06 January 2014

Cups to the Stars: 2013 in Review – The Albums

And now: my FINAL, re-re-revisionized, way beyond the wire, post-Epiphany Top Five (and more) Albums of 2013, featuring the #1 pick that was right under my nose this whole time.  Oh my goodness I feel so much better already...

1. Paramore: Paramore

Oh man.  The 2007 me would be ashamed at how long it took the 2013 me to really, truly come around to this one.  It wasn't even in my top 20 until probably mid-December, and the album came out in April (and I've had it since at least May.)  In the original version of this post (published two days ago, though mentally redacted later that evening), I had it at number five.  It's not like I was letting some kind of inhibitions or sense of propriety hold me back (popguilt what?) although it's true that this isn't really where my listening buddies were at for most the year and (ongoing issue) this is definitely the sort of album that demands to be shared, to be appreciated in a communal context, preferably perhaps (per the opening cut) from a packed-full, windows-down, fast-moving car.

I think what happened is that I internalized "Still Into You" (The Singles Jukebox's well-deserved top song of the year, and maybe the most gut-tugging pop treatise on the bizarrely under-explored topic of long-lasting, self-sustaining love since Sharon Jones' "All Over Again"); I stuck "Now" on my iPod, and for some reason figured I was good.  Cause that's a lot of anthemic hyper-pop potency right there.  But this album is ridiculously stacked with anthems, crammed with them: a seventeen-song pop-punk album (!?) with as many hair-trigger hooks and aural stimulants as a Girl Talk DJ set.  (I've even woken up with the ukulele interludes stuck in my head.)  So many instantaneous sugar-rush thrills that it actually takes quite a while to integrate them, as if the game plan was to stockpile so many in one spot that somehow the cumulative impact would last forever.

The crazy thing, though, is that it really is built to last.  In fact, the surprising durability of passion and spirit and passion and love is the album's defining, overarching theme.  Paramore is about the deeper experience of youthfulness that only comes with maturity; about growing up and looking around and realizing that getting older actually makes things better, because all the good stuff is still there and you can just let the shit fall away.  Such is the clarion call at the heart of every single blazing, indelible, fist-pumping chorus mantra here – alive, alert, eager to meet life head-on: If there's a future we want it now.  One of us has to grow up sometime.  Ain't it fun living in the real world?  And that's no less true of the album's fierce, firmly-grounded assertions of love – which can (mostly) be read as either romantic or otherwise: The only proof that I need is you.  You should be alone with me.  After all this time I'm still into you.  "I'm writing the future," Hayley sings on the album-closing post-rock freakout that's simultaneously the quietest and most bombastic thing here – and she's ain't kidding.

2. Kacey Musgraves: Same Trailer Different Park
Same Trailer, Different Park is a fantastic collection of songs: honest, witty, expertly-crafted dissections of small town small-mindedness, world-weary workplace trash-talk, and all manner of romantic tribulation; full of fresh spins on familiar metaphors and stacked with sharp, hummable tunes.  But it's also a great, brilliantly sequenced album – easing you in with "Silver Lining"'s broadly palatable platitudes and "My Home"'s chipper free-wheeling before shifting gears toward a series of increasingly direct, emotionally potent servings of real-talk, and saving the best for a gut-punch finale that balances the giddy, Nashville-style YOLO anthem "Follow Your Arrow" against the quietly devastating disillusionment of "It Is What It Is."  In an all-around terrific year for female country singer-songwriters – between Ashley Monroe, Caitlin Rose, the Pistol Annies and Brandy Clark (who co-wrote the aforementioned album-closers here) – Kacey Musgraves distinguished herself with a knack for articulating universal truths in resoundingly personal terms...or maybe it was vice versa.  [written for Philadelphia City Paper]
3. Neko Case: The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight The More I Love You

By 2013 we knew what to expect from a new Neko Case album, or, rather, we were well prepared for her brilliance to manifest in thoroughly unexpected ways.  From the title (and, I've gotta say, typically bizarre but uncharacteristically weak cover art – the deluxe version's a very slight improvement) on down, the absurdly word count-devouring The Worse Things Get......... (Anti-) played true to form; another skewed slice of peerless, surrealist puzzle-Americana that felt modest and lived-in without coming close to skirting predictability.

Actually, it did initially seem like a relatively hemmed-in effort, what with the absence of thirty-minute field recordings and the presence of some of her pithiest, most genre-bound songcraft (and most seemingly transparent lyrics) in ages: the full-throated 6/8 gospel-soul of "Night Still Comes" and "Local Girl," the power-pop crunch of "City Swans" and the pounding, provocative, eminently quotable "Man" (plus the heart-stoppingly honest, beautifully formed a cappella epigram/parable "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu.")  And no question it served as yet another deft showcase for both Case's ever-formidable force of nature vocals and the often under-appreciated instrumental vocal contributions of her ensemble.

But even with repeated listens – compulsory and compulsive though they were – the album retained its little mysteries, side-glancing quirks like the sonic and conceptual incongruousness of "Where Did I Leave That Fire," or the casually divulged incest/homicide of "Bracing for Sunday,"  or the wry meta joke of Neko covering Nico, or "Ragtime" promising up a triumphal finalé that never seems to arrive.  So chalk this up as another one of Case's intoxicating, insoluble riddles; the latest in a consistently formidable string of cryptic, ever-so-subtly insane Delphic majesties that refuse to fully resolve.  Or try telling it those Pharoahs she's so inexplicably fond of invoking.
4. Free Energy: Love Sign

I <3 this band so much.  I don't even care, and I've given up on trying to understand, why the whole bleeding blood-pumping ear-having world isn't right there alongside me on this one.  What, you only pretended to like them so James Murphy would notice you?  You're really gonna grumble about the production?  Or maybe I just haven't spent enough time with the pertinent source material to get how painfully, mind-numbingly derivative this is – though, I mean, haven't we all?  And isn't that the flipping point?  This album, this band is for all of us; no requirements for entry.  They're an open door with flashing neon welcome mat, a big smiley sweaty group hug.  They are the Lowest Common Denominator Soundsystem.  Free Energy, capisce?

I love the unapologetic cowbells, I love the thoroughly wholesome mushy softness of a group who graft their signifiers from what's theoretically (at least on some level) "hard" rock, I love spelling out T-R-U-E-L-O-V-E, I love that you can dance to all of it, even the ballads, one of which is actually called "Dance All Night," and it has the most beautiful break-it-on-down slow-motion drum fill of the year.  (And yeah, the cover art is godawful.)  Mostly I just love how much fun I have every single time I put it on.

5. Chvrches: The Bones of What You Believe

The Postal Service's anniversary festivities this year signaled that the 21st century electro-pop revival – which, needless to say, has hardly remained a strictly indie proposition – is now a full decade deep.  So what did 2013's blog-anointed model offer that we hadn't heard a hundred times already?  More killer hooks? Another slew of epic beats and dazzlingly shiny sounds?  Well, yes – but shouldn't we be sick of this stuff by now?

Chvrches apologists sometimes note – for anyone who still cares – that these Glaswegian upstarts earned their indie rock bona-fides before, as the sage said, selling their guitars and buying synthesizers because they wanted to make something real ("...they wanted to make a Yaz record.")  What matters more is that, like all synth-pop greats, they understand that the genre's power stems from a fundamental juxtaposition: the steely perfection of machine-generated sounds (and make no mistake, Chvrches make some damn perfect, hi-definition sounds with their machines: crisp, brittle, pummeling, urgent), contrasted with the fallibility and vulnerability that is our lot as fleshly human animals.  That's why, like The Knife and Purity Ring before them, Chvrches' lyrics are strewn obsessively with the language of bodies – throats, lungs, teeth and lips; blood, skin and bone – and of violence (plus the faint, glimmering hope of recovery.)  But for all Lauren Mayberry's vaunted book-smarts and her fierce, uncompromising vocal delivery, these songs'd be just as potent without any words at all, because they also know how to speak directly to your body. [written for Philadelphia City Paper]

and now....
the rest of my top 20+1+3 in pictorial format:

6. Daft Punk: Random Access Memories
7. The Knife: Shaking the Habitual
8. John Wizards: John Wizards
9. Cass McCombs: Big Wheel and Others
10. Chance the Rapper: Acid Rap
11. Lucius: Wildewoman
12. Four Tet: Beautiful Rewind
13. Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City
14. Rhye: Woman
15. [James] Holden: The Inheritors
16. Dawn of Midi: Dysnomia
17. Robbie Fulks: Gone Away Backward
18. Breakbot: By Your Side
19. Marek HemmanBittersweet
20. DJ Koze: Amygdala
21. Jagwar Ma: Howlin'
22. Arcade Fire: Reflektor
23. Sky Ferreira: Night Time, My Time
24. Eleanor Friedberger: Personal Record

and the rest of my top 20 + 13, in non-bolded list format:
25. Beyoncé
26. More by Arp
27. The 20/20 Experience by Justin Timberlake
28. Days are Gone by Haim
29. Ooey Gooey Chewy Ka-Blooey! by The Dirtbombs
30. The Invisible Way by Low
31. I Hate Music by Superchunk
32. Run The Jewels
33. Colours by Devon Sproule + Mike O'Neill

and the rest of my top 20 x 1 x 3...
34. Dalmak by Esmerine
35. Settle by Disclosure
36. Overgrown by James Blake
37. Soul Music by Special Request
38. Dream River by Bill Callahan
39. In Focus? by Shugo Tokumaru
40. Akkord
41. Factory Floor
42. Wakin on a Pretty Daze by Kurt Vile
43. Impossible Truth by William Tyler
44.  Jungle Revolution by Congo Natty
45. Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action by Franz Ferdinand
46. Wise Up Ghost by Elvis Costello & The Roots
47. Where Does This Door Go? by Mayer Hawthorne
48. Fade by Yo La Tengo
49. Partygoing by Future Bible Heroes
50. mbv by My Bloody Valentine
51. Light Up Gold by Parquet Courts
52. MCII by Mikal Cronin
53. Once I Was An Eagle by Laura Marling
54. Dungeonesse
55. Waiting For Something To Happen by Veronica Falls
56. The Marriage of True Minds by Matmos
57. We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic by Foxygen
58. Free Your Mind by Cut Copy
59. Nightmare Ending by Eluvium
60. Static by Cults

and the rest of my top 201 ÷ 3...
61. 1977 by Kölsch
62. lousy with sylvianbriar by of Montreal
63. Major Arcana by Speedy Ortiz
64. Feet Beneath The Moon by King Krule

65. AM by Arctic Monkeys
66. Yeezus by Kanye West
67. Pull My Hair Back by Jessy Lanza

ps: my most-listened-to albums of 2013, according to the dubious imps at last.fm – these are the only albums with 100 or more track-listens logged.
1. Disclosure - Settle
2. When Saints Go Machine - Infinity Pool
3. Chance the Rapper - Acid Rap
4. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
5. Chvrches - The Bones of What You Believe
6. Neko Case - The Words Things Get...
7. John Wizards - John Wizards
8. Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer Different Park
9. Primal Scream - More Light
10. Sky Ferreira - Night Time My Time
11. Rhye - Woman
12. DJ Koze - Amygdala
13. Low - The Invisible Way
14. Laura Marling - Once I Was An Eagle
15. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
16. Cass McCombs - Big Wheel and Others
17. Sam Amidon - Bright Sunny South
18. Foxygen - We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic
19. Mikal Cronin - MCII
20. Flume - Flume

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