I spent quite a while looking through our staff list to find some sort of theme for the music we liked this year, but try as I might, there was nothing I could say. There was no overarching, coalessing word I could lasso around these albums other than what we could probably say about the rest of the albums we’re discussing this week, or this time of year, or what we hope to do on this site other than “excellent”.
Tie 10. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City (XL)
After a year watching one indie rock stalwart after another — The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Phoenix, MGMT, Arcade Fire — disappoint, lord knows I needed someone to come through. Thank the ivy league gods for Vampire Weekend, who managed to re-vamp (ahem) their sound on Modern Vampires of the City, while largely maintaining all the elements that made them a great band to begin with. The first half of MVOTC makes the strongest case, with six pitch perfect tracks running the gamut from afro-beat, chamber pop and even a bit of hip-hop (no small task for the whitest band you know).
Tie 10. Res – ReFried Mac EP (Javotti Media/EOne Records)
We all enjoy cover songs. We especially enjoy cover songs that add to the original in some way. Res, perhaps the most under rated North American artist I can think of, made an EP that has destroyed every other Fleetwood Mac cover ever. Everytime I think I can’t like her more, she releases a project that, frankly, baffles and delights me. These are songs everyone should recognize, because, Fleetwood Mac, but it’s worth it to see how long it takes for everyone to gather quite which songs they are, given they are quantifiably among the most popular ever. You could almost qualify this album as Res: Origins, as it encompasses her hip-hop and soul meld of rock perfectly.
Tie 7. Tricky – False Idols (False Idols)
A long time ago (the eighties), before the advent of Kanye West’s headline-devouring ego, a british collective called the Wild Bunch was melding hip-hop, soul, alt-rock, and electronic music into a smoothed out form dubbed trip-hop. One of the main progenitors was Tricky, who differentiated himself from his compatriots in Massive Attack and Portishead by taking on a deeper hip-hop and soul sound. His latest album is almost a referendum to the rest of English-speaking hip hop and its newfound penchant to blur genres into an idiosyncratic blend.
Tie 7. Danny Brown – Old (Fool’s Gold/Warner Bros.)
There were older dudes in rap this year: Pusha T at 36, Nas and Eminem at 40, Jay-Z at 43. But the 31-year-old Danny Brown had the distinction of being the only ‘old’ rapper of the bunch with something interesting to say. For one, Brown is on a different planet than his domesticated dad-rapping peers, living on a steady diet of designer drugs and XXX-rated hookups that most Odd Future members couldn’t maintain. Brown isn’t so sure he can maintain it himself, a conflict which forms the crux of Old‘s arc.The record’s two parts (designated Side One and Side Two, Old-school style) represent these warring sides: the introspective Danny haunted by his past and the cost of his current actions on the future, and the hedonistic party animal, always “Ready To Go.” Brown nails this Jeckyl and Hyde routine by way of showing himself to be one of hip-hop’s most versatile rappers, flowing effortlessly from codeine-soaked whine, thuggish bark, and contemplative croon.
Tie 7. King Krule – 6 Feet Beneath the Moon (True Panther/XL)
It’s startling stumbling upon an album as catchy as 6 Feet Beneath the Moon, especially when it’s an artist’s debut album. It’s even moreso when that artist is a mere 19 years old, and even more than that when said 19-year-old has a voice deep as James Earl Jones with a face like a ginger Lurch from The Addams Family. However, when one considers all these attributes, it’s no wonder why this album has swept the globe the way it has. Its guitars throttle, Archy Marshall’s voice jostles, the breakbeat drums bang. Every facet of this album is amazing all around.
Tie 4. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (Anti-)
You would be forgiven for believing that country music was chiefly about wistful loves and capital “F” Freedom! At its root, though, country music was about telling stories of ordinary people, usually in somewhat dire circumstances. Neko Case is one of the genres best story tellers, rivalling in a song many of our current literary giants. At the same time her songs are fairly straightforward for a songwriter of her caliber, which makes this album as infinitely playable as Zadie Smith is readable.
Tie 4. Of Montreal – Lousy in Sylvianbriar (Polyvinyl)
I had written Of Montreal off. Like completely. And why not? After three albums spent burrowing deeper and deeper into spazzed-out art funk mania, I really had no reason to believe Kevin Barnes and his colorful crew would ever produce another listenable album. Of course Lousy with Sylvianbriar, is very listenable, one of the most compulsively so of the year. Decamping from his native Georgia to San Fran, and recruiting an entirely new band on the way, Barnes clearly set out for a change in direction with this record. This isn’t to say he’s completely ditched the quirky shifts or absurdist lyrics that defined 2012’s Paralytic Stalks, he’s simply mixed them with Americana arrangements and top-shelf melodies that make the whole mix infinitely more palatable.
Tie 4. Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Daze (Matador)
It’s no secret that I have a contentious relationship with the word “pleasant”. “Pleasant” is a death knell in music– not a dissatisfying listen, but certainly not gratifying enough to be memorable. But sometimes there’s a cusp of pleasant, a perfect formula of easy listening making the truly incredible seem so simple, so well conveyed, so digestible. Hell, not just digestible, but like a musical MSG, leaving you craving more. Kurt Vile’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze is that level of insatiably cool pleasant, a delight to listen to tunes that stretch on to ten minute opuses of guitar noodling that exemplify not some sort of intellectual exercise but more of the chillest jam band this side of the 21st Century.
Tie 2. Laura Mvula – Sing to the Moon (RCA Victor)
Imagine a voice — strong, confident, soulful — combined with lush, shimmering, bountiful arrangements that would make Duke Ellington blush. Laura Mvula, the beautiful choir director and graduate of the Birmingham Conservatoire has been a brilliant musician with an album so resounding, so vibrant, it’s a surprise it’s her debut. It’s a shock she’s just 27. So many times over the course of this year, I’ve revisited this album belting out songs in accompaniment while walking down the street, alone in my room, while washing dishes in the kitchen, all with the fervence of that first time you watched Sister Act II. Birmingham, UK, has given the world a brilliant, Black, British female Sufjan Stevens– a composer whose songs are complex but catchy, Christian but not overtly, ornate but not garish. This woman is a young, immensely talented composer and singer and if Sing to the Moon is merely the first album she’s released upon the world, we may all be hyperventilating ten years down the line when she’s really ready to make a magnum opus.
Tie 2. Elvis Costello & The Roots – Wise Up Ghost (Blue Note)
I like my music the same as I like my wine, blended. Pretty much everything I’ve loved this year has had elements of, if not are outright, genre-defying. And so we come to the record that kept me up most nights picking it apart. I’m not sure this record would’ve worked so well with any other post-punk artist; Costello is so well-versed in the soul and R&B that was the basis of The Roots’ music that the albums noticeably doesn’t lag where established musicians collaborating usually do. As well, it’s a notice that the sound of hip hop ages rather well, and does not have to be ghettoized to the earbuds and phone speakers of kids.
1. Kanye West – Yeezus (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
Yes, it was probably over-hyped. The “Strange Fruit” sample is inexcusable. And a lot of the lyrics or dumb. Or misogynistic. Or both. But for those 40 minutes between the squalling alarm that opens “On Sight” on through the final “Uh-Huh, Honey” that closes “Bound 2,” there’s simply no denying Yeezus‘ mesmerizing power.