Musicsplaining 2013 Pt 1

Once it was that come December, the battles over lists would be all about who made it in and where. My Bloody Valentine fans would face off with Nirvana fans over which was the #1 record of 1991 in a flurry of flannel, while Massive Attack fans sat in a corner pulling cones and condescending to everyone.

But today, in this ridiculously post-modern artistic world where to belittle One Direction is to somehow demean an utterly nebulous idea of ‘taste’, the debate is now about whether we should do lists at all. And heaven forbid we attempt something so gauche as putting them in ranked order.

Well, suck it up and strap yourselves in, you tweed-wearing nebbishes, because this is an entirely subjective, numerically ordered, borderline autistic LIST, from 20 to one, of the best albums of 2013 (the also-rans are over here). If you’re one of those song-thieving spotify-types who doesn’t ‘do’ albums, you are not welcome here and please take it to Pinterest.

Also, my apologies to metal fans. None crossed my path that even remotely appealed to me, so feel free to complain about its absence in your various internet message boards.

20. Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety

Arthur Ashin adopted the moniker of a 15th century French dress ornament which translates as ‘I Want No Other’, which he first saw at a museum in his native New York.

That story is as good a metaphor for the music on Anxiety as you could hope to get. There is a distinct veneer of europhilia on display, under which beats a heart as red and blue as Jon Bon Jovi’s.

The thundering chorus of Play by Play harnesses that most American of sportsisms as a metaphor for pursuing a lady to a restless melody that would not be out of place in a Eurovision contestant’s interpretation of US R’n’B.

There’s something visceral to Anxiety, too, which makes sense; Ashin’s throaty vocals, littered with surprising flights of falsetto carry an emotional punch that sometimes rises to the heights implied by the original (kyboshed) cover art, which featured Munch’s Scream, that most powerfully anxious character from art history.

And like Munch’s classic painting, the angst here is undeniably performative. Ashin sings in the way that many Oscar winners act; ostentatiously and obviously. But it never seems inappropriate. A euro-R’n’B record where a solo artist so aggressively puts himself on display yet claims to be ‘Ego Free Sex Free’ feels appropriately post-modern for a best of 2013 list.

19. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels

There is a fascination with ‘flow’ among those who consider themselves aficionados of hip hop. “Sure, Kanye’s work is great, but his rapping….only so so”.  This focus on vocal virtuosity is rivalled perhaps only by opera fans, and for those unskilled in identifying the difference between Ghostface Killa and Kanye, it can be infuriating.

As far as we rap philistines are concerned, criticism of Kanye West’s flow is as misguided as saying that you couldn’t get into Blonde on Blonde because Dylan couldn’t sing.

Regardless, there is little doubt around the virtuosity on display on Run the Jewels, another collaboration between Killer Mike and El-P. It was intended to be a decompression from previous works that tended to the high-concept politicisation, and it succeeds at least in being a frantic, tightly-wound 33 minutes that sounds exactly like its creation; coming together to let ideas spool out without the notional framework that guided previous recordings.

Those ideas, however, don’t quite reach the heights they might when the creative forces open their mouths. The reflexive reversion to outre tropes stand up purely through the willingness to dance right up to the line of self-parody, and the vigour with which they’re delivered.

Either way, in an age where the dominant forces in hip hop are Kanye’s megalomaniacal egotasms and Drake’s emo-hop, a pair of old-style stylists willing to be profane for profanity’s sake, and make something that sounds recognisably rap without post-punk industrial or r’n’b influences is a breath of fresh air. When it’s done this well, it’s thrilling.

18. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap

I don’t know what a mix tape is. I don’t understand it when Lil Wayne puts out a ‘mix tape’ and as far as I can tell it is an album or at the very least an EP. Either way, when now 20 year-old Chancelor Bennett, aka Chance the Rapper released his first ‘mix tape’ #10Day, it was on a week-long bout of truancy from school, and it is this sense of restless, youthful rebellion that permeates Acid Rap.

Chance’s jumpy joie de vivre has been compared to a modern-day Ferris Bueller, and the comparison is apt, if a little PG rated. Where Bueller ‘borrows’ a friend’s father’s Ferrari and joins a parade, this world is drug-fuelled, profane and not a little dangerous.

 The kaleidoscopic eclecticism on display is encapsulated in the title. While I’ve never dropped acid, the hypercolour energy on display is easily imagined as a particularly colourful trip. Utterly freewheeling and nonjudgemental, this is not a record that aims to exclude anyone, but it will probably not be to everyone’s tastes.

But if it is to your tastes, there is little that came out this year that has the verve, the swagger, the sheer energy of Acid Rap.

 17. Mikal Cronin – MCII

To use any portmanteau featuring the word ‘pop’ is basically to announce oneself as hopelessly out of touch and still living in the days where Def Leppard was cool. Try it out – ‘power pop’, ‘pop rock’, you name it. It’s horrific.

So perhaps we’ll steer clear of neat categorisations of Mikal Cronin’s MCII, a masterfully composed 90s throwback that expertly balances perfectly crafted hooks and melodies with a judicious application of the distortion pedal.

Cronin’s earlier work has tended towards the louder side of that particular spectrum, and stepping back here has let some dazzling stuff break through, as well as adding punch to the moments when he lets loose.

Whether it’s the whispered bridge before launching into a thundering, fuzzy chorus on opener Weight or the 60s girl group swagger of Am I Wrong, Cronin knows exactly when to hit go and when to sit back and let the prettiness roll.

Even when he doesn’t bother going to 11, everything works just right. With new research (ignore the clickbait headline) showing that modern music is increasingly homogenous, uninventive and static, it’s a pleasure to have something that recalls an era before compression killed the difference between loud and quiet.

16. Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Daze

 A gentle, summery guitar introduces you to the kinds of stoner musings we expect from Mr Vile on the opening track, Walkin on a Pretty Day. Then:

“Phone ringing off the shelf/ I guess somebody has something they really wanna prove to us today/I gotta figure out what kind of wisecrack I’m gonna drop along the way…today.”

That pause is everything in Kurt Vile’s world. ‘Today’ is a relative term, in the same way a teenager will clean their room ‘soon’, Vile has no compunction spinning out a track that in most hands would land on a comfortable four minutes into a seven or nine minute sprawl. Not an ‘epic’, as that sentence would naturally end; there is nothing operatic about Vile’s music. Instead, it gives the impression of a man more comfortable in his own head, the internal monologue of a man who would rather ruminate on what he might say to someone rather than have an actual conversation.

While Vile’s music isn’t personal in the sense that it reaches out to bond with the listener, the room he gives himself for his own pronouncements on life, love and his apparent distaste for marijuana also creates the kind of contemplative space that headphones perhaps demand.

The divide between hemispheres is often a real problem for Australian music listeners. Music written to be listened to in the warmth of summer often drops here in the depths of a freezing winter. But here, in revisiting Kurt Vile at the end of the year, as the weather warms, one imagines Wakin on a Pretty Daze featuring heavily alongside a post-BBQ spliff and a discussion of existentialism. Which is probably exactly how it was intended.

15. Disclosure – Settle

Dance music has long wrestled with the idea of an ‘album’. Being born in clubs, from a culture of remixing and mashing up, the notion of an ‘artist’ putting together 30-60 minutes in succession has been anathema to many DJs. But obviously not Disclosure.

The distressingly young sibling team announced themselves outside the dancespergers set last year with their phenomenal remix of Jessie Ware’s Running, and then dropped the hour-long Settle midway through 2013.

And, like a couple of 20-ish Londonites, their sound is reminiscent of the propulsive post-Massive Attack era where British dance ruled the world, inflected as it was with elements of R’n’B and underground garage.

This may be something of a change for a scene that tends to pat itself on the back for being at the vanguard of shifting musical tastes. but dance music’s relative youth means that it was really inevitable that it would start looking inwards, and this is perhaps the best indication of the kinds of joyously energetic directions that could take.

From the driving staccato of When A Fire Starts to Burn to the less propulsive, but still irresistibly smooth F For YouSettle is a mission statement from a new generation of dance artists. Every song is filled with a modernist sensibility, a unifying absence of braggadocio and machismo that featured heavily on the records that clearly served as influences for Disclosure. Instead, we have what is, like so many great dance records, something that wants to bring people together on the dancefloor and make them happy while they’re there.

 14. My Bloody Valentine – m b v

Some years ago, Portishead returned, unprompted, with their third album, Third. After a gap of around a decade, the band somehow picked up not where they left off, but in a new place that felt as though they had been recording unreleased material across the intervening years.

This year, My Bloody Valentine unceremoniously announced what was perhaps the most hoped-for, but pessimistically absent record in modern memory; a follow-up to the now-legendary Loveless. And after an intervening 22 years, m b v sounds as though it was made about six months after its predecessor, yet somehow it is just as fresh and vital as Third was.

Indeed, it’s really quite astonishing just how fresh m b v sounds, given the diligent use of effectively the same technology. Ordinarily, what was once cutting edge (i.e. pretty much everything on Loveless) inevitably becomes dated, as their experimentation becomes a more refined normality.

But Loveless’ influence remains so profound, so etched into that certain niche that was lazily labelled as ‘shoegaze’, that its return has not been dated because the intervening years never improved on it.

13. Baths – Obsidian

 It seems Will Wiesenfeld is happy to signpost his intentions in his album titles. 2010’s Cerulean was a title that conveyed the open skies and optimism of a 21 year-old discovering just how much he could do in much the same way the record did.

Between then and now, Wiesenfeld, who performs as Baths, suffered a debilitating and near-lethal encounter with e.coli bacteria, which left him effectively bed-ridden. And once he emerged to record again, the blue skies had been replaced by a claustrophobic pessimism tinged with a yearning for escape – a nostalgia for those open spaces.

He titled that album Obsidian.

In much the same way as the titles are only a departure from one another insofar as the colour has changed, not the fact that it is a colour, an obscure one at that, and not even the number of syllables. Obsidian remains entirely recognisable as a Baths record; the glitchy, uncertain rhythms, the lingering DIY-ness (which comes despite excellent production) and the clarity of vision that can only come from something with only one hand at the tiller.

But it bears remembering that Obsidian is no easy journey. A quick glance at the tracklist makes that clear (Worsening, Miasma Sky, Incompatible, No Past Lives, Earth Death, Inter), but that isn’t the entire Baths story. Certainly Wiesenfeld himself ordinarily gives the impression of being a fairly genial 24 year-old nerd. Undoubtedly his bout with mortality set loose his inner demons. Should he continue to harness them like this, the future is a brighter place.

12. Arctic Monkeys – AM

It’s not that Arctic Monkeys are unfairly maligned; it’s hard to find anyone who would malign them at all. Rather, after the burst of attention they justly received for Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, they kind of…became transparent. As though the ghost of that record remained, Obi Wan-like, in the background as the young men of the Arctic Monkeys continued their toil.

But in reality, they managed to retain much of their fan base despite, or perhaps because of, a pronounced stylistic shift. Frontman Alex Turner, confronted with accusations of plagiarism and worse after the debut, formed a side project, The Last Shadow Puppets, wherein he indulged in what was a newfound Burt Bacharach fetish.

Now, several records later, Arctic Monkeys have truly come into their own. The stories of middle class London remain, slightly less jaded, but ever-more world weary. And this weariness is supported by the band continuing to tone down their anthemic tendencies. Certainly, AM is at its strongest during the quiet moments, particularly the spectacularly languid No. 1 Party Anthem.

So while the hype machine that propelled them to the heights all those years ago has undoubtedly wound down, the Arctic Monkeys have continued to get better, refining their craft until this, the first album that genuinely feels like a 100% Arctic Monkeys original. And it’s a corker.

11. Sigur Ros – Kveikur 

When Sigur Rós released their second, breakthrough album, Ágætis Byrjun, at the end of 1999, Iceland was a talismanic island of freedom and egalitarianism. The government had opened up their markets to the world, and the flood of foreign money had led to an extraordinary standard of living while still retaining income equality that was the envy of the world. It was big, ambitious, and kind of off. Like the band it spawned.

Sigur Rós’ latest album, Kveikur (pronounced approximately like ‘quaker’) continues this loose connection between the island nation and the band that is increasingly coming to symbolise them abroad. Today, even Sigur Rós find themselves trimming their sails. Since the disappointing Valtari last year, the band have divested themselves of keyboardist Kjartan ‘Kjarri’ Sveinsson, and the results are instructive.

While Iceland is suffering under the yoke of the oppressive conditions of international bailout money, Sigur Rós represent a masterclass in the benefits of creative destruction. The loss of Sveinsson has forced the band to pare back, cast off the orchestral flourishes that had become both trademark and millstone, and emerge leaner, tighter and more relevant than they have in nearly a decade.

Ubiquity can be an awful thing for some bands, and the alien thrill that accompanied Ágætis Byrjun and ( ) had faded being replaced by a familiarity that comes with being on every uplifting soundtrack and slow-mo football outro montage. As a result, suddenly albums like Valtari sounded banal, even boring (also because Valtari was quite boring). And for a band with a baby angel for a lead singer, an electric guitar played with a violin bow and a penchant for nine-minute epics, that’s a worrying thing indeed.

 Sigur Rós have long been associated with a more humanist style of politics than the fierce ‘rationality’ of right-wing fiscal hawks. And yet, on Kveikur, by embracing that mentality, and intertwining it with their intrinsic self of childish wonderment, they’ve made something as beautiful, immediate and, yes, relevant as they have in nearly a decade.

Have we piqued your interest? Check out part deux of this listicle for more music feelings.

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