The 10 Best Films of 2013

December 28, 2013

This list is always complicated by timing; I mention every year that by the time I compile my list of favorite films of the year, even when waiting until the last week of the year, there are still quite a few films that I know are worthy of consideration in anyone’s list that I simply have been unable to catch due to timing. December-January is prime movie release time in that every studio holds back its Award season hopefuls for a very last minute release so as to stay fresh in voter’s minds. My wife and I are movie buffs and the end of November through the first of January is our prime movie-going time. Though we catch a few major blockbusters during the summer rush, most of our movie dollars are saved to catch the big releases at the end of the year. Yet it is always impossible to catch all important flicks; sometimes because two or three major ones are released at the same time every week at the end of the year and timing/money simply doesn’t allow us to see every possible choice. Then there’s the frustrating way many big movies simply aren’t released widely for too long; such is the case with this year’s Long Walk to Freedom, a film I’ve been waiting to see since catching early teasers of Idris Elba portraying Nelson Mandela in a film that should surely be in the spotlight a bit now since it coincidentally comes out immediately after Mandela’s passing. In addition to that film, there are a few others I am sure would have had a large chance of making my own personal cut if I had had the opportunity to catch them before compiling this list: certainly 12 Years a Slave. Also:  Saving Mr. Banks, The Invisible Woman, Nebraska, August: Osage County, HER, Inside Llewyn DavisGravity, and Blue Jasmine to name a few big ones I’ve been wanting to see all  year long. There were also some interesting genre flicks I would have liked to have considered as well (The Spectacular Now; You’re Next).
Anyway, judging simply from what I have seen I feel comfortable with this list in that I loved every picture here. Looking back at last year’s list I know I would have certainly added Silver Linings Playbook and The Master in place of a few of my back-end choices had I seen them in time, but even counting the big picks I’ve mentioned here as not having seen yet, these following pictures would be hard to top. Here goes.

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10) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

While overall I enjoyed the first film more, largely due to its quick and effortless act of world-building, this second Hunger Games adaptation is a great and intelligent action sci-fi flick;  it does in some ways feel like the typical middle chapter of a major story by being a “bridge” piece, but as far as such sequels go this is one of the better blockbuster sequels in the past few years. It doesn’t retread the same ground as its predecessor; it opens up that world in which the characters are living and give it even more reality. The action is at times bigger but not unnecessarily so; and it’s all helped along by its lead actress in that Jennifer Lawrence continues to prove herself as perhaps the best young actress of her generation, equally competent in popcorn blockbusters and performance heavy depth-pieces. This is but one of her great performances this year (and on this list).

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9) Behind the Candelabra

I read speculation that Behind the Candelabra, a Liberace biopic, was deemed “too gay,” for a major theatrical studio release. If so, it’s is a shame because this HBO film lacks nothing in terms of pure cinematic quality more than capable of standing up with the year’s best dramas. Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his romantic live-in partner of five years deliver two of the best performances of the year and this is the only great Soderbergh movie I’ve seen in years. It may very well rank with the best biopics in recent memory in that it’s portrayal of its protagonist and his relationships is just so utterly human and real that even the most far removed from the man’s orientation, fame, lifestyle, wealth, and proclivities can’t help but find the story in it’s parts and pieces as some way relatable.

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8) The Bling Ring

One of three great movies this year (and on this list) that portrays and subtly condemns the dark side of the American dream. Taken as a linear progression through modern US history, you can see the scrappy birth of (my #3 pick), the extravagant expansion of (my #4 pick) and (in this film) the “trickle-down” affect to youth in the modern day of some of America’s worst greedy tendencies. The Bling Ring showcases celebrity worship and soulless selfish ego, the hollowness of an unchecked wanting. Sophia Coppola continues her string of excellent directorial work, which here coupled with a great script and some of the best performances by young (and some first-time?) actors in recent memory allows the journey of these millennial famous-for-being-famous chasers to progress as their own with not overt surface judgement or pretentious commentary. Coppola’s admitted distaste with what these (historically–or should I say E! News–adapted) events represent and are born out of is shown by simply allowing her young performers to evoke that feeling in the audience subtly but progressively by their (often lack of ) character. A wonderfully shot art teen crime comedy.

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7)  The Way Way Back

There were more unchecked (and non-guilty) laughs to be found here than in maybe in any other comedy I saw this year. Plus I’m a sucker for coming of age stories and this one is a great example of how to do that without being overly cliched or derivative. There’s enough heart and character on film here to balance those laughs out as well. Not to mention that this has one of the best ensemble casts of any other movie this year; Steve Carrell (at least to me) never really shows a wide diversity of range, and though he’s not the stand-out here it is nice to see him playing someone different than his usual character. But Liam James is great in the lead and Sam Rockwell is utterly hilarious as his unexpected mentor and boss at the water park. Maya Rudolph, Toni Collete, Amanda Peet, Rob Cordrry and the rest round out the cast terrifically.

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6) The Book Thief

The Book Thief was released during the season of and to the people interested in viewing Oscar-bait but quickly got swallowed up and forgotten by the giants of the month; lukewarm reviews didn’t help in that regard either. That’s a shame, because it’s a wonderful little movie with great performances, a captivating period-piece setting, great warmth, and a non-pretentious all-ages appropriate message. Though this setting has been used repetitively in some way throughout the history of film (WWII, Nazi-era Germany, the Holocaust), it was an interesting twist to see this time from within Germany by non-Jewish yet non-Nazi Germans.

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5) Much Ado About Nothing

Whedon, the current brain-trust scribe of the Marvel Avengers films (and related titles), took a break from big budgets to film a pet project of his own this summer–a black and white production of the Shakespeare classic done in his own backyard with his friends. Apparently he and his Whedonverse friends have been doing down-time weekend Shakespeare readings for fun for years–and it shows. These folks pull it off wonderfully. This movie does a fine job of preserving the beauty of the language by keeping it as is and not paraphrasing or interpreting it, but each actor does it straight-forward and not over-the-top; that fact combined with the casual, modern  house-party setting and artsy yet under-stated cinematography helps the classic language be heard in a casual, common way so that there is little head-scratching as to what is going on or being talked about even for non-experts of Shakespeare.

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4) The Wolf of Wall Street

Watch the first five minutes of Scorsese and DiCaprio’s latest epic opus and it will quickly reveal to any viewer why this is a controversial, polarizing film. I have  never heard so many audience gasps and audible moments of discomfort and shock to any film I have seen in a theater and those reactions begin from the moment the film begins to roll. This is one that has been almost universally lavished with critical praise while receiving quite disparate , mixed audience reception. It’s vulgar; it’s a high momentum train throttling directly at viewers showcasing ugly people doing ugly things. Yet it’s also more complex than first glance would have you think. I’ve thought more about this one since seeing it than perhaps any other big film of the year thus far; on its surface, with its snappy captivating (if discomfiting) script by the Sopranos scribe and its glossy, hyper-fantasy editing and camerawork by arguably the best living American director, it’s an unavoidably entertaining, often hilarious, over-the-top story that you in many ways hate to enjoy so much. Yet scratch that surface and it’s a full indictment of modern era Wall Street and the obscenity of the American dream (in that the dream as (de)volved from “making it” to “becoming obscenely wealthy at the expense of all others”). It’s a condemnation of the shallowness of hyperbolic greed and over-consumption, of the exploitation of the many by the few and the dissatisfaction found in the merely wrist-slapping punishments usually given to the worst of white-collar crime perpetrators. Scorsese shoots this one in the same manner he has shot his gangster and crooked cop tales and it fits; the script allows you to continuously laugh at protagonist Jordan Belfort and his cohorts, so much so that you are innocuously drawn to liking them by default just long enough before being reminded how terrible these folks are as human beings. DiCaprio gives an amazing performance, perhaps his best ever; Jonah Hill as his primary partner and wing-man also provides his own best work to date. It’s not for everyone, and it may be the only mainstream “R” film I’ve ever seen that I felt should require ID to determine a viewer is at least 21 to see, but it’s film-making at its finest. McConaughey, seen further on in this list for delivering his own performance of a lifetime, drops in for 15 minutes in an amazing cameo early in the film, one pivotal that is is seen incorporated into everything DiCaprio does as the lead from that point forward. Watch this one and for three hours you will be glued to your seat, shocked, laughing, and uncomfortable–but entertained.

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3) American Hustle

David O. Russell makes terrific films–from I Heart Huckabees to The Fighter to his (at least for me thus far) crowning achievement Silver Linings Playbook–he writes, produces, and directs films with terrific scripts and draws out career-high performances from his regular rotation of stars (Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence). This film is an often under-stated comedy that plays for laughs not just in lines but simply in absurd situations, visual gags, and the details lavished on a funny time and place setting of ’70s Urban America–bad hair, disco and all. This embellished recount of the Abscam scandal and its assortment of hustlers, con-artists, federal agents is a hoot. Jeremy Renner as the NJ mayor caught up in the fall almost tops all of the assorted talent surrounding him but everyone else does so well it’s hard to make that call. Louis C.K. as a ham-strung FBI boss is an added bonus.

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2) Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConaughey has always been a promising actor but until rather recently he never had the kind of roles that allow him to display his full talent. His acting chops are at full force here in Dallas Buyers Club as a rough and tumble hard-living Texan rodeo rider who becomes HIV positive. His rampant homophobia makes it hard for him to accept this as even a possibility when it occurs to him in the early 1980s; acceptance soon gives way to a trans-national mission to procure and distribute (at a profit) alternative treatments for the virus at that time barred by the FDA. McConaughey is brilliant and convincing, and the viewers witness the journey of a real, complex person who finds his prejudices challenged and gradually evolves in subtle ways through his unexpected friendship with a transgender person. The best performance by anyone in any film I saw this year.

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1) Philomena

In a year of excellent films this one might slip beneath the radar for many, which is unfortunate because it is a truly excellent film. Wonderfully acted, wittily scripted; at quick turning intervals warmly funny and emotionally sad. Judi Dench is always terrific, but she outdoes herself here. It’s like Dame Judi unplugged as we just watch her play every possible emotion out in convincing, captivating ways throughout the course of the film. Steve Coogan, not as well known to American audiences, does a great job here as well as he always does. This is a deep character work that shows the humanity of a diverse group of people, the possibility of unexpected friendships, and the full force impact and struggle of genuine forgiveness.

Honorable Mentions: The Place Between the Pines; The Conjuring; Iron Man 3; Thor 2

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The 25 Best Songs of 2013

December 21, 2013

I do recognize how grandiose it sounds to label my favorite picks as “the best” of anything, as if my own opinion is definitive in anyway. I’ve been doing these lists at the end of each year for five years now, and I simply love doing it; I love sorting through everything I’ve listened to, read, saw, etc. in December each year and taking my time ranking them, re-evaluating them, compiling playlists that I can go back to in the years to come to help me remember other details of that year, to think of what was going on as those songs or films accompanied me. I love seeing how other lists compare to my own, be they choices of friends of mine, major magazines, other blogs, etc. So yes, these are my choices for the “Best 25” songs of the year in full recognition that there were many great songs and that these only capture a fraction of one person’s best attempt at describing the best of the diverse creativity to be found in 2013.

A reminder on my considerations–when I pick a song for this list, I consider that song as it stands alone. I used to exclude any songs taken from any albums that made my best albums list to better expose other records that may otherwise go unmentioned, but I changed gears on that method a few years ago. I now think about how that song played by itself, on the radio, in videos, on the internet, on personal playlists; how excellent does that song work as a song divorced from the context of its album. This means that some of these songs come from albums I’ve picked on my preceding lists and that others do not. I may have a top ranking album I love in which all the songs are great but I then may go on to not list any songs from it for my top songs because I feel that particular art works best cohesively; or I may include a song that I found to be excellent pulled from an otherwise abominable album.

Okay. Here goes.

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25) The Mother We Share – CHVRCHES

I’m a sucker for synth pop and thanks to the success of artists like M83 in recent years, there’s been more of it this decade than at anytime since the eighties. The best of it has often been lyrically and conceptually deeper than the catchy outfitting it has would suggest and this track certainly follows that pattern. Even Drake gave us a synth pop track this year, but this is one of the best I heard all  year.

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24) My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark- Fall Out Boy

A band no one really expected (and that few likely sat around wishing) to make a comeback did so with better than could be expected results. FOB fully embraced their cheesy and over-the-top pretensions and released one of the best singles they’ve ever had. Minus the emo and plus some hair-metal and the result is a stick-in-your-head power pop gem.

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23) Started From the Bottom – Drake

I mean, everyone has cracked on Drake for exaggerating how far towards the “bottom” he truly started. Quickly transitioning from a Canadian hit teen melodrama to a signed deal with Cash Money records by Lil Wayne and instant platinum sells long before he’s even hit thirty doesn’t really seem like too much of a professional struggle. Anyway, overlooking that we still get a catchy, thumping, hooky track that sounds great and has likely served to amp up and inspire many a young hip hop fan whilst driving around the city (or suburbs).

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22) Heartbreaker – Motorhead

My favorite song from these speed metal standard-bearers since “Ace of Spades.” All hail Lemmy and co.

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21) Applause – Lady Gaga

I don’t think Gaga has ever released a “classic” album but she’ s certainly made some of the best mainstream (yet quirky and eccentric) pop songs of recent years. Far better than the “Do What You Want” follow-up (which despite its intentions of commentary just sounded creepy as a hit song likely being sung along to by schoolchildren everywhere). “Applause” is just a superb ear-worm in the vein of “Bad Romance.”

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20) Cut Me Some Slack – Paul McCartney, Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic & Pat Smear

How cool is this? For the Sound City Soundtrack, Paul McCartney played front-man for a reunited Nirvana, rocking harder than he has in years (though he’s never really fallen off anyway).

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19) Obvious Bicycle – Vampire Weekend

This is one of my favorite album-openers/tone-setters in recent years but it also holds up superbly as a single song and is by far the track from Modern Vampires of the City that I played the most this year. It’s got excellent, timely lyrics, beautiful vocals, and multiple appealing melodies and quirky flourishes, not to mention a perfect little piano-pecking close out.

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18) From a Window Seat – Dawes

The best track from Dawes new record sticks with me for a number of reasons; that oddly captivating first verse which compares the take-off prep routines of flight attendants to ancient rituals which “bloodline reaches through” and of course the perfectly repetitive back-beat. One great Dawes song to me is worth 10 Avett (or Mumford) songs and this one is one of their best yet.

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17) Satellite – Nine Inch Nails

Trent Reznor gives us a gothic tinged techno dance track about government surveillance, perfect for this year of NSA news.

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16) Black Skinhead – Kanye West

Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” may be one of the best metal songs of all time, largely due to its simple yet unavoidable tribal rhythm drumbeat. Kanye takes that beat and condenses it down to make it even more rhythmic as a sample for this track. His rhymes aren’t his best ever here but there are some flashes of his wit and lyrical skill nonetheless; his flat out screams between bars punctuated by severe bass hits just pummel the listener and then Kanye’s out barely cracking the three minute mark.

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15) You’re Not Good Enough – Blood Orange

Another synth pop track to make the cut here, but this one owes much more to Prince than New Order. In fact it sounds like a missing cut from 1999. His vocals even echo Prince, and those female accompaniment vocals may as well be Sheila E. Funk electronic synth pop at its finest (is that even a current sub-genre?)

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14) Kevin Gates – Paper Chasers

Like I mentioned in my 10 Best Hip Hop Albums of 2013 post, “Paper Chasers” is simply the best sing-songy gangsta rap track since the first (and only good) 50 album. Yet it has a subtle emotional pathos that 50 would never dare to exude or even tolerate. There’s a sense in the best of Gates’ work that consequences and moral uncertainty always lurk beneath even the most nihilistic of boasts.

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13) Do I Wanna Know? – Arctic Monkeys

This current sound suits Arctic Monkeys much better than their Garage Punk phase back when they first broke (somewhat) in America. This sound throws in a large dose of funky R&B with smoother vocals, addicting bass-lines, and musical seduction. This is the catchiest, most enjoyable song on the whole record.

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12) This is Love (Feels Alright) – Camera Obscura

Okay, so there is something about Camera Obscura that makes one think they were tailor crafted for your average NPR listener or Starbucks addict. They are nostalgic, arty, and nonthreatening. This is warm, country-tinged, beach-music recasting, world folk music that is capped by the warmest vocals on record this year. This stand-out track even makes use of the triangle! But it’s just so catchy, fun, romantic, and actually un-pretentious despite all of the elements which would be as such from many lesser artists.

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11) Sea of Love – The National

The National haven’t historically made much that could serve as hit singles despite being on a run of at least three classic albums by this point; but “Sea of Love” rocks harder and more convincingly than anything they’ve ever done on the harder edge. Matt Berringer’s complex, nuanced, often cryptic, lyrics are the draw for most National fans but they’ve always been presented with a captivating (if monotonous to some) baritone and backed by seriously talented musicianship. Here on this song, the more “listener-friendly” elements of the band come together–a good chorus, some great break-downs, excellent drum-beat, etc.

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10) Reflketor – Arcade Fire

I almost chose several tracks from the great new Arcade Fire record, but I ultimately felt like this opening title track is the best single song on the album and also an excellent encapsulation of the album as a whole as well. It’s over 7 minutes long but never wears out its welcome. From it’s slow burn opening to its David Bowie assisted closing, the elements of Carribean, Afro-Pop, Disco, Techno, Indie Pop, and  Synth Pop make for a perfect dance-floor soundscape which support some great thematic and captivating lyrics that ask big questions, and express big concerns. The idea of technology assisted isolation, the concept that we all exist together alone in the social media age is perfectly distilled here without weighing down a great rock song.

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9) Idol – Smith Westerns

I loved the entire Soft Will album these guys released this year. I listened to it all summer long and it is likely one of the closest albums to making my final best-albums list that I haven’t mentioned so far; this second song on the record shows what they do best. It’s Big Star like power pop with elements of the Smiths in the background. It’s melancholy and joyful at the same time, a perfect summer song that kind of emotionally recreates the last summer of everyone’s high-school– it looks forward and backward simultaneously, transforms nostalgia into creative new ground and yet never deviates from a perfect (and perfectly simplistic) pop song.

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8) Tennis Court – Lorde

Lorde had an unexpected smash hit with “Royals,” and now this anti-pop anti-consumerism alt-teen who seemed to be making hip hop influenced pop with tongue placed firmly in cheek is now herself a pop star. “Royals” is fine but I prefer “Tennis Court” which is just so precocious yet captivating. A great beat, surprisingly competent rapping, and a great self-conscious hook.

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7) Drove Me Wild – Tegan and Sara

The surprise pop album of the year; Tegan and Sara have long made excellent music, but I doubt anyone ever expected them to forgo their emotionally meditative emo-tinted indie rock for a full-on dance pop record. The whole Heartthrob album is fantastic, but this romantic bedroom reminiscence buoyed by high-energy beats, melodies, and T&S’s soaring vocals is my favorite cut thereon.

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6) Burnin’ It Down – Steve Earle & The Dukes (And Duchesses)

Steve Earle regrouped with his Dukes this year, a band that usually assisted him in making his rock-country upper music, yet that here give him suitable backing for his folk Americana tales. “Burnin’ It Down” is a full on outspoken anti-WalMart song. The narrator describes visiting his home town, a place he had always thought he would return to in retirement, yet finding it decimated by the new Wal-Mart. So he sits in his truck in the parking lot contemplating arson. It works as a strictly anti-corporate track but even more powerfully as a song about the sadness one realizes when they find they never can really go home again.

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5) If I Could Change Your Mind – Haim

When I read the pre-release buzz for Haim I expected to hear a hard rock (or at least full tilt rock and roll) girl group. Instead, Days Are Gone is yet another 80s inspired pop rock record in a year full of them. But that’s fine, because the songs on it are beautiful, Stevie Nicks led Fleetwood Mac meets Cindi Lauper style post-aughties pop. There are a lot of standout earworms on the record, but the best to me is this one.

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4) Broken – Jake Bugg

Jake Bugg released two records this year and is quickly proving himself to be a great new young talent, a folk singer who draws on the oldest of rock’s folk re-appropriations to do the same thing to them that they did to the classic folkies yet again in a new, modern manner. The best cut from his first record is this single, “Broken.” It’s just an achingly beautiful love song.

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3) Neko Case – Man

This is Neko’s best single since “This Tornado Loves You.” Her voice is still the best instrument in practically all of modern popular music and her talent for writing excellent (if sometimes indiscernible in meaning) lyrics continues here, all of which is propelled relentlessly forward by a groove-oriented rock and roll rhythm section. Is she critiquing the entire concept of gender roles, labels, expectations, etc? I think so?

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2) Jason Isbell – Elephant

Isbell made the best record of the year, Southeastern. I have several rotating favorite cuts from that record, yet as I mentioned in my album review, this song I have perhaps played the least. Yet I think it is by far the best song on the entire album. There is a short list of songs that I keep, songs that I love, that I think rank among the best ever written but that are so powerful, emotional, haunting, or troubling that I find it difficult to casually listen to them. I’ve started to spin this one a bit more now, but it was beginning to drift into that category for me. It’s just so raw, honest, and real; he retells a friendship with a woman dying of cancer in such an achingly present manner that it is hard to listen to without getting very sad. “No one dies with dignity” hits like a punch to the gut and speaks a deep if troubling truth by the time you reach it as a listener. Isbell’s voice is in top form here, the music is sparse but memorable, the hooks perfect, the chorus low and properly under-stated, and the lyrics likely the best written by any major popular musician this entire year.Local_Natives-_Bryan_Sheffield1

1) Local Natives – Ceilings

I didn’t know this would be my number 1 song until rather recently. It always seems to me like my top pick should represent something about the year as a whole; either because it signifies a style, genre, scene or theme or because it carries a message appropriate to where the world was that year. This year though, I have to opt for this dreamy, perfect little indie rock ballad. I’ve never ranked a Local Natives album at the top of anything but they always make good music; they also manage to occasionally make single songs that stick with me and cause me to relentlessly listen to them repeatedly, to include on a dozen separate mixes, and to revisit  for years to come. Such was the case with “Wild Eyes” in 2010 and such is the case with “Ceilings” this year. I played “Ceilings” more than any other new track this year and I will likely listen to it quite a bit in the future. I love the vocals, the melody, the lyrics. None of these things are unusually progressive, forceful, extraordinary literate or daringly proficient. Everything just comes together simply, fully, cohesively. The feel of one perfect album, movie, or moment in life just comes down drastically condensed into a song that is six seconds short of three minutes. My favorite song of 2013.

Top 10 Hip Hop Albums of 2013

December 18, 2013

This is the second of my genre-specific lists; you can read my picks for the “Top 10 Metal Albums of the year here. My overall “Top 10 Albums of the Year” list can be found by clicking here. Coming soon I will post my “Top 25 Songs of 2013” as well as my picks for the “Top 10 Films of 2013.”

I mentioned in my Metal post that I would be linking to a few related observational pieces about Metal, specifically concerning Metal and religious/philosophical viewpoints as well as Metal tropes and lyrical/imagery commentary. I think a few similar Hip Hop pieces are in order; I realize that I saddle hip hop with more expectation regarding lyrical content and approach than I do many other genres. This has a lot to do with how gender and race issues move so blatantly to the forefront with the repetitive use of certain epithets in hip hop, but it also has to do with the often strict divide between “conscious” rappers who offer social commentary in their music and “popular” (or in certain eras/genres “gangsta”) rappers who forgo such “seriousness.” I am far from the first to ponder these issues, but I feel it’s time to revisit them from my own perspective since it likely affects the way I pick/place particular albums.

Once again, for those who read my blog but could care less about my pop-culture end-of-year lists, I will be beginning a new series of posts on “Evolutionary Theology” in January.

Now on to my picks for the year’s best hip hop albums. This is the first year since I’ve been doing these posts in which not a single hip hop album made my overall Top 10 Albums list; last year Kendrick Lamar placed high and once a hip hop album ranked number 1 (Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers). I was disappointed by much of what I heard in Hip Hop this year; particularly by Eminem’s latest, but his was hardly the only disappointment. Even the albums on the back half of this list have many things about them which disappoint me, but there was also enough about them that I enjoyed that they still placed in my top 10.  Read on and see what you think.

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10) MIA – Matagani

MIA remains one of the most creative voices in all of popular music; her work is global, world Hip Hop. It has long become clear she is not the “visionary” her strongest fans projected her as upon the release of her terrific Kala album years ago, but despite the growing number of detractors she’s had with each record which has followed that first hype-fest, she has remained a strong artist; I thought Maya was far better than many gave it credit for and ranked it with my best album picks the year it came out. But here on Matagani  there are several under-whelming and half-cooked moments. The things that are enjoyable about MIA are still found beneath and around the less than great moments; “Bad Girls” is still one of her best singles ever, finally finding its way onto an album here. There are many other good moments to be found as well,  though no whole song quite lives up to that particular single. I’m waiting though, because I think another (or a a few) great album(s) are waiting for us somewhere in her brain.

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9) Jay-Z – Magna Carta…Holy Grail

For all of the hype this album garnered pre-release, and considering it comes from arguably the best (technical) rapper of all time, Magna Carta…is highly under-whelming. If Jay-Z wasn’t so ridiculously talented this would not even be a listenable album in many ways. No one that actually listens to hip hop can possibly relate to Jay in his 1-percenter art-collecting boasts, but that’s beside the point; hip hop fans have been listening to un-relatable personas for decades now. But the fact that he just phones it in on tracks like “Crown” is annoying. Enough complaints; this is in fact placing on my list here, so why? Because of a song like “Heaven”; it actually shows Jay daring to say some things that matter and in doing so over top of a great sample and a decent hook he makes one of the best songs of the year. Then there’s “Picasso Baby” which overflows with those things none of us can relate to but since it is done over such a great beat and features Jay rhyming at the top of his game it garners a pardon and becomes a great track. There are enough good moments on this record that make it worth listening to even when too much of it is indeed mediocre in comparison with his prior work.

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8) Kanye West – Yeezus

Now talk about an artist not phoning it in; hate it or love it, it is undeniable that Kanye West is a creative force with a unique vision and that he is an artist that takes his work seriously. I will admit that I do not love this album, however. I am blown away by the massive amount of love it is receiving, getting top praise from everyone from Rolling Stone to Christian Century ( ! ) in year-end lists. I almost didn’t include it here but I realize a lot of that is because the artist I loved who made the all-time debut classic The College Drop-Out has been slowly disappearing with every new album and transforming into the artist and persona presented here in full on Yeezus. Yet in the end, I had to include it here if for no reason other than its sheer ambition. Despite everything, Kanye is ambitous and he is willing to take risks. He’s also a consummate producer; this is a dark, challenging, intense record in every aspect of its production yet it sounds terrific. It’s the lyrics and the content here that I find beneath Kanye’s talent and intelligence and the only way to excuse that in full is by assuming this is some sort of meta-critique on fame, greed, sex and society. I think a lot of people are making that assumption but I’m not sure that we should truly be so presumptuous. There is plenty here to love and hate and it’s compelling through and through. “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” are undeniable tracks.

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7) Pusha T – My Name is My Name

Kanye again; that is, Kanye produced this record. Pusha T was 1/2 of the coke-rap Miami classic duo Clipse and now that his  brother No Malice has found religion and feels uncomfortable making the kind of nihilistic street menacing tunes the group was famous for, Pusha T continues that line of work as a solo artist. Under Kanye’s production there is a shift in sound for Pusha, but it suits him. After a series of decent mixtapes, My Name is My Name displays a full-set of polished songs which are over-the-top in content and theme yet are delivered in an under-stated and grimy manner.

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6) Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap

Chance the Rapper is crazy; that’s the best way of describing his work, rhymes, voice, beats, and album. Nothing sounded like this album. This is the first truly “millennial” hip hop voice I think we’ve heard thus far. Chance claims in interviews he may never release an actual official “album” (“what are those anyway,” he said in a recent Rolling Stone interview). This 13 track mixtape plays like free flow jazz hip hop for the internet generation. He’s fast, holding his own even with his guest the fast-rap champ Twista on the terrific smoke-cloud hit “Cocoa Butter Kisses.” That song and the lust meditation-dissection “Lost” are two of the best hip hop songs of the entire year, and they’re far from the only great songs on this thing. This may have been the most original and creative hip hop work of the year–no one sounded like this on any other album this year (or in any recent year really–he certainly has his own voice).

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5) J Cole – Born Sinner

Cole is interesting in that he seems to always be straddling the backpacker/in the club tight-wire; he’s smart enough to be a “conscious rapper,” but such a fan of classic mainstream hip hop that he seems to push himself to the middle of the lane sometimes. He also hasn’t learned from, say, Eminem’s mistakes on slurs and “controversy”–opening this album with a line in “Villuminati” that throws out “faggot” a few times (not to mention “retards”) and then saying he did so to encourage a discussion in hip hop on homophobia seems to be a bit odd to say the least. Cole is very talented and his first major mixtape hit “Lights Please” (repackaged on his solid official label debut) made me an instant fan and follower of all of his subsequent work. Every time I’m let down by some of his missteps, I’m brought back by some of his highlights–sometimes this occurs over the course of the same song, as is often the case on the tracks here. There are some great catchy songs here and Cole is a truly good rapper; there are brilliant moments that bubble up on many of the songs and throughout much of the bonus material for this album as well. I’m still waiting for his true potential and intelligence to come across in full on an entire album however.

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4) Kevin Gates – The Luca Brasi Story

For the past few years, most of the best hip hop has come out completely free in the form of digital mixtapes. The internet has exploded that old standby of hip hop and expanded and enhanced it; where once a mixtape consisted primarily of an up-start rapper hijacking the beats of current hit songs to rhyme in a mostly unfocused manner to simply show off their technical skills and had to be tracked down on cassette or cheap burnt CDs at barber shops and flea markets, the internet has transformed mixtapes into often label worthy work that serves as debut work for new artists, lavished with quality production and released for free to build hype. Mixtapes also serve as a way to sustain a career between official releases or to serve as experimental forays of already established artists, and this current list showcases some of the variety this form of distribution  now allows. Gates also had a studio release this year, months after Luca Brasi, but it is this mixtape which has remained in my rotation all year. There are certainly some clunkers in this rather lengthy work, but the highlights are really good highlights. “Paper Chasers” is the best sing-songy gangsta rap song since 50’s first album; “Neon Lights” is a late night woozy stunner. His nod to the teen vamp love of “Twilight” showcases his versatility and willingness to pull influence from the unlikeliest of places. And last on tape but certainly not least, the hype-worthy understated acapella storytelling of “IHOP” fully displays his promise and talent.

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3) Drake – Nothing Was the Same

Drake continues to establish himself as the mainstream’s current defining young hip hop artist. “Started From the Bottom” is ridiculously simple yet also ridiculously catchy. It’s also a bit misleading considering that Drake jumped directly from a hit Canadian teen melodrama to hip hop superstar status practically straight out of the gate, but this third official full-length is chock full of hip hop pop little matched by any of his direct competitors. He’s more emo than any hip hop figure in radio’s history, fully willing to open his mind and heart to every listener, detailing his personal relationship, fame, and social struggles more than even “Cleaning Out My Closet” era Eminem. But from the chorus-less “Tuscan Leather” to the 3AM earworm “Wu-Tang Forever”, as well as the Kanye-esque “Worst Behavior”, this is one strong set of songs, perhaps his strongest yet. “Hold On, We’re Going Home” is the cherry on top; a full on synth-pop song released in a year full of eighties dance reinterpretations–Drake make’s one of the best of that batch. Just turn the album off after the closing action of the Jay-Z team-up “Pound Cake/Paris Morton 2”;  the bonus tracks (like “All Me” featuring the less than mediocre Big Sean and 2 Chainz in braggadocios consumption at its absolute worst) are simply Drake over-staying his welcome  when ending it on time showcases him on top.

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2) Black Milk – No Poison No Paradise

I have only very recently discovered Black Milk. Had I had this record all year long and absorbed it a bit more it very likely may have been number 1 here on this list and perhaps placed in my overall Top 10 Albums of 2013 list. On my number 1 pick directly ahead, I name one of that duo the best current combination beatmaker-rapper; Black Milk could very well contest that title, so perhaps I should call it a tie. Because production wise, this is a flawless album; and rhyme wise, Milk has a terrific flow, great rhymes, and an enjoyable voice. This is a fine collection of songs as well, one that runs the emotional and conceptual gamut; from Biggie-like storytelling (“Codes and Cabfare”) head-nodders (“Interpret Sabotage”) street-church meditations (“Sunday’s Best”) and get-down seductions (“Parallels”). A lot of these are slow-burning tracks that need to be repeated a few times to truly be absorbed but they are well worth the time that takes. Like everything else on my hip hop list this year, there are (at least for me) occasionally disappointing lyrics in that someone who seems so wholly capable of saying important things also falls victim to some of the content cliches and language of modern hip hop, but this is a fine work nonetheless.

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1) Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels

So last year, two of the best hip hop albums to be released came from Killler Mike (his R.A.P. Music) and El-P (his Cancer4Cure). El-P produced both albums, and it seems like they realized that his production pairs perfectly with Killer Mike’s rhymes; not only that, they also rhyme together on tracks exceedingly well. My vote goes to El-P for current best combination beatmaker-rapper, and Killer Mike continues to manifest the persona of socially conscious yet unapologetic gangster that the 2pacs of yesteryear established as hip hop archetypes. Mike and El are simply a great pair, and thus they’ve formed this “Run the Jewels” duo. Their first record under the new moniker is this self-titled album which they gave away for free this summer. It’s a great, quick, fun hip hop record with the best production and rhymes found on anything (I at least) heard all year long. It lacks the fiery DP meets early Ice Cube political furor of Mike’s best tracks; the lyrical focus of this album seem to be mainly over-the-top imaginary capers, braggadocios swaggering, and simply chaotic wordplay. There are hints (perhaps doses?) of the outside the concerns of the mainstream mentality that both Mike and El-P maintain, and guests like Big Boi drop in to fill out the tracks; all in all this is a more than solid record that was just shy of cracking into my overall Top 10 Albums of 2013 list.

If you would like to read my overall top 10 album list and reviews of those albums, click here. This list is devoted just to Metal albums; coming soon are my “10 Best Hip Hop Albums of 2013” “Top 25 Songs of 2013” “Top 10 Films of 2013” and runner-up/etc. lists.

I have foregone the album reviews for these albums for the time being, I”m simply posting this with the picks themselves. I will edit this article at a future date to link upcoming articles pertaining to it in that I think the juxtaposition of the number 2 pick (by an open and wholehearted Christian band) and the number 3 pick (by a band wholly Anti-Christian) and the material, artists, and philosophies stretched out between those two polarities which populate the rest of the list is worthy of further examination. I also plan to delve more into some humorous aspects of my number 1 pick which exemplify what is best about the Metal genre and which is missed and misunderstood by those with no appreciation for it. Thanks for reading. More to come!

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10) Lamb of God – As the Palaces Burn (10th Anniversary Reissue)

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9) Metallica – Through the Never

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8) Devildriver – Winter Kills

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7) Autopsy – The Headless Ritual

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6) Exhumed – Necrocracy

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5) The Ocean – Pelagial

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4) The Black Dahlia Murder – Everblack

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3) Watain – The Wild Hunt

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2) Norma Jean – Wrongdoers

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1) Skeletonwitch – Serpents Unleashed

some seriously close contenders (seriously; the last portion of this list could easily be substituted for some of these b/c it was very, very close in this category this year):  Jungle Rot- Terror Regime; Chimaira – Crown of Phantoms; Carcass- Surgical Steel; Motorhead- Aftershock; Altar of Plagues- Teethed Glory and Injury; Gorguts- Colored Sands; Alice in Chains- The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here; Queens of the Stone Age – Like Clockwork

The Best Albums of 2013

December 7, 2013

It’s that time of year again–everyone’s rolling out their “Best of 2013” lists, and once again I’ll throw my two cents in. This post is my overall 10 best albums of 2013 list; over the next month I’ll follow it up with my genre-specific “Best Metal Albums” and “Best Hip Hop/R&B” lists as well as “Top 25 Songs,” and “10 Best Films of 2013.” For readers that visit my site and could care less about pop culture,  I plan to begin a new series of posts on “Evolutionary Theology” beginning in January. So here goes!

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10) Mazzy Star – Seasons of Your Day

This was my favorite relaxing listen of the year. Occupying the same space as Beach House did last year, Mazzy Star’s latest is the perfect mental soother that theirs  was last year; which is fitting since Mazzy presaged the whole chillwave scene by about ten years. They also do it better than most contemporaries in the field. “Common Burn” and “Lay Myself Down” were previously released as singles in a prior year, but this is the first full-length record from the group in quite some time and those excellent tracks fit perfectly within this overall work.  “In the Kingdom” and “California” couple with those tunes to make this some of the smoothest, most seductive melodic work made by anyone in any genre this year. Hope Sandoval’s vocals still sound amazing and effortless; Roback’s instrumental framework accentuates every subtle melody and finds a nice middle ground between folk and jazz by way of alternative rock.

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9) Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience (Part I)

Let’s just forget about part II so as not to guilt the springtime released first half of JT’s pop opus by association. While part II is buoyed by more traditional Timbaland beats more akin to his “Shock Value” albums, part I is an excellent record because Timbaland deviates way into left field for some of the most eccentric, artsy pop music while managing to still plant a flag in the mainstream radio world. Timberlake has been a confident signer and song-maker for years but this unexpected delivery of adult pop (in the best sense of the label) showcases his talent better than anything he’s ever done. His partnership with his producer here is simply perfect and results in long, shifting pop and R&B forays like “Pusher Love Girl” and “Strawberry Bubblegum” as well as lite-funk rock numbers like “That Girl,” bangers like “Tunnel Vision,” the world beat classic “Let the Groove Get In,” the terrific Jay-Z team-up “Suit and Tie,” and the closing  emo-soul indie pop meditation “Blue Ocean Floor.” While most songs here are lengthy, they never tire and this feels like the type of pop record Prince or Stevie Wonder would make in their prime if their prime was right now.

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8) Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Vampire Weekend are the quintessential college (or grad-school) indie rockers. Their work seems tailor made for critical praise which likely puts many off and causes them to avoid the work for fear of pretension. Yet with all of their work, and with this their latest more than ever, Vampire Weekend are undeserving of such avoidance because their music neither bows to any current scene nor aggressively avoids them. They simply make the type of music they seem to want to make; they’re wordy but the songs don’t trip over those words; they’re experimental without being un-listenable; and they know how to make a catchy hook (“Diane Young” for one prime example here). They speak to the fears, hopes, compulsions, and  daily affairs of a generation of young adults unsure of how to really be adults. “Obvious Bicycle” is one of the best album openers since “Tonight Tonight” and “Unbelievers” is so catchy it should have placed in top 40 radio. This is their strongest and most varied album to date, and though it falls of just a bit in it’s final leg, it’s still one of the strongest albums released all year.

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7) Dawes – Stories Don’t End

Dawes do best what a half-dozen or so other bands do more commercially successful than them. For all the heartfelt roots-rockers playing to millions, Dawes craft better songs and play better music than any of those others. They can detour into hokey and overly-earnest, but never to the detriment of the music. “From a Window Seat,” “Just Beneath the Surface,” and the title track are the best songs they’ve released so far, and their CSNY vibe is a more than welcome addition to modern pop music.

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6) The National – Trouble Will Find Me

The National has been around for quite awhile now. I first fell in love with their music with The Boxer,  and as everything they’ve released since has followed that same basic path I’ve found each outing with them rewarding. Trouble Will Find Me is a showcase for story, catharsis and emotion. As always the (often vague or open to interpretation) lyrics are the centerpiece and the music builds up, swirls around, and accents Matt Berringer’s baritone vocals.”Sea of Love” rocks harder than most National tracks and was one of my most played tracks of the year according to my i-tunes counter. “I Need My Girl” is the sweetest ballad Berringer has ever put on record and “Don’t Swallow the Cap” easily stands up with anything on Boxer (or anything else for that matter).

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5) Skeletonwitch – Serpents Unleashed

This is the highest an extreme metal record has ever ranked on one of my top-ten comprehensive album lists. This likely has a lot to do with the sheer amount of metal I’ve listened to this year (which made picking my top 10 metal records a bit harder this year), but also with the compact excellence of both Skeletonwitch as a band and their latest album in particular. This is just 30 some odd minutes of the best blend of extreme metal sub-genres imaginable–a little bit of thrash, black, death, and a few hints of pure rock and roll all blended together in a tightly played, entertainingly howled little gem. The more I listen to this band the more I love them for being a fun, full-throttle homage to all that they (and most metalheads) love about metal music and culture. Skeletonwitch, for all hints given thus far in interviews and appearances, appear to be average, fun-loving American guys who transform into musical demons on stage (and on record) to deliver tongue-in-cheek (but not self-satirical) apocalyptic horror stories that pummel full-throttle with riffs galore. None of their albums deviate much from their tried and true formula, and though they switch producers for each outing they’ve been accused of making the same record over and over–I would disagree. I think they’ve found their right sound now, tweaking it just enough to let their work do what it does best. Their last record was the cementing of that sound with the right production and this one pushes that even further to result in the best album they have yet made. The songs this time around are the best songs they’ve ever had, and though they blend together over the course of the album they are still distinctive enough to stand alone and be memorable. “Beneath Dead Leaves” is but one of several stand-outs but perhaps best displays the seamless shift and blend of metal categories the Witch is capable of traversing in a brief 3 minutes.

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4) Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks

Trent Reznor returns to making music as NIN and makes one of the best records he’s made under any name in years. “Hesitation Marks” owes more to his earliest work–“Pretty Hate Machine”–than the full-on metal which made him famous (“Downward Spiral,” “Broken”) and also incorporates the styles he’s crafted in his post-NIN work scoring films and in his How to Destroy Angels band, yet it still feels fittingly like NIN. It’s death-disco (as some of his work has been labelled in the past) for the NSA age (“Satellite”). This is creative work that captures an artists who has finally tackled his depression and become sober and as such it’s allowed to be a bit upbeat without being shallowly optimistic (“Everything”). Heavy on the synthesizers and retreading some of his favorite lyrical tropes, it feels refreshing anyway. “Came Back Haunted” is like a teethed version of one of Reznor’s Ghosts while “All Time Low” is R&B techno metal complete with falsetto vocals. It’s good to have new records and a no-holds barred tour from one of the best in the business.

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3) Neko Case – The Worse Things Get The Harder I Fight The Harder I Fight The More I Love You

Neko can’t really be called an alt-country singer anymore; her drift to full left field began with Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and continues even here. She finds melodies, lyrics, and song  structures in unusual places yet somehow always makes them work. She also still possesses possibly the best vocals in all of modern popular music. “Man” is one of the best singles of the year and if she chooses to follow it with “Local Girl” she might have another one next year. She’s used great, great hooks sparingly on some tracks in the past (“That Teenage Feeling”) but here she layers them up and repeats them warmly and rewarding (“Night Still Comes,” etc.) Neko revisits “Magpie to the Morning” as the album draws to a close, and by that point she seems to know her audience is one that’s in for the long haul.

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2) Arcade Fire – Reflektor

I don’t love Reflketor in the same way or to quite the degree of which I did their last outing (and my number 1 pick that year) The Suburbs, but I am glad they didn’t rehash that same style here. This is a different outing for them and it is a successful one. This is Arcade Fire doing an early era Talking Heads’ record by way of Bowie (who even guests on the opening title track). As is always the case with Arcade Fire, Reflektor is an album-lovers album, with consistency, inter-connectedness and themes galore. I will admit the narrative flow of previous Arcade albums has been easier to follow; this time I certainly get the “we are all together alone” coldness of modern technology and culture vibe present throughout the songs here much more than I follow the mythology and epic story alluded to in the cover of the album that is allegedly a major story going on over the course of the album as well. But beyond that, all that really matters in an album placing so high here is songs, right? And of those, there are plenty of gems. The techno-bumpy postmodern dance groove of the opening title track, the jammy T-Heads thump of “We Exist,” the full on rocker “Normal Person,” the wonderful buoyed by a fantastic bass riff number “Joan of Arc” (which may contain my favorite lyrics of the whole album), the Pink Floydish “Awful Sound”…these are all great songs which makes it hard to focus on any single one in brief recap here. There is no filler here and I really love this record; I love the boundaries it pushes against and the way it channels its inspirations into wholly unique work of its own. I love that it aims big and delivers unfailingly as entertainment even when the ambtions aren’t really that achievable.

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1) Jason Isbell – Southeastern

Isbell’s latest album is his to-date triumph. He’s always been a great songwriter, singer, and musician, but until now he has failed to produce a wholly consistent showcase for his own work. He wrote some of the finest tunes in DBT’s middle era (“Danko/Manuel”, “Goddamn Lonely Love”, “Decoration Day”, “Outfit”) and his work with The 400 Unit and alone has resulted in a few stellar songs as well (“Alabama Pines,” “No Choice in the Matter”) but it wasn’t until now that he had a defining work that seems to be wholly his own. Southeastern is a definitive work and I have no doubt that it is but the first of many classic albums Jason has in store for listeners. Oddly enough, I wasn’t sure this record was going to place on my end-of-year list until rather recently, which makes its stake here at number 1 even more surprising to me now. I spun it a few times when it first came out and enjoyed it, felt it was probably his best personal work to date, then filed it away. Then about a month or two ago I clicked on it on my i-pod while my headphones were on and though I hadn’t planned to, listened to the whole thing in one. Then proceeded to rotate it around again for the next few days. “Cover Me Up,” and “Traveling Alone” were singles that made their way onto many mixes I made over the year and they still held up as great, great songs but the others began to be just as compelling. “Elephant” perhaps even too much–some songs are almost too emotional and powerful to make for comfortable listening and “Elephant” is one on a very short-list of such tracks for me. Yet it’s worth the discomfort because it is just so good. My personal favorite song of the batch as of this recapping though is “Songs That She Sang in the Shower”–it shows how deftly Isbell writes great songs, how he makes it seem effortless. Songs like that one display him as one of the best and most under-rated songwriters of his generation. Wit, emotion, catharsis; so much is packed into his lyrics and yet nothing falls flat, sounds pretentious or contrived. He’s equally at home opening his personal struggles up for his audience (“Super 8,” “Traveling Alone”) or telling grim yet captivating narrative tales (“Yvette”). If it were just as a songwriter that Isbell excelled at, this might not be a number 1 album for any but the most bookish and critical of lists; but Isbell compliments every lyric with excellent vocals, melodies, and guitar work. Southeastern recounts Isbell’s battle to sobriety and makes a compelling case that for him, sobriety has resulted in artistic growth and maturity. A fine, timeless work by a musician fully coming into his own and writing songs better than anyone else around him in modern popular music.