One thing that sucks about no longer having a Facebook page is that I can’t share my annual list of favourite music. Then it occurred to me: hang on, dickhead! You’re a super serious blogger now! You can share all them opinions you have! (I got lots. Seriously, it’s a veritable weed infestation up in here.) Strictly speaking, this post isn’t about literature. I’m sure you gathered that by the title. I decided not to hamfistedly relate any of this back to the writer’s journey, or talk about inspiration, or any of that crap. Frankly, I think we’re past all that.
Been a pretty good year for music, at least as I see it. Much as people like to mourn the apparent death of good music, I’m still finding artists who excite me on a regular basis. People like to act like there’s a finite amount of good music out there, but in my experience that just isn’t so. All you need to find it is an open mind and a willingness to research.
I went to like ten shows this year. Pretty good, I think, for a casual fan on a student wage. Even had this crazy streak going for awhile where I didn’t once double-up on any of Melbourne’s music venues. I think that’s a testament to the great music culture in this city.
This year I continued to educate myself on all the great music of yesterday. I also took several brief respites from rock (my genre of choice) — although my most-played newly discovered artists, The Antlers, The Dears and Dan Sultan, weren’t far from my comfort zone. Curiously, I didn’t listen to a lot of folk or alt. country this year. I guess those genres and I needed some time apart. It’s cool, though; I found other avenues for mopey music. Maybe next year, alt. country. Been listening to a lot of Soulive lately. They’re a jazz organ trio. The album I have (Doin’ Something) is ineligible for this year’s list, but it deserves some love, so check it out.
Enough fapping about. Here’s the best music of 2013 in accordance with My Opinion™. Probably goes without saying, but everything on this list was released between the 1st of January and now (as in, the moment of typing, not the crazy future date you’re reading it). Please note my terribly earnest (or just plain terrible?) attempts at rock journalism. Call it faux rock journalism, if you like. That was all for you guys. I pretty much wrote this as I felt it, but now that the time has come to post it I’m having these micro panic attacks. Brain’s all, ‘Don’t post this garbage, man! You’re a fake! You don’t know jack about music! Interwebs will see right through you!’ Whatever! Just shut up, faceless hypothetical naysayer guy! This list’s just a bit of fun, a way for me to spread the word about some great albums. I don’t want to get into any pissing contests with anyone. My piss doesn’t go as far as yours, k? Cool. Here we go.
My favourite pop moments:
Kings of Leon – Temple
Kings of Leon’s last two disappointed, but they’d accumulated enough good faith for me to check out their latest. Mechanical Bull was a pleasant surprise. It’s unlikely to set the world on fire, but it sounds looser, less calculated, than anything they’ve put out in recent years. My personal favourite, ‘Temple’, is a simple pop gem that calls to mind the brilliant Because of the Times single, ‘Fans’.
Bloc Party – Ratchet
I’ve come to love Bloc Party’s sharp-left mind-fucks. ‘Ratchet’ sees once-shy frontman Kele Okereke getting his Dizzy Rascal on. It’s a party anthem in which Okereke raps inexhaustibly over some of guitarist Russell Lissack’s grimiest chords yet, spitting slang like, ‘Gonna get fucked-up, gonna get half-cut,’ ‘Smokin’ all that home-grown!’ and ‘Tell your bitch to get off my shit’. It’s catchy, a bit ridiculous and oh-so-unexpected when using their hyper-earnest, pseudo-political second album Weekend in the City as a reference point. Bloc Party steadfastly refuse to be pigeon-holed.
The Strokes – Welcome to Japan
I feel for The Strokes. Over a decade ago now, they were heralded as rock’s saviours – a label they’ve yet to shake. Since then, they’ve explored new sounds but have struggled to find a workable identity. Their latest records, Angles and Comedown Machine, were derided for sounding too retro, for incorporating too many R&B elements, for sounding too much like Cassablanca’s solo work. I’ve always believed The Strokes capable of being more than a garage rock outfit. Angles was a great record with a few growing pains. Comedown Machine continues in this direction, making notable strides. Much as Strokes fans like to complain, there’s plenty of mileage in this new sound. ‘Welcome to Japan’ is a perfect pop moment. Just try defying its cheeky refrain. ‘What kind of asshole drives a Lotus?’ Indeed.
Justin Timberlake – Suit & Tie
All preconceptions aside, JT’s 20/20 Experience is a seriously good, intelligent pop record. It’s sonically adventurous and pays homage to jazz, soul and a slew of other unexpected genres. First single, ‘Suit & Tie’, sees Timberlake and his falsetto taking on doo-wop. It has horns, shifting time signatures and an interesting (if unnecessary) Jay-Z breakdown.
The Killers – Shot at the Night (feat. M83)
I’m not sure anyone expected The Killers to go in the direction they did after their debut, Hot Fuss, jettisoned them into the big leagues. My relationship with this band has been tempestuous. I loved Sam’s Town, scratched my head at – though ultimately enjoyed – Day & Age, but loathed just about every minute of Battle Born. (By the way, I found the intervening records, Flamingo and Sawdust, strong, if inconsistent.) Brandon Flowers has always been an interesting songwriter, but he’s also his own worst enemy. His desire for The Killers to be one of the great, all-American bands is grating. But that’s neither here nor there; this latest track, a collaboration with synthpop/shoegaze outfit, M83, proves just the shot in the arm they needed. ‘Shot at the Night’ is one the most focused (read: least bombastic) tunes they’ve written in ages, and proves there’s still plenty left in the tank. As a friend put it, ‘This is the best song The Killers have done in years!’
TV On The Radio – Mercy
To be honest, this isn’t all that remarkable, but I’d be remiss not to give it some love. See, I enjoy most everything TV On The Radio do – especially when they ramp up the tempo. ‘Mercy’ is a fine rocker, and a welcome bit of dance-floor filler after their mellower last record.
Josh Pyke – Leeward Side
The highlight of an otherwise underwhelming album, ‘Leeward Side’ sees Pyke at his poppy ‘Lines on Palms’ best. Much as I wish Pyke would explore some new territory, this track is pretty undeniable. It features beautiful, double-tracked harmonies, a gorgeous melody and that distinct Pyke wordplay.
The National – I Should Live in Salt
The opening track and my personal pick from The National’s latest. ‘I Should Live in Salt’ doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it sounds impassioned and has a monster chorus.
Kanye West – Black Skinheads
And I thought he sounded mad on 2011’s ‘Monster’…
Kirin J Callinan – Victoria M.
Thanks, Rage, for introducing me to this incredible Springsteenian anthem. The record it’s pulled from, Embracism, has some cracking tunes on it, too, but it’s the single that hits me hardest. When Callinan sings, ‘I’m in love with two, but I could never tell you’, I hear echoes of Robert Smith.
My Favourite Albums of 2013
Franz Ferdinand – Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action
After enjoying the hell out of Franz Ferdinand’s first three LPs, I was astounded – yes, astounded! – to learn they’d sort of fallen out of critical and popular favour. Apparently, while I was jamming away to 2009’s Tonight, people were falling out of love with this band! Forgive the digression, but Tonight was sprawling, ambitious, full of hooks and showed discernible progression. Perhaps it was a touch overlong, but it was no lemon! (In fact, it was one of my most played albums of 2009.) So here we are, 2013, and Franz have finally recovered from that critical sucker punch. Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action is kind of a back-to-basics rock record, in the vein of their debut (and, to some extent, their second record). It’s not a retread, by any stretch – Franz do flirt with some new sounds (the surf-rock of ‘Treason! Animals’, the funk-disco of ‘Evil Eye’ and the Sgt. Pepper’s-esque ‘The Universe Expanded’) – but it’s a noticeably safer record than their last. Initially, this disappointed me. Franz Ferdinand, if your instinct is to tack a balls-to-the-wall glitchy electronic breakdown to the end of ‘Lucid Dreams’, you should follow it! I feel like the critical shorthand of their last record stung them, and they’ve come back a little inhibited, a little too determined to appease narrower-minded fans. I’m probably over-reading the situation. Alas, Right Thoughts is a damn fine record. On a song-to-song basis, it’s probably the most consistent one they’ve put out, with nary anything resembling filler. All the ingredients are there: Alex Kapranos’ clever wordplay, the delicious humour, the dance sensibilities, great guitar interplay, and the hooks (man, the hooks!). ‘The Universe Expanded’ and ‘Goodbye Lovers and Friends’ also stand out as rare moments of sincerity, proof that Kapranos can still write compelling lyrics without lacing them in irony (although there’s still some irony). This record will be my soundtrack to the approaching Australian summer.
Dawes – Stories Don’t End
With Stories Don’t End, Dawes have taken the same sonic leap My Morning Jacket did with Z. This record is unashamedly modern, which means it contrasts with the band’s earlier, A.M. radio Americana. Vibrant, mid-tempo single, ‘From a Window Seat’ sets the tone well: it’s catchy and well-written, but perhaps a little too subdued. My first few listens were spent waiting for crescendos that never came. It’s a well-mannered record; nothing here is as immediately gratifying as North Hills’ ‘When My Time Comes’. Once I settled in the record’s rhythm, though, I found it a worthy follow-up to Nothing is Wrong, one of my favourite records of 2011. Taylor Goldsmith proves he’s still a great lyricist – and a big romantic – but my favourite cuts were the looser, off-the-cuff ‘Most People’ and ‘Hey Lover’. Stories Don’t End is a pleasant record with a lot of heart. Its warm, rich tone is welcome, but I do hope they embrace their eccentricities more on the next one.
Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Arcade Fire. A big band that evokes big opinions. Strap in. In my decade of observing the music industry, I’ve seen many bands and debut records saddled with labels like ‘This is the future of music!’, ‘Most important act of the decade!’ and ‘Generation-defining!’. I’m wary of such hyperbole because it comes with pressure, and pressure is what inevitably starts a band’s self-destruct sequence. Arcade Fire, however, has (thus far) weathered the hype monsoon. They made a huge impression with their debut, Funeral, and have since gone from strength to strength (culminating in 2011 when The Suburbs netted them a surprise Best Album Grammy). They’re widely popular, all four of their records have met near-unanimous critical acclaim, and they have integrity to spare. But for some reason, despite enjoying everything they’ve done, I’ve always felt at an arm’s length from this band. I think it’s because I’m tired of their frequent condemnations of contemporary society and youth culture (drink every time Win Butler references ‘the kids’). No matter how incisive Butler’s critiques are, I struggle to get past the sheer obnoxiousness that emanates from this band. Society is selfish; hipsters are shallow and apathetic – we get it. (Reflektor, funnily enough, seems to be taking us to task for our narcissism.) I’d prefer it if Butler used his lyrics to work through something personal and relatable, rather than make commentaries. I struggle to emotionally invest in Arcade Fire, though sonically their work is enjoyable.
Anyway, Reflektor is the most divisive record in their catalogue to date. It’s a double album, though it’s only marginally longer than their traditionally overstuffed single-disced LPs. (I just checked; it’s actually shorter than The Suburbs. Not sure what kind of statement this is meant to be making, but I’m sure some group or industry out there is at the butt of the joke.) I think if Reflektor were two or three songs shorter, people would assess it more kindly. But reaching a consensus on which songs to cut would be challenging, as it’s a pretty consistent listen. With a few disco sensibilities, Reflektor is a clear stylistic departure, though it still sounds very much like Arcade Fire. Tracks like ‘It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)’, ‘Flashbulb Eyes’ and ‘Supersymmetry’ flirt with electronics – something I don’t think the band has ever done before (or if they have it’s never been this pronounced). ‘Here Comes the Night’ is loose, bouncy and effectively captures the atmosphere of a Haitian carnival. ‘You Already Know’ is an up-tempo rocker (think The Suburbs’ ‘Month of May’), ‘Normal Person’ is goofy fun (even if lyrically it’s just ‘Modern Man 2.0’), and ‘Joan of Arc’ starts off, interestingly, sounding like an homage to The Clash before suddenly shifting gears and mellowing out (a very interesting opening, but it drags its heels by the midway point). My favourite track, the haunting ‘Afterlife’, may be the sincerest thing they’ve done. I don’t feel that Arcade Fire have surpassed their masterful third LP, The Suburbs, but Reflektor is still an enjoyable listen. Ultimately, I found it too indulgent for its own good, with most of its good ideas outstaying their welcome, but maybe this is because I’ve been conditioned to hold them to the incredibly high standard they’ve set for themselves.
Halloween, Alaska – Liberties EP
When Halloween, Alaska cover a track, they completely rebuild it, wringing more emotion from it than even the original artist knew possible. Take their impossibly beautiful cover of LL Cool J’s ‘I Can’t Live Without My Radio’ (from 2005’s Too Tall To Hide) or their cold, minimal Springsteen cover (Nebraska highlight, ‘State Trooper’ – featured on Halloween, Alaska’s eponymous debut). So Liberties, an EP of covers, is not without precedent; it might even be the most logical thing they could’ve done at this stage of their career. But is it any good? You betcha. Granted, I was unfamiliar with three of the six tracks, but can assume the band took many liberties (geddit?) realising their remarkable vision for these songs. My personal standouts are the powerful ‘Stand Back’ (a track genuinely unlike anything they’ve done before) and their sombre, crystalline cover of Portishead’s ‘Machine Gun’, a cover that somehow manages to make a beautiful song even more so. I can’t finish up without mentioning their take on Pat Benatar’s ‘Love is a Battlefield’. It’s a song the world’s overly familiar with it (hard not to be; it’s been a radio staple for over twenty years), yet Halloween, Alaska have managed to reconstruct it into something shimmering and new. If that’s not a testament to the band’s talent, I don’t know what is.
Au Revoir Simone – Move in Spectrums
My first Au Revoir Simone record (although I’m familiar with some early singles). I’ve revisited Move in Spectrums a lot since its release. It’s become my go-to record when I need a warm pick me up. (You could say it’s the aural equivalent of a nice cup of English Breakfast.) When I put this on, I inevitably play it right through, which is rare for me (and most consumers today – I’m sure there’s an apocalyptic Noel Gallagher quote out there lamenting the death of the album). This tells me that Move in Spectrums isn’t a string of singles buoyed by sub-par album tracks; it’s pretty and glossy, consistent and well-paced, and the production is immaculate. The shimmering electronics on ‘We Both Know’ slay me every time. (Seriously, I’m listening to it now. Even my goosebumps have goosebumps.) There are three vocalists in Au Revoir Simone. I’m not discerning enough to recognise whose voice is whose, so I’ll just blindly say I’ve fallen like a tonne of bricks for all of them [their voices]. Check out the outstanding vocals on ‘The Lead is Galloping’, ‘Somebody Who’ and the too-fun ‘Crazy’. Must check out the rest of their stuff.
Drake – Nothing Was the Same
Confession: I’d never listened to Drake before this year, and if it hadn’t of been for uber successful lead single, ‘Hold On, We’re Going Home’, I might never have given him a chance. I’m glad I did, though, for there’s a lot going on with Nothing Was the Same – far more than I anticipated. Drake throws down many intelligent, visceral raps about relationships and the pressures of success. What interests me most are the soundscapes these songs are built on. The clever samples and layering put me more in mind of Flume and James Blake than anything I’ve encountered in modern rap. Highlights include ‘The Language’, ‘Tuscan Leather’ and ‘Worst Behaviour’.
My Top Three Albums of the Year.
British India – Controller
I revisited this album yesterday after some time away from it. It floored me, just as it did when I first heard it back in April. British India is one of the few Australian bands I’m genuinely proud of. They’re grounded, they work hard and they’ve managed to keep their integrity as they edge ever closer to the mainstream. Controller had to be in my top three this year; it’s a genuine piece of art. This band made a name for itself writing snotty punk tunes (not a backhand compliment; I love their entire discography), and it floors me to reflect on how far they’ve come. This record is full of heart. It’s intense, intelligent, textured, immaculately produced; it’s got rockers (‘Another Christmas in the Trenches’, ‘Twice Inna Lifetime’), slow-burners (the effervescent ‘I Can Make You Love Me’); it shows so much growth without alienating past fans. Declan Melia’s song writing is going from strength to strength. As he laments past mistakes, I can’t think of another modern rock singer who brings quite so much passion. British India deserve to be huge. And if there’s any justice in the world, they will be.
Foals – Holy Fire
Step aside. Foals are officially taking numbers. On third LP Holy Fire, they sound self-assured, invigorated and at the top of their game. Charting how they got to this point, debut Antidotes was all stabs of aggression, while 2010’s Total Life Forever sounded looser, more atmospheric. Holy Fire marries the band’s two sounds, while also bringing plenty of new good ideas of its own to the table. Foals’ last two records were crackers, too, but Holy Fire sounds like the statement of a band who have dug deep, experimented, then emerged brimming with confidence and sound that’s wholly their own. Early standout ‘Inhaler’ best exemplifies this convergence of early sounds. It’s at once tightly coiled, punchy, and yet open and spacious. ‘Providence’ retains the punk-rock spirit of their early work, but repurposes it within the context of their newer, more polished sound. It’s still all dirty riffs and attitude, but it’s more focused. As a singer, Yannis Philippakis has grown exponentially since Antidotes; his performances on ‘Bad Habit’, ‘Stepson’ and ‘Milk and Black Spiders’, in particular, sound charged, imbued with emotion. Single ‘My Number’ is a raucous slice of funk. It’s confident, infectious, and shows a continued willingness to try new sounds. ‘Late Night’ – my favourite cut – is grandiose in scope and execution. It’s all about funk, jamming and atmosphere. It’s actually not that dissimilar from early crossover hit ‘Spanish Sahara’, but it’s weightier, slinkier, moves with a purpose. Foals have really stepped up here in a big way.
Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe
Okay. All right. Adverb time. I’m sorry in advance; there’s just no other way to do this. Cupid Deluxe is my favourite album of the year. It’s impossibly good. Unbelievably, unfathomably beautiful. Seriously, this shit should be illegal. I enjoyed 2011’s Coastal Grooves, but Cupid Deluxe is in a league of its own. At the risk of sounding like a hysterical schoolgirl, every song is amazing. I’m shaking my head reflecting on how perfectly all the components mesh. There’s Dev Hynes’ stellar production, the thrilling genre-hops (New Wave, funk, jazz, pop, a few choice rap cuts), the inspired guest personnel (seriously, where does he find these female vocalists? Heaven?). The songs are sharp, nuanced, full of surprises and interesting dynamics. No moment outstays its welcome. Dev himself has never sounded better. His range and control is astounding; his higher register, effortless. In fact, everyone who sings on this album sounds deeply impassioned, and this lends gravitas to the many expressions of heartache. It’s like eleven [Gotye’s] ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’s in a row.
Highlights? ‘Chamakay’, the glittering duet; ‘You’re Not Good Enough’, a Prince-y funk number, in which Dev spits inspired bile like, ‘Fall asleep right next to me and know that you were never good enough’; the wispy dream-pop of ‘It Is What It Is’; and the beautifully retro ‘Uncle ACE’, ‘On the Line’ and ‘High Street’. ‘Time Will Tell’ is a novel, slowed-down re-imagining of ‘It Is What It Is’. It even has a welcome nod to Blood Orange’s biggest hit, ‘Champagne Coast’. Little surprises like that reveal the care and attention to detail that went into this record. My favourite track is ‘Chosen’, a chill-wave ballad with an 80s beat, soulful sax interludes and a French spoken-word intro. The beat drops around the four-and-a-half minute mark, then the atmosphere changes and the music falls away, leaving that monster gospel chorus hanging there, uplifting you, sounding damn near tangible. It’s a real lighters-in-the-air moment. It strikes me as a delicate song that, if mishandled, could’ve easily come off sounding overblown. But Dev, a master in the studio, handles everything just so. The guy’s a genius. I don’t want to embarrass myself further with this awkward description but, fuck it – ‘Chosen’ is transcendent. It’s the album’s gorgeous centrepiece.
MS MR – Secondhand Rapture
Yo La Tengo – Fade
Goldfrapp – Tales of Us
Portugal. The Man – Evil Friends
Indians – Somewhere Else
Alpine – A is for Alpine
Couldn’t think of a way to classify this next lot. How about: Albums I Had High Hopes For That, While Objectively Good, Left Me Cold.
Phoenix – Bankrupt!
I really can’t pinpoint why I couldn’t connect with this; it’s a decent listen. Following up Wolfgang couldn’t have been easy – I expect that’s why it took Phoenix four years to do it. This is a starkly less commercial affair than their 2009 breakthrough – not necessarily a bad thing. My biggest issue with Bankrupt! is that it’s sort of dull.
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
A certified cultural phenomenon. It’s a good album, but I scarcely returned to it after my initial listens. Still, funk was a good move for them, I guess.
Crystal Fighters – Cave Rave
A worthy successor to 2010’s Star of Love but, bar a few songs, I just couldn’t get into it.
Major Missteps of 2013:
Noah and the Whale – Heart of Nowhere
I’m beginning to think, at this point, that any solid material this band wrote in the past was a fluke. Heart of Nowhere aims for the heart, but all I feel when I listen to it is embarrassed.
Bloc Party – The Nextwave Sessions EP
This was tough. The Nextwave Sessions EP contains the sublime ‘Ratchet’, but there was no getting past the fact that tracks two–four were dire, undercooked retreads of past material. ‘Obscene’ sounds more like Kele’s insipid solo work than Bloc Party proper. ‘French Exit’ is a half-hearted retread of Intimacy’s ‘One Month Off’ (itself, a half-hearted retread of ‘Helicopter’). Alongside ‘Children of the Future’, they are dull, empty, plagued by cringe-inducing lyrics and an over-emotive delivery. After the rawness of last year’s Four, this lukewarm release was particularly disappointing. Of course, it’s only an EP and, if Bloc Party continues as a band, I’d rather them get garbage like ‘Obscene’ out of their system before commencing work on their fifth LP. The future of Bloc Party is uncertain, but I refuse to accept this as their swansong.
John Frusciante – Outsides
Geez. What to say about this? I enjoy the avant-garde side of Frusciante’s music – I loved Letur Lefr and found elements of PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone interesting – but my patience is dwindling. Frusciante seems to be resisting his pop sensibilities for the sake of it; I can’t, for the life of me, see what the music on Outsides is meant to be conveying. I admire Frusciante for his mad genius, but I wish he’d stop heading in this direction. He’s in danger of disappearing up his own arsehole.
Icona Pop – This Is… Icona Pop
Icona Pop have been popping up everywhere this year (pun unintended). From TV ads to multiple music sites’ Best Of features, the duo has had an immensely successful year. The melodies are pleasant, but this record is far too twee for me (coming from someone who loves E.L.O and once gave HelloGoodbye a good shake, this is saying something). I’ll leave it for the fifteen-year-olds with their hairbrush microphones.