Saturday 11 January 2014

How Doris met Yeezus: The Music of 2013 in 19 Albums

2013 was a great year for music, although typical of me I spent the year like a boring rock academic listening to lots of old stuff, although who could blame me for having my year of "musical awakening" (don't all music fans need one?) this year and not having time for the stuff going on outside. I listened to the most talked about releases, although even they outnumbered me, and tried to make up for things with a month, last month, filled with getting through all my biggest blindspots of the year. Which is to say that below is what I can make out happened in 2013 music-wise, not that any of us really ever know what's happening right under our noses.

I didn't get around to everything. Beyonce released a surprise album in December and everyone ran around crazy like it wasn't almost customary this year to not tell anyone about your album until the day of release, although the surprise means I still haven't got around to what I hear is Beyonce's best album, or at least the farthest she's gotten from the mainstream. EDM had (another) good year, although it wasn't the familiar faces (does anyone even remember who Skrillex is anymore?) but some new players: both Discourse (with Settle) and Run The Jewels (with their self titled album) debuted this year, bringing back a Prodigy-esque rawness I've missed for a while. I didn't spend enough time with either to rank them below although listen to Discourse's When A Fire Start's To Burn for my best example of this returned rawness. From the perspective of someone who doesn't always give pop that much of a chance: pop had a good year this year, and not just in profits either. Justin Timberlake deserves an honorary badge for having his heart in the right place. From what I've heard of his album The 20/20 Experience it's more or less an overlong wreck, although it's also slow, soothing, faintly optimistic and everything else you don't associate with modern pop, and especially not Timberlake, which I guess is a sign, along with a few others, that some big pop stars are interested in making some good music.

Although don't think I'm stupid enough to think the music of the year would perfectly line up together. The music industry is more fractured than ever: pop is a whirlpool of nihilism (expect to see this word a lot throughout this post) and most of the big artists aren't any better, they're worse actually. There was no real competition between the artists this year (unless you count Jay-Z's Magna Carter Holy Grail as a failed attempt to make an artistic statement like Kanye West's Yeezus). No, instead everyone was in competition with themselves, everyone was releasing albums trying to prove they're not who we think they're are. David Bowie wanted to remind you he was still alive, Drake wanted you to know how much he had changed and even Fall Out Boy wanted to show what a mature band they've suddenly become. Things we're so aimed at the individual that both Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne released albums with nothing on the covers but their faces, and no actual album titles, just their own names. Although ignoring those last two, didn't ya hear: THE ALBUM'S BACK. Most of the albums this year work much better as a single experience than as individual songs plucked out of the original package, and some artists seemed more concerned with the end message than the journey, which going by this year's releases is a very good thing.

Below is the 19 (sorry for the awkward number) albums of the year I most vividly remember, at least enough to comment on, starting with stuff I didn't think was all that great. I did originally plan this post as a mega-list of every album I could get my hand's on, but upon writing I came to the realization that it's quite hard to write about an album you yawned all the way through, so everything below did at least something right. If your one of those people who hates listing the quality of art/consumerist products then just ignore the numbers behind each title, either way, here's what I thought the music of 2013 was:

19. Katy Perry - Prism
Perry's PR team in particular deserve a big well done for spending a whole year making the right moves. Not long after Miley Cyrus (and there's another album to get around to)'s racy VMA performance aired came the video of Prism's lead single Roar where Perry appeared fully clothed in a jungle setting giving off the "strong independent woman" vibe. She's a great role model figure, which has become such a rarity that she deserves nothing but praise for that alone. Her album's as serviceable and successful in delivering the catchy beats and positive lyrics that most pop albums set out to do, without even attempting anything else.

The best tracks are "Birthday" and "International Smile". The first is a sexy tease that borders the line of innuendo ("pop your confetti/I'll give you a taste/Make it like your birthday everyday") and the latter being pure pop enthusiasm, with even an airplane announcer half way through to remind you to "Please fasten your seat-belts/And make sure your champagne glasses are empty" just to remind you this whole album is a tranquil flight were you'll be catered to as much as you'd like. I won't overly praise Perry because I don't believe she created any great artistic creation this year, and it's possible she'll never aim to, but her songs are catchy and her lyrics are the same nice sounding yet ultimately meaningless stuff that made up many early Beatles tunes. It's telling that the biggest mishap of the album is the biggest deviation from formula with a track called Dark Horse that guest stars a rapper you've never heard of called Juicy J.

18/17. Deafheaven - Sunbather/ My Bloody Valentine - mbv
If your thinking my putting of both Sunbather and mbv in the same slot is a criticism of "noise music" all sounding the same, then I must say that isn't the case: I know very little about the history of noise music beyond previous MBV albums and Sonic Youth, I know even less about "Black Metal" which Deafheaven characterize themselves as, and I'm taking an all too presumptuous guess and thinking that the average member of the "mainstream" will know even less than me about both, which asserts that noise music had little to no influence on the musical scene this year.

Not that these albums don't deserve praise, especially as both divert what you might expect going in. mbv (and it took me a depressingly long amount of time to put together what the abbreviated album title meant) did a u-turn on all the people who know the band primarily from "Only Shallow" than anything else. This album is actually a slower, more relaxing path down transcendent noise music, think dipping your feet into a gently mulling stream or slowly floating upwards into the clouds, and nothing like the more aggressive sounds of Loveless their last album (y'know, the one from 22 years ago). While Sunbather, from the complete zilch I know about Black Metal, turned away from the genre, probably aided by the fact the album has no lyrics (I've already written about it inspiring me to listen to Metal Machine Music - which must count for something) but also by the relaxing feeling created by the beautifully endless onslaught the album creates. The word in the year of noise music was: relaxing.

16. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
If your looking for an at least educated guess of a look into where rock is, and where it's headed, then look at the delicacy of Vampire Weekend. If the worst rock of the last 10 years has been bad simply because of it's poor imitations of long gone hair rockers and a cock rocker attitude we all thought we'd left behind in the 80s, then I'll say that the current rock underground, which feels fragile both in it's music which sound's so sweet and tuneful they could fit it into children's TV shows and Wes Anderson movies, and it's lyrics which sometimes take a subject like teeth or the use of grammar and seem to revel in making a serious song about something insignificant, is at least an interesting direction for rock to go in.

As for the album itself, I liked the style although the album itself only did something with it for occasional patches of the duration. Yet when Vampire Weekend get it right they hit a bone of emotion you thought you'd lost when you stopped being a kid. There is a beautiful simplicity to "Step", the beat ting tings along without any shuffle to urgency and the distortion of Ezra Koenig's vocals seems like such an unspectacular trick it works because of it's playfulness with the basic's of studio manipulation. Modern Vampires of the City wasn't close to being my favorite album of the year but in it's best moments it had such an untouched sense of youthful emotion, of playfulness, and the band has a style that's all to itself, that I just have to recommend it.

15. Earl Sweatshirt - Doris
Rap, when talking about artists, is the most connected of all genres. Rappers become mentors and producers to each other, they compete with each other to the point they have highly publicized "feuds", and they group together to make rap that bounces to the same beat. The current new kids on the block all seem connected to Odd Future, the rap collective, who as a group haven't done that much of worth, but twisting that logic on it's head they have have as solo artists gave us some of the best, or the most talked about albums of recent years. The obvious prodigal child of "Odd Future" is Frank Ocean, although it's Tyler, The Creator who's set himself up as the friendly face. Yet Earl Sweatshirt caused the most noise this year with an album that continued modern rap into the slow confessional it's been headed to for a while. Sweatshirt can be aggressive, but it's when he comes out with a line like "It's probably been twelve years since my father left, left me fatherless/And I just used to say I hate him in dishonest jest" that the real beauty of Doris comes out.

Doris is good, but it doesn't live up to hype. It deals more than anything with the act of it's own creation, what seems to be this years most loved lyrical topic, and there is very little to get out of individual tracks, instead leaving Doris as an album best heard in one sitting if only to hear the slight shifts in mood and tone that mean very little when you pluck them out of context. It's a tense and focused album, and as quoted above it has wonderfully human moments, just not enough to ever get much of a real picture of who Sweatshirt is, or why it is exactly that people keep saying he's great.

14. David Bowie - The Next Day
The Rolling Stones turned 50 in 2012 and suddenly everyone woke up and realized this whole music thing is an old man's game, or rock 'n' roll is to be exact. The Stones are touring, and seem to be on better form than they've been in years, The Beach Boys are still singing about surfing (even if they're clearly not doing the surfing anymore) and this year sing-songwriters of the old variety wanted to show more than anything else that they were simply still alive and rocking as good as before. Everything about The Next Day has a very "I'm back, baby" feel to it, from the very title which is Bowie powering through any rumored health problems and what has been a 10 year musical silence, and the front cover which over pins the new title over the cover of 1978's Heroes cover, as if Bowie was trying to tell us he's still capable of things just as great. Although Bowie's biggest influence of the year was the album's release, which came out of nowhere and spelled out a new way for big artists to release albums, which turned out to be one of the rare things music fans and business execs agree on.

As for the album, it's nothing if not living up to it's simple promise that Bowie can still rock, with fast guitars and a smooth production which makes everything, even Bowie's vocals (undiminished), take up the same share on the album. Bowie's lyrics are all encompassing - you still believe this disc could be sent from the future with Bowie the only man left on earth - with the highlight being "Valentine's Day" which tells a simple story of a romance filled desire quickly turning bitter. It deserves a spot in the Bowie cannon, which has never gave us two albums the same and still hasn't.

13. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
I find it funny, maybe even a little ironic, although certainly depressing in a sense too, that what has been pegged as, and what most likely is "the most important rock album of the year" is also the most traditional. The influence of big ambitious 70s rock, and even a little sonic Bowie (who even appears on the album as if to drive the influence home) makes the album sound almost too indebted to the past to be hugely important to the now.

The album's biggest problem seems to be it's knowledge of it's own "importance" (as has killed many fine artists but don't seem to be killing Arcade Fire just yet) with it's best moments being the straight up rockers ("We Exist") the very clear cries to alienation ("Normal People") and the more tuneful tracks (husband and wife duet "Joan of Arc") while the album is at it's lowest in long drawn out repetition-fests ("Porno", "Afterlife") and pseudo-art tracks that are really long spans of nothingness ("Supersymmetry") which makes the case for Arcade Fire being a band with a great sense of a fun beat and relatable lyrics - the first of their four albums to make me think they possess the skills to do with either - and a band who, at least while they're youthful and have the world at their feet, have the decision themselves whether their next album will be "important" or good.

12. Paul McCartney - New
As I said before: it's an old man's game, or it is at least easier than ever for older musician's to release new music and not simply get passed aside as stuff only for the hardcore fans. McCartney fits the bill of the older performer like a well worn glove, mainly because Paul never felt that new in the first place. He was always the Beatle perfect for making a Christmas song or starting a group with his wife, which is maybe why he's seems so natural in his appearances now.

This friendliness has never stopped me from ignoring poor old Paul who always seemed the most interested in releasing some new stuff and the least interested in some sort of artistic growth. This is all true for New, which is a great album in it's complete acceptance of McCartney's blankness as an artist. What you get here is a collection of fast, youthful pop songs that touch on the longings of love and are almost a celebration of McCartney's life so far, with a song like Early Days about that band he was in. It's as smooth and catchy as anything he's ever done, and has more warmth and familiarity (sometimes needed) than other album here.

11. Arctic Monkeys - AM
It's only getting harder to tell how popular/loved the Arctic Monkeys are. Many original fans didn't even bother with AM, they gave up a few albums ago, yet NME named AM album of the year (the review named it rock album of the decade). It got the Monkeys in the charts for the first time in years yet the album itself was nowhere to be found in the critical discussion. Yet AM is an automatic success because it brings the Monkeys out of a wobbly transitional period and shows (finally) some real signs of growth: the songs here, many of them more straight up longings for love than Turner has ever given us ("Secrets I have held in my heart/Are harder to hide than I thought") have a Hendrix-esque otherworldliness that mixes with the Monkeys' new neon lit street poetry style perfectly.

Do I Wanna Know takes the band into their Hendrix/Zeppelin guitar influences, although faster and with more of the hip hop influence that was said to be in their pervious albums although never fully materialized. No.1 Party Anthem makes the case for Turner as Lou Reed's successor in creating beauty out of an un-beautiful world, and I Wanna Be Yours is dank poetry, originally written by John Cooper Clarke (a perfect fit) and shows a band working in tandem with each other like few bands can do anymore. AM is the faster, looser side to their other previous Josh Homme produced album Humbug, itself a sign of growth but too much of a turn away from traditional Monkeys, which AM never strays too far away from.

10. Lorde - Pure Heroin
Scratch that bit about an old man's game, because the young people were here in swarms, for the first time in years - which I guess means if your a crank who's used to complaining about how the kids these days don't even have a culture to one day reminisce about then you can rejoice at the fact there seems to be some pressure back on artists to say something, and an actual culture, which isn't predicted but is actually outside your door brewing away right now. Lorde, by making music almost exclusively about the self-obsession and dreams of grandeur that occupy more space in the heads of her (my) generation than they should, has become one the best oppositions to the plague of narcissism we're currently stuck in. I know I, in full knowledge of such a generation wide problem suffer from such problems anyway. And I bet Lorde does too, which only adds to the greatness of her darkly moody anti-pop.

As for Pure Heroin, the album sounded good on first listen although has only seemed to get better and better since. PH gets my vote as the best lyrical work of the year (Take your pick: "we're driving Cadillacs in our dreams", " am only as young as the minute is full of it", "We live in cities you'll never see on screen", countless others) while the soothing backing tracks fit the void of an empty world presented in Lorde's words perfectly. I'll stand by my original assertion that Lorde isn't saying things that are as smart as she thinks they are, I mean isn't it almost mandatory for each generation to turn on themselves eventually? Yet I think Lorde is as smart as she thinks she is, and this album, as good a debut as any, is the living proof.

9. King Krule - 6 Feet Beneath the Moon
Another of the many younglings to make a big deal this year, and to gather a strange amount of mainstream attention for such a (what one would think to be) a hard to market act. KK recalls a boozy slurred style of singing - it wouldn't be strange for you to get the image of Joe Strummer from The Clash in your head - and songwriting which also has has an old British rustic vibe to it with KK singing about his "baby blues" while finding time to hate on the cops. What's so strange, and what answers a question I've been hoping would be answered for a very long time with an answer the complete opposite of what I was expecting, is that KK and this album itself show that older style music, as well as straight-up singer-songwriter stylists, and guitar soloists, not only sound perfectly fine in the framework of modern music, but also seems to appeal to a young audience too.

The first time I listened to the album I focused entirely on the faster, more aggressive tracks (lead single Easy Easy and the brilliantly police-siren mimicking anger of A Lizard State) although it's really the softer parts of the album where the music, and the lyrics, come into their own, and make the case for KK as such an exciting artist and lyricist ("Edging closer/You swing my way/I've got no chance/And nothing to say/But stay/Here for a while/Baby blue").

8. Pusha T - My Name is My Name
I'll be the first to admit, predicting we're all in the same boat here, that we all listened to My Name is My Name because of Kanye West, who produced the album, and who met Pusha through his G.O.O.D Music label. It continues a trend, most likely spurred on by the breakthrough success of Kendrick Lamar, of violent street rap. I suppose some would call this gangsta rap but that ignores the more personal side to Lamar and Pusha and the Odd Future gang, who have spent the last few years spinning rhymes that could easily be interpreted as shock tactics but are more than anything else a clear response to the over commercialization of rap in the mainstream in the last few years.

My Name is My Name sounds like what everyone else expected West's Yeezus would sound like when every critic branded it "minimalistic". The production, angry and raw, organically fits itself around Pusha's lines, as if they're scared of the man himself. Pusha is one of the best rappers working now, nothing even to do with his flow, but simply in his ability to ignite great aggression in his voice without even having to do anything more than calmly plod through the lines where some rappers would go into override trying to summon some inner scary. No album this year managed to sustain a focused, and very claustrophobic vibe throughout like this one did. Plus MNiMN is the best case there's ever been that there's no such thing as "too many guests" on an album, being that only two tracks go without them.

7. Kurt Vile - Wakin' on a Pretty Daze
Am I guilty of this already discussed nihilism for hoping, after first discovering Wakin' on a Pretty Daze when it was released early in the year, that no-one else would find it and it would be my niche discovery of the year. Yeah I know, it's wrong, and in the end I'm happy Pretty Daze ended up on almost every year-end list I could find. Vile himself is a unique singer-songwriter, his music is a mix of spiritually transcendent psychedelic musings and piercing beats of his guitar, and from what I've heard this is his best disc yet.

Walkin on a Pretty Daze plays well to it's title being a calm and at times relaxing collection of songs, his lyrics are like long form meditations on simple subjects, many of the songs quite long, long enough to let the rhythm set in and allow you to get lost in the haze of the tune and the lyrics.

6. Eminem - The Marshall Mathers LP2
This is what Eminem sounds like when the pressure's off. He doesn't have much capital in the political scene anymore (I think he about shocked everyone out 10 years ago) and expectations aren't on him to be the pioneer of hip hop anymore. That's not to say he doesn't have any more interesting music to make or anything left to say, but Em's finally not the guy in the spotlight. LP2 feels free and loose, the most Em's ever felt, and the song's he wriggles out of it are the best since The Eminem Show back in 2002. That's why - infuriating to many - Em went back to offensive language and stories of family killing, because right from the album's title this is Eminem accepting what he's good at, no relapses or recoveries needed to get off his chest anymore, and making some great music, nothing more.

And where to begin with the album. It's a kaleidoscope of different sounds: some disturbing and very self-conscious storytelling in "Bad Guy", some grand showing off in "Rap God", some fast paced pop in "Survival", some traditional controversy loving Em in "So Much Better", even some fame hating hilarity (and singing) in "So Far...". LP2's got skits, Zombie's samples, Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna, and everything a hip hop album needs really. Few albums jump out at you with their greatness like this one does.

5. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
People went a little ga ga over Daft Punk this year, which surprised me being that this was their first album since 2005's critically trashed Human After All, although it's good that they did. RAM was treated as a jolt to the system of today's EDM, that same EDM these same daft punks inspired over 10 years ago, with it's focus on live musicians and 70s influenced disco weirdness.

When reviewing the album Sasha Frere-Jones, who gets my imaginary award of music journalist of the year, asked whether good music had to be good. The answer was obviously no. RAM is testament to that, with it's 9 minute long interview track with 70s music pioneer Giorgio Moroder, it's melodramatic stories of robot emotions, and it's feedback heavy story of an astronaut's descent, although all with the well meaning mission to "Give Life Back to Music", which it does: being half electro avant-garde and half the rejected EDM parts of Michael Jackson's Thriller.

4. Chance The Rapper - Acid Rap
Mix tapes didn't reach the mainstream this year but they've started becoming so big that their place in the market has become blurred with that of albums, which is why Chance The Rapper, on his second outing, became such a big deal with Acid Rap. It's the most goofy, enthusiastic rap in years.

Acid Rap sounds so loose it's unreal. The guest stars don't even sound like big stars, they sound like Chance's goofy high school friends who found out he was making a mix tape and tagged along. He chants "na na na" as a beat, and it sounds as ridiculous as someone doing it in real life, even more so, but it's innocence, as unsuspecting as this whole album, makes it great. He doesn't even seem to care about much, he just wants to get high listening to his favorite songs, pack in smoking and become a famous rapper. Lets hope he does all three.

3. Drake - Nothing Was The Same
The first time I heard NWTS I thought it was the worst album I'd ever heard. The second time I heard it I thought it was one of the best I'd ever heard. What I think of it now rests somewhere between those two extremes, although closer to the latter.

Drake is the quintessential artist of the times, his lyrics speak of the moment: they are quick ins into the man's life, as short and pointless by themselves as any tweet when removed from whoever posted it, although said in the belief that we are not only willing to listen to Drake talk about himself but that we'll be very interested in it. That's all Drake's about, and that's why the production backing NWTS is the perfect sound to go with Drake - the thing that most put me off his previous albums. One could call the production raw or minimalistic although this isn't really what NWTS is aiming for, instead it's just as empty and of the moment as it's creator.

The first track on the album, and the best Drake has ever done, is Tuscan Leather which even after frequent listens I can't recall whatsoever. The music is structureless, changing to match Drake's flow, and Drake's lyrics don't mean much more than hearing them. Another highlight is Started from the Bottom where Drake sings "We started from the bottom, now we're here" on repeat. The reason I hated the album at first, and this song at first, is because the music, the beat, sounded so empty and not only joyless but lacking in even sadness or anger or anything. Although that's the whole point. It's a production as empty yet excited by itself as the line, and all the more telling for it. Drake music is about nothing but Drake, although this album - with fantastic if not instantaneous results - is the first album all about Drake.

2. Savages - Silence Yourself
Now here's an "important" rock album. The fact that most people have compared Savages to Joy Division and Nirvana and meant it as a bad thing that their influences aren't hidden confused me a lot, as who wouldn't want more of either. Yet Jehnny Beth doesn't seem as tortured as Ian Curtis or Kurt Cobain (although reports say she's just as intense on stage) so the similarities are more in the deep-cutting baselines and what one might call a depressing vibe. Savages are post-punk, although their wall of sound and yelping vocals (apparently inspired by pornography) have an industrial vibe.

The front cover features a manifesto in which the band tells you to "shut up" which I at first saw as a big headed view of their work as "artists" (which I still view it as) although works better as a message on modern life and our inability to see anything for what it really is when we're whizzing past it so fast. The album is like that too, hiding it's pleasures away and only making them clear when you give the album time, listening for what's really there. The atmosphere here, added to by a moody instrumental, is like spending a nightmare in a deserted city where all color has been drained, running through it, although not wanting to leave.

This isn't the future of rock, and people not liking this album won't just have to do with them not following the manifesto but with a band that has a very unforgiving no bullshit style, which isn't for everybody, but is needed every once in a while. Either way, it's very hard not to see this debut as a tease of great things to come.

1. Kanye West - Yeezus
Getting into Lester Bangs this year, I have begun to see Bangs as a dark mirror of the rock stars of his time. Of Lou Reed. Of Keith Richards. Of the leather jacket wearing now-megastars who made drugs look so cool. He was the natural conclusion to the bad things in a culture everyone blindly believed was great. Lou Reed and Keith Richards did something to the world and the world did something to Lester Bangs, maybe because as a part of being a writer and reporter of the happenings of the times he let the world do these things to him. I say these things because the gossip cultures, the fans blind with envy, and the 10 million dollar pay checks floating around that one mtv interview has done something to the celebrities of today, and they have done something to Kanye West, simply because he's let them.

West is the twisted fantasy of modern culture brought to life, and West is egging us all on to egg him on, what else could a line like "Eatin' Asian pussy, all I need is sweet and sour sauce" be other than West, alone in his head, yelling "HATE ME, HATE ME, HATE ME PLEASE" to all those people who continue to buy his music and rank it as the best of any given year. That's all Yeezus is, alone in Kanye West's head, but projected through a thousand speakers at once if he could have his way. It's tense and claustrophobic and fun and sad, and it's all very melodramatic and not at all "minimalistic" as so many people labeled it.

Oh how I could gush over this album all day. New Slaves sounds like the soundtrack from a horror movie and has West's most straightforward response to racism yet, then all of a sudden a beautiful melody breaks out and it's Frank Ocean singing to us. In Blood on the Leaves West samples a 60s version of anti-racism song Strange Fruits and uses it to craft a story a story of infidelity and his oh so cliche hatred of fame. On I Am God he takes his life-as-performance-art to it's farthest extreme, claiming he's god and waiting for his damn croissants! All these things, and every other song on the album I could describe to you could easily sound like utter trash, over produced and highly offensive trash, although they're all the reasons I loved this album. It's not even close this being my album of the year, or West being my favorite modern musician, hell, this is one of the best albums I've heard from any year.


1. I understand lists like this are subjective, and not only subjective between each person but subjective within each person, as albums that work better as whole experiences will stick in your mind better than a great collection of songs, even if you find more worth in the collection than the more well rounded album.

2. Bound 2 by Kanye West? Wonder 2 by My Bloody Valentine? Foreign 2 by King Krule? What the fuck is going on here?

3. Above is the proof this was the comeback year for cover art.

4. A big R.I.P to Lou Reed who we lost this year and will go down in history as one of the most important rock musicians ever. The other day my mum dragged me around a Homebase and Reed's Walking on the Wild Side was playing through the store, which made me smile.

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