Grafton’s “Top 13 Albums of 2013”
As the year begins to wind down and we look ahead on the work we have for 2014, all of us at TheBlueIndian.com want to extend our sincere thanks to each of you who have supported us in what marks our fifth year as “Georgia’s Indie Music Hub.” Some of us are newer than others, and we’ve expanded to not only have a close focus on music in Georgia, but to also expose our readers across the globe to the incredible music scenes throughout the Southeast. We asked each of our staff and team of writers to compile a list of their personal favorite releases from 2013 for our year-end features. Since each of us have different preferences, we felt individual lists would be the best way to give maximum exposure to the bands we’ve grown to love. We hope you’ll take the time to listen to these artists and appreciate your feedback. Happy New Year! – TheBlueIndian.com
Grafton Tanner’s “Top 13 Albums of 2013″
Merchandise have eschewed the conventional trajectory of an “indie” rock band for a while now, opting not to perform in larger-scale venues and dodging shots from multiple media and press outlets looking to feature them in cover stories. Their sound, too, doesn’t quite gel with other contemporary punk bands; I’ve heard them called “too rock and roll” or (gulp) “too melodic.” True, these Tampa boys have run in punk circles before, but there really isn’t much in the form of “punk” on Totale Night, their most stylistically divided record yet. From the whistle that kicks off opener “Who Are You?” to the noisy free-for-all that is the title track (complete with skronking saxophone, no less), the album is a sonic mess. It can be quite an alienating listen, and often the only facet that holds everything together is Carson Cox’s baritenor croon. And then there’s “Anxiety’s Door,” arguably Merchandise’s best song – a pumping post-punk rock out that hits directly at the pleasure center. It’s the centerpiece of a strange record by one of the strangest – and most adventurous – post-punk bands of the past few years.
Standouts: “Anxiety’s Door”
Burial still sounds like no one else. Regardless of countless attempts to cop his sound – his skittering 2-step beats and distant construction site clanking – Burial has always been the kind of visionary who evolves with every release while retaining a distinctly singular sound. On Rival Dealer, he mixes massive synths with faint, disembodied voices for an effect that is both disorienting and beautiful. It’s empowering music for the underappreciated, battered, and unloved, so says Burial in a statement regarding the EP’s primary objective – to be an anti-bullying soundtrack. “This is who I am,” speaks one of the voices on the EP’s titular track, and it’s the sound of an unmasking, of one person revealing the beauties within to another, of Burial gifting us at the end of a year with warmth inside the rainy London fog of his unique sound.
The case could be made that 2013 was the year vaporwave, or some derivative of it, went mainstream. Or, better yet, perhaps it was the year the disgusting trash swimming in the dark realms of the Internet gurgled up to the surface level of popular culture. Miley Cyrus may have adopted the perverted-Buzzfeed-cum-LOLcats aesthetic, but The Weeknd’sKiss Land presented a futuristic global fantasyland where Tumblr porn collided with Japanese animation. Kiss Land is music played in a nightclub in the hyperreal city of the future, in which all things can be had because all things have been reduced to a commodified value. Sex can be bought, the nights are everlasting, and in the middle of it all is Abel Tesfaye, singing delicately of the horror of growing emotionally empty as if he loves to hate what he’s become. Stylistically, this is The Weeknd’s most “pop” release since his breakout House of Balloons. The production is crisp and banging and the melodies are sure-fire earworms. But this is not pop music for the faint of heart; Kiss Land is a funhouse mirror reflecting the distorted image of the culture industry.
On R Plus Seven, Daniel Lopatin dips into James Ferraro’s uncanny valley that he helped establish two years ago with Far Side Virtual. Lopatin shockingly pairs weightless palettes of choral pads with the trite sounds of keyboard presets that may or may not have served as the soundtrack for mid-90s menu screens and in-flight safety videos. R Plus Seven is the sound of near-spiritual redemption found in mundanity, the surge of awe felt when moving through the halls of a vast mall or smelling the crisp air of an Apple Retail Store. Lopatin’s visual element adds to his aesthetic as well, with music videos produced by Takeshi Murata and Jon Rafman. In particular, Rafman’s video for “Still Life” exposes the everyday horror of the Internet’s underbelly – easily accessible, always present, and relentlessly nightmarish. This is music made from the sounds we have been conditioned to understand as “cheesy,” and Lopatin undermines this conditioning, pushing the jingles of consumerism to the forefront and asking us to reconsider.
Standouts: “Still Life”
There is a restless energy moving throughout the three albums that comprise These New Puritans’ catalogue. It’s the kind of audacious musical spirit passed down from those few rock groups who put down their guitars and picked up samplers, or hired chamber orchestras, then perhaps picked up their guitars again. Blur, Disco Inferno, Radiohead, and especially Talk Talk fall into this category, and it’s not a stretch to call These New Puritans the next bearers of art rock’s torch. Field of Reeds is TNP’s Spirit of Eden, a blatant turn to neoclassical music and one of the most mesmerizing releases this year. After dabbling in Aphex Twin-inspired beats and maximal classical pop, TNP have given us their most cogent release, an album that hearkens to the days when bands pushed themselves and those around them to the limit in order to capture something that can’t be done staring at a laptop.
Standouts: “Organ Eternal”
Atoms For Peace initially began as a backing band for Thom Yorke’s solo material, and their sessions together proved so fruitful that Yorke, Flea, Nigel Godrich, Joey Waronker, and Mauro Refosco wrote and released an entire album’s worth of experimental dance rock. Amok shares many similarities to Radiohead’s latest release, 2011’s The King of Limbs, but where TKOL favored abstraction, Atoms For Peace’s debut targets the body as well as the mind. Knowing exactly where the electronic beats end and the live instrumentation begins is no easy feat, but of course, Atoms For Peace do not want you scratching your head over these nine songs. Instead, move and marvel at a truly 21stcentury rock band – innovative, heady, and extremely groovy.
Sometime on the evening of December 13, 2013, Beyoncé Knowles dropped her most ambitious album yet: a self-termed “visual album” that is unlike anything the singer has released so far. All videos aside, the songs on her eponymous fifth studio album are diverse and very loosely associated to what most artists near her stratospheric level would call “pop.” There’s the Burial-beat grind of “Haunted,” the D’Angelo slow-burner “Rocket,” and “No Angel,” which sounds like a cut off R Plus Seven smoothed over a sultry R&B groove. Perhaps the most memorable moment occurs a minute and a half into “***Flawless” when Beyoncé samples an excerpt from writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech entitled “We should all be feminists.” Beyoncé has it in her to break all the rules, and like a few other rule-breakers on this list, she once again refuses to play it safe.
Before I heard a single note from Deafheaven’s Sunbather, I read vocalist George Clarke’s lyrics. Usually when I do this, the image in my mind is that of the lyrics sheet forever and always. It’s a cheat because I can never properly form a song’s shape in my head once doing this, but after witnessing the enormous amount of hype explode aroundSunbather, I felt compelled to read what Clarke had to say first. Sunbather is an astounding work of music. The guitars are lush and huge and the drums pummel, and Clarke’s lyrics portray a pained, anguished soul on the outside looking in, railing at the unachievable, the inevitable, the things that drive our desire to fits of rage and panic. There is an allusion to Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being on “Please Remember,” and the themes that can be found in this novel are also within Sunbather – the concept that existence recurs, the fleeting sparks of love, the insignificance of what we as humans find significant. “I am no one./ I cannot love./ It’s in my blood.” These lines end an emotionally surged album of catastrophic longing.
Standouts: “Dream House”
Not much else is impossible now that we have MBV. Hell has frozen over, and thankfully, My Bloody Valentine’s “never gonna happen” follow-up to the immortal Loveless is another paradigm shift for music spearheaded by Kevin Shields. Recorded over a span of seventeen years, MBV is timeless in the sense that it seems to literally stand outside time. Listening to it is unlike listening to any other album released this year because it contains an enormous amount of history within its songs. The signature syrupy, hazy guitar sound coined by Shields is present throughout, and of course, My Bloody Valentine dish out several welcome surprises. “Nothing Is” is a Reich-ian romp not unlike Liturgy’s repetitious “Generation,” and “Who Sees You” is all tremolo guitars and distant, droning melodies. But nothing can prepare you for the whirlwind closer “Wonder 2,” a drum and bass blast of sound that singlehandedly demonstrates the incredible talent of one of music history’s most challenging bands. Kevin, please don’t let another twenty years go by. Please.
Standouts: “Wonder 2”
Like Beyoncé, Government Plates can also be considered a “visual album,” for when Death Grips surprised us with it about a month ago, they included a video for each song. And the marriage of unsettling ray-traced graphics with their most experimental songs to date proved to be strangely satisfying. What would “Feels Like a Wheel” be without the video graphic of an iPod Shuffle being blasted with needles of light? Criticism concerning the songs’ repetitive structures or the lack of MC Ride’s vocals holds little weight when listening to Government Plates as both a sonic and visual experience. The production is abrasive and crystal-clear and illustrates just how much Death Grips have grown in only a few years. When MC Ride does appear, his voice is processed and wrenched about within the jarring pulses and beats that vomit outward in a wash of noise. It’s Death Grips’ most diverse release, and it spans from abstract hodge-podge (“Birds”) to classic Death Grips horror-rap (“Anne Bonny”). Death Grips can still surprise us, and Government Plates is the summation of their young yet fearless career.
Standouts: “Big House”
Naked sincerity is often frowned upon in the Internet Age. Certainly, Devon Welsh’s opening lyrics to “Notebook” (“Hey man, sooner or later you’ll be dead./ I want you to know I have respect.”) would not bode seriously well in a text message, and thank goodness we have Welsh to remind us that death stalks us everyday, whether or not we pass our time away distracting ourselves with texts. Majical Cloudz’s Impersonator is an album filled with songs reminding us that life is nothing without death and love can conquer all feelings. Before you stop reading this out of fear that Impersonator is maudlin, take a listen to “Bugs Don’t Buzz,” Majical Cloudz’s purest expression of their aesthetic – minimal production manned by Matthew Otto backing Welsh’s strong, round voice. It’s a simple song with powerfully resonant lyrics reminding you that these tracks are not cheesy but simultaneously joyous and sorrowful. Majical Cloudz are not afraid to bare emotion through the art of song, and in a musical climate of wordy puns, ironic jabs, and elementary lyrics (link to NPR article), it’s very refreshing to encounter a pair of true songwriters.
Standouts: “Bugs Don’t Buzz”
Anyone surprised by Random Access Memories must have forgotten what Daft Punk’s 2001 disco house classic Discovery sounds like. Daft Punk have always done disco right, but RAM doesn’t just mine our cultural past for emotional effect only. No, that’s left for the artists interested in fulfilling Fredric Jameson’s warning of pastiche as “blank parody” – that is, the sterile disco mimicry of artists such as Arcade Fire, Robin Thicke, and Blood Orange, among others. On their most sonically expansive album yet, Daft Punk pay homage to the musical giants both past and present who have shaped popular music in one way or another, and the resultant album is something that does not quite fit into the contemporary musical climate: an unironicized paean to a time when artists like the Eagles, the Bee Gees, and Chic produced tight-knit albums that were intended to be consumed from start to finish. RAM brings the disco funk, sure, but it also packs in prog theatrics (“Touch”), devastating ballads (“Within”), and sweeping arrangements for orchestra and synthesizer (“Motherboard”). Ultimately, Daft Punk’s achievement is a high-fidelity reaction to the deliberately lo-fi aesthetic currently being employed by many and, as Captain Eugene Cernan declares on “Contact,” something extraordinary “way out in the distance.”
Standouts: “Giorgio by Moroder”
Think back to the moment when you locked into place your opinion of Kanye West. Remember, this is the man who told us he is the nucleus of culture. He breathlessly remarked of his status as a genius and that pretending otherwise would just be a flat out lie to us all. During spontaneous moments between songs at his live shows, he targets the fortress of European high fashion for precluding him from crafting his design skills at such a level. But you already know this because you had already formed an opinion of Kanye West the Myth, or Kanye West the Meme, or #KanyeWest based on his numerous run-ins with a society afraid to hear his words. Wipe everything away to make room forYeezus, Kanye West’s pissed off, startling, opulent, and at-times hilarious album that arrives biting at the heels of his last great game-changer (perhaps the game-changing album of the past decade), My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Yeezus takes the maximalism of his work and cuts it up Orlan-style with razor sharp production, all the while tackling rampant consumerism, racial injustice, and West’s own brilliantly twisted demons that dog him incessantly. In a year obsessed with shoddy disco rehashes and shallow meditations on “big topics” such as God and faith, Kanye lets loose an onslaught of militaristic drill, squelching Chicago house, and the funniest one-liners in rap to come around in quite some time. And at the end of such a glorious nightmare, Kanye winks at us with the closing line of “Bound 2”: “Jerome’s in the house/ Watch your mouth.” He is our most consistently groundbreaking maven of culture, and he’s right – saying otherwise would just be a lie.
Standouts: “New Slaves”