2013’s Best Albums: We Can’t Stop

While wearing my daytime business-editor hat, I noticed that the central bank in the U.S. is starting to wean the global economy off the stimulus teat that’s been keeping us alive since the crisis. Nobody seemed much surprised, which is what these money mandarins are ostensibly paid for – to see what’s coming around the curve.

Music critics are, by definition, no good at seeing the future; we’re lucky if we’re up to speed on  the present, at least in terms of who’s making good music now – whether they seize the zeitgeist shouldn’t really be our issue, if we’re doing our jobs. That’s what we’re paid for (or not, as the case may increasingly be).

I don’t know what’s coming around the curve in music, but I do know that the last few years of my own taste has been defined in terms of opposition to things I don’t like. Queens Of The Stone Age and Nine Inch Nails are heavy, but not screaming or grunting unintelligibly, or incorporating EDM farts and grunts in the hopes of making someone’s E-themed Spotify playlist. (Korn should have called their album ‘Pop a molly, Grandad’s sweatin.’) A$AP Rocky, Pusha T and Jay-Z were doubling down on wordplay while Kanye was turning into Patrick Bateman, to the bewilderment of even his most ardent fans. Justin Timberlake and AlunaGeorge were looking back to the 70s and the 90s respectively (AG’s “This Is How We Do It” cover was a dead giveaway, not that we needed one), trying to find a love connection when The Weeknd and Drake were driving the R&B bus too fast, coked out of their skulls and threatening to crash the thing because what’s the point of life, really? Even My Bloody Valentine were reclaiming psychedelia for rock bands with guitars, while their bastard progeny were doing their iciest thousand mile stare from behind banks of keyboards and drum machines.

When the financial crisis ended, politics around the world went through convulsions – a wave of throw-the-bums-out sentiment found everyone from the Tea Party to Rob Ford seizing the reins, as though the entire world was seized by a fit of Howard Beale-esque pique. In terms of aesthetics, I have gone through a similar upheaval; I woke up one day and realized I didn’t like most of the contemporary hip-hop out there, but that I wasn’t ready to stop looking for reasons to believe – history and common sense tells us that if you think everything is crap, the problem is you. That’s how I ended up writing about the things this blog focuses on; the energy behind hip-hop seemed to have migrated elsewhere., and I wanted to find it.

But the old favourites have been creeping back in. Number one on this list is Queens Of The Stone Age, a band that is so far outside the remit of this blog that I might as well have turned it into RollingStone.com. Ditto Camera Obscura, a band whose comfort-food nature I’ve been so uncomfortable with that I’ve never dared put their albums as high on my year-end list as I should, if I was being honest with myself. Am I turning back into the 17-year-old who listened to Nirvana and Soundgarden almost exclusively? Should I attempt to grow a mullet? Have the last 15 years of exploration been a waste of time, money and effort that I could have been using to learn Spanish or grow my own sugar beets?

Actually, the Jay-Z album’s high placement is the perfect distillation of the question: Did I put it there not because Jay-Z’s album was more adventurous, more vibrant and alive than, say, Drake’s, but because I already know that I like what Jay-Z’s music generally sounds like? I can’t answer that question – I’m biased. But the signs point to yes, considering that I didn’t even listen to Drake’s album for several months after it came out. I really, really didn’t want to, and Drake is arguably someone who is still figuring out what he’s about in a more profound and searching way than Jay-Z.

On the other hand, I’m not sure I buy that. Drake is trying to figure out why he’s such a jerk to girls, while only understanding in the most abstract sense that he is, in fact, being a jerk to them – his momma raised him well enough to recognize bad behaviour, but he doesn’t feel much in the way of empathy for the people he’s being bad to. Jay-Z, on the other hand, keeps his introspection hiding in plain sight. Listening to Magna Carta Holy Grail, you might think it was yet another victory lap, a cheery wave from the deck of a yacht. But it’s no passing fancy that Jay compares himself repeatedly to Jean-Michel Basquiat, a street kid turned graffiti artist turned mainstream darling. A misfit given all the money and fame he could dream of, and who ultimately couldn’t handle it. Jay can, but the undercurrent of fear and doubt is as easy to scan as the bravado on the surface.

Jay is just as self-obsessed, but he’s much more well rounded than Drake, and at this stage of my life, I find it hard to identify with artists who are only just starting to discover themselves – or in the case of Eminem, who probably never will know themselves in any real way. It can’t be a coincidence how many of the artists on my list are rebounding, either from life-threatening injury (QOTSA) or self-imposed retirement (Jay, MBV, Nine Inch Nails, Fall Out Boy, Justin Timberlake, Mazzy Star).

Wading into the new music that’s lighting up Pitchfork or the Twittersphere feels a bit like interval training in fitness, where you alternate periods of high and low intensity: every time one of the hard bits is over, you think there’s no way you can do it again, but after not very long at all your fatigue melts away and you reluctantly jump back in. Scrolling down the list of what’s hot in various cultural cubbyholes – Arcade Fire, Miley Cyrus, Disclosure – the temptation to misanthropically toss it all out with the bathwater is immense, but I always amaze myself by finding something worthwhile that isn’t just playing to my long-nurtured cultural biases. The all-surface-yet-utterly-fresh-and-compelling raps of A$AP Rocky, CFCF’s salvaging of Tangerine Dream et al but leaving out the pomposity, Danny Brown’s raggedy genius and DJ Rashad’s economical sampledelia give me hope that pop music isn’t just feeding endlessly off its own entrails – or that I am.

Miley’s admittedly-pretty-rad lead single puts it best, despite the painful attempt at patois: “We run things, things don’t run we.”  There are mixes to make and records to slag. I found 50 records to love (and I mean love, not just tolerate) this year alone for chrissakes! So I’ll keep throwing myself back into that octagon. When I can’t find anything to like in the next trend (Selfie-core?), take away my Twitter handle. Right now, we can’t stop.

A-void.ca’s Top 50 albums of 2013

  1. Queens Of The Stone Age – …like Clockwork (Matador)
  2. **A$AP Rocky – Long Live A$AP (Columbia)
  3. **Jay-Z – Magna Carta Holy Grail (Roc Nation/Universal)
  4. Camera Obscura – Desire Lines (4AD)
  5. *CFCF – Outside (Paper Bag)
  6. **Jeremiah Jae and Oliver the 2nd – RawHyde (self-released)
  7. *KEN Mode – Entrench (Season of Mist)
  8. Syclops – A Blink Of A Eye (Running Back)
  9. My Bloody Valentine – MBV (self released)
  10. Deerhunter – Monomania (4AD)
  11. Danny Brown – Old (Fools Gold)
  12. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name (GOOD Music/Def Jam)
  13. Omar Souleyman – Wenu Wenu (Ribbon Music)
  14. **Justin Timberlake – 20/20 Experience (RCA/Sony)
  15. DJ Rashad – Double Cup (Hyperdub)
  16. **Bitchin Bajas – Krausened (Permanent)
  17. Ducktails – The Flower Lane / Wish Hotel EP (Domino)
  18. *Teenanger – Singles Don’t $ell (Telephone Explosion)
  19. AlunaGeorge – Body Music (Island/Universal)
  20. Ras G – Back On The Planet (Brainfeeder)
  21. Pissed Jeans – Honeys (Sub Pop)
  22. Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks (Columbia/Sony)
  23. Fall Out Boy – Save Rock and Roll (Def Jam/Universal)
  24. Pop 1280 – Imps of Perversion (Sacred Bones)
  25. **VA: Night Slugs Allstars Volume 2 (Night Slugs)
  26. *Mathew Jonson – Her Blurry Pictures (Crosstown Rebels/K7)
  27. Human Eye – 4: Into Unknown (In The Red)
  28. Washed Out – Paracosm (Sub Pop)
  29. *A Tribe Called Red – Nation II Nation (Tribal Rhythms)
  30. Cave – Threace (Drag City)
  31. Bassekou Koutate – Jama Ko (Cumbancha)
  32. Earl Sweatshirt – Doris (Tan Cressida/Columbia)
  33. Mazzy Star – Seasons Of Your Day (Rhymes Of An Hour)
  34. *Rhye – Woman (Polydor)
  35. *Kobo Town – Jumbie In The Jukebox (Cumbancha)
  36. VA: Livity Sound (Livity Sound)
  37. Phoenix – Bankrupt (Cherrytree/Universal)
  38. Atoms For Peace – Amok (XL)
  39. Gardland – Syndrome Syndrome (RVNG Intl)
  40. Neon Neon – Praxis Makes Perfect (Lex)
  41. Autechre – Exai (Warp)
  42. Black Sabbath – 13 (Universal)
  43. Ashley Monroe – Like A Rose (Warner)
  44. Jonas Reinhardt – Mask Of The Maker (Not Not Fun)
  45. *Illangelo – History of Man (Bromance)
  46. **The-Dream – IV Play (Def Jam/Universal)
  47. Machinedrum – Vapor City (Ninja Tune)
  48. Palma Violets – 180 (Rough Trade)
  49. Zomby – With Love (4AD)
  50. Cyclopean – Cyclopean EP (Spoon)
* Canadian
** From my first-half-year list
1-7  A joy to listen to all the way through
8-16  Miles above average, but with a tiny flaw – at worst, one not-amazing track
17-21  Very strong, but higher-ranking records have something intangible that these don’t
22-31  Memorable, if on a re-listen, slightly uneven
32-38  Either brilliant-yet-uneven, or consistently-great-but-not-brilliant
39-50  Records I flagged as best-of-year and worth going back to, but that I wasn’t quite as enthused about later on

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