Honorable Mentions | 20-16 | 15-11 | 10-6 | 5-1
“Shut Up” – Silence Yourself
Savages hit me hard this year — their vehemence, their aesthetic minimalism (sonic and visual), and their petition for self-possession through simplification (“The world used to be silent, But now it has too many voices, And the noise is a constant distraction” goes the manifesto to debut LP Silence Yourself). But most of all, it was their songs — aggressive, tautly compressed, yet larger than life — the kind whose intensity expanded proportionally to the size of the venue. From dingy basement nightclubs to the 80,000 person Reading festival, singer Jehnny Beth’s dominated every stage that she climbed aboard this year, winning a staring contest with every audience member who dared lock eyes with her. Band mates Fay Milton (drummer), Gemma Thompson (guitarist) and Ayse Hassan (bassist) favored a more introverted route but were no less provocative, anchoring Beth’s diatribes in a maelstrom of noise, angular hooks, and cathartic release. Savages favor urgency over complexity without sacrificing musicianship, as Thompson admits: “You (can) play one note, but as long as you’ve got the intent there, you (can) floor what you need to, basically. I really believe it’s all about feel. I’m obsessed by it.”
The post-punk adrenaline spike of “Shut Up,” the seething insistence of “She Will” and that chugging cannonball bass on “City’s Full” all made good on the promise of last year’s striking single “Husbands,” a clenched fist of an anthem that rang true not just for estranged women, but men as well. So much of the discussion surrounding Savages has revolved around gender, but Silence Yourself transcends that. To truly heed Savages’ manifesto and look within, we should ask ourselves why every great, all-women punk rock band — from the Slits to Bikini Kill to Sleater-Kinney — must be viewed through the lens of how they personify “female empowerment.” Fact: You don’t need to be a feminist to understand Savages’ vigor and venom. All year folks wondered if “Hit Me’s” misogynistic request was tongue-in-cheek or a real call for violence. The whole time Savages has had us in the palm of their hand.
“Shut Up” – Savages – mp3
4) Daft Punk
“Get Lucky” – Random Access Memories
“Get Lucky,” the song of the year, had a mythos from day one. Pharrell claimed that Parisians Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter gave him a mystery “energy tablet” just before recording sessions (to relieve jet lag, of course), and that by the time he had gotten back to his plane to America, he had forgotten everything (“I love (the song), and I can’t believe I’m on it.” Pharrell marveled). In a clip from the Random Access Memories’ Collaborators series, an interviewer asks Chic’s Nile Rodgers if he’ll play his guitar riff on (the still unreleased) “Get Lucky” in front of the camera — Rogers agrees, dons headphones, then jams along to the track that only he can hear. All we get is his unfiltered guitar part, like a supermodel without make-up, raw but still stunning. Rodgers starts grinning ear to ear, almost flabbergasted: “I forgot how cool that was!” and you’re left to only imagine what’s coming through those cans. The music is treated as a sacred, secret flame, the contents of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, the thing that even the collaborators forgot because the robots wiped it from their memories.
Random Access Memories’ 70-minute expanse oozes with this sort of self-assuredness, sonic opulence, and reverent attention to detail. It sounds every bit like the five-year investment that it was — indulgent, intelligent, and ecstatic all at once. Although it’s a slow starter, RAM has a caboose unlike any record in recent memory. Starting with sixth track “Lose Yourself to Dance” all the way to the final song “Contact,” Daft Punk takes a stunning journey through stylistic territories of big beat, trance, electro pop, philly soul, disco, and funk without any turn ever feeling like a detour. With the exception “Contact,” every song was played and recording organically; centerpiece “Touch” alone required 250 separate recording tracks. It’s one of RAM’s most gorgeous songs, and fittingly it’s wackiest. Daft Punk prove they can play for the people with “Get Lucky” (and the people play it for them), but still make the album that they want to hear — robots with soul and ego. Sure, RAM isn’t another Discovery, (which ruffled more than a few feathers). but, if you remember correctly, Discovery wasn’t another Homework either — only years later did people finally catch up.
“Get Lucky” – Daft Punk – mp3
3) My Bloody Valentine
“if i am” – m b v
A lot of cultural bookends have happened in the last 22 years — two gulf wars, two President Bushes, a dot com and housing bubble burst, the rise and fall of the CD, the birth of the internet and the death of print. But none have taken quite so long to complete (or seemed more improbable) than Loveless and its sequel m b v. The latter’s digital release on My Bloody Valentine’s web site proved two things: 1) that the Internet can indeed be broken, and 2) that in the Age of the Mp3 and
illegal downloading à la carte purchasing, listening to an entire album for the very first time with the rest of the world still carries a air of romance. There have been other records whose failure to materialize has transformed them into the stuff of legend — GnR’s Chinese Democracy, D’Angelo’s James River, and the Avalanches’ still phantom follow-up to Since I Met You — but none have been as eagerly anticipated than this m b v. Twenty-two years is long enough for an artist to become canonized, too — it’s worth noting that for My Bloody Valentine to even release this album at all was an enormous risk. Imagine Saint Shields coming back from the dead only to discover that the walking on water thing was a one-time deal only.
m b v puts those fears soundly to bed, not by trying to out do Loveless, but by honoring it’s aesthetic in a manner that reflects adoration, evolution, and a touch of fearlessness. The album’s first third buzzes with the woozy, cataclysmic smear of stratified guitars that defines My Bloody Valentine’s best work — “she found now” swoons like an electrical storm in heaven, “who sees you” is implied melody gouged and stretched into ravishing shapes, and that savage cutaway at 1:55 in “only tomorrow” still triggers heart palpitations every time I hear it. The album’s middle movement adopts more conventional song structures that get prettier with every listen; the watery three-chord progression on “if i am” (three and a half, really, if you count Shields’ signature “glide guitar” trick) beams like a pure ray of sunshine refracted through fractured cloudy glass — a gorgeous pop hook trapped inside a jagged melodic construct.
But the record’s final third is where Shields dares most. “in another way” and “wonder 2” explore percussive elements from jungle and drum n’ bass in a way that adds a new layer of depth to MBV’s swirling guitars. The industrial-tinged “nothing is” thunders through your head space like a runaway train of bludgeoning nihilism, complete with Doppler effect as it thunders off to savage other ears. It shows where My Bloody Valentine might have gone if not for the two-decade layoff, and where they might be headed. Then again, perhaps not. Shields hinted at a new EP in 2014 composed of the more melodic tracks that were left off of m b v, and even a “Springsteenish” track (cue jaw dropping). By now, we’ve learned two things : 1) rejoice with what we have from MBV and not what is promised, and 2) the only predictable aspect of Kevin Shields is his refusal to be.
“if i am” – My Bloody Valentine – mp3
2) Vampire Weekend
“Step” – Modern Vampires Of The City
If you could sum up Vampire Weekend’s good fortune and sense of privilege in one line, it would be “You’ve got the luck of a Kennedy” from “Diane Young.” Theirs is the sort of prestige — Ivy League credentials, indie blogosphere adoration, consecutive Billboard #1 albums — that comes at a steep price, overshadowed by a nagging argument that four well-to-do white kids (who borrowed their parents’ copies of Graceland and co-opted a century of Afro-pop rhythms) ought never to receive the benefit of the doubt in the authenticity department.
That all ends with Modern Vampires of the City — an unequivocal triumph of musicianship, song craft, and artistic assertion. Drummer Chris Tomson punctuates “Hannah Hunt” and “Don’t Lie” with booming, whip-crack snares while front man Ezra Koenig softens his erudite tendencies with hollow-eyed mortality. It lends VW’s third album an aura of chutzpah steeped in haggard insight. Koenig’s always been fluent in theology, but on Modern Vampires his crisis of faith feels personal. “I took your counsel and came to ruin” he proclaims over the giddy bounce of “Everlasting Arms.” On “Ya Hey,” a homophone for God’s unspeakable name is transmogrified into one of the album’s best hooks. The songs are decorated with one vibrant melody after another, ornate gift boxes for the stones of self-doubt and sorrow that lie within.
Vampire Weekend’s predilection for the five finger discount now feels more like loving tribute than cultural ransacking. “Step” is the latest in a long line of swipes, borrowing chords from Souls of Mischief’s “Step To My Girl” which samples the sax riff from Grover Washington’s “Aubrey” which is a cover of the 1972 original by Bread. So there you have it — indie pop via hip hop via jazz via soft rock. In many ways, Modern Vampires of the City is Vampire Weekend come full circle, too — the brashness of youth maturing into nuanced artistry and music’s globalization producing a rich, aural melting pot instead of a bland dilution. And that Kennedyesque karma? No thanks — when you put this kind of work in to pay your dues, you make your own luck.
“Step” – Vampire Weekend – mp3
1) Kanye West
“New Slaves” – Yeezus
“What you want? A Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain? All you blacks want all the same things” Kanye spits on “New Slaves” — a stinging indictment of the rampant consumerism plaguing him, affluent African Americans, and, well, anyone with a credit card. It’s a shrewd (and almost mindful!) observation that even those with unlimited wealth remain chained to their possessions. But by year’s end, the howls, heavy breathing, and primordial drum track of Yeezus’ other juggernaut “Black Skinhead” were being used to sell customized Motorola smart phones. In an interview with Hot 97’s Angie Martinez, Yeezy revealed his ultimate ambition: “Imma be bigger than Wal-Mart.” In West’s world of economic entrapment, you’re never sure who’s the prisoner and who’s the warden.
Yeezus is an album run rampant with these sorts of contradictions — irreverent and sublime, vulgar and transcendent, expertly crafted yet reckless, sonic minimalism used as a vessel for gluttony. Much like its creator, it’s a record that’s at complete odds with itself. “On Sight” and “Hold My Liquor” are hip hop songs in name only, with West’s animalistic raps encased in walls of electro-shocked synths and panicky rhythms. The nuanced soul sampling is mostly gone, replaced by protest songs refashioned as metaphors for adultery (“Blood on the Leaves”) or backhanded love letters to his baby momma (“Bound 2”). West sounds inflamed, paranoid, and exhausted: “I’m so scared of my demons, I go to bed with a night light.” But then there’s a moment like Frank Ocean’s warm, feedback-ridden coda to “New Slaves” — it remains one of the most gorgeous production triumphs of West’s storied career.
Yeezus feels like a literal crossroads — the angry sound of West teetering between the wife life and the night life, stuck between rap’s mean streets and fashion coutre’s glass ceiling, bursting with vitriol, but unsure where to direct it (save himself). He’s brilliant, distasteful, and Ozymandius crazy, and like it or not, the bulk of our narcissistic, egotistic society is out there in the desert with him, hoping our mighty works will stand the test of time, knowing they probably won’t. The fact that we still can’t even agree if Yeezus is a work of genius or Kanye jumping the shark is perhaps the greatest indicator of its inexplicable magnetism. It’s a cracked lens, an unraveling, and a lightning bolt of energy. It is all of these things and none. It’s Kayne’s selfie. Behold.
“New Slaves” – Kanye West – mp3
Honorable Mentions | 20-16 | 15-11 | 10-6 | 5-1
Nice list – thanks for posting.
Thanks for reading, Kevin!
Jeff, you are amazing. And I say that not understanding half of what you are writing 🙂 But that is probably because I never think beyond how music makes me feel – the how, what, when, and even the who don’t mean as much to me as the rhythm and sometimes the lyrics. That said, I love reading your reviews because I can see how passionate you are about all parts of the music, and also because it shows me the endless amounts of music I have yet to enjoy. Keep it up. If I can enjoy it, in my blissfully state, I know you are making many, many musicphiles deliriously happy 🙂
Wow, Julie. Thanks! I’m delighted that you enjoyed it. The feeling’s mutual!
Solid list. I did a 50 best songs and 20 best albums at my site http://www.controlaltmusic.com. Yours is one of the few lists I have seen where the writers actually took the time to say something abut their choices, instead of simply throwing a bunch of songs against the wall and listing them by how they landed. You and I have some similarities (Sky Ferreira, for one), but a lot of differences. Would love to hear your thoughts. I’m really glad I found your list, because I hadn’t heard of Waxahatchee before today, and I’m already pretty much hooked. Best to you in the new year.
Thanks Patrick. Glad the writing spoke to you. Music criticism is the reason I enjoy these year end lists — not which songs/albums people chose but why.
I checked out your list and don’t recognize a lot of these albums. I have some catching up to do! Thanks for reading.
keep rocking at 2014
Thanks for reading, AQ!
where is your best of 2012 ? I have your best of 2011….
great reviews. So glad you did them for us..
You can find it under the Best Of category on the left navigation bar. Here’s the direct link: https://ludditestereo.com/2012/12/23/best-music-of-2012-20-16/
Thanks for reading!