Archive for the ‘Tunes’ category

TOP 10 SONGS OF 2015

November 30, 2015

#10: “Alright”/ Kendrick Lamar:

At the center of To Pimp A Butterfly, “Alright” stands out as the track that holds the album together with its optimism and razor sharp rhyme schemes all above a gorgeous horn riff. As the summer wore on, it became somewhat of an anthem, and offered a rare moment of hope amongst a collection of songs that burst with darkness and uncertainty elsewhere.

#9: “Come To Your Senses”/ Panda Bear:

Noah Lennox’s impressive Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper showcases this seven minute epic at its midpoint. It’s the longest track on the record and stands an undeniable highlight with its bonfire beach party groove that builds behind a slowly escalating melody as Lennox sings repetitively “Are you mad?” before answering nonchalantly “Ya, I’m mad”, a response in certain contrast to the upbeat mood and tone the track establishes.

#8: “On GP”/ Death Grips:

Easily the most complex song ever written by the experimental project Death Grips, “On GP” alternates between its incredible punk rock riff and spaced-out psychedelica to create an amazing stylistic contrast. All the while, leadman MC Ride delivers anxiety-laden vocals that are unwavering, relentless and panic-inducing.

#7: “Stonemilker”/ Bjork:

Shimmering production permeates this amazing opening track to Vulnicura, which in its entirety is a heartbreaking concept album pertaining to the highly influential artist’s divorce. Never is a moment more powerful than this one, with its gorgeous string arrangements supplementing Bjork’s unmatchable vocal range as she states obvious but clearly unfulfilled desires to “Find our mutual coordinates” and observes “We have emotional needs.”

#6: “Should Have Known Better”/ Sufjan Stevens:

There’s a whispery, stripped down Elliott Smith influence on the standout track to Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell, a concept album dedicated to his late mother. The entire album is both immaculate and incredibly melancholy throughout, but where this track separates itself is when it switches midway through from minor to major chords, gorgeous in their simplicity, as Stevens finds a “reason to live”…”My brother had a daughter/ The beauty that she brings/ Illumination.”

#5: “Beyond Love”/ Beach House:

Of all the music in the now massively deep Beach House catalog, I’d argue nothing comes off any more gentle and gripping as this one. It’s a song about hope and the ability to realize the abundance of potential happiness out there, even after loss. It shows an ambiguity of time and place that seems fitting for any stage of a particular relationship, as Victoria Legrand hits a slightly off-key note near the end of the song while she sings “All I know’s what I see/ And I can’t live without it” that is both painful and comforting all at once.

#4: “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”/ Jamie XX feat. Young Thug and Popcaan

You can argue about The Weeknd versus Fetty Wap all you want; this was the undeniable song of the summer. This upbeat, approachable track stood out like a sore thumb on a record that elsewhere was decidedly minimalistic and nuanced, just as the debut record from The xx was before it. As such, producer Jamie Smith took a big risk combining rap verses from Young Thung with a Caribbean funk chorus courtesy of Popcaan all over a catchy and melodic tropical vibe, but somehow it all melted together perfectly.

#3: “Let It Happen”/ Tame Impala:

The sprawling opener to the mind-boggling Currents begins Tame Impala’s best album to date with a bang. As the title implies, it’s a song about surrendering to chaos and learning to abandon logic and reason, and at nearly eight minutes in length, is a gutsy way to begin. It’s heavy and challenging both lyrically and musically, as complex a song as the band has ever recorded, building and swelling behind its intense disco loops and jabbing bass synths before breaking down into a thrilling crescendo.

#2: “When You’re Smiling And Astride Me”/ Father John Misty:

In terms of pure beauty and orchestration, there wasn’t a better song written in 2015 than this one, which came out of nowhere as the highlight from former Fleet Foxes member Josh Tillman’s stunning debut album. Maybe no other lyric better defined the middle of my year than this one, “I can hardly believe I found you, and I’m terrified by that.” That lyric is meant as a vulnerable admission in what was the year’s greatest love song, but for me, it meant pure, legitimate fear.

#1: “Kill V. Maim”/ Grimes:

The fascinating centerpiece of her stunning album Art Angels might be the first pure club joint that Grimes has ever produced, and in a year that didn’t have a solid favorite for Song of the Year heading into the last quarter, this thing took full command of the title and should be no surprise in this spot for anyone paying even the slightest bit of attention. There’s so much going on in this track that it often feels like it’s over before the listener’s head stops spinning or can even get a read on what’s happened. I will never forget the first time I heard it, walking to work with a massive smile on my face as I attempted to grasp what I was hearing. Huge, propulsive stadium beats support vocals that showcase high-pitched ferocity, constantly shifting between cheerleader chanting that is equal parts demonic and angelic, and all executed to immaculate effect. Grimes stated in an interview that the track was “written from the perspective of Al Pacino in the Godfather 2, except he’s a vampire who can switch gender and travel through space”, which makes it even more awesome than it already was.

THE TOP 10 BEST ALBUMS OF 2014

December 15, 2014

HONORABLE MENTION (just missed the Top 10, in alphabetical order):

Arms and Sleepers/ Swim Team: Still one of the most confusingly unrecognized electronic groups making music today, this dinner party record for the ages from Arms and Sleepers drops a striking contrast to their landmark 2007 release Black Paris 86. That was a dark, bruising trip hop record, and while this one becomes a bit more repetitive, bright and jazzy, it remains one of the most addictive and overlooked releases this year. Throw on “Nobody More Than You” or “Tiger Tempo” the next time you’re having a beach bonfire and let me know how it turns out for you. Where Black Paris massively succeeded for its chilliness, I couldn’t have been more surprised how warm and safe this record made me feel. Why has no one ever heard of them? Just turn it on, put it on repeat, invite all your friends over and open all the wine in your house.

Mac DeMarco/ Salad Days: This was a big step up from DeMarco, who showed a brilliant mix of carefree melodic perfection and psychedelic innovation on his sophomore album. Precision presides above flashiness here on airy sun-drenched highlights like “Brother”, “Blue Boy” and the title track. Electronic horns rule the day on standout “Passing Out Pieces”, while an 80s synth line combines with deep bass on “Chamber of Reflection”. “Let Her Go” is just a pure guitar rock gem executed perfectly. It’s all here, so roll down the windows, drive along the ocean and blast this.

Pallbearer/ Foundations of Burden: Even if it was a bit more streamlined than their game-changing doom metal debut Sorrow And Extinction, this time around Pallbearer sounds richer and more focused, beginning with the calculated opening riff of “Worlds Apart” which blends into the pure metal of “Foundations.” And that’s just the thing; it’s difficult to determine where these songs end and the others begin, and on the whole it feels like a giant melodic explosion when taken in full. They’re not yet as good as they could be, as tracks like “The Ghost I Used To Be” limit credibility with their overwrought dramatics and strained vocals, but centerpiece “Watcher In The Dark” demonstrates perfectly orchestrated build and showcases potential. Brace yourself for their next record, but in the meantime, play this when it’s dark and scary outside.

Parquet Courts/ Sunbathing Animal: A wildly chaotic and deep rock album, the sophomore full length from Parquet Courts was nothing if not abrasively confident. Content to shift between jangly pop and distorted punk all behind drunkenly nonchalant vocals, a clearly overlong record somehow rendered itself endearing. “Instant Disassembly” was the perfect chillax, summer beer guzzling epic, but songs like the title track and the rollicking “Black and White” brought the energy full force. “Ducking and Dodging” almost feels like an exercise in riffing, showing off spoken word vocals and foot-stomping percussion that gains traction from a shocking intermittent burst of distortion and one of the better lead guitar solos of the year. It may be a long time before this band creates an album with any sense of cohesion whatsoever, but let’s humor them and just have fun in the meantime.

Spoon/ They Want My Soul: Somehow, whatever Spoon does is always at least “very good” even if they aren’t exactly introducing any new ideas these days. Still, this was as close to an “Album of the Summer” as we had this year, and tracks like the impeccably swanky and surprisingly reflective “Inside Out” showed that these guys can still innovate to some extent and still remain about as consistent a band as they come. Moments like the final minute of the bluesy title track and the persistent grind of the perfectly titled mood-setter “Rainy Taxi” remind us all why we fell in love with this band in the first place. Seven full lengths deep, I’d argue they’re yet to write a single bad song, and this album was actually a strong step up from Transference. Pay homage to Spoon and play this on that warmer than expected winter day in Chicago.

#10: Ariel Pink/ Pom Pom

homepage_large.b02cb19bThe polarizing Ariel Pink returns with this solo record, a unique combination of psychedelic influences, new wave interpretations and overall weirdness. Pink’s most valuable quality is his ability to deliver such bipolar vocals that demonstrate a depth and diversity of musical tone; there’s everything from bright, sunny pop to unsettling post-punk here with plenty of carnival music inter-spliced for good measure. He does his best Ian Curtis imitation on the dark “Not Enough Violence”, provides a soliloquy in homage to Jim Morrison on “Exile On Frog Street” above jazzy soul piano that sounds practically lifted from The Soft Parade, while the eerie “Lipstick” takes the classic style of The Cure and spins it into a dark wave tale of a stalker in the night. Album standout “Black Ballerina” succeeds most as he combines several tones into schizophrenic mayhem in this hilarious and utterly bizarre strip club tale. A playful opening vocal combines with a funky bounce beat both reminiscent of an Of Montreal song, complete with Pink’s subtle request to “take your bra and panties off” before it explodes into a stunning combination of strained rocker falsetto and deep baritone nonsense chants and growls like “elevators, manufacturers.” His echoey baritone on the catchy “One Summer Night” is expertly produced, while the sweet, melodic “Put Your Number In My Phone” is more straightforward and whimsical but hits all the right notes as such. Pom Pom is undeniably an overlong record, and probably intentionally so. As high as these high points get, the middle is packed with moments so outrageous and ridiculous that they can only be interpreted as nothing less than a complete troll job. Beginning with the bizarre surf-nostalgia track “Nude Beach A-Go-Go” and moving into truly WTF territory such as the Middle-Eaastern piano riff of “Dinosaur Carebears”, the absurd bravado of “Sexual Athletics” and finally the abrasive Atari synths of “Jell-o”, it’s clearly all a ploy and a demonstration of confidence. This is an Ariel Pink record through and through, and he has no qualms letting us know that he’ll do whatever he wants on it, unafraid to forgo traditional album structure in terms of creating any sort of cohesiveness or flow whatsoever. Somehow, Pom Pom is all the better for it as its more serious and reflective highlights stand out even more as a result. Take the gorgeous “Picture Me Gone”, a gorgeous, thought-provoking expression of paranoia regarding digital technology as a threat to destroy all physical evidence of humanity, told through the eyes of an aging father reluctantly adapting to the changing world that he will soon leave behind. Love him or hate him, it would be hard to deny that with Pom Pom, Ariel Pink has made some of the year’s most fearless, interesting music.

#9: Todd Terje/ It’s Album Time

homepage_large.1b314148What separates Terje’s debut full length from other electronic records this year is an overall lack of pretentiousness and a welcoming feel within its carefree, casual confidence. Attention to detail and seamless execution are evident early as the transition from the acid jazz piano slow-build of “Leisure Suit Preben” moves effortlessly into the jabbing laser beam synth of “Preben Goes To Acapulco.” Standout “Delorean Dynamite” showcases the best of Terje’s arrangement style as it builds and expands with energetic synth that combines with fluttering keyboard, atmospheric guitar and subtle bass lines, resulting in a full on Euro-disco track. Among music lifted from prior work, there’s full-on, hard-hitting disco beats on “Strandbar”, which also features impressive musicality with its heavy piano samples, while the almost celebratory staple “Inspector Norse” is a steady dance track that closes the album on an upbeat note. The ability to impeccably weave these songs into his newer material is admirable, and if there is a lack of cohesion at any point on the album, it ironically comes from centerpiece and standout track “Johnny and Mary”, a Robert Palmer cover which brings the party to a massive halt with its melancholy, mournful vocal echo- the only vocal we hear on the entire album, courtesy of Bryan Ferry. If you ask me, its placement there is intentional, a reminder even smack in the middle of an otherwise joyous record, that life will always have its inevitable moments of sadness, but that the surrounding diversions are what can make it meaningful.

#8: Aphex Twin/ Syro

homepage_large.3e27e54aWithout being super-familiar with Richard James’ early work, it was especially difficult and intimidating to tackle this album as if I’m even on the same level. This actually may have been the record I listened to most in 2014, if only because of its massive scope and seemingly endless possibilities; suffice to say that it’s a hard album to fully get your head around, but was a welcome addition to a year of music that seemed otherwise devoid of truly focused electronic music. Despite song titles that border on pretentiously hieroglyphic, the first three tracks are surprisingly accessible. An ominous piano loop combines with bursts of poppy synth and processed vocals on the immediately grabbing opener “minipops 67”, while “XMAS_EVET10” is a fascinating essay in electronic build reminiscent of what Boards of Canada might sound like if they ever attempted a ten minute track this ambitious, expanding and switching between its ethereal electronica and eerie, haunting keyboard lines. The middle of the album becomes more abstract and experimental, but it’s the little things and the impeccable attention to detail and arrangement throughout that really make Syro soar; a perfectly timed synth burst ten seconds into lounge bar dance track “produk 29”, a squealing synth on “”CIRCLONT6A” just as the beat drops, and the masterfully conveyed moment of surrender on the title track achieved by a fluttering synth line that sounds akin to a shot bird falling out of the sky. There’s no repetition whatsoever here as every track stands with its own independent ideas and innovations. A groovy, trip-hoppy snare percussion sample rules the day on “PAPAT4” beneath an addictively catchy loop and ghostly choir vocals. To provide further puzzlement, James concludes this album with “aisatsana”, an impossibly gorgeous, spacious piano ballad that bears no musical resemblance whatsoever to anything that comes before it. However, it does exhibit the same unsettling tone that permeates this entire collection ever so subtly, with its sparseness in complete contrast to the density of the rest of the album, ending on a crushing emotional note that would seem difficult to top. Again, the beauty of Syro lies in its precision in terms of arrangement and timing, and that is a fact made evident in its conclusion above all else.

#7: Caribou/ Our Love

homepage_large.0b9d74c7Dan Snaith has stepped up his game considerably from the lo-fi beach party sound of Andorra and the club-driven techno of Swim to create his best record since his 2003 landmark Up In Flames as Manitoba. His notably increased confidence in his own vocal capabilities strikes a welcome contrast to his prior work and helps pull together the thematic vibe of the record. As its title suggests, at their core, these are romantic, regretful and reflective love songs, and aside from being his most personal record to date, Our Love is just so diverse musically compared to his prior efforts. Snaith offers everything from straight up dance tracks (“Julia Brightly, the title track, “All I’ll Ever Need”, “Your Love Will Set You Free) to airy lounge bar material (“Can’t Do Without You”), dark tribal beats (“Mars”), off-kilter R&B (“Second Chance”, courtesy of a perfect vocal from Jessy Lanza), to say nothing of the massive sad psychedelica of “Silver” and “Back Home”, which bookended symmetrically at #2 and #9 respectively are probably the two best tracks on the album. Both utilize slow-building arrangements that expand into massive, atmospheric, synth-driven crescendos. “Silver” is dually honest and heartbreaking, as Snaith utters nonchalant falsetto fragments like “Wish I’d never met you/ Doesn’t mean I can’t get over you”, while “Back Home” might be the perfect melancholy pop song of his entire catalog to date, boasting the catchiest electro-hook on the album and a brief but most spectacular coda. Our Love succeeds most because of its honest, intimate detail of the ups, downs and in-betweens of a relationship, or as I like to call it, reality. Where Andorra’s sun-drenched vibe kept the listener warm due to its sound, this time around, Caribou keeps us warm by conveying an honesty that most all of us can relate to.

#6: FKA Twigs/ LP 1

homepage_large.48a48155It’s next to impossible to not think of the debut album from The XX when listening to LP1, the first full length from the British-born Tahliah Barnett, who produces her unique music as FKA Twigs. The two artists dwell in completely different genres, but the chilly, unsettling tone of these songs possess a spaciousness that is immediately reminiscent of what made that album so special. Sparse production techniques frequently drop the beat out altogether, often stopping completely on tracks like the standout “Pendulum”, with its rich, melodic vocal, while sensual undertones dominate “Lights Out” and “Two Weeks,” the latter of which carefully hides its aggressive sexual lyrics with music that sounds contrastingly carefree. FKA Twigs’ music is a breath of fresh air from a creative standpoint, gaining traction from so many different, well-integrated ideas, but the easiest categorization would be to describe it somewhere between the lines of R&B meeting trip hop, not dissimilar to The Weeknd, but far more foreboding and powerful despite being considerably more stripped down and raw in comparison. Fluttering electronic percussion combines with deep, dark bass at every turn to create a consistent vibe of unmitigated tension, but as innovative as the production is, the most impressive aspect of this record might be Barnett’s vocal range. A raspy alto alternates with a high-pitched strained octave intermittently on the distinctly auto-biographical “Video Girl”, while she combines a powerful soul vocal into an even higher, seemingly impossible note on “Numbers.” While the vibe is all her own, there’s no shortage of her obvious influences shining through the overall bleakness of the album. Dark, Portishead-inspired snares carry the aforementioned, frantic pinnacle “Numbers” and the crawling tempo of “Hours” sounds like 90s era Massive Attack dungeon music, while closer “Kicks” begins with scattered Bjork-esque beats and jabs of synthesized bass that morph into a gorgeous bleary-eyed come-down. It’s a massive closing track that’s worth the wait, and even with such a consistent debut it’s important to point out how soundly and purposefully it builds, as “Kicks” clearly demonstrates that the real emotional bruisers come towards the end of the album. Penultimate track “Give Up” is as subtly bleak and gorgeous as anything here, combining elements of fluttering, ascending synth with lines like “I know that sometimes you wish I’d go/ Away, away” that oddly end on the album’s most optimistic note—Twigs isn’t gonna let you give up, she’s not giving up, and she’s here to stay.

#5: Sun Kil Moon/ Benji

homepage_large.8512d235I’ll be honest, I hated this album the first time I listened to it. Sure, I had a feeling deep inside of me that it could be a grower, but I couldn’t get past how ordinary and nonchalant it sounded musically. Fast forward eight months later, and its impact feels as massive as its initial impression felt slight; these are indisputably eloquent, heart-wrenching tales, many of them true, put to music that fits like a glove. It’s only when you understand the weight of the lyrics themselves that the music begins to make sense, and Mark Kozalek knows this. As bleak and curmudgeonly as he may seem in general, it’s hard to deny that the man is a pretty brilliant song crafter. These are dark but real stories set to gorgeous music. Apparently Kozalek has had several relatives die in aerosol can explosions; “Carissa” documents the death of his 35-year old second-cousin, a mother of two, and focuses upon his need to reconnect with distant family members at her funeral, and his nearly forgotten past. It’s a massive opening statement that sets the stakes high immediately as it becomes clear how intimate Kozalek intends the album to be personally. The comparatively somber “Truck Driver” tells a similar tale of his great uncle, who happened to be Carissa’s grandfather, who died the same way. True or not, these stories carry a decidedly Middle-American undertone, and Kozalek has a knack for simply repeating a relaxed fingerpicking pattern and communicating above it. Spliced in between are contrasting dedications to both of his parents. “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” hinges on the brutal honesty of his fear of the reality that his mother, 75 and in good health today, will someday, sooner than later, no longer be here. Guitar jam “I Love My Dad” is far more upbeat, a reflection of lessons learned, perhaps the main one being that all men have their flaws, but most of us have the best of intentions as well. Not to beat a dead horse, but while the music is admittedly well-arranged, what truly elevates this album above most of Kozalek’s work is the intimacy and diversity of the story-telling. “Dogs” documents his teenage sexual conquests with a musical tone that seems more regretful than celebratory, “Jim Wise” tells the heartbreaking tale of a man who euthanized his wife out of love and now stands trial for murder with nothing to live for, “Micheline” expands upon a mentally challenged classmate and an epileptic friend, and the epic ten-minute track “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same” looks back, upon other things, with regret regarding a youthful incident of aggressive bullying by the songwriter. (Ironically, considering his confusing attack upon the unimposing and fantastic band The War on Drugs this year, it would seem that Kozalek hasn’t fully let this incident soak in.) There’s a sense of remembering those moments when we all recall where we were, as “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” shows off an ominous riff that conveys the horror of his crimes, while “Pray For Newtown” adds perspective to that tragedy…one that had a profound effect upon me three years ago. Closer “Ben’s My Friend” seems utterly out of place but is a welcome change of pace and arguably Benji’s greatest triumph. Between nonchalant discussion of ordering crab cakes in a bar full of “sports bar shit”, Kozalek lets us down easy with lifted saxophones reminiscent of Destroyer’s Kaputt and a song presumably about seeing a Postal Service concert, after an album otherwise full of heavy material. I don’t think I’d much enjoy actually hanging out with the brutal Mark Kozalek, but this album stuck with me all year as much as any other.

#4: Real Estate/ Atlas

homepage_large.d9f36f89This New Jersey-grown band with a penchant for relaxed western twang has finally reached its full potential, as noticeably richer production complements their best collection of songs musically to date. Atlas benefits from a fuller, warmer sound across the board, although one could also argue that on their third full length, Real Estate is at their least certain and most pessimistic. As a result, they come off as more than the simple beach and wine-road driving music band that they began as, although this album should still work well in those circumstances, but instead as a group with some additional life experience that has some semblance of wisdom to offer. Opening track “Had To Hear” builds and expands beyond its steady, confidently repetitive opening riff, and it’s immediately evident that the production has taken it up a notch from the band’s practically lo-fi beginnings. It’s such a fluid opener, as it breaks down into an impressive solo before re-connecting seamlessly back into the main riff with perfect timing. After that, “Past Lives” and “The Bend” add a woozy, almost ethereal element to the band’s trademark guitar twang. Besides a step up in production, Real Estate shows growth from an artistic aspect as well, since as mentioned already, Atlas is far and away its most melancholy offering to date. The tone is spearheaded by the heartbreaking, stripped down acoustic track “How Might I Live,” which is stunning in its simplicity, as acoustic C and G chords alternate over a lyrical breakup delivery that lasts only two and a half minutes but feels like an eternity. But in the end, what makes Atlas such an impressive accomplishment is that the band hasn’t completely gotten away from its roots; catchy, accessible sound isn’t abandoned altogether, but it’s tapered and it serves a purpose. “Crime” is straightforward, polished and professional, if not terribly exciting, and “Primitive” brings the twang, but more brilliant moments abound on songs like “Horizon”, with its steady, focused build behind a textbook hook and percussion that keeps pushing it forward with increasing uncertainty. Album standout “Talking Backwards” is perhaps the perfect pop rock song, delivering the catchiest hook of the band’s entire catalog (suck it, “It’s Real”) but adding elements of bittersweet defeat that anyone that’s been in a relationship with an actual human can most definitely attest to- “Well I might as well be talking backwards/ Is this making any sense to you?/ And the only thing that really matters/ Is the one thing I can’t seem to do.” This is so simple and so true, but wouldn’t have been believable on their self-titled debut, and that’s what makes this effort feel like a step forward. Maybe it’s real indeed? I saw Real Estate live at Pitchfork over the summer, and that isn’t really their element. They deliver perfectly with no hitches but seem very straightforward and business-like, but on record, this is the type of music that you can really sink your soul into.

#3: Run The Jewels/ Run The Jewels 2

homepage_large.e0491b02I don’t know what it is about November and surprise rap albums. In 2012, we saw Kendrick Lamar release one of the best records of the decade, and last year Danny Brown surprised everyone with the gutting depths of Old. This year, we received an equally surprising improvement from well-established rapper/producers Killer Mike and El-P on their second album together as Run The Jewels. El-P has always been an elite producer, but pardon me if I’ve often felt his actual rapping to be a bit on the try-hard white dude side of douche-baggery. Such is not the case this time, as his anger and pointed emotion is real, quite believable and executed impeccably. Check out his verse on “Lie, Cheat, Steal” for proof of the above. Maybe all he needed was to collaborate with someone equally intense and serious, with an accomplished rap background himself. Somehow, someway, these two unlikely comrades discovered each other, and the result on their second album as Run The Jewels is packed with energy, anger and general disillusionment with the current state of the country and the world that comes off as incredibly genuine and valid. These are not a couple of young gangsters trying to tough it up, they are grown ass men nearing 40 with a lifetime of experiences and observations, and suffice to say, they do NOT like fuckboys. This is the type of album that you will walk down the street with cranked at full volume with the impetus to crush anyone who dares to veer into your path. Both rappers have a considerably deep background playing for live audiences, but these songs seem almost tailor-made for a concert environment, as the beats hit harder and the anger and easily re-quotable lyrics seem so much more real and authentic on their sophomore effort together. Find me a weak track; you can’t. This pair wastes no time bringing the heat, and it never lets up. “Jeopardy” begins with an ominous, buzzing beat that steadily gains intensity as the duo unleashes lines like “Fuck you fuckboys forever I hope I said it politely” that leave no possible misinterpretation of their intentions right off the bat, while “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” shows off some of the speediest rapping verses since Bone Thugs N Harmony. The back-to-back combo of “Blockbuster Night 1”, with its diabolical industrial bass beat and alternating verses, and standout masterpiece “Close Your Eyes”, is absolutely mind-blowing. The latter brings the energy to an insurmountable level, as the duo conveys a prison riot/ break out tale over a franticly repetitious sample. It’s the best rap song of the year, and there isn’t a close second. “All My Life” samples a trip-hop synth line that reminds me of Massive Attack’s “Future Proof” and wins immediately in my book on that basis even if I’m wrong. The lyrical shock-value on the sexually driven “Love Again” gives Kanye’s “I’m In It” a run for its money and is a welcome diversion from the serious tone here, although it’s fairly intense in its own right, but showcases some of the very best production on the entire album, and that isn’t a statement I take lightly. “Crown” slows it down and pulls it all together but doesn’t forsake the deep bass lines that permeate this entire record, as Killer Mike illustrates the deep regrets of his drug-dealing past and its negative impact upon humanity with El-P’s brief but surprisingly respectful support of a man who has no choice but to join the military. Killer Mike is on the record as saying he had difficulty finishing his verse from an emotional standpoint as he had continuous breakdowns as he reflected on his past, so it is no surprise that this is the album’s pinnacle. And how about that Radiohead fade into the stunning closer “Angel Duster”? Keep in mind, these are two 39-year-old rap industry veterans that should be heading towards a mid-life crisis instead of hitting their stride and the best form of their careers. But, sometimes things don’t play out as expected, and I don’t hear anyone complaining, least of all me, as for once I can crush a rap album and respect my elders all in one fell swoop. This ultimately feels like a fantastic piece of work that will stand the test of time.

#2: The War On Drugs/ Lost In The Dream

homepage_large.9419e472Mark Kozalek who? As great as Benji was, the real irony of the Sun Kil Moon leadman’s bizarre attack upon the “beer commercial lead guitar” of The War On Drugs was the easily and frequently overlooked fact that these guys made a better record than he did. There’s a depth and feeling here that he certainly missed while being so frustrated and annoyed by a live concert sound bleed situation that he decided to spend the last half of his year attacking this band sarcastically for no apparent reason, while he could instead have been prideful enough regarding his own career-topping work. But enough about him, as these bands aren’t even in the same genre, and while Kozalek’s attacks shamefully impacted the legacy of both records more than they should have, the fact remains that the music itself stands alone and aloof to such nonsense, and thankfully so. With Lost in The Dream, The War on Drugs have made a fascinating and heartbreaking record that will rank among the very best of this decade when it is all over. Springsteen influences? Sure. I’m an American and a fan of rock-n-roll, and wasn’t aware that such a position was akin to liking bad music. But again, I digress. Epic opener “Under The Pressure” is perfectly placed in that spot, with its relaxing, atmospheric and ultimately triumphant arrangement setting a tone that is hard to live up to, but The War on Drugs does so with ease. My favorite song of the entire year, “Red Eyes” follows, and it’s maybe the best American rock song of the entire century. Everything is executed and timed perfectly without excess, from the whooping vocals, brilliant melody, pounding percussion and gigantic riffs which eventually overlap and collapse upon the verses into an all out onslaught of a coda. What separates this album from being “beer commercial lead guitar”, whatever in the holy ever-living fuck that is even supposed to mean in the first place, is its somber moments. The aptly titled “Suffering” lets you feel that pain through and through, while “Disappearing” veers in and out, leading the listener into a state of utter confusion, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that’s the songwriter’s mental state and ultimate intention in writing the song in the first place…so it’s conveyed perfectly. Sure, there are rocking, rollicking, open-road driving song moments like the fantastic “Burning”, and again, I NEED songs like this in my life. You want more driving music? The War on Drugs will give you more driving music. Turn on “An Ocean Between the Waves” and try to convince me that you aren’t on your way to go buy a motorcycle for an adventurous escapade up California 1; again, you can’t. But there’s nothing pretentious or happy about any of this. These songs are graphic, detailed open wounds, all minor keys, even the most upbeat of the bunch. In a brilliant move of arrangement, the tempo tapers off massively over the final two songs. If The War On Drugs was really about being commercial, they’d close this album with big marketable rock band music wouldn’t they? The title track brings in a gentle harmonica behind leadman Adam Granduciel’s subtle Dylan-esque vocal before “In Reverse” tests patience with its practically acapella intro that pays off as explodes into the line “I don’t mind you disappearing/ Because I know you can be found/ Living on the dark side of the street/ Down.” It’s such a culmination, especially invoking his own fears from earlier on the record, by name no less, yet sends the album off on a sentimental, bittersweet note. This is an intensely emotional record and one that stuck with me all year since its winter release, fitting the bill for what was probably the craziest of my 35 years on this planet. And I wouldn’t dream of using a single track in a beer commercial if I actually wanted to sell beer. (Sorry Mark.)

#1: Swans/ To Be Kind

homepage_large.dfa26de1I’ve been rating songs on a ten point scale since I was fourteen years old, and more than twenty years later, over all that time, I’ve never had more numerical distance between my first and second favorite record in any single year. To Be Kind is not only the best album of 2014 by a crushing, previously unprecedented margin, it’s also the best album of the decade as it reaches its halfway point. When Michael Gira brought Swans back from the dead and completely re-conceptualized the band in 2010 after a fourteen year hiatus, there was always the feeling that they were building towards a release like this, taking small steps for the sake of the future the same way my beloved Chicago Cubs have been for the past few years, building patiently until they are able to reach their fullest potential and content to not try to do too much too soon. While 2012’s The Seer was decidedly ambitious, an epic, nearly two hour opus that proved Swans to be once again a serious band but with new, innovative musical ideas, To Be Kind surpasses it on nearly ever conceivable level, and even broadens and expands its ambition, which is almost impossible to grasp. Take the 30-minute hybrid track “Bring The Sun/ Touissant L’Ouverture song.” While the similarly placed title track from their last effort takes awhile to get going and meanders wildly over its 30 minutes, “Bring The Sun” is immediately enthralling and completely captivating from its onset all the way into the haunting “Touissant L’Ouverture Song”, which culminates with Gira equating, in Spanish no less, blood, love and life with one another, in a baritone that sounds like a crazed cult leader bellowing from the top of a mountain. Over its 121 minutes, which is two longer than its predecessor, not a single moment of down time exists. That, in and of itself, is an accomplishment, and it’s a credit to the masterful arrangements and management of tone that are present here throughout. While an easy genre characterization would be to dismiss this amazing musical achievement as merely noisy and dark, what separates To Be Kind from all other records so far this decade is its sprawling scope combined with its musical diversity. Opener “Screen Shot” is arguably the single most terrifying leadoff track since Massive Attack’s “Angel”, building with hypnotic repetition that builds into an eerie piano line and culminates into an apocalyptic eruption through the coda. There are also moments of unsettling terror like the slow burning “Just A Little Boy” which contrasts with aggressive, faux-shoegaze crescendo pieces like “Kirsten Supine” later on the album. I heard the completely rejuvenated and re-arranged version of the old Swans’ punk song “Oxygen” two summers ago at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, and it was one of those stunning live concert movements that you never forget, and one that only raised my excitement for this upcoming album when its inclusion here was confirmed. Explosive bursts of guitar sprawl beneath propulsive percussion and Gira’s maniacal ravings as he gives a fearful, frightening account of a time he had difficulty breathing during a severe asthma attack. If there’s a track one might offer as moderately accessible to the masses, “A Little God In Our Hands” starts with an approachable guitar riff and swanky beat that might fit on a Red Hot Chili Peppers album before it evolves into a full on cascading avalanche of noise, while at five minutes in length “Some Things We Do” is the shortest, and softest track on the album, as Gira utterly indicts the entire human race by condemning the menial triviality of our very existence. “She Loves Us” might just be the single most impressive thing here in terms of overall build and attention to detail. Over its epic 17-minute length, it opens with a jarring guitar riff that repeats over and over again and picks up tribal chants before breaking down completely into guitar fuzz, eventually culminating into a full-on onslaught over its panic-inducing eight minute coda that showcases Gira howling such insanity as “Your name is fuck!” behind haunting, contrasting background vocals of “Hallelujah!” Equally well-executed at only half that length is “Nathalie Neal”, which is as ominous and foreboding as anything in the band’s entire catalog, and that’s saying something. It opens with thunderous percussion and grows more and more persistent and frantic until it finally collapses upon itself and concludes softly.‎ The title track closes the album and takes a symmetrically opposite approach, starting as softly as any here, but sends the album off on its most panicked, abrasive note, and any other conclusion to this record would be entirely unfitting. As relentless and challenging as it is, To Be Kind isn’t one of those double albums that should be taken in parts. It’s best consumed in its entirety, where it looms a monolithic masterpiece for any true fan of music. There’s such subtle beauty lurking beneath the brooding tension on every track here, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a better executed artistic contrast any time in the near future.

 

 

TOP 10 SONGS OF 2014

December 2, 2014

#10: “Ben’s My Friend”/ Sun Kil Moon

Benji’s closing track seems utterly out of place but is a welcome change of pace and arguably the album’s greatest triumph. Between nonchalant discussion of ordering crab cakes in a bar full of “sports bar shit”, lead singer Mark Kozalek lets us down easy with lifted saxophones reminiscent of Destroyer’s Kaputt and a song presumably about seeing a Postal Service concert, all after an album otherwise full of heavy material.

#9: “XMAS_EVET10″/ Aphex Twin

A fascinating essay in electronic build reminiscent of what Boards of Canada might sound like if they ever attempted a ten minute track this ambitious, as it expands and switches between its ethereal electronica and eerie, haunting keyboard lines.

#8: “Never Catch Me”/ Flying Lotus featuring Kendrick Lamar

On what is essentially the only proper track on Flying Lotus’ experimental fourth LP You’re Dead, a jazzy, catchy piano loop find the perfect match in the laid back delivery of Kendrick Lamar before the track shifts into some classic FlyLo space-age lounge grooves.

#7: “Drunk In Love”/ Beyonce

The darkness embodied in this track shows a shocking evolution from the (albeit catchy) silliness of songs like “Single Ladies” to the point that it’s almost hard to believe that this is even the same artist; this is so far and away the best track of her career that it isn’t even funny, as a deep, foreboding bass beat and trip-hop snares roll beneath her soaring vocals.

#6: “Talking Backwards”/ Real Estate

Perhaps the perfect pop rock song, delivering the catchiest hook of the band’s entire catalog (suck it, “It’s Real”) but adding elements of bittersweet defeat that anyone that’s been in a relationship with an actual human can most definitely attest to- “Well I might as well be talking backwards/ Is this making any sense to you?/ And the only thing that really matters/ Is the one thing I can’t seem to do.” This is so simple and so true, but wouldn’t have been believable on their self-titled debut, and that’s what makes this effort feel like a step forward.

#5: “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)”/ Run The Jewels

The indisputable standout from Killer Mike and El-Ps’s second collaboration as Run The Jewels brings the energy to an insurmountable level, as the duo conveys a prison riot/ break out tale over a franticly repetitious sample. It’s the best rap song of the year, and there isn’t a close second.

#4: “Go”/ Grimes

It will be interesting to see how Grimes’ turn towards a poppier sound will play out in its entirety, but the first single from her as yet undetermined next album was pure pop perfection, as her spot-on vocal is a thing of beauty, gaining traction while shifting between a contrasting synth line.

#3: “Come Down To Us”/ Burial

In what is easily the greatest, most ambitious track to date by the experimental electronic producer Burial, “Come Down To Us” begins with a heart-wrenching keyboard loop and ghostly reverb vocals. He employs complete stops at times as the tone switches to more atmospheric tension and eventually shifts into a stunning, dare we say, “bright”coda unlike anything we’ve ever heard before from this artist, discovering an exciting new musical territory over the track’s thirteen minutes.

#2: “Oxygen”/ Swans

I heard this completely rejuvenated and re-arranged version of the old Swans’ punk song “Oxygen” two summers ago at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, and it was one of those stunning live concert movements that you never forget, and one that only raised my excitement for the upcoming album To Be Kind when its inclusion there was confirmed. Explosive bursts of guitar sprawl beneath propulsive percussion and leadman Michael Gira’s maniacal ravings as he gives a fearful, frightening account of a time he had difficulty breathing during a severe asthma attack.

#1: “Red Eyes”/ The War On Drugs

This is not only the best song of the year, but it may very well be the best American rock song of the entire century. Everything is executed and timed perfectly without excess, from the whooping vocals, brilliant melody, pounding percussion and gigantic riffs which eventually overlap and collapse upon the verses into an all out onslaught of a coda.

WU TANG CLAN- TOP 40 SONGS EVER

November 3, 2014

On December 2nd, the greatest group of rappers ever assembled will release their first full length album in seven years. While expectations are understandably being kept low-key for the most part, I thought it might be fun to take a look back on everything they have accomplished together as we await their next delivery. I’ll be counting down two songs per day, leading up to #1 on Monday, December 2nd.

WU TUNG KILLAH BEEZ, THEY ON DA SWARM!!!!!!!!!!

All songs produced by the RZA unless otherwise noted.

#40: ALL I NEED (METHOD MAN/ TICAL) 1994

The plan was apparently always for Clifford Smith, aka Method Man, to release the first solo album out of the Wu saga. This track picked up commercial appeal after the addition of Mary J. Blige made the remix a pop hit, but this original version showcases the raw, unique style of Johnny Blaze, with those honest, breathless, I-don’t-give-a-fuck-if I-need -oxygen gasps between metronomes that became the Method Man trademark, here adding an element of (gasp) romance, to boot.

 “Back when I was nothin’/ You made a brother feel like he was somethin’/ That’s why I’m with you to this day boo no frontin’” –Method Man

Verses: Method Man

#39: DA MYSTERY OF CHESSBOXIN (ENTER THE 36 CHAMBERS) 1993

A melodic crew track from the early days with a beat so raw that it borders on a freestyle exhibition, but as the RZA is wont to do, a subtle organ line repeats over, and over, and over…

“….introducing the Ghost…Face…Killah!!! (No one could get illah)” -ODB

First Verse: U-God

Second Verse: Inspectah Deck

Third Verse: Raekwon

Fourth Verse: Ol’ Dirty Bastard

Fifth Verse: Ghostface Killah

Sixth Verse: Masta Killa

#38: CRIMINOLOGY (RAEKWON/ ONLY BUILT FOR CUBAN LINX) 1995

A triumphant horn combined with a dark RZA beat, complete with eerie bell chiming sounds? Count me in! Like so many tracks on this quasi-concept album built around tales of organized crime, Raekwon’s first as a solo artist, this track creates a steady air of paranoia that is complemented by the shift between the minor key of the chimes and the almost jazzy, abrasive transition to the horn sample, creating a severely contrasting and unsettling mood.

“Extravagant/ RZA bake the track and it’s militant/ Then I react like a convict and start killin’ shit” – Ghostface Killah

First Verse: Ghostface Killah

Second Verse: Raekwon

#37: WINTER WARZ (GHOSTACE KILLAH/ IRONMAN) 1996

An impressive showcase of some of the more behind-the-scenes members of the group, especially the epic verse from Cappadonna, this track is also structured flawlessly between its spoken word chorus and relentless rhyme schemes. The haunted house piano loop from the RZA is a trademark of early Wu.

“Put your bi-focal on/ Watch me a-cometh/ Into your chamber like Freddy enter dream/ Discombumberate your technique and your scheme” -Cappadonna

First Verse: U-God

Second Verse: Ghostface Killah

Third Verse: Masta Killa

Fourth Verse: Cappadonna

Chorus: Raekwon

#36: LABELS (GZA/ LIQUID SWORDS) 1995

If there was any doubt that this album was dark as shit, halfway through, this track leaves no doubt. My goodness, the RZA buzz, the echoes, the GZA completely abandoning his supposed “laid back” style and just murdering everyone…okay that’s enough. I’m still terrified 20 years later. Oh, and it’s just the set-up track for the greatest rap song of all time. No big deal.

“Rza Rza Rza Razor Sharp”- GZA

I agree.

Verses: GZA

#35: DUEL OF THE IRON MIC (GZA/ LIQUID SWORDS) 1995

The ominous and dreary tone of this landmark album was evident early on thanks to this track. A hypnotic RZA piano loop carries the tone into focused lyrical delivery from three Wu members. Inspectah Deck even references a woman stuffing drugs into her pussy, so there’s that.

“Oh mad one, we see your trap! You can never escape your fate. Submit with honor to a duel with my son.”

First Verse: GZA

Second Verse: Masta Killah

Third Verse: Inspectah Deck

Chorus: Ol’ Dirty Bastard

#34: BROOKLYN ZOO (OL’ DIRTY BASTARD/ RETURN TO THE 36 CHAMBERS) 1996

The late ODB was really most effective when adding comedic effect and startling contrast thanks to his borderline absurd style of delivery, so it’s actually amazing that this solo album was as effective as it was. On its most famous track, he’s fully manic, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. What other rapper could make an instant classic by rhyming the word “to” with “zoo”???

“Shame on you/ When you step through to/ The Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Brooklyn Zoo!” -ODB

Verses: Ol’ Dirty Bastard

#33: BE EASY (GHOSTFACE KILLAH/ FISHSCALE) 2006 (Produced by Pete Rock)

When Ghostface made an entire full length, 24 track album without a single track produced by RZA, Wu-Tang fans raised their collective eyebrows. This is an important song in the group’s catalogue as it showcased an evolution of sorts by its most successful individual member, and it stands alone as a hard-beat party track that butts heads with the style that the Wu built itself upon. While it may have been the moment it became evident that the Wu of old would never be again, it showed the type of trajectory and dimension that made Fishscale a shocking success.

“I’m like the boogeyman nigga/ I’ll get ya/ Whether now or later/ Afterlife or switcher” -Ghostface Killah

Verses: Ghostface Killah

#32: KILLAH HILLS 10304 (GZA/ LIQUID SWORDS) 1995

A slightly overstated and unbelievable drug transaction intro skit notwithstanding, this dark, redundant beat sets the tone for the GZA to showcase his laid-back style of delivery to a tee over a single, terrifying verse, with absolutely no assistance.

“First rule/ Anyone who schemes on the gold in Syria/ I want they small intestines ripped from the interior”- GZA

Verses: GZA

#31 INCARCERATED SCARFACES (RAEKWON/ ONLY BUILT FOR CUBAN LINX) 1995

Raekwon is all alone here on one of two true solo tracks on his landmark release, and a razor sharp one at that, as some of the hardest RZA beats in the early Wu catalogue combine with a showcase of frantic rhyme schemes from the Chef, none of which are more impressive than the fantastic chorus itself.

“Now yo yo what up yo/ Time is runnin’ out/ It’s for real though/ Let’s connect politic ditto/ We could trade places and get lifted into staircases/ Word up peace, Incarcerated Scarfaces”- Raekwon

Verses: Raekwon

#30 WU GAMBINOS (RAEKWON/ ONLY BUILT FOR CUBAN LINX) 1995

If Only Built For Cuban Linx really took the mafiaso rap genre to a new level, then this was the track that did it, with the bulk of the entire team delivering impeccable rhymes behind a haunting piano line and a relentless snare drum beat. What really elevates this track though is the extremely underrated, often forgotten, epic verse from the RZA, who shows even less consideration than usual for rhyming over an actual beat and is much the better for it. I’d have hated to have been Masta Killa on this one, having to follow that.

“The grand exquisite imperial wizard oh is it?/ The Rzarector come to pay your ass a visit”- RZA

First Verse: Method Man

Second Verse: Raekwon

Third Verse: RZA

Fourth Verse: Masta Killa

Fifth Verse: Ghostface Killah

#29 WINDMILL (8 DIAGRAMS) 2007

Surprise! While this album didn’t end up holding a candle to the first two full on Wu albums, this particular track is an outlier, and a welcome throwback to the original RZA production style, as fluttering, buzzing synth understates a full on lyrical assault from two thirds of the group.

“A Cuban Link Chef cooks spaghetti that’s untied/ Ragu nigga whose tomatoes are sundried”- GZA

First Verse: Raekwon

Second Verse: GZA

Third Verse: Masta Killa

Fourth Verse: Inspectah Deck

Fifth Verse: Method Man

Sixth Verse: Cappadonna

#28 THE NEW WU (RAEKWON/ ONLY BUILT FOR CUBAN LINX PART II) 2009

One of just two RZA produced tracks on Raekwon’s long awaited follow-up to his game-changing solo debut, steady percussion line glides above an early 70s blues sample, along with a welcome re-appearance from Method Man. The straightforward repetition of the foreboding vocal loop was, at this point, music to the ears of fans starved for some true RZA production as the first decade of the new millennium neared an end.

“Tell a friend it’s that symbol again/ That W/ Comin through, bust a shot on your block/ Give me a soo!” –Method Man

Intro and Chorus: Method Man

First Verse: Raekwon

Second Verse: Ghostface Killah

Third Verse: Method Man

#27 SHIMMY SHIMMY YA (OL’ DIRTY BASTARD/ RETURN TO THE 36 CHAMBERS) 1996

The Ol’ Dirty Bastard was always best when at his most obvious and most ridiculous. Here, he does a shimmy while reminding us that he likes at raw, all above an addictive piano loop that couldn’t be any less complex if it were “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”, yet somehow it all works to perfection, and lives on beyond the ODB as arguably his greatest single contribution….and it’s all over in under three minutes.

“Ya baby I like it raw/ Ooh baby I like it raw”- ODB

Verses: ODB

#26 BRING THE PAIN (METHOD MAN/ TICAL) 1994

This track is a perfect example of the typical early RZA production style, with heavily repeated, ghostly vocal loops complemented by a single, terrifying piano note, the presence of which becomes unpredictable and quite effective as a result of that fact as the song builds. Method Man, for his part, is as aggressive as ever, and sells the title of his most famous solo effort on his first attempt away from the rest of the Clan, with some help from a Jamaican vocalist called Booster.

“I came to bring the pain/ Hardcore from the brain/ Let’s go inside my astral plane”- Method Man

Verses: Method Mad

#25 APOLLO KIDS (GHOSTFACE KILLAH/ SUPREME CLIENTELE) 2000 (Produced by Hassan)

Tony Starks always seemed very individualistic, and when Supreme Clientele dropped sans RZA beats for the most part, hard core Wu Tang Clan fans had reason to take exception with the triumphant, enter-the-new-century production elements on tracks like these. But Ghost proved us wrong most of the time, and especially on this initially shocking track, with an appearance from the Chef that reminds us that even if those two aren’t necessarily our two favorite Wu rappers, they are undeniably the best one-two, complementary punch.

“We banned for life/ Apollo kids live to spit the real”- Ghostface Killah

First Verse: Ghostface Killah

Second Verse: Ghostface Killah

Third Verse: Raekwon

#24: CAN IT BE ALL SO SIMPLE (ENTER THE 36 CHAMBERS) 1993

Of all the Wu catalogue, this track demonstrates a brutally emotional element from a group of east side teens that were well ahead of their years, and their peers, but clearly not missing the big picture. In the years that followed, they would become so much larger than life that it was easy to forget that they were then, as now, humans with vulnerabilities just like all of us. Songs like this tied their debut album together, yet stand alone remarkably well, even after all this time. Sorry, but I still can’t get past the opening line. 1993 Exoticness!

“Started off on the Island/ AKA Shaolin/ Niggaz whylin/ Gun shots thrown down the phone dialin”- Raekwon

Intro: RZA and Raekwon

First Verse: Raekwon

Second Verse: Ghostface Killah

Chorus: Raekwon and Ghostface Killah

#23 HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (RAEKWON/ ONLY BUILT FOR CUBAN LINX PART II) 2009

All true Wu fans had to love a crew track at this late juncture, and this one in particular is made all the more poignant as reference is made to the departed ODB five years after his death. Method Man’s appearance specifically deserves a standing fucking ovation. This is RZA production at its most chaotic and panic-inducing.

“Pass the joint, let’s push this music past the point/ Of no return, til it crash and burn/ Down the ashes then/ Placed inside Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s urn”- Method Man

First Verse: Inspectah Deck

Second Verse: Raekwon

Third Verse: Ghostface Killah

Fourth Verse: Method Man

Chorus: GZA

#22: DAYTONA 500 (GHOSTACE KILLAH/ IRONMAN) 1996

I could do without the cheesy R&B intro and chorus, but the guitar-sample driven beat takes the intensity to another level here, and it’s a technique that Ghostface would continue to expand on in his later catalogue, albeit often without RZA beats. Still, this was the first time in the early days that RZA had forgone his trademark subtlety for an all-out onslaught, to a noticeably positive effect.

“Breathe oxygen/ Both sides of my jaw carry oxes/ The track hit like bangers/ In hundred watt boxes”- Ghostface Killah

First Verse: Raekwon

Second Verse: Ghostface Killah

Third Verse: Cappadonna

#21 WU BANGA 101 (GHOSTFACE KILLAH/ SUPREME CLIENTELE) 2000

(Produced by Mathematics)

A real Wu-Tang track on a Ghostface album in this century? This certainly stands out in that member’s recent catalog, and is much the better for it. The stylistic lack of RZA production influence is quite obvious, and while the repetition and subtlety of the Abbott’s acumen and legacy is still heard here, he is not. The rhymes don’t quite hit correctly at the back of the beat, but overall this track was a win for Tony Starks.

“Pack capsules/ Green Bay ‘em lay ‘em down like wax do/ It’s all actual/ We build like crash crew”- Raekwon

First Verse: GZA

Second Verse: Ghostface Killah

Third Verse: Raekwon

Fourth Verse: Cappadonna

Fifth Verse: Masta Killa

Sixth Verse: Ghostface Killah

#20 DEADLY MELODY (WU-TANG FOREVER) 1997

Could this be the single most underrated song in the history of music? We’ve got an unspeakably efficient RZA piano loop understated by upbeat electronic percussion and an intermittent celebratory horn, all in perfect contrast in terms of emotional tone. Oh, and let’s not forget that we get FIVE different members rapping on this completely unappreciated and exhausting exercise. This is also arguably the best contribution ever from Golden Arms, while RZA and Method Man flow brilliantly off one another.

“Pile-driver Tut boulder face blow hulk/ Anger rap book causing chess blade smoke”- U-God

First Verse: Masta Killa

Second Verse: U-God

Third Verse: RZA

Fourth Verse: Method Man

Fifth Verse: RZA

Sixth Verse: Method Man

Seventh Verse: (Streetlife)

Eighth Verse: Ghostface Killah

Ninth Verse: (Streetlife)

#19: COLD WORLD (GZA/ LIQUID SWORDS) 1995

If the argument is to made that the best RZA beats are the darkest ones, this highlight from the immaculate Liquid Swords should be a prime example, as the clacking electronic drums, deeper-than-the-darkest-night bass, and ominous string orchestration takes the entire Wu saga to a higher level of emotional possibilities…and oh yes, there’s another underrated verse from the Rebel INS to pull it all together perfectly.

“Clicks control strips/ Full clips are sprayed/ Yellow tape barricades sidewalks where bodies lay”- Inspectah Deck

First Verse: GZA

Second Verse: Inspectah Deck

#18 ICE CREAM (RAEKWON/ ONLY BUILT FOR CUBAN LINX) 1995

Another eerie organ loop serves as the skeleton for this sexually intense highlight from Raekwon’s best solo album to date. A hilariously obscene verse from Cappadonna adds contrast to the normal Wu lyrical focus, as this is the first song in their early catalogue to focus on women.

“Double time some time/ Ice cream you got me fallin’ out/ Like a cripple/ I love you like I love my dick size”- Cappadonna

Intro, Chorus: Method Man

First Verse: Ghostface Killah

Second Verse: Raekwon

Third Verse: Cappadonna

#17 9 MILL BROS (GHOSTFACE KILLAH/ FISHSCALE) 2006

The post-mortem verse from the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard is certainly a shocking highlight here, hidden in between contributions from each one of the Wu-Tang Clan members besides RZA, who makes his presence known from a production standpoint and on a brief intro. It’s a bittersweet collaboration, but we’ll take having the whole Clan together again for a bonafide crew track that soars above its pounding piano loop.

“Solid tone smith with fifth shots/ Lick shots/ Leave your head like a Shaolin monk/ With 6 dots”- ODB

Intro: RZA

First Verse: Ghostface Killah

Second Verse: Raekwon

Third Verse: ODB

Fourth Verse: Cappadonna

Fifth Verse: Method Man

Sixth Verse: GZA

Seventh Verse: Inspectah Deck

Eighth Verse: Masta Killah

Ninth Verse: U-God

#16: CLAN IN DA FRONT (ENTER THE 36 CHAMBERS) 1993

Behind maybe the most badass beat that RZA has ever produced, this two-part track would have almost been better served as the opening track, as punching bass synth jabs combine with maniacal ravings from the RZA. A fluttering piano loop connects the more carefree second section together, and GZA demonstrates his laid back vocal delivery, throwing in some insanely poetic insight that uses defecation as a metaphor. This actually received a recent dose of relevance, as the song playing in the background of the epic, chaotic raid scene in True Detective. Amazing choice and execution…

“You become so pat/ As my style increases/ What’s that in your pants?/ Ahhh human feces!/ Throw your shitty drawers in the hamper/ Next time come strapped with a fuckin Pamper”- GZA

Intro: RZA

Verses: GZA

#15 SHAKEY DOG (GHOSTFACE KILLAH/ FISHSCALE) 2006

(Produced by Lewis Parker)

This will be the single highest rated non-RZA produced song on the list, as it established early on Fishscale that this would be the Ghost-show, and something completely different than what we’d ever heard from him. Tension builds steadily as Ghostface delivers relentless rhymes above dark, perfectly executed production that abandons the subtlety of his prior work for a full-on, abrasive onslaught of nightmarish drug tales. In doing so, Ghost demonstrates a frantic, unorthodox delivery style that cares little about actually rhyming verses or matching the back of the beat, an atypical diction that fits the tone of the lyrics like a glove.

“Push me in quickly when the bitch open up/ Remember you don’t know me/ Blast him if he reach for his gun/ Yo who goes there/ Tony, Tony the second homie/ No matter rain, sleet or snow/ You know you supposed to phone me/ Off came the latch/ Frank pushed me into the door/ The door flew open/ Dude had his mouth open/ Frozen, stood still with his heat bulgin’/ Told him freeze, lay the fuck down/ Enjoy the moment”- Ghostface Killah

Verses: Ghostface Killah

#14: BRING DA RUCKUS (ENTER THE 36 CHAMBERS) 1993

And so here it was, our very first impression of the Wu-Tang Clan, as this opening track on their world-altering debut was an immediate grabber. From the stripped down, raw beat to the incredibly aggressive, no-holds-barred chorus from the RZA, it was clear that these guys were onto something special, and moderately terrifying.

“En Garde. I’ll let you try my Wu-Tang Style.”

First Verse: Ghostface Killah

Second Verse: Raekwon

Third Verse: Inspectah Deck

Fourth Verse: GZA

Chorus: RZA

#13: HEAVEN AND HELL (RAEKWON/ ONLY BUILT FOR CUBAN LINX) 1995

Another powerful emotional track from the early days, this song nearly borders on R&B and is often forgotten, but not on this list. The devastating loop of Syl Johnson’s “Could I Be Falling In Love” is haunting and perhaps the prettiest single sample that RZA has ever used in a rap song, while Blue Raspberry’s vocals add extra heft. The nonchalance of both rappers’ delivery as they alternate lines within verses just demonstrates such a mood of heartbreaking hopelessness. I mean, how else can you get away with a two minute outro that consists of no rhymes and just shout-outs? It’s the musicality, and it trumps a chorus that doesn’t really make any lyrical sense.

“What do you believe in?/ Heaven or hell?/ You don’t believe in heaven/ Cause we’re living in hell”- Raekwon

First Verse: Raekwon and Ghostface Killah

#12: METHOD MAN (ENTER THE 36 CHAMBERS) 1993

The fact that a single member of the clan was granted an entire track for himself on their debut album defies explanation in retrospect, but it again confirms that in the early days, Method Man was considered to be the most marketable member. Complemented by a ridiculously macho, graphic and ultimately hilarious torture skit intro, this is as upbeat and playful as early Wu-Tang gets from a musical standpoint with its carnival piano loop. On a showcase introduction to the inimitable lyrical styling of Method Man, complete with actual singing and punctuated by the frenetic gasps of air between stanzas, we get more than we can handle in terms of lyrics, combining creative, entertaining metaphors with brilliant rhyme schemes. Oh, and he’s clearly the “super-sperm.”

“Hey hey hey like Fat Albert/ It’s the Method Man/ Ain’t no if ands about it”- Method Man

Intro: GZA

Verses: Method Man

Outro: RZA and Ghostface Killah

#11 REUNITED (FOREVER) 1997

 The first proper track from the highly anticipated second album from the whole clan, following tons of solo albums that were really Wu-Tang albums, this aptly titled effort did not disappoint long-time, salivating fans. Three simple loops- deep bass, gorgeous, confident violin, and a subtle guitar strum- carry over a hard beat and spot on rhymes. When the horns come in through the outro, it becomes almost celebratory- the Wu is back!

“Yo yo the riddler/ Funny bone tickler freak Caligula/ Bigger dick sex enigma pistol/ Fertilize your stigma”- RZA

First Verse: GZA

Second Verse: Ol’ Dirty Bastard

Third Verse: RZA

Fourth Verse: Method Man

#10: ASSASSINATION DAY (GHOSTFACE KILLAH/ IRONMAN) 1996

Ah, now here’s a track that makes you really appreciate those old RZA beats. On a very underrated effort that gains traction from the contributions of four Clan members, the haunting subtleties of the repetitive organ throb gets a subtle flailing squeal addition intermittently. Once again, Inspectah Deck sets the stage….INS into the RZA behind this beat is hard to beat, just like that Geico beaver animal.

“Unforgivable snakes/ Face the double-edged swords starts to swivel/ Decapitates the head/ Makes the projects more livable/ Interchangeable/ Caution flameable/ My chamber is ninety-nine plus one unnameable/ Angles/ And strangles/ Microphone cords start to dangle/ Silent as the gases/ That pass throughout your anal”- RZA

First Verse: Inspectah Deck

Second Verse: RZA

Third Verse: Raekwon

Fourth Verse: Masta Killa

#9: PROTECT YA NECK (ENTER THE 36 CHAMBERS) 1993

THE original Wu track showcases the trademark subtleties of the RZA production style. There isn’t a ton going on here; we’ve got a gently intertwined piano loop and some understated electronic squealing. Instead, this is a showcase track for dramatic rhyme schemes, and every member delivers.

“For crying out loud my style is wild so book me/ Not long is how long that this rhyme took me”- Ghostface Killah

First Verse: Inspectah Deck

Second Verse: Raekwon

Third Verse: Method Man

Bridge: U-God

Interlude: Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and RZA

Fourth Verse: Ol’ Dirty Bastard

Fifth Verse: Ghostface Killah

Sixth Verse: RZA

Seventh Verse: GZA

Outro: RZA, Method Man

#8: SHADOWBOXIN’ (GZA/ LIQUID SWORDS) 1995

Nonchalance. That was the key to the early production style of our generation’s greatest producer, and there was perhaps never a better delivery style for that choice than the Method Man. His wraspy, no frills vocal onslaught arguably met its perfect match on this brilliantly repetitive loop. OH MAN.

“I don’t give a cottin’ pickin’ FUCK/ About a brother tryin to size nigga up/ I hold my own” –Method Man

I buy it…

First Verse: Method Man

Second Verse: GZA

Third Verse: Method Man

#7: 7TH CHAMBER (ENTER THE 36 CHAMBERS) 1993

Fans of the 1990s West Coast style hated this song when it dropped, no doubt, and that’s exactly what makes it so great. A simple, repetitive loop from the RZA gets completely brutalized by nearly the entire Wu-Tang Clan at this early juncture; there isn’t a single weak link as every verse absolutely kills. The goal was to murder the beat, and the Clan succeeded without debate…imagine that, trying to destroy your own beat with your own rapping skills. Fascinating.

“Ya getting stripped from ya garments boy/ Run ya jewels/ While the meth got me open like fallopian tubes/ I bring death to a snake when he least expect/ Ain’t a damn thing changed boy/ Protect Ya Neck!” -RZA

First Verse: Raekwon

Second Verse: Method Man

Third Verse: Inspectah Deck

Fourth Verse: Ghostface Killah

Fifth Verse: RZA

Sixth Verse: Ol’ Dirty Bastard

Seventh Verse: GZA

#6 TRIUMPH (WU-TANG FOREVER) 1997

Read the background behind the reaction of the rest of the Clan after Inspectah Deck, once again, dropped an impossible-to-top setup verse to open this now classic whole-crew-track. Like a game-changing shot in a basketball game, the rest of the team responded…and where else can you find every one of the official nine members of the Wu-Tang Clan speaking at least one verse in a song? You can’t. Only here.

“I bomb atomically/ Socrates’ philosophies and hypothesies/ Can’t define how I be droppin’ these/ Mockeries/ Lyrically perform armed robbery/ Flee with the lottery/ Possibly they spotted me”- Inspectah Deck

First Verse: Inspectah Deck

Second Verse: Method Man

Third Verse: Cappadonna

Interlude: ODB

Fourth Verse: U-God

Fifth Verse: RZA

Sixth Verse: Masta Killa

Seventh Verse: GZA

Eighth Verse: Ghostface Killah

Ninth Verse: Raekwon

#5: LIQUID SWORDS (GZA/ LIQUID SWORDS) 1995

 

“When I was little… my father was famous.

He was the greatest samurai in the empire;

And he was the shogun’s decapitator.

He cut off the heads of a hundred and thirty-one lords.

It was a bad time for the empire.

The shogun just stayed inside his castle — and he never came out.

People said his brain was infected by devils.

My father would come home — he would forget about the killings.

He wasn’t scared of the shogun, but the shogun was scared of him.

Maybe that was the problem.

Then, one night… the shogun sent his ninja spies to our house.

They were supposed to kill my father… but they didn’t.

That was the night everything changed.”

And the award for the most horrifying opening track monologue in the history of rap goes to…!!! In all seriousness, this was so scary and awesome that I used to scream the entire opening verbatim along with the album at parties in high school, bringing activity to a halt and basically terrifying all in attendance beyond imagination. When the actual song begins, it’s the simplest, most nonchalant, spliced up loop you could contemplate, but it’s also so confrontational and awe-inspiring. It’s been known to bring people out of a hungover bachelor party slumber simply by its ability to induce hypnosis, pure fear and a feeling of invincibility, but that is a tale for another day.

“I’m on a mission/ That niggaz say is impossible/ But when I swing my swords/ They all choppable/ I be the body dropper/ The heartbeat stopper/ Child educator/ Plus head amputator”- GZA

Intro/Chorus: RZA

Verses: GZA

#4 FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE (WU-TANG FOREVER) 1997

A stunning track that is way too often forgotten, and may well be RZAs very best accomplishment, from the spliced soul sample, the deliberate piano loop that changes octaves without fear, the atmospheric violin, the demonic percussion that combine to form such overall darkness…it’s a great setup track early on the double album, and it is never topped. And, unlike early Wu stunners, this leans on production over rhymes, a poignant observation in regard to how the group would divide in the years that followed. Yet, who’s there to bat leadoff again? The sabermetric crowd must LOVE Inspectah Deck.

“Limited edition composition spark friction/ Non-fiction/ The calm bomb keep your arm distant”- Inspectah Deck

First Verse: Inspectah Deck

Second Verse: GZA

Third Verse: Cappadonna

#3 GLACIERS OF ICE (RAEKWON/ ONLY BUILT FOR CUBAN LINX) 1995

That RZA buzz. I’ve mentioned it before, but here, the implementation of said buzz creates a level of intensity and paranoia that cannot be denied. Adding over-the-top soul that stretches octaves and might otherwise sound discordant fit perfectly on this flawless track, an example of production possibilities at the highest possible level. Raekwon delivers perhaps his most absorbed, incredible performance of his life behind lyrical brilliance.

“The treacherous glaciers of ice/ Orginial man/ Possess the power to hold OGs guns and grams” –Raekwon and Ghostface Killah

First Verse: Raekwon

Second Verse: GZA

#2: C.R.E.A.M. (ENTER THE 36 CHAMBERS) 1993

Again, we saw such a demonstration of wisdom and perspective from these youths. But this was the track that put the rest of the East Coast rap scene on severe red alert ass-kick advisory. Again, it’s a piano loop that lays the groundwork for the beat, but this one is a bit more ethereal, abstract and difficult to grasp than what was typically used by RZA at the time, as it creates an almost dreamlike texture. The message is a simple truth of life that plays like an alibi which ultimately became a 90s rap slogan, and is probably the group’s trademark track.

“Neglected for now/ But yo it gots to be accepted/ That what?/ That life is hectic”- Inspectah Deck

Intro: Method Man and Raekwon

First Verse: Raekwon

Second Verse: Inspectah Deck

Outro: RZA and Ghostface Killah

Chorus: Method Man

#1: 4TH CHAMBER (GZA/ LIQUID SWORDS) 1995

“Choose the sword, and you will join me. Choose the ball, and you join your mother, in death. You don’t understand my words, but you must choose. So, come boy. Choose life or death…”

What kind of lunatic would choose the ball? Under these circumstances?!!! I think the decision is fairly clear… I digress.

But, the real decision came at the point of musical production, and it’s an intro for, what is, to these ears, the greatest rap song of all time.

Everything is here. The ancient, intentionally discordant organ loop that is haunting as all balls, and behind rhymes from these Wu members, not to mention the single greatest verse in the history of rap, from the RZA, which goes a little something like this:

I’m the camouflaged chameleon, ninjas scalin’ your building/ No time to grab the gun they already got your wife and children/ A hit was sent from the president/ To raid your residence/ Because you had secret evidence and documents on how they raped the continents/ Now it’s the prominent, dominant Islamic, Asiatic Black Hebrew/ In the Year 2002 the battle’s still with the Wu, 6 million devils just died from the bubonic flu/ Or the Ebola virus/ Under the reign of King Cyrus/ You can see the weakness of a man right through his iris/ Unlaw you snakes get thrown in boiling lakes of hot oil/ Boils your skin chicken heads getting skinned like olive oil/ Only packed the seed deep inside fertile soil/ Fortified with essential vitamin and mineral to the sky pro blanket stuffed far inside my pillow/ Rolling with a Land Rover/ Tribe’s 144,000 Trojans, but voltrons electrons always cause explosions.”

And there’s the GZA, following that verse with his typical laid-back style, as if to say through telepathy, what just happened, “This is my album!”

RZA shake the track? Yes. Yes, I’d say that’s quite correct…

First Verse: Ghostface Killah

Second Verse: Killah Priest

Third Verse: RZA

Fourth Verse: GZA

TOP 25 ALBUMS OF 2013

December 16, 2013

HONORABLE MENTION:

Machinedrum/ Vapor City

Rosetta/ The Anaesthete

Death Grips/ Government Plates

Flaming Lips/ The Terror

Chelsea Wolfe/ Pain Is Beauty

#25: Janelle Monae/ The Electric Lady

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For my money, the conversation regarding who possesses the best pure singing voice in R&B today need go no further than Janelle Monae. On her sophomore album, Monae combines her flawless pitch with an inventive grasp of musical genres spanning soul, hip hop, motown and cocktail lounge jazz. While a bit overstuffed with marquee guest performances that lean a bit too theatrical, and perhaps a bit lacking in continuity due to some confusing radio interludes that fail to bring The Electric Lady together as full blown concept album, there are still tons of great moments here. The obvious highlight is “Dance Apocalyptic”, a wild, addictive, action-packed boogie that comes off carefree as can be thanks to Monae’s nonchalant shrieks in between breaks. But for all the uptempo dance music to enjoy and discover on tracks like “Q.U.E.E.N.”, “Ghetto Woman” and the title track, she delivers her best material on more emotionally revealing, stripped down numbers like “It’s Code” and “Victory.” Both are slower, more deliberate bass heavy numbers, with the former showcasing the type of bright lounge bar flutter that created highlights like “Neon Valley Street” on  her debut, while the latter arguably boasts her most impressive, soaring vocal moment on the album as she delivers wisdom beyond her years, “To be victorious/ you must find glory in the little things.”

#24: Camera Obscura/ Desire Lines

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Tracyanne Campell’s tender vocals have always lended themselves to the bittersweet, but on the follow-up to 2009’s fantastic My Maudlin Career, Camera Obscura’s catchy chamber pop style seems especially break-up worthy. Even upbeat songs like the waltzing “I Missed Your Party” and “New Year’s Resolution” are oozing with regret, while uber-melancholy highlight “Fifth In Line to the Throne” doesn’t waste any time getting straight to the point as Campbell pleads “If you want me to leave/ Then I’ll go/ If you want me to stay/ Let it show.” It’s a remarkably effective line for its overall simplicity, but then again, that’s always been the strength of this band. While they aren’t taking many risks or breaking any new ground here, Camera Obscura remains the type of artist that seems incapable of writing a song that would be considered disposable or unworthy of remembering. The lovely horns on proper opener “This Is Love (Feels Alright) as well as the foot-stomping guitar on “Do It Again” serve to balance out what otherwise might be an album too one-dimensional and geared towards sentimental mopiness, while penultimate track “Break It To You Gently” showcases all the highs and lows that make Camera Obscura the great band that it is.

#23: Chvrches/ The Bones of What You Believe

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You can take your time citing the obvious range of influences surrounding the sound on this highly anticipated debut. While never reaching to spooky depths of Purity Ring’s electropop, matching the pure granduer of an M83 crescendo or duplicating the all-encompassing dance beats of Cut Copy’s best work, there is no denying the exciting sonic elements being employed here. The overall sound seems decidedly poppy, but reveals layers of complexity with repeated listens. The album starts with a bang as “The Mother We Share” opens with fluttering vocal samples, blazing blasts of synth and the comfortingly sweet vocals of Lauren Mayberry, showing off a vague trace of her Scottish accent. Elsewhere, the neon-tinged brightness of the uptempo “Gun” comes off as flashy rather than annoying thanks to its pacing and execution, while highlight and pop gem “Recover” relies upon a simple structure but blows it to smithereens with smartly positioned breaks and tone changes. For all of its success with its uptempo arrangements, it is arguably the more understated tracks that saves The Bones of What You Believe from becoming too redundant. “Tether” is an impressive example of a structural build, as Mayberry’s downtempo vocals create a soft tension that eventually, albeit obviously, explode into a bright-lit arena style orchestral crescendo that would make M83 proud. “By The Throat” is gripping for the vulnerability shown in her shaking vocals, her best performance on the record in my opinion, and for the effective play-between with bandmate Martin Doherty. That type of cliche, just like an album full of poppy synth tunes, isn’t easy to pull off well.

#22: Forest Swords/ Engravings

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One of the year’s most striking stand-alone records from a genre standpoint came from U.K producer Matt Barnes, whose Forest Swords project gears heavy on the ambiance and light on the vocals, the latter of which find their closest similarities to the sounds an artist like Burial employs over vastly different soundscapes. Opener “Ljoss” features eerie guitar, ghostly vocal samples and cracking percussion, presumably all emanating from a nearby dungeon, and the tone is immediately set. The music itself depends heavily on electronic loops and layered instrumentation ranging from guitar to strings and woodwinds, and doesn’t so much come off as evil as it does ominous and foreboding; the overriding theme I extract from this entire record is that things aren’t very good right now and the worst is yet to come. The very best examples of this come on “Irby Tremor” with its harrowing guitar line and subtle bass riff that combine brilliantly with discordant cello strings, and on the haunting, otherworldly electronic harp and tribal drum beats that run through stunning highlight “The Weight of Gold.” The death march of the slowly building guitar driven “The Plumes” serves as a perfect setup track for the fascinating eight-minute closer “Friend You Will Never Learn” and its remarkably textured battle march percussion, fluttering synth spasms, electonic piano, subterranean vocal samples and steady bassline- there’s almost too much going on here to even grasp on first listen. This is a record for the dark.

#21: Baths/ Obsidian

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Will Wiesenfeld’s sophomore production as Baths delivers solid electronica reminiscent of The Notwist, both vocally and sonically, or even a darker, more tormented version of The Postal Service. Opener “Worsening” is awash with layers of lush electronic sound and ethereal vocals throughout its inventively constructed time signature- an immediately engaging and attention-grabbing tone setter and statement piece. Obsidian is far from shy lyrically and Wiesenfeld’s candidness and overall eccentricity can often become a bit of a distraction on tracks like the repetitively wearing and slightly annoying “Incompatible”, but his best moments here are delivered with a certain subletly and vulnerability that override his missteps. “Miasma Sky” rolls along smoothly beneath a straightforward loop groove in one of the few major-key moments here, while the lovely piano tune “Ironworks” demonstrates Wiesenfeld’s range as both a musician and a vocalist. There’s structural innovation on “No Past Lives”, which alternates between a playful keyboard riff and a bass-heavy, foreboding beat that builds upon itself frame by frame, but it’s a song like penultimate track “Earth Death” that really takes this effort to another level. A certified banger and virtual metal track wrapped in the guise of electronica, its forceful rolling percussion, distorted guitar and overwhelming tone of apathy dares the listener to “Come kill me/ I seem so little.”  I wasn’t completely sold on Wiesenfeld’s sincerity after the first few listens of Obsidian, but seeing him live in San Francisco this summer made me a firm believer; he feels and emotes every note. This is an essential and timely record.

#20: Dirty Beaches/ Drifters- Love Is the Devil

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No other collection of music in 2013 created such a distinct mood and atmosphere as Alex Zhang Hungtai of Dirty Beaches on his double album Drifters/Love Is The Devil. While the vast stylistic contrast between the two pieces of the album hurts the continuity a bit and comes off feeling slightly overlong, there’s no denying that it’s an impressive feat that this album even works at all with that structure. On the first half of the record, tracks like standout “I Dream In Neon” are absolutely dripping in darkness and sludge, as Hungtai’s creepily monotone vocals underscore a vibe that is decidedly unsettling. The heavily industrial, militaristic beat on “Casino Lisboa” picks up a gorgeous synth line that comes off like a glimpse of sunlight striving to enter the fray while Hungtai chants like a psychotic cult leader, but nothing on the album’s first half comes off as eerily as “Elli.” The steady synth loop slowly picks up additional musical elements that create a track here that is stunning for its all its obsessive nonchalance and subtle beauty. “Mirage Hall” weaves and builds behind arguably the most impressively composed percussion of all, and creates a suffocating tension as Hungtai’s inaudible vocals come off like a torturted prisoner pleading for release. The back half doesn’t quite match the first in my opinion, focusing on more textural and less immediate structures, but manages to capture attention nonetheless. If Drifters comes off as harrowing, the more ambient and patience-demanding Love Is The Devil contrasts that with its vibes of heartbreak and sadness. Songs like “Alone on the Danube River” and  “Like the Ocean We Part” convey a sense of hopelessness and isolation that is difficult to stomach, and in their conclusions don’t so much “end” as they simply cease to be. Taken separately, both sides stand alone well; when taken as a whole, this is an ambitious and challenging combination of ideas.

#19: Disclosure/ Settle

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The debut album from brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence of Surrey, aged 21 and 18 respectively, is impressive for its sheer scope, not to mention its remarkably polished production quality. This is a dance record for sure, but it is an intelligent one in terms of both pacing and execution- it’s the dance record of the year and the best offering from that genre in recent memory. Opener “When A Fire Starts To Burn” served as somewhat of a summer anthem, building steadily and forcefully behind the sampled vocals of a Baptist preacher. After that, highlights abound, beginning with the pulsating synths and purring melodic undertones of “Latch” all the way to the more understated lounge bar bass on suave closer “Help Me Lose My Mind.” Guest performers are scattered throughout the record, providing breadth and diversity and helping to carry the well executed beats. Most effective are Edward Mcfarland lending lead vocals to airy highlight “Defeated No More”, while Aluna George powers the steady drive and punching synth of “White Noise” and the incomparable Jessie Ware dominates the murky, discordant echoes of “Confess To Me.” The club-ready dance tracks are straightforward and to the point as steady techno beats carry “Stimulation” and “Grab Her”, although at 60 minutes in length, the house tracks are arguably the only misteps on Settle, as songs like “F For You” and “Voices” lack the originality of the best moments here and feel wearing and repetitive in the middle. Still, this is a head-turning effort from a duo who, to avoid the use of the term “wise”, clearly have an innovative grasp on how dance music is supposed to sound in 2013, and one that well outweighs their years.

#18: Savages/ Silence Yourself

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The hype surrounding the debut album from these female post-punk rockers was so intense that Silence Yourself ran the risk of coming off as a massive angst-driven cliche. An effective debut in the same way that Sleigh Bells’ Treats was, honesty and raw power elevate this effort from Savages, a relentless and infinitely genuine album that draws from the dark echoes of bands like Joy Division. As any great punk album should, Silence Yourself plays out with tightly packaged music that seems to roll from one track to the next without leaving much time to catch your breath. Rollicking percussion and distorted guitars serve as the backdrop for charismatic lead singer Jehnny Beth’s tormented vibrato vocals. A memorable guitar riff permeates opener “Shut Up” while a distorted lead guitar and paranoid bassline tantalize “Strife.” There’s a lovely change of pace on the slowed-to-a-crawl spaciousness and hopelessness of the dark ballad “Waiting For A Sign”, where the soft drum echo and underground bassline beckon a cameo from Ian Curtis most of all. Beth is literally shrieking and gasping for air on highlight and full-fledged freakout track “Husbands”, a not-so-subtle affront to the institution of marriage itself and an effective feminist battle cry, which appearently, is a thing. None of that is to say that there aren’t moments here that ring incredibly catchy and relatable; take the immediately memorable opening riff of “She Will” and notice how it devolves into a lullaby guitar line through the verse before building and collapsing back upon itself as the drums kick in with inpenetrable authority. This album leaves very little room for doubt, but my seeing Savages live at Pitchfork this past July confirmed the intensity alluded to here on this impressive debut, as Beth’s piercing eyes delivered every one of these songs with a seriousness unlike what you may be accustomed to seeing at an outdoor music festival.

#17: Kurt Vile/ Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze

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For those less enamored by all of the exciting innovations going on in the world of music today and craving a good old fashioned rock and roll record that screams Americana, you found it this year with Kurt Vile and his sophomore full length. And even as such, this is not a rock record that doesn’t take risks- how many of those can you recall that open with an epic nine and half minute song like this one does? A spin off of the album title, “Wakin’ On A Pretty Day” simply glides along for that timespan with such effortlessness and precision that that we don’t even notice how much time has elapsed. Relaxing enough to fade into the background yet still showcasing enough punch to keep his listeners’ interest, the opening track serves to set the tone for an album’s worth of similarly balanced music. There’s something for everyone here, from the accessible, catchy, immediately memorable riffs on “KV Crimes”, “Never Run Away” and “Shame Chamber” to the more adventurous and unconventional structures of “Was All Talk” and “Girl Called Alex.” What is most interesting about this music is the sense of relaxation it offers; Vile seems to content to move along at a leisurely pace on these songs without much attention to building into crescendos, and it is to the album’s credit that despite this stylistic choice that none of these songs seem to wear or become repetitive, with the possible exception of centerpiece “Too Hard.” I spent many an afternoon on my balcony in Montalcino this past April overlooking the hills of Tuscany and sipping wine while playing this album on repeat, a great way to waste a day away indeed.

#16: The National/ Trouble Will Find Me

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At this point in their career, The National have to work to avoid coming off like those old guys who are trying to recapture their prior magic, and on Trouble Will Find Me, despite a bit of mopiness that at its worst might be mistaken for elevator music (rather than strangers), they succeed for the most part. There’s signs of new musical ideas right off the bat, as both of the first two tracks “I Should Live In Salt” and “Demons” make use of strangely constructed time signatures, which make the listener work a bit for the payoff. The National have used this tactic before to open albums on songs like “Fake Empire”, but the vast differences in sound between these two tracks- the former a regretful ballad with lead singer Matt Berninger singing in falsetto, the latter a patient self-indictment showing off his deep baratone- demonstrate that the band has no interest in repeating old tricks. “Don’t Swallow The Cap” provides an early highlight and builds upon the sort of rainy-walk-in-the-city melancholy established on prior classics like “Brainy” as Berninger despairs in a nonchalant, virtual monotone “I have only two emotions/ Carefeul fear and dead devotion/ I can’t get the balance right/ Throw my marbles in the fight.” The National have always been gloomy, but songs like “Fireproof” and “Slipped” seem to take the hopelesness to a new level, which isn’t altogether becoming, and Berninger’s voice should NEVER sound the way it does on the overwrought, Bono-imitating “Heavenfaced”, but luckily there is plenty of great material here to offset the missteps. The triumphant “Sea of Love” sticks out like a sore thumb with its double-time drumming and playful call and response vocals “Tell me how to reach you/ What did Harvard teach you”, while penultimate track “Pink Rabbits” utilizes a gorgeous piano backbone and builds in the effortless manner that The National’s best heartbreak-worthy music does, as Beringer laments “You said it would be painless/ It wasn’t that at all.”

#15 Phosphorescent/ Muchacho

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Matthew Houck spent a year in a small rural town in Mexico and while taking a hiatus from life, crafted the pieces of what was to become a refined and personal career-topper of an album as Phosphorescent. Muchacho is intriguing not only on the surface for the way it combines Huock’s classic folk rock sound with elements of electronic synth, but also for how it deftly communicates this time of isolation, reflection and redemption in a way that demonstrates shades of an unintentional concept album, the same way that Bon Iver’s For Emma Forever Ago did. But more than the backstory, it’s the underlying layers- his fragile, cracking vocals and warm, rich production- that elevate Muchacho to one of the year’s best albums.  The stunning, indelible “Song For Zula” provides a massive highlight early on with its radiating, dream-like synth bounce and electronic violin string composition that combine with his powerfully quaking vocal delivery on lines like “Yeah then I saw love/ Disfigure me/ Into something I am not recognizing.” There’s still room for good old-fashioned open-road driving music on the howling wolf chorus line of “The Quotidian Beasts” and the gentle western guitar twang that picks up layers of piano, fiddle and horns on “Terror In the Canyons.” And, pay attention to how even on the melancholic title track, Huock manages to uncover a glimmer of optimism within his regret, singing in a fractured, Dylan-esque tone, “Like the shepherd to the lamb/ Like the wave onto the land/ I’ll fix myself up/ To come and be with you.” Instead of a sad record, which this easily could have been given the thematic material at hand, Huock has delivered one that is instead brimming with hope.

#14: Boards of Canada/ Tomorrow’s Harvest

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It’s been nearly a decade since the last release from these Scottish pioneers of electronic music, and upon their return they deliver a record that is even more desolate and abstract than usual.  There are no gimmicks whatsoever to be found this time around, but rather meticulous attention to detail and carefully constructed soundscapes that don’t so much grab your attention as they demand it. The result is a cold, distant and bleak production that is better understood when taken as a whole to focus upon the sum of its parts rather than on its individual tracks. Boards of Canada have never been deliberate in their pacing, and such is the case here, as interspaced set-up tracks serve to build dread and tension for eventual release on early highlights like “Reach For The Dead”, “Cold Earth”, “Sick Times”, helping them to blend into the work as a whole. While the majority of the album draws upon dark, paranoia-inducing synths, there’s actually still moments of atmospheric beauty on “Jacquard Causeway” and the penultimate bruisier “Come To Dust”, which add diversity and range to this work. For an album that requires so much patience to fully appreciate, it certainly helps that the back half is absolutely gripping. “Nothing Is Real” demonstrates an addictively repetitive structure and some of the most effective snythesized percussion present here, while “New Seeds” is more dependent on building behind its layered electronic chimes and fluttering, frantic synth lines into a softly executed coda, which succeeds admirably as it ends like a regretful whimper. It’s hard to say where Tomorrow’s Harvest stacks up against the band’s entire catalog, as no single track sticks out here as immediately memorable the way that “Aquarius” and “Roygbiv” did on Music Has The Right To Children or “1969” did on Geogaddi, but the fact that given that reality it is still such a satisfying listen makes it arguably even more haunting.

#13: The Field/ Cupid’s Head

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Axel Wilner became a household name following 2007’s smashing electronic epic From Here We Go Sublime, and with his third release since that masterpiece, has refined his art with delicate precision. Only six tracks long and as easy to listen through in one sitting than anything he’s ever done, Cupid’s Head continues to utilize Wilner’s obsession over repetitive loops that gradually and patiently build into songs of depth and power, but it’s a more intense and detail-oriented album than his last (Looping State Of Mind), if falling a bit short of topping his masterpiece. Opener “They Won’t See Me” is dark, ominous and layered, building slowly into buzzing synths reminiscent of a Fuck Buttons song. It doesn’t take long for the sprawling “Black Sea” to get moving forcefully, picking up subtle elements to complement its pounding electronic beat until a sudden moment when the tone completely shifts as the tension releases, and it is one of the darkest, most downright terrifying tempo changes in The Field’s entire catalog. But, what seems to set up as a darker effort after the first two tracks turns more ethereal over the rest of its run time. Both “A Guided Tour” and the title track show off an airy, carefree techno vibe, the former with bursts of lifted, distorted bass and the latter demonstrating a steady vocal loop that never lets up. Another more showstopping vocal loop is used to create the overwhelming moodiness of “No No…”, a track that impressively balances elements of both beauty and paranoia. If there’s a complaint to be had here it is still that The Field’s style still depends so primarily on repetition, and this is never more evident than on closing track “20 Seconds of Affection”, but the rewards on Cupid’s Head lay in the exquisite details.

#12: Youth Lagoon/ Wondrous Bughouse

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Trevor Powers isn’t much to look at, but the expansion of his sound on this sophomore effort compared to the lo-fi slow build structures he created on debut The Year of Hibernation most certainly merits attention. Wondrous Bughouse is a surprising step forward in fact, as Powers drapes these ten tracks in rich, lush layers of sound, and it just feels a lot bigger than his debut. The addition of Ben H. Allen of Animal Collective fame to the production credits definitely has had an impact on the sonic evolution, but Powers’ vocals have also morphed from the soft whisper used on Hibernation into a controlling, powerful nasal force that is reminiscent of Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue. No time is wasted as the first proper track is the awe-inspiring “Mute”, which is structured as two songs within one. Opening with big, melodic chimes and straightforward vocals, it shifts completely into a gorgeous chorus punctuated by its walls of soaring, feedback-laden reverb, a striking contrast indeed. There’s a decidedly psychedlic tone to songs like “The Pelican Man”, which comes off somewhat like a new-era “I Am The Walrus”, and the circus-horror of “Attic Doctor”, but the bigger thrills come on the album’s back half. “Dropla” seems to bounce along nonchalantly over its verses as Powers repeats “You’ll never die” incessantly, breaking into more welcome fuzzed out distortion through its bridge, but like all of his best songs do, eventually ends up building up to a point where it completely collapses back upon itself in a haze of synthesized string instrumentation. But nothing that comes before it can fully prepare us for “Raspberry Cane”, which is basically a perfectly constructed song. Powers’ voice cracks as the song opens, eventually picking up sweeping electronic horns to complement its subtle keyboard melody. There’s impressive restraint in the patience shown before another massive tonal shift into the coda, as swirling reverb resonates and Powers strains to hit notes through the emotional chorus, coming back full circle as it concludes. It’s amazing how much the two obvious highlights here, “Mute” and “Raspberry Cane”, tower over even the very best tracks on Hibernation, and it’s also notable how the opening and closing tracks, both instrumentals, serve as bookends adding length, depth and substance.

#11: Jon Hopkins/ Immunity

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In a year when so many purely instrumental electronic albums stood out and made names for themselves, arguably none were as diverse as this unexpected effort from UK producer Jon Hopkins in his fourth full length. The twilight chill of opener “We Disappear” serves as a mere warm-up track and tone setter for the array of exciting material beneath it. Songs like “We Disappear” and “Collider’ take a page from the book of The Field, building steady tension between repetitive loops and propulsive techno beats, yet carry a unique tone that is all their own, landing somewhere in limbo between the darkest hour of night and the very first sunbeam of the morning. Providing contrast are more atmospheric songs like “Breathe This Air”, which breaks down into a single piano loop and picks up punching synth jabs, and “Abandon Window”, a spacious, airy track that creates ambient atmosphere behind its subdued piano melody, in stark contrast to the dance-floor ready tunes early on. Speaking of pianos, the title track closes this album with arguably the very best employment of that instrument of all, combining immaculate production detail with the most gorgeous composition on the entire record, and adding the only semblance of a real vocal track here with haunting results; it’s an emotional conclusion, but a soothing one.  The relaxing “Form By Firelight” gently adds layers and texture to its streamlined, high pitched arpeggio, while “Sun Harmonics”, the longest track here at nearly twelve minutes, alternates between the sort of light-on-its-feet, sun-drenched electronica typical of a Caribou track and harder, funkier beats that scream beach party all the way. You can practically feel the waves crashing at your feet as the track slows down through its drawn out four minute coda.  Taken in full, this is all far too pretty to be categorized as either happy or sad, either bright or dark.

#10: Sigur Ros/ Kveikur

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When Sigur Ros began to describe their upcoming release as “dark and aggressive”, it was music to the collective ears of many of their old school fans, who believed the band needed a change of direction following the sleep-inducing lull of Valtari and the well-executed but overly giddy Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust. While the idea of a full-fledged Sigur Ros metal album doesn’t come completely to fruition on Kveikur, the album can certainly be viewed as a truce between an exciting new direction of ideas combined with some of their best old tricks revisited, ultimately resulting in some much needed edge and re-invigoration for the Icelandic shoegazers. “Brennisteinn” is, for my money, the very best opening track on any album this year, and makes good on that “dark and aggressive” promise right off the bat. Sigur Ros’ best music has always been highly compositional and chilly, and shares characteristics with metal as such, but “Brennisteinn” enters a vast new landscape for the band, with thunderous bass lines and dark, soaring post-rock guitars supporting Jonsi’s incomparable vocal surge. Sigur Ros has also almost always been at their best when making more serious, ominous music (“Hoppipola” notwithstanding) but this track indicates something new is afoot; they have rarely sounded this completely hopeless and foreboding. Elsewhere, the title track approaches similar territory albeit with much less atmosphere and more direct aggression, depending on bare-bones distortion and dominant percussion elements that create a severely unsettling mood. The only other time that Kveikur veers in this direction over its nine tracks is on penultimate offering “Blapraour”, which gets back to the band’s penchant for crescendo rock and benefits from its steady build into a cascade of drums and pleading vocals (Jonsi continues to amaze me by his ability to so effectively communicate emotion through vocals in what is to me a highly foreign languange). Elsewhere, “Isjaki” and “”Stormur” provide perfectly palatable major key triumphs, and “Hrafntinna” may be the most overlooked track here, with its clattering cymbals, intermittent horns and subdued, cooing vocals providing a well-timed respite. This is their best album since Takk, and the most similar one to () in their catalogue. It seems to hold some promise for the future for one of the greatest bands currently alive.

#9 Arcade Fire/ Reflektor

homepage_large.79062484Critics will cite a progression on this, the fourth full length from indie rock kings Arcade Fire, towards more mainstream, adult contemporary rock music. That complaint isn’t completely unfounded, although it may be misdirected, as a more reasonable comparison might be to a band like U2 in their prime rather than someone like today’s Kings of Leon or Mumford and Sons. Reflektor may not be taking any tremendous musical risks, but it is tough to fault the record for delivering what it intends to- 85 minutes of remarkably polished, arena-sized rock music separated across two records. The most noticeable change from their prior work is how laid back and carefree this music seems to be, and it all starts with the shimmering title track, which combines bongo drums and a disco beat as Regine Chassagne purrs backing harmonics in her native French to complement husband Win Butler’s commanding lead vocals. There’s a similar sound present on penultimate track “Afterlife”, a huge anthemic highlight that builds steadily and could have served just fine as the closer here, as the subdued “Supersymmetry” which fills that role is one of a few songs that render Reflektor a tad overwrought, even for its commendable ambition. Additonally, the flaws in Butler’s lyrical decisions reappear here, rendering songs like “Normal Person” practically unlistenable as lines like “Never really ever met a normal person like you/ Well how do ya do?” cross the line from forgivable cliche into full blown wanna-be rock star douchiness, and Butler is better than this, because he is a bonafide rock star. Still, there’s big, impressive basslines on songs like “Joan Of Arc” and “We Exist”, and “You Already Know” is easily the most playful, non-pretentious rock song Arcade Fire has ever created. The best single guitar riff probably comes on the steady “It’s Never Over”, but the song that ties everything together might just be “Here Comes The Night Time” with its laser-focused rhythm and patient delivery as it grows and swells over its nearly seven minute length with a dazzling combination of suave bass and piano riffs. This is how Arcade Fire should always sound- honest, unpretentious, vulnerable and super-serious all at once.

#8: Deafheaven/ Sunbather

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The sophomore effort from these Bay Area heavy rockers is a challenging front to back listen for sure, but undeniably less so than what is typical for its genre; could this be the black metal crossover album? Sunbather alternates between its four massive tracks with three calming instrumental ones that are symmetrically inter-spaced and blend seamlessly into the vast soundscape, demonstrating a keen ear for pacing in the process. While all standing on their own with unique individuality, structurally, the big four tracks all share similarities: rapid fire drumming met with incoherent vocal screams initially, then evolving into sky-covering crescendos reminiscent of Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Explosions In The Sky. Opening track “Dream House” manages to sound triumphant and breathtaking musically even with lead singer George Clarke’s bloodcurdling, relentless screams of “I want to die!” punctuating its catharsis. It’s the contrast between the beauty of the music and the raw, harsh vocal delivery that makes Sunbather such an engaging listen. After calming down into “Irresitible”, a lovely acoustic guitar melody that stands well enough on its own yet at the same time doesn’t draw attention to itself as the track switches, swarming distortion opens the epic title track with a bang. It is an intoxicating listen over its 10 minutes, weaving and winding through many complex stanzas before building to a climax around the 8:30 mark, the payoff of which cannot be understated. Deafheaven employs structural tricks effectively, often bringing the music to a complete standstill only to burst back forcefully. “Vertigo” stands as the longest song here at nearly 15 minutes, and begins with some of the most accessible guitar rock on the whole album, but this is merely a foil for the dramatic bludgeoning that unfolds as it progresses. Closer “The Pecan Tree” puts everything together but operates in the opposite direction, beginning with full-fledged chaos and easing itself into a lovely goodbye, complete with piano and layered guitars.

#7: Vampire Weekend/ Modern Vampires of the City

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On their third full length album, Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City is distinctly stripped down and restrained relative to their prior work, and is all the better for it; this is the band’s best album to date. The thematic material ranging from death to religion doesn’t come off as overly serious, yet establishes a tone that confirm these once preppy, moderately annoying kids from Columbia have grown up a bit. Gentle piano opens the album on “Obvious Bicycle” as lead singer Ezra Koenig shows off an impressively scaled vocal delivery that rests on a falsetto drop; the song never really goes anywhere and it is all the more lovely for it. There’s still hints of the summer boogie, outdoor festival major key sound that made the band famous to begin with, notably on the rollicking “Diane Young”, and you can almost visualize a full crowd with beach balls bouncing around when the percussion kicks in on the scat sung, Animal Collective-inspired “Finger Back.” Outside of that, there’s a surprising amount of darkness and atmosphere holding this record together. An obvious early highlight is “Step”, with its soft drum clap, gorgeous piano melody and distant choral vocal sample, as Koenig delivers observant lyrics such as “Wisdom’s a gift but you’d trade it for youth” over the course of a track that in terms of tone lands somewhere between melancholy and submissive as it winds down softly to reveal its stunning emotional core. Arguably even more powerful is the fantastic “Ya Hey”, with its catchy synth breaks and additictive melody that combine with more lifted vocal samples.  There’s a nod to a vast array of musical influences, such as the Dirty Projectors on “Everlasting Arms” and Panda Bear on “Worship You” that add an element of breath to this album. Violin strings hold together the soft, wise-beyond-its-years “Don’t Lie”, while the band has probably never demonstrated build the way that they do on the patient, slowly evolving centerpiece “Hannah Hunt”, as Koenig’s strained vocals during the final trip through the chorus showcase a genuineness that was very atypical on the band’s first two albums.

#6: Kanye West/ Yeezus

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When Kanye West suddenly annouced the imminent release of his rather shockingly titled album Yeezus, it’s fair to say that most us didn’t expect anything quite so bleak, desolate and raw. A buzzing, chilling synth serves as the backbone for opener “On Point” and it’s immediately clear that Yeezus finds West heading in a far different musical and emotional direction than ever before. What makes the album so polarizing is the nearly complete lack of percussion or strobe-lit festival intensity that Kanye is famous for (“Send It Up” being the only possible exception). It takes a truly brave artist to pull off a line like “I just talked to Jesus/ He said what up Yeezus/ I said I’m just chillin’/ Tryin’ to count these millions” as he does on the blatantly egotistical and borderline blasphemously titled “I Am A God.”  A certain balance of both sarcasm and seriousness has to be present in order for a line like that to work on any level, and West pulls it off remarkably on one of the album’s highlight tracks. What’s surprising is that despite the overall bare and stripped-down feel of these songs, West finds time for moments of subtle atmosphere mixed between beauty and pure terror by utilizing unexpected and sudden tone shifts – the gorgeous breaks on “On Point” and “New Slaves”, the tortured shrieks through the coda of “I Am A God,” among others. “Hold My Liquor” is arguably the prettiest song on the album, carrying a defeated tone that is rare for an artist that usually lays the bravado on pretty thick, while he delivers one of the best verses of his career on the heartwrenching divorce tale “Blood on the Leaves”, complete with forboding, propulsive synthesized horns. Most affecting of all is the skeletal echo of a synth beat complemented by violin elements on the racially charged indictment “New Slaves”, and the moment that song takes a full shift into a gorgeous blues breakdown that is in complete contrast to the all of the music that came before it works perfectly; it’s a demonstration of West’s utter brilliance from a production standpoint. And it takes a higher level of thinking and creativity altogether to sample Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” on “Blood On The Leaves” or an obscure soul tune combined with Brenda Lee on closer “Bound 2.” First single “Black Skinhead” comes of with a militaristic beat that almost sounds like a rap version on Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People”, complete with deep bass drops and ghostly howls. The only near mess comes on the incredibly explicit “I’m In It”, but there’s enough sonic diversion and vocal additions from the likes of Bon Iver and reggae artist Assassin to send the track over. Say what you will about Kanye West, but after this album it would be difficult to argue that he is a producer afraid to take artistic risks to stunning effect. To my ear, Yeezus lands well in the upper echelon of his catalog.

#5: Danny Brown/Old

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It was a difficult choice between this year’s two towering rap record highlights, but I ended up giving the slight nod to Detroit product Danny Brown’s debut simply because of its absolutely smothering scope and ambition. Much like last year’s best album, Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, M.A.A.D. City, Old is a loosely conceived concept album, and while it may not be quite as impactful overall as Lamar’s opus, it arguably shows greater artistic promise and potential for what’s to come in the future. From a musical standpoint, this collection of songs combines suave, understated bass lines with Brown’s unique, often abrasive vocal delivery, which alternates between the strained nasal style typical on 2011’s crucial mixtape XXX, and a newly refined, snarling baritone. He’s at his most effective when switching from one to the other as he does on the sinister “Gremlins” and on the diabolical “Dope Song.” The album moves along smoothly, its 19 tracks flowing relentlessly and quickly from one to another as early tone setters like “Wonderbread” provide chilling anecdotes describing the extremely rough day to day happenings growing up in the Detroit ghetto. For all its thematic depth, Old still provides moments of pure freak out club music on “Dip” and “Break It Go”, complete with futuristic sound elements that are on another level when compared to his prior work. The album hits its highest point right in its belly, as the one-two punch of “Clean Up” and “Red 2 Go” provide arguably the two most powerful moments here back to back, and in a massive contrast stylistically. The former finds Brown lamenting his past mistakes and the effect his upbringing has had on him in his most serious, vulnerable and honest production to date, complete with a slow, low dropped bass beat that would sound perfect on a Flying Lotus album. The latter balances a steady synth reminiscent of early Mobb Deep, jabbing basslines and fluttering percussion as Brown delivers memorable lines like “Did it my way/ I ain’t nobody ho/ I’m bout to pimp the rap game/ Bitch I’m red to go” with heavily regional inflection. “Smokin and Drinkin” would ordinarily come off as a simple party tune if it wasn’t for its insane massiveness on a sonic level, while penultimate highlight “Kush Coma” combines hazy, dazed atmospherics with some of Brown’s fastest, tongue twisting rhymes. This is an album for every old geezer that ever complained about rap not having “instruments”, because if you can’t grasp the fact that Brown’s voice is an instrument in and of itself, you have no business listening to music of any kind in the first place.

#4: Darkside/ Psychic

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Of all the great albums released in 2013, none stood alone and occupied its own unique genre quite like Psychic. Darkside is a collaboration between electronic mastermind Nicolas Jaar and guitarist Dave Harrington, and their debut record is a meticulous and game-changing re-imagination of music that suggests endless possibilities. Every restrained note here is filled with purpose, and for all of the psychedelic influences that appear to creep towards the surface, they are balanced out and checked evenly with an ambiance that is decidedly intergalactic. It is fairly mind-blowing to see artists in their early 20s operating with such restraint and vision, as Psychic‘s focus prevails over its eight tracks, each of which is content to evolve at its own pace without ever trying to outdo itself. The spectacularly epic twelve minute opener “Golden Arrow” builds patiently for nearly five full minutes before the beat kicks in and steadily gains subtly intertwined electronic instrumental additions. The first sign of a vocal doesn’t come until the seven minute mark as Harrington’s falsetto brings the track to nearly a complete stop before picking right back up again. It’s a powerful moment, and vocals are used intermittently in like manner throughout the album, adding to the dreamy space-rock atmospherics. Never is this more evident than on the stunning “Heart”, which starts with battle march drums, picks up a twangy 70s rock guitar line and an otherworldly loveliness from its processed vocals. If there’s such a thing as “acid blues”, then “Paper Trails” is it, managing to combine a steady blues scale guitar riff with Jaar’s deep vocals which are in stark contrast to Harrington’s high strained octaves, culminating into a dark-lit slow burner possibly born from the same galaxy as Massive Attack’s “Splitting The Atom.” There’s almost too much going on to keep track of on centerpiece “The Only Shrine I’ve Ever Seen” as layers of thick bass and tambourines evolve into a rocking riff that might have fit on The Doors’ Morrison Hotel, and then into soft, acapella vocals, while the groovy  “Freak, Go Home” is a hidden gem, simply gliding along with its swanky rhythm and fuzzy synth loop. The peaceful, relaxing closer “Metatron” literally sounds like it was recorded in outer space, and while as close to Pink Floyd as Darkside gets, adds futuristic snares and synths that amount to so much more than a simple throwback comparison. Taken in full, Psychic is a surprising and unexpected record that manages to balance its calm, drift-into-oblivion mood with music that is equal parts challenging and fascinating.

#3: Fuck Buttons/ Slow Focus

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In a year that seemed so loaded with quality albums of the purely instrumental, completely devoid of vocals variety, none showed the same structural acumen as the aptly titled Slow Focus, the third full length from multi-instrumentalist duo Benjamin Power and Andrew Hung as Fuck Buttons. A considerable step forward from 2009s vital Tarot Sport, this effort is remarkable for its depth of texture and density. They don’t waste any time getting straight to the point as opener “Brainfreeze” begins with isolated, demonic percussion and picks up what seem like immeasurable layers of sound as it swells and evolves, eventually collapsing back upon itself. There is less emphasis on release and catharsis here; these songs are content to begin with enormous tension and simply maintain that endowment rather than release it as they expand. For as ominous and monolithic as the opening track feels, a catchy whistle melody provides distinct contrast on the enormous, sweeping highlight “The Red Wing”, which steadily gains an industrial guitar riff, fluttering electronic horns, laser beam synths, and screaming chimes as it exhudes confidence all the way through. A perfect microcosm for the multi-dimensionality of this collection of songs, this is one to listen to when walking by yourself in the dark; I’ll be damned if it doesn’t make you feel completely and utterly invincible. There’s such diversity on this record, as the foreboding tone of the first half gives way to more all-encompassing beauty on the longer tracks that close the album. “Stalker” balances a fuzzy, repetitive bass jab with rollicking percussion, an ethereal synth squeal and cascading distortion, while closer “Hidden Xs” begins with a gorgeous electronic keyboard riff and gains massively distorted basslines and soaring shoegaze guitar, but is most successful thanks to its perfectly executed and carefully intertwined electronic clap-drum percussion. The closer is a song that equals “The Lisbon Maru” and “Olympians” from their last effort in terms of pure beauty, but does so in a manner that suggests loneliness and the relentless pursuit of perfection all at once. In between there’s “Prince’s Prize”, with its techno synth lines that move along with blazing velocity, which would seem totally out of place here if it weren’t for how intensely focused and intense the arrangement is. This is a serious record, for serious moods, and not for the faint of heart–there’s just too much going on here from a textural standpoint to even describe accurately enough for me to do it justice.

#2: My Bloody Valentine/ mbv

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There have been rumblings and rumors of new music on the way from infinitely influential shoegazers My Bloody Valentine for years, but to call the sudden release of mbv in February, the band’s first since the landmark Loveless in 1991, a surprise would be a vast understatement. It’s a testament to the quality of the music assembled here that even after a more than twenty year layoff and an early-in-the-year release that at this point seems like ages ago, mbv maintains its status as one of the very best albums of 2013. Its nine tracks are organized in a manner that seems similar to an album like The Beta Band’s The Three EPs, as instead of flowing seamlessly the band takes us on a journey through time over three unique stanzas. The first three songs pick up right where Loveless left off, as the airy, gentle sounds of “She Found Now” harken back to the subtle atmospheric beauty of previous songs like “Sometimes.” The familiar sound of feedback-laden guitar enters the fray as “Only Tomorrow” elevates the energy level, while “Who Sees You” pushes its own limits, showing off the intentionally discordant, screeching guitar beauty typical on prior classics like “When You Sleep” and “I Only Said.” In the middle, we get a glimpse of what a My Bloody Valentine pop record might sound like, and while the decidedly mainstream center of the album may have been a turn off to some hardcore fans, it’s worth pointing out how well the band pulls it off. “New You” is an amazingly catchy, foot-stomping jam that is strikingly accessible if not incredibly complex, while the lovesick “If I Am” glides along effortlessly with the nonchalant precision of its gorgeous underlying guitar line and the comforting “oohs” of its chorus. The final three tracks are the most exciting and focused on the future, building upon the band’s strengths while adding experimental new elements focused heavily on the possibilities of percussion. “In Another Way” is purely awesome, with propulsive drumming serving as the backbone beneath is swirling guitar distortion. The brute force of the completely instrumental “Nothing Is” rolls along with punishing repetition and is unlike anything My Bloody Valentine has ever put together. But closer “Wonder 2” tops everything that came before it, opening and closing with guitar effects reminiscent of a helicopter taking off, complete with heavenly vocals that hover well above the surface, and held together by a commanding guitar line that can best be described as resembling a massive swarm of bees. If this is the last album we ever get from My Bloody Valentine, then it was worth the wait, and if we have to wait another twenty two years? Hey, you’ve got to have something to look forward to.

#1: Daft Punk/ Random Access Memories

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It is ironic indeed that in a year so jam-packed with top efforts in the electronic arena, the best album of all came from this enigmatic duo, once electronic pioneers themselves, on an inspired collection of songs that contrasts sharply with their prior work in that musical field. Random Access Memories sparkles with some of the most immaculate production ever put to record in music history, and does so spanning a magically broad spectrum in terms of genre, proving that Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo do not merely endeavor to create new music and leave their mark as influences in their own right; they are fans of the past, present, and future of the vast musical spectrum itself.  Both an exploration into what music could be and a recap of what music used to be, Random Access Memories is a far cry from Daft Punk’s techno driven beginnings and defies characterization, but comes closest to operating as guitar-driven dance pop–a surprising evolution indeed. Opener “Give Life Back to Music” sets a thematic tone, as bouncing synths and acoustic guitar plucks carry the robotic vocals that the band has practically patented at this point. Summer anthem and instant classic “Get Lucky” serves as the quintessential pop song of the year as it combines dance elements which are very of-the-moment with a disco influence that pays homage to the sounds of the late 70s, all complemented by the single catchiest guitar hook of the year and by star vocalist Pharell Williams, who also makes an appearance on the less indelible but quite functional “Lose Yourself to Dance.” The album’s only misstep comes early, taking a pass at R&B on the dreary “Game of Love.” The piano driven “Within” comes shorty after and works much better in terms of the downtempo, minor key aesthetic, but comes off all the more powerfully for forcing the listener into a reality check- is this really a Daft Punk record to begin with? Then there are songs that pull together and combine multiple genres. Daft Punk takes a huge risk with theatrical centerpiece “Touch”, and delivers a show-stopping highlight as it switches between the a capella vocals of Paul Williams and slowly picks up beautiful orchestral strings and choral vocals to form the most emotional moment in the band’s entire catalog; the fact that it’s followed immediately with the carefree “Get Lucky” demonstrates a tremendous sense for pacing. The epic arrangement of “Giorgio by Moroder” features a spoken monologue by its namesake which builds upon a sharp, synthesized beat and gains violin elements into its freak-out electric guitar coda. Indie guest superstars abound, as Julian Casablancas shows off his range even through heavily processed vocals on the catchy “Instant Crush” and Panda Bear is a breath of fresh air throughout his cameo on the electro-pop driven “Doin’ It Right.” Symphonic strings open “Beyond” and build into a rhythmic electronic groove as the album picks up steam through its back half, moving through the whistling woodwinds and lounge bar swirl of “Motherboard” into the crystal clear production of “Fragments of Time.” Fittingly, Daft Punk choose to conclude the album with the only song that truly resembles their prior work, the grand scale festival techno of the mammoth, frantic and incredibly pleasing closer “Contact,” which gets a huge boost from its immersing, pounding drum component. Random Access Memories is an album chock full of both reflection and innovation all packaged as one seamless unit, and this, out of all the albums released in 2013, is the one that we will be most likely still listening to and discussing a decade from now.

TOP 10 SONGS OF 2013

December 1, 2013

HONORABLE MENTION:

Golden Arrow/ Darkside

Weight of Gold/ Forest Swords

I Dream In Neon/ Dirty Beaches

Dance Apocalyptic/ Janelle Monae

Reflektor/ Arcade Fire

#10: Red 2 Go/ Danny Brown

The centerpiece of Brown’s full length debut balances a steady synth reminiscent of early Mobb Deep, jabbing basslines and fluttering percussion as this exciting new rap star delivers memorable lines like  “Did it my way/ I ain’t nobody ho/ I’m here to pimp the rap game/ Bitch I’m Red 2 Go.”

#9: Sunbather/ Deafheaven

Swarming distortion and perfectly blended vocal wails open this epic title track with a bang; it is an intoxicating listen over its 10 minutes, weaving and winding through many complex stanzas before building to a climax around the 8:30 mark, the payoff of which cannot be understated.

#8: New Slaves/ Kanye West

The skeletal echo of a synth beat complemented by violin elements on this racially charged indictment stands out on Kanye’s polarizing, stripped down Yeezus, and the moment it takes a full shift into a gorgeous blues breakdown that is in complete contrast to the all of the music that came before it works perfectly; it’s a demonstration of West’s utter brilliance from a production standpoint.

#7: Ya Hey/ Vampire Weekend

Catchy synth breaks and an additictive melody combine with lifted vocal samples on this standout summer anthem from Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City, and one can’t help but notice the inversion of the title of perhaps the greatest summer anthem of all time.

#6: Brennistein/ Sigur Ros

Sigur Ros’ best music has always been highly compositional and chilly, and shares characteristics with metal as such, but “Brennisteinn”, the best opening track of 2013, enters a vast new landscape for the band, with its thunderous bass lines and dark, soaring post-rock guitars supporting Jonsi’s incomparable vocal surge. Sigur Ros has also almost always been at their best when making more serious, ominous music (“Hoppipola” notwithstanding) but this track indicates something new is afoot; they have rarely sounded this completely hopeless and foreboding.

#5: Wonder 2/ My Bloody Valentine

The closing track from the band’s first record in 22 years tops everything that comes before it on mbv, opening and closing with guitar effects reminiscent of a helicopter taking off, complete with heavenly vocals that hover well above the surface, and held together by a commanding guitar line that can best be described as resembling a massive swarm of bees.

#4: Get Lucky/ Daft Punk

This 2013 summer anthem and instant classic serves as the quintessential pop song of the year as it combines dance elements which are very of-the-moment with a disco influence that pays homage to the sounds of the late 70s, all complemented by the single catchiest guitar hook of the year and by star vocalist Pharell Williams.

#3: Song For Zula/ Phosphorescent

The stunning, indelible “Song For Zula” provides a massive highlight early on Matthew Houck’s Muchacho with its radiating, dream-like synth bounce and electronic violin string composition that combine with his powerfully quaking vocal delivery on lines like “Yeah then I saw love/ Disfigure me/ Into something I am not recognizing.”

#2: The Red Wing/ Fuck Buttons

A catchy whistle melody provides distinct contrast on this enormous, sweeping highlight from the completely electronic Slow Focus, steadily gaining an industrial guitar riff, fluttering electronic horns, laser beam synths, and screaming chimes as it exhudes confidence all the way through. A perfect microcosm for the multi-dimensionality of this collection of songs, this is one to listen to when walking by yourself in the dark; I’ll be damned if it doesn’t make you feel completely and utterly invincible.

#1: Raspberry Cane/ Youth Lagoon

Twenty-three year old Trevor Powers’ “Raspberry Cane” is a perfectly constructed song, and it was the best single one recorded in 2013. Powers’ voice cracks as the song opens, eventually picking up sweeping electronic horns to complement its subtle keyboard melody. There’s impressive restraint in the patience shown before another massive tonal shift into the coda, as swirling reverb resonates and Powers strains to hit notes through the emotional chorus, coming back full circle as it concludes. Goosebump City.

TOP 25 ALBUMS OF 2012

December 17, 2012

HONORABLE MENTION:

PALLBEARER/ SORROW AND EXTINCTION

SCHOOLBOY Q/ HABITS AND CONTRADICTIONS

AESOP ROCK/ SKELETHON

ANDY STOTT/ LUXURY PROBLEMS

EL-P/ CANCER FOR CURE

THE WALKMEN/ HEAVEN

SLEIGH BELLS/ REIGN OF TERROR

HOT CHIP/ IN OUR HEADS

MOUNT EERIE/ CLEAR MOON

CLOUD NOTHINGS/ ATTACK ON MEMORY

#25 Bat For Lashes/ The Haunted Man

The follow-up to Natasha Khan’s game-changing 2009 release Two Suns doesn’t feature anything as immediately dazzling as “Glass” or “Daniel” were on that record. However, the two standout tracks here are certainly as pretty as anything she has ever written. “Marilyn” uses a well-constructed beat that keeps things interesting beneath a powerful vocal as it shifts and evolves. The sweet, stripped-down piano melody on “Laura” is even more spectacular, as Khan begs a close friend to make changes in her life before she destroys herself, offering the re-assuring line “Laura, you’re more than a superstar.”  In between there are highs and lows, ranging from the intriguing beat and playful synth riff on “Oh Yeah” and the gorgeous violin on”Winter Fields” to some overly dramatic and sensationalized tracks in between that miss the mark a bit, but don’t detract from the overall tone of The Haunted Man. On the whole, this is another strong effort from Khan.

#24 Perfume Genius/ Put Your Back Into It

You had to be in a certain kind of mood to fully appreciate Perfume Genius and his distinct taste for the melancholy. This was certainly not an album to put on in 2012 for those times when you were down in the dumps; it might have pushed you over into full blown depression.  Still, this collection of songs, driven almost entirely by simple piano and acoustic guitar melodies drenched in the unique reverb of music produced in a bedroom, creates an undeniable mood of extreme trauma. The themes are widespread, ranging from singer Mike Hadreas’ struggles with his homosexuality in a world where he doesn’t feel accepted, into even darker imagery of incest, prostitution and drug addiction. Taken at face value, it’s really an ode to all things horrible in this world, but it is executed with such precision and beauty that it becomes a revealing and strangely enjoyable listen. Hadreas prefers not to build into a crescendos but to end his songs suddenly and with restraint. There is a lot to revisit here, from the escalating, catchy piano riff on “Dark Parts”, the subtle falsetto on “All Waters” to the airy and hypnotic standout “Floating Spit.”

#23 Dirty Projectors/ Swing Lo Magellan

Perhaps the polar opposite to aforementioned Perfume Genius in terms of tone, Swing Lo Magellan is the Dirty Projectors’ most accessible, bright and enjoyable record to date, and was the perfect album to turn on in 2012 to cheer up the mood. Opener “Offspring Are Blank” alternates between the chill coos of a female backing vocal and a heavy guitar and drum chorus that turns it into a full blown rock track, and the ironically cheery “About To Die” follows that one with a complex swagger most reminiscent of the band’s early work. Musical acumen has never been a shortcoming for these guys, and highlight “Gun Has No Trigger” demonstrates their ability to balance lead singer Dave Longstreh’s unique vocals with innovative rhythms. There’s a lovely, carefree folk moment on the title track, while Longstreh’s falsetto combined with female harmonies on “Inpregnable Question” surely ranks among their prettiest work to date. There’s even some playful trade-off between male and female vocals on the enjoyable “Just From Chevron” and “Unto Caesar.” This doesn’t have nearly the complexity or eccentricity of 2009’s Bitte Orca, but might be more approachable overall.

#22 The Shins/ Port of Marrow

After Natalie Portman famously touted “New Slang” in 2004’s Garden State following the release of the highly regarded Chutes Too Narrow a year earlier, it could have been argued that The Shins were among the most important baroque pop artists of the first half of the last decade. The more scattered Wincing The Night Away in 2007 seemed to indicate that the band’s best days might be behind them, but five years later, Port of Morrow appears to signal a return to form. Lead singer James Mercer is the band’s heart and soul, and returns with some new faces behind him, but delivers focused music both reminiscent of The Shins of old as well as representative of new ideas. “Simple Song” is pure power pop at its finest, with an onslaught of guitar across its punching verse that meets a piano bridge that serves as a perfect segway into the chorus as Mercer sings “I know that things can really get rough/ When you go it alone.” The speedy rhythm of “Bait and Switch” recalls earlier songs like “Fighting In A Sack”, while the nostalgic “Fall of ’82” is an easy-going number that benefits from the trumpet lines that lay beneath the surface. Making an even greater impact are the soft, whispery “September”,  bittersweet standout “40 Mark Strasse”, where Mercer strains gorgeously to hit a high octave across the chorus, as well as the politically-driven, bleeding heart classic rock nod “No Way Down” and its ode to the redistribution of income. On the latter, Mercer concludes with nonchalant sarcasm, “Apologies to the sick and the young/ Get used to the dust in your lungs.”

#21 Jessie Ware/ Devotion

homepage_large.ed0b398bU.K. vocal sensation Jessie Ware blends a unique style of old school R & B and new school trip hop beats on her debut album Devotion. Vocally, Ware lands somewhere between the sensuality of Sade and the raw power of Beyonce, and combines this with dark lounge beats that elevate these songs and give them life, energy and individuality and prevent Devotion from sounding like, heaven forbid, a Toni Braxton album. The darkly subtle beats of the title track set the mood early, and although there are some dance-floor ready bangers here (“Still Love Me” and “No To Love”), the album’s finest moments come when it is most subdued. Notable moments include the bittersweet sweet pop melody of highlight “Wildest Moments”, the punchy synth running underneath “Runnin”, the addictive, slightly off key electronic keyboard chords on “Sweet Talk”, and the gorgeously hypnotic delivery on “110%”, complete with an deep electronic snyth line that pops in and out beneath the up-tempo drum syncopations. “110%” is a truly memorable and exciting track, but Ware manages to top it in terms of of pure beauty with the painfully beautiful penultimate track that follows, “Taking In Water.” Here she is at her most emotional and vulnerable vocally yet delivers her most impressive performance on the album, and a carefully placed vocal sample adds extra power over the verses.

#20 Fiona Apple/ The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver of the Screw

This is an ambitious, gutsy comeback effort from one of Indie Rock’s originals, raw-to-the bone with its honest lyricism and stripped-down musical arrangements. On Apple’s first studio release since 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, she seems to have reinvented herself a bit, leaning heavily upon bluesy piano to create a spacious album practically devoid of traditional percussion elements and with nary a guitar to be heard. The unsettling growls of her voice as she demands “Look at me now!” on “Daredevil” and especially as she separates from any attempt to sing along with the chorus melody on “Regret” are both incredibly effective at establishing the mood of inner turmoil that the album sets to create right off the back, as she sings “Every single night’s a fight/With my brain” on the opening track. Centerpiece “Werewolf” stands out here a bit in terms of musical structure as well as lyricism, building steadily into a finale backed with the playful screams of children on the playground as Apple sends it off unapologetically with the metaphoric line, “Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key.” There’s exciting innovations on songs like “Left Alone”, which alternates between scat singing verses above its doo-wop piano riff and a strained, high octave, vibrating vocal on the chorus. Additionally, a capella closer “Hot Knife” builds a tribal vibe with its repetitious chants and the layered echo of its backing vocal track.

#19 Crystal Castles/ III

homepage_large.6295a0b2The third record from electro-goth outfit Crystal Castles may not provide quite the sheer quantity of standout tracks as its predecessor did, but it may be the most focused effort yet from the band. III is the shortest record to date from Crystal Castles, and the most straightforward. Gone are the noisy experimental interlude tracks that created a bit of a chaotic flow on the first two albums, and in their place is an album that feels more one within itself and communicates an ominous tone throughout. Opening track “Plague” establishes a darkness and urgency that resonates throughout the album with its discordant synth and shifts between atmospheric vocals and shrieks of “I am afraid” from charismatic lead singer Alice Glass. The album’s strongest stretch occurs shortly thereafter, beginning with hard changes between ghostly synth, pounding drum beats and distant vocals on dungeon banger “Wrath of God” and continues into the more lovely, but still unsettling “Affection”, which benefits from its unorthodox percussion beat and desperate vocal. Speaking of beats, “Pale Flesh” might be the most complex time signature that the band has ever constructed, complete with a vocal from Glass that is drenched in reverb, and is frantic in nature, while the strobe-light ready house anthem “Sad Eyes” and its pulsating electronic drum and slightly off-tune synth riff is probably the best single thing here. While true to the overall tone, there’s a bit of a lag on the album’s back half until “Mercenary” and its bizarre minor violin chord that switches in and out of time, while closer “Child I Will Hurt” you certainly ranks among the prettier tracks Crystal Castles have put together, as it lingers as a lullaby.

#18 Baroness/ Yellow & Green

This sprawling double album tones down the typical metal influences that Baroness usually relies upon and instead plays like an ode to 1990s alternative rock over its immensely enjoyable and accessible 75-minute length. After a lovely opening introduction, the first disc begins with “Take My Bones Away”, which hits like it has been fired out of a cannon with its thunderous percussion and snarling lead vocal. The album moves along in a solid manner with “March to the Sea” and “Little Things”, which are both fairly straightforward but set the much rockier tone early on. “Back Where I Belong” benefits from its unique time signature and scaling guitar melody, while the more ominous “Cocanium” owes much to the grunge paths traveled by Alice In Chains and Stone Temple Pilots. Yellow and Green is most impressive for its solidarity and consistency across so many individual tracks, but if there is one moment that stands above the rest, it is most certainly “Eula”, which closes the first disc with authority, building from its initially brooding atmosphere into a full onslaught of pounding percussion, soaring lead guitar lines and anthemic vocals. The second disc starts with a bang, as “Board Up The House” provides perhaps the best pure rock moment here and does so with a thrilling level of attention to detail in regard to the timing and shifts of its remarkably layered arrangements. There are some impressive contrasts on the back half as well, as “Foolsong” and “Collapse” add a minor key element to the musical tone, while the lovely instrumental “Stretchmarker” proves that the band can still be gloriously optimistic and “The Line Between” rocks hard as the proper sendoff track.  Taken as a whole, this is a stunning achievement for Baroness, and to my ear, a massive uptick from their prior work especially in terms of consistency.

#17 Death Grips/ The Money Store

It would be difficult to assemble any Best of 2012 list without giving at least some attention to this debut from the genre-defying Death Grips of Sacramento. The Money Store is an exciting, eye-opening combination of angry, noisy, high-energy and often shocking music. Its buzzing, popping, screeching electronic elements serve as a microcosm for its widespread creativity. Its closest musical relative might be rap, but it seems way too far-reaching to be simplified as such. Opener “Get Got” combines lightning-quick, deeply toned vocals thick with reverb above an electric guitar loop and a barrage of noise rock elements. The swirling loop and unintelligible vocal jabs of “The Fever” follows before we even get a chance to assess what we are hearing, or more importantly, where on earth it came from. Later, the aptly titled “System Blower” is about the most massive thing I’ve ever heard, and it succeeds purely on the thumping buzz of its industrial baseline and gains traction from lead shouter MC Ride’s ability to change in and out of tempos above the chaotic madness. Surrounding that track is the is the scattering swarm of bees percussion and offbeat vocal delivery on the perplexing “Double Helix”, followed by one of the most memorable loops on the album combined with panic-stricken vocals on the unsettling “The Cage.”  About the only structurally familiar song here is”I’ve Seen Footage”, with its catchy synthesized guitar riff and foot-stomping beat that evokes old school rap like “Funky Cold Medina”, and despite seeming out of place as perhaps the only remotely accessible moment, still stands as a sure highlight. The album ends on an arguably even stronger note, as “Hacker” combines its fluttering beat and robotic synth into a no-holds-barred, aggressive tale of thievery that offers the immediately repeatable chorus of “I’m in your area!” At worst, the presence of Death Grips in the musical spectrum of 2012 provided a much-needed respite from the mundane. At best, it contributed something other-wordly.

#16 Trust/ Trst

The debut studio album from Toronto natives Trust created an electro-goth vibe that turned out much better than it should have across its entire length. There’s a unique quality to the sound of their music that saves them from falling into the trap of simply becoming an imitator of bands like Crystal Castles, and instead establishes them as a band with a certain individuality to offer. Lead singer Robert Alfons has a deep voice that drips with grime and sludge on some of the album’s most affecting tracks, such as darkly lit opener “Shoom.” Around the 2:30 minute mark, Alfons delivers a ghostly groan before the beat kicks in full blast again and he murmurs “Why push away me/ It could push away life.” That song, along with the utterly hopeless “The Last Dregs” certainly qualifies for dungeon music, but not everything is nearly so dreary, however, as the dance floor ready “Dressed For Space” remains serious in tone but does so with a sturdy beat that would fit right in on a New Order record. There’s true diversity here as well, demonstrated on more atmospheric slow-burners like “Candy Walls” and genuinely pretty electronica like “Heaven.” The catchy, high-pitched synth and gunshot blast percussion on “Chrissy E” combines with lifted vocals and gives the album another dance floor ready single to hang its hat on, but it’s closer “Sulk” that is really worth sticking around for. A gorgeous, fuzzed out opening synth chord steadily picks up additional elements, including clap-drum percussion and Alfons’ eerily distant but oddly comforting vocal to create the most emotional moment here. It’s a song that puts together everything this band is capable of. “Sulk” is so good, it actually leaves you wanting more, which is saying something after nearly an hour of dark electronica that somehow never seems to sound old, uninteresting or repetitive.

#15 Tame Impala/ Lonerism

There’s a component to the high quality production on Lonerism that elevates the album above what anything in this genre should be capable of. Musically, Tame Impala’s psychedelic sound can be best be described as a blend between Of Montreal and The Beatles, but there’s richness and depth across the album’s twelve solid tracks that transcends what should be limited expectations. Standout track “Apocalypse Dreams” is bursting with complex textures, as a pounding piano riff and steady bass line shift into slower tempo sections of dreamy, hallucinogenic beauty, and then back into a soaring orchestral coda. Even without the psyched out, fuzzy effects, the songs here, especially tracks like “Music To Walk Home By” and “Why Won’t They Talk To Me” succeed on pure melody, while the seething brightness of the delirious “Mind Mischief” is enough to make you squint. Then there’s “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”, which opens with a rolling hip hop beat that maintains a funky bass line beneath the washed out vocals, creating an enticing yet carefree vibe that is a huge highlight. “Elephant” plunks along with a massive throttle of overwhelming bass and circus-like electronic keyboard synths as lead singer Kevin Parker does his best John Lennon impression, while cascading percussion in the midsection of penultimate track “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control” holds together its psyched-out synth and urgent vocal delivery of such a mouth full of a chorus line. To conclude, Lonerism again harkens back to its influences, as a simple, stripped down piano melody sans reverb ushers in “Sun’s Coming Up”, which instead of effects, relies solely on its masterfully scaled melody and pitch-perfect vocal, proving Tame Impala’s versatility and attention to detail on this huge step forward from their debut.

#14 Purity Ring/ Shrines

The debut album from Manitoba natives Purity Ring manages to straddle a fine line as it combines ghostly electronic effects and macabre lyrical imagery with immediately catchy melodies. The comparisons to artists like The Knife and Burial will be there, and with good reason, but the music itself on Shrines is so much more direct than anything those entities would ever attempt, and intentionally so, as influences aside, Purity Ring isn’t trying to sound like anyone besides themselves. Lead vocalist Megan James, at 24 years old, is captivating on tracks like “Fireshrine”, as her delicate, girlish soprano utters terrifying, grotesque lines like “Get a little closer let fold/ Cut open my sternum and pull/ My little ribs around you” as if she is out for a Sunday stroll chewing bubble gum. “Ungirthed” was one of the first singles released last year that built anticipation for this release, and it succeeds on record with its nicely syncopated electronic beats, complete with robotic horns, tinny percussion and of course that jabbing vocal sample of a ghost that sounds like it is somewhere in between trying to escape and being born, culminating in an addictive melody through the chorus. A young band is allowed a misstep as it attempts to throw together an album from a string of well-recieved singles, so I’ll give them a mulligan for “Grandloves”, a decidedly middling track that serves only to break the album’s momentum in its midsection. Luckily, there’s plenty of material in the back half that regains it. “Belispeak” might be the most interesting thing here, sung from the perspective of an ill, terrified child by James’ heavily processed vocal and backed with deep foreboding synths and a memorable vocal loop that serves to help carry the beat. “Saltkin” heads a completely different direction with its more atmospheric, relaxing vibe that slows the tempo down a bit, but builds slowly and effectively into a surprising highlight. On the whole, Shrines doesn’t offer the depth or establish quite the complexities of tone that Silent Shout or Untrue did, but it’s arguably a more immediately engaging listen than either.

#13 Spiritualized/ Sweet Heart Sweet Light

On Jason Pierce’s last record, 2008’s Songs in A & E, the lead singer of Spiritualized constructed a well-conceived concept album that dripped with fear, regret and the sounds of death. Pierce had been gravely ill, and that strong collection of 19 songs moved quickly from one track to the next, in stark contrast to the band’s previous crescendo-driven work. It was a fantastic effort, but the circumstances surrounding it and the thematic material it covered aren’t the sorts of things that most people would want to rehash, so four years later, Pierce is back with an album that sounds much more similar to albums like his 1997 masterpiece Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. Over half the songs here are over six minutes in length, and the band again utilizes symphonic arrangements, creating songs like that are epic in both structure and sound, and are almost unanimously optimistic and bright. We get an old school rock jam right off the bat with “Hey Jane”, which opens with a powerful guitar riff and a repeated melody that suddenly drops out and picks back up with a heavy, spaced out bass line. “Get What You Deserve” showcases the band’s penchant for using horns in their music, as the fairly straightforward melody continues to accrue musical accompaniment until it is almost too pretty to bear. Even the shorter tracks demonstrate a remarkable feel for arrangement, as the bittersweet ballad “Too Late” explodes with gorgeous violin strings over its chorus, and the triumphant “Little Girl” rolls along with its piano, violin and horn combination. Spiritualized saves the best for last, as the lovely “Life Is A Problem” picks where opening instrumental track “Huh” left off, but as gentle and comforting as that song is, it’s really just a setup for closer “So Long You Pretty Thing,” which is probably the band’s most genuinely pretty song to date. A soft piano melody picks up folky guitar plucks early, then a steady violin joins in, then explodes about halfway through into an amazing crescendo that picks up horns and goes on for minutes before fading out, yet still ends too quickly.

#12 Frank Ocean/ Channel Orange

The hype surrounding vocal sensation Frank Ocean is well-deserved, but what really separates Channel Orange from your typical R&B album is its production quality. A violin line opens the subdued “Thinkin About You” before crisp syncopated beats combine into an immediately engaging and personal song that showcases Ocean alternating between his typical alto and a falsetto at least two octaves higher through the chorus in a startling demonstration of range. There’s a jazzy lounge vibe throughout that adds a new dimension to the genre, even on darker drug tales like “Crack Rock”, but especially on airy standout “Sweet Life”, which carries itself effortlessly with a subtle bass line and a fantastic piano riff that gives way to dramatic orchestration through its chorus. Ocean sings “Why see the world/ When you got the beach?” in one of several thematic takes on the silver spoon, well-off lifestyle that he never knew growing up. Another more obvious example is “Super Rich Kids”, with its repetitive motown piano note that steadily builds and alternates between Ocean’s spoken word tale and lifted chorus. This is a loaded, diverse album, and although it could be argued that it may be a few tracks overlong (“Pilot Jones” and “Pink Matter” seem to slow the momentum a bit), the highlights still come in droves. The spectacularly epic “Pyramids” lasts over nine minutes, beginning with a dance club groove backed with a fuzzy synth riff that evolves into a wound-down lounge vibe, all the while taking a trip through time to an ancient Egyptian brothel. In contrast, the upbeat, bouncey “Lost” is decidedly of the present, while the revealing church organ-driven “Bad Religion” emotes as much as any single thing I’ve heard this year. Channel Orange is a sweeping, powerful record that delivers upon its grandiose ambitions.

#11 Port St. Willow/ Holiday

The debut from Nick Principe requires patience to appreciate fully, but with repeated listens its subtleties become apparent and mesmerizing, as Principe creates a gorgeously relaxed atmosphere that relies heavily on his pitch-perfect falsetto. A battle drum opens the first proper track “Hollow” and combines with Principe’s warm, lush vocal, and doesn’t so much build to a crescendo as it creates a mood. “Amawalk” follows with its slowed-to-a-crawl tempo and layers of electronic keyboard, slowly building into a purely blissful moment when Principe’s falsetto gives way to a barrage of horns. There are moments here that seem to bring the album’s momentum to a near stop, but the effective use of horns is what really gives Holiday a boost over its back half. “Tourist” is by far the most complex track here, as a scattered beat holds together distorted organ chords that evolve into what sounds like an oboe, which extends on a single note. The french horn on “North” is even more dominating of that song’s identity, and the sound of wind that opens on the beautiful closer “Consumed” adds and element of chilliness as the album seems to finish with bleak, utter hopelessness. But then, the coda picks up with a perfectly placed guitar line that shifts the tone completely and seems to provide a moment of optimism, as if all of this horrible, depressing shit has happened, but we made it through, and everything is going to be alright. It’s certainly more effective to take in Holiday in its entirety than to break it down into its individual tracks, and doing so reveals an artist who wanted to communicate his incredibly dreary mood for one reason or another, and did it with remarkable attention to detail.

#10 Japandroids/ Celebration Rock

On their aptly titled sophomore album, Japandroids refined and perfected their punk-rock style and what resulted was THE summer album of 2012 and one of the most fun records to come out in recent memory. While their 2009 debut Post-Nothing had its moments of high energy combined with catchy melodies, Celebration Rock is a massive improvement, an absolute assault of relentless action and throttling guitar work across its flawless 35 minute length.

A noticeable new tactic is employed here by the band to consistently effective results, as they gauge the listener’s interest by teasing us and winding songs down prematurely to the point where they could believably be finished, knowing we’d be disappointed if they really were. As if to say, “okay, we’ll keep playing for a bit longer since it seems like you want more”, these moments of pause are followed by a rush of energy as guitar and percussion kicks back in and leaves us smiling. The most glorious example comes on standout track “Younger Us,” as its deliciously catchy chorus comes to a full stop around the 2:30 mark only to explode back to the forefront. “Fire’s Highway” slows and comes to a near stop before another insanely catchy melody re-appears to carry the song to the finish line. The thunderous percussion and celebratory call and response chorus of “Oh Yeah! Alright!” on “Evil’s Sway” makes for one of the most purely awesome rock moments here, complete with a western Americana lead guitar riff.

A rollicking cover version of The Gun Club’s “For The Love of Ivy” works remarkably well in the album’s midsection; it’s a true punk tribute complete with pounding percussion, wailing vocals and might just be the most intense thing here. It’s easy to imagine the mosh pit that results when they play this live. The band shows its depth on “The House That Heaven Built”, which bursts with rich musical texture and confident lyrics, and is the kind of song that shows how much they’ve grown musically since their debut. This isn’t overly complicated music, and it is often amazing how much mileage the band gets out of the one-two-one-two drumming backbone that permeates most of these songs, but it’s been awhile since a rock record has succeeded this well at establishing and maintaining such energy over its entire length. From the opening riff of “The Nights of Wine and Roses” to the comparatively restrained but well placed closer “Continuous Thunder”, there’s hardly a single second to catch your breath.

#9 Swans/ The Seer

This sprawling double album from aging rockers Swans is so massive and broad that it borders on unapproachable. Challenging, serious and apocalyptic to its core, The Seer is not for the faint of heart, and to simply call it dark would be vastly understating the situation. There are moments of immediacy here, from the terrifying opening guitar riff of “Lunacy” to the industrial grind of “Mother of the World”, but on the whole, this is an album that asks a lot of its listener and depends heavily upon often drawn out build and release structures.

The crescendos range from impressive to utterly devastating, but in many cases take an inordinate amount of time to get there. The title track, for example, at a whopping 32 minutes in length, begins with ominous bagpipes before slowly evolving into a sea of structural complexity; whether the listener is willing to devote full attention for the final breakdown around the 28 minute mark is another matter entirely for a song that goes on for longer than the entire Sleigh Bells debut album did. Still, when given the attention it deserves, there is a lot to like and more than that, to appreciate about The Seer. The raw, hollow acoustic guitar  notes that ring out to permeate the shorter track “The Daughter Takes The Water” are unsettling and beautiful all at once, while the battle march slow grind and spoken word vocals of “The Seer Returns” create a downright frightening vibe.

If I’m forced to pick a favorite moment over the nearly two hours of music here, I’d probably be split between two. The ominous church bells that ring out through the steady build of “Avatar” create perhaps the strongest stand alone track here (and at under 10 minutes no less), while the rollicking final crescendo of the much longer closer “The Apostate” provides an absolute assault on the senses. It could be argued that there is a lot of filler in order to arrive at moments like these, but it isn’t without purpose, and on the whole the jarring moments are impactful enough to outweigh the often frustrating journey, and make this album well worth its considerable time investment.

#8 John Talabot/ Fin

In somewhat of a surprise, out-of-left field release, Spanish producer John Talabot delivered what should probably be considered the best electronic record since The Field’s From Here We Go Sublime. Talabot relies on steadily building loops that build energy in a restrained, confident manner, and most of Fin‘s 11 tracks should find a happy home on dance club DJ playlists from Barcelona to San Francisco. It is a testament to its consistency and immediacy that such an early release (February) was able to stick around in 2012 and remain relevant without ever wearing itself out. Certainly, Fin filled a much-needed void for this genre.

At over seven minutes in length, Opener “Depak Ine” serves as the longest track here and demonstrates Talabot’s acumen for electronic arrangement right off the bat. Beginning with an eerie disco beat and a haunting vocal loop, the track slowly picks up jabs of synth before it switches completely into a major key through the send-off, all the while maintaining its steady beat that never tries to do too much. Madrid staple Pional lends the only vocals here and makes a couple of noteworthy appearances on what are probably the album’s two strongest tracks. “Destiny” is a thrilling moment early on, as gentle synths blend together with his lifted, distant voice and combine with a warm, rich concentration of intense percussion and chime beats. It’s also is a perfect example of Talbot’s ability to straddle the invisible line between dance music that could be either considered dark or ideal for an upbeat beach bonfire party. On the less accessible but even more spectacular closing track, “So Will Be Now”, Pional’s vocal loop slowly picks up additional elements of trip-hoppy snap and cymbal percussion beneath its soothing, robotic house synth groove. More than anything else here, we see Talabot at the peak of his abilities pertaining to restraint and arrangement.

In between the album’s only mistake, the tone-upsetting “Journey” featuring Ehki of Delorean, there’s plenty more to like, and much of it is easy to miss on the first several listens. From the samba beats and vocal loops on “Missing You” to the melancholic violin sample on “Last Land” and relaxing lounge groove of “Estiu”, the sum of each of Fin‘s valuable parts become evident. However, it is the powerful final stretch that really puts the icing on the cake as the beach vibe retreats and a darker cloud sets in. “When The Past Was Present” is a focused, immensely textured dance track that showcases a gorgeously fuzzy, sped-up electronic melody that pushes itself to the limit and creates an air of uneasiness that is the perfect lead in to the penultimate number, “H.O.R.S.E.” The most spacious and ambient moment here, it builds with an ominous air for two and a half minutes before kicking in with a heavy drum beat and a pulsating minor chord that is at once heart-stopping and hopelessly foreboding, and is one of Fin’s strongest single moments. Taken as a whole, this is an impressive accomplishment and stylistic shift for this artist, who has spent most of his musical career spinning other people’s records as a DJ. It is even more impressive than its individual tracks, sure to already be finding airplay on a dance floor near you, would suggest on their own.

#7 Chromatics/ Kill For Love

This highly ambitious effort succeeds, more than anything else, from its ability to establish and extend its consistent mood and tone across its 17 track, 77 minute length. When I saw Chromatics live at Pitchfork Music Festival in July, lead singer Ruth Radelet came off about exactly as I expected her to. Her gentle, haunting voice was a commanding presence, but her expressionless face could almost be described as sad, and she seemed withdrawn and disconnected, which ironically fit perfectly with the music she was singing. It’s probably a fair bet that she never smiles. While Chromatics draw from a variety of influences on Kill For Love, including 80s new wave and modern synth-driven electronica, the serious tone of their music is decidedly nocturnal. This didn’t exactly work at an outdoor venue with the sun shining, but when taken in as a whole on record, it resonates as intense and expansive.

A cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My” retitled “Into The Black” gets the album started on a strong note, and some respect should be given to the band for having the balls to begin an album of this scope with a cover track and to pull it off with such a unique sense of style. There are bits of brightness early on as the title track drips with propulsive, hazy synth, while “Back From The Grave” showcases a catchy, repetitive guitar line. This is about as accessible as the album gets before diving into more experimental territory, and the band was wise to structure it this way considering its challenging length. But things really begin to take off with “Lady”, which patiently builds for two full minutes before the pulsating beat kicks in and communicates a steady sense of uncertainty, loneliness and despair.

The slow burn of the remarkably tense “These Streets Will Never Look The Same” is a standout here, and is a rare example of using vocal harmonization and autotune technology to manipulate a male vocal to a positive effect. After that, the album turns darker yet with the ambient, unsettling “Broken Mirrors”, and benefits massively as the tone evolves and the paranoia builds on “Candy.” There are times when the album just bleeds with heartache. The waves wash over instrumental link “Dust to Dust ” and lead into the utterly hopeless ballad “Birds of Paradise.” The instrumental tracks here are used with remarkably effective placement, creating texture with precision around its centerpieces. None are more devastating than the spaced-out, laser beam synth of “There’s a Light Out on the Horizon”, which closes with an ambiguous but heartbreaking voice message. An album this intense deserves a proper send off, and it gets one with “The River.” A minor chord strikes out on a piano, repeats and gains additional elements as the song progresses and Radelet croons with hypnotic effortlessness in one of the many extremely strong moments here.

#6 Grimes/ Visions

If there was one artist that took the indie world by storm in 2012 while simultaneously polarizing it to smithereens, then that artist would have to be Claire Boucher, who hails from Montreal under her stage name Grimes. Her first two records flew largely under the radar, but expectations were high for this album following the release of the “Oblivion” single last fall. That song, with its bouncy, jabbing synths combined with whispery, high pitched girlish vocals, was an immediate attention grabber. Boucher’s speedy but nonchalant delivery of lines like “But when you’re really by yourself it’s hard to find someone to hold your hand” was a breath of fresh air into the often corny electropop genre.

However, Visions is much too diverse and far-reaching an album to be labeled simply as electropop, and to attempt to place her music into any specific genre is a difficult task indeed. There are moments of darkness that draw influence from bands like Ladytron and the witch house trend, such as the aptly titled, synth driven “Nightmusic,” and the nocturnal beauty of “Colour of Moonlight”, while the gorgeous melodies on “Vowels=Space and Time” and the pure bubble gum pop of opener “Infinite Love Without Fulfillment” could pass for more accessible Top 40 music. There’s even an ambient moment halfway through with the well executed “Visiting Statue.” Throughout Visions, we see Boucher’s electronic experimentation spread its broad wings, from the robotic jam “Circumambient” to the more atmospheric textures on highlight “Genesis.” However, Grimes’ most valuable instrument may actually be her voice, which hangs just below surface level, often in a rich falsetto as she stretches the limits of the musical scale. While it’s often heavily draped in reverb, the only time her voice is truly manipulated comes on the fairly forgettable “Eight.” The girlish charm that results from her vocal style might come off as annoying to some, but when taken in combination with the entire range she shows over these songs, it really equates to a pretty stunning vocal performance that resonates as sweet and sugar-coated. Listen as she switches between a commanding baritone and glass-cracking falsetto octave escalations on the fantastic “Be A Body” and pretend to be unconvinced.

Grimes has admitted that her ideas tend to run wild without much thought towards organization, saying “Basically I’m really impressionable and have no sense of consistency in anything I do.” However, her acumen for arrangement is never more apparent than on standout penultimate track “Skin”, which utilizes an enormous amount of spaciousness to create an remarkably intimate and powerful sendoff that showcases her very best vocal as well. It is that range of ideas and the fearless execution of those ideas that put Grimes in a league of her own in the age of post-electropop. Wait, did I just invent a genre?

#5 Godspeed You! Black Emperor/ Allelujah! Don’t Bend, Ascend!

After a ten year hiatus, enigmatic Canadian orchestral collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor shocked the music world this fall with the sudden release of a new record. Following  2002’s Yanqui U.X.O and 2000’s Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To The Heavens, the sprawling double album that has remained the band’s career topping achievement over the past decade, Don’t Bend, Ascend! takes a different approach in terms of structure. Whereas the latter album consisted of a series of movements, with songs that meandered in and out of one another to create a symphonic effect over its punishing 87-minute length, this time around the delivery is more straightforward and uniform. Simply put, what we have here is two unique and wholly individual 20-minute songs surrounded by two interlinking 6 minute drones. This is as about as concise as this band is capable of being, yet it is also an essential addition to their catalog, and might be the perfect introduction for those not familiar with their prior work.

While the two proper tracks here have been live staples for the band for years, they take on new formalities on record. Opener “Mladic” (formerly known as “Albanian”) enters new musical territory even for these battle tested and highly skilled musicians, expanding from a suspenseful and understated Middle Eastern guitar line and building into an ominous cloud of what can only be described as industrial metal. This is an extremely dark song that slowly builds tension throughout its midsection before it releases into a somewhat triumphant, contrasting crescendo. I can recall watching the band open with this song, which I had never heard before, while headlining the Pitchfork Music Festival back in July, and being astonished by their perfection of the crescendo rock style as we know it. (On an additional note, had the song they closed with at that concert, the as of yet unreleased “Behemoth”, been included on this record, it almost certainly would have pushed it into album of the year and decade status. It’s that good).

After the well-placed, fuzzy transition track “Their Helicopters Sing”, there’s “We Drift Like Worried Fire”, which touches on the other end of the Godspeed spectrum, delivering steadily building joy and beauty that is in stark contrast to “Mladic.” Over its first ten minutes, the song evolves slowly, beginning with a simple guitar line and picking up additional violin elements one by one until all of a sudden, it becomes a sprawling masterpiece of a song. By the midway point, guitar lines are soaring high into the heavens, and at just about the point when we probably can no longer take it, the track suddenly shifts and takes a brief pause. But the band powers on, and the song gains an unsettling edge that is the perfect set up for its eventual release. There’s such a massive combination of musical wonder going on here that words alone begin to do it an injustice, but suffice to say that all bets are off once the pounding percussion and soaring electric guitar give way into a folk violin solo through the coda. Bands like Mono and Explosions In The Sky have made a career out of taking cues from this band and trying to improve upon their ideas, and have done so with positive results, but it’s refreshing to be reminded once again after such a long wait that no one has quite the ear for this type of thing as Godspeed does.

#4 Flying Lotus/ Until The Quiet Comes

Remember that perfect, impeccably produced stretch of songs on Steven Ellison’s most recent album Cosmogramma that began with “Zodiac Shit” and ended with the Thom Yorke assisted “The World Laughs With You”? Well, imagine that sort of intricacy and attention to detail spread over the course of an entire album, and what you are left with is the masterpiece that is Until The Quiet Comes. From the opening drum beat and heavenly chime notes of the gorgeous, engaging “All In” through the subtle let down of closer “Dream To Me”, Ellison has created an album that plays like a symphony. Compared to Cosmogramma, which succeeded with its exciting production innovations and in-your-face aggressiveness, the collectively subdued beauty and appreciation for melody on Until The Quiet Comes is somewhat of a surprise as a follow up. The opening track skips along into Niki Randa’s lifted vocals on “Getting There” before we really have an opportunity to take inventory of what is happening, and this is possibly the album’s greatest strength: Ellison has become a master at creating short, well-thought out songs that blend together quickly and effectively, often before we have had enough of them. To the untrained ear, some may perceive this tactic to result in songs that are a bit slight at best and unfinished at worst. On the contrary, I view it as brilliant and encompassing, while maintaining an effortless quality that separates it from his prior work.

There’s plenty going on underneath the skin here as the album picks up a jazzy, hip-hop tone on tracks like “Heave(n)” and the more ambient “Tiny Tortures”, while the spacious “All The Secrets” and massive “Sultan’s Request” enter new territory for the artist with their unique, fuzzy synth sounds. Totally out of place here but still great fun is the hilarious “Putty Boy Strut”, which might be the catchiest thing Ellison has ever put together. Perhaps the best song integration of all comes at the album’s center, as the delicious lounge vibe of the title track evolves in a single beat into the gorgeously tripped out “DMT Song,” a hypnotic ode to the hallucinogen of the same name. Even at just over a minute in length, you will have difficulty getting this melody out of your brain. The best Flying Lotus songs always consist of some type of mid-song tempo shift, and standout “The Nightcaller” is no exception, beginning with buzzing, robotic synth and spooky dance beats that shift halfway through into a swanky jazz groove.

The album takes a decidedly darker turn after that, and while I’m probably partial to Thom Yorke’s aforementioned Cosmogramma contribution “The World Laughs With You”, that track almost could have been mistaken as a Radiohead song circa Amnesiac. This time, Yorke’s vocals on the dark, subdued “Electric Candyman” merely add texture to a track that is distinctly Flying Lotus. Guest vocalists have a heavy impact here, and surprisingly Erykah Badyu’s contribution earlier on “See Thru To U” is trumped by Randa and Laura Darlington respectively as the album nears its conclusion. The ominous “Hunger” builds with uncertainty and sadness, and then shifts into an atmospheric vocal section backed by electronic organ, violin and bass notes in one of the very finest moments here. Darlington, whose contributions are always noteworthy on Ellison’s albums, gives her best to date here on the astonishingly pretty “Phantasm”, which gains complexity from a fluttering percussion underbelly that adds an unsettling element to her haunting vocals. And even after all of that, penultimate track  “me Yesterday/ Corded” probably tops them all, beginning with a distorted, haphazard organ and distant vocals before exploding into an amazing coda that manages to convey optimism and carry a bittersweet tone all in one swoop. It is Ellison’s prettiest and most uplifting song to date, and a perfect microcosm for this highly anticipated release.

#3 Beach House/ Bloom

One could make the argument that no band in recent memory achieved as significant an improvement in musical quality as Beach House did between their self-titled debut in 2006 and 2010’s stunningly gorgeous Teen Dream. Given that reality, hopes were sky high for Bloom if the band’s previous trajectory was to be any indication of its future potential. And while it appears the band may finally be approaching its creative ceiling, in 2012 they picked up right where they left off, delivering a record every bit the equal of their 2010 masterpiece, even if the lingering awe from that work renders this one a bit less initially powerful in comparison.

It’s an odd thing to conclude that a band’s prior greatness can actually detract from the quality of it current work, but that seems to be what has happened here or we might very well have had this record at #1. Had Bloom been released before Teen Dream, we likely would hold this album in highest esteem as the band’s breakthrough and career game changer instead of that one. As it stands, Bloom actually begins on a sharper, stronger note than Teen Dream did through its first four tracks. While that album was more of a musical journey with songs that played off of one another perfectly to create an indescribable atmosphere, this one is best viewed as a pure collection of rock solid, harmonic, gorgeous tunes. Opener “Myth” might be just the prettiest single thing they’ve ever written, and it makes you shake your head in disbelief that Beach House is able to continue to create melodies like this one without breaking into any new musical ground. Simply put, this is what the band’s best music sounds like, and they want to keep making more of it by just doing what they do rather than trying to outsmart themselves. A gloriously repetitive keyboard loop stretches itself behind lead singer Victoria LeGrand’s gorgeous vocal, but the real magic happens in the final thirty seconds when a synthesized violin takes over and leads us into the coda before the song stops suddenly and leaves us hypnotized. Other familiar sounding melodies soar with their vast, textured arrangements, including the chiming beauty of “Other People” and the airy dream pop vocals of “Lazuli,” which evokes memories of Cocteau Twins. There’s a more ominous sound to slow building tracks like “Wild” and “Wishes”, while penultimate track “On the Sea” uses a similar tactic as the last album did, slowing things down for a moment to let Victoria Legrand’s one-of-a-kind vocals do their thing.

And that brings us to the closer “Irene,” another fantastic send-off that succeeds with its patience and release as much as it does from its lovely melody. There’s a point in the song where that melody stops and a single note is repeated over and over for what seems like an eternity before the guitar and organ lines gently re-engage us and the song surges along into its coda as LeGrand sings in falsetto, “It’s a strange paradise.” If Beach House has made any improvement musically from their last effort, it might just be that intangible quality of lushness. Very pretty stuff, this, if you’re into that kind of thing.

#2 Grizzly Bear/ Shields

I for one was in the camp that believed after Grizzly Bear’s last album Veckatemist took the indie scene by storm in 2009 that the band had reached its full potential. Sure, this was a group of young, highly talented musicians that was improving with every album and with every live performance, but just how far could they go with their admittedly complex arrangements but relatively safe, rustic chamber pop style? Color me incorrect, as the remarkably polished and harmonic Shields betters Veckatemist on nearly every conceivable level.

For starters, forget about the band’s usual tendency to draw the listener in slowly. The first three proper tracks here begin on a note unlike one that we have ever heard from Grizzly Bear or practically anyone else for that matter. Opener “Sleeping Ute” is an immediate grabber with its interesting time signature and layered guitar lines that alternate between twangy acoustic leads and explosive riffs, eventually shifting into a soft coda as Daniel Rossen laments “And I can’t help myself.” There’s an urgency on the more familiar sounding “Speak In Rounds” that separates it from the band’s earlier work, as it rolls along with stomping drums and more acoustic guitar twang. This is an open-road driving tune to end all driving tunes. And what more can be said about “Yet Again”, arguably the most impressive track here? Ed Droste has clearly refined his vocal technique, as he utilizes a rich falsetto not unlike that of notable fan and tour mate Thom Yorke. The song builds and releases with its addictive melody throughout a relatively simple structure, but the band takes it up a notch in a shocking final minute of screeching distortion that lies in heavy contrast to what came before it.

There’s a crispness to the production quality here that renders otherwise ordinary ballads like the Droste-led “The Hunt” and Rossen’s “What’s Wrong” heart aching and beautiful, while the motown piano and upbeat grooves on “A Simple Answer” and “Gun Shy” enter completely new territory for the band and end up working out perfectly.  The former starts powerfully and eventually breaks down into a soft coda while the latter moves steadily and more subtly along with whispering background vocals. To top it all off, one could argue that Shields concludes even stronger than it begins. The remorseful “Half Gate” is a bruiser, building from a melodic verses into a thunderous chorus complete with cello, incredible harmony, and explosive drum bursts from Chris Bear, who really shines and stands out on this record in a way that he hasn’t before.

And it’s all just a setup for the epic closer “Sun Is In Your Eyes”, which is constantly shifting between its soft piano verse into a triumphant chorus complete with horns and more fantastic percussion from the band’s namesake. There is a moment around the six minute mark after the song slows down when the electric guitar surges back to the forefront that is just magnificent, and the many changes in texture that this song undergoes over its spellbinding seven minutes best exemplify the additional complexities in overall composition that went into making this album that are apparent across its entirety. There are no holes whatsoever here, and there isn’t a single moment on the entire album that doesn’t succeed in its purpose, as Shields delivers massively to complement what was already an impressive catalog from these guys. Surely this is as good as they can get right? Here’s hoping they’ll prove me wrong once again at some point in the future.

#1 Kendrick Lamar/ Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City

homepage_large.25b1eddaWhen Kanye West released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy two years ago, he elevated the rap genre to a new level after what seemed to mostly be, Outkast notwithstanding, a lost decade of creativity following the deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. in the late 90’s. What made that album great was that an artist, so familiar to his fans by that point in his career, put forth a fearless effort that dripped with honesty and escalated ambition, and it seemed to fill a void in the hip hop world. With Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, the much less familiar Compton native Kendrick Lamar has made an album just as original and unique, but even more personal, and frankly, of indisputably higher overall quality. This is the very best rap record since at least 1995, at once a reinvigorated tribute to the great West Coast rap days of yore and an autobiographical concept album. It is so captivating that to even classify it as merely a rap record seems to sell it short.

Much will be made of the presumably authentic voice recordings that link the album’s 12 tracks together and help to tell its story (and if they aren’t authentic, the rawness of their production is practically even more impressive anyway). On first listen, these may seem to break up the flow and continuity a bit, but as we dive deeper and deeper, it becomes apparent how integral they are to the album’s core. These messages range from the comical, such as Lamar’s mother scolding him for making her late for an appointment at the county building while his father raves about Domino’s Pizza in the background, to more serious perspectives from his parents about what makes a real man, how to learn from his mistakes, and how to avoid violence and make a difference in his community. Lamar utilizes a vocal trick throughout that has recently been popularized by the likes of Nicki Minaj, using a variety of different sounding voices over the course of this album. However, it’s a more effective trick here than Minaj tends to be, as he uses it to establish context rather than to merely create shock and multiple personalities.

But Lamar isn’t restrained to simply rapping, as there are moments here where he carries melody brilliantly on tracks that straddle the line between rap and R&B, and arguably lean towards the latter over the album’s jazzy, downtempo mood. The production is remarkable early on with highlight “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” as Lamar alternates between a melodic chorus of “I am a sinner/ Probably gonna sin again/ Lord forgive me/ For things I don’t understand” and an off-time signature rap verse. Well placed samples of Beach House’s “Silver Soul” on the sensational “Money Trees” and Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place” on “Poetic Justice” are arranged brilliantly and with an eye towards innovation. Later, a perfectly placed violin sample and addictively catchy chorus on the massive “Swimming Pools (Drank)” tells a tale of peer pressure and lessons learned from heavy experimentation with narcotics. This is much more introspective than your average drug-related rap song, as Lamar uses a hallucinogenic vocal and has an actual conversation with himself about the danger he is entering, and then switches back to rapping in triple time.

For a rapper from Compton, this record doesn’t scream gangster rap. There are moments of tough guy bravado on tracks like “Backseat Freestyle”, where Lamar delivers the fantastic lyric “All my life I want money and power/ Respect my mind or die from lead shower” over a creeping, hard-hitting industrial beat, but this album is far too serious to rely on these types of themes entirely. “M.A.A.D. City” is perhaps the song that west coast rap has been waiting for since 2Pac left us. Lamar’s voice reaches an affective, high pitched paranoia underneath a spooky beat before MC Eiht enters the picture and the track suddenly shifts into an enormous violin line and heavy bass that do the old school west coast rap genre proud while maintaining a sense of originality. And as if that were not enough, the album probably reaches its emotional peak on the 12 minute “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”, a two part denouement that takes a hard look towards the legacy that our protagonist desires to leave before taking a more investigative look into the present and the changes that need to be made in his life before that legacy can be fully realized. This is heavy material, but so utterly enjoyable in its entirety. Surely, what comes before has to pretty incredible, for when Dr. Dre finally makes his lyrical appearance on the triumphant closing track “Compton”, it almost feels like a letdown in comparison. In a complete shocker, a 5 foot 6, 25 year-old rapper came out of nowhere and made the Album of the Year in 2012, and this is the first time I have awarded this honor to a rap album since 1993 and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The 36 Chambers. Who saw that coming?