Sometimes looks can be deceiving. Philly native Kurt Vile not only looks like a slacker but has a voice that sounds like he can’t be bothered. “Wakin'” is Vile’s fifth album is six years along with a slew of EP’s with one improving leaps and bounds over the next. Vile is in his early 30’s and is a self-described homebody and family man and lyrically he sounds like a stoned Zen philosopher giving out odes to domestic bliss, only bumming out when on the road missing his wife and young son. The electric guitar is central to all of Vile’s work but he’s not a shredder. His riffs roll by slowly, folding in on themselves. The tempo of the album rarely changes- it’s a mellow, dreamy vibe as pleasant and hazy as a slight day-drink buzz on the first beautiful Saturday afternoon in Spring. Both the first and last tracks on the album are over 9 minutes but neither sound a second too long and are both two of the album’s standouts.
If you would have told me in 2009 that several years later Drake would be the biggest rapper in the game, it would have been hard to swallow. But here we are. Drake is so omnipresent, releasing web only singles and appearing on seemingly everyone’s tracks as a featured artist, that it’s credit to him that his official albums are such a big event. “Nothing Was The Same” is his 3rd full-length, not counting his first EP, and like his previous albums several tracks stand out immediately while the rest of the album takes longer to digest. Drake has access to and endless amount of money, women and fame. Despite all of his success he has plenty of angst- about his own fame, past relationships and current family issues. He can come off as an arrogant and insufferable over sharer, but his insights, contradictions & hypocrisies can be fascinating. Drake grew up upper middle class and was a tv star (he was just fairly hilarious as first time musical guest and host on SNL) in Canada as a teenager but then writes a track called “Started From the Bottom”, which is both far from the truth and one of the best bangers of the year He continues to improve as a rapper, has some of the best beats around and for now rules the world. Other standout tracks include “Furthest Thing”, “Worst Behavior” and 2nd single, radio hit & #1 song on Pitchfork’s year end list “Hold On, We’re Going Home”. Also check out the great non-album track “5am Toronto”.
Buy Nothing Was The Same (Deluxe) [Explicit] Amazon
Janelle Monae is a concept as much as she is an artist. “The Electric Lady” is made up of the 4th & 5th suites of her planned seven part “Metropolis” series about a futuristic, dystopian android. Like all great sci-fi, Monae’s cyborg protagonist’s stories are allegories for the racism, sexism, homophobia & gender politics of modern day Earth. Monae is a pint-sized woman with a larger than life voice and talent. Her music takes equally from modern R&B, hip hop and techno, along with throwback funk of Sly Stone & Stevie Wonder and “Sign O’ The Times” era Prince. She lives through her art, is involved in all artistic decisions both musically and visually and collaborates with a group of artists known as the Wondaland Collective. Despite relatively modest sales she is beloved in the music industry. “Electric Lady” features heavy hitters like Erykah Badu, Miguel, Solange Knowles, Esperanza Spaulding and even the purple one himself. Anyone who laments the lack of great organic soul music should listen to this- it’s full of great singing, songwriting and musicianship with Wondaland guitarist Kellindo Parker standing out particularly for his Prince-worthy shredding. Highlights are abundant, including the thrilling “Dance Apocalyptic”, the funky ballad with Miguel “PrimeTime” and the heartfelt Stevie Wonder-esque ode to Monae’s mother “Ghetto Woman”. This is Monae’s best album yet. Here’s hoping that more people hear her stuff.
Buy The Electric Lady Amazon
The release of Arcade Fire’s 4th album “Reflektor” was the indie-rock event album of the year. The lead up to the album was highlighted by an elaborate guerilla marketing campaign inspired by veve drawings, the release of a limited edition “Reflektor” single credited to a fictional band called “The Reflektors”, the pre-release of parts of several songs as well as full videos and various other publicity stunts. The great ex-LCD Soundsystem leader and DFA label head James Murphy was tapped to produce their first double album and expectation and anticipation was sky high to hear the follow-up to the band’s Grammy winning album of the year “The Suburbs”. Arcade Fire have yet to deliver anything short of a great full length album and while “Reflektor” is probably not their very best effort, it’s certainly great enough to continue the group’s winning streak. Unsurprisingly, Murphy helps to direct the band toward their most dance-friendly sound. The first album in the set is nearly perfect containing the great title cut, along with the awesome “Here Comes The Night” and “We Exist”. Every cut save “Joan Of Arc” is a standout and potential single. The 2nd album is weirder and a bit weaker. As on previous albums, the penultimate track “Afterlife” is one of the best on the album, but it’s the clear winner on disc 2. Several of the lengthy cuts like “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” start sinking in with repeat listens but “Here Comes The Night Time II” is a waste of time, “Porno” is a bit boring and album closer “Supersymmetry” is fairly innocuous until the annoying, never-ending feedback loop added to the end of the song. Like many double albums, it’s hard not to think that “Reflektor” would be even mightier as a single album with the fat trimmed off.
Buy Reflektor Amazon
Danny Brown, Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, Odd Future & Chance The Rapper represent a corps of talented newcomers injecting lifeblood into the rap industry which, outside of its few best talents (Kanye, Drake) had gotten quite stale in recent years. Danny Brown is from the streets of Detroit and though not a member of any crew, collaborates and is respected by nearly everyone. “Old” is Brown’s third album and most high profile release so far. As opposed to all of the above rapper except the still unsigned Chance, Brown is still on an indie label and his sales are modest compared to A$AP & Kendrick. He is an eccentric and a singular talent with a voice and personality that has the potential to become as recognizable as Busta, Slick Rick or Snoop. Brown dons a huge afro and hipster skinny jeans, has two missing front teeth and raps about taking drugs rather than selling them. He has a working knowledge of rap’s entire history but is just as likely to name check modern indie rock. T. Rex or an obscure 60’s psych-rock group. “Old” is divided into two parts- the “dark side” and the “high side”. On the “dark side” which takes up with first half of the album, Brown raps in a lower register and focuses on his current troubles and escaping his impoverished past. The songs are self-aware and bent on self improvement. The “high side” is made up of mostly party anthems rapped in Brown’s familiar high-pitched nasally register. The production on the record is fresh and exciting, nodding to both old skool rap and EDM, sometimes trippy, other times harsh and abrasive with skittering techno beats. “Old” is 19 tracks but over in less than an hour and it feels even shorter than that. There are no skits and no real missteps with numerous highlights- “Dip”, “Kush Coma”, “The Return” (with the great fellow Freddie Gibbs) & “Clean Up” are some of my favorites but every listen reveals a new pleasure.
Buy Old [Explicit] [+digital booklet] Amazon
Buy Dip [Explicit] Amazon
Buy Kush Coma (feat. A$AP Rocky & Zelooperz) [Explicit] Amazon
2013 was the year that Daft Punk, a French techno duo dressed as robots, became household names in popular culture. They’ve been heroes to both dance music aficionados and many indie music fans (see LCD Soundsystem’s “Daft Punk’s Playing At My House”) since the late 90’s and have even previously had a big hit single (see 2001’s “One More Time”) but with the release of “Random Access Memories” and especially the album’s lead single “Get Lucky”, arguably the song of the year, now everyone knows their name. With ppopularity comes backlash and “Random Access” has received its fair share- it’s probably the most polarizing album of the year. Rather than digging in and giving the world a set of club anthems, the Robots collaborate with a number of artists thought to be well past their prime, producing an album more beholden to prog-rock, yacht-rock and disco than the techno they helped to define. Disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder shows up on a nearly 10 minute track (called “Giorgio Moroder”) half of which is Moroder’s spoken words regarding recording techniques. The author of Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection”, Paul Williams, sings an epic length called “Touch”, which sounds downright creepy at first, revealing its genius only with repeat listens. Legendary producer and Chic guitarist Nile Rogers shows up on various cuts (including “Get Lucky”). “Random Access Memories” is a painstakingly produced, 75 minute throwback analog album, reverting back to a time when the music industry was thriving, immense recording budgets with only the best musicians and producers, a time of sequins & cocaine. Daft Punk are unafraid of experimentation and are ripe with ideas. Younger, rock & R&B musicians like Panda Bear from Animal Collective (on the great track “Doin’ It Right”), Julian Casablancas of the Strokes and Pharrell Williams are featured prominently. It’s an album that can be funky, trippoy, danceable and just plain weird- sometimes all of that on the same track. Over six months after the release of the album “Random Access Memories” still seems like a pretty major statement and to me it’s the crown jewel of Daft Punk’s brilliant and groundbreaking career so far.
Late last year, Savages, a four woman post-punk revival band out of London released “Husbands”, their debut single and it quickly became one of my favorite songs of the year. Their excellent debut album “Silence Yourself” more than lives up to the promise of “Husbands” and they are the most exciting new guitar band in a long while and the best all female band since Sleater-Kinney. Singer Jehnny Beth is a dead ringer for Siouxsie Sioux and the band’s sound is straight out of the 1979-82 post-punk era. Savages are artsy, feminist and political. Each song sounds like a manifesto where everything is at stake. The break absolutely no new sonic ground, but the quality of music on this debut is equal to nearly anything released in post-punk’s first wave. Outside of “Husbands”, “Strife”, “Shut Up”, “City’s Full”, “No Face” and especially “She Will” are all instant punk classics. “Silence Yourself” is a plea to turn off technology and fully engage in the world. The group actually has a no smart phones policy at their live shows and not to sound like a curmudgeonly luddite but they may be on to something.
Kanye West is a very complicated man. He’s a world famous rapper and producer, but he’s generally loathed by the general public and known more for his public tantrums and outbursts than his genius level talent and incredible work ethic. He can be thought provoking and relentlessly challenges current social standards and mores, but is married to equally loathed relaity show airhead Kim Kardashian. The dude is tough to figure out. “Yeezus” is Kanye’s 6th album, which he dropped last spring on the public with little advanced warning and made changes to the track listing up until a week before the physical street date. The front cover art is the disc itself and all copy is printed on the disc itself or on a clear sticker directly on the jewel case. “Yeezus” is intentionally confrontational and abrasive with no radio singles. West is calling it his “Nebraska”, alluding to the 1982 anti-commercial Bruce Springsteen album. Even with music this challenging, at least half of “Yeezus” is made up of instant classics- “Black Skinhead”, “New Slaves”, “Blood On The Leaves” and “Bound 2”, the one throwback to Kanye’s more soulful music, are all among 2013’s best songs. The full album is only 10 songs and 40 minutes and feels even shorter. He veers between two opposite poles- high brown and low brow- confronting materialism, racism & societal hypocrisy, while on the other hand taking civil rights slogans and applying them as euphemisms for sexual conquests. The production bis skeletal and menacing, often sounding like some future hybrid of techno & punk rock more than hip hop. In a great music year, “Yeezus” has dominated year end lists as the far and away #1 critical consensus pick. Though I clearly love it I put it slightly below his previous album and masterpiece “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”. Six albums in West has amassed the most consistently great catalog in rap history and probably the best body of work in popular music outside of maybe Radiohead. Haters be damned.
“Settle” is the best pure dance music album I’ve heard in over a decade. I know many fear dance music just like many fear rap so if you’re one of the afraid then Disclosure probably isn’t for you. But please try to keep an open mind- I’m old enough to remember people dismissing New Order for similar reasons and now they are pretty much universally loved, at least for the under 50 set. Disclosure are a two man band made up of brothers Howard and Guy Lawrence (incredibly of only 21 and 18 years of age) from London who play take use basic House Music as their starting point, but add their favorite elements of various post-millennium U.K. dance styles including 2-Step, Garage, Grime, Bass Music & dubstep. Though “Settle” is their debut album, it already plays like a Greatest Hits. It remains high energy and upbeat throughout, both club-ready and pop conscious, like early Basement Jaxx. There are no duds and no filler and 3/4 of the album are total standouts. A slew of guest vocalists, many of them up and coming talent with Sam Smith (on lead single and best track “Latch), AlunaGeorge (on the brilliant “White Noise)”, London Grammar on “Help Me Lose My Mind” and Jessie Ware on “Confess To Me”. That there is an album I actually liked better last year is a tribute to the music of 2013.
Since their 2008 self-titled debut, Vampire Weekend’s clean cut preppie image, use of three dollar words and appropriation of afro-pop have been a turn off for many. I absolutely loved their debut and their second record as well, but was still unprepared for the brilliance of “Modern Vampires Of The City”. With “Modern Vampires”, VW have shown major musical growth while maintaining their signature sound. They are both brainy and fun, taking on love, politics, history, politics and religion- sometimes within each song. Millennial Ezra Koenig, who handles lyrics and lead vocals can now safely be called a major voice of his generation. “Wisdom’s a gift, but you’d trade it for youth”, Koenig sings on the gorgeous track “Step”, possible Vampire Weekend’s best track yet. “Finger Back” examines our brutal historical past, while “Hudson” imagines a post apocalyptic future. The amazing “Ya Hey” and “Unbelievers” (which is most reminiscent of the group’s past work) take on spirituality and organized religion, while lead single “Diane Young” examines death. The beautiful centerpiece ballad “Hannah Hunt” didn’t resonate much at first, but on further listens is one of the most nuanced and best tracks on the album. A couple on a road trip, possible trying to re-imagine the American Dream in our modern world. “Modern Vampires” is both a grower and a shower. I loved it immediately and four of five songs grabbed me instantly. I’ve yet to get sick of a single song, but the remainder of the album has gotten better with age. Vampire Weekend was an already great band who have now upped the ante and become one of the defining rock bands of their generation.