2013 proved for me that the album format is alive and well. While there are plenty of pop superstars releasing a collection of singles and calling it an album (Beyonce’s self-titled surprise album – and the videos accompanying every single song – is the obvious example of this), there are many more artists carefully crafting songs that collected together hold a certain ethos and are held to a certain light. These albums, conceived around a certain aesthetic, are not necessarily concept albums, but a narrative arc or personality propels them along. The result is a fully realized work, like a feature film or a novel. In almost every circumstance, my favorite albums of 2013 are albums of that aesthetic scope. There were albums of deep reflection and emotional weight; there were albums of pure joy and exuberance. They all worked as complete pieces of work.
My hope is that if you have not heard the albums listed here, you will go out and support these musicians and help encourage their further artistic growth – and that you’ll spread the word about these albums and those that you loved in 2013. I wait until after the new year to reflect on the previous year in music because there are always groups or artists or albums or songs that I overlooked. Even though there’s plenty to look forward to in 2014 (I’m looking at you, St Vincent, Wye Oak, and Sharon van Etten), there’s plenty left in 2013 to discover. Let’s keep the conversation going.
So here, in no particular order, are 9 of my favorite albums of 2013, followed by the album of the year (those of you who frequent this space might have already guessed what it is). Thanks to all the artists who made 2013 a phenomenal year in music. Here’s to more in the new year.
I never was a fan of Arcade Fire. Even with the all the accolades that surrounded The Suburbs and Funeral, I never got it. Their sound seemed a little too typical for me, nothing to distinguish them from the rest of the neo-rock of the twenty-first century, and I’ll admit that prevented me from giving those previous albums more than just a couple listens. With Reflektor, I now get it. Or, rather, I now get this new manifestation of Arcade Fire. Because apparently the sound and ethos of this album represents a transformation in the band. Most of the talk in 2013 about a band growing up and exploring new ground has been focused on Vampire Weekend, but Arcade Fire with Reflektor are announcing a sea change in their music, not unlike Radiohead on Kid A or U2 with Achtung Baby.
The album uses the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a reference point for poignant explorations of spirituality and resurrection, love and the loss of self, and sexuality – that last one on the powerful rocker “We Exist” about a homosexual man seeking recognition from his straight father: “Let them stare / If that’s all they can do / But I’d lose my heart / If I turn away from you / Oh Daddy don’t turn away / You know I’m so scared.” (How’s that for a poignant use of the Eurydice myth?) But the theme of self-reflection pervades the majority of these tunes; there is so much looking inward in the songs’ characters (in fact, when the songs lyrically stop looking inward, like “You Already Know,” the banal sound of the old Arcade Fire comes back) that the title provides the arc of the entire album.
One of the artistic statements of Reflektor is preserving the self and the other in the face of urgent love, and the songs themselves reflect that urgency. Practically every one is a mini opus: the opening “Reflektor” fills seven and a half minutes and doesn’t reach its second bridge (featuring David Bowie on vocals) until the 5 minute mark. The glorious chorus of “Awful Sound (Oh, Eurydice)” comes after three minutes of Unforgettable Fire-era U2 dirge. The album is filled with moment of such transcendent surprise, urgency, and triumph that it’s impossible not to feel chills throughout its long course. This is a double album, but (except for the final in-aural five minutes of “Supersymmetry”) it doesn’t feel long or drawn out. At the album’s close, you feel a little out of breath from the momentum of the music; that’s rare, particularly on a double album. I wasn’t a fan of Arcade Fire before this; I’m hooked now.
This album is the reason that I wait until I’m well across the finish line of the year to discuss my favorite albums of the previous year. At VII’s release, I was sorely disappointed. Blitzen Trapper to me have always been the heir apparent of the great roots rock of the 70s (like Neil Young and even some of Led Zeppelin’s middle years repertoire). Their previous album American Goldwing was an exemplar of that sound. So when I first heard VII I was really confused; what was this hillbilly sound mixed with DJ beats, vamps, and scratches (which, in all honesty, Blitzen Trapper have been playing with for years)? This manifestation was jarring to me, and I couldn’t get into it. Not until I heard the band on World Café discussing the role of hip-hop in their music did I realize why their sound had been unique to my ears for a long time. Blitzen Trapper have always had a touch of the urban in their songs of backwoods stills and highway drives: “Feel the Chill”, the album’s first track, begins with a mélange of sampled drum beats, horn blasts, DJ scratching, and radio noise. Then over a simple country guitar lick Eric Early’s twangy voice sings “I used to stay down south of town where the road runs crooked and the lines are down / where the sun is hid by the hills and the trees and the moon runs full whenever it pleases.” Early admits that his love of hip hop records influences his lyrics and their cadence. With that World Café interview, I began to understand: Blitzen Trapper are indeed the successors of that great 70s sound, but as successors in this new decade they are going to fit into the language of the times. In the 70s, blues and country were the roots of most music. In these teens, hip hop is the backbone of most music; Early and his bandmates understand this. Had I been more astute, I might have gotten that concept by looking at the album cover. The graffiti’d rail cars, an evocation of a more urban sound, are surrounded by a black and white rural landscape, an evocation of the old-time sound prevalent on the album. Genres in music seem to be disappearing, or at least subsuming each other, and Blitzen Trapper are well aware of this.
Bye Bye 17
Just look at the album cover. Look carefully. Now tell me what musical genre Har Mar Superstar falls into. Did you say soul or funk? Of course you didn’t. But that’s what you get from start to finish with Bye Bye 17, a gritty R&B record, featuring Motown-style horns and guitar work, Memphis-style keys, and a voice that will knock your socks off – or, if you’re Har Mar Superstar (nee Sean Tillman) himself, more than your socks. Every song makes you want to get up and move, maybe not in the way that he moves, but move regardless. Songs like “We Don’t Sleep” with its discordant horns and changing rhythms shows just how talented and complex a songwriter Tillman is, despite his ribald stage presence. A song like “Rhythm Bruises” shows he can write a lyric and play out a metaphor with the best of the great Stax and Motown writers.
Please, take it from me: find this record, open up the windows, turn up the volume, and smile widely when you hear Har Mar’s impressively soulful voice and his dynamic arrangements. What a great pleasure it is to discover this guy. Oh, and his Twitter feed, too.
From the Hills Below the City
I get that there’s nothing exactly original about a four-piece band from the Midwest playing southern roots rock. Any group with a guitar, bass, drums and keys can rock out. So what is it about Houndmouth that is compelling to me? After seeing them live last fall, I wrote about why they might distinguish themselves from every other band playing the bar scene on a Saturday night, but it’s not just Katie Toupin’s engaging looks and stage presence or Matt Myers’ gangly guitar-god strutting. These guys (Toupin, Meyers, bassist Zak Appleby, and drummer Shane Cody) just know how to write melody and harmony. Like Alabama Shakes (to whom they have a passing musical and energetic resemblance), Houndmouth have made an album that doesn’t really let up the whole way through. There’s no torch song to give you room to breathe. Where they find space is in letting their instruments fall silent for a bar or a verse and allowing their harmonies (all four of them can sing) to hold the music’s presence. Then they blast you with drums and bass and guitar and you can’t help but sway to the tune. That’s a mature skill for a band so young, and From the Hills Below the City is rife with examples of this – “Ludlow,” “Hey Rose,” “Come On, Illinois,” and “Comin’ Round Again.”
Songs like these need to be experienced live. But get to know this album first, because when they stop playing and let their harmonies fill the hall, you’re going to want to join your voice with theirs.
I’ve never responded to Pop music because I’ve always seen it is as shallow and removed from the realities of the human condition. If I’m wrong in that assessment, then perhaps Lorde will push me to explore Pop more deeply. If I’m right, then my hope is that Lorde is pushing back at Pop’s obliviousness. I’m incredibly fascinated by Lorde’s lyric writing; it’s impressive that at her age she can so maturely grasp the ambiguity of reality and also be willing to show that vulnerability. In “Ribs” she sings, “This dream isn’t feeling sweet, we’re reeling through the midnight streets. And I’ve never felt more alone, it feels so scary getting old.” How many teenagers willingly admit that kind vulnerability? (Never mind that fact that at sixteen, she’s hardly getting old.) With words like, “We may be hollow but we’re brave,” Lorde is taking the (stereo)typical invincibility of youth and using it to explore just how exposed all of us are. It strikes me now as I’m listening to Pure Heroin again that this album is essentially a conversation between her and her peers and that people like me, from older generations, are listening in and are leaning what her reality is. The song “Team” is a perfect example: “We live in cities you’ll never see on screen / not very pretty but we sure now how to run free / living in ruins of a palace within my dreams / and you know, we’re on each other’s team / I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air.” And we’re cheering on what she’s doing – probably because we might wish we had been willing to do so when we were her age.
Which isn’t to say that what Lorde has done is completely unique. Elvis did it in the 50s; Punk did it in the late 70s. In my youth bands like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins were willing to go to those places. But I love that in this decade Lorde is willing to go there and that she’s been so overwhelmingly successful at it. From the Miley Cyrus/Robin Thicke farce of the year, Lorde managed to drive the conversation away from scandal and spectacle and into a deeper exploration of where her generation is (and therefore, where the social world) is and how we might get to where we all want to be. It’s rare that a voice as defiant (or perhaps it’s better to say divergent) as hers isn’t shunted aside. I hope she continues to help drive the Pop conversation.
Make-out music is alive and well with Rhye, the collaboration of Canadian-born singer Milosh and Danish instrumentalist Robin Hannibal. The band choose to be obscure, wanting the focus to be on the music and not on the musicians behind it. For this reason many people at first listen have mistaken Milosh’s high, husky voice as female; combine that with sultry basslines and soft horns and the many comparisons to Sade don’t seem so farfetched. But Rhye to me feel more based in jazz sensibilities, which makes their compositions more vibrant, as evidenced by songs like “The Fall,” with its staccato violin work, and “3 Days,” propelled into a late chorus with its pulsing base line and multi-layered keybords. Don’t get me wrong: this music is perfect for a sultry summer night with candlelight and massage oil – there’s nothing wrong with sex music. But it’s also compelling enough to listen to with headphones in the early-morning fog or on the car stereo on a sunset drive. All three options are romantic, and Rhye oozes with sensuality.
I wrote in an earlier post that Rhye was my rebound from my broken marriage in 2013. Unlike a rebound, though, this album is coming with me into the new year. I’m excited for warm summer nights with a cocktail in hand and this album spilling onto the patio.
Pushin’ Against the Stone
Hear the opening track to Pushin’ Against a Stone – the R&B-tinged folky “Workin’ Woman Blues” – and tell me Valerie June isn’t destined for greatness. To hear that clear, strong voice, the urgency of that bassline, and that exultant trumpet – that’s a songwriter and her cohorts taking great pleasure in their craft. How many genres can one musician play with and be so comfortable in them all? Unlike most of the albums on this list, Pushin’ Against the Stone doesn’t have an explicit or even evocative narrative arc; what the album is, then, is a showcase of June’s influences and her ability to match them to her personality and style. Essentially a folk album (or is it essentially a pared down soul album?), June incorporates blues, R&B, old time, country, roots rock and any number of other genres to effortlessly create a genre all her own – one that feels simultaneously fresh and new and also like you’ve heard it all – comfortably – before.
Follow Valerie June on social media and you’ll always see a smile on her face; she is joyous about her music and the success she is experiencing because of it. It’s such a pleasure to hear a woman in complete control of her music – and enjoying it so much.
Modern Vampires of the City
Modern Vampires of the City landed on most year-end lists, taking #1 on many of them. Most of the praise can be summed up as: “Vampire Weekend finally grew up and showed they can evolve.” There’s no doubt that the sound of this album is an evolution of what the band did on its debut of 2008 (and especially was an improvement over the sophomore effort, which hardly advanced the sound at all). But Vampire Weekend were hailed as a seminal band even before that 2008 release, so this more mature sound to me sounds perfectly in line with my expectations. When I first heard Modern Vampires of the City it did not take me by surprise; in fact, quite the opposite: it sounded to me like the band had done just what it was supposed to have done. The album slipped so easily into my subconscious not because Vampire Weekend were going off in some completely new, mind-blowing direction (like I feel Arcade Fire are doing with Reflektor) but because they were progressing and maturing in line with their ethos. That it didn’t take me abruptly might sound like a pejorative but in fact I think it’s the highest of praise. Vampire Weekend just made an album that (in light of all the accolades the band had received even before they ever released an album) they were supposed to make.
Without a Net
I am no jazz scholar, though I love the genre deeply, so I can’t discuss in detail what Wayne Shorter and his quartet are doing on this record theoretically; I don’t know if the tunes are modal or melodic, harmonic or discordant. (Well, I certainly understand there’s some free jazz going on – after all, this is Wayne Shorter.) What I do know is that at almost 80 years old, saxophonist Shorter is as daring and vibrant as he was in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, with Miles Davis’ second quintet, and with The Weather Report. Most of the tracks on this album were recorded live with the same quartet (Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and Brian Blade on drums) that Shorter has been touring with for over a decade. In this case, time does not make things stale; these tracks are dynamic, the improvisations compelling, and the group is the tightest you will ever hear a jazz combo in this day and age. It occurs to me that Shorter is one of the last of the mid-century jazz giants standing. With this record he proves why.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR:
The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You
I’ve written about Neko Case numerous times this year, so one might think there’s nothing left to say about this album. But I’m still struck by the beautiful cacophony that Neko has created here. In interviews, she has said that the title had to be what it was because of what it conveyed. She’s also said that she doesn’t mind that people abridge the title in writing and talking about it, but she keeps it whole. And The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You is a perfect summation of the arc of the album itself. The first two songs, “Wild Creatures” and “Night Still Comes” start with hard truths about where (and who) we come from and about depression, respectively. Then with the third track, “Man,” Neko begins to fight. And as she fights through the middle of the album with such beautiful songs as “Calling Cards” and “City Swans,” we hear her growing stronger. When Neko sings, at the close of the album’s haunting middle pivot (“Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”), “Kid, please have your say, because I still love you,” she’s singing not just to that little girl at the bus stop but to all of us who have been through betrayal, loss, and despair. With that song, Neko wills you, the listener, to begin the fight for yourself.
Neko has said that The Worse Things Get is not an album about depression, and I’ll trust her in that. But for me, it is a full-throated reckoning with grief and what grief does to the self. (And it certainly ain’t a romance record.) The title is not a note to a third-person lover: the “you” in that title is also the “I” – it is a love note to the self. Not unsurprisingly, Neko’s gift for language hits that concept squarely on the head. We descend to some very dark places in grief, but we are survivors, and how we survive is that we fight our way back, and in doing so we re-discover ourselves, or are reborn to ourselves, or are awakened to our full and true selves. And whichever way you choose to phrase it, we gain traction against that grief by loving ourselves. In this life that is, itself, a beautiful cacophony, we find ourselves and love ourselves. In his song “Luly,” John Gorka wrote that “we are here to love each other, that is all.” True though that is, the love of Self trumps it, and Neko understands this fully. What a resounding statement of that self -love and the resilence of humanity in the final line of the album: “I’ll reveal myself invincible soon.” Johnny Greenwood once said of the song “The Tourist” which closes Radiohead’s OK Computer that the song, as soon as it was written, had to be the final track of that album. My sense is that Neko knew when she wrote “Ragtime” that it had to close out The Worse Things Get… A triumphant end to a triumph of an album.
The Worse Things Get got plenty of high praise from the music press and wound up on many year-end lists. But I still think it was grossly underappreciated. It is a stunning work of artistic brilliance and of catharsis. It is deeply vulnerable and revelatory, and I think many people missed the boat on it. Or, perhaps, it hit so close to the bone that it was hard to sit with it. I sat with it more than any other album in 2013, at times with tears running down my cheeks, at others in the throes of happiness, but always with that prickly sensation of the experience of grace. And that’s it right there: this is an album that finds grace in resilience. It will reside on my shelf as a go-to when I forget that I, above all others and all else, deserve to be graced by my own love.
(Since this is my blog and I can keep writing as long as I want, I’ll just throw out these lyrics from a few of the album’s songs as representatives of just how superior of a lyricist Neko is. She is, as NPRMusic wrote at the album’s release, peerless.)
The white crowned sounds of possible
The sound that lures me
It says don’t you worry, don’t hurry kid
We’ll be seeing you
We’ll see you when you’re ready
– From “Ragtime”
And I can’t look at you straight on
You’re made from something different than I know
And it breaks my heart just like the day that I looked down and I realized
I’d been sailing so long I’d become the shore
– From “City Swans”
Every dialtone, every truck stop, every heartbreak, I love you more
Looking like you just woke up from making songs
Shooting satellites that blew up the pay phones
Singing “we’ll all be together even when we’re not together”
With our arms around each other
And with our faith still in each other
– From “Calling Cards”