So it’s onward and upward from here.
7. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories: This is probably the only “given” on the list, the album that will end up on most lists. For me, the reason is different than for others. Back in the 1970’s my sister was the roller skater who listened to disco-rock. I couldn’t (and still can’t) skate to save my life. I was the kid who stayed in the arcade section and pumped quarters into the Space Invaders machine for hours. Yet some of the appreciation for the music the roller rink played has to come through, and so I have an appreciation for the pop-funk of Earth Wind & Fire, Chic, and so many of the other touchstones that arrive on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.
The biggest complaint that gets thrown at the album is that it doesn’t sound like a Daft Punk album, much as their soundtrack for Tron movie didn’t sound like them. Over the past couple years, with EDM emerging as the dominant new sound in pop (I hate you too, Soundscan), so much of it sounds like heirs to the Daft Punk throne that it is impossible for the robot-headed duo to actually top themselves. What, would they have to be dafter and punkier? If so, they’ll only be viewed as trying to fight off the likes of Skrillex and Deadmau5, and I get the impression that the group has reached a point where they’re rather have fun than fight petty, territorial skirmishes.
Random Access Memory is fun, and in spots is almost progressive (Paul Williams’ contribution to “Touch”). While Giorgio Moroder only contributes the dialogue opening to “Giorgio By Moroder,” his spirit and style is splashed all over the 9 minute track. It builds and builds and concludes with a massive, very cinematic climax. It sounds like a nephew to some of his tracks from the Midnight Express soundtrack, which must have been the duo’s primary inspiration for the tune. Nile Rodgers is all over the disc, as well he should be. His funk guitar style is the predominant sound of mid-to-late Seventies disco pop and is as fluid as ever. The lyrics to the songs mostly aren’t all that interesting. No matter how good “Get Lucky” might sound, the lyrics are dopey, but are of a piece with the era it symbolizes. The album is a throwback, but a thoroughly enjoyable throwback.
6. Paul McCartney – New: 2013 found the eternal Beatle doing something…well, new with New. The album captures a sound that is quintessentially McCartney and yet not an exercise in rehabbing the 1970s, arguably the period of his solo career seen as his most loved. This is a very contemporary-sounding effort with a very present-sounding McCartney, meaning he isn’t afraid to occasionally sound his age. The songs, on the whole, strikes the listener upside the head and makes them say, “Well, by God, that is exactly what I was hoping he’d do.” New is wish-fulfillment without buyer’s remorse.
5. David Bowie – The Next Day: It was widely assumed that Bowie made good on his silent threat of retirement. Ten years gone since the release of Reality, some health issues, but mostly it seemed his life with his family in New York filled whatever he needed. Better to go out as a sort of leader of the adventurous than to feebly stumble decades on with lame material and no desire. Insert your favorite oldie on the neverending tour of reruns here.
Then out of nowhere, bam, The Next Day. The iconography was psychologically stunning. Having literally defaced his own album “Heroes”, The Next Day justified everything you thought Bowie was. He still got under your skin, but he also still could formulate a solid rock song. He may be your dad’s age, and he may be looking at life with mature eyes, but the fight remains. The spirit’s still there. Rather than burning down that legacy with a crass cash-in recorded via Skype, he’s polished it with another fine addition, and has shown all the older rockers how you can still have it both ways.
4. My Bloody Valentine – MBV: My Bloody Valentine wasn’t the only shoegaze band, but they certainly were the most remembered one, and they were the one that had the most incomplete C.V. of the bunch. For years, Kevin Shields held out crumbs that there would be new music coming somehow, but the following years of radio-silence stretched as long as those prior to the announcements. We relegated these tags of hope to the cynicism of, “What would he say otherwise? Don’t bother me and don’t ask me again?”
But then came the night in early 2013 when the rumor mill started buzzing. The new My Bloody Valentine album is dropping digitally tonight. At first it sounded like a prank. It was a bad joke played on music nerds, and from some distant place someone was watching giddily to see the Internet light up over nothing. In the end, it was far more than nothing. This cult band who hadn’t really “been” since 1991 were flooded online. When the album MBV was flipped “on” the demand was such that it crashed the providing website. It couldn’t handle the influx of downloaders. That night, against all common reason, My Bloody Valentine was the biggest band in the world.
And the album more than requires that ardor. It is everything Loveless proposed in ’91 and yet is not solely an addendum. The listener hears a refinement of the process that was begun, and experiences more than a few new tricks as well. Was it worth the 22 year wait? That’s harder to parse. It was certainly worth a wait of reasonable time, is how I will describe it.
But almost like a piece of performance art, the music nerds like me got to indulge in something we see less and less of now: shared moments; those times when large groups of people are unified by a pop culture happening. With movies, music, and TV all so personalized and stored on your phone, and those moments shared by no one, being part of the collective felt like something really cool was about to happen, and we could all talk about and anticipate it. For that aspect, sure, maybe 22 years was required.
3. The National – Trouble Will Find Me: I’m baffled by how little attention this year’s album by The National is getting on year-end lists, but then I need to reconsider something. I myself didn’t hear the album until early November, long after it came out, and only then it was played to me by a friend. I didn’t seek it out. Part of that probably stems from being so enamored with the previous album High Violet. I thought that there was no way Trouble Will Find Me would top it. Realistically speaking, it doesn’t top it, and that might be why so many critics have dismissed it from their year-end ranks. But a really good National album that doesn’t beat High Violet is still better than 60-70% of what else is out there, and the band continues to make contemplative, terse, somewhat sad but not mopey rock with enough texture that you are compelled to return to it.
2. Queens Of The Stone Age – …Like Clockwork: I am a champion of the rock record. Not strategically the indie rock record, the stoner rock record, the metal rock record, you get the idea…but that rarest of birds of late, the plain ol’ loud rockin’ rock music. In what constitutes an abrupt left turn, Queens Of The Stone Age delivered that with …Like Clockwork, their first on indie label Matador. Only speculation exists as to why, having not been under the auspices of megalomaniacal overlord Interscope/Universal, they were able to be as focused as they are here.
The chatter remains that this is hardly a Queens album as much as a Josh Homme solo that just happens to bring back Nick Oliveri, Dave Grohl, Mark Lanegan, etc. That may be the case. If so, then Homme’s solo vision is more accessible than his Queens vision, giving up a record with little to no fat, big riffs, hooks, and none of what almost every Queens record before it has: two to three tracks that beg to be skipped over. Many people decried the lack of Homme’s more riotous moments on …Like Clockwork, but I think he got exactly what he, and I, wanted.
1. Daniel Amos – Dig Here Said The Angel: A band with a fiercely loyal, almost obsessive fanbase should not have to work this hard. DA is many decades old, with their first album coming out in the early 1970s. Their album prior to this year’s Dig Here Said The Angel was Mr. Buechner’s Dream which came out in 2001. You probably know nothing about them or the music, and yet over the course of so many albums, unheard by the general audience, the band has moved from strength to strength. To say Dig Here Said The Angel is a culmination of all those years is not hyperbolic. This is a graduate’s thesis on everything learned so far, and a meditation on what lies after that. In fact, this is a collection of songs about mortality in all it’s uncertainty. Yet it is more buoyant than such a subject regularly experiences, and this band of veterans still can hit that power chord and wail into the mic. I won’t say it is my favorite all-time DA album. Sentimentality handicaps my decision-making in that respect, but I think it is the best album of the year, one of the five best in the band’s history, and makes a solid, bold case for long-suffering groups with tremendous talent but little of the spoils of fame to stick it out.
A Couple Reissues: 2013 saw a glut of reissues as labels decided to rehash the catalog and try to squeeze more money from the gullible fan market. A couple of releases nonetheless were worthwhile and transcended what could have simply been a money-grab.
When the band Nirvana proposed their original vision of In Utero, it was a much harder, angrier disc than what arrived via Geffen (which was already pretty darn angry). Nirvana was a Touch and Go Records kind of band, even though they were originally on Sub Pop. Touch and Go liked the ringy drums, the guitars that sounded as if they were strung with razor wire, and vocals that were alternately passionate and terrifying. Geffen was the label that brought us Guns ‘n Roses and, therefore, had a much different conception of what aggressive was. So the original In Utero was reshaped by longtime R.E.M. producer Scott Litt. The fully realized Steve Albini mix of the album surfaced this year as part of In Utero’s 20th anniversary package (Ha! You’re old, kids!) and later on its own as a Record Store Day LP. It brings the material back, sonically, to that cross-section of The Jesus Lizard and Big Black as was the original intention.
An album that couldn’t be farther from Nirvana, yet curiously was also a Geffen release, was XTC’s Nonsuch. It won’t be considered the group’s masterpiece, but it certainly burnished an already impressive discography. As a CD/DVD package from Ape Records, Andy Partridge’s custom label, 2013’s reissue features a tastefully remixed 5.1 surround sound version and makes a strong case for why Gus Dudgeon was one of pop’s premier producers. That wasn’t the original goal however, as Partridge initially wanted to bring Steve Lillywhite back in, making a neat bow of their earlier and presumed latter efforts. It didn’t happen. I suspect around this time Lillywhite was working with Dave Matthews Band, and so XTC went with the producer most famously known for classics with Elton John.
The material on Nonsuch needed Dudgeon far more than Lillywhite, and the clarity on these discs bear that out. The hearsay about those sessions revealed that Dudgeon was a taskmaster who was crafting a stately classic pop record, not planning summer vacation. Reports seemed to indicate the group was unhappy about being shunted around as they were and would have been much happier with Lillywhite’s ease and familiarity. But what came out of the rigor and creative tension was a near-timeless record of beauty and strength. The CD/DVD set, if you can get your hands on it (it was held up repeatedly on Amazon.com), is a must for XTC fans.