Well, it’s a new year, and what better reason is there to finally show you my top five albums of the year? (Well, there is the fact that I’ve procrastinated, but let’s go with 2013.) For a long time, I considered 2012 a weaker year for music, and that’s because I hadn’t yet found an album that was anywhere close to my top three of 2011 (Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues, Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, and M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming). As the end of the year drew near, though, not only were some incredible albums released, but I also realized that while 2011 had a handful of near-perfect albums, 2012 has had over twenty that for me have been at least really, really good. And through the whole list-making process, I’ve come to love my top three of the year about as much as last year’s.
What does 2013 have in store? We already know we’re probably going to see new releases by Arcade Fire and Wilco, but beyond future releases, there’s a lot on my mind about my music consumption habits. Perhaps I’ll write a whole post about it, but I’m definitely planning on spending a lot more time on releases that I like and less time trying to like all the other hundreds of albums I read about on the internet.
But let’s just get down to it: my top five albums of the year.
5. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
I like to think of Dirty Projectors as a band of the future, not really because they use any revolutionary technology or recording techniques, but because David Longstreth’s songwriting is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. I was introduced to the band with 2009’s Bitte Orca, and upon first listen I had no idea how to process what I’d listened to, or what to think about it. I am a longtime fan of progressive rock, and even I was taken aback by the tempo and time signature changes and unusual, intricate instrumentation. Even today, Bitte Orca remains one of my favorite albums for the fascination it was able to produce in me.
Swing Lo Magellan is a different story, and it’s no less fascinating. In fact, it may even be more impressive for the way it simplifies and makes accessible Longstreth’s music and lyrics, while maintaining the same level of uniqueness. Lead single “Gun Has No Trigger” actually keeps the same beat through the whole song, and it’s chord progression actually makes sense. It sounds like — Dare I say it? — pop music. And the great thing is, it feels just as strange and wonderful as anything else Dirty Projectors have recorded.
A thorough listen will treat you to searing rock (“Offspring Are Blank”), pretty 60s-esque acoustic balladry (“Swing Lo Magellan”), jittery indie (“See What She Seeing”), and more. And throughout it all, the unifying themes remain the same: melody, simple arrangements, and pure character.
Highlights: “Gun Has No Trigger,” “Swing Lo Magellan,” “Unto Caesar”
4. Beach House – Bloom
This was the first album to come out this year that really grabbed me and pulled me in. It was released in May, during which month my wife and I were house-sitting for an art professor of ours. Virginia was starting to get hot and muggy and very green, and I was waking up at 5 AM a few times a week to go open up the gas station where I worked. I downloaded this album on a whim, having moderately enjoyed Beach House’s last album, Teen Dream, and I didn’t listen to anything else for a few days. In fact, I had it on repeat and would start it over as soon as it ended, something I almost never do. Even now, in the middle of a cold snowy Utah winter, I put on Bloom and I’m immediately transported back to the warm, sunny Virginia countryside.
That’s what’s so great about Bloom. It has an incredible ability to transport, to envelop you and make you feel like you’re in a different place, a place that feels timeless. And this timeless aspect of Beach House’s music is intentional. The two members of the band have continually stated in interviews that they are not interested in ever changing their sound, just refining it. While this has caused some listeners to dismiss Bloom as a retread of Teen Dream, there’s no denying the admirability of a band sticking to their guns. And in my opinion, they’re better for it. The hypnotic synth line in opener “Myth,” the moment of suspension before each chorus of “Other People,” the single repeated guitar note that goes on for several minutes in “Irene” — these elements are evidence of bravery and total belief in the music. And they completely and utterly pay off.
Highlights: “Myth,” “Other People,” “New Year”
3. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
In another world, one in which I am a bona fide, one-hundred-percent hip-hop fan, this is my favorite album of the year, and probably my favorite album of several years. But since I am a white dude who primarily listens to indie rock, it’s relegated to number three. I can say though, that because I do from time to time enjoy rap, even if I only listen to a handful of rappers, this is officially my favorite hip-hop album of all time.
Non-rap fans, bear with me. I want to explain to you why I think this album transcends the limitations of its genre. (I’ve even gotten my wife, a genuine rap-hater, to listen to a few tracks and seriously consider the album’s impact.) First of all, it tells a story, and not just any story, but an autobiographical account of a young Lamar growing up in Compton, California, and experiencing first-hand the world of drugs and alcohol and crime, knowing he can and should ascend beyond its reach. In particular, it details the events of a day or two in his teenage life, during which he has a brush with gang violence and is impacted enough to rethink his life and goals. It’s a story that’s undoubtedly been told in hip-hop before, but rarely with this level of potency. It’s as if Lamar, sensing his career on the edge of breaking, poured his self into recording as personal of an early-career statement as possible.
To be honest, I could go on and on about this album and how powerful it is, even for a guy who grew up comfortably in a white middle-class situation. So for the sake of brevity, let me just say that this “short film by Kendrick Lamar,” as it says on the cover, is every bit as engaging, entertaining and important as any film.
Highlights: “The Art of Peer Pressure,” “Swimming Pools (Drank),” “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”
2. Alt-J – An Awesome Wave
Online indie-music mag Pitchfork panned An Awesome Wave, giving it a 4.8 out of 10 and giving me further evidence of why I hate Pitchfork (though, for better or worse, I simultaneously love it and check it near-daily). The entire review seemed like space to whine about how Alt-J was being referred to as “the new Radiohead,” and that they were getting so much press and attention for all the supposed innovation in their music. It’s almost laughable how bitter the reviewer sounds.
An Awesome Wave won this year’s Mercury Prize, an award given to the best British album of the year, and it’s totally deserving. To be honest, I wouldn’t quite call Alt-J “the new Radiohead,” but I would hail them as a fresh young band who know how to take the simple elements of music and arrange them in unique ways, much like Radiohead. And in fact, the music is deceptively simple. The band recently appeared on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series, and one can easily see that they didn’t really have to strip their music down that much for it to be considered “stripped down” or acoustic. Songs like the hypnotically hesitant “Something Good” or the beautiful “Bloodflood” are really only made up of a few instrumental sketches layered over one another. The key that seals Alt-J as one of the most fun bands to listen to this year is singer Joe Newman’s voice. It sounds kind of like a soulful Kermit the Frog. And it’s so great; seriously, it’s hard to describe, so you just have to listen to them and you’ll know how good it is.
I stumbled upon this album quite by accident, and I was hooked from the first listen. Much like Beach House’s Bloom, I couldn’t take it off repeat for a week or so, and let me reiterate: I almost never listen to my music on repeat. There’s just such a wealth of beauty and intrigue and freshness here. It’s irresistible.
Highlights: “Breezeblocks,” “Dissolve Me,” “Bloodflood”
1. Grizzly Bear – Shields
Unlike quite a few of the albums on this list, the excellence of Shields came as no surprise to me. It was easily my most anticipated album of the year. Grizzly Bear (incidentally the band upon which I would be most likely to bestow the title “the new Radiohead”) is a band that is ceaselessly inventive: melodically, lyrically, instrumentally, and on and on. From the gentle chamber-folk of 2006’s Yellow House to the rich and intricate explorations in 2009’s Veckatimest, the band is always pushing boundaries and leading themselves into new territory. Shields is more urgent and guitar-driven than it’s predecessors, and it’s also probably Grizzly Bear’s best work to date.
There is a word that I’ve been tempted to use while describing other albums on this list, but I refrained because I wanted to save it to describe this one: “sublime.” “Transcendent” would also work. Listening to the album as a whole (as one should always do, but especially with this album) gives me a feeling I rarely get from other music, one that I am constantly pursuing. It’s a feeling that I have been elevated to another plane. That even the unexpected directions and turns that the music make are just right, as if they are the way things have always been and are supposed to be.
When lead single and opener “Sleeping Ute” was released in June, I was on vacation in Utah (before moving here) and had a very busy agenda. I somehow found time to get on the internet to listen to it, and from the very first seconds of swirling guitar, I knew Shields would be the best album of the year. And I was right. If you are in any way conscious of smart songwriting or beautiful composition, you need this album. And know that it comes with my highest recommendation.
Highlights: “Sleeping Ute,” “What’s Wrong,” “gun-shy,” “Sun In Your Eyes”
Here’s the entire list of albums of the year:
- Grizzly Bear – Shields
- Alt-J – An Awesome Wave
- Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
- Beach House – Bloom
- Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
- The Shins – Port of Morrow
- Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
- Purity Ring – Shrines
- Animal Collective – Centipede Hz
- Tame Impala – Lonerism
- Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory
- Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…
- Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light
- Django Django – Django Django
- Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
- The Walkmen – Heaven
- Divine FIts – A Thing Called Divine Fits
- Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse
- Field Music – Plumb
- Lower Dens – Nootropics
- AU – Both Lights
- Liars – WIXIW
- Menomena – Moms
- Passion Pit – Gossamer
- Dr. John – Locked Down
- Hospitality – Hospitality
- Jukebox the Ghost – Safe Travels
- Yeasayer – Fragrant World
- Lord Huron – Lonesome Dreams
- The Men – Open Your Heart
So what’s next for this blog? Well, I’m going to start doing actual album reviews as they come out. I’m pretty excited about that. I want to start writing about other areas of entertainment: movies, books, video games, etc. I’ll only write about those as I experience them, though. And I am ALWAYS open to feedback. In fact, I would love to hear advice from anyone. Anything else I should write about? Any ways I can make the blog look better, or any ways I can bring more attention to it? I want this to be a big priority for me, and it’ll be easier if more people are reading. So if you read this, feel free to leave a comment or contact me on facebook (since that’s where most, if not all, readers come from). Until then, get listening! 2013 is here, and with it a clean slate ready to be cluttered with great music.