Artists below are ranked by the likeability, listenability, and overall influence of their work (sometimes a song, sometimes an album, and sometimes both.) Hope you enjoy.
20) The Strokes
“Slow Animals” – Comedown Machine
Comedown Machine, the Strokes long-awaited return (not to post-punk revivalism, but to good songwriting) spent most of year getting punished for the sins of its predecessor Angles. The New York City quintet pulled a bait and switch with Angles in 2011, a comeback album that promised an Is This It? resurgence with its first single “Under Cover of Darkness” but delivered the schizophrenic mess of “Life is Simple In the Moonlight,” “You’re So Right”, et al.. Critics (including yours truly) wanted so badly to believe that the Strokes were back that they almost convinced themselves it was true. I’ve never seen so many reviews suggesting an album was “transitional” or “a grower” as with Angles, which in hindsight, feels both erratic and oddly calculated — a brittle, synth-pop concoction that sounded like the band tried to skimp by adding only half the package of Kool-Aid dust and got Strokes-lite instead.
Critics are subject to make-up call bias like anyone else, but Comedown Machine is a better record than its getting credit for in 2013. The Strokes actually sound comfortable in their own shoes again (although they’re now Diadora tennis kicks from 1982 and not scuffed Chuck Taylors of 2001), melding those New Wave influences with the requisite pieces of their gritty sound — the biting guitars, shambling rhythm section, and Casablancas’ boozy croon (plus a surprisingly good falsetto). Gus Oberg’s crisp production accentuates the Strokes’ prowess as a lock-tight musical unit, and it probably helps that Casablancas actually made it into the studio for this one. But what it really comes down to is the songs. The nostalgic urgency of “All This Time,” the giddy barrel-roll of “Happy Endings,” those gossamer guitar textures on “Chances,” and “Slow Animals,” a track that brings all those elements together with nuance and urgency. If Angles was the right title to describe the last Strokes record, Comedown Machine should have been called Contours. The sound is more effortless, the vibe a little looser, and the melodies a bit more memorable.
The Strokes – “Slow Animals” – mp3
19) Arcade Fire
“Reflektor” – Reflektor
Beginning at the 2:42 mark in “Reflektor,” there’s a minute-long stretch where the song just slays. Its motifs have already been established courtesy of congas, hi-hats, funk bass, and a devastating sax lead, the verses and chorus elements introduced, the groove palpable and sweaty. Producer James Murphy’s signature synth squelches lash out, Win Butler’s guitar bites down hard on a pair of barre chords, and everything kicks into another gear. In an alternate reality, “Reflektor” ends immediately after that stretch finishes, making it half as long and twice as affecting — the lethal opener to Arcade’s Fire’s lean, surgically precise album whose ten tracks clocks in around 42 minutes.
That’s not how it goes though. In reality, “Reflektor” plods on for almost eight minutes, recycling lyrics, carrying on with those congas, and even squeezing in a two-line cameo from Mr. David Bowie (There’s always room for the Thin White Duke). Reflektor the album sprawls on for thirteen tracks and 75 colossal minutes, a double album of (at least) quadruple concepts — the isolation of modern living, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, identity and alter-ego, and Haitian culture. The Montreal sextet have always had a soft spot for Big Themes (death, religion, and generational malaise) and roomy metaphors by which to express them (neighborhoods, cars, and suburbs), but Reflektor out-Arcade Fires all of their previous undertakings. It’s unwieldy, ambitious, and occasionally spectacular, embodying everything people love (and hate) about the world’s biggest indie rock band.
Reflektor divided critics not just because of its inflated sense of self-importance, but because what some perceived as depth, others felt was just breadth. Musically, it arcs across an entire sky of genres (punk, art rock, disco, electronic, dub, krautrock, and pop) without ever really finding a center. Conceptually, the idea that The Reflektors (Arcade Fire’s more dance-centric doppelgangers), Orpheus (the first rock star, really), and our society’s infatuation with media and technology are somehow tied together is intriguing, but less for what Reflektor reveals and more for the blank space your mind is forced to fill in. In the thoughts of this critic at least, Reflektor does suggest the different paths we take to damnation; Orpheus looking over his shoulder, us looking outside ourselves, and Arcade Fire…well, Butler says it all on the brilliant “Here Comes the Night Time”: “If you’re looking for hell/ Just try looking inside.” As tantalizing as it is frustrating, Reflektor lives up to its namesake, a thematic reflection of whatever the listener brings to the party, and for that it’s fascinating, if not triumphant.
Arcade Fire – “Reflektor” – mp3
18) Yo La Tengo
“The Point of It” – Fade
On “The Whole of The Law” from 1993’s Painful, Ira Kaplan sang plainly, without embarrassment, “maybe I’m in love with you,” and two decade’s later Yo La Tengo is still tilling the same fertile soil. They’ve also picked up a few new tricks on their way to 13th album Fade, most prominently the art of aging gracefully. Kaplan still sounds like Kermit the Frog in a hoodie, though at age fifty, he’s likely traded it in for a wool cardigan. He, wife Georgia Hubley, and friend James McNew have slowly graduated from indie upstarts to elder statesmen, lending their best songs on Fade a grand, autumnal glow.
Highlight “The Point of It” is built around a breathtaking guitar melody, the band’s prettiest since “The Lie and How We Told It” from I Can Feel The Heart Beat As One. Like Kaplan’s and Hubley’s affection, it’s unadorned and plaintive. Kaplan boldly lets his slide guitar’s notes just hang in the air, recreating that delicate, stirring sense of nocturnal solitude, Americana, and quiet longing that the Hoboken trio have mastered over the course of nearly thirty years.
The other Yo La Tengo trademarks — drone-laden, guitar-neck throttling (“Ohm”) and goofy pop charms (“Well You Better”) — remain on Fade, but it’s mostly a hushed, somber affair. That doesn’t mean the fire has gone out though. Fade is Yo La Tengo’s finest work since 2000’s And Nothing Turned Itself Out — a meditation on what the trio has always done best, which is to describe the mundaneness and quirky pleasures of life in a way we can all identify with. “Say that we’re afraid” Kaplan sings “That’s the point of being loved.” You can almost feel him clutching Hubley tight to shoo away the uncertainty, their love still burning brightly in the night.
Yo La Tengo – “The Point of It” – mp3
17) Sky Ferreira
“You’re Not the One” – Night Time, My Time
Artists spend their whole career trying to pen a song that toes the line between ambivalence and ravenous longing as perfectly as “Everything Is Embarrassing”, but Sky Ferreira got it right at age 20. “Maybe if you let me be your lover/ Maybe if you tried then I would not bother,” she mumbled, and a reluctant star was born. One year and a debut LP later, Ferreira’s work still smolders with disinterest (“If you consider sleeping over/ I’ll consider you” she teases on “Ain’t Your Right”), but the quality speaks for itself. Night Time, My Time is marked by a delicious tension between Ferreira’s insistence that no one really knows her and the degree to which she’s made these songs so personal.
“You’re Not The One” and “I Will” are big, intoxicating pop anthems that are engineered to sound as such — huge drums, buzzing synths, and towering hooks. The thought of Ferreira’s hourglass running out on “24 Hours” makes for breathlessly good adolescent drama, but there’s a hint of something sinister, too….like, maybe in 24 hours, her boy toy really will self-combust. Although Night Time, My Time is scarred and cratered by saw-toothed guitar riffs, producers Ariel Rechtshaid and Justin Louis Raisen lacquer its surface to a fine, glossy finish, enabling Ferreira to pay stylistic homage to disparate influences — Missing Persons by way of Robyn (“Love in Stereo”), Room On Fire as covered by The Runaways (“Nobody Asked Me (If I Was Okay)”), and Ministry’s “Jesus Built My Hot Rod” crossed with The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Taste the Floor” (“Kristine”).
A singer since age 10, Ferreira is painfully aware of the opinions of others, saying: “I’ve literally had to go through all my awkward stages in public.” It makes a song like “I Blame Myself” brilliant theater. “How could you know what it feels like/ To fight the hounds of hell?” she cries, halfway toward pretentiousness until she delivers an unexpected gut punch: “I blame myself for my reputation.” Throw in her recent drug conviction and Night Time, My Time becomes art that furthers its own needs — equal parts self-absorption and self-deprecation. Ferreia makes no effort to conceal her assets — magazine cover looks, L.A. rolodex, and knock-out voice — but knows that sweet psycho candy is what draws ’em in. Night Time, My Time is a cool glass of spiked punch, a gorgeously awkward piece of bit-lip pop that leaves a mark when it slaps you.
Sky Ferreira – “You’re Not The One” – mp3
“Honey & I” – Days Are Gone
“Chorus porn” was the most eye-catching description written about any piece of music made in 2013 — that came courtesy of colleague Adam Downer in his review of Haim’s Days Are Gone. And it’s spot on. The first side of California-born Haim sisters’ debut LP was the most addictive six song sequence of earworms heard this year (or any, for that matter), remembered not just for it’s hooks but for the slavishly crafted sonic flourishes— the opening Power Station-like rim shots on “Forever,” that robotic vocal effect during the outro of “The Wire,” and the pure Buckingham guitar jangle of “Honey & I.” To their credit, during concerts Este (27), Danielle (24), and Alana Haim (22) transform Days Are Gone’s 80’s-style pop gems into wiry, almost punkish anthems that elicit call and response from crowds who are quick to fall in love with Haim’s infectious stage energy. These songs, as they say, have good bones.
As effortless as Days Are Gone feels, it’s taken a lifetime to create. As multi-instrumentalists, the sisters have honed their live act since they were children, sometimes together (they performed classic rock covers with mom and dad in Patridge family-esque RockinHaim), and sometimes separately (as an adult, Danielle played on tour with Jenny Lewis, Julian Casablancas, and Cee-Lo Green). Not until releasing 2012’s Forever EP did Haim really catch a break, a fact that Derek Davies, co-founder of their old record label, insists was a long time coming: “They’re literally the most popular girls in the music industry. Everyone loves these girls. It’s fucking insane.”
Whether Haim are soft-rock-gone-R&B personified (cue the bouncing bass line of “Falling”), a slippery slope for indie hipsters (“Go Slow” unlocks the love for Wilson Phillips you never knew you had) or something unclassifiable (try to explain the futuristic bump n’ grind of “My Song 5”), their songwriting talents and musicianship remain undeniable. And as brightly as these melodies shine, Haim remember that lasting pop music has its share of shadows; “Go get out, get out of my memory” grits Alana under the bubbly synths of “Forever,” railing against bad romances and emotional entanglements. Both these girls and their troubles are relatable — a quality that makes it easy to get caught up in Haim.
Haim – “Honey & I” – mp3