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How exactly is Radical Dads a trio? The Brooklyn band’s second album boasts an impressively expansive sound, the kind that gets big but never forgets to stay scrappy. The “disintegration” singer Lindsay Baker wails for on opener “Mountain Town” topples everything on this great rock record, only to build rickety monuments of sound over the ruins. They can tighten up and deliver dense energy on songs like “Pink Flag” or blow things wide open on songs like the epic climax of the record on “Shackleton”. This is the kind of record you might initially think hearkens back to the ‘90s, but really it just sounds like the best bands from that era: timeless. Rapid Reality is speedy but doesn’t lack in patience, building an impressive layered feel to its irrepressible inertia. Along with labelmates Plates of Cake, Radical Dads reminded us in 2013 that the best way to get at something fresh is to crack up the veneer of rock tropes of the past, and paste them back together into something unique, something not quite whole, something excellent.
People were all over Flatbush Zombies first self-released album, D.R.U.G.S.. But when they put out this, their even better second record in September, things seemed a little too quiet. Maybe because, like its predecessor, it’s a huge, complex album to untangle. Or maybe people are just still stunned. They should be. Meechy Darko and Zombie Juice are at their best here, and producer/sometimes rapper Erick Arc Elliot gives them a dark, rumbling set of beats to go nuts on. Darko is still the gonzo mad man here, growling and snarling through each verse with a glaring persistence and the-wheels-might-come-off speed, while Zombie Juice knocks out complicated flows in his teeth-bared high register. The group still revels in drug talk, see “Drug Parade”, but BetterOffDEAD is an overall more political affair, more about the things we use drugs to get away from than the drugs themselves. Darko and Juice may sound threatening, but it’s more like frustration, and they render absurd popular ideas about hip-hop culture, about how we see young black men, about any false construct they catch in their crosshairs. Tracks like “Amerikkkan Way” and “Mindphuck” tear apart everything around the Zombies, while stuff like “LiveFromHell” and “GOD Bless the DEAD” find them planting their own flag of defiance amidst all they tore down. It’s easy to dismiss this as a good mixtape amid countless other free rap records this year. My advice: don’t. This thing holds more value than most rap records you’ll find in a store. It’s dark, it’s weird, it seems out of time with a lot of what rap does now. But it’s also thrilling. It’s also dynamic. It’s also exactly what rap needs.
Graham Repulski has been cranking out all kinds of releases at an alarming clip for the past few years. Last year saw a bunch of EPs following their huge 2011 album Into an Animal Together. This year will end with three new EPs, and the band just released a cassette single. But before that, they gave us Cop Art, the band’s latest (and maybe best) full-length record. Thought it pares down the set list to 13 fuzzy gems in just over 21 minutes, don’t let the short run time fool you. This is as varied a record as the lo-fi act has released yet, ranging from jangling pop of “Land of Onions”, the noise-rock bleat of “Vanity Tentacles”, the wobbly pop gem “Heavy Sugar”, and the grinding “Smile Across Your Legs”, which is definitely an underdog for the Best Rock Song of 2013. Despite the band’s reliance on tape hiss, they are never pretending to some unearned authenticity like lesser lo-fi acts might. Instead, this band is one that lives in the ringing in your ears, in the white noise of standing too close to a speaker, in the way beautiful sounds and the limits of volume meet. Cop Art, for all its muffled sounds, is at every moment a clarion-clear brilliant record, one that lures you in with intimacy rather than keeping you out with layers of useless hiss. Graham Repulski makes the kind of vital music that will continue on, with or without you, but you’ll be missing out if you don’t get on board. Cop Art is just the latest, and best, chance to do so.
You may remember these guys from last year’s list, or this list from two years ago. So, yeah, I’m saying it again: we should be paying more attention to Whatever Brains. Their third record called Whatever Brains is their best and strangest to date. They continue to shift away from the break-neck, oddball garage rock that shaped their earlier work and into even weirder territory. They drift into the crashing darkness of “Elephant Gun” full of thumping drums and grinding swaths of guitars, or they hit us with the organ skronk-stomp of “The Senator”, or the chaos-cum-rock-meditation of “Shimmylust”. Those are just three tangents this record drifts into, but it’s never eccentric for eccentricity’s sake. Under the wild-eyed edge is some brilliant song craft, so they can still knock out the immediate thrill of “Companymen” or the lean, sneering energy of “NPTO”. Yet again, this isn’t a self-titled record but rather an exploration into what Whatever Brains is, which is tough to pin down as it constantly changes. But it’s that slippery nature, that refusal to repeat, to stay still, that makes this band’s work so rewarding, and this is the band’s best offering yet.
Speaking of acts that should have got their due a long time ago, Zachary Cale has been knocking out beautiful records for years now, and Blue Rider is just the latest in that string. And, with all due respect to those busy reflecting or those who mash-up their name with Jesus Christ, this is the album 2013 needs and the one it needs to celebrate. Blue Rider strips back the gauzy layers of its predecessor, Noise of Welcome, and Cale lays bare these solitary but always bracing tracks. His finger-picked guitar rings out into haunting space on “Unfeeling” or “Blood Rushes On”, but it can also take on a rhythmic thump on “Dollar Day” and “Dear Shadow”. This is an album that takes stock of the past, but never gets dragged down by it. Cale’s voice is sweet but weary, though it’s a wear that seems deeply infused with a hard-earned hope. The spare instrumentation around Cale doesn’t accentuate his solitude so much as it reminds us it is circled on all sides by community, musical and otherwise. The album mines darkness not to succumb to it, but to leave it behind, to bathe it in a soft light. With the focus on Cale’s voice and guitar, it’s easy to call this folk music, but that doesn’t quite cover it. This stuff is catchy, coated in the dust of the road, the dust of a life lived in and with music, the dust of many sounds and genres. This much you can call it though: Beautiful. Excellent. The best of the year.