29 December 2013

Top Albums of 2013

Another year, another list. There seems to be a general consensus that 2013 was a year in which good tunes were ever-prevalent. When I first sat down to start working on this years list, I picked up my pen and started writing down albums that I enjoyed. Before I knew it, I had 40 albums scribbled down in my notepad. From there, I tried putting them in order. I still had 22 records on my list, and that just seemed liked too many so I hacked away some more. I got it down to 12, and decided to leave it there. It goes without saying, that this is by no means a complete list and it should be pointed out that these were the albums that I fell for the hardest this year. I'm no pro, and I use weird rules to justify these sorts of things. A lot of the albums that I listed the other day as honorable mentions would make other versions of this list, but for one reason or another I put them there and not here. Chiefly, a lot of the ones I left off were albums were I felt I didn't have anything to add to any reviews I had already seen about them. With others, I hadn't spent enough time with them and as a result felt strange trying to corral them into some sort of iron clad order. The rankings that follow are a bit arbitrary, and if you were to catch me drinking then I'd probably give you another list entirely. 
12. SubRosa - More Constant Than the Gods (Profound Lore)
In Nick Cave's novel "And the Ass Saw the Angel," Cosey Mo is the town prostitute. When she's found out by the townfolk, they descend upon her house and stone and maim her, leaving her to die disfigured, damaged, and broken. So, when a doom band hailing from Salt Lake City decided to name a song after this character, it caught my attention. With lyrics that tackle famine, ruin, and pain, it's what one would expect from a processional doom band. What one couldn't anticipate is the utilization of not one, but two violins and just how devastatingly stunning the hook-laden landscape conjured up by this group could sound. Of the six songs on this record, four pass the 11 minute mark with another ("Affliction") clocking in at a mere nine minutes and 49 seconds. Heavy and haunting and a seemingly spiritual cousin to Electric Wizard, "More Constant Than the Gods" stands as one of the most ambitious and gripping releases of the year. 
11. Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels (Fool's Gold)
A few months back, I pitched several online outlets with the idea that if rappers were members of the DC comic book universe then Drake would be Aquaman. Admittedly, I spent entirely too much time thinking about this but it got to the point where I decided that El-P and Killer Mike would play the roles of John Constantine and Jonah Hex. They're the outliers, the bad guys fighting the good fight. They exist within the universe, but are largely unaffected by the goings on of said universe. They've had an independent existence for long enough where whatever is happening with anyone else isn't applicable to them, and yet they sprint for 33 minutes like bank robbers after the alarm sounds. They don't give a shit, and yet they're talking shit and doing it better than virtually anyone this year.  To wit, on "Sea Legs" Killer Mike spits, "Your idols all my rivals/I rival all of your idols/ I stand atop towers like Eiffel/ I rifle down your idols." With their for-free offering as Run The Jewels, they were too busy having their own version of fun and setting fire to everything to be concerned with "Control" or Yeezus or anything else. Some men just want to watch the world burn, after all. 

10. Little Big League - These Are Good People (Tiny Engines)
The 2:57 mark of "Sportswriting" is a devastatingly great gut-punch. The how or why that allows Michelle Zauner the ability to do that with her voice is beyond me, but, setting aside any semblance of objectivity, that moment on that track has made countless personal problems evaporate for me this year. For that reason and the fact that all nine tracks here are rad, this is easily one of my most-played albums of the year. Put simply, it's great indie rock from a local band on a small label. Oh, and it'll probably make you feel better. 
9. Deerhunter - Monomania (4AD)
In the lead-up to the release of Monomania, Bradford Cox talked about taking 200 songs into the studio with him and in another interview made fun of Morrisey and said that he's from "America, just like Bo Diddley." Bradford has long been known to be a student of rock and roll. He appreciates it, he understands it, and he gets it. So, it's fitting that end result would be a batch of killer rock and roll songs. This is their sixth album which is a celebration in and of itself, and while some may not dig on the dalliance with garage rock here; those people are clearly chislers.  
8. Purling Hiss - Water on Mars (Drag City)
This was the year that Purling Hiss became a band. For the longest time, this was Mike Polizze's show and while he'd bring a backing band for live gigs, that was about as far as it went. For Water on Mars, everyone was accounted for in the studio. That's the other thing that makes this stand out. It was actually recorded in a studio. The end-result? Gnarly guitar-driven rock that sounds immaculate after three or four beers. A constant presence on the live scene here, it was a joy time after time to see these songs get stronger with each outing. The more they toured, the more they ripped. 
7. Savages - Silence Yourself (Matador)
All too often these days, a band comes around and presents themselves as not giving a shit. It's all "Oh yeah, whatever I guess." Obviously, they have ideas but they're not sharing. Mercifully, this isn't the case with Silence Yourself. There's a manifesto written in Helvetica on the cover of the album, and the phrase "Don't Let the Fuckers Get You Down" is written around the circle on the CD copy. This doesn't seem like a debut album, and to see the band live they don't seem like a band just starting out; but rather just getting started. It's rare to see a band possess such a mastery of their sound and presentation so early on. On first listen it seems like an open-and-shut case of group that digs on post-punk but this isn't some sort of retro revival. Rather, Savages makes old sounds sound new. It's like they've seen everything that's come before, and have cracked the code and improved upon it. The guitar work on "Shut Up" and really throughout this record rings out in one's head for days.     
When they played Philly over the summer, they took the stage a day after post-punk art godfathers Wire and that's really neither here nor there but as someone who attended both shows it was remarkable how powerful, impactful, and out-of-this-world incredible Savages were in a live setting. They owned the stage, and commanded attention. They were on point in every sense of the word, and knew exactly what they were doing every step of the way. 

6. Uncle Acid - Mind Control (Metal Blade)
It's hard to pin down what it is exactly, but there's something about the dark side of the late '60s that is fascinating. The Velvet Underground's brazen dance on the edge of the cliff amidst the transvestites and partiers of Warhol's factory remain the gold standard for this sort of thing, but forty-some odd years later there's another group joining in the revelery. Equally reverent toward Sabbath and Charles Manson, Uncle Acid conjures up the sort of sinister haze that sounds both old and new at the same time, and makes bearded dudes grin in between pulls on a simmering joint. Put simply, rewarding riffs and horror movie imagery is a winning combination, and it's a scientific fact. Coming off the heels of 2012's Bloodlust, Uncle Acid returns with another long-player packed to the gills with nuggets, both the herbal and of the earworm variety. 

5. Destruction Unit - Deep Trip (Sacred Bones)
In the movie Bellflower, two guys have their minds blown by Mad Max at a young age and upon reaching the age in which they make their own decisions opt to spend their constructing a homemade blow torch and a doomsday car. The whole things ends in the wake of some totally out of left field truly fucked up shit that consumes not only the characters on the screen but the viewer as well. 
Deep Trip seemingly comes from the same place. There's a certain survivalist confidence buried underneath the fuzzed up psych guitars and manic drumming. When the band came to Philly a few months back, they played in the upstairs of an already small-ish venue. The living room can hold maybe 20 people while the runoff gathers in the den where cigarette smoke hangs heavy in the air and cats splay about on couches and on top of one another. It's pretty easy to grab a beer at the bar, though. Going on a little after 1 a.m., Destruction Unit plugged in and tore through the most of the album. The frontman lept onto a book shelf about as wide as a skateboard, and upon him landing came crashing down. Their desert brand of psychedlia smoldered like space rock packed tightly in a pinched cigarette. Also, a shaman sat on stage and played guitar. It's hard to listen to the record now, and not be immediately transported into the back corner of that living room, tucked underneath the speakers. 
4. Agrimonia - Rites of Separation (Southern Lord)
When a band's press description for their new album includes the phrases "thundering death and black metal soaked doom," "atmospheric and epic darkness," and "guitars [that] range from devastating heaviness to gloomy acoustic sections, with piercing leads that flash through the darkness," it's a grand thing to see. More than anything else, it's encouraging to see that band gives enough of a shit to describe their music in such a way. And in this instance, it's wholly accurate. This is the soundtrack for moving mountains, or at the very least for copy editing mounds of poorly written dreck if that happens to be your day job. Rites of Separation contains five tracks. Two songs pass the 15 minute mark while only runs under ten. The Swedish band first formed in 2005, but this is their first release on a U.S. label. There's a part at about the three and a half minute mark of "While Life Lies" that makes one wonder how anyone could possibly be unaware of the end-of-days summoning that soars from the guitars here. You would think folks would hear it ringing out in the mountains. It all sounds so precise that it's hard not to think that there's a village in Sweden somewhere where the town gathers and practices these riffs over and over again. As the sun begins set in our imagined Swedish village, vocalist Christina descends from out of her tent and then proceeds to serenade her countrymen with her phelgm-clearing, life-affirming vocals. One last scan at the band's press descriptor reveals that the album was recorded in "the winter." Sounds about right.   

3. Pissed Jeans - Honeys (Sub Pop)
The week that Honeys came out, the band graced the cover of City Paper. About a week after that, the alt-weekly posted a letter they received from a "punk" who over the course of several handwritten pages bemoaned the paper's lack of coverage of "real punk." The whole thing was pretty hysterical as its 2013 and the argument over "punk" anything just isn't worth getting into. Anyway, this lurid, writhing collection of songs feels heaven-sent for those of us shackled to a cubicle, unable to have normal conversations with women, broke, weird, or anything else that falls under the umbrella of "Off." It's sludge with a gleeful sneer. It's the soundtrack for the next time some chisler at work starts talking to you about their bullshit. It's not so much "You're always going to be a loser, and that's OK" as it is "You're always going to be a loser, and you better fucking figure something out." 
2. True Widow - Circumambulation (Relapse)
In the documentary Such Hawks Such Hounds, Matt Pike defines the genre of heavy music as "Heavy is about being pissed off and being a war lord and laying down, like, just like someone that was in battle and if they had an axe and just chopped some dude in the head and it landed, and you have a riff that plays the same way that way, that's heavy." Circumambulation is undeniably heavy, but instead of chopping some dude in the head it sounds more like if said war lord is snuffing out cigarette butts on a porch and deciding to have one more beer before calling it a night but there's a riff that plays the same way. 
The descriptor "stonegaze" gets thrown around a lot when describing the contemplative, plodding sounds produced by this Texas three piece, and while mostly accurate it feels too sweeping. This isn't a hanging out record so much as it is the soundtrack for a 3 a.m. think session while peering out the window of your cramped apartment. Guitarist/vocalist D.H. Phillips does most of the boulder-rolling here, but it's when bassist Nicole Estill's vocals appear on a track like "Fourth Teeth" that this record begins to sound like something truly special. A lot of heavy bands would try for a smoke and mirror routine of bashing the listener over the head with riffs, but True Widow opts to let things breathe. It's a simmering haze here; one that builds and builds.  They're not really asking the tough questions here, but after spending enough time with this record you probably will be. 
1. Deafheaven - Sunbather (Deathwish Inc.)
In certain pockets of the internet, this was far and away the most divisive record of the year. Somewhat, ironically it was also sports a Metacritic score of 92 making it one of the most lauded albums of the year. One review called it "insider music for indie outsiders," which, yeesh. To cram Sunbather into either a tidy box or made-up subgenre, is seriously missing the point. Speaking with Noisey earlier this year, lead singer George Clarke was asked a question along these lines. "They want to compartmentalize us and none of it is working. We don’t care if it works. It's almost like people set you up to test your credibility. "What kind of black metal bands are you influenced by?" Immediately, my thoughts go to, "Oh man, who do I name? Do I name just the big ones or do I go obscure to show them I’m cool?' We're in the position where we are kind of damned if we do and damned if we don’t, just sounding like we sound…which is totally fine," he said.
Genre categorization be damned, this was the best record of the year. Nominally lumped in with metal acts because of their use of classic black metal vocals and drums that played at a pulverizing clip capable of conjuring up a ground swell, it's so much more. Sonically, the guitars here create walls of lush sound. It's post-rock in the sense that it's breaking down the conventions of what has been previously believed to be.
The final product, in a word, is beautiful. It's a gorgeous-sounding record, but the beauty found here is mined from what isn't there. Between having a song titled "Dream House" and including a recorded transmission of a drug transaction, it almost carries the feel of Bret Easton Ellis' "Less Than Zero" in a modern setting. Actually, in the book at one point, the protagonist, Clay, fixes his gaze upon a billboard that says "Disappear here." That line holds weight here. Amidst the crashing waves of guitar and drums of this 56 minute long ride, the listener can sneak way undetected and tap into reserves that may not know were there previously. (To wit, the other week I was agonizing over texting a girl that I liked and friend joked that if I listened to Sunbather a few times I might muster up enough courage to reach out to her. Unsurprisingly, he was right.)
At the end of the day when it's all said and done, what Sunbather did was make folks step outside of their comfort zone. Whether it was trying out something new or revisiting what you were into when you were younger or simply having the balls to let someone know that you're there, Sunbather made it all feel possible.

23 December 2013

Top Albums of 2013: Honorable Mentions


As the year winds to a close, year-end lists start popping up all over the internets. It's just one of those things. Some websites make lists, and people take notice and complain. Other sites make lists, and it's just a drop in the bucket. Here at No Gift for the Gab, we fall into the latter category. That being said, I've put together a list for each of the last four years and can't think of any reason not to do one this year. Things are still being tweaked, but what follows are the albums that didn't quite make the *very official* final cut. All of these records are terrific. I listen to them when I'm at work, and when I've had too much to drink. Anyway for one reason or another, they're listed here and not in the top 12 (which will run later in the week.) Until then...

Runner-Ups (in no particular order):
Chelsea Wolfe - Pain is Beauty (Sargent House, Listen here)
Weekend Nachos - Still (Relapse, Listen here)
Inquisition - Obscure Verses of the Multiverse (Season of Mist, Listen here)
Locrian - Return to Annihilation (Relapse, Listen here)
Inter Arma - Sky Burial (Relapse, Listen here)
Russian Circles - Memorial (Sargent House, Listen here)
Windhand - Soma (Relapse, Listen here)
KEN Mode - Entrench (Season of Mist, Listen here)
Lumbar - The First and Last Days of Unwelcome (Southern Lord, Listen here)
Kurt Vile - Wakin' On a Pretty Daze (Matador, Purchase here)
The Blind Shake - Key to a False Door (Castle Face, Listen here)
Speedy Ortiz - Major Arcana (Carpark Records, Purchase here)
The Men - New Moon (Sacred Bones, Purchase here)
Potty Mouth - Hell Bent (Old Flame Records, Listen here)
Shannon & the Clams - Dreams in the Rat House (Hardly Art, Purchase here)
Thee Oh Sees - Floating Coffin (Castle Face, Purchase here)
Lantern - Rock 'N' Roll Rorschach (Sophomore Lounge, Listen here)
Majical Cloudz - Impersonator (Matador, Purchase here)
Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork (Matador, Purchase here)