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This year I discovered that I knew nothing about Crabcore (attn: Chris Defusco, Corbie Hill). Just kidding.
The kinds of music I've been trying to get to know in my back catalog are neofolk, industrial, japanese psych, noise (japanese and others), new wave, and minimal synth. I realized that I knew next to nothing about these genres and so I've been trying to learn about them and made a ton of new friends on the way, which is another great part of the music community. People love to introduce you to things they love. It's why I started this website for pete's sake!
This is going to be the first installment of my year-end list of music. I'm trying to bring as much attention to people who really rocked my socks off this year, so I'm starting with a typical "top x albums from this year" list. I'll do another list on EPs and 7 inches, one on cassette releases, and one on reissues and archival releases.
In addition, I'm super proud to announce that I'm going to be putting out a list of top albums by some of my favorite people in the music scene. Honestly, it's mostly just so I have some recommendations for things to listen to, but I figured other people may want to know about them too.
Without further ado, here are my favorite records of the year.
1. Kurt Vile – Waking on a Pretty Daze
Face it. Any year that Kurt Vile comes out with a record, it will probably be my favorite album of the year. Kurt Vile’s drawn-out Americana is laced with stoned wisdom and seriousness. It is easy to discount Vile’s lyrics as they are mumbled into existence. Upon closer inspection, there are some downright heartbreaking lyrics. The first song, for instance, is about a friend killing himself. “Phone ringing off the shelf/I guess he wanted to kill himself” transitions to later “Don’t worry about a thing/It’s only dying.” But the lackadaisically meandering guitar tone and delivery disguise the emotion. It’s a recurring theme throughout the album that ultimately can become unsettling. But there’s a startling beauty in the undertow, which is the real draw.
2. Jacco Gardner – Cabinet of Curiosities
I had no idea what I was getting into when I heard this album. There’s a feeling of swirling magic spells that whisper throughout this album, pulling the listener into Gardner’s psychedelic-tinged imagination. It’s like you’re simultaneously underwater and airborne. See, I’m not even making any sense. This album is gorgeous and has some memorable transitions between lighthearted verses and deepened choruses. Gardner is a master at changing chord progressions. There were some melodic lines that I had never heard in my life in this album. Diminished chords mix with majors and minors like a baroque pop Philip Glass. “Clear the Air” is the obvious single of this album, having been released in anticipation of the full-length and is a great introduction to the fantastic miasma of Jacco Gardner.
3. Mountains – Centralia
Easily the most realized Mountains record as well as the most organic. The album starts on somewhat familiar ground with “Sand,” an ambient drawl with reverberating tones and synth lines before going into my personal favorite song “Identical Ship,” a finger-picked acoustic dream that seems to drop the listener in the middle of a desert littered with sand dunes for three minutes and five seconds. On a personal note, I listen to this album when I am overcome with anxiety and it really helps me. Naturally, it has a special place in my heart.
I don’t know how many times I listened to this record with my friend Jeffrey while we were touring around with Death in June. During this time, Jeffrey, his dog Ahlfa, and I spent a few nights in Sean Ragon’s record shop Heaven Street in Brooklyn because we didn’t want to pay for a hotel. One night, after we went to a show at Don Pedros, Jeffrey and I went back to Heaven Street and put on Hoax’s record and blasted it as we pogoed around the room screaming “I’m sick/I’m sick/Lost control/Lost control.” For me, this record is tied to that week or so that we drove 3500 miles around the East Coast and back. I guess I should talk a little bit about the record. It’s the best hardcore record of the year and you should listen to it. That’s what I got.
5. Culo – My Life Sucks and I Could Care Less
I think that the guys in Culo inject a speedball into the vinyl as each LP is pressed. This record is oozing with drugs and self-loathing. You don’t really have to go further than noting that there’s a song called “I was supposed to be an abortion” to realize that. This band is Chicago hardcore royalty and I got to see them a few times last year. The first time I saw them was in what was arguably the best show all year, the day-long Not Normal Showcase at the Albion House and Swerp Mansion in celebration of Nor Normal’s “Welcome to 2013” compilation. Culo plays a frantic, anxious vein of hardcore that is both fun and nerve-racking. This record is full of exciting hooks and dangerously cheesy verses. The record is made of twenty songs, impossibly long for a hardcore album, and yet it doesn’t seem so. Rather, the band expertly weaves hilariously self-deprecating lyrics to catch the listener a little off guard each time the song changes.
6. Iceage – You’re Nothing
Iceage is a band that has matured quickly. Their first LP New Brigade was interesting, but only gave us a clue as to what the band would become. The band’s second album is a demonstration of just how much young musicians can accomplish in two years. You’re Nothing possesses a variety of songs from the new wave-inspired “Ecstasy” to “Morals,” the first song in Iceage’s repertoire to feature a piano. “Coalition,” for me, is the best song on the album and maybe the best song that the band has done. “Somehow things last till I die/For a show to feel animated/That face is integrated/Some figure out the coalition we chose/excess, excess, excess, excess.” There’s a fascination with ephemera in Iceage’s lyrics, but also a fixation on a final destruction, which, of course, results with Elias screaming “excess.” The album is a whirlwind of search for answers and blame disguised by music. I doubt they found any answers or who to blame, but judging by their age, they have a while to figure it out.
Mikal Cronin was one of the first people I ever interviewed for my blog a year and half or so back. He was really nice to me, which goes a super long way in my book. He’s also from the same place that I was born, which is Orange County. At the time, Cronin had released his first self-titled LP, Reverse Shark Attack, and been touring with Ty Segall. That first album was much more garage-heavy than his second album. MCII begins with a piano and soft goading. The songs here focus on orchestration, but retain the property of pleasant pop. This should be no surprise as Cronin, a master multi-instrumentalist, studied music in college. That said, there are still more punk-infused ditties for those who love his first LP like “See It My Way” or “Change.” The path of the songs lead to “Piano Mantra,” a piano ballad with strings and light drums. It’s the slowest of Cronin’s songs and a great peek into the talented songwriters abilities.
8. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away
Nick Cave is interesting. You know he’s old, but he retains this hip, languid ease to his music and performance. When I saw Cave at the Chicago Theater this year, I kept thinking that he looked like an acrobatic scarecrow. Nick Cave possesses an uncanny demeanor where you know that he is human but has an otherworldly unease to his personage and music. A sort of mysticism. This legacy continues on Push the Sky Away with songs like “Mermaids” or “Jubilee Street,” where familiar terrain becomes ground for fairy tales. “I got a fetus on a leash,” Cave croons before the climax of “Jubilee Street,” where he professes he’s flying. Where does Cave fly to? Does he float to the final heavenly sphere or does he simply vanish once again into Neverland? Stay tuned, sportsfans.
I didn’t expect to like this album as much as I did, but I gave it a chance mostly because I find Lauren Mayberry fetching and I liked what she said about women in the music industry. When I heard the song “Recover,” though, I was a believer. When I listened to the whole album, it took me a few listens. I just thought it was pop. And that’s when it hit me. It IS just pop! Really really well done pop with an awesome vocalist and interesting synthesizer textures. It’s an album that is so unpretentious that you forget that it’s trying. The songs are expert crafts of songwriting and this is a textbook of song structures for the aspiring indie pop artist.
Shaking the Habitual is an exercise in amalgamation. “A Tooth for an Eye” begins with a seemingly simple syncopated rhythm before a challenging vocal emerges from its tectonic maw. The Knife have outdone themselves in creating something novel but familiar. There are remnants of pop sensibility lurking in the outer limits of their traditional songs. And then there is “Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized,” a twenty-minute drone piece right smack dab in the middle of the album. It’s so perfect! In my opinion, it ends up making the album complete. The Knife continues its trajectory of making drawn-out, hypnotizing songs and succeeds, which ultimately makes an entrancing album that constantly challenges and changes its listener.
11. The Haxan Cloak – Excavation
Get a subwoofer before you listen to this. If I ever saw someone listening to this album on tin-sounding laptop speakers, I would break that computer. I would take the laptop out of the person’s reach, snap it in half, throw it into the wall, eat a slice of pizza, and stomp all over the bastard. That’s not how we enjoy to Haxan Cloak. Upon first inspection, Haxan Cloak is an experimental project that makes drone music. I see it as a dance record. A dance record that’s spinning into a black hole. Excavation is chock full of jarring beats that seem to jerk the body into submission. After a couple listens, it becomes familiar. The cover shows a noose-like rope dangling in oblivion. Except it isn’t a noose because there is no knot. It merely resembles a noose. The same sort of questioned darkness permeates Excavation.
This is new ground for Locrian. As opposed to some of the earlier Locrian releases, Return to Annihilation is made of pieces that could be concretely called songs. “Obsolete Elegies” is one of the best things I’ve heard all year – it spins out from quietude before the widening gyre takes hold. Return to Annihilation is set up like a suite or an opera. The liner notes make this clear: there are even different movements in songs, emphasizing its thoughtful layout. There’s magic too. This album seems to have influence from an older world. No, that’s not right. This album seems to be from an older era. No, that’s still not right. I don’t know where this album came from and I don’t know what I’m trying to say. But this is what I want to rule the world to.
13. Ty Segall – Sleeper
Sleeper is a different Ty Segall album. It’s a slow acoustic question drawn across forty minutes or so. Sleeper is the first Ty Segall album to come out after the passing of his father and his estrangement from his mother. It’s lonesome and uncomfortable. “Sleeper” has a heart-destroying chorus: “I dream sweet love, I dream for you, from your baby for you/ I dream sweet love, I dream for you, from your baby for you /Oh I wanna sleep all day, oh I wanna go away/Okay I want to sleep all day with you.” There’s real pain and it pervades the album. “Crazy” is a song about his mother and her mental illness. There are no lighthearted songs. Even the last song “The West” is an open thought as to where be his home now that his mom and dad are gone from his life. It’s a personal album with the ever-present hooks, but it becomes truly rewarding when Segall’s story tags along.
Each time Vampire Weekend releases something I think I’m too punk. But goddammit I never am. Their classically-trained virtuosity and inspired vocal lines consistently impress me. Few bands use falsetto as effortlessly or weave together strains of music history. “Every time I see you in the world, you always step to my girl” is an example of classic sampling from Souls of Mischief. Classic sampling is a hip hop technique often used to give reverence to an artist – like when Kanye says “When I reminisce over you my God,” in “Can’t Tell me Nothin’,” he is paying homage to the line in Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s “T.R.O.Y.” It isn’t done as much in rock-based music so it’s cool to see Vampire Weekend sampling a hip hop song in their music. Vampire Weekend know their music history and this collection of songs continues to demonstrate their abilities.
15. Steve Gunn – Time Off
Steve Gunn released two albums this year. One was his solo album Time Off on Paradise of Bachelors and the other was a collaborative album he did with Hiss Golden Messenger for Record Store Day. Both are worth a listen, but I chose to put this one on the list. Simply put, Steve Gunn is one of the best guitar players around. I saw him a few times this past year at a different capacity each time. I saw him solo. I saw him play with Kurt Vile. And I saw him play with Lonnie Holly. Each time, the performance was different. I am still astonished how he can play such complex guitar parts in tempo and sing. Time Off doesn’t quite do it justice since it may have been recorded in two parts, but he can do it live! The witch-fingered guitar parts with a soothing voice make for a stand out album.
The members of this band have been in so many awesome groups it’s unfair. There are people from Libyans, Manipulation, Civic Progress and more. I’m really proud to have these guys as a Chicago hardcore staple. I saw them at my first Chicago punk show after I moved back from North Carolina, which was at the Mouse Trap with Double Negative. Later, they released this album on Sorry State Records. “Settle for Less” is my favorite track on the album –I love the synth line throughout the song and the guitar break at the chorus. The synthesizer appears frequently in the album, which differentiates it from other hardcore records.
These dudes are a hoot. One of the song titles is “Welcome to the Spaceship, Motherfucker.” But the band has some serious chops when it comes to making thrash metal. Take their song “Call Your Guy.” The song begins with sludge infested guitar and bass parts before blasting off into more familiar thrashing ground. The album clocks in a little over thirty minutes, but it’s a trip that gives back. The lyrics in the songs are really fun and a reminder that metal doesn’t have to be all serious in order to be good.
Musicians take note. This is how you start an album. “Open the Door” begins with an ambling piano progression before a friendly guitar joins in. Each album by The Men gets a little more cohesive. New Moon takes ideas from their previous efforts, like the twang of “Candy,” and scatters them through the songs on the rest of the album. We get some familiar rock n roll with songs like “The Brass” and “Half Angel Half Light,” but there’s a lot more folk in this album than in previous works. These guys also work nonstop. They toured around pretty much since this album came out and just announced a new album coming out on Sacred Bones next year, after which they will tour. Dreams really do come true.
Jesse’s been more or less of a pen pal for about a year and a half. When he makes music (or pretty much anything I guess), he usually goes by the alias Jay Gambit. He is the only consistent member in his group Crowhurst. It’s a motley crew that works with him. Crowhurst makes a Merzbow-like amount of recordings. I’ve listened to most of them and a lot have been really good, but Memory Loss is the one that stands out the most to me. It’s cohesive. It has a consistent theme. It sounds like an album rather than a collection. It’s an album that you can pay extreme attention to or just be in for the ride. I’m helping put together a show for Crowhurst in Chicago in March and am super excited. So hop on in. The water’s great.
20. Taxpayers – Cold Hearted Town
I first started listening to this band this year after seeing that they were going on tour with Ramshackle Glory, one of my all-time favorite bands. I had heard rumors of a band that recorded and practiced in a storage box from the Northwest. It was this band! This album is what happens when you combine goofpunx with Bruce Springsteen. The first two songs on this album, aptly titled “Cold Hearted Town pts. 1 & 2, sound like they could have been on Greetings from Asbury Park, which is my favorite Springsteen album if anyone cares. I got to interview them too and Rob Taxpayer was a totally awesome guy. There’s depth in his lyrics. This whole album is about a really messed up town and the background of folk-driven punk rock makes the whole album uncannily appropriate.
Stay tuned for more of the year's best stuff!!!
Stay tuned for more of the year's best stuff!!!