[3 December 2013]
Indie rock—which for our purposes means something to the effect of “guitar-based music released on an independent record label”, just so we’re all on the same page—had a solid, unfussy year in 2013. Many of the year’s best indie rock records found their inspiration by reaching back past the post-punk revivalism of the past few years to the sounds of ‘90s college rock radio, an artistic dialogue that meant this year’s sounds were often grounded in those of indie rock’s golden age. Bands like Waxahatchee and Speedy Ortiz mined classic groups like Guided By Voices, Polvo, and Archers of Loaf for tones and ideas while maintaining their own distinct sensibilities. Elsewhere, acts as diverse as Savages and Deafheaven used volume as an artful weapon, while quieter songwriters like King Krule and Vondelpark found poignancy in relative quietude. Finally, a string of albums from stalwarts of the genre rounded out 2013 with some of the best music yet by the National, Los Campesinos!, Frog Eyes, and—who knew?—My Bloody Valentine. To try for an overall takeaway from 2013’s indie rock world necessarily leads to overgeneralizations, but here’s one, anyway: the year saw a turn away from the harmony-focused, gentle rock of past “best of” titans like Bon Iver or Grizzly Bear and back toward something a bit noisier, a bit more idiosyncratic, a little harder to ignore. Check the list below for evidence, and post your own favorites from 2013 in the comments thread.
10My Bloody Valentine
Twenty-two years in the making, this one. Kevin Shields’s long-promised follow-up to his band’s 1991 classic, Loveless, had begun to seem like a mirage, a mythical creature, a Chinese Democracy, until Chinese Democracy actually came out. And no one wants to think Kevin Shields has much in common with Axl Rose. Even more surprising than the fact m b v exists at all is the fact that it actually approaches the quality of its predecessor. The record delivers what devotees of My Bloody Valentine expect most—guitars, guitars, guitars—but it also swirls into something gentler, something maybe even more beautiful, than Loveless. If nothing else, m b v suggests we’ll have something to look forward to in 2035.
Aggressive, loud, and deadly serious, London’s Savages crib more than brittle guitars and vice-tight rhythms from its post-punk progenitors. The band returns a sense of danger to post-punk’s lineage, harking back to a time when this sort of music was the avant-garde of the rock world. Frontwoman Jehnny Beth belts her vocals from somewhere deep in her chest, wailing with a clipped vibrato over her band’s raw, lurching racket. She’d seem like a star if she didn’t also seem completely uninterested in the machinery of pop presentation. Savages might be having fun, but you get the sense this music exists for something much bigger than that.
Black metal exemplifies a niche genre as well as any musical style out there. It purposefully distances itself from less hardy listeners, borrowing the speed and theatrical volumes from metal at large and adding a healthy dose of earsplitting, maniacally monotone vocals for a further “fuck you” to the casual, curious bystander. At its worst, it sounds like nothing more than aggressive posturing for aggressive posturing’s sake. But Deafheaven takes the black metal backdrop and rips it apart, stitching it together again with patchwork from shoegaze, post-rock, and other genres typically apostate to metal’s remarkably self-serious crowd. The songs on Sunbather make George Clarke’s screeching vocal assault more textural than center-stage, and the noise adds another layer to these tracks’ whirl of shimmering post-rock guitars, battering ram drums, and—most surprisingly—long stretches of quiet and restraint. That willingness to experiment likely raises the hackles of some purists, but who cares—with music this emotive, this undeniable, Deafheaven won’t need them.
The quiet storm is on. Vondelpark makes groove-based, jazz-inflected guitar music heavy on atmosphere and not too many steps shy of something you could reasonably call “adult contemporary”. But the trick is in the sultry haze that hangs over Seabed, a sleepy-eyed, head-bobbing sex appeal that keeps things from ever getting too toothless. Lewis Rainbury’s voice, marble-mouthed and soaked in reverb, pulls these songs back to earth whenever his band’s lockstep rhythms threaten to take them off into the ether. A captivating record that fools you by behaving as if unobtrusive, only to send its hooks popping back into your brain as soon as you step away.
Carey Mercer is the great unheralded songwriter of his generation. For over ten years, Mercer has released some of the most singular, captivating, utterly original rock music in the world, and it has yet to earn him the level of acclaim—either critically or publicly—as, say, his talented bandmates in side-project Swan Lake, Spencer Krug and Dan Bejar. This album strips away the anthemics of 2010’s Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph for a quieter, more serene record, borne along by Mercer’s indelible vocals, here more of a croon than his full-throated howl. At once haunting and affirming, Carey’s Cold Spring isn’t like anything else out there.
On his proper debut LP as King Krule, Archy Marshall distills the essence of at least three decades of British cool into his own immediately signature sound. The sneer of Joe Strummer, the syntactical tricks of hip-hop, the attention to negative space of dubstep—Marshall borrows from an eclectic catalog of youth music to make his beguiling, quietly thrilling songs, which makes sense, as he was only 19 years old when 6 Feet Beneath the Moon saw release. Most of these songs follow a similar template, a foundation laid by Marshall’s twitchy, jazzy guitar licks and—crucially, fantastically, wonderfully—his voice. Oh, that voice. Resonant, otherworldly, vulnerable, cocky, Marshall’s voice is the key instrument in his songwriting, and the fact that he uses it to communicate a lyrical sharpness also far beyond his years—well, it’s nothing short of astonishing.
Over five years and five records, Los Campesinos! has become one of the best rock bands on the planet, though you still might not hear the shouts of acclaim over the din of critics still slurring the band by calling them “twee” five years after its cutesy debut, Hold On Now, Youngster… (2009). Anyone who sticks to that label hasn’t been paying attention, as Los Campesinos! has evolved into a full-throated, manic-depressive pop-rock group, something far sharper and more complex than the version of itself on its early recordings. No Blues is a brighter counterpoint to 2011’s delightfully dour Hello Sadness, but it still packs a punch—Gareth Campesinos! has become our best chronicler of late-twenties malaise, all self-deprecation mixed with self-aggrandizement, his talent for melancholy balanced by his knowing wit and refusal to take himself too seriously. Meanwhile, head songwriter Tom Campesinos! has sharpened the band’s hooks to a razor point, with each melody unfolding into a new one, each instrument poised to deliver maximal pop headrush. This is thrilling, unpretentious music, something to break your heart and have you toasting to its good health by the next breath.
The National, contrary to the conventional wisdom of the band’s detractors, has reinvented itself several times in its long career. Trouble Will Find Me sees the band perfecting its late period, the ominously sweeping epic style begun on 2010’s High Violet, which itself was a break from the tight, dark pop of 2007’s Boxer, the eclectic restlessness of 2005’s Alligator, and the lightly fried Americana of the group’s first records. Trouble works its subtle dynamic shifts to maximum effect, all anchored by Bryan Devendorf’s muscular drumming and twin guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s classically-trained, sophisticated ears for melody. As ever, Matt Berninger remains the most unlikely rock star in the universe, all brooding baritone and fevered, surreal lyricism, but—again, as ever—he is also the most interesting, idiosyncratic figure you’re likely to find in a guitar band. No one else blends white collar ennui with psycho-sexual humor and a touch of the absurd like Berninger does, and his lyrics are as evocative and singular on Trouble as anything else in his career. But you’re not reading his words, I know—you’re hearing them, whether muttered in an impossibly deep croon on “Demons” or shouted through a shredded voice on “Sea of Love”, all while his band provides him a stunning backdrop. This is the most consistent band of its time, the most thrilling—the most important.
It would be easy to tag Sadie Dupuis, frontwoman of Speedy Ortiz, as a pastiche artist. Yes, the guitar tone on her record sounds straight off of Archers of Loaf’s Vee Vee, and the way she and her band blend bursts of squall with honey-sweet melodies mirrors the recipes cooked up by similar artists from Pavement to Polvo. It would be easy, and it would be lazy. And, more importantly, it would be wrong. While much of Major Arcana would sound right at home on a college radio playlist in 1994, it also, in Dupuis, has something none of those decades-old sounds have. Dupuis, a poet (in the literal sense—she pursued an MFA at UMass Amherst), adds a remarkably perceptive lyricism to her band’s palm-muted crunch. She can do sweet, as on nostalgic showstopper “No Below”, or sour, as on the year’s best rock song, “Tiger Tank”. Whatever the feeling of the song, Dupuis imbues her music with a deeply felt—and often acidly funny—humanity. She’ll bloody you up and then wrap her handiwork in gauze, and you’ll love every second of it.
Katie Crutchfield scours all excess from her songs. That’s not to say she writes minimalist music, though much of the material on Cerulean Salt features only her guitar and voice backed by spare drumming. Rather, she scrubs away any unnecessary detail, whether in an extraneous syllable or flabby image, or in removing the whole notion of a chorus from many of these songs. This hard-eyed editorial approach leaves Waxahatchee’s songs searing and visceral and Cerulean Salt an emotional blowtorch that somehow never wants for nuance. A song like “Swan Dive,” the most affecting three minutes of music you’ll likely to hear this year, pulses with sadness, anger, regret, self-reproach, hopelessness, optimism, and abiding love—or, to put it more succinctly, the song feels as real to the messy complexity of human experience as music can feel. That’s the effect of Cerulean Salt, as a whole: it knocks the breath from you in its evocation of terrible, previously inarticulate pain, and somehow by naming it, soothes more deeply than you’d known you needed.