I’ve revisited the list a few times since 2013 ended. And while my list has changed a bit since the year ended, I must admit that I still haven’t listened to the last Arcade Fire album, or Kanye’s list-topping purported masterpiece, nor to any of Buckethead’s twenty-nine albums. Heck, there are still albums that I’m genuinely interested in that I haven’t gotten around to.
There weren’t ten whole albums I was actually crazy enough about to prattle on at length about, so let’s hit it and quit it with the first few. I did manage to doodle covers for all ten of ‘em, some more successfully than others, so those are here for a vague reference point as well.
10. Arctic Monkeys – “AM”
Last year I finally started getting into these fellas and, while I still think “Riot Van” may be their greatest little song, AM is an enjoyable romp. Special guest: Josh Homme.
9. Quasi – “Mole City”
A couple of tremendous stand-out tracks, a couple of hair-raising noise tracks, this one is still growing on me because there’s just a lot to get through. Hand it to them, though, no two Quasi albums are the same.
8. Telekinesis – “Dormarion”
If Wes Anderson ever used more modern music in his movies, I think Telekinesis would fit right in to his oeuvre.
7. Wavves – “Afraid of Heights”
Rockin’ stuff. Pretty solid.
6. Nine Inch Nails – “Hesitation Marks”
“I am just a copy of a copy of a copy”, he says, but this is one of Trent Reznor’s most experimental NIN records to date (saxophone? backup singers?) and the results are mostly great. “Year Zero” is still tops in my book, but this is a solid album (with some pretty cool guest spots from guitar gods like Adrian Belew and Lindsey Buckingham).
5. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – “II”
“I wish that I could swim and sleep like a shark does”
I had first heard UMO’s self-titled debut just as I was wrapping my 2011 list and, despite not spending much time with it, it earned the final spot there. And where the debut lured me in with its Syd Barrett sensibilities, II retains the general sense of uncharted territory but this time with songs of a relatively more conventional and accessible structure.
The record languishes a bit in the middle with slower numbers, but a track like “The Opposite of Afternoon” really only pales in comparison to the anthemic “One at a Time” that precedes it and the excellent, driving, fuzzed-out rock of the following track, “No Need For a Leader”.
I have a hard time calling up comparisons to songs like these but I can’t help but feel that it would feel at home in a Soderbergh movie.
The other major difference from their debut is that this one was made with a real drummer and live bassist and the eponymous orchestra sounds much the better for it. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the excellent guitar work on this record. It’s inventive, full of hooks, and could carry the record all on its own.
4. Neko Case – “The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You”
“6 o’clock tomorrow, a strange voice says to me
‘I do believe we have your fire, lady.
You can pick it up if you come down with ID'”
Neko Case may eschew the public’s general distaste for incredibly long album titles, but “TWTGTHIFTHIFTMILY” is a strong album. While not as immediately accessible as its predecessor (“Middle Cyclone”), I venture that it is a lot deeper and varied both musically and emotionally.
If you’re familiar with Neko’s work then you have a pretty good idea of what to expect here, whether you call indie rock with a country bent or vice versa, it’s damned good music. The album feels both more personal in its subject matter and like it takes more risks than prior efforts musically. One track that exhibits both of these qualities succinctly is the above-quoted “Where Did I Leave That Fire?”. It starts out with a light vocal melody over sparse telemetric sounds, a mood that comprises the bulk of the song, which mirrors the sense of loss and longing that pervades the lyrics. When the song picks up, with our narrator postulating where their fire might be found, it almost swells to a rock and roll song before ending abruptly with a ringing chorus; the effect is haunting and beautiful.
The cast of musicians offers up several of the stalwarts who have appeared on other Case albums, such as Kelly Hogan, AC Newman, and M. Ward. Howe Gelb and Eric Bachmann also have turns on a couple of the bonus tracks, and those songs intrigue me for different reasons. “Madonna of the Wasps”, a Robyn Hitchcock cover recorded with Gelb and Ward is a fantastic cover for them all, stylistically. It’s a track worth seeking out. A revisiting of Case’s own “Magpie to the Morning” follows, which is curious both because of its recency and because the version of it that appears on “Middle Cyclone” is a close to perfect as that song could be in my mind, so this one, while good, pales ever so slightly in comparison (partly due to unexpected lyric changes). Other than that track and “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”— which I find to be an interesting experiment but generally not re-listenable— the album as a whole is a great piece of art.
3. QOTSA – …Like Clockwork
“I got bruises and hickies, stitches and scars
Got my own theme music, plays wherever I are”
Six years passed between “Era Vulgaris” and the release of “…Like Clockwork”, as QoTSA appears to be following the same geometric sequence of years between releases that the Beastie Boys employed after “Ill Communication”. I was a while in coming around to QoTSA, being really only familiar with their songs through “Guitar Hero”, but when I caught their show at the Roseland during the tour for “Era Vulgaris”, I immediately got it. I have become of fan of Queens and other Homme projects since, notably including 2009’s “Them Crooked Vultures”, but it was a long wait for a proper new album.
Anticipation was high, and the release was preceded with the single “My God Is The Sun”, a song which did a lot of good in reassuring the world that, despite the hiatus, this wasn’t going to suck.
For an ostensible rocker, though, the album starts out slow. The opening track leads off with nearly twenty seconds of the soft sounds of breaking glass before heading into a plodding, churning rhythm, and holds at that tempo for the rest of the five minute song. It seems like a strange choice in sequencing, but QoTSA was not a band that was ever hedged in by convention.
There are several cameos on this album, including Trent Reznor, Alex Turner (of the Arctic Monkeys), and Elton John, but this time out, unlike previous QOTSA albums, it’s clearly a Homme-driven affair. There are a lot of great songs on this dense little album, but the standout track in my mind is the relentless swagger of “Smooth Sailing”.
2. Clutch – Earth Rocker
“One thousand Les Pauls smolder in a field
What measure of madness fastens their hearts?”
I’ve long has a soft spot in my heart for Clutch, even if they seem to be the sort of band where every other album confounds me. Since their previous outing, “Strange Cousins from the West”, never really got its claws in me, I suppose they were due. And “Earth Rocker” is aptly titled; the rock starts right about twenty-four seconds into the album, not relenting until track six, the long slower, most introspective song in the set.
Clutch, the band, is a bit of a strange beast. They’ve been around and kicking ass since 1990 and still, it seems that not too many people have heard of them. Almost to a person, however, the people I have met who like them at all are devout fans; there is rarely a middle ground. Sonically, they also occupy a bit of a strange space. Their records are nearly always found in the “metal” section but their sound is less like Motörhead or Pantera than QoTSA or The Sword (bands that you usually find in the “rock” section).
Lyrically, the material is much more cerebral than, well, most rock and roll out there. Like many of the best songs in their catalog, the album is rife with a lot of interesting imagery and references: Doctor Who; Queen Isabella’s conquest of the new world (as inspired by Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain”); one of the first rock n’ roll records (“Rocket 88″); cyborgs, armies of guitars, labor strikes; and other unusual song fare.
Sonically, the album is very tight and focused, the songs catchy and well-formed, and, like “Electric Worry”, it’s an album I will doubtless be rocking to for years to come.
1. Parquet Courts – “Light Up Gold”
“I drank right from your tears of plenty and
I exchanged all the gifts you sent me.
Dreary beats over fast-rapped verses
Leaked through windows in hatchback hearses”
Somehow, in the wake of a swift followup maxi-single and a great little EP that followed this record’s release, I nearly forgot that it came out in 2013. “Borrowed Time”, the most obvious lead-off single candidate, was the first song that I heard (via XM), and although the song didn’t quite light my hair on fire, I remembered the name. It was the second song that I heard, the more unusual “Stoned and Starving”, that made me really take notice.
I’ve listened to a lot of music based on the fact that someone, somewhere, put forth the supposition that it sounds like Pavement but, honestly, nothing has lived up to that level of hype. Although I hadn’t heard of them described that way before I heard the record, Parquet Courts comes by the comparison more honestly than most. If nothing else, it’s a certain self-assured slacker aesthetic that informs the whole affair that garners the parallel. They aren’t trying to sound like Pavement, there is a just a certain je ne sais quois to it. But when a former band’s lead singer makes the comparison himself (whether or not he’s being glib), it’s probably well-earned:
“I was in this hamburger place the other day in Portland – they were playing the Parquet Courts record and I thought it was Pavement.” – Stephen Malkmus (via Rolling Stone)
It’s fun rock and roll, but also rewarding music without art-rock or college radio pretension. It evokes The Soft Pack (née The Muslims) but with more anarchy in the mix as well as the occasional “White Light/White Heat” foray into nigh-unbearable feedback drones. It’s a record that doesn’t take itself too seriously and still manages to make you think.
There are a couple of tracks on the record that still confound me but it is otherwise strong from start to finish, and the sequencing on the first side in particular is tightly wound. It may be a little dense at first blush but it’s well worth the repeat visits. Got the record, saw the band, loved the follow-ups, but I was still genuinely surprised to see them a a few weeks ago on Seth Meyers’ late night show. Their follow up, Sunbathing Animal, came out last week and, uh, I’m listening to that sucker right now. So good. Expect to see it high on this list for 2014.
Add comment June 14th, 2014