Friday, December 20, 2013

My Favorite Albums of 2013

About ten years ago, Richard Buckner was my gateway drug to the wild, wonderful world of alt-country and Americana. Today, Americana makes up a fair sized chunk of what I like to listen to when just want to put something on to do the dishes or whatever. Richard Buckner’s latest is quiet and lovely, as you’d expect, but producer Tucker Martine brings a bagful of elements to the table that make this Buckner’s most intriguing record since Dents and Shells. It should go without saying that the songwriting is magnificent.

24. Volcano Choir – Repave
Though this is a collaboration between Bon Iver and fellow Eau Clare-ians Collections of Colonies of Bees, Volcano Choir has launched itself into full-fledged band mode on its second LP, and with Bon Iver apparently kaput (from the lips of Justin Vernon himself), Repave is absolutely laced with the emotional heft and sonic ingenuity of a band desperate to establish itself as a solitary entity that is much more than the sum of its separate parts.

Arctic Monkeys fifth album is an after midnight affair. It slinks, stalks, and has a dusting of sleaze. I spent years detesting Arctic Monkeys without ever listening to them and here I am in 2013, drooling over Alex Turner’s clever wordplay and crooning and marveling at that tiny part of the Venn diagram where the popular music is actually very, very good.

It’s impossible to talk about TWIABPAIANLAFTD without mentioning how bad their band name is. It’s equally impossible to talk about TWIABPAIANLAFTD without mentioning how this young New England band plays some pretty great, deeply felt Emo with a healthy dose of theatrical post-rock to make these songs sound positively end-of-the-world.

From out of nowhere (read: Canada) Basia Bulat has crafted an absolutely towering neo-folk record that is, quite simply, the loveliest record I heard all year.

20. Yo La Tengo – Fade
I feel like at some point in the mid-00s when I fell in love with Yo La Tengo I made a pact that their albums would always have a home on my year-end lists. It’s just impossible to ignore the fact that this ancient band has never stopped making amazing music. Fade should be like mama’s home cookin’ for indie rock nerds everywhere.

I hastily called Kurt Vile’s latest long-player “overblown” upon first listen. The title track is almost ten goddamn minutes long! But after listening to it every day on my commute to work for a solid three weeks, it’s safe to say I came to my senses. I was a HUGE fan (and still am) of Vile’s breakout LP Childish Prodigy, and where I felt Smoke Ring for my Halo was a bit of a let down, Wakin on a Pretty Daze, in all of its indulgent glory, highlights all of the weird things Kurt Vile does so incredibly well and is his first full-blown masterpiece.

Will Sheff is easily one of rock music’s best storytellers, so getting to hear him spin yarns about his childhood on The Silver Gymnasium is a real treat. Sure, the songs are cloaked in mystery and he has clearly made himself a quasi-fictional character but it still feels like the most personal collection of songs Sheff has offered up to date. To paint a portrait of the 80s in which these songs are set, the band adopts a slew of shimmery synthesizers to give their hearty indie folk-rock toward the nostalgia in which these songs swim.

The title of Jim Guthrie’s third album couldn’t be more accurate. Coming exactly ten years after the release of his jawdroppingly great 2003 album Now, More Than Ever, Guthrie has returned with an album that is…kind of weird. Guthrie has spent the last few years scoring video games, and that influence has very clearly worked its way into his off kilter pop songs. As it should! It took a little time to warm up to Takes Time, but the end result is an artist’s statement untouched by trends or genre constructions. It’s odd and pure and wonderful in the way Jim Guthrie’s songs often are.

I feel like Frightened Rabbit is like one of those dogs that looks like its owner, which is to say if I could show you what my soul looked like it would look like Scott Hutchinson’s songs. Pedestrian Verse isn’t my favorite FR album, but it is bigger and more ambitious than anything they’ve done to date and my admiration of their scope is enough to overshadow a couple of saggy tracks in the middle (which I’m OK with, since most of the album is comprised of some of the best songs FR have written). I’ve always loved Hutchinson’s gift of being able to wallow in heartbreak with traditional Scottish glumness while still painting the edges with a glimmer of hope.

Even though David Wingo makes his money scoring films for such fantastic indie filmmakers as David Gordon Green and Jeff Nichols, the Austinite has put together an absolutely rock solid collection of dreamy, country-folk tinged indie rock songs for his third album. The songs are unassuming, and caught me totally off guard. One of those albums I caught myself listening to by default. There’s an atmospheric quality here no doubt gleaned from Wingo’s work with fellow Texans Explosions in the Sky on the soundtrack to David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche, and those subtle post-rock elements make this the perfect album for driving down lonely roads in the middle of the night.

Cerulean Salt is a collection of simple (but not simplistic), charming, and gut-wrenching songs from my favorite new breed of singer-songwriter: the ex-pop punk rocker.

On The Kenny Dennis LP, Serengeti mashes up the lovably hilarious joke persona of Kenny Dennis with the emotional core and heartbreakingly detailed non-KDz work to paint a surprisingly touching, often hilarious portrait of a working class Chicago man with a love of brats, supreme devotion to his wife, and a heart of gold.

The pride and joy of Lawrence, Kansas. While some critics may feel obligated to include local music on their best of lists, the best praise I can give Hospital Ships is that I don’t give a shit if they’re from my adopted home town, I would love this album if they were from Brooklyn (and I HATE that every goddamn band on earth has to be from Brooklyn if they’re gonna be the next big thing). OK, they would never be from Brooklyn. Their music is too embroiled in down-to-earth midwesternness.

I still feel like I’m making up for lost time with Superchunk. I missed the boat. I should have been jamming out the Chunk in high school and didn’t really start listening to them until I’d been out of college for a year. AND I WORKED AT A FUCKING COLLEGE RADIO STATION FOR FOUR YEARS. Fucking inexcusable. I should have been barred from the temple. Alas, better late then never. Majesty Shredding ruled my world in 2010 and I gotta say, at first I Hate Music left me a bit cold. But naturally, because I’m a good boy and know what side my bread is buttered on when it comes to indie rock, I came the fuck around. And it’s so comforting to know that grown ups can rock out with more ferocity and honesty than bands half their age.

My love of Spencer Krug knows no limits, and while the dissolution of Sunset Rubdown still upsets me, watching Krug display his wild and unhindered motivations on progressive Moonface records has been a marvelous revelation. There’s nothing but piano and voice on this one, and when you’re as talented a songwriter as Spencer Krug, that’s honestly all you need.

Stereogum noted that it was impossible to talk about this album without talking about its controversy in the metal community. It mostly bugged me because of the impossible. It was totally possible to talk about Sunbather as a gorgeous, sprawling blend of black metal, shoegaze and post rock without mentioning that some black-clothed metal nerds were up in arms about Deafheaven not being metal because WHO THE FUCK CARES WHAT A BUNCH OF METAL NERDS ON THE INTERNET WERE SAYING ABOUT DEAFHEAVEN. I can only chalk up the constant chatter about Deafheaven’s metal-ness to the fact that the album was just so flawless that people had to find something to complain about (this is the modern world after all where, even if by some miracle we achieved peace on earth people would still take to the Internet to complain about all of the insufferable peace and goodwill). 

Oh, Neko Case made another great record that may or may not be her finest achievement to date? I’d be hard pressed to find an album as restless as Case, who has never allowed herself to become content and, album after album, finds new ways to break your heart in the best way.

Nothing is more satisfying than going into an album expecting to turn up your nose only to find yourself lost in its majesty. I enjoyed Vampire Weekend, loathed Contra, and am ready to call Modern Vampires of the City a towering masterpiece brimming with playfulness and the most supremely lovely harpsichords I’ve ever heard.

Mark Mulcahy for two things: Singing the theme song to The Adventures of Pete and Pete and having a bunch of great artists put together a tribute album in his honor after his wife's sudden death. When the tribute album, Ciao My Shining Star, was released a couple years ago, I don't think I was the only one who said "Who the hell is Mark Mulcahy?" I listened to that album though, and I had one of those rare and wonderful experiences where you discover a goldmine that has been under the ground you've been standing on all these years. In this metaphor, the ground is 1990s alternative and indie rock and the gold is Miracle Legion, the band in which Mulcahy spent his glory days. Mark Mulcahy's latest solo album is a spectacular affair. It's equal parts playful and emotional gut-punch and an absolute treat. 

And here I thought pop punk was dead. Killed by the Fall Out Boys and their like who rushed in post-Blink 182 and salted the earth. But nope! These wonderful, wonderful folks in Ohio are making the sort of music speaks to me in power chords and earnest declarations of existential crisis and wonderfully observed notes on the human condition. As I get older, I find myself retreating to the music I loved when I was 16. Mostly because I never stopped loving this stuff. Full of piss and vinegar and incredibly catchy. If I could be in a band, I’d be in a pop punk band. I don’t mean to pigeonhole Mixtapes, especially since their take on the genre a lovingly nostalgic place. What they accomplish here is more heartfelt than anything any of the buttoned-up indie rock bands that populate the musical landscape could ever even imagine.

Laura Stevenson is another member of that aforementioned favorite new singer-songwriter (the ex-pop punker) of mine, and while the comparisons between Stevenson and Waxahatchee are multiple (record, location, subject matter, etc), Stevenson just has so much more soul. For some reason, I can’t stop comparing the two bands in my head, and I can’t even avoid bringing it up on this little blurb. But Wheel really became a masterpiece in my head when I had something to compare it to. Stevenson’s idiosyncrasies made for an album that’s a little bit all over the place, but Wheel feels like the portrait of the artist spilling their guts and there is an honesty to her songs that is both incredibly appealing and absolutely heartbreaking.

Once again, I have to amend a pretty much set-in-stone list to accommodate another fourth quarter release from Los Campesinos!. My love for LC! is well documented and I barely even need to mention that I’m a fan because you can practically smell it on me. While I absolutely loved the bleak and morose Hello Sadness, I was totally willing to let some of the joyfulness from the bands earlier, more twee-leaning releases back into my heart (“Avocado, Baby,” is one of the most devastatingly great pop songs of the year and is basically pure bliss every single time I hear it). No Blues is LC!’s most balanced record to date, incorporating the cleverly detailed mopeyness with sing-a-long pop brilliance with the most brain-melting hooks of the year.

There was a solid month where I listened to nothing but this album on my work commute. When I was biking, I’d hum “Brilliant Dancer” as I crossed over the Ford Parkway bridge and marveled at the Mississippi River. It was such a magical thing when I was growing up, and there I was, shuttling over it five times a week like it was nothing. There’s something about the sunsets on the river, and the air in the springtime and the stiff breeze that would pop up as soon as you hit the bridge. Sometimes it’s impossible to disassociate music from where you were when you fell in love with it, and I love those memories. I love albums that immediately take me back to a specific time and place where I knew I was experiencing something special. Where I knew I was listening to an album I would turn to at various points over the rest of my life. A lofty statement, for sure, but Lemuria’s third album is one of those albums that feels timely and timeless. As you can tell from this list, I am pretty much set in my indie rock ways and I’m fine with that, but when a band comes along and shakes up the formula I like to sit back and marvel. “You made something out of nothing!” I think. The Distance is So Big is an absolute joy from start to finish.

I cannot remember the last time I was so wholly charmed by a record. In a busy world where I try to keep at least my little finger on the pulse of new music releases by my favorite bands, it’s a triumph if a record (even a great one) sticks with me longer than four months. I’ll always come back to it and remember how great it is (especially at the end of the year), but usually there are places to go, records to listen to. And yet, Frontier Ruckus’ third album has followed me around like a dog desperate for a good home. And I gave it a good home for the better part of 2013.

Though Eternity of Dimming was released in January, I was totally unfamiliar with the group until I saw their cover of Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” on the AV Club’s Undercover series. I was won over by their earnestness. The way they poured genuine love for that awful song that dominated the airwaves in the summer of 1997. I am of an age with these gents, and admired the way they so perfectly captured the strange nostalgia of that time period. They took me back to twelve years old, growing up in the suburbs, hearing that song a hundred times a day and genuinely living the best life any kid could ever live. I got their album and saw that 1990s bildungsroman vibe magnified by a thousand. To say I identified is an understatement because the details Matthew Milia pours into this gargantuan double album are the sort of details that are infinitely more affecting than any “Things You Remember If You’re A Child of the 90s” list on Buzzfeed.

When I was growing up, the 90s were a strange time lacking the stark definition of decades past and now they feel about as garish as the 80s. Milia’s way of painting a gorgeous portrait of boyhood in a garish time is the thing that makes my heart swell up the most on an album that still makes my heart swell every time I put it on. It’s all in the details. In the ugliness of the stadium-lit car dealerships that line the highway and the pure delight of summertime where everything is beautiful and nothing is impossible. The parts of department stores where you can get lost when you’re shopping with your parents and soccer practice and childhood birthday parties. The album shows a loving image of these memories as they fade with adulthood and responsibility, and Eternity of Dimming feels like Milia’s desperate attempt to capture the old memories before they are forgotten. There’s a frantic feel to the writing, a stream of consciousness to get down every last detail and every little thing.

It’s an admirable effort to say the least, and indulgent in the best way. The running time stretches to 85 minutes and every second feels vital to the album’s aim of capturing suburban upbringing in the Midwest. The band’s bluegrassy folk is beautifully arranged and layers in banjos, singing saw, big old pianos, woozy Wurlitzers, and an arsenal of folk rock technique. It keeps Milia’s display of gut-spilling from going overboard and sustains the emotional tone of Dimming with grace. Eternity of Dimming feels timeless, even if it’s always going to remind me of a specific time in my life just as much as it reminds me of my childhood.

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