Dec 16, 2014

Five Things Making Me Excited Right Now

The past few weeks of work and life have been frustrating, stressful and trying at times, but it's nice to just sit back and be thankful for everything that is going well. To that end, here's a quick list of five things that are keeping me excited right now.

1. The new D'Angelo record is a real thing.

2. The Best Show is back.

3. End of year list season is upon us.

4. I managed to complete my own best of 2013 lists before 2014 ends.

5. I still get to trawl my way through this. And this. And this.

Dec 14, 2014

2013 Year In Review Part VI: The Albums

Well, even though I started much later, at least I'm wrapping up my best of 2013 before 2014 officially ends. I certainly intend to have my 2014 wrap-up posted in January. One minor change this year, I've decided to bump my favorite albums list up to 75 from 50. That number felt better, considering the number of albums I heard over the course of 2013 was in the hundreds. So without further ado, the 75 favorite albums of 2013:

75. Airbag - The Greatest Show On Earth (Karisma)
74. The 1975 - The 1975 (Polydor)
73. Moss - Horrible Night (Rise Above)
72. Shooting Guns - Brotherhood of the Ram (Teargas Recording Tree)
71. Beastmilk - Climax (Svart)
70. Ashley Monroe - Like A Rose (Warner Bros. Nashville)
69. Horisont - Time Warriors (Metal Blade)
68. Robert Pollard - Blazing Gentleman (Guided By Voices, Inc.)
67. Atlantean Kodex - The White Goddess (Van)
66. Purson - The Circle and the Blue Door (Rise Above)
65. Janelle Monae - The Electric Lady (Wondaland Arts Society/Bad Boy)
64. Body/Head - Coming Apart (Matador)
63. Lycus - Tempest (20 Buck Spin)
62. Windhand - Soma (Relapse)
61. Superchunk - I Hate Music (Merge)
60. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels (Fool's Gold)
59. Church of Misery - Thy Kingdom Scum (Rise Above)
58. Locrian - Return to Annihilation (Relapse)
57. Savages - Silence Yourself (Matador)
56. Altar of Plagues - Teethed Glory & Injury (Profound Lore)
55. Voivod - Target Earth (Century Media)
54. Yo La Tengo - Fade (Matador)
53. Mountains - Centralia (Thrill Jockey)
52. David Bowie - The Next Day (Columbia)
51. Widowspeak - Almanac (Captured Tracks)
50. Touche Amore - Is Survived By (Deathwish)
49. In Solitude - Sister (Metal Blade)
48. Earthless - From the Ages (Tee Pee)
47. Bill Callahan - Dream River (Drag City)
46. Causa Sui - Euporie Tide (El Paraiso)
45. Prodigy x Alchemist - Albert Einstein (Infamous)
44. Androidmonk - Androidmonk (Self-released)
43. Vista Chino - Peace (Napalm)
42. KEN Mode - Entrench (Season of Mist)
41. Satan - Life Sentence (Listenable)
40. Cultes des Ghoules - Henbane (Hells Headbangers)
39. Kadavar - Abra Kadavar (Nuclear Blast)
38. Woe - Withdrawal (Candlelight)
37. Vhol - Vhol (Profound Lore)
36. Thee Oh Sees - Floating Coffin (Castle Face)
35. Chelsea Light Moving - Chelsea Light Moving (Matador)
34. The Men - New Moon (Sacred Bones)
33. Follakzoid - II (Sacred Bones)
32. Oranssi Pazuzu - Valonielu (Svart)
31. Inquisition - Obscure Verses for the Multiverse (Season of Mist)
30. Lee Ranaldo & The Dust - Last Night on Earth (Matador)
29. Fuzz - Fuzz (In the Red)
28. Agrimonia - Rites of Separation (Southern Lord)
27. Ensemble Pearl - Ensemble Pearl (Drag City)
26. Wolf People - Fain (Jagjaguwar)
25. The Appleseed Cast - Illumination Ritual (Graveface)
24. Chance the Rapper - Acid Rap (Self-released)
23. Wormed - Exodromos (Willowtip)
22. Phosporescent - Muchacho (Dead Oceans)
21. My Bloody Valentine - m b v (m b v)

20. Laura Marling - Once I Was an Eagle (Virgin)
Despite her ever widening scope and vision, Laura Marling's fourth, and to date best, album succeeded mostly by stripping back to a more minimal approach. Once I Was an Eagle was recorded over 10 days at producer Ethan Johns' country estate, without a backing band and with very little to back Laura's vocals and guitar work. It's this simplicity that makes this record, for me, her most intense and intensely personal. I've always been a fan, but this is the first time an album of hers caught up to her vision.

19. Kvelertak - Meir (Roadrunner)
While a lot of fans of Kvelertak's 2010 self-titled debut seemed to be a little disappointed by their sophomore full-length, I found to actually be an even more full-formed expression of the band's wide-ranging sound. Converge's Kurt Ballou provides another one of his excellent production jobs, breathing life and vitality into Kvelertak's sound. Whether cranking out AC/DC chant along anthems, prog-tinged epics, nasty riffs with big pop hooks or old-school thrash, Kvelertak deftly distills forty years of heavy rock history into one fierce album.

18. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City (XL)
By more or less regurgitating the blog buzz world music indie pop of their first record on 2010's Contra, Vampire Weekend managed to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. But it is with their surprisingly mature third album, Modern Vampires of the City, that the band stakes a big claim for being a band in it for the long haul. By mature, I don't mean reflective acoustic ballads with "serious" lyrics, I mean expanding their sound in bold new directions without sacrificing the charm that made their first two records so contagious.  It's a confident record from a invigorated band, leading 43 minutes of the most enjoyable indie rock I heard all year.

17. SubRosa - More Constant Than the Gods (Profound Lore)
Let's face it, there hasn't often been lots of great music coming out of Salt Lake City, at least nothing worth getting excited about. But SLC doom band SubRosa started turning heads with their 2011 second album, No Help for the Mighty Ones, thanks to their unique vocals and the addition of violins to their huge sound. Third album, More Constant Than the Gods, however, pushes things to even more epic lengths. It's an extremely dynamic album, both noisy and melodic, taking full advantage of the band's unique make-up and triple vocalist attack. One of the more genuinely engaging and moving metal albums of 2013.

16. Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso UFO - In Search of the Lost Divine Arc (Important)
The Melting Paraiso UFO is the longest running of the Acid Mothers Temple guises, not to mention the most prolific. So prolific and dependable, that the band quietly became one of those bands that its dedicated group of fans followed faithfully, but never seems to get much attention outside of that base. Which is a shame, since Kawabata Makoto and his group are still, twenty years on, releasing some of the most interesting music. Moving away from the Miles Davis homage of their 2012 album, this finds Acid Mothers Temple moving about as far into metal territory as they are wont to get, while still keeping the requisite psychedelic weirdness and guitar insanity. If you haven't checked in on these guys for awhile, now might be a good time to do so.

15. The Besnard Lakes - Until in Excess, Imperceptible UFO (Jagjaguwar)
The Besnard Lakes are one of those steadfastly stubborn, thank your favorite deity of choice, bands that refuse to think of the album as anything less than a guided trip through a mesmerizing musical experience. There's a reason that names like Roger Waters and Brian Wilson constantly pop up in reference to this band, and not just because of their epic guitar-laden compositions or their gorgeous vocal harmonies. Their fourth record is the most grandiose yet, filled with the slow-moving, anthemic orchestral rock pieces that are their stock in trade. To my ears, this is a good as they've ever been.

14. Portal - Vexovoid (Profound Lore)
Vexovoid was my first exposure to these Australian death metal weirdos. Though I'd long been reading their name in reference to other death metal experimenters, I'd yet to experience it for myself. And, truth be told, when I first played through Vexovoid, I wasn't sure that I got it. Their sound, even for a genre as bent towards complexity as death metal can already be, was absurdly dense and overwhelming. Even at a brief 35 minutes, there were no easy toeholds. But I couldn't ignore the record and the way it had burned itself into my brain. I kept returning time and time again, each listen revealing some new layer or development. Eventually I was completely lost in their world and didn't care if I ever found my way out. Funny to think that quite a few people seem to rate this as one of their lesser albums.

13. Chris Forsyth - Solar Motel (Paradise of Bachelors)
While I do have a working turntable and I'm happy to grab used vinyl from time to time, I rarely ever purchase new music on vinyl. The price is usually prohibitive and, truth be told, I'm still a CD kind of guy. But Solar Motel was one of the few pieces of new vinyl I picked up in 2013, though I'm still not quite certain what made me pull the trigger. I'm glad I did it this way, because this feels like an album specifically designed to be heard on vinyl. Solar Motel is a four-part suite of instrumental guitar-led  rock that, to my ears, sounds like 1977 era Grateful Dead jamming out endlessly on the instrumental sections of Television's "Marquee Moon". Forsyth himself is the clear star of the record, wrenching as he does all manner of intense and highly melodic noise out of his guitar, but the rest of his group (later called out as The Solar Motel Band) fill in the edges nicely, giving the proceedings an otherworldly psychedelic feel.

12. Beyonce - Beyonce (Columbia)
This is a perfect example of why I like to wait until the calendar year is truly up before I start cranking out my lists. Beyonce's sneak attack with the December 13th surprise release of her fifth album had critics and amateur listmakers everywhere either scrambling to add her to their list of scratching their heads over how to justify her inclusion in their 2014 lists. I can't say I blame them though, nobody wants to look like they're not giving Beyonce her proper dues. And deserved those dues are, this is easily the greatest album Beyonce has pulled together so far. Yeah, there is virtually an entire record label's roster worth of guest stars, producers and co-writers, but this is decidedly Bey's show. She is more self-assured and confident in her vision than ever before, reflected in the album's lyrics and general tone. Beyonce doesn't care about the divisions between urban R&B, mainstream pop, and nu-hipster R&B - she blows those divisions out of the water in service of her own intense vision.

11. Deafheaven - Sunbather (Deathwish)
Or, the most divisive metal album of the decade. Of course, to half the people that hated this record (and half the people that absolutely loved it), just calling this metal is much of the problem. Much like French band Alcest, Deafheaven only uses black metal as one of their handful of musical launching pads. This could've just as easily, and retrospectively was, been tagged as "post-metal" or "shoegaze", apt descriptors both. Most of the record is built around guitarist Kerry McCoy's hauntingly intense and ethereally beautiful cascading guitar lines, generating a cosmic fog that drew in many a My Bloody Valentine fan. But then George Clarke's shrieked black metal vocals kick in and up the intensity to, for many, uncomfortable levels. They were a stumbling block for many, seemingly at extreme odds with the gorgeous guitar latticework, but for me this duality was the beating heart of what made Sunbather so intensely emotional.

10. Carcass - Surgical Steel (Nuclear Blast)
From their 1987 demo tape to the release of the once fittingly titled Swansong in 1996, Liverpool's Carcass tore through the metal universe, becoming standard bearers in multiple genres, whether the early grindgore of Reek of Putrefaction or the melodic death metal perfection of 1993's Heartwork. When they stepped off the stage after Swansong, the band's legendary reputation was carved in flesh and no one really expected to hear from them again. But a 2007 reunion tour kept rolling, turning into a full-time gig by 2012 and leading to the unexpected release of Surgical Steel after a 17-year gap since Swansong. And, well, damn. The legends returned to show all the upstarts how death metal is done. Jeff Walker's lyrics are as gut-splittingly clever as ever, Bill Steer's guitar playing is absolutely flesh-tearing, and the drumming from Dan Wilding keeps everything from running off the rails. A more than welcome reunion.

9. Parquet Courts - Light Up Gold (What's Your Rupture?)
I try not to be one of those guys that spends an inordinate amount of time claiming that the old days were better when it comes to music (I spend the vast majority of my listening time chasing down new sounds), but sometimes it's interesting to note how my tastes change in relation to what's going on in the world. If you've followed my lists with any attention to detail over the past decade plus, you'd be able to trace the noticeable decline in albums on my lists that would be typically classified as "indie rock". Sure, they're still there, but not in as great of numbers. A lot of this is down to my expanding and ever-evolving tastes, but I think I can genuinely say that indie rock has grown increasingly boring over the last decade. But it is bands like Parquet Courts that remind me what I ever saw there in the first place - snarky vocals, highly melodic and knotty guitar lines, dog-eared production, meaninglessly vague lyrics. These are all present on Light Up Gold, but what really nails it for me is the tight guitar playing - I hear a lot of Television influence here, never a bad thing. As fun as the punkier songs might be, I could get lost in their guitar lines for hours. It's a tantalizing mix.

8. Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats - Mind Control (Rise Above)
Although it only placed at #20 on my best albums of 2011 list, Uncle Acid's second record, Blood Lust, ended up having a profound effect on my musical tastes. I loved the thought of the Beatles and Black Sabbath recording an album direct to VHS amidst a huge pile of mushrooms, acid and naked motorcycle girls - the nearest visualization I can give to what I hear when I listen to it. So I was very highly anticipating this album. Befitting a band with an ever increasing buzz, this album is produced a lot more cleanly and there is an increased focus on songwriting, but they never once sacrifice the vibe or tone. The songs are as dark and depraved as ever, but the hooks are even bigger and more sinister. They put on one hell of a live show too.

7. Haim - Days Are Gone (Columbia)
I'll admit, I had plenty of reasons for avoiding Haim when they first started getting buzz a few years ago for their first few singles. I won't say they are good reasons, but I have to set my limits somewhere. The first problem was the aesthetic, they looked like the "indie" girls populating every TV show and ad for the past four years. Plus the whole, "three sisters from California" thing just struck me as industry kids getting the lucky press (I told you they weren't good reasons!). But eventually "Forever" wormed it's way into my ears, despite my best attempts at avoidance. And, that was it, I was hooked. Who cares about the fashion sense, these girls have amazing ears for great pop music. The entire album scans like an hour spent listening to the past four decades of pop music smashed together in the ultimate rock block. I get the Fleetwood Mac comparisons, I'm just as guilty and they make total sense. But that sells Haim really short, there are influences from all over the map buried in their sound. Genre classifications be damned, this is the best pop music I heard all year.

6. Endless Boogie - Long Island (No Quarter)
Pretty much the most appropriately named band ever. And Long Island is a pretty appropriate name for one of their albums, as this one clocks in at 80 minutes and damn near the limit for a CD. Which, from most bands, is overkill and completely unnecessary. But not when you get this foursome in a room together, jamming out the kind of extended twin-guitar laden stoner rock grooves that Paul Major excel in. I liked 2010's Full House Head well enough, but Long Island gave me more and more of what I loved about that record. This isn't music for everyone, but if stoned and fried amp guitar grooves are you thing, well, get your endless boogie on.

5. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories (Columbia)
Hard to believe, but it was eight long years between albums for the French house robot duo. But they bounced back tremendously well from 2005's relatively disappointing Human After All with a rapturously received killer live tour (and subsequent live album) and an ever growing profile that had the crowds at Coachella (and beyond, thanks to the YouTube clip) positively salivating over the brief, Nile Rodgers enhanced clip for "Get Lucky". A song which ended up taking over the summer and ruling radio playlists for a long time after. But by my count, "Get Lucky", as wonderful a slice of pop heaven as it is, is probably the only the fifth or sixth best track on this behemoth. The guest stars raised some eyebrows ahead of time, but Daft Punk knew the perfect ways to wrap Panda Bear, Paul Williams and Julian Casablancas into their distinct take on pop, dance, house, funk and beyond. A true journey, in ever sense of the word.

4. Anciients - Heart of Oak (Season of Mist)
Everything about Vancouver prog-metal band Anciients is about excess. The unnecessary extra 'i' in the band name, the multiple singers, the epic guitar solos, the tracks all clocking in at least 6 minutes long - many of them edging close to 10 minutes. But, to my ears, this is the best kind of excess. The songs are most definitely prog, with twists and turns aplenty, but Anciients never skimps on the huge riffs or highly melodic solos. The problem with many prog-metal bands is that they focus on the "prog" to the detriment of the "metal" - no such problem here. Their wide reach and range recalls, at times, the influence of bands like YOB and Neurosis, but Anciients keeps their sound pretty firmly planted in the prog world. It's a heady debut and I can't wait to hear what comes next.

3. Paramore - Paramore (Fueled By Ramen/Atlantic)
I've been a big fan of Paramore since their 2005 sophomore record, Riot!, but even that couldn't have prepared me for where they'd take things with their self-titled fourth album, and effective major label debut. Paramore, the record, is an epic sounding pop album, in the tradition of what used to pass for the kind of pop "event" albums that used to pop up every 3 or 4 months (whereas, now, we're lucky if we get two a year). Think Madonna, Def Leppard, Michael Jackson - big names, sure, but the influences of each are felt throughout. After an acrimonious split with the two founding Farro brothers, Hayley Williams, Jeremy Davis and Taylor York moved forward as a trio and reintroduced the band to the world as a arena-ready pop band. Big guitars, crisp production, a prom-worthy ballad, it's all here. And, most importantly, it's tremendously fun and packed with earworms. They never went away, so we can't call this a comeback, but it's a hell of a restatement of purpose.

2. Inter Arma -  Sky Burial (Relapse)
Much like Anciients, Inter Arma are another young, though this is the band's second full-length release, metal band unafraid to stretch their music out and pull in a variety of influences. Though instead of drawing heavily on the progressive rock tradition, Virginia's Inter Arma traces multiple threads from various styles of modern metal - sludge, southern, post-metal, black metal, to name a few - while also treading through the fertile waters of classic rock and heavy metal (think Pink Floyd, Pentagram, Led Zeppelin, Enslaved). This all could have been a mess, especially considering the piecemeal way that Inter Arma constructs their epics, but it is all incredibly engaging. Classic rock solos emerge out of black metal tremolos, while stoner rock grooves stumble into the heart of multi-suite prog epics. It's the sound of music fans joyfully tearing through 40 years of heavy rock in 67 thrilling minutes.

1. Steven Wilson - The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) (KScope)
Speaking of prog, the arguable modern-day master of the progressive rock scene dropped his best ever album and taught a masterclass on how indeed stellar progressive rock can be done in 2013. It's fair to say that Wilson has immersed himself even more fully into the classic prog rock canon over the past few years than ever before. Besides his usual production and collaborative projects, Wilson has continued to remix a plethora of classic prog albums from the likes of Jethro Tull, Yes, Gentle Giant and King Crimson. The attention to detail shows here, in spades. Six songs in fifty-four minutes, this easily stands up with the pillars of the genre - superbly arranged compositions that ebb and flow beautifully, perfectly flavored with Wilson's mellotron and Guthrie Govan's excellent lead guitar work. To my ears, the best record of 2013 and easily the best progressive rock record of the previous half-decade. This guy's genius seems to know no bounds.