This year I can’t in good conscience list ten albums in order. It always feels like splitting invisible hairs to decide between one and two or five and six, and when the albums I loved this year are such a diverse bunch it just seems silly. (I would say it is like comparing apples to oranges, but one can compare apples to oranges easily. Oranges are much better. Clearly. Ask anyone.) There is a unifying theme in my list, though it embarrasses me a bit to notice it. Almost all of these albums have a throwback quality to them. They often involve attempts to recapture something pure from earlier incarnations of the genres. The best albums of the year represent pure forms of rap/hip-hop, country/rock and punk. Among the others you can hear echoes of Madonna, Magnetic Fields, Silver Jews, and (um, of course) the Talking Heads. St. Vincent is probably the exception. As an aside, it somehow seems to me that many of the newest sounds these days come from women–witness Cate LeBon, PJ Harvey, and Bjork. And Radiohead. I guess Radiohead is the exception that proves the rule is not really a rule after all. In any case, here’s my shot at this year’s list.
Cloud Nothings, Here and Nowhere Else (Subpop)
These Cleveland darlings just keep getting better with every release. There are shades of Nirvana, The Descendants, and about a dozen other punky lovelies. I probably listened to this one more than any album this year.
Run the Jewels, RTJ2 (Mass Appeal)
In this year of racial fucknuttery, with white cops reviving scenes of Selma and dumbasses taking it out perfectly innocent police, it was a perfect year for RTJ2 to bring us intelligent, hard hitting rap. El-P and Killer Mike have had the year of their lives and the excitement is infectious as hell. Just hearing Killer Mike start the thing out makes me start punching the air. Lie, Cheat, Steal might be the track of the year.
Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire for No Witness (Jagjaguwar)
It’s not really fair to have a voice this strong while still kicking ass as a songwriter. How can someone like this not make those boneheads in Nashville change the way they think about making and marketing music? If you liked Sharon von Etten’s Tramp, and you did if you are even moderately reasonable, this album should be on your shelf. Like von Etten, Olsen spills her guts with style, but perhaps with a greater diversity of styles. She morphs from Patsy Cline to Leonard Cohen in a heartbeat.
Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (High Top Mountain Records)
My friend Eric turned me onto this saying “This guy is legit as shit,” and this album plus that comment is a good reminder of why we love our friends. I haven’t been as excited about country since Richard Buckner’s early albums. Unapologetically excellent. (Might be paired well with Luke B. Goebel’s “14 Stories and None of them are Yours.” Those two guys might be the same damn person.)
Death from Above 1979, The Physical World (Last Gang/Warner Bros.)
Another album from a duo who packs the energy of an entire decade of rock. I doubt these two spend afterparties riding alligators around a hotel room bonfire, but they sound like it. I’ll eagerly wait another ten years for these guys to record another album if I have to. This stuff is timeless.
St. Vincent, St. Vincent (Loma Vista)
We Dallasites like to think of Annie Clark as our own, and those of us who have done time in that monochromatic suburb of Garland want to feel somewhat redeemed by the association. But the truth is she is probably from outer space and has some Kryptonian story of how she got here. For my money she belongs with PJ Harvey and Bjork as one of the most interesting and innovative artists out there. She can hack the guitar into pieces and hit all manner of notes while stoically packaging herself for television consumption. Every St. Vincent album is worth having, and this might be her best yet , but I wouldn’t be surprised if she just continues to get better for about sixty years.
Alvvays, Alvvays (Polyvinyl/Transgressive)
If I can’t include Chad VanGaalen’s album on my year end list, and honestly I can’t, I’m happy at least to include an album he produced. Toronto based Alvvays’ self-titled album is the sort of fresh lo-fi pop that is easy to try but damned difficult to pull off. While they remind me a lot of Camera Obscura, they’re willing to let a little more fray show at the edges, and their sound is a little too rough to be twee. Just try not to like Archie, Marry Me. If you do try, you’re just being a jerk.
You think you’ve got game, and then you meet Drew Harkins and you throw the game away because you just can’t win.
Deerhunter, Monomania (4AD)
Pick your favorite review of this album:
a.) Monomania is a willfully inscrutable/abstruse nocturnal garage pastiche of shopworn indie standards, pieced together meticulously from a post-nothing fakebook, delivered with mesmerizing panache and terrorizing aplomb.
b.) Deerhunter’s Monomania re-imagined as a Phish setlist, the way that guy from Dirty Projectors did Black Flag:
Anti-Scale Mode -> Puke Racket, Pot Arpeggioz, Schlock & Choogle II, Churn/Thrust N’ Fey, Jam Progression -> Lawnmower Ratchet -> Omega Point, Denouement, Coy Spoon Acoustic Reprise
c.) When you get a tattoo on your shin, the majority of the work takes place on the fleshy haft of your lower leg. It’s mostly easy dermis for canvas, all smooth and humming along with the perfect amount of pinch, subtly reminding that you’re permanently defacing your skin.
The only actual pain comes when the needle bears down on the distal ends. A pitted feeling sucks your gut but passes quickly. Those couple moments when the point clicks over that little groove in the ridgeline is the real treat, because it’s just enough to make your privates tingle.
d.) The Black Lips dudes dubbed Monomania “transcend-fi” and I see no reason to reinvent the wheel.
e.) Yes, Bradford. It was great. And it was punk.
Queens of the Stone Age, …Like Clockwork (Matador)
“Some men are so macho they’ll get you pregnant just to kill a rabbit.” – Maureen Murphy
Lonnie Holley, Keeping a Record of It (Dust to Digital)
Because Oxford American needs to see him.
Wolf Eyes, No Answer: Lower Floors (De Stijl)
Richard Youngs, Summer Through My Mind (Ba Da Bing!)
Because Ba Da Bing! captured him at his prolific best.
R. Kelly, Black Panties (RCA)
Jace Clayton, The Julius Eastman Memory Depot (New Amsterdam)
Because Eastman isn’t just a school in Rochester.
Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, Shadow Man (ECM)
Byron Coley, Dating Tips for Touring Bands (Hot Cars Warp)
Because you should at least hear the one about Don Rickles and Giuliani.
My Bloody Valentine, m b v (m b v)
The Dead C, Armed Courage (Ba Da Bing!)
Because, really, it’s been a while.
SINGLES: Phosphorescent, “Song for Zula” (Dead Oceans) Antwon, “Dying in the Pussy” (Suicide Squeeze) Benjamin Clementine, “Nemesis” (Later…with Jools Holland) David Bowie, “Where Are We Now?” (Columbia) Jennette McCurdy, “Wrecking Ball” (YouTube)
Jaap Blonk, “The Prime Minister I” (Plant Migration) Hair Police, “Mercurial Rites” (Type) Daft Punk, “Get Lucky” (Columbia) Jennifer Walshe, “In a Way, It’s All New Age Music” (THMOTES) Parquet Courts, “Stoned and Starving” (What’s Your Rupture?)
I’m fairly certain I would not have surmised my most listened to album of the year would have been written and recorded by a 16-year-old girl from New Zealand. I guess it proves I’m not utterly dead inside that I can still be this taken aback. Pure Heroine is an accidental master stroke. Lorde is a typical teen with typical teenage insecurities, but she has an atypical way of expressing herself that just happens to take the form of top shelf pop. I’m pretty sure she set out to mimic Lana Del Rey, but she ended up creating a sound unlike anything else on the radio. Lorde is trying to be a poet. She’s trying to sound sophisticated. She’s trying to conjure a dark romanticism. The thing is she pulls it all off with very little to be embarrassed about. (I’m 100% certain I would want anything I created at age 16 to be burned forever). Pure Heroine is a staggeringly accomplished pop record: Big, catchy choruses are underpinned with attention-grabbing starkness and wildly unorthodox beats. It’s down-tempo-electro-pop to be sure, but it’s truly every-day-hummably infectious. “Royals” stands out like a sore thumb on the radio, but its appeal extends beyond the masses into the hierarchy of the critical elite, even as clueless arbiters of nonsense try to argue its latent racist overtones. It is the single of the year.
2. Kanye West, Yeezus (DefJam)
I am embarrassed for and annoyed by Kanye West as much as the next guy. It pains me to think how white I am for this being the only hip hop album in my list, but I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t mark it down. I listened to Yeezus more times than I care to count. The disconnect between West’s persona in interviews and his recorded output is confusing at a minimum. He comes off like a complete bozo in public, whose blind ambition almost elicits pity it’s so laughable. But on record he’s an absolute genius. Yeezus is dark, scary, confrontational, and a complete mass of contradictions, but it’s a record you will want to blast out of your car stereo. Rick Rubin tore the production down to its absolute minimum mere days before it was due for printing. It sounds next level. Jabs of synths, mutated vocal effects, and tribal rhythms are all interspersed with scattershot samples, but the star here is West’s lyrics. Yes, they’re extraordinarily misogynistic, but at the same time shards of brilliance lessen the blow with insightfully pointed rage. West is an angry man, and Yeezus is the musical catharsis he needed.
3. My Bloody Valentine, m b v (self released)
Much to my brother’s chagrin, I brought My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless on cassette to listen to on the way to school just about every day my junior year. He was too young to understand how fucking mind-bendingly awesome those waves of noise were. And still are. My Bloody Valentine leveled the playing field with that record, setting the bar for an entire movement of music and spawning a generation’s worth of copycats. I wouldn’t have wanted to follow it up either. So when word hit that IT FINALLY HAPPENED I scrambled to order my copy. When I listened to it, I was initially disappointed. I was mostly disappointed to discover that I was accustomed to all the soundscapes that had once shocked me so. Changing music forever is a once in a lifetime gift. So, MBV picks up the very next day. It doesn’t surpass Loveless; nor does it try to. It can’t. But it is a gloriously soul-crushing record all the same; it just takes longer to ingest. Guitarist Kevin Shields hasn’t added any new elements to the mix. It’s more of the same. But more of that same is clearly better than most.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Patrick Wall is the man whose name you’d love to touch. But you mustn’t touch. People pay him to write things.
KNEE MEETS JERK In Which a Beleaguered Music Journalist Attempts — and Fails — to Identify Ten Records Released Between December 2012 and December 2013 That Were Better Than All Other Releases in the Same Time Period. Listed in alphabetical order. Results subject to change. In seven acts.