Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question: What’s your favorite album of the year so far?
If you’d told me in January that the front-runner for my favorite record of 2013 would be Vampire Weekend's Modern Vampires Of The City, I would have punched you straight in your filthy mouth. (Or maybe just looked at you, slightly perplexed, and said, “Really, person from the future? That’s odd.”) I was fond of the band’s first two records, but never particularly enamored: “A-Punk” and “Oxford Comma” are fantastic singles, but I don’t know that I’ve ever had the itch to take Contra for a summertime drive. But Modern Vampires—even crippled by that ridiculous name—does everything right, from its gorgeously layered production to its pacing to the most important part: the songs. Unlike the band’s other two records, there aren’t obvious peaks and valleys with respect to songwriting quality. It just launches at a high point (“Obvious Bicycle”) and sails straight through to a beautiful little ballad (“Young Lion”). It feels labored-over in exactly the right ways, meticulous but not fussy.
I’m sure that a lot of my favorite records this year are going to show up below, so I’m going to pick one that maybe won’t: Rhye’s Woman. The debut studio album from a couple of Canadian/Danish dudes, Woman is one of those LPs that I just keep finding myself coming back to. It’s lush, lovely, and makes me feel like the grown-up kind of woman I always imagined myself becoming when I was younger. I’m not entirely sure why Woman does this to me, but whenever I put the record on—be it at work, at home, or whenever—I just feel like I should be wearing gauzy scarves and watering plants in my (totally fictional) airy apartment. It’s a weird feeling, but it’s pretty great at the same time.
It’s already been a banner year for music, and, considering what’s due out in the next six months, it may be one of the best in the past decade. I’ve had a soft spot for The National since 2005’s Alligator, and with each successive album the group has managed to keep its voice while still building a massive following. As Josh Modell noted in his review of their latest, Trouble Will Find Me, the band’s songs rarely feel immediate, but instead burrow into your psyche until they’ve become your favorites. And, as always, The National puts on a hell of a live show, turning sleepy songs on the record into ragers. I’m still finding subtleties in Trouble’s 13 tracks, and I expect the songs that speak to me most will probably be different by the time 2014 rolls around.
My album of the year so far has to be James Blake’s Overgrown. Not because I’m particularly hip, but rather because I only discovered Blake after hearing Overgrown’s first single, “Retrograde.” Blake’s techy, sampled sound has mellowed from his 2011 self-titled release to something less experimental and more emotionally haunting. As much as I loved discovering the old Blake, I find Overgrown endlessly playable, musical enough to background a dreary subway ride, but complex enough to constantly discover and rediscover. The repeated lyrics and layered themes create a dreamlike state throughout the album, and despite his youth Blake switches tones and tempos with the artistry of a virtuoso. It’s tempting to just play “Retrograde” again and again, but the whole album is worth listening to, especially as “Retrograde” is squarely in the middle—as if the whole record is building up to and then falling off from that one gorgeous track. “Take A Fall For Me” features RZA rapping about lost romance and “Overgrown” is about Blake’s meeting with personal hero Joni Mitchell, which draws on such disparate musical cues it’s no wonder Blake is hard to categorize as an artist. I’ve enjoyed getting to know him this year.
It may seem on the surface that Locrian has changed direction with its latest full-length, Return To Annihilation. But the group’s corroded ambience has always had a strange elegance and grace; it just never employed the sturdier rhythms and more recognizable structures that mutate Annihilation into such compelling shapes. I’ve been a fan of Locrian since 2010’s heavier, chant-haunted The Crystal World, but none of the band’s prior releases prepared me for the tribal beats, scalding washes of melody, and avant-folk underpinnings of Annihilation—let alone its magisterial flow from post-industrial bleakness to science-fictional visions.
This year has already proven to be an outlier due to the impressive list of music releases that I’ve been really liked. But after consulting my iTunes play-count for 2013 releases, I’ve discovered that two albums have inspired the most one-woman dance parties in my apartment: JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound’s Howl and Hanni El Khatib’s Head In The Dirt. I picked up the former based on the strength of the band’s stellar A.V. Undercover entry and video for “Rouse Yourself,” which—aside from being a great song—appealed to my fondness for anything New Girl-related. It does not disappoint; Brooks’ voice is one of those rarities that can turn on a breath and convey angst, sex, or weary resignation. The latter album was recommended to me by some sort of “if you like this…” algorithm online because I was streaming to an older Black Keys record, and its infectious blues/garage-rock hybrid does remind me of that band along with early White Stripes (even though El Khatib’s voice sounds nothing like Jack White’s). The Keys’ Dan Auerbach served as producer on the album, and his influence is clear in the arrangements. But I think Auerbach puts just enough gloss on it to make this my sleeper record of 2013. Honorable mention goes to Mikal Cronin’s MCII.
By any reasonable metric, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories is one of the year’s most widely acclaimed/frequently discussed albums, and it’s sold like gangbusters. In casual arguments, many of my twentysomething friends seem to be having a hard time dealing with an album so heavily invested in session-musician proficiency, clearly recorded and mixed with a heavy emphasis on technical accomplishment for its own showy sake. I find the interweaving repeated lines in a song like “Lose Yourself To Dance” hypnotic as they loop, sync up, and find new points of intersection, but I’ve talked to a lot of people who find this and many other songs flatly repetitive. I love the idea of budding teen music fans listening to a nine-minute Giorgio Moroder history lesson/demonstration of influence, then seeking out the great From Here To Eternity (or several Donna Summer songs!). Each track nails its attempted micro-slice of music history, and the inescapable “Get Lucky” delivers a long-overdue return of Nile Rodgers to radio ubiquity that never grates. I have some sympathy for people who said they felt unduly pressured by mass consensus to love something they weren’t even sure they liked, but this was basically tailor-made for me.
Kanye West’s Yeezus is as electrifying on the 40th listen as it was on its first, but even more than Kanye’s trailblazing freak-out, I find myself returning to two much more subdued records that have become inextricably linked in my mind, Waxahatchee’s Cerulean Salt and The National’s Trouble Will Find Me. Despite their nearly 20-year age difference, Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield and The National’s Matt Berninger come across as kindred spirits. Both are disarming songwriters who openly confide their faults; both have a tendency to retreat behind the bottle; and both clearly appreciate the creature comfort of curling up with a sad record. The early-twentysomething Crutchfield is free to wallow in her sadness indefinitely (her characters lie to themselves and make bad decisions because, on some level, they crave loneliness), but the 42-year-old Berninger sings of pressing on, doing the best he can to resist the self-defeating thoughts that continually pop into his head. That’s not to say he always succeeds—“I have only two emotions / Careful fear and dead devotion,” he confesses, going on to say he “can’t get the balance right”—but he tries, if only because as an adult with responsibilities he has to. For her part, Crutchfield doesn’t have to get the balance right. She’s at the age where there’s no rush to figure everything out. As a result, Cerulean Salt functions as pure escape in a way that Trouble Will Find Me can’t, but both serve as sharp commentary on indie rock’s sad-sack mindset, and both feature some of the most unforgettable songwriting I’ve heard this year.
In this unusually fecund year in music, I’ve heard exceptionally good new albums—many of them widely and deservedly acclaimed—by Vampire Weekend, The Knife, Maria Schneider, Pistol Annies, Deerhunter, Chance The Rapper, Ben Goldberg, Ashley Monroe, The Handsome Family, Dave Douglas, The Uncluded, and Daft Punk, to name but a few. But the one that can always sleep on my couch when there are process servers parked outside its house is Parquet Courts’ scrappy, hilarious, and informative (“Socrates died in the fuckin’ gutter!” “There are no more summer lifeguard jobs!”) Light Up Gold. Unfortunately, it’s technically a 2012 release that I only discovered after it was reissued this year by a different label, so rather than risk being thrown out on a technical foul, I’ll also mention Kitty’s D.A.I.S.Y. Rage. On her previous releases, you could hear the artist formerly known as Kitty Pryde figuring out her craft. Now that that’s taken care of, she makes the leap to figuring out the workings of her own heart, which she approaches not as a sacrificial victim on love’s altar or as an avenging sex warrior but like a, well, kitten playing with a ball of yarn. In the process, she provides a fresh take on that oldest and most resonant of musical questions: “Why the fuck are you the one that I want?”
Deafheaven’s second album, Sunbather, is leaps and bounds ahead of my next most-played record this year. Ostensibly, it’s a “metal record” that appeals to people who typically don’t like metal records—and I’m not afraid to enthusiastically self-identify in that category. But Sunbather is more than the black-metal designation used to pigeonhole the music: The main songwriters in the group, George Clarke and Kerry McCoy, started out bored with the genre label discussion, and have only grown more prickly as they’ve been assailed from all sides by genre purists decrying stylistic bastardization. But throw away all of the invented narrative and the fun-sucking malcontents, and what’s left is simply a record that kicks a whole lot of ass, alternately thunderous and reserved, beautifully constructed and tender one moment, thrashing wildly the next. I got a chance to see them play live in Chicago a few weeks ago, and the show is still engrained in my mind, a thoroughly masterful performance that only improved my opinion of the record. It flows seamlessly through seven tracks in about an hour, alternating the loud-soft-loud dynamic, and I don’t even care that I haven’t once understood the screaming lyrics.
Yo La Tengo’s Fade isn’t a remarkable album, either among this year’s releases, or among the band’s extensive catalog, but that’s exactly why I want to mention it. Indie rock’s standard bearers are still routinely doing great work, which is nothing short of miraculous for a band that played their first gig before a lot of artists mentioned on this list were born. Very few bands release anything worthwhile once they pass the 10-year mark, but Yo La Tengo has aged like wine, doing some of its finest work in its third decade together. From the album’s opening moments—when Georgia Hubley’s drums pound out a hypnotic beat and Ira Kaplan murmurs his way through another finely crafted pop song—it’s a great feeling to know you’re getting more of the same: accomplished musicians with unmatched chemistry serving up another collection of great songs. Amid the year’s hyped-up new releases, there’s something to be said for such satisfying musical comfort food.
There are plenty of albums that grabbed my attention upon release and have stuck with me— Deafheaven, Waxahatchee—and a smattering of EPs that have been on a near-constant loop (Adventures’ Clear My Head With You, Pet Symmetry’s Two Songs About Cars. Two Songs With Long Titles., Dad Punchers’ These Times Weren’t Made For You), but the album that’s kept me coming back and retained its charms is The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die’s Whenever, If Ever. The Connecticut band’s early EPs brought it plenty of attention in the then-vibrant emo scene, but since then many of its contemporaries have broken up, establishing the group as a genre leader based solely on its longevity. Taking three years to release its debut full-length was a risky gambit, but Whenever, If Ever proves that all that waiting was worth it. Fluctuating between anthemic sing-alongs and ambient interludes with ease, The World Is… covers a lot of ground over the course of the album, proving that all the hype surrounding it is more than justified.
Kanye West’s career has always been defined by his struggle between two driving impulses: his desire for wealth and fame, and his self-hatred for those desires. With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he added a mesmerizing level of psychosexual drama. On Yeezus, West adds a hefty dose of Civil Rights symbolism to all those elements. On the album’s best song, “Blood On The Leaves,” he raps about his relationship issues over a sample of “Strange Fruit,” and somehow it’s not the most horrible thing in the world. Or perhaps it is, and that’s what makes it so fascinating. Kanye is willing to let us see all of his masculine, racial, class-related, and fame-related anxieties, while continually evolving his musical style, and that makes his albums among the greatest shows in music. I’d also like to give a little love to Killer Mike and El-P’s Run The Jewels, which is surprisingly free for a high-quality album from two buzzworthy artists. I’ve been iffy on these guys’ solo stuff, but the collaboration fits both really well without rubbing off their rough, combative edges.
This is the first year in a while I’ve actually been keeping up with new releases, and I’ve been totally overwhelmed. FIDLAR’s drunk and infectious self-titled album ruled the first few months of my year, and I can see Night Birds’ Born To Die In Suburbia taking over the rest of it. For the most part, however, I’ve been obsessing over two specific albums: Waxahatchee’s Cerulean Salt and Shellshag’s Shellshag Forever. I’m still not over the demise of P.S. Eliot, but Waxahatchee (and Swearin’, a flawless band) makes the mourning process easier. Cerulean Salt is full of casually melancholy songs that are perfect for those sad and lazy summer days when you just want to retreat back to bed with a six-pack. Then there’s the more optimistic Shellshag Forever, an album that I would listen to non-stop for days at a time. The duo has been together professionally and personally for years now, and this record shows just how in sync its members are. It’s even better when performed live—the two face each other for the entire show, yelling punk sweet nothings. When they sing, “This is what we are meant to do forever,” you have to believe them.
Since you guys have done such an excellent job of picking through my actual favorites, I’m going to throw a nod toward two albums that might be a bit further down my top-10 list at the end of the year but very well may end up there: Laura Marling’s Once I Was An Eagle and Nataly Dawn’s How I Knew Her. Both hit my “female singer-songwriter” sweet spot but in very different ways. Marling’s album is a raw exploration of heartbreak and desperation and being a young person who has no idea what to do next, while Nataly Dawn’s set leans more toward story songs about women in their late 20s who are torn between all of the things they want and not sure how to move forward. Marling’s album is perhaps a bit short, and Nataly Dawn’s is over almost before it gets started, but both made big artistic statements this year, and I’m certain those will stand up as the rest of the year winds along.
One of the reasons I rarely write about music is that I’m terrible about keeping up with new albums and movements. (By the time I figured out what “chillwave” was, everyone had basically moved on to something new.) Metal is the only genre I make a concerted effort to stay on top of, so any “best-of” list I throw together is going to be heavy on the heavy stuff. 2013 hasn’t produced any true revelations, but it has offered a steady stream of solid candidates: the rollicking party metal of Kvelertak’s Meir, the oppressive percussion of Portal’s Vexovoid, the vintage-Baroness barrage of Anciients’ Heart Of Oak. Forced to pick a favorite, though, I land on Teethed Glory And Injury, the new album from Irish black-metal outfit Altar Of Plagues. So different from its predecessor, Mammal, that it could have called Reptile—which would have also hinted at the NIN-worthy production—this stylistic detour condenses the band’s apocalyptic sweep into a collection of claustrophobic ragers. Atmospheric but never slow, crushingly heavy but not exactly moshable, it reveals new dimensions with every new listen. Oh, and I like the Kanye record, too.
I’ve liked a lot of records this year, but one to which I keep coming back is Fall Out Boy’s Save Rock & Roll. As a longtime fan of the band (and someone who really enjoyed Patrick Stump’s solo forays into funk and synthpop), I wasn’t sure what to expect from this record, although I suspected (like always) it wouldn’t rehash creative ground. I was right on that last count: Save Rock & Roll is immediately recognizable as Fall Out Boy—Stump’s soul-driven fierceness assures that—but the record is the band’s poppiest effort yet, nodding to syrupy classic rock (the title track), ’80s Top 40 (“Alone Together”), scrappy garage punk (“Rat A Tat” and its mush-mouthed Courtney Love cameo), and Broadway-dramatic rock (“The Phoenix). Hooks aside, the album also resonates with me because of the maturity and self-awareness of its lyrics. The time away from Fall Out Boy has helped each member gain rather sobering insights into growing up, growing apart from friends and loved ones, and growing out of a once-welcoming scene. There are no easy answers or happy endings in Save Rock & Roll—which makes it all the more interesting.
At the beginning of 2010, I predicted that Frightened Rabbit’s The Winter Of Mixed Drinks would top my year-end list, and it did (with Robyn’s Body Talk). This year, there’s a similarly good chance that the group’s major-label debut, Pedestrian Verse, will land there—though that Neko Case record coming in September could play spoiler, along with Superchunk’s excellent I Hate Music. But of the albums released so far in 2013, I’ve probably returned to Pedestrian Verse the most. Frightened Rabbit has made reasonable use of the major-label resources provided by Atlantic, accentuating its sound but not coating it with obnoxious gloss. Scott Hutchison’s voice and words are still front and center, but the band has a broader palette to use. “Backyard Skulls” and “Late March, Death March” should be hits, “Dead Now” is one of the band’s best songs, and the rest of the record is solid from start to finish.
In a year of so many big comebacks, I was most excited to hear new work from My Bloody Valentine and Boards Of Canada—two elusive groups who delivered solid, often transcendent reminders of why they matter, and whose albums will definitely rank among my favorites this year. And yet, especially measured against those other returning artists, I’m surprised to find that the album I’ve been drawn to more than any other is Fuck Buttons’ Slow Focus. The first new work from the Bristol duo since 2009 is both a rougher and more refined beast than previous works, harnessing the fried-circuit storms of Street Horrrsing and Tarot Sport and dragging them into a much deeper, darker place. There are huge tracks that feel like rousing anthems for the apocalypse, such as opener “Brainfreeze.” There are surprisingly restrained, foreboding moments like “Stalker” that evoke the climactic scene of a John Carpenter soundtrack. From start to finish, it’s a harrowing, haunting ride that also leaves you feeling oddly energized, anxious to take it all over again.
I’ve yet to hear another record in 2013 that has captivated me in the same way as Savages’ Silence Yourself. I also haven’t fallen for a record that I find as unsettling as Silence Yourself, with its coiled attacks of guitar feedback, rhythm-section sturm und drang, and a vocal performance by Jehnny Beth that practically projects the frontwoman’s scowl. It could all devolve into so much sour-faced humorlessness if the band weren’t, by all accounts, such a force of nature onstage; the rendition of Silence Yourself’s “She Will” that Beth and her bandmates brought to Late Night With Jimmy Fallon took full advantage of late-night TV’s most effective conduit between the rock club and your living room. Silence Yourself has its circa-1978 influences scribbled all over its monochromatic sleeve art, but the unrelenting verve of the album cuts through any echoes of Siouxsie Sioux or The Pop Group. Besides, the songs of Silence Yourself are no less mesmerizing or catchy (in their own, weird-and-witchy way) for what they owe to other bands who’ve pulled guitar music apart and made something vital—and startling—from the basic components.
As has become the norm for me over the course of the past few years, I tend to steer far more toward new albums from my all-time favorite artists rather than doing much exploring into new artists—something I thought I’d never do, but, hey, these things happen. As a result, I’ve been enjoying the return of The Wonder Stuff (Oh, No, It’s… The Wonder Stuff), The Ocean Blue (Ultramarine), and The House Of Love (She Paints Words In Red), but as for the albums I’ve enjoyed the most, it’s a straight-up tie—somewhat appropriately, given how much one influenced the other—between the long-awaited return of David Bowie with The Next Day and the surprisingly strong comeback of Suede with Bloodsports. The idea of a new record from the Thin White Duke after a full decade of studio-album silence was always going to be a cause for celebration, but the fact that the results were so strong made it all the more awesome. Funnily enough, it had actually been more than a decade since the last Suede album as well, with the band having broken up after 2002’s A New Morning. Clearly, the disbanding did them no end of good, because Bloodsports is arguably the best thing they’ve done since 1996’s Coming Up, so if you’re one of their relatively few U.S. fans and haven’t heard it yet, you’ll be wanting to remedy that sooner than later. Lastly, although it appears to have been leaked rather than formally released, I feel obliged to mention that there’s a previously unreleased Prefab Sprout album called Devil Came A-Calling that’s recently started making the rounds, and, holy crap, am I loving it. It’s not quite Jordan: The Comeback, but there are several songs where it comes pretty damned close. If it ever earns an official release, there’s no doubt that it’ll be in my top 10 of 2013.