Year-End Music Pow-Wow
Patrick, Lauren, and I got together (over email) to discuss the year in music. The conversation transpired over the course of the month of December. What follows is an edited transcript of that trainwreck.
Three albums, three arguments for why they should be 2013's "Album of the Year."
Boards of Canada, Tomorrow's Harvest
As it may be BoC's best album to date—and that's saying a lot—not sure how this couldn't be considered the album of the year. And awarding them TCoI's coveted "Album of the Year" award may be the only way to ensure we don't wait the better part of a decade for the next BoC offering!
Merchandise, Totale Nite
Despite being obviously influenced by '80s music, it's really hard to pinpoint which bands/movements from the '80s influence them the most—Merchandise are so wonderfully unwieldy, adventurous, and brave in their compositions, merging and blending so many influences with their own original talents. No one else sounds quite like them, and no one else is probably going to put them at the top of their 2013 lists, so TCoI would look hella edgy, yo.
Haim, Days Are Gone
Despite the unforgivable track "My Song 5," this is a surprisingly brilliant debut. I was already sold on the singles, but worried those might be the best tracks on Days Are Gone. Glad I was wrong. Also, channeling Stevie Nicks isn't a bad way to go. See: Haerts' "Wings."
The Boards of Canada record is probably in my top 3, but I’m going to be contrarian and suggest something else. I also think that Music Has the Right to Children beats Tomorrow’s Harvest, but it’s fuckin’ close, and MHtRtC is already a classic, one of the greatest albums of its decade and a landmark in electronic music.
Am listening to the Merchandise and Haim albums today.
#3: Deafheaven, Sunbather
I do not, as a rule, listen to metal. That is not something I am interested in. I find the majority of it self-indulgent and generally uninspired—but I love post-rock, and I would never have thought that a metal take on post-rock would be so… intense. From the opening chords—the way they layer up gradually, echoing like My Bloody Valentine, only to have the amplitude turned up by the fucking explosion of drums (never heard anyone play drums like this, except maybe Grohl on Songs for the Deaf). As someone who’s lyrically and poetically focused, I normally don’t like purely-screamed lyrics, but this album is the sound of obstacles being vanquished, boundaries being crossed, limits being transcended—of course you have to scream. And who could sing over music this fucking loud?
#2: Earl Sweatshirt, Doris
Yeah, yeah, I know, I already wrote about this, but it’s still so fuckin’ great. Minor classic in its own right, and indicative of future genius. Just say these lines, out loud, right now; let your tongue trip over the assonance and rhythm. It’s so good.
Crack ceramic and slap a hand out of cash account
Stamp and shouting, thrashing, these niggas done let the Kraken out
Crack-a-lackin', like snap-crackle-poppin' your ammo off
Hide your face, and throw your flannels off. Sweatshirt, nigga.
#1: Kanye West, Yeezus
I mean, come on. There was no record this year that was so controversial, so button-pushing, so full of instant catchphrases, so iconic in its album cover, so polarizing. There were two weeks when this record was all anyone was capable of talking about. His SNL performances of "Black Skinhead" and "New Slaves" were the most electric musical moments of the year: I get goosebumps every time I watch it. ‘Ye may have put out one of the best traditional rap albums ever with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but he truly changed the face of hip-hop with this one: no one, no one, has ever made music that sounds quite like this. Ever. It’s flawed, honest, revealing, self-loathing, triumphant, virtuosic, arresting, and somehow only 40 minutes long. Bold, transgressive genius.
Most underrated album of the year?
Most overrated album of the year?
Biggest surprise (can be a good or bad surprise)?
Most underrated album of the year?
Tyler, the Creator’s Wolf was a significant departure from his previous work: sure, his lyrical content is still Hella Fuckin’ Problematic (though it’s better than it used to be), but sonically, he’s maturing in a big way: the highlight of the album for me was "Treehome95," a collaboration with Quadron singer Coco O and Erykah Badu that is a lovely piece of floaty, ethereal jazz. And "Rusty," featuring Earl Sweatshirt and Domo Genesis, proves that Tyler, despite his protests to the contrary, really does love rap music. On a related note, if Domo Genesis doesn’t blow up in 2014 I’m gonna be very disappointed.
Most overrated album of the year?
Definitely Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Aside from the admittedly fantastic songs with Pharrell (because that man can do no wrong in my eyes), and the album closer "Contact" (the only song on that record that didn’t use live instrumentation), that album is just… twee. Lars said that what it really should have been was a Daft Punk/Nile Rodgers/Pharrell EP, and he is absolutely right.
The Underachievers’ Indigoism, almost certainly. It is inaccurate to say that rap is discovering psychedelics for the first time—look at Esham in the 90’s, or Deltron 3030 in the 2000’s—but maybe rap is really falling in love with them for the first time (cf. Acid Rap, obviously). They love the new generation of psychedelics—your DMT’s, your 2C’s, etc.—and in less capable hands, such heady talk about acid would get tedious, but these kids can really, really rap, and it’s a dope mixtape. Really excited for their future. (Just don’t do too much acid, kids. Remember what happened to Syd Barrett.)
Biggest surprise (can be a good or bad surprise)?
Good surprise: Deltron's Event II came out after a 10-year delay, and it was actually pretty tight.
Bad surprise: Pusha T’s My Name is My Name. Push is one of the greatest rappers alive—he was the heart and soul of Hell Hath No Fury, a superlative, 10/10, unimprovable album to me—and after some really tight mixtapes and the influence that being Kanye’s golden boy provides, I was expecting greatness, but goddamn if that record wasn’t a letdown. It’s not that I objected to the radio-friendly sound of the album—lord knows Pusha deserves his time in the spotlight—but the album felt inchoate, ham-handed, lacking in the cohesion that Pusha had always brought to the table beforehand. His lyricism is never the problem: the production and the features here were really what sunk the ship (Kanye’s Auto-Tuned warbling on "Hold On" ruined an otherwise okay song).
Most underrated of the year: Widowspeak's Almanac. Call me a "Captured Tracks groupie," but I can't seem to hate anything that comes out of that label. And Widowspeak are the label's overachievers. They released an album and an EP this year that sat in the 7 score on Pitchfork. The 7 score on Pitchfork is what I like to call Purgatory. Not quite good, not quite bad. Really up to the listener to decide. And this listener would say they're quite good. There's something about Molly Hamilton's voice that leaves me nostalgic for a time and place I've never seen. She's throaty, curious, and observant. 1970s Oklahoma?
Most overrated album of the year: Well, I was going to say Yeezus (sorry, Patrick). But now I'm going to go with Beyoncé. I never really "got" Beyonce as a solo artist. Loved the girl in DCHILD, but those homegrown rhythm and lyrics are resting in a Texas cemetery. I listened to Beyonce straight through and watched maybe three of the videos. Couldn't get through the rest. Too gimmicky. Take it from Bob Dylan and wait until you're 90+ to surprise the world with a cool video.
Best debut: Still figuring that out. Probably Haim's Days Are Gone.
Biggest surprise: Yeezus (okay, now I'm sorry, Patrick). I was expecting something great. The album cover itself was annoying. Although, it was probably the most modest thing he's done all year. I appreciate Kanye, I really do. There wasn't a single blemish on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. That album spoke for itself. Yeezus is as inflated as it is disturbing. Misogyny in rap isn't new territory. I get it. You want to slap some asses at a club, fine. Missy Elliott was out there, slapping you back. But when you start saying you're going to "put my fist in her like a civil rights sign," that's when I have to let out an "ew."
I also have to jump on the Yeezus as most surprising album of the year—not because it's garbage and is being treated like gold, but because it is a decent album that I feel doesn't have the heft or weight to support the lofty praise poured out like so much Don Perignon all over it. Earl and Danny Brown deserve this amount of critical respect, and Kanye already got it with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (and, as Lauren noted, deservedly so), but I am not sure about the rush to praise what's really a 3-and-a-half star album (at best, which still lumps it into Lauren's "Pitchfork purgatory" ring of hell).
I just can't fully subscribe to the notion that Yeezus is a moment of brilliance for Kanye, but I won't deny that he likely did exactly what he wanted to with that album—he kicked the hornet's nest to see what would happen, and what happened was some mixed reviews and fairly decent sales. I guess I'm still not entirely sure what the album does, other than inspire controversy and show that Kanye can make an album (or hire producers that can save an album) no matter what limitations he is facing. And really, to be fair, how "legendary" do some of the recording stories really get to be when Rick Rubin steps in to make a whole from all of Kanye's disparate parts? It's not like some unknown kid from Chicago made the best album of the year in his bedroom with nothing more than an old drum machine and a distortion pedal, you know? That shit is the stuff of legend, that kid deserves to be #1; throw Rick Rubin, Kanye's money and resources (and worse still, his ego) into the mix, and it dilutes the party punch (much in the same way Tyler Durden diluted some soups).
For me, this isn't Kanye's Kid A or, as he put it, his Nebraska—and even these comparisons rankle me a bit: Thom Yorke didn't call Kid A Radiohead's Nebraska (or Sgt. Pepper or Highway 61 Revisited) the moment that album came out, it was just Kid A and it was allowed to stand on its own without having to be compared to some other masterwork (and, to be honest, Kid A didn't inspire a shit ton of love from many Radiohead fans, not at first). Yeezus is a difficult, perhaps necessary record, but that's still yet to be seen. Kid A didn't come roaring out the gate as the Kid A it is today; it had to suffer some, it had to be a confusing moment for many fans (especially after OK Computer, one of the greatest albums of all time), and it had to survive and earn its place. In my opinion, Yeezus hasn't earned that level of respect, not yet. It has some pieces that could perhaps come together in five years to make it truly comparable to Kid A, but that's still to be seen. At the moment it is the soundtrack to commercials and film trailers (which makes me wonder how much of a divergence it really is from MBDTF), its an excuse to get Kim Kardashian topless on a motorcycle (only for this decision to be brilliantly parodied by Seth Rogan and James Franco), and... I don't know, that's it. It's a good album, but it isn't the album Kanye thinks (and constantly says) it is.
And I think that's the heart of the matter for me: Kanye constantly comparing Yeezus to albums it doesn't hold a candle to.
There's something to be said for swagger, but the level of hubris Kanye regurgitates before breakfast is something I find distinctly repellant. If Thom Yorke had said Kid A was better than Gimme Shelter, that proclamation alone would taint whatever genius the album put on display.
While it's a silly thing, I like my artists to at least pretend to be somewhat humble. For this same reason, I have dropped off the Arcade Fire bandwagon. They are talented, talented musicians, and Reflektor is a solid album, but after that shit at CMJ, the whole "dress nice to our shows" bullshit... It's hard to pull for them, as it is hard to pull (or want any further success) for Kanye—and not because he doesn't deserve it, he is talented, but because he constantly reminds us that he is already a legend in his own mind, has the girl of his dreams, and could light half his money on fire and not feel the tiniest flinch of hardship.
Most underrated album of the year—I think that has to be either Merchandise's Totale Nite, Brothers in Law's Hard Time for Dreamers, or, perhaps, Jon Hopkins' Immunity, if only because that brilliant album was so quickly overshadowed (and, sadly, forgotten) after the Boards of Canada and Sigur Rós releases.
Best debut—in an effort to grab something that won't make our Top 10s, maybe Diana's Perpetual Surrender. Such a strange, unique album, and wonderfully hard to pin down. Sadly, in a pretty damn solid year for music, hard to find a place for it on my Top 10.
Most overrated album of the year—throw a dart at the Billboard 200. What a crap year for pop music.
Compartmentalizing Kanye the problematic loudmouth from Kanye the 21-time-Grammy-winning auteur is a difficult task, one that, unfortunately, you have to want to do: this is music that requires emotional investment. There are many people for whom Kanye’s public bombast has made them unwilling to make this investment: confronting such egotistical documents is an unpleasant task, and I sympathize with those who would simply rather listen to something else—but I do think that it’s worth making this investment, even just to appreciate the beautiful sight of the world’s most-talked-about musician doing exactly what he wants to do.
Lauren, you’re absolutely right about Kanye’s lyrics being indefensible at times. It saddens and frustrates me: had he been a modicum less intentionally¹ oafish, his piercing criticisms of institutional racism in America would have had that much more weight. His failure to balance controversy with his message is, I think, the main strike against Yeezus as an album. But I listen to Yeezus and I hear some of the greatest artists in the world (and far fewer of them than the host of people who contributed to MBDTF) doing phenomenal, amazing work: Daft Punk doing their best beats in years on "Black Skinhead" and "I Am a God," Hudson Mohawke’s work on "Hold My Liquor" and "Blood on the Leaves," Frank Ocean’s short but sublime turn on "New Slaves," Charlie Wilson’s unforgettable hook on "Bound 2." There’s only one really weak track on on the record (the lugubrious "Guilt Trip"), but even that song has its moments of beauty, like being on an airplane and bursting through polluted, smoggy clouds to the clear skies above.
It’s an album in three parts—the first half is protest, the second half is self-loathing and self-destruction, and "Bound 2," the last song, is redemption and acquiescence (yes, yes, I know the video is really asinine, but please, bear with me). After an lyrically and sonically abrasive, frustrating, occasionally-vile album, ‘Ye brings it back thirteen years to the chipmunk-soul he was so famous for, but stripped down to its essence: 2000’s-era Kanye wouldn’t have been able to make a beat like this. In returning to that sound to close the album, it’s the most striking reminder that, as Lars pointed out, 'Ye is the guy who clawed his way out of Chicago, put in his time ghost-producing and getting his rap demos rejected, made sampling cool again, architected The Blueprint and The College Dropout, and never gave up on his dream.
I ask this: why should Kanye be modest, aside from the fact that modesty is generally a pleasant character trait? Few people in music—certainly no one in rap—have such a consistently acclaimed body of work, such astronomical sales, so many gargantuan radio hits. Why should he prostrate himself? Perhaps I’m too acclimated to the musicians I otherwise respect saying cringeworthy things, but I’m not bothered by the fact that Kanye knows and proclaims that he’s a genius, nor do I find it off-putting that he constantly wants more. If he has more to give the world, why discourage him? Would the world be better if he shut up and rested on his laurels? Hell no, in my opinion.
Yeezus is obviously not, quality-wise, an album on the level Kid A (because thirteen years on there is still nothing that touches Kid A), nor is it Nebraska ², but I see parallels to both records—just as Nebraska was shaped by its recording on a four-track in Springsteen’s home, Yeezus’s sound is shaped by the poor acoustics of the hotel rooms in which Kanye recorded. And, if we’re connecting artists’ statements and aspirations, why not condemn Danny Brown for stating that XXX is his OK Computer and Old is his Kid A (link)? Yes, Kanye says more self-aggrandizing things in a day than Thom Yorke has said in his whole life, but come on, Thom Yorke rarely says anything.
Honestly, the notion that Yeezus got middling reviews is somewhat alien to me (Rolling Stone, for example, fell all over it in praise, as did Lou Reed, may he rest in peace): by contrast, its poor sales performance relative to its critical acclaim forms the other convincing argument that it might not be all that it’s cracked up to be. I respect Kanye’s acumen, but I also respect the record-buying public—a controversial statement, to be sure, but musicians are entertainers, and if people aren’t buying what you put out, you have failed at part, if not all, of your mission. Commercial failures impede one’s ability to distribute Real Art, and thereby elevate the discourse.
Ultimately, I think one’s opinion of Yeezus is a matter of how extensively you’re willing to compartmentalize and compromise—but I also think that, if you consider Kanye’s circumstances and his relationship to White America, it might take less mental effort than you think. Also: hurry up with my damn croissants!
Okay, now that my Kanye encomium is complete, time to discuss other things.
I confess I haven’t listened to the Beyoncé album all the way through yet, nor have I watched the video for any of the songs but "XO"—but goddamn if "XO" isn’t the most anthemic song of the year. It makes me want to pull out a cigarette lighter and wave it in the air as I sing along. And it fucking astounds me that an artist of her stature was able to keep such a huge secret: it sure worked well, considering that she sold more albums in four days than Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Daft Punk, and David Bowie did in their first weeks, combined.
An album that I know Lars loved but that I simply couldn’t get into was the CHVRCHES record. All my friends love it, but for the life of me I can’t identify anything they’re doing that Passion Pit didn’t do better in 2009. I was also disappointed with The Weeknd’s Kiss Land—Jesus, House of Balloons is one of the greatest mixtapes ever, but there’s a guy whose misogyny levels make Kanye fucking look like bell hooks. What records were y’all unable to get into (besides Yeezus, haha) this year?
Also, I’m going to lay out my guiltiest pleasure this year: I listened to Katy Perry’s "Roar" several hundred times. Don’t hate.
¹ In contrast with Kanye’s manic off-record persona, I remain convinced that no element of a Kanye record is left unconsidered or unscrutinized. This is not a lyrical slip like the sort that Rick Ross and Lil Wayne made this year: Kanye got to where he is by being an obsessive perfectionist, and when he says something repugnant I am convinced that he meant it to go there. This, however, probably makes his oafishness even less excusable: to be inconsiderate is one thing, to be an asshole on purpose is quite another.
² And seriously, find me another rapper who compares himself to Springsteen and gets inspired by Le Corbusier lamps.
Yeezus H. Christ! I think we've firmly established that Patrick is 100% correct—no album has created as much debate, conversation, and controversy as Yeezus, at least here at TCoI.
Also, when did Radiohead's career become the milestones by which rap artists judge their careers?!
Now for something we can all agree on—damn, that Clams Casino mixtape that dropped recently is something else. I think "Cry For Me" may be my new favorite Clams joint. Where do you guys see Clams going now? On Twitter he said that Instrumentals 3 was the end of that series of recordings. Is this the moment he starts predominantly focusing on making music for himself, a la Tycho, and not primarily for the likes of A$AP Rocky, Mac Miller, etc.?
Speaking of A$AP, he seems to have slipped in all of our esteems as the year went on...
For some bizarre reason, I don't think I have a guilty pleasure... Which is weird. Usually I have at least one song I that I am ashamed to enjoy so much. I think the flood of pop/R&B-inspired, female-fronted singles/albums (Say Lou Lou, Haim, Haerts, Chvrches, Hanne Kolstø, Kitten, Wolf Alice, Louise Burns, Diana, Bat for Lashes) has kept me from wandering too far. This really has been a crazy good year for women in music, now that I think about it. My friend Alan has a Spotify playlist of all his favorite jams from 2013, and I think the better part of them are by female vocalists/bands.
2014 is looking good, too, with Warpaint's new album coming up, and a good chance for albums from Say Lou Lou, Tycho, and Wolf Alice, among others.
If only Kanye could see us talking about him in this thread! He’d be telling us we don’t have the answers. I don’t think anyone ever will. Like James Joyce before him (a comparison that has yet to be made by Kanye), there was something to be said about the cryptic nature of his art: “I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality.” Amen.
Patrick, you bring up a good segue (and finale) to this thread: guilty pleasures. What’s an end of the year discussion without a little airing of grievances? There’s always that one song that makes you consider putting your Spotify session on private. I find it interesting that a lot of people really turn to Pop as that embarrassing indulgence. Pop can be pretty damn good when it’s done right. Lars really liked that Charli XCX gal for a bit. We both agreed that you’d probably hear her at a Forever 21, but the production was there.
Going to have to say one of my biggest GPs was Lana Del Ray’s “Summertime Sadness” remix. I think everyone can agree her damn songs need some life. Also, I have to hand it to JT with “Mirrors.” And of course, Miley’s “We Can’t Stop.” Alright, I think I’ve done a number on my credibility/image here. Just in time for a 2014 rebirth!