2013 Is One And The Same. 2013 Is Useful And Strange: Top 20 – 11 Albums Of 2013

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Like my good friend Ryan Lewis says, “Like the ceiling can’t hold us!” How about we keep this good time train rollin’!

20. Danny Brown – Old

They want that Old Danny Brown. Get it? It's fairly simple to get.

“They want that old Danny Brown.”

Danny Brown sometimes refers to himself as “the Hybrid.” This nickname is also the title of his debut album. When I used to pull records off the shelf at my workplace, I would sometimes pull this record for people. The cover is a crudely drawn robot  wearing a Tigers hat and smoking something. It looks kind of dumb, so I didn’t listen to it then. His next release had a much better cover.

In 2011, Danny Brown released XXX. I called this a mixtape for a long time, because it was a free download and I have a limited worldview. Critics mostly agreed that Danny Brown was strange and wonderful. Since then, he has proved that many times over, on guest verses and his own releases.

Old has been out for months, but I only realized Brown broke the album in distinct halves when a writer (probably Tom from Stereogum) pointed it out.  There’s the deeper, inner-looking first half followed by the BANGERZ second half which attempts to undo and suffocate the issues of the first half. The second half obviously can’t half-ass it on the BANGERZ front – not only because half-assed BANGERZ would disappoint, but also because the BANGERZ are needed to make sure the whole album works as a strange, wonderful, and ambitious rap album. Brown maintains his weirdness while growing from The Hybrid to XXX to Old. They want that old Danny Brown, but do we even know the old Danny Brown?

19. Arcade Fire – Reflektor

Here comes the nacho time.

Arcade Fire are one of the biggest rock bands in the world. For their popularity, they are also one of the most ambitious. That’s great! When does that happen anymore? The things they do don’t work 100% of the time (as seen in kerfuffles over tour dress codes, songs about the suburbs [Sorry, The Suburbs was not my cup of tea], weird Rainn Wilson stage banter), but the parts that do work do so at a majestic level. When I heard James Murphy was producing Reflektor, I assumed we would just get Win and Regine singing “All My Friends” with some Owen Pallet-arranged strings. The closest the record got to such things were on “Reflektor” and “Afterlife.” For all their ambition, that would be antithetical to what Arcade Fire are. Even for their ambition and their proclivity for noodling, they music always is sincere. Arcade Fire might not sound the way they did on Funeral and Neon Bible, but they still care as much as they did then, thank you very much. 

18. Jessy Lanza – Pull My Hair Back

Her hair looks nice, don't pull it you monster

Hyperdub had a great year of releases (DJ Rashad, Burial 12″s, etc.) but my favorite one was from Canadian singer Jessy Lanza. Pull My Hair Back is the kind of breathy and ethereal R&B/ electronic mix that will subtly find its way onto the sonic palettes of some of the biggest pop records of the next few years.

The worst thing you can say about Lanza’s album on  first listen is it is simply “nice.” In labeling them as such, the labeler admits dismissal. The songs are quiet enough where you can hear them while not paying attention. They will add to your day, they will make it better of course this way. But once you really get into the record with its sighs and slinky bass grooving into your brain, you might not be able to stop listening to it.

17. Superchunk – I Hate Music

Love/Hate

Superchunk are a goddamned American treasure. Years from now, when I am sitting in the wasteland, waiting to be destroyed by roaming mutants who have ravaged the landscape (probably the result of chemical war or global warming or chemical global war warming), I will look through my music collection and wonder why I never gave Superchunk enough praise.

A ton of albums dealt with death and loss, but none was as exuberant about I Hate Music. Almost twenty-five years into being a band, Superchunk rock harder than most band with whom they were or are contemporaries. “FOH” hits just as hard as “Hyper Enough” and both songs hit so much harder than all that other bullshit out there. The band has changed, of course. Bassist Laura Ballance doesn’t tour with band these days. Jon Wurster recently saw his Best Show collaboration with mastermind Tom Scharpling end. Merge Records is turning twenty-five this year. It can rent a car! We are all getting older. Danny Brown gets it.

I Hate Music‘s quality is a testament to what hard work and staying on top of your game can do. Bands get lazy and don’t work at rock music as hard as they need to, but Superchunk do. Superchunk always have.

(once I dropped/ broke a glass during a Jon Glaser stand up thing. He probably used that for inspiration in this video.)

16. Parenthetical Girls – Privelege (Abridged) 

An album years in the making!

In June of 2010, Parenthetical Girls played a show in Brooklyn at a bar across the street from the place I was interning at the time. This bar  closes and opens without notice due to its loose adherence to state laws about liquor licenses. Once, it was closed for such offenses mid-show (Light Asylum was playing/ was supposed to play that ill-fated show). The Parenthetical Girls show I attended went off without hitches. During the show, frontman Zac Pennington asked the crowd why the show was more empty than he expected. An audience member said it was because Interpol was playing. Mr. Pennington asked if anyone even cared about Interpol. His guitarist began playing the opening riff to Interpol’s “Obstacle 1.” That night, I bought Parenthetical Girls’ first Privilege 12″ – “On Death & Endearments.”

All the songs on this year’s Privilege have been available since the fifth EP in the set was released in 2012. The abridged version marks the end of the cycle, repurposing the ambitious EPs into a singular artifact. There are many reasons this should not work. For one thing, the membership of Parenthetical Girls is fluid. I saw Parenthetical Girls again in Manhattan in 2012, and Pennington was the only member remaining from the Brooklyn show (which is to be expected. Members of the band have gone their own ways while Pennington remains the main force behind the band’s creative direction). As the band members changed, contributions and influences changed as well. Rearranging the tracks unstuck them from their EP context, and created a familiar but distinct record. That must be how Parenthetical Girls always intended it, right? As Parenthetical Girls have stuck around, they have also been able to remove themselves from the strictures of mid-aught indie culture. The days of every band being called “chamber pop” are done. Now, the interesting bands can stick around and do whatever they feel like doing.

This is a little bit of a cheat. I can’t help but think of Privilege with all tracks intact (especially “Present Perfect (An Epithalamium)” which might be my favorite song by the band). However, the songs on each EP are focused bursts of emotion. That might not be sustainable if the band got together to record twelve songs for release. By spacing things out, Parenthetical Girls could throw themselves into the music, four songs at a time. It’s the purest set of songs the band has produced. That must be how they intended it, right?

15. Ryan Hemsworth – Guilt Trips/ Still Awake EP /☺RYANPACKv.1☺/ Mixes He Did for Places

Save some music for the rest of us, Ryan!

Did you do as much as Ryan Hemsworth did in 2013? No! You didn’t! If you did, I apologize for yelling, but I still have a huge suspicion that you are lying. Mr. Hemsworth was everywhere this year. He released an excellent full-length of original production, made a bunch of mixes for magazines and podcasts and website and radio shows, dropped the sparkling Still Awake EP, and gave the world a late Christmas present with his remix pack.

I have a tough time describing Hemsworth’s music without sounding as if I am looking down on it. Due to my limited descriptive talents, I keep coming back to the words “twee” and “accessible” as well as the nonsense word “Tumblr-esque.” All those make it seem like I am dismissing Hemsworth’s music. I’m not! I realize the aspects of this musical personality are what makes Hemsworth himself. If I wanted to get someone into his music, I would start with a Britney Spears-inflected A$AP Rocky remix, a Lorde remix subtitled “(Let’s Have a Sleepover Version)”, and his light and springy Still Awake EP. Hemsworth’s tunes are poppy in a way pop music is not these days. They are bouncy and chirpy. They play with dynamics without resorting to memetic drops. All the songs hit with emotion, but because of the silly fun shit going on, you almost don’t notice it. Then, at the end of Guilt Trips, he drops “Day/Night/Sleep System” (or “Frog” depending on if my iTunes is to be believed) featuring Haleek Maul and Kitty. Both artists drop heartfelt verses about regret and loss and desire (particularly Kitty, oh my how I underestimated Kitty before this track – it was a mistake, I tell you, a mistake! – and now I like her songs a bunch and am excited for her next album) over a sweeping track that sounds like a tense dream. It gets your heart. It’s like you are falling.

And all this from a guy who did a Three Six Mafia remix backed with a Microphones song! Why can’t people have as much fun with music as Ryan Hemsworth does? Why can’t producers be more honest (post-rock tears version)? [That is a joke regarding a Future remix Hemsworth did off ☺RYANPACKv.1. It might not hit unless you know that.]

14. Mikal Cronin – MCII

NO, BE BOLDER!

A thing I do with a friend at work is I call most guitar bands “crust punk.” I have never used this term correctly. Mostly, it’s teasing at the expense of the preponderance of crunchy rock bands. I most likely asked my co-worker, “Is this crust punk?” the first time he played Mikal Cronin’s “Shout It Out” during work.

Part of this inside joke was a way for me to delay paying attention to the sheer amount of catchy, crunchy bands popping up. Mr. Cronin’s songs are too good to push away. Cronin has been everywhere this year, so it would be impossible to push him away. He is moving up in the world, from is first album’s release on the excellent Trouble In Mind label to this year’s MCII being released on the larger Merge Records. Mikal Cronin and his band were on Conan O’Brien’s talk show for crying out loud. I am crying out lout at myself for denying his chops for so long.

The album’s lyrics are full of self-doubt, of not knowing what to do, of not knowing what is next. The songs rock so much that they seem worlds away from the words. It all comes together in your brain, because the songs get stuck there, for days, weeks, months. I thought of rock and roll as being exhumed by knowing assholes for enjoyment with ironic attachment. There is so much life on these songs that they can make dummies like me regain their faith in rock and roll.

13. CHVRCHES – The Bones Of What You Believe

Lvgv

1). A thing I do and will do for as long as this band exists is pronounce the band name “Chuh-verches” instead as “Churches.”

2). At some point, someone wrote an article about the music “biz.” In it, there was a strategy from the label putting out this CHVRCHES release. They would sign bands knowing the first album would not be the most successful thing, but the artists would hopefully build a fanbase and have successful careers from there. The label roster consists of the first records by CHVRCHES and  Childish Gambino (Plus, they also have Phoenix). They seem to be doing alright on the first try.

3). What I am trying to say is CHVRCHES are pretty big time now. Their songs are great. But without the important stuff, without the music, couldn’t you see how people would hate this band? If you were casting a “trendy” band for a movie, CHVRCHES would be your inspiration. Two guys a girl and a keyboard place. Plus, they have an intentionally stylized name! Oh my gosh, are we living in a movie?

4). There was a time when this band would be eaten alive by the intended audience, though. There was a brief window in the mid-aughts when the idea of a stylish Scottish band mixing icy, the Knife-esque synths with such a keen  ear would be rejected on its premise. That time has passed now. Did it pass before CHVRCHES came along or did it pass because we, the collective audience, realized these sorts of indie markers could be overlooked in the case of really good songs?

12. Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

"I was an eagle; you were eating Dove chocolate bars because those things are great" - My version of this album

I think there is a sense that if you are playing acoustic music, you need to have some signifiers of that. In a post-Mumford world, if you are going to play songs in the folk style, you need to be wearing something old-timey. It seems like a lot of bullshit. Laura Marling doesn’t need the bullshit.

Brining up Mumford & Sons isn’t fair, as Ms. Marling had a relationship with lead singer Marcus “Marky” Mumford before he was married to Carey Mulligan (JESUS CHRIST THEY ARE STILL MARRIED?). Their link exists, but it is not inextricable. I either see this link brought up often or I fixate on it. Either way, been there, done that.

The bullshit gets discussed because Ms. Marling’s work is astounding. She is an expert songwriter. For all the music I have listened to this year, the most memorable experience was losing my place in the opening section of Once I Was An Eagle on my first listen. Not paying attention any clocks or phones, I didn’t realize that about twenty minutes had gone by and I was on the fourth song of the record. Opener “Take The Night Off” bleeds into the next three tracks so easily and effortlessly. Even crazier, Ms. Marling apparently recorded the album in ONE TAKE. I can’t even write an email without going through it eight times, and she just writes these songs and puts them down and now the world has a fuckton of great songs from Laura Marling.

11. A$AP Rocky – LONG.LIVE.A$AP

At least Hilfiger rich.

LONG.LIVE.A$AP was supposed to be released last year around the same time as Kendrick Lamar’s album. That was one of the discussed release dates, at least. This album was supposed to drop at some point during 2012. That never happened, so it was one of the first releases of 2013.

That worked out for Rocky. Comparisons to Lamar would have been endless if the albums were released close to each other. The records are very different though. Rocky’s major-label debut isn’t as cohesive as good kid, m.A.A.d city but “Goldie” and “Fuckin’ Problems” were the kind of ubiquitous singles missing from Lamar’s most prominent release. 

Fans weren’t expecting LONG.LIVE.A$AP to sound like it does. Maybe they didn’t know what to expect from the album through the delays and the leaking singles. It was like A$AP Rocky was trying to balance what endeared him to the cool crowd on Live.Love.A$AP while trying to show the world he was worth the massive advance he got from his label. So, the production is a little mishmash. The Clams Casino-produced songs are good, but sound obligatory rather than the exciting collaborations of the first run. “PMW” sounds like it was recorded two hours before Rocky and ScHoolboy Q did “Hands on the Wheel” at which point things really got extraordinary. The list of guests on “1Train” captures a moment – a moment where someone said, “We need every guy coming up at this level on this track.” (I hope there is a memo somewhere that includes someone suggesting they get Macklemore instead of Yelawolf). [Also, as we are talking about it, here is the definitive ranking of verses on “1Train”

1). Danny Brown

2). Action Bronson

3). Joey Bada$$

4). Kendrick Lamar

5). A$AP Rocky

6). Yelawolf

7). Big. K.R.I.T.]

Which is to say, LONG.LIVE.A$AP is full of foibles. Through Rocky’s charm and confidence, the album comes together. His energy can pull off an attempted crossover track like “Wild For The Night.” His ease lets four people upstage him on the posse track (to be fair, Kendrick sounds like he’s journaling for his “Control” verse on this one. First of many drafts, as it were). His desire to collaborate with established producers and trendy producers results in 40 and Hit-Boy side-by-side with Clams Casino and Friendzone. There are much better rap records from this year, but LONG.LIVE.A$AP tries the hardest. It tries to tie all the pieces that make A$AP Rocky an appealing figure together. It doesn’t always work, but it works better than you would think.

NEXT TIME: THE BEST TEN ALBUMS! Reality TV co-stars! Amateur vegans! Ambassadors for foreign NBA teams! Facebook app developers! Bowling alley performers! Steve Buscemi relatives! Introductory metalheads! The second most punk band in the UK (after Haim)! Car auctioneers! Repeated Beirut samplers!

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