10. Lizzo - Lizzobangers
I don’t know much about Minnesota. All I know is that in novels the cold hinterland of the states seems to be where people hide. So, perhaps one of the biggest surprises of my year was the discovery of Minnesota MC Lizzo’s Lizzobangers. Some might argue that Lizzo lacks the speed and fluency of other 2013 female MC’s like Sharaya J, but where she lacks the speed she makes up for in passion. With beats from DJ Lazerbeak laying the groundwork Lizzo strikes out at the corporate music industry on songs like “T-Baby” where she channels her anger coming across more like Zach de la Rocha than MC Lyte. Lizzo kicks out verbal attacks on everything from current hip hop music industry, state politicians and white culture’s need to bring down black cultural heroes. I have a sweet spot for hip hop as a political art form and on tracks like “Batches and Cookies” and “Make Way” Lizzo shows that the medium of Hip Hop can be a place for genuine political and social commentary. Time magazine listed her as one of 14 people to watch for in 2014. Who would have thought the next big thing in Hip hop might be coming out of Minnesota?
9. Andrew Wyatt – Descender
Producer, songwriter and sometime singer (with electro-pop band Miike Snow) Andrew Wyatt had a month off. He decided he would record his first solo album. Should he get some local Manhattan musicians together for the recording? No, too simple. Instead he scribbled together some music and sent it off to Adam Klemens, the conductor for the 75-piece Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Klemens found Wyatt’s sheet music a little too strange. He wanted to cancel. Wyatt instead, jumped on a plane. Descender is the type of album that rarely gets made, and when it does, for some strange reason, doesn’t get attention. Wyatt croons over the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra taking the listener on a tour of the depths of city life. Whether observing the crackheads “falling through the banisters” in “Harlem Boyzz” or lamenting that “In Paris They Know How To Build a Monument” Wyatt’s poetry winds its way through the heavily orchestral sound like a twisted and wonderful combination of Frank Sinatra and Leonard Cohen. Descender sounds like an Antonioni film put to record. It is huge, beautiful, frightening, melancholic and utterly engaging.
8. J.D. McPherson – Signs & Signifiers
Oklahoma’s J.D. McPherson delivered this years’ most retro album Signs & Signifiers. McPherson unabashedly idolizes the sound of 1950’s America. His clean guitar sound harkens back to an era when Bill Haley was king and rockabilly was as devilish as rock got. That combined with a catchy backbeat and smooth horn lines brings the listener back to days of But, McPherson’s southern twang comes out in songs like “Scandalous” and “North Side Gal” and reminds us of the influence of Little Richard and Buddy Holly on the former punk’s sound. Although he has been called “someone to watch” his jangly guitar and retro sound has made me take notice in 2013. Every time something came on my car stereo from Sign & Signifiers I found myself pounding on the steering wheel wishing it was a 57 Chevy instead of a 2004 Buick.
7. Shad - Flying Colours
You can rely on one thing in Canadian hip hop. And, that one thing is Kenyan-born, London-raised and Vancouver-based Shad. Since 2005 Shad has spit out consistently stellar records that push his fans to at first question his direction and then embrace it. This challenge is evident on his latest record Flying Colours. Despite the groove laid down on insidiously catchy numbers like “Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins)” or “Stylin” Shad takes the rest of Flying Colours to distance himself from the fast and fun rhymes that have made him a Canadian rap icon. On what is perhaps the album’s most lyrically lovely song "He Said She Said”, Shad seems to channel the emotional tug of war that is so often heard in a Stars’ songs. In doing so, the bravado is striped and left to look childish and sad through the eyes of a jaded partner. Shad plays with longer jams like “Progress” where he uses Don MacLean’s “American Pie” as a backdrop to his own highly-intriguing lyrical meandering. And then, when you think he has little more to give, Shad slows the tempo of the record with tracks like “Thank You” and “Love Means”. But instead of frolicking in a top 40 R&B malaise he retains the smart-staccato that has done him so well on his previous records. Shad is a cherished commodity in Canadian hip hop and one who will no doubt continue to challenge us.
6. Midlake - Antiphon
The loss of a singer and primary songwriter in a band can be disasterous. However, in an artistic collection of musicians it can sometimes bring sophisticated sounds that take the band beyond their comfort zone. This is the case with Midlake’s third album Antiphon. Guitarist and primary songwriter Tim Smith left after their sophomore release The Courage of Others. But, like Mercury Rev before them Midlake has seized on Smith’s departure to empower their sound and has placed guitarist Eric Pulido at the vocal helm. At first listen fans will no doubt hear the folk infusion of Midlake’s past records in Antiphon. However, in comparison the album floats into a more psychedelic tendency with standout tracks like “The Old & The Young” and perhaps their most rock-infused song to date “Antiphon”. Unlike on The Courage of Others or even The Trails of Van Occupanther the guitars on Antiphon soar to the front of the mix. Still here are the haunting harmonies and expansive instrumentation that made the band, but this new Midlake seems comfortable with the power they have previously only hinted at.
5. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
As far as highly anticipated albums go, few prompted the elation of New York’s Vampire Weekend. Modern Vampires of the City was in many ways a “typical” Vampire Weekend album. The songs are, as with Contra and their self-titled debut progressively poppy. However, the joyous world beats that permeated their first two albums have been pushed to the back and replaced with a more mature and less kinetic sound that truly seems to speak to the concerns of young urbanites. Ezra Koenig, Rostam Batmanglij, Chris Tomson and Chris Baio, revised their sound to embrace more experimentation. In one way the experimentation came in the form of their production which seemed to embody mimimalist techniques to create a massive soundscape of baroque pop. However, Koenig and Batmanglij ‘s lyrics also wrestle with existential angst and peer into questions of faith and mortality. With repeated listens Modern Vampires of the City flourishes in its immense sound and philosophical ideas.
4. Phosphorescent - Muchacho
For the past 5 years or so Indie Folk acts have been embracing a variety of sounds that are taking them away from their base on the acoustic guitar. By adding drum loops, synthesizers and horns Matthew Houck’s Phosphorescent has dramatically shifted the Indie Folk landscape. Like Bon Iver before him Phosphorescent’s newest album Muchacho lifts the at times stifled genre into a modern age. The originality of the record comes on in droves from the very onset. It is particularly evident in the uplifting “Songs for Zula”. With a empowering string arrangement backed by a reverberated drum beat “Zula” lifts off while Houck sings as if trapped in a well. This thread of modernity weaves its way through Houck’s folk strands creating a tapestry of melancholic joy. On songs like “A Charm/A Blade” and “The Quotidan Beasts” Phosphorescent levels the listener with what can only be called uplifted discomfort. It is an album written in the shadows of a man’s collapse and recorded after he has seen the light. As such, the complexity of the album lies in its contradictions: It is a folk album, that is modern; a dark album that is inspirational; it is an indie album that is richly produced. Upon reading reviews from its spring release I was most taken by Peter Watt’s review that Muchacho is “a beautiful but discomforting album". I can think of no better way of summarizing the record and see a bright and uncompromising future for the Alabama-turned-Brooklyn troubadour. Whether that future is with an acoustic guitar or not, we’ll have to see.
3. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
What can be said about the Arcade Fire’s Reflektor? When we think back on bands that define a generation, or whom are celebrated icons of an era, it is because of their ability to produce stunning albums in spite of the pressure put on them by themselves and others. I often think on the four albums that the Stones put out between 1968-1972, or the four albums U2 put out between 1984-1988. The Arcade Fire has proven that they deserve to be in this company. With each successive album The Arcade Fire has pushed their sound and the themes that make up the record (that’s right, the albums have themes!) to glorious conclusions, and although Reflektor garnered some resentment amongst critics the proof of its glory is in the music of this massive double album. The Arcade Fire seemingly live in a state of fear that they could ever rest on their laurels or provide us with anything less than grand. So, Reflektor breaks with any convention that Arcade Fire may have had and exudes a stylistic liberation that seems to have set the band into a renaissance of sorts. Breaking with their penchant for bombastic anthems they have delivered the sonically vivid sound of a Haitian discotheque with guest DJ David Bowie. The beats are aggressive and jarring. They seem to tap into our primal need to move our bodies; while Win Butler’s lyrics question the existential turmoil that exists in our modern world. Yet, despite these contradictions Reflektor seems to grab us in an unsettling way. Critics have pulled out an array of adjectives to describe Reflektor: brave, difficult, indulgent, excessive, pulverizing, etc. But, I think The Telegraph summed it up very well when they said it is “exhaustingly, daringly, bafflingly brilliant”.
2. The Head & The Heart - Let's Be Still
With every listen to The Head and The Heart’s sophomore album Let’s Be Still I am taken by its subtle beauty. This is a not a complex album, nor is it an album that breaks any of the rules. But, in its simplicity lies an album of well-crafted songs about lost love and heartbreak. From the opening notes of “Homecoming Heroes” The Head and The Heart lay down a sweet soulful foundation akin to the Avett Brothers, Fleet Foxes and even Iron & Wine. Songs like “Another Story” are seemingly ushered in in a grandiose fashion, there in the subtle complexities of Kenny Hensley’s piano and Charity Rose Thielen’s violin take each song to an uplifting chorus. Yet, even in the more folkish corners of the album quiet songs like “Josh McBride”, “Let’s Be Still” and even the stripped down “These Days are Numbered” are lifted into an anthemic soar. Fans of the Avett Brothers will clamour around tracks like “My Friends” while the driving momentum of the album’s first single “Shake” is reminiscent of Being There-era Wilco. But, perhaps the biggest payoff comes with the album’s closing track. Melding everything from The Decemberists, Family of the Year, Dylan & Wilco “Gone” is a song that is huge in scope and equal in emotion. The stirring arrangement carry the song to a cathartic finale that leaves the listener with a desolate feeling of lost, that were not sure they can come back from. With every listen Let’s Be Still leaves me feeling beaten and bruised and makes me wish for younger days of broken hearts, when this album would have been a companion. Few albums can make you yearn for heartbreak, but Let’s Be Still does just that.
1. Hebronix - Unreal
The best $5 I spent this year was when I bought Hebronix on vinyl at Other Music in New York City.
In Daniel Blumberg's young career he has already fronted a formidable band in Yuck. But in April of this year he left the Dinosaur Jr-esque sounds of Yuck choosing to focus on his solo career. He left behind the dirt-tinged harshness of Yuck, while fans pondered what lay in the future?
I was raised on the sounds of the nineties. And, from the opening notes of the opus intro "Unliving" Blumberg takes us back to an Everything Flows-era Teenage Fanclub. However, two minutes into the album Blumberg's intricate tuning slide into a jarring yet hypnotic blend of guitars, and synth, only to crescendo out to a pasture of Boces-era Mercury-Rev electro-flutes and slacker guitar drags. This becomes the template for the remainder of the album as Hebronix stages a one man salute to slacker-rock-shoe-gazing. But, what elevates Blumberg's first solo record is his keen sense of melody as he intertwines various instrumentation around basic guitar lines that some might consider quite banal.
But, it would be unfair to talk about Unreal without mentioning Producer Neil Hagerty of Royal Trux fame. Under his steady hand Hebronix is given the freedom to grow in the intricacies of his craft. Hagerty's production gives the listener details that we can feed on for hours. Like a good book, I found myself going back and listening attentively for small gems left along the way. Whimsical flute lines here or strings there are not merely ornamentation, but instead solidify a wall of sound that embraces every note of Blumberg's enlightening arrangements.
The truest moment of the album is the almost 8 minute long "Wild Whim". From its uplifting opening chords Blumberg seems to bask in joy. As if at odds with the aggression heard in Yuck, Whim capitalizes on the joyous momentum of pop rock and transcends the listener well beyond the shallow atmosphere of a 3 minute pop song and takes us to "the edge of a thousand worlds". And, it is at that point, as if orchestrated, that Hebronix uplifts and soars to passionate love story.
Earlier this month, when ice covered our trees and made the forest behind our house look as if it was encased in crystal a bright moon appeared. I walked through the crystal forest with Hebronix tightly clinging to my ears. It was gloriously sublime soundtrack that fit the evening perfectly.