Welcome to Listmas 2013, where Ranting About Music counts down the best there was of this past year. Today, we’re kicking the week off by looking at my favorite albums of the year!
It’s been interesting to see publications/blogs change the language of their year-end lists. The typical “best” still shows up, although “favorite” has been gaining popularity, as has the vaguely amiable “top”. For my part, I always think of it as “favorite”, because that’s what these are: my favorites. Inevitably, there’s something better out there somewhere, but these are the albums that made an impact with me, and stuck with me throughout the year. And in 2013, there were a lot of them–I’ve done lists of 5 to 7 for 2010, 11, and 12, but I had to expand the field to ten this year, just because I couldn’t parse it down anymore. Enjoy!
10. Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks
I don’t think anyone was surprised that Trent Reznor reformed Nine Inch Nails, but I don’t think anyone expected them back this soon, or this good. On Hesitation Marks, Reznor puts forth his most sophisticated material that feels like a culmination of what he’s done before both in and out of Nine Inch Nails while still exploring new sounds. It never gets as heavy as some of the group’s other material, but then again, old NIN didn’t do much as nuanced as “Copy of A” or as taut as “All Time Low”. Throw in a few alt rock singles (“Came Back Haunted”) and sky’s the limit ballads (“I Would For You”), and Nine Inch Nails has entered their legacy years still making some of their best work.
9. Savages – Silence Yourself
The mainstream will likely regard 2013 as the year of neo-folk, but it was a heavy year just left of the dial, and few did loud better than London post-punk group Savages on their debut album Silence Yourself. It’s a testament to the band’s skill that Silence Yourself doesn’t burn itself out–there’s not a quiet spot to be found until closer “Marshal Dear”, which still keeps the unending sense of tension. Those first ten songs are overstuffed with punishing riffs and some of the best bass playing I heard all year, not to mention raw anger and aggression that’s not so much convincing as it is compelling. Buzz bands are a dime a dozen, Savages is sure to prove something different. So shut up, and listen.
8. Paramore – Paramore
Losing two founding members would gut most bands, but for Paramore, the departure of the Faro brothers was a cleansing. Paramore granted my long-standing wish for Paramore to be this decade’s Blondie or No Doubt: a niche group that jumped from their sinking-ship genre to be a free-wheeling power pop group that dabbled in a little bit of everything. There’s still plenty of pop-punk to be had, but Paramore excels when the band takes adventures, like the glam stomp of “Fast in My Car”, the 80s soul on “Ain’t It Fun”, and the New Wave pop ecstasy of “Still Into You”. Paramore is the sound of a group with renewed passion discovering how far they can push themselves, and it’s an utter treat to watch what they can do.
7. Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time
A great deal was written this year about the “monogenre”–the point where artists so thoroughly blend together aspects of different genres into one style that it becomes a singularity. The conversation has focused on Lorde or HAIM, but Night Time, My Time is my favorite of the bunch. The electro-pop/rock/hip-hop of Sky Ferreira’s debut is a little rougher around the edges, and has a hint of desperation to it; Ferreira’s faced a number of personal battles to get the album finished, and she sounds committed in a way her peers don’t. On top of that, the music is absolutely stellar: Night Time, My Time boasts some of the strongest pop hooks from “Boys” to “You’re Not the One” to “I Will”, while still hitting hard. And, of course, Ferreira’s vocals seal the deal from start to finish. There were multiple pop letdowns this year, but Night Time, My Time more than makes up for them.
6. Kanye West – Yeezus
“Soon as the like you, make’em un-like you!” West snarls on “I Am a God”, and it might as well be Yeezus‘ statement of intent. Yeezus is one of the year’s most outright unfriendly albums; West spends the 40 minute runtime at his angriest, most paranoid, most depraved, and most absurd (“HURRY UP WITH MY DAMN CROISSANTS”), while the music is loud and abrasive behind him. And it works. From the onslaught of “On Sight” and “Black Skinhead” to the twisted but beautiful outro of “Hold My Liquor” to the failed romance/”Strange Fruit” sampling epic of “Blood on the Leaves” and ending on the distorted romance of “Bound 2”, Yeezus is an utterly bizarre, musically delirious trip through Kanye’s mind that I couldn’t stop listening to all year.
5. Allison Weiss – Say What You Mean
There are some records that fit certain moods, and then there are records that somehow fit every mood, and Say What You Mean falls into the latter camp. There’s plenty of catchy power-pop to be had for when you need a pick me up, a few slower, more somber cuts, and plenty of heart to go around. Weiss’ greatest of her many strengths is that she’s an immediately likeable performer; even if you aren’t in the exact same situations she is in her songs, you just get what she’s talking about. Say What You Mean spins tales of romance and loneliness, but it’s never a downer–hell, it’s one of the peppiest albums of the year. Weiss is still young in her career, and I can’t wait to hear what comes next.
4. The Wonder Years – The Greatest Generation
“Existential 20-something angst” could practically be its own subsub-genre in pop punk, but then you hear an album like The Greatest Generation, and you realize why everyone wants to make something that good. A 50 minute outpouring of free-wheeling emotion and immaculately made pop-punk, The Greatest Generation leaves behind some of TWY’s previous sububan sad sack baggage behind for broader themes of family and finding your purpose in life–of feeling stuck while not knowing where you need to go. If the music wasn’t so lively, the concept might sink, but from pop-punk barnburners like “Passing Through a Screen Door” and “Teenage Parents” to slower numbers like “Dismantling Summer”, “The Devil In My Blood Steam”, and seven minute, operatic closer “I Just Want To Sell Out My Funeral”, The Greatest Generation makes you want to do something, well, great.
3. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Around the 2:40 mark of Reflektor‘s title track, a distorted blurt of synth appears in the mix. The same tone is used in “Yeah” by LCD Soundsystem (Reflektor producer James Murphy’s main gig), and in both cases, it means the same thing: shit’s getting crazy. Coming after the band’s proper breakthrough–if anyone really “breaks through” anymore–with The Suburbs, Reflektor is a self-consciously weird, arty album (see: “Supersymmetry”, “Awful Sound”, “Flashbulb Eyes”) that could double as Arcade Fire’s Big Dumb Rock Album (“Joan of Arc”, “Normal Person”). The band zig-zags between fun subversion and serious art a little too gracelessly for Reflektor to hit transcendence, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t fun to hear a group try this hard to be something different.
2. My Bloody Valentine – mbv
In a year that saw a staggering number of surprise albums (obligatory Beyonce shoutout: check), none were as unexpected as mbv. After 22 years of production, mbv‘s release is a small miracle in itself, but the fact that it’s brilliant is even better. The production is to die for throughout, with the droning guitars and swooning vocals here sounding possibly better than they did on Loveless, and the band’s songwriting hasn’t lost any luster in the two decades since that album’s release. But, what elevates mbv is its last trio of songs, all of which push the band’s sound into new, punishing territory–“in another way” and “nothing is” both pack a wallop, and “wonder 2” could be described as a band falling from an airplane in the best possible way. Even without the history/baggage behind its creation, mbv is a masterpiece. Please, guys, just don’t take 22 years on the next one.
1. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady
I don’t think anyone that’s heard of Janelle Monae doesn’t think she deserves to be bigger, and now that she’s 2 for 2 on ace records, it’s getting harder to ignore her. The Electric Lady is a little more accessible than 2010’s The ArchAndroid, but Monae’s impeccable songcraft is just as strong here as it was there. From orchestrated suites to infectious singles to emotional slow jams, there’s not a note out of place on the album (especially the murderously tight rhythm section), and the thing has like, nine songs that would be my favorite song on a lesser album. The Electric Lady nails every one of its targets: it’s conceptually solid, masterfully created, and infinitely listenable. Check this one out, it’s far and away my favorite for the year.
December 16th: Favorite Albums
December 17th: 10-6 Worst Hits of the Year
December 18th: 5-1 Worst Hits of the Year
December 19th: 10-6 Best Hits of the Year
December 20th: 5-1 Best Hits of the Year
December 21st: The Gibby Fifty–My 50 Favorite Songs of the Year
December 22nd: Odds and Ends