Monday, December 16, 2013

Best Albums of 2013 (Albums 10-1)

What a fantastic year for music. While 2012 lacked any classic albums in my opinion (Frank Ocean being the exception), my top five of 2013 will most likely go down as long-time favorites. With releases promised from stalwarts Local Natives, Iron & Wine, Arcade Fire, the National, and Vampire Weekend, the year looked promising. While not all of the old-timers followed through as hoped, there were enough unexpected resurgences from low lying bands and a few stellar releases from new comers to make a top twenty list difficult to hammer out. Oh, and who even knows what to do with Beyonce... she may make an appearance on next year's list.

Enough said. Yesterday's blog started the list with albums 20-11. And this blog finishes out the list with my favorite ten albums from the year.

10. The National - Trouble Will Find Me
As usual, The National gave us a sad, melancholy album. Only this time there's some humor thrown in there. When they consistently produce such great music, it's easy to forget just how good these guys are. There's some great songs in here and, as always, their sound is so full and rich.
9. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
Perhaps the most anticipated album of the year, Arcade Fire wasn't afraid to take their music in new directions, adding some Haitian-influenced sounds and letting James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem) add some of his dance-beat influences. While I got a little bored with the Orpheus allusions, Reflektor, Normal Person, and Here Comes the Night Time are rather brilliant. It's saying something when a band's "worst" album is still one of the best albums of the year.
8. Mikal Cronin - MCII
OK, I'm going to be honest. I don't know a lot about Cronin. He's a singer/songwriter and his music is good. And I listened to it a lot this year.
7. Cayucas - Bigfoot
I have a loose connection to this band (a former student/friend's brother who plays). So that's what initially drew my attention to this Californian act. They got roasted by a few critics but I absolutely loved this album. I wasn't coming to this album with any expectations on changing my life but, taking it as it is, it's an absolute West-coast blast.
6. Josh Ritter - The Beast in its Tracks
I could say a lot on this one but I'll keep it short and not comment his Messiah concert (though you should try to see him play live). Ritter has a lot of albums out there. His last album bored me and I was starting to drift away. But The Beast in its Tracks was stripped down and rich with emotion. I totally dug his ability to reflect on his life (including a semi-recent divorce) in an honest manner.
5. Kanye West - Yeezus
Yeezus may be the most controversial album on the list. Kanye is, in my and many others' opinion, crazy and brilliant. He's the best at producing rap albums. His samples are crazy and they work and they don't get old with repeated listens. Yeezus dives into some crazy new sounds with an industrial vibe on one song, then random screams on the next. And the Justin Vernon and Frank Ocean features are beautiful. Lyrically, there's a lot to unpack. Most songs include elements of sexual fantasy for Kanye, making for a difficult listen. But then he'll give a super interesting comment on modern racism (such as New Slaves) or deal with self-loathing (such as Hold My Liquor) the next song. Regardless, Kanye brought his game again and isn't settling in any way.
4. James Blake - Overgrown
I can't say that James Blake's Overgrown is wildly different from his first LP. But that's not a bad thing. Blake's layered R&B vocals are gorgeous. Contrary to just about everyone else's opinion, I loved the RZA feature on Take a Fall for Me and Retrograde was a great single. Blake made a great album from front to back.
3. Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience
JT makes great pop music. With an average track length of seven minutes or so, he's also not afraid to play around a bit with his music, adding a few minutes of outros on most songs. The 20/20 Experience had some fantastic singles in Suit & Tie and Mirrors. And tracks Let the Groove Get In and Strawberry Bubblegum round out what I think could be more great singles. Unfortunately, Part 2 of the Experience didn't quite match the first half. But, that's another conversation.
2. Chvrches - The Bones of What You Believe
I tried really hard not to like this band. They had a lot of hype based off of a just a few tracks. Jorje and I caught part of their set at FreeFest and they played a solid show and were thoroughly likeable though they didn't blow my mind. I thought they might just pass by unnoticed. I was wrong. The sugary pop of their sound is tempered with the lead vocalist's sweet maturity. Every other track is single-worthy. Aaaand, I listen to this album a lot.
1. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut came with about as much baggage as an indie-band can bring. They had an overwhelming amount of hype before their first album even dropped. Their highly literate and over the top privileged white-guy lyrical content, various world music influences, and East Coast prep-school image solidified them as 2008’s most strikingly quintessential “indie-band.” They were both praised and mocked for their catchy lyrics and hooks. Regardless of one’s opinion of them, it was music that anyone could listen to.

Fast-forward two years later to VW’s release of Contra. Debuted at number one. Tracks Horchata, Cousins, and Giving Up the Gun were as catchy as ever. I was bored by a few tracks here and there but overall it was a great album. It also solidified them as indie stalwarts albeit, I would contend, continuing careers as masters of pop rather than depth.

With the announcement of a new album in 2013, I heavily anticipated the album alongside a number of other heavy-hitters in the first half of the year, wondering which band would bring their A-game.

VW easily earned my favorite album of the year. In years past, I have chosen albums that have been good (some great) for the top spot but very well knew it may not be the “objectively” best album of the year but rather held a place near my heart. While it’s impossible to single out an album as “objectively the best,” I would contend that this is the best produced, written, meaning-filled, and catchy album of the year.

Modern Vampires of the City continues VW’s penchant for creating unique yet relatable hooks and songs you find yourself humming later on that day. The production isn’t extremely out of line with their previous albums but it’s just… better, more focused, and completely relevant to each and every song.

What they’ve added to their arsenal is a level of depth found in their lyrics that results in themes including growing up, religion, death, and independence. They sound like clich├ęs in a review but the ease in which VW broaches the subjects are refreshing and in no way come off as their “mature” album simply for the sake of it being their third album.

First single, Diane Young, approaches death and old age with lyrics “Nobody knows what the future holds on / Said it’s bad enough just getting old” and stand-out Step says, “Wisdom’s a gift, but you’d trade it for youth / Age is an honor – it’s still not the truth.” An obvious levity is present. And that’s not including the Psalm-like Ya Hey or Hannah Hunt.

I consistently come back to this album like it’s a comfort food, yet a healthy one. I listen when I need a pick-me-up, when I want to rock out, when I’m looking for something to challenge me.

A move in this direction begs the questions of, what’s next for these indie-superstars? What year will they dominate next in “Best Of” lists?

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As always, it's been a pleasure. Let me know your thoughts.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Best Albums of 2013 (Albums 20-11)

What a fantastic year for music. While 2012 lacked any classic albums in my opinion (Frank Ocean being the exception), my top five of 2013 will most likely go down as long-time favorites. With releases promised from stalwarts Local Natives, Iron & Wine, Arcade Fire, the National, and Vampire Weekend, the year looked promising. Many of albums 20-11 are sophomore releases - making it difficult not to play the comparison game. While not all of the old-timers followed through as hoped, there were enough unexpected resurgences from low lying bands and a few stellar releases from new comers to make a top twenty list difficult to hammer out.

Enough said. Here we have my favorite twenty albums from the year 2013. In this blog we have albums 20-11 and tomorrow's blog will finish out the list with albums 10-1.
20. The Head and the Heart - Let's Be Still
With their sophomore album, The Head and the Heart brought more of their great indie-folk. While not a dramatic departure from their first album, Let's Be Still provided enough variety to make the follow-up worth my listen on a regular basis.
 19. Sigur Ros - Kveikur
Sigur Ros's previous album, Valtari, was a total sleeper. Although they are a beloved band of mine, I thought they might be on a trajectory to fade away into my music past. So with the release of Kveikur, I was thrilled with how Sigur Ros brought a new driving, percussive sound that maintained their "Sigur Ros-ness" yet explored some new sounds. I loved the sound and tracks such as Isjaki could even be construed as singles.
18. Youth Lagoon - Wondrous Bughouse
Critics loved this guy yet I was left a little wanting. There was some great layering and Trevor Powers' vocals are as distant/intimate as ever yet I was put off by some of the trippy aspects of the album. So I was distanced from connecting with the entire album as a whole. With that said, the good parts are really good and demand attention.
17. Lucious - Wildewoman
Lucious stopped by Messiah in the Spring as a part of the B-Sides series (free shows every Wednesday!) in what was one of my favorite acts of the year. It's impossible to talk about this band without talking about the lead singers - two vocalists, singing as one. These ladies sound incredible and the rest of the band brings a sense of pop that feels nostalgic without merely being a "throwback" band.
16. City and Colour - The Hurry and the Harm
I was unaware of this Canadian artist until this year when I saw them at FreeFest in September. They put on a solid live-set but more than anything, they've been my go-to band for early mornings and basically anytime I've needed a slow down. The lead vocalist's vocals are so warm and inviting, it's hard to pass up.
15. Surfer Blood - Pythons
OK, I absolutely loved Surfer Blood's first album and had pretty high expectations. Upon initial listens, I was fairly underwhelmed, feeling as though the band had lost some of its beach vibe and sounding more Vans Tour. I don't know if it was a desire for the album to work or if I worked through my preset expectations but I kept coming back to this album and let it be it's own. While not my favorite album of all time, I have faith in the young band and hope to see more of them in the future.
14. Lorde - Pure Heroine
I don't think I'm going to add anything to what's already been written. Lorde is young, different, authentic, and from New Zealand. The production is minimalistic and wonderful. So yes, I buy into her music. Kind of like a better Lana del Ray.
13. Jim Guthrie - Takes Time
I first heard some Jim Guthrie's music on NPR's All Songs Considered. I was happy to find that his latest album was full of joyful folk songwriting that garnered a considerable number of listens throughout the year.
12. Phoenix - Bankrupt!
While Phoenix has been around the indie-pop scene for a while, their last album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, broke heavily into the mainstream music arena. I believe Bankrupt! followed a similar path of style as my own. Wolfgang was a party in itself, pausing every now and then for a drink of water. Bankrupt! certainly has it's jams (Entertainment, S.O.S in Bel Air) but it has a more subdued demeanor throughout with great tracks like Chloroform and Trying to be Cool.
11. Local Natives - Hummingbird
I had a lot of expectations coming into this one. Gorilla Manor was a dear friend. Moving onto Hummingbird, it felt like a matured sound compared to their breakout. While I missed some of the exuberance, there was an added depth that rewarded repeated listens and indicated a good direction for the band. Oh, and I was able to see them live again and they haven't lost anything.

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Feel free to leave comments. Top ten albums coming soon!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Best Songs of 2013

It seems as though this summer was especially full of jams. Between the never-ending run of Blurred Lines at number one (not included), the introduction of Lorde and her minimalist Royals, and the return of Daft Punk with their single, Get Lucky, the summer had a lot going on.

The year also included Miley and Kanye making a little bit of a splash on the scene. We can't forget the indie-darlings Haim and Chvrches, the folk contributions from City and Colour and Josh Ritter, and a few off-kilter rap releases from Drake, Earl Sweatshirt and Danny Brown.

All in all, some great releases from a variety of artists. Feel free to listen through the list on Spotify. Be advised, a number of the tracks contain some R-rated material.

Here are my thirty-three favorite songs of 2013. Enjoy and let me know what you think.

35. Justin Timberlake - Take Back the Night
34. James Blake (feat. RZA) - Take a Fall for Me
33. Earl Sweatshirt - Chum
32. The Avett Brothers - Another is Waiting
31. Phoenix - Chloroform
30. Mikal Cronin - Peace of Mind
29. Drake - Started from the Bottom
28. Josh Ritter - New Lover
27. City and Colour - The Hurry and the Harm
26. Volcano Choir - Tiderays
25. Kanye West - Blood on the Leaves
24. Chvrches - Recover
23. Youth Lagoon - Dropla
22. Justin Timberlake - Mirrors
21. Tegan and Sara - Closer
20. Sigur Ros - Isjaki
19. Lucious - Hey, Doreen
18. Washed Out - It All Feels Right
17. Local Natives - Colombia
16. Vampire Weekend - Ya Hey
15. Miley Cyrus - Wrecking Ball
14. Cayucas - High School Lover
13. Small Black - Free at Dawn
12. Neko Case - Man
11. Jim Guthrie - Taking My Time
10. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
9. Kanye West - New Slaves
8. Haim - The Wire
7. Lorde - Royals
6. James Blake - Retrograde
5. Justin Timerlake (feat. Jay-Z) - Suit & Tie
4. Vampire Weekend - Diane Young
3. Chvrches - The Mother We Share
2. Josh Ritter - Joy to You Baby
1. Daft Punk (feat. Pharrell Williams) - Get Lucky