Posts Tagged ‘best of 2013

31
Dec
13

Best New Albums 2013: #1 – Yamantaka // Sonic Titan – Uzu

Running through the end of the month (with a short Christmas break), I’ll be running a post each weekday taking a look at one of my top 20 albums of the year, slowly working my way down to number one. Some I’ve reviewed previously for Bearded Gentlemen Music – I’ll provide links where necessary – and the entire list will eventually end up there, too. But for most of these records, this is the first time I’m writing about them at length, making this a chance to explain my choices in a little greater detail. Last year’s list is no longer online, but for 2011′s Best Canadian Music click here and for 2010′s list, click here.

#1 (aka my favorite new album of 2013): Yamantaka // Sonic Titan – Uzu (Paper Bag/Suicide Squeeze)

A while back, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan (YT//ST) exploded on my radar with a self-released, self-titled album. It was a stunning debut: they sounded a little like a lot of things, but a lot like nothing else. Their stage show was already killer too; when I broke down that year’s Polaris Prize ballot, I actually knocked them points for being so good on stage.

Over the past year and a bit, little leaks and trickles of a new album found their way online: Adult Swim released a song last summer and there was new music in the trailers for their crowdfunded video game Your Task Shoot Things. Alongside this came record deals, first with Canada’s Paper Bag Records (who immediately reissued their debut) and later with Suicide Squeeze, and accolades from all over.

Even so, Uzu knocked me out. Minutes after I got my copy, I was listening to it on headphones while I puttered around the house. And I kept stopping, pausing my iPod and going back. What was that? A native chant? A flood of water? A tsunami of guitars? Pounding drums and shouted vocals, a storyline just vague enough to make it a concept album (remember those?) and music filled with touches of just about everything Alaska B, Ruby Kato Attword, et al could get their hands on. I was floored.

A while back I chanced across a promo copy of Grimes’ LP Visions. If you’ve never gotten one of those, they’re basically like the CDs you can buy anywhere but they don’t have any liner notes. And on the back, instead of any album art, there’s a track listing, some media contact info and usually 200 or so words of promo copy, usually written by some anonymous PR rep at the label. A phrase from the copy of Visions stayed with me: “post-internet.”

At the time, I rolled my eyes; another day, another buzzword. But I’ve come around on it and think it’s a good way to describe this music. We live in a connected society. Youtube, Grooveshark, Reddit, Tumblr. It’s easier than ever to find new music and listen to it, often without having to pay a cent. It’s also easier to get inspired by it.

There are traces of almost everything here. Sometimes a song reminds me of the Visual Kei bands an old girlfriend used to listen to, other times I think of David Bowie or Sonic Youth. Sometimes the music goes somewhere else, like on the aching piano ballad Atalanta or the pulsating, relentless rhythms of Bring Me The Hand Of Bloody Benzaiten. And that’s not even getting into the secondary aspects of this album: a loose storyline about the Buddhist god Mazu, the visual angles (if their appearance on CBC Radio’s Q is any suggestion, it’s going to be a doozy of a live show), the connection (is there one?) to Your Task

Like I said in my original take, this was a hell of a listen. And even if I’ve waffled on my list a bunch, moving albums up and down, adding and dropping as I go along, there’s never been any doubt about sticking this at the top spot. Next time I break down a Polaris Prize ballot, there’ll be no doubt for who’s getting my vote.

30
Dec
13

Best New Albums 2013: #2 – Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series, Volume 10: Another Self Portrait

Running through the end of the month (with a short Christmas break), I’ll be running a post each weekday taking a look at one of my top 20 albums of the year, slowly working my way down to number one. Some I’ve reviewed previously for Bearded Gentlemen Music – I’ll provide links where necessary – and the entire list will eventually end up there, too. But for most of these records, this is the first time I’m writing about them at length, making this a chance to explain my choices in a little greater detail. Last year’s list is no longer online, but for 2011′s Best Canadian Music click here and for 2010′s list, click here.

#2: Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Volume 10: Another Self Portrait

Back in the 60s, Dylan was it. Maybe a few more artists sold more records, maybe a few pushed the limits of rock a little further, but nobody mattered more to music. As pretty much every critic has said, Dylan’s impact on music is almost incalculable. People turned to Dylan for anthems, even as Dylan said he wasn’t a spokesperson. People looked to him for meanings, even when he said sometimes he didn’t have them.

After a much-publicized motorcycle crash and a couple of country albums, critics were increasingly annoyed: what happened to the artist they idolized? Their disappointment climaxed with 1970’s Self Portrait, especially when Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus infamously asked “What is this shit?” (Funny: I’d have the same reaction to his turgid book Dead Elvis)

The album didn’t tank though. Even without any memorable songs, it actually sold better than any of Dylan’s past few albums. And a few months later, his New Morning went some lengths to restoring his critical ratings, too. The critics were quick to move on from Self Portrait, painting it as misstep, a failed experiment or, more often than not, “hey let’s talk about something else instead.”

Which makes Volume Ten of The Bootleg Series maybe the most essential one yet.

Previously, this series has looked at demos and live performances. There’s one of a messy, powerful gig in 1966 where the audience seems intent on disrupting his electric band; there’s one showing all the demos he recorded for Whitmark. There’s even one of a 1964 show where Joan Baez sings a few songs with him. By and large, they’re all good, even the demos one.

But this is a different beast. With a multitude of alternate versions, outtakes and loose material from the same period, Another Self Portrait is exactly that: another look at an overlooked album. I don’t know if it blows the original away – truth be told, I haven’t the heart to sit down and compare the two, since I like both already – but it certainly changes the way we look at this music: it’s folksy and charming, fun and lighthearted. Occasionally glimpses of the older, spooky Dylan show through. But largely, it’s the work of a man who’s recording the kind of music that inspires him and doing his best to create his own music in that vein.

Songs here reach as far back as The Basement Tapes (when will that Bootleg Series ever come out?) and as far forward as some 1971 sessions. But by and large, it focuses on 1970, when Dylan was recording songs that’d end up on either New Morning or Self Portrait; as it turns out, there wasn’t a lot of difference between the two.

Some of the songs are covers, others have multiple versions. But nearly everything’s a killer here. Personally, I like both takes Time Passes Slowly (this has to be his most underrated song), the electric piano version of Went to See the Gypsy, the two rollicking live numbers recorded with The Band and the version of New Morning with a horn section. But on these two CDs, there’s nary a wasted moment. My biggest fault with the thing is that there isn’t more: where’s the stuff from the Johnny Cash TV show, the leftovers from Nashville Skyline? I guess there’s always Volume 11.

27
Dec
13

Best New Albums 2013: #3 – CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe

Running through the end of the month (with a short Christmas break), I’ll be running a post each weekday taking a look at one of my top 20 albums of the year, slowly working my way down to number one. Some I’ve reviewed previously for Bearded Gentlemen Music – I’ll provide links where necessary – and the entire list will eventually end up there, too. But for most of these records, this is the first time I’m writing about them at length, making this a chance to explain my choices in a little greater detail. Last year’s list is no longer online, but for 2011′s Best Canadian Music click here and for 2010′s list, click here.

#3: CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe

The more I think about it, the more CHVRCHES seems like a garage rock band that happens to play in a computer lab, if you know what I mean. Let me try to explain.

I sometimes wonder what pick up bands will sound like in the future. Will kids in highschool still buy cheap guitars, beat up drums and a used P-bass and play rough Pink Floyd covers? (Maybe I’m projecting my high school years a bit) Or, as laptops and tablets become more ubiquitous, will bands be formed by kids who own drum machines, Fruity Loops and Audacity? For every HAIM, will there be a Grimes?

Or is there a middle ground?

Enter CHVRCHES. They’ve come out of Scotland fully formed as a pop-rock band, but they’ve got no need for the usual instruments. Live, they play banks of machines: keyboards, synths, even a laptop. There’s nary a guitar here, let alone a full drum kit. And they sound as great as anything I’ve heard this year, or any other year.

Sure, with all the synths and drum machines, their music can sound all sparkly and dancey at first. But the brightness of their keyboards, the dry and inhuman handclaps and staccato drum riffs add an edge to the music, especially when you start to think about the pointed, charged lyrics that Lauren Mayberry is shouting out. On “Gun”, my favourite cut on this LP, she sounds downright menacing: “I will be a gun and it’s you I’ll come for.” Some other good cuts: Lies, The Mother We Share, Recover.

I almost find it hard to believe CHVRCHES has only been around since 2011: their music is polished and well-crafted. But the band has an interesting backstory: Iain Cook played with Aereogramme and is part of The Unwinding Hours; Martin Doherty used to tour with The Twilight Sad.

With Mayberry at the microphone, they’ve released some of the best synthpop I’ve heard in a while. Probably since Crystal Castles’ second album, anyway. I’ve often heard them compared to Purity Ring, but that’s misleading; musically, they don’t have much in common other than a female singer and bleep-bloop sounds. Their music’s a lot chunkier, more driving, more organic. I can’t imagine anyone else playing Purity Ring; I can imagine Gun being played by a twin-guitar rock band.

They’re a pretty good covers band too: in the above video, they cover East 17 and their cover of HAIM’s Falling is worth a listen, too. It’s also worth noting that Mayberry’s intelligent, outspoken and completely right on the money, too.  For my money, it’s the best debut record of 2013. Can’t wait to see where they go next.

Below: a full set for Seattle’s KEXP

26
Dec
13

Best New Albums 2013 – #4 : Best Coast – Fade Away

Running through the end of the month (with a short Christmas break), I’ll be running a post each weekday taking a look at one of my top 20 albums of the year, slowly working my way down to number one. Some I’ve reviewed previously for Bearded Gentlemen Music – I’ll provide links where necessary – and the entire list will eventually end up there, too. But for most of these records, this is the first time I’m writing about them at length, making this a chance to explain my choices in a little greater detail. Last year’s list is no longer online, but for 2011′s Best Canadian Music click here and for 2010′s list, click here.

#4: Best Coast – Fade Away EP (Jewel City)

I used to say I liked their earlier stuff the most, that their last album was too bright and shiny. After all, didn’t The Only Place sound like a commercial? The stuff of theirs I like was the fuzzy stuff, where the pop ambitions were held slightly in check by lo-fi distortion.

Then I heard this and fell for them all over again. On Fade Away, they’re not as polished as on The Only Place, but it doesn’t sound like it’s recorded underwater either. The guitars have just the right amount of distortion and reverb while Bethany Cosentino’s voice shines through as clear as ever. Even if her lyrics are the same as they’ve ever been: On “I don’t know how,” she shouts the title over and over. Still, I’ve got a soft spot for lines like “I’ve been through the summer, stuck around for the cold.”

But elsewhere, things take a leap forward. “Who Have I Become” has Bobb Bruno rocking out as hard while Cosentino questions herself: “Sick of myself and how I feel, don’t recognize who I see in the morning,” she sings,  “Now I’m waking up to strangers with their shadows on my face.” Meanwhile, “This Lonely Morning” has one of the catchiest choruses I’ve heard all year. There’s something in Cosentino’s singing and Bruno’s tense guitars that grabbed me here: I’m not sure what it is, but I can’t stop myself from listening to this one all the way through.

Apparently, they’re already recording LP number three. After the leap forward they’ve made here, it’s got to be one of 2014’s most anticipated releases. Thankfully, this is more than enough to hold me over.

23
Dec
13

Best New Albums 2013 – #5: William Onyeabor – Who Is William Onyeabor?

Running through the end of the month (with a short Christmas break), I’ll be running a post each weekday taking a look at one of my top 20 albums of the year, slowly working my way down to number one. Some I’ve reviewed previously for Bearded Gentlemen Music – I’ll provide links where necessary – and the entire list will eventually end up there, too. But for most of these records, this is the first time I’m writing about them at length, making this a chance to explain my choices in a little greater detail. Last year’s list is no longer online, but for 2011′s Best Canadian Music click here and for 2010′s list, click here.

#5: William Onyeabor – Who Is William Onyeabor? (Luaka Bop)

For my money, the year’s most surprising album was Luaka Bop’s Who Is William Onyeabor. And who indeed? He’s a mystery: filmmaker who studied in the Soviet Union; a dealer for Moog synths in Africa; a leading businessman; a born-again Christian who refuses to talk about his past. Like I noted in my review, he’s almost willing to let his music speak for itself. Except when he isn’t: it took Luaka Bop years to put this collection together. And after hearing some early buzz, I knew I had to hear this one. And, man, it was one of the best things I heard all year.

I wasn’t even remotely prepared for this one: it’s on a different plane completely than anything I’ve heard from this era. Even compared to modern electronica, it more than holds it own. Sometimes it’s vaguely discoish, at others it verges on techno. It’s relentlessly funky, with horn accents, backing vocals and twittering guitars. But it’s the keyboards that set this beast apart from nearly anything else: on Good Name they sound like a jaw harp, while on Love is Blind they chirp like the cheesiest Casio imaginable. After a bombastic horn intro, they blip with a funky abandon on Fantastic Man. His synths sound futuristic even by 2013 standards. I can’t even begin to imagine what this would’ve sounded like 30 years ago, let alone how Onyeabor got such an impressive collection.

But that’s only part of why this music blew me away. The other part was how personal it all felt. On it, Onyeabor sings about heaven and hell, about death and nuclear violence. Even at his sunniest, there’s a tinge of darkness: “Do you have your conscience?” he sings, “Nobody should buy your name.” If he refuses to talk about his past, maybe it’s because of his Christian beliefs, that when he was young he was reckless, wild and restless. I like to think it’s because he put so much of himself into his music.

20
Dec
13

Best New Albums of 2013 – #6: Mazzy Star – Seasons of Your Day

Running through the end of the month (with a short Christmas break), I’ll be running a post each weekday taking a look at one of my top 20 albums of the year, slowly working my way down to number one. Some I’ve reviewed previously for Bearded Gentlemen Music – I’ll provide links where necessary – and the entire list will eventually end up there, too. But for most of these records, this is the first time I’m writing about them at length, making this a chance to explain my choices in a little greater detail. Last year’s list is no longer online, but for 2011’s Best Canadian Music click here and for 2010’s list, click here.

#6: Mazzy Star – Seasons of Your Day

It’d been a while since anyone had seen much from Mazzy Star. The core duo of David Roback and Hope Sandoval broke up over a decade ago, sporadically appearing together throughout the 2000s. William Cooper, their violinist, died in 2001.  There was talk about new material every so often, but nothing concrete emerged until 2012, when they released a single. Then… silence.

The long-awaited LP Seasons of Your Day finally emerged a few months ago on their own label without any hype I can remember. It was everything I wanted from a Mazzy LP. Subdued, low-key songs, strummed acoustic guitars and Sandoval’s hushed singing. Steel guitars and sunsets, organs and empty streets.

On Seasons of Your Day, there’s a feeling I just can’t get my finger on: is it emptiness? “Walked up the stairs, the sunlight hit my face,” sings Sandoval on In the Kingdom, “See all the people just stand around.” Or is it optimism: “If all is right in the kingdom tonight, you know we’ll play songs in this town.”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the guitar playing here too: there’s always an acoustic playing, but usually there’s a clanging, bluesy electric in the back, coming out of some dark corner. Spoon features some great playing by the late Bert Jansch, but David Roback deserves a ton of credit, too.

I keep thinking about Neil Young’s On the Beach when I listen to this. Both are mellow records where the songs flow at their own pace (there’s a lot of harmonica and acoustic guitar, too, but that’s beside the point). They’re mature records by mature artists, grappling with darkness and wrestling light out of them. Unlike On the Beach, this album might be a capstone; the band’s vaguely hinted that nothing new is coming anytime soon.

Which leaves us with this, a fantastic document some ten or more years in the making. Sometimes, it seems fragile enough you could snap the music apart. And at other times, it feels like something good’s coming if you just can hang on long enough. Mostly though, it makes it makes me want to listen to it, all the way through, something I can’t say about everything on my top 20. One of my favorites this year.

19
Dec
13

Best Albums of 2013! #7: HAIM – Days Are Gone

Running through the end of the month (with a short Christmas break), I’ll be running a post each weekday taking a look at one of my top 20 albums of the year, slowly working my way down to number one. Some I’ve reviewed previously for Bearded Gentlemen Music – I’ll provide links where necessary – and the entire list will eventually end up there, too. But for most of these records, this is the first time I’m writing about them at length, making this a chance to explain my choices in a little greater detail. Last year’s list is no longer online, but for 2011′s Best Canadian Music click here and for 2010′s list, click here.

7. Days Are Gone – HAIM (Columbia)

Call HAIM a curious case of hype. I remember when they just about exploded into being from, well, a family band. I’m not so sure on the backstory, but at one point they played with their parents and then as part of a girl group. Then they went at it on their own. The released a free, three-song EP: Forever. Then they played SXSW and suddenly they were on every music blog, constantly. I think there might’ve even been a bidding war before Columbia picked them up.

Their three-song EP was so strong and concise it just about blew everyone away. Here was a trio of sisters and their first album was great: sharp melodies, strong songwriting and they could play anyone’s asses off. The music was familiar enough you could hit on the influences – Fleetwood Mac, Destiny’s Child – but it never sounded derivative, either. Before long, this band with just three originals to their credit was playing Jools Holland and Letterman.

They ended up with so much traction on their three-song EP that maybe no full length could’ve delivered everything everyone wanted. Maybe that explains the backlash. They’ve been accused of ripping off everyone from The Eagles to Shania Twain. And people love to mock Este Haim’s “Bass-face,” because musicians aren’t supposed to enjoy what they’re doing, I guess.

Maybe they wear their influences a little too on their sleeves sometimes (to my ears, The Wire does cop pretty hard from Shania Twain). And maybe they’re guilty of mining their back catalog a little: they reused two songs from their Forever EP. I don’t care. Their debut album was a fun, engaging listen and I’ll take that any day.

Through 11 strong songs, HAIM blows past the sounds of their debut, constantly tackling different styles and pulls it off, too. On Falling, they verge into 70s soft rock, complete with a fuzzy, yet restrained guitar solo. On the handclap-propelled If I Could Change Your Mind, they’re as catchy and dancy as anything I’ve heard all year. And Don’t Save Me is tense, tight, wiry pop.

What really sets them apart to me is how good they can play: Danielle’s a good guitar player, often handling lead vocals and the guitar parts live (no easy feat: how many other people play lead and sing?) and Alana’s capable at three or four instruments, especially live; on SNL she handled keyboards, percussion, backing vocals and guitar. But Este’s the one I’m fascinated by: the basslines on this album are what set the different styles apart and she easily goes between ballads, soft rock and dance. She gets all the stupid flak online, but I’d wager she also deserves most of the credit for their success, too.

Even minor reservations aside (I think the title cut sounds comparatively cold to their other songs and it loses a bit of steam near the end), it’s a hell of a debut, even taking the anticipation and hype into consideration. Most bands would be proud to have any of their albums be so strong; with HAIM it’s only the beginning.




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