Music

The Best Indie Rock of 2013

Corey Beasley

It's a generalization, but the year in indie rock saw a turn away from harmony-focused, gentle rock and back toward something a bit noisier, a bit more idiosyncratic, a little harder to ignore.

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.

 
Artist: My Bloody Valentine

Album: m b v

Label: self-released

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/m/mbv.jpg

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My Bloody Valentine
m b v

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.

 

Artist: Savages

Album: Silence Yourself

Label: Matador

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List number: 9

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Savages
Silence Yourself

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.

 

Artist: Deafheaven

Album: Sunbather

Label: Deathwish, Inc.

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Deafheaven
Sunbather

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.

 

Artist: Vondelpark

Album: Seabed

Label: R&S

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Vondelpark
Seabed

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.

 

Artist: Frog Eyes

Album: Carey's Cold Spring

Label: self-released

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Frog Eyes
Carey's Cold Spring

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.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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