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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”

Top Class: The Best Music of the Year

29 Dec

Seasons’ greetings to our readers! As Year Twenty-Twelve winds down, there are a few inevitable questions that arise. Why did the Mayans provide such an anticlimax? Will there ever be peace in the Middle East? What were the best albums of the year?

Unfortunately, prophecies and politics are not our forte, but we proudly share with you our take on the year’s best in music.  From R&B superstars to British indie rock, Top Five Records covers the top five records (duh) from the year that was.

5. Jake Bugg, by Jake Bugg

Young 19 year old singer-songwriter from Clifton, Nottinghamshire

Young 19 year old singer-songwriter from Clifton, Nottinghamshire

Chiming in at number five is one of England’s finest singer-songwriters – and certainly the youngest. 1994-born Jake Bugg (né Jacob Edwin Kennedy of Nottinghamshire) impressively channels artists from at least thirty years before his birth in his eponymous debut album Jake Bugg. Yes, the overarching obvious influence is Bob Dylan, but there’s a healthy bit of Lonnie Donegan and Graham Nash in there too. The entire concoction is astounding for several reasons: he strums and finger-picks like he could be pals with Nick Cave; he writes and phrases like he could be a contemporary of 2005-06 era Alex Turner; and he looks like Britain’s answer to Justin Bieber.

Raucous skiffle/country stomp “Lightning Bolt” starts the album off on a rather good note, and sets the tone too. “Two Fingers” is a tribute to his life in Clifton: fat joints, too much alcohol, and an unnamed man in the house flinging curses at Jake’s mother, while “Seen It All” deals with pills, gangster crews, and the kind of parties where everyone carries a knife. Surely, it is enough to send a young man into spirals –Jake admits that he’s “run down some dark alleys” in his head. The lad’s appeal shines through in “Two Fingers”, though: his “Hey, it’s fine/I left it behind” closer adds that subtle touch of having ‘seen it all’ and being all the wiser because of it. “Ballad of Mr Jones” is a slow-burning epic about a powerless man who drunkenly takes things into his own hands; we guarantee that you spend the song thinking, How the hell is this guy just nineteen? The best song on the album, however, is still our old favorite. Jake Bugg’s album is an hourglass, with one bulb set in yesteryear’s bluesy tarnish and other set in today’s grisly reality – the best part is that you don’t even notice the sand flowing between the two.

Must check out: “Someone Told Me”, “Ballad of Mr Jones”, “Lightning Bolt”

4. Channel ORANGE, by Frank Ocean

Christopher Francis Ocean.

Christopher Francis Ocean.

Clocking in at our number four is R&B critical darling Frank Ocean. Last year, Mr. Ocean’s mixtape Nostalgia.ULTRA topped many a critic’s list. The current member of oddball rap troupe Odd Future was an erstwhile songwriter for artists as varied and well-known as Beyonce, Justin Bieber and John Legend. But with his debut mixtape, Frank has decided to step out of the background, and has since then come into his own as perhaps the best R&B artist recording today.

Channel ORANGE was cleverly released in the very week that normally girl-lusting Frank Ocean confessed (on Tumblr!) to being in unrequited love with a man for many years. The shock surrounding the news, coupled with a series of shrewdly-timed interviews, meant that Frank was the biggest thing in music at that point. Happily, the album lives up to the hype.

Frank Ocean's tell-all Tumblr post

Frank Ocean’s tell-all Tumblr post

“Forrest Gump” is about that same man, who ran Frank’s mind for a few years (Run, Forrest, Run. Get it?). On “Bad Religion”, he sings/confesses in earnest (“I could never make him love me/ Never make him love me”) to a taxi driver/shrink for the hour, and you’re left wondering if ‘he’ is the man in “Forrest Gump”, or God, who historically tends to frown upon homosexuality. Prostitute/Queen of Egypt mash-up “Cleopatra” is equally rich in religious motifs. (We wrote about it earlier this year.) But we felt that the best songs on the album arise when Frank pairs his emotional revelations with an R&B foil of sorts: such as Outkast’s Andre 3000 on “Pink Matter”, or our personal album pick “Super Rich Kids” featuring fellow Odd Future member Earl Sweatshirt.

What really strikes you about Frank Ocean is his ability to turn the hedonistic ideal on its head: that a life of drugs, alcohol and sex can rebound into a very acute sense of loneliness and defeat. Flip over to Channel ORANGE, asap.

Must listen: “Bad Religion”, “Super Rich Kids”, “Cleopatra”

3. Django Django, by Django Django

Art school kids from Edinburgh

Art school kids from Edinburgh

Imagine that you live in a space station in year 2250 with the rest of the humans, decades after the Earth has proved uninhabitable. Imagine that you then decide to zap yourself back to ancient Cairo, find yourself a bodacious desert caravan, zap yourself forward to the Californian desert of the 1850s right into a spaghetti Western, and finally go on a caravan journey to the Pacific Ocean where you decide to go surfing. If you can imagine all this, then you’re prepared to listen to Django Django, the eponymous debut album by four of the finest specimens of Edinburgh’s art-school scene.

Even if you can’t imagine what we describe above, start listening. Django Django have made it easy for you to picture with the aptly entitled album opener “Introduction”, where synths from the future meet rugged outlaw whistles of Old West, while “Hail Bop” transitions seamlessly from this seething drama into almost a Beta Band-like classic, echo-y pop rock. (Interesting trivia: Django Django’s David Maclean is in fact the little brother of the Beta Band’s keyboardist John Maclean!)

Django Django album cover

Django Django album cover

“Skies over Cairo” is a mind-blowing instrumental piece that could soundtrack a revamped version of the video game Prince of Persia if it were rewritten as a mystery-thriller, while “Zumm Zumm” heads south right into the sub-Sahara.

The album’s centerpieces, though, are the two singles that the band has released. “Default” jangles with unrelenting percussion, chant-chorus lyrics and synths straight from hyperspace, and is overall one of the catchiest songs you will hear in your life. MGMT only wishes they were this good. “Waveforms” is the other crowning glory in this overall glorious album. Starting off exactly like a Major Lazer song, the synth-drama slowly unfolds in a cerebral haze that is more organized that it seems on surface. The song ends with the entire band chanting a hypnotic mantra:“Touch it, break it, shake it yeah/ Take it apart and break it yeah/ Try to rearrange it yeah/ Couldn’t recreate it yeah”.

And that’s what the band essentially does. They take noises from various locations and time periods of world history, and rebuild it into a colorful kaleidoscopic juggernaut that is wholly organic and fully fantastic.

Must listen: “Default”, “Waveforms”, “Skies Over Cairo”

2. good kid, m.A.A.d. city, by Kendrick Lamar

good kid, m.A.A.d. city: A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar

good kid, m.A.A.d. city: A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar

Straight-out-of-Compton Kendrick Lamar’s debut album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, is a meditation on what makes a classic, near-perfect hip-hop album. The album cover features a young Kendrick in the background and a tall bottle of booze in the foreground; Kendrick sets the familiar atmosphere that has consumed many a rapper: that of the over-arching influences of a mad city’s harsh realities, especially for a young black man. The difference between Kendrick and all those other rappers is the other element pictured on the album cover – family – because of which Kendrick managed to stay a ‘good kid’ despite Compton’s gang culture.

But that doesn’t make a classic hip-hop album: not quite. Kendrick is also an excellent rapper, an adept storyteller, and an intelligent young man, and is able to convey his thoughts in a killer flow over some seriously slick beats. Kendrick has correctly subtitled the album ‘a short film by Kendrick Lamar’. It’s a flipbook of glimpses into Kendrick’s life – from teenage lust and gang temptations to the maturity of young adulthood – and it’s so well-articulated that you could actually be watching a movie.

Kendrick Lamar Duckworth

Kendrick Lamar Duckworth

On “Sherane”, a teenaged Kendrick drives out to his girlfriend’s house, mad with lust: only to stop short at her driveway at the sight of two hooded gang members; a voice mail from his mother, asking him to come back home, ends the song. The story continues in a skit on “Poetic Justice”, where he eventually gets jumped by the two gangsters on account of being on their turf. This event catalyses his thought process on “good kid”, where he realizes that he’s stuck between the ‘red and blue’ of Compton’s gangs and the ‘red and blue’ [police lights] of the bigoted cops. “I’ve never been violent, unless I’m with the homies,” explains ‘good kid’ Kendrick on “The Art of Peer Pressure”, and these are the same influences that he tries to overthrow on “m.A.A.d city”.

The album’s story arc – and Kendrick’s process of transition – finds its end on “Real”, in a heartbreaking skit with Kendrick’s parents. “Any nigga can kill a man, that don’t make you a real nigga,” his father tells him, “Real is responsibility, real is taking care of your motherfucking family, real is God, nigga,” while his mother chimes in with, “I love you, Kendrick.”  Kendrick Lamar has created more than an album: he has actually written a poignant and all-too-real script of gang culture’s harrowing influence. We strongly urge you to listen to good kid, m.A.A.d. city. It’s a masterpiece.

Must listen: “The Art of Peer Pressure”, “good kid”, “Real”

1. Lonerism, by Tame Impala

Album cover

Lonerism.

Over the course of the year, we have already sung numerous praises for Perth’s retro-psychedelic sensation Tame Impala. Over the course of the year, we also realized another thing: nothing else we’ve heard in 2012 has been able to match up to their album. The conclusion? Tame Impala’s sophomore album Lonerism is, in our honest opinion, the best album of 2012.

Yes, it is true, Tame Impala sounds like they might’ve fit in well in the late 1960s. Yes, it is true, lead singer Kevin Parker sounds eerily like Jim Morrison and John Lennon. But either one of those facts wouldn’t make them brilliant, or even that notable: psychedelic rock revivalists are a dime a dozen. Lonerism is special because Tame Impala’s band members have swathed themselves in the spirit of that bygone era so meticulously that they know no other way of making music; so that when the digital-age sheathes of synths (or any other elements) are inevitably added in, they seem perfectly organic even against the retro backdrop.

The umbrella theme on Lonerism stems from Kevin Parker’s acute introversion and subsequent loneliness. This manifests itself in songs that are at different stages of his thought process: from the suppliant “Why Won’t They Talk To Me?” to the resigned “Keep On Lying” to the wonderfully nihilist and expressly titled “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control”.

Perth boys

Perth boys

The whole album is a giant trip; and each of the songs is, individually, a mini-trip that swirls and floats around in your head, with enough small quirks and strokes of genius embedded in the album to leave you spell-bound. There’s that moment on “Mind Mischief” when the strobe vocals and atmospherics wind down by a fraction to surface a guitar riff. There’s that moment on “Sun’s Coming Up” where the mournful piano ballad unexpectedly switches into hopeful, reverb-heavy wah-wahs: like musical sublimation. There’s that moment on “Keep On Lying” when the guitars, drums and non-diegetic laughter suddenly sync up, and a new phase of the song begins. These magical moments can and will vary for each listener and listen, which means that Lonerism is that rare, ever-replenishing goldmine: a classic.

“Elephant”(music video!) is an unrelenting, mind-blowing animal of a track that overtakes your entire mind for a few minutes; Tame Impala hypnotize you into their world with cymbal crashes, drum rolls and that bassline, dear God. Fluffy white clouds float lazily by in an azure sky on “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” (music video!), and you’re too headily high to notice what Parker’s really saying (“But I got my hopes up again, oh no, not again/ Feels like we only go backwards darling.”). “She Just Won’t Believe Me” is a snatch of four-sentence brilliance, like a mistakenly-tuned radio station.

We tried, but we just couldn’t stop ourselves from describing nearly every song on this album.

Tame Impala’s Lonerism sounds like that one unforgettable stoned reverie (we’ve all had one) that you had in college when you were tripping on weed and listening to ‘60s psychedelia. If you like The Doors, post-Revolver Beatles, early Pink Floyd or getting high, you will love this album. Even if you don’t really like any of these things, you’ll still like Lonerism. We guarantee it.

Must listen: “Elephant”, “Keep On Lying”, “Mind Mischief”

Agree with our top five? Disagree? Let us know in the comment section below!

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