Though I do not listen to a wide and eclectic enough assortment of contemporary music to even consider compiling a genuine “best of” list, 2013 revealed quite a few new albums to me which I thoroughly enjoyed—and am still enjoying. Here are 13 of them.
13. Partygoing – Future Bible Heroes
Though an ardent fan of Stephin Merritt’s work with The Magnetic Fields, I confess to not having ventured into his more synth-pop inflected side-project until early this year, which saw the release of a compilation set including all Future Bible Heroes recordings to date—culminating in this year’s full-length LP, Partygoing. Perhaps this would be higher on the list if I was already an established fan, but having taken all their recordings in as one big gulp, I cannot stop myself from comparing it to its (arguably superior) predecessor, Eternal Youth. I tread in the territory of semantics, however. No matter how you slice it, Partygoing is a fully realized burst of clever electronica (two words that seldom sit comfortably alongside one another): with song titles such as “Let’s Go To Sleep (And Never Come Back)” and “Keep Your Children in a Coma,” Merritt’s trademark droll fatalism comes across as vividly as it ever has, yet—remarkably—none of it feels tried. I am particularly keen on the fact that Claudia Gonson is allowed to carry the heavier load of vocals on this record: her voice offers the perfect conciliation of Merritt’s deadpan humor and (fellow songwriter) Chris Ewen’s 80’s-tinged melodies.
12. The Big Dream – David Lynch
I have yet to pick up Lynch’s solo debut, Crazy Clown Time, but if The Big Dream offers any indication, I must be missing out. It goes without saying that these records fall under the proverbial “not for everyone” header; Lynch’s voice is well known for being an exercise in nasality, and he does nothing in these songs to spoil the reputation. If you are game, however, this is one of the most entertaining and absorbing records of the year. Musically speaking, the songs fit nicely alongside other soundtrack releases for Lynch films (mostly featuring scores by Angelo Badalamenti and Trent Reznor, with the occasional early Lynch composition), and—much like his films and their music—there is nary a dull moment to be found. Though I could name any number of favourite lyrical flourishes throughout The Big Dream, I am most appreciative of that part in “We Rolled Together” where he adds “and so were you, darling” to the already wonderful “I went down/to the ice cream store/when I got home/that ice cream was gone.”
11. Hesitation Marks – Nine Inch Nails
From a scream to a whisper—or so it would seem runs a thread that can be traced from the beginning of Trent Reznor’s musical experiments. Typecast for many years as the dark-minded, depressive force behind the once-omnipresent “industrial” music movement, Reznor currently presents himself as a muscular (sometimes smiling) picture of absolute mental and physical health; hell, he even did an interview for NPR’s All Things Considered this year—if one wanted proof of the artist mellowing out, one need look no further. But fans of Nine Inch Nails need not despair (or risk feeling too good about themselves): Hesitation Marks is no fairy tale. If anything, it is a sign of how far we’ve come along as a culture obsessed with darkness—that moments of the new album could possibly risk sounding quaint, or even pleasant. I admit that, though definitely a fan of the man’s work (and definitely appreciative of his influential effect), my own knowledge of Reznor’s previous recordings is limited to two major albums (Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral) and some soundtrack compositions. With the reader keeping this limitation in mind, allow me to state for the record that I really enjoy Hesitation Marks; it contains incredibly smart and well-honed songs, and the overall sound is quite faultless. Apparently, fellow perfectionist Lindsey Buckingham even contributed some parts to three songs on the record, but they are almost impossible to separate from the general texture of the production (which is actually a rare occurrence in popular music—for a guest performer of such renown to offer input with the sole intent of serving the existing sound, rather than showcasing his own aesthetic). This album has also inspired in me renewed interest to explore the back catalogue of Nine Inch Nails, as well as the more recent side-project How To Destroy Angels.
10. Comedown Machine – The Strokes
What is it about this band that always keeps me wanting and coming back for more? When I take a step back and admire them from an observer’s perspective, they’re really nothing special (after all, how many 5-piece, Stones-inspired, New York-based rock groups have come and gone without even giving listeners a chance to stifle a yawn?). Their albums aren’t radically inventive—actually, in terms of production values, they’ve been one of the most (if not the most) consistent-sounding rock bands of the 21st century. And yet (and yet…), they always seem to touch upon something unexpectedly relevant—just as they did so outwardly with their bafflingly successful debut, Is This It?. (Perhaps it’s all because lead singer Julian Casablancas reads Sartre and wears skinny jeans; if so, I can think of worse trends currently in vogue than French existentialism, so more power to him if for attempting to reset the fad). Comedown Machine is either their fourth or fifth album, depending on whether the rumor of it being a scrapped project recorded between their third and fourth releases is to be believed or not. Regardless of the specifics, it has generally been accepted as the last we will ever hear from The Strokes, seeing as how it was released exclusively to fulfill a contractual agreement—and hence the nonexistent-yet-brilliant artwork. With that taken into account, their whiny nostalgia has never seemed more appropriate. As far as I’m concerned, Comedown Machine is a perfectly enjoyable album: like the rest of their catalogue, it sounds timeless on the whole and, in strategic spots, dated in the right ways. I admit my unabashed fondness for the a-Ha ripoff “One Way Trigger,” and the Duran Duran derivative “Welcome to Japan;” but my favourite moments can be found in the beautifully hypnotic—and aptly named—five-minute title track, where Casablancas’s lazy drawl melds inseparably with a typically tasteful guitar ballet between Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t going to miss them.
9. MGMT – MGMT
With everything moving in the direction of mass homologation, it would seemingly become easier for a young band like this to stand out as “different from the pack.” What makes them truly different is just how far they are willing to travel in the opposite direction of everything else—themselves included (example: the leading single from this album is a two-minute, three-chord nod to psychedelic rock featuring an oversized cowbell and titled “Your Life Is A Lie”). Indeed, MGMT are no strangers to counterculture: perplexed by the success of their first record among undiscerning consumers of MTV schlock, the songwriting duo of Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser (who first joined forces at a university in Connecticut, inspired by their mutual love for the theme from Ghostbusters) moved further into territory previously purveyed by The Chocolate Watchband and The Strawberry Alarm Clock with their second album, Congratulations—which was ignored in musical terms, but frequently singled out for its decidedly unpopular album artwork. Still unsure that they were getting their point across (whatever it happened to be), they decided to self-title their third album, with the implication that here lies their true, unadulterated identity; recent interviews with quotes like “we’re not even sure we’re making music we’d want to listen to” only served to further general confusion about their artistic intent (if they have any). These were the circumstances under which I—an admitted fan dating back to the first EP—tore into my copy of MGMT. To say that I love the record would be an overstatement; to say that I appreciate the record would be an understatement. It is a fascinating listen, from start to finish, and yet it all seems so frustratingly uneven. Something tells me they planned it this way along… And anyway: who am I to infer disapproval towards a thoughtful and risk-taking musical endeavor? Heuristics and logistics aside, there is some wonderful sonic stuff to discover within this record: my favourite track, “I Love You Too, Death,” is a disorientatingly complex ambient piece overlaid with VanWyngarden’s most interesting vocal to date—with lyrics such as “they never tied the cans/to the back end of a hearse” and “children walking hand in hand/with the pygmies in zee park”. The album might even be worth viewing as a piece of postmodern art: with its attempts to deconstruct and remold the concept of “pop music,” its absurdly poetic use of the English language, and its alarmingly detached assessment of the human race, MGMT makes good sense and nonsense appear as equal variables in a meaningless equation.
8. Ghost on Ghost – Iron & Wine
Anyone who sets out to sound like Starland Vocal Band, with sincere intent (and tongue entirely out of cheek)—and actually pulls it off—is a winner in my book, straightaway. Actually, I do not know for certain that this was Sam Beam’s intent in Ghost on Ghost, but love it or hate it, this is the closest one gets to 70’s AM gold in the year 2013. Strangely enough, with the airwaves so heavily polluted by brainless beats and evermore spineless songs, this album actually sounds refreshingly “real” and, well, kind of balls-y; seeing the songs performed live, with the full thirteen-piece band, was a rare spectacle indeed (and a terrifically entertaining one, to boot). As with the last couple of Iron & Wine albums, I cannot say I am fond of every track that makes up Ghost on Ghost, but I think that’s a testament to the brilliance of the production and to Beam’s power of persuasion. Even when he loses me, I find myself unable to step away—and more often than not, I find myself converted.
7. The Invisible Way – Low
This is a really beautiful record—which is only to be expected from a band with a reputation for quiet perfection, I reckon. Producer Jeff Tweedy wisely took an aloof stance during the recording; there’s nothing in the album to hint at his overt influence, and the focus was perceptibly held on creating as high quality a record as possible, with or without his personal input. The songs are exceptional, and (singer/drummer) Mimi Parker is given lead reins on at least half of them, marking her most pronounced and rewarding presence on a Low album to date. Rest assured: there’s no shortage of the dread, misery, and resignation this band is so justly renowned for, but there is an unusual sense of peace permeating The Invisible Way—of which some stirrings were audible in the preceding album, C’mon. At times, the songs are downright playful, as in the opening track (an ode to receptacles for drug testing entitled “Plastic Cup”) and “Clarence White,” which is not so much a nod to the famed Byrds guitarist as it is a tribute to some 1995 made-for-TV movie starring Charlton Heston as Brigham Young. And “Just Make It Stop” might very well be one of the best things they’ve ever put out.
6. The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You – Neko Case
This album has provided my initiation to the music of Neko Case—and it was a rather effortless conversion, at that. For me, the weirdest thing about her music is how warm it sounds: this record actually puts me in an incredibly good mood whenever I hear it, and it somehow doesn’t occur to me until after the fact that so many songs are about parental neglect, gender frustration, and leading a disenchanted existence. Or if it does occur to me while listening, the topics somehow seem entirely palatable, and they never come across over-inflated or histrionic (though I still think I liked her better when I thought the title of this album read The Worser Things Get…). Any day now I will start digging into her back catalogue, and I have no doubt in my mind it will reveal a plethora of unknown treasures.
5. Pale Green Ghost – John Grant
John Grant fills a very special space in not-so-popular music. An otherworldly amalgamation of Karen Carpenter, Harry Nilsson, Lou Reed, Martin Gore, and Kurt Weill, Grant embodies self-deprecating gay angst like no one before him; he’s tragicomic in the truest of ways, captivatingly conflicted, and wonderfully deadpan about it all—but, most importantly, his songs are really, really good. I first heard him through Sinead O’Connor’s blistering cover of “Queen of Denmark,” a song so extraordinary that I initially (mis)appropriated it as the finest thing Sinead had ever written. My next taste came in the form of the hilarious music video for “GMF,” in which he depicts a series of everyday scenes involving low self-esteem with excruciating accuracy: it was at this point that I was sold. Pale Green Ghost is only his second full-length, but it boasts a veritable wealth of musical ingenuity and lyrical aptitude. It also features the best (and only, to my knowledge) synth-pop ode to Ernest Borgnine, including the surprisingly catchy chorus: “And when I think about everything that he’s been through/I wish he’d call me on the phone and take my ass to school.”
4. m b v – My Bloody Valentine
Kevin Shields represents a type of recording artist that is all-but-extinct: the sheer quantity of time and dedication he invests in each project, coupled with a set of standards that no one apart from himself is capable of grasping (not to mention a notoriously eccentric personality often paralleled with Brain Wilson’s), are qualities seldom found in popular music—and they deserve utmost respect and recognition, as far as I’m concerned. Particularly when they result in an album as beautiful as m b v (or either of the previous full-length My Bloody Valentine LPs). For fans of Shields & co, putting m b v on for the first time is the equivalent of meeting up with a friend you haven’t seen for twenty years. In many regards, they haven’t changed a bit; upon closer scrutiny, though, they’ve acquired a wisdom and restraint that only comes with the passing of time—and only serves to endear us further to the fuzzy warmth of their sound. The opening track, “She Found Now,” is the perfect successor to “Soon” (the closing track on Loveless): whereas the latter is all trance-inducing loops and see-sawing bass lines, “She Found Now” opens with a cool wave of ambient sounds, from which Bilinda Butcher’s vocal emerges like the calm before a storm. As one song bleeds into the next, memories flood my mind of late night car rides from my adolescent days—when Loveless would pour out of the car speakers at ear-splitting volume, and my thoughts would wander to strange places they either would never return from, or—having left—could never again return to. For me, the music of My Bloody Valentine is primarily about space, and the ways in which we fill (or fail to fill) it, and m b v is introspection at its finest: thoughtful but playful, dense with layers of buried meaning, and overwhelmingly vast.
3. The Next Day – David Bowie
Words fail me when trying to sum up just how much I love The Next Day; given enough time to digest, it could even become my favourite Bowie album of all time—or, at the very least, to be mentioned in the same breath as Low and Station to Station. Like many other fans, I had practically come to accept that Bowie (the musician) might never be heard from again, and nothing could possibly have prepared me for the greatness of the music on this record. Some works of art are so solid and undisputed, it is almost as though they exist out of necessity: this assessment could easily—and justly—be made about The Next Day. The songs are terrific, including (perhaps especially) the bonus tracks released in the 3-disc special edition, and the band sounds spectacular. Like Fleetwood Mac’s EP from this year, one of the most refreshing things about this album is how under-polished it sounds at times; this isn’t too say the production is bare-bones (there are plenty of dazzling sonic effects to be found throughout), but every production decision appears to have been made in service of the songs themselves, not merely to achieve a predetermined soundscape. And when I say this album is a work of art, I mean that in the most literal sense: the entire presentation for The Next Day is impeccable—from the eyebrow-raising cover art, to the mutant Venus de Milo on the 7” single for “The Stars Are Out Tonight,” to the incredible slew of promo videos, to the gorgeous box set release. Across his career, Bowie has blessed us with numerous offerings of inimitable talent and insight, but this one ought to occupy a particularly special place in the hearts and minds of his minions. (As a side-note, I would sell all my belongings to see Bowie take this album on the road).
2. Push the Sky Away – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
I first heard Nick Cave on the soundtrack for the Wim Wenders film Wings Of Desire (then once again in Faraway, So Close): I remember thinking the music was the perfect accompaniment to the images of those two pictures—and not much else, to be honest. I wish I could say that, following that first taste of Cave’s unmistakable genius, I immediately ran out to the nearest record store and picked up Henry’s Dream or Murder Ballads; truth be told, he didn’t pop back up on my radar until the Leonard Cohen tribute film, I’m Your Man, was released some years later. In this instance, Cave stood out to me as one of only four performers in the entire show that didn’t make me want to kick the television set in (the other three, in case you are wondering, were Antony, Teddy Thompson, and Jarvis Cocker), and with rightful reason: his approach to Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” is truly unbesmirchable. Watching Nick Cave perform—as I had the immense pleasure of doing earlier this year in Nashville at the Ryman Auditorium—is a mystifying activity: he has such total control of himself on stage, yet one gets the impression that he could do anything at any moment; all energy, both active and dormant, is palpable above and beneath the skin. Compared to a Bad Seeds show, the gimmicks of Alice Cooper, Ozzy Ozbourne, and Marilyn Manson (entertaining though they may be) are just child’s play. Push the Sky Away is an astonishing album for many reasons, but foremost in my mind is its power of suggestion: it is a well-versed exercise in minimalism, with subtle textures that evoke far more than a forty-minute recording should be capable of evoking. The centerpiece of the album, “Jubilee Street,” is a contained epic in itself; the pseudo-reprise on side B, “Finishing Jubilee Street,” is a quiet little elegy that brilliantly builds upon the imagery established in its companion piece. Some songs are littered with contemporary pop culture references (“Wikipedia is heaven;” “Miley Cyrus floats in a swimming pool near Toluca lake”), but unlike other perpetrators of allusion to the easily lamentable topics in question, Cave subjugates the references to his own worldview—inserting Miley Cyrus and Hanna Montana in a noir-ish potboiler (“Higgs Boson Blues”) which also includes Robert Johnson and the devil (“don’t know who’s gonna rip off who”). In a strange way, he actually breathes life into these lifeless caricatures of vapid celebrity; that he accomplishes this through the fictionalized drowning of one of them is its own thought-provoking little irony. I am reluctant to admit having read the Rolling Stone review for this record (which was lukewarm at best), and the only thing I recall from it is the critic reducing Cave’s persona as of late to nothing but a “dirty old man.” Perhaps there’s some truth to the assessment. If there is, I sincerely hope he never cleans up.
1. Me Moan – Daughn Gibson
A #1 that more than merits a bullet. It has been 7 months or so since I first heard the record, and I still cannot stop gushing over it (and its creator). Daughn Gibson is what Rock Hudson would have looked like if he traded in his Hollywood resume for a career in backwoods gay porn, then took to drunkenly crooning his nights away in an undershirt at the dingiest bar in town: I cannot overstate how much I adore this man and what he does. (I should also state here, for purposes of clarification, that Gibson is happily and heterosexually married, and I have not discovered any hard evidence of his involvement in the lucrative backwoods gay porn industry). I’ve always believed that the best performers are the ones whose personae appear as effortless extensions of their individual psychologies, and Gibson is no exception. His approach to composition might be akin to Tom Waits’s—just a fluid process of hands-on involvement, no different from fixing a busted carburetor or changing out the oil in a well-loved Chevy; the love and respect for his craft shines through every moment of every song, as does the restless sense of experimentation—the apparent desire to try and surprise himself with his own twists and turns (in an interview for WNKU, he stated his unabashed love of Troma horror films, and explained how “I’m trying to scare myself”). Whatever his methods, I am anxious to hear more of what he has to offer, and it will be a long while before this gem of an album leaves my heavy rotation cycle.