The only thing more ubiquitous than a Top 10 Albums list on the Internet is the disclaimer that inevitably accompanies that Top 10 Albums list. The disclaimer usually takes the form of either a simpering apology (“Now, this is just my opinion”) or an overly bombastic claim that is supposed to be in jest but smacks of bro-tastic honesty (“If you disagree with me, you’re wrong!”).
Less frequently observed is the one I will use today:
I don’t know.
As I surveyed the albums I loved and hated that came out last year, I was left feeling distinctly unsatisfied. Did I not buy enough music? Did I not listen to enough music? Am I getting old?
The answer to all three questions, probably, is yes, in some form or another. But I don’t actually think I failed as miserably as my sometimes self-loathing tendencies would like me to tell you. Instead, I think it was a bad year for music in the same way that certain years are bad for wine, movies, or the NBA draft. Which is to say that no one really knows why.
Here’s what I saw from the year 2013:
Semi-disappointing releases from bands that are mainstays on my musical radar (Frightened Rabbit, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Deer Tick, White Lies) alongside totally disappointing releases from bands that are mainstays on everyone’s musical radar (Arcade Fire, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails). That’s seven albums that took up time I could have spent with the latest release from the Arctic Monkeys, which I purchased only last week, thus giving it far too little time for thorough consideration for my list…thanks to all that time trying to like Lightning Bolt.
Then again, maybe that’s not all bad; maybe it means that in the future I’ll give more time to whatever comes next from the bands on this year’s list, instead of giving so much time to the bands not on this year’s list.
And because we’re a month into 2014, and there’s no time like the present, here is said list:
10. Foals – Holy Fire
When I first heard “Inhaler,” the initial single* from Holy Fire, I thought I’d found my new favorite band, and that I had a frontrunner for album of the year. In truth, the rest of Holy Fire doesn’t live up to the promise made by “Inhaler” and its immediate predecessor, the aptly titled “Prelude.” Nonetheless, if you’re looking for accessible rock music with the occasional electro-creative tweak that complements anthemic vocals by a guy who sounds like he went to sleep at 5 a.m. last night after an evening spent alternating between despairing looks out diner windows and making out with girls who would be at home on American Apparel billboards, well, look no further.
*If there is such a thing in this day and age.
9. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
I’m never disappointed by Indian food, but I never go out of my way to find it, either. This is about how I feel about Modern Vampires of the City specifically, and about Vampire Weekend generally.
I should rank MVOTC higher, because it’s really fun to listen to (<- there’s the high-level analysis you came for), but I’m chock full of Vampire Weekend-related biases and prejudices thanks to all the people I think of as Vampire Weekend listeners, none of whom has ever read a book by a non-American. Plus memories of the one time I saw Vampire Weekend and wanted to dropkick everyone in the band just for looking so painfully precious.
Which should only serve to drive home the point: this is a really good album that would be higher on my list, if I were a computer.
8. Best Coast – Fade Away
Exception time! This “album” is really an EP, which is an outdated term I didn’t understand until I was about 29. (EP = “extended play” and is shorter than an LP, which = “long play.” Because that clarifies everything.)
I kinda sorta think that seven- or eight-song EPs might be the way of things in the future, but I also thought we’d still be listening to Toad the Wet Sprocket about now, so what do I know?
Anyway, this Best Coast album has songs that sound like Mazzy Star** sang them, and it has songs that sound like the Breeders sang them, and all of them are backed up by gritty guitars that rise to the fore at just the right time before, ahem, fading away at ALSO the right time.
**Who, incidentally, put out a very serviceable, Mazzy Star-like album in 2013.
7. Jason Isbell – Southeastern
When Jason Isbell left the Drive-By Truckers, I assumed that the Truckers were about to go the way of the Plymouth Duster. Isbell was responsible, I thought, for many of DBT’s best songs, including “Outfit,” which I and approximately 37,000 other Southern and/or Midwestern males think might be the best song recorded since 1998. But somehow, someway, the Truckers are doing just fine without Isbell.
What was never in doubt was that Isbell would be OK (musically) without his former band. His first two albums as a solo act (or as the leader of his band, the 400 Unit) were pleasant affairs that convinced the listener that, yeah, maybe Isbell wasn’t quite there yet, but there was definitely something about this guy.
Southeastern is the culmination of what that listener meant, all searing, scorching Southern honesty in the form of a newly-sober, newly-married man with a guitar.
6. Cut Copy – Free Your Mind
About four listens into Free Your Mind, I breathed a figurative sigh of relief. For once, I was going to be able to get away with leaving Cut Copy off a top ten list. But then I mistakenly dialed in a tune a month later and thought, Dammmmmmmnnnnnnnnnnnn.
I would bet that there are people in this world who think Cut Copy a little too soft around the edges, a little too pop, a little too Eighties, a little too treble.
Those people are wrong.
5. Tegan & Sara – Heartthrob
I’ve been listening to Tegan & Sara since 2004’s So Jealous. I’ve now heard so many Tegan & Sara songs about poor decisions and/or broken hearts that I’m beginning to feel like a concerned older brother: are we entirely sure these two are equipped for the world? It’s also possible that T & S are Springsteening us, and have mastered the ability to tell a fictional story as if it happened to the narrator.
Heartthrob is something of a return to form for Tegan & Sara after 2009’s stumbling Sainthood. It’s a little more dancey and club-ready, which I suppose might anger a few die-hard fans. But those fans should rest assured that amidst the beats and synths there remain plenty of tales of self-reflection and heartbreak.
4. Kurt Vile – Wakin’ On a Pretty Haze
In May of last year, I finally (finally! FINALLY!) got to see Kurt Vile in person. For the most part, it was just as transcendent as I expected. Except for one important factor: Kurt Vile’s albums are so good as to make it impossible to improve on them in a live setting.
WOAPH is no exception.
3. Wavves – Afraid of Heights
I was driving on one of Los Angeles’s many pothole-ridden streets last spring when I heard my first Wavves song, “Demon to Lean On,” from Afraid of Heights. Wavves have been around for some time, at least on the bands-some-people-know-but-most-don’t circuit, so I was immediately ashamed of myself for only discovering them when I did.
My disappointment didn’t last long, however, because soon after that realization, I remembered that I probably wasn’t going to die that day and, in fact, might have another fifty years to listen to all the Wavves I want. (Which I just might do.)
2. Middle Class Rut – Pick Up Your Head
I have a painting that I like to use as a Rorschach on people. I think the painting is fantastic (as befits a painting I own), but many people think the painting is terrible.
You might think, then, that when I ask people what they think and then analyze their responses, I am judging those people based on whether they like the painting. But the truth is that I’m judging them on how they express how they feel about the painting.
Pick Up Your Head is a little like that.
Middle Class Rut is everything I love about rock ‘n roll music – a little bit angry, a little bit hopeless, a little bit ready to pour their feelings into songs about bad girlfriends, bad days, and bad bosses.
But I’ve learned in the three years that have passed since I put MCR’s debut album on my top 10 list of 2010 that not everyone agrees with me. I find this bizarre, but hey, I’ll bet Beethoven had his doubters, too. What’s most interesting to me is how people express that they think I’m wrong. If the critique comes by way of a reasoned explanation of why this is a betrayal of the art pioneered by smarter and more polished forerunners, OK, maybe. But if the main criticism is that it’s too loud, too simple, too macho?
Get the hell out of my house.
1. Phosphorescent – Muchacho
The question of whether you will like Phosphorescent’s Muchacho can be replaced by a much simpler question:
Do you have ears?
If the answer is yes, you will like this album.
If the answer is no, you should go into genetics so you can help scientists perfect the process of growing ears on the backs of mice, expressly so you can hear this gorgeous album that has me thankful I gave up so quickly on Reflektor, because it meant I spent more time with Muchacho.