2013 Music Reviews
!!!, Thr!!!er (2013) C
Begins with the clever wordplay of "Even When the Water's Cold," then descends into a passionless dance groove that's but a pale echo of their best (and most energetic) efforts. It comes to, ever so briefly, with "Station (Meet Me at the)" right at the end.
Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O., In Search of Lost Divine Ark (2013) C
High-octane space rock that is, when it comes down to it, an irritating jumble ... but I'm also certain they're having a good time. I like it when Japanese musical cosmonauts find a way to entertain themselves if not necessarily their audience.
Anamanaguchi, Endless Fantasy (2013) C-
The Nostalgia Factor - for early 8-bit video games - only goes so far, then this becomes an obnoxious ordeal, with everything played at the same spunky, nearly interminable pitch. It gets bothersome quickly, like having Mega Man fall into the same pit over and over and over again.
And So I Watch You From Afar, All Hail Bright Futures (2012) A-
Since I'm not the biggest fan of math rock I had to listen to this multiple times to confirm: this is a sonic blitz. Since their last album ("Gangs") these guys from Belfast have apparently learned how to turn all they know about song construction and applied it to craft a wonderfully energetic record. It's fun, it's loud, it conveys a degree of passion: the sun is literally in their eyes.
Arcade Fire, Reflektor (2013) D
Problems contained therein: the 10-minute opener is superfluous, the title track sounds like they listened to !!! too much and didn't realize dance pop was difficult to pull off, the songwriting is almost universally banal ("Here Comes the Night Time," "You Already Know"), albums of importance don't need to be two discs long, making casual references to everything ranging from Orpheus to Joan of Arc to Kierkegaard just comes across (in this case) as name-dropping. Don't you know it's just a lie?
Arctic Monkeys, AM (2013) C-
After the pretty awful "Suck It and See" I thought they should have hung up the guitars and moved on, but they haven't it and they can't even get to 'average' - aside from the bouncy "Snap Out of It" little of this has the fire, passion or imagination one is supposed to expect from what's supposed to be a major talent. "I wanna be your vacuum cleaner?" Is that some kind of kinky S&M thing ordinary people don't know about?
A$AP Rocky, Long. Live. A$AP (2013) C
Solid production values don't seem to mask the fact that Rocky, like Kendrick Lamar, doesn't sound - at this stage in his career - to be anything more than a very successful self-marketer without a unique voice. He can talk all he wants about money, lesbians making out, designers (that's Kanye's field of expertise) and how he's 'changing the game,' but what's actually happening is other more creative individuals are doing the changing for him and he's running alongside the car. But they won't let him in: the doors are locked.
Autechre, Exai (2013) C
As nice as it is for the Autechre bros to release a two-hour (!?) collection of more of their infamous beeps, clinks, boops and dissected beats, it's a definite hassle to try to listen through this in one sitting. Even an hour of Autechre can be a challenge; they could have really pared this down to its core elements ("Bladelores," for example, is outstanding). Just because their hard drives can store all this stuff doesn't mean they need to release it all.
Autre Ne Veut, Anxiety (2013) C+
Opens with the stunning "Play By Play," with Mr. Ashin basically begging for love, and from that high point proceeds on a downward slope into the title disorder - at the conclusion he concedes he's completely done with it (... that was fast). He's belting his lungs out, but like a trip to the shrink, the only one who might feel better at the end of the session is the patient.
Beach Fossils, Clash the Truth (2013) C
Fourteen straight scoops of vanilla ice cream. But it's not even premium vanilla ice cream - it's sugar free.
James Blake, Overgrown (2013) C-
I loathed Blake's perplexingly lauded debut (with its glitched fraudulence) but find this to be a minor improvement - it's considerably easier listening than that release though it still strikes me as a fundamentally shallow record, with Blake singing the equivalent of Hallmark Greeting Cards over paper-thin melodies. RZA shows up on "Take a Fall for Me" and it feels like the track is from a much different record - RZA gives poseur Blake (look at all those promo shots of him standing alone!) the soul he so glaringly lacks.
Dean Blunt, The Redeemer (2013) D-
Entirely too maudlin for its own good, with Blunt breaking out a harp, a massive string section, choral singers and sad horns continuously until it becomes this embarrassingly faux-emotional debacle. He even plays an ex-girlfriend's phone messages and includes the sound of the ocean. It's a clichéd and unconvincing emotional breakdown.
Boards of Canada, Tomorrow's Harvest (2013) C+
Lives up to its title a smidge too well - this combined with an endless video loop of wheat fields swaying and a dose of Ambien CR and you'll slip unconscious. Becomes lively all too infrequently ("Gemini," "Jacquard Causeway," "Nothing Is Real" especially): the best work I've heard by the duo is when they allow themselves longer track times (8 minutes plus) to work their magic - too many pieces on this very long-awaited LP are under four minutes.
David Bowie, The Next Day (2013) C
With a catalog of music as groundbreaking (and diverse) as Bowie's, hearing him turn out a, well, traditional record can't help but be a bit underwhelming - a lot of this sounds like generic 80's electro-rock and out-of-touch (like "If You Can See Me" and "Where Are We Now?"). "I'd rather be high / I'd rather be flying?" Someone ground him.
Danny Brown, Old (2013) C+
Highs (good production, high energy) and lows (incredible doses of silliness and juvenile thoughts) in equal measure - I actually listened to this four times before I decided I was on the fence with it and not going to budge. He's in his thirties but he hasn't lost a step or taste for the saltier aspects of life (weed, girls, Wonder Bread, you get the idea) so he has that going for him (... I guess).
Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (2013) B+
I've always liked Neko the closer she got to alt-rock rather than alt-country (sorry, prejudices), and this is a deliciously cryptic, sometimes passive aggressive, sometimes outright hostile release, probably my favorite of her records to date (this includes her work with the New Pornographers). That voice, too ... it's enough to make an angel shiver; when she adds to her natural gifts with some smart word-play, I cannot help but swoon.
CHVRCHES, The Bones of What You Believe (2013) D+
I'm sorry if I can't get worked up over a pasty-faced Pokémon character line-reading her terrible poetry over cringe-inducing electropop. No, scratch that, I'm a big fan of Jigglypuff's singing.
Giles Corey, Hinterkaifeck [EP] (2013) B-
Splendid three-song teaser by the enigmatic (and multi-talented!) Mr. Barrett, who says this Giles Corey project of his is about "history, suicide and ghosts," which is a better description than I could provide.
Daft Punk, Random Access Memories (2013) B+
After a massively disappointing "Human After All," they took their time to come out with this nostalgic and strangely warm record which has generated a lot of press and anticipation but manages to make good on the hype and advertising. The first third is marred slightly by the record's two worst songs ("The Game of Love," "Within") before settling in with its strong middle section ("Touch," "Get Lucky") and finishing with the amazing "Contact." They didn't spent eight years polishing their helmets after all.
Deafheaven, Sunbather (2013) C+
One of the inherent flaws with black metal is its predictability: you have your drums pounding and guitars at full-speed and your lead screamer hollering, and all this is, on occasion, punctuated by a slower, softer melody and/or lead guitar solo. It's certainly not 'bad,' it just doesn't take me any place other similarly skilled artists in the genre have gone.
Death Grips, Government Plates (2013) D+
I don't know if releasing so many albums in such a limited period of time is advisable, since on this unimaginative release MC Ride seems to be repeating the same lyrics over cascading glitches - long gone is the intense lyricism of, say, "Beware." As an outfit, they're moving farther away the electronic hip hop on "Ex-military" to some kind of ... creepy dance music.
Deerhunter, Monomania (2013) B-
Though not exactly the avant-garde rock release Mr. Cox claims it is - "Cryptograms" remains, as of right now, their most experimental and important release - this is still a steady and engaging record with few lows (I don't care much for "Dream Captain" with its Queen reference) and some stable highs ("T.H.M.," "Neon Junkyard," the title track). It manages to carry its own weight without risking a whole lot: it's mania occasionally interrupted by sedatives.
Mac DeMarco, 2 (2012) A-
The kind of repeat-listen good-vibes earnest summer rock many try but fail at - here, DeMarco keeps the subject matter to his heart with some playful wordplay and even an ode to his favorite cigarette brand (Viceroys ... yuck). Have you even tried Nat Sherman's, man? Any one that makes a feel-nice breezy masterpiece needs to upgrade his tobacco consumption.
The Dillinger Escape Plan, One of Us Is the Killer (2013) D+
Being loud and fast is nice and everything, but some kind of substance to go along with it would be welcome - this is eleven tracks of hollering at the same level. Hope that blood pressure is kept in check.
Dirty Beaches, Drifters/Love Is the Devil (2013) B
I'm finding it tough to come up with a fair grade for this one, primarily because this double album is, well, two very different records. "Drifters" continues Mr. Hungtai's interest in this sleazy, sad rockabilly kind of music, while "Love Is the Devil" sounds like the somber, barely-there soundtrack to the saddest movie you've never seen. Neither is as startlingly memorable as "Badlands" was two years ago, and it might be best looked at as the auteur exploring his musical range, from morose nightclub crooner to atmospheric film score composer.
Disclosure, Settle (2013) C
There's a real lack of innovation and inspiration on this cookie-cutter club-rat record; the opening track, "When a Fire Starts to Burn" is one of the strongest moments on this (followed by "Latch" with Sam Smith) but it's only time before these two unbelievably young brothers recruit even more vocalists to be even less memorable than the beats.
The Drones, I See Seaweed (2013) C
I thought punk songs were supposed to be quick and to-the-point; these folks like to stretch that out to six, seven, even nine minutes, taking their meager abilities well past the breaking point. Gareth Liddiard is not quite the storyteller he believes he is.
Earl Sweatshirt, Doris (2013) C+
Still a teenager, he doesn't have the strong sense of individuality more experienced and talented rappers have (though he shows a sensitive side on "Chum") - more often than not he gets lost in his own album, with Tyler and Frank Ocean and Domo being more distinctive and charismatic in comparison. He gets a lot of help from a production standpoint, too (Pharrell, RZA, BBNG) - he'll stand on his own at some point, but it's going to take more than a few years.
Earth, Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version (1993) C+
Hugely influential on Sunn O))), this is an hour plus of feedback, reverb, a few chords ... and a deadly sense of monotony. I can't pretend I find much value in the aesthetic: it's glorified rumbling.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (2013) C
A few of the singles off their debut were catchy ("Home," "40 Day Dream") and the closest this gets to that is (the cleverly titled) "Let's Get High," the rest being a hippie commune rendition of "Kumbaya" when it's not a hippie commune variation on Sonny & Cher. Peace and love are good, war is bad, life is hard, sure ... now stop tiptoeing through the tulips in your bare feet and read a book. Or ten.
Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (2013) C
At what age should a world-famous multimillionaire stop telling people to fuck off and suck his dick? Or stop pretending to be at war with the world? Or stop sampling songs from the late 60's? And what's wrong with Brian Baldinger, Em?
Factory Floor, Factory Floor (2013) D
I've heard more complex arrangements done with Mario Paint Composer and the broad they convinced to drool out the 'lyrics' needs to cool it on the benzos.
Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time (2013) B+
The daunting cover art of Ferreira, who has already been arrested for drug possession, naked and crying in a shower (and photographed by French provocateur Gaspar Noé!), suggests (on the surface) it's a kooky, edgy album by a hot mess. Ferreira may be a train wreck (as a result of partying a bit too hard), but this is actually a glammed-up pop album closer in spirit to Katy Perry than Lydia Lunch ... and all the better for it. There are many solid tracks on here, starting with the love-struck "Boys"; the passive-aggressive "I Blame Myself" is another highlight. I could do without a few numbers ("Nobody Asked Me (If I Was Okay)," the title song), but much of it is actually entertaining.
FIDLAR, FIDLAR (2013) B-
Amusing, hardly serious sk8r boi odes to weed, booze and of course skateboarding that saves its best for the last two tracks, a spirited retooling of Jackson Browne's "Cocaine" and following that up with "Cheap Cocaine," an ode to homelessness. And booze. You take Sally, I'll take Sue ... but don't smoke two packs a day. Ask Mac DeMarco about that....
Fire! Orchestra, Exit! (2013) D-
Part one foolishly tries to combine John Zorn's Naked City and Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman and a lot of yelling; part two is atrocious yodeling and yelping. The general lack of focus doesn't make for great jazz, it makes for a Mess! Leave! as quickly as possible.
The Flaming Lips, The Terror (2013) D+
Comes across as this drifting rumble with producer Fridmann sliding his elbows all along the console and Coyne's falsetto peeking through the gauze. It should have been called "The Prosaic," but I guess they are trying to sell records....
Foals, Holy Fire (2013) C
There's always been something monochromatic about Foals' tracks that kind of lull me to a state of indifference: I feel like they could be singing about the passing of a relative on one song and on another about the greatest memory of their lives on another and both tracks will come across the same aside from the content of the (blasé) lyrics.
Four Tet, 0181 (2013) B-
Coined a "compilation album," this single (and slight) 38 minute mix by Mr. Hebden is basically a graceful DJ set. Whether or not he's Burial remains a joke.
Foxygen, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic (2013) A-
Here's to '70s classic rock revival ... from two guys who didn't even squirt out of their mothers in that decade. Purists might want to string these twenty-somethings up as poseurs, but I'll grant they have not only a solid knowledge of their predecessors, but are able to take the affectations of the Kinks, the Stones and so forth and put their own semi-modern spin on the style. It's bluesy, it's believable, and that title is so awesomely tongue-in-cheek.
Fuck Buttons, Slow Focus (2013) C
Aside from "The Red Wing," this doesn't have the lasting power of the best moments of "Tarot Sport," and shows the duo, in essence, going back over familiar ground. You don't have to jump into the ocean from the top of a steamliner, but you should get your tootsies out of the kiddie pool.
Ghostface Killah, Twelve Reasons To Die: The Brown Tape (2013) B-
This is the only version of Ghostface's new album I listened to - it was produced by Apollo Brown - and while I'm not in a hurry to hunt down the "original," I can just say this: he's consistent, his storytelling capabilities are colorful and captivating, he knows when to hit the road.
Goldfrapp, Tales of Us (2013) B
Admittedly unexpected departure for Alison and Will, who take off the glam boots and light a few candles for this somber (though a bit too consistent) ten track effort. I always knew she had an amazing voice, I just didn't think she would be willing to mellow out to this degree - it's a relaxing (if lyrically unsettling) record.
The Haxan Cloak, Excavation (2013) D
Who knew the process of excavating can only produce auditory tedium? Certainly seems like an involved process with such a minimal return. What about, instead of going on a massive dig, one scoops some dirt out and plants a tree? That would be a more fulfilling enterprise, if you ask me.
Tim Hecker, Virgins (2012) C
Same basic criticism of "Ravedeath, 1972" applies here, sadly, as Hecker sounds like he's fumbling around with his endless stacks of sound pieces playing simultaneously - though the cacophony is intermittently broken up by a lovely piece, the lovely parts are quickly consumed by what I can only describe as a massive orchestra tuning their instruments. When the actual concert begins I'll be listening.
Keaton Henson, Birthdays (2013) C+
A step down from his debut, "Dear...," because it appears now that everything Henson had to offer thematically on that release is revisited here, and even turning up the volume on "Don't Swim" and "Kronos" (Henson Goes Electric!) does little to change the half-earnest, half-noxious self-depreciating mood. He seems like a guy that couldn't bring himself to smile at a cartoon of a cat and mouse hitting each other in the face with flatware.
Holly Herndon, Movement (2012) D+
Creaky and garbled and (at times) irritating, this is Herndon trying to imitate the likes of Fennesz and Matmos, except producing a loosely connected series of sound effects.
Julia Holter, Loud City Song (2013) B
Delicate (if a bit too much so) release from Holter, whose previous two albums have inexplicably slipped by me (can't listen to everything, I'm afraid). Her voice is lovely, and her songs are these subtle, fragile little things, filled with nuance.
Jon Hopkins, Immunity (2013) B
The equivalent of a nutritious snack - electronica edition - that is tasty, accessible and goes down easily. It's light and balanced and Hopkins is clearly skilled - "We Disappear" is a solid opener and "Open Eye Signal" a very good follow-up.
How to Destroy Angels, Welcome Oblivion (2013) C-
As much as I admire Reznor as an outspoken pain in the record industry's side and a successful musician who's done some fine soundtrack work, this little project of his is a bit too muddled and familiar. I don't legitimately feel he's ever topped the triumph of "The Downward Spiral" decades ago (which I recall listening to on cassette tape so much I broke the original), but slow and steady may win the race. This is certainly no career highlight, but a minor hazy release.
Iceage, You're Nothing (2013) C-
Here's a point of comparison: while Foxygen take classic '70s rock and add their own twist to it, these Danes think that just trying to sound like Joe Strummer barking over two-chord wonders is enough, and repeating what they were going for on their first LP ("New Brigade") is like exhuming the same corpse.
Islands, Ski Mask (2013) C
What a Frankensteinesque album: goes Coldplay-turned-tropical for "Wave Forms," uses lame-brain lines like "when it was dark / I was a question mark," invokes They Might Be Giants on "Nil," summons Vampire Weekend for "Hushed Tones." And that's just half the album.
Jay-Z, Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013) C+
Unh. Jay-Z and Kanye produced a triumph (in my view) with "Watch the Throne," but both of them releasing their own individual albums this year has each of them taking a step down from greatness. This record has Jay-Z glorifying himself (without Kanye's batshit proclamations and progressive production), talking about how rich he is, how he loves his haters as much as he loves his money and generally how wonderful he is. So much for internal tension or distress. You got it all, man. Unh.
The Knife, Shaking the Habitual (2013) D-
Begins well enough with "A Tooth for an Eye" and "Full of Fire" but eventually turns into twenty minutes of tiresome rumbling and static; the remaining tracks are bloated ("Raging Lung," "Networking" the industrial throw-back "Stay Out Here") and/or aggravating to listen to ("Fracking Fluid Injection" sounds like a car being worked on by a humming mechanic). This is an album of laughable hubris.
K-X-P, II (2013) B-
Krautrock by way of ... Finland? Sure, absolutely, why not, McLuhan, the global village, etc. And while the lyrical content is clearly not the point, even a perpetually grouchy me can cheer along with the constantly-repeated chorus of "Melody" ("Mel-oh-dee! Mel-oh-die!"). Don't think, it'll ruin it.
Jamie Lidell, Jamie Lidell (2013) F
A forty-year-old British guy living in Nashville thinks he's Prince. He is not Prince. This album is insufferable and Prince should boot him into Lake Minnetonka (among the most annoying moments: "You makin' me craz-ayyyy!" on "You Naked").
Lorde, Pure Heroine (2013) C
Technically impressive if you think about how this was made by a (then) 16-year-old Kiwi - basically a junior in high school here in the United States (!) - but more or less disappointing as an attempt to capitalize on the success of Lana Del Rey, coming across as a drowsy, largely superficial electronic pop record full of Tumblr-esque (read: vapid) "sadness." The blasé "Royals" is the track that everyone started falling for (in my dreams I'm driving a Ferrari and running over people), but the real gem in here is the magnificently nocturnal "Ribs" ... granted one can overlook the line about how scary it is getting old (you got years ahead of you, doll).
Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle (2013) B-
She has a soothing voice, but could have been a bit more judicial with regards to what tracks should be on here: they're a bit too homogenous to sustain the (extended) running time. "Take the Night Off" is one of the best songs she's ever recorded and a nice opening number.
MGMT, MGMT (2013) C-
I liked their debut and found half of "Congratulations" to be pretty good, but now they're making what sound like awful children's songs with dark lyrics ("Plenty of Girls in the Sea," "Your Life Is a Lie," "Alien Days") and running them through filters. They're a band that became popular, got scared of being popular (apparently) and are now trying to prove they have an artistic backbone. Trouble is, they're basically invertebrates who listened to a lot of pop records.
M.I.A., Matangi (2013) C
Isn't Ms. Maya a bit young to be rehashing and remixing herself? I have the same problems with this that I've had with her past three albums - no point in repeating them - and I still feel like this tiny woman is shouting her soapbox rants and terrible wordplay in my ears. The already-released "Bad Girls" is a good track - and clearly the best moment on this - and I like her take on the "YOLO" fad from Drake years ago (it cannot be said enough times how idiotic that song was).
Miguel, Kaleidoscope Dream (2012) B
I don't think he's the second coming of R&B, but you can't in good conscience say this isn't a downright solid album, beginning with two very good tracks ("Adore" and the even better "Don't Look Back") and maintaining a solid trot through the rest. It helps that he's a good songwriter ... with the exception of the eyeball-rolling "Pussy Is Mine" (inserting sounds of laughter and a colleague talking doesn't make it any less ridiculous in its direct-ness).
Mogwai, Les Revenants (2013) C
Those trusty Scots named after a critter from a Joe Dante movie get tapped to record the soundtrack to a French TV show (without having seen the show), and produce this, a drab 14-track effort devoid of all that makes Mogwai special (where's the tension?). While I haven't seen "Les Revenants," I've read it's a French "Twin Peaks," and we all know how unforgettable Angelo Badalamenti's score for that was....
My Bloody Valentine, MBV (2013) B-
Well at least they haven't completely lost it: this long, long, long awaited release by Shields & Co. has the same reverb-y wall of sound, barely discernible lyrics and ethereal feel as their masterpiece "Loveless." Here's a nagging concern: shouldn't they have changed up their technique even ... slightly? It's still nice and cosmic, but taking a fifth of a century to make something new shouldn't mean it should sound like it was released in, oh, 1993? Times do change, Kev.
The National, Trouble Will Find Me (2013) C+
I've had issues with their past three albums for being self-consciously downbeat - and therefore "serious music" - and I'm not really going to accept it and they're never going to change, so I better just start tolerating it: Berninger is going to keep with his grumbling baritone while his bandmates make sure his glib proclamations remain at the forefront.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away (2013) B
I know that Cave, now in his mid-fifties, doesn't have to go gonzo like he did in the old Birthday Party days, so what he's done is take a Wizened Sage approach with this record, and I think it works for him and his voice and literary mind. It's a little sparse at nine songs (especially since "We Real Cool" and "Finishing Jubilee Street" aren't Cave in top-form), but it's nice that he's still got a charmingly dry (and sometimes filthy) sense of humor ... come on, a blues song about the Large Hadron Collider and Hannah Montana?
No Age, An Object (2013) C-
So they took a technique that worked - their own version of arty-experimental punk - and decided to ditch that in favor of this rote two-chord approach with Ramones-esque proclamations ("I won't be your / generator" ... okay, don't). So basically, they dumbed themselves down on purpose ... out of laziness perhaps? I object.
Oneohtrix Point Never, R Plus Seven (2013) D+
Mr. Lopatin continues his streak of building tracks out of sound fragments that don't usually flow together - it's not a smooth-running album, it's a collection of (sometimes very disparate) sound effects aligned next to each other.
Phoenix, Bankrupt! (2013) D+
Artistically? Possibly. Without memorable singles they're generic pop - "Bourgeois" is no where near as entertaining as, say, "Napoleon Says" or "1901" or even "Lisztomania." Without hooks they have little to offer.
Pissed Jeans, Honeys (2013) B-
Not their best work to date (that would be "King of Jeans"), but it's hard not to smile at the dry humor (what one can make of it) from these A-town natives. The music itself is of the standard hardcore variety - nothing landmark, just that classic grinding and belching.
P.O.S., We Don't Even Live Here (2012) B-
Though he's shown himself to be one of the most thoughtful (sentimental, even) rappers working, this album - while still a worthwhile listen for fans - doesn't have the cerebral impact of his two previous LPs, "Audition" and "Never Better" - the electronica influence is a bit misplaced (and distracting), and he relies too heavily on his innate ability to rant (about materialism, about bettering one's own life) to propel the record forward.
Queens of the Stone Age, Like Clockwork (2013) C
Nothing particularly wrong with paying homage to 70's rock, but can you at least do it like the Foxygen dudes and not like a bunch of guys who have to worry about their children's bedtimes and need to buy more flannel at L.L. Bean? A little spunk and pizzazz. Spunk and pizzazz. It's all I ask for ... I know you know the notes.
Lou Reed, Metal Machine Music (1975) B+
Had I listened to this over 35 years ago when it first came out (before I was born) I would probably have either dismissed it as nonsense or been amused by it (possibly even a mixture of both sensations) - now, after realizing how this influenced the likes of Merzbow and so many other experimental/noise artists, it's easy to say it was quite a groundbreaking work. Was ever-nasty Reed taking the piss? Who knows. Possibly. Lester Bangs loved it for its confrontational abrasiveness, and I can say he has a point.
Secret Colours, Peach (2013) F
At the opposite end of the good music coming out of this psych rock revival of late are these clods from Chicago (ignore the spelling of the band name) who look for the most obvious words to rhyme together and the most obvious licks to crank out on their guitars. Points are also taken off for associating one of my favorite fruits with this ... mushiness.
Sigur Rós, Kveikur (2013) B-
Minor return to form for the Icelandic lads, who have stopped trying to make their audience crawl into pits of despair and instead making what, for them, is basically downright cheery, upbeat orchestral rock (what they call "aggressive" wouldn't match everyone's definition of the term, but I think they mean comparatively speaking). This change-in-tone is a pleasant (if, again, not entirely radical) alteration of their style, although if you ask me they brush a little too close to Muse in spots ("Ísjaki"). Hey, England isn't that far away from Reykjavík....
Starfucker, Miracle Mile (2013) C-
Limp indie ditties that are heavy on the falsetto - there's nothing particularly hideous about any of the fifteen tracks on here, but there's nothing particularly distinguishable to make them a standout in their genre (unlike the Klaxons' Go-to-Ten Dance Riot, they seem afraid to Defy Boundaries). Settling for average is a crime.
Colin Stetson, New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light (2013) D
"Okay, hear this part where it sounds like I'm making howling noises in a cave? Well, get this: I can make those sounds louder and softer when I turn this knob. Neat, right?"
The Strokes, Comedown Machine (2013) C+
Some bands have long careers inside them - some don't. Some have one album in them. Some have one truly great song. I get the sense The Strokes offered everything they had in them on their first two (justifiably acclaimed) LPs, and even the slight tweaks and some subtle manipulations of the garage rock approach amount to too-little, too-late. It's admittedly a minor improvement over the terrible "Angles" (thanks to nice bits like "50/50" and "Slow Animals") but far from a return to form. But that was the aughts, and that was beer-soaked hair, and the band members were on the prowl with a scowl.
Tame Impala, Lonerism (2012) B
Psych rock done with a nod to the past and a smidge of creativity; it trails off near the end but the strengths of the first half ("Be Above It," "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards") do enough to compensate. They're from Perth. They hate crowds. They like reading. They keep it fun without overdoing it; there's a humility to the music.
Thee Oh Sees, Floating Coffin (2013) D+
I shouldn't have to listen to an album and think, with every new track, "Is this a new band or did the same band just change genres?" Like one song, guess what? The next one will be different: maybe a little better, maybe worse.
These New Puritans, Field of Reeds (2013) D+
Poorly assembled orchestral piece from a band that simply feels it's too good to worry about arrangement and content: it's a drifting, wavering mess. Art rock shouldn't necessarily mean you can tack together random musical concepts, accompany it with drunken slurring and assume it achieves resonance. "V (Island Song)" starts off on the right track for the first half of the song, then doesn't know when to quit.
This Routine Is Hell, Howl (2013) B+
Relentless hardcore punk does all the basics right, down to the limited running time (twenty minutes of ferocity) and punishing vocals ("God is dead / we're alone"). Don't listen to it while driving because you might turn the highway into a crash derby; don't listen to it while jogging or you may elbow a dog in the jaw.
Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience (2013) C-
This guy has about as much soul as a garden gnome (that can dance), so I'm not hearing what in this 12-track puff pastry earned him so many accolades - even the attempted 'sexual innuendo' of "Strawberry Bubblegum" ("... I'll be your blueberry lollipop") is tacky (even as a 'joke') and certainly safe enough to be played on a kid's show. Also questionable: the Latin "flavor" of "Let the Groove Get In" ... and the "You are / you are / the love / of my life" chant in "Mirrors" sounds less like a sincere ode to his "wife" (quotation marks needed) than JT imitating an Oompa-Loompa.
Tokyo Sex Destruction, Sagittarius (2013) C-
They still don't sound like they have much to do with fornication, Japan or oblivion, they sound like a band that got a lot of inspiration from INXS and sometimes enjoy cranking out flat '70s rock rehashes. It isn't a horror show to endure, but I kept waiting for some part of the record to surprise me: two listens and I was surprise-free ("I don't wanna lose / I just wanna cry").
Toro y Moi, Anything in Return (2013) C-
Few musicians manage to disappoint me as much as Mr. Bundick, because I fully know that he's capable of turning out something that's more than a poor man's dance/R&B record. I can hear glimpses of excellence in tracks like "Cola" and "Rose Quartz" but then he follows them up with less-than-remarkable songs. I'm interested to see if in three or more albums he can solidify his own voice ... and work on the lyrics so they doesn't sound like an after-thought to the synthesizers.
Tyler, the Creator, Wolf (2013) B
Equal-opportunity offender Tyler - who goes after every race, sexual orientation and type of person imaginable (and still a bit too liberal with the pejoratives) - also takes a fair share of shots at himself: it's rap-as-counseling/anger management session. He's an envelope-pushing joker (he basically offered to screw both Tegan and Sara) and the beats are an improvement over "Goblin" - I just hope some kind of maturity sets in at some point.
Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City (2013) B-
Not bad (but nothing remarkable) third release from those prep school boys who are smart enough to keep things on an fairly steady course with but a few glaring, almost unlistenable hiccups (the two worst: recruiting Alvin and the Chipmunks for "Ya Hey" and channeling George Michael for "Diane Young"). Their debut LP remains their best work (to me).
Kurt Vile, Wakin on a Pretty Daze (2013) C-
I don't know that Vile's monochromatic delivery and relatively standard melodies can sustain the track lengths he's self-indulgently allowed for himself - the message can certainly be conveyed in a more efficient manner. Even on a shorter number, like "Never Run Away," he's asking ... for someone to not run away, but he's not convincing ... which may be the point. He shrugs, I shrug.
Violetshaped, Violetshaped (2013) D+
Creaky, monochromatic beats more likely to instill a sense of ennui than elation. Autechre did this thing better (and more ingeniously) back in the 90's.
The Virgins, Strike Gently (2013) C-
The snap and snark of their first EP and LP (released five years ago) has given way to this, which goes from sounding like a Dire Straits cover band to a lackluster Strokes imitation. That they took so much time to release it suggests some kind of artistic stagnation which is more than evident after I listened to the entire thing twice.
Volor Flex, Unlit (2013) F
Being "inspired" by an artist is one thing, "wholesale ripping off" is another - in this case, Romania's Volor Flex all but stole Burial's equipment and tried using the same exact beats and effects, only without Burial's ever-so apparent gifts for ambience and structure.
Washed Out, Paracosm (2013) C+
I wasn't entirely blown away by Mr. Greene's debut LP and I don't see much of an improvement here - in fact, despite his attempt to move his sound forward it just sounds like a few mouse clicks of difference from "Within and Without." The intent is poignancy but the only time I felt stirred is when the central air conditioning kicked on in the house.
Wavves, Afraid of Heights (2013) C-
Can we please shake off the hype dust and realize that they're a low-fi, "indiefied" Blink-182?
Kanye West, Yeezus (2013) B-
Brash, irritating and prone to (sarcastically...?) comparing himself to a deity, West is a polarizing figure, and I have to admit that after several spins through this I still find it to be a perplexing, not entirely-successful release, with Kanye once again opening his own closet door, dragging out the skeletons (... along with those Balmain biker pants) and being confrontational and egomaniacal ("I'm In It" is pretty tasteless). "Bound 2" is the closest thing to a "single" on here ... while the rest seems to be a strange, contradictory schizo-mess.
Woodkid, The Golden Age (2013) C-
The over-the-top campiness of the title track that begins this album is its sole strong point: it doesn't quite get to the glam-theatrical extremity of Antony and the Johnsons, but I'll be damned if it doesn't try to get close. The following tracks are bombastic but fail to stir the heart - he seems to equate programming in pounding drums and an entire string section to power, but making actually moving music is a more intricate process (and try to not think of John Williams when it gets to "Stabat Mater").
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Mosquito (2013) B
I like how the YYYs have evolved over the years - they've never quite gotten back to the level of their earliest EPs or the LP "Fever to Tell" but they've kept going strong, making changes to their sound and keeping Zinner's (overpowering) guitar more in the background. The dance-influence on "It's Blitz!" didn't entirely work but it wasn't a bad album; here they have an African-American choir in the back of "Sacrilege" (lending it a gospel-y feel) and Dr. Octagon show up on "Buried Alive" (for better or worse). The title track is silly and not as powerful as, say, "Machine" from years ago, but Karen's voice is always worth listening to.
Yo La Tengo, Fade (2013) B
One of the great indie groups of all time continues on with this latest release, proving that you can keep going in the business if you can change your sound ever so slightly and keep with the times but without alienating your fan base. They're fully capable of raising hell, but this is a peaceful, warm album, punctuated in parts with other bits of instrumentation (horns, strings). May they play forever ... even from their wheelchairs if need be.
Youth Lagoon, Wondrous Bughouse (2013) B
Not bad for a sophomore album from Mr. Powers, whose soaring dream-world pop covers up whatever message he's trying to convey (from what I can tell, much of this centers around dying) - though his first release has stronger singles ("Afternoon," "Seventeen"), this is (arguably) the more consistent record. It hurts, he's saying, but we all hurt at some point, and that's a powerful uniting force.
Singles of the Year: !!!: "Even When the Water's Cold," And So I Watch You From Afar: "Young Brave Minds," Autre Ne Veut: "Play by Play," Danny Brown: "Side A (Old)," Neko Case: "Night Still Comes," Chance the Rapper: "Chain Smoker," Daft Punk (Featuring Pharrell Williams): "Get Lucky," Deerhunter: "T.H.M.," Disclosure: "When a Fire Starts to Burn," Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros: "Let's Get High," Fuck Buttons: "The Red Wing," J-Man (Featuring Lara Wilson): "How I Want Ya," K-X-P: "Melody," Lorde: "Ribs," Laura Marling: "Take the Night Off," The National: "Humiliation," Son Lux: "Easy," Tokyo Sex Destruction: "Sagittarius," Vampire Weekend: "Hannah Hunt," Woodkid: "The Golden Age," Yeah Yeah Yeahs: "Despair"