Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Top 10 albums of 2013

Well, here we are. We made it through the first full calendar year in the wake of Ween's untimely demise, and somehow, against all odds, the music industry managed to not only survive the year 1 A.W., but actually spew out 10 albums worth ranking in a listicle-type thingy. Putting together a year-end top 10 list almost seems quaint by today's standards. In its relatively brief existence, BuzzFeed has already ranked the relative worthiness of just about every item, person or event since the dawn of civilization, up to and including BuzzFeed lists themselves. (At least they have a sense of humor about their utter disregard for journalistic standards, I guess.)

So what's the point of adding yet another list to the shit heap? Well, this happens to be my list, containing my opinions. And my opinions are important. So much so that I usually present them as unassailable fact. Ween was the greatest musical act of all time. Slayer's Reign in Blood is the best 29 consecutive minutes in the history of recorded music. See? Those are most certainly opinions, shared by relatively few others, but I know them in my heart to be true.

It's no coincidence that the people who claim that all music has equal merit and individual taste in music is subjective tend to have the shittiest taste in music. Ultimately, that's why I became a music journalist. Some music is simply superior to other music, and the world needs me (and others like me) to sort it all out for them. Therefore, it is with great pride that I perform my civic duty and unveil my list of the 10 best albums of 2013. Consider this list your definitive, one-stop shop for the best music of 2013, and feel free to leave me a note of thanks in the comments below.

10. Enforcer - Death by Fire
I really agonized about the number 10 spot this year. I could've easily gone with a veteran metal act like Trouble or Fates Warning, or given a nod to one of the more well known (read: non-metal) candidates like The National or Arctic Monkeys. But what it ultimately came down to is that every time I listen to this album, it puts a big, dopey grin on my face. Enforcer plays heavy metal the way it sounded in the early '80s, before it was compartmentalized into dozens of restrictively specific sub-genres. With songs that bring to mind early Mötley Crüe or Judas Priest, this is simply a really fun album.

9. Ancient VVisdom - Deathlike
Austin occult rockers Ancient VVisdom might not have put out the best album of 2013, but Deathlike is certainly one of the most interesting. The band's image is pure black metal, yet their sound is surprisingly accessible. Lush, orchestral and mostly acoustic arrangements are complemented by Nathan Opposition's soaring, melodic vocals. It's an odd contrast, but when it works, such as on songs like the title track and "I Am Rebirth," Ancient VVisdom come off like a satanic Band of Horses.

8. Clutch - Earth Rocker
I very nearly relegated this album to the honorable mentions category. Not that it's a bad album by any stretch. Since the untimely demise of Ween, Clutch has been my favorite active band, and I rarely pass on an opportunity to sing their praises. But I felt like including it in my Top 10 would maybe come off as an obvious homer pick. Then it occurred to me that this is the only album on the list that I actually purchased a physical copy of. That's gotta say something, right? Several critics have hailed this as a return to form for the veteran Maryland act. I suppose there's some validity to that, as Earth Rocker is a little heavier and more up-tempo than their last few blues-heavy records, but it's still classic Clutch. They're one of the few bands that can simultaneously inspire you to bang your head and shake your booty. And "Gone Cold" makes it pretty clear that they haven't totally abandoned their recent affinity for the blues.

7. Moodie Black - Moodie Black
Chris Martinez's years of toiling in obscurity -- all in the name of reinventing hip-hop -- seem to finally be paying off. I first met him in 2007 when I was writing for College Times here in Tempe. He was going by KonGeror back then and dropped off a copy of his self-produced debut, KonGeneration, that gave me new hope for the local hip-hop scene. Stylistically, it was pretty standard backpack rap in the vein of Atmosphere, but it showcased his tremendous ability as a producer and MC. In the six years since, he's changed his own name (he just goes by K. now), the name of his group (Gahed Records morphed into Gahed Indie, which ultimately turned into Moodie Black), his location (he moved from Arizona to Minnesota and back, and is eyeing a move to LA in the near future) and his sound (backpack rap gave way to "post-rap," until he eventually settled on the "noise rap" moniker). During that span, he has pushed the boundaries of hip-hop to it's most distorted, abstract extreme and then reined things back in to the more palatable but still experimental sound on display in this seven-song EP. Kanye West might be credited for bringing noise rap to the mainstream, but Moodie Black has been doing it longer and better.

6. The Ocean - Pelagial
I'm a big fan of prog metal. I know it's not for everyone, and if it's not your cup of tea, I doubt that a concept album about (you guessed it) the ocean -- featuring song titles corresponding to the descending order of oceanic depth zones -- is going to change your mind. But if you do happen to be a fan of prog metal, you're not going to find a band that does it better than Germany's The Ocean. Originally conceived as an instrumental work, Pelagial gradually descends from beauty to brutality, much like the mysterious body of water it is based on. The band released two versions of the album, one with vocals and one without, but the contributions of vocalist Loïc Rossetti add tremendous gravity to an already heady affair. 

5. Carcass - Surgical Steel
They said it couldn't be done. They were wrong. Seventeen years after the aptly titled Swansong, and exactly 20 years after essentially inventing melodic death metal on Heartwork, British legends Carcass returned in 2013 with an album that doesn't just pick up where they left off, but puts 99 percent of their younger peers to shame. With all due respect to those other old British dudes who created this entire wonderful world of heavy metal and also put out a reunion album this year, Carcass is easily the comeback story of 2013.

4. Deafheaven - Sunbather
This is where things get really difficult. I'm presenting this list in the order that I submitted it on my official Village Voice Pazz & Jop ballot, but I have to admit, I'm already feeling twinges of "ranker's remorse." I was a little late to the party on Deafheaven, having only recently discovered Sunbather after seeing it pop up on a bunch of the individual lists from the awesome folks over at MetalSucks. With every successive listen, I become more and more convinced that Sunbather is, if not the flat-out best album of the year, then certainly the most important (from a metalhead's standpoint, at least). It's not unusual for a great metal album to pop up on a lot of metal critics' lists. What makes Deafheaven so special is that they've somehow managed to attain a level of mainstream critical appeal thus far unheard of for a metal band.

And make no mistake, Deafheaven is most certainly a metal band. The only clean vocals on Sunbather come during brief spoken-word interludes, but otherwise, the record is rife with vocalist George Clarke's black metal screeches. The lyrics are mostly indecipherable (although they're actually pretty poignant if you look them up), and the vocals are somewhat buried in the mix. But that's not where Deafheaven's crossover appeal stems from. The music -- sweeping, majestic, blissful post-rock punctuated by periodic double-bass blastbeats -- is so undeniably gorgeous that you either a) gradually grow to appreciate the harsh vocals as a challenging, experimental method of emotional expression, or b) immediately throw the horns and say "Fuck yeah! Why hasn't anybody else done this yet??" Sunbather is pretty much flawless throughout, but the last seven minutes of this album are so transcendentally beautiful that you might need a few moments to collect yourself when it ends. Then you'll probably start the album over again. Yes, it's that fucking good.

3. Black Cowgirl - Black Cowgirl
Listen (assuming you have a Spotify account)
And then there's Black Cowgirl. This album mysteriously landed in my inbox back in March via a publicist I hadn't heard from since October 2011 and haven't heard from since. I was initially intrigued by the John Baizley-esque album cover, so I listened to a few songs, liked what I heard, downloaded it and then promptly forgot about it for a few months. But then a funny thing happened. Whenever I added a new album to my "Best of '13" playlist and hit play, this album would eventually pop up and snap me out of my Facebook-induced stupor. As it turns out, Black Cowgirl share more in common with Baroness than cover art. (For the record, Baizley didn't actually paint this cover, but it's a testament to his talent that his style is already being aped.) Black Cowgirl isn't particularly inventive, but it's chock-full of my favorite kind of music ever - bluesy, hook-laden stoner rock. Of all the albums on this list, this is probably the one I'll be most likely to revisit as the years roll on. I even had it penciled in as No. 1 at one point, and I'd have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for you meddling kids...

2. Lost Society - Fast Loud Death

1. Joey Bada$$ - Summer Knights

I have already gone on at great length about how much I love these two artists and how important I think they are to the continued survival of their respective genres. At the time of that writing, I had already heard Fast Loud Death, but Joey Bada$$ had yet to drop a 2013 release. In July, he graced us with another free mixtape, Summer Knights, that further cemented his status as the best damn rapper on the planet. On "Sweet Dreams," Joey makes no apologies for being "stuck in the '90s," and the rest of the mixtape is a testament to his obvious love of golden era hip-hop. Summer Knights has a surprisingly cohesive flow despite the laundry list of producer credits, but it's Joey's confident rapping that turns what could have easily become an exercise in nostalgia into a thoroughly modern hip-hop masterpiece.

And last but not least, if I haven't already worn you out, here are some honorable mentions and miscellaneous commentaries on other notable releases of 2013:

Death Angel - The Dream Calls For Blood
Trouble - The Distortion Field
Fates Warning - Darkness in a Different Light
These three veteran metal acts -- whose combined careers span nearly a century -- all managed to produce vital albums despite being in what should be the twilight of their careers. Death Angel's fourth album since their 2001 reunion (and seventh overall) is a ferocious testament to both their legacy as one of thrash metal's old guard and their status as one of its current leaders.

Trouble seems to be reinvigorated by the addition of former Exhorder vocalist Kyle Thomas. As weird as it was on the first couple listens to not hear Eric Wagner's voice, Thomas brings a style that is similar enough to appease longtime Trouble fans without overtly aping Wagner's style. The music, of course, is pure, blissful stoner rock as good as any the band produced in their late '80s/early '90s heyday.

Fates Warning didn't need a lineup change to sound fresh and relevant again. They just needed the music world to catch up to them. Prog metal is as popular now as it's ever been, but don't fret. Fate's Warning isn't employing the harsh growls of modern proggers like Opeth, Meshuggah and Between the Buried and Me. This is still classic, old-school prog, and it's still a shame that Dream Theater makes way more money playing it.

Church of Misery - Thy Kingdom Scum
Another slab of crushing doom metal from Japan's foremost serial-killer-obsessed masters of brutality. This album doesn't break any new ground for the band, which is exactly what fans hoped for. Their intimate show at the Yucca Tap Room last month was one of my favorite concerts of the year.

Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork
Even if you set aside his legendary work with Kyuss, Josh Homme still set the bar impossibly high with QOTSA's 1998 self-titled debut and its 2000 follow-up, Rated R. Homme and his constantly revolving stable of bandmates have pretty much been treading water on subsequent releases. The six-year layoff since Era Vulgaris seems to have helped. Clockwork isn't exactly a return to form, but it's a consistent, mature outing that provides a glimmer of hope that there might be life after the Stone Age for Homme.

The National - Trouble Will Find Me
Two or three years ago, this album would've been in my Top 10 for sure. As much as I love heavy metal and hip-hop, I have a nearly equal zest for melancholy indie rock, and few do it as well as Matt Berninger and his bandmates in The National. But 2013 was actually a pretty happy year for me, and this album's downtrodden vibe just wasn't working for me. I'm sure I'll revisit it in the future and better appreciate its sullen charms. I just need to find a girlfriend and get dumped first.

Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
I have to admit, although I had heard of Daft Punk prior to this year, I had never really bothered to check out any of their work. The French EDM duo was impossible to avoid this year, what with the boatloads of critical praise heaped upon RAM and its ubiquitous hit single "Get Lucky." I don't really have anything negative to say about this record. It's well made. I just don't have a lot of use for it. I don't dance, nor do I have a woman I'm aiming to seduce. But hey, if you've ever wondered what it would sound like if Roger Troutman and Sade Adu had a pair of secret love babies who went on to form a band, this album provides the definitive answer.

Arctic Monkeys - AM
Another really solid album that I don't have anything bad to say about. I just feel like it's nothing Portugal. The Man and/or The Black Keys haven't already covered. I certainly wouldn't complain if someone threw this on at a party or on a road trip. I do find it somewhat humorous that when you type "arc" into the search bar on Spotify, these guys pop up ahead of Arcade Fire. How the mighty have fallen.

Kanye West - Yeezus
Kanye's tepid foray into noise rap is just another exercise in borderline-sociopathic egomania disguised as genre-challenging creativity. If this album causes people to check out real noise rap like Moodie Black, that would be great, but Kanye's repulsive public persona trumps any unintentional good his music might bring about. West is so mind-bogglingly repugnant, he actually makes rational people sympathetic towards normally indefensible folks like Taylor Swift and George W. Bush. When your jackassery reaches such a level that the leader of the free world comments on it, it's time to just go away. Please.

Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
I'm really tempted to just post a video of a monkey drinking his own pee and leave it at that, but this is a classy blog. Seriously though? This is the album that has Rolling Stone and Pitchfork in agreement on AOTY? (Incidentally, this has happened only once before, in 2010, when both were bending over backwards to fellate the aforementioned Mr. West.) The first time I tried to listen to this tripe, I only lasted a song and a half. Ever the open-minded critic, I put it on Spotify while writing some of these comments and actually made it through the whole thing. What an utterly boring, unmemorable affair. If this is your idea of some of the best music of 2013, you're reading the wrong blog. Then again, you probably should've figured that out at least halfway through my Top 10.

Well, thanks for reading. Here's to a fantastic (and hopefully Kanye- and VW-free) 2014.

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