Matador)
Outkast: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista)
The White Stripes: Elephant (V2)
Junior Senior: D-D-Don't Stop the Beat (Atlantic)
eels: Shootenanny! (DreamWorks)
Muse: Absolution (Warner Bros.)
Camera Obscura: Underachievers Please Try Harder (Merge)
The Decemberists: Her Majesty (Kill Rock Stars)
M. Ward: Transfiguration of Vincent (Merge)
The Weakerthans: Reconstruction Site (Epitaph)
The Strokes: Room on Fire (RCA)

1. A Tribe Called Quest: Midnight Marauders (Jive)
2. Pet Shop Boys: Very (EMI)
3. Blur: Modern Life Is Rubbish (SBK)
4. Yo La Tengo: Painful (Matador)
5. U2: Zooropa (Island)
6. Smashing Pumpkins: Siamese Dream (Virgin)
7. Digable Planets: Reachin' (Elektra)
8. Living Colour: Stain (Epic)
9. New Order: Republic (Warner Bros.)
10. Van Morrison: Too Long in Exile (Polydor)
Prince: [love symbol (Warner Bros.)
Janet Jackson: Janet (Virgin)
Matthew Sweet: Altered Beast (Zoo Entertainment)
Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet: Sport Fishin' (Cargo)
De La Soul: Buhloone Mindstate (Tommy Boy)
The Flaming Lips: Transmissions from the Satellite Heart (Warner Bros.)
Björk: Debut (Elektra)

1. New Order: Power, Corruption & Lies (Factus)
2. R.E.M.: Murmur (I.R.S.)
3. Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic)
4. The Go-Betweens: Before Hollywood (Rough Trade)
5. Yaz: You and Me Both (Sire)
6. Daniel Johnston: Yip Jump Music (s/r)
7. Katrina & the Waves (Attic)
8. OMD: Dazzle Ships (Virgin)
9. Talking Heads: Speaking in Tongues (Sire)
10. U2: War (Island)
The Replacements: Hootenanny (Twin/Tone)
Brian Eno: Apollo (EG)
The Police: Synchronicity (A&M)
Eurythmics: Touch (RCA)
INXS: Shabooh Shoobah (Atlantic)
Van Morrison: Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (Warner Bros.)
Daniel Johnston: Hi, How Are You (s/r)
Madonna (Sire)

1973 ALBUM
1. Stevie Wonder: Innervisions (Tamla)
2. Big Star: Radio City (Ardent)
3. The New York Dolls (Mercury)
4. Marvin Gaye: Let's Get It On (Tamla)
5. Neil Young: Time Fades Away (Reprise) [technically a live album; technically I don't CARRRE]
6. John Cale: Paris 1919 (Reprise)
7. The Stooges: Raw Power (Columbia)
8. Toots & the Maytals: Funky Kingston (Island)
9. Gram Parsons: GP (Reprise)
10. David Bowie: Aladdin Sane (RCA)
Wings: Band on the Run (Apple)
Todd Rundgren: A Wizard, a True Star (Bearsville)
Funkadelic: Cosmic Slop (Westbound)
Lou Reed: Berlin (RCA)
The Beach Boys: Holland (Reprise)
Herbie Hancock: Headhunters (Columbia)
Roxy Music: For Your Pleasure (Reprise)
David Bowie: Pin Ups (RCA)
Sly & the Family Stone: Fresh (Epic)

Phil Spector: A Christmas Gift for You (Philles)
John Coltrane: My Favorite Things (Atlantic)
Etta James: At Last! (Argo)
The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (Columbia)
John Coltrane: Ole Coltrane (Atlantic)
Thelonious Monk: Criss Cross (Columbia)
Vince Guaraldi: Jazz Impressions of 'Black Orpheus' (Fantasy)
Ida Cox & Coleman Hawkins: Blues for Rampart Street (Riverside)
Herbie Hancock: Takin' Off (Blue Note)
The Beach Boys: Surfer Girl (Capitol)

1963 SONGS
(A nonscientific list. With any luck, I will be able soon to make stronger lists, though even with the sloppy nature of my process for this one, you can tell what a glorious period in pop music this was.)
1. The Beatles "All I've Got to Do" (Parlophone LP: With the Beatles)
2. The Chiffons "One Fine Day" (Laurie)
3. The Ronettes "Baby, I Love You" (Philles)
4. The Beatles "She Loves You" (Parlophone/Swan)
5. The Ronettes "Be My Baby" (Philles)
6. The Beatles "I Want to Hold Your Hand" (Parlophone/Capitol)
7. Darlene Love "A Fine, Fine Boy" (Philles)
8. The Beach Boys "In My Room" (Capitol)
9. Marvin Gaye "Can I Get a Witness" (Tamla)
10. Roy Orbison "Blue Bayou" (Monument)
11. Darlene Love "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" (Philles LP: A Christmas Gift for You)
12. Marvin Gaye "Pride and Joy" (Tamla)
13. Johnny Cash "Ring of Fire" (Columbia)
14. The Beach Boys "Surfer Girl" (Capitol)
15. Dusty Springfield "I Only Want to Be with You" (Philips)
16. The Beatles "There's a Place" (Parlophone LP: Please Please Me / Vee Jay LP: Introducing the Beatles)
17. Sam Cooke "Another Saturday Night" (RCA)
18. The Beatles "This Boy" (Parlophone)
19. Martha and the Vandellas "Heat Wave" (Gordy)
20. The Crystals "Da Doo Ron Ron" (Philles)
21. Bob Dylan "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" (Columbia LP: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan)
22. The Beatles "I'll Get You" (Parlophone/Swan)
23. The Chantays "Pipeline" (Dot)
24. Ben E. King "I (Who Have Nothing)" (Atco)
25. The Surfaris "Wipe Out" (Dot)
26. The Crystals "Then He Kissed Me" (Philles)
27. Roy Orbison "Mean Woman Blues" (Monument)
28. The Beatles "Please Please Me" (Parlophone/Vee Jay)
29. The Crystals "He's Sure the Boy I Love" (Philles)
30. The Trashmen "Surfin' Bird" (Garrett)
31. The Kingsmen "Louie Louie" (Jerden)
32. Jackie Wilson "Baby Workout" (Brunswick)
33. The Beach Boys "Little Deuce Coupe" (Capitol)
34. Little Peggy March "I Will Follow Him" (RCA)
35. The Essex "Easier Said Than Done" (Roulette)
36. The Surfaris "Surfer Joe" (Dot)
37. Ray Charles "Don't Set Me Free" (ABC)
38. Dion "Ruby Baby" (Columbia)
39. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles "I Gotta Dance to Keep from Crying" (Tamla)
40. James Brown "Prisoner of Love" (King)
41. Roy Orbison "In Dreams" (Monument)
42. The Chiffons "He's So Fine" (Laurie)
43. Martha & the Vandellas "Quicksand" (Gordy)
44. The Beach Boys "Surfin' U.S.A." (Capitol)
45. Little Stevie Wonder "Fingertips Part 2" (Tamla)
46. Ray Charles "Take These Chains from My Heart" (ABC)
47. The Impressions "It's All Right" (ABC)
48. Lonnie Mack "Memphis" (Fraternity)
49. Little Eva "Swingin' on a Star" (Dimension)
50. The Beach Boys "Catch a Wave" (Capitol LP: Surfer Girl)
51. Jan & Dean "Surf City" (Liberty)
52. The Angels "My Boyfriend's Back" (Smash)
53. Lesley Gore "It's My Party" (Mercury)
54. The Beach Boys "Farmer's Daughter" (Capitol LP: Surfin' U.S.A.)
55. Peggy Lee "I'm a Woman" (Capitol)
56. Ray Charles "Busted" (ABC)
57. Muddy Waters "Five Long Years" (Chess)
58. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles "A Love She Can Count On" (Tamla)
59. Mary Wells "Your Old Standby" (Motown)
60. Lesley Gore "She's a Fool" (Mercury)
Lloyd Price "Misty"
The Drifters "Up on the Roof"
Wilson Pickett "It's Too Late"
The Mar-Keys "Bo Time"
James Brown "Oh Baby Don't You Weep"
Jan & Dean "Drag City"
Little Eva "Let's Turkey Trot"

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Best Records of 2013



After a year in which I proclaimed the album nearly dead to me, when I had trouble filling a list of top ten albums with music that I felt really and truly deserved it, of course the world comes back and shuts me up with, frankly, the best year for new LPs since I've been keeping up with this stuff. I count 23 full-lengths that I honestly love out of the year's releases, out of 111 (!) I officially reviewed, an estimated 150 I listened to at full length, and an estimated 220 I sampled. But as recently as 2010, I had the same number, and in the retroactive lists I've made, several other post-millennial years in the database bring up twenty or more A-range (in our parlance, "highly recommended") titles. The difference is in the average quality of the albums so ordained. I don't generally publicize the "letter grades" I assign in my head because I prefer them to stay as informal as possible, but any record I think of as an "A" I assume will definitely make my final list of ten at year's end. This year there were sixteen such albums, compared to six last year, exactly ten in 2011, eleven in 2010, and just three in 2009.

Absent the freelancing-related convenience of publicists emailing me and since I don't have much time to doggedly read music news anymore, I expanded the number of critics and music writers I follow and also tried to find time to listen to the radio and various internet playlists more. The former worked out nicely, the latter not so much, but the list of albums to work with certainly was larger this year. Maybe it's necessary to explain a bit how my process here works. After a certain threshold of acclaim, I review an album no matter what unless I absolutely cannot stand the artist (and I'm trying to fall back on that excuse less these days) or unless it belongs to the metal genre, which -- call me prejudiced if you want -- I absolutely cannot hear the good in, even if it's good. Beyond that, albums that sound interesting at a glance get "sampled." Sampling means I listen to a couple of cuts on an album (much easier these days thanks to Spotify) to see if its mood strikes me or if something stands out for me at a given moment. If several attempts yield nothing, I let the album slip. If there might be something there, it's added to a list to be investigated later. If I can't bear to turn the thing off, I don't turn it off and it probably will find its way into the blog sooner rather than later. Maybe my greater sampling size made a difference, but I strongly believe this was simply an exceptional, really overwhelming year.

The trends that seem to be defining me if not anything larger than me are a further sidelining of guitar bands in favor of R&B and dance music; I've always found myself shoved in that direction except for a period in the last few years when indie rock suddenly had some dominance in my world, but the major conclusion I've reached about the renaissance we're seeing in soul music -- which is still America's most innovative and artistically fulfilling popular genre, as it pretty much always has been -- is that the scant handful of albums that get widespread publicity, all of which I took on this year except Beyoncé's (which will have to wait till January), seem to only scratch the surface. I'm currently seeking out alternative means to make sure I'm catching as much of this music as I should be. And please be sure to look below the top ten and honorable mentions to the "others I liked" list, which includes some quite fascinating records you shouldn't ignore simply because they weren't wholly to my taste.

This was also a year, as pretty much everyone will tell you, of veteran acts reasserting their greatness. Paul McCartney's New didn't endear itself to me despite a promising start, but Yoko Ono's Take Me to the Land of Hell was another matter. The world is correct about David Bowie's The Next Day and Pet Shop Boys' truly magical Electric. Over half of my big ten isn't much of a surprise to me, really. All but four of its artists were already beloved in this household, and yet somehow I still think of this as an exciting and energized year, maybe because the artists in question are still finding ways to take unexpected left turns and put on full display their restlessness and spirit, some as they enter their second decade of storied careers, some hopefully only beginning their journey, and then an eighty year-old woman and a group that's been altering my life since I was in junior high school. That last remark could also apply to Yo La Tengo, whose absence from the top ten only indicates just how crowded the field was this year. Fade is a stronger album than Popular Songs, which did make my list back in '09, and it's really only by circumstance that it's the first YLT record absent from my real-time or retroactive list since, gulp, their very first one. That says a lot.

Looking over the two records of 2013 that I consider great -- like, pantheon-level great -- plus the fourteen that are goddamned close and the seven that just miss, there's no real trend or mood that emerges as dominant to me. There's joy but also dread here, there's the tremendousness of invention but also the romance and beauty of a closed-off, insular world. There's wet-streets parking lot music (thanks to Amber for that phrase in regard to the National), hellacious dance floor music, even a little rock music. There's all the revolving-door strangeness of a pop music world that no longer has a single narrative -- and thank heavens it never will again. In a year that saw perhaps more consensus than the rock & roll list-making universe has ever seen, with two albums dominating nearly everyone's portrait of 2013 as though their spirit and brilliance were next to undeniable (which isn't remotely true, but how nice and fun to imagine it!), how interesting that the rest of your collection of favorites probably bears next to no resemblance to your neighbor's. Put it this way: death to the consensus, except when, you know, it's just right.

10. The Julie Ruin: Run Fast (Dischord)
Two things: illness can't sideline you forever, and the indomitable spirit of punk lives long after you move well past the age when it's officially supposed to make sense. Kathleen Hanna's new group is a tremendous showcase, and they pretty much do it all: catchy girl group pop, catchier screaming and thrashing, catchiest anthems and riotous experiments. Hanna yelps and snarls like twenty years haven't happened, and the entire album bursts with such uncompromising enthusiasm you either can't tell it's the work of someone who's been at it for so long or you know that anybody who hadn't been could not pull it off so expertly. I try not to throw around "life-affirming," but...
Best cuts: "Just My Kind"; "Run Fast"; "Ha Ha Ha"
[Full review]

9. Rhye: Woman (Republic)
Blue-eyed big-time sensuality makes no bones about how derivative it is, how much it owes to music that preceded it by decades, but it's so well-crafted and sensitive that all that ends up mattering is the depth and utility of its almost hauntingly minimal popcraft. A mirrorball might cast its lights over its songs of domesticated bliss and tranquility, but the melodies and intimacy have a kind of warmth and blood running through them that seems improbably well-captured in this era of digitized everything. The point of Woman is at least in part that the changing world leaves plenty of room for good sex, good marriage, good mutual discovery even at its most rapid-fire and seemingly impersonal. You just have to carve out the right space, preferably with this playing. Its romance is spread out everywhere, but encapsulated on "The Fall" when the strings swell up and you practically can't help but blush.
Best cuts: "3 Days"; "Hunger"; "Open"
[Full review]

8. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Jama Ko (Out Here)
This virtuosic album of family-affair singing and chanting and ruggedly brilliant musicianship is so full of joy and enthusiasm that, unless you speak Bambara (and a bit of French), it's easy to forget that it was recorded in a moment of extreme anger by a band whose world was coming apart -- Mali was being engaged in a military coup as the songs were laid down, and each memorable groove sears with purpose and conviction in the face of madness and zealotry. We don't cover African music nearly as much as we should here (something that we're working to change in 2014), but whether you're generally aware of nonwestern musical forms or not, this album's passion and fury will almost certainly move you.
Best cuts: "Madou"; "Mali Koori"; "Sinaly"
[Full review]

7. The National: Trouble Will Find Me (4AD)
When I think of hearing this outside a desolate bus station in Newark at two in the morning, one earbud in my ear and the other in Amber's, I can't help wishing I had been fully attuned to its beauty at the time. This is obviously less immediate than High Violet, but in the end no less vital and shattering, and its peaks are as soulful and convincingly longing fits of mood and desire as we get in straight-on rock music these days. The bigness of these minor chords is so much more lived-in than what we get from any of the other pseudo-arena bands among the younger set. I have no idea if this album is completely as well-fitted to other lives as it is to mine, but on so many nights this year, it was as perfect as though it had been specifically commissioned to match up with the lighting in my living room and the emotional speed of the moment -- a profound utility for guitar music to fill, I think.
Best cuts: "This Is the Last Time"; "I Need My Girl"; "Slipped"
[Full review]

6. Yoko Ono: Take Me to the Land of Hell (Chimera)
She'd already proven herself so many times over that the genius of this album seems expanded somehow by how sort of unnecessary it is. In no sense did 80 year-old Ono have to write such blistering, grooving dance and funk songs (and exhaustingly wounding ballads) and lay them down with such undaunted, effortless enthusiasm -- her singing has never been better, more impassioned, or more charming -- with a battery of guests and collaborators probably no one but herself and son Sean Lennon could bring together under a single umbrella. The frenetic looseness and immediacy of all this could make you tear up, though probably not until you're finished dancing. She could not be a more complete and inspiring artist. But she'll probably try anyway.
Best cuts: "7th Floor"; "Bad Dancer"; "Cheshire Cat Cry"
[Full review]

5. Janelle Monáe: The Electric Lady (Bad Boy)
You probably didn't instantly respond to this like you did to the rollercoaster of creativity and wicked madness that was The ArchAndroid, but nor did that album have a song quite as succinctly perfect as "Dance Apocalyptic," an undercurrent of whimsical throwback bliss like this record's fixation with Bert Kaempfert and Henry Mancini, or a moment of performance-art glory like Monáe's film-noir nightclub star turn on the absolutely throttling "Look into My Eyes." And I'm actually pretty sure that I very, very occasionally stopped grinning like a giant dork during some of my listens to The ArchAndroid. This one? Not yet, man. Just two full albums in, I'm about as close to trusting her with my life as I've been with any artist.
Best cuts: "Dance Apocalyptic"; "It's Code"; "What an Experience"
[Full review]

4. Pet Shop Boys: Electric (x2)
If I ever had occasion to meet Neil Tennant or Chris Lowe, I'd probably manage to blubber out a hello and a thank you before I had to excuse myself. What is it about these two that inspires such improbable worship from otherwise rational people? For over half my life I've guardedly collected remixes of even the songs I don't like much, and shed as many tears to the songs with hard house beats as those without; no other group quite articulates a specific kind of angst with such world-embracing understanding, wit and collected charm. And so when they show that after nearly thirty years together they can unleash a series of ferocious Relentless-style club songs as if they were some new EDM act formed yesterday, yeah, even if there weren't any songs designed to make you lose your cool a bit, I probably would -- because why? how? What can make one of the bands that's meant the most to you your whole life mean even more? But then "Vocal" comes on and you remember, yes, you're supposed to feel this way: blissful, bombed out, like the world's all disappeared, and when you've come to your senses, just bloody grateful.
Best cuts: "Thursday"; "Love Is a Bourgeois Construct"; "Inside a Dream"
[Full review]

3. Ciara (Epic)
An economical pop album for the modern era, one of the best in any genre, and one of those instances when someone, somehow or another, follows their instincts and does every single thing right: every cut is extremely fun, as long or short as it should be, and addictive. The album as a whole coheres perfectly, balanced well between busted-out dance music and emotionally extreme balladry, and it all builds to a climax of disco perfection that seems to have exhausted itself with "DUI" and "Livin' It Up," then just keeps going until the strobe lights are burned into your eyes. Ciara's vocal performances and hooks are grand, but almost seem beside the point in a theatrical moment so utterly well-realized -- she leaves you longing for more, and cuts the thing at its unquestionable peak. If this isn't remembered as a classic, I'll be very disappointed.
Best cuts: "Overdose"; "Livin' It Up"; "Super Turnt Up"
[Full review]

2. Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City (XL)
I can't really believe this isn't #1. Can we have a tie? New albums by rock bands, as a rule, simply don't get me under their spell right away and keep me there to this extent for months on end, enough so that other music seems to cease to exist (or would have if #1 down there hadn't come out around the same time). If you told me in 2008 that I would love this band as much as I do now, I'd likely have just rolled my eyes. But this is the sort of forceful moment when you have to grudgingly admit that the culture has thrown you a curve-ball. Not only is it an instantly appealing and actually massive creation, MVOTC is like New York itself: it's sprawling and full of side-stories running parallel to the main one, and there's "stuff" everywhere but somehow it allows you to carve out your own existence, to find the private in the public, the romance in the occupied space. It is the sound of careening down busy streets like you won't live another day. It is the giver of, among so many other gifts, the moment of 2013: when those chants start rumbling up from the earthen mass of "Ya Hey," or maybe the last chorus of "Worship You," or maybe the entirety of "Everlasting Arms." And it is jointly the giver of the mantra of 2013: I don't want to live like this, but I don't want to... DIIIIIIII--
Best cuts: Do I have to? Jesus Christ. Right now, let's say "Diane Young"; "Unbelievers"; "Worship You" but almost anything on the album could justify a reference here.
[Full review]

1. Kanye West: Yeezus (Def Jam)
I don't care. I fucking love it. I don't care. It's Kanye West/Plastic Ono Band. Ten songs, all revealing something about a persona and a culture, all deliberately confounding, all smart and most smarter than the majority of us probably even realize yet. Six albums now, all of them excellent, three of them actually masterful, all but one of them the most influential of its period of release. He is the best we've got. He is probably the best we could have. Yeezus is singular, weird, minimal, loud, unearthly, chaotic, infuriating, terrible, breathtaking, brilliant, frustrating, a huge fucking mess. It's the culmination of a career of making messes and creating chaos on a world stage that both crushes and benefits its creator. It couldn't be what it is if West were a normal artist, a normal person, a normal celebrity. It is what it is because he is great -- the most uncompromising and blisteringly gifted artist currently working in the U.S. You think he's an asshole? Fine, please go tell him. Please tell him loudly and as condescendingly and hatefully as you can. Because chances are, he will make something of it, and it will almost certainly matter more and for longer than what you or I or anyone else thinks about it.
Best cuts: In this case, I haven't swayed from "Bound 2" all year long, but after that I'm muddier. "Hold My Liquor"? "Black Skinhead"? Why separate them?
[Full review]

(Others I loved in 2013)

Danny Brown: Old (Fool's Gold)
Brown himself hasn't changed much, though. He was always an intelligent and thoughtful artist, but he's grown intrigued with these Jekyll-and-Hyde chasms in his performance style and writing. So have we as his audience. His nasal, mocking cadence wasn't easy to take in greater than limited quantities, though even on his earlier records it was hard to name anyone who'd done so much with such an at-first-blush terrible voice. Now, as he grows more deliberately reflective, he crafts a record as haunted by the past -- and as emotionally specific a storytelling achievement -- as Kendrick Lamar's good kid, M.A.A.D city. But Brown does it his way -- pervasive as the themes are, Old is first and foremost an intensely elated hour of hip hop excitement.
Best cuts: "Lonely"; "25 Bucks"; "Torture"
[Full review]

Fantasia: Side Effects of You (RCA)
The superficial key to the record's appeal is that Fantasia's eclectic performance style and the production by Harmony Samuels (who handles all but one cut) dabble heartily in the trends, radio-friendly and otherwise, of the present period but also feels, as does Fantasia, a kinship with the now-classic '90s hits of Mary J. Blige, Babyface, Toni Braxton, TLC and even En Vogue (whose best song, "Don't Let Go (Love)," is specifically referenced on "End of Me"). The result has an almost casually broad appeal, best indicated in the album's very first moments: through a cloud of modernist white noise emerges a perfect integration of atmospheric, vaguely paranoid R&B with Samuels' actual banger and Fantasia's florid invocation of her influences. Extrapolating a bit, even the mainstream pop-embracing single "Without Me" has a stretched and skewed hook, eschewing its natural sweetness for the stark sound of an unforgiving club floor.
Best cuts: "Ain't All Bad"; "Lose to Win"; "Get It Right"
[Full review]

Savages: Silence Yourself (Matador)
The threat and dread come loudest and clearest: while the songs are generally bashed out with abandon and then discarded, the band is quick to shrug off any questions about versatility with variations like "Strife," slowing down to a deliberate pregnant plod and doing things with you that you will never tell your mum; "Waiting for a Sign" takes this further to a sad, menacing guitar mourn -- the guitar rather than voice taking the emotional lead, brilliant as the vocal is -- and proceeds to thrust with a quiet-loud pacing that somehow manages never to allow its tension to break. But is there joy in all this? Absolutely; turn it up louder. You could argue that even the creation of music this defined by throwback yet wholly inventive and crafty is in itself an act of stubborn joy, and one of the most assured and powerful rock-band moments of recent vintage.
Best cuts: "Marshal Dear": "City's Full"; "Husbands"
[Full review]

David Bowie: The Next Day (Columbia)
What's so remarkable about it? Well, it's the voice, first of all. Not exactly youthful but by no means a Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen growl, it retains much of the old yelpy and freaky registers alike. Secondly and perhaps most crucially, the writing: it's top-caliber whether you consider this as a new record by some new guy (no new guy would be this bold, adventurous, or fearlessly individualistic out of the gate) or a proper addition to the Bowie library, requiring no veteran's-rights apology in either case. "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" is anthemic night-drive perfection down to every oooooh, "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die" the playful doo wop we never knew to expect, "How Does the Grass Grow?" a tremendous creation out of messy melody and restless procession of sonic and musical ideas. Thirdly, the performances, arrangement, production. It's unmistakably Bowie, unmistakably Tony Visconti, but also new: complex and detailed, synthy and organic, its hopelessness and chaos so well organized. "Art rock" (remember when that was the phrase?) is back in good hands out of nowhere.
Best cuts: "How Does the Grass Grow"; "The Stars"; "Dirty Boys"
[Full review]

Daft Punk: Random Access Memories (Columbia)
It's not that I didn't like Homework or Discovery -- both have their good points -- but they never meant anything to me, not like this does. Not like the wistful groove of "Get Lucky" and its almost desperate good-time funk, not like the slow meltdown of "Game of Love" and "Instant Crush." It seems as if Daft Punk are yearning for something here, to call back to a feeling, and their recording in the wake of that noble-enough nostalgia produces something all the more remarkable for the impossibility of reaching the orgasmic heights it wants. The incapability of recapturing memories renders this poignant, flawed, beautiful.
Best cuts: "Doin' It Right"; "Get Lucky"; "The Game of Love"
[Full review]

Yo La Tengo: Fade (Matador)
Gradually, the rest of the words fall into place. Read "Ohm" as philosophy of life, acceptance of death, acknowledgement of the series of moments that's really all we get: "But nothing ever stays the same / Nothing's explained / The higher we go, the longer we fly / 'Cause this is it for all we know / So say goodnight to me / And lose no more time / Resisting the flow." And then "The Point of It," either the sardonic response to being a creatively active band with potential years still ahead of it that's had a paper gravestone of a biography now penned about it, or more importantly, the indicator of this couple and this band's shaky but assured contentment as they come to terms with the fact of aging: "Say that we’re afraid / Say the night is close / Honey, that’s okay / If we’re getting old / If we’re not so strong / If our story’s told / That’s the point of being loved." And as the serious emotional range and depth of all this hits you, all you can think is: they can't be here forever. I can only speak for myself here -- I dunno what I will do without them. But that's not, as the song goes, the point either. The point is we're all getting old, closer to death, closer to our own slow fade, and that's why we wake up in the morning.
Best cuts: "Ohm"; "Cornelia & Jane"; "I'll Be Around"
[Full review]

Kelela: Cut 4 Me (Fade to Mind) [mixtape]
Kelela's excellence as a singer is beyond question whether you care much for the drift of these songs or not. No matter how much of a stunt the track is, she is reliably sprawled out and adventurous in a most sumptuous sense, unflinching before all weirdness. Kicking drum machine imbued with oddly placed sax and ghostly hip hop chanting on "Go All Night"? Bird sounds and off-putting effects on the stirringly intimate and beautiful "A Lie"? No more a challenge than the skewed but radio-ready anthem of the title track and its crazy-ish synths under a voice and groove that go up and down and back again then wander off. So often, Kelela herself provides the hook, the melding together of everything. She can be filtered and manipulated to within an inch of her sonic life on the near-perfect "Something Else" or overdubbed into complex oblivion on "Cherry Coffee" but still she is the noise we wander into and don't wish to leave.
Best cuts: "A Lie"; "Floor Show"; "Something Else"
[Full review]

Tegan and Sara: Heartthrob (Warner Bros.)
Not that these themes are or should be strictly the parlance of moms, young marrieds, and serial monogamists in the working world -- part of the thematic urgency of Heartthrob comes from the same place as a given Phil Spector or Shangri-Las record: the unerring relevance of romantic catharsis, here filtered through lyrics that more often than not feel eerily personal. It's here that I can't help contrasting a song like the blissful opening "Closer," all late-night FM neon, to a group like Goldfrapp who'd do a great job with it but who'd never resist an overriding sarcasm or abstraction. "Closer" doesn't just swipe and snarl with all that talk about treating you like you're oh-so-typical or wondering how to get you underneath me, it grits its teeth and feels it and rattles you like a lightning bolt. How come you don't want me, indeed -- she sees you talking with a different girl, one who's got "nothing to show you," and the most trite of broken hearts is all sublime and pure again, as those regrets are written in the glittery purple of communal pop-art, teenage symphonies about don't-they-know-it's-the-end-of-the-world because check it out -- and here's the absolute kicker -- we're in our thirties now and it still feels like the bloody end of the world.
Best cuts: "Shock to Your System"; "I Was a Fool"; "I Couldn't Be Your Friend"
[Full review]

Oneohtrix Point Never: R Plus Seven (Warp)
One reason Lopatin maintains attention for the full breadth of these forty-three minutes: the songs, already full of eternally shapeshifting life, don't go on for long -- not for Oneohtrix is the idea of a mere trance, a wander off into nowhere. At least not anymore. "He She" tampers with MIDI voices teasingly and fascinatingly for all of a minute and a half. All of R Plus Seven is structured with a sense of brevity, and with the fortifying and careful distribution (occasionally denial?) of pleasure. Beatless and busy, it's cerebral music for sure, but it's also a complete and disciplined thought.
Best cuts: it ain't that kind of album
[Full review]

Cut Copy: Free Your Mind (Modular)
Free Your Mind sheds, except for its title, the psych-rock zone-out effect of earlier Cut Copy albums, even if they claim this one was inspired by the Summer of Love. There's no question it's music about hedonism, but it looks in the right direction for hallmarks from "It's Alright" to "Rhythm Is a Dancer." Hard to say if any song strikes out full-bore like the emotionally indomitable "Take Me Out," or that any moment is so transcendent as the bridge of "Corner of the Sky," but what this album successfully does is spread out its bliss so that it's a consistent, melodic high. And never before has Dan Whitford sung a melody as beautiful as that of "Dark Corners & Mountain Tops" or produced a throwback as convincing as "Footsteps." Generally, Cut Copy present such a full-bodied joy here that it's hard to carp with anything.
Best cuts: "Dark Corners & Mountain Tops"; "Footsteps"; "Let Me Show You Love"
[Full review]

Run the Jewels (Fool's Gold)
In contrast to so much of what's labeled "alternative" rap -- a classification secured by the presence of Brooklyn noisemaker El-P, though even Mike can hardly be called a mainstream player at the moment -- RTJ comes on truly hard: badass, brutal and quick. The pair spits out imaginative, playful, often angry and aggressive rhymes over El's booming, crunching, minimal but impossibly heavy backbeats -- building brilliantly on his work with Mike last year. It runs through its ideas and changes so rapidly -- every single time, I look up and I'm surprised it's halfway over -- it's hard to pick out individual tracks or moments.
(hence we won't.)
[Full review]

The Strokes: Comedown Machine (RCA)
And what's the big secret the Strokes have abruptly stumbled upon? Well, that they're a BAND! Creatively restless and adventurous, enough so to cook up a kooky song like "Call It Faith, Call It Karma" that's playful but not up its own ass, sounding like it could've played in the strip-boat sequence in Beasts of the Southern Wild. All the more fascinatingly, they're a really excellent band that can do things their peers often cannot. On "Chances," they commit cardinal sins: initially it sounds like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, not a big stretch for obvious reasons, with a shade of spaced-out grimy mid-'90s nightclub, then there's some impeccably crafted but highly odd Berlin / Mr. Mister thing that happens and it's earned and playful and fun, not intolerable like so many sinister soft-rock revivalist moments in the recent history of "indie." The thesis? Through hard work and trial and error, they've developed and have learned how to make their various obsessions and musical hangups work for them, and how to turn them all into something distinctive but broadly appealing. The happiest possible ending, only I now hope it's not an ending -- when mere weeks ago I swore this would be the last time I ever checked out a new Strokes album. Nope!
Best cuts: "Slow Animals"; "One Way Trigger"; "Welcome to Japan"
[Full review]

Future Bible Heroes: Partygoing (Merge)
The thirteen songs here collectively serve to make a wholly different impression than any of Merritt's last several releases, and unlike all of them it displays no serious conceptual gimmick, which may be one key to its excellence. Putting aside Ewen's engaging stylistics for just a moment, in terms of vocal performance and songwriting, Merritt properly reins in his impulses for both melodrama and novelty. Partygoing is just new songs in the same old idiom; it treads no new ground but it's him. That weird investment in Hollywood fused with mournful "As Tears Go By" lament on "When Evening Falls in Tinseltwon" -- it couldn't be more idiosyncratic, or more appealing to those for whom these particular idiosyncrasies have been a hallmark for over twenty years now. I'm putting this in Merritt and, hell, the Magnetic Fields' column as a resounding success because it's the first time since I've been a fan that I can point to a new release under any name from the Merritt camp and say "this is why I love this man's work."
Best cuts: "All I Care About Is You"; "Sadder Than the Moon"; "How Very Strange"
[Full review]


Haim: Days Are Gone (Columbia)
Camera Obscura: Desire Lines (4AD)
Dawn Richard: Goldenheart (Our Dawn)
M.I.A.: Matangi (Interscope)
Charles Bradley: Victim of Love (Daptone)
Waxahatchee: Cerulean Salt (Don Giovanni)
Josephine Foster: I'm a Dreamer (Fire)
Suede: Bloodsports (Warner Bros.)
MGMT (Columbia)
Moonface: Julia with Blue Jeans On (Jagjaguwar)
Chvrches: The Bones of What You Believe (Glassnote)
Neko Case: The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You (Anti-)
Over the Rhine: Meet Me at the Edge of the World (Great Speckled Dog)
AlunaGeorge: Body Music (Island)
Blood Orange: Cupid Deluxe (Domino)
Jamie Lidell (Warp)
Collette: When the Music's Loud (Candy Talk)
Arcade Fire: Reflektor (Merge)
Baths: Obsidian (Anticon)
Omar Souleyman: Wenu Wenu (Ribbon Music)
Maya Jane Coles: Comfort (I / AM / ME)
Saturday Looks Good to Me: One Kiss Ends It All (Polyvinyl)
Black Milk: No Poison No Paradise (Fat Beats)
Disclosure: Settle (Island)
Sally Shapiro: Somewhere Else (Paper Bag)
Of Montreal: Lousy with Sylvianbriar (Polyvinyl)
Okkervil River: The Silver Gymnasium (ATO)
Weekend: Jinx (Slumberland)
The Men: New Moon (Sacred Bones)
My Bloody Valentine: MBV (Pickpocket)
Paul McCartney: New (Hear Music)
Goldfrapp: Tales of Us (Mute)
KT Tunstall: Invisible Empire / Crescent Moon (Blue Note)
Yo Gotti: I Am (Epic)
Mutual Benefit: Love's Crushing Diamond (Other Music)
A$AP Rocky: LongLiveA$AP (RCA)
Minor Alps: Get There (Barsuk)
Eels: Wonderful, Glorious (Vagrant)
The Field: Cupid's Head (Kompakt)


Burial: Rival Dealer (Hyperdub)
MØ: Bikini Daze (Genepool)


I didn't bother with Youtube links this year; I figure if you want to hear something here, you can easily search it and there won't be any risk of a bunch of pesky soon-to-be-invalid links. As always, limiting this list to one song per album but not per artist (though I don't think that made any difference this time). Not as distinct from the albums list this year, both because I heard more albums and because I didn't have as much time as I'd have liked to poke around Soundcloud and such. Perhaps next year! Still, I'm confident this is a hell of a great list.

1. Ciara "Overdose" [Ciara]
2. Collette "When the Music's Loud" [When the Music's Loud]
3. Yoko Ono "7th Floor" [Take Me to the Land of Hell]
4. Miley Cyrus "We Can't Stop" [Bangerz]
5. Daft Punk "Doin' It Right" [Random Access Memories]
6. Justin Timberlake "Suit & Tie" [The 20/20 Experience]
7. Fantasia "Ain't All Bad" [Side Effects of You]
8. Danny Brown "Lonely" [Old]
9. Disclosure "Help Me Lose My Mind" [Settle]
10. Kanye West "Bound 2" [Yeezus]
11. Vampire Weekend "Diane Young" [Modern Vampires of the City]
12. Petite Noir "Kinshasa Waltz" [internet-only]
13. Pet Shop Boys "Thursday" [Electric]
14. Jamie Lidell "I'm Selfish" [Jamie Lidell]
15. The Julie Ruin "Just My Kind" [Run Fast]
16. Karl X Johan "Never Leave Me" [non-LP single]
17. Kelela "A Lie" [Cut 4 Me]
18. Austra "Painful Like" [Olympia]
19. Rhye "3 Days" [Woman]
20. Lil Wayne "Rich as Fuck" [I Am Not a Human Being II]
21. AlunaGeorge "You Know You Like It" [Body Music]
22. The National "This Is the Last Time" [Trouble Will Find Me]
23. Weekend "Mirror" [Jinx]
24. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba "Madou" [Jama Ko]
25. Jay-Z ft. Beyonce "Part II" [Magna Carta Holy Grail]
26. Future Bible Heroes "All I Care About Is You" [Partygoing]
27. David Bowie "How Does the Grass Grow" [The Next Day]
28. Lockah and Taste Tester "U Don't Know Me" [Higher Learning]
29. Janelle Monae "Dance Apocalyptic" [The Electric Lady]
30. High Highs "In a Dream" [Open Season]
31. Cut Copy "Dark Corners & Mountain Tops" [Free Your Mind]
32. The Strokes "Slow Animals" [Comedown Machine]
33. Iamsu! "Rep That Gang" [Kilt 2]
34. Savages "Marshal Dear" [Silence Yourself]
35. Tegan and Sara "Shock to Your System" [Heartthrob]
36. Teena Marie "Love Letter" [Beautiful]
37. Yo Gotti "Cold Blooded" [I Am]
38. Dawn Richard "Tug of War" [Goldenheart]
39. Rihanna "Loveeeeeee Song" [Unapologetic]
40. Yo La Tengo "Ohm" [Fade]
41. M.I.A. "Come Walk with Me" [Matangi]
42. Suede "Barriers" [Bloodsports]
43. Haim "If I Could Change Your Mind" [Days Are Gone]
44. Waxahatchee "Peace and Quiet" [Cerulean Salt]
45. Bruno Mars "Treasure" [Unorthodox Jukebox]
46. Moonface "November 2011" [Julia with Blue Jeans On]
47. Of Montreal "Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit" [Lousy with Sylvianbriar]
48. Saturday Looks Good to Me "Sunglasses" [One Kiss Ends It All]
49. Black Milk "Money Bags" [No Poison No Paradise]
50. James T. Cotton "People Mover" [People Mover EP]
51. Young Scooter "Made It Through the Struggle" [Street Lottery]
52. Minor Alps "Buried Plans" [Get There]
53. Calvin Harris "Sweet Nothing" [18 Months]
54. Obey City "Fallin'" [Champagne Sounds EP]
55. Maya Jane Coles "Easier to Hide" [Comfort]
56. Neko Case "Ragtime" [The Worse Things Get...]
57. The Men "Half Angel Half Light" [New Moon]
58. MØ "Never Wanna Know" [Bikini Daze EP]
59. Arcade Fire "Reflektor" [Reflektor]
60. Robin Thicke "Blurred Lines" [Blurred Lines]
61. Charli XCX "Lock You Up" [True Romance]
62. MGMT "A Good Sadness" [MGMT]
63. Paul McCartney "Alligator" [New]
64. Mikal Cronin "Weight" [MCII]
65. A$AP Rocky "Hell" [LongLiveA$AP]
66. Camera Obscura "Troublemaker" [Desire Lines]
67. Over the Rhine "Wait" [Meet Me at the Edge of the World]
68. Marnie Stern "Proof of Life" [The Chronicles of Marnia]
69. Justin Bieber "Beauty and a Beat" [Believe]
70. Foxygen "San Francisco" [We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic]
Baths "Inter" [Obsidian]
The Knife "A Tooth for an Eye" [Shaking the Habitual]
Sally Shapiro "I Dream with an Angel Tonight" [Somewhere Else]
My Bloody Valentine "New You" [MBV]
Okkervil River "It Was My Season" [The Silver Gymnasium]


See you in a little under a week, folks. Thanks as always for checking in.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Cat Power: The Greatest (2006)



Surprised that when I fell in love with this album, in the year after its release, I hadn't taken a sip of alcohol yet -- it seems ideal for a lonely evening (had lots of those then) with a glass of wine or something. Hearing it now end to end several times as a soundtrack to the finale of a chaotic and suddenly quiet year, what strikes me is that it remains just a total, tightly compressed stunner of an album, and certainly Chan Marshall's finest hour as a composer. These songs are focused and subtle, but also brilliantly varied, helped along by a crack team of Memphis session musicians who bring alive the soul and country that sit as undercurrent in her songs -- as on none of her other records, they are permitted to truly breathe and come into their own.

The slight melancholy gracing all twelve cuts also makes it a perfect album for a night like tonight, seemingly the darkest night of them all, when a stillness overtakes everything except the tiny space lit by its gentle loveliness. Up until the sudden explosion of rock-ish roll on "Love && Communication," there's no real break into the normal indie rock stratosphere at all. Instead, we open with sweet lilting melodrama on the title cut; there may be no covers here, but "The Greatest" couldn't exist without "Moon River," and Marshall immediately introduces the sigh-heavy mood that will cover everything for the next forty-one minutes: "Once I wanted to be the greatest."

Like all of Cat Power's best work, The Greatest aches with loss, but its gracefulness belongs to the league of modern-day emotional navel gazers but in a class with Dylan circa Nashville Skyline, with Otis Redding at his most despairing, with Ray Davies ("Willesden Green" is all but directly reprised on "After It All"), maybe most of all with Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, the way their sadness was always met with some sort of grudging willingness to acknowledge its depths of nothingness with good humor and move forward. More than once, the simultaneous air of yearning (see "Where Is My Love") is undercut by a real spirit of driving beauty and sweetness. "Lived in Bars" kind of embodies all of the drama: opening as desolate plod, it picks up, wizened and reflective, like aging rapidly in song.

As consistent and intoxicating as its mood may be, The Greatest stands as a stellar achievement mostly because it's simply a superlative collection of songs that feels far shorter than it is and never oversteps itself. Its longest cut, the jazz-infected "Willie," seems as justified sinking into its six-minute groove as its shortest, the quintessential Cat Power country song "Islands," feels fully realized at 1:44. The piano-driven, simple and delicate "Living Proof" fits its melody as uncannily as the florid arrangement of Memphis horns and chilled-down Stax befits the sweet lullaby "Could We," with its wondrously simple "could we / take a walk" hook drifting its romance on up into an unrealized but tantalizingly implied full blossom.

Cat Power's next proper album of original songs, Sun, would bring forth what might be her best song ever, "Manhattan" -- but revisiting The Greatest, I'm reminded that it may have some serious composition in the form of the truly stunning "The Moon," which more than any of her other tracks makes a long dark night a romantic and tangible thing -- and manages so impressively to sound both minimal and truly expansive. When Marshall sings that the moon is "not only beautiful, it is so far away," she could be referring to the song itself, a light-touch enigma that seems almost too distant and wispy to capture but so unmistakable, present, almost eerily gorgeous. And better yet, it achieves this through what at a glance seem classic-rockist techniques of layered George Harrison-circa-Abbey Road guitar, intense vocals overdubbed atop one another, and just the directness and intensity, as ever, of Marshall's voice. She may or may not have sounded better at some other point, but I doubt she's ever been so focused, across the breadth of this song and its complete album -- a moment captured so lovingly you want to hold on and cling to every treasured split-second of it.

Sun (2012)

Monday, December 23, 2013

Burial: Rival Dealer EP (2013)



The notion behind Rival Dealer is all but explicitly stated in the last of its three tracks, "Come Down to Us," which samples a heartrending speech given last year by filmmaker Lana Wachowski, wherein she opened up about her life, self-discovery and acceptance as a trans woman and the slow acknowledgement that there was nothing wrong with being who she was. Abuse of "those who follow their instincts and are told they sin," as another dance artist put it, would be clearly on Burial's mind even if he hadn't talked about it on television. Even with half an ear perked up, you detect that this is the lushest, warmest music he has released thus far. He expects it to be a comfort to many listeners in hard times, but dance music always has filled that purpose, whether it explicitly stated its emotional thrust or not.

Rival Dealer is really and truly new, but it's also just as frustrating as Burial's work has always been, just with a humane sheen and a moving "you are not alone" mantra atop it. As ever, the central dichotomy across these twenty-eight minutes is a systematic tearing in half of William Bevan between his interest in restless minimalism and his interest in the groove. The three songs are barely divided in any manner that makes actual sense -- the track number on your hypothetical CD player that you don't actually use does change eleven minutes in, then all the more arbitrarily after a further five. Poppy middle creation "Hiders" does divide itself somewhat neatly; its kinda-pretty exhilaration allows for something so direct as a "take me away" command on a hedonistic dancefloor -- the joy of escape from an obligation to be what others want.

"Rival Dealer" itself is approximately twelve cuts strung together, though more intuitively than usual. Its initial, immersive heat and beckon eventually collapses into some filthy trap-house with hellish beat, plus immediately confrontational dialogue and autotune. All the while, Burial comes on like a guy preoccupied with even weirder ambient influences than is average for modern electronic music: flip through a police scanner with one of those tropical-thunderstorm sound effect CDs on in the background, throwing on a few different beats at lenient intervals, and you can pretty much approximate this wild and slightly overbearing DJ set. All is forgiven as Rival Dealer proceeds, and reveals the method behind its quiet desperation. It does feel like an act of kindness, but it arrives at this in a most peculiar and hard-won fashion, and it's doubtful that Burial would allow even the most downtrodden any reassurance further than that!

As an aside, I've generally disliked everything Burial's put out till now, so color me the dipshit who only likes the easy and friendly stuff. What else is new.

Kindred EP (2012)

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Advance Base: The World Is in a Bad Fix Everywhere EP (2013) / Andrew Bird: I Want to See Pulaski at Night EP (2013) / Destroyer: Five Spanish Songs EP (2013)




Stopgap releases by two artists I love and one about whom I hold mixed feelings but who recorded an album in 2011 that I think is a work of genius. Curiously, despite their breeziness all three manage to be more of a slog than the latest albums by the same performers. (Crucially, these are all, for every practical purpose, solo acts.)

Advance Base's Owen Ashworth probably acquits himself most easily; the modest aspirations of his brief set of covers of Washington Phillips tunes makes it an easy sell to anyone who normally enjoys Ashworth's singing and arrangements, the person writing this eagerly included. Phillips, whose famously ghostly and tiny repertoire of gospel tunes from the first half of the last century is legendary, is an odd choice for Ashworth's timbre and sensibility, though, which is either the point or the mistake, I'm not sure which. His work's frequently been covered by outlaw country acts and irony-addicted indie rockers alike; neither grouping easily encompasses Ashworth, whose sincerity and graceful spirit are too much an attraction to his own work for us not to believe he feels a kinship to these songs about Jesus and rising up from sin. However, like several things that Ashworth has released, his actual purpose here seems so personal that it's hard for an outsider to get a handle on it. But he's a wonderful artist paying homage to another one, and there's enough modest joy here that you should support him. (It does serve as a handy reminder that I desperately need to check out that instrumental album he put out last year, though.)

Andrew Bird is coming directly off a year in which he made his most bloated album yet (Break It Yourself) and one of his leanest and most spontaneous and invigorating (Hands of Glory). Bird's been castigated in recent years as part of some sort of counter-counterculture of NPR-adored indie rockers but this is extremely unfair; as a writer and performer, he's a joy to listen to and his instincts are almost always good. He released I Want to See Pulaski at Night very suddenly and unexpectedly this year, so it's a good bet he did so strictly because he felt like it. With only one vocal track (and one with a bit of inevitable whistling), it's really a protracted mood piece whose major steps forward are on the track "Hover II," which drones and menaces a bit. The entirety sounds like a rather dignified film score, probably for Lincoln or something. It isn't a particularly pleasurable listen, but it's hard to want to carp at Bird for being so prolific lately. Now if he could just cover "Heroin" on disc.

Destroyer's Five Spanish Songs has been so ruthlessly promoted by Merge Records it barely seems like stopgap anything, or like Dan Bejar and his cronies are in on the joke of just what a novelty and goofoff it really is. It's Nada Como El Sol for the 2010s -- Bejar's voice is dubious to start with, and on this inexplicable novelty he's more annoying the faster the song is. These are actually songs originally performed by the band Sr. Chinarro, so it's not merely an arm's-length version of Destroyer in that it trades on the language barrier oddity, it's also a covers set! In hilariously cranky interviews, Bejar defensively insists that the English language is "spent." Destroyer went into the studio, bashed this out without much talk, and left, with Bejar excited about not worrying so much over little details as on Kaputt. For me, because Kaputt is the first Destroyer record I really felt drawn to, those little details were the point -- and with arrangements this rote backing weak vocals, I see little reason to listen to this, but in a strange way I kind of admire its obnoxiousness.

Nary a one of these records is likely to be making a lot of appearances in my headphones going forward, but that last point can extrapolate: I'm sort of glad these guys are still able to do weird little things like this. It makes the world of listening and collecting seem that much livelier, and fresher.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Also recommended in 2013

This post constitutes a listing of good records that you may like or love that I, for one reason or another, did not or could not write about at length. Possible reasons include: not enough to really say beyond "this is good" or whatever I've offered below; not enough time to listen more than twice (I try to hear a record at least four times before I write even One Sentence about it); or just a simple time crunch, as with M.I.A.'s Matangi. I didn't manage my free time all that well this year, I wasn't able to take my usual music-heavy vacation in December, and car troubles and illness stymied my ability to give some things my full attention that probably deserved it. Going forward, all of these albums will remain in rotation for me and may require further attention in the future.

I'm a bit burned out on thought-out criticism (boy, what a terrible thing for a person to say who enjoys writing about this stuff and does so just for fun) so the quick comments below are mostly meant just to steer you in the right direction with regard to whether something might appeal to you personally or not. I've tried to keep it simple, cause something has to be.


Jamie Lidell (Warp)
Excellent New Jack-infected club soul is front-loaded but smart and sensual.

Suede: Bloodsports (Warner Bros.)
Back from the dead with arms wide open, apparently listening to lots of Midnight Oil and the Beautiful South. Good for driving. Wholly free of bloat, too.

Charles Bradley: Victim of Love (Daptone)
The Daptone label's specialty is an uncanny mining of soul music's storied past, in this case the minimal analogue funk-blues of the great Stax singles of the '60s. Like a lot of these releases, it isn't as telling or personal as some of the music it's imitating, but Bradley is performer and singer enough to hold his own stacked against anything; the album's a wonderful listen.

Weekend: Jinx (Slumberland)
Ideal sleazy rock for zonked-out, desperate evenings; parts of it were a godsend when I briefly DJed for a couple of Fridays at a dive bar this year. All the songs are pretty much identical, but if sufficiently zonked, that won't matter.

Maya Jane Coles: Comfort (I / AM / ME)
Crossover techno DJ from London discovers her singing voice, welcomes a gaggle of guests. But it's still her invigorating, puzzling rhythms that will continue to win new coverts, in and outside of the electronic subculture.

Collette: When the Music's Loud (Candy Talk)
AlunaGeorge: Body Music (Island)
Two solid dance records that can't quite sustain full excitement for their duration. AlunaGeorge wins out for songcraft, which at least half the cuts memorable and joyous, but Collette has one of the best disco songs of the year with the title cut. A good party wouldn't thumb its nose at either record.

Neko Case: The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You (Anti-)
Absorbing, even moving, and better singing and writing than ever -- but as usual, I spend most of my time listening to Case's music wondering why it doesn't blindside me like it seems it wants to. For her many fans, I have to imagine this is a must, and I'll certainly keep trying.

Of Montreal: Lousy with Sylvianbriar (Polyvinyl)
Their best and least cluttered in a long time (not even sure how long -- I have their last few but can't remember much about them, and this is one reason why the album ended up in this post cause normally I'd check); if anything, it's impressive how simple and imaginative and effortlessly varied it is. Eventually, though, Barnes decides to annoy everyone because that's what Barnes does. I'll easily grab this before the Flaming Lips' recent drab impressions of eccentricity and psychedelia, though.

Paul McCartney: New (Hear Music)
Skipping nonsense like his album of standards, I still find it necessary to give every new McCartney album a few spins, even though since the last actual dud Press to Play they've all been uncannily similar -- I might poke fun and my Beatles fanaticism might have an off-year, but the fact is that his old band means more to me than anything in the entirety of pop culture save Peanuts, and every passing year we get with him still at least trying is a blessing. He tries harder than usual on this one, especially in terms of performances: the tracks are lean, direct and loose and he rocks more convincingly and with less obvious fears (of his demographic's rejection; of his non-demographic's rejection) than on anything he's done since the '80s. But he's still mitigating himself; you can sense the cogs turning all the time, and so this just averages out to another fair-enough McCartney album, especially when it starts to get gooey and indulgent on the back end. If he can somehow harness the clear effortlessness of his musicianship and pop smarts with some level of precise craft -- and, more pertinently, if he embraces his veteran status a la Dylan or Cohen rather than playing to a nonexistent audience -- maybe he'll do something as special as an inexplicable mob of Boomers are regarding this to be.

Black Milk: No Poison No Paradise (Fat Beats)
Potentially one of the best artists in the underground; he's certainly paid his dues and has proven his mettle with both sides of the mainstream by now. And he's a great MC. But this shares an annoying tendency with the Roots' last several albums (and maybe not coincidentally, Black Thought features on one track): Black Milk doesn't rap enough. His organic, airy production is a pleasure, and the sporadic guests are well-chosen, but I'd rather hear more from him and less from the atmosphere. Do I sound sufficiently like an old man now? "You kids don't rap enough!"

Minor Alps: Get There (Barsuk)
The guy from Nada Surf and Juliana Hatfield get together and generate pretty-good melodic acoustic mild-rock. Much better than it sounds.

MØ: Bikini Daze EP (Genepool)
I was pretty dismissive of this earlier in the year, but eventually the Barry/Greenwich/fuzz caught up with me. Only half of it works, but it's an EP, so.

M.I.A.: Matangi (Interscope)
I'm embarrassed that I didn't get to review this. M.I.A. is a great artist and deserves to be approached with seriousness and gravity by everyone. I think the album's a little overstuffed and busy, but it's still a hit to the jugular like everything she creates; I'll probably realize in January when I can more proficiently concentrate on it that it deserved a banner review and top marks. My apologies to all. (And I don't even think "Bad Girls" is remotely the best thing here. Not even close.)

Yo Gotti: I Am (Epic)
Didn't realize how much I missed flagrantly over-the-top 1998-2003 hip hop. As much as you can shoot holes through this album's lack of originality and the relatively ordinary methodology of Gotti and his guests, it sure sounds amazing.

Sally Shapiro: Somewhere Else (Paper Bag)
Hypnotic electronic album definitely wins the award for the year's most misleading LP cover.

The Men: New Moon (Sacred Bones)
The Men are several bands, and if you've liked any of their haphazard references to a given one of them, you'll find something to enjoy here. Since my favorite Men song is "Candy," I appreciate all of the Replacements thrash and twang, but the jury's out on whether the louder, dronier stuff is as mesmerizing as on their thus-far-peak, Open Your Heart.

Moonface: Julia with Blue Jeans On (Jagjaguwar)
Like Wolf Parade? Like Sunset Rubdown? Here is Spencer Krug playing piano, writing pleasingly romantic and grand-sounding confessionals. It's nice.

Josephine Foster: I'm a Dreamer (Fire)
Beautiful, jazz-infected arrangements by the apparently widely celebrated singer-songwriter, whose compositions are uncannily evocative of another time and place while seeming present, eccentric, unique. A hell of a voice, too. I'm excited to investigate her back catalog now, which apparently encompasses Americana, psychedlia, psychedelic Americana, etc.


Housekeeping note: If I manage to get everything evaluated and finalized properly, my top ten will be posted sometime late Monday. If not, it'll be the day after Christmas. Really not interested in rushing something that important to me for any self-imposed deadline. A few fun things will be up in the interim, anyway.

Haim: Days Are Gone (2013)



You needn't worry about the Haim siblings. While Days Are Gone is an '80s revivalist throwback -- and a very good one -- you can detect major chops underneath all the glitter and the power-pop smoke machine, and Alana, Este and Danielle have more than sufficient freedom to do whatever they want next, derived from anything or nothing.

That said, Days Are Gone's highly expressive, splendidly adolescent snapshot of late '80s / early '90s top 40 eclipses almost every other attempt at aping the sound of a childhood or adolescence of that era because it attempts no self-conscious irony, nor does it try to make Tango in the Night and Phil Collins "hip," it just senses the emotional utility in all that populism. The base appeal of all this is the songs are catchy, though a few of them are also repetitive and annoying ("Let Me Go") and even the already-hallowed "The Wire" is as much an act of cute calculation as giddy excitement.

But there is excitement on Days Are Gone, and resonance, and love. "Falling," "Forever" and "Honey & I" mimic the handy sounds of AM but also the toughness and vulnerability in an obvious touchstones like Fleetwood Mac's "Everywhere" or Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield's "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" More than a handy shorthand symbol of another time, Ariel Rechtshaid's production tricks are an emphasis of perfect pop and its unmistakable, unerring utility across years far beyond the age of anyone playing music on this album.

The record peaks with "If I Could Change Your Mind," which puts in stark relief even a good revivalist anthem such as Ice Choir's "I Want You Now and Always" or the Pains of Being Pure at Heart's "Even in Dreams." Instead it's like Cut Copy's "Take Me Over" -- a song of such bracing emotional directness it transcends its on-the-sleeve influences, and really just generates such a basic core urge to dance or cry or sing or whatever that it's like, why even map out the genesis of it? It's just pure, and right here with us, and glorious.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Blood Orange: Cupid Deluxe (2013)



This is where chillwave was probably always headed -- basically a completely earnest imitation of adult contemporary pop circa 1993, New Jack Swing and Naughty by Nature-era hip hop -- but at least Dev Hynes comes at these smoothed-out genres with some level of enthusiasm and imagination, unlike a lot of his peers. With a "wildly diverse" cast of "guest stars" (Clams Casino, someone from Chairlift, someone from Dirty Projectors, uhhhh what more could you, like, want?), Hynes sets out to replicate a neon dark night of the soul and does so with surprising urgency.

Some of this is not an ironic nod to schmaltz but just schmaltz (often arrhythmic schmaltz -- you did this to us, Pitchfork), like pretty much the entire second half except the actually inspired retro hip hop creation "Clipped On," but some of it has a certain admirable grace and showmanship about. The first few cuts could be Sade outtakes. Laid against Rhye or Kelela, other artists who dove into this well in 2013, this all seems a little half-baked.

Hynes is a far better producer than songwriter, and as fun and impressively weird as as this nostalgia trip is, it's marked more than anything by its half-baked, haphazard nature -- but it actually deserves points for one-upping its own obvious easy-on-the-ear persuasions; it defies your attempts to make it define your mood for the evening, especially if you're as allergic to Diane Warrenesque pop, especially as weakly sung as the last few songs here, as we are. Bravo for amateurishness.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Yoko Ono: Take Me to the Land of Hell (2013)



For four wonderfully exhausting minutes near the end of Take Me to the Land of Hell, Yoko Ono's finest album in around thirty years, the composer-producer-singer and her loosely constructed Plastic Ono Band weave and crawl and hop through one of the more unstoppable new wave grooves laid down in recent memory, a track so blazing and relentless that you'd think Ono, who is currently eighty years old, would need to shout to be heard above it. Instead, she's one with it -- she yells and sings and smiles and dances along -- because she's unmistakably in control of it. When it ends, quite suddenly, one gets the distinct impression that the listener, who's inevitably been dancing or at least wanting to dance, is more out of breath after its frenzy than Yoko Ono.

That there are people who placed Paul McCartney's decently polite New on their list of the best records of the year but didn't even bother listening to Ono's LP is one of the many injustices associated with the career of one of the best and wittiest artists of the last century. One wouldn't wish to deny Ono and John Lennon their obviously deep and rewarding life together in retrospect, but bear with me for a moment: imagine if Ono had no Beatles association (and don't make the empty argument that she therefore wouldn't have a recording career; that's trite, and it's nonsense). Not only would there be no reason to feel grim when comparing her sales figures to a series of BBC performances that bootleg-savvy fans have had for years, one assumes that Land of Hell, like its excellent 2009 predecessor Between My Head and the Sky, wouldn't have to fight any rockist prejudices to gain attention.

Because this is a truly staggering, almost overwhelmingly delightful album. I spend most of it with my hands going all over my face because I just can't fucking believe how brilliant, how popping and full of life, how clever and funny and emotionally frank it is. I dug Dylan, Bowie and Leonard Cohen's latest works, but this roundly shames them all. No one in Ono's peer group, maybe no one period, has better instincts, better restraint and well-placed absence thereof, and (certainly) a greater sense of fun and discovery.

When most veteran artists show up with a record full of illustriously cool guest stars, it's a pandering comeback move. Land of Hell is packed to the gills with folks who are perhaps not superstars but are certainly big names to probably anyone reading this blog: ?uestlove, Mike D and Ad-Rock, Nels Cline, Lenny Kravitz (!), Keigo Oyamada, and in one of the true musical coups of the era, Merrill Garbus, an artist who with tUnE-yArDs has arguably taken up and run with Ono's ideas in a manner deeper yet than bands like the B-52's did during the '70s. This is all arranged, unsurprisingly, by Ono's son Sean Lennon, who also makes immeasurable contributions to the record in a subtle but moving continued act of collaboration. The thing is that all of these musicians, Lennon included, keep themselves deliberately in the background -- they are here not to make their presences obvious or to help Ono's label bank on their name recognition, but because they want to work with Ono and believe in the potential greatness of the finished project.

They know as well as we do that Ono is still relevant, still unstoppable, with a violent creativity unsullied by her decades of previous work and impassioned expression. The songs are varied, firing out with unique pleasures and aspects of her gift: "Cheshire Cat Cry" is a hyperactive chant on peace, the tUnE-yArDs collaboration "Tabetai" an eerie vocal exercise, "Little Boy Blue Your Daddy's Gone" is sheer anguish, "N.Y. Noodle Town" just as amusing and eccentric as its title. The most immediate songs aim for the dance floor: "Moonbeams" takes Ono's poetic lyrics into a searing movement of trance and zoned-out electronics, and the instant classic "Bad Dancer" celebrates the human body and its contorted iterations as well as any pop song. Better yet, the fiercely funked-out "7th Floor" defines Ono's coy fascination with the mixture of the familiar with the otherworldly -- and again, is so breezy and full of life you can't believe you're hearing it in 2013.

Land of Hell's broadest pleasure comes from Ono's vocals. Though always an underrated and distinctive singer, whose fascination with the emotionally fraught sounds of her upper register opened doors for a later generation of female singers from Cindy Wilson to Elizabeth Fraser to Björk, she has found on her recent records a giddy nuance in her often spoken delivery that suggests the half-smiling charm-spill of Fred Astaire in an old musical far more than any straightforward pop star. When she casually shoots off about the elevator being too slow or how bad a dancer she is or how you can come to her when you need to talk, it's an extension of her avant garde work specifically because it's so disarming -- she seems to be your pal Yoko Ono, just chatting with you on a slow day, but she also hams for the mic like every spotlight in the room has zeroed in on her. She's Nico and Lou Reed in a single being.

Ballads can be a sticking point for so restless a performer as Ono, but she makes them interesting; "There's No Goodbye Between Us" and "Leaving Tim" are especially remarkable, showcasing Ono's underrated gift for melody and capturing moods that are by no means simplistic -- there's even a sideways cackle here and there. They're tremendously emotional songs, but so is every last song, every last moment on this record. When it ends, you can't believe it's over already; it's a party, a transcendent document of absolute joy and the full extent of a person who still cares, is still restless, still believes no matter what. Everything about it feels new, fresh, surprising. But it shouldn't surprise us, really. Take Me to the Land of Hell is a playful, crafty, tireless work of rock & roll mastery by a serious artist operating at her peak.

One-sentence reviews #14

Over and out.

Bill Callahan
Dream River (2013)

(Drag City)

I'm really sorry I missed your birthday, Dad; thanks for the tape.


The Avett Brothers
Magpie and the Dandelion (2013)


Hey, a step in the right direction at least -- but if a resurgence of the once-confessional, once-deeply insightful songs has at least stunted the artificial pandering, the vocals are still getting steadily worse (and entirely shirking the eccentricity of country music is hardly the best answer to its limits).


Static (2013)


Breakups make us all bland, blind and childish, moping in the bed all afternoon and forgetting to turn off the Television like we're Stuart Price or summat.


New Jet City (2013)


Slight Variations on a Theme XVIII -- he's the ultimate troll in his modest way, and good for him.


Wonderful, Glorious (2013)


RECOMMENDED - Slipped under the radar, but this is E's best work in nearly a decade -- classic rock crunch and vocal grit and all, he's nearly his old self again only fat & happy, but of course that could be a deal-breaker (also, too many uncertain ballads).


Pink Martini
Get Happy (2013)


!! CAUTION !! - You can get so caught up in the aesthetics of your own obsessive nostalgia that you forget what brought you to it in the first place... or you can listen to this inoffensive dross.


The Bones of What You Believe (2013)


RECOMMENDED - Actually, I quite like this sprightly and sly electro-pop, but it's the end of the year, I'm worn down and stressed out, and (not for the first time) I can't think of a goddamned thing to say about it. :'(


Three more full reviews. Maybe tonight? I don't know. This is hard work.

Goldfrapp: Tales of Us (2013)



Once again, Goldfrapp has taken an unexpected turn -- the duo harnesses their restlessness and, as usual, makes something of it. There aren't many album-to-album transitions as drastic as that from the '80s pop radio pastiche of Head First to this somber record of love ballads, produced and performed as starkly as if they were recorded in some frigid, deserted bunker.

Tales of Us is driven by concept: each song is a name, and a story to accompany that name, and those stories and lyrics are varied and sophisticated while the songs themselves are consistent, airless, determinedly intimate. This is, obviously, closer to Felt Mountain than to Supernature, but Goldfrapp's never really done anything like it before. The songs' lush environment is almost classicist, like a faithful recording of standards. Those who prefer lively Goldfrapp may be put off a bit, but if Head First demonstrated that there were limits to nostalgic hedonism, at least Tales of Us proves that the band's songwriting chops are sharper than ever.

Alison Goldfrapp's vocals are the star in these muted, subtle recordings -- she's never shown more nuance or raw, perfect beauty; her work here is impressive and timeless, as if some encased embodiment of a performance of long ago. The songs rumble and even soar at times -- "Thea" kicks some dirt into the sullen mood, and all of the tracks build to expansive peaks -- but don't assert themselves over-emphatically. Goldfrapp expects you to do the work of exploring these characters and this moment, and while the result is more involving and heavy than the band's finest records, on the right moody dark night it's just as rewarding. As moping indulgence goes, it sure beats Zola Jesus or Bill Callahan.

Head First (2010)

Cut Copy: Free Your Mind (2013)



The transformation is complete. At this point, the band that recorded In Ghost Colours and was praised for their integration of backward dance-music elements in their indie guitar pop no longer remotely resembles a rock band. They're more like something you'd hear on a clubbing night with fellow consenting adults in 1989 or 1992, between hits by Pet Shop Boys, Madonna and -- fuck it -- Londonbeat. They're still unmistakably a modern Australian band that loves synthpop and disco, but their fearlessness separates them from, for instance, UK counterparts Hot Chip -- who are better songwriters but wouldn't dare release something this unapologetic.

Free Your Mind sheds, except for its title, the psych-rock zone-out effect of earlier Cut Copy albums, even if they claim this one was inspired by the Summer of Love. There's no question it's music about hedonism, but it looks in the right direction for hallmarks from "It's Alright" to "Rhythm Is a Dancer." Hard to say if any song strikes out full-bore like the emotionally indomitable "Take Me Out," or that any moment is so transcendent as the bridge of "Corner of the Sky," but what this album successfully does is spread out its bliss so that it's a consistent, melodic high. And never before has Dan Whitford sung a melody as beautiful as that of "Dark Corners & Mountain Tops" or produced a throwback as convincing as "Footsteps." Generally, Cut Copy present such a full-bodied joy here that it's hard to carp with anything.

Superficially, it'd be easy to dismiss this as Zonoscope Part 2, but for one thing, this has less filler and seems more focused even if the peaks are lower. The band's really expanded on their earlier ideas even if they haven't really altered their sound, per se. However, a comparison to Colours reveals an evolution so pronounced it's almost hard to believe we're still hearing the same old Whitford. Love is the mission of their hi-NRG pop, "Meet Me in a House Of..." and "Let Me Show You..." and their approach couldn't be less beholden to the whims of the outsider. The bold conceit of Free Your Mind is that if you don't already know and love the place Cut Copy's coming from, you won't get it, and they know a lot of people won't. As an exercise in nostalgia it's one thing, but as a simple expression of and response to the music one cares about most deeply, it's human and absorbing and as delightful as we could hope. Mining your influences and making something personal and genuinely sweet of them, well, that's kind of rock & roll, isn't it?

Zonoscope (2011)

Monday, December 16, 2013

MGMT (2013)



Now here's a band that's enjoyed a completely normal, ordinary career trajectory: sardonic earworm dance hits into wildly weird psychedelia into full-blown drugged-out rawk music. MGMT isn't as endearingly bizarre as Congratulations, but it rediscovers the joyful pop smarts in the duo's songcraft. Whereas their second album often resembled Arthur Lee's farther-out work, this one could occasionally pass for David Bowie or -- gulp -- Ram-era Paul McCartney.

It also has some of the most irritating garbage put out under the group's name so far. "Plenty of Girls in the Sea" probably belonged on a gag reel, and the second half generally is where the meandering Roky Erickson imitations go to die. But if any student of psych-rock from Oar to Tame Impala can't get behind "Introspection" and "Your Life Is a Lie," something's amiss; if anyone who dug "Kids" and "Time to Pretend" can't hear the delectable hooks and pleasures of "Cool Song No. 2" and "Alien Days," well, that just proves that unlike Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, those fans need a beat to survive, and fuck that.

My personal favorite track here -- and possibly the best in their strange catalog -- is the tremendously schlocky "A Good Sadness," which fully gets behind its dirge with a lot of blipping trappy keyboard stuff and thus gathers together every half-baked idea on the album into one inexplicably indelible one. That beats the Willy Wonkaisms of "I Love You Too, Death," but even on such an indulgent moment, I get a kick out of the obvious contrarian impulse and playfulness that drive the MGMT business plan.

Eagerly awaiting their album-length cover of the Beach Boys' Friends. That's where this is going, right!?

Arcade Fire: Reflektor (2013)



Don't wanna fight in a holy war
Don't want the salesmen knocking at my door
I don't wanna live in America no more

- Arcade Fire, 2007

When you look in the sky
Just try looking inside
God knows what you might find

- Arcade Fire, 2013

The theory of Reflektor is more enjoyable than the somewhat inexplicable glob of material it finally is. The sound of Haiti that's lurked under the surface from the beginning, the '70s reggae influence that hasn't, and the presence of James Murphy -- not my choice for a modern-day savior of dance, but not a clueless one either. Some of us have wanted Arcade Fire to make the disco album they've occasionally hinted they could for years now. Early glimpses of the title song and "We Exist" implied that this was what we were getting with the band's eagerly awaited fourth album. Both sparkle and bite while retaining a sense of the interplay and democracy that has made them such a wonderful entity for a decade now.

"Eagerly awaited" is a meaningless phrase at this point, for this band. Every album they've released has somehow proven bigger than the last, culminating in the #1 chart showing and Grammy win three years ago (jesus bloody christ) that assured us all that this was now a Major Band, with Major Responsibilities. The marketplace being what it is, this is about as big a deal as a rock group can possibly be today -- so from now on, every move Arcade Fire made would inspire bile and adulation in equal turns. The point was, everyone would have an opinion; it was now obligatory.

One has to admire the band to some degree for responding to their wave of massive success with so relentlessly offbeat a recording as this, but it's also understandable to feel somewhat disappointed. (The words of neither the passionate defenders nor the passionate skeptics are backed up all that well by the music, though the almost uniformly weak lyrics give some ammunition for the Other Side.) Hearing in fragments while driving (I have a short commute), I personally thought the thing was probably a revelation. Every song feels like one portion of a terrific whole, and you can sense a build of momentum. When actually sitting down and listening to both discs in tandem, what's odd is that the momentum is indeed there -- and never really builds to anything. There aren't any climaxes, apart from the two opening cuts; there's no moment of revealing, emotional peak. It seems to drive right back into itself.

If we must play into the double-album game, disc one has the four-on-the-floor and big ol' rock band stuff, though when you listen closely you'll find it's really quite muted. The most distinctive arrangements are sometimes fitted to less than stellar songwriting exercises ("Flashbulb Eyes," "Joan of Arc") and the indulgences of "Normal Person" -- the freshfaced, silly, obvious "anthem" so many critics have accused Arcade Fire of writing but that they never really have until now -- which sounds like something from a Garbage album are only partially offset by the straightforward charms of "Here Comes the Night Time" and "You Already Know." Still, these songs all have hooks and distinguish themselves individually. The parts being greater than the whole is hardly a unique or new problem for an honestly well-meaning rock band.

Unfortunately, that second disc is rather lethal. "It's Never Over" gets off its feet eventually, but "Porno" and "Afterlife" are rather poor excuses for catharsis, even if they're not exactly failures onto themselves. Reflektor earns its bloat from The Suburbs and its success. But while Suburbs had a good deal of filler, it also built to several peaks, in particular "Half Light II," "Suburban War," and "Sprawl II," that were as full-hearted, ecstatic and moving as anything from Funeral and Neon Bible. The record's best moments seemed to give the dross its point.

Now, there aren't really any peaks or any real celebratory moments. You could sequence this entirely differently and maybe convince someone it was a decent party album, a decent dance-rock album, or at least a decent groove album, but as it is, it undercuts its own charms by contributing an entire separate CD of grim, cantankerous despair. As much as it hurts, we must prepare to admit that Arcade Fire are preparing to become the next generation of Dad Rock. The Suburbs suggested that they might enter this phase of their undeniably illustrious career quite gracefully; Reflektor has me a bit worried.

To be perfectly clear, most of the songs on Reflektor have considerable merit, and they reward increased exposure. As much as my feelings on Reflektor have evolved through the year, I at least kind of like everything except for "Porno" and the dreadful "Normal Person." But the record is labored and -- given its obvious benchmarks in New Romantic synthpop and late '70s dance music -- remarkably joyless. It's as if U2 packaged their last truly bold record, Pop, and their wrongheaded decades-spanning apology for it on the same record. That's honestly not where I thought this band would be at this point; the bombast ought to still feel so much warmer.

Arcade Fire EP (2003)
Funeral (2004)
Neon Bible (2007)
The Suburbs (2010)