This is an extremely individualistic list that draws from the genres that I listen to the most: rock, indie, pop, prog, electronic, experimental, ambient. You’ll even find a little bit of folk and one metal album.
I intend to follow this up with another piece on how I listened to this music, as I have yet to make up my mind about how my own participation in internet age mass-consumption affected the artists whose music I so enjoyed. I accessed this music through iTunes, Spotify Premium, Amazon/Amazon mp3, eMusic, gifts, and purchases made directly from the artists. Part of the uncertainty derives from the fact that I just have no idea how much of what I spent listening to music filtered back to the artists. Fortunately, I keep track of what I listen to, and I intend to figure this out to the best of my ability.
2013 was a wonderful, wonderful year for music full of great surprises, including unexpectedly solid albums by Cold War Kids, White Lies, Editors, New Order and David Bowie. Keeping this listdown to 50 albums was difficult, and I went through several iterations of the top 4 before settling on the order present here.
Of course, there’s plenty I didn’t hear, and I don’t feel like rushing into anything for the sake of considering it for this article. Music needs time to be savored and absorbed. Still, I listened to a lot of music and enjoyed it every step of the way. My love for cinema has always made me an avid fan of the album as the ultimate structural form for communicating ideas through music, and I hope that this list does justice to the most evocative and brilliant releases I heard this year.
Poliça – Shulamith; Rilo Kiley – RKives; Jessica Curry – Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (Soundtrack); Atoms for Peace – Amok; The Civil Wars – The Civil Wars; Ms Mr – Secondhand Rapture; The Dodos – Carrier; Floorplan – Paradise
And here are numbers 50-21. Check out the top 20 in Part 2.
50. Laurel Halo – Chance of Rain
The cover of Chance of Rain shows a purgatorial crowd of undead idling by their graves, and its music is what they would probably dance to at a party. Laurel Halo removes her vocals that were surprisingly prominent on 2012’s Quarantine and focuses here on blips and synth dance beats that occasionally carry a jazzy influence. Occasionally, the music hits a tranquil clearing (most prominently in the album intro and outro), but these moments are quickly revealed as fake within the morose, often primitive compositions Halo has created. She washes “Ainnome” in drones and fuzz; combined with a drooping bass line, it sounds unreal yet strangely inviting. You can sense blood, lust, and life in this music – it just exists up in a cloud of Halo’s inspired mind.
49. Weekend – Jinx
While it’s grossly inferior to the San Francisco shoegazers’debut, the long-awaited Jinx still settles into a winning groove. “Mirror”, “Oubliette”, and other tracks in the first half are scrappy but sharply produced and engrossing exercises in noise rock.
48. The Men – New Moon
I was introduced to The Men through “Oscillation”, a noisy epic of post-punk awesomeness from their 2012 album Open Your Heart. So it came as a surprise to me (and other fans) when New Moon marked a drastic departure from their earlier sound, opting to streamline their distortion and noisy guitars into more traditional rock arrangements. They still maintain plenty of ruff, Sonic Youth-like edges, like in the stomping highlight “I Saw Her Face” and surging “The Brass”. While the new sound is an uncomfortable shift away from genre I love, the results are unequivocally rewarding. These are tightly written and melodic songs. Part of the band’s charm is that they appear genuine – New Moon plays like the result of a successful collaboration between five talented men seeking to make a good rock album, and that is entirely enough. Additionally, an accompanying EP Campfire Songs renders many of these tracks in a rawer, equally interesting light.
47. Flaamingos – Flaamingos
The self-titled debut by the duo consisting of Daniel Koontz and Jerry Narrows did for me this year what The Soft Moon’s Zeros did for me last year: deliver a concise, tightly-written post-punk sound that often lives up to its obvious influences.The lyrics falter occasionally (as on the awkwardly confessional “She’s Never Satisfied”), but Flaamingos have found a winning formula. “All I Wanna Do is Live”, “Expressions”, and “Walk A Wire” are terrific “Isolation”-style artifacts of post-punk brilliance. Murky and frenetic, this is music for the hyper-caffeinated soul.
46. Yo La Tengo – Fade
My friends pick on me for being such a strong Yo La Tengo fan. Often compared to the Velvet Underground, the New Jersey trio is a quintessential group for critics and music nerds. With Fade, though, they’ve crafted an album for not for the nerds but for their more casual listeners. Bereft of any 15-minute heavy guitar jams, 12-minute passages of near silence, or 3-minute drum intros, Yo La Tengo have instead stretched their ability to extract pretty, melodic songs from drowsy and downbeat lyrics. Opener “Ohm” finds Ira Kaplan in the face of defeat as “Sometimes the bad guys come out on top/Sometimes the good guys lose”, but the upbeat mood turns the song into a celebration of that defiance as he repeats “Resisting the flow” as the music gently quiets down. The churning guitar and bass from that track are rarely repeated, and most of what follows resembles the airy first half of Popular Songs (2009).
Fade is undoubtedly a safer album than any Yo La Tengo have recorded recently, but saying that downplays the work that went into it. Summer Sun (2003), the only real stumble of their career, showed how easily this approach could become turgid. Fade is so successfuly warm and inviting in its apparent simplicity that it’s easy not to give Yo La Tengo the credit they deserve for it. They make producing a great album look too easy. While most the highlights from their splendid concert in Nashville this January were their older rock jams, Yo La Tengo have more than earned the right to embark down a more accessible road. And what a promising road it is.
45. CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe
The long-anticipated debut studio album from Glasgow-based CHVRCHES holds nothing back as it aims squarely for mass-appeal in its massive synth rock melodies. Singer Lauren Mayberry has a captivating, likeable voice that fits the bubbly arrangements on knockouts like “We Sink” (where she makes the “I’ll be a thorn in your side”sound serious yet almost charming) and“The Mother We Share”. These quality if these first two tracks is maintained throughout the album, which seems to never run out of energy or ideas. Bonesonly misstep is letting Martin Doherty take lead vocals on “Under the Tide” and“You Caught the Light” – he’s no, say, Blake Sennett, and his vocals are much better fitted for his past touring band The Twilight Sad. But this is only a quibble. CHVRCHES have made in The Bones of What You Believe a catchier and more insightful pop album than just about any mainstream artist this year.
44. Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety
An entire album of busily arranged, bustling electro-pop that drowns the dissonance and messy electronics in the hyper-emotional vocals of Autre Ne Veut’s sole member Arthur Ashin. Though the lyrics are introspective, they are portrayed in gargantuan terms and sung with energy to befit titles like“World War” and “Gonna Die”. Ashin seems to be suggesting that this kind of psychotic energy is welled up in each of us. On Anxiety, he lets it all out to create in a marvelous display.
43. Valerie June – Pushin’ Against a Stone
Memphis native and folk artist Valerie June’s breakthrough fourth album seamlessly embraces an impressive range of influences. The singer/songwriter draws from roots, rock, gospel, country and R&B to create a work that sounds cohesive and authentically southern.
42. Cults – Static
The cover of Static displays the central duo of the New York indie rock band Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion turned away from one another in a clever follow-up to their debut’s album art and an obvious nod to their real-life breakup. They both appear to be in the midst of a fury, and it’s easy to see how this energy may have channeled – productively – into the furiously-paced 11 tracks that make up Static’s tight 35-minute running time. With sharp, fuzzy guitar jabs reminiscent of Sleigh Bells stacked on top of Follin’s inflective vocals, Static is a confident step forward for a band whose future is uncertain.
41. Low – The Invisible Way
It’s to Low’s credit that the undeniably weakest album of the all-Mormon band’s prolific career is this warm and beautiful. Aside from one stumbling solo at the end of “On My Own”, Low have entirely dropped the heavier electric guitar that popposed up on every release since they reshaped their sound on Things We Lost in the Fire (2001). But the purpose is not to return to the minimalism of their early slowcore material. Instead, the production by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy guides them towards a relaxed set of midtempo songs that find the band in touch with a natural sense of wonder. In this more optimistic setting, Mimi Parker’s vocals dominate. She sings lead on most of the great songs, namely “So Blue” and “Just Make It Stop”, which bustle enough to instill some momentum into the album, and the glorious closer “To Our Knees”. Sparhawk, by contrast, sounds tired and bitter. While “Plastic Cup” is a haunting gem, many of his other songs grate under his brittle voice. Still, The Invisible Way is a splendid album an accessible way to enter the band’s discography.
40. Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus
Fuck Buttons have no singing or lyrics, but you wouldn’t notice from a cursory listen to Slow Focus, an album with so much character in its immaculate psychedelic productions that it attains a life of its own. The British duo create a sound that hints at a daunting, even malevolent, undercurrent that comes close to being realized in the 10-minute “Stalker”, but the darkness is only textural. Most of Slow Focus is glitz and awesome kinetic energy.
39. James Blake – Overgrown
James Blake’s superb follow-up to his self-titled debut pushes the boundaries of the unique subgenre he essentially created, using new tools to tastefully expand his sonic palette and featuring appearances from Brian Eno and rapper RZA. Blake continues to create haunting, shifting environments that hint at an inner beauty that only appears in small doses.
38. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Arcade Fire have always strived to be gigantic. Their early live shows thrived on antics that involved the huge band tossing drums into the air and parading through the audience. Everything about Reflektor sounds absolutely perfect in theory: eschewing the neat polish of The Suburbs for the pathway first projected by “Sprawl II” – Haitian-influenced dance beats, electronics, and bouncy rhythms. And the double album concept was promising: if there is any one contemporary rock group gigantic enough to have a double album to rival, say, Mellon Collie and Infinite Sadness, it’s these guys.
The revitalization of Arcade Fire’s sound drew inevitable comparisons to the Brian Eno’s engineering of Achtung Baby-era U2, but these comparisons are both unwarranted and wrong. Eno brought down the sacred stature U2 gave themselves with The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum to present them as fun-loving, romantic everbodies, but James Murphy’s re-engineering of Arcade Fire’s sound creates the opposite transition. The Suburbs showed them reaching back to their roots and drawing from their Springsteen influence. They were big, even bloated, but still underdogs. This new Arcade fire, plastered with images from Greek mythology and containing a song called “Joan of Arc” across a double album, pushes them up into self-reflective celebrity.
And Arcade Fire don’t pull it off. Sure, Reflektor contains much brilliance. But the new sound and double-album structure only work based on goodwill they built up in the past. They aim for New Order electronics, but instead of “Blue Monday”, they get clunky, tacky arrangements that pick up where their awful cover of “Age of Consent” left off. Reflektor has drawn mellifluous praise from Pitchfork (9.2/10), Rolling Stone (4.5/5), and many others, while Chris Richards of the Washington post labeled Arcade Fire “gigantic dorks with boring sex lives” who are “devoid of wit, subtlety and danger, now with bongos”. I’m not coming down on one side or the other – the truth is that there is a spectacular 8-9 track album buried in the wealth of extraneous material here.
Reflektor invites a critical relationship between the artist and the band, and Arcade Fire is entirely conscious of the fact that they are a hype machine still in the spotlight. The first (and strongest) track has David Bowie join in a repeat of “Thought you would bring me to the resurrector/Turns out it was just a reflektor” to emphasize its importance. In an age of instant transmission of nit-picking criticism from everyone, people are going to hear what they want to hear. The muttered line “Do you like rock’n’roll music? Cause I don’t know if I do.” at the start of “Normal Person” may have been intended as quick joke, but it has an unfortunate resonance in an album with too many half-formed songs.
After the awesomeness of the title track, “We Exist” first demonstrates a set of recurring problems. It doubles as a commentary about the fight for the recognition and acceptance of homosexuality in a repressive culture and a statement about the immediate nature of the relationship between fans and artists in the digital age, and on both fronts it falls flat. Frankly, Butler’s vocals are whiny and boring, the lyrics are blunt to the point of corniness, and the dance-beat is static and underdeveloped. Almost every time Arcade Fire settle into a great groove, it goes on for too long with little development. The structure only compounds these problems: the coda to “Supersymmetry” adds little, the second version of “Here Comes the Night” is unnecessary, and the songs rarely live up to their running times.
It’s a compliment to Arcade Fire that they require this level of criticism to explain why they don’t appear higher up on a list like this. “Reflektor” is an instant classic. “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” is cathartic and beautiful. “Porno” actually catches a terrific, The Cure-inspired melody and features Butler’s most dynamic vocals. And despite boring lyrics, “Afterlife” is the one moment that incorporates electronics as fluidly as “Sprawl II”.
In fact, the failure of Reflektor as a concept makes the material within it all the more fascinating. This isn’t a boring failure, or even a bad one, but a schizophrenic, all-over-the-place result of a band daring to want to be arena stars without sacrificing their artistry. Reflektor is not good as The Suburbs, but it’s way more interesting.
37. Holograms – Forever
The product of the boredom and joblessness that followed the post-punk band from Stockholm’s first tour, Forever shows Holograms diverging from the track set by similarly youthful punkers from Copenhagen Iceage. Holograms are as frantically noisy as before, but they have incorporated synthesizers for more melodic and straightforward effects than on their debut, significantly lightening the mood. When singer/bassist Andreas Lagerström shouts “Destruction! Destruction!”, the effect isn’t gothic but exhilarating. A lot of these tracks merit comparison to live versions of “Insight” or “Shadowplay” by Joy Division – and that is no faint praise.
36. The Flaming Lips – The Terror
From any other band, The Terror would be an experimental album. But this is the Flaming Lips, whose recent projects involved incasing a 24-hour song into real human skulls, covering The Dark Side of the Moon, and releasing an everything-at-once 18-track cascade of noise as their last “traditional” album. While it lacks a single radio-friendly pop song, The Terror is almost startling in its sparseness compared to the Lips’ other albums. The middle 15-minute passage consisting only of “You Lust” and the title track acts as the angry, bitter heart to an album about loneliness and dread. On the former, Wayne Coyne jeers “You’ve got a lot of nerve to fuck with me”, while the latter settles into an ominous electronic groove. “You Are Alone” is the darkest moment of all, acting as a declaration of solitude befitting of the cover art. The Terror is likely to be an oddball even in a discography as eccentric as the Flaming Lips’ – it’s a draining listen that requires patience and the context of the entire album to understand, but it also features possibly the most direct, confrontational emotional power of their career.
35. Foals – Holy Fire
The third album from English indie rockers Foals present their often experimental music in pop terms, embracing the attention they have received without compromising their sound. The momentum from album’s epic first side (kick-started by the awesome trio of “Prelude”, “Inhaler”, and “My Number”) fizzles out a bit towards the end, save for the excellent “Milk & Black Spiders”. Still, it’s a spirited and inspired rock record that loses nothing through its accessibility.
34. Implodes – Recurring Dream
Kranky Records unleashes another album of disconcerting experimentalism. The Chicago quartet Implodes’ second release captures the feeling of an endless nightmare with heavy, broody melodies and post-rock atmospheres. The intentionally repetitive strong structures turn the often colorful arrangements into mind-numbing exercises in bleakness. There’s a lot buried here for anyone who finds the idea of exploring the nature of dark dreams enticing, and it’s a much better David Lynch album than the one Lynch actually made this year.
33. Mood Rings – VPI Harmony
The enchanting full-length debut from Atlanta-based band Mood Ring dives into a land of psychedelic dream pop. Singer Will Fussell’s sighing vocals melt into the moody, fuzzy arrangements on songs like highlights “Pathos y Lagrimas” and “Come Lay Down in Lined Arrangements”.
32. Local Natives – Hummingbird
The National’s guitarist and co-songwriter Aaron Dessner produced Local Natives’ deeply human second album, apparently recorded at a time of personal duress for several of its members. You can sense Dessner’s influence in the gently despairing mood, with several guitar lines recalling Dessner’s from “Slow Show”. The interlocking trio of vocalists (Taylor Rice, Ryan Han, and Kelcey Ayer), though, are the main force behind this album’s appeal. The music is often appropriately subdued, but on tracks like the astonishing opener “You & I” they sing their hearts out. The band is consistently unified and the record has no weak moments. Hummingbird follows in the like of Beck’s Sea Change (2002), portraying a fading glimmer of surreal beauty on the edges of despair.
31. She & Him – Volume 3
The latest installment in Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward’s delightfully twee band settles quickly into a relaxing pace. Deschanel’s vocals are so comfortably affectionate and Ward’s production so muted that, at first listen, there doesn’t appear to be much to these innocuous pop tunes, but they hold up quite well to repeated listens. Opener “I’ve Got Your Number, Son” is a glorious breakup anthem, and the more subdued tracks that follow are just as satisfying. Volume 3 is She & Him continuing to search for the perfect pop song and finding a dozen worthy contenders.
30. Deerhunter – Monomania
Bradford Cox’s Atlanta-based experimental punk rock group started in the abstract and has gradually shifted away layers of dense reverb into a more pop-oriented sound. It’s all still there on Monomania – nearly every track is encased with distortion and fuzz– but it represents a continuation of the transition Deerhunter has been making since they left Kranky records. Now, Cox seems to be trying to reimagine American punk music, delivering here a barrage of urgent melodies and messy guitar. Everything up through “Dream Captain” is inspired and awesome. The album slows down a bit after that, exploring territory more familiar to Deerhunter fans (and likely more alienating to newcomers) until the title track explodes as the noise squashes Cox’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics. The lack of experimentation here makes Monomania less audacious and exciting than previous releases – you get the feeling that Cox was trying to create a more abrasive and confrontational album than he ended up with – but the bits of fuzz and ambience at the beginning and ending of most of the tracks keep the album true to the band’s signature sound. Monomania succeeds as a terrific, lively fusion of Deerhunter’s most abstract and accessible qualities.
29. Crash of Rhinos – Knots
A superb sophomore album by five indie punk rockers from Derby, England. Their songs are often scattered but always brimming with energy. Tellingly, the lyric and writing credits are shared by the whole band, as they play wonderfully and fluently together. Check out “Luck Has a Name” and keep an eye on these guys.
28. Editors – The Weight of Your Love
In a year full of happy surprises, Editors’ first album is four years is a refreshing turnaround that ditches the electronic ambitions of In This Light and On This Evening (2009). It follows more in the direction first pronounced in An End Has a Start (2007), which towed an uneasy path away from the gothic Joy Division-influenced post-punk of their debut towards U2’s stadium-friendly rock anthems. The departure of guitarist Chris Urbanowicz, whose style was often brilliant yet restrictive, seems to have freed the British band to complete the transition: in first track “The Weight”, frontman Tom Smith announces that “I promised myself I won’t talk about death/I know I’m getting boring.” The eastern-influenced “A Ton of Love” soars to epic heights, while subtler moments like “Two Hearted Spider” and highlight “The Phone Book” incorporate folk and Americana. The arrangements are occasionally claustrophobic, a problem compounded by Smith’s constant over-singing, as if the album will evaporate if he ever stops hollering. But this is packed with a myriad of great music, from the spooky “Formaldehyde” to the churning bass of “Sugar”. Several of the ballads in the middle are painfully overblown, but despite its obvious flaws The Weight of Your Love is Editors’ most accomplished full-length yet and their best performance as a full band.
Arctic Monkeys keep the momentum going with their fifth consecutive excellent full-length. Inspired not by the Velvet Underground radio allusion on the cover but instead by the idea of partying (or staying out) into the early hours of the morning, AM has their most pronounced American sound to date. But their core sound of muscular, forceful rock remains intact – Arctic Monkeys are simply adding to their list of influences. They may always be a deriviative group indepted to the rock records of the 70s, but by this point they own their sound so fully that it’s easy to get swept up in the barrage of great music that they deliver. Frontman Alex Turner underpins his lyrics with a sense of sneering cynicism, especially on the bitter “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re high?” He jumps into a startling but appealing falsetto on “One for the Road” and parts of “R U Mine?”, which find him questioning one-time hookups in the langauge of 21st century text messages. Guitarist Jamie Cook has great riffs throughout, and the band plays with a confidence and coolness that has not faded since their debut. One of the few bands to consistently live up to the great hype surrounding them, the Arctic Monkeys have released another album with hardly a weak moment.
26. Iceage – You’re Nothing
The teenagers from Copenhagen who stormed out of the local scene and into international acclaim with their 2011 debut New Brigade, which stuffed 12 tracks of gothic, noisy punk music into a trim 24 minutes, deliver an impressive follow-up that keeps the momentum going. You’re Nothing allows the compositions to breath just a little bit (a few songs here even break 3 minutes!), but, remarkably, packs even more sustained punch than its predecessor. The members are in their early 20s now, and where New Brigade felt like a band trying to throw together years of ideas and inspiration into a singular entity, You’re Nothing sounds more confident and pointed. Elias Bender Rønnenfelt smothers his vocals (English in a thick Danish accent) over galloping arrangements resembling early, live Joy Division. If you can get past the band’s provocative behavior at live shows (which include selling knives at American concerts, a deliberately rebellious move given that most large knives are illegal in Denmark), You’re Nothing is an exhilarating, even refreshing listen.
25. Grouper – The Man Who Died In His Boat
The genius in the work of Liz Harris (aka Grouper) is how she takes an entirely unique spectrum of sound that appears to have a limited range and reworks it time and again into affecting and ethereal ambient compositions. Sure, Brian Eno, Biosphere, and many others have mined drone-based ambience for rich rewards, but nobody sounds quite like Grouper. At first glance, her music all sounds the same – slow, hazy drones, overlaid with ghostly vocals and occasional acoustic guitar – but within the realm of the soundscapes she’s created, each work stands starkly distinct. If there were only one, say, rap artist around, differentiating between each entry in his/her body of work would be less useful than describing the genre itself. Harris’ musical vision is so focused and its constraints so tight that it’s easy to throw stock words at each of her releases – ghostly, ambient, reverb-heavy. But Harris has established herself as an immensely prolific composer, even as her signature band (Grouper) has fizzled into one-shot experiments and singles since the release of her astonishing, faintly folk-ish Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill in 2008. Last year’s Violet Replacement saw her expanding her sound to extreme limits, producing 30-minute and 50-minute tracks (the latter of which formed the backdrop of my senior seminar film project and was itself an excerpt from a much larger piece). Harris operates as if a genre exists around her, and one more-or-less does, thanks to her many releases and side projects.
The Man Who Died in His Boat harkens back to the days of Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, consisting of songs recorded at the same time. Despite being a five-year-old collection of leftovers, it’s actually her most accessible work to date. Yes, it contains the same mix of tattered, cloudy noise, but the abstraction all surrounds a very human narrator. “Vital” sounds a lot like “Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping” from Dead Deer – even as her vocals echo and drift with the music, there is a straightforward acoustic song in the center of it, and it’s harrowing. The album feels like a series of recollections and reflections, with the instrumentals melting seamlessly into the lyrical tracks. Its final moment, “Living Room”, is the one unadulterated acoustic ballad in her repertoire as Grouper, and it casts an interesting twist on the preceding album. Especially for the uninitiated, Grouper’s music can seem daunting and inflexible (certainly not emotive) in its abstractness, but “Living Room”conveys just the opposite: stripped of all production, Harris speaks plainly and uncomfortably: “I’m looking for the place where the spirit meets the skin/Can’t figure out why that place feels so hard to be in.” Under the strum of traditional music, she’s “Busy pretending to relate/And it’s getting harder and harder to fake.” The Man Who Died in His Boat, another triumph from Kranky Records, is both a personal vehicle of self-expression for Harris and alluring immersion into her world. Rather than changing her message or stylistic approach to fit any preexisting musical confines, it finds Harris continuing to redefine them herself.
24. Sigur Rós – Kveikur
The idea of Sigur Rós making a good album surprises no one. In fact, that’s exactly what happened last year with the rickety Valtari – it garnered the usual rounds of praise and promptly fell off the map. It was pretty music but also conveyed a sense of going through the motions. While Kveikur stays safely within the confines that the Icelanders have been carving since their formation, it delivers a series of violent rock songs that strike with impressive urgency. As NME’s Al Homer put it, “This is an album no-one anticipated Sigur Rós would make.” Sigur Rós haven’t so much remade their sound as reshaped themselves into a band to get excited about. Following the departure of keyboardist and original member Kjartan Sveinsson, it’s hard to believe that only the remaining trio is responsible for all of this gorgeous cacophony. All three are in top form (Jónsi’s vocals are varied and as beautiful as ever), and from “Brennisteinn” through “Var”, they never waste a moment, making Kveikur the band’s trimmest and most immediate release.
23. Deafheaven – Sunbather
I possess no vocabulary for describing black metal, and I only checked out Sunbather because the hype surrounding it pushed it into mainstream visibility. The San Franciscans of Deafheaven have created an audaciously epic work that, for all its range and dynamic shifts, never simmers. Tracks like “Vertigo”, “The Pecan Tree”, and “Dream House” (all over 9 minutes long) climb to immaculate heights. While vocalist George Clarke constantly screams his lyrics, the sound follows the defiant, bright-pink cover art, drawing more from raging, frenetic inspiration than from goth.
22. Cold War Kids – Dear Miss Lonelyhearts
I still find the greatness of this album striking. With one indisputable classic song and terrific live performances (two of which I’ve had the pleasure of attending), Cold War Kids is a group that a lot of people having been rooting for for a long time. But their records have always disappointed – Robbers & Cowards (2006) was riddled with dull religious and political proclamations, Loyalty to Loyalty (2008) was pretentious and unsatisfying, and Mine Is Yours (2011) was bloated and cheesy. But the Kids have finally separated the strengths from the weaknesses of each of their past releases, distilling their sound into their best record to date and one of the most satisfying rock albums of the year.
The band plays with nearly flawless chemistry, adding drum machines and a touch of synthesizer successfully to the mix. The addition of Modest Mouse guitarist Dann Gallucci may account for the newly sharp and confident songwriting, helping make “Miracle Mile” and “Lost That Easy” fantastically catchy. Nathanael West also gives his most rewarding vocal performance to date. “Tuxedos”, in particular, contains several priceless lyrics. It doubles as a story of a wedding crasher undercut by the album’s theme of bitter loneliness (“I love to be a stranger at a wedding/Cause tuxedos don’t discriminate”) and a statement about the hollowness of the maligned (even within the band) stadium aspirations of Mine Is Yours (“When will I find, when will I find someone to take?/For the millionth time, for the millionth time I was the fake.”) There’s never a surplus of great rock records, and Dear Miss Lonelyhearts is one that deserved more critical and press attention than it got.
21. Bill Callahan – Dream River
Not every album needs to be about conflict. In the tradition of Dylan’s Nashville Skyline (1969), Bill Callahan spins out an appealing portrait of contentment earned through companionship. Callahan has a baritone croon that makes the blunt lyrics all the more direct and the album is scattered with expertly performed violin, guitar, and drum. The opening track, “The Sing”, finds Callahan happily sipping a beer at a bar as he observes the quirks of the people around him. “Javelin Unlanding” incorporates a Spanish rhythm into a dreamlike meditation, while the similarly abstract “Seagull” casts a spirit of flight and adventure over Callahan and a significant other (“I wonder I’ll ever wake up/I mean really wake up/Wake up and wake you too). Callahan’s narrator has attained a sense of transcendence. On “Winter Road”, he’s pondering “Time itself means nothing/But time spent with you”, a thought, by this point, he does not need to complete.