10. Tame Impala - Lonerism
When an album entitled LONERISM has song names like, "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards," "Why Won't They Talk To Me?" and "Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Can Control," there are certain expectations to its sound. I'm always down for the sadness — it is actually kind of obnoxious how down I am for the sadness. But separated from its words, LONERISM is a joyous album. Very few albums try to talk about these things like isolation and social anxiety in the framework of bass grooves and upbeat atmospheric melodies, and even fewer manage to be this infectious. Social anxiety you can dance to, it turns out, is a gleeful playground. LONERISM makes me wonder how I would've turned out if in my formative years I had found something like this album to express my teenage angst. I envy the theoretical High School sophomore that discovers this album, and learns to get pain off his chest with multicolored sunlight.
9. Grizzly Bear - Shields
The weird thing about Grizzly Bear is that, in my head, they've always sounded the same album to album. Yet if I go back to refresh my memory, there's a clear shift from YELLOW HOUSE to VECKATIMEST to SHIELDS. But the evolution is so staggered, with songs of overlapping styles, that in hindsight it can be hard to draw lines. This year, Grizzly Bear returned in top form, with a sound that combines the organic wide space of YELLOW HOUSE with the faster tempo pop possibilites of VECKATIMEST. There is nothing as streamlined as "Two Weeks" here, but there are some undeniable journeys in songs like "What's Wrong" and "Sun In Your Eyes." A co-worker once remarked that this band sounds like giants on valium, but I think he'd be surprised (though unimpressed because led zeppelin roolz!!1) at the life they've infused into this album.
8. Flying Lotus - Until The Quiet Comes
What really made me appreciate Flying Lotus was listening to Laurel Halo's album this year. Both have a foot in the pool of electronic/experimental music, and both were similarly critically acclaimed. But UNTIL THE QUIET COMES is remarkably more accessible. I know that sounds like I prefer dumb music, the thing that anyone can enjoy, but I can't help but believe that Something For Everyone hits more often than Everything To Someone. Besides, this is an indulgent list of my 10 favorite albums, not necessarily the best. To get back to FlyLo, the guy makes constantly unpredictable and complicated music. I'm sitting here listening to "Pretty Boy Strut" and still discovering details within it — riffs that reference certain genres, strange shifts in tone or new emotions that surface from sound choices. It's really situated firmly on music's cutting edge, and it's great that, if I choose to, I can also just sit back and enjoy the atmosphere.
7. Leonard Cohen - Old Ideas
This album was a big deal to me in January, and it's still up there 12 months later. I don't think anything else this year has been as purely poetic. Kendrick Lamar tells a better story, Fiona Apple is a better eviscerator and Japandroids pinpoint some perfect emotional veins, but in the standards of classic poetry, no one's come close to Leonard Cohen. The permanently vintage veneer is still strong today, full of gravity and importance that makes it a great listen during sacred, private moments.
6. Kendrick Lamar - good kid, maad city
I rarely hear an album that is engaging from beginning to end. GKMC is an amazing feat of storytelling that doesn't let up. Even when it has to fit in party songs and radio hits, they feel wholly appropriate and relevant to the overall framework. The dark complications of the story create a true to life tale of being young and in Compton, revealing conflict and intricate humanity in everything from drinking at parties to revenge murders. Lamar is amazing in his ability to explore anything, even his own interiority, with creativity and freshness. There was a small backlash to the critics who inducted it into rap canon, and it's not my place to say whether they're right or wrong. But when people like Drew Millard say they feel like this is not a great album, just an extremely good one in a few overt ways, that it's like staring into the eyes of a robot, I think what they're feeling is GKMC's relentless intention to tell its story. It's not really an album you can play for a quick dip. At times it feels like a strict radio play, with specific scenes and changes that are required for a bigger picture. It's the difference between someone telling you about their life over a cigarette, and someone telling you about their life with this short film they made. To some, that may lack soul, but to me that's dedication to art and story.
5. Beach House - Bloom
If this album was merely TEEN DREAM but more of it, it would probably have been my favorite album of the year. Alas, it is not. But if you get over the fact that it's not TEEN DREAM, the album finds a way to work out. It lacks the perfect emotional pivots of its predecessor, but that doesn't mean it's completely impotent. They're more beat-based this time around, looking toward 80s new wave and pop sounds. It's hard not to feel something big is going on during the album standouts like "Wild," "New Year," and the best song of 2012, "Myth." The thing is I can't always pinpoint what that feeling is. TEEN DREAM was clear and sharp: this is unrequited love, this is protection, this is losing. BLOOM is foggier. Often, during the kick-up of something like "Lazuli," the only identifiable idea is that this feels good to listen to. But why does that have to be a flaw?
4. Hot Chip - In Our Heads
The fact that Hot Chip made an album that clearly a lot of people liked feels like validation of my tastes. Even though I didn't think they had it in them. It's one of those things where you follow an okay team and suddenly decide to be The No. 1 Fan when they win the championship. Although I loved their previous albums to death, I could be brought to admitting that they were kinda goofy. They were an unmuscled imitation of dance music, but that was part of why I liked them. Then, suddenly, IN OUR HEADS, and it's a wholly beautiful and serious album. It should be blowing up, but I'll settle for it appearing on a few of Pitchfork's individual staff lists. Here's to a new age of Hot Chip.
3. Japandroids - Celebration Rock
CELEBRATION ROCK is like a shot of pure 200 proof alcohol, if such a thing is even legally available. It's unfiltered, singular, strong, and only one thing — but my, what a one thing it is. While not the most agile album around, there are so many works out there that fulfill that need, it seems like a crime to water down this high-energy, throat-shredding, scream for something more. There is no thrill quite like hearing "Younger Us" for the first time. There is nothing as satisfying as yelling, "You're not mine to die for anymore / so I must live" with 100 sweaty motherfuckers at The Echoplex. The criticism is that it's just Thrice in a different context, but I sincerely believe the honesty and uncompromising idealism elevate it into a higher calling. It's like The Notebook versus On The Road. Attempts at cheap emotion versus streamlined, unselfconscious expression. It's okay if you think that's bullshit. This album doesn't care. It just wants to be young, loud and unstoppable.
2. Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan
This is a melody album. They often get favorably compared to R&B, sort of like indie rock's attempt to play in that field, but it's got to be something different altogether. Their vocal riffing is unique and sometimes even quirky, taking these swerves into the wrong lanes but making it safely down the road anyway. It's one of those pieces that is so creative that you have a hard time figuring out how it all began. Generally, it exercises restraint on the instrumentation, though the few flourishes are often flavorful and intriguing. "The Socialite" is a song of admiration and love, but the beat sounds like a constantly occurring accident. "Just From Chevron" starts out as a pretty acoustic guitar loop, but it keeps dipping into a rolling pick from a six-fingered man. It's always just new enough to make you smile.
1. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
In the weeks leading up to Fiona Apple's newest release, a tsunami of well-written thinkpieces flooded every music site, blog and magazine. They were all enthralled by not just Apple's new album, but her concept and career narrative. It was a romanticization, sure, but it was a compelling one and easy to buy into. I wondered if this colored my perception and engagement with the album. Would I like it just as much if I hadn't spent time in the hype?
It's 2013 and I'm pretty sure I still feel the same. I've always been a sucker for confessional art, and nothing rings quite as true as THE IDLER WHEEL. It's so convincing that it's almost uncomfortable, which is why it's my favorite but not my most listened to. I can't just put it on when I'm sitting at a coffee shop trying to blog about boxing. I don't know if you guys do this, but I often lose myself in music by imagining myself singing it. (Stop laughing.) On a few occassions, a song is so personal, so completley owned by the artist, that I can't do this. Fiona Apple is one of those artists, but THE IDLER WHEEL takes it a step further: I can't divorce her singing and my place as one of millions of listeners. The truth here is so front loaded that when she sings, "While you were watching someone else / I stared at you and cut myself" I feel like a jerk. When she sings, "Now all you've got to do is remind me that we met / That's how you got me / you taught me to regret," I feel personally responsible.
When I first heard "Regret" on the freeway, driving myself to work, I was worried that I ought to pull over. That song is insanely brutal. The best decision Apple made on this album was to drop the blues & jazz piano tropes for something bare and played in darkness, and it shows on this song especially. There is a wrath to her sandpaper voice when she hits the chorus, "I ran out of white dove feathers to soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth everytime you address me." Her rasp is harrowing and climactic, like the ending horror of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM. But it's just her voice, her piano, an elliptical buzzing base noise, and her conviction. When she goes from that bloody grit to a whispy, ghostly, whine, it feels like a dangerous encounter. I didn't know what to do with that song at first except play it over and over.
Because you didn't demand it: