[12 December 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Sometimes it feels like the glut of music on the internet is what keeps us from finding some great artists. I’ve said as much before. But maybe that’s not it. Maybe that immediate availability just makes a year’s worth of releases seem like too long a time. Or maybe there’s not enough time to digest all the great music that comes out. That’s not to say we miss all the good stuff. Lots of records that sold and got praised in 2013 deserve that attention. And it’s been a great year for music. No lulls, no blank spots. This year, music has consistently delivered. So now we go back and look at the records we maybe missed when we sped through the year, back to great dream-pop records from January, or great rock records from the spring, or great rap records we’re still figuring out, or great albums that just made their way out late in the year. These are some of the best albums that we should be talking about more. If you haven’t gotten into some of these yet, I have good news. These are the great records you just maybe hadn’t found yet, a way to look back at the year and slow down, to mine it for just a bit more gold. And it’s there, a lot of it, in these great records.
10Emily Jane White
Emily Jane White is a singer-songwriter that has spent her career in constant expansion. Her surprising shifts drove her best work on Victorian American and her last record Ode to Sentience. Blood/Lines not only continues to push the boundaries of her sound, but also presents her best set of songs to date. From the swaying, bittersweet strings of “Keeley” to the full-bodied piano and driving percussion of “Holiday Song” to her singing with Marissa Nadler on “Faster Than the Devil”, these songs are the perfect, wide-open spaces for White’s breathy vocals. Every phrase is as weighted with emotion as the last, but things never get too weighty. Instead, a guitar cuts through “Holiday Song” or twangs some faint light into “Dandelion Daze”. There’s no shortage of shadow here, but it feels so big, so all encompassing, because of the light White’s words frame them in. These songs meditate on each moment, making the most of each movement, and the results make for the finest, most daring set yet from a songwriter who has never been short on good songs or boldness. Blood/Lines is Emily Jane White’s crowning achievement. At least for now.
Marie Claire-Balabanian, who combines with Karl Briedrick to make up Speck Mountain, has one of the most beautiful singing voices you haven’t heard yet. It’s subtle but rangy, on key but unafraid to emote. And on the band’s third record, Badwater, their hazy, dream-pop take on American music is the perfect backdrop for her singing. Keys and guitars somehow both shimmer and coat themselves in dust on standouts like “Flares” and “Young Eyes”. But the band can also turn their gauzed-out Americana into faint industrial twists on the chilly epic “Slow So Long” or “Cold Point”, only to shift into swampy rock on “Badwater”. The album follows 2009’s Some Sweet Relief, a pensive and heartbreaking record, and this one ups the ante in every way with a confidence that never slips into self-indulgence. These songs are textured—seriously, you can just about feel the ripple here—but immediately tuneful. It’s a soft but strong set, never easing into simple fragility. Instead, it’s a bracing listen front to back, with each song building on the atmosphere of the last. Badwater is music from dreams set on hard-packed earth, and that combination is a volatile one. Winter’s coming on, folks, go get this one to warm yourselves by.
North Carolina’s Toddlers have had a great year. They hit with their ambitious, excellent 19 EP earlier in the year, and then on Halloween, they dropped a new, eponymous full-length record on us, and it builds on all the excellent sounds of its predecessor, making it one of the great power-pop records of the year. The album shines up the murky haze of 19 in favor of a cool shimmer that makes the keys stretch out while the guitars pull themselves into tightwires that nearly snap across the safety net of hammering rhythms. Expansive songs like “I Will Come Back” and “Little Man” ripple out into huge space, and swell around tighter moments like the shuffling bitterness of “You Can Keep the Wheels” or the solitary stillness of “Starlight”. The band’s mood and angles will remind you of the New Romantics, but this is nothing as easy as revivalism. Toddlers is a beautiful amalgamation of recent rock history. It links the sunburst of the ‘80s, the scuzz of the ‘90s, and the shape-shifting and genre-bending of those and other sounds in a new century, but it never pins them down, instead shaping them into the band’s own sound. In its mix of seething energy and cool texture, the album is a unique success, the kind of pop record that can, and should, resonate for quite a while. Toddlers are new, but they ain’t young. Or at least they don’t sound it on this polished gem of a record.
Denzel Curry is an 18-year-old rapper from Miami, and Nostalgia 64 is his first proper album. And, hearing it, you can almost understand why it might fly under the radar, why some might worry Curry is spending the record trying to find his signature flow. But then you remember that of course an 18-year-old is trying to figure out some things. More importantly, Curry is a dynamic and varied rapper. He can get grimy on “Zone 3” or pretend at being playful on “Parents”. He can shift from lyrical turns to trap hardness without losing his quick-fire wordplay. Hip-hop is a genre run by carefully built personas, personas that usually run out of gas. So the most refreshing thing about Nostalgia 64 is that Curry never does quite settle into one version of himself. Nor does he give us one version of his world, tempering rap braggadocio and violence with real questions about race and class and community, questions that feel wise beyond his years. And Nostalgia 64 isn’t about having answers, it’s about cracking up those flawed foundations one surprising verse at a time. So on this stunning rap album, one that outshines a lot of albums that sold more copies, it’s not that Curry hasn’t found himself, it’s that he’s got too many talents to pin himself down. Here’s hoping the surprise never goes away.
Label Paradise of Bachelors had a stellar year, putting out brilliant new records by the likes of Hiss Golden Messenger and Steve Gunn and reissuing lost gems like Chance’s In Search. But Chris Forsyth‘s Solar Motel may be the label’s strangest, most epic release of 2013. In four movements, Forsyth—a guitar virtuoso—revisits and reimagines the various forms of rock guitar and in doing so presents his own impressive opus. The album is restless in the most beautiful sense of the word, scouring the landscape with the Solar Motel Band to find, say, the shadow between pianos and lacerating guitars on “Solar Hotel II” or the whipped-up chaos of “III” and the immensely satisfying closer “IV”, in which Forsyth’s guitar rings out into a desert of space around him. It’s an album that never stands still but also never loses its place. It’s both finding and exploring at the same time, hearkening back and moving forward. It’s a brilliant guitar record, an excellent rock record, and a musical puzzle that is as fun to put together as it is to take apart. In short, it’s something more people should be talking about, even if they won’t know what to say at first. I’m still searching for better words. These will have to do for now.
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.