Every year I spend doing this list I say to myself “Why bother, no one reads all this”, and rightly so I guess? Why would anyone care what I think – and being so longwinded on top of it all? So every time I start this list I intend fully to simplify. But in the end, the complete opposite happens. And on top of it all I stress about getting it all done – over something most people don’t even read at all (are you even reading this?!) – even though I started working on this in late August, and now it’s the middle of November as I finally wrap it up. I guess it’s the excitement of sharing or something that drives me to do this? Or maybe I’m just bored. Who knows. I think it’s the former. Hopefully. And because I’m tired and actually have some other things to attend to – I am going to quote myself from last year for most of the rest of this introduction. Oh and one more thing I want to add before I get to quoting myself – my favorite songs of the year? Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’, Chvrches’ ‘Gun’ and My Bloody Valentine’s ‘New You’. What I wouldn’t give to hear MBV cover ‘Roar’, and even for Katy Perry to cover ‘New You’. That is potential brilliance right there, my friends. Ok …. quoting myself now … “So, here you go, my favorite albums of the year. I guess technically they are what I consider to be “the best”, but by saying that it means these then have to be put in some sort of order, and quantified some way. But I really can’t do that. Depending on the mood of the day, each one of these albums is “the best” at one time or another, so really out of all the albums I’ve listened to over the past year, these are my go to albums – my favorites – my “desert island discs” of sorts. I’ve shared one track from each album as well, songs that I think not only represent what is great about the entire album, but what may spark an interest in you to checking out the whole thing, because to me they are all worth your time and quite rewarding indeed. Enjoy with aloha, and as always, turn it WAY the hell up, and for crying out loud use headphones. Laptop speakers = death.”
CHVRCHES THE BONES OF WHAT YOU BELIEVE GLASSNOTE
When I find new bands online who have a really fantastic first song I tend to be more cautious with my excitement than I used to, because usually the follow up songs tend to disappoint. When I first heard ‘Lies’ and ‘The Mother We Share’ in December, I was quite blown away by the melodies, the quiet presence of their live performance, just everything was perfection. But I was still cautious even as I had the gut feeling these three had the goods for long term stability as there was just something really special in how easy it all seemed to come for them. Then came ‘Recover’ – brilliant. And then came ‘Gun‘ – just absolute perfection. How does one even describe it without sounding like a complete jack ass? If a pop song can be hard hitting – this was it. And to hear the singer convey this emotion of being so madly passionate about someone, but at the same time – as much as it may pain her – being able to go after them with all they have for whatever harm they had done, it’s remarkable to me considering the voice on singer Lauren Mayberry how effective it all is. A sweet voice (almost Cranes like at certain moments), but with this undercurrent in her delivery that conveys you do NOT want to mess with this person. This is exactly what pop music should be – this combination of dark, bitter lyrics with these bright beats and insanely infectious melodies that can soundtrack any season of the year – I’m pretty sure you have to be completely soulless to not feel – in the very least – some of their songs. But that song sealed it for me – Chvrches was no joke – and thus the long wait for the full debut album, and when it was finally released it did not disappoint. Even with four of the songs having already been released as singles and having seen them twice in concert – the full album was a breath of fresh air. You can tell there was a good reason why they didn’t rush to capitalize quickly on their building popularity. They took their time to get it right – and with the appreciation they have spoken of in the press for the album format that is sadly dying still to some extent – it’s all evident in this final product – including it’s concise 48 minute running time (not too little, not too much, just perfect). Every song could be a single. Each catchier than the next – even the bonus tracks on the “deluxe version” are begging for their own showcase. Most of the critical reaction has been full of praise, almost hard to find even a mediocre review, but the few that haven’t been keen on it seem to think it’s pure pop rubbish. For me it IS pure pop music, but pop music for people who want their pop music to have a lot more substance that what the big labels offer with their Katy Perrys and Miley Cyruses of the world. If you can appreciate a trashy pop song once in awhile (I will even say Ms Perry’s first single ‘Roar’ off her new 2013 album is fantastic), will find a lot to appreciate and love with Chvrches. Not just appreciate but fall in love with. I understand people having musical differences, we all have differing tastes, but these songs are so well written, so well executed, performed with such passion and filled with so much melody that covers a broad spectrum of emotion, that I feel quite strongly that one would have to be a deeply cynical person if even just one of these songs don’t touch them strongly in some very positive way. What does it sound like? They’ve said influences include Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ to The Cure’s ‘Plainsong’, and if that’s the case then that quite aptly describes the album. For me, I’d say they’re the sound of the most saccharine and neon-drenched pop songs wrapped in the darkest, blackest cotton candy. How’s that for being a jack ass?
BOARDS OF CANADA TOMORROW’S HARVEST WARP
There wasn’t much doubt this was going to be my album of the year (until Chvrches’ album was released, of course), and not really because I am a huge fan or obsessive like so many Boards of Canada fans out there, but because this is simply an incredible album. It ends there. I don’t even really think of listening to them often, they are hardly my go to band, or a desert island discs kind of band, but they consistently put out strong, unique electronic music that is always distinctively “Boards of Canada”. What always was lacking for me with them was a coherent vision. Something that made an album an ALBUM, and for me, for the first time, they’ve done it here. In a sense they’ve latched onto that fad of recent years of cinematic, hazy sounds of the 80’s and turning them into perfect, nostalgic little pop songs, a fad I am a very big fan of. But instead of turning those aural relics of a bygone era into something positive and happy like most musicians have been doing, they’ve gone the other direction and made something downright creepy, sort of re-creating, in the form of an album, the intended vibe and reaction of seeing an ominous 80’s horror movie on a warped, distorted and fading VHS tape. Listening to this the first time and really every subsequent listen, I can see the movie playing out in my head, each track clearly scoring a scene or act in a movie that I am surprised as of yet this has NOT become the soundtrack for. I think this is truly the first “score” I can sit through and listen to on it’s own and fully enjoy, and it’s not even a soundtrack. At the time it came out I thought it sounded like if they and John Carpenter got together back in 1983 to score Halloween III: Season of the Witch, and still this is how it sounds. Its creepy and odd and COLD but still Boards of Canada through and through. So, Halloween III with beats, basically. Hopefully the track I’ve shared above, ‘Come to Dust‘, will give you a good idea of the overall sound of this album. This album is a complete vision, executed perfectly, and I can’t recommend it enough. Modern day classical, I say.
JANELLE MONÁE THE ELECTRIC LADY BAD BOY
I wonder if I said this on my review of her last album which also made my best of the year list back in 2010 – that I find it incredibly hard to describe Janelle Monáe’s music, which I overall would say is a good thing. Ms. Monáe is quite an eclectic lady musically (maybe this should have been called ‘The Eclectic Lady’) which lends to quite an exciting listen here on her second album (in actuality – like her first – a double album). For example as I sit listening to this album again, I’ve only gone through two songs and the two things that come to mind is it sounds like a mix of a Martin Denny album, and an expanded version of some of the ‘Arrested Development’ score with Prince on guest vocals (that last part is true). Just listen to those horns on ‘Givin’ ‘Em What They Love’ – and try and tell me the latter isn’t true. As strong as her first full length was, I find this one more of a consistent and rewarding listen. It’s all over the map, yet there’s less of an emphasis on trying to stand out. It does stand out – but it feels this time to be without effort. The entire album comes across as completely natural, organic – that this is truly an extension of Ms. Monáe’s personality and just being herself. Who knows if that’s true of course – but that’s the confidence this album exudes. It’s exotic through and through, chill, and for the first time there’s more emotion here. She has said in interviews that she’s worn her heart on her sleeve a bit more on this album, and after a few listens it becomes apparent. I’m not usually one to find R&B style “ballads” to be my cup of tea, as usually I find them boring musically and incredibly clichéd. But with Ms. Monáe’s broad pallet she can make such songs actually interesting and enjoyable to listen to. It baffles me that artists like Beyoncé can be so incredibly popular when artists like this take their blueprint into the stratosphere and basically come up empty commercially. To me there is so much potential in R&B that is completely untapped, yet Ms. Monáe does it here – and for this listener it’s quite exciting. Her vocals just ooze this passionate yearning on even the most upbeat songs like ‘We Were Rock & Roll’ and ‘The Electric Lady’, and then more downbeat on tracks like ‘Primetime’ and the utterly gorgeous ‘What An Experience‘ (the track I’ve shared above). Sonically and creatively Ms. Monáe is completely unmatched currently – to me we are talking a mix of Prince and Stevie Wonder among MANY others – but now for her true personality to come through and hearing there is a passionate woman behind the alter-ego of Cindi Mayweather that she has created for this series of albums – even when singing about zombies in your front yard – it doesn’t get much better. A rewarding listen that only gets better one each spin. A trippy, psychedelic, neo-soul, R&B phantasmagoria – it’s absolutely exquisite.
THE BEAT BROKER LIMITED TIME BEAR FUNK
Any readers of this blog (are there any?) may remember seeing a group named Broker/Dealer showing up in my tops of the year in years past, with their debut album Initial Public Offering in 2003, and their one and only EP for Ghostly International in 2008, Soft Sell. Times have changed and the duo are currently just one, recording under the name The Beat Broker, real name Ryan Bishop from the Bay Area of California. Even though he is a friend of a close friend of mine, I swear I recommend this album without any sort of bias. Frankly, when I was about to listen to this album for the very first time, my bias was probably leaning the other way. Broker/Dealer were just so incredibly great in my view, I figured it had to be because of the chemistry of the two working together. And I’m sure the success of their recordings were a result of that most certainly, but sometimes artists excel when they are on their own, and this album seems to show that Mr. Bishop’s talent may have been restrained in that environment, as this is truly an incredible album from beginning to end. It’s almost frustratingly so, because this was released right around the same time that an artist who will go unnamed (Daft Punk) was releasing their umpteenth cash-in of an album, an album so brazenly ripping off disco and the artists of the time they not only named one of their songs after one of electronic musics biggest pioneers, Giorgio Moroder, but managed to get him on the album. My thoughts on that Daft Punk album were not only if you are going to emulate those disco songs of late, why not listen to the original recordings that are far superior, but also if you are going to embrace the fantastic music that came out during the disco era (and we’re not talking ‘YMCA’ and ‘We Are Family’), why not embrace it, expand upon it, and push it further into the future and the next generation. That would be the ultimate tribute, and a far more rewarding listening experience. And that’s where my frustration comes from, because that is exactly what The Beat Broker has done here. This is the most forward thinking pop dance record I have heard in a long time (just listen to the song above, ‘Beat to the Street‘ for proof), while at the same it being a huge shout out to those that started it all. And even better, it’s incredibly fun, so happy, filled with so much gorgeous atmosphere and melodies and beats, it’s criminal to me that rubbish like Daft Punk flourish and this doesn’t seem to gain much of any traction. Well, that’s what I’m trying to do here with this review. At one moment sounding like a cosmic take on Italo Disco, packing the dance floor, then in the lounge chilling out with your martini, dressed to the nines, people-watching with your incredibly gorgeous partner, and you’re a bit dazed and a bit confused, but happily so. It’s the sound of being content with the way you’re moving so fast into the future. It’s a level of ecstasy – when the night time is your day time – with endless possibilities – and it’s only 3am. That feeling of life being a blur around you – for once – and you’re so unfazed – and you never want it to end. The future is bright, you have the best mates in your life, and you just want to dance with them, soak in the love that oozes from every crevice of the modern forward thinking city you call home. It’s neon-lit, it’s the sound of the most optimistic days ahead, it’s the sound of invention. The sound of the future is bringing the past – what makes us who we are – forward. It’s that atmosphere and of past & future coming together, as we all should come together, with huge beats and hook-filled melodies. It’s the sound of being lost being a feeling you embrace. This is how electronic music is done. It’s human. It’s organic. It’s alive and natural. A brilliant, gorgeous debut. Put on your dancing shoes.
DISCOVERER TUNNELS DIGITALIS
For whatever reason, a completely tragic oversight occurred on my part last year concerning this album. I picked it up – or rather downloaded it – and was unable to digest it fully. I knew it was good, so it made my honorable mentions list. But since then I’ve been able to spend time with it, and it’s one I’ve spent a LOT of time with. So I’ve removed it from last year’s honorable mentions list and elevated to it’s rightful place, in the best of MY year for lucky 2013. Most albums I put in my tops of the year are new albums naturally, but it also includes music that’s new to me no matter when it came out, so although this is from last year, alas its belated honor of being part of this years musical elite. And why is that? Well, naturally because It’s an INCREDIBLY GORGEOUS ALBUM, and unlike most electronic albums that drone on for way too long, its a perfect slimmed down 39 minute eight track masterpiece. I’m rather confused why this one hasn’t been picked up by much of the electronic music world, as it taps into so many sensibilities similar to other bands and musicians whose recordings pale in comparison in successfully capturing the moods and melodies Discoverer has been able to capture with Tunnels. The music itself, well it’s a bit new age, it’s a bit pop, it has a bit of a Boards of Canada-esque thing going on, and it’s an incredibly relaxing, smooth and melodic trip throughout. It sort of reminds me of the album Night and Day by Oriol that made my tops in 2010. That one had more of a tropical sorta feel to it – but it’s all cut from the same cloth – this sort of driving through Miami circa 1980’s Miami Vice on a hot summer 3am morning with the neon lights blurring by and the night’s events merely just a happy memory. It’s warm, electric, luxurious, deeply melodic, and somehow very bright and upbeat for a sound that can be considered downbeat (evidence above, ‘Circular Motherboard‘). You couldn’t find a better background soundtrack to all those dinner pool parties you have in LA surrounded by swaying palm trees under a star filled night. Instrumental music whose hooks stay in your head all day, you know you’re hearing a true talent.
KURT VILE WAKIN ON A PRETTY DAZE MATADOR
So this gentleman from Philadelphia was a former member of a band called The War on Drugs, whom I had not heard of until Mr Vile was brought to my attention by a friend at the record store I work at. OK, I had heard of Mr Vile, but something about his name made me steer clear. Call it prejudice, call it what you will, but the name gave me a bad first impression – even though it simply turns out to be his birth name and not some “cool” made up stage name. But this friend suggested it and the way she described it – his last album Smoke Ring For My Halo – and that it was something she put on at night to drift off to sleep to, well that intrigued me. So that’s how I experienced it, listening to the first few songs in bed as I tried to get to sleep, and I was instantly hooked. It’s not how I enjoy his music now, but I found a way of enjoying it on my own terms. One of the things I appreciate in artists are those who like repetition. This comes in handy with electronic music especially as the artists are trying to keep people glued to the dance floor, but in rock music it’s a lot less common. Kurt Vile however appreciates repetition and drone, and with the gorgeous melodies he brings to the table, it only adds to the summer vibe I feel he’s intended with this album. It doesn’t sound like any summer, but specifically it’s vibe feels like the summer after senior year of high school, those few months of freedom before you move on to college. Those months of pure laziness and what seems like endless time with not a care in the world (listen to ‘Wakin on a Pretty Day‘ above). Time to be free and enjoy everything around you, and not be worried or caught up about the time constraints of even your average song. Just let it all go in the chillest way you can. And the song lengths here reflect this vibe. A nine minute song here, an eight minute song there, and how about a 10 minute song to cap it all off. Why not? We have the time, and there’s nothing to lose. When you have a killer melody or riff, why cut it short? And when the days are long, with the sun so bright and it’s just hot as well and never seems to let it up, this is the album you need to accompany you. This album feels like the obvious progression of the sound a band like Dinosaur Jr. excelled at in the 90’s. The similarities in sound are there – it’s crunchy, the guitar solos that scream out the pent up frustrations of youth, but overall it’s a quieter, mellower Dinosaur Jr. Not to say fans of the genius of J Mascis will like this necessarily, and not that people who can’t stand the volume and nasally voiced stoner rock of Dinosaur Jr will dislike this, but to me the similarities are there. It’s a widescreen, chilled out, cinematic folky, droned out take on Dinosaur Jr, which in the opinion of this typer, is very welcome in today’s musical landscape. Put it this way, it’s like living in a small town (John Cougar Mellencamp), in the town park, on a hot day, drinking a Hawaiian Punch, watching the local baseball team at dusk while fireflies spark up all around you, and all you can think about is the new girl in class you have a crush on and are just yearning to see again when school is back in session. This is that soundtrack. Beautiful.
SKY FERREIRA NIGHT TIME, MY TIME CAPITOL
It’s interesting that Ms Ferreira would begin her debut album (released after years and years of delays and various levels of private and public troubles) with what is in my mind the weakest song on the album. At first almost a confirmation that she was nothing but a lethal mix of hype & hope and that this is the disaster most expected. Or maybe it was a display of confidence (despite that album cover of fearful vulnerability). As I listened to this I was quite certain it was the latter. After a few more spins it became obvious that’s exactly what it was – a challenge almost, a dare to give her the chance she deserves, or to weed out the impatient, to find her true fans. Because when it comes to artists like her who are shrouded in varying degrees of “controversy”, the tendency is to go in hating her. Hear one song, and the verdict is given. But to wait is to be rewarded. Part of my love for this album is – I can’t deny – her ability to silence the naysayers. But for a pop album, this is an incredibly strong collection of songs. And let’s not pretend this isn’t pretty vapid stuff at times, lyrically at least. “I wish these 24 hours / Would never end / Oh in these 24 hours / Wish to forget nothing / 24 hours / We still have time / For 24 hours / You’re still mine“. Come on, who’s kidding who here? But past that is a woman who has been through a string of personal and music business disappointments, and yet the result is the sound of a pop singer determined to prove them all wrong – with a voice full of passion and clarity from one song to the next. And with an eclectic taste in music influences both past and present, it’s a winner. From the Spiritualized by way of Suicide Christmas drone of ‘Omanko‘, to the pop grunge rock of Celebrity Skin-era Hole on ‘Nobody Asked Me (If I Was Okay)’, to the glorious neon-lit stomp of a chillwave-injected Cyndi Lauper on ‘You’re Not the One’, Night Time, My Time is definitely disjointed and completely all over the map. But her inspirations are portrayed with pinpoint accuracy, at times even besting who she is emulating (showing Sleigh Bells how to do their own sound on ‘Heavy Metal Heart’ being a great example). The melodies are strong – only becoming stronger on each listen – and like a true artist she lets her art speak for itself once all the smokescreens have cleared. Hopefully the surprising and mostly positive reception she has received for this album will give her the boost she has desperately needed all these years since being signed by her label – who tried only to mold her into the pop star they wanted. She may not know her own path yet, but once she does, at least evidenced by this album, she has the musical chops, and wow does she have the voice to become the pop artist SHE wants to be, and clearly can be.
CROCODILES CRIMES OF PASSION FRENCHKISS
This seemed like it would be one of those albums that is just full of hype on the indie circuit (even though I guess not everyone is praising it) but in the end is just that, an over-hyped piece of garbage. But it seems those who do really enjoy this album, REALLY enjoy this album, and I am one of those. It’s true that Crocodiles – and this is their fourth album and only the first one of theirs I have heard – isn’t bringing much new to the table. But they have a great knack for songwriting, and most importantly that skill of tapping into so many sounds of bands that existed in the past and are no longer recording, and basically filling that void of new songs that you’ve been pining for. It may not win in the originality category, but what they do, they do perfectly. So let’s say you’ve been waiting for new albums from the likes of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Charlatans, The Raveonettes, The Dandy Warhols, Suede, or even Chapterhouse of all bands, then you will find something to love here (listen to ‘Virgin‘ above). And of course if you were looking for an album that sounds like all of those bands mixed together, then this is your crowning jewel. I find it funny that a lot of lazy music critics are saying Crocodiles (from sunny San Diego) sounds like Echo & The Bunnymen, simply because they have a sound from the 80’s & 90’s, and they happen to have the same name of a Bunnymen album. I’m not hearing it though, at all. So if that scares you off, don’t let it. It’s silly nonsense. Produced by Sune Rose Wagner of The Raveonettes, it’s more akin to their sound than anything. A short, concise album chock full of singles, it may not be your bag, but if it is, you will probably love it to no end. Fantastic.
SUEDE BLOODSPORTS SUEDE LIMITED
Wow, Suede, where have you been for so long? And I don’t just mean not having recorded an album for the last 11 years, but more like the last 17 years. Let’s be honest here, your last two albums, Head Music and A New Morning were utter shit. But this album, good lord where did this come from? I was never really a big Suede fan when they first came out in 1993, and took the British music scene by storm. I got the appeal, but there was something too glam and too overly dramatic that it just didn’t connect with me. But then Coming Up came out and boy did that album sparkle with the sound of sweaty androgyny and hurricanes of glitter blowing your ears out. And this new album is it’s worthy successor. As much as I love Coming Up, this album is a completely superior experience in my view as a whole. Coming Up may have stronger songs individually, but as a complete album, Bloodsports has it all. It doesn’t even sound like – as the old cliche goes – a collection of B-sides from a better by-gone era, this sounds like a lost album. Meaning a truly lost album. Recorded, meant to be released, and somehow they had just one copy, and it was lost. Until now. Other than the quality of the songwriting, nothing has changed. Whatever you’ve missed about Suede all these years, it’s here, exactly as you remembered them. Those spacey keyboards, the grandiosity of lead singer Brett Anderson, those trashy, glam filled guitar riffs, the theatrical melodies, the fashion runway vibes from the artwork right down to the lyrics, it’s all here. Everything about them is incredibly sleazy yet somehow it’s a very sexy sound that they bring to the table of rock & roll. Glam without the camp I suppose. As Under the Radar Magazine says, “Calling Bloodsports a comeback album almost seems to belittle just how strong a record it really is; it’s nearly as good as any they’ve put out before.” I couldn’t agree more. One doesn’t need to venture out into new sonic territory and experimentation when you have perfected a sound already, and continue to do so with songs that will stick with you for days. No smokescreens here with this album, it is the real deal. If it’s your thing of course. It’s nice to get one completely unexpected surprise each year, and that is this album. Well done, chaps. Check out ‘It Starts and Ends With You‘ above for your evidence.
LORDE PURE HEROINE LAVA/REPUBLIC
What is it about this album that is so insanely good? When first hearing about this artist I searched out a few clips and was deeply unimpressed. But I was still open to what she had to offer – simply because that very bold name came across quite peculiar to me. Then album reviews started pouring in, from magazines and websites I personally find highly reputable, and it was all very praiseworthy. I must not have been giving her a chance I thought, and what the hell this is TREMENDOUSLY EXCITING TO BE PROVEN WRONG, so I purchased the CD, cranked it up on my car stereo, and I was blown away. Usually I am impressed when artists of a very young age can make something so melodic and catchy, but despite this Kiwi being only 16 years old – it didn’t mean anything to me this time. But as I listened I remembered how I felt about the debut album from The xx, and how much I admired the restraint they held as young artists – to not be loud, but to be quiet and subtle, to be able to successfully portray the beauty in space and simplicity. Although Lorde is not nearly as quiet and melancholy – as evidenced by the albums relatively “upbeat” singles – the album as a whole is a mostly one note monotone affair. But her voice is lavish yet simple, and somehow each song – again while being similarly toned from track to track – has it’s own distinctive hook and melody. And for a girl of this age to sound so confident not only in her delivery, but the (is it?) tongue-in-cheek stories of what it’s like to be a 16 year old girl in the New Zealand suburbs, it’s an infectious mix. Like most albums that are deemed special in one way or another, Pure Heroine has something to reveal about itself on every spin, keeping it interesting, fresh and exciting. Especially sonically, where small sounds and various electronic flourishes that you didn’t notice were there before now add a whole new beat or melody to grasp onto. The deep cavernous bass and hollow synths of ‘Tennis Court’. The stilted beat and building synths of ‘Ribs’ to the sublime ‘Buzzcut Season‘ and it’s haunting synth keys and layered vocals. By the 10th listen you realize there is so much going on – within a production that is so simple – it’s quite remarkable. And with that voice, that confident voice booming over it all with her cheeky lyrics and quietly fearless delivery – this one is a grower and an incredibly rewarding experience once you give in to the world Lorde is offering. Gorgeous, blinding confidence.
THE NATIONAL TROUBLE WILL FIND ME 4AD
Usually lyrics – even though I can quite easily sing along with them – mean nothing to me. When I am singing along (out loud or internally) it’s mostly phonetically. I just don’t know what most vocalists are saying most of the time, and don’t really care either. I notice lyrics of course, but with The National it’s hard not to notice them with that deep, rumbling baritone voice of this Cincinnati band’s lead singer. Up until this, their sixth album, I’ve never really paid that much attention to them, and even though they’re on the greatest record label of all time in my view, 4AD, their heyday is over, and thusly I don’t really take their endorsement all that seriously anymore. But this one I heard during one of my part-time shifts at Newbury Comics earlier this year, and one song made me realize I needed to take this one home and give it a full listen. The opening song, ‘I Should Live in Salt’, sets the tone lyrically and caught my ear right away, with a line so simple, “You should know me better than that”. To me, to start an album like that, it felt completely honest and genuine. It certainly isn’t anything groundbreaking, but at that moment it really hit home. When it comes down to it, at the core, The National make music that is incredibly schmaltzy, and very dramatic from one track to the next. But there is something so sincere about their delivery. They seem to sound grand without trying to be grand. Whereas a band like Coldplay, with each album they put out, gets bigger and bigger in their production as if to say, as loud and as boldly as possible, “we are romantic, caring, emotional people, can’t you tell?!”. With The National it just seems to comes out naturally and without effort. The songs take their time; the singer sings in his quiet, confident and sentimental droll. There is no need to reach to the rafters like other bands whose vibe can be considered quite similar. I say this because they remind me so much of U2 and Coldplay, but they do it with such an understated beauty. No grand-standing from my point of view, and it shows in their sound with a level of class that shines through and puts such egomaniacs like Bono and Chris Martin to the floor. It’s all a very romantic sound, and it’s all so subtle that at first glance you may think a lot of the songs sound the same, but they reveal themselves very slowly, as do the hooks, and with time the melodies and hooks become such beautiful earworms. From the driving, sliding groove of ‘Graceless’, to the sweet romanticism of ‘Heavenfaced’ to a song that drove me to tears. I had made a new friend, and this person became so important to me so quickly, and I heard this song – ‘Slipped’ – one morning driving to work and the sound and lyrics of it all made me think of what it would be like to lose her friendship, and it made me tear up. Songs don’t do that to me. Well sometimes they can, but only because a song is so good it baffles me and the sound hits me so hard I can’t fathom something is that gorgeous. But this song had the tears flowing from both the music and the lyrics. From me, that’s quite an endorsement. You definitely need to be in a certain mood to listen to this album. It’s not really depressing, it’s heavy. But past the dark weight of it all, there’s always an undercurrent of optimism that carries the songs to where they need to be (see ‘Humiliation‘ above). Gorgeous stuff.
WASHED OUT PARACOSM SUB POP
A lot of people know Washed Out (essentially one person, who supposedly makes music “in his bedroom”, as the journos like to say) from a song called ‘Feel It All Around’ that ended up on his first EP, and is now the theme song for the fantastic skit show Portlandia. Since then he released his first full length Within and Without, which I included in my top albums of the year list for 2011 on the strength that it was a slow grower – that it took time to dig below the surface and feel the melodies and emotions that I thought he was trying to bring across. Knowing that one was a struggle, at first my expectations for a new one were very low. Mostly a “sure I’ll check it out but I really could care less” sort of feeling. Maybe going into this album with that attitude made this one stronger with the lower expectations, but it is without question a pleasant surprise, and frankly a much better record than his debut. No small feat, considering what one would consider a limited genre that he is working in. But I disagree, as he works in this world of the cinematic, and as where in the past he worked in the world of nostalgia, it seems here he wanted to bring a whole new universe to your visual imagination via a completely aural experience. Sure it’s still a world of beaches and care-free days, but it’s a gorgeous sense of vacation and holiday, instead of looking towards the past. Just look at the title, Paracosm, which according to the website Dictionary, is “a prolonged fantasy world invented by children” or Wikipedia’s definition of “a detailed imaginary world or fantasy world, involving humans and/or animals, or perhaps even fantasy or alien creations”. His melodies are brighter and production so lush and tropical with the sounds of waves and birds throughout, it’s truly a New World that Washed Out has discovered here (see ‘All I Know‘ above), a welcome and surprising direction in growth that bodes well for his musical future. Everything one may have liked about his music from the past is still here, but the outlook has changed, his environs have changed, all resulting in a brighter and more colorful album which stands as his best so far in his short and unexpected musical career.
SIGUR RÓS KVEIKUR XL RECORDINGS
I’m not really sure what is left to be said about Sigur Rós after all these years. They’ve been successfully treading the same waters from day one, with only the slightest changes in direction from one album to the next. It seems the key to their success has been getting people to their shows to experience them live, which most times is a really enjoyable time. I’m not one that goes completely batshit crazy for their live shows. As much as I really enjoy their music, it isn’t transcendent for me as it seems to be for so many people. A close friend of mine even had their music playing while she delivered her first child – that’s how Sigur Rós’s music can effect people. I understand it, but I don’t feel it that way, as great as I do think they are. I used to go see them pretty much every time they came to town, including opening for fellow Icelander Björk in Brooklyn for two shows, and the first time being just a few days after 9/11 at Berklee in Boston touring in support of the Ágætis Byrjun album. As you can imagine, if you know this band and know that album, It’s easy to say that was definitely an emotional show. Prior to this album the band put out the album Valtari, and as much as it was cool they were putting out something that was truly an ambient recording relatively (instead of people just lazily calling all their music ambient), I found it to be very dull. Ambient albums can easily be gorgeous and memorable and even catchy as hell, but Valtari was far from any of those descriptions. I still went to see them on tour, again in Brooklyn, with my dear friend Meredith, and for the first time I was completely unimpressed. I came to the conclusion I still liked them of course, I respected them immensely, but it seemed their time had come, they had run out of ideas, run out of songs, and it was time to no longer invest energy with them. That was that. Then came word another album was coming out, and my level of disinterest could not have been any higher. But then word came that one member had departed, and they were in turn taking the band in a different direction, in a more “aggressive” direction. Sigur Rós had done “aggressive” before, but they had never described their music as such as best to my knowledge, so for them to say that is where they were headed, I thought this could be interesting. The lead single and video for ´Brennistein´ was then released and boy where they not kidding. The song was bordering on industrial, heavy, almost violent in nature – and the accompanying video was downright sinister in it’s mix of colors, mostly black. Bordering on scary, it’s one hell of a song – and it was exciting to see this band not only branch out, and completely reverse course from their last album, but also just to let loose in a sense – to see a different side of this band, one they seemed ready to fully embrace. Then in late March the band performed the album title track on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the first time they performed on American television in 10 years, and that settled it, this album was going to be fantastic. And it is. One of it’s biggest strengths is that only parts of the album are what can be considered aggressive. The rest is the Sigur Rós you already know. They didn’t overkill on this album, they simply added to their mix, and let the few aggressive tracks compliment seamlessly what they already do best. And frankly the sound of the past on tracks like ‘Stormur’, and especially ‘Ísjaki‘ (which represents the entirety of this album perfectly), are in my view examples of them at the peak of their career. And to mix in this new side of the band, I find this to be their second best album, right behind their sophomore (and to some their “proper” debut) Ágætis Byrjun. The album is much grittier for them. Not in production, but in the overall vibe, yet it’s more beautiful and focused than ever before. It feels like a complete album, one where the balance in moods was thought out and sequenced instead of slapping together a bunch of great songs. This feels like a complete work. It’s incredible to me this band has taken off on a global scale like they have. At it’s core, this is pop music, but it’s very unconventional, completely non-mainstream, where they sing not only in their native Icelandic but mostly in a completely made up language they call Hopelandic, and yet they sell out stadiums all across the globe. They can be uplifting one moment, and ominous the next, and I think that range of emotions and sincerity is what brings people to them. It’s an astounding thing really, and to see them come full circle like they have here with this album is an exciting thing, and now that it’s happened, it’s going to be even more interesting to see where they take themselves on the next album. When a band does the unexpected, what are we supposed to expect next? However if this is the end, it’s a fine closing chapter. An exceptional album.
DAUGHTER IF YOU LEAVE 4AD
Who knew this band was so huge, before a proper full length had even been released? Signed by the legendary 4AD label, it couldn’t be a more fitting home, and maybe that was part of the buzz, as although 4AD doesn’t have the same cult status it had back in the 80’s and 90’s with bands like Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Pixies, Lush, Throwing Muses, etc., they still release albums by bands that can be considered the top notch of the more mainstream side of independent music these days. I saw one clip of Daughter upon the announcement of their signing and it made no impression on me whatsoever, but after reading about their string of sold out shows that even continued here in my home of Boston, I didn’t write them off entirely. Then I saw the video for ‘Still‘ in February and my reaction was completely different. The song, the sound of it, it’s video – it was all very romantic and heartbreaking but not in a way that was “too much” emotionally and made me not want to listen. It wasn’t overbearing, or overwrought. The balance felt right, and If You Leave follows through on that promise. There’s something so incredibly warm about the voice of lead singer Elena Tonra, bordering on folky at times, but not annoyingly so, and it strikes an interesting balance against the musical backdrop which could be considered very Sigur Rós-ish. However unlike that band, Daughter’s cinematic, almost “epic” vibe at times is more gentle. Whereas Sigur Rós’ oceanic sound can be that of a hurricane or massive blizzard crashing ashore, Daughter’s version is more of gentle waves washing onto a Hawaiian beach at sunrise. It’s still a big sound, but it’s intent is not of purposeful drama, but a natural quiet drama. It’s hypnotic, gently sweet and incredibly atmospheric, but never overwhelming. Even it’s lyrics, covering every corner of the pains in loss of love, never feel like a statement of “poor me”, but “this happens to us all, so mourn, and move on”. As quiet and sad as the sonics can be here, it’s also bright, optimistic, and forward looking, and lyrically the honesty on display here rings very true, sincere and genuine, and I think that’s why its resonated with so many people, including the sold out tours. Ms Tonra cuts a motherly cloth, and although I haven’t seen them live, I can imagine there is some sort of “we are all in this together” vibe washing through the crowd. Perhaps a feeling of comfort emanating from her presence, her lyrics, and the warm blanket of sound they create. Most of the songs may not be necessarily memorable, but its that feeling the album as a whole gives out that makes it such a strong record. It’s hard to tell if this is a one shot deal, making me wonder where they go from here. But like Sigur Rós who have somehow made their niche work for well over a decade now, with this gorgeous attention to detail in their sound, they have the same potential. It will be interesting to see what happens next, but in the meantime this is a very pretty record and not to be missed.
INC. NO WORLD 4AD
If there was any justice in this world, this is the sort of R&B music that would be topping the charts. Granted, this album is not full of gigantic, driving hooks, but they are melodic, catchy all the same, and these two brothers put together quite an icy, lush, and modern atmosphere. Two record store colleagues of mine have both said No World sounds like a teen boy band if they were shoegaze and on 4AD. And though I think the music is much better than that, and far deeper and complex, a lot of that is true when I think about it. They were originally called Teen, Inc., they have voices that you can picture young girls fainting and squealing over, and yet, there they are on 4AD – the home of Dead Can Dance, Xmal Deutschland and The Birthday Party. Those not so favorable aforementioned elements are definitely strong here, but there’s an air of mystery that shrouds their music like a gorgeous misty, fog. As simple as their sound is, the production is quietly thick, almost elegant, and it’s a very smooth sound, floaty, with a darkness lying underneath it all, and I think that’s what 4AD was concentrating on when they signed these guys. It all has this late night urban feel to it, in tracks like ‘5 Days’, and those reverbed guitars (that make one think of shoegaze) make appearances on tracks like ‘Black Wings’. Then the jazzy, romantic stomping beat of ‘Trust (Hell Below)’ lifts the pace of the album beyond it’s Prince and sometimes Stevie Wonder tinged Motown neo-soul, before segueing into sexy late night slow jams via old school 4AD on tracks like ‘Angel‘, and onto the hypnotic, mesmerizing and gothic ‘Desert Rose (War Prayer)’. On first spin I thought this album was a total throwaway, but on second listen and every one after that, it’s clear this album is the second biggest surprise of the year. Cool, confident and relaxing from beginning to end, it’s a definite mood-setter, and it’s strength is it’s perfect background music for a variety of situations from dinner parties to late night city drives, to “other things”. I don’t have a lot to say about this album really, but it’s a beautiful, chilled out, immersive experience, and one of the more well executed ones I can think of, right up there with Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest.
PHOENIX BANKRUPT! GLASSNOTE
I was surprised I loved this album as much as I did, though it shouldn’t be surprising I guess as they seem to get better and better on each release, becoming more focused and confident in their sound. Their first album Untitled was a complete mess, but resulted in two fantastic songs, ‘Too Young’ (which featured on the Lost In Translation soundtrack), and ‘If I Feel Better’. The rest was a true mess, and though the potential was established, the sour taste made me skip their follow up album Alphabetical. Then all hell broke loose with the release of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, reaching critical and mainstream success worldwide, and even though I again thought there were very strong songs – it was a bit scattered and incomplete. Frankly, this new album Bankrupt! is also incomplete. But the vision and the sound is there, and the first four tracks are so incredibly strong, that although it ultimately makes the entire album unbalanced, it’s just so good that it deserves to be in the tops of the year. I became interested in checking this one out funny enough not after their first single, but after hearing them on Saturday Night Live, which historically doesn’t showcase the best that any particular band has to offer. But for me it worked for Phoenix, and the second song they performed got me very interested. Whenever I listen to this album the only word that I think can describe it perfectly is effervescent. There is just something in the production that makes it sound and feel like it’s carbonated, bubbly, fizzy, and completely effervescent from the first track to the last. And I don’t say this because of the “Asian sounds” in the first single ‘Entertainment’ (and in the Korean shot video) – but I think the band carried over an experience or a cue from having their very first single as a band being used in the Japanese-set Lost In Translation, as this album feels like being in Japan. I don’t know why exactly or how to describe it, but that feeling of walking around Osaka and all it’s bright, colorful, otherworldly and futuristic settings, that most Japanese cities seem to offer, is reflected in this album’s songwriting and production. There’s a joyous, life-affirming sound here, laid on top of this international high fashion vibe (see the above ‘Trying To Look Cool’). There’s so much production on Bankrupt! that it took some time to let the songs seep through. I didn’t even put in an effort, but whenever I’d see it on my computer or in my car, I’d throw it on, and I began to appreciate it more and more on each listen, and I’m thankful I did, as it’s a really fun, optimistic, catchy as hell album. Of course their penchant for getting lost with weird meandering tracks and sound collages is still here, but they kept it to one song (the title track funny enough), so it’s much easier to skip than albums past. There is an incredible album waiting to come out of these guys I can just sense it – and if it isn’t the next one I would be very surprised. In the meantime, this is their high mark, and it comes highly recommended.
VERY VERY HONORABLE MENTIONS
!!! Thr!!!er | Atoms for Peace Amok | Blood Orange Cupid Deluxe | California X California X
Chvrches Recover EP | Dead Can Dance In Concert | Deafheaven Sunbather
Ducktails The Flower Lane | The Field Cupid’s Head | Girls Names The New Life
David Lynch The Big Dream | My Bloody Valentine m b v | The Ocean Blue Ultramarine
Peace In Love | Samaris Samaris Savages Silence Yourself | Still Corners Strange Pleasures
Tricky False Idols | Throwing Muses Purgatory/Paradise | Young Fathers Tape Two
REISSUES OF THE YEAR
The Breeders LSXX Last Splash 20th Anniversary | Saâda Bonaire Saâda Bonaire
Moderne Moderne/L’Espionne Aimait La Musique | Nirvana In Utero 20th Anniversary Edition