In the midst of daily crises over impending finals, I always try to find time at the end of the year to reflect on the media releases that did the most to keep me sane in the previous months, as well as to discover anything I may have missed. Thinking back, 2013 wasn’t a bad year when it comes to film, and I originally thought I’d use this space to remind everyone why that is the case. But then I realized that, despite all the great films I’d seen so far this year, so many of the films I’d been looking forward to have yet to come out. The love-hate relationship of the film industry with its customers dictates that the month that will make me the most (un)happy is December, when I simultaneously actually want to see films that are being released and am the most busy. It seems they want me to endlessly debate over whether to see the newest critically acclaimed release or give that final paper one last spit and shine every week. Because of this, I don’t feel truly content with discussing my favorite films from 2013 yet. Music, however, knows no seasonal boundaries, with pretty much any type of album release any month of the year. So, the number of albums I’m was looking forward to this year that I’ve yet to hear is basically zero. December isn’t really a big music month. I’ve already written for The Student about most of the films I loved this year, but have written barely anything on music. With that said, here are my favorite albums of 2013:
Arctic Monkeys “AM”
Josh Homme’s only imprint on music in 2013 wasn’t his own band’s return to form but his warped acid-blues production on Alex Turner’s latest. “R U Mine?” is their best song in years, but this album really is the whole package. With great songs that fit into a cohesive whole of untamed rock rebelliousness and Lou-Reed style late-night tales, “AM” plays like a band ready to take over the bar at night but is all-too-aware, and even scared, of the sunrise. It’s not just a great album; it’s the perfect one for anyone looking back at 20 and facing 30, and for Alex Turner, who fits right in that group, its impossible to believe its not coming straight from the heart.
Beastwars “Blood Becomes Fire”
Mastodon didn’t release any new music in 2013, which pretty severely limits my own personal scorecard for 2013 on the whole. But its okay, since almost completely unknown New Zealand sludge-meisters Beastwars showed up to remind us what the opening of the gates of hell sounds like. Channeling the modern stoner metal of bands like Sleep and Kyuss, and living by the mantra of down-tuning their guitars ever-more, “Blood Becomes Fire” captures the blood-curdling despair and hopeless malaise vocals, the fire-and-brimstone guitar, the pitch black, cavernous bass and the galloping four- horseman drums of a young Black Sabbath. And in a year that saw the return of doom metal’s past with the almighty Sabbath in the surprisingly sturdy “13,” “Blood Becomes Fire” lays its future out for all to see.
Daft Punk “Random Access Memories”
Not much information is needed for one of 2013’s biggest selling albums and one example of when the charts get it right. This album sounds like a lecture on the past meeting the future, but it feels entirely of the present on dance-floor jams such as the ubiquitous “Get Lucky.” But the crazy thing is that isn’t even close to being the best song here, making this far from a hits plus filler affair like most pop albums. Plus, it achieved the impossible: making me care about electronica. Bravo, Daft Punk.
Danny Brown “Old”
The mad genius affirms his greatness here with one of the best rap albums of the year. Brown effortlessly goes back and forth between multiple personas, often within the same song, and his lyrics interweave grandstanding, desperation, heartlessness, childish exuberance, hope and too many other emotions to count. Whatever he’s trying to tell us, with music to match it’s a helluva’ lot of fun to listen to in the process.
David Bowie “The Next Day”
The year’s biggest surprise, “The Next Day” is not only Bowie’s best album in decades, but also a masterful interweaving of everything that makes the man’s past so important to begin with. From the jangly air guitar of Ziggy Stardust to the blue-eyed soul of the Thin White Duke to the rigid, staccato art-balladry of the Berlin years, it’s all here on an album that will either serve as a stupendous cap on an impeccable career or a signal of his return to the present from whatever futuristic whole he spends his vacation years exploring. Good thing he brought some of the artifacts with him for alien-world rock songs such as “The Next Day” and “The Stars Are Out Tonight,” his best song in seemingly forever.
I get happy when a metal album finally gets some respect in the world of professional music criticism, and for once that seems to be the case with art-metal band Deafheaven’s second album. But this isn’t really metal anyway. Eschewing genre classifications (or any real classifications), the best way to describe “Sunbather” is as a series of contradictions. It’s loud, soft, fast, slow, abrasive, melodic, sweet, difficult, cold, hopeful, destructive and, above all, fascinating. It’s perfectionist technical metal-musicianship at its finest, but it captures the raw energy of the punk and alt bands who disdain metal. It’s highly intellectual but deep and immediate in its emotions. It grabs you from the start, but keeps you at arm’s length even as it doesn’t let go. I don’t really know how to describe what it sounds like, but it’s the rare album that approaches an almost-religious level of sublime effervescence. Or maybe it’s just a bunch of noise. I don’t know. “Sunbather” is an album to be listened to and listened to again in order to really understand it, and that’s pretty special in this day and age.
Jason Isbell “Southeastern”
Whenever I malign the state of modern country (basically bland pop music with Southern accents) an album will come out that puts me in my place and reminds me of the sense of heartbroken desperation and world-weary lived-ness a truly great Americana album can carry with it. Alternative country singer-songwriter Jason Isbell’s (formerly of the Skynyrd-like Drive-By Truckers) latest is exactly that kind of album. From weary travelers to long-forgotten workers to struggling singers left hung-out-to-dry, these are the sounds and stories American folklore was built on and which we too often forgotten. And Isbell captures them with all the rugged vulnerability of Bob Dylan going up against Johnny Cash. Highlighted by the haunting, impossibly affecting “Elephants,” this is simply roots-music at its finest.
Kanye West “Yeezus”
Kanye West doesn’t really care anymore. But he’s so good at not caring that one wonders why anyone questions him. He was right to say he wasn’t striving for perfection on this album. It’s far from perfect, but it is abrasive, challenging, immediate, nuanced and above all difficult to turn off. This is an industrial-metal rap album for audiences that hate industrial and metal. Aside from it’s often questionable attempts at political commentary (West should step on over to my next pick for a lesson on political rap if he plans on continuing to carry the torch of Public Enemy), this is the work of someone at the top of his game refusing to sit still. This is no victory lap … it’s more like climbing into the stands and running, screaming, into the audience.
Killer Mike and ELP “Run the Jewels”
Although it fails to scale the heights of Killer Mike’s 2012 release “R.A.P Music,” this off-the-cuff pseudo-mix tape has all the energy and rebelliousness to remind one why someone like Kanye West would call rap the new “rock” music. This album could kickstart any party, but it wouldn’t be wrong to play it at your protest of choice either. It’s Killer Mike at his most unhinged, reminding us that he isn’t resting on his laurels. Short, sweet and ready for business, this is how great rap-duo albums from the golden age of hip-hop used to be made.
You wouldn’t be able to tell the mutton-chopped growler Lemmy’s long years of hard drinking and hard living are finally catching up to him on this furious 2013 release, their best in maybe two decades. Lemmy once said Motorhead was basically a blues-band that just played blues at 1000 miles an hour, and one need look no further than “Aftershock” for a kick in the teeth reminder of this fact. And Lemmy had us all worried.
Queens of the Stone Age “Like Clockwork”
“Like Clockwork” is a curious title for an album that took six years to release, but it was worth the wait. Josh Homme’s oh-so-special cocktail of sinister, seductive and most importantly heavy ingredients remain in full effect here, and although the album lacks the full-bore air-guitar-in-a-cemetery worthy dirge righteousness of their best, 2002’s “Songs for the Deaf”, songs such as the grinding yet swinging desert-drenched mainfesto “My God is the Sun”, the slinky “If I Had a Tail,” and the haunted carnival sideshow piece “Kalopsia” remind us just how much the rock world needed and still needs Queens of the Stone Age in 2013.