Dec 26, 2013

2013 in Culture: Best of Music

By Ian Cory

10. Yeezus by Kanye West

It almost doesn’t matter what this record sounds like. By sheer force of will Kanye West has lodged himself in the center of nearly every pop culture conversation that could be had this year. This album was going to make its way into the upper reaches of the Internet’s end of the year content no matter. Given that, we should all be glad that Yeezus turned out to be as bizarre and fascinating of a listen as it is. By now Kanye has completed his transformation from wide-eyed backpacker to leather clad super villain, stripping away at his usual melodic opulence until nothing is left but thick and distorted bass and soul samples beaten within an inch of their lives. And above this squalling din, Kanye himself remains as baffling and charismatic as always, smashing Corollas, decrying racism in the fashion industry, and ascending to godhood all before his croissants make their way to his table. Even when exploring such harsh terrain, Kanye’s deep devotion to pop songwriting shines through, insuring that any of Yeezus’s 10 tracks will get dance floors packed if any DJ is brave enough to play them.

No genre is better at making a memorable moment than pop, and no band harnessed that power better this year than Chvrches. Track by track, every song on The Bones Of What You Believe builds towards a collection of masterfully executed moments. The vocal stabs at the end of “The Mother We Share.” The way Lauren Mayberry locks into the pounding rhythm in the chorus of “Gun.” The long awaited explosion of synths in the last moments of “Tether.” The sudden swell of bass under the hook of “Lies” or the equally unexpected leap into the upper octaves of Mayberry’s range in “Night Sky.” At their best, these songs are able to stack these kind of events in succession, like the bait-and-switch hook of “Recover.” By the end of the album it becomes nearly exhausting, like a long chain combo in a fighting game, each hit powerful on its own, but completely devastating as a sequence. You might have noticed that most of these moments happen close to or during the choruses of the songs, but don’t mistake that for predictability. It just means that Chvrches are dedicated to the pop form, and they are really really good at it.

8. Kveikur by Sigur Ros
After peaking in 2005 with Takk... Sigur Ros had nearly become prisoners of their own prettiness. They were still capable of pumping out cinematic crescendos and angelic choirs in their sleep, but it often seemed like they were doing just that. But with Kveikur it seems like they have snapped out of their stupor. Being reduced to a three piece in the wake of multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson’s departure has forced Sigur Ros to refocus their creative energy, and in the process they’ve discovered the power of rhythm.  Kveikur is the first Sigur Ros album to bring drums and bass to the forefront of their arrangements, and as a result the songs don’t just shimmer, they soar. The increase in momentum hasn’t come at the expense of the band’s ability to pull at heartstrings and the combination of these two strengths makes this collection some of the most effective work in the Sigur Ros discography. Some songs, like the title track or “Brennisteinn,” even explore harsher territory that could qualify the band as Swans-Lite. Kveikur isn’t just a strong album on its own, it also points to a whole host of great material yet to come.

7. Colored Sands by Gorguts

The problem with brutality is you can always get used to it. No matter how low you tune, how fast you play, how mind bogglingly complicated you make your songs, with enough listens the human brain will normalize it and turn it into background noise. Therefore, if you’re going to be making heavy music, you better have your songwriting skills on lock. Luckily for Gorguts, Luc Lemay is one of death metal’s few auteurs. Backed by a band rivaling the super groups of Death’s golden era, Lemay has crafted a death metal album that may not be the heaviest (or even as weird as the last two Gorguts albums) but is certainly up there as one of the best. Given the pedigree of the performers, the playing is appropriately off the charts, but what really makes Colored Sands special is the way it ebbs and flows between various extremes. Lemay and company can melt brains with the best of them, but they also know when to pull back and let the power of a simpler riff carry the weight of the song. And perhaps most impressively, they know exactly when to drop a Shostakovich-esque string quartet smack dab in the middle of a metal album. I’m sure that in a few months I’ll have acclimated myself to the harsh world of Colored Sands and will have to move onto something even crazier to get my fix, but until then I’m going to have an absolute blast every time I spin this one.

There are two Danny Browns. One is the party monster, the summer festival staple, he of the endless stream of weed and molly. Danny Brown with the goofy hair and the missing tooth who laughs maniacally in his interviews and raps in a singsong high-pitched voice straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon. This is the Danny Brown that most people are familiar with. The other raps in a defeated monotone about the harsh realities of his Detroit upbringing, and loses sleep over his time spent as a drug dealer and deteriorating family life. The first raps over brash and overwhelming electronic beats, the second over updated east coast boom-bap. Both of these Danny Browns are equally real, and both make incredible music. On Old, Danny Brown splits the record down the middle, allowing each plenty of time in the spotlight. This alone would make Old a strong record, maybe still worthy of being on this list, but what makes it truly great is that it shows how the two sides of Brown’s personality inform each other. His relentless partying is a means of celebration and release after making it out of the hood, and after riding along on the bleak Side A you’re more than ready to party with him on the hyperactive Side B. Throughout Brown displays a complete command of economy and charisma on the mic, spitting gut busting punch lines and harrowing epiphanies in equal measure. Some people may still demand the old Danny Brown, but I like the new one just fine.

“I survive.” These words open “Everything,” the most jubilant track on Hesitation Marks and possibly of Trent Reznor’s entire career. In a year full of reunions and comebacks, few sets of lyrics have felt more accurate or hard earned. As the popularity of rock has waned, as electronic music has cycled through innumerable trends, Reznor has stood tall, followed no path but his own, and survived. Armed with the newest advances in technology, and a vast collection of vintage gear, Reznor has yet again found a way to revitalize his sound. Of course it helps that the songs on Hesitation Marks are the best that he’s written since The Fragile and the most infectiously groovy since Pretty Hate Machine. Some songs brood with the best of his 90’s output; others slink and swerve into brand new territory. Whether he’s breaking new ground or revisiting the old, Reznor never lets Hesitation Marks get boring, imbuing every moment with his signature attention to detail and impeccable ear for sound design. At the start of the year I wrote that I suspected that Reznor would release something great in 2013. Here’s the part where I get to say I told you so.

For the last decade or more, The Flaming Lips have floated along in a blissful psychedelic dreamland. No other band in their generation had remained as devoted to painting the world in bright colors and reveling in an explosive childlike innocence, and no band was as successful at capturing that vibe either. But then on 2009’s Embryonic they showed that the same techniques they had used to express joy and wonder could be twisted into discomfort and delirium. If Embryonic is the trip going bad at the end of the night, The Terror is the bleak burnout the next morning. When all the sonic fireworks have faded, and all the giant hamster balls have rolled away, all that’s left is the cold and unforgiving void of the real. Wayne Coyne holds onto every scrap of love and positivity that he can find, struggling to hold onto hope even in the midst of the most stark and inhospitable music the band has ever crafted. The result is the most poignant and ultimately human album that The Flaming Lips have ever released. It may be darkest before dawn, but sometimes the light is even more terrifying.

There’s a lot to be said for subtlety and nuance in art, but none of it is said on Run The Jewels. After releasing two of 2012’s best hip-hop records, Killer Mike and El-P holed up in a cabin in the woods, took a fuck load of mushrooms, smoked a preposterous amount of weed, and returned with an airtight collection of bangers. The songs on Run The Jewels waste zero time with niceties and get straight to the point, tearing through full verses at light speed. El-P and Killer Mike are at the top of their games, both as performers and lyricists, but unlike a lot of other rapper showcases, Run The Jewels never gets lost in its own technicality. Instead it’s the year’s most infectiously fun record. You can feel the camaraderie spilling over from one verse to the next, and it's not hard to picture the two stifling laughter at each other’s punch lines. In a year where many of the most talked about rappers made waves by burning bridges (Kendrick Lamar) retreating into their own psyche (Drake) or lashing out at the world (Kanye West) Killer Mike and El-P have proven the power of collaboration. Earlier in the year I compared them to Deadpool and Cable, but Murtaugh and Riggs work just as well, because Run The Jewels is a lethal fucking weapon.

You wake up comfortably without the help of your alarm. You can see that it’s snowing outside of your window and that it's probably pretty cold in your house, so you walk around with your blanket wrapped around you. You make some coffee and curl up on the couch to watch the snow. You haven’t turned on any lights in your house because the soft brightness of the outside world is seeping in through the windows. Later you walk through the park by yourself, bundled in as much warm clothing as you could find. There is a deep stillness and a constant fluttering of white upon white. You feel at peace with a lot of things that you can’t put your finger on. The sun is setting, but it doesn’t register as dusk. You pass under rows of leafless trees, each bearing the weight of the snowfall. You get back home and listen to choral music on the radio (it being the holiday season and all) and something about the profound beauty of the human voice unnerves you temporarily. You have a glass or two of red wine and then you fall asleep, staring out your window at the eerie brightness of the night sky illuminated by the reflections from the snow.

Or, you could just listen to Nepenthe.

There comes a point in every good band’s career when they make the jump from being part of a crowd or a movement to being distinctly themselves. On Sunbather, Deafheaven have made that leap. All of the elements that made up Deafheaven’s sound in the past (black metal, shoegaze, post rock, screamo) have merged and crystallized into a singular aesthetic. It is pointless to quibble over which of these genres Deafheaven fall into because they’re all of them simultaneously. Sunbather takes an equally holistic route to their emotional range. One minute the band sounds like they’re exploding with joy, the next crushed under the weight of despair and singer George Clarke follows suit, opening up about his family, his drug use, his dreams and his desires. But more than anything, Deafheaven excel at overwhelming melancholy, a sadness that comes from seeing just how beautiful the world can truly be. The fact that the band is able to grapple with such complex emotions successfully is a marvel; the fact that they do it in the context of a genre not known for its nuance or subtlety is a miracle.

The Next Fifteen

11. Vertikal by Cult Of Luna
13. Virgins by Tim Hecker
14. Is Survived By by Touche Amore
16. My Name Is My Name by Pusha T
17. Pain Is Beauty by Chelsea Wolfe
18. Acid Rap by Chance The Rapper
20. ...Like Clockwork by Queens Of The Stone Age
21. Slow Focus by Fuck Buttons
22. Entrench by KEN Mode
24. Vermis by Ulcerate
25. The Afterman: Descension by Coheed & Cambria

Spotify Playlists:
Ian Cory's Best Songs of 2013
Josh Oakley's Best Songs/Albums of 2013

No comments:

Post a Comment