Now, none of that is to suggest I won't make the same error this time around. That's how music works. The best of it elicits an evolving relationship over time and with continued reflection. In light of the understanding that twelve months is not enough time to aggregate, digest and rank the year in aural art and BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH. Blah. Look, I know constructing these end-of-the-year album-or-song-of-the-year enumerations is about as masturbatory as it gets, but I have to do it. I spend unmentionable amounts of money on physical music media, and I need validation. This shit is impossibly important to my being. I mean I'd feed my dog before I fed myself, sure, but I'd also cop some quality vinyl before I fed my dog. We'd go down like that.
So with that, here's all the stuff I fucked with the hardest this past year. Sorry that Arcade Fire snoozefest didn't make the cut. I waited 'til the New Year proper because muhfuckas be dropping surprise albums and 101-track mixtapes at the last minute and all that. Also, I don't get paid for this blog shit. So there ya go.
Twistable, Turnable Man: A Musical Tribute to Shel Silverstein / Various Artists
|Highlights: "The Winner", "Twistable, Turnable Man"|
The Chronicles of Marnia / Marnie Stern
|Highlights: "Noonan", "East Side Glory", "Immortals"|
Baba Yaga / Futurebirds
|Highlights: "Tan Lines", "Serial Bowls", "Death Awaits"|
Repave / Volcano Choir
|Highlights: "Acetate", "Comrade", "Bygone"|
The first Volcano Choir record, 2009's Unmap, sounded a lot more in line with previous efforts made by the five-sixths of the band not named Justin Vernon. It sounded like what would happen if dude sat in with Martin Dosh or something. I keep it on rotation exclusively in situations where I need to study, write or pass the fuck out. In contrast, Repave is far more conventional, structurally speaking. It's bigger. It's grandiose. It sounds an awful lot like a new Bon Iver album aimed at the nosebleed seats, and it'd be easy to mistake it as such were you none the wiser. Vernon's vocals are more frequent, more prominent and more intelligible. He shifts from his trademark falsetto (with and without the vocoder) to his natural, husky baritone and back from verse to chorus and track to track. There's still a lot of delayed guitar bouncing between the left and right sides of your stereo, but whereas it somehow still seemed sparse on Unmap, it's rich and full on Repave. There are at least a handful of soaring, inspirational mega-moments on this record (see: basically every second of tracks 2 thru 4), but none more so than the chorus of centerpiece "Bygone". What's most clear in Justin Vernon's releases with The Shouting Matches and Volcano Choir in 2013 is that the guy is having a lot of fun. It's refreshing to hear, because I don't know if anyone else in the business deserves it more.
Monomania / Deerhunter
|Highlights: "Monomania", "Pensacola", "Dream Captain"|
Deerhunter's performance of Monomania's titular track on Fallon clearly signaled that the answer to that question is yes. Yes, it does.
Album openers "Neon Junkyard" and "Leather Jacket II" deliver on the promise of punk. The most immediately apparent transformation are the guitars. Normally dreamy in their construction of ruminative, reverb-soaked sonicscape, here they're acidic and gritty, their rhythm rather off kilter. Cox's vocal is distorted along similar lines. Everything sounds intentionally strained while stopping short of harshness. The following track, "The Missing", is classic Deerhunter and would have been entirely at home on their last release, Halcyon Digest. For the remainder of the record, the band bounce between and (more often) blend these two ends of the spectrum (I wouldn't call either an "extreme" as they're never too shoegazey or riotous). Bradford Cox is the keystone keeping the two strains of style in harmony, because he sounds entirely volatile across the album's twelve offerings. On the otherwise subdued "T.H.M.", there exists the real possibility (threat?) he could pop off at any point. In an era of the standard, sterile four-piece, the guy might be the last true frontman. Or at least the last frontman with a gravitational pull on the spotlight. The last one worth caring about. For whether you're spinning this record or seeing Deerhunter live, you're paying fucking attention. Bradford Cox commands interest, and to the dude's credit he never fails to deliver once he's got it.
Sunbather / Deafheaven
|Highlight: "Dream House"|
The mixing of messages doesn't stop at the surface, either. The first twenty-five seconds of the nine-minute, album-opening epic "Dream House" sound as you'd expect from a record with a cover that's just shy of being outright flamboyant even outside the metal community. A single soaring, brightly distorted guitar. Then another that almost renders the chord progression into chiming static. And then... a fucking blast beat. It's a gripping, clensing chaos that exudes cathartic release. Sunbather is emotionally jarring. The swelling relentlessness and ephemeral excursions into carefully constructed serenity and meditation tug on your gut and your core, not your heartstrings. I'd comment on the lyrics if I could understand any of them past the throat-scorching scream (or if I could see much of a point in reading through them online in spite of their delivery). In a way I find rather masterful, I don't see a need to read the lyrics to know what the guy is saying. I certainly feel what the fuck he's saying, which is the most difficult part of making music (or the very point of music, arguably). I honestly can't tell you the last time I listened to more than five minutes of something that sounds like this record. I don't know if I ever will again. But if more alleged black metal was as dynamic and panoramic as Sunbather, I'd say there's a good fucking chance of it happening.
|Highlights: "Walkin On A Pretty Day", "Goldtone"|
Save for the track "Too Hard" -- which would have fit perfectly on 2011's Smoke Ring For My Halo -- the hyper-precise finger-picking that's kind of become Vile's trademark is much less prominent this time out. For the most part it gets buried beneath layers of production in the space that had previously been reserved for his vocals. Now, though, Vile's voice is at or near the head of the mix on songs with more intentional pop gravity (or at least songs that sound like more sprightly versions of "Jesus Fever"). Here, atop an accompaniment that skips from one weed cloud to the next (though he insists he "never, as they say, touch[es] the stuff" -- right.), his offhand asides come across as seasoned witticisms from a dude that's been there / done that. The true gem is "Goldtone", a metered dose of everything that makes Kurt Vile and Wakin On A Pretty Daze enjoyable. (But, ay yo. Real talk: if you have a dog, keep the motherfucker away from the stereo when that final, panning guitar lick dances its way to the fore. They hate that shit something real.)
This joint right here. "Control" was the happening in the hip-hop universe this year. In an annus that saw full-length releases from Jigga, Em' and 'Ye, nothing had anywhere near the immediate or lasting impact of the jam credited to Big Sean for all of about its first three minutes on this planet. Like, this beast split the year (and the current rap landscape, really) in two. There was a time before "Control", and there is the present day that exists in its wake. On one side of the divide are a bunch of glad-handing muhfuckas, and on the other there's King Kendrick Lamar. R
eally, ain't nobody e'en talmbout "Control" the song. Ain't nobody got time for that. All discussion is moot that is not centered directly on the track's main course: the three-and-a-half minute "guest verse" / "feature" / "outright massacre" laid down by K-Dot wherein, after ranking himself the best MC alive (followed by living legends and classic-makers HOV, Nas, Andre 3000, and Eminem), he carpetbombs every last notable motherfucker who failed to make that list, including the same two dudes sandwiching him on this very track. Remorseless shit.
The hip(ster)-hop tastemakers over at Pitchfork remain intent on stoking whatever semblance of rivalry exists between Kendrick Lamar and Aubrey Graham. That's all well and good or whatever. However, for reasons that defy logical explanation, when given the opportunity to take a side in the matter, they continue to advocate the furtherance of the spa-rap agenda with what appears to be zero regard for taste or art in general. Because let's be clear about this: no one is on Kendrick Lamar's level right now. He's where Wayne was when he let loose Tha Carter III but with more conscious interest in integrating depth and substance. No one is putting in the kind of intellectual labor lacing every cut on good kid, m.A.A.d city (edit: especially not Macklemore's lame ass). The brilliance of his verse on "Control" -- what ultimately twisted up so many banana hammocks -- wasn't that Lamar dissed half the game or did so by name. It wasn't that the West Coast's second coming all but annexed the Big Apple. It was that he made clear the merits of his assertion that he existed and operated on another plane entirely. Every response verse that poured in during "Control"'s immediate aftermath only served to drive this point home further and further and further. It's telling that even in the age of the that's-cool-but-now-what's-next internet, the Kendrick diss track within a track stayed hot and relevant as lackluster, feeble retorts continued to trickle in four months after the fact.
gkmc is on the fast track to classic status. And with good reason. One thing that Kendrick Lamar made clear in his flawless debut was that he doesn't do throwaway shit. Every time the dude steps to the mic, it's with one intention: to quash competition. He's out to be the G.O.A.T., not just the best rapper alive. On "Control", he put the world on notice that the era of high-fives amongst rap homies had ended. If you let him on the track, you should know he will erase you if given the oportunity. Kendrick's taking kill-shots. If you standing on his corner, best make sure your colors correct.
Here's the hit list, served protein-style.
"Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around" / Sharon Van Etten &Shearwater
The A.V. Club's "A.V. Undercover" series is one of my favorite things on the web. It's high time you get familiar if you aren't already. The basic premise is that bands and solo acts choose songs from a predetermined list to cover for the site. Covers may not be repeated, and so the list narrows as each season nears its end. Tourmates Sharon Van Etten and Shearwater knocked out Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty's surpise b/w hit "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" in mid-2012, but it was formally released as a single this year on Record Store Day, so I'm including it on this list. I'm also including it because it rules and improves upon the original by increasing the tempo about ten beats-per-minute and substituting that early-80s soap opera guitar lick for something decidedly pastoral. The star, unsurprisingly, is Van Etten, whose vocal turn simply sounds more battered, weary and worn to shreds than Nicks' ever did.
"Get Lucky" / Daft Punk, "Blurred Lines" / Robin Thicke
I'ma be honest. I ain't even trying to hear for the umpteen-millionth time about how sexist the "Blurred Lines" video is. I'm just not.. I'll grant you that it's in bad taste, but that's about as far as I'll go. And how long's it been since we reasonably expected our pop stars to be purveyors of decency? A long fucking time, that's how long. The "Blurred Lines" clip is tame compared to the backyard rap video onslaught of the early aughts, and how hard did we cry about it back then. Furthermore, I know all the grouchiest feminazis be the first ones out on the floor when big Rob come in like, "E'rbody get up!" Talking shit the whole time. Don't deny it. I done seent it happen.
Anyway, you already know these were the two biggest goddamn songs of the year. I'm grouping them as one because they're all but inextricably linked to one another and will probably continue to be so for the better part of our lives due to their contemporaneous ubiquitousness and unimpeachable, retro-leaning pop cool. One's the best disco song ever laid down by French robots (or maybe anyone, ever), and the other is the best party jam Marvin Gaye's family wish he wrote. Oh, and Pharrell Williams somehow managed to carve out a niche on both, as well. I'm not remotely tired of either of these songs, and considering the extent to which they saturated the Summer of 2013, that kind of says it all.
Ladies, quit trippin' if you ain't the hottest bitch in this place.
[Ayo, I got all kinds of kids linking over here from Nickolodeon and shit, sons. (I gotchu, tho. NSFW shit right hurr.)]
"Pretty Boy (Peking Lights Remix)" / Young Galaxy
Young Galaxy's original "Pretty Boy" cut is pretty solid. Like I'd probably bump it on the semi-regular as it were. It's an earnest and driving confessional that I dig quite a bit. At the very least it's not something that immediately strikes as being in dire need of a reworking. What makes the Peking Lights remix of the track so neat is that the alterations are mostly minimal, but the effects on mood and vibe are substantial. The most beneficial addition is that of an almost inaudible, major-key bass rumble into the cavernous underbelly of the original mix. The subtle, pulsating rhythm succeeds in giving the song additional forward push while simultaneously instilling some much-needed levity. The underlying sentiment shifts from quasi longing to an almost pensive appreciation. It plays like a beach-side drive up the One, where natural beauty is amplified by the splendor of a significant other in the side-seat. Very wisely, the remix takes that feeling and stretches it out an additional two-point-five minutes replete with accentuated, augmentative percussion, both creating and making the absolute most of open space.
"Bound 2" / Kanye West
We all deserve Yeezus. All of us. Well, really the brunt of the blame has to go to National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. I mean, had they just given the dude the W for any of his three Album of the Year nods (The College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation), we probably wouldn't be where we're at. Really, their biggest fuckup was not even nominating his best and most-deserving offering, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I mean that thing was captial-A Art, through and through. And to get no respect? Of course that's going to cause some irreparable damage to a psyche (especially to that of a megalomaniac like Kanye West). Of course that's going to have repercussions, b. Regardless, though, we're all culpable to some extent if only for not hitting it with the hype it deserved. Any which way you cut it, Yeezus is essentially our comeuppance, Ye's capital-F Fuckyou. (Yo, look at the album cover. And he let Skrillex produce a goddamn track.) Of the many adjectives I could use to describe the record -- difficult, harsh, aggressive, etc -- "fun" sure as hell ain't one of them. If someone plays this in the car, they ain't trying to hear none from the backseat. If someone plays this at their house, they're trying to clear the place out. If you make it through the nine initial sonic assaults, though, you get the Classic Kanye gem "Bound 2". He's a fucking asshole, but the guy can pretty much kill it at-will.
"The Wire" / Haim
It took probably twenty-some-odd listens on SiriusXMU, but now ya boy rides for "The Wire". It just breaks down your defenses, and I -- just like so many others, I'm sure -- eventually submitted to its infectiousness. Honestly, I ain't even sorry about it. I fucks with the album version. I fucks with the variant they threw down for Daytrotter. Any which way way you cut it, "The Wire" is a perfect pop song. There is certainly an unconventional element to it, and it's got little to do with the Fleetwood-meets-Brandy tag critics keep trying to lob on it. It's interesting in that it's a break up song where the only crime committed is an uneventful end of a spark. It's an admission of what is often the harshest truth: that sometimes he or she is just not that into you. It's a resolution to pull the plug before the emotional obligation reaches critical mass and the ensuing fallout becomes less manageable. The song structure is in kind, forgoing the kind of chorus that would rile up a Staples Center worth of middle-aged moms for one approximating a cool (though not quite callous) shrug. The guitar riffs, though? Thems is ready for the Staples Center, no doubt.
"Nosetalgia" / Pusha-T
Yo, what's colder than cold? This motherfucker, right here, that's what. This joint is ice-motherfucking-cold. Like the mountains on this motherfucker ain't even dark blue, they blue-black. Everything about this "Nosetalgia" shit is perfect, a impeccable execution of minimalism. The beat is about as bare bones as it gets: some scant bongo action and singular, menacing plucks of an electric guitar. The imagery is so rich. Crack fumes in the kitchen, crack slinging in the school zone, crack fiends selling they nephew's Sega games for crack. Realness, y'all. There just ain't any room for flashy shit. There's mad amounts sonic real estate up for grabs here, and it gets filled to its borders with glacial sneer. Neighborhood P pulls another gem from his bag of top-tier coke tales, taking us back to Virginia where ain't shit to do but cook. Some of the sharpest lines (and THE harshest couplet) of the year are here, and T's full resurgence is all but encapsulated when he spits, "We don't drink away the pain when a ni**a die / We add a link to the chain, inscribe a ni**a's name in ya flesh." WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Rick Flair shit. It's only fitting that he hands the baton halfway to the only up-and-comer worthy, the dude Kendrick Lamar.
Now, remember just upstairs when I warned about the perils of giving Kendrick a feature, about how dude will stage a coup soon as you turn your back? If you're going to do it, this is how it's done, yo. King Push keeps it onehunned right off the bat so youngblood can't run away with the track. Dude keeps a watchful eye on son (metaphorically depicted in the fittingly frigid video below). I mean, Kendrick still does the damn thing. It's unquestionably his best verse of the year, artistically speaking. It's just nice to see the whole affair elevated when he's paired with someone else at the top of their game. "Nosetalgia" is Kendrick's "Control" challenge/call-to-arms in action. The effects are palpable and endlessly enjoyable.
GO FIGURE, MUHFUCKAS. EVERY VERSE IS A BRICK!
Happy New Year, ya bish.