by Jeff Yerger
And now, without further ado, here are your 25 Sunday Best Albums of 2013:
25 The Octopus Project – Fever Forms
Although Fever Forms is technically an electronic album, The Octopus Project prove here that they’re not interested in being a one-trick pony. KEY TRACKS: “Whitby”, “The Falls”
24 Free Energy – Love Sign
It’s not every day a band records a truly solid power-pop rock album that’s this fun. KEY TRACKS: “Dance All Night”, “Hold You Close”
23 Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
Thanks to the return of Songs for the Deaf collaborator Dave Grohl on drums, Josh Homme and company found their edge again. KEY TRACKS: “Smooth Sailing”, “I Appear Missing”
22 Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Although I would’ve liked to hear more of ex-LCD Soundsystem frontman and producer James Murphy’s influence, Reflektor is still a refreshing turn of the chapter for a band looking for new musical avenues. KEY TRACKS: “We Exist”, “Here Comes the Nighttime”
21 Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob
Sister duo Tegan and Sara shamelessly shed their indie-folk skin for a dazzling pop gem of an album. KEY TRACKS: “Goodbye, Goodbye”, “I Was A Fool”
20 The Fratellis – We Need Medicine
Scottish rockers The Fratellis finally reunited after a lengthy hiatus and sound like they’re having fun again. Mon the Fratellis! KEY TRACKS: “Halloween Blues”, “Seven Nights, Seven Days”
19 Cut Copy – Free Your Mind
While we’re all talking about the dance-able albums of 2013 like Disclosure’s Settle or even Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, it’s easy to take Cut Copy for granted because they’ve been making solid records like these their whole career. Free Your Mind is certainly no exception. KEY TRACKS: “Take Me Higher”, “Walking in the Sky”
18 Paul McCartney – New
Macca, 71, returns with his best new release since 2005’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, and he doesn’t sound a day over Revolver. KEY TRACKS: “Early Days”, “I Can Bet”
17 Superchunk – I Hate Music
On I Hate Music, aging indie rockers Superchunk mourn the death of a best friend by truly celebrating his life and looking back at the good times, and it’s the best the band has sounded in decades. KEY TRACKS: “The Void”, “Breaking Down”
16 Joy Formidable – Wolf’s Law
The Joy Formidable reach for new and louder heights on one of the more solid rock albums of 2013. Sophomore slump? I don’t think so! KEY TRACKS: “The Leopard and the Lung,” “Cholla”
15 Danny Brown – Old
Probably the best true rap album of the year, Old is a quasi-concept album that sees Danny Brown teaming up with the likes of A$AP Rocky, Purity Ring, and Charli XCX as he tries to outrun the demons of his past. KEY TRACKS: “Torture”, “Dubstep”
14 Deafheaven – Sunbather
About two days ago, I had this list all ready to go, but then something screwed this whole thing up. No, not Beyonce. It was Deafheaven and their gorgeous new album Sunbather. Holy shit, what an album! I’m ashamed of myself for not picking up on this album sooner, for it would surely be in my Top 10. Sunbather is a pulverizing black metal album that really isn’t black metal at all. It would be an injustice to deem an album of beautiful post-rock/shoe-gaze sound-scapes, ringing guitars, and melodic interludes as black metal. Look, I’m not fan of black metal, but as a casual listener, if you can get past the shrieking vocals, there are so many beautiful and powerful moments on Sunbather that make this album well worth it. KEY TRACKS: “Dream House”/”Irresistible”, “The Pecan Tree”
13 Mikal Cronin – MCII
On MCII, songwriter Mikal Cronin truly stepped his game up. Along with some help from his friend Ty Segal, Cronin proves that a little songwriting ingenuity, as well as a catchy chorus or two, can go a long way. KEY TRACKS: “Shout It Out”, “Change”
12 Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze
I’m not sure it would be fair to call Kurt Vile’s approach “lazy,” but it’s definitely down to earth. Wakin On A Pretty Daze sees Vile taking his time and letting his phone buzz off the shelf while he finger-picks his guitar to the bone. Listening to this album, you’d think you were stoned too, but you never, as they say, touched the stuff, right? KEY TRACKS: “KV Crimes”, “Never Run Away”
11 My Bloody Valentine – mbv
How do you follow up a legendary, genre-defining album over 20 years after it was released (oh, and the album shouldn’t suck either)? Well, ask My Bloody Valentine, because they just did. M b v is a head-pounding album that uses and expands the band’s groundbreaking sound from 1991’s Loveless while avoiding living in the past. KEY TRACKS: “New You”, “Nothing Is”
10 Sleigh Bells – Bitter Rivals
After creating a beautiful racket on their debut album Sleigh Bells stumbled a bit with its follow-up, Reign of Terror. But on Bitter Rivals, the duo traded in their 80’s hair metal punch for lush R&B choruses and acoustic guitars, and it’s the best decision they ever made… other than sporting these jerseys. KEY TRACKS: “Young Legends”, “Love Sick”
9 The Strokes – Comedown Machine
I’m not sure anybody expected The Strokes to release an album this year (or ever again, for that matter). Angles was so disjointed, and apparently the recording process wasn’t any better. So, forgive us if we’re a bit surprised about how solid Comedown Machine really is. For the first time since 2002, it sounds like the band actually had a unified vision, and while they won’t make another Is This It? or Room on Fire ever again, at least we know they’re still capable of being cool. KEY TRACKS: “Tap Out”, “Welcome to Japan”
8 Cults – Static
I feel like this album went a bit under the radar this year. Perhaps with all the big releases this year, Cults were overlooked. It’s unfortunate, because Static is truly a diamond in the rough. KEY TRACKS: “I Can Hardly Make You Mine”, “Keep Your Head Up”
7 Savages – Silence Yourself
Very few debut albums are as captivating as Silence Yourself. The ladies of Savages have created a monster whose bark is as badass as its bite, and this dark, rollicking album demands your undivided attention. You have been warned. KEY TRACKS: “She Will”, “City’s Full”
6 Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
I originally had Random Access Memories at the top of my list back in the summer. I guess it was because I was enthralled with the sheer ridiculousness of this album; it’s just so much fun, how could anyone hate it? Daft Punk went all out with this one. It’s an expensive album, with expensive hired-gun musicians, and in turn, it’s the best-sounding album of the year. But after a few more months of listening, I realized the album’s ego is its only downfall. Other than that magical segue from “Touch” into “Get Lucky,” the sequencing here feels all wrong (i.e. tracks 2 – 4 go ballad-zany prog epic-ballad), and it’s sometimes hard to get through the mid-part of the album. I hope I’m not coming across as nit-picky here, but even the best of albums have their flaws. Make no mistake though, when this album is on, there’s nothing like it. KEY TRACKS not named “Get Lucky”: “Instant Crush”, “Doing It Right”
5 The National – Trouble Will Find Me
When the National walk into a room, they may not light it up, but on record, they’re as breathtaking as ever. Trouble Will Find Me is the quintessential National album that combines all of their strengths into one emotionally powerful force. I’m not sure how much more you could say about this band, which has grown consistently and humbly throughout the years. Like a fine wine, they seem to get better with age, which is appropriate, because I feel like you need to drink a glass of red wine while listening to Trouble Will Find Me. It’s a captivating album that doesn’t play AT you, it plays WITH you. KEY TRACKS: “I Should Live in Salt”, “Humiliation”
4 Arctic Monkeys – AM
The Arctic Monkeys have sure changed a lot since the days they were supposedly changing the face British guitar rock, and on the sexy AM, they have finally hit their stride. Frontman Alex Turner’s songwriting is as clever as ever, and in turn, AM is a unique rock album that pleasantly blends the sounds of 60s and 70s rock and roll with hip-hop and R&B. Think Black Sabbath meets TLC, which hopefully doesn’t cause your head to explode. KEY TRACKS: “Do I Wanna Know?”, “Knee Socks”
3 Caitlin Rose – The Stand In
I’m not exactly sure when it started, but within the last, say, 4 years or so, Country Music has dramatically increased in popularity in the US. The genre has become the new Dave Matthews Band, for better or for worse. While I can certainly see its appeal to the average college students and post-college graduates of America (I mean, every song has at least one line about drinking beer in it), about 99% of it is extremely hokey. Well, here’s your 1%. Caitlin Rose has made a down-to-earth, roots-first country album in The Stand-In, although it would be a disservice to call this a true red, white, and blue Country album. Rose’s presence on here is absolutely captivating, as her voice fluctuates with ease from a soft coo to a clear, powerful force. She’ll slap you in the face if you do her wrong, but she’ll also light your cigarette and buy you a beer at the end of the night. She’ll be cruel, she’ll be a clown, but she’ll never be insincere. KEY TRACKS: “Only A Clown”, “When I’m Gone”
2 HAIM – Days Are Gone
Where do I even begin? Days Are Gone is one of the finest pop, rock, hip-hop, whatever-you-want-to-call-it albums of past year – hell, the last decade – and this band only seems to be getting started. It’s almost unfair how talented these ladies are, and I’m not just saying that simply because they play their own instruments. Taylor Swift plays a guitar, but that hardly takes talent. It’s the way the HAIM sisters push their abilities to the limit that makes this band so special. On Days Are Gone, although the sound is polished, nothing sounds over-produced or out of place. The band consistently stays in the pocket and plays with such a confidence, it belies their age. KEY TRACKS: “The Wire”, “If I Could Change Your Mind”
1 Kanye West – Yeezus
In a recent interview, rapper Danny Brown stated that one of his biggest musical influences is Radiohead’s Kid A. “I studied Kid A,” Brown told Pitchfork. Of course, we all know the story the album by now: Brit-rock pioneers follow up critically acclaimed rock album with a dividing, minimalistic electronic album. People hated Kid A upon its initial release, but looking back, it’s become one of those legendary albums that every band strives to make but few actually achieve (it took Trent Reznor 20 years to make his Kid A). Part of the reason Kid A was derided was because, frankly, it made us all look stupid. We thought we wanted another Ok Computer or The Bends, but it was Radiohead who had the last laugh.
On Kid A, Radiohead focused on exploring different landscapes and creating new musical textures with as little guitars as possible. As Danny Brown says, “it’s not so much about the lyrics as it is about the way the beats feel, so what drives this album is the production.” Radiohead rid themselves of their trademark guitar zaps and freakouts, and instead adopted a more cerebral aesthetic that wasn’t so immediate. The vocals, if they weren’t manipulated and distorted to sound like a buzzing fridge or detuned radio, were minimalistic at best, rendering most of Thom Yorke’s lyrics as afterthoughts.
The reason I bring up Danny Brown is because a) I never would’ve expected it, b) it turns out you actually can hear a lot of Kid A’s influence on the first side of Brown’s excellent new album Old, (the production, at times, can be very similar. However, Brown’s lyrics are too captivating to be pushed by the wayside, and therefore Old could never come close to Kid A’s mission by default), and c) Brown wasn’t the only rapper to follow Radiohead’s lead this year.
Kanye West, arguably hip hop’s answer to Radiohead, is having his Kid A moment, and once again he proves he’s in a WAY different class than Danny Brown and his peers. Yeezus, Kanye West’s 6th solo venture, is THE album of 2013. It’s the most beautiful, captivating, haunting, divisive, and scathing record of the year, and there is absolutely nothing else like it.
I wanted to hate this album, I really did. Upon its release in June, I just didn’t know what to make of it. For a minimalistic album inspired by a lamp, there was so much going on. I couldn’t handle it at the time, and in many ways, I still don’t understand it. It’s so abrasive, yet I can’t ignore it.
Like the giant in “The Green Mile,” Kanye West opens his mouth and lets all of his nagging demons run wild on Yeezus. It actually makes for a pretty frightening experience. He doesn’t hold back or hide behind any macho façade. Everything that was tormenting him is now tormenting you, and this album is so physical that it really makes you feel the pressure. The album begins with the electric one-two punch of “On Sight” (Ye’s best opener in his arsenal) and “Black Skinhead,” but then you’re immediately dropped into the depths of hell (leave it to Kanye to make the only song featuring God to sound the most demonic… no, seriously, he included God as a featured guest). It’s like a bad panic attack that leads up to a climax on the pounding lament “Blood on the Leaves.”
In my original review of the album, I gave Kanye a lot of flack for the sub-par lyrics on Yeezus, most of which he apparently wrote as an after thought during production. I still think they’re terrible and at times lazy (“Swaghili 101” coming to a college near you), but what I realize now is that the lyrics were never meant to be the main attraction. Like Radiohead on Kid A, Kanye makes sure the music and the production is the focal point here. Dark, icy synths and acidic beats permeate every space, and every once and a while, Kanye will tease a taste of light in the form of either Justin Vernon, a stunning digi-guitar on “Hold My Liquor”, or a gospel choir, but he won’t let you forget you’re in his dark twisted reality. By “Send It Up,” it all seems hopeless, until Charlie Wilson comes down from the heavens on “Bound 2” and cleanses you of your sins. It’s a beautiful moment on the album that can only be fully appreciated after surviving the 9-track panic attack before it.
Throughout his whole career, Kanye West has acted the underdog, always having to prove himself. He was challenged to make a solo hip-hop record, so he made three of them. He broke his jaw and had his mouth wired shut, so he made “Through the Wire.” A rap artist isn’t supposed to sing on a record, but Kanye West made “808s” anyway. Then people said he’d never recover after “Taylor Swift-gate,” so he made one of the greatest rap albums of all time(!), My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Finally, it is Yeezus who takes the wheel, on the first album where Kanye West has turned the tables and dared us.
As the late Lou Reed discussed in his essential review of Yeezus, you know that by naming his album “Yeezus” and defiantly stating, “I AM a God,” Kanye is just daring people to challenge him. He’s deliberately taunting his haters with an album so provocative and so puzzling, and this time, it’s Yeezus who will have the last laugh.