Welcome, one-and-all, to Part II of our highly-subjective, and vaguely* alphabetical rundown of the Top 20(ish) Albums of 2013 Thus Far. The bold among you can locate Part I here.
Barrow – Though I’m Alone
*The eagle-eyed among you may notice that we’re back in the “B” section, but do not be alarmed and rest assured, that’s just because your trusted reviewer here doesn’t understand how the alphabet works. In any case, Barrow’s sophomore offering sees the band stretching extensively beyond the typical boundaries of emo and post-hardcore—perhaps even more so than on their securely outside the box debut (the spry, surprisingly math-rock-influenced Being Without). Like peers Pianos Become the Teeth, Barrow isn’t afraid to let songs breathe, and a palpable post-rock sense of dynamics permeates the whole affair (most prominently on the album’s shortest track, “Clawhold,” which would be ironic were it not just essentially Act I of the ensuing pummel-fest “Dogwood”). But length’s worth nothing if unpaired with depth, and this is where Barrow truly shines. Rarely has wounded resignation felt as authentic as on the interplay between the clean vocals—which are closer to pained whispers—and lamenting shrieks. Maybe most importantly, Barrow’s way with melody, both largely on its own (“Wither”) and merged with both more traditional hardcore (“A Dead Hum, Echoed”) and monolithic epics of distortion (stellar closer “God’s in His Heaven – All Is Well”) is quickly setting this young band apart from the field.
The-Dream – IV Play
Full disclosure: chances are that, unless it reveals some presently unapparent grower potential, The-Dream’s oh-so-cleverly titled fourth album will not be on any year-end Best Of lists. This is not because the IV Play is objectively weak (it isn’t, by a long shot), but rather because the rest of Terius “The-Dream” Nash’s discography is so head-and-shoulders above most radio-friendly hip-hop that IV Play’s general willingness to retread feels underwhelming in comparison. That said, even The-Dream’s stasis is still exceptional, and the melodic R&B indebted finesse displayed song after song on IV Play somehow keeps what, in essence, is an album’s worth of sex-obsessed sleekness from falling into the easy trap of stagnation. The strongest assets in this regard are just how crisp the production is (Nash himself was working the studio knobs) and how ace the melodies are, like on mood-setting opening title track, which showcases Nash’s silky vocals and the synth-drenched backdrop that can fluctuate from spider-leg delicacy to virtual orchestras of electronic sound. Likewise, the Fabolous feature “Slow It Down” (which, in spite of its name, is one energetic piece of ear candy) or album highlight “Loving You/Crazy” resound, and latter-day blues guitar messiah Gary Clark, Jr. has a heartbreakingly short-lived guest spot on superb slow jam “Too Early.” Some songs—like the woefully unimaginative and foully misogynistic (in hip-hop!) “Equestrian” and “Pussy” (hey, get it?)—are skippable, plain and simple. The latter track heavily features Big Sean and Pusha T, and, in fact, it’s the very backgrounding of The-Dream (who’s certainly unafraid to speak of sex quite matter-of-factly but with a winningly pretty voice to forgive it) that weakens the track—and when he’s in the spotlight, things grow brighter to match. But in a year whose back-half is loaded with stiff stylistic competition, this IV Play may well end up being just that.
The Great Gatsby – Original Soundtrack
Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby was, at best, a flawed piece of artwork, more obsessed with sensory overload than dynamic coherence. Honestly, the same could be said of its soundtrack, but the Jay-Z produced melting pot somehow manages to make that a good thing. There’s something for and from everybody: house-remix-ready club-banger pop like the bluntly-titled “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” (from Fergie, Q-Tip, and Goonrock; also, one of the album’s weakest tracks) and “Bang Bang” (from will.i.am, since this is basically what the Black Eyed Peas do nowadays); moody indie like The xx’s gorgeously gloomy “Together,” Florence + the Machine’s characteristically bombastic “Over the Love,” and, perhaps best of all, Gotye’s “Heart’s a Mess” (a proto-“Somebody that I Used to Know,” which might actually trump its successor in terms of buildup); comfortably familiar hip-hop (“No Church in the Wild” from Watch the Throne, Hova himself’s “100$ Bill”); plus, a few fantastically out-of-left-field inclusions, like Jack White’s cloud-scaling cover of “Love is Blindness” and the Bryan Ferry Orchestra’s big band-style rendition of “Crazy in Love,” sung by Scottish songwriter Emeli Sande. Of course, not all of it works—especially on the beefed-up but bloated deluxe edition, which includes a few unnecessary alt takes and commits the cardinal sin of throwing entirely too many dialogue samples from the film into the mix. But any overall pop-oriented soundtrack album that can pass the 20-track mark (again, on the deluxe; the standard, at 14 tracks, is definitely leaner, but arguably less rewarding) and not have completely worn thin is something to marvel at—particularly if it makes a Lana Del Rey song not just listenable, but genuinely haunting.
How to Destroy Angels – Welcome Oblivion
Trent Reznor has a funny, fuzzy definition of retirement—especially with his plans for a new Nine Inch Nails album and tour in the new few months. Even without these, though, he’s already had a busy year, as the first full-length from him and his special lady (former West Indian Girl frontwoman Mariqueen Maandig), as well as latter-day NIN collaborators Atticus Ross and Rob Sheridon, dropped in March. Although not as immediate and visceral of some of Reznor’s past work (the title track comes quite close), nor as psychedelically-minded as Maandig’s (“Strings and Attractors” feels like the nearest approximation, but it still a ways off), the continues to transcend the reductive NIN-with-a-female-singer label by doing a genuinely superb job of melding sensibilities like electronic soundscapes (often feeling like Massive Attack in a dour mood), ethereal vocals, and uneasy melodies (“Keep It Together”) into swirling storms that hint at more than hit as the maelstroms they could swiftly become. The album is definitely recognizable as Reznor’s, as his fingerprints are all over the record—down to titles like “Too Late, All Gone” and “The Loop Closes.” Meanwhile, lengthy pieces like the Daft Punk-on-a-bad-trip throb of “Recursive Self Improvement” and especially the moody “We Fade Away” (driven as it is by a continuously layered and shifting series of motifs) would not feel out of place on Reznor and Ross’s outstanding soundtrack collaborations for Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Even when Oblivion reaches its poppiest, as on the aforementioned “Strings” or the appropriately glacial “Ice Age” (which, at nearly seven minutes, should tell you something about how many asterisks should be placed next to ‘pop’ is in this context), there’s still an edge to the music, as much disturbing as it is refreshing.
Jim James – Regions of Light and Sound of God
For more on the My Morning Jacket frontman’s lush and airy odyssey, see previous write-up.
Letlive. – The Blackest Beautiful
Punk up-and-comer Letlive. has only three full-lengths under its belt at this point, but each has marked a steady refining and sharpening of the finer points of its predecessor. The Blackest Beautiful might just be their most melodic and most aggressive work yet, building monuments of clever, social criticism-centric wordplay on bedrock of uncharacteristically assured—given the genre—melody work. The acidic political commentary comes into crosshair focus on tracks like “That Fear Fever” and particularly “White America’s Most Beautiful Black Market,” which starts as a tongue-in-cheek takedown of American exceptionalism, then zeroes in on profit-minded healthcare specifically. In fact, the lyrics often outmatch the instrumentals in ferocity, which is certainly no slight to the latter, as even slower songs like the slyly snaking “Virgin Dirt” display an undeniable energy, even at their reduced tempos. Some will no doubt fault the album for feeling too polished, which is understandable, but even the tailor-made single-in-waiting “Younger” is dizzyingly infectious enough to forgive the lack of grit. Besides, Letlive. still tosses in ample subtle (and not-so-subtle) flourishes to catch listeners unawares, like the gang vocals on “Pheromone Cvlt,” the welcome percussive presence of congas on “Black Market” and “The Priest and Used Cars,” and even slight nods to 80s R&B; it’s either uncanny or indicative of this reviewer’s hearing loss how much frontman Jason Butler’s slightly, tastefully auto-tuned vocals (there’s that polish again) resemble Michael Jackson’s during the chorus of “Fever” (that, somehow, is intended as a compliment). Letlive. is clearly unafraid of stretching and risk-taking, and while seven-minute plus closer “27 Club,” which comes complete with a Rage Against the Machine-esque brooding bass outro, doesn’t quite stack up to the raw emotion of Letlive. album closers past, the overall work can easily be called a thing of Beauty.
The National – Trouble Will Find Me
The National continues its win-streak with Trouble Will Find Me, which presents another delightfully depressive platter of low- and minor-key indie. To paint everything on the album with the same brush would be doing it a disservice, but it is worth noting how good this band has gotten at trafficking in mope-rock and, more than merely preventing it from feeling tiresome, actually making it perversely enjoyable. Of course, the lion’s share of the credit is justifiably heaped upon frontman Matt Berninger, whose alcohol-tuned baritone makes his vivid snapshots of desperation ring true and deep (look no further than opener “I Should Live in Salt” for his often under-sung penchant for imagery). But it’s the finely honed melodic guitar work of the Brothers Dessner on the tracks “Fireproof” and “I Need My Girl” that aids immensely in making the songs stick in your head. Ditto the elegant simplicity of “Slipped” and soaring final acts of “Hard to Find” and “Pink Rabbits,” which take the songs to the epic heights hit by High Violet highlight “England.” With all the glorious melody climbing up around listeners, it’s easy to lose sight of the darkness that makes everything connect with such potency, but Berninger himself may put the deceptive marriage best on “Rabbits’” concluding line: “You said it would be painless, a needle in the dark / Said it would be painless, it wasn’t that at all.”
Next Time: We finish up with some supergroups, superegos, and super long songs.