The Best Albums Of 2013

Posted 12/29/2013 by cal

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2013: not as good as 2012 (musically speaking), but not nearly as bad as this boring list season would have you believe.

Take a close look at the consensus top records of the year--I dare you. How many feature musicians absolutely dominating the field on an instrument? How many are by the best singers in the world? How many feature a single instance of socially aware lyrics? I get that the general populace doesn't give a shit about such qualities, but even critics this year kowtowed to vapid, phony drivel; "Baby baby baby right on time" and "I'd rather be a dick than a swallower" and "I know I know I know I know that you're gonna be okay anyway" are the rallying cries of the 2013 listmakers.

Meanwhile, the conversation in music-writing jerk-circles has shifted to thinkpieces on the nature of the craft and THE STATE OF MUSIC or whatever (FUCK, NOW THEY'VE GOT ME DOING IT), removing the curious consumers they're supposed to be trying to win over from the equation altogether, thereby making themselves completely irrelevant to everyone but their own egos. Didn't the purpose of music writing used to be to turn people on to new interesting shit they may not have heard? Or maybe I'm just being naïve. But nowadays the point is to reach a self-congratulatory consensus, to be credible in the eyes of colleagues.

No, I don't understand the business end of this business in the slightest, but I know, no matter how indirectly, there is money changing hands somewhere between record labels and Pitchfork and Rolling Stone and the few other publications left. Those publishers are being told what they like as surely as the flock of commercial FM sheep that make up the majority of consumers, who don't read music reviews. If we're lucky, they glance at the rating. Hell, they don't even pay attention to lyrics, although evidently neither do critics. The only thing that's important is having your attention grabbed.

Remember when Kanye West was a clever lyricist and producer? Nowadays Kanye's greatest talent is in making people pay attention to him; his art is celebrity. And he's the undisputed champion, to be sure. Immediately everyone starts trying to be as brazenly annoying as possible just like him, and before you know it, we're back to Bob Dylan being the greatest singer of all time or some such nonsense. At least he had words. The words on Yeezus only have relevance to Kanye's imaginary society that he's the god of. He's not being bold by being blunt; he's just reached the point where everything he does gets overanalyzed and inflated with fanciful symbolism, and it's possible that he even realizes that he might as well be farting into the mic. And good lord, people, what possible emotional or spiritual reward could be at the end of the multiple-listens-to-Haim tunnel? I'm not saying everything has to be "Imagine" but give me something.

There are still worthwhile lists out there (The Quietus in particular is one I'm incredibly excited to continue digging through), but this is the year Pitchfork is just a McCartney album shy of being Rolling Stone. Pitchfork claiming to be "The essential guide to independent music and beyond" any more is like Wal-Mart calling itself "A vendor of locally-grown carrots, and more". The major lists are virtually identical and the winners are all superficial escapist fluff. We've officially reached the age of post-authenticity. If I can survive until the age of post-credibility, I might just make it in this business.

Anyway, here are The Best albums I heard this year, ranked in order of Greatness. Although honestly, I wouldn't say there was a dominant, clear-cut winner at all this year; everything mentioned on these pages is almost equally worth your time. So if you're just here to look at numbers and titles and artists, please go away. This is for people who read words. Wait, I guess if you're just here for the rankings, you probably aren't reading this, either. Sigh.

(note: Title links are to Bandcamp (or other free stream/download pages) when possible, or Spotify when not, for your listening pleasure.)

20. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Push The Sky Away

Some of Nick Cave's stuff I get nothing out of. This album makes me think that some day I'll love it all. The Australian Tom Waits strings together a very loose morality tale on Push The Sky Away, with plenty of stream-of-consciousness philosophical meandering and a thick sinister atmosphere and a bunch of tenaciously penetrating songs. By the time you get to the end--the title track, possibly the best song on the album--you can probably take it as a defiant ode to the sacredness of life or a whispered confession brought on by the gnawing fear of death. Whether or not the afterlife consists of 72 virgins on a chain, stave it off at all costs.

19. Vhöl, Vhöl

This is that black metal/hardcore mashup I was talking about earlier. Who exactly is making worthwhile hardcore these days? I'm not talking about the proggy grindcore stuff that Converge is obviously still doing masterfully, or the atmospheric Neurosis-worshipping kind. I'm talking about in-your-face, no-frills, high-speed musical bludgeoning, and the only non-local band I can come up with is Vhöl. I'm sure there are others out there, but after wracking my brain, I can't come up with any other serious contenders in this millennium. With this album, I kept telling myself 'okay, I'll give it one more solid listen and then take it off the iPod to make way for other stuff', but the problem is that every time I'm in shuffle mode and a song from this album pops up I am instantly so fired up I can't bring myself to remove it. This might be the greatest union of punk and metal since Motörhead.

18. Hiatus, Parklands

For the first few months after I first heard it, Parklands was my default yoga/just-waking-up, deadline-rapidly-approaching music, until it wormed its way into my active consciousness, when it became my default any-time-I'm-in-my-office album. It's such a beautiful way to ease into a day or a project, ambient and wistful, certainly soothing but not without its dark textures. It draws on mildly Celtic and Middle-eastern influences, admittedly not too far off from the dreaded tag of "new age" but particularly on the tracks with vocalist Shura the songs are more substantial than that term suggests. There's almost a Portishead vibe going on at times, although hip-hop would be quite a stretch; this isn't very danceable or hard-hitting at any point, but it stirs the soul nonetheless.

17. My Bloody Valentine, m b v

Rather than mince words or make excuses, I'll just get this out on the table: I like m b v more than Loveless. It's probably a psychological thing; when Loveless came out I was all about grunge, and once grunge was over I basically abandoned sub-mainstream rock for punk, metal and jambands. I never developed any kind of relationship with Loveless until probably 2005, at which point it struck me as a sort of interesting prototype of the sounds that other bands had perfected. Eventually the songs wormed their way into my consciousness, but I could never shake the notion that coming upon Loveless in the early 90s might've been life-altering, while life was irreversibly pre-altered for me before really hearing it. So the mythic followup elicited about as much excitement for me as had Chinese Democracy, to be honest; after decades of inactivity, what could Kevin Shields hope to accomplish by finally resurrecting his classic-rock recording project? Well, who knows, but m b v sounds like a piece of work that its creator had a burning need to release into the world. When I heard it, it struck me that nobody had actually ever recreated the atmosphere of Loveless; I needed some distance from my own first experience of it to revisit it with some historical perspective, and now these two albums seem like very clear companions, only rather than being a retread, m b v does indeed sound like the next evolutionary step in the My Bloody Valentine sound, as if Shields had not paid any attention to what had happened in music in 22 years, but I'll be damned if it sounds dated or archaic. I still think of Loveless as a prototype, and m b v is an expansion. The next album is gonna be the really good one.

16. Mouth Of The Architect, Dawning

I don't have a ton to add to my original review of this album, except that Dawning keeps getting better even in the few weeks since I wrote the review. Once you hit that anthemic guitar solo towards the end of the first track, "Lullabye", you can feel that a colossal stretch of music is about to go down. Possibly the gateway metal album of the year; an album this steeped in post-rock, this satisfying in terms of songwriting, and this aggressive hasn't come along since maybe Precambrian, and honestly it's more evocative of Oceanic than anything else I can think of, except maybe the emerging Baroness influence, which is also not a bad thing. Can't. Get. Enough.

15. Blue Sky Black Death, Glaciers

Yep, dark synthpop. Now that it's back in style, maybe it's getting easier to weed out all but the really good stuff, even though I sort of love it all. But it usually tends to be the most minimalistic stuff that cuts the deepest, and Glaciers is the opposite of that. The complexity of the layers of sound on tracks like "IV" and "V" are on a jazz-fusion level at times, except each instrument is just a collection of electrons--not counting the voices, of course. Appearances by Child Actor, Lotte Kestner and JMSN work beautifully with the lush quasi-trip-hop and brooding electronic noodle jams. This is the kind of haunting pop music that seemingly will never actually be embraced by the populace any more, at least not in the U.S., but fans of James Blake should certainly take note; it's very much along the same sonic lines, only more complicated and not so much based on vocals. It's positively gorgeous from beginning to end.

14. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories

"We're up all night to get lucky"--wasn't this idiot just bitching about escapist bullshit? Yeah, well, I'm a Journey fan too; deal with it. I'm subjected to at least a half hour per workday of commercial FM radio, which I actually welcome, just to preserve a modicum of awareness of what people are being brainwashed into liking these days. And I think "Get Lucky" was the one inescapable track of the year that I never managed to get sick of. (Oh wait, "Diane Young" was the other one.) Seriously, the song is irresistible. I crave so badly to see "Get Lucky" live; even DJs mixing it in at Summer Camp was a total thrill. Normally after a couple times I'd be rolling my eyes, but that song came as close as I can remember in the past decade to uniting hipsters and commoners in mutual love of a ridiculously good melody and groove. Not like there aren't plenty of people out there who hate it, I'm sure, but what can ya do? Anyway, that's not even my favorite song on Random Access Memories; it’s the one with Panda Bear, "Doin' It Right", the kind of glorious singing and songwriting I really hope Panda brings back to the mix on the next Animal Collective album (yeah, it sounds more like his solo stuff but come on). Plus, the epic "Giorgio By Moroder"--when have you ever heard a song like this before? A little silly maybe but just dive in, people. And the blazing "Contact" closer, call me a sucker for the formula but this is how you leave the audience begging for more. Yeah, it's a seriously syrupy lounge-disco album, more of a bubblegum pizza than a licorice, and there are a couple of weak tracks--"The Game Of Love" and "Instant Crush" are pretty frikkin boring, and "Lose Yourself To Dance" is little more than a slower, not-as-good "Get Lucky"--but on the strength of all the non-weak ones and taking into account two of the best songs of the year, I thoroughly enjoyed this bastard.

13. Danny Brown, Old

This is the good kid, m.A.A.d city counterpart for the year. As a rapper, Danny Brown reminds you of Kendrick Lamar with his stylistic schizophrenia, complete with bursts of obnoxiousness that make you want to turn the volume down (but without Kendrick's cuteness), sometimes bringing Mos Def to mind ("Side A", "Lonely"), sometimes Ice Cube ("Torture"), but always with his own distinctive flavor. His flow is impeccable; whether harsh or smooth, he can lay back or attack with equal tenacity, and his overall precision makes most modern rappers sound lazy. Like many of them, though, his subject matter is largely a drug-jargon competition peppered with sexual and various other claims to cred, but his street tales ring true, with very specific imagery detailing his struggles and ambitions. The beats ride a similarly eclectic course between smooth and in-your-face, an exhausting overall experience even disregarding the vocals, and although Brown doesn't have quite the narrative ambition of Lamar, he puts you in the driver's seat of his tales with the same zest. You get squeezed through the ringer and then wind up in "Kush Coma", which is somehow soothing, goofy, sexy and disturbing all at once, one of the most amazing tracks of the year. I can seriously look past any of Old's shortcomings if only because I can't get enough of that one song, and even the parts of the album that annoy me are matters of taste. And hey, no stupid skits!

12. Ulver with Tromsø Chamber Orchestra, Messe I.X–VI.X

As with every Ulver album since 1998's Themes from William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, this new one gets filed under the genre "unknown". Unlike some previous albums, this isn't music that leaps out at you; having it on in the background while you work on a spreadsheet probably won't alert you to its genius. Kristoffer Rygg has been progressing very slowly towards minimalism as if he's determined to make both the quietest, most nebulous music of all time as well as the loudest and most chaotic, and Messe I.X-VI.X is as extreme in its subtlety as Nattens Madrigal was in its viciousness. While there have been some missteps (2011's War Of The Roses was a bit unfocused, and the 2012 covers album Childhood's End was very hit-or-miss), the Ulver catalog is one of the most wholly captivating journeys in modern music, but Messe is almost as unnerving in portent as it is musically; where can Rygg possibly go from here? It feels very much like the end of this path, taking the meditative ambience of Shadows Of The Sun to its ultimate conclusion, yet it's almost impossible to imagine Ulver morphing back into anything loud or complex. As I type that, I realize I'm attempting psychic reverse-psychology on Rygg; I want so badly for him to make something loud and ludicrous again (and working with Sunn o))) could…NEVER MIND), but whatever he does I am going to keep following along eagerly because he's a true genius.

11. Run The Jewels, Run The Jewels

As great as this album is, I'm already way more excited for the promised followup coming next year. Killer Mike and El-P are two of my favorite rappers making music these days, and this album shows them both at their absolute best. I really liked Mike's R.A.P. Music from last year but he's showing off more tricks here trading lines with El, and the clear combination of camaraderie and competition between them coaxes some next-level verses out of each. El's beats are thick and weird, but the flow is so smooth you really have to scrutinize it to notice anything out of the ordinary. Booming music, vocals that are alternately menacing and hilarious, a huge range of subject matter, totally unpredictable and every time I listen to it I'm never ready for it to end. What more can I say? "Maybe it's that half a molly I put in your Mountain Dew."

10. Fuck Buttons, Slow Focus

Every track is a monstrosity of energy, swelling and swelling until it bursts, but lots of artists can do that. What makes the album great are the idiosyncrasies within each tune that allow the music to ebb and flow without getting too complicated. It's all very simplistic, structurally, but it's all magnificently arranged for maximum impact. The scattershot bleepy-bloopy "Year Of The Dog" is a terrific little adventure, but it really functions basically as a lead-in to the sonic volcano of "The Red Wing". "Sentients" is a relatively quick burst that wastes no time in getting to its climax, and then there's the unassuming exploration of "Prince's Prize", essentially just a breather to prepare you for the long, grand, magnificent menace of "Stalker". If they had pushed the intensity too far earlier on, you might've been prepared for how huge this goes, but Fuck Buttons played it juuuuust right.

9. The Besnard Lakes, Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO

I love My Bloody Valentine, but I also love words. And aggressive riffs I can wrap my teeth around. And pronounced longing. On Until In Excess, Imperceptible U.F.O., The Besnard Lakes take all of these things and pour them into ridiculously beautiful songs, so it's basically like my sweetest moody dream-pop fetish deeply smeared by shoegaze, occasionally supercharged with post-metal guitar indulgences and highlighted by songwriting that approaches Bends-era Radiohead, maybe not quite on lyrical grounds but musically, "46 Satires", "The Spectre", "At Midnight", "Catalina" and "Colour Yr Lights In" are pure achy rock and roll bliss. I still can't pick a favorite.

8. Secret Chiefs 3, Book Of Souls: Folio A

The CD arrives in the mail from Web Of Mimicry. The jewel case is cracked, like always. There's no vinyl release, as usual. I look at the tracklist. Four of these songs I already have on seven-inchers. In fact, disregarding the "Suprasensory radio spots", there are only two actual songs on here that I haven't already heard. None of these details should factor one whit into my appreciation for the album, though, right? And they don't. It's in a blinding flash when I listen to this music that I realize how utterly lazy most successful musicians are. All music is a mixture of musics that came before. The goal should be to mix them in a way no one else has done, and to perform the resulting music impeccably. That's the pinnacle achievement in any sort of performance art, in objective terms, and at any point during the rock and roll era, there are--what, maybe a dozen artists in the country at that level? Trey Spruance has been at that level for like two decades now. The subjective part comes with the emotional resonance, and that obviously trumps the objective part in all cases. This is music that can't evoke something specific and universally empathetic, because there's no ubiquitous precedent for its style, so you have to draw from your own past to dream up how you're going to feel about it. A lot of times it brings me back to reading The Tombs Of Atuan when I was a kid, the various terrifying and glorious things that take place in complete and utter darkness. But for some of it, like "Potestas Clavium", I just dwell in basically neutral raw emotion, only able to recognize brief snatches of past feelings, and then "La Chanson de Jacky" features Mike Patton, which feels so familiar and righteous that even though I will take Secret Chiefs over Mr. Bungle at almost any time, I do miss Bungle intensely and…yeah, grudgingly, I'll admit I'd like to see them get back together, fuck it. Just in case it wouldn't suck. Anyway, I've preached enough about this band over the years that if you haven't strapped in yet, I reckon you're not going to, so piss off. You have bad taste in music.

7. Gorguts, Colored Sands

This is an album that illustrates why it's exceedingly difficult to get a local metal scene off the ground. Metal is a technical discipline by nature, and when there are people writing and performing it this well, it's hard for anyone to compete. You listen to an album like Colored Sands, and then you go out to see any local death metal band--shit, almost any other death metal band, period--and you're just like 'augh, this is so weak by comparison.' I hate to say that but it's true. This music is so advanced in terms of composition and execution, the proficiency is almost a wall you have to knock down in order to tackle the question of whether it moves you or not. It's like the original intent of the term "progressive" brought to a new level of fulfillment. Show me another composer crafting something like the gorgeous down-tempo interludes in "An Ocean Of Wisdom" that morph in and out of tonality like a horrific sonic nightmare and the monstrous dominant riff of that song and the soaring, limb-rending solos. The album is so dynamic and its most aggressive moments so aggressive, by the time you hear sickeningly catchy riffs like the ones that begin the title track and "Reduced To Silence" they make you feel queasy with anticipation for the bludgeoning that's about to ensue. The lyrics are essentially par for metal; occasionally heart-wrenching, but frequently clichéd and clunky, though never laughable. That's about all you can ask for. It's such a mind-blowing thrill ride of an album that the lyrics scarcely matter as anything but intent. I listen to this and then think about the direction Opeth opted to go in, and as much as I loved Opeth I have almost no desire to listen to anything post-Ghost Reveries, and even that album seems so tame…I digress. They're completely different bands whose intent has never been the same, but I don't think there's been a better death metal album than Colored Sands in the past couple of decades.

6. DARKSIDE, Psychic

When we talk about music that combines electronic music with guitars and such, it seems that live, improvisational artists are at the forefront of the conversation. Who actually writes decent songs and puts them on records, though? DARKSIDE, that's who. The name is somewhat misleading; there's some darkness lurking through much of the album, but there's plenty of levity as well. It's amazing that electronic component Nicolas Jaar and multi-instrumentalist Dave Harrington were able to tie all this randomness together into such a superbly cohesive album, but wow. Following a few tracks of brooding pop, they move into some mellow bluesy grooving ("Paper Trails") and then ramp up into funk ("The Only Shrine I've Seen"), which dissolves into an ambient jam that gradually builds up into a glitchy, jazzy piece of low-key EDM ("Freak, Go Home") before dying out into spacey weirdness. I feel like I'm describing an epic Phish jam, which is kind of what it's like listening to this album, except of course it's a collection of compositions and it's far more diverse and dynamic than anything Phish can come up with these days. What's hilarious is that the next song is called "Greek Light"--WHOOPS. This is simply one of the most unique and beautiful and endlessly entertaining albums of the past decade or so, with aspects from so many genres of music all arranged so perfectly together it's ludicrous to think it's the work of just two dudes. It's almost like a mellow modern equivalent of Mr. Bungle. Whoa, I did not just type that, did I?

5. Death Grips, Government Plates

The Beefhearts of rap continue to amaze with this ambush of a record. Then again, everything they do is an ambush. This would be a deliriously wicked album even without any vocals at all; it's like a nonstop pingpong match between a lurchy, mega-intoxicated dancefloor and a bleary chillout room. I almost want an instrumental version of this album, honestly, because Zach Hill is in total control; the combinations of live, blister-inducing drums and a cornucopia of blaring samples and digital grooves is a masterpiece in itself. Ride merely pops in between bleeps and blasts to fuck with you hardcore. Nothing against that, though; he's the most original voice in modern hip-hop and this is his richest and wackiest outing yet. The quasi-harmonies of "You might think he loves you for your money but I know what he really loves you for it's your brand new leopard skin pillbox hat" are a crushing head trip by themselves, and what in God's name he could be going on about in the rivetingly strange "Birds" is anybody's guess, but if Beefheart really is a valid antecedent here, maybe in twenty years or so I'll figure it out. With few words and mostly minimal, uncomplicated beats, Death Grips force us once again to draw our own conclusions and experience the way our impressions change as we listen, enthralled, over and over again.

4. Altar Of Plagues, Teethed Glory & Injury

The two current trends in black metal are mashing it up with other specific extreme genres (shoegaze and hardcore being this year's haute saveurs), and a return to lo-fi/folk roots, which arguably isn't a trend because it never actually went away. But the desire to evolve the style seems to have died of exhaustion thanks to the overzealous prolificacy of progressive acts like Wolves In The Throne Room and Krallice, two bands I love but am thankful to not have heard from in a while (and don't let's even start on Liturgy). Then you've got Altar Of Plagues, who put out this truly unique statement of an album, and then promptly announced that they're calling it quits. Fuckers! I'd be tempted to call this psychedelic black metal, except that adjective is so overused and anyway it would take a truly demented mind to want to drop acid and listen to this kind of anguished, violent music. So I think I'll call it schizophrenic black metal, how's that? It rivals anything in the Primordial catalog for top honors in the post-millennial Irish metal conversation. It's a landmark of short-haired, we-don't-give-a-fuck extreme music, steeped in industrial pounding with a vengeful Neurosis spirit and a Vindsvalian disregard for boundaries and conventions. I don't know of another album much like it, but I do hope that out of the "atmospheric" sea some other black metal band will be inspired to do something equally jarring and interesting eventually.

3. Ceramic Dog, Your Turn

I'd like to change my original review a bit, please. I think maybe Your Turn is better than Party Intellectuals. For one thing, it's the only 2013 album this side of Macklemore that contains lyrics that address any sort of social or political issue, I swear to God. Rock and roll is so strapped for direction right now and losing fans to the fringes that nobody under the age of 50 is picking up a guitar and writing protest songs any more. It's a fucking pathetic time to be a kid in that respect. Any kind of decent lyric at all is a miracle, but Marc Ribot, without pretension, with humor, but also with genuine anger, tackles some issues here and tries to make you think. That's in addition to the music, which is a blend of jazz, post-punk, lounge, rock and, well, other stuff, and this trio of instrumentalists who are basically unmatched in terms of their individual instrumental prowess within their unique style. What can I say? I like hearing people who are really, really good at playing music, play music.

2. The Field, Cupid's Head

I wonder if some people are upset with Axel Willner for making more naturally listenable songs on his new album as The Field. It seems like something fans would do, like the people who started hating Green Day when Green Day got famous. There's not as much jarring glitch as on the also-great Looping State Of Mind, for instance, although it's not like every song is a straight, flowing beat, but as a whole, Cupid's Head has a more straightforward flow than any of Willner's previous efforts. There's also more going on, more sounds competing for your attention at once, more to discover as you keep listening. It's like a faint, bizarre narrative constantly struggling to break through a wall of obstinately catchy dance music. You only catch glimpses of the weirdness until you really start hunting for it, and then of course every oddity you discover sticks with you forever. There's no shame in just surrendering to the utter infectiousness of it all, but also, the unorthodox vocal building blocks of tracks like "They Won't See Me", "Cupid's Head" and "No. No…" and the way Willner blends them so quickly into a full sonic wall and then morphs the loops into totally different but synchronous cadences and shiiiifts between them and merges them…it makes a person like me hunt vainly for adjectives and eventually settle for something ho-hum like "brilliant", or maybe "unparalleled". This is music to get lost in and to find yourself in.

1. Forest Swords, Engravings

I found out with this album that I'm not a complete lunatic (or at least, not the only one) for rarely trusting my first impression of music. My first few listens yielded a feeling of pointlessness, bordering on annoyance in regards to a couple tracks. 'It's just a bunch of random crap mashed together', said my brain. I can't even get that from it any more. Something clicked in the middle of November, and now I can't unhear the perfection of it. Sure, it's unusual music, but the elements all blend together so well, and it's not at all haphazard or even that complicated. There are amazing melodies in "Ljoss" and "Irby Tremor" and "The Weight Of Gold", and the distinctive clanging guitar and various other sonic idiosyncrasies assert themselves as a definitive individual style the more you listen to the album. For some reason I couldn't make heads or tails of "Onward" for the longest time, but the rhythm feels so natural now, and the combination of the stark mechanical beat, simple electric piano pattern and supernatural samples (that first one HAS to be a distorted human voice, right?) produces goosebumps. Then the brief tribal coda...I guess my first impression was that this album was a cold intellectual exercise, and now the entire thing feels spiritual, a lot like Burial actually, chilling but with heavy intention, an expression of the intense yearning to connect weighed down by the unfathomable distance between particles. Universal in the sense that the universe is 99% unknowable and that's what binds us all together. So, um, I like this music a lot. No matter how odd or ridiculous it sounds to you at first, don't give up.

HONORABLE MENTION (in alphabetical order)

Boards Of Canada, Tomorrow's Harvest  ...  I realized this year that while most of my favorite IDM primarily evokes sorrow or some sort of dark headspace, Boards Of Canada are perhaps the lone masters of evoking a completely neutral uncertainty, which might sound like a boring style but there's something so unnerving about it; it's an intense lack of concrete emotion. That's what was missing from The Campfire Headphase and probably why I cannot get into that album, but it's back in full force on Tomorrow's Harvest. I miss the weirdness of Music Has The Right To Children for sure, and overall the more viscerally dynamic electronic albums of this year are far more exciting to me, but tracks like "Telepath", "Sick Times", "Nothing Is Real" and "New Seeds" are BoC doing what only BoC can do. No matter how I look at it, this album is a long-awaited return to form.

The Cloak Ox, Shoot The Dog  ...  I can't say this quite satisfies my craving for Fog, but it certainly comes closer than anything else. Several shades of rock and roll, most of which have been done in the past by Wilco and/or My Morning Jacket, are augmented by Andrew Broder's particular theatricality and equal parts humor and sincerity and the rebranding of Jeremy Ylvisaker as an honest-to-God guitar hero. The first track is almost like an epic Thin Lizzy ballad with Neil Young grit and heroism shoehorned in, and it's glorious. Thinking in Fog terms, you have to give it a few goes before you can definitively take it seriously. But even then, can you? Then the countrified two-step of "Josephine", all heartachy and jaunty at once; that's very Fog-like. Okay, enough of the Fog comparisons; this is the slickest and catchiest shit Broder has come up with yet, and it's still insidiously proggy and tastefully obscure, riddled with inconsistencies but also nuggets of outlandish brilliance. I could almost nitpick something about every song, but I think perhaps the anomalies are meant to ground the proceedings; it could get a little pretentious if it weren't for the occasional raised eyebrow. It might be the most fun of any straight-up rock record this year, although it ends strangely with a fairly weak track and an unceremonious halt; I can't help but feel a little let down when it's over.

Chance The Rapper, Acid Rain  ...  I'll admit that elements of Chance's somewhat juvenile delivery wore thin for me after listening to Acid Rain all year, particularly his trademark yelp, but all in all this is a terrific debut. The songs that stuck with me--"Pusha Man", "Cocoa Butter Kisses", "Juice", "Acid Rain" and "Chain Smoker"--never got old. The kid's definitely got a bright future and a ton of talent; his singing and rapping are soulful and unmistakably his own, and although he can be a bit obnoxious, his naïve philosophical meanderings are probably only going to get more profound and poignant as he masters his craft, and in terms of just having fun, rap doesn't get much better than this.

Dirty Beaches, Drifters/Love Is The Devil  ...  The pinnacle of lo-lo-fi electronic weirdness. This album is the kind of creepy, hazy hilarity that I think shitgaze was trying to capture but I think that ship sailed long ago when it comes to rock and roll; not that this kind of music necessarily has much of a future either, but once you get past the almost nonexistent production values on this double album, you're left with a very unique atmosphere and a bunch of engrossing songs, particularly the incredible instrumental "Alone At The Danube River".

Chris Forsyth, Solar Motel  ...  The psych-garage-jam guitar record of the year. Just put it on and crank it and feel the layers of crisp, syrupy noise build and multiply and mutate through four untitled tidal waves of sound. One of those experiences tailor-made by and for people who want to hear every crease and grain of every part of every string of an electric guitar and the different ways those reverberations can be tweaked and twisted as they're fed through various gadgets. Chris Forsyth is a real-life wizard and I can't wait to see this Solar Motel band live.

John Grant, Pale Green Ghosts  ...  I think this album deserves all the attention it's getting. The sentiments are sometimes corny but seemingly earnest, completely devoid of guile or artifice, or art, to be honest, if he's trying to be taken seriously, which it certainly seems like he is, and a lot of people certainly are taking him seriously. But I can't, at least at face value. I'm a huge Weird Al fan (at least of his older stuff…), who is obviously a more overt mocker of pop culture, but he's similarly interested in expressing things in a hilariously indelicate manner (albeit with less cursing), and also lampooning musical styles, which has to be what Grant is doing on tracks like "GMF" and "I Hate This Town", but really, on the whole album. He's crooning these ridiculous seventh-grade rhymes and basically throwing a pouty tantrum for the entire length of the album, and I get that this is all brutally honest shit and he's gone through tough times, but, um, who hasn't? The rest of us are sucking it up and making the most of life, or inviting ridicule, or keeping our maudlin self-pity to ourselves, and if Grant is dead serious on this album, that is pretty pitiful. But whether or not he's as self-aware as I hope he is, it is also hilarious. This might sound odd, but I wish I could sit and listen to this album with my mom. She might scowl occasionally at the f-bombs, but I guarantee we would both just laugh our asses off the whole time. Grant is like a living vulgar human Eeyore. And that is a damn good thing. I don't begrudge anyone taking this album to heart, but if you grew up in my family, you'd be laughing too.

Grumbling Fur, Glynnaestra and Dustin Wong, Mediation Of Ecstatic Energy  ... I discovered these just recently and simply had to draw the line on consideration for this list. They're a couple of batshit-nutty mind-boggling collages of sound that make my entire life's work seem lazy and dull by comparison. At this point I feel like they'd probably both be top twenty albums if I'd found them sooner but who knows? Snap judgments on music never got me anywhere.

Jesu, Everyday I Get Closer to the Light from Which I Came  ...  Hey Justin Broadrick, get your fucking shit together and get the vinyl release ready in a timely fashion. Sick of your shit. I listened to this once on Spotify when it came out in September. It sounded good. Still waiting on the record to appear and I want to listen to it that way. Oh, I see the limited edition grey version is sold out, according to your bandcamp page. I guess I'll just order the black one, naturally a high-priced import since you don't bother with a U.S. release. It will probably sound great. But I don't know.

Joey Bada$$, Summer Knights  ...  This is a terrific mixtape that probably should've ended with "Amethyst Rockstar"; the last four tracks are pretty much nonessential retreads of what was already done, which was all pretty great stuff. There's a very retro vibe running through the album, but if you like that old jazzy conscious shit this should be right up your alley. Joey is refreshingly un-obnoxious, a talented MC with lots of talented friends, and moving, thought-provoking tracks like "My Yout", "47 Goonz" and "95 'Til Infinity" (the other highlight being the extremely satisfying "Death Of YOLO") showcase a clever wordsmith with a passion for his art riding a silky, melancholy groove. Very smooth, summery vibe throughout; throw this on to break through the stale winter doldrums.

Jonwayne, Cassette 3: Marion Morrison Mixtape  ...  This would get more props from me if Jonwayne weren't such a blatant DOOM worshipper (which he freely acknowledges in "Marion Morrison"--"DOOM set the bar so high it's got the munchies"--and I can't exactly blame him I suppose…), but it's definitely a great mixtape full of crazy-interesting beats and great wordplay. It would also be better without Jonwayne's little disclaimer at the end about his name, in which he really tries to be self-effacing but actually sort of embodies the hipster attitude he's ostensibly shrugging off. I'm being too nit-picky, though; the rewards of listening to gooey-ass tracks like "Numbers On The Hoard", "And Bullshit" and "Dog" are sweet, and cushioned by the very minimal but potent beats you're going to keep noticing cool little lyrical twists every time you listen to this thing.

Junip, Junip  ...  This is a gorgeous bit of post-folk-rock, akin to Field Report but with more of a focus on atmosphere than storytelling. I didn't really care for that "In Every Direction" single from last year, but this self-titled album has a lot more oomph. The simple lyrics actually have purpose; there are some profound truths to gain from "Line Of Fire" and "Your Life Your Call", among others, and comfort to be found in "Walking Lightly" and "After All Is Said And Done". It's a very meditative piece of work, but occasionally stirred to great uplift, and there's a very un-fearful longing that most of us can recognize from warm memories and fond hopes.

Locrian, Return To Annihilation  ...  The full breadth of psychedelia, from delicate acoustic guitars to face-shredding, abrasive metal to droning, pinging ambience to earsplitting noise, lives and breathes in Return To Annihilation. It's an album that has the ability to lull you into a zoned-out haze and shock you into a sudden state of panic and suspend you in a heightened state of mind-numbing tension, but then when you get familiar with its zigs and zags it all comes together as a fascinating complete piece of art. Locrian is to experimental metal what Death Grips are to hip hop: they operate as if they haven't heard anything that came before and these sounds emerge out of them involuntarily just as they are.

Open Mike Eagle, Sir Rockabye EP  ...  I wasn't by any means finished listening to last year's 4nml Hsptl when along came this EP, which Mike sold CDRs of at his Borg Ward show in June, but iTunes could not come up with the tracklisting; it claimed the disc contained a couple Johnny Cash tunes and I think one was Hinder or some such nonsense? Then there was suddenly a bunch of media attention over the track "Middling", which gave me hope for the human race, briefly. This guy is the best lyricist in hip hop for sure; he paints a relentless portrait of blandness with ridiculous rhymes that's so vivid you almost want to meet the extraordinarily ordinary person who could possibly incite such mockery. Of course, based on "Degrassi Picture Day", you could suspect it's Drake; in fact, if you weren't familiar with Eagle's voice, you might suspect that song was performed by Drake himself. Mike's impersonation is so spot-on it's about the most riotous public lampooning I can recall in recent years, and I actually like Drake. Mike's got about as many vocal personas as Captain Beefheart, too, and the range of emotional story arcs to match; "Mef's Lament" rounds out the record with a powerful ode to being perpetually misunderstood. Imagine if fame was based on the ability to convey universal human issues instead of a competition to be the most outlandishly disingenuous jackass on the planet.

Palms, Palms  ...  This is the 2013 equivalent of Junius's great Reports From The Threshold Of Death, atmospheric emo with a bruising metal edge. It's not quite as epic; whereas Junius strove for the grandest possible effect, Palms have an underground heart and their songs are ultimately more intimate as a result, grounding everything in very personal terms rather than reaching for huge spiritual truths. The balance between haunting ambience and hulking guitar bombast is what ties the two bands together, and they're pretty much equally adept at striking it, pushing the musical melodrama to the brink of cheese and holding your soul captive there without ever tumbling into insincerity. Powerful magicks.

Pelican, Forever Becoming and Russian Circles, Memorial  ...  A couple of stellar albums from the reigning kings of Chicago's (mostly) instrumental metal scene. While Memorial isn't quite as thrilling to me overall as 2011's Empros, the album that thoroughly revitalized Russian Circles' career, it's along very similar lines and almost as powerful, and it has the added bonus of Chelsea Wolfe singing on the glorious title track. Forever Becoming, however, I'd venture to call Pelican's best work since the 2003 debut Australasia. I hate to speculate that founding member Laurent Schroeder-Lebec's admission that his heart wasn't into Pelican any more had actually been a factor in the band's gradual diminishment of potency for years, but although there were certainly bright spots along the way, nothing touched the debut for me. This first album without Schroeder-Lebec and with the addition of Dallas Thomas on the songwriting front sounds more vigorous and inspired than anything Pelican has done in ages.

Sigur Rós, Kveikur  ...  You could say this is a decisive return to no-frills atmospheric post-rock if it weren't for the incredibly danceable bits. This album is brilliant through and through, and I have absolutely no excuse for it not being in the top twenty other than that, just like with compatriots like Mogwai or Tortoise, once you see Sigur Rós live, their albums have relatively little impact. I can only pity the band in this respect; if they'd stop being so amazing live, maybe their records would get more respect.

Thundercat, Apocalypse  ...  Eclectic silliness, wistful spiritual questing and extreme bass guitar talent collide in this album, which comes off almost as a Flying Lotus side project and that's by no means a bad thing. Although there are a few serious moments, these are the novelties amongst the pure fun of the album as a whole, which is a hard-to-classify mixture of funk and other danceable styles, all anchored by Thundercat's ridiculously versatile bass playing. There's no excuse for not partying to this album as soon as possible.

Washed Out, Paracosm  ...  The lush, druggy haze of Washed Out is basically a less organic version of the dreamiest Dream Academy material, but of course chillwave was actually invented by a Liverpool thug named John Lennon in 1974 via a song called "#9 Dream" as a vehicle for his mistress. Almost 40 years later, the genre hasn't evolved a bit, but Paracosm will certainly be one of the definitive artifacts in the grand chillwave mausoleum. All sarcasm aside, this is a gorgeous album, plain and simple. I think Ernest Greene is a bit of a Jason Pierce fetishist, but without the lyrical prowess; the words on Paracosm merely float through the songs and your consciousness without having much effect, but they're definitely about altered states of consciousness, and chillin'; very effective on "It All Feels Right" but gradually losing impact throughout the rest of the album. "Falling Back" is the crux, a hint of uncertainty after lulling you into comatose bliss. If the point of the album is to evoke the listless contentment of mind-altering chemicals, it covers all the bases but leaves you feeling very satiated by the end, proving that music is more powerful than drugs? Like most pop music, it's made for listening, but not digging into for deeper meaning, and in this case, very worth surrendering to.

White Denim, Corsicana Lemonade  ...  Gotta admit I don't dig this one as much as 2011's D; Corsicana Lemonade is smoother, more polished and features much improved vocals by James Petralli, who makes a strong case for becoming like the second singer in jam-band history to actually be really good. I'm more interested in seeing what happens to these songs live, but as they are they don't hold up quite as well as the songs on D. The lyrics aren't as clever, the arrangements aren't as ambitious and these tracks don't rock as hard. I have no essential qualms with the somewhat Steely DanĀ­-ish direction White Denim seems to be heading in, and to be clear, I wouldn't mention this album here if I didn't really like it; all I can say is I always bristle a little when I get the impression that a band is losing its edge, which is what seems to be happening here. We'll see.

*******

Songs

Normally I don't rank the songs of the year, but I thought I'd give it a whirl this year. After the top 20 it's just random, though. Sorry but putting in links and/or mp3s for all of these would've taken too damn long.

1. "Get Lucky", Daft Punk

2. "Birds", Death Grips

3. "Bygone", Volcano Choir

4. "Kush Coma", Danny Brown

5. "Careless", The Delphines

6. "Middling", Open Mike Eagle

7. "8-Bit", Elusive Parallelograms

8. "Colour Yr Lights In", The Besnard Lakes

9. "Sea-Tac Revisited", Fable & The World Flat

10."Acid Rain", Chance The Rapper

11."Flamingo Graveyard", The Fatty Acids

12."Lies My Body Told Me", Ceramic Dog

13."Doin' It Right", Daft Punk

14."Falling Back", Washed Out

15."Diane Young", Vampire Weekend

16."Alone At The Danube River", Dirty Beaches

17."Jubilee Street", Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

18."Scared", Paul McCartney

19."Ava Begong/Ava Hele", Altos

20."Lose Yourself", Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

"who sees you", My Bloody Valentine

"Out Of The Woods And Into The Light", The Rutabega

"Defriended", Beck

"2020", Suuns

"Potestas Clavium", Secret Chiefs 3

"Hey! Mother Nature", Blessed Feathers

"A Visitation From The Wrath Of Heaven", Locrian

"Patterns", Mouth Of The Architect

"New Seeds", Boards Of Canada

"Oh Sheit It's X", Thundercat

"No Come Down", Run The Jewels

"Antarctic Handshake", Palms

"Passage", Northless

"Slipped", The National

"Basement Guy", Midnight Reruns

"Silver Rings", Majical Cloudz

"Porch Gold", Like Like The The The Death

"Girl Called Alex", Kurt Vile

"Lift Off", Kid Millions

"Word Is Bond", Joey Bada$$

"Singularity", High Wolf

"Good Luck", Hello Death

"Reduced To Silence", Gorguts

"Stalker", Fuck Buttons

"Dream Captain", Deerhunter

"Vicarious Redemption", Cult Of Luna

"Myth Man", Crappy Dracula

"Olympic Sleeper", Brief Candles

"Painted World", Western Medicine

"Little Death", Voyeur

"Glamour Box (ostinati)", Ulver

"Phases Forever", Crystal Stilts

 

*******

The Geezer Report

A childhood of 50s/60s/70s music leads to, well, wherever I'm at, but a side effect is doggedly continuing to care about long-expired rock and rollers. Thus, I listened with a steady flood of relief to 13 by Black Sabbath, as it precariously failed to tarnish the legacy of the band that invented metal. Why does that mean so much to me? I don't know. Maybe it's because practically every great rock band that lasts this long eventually ends up insulting its fans, and believe me, the exclusion of Bill Ward can reasonably be taken as an affront, although in the end I don't think we know the whole story and if Ozzy absolutely had to get a Sabbath song around the perfectly pained "I may be dreaming or whatever/Watching my life go by/And I don't wanna live forever/But I don't wanna die" ("Live Forever") then I say do what you have to do. Tony Iommi may be basically cobbling riffs together in a state of feigned lucidity (because if he doesn't realize he's ripping himself off then it's off to the funny farm soon), but he still plays 'em with grit and venom. I look at 13 in pretty much the same terms as Carcass's new Surgical Steel album: totally unnecessary, but way better than a reunion album from a reanimated corpse ought to be.

Thankfully, Nirvana can never be reunited, but of course they can still dredge up new sources of income for the remaining band members and widow. Once I saw the tracklisting for the new 20th anniversary box of In Utero, I wasn't very interested in shelling out $60 for Steve Albini's George Lucas-esque retooling plus a bunch of demos and b-sides I already have (although if anyone wants to email me mp3s of "Forgotten Tune" and "Jam", I'm cal@you-phoria.com). How are you going to improve on a perfect album anyway? But then people whose opinions I trust started to murmur that this new mix was, in fact, something an obsessive Nirvana freak really ought to hear, so when I caught wind of a vinyl issue of just the 2013 mix for Black Record Store Friday, I got a little excited, but not being the type to camp out at Exclusive Company at 8 a.m., that limited run got snapped up before I got through the door. Luckily, I'm Facebook friends with a way cooler record store called Acme, who posted a couple weeks ago about acquiring a couple copies of the damn thing out of the blue, so I raced to the shop after work and snagged one (up yours, Ebay!). As soon as I heard the caustic, acid-eaten new guitar solo in "Serve The Servants" I knew I wouldn't regret buying it. Is it How In Utero Was Meant To Sound All Along? Eh, I don't think that was Albini's intention anyway, nor do I stand by my George Lucas comment above. It's a very interesting other possible outcome, a what-if version of one of my favorite albums ever. It's grimier, greasier, more grinding and grating but at times (particularly "Frances Farmer"), groovier, and even though the bits don't gel as well as on the original album, I'm pretty tickled to be able to explore it this way. Heck of a lot cooler than a Cobain hologram.

Having high school framed by the bestowal and removal of Cobain also sadly means I haven't quite been able to give up on Pearl Jam. At this point, if it hadn't been for a couple of excellent performances at Alpine Valley a couple years ago, I think they would've finally left me in the dust going 'who are you guys?' but I've had just enough MOMENTS with their new material that I still feel compelled to keep checking in. After some time spent with Lightning Bolt, I don't know, though. The biggest issue is that Eddie Vedder does not convince me of anything any more except that he lives a very privileged, contented life, completely detached from the concerns of my reality. He's heading in a somewhat Anthony Kiedis-like direction; his technique as a singer has never been better--judicious use of vibrato, raspy in all the right places, glove-like harmony parts--but he was way more convincing when he had to struggle to keep that beast under control. I can't actually know how Eddie feels about anything, but he doesn't make me feel anything with any of his lyrics or singing on this album, except occasionally, eww. Mike McCready's contributions, the punk-by-numbers "Mind Your Manners" and "Sirens", which seriously sounds like Damn Yankees, are downright sad. Otherwise, most of the songs on Lightning Bolt sound like late-period Who (as long as you consider The Who to have ended with the death of Keith Moon), not in caliber but in formula.

If I can conjecture almost baselessly a little more, I'll wager that Matt Cameron's dual-citizenship thanks to the pointless reactivation of Soundgarden has taken a toll as well. His contributions to Pearl Jam's last great album, 2002's Riot Act, produced some of the most unusual and inspired songs of the band's career, but for the first time since then he didn't even co-write anything on Lightning Bolt. Jeff Ament is pretty much the only member of the band doing anything original; "My Father's Son", "Pendulum" and "Infallible" (the latter two co-written with Stone Gossard) are really good songs, not experimental by any stretch but solid and interesting. Pearl Jam has always been at its best when attempting to forge new ground, within the limited terms of a no-frills rock band of course, but calling this a return-to-form is a misnomer; it's the sound of a band clinging like grim death to a formula that will get them brownie points with aging rock critics (aren't we all?). But despite Eddie's best efforts (his rhythmic cooing in "Swallowed Whole" that he swiped from "The Punk And The Godfather" is pretty hilarious), it's too late for Pearl Jam to become the new Who in any sense other than longevity that far surpasses relevance. Lightning Bolt is the sound of a part-time job whose employees all overestimate their own importance and think just fulfilling their normal roles is plenty good enough. But hey, even McCartney had quite a few stinkers in his day, especially during his self-righteous-vegan phase; maybe in 20 years Vedder will be able to relate to the humans again. But after eleven years of waiting, I'm beginning to doubt PJ will ever release a good album again.

Speaking of McCartney, have I mentioned how much I love his new album, NEW? It's his first album where the quaver and rasp of old age has crept markedly into his studio voice, which only serves to drive home the bittersweet nostalgia of a song like "Early Days". In a way, the release of the title track as the first single was misleading; that one sounds like pure retro Beatle-worship, while most of the album is fairly modern, bridging the pop/rock gap like Sir Paul's best 70s work. The driving fuzz riff of opening track "Save Us", the jaunty acoustic/electric hybrid of "Alligator", the beautifully arranged, echo-drenched nugget "Queenie Eye" and the pensive droner "Appreciate" (somewhat reminiscent of Paul's most recent Fireman album Electric Arguments) are highlights early on, but it's the last three tracks that really blow me away. "Looking At Her" sounds like it could be an old mid-90s Radiohead b-side, sort of bizarre and goofy but cutting straight to the bone with its key sentiment and musically, a rush. Ostensible closer "Road" is truly haunting, a track on which McCartney does not sound old in the slightest, but possibly ghostly. And the final "hidden" acoustic piano ditty is the kicker; something about the most successful and famous musician the world has ever seen being afraid to say "I love you" serves to humanize the entire spectrum of humankind for me, I don't know how else to put it. Once again, Paul completely disarms you with the simplest of words and melodies. This is the guy who wrote "Yesterday", after all.

And then there's David Bowie of course, but no one is surprised that his The Next Day is awesome. Right? Well actually, I have to admit I didn't really care for Heathen or Reality; they both felt a bit contrived and the songs were relatively weak. I loved 'Hours…' but his last-gasp freakout phase prior to that smacked of desperation too; I can't deny I love Earthling but I still feel like he was more the beneficiary of Trent Reznor's gleeful egging-on than the actual architect of his own 90s decade. Presumptuous, yes I know. I gain new appreciation for his classic work almost every single time I put on any of his 70s albums, and even his goofy "Laughing Gnome"/"Rubber Band" early years I love to the point of nerddom, but he definitely loses me in the 80s and the post-Scary Monsters triumphs are few and far between. So it's not even much of a stretch for me to say that The Next Day is Bowie's best album since Scary Monsters. To be fair, a handful of tracks on here are kinda uncomfortable ("Valentine's Day" and "Boss Of Me", for instance) but that's a Bowie hallmark; he has always been a genius sculptor of awkwardness, not quite to the level of Beefheart maybe but he can make you squirm just as surely (seriously, listen to "Sell Me A Coat" or "Come And Buy My Toys"). But on the strength of a handful of absolutely brilliant songs (title track, "If You Can See Me", "I'd Rather Be High" and "Dancing Out In Space" at the very least) and an overall vitality that no longer seems manufactured (and also hands-down the best album cover of the year), this album keeps you coming back.

Milwaukee's Best

I wasn't going to do a local thing, but then I realized that the AV Club Milwaukee site will eventually vanish from existence and all those words I already wrote will only exist as hazy memories in the heads of the half-dozen or so souls who ever read them. But rather than do another list, I'll just give you the overview. First off, as fans in either of their respective music worlds will agree, Northless and Volcano Choir both put out absolutely stunning albums that belong in any best-of conversation regardless of civic pride. They're also both mind-bogglingly good live bands. They should both eventually be ruling the world.

Then there's The Delphines. Every time I hear Savages I feel like they're basically a bland ripoff of The Delphines. I know they're not, but I can't help it; The Delphines are so much better. Their attitude and sound and songwriting make Savages and most other modern garagey post-punk sound so phony. That goes double for their live show, too (although I'll admit Savages were amazing at Pitchfork). Can't wait for the next whatever this band does.

Then there's the scramble-pop scene, a term which I think I invented but who knows, which may have sort-of caught on to describe mainly The Fatty Acids. They, Sat. Nite Duets, Soul Low and Dogs In Ecstasy all put out excellent albums this year. I'm not trying to create a genre here, but surely these bands are all compatriots in their efforts to cram styles together into an irresistible song stew, and they're all reasons to be extremely giddy about something that could be considered a Brew City sound, or maybe even a Riverwest sound? Just thinking…out loud, as it were. I'll also throw in a Kane Place Record Club mention here; they're probably on the fringe of this sound too, and although I still don't feel like they have a clear sense of direction yet, a few of the tracks on their self-titled release really grew on me this year. And Fable & The World Flat, perhaps? When all is said and done, I basically like the entirety of both of the albums they put out this year--yes, even the dumb little skits. I can't help it, I think they're hilarious. And heck, why not mention the possibly-broken-up-but-maybe-not Heartthrob while I'm at it; terrific little punkish EP they put out this year.

Then there's the resilient folk-ish-ness scene, which weathered a major blow with the death of Juniper Tar, but if folk-rock was slow this year (aside from a great debut full-length by Myles Coyne & The Rusty Nickel Band), creepy dark folk was dominant, with another superb EP from Old Earth, Small Hours (as well as a smattering of Bandcamp tracks), a best-yet album from the truly unique Blessed Feathers, another wild hodgepodge of an album by J Flash (you at least need to listen to "Tokugawan Agronomics" and "Wrath" from his Start From Scratch album; these are ridiculously good songs) and a gorgeous debut from Hello Death, not to mention a new 10" of Altos' best song yet (and have I mentioned their Milwaukee Film Festival show? I'M SORRY, SHUT UP.).

Finally, there's hip hop, which maybe had a slow start to 2013 aside from the ever-elusive Kid Millions' killer "Lift Off" release and subsequent EP with The Sounds Of Time (which, despite its choice cover artwork, is apparently only available as an Amazon mp3 download for some stupid reason). But the irrepressible Dana Coppafeel put out a sweet EP with SPEAK Easy back in April that I somehow never heard about until the fall; whoops. Then things really heated up with a new Logic & Raze (now apparently rebranded L&R; might take some getting used to, perhaps not quite as jarring as Colectivo, though) album. I'll be the first to admit that while I thoroughly enjoyed the duo's 2011 …STILL Untitled album, it didn't have staying power beyond the local realm (ditto for Logic's The Hollowz project, so far). LandR, however, even with its MKE-specific bits, feels like a pretty massive step forward, opening audaciously with dance-epic "Remedy (Wake Up)" and showcasing world-class rhyming by both MCs throughout. It's a toss-up between this one and the just-released second LP by Klassik, YRP (Young Rising Phenoms), for top rap honors this year. YRP is less jazzy, more R&B-based than Klassik's excellent debut, In The Making, but his vocal skills have evolved considerably in a short period of time; there are some serious Prince-esque moments on here, particularly the kick-ass dreamy dance-funk anthem "Boogie". YRP may not be revolutionary, but it's definitely another major statement from the city's most promising MC.

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