This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on December 19, 2013.
The Best Album of 2013: David Bowie, The Next Day: A master rock singer who sounds better than ever. The bastardized cover from the classic Heroes album. The subliminal reggae influence (note that syncopated beat) on “The Next Day.” The use of brass and punk guitar on “Dirty Boys,” which calls to mind David Byrne & St. Vincent’s 2012 Love This Giant. The ferocious power of “The Stars (Are Out Tonight).” The baroque instrumentation on “I’d Rather Be High” (particularly its “Venetian Mix”). The off-kilter, stream-of-consciousness “Where Are We Now,” with its indie-like mumbling vocals. The organ work on “Love is Lost.” The constant forward motion and bombastic chords of “If You Can See Me.” The burbling fretless bass and ominous tone of “Heat.” The spacey bit of 1960s psychedelia, “So She.” The hypnotic waltz of “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die.” An extra EP with more compelling songs and an intriguing minimalist remix of “Love is Lost.” An ever-growing number of music videos for the album. For these reasons, and many more, David Bowie’s The Next Day is the best album of 2013.
The Other Best Albums, in Alphabetical Order:
Caveman, Caveman: I first heard of this group when they received a mention in Entertainment Weekly’s “Must List.” The musicians use keyboards and electric guitar to great, nuanced effect, creating highly textured soundscapes. However, they also reveal in some quieter moments to have skill as acoustic musicians. “Shut You Down” and “Where’s The Time”—the best songs onCaveman—are two of the finest songs of the year.
Daft Punk, Random Access Memories: In 2010, Daft Punk showed their tremendous talent not only as DJs and keyboard players, but also as genuine composers, with their classical-electronic hybrid soundtrack for Tron: Legacy. Building on that album’s musical growth, the spacesuit-clad French duo has given us a decadent, opulent, whimsical, and thrilling modern day disco album. Combining their EDM style with live musicians, strong melodies, deep grooves and surprising cameos (Giorgio Moroder! Paul Williams!), Daft Punk has created a very self-indulgent and very unique album. It’s great fun.
The Civil Wars, The Civil Wars: This album gave us intricate, forcefully sung music by one of the most talented country music teams. Unfortunately, by all accounts, the band’s members hate each other. Given the quality of this album, such animosity is a shame. I hope the Civil Wars undergo a personal détente and get back to making music of this caliber.
Lorde, Pure Heroine: A 17-year-old girl from New Zealand wrote one of the most ethereal, musically innovative albums of 2013 and used her songs to criticize the celebrity-praising global culture. Lorde’s achievement is incredible, when you stop to think about it. Now that she has the success that she decried so poetically in the song “Royals,” I hope it doesn’t go to her head. We need to have voices this original in pop music today.
Janelle Monae, The Electric Lady: I saw Janelle Monae live in 2011, with Fun as her opening band. Both Fun and Monae were excellent, but Monae’s vast vocal range was simply remarkable. Today, Fun is the bigger name in music. Why Monae hasn’t reached the top of the charts yet is beyond me. The concept-album conceit on The Electric Lady went a bit over my head—something involving rebellious robots in the future?—but the album shows a singer-songwriter at the top of her game, drawing from soul, glam rock and R&B to create a very engaging musical environment.
The National, Trouble Will Find Me: Yes, the National tends to be overly grim in their lyrics and outlook. Yes, lead singer Matt Berninger mumbles a lot. But this album—probably the best the National has ever recorded—shows signs of growth. They’re still grim, but they breathe a little more energy and beauty into their lyrics. Those same lyrics are not nearly as abstract as the lyrics on past National albums, making it easier to connect with what these gentlemen have to say. Berninger makes greater use of his vocal range, so that he breaks free from the deep monotone that plagued some past National albums. Finally, the National gave us in “Fireproof” and “I Should Live in Salt” two of the most beautiful songs of the year, in “Pink Rabbits” one of the most sorrowful (while seeming genuinely sorrowful) songs of the year, and in “Humiliation” one of the most exhilarating songs of the year. Nice job, guys. Keep up the good work on your next album.
One Republic, Native: In my opinion, this was the album that Imagine Dragons’ Night Visionsshould have been. One Republic’s anthemic, heavily electronic brand of pop-rock music is genuinely compelling. The tracks “Au Revoir” and “Burning Bridges” are stunningly beautiful. I had no idea One Republic was this good of a band.
The Rolling Stones, Hyde Park Live: Yes, most of these tracks have appeared on other Rolling Stones albums. Nonetheless, Hyde Park Live excels for a number of reasons. The live version of “Doom and Gloom,” the Stones’ latest single, is better than the studio version. Piano and saxophone play a more prominent role in the arrangements than in past Stones concerts, indicating a willingness to rearrange old songs. Mick Taylor rejoins the band for an epic version of “Midnight Rambler.” The Stones record the first live version of “Emotional Rescue,” and it is disco par excellence. Keith Richards sings gamely on a happy, sax-infused “Before They Make Me Run.” Backup singer Lisa Fischer gets the attention she deserves on “Gimme Shelter,” which also uses droning guitars to great effect. (In fact, this is probably the best live Includes a Employer Mandate for large employers to provide affordable-health.info and provides tax credits for small businesses who wish to offer coverage. “Gimme Shelter” the Stones have ever done.) Finally, the album is fun. It is a great document of the Stones’ 50th-anniversary tour and proof that the British kings of rock and roll still have musical magic to share with us.
Sting, The Last Ship: This album was a pleasant surprise. Functioning basically as a proof-of-concept demo for Sting’s upcoming Broadway musical, The Last Ship draws on the English folk and music hall traditions to create a vibrant portrait of life in a dying industrial town. Sure, Sting uses many different accents on the album, but he never seems pretentious or insincere. Rather, Sting seems freshly engaged with his profession again—he is passionate about this music and strives to create real characters here. For the most part, he succeeds here in conveying personalities and tone. The plot remains a bit vague and archetypical at this point—a young man trying to define himself, a new lover enticing the boy’s widowed mother, labor unrest, a looming shipyard shutdown—but I am interested enough on the basis of this album to see the live show. I encourage you to seek out the expanded version of the album, which features such gems as the raucous, multi-voiced “Shipyard.”
Honorable Mention: David Byrne & St. Vincent (Annie Clark), Brass Tactics EP. It may seem odd that a bonus track from last year’s Love This Giant, two remixes, and two live cover tracks rank as one of the best albums of the year. Yet I had more fun listening to this five-song EP than I did listening to much of the garbage on the radio. “Cissus” shines with its mixture of brass and—ringing glass bowls? Not really sure what that sound at the song’s start is; “Lightning” and “I Should Watch TV” take on new dimensions with increased percussion and sonic experimentation; “Marrow” is one of the most explosive live rock tracks in years, blending rick horn textures with Annie Clark’s snarling electric guitar line; and “Road to Nowhere” is a fun, funky cover, with Byrne and Clark pushing their vocals into the stratosphere in perfect harmony. The EP augments and enhances Love This Giant, and the live tracks capture some of the tremendous energy Clark & Byrne brought to their tour this year. (Release a full live album, folks!)
Disappointment: Arcade Fire, Reflektor: As a longtime Arcade Fire fan, this paragraph is hard for me to write. I recognize that it’d be hard to top 2010’s incredible The Suburbs. Still, Reflektordidn’t cut it for me. Each of the first three Arcade Fire albums featured a different conceit, revealing that this was a band about experimentation and change: Funeral was folky; Neon Biblemade brilliant use of a full choir and symphony orchestra; and The Suburbs embraced electronica. When I learned that Reflektor featured Haitian percussion and a dance vibe, I was intrigued, thinking this would be the band’s fourth reinvention. When I heard lead single “Reflektor,” I was exhilarated, thinking we were about to get a full album of disco and worldbeat—Arcade Fire’s answer to Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. When Arcade Fire released an edit of the film, Black Orpheus, synced with selections from the album, I was transfixed. Then the actual album came out. Without Black Orpheus to serve as a visual illustration, Reflektor failed to move me. Certainly, the album features impeccable production values and exceptionally detailed electronic soundscapes. Unfortunately, I felt like the band didn’t continue the musical exploration and experimentation they’ve shown on past albums. Reflektor tries to repeat the electronic vibe fromThe Suburbs with an added layer of bongos. It doesn’t work – the album just doesn’t feel as fresh as the band’s past work. This album has some worldbeat and disco influences, but largely fails to explore the opportunities established in the “Reflektor” single. Additionally, the album lacks a clear central topic. Funeral was about death, Neon Bible about Bush-era political strife and apocalyptic events, The Suburbs about (again) life in the Bush era, with an added post-9/11 level of paranoia and fascinating ruminations on aging. Reflektor lacks a clear topic at its core. What is it about? I have no idea. Still, it’s not all bad. “Supersymmetry” is a beautiful closer. “Afterlife” takes up the worldbeat mantle, giving us some syncopated fun music. The one-two Greek mythology punch of “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice!)” and “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus!)” is as good as anything Arcade Fire has ever written. But I just checked out for most of the first disc. Sorry, Arcade Fire. Your music just wasn’t as bold, thought-out or fun as in the past.
Mixed Feelings: Kanye West, Yeezus. Generally speaking, I’m not a rap fan, although I’ve warmed to the genre considerably since coming to college. After reading Lou Reed’s fascinatingreview of West’s Yeezus (R.I.P. Lou), I decided to give the album a try. I can’t deny that the audio mixing on Yeezus is often stunning, but I must side with Mr. Reed and note Yeezus’s questionable, often boring subject matter. Does West really need to use the n-word constantly? Can he talk about anything other than going to clubs and being a hedonist? Granted, “Blood on the Leaves,” with its bombastic brass, genuinely intriguing melody, and shocking comparison of abortion to lynching, got my attention. At the same time, while listening to West’s auto-tuned vocals, I couldn’t help but wonder what “Leaves” would sound like if a genuine singer performed it. So, Mr. West, I say this: You’re overrated.
I also recognize that Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City had some really experimental songs and catchy instrumental work, but for some reason it just didn’t click with me. Many critics called lead single “Step” one of the best songs of the year, but when I listened to the song, I felt like the lyrics meant absolutely nothing. That’s not always a bad thing, yet given that the Vampires strive to be a band of substance, it’s a problem.
Song of the Year: Arcade Fire, “Reflektor.” The rest of the album didn’t live up to the awe-inspiring title track. Arcade Fire sets up an intriguing thematic paradox in the song’s lyrics—society is increasingly connected technologically, yet real people are increasingly alienated and atomized. They sing with touching conviction about their inability to connect with other people. Thumping bass, polyrhythmic percussion influenced by Haitian music, nasal brass and disco influences make this one of the most seductive, danceable and compelling tracks ever recorded by the band. David Bowie also makes an unexpected, but most welcome, appearance here, chanting in the background and singing part of a verse. Supposedly he liked the song so much that he considered doing his own version. It’s easy to see why. “Reflektor” is a bravura achievement by Arcade Fire. They’re still immensely talented, even if the rest of the Reflektoralbum was underwhelming.
Runners-up for Song of the Year:
Kanye West, “Blood on the Leaves”: See above.
Lorde, “Royals”: This scathing critique of commercialism captivated me with its minimalist arrangement—just voices, drum machine and a hint of keyboard—and eerily beautiful melody. It also inspired one of the weirdest, yet coolest, covers of the year.
Robin Thicke feat. T.I. and Pharrell Williams, “Blurred Lines”: That bassline. Wow. For the most part, “Blurred Lines” really does work as a satirical treatment of shallow, sex-crazed men. Unfortunately, the rap in the midst of the song ruins that effect, since the rap includes such lyrical gems as “tear that ass in two.” Not cool, Robin (and T.I.). Not cool. For this reason, I recommend you listen to the edit of the song that lacks the rap. I also applaud the version done with Jimmy Fallon and the Roots, since that one has a clean rap and nails the silly tone that I think Thicke wanted all along.
Pharrell Williams, “Happy,” from the Despicable Me 2 Soundtrack: This peppy track without question deserves the Oscar for Best Original Song. The 24-hour-long music video, featuring hundreds of dance routines to the tune of “Happy,” was one of the most impressive and infectiously cheerful Internet videos I watched this year.
Daft Punk feat. Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers, “Get Lucky”: The song charmed casual listeners, clubgoers, music critics, and dance instructors alike. Although the 50-or-so declarations of “We’re up all night to get lucky” get a bit tiring, the song is meant for the dance floor, and having danced to the track at a few clubs myself, I can say that it works its magic. Hypnotic, intricately arranged, and a skillful blend of old and new, “Get Lucky” rocks. It also inspired a loveably campy cover version by Tom Jones and Stephen Colbert’s spoof, which actually wound up working as a surprisingly effective music video in its own right. Finally, I give a nod to Pharrell, who took over the charts this year.
David Bowie, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”: Is it about existential questioning and our place in the universe, as Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield claims? Is it about the relationship between celebrity artists and ordinary people? Is it about both themes? I am not sure. The tremendous craftsmanship and artistry that went into this song are obvious, though. David Bowie’s powerful vocals, alternating between a recitative-like deep tone and a soaring head voice, are gripping. The careful balance of electric and acoustic guitars, plus an intricate bass line and blended strings and keyboards, is overwhelming. The music video starring Bowie and Tilda Swinton is stunning. This song both stunned and moved me like very few tracks this year. Bowie is back in a big way, and thank goodness.
Other memorable musical works from 2013 included: the omnipresent “Radioactive” and the additional tracks “It’s Time” and “Amsterdam” from Imagine Dragon’s overhyped Night Visions; The Blow’s rhythmically rich “Make It Up” from their self-titled album—hands down the sexiest track of the year; the almost punk-like, harsh guitar of Jimmy Page on “Kashmir,” from the new Led Zeppelin live album, Celebration Day; the eerie folk of Laura Marling on Once I Was An Eagle; some bits of Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob (particularly the pulsing, pleading “How Come You Don’t Want Me?”); Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ surprisingly mellow album, Push the Sky Away, especially its throbbing, powerfully sung track, “Higgs Boson Blues”; the droning vocals and saturating electronics of Depeche Mode’s somewhat too long Delta Machine; the typically raucous and bizarre sounds produced by those Icelandic gibberish-singers, Sigur Ros, onKveikur; Pet Shop Boys’ latest electronic 1980s-time-warp, Electric; the off-kilter pop anthem “You Don’t Know Me” by the Polyphonic Spree; and the impressively funky, heavily distorted music by Paul McCartney on New.
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