Friday, January 10, 2014

Best Albums of 2013

10. Yo La Tengo - Fade
9. Paul McCartney - New
8. My Bloody Valentine - MBV
7. Justin Timberlake - 20/20 Experience

6. Bob Dylan - Bootleg Series, Vol. 10

This is absurd. Let’s make no mistake, this bootleg collects unreleased demos and b-sides from what most critics agree is Dylan’s worst album, Self Portrait. Not only that, but the original was a double album. Oh, and the vaults had already been cleaned to release Dylan, which is so bad, most people don’t even include it in his discography. And yet, stripped of overdubs, and padded with unreleased tracks recorded during the same period, this ends up feeling like some kind of lost album. While not as fun as The Basement Tapes, it shows Dylan's fascination with sturdy old folk songs, and is strikingly beautiful in a way few of his albums are.

5. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

I found it surprisingly hard to crack this one. As an albums, this one feels disjointed and oddly sequenced. That's especially true of the first half, which starts strong, and then immediately cools off. Instead of sitting down with this one, I was only able to obsesses on a track or two at a time. Obviously, I started "Get Lucky," but each song eventually revealed some ringing brilliance. I knew I was in for good, when I spent a few weeks trying to figure out why "Giorgio by Moroder" worked so well.

4. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires in the City
I’m as genuinely surprised by this album as everyone else.

3. Arcade Fire - Reflektor

I can't shake the feeling that there are two records here, and that it might have made more sense cutting this sucker in half. I'm sure most people prefer the shorter, poppier numbers, which get most of the attention on the first half. But I'll trade most of them for the moodier, grovier tracks that allow the band to really stretch out. That's definitely the case for the stunning title track, though I think

2. Kanye West - Yeezus
1. Chance The Rapper - Acid Rap

2013 was the year of the big album—records that were expensive, groomed, and long. It’d be easy to also label them as indulgent if so many of them weren’t so good; Daft Punk, Arcade Fire, Justin Timberlake all released double albums overflowing with good will and high fidelity. In contrast, my favorite two albums of the year were stripped and direct—a minimalist masterpiece and an actual mixtape.

And I’m not sure what this means, but both also happen to be by Chicago artists. Sure, Kanye probably doesn’t spend much time here anymore, but he sure as hell listens to other artists from the city. Yeezus is filled musical odes to the city, including references to Drill music, the repetitive and intense music made famous on the South Side.

It’s easy to say that Yeezus is all about West, but I’m not sure it’s that simple. The lyrics alternate between righteous anger and the kind of vulgarity that is very hard to defend. Honestly, I still find the second half of Yeezus a challenge to get through, especially “I’m in It.” It’s obviously misogynistic, but there is something about Kanye’s tone that makes it all sound even more offensive than it might read on a lyric sheet. Perhaps there is some underlying meaning I’m not getting, but I don’t think so. That said, there is no doubting that the music is every bit as intense as the lyrics, so this is probably just a case of West trying to match the mood of the music. In that sense, I suppose he succeeds.

The angry lyrics, however, are nerve-wracking and consistently thrilling, and they are made more so by his darkest and most intense arrangements. “Black Skinhead” and “I Am a God” are both blatantly anti-commercial, yet these are the two songs he chose to introduce the world to the album. Instead of trying to be “serious,” both tracks are furious and slippery; they touch on the continuing racism prevalent in America, yet he doesn’t attack the usual targets.

The vulgar and angry collide on “Blood on the Leaves,” where he samples Nina Simone singing one of the most cherished songs about racism in the South, and uses it to spin some strange relationship tale. That’s kind of heresy, no? So if he just liked the sound, why did he perform at the VMA’s in front of a photo of a tree used to hang
On the other hand, Acid Rap is colorful, whimsical, and playful—things that are almost completely absent from Yeezus. It’s also a bit “songy,” which is my way of saying that too many of the tracks have big choruses with hooks that don’t always match the verses. Take the otherwise excellent “Everybody’s Something,” where the hard beats of the verse seem to butt up against a vaguely uplifting chorus. Contrast that with “Acid Rap,” where, for three and a half spellbinding minutes, Chance pushes back and forth over a simple drum beat, with nothing to help him. Perhaps a whole album like this would be too much, but one can hope.

As for the music, Yeezus stomps all over Acid Rain, displaying a kind of virtuosity that’s genuinely startlingly. Hearing tracks stripped down for spare parts is genuinely disorientating at first, especially since samples don’t so much as pop up as collide head first into walls. Why does it work so well? Perhaps this peek behind the curtain proves that constructing hip hop songs is far harder than you imagined. There is no doubt which one will be more influential.

You’d think that this would make West’s album a more intense experience, and while musically it certainly is, Chance’s range of emotions allows him to dig deeper and hit with ten times the emotional force. Chance manages to turn trivial details into surprisingly meaningful moments. The genuinely sweet "Cocoa Butter Kisses” chronicles the lengths he goes to cover his drug use from his grandma, while also hinting on the loss of innocence that happens at the same moment:

"Used to like orange cassette tapes with Timmy, Tommy, and Chuckie
And Chuck E. Cheese's pizzas, Jesus pieces, sing Jesus love me
Put Visine inside my eyes so my grandma would fucking hug me”

That’s not the only mention of drugs on this album, but they are never framed quite in the way you’d expect. He never brags about selling them, nor does he ever seem to care about giving them up. In “Lost,” it’s hard to tell whether the hazy warm feeling is from the touch of his girlfriend or the drugs they are both taking.

The album’s most harrowing cut, “Pusha Man,” touches on the violence on Chicago’s South Side in three separate vignettes, each seeming to look at the situation from a different view. But instead of meticulously tying the pieces together, the first and second bits are separated by an explained 20 second of silence—a truly bizarre move, especially since this is the second track on the album. This disorienting move makes you take notice, and it sets the next two parts in stark relief. The middle section follows a lumbering cruise—no vehicle is mentioned, but I can’t help but think of the character swerving on a bike—while the person in question is smoking a blunt on a hot afternoon. The person seems removed from regular life, completely in his own reality, which is only scary when you consider that he’s doing so with a gun strapped to his hips.

This all sets up third section, which features this utterly devastating line:

"I know you scared, you should ask us if we scared, too.”

Which, you know, actually stings when you think about all the talk about Chicago’s continuing violence. But then he gets specific in a way that actually hurts:

"It just got warm out, this this shit I've been warned about
I hope that it storm in the morning, I hope that it's pouring out
I hate crowded beaches, I hate the sound of fireworks
And I ponder what's worse between knowing it's over and dying first
Cause everybody dies in the summer
Wanna say ya goodbyes, tell them while it's spring
I heard everybody's dying in the summer, so pray to God for a little more spring”

And all this from a 20 year old kid that made a mixtape and then gave it away for free. Part of me can’t wait to see where he goes next. But even if we never hear from Chance again, we have Acid Rain, which is more than enough.

No comments: