Q32013: The Year in Music (So Far), Part 1
Here's a brief and heavily biased overview of the last three months of music.
Really, what could happen in July that would not be overshadowed by one of the finest months in music that I can remember? It's hard to come out from under the shade cast by new music from Jon Hopkins, Boards of Canada, and Sigur Rós. But time marches ever forwards.
Jay-Z released his much hyped, yet distinctively underwhelming Magna Carta Holy Grail (at least I’m told it was underwhelming, I never actually bothered to listen). Irish act Bell X1, who I typically enjoy, released an album (Chop Chop) that I hadn’t heard of until I researched what was actually released in July, and still didn’t really trouble myself with tracking down. On the positive side, there was another solid release by Whirr, the Around EP, Weekend’s more than respectable sophomore release, Jinx, came out, and True Widow put together an admirable effort with Circumambulation .
The true standout of July was Louise Burn's The Midnight Mass (which, to be fair, I didn't learn about until September when I was out visiting my friend Alan in Seattle). Stitching together the influences of the Cure and the Jesus and Mary Chain, and channeling a touch of the Raveonettes, Burns' The Midnight Mass is a shining, '80s-saturated success. If you haven't given her newest album a listen yet, I highly recommend that you do.
After a month of music as disappointing as my audition for American Idol (Simon said my performance was akin to an elderly gentleman fondling his flaccid, useless manhood), August really didn’t have much to compete with. Despite this, August decided to do more than just show up, and actually made a fair run at June. We were blessed with releases from Explosions in the Sky, Washed Out, Bloc Party, and Earl Sweatshirt, all of which either met or exceed lofty expectations (or in Bloc Party’s case wasn’t a total disappointment and offered a faint glimmer of hope for a band that’s been slowly slipping from relevancy), as well as fantastic debuts from Jagwar Ma and DIANA, and another brilliant outing from Julianna Barwick.
I seem to be about the only person alive who hears echoes of Doves working through Washed Out's Paracosm, especially apparent on “All I Know” and “Falling Back.” The shift towards a more organic textural palate did little to change Ernest Greene’s songwriting, but did allow him and his cohorts to explore some new aural territory on their follow up to the transcendent Within and Without—which is, in all seriousness, one of the best records released in the last decade. Paracosm isn’t a huge step away from its predecessor—“Weightless” and “All Over Now” feel as though, with some minor tweaking, they could have been easily slotted into Within and Without’s tracklist—but the progression is enough to give the album its own feel and identity. While Paracosm may not best the group’s previous album, that doesn’t really feel like the point, and it was more than welcome company throughout the balmy east coast summer.
Bloc Party’s The Nextwave Sessions EP, save for the dreadful and uninspired “Ratchet,” saw the British four piece put together a sustained effort unmatched since their sophomore effort—yes, I’m considering four good songs in a row a “sustained effort.” The bar for Bloc Party is pretty low at the moment. “French Exit” sounds like it could have come from their earliest EP, and “Children of the Future,” kitschy title aside, has the touch of a B-side from the “This Modern Love” single, and back then everything Bloc Party touched, B-sides included, immediately turned to post-punk indie-rock gold, remember? Maybe you aren’t old enough, but I collected all of their singles and EPs and had my world subsequently turned upside down in the best way possible, in a way unparalleled by any other band since. Bloc Party was my Smiths or Joy Division, and everything I have done since as a musician or a music journalist has been colored by that experience. It's nice to see them at least gesturing a bit back towards their previous brilliant form.
Like June and August, September turned out to be a fantastic month for music. And like June, September also has a particular flavor to it. Where June brought us gorgeous and ethereal new material by Jon Hopkins, Sigur Rós, and Boards of Canada, September brought us the highly anticipated debuts from two pop bands that both received a fair amount of hype, Chvrches and Haim. And for once both trios (coincidence?) have more than lived up to the lofty expectations set by the so-called “tastemakers” of the industry.
I was cautiously optimistic about Chvrches’ debut—once Pitchfork compares you to Passion Pit (and, bizarrely, this comparison is used as a compliment, as though that cacophonous aural nightmare of a sophomore album never happened), I tend to avoid your oeuvre as though it’s plague times and your body of work just coughed up blood—and was very pleasantly surprised to have The Bones of What You Believe come out as triumphantly as it did. The early singles from Haim (well, save for “The Wire,” easily the weakest of the four singles, and having nothing to do with Baltimore) suggested that when Days Are Gone did finally arrive it would be stellar.
But no matter how confident you are in a band’s early singles and the promise they offer, not everyone translates their respective “Buddy Holly” into the Blue Album, or for that matter their “Banquet” and “Helicopter” into Silent Alarm (and no, I’m not forgetting “Tulips,” it just never found its way onto the record), and as I am approaching the end of my second decade of being cognizant of music these are the standards my mind unconsciously falls back to when I get excited about a debut album. Too much has come to naught since I bought that first Weezer album (including, ironically, Weezer’s entire career), and I’m too aware of the music that has managed to survive my adolescence and early-, mid-, and late-twenties to assign any false value to a newfound shiny object. (I leave that work to the Pitchfork staff.)
That said, both Chvrches and Haim have put together very solid and engaging first albums (as long as you skip over the track "My Song 5" from Days Are Gone; that song sounds like a kitten being drowned in a river of fire somewhere along one of Dante's rings of Hell). The only true test now is if these bands are even on our radars come 2018. I personally hope so, though I suspect Haim's music, with its echoes of Stevie Nicks, has the best chance of surviving on into my mid-thirties. Sadly, electro-pop doesn't seem to age as well, but this is just Chvrches first outing, and with the sheer talent involved in the project—Iain Cook was a member of the criminally underrated, and now forgotten, Aereogramme, and Martin Doherty was a touring musician with the Twilight Sad—it would rather silly to write them off as just another electro-pop band, especially as I hear more M83 than the anemic Passion Pit on The Bones of What You Believe.
August was also kind enough to gift us Holograms' second album, Forever, which while not quite matching the sheer energy and presence of their debut was very much a fine record, Volcano Choir's Repave , and the phenomenal Sound System box set, collecting and remastering all of the Clash's albums and more. (I have a birthday coming up, guys.)
If you felt I missed anything, please do take advantage of the comments section.