Music I liked in 2013

Yeezus2

Here’s some music I enjoyed listening to in 2013. I even wrote a little bit about some of it, partially because it’s an aesthetically pleasing way to break up all the videos, partially because not doing so would seem super lazy.

(I realized when I finished that I didn’t put any Seattle music on my list, so send me to music-writer jail, I guess. I’ve never been one for making a separate list for local music; if something’s good enough to stick with me, it shouldn’t need any special qualifiers.)

1) Kanye West, Yeezus

Kanye is on another level. Yeezus definitely isn’t the most enjoyable album on this list, or even the one I’ve come back to the most, but it’s an artistic statement that didn’t have an equal this year. It’s true that some of the lyrics on this album are embarrassing, but from a production standpoint, it’s pretty incredible and unprecedented—except for, say, The Beatles, Beach Boys, and Bowie—for a mainstream pop artist to make an album this forward-thinking.

2) Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City

Pure pop. Easily the best thing VW has ever done.

3) DJ Koze, Amygdala

I wish more dance producers realized that when they make a album, not every song has to be a single or a club banger.

4) Earl Sweatshirt, Doris

Earl Sweatshirt is good at rapping. (#analysis)

5) Kurt Vile, Walking on a Pretty Daze

Kurt Vile is good at making chill dude-bro guitar tunes.

6) Autre Ne Veut, Anxiety

I spent a good chunk of this year writing Seattle Weekly‘s music calendar, which meant writing short descriptions of 20-ish shows in Seattle each week and fending off a sense of existential dread. Consequently, I listened to a lot of music I hadn’t heard before. It seemed like every other week there’d be some touring act coming through town that featured “kewl beats” with a person singing over them in an R&B style. Most of it wasn’t very memorable, but this album is quite good.

7) Forest Swords, Engravings

My favorite “beats + atmosphere” electronic release of the year.

8) Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience (Part 1)

This album’s detractors say it’s excessive and overblown, and they’re absolutely right. But that’s what makes this album notable: it’s an grandiloquent pop record that no one else could have made. Except for maybe Daft Punk, but the songs on this album are way better than most of Random Access Memories, and none of them feature Pharrell singing about his dick.

9) The National, Trouble Will Find Me

I tend to get defensive about The National, but they take an inordinate amount of shit from people (even right here in Seattle!) who want to make them poster children for middlebrow NPR music. And yeah, sometimes this stuff is banal and Decemberists-y, and sure, The National are a band that get something of a free critical pass from me because I was really into them when I was 16 and “music was important to me.” But that’s enough self-conscious backpedalling:  Trouble Will Find Me is either the second- or third-best album they’ve ever made, and they’ve made a lot of good albums.

10) Burial, Rival Dealer

Before this year, I had only ever listened to Burial because people who write about music occasionally need to educate themselves about music that other people think is important. Rival Dealer was the first Burial album I actually enjoyed. It’s immersive, deep, and definitely a lot weirder than Untrue or most the other stuff he’s done.

Honorable mentions (alphabetical):

Here’s some other stuff I thought was cool this year:

Arca, &&&&&
Atu, Pictures on Silence
Chance the Rapper, Acid Rap
Danny Brown, Old
Disclosure, Settle
Drake, Nothing Was The Same
The Haxan Cloak, Excavation
James Blake, Overgrown
Jon Hopkins, Immunity
Lapalux, Nostealchic
Migos, YRN 
Mikal Cronin, MCII
My Bloody Valentine, m b v
Sophie, “Bipp” b/w “Elle”
Thundercat, Apocalypse
The Range, Nonfiction
Rhye, Woman
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On another note…

On another note entirely, Seattle once again failed to come off as a particularly “cool” place. We commented last year how the city occasionally appears to be stuck in the ’90s, and that mentality didn’t appear to have changed much over the past 12 months. Make no mistake—by US standards, Decibel is an incredibly forward event; however, being at the festival rarely felt like taking a stroll on the cutting edge. A lot of that had to do with the crowd, which, in proper West Coast fashion, included a heavy contingent of aging former ravers. We don’t mean to appear shallow, but the general motif was an odd cross of tech-industry business casual (lots of fleece, windbreakers, and boot-cut jeans), grunge leftovers, and fashion cues seemingly inspired by the movie Waterworld. Although the music was undoubtedly the most important thing at Decibel, it was striking how the Seattle crowds came across as almost aggressively unfashionable. When traveling from out of town for a festival, particularly one focused on underground electronic music, most attendees want to feel like they’re mingling with a hip, in-the-know group of people. Instead of that, we often found ourselves in a sea of geeky diehards and goofy Burning Man castoffs.

I had the privilege of covering a couple Decibel Festival shows this year. It was the first time I’ve attended dbFest, a world-renowned electronic music festival now in its 10th year, and it struck me as a pretty cool event. Shawn Reynaldo, the editor of tastemaking online electronic music magazine XLR8R apparently thought differently. This paragraph follows another of about the same length where he complains about the rain.

The full review is on XLR8R.

Storm Thorgerson, Designer of Iconic Album Art, Dies at 69

Dark Side of the Moon

The album cover for Pink Floyd’s 1973 classic The Dark Side of the Moon, easily Thorgerson’s most famous work.

(EDIT: This is a thing I wrote as a writing sample for a job editing the blog of a major Seattle radio station. I didn’t get the job, but I’m leaving the post up anyway. It doesn’t exactly jibe with the “brand” I’m trying to project as a writer [whatever that means], but I did take the time to write it, and in retrospect, it doesn’t read like embarrassing PR copy as much as I thought it might.)

Aside from its concern with technical wizardry and stadium-filling excess, progressive rock can also be associated with a particular aesthetic on its album covers: vaguely dystopian scenes that merge the otherworldly with the everyday. No one was more responsible for the surreal look of prog rock than British graphic designer Storm Thorgerson, who died this past Thursday at 69.

Best known for his work with Pink Floyd, Thorgerson’s career spanned four decades, where he designed art for rock bands spanning Led Zeppelin to, in his later years, modern-day prog luminaries like Muse, The Mars Volta, and Biffy Clyro. He’s known for his jarring visuals—the man on fire that graces Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, the all-seeing eye on The Cranberries’ Bury The Hatchet—but his most famous work is his simplest. That would be Pink Floyd’s instantly recognizable The Dark Side of the Moon. Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright requested that Thorgerson’s design be simple and bold, leading to the album’s stark light-through-a-prism motif. It’s a design that’s nearly as iconic as the music itself—guitarist David Gilmour called Thorgerson’s art “an inseparable part” of Pink Floyd’s work in a tribute on his website.

Thorgerson worked so frequently with progressive rock groups perhaps because their albums’ outsized themes jibed with his theory that album art should be more than a pretty picture of the band, as noted in this New York Times obituary:

“It always seemed funny in a way to represent music by choosing to taking a picture of four chaps,” Mr. Torgerson said. “You’ve got music which might be about all sorts of things, from love lost and love won to politics to school days, from sport to perverse obsessions, etc., etc. Why would you have four chaps on the front? What does that say about the music?”

Check out a chronological selection of Thorgerson’s album covers below. You can also view a full gallery of his work on his website.

Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy

Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy

Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here

Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here

Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel (1978)

Peter Gabriel, s/t

Catherine Wheel, Chrome

Catherine Wheel, Chrome

Phish, Slip Stitch and Pass

Phish, Slip Stitch and Catch

Muse, Black Holes & Revelations

Muse, Black Holes & Revelations

Some Saturday self-promotion

The current music-writing climate—the network of mp3 blogs, Bandcamp, Facebook pages, Soundcloud, Tumblr, and the websites of now-defunct print magazines—provides a fascinating paradox. Now more than ever, the Internet makes it easy to access and evaluate a band’s music on its own merits. But it also makes it easier than ever to plug into the echo chamber—the countless “reaction” blog posts and ersatz cultural analyses—and tune out the music itself.

For Seattle Weekly’s year-end music issue, I wrote a column about music writing (so meta) and the importance of listening to music. Read the whole thing on the Weekly’s website.

My favorite albums of 2012

Writing a “best albums of the year” list is little more than an recipe for present posturing and future embarrassment. That said, as someone whose opinions about music get published on a blog with a lot more readers than this one, I feel like I should broadcast my tastes for transparency’s sake. Also, these things are fun to write. So here’s a top-10 list, with some very brief write-ups for each choice, plus a Spotify playlist at the end if you’re into that.

kendrick-lamar-good-kid-maad-city-cover

1) Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d. city: The most impressive thing I’ve heard all year, hands down. A great performance from Lamar, most notably for his storytelling—a “socially conscious” rap album that treats its subjects deftly and with empathy, and is all the more powerful for it.

impala

2) Tame Impala, Lonerism: If only every band who bills itself “classic rock” or “psychedelic” were as adept at synthesizing its influences, and as unafraid to push its sound in new directions, as these dudes from western Australia. Stunningly good.

hotchip_inourheads_stickered

3) Hot Chip, In Our Heads: No singles the caliber of “Boy From School” or “Ready For The Floor” (though “Look At Where We Are” comes close), but plenty of jams. The quality here is more consistent than anything Hot Chip has ever produced. 

daphni-jiaolong-608x608

4) Daphni, Jiaolong: Brainy, fractal house music from Dan Snaith. It sounds a lot like the last album from his main band (Caribou’s Swim, released in 2010), but entirely instrumental. Fascinating  beat experimentation.

Frank-Ocean-Channel-Orange

5) Frank Ocean, Channel ORANGE: Nearly as good as everyone says it is.

Cloud-Nothings-Attack-on-Memory2

6) Cloud Nothings, Attack on Memory: The best punk/harder rock album I heard this year, and also the one with the clearest commitment to songcraft.

Grizzly-Bear-Shields1

7) Grizzly Bear, Shields: The world’s most tasteful prog rock band.

chairlift-something

8) Chairlift: Something: Immaculately polished electro-pop from a band previously best known for having a song that sounds like Feist in an iTunes commercial. Still shocked by how good this album is.

Dirty-Projectors-Swing-Lo-Magellan

9) Dirty Projectors, Swing Low, Magellan: In which Dave Longstreth learns to write love songs, and sounds all the more human for it.

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10) THEEsatisfaction, awE naturalE: A compact, expertly produced (those beats!) hip-hop/R&B hybrid.

Honorable mentions:

LPs:

Purity Ring, Shrines | Perfume Genius, Put Yr Back N 2 It | Erik Blood: Touch Screens | Japandroids, Celebration Rock | Beach House, Bloom | Spoek Mathambo, Father Creeper | Shigeto, Lineage | Bear in Heaven, I Love You, It’s Cool | Grimes, Visions | Bobby Womack, The Bravest Man in the Universe

EPs:

Mister Lies, Hidden Neighbors | Pure Bathing Culture: s/t | CFCF: Exercises  | Daniel Rossen, Silent Hour/Golden Mile | Matthew Dear, Headcage

Playlist (songs from every album listed, as well as some other stuff I liked): 

The rise of electronic music…

The rise of electronic music in America is great because all these hundreds of thousands of kids going to festivals in Vegas and New York– wearing furry boots, living the rave dream– are binge-drinking music. They don’t care about quality– it’s about the epic build and formulaic comedown. But five years from now, they’re going to stop that, and there’s a good chance that 20% of them will stick around and start finding avenues towards Aphex Twin, Kraftwerk and Basic Channel. That’s going to be an influx of people who are going to make this music last longer and be relevant.

That’s electronic musician Matthew Dear, from an interview with Pitchfork republished today as part of the site’s “The Year in Quotes” feature. I fear he’s being too optimistic, but it’s a refreshing perspective nonetheless, especially amid the many comparisons between the rise of EDM over the past four-or-so years and the counter cultural emergence of rock music in the ’60s. For now, at least, fur rave boots remain a worthwhile purchase.