Top Albums and Songs of 2013

Without further adieu, here’s my top ten favorite albums of this year (in order), and then my favorite songs of the year (in no particular order).

Top Albums of 2013:

1. Jason Isbell – Southeastern

The story goes like this: Former Drive-By Trucker who regularly outshines his peers with his contributions leaves the band amidst a variety of personal issues. Spends the next few years cutting good-not-great solo records. Finally sobers up and puts out this collection of crystalline beauties that are not just a stone-cold classic this year, but in ANY year.

Check out: “Cover Me Up”, “Flying Over Water”, “Relatively Easy”

2. HAIM – Days Are Gone

Hearing “The Wire” for the first time was one of those fulcrum listens. Either it was going to be the best thing HAIM ever did, or it was just a taste of what the band was capable of.

Luckily, it was the latter – the sisters beat the hype and wrote a record of sun-kissed classics. Make no mistake, this is pure pop appropriated for an indie audience. You know that’s true. “I know, I know, I know, I know” that too.

Check out: “The Wire”, “Falling”, “Running If You Call My Name”

3. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels

El-P and Killer Mike took the hip-hop world by storm last year with their solo releases – El’s “Cancer For Cure” and Killer Mike’s “R.A.P. Music” (which El-P produced in its entirety). Both guested on each other’s records. Both also landed on many year-end lists.

So what to do for a victory lap? Join forces, obviously. The eponymous debut from Run the Jewels was released for free on the internet this June. What could have been phoned in with the cut-and-paste feel of a mixtape is instead a tight collection of straight-up bangers with monster beats. El-P and Killer Mike seamlessly flow into each other’s rhymes with bravado. No – scratch that. Gusto.

Check out: “Run the Jewels”, “36” Chain”, “Sea Legs”

4. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

The National – at least from “Alligator” and forward, have brilliantly constructed top to bottom classic records that give the air that they were furniture, they’d be refined from the most skilled of woodworkers. Every sound is considered before the final product. Allegedly, on an earlier release, they recorded the same drum sound an exhaustive number of times until it ‘sounded right’.

If anything, “Trouble Will Find Me” is a surprise. It’s the sound of a band loosening the reigns for the first time. The songs feel more organic. They have a sense of space that’s not part of any of the earlier releases. If there’s any knock on it, is that it sort of feels like a band in transition. What you get here is a band pushing the boundaries out just a little more. It’s exhilarating for them, and it’s exhilarating for the listener. But you can’t help but think what they’ll do next time.

Check out: “I Should Live In Salt”, “Sea Of Love”, “I Need My Girl”

5. John Moreland – In The Throes

Admittedly, this is a late addition to this year’s list, but a well-deserved one. Oklahoma-based Moreland delivers a thirty-eight minute gut punch. It’s intimate. It’s vulnerable. It’s big-hearted. It’s an album full of simply great songs delivered simply. No bullshit.

Check out: “I Need You To Tell Me Who I Am”, “Nobody Gives A Damn About Songs Anymore”, “Break My Heart Sweetly”

6. Kanye West – Yeezus

At this point, even giving a brief rundown of Kanye’s album-by-album trajectory is pointless. His public persona and his role of an artist are now so diametrically opposed that the thought he’s actually a working musician is an afterthought. Everyone has an opinion about Kanye West. He has many about himself. The amount of noise between the artist and the public is overwhelming, from fans to non-fans. That’s the best thing that ever happened to him – it freed him to do whatever he wants in the studio.

So, he does.

For as spontaneous as some of his other career moves seem, “Yeezus” is quite the opposite. It’s a carefully crafted, reductionist masterwork, laying waste the grandeur of much of his previous work. The beats are brutal, guest spots as brilliant as they are puzzling (Justin Vernon and Chief Keef on the same track?), and the message unfettered: he’s taking no prisoners.

We’re far past the point where a Kanye West album is a showcase of peerless production and top-notch talent. It’s art for art’s sake. He might even agree with that. Everyone else might too, if they stopped talking and listened for a change.

Check out: “On Sight”, “I Can’t Hold My Liquor”, “Bound 2”

7. Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

The sense of insularity and delicate nature of Laura Marling’s fourth album leaves me fighting myself to compare it to the great early records of Joni Mitchell. Obviously by typing that sentence, I’ve failed. Perhaps the best way to put it is to suggest “Once I Was An Eagle” is its spiritual cousin. The four-song opening suite is startling and effortless, delivered with the maturity of a person far beyond her 23 years. From there it ebbs and flows, (“Master Hunter” is a definite highlight) one beautiful melody and texture after another. It’s an album best experienced in one sitting. You’ll know that as soon as it begins.

Check out: “Take The Night Off”, “I Was An Eagle”, “Master Hunter”

8. Deafheaven – Sunbather

We live in the time of the egregious usage of the word ‘epic’. Here’s an album worthy of the phrase. On “Sunbather” walls of whatever-brand-of-metal you call it and sweeping melodic passages combined with bridge effortlessly with vocalist George Clarke’s screams to create a whole that is like nothing else I’ve ever heard. I may not understand a damn word he’s saying, but the sheer ferocity of his vocals seize your attention. It’s metal for non-metalheads – beauty in a genre where you expect something ugly.

Check out: “Dream House”, “Irresistable”, “Vertigo”

9. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

In the summer of 2008 I watched Vampire Weekend perform selections from their debut album to a crowd of thousands at Pitchfork Music Festival. Then, they were a relatively unseasoned live act, a fine listen, but not quite capable of that knockout punch of the others that played the stage the same day. My feelings of their debut album and it’s follow up were similar to this – songs that were okay for the moment, but didn’t hold a whole lot of resonance. I figured they’d be fun to bring up for a laugh a few years down the road or to recapture that moment when we were just a little bit younger and thought we were a little bit hipper.

Instead, they grew up with us. “Modern Vampires of the City” is a headfirst plunge into uncharted territory. It’s a series of calculated risks for a group that treaded dangerous waters as a very (popular) one trick pony. Here, the band deals with heavier themes such as life and death. Look no further than the pitch-shifting prowess of “Diane Young” (Get it?) for example. The differences are also textural – the wispy “Step” and soothing synths of “Everlasting Arms” are obvious departures. The big takeaway though – there’s plenty of nuance here when none was ever really expected.

Check out: “Unbelievers”, “Step”, “Everlasting Arms”

10. Disclosure – Settle

The debut by English brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence kind of passed me by on first listen. I didn’t think much of it and shuffled it away pretty quickly.

Then I heard “Latch”, a perfect piece of elastic electro-pop. It turns out that’s just the gateway into the many gifts that this record holds. Jessie Ware drops in for the robot slink of “Confess To Me”, and “F For You” competes with London Grammar on “Help Me Lose My Mind” for the second best hook on the album. I’m going to stop now – play this album and get ready to dance.

Check out: “Latch”, “F For You”, “Confess To Me”

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Top Songs of 2013:

HAIM – “The Wire”
Drake – “Hold On, We’re Going Home”
Disclosure – “Latch (feat. Sam Smith)”
Superchunk – “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo”
The National – “I Should Live In Salt”
Jason Isbell – “Cover Me Up”
Run the Jewels – “Run The Jewels”
CHVRCHES – “Gun”
John Moreland – “Break My Heart Sweetly”
Laura Marling – “Take The Night Off/I Was An Eagle/You Know/Breathe” (Opening suite)
Paramore – “Ain’t It Fun”
Zedd – “Clarity (feat. Foxes)”
Jai Paul – “Crush” (Jennifer Paige cover)
Kanye West – “On Sight”
Vampire Weekend – “Diane Young”
HAIM – “Forever”
Jason Isbell – “Relatively Easy”
Deafheaven – “Dream House”
Arcade Fire – “Afterlife”
Justin Timberlake – “Mirrors”
Jay-Z feat. Justin Timberlake – “Holy Grail”
The Replacements – “I’m Not Sayin” (Gordon Lightfoot cover)
The National – “Sea of Love”
CHVRCHES – “Recover”
Arcade Fire – “Reflektor”
HAIM – “Don’t Save Me”
Neko Case – “Man”
Paul McCartney – “New”
CHVRCHES – “The Mother We Share”
Jason Isbell – “Flying Over Water”
The Dismemberment Plan – “Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer”

Scouring the bins

A few days ago I downloaded an app called The Vinyl District that uses GPS to find your nearest record stores. Thats when I was directed to Rediscover Records in Elgin, Illinois. It’s a store within another store located in the downtown area. It’s a nice little space, with plenty of new vinyl from a variety of genres (ie: the new Tom Waits next to a mint copy of “Master Of Puppets”).

What really got me though was their used selection. For $10.75, I scored the following:

Elvis Costello – “Trust”
Jackson Browne – S/T aka “Saturate Before Using”
Joni Mitchell – “Blue”
Billy Joel – “The Stranger”

That’s a pretty satisfying haul. I’m very impressed that albums of that quality were that affordable. I don’t think I would have even come close to a deal like today’s somewhere in the city.

What I’ve Been Spinning

Dusting off an ancient feature today for nostalgia’s sake. Enjoy! Discuss! Rejoice!

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Bob Dylan – When He Returns

Bob Dylan’s “born-again” era is the most forgotten, least-treaded or too generalized of his entire catalog. It’s the inkstain on his mythos. No one really wants to talk about it, and Dylan himself is often vague of the period. But one thing’s certain: 1979’s Slow Train Coming is some of his most inspired, frighteningly honest material since his heyday as a young singer-songwriter living in the West Village. Most of the album is wrought with conviction and praise is framed beautifully by the guitar of Dire Straights axman Mark Knopfler by the album’s final track is a propulsive, powerful ballad that is nothing more than Dylan and piano accompaniment. “How long can you falsify and deny what is real?,’ he questions, before rounding the killer couplet: “How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal?”

Frank Turner – I Still Believe

Frank Turner is Billy Bragg for post-millenial hardcore kids. His songs straddle a fine line of folk music with punk rock energy. So much of his work is hook-heavy, songs seem to eclipse their albums, much like Bragg’s work. That’s frustrating a lot of the time, but not in this case. “I Still Believe” is the lead track from Turner’s stopgap “Rock & RollEP. Characteristic lilting vocals, call and response choruses, and shout outs to “Jerry Lee and Johnny and all the greats” make it a fun four minutes. There’s no real message here, and that’s okay. It’s a good example of why EP’s exist.

tUnE-yArDs – Gangsta

What’s great about Merrill Garbus is the deliberate incongruence of her songs. Rarely anything she does sounds natural. It’s cut up, shuffled and reconstituted with the strength of a glue stick, and that’s what makes it so exhilarating. There’s no better example than this song, layered vocals, caddywompus horns and a prowling beat keeping it together. At first listen, her latest album W H O K I L L sounds like several loose ends, but with repeated listens, the songs weave a pretty brilliant tapestry.

Fleetwood Mac – Little Lies

I love this song exactly for what it is: A killer pop single. Sonically, nothing seems to connect it to the same five people that made classics like Rumours and Tusk. Stevie Nicks often is the face for this band, but Fleetwood Mac have always seemed to be far more democratic when it comes to lead vocals on their singles. For this particular song, Christine McVie is up front, Nicks in the back, and Lindsey Buckingham is relegated to an echo. The hook is monstrous, and anyone growing up listening to pop radio in the late 80’s and early 90’s has that chorus imprinted on their consciousness. Girl Talk even appropriated it for “Overtime” from Night Ripper. To put it into Cheap Trick terms, it’s “The Flame” to their “Surrender”.

Up “All Night” with Houses

Imagine losing your job without any idea of what to do next. Well, other than looking for another job. There’s also that romantic idea of moving somewhere tropical, living off the grid and enjoying what’s around you. It’s fun, but not something that’s easy to do with bills and responsibilities in the way. Not for Houses. They just took off.

It’s an admirable, albeit unsustainable idea. I’ve always dreamed of doing what they did, but never had the guts to see it through. It seemed on the whim, and one enormous leap of faith. Not much later, they were working and living in Papaikou, Hawaii, learning the basics of sustainable living.

More often than not, this lifestyle does not work out for most people. But Houses are not most people. After finally running out of cash several months later, they returned to Chicago, but not empty handed.. With them, they had a gorgeous snapshot of their time on the island, All Night, their debut on Lefse, due next month.

Rarely do I hear a record so elemental and effortless. Its title track is the sound of those first few moments of waking up on a spring morning while rays of sunshine bleed through the blinds.  Other moments are dewey eyed and bleary, like taking a long nap in the grass. Perhaps the freshness of these moments is best exemplified with “Endless Spring,” a glistening pearl where frontman Dexter Tortoriello’s vocals mesh beautifully with the sounds alongside them. The same goes for the harmonies provided by Houses’ other half, Megan Messina. This is consistent throughout: never once on the disc do their vocals feel put-upon. They’re just as organic as the field recordings they made in Hawaii.

These moments are bountiful on All Night. There’s “Soak It Up,” sounding devastatingly like a late Arthur Russell composition, “Wash,” with its deliberate rhythm would make David Byrne proud, and of course, the sweeping, resplendent surge of “Sleeping” and “Sun Fills”.

With that final fade, we’re back to the beginning again, if you see it that way. I don’t. It lacks a beginning and end point. It just simply exists. It was always there, just captured and put to tape at the right moment. That’s doesn’t happen too often in music, and when it does, like All Night, it’s something incredible.

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Houses – Endless Spring (mp3)

Houses – Soak It Up (mp3)

Tumblr: http://housesmusic.tumblr.com

(Taking Back) Taking Back Sunday

Is it too early to get nostalgic about emo?

Mentioning the album Tell All Your Friends to anyone who had a semi-serious interest in early 2000’s pop punk is sure to elicit a response that’s dually earnest and self-mocking.

Emo bands of this era are rock and roll’s feral children. Taking Back Sunday, who released the album in question, are part of a larger group of bands like Brand New and Thursday who shared the same reliance on angular riffs, obsessively wordy hooks and a penchant for inter-band and inter-scene drama that makes the Beatles breakup seem lazy. (For a more thorough history lesson, this explains the controversy surrounding the split and feuds the band had better than I could condense in a few sentences.)

The ‘classic lineup’ of TBS fractured only a year after the disc was released, and they’ve gone through a ‘Spinal Tap’ number of musicians since. For some reason, they reformed for a short tour and a forthcoming album this year. Fickle babies.

A confession: I’ve never listened to it. Until now. I don’t know why I missed it the first time around. I liked Brand New’s Your Favorite Weapon and Thursday’s Full Collapse, so it seemed like a logical move. It just never happened. I assume it was indifference or the fact I was way too caught up listening to Incubus and Dave Matthews Band and didn’t want to be bothered.

Times have changed. For the past few weeks, I’ve finally given a few hard listens to this totem. Let’s discuss.

“We were such magnificent liars,” sings Adam Lazzara. “So crush me baby, I’m all ears/ so obviously desperate/so desperately obvious.” That’s the sound of my sophomore year of high school, watching those girls – long haired waifs who wore Abercrombie and Fitch threads – transform overnight into thrift store junkies with choppy haircuts. Obvious. Desperate. Like them, it seems. There’s something uncomfortable about that notion. Like this song. Like those lyrics.

The layered, overlapping vocal style in use here has become a genre hallmark. A propulsive opener, but not exactly memorable. That shows up a few songs later, with “Cute Without the ‘E’ (Cut From The Team)”.

It’s my favorite cut on the record, with a late-80’s college rock jangle recalling faint memories of the Smiths. The sharp notes punctuate and break away to an anomalous chorus: ‘And will you tell all your friends/you’ve got your gun to my head?’. Silly, but it works. Lazzara and guitarist John Nolan exchange heroic vocal interplay, and it conjures a memory I never had: driving to Steak and Shake late at night in Lake in the Hills with the windows down on my red 1996 Ford Taurus. My friends and I would be shouting the lyrics at the top of our lungs before our milkshakes. When we were done, we’d go home and post snippets of lyrics on our LiveJournals among photos of Jordan Pundik.

There’s more of the same with “Timberwolves at New Jersey,” which, to my disappointment, was not about basketball, nor was “Great Romances of the 20th Century” about love. Well, a healthy love, at least.

Of course, these lead up to one unforgettable moment. One lyric to define an entire genre of music, and it’s right in “You’re So Last Summer”.

The truth is you could slit my throat
And with my one last gasping breath
I’d apologize for bleeding on your shirt

This is the moment you hit the water after being thrown into a pool with all of your clothes on. It’s shocking, uncomfortable and really wet, like the audience this song panders to. Also, it’s totally hilarious. At the time, the lyric was relevant to many disilliusioned teenagers, but as they’ve grown up, gotten over and moved on, the song has morphed from an anthem to weighty, melodramatic trash. If emo karaoke ever catches on, this is it’s “We Are The World” – well, that or any U2 song.

I suppose it’s this, really: Tell All Your Friends isn’t a bad record, but it’s not a good one either. Many mediocre genre records somehow transform into well loved classics simply because they refined the formula before others could. This is the case for Taking Back Sunday. They set the template for so many copycat bands to follow. Some are still chasing that dream too long after it can be taken seriously.

I can see why some may find that last statement unfair. I’m twenty-four. I’ve got close to ten years of music listening and analysis behind me. I’ve fallen in and out of love with many bands. Maybe I’m too old, and my moment with this record is eight years too late. If Taking Back Sunday were the first to the dance, then I arrived right in the middle of the last song, when I probably should have stayed home in the first place.