Another year, another year’s worth of albums, another set of opinions about them! Geez louise, how the time flies. I remember last December (March, lol, check the timestamp) writing weird things about Miguel. This year? He kicked someone in the face on TV and I am really deep into Doctor Who. WHAT ELSE CAN CHANGE IN A YEAR? As always, this list is merely an example of now and how I feel about music at this point (For example, I just got the Pure Bathing Culture record. No way I can include that at this point, even thought it is great). On the other hand, this list is the most authoritative and considered in all of human history, so pay some freaking respect. I kid, I kid.Let’s get down to it!
Wait, just kidding! For the first part of this, I am not going to put numbers on these. NO ORDER. Chaos! These are ten great albums and probably fit somehow into a 30-21 designation, but to heck with standard expectations.
Youth Lagoon – Wondrous Bughouse
Music writers lauded first Youth Lagoon album, so I asked a friend about it. He said it was bedroom pop. The “bedroom” designation has become a description for music done by a single artist that is a bit rough around the edges – unfinished sounding at times, unmixed maybe – but not necessarily abrasive. Trevor Powers’ first album has that sort of intimate, unfinished feeling. It’s a warm, comforting album.
That warmth spreads on Wondrous Bughouse. It is bigger and more cohesive than The Year of Hibernation. Opener “Through Mind and Back” evokes some of the tones of the first album, but the second track “Mute” expands to show what Powers can do with time and resources. The album is strange and psychedelic in the best way (the wandering, echoing, lingering way rather than the cock rock dressed up in phaser pedal psychedelia).
Baths – Obsidian
Will Wiesenfeld’s Baths dropped Cerulean a few years ago. It was glitchy and lovely. I remember some videos where Wiesenfeld performed a bunch of his songs using sequencers, drumpads, and synths. He turned knobs, tapped buttons, and generally threw himself into making these sounds in a way a lot of electronic musicians might not. He was going crazy. Good crazy.
I bet Baths is still really into throwing himself into the music. However, with the darkness of the songs on Obsidian, I can’t imagine it is as fun. Obsidian is full of darkness, rue, and piano. The songs are more straightforward than Cerulean’s songs, but that isn’t much comfort at first. After a while, there’s catharsis. Getting to that point is tough – good tough – but it must have been hell for Wiesenfeld.
(When I was an intern at my current job, an intern from California mentioned he was friends with Baths. He made Baths seem like a cool guy. This intern also said Dakota Fanning was very good at drinking. That’s shocking at first, but this was like two or three years ago, so Fanning was a teenager. Teenagers are going to do these things. Just don’t worry about Dakota Fanning, guys she is doing FINE.)
Thundercat – Apocalypse
I saw Thundercat on a bunch of late-night shows either sitting in with house bands or playing with people. Good for Thundercat. Being on TV is probably wild.
Apocalypse is out-there and groovy in a way that I wish some of Janelle Monáe’s music was (No disrespect to Janelle Monáe/ All disrespect to my expectations and projections on the creative work of others). Instead of cosmic space opera stories like Monáe’s, Thundercat’s album has a unifying sense of loss as the album came together after the death of close friend Austin Peralta. Under that sadness run otherworldly beats and intricate bass runs. Six-string bass runs. Sometimes they are melodic and mellow, but most times they are dazzling.
The National – Trouble Will Find Me
Like a few other bands on this list, the National are consistent and excellent in a way that lends to them being taken for granted. At this point when the National release a record, it is critically acclaimed, the songs are clever and smirking, and people will throw out claims of dad-rock, as if dads don’t have feelings. Do the National get bored of their own excellence? I think they might get bored of their perception. Sure, they hit a lot of the same themes (self-doubt, sadness, disappointment), but people talk about that shit all the time. Why shouldn’t the National? They are funnier than we all think (so much so, I think their next album might just be a Bob’s Burgers tie-in) and not as sad as their songs. The National are going to keep doing this until they want to quit. When you do it as well, you get that right.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away
I am not a longtime Nick Cave fan. I didn’t dislike him, but I never got into him. I’ve heard some Grinderman songs and some of his other stuff. It’s all interesting and great, but it never clicked for me. However, on a musical recommendation via Twitter from a pop star embroiled in controversy, I dug into Push The Sky Away. What a wonderful album! It’s low-key and intense in its storytelling. It rumbles and shakes you but never with blaring volume.
Rhye – Woman
Rhye’s Woman is sexy and slinky in a particular way. Like dinner party, wine-drunk, dancing a bit, “Honey, your hair looks great and you are so beautiful”, windows open, comfortable night-time temperature, Saturday-night-but-maybe-not-Friday-night, new sheets with high threadcounts, sweet sweat (not Suite/Sweat), purring, humming, discovering-newness-in-the-familiar type sexy. Sexy doesn’t have to mean dangerous and unknown. It can be smiling and joyful and tender.
Lorde – Pure Heroine
In her massive hit “Royals”, Lorde sings a few lines that could be construed as problematic at best and racist at worst. For discussion’s sake, the offending lyrics are mostly these
But every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom
Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room,
We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.
But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece.
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash.
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair.
Most of the examples used in the song are often linked to hip-hop and black pop culture in the larger pop culture discourse. All of these lyrics don’t do that (You would be hard pressed to find islands, tigers on gold leashes, ball gowns, trashing hotel rooms, and tripping in bathrooms to only occur/ever occur depending on the particular phrase), but gold teeth, Cristal, and Maybachs are often generally (and more often ignorantly) applied as signifiers of a larger musical culture. The Cristal reference is particularly interesting given Jay Z’s public boycott of the product seven years ago. A$AP Rocky even played with this on his “Goldie” single, remarking, “Cristal go by the cases/ Wait hold up that was racist.”
For Christmas, I went to my cousins’ house in Connecticut. In celebrating the holiday, my cousin opened up a bottle of Cristal for a toast. He made a remark about it being something rappers drank. Lorde is a teenager from New Zealand. My cousin is a man from the Midwest. Neither of them are racist, but both unwittingly used an example that was set in motion by insidious racism long (but not that long) ago.
Lorde’s ignorance is frustrating because she deftly handles her ideas elsewhere on Pure Heroine, like on “Team.” The expectations of youth culture are better addressed on the disaffected team when Lorde sings, “I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air, so there.” Where “Royals” is groping for something , the other songs on Pure Heroine know what they want to grab.
Which is the other frustrating thing about Lorde. “Royals” made her massive this year. With her cool demeanor and gorgeously thick hair, Ella Yelich-O’Connor can come off as counter-cultural or at least “alt” while succeeding as a pop star. She also gives honest opinions in interviews. She can criticize Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez while still being invited to Taylor Swift’s garden birthday party. Her view that Justin Bieber’s music doesn’t paint an actual picture of youth might upset internet Beliebers, but it’s accurate. Pop music gets at being young, but as the product of older professionals working with impossibly tan kids, things get warped. That happens in Lorde’s case too. She is honest and cool, but sort of stumbles about the issues of race in “Royals.”
Yelich-O’Connor is young. That’s not an excuse, but maybe a way to get a little more perspective. She is also not perfect. No one is! The language in “Royals” is dumb and dismissing it doesn’t help anything. If Pure Heroine has a thesis, it’s muddled on the biggest track. The other tracks express it so coolly (not meaning racism, which is never cool no duh, get it together if you think racism is cool) that it gets to you.
Musically, the album has that slight strangeness that will drive pop fans mad for a while (hi Gnarls Barkley and Gotye!). It’s the strangeness that leads to some radio stations adding drum flourishes and unauthorized remixes to station rotation. It’s that strangeness that will let a pop record get minimal, but not too minimal. It’s a strangeness that complements how weird it is for a teenager to sing about fears of aging while evoking those innate mortal fears in the listener. “It feels so scary getting old.” Sure, Lorde, whatever you say (rolls eyes aggressively). But, oh god, it does it does it does.
Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience Pt. 1
Justin Timberlake songs are long. They have always been long. Through his first three albums, there is no song less than four minutes long. For one of the premier pop stars of this generation, you think he would not bore us and just get to the chorus. Well, he does, but the choruses are also very long. Welcome back, Justin!
This is what happens when you are JT famous and good at several things. You focus on one thing for a while. People are cool with that but they get restless and want you to give up being a sometimes cast member on a popular late night sketch show and return to your roots. So, you return to your roots in secret and then just drop some music on people. [SIDEBAR – IS 2013 THE YEAR OF THE SURPRISE MUSIC MOMENT – SEE THIS RECORD, YEEZUS, MAGNA CARTER HOLY GRAIL #MYLAUGH, BEYONCÉ ALL IN CHRONOLOGICAL AND ASCENDING SURPRISE ORDER]. And then you keep dropping music on people (hello, other 20/20 Experience!). But the first set of songs you release, these are some great ones. There are singles, of course. Things that will get cut up for radio a bit. There are attempts at doing some things popular acts who have come in your wake might have done. For the most part, you come up with a blue-eyed soul/ Timbaland pop/ platinum life/ tuxedoed/sort of futuristic type of sound that really gives everyone what they wanted. What I am trying to say is the follow-up to Willenium is going to blow your fucking mind.
(This joke presupposes that you don’t know that Will Smith had two albums after Willenium. Neither has the sort of punch that using Willenium for the joke provides.)
Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time
I feel like I have seen Sky Ferreira’s name FOREVER in music press, like it was put there from the future as some warning from a near-omnipotent being trying to tell me something. Ferreira’s label signed her years ago, and she released things sporadically on EPs, due to the vagaries of large record companies. For a deeper discussion, we could discuss Justin Timberlake, Lorde, and Ferreira along with Haim, Frank Ocean, and whoever else has been involved in the major label world. It seems most relevant with Ferreira. Her experiences inform her music, in a way that wavers between memetic and mythic. We’re not going around talking about the night Sky and the dude from DIIV were busted for drugs, but we do probably say equate Ferreira with hard living.
That is kind of refreshing in pop . When Ferreira sings about struggle, she does not sound world-weary, but she does sound understanding. It makes the sweet moments of Night Time, My Time sweeter, too. Many singers could pull off the chorus of “24 Hours,” but they probably wouldn’t resonate as much as they do with Ferreira.
Classixx – Hanging Gardens
Classixx did not release this album on DFA Records. They have a slight affiliation with some DFA people, but there are a lot of good record labels out there. The way I put things together, I hear “hip dance record” and I think James “Jim” Murphy and the crew must have their hands on it. But they don’t! What a story.
The second mistake I made regarding Classixx deals with their use of a sample on the opening track of their album. Pictureplane uses the same sample in “Goth Star” so I figured that is where it comes from. Not so! It comes from “Seven Wonders” by Fleetwood Mac. God, I am so bad at music and listening to music. I like dancing around my room, though. Classixx songs are awesome for that. They are probably great for dancing with others or at a club or wherever else you might want to dance!
My knowledge and experience of dance music is limited. My tastes probably lean to the more accessible things, but real CLUB BANGERZ can be accessible, no? We can admit how silly we are bouncing along to music and we can embrace that. We can be silly, sweaty, and happy. Hanging Gardens sounds very cool a lot of the time, but it never sounds condescending. The songs are perfect to laugh and sweat and dance to. Please dance!
NEXT TIME – Ten more albums! People from Detroit! People who love either the Houston Rockets or the Toronto Raptors! Songs about morning show royalty! Philly Boy Roy! Adult Hide and Seek Participants! Mr. Steal Your Wifi! My CYO Basketball Coach! Scottish people! Geniuses/ kind of jerks! Joe Flacco!