Wednesday, December 18, 2013

2013 Top 10

TONY's "Best albums of 2013" feature is now live. That link will take you to a composite top 10 list, assembled via mathematics and compromise out of the individual top 10s chosen by myself and my colleagues Steve Smith and Sophie Harris. We all had totally different takes on the year in music, but there was enough overlap that we arrived at a decently representative selection.

My personal top 10 list, briefly annotated, is here. Some further thoughts:

More and more, my listening is compulsive, instinctual. I gravitate to records made up of songs I love. It's a simple process. The records I've singled out here are ones that I lived with, played in all sorts of different settings: at my desk at work, walking to/from the train or across town, in the car, at home. Alone, or with my wife, friends and family. They're records that may have at one point been objects of formal consideration—i.e., I wrote about them. But over time, that arm's-length engagement gave way to a happy, voluntary invitation—me choosing them and them choosing me. It's not until the end of the year that one goes about assembling a list like this, but the list is assembling itself throughout the year. Sometimes you've got that in mind—you have a moment with a record and you think, "This might be a top 10 candidate" and you make a note of it—but in retrospect, a list like this is, for me, more about transcribing than about calculation. It's just what happened to me. Since my immersion in music is so constant, I don't even have to qualify that. Of course, there was a soundtrack at all times, and these records were it, or a big part of it.

In terms of the statistics, the breakdown, what's here and what's not, I'd like to cite something Drew Millard—a fine writer with whom I briefly crossed paths at TONY; he's now kicking ass at Noisey—wrote in his own excellent and very funny best of 2013 round-up the other day: "I mostly put rap albums on this list because I like rap music the most…" I like the tautology, the self-justification of that. For me, the center of gravity this year wasn't rap but metal. Therefore, there's a lot of it on my list. There's no jazz. There was one near-miss on that front, which I chose as my No. 1 pick in the two jazz-only polls in which I participate. (My jazz-only list is here; I hope to annotate it on DFSBP soon.) As implied above, that's not meant as a slight; there simply weren't any 2013 jazz albums that captivated me, imprinted themselves on my world, as much as the 10 records I chose for my all-genres-in-play list. I will say, though, that some of favorite live-music experiences of the year were jazz/improv-oriented; I cited two of them on TONY's Best NYC concerts of 2013 list, assembled by myself, Steve, Sophie and various other colleagues. DFSBP readers probably won't be too surprised that my choices were the Paul Motian tribute (3.22.13) and the Graves/Lovano duet (12.6.13).

Re: what did make the cut:

1. RVIVR The Beauty Between
This is one of those "I feel like I've known you all my life" records. I don't know what it is about these consummately sincere, tough, vulnerable, searing punk albums—well, actually, I sort of do, since this style was a big part of my musical upbringing—but when they get me, they really get me. (See also: my 2009 No. 1, Propagandhi's Supporting Caste.) I fell hard for RVIVR this year. I saw them live three times, including two sets in one day back in April. I wrote about them a good deal. In terms of summing up what they mean to me, I'm happy with this TONY preview, which I expanded upon here. And then there's this quick, ecstatic follow-up. My 2013 is inextricable from this band, and the reasons are all right here in this record, which I think is basically perfect. My friend Joe summed it up best in a Tweet from one of the two RVIVR shows we attended together:

"RVIVR at Union Pool: this is a punk rock utopia. Every song an anthem, everyone here completely in the moment. This band will be famous"
Re: the "famous" part, who knows? I certainly do hope so. Re: the "punk rock utopia" part—hell, yes. There is such magic and idealism in these songs, such loving craft and raw sentiment. The Beauty Between is the sound of a brilliant young band exploding into its Moment. And whether RVIVR's politics/scene (reductively: radical, pro-queer punk in the hallowed Olympia, WA tradition) or their chosen idiom resonate with you, I'm confident that you'll hear what I mean if you give this record a chance.

Note 1: For some reason, the RVIVR Bandcamp player defaults to track 2. I highly recommend clicking back to track 1 and taking the full ride.

Note 2: Unlike the RVIVR, albums 2 through 10 are all on Spotify. To hear a sample track from each of these records, check out my TONY list above. In case you want to dive all the way in, here's a playlist featuring these nine LPs in full.]

2. Haim Days Are Gone
Unstoppable. You know that priceless line in Tom Petty's "Into the Great Wide Open" that goes "Their A-and-R man said, 'I don't hear a single'"? Well, out of 11 tracks here, I hear roughly nine singles. Days Are Gone is a resurrection of the ’70s/’80s pop ideal: airtight, hook-hungry compositions matched with shit-hot playing. Except instead of a calculating producer, a stable of faceless songwriters and a bunch of cocky, well-powdered session cats, the responsible parties are a trio of badass L.A. sisters who grew up playing covers and studying popcraft with their parents' loving encouragement.

3. Carcass Surgical Steel
Stunning, and for any Carcass fan, so much fucking fun. Here's my full take.

4. Diarrhea Planet I'm Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams
Like the Haim record, this is a deliriously pleasurable LP. At first I found myself wishing that it were only that—I couldn't get with the obvious care that DP took in pacing the album. But I'm Rich really bloomed for me over time. There is the rock, yes, drenching you with its maximal awesomeness ("Lite Dream," "Babyhead"), but there is also the reflection ("Kids," "Skeleton Head") and this sort of soulful dopeyness ("White Girls [Student of the Blues, Pt. 1]": "I may not write a symphony but / I will always save the last slice just 4 U") that socks me right in the heart. This record is maybe a smidge long; I think it'd be a stronger statement without "Togano," for one thing. That said, I still think it's a triumph worthy of the joybomb that is the Diarrhea Planet live experience, which I experienced on two consecutive nights this past August. More on DP via TONY.

5. Queens of the Stone Age …Like Clockwork
This album is slow-burning and seductive as hell. I saw QOTSA perform a long, frequently thrilling show at Barclays Center last Saturday, and I've been re-immersing in …Like Clockwork ever since. If I were settling on a final order for my 2013 top 10 today, this could've been as high as No. 3. As with I'm Rich, there's some delayed gratification going on here: It's not as mercilessly ripping as Songs for the Deaf or as lean and impossibly cool as the self-titled debut, but I'm still comfortable pegging it as my favorite Queens album. …Like Clockwork isn't a particularly long record, but boy, does it take you on a journey. Further thoughts via TONY.

6. Suffocation Pinnacle of Bedlam
The Long Island enforcers return. If the production on this record were a hair punchier and less synthetic-sounding, I'd say it was one of the, say, five best death-metal records I'd ever heard. Hell, I might say that anyway. I cannot believe what a great set of songs this is, genre aside. So commanding, so memorable, so fucking pro. I already loved this band, but I think that with Pinnacle, they've made their definitive statement. More on the mighty Suffo here.

7. Black Sabbath 13
Speaking as serious Sabbath fan, I can say that despite its flaws—and its admittedly tragic Bill Ward–lessness—this record feels to me like a real gift. The generalized slagging it received in the press bummed me out. Kudos to Steve Smith, Phil Freeman and Rhys Williams for refusing to take this bit of heavy-metal manna for granted. Here's my review of 13 and some follow-up thoughts. (I should say that while I dig the bonus tracks, I think this record works best in its stripped-down eight-song incarnation.)

8. Daft Punk Random Access Memories
Until I heard this record, I felt like there was nothing in the realm of impossibly hip dance-pop that was really for me. I've never warmed up to, say, LCD Soundsystem, and I'm not even sure that pre–R.A.M, I could've even named a Daft Punk song. But the ultra-polished geekery of this record spoke to me immediately, probably because it recasts disco as an offshoot of prog. The supporting cast (Julian C., Panda Bear, Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder, etc.), and the integration thereof, are extraordinary. "Get Lucky" is, of course, a perfect single, but "Instant Crush"—with its mechanized melancholy that instantly puts me in a Drive or ’80s Michael Mann or "Eye in the Sky" mindset—is the track that best sums up why I'm so taken with this record.

9. The Men New Moon
I wrote about songs up above. This record has so many good ones. The Men throw a lot at you, stylistically. There are some strummy heartbreakers here ("I Saw Her Face," "Half Angel Half Light"), some raw, driving, unfettered rockers ("The Brass," "Without a Face") and plenty of ambling folkishness. At the same time, like the last, equally great Men record, Open Your Heart, New Moon isn't haphazard—all these tunes feel like they're coming from the same hive heart/mind. It all feels very free and elemental to me, i.e., exactly what you'd want from a band with such a balls-ily monolithic name. More on the Men, via TONY.

(I should say here that while my friend Ben Greenberg joined the Men a couple years back and made significant contributions to this record, I don't feel like I'm playing favorites in citing New Moon; I loved the band before he was a member, and I'm confident that I'd love what he brings to the band even if I didn't know him. Speaking of which, the new Hubble record is a killer as well.)

10. Gorguts Colored Sands
A majestic roar from the perennial phoenix that is Luc Lemay. A tech-metal opus filled with peaks and valleys that do justice to its (literally) lofty Himalayan subject matter. Also: an intergenerational bear-hug of the highest order. Here's my review.

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