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

Four pon de floor roundup: Hot Since 82, Gardland, Hieroglyphic Being

Here are some four pon de floor discs for your consideration. This wraps up album review week; if you missed it, check out the Rappity raps and Beats Etc roundups at your leisure. Next week: a new mix, and maybe some additional surprises…

Continue reading “Four pon de floor roundup: Hot Since 82, Gardland, Hieroglyphic Being”

Beats Etc roundup: Four Tet, Ryan Hemsworth, CFCF, Compound Eye

Welcome to the second post of album roundup week, where I tackle more releases that I want to spill ink about. Beats Etc = electronic music for home listening, really, but that won’t fit in a headline.

Continue reading “Beats Etc roundup: Four Tet, Ryan Hemsworth, CFCF, Compound Eye”

Rappity raps roundup: Pusha T, Danny Brown, Samiyam

Welcome to album roundup week here at a-void, where I trawl through the bins of recent weeks and pull out stuff worth checking. Coming later this week: leftfield dance and also more conventional stuff.

Continue reading “Rappity raps roundup: Pusha T, Danny Brown, Samiyam”

Top 10 Albums of 2013 so far

Since it’s the long weekend and people will be reflecting, as well as pondering the few summer weeks we’ve got left, it’s a good time to proffer my choices for the 10 best albums of the year so far. I blurbed the first five, and offer links and clips for the bottom five, lest this turn into a 3,000 word post, but if you want more opinions (as if there were a shortage!), hit me up on Twitter. On with the show…

1. A$AP Rocky – Long Live A$AP (Columbia)

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The moment when “trap” became a thing was bewildering. Being a person who is not young, I remember the sniffy attitudes critics took toward the instrumental hip-hop coming out on Ninja Tune and Mo Wax back in the day. A lot of that stuff has held up about as well as the rest of what was being played on college radio, which is to say it hasn’t (Pizzicato Five, where are you). Trap is basically the same thing – a deracinated, feeble imitation defined by what it can never be – and quite a lot of it will be forgotten. Strike the alt-hop thing from the history books, though, and we wouldn’t have DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing or Dr. Octagon’s Octagonecologist, two of the most inspired albums of the 90s. And while I’m sure the time is not long before woozy, cotton-swab-muffled ambient sounds and skittering hi hats make me want to put a pillow over my face, Long Live A$AP is the disc that will be my “yeah, but what about” exception to the rule.

What I love about A$AP Rocky, first and foremost, is that his persona is a kind of hyper-aggressive, hyper defensive stance designed to scare you worse than the average thug does (there’s no storytelling or boasts of arms-length mafia style hits, he’s going to kill you and your family – “hit yo children with that Smith an…”) while simultaneously daring you to call him on his arguably effeminate displays (“I be that pretty motherfucker,” one of about a dozen boasts about his looks and his fashion sense; there’s also his drug dependence issues, breaking the dealers-versus-fiends dichotomy). There’s never any question of whether he’s vicious enough, though. Amorality and narcissistic disconnection are his trump cards, the tattoo across his chest saying he’s got nothing to lose. The way he spits is its own kind of threat – other rappers make a point of sounding laid back and magisterial, but Rocky is all about the bark. “My whip white but my top black / and my bitch white but my cock black” is as aggressive as one of Jay’s best put-downs, and delivered with a syncopated flow that makes you linger over every consonant. We can hear it; all of him is consistent, and sharp; an ice pick aimed at your ribcage and a forceful grip on your girl.

As a pure lyricist, he’s no Nas. He’s more of a Pimp C, full of caustic wit and contempt, his diction as much a part of his appeal as his wordplay. Some critics find that leaves his record sounding thin, but personally, I’ll take a great actor over a decent poet any day. And if he is an actor, he’s a damn convincing one. If he ain’t smoother and scarier than Vincent Price, he’s the closest one.

Read my Globe and Mail review here.



2. Jeremiah Jae and Oliver the 2nd – RawHyde (Bandcamp, click here to buy)

Jeremiah-Jae-Oliver-2nd-Rawhyde

Built on dialogue samples from the old wild west TV show, Rawhyde is less of a concept album than a platform for Jeremiah Jae and Oliver 2nd to sling some rock-hard tough guy rhymes. The MCs compliment each other nicely; Oliver’s a nice battle rapper who makes the most of the concept (“I’m Wyatt Earp, twistin wild purp”) while Jeremiah Jae is his spaced-out comrade in arms. Even when mostly just sticking to the script, Jae’s rhymes are evocative:

The street desolate, the heat present
on the hip of the citizen
Police heist on the bank with your women friend
Rank next to Dillinger
Ace on the cylinders

And the dusty boom-bap beats have a casual, Madlib-esque quality that makes this perfect for just riding around town on whatever steed you choose. Extra points for Jae’s CanCon shout-out: “My shit gravy like poutine.”

3. The-Dream – IV Play (Def Jam/Universal)

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“I make love to my girls / I get high with my n******.” That chorus right there is basically The-Dream’s manifesto, and IV Play is evenly split between the kind of stuff you can play when your girl is around, and the kind of stuff you better have headphones for (or jam with your boys in your car). But it works. After briefly veering too far toward The Weeknd / illangelo territory with his 1977 album, IV Play is a bit of an aesthetic retrenchment towards 00s R&B. As an artistic statement, though, IV Play might be his best solo work yet, from the breathless lust of the title track or “Pussy” to the romantic duet with Kelly Rowland “Where Have You Been,” and the unexpected but wholly appreciated blues turn with Gary Clark Jr, “Too Early.”

4. Bitchin Bajas – Krausened (Permanent)

12 Jacket (3mm Spine) [GDOB-30H3-007}

Bitchin Bajas is Cooper Crain of the solid four-piece Cave and Dan Quinlivan of the criminally underrated Mahjongg, and they have a new album, Bitchitronics. I’ve only listened to it once but so far, so excellent; that said, I doubt that drone-oriented LP is  going to supplant this more obviously Krautrock-influenced EP, Krausened. That’s not a slam; I can certainly understand why a band wouldn’t want to remake the same thing, and it’s pretty hard to vary the motorik beat-plus-floaty-keyboard template that Neu pioneered. The amazing thing about Krausened is that Crain and Quinlivan nail the template while still making it their own. Sure, that’s the “Hallogallo” drum pattern the drum machine is playing, but there’s also a cheeky bossa nova rhythm going on, while the synths shimmer kaleidoscopically in the background. And it’s telling that, when the beat comes in or drops out, it’s not as though the track gets any less hypnotic. Maybe Bitchitronics will get on this list after I’ve let it sink in, but for the moment Krausened is Bitchin Bajas’ most intense, deftly controlled and mesmerizing achievement.

5. Justin Timberlake – 20/20 Experience (RCA/Sony)

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I haven’t thoroughly checked out the Robin Thicke disc either, though Blurred Lines is much more chart ready than anything on Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience. I doubt, however, that Thicke’s album is as ambitious as JT’s, or as successful in its aims, whatever the critics are saying. 20/20’s not a jaw-dropper the way Justifed was, nor does it have the hit potential of FutureSex/LoveSounds, but it’s definitely more defined by risk-taking. There’s no SexyBack Part Deux here, just a bunch of soulful extended jams – none of them shorter than 4:39 – with a real disco-era Motown/Tamla vibe. There’s Smokey here, a little Eddie Kendricks, some even more discotastic MJ than even “Rock Your Body”, a smidge of Shuggie Otis perhaps. But tunes like the gloriously slick “Spaceship Coupe” or the grown-up horn hits of “Suit and Tie,” to me, bring to mind Marvin Gaye circa Midnight Love, an album whose time has come. 20/20 plays around with all kinds of sounds that few other artists would touch, mostly because they’d be afraid to make something so radio-unfriendly, even something as funky as this. It’s the record I would not have expected or even hoped for JT to make, and a sweeter surprise for it.

6. Jay-Z – Magna Carta Holy Grail (Roc Nation/Universal)

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Hov Is Watchin: A look at Magna Carta Holy Grail

7. Matias Aguayo – The Visitor (Comeme)

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One to watch: Matias Aguayo

8. A Tribe Called Red – Nation II Nation (Tribal Rhythms)

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9. VA: Night Slugs Allstars Volume 2 (Night Slugs)

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10. Kobo Town – Jumbie In The Jukebox (Cumbancha)

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Kobo Town and your best bets for Caribana weekend

One to watch: Matias Aguayo

Matias Aguayo

The Visitor

(Comeme)

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Whimsy is unnecessary in dance music because readily-available drugs supply more than enough opportunity for throwing off all vestiges of self-awareness and giving in to the urge to wear enormous furry hats and matching sweat pants, to say nothing of dry humping total strangers. Funnily enough, Chilean/German producer Matias Aguayo’s album The Visitor is a masterpiece despite being deeply, intentionally whimsical. Not since Holger Czukay tried out six or seven different ways to say “let’s get cool… In the pool…” in 1980 has there been a presence veering into comedic territory reserved for wedding MCs the way Aguayo does here. You know it’s going to test the bounds of good taste when he and his duet partner start taking turns rolling their Rs at each other in a track called (what else) “Rrrr” while Aguayo delivers lines, some in his native Spanish that sound like he should be twirling a mustache the entire time. But beats with a Czukay-like pared down quality, as well as a healthy disregard for techno’s obsessive compulsive sonic cleanliness, help make it an intensely fun outing as well as a funny one.

Friday late pass: Harald Grosskopf and Harlem Is Nowhere

I don’t know where I’ve been lately, but it hasn’t been in an electronic music state of mind. Hearing RVNG Intl‘s reissue of Harald Grosskopf’s obscure 1980 album Synthesist, and its companion disc of remixes, Re-Synthesist, jolted me sharply out of that. RVNG’s website has a concise history of the record, but what you need to know is that Grosskopf was the drummer for Krautrock first-stringers Ash Ra Tempel, and that his solo debut hovers tantalyzingly between the brain-pan-chilling arpeggios of the earliest, frostiest synth-driven pop and the taut, subtle rhythmic engines driving groups like Neu! and, to a lesser extent, Can. Synthesist crystallizes a certain ideal balance of things that neckbeard weirdos look for in old electronic records, and the appeal’s not just theoretical, either; there’s a slippery magic in those little-heard grooves.

Harald Grosskopf – Synthesist by RVNG Intl.

I had low expectations of Re-Synthesist. When was the last time something made to accompany a reissue was worth a shit? (I don’t recall the Kanye West remixes of Thriller reaching “Stronger”-like chart heights.) Happily, I was wrong. All of the artists on the disc bring something to the table, whether it’s the blissfully utopian CFCF version of “B. Aldrian” — seriously, this thing could soundtrack a Valhalla scene in the new Thor movie — or JD Twitch of Optimo fame’s slashing, pinging, menacing “Emphasize”. Even the somewhat conventional Pink Skull track is a banger. And the disc’s sequencing is masterful; you wouldn’t think putting two versions of the title track back-to-back would work, but Blondes’ more clubby take on the MiniMooged out original segues perfectly into Snoretex’s quietly ecstatic version. It came out Feb 15, so don’t sleep. For christ’s sake buy it!

Synthesist (Blondes Remix) by RogerForLovers

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’ book Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America sounds like the sort of thing I would be interested in regardless of the mix that she and DJ/Rupture cooked up, and in fact when I first heard their collab, I was skeptical. Rhodes-Pitts reads sections of the book throughout the mix, whereas I was hoping to hear something much more found-sound/sample oriented; Rupture mixes all kinds of music in there, from gospel to dubstep, from Billie Holliday to Das Racist, but initially I found the words jarring. That lasted all of :30 seconds; by the time a mercilessly blunt, dark gag about gentrifiers being offered 400 sqaure feet and a Prius (they don’t call it black humour for nothing) chirped up in a deceptively peppy tone about 15 more minutes in, I was hooked. That Rupture and Rhodes-Pitts manage to squeeze so much into an hour — not just musically but emotionally — is a reminder of the kind of power that radio DJs once had, both to convey more than music alone could, and to catch you by surprise.

Their statement:

“Once, a group of tourists were asked what came to mind when they heard the word �Harlem�: some said �music� and the others said �riots.� The connection between the two is a story for another time. This Harlem mixtape is born of our own free associations: For Rupture, Francophone songs sold by scowling Africans along 116th, or old soul and R&B memories being hawked alongside the now-thing bootlegs across 125th; for Sharifa, church sounds tumbling onto the streets and distorted strains of jazz heard from a boombox carted around by a wandering neighbor.”

Also, FYI: “The project is the second edition of the Cities Mixtape series by Milan-based DOMUS, a magazine focusing on design, architecture and urbanism.” — Rupture

Buy the book: