This is a continuation of my personal list of the year’s best albums. Part 1 (50-21) be found here.
20. Slow Walkers – Slow Walkers
Slow Walkers set out to evoke through sound a very specific idea, but their music might as well be about anything. What it’s about, after all, hardly matters. The music is entirely its own end. The collaboration between Grouper’s Liz Harris and Australian experimental musician Lawrence English is a structural, abstract wonder – like Grouper’s Violet Replacement from last year, it consists of bellowing, cavernous pieces of disorienting white noise. The name Slow Walkers actually has a literal significance, as Harris and English set out to capture the dark, majestic grace of the movement of zombies: the slow kind from the old George A. Romero movies, as revealed in a creepy low-fi video.
This dismal thematic context transforms otherwise neutral compositions into bizarre nightmares. “Cross” is a staggering and beautiful opener, but “Torn Cloth” is underpinned by the deep groans of the undead. This element is thankfully subtle and suggestive, as strict adherence to this premise lessons the power of the album. Slow Walkers sounds like a Grouper album with additional details spruced sprinkled around, and its unrelenting darkness and similarity to Harris’ past work seems to suggest that she intended her work with Grouper to represent emotions this groggy and melancholic. But it stands alone, too, as a stunning ambient album.
19. The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
Unquestionably the most audacious and challenging album I heard all year, Shaking the Habitual find the Knife shedding all pop pretensions to stretch the limits of what messages sound can be used to deliver while still existing as music. Categorizing this as “art” seems like taking the easy way out. The Knife draw from ambient, experimental, dance, and electronic music to create a mysterious and almost impenetrable 96-minute soundscape. The political overtones are complex and ever-present – even the danceable moments always maintain a certain perspective that views the wealthy as a wild “other” (in a reversal of popular perceptions) and examines economic and environment issues. The avant-garde songs are more confrontational, like the horrific “Fracking Fluid Injection” (which uses slicing and pained noises to portray oil drilling as an act of violence) and 20-minute “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized”, a drone-based ambient composition placed in the middle of the album. The art ultimately subdues the electro-dance pop, preventing Shaking the Habitual from being an entirely satisfying listen (“Ready to Lose” is also an awkward ending), but as an experience it’s nevertheless riveting and fascinating.
18. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
The gimmicky marketing campaign for Random Access Memories involved television ads, a possibly staged cancellation on The Colbert Report, robot costumes, billboards, and a web series. The campaign succeeded in driving up album sales (a career-high 3 million copies, a particularly impressive feat given the present state of the music industry) and in the pulling off the greatest trick of Daft Punk’s career: convincing the average listener that they had released a mainstream dance record. The hype and reception surrounding Random Access Memories drew from the French duo’s well-deserved reputation as the architects of catchy, danceable hits like “Da Funk” and “Around the World”, but the content of the album undercuts that image, or at least it hints at previously unseen layers behind their past work.
None of this is to imply that Random Access Memories is not a big-budget blockbuster. Indeed, the seventy-four minute epic is jam-packed with startling compositions and collaborations that tap into electro, jazz, prog-rock, funk, disco, French House, and disco. It’s as bizarre as it sounds. Will Hermes summed it up nicely in his review for Rolling Stone: “It’s completely ridiculous.” Occasionally, the bombast and improvisation overwhelm the content – for instance, the overtly earnest “Giorgio by Moroder”, awkwardly sequenced as the third track, meanders and ultimately has little to say about its subject. But the construction is mostly spectacular, with the songs maintaining a superb level of quality as the album progresses.
But Random Access Memories isn’t just this year’s most pronounced anti-pop release because it holds together so strongly as a sustained album. There is a glimmer of a concept of the band’s robotic personas seeking to experience humanity that runs through many of the tracks, and this theme parallels the conflict between artificiality and inspiration introduced in “Give Life Back to Music”. When Daft Punk twist the vocals of Julian Casablancas, the supposed “savior of rock” for the new millennium, it’s strangely disconcerting how superior and more affecting he sounds that with floundering late-career The Strokes (it’s also the best track on RAM). There’s a reason that even the catchiest moments from Random Access Memories (“Lose Yourself to Dance”, “Get Lucky”) don’t much resemble (other) Top 40 entries or even modern club hits. Daft Punk stayed away from computer technology as much as they could during RAM’s production, opting instead for live performances, and the result is a freshness of sound instilled into their dance compositions, most of which are far superior to the music to which Daft Punk are ironically often compared. Random Access Memories is the sound of rediscovery, a reenactment of the moment synth pop and disco emerged from prog rock. It establishes Daft Punk and their collaborators as auterish artists capable of assembling a myriad of guest performers into a magnificent production.
17. DIANA – Perpetual Surrender
DIANA’s debut is a remarkably cohesive work considering it was stitched together by veteran, but mostly unrelated, artists through sheer accident. After a botched recording session left drummer Kieran Adams and Destroyer’s saxophonist Joseph Shabason with studio time but no band, they decided to start from scratch and create the foundation for what would become Perpetual Surrender. The songs, including the lyrics, were written before vocalist Carmen Elle joined the group. This is not immediately obvious, as Elle’s vocals fit the mood perfectly and dominate the first half of the album, but her lack of ownership of the material helps explain the passivity of much of her singing. This becomes an odd, maybe unintentional virtue. True to its title, Perpetual Surrender is about decay through passivity, about the mask its narrators wear in public slowly replacing what it covers. Elle’s icy vocals come across just as forced and strained as the façades of her narrators.
On the early tracks, Adams and Shabason replicate 80s synth-pop with a level of fidelity that distinguishes it from other recent throwback material – the bouncy “That Feeling” and “Strange Attraction” sound less like a 2013 band looking back on the eighties than an actual cut from the era. On “Born Again”, the electronics and bass carve out a perfect groove for Elle’s vocals. The lyrics carry on the theme of inaction bleeding into serious harm: “Now’s the time for believing/Lay your hands on me, I need healing.” She’s not reaching out but idly hoping for help. “That Feeling” buries the most pessimistic message within the album’s (and one of the year’s) best melody with an image of slowly dissipating romance: “We were blind to all the ways/We sat and watched it fade away/So let it go/Let it go.” The title track explores the conflict her fractured identity as presented to a romantic partner actualized through serene Glo-fi arrangements: “I don’t need somebody else, to let me know how much I love you/I need saving from myself, I know.”
Shabason’s Destroyer influence manifests itself in the airy second half – it’s easy to imagine “Born Again” with Bejar’s vocals in middle of Kaputt. Shabason also adds some great saxophone solos that help give the album a unique feel.
The more abstract final tracks are a surprising move. In an interview with The Alt Valt writer Allison Fitts, Kieran explained, “…we do very much like to experiment with the idea and aspiration of exposing people to certain things (sounds, arrangement twists, longer ambient section, strange beats) that may be a little more challenging, and ultimately more rewarding than what you would typically find in a pop song.” The transition from pop to abstract is not a complete success – the mixing of the murmuring “New House” doesn’t quite work –but the ambient “Curtains” is a calming outro. At only eight fairly short tracks, the early momentum helps push through the slower moments, making Perpetual Surrender a breezy listen. With a full band now secured, it’s easy to think that this lineup could do wonders in the future.
16. Raum – The Event of Your Leaving
The strongest of Grouper’s Liz Harris’ three remarkably superb releases this year (in addition to two similarly excellent albums from last year) finds her working with fellow West-Coast artist Jefre Cantu-Ledesma. Together, they’ve crafted an uplifting listen and varied album that takes a luminescent approach to portraying its morbid subject matter – it’s essentially the opposite of Harris’ Slow Walkers collaboration. It’s rewarding hearing Harris drawing drone-based soundscapes that feel vibrant rather than cold and abstract. While I’m not familiar with Cantu-Ledesma’s work, it’s easy to see the new hopeful dimension in music otherwise typical to Grouper’s repertoire and suspect that this was his contribution. The glowing, forceful “Blood Moon” is one of the year’s finest ambient compositions. Showcasing a devout Brian Eno influence, Event of Your Leaving is a reflective album that renders tragedy in resplendent white.
15. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
Rarely has a victory lap sounded so good. The culmination of an unbroken chain of magnificent records going as far back as Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (2003), Trouble Will Find Me find The National drawing from a well-established formula to deliver an album of sustained excellence. For the first time, they do nothing to sharpen or expand their sound – each track may as well have been a leftover from the High Violet (2010) recording session. In that sense, it’s a bit of a plodding, if entirely satisfying listen. A winning formula is a winning formula. Bryan Devendorf’s drumming is as stunning as ever, and while the album lacks the awesome screaming vocals of the Alligator-era, it does feature Matt Berninger’s most nuanced and accomplished singing to date. Every track is an equal highlight of post-punk brilliance and murky inner conflict of flawed male narrators. There just isn’t a whole lot more to say: if you’re not familiar with The National’s sound, this is a perfectly fine place to start; if you are familiar, you’ll enjoy this one as much as the last.
14. White Lies – Big TV
White Lies was never a band I felt particularly strongly about before – as big of a fan as I am of the post-punk revival movement that Donnie Darko and general 80’s nostalgia sparked, the London-based group always veered a bit too closely towards The Killers-like alt-rock for my taste. For me, Big TV carries with it that great feeling of being blown away by an album you didn’t expect to be particularly great. It’s by miles the best music White Lies has ever created, and its first that puts Harry McVeigh’s whiny voice to consistently good use. White Lies’ publicity photos always show him with a glum face and stoic pose in overtly serious attempts to conjure up images of better bands. It’s a shtick that has sunk plenty of Joy Division imitators and buried To Lose My Life (2009) in forced dread, but here they’ve found a successful balance between weighty and loose.
McVeigh sings from the perspective of a straight couple moving from “an unidentified provincial European area” to “a much bigger, more glamorous city” (according to bassist Charles Cave). The band amplifies their sound with a stronger reliance on synthesizers, electronics, and strings than in the past, while McVeigh’s lyrics operate around two themes: the contrast between home (in the country) and away (in the city) and the futile pursuit of finding a sense of perfect balance in a relationship. Both metaphors are incorporated into the central story, most of which is told in broad strokes from the woman’s perspective. The opening and immensely catchy title track finds her immersed in the buzz of new urban life that she is only starting to realize is empty, while first single “There Goes Our Love Again” juxtaposes her experiences there with her fading love for her partner, who sees her swept up by the city and prefers the comfort of home. “Mother Tongue” furthers the descent present at the edges of “Big TV”, with the woman turning away from her home life (“Believe you have forgotten your precious mother tongue”) and immersing herself in partying and night life (“Dip the nose of the card to the sugar line/And to the desert cinnamon hills of moonshine” “Kiss out the twang from my lips on the way to the big time”). For her, it’s all part of the same dream of glamour and promise, and to White Lies’ credit they present this journey with the glitz and excitement that she experiences. Sure, it’s all hollow, but the album is about catching that moment where it all seems too good to be true. Ultimately, the city wins out, and the album casts a pessimistic picture of the central relationship as the last track, “Goldmine”, presents the resolution from the man’s perspective: “I saw her white smile digging in the goldmine – for a new life.”
The other underlying concept (at which Cave also hinted) is the sense of conflict between these two characters conveyed in terms of attempting to find balance and equality. “Getting Even” is a pounding rock song and also an interesting examination of that question. The title isn’t referencing revenge, but the idea of taking and giving the same amount in a relationship, with McVeigh repeating “And I can forgive/And we can forget/You’re getting even/You’re getting even” and posing the central question: “Even love/Is it even ever?” The sweeping “First Time Caller” throws everything out of balance (“I want you to love me/More than I love you”). “Change” also deals with this issue, although it’s the album’s one true flop, an overly serious ballad that clogs up the middle of the record.
That song aside, Big TV masterfully matches eloquent lyricism with kinetic songwriting. The lyrics are naturally the easiest element to write about, but it’s worth emphasizing that White Lies also pulled off an elaborate shift in their stylistic approach with grace, churning out terrific songs underlined by heavier electronics and more melodic compositions. This is a road many post-punk bands have traveled down before, but the results are rewarding all the same.
13. New Order – Lost Sirens
Even die-hard New Order fans will likely be puzzled that Lost Sirens, a collection of leftovers from the weakest album by a band that was in its prime twenty-five years ago, made it onto this list at all, much less at number ten. Hell, I doubt even New Order would agree. Sure, Peter Hook (who split from the group acrimoniously after this recording session) has spoken fondly of Sirens, but Sumner and co. dropped it almost entirely from their current setlists (with only the first track making rare appearances) while still finding time to cover Ennio Morricone film music. While nothing here tops “Crystal” or “Regret”, I’d venture to say that this is the strongest New Order release since their 80s heyday.
It works for the same reason that their latest live album (Live at Bestival 2012) works: devoid of all pretensions, the band is having fun. With no weak tracks, the album is a joy to hear front-to-back. It’s easy to dismiss a collection of 8 breezy tracks as a minor release, but for a sense of perspective, Lost Sirens just as long as classics like Brotherhood (1986) and Low-Life (1985).
The lyrics aren’t deep – occasionally, they are even awful – but they fit the mood just right. “I’ll Stay With You” is a great, earnest rock song underlined by Hook’s jagged bass and sweltering electronics. The rest of Lost Sirens is about living a life of fame and success, and its observations are whimsical and blunt. Highlight “Sugarcane” is a catchy meditation on the conveniences and inconveniences of superstardom (“Girls just wanna be with you, lawyers wanna deal with you” ) and the demands of suppressing your real self in the name of a rigid public persona (“Wake up right now, stop what you’re doing/It’s gotta be true”) similarly to R.E.M.’s “Imitation of Life”. “California Grass” similarly examines the dichotomy of just being a regular guy in the face a large fan base and media attention. I’ve read criticism of lines like “We can stop at a grocery store/Buy a thing for a few dollars more” as trite, but that’s precisely the point: life as a music star doesn’t have to be drug-induced tragedy and exhaustion – you can just be a regular guy picking up some groceries.
But who listens to New Order because of their lyrics, anyway? Lost Sirens is New Order doing what they do best: 8 tracks of catchy, bustling electro-rock songs. The production is slick, the hooks are plenty. That it exists only on the surface isn’t a fault but a virtue, one that allows Sumner to speak his mind and for the fun that the band sounds like they’re having to spread to the listener. I hardly ever return to Waiting for the Sirens Call, but each time I listen through Lost Sirens I just want to go back and play it again.
12. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
In the past, Vampire Weekend has recalled for me the instantly tacky jangle of guitar and bass in “A-Punk” or the girl in the polo shirt on the front cover of Contra. The aptly-titled Modern Vampires of the City finds the Columbia grads in the gritty environment of the real world. They are no longer whining about the need for people to take the concerns of privileged, fratty, white, and straight college students seriously. Working entry-level jobs has instilled a sense of disillusionment in their narrators – even the love songs have a self-awareness of the economic times. Modern Vampires of the City bridges the gap between what the fans and the haters wanted from this band, and it does so majestically. The rock is still there on tracks like “Finger Back” and “Unbelievers” (it is, after all, Rolling Stone’s album of the year), but it rocks (with an occasional reggae influence) with an eye for subtlety and suggestion.
The skill of the whole band has evolved considerably here, but the real star is Ezra Koenig, whose lyrics and wide vocal range helps convey the complex emotions of narrators reconciling their beliefs that they are destined for greatness with the world into which they have stumbled. “Obvious Bicycle” poignantly relates the hopelessness of long-term joblessness (“Oh you oughta spare your face the razor/Because no one’s gonna spare time for you”) and moving back to live with your parents (“No one’s gonna watch you as you go/From a house you didn’t build and can’t control”). “Young Lion” finds the narrator reassuring himself that he will fulfill his self-expectations –eventually. When highlight “Hannah Hunt”lights up in the album’s most satisfying moment, the happy relationship it describes is tapered (“Though we live on the US dollar/You and me, we got our own sense of time.”) Ultimately, the increasingly reverent tone of the music takes over as the narrator draws upon faith to deal with these issues.
This is simply not the story anybody expected Vampire Weekend to tell, but it plays like a remarkably honest commentary on present times. As the liveliness of the compositions consistently outshines lyrics that are often somber, the album plays like its own statement of defiance. Vampire Weekend have finally found something worth fighting against.
11. The Haxan Cloak – Excavation
Bobby Krlic, the sole producer behind the dark ambient odyssey that is Excavation, has been subtle and subdued about his work in interviews, emphasizing the structural nature of his music and maintaining that he had no central narrative in mind. To be sure, the bulk of Excavation does recall more a general set of emotions and journey: tension, psychedelic horror, movement into a dark place. The Haxan Cloak’s environment is one of uneasy cello and gloomy drones. Most of these tracks create an uneasy lull, with “Excavation (Part 2)” the violent strike of an unseen entity in a horror movie. But Krlic’s claim that he had no specific meaning in mind is hard to believe: the first thing you see on his website is a skeleton, and the album is graced with an image of a noose surrounded by an empty void – a rather blunt conjuring of entering the afterlife. The melodic sections of “The Mirror Reflection (Part 2)” and “The Drop” are the release of the brilliantly paced, album-long buildup. The former struck me as an uneasy transition from one reality to another, while the latter is the long-hinted destination, which finally takes the form of shadowy, sinister beauty. Excavation is a tough listen that demands a lot of attention to music set at an often crawling pace, but it’s a visually evocative work that eloquently seeps into the darkest corners of our imagination.
10. Tim Hecker – Virgins
Another stellar, deeply satisfying work from Kranky Records. It’s a startling, discomforting listen, recorded using a huge arsenal of instruments in the live setting of a living room, which renders the conflicts it presents on a more relatable and personal level. The gruesome juxtaposition of the cover art (referenced in the brief “Incense at Abu Ghraib”) and that the album tittle hints at the volatility of beauty so central to the album’s construction. Tim Hecker and his collaborators perform the pretty piano line of “Virginal I” and “Virginal II” with pounding, menacing gusto. Every time Hecker constructs an affecting moment, he quickly drowns it in reverb and textual quirks, until the darker elements take over in “Stigmata Pt. 1”, “Stigmata Pt. 2”, and “Stab Variation” in the final leg. Featuring no lyrics, this is the most compelling and interesting straight-out ambient recording all the year. It’s a work of art that never ceases to engage.
9. Savages – Silence Yourself
Savages are the sort of band Lisbeth Salander would love. With Silence Yourself, they deliver 38 minutes of thrashing, awesome post-punk with sexually-charred lyrics from a feminine perspective. It’s a razor-sharp, tightly-focused debut – one the best entries so far in the (now withering) post-punk revival movement. Everything about Savages is cool: the nonstop barrage of jarring chords, the shocking lyrics, their insistence at concerts that the audience stay off of their phones, and, hell, even their names (Jehnny, Gemma, Ayse, and Fay). The furious pace of the music enlivens Jehnny Beth’s vocal performances, helping her make “She Will” an empowering anthem:
“She will enter the room/She will enter the bed/She will talk like a friend/She will kiss like a man/She will fuck other men/She will come back again/Get hooked on loving hard/Forcing the slut out/Oh, oh, oh, oh”
Not all the lyrics are so audacious – “City’s Full” describes an aged narrator wanting to rejoin a nightlife dominated by women who are younger and prettier, and “Husbands” brilliantly contrasts stomping repetitions of its title and “Get rid of it”. Like fellow post-punker Paul Banks, Beth sings only in all-caps – it’s not so much “Get rid of it” as “GET RID OF IT” -a trend carried over to a manifesto Savages released soon after they were formed in 2011: “SAVAGES’ INTENTION IS TO CREATE A SOUND, INDESTRUCTIBLE, MUSICALLY SOLID, WRITTEN FOR THE STAGE AND DESIGNED WITH ENOUGH NUANCES TO PROVIDE A WIDE RANGE OF EMOTIONS.” It went on to describe their music as “STRAIGHT TO THE POINT”, an apt description for songs constructed with no slack or room for breath.
Everything on Silence Yourself is derivative of the usual list of 80’s gothic bands, metal, and contemporary post-punkers (My Disco use the same all-caps strategy online, although it’s just as likely that none of their handful of monthly last.fm listeners are doing Savages’ publicity). But on Silence Yourself, Savages project a remarkable level of craftsmanship and confidence. Silence Yourself is all about confrontation, from the steely gazes of the band on front cover to Beth screeching the album title repeatedly at the end of its gothic closing track “Marshall Dear”. The first track finds Jehnny yelling “IF YOU TELL ME TO SHUT UP/I WOULD TELL YOU TO SHUT UP”. The lyrics are direct because they aren’t about reflection but the present moment (namely, experience of seeing Savages live), a sensation the lively guitar, bass, and drums effectively reinforce. After playing through Silence Yourself, it’s easy to feel exhausted, but also exhilarated: “MUSICALLY SOLID”, all-caps or not, is an understatement.
8. David Bowie – The Next Day
Tellingly, nobody is debating whether or not David Bowie’s unexpected return is a convenient excuse to profit from his name recognition or a genuine artistic effort. It is just so obviously the latter. Kept secret until 2 months before its release, Bowie’s first album in ten years may be his strongest in over thirty. It’s bizarre without being gimmicky (something post-good MGMT could learn about), and it draws from Bowie’s strengths and a way that does not result in a seventies throwback. Rather, (as illustrated on the cover), The Next Day uses Heroes as a starting point to create a vibrant work indebted to the present moment. Andy Gill of The Independent called it “the greatest comeback album in rock’n’roll history”, and can’t attest to knowing a better one.
Bowie adopts a voice that sounds like late-career Scott Walker and fits the dark mood of the songs, many of which are epic in scope. “I’d Rather Be High” draws a sweeping portrayal of a WWII soldier defending a beach and wishing he could be somewhere else (“I’d rather be high” “I’d rather smoke and phone my ex/Be pleading for some teenage sex, yeah”). “Valentine’s Day” is a grim commentary on high school violence, and “Dirty Boys” and “If You Can See Me” are told from the perspective of a distant corrupting entity. The immense variety of characters Bowie adopts here reinforces the notion of his chameleon-like identity.
Much of The Next Day is self-referential, too, as Bowie refers to his late-career comeback: “Here I Am/Not quite Dying/My body left to rot in a hollow tree” on the title track,“It’s the darkest hour, and your voice is new” on “Love is Lost. But the most revealing moment of all is on the blunt, simmering finale “Heat”: “And I tell myself/I don’t know who I am.” It’s in this sense that The Next Day is a demanding listen. The melodies are crisp and the music always inviting, but Bowie lacks any kind of unifying lyrical structure. It’s in this sense, too, that The Next Day is an utterly great album, as Bowie is at his best grasping for some semblance of stability.
7. Phoenix – Bankrupt!
I remember having a bad feeling about this album back when “Entertainment” premiered. It’s a great, catchy song, but its tacky melody and nonsensical lyrics promised a certain emptiness that I worried would inhabit the LP. When Bankrupt! finally arrived, I realized that my worries were misplaced: Bankrupt! never tries to mean anything, but rather than feeling hollow it’s almost excessively fun and exciting with no bitter aftertaste. Steven Arroyo of Consequences of Sound called it “the most anti-pop album of the year”. It all depends on how you define pop: the title “Bankrupt!” implies a sense of selling out, but it’s ironic, as the record finds Phoenix jokingly condensing pop to utter nonsense. There’s a bit of truth to that (just listen to Lady Gaga’s Artpop), but that’s not the point. Bankrupt! is Phoenix in touch with their best qualities – namely, their abilities to produce tight hooks and strong melodies amidst Thomas Mars’ incoherent mumblings. It celebrates, rather than chides, the mindless infectiousness of pop music.
The self-aware nature of Bankrupt! pronounces itself in the conflict between its absurdist lyrics and cleverly composed instrumentation. The formula is the perfect backdrop to Mars’ earnestly likeable vocals. Seeing him crowdsurf at this year’s Midtown Music Festival was a splendid experience – he makes you root for the band and their music, embracing the cheesiness of the “fa la la la” line from“Bourgeois”. Am I copping out by refusing to attempt to analyze what he’s even saying? Unless you have some explanation for “Crystal bamboo/Voyageur canoe” or “They teach you suffer to resist/Too much intention Presbyterian”, I think not.
The Frenchmen sound so fresh and unhindered by their new approach that Bankrupt! revels in its own bizarreness and absurdity. Only the title track, with an overlong building and confusing fade-out, should have been cut. Bankrupt! is not the sequel to Wolfgang Amadeous Phoenix so much as to Beck’s Midnite Vultures. It’s real art-pop that transforms all of the band’s persistent weaknesses into elements of soaring anthems. Deck d’Arcy said of closer “Oblique City” that it “evokes a lot of very bad French songs”, a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the line the band walks between the cheesy and the magnificent. On Bankrupt!, they remain entirely on the right side.
6. My Bloody Valentine – mbv
There was plenty of reason to approach My Bloody Valentine’s first album in 22 years tepidly, even fearfully. Just look at what happened with Pixies new EP. The Irish rockers kicked off shoegaze, produced a quick series of great releases including one classic album, and promptly fell off the map. It’s easy to imagine acts like Weekend, Yuck, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Drop Nineteens, and many others never existing without them. Prime-career My Bloody Valentine constitutes pretty much the hardest act imaginable to have to follow.
With mbv, the band play their cards just right. They don’t overcompensate for their age by artificially upping the noise (like the Smashing Pumpkins did on 2007’s Zeitgeist) or try to break away for a whole new sound. Rather, their new album feels like a natural evolution of their previous work: sauntering guitars, wispy duel vocals, ‘wall of sound’ reverb. The album also feels like the product of fierce labor, and that’s unfortunately part of its one major flaw. The product of over a decade of tweaking, mbv feels like it’s been processed to death, and the sound is awkwardly muffled. The guitar lines in shoegaze music are meant to envelope and drown out the vocals, but here the melodies and instruments feel a bit drowned out as well, the production quirks mixed with the guitar, drums, and vocals to form one big mesh – a problem from which only the pristine “New You” really escapes.
But once you adjust to the limits of its soundscape, mbv reveals itself as a diverse and brilliantly realized experiment. “She Found Now” buries a ballad under raspy guitar before “Only Tomorrow” and “Who Sees You” explode in fuzzy glory. “Is This and Yes”, the most peculiar thing they have recorded, shifts the palette to a higher frequency, mixing Bilinda Butcher’s delicate vocals with organ and faint electronics. The first two-thirds capture a feeling of love and wonder within their song’s tight-construction, before the jam “Nothing Is” and the soaring “Wonder 2” take the mood to new heights.
“Wonder 2” ends with a continuation of a contrast posed between the innocent joy of the music and the sense of movement, placing Kevin Shields’ voice under the sound of a moving subway or train car. “Everyone knows that you’re such too soon,” he chides in the last line on the album. It’s a playful comment, but also one that functions as a conclusion to the album’s themes. Once again, mbv finds the band creating a sense of mindlessness within a violent jumble of music and a lyrical sense of temporal displacement. Here, Shields hints, is where true wonder lies.
5. Darkside – Psychic
I had no idea what to make of this album when I first heard it. I just remember a specific moment the second time through, right when the bass picks up in “Paper Trails”, when I started to sense everything click into place. The elusive shapes of Nicolas Jaar’s sifting electronics started to take form, and suddenly I was pulled into the fray. On Psychic, Jaar and guitarist Dave Harrington carve out an shadowy impression of a minimal, unique atmosphere of hushed vocals, hand-clapping, cluttered chords, and ambience. Jaar and Harrington supply wonderful chemistry – some of Harrington’s riffs are absolutely priceless (particularly the gem that closes “Metatron”). This is music to feel and absorb, but it isn’t heavy or emotionally draining. Rather, Darkside have constructed a cool, relaxing setting that offers fresh rewards with each revisit.
4. Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories)
I entered into the world of Steven Wilson on a whim. For all my adoration of King Crimson’s classic albums, I don’t keep up with contemporary prog, a genre in which Wilson is well-known. Maybe I should. The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) matches impeccable instrumental craftsmanship with fascinating lyrics. It’s 54 minutes spread out into 6 tracks, each of which exhibits a range of contrast between quiet moments and riveting crescendos. The moods produced by the array of instruments (guitar, mellotron, keyboard, flute, saxophone, clarinet, organ, etc) compliment the music in intriguing, often clashing ways. The album took the top prize at the 2013 Progressive Music Awards, and it sounds so inspiring that it’s easy not to notice just how morose most of the tracks are lyrically.
Wilson has stated that he was inspired by early 19th century ghost stories, and it shows. The Raven That Refused to Sing is all about confronting death and mortality. The saddest track, “Drive Home”, finds a man connecting to the memories of a dead lover by repeatedly driving the route of a crash that killed her. The more whimsical album opener “Luminol” tells of an untalented street musician who never stops playing, even after rain, snow, and death, while the vibrantly composed “The Pin Drop” and “The Watchmaker” relate Poe-like stories of murder (the former told from the perspective of the victim as her body floats down a river).
Wilson excels at projecting inner feelings outwards. For all the introspection in the lyrics, The Raven That Refused to Sing is a theatrical experience. The twisted title character from “The Watchmaker” toils away at his craft while reminiscing about the lover he murdered (“Eliza dear, you know, there’s something I should say/I never really love you, but I’ll miss you anyway”), but Wilson instills the scene with kinetic energy through several breathtaking piano and guitar solos. (An aside: for all Wilson’s lyrical genius and instrumental bravado, it’s tough not to find Raven a bit uncomfortably misogynistic, as 4 of its 6 songs deal with a man’s reflections on a dead woman, 2 of whom the man murdered.)
Then there’s the title track at the tail end of the album. It’s a spacious, yet desperately emotive piece about a man facing death. He retreats into memories of a sister who was able to comfort him by singing to him in childhood (“You can reach inside my head, and you can put your song there instead”) but passed away at a young age (“Sister, I lost you/When you were still a child”). Wilson conjures a beautiful image of a man dreaming that a raven can contain some semblance her spirit to comfort him now. It’s an irrational, even cruel gesture (it’s easy to imagine the raven being kept in captivity), but Wilson’s accomplishment is to highlight the strength of the familial connection in such a difficult situation. Even as his flawed narrators fall under the weight of the struggle against mortality, the sweeping nature of the music finds a certain grace within each of their souls. For the morbidness of its tales, The Raven that Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) is also a strangely inspiring listen.
3. Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Daze
It’s tempting to hyper-analyze the music of War on Drugs co-founder Kurt Vile. The resplendent cover art for his latest solo album shows the Philadelphia native in a Dylan-esque pose by the side of the road surrounded by arty and abstract symbols that hint at some sort of profound meaning. The easy, airy image is actually the product of hard work on behalf of legendary street artist Steven Powers, and it sets the stage for the pleasant, expansive compositions that follow. More subtly but just as importantly, it also shows Vile dwarfed by his own name. The consistently discernible conflict between the songs on Wakin on a Pretty Daze is that of fleeing from expectations and image to convey a cozy and real inner state.
Wakin is one of those albums that was labored over to sound spontaneous, and it always works. The guitar lines are intricate and wispy, rarely changing from a few chords of the course if a single song. Most of these tracks could have easily been over in 3 or 4 minutes, but Vile often stretches them out for 6 or 7. But even the 10-minute “Goldtone” never overstays its welcome. Like most tracks, its neatly-textured rhythms are infinitely pleasant and rewarding. Each moment of Wakin invites you to get lost in it, capturing the feeling of escaping from life’s woes into the music. The music is always going somewhere, too, as confirmed at the by the synthesizer coda at the end of “Air Bud”. But it’s all about the journey of moving slowly and gracefully.
Though Wakin is thoroughly a guitar album, Vile scatters a few biting, funny lyrics throughout his compositions. In the opening “Wakin on a Pretty Day”, he’s pondering his next insult (“i gotta think about what wisecrack/i’m gonna drop along the way today”). “Was All Talk” is a humorous look at confidence and ego: “There was a time in my life/When they thought I was all talk/Now I’m bein’ stalked by God.” Later, he follows it up with “All the words you sang were wrong/Now won’t ya watch me?” Vile is often searching for a sense of clarity, a sense of movement conveyed through paradox in “Snowflakes Are Dancing”: “When I’m away out there, I wanna go home/When I am home, my head stays out there.”
The cleverness of these moments does have the unfortunate effect of setting up unwelcome expectations – Nick Catucci grossly misinterpreted the album in his review for Rolling Stone, criticizing Vile titling a song “Air Bud” and chiding the tone: “even a meditation on the uniqueness of snowflakes has a stormy, rather than syrupy, feel.” As with the response Self-Portrait-era Bob Dylan (an album thankfully being reevaluated this year following its excellent companion release in the Bootleg series), critics just find it inconceivable that there is art to found in a statement of happiness. Searching for lyrical dissonance and symbolism in this kind of music often misses the point. Speaking to The Rumpus, Vile discussed how“A Girl Named Alex”, a song simply about his admiration for a good friend and her happy marriage, “got mistaken as like a jealous love thing”, and “Air Bud”is actually a reference to an inside joke that he doesn’t feel like sharing.
Vile has been remarkably blunt and plainspoken about the album, telling MTV, “It’s just about my life without thinking too much about it. I feel comfortable with the lyrics.” In a Pitchfork interview, he wasn’t afraid to admit that he wants success and has limited, realistic aspirations: “I definitely think about success and I crave making more money…In my own terms, success is making a living playing music, touring, getting critical acclaim, being recognized, and being able to put out records at a rapid pace. I want my family to not have to work, and at the moment, my wife isn’t working, since our kids are so young. That’s success to me.” Vile comes across as in touch with himself and so does his music. Wakin on a Pretty Daze sounds like precisely the album Vile set out to make – a statement about satisfaction brimming with whimsical joy.
2. Jon Hopkins – Immunity
I don’t have much of a vocabulary for discussing electronic music, but I’ll do my best here while refraining from using words like “awesome” and “magnificent”, even if those are among the first to come to mind when thinking of Immunity. Hopkins recorded the album mostly in his home studio in London using outdated equipment, and despite the efforts of his many collaborators it comes across as a fully-formed personal vision from a rich mind. The first half of Immunity buzzes with snazzy beats, but the most satisfying element of its detailed composition is the shift from these hyper-focused, frenetic pieces to an airy and emotive second half. This is music that could have easily – and quickly – gone stale, but Hopkins brings every moment to life. Where Amok disappointed, Immunity succeeds.
The album starts with its most immediately immersive music. Hopkins invites the listener to get lost in “We Disappear”, the pounding “Open Eye Signal”, and violently intense centerpiece “Collider”, all of which are charged with sexual tension. Hopkins much-touted Brian Eno influence emerges in the second half in the graceful 11-minute “Sun Harmonics” and the quieter moments of “Abandon Window” and “Form by Firelight”. The closing (and title) track is the most gripping of all, incorporating the album’s only vocals into an atmosphere resembling a gentler Sigur Rós song. The emergence of this fragile, deeply human soundscape from the dry electronics of the early tracks is poignant and conveys a powerful sense of transition over the course of the album. In 1999, Pitchfork writer Brent DiCrescenzo wrote of Agaetis Byrjun: “To term this music ‘post-rock’ would be an insult; Sigur Rós are pre-whatever comes this century.” He was right, and Immunity is the next step along the path they paved.
1. Dirty Beaches – Drifters/Love Is the Devil
Drifters/Love Is the Devil is a daunting double-album that integrates noise, ambient, strings, electronics, guitar, and distorted vocals that switch between Spanish, French, and English over its 80-minute length. Its halves are punctured by an abrupt, puzzling shift in style and tone that, to casual listeners (if an album like this can have such a thing), can seem unwarranted and inexplicable. Alex Zhang Hungtai, the man at the helm of the (originally) one-man group, was born in Taiwan but raised in Montreal; the record was recorded in Montreal and Berlin. The grueling sound deals with themes of aloneness and loss amidst shoreline cityscapes of ravish nightlife and casinos. Most of the first half, Drifters, consists of cacophonous productions that may have once been rock songs – drums bustle and chatter under spooky vocals (“Au Revoir Mon Visage”) and repetitive, sweltering guitar seeps through the night (“Night Walk” and “I Dream In Neon”). The Love Is the Devil half hits on a more subliminal, emotive level, dropping vocals from all but one track in favor of instrumental compositions. Though linked thematically by a sense of displacement, the two halves do not flow obviously together, provoking responses like Dom Gourlay’s from Drowned in Sound: “Drifters/Love Is The Devil would perhaps have been better served as two individual entities rather than the deluge of overload that stands before us.”
While shift between the work’s distinct halves may appear jarring, Gourlay couldn’t be more wrong. Sure, melodic, guitar-driven abound on the Drifters side, but they are sickeningly saturated in reverb and production, and when Hungtai’s voice screams above the fray, his lyrics only get more distorted and indecipherable. It’s the sound of straightforward compositions disintegrating, their structures unable to convey the depth of the message, and the Love Is the Devil emerges naturally from this context. It sounds so much more warm and fluid, despite the demanding, repetitive nature of its long ambient passages, precisely because Huntai’s messages demand a medium less constricted than traditional formats offer.
Huntain is well aware of the implications of operating without restrictions. He related his experiences after encountering commercial success with his album Badlands in an interview with Bowlegs Music, “I never felt like I’ve ‘made it’ I still deal with shitty sound guys ridiculing our set up because it’s not ‘proper’ and we don’t have drums or bass. I still deal with people who will just take one look at my face online and say this guy is a piece of shit. But hey, I take doing this job any day over washing dishes – I’m very glad to be here.” Later, he remarked on his refusal to rely primarily on lyrics to convey his themes: “Instrumentals are more natural for me as it was the start in making music for me back in 1999. I just made beats and played keys and guitar. To me it conveys more than just telling a story.”
Indeed, Drifters/Love Is the Devil does not convey a story so much as a journey, with the frantic images of nightlife on the first half underlined by a layer of disharmony. Drifters finds dark madness in an atmosphere of reckless festivity – we sense that something daunting is being avoided in favor of the present moment. Love Is the Devil hints at lost romance in opening instrumentals like the strange, uninviting “Woman” and Adagio for Strings-like “Love is the Devil”. That title track, along with the closer “Berlin”, are the most gorgeous tracks I heard all year, even as they remain largely inseparable from their context.
Huntain said in an interview with Pitchfork this year, “Home is a collage of all these different, fractured landscapes that I try to piece together.” Drifters/Love Is the Devil conveys the fruitless pursuit of this kind of ‘home’, a deeply personal vision and this year’s greatest album. “Drifting away/Like the ocean we part,” Huntain murmurs towards the album’s conclusion, in one of his few decipherable lyrical moments. “Berlin” follows this with a moody, meditative moment of catharsis. It’s a comforting song, but only a temporary respite. Departure is an inevitability for Huntain’s narrators, all of whom are hopelessly adrift in a world where the only home they will ever find lies in the fractured junctures between disconnected moments of stability.