Good times at Dodgers Stadium. Just out of frame: a Cool-A-Coo and Sazerac rye. (at Dodger Stadium)
"The writing and telling of history is bedeviled by two human neuroses: horror at the desperation and shapelessness and seeming lack of pattern in events, and regret for a lost golden age, a moment of happiness when all was well. Put these together and you have an urge to create elaborate patterns to make sense of things and to create a situation where the golden age is just waiting to spring to life again."
- 2 months ago
Pi’s Top 13 Albums of 2013
From strong bluesy rock to experimental hip hop, last year was amazing.
Here are my writeups and the Spotify list for all 13 albums (14 really since there are 2 Jake Bugg records on it), plus the 1 album that I foolishly left of my list last year (Alt J’s An Awesome Wave). Makes for a great 170 track shuffled listen…
1. J. Roddy Walston and the Business - Essential Tremors
Are you bummed you didn’t get a Black Keys or a Jack White album last year? Not enough blues-based indie-tinged roots rock in your life? I’ve got you covered with the Most Overlooked Album of 2013, which also happens to be the Best Album of 2013. There’s a huge amount of Led Zep in J. Roddy Walston and the Business, but there’s just as much Fats Domino, not to mention the Holy Spirit of the Pentecostal Church. They’re the real deal, and they’re on fire. I haven’t seen them live yet, but their performances online make the live show seem like a bonafide religious experience. It’s classic rock, early rock, danceable rock, rejiggered for the modern age. It’s replete with dirty grooves, tasty backup singing, uptempo jams that pull you out of your chair, and downtempo, alt-country tunes that leave you breathless. If you’re looking for an egomaniacal, soul-corrputed hip hop artist to scream about French pastries and sodomize sacred cows through brain-hemorriging production techniques, this record ain’t your number one. However! If you once prayed to classic rock but are tired of the same damn songs, if you’ve ever listened to an album by The Hold Steady three times in a row, if you have gritty, bluesy, rock n roll all up in your groove, this, my friend, this is for you. Play at full volume.
2. The Arcade Fire - Reflektor
Every Arcade Fire album is a triumph. But the massively popular group has loads of passionate detractors. I suppose because they’re massively popular. I used to get bummed out when indie groups I loved became popular. But now I realize I must’ve liked him for the wrong reasons. So when music that I dig becomes popular I ask myself one simple question, “Do you love the music enough to keep loving it when shitheads you hate love it too?” And the answer in the case of Arcade Fire is, “Yes. Shitheads be damned. This is a great, great album.”
3. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
Weird, intriguing, and better with every listen, I first felt this Vampire Weekend album was the weakest of the three they had put out. But, it’s weirdness is a portal. For me it took about four listens to make it through the portal to the threshold, and then the album opened up like a mystic cavern. And now I can’t get enough.
4. Front Bottoms - Talon of the Hawk
Punky, poppy, awesome. Fan of Pavement or Cake? Wondering what They Might Be Giants would be like loaded up with testosterone? The Front Bottoms’ latest album is a must. Lots of acoustic guitars and emotional songwriting, they have the most undeniably catchy songs I’ve heard in a long time, yet they never become annoying. Unlike most Top 40 crap that makes you want to jam an ice pick into your temple after six listens, the Front Bottoms make you love them more. The lead singer Brian Sella has a limited range of vocal choices, to be sure, but this album mines every self-doubting nuance in his neo-Slacker tone and weaves powerful journeys across the post-collegiate expanse: tales of drugs, impenetrable sadness, insane friends, nostalgia, redemption, broken relationships and the search for meaning. It’s top notch stuff even if Sella’s voice (like Stephen Malkmus before him) will keep this band indie to their dying day. I’ll be at their LA concert tonight and I expect to be stuffed into a sold-out crowd of college students who will sing along to every word from every song on every album. I’ll be singing right along with them.
5. The Bryan Ferry Orchestra - The Jazz Age
Before last February I wasn’t a huge Bryan Ferry fan, and I never played New Orleans Jazz on my way home from the job. But the combination of those two disparate elements on this bizarre and remarkable album have me a changed man. It’s a metamorphosis of Roxy Music’s hits through the vocal-less prism of early 20th Century ragtime, arranged by Ferry’s long time music director, Colin Good, and it’s the most surprising, delightful and downright magical album of last year. It’s great listening for all ages and, if you want bonus points from your music nerd friends, challenge them to name those tunes.
6. Phosphorescent - Muchacho
It’s the saddest of all my album pics of last year. Also the easiest. I knew immediately that this Mexican-born sad bastard album that Matthew Houck created following his break up with the girlfriend (sensing shades of Bon Iver anyone?) would be on my top 13 list by year’s end. It’s not just the stunning Song for Zula that sends me, it’s the myriad of other mournful tunes that follow the album’s first track—a strange sun salutation/hymn almost absurd in its reverie—into uncharted territory that we can all be thankful Houck is now talented and technically adept (and heartbroken) enough to map.
7. Okkervil River - The Silver Gymnasium
The Silver Gymnasium takes a trip back into the small-town New Hampshire childhood of one of the best American songwriters alive, Will Scheff of Okkervil River. His new set of songs is amazing—even if the production sounds like it’s from a second-rate Cyndi Lauper record. Yeah, we know everyone’s into the 80s now. But when the 80s retro vibe is not done perfectly, which means, when it’s not updated with all our modern 21st century edge intact (as you find on excellent albums like Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time or Haim’s Days Are Gone) the impact is weakened, the power nullified, and worse, those keyboards are f’in annoying. But Okkervil River’s songs are so intelligent and performances so emotional that this particular collection about Meridian, NH stands easily among the best of 2013. Will Scheff is just that good.
8. Jake Bugg - Jake Bugg / Shangri La
A rootsy, bluesy debut from a new UK artist and a follow-up album released in the same year is good news for people who love rock ‘n roll. Especially when that artist is a 19-year-old and already has a hit. “Lightning Bolt” was released back in 2012, but for me, it kept rolling straight through 2013 as one of the best songs of the year. Bugg uses his second album, Shangri La to not only ape his songwriting heroes but in some ways surpass them. Jake Bugg does Dylan, he does Hendrix, he does Steely Dan, he does Buddy Holly, he does Everly Brothers, but most of all he does Jake Bugg. Between him and wunderkind Lorde, 2013 was blessed with exciting musical youth that know what the hell they’re doing.
9. Chance the Rapper - Acid Rap
Filled with piercing observations, myriad drug references, honest emotion and a nostalgic sense of longing for his own simpler times, Chance the Rapper’s 2nd record is deft, cunning and (though you can hear influences like Kanye West and Eminem shining through) original. It’s about time we had a young hip hop artist who wasn’t afraid to express the emotion of fear both on his album cover and in his music: “Down here it’s easier to find a gun than it is to find a fucking parking spot… I know you scared, you should ask us if we scared, too.” The album feels good as a cohesive whole, with great guest rappers (including Childish Gambino) and a wicked sense of humor that runs throughout. And the psychedelic veneer that coats the whole shebang deepens the experience. I read that this Chicago native is moving in—as in they’ll be roomies in a musical compound—with UK artist James Blake. There’s nothing this kid won’t try.
10. Haim - Days are Gone
Why doesn’t 80s style Girl Pop feel as evil as it used to feel in the 80s? Maybe music is genuinely better in the 21st Century? Maybe I’m not an angry teenager any more? Maybe those shimmering keyboards aren’t trying to be cutting edge, but are succeeding in being nostalgic? Whatever the case, the syth-jams on this record made by 3 San Fernando Valley sisters are as twinkly as the pop songs of yesteryear, but taste less like sugar-soaked bubble gum. In fact, after a couple of listens, I realized Days are Gone is a hearty 7 course meal. With lots of sorbet in between in between each course. The producers, Ariel Rechtshaid (Usher, Vampire Weekend) and James Ford (Florence + the Machine, Arctic Monkeys), create a retro sound so authentic, you’ll think you’ve uncovered some absolute hidden gem from 1983.
11. Local Natives - Hummingbird
Their second album is a more melancholic version of their shtick: tender and off-kilter songwriting, creative post-rock drumming, incredible indie-choir harmonies. Though I prefer the first album, Gorilla Manor, that was produced by Raymond Richards (who brought out the bold & exciting side of this LA hipster crew) Hummingbird is a terrific—if very serious—album. All but one song on this sophomore effort was produced in conjunction with the National’s guitarist, Aaron Dessner. Dessner gives the record a consistent tone throughout, and the melancholy is both infectious and strangely uplifting. The highlight of the album is most definitely the penultimate song, “Colombia”, about the death of the lead singer’s mother. When he asks the question “Am I loving enough? … Am I giving enough?” it’s absolutely heartbreaking. And euphoric.
12. Jason Isbell - Southeastern
The lone country album on the list. The lyrics are simple and powerful and the songwriting (unlike most of the country pop pablum that is vomited out over the radio waves) is complex. This record reminds me of the pre-Wilco band, Sun Volt: alt-country with classic song structures and some catchy, emotional choruses. Jason Isbell was a former member of The Drive-By Truckers, but his alcoholism derailed that journey and landed him in rehab. Southeastern is Isbell reemerging, with support from his wife/songwriter Amanda Shires. Much like the Okkervil River album in this list, a better producer would have kept some of the rougher edges rather than polishing them all to a glossy sheen, but the songwriting is so potent that the album stands out. Perhaps because of the polish, country radio fans (as well as indie music lovers) will be well-rewarded by giving Isbell a try.
13. Laura Mvula - Sing to the Moon
Lucky spot 13 was a near-tie between the two Lauras—Laura Marling and Laura Mvula. Though I love Marling’s strong, poetic update of 60s folk music, I went with Mvula for this pick. Mvula, a new singer who grew up in Birmingham, UK, combines the sounds of jazz and soul with folk and choral harmonies you’d expect to hear in an experimental college group. Mvula’s songwriting can also incorporate classical instruments and classical compositions into the bluesy, hypnotic space that her voice carves out. She sounds like a more soulful, less heady Joanna Newsom. Music can be a gateway to uncovering emotion—and Sing to the Moon is at its most bewitching and effective when it does just that.
2012 revison: Alt + J - An Awesome Wave
I always end up discovering my undying love for at least one album a few weeks too late to make my end-of-year list. For 2012, that album was Alt J’s An Awesome Wave. The clicky, trippy musical landscape coupled with the strange quality of Joe Newman’s vocals made my first few listens too strange to include as a fave last year. But as 2013 progressed, the album grew on me immensely and plunged me into 2 month long listen-and-relisten obsession. Alt+J is officially, retroactively, adamantly inducted into my top ten albums of 2012.
2013 Honorable Mentions:
Julie Ruin - Run Fast. A punk album w teeth—if you loved Katlhleen Hanna’s band Le Tigre, you’ll flip.
Born Ruffians - Birthmark. Some of the best indie pop of the year. The 1st track, “Needle”, soars as much as it grooves.
Mikal Cronin - MCII. Previously just a collaborator with Ty Seagall. Now a full-fledged solo artist to be reckoned with.
The Strokes - Comedown Machine. Solid record. Casablancas is the man. Killer guitar licks. Cool retro sounds.
Portugal the Man - Evil Friends. I love Portugal the Man, and I love Danger Mouse. They made a record together. Love it.
- 3 months ago