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The Top Five Albums of 2013: Neeharika’s List

31 Dec

As I mentioned in my Top Five Songs of 2013 list last week, 2013 has been a decent year for music. There were some great debuts, even better follow-ups and a promise for the future. So, without further ado, here’s my take on the Top Five Albums of 2013.

– Neeharika

5. Shaking the Habitual, by The Knife

Shaking the Habitual

It’s often hard to imagine what ‘textural’ means in the context of music. How can a purely tactile sense be attributed to sound? The word is often thrown about as a vague catch-all for everything from ambient to post-rock, but there is music for which ‘textural’ is a perfect adjective. One such example is The Knife’s fervent fourth album, Shaking the Habitual, which puts you in the middle of a seethingly alive jungle.

On “A Tooth For an Eye”, Karin Dreijer Andersson’s wild, unintelligible chants soar and whoop like tribal cants through her brother Olof Dreijer ‘s electronic safari through a rain-forest. The strongest beat lies on “Full of Fire”, which could form the ominous soundtrack for a dream that wakes you up sweating and disturbed.  You could get lost in the labyrinth of “Raging Lung”, gasping for breath while your masked overlords laugh at your ghastly predicament. It’s like each song comes with its own dizzying music video.

I will freely admit that I wasn’t a fan of The Knife prior to this album; their much-hyped Silent Shout came off as far too pretentious, like early Animal Collective gestated too far into the sinisterly inaccessible. However, after a few listens of Shaking the Habitual, I found myself getting enveloped in the ethereal gauze of “A Cherry on Top”, the busy techno of Networking” and the dark drama of “Wrap Your Arms Around Me”. While it’s still not the most accessible music – case in point, the 19-minute horror-movie diegetic “Old Dreams Waiting to be Realized” – there may hardly be an album in 2013 more imaginative and textural (there’s that word again) than Shaking the Habitual. Recommended, for those willing to stomach it.

Best tracks: “A Tooth For an Eye”, “Raging Lung”

4. Pure Heroine, by Lorde

Pure Heroine

Contrary to what twee stars may have you believe, being a 16-year-old famous pop star is not always easy or even fun. Even a normal teenager’s world seems to change all too rapidly; imminent rise to fame can only cause further confusion. Lorde’s Pure Heroine (full review here) is a meditation on this theme, a sort of commentary piece to the young New Zealander’s sudden rise to fame.

But sudden does not mean unexpected. In her mid-teens, Lorde possesses musical chops like none of her peers. She wields her whip-sharp pen – writing cleverly about teenage romance and suburban life and impending fame – with as much confidence as she sings, sly smirk in place. Add to that a magnetic personality – the hair! the winged mascara! – and you’ve got yourself a true pop star. The difference is that she really doesn’t want to be one. “We crave a different kind of buzz,” she explains on her hit “Royals”, before going on to claim her personal throne: “Let me be your ruler/ You can call me Queen Bee.” She fears fame, too, with the intensity of a small-town girl pushed into big-city spotlights: “How can I fuck with the fun again, when I’m known,” she wonders wistfully on “Tennis Court”. It’s quite a refreshing take on success.

Pure Heroine by Lorde – note the effect of the foisted ‘e’ in both cases – is perhaps the best debut of 2013, and one of the best albums overall. It will be interesting to see where true fame takes Lorde in her follow-up albums. She’s one to watch, for sure.

Best tracks: “Tennis Court”, “Royals”

3. Days Are Gone, by Haim

Days Are Gone

Every once in a while, a true revivalist comes along, making music that sounds like it should have been a famous hit already. On their debut Days Are Gone (full review here), Haim have managed pay perfect homage to a discography spanning synth-heavy hits from the late 70s all the way to glossy-lipped R&B from the 90s.

Haim comprises three attractive sisters – Danielle, Este and Alana Haim – whose first band was called Rockinhaim, composed of themselves and their parents. The girls make sunny, honest, genuine music that speaks of their pedigree as much as it does of their home in California’s carefree San Fernando Valley.

That Days Are Gone is a debut is a little hard to believe at times. Just listen to the sludgy-cool “My Song 5” or the shining hooks on “Honey & I”. This is music that already has a classic feel. In fact, Days Are Gone often feels like a best-of compilation of female-fronted music from pop’s golden eras, which is probably what the Haim girls intended to do.

Whether on the breezy post-breakup title song or on the irresistibly catchy “The Wire”, Danielle, Este and Alana have the confidence of old sessions regulars with nothing to prove, or world-famous musicians with several concert tours under their belts. With that sort of aura, it seems only natural that the Haim sisters are set to be superstars.

Best tracks: “The Wire”, “My Song 5”

2. AM, by Arctic Monkeys

AM

In late 2005, four young British lads released a kicker of an album about life as young British lads that immediately shot to unrivaled success. They hadn’t planned on fame: neighbors Alex Turner and Jaime Cook asked for guitars on Christmas only a few years prior so that they could play some songs together with their high school friend Matt Helders. Somehow, in an accident that involved the novelty of file-sharing, MySpace and a shamelessly salivating British music press, the boys became superstars: shy, ill-suited for fame and too wordy for their own good, but superstars nonetheless.

In 2009, Arctic Monkeys took a break from their witty chronicles of getting turned down by girls in clubs and headed to the California desert with Queens of the Stone Age front-man Josh Homme, who lent a heavy black aura to their music and lyrics. The band lost a legion of their earlier fans with the resulting album Humbug; even I, a devout fan-girl, was tempted to think that the Monkeys were losing their touch with this strange new direction. It didn’t help that the follow-up Suck It and See was lacklustre at best, with elliptical lyrics and a conspicuous lack of blistering indie rock that diverged sharply from their original image.

But now it all makes sense. Themes from their entire discography – the lusty darkness of Humbug and the way lyrics were carefully wrought on Favorite Worst Nightmare  – make an appearance on AM, which may just be their best album yet.

Every part of their act has gotten tighter. Alex has evolved as a vocalist, effecting a sly, jilted prowl on “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” as easily as the whipped desperation on “Fireside”. His lyrics, too, have gotten even better. “It’s much less picturesque without her catching the light/ The horizon tries but it’s just not as kind on the eyes,” Mr. Turner sighs about the eponymous woman on “Arabella”, going on to croon, “And her lips are like the galaxy’s edge/ And her kiss the colour of a constellation falling into place.” Quite the poet he is.

But the band is not a one-man show. On AM, Arctic Monkeys have damn near perfected the art of drawing organically from influences to create a their own new sound. Jaime Cook’s ponderous riff on “Do I Wanna Know?” evokes a stripped-down QOTSA while “Arabella” could be slipped into a Black Sabbath mixtape. The best example, though, comes on “Mad Sounds”, a beautiful ballad that fittingly brings to mind the late Lou Reed, complete with “ooh la las” sprinkled over a sparkling-pop everyman love song.

The Arctic Monkeys’ fifth album is the latest stepping stone on their journey from clever cads with guitars to mature musicians. AM is at once the culmination of everything the band has done so far as well as an exciting direction for the future. One thing’s for certain: as good as this album is, their best is yet to come.

Best tracks: “Arabella”, “Why’d You Always Call Me When You’re High?”

1. Random Access Memories, by Daft Punk

Random Access Memories

Putting Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (full review here) above an Arctic Monkeys masterpiece really made me think. On one hand, I’ve been a rabid Arctic Monkeys fangirl for the past decade; on the other, Random Access Memories is otherworldly genius. In the end, timeless genius won over everything else, and that is why Random Access Memories is, in my opinion, the best album of the year.

There’s very little to say that hasn’t been said already. We can talk about the featured artists – industry legends and indie superstars alike – and how their combined starpower with Daft Punk resulted in perfect collaborations. “Doin’ It Right” sounds exactly like how an Animal Collective-tinged Daft Punk song should sound, while “Instant Crush” featuring Julian Casablancas would fit in uncannily well on the Strokes’ Comedown Machine.

We can talk about the theme – futuristic humans-turned-robots finding their way back to humanity through love and the power of music – and how perfectly every song fits into the overall idea, like robot-manufactured puzzle pieces. The story stretches from the disco heydey on song-of-the-year “Get Lucky” to the magnum opus “Touch”, which is basically a fantastic, musical version of Pixar’s Wall-E.

We can talk about the music itself, ranging from lackadaisical bliss on “Lose Yourself to Dance” to instrumental fantasia on “Motherboard”. But in the end, it’s as Giorgio says on the epic “Giorgio by Moroder”: “Once you want to free your mind about a concept of harmony and music being correct, you can do whatever you want.” This, in essence, Daft Punk’s idea for Random Access Memories.

This is not music. It’s expression: timeless and impossibly perfect.

Best tracks: “Get Lucky”, “Lose Yourself to Dance”

The Top Five Songs of 2013: Neeharika’s List

23 Dec

With about a week to go before the end of the year, 2013 is being hailed by critics across the board as a good year for music. We saw the emergence of new, promising artists like Haim and Lorde, and saw great followups by established acts such as Arctic Monkeys and Daft Punk. My Bloody Valentine made a reappearance twenty-two years (!) after their previous album, while Kanye West released a mad-hatter album whose hype rivals, if not exceeds, that which surrounded his blockbuster from 2010. Chance the Rapper and Earl Sweatshirt, too, released important rap albums. All in all, it was a good year for music. Here’s my take on the top five songs of the year. Hope you like it!

– Neeharika

5. “The Wire” by Haim

Haim

There are a handful of songs in the world where all the elements – the music, the lyrics, the style and the influences – sync perfectly and irrefutably together. These songs are very, very few and far between, and are invariably propelled to ‘instant classic’ status. It can be said, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that “The Wire” is one of these songs.

Haim, a trio of sisters from sunny California, has been making all the right kind of headlines since their debut Days are Gone released in September. Even though they have been compared to everyone from Fleetwood Mac to the Dixie Chicks, Haim has an unshakeable foundation which lets them use their influences as flavoring rather than as the main ingredient. However you look at it, Haim is one of the most attractive and truly talented bands out there today.

“The Wire”, a confessional about wisely letting go of a failing relationship, is an irresistibly catchy example of Haim’s allure. Existing in a universe where The Bangles open for Madonna (or maybe the other way around), “The Wire” is one of the best songs of the year and perhaps one that 2013 will be remembered for, well into the future.

View our full album review here.

4. “Right Action” by Franz Ferdinand

In early 2004, a Scottish indie rock band released an eponymous debut album, smartly titled after a European archduke who catalysed one of history’s largest events. Fittingly, the album provided a similarly intense shot-in-the-arm for the indie rock world, which had been languishing since The Strokes released their unbeatable debut three years prior.

Franz Ferdinand’s post-punk/steampunk hit “Take Me Out”, which was coupled with a video that showcased the band’s monstrously creative art-school sensibilities, remained the band’s song to beat. Now, almost a decade later, Franz Ferdinand has finally created a true successor to their best-known song – and man, it’s good.

“Right Action” is an almost-love song (“Sometimes I wish you were here, weather permitting”) that paraphrases Buddhist tenets (“Right thoughts, right words, right actions”) over a relentless dance-party riff. It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that the song’s a riot and a half. The video, like all Franz Ferdinand videos, is mindblowingly artsy, and the boys are as slick and well-dressed as ever. Alex Kapranos has said that the band’s raison d’etre is to make music that girls can dance to. Franz Ferdinand may be a decade old, but you can bet your skinny tie that they can still own any dance party.

3. “Bad Girls” by M.I.A.

London-via-Sri Lanka swag goddess MIA has always been known for her ridiculous amounts of devil-may-care confidence. But nowhere in her career has she been as swagtastic as in the video for “Bad Girls”. In front of an audience of traditionally-attired Arab men, MIA drag-races – on cars tilted 45 degrees to the vertical – while repeating her feminist, fuck-you mantra: “Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well.”

MIAThe implicit understanding that the video is taking place in Saudi Arabia – where woman drivers, let alone irreverent women atop cars, are forbidden – makes “Bad Girls” one of the rowdiest things that MIA has ever done. The song itself tilts, much like MIA’s cars, between exotic mysticism and gilded braggadocio, and in a way, it’s a metaphor for the artist herself. Whatever the angle, though, it’s just a ridiculously good song.

2. “Royals” by Lorde

Ironically aristocratic teenage sensation Lorde is, ironically, 2013’s It-girl. On “Royals”, her break-out, chart-topping lead single, Lorde sings about her inability to associate with the gaudy extravagance of popular musicians. “We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair,” she asserts, placing herself firmly in the zone of the non-celebrity.

Over a deep-drum, threadbare beat, Lorde eschews the trappings of fame for a more localized aristocracy: “Let me be your ruler, you can call me queen bee,” she says. Ironically, though, this very song catapulted her into immediate pop royalty, charting her over self-indulgent pop mainstays such as Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus. Not bad for a sixteen year old, wouldn’t you say?

View our full album review here.

1. “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk

“Get Lucky” was first released into the world through a 15-second advertisement on Saturday Night Live in early March. The rabid craze that followed that brief snippet foreshadowed the near future: a particularly enthusiastic fan even spun that 15-second sample into an extended 10-hour jam (!).  At that point, the world didn’t even know much about the song – apart from a warm, glittering riff that somehow automatically brought to mind a disco ball. By the time Daft Punk released the song in April though, everyone knew all the words. It was, in mid-spring, already the song of the summer.

“Get Lucky” is musical perfection enveloped in four minutes. It’s the reckless abandon on a disco dance floor. It’s the magic of meeting someone more promising than you’ve met in years. It’s the realization that love keeps the planet spinning, that music rebirths from itself like a phoenix. “Get Lucky” is a gift from a pair of robots to humankind, reminding us of a forgotten truth: that the past is golden and the future holds endless possibilities.

In 2013, musicians around the world made music that impacted some of us in certain ways. In 2013, Daft Punk made a song that could – and should – eventually be sent out of our world into endless space as a symbol of what humankind can achieve… with a little help from robots, of course.

View our full album review here.

So there you have it! Stay tuned for more Top Five lists coming up soon, including our Top Five Albums of 2013!

Lorde: Pure Heroine

17 Dec

Pure Heroine

“Don’t you think it’s boring how people talk?” begins the opening line of the debut by 16-year-old New Zealand wunderkind Lorde, a.k.a. Ella Yelich-O’Connor. An introspective teenager too frank and frugal for the feigned opulence of today’s youth, Lorde awes through all 37 minutes of Pure Heroine through poignant lyrics that often overshadow her beautiful voice. Throughout the album, almost-poetess Lorde uses many motifs – the cusp of fame often coinciding with the cusp of adulthood, pulsing veins and white teeth, and the overarching theme of aristocracy – but it never gets repetitive. In fact, the repeated themes only highlight the fact that the young singer wrote all the lyrics on the album, giving it an artistic integrity that most artists, let alone teen-aged female pop musicians, fail to achieve. In a world where Miley Cyrus’ twerking makes it to the front page of the Huffington Post, it’s a relief to know that true talent still exists.

Picture courtesy Billboard.com

Picture courtesy Billboard.com

Lorde may be best known for her sparse, chart-topping “Royals”, but album opener “Tennis Court”, the follow-up single, is menacingly good in its own way. In a voice that echoes Adele’s honesty, vulnerable-Lorde talks of impending fame at a young age (“How can I fuck with the fun again when I’m known?”) even as confident-Lorde sneers at her supposed contemporaries (“I’m doing this for the thrill of it, killin’ it”), setting the tone for the main thematic elements of Pure Heroine.

Her cynicism of modern pop culture resurfaces on “Royals”, an almost-gospel gem where she embraces her low-key lifestyle that, sadly, may soon disappear. “We count our dollars on the train to the party,” she says of herself and her suburban friends, before going on to explain, “We didn’t come from money.” Sure, she may never be pop royalty, but that isn’t the kind of royalty she wants anyway. “We don’t care/ We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams,” says Lorde, in a showcase of the maturity that lets her separate reality from fantasy. In a way, she’s the anti-thesis of Lady Gaga, and that alone puts her on the throne in my book.

“Team”, her third single, is a brilliant critique of club-oriented pop music that cleverly meta-references the same by using a club-ready beat. “I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air,” she confesses, conspicuously putting herself in the everyman ‘us’ as opposed to the larger-than-life ‘‘them’.

Of course, being a teenager, famous pop musicians aren’t the only group of people that Lorde fails to fall in with. “White Teeth Teens”, a cleverer cousin of Lana del Rey’s brand of youthful angst, talks about Lorde’s incongruity with the (seemingly) picture-perfect teens around her. “I tried to join but never did/ The way they are, the way they seem is something else, it’s in the blood,” she explains, pulling to attention her own “royal” blood.

“400 Lux” is essentially a carefully-crafted love song about teenage romance in suburbia. “Got a lot to not do/ Let me kill it with you,” asks Lorde, elegant in her lyrical prowess. The almost-spoken-word second verse, reminiscent of Natasha Khan, is a jumble of thoughts and emotions that reveal her worries all too clearly: much like on “Ribs”. There, a non-sequitur lyrical phrase (“The drink you spilled all over me/ ‘Lover’s Spit’ left on repeat”) paints a picture of a kid whose adult-like nonchalance belies her true nature.

In a lot of ways, Lorde is just a teenager – albeit gifted – from a sleepy town at the edge of nowhere, and her charm lies in the way her background consciously or subconsciously permeates through her music. It’s refreshing, to say the least. To me, it also brings to mind to a riotous album in 2006 that made stars out of four young Sheffield lads talking about chatting up girls in clubs and getting turned down. Whoever she does or – more importantly – doesn’t sound like , it’s clear that Lorde is indeed royalty in her own, unadulterated way.

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