Best Music of the Year

Here’s my top 10  list, in randomized order:

BT – A Song Across Wires

The mixing and flow in BT’s latest is exquisite, as always with his stuff.

The album actually digs into the minutiae of EDM that elevated BT in the first place.  There aren’t as many cinematic anthems with bold vocals as Emotional Technology or Hopeful Machines.    Most of the pieces are a blend of micro breakbeats, dubstep jolts, dainty feminine voices chopped robotic, riding on a bed of precise orchestral strings.

I’ve always thought of BT as algorithmic music.  Listening to his stuff lets you hear iteration, recursion, sorting methods.  The call and response of network connections.

Most of the melodies actually feel like upgrades of past work, refactored with new equipment and algorithms, ESCM 2.0.  That record was all about transporting the listener to other realms of sound – a lush rainforest, or a dreamy sea of bubbles.  A Song Across Wires has that same transporting effect, pulling the listener down into the very electrons jolting along chains of soldered copper.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – Gone Girl Soundtrack

Reznor and Ross continue their collaboration with David Fincher, and this is probably the best work yet.

One of the underlying threads of Gone Girl was the resentment Amy feels for her husband’s aesthetic choices.  Leaving New York City for a McMansion in the midwest.  Opening a dive bar, writing magazine fluff, collecting sports equipment.  That aesthetic disgust was subtly evident in the film’s quick cuts of mindless suburbia, and the soundtrack’s gauzy elevator music.

The record alternates between genteel piano and orchestral arrangements, evoking imagery of polite suburban comfort, upper middle class contentment, with just a dash of melancholy.  A period after the honeymoon: forced smiles, coordinating schedules, balancing checkbooks.

The police procedural moments (Clue One, Clue Two, Procedural) are built of plodding increments.  There’s a curiosity to the melody, plucky plinks that are distinct and hopeful, dancing before a vast background of ambient menace.

But the best parts are when Amy removes her mask and revels in her raw psychotic drive.  The monologue halfway through the film (Technically, Missing), faking the murder, driving off into the sunset.  Her mouth furrowed into determination even as her lips drip with disgust for the lower insects of humanity.  The piece starts with the same scheming pluck of the earlier stuff, but the background ambient comes to the fore, Reznor’s signature industrial roar.

Consummation is one of the darkest instrumentals of NIN’s repertoire, a blood drenched digitized scream, like that last gasp from the downward spiral.  And still there’s that hint of the suburban marriage, that piano motif riding beneath the violence.

Reznor’s catalog of horrors was always full in the face.  His protagonists and tortured souls look directly into the camera, and they understand the moral calculus of the universe – sin and pain and death and punishment.  There’s a balance to the darkness.

Fincher (and Ross/Reznor’s work for him) isn’t so monochrome.  The director is fascinated with avatars and representations.  Strange and distorted mirror images.  Tyler Durden and Mark Zuckerburg and Amy Dunne.  Ross/Reznor embrace that binary with the soundtrack, and it makes it even stronger.

Neighbors – Failure

I think I came across this band through Spotify radio, or maybe it was 88.5 before it was consumed by NPR.  Brooklyn-based indie pop band that makes breathy sing alongs, with lots of allusions to young love and university.  The outlook – privileged emo kids moan about love and friendships in a finely tuned blend of hope and melancholy – remind me of Stars, Metric, maybe some Naked and Famous.  But the music so perfectly captures that mood – shaggy sweaters, fallen leaves on the quad – that you can’t fault them for conjuring a particular image.  The songs are catchy and built well, but eventually they bleed together into a colorful blur, like warm recollections of freshman year, most of it fading, leaving isolated bits of bright light.

Alcest – Shelter

I first heard this record on some fancy web 2.0 site, complete with high resolution photos of the band on a sunshine drenched beach.  The tearing chord that opens Opale was perfectly synched to a hail of lensflares and blinding rays, so that visual metaphor is forever linked to these songs.  There’s a religious feel to the record, as if the towering pipe organ of cathedral’s past was switched out for an amped out guitar and a heavy metal virtuoso.  The backlash was an interesting aside.  Metal has lots of religious qualities – the chanting, the (often ironic) devilish imagery.  Alcest has simply switched the balance on the scale, trading the hellish for the celestial.  Instead of demonic frog-croaks, there’s angelic harmonizing.  Instead of choppy violent guitars, there’s soaring strings.  The same passion and skill is there, even if you’re left contemplating visions of puffy clouds and toga-clad angels instead of nuclear holocaust hellscapes.

Real Estate – Atlas

The follow-up to 2011’s Days is a continuation of a formula, even if it’s one that’s been perfected by the band.  The recording experience has noticeably improved: the sound is a bit deeper, the vocals smoother.  But the same rhythm and guitar riffs evoke a soothing minimalist soundscape, sitting alone and looking out on a snowy landscape, or a dusty desert.  The vocals allude to regret and distance, but it’s the distinctive plinking of melody on the reverbed guitar that tells the narrative of each song.

Pink Floyd – The Endless River

Pink Floyd has always used its own mythology as fertile grounds for songwriting.  Shine on Your Crazy Diamond, the bookends of Wish You Were Here, is an ode to Syd Barrett.  Barrett is the very definition of the 60s burnout, his brain so fried on drugs and psychedelic experiences that he retreated from the world to live as a shut-in with his mother until his death in 2006, never to make music again.

Roger Waters, who drove the most popular records of the 70s (The Wall, Dark Side of the Moon), had an even more spectacular flameout with Gilmour / Mason, mostly over money and artistic control.  Division Bell was somewhat of a mournful epitaph for that relationship, just as WYWH was for Barrett.

Endless River is even more reflective.  This is their last record, the end of a long and varied career. The guys are old. They started making music in the early 60s.  They’ve lived a lifetime of studios and concerts and jam sessions.

Endless River is a mournful journey through their history, touching on the signature guitar riffs of the 70s, some of the psychedelic beats and experimental studio squawks of the 60s, the polished soundscapes of the 80s.  Water’s politics are absent, as is Barrett’s interstellar weirdness.  The record is mostly instrumental.  Gilmour, Mason and Wright stick to their instruments.  Waters was the literate one, the guy who aimed his sights at money and time and war government and madness.

The remainder of Pink sees the music itself as Louder Than Words. The song of that title has strong ties to 94’s Division Bell – the same tempo, the same xylophone chimes, the same lyrical outlook of sour nostalgia.  But the refrain cuts through the melancholy with a bold defiance.  “This thing that we do, louder than words.”  All the fighting and sadness, for what?  All of us will be gone, our bodies consumed by drugs or cancer, and our fights will be footnotes.  But the songs will last, sailing on, an endless river.

Spoon – They Want My Soul

There’s a street somewhere in the Lower East Side that the tourists have not yet found, and the expensive boutiques have not yet colonized, and there are still neon signs for homeless missions and needle donations, and local kids sit on skateboards and share a cigarette, and last night’s liquor bottles lie smashed in a puddle of vomit in the gutter.

Maybe that street doesn’t exist anymore, but Spoon writes a fitting epitaph for a certain image of New York that’s been disappearing for years.  The bowery and CBGB and gutter punks and nicotine rasped desperation.  But the record is chilled out a bit too.  In between the grating guitars there are mellow drum bits, or tripped out harmonizing.  That’s the thrill of New York that will never fade: amidst the glamour and grime, finding a hint of the sublime.

Porter Robinson – Worlds2

Anamanaguchi released one of my top records of 2013, and Porter Robinson was my go-to chiptunes fix this year.  The record isn’t exactly chiptunes, but there are enough 8-bit video game flourishes to satisfy the craving.  Divinity is a multi-layered opening, the intro screen fading into the cutscene, some faerie spirit singing out of the mist, promising forgotten realms, hidden secrets, queued quests.  Then the base drops, the heroic motif returns, backed by amplified kickdrums and trilling algorithmic bleeps.

Chiptunes aren’t defined by the software settings used to generate crunchy waveforms.  It’s about an allusion to a certain early 90s style of video game, and in turn a time of life now drenched in nostalgia.  The regimentation of school, the threat of bullying, the promise of young love.  The best JRPGs of the era had those same threads dressed up in swords and armor.  There was always hope inherent in the pixel art and the music itself, uplifting chord progressions synching to larger numbers and unlocked criticals, till the big bad met his end and the credits rolled, already crystalizing into a particular flavor of smiling sad nostalgia.

Aphex Twin – Syro

Richard James has always eschewed the traditional formula of music.  Not just the verse-chorus-verse structure, but even the attempt to connect with the listener and carry them along some form of melody.  He mocked the formats of hip hop and industrial music with Windowlicker and Come to Daddy.  But most of his catalog consists of minimalist soundscapes, alien chirps and tweets brought to life on garage-built experimental electronics.  He has a classical gift for composition (Avril 14th), and the new record has a nice homage with aisatana [102], a contemplative piano solo on a birdsong morning.

But most of the record is cold, calculated electronica, complete with titles that look like filenames in an obscure operating system.  Minipops and Xmas_Eve feature melancholy little minor chord progression, clothed in layers of atonal percussion, occasionally broken up by ghostly vocal flourishes.  produk 29 samples commentary from snooty eurodance party girls, and 180db picks up the pace, and could be featured in a nightmarish dancehall.  The remarkable thing about the record is how listenable it is, given the odd time signatures, minor key progressions and glitchy samples.

The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream

Lost in the Dream sounds like a bestselling album from 1985, something that’s been played on the radio for ages, the singers now crusty and featured in VH1 documentaries with grainy footage of hotel debauchery.

Their sound – an amalgamation of Tom Petty’s smoky jamming and Springsteen’s driving beat – feels both classic and refreshing.  There’s a sadness and a breezy freedom to the vocals, the guitar riffs crisp but pleading.

An Ocean In Between the Waves highlights all the key points, an eight minute epic complete with screaming guitar solos and woeful tales of life on the road.

Perhaps the record struck a chord, not only for its high caliber musicianship, but the way it harkens back to an older time, the mythic past of rock bands, before all the meta-gaming of social media or the remashing of endless YouTube clips.  When a single studio mix came out of nowhere and rode the airwaves, unifying and transformative. A band ascending the stage to the roar of applause. The dream of rock and roll.

Top 12 of ’12

Grimes – Visions
Don’t let the skull on the cover put you off, this is chirpy electropop. All the electro-mechanical doom of The Knife with the cheer of glucose-infused helium sucking heroine. It’s a fun contrast, and evokes all sorts of dark SF worlds, so maybe the skull fits.

Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
The record touches on all the major rock genres of the last few decades, from post-punk, metal, screamo, noise-rock. Wasted Days starts out simple enough, with a fist-pumping 4×4 punk anthem, then both slows and builds into a reverbed maelstrom, before finally collapsing back into all the rage of the buildup.

Arrange – New Memory
Kids with laptops recording chilled out electronic music is its own genre by now. Malcom Lacey (Arrange) takes simple melodies and whispered vocals and mixes them into a fuzzy blizzard, like an Instagram filter. There’s enough quality in the source material (both lyrically, melodically) that the digital wizardry just casts the whole thing in a bright haze, like the hint of sun behind Portland clouds.

Beach House – Bloom
Words fail when trying to get into the details of why Bloom works. The record evokes a mood, of mourning, plodding grandeur, loss. “Myth”, with lyrics that for some reason remind me of the Batman origin story, finds a way to melt flawlessly from Victoria LeGrand’s mournful lament to mirror-image echo in guitar distortion. Irene rises out of a static sea to set a scene. “It’s a strange paradise”, LeGrand sings, a dark dream cloak of sound enveloping her voice.

Diiv – Oshin
Oshin is a distillation of all the melodic progressions, time signatures and reverbed echoes of The Cure without any ecstatic Robert Smith antics. The whole thing keeps chugging along, fluid, the only vocals subsumed by instrumentation. That being said, the entire thing is executed perfectly, feels out of its time, like a forgotten relic unearthed from the vaults of the 80s.

Passion Pit – Gossamer
Still just as commercial (Taco Bell Doritos Loco Taco!) and saccharine, but the mental breakdown backstory makes the glee sort of sad. The lyrics are surprisingly mature: the conservatism of “I’ll Take a Walk” fits right in with Fox News talking points. “I’ll Be Alright” and “It’s not my fault, I’m happy” speak to the Angelakos’s demons, ultimately taking ownership and powering through. And ignoring all the meta-arguments about the juxtaposition of DSMIV diagnoses and creativity, the distilled melodic essence of these songs is pretty potent.

Purity Ring – Shrines
If a coven of Norse druids gathered beneath Stonehenge were equipped with Pro Tools, they might come up with Shrines, from Purity Ring. The chord signatures are brooding but earthy, the vocals rustic, like a pixelated Middle Earth.

Mount Eerie – Ocean Roar
The record is a study in contrasts. For one, you have the softly spoken vocals, with motifs of gently falling snow, walking in bucolic pathways, peace. Then there’s the flat out sound assaults, metal rifts distorted into raging textures, evoking all the imagery of an ocean pummeling a rocky cliffside. Pale Lights encompasses both, with apropos lyrics in the eye of the storm: “…a small yelp on the wind, and then more roaring…”

Chairlift – Something
Chairlift was threatened with the fate of Radiohead, writ small – a big hit (Bruises) with a unique sound that didn’t fit perfectly with the rest of the catalog. The lyrics were even similarly self-depreciating. With Something, Chairlift, and vocalist Caroline Polachek, pulled a “Bends” – ignore the manic pixie dreamgirl lyrics of Bruises and embrace much more nuance and depth. The music is still catchy electro-pop, and there are plenty of “ooohs” and “aaahs”, but there’s a mature feel to the whole production. As she sings over a remixed elevator-music riff: “Got the Grown Up Blues”…

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
Godspeed are an elusive species, disdainful of publicity, or touring, or any sort of commercialism. They release records without fanfare, years apart, compiling just a handful of epic songs. The formula is pretty similar to other stuff: Mladic opens with a sample of some religious figure intoning “With arms outstretched!”; plinking guitars, like sonar beeps; orchestral alignment; a distant exotic fiddle. All in prelude to rampaging guitar. It’s tempting to read apocalyptic messages into the music, and it’s easy enough, given the cover art, the song titles, their past discography. There’s narrative in the texture of the sound. But I think pasting allegory on top of the music weakens it, sets it in a time and place, aligns it with our current modern fears. These are songs that should stick around, even after the apocalypse, and some inventive kid rigs a record player to run on solar energy: an Ozymandius to our brilliant and vapid time.

The Egg – Something To Do
Hearing Something to Do for the first time, I had to do a double check that I wasn’t listening to B-sides from Royksopp’s Junior sessions. The boppy fun is there, the super-cool synth mixing, the disparate styles assembling. “Catch” with its anthemic breakdown; “A Bit” with it’s nonchalant Britishisms; “Stars” and “Electric City” with sci-fi motifs. The whole thing is slick and catchy and listenable.

Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
Most people probably noticed this guy as the backing vocalist on Kanye’s “Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”. But it was his “Nostalgia, Ultra” mixtape that really brought attention. Here was an R&B singer ignoring all the clichés of wealth, sexual prowess, nightclubs. He used popular alternative songs (Coldplay, Radiohead, MGMT) as the underlying track, mixing in references to old-school fighting games (street fighter, soul caliber). And the single Novacaine, when it dealt with those R&B tropes, subverted and explored them. It was existential, not simply a catalog of exploits, but a love song to the numbing effects of that gluttony and lust.
Channel Orange picks up on that same vein, and along with Frank’s reveal about his own sexual background, there’s considerable hype around the record and the artist (queue Grammy nods, etc). Musically, the record is much more in line with traditional R&B – backing vocals, sappy orchestral accompaniment, smooth baselines. But the songwriting possess that same questioning, that unhappiness, the diary of an outsider.
“Super Rich Kids” sings of the corrosion of wealth, all the while reveling in the luxe shower.
“Pyramids” is an epic daydream, an exotic dancer figuratively ascending the throne of the Pharaohs, even as she’s just climbing a polished pole.
“Lost” globetrots “Amsterdam, Tokyo, Spain” without fulfillment.
“Bad Religion” meshes the after-effects of love and faith. “If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion”.
“Pink Matter” might be a love song to Descartes. “What do you think my brain is made for, is it just a container for the mind?” Ocean questions that binary with the simple rejoinder: “Pleasure”. Feeling, and being in our body, is what makes us human.
The lifestyles of the ballers, the gangsta-rappers, the wealthy hip-hop moguls: it’s all questioned here. Even the fallbacks of religion or family or culture that traditionally infuse the genre with “soul” are rejected.
All that meta stuff could be why Ocean’s getting critical acclaim. But the music, production, and Frank’s voice stands on its own.

Best Of: Music

These lists are popping up all over the place. Figured I’d put up my own.

Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion

This record was called out as best of the year way back when it was released in January. It’s lived up to the title. One of my favorite memories was walking north from Penn Station to Columbus Circle through Times Square, listening to this album straight through. Normally it would be a painful, aggravating stroll. But with the melodious labyrinths of My Girls, Daily Routine, Bluish, and Brothersport as soundtrack, weaving tourists and hustlers grew cinematic, all lit from above with rainbow LEDs.

Passion Pit – Manners

Joyous, ecstatic, blissed out, danceable. And marketable. This record has probably been the accompaniment to more ads this year than the Beatles. More power to them. I could care less about the sellout label, especially for songs that possess such tightly evolved electropop DNA.

Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

I’d heard Phoenix before, usually piped into a whimsical Sophia Coppola film. But here they’ve upped their amps and toned down the airy flimsiness that was so…French. Hell, there are even bombs on the album art. I think they acknowledge their opus, given the composer name-dropping title. Even as Liztomania and 1901 are tightly constructed singles, the highlight of the album is the mournful drone of Rome – memories of lost civilizations and loves.

Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer

In a year when the majority of musical output (both mainstream and indie) was run through ten thousand post-production tools, Sunset Rubdown was a refreshing change. Their songs aren’t lo-fi or minimalist or fuzzy (the most obvious and unfortunate backlash to the computerization of music). Instead they are crisp ballads of strange characters and mystical lands, painted with lilting keyboard, roiling drums and often angry guitar. And there’s urgency and enough human touch so the entire thing feels like it was recorded live for an audience of one.

Dan Deacon – Bromst

The volume of this record has always been too loud in my iPod. Perhaps it was intentional. Deacon’s music is like a maelstrom of cacophonous sounds (glitchy scratches, alarms, chipmunked cultists) coming together into something worshipful. If my eardrums have to suffer for that, so be it.

Franz Ferdinand – Tonight

Franz Ferdinand has constructed an alter ego of Ulysses, and like the hero of Homer’s Odyssey, he’s on a journey through dangerous waters. There are a few more Sirens in this tale. The night of revelry starts out standard enough, a few drinks and dance rock, but then it gets epically weird as the entire thing deconstructs into minimalist electronica.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!

For all of Karen O’s cutesy projects this year (Wild Things, Flaming Lips – I Can Be A Frog), she needed to do something appropriately punk to maintain her cred. If the album art of It’s Blitz doesn’t count (in all its feminist irony), then her two openers “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll” will have to do.

The Decemberists – Hazards of Love

Shape-shifting animals have been Colin Meloy’s go-to image for two records now (crane, faun), spicing his historical ballads with a rich dose of magical realism. And even with all the literary fireworks, the musicianship follows. The biggest shift in sound is the quasi-doom metal guitar in “A Bower Song”. The guest vocals can be distracting as well. But then we’re right back into the saddle, fording raging rivers and confronting evil queens, all for destined love.

Metric – Fantasies

Emily Haines has quite a timid voice for all her indie rock prolificity. But it meshes perfectly with her frightened rabbit lyrics of “Help I’m Alive”. The record is a mix of toe tapping guitar pop and shadowy ambiance, but her voice blankets the whole thing in warm innocence.

Big Pink – A Brief History of Love

The catchy radio-friendly songs like Dominos and Velvet drew me in, but it was the shoegaze epic Crystal Visions that sold me. What a way to open a record – “200 naked pure gold girls” ride in on vortexes of distortion. From there its mostly pedestrian pop but its still catchy enough to deserve a nod.

New Tunes

British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?

With a mixer squawk and ominous booming drum, British Sea Power start their third record Do You Like Rock Music? Immediately, their anthemic sound draws comparisons to Arcade Fire. Lights Out For Darker Skies puts to use the bands musical talents, featuring a building lead guitar that will test the limits of any wannabe Guitar Hero. Lyrically, this is a political record, references and motifs of warfare, patriotism, encroaching darkness. But there’s a solidarity, “We’re all in it,” perhaps found in the essence that is rock music. Other standout tracks: Waving Flags, Great Skua, Atom.

Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts I-IV

On the coattails of Radiohead, Trent Reznor has become an anti-establishment rabble-rouser. It’s a welcome change, as With Teeth and Year Zero felt like some of his most commercial records. Out of nowhere he’s released Ghosts I-IV, 36 tracks of instrumentals. Most are ambient, atmospheric (similar to The Fragile), though some return to the angry energy of his earlier work. The entire package is incredibly professional, complete with a pdf (or printed book, depending on what you purchase) of high quality photographs to complement the music. The record has a cold aura, stark vistas of naked trees, winter skies, rainy days, etc. Ghosts III is a bit more industrial, II minimalist. Even better, Trent’s released the thing under Creative Commons, so quality remixes and music videos should be on the way. Stand out tracks – 3, 12, 16, 22, 28, 32.

Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend

A name like Vampire Weekend instills images of club-going Dracula, or at least city denizens slavering over some sort of bloody vice. Instead, we get a jolly pop record of bouncy baselines, garage-band guitar and orchestral accompaniment. The record feels like the spiritual sibling to The Strokes (A-Punk, Campus), but its more lyrical, namedropping preppy brands and locales, and often ditching the grunge for summery island riffs (Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa). M79 opens with a harpsichord arrangement fitting for Louis XIV’s court, settling into a snappy bass jam. And Walcott’s the sing along standout – I can only imagine the hipsters screaming along “Outta Cape Cod tonight!” If the season’s got you down, this is the essential spring-time record.

Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

Melancholy Folk will always have its place, and there’s no better time to indulge then late winter. Bon Iver is the stage name of Justin Vernon. He starts with the standard acoustic guitar and blends in ghostly ambience and reverb, in some songs (Lump Sum) even replicating his voice into a blissed out cathedral drone. The lyrics are sad, appropriately mournful, his voice betraying a sort of wild colloquial Americana (recorded in a remote Wisconsin cabin). The Wolves (Act I and II) and Blindsided are the twin peaks of the record, the first ascending a path of rattling railcar percussion, the latter a slow build, filled with imagery of snow and crows. The same crow motif is repeated on re: Stacks, the record’s closer and best song. “This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization,” he sings. “It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away.”

Daft Punk – Alive 2007

Daft punk have always been the biggest spacehelment-wearing French House artists around, but 2007 saw a rise in popularity aided by Mr. Kanye West. They also released a live record featuring all the songs that made them so legendary in the fist place. Their format – mix two (or three) songs in a pulsing escalation. Example – Around the World / Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger. Sound quality is strong here (its electronic music after all), with enough hints of the crowd to up the energy. Other Standouts: Too Long / Steam Machine, One More Time / Aerodynamic.