Record Geek Heaven’s Top 20 Albums of 2013

Drag City

Drag City

20. Ty Segall – Sleeper
I find it interesting that this Bay Area garage rocker received so much attention last year with his noise-rock albums Slaughterhouse, Hair and Twins, and this year when he releases the all-acoustic Sleeper, hardly a peep is made. It sure doesn’t take people long to pigeonhole you, does it? Granted, the album was aptly titled in that it was a very quiet release – there was hardly any promotion, and literally, it is Ty Segall’s softest album ever. The fact that it was released so swiftly after so many 2012 releases makes me think the songs on Sleeper represent a sort of puttering out point of Segall’s dam-burst of inspiration that resulted in last year’s slew of awesome. This makes it sort of appropriate that the songs would be acoustic, almost as if they were afterthoughts quickly laid to tape, perhaps out of frustration or perhaps in the spirit of things. Whatever the story is, it yielded some fantastic tunes – particularly the first half of the album. The title track has a haunting sing-song-y melody, and the sudden electric guitar solo on “Man Man” is mind-tearing.


Prescriptions

Prescriptions

19. Future of the Left – How To Stop Your Brain In An Accident
I didn’t hear this album until very recently because I didn’t even know it existed – it was released in October, and I purchased it a little over a month later. Then I realized Future of the Left released the album on their own label, and that over half the material is about how evil record companies are and how shitty it is to be on a record label. I feel the two are correlated. More power to the band for releasing the album themselves, but it definitely comes at the cost of good promotion and distribution. Oh well, no matter – Future of the Left has never sounded better. A lot of people are complaining about the lack of synths on Accident, as it is very stripped down to the basic power-trio nature of the band. Of course I am going to love this – I am never going to mourn the loss of a synth. I will applaud the addition of them if truly necessary, but I do not understand this modern public fascination with synth sounds that echo the ones I made on the little Casio I messed around with when I was 9 years old. If I seem angry, I am not – I’m just venting. That’s what this album is for, and it’s probably what the band themselves are doing – venting their frustrations after being fucked around by labels for so long. It’s primal, it’s fierce, it’s LOUD, it’s insane, it’s kinda scary, and when I first heard it, the drums sounded so great I thought it was produced by Steve Albini. It’s not – actually, it’s self produced. Anyone into FOTL right now is witnessing a one-of-a-kind band in their prime, and that’s exciting stuff.

Get Well

Get Well

18. Jamie Woolford – A Framed Life in Charming Light
Jamie Woolford is a Texas musician who used to be in the bands Animal Chin and The Stereo, and he now works as a producer and solo artist. This is appropriate, because something about the songs on this album sound like they were written by a producer. They are meticulously and formulaically laid out, almost to a comedic point – about halfway into the album, it becomes pretty obvious that every song is going to get loud and have that part where it gets quiet for a second then gets really loud again. The thing is, stuff like that used to bother me, but I actually appreciate it now. It shows a dedication to one’s craft and a focus that not a lot of people possess. And especially when the songs are this good, it’s pretty easy to forgive. Woolford has a wonderful pop sensibility, and is an obvious fan of power pop. His songs are meant to be slices of worlds, little symphonies with characters and plots – at the very least, an appreciation of the likes of Brian Wilson is almost certain. If anything, the album is worth something because of “She’s on Fire”, a sweet-ass slice of guitar pop set to this sort of indie-rock waltz rhythm that possesses its own little planet of mind-blowing awesomeness.

Learn how to play it! (?)

Caldo Verde

Caldo Verde

17. Mark Kozelek and Desertshore – Mark Kozelek and Desertshore
I admit it has gotten to the point where if Mark Kozelek puts something out, it will probably make it to my year-end list. This is because I treasure honesty in music, and I have not found a more honest songwriter than Mark Kozelek working today. The dude will tell you like it is, no matter how sad or fucked up or evil, and he’ll do it with a straight face and a golden baritone. He put out several albums in 2013 (including an acoustic covers album and a wonderful electronic collaboration with The Album Leaf), but the clear standout is his album with indie rock band Desertshore, which features Kozelek’s former Red House Painters band mate Phil Carney. As a huge RHP fan, I gotta say: After a slew of admittedly beautiful but somewhat monotonous acoustic albums, it’s great to hear the band (kinda) back together again. There are a lot of moments that echo early RHP – the starkly pretty “You Are Not of My Blood”, with it’s haunting vocals and molasses-thick pace, could have easily been included on the Rollercoaster album. And then, of course, there are a lot of moments that are just classic, asshole Kozelek, most notably in “Livingstone Bramble” in which he casually pits himself victoriously against several modern guitar players and says “I hate Nels Cline” 4 times.

Bridge 9

Bridge 9

16. Lemuria – The Distance Is So Big
When it comes to Lemuria, I guess I am one of those annoying fans that can’t get over their first album, Get Better. I love that album so much, and it helped to make this band one of my top 5 favorites of recent years. In fact, it kind of felt like high school all over again, because it has almost been that long since I have REALLY loved an album that much, to the point where I absolutely have to go back and listen to everything the band has done. So needless to say, it’s going to be difficult to top that record in my mind. The Distance Is So Big, while a glorious album, is aptly named in that it doesn’t come close. But it still captures the rare and growing talents of this unique band, and it and it shows they are building upon their sound and overall musicianship in very interesting ways. “Brilliant Dancer”, with its multi-layered musical themes and sharp pop hooks, is most definitely a Song of the Year contender.

This b-side form the “Brilliant Dancer” single also rules.

Matador

Matador

15. Lee Ranaldo & The Dust – Last Night on Earth
Former Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo and his new backing band The Dust (which features Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley) put on one of the best live shows I saw in 2013, opening for Built to Spill here in Lawrence a few months ago. It was one of those magical sets where you can almost see the telepathy working like laser paths across the stage, drawing out the connections between the musicians. I bought Ranaldo’s first solo record last year and enjoyed it, but was not prepared for what this band would grow into. Also, I was not prepared for whatever blast of inspiration Ranaldo had that caused him to write these songs. Maybe it was just getting a new band together and playing with incredible musicians again – dare I say, even better musicians than the ones you played with in your old band of over 30 years. While by no means a perfect album, Last Night on Earth stands as a testament to working bands everywhere that the best records are still made with 4 people rocking together in a room, just as the inner gatefold photo of the LP suggests.

Polyvinyl

Polyvinyl

14. Owen – L’Ami du Peuple
Even if Mike Kinsella is guilty of resting on his laurels in recent years, his musical talent always shines through in some way. Stylistically, his guitar playing has been hugely influential since the American Football days, and that inventiveness still exists in some form on Owen’s latest album. Though not all the songs are great, there are some clear gems, like the instant Owen classic that opens the record, “I Got High”. Some songs, like “Blues to Black”, combine the somber acoustic sounds of his more recent solo albums with the unapologetic emo of his early bands like Cap’n Jazz or American Football, with an altogether new result. The deceivingly simple “The Burial” and its unassuming, intertwining melodies are a complete departure and nothing short of breathtaking, beautifully marrying cheesy synths with dabbles of swelling strings. Even though he probably won’t stray too far from the comfort of his little Owen box, I will always look forward to a record from Kinsella. He is simply a consistent talent.

Merge

Merge

13. Superchunk – I Hate Music
In this writer’s humble opinion, Superchunk released their best album ever in 2011, Majesty Shredding. For a band that started putting out records back in the late 80’s, it’s quite a feat to make the album of your career almost 25 years later. But Mac McCaughan and company have been busting their asses in the music biz for over half their lives. Even when Superchunk was on hiatus, he and bassist/ex-girlfriend Laura Ballance kept themselves busy running one of the big three modern “indie” labels, Merge Records. So, I Hate Music is a sarcastic title then, right? I wouldn’t count on it. Anyone who dedicates this much of life to something will inevitably learn to love AND hate it with all of their being. This attitude is almost completely embodied in the minute-long, phoned-in-but-still-somehow-awesome punk song “Staying Home”, which could soon become an anthem for aging hipsters who either think they have seen it all, or simply don’t have the energy to see any more. But that’s all very tongue-in-cheek, as the rest of the album is just as fun and ass-kicking as any of your favorite Superchunk albums. Overall, the songwriting seems a little more one-note compared to Majesty Shredding, but I Hate Music is still a fantastic record.

Frenchkiss

Frenchkiss

12. Local Natives – Hummingbird
This is such a sad, serious album, but I kept finding myself listening through to the end every time it would come on. That’s the interesting thing about Local Natives – you want to hate them for being these hipster, New York transplant kids, but their songwriting talents make that very difficult to do. You kinda want to hate them for enlisting Aaron Dessner of the National to produce the album and co-write a few songs, too – I mean, doesn’t tapping a member of one of the most popular rock bands in the country kind of seem like an obvious move? Well, yes, but definitely not a dumb one – the resulting album Hummingbird presents a perfected softness within the band that seems nicely transferred over from the National camp. LN has never been afraid to rock, but for this album, they obviously wanted to present a more sensitive side. They manage to do this without being boring, and even get a little creepy at times. The opening piano lines of closing track “Bowery” present the kinds of melodies you’d hear in your head while half-awake, just after being visited by the ghost of a long-lost friend in your sleep.

What's Your Rupture

What’s Your Rupture

11. Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold/Tally All the Things that You Broke EP
Imagine Pavement if they were even sloppier and less talented musically, and you would have something like Parquet Courts. That may not sound very appealing, and believe me, this band was not appealing to me at first listen. But something about them kept me coming back. I think it’s their obvious aversion to taking themselves too seriously, which is something so many bands suffer from these days. Plus, they have some really great, original tunes that add up to more than the sum of their influences. You know how some bands can like, NOT use tuners and somehow still sound great? And if you’re in a band, you like, HATE them for it? That band would probably be Parquet Courts, and after hating on them with your friends for a while and maybe hearing the irresistible “Stoned and Starving” a few times, you’d probably be reeling with happiness on the inside while saying out loud “I guess this is actually pretty OK.” Then a few years later, they’ll be band you rock out to uncontrollably. Parquet Courts just have that sense of punk urgency about them, along with a huge dose of self-effacement, which makes for an awesome time.

Merge

Merge

10. Mikal Cronin – II
It was extremely refreshing to see an album like Mikal Cronin’s II garner so much praise this year. Why? Because it is, essentially, a power pop record – and we know that as a genre, power pop is historically one of the most unappreciated. Sure, Cronin may be mostly known for his collaborations with Nu-Garage pioneer Ty Segall, but while Segall mainly focuses on soundscapes and awesome guitar noise, Cronin’s focus lies in melody. Maybe that’s what makes this album seem kind of anachronistic to me – the focus on the SONGS. Too often these days, music is allowed to exist as merely background noise. We seem to have forgotten (or stopped caring) that music is capable of so much more – capable of entering your soul for days/weeks/months/years/forever, not just providing the backdrop for a given moment in time. On II, Cronin gives us a collection of songs that seem to exist solely for repurposing that argument. He taps into a Weezer-meets-Beach Boys vein right off the bat with “Weight”, and the wonderful songwriting stays consistent throughout. On “Change”, the album’s centerpiece, exploding guitars give way to insane, chaotic orchestral bursts, creating a modern pop classic.

Matador

Matador

9. Yo La Tengo – Fade
When I was in high school in the late 90’s, Yo La Tengo was one of the main bands that introduced me to “indie rock”. Nowadays, they are one of my favorite bands of all time. No other currently active rock band seems to really understand what it means to be “indie” – sure, the record label you are on can clue you in to a band’s overall independence from the mainstream, but that is only the beginning of what it means. Yo La Tengo are STILL indie pioneers to this day, because they still don’t give a FUCK what you think, and they are not going to be all boisterous or cocky or mysterious about it. They are simply going to play the music they want to play, make the records they want to make, and continue aging as gracefully as Neil Young all the way to another handful of classic albums. Go ahead and lump Fade into that category, already. It stands as one of their most consistent of their 2000’s era, and presents them staying true to their minimalistic and beautiful songwriting style. The single-chord mantra-set-to-music “Ohm”, which opens the album, is an instant classic – almost YLT in their purest form. If the next few tracks seem like the band revisiting their catalog (a la 2009’s brilliant Popular Songs), the second half of the album clues us in to their further transition. “Before We Run”, the album’s closing symphonic anthem, is epic without necessarily being long, like so many YLT album-closers are. It proves that they continue to strive for perfection in their craft, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the next album won’t be full of 15-minute flip-out rockers – it all depends on how they are feeling at the time.

Graveface

Graveface

8. Hospital Ships – Destruction In Yr Soul
The first two Hospital Ships albums banked on the rise of the twee/freak folk genre that has since become all but a thing of the past. But on their third album, Lawrence townie staple Jordan Geiger and co. (who have since relocated to Austin) expand the depth and width of not only their sound, but their overall relevance. Destruction In Yr Soul has that fine-line sort of feel of sounding very well produced, yet completely off the cuff at the same time, as if half of it was produced in a professional studio while the other half was thrown together at home. The beautiful melodies of “If it Speaks” and “Desolation Waltz” are laden with sonic discrepancies, giving them a creepy, other-worldly feel. And while the album starts out somewhat hopeful with one of the year’s best songs (“Come Back To Life”), the experience becomes increasingly heavy, with following eight songs delving headfirst into the pointless nothingness some call life. That may seem like an overstatement, but it’s hard not to think exactly that after hearing Geiger sing about how we will “Laugh all the way to the gallows”. But after all this, we come out the other side feeling dirty, wide-eyed and fulfilled – almost like the end of a long mushroom trip.

Anti-

Anti-

7. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
Neko Case has made her reputation not only from her recurring stint as a singer in indie-pop cult band The New Pronographers, but her string of very well-received alt-country solo albums over the last fifteen years. She has also appeared in several other projects (like the popular Americana act The Sadies, for example), but The Worse Things Get seems like something altogether new for the singer. With songs like the completely a capella “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” – one of the most chilling songs I have heard in a long, long time – Case has come to the realization that she is the headliner, without coming to a diva’s conclusion that she doesn’t need anyone else. Some of the songs, like the A.C. Newman-esque “Man”, act as extensions of what she has tackled in previous years, but that doesn’t make these songs any less compelling. Just like any other musician who works this tirelessly over a long period, she is simply out to perfect her art. These days, she is succeeding more than ever.

Matador

Matador

6. Kurt Vile and the Violators – Wakin On A Pretty Daze
I don’t know why, but I can’t quit Kurt Vile. Sometimes, his lackadaisical delivery and simple song structures seem like a product of laziness. But even in those moments, you can’t deny the guy has talent. Wakin On A Pretty Daze is more than pleasant, but not necessarily surprising – after the accessibility of his last album, I half-expected Vile’s next release to be an album full of ten-minute songs. What it is, however, is a very satisfying culmination of everything Vile has done up to this point – the stream-of-consciousness ramblings of Constant Hitmaker, the strange-yet-melodic white noise of Childish Prodigy, and the straightforward and heartbreaking folk of Smoke Ring For My Halo are all utilized to the fullest with John Agnello’s expertly hands-off production. The changing, strolling pace of “Wakin on a Pretty Day” followed by the Neil Young riffage of “KV Crimes” might represent the best opening one-two punch of the year; while the hazy, told-you-so attitude of “Was All Talk” along with the heartbreaking “Too Hard” prove this guy is still well beyond his years as a songwriter.

Independent

Independent

5. Danny Pound – Hobby Howl
It seems like the more years pop music has been a thing, the more painstaking a process it becomes to create an album. It has gotten to the point where if you want your song on the radio, it HAS to sound a certain way, no exceptions. People wonder why radio plays the same 20 songs – they don’t, they just all sound like the same song. Our brains have been shaped around this homogenized bullshit for too long, and we really need to start trying to recognize when a true work of art comes our way. This is what we have in Hobby Howl, the third solo album by Danny Pound (of the Regrets and formerly Vitreous Humor). Created on a 4-track in the comfort of his own home with friends, Hobby Howl is Danny Pound letting his guard down completely, allowing his later folk/Randy Newman-heavy influences to marry clumsily yet memorably with his youthful alternative sensibilities. It came out very late in the year, but the first time I heard it, I knew I had an instant Midwest classic in my player. Especially with my increasing age and skepticism, it’s almost impossible to find an album that grabs me in such a way these days.

Jagjaguwar

Jagjaguwar

4. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II
WARNING: I’m going to talk about Radiohead for a brief moment. I didn’t want to love the Kid A album, but I do, all the same. It’s brilliant, but I still resent it somewhat for convincing people that guitars are irrelevant. It’s a way of thought that is still prevalent to this day, 13 years after the album was released. It changed the musical landscape more so than any other album in my lifetime, other than Nevermind. So it’s infinitely refreshing to hear an album like UMO’s II – a record built completely around funky, progressive, fiery guitar riffs and soulful melodies. It sounds almost as if some Motown band decided they wanted to play garage rock and recorded their album on an old, neglected reel-to-reel 4-track. It’s an incredibly eclectic mix of styles and sounds, but refreshingly minimalistic, with a hands-off production style that lets the songs speak for themselves. “Swim and Sleep”, “The Opposite of Afternoon” and “Faded in the Morning” were all huge guitar anthems for me this year. But then there are songs like “So Good at Being In Trouble” that are kind of tender and almost like R&B in a way, with smooth vocals and grooves – and again, just incredibly sick guitar sounds all around.

Merge

Merge

3. William Tyler – Impossible Truth
When I was a kid, my parents were in their late 30’s and decidedly exiting the young-carefree-hippie era of their lives. As the partying decreased, the music became softer, less interesting, and in many cases, instrumental. If what I am describing sounds like mundane, adult easy-listening tripe, that’s because it was. But even still, much of it was played during my formative years, and a lot of those cheesy, instrumental guitar arpeggios that took the place of vocal lines somehow wormed their way into my little skull. I think this has much to do with why I found William Tyler’s Impossible Truth so compelling. Once I heard it was an instrumental record, I was ready to write it off immediately. But from the moment I hit play, I was completely mesmerized – and I still am, over and over again, every time I spin it. Also the guitarist for indie band Lambchop, Tyler’s album never assumes the need for vocal lines, as the main star is (and rightly should be) his guitar. Riffs run from his fingers effortlessly, and the melodies are just as timeless (maybe even more so) as they would be if they were sung with words. It’s beautifully recorded and produced, and many of the riffs recall some of the best rock music of all time, like the Stones’ “Paint it Black” (“Geography of Nowhere”) or Zeppelin’s “Bron Y Aur” (“Hotel Catatonia”). It feels like a love letter to music from an enthusiastic record nerd, so how could I NOT love this album?

High Dive

High Dive

2. The ACB’s – Little Leaves
Kansas City has so much talent seeping out of it, but I almost wish they didn’t know it. Maybe then, KC musicians would take themselves a little less seriously, relax a bit, and be able to produce something as original and effortless-sounding as Little Leaves. Musicians have a tendency to get lost in their own heads, sometimes so much so that they feel their music should sound a certain way, to “prove” what kind of artist they are. The ACB’s stand out as having no real delusions of grandeur – they certainly care about the music they create (probably more so than most things in life), but they do not feel the need to build their entire individual identities around their musical talents. This attitude carries over so well into their songwriting which, on their third full-length, explores a plethora of human emotion against the backdrop of an incredibly inclusive musical palate. For a band known mostly for their up-tempo pop songs, it’s pretty gutsy to include two snail-paced acoustic tracks in the first half of the album. But as “Intro (All Over)” kicks it off, its sad melody and startling honesty immediately grab hold. From then on, it’s a quick slide down through decades of nerd-pop influence and quirky, catchy melodies sung in Konnor Ervin’s breathy, fragile falsetto. Band member Andrew Connor and producer Mike Nolte (both of KC indie stalwarts Ghosty) lend their mysterious blend of synths, meticulous guitar work and reverb-drenched aura to the band’s already-established sound, elevating the overall experience of Little Leaves into something truly special. We should all be very proud to have The ACB’s in our backyard.

Independent

Independent

1. My Bloody Valentine – MBV
Kevin Shields may have taken 22 years to follow up 1991’s classic album Loveless, but considering how breathtaking of an album MBV is, I don’t think anyone should be complaining. I mean, he could have very well just fallen off the face of the musical world completely, and we may never have had this wonderful record. The question everyone is asking: Is it as good as Loveless? Here, let me ask a question: Why ask that question? Aside from the fact they were made and released so far apart (within a lapse of time big enough for a person to be born, graduate from college and transform into a whole new person), it’s almost impossible to compare the two. While Loveless seemed to pride itself in pleasantly overloading our speakers and minds with layers of pummeling overdrive, MBV seems more occupied with carrying us along a flowing, fuzzy river of white noise and psychedelia – that is, until the last third of the album, when Shields decides to assault our eardrums more than ever before. Considering that much of MBV was recorded in the mid-to-late nineties, there is something very anachronistic about the album, while some have even been so bold as to call it flat-out irrelevant. But a lot of these folks are also content to live in an era in which awesome-sounding guitars are replaced with breathy, piddling, washed-out synth sounds. I, for one, am ready to see that trend get on its way outta here, and I think Kevin Shields feels the same. He has, after all, built his career around the guitar – maybe he feels it’s finally time to come to its defense. If there’s one song that does it more than any on MBV, it’s “In Another Way”, which alternates walls of jet-engine distortion with brilliant harmonic and tremelo work. But if Shields truly is waging war, how do you describe the already impossible to describe “Is This and Yes”? The song, nothing but keyboards and Belinda Butcher’s cooing vocals, almost seems to embrace current trends. If the rest of the album didn’t seem so damn determined to blow them away, I’d almost venture to say they could be the next Washed Out. But I would never insult My Bloody Valentine like that.

HONORABLE MENTION

Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – Fly By Wire
Cowboy Indian Bear – Live Old, Die Young
Telekinesis – Dormarion
Yuck – Glow and Behold
Midlake – Antiphon
Los Campesinos! – No Blues
Phoenix – Bankrupt!
Muscle Worship – Muscle Worship
Marnie Stern – The Chronicles of Marnia
Foxygen – We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic
Arctic Monkeys – AM
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Mark Mulcahy – Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You
The Sluts – Virile
Your Friend – Jekyll/Hyde

Apologies to fans of the site that I have not been posting more. I am making it a new year’s resolution to up my blogging game, so hopefully, you’ll be seeing more material soon. Thank you for the continued support.


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