Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Top 20 Songs of 2013

Before I get going with this one, take note that I've decided to include only one song per artist on this list. This is so the top 10 will not contain 8 Waxahatchee tracks.

20. "Higgs Boson Blues" - Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds:
The nearly eight minute-long epic from Cave and company's "Push the Sky Away". The pop culture references and condemnations work well (Hannah Montana lying face down in a swimming pool is one of the more grim and fascinating images of the year). Might be just a bit too long though.

19. "Dream Captain" - Deerhunter:
The most T. Rex-ish song of "Monomania" also happens to be the best. Bradford Cox's voice is at its most glam here and the bright, lo-fi guitars sound awesome. The only negative is the strange off-beat clicking that reverberates in the background of the song.

18. "White Noise" - Disclosure feat. AlunaGeorge
I'm not a particularly huge fan of electronic house music, but the brilliant chorus from Aluna Francis and the interesting soundscape created by the brothers of Disclosure elevate this to the level of pop brilliance.

17. "Chrome Country" - Oneohtrix Point Never
With an electronically-manipulated children's choir, bizarre sweeps, elevator muzak piano, and a closing cadence provided by a church-ready pipe organ, "Chrome Country" wins the award for the most awkward beautiful song ever written. I love it.

16. "Black Skinhead" - Kanye West
A whole lot of "Yeezus" is lyrically embarrassing, and this track is no exception ("I keep it 300, like the Romans" He means the Spartans, of course), but the brilliant backbeat with Gary Glitter-style drums and the sheer fury of his rapping made this the standout from an album full of ego and dumb one-liners.

15. "Wonderbread" - Danny Brown
I apologize to anyone and everyone who walked into my dorm room while I was blasting this track, the best from Danny Brown's "Old". Besides the cool beat, you just have to love Brown's story of going to a grocery store to buy bread with food stamps only to have it stolen by gangbangers in the end.

14. "Fireproof" - The National
Easily one of the best tracks I've ever heard from the normally drab Brooklyn band, The National. While "Trouble Will Find Me" didn't quite get the job done for me as an album, this song is gorgeous and sad and redemptive and memorable. Major props to Matt Berninger on this one.

13. "Yonder Is Closer to the Heart" - Parquet Courts
A lot of "Light Up Gold" sounded like a barely-contained mess (a mess which I adored), but the album's best moments came when the trio pulled together and sounded like a true and proper band. This track is the best example with a driving bass and a Strokes-esque guitar tone propelling this thing forward at 100 mph.

12. "Same Love" by Macklemore feat. Mary Lambert
One of the most important tracks of the year with a wonderful rap running through it as well. still, the highlight is Lambert's emotional and poignant chorus. As a gay Christian, she's definitely got the ethos for this tune; fortunately, she has the pipes for it too.

11. "I Sat By the Ocean" - Queens of the Stone Age
This track didn't need Grohl's drumming to be the best on "Like Clockwork". It takes the best parts of classic QOTSA (mid-tone guitar riffs, cool slides, a tight groove) and then adds in the mystique that was inherent to the whole album. While there might have been more original songs on "Like Clockwork", this one did QOTSA better than any others.

10. "Caught In the Briars" - Iron & Wine
The opening track from the impressive "Ghost on Ghost", the only weakness of the super-catchy jam is that it sets unrealistic expectations for the other eleven songs on the album. "Get Lucky" can step aside; this was my summer song of 2013.

9. "Notebook" - Majical Cloudz
This closing track on "Impersonator" is as U2 as this duo gets. The voice is vintage era Bono and the mild, textured background that swirls underneath the vocal in such a gorgeous way recalls the Irish band's classic elegies in the vain of "40" and "MLK". Easily the best closing track of the year for me.

8. "World" - Julia Holter
Her voice is gold. Her lyrics are evocative. The mood is all-encompassing. Not many songs tihs year managed to reach this level of hypnotic. A lovely song through and through.

7. "Ohm" - Yo La Tengo
At first I thought "Ohm" was kind of boring, then I saw Yo La Tengo live a couple weeks after "Fade" dropped, and it all made sense. That pounding, persistent guitar riff from Ira Kaplan which devolves into a feedback freakout is arguably the most "Guitar Hero" worthy moment of the year.

6. "Byegone" - Volcano Choir
Justin Vernon must've taken some lessons from Kanye on how to make a truly epic song. "Byegone" starts with just the same note being struck on two separate guitars back to back, but it turns into a sweeping landscape of ascending guitar lines, gut-punching drum hits, and shouted vocals. For sheer scope, nothing came close to "Byegone" this year.

5. "Hannah Hunt" - Vampire Weekend
For the first few months after the release of "Modern Vampires of the City", I would have sworn up and down that "Unbelievers" was its best track. However, this calm little song about two weary lovers on a road trip has since taken that throne. Koenig's imagery is spot on, and the gorgeous piano part that kicks in near the song's end is to die for.

4. "Cocoa Butter Kisses" - Chance the Rapper feat. Vic Mensa & Twista
The best rap track of the year from the best new rapper of the year. This is a song that, at its core, is about the effect fitting in with your peers has on your family life. When Twista raps "I wanna get a hug, but I can't 'cause I'm stankin'", it suddenly doesn't matter how tough he is or how cool he may seem. What matters is the price he's paid in his relationship with his grandmother. Why can't all rap lyrics be this good?

3. "The Mother We Share" - Chvrches
The catchiest chorus of the year goes to this Scottish trio's debut single. I may not have any clue what it's about (though I have a few wild guesses), but "The Mother We Share" makes up for its incoherent themes by providing a stunning vocal, bright synths, and the most ear-tickling sequence of notes I heard throughout all of 2013 come chorus time.

2. "Swan Dive" - Waxahatchee
Katie Crutchfield knows how to write a song. In fact, she proved this thirteen times on "Cerulean Salt", and this track is the standout. The lightly strummed guitar blends perfectly with the toms cascading beneath Crutchfield's pained, delicate, and beautiful voice. Add to that lyrical zingers like "We will find a way to be lonely any chance we get" and you've got not just a great song but one of 2013's greatest musical and poetic moments.

1. "Elephant" - Jason Isbell
This is what songwriting is all about. This heart-wrenching tale of a man and the woman he loves who is dying of cancer strikes an emotional chord that barely any song I've ever heard has managed to reach. Isbell's pitch perfect, pleasantly twangy voice lends a realism to the lyrics, and the subdued chord strumming highlights the utter depravity of this dehumanizing situation. This song is evocative, honest, heartbreaking, and somehow beautiful, and that is why it is my favorite song of 2013.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Top 20 Albums of 2013

Rather than write a lengthy preface that most people won't read, I'll just go ahead and dive into the list. (Sorry, Reed! I'll give you your own personal preface later.)

My Favorite Albums of 2013:

20. "R Plus Seven" by Oneohtrix Point Never:
A bizarre and experimental instrumental album that combines elevator muzak, church organs, and electronic bleeps among other things. Even if it's not the easiest to listen to or the catchiest album out there, its pure uniqueness is enough to get it in the top 20. The closing track, "Chrome Country", is also strangely beautiful.

19. "Push the Sky Away" by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds:
Nick Cave and his stellar backing band released one of their moodiest and darkest albums to date with truly creative lyrics pulled from several Google search sessions on the part of Cave himself. "Jubilee Street" and "We Real Cool" are standouts, but the pop culture incriminating, nearly eight minute long epic "Higgs Boson Blues" is the highlight.

18. "Silence Yourself" by Savages:
Probably the best debut album of the year and one of the greatest truly rock and roll albums in recent memory. These four black-clad British girls know how to write a riff or eleven. Also props for having a cohesive look and for standing up to those jerks who film entire concerts on their iPhones. Songs like "Shut Up" and "Strife" are fantastic through and through.

17. "Monomania" by Deerhunter:
Bradford Cox and co. united to create a truly gritty, lo-fi garage rock record, and they succeeded! Recalling all sorts of great American bands from the glamorous New York Dolls to the misshapen and craggy Sonic Youth. "Dream Captain", "Leather Jacket II", and the title track all impress.

16. "Engravings" by Forest Swords:
A full-length debut from electronic musician Forest Swords three years in the making. Every day of the time spent pays off as processed guitars whirl through vocal samples and spiky drum loops. This album uses space and minimalism to the max. If not for its sheer subdued tone, I might be tempted to call it an epic. "Thor's Stone" gets the job done right.

15. "Light Up Gold" by Parquet Courts:
The best Pavement album of 2013 came from this Brooklyn trio. A bunch of purposefully and magnificently sloppy rock tracks with great titles like "Yr No Stoner" and "Yonder is Closer to the Heart", the latter of which is a major standout. For 35 minutes of pure rock fun, you couldn't get much better than this.

14. "Old" by Danny Brown:
A rap album that brings tons of great things to the table. Interesting beats like the one on "Wonderbread" mix with some of the genre's most prolific lyrics (something rap is often known to lack). Even more intriguing was the dichotomy between Side One, which detailed Brown's hard life on the streets, and Side Two, which detailed Brown's efforts to party it away. Easily one of the best thought-out albums of the year.

13. "Shaking the Habitual" by The Knife:
If you're looking for the straight up weird, look no further than this pink and green manifesto of queer and feminist theory dressed in dance beats and experimental electronic music. For sheer off-the-wallness, this album wins hands down. Fortunately, the songs stand well on their own too. While more (relatively) straightforward tracks like "A Tooth for an Eye" have stolen the spotlight, I actually find myself preferring the stranger stuff like the 20-minute drone "Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized" and the severely underrated "A Cherry On Top".

12. "Fade" by Yo La Tengo:
They may be one of the older acts on this list, but Yo La Tengo delivered one of the most vital albums of the year with the impressively effortless-sounding "Fade". Ira Kaplan's guitar wizardry is turned up to 11 here on tracks like the standout "Ohm", and Georgia Hubley delivers the most hypnotizing vocal of the year on the gorgeous "Cornelia and Jane". 13 albums in, and they've still got tricks up their sleeves. Rock on, Yo La Tengo. Rock on.

11. "Acid Rap" by Chance the Rapper:
The most magnetic and energetic rapper to burst on the scene in a long time, Chance the Rapper's free mixtape is, simply put, the best rap I heard all year. His lyrical profundity is refreshing on songs like "Cocoa Butter Kisses" and "Chain Smoker", and his unique backing tracks of soul and jazz instrumentation offer something truly refreshing to the rap world. Here's to an LP next year from Chicago's best and brightest new star!

10. "Sunbather" by Deafheaven:
Kicking things off in the top 10 is the best metal album of the year; "Sunbather" is an outsider album through and through. Mixing black metal, shoegaze, post rock, and more, this album is one of the most fascinating and visceral listens of the year. Nowhere is this better exemplified than on opener "Dream House" where growled vocals are buried Kevin Shields style amidst a sea of powerful guitar churning. Props on the pink cover, too!

9. "Impersonator" by Majical Cloudz:
One of my late discoveries this year. Still, it shouldn't be discredited as "Impersonator" takes minimalism and raw emotion to a whole new level. Take everything you love about the grandeur of U2 and then remove everything that makes it grand; then you'll have something like what Majical Cloudz are doing here. No pun intended, but this is a magical album indeed. Especially with tracks like "Turns Turns Turns", "Silver Rings", and "Notebook" anchoring this thing.

8. "Southeastern" by Jason Isbell:
The former singer for Drive-By Truckers, an Alabama alt-country band, Jason Isbell gave us the best pure songwriter's album of the year. Channeling both the storytelling country songs of artists like Hank Williams and the more recent Americana sounds of Ryan Adams, Isbell paints beautiful scenes over moving folk music with just enough twang to make you feel like he's your best friend in the world. "Relatively Easy" and "Different Days" impress, but it's the staggeringly heartbreaking "Elephant" that steals the show.

7. "Excavation" by The Haxan Cloak:
A moody, dark, hazy concept album about the journey between death and the afterlife. This album works perfectly as a cohesive unit. It's also one of the first albums to fully utilize the physical effects that music can have on a listener; the bass drops and synth rushes are truly skull-bashing and heart-racing. It also happens to be the most terrifying record I've ever heard. I'd try to recommend a single track, but "Excavation" demands to be listened to as a whole piece. And that's what makes it a singularly great album.

6. "Like Clockwork" by Queens of the Stone Age:
Why it's so difficult to make an awesome rock album these days I will never understand, but Josh Homme and friends (including Dave Grohl, Trent Reznor, Elton John, and Alex Turner among others) managed to pull it off in grand style! With nothing but a bare-bones electric guitar and a metalhead's croon (complete with falsetto), Homme crafted what might be the band's best record to date. Need proof? Check "My God is the Sun", "I Sat By the Ocean", or the funky and under-appreciated "Smooth Sailing".

5. "Loud City Song" by Julia Holter:
Focused, unique, mesmerizing, lovely, bold. These are just a small fraction of the words that come to mind when listening to Holter's third album in three years. It's an album based on a musical based on a book, but yet it somehow manages to work on pretty much every level. Plus Holter's voice is pure gold! Just see "In the Green Wild" or "World" if you want to hear for yourself.

4. "The Bones of What You Believe" by Chvrches:
I don't know how this Scottish trio manages to do it, but repeatedly over the course of twelve tracks they craft the most brilliant and catchy and masterful and perfect pop songs written all year. Move over Daft Punk! "The Mother We Share" is the actual catchiest chorus of the year! Also, can I get an amen testifying to the power of "Lungs"? And how about the fact that Lauren Mayberry can do a perfect Jawa impersonation?! These three just get better and better the more I get to know about them!

3. "Modern Vampires of the City" by Vampire Weekend:
Ezra Koening, Rostam Batmanglij... You've done it. You've made your magnum opus. Their lyrics are more profound than ever before, the choruses are catchier, the grooves are stronger, the ideas are more original, the album more cohesive. Everything about this album is a step up, and the first two albums are pretty great to begin with! I mean, nearly every track here works flawlessly! "Unbelievers", "Obvious Bicycle", "Diane Young", and, of course, "Hannah Hunt" all work to make this a true modern masterpiece. Now go make another one!

2. "Repave" by Volcano Choir:
Justin Vernon doesn't need Bon Iver to be amazing. In fact, I might just argue that he needs Volcano Choir even more than he needs his more famous project. "Repave" is an album that just works. Eight tracks is the perfect length, the mad hatter-esque lyrics work well to create a mystical mood, and the post-rock sounds, courtesy of Collections of Colonies of Bees, work way better with Vernon's voice than a rickety old acoustic guitar ever did! "Tiderays", "Alaskans", "Comrade", and "Byegone": all new classics for me. A remarkable album.

1. "Cerulean Salt" by Waxahatchee:
I could talk for hours about what makes "Cerulean Salt" my favorite album of the year, and I still wouldn't have quite covered it all. I could start with how I'm in exactly the right age group to really "get" what Katie Crutchfield is writing about. Or I could mention how growing up in the same county as Crutchfield gives her infinite relatability (she even references the city of Alabaster in "Peace and Quiet"). Or I could tell you about how flawlessly her mellow punk aesthetic works for her songs. Or about how her voice is angelic in its nuance (See the impeccable "Swan Dive"). Or about how my two closest friends and I all simultaneously became obsessed with this album for at least a month if not longer. Or about how I've listened to it three times as much as any other album this year. But really, all of that is just tertiary. What truly makes "Cerulean Salt" my favorite album of the year is that it is important. Not to the music industry, but to me, and an album like that only comes around once in a very long while. "Cerulean Salt", all thirteen marvelous tracks of it, will forever define what 2013 was to me. Rock on, Katie Crutchfield.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

REVIEW: "Fade" - Yo La Tengo

Yo La Tengo impress as usual with their new album and my first listen of 2013. "Fade" is their fifteenth album and first with producer John McEntire who has worked previously with the groups Tortoise and Sea and Cake just to name a couple. While all of the hallmarks of a classic Yo La Tengo album are present here, the band takes new risks and makes a few mistakes resulting in an album that is, while certainly not the finest this group has produced, a worthy entry into their catalog and a fabulous way to start off a new year in music.