Monday, December 16, 2013

Favorite Records of 2013

In the hours I spent parsing through my "2013" Spotify playlist en route to compiling this list, I've determined, with certainty, that I am extremely white. This list is just a bunch of white guys. Hip-hop? Soul? Blues? Dude, I don't deserve to enjoy that stuff. That said, I listened to more of it this year than ever before, and even though that still comprised a very small portion of my overall music consumption, it's a step towards my perpetual effort to expand my tastes. But as the blog description states, we specialize in Americana and indie rock 'round these parts, so I suppose it shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

For the first time in a while, I can't land on a discernible favorite, so WITHOUT FURTHER ADO, here are Thirteen Records I Really Enjoyed This Year and Some Stray Thoughts On Each™.

Vampire Weekend — Modern Vampires of the City

I tried to dislike these guys on principle when they debuted in 2007, but I found it terribly difficult. They're just too good at crafting eminently likable indie-pop anthems. And Ezra's a damn fine singer with a kind of Midas touch that transmogrifies things that should be grating (like a mouse-pitched voice singing "Ya hey!") into a charming earworm. God, so many good songs on this album. And "Diane Young" is the perfect single, right? Like, that ideal has been achieved so the rest of us should turn to writing rock operas? OK, cool.

Jason Isbell — Southeastern

Remember when Jason Isbell first left the Drive-By Truckers and we were all excited to hear a solo LP because his precious few Truckers credits were so damned good and we figured we'd get a slate of A+++++ songs on an LP? Then his first album came out and it was like, "Yeah, this is pretty good," and then he released a kinda mediocre follow-up and then an even more mediocre third album? Then Southeastern came out and everyone was like, "OH SHIT HAVE YOU HEARD THE NEW ISBELL?" and I listened and it was actually pretty goddamned good? And how I celebrated the fact that Isbell to was writing some gritty Southern gothic shit and aching ballads instead of schmaltzy blue eyed soul and MOR adult-contempo?

That was awesome.

Local Natives — Hummingbird

God, this band. I remember when I first heard Gorilla Manor and was staggered by how sturdy and developed it was for a debut and how many songs I was completely in love with. "Wide Eyes" is still one of the better opening tracks I've heard in years. After three years spent building a fanbase, Local Natives released Hummingbird in January and it was about all I listened to until March. These guys can write the hell out of a hook-laden single, but won't hesitate to crush your ass with a ballad if you look at 'em wrong. "Colombia" is a song about singer Kelcy Ayers' mother passing, and it will absolutely destroy you when you hear it in that context. My one gripe with the record has to do with pacing. The momentum picks up in the back half, but it starts out choppy. But hey, basically a nitpick—this one's been in steady rotation all year. Oh, and if this record came out when I was nineteen, I would have had "Mt. Washington" on repeat and felt sorry for myself about how hard I had things (I didn't). Thankfully, "Come Pick Me Up" was available.

The Letter Show—Brokenhearted Stumblers EP

Yes, I am in this band but it totally would have shown up in this list even if I wasn't. YES NO YOU SHUT UP.

Arcade Fire — Reflektor

Perhaps it had to do with the enormity of The Suburbs, but fans and detractors alike came down hard on Reflektor seemingly the moment that first stream was available. Regardless, if you're willing to tweet out a dismissive review of any record after a passing listen, you're a terrible fan and don't deserve good music.

I'm a salty vet with the Arcade Fire, so I dignified 'em with an Actual Listen™ prior to pulling together my verdict. After some dozens of spins, I'm comfortable deem it another triumph, although maybe not quite so triumphy as any of the band's first three LPs. I think Reflektor could have been trimmed down to a single LP, but I still love pretty much all of it. By the way, I've got a ticket for their DC show in August 2014, and am feeling pretty good my prospects of doing The Electrocution* during the breakdown of "Here Comes the Night Time". (*The Electrocution is a dance I invented by proxy because it's the only form my dancing takes. As you've likely gathered, it's resembles a person being electrocuted by a stupid amount of voltage. It's not a good look. Did I mention my whiteness?)

Mark Kozelek/Desertshore—s/t

While Mark Kozelek's recent output has seen musical arrangements whittled down to almost nothing, his collaboration with Desertshore (comprised partially of former Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon bandmates) gets back to the spacey alt-rock histrionics of latter-era RHPs and early SKM. Lyrically, Kozelek's in a wacky place, in as much as Kozelek can be wacky. His lyrics are a bit sillier and more self-deprecating, although still contextualized by the somber, deadpan delivery that defines much of his canon. The album's ten songs are strung with mundane descriptions of what Kozelek's doing or thinking. "I got up and I went to the studio / got stopped by a crackhead named Jerome / he had a lot to get off his chest / he wanted some money and he was homeless" he muttersings on "Livingstone Bramble". The chorus ends with the declaration "I hate Nels Cline" followed by a Cline-esque guitar run. Sensing the wackiness? But lest you think Kozelek's shelved his penchant for more crushing turns, he reminds us why he's the face of '90s SLOWCORE. Par example, piano ballad album closer "Brothers," about the death of each of Kozelek's father's three brothers, which occurred over a span of some 70 years. The song (and album) ends with the lyric, "And my dad, he's still around / and I'll miss him like hell when I can no longer hear the sound / of his voice givin' me advice and telling me the latest news / when we can't sit around and watch old movies in his living room." Suffice it to say this isn't exactly a pick-me-up record, but it's got a relatable warmth to it if you're feeling a bit blue and reflective.

Kurt Vile—Wakin' On a Pretty Daze

I just want to talk about "Shame Chamber", which is a way groovier song than we're used to hearing from KV. Actually, I don't have much else to say about it except that I peck my head like a nerd to the electric piano lick and may or may not shriek along with each "WOO!" when no one is in earshot.

Richard Buckner—Surrounded

A supremely underrated songwriter who seems to be finding a lot more joy in exploring the studio space with his recent material. Buckner's bailiwick is writing heady, spacey neofolk songs, which are kinda my shit. Also, remember how Mark Kozelek's lyrics are a little wacky? Buckner's are stone serious, delivered like he's making mad eye contact while sliding you a stiff whiskey. Don't ask questions—just drink it and listen.

Neko Case—The Worse Things Get...(etc.)

Look, Neko. I know you probably don't want a husband but if you're wanting for company, I'll totally come live on your farm in Vermont and help you with whatever. I won't even ask for a room; I can sleep in my car or a tent—I have a zero degree bag so I should be fine. And I'll try not to gush about how much I love your music, but I can't promise a bit of fanboy shit won't slip out. By the way, your album rules. That song "Night Still Comes", I love it...and you. I LOVE YOU NEKO PLEASE LET ME LOVE Y[is dragged off by security]

Phosphorescent—Muchacho

Will Houck could read an Arby's menu into a microphone and I'd be like, "Ah, man, there's a delicate pain belying his chummy delivery and also he really likes Market Fresh Sandwiches." Thankfully, he opts to sing a spacious brand of Americana that'll wash over you like a warm Mojave sunset. Is "A Charm/A Blade" my favorite song of 2013? Answer: IT IS CERTAINLY UP THERE.

The National—Trouble Will Find Me

It seems bonkers that the epic Boxer, my first exposure to the brooding indie rock collective, was released seven years ago. While I don't think they've topped it with either subsequent LP, the good news is the National doesn't make a habit of putting out bad records. Nor do they stray from their formula, but it's distinct enough that they don't really have to. Push play on a National record and you're gonna hear pounding, moody anthems. You're gonna hear weaving interplay between verbed out guitar arpeggi and tumbling drumbeats. You're gonna hear Matt Berninger mumbling curious wordplay like, "She's a griever, not a believer, it's not a fever, it's a freezer." Ironically, these same touches that distinguish the National from garden variety indie acts have a congealing effect as far as their individual songs go. But I'm not listening to National records to hear a batch of staggered singles. Trouble Will Find Me, as with most National records, feels like one long, thoughtful spin on a starlit highway.

Dexateens—Sunsphere EP

ENOUGH WITH ALL THIS MAUDLIN INDIE BULLSHIT, LET'S CRANK SOME FUCKIN' GRITCAKED SOUTHERN ROCK IN THIS BITCH. FOXHOLE ROCK!



(Fun fact: I'd never listened to these guys before I saw them open for the Alabama Shakes in September. Their 2007 album Hardwire Healing is the truth.)

Steve Earle & The Dukes (& The Duchess)—The Low Highway

As a person who writes music, there are a few artists whose songwriting chops are so inspiring that they're contagious. Hearing their stuff sets my creative gears in spin, and generally results in me grabbing a guitar and ripping them the hell off writing my own tune in a similar vein. Bob Dylan, obviously, is one of these people. Steve Earle is another. There's an appeal that exists in both these dudes' music that's borne out of the fact that it feels both effortless and inspired, which are extremely difficult qualities to maintain in balance. But when you hear a Steve Earle song like, "Love Is Gonna Blow My Way", you want to call him up and say, "Dude, I bet you wrote that in like three minutes and it's better than anything I've ever written. I hate you." And then he'd be like, "Gee thanks, um, how'd you get this number?" And then you'd snap your phone in half like a burner in Breaking Bad, because that'd be a pretty cool way to tie up that scenario. Speaking of which, there's a song about meth on this record. It's okay.

Other albums I liked:

Dr. Dog—B-Room
Man Man—On Oni Pond
Yo La Tengo—Fade
Daft Punk—Random Access
Phoenix—Bankrupt!
Deer Tick—Negativity

Mild Disappointments:

Iron & Wine—Ghost on Ghost: Even as a champion of Iron & Wine's steadily expanding sound, I found this one uneven and regularly flirting with schmaltziness. I really like "Grass Widows" though.

Okkervil River—The Silver Gymnasium

Agree? Disagree?* What'd I miss? Feel free to leave your opinions below.

*You're wrong

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Kyle B. said...

I liked Okervill River's album, but I agree they're coming from a pretty high place. It's got a couple of weak songs, but the gems really shine.

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Dougo said...

Nice write-up here. I can almost see you doing your nerd dance to some of this music.

And the Letter Show EP certainly deserves its place on here.