The Top Albums of 2013
by Tastemakers Magazine, published December 25th 2013
10. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap
Acid Rap is an album you hear for the first time twice. On the first listen, you hear the old school, Xanax-soaked jams and Chance’s raspy, carefree flow as you duet with the Chicago rapper “This part right here, right now/ Right here, this part my shit!” You nod your head, you tap your toes. You think Acid Rap is just a fun, laid-back mixtape of anthems to party to. Then you listen to it again, this time paying attention to the lyrics, to the stories, to what’s really going on. And like a psychedelic trip gone philosophical, there emerges a depth and sincerity in Acid Rap that evokes feelings of melancholy, joy, and a realization of all that can be good in such a dark and scary world.
This sounds overblown, but it’s really not an exaggeration. Acid Rap is named so because just as it has the capacity for triply, technicolor fun, it likewise opens the doors of perception, like realizing that sharing love is better than the effects of any drug on “Interlude (That’s Love),” or discovering self-worth on “Everybody’s Something,” or simply understanding that life is good and getting better on “Everything’s Good (Good Ass Outro).” Listening to Acid Rap feels like being in a warm room with friends with a storm blowing outside. The world out there is cold and unloving, but right now there is only love and happiness, and everything’s good.
By David Murphy (Psychology)
9. CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe
Confession: I first heard CHVRCHES in a Buzzfeed post titled “23 Perfectly Paired Songs And GIFs”. Not my proudest moment, but in hindsight I can’t think of a more appropriate platform to discover a band who released their first EP in March, sold out the Paradise in June, released an album in September and packed the House of Blues and other venues across the world by October.
I’m finding it difficult to describe CHVRCHES’ sound – the first thing that comes to mind is the mammoth production of M83 with wispy yet strong female vocals and a dash of ‘80s synth. But with a year full of your MS MRs, Sky Ferreiras and St. Lucias, CHVRCHES is a wonderfully new sound I haven’t heard in a while. Or maybe ever. After listening to “The Mother We Share”/unicorn running though the clouds gif-combo – I was hooked.
It’s difficult for me dissociate bands from their personas, especially with many of them being so accessible through Twitter and whatnot – having a snotty band member or attitude on stage can kill a band in my mind. But CHVRCHES’ lead singer Lauren Mayberry only adds to their appeal. She has both a degree in law as well as a masters in journalism and she even wrote an astute, spirited open letter in The Guardian to address the gross, misogynistic messages the band has received online and refused to accept anymore of it.
It’s rare that I attend a show with Pitchfork snobs to my left and the aforementioned Buzzfeed betches to my right – but The Bones of What You Believe seems to have the power to unite people in just that way.
By Alex Taylor (Sociology)
8. My Bloody Valentine – m b v
On a frigid February night, more than two decades after their seminal shoegaze LP Loveless, My Bloody Valentine gave music nerds and critics across the country a communal heart attack. After hardly any warning, m b v was released and, aside from a few server crashes, finally in the hands of its listeners. With so much time in production, expectations were high—could it live up to its legendary predecessor? Well yes. Very much yes.
Similar to Brain Wilson’s obsessive project, Smile, before it, m b v showcases just how far an artist will go for perfection. Each layer of dense guitar fuzz, subtle vocals and droning drum patterns fits snuggly into the final mix—all having been meticulously chosen by Kevin Shields over a span of twenty or so years. This attention to detail provides listeners with a tighter, more refined sound than Loveless.
m b v is hardly a repetition of past success; at times it’s both darker and more aggressive than its predecessor—the building drum loop throughout the eighth track, “nothing is”, could surly be the soundtrack to every nightmare I’ve ever had I mean that in the best possible way). With this release, My Bloody Valentine has managed to maintain its strengths while simultaneously setting a new standard for post-2000 shoegaze.
Unlike many of the notable releases of 2013, m b v doesn’t knock down your front door in its entire magnificent splendor and proclaim itself ‘album of the year.’ No, m b v sneaks in through your kitchen window and prepares a wine-paired meal to enjoy at your leisure. It’s as subtle as it is effective and I’ll be damned if it isn’t the best thing I’ve tasted all year.
By Ryan Kehr (English/Journalism)
7. The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
Shaking the Habitual speaks about privilege, inequality, politics and queer theory, albeit through distorted sounds, broken rhythms and warbling vocals. Gone are the hooks from Silent Shout, their last album released in 2006, replaced by an equal mix of rhythmic electronic songs and eight minute-long explorations and experimentations in the materiality of sound.
This album stands out in 2013 due to its political nature, but balances that with some truly exploratory music. Karin Dreijer Andersson and her brother Olof Dreijer, sing, stutter, shrill, and shout over the tracks, which range from geometric beats to industrial noises peppered with discordant auditory stimuli drawn from many sources including a mattress box spring and a zither. Their experimental approach to music leads to some of the most distinct tracks of the year that speak to our most primitive self. Music that somehow forces us to move, not dance, but translate their language into our own language of movement. Somehow amid all their academic influences and musical experimentation, the Knife have created something extremely amazing; music that speaks directly to our emotions. A rare occurrence in the meaninglessness of music created by a system that generates dizzying amounts daily. Then The Knife releases one of the best albums of the year and reminds us what music is really about.
By Eric Lee (Graphic Design)
6. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
People like to call The National “underdogs” because they mope around, they’re lyrically more confessional than grandiose and, for a while, there truly was a sense of unfulfilled potential about the band. But The National left their Ohio roots for Brooklyn and the big-time, and any lingering underachievement was certainly long gone by 2005, when The National released their third studio album, Alligator. The three albums that followed, Boxer, High Violet and this year’s Trouble Will Find Me, have cemented The National’s position as mainstays among indie rock’s elite—of the same echelon as the likes of Deerhunter and Arcade Fire.
On Trouble Will Find Me, The National are operating largely within the same sphere as their breathtaking 2007 album, Boxer or its predecessor, Alligator, namely in that they strayed slightly from the reliance on droning noise that pervaded 2010’s High Violet. But Trouble Will Find Me shouldn’t be understood as a return to a comfortable formula so much as a testament to the depth of the band’s inventiveness; within the increasingly iconic sound that they create, The National don’t seem to run out of ideas. As with past albums, Trouble Will Find Me is palpably intimate—songs have spatial relevance (like “Slipped,”) and its most remorseful moments are downright shameless. The subtle but immaculate back half of Trouble Will Find Me—tracks 8 through 13—is for my money the closest The National may ever come to a real masterpiece. But then again, that might not give these “underdogs” the credit that they deserve; The National have truly never disappointed, and Trouble Will Find Me is another step toward iconicity among American independent artists.
By Nick Hugon (International Affairs)
5. James Blake – Overgrown
Only UK crooner James Blake could open an album with a cascade of piano notes and a few muffled hums. Overgrown continues with similar confidence through its 10 tracks, showing off Blake’s beautiful voice and melodic compositions. Although clearly powerful, the album is never overwhelming and carefully constructed such that subtle nuances and additions of layers of sound are ultimately potent weapons in Blake’s arsenal. Since his EPs and self-titled release in the early 2010′s, Blake has clearly grown and perfected his sound–Overgrown is a world where the instrumentals are strange and electronic, yet sound perfectly organic intertwined with his own natural voice. Blake sticks to the soulful melodies and simpler arrangements he executes so well on songs such as “DLM” and “Our Love Comes Back,” but moves in to new territory highlighting his rhythmic backing beats with the polyrhythmic “Voyeur” and even inviting Wu-tang legend RZA to throw a verse on “Take A Fall For Me.” For his sophomore album, Blake was able to create an equally beautiful and gritty album that sucked you in and released you only after it made you lose track of reality and left a mark on your soul.
By Carisa Tong (Mathematics)
4. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Eight years since their last true album release, the robots prove they have not been in standby mode. Daft Punk, having been fairly quiet since the Tron era, explodes back into the spotlight with Random Access Memories. Do not be confused, this is not a comeback album. It is not an attempt at revival or a plea to stay modern. Rather, this album serves to solidify the work of an electronic band as influential and innovative as Daft Punk.
With an armada of special guests ranging from Pharrell Williams to Julian Casablancas, Daft Punk diversifies their sound in a unique way; while some tracks bring us back to the disco-era – a result of working with Giorgio Moroder – others propel us into today’s world of pop music. Despite the inclusion of contributors, Daft Punk still stays true to its own sound, using the featured artists as a touch of flavor rather than a base for their tracks.
More impressive still is the manner in which Daft Punk transcends the border between electronic and unplugged music. By using a state-of-the-art synthesizer, Daft Punk records their tracks live just like anyone with a guitar, instead of stacking tracks into a computer program. This emphasizes Daft Punk’s ongoing battle between man and machine. While the album exhibits a robotic demand for perfection, the humans behind the masks still reside at the core, offering glimpses through softly sung ballads masked by electronic overlay.
With current trends in electronic music, sometimes it is easy to forget how Daft Punk truly led the way. After spending years breaking the mold, they continue to do so with more gusto than some artists can muster through an entire career. Random Access Memories proves that robots never die.
By Max Oyer (Communications)
3. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
After Vampire Weekend’s first two albums, critics said that frontman Ezra Koenig and his Ivy League crew sounded like a… like a bunch of English majors from Columbia University. Or something. With Modern Vampires of the City, though, songs about controversial comma usage or Cape Cod and African dance rhythms are foregone for a more serious tone. This is an album about getting old, religion and loneliness. Like Koenig croons on “Step,” the gloves are off on this record.
Where hyper-intellectualism was a focal point of Vampire Weekend’s early discography, it is reserved to the background in Modern Vampires. The record has its references to Buddhist temples and an opulent king of Lydia. It has punnily-titled songs, such as “Diane Young” (‘dyin’ young’) and “Ya Hey” (‘Yahweh’/’Hey Ya!’). But the brilliance of this album is not in the wordplay. Koenig and his bandmates, ever the perfectionists, know they hit the right balance on this one, and Koenig urges you to “listen, don’t wait” on “Obvious Bicycle” the album’s opening track.
Vampire Weekend harkens back to its old upbeat tempo in occasional short bursts of energy. The driving percussion beats and Rostam Batmanglij’s keyboard fuel “Unbelievers,” an old fashioned VW romp. “Diane Young,” the album’s first single, is up-tempo Rockabilly fun.
Modern Vampires of the City can be described as a growing up album, but Vampire Weekend does it as stubbornly and eccentrically as possible. It has impressive range from the velvety “Step” to the blistering “Worship You,” and Koenig has not forgotten his roots. The references and quirks are there, just dig a bit deeper for them. This superb record is worth a spin for pure listening pleasure, and many more to pick up on the intricacies that make it truly special. So go and listen. Don’t wait.
By Tom Doherty (Journalism/Linguistics/English)
2. Kanye West – Yeezus
Three years after his last fantasy, Kanye returned with another this year that strove to excise beauty from the equation. Yeezus is a hideous album on the ears, straight from the opening synth squalls on “On Sight” to “Send It Up”’s siren-sound hook with no room to breathe in between, give or take a Frank Ocean coda. In that regard, Yeezus joins the club of critically-acclaimed career nosedives like Kid A and In Utero, and as on those albums Kanye doesn’t throw his broad audience any bones. There’s nothing resembling a hit single like “Mercy” or “Clique” here, or even a “Monster.” Lyrically too, Kanye embraces the public enemy persona that 2009’s Taylor Swift fiasco earned him, and drops some vile lines that I’m too squeamish to retype (but if you’re curious, “I’m In It”). His attempt at self-character assassination becomes evident on album mission statement “I Am a God,” where he promises to make fans unlike him and does his utmost to follow through.
But really, doesn’t that make the cult of Kanye like him more? Taken at face value his lyrics here are posed to shock and awe, but factoring in his then-impending fatherhood paints Kanye as just another scared soon-to-be-dad. And to criticize the instrumentals on Yeezus is to ignore the fact that, at his core, Kanye has always been an innovator first and foremost. Yeezus isn’t going to please everyone, or even the majority, but that’s the point. In blowing his worst behavior and musical instincts out of proportion, Kanye also became that much more human.
By Mike Doub (Psychology)
1. HAIM – Days Are Gone
2013 could be aptly titled the Year of the Girl Squad, epitomized by Los Angelian sister-fronted HAIM. With their debut album Days Are Gone, multi-instrumental siblings Este, Alana, and Danielle Haim, along with drummer Dash Hutton (unrelated and male), cooked nostaligic folk vocals into a batter of heartquaking drum beats, infused with futuristic pop overlays and topped with R&B sprinkles. Lead singer Danielle favors a syncopated alto vocal accent throughout the majority of the eleven track album, encouraging the now-trite comparison to Fleetwood Mac.
While HAIM may be an 80s baby, the millenial appeal and sheer newness of the album is overwhelming. DH is unfraid to tred into the airy while her sisters muse in sugary melodies behind her. Anthem-esque singalongs are interplayed between mellow, borderline-indie rock harmonies. Singles “Falling,” “Forever,” and “The Wire” induce the urge to grab the nearest hairbrush and break out the smoke machine. The gem “Honey & I” is Cyndi Lauper multiplied by three and transported into the future. The production of the album is air-tight: every accent, from bass to drums, contributes to the story. Days Are Gone is the answer to the millenial conundrum: how to make new from old, and excite a club with mezmerizing hype rythms without falling victim to the dubstep drop. From beginning to end, the album is a love spawn of Los Angeles glamour and serious musicianship. And now, a rhymn for the sake of pronounciation: it’s HAIM-er time. Deal with it.
By Anna Glina (Catering/Hotel Management)
Happy New Year from Tastemakers!