The Top 10 Albums of 2013

I recall 2011 was a major disappointment for music aside from the outstanding Let England Shake, and I honestly can’t remember anything about 2012. Except for Lonerism, Bloom from Beach House, and Heaven from The Walkmen. Also, that Peaking Lights album Lucifer. I think Jack White’s solo album came out that year as well. Never mind.

2013 was another fairly decent year for music (or perhaps I actually paid attention this year, who knows?). Full disclaimer: I am not a professional music critic, nor do I work at a music store, nor do I frequent music stores enough to know all the super-cool underground indie bands that would populate this list had it been written by someone who works for Amoeba. I’m just some guy with some disposable income.

That said, let’s begin!

10. The Flaming Lips, The Terror

The Terror

More of an honorable mention than anything else, The Terror only truly came alive when I saw The Lips perform these songs live. For some reason, the image of Wayne Coyne surrounded by Christmas lights holding a plastic infant helped me make sense of these songs.

9. Atoms For Peace, AMOK


At its worst, The King of Limbs sounds like a Thom Yorke solo record. At its best, AMOK sounds like a Thom Yorke solo record.

8. Sigur Rós, Kveikur

KveikurSurprisingly rocking album from a band that inadvertently scored a horde of teenage suicides since 1999. I’m hopeful that they continue down this path for at least one more album, and then perhaps it’s time to call it quits given that one of the founding members pulled a Bill Berry earlier this year. And who really needs another Ágætis Byrjun, anyway?

7. Arcade Fire, Reflektor

ReflektorDid you know Arcade Fire put out an album this year? You didn’t? How? Even my mom heard about it. Despite the annoying media barrage that was the pre-release hype for this album and the absurd request to wear formal clothing to their arena shows this year, Reflektor turned out to be a pleasant and dance-y (if slightly overlong) surprise. If Arcade Fire is still intent on following U2 on their artistic Hajj, I suspect their next album will at least attempt to revitalize late-90s electronica. Is Reflektor Arcade Fire’s Achtung Baby? Probably.

6. The National, Trouble Will Find Me

Trouble Will Find MeIt’s hard to fault a band for being consistently great even if they stick a little too close to their guns. I suppose the well of their creative output has yet to run dry considering how much I enjoyed these songs.

5. Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You

The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love YouThe Worse Things Get will hold me over just fine until St. Vincent’s concept album about masturbation comes out next year. There are truly some wacky one-offs on this one including an a cappella track about being told to fuck off by your mother. And in case you were wondering if it did happen, it did indeed happen. Neko remembers.

4. David Bowie, The Next Day

The Next DayThe last I remember from David Bowie was his hilarious guest appearance on Extras a few years back. I didn’t realize that when The Next Day released earlier this year that it was his first record in 10 years. I suppose the gestation period between albums grows as you get older. Who knows? I’ve had this one on repeat for the past two weeks.

3. My Bloody Valentine, m b v

m b vI was caught off guard by this one. I was expecting some sort of marriage between Isn’t Anything and Loveless; what I wasn’t expecting was how bonkers this record actually turned out to be. Everything about this album is beautiful, from its opening noise-pop rockers, to its lullaby middle section, and finally to its Sonic Youth-esque implosion at the end. It’s a fitting end to a trilogy of albums that started all the way back in 1988.

2. Deerhunter, Monomania

MonomaniaIt’s almost a courtesy that any album released by Deerhunter would occupy a spot on my top ten list after the love affair I had with Halcyon Digest. This one is decidedly dirtier, sludgier, and noisier than their previous albums. The perfect album to listen to during a drinking binge.

1. Foxygen, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic

We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & MagicWhat a perfect and unexpected blend of Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan, psychedelia, and 60s revival. Contains probably my favorite track of the year as well.

Last Call: “Reason to Believe” by Bruce Springsteen

To mass media, Bruce Springsteen is the embodiment of all great things about America. His work has crossed four decades, with a new persona for each different phase. He’s gone from the young, idealistic folky singer (“Growin’ Up”, “Blinded by the Light”) to the anthem maker (“Born to Run”, “Born in the USA”, “Thunder Road”) to the old man paying tribute to the past (The Seeger Sessions, “We Are Alive”).

At its root though, his music has always been about those in desperate times. So much of his music plays as easy listening, yet reveals harder truths, “Born In The USA” being the best example. The song sounds like a straight-faced jingoistic anthem. Yet for that one-in-a-million person who’s actually able to understand what he’s yelling, it’s a dark, bitter song about the realities of a post-Vietnam vet with nothing left to live for.

Springsteen’s music stands the test of time not because it motivates us towards the American Dream, but because it consoles us when we realize there is no American Dream to begin with. Life is life. People live and die, most doing little in between. His music encapsulates this reality.

And none of his albums do this better than Nebraska, his quiet masterpiece. The album, as so many of his albums, is a group of stories written to music. However, without his backing band, and with only an acoustic guitar and harmonica to work with, Springsteen finally matches the music to the lyrics. In the album, lovers ride on murdering sprees, brothers are pitted against one another, desperate men commit desperate crimes, and comfort is provided to none. Lyrics such as “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world” and “Lost soul calling long-distance salvation” leave little to the imagination. The album is the spiritual equivalent of No Country For Old Men, only for Springsteen, there’s place for everyone, it’s just never where anyone wants to be.

His last song, “Reason to Believe” is the penultimate track. From my personal experience, after such a weighty album full of dead ends and dead men, I was looking for some sort of redemption in that last song. The track plays on this expectation brilliantly.  It lays each verse out in a simple blues rhythm with just Springsteen and his old friends: guitar and harmonica. Each verse plays through horrible situations, leaving unforgettable images of despair. First a man sees a dead dog on the side of the road. Then a woman waits for her man every night to come back home. Next one baby is baptized as an old man passes away. Finally, a man waits for his bride at the altar, waiting forever. The dominoes keep falling, one after the other.

These verses could easily beat us to a pulp with zero redemption and zero hope in the hands of a lesser songwriter. Yet, the brilliance of Springsteen’s final song on Nebraska is the chorus, which after every one of the above-stated situations takes on the following form:

Lord won’t you tell us, tell us what does it mean 
Still at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe.

The song suggests that we keep moving on, even though life itself gives us few, if any, reason to do so. And God gives us no help in figuring out why.

We continue to live, despite our lives.

Last Call: An Introduction

Last Call is a feature celebrating the best album closers. In case our readers are unaware, “albums” are collections of songs created by artists that are thematically, conceptually, and/or contextually linked. They are meant to be listened to from beginning to end–not on shuffle–and are slowly going the way of the Dodo. Fun fact! Most people born after 1995 do not possess the attention span necessary to listen to album from start to finish.

Jens Lekman I Know What Love Isn’t


Frankly I’m glad this review is now almost six months late. Had I written a review upon its September 3rd release, I probably wouldn’t have been so receptive to the Swede’s third long-player. Largely absent from this effort are the unusual samples that made so many of Jens Lekman’s songs so memorable–and that’s not to say that the 10 songs that comprise I Know What Love Isn’t aren’t memorable, it’s just that they’re of a different breed.

Rarely does cover art so accurately reflect the music contained within; for the casual fan, a lot of I Know What Love Isn’t may seem flat and unfinished, almost forgettable compared to the bright and vivid colors used to paint his previous efforts Night Falls Over Kortedala and Oh You’re So Silent Jens. But like so many brilliant artists, Jens is a victim of his oeuvre. Compared to his previous albums, I Know What Love Isn’t is intentionally and comparatively bland, evoking the earthy and dull UPS-brown that dominates the cover art.

It’s been five years since we last caught up with our Swedish hero and 2012 finds him struggling to mend a broken heart. Jen’s strained heartache is strongly reminiscent of Beck’s Sea Change; both share similar themes, both are minimalistic albums from artists who are known to be extremely bright and expressive, both are departures from sample-heavy discographies, and both are brilliant despite their flaws. What makes Jen’s heart-ache so special is his ability to dissect ordinary moments that may seem inconsequential at the time but are later revealed to be signs of impending doom . Lyrics like “‘Baby, what’s wrong?’ You say ‘Nothing. It’s nothing.'” seem so ordinary in print, but as part of the chorus to “Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder”, become utterly devastating.

What becomes clear early on is that Jens has done a lot of the suffering on his own already. Lyrically many of the songs suggest that, yes, hearts may be broken, but they may be mended as well. Jens reminds us that you don’t ever recover from a broken heart, you just learn to carry it gracefully, and while the world moves on whether or not you’re OK, you can take comfort in the fact that there’s someone out there somewhere just as brokenhearted as you.

Grade: A-

The Best Ways to Win an Album of the Year at the Grammys

The Grammys are a funny thing.  They present awards for a range of different categories, from Best Recording Package to Best Music Video to Record of the Year.  However, if music is supposed to be art, then how exactly do the Grammys decided on who has the best art?  Isn’t art just an expression of oneself?  What criteria does the Grammy selection committee use to determine who’s art is best?

Fortunately, I’ve done years of research, watching each neverending Grammy award show after the next.  My friends go out and party during the weekends.  I suffer for my cause.  I watch the Grammys.

Yet, there is a bright side.  After all of this research, I have concocted a list of the five best ways to win an Album of the Year, the most prestigious Grammy award.  In so doing, it goes without reason that this list truly is the criteria to judge all performers on the worthiness of their art.

Without further adieu, here is the list:

1. Be Old

With age comes wisdom, and with wisdom comes Grammys.  From Robert Plant’s Grammy in 2009 to Herbie Hancock’s in 2008 to  Steely Dan’s in 2001, it is plain to see that if you’re about to kick the bucket, the Grammys would like to congratulate you for living.

Your chances to win Album of the Year improve astronomically if you actually once were deserving of this honor.  For instance, Bob Dylan won it in 1998 for Time Out of Mind (a truly great album), but the man never won one for any of his string of rule-breaking 60s masterpieces (Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, etc.).  It was almost as if the Grammys gave him the one in 1998 to basically say “Sorry about that whole refusing-to-give-you-an-award thing way back when.  You were a bit too controversial in those days.  Now that you’re older and accepted, we love you…and retroactively love all your brilliant past work.”

2. Be Popular

This explains why the Foo Fighters always get nominated (2008, 2012).  It also explains the Black Eyed Peas nomination in 2010.  (Actually, nothing explains that.)  It’s the reason Alanis Morissette won for Jagged Little Pill in 1996.  Did anyone actually think that was the best album that year?  Yes.  The Grammys did.  Her art was best.

3. Be Someone Other than Radiohead

Radiohead is many things to many people.  They’ve won widespread acclaim.  Pitchfork readers want to make love to them.  They are popular.  They are indie.  They are crazy businessmen.  However, there’s one thing they are not.  Grammy winners.

Time (1998) and time (2001) and time (2009) again, they have been nominated.  Yet time (1998) and time (2001) and time (2009) again, they have lost.  OK Computer and Kid A are considered by most to be groundbreaking works in the industry and stone cold masterpieces, yet they still lost.  Astoundingly, in 2009 the band even showed up and played a killer performance of “15 Step” from In Rainbows (below), and still lost.

After doing a bit of digging, I realized why they lost.  Winners from those three years, in order, are Bob Dylan, Steely Dan, and Robert Plant (with Alison Krauss).  The average age of those winners is around 500, while the average age of Thom Yorke and the Yorkettes is about 40.  Despite what they say, music isn’t a young man’s game.  It’s an old man’s game for an old man that once was great as a young man.

4. Be Scheduled to Perform on the Grammys

When was the last time you saw a Grammy winner that didn’t actually perform on the show?  Never, right.  It’s like the whole thing is staged.  Anyway, everyone knows that artists who have TV friendly good looks make the best art.   How else can you explain how Whitney Houston’s soundtrack for The Bodyguard beat R.E.M.’s classic Automatic for the People in 1994?  Bald white guys never make the best art.

5. Be “Americana”

I may not know much, but I do know that America is obsessed about America.  Ford trucks, Bud Light, slavery, etc.  We are a proud nation.  Celebrating our roots is part of our culture.  The Grammy selection committee endorses this celebration wholeheartedly.  In music, celebrating our roots is called playing “Americana” or “folk” music.  It tends to involve a middle-aged white guy with a beard or some sort of old-fashioned facial hair.  This is why I expect Mumford & Sons to win this year.

Mumford and Sons in concert - London

A bunch of white guys with facial hair playing acoustic guitars and other old-timey instruments? Give them the trophy already.

All Americans know that American music is the best music.  It goes without saying that it’s the best art.

There you have it.  Check out the Grammys and let me have it if I’m wrong (which I won’t be).

Music Fun Fact #9,358: The Super Bowl Brings Out The Worst In Performers

I don’t watch football. There, I said it. I’ve been roped nearly every year into joining the national phenomenon known as the Super Bowl. This involves eating nachos, drinking beer, and commenting on overproduced commercials. In between all of this, there’s a game that takes way too long. (Also, every year I inevitably relearn the Roman Numerals. They’re outdated and useless in every situation other than the Super Bowl.)

However, I’m not here to discuss any of that. I’m discussing the little known fact that the Super Bowl Halftime Show has rarely brought out anything but the worst in people.

Let me count the Top 5 worst incidents.

5.  Bruce Springsteen, Super Bowl XLIII, 2009: The crotch slide.

I should say, I love The Boss. He’s made innumerable amazing songs, so many, in fact, that he deserves to get away with murder. But this was not his best moment. This was not anyone’s best moment.

4.  Aerosmith, ‘N Sync, and Britney Spears, Super Bowl XXXV, 2001: The game changer.

Nothing would give Aerosmith more street cred than joining the likes of the fabulous ‘N Sync and Britney Spears for a rousing and not-at-all staged version of “Walk This Way”. This performance led these artists to seriously reevaluate their career decisions. ‘N Sync soon broke up after, well, deciding they suck. Britney Spears got married, got divorced, shaved her head, got large, and then got skinny again. Steven Tyler of Aerosmith decided to make the largest move: he joined American Idol.

At least they all stopped singing for a while.

3.  The Black Eyed Peas, Super Bowl XLV, 2011:  Tron Re-lived

I really don’t know what’s worse: the fact that they dressed like robots were expected to look like from shows that occurred in the 70s, the fact that I watched more than 30 seconds of it to “research” this post, or that these lyrics happened:

“I got that boom boom pow, them chickens jockin’ my style
They try to copy my swagger, I’m on that next shit now
I’m so three thousand and eight, you so two thousand and late
I got that boom boom boom, that future boom boom boom”

“Boom Boom Pow” (from The E.N.D.)

2.  Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake, XXXVIII, 2004: Nipplegate

Yup. Next.

1.  Elvis Presto, Super Bowl XXIII, 1989:  Umm…WHAT!?

Yes people, this happened. I can’t believe I didn’t know about this. Apparently someone thought an Elvis impersonator would make a great halftime performance for a couple hundred million people to see. Did I mention it was in 3-D?

Music Fun Fact #371: Jack White Fights the Guinness World Records and Loses

During The White Stripes’ short-lived, yet brilliant career, the band has had more than its share of eccentricities. There’s the red, white, and black color scheme. There’s the strange relationship between Jack and Meg White. (Are they brother and sister? Are they married?  Turns out they were married, but divorced in 2000.)

But none is stranger than their epic quest in 2007 to play a show in every province of Canada.

Jack and Meg played in buses, bowling alleys, cruises, old folks homes…you get the idea. And they ended this mighty achievement with the greatest show of all: the one-note show in Newfoundland, the last province they needed to get Canadian BINGO.

The reason for a one note show was quite simple. Jack wanted to achieve the shortest concert in history and be placed alongside the pantheon of heroes listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. For instance, there’s the dude with the longest mohawk, the girl with the Hello Kitty armada (does anyone else think they’re going to come alive at night in some disturbing horror movie fashion?), and the guy with the fastest four-limbed 100 meter dash. And those are just the Japanese heroes!

So, here’s the famous one note concert:

From the reaction of the audience, it seems most people knew that the concert would be very, very short. Most were appreciative of The White Stripes paying them a visit. Yet you have to feel for the one guy who paid good money to buy a ticket from a scalper to come see the show buy himself. This is the guy without any friends who wanted to join him. Without any girlfriend to join him either. Unknowing of the situation, he gets there three hours before the concert to get a view right by the stage. The band gets on. He jumps up and down. They play one note. He gets excited for a second note. They leave. The guy, let’s call him Joe Canada, is confused. He looks around at people clapping. He yells out, “play ‘Effect and Cause'”. Nothing. The fans go home. He cries. He waits two hours for a potential encore. Nothing. It starts to rain. He goes home. He creates a Jack White dartboard. He throws darts and plots his revenge. He becomes a Nickelback fan to spite good music.

I feel sorry for Joe Canada.

On the Jack White front, all is well for a while. Then Jack White finds out that the Guinness World Records robs The White Stripes of its place in history! He starts a small war with them, calling them a “very elitist organization”, which makes sense of course because only an elitist organization would have the guy with the largest nose in their records.  Jack White loses the war.

The good news is there’s a moral to this story. If you’re going to play a concert, play for longer than one note.

You never know when a Joe Canada might strike.