Friday, December 20, 2013

COLUMN: Best of 2013 - Music

The passing of a year means a lot of things in my world. It's a time to gather with family and friends... to reflect on the past and look forward to the future... and, most importantly, a time to arbitrarily pass judgement and assign rankings to the CDs that have been piling up on my desk. Thanks for the annual indulgence and allowing me to share my picks for The Best Records Of 2013:

#10 - Tyler, the Creator - Wolf - Some rappers are in it for the money, others for the art. But more and more, I'm becoming convinced that the Califoria rap collective known as Odd Future are in it for the adrenaline. No other hip-hop music this decade has been as reckless, wild, or risk-taking. As their headstrong svengali and mouthpiece, Tyler represents the best of Odd Future: anarchic creativity, a lyrical tongue that can be both brilliant and button-pushing, and a whipsmart DIY aesthetic that belies the group's youth and relative inexperience. It is the sound of pure molten danger. You either love it or you're terrified of it.

#9 - Scott Murphy & Rivers Cuomo - Scott & Rivers - You might know Rivers Cuomo best as the frontman of nerd-rock heroes Weezer, who once famously wrote a love song in response to a fan letter they received from a Japanese teenager. Ergo, it shouldn't have come as a shock when Cuomo decided to use some downtime from Weezer to record a Japanese language pop record with his friend Scott Murphy (of the band Allister.) The surprising bit is how absurdly good it is. With killer hooks and sing-along choruses, it's the feel-good record of the year, even if the whole thing's in Japanese. They could be singing "Shane is a big doodiehead" for all I know; I'll still hum along in the shower. Although intended for overseas release only, pleas from fans caused the duo to stick it up on iTunes.

Crocodiles - "Teardrop Guitar" from stereogum on Vimeo.

#8 - Crocodiles - Crimes of Passion - When I was in high school, my world revolved about fuzzy new-wave psychedelic bands like Echo & the Bunnymen and the Jesus & Mary Chain. San Diego's Crocodiles don't just sound like they were influenced by these bands. No, they sound like they stepped out of 1986 hand-in-hand with them. Music that innovates and pushes envelopes should always be rewarded, but there's something to be said for a group that finds a formula and executes it flawlessly. Is it the best record of the year? Naw, but it's one of my absolute favorites and makes me want to tight-roll my pants and head to Chess King.

#7 - The Brother Kite - Model Rocket - This is the fourth year in a row that a record from The Brother Kite has made it onto my year-end list. This unknown unheralded band from Rhode Island might just be our nation's best kept musical secret. Usually known for meticulously layered studio production and complex song structures, "Model Rocket" is a more organic affair that whomps you between the ears with one power-pop assault after another. While I prefer their more intricate offerings, "Model Rocket" still runs deep with the rich songwriting, complex harmonies, and buoyant jubilation that's kept me a fan for years. Bravo, guys.

#6 - Bastille - Bad Blood - This is the sort of record that music critics are supposed to hate. After all, singer-songwriters are supposed to sweat for their fame in the trenches of intimate gigs with acoustic guitars, no? Instead, London native Dan Smith went straight for the jugular, taking his passioned songs and assembling a backing band to turn them into explosive anthems rife with tribal drums, male choirs, and a booming urgency that makes you want to scale scaffolding and wave a flag like mid-80s Bono. Most pop music wishes it could be this good.

#5 - Earl Sweatshirt - Doris - Odd Future first set the rap world ablaze when they paired the hammy showmanship of Tyler the Creator with the intellectual wordplay of his right-hand man, Earl Sweatshirt. But when it came time for Odd Future to tour, Earl was nowhere to be seen. The group refused comment, other than sporting mysterious "Free Earl" t-shirts. As it turned out, Earl's mom had sent him off to a Samoan boarding school for at-risk teens. After turning 18, Earl returned to the States and whipped out his major label debut this year without missing a step. Full of painfully raw lyrics over brooding, tuneless beats, "Doris" isn't an easy listen, but it's a compelling one that gives you a front-row seat to the birth of a true poet.

#4 - Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience - Who would have ever thought that the curly-haired goofball from N*Sync would grow up to become the most important entertainer of the decade? After a lengthy musical hiatus to foray into acting, J.T. returned this year with the best record of his career. Pop songs aren't supposed to be seven minutes long, employ a neo-soul brass section, or change keys and time signatures halfway through. Other artists take note: THIS is swagger.

#3 - Kanye West - Yeezus - Every year, I hope his ego finally gets the best of him. When you hear an album with a centerpiece track called "I Am A God," you can't help but root for it for fail. In almost every interview, Kanye calls himself a genius -- begrudgingly, I have to agree with him. Once again flipping the script, "Yeezus" throws caution to the wind and thrives on abrasive production, primal beats, and lyrics so vitriolic and urgent that he really IS just spitting them out. If art were a weapon, Kanye would be our nuclear option.

#2 - My Bloody Valentine - mbv - In 1991, an underground group from Dublin released an album called "Loveless" that did nothing less than alter the definition of music as we know it. Then they followed it up with... nothing. Until now. 22 years in the making, "mbv" showed up without fanfare on the band's website and almost broke the internet from rabid fans racing to download the thing. The payoff was worth the chaos. MBV mastermind Kevin Shields once again breaks all convention via open-tuned guitars, tremolo arms, fuzzy vocals, and a blissful cacophony that sounds like no other music you've ever heard. Not for amateurs, but heaven for fans.

#1 - Chvrches - The Bones of What We Believe - And the best album of the year comes out of nowhere from a Scottish trio who make magic out of a handful of samples and some sparse keyboards. Chvrches are the first band this side of Depeche Mode to make synthpop seem cool again. At the center is a waif-like force of nature named Lauren Mayberry, whose unadorned vocals seem fragile, yet hide a compelling strength to her lyrical attacks. It is the beat-heavy sound of a new band boiling over with confidence, and it is the very best that 2013 has to offer.

See, that wasn't so bad, right? Good, because next week, it's on to the Best TV Shows of the year.


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