Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Top 10 Albums of 2013

What does it mean when a good portion of my favourite albums for 2013 were electo-pop and upbeat? Does this say something about trends in good music right now, or did I gravitate towards this type of music due to my state of mind and musical taste at this particular point in time? Perhaps 2014 will answer these questions for me, but what I do know about the ten albums below is that I didn't love many of them right away. Throughout the year I bought and downloaded a huge number of albums, and my digitization job enabled me to put in many hours of careful listening. This resulted in my returning to albums that I listened to cursorily early in the year, and eventually understanding and really enjoying them. I was an instant fan of Kveikur, Olympia, and If You Leave but only began to become obsessed with Empty Estate, Move in Spectrums, and Run the Jewels during the second half of 2013. Here are my faves in no particular order...except for Sigur Ros who hold the number one spot...because they are the best band of all time. Ever.

1) Sigur Ros - Kveikur

I have a friend who went to the Airwaves music festival in Iceland last winter. Sigur Ros was (logically) headlining this blustery event, and their show at the end of the five days was oversold, to say the least. My friend said that this group of Sigur Ros fans was particularly passionate about the music, and knew every word to every song. This is impressive since many Sigur Ros lyrics are derived from a made-up language. While the band was flawless and the crowd was in rapture for most of the performance, many people reacted when Sigur busted out 'Brennisteinn' and the title track of this album, as a special preview of the songs they were working on. Sigur Ros is soooo good, and their fans soooo loyal, that these reactions were by no means negative but were rather a result of confusion and uncertainty. Kveikur is the complete opposite of their last album, Valtari. While the latter is the band's slowest and most reflective album to date, the former is the band's fastest and most boisterous album to date. I saw Sigur Ros twice this year, in San Francisco and Vancouver, and was also unsure of this elfish group's newfound industrial edge, but it is now one of my favourite albums. Ever. Kveikur has cojones. Yes, even elves have balls.

2) El-P and Killer Mike - Run the Jewels

I really like half of this album, I really dislike half of this album, and I wholly respect El-P and Killer Mike for every song that they created here. The good songs - 'Run the Jewels', 'A Christmas Fucking Miracle', 'Job Well Done' - are tongue-in-cheek, raw, and packed with astoundingly literate rhyming. The bad songs - 'Ddfn', 'No Come Down', 'Get It' - are sapped by bland, dark beats and fall into the rap-traps of self-aggrandizing and sexism. I had a feeling this album was important when I kept coming back to it on my iPod, and continued to be impressed with the wordsmithing despite "disliking" certain songs on the whole. The friendship and chemistry between these two very different men and musicians is also adorable.

3) Daughter - If You Leave

I saw this London trio at the Doug Fir in Portland in May and was an instant fan. They are like a broody Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Elena Tonra - with her short, dark, banged hair - even resembles Karen O at times. Pretty much every song of this debut deals with the mindset of an insecure and angsty young woman, the lyrics rife with concerns revolving around reproduction and loneliness, and this can be wearing when you listen to If You Leave from beginning to end. The songs are so delicate and mysterious, however, that you often do want to listen to the complete album every time. Bonus points were given to Daughter when the lead guitarist whipped out a bow for 'Touch', in an effective homage to my favouite band, Sigur Ros. Daughter actually opened for Sigur Ros in Europe this year as well.

4) Chvrches - The Bones of What You Believe

I dismissed Chvrches before I gave them a chance. I gave them an initial listen and thought the upbeat tempo of most songs and teenage vocals of Lauren Mayberry were twee and superficial, but then I revisited the album a few months later, influenced by all the hype I've read online. While I still find some songs obnoxious and poorly written (see: 'Gun' and 'Night Sky'), I find others (see: 'Tether' and 'Lies') carefully layered and perfectly composed. Mayberry's utterly charming brogue and the sheer danceability of most every song got under my skin and has made this a go-to album for me.

5) Atoms for Peace - Amok

I think Thom Yorke is a musical genius, in the true sense of the term, so basically everything he touches is ranked in my top albums each year. Atoms for Peace - whose songs are all propelled by Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco's forro rhythms and Flea's dancing basslines - is not Radiohead-like, and it takes a few listens to adjust to Thom's voice with a different band in the background. This album is full of laptop-generated breakbeats and glitches that at first sound facile when compared to rock elements found in Radiohead songs, but the depth of the loops and layers created by Atoms for Peace become apparent once you finally convince yourself that this is not Radiohead! I appreciate how the musicians on this album do not get completely absorbed by the complex textures that they are creating, like a jazz jam band at Minton's Playhouse, forgetting the fact that there is a passive audience trying to engage with the music being produced. Atoms for Peace walks the line between frenetic innovation and accessible rock without falling into either, and this is what makes Amok so awesome.

6) Half Moon Run - Dark Eyes

Is this folk? Is this indie? Is this Sixties-inspired harmony rock? The first few times I listed to this album in its entirety I found the twinkly keyboard-driven tracks 'She Wants to Know' and 'Judgement' frothy and irksome, especially in contrast to the album's serious and evocative tracks. The songs 'Full Circle', 'Need It', and (my favourite) '21 Gun Salute' perfectly blend harmony, foreboding bass, poignant lyrics, and driving percussion, and help to counteract the jangly superficiality of the album's lighter compositions. I have read reviews of Dark Eyes that draw attention to the overworked sound and congested musicality of the album. I too agree that many of the songs sound busy and overly ambitious, but I chalk this up to the band's enthusiasm and immense skill. These Canadian guys are in their early twenties, are experiencing great early success, and are incredibly creative...I will forgive them for sounding too talented on their debut.

7) Au Revoir Simone - Move in Spectrums

I liked this album the first time I heard it, but I didn't love it. It is safe, pleasing, electro made by Brooklyn hipsterettes. Then the songs 'We Both Know' and 'Let the Night Win' caught my attention after a few full-length listens. These songs are long and very well balanced. Drawn out yet engaging. I have never been a fan of dream pop per se, but in my mind these two songs epitomize this genre. I appreciate how Au Revoir Simone has pop songs but counterbalance the naive toe-tappers on the album with thoughtful and complex songscapes that push six minutes in length. This was on heavy rotation between September and November. I also like them just that much more after finding out that their name comes from a line spoken near the end of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, one of my favourite movies as a kid.

8) Austra - Olympia

The more I learn about Katie Stelmanis the less I like her. But the more I hear of Austra the more I like them. Yes, her crazy range and powerful vibrato drive this Canadian electropop outfit, but the band is super tight and is coming up with some really unique backdrops for Queen Katie. The layering of synth and keyboards is even more dynamic on Olympia than it was on the band's 2011 debut Feel it Break, and - shock! - the other members of the band were actually allowed to contribute to this album. Their backing vocals on many of the tracks contrast nicely with Katie's operatic leanings and provide this album with a more eclectic feel than their debut. I think one of Austra's problems is that they are better than they know they are. I have seen them live twice now, and their performances did not reflect the polished quality or gravitas of their recorded material. I am not saying that Austra is a studio band - their concerts were good - but I do think that when their persona catches up with their talent we will all be in for a treat.

9) Wild Nothing - Empty Estate

I thought this EP was just good until I started focusing on the transitions between songs 'Ocean Repeating' and 'On Guyot', and 'A Dancing Shell' and 'Hachiko'. Most of the songs on this album, and Jack Tatum's last album Nocturne, would not be as vital and energizing were it not for his inclusion of long and atmospheric interludes such as 'On Guyot' and 'Hachiko'. It is always a bit risky recording instrumental, long, meandering tracks, but this is especially true when one specializes in New Wave pop. However, these instrumental, long, meandering songs make this album, on the whole. I don't like Jack Tatum, and feel bad for the musicians who tour with this ego maniac, but his music is very well composed and appealing. Separate the art from the artist, as the saying goes. 

10) Bleached - Ride Your Heart

The Pitchfork review of this album states that most songs are "unimaginative" and based upon "generic declarations of love". But you don't listen to Bleached for insightful lyrics or sophisticated instrumentation. This is a band comprised of two sisters - Jennifer and Jessica Clavin - who fronted a popular underground punk group called Mika Miko in LA between 2007-2010. While the Clavins have taken a Sixties surf approach with Bleached, their basic formula of genuine and unpolished rock - with a generous dousing of Americana and grit - remains constant across both bands. I also agree with Pitchfork's observation that while over half of these songs are well balanced and really fun, some are just boring fillers. But I suppose it wouldn't be a record made by the Clavin sisters if it was ambitious and carefully created...that ain't them. But the good songs on here are really, really good.

Keywords: "Top Albums 2013", "Pitchfork Top 2013", "Alex Dawkins Vancouver"

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