Holter’s 3rd record has to be the Musical Urbanism album of the year — the title is almost an alternate title for this blog, right? In the four months since it came out, I’ve been puzzled and intrigued by how an album this composed, in both senses of the word, conveys its recurring theme of frantic urban soundscapes. While I try to figure that out, the music stands out here. Recorded with a studio ensemble (please don’t call it “chamber pop”), she’s an enchanting performer, and Loud City Song dazzles with her trademark spaces of rhythmless passages, random noise, and other John Cage tricks.
This Texas-via-Brooklyn quartet mixed the sounds of trebly 70s punk (Buzzcocks, Voidoids, Wire’s Pink Flag) and lo-fi 90s indie-rock (Pavement, Grifters, the Ponys) into a winning concoction, if a style of music that’s no longer ‘new’ by any stretch of the imagination. More distinctive is their lyrical perspective: the brainy, disillusioned voice of the Williamsburg hipster (“SOCRATES DIED IN THE FUCKING GUTTER!”). If a music career doesn’t pan out for them, I predict at least one of them will wind up a high school teacher somewhere in north Texas, hiding their tats underneath long-sleeve cuffs.
Did someone call this “psych rock”? I call bullshit: this quintet from Bar Harbor, Maine, is groping their way toward the kind of straight-ahead rock I associate with mid-80s L.A., when the country-rock tide pulled out to leave behind grizzled bar bands exploring the spectrum between the Stones and the Stooges. Singer Nina D. is great, and when songwriter Milan McAlevey adds his voice the results suggest a ‘luded John Doe & Exene Cervenka.
File under easy listening. Dude’s sad-stoner-leaving-town-a-little-bit-wiser vibe keeps getting better. Wheedle-deedle-deedle go the endless guitar solos, and we all grow a little less embarassed by them with each listen. Also, the Bruce Hornsby-sounding drum track on “Was All Talk” tickles me to no end.
Another album that’s incredibly easy on the ears, this time purposefully so. A Nick Drake album for the ProTools era: pastoral, meditative, “acoustic.”
The Dears, Montreal’s tour guides to the dark night of the soul, are on hiatus, but frontman Murray Lightburn had a busy year, becoming a father again and releasing a solo album, Mass:Light. Alternately pompous and humble, ambitious and funny, this is a DIY electronic Ziggy Stardust for the 40-year-old dad set. “Peace out, punk bitches.”
The Smiths were in the pop-culture ether again in 2013 — yeeeah, they never really left — but who would have expected that 26 years after their break-up, the guitarist’s debut solo album would be this great? The big surprise is that Marr proves to be a decent singer and capable frontman. Still, The Messenger is all about his distinctive guitar playing, mixed front and center before a muscular alt-rock rhythm section. If you feel guilty flirting with 80s nostalgia, just remember that Johnny Marr owns that sound you keep clicking back to in your iTunes.
Not album of the year, but maybe something more valuable: a really eccentric album by studio geniuses with money to burn and some issues with EDM today. That the resolution of said issues resulted in a lot of tracks sounding like circa-80s Quincy Jones musicians just laying back and vibing was unexpected but not unwelcome. Plus, the sonics on this record were so amazing, even the worst track (linked below, minus the weakest-link vocalist) could leap off the crappiest speakers.
I hear more Scream-era Banshees than Joy Division, but whatever: the post-punk revival just keeps on giving. At least it did on this band’s debut — quite likely they’ll move past this sound on their next album. We’ll still have Jehnny Beth’s voice, though, an element I discounted for too long: thin, French-accented, a reedy vibrato more suited to Piaf or Fréhel than Siouxsie or Ari Up, a non-rock instrument essential to Savages’ unembellished rage.
I don’t know much about Paramore except that they’re usually labelled pop-punk (a genre I have almost no tolerance for), and that awhile back they wrote a decent ballad that possibly became more poignant when Kidz Bop covered it. However, what I do know is that this self-titled record scratches an itch for classic alt-rock that I didn’t know I had. Smashing Pumpkins, Blondie, the Cure, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a bunch of wristband-wearing 90s bands: Paramore effortlessly blends such influences into a catchy album that runs the gamut from the R&B swing of “Ain’t It Fun” to the post-metal coda of “Future.”
So these girls killed off indie rock? Is that, like, a real issue in 2013? Maybe I’m a little disappointed that I couldn’t get my kids into this album as much as I was, but the power of the singles from Days Are Gone was massive and undeniable.
Sure, I enjoyed David Bowie’s return on The Next Day, but maybe it wasn’t the return to form that everyone hoped it was. (One reason: Bowie’s 2002 Heathen was never anything to sneeze at). For me, the unexpected return of the year was Bloodsports, the first album in 10 years by Britpop legends Suede. Occasionally they betray what I might call the “Coldplay lean” — ringing guitars atop glossy keyboard swells and a lazy 4-on-the-floor beat (I heard snatches of this at a Simple Minds concert this year as well) — but the songs are as moving and exquisitely arranged as before, and Brett Anderson’s voice remains agelessly deft.
Calvi didn’t make it easy on herself, as One Breath plays to few of the strengths of her 2011 debut (the scorching guitar, the rock anthems). Instead she delivered a more subdued, more obsessive album. The blunted distortion on “Piece By Piece” (which, unfortunately, is not a Slayer cover) reminds me of PJ Harvey’s Is This Desire? — a similarly diffuse, complex album that added nuance to the artist’s oeuvre. Still, no one creates those windswept Technicolor panoramas like Anna Calvi.
At first I was immune to QOTSA’s 6th album: there’s none of the evil glee from the best recordings, these songs never break past a midtempo trod, etc. Then my 4-year-old son kept slipping this onto the family CD player. (Such household randomness, BTW, underscores something we’re all losing with the on-going dematerialization of popular music.) My son has since moved on to Songs of the Deaf (don’t we all?), but not before I realized that …Like Clockwork is QOTSA’s goth album — probably their best album, certainly their deepest, in the last 10 years.
File under uneasy listening. I spend almost zero time listening to industrial/power electronics music, but this performer was my favorite discovery at Basilica Soundscape this year. Four songs, under thirty minutes: turn this up for your next breakdown, or your next commute.
Haven’t seen anyone include The Best of the Howling Hex (in fact not a best-of, but all-new material) on their end-of-the-year list, and I guess I understand why. Former Royal Trux frontman Neil Hagerty’s weird songs and oddly mixed recordings are rewarding but never the easiest things to digest under normal circumstances. Lay those over a rhythmic foundation consisting entirely of Mexican norteño rhythms, and you’re gonna lose some folks. The lead single “Primetime Clown” showcased these elements in their best light, with monkey grinder melody set cheek to jowl alongside Hagerty’s distinctive guitar shred.
A final note:
In 2013 I may have listened to as much music as ever, but I probably listened to fewer musicians. Mostly this is because I stopped listening to streaming music services and focused on deeper listening; thus, I bought most of the albums mentioned in this essay on vinyl. I think I was persuaded by many musicians’ protests of the redistribution of wealth away from their livelihoods that streaming services have presided over. (Call it bourgeois obligé: if a tenured full professor can’t fork over for the premium vinyl, who will?) But also I got tired of the aimless, anomic listening that streaming invites, just as the temptation of peer-to-peer filesharing does. (I think I may have dowloaded nothing illegally this year.) Also, I’m still an album-kind of listener; I still rate musicians (as opposed to pop-culture moments) based on the standard of the full-length album.
If this isn’t how most people listen to music today, so be it. For this reason, and for critical modesty, I make no pretense that this is the “best” music of the year.