I wish there was a pattern to this, sometimes. I wish there was an easy explanation for what I like and don’t like. It was so easy in high school. I wore flannels and liked something called “grunge”, until I decided it was more fun to wear all black and like everything that fell under the hindsightedly ridiculous moniker of “industrial”. There was a formula then. It was easy then.
Not so much, now. Here are ten albums, my favorites of the year that was.
I’d ask you what I missed, but I already know the answer: everything else. There was something for everyone last year, and just to name a few, it killed me to leave off albums by Pearl Jam, Franz Ferdinand, Lorde, Goodie Mob, and even Avicii.
…What’s that? Hell yeah I liked that Avicii disc. Want to make something of it?
…ahem. Maybe I shouldn’t be starting fights on the internet. On with it:
10. Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks
Reznor just beats out the men of Pearl Jam for the “40-somethings still going strong” title. I did not have high hopes for Hesitation Marks, the first Nine Inch Nails album since the underappreciated The Slip, given that pre-release single “Came Back Haunted” sounded like a rehash of every Nine Inch Nails song ever. Still, I never miss a Nine Inch Nails album, and I’m glad I didn’t make an exception for this one – there are so many great little moments like the head-nodding last minute of “Copy of A”, the multitracked vocal chorus of “Everything”, and the short horn break toward the end of “While I’m Still Here”. Something new reveals itself with every listen; a new track catches your ear thanks to something you never heard before. Reznor’s not as angry as he used to be, and that’s OK. His music is as layered and dense as it’s ever been.
9. Childish Gambino – Because the Internet
Donald Glover has long been my favorite part of Community; his ability to be a little bit gonzo without (usually) veering into the ridiculous is unmatched on a show that often does dive headfirst into ridiculousness. While nobody would mistake the affable accessibility he offers on that show with the explicit raps he spits as Childish Gambino, he actually manages a similar trick. On Because the Internet, Glover apes his heroes, delves into meme-speak, sticks with production that at its most accessible would still be termed radio-unfriendly, and dabbles in the most self-conscious misogyny that may ever have been put to tape. There are so many elements of Because the Internet that just seem qualitatively bad, or tired, or trite, that it’s easy to dismiss it as a mere “TV star putting out a rap album” disc, but by wrapping it all in a package meant to evoke the fleeting, tired, YouTube-commenting side of the internet, it sorta…kinda…makes sense. Because reasons.
8. Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe
If you look at the albums I’ve reviewed over the last ten years, you see a constant dalliance with synthpop, particularly synthpop that features vocals from wispy-voiced women. These are albums I tend to like but not love, as all of them have the admiration for the ’80s aesthetic required to make such music, but few of them pull it off with a convincing emotional hook. Chvrches manages that emotional hook thanks largely to the ability of Lauren Mayberry to effortlessly deliver a scathing turn of phrase, making it believable without an obvious change in her pretty, almost flat vocal delivery. The extra-chunky backdrop she gets to sing over all the time doesn’t hurt. Chvrches makes a case for beautiful, accessible synthpop as much more than simply a niche.
7. My Bloody Valentine – mbv
For three tracks, mbv sounds like Kevin Shields treading well-worn ground. Layers of reverb, lots of guitar, and vocals pushed way back in the mix are ingredients that offer a sound not all that unlike Shields’ classic Loveless. After that, though, mbv goes somewhere else entirely through the introduction of synthesizers, higher tempos, and a perfect vocal counterpoint. One would have forgiven Shields, and probably enjoyed the album just fine, if it had merely been a 2013 update of Loveless; that he gave us something so new and lovely is more than enough to land it on this list.
6. David Bowie – The Next Day
It feels like ages ago that I wrote this piece about the quintet of albums Bowie released from the mid-’90s to the early-aughts. It’s one of very few features that I ever wrote for PopMatters, and the more I looked it over, the more I actually started to feel bad about ever having written it. While I find a lot to love in all of those albums — yes, every single one — there’s something a little sad about categorizing an entire decade of an artist’s output as some sort of extended midlife crisis. Whether it feels as though he’s going out of his way to re-invent himself or he’s trying to re-inhabit one from his past, it’s impossible to see any of his new work without looking at the lens of what he’d already done, and it led me to categorize that entire era in a way that feels almost mean-spirited, especially given what he released this year.
Maybe it’s the outright defiance of the very first track, or maybe it’s the somber reflection of a track like “Where Are We Now?”, or maybe it’s just that every single track sounds well thought-out, complete, and very much in the realm of “classic” Bowie, but The Next Day feels like an artist who has both fully come to terms with his past and is fully comfortable blasting that past to bits. “Here I am, not quite dying / My body left to rot in a hollow tree”, he shouts, and it’s as if he’s talking to me, telling me to take my “crisis” and shove it. The Next Day is vital, and earnest, and basically perfect.
5. Kanye West – Yeezus
This is the point. If you criticize Yeezus for being ugly, you may as well criticize, say, Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago for being pretty. And I bring up Bon Iver for a reason – he’s all over the album, sometimes autotuned, sometimes not, often serving as the melodic counter for Kanye’s atonal ugliness. Why is he here? I imagine having him around to pretty up bits and pieces of what’s going on serves to emphasize just how damn ugly everything else is. Yeezus is Kanye drunk, Yeezus is Kanye surly, Yeezus is Kanye playing into every pre-conceived notion of the angry black man that a bored and boring critic has thought to label him with. “Fine, this is what you think I am? Here you go.”
As a piece, it is thrilling, difficult, and a little bit sad. It’s utterly fascinating to watch an artist completely eschew the idea of giving the people what they want; that that artist happens to be the most visible hip-hop artist in music today pushes the whole enterprise toward brilliance.
4. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
“Get Lucky” is fine and all, but it’s the nine minute tribute to Giorgio Moroder, narrated by Giorgio Moroder, about Giorgio Moroder that sells this album. Random Access Memories is a loving tribute to the mid-to-late ’70s, a paean to classic R&B, soul, and (of course) disco. Once you get into the headspace of the past rather than the future, Random Access Memories takes you on a ride that leaves you constantly smiling and often utterly surprised by its authenticity. There’s no grand statement here — this is an album about fun and little more — but it’s an album that I always wanted to listen to, an album that never actually got old.
3. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
I liked the first two Vampire Weekend albums just fine, enough to think of the third one as an essential purchase, but I don’t know if I could ever say I loved them. Almost mathematical in their approach to song construction, Vampire Weekend always felt like a band who could (and almost had to) think their way through a good song. Modern Vampires of the City is a complete turnaround. It still offers Ezra Koenig’s wayward way with a melody, and everyone else offers a terribly familiar sparse-yet-accessible backdrop, but there are moments on the album which sound positively inspired, moments that can’t be reduced to the sums of their most basic parts.
Opener “Obvious Bicycle” (maybe the most Vampire Weekend song title of all time) is a lovely, quiet way to introduce the album. “Diane Young” is an absolute burner of a song, reckless in its vocal manipulations and frenetic percussion. And then there’s “Step”, a beautiful little piece that combines hip-hop with harpsichord, landing in the sweet spot between whimsical and wistful.
I don’t know what that means, exactly, but it seems right for this album.
2. John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
“And I wanted to be your friend / But I couldn’t pull it off in the end / And I’m disappointed in myself ’cause I thought I could / But then again you always made it clear / That you do not care either way / Which begs the question: How can I still claim to love you?”
Good Lord, this album. I’d never heard of this guy before this album showed up in my mailbox, a Christmas present from my brother, who nails it every single time when he buys me a gift. John Grant has a beautiful baritone voice that he uses over backdrops alternately electronic and acoustic. It’s like…it’s like Iron and Wine making Kid A; it’s like Bono fronting Front 242. And almost every line is utterly quotable, in a way that careens back and forth between utterly sincere and total deadpan irony. I could quote the whole damn album here, but I’ll spare you; let’s just say that lines like “Doc ain’t lookin’ at me; says I got the disease / Now what did you expect? You spent your life on your knees” don’t exactly grow on trees.
1. Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
It’s one of those songs that’s timeless and catchy, a smooth and not overly aggressive piece that’s upbeat, melodic and breezy as its title. I could listen to it for hours. There was a time I wished it was ten minutes long, though its ability to leave you wanting more is one of its assets. It’s a great, great song.
Next, it was the title track.
“…Like Clockwork” is a vulnerable, pained song whose aching emotion is palpable and dangerously contagious. It has the ability to draw you into its self-destructive, almost deadpan mood, to the point where you’re feeling as though Josh Homme’s emotions are your own. It’s not a happy place to be, even as you realize the brilliance with which it gets you there.
It’s a great, great song.
After that, it was “Kalopsia”, whose explosive transition from contemplative verse to a flamethrower of a chorus (with a small assist from Trent Reznor) is a thrlling ride. Then it was “The Vampyre of Time and Memory”, whose loping swagger feels like something you’d sing late in the night as you get more bitter and your drinking buddies start inching away.
Truth is, I don’t know that there’s a single song on this disc that I didn’t say, at some point, “wow, that’s a great song.” Josh Homme was always a solid songwriter, but now he’s a mature, measured one who crawls just as well as he runs. …Like Clockwork is his masterpiece thus far.
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…and that’s it. Here’s to an open-minded, unpredictable 2014.