Starting afresh into the musical aspie mind of Ed Butler? Start here with the first half of his list of the ultimate albums of 2013.
10. Bill Callahan – Dream River
“Beer. Thank you”
In Bill Callahan’s rusty baritone, these words conjure more precise imagery, and tell a more potent story, than a volume of lyrics in the hands of lesser men and women could ever do. Those words come early on Dream River, Callahan’s fifth record under his own name and 18th including his work as Smog during the 1990s, and they are a testament to the nuanced storytelling their speaker is capable of.
Those words above, from opener The Sing perfectly conjure a man, quietly sitting “at the hotel bar”, nursing a beer, surrounded by sleeping strangers, and musing. About what, it almost doesn’t matter. Be it the bar or the road, or the wide open spaces, Callahan’s masculine pensiveness is everywhere.
Callahan has had a deep connection to the natural world, but never has one of his records been so suffused with the kind of warmth that blatantly evokes sun-dappled meadows and swaying wheat blades.
Hurricanes, waterheads, fertile dirt, it’s all here, accompanied by what are easily Callahan’s most spacious compositions to date. And it’s not only the rural; modern references abound. Indeed, both Donald Sutherland and Marvin Gaye are namechecked in the album’s bookends.
Slide guitar, violin brushed drums, piccolo and pipes float in and out, as does Callahan himself, all reminiscent of another era, or another place. Or as Callahan himself says ‘Giving praise in a quiet way/Like a church/that’s far away’. That seems as fitting a description.
9. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady
The first 90 seconds of The Electric Lady are, as will hopefully remain a Janelle Monae standard, an instrumental Suite, and in it we swing wildly from dusty John Wayne western to Ennio Morricone before landing on a Bond Theme-esque ode to…Janelle Monae. And then….is that….Prince?
Indeed it is, and The Electric Lady is replete with such sit-back-in-your-chair moments. “Is it true we’re all insane? Am I a freak for getting down?” she asks on Q.U.E.E.N., but in fact it’s clear that Monae simply doesn’t care about such binary distinctions.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than the 2.40 mark on Givin ‘Em What They Love (the aforementioned Prince-bearing track) where Monae exits a bridge on a throaty scream which precedes a Hendrix-style solo from ace Kellindo Parker which then morphs into a thumping, quasi-militaristic horn section which would, in a less enlightened age, be described as ‘masculine’. Under Monae’s guidance, it can’t even be lazily described as a ‘fierce’ or ‘feisty’ woman ‘appropriating’ a male sound. It’s simply a Monae thing.
There’s a bit of everything on The Electric Lady, from 80s funk on the title track to slowjams to to the loose, bouncy Dance Apocalyptic. That freewheeling, eclectic spirit is as close as you can get to defining Janelle Monae’s music, but perhaps the best description is that it defies even that.
8. Kanye West – Yeezus
The passing of Lou Reed occasioned probably the most apropos moment to ponder the question; who is the NEXT Lou Reed?
Beyond the pat answer of “there can never be another Lou Reed’, the answer is actually staring us in the face. It’s Kanye West. Like in 1967, where one man cockily did what he wanted, reflecting the world he saw back at us, there is no greater demonstration of the modern shifting plates of music, celebrity and obeisance that West, the tempestuous, aloof, transgressive artiste has gone from being underground oddity to global superstar.
Just as Reed, by ignoring ideas of fashion and la mode, created a new notion of cool, so does West reflect back our idiocy back at us and make it a status symbol.
It was ‘Gold Digger’ that made him famous, his earlier album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that made him the artiste. But where that album saw West wrestling with his myriad demons and contradictions, Yeezus is pure id.
There is no restraint on Yeezus. Blood on the Leaves sees West attempting perhaps the ultimate false equivalence, equating Billy Holliday’s tragic Strange Fruit to his difficulties with an unnamed woman before launching into a bombastic cacophony of horns, conveying just how important West considers his troubles with ‘bitches’.
That Blood on the Leaves is possibly the album’s strongest moment in indicative of the monumental contradictions that West presents to the listener. Kanye is clearly not a pleasant person. Yet he is also perhaps the person who is most aware of his own unpleasantness, and that knowledge, to his mind, makes him, in essence, the greatest person. His music is infused with this convoluted self-justifying hypocrisy, and the fierce, fuck-you-all industrial grind that suffuses almost every track reinforces it, as do his repeated assertions that he does not, in fact, give a fuck. Just like Reed even if he never saw the need to reinforce it.
The thing is, on his last two albums, West has established himself as hip-hop’s first genuine crossover auteur. Whether he gives a fuck or not, it’s damn sure that by now the rest of us do.
7. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Daft Punk spent years trying to make people dance. Now they’re trying to make people feel. Certainly, it seems the days of pat affirmations a la One More Time have been properly shelved on Random Access Memories, which history will likely view as their magnum opus.
This is not a dance album. There is little here that would find its way into clubs without some fairly serious working over by dickhead DJs. And it is those DJs that RAM appears to be a direct rebuttal of. Where 1996’s Homework paved the way for eurotrash, four-to-the-floor dance to make its way across the Atlantic and become a ubiquity in the sounds of US starlets since about 2005, RAM looks to the past and in all likelihood has written the template for the next decade’s floor-fillers.
Here actual instruments sit side-by-side with some of the best production you’re likely to ever hear, all in service of Daft Punk’s continuing quest to use music to somehow uncover the secret to the human spirit.
And if there is a unifying theme to this sprawling, proggy, near-80 minute experience, it is humanity. It might be octogenarian Paul Williams’ cracked pining on Touch, or Julian Casablancas delivering a heavily vocoded vocal that somehow stands as the most human thing he’s ever done on Instant Crush.
Sure, there’s Get Lucky. But in the scheme of things, that’s just the lure to bring you in. Random Access Memories is far from perfect, but the for a band known for One More Time can so regularly, and earnestly, make you actually feel something, they’ve achieved something truly special.
6. Savages – Silence Yourself
With song titles that strike like a blunt object (She Will, Hit Me, No Face, Shut Up), and a sound and an attitude to match, Savages are this year’s most perfectly out-of-step revelation. Post-punk was, after all, a thing about five years ago, and as the rotisserie of revival bullshit continued to whir, Savages may have risked appearing hopelessly outdated and <gasp> uncool.
Thankfully, a band that truly doesn’t give a fuck cannot possibly be uncool, and Silence Yourself is a blistering cri de coeur that encapsulates the band’s philosophy, which perhaps merits printing in full:
SAVAGES’ INTENTION IS TO CREATE A SOUND, INDESTRUCTIBLE, MUSICALLY SOLID, WRITTEN FOR THE STAGE AND DESIGNED WITH ENOUGH NUANCES TO PROVIDE A WIDE RANGE OF EMOTIONS. SAVAGES ARE A SELF-AFFIRMING VOICE TO HELP EXPERIENCE OUR GIRLFRIENDS DIFFERENTLY, OUR HUSBANDS, OUR JOBS, OUR EROTIC LIFE, AND THE PLACE MUSIC OCCUPIES INTO OUR LIVES. SAVAGES’ SONGS AIM TO REMIND US THAT HUMAN BEINGS HAVEN’T EVOLVED SO MUCH, THAT MUSIC CAN STILL BE STRAIGHT TO THE POINT, EFFICIENT AND EXCITING.
Again, that it is in all caps is appropriate, and reflects the ferocity of the music with which it is delivered. The vocals are punchy – somewhere between Karen O and Siouxsie Sioux, the guitars squalling, the bass fuzzy and driving. Being out of step never sounded so awesome.
5. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
“This Orthodox girl fell in love with the guy at the falafel shop/And why not?/Should she have averted her eyes and just stared at the laminated poster of the Dome of the Rock?”
Vampire Weekend weren’t supposed to turn into this band. The energetic polos-and-boat-shoes insouciance of their debut pointed in an entirely different, preppy, direction. Yet here we find Ezra Koenig musing on life, love and faith in a stunningly realised, entirely grown-up effort. The tales he tells here are those of a seasoned, thoughtful campaigner, a man navigating his late 20s and beginning to have the kinds of Serious Thoughts that trouble all of us as immortality recedes.
That’s not to say that Modern Vampires of the City is humourless. Nothing could be further from the truth. Unbelievers is a piece of classic uptempo Vampire Weekendisms, resting somewhere between A-Punk and Counsins.
And then along comes Hannah Hunt like a gut punch. It’s easily the best thing VM have ever done, and arguably the best song of 2013. Not only does it possess the most ambiguously moving lyric on the record, as Koenig laments “If I can’t trust you then damn it, Hannah/There’s no future, there’s no answer/Though we live on the US dollar/You and me, we got our own sense of time”.
Not only that, but the final chorus is a jaw-dropper, as everything kicks up a notch, including Koenig’s voice which strains with falsetto emotion, before wrapping the whole thing up after one go around. This restraint, this desire to let the listener do a little work, is the hallmark of a band becoming truly comfortable in its own skin.
It’s been said by the band that Modern Vampires is the end of a trilogy. It certainly feels a fitting one, and leaves us breathless as to what could come next.
4. The Drones – I See Seaweed
No band so seamlessly marries the emotional, intellectual and visceral like The Drones. The swirling result of combining the compelling, deeply discomfiting combination of Gareth Liddiard’s grating snarl and original guitarist Rui Perera’s discordant, unhinged guitar was music that could take the mundane – or the extraordinary – and sandpaper it back to a matte finish, leaving the listener raw, exposed.
In hindsight, then, it feels inevitable that today, nearly five years after the sprawling Havilah, we received I See Seaweed, a monstrous, confounding thing of dark majesty.
If nothing else, after over a decade of playing together, and five years on various solo and side projects, The Drones have learned the value of getting out of each others’ way. For a band so influenced by the raucous noise of 80s punk and garage, The Drones’ latest is most notable for its willingness to forego music almost entirely.
I See Seaweed ends on an unexpected moment. The tender Why Write a Letter. While nothing like the blood-soaked convict tale Sixteen Straws from Gala Mill, Why Write a Letter, softly lets the listener out of the album’s clutches. The band waft gently behind Liddiard’s paean to a simpler time (a topic, incidentally that would be horribly gauche in lesser hands) with a half-time lounge groove.
On that closing, it feels as though the band are gently guiding us back to land. By album’s end, the title’s possible purpose becomes apparent. You’ve been on a voyage. In a storm. Buffeted about, exhausted, but exhilarated. And better for the experience. Liddiard drops you back off on dry land, shakes your hand, but suggests that no one’s going to correspond with anyone. Rather, you’ll hear from them again only when you come back together.
And that’ll be just fine.
3. Rhye – Woman
Sexy music is easy. The template has long been written since at least Marvin Gaye, and more likely the filthy-for-their-time blues singers of the early to mid 20th century. Since then, some rich bass, a few horns and bam, bedroom tunes.
What is harder is making that music take on meaning. There is a subtle, simple intimacy to much of Woman which serves to highlight both their emotional depth and the musical flourishes that help deliver it. Songs often come with a horn or string section that in many cases could be missed without attention.
One instance, though, where the strings can’t be missed is the stunning single, The Fall, one of the more sophisticated, drop-dead sad takes on entropic love in years (also witness the clip for some real feels). Despite this, the song remains sensual and lithe throughout.
Even more, Woman is sexy without being overtly sexual. In an age where hip hop’s de rigeur hypersexualisation of everything (see West, Kanye et al), Rhye self-consciously retain a sense not only of ambiguity but of androgyny. Singer and main man (yes, man) Michael Milosh is, in fact, a man, despite a breathy countertenor that is easily mistaken for that of a woman. This embedded mystery gives Woman an emotional intensity that is lacking in anything else trying to set up residence in bedrooms the world over.
So sure, take this record to bed with you and whoever is sharing your bed. Let it make you feel good. But also take the time to let it make you sad.
2. Phosphorescent – Muchacho
Matthew Houck finished touring his previous record as Phosphorescent, Here’s To Taking It Easy, completely spent and considering giving the game away. As a step in that direction, he repaired to a secluded Mexican beach – as one does – to revivify. Eventually, the sea air and warm weather did the psychological trick, and he remained there to create the transcendently lovely Muchacho.
Even a cursory listen will reveal an album which, despite its Bon Iver-lite backstory, has plenty to say, and says it with production that is unparalleled this year (with the obvious exception of Random Access Memories, but with Daft Punk’s budget, comparisons are both moot and unfair).
From the perfect ‘pop’ of the drum on Terror in the Canyons to the synth waves on the incredible Song for Zula to when the guitar breaks out and all hell breaks gloriously loose on The Quotidian Beasts, this is a lush treat for the ears from start to finish.
Evocative of both a Mexican beach and an Arizona roadside, Houck spins his personal tale of recovery to a larger theme of redemption, not of the religious kind, but more of the regretful traveling blues singer going through his twelve steps. Which makes sense given the prevalence of pedal steel across Muchacho. But the real thesis statement is best said in Houck’s own words when describing his choice of album title: “A lot of this record is about getting something of what you want and still having your ass handed to you by the world. Like, ‘That’s how it is, muchacho. Handle it.’”
‘Handling it’ is, of course, easier said than done, but the album’s bookends Sun, Arise and Sun’s Arising (A Koan, An Exit) separate themselves sufficiently from their counterparts in between that a sense of separation is prevalent. That ‘handling it’ is an ephemeral process. Do it once, and move on. It’s unlikely that you’ll do the same here.
1. Darkside – Psychic
About halfway into The Only Shrine I’ve Seen, arguably the centrepiece of Psychic, 22 year-old wunderkind Nicholas Jarr and his collaborator Dave Harrington pull off a neat trick. After patiently spending the preceding four and a half minutes ebbing and flowing their way to a spaced out funk guitar lick, the beat syncopates and a layer of gentle electronic buzz emerges, and somehow the whole song goes into hyperdrive.
By consistently, and adeptly, wielding all such tools in the dance music toolbox, Darkside have become something much more akin to the Pink Floyd album namesake than Random Access Memories (an album, incidentally, they remixed to outstanding effect earlier in the year).
In fact, perhaps the closest cousin this record has is The Stone Roses. There, like here, tropes of ‘dance’ were routinely wielded in service of more than simply filling dancefloors. Indeed, it’s hard to put a finger on precisely what they are looking to do, so wildly – yet cohesively – does the floor shift under your feet.
The opening few tracks feature the gargantuan 11-minute opener Golden Arrow, which morphs from electro rumble to near-disco over its sprawling runtime, to the slinky blues of Paper Trails and the aforementioned The Only Shrine I’ve Seen.
Side B veers off into the weirder ‘space-disco’ appellation that some have slapped on the record. But for a record that crams so much ‘music’ into three quarters of an hour and is so heavily ‘electro’, there’s no room for stoner ambience and even less for robotic inhumanity.
The year’s best record is from a 22 year-old who has already had an Ivy League education and made performance art installations at MOMA in New York who is somehow slumming it by making a record that refers to an album whose ubiquity transcends all notions of ‘cool’ or ‘class’. It also, miraculously, transcends any feeling of snobbery or exclusivity, instead being strangely welcoming while remaining alien and intriguing. Certainly, listening to this record, anything and everything is possible.