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?


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


Jonathan Bell said...

Jim Guthrie and the National make your list? Respect +1.

Josiah Hatfield said...

@JonathanBell You a Jim Guthrie fan? I know very little about him as an artist but listened through that album a lot this year. You make any lists?