Top 10 Albums of 2013

MIA - MATANGI10. Matangi – M.I.A.

Bangers, bangers, and more bangers. M.I.A.’s Matangi is unrelentingly frenetic, even for her. While the album focuses heavily on extravagance, she remains the only artist who can spit about xenophobia, feminism, refugees, and the exodus, and still weave it together to sound like a nonstop party.

Said the Whale - Hawaii9. Hawaiii – Said the Whale

In Hawaiii, Said the Whale creates a veritable musical grab bag. “More Than This” relies on little more than some piano chords and vocal harmonizing. “I Love You” sounds like a modern reimagining of “My Sharona.” “Resolutions” ends with a rapped outro (for some reason). Through it all, Said the Whale maintains its defining indie pop sweetness. Instead of feeling like a scattered mess, Said the Whale manages to be a rare specimen – a pop-friendly indie rock band that’s unafraid to take some wild swings for the hell of it.

Swearin' - Surfing Strange8. Surfing Strange – Swearin’

Surfing Strange is the best ’90s underground rock album of 2013. It’s a shame Swearin’ wasn’t around to open for Pavement at some NorCal dive back in the day. Allison Crutchfield and Kyle Gilbride swap lead vocal duties and lines of disenchantment over a bed of distorted dissonance without losing a sense of melodicism. It’s ugly and snarling in all the right ways.

Tancred - S/T7. S/T – Tancred

S/T isn’t just another album for Tancred – it’s a complete reinvention. While Jess Abbott’s first Tancred album, Capes, was pure hushed and minimal (to the point of being tiny) indie song craft, S/T is a lively pop rock record flush with exuberance. Songs like “The Ring” and “Indiana” surge with catchy energy and lyrics of soured relationships. Musical quantum leaps aren’t supposed to sound this smooth, effortless, and natural.

Wimps - Repeat6. Repeat – Wimps

Repeat is the adult-made, kick ass version of every awful adolescent punk album. You know the ones… when ragtag groups of misfits first pick up instruments and try to play, but the only material they have to write songs about is the relative trivialities of their day-to-day existence: Sleeping in, hating school, pizza, and staying forever young and vital. Wimps takes that formula, adds sharper musical skills, and applies it to adult parallels: Naps, hating work, the importance of not eating expired food, and growing old and getting boring. Thankfully, Rachel Ratner’s bratty singing and lyrics dripping with sarcastic wit prove that Repeat isn’t fully grown up.

Mansions Doom Loop5. Doom Loop – Mansions

From the opening aural bombardment of “Climbers,” Doom Loop unleashes a steady stream of fuzzy bass, overdriven guitar, and seething fury. Christopher Browder’s lyrics about unraveling relationships and communication breakdowns perfectly suit his voice, which can go from conveying withheld emotions to sonic fits of angst at the proverbial flip of a switch. While there are plenty of things Browder can bemoan, the quality of Doom Loop is certainly not one of them.

The Thermals - Desperate Ground4. Desperate Ground – The Thermals

After releasing 2010’s Personal Life, its kindest and most polished record, The Thermals got brutal and raw on Desperate Ground. The album is somewhat of a throwback – mixing the aggression and venom of The Body, the Blood, the Machine with the unhinged punk instrumental edge of More Parts Per Million. Hutch Harris lyrically hacks and slices his way through song after song about vicious killing (divinely ordained or otherwise) and bellows each of his impassioned creeds to the heavens.

Colleen Green - Sock It to Me3. Sock It to Me – Colleen Green

Colleen Green is bored and enamored. On Sock It to Me, she delivers bursts of sunny, smitten lo-fi rock with a blissfully stoned detachment. With little more than some bar chords and a drum machine, Green creates unbelievably catchy, upbeat ditties (“Only One,” “Number One,” etc.) and a couple deliciously dark, brooding tunes (“Sock It to Me” and “Close to You”). It’s daydream music for the smitten souls of summer.

Waxahatchee - Cerulean Salt2. Cerulean Salt – Waxahatchee

Fragility does not beget weakness. Waxahatchee’s Cerulean Salt showcases delicate strength at its most emotionally cutting. There’s a sense of Southern sorrow at the root of many of Katie Crutchfield stripped down tunes, but she never feels crushed under their weight; instead opting for a steadfast resilience. She’ll find a way to leave gracefully… or she’ll escape.

Lorde - Pure Heroine1. Pure Heroine – Lorde

There’s a deep-seeded sense of isolation that permeates Lorde’s sterling debut LP Pure Heroine. The roots of the seclusion are multifaceted: Growing up in a remote locale (New Zealand), general teenage angst (being an actual teenager), and an element of musical separation. But Lorde’s outsider mentality pushes the pop paradigm forward. With layered snaps, claps, and her deep, dramatic voice, Lorde forges a new brand of minimalist electronic pop that, compared to the rest of the radio-friendly landscape, sounds jarringly sparse. And yet each of Pure Heroine’s isolationist anthems shines more than any of the overproduced status quo. As she defiantly proclaims on the album’s finale, “Let ‘em talk cause we’re dancing in this world alone.”

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Top 10 Albums of 2011 Revisited

An Horse - WallsAs I do every year around this time, here’s a look back at last year’s best album list before busting out this year’s version. Now normally this exists to include albums that I missed or didn’t fully appreciate at the time of the initial list. This year’s version is different because, for the first time, all ten albums remain my top 10 of 2011 (they just are in a slightly different order).

The Original Top 10 Albums of 2011

1. Burst Apart – The Antlers
2. Simple Math – Manchester Orchestra
3. Wasting Light – Foo Fighters
4. Strange Mercy – St. Vincent
5. Walls – An Horse
6. Oui Camera Oui – The Heavenly States
7. 13 Chambers – Wugazi
8. The Big Roar – The Joy Formidable
9. Strange Negotiations – David Bazan
10. Capes – Tancred

The Updated Top 10 Albums of 2011

1. Burst Apart – The Antlers
2. Wasting Light – Foo Fighters
3. Walls – An Horse
4. Simple Math – Manchester Orchestra
5. Oui Camera Oui – The Heavenly States
6. Strange Mercy – St. Vincent
7. 13 Chambers – Wugazi
8. Strange Negotiations – David Bazan
9. The Big Roar – The Joy Formidable
10. Capes – Tancred

Top 10 Albums of 2011

As I’ve gazed around the various lists detailing the best albums of 2011 these past few weeks it’s become more and more clear that I’m out of touch with the critical mass. The albums that are frequently lauding did nothing for me. David Comes to Life left me more preoccupied than fucked up. Bon Iver bored. James Blake made me long for the tennis player. House of Balloons was good, but not gripping. 21 simply wasn’t in my wheelhouse. Watch the Throne was just plain bad. Ect., ect…

So just keep that in mind. I’m apparently horribly out of touch.

Here are the 10 best albums of 2011…

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

10. Capes – Tancred

Radiating a tranquil warmth, Capes, the solo debut of Now, Now guitarist Jess Abbott, is welcoming and easy to slip into. Abbott’s tiny voice barely breaks through the layer of sparse, lo-fi instrumentals, but the smallness is intentional and gives the album character. Unassuming and genuine, Capes is the coziest little album of the year.

9. Strange Negotiations – David Bazan

If the masses of Occupy movement had any sense about them, they’d adopt Strange Negotiations as their official album. David Bazan remains as downtrodden as ever, only now it’s the the greedy folks behind the recent financial collapse that have got him bumming. His lyrics are angrier than they’ve ever been, taking aim at those now known as “The 1%” (“Wolves at the Door,” “Strange Negotiations”). Bazan’s somberness on more personal tunes also rings true thanks to very atmospheric, moody arrangements that perfectly suit his melancholy vocals (“Wont’ Let Go”, “Virginia”). Strange Negotiations isn’t an album of hope, but it’s certainly an album of now.

8. The Big Roar – The Joy Formidable

The title of The Joy Formidable’s first LP, The Big Roar, is actually kind of an understatement. The album is a massive tsunami wave of rock noise led by frontwoman Ritzy Bryan’s manic energy. Appropriately, her distinctive guitar sound is a processed pedal attack drowning in guitar effects. In fact, the entirety of The Big Roar is lustrously produced in a manner that would be considered severe overproduction for almost any other act. Yet it totally fits The Joy Formidable’s sprawling sound; one that’s laced with heavy, chaotic instrumental outros. And as much as Bryan’s wailing and guitar flailing gets the attention, the album would be a failure without The Joy Formidable’s solid as stone rhythm section (drummer Matt Thomas and bassist Rhydian Dafydd), who keep Bryan in check and thunderously drive the songs forward. The Big Roar is loud pop rock music in all its shimmering, glistening glory.

7. 13 Chambers – Wugazi

This year’s best mash-up album is all about edge: the hard-edge delivery of the Wu-Tang Clan’s (and their members’ solo projects’) rhymes, Fugazi’s samples instrumentals which brood in the backdrop seemingly on the edge of erupting at any second, and the way that Cecil Otter and Swiss Andy brought it all together so that there’s seemingly no distinctive edge separating the two mashees. The Wu’s lyrics match the tone of their new found post-hardcore backing with shocking ease. The Fugazi element works, in part, because they’re not the most distinctively unique samples, allowing the vocals enter the mix more natural sounding way. The whole package blends together seamlessly, to the point where a listener coming in cold could legitimately think that this is a just a hip hop album where the rappers decided to use a live rock band to back it. And that’s the whole goal of any mash-up, right?

6. Oui Camera Oui – The Heavenly States

The Heavenly States continue to toll away in rock ‘n roll obscurity, but that just makes Oui Camera Oui (or 2008’s album of the year Delayer) an even more special gem. Perhaps the reason the band is an under the radar treat is because they don’t do anything “sexy.” The Heavenly States excels at simplicity – all ya need is a hook, great lyrics, balance in instrumentation. Boom. Done. Onto the next song. Whether it’s sweeping sing-alongs (“Berlin Wall”) or more downbeat numbers (“Monarchia”) frontman Ted Nesseth’s words come across with more sincerity than just about anyone in the music business today (especially when compared to his male peers). And if that’s not enough for you, Oui Camera Oui is far and away the best album of wolf-fucking music released this year.*

*Listen to the record…you’ll understand. Continue reading

Capes – Tancred

The recent notches on the musical timeline have provided quite the fill of lush and sweeping chamber pop produced by bands with ever-expanding rosters. It’s posh to cram the stage with 7-12 people who have a vague sense of baroque stylings. And that’s great. But that’s also precisely why we need more quality albums like Capes. The solo debut of Now, Now guitarist and secondary vocalist Jess Abbott, Capes is the antitheses of the modern quest for grandiosity.

The tone for Capes is set in the opening seconds of the album, as a humming organ sustain blends with brittle, barely strummed chords on “Old-fashioned.” The sound is vulnerable and fragile; weak but welcoming. Abbott’s vocals work on the same level: breathy, personal, unforced, and, in a way, cozy. Her voice is best understood through her own lyrics on “Black Cat”; “My only request, vocalized with my tiny lungs in my tiny chest… You ignored.” There’s no strength in the delivery from those tiny lungs, but there’s undeniable strength Abbott’s quiet sincerity.

The production on Capes is somewhat deceiving, but in a positive way. On first listen, the production seems so stripped back that it’s none existent. But further listenings reveal that there are, in fact, many layers of sound here. They just happen to be strategically brought starkly in and out of the mix at certain times so that there’s never too much going on. It feels basal, despite the layers. Because the album isn’t overproduced, each track sounds homespun; like Abbot is just playing the songs for a few friends seated around a fireplace during a bitterly cold Minnesota winter night. Continue reading