I commiserated greatly over this year end list of albums. It’s rather ridiculous, but I feel this need to make sure I leave nothing out when it comes to putting together lists like this. Garden variety perfectionism. On top of this tendency that I possess, 2013 was a loaded year in music. There was a lot of unforgettable music. Eventually I determined that a top 10 list was too difficult, that somebody I didn’t want to leave out was going to be left out. However, 5 albums stick out to me amidst all the others that I know I couldn’t deny giving the proper recognition. They will be on heavy rotation from now and into the distant future, I believe. So here are my 5 most unforgettable and undeniably great albums of 2013. These are in order, so number 1 is my top pick.
Quick Honorable Mentions:
Portugal. the Man ‘Evil Friends’, Kanye West ‘Yeezus’, Eminem ‘Marshall Mathers LP2′, STRFKR ‘Miracle Mile’, Arctic Monkeys ‘AM’, Drake ‘Nothing was the Same’, Darkside ‘Psychic’, James Blake ‘Overgrown’, Nine Inch Nails ‘Hesitation Marks’, Chelsea Wolfe ‘Pain is Beauty’, Alter Bridge ‘Fortress’, Atoms for Peace ‘AMOK’, Deafheaven ‘Sunbather’, forgive me of my sins for those I forget.
Now on to the LIST!!! (forgive quirks in the formatting, using images made it a real pain with wordpress)
5. Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clorkwork
It certainly did not feel like 6 or so years since the last QOTSA album. Josh Homme has his fingers in so many pies that it never really feels like he’s gone away for very long. But it has indeed been over 6 years since the last official QOTSA project ‘Era Vulgaris’. For me, the Queens of the Stone Age are one of the true and consistent rock & roll groups still in existence. I don’t mind experimental sounds and the cross genre dabbling that seem to be the artistic norm in music nowadays, but sometimes you want that band you can come back to and know what you are going to get. Not that they are a one note affair, but they have a reliable sound that is distinct and scratches that itch that very few others can. There are a handful of bands or artists who over the years often lead me to ask “why can’t I find more people that sound like this?…this is what I need” (Tool, El-P, Radiohead, Mastodon, QOTSA, among a few others). When I really think about it though, it’s probably best that only a select few are capable of giving me that special and unique listening experience. The latest Queens album ‘…Like Clockwork’ makes a case for being their best and it definitely feels like their most focused. Guitar, drums, vocals, all present in an aggressive simplicity. I hadn’t realized that I’d been starving for new QOTSA music but I’m sure glad it came along and it was more than sufficiently satiating.
4. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
This is going to be a rant, I forewarn thee. Often the complaint levied against Arcade Fire is that they are pretentious. Let’s examine that definition “attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc, than is actually possessed.” So are people trying to say that Arcade does not actually possess the importance, talent, and culture…that they aren’t one of the most acclaimed rock bands in recent memory??? Okay, now that we’ve cleared that up. With Reflektor’s release it seemed destined to be something people just wanted to figure out a way to delegitimize. I may have just made that word up, I’m not sure. Even people giving the album pretty high marks felt the need to call it disjointed, bloated, or some kind of mixed bag. Certainly, there were more experimental aspects to this album than any of their previous output. New sounds were toyed with, a dancier feel is present, songs are longer, and Supersymmetry may have been unnecessary. But that track comes at the end of the album, so I’m not going to allow that to overshadow the many transcendent moments that Reflektor presents. And make no mistake, this is still a very Arcade Fire album in all the ways that I’ve come to love and enjoy listening to them. Arena filling sound, self aware lyrics and themes, call it snobbish if you’d like, but it’s all backed up with pure artistry. I can’t believe that being a hater and the negative tenor of the internet has gotten so popular that I’m having to be an Arcade Fire apologist…5 years ago the concept of this would have been ridiculous. ‘Normal Person’ one of the best straight guitar rock songs I’ve heard in quite some time also provides the simplest of profound lyrics: “is any one as strange as a normal person…I can’t tell if I’m a normal person, it’s true. I think I’m cool enough but am I cruel enough….if that’s what’s normal now, I don’t want to know.” Many bands/artists in the past have been applauded for not sticking only to what made them popular, but in the age of social media and the internet, the outrage of fans not getting exactly what they expect seems to crowd out the more reasonable consideration of whether it’s still good music. The same reaction has come from many of the hip hop purists in relation to Kanye West’s polarizing album ‘Yeezus’. In his case, at least he’s not likable. The derision that’s building up for Arcade Fire is just nonsensical, warranted success turns people off I guess. Reflektor isn’t good, it’s freaking great.
3. El-P & Killer Mike are ‘Run the Jewels’
Something beyond fortuitous happened when Jamie Meline (the rapper/producer known as EL-P) and Michael Render (known as rapper Killer Mike) met to record a song for Killer Mike’s 2012 project in progress, ‘R.A.P. Music’. If I was a proponent of something like destiny, that might be how I’d describe what resulted form this gathering. It was a clashing of rap worlds that in many ways were diametrically different from one another. Killer Mike with southern hip hop, El-P with dense, left field, sci fi themed, underground rap. It all worked though, resulting in a fully El produced and critically lauded album. From there El-P did his own project ‘Cancer 4 Cure’ and they hit the road touring together. A ridiculous fire had started from teaming up and it was apparent that they had redeveloped a deep connection with the essence of hip hop music. I was able to see them live in Portland, summer 2012, and this energy was readily apparent.
They moved straight into a 2013 collaborative effort with ‘Run the Jewels’. On both Cancer 4 Cure and with this latest project, something seems to have kicked El-P out of the dark cynical tone he had stuck to for so long and turned him towards straight biting, sarcastic, wit filled braggadocio. Killer Mike met him halfway, still being able to lay down some razor sharp social commentary but knowing that he couldn’t complain much while they were having this much fun. Wanting this passion to be on full display, they released the album for free. The production on ‘Run the Jewels’ still has El’s experimental flare and darkness, but a black humor and a wry smile underscore it all. The exception being the epic closing track ‘A Christmas F****** Miracle’, and regardless of its seriousness it may be the best track. However, the track ’36 Chain’, along with the music video, perfectly demonstrate just how much these dudes have started living again in their post-40s. El spits:
We could double dutch in a minefield, hell gets
Just the right temperature, break beat minister
Riverdance cleats on your face for the finisher
He also states “you don’t wanna look inside my big crystal ball” but that seems to be exactly what we’ve been permitted to do. ‘Run the Jewel’s brings back the concept of a powerful rap duo and made it loud and clear that these veterans more than hold their own. For me, they make a curious but convincing case for being on top of the crowded heap of talented rappers in the game right now.
2. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
I’ve never had a problem with Vampire Weekend, I could even say I had a fair amount of respect for how utterly different and interesting they were. But on their first 2 albums, I could only give a passing listen to maybe a handful of tracks, and even then they’d never get any kind of heavy rotation. This was more an issue of taste than anything else, they just weren’t my thing. Although, I’ve always felt the range of what I could enjoy was wide. So, I couldn’t exactly put my finger on what wasn’t doing it for me when it came to Vampire Weekend. They just felt…too cute. With ‘Modern Vampires of the City’, I feel like the talent and unique aesthetic are honed much more maturely. That probably sounds a bit condescending, especially since its always been clear this band is intelligent. But I come back to that “too cute” thought, I think I just don’t like having as much fun as Vampire Weekend seemed to be trying to make its listeners have on their earlier efforts. MVOTC still has its occasional bubbly sentiment and feel, but this time around they added a layer of melancholy and seriousness that makes it all work. Instead of being annoyed, I could appreciate the unmistakable sound they’ve created for themselves while still being rewarded with some emotional depth. There is a wealth of beauty present on MVOTC, complemented by a most awesome album cover. “Don’t Lie” showcases this yin and yang blend I speak of (bubbly+melancholy) and it’s pretty fabulous stuff. I knew the first time I listened through that VW had finally made me a believer, but I was even more surprised and impressed at the staying power the music had over the course of the year. Stellar stuff.
1. Danny Brown – Old
There are probably people who would read this and think “who the what?” When I saw Danny Brown’s 2011 mixtape (basically a legitimate album) ‘XXX’ atop many year end lists in rap music, I also uttered “who the what?” But, yes, a wild haired, gap-toothed, seemingly crass rapper made my favorite album this year. He may have become more well known to the mainstream when he and A$ap Rocky waxed philosophical on a Noisey interview about wanting to sleep with Kathy Griffin (she immediately had them on her show, hilarity ensued) but his flamboyance is just one dimension of his artistry. At first I wasn’t sure ‘Old’ would land here at #1 as much of what Danny Brown lays down can take time before its evil genius sinks in. One form of his delivery can be high pitched and nasally and if someone only lent a passing ear, it might seem he was just humor music like Lonely Island. The humor and the punch lines are in rich supply, but so is the depth. Two of my favorite tracks this year, “Clean Up” and “Float On”, are layered with street philosophy and melancholy. There are attempts at glamorizing the life, yet Danny knows as much as the rap music naysayers that he’s not always doing what’s best for him. But he is making great music.
And to beat your enemy, you gotta think like them
So I was up late breaking day with the gremlins
Music in my heart but my thoughts wouldn’t listen
Often he discusses the paradoxes and dissonance that street and music life creates. The temptation to sell drugs in order to make money to buy Wonder Bread ultimately leading to misery, or turning to drugs to help write better rhymes ending in the cycle of addiction. This isn’t necessarily a new concept in rap but Danny Brown somehow makes it feel fresh, sad, fun, triumphant, ignorant, ridiculous, awesome, and brilliant all at the same time. He catches lightning in a bottle with ‘Old’ in a similar fashion to Eminem on the MMLP or Lil’ Wayne on the Carter III. What feels refreshing about Danny Brown, however, is that his success still remains somewhat underground. This has given him some leeway to shirk some genre cliches and blend different sounds together. He’s a festival hit and at times he’s been labeled a hipster and a novelty act for some of his genre blending and strange fashion. As a fan though, I can deal with him being misrepresented or misunderstood if that means he gets to continue doing things on his own terms. The more I listen the more sure I am that ‘Old’ is the most creative and unforgettable musical effort I heard throughout 2013.