Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 in Music

2013 was a great year for music. I heard more things I liked than in many previous years, and I bought a lot of music as well, including more vinyl than in the last several years combined. (This should not be construed as an indication that vinyl is a superior format - it's like the candles of audio. It is a cozy and pleasant format with very nice packaging!)

2013 Album of the Year

Mark Kozelek and Jimmy Lavalle "Perils From The Sea"

A surprise, and a treasure. Normally I find these two artists a little on the boring and predictable side. Kozelek (who also records as Sun Kil Moon) is an impressive lyricist, but he tends to write some samey melodies and use his limited vocal range with just an acoustic guitar. For me, it gets old fast.

Jimmy Lavalle normally records as The Album Leaf, and basically makes new age for hipsters.

But the combination is magical. The soft electronic beds Lavalle offers provide a nice contrast for Kozelek's half-spoken, half-sung slices of life.

The lyrics are beautiful and relevant, given how many of the songs reference the Bay Area, air travel and its accompanying woes and joys, and a particular point in one's life. Examples:

from "Somehow The Wonder Of Life Prevails"
"Every day, I get out and I walk.
Every day, I get on the phone with someone and I talk.
It's good to have friends who love you, care and understand. Who have your back and don't judge you, criticize you, or make demands.
Every day, for miles I walk along the Monterey Pines, the Marina to Aquatic Park.
And I look at the Marin Headlands, Tiburon, Sausalito, Angel Island, from the end of fishing pier.
I couldn't ask for more.
My eyes couldn't ever want for more.
I watch the seagulls fly.
For half my life I've watched the ferry boats and the barges go by"
from "By The Time That I Awoke"
"I met the most beautiful lover,
Walking along the San Francisco Bay.
She guides me through the perils,
Through the long, unlit hallways.
Below the surface, beneath the distractions
Beneath the dumb, knee-jerk reactions.
It's to her I owe everything,
It is for her that my heart sings." 

It can be a little "sad old bastard" at times, but in 2013, well, so could I. Strongly recommended, and well worth a listen or two.

The Two Icy Jessies

My appreciation for great pop songs grows yearly. I still love "challenging" music and listened to plenty of it, but I also found myself really enjoying some more mainstream sounds. Two women named Jessy/Jessie delivered in 2013.

Jessy Lanza "Pull My Hair Back"
Pop futurism, mysterious, sexy, hooky, and icy. Lanza has a breathy, feminine voice, and owes an explicit debt to various 80s R&B singers.

The production of the record is somewhere between 80s synth sheen and 21st century techno-pop. I love it. There are surprising elements and lots of empty spaces. I want my next record to sound like this.

The songs are pretty good. Lanza has a strong feel for melody. The lyrics can be hard to make out due to the production and delivery, but what you can hear is earnest, mysterious, and sexy. She accurately describes them as a "cohesive mumble".

The record works best as an album, starting with the percolating opener "Giddy" and then moving to, well, "Keep Moving" to the great closing "Strange Emotion".

There's something about her icy-hot vibe and delivery that reminds me of Sade at her best. Her cover of Phyllis Nelson's "Move Closer" doesn't appear on the album, but is a great summation of what I find compelling about her sound.

Every time one of these songs came up on shuffle for me, I listened. No skipping. That's some high praise in 2013. I look forward to hearing her next record.

Jessie Ware "Devotion"
Ware was a professional backup singer for a long time. "Devotion" is her breakout effort. It originally came out in 2012, but I didn't really hear it until this year when it was re-released in a slightly different configuration.

Another strong, polished, adult pop record. But where Jessy Lanza is mysterious and subtle, Ware is direct. This is a big pop record aimed at the charts, and at the same time, doesn't really sound like it belongs on the radio in 2013.

The album had what was probably my favorite "single" of 2013, the perfect and appropriate "Running", which featured harmonized electric guitars coupled to a great melody and a euphoric bridge.

But there were plenty of other great songs, including "Wildest Moments" and "Night Light", both of which could easily have been on the radio in the 80s or 90s, sung by any of the big pop divas at the time. There's something charming about something that is so "retro" that isn't simultaneously trying to cash in on retro.

This is definitely a pop record, and anyone expecting depth or noise or weirdness is going to be disappointed. Ware isn't perfect - she lacks a bit of personality that will likely come in time, and when her material isn't strong, the record falters a bit. She has a great voice, though, and with the right material, shines bright.

Best Victory Lap/Best New Album by Old Musician

David Bowie "The Next Day"
It's an imperfect record. It's not as good as "Heathen". But it has some really great songs on it, and some junk. It heavily, consciously references his own earlier work and life. He's entitled to take it easy a bit, and if this is the last album he ever makes, it's still totally respectable. That said, the critics all went overboard for it. It's a few songs too long, and lacks the crazy inventiveness that marks so much of Bowie's work.

The Rest

Savages "Silence Yourself"
I expected this to score higher on the critics' lists than it did. It's pretty cool, a kind of distaff Joy Division with various post-punk influences. Harder and more abrasive than Interpol's take said revival, which is also why I probably didn't like it as much. Still, they're great live. Looking forward to hearing what they do next.

Haim "Days Are Gone"
These young ladies write their own material and play their own instruments. And when they do it, they are clearly loving it and full-on rocking out. It is hard not to be caught up in that exuberance, and they do a lot of things I like (swapping vocals, for example). A disposable confection, and a little too much demographic pandering (the Eagles sample! The Fleetwood Mac references!) but that just means they're good businesspeople, right, Sid?

John Foxx and The Maths "Evidence"
Electronic rock. Mostly notable for "Changelings", a great and moody track. The rest of this release (which sits between album and EP in scope) is a combination of remixes of earlier tracks, a few decent-but-not-great new tracks, and a neat cover of Pink Floyd's "Have a Cigar". Like their other records, works best as an album experience.

Robert Hood "Motor: Nighttime World 3"
Abstract-ish techno. Great sounds, great cover image, great work from a master of the genre.

Julianna Barwick "Nepenthe"
Sort of like a one-woman version of Eno's "Music for Airports". A dream in fog, beautiful, and then gone.

Junip "Junip"
Sort of a downtempo The Moody Blues with 21st Century neo-folk influences. A little soft rock-y, but that also makes it easy to listen to. Songwriting is pretty good, but the album is a few tracks too long. I like that they don't have to yell.

Young Galaxy "Ultramarine"
A great indie-pop album, with strong songs all the way through. I didn't listen to this a lot, but I enjoyed it every time I did.

Karl Hyde "Edgeland"
Half of Underworld makes a record that sounds like Underworld with acoustic samples instead of synthesizers. Not bad, but not great.

Goldfrapp "Tales of Us"
Neat concept - a record all about specific people. It's beautiful and cinematic and slow. A bit too samey by the end, but really nice all the same.

Julia Holter "Loud City Song"
This would be my "Scott Walker award" record, for something weird and interesting. Way less scary than Walker, though.


Elvis Costello and The Roots "Walk Us Uptown"
Man, I really wanted to like this record. How could you not? And yet I didn't. I will give it another try, but it's just not catching for me, and all the references people talk about make me feel like I have to do homework before I can appreciate it.

Janelle Monae "The Electric Lady"
Monae is super-cool. She's got a great look, a great voice, and a great concept and story. But she's got no great songs, at least not to my ears. Another record I really wanted to like (and which everybody else really did).

Tim Hecker "Virgins"
I like Tim Hecker. I didn't like this record much at all. However, the critics disagreed, with many claiming this was his best yet. I didn't get it.

Vampire Weekend "Modern Vampires of the City"
I'm admittedly not a fan of this band, but this album was without compelling songs, and chock full of what felt like pandering to particular demographics. It sounds amazing - the mixing and production is top-shelf. That just serves to emphasize how limp the songwriting is. Overall it is totally inoffensive. The sort of "rock" record that old people buy and tell themselves they're still hip because they like it. For better or worse, Vampire Weekend truly IS the Graceland-era Paul Simon for this decade.

Kanye West "Yeezus"
Again, not a fan. Some of the best production in hip-hop coupled to completely inane songs. Few records have made me wish the songs were better/less awful than this one.

The Knife "Shaking The Habitual"
This record was awful and wildly overrated. Noisy and annoying and not in good ways, just lazy ones.

Neon Neon "Praxis Makes Perfect"
Another concept album from the guys who did that great record about John Delorean. This time it was about an even more obscure figure, and the songs weren't any good.

Daft Punk "Random Access Memories"
Marketing overkill. Celebrity walk-ons. A complete lack of urgency and a kind of queasy entitled quality to the anointing of "Get Lucky" as "2013's song of the summer". Fact is, "Get Lucky" was a pretty good chorus coupled to verses I would have rejected, and a vocal performance I'd call perfunctory. I'd write this record off completely, but it did get people paying attention to Nile Rodgers again. Nile's great. This record, however, is boring. Hard to believe 2 French guys could make such a wad of American cheese.

Depeche Mode "Delta Machine"
Nine Inch Nails "Hesitation Marks"
Highly anticipated new albums by legendary, innovative bands. Both felt uninspired and sort of tepid when they should have been confident and fiery.

Depeche Mode's Martin Gore continues in his "Biblical allusion autopilot" mode. Trent Reznor tones things down a bit, which is welcome and appropriate, but it also feels like leftovers.

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