Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Albums 2013 - Top Ten

I've said it before and I'll say it again - 2013 was an epic year in music and the finest in recent memory.  Those who know me best won't be surprised by my top pick, but the rest of my list might be unexpected.  In 2013, after years of bashful flirtation, I dove headlong into "metal" without pause or irony.  There was an abundance of excellent metal albums this year - many recorded and produced by an always rock-solid Kurt Ballou (of hardcore punk heroes Converge, and proprietor of GodCity Studio in Salem, Massachusetts).  Otherwise, 2013 continued a trend of "retro" with contemporary artists continuing to referencing the sounds of the 70's, 80's and 90's - even some former heroes from those decades made solid comebacks.  These are my favorite albums of the year.* 

Enjoy. . . .        

1.  Queens of the Stone Age: ...Like Clockwork (9/10)

"Risk nothing, get nothing" claimed Queens of the Stone Age founder and frontman Josh Homme earlier this year just prior to the release of his band's sixth album ...Like Clockwork - and he couldn't have been more right.  After putting the Queens on ice for six years and jumping fearlessly from major Interscope to indie Matador, Homme brought the band back with their most inventive and redeeming album yet - debuting at number one on the Billboard chart back in June (a first for the band) and earning three Grammy nominations this month.

Full disclosure, Queens of the Stone Age have been my favorite living rock band for over a decade now.  Their sophomore album from 2000, Rated R, was revelatory and when Dave Grohl joined as drummer in 2002 for their masterpiece Songs For The Deaf the perfect mojo was almost too good to be true.  Turns out it was, as Grohl inevitably returned to his Foo Fighters and Homme fired colorful bass player Nick Oliveri for deplorable misdeeds.

Homme would soldier on with new bandmates, putting out a couple uneven LPs in the years that followed - the morose Lullabies to Paralyze in 2005 and an improved Era Vulgaris in 2007.  Despite some good jams, Homme seemed to falter.  He went on to produce the Arctic Monkeys, and reunite with Grohl for super-threesome Them Crooked Vultures featuring Led Zeppelin bass player John Paul Jones.  Homme finally got his mojo back, then died.

Following a depressing three month stint on bed rest, Homme gathered the troops and got back to work.  Longtime drummer Joey Castillo was fired (for reasons yet unknown), quickly replaced by pinch hitter and band veteran Dave Grohl, then permanently by ex-Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore.  Soon enough a motley crew of friends including Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner, Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears, UNKLE's James Lavelle, Trent Reznor, and actual queen Elton John would swing by the studio to assist.

The resulting album, ...Like Clockwork, is unlike any other by Queens of the Stone Age.  Previously an invincible ginger macho man, Josh Homme forgoes the colossal riffs of yesteryear and channels a newfound sense of fragility and mortality.  "I want God to come/ And take me home" intones Homme on the somber Wendy Carlos-meets-Pink Floyd piano ballad "The Vampyre of Time and Memory" and recounts, in allegory, his near-death experience on the heart breaking spaghetti-western epic "I Appear Missing."

The album is textured and layered meticulously.  No two tracks sound alike, and the creative choices are truly bizarre.  Salacious jam "If I Had A Tail" sounds like Gary Numan's "Cars," Berlin's "Take My Breath Away," and The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" all at once.  Later, "Kalopsia," features Homme and Reznor doing their best Bowie and Mercury, over a caustic multi-part tune with portions that recall The Flamingos' 1959 doo-wop hit "I Only Have Eyes For You."  The sound of scuba gear, or a hospital ventilator, provides rhythmic accompaniment.  This curious sonic detail supports two recurring themes on the album simultaneously - drifting in water and being on the brink of death.    

Though ...Like Clockwork might seem at times like an egocentric pity-party, with Homme emoting vulnerably throughout, he steps back on guitar considerably - letting his newer bandmates shine.  Bass player Mike Shuman steps up with some infectious rumbling grooves like on the album's blistering lead single "My God Is The Sun" while Dean Fertita, also a Jack White sideman, skillfully handles keys and lays down some fantastic Skynyrd-esque guitar solos like on the aforementioned "The Vampyre of Time and Memory."

...Like Clockwork represents a great stylistic leap forward for Queens of the Stone Age, boasting impressive vocals and compositional acumen.  It revives the spirit of Josh Homme's best work on Rated R and Songs For The Deaf while branching off in bold new directions.  Though it's not the monstrous stoner rock album old school fans might've hoped for, it's the album they needed - and it's certainly the album Homme needed to make.  On the massively funky dick-shaking anthem "Smooth Sailing" Homme brags "I'm risking it always/ No second chances/ It's gonna be smooth sailing/ From here on out."

Damn right.

2.  Arctic Monkeys: AM (8.5/10)

British rock foursome Arctic Monkeys learned a thing or two from mentors Josh Homme and The Black Keys, and nearly beat them at their own game with fifth album AM.  Homme produced the Arctic Monkeys years back, luring the band out of a pop-punk corner and into harder, sexier territory.  Similarly, while on tour with The Black Keys, they picked up on that band's predilection for vintage soul, glam, and hip-hop.  On AM the band stomp and shimmy through a dozen infectious grooves that deftly blend those influences, while frontman Alex Turner hones a baritone croon, lending warmth to his lascivious tongue-twisting anecdotes.  AM is not only among this year's most finely crafted LPs, but vaults the Arctic Monkeys into the upper tier of contemporary rock royalty.

3.  Skeletonwitch: Serpents Unleashed (8/10)

Serpents Unleashed, fifth album from Athens, Ohio, blackened-thrash five piece Skeletonwitch is, without a doubt, the most explicitly "metal" album ever to make my top ten.  Showcasing eleven scorchers in little over half an hour, Serpents Unleashed is a ferocious, merciless beast.  Frontman Chance Garnette spins tails of doom and damnation in a blood curdling screech, while his adept bandmates unleash sonic hellfire in perfect, blinding lockstep.  Dustin Botjes' machine gun double-bass kicks and Evan Linger's slippery bass fretwork are particularly impressive.  Producer Kurt Ballou also does some of his best work on Serpents Unleashed, underscoring the band's natural strengths by keeping each element clear as crystal, but warm and punchy.  Absolutely killer.

4.  Kvelertak: Meir (7.5/10)

Like a savage troop of vikings, Norway's six piece "black & roll" powerhouse Kvelertak invaded my world this year and easily became my favorite new band. On their sophomore LP Meir, producer Kurt Ballou once again helps Kvelertak distill four decades of beer soaked party rock, blending the likes of AC/DC, Thin Lizzy, and Motorhead with black metal's infernal shriek and percussive blast beats.  The band do it so well they don't even bother with English - vocalist Erlend Hjelvik screams entirely in Norwegian.  They put on a ridiculous show too.  The only thing keeping Meir down is Kvelertak's own 2010 eponymous debut, which was damn near perfect, and the fact that my top three picks are bold improvements for their respective creators whereas this one merely stays the course.      

5.  Ghost: Infestissumam (7/10)

Sweden's doom pop and metal six-piece Ghost are certainly one of the more unusual bands to ever make my top ten, and their meteoric rise in popularity over the last couple years (signing to a UMG subsidiary, playing Coachella and Lollapalooza, and collaborating with Dave Grohl) is just as unlikely - unless, that is, they actually did make a pact with Satan.  Fact is, as I mentioned in my review earlier this year, ol' Beelzebub has been part of rock & roll lore since its inception and it's about time a band brought some of that cartoon drama and mischief back to the genre.  Borrowing from Kiss and Alice Cooper's showbiz playbook, and relishing every moment of it, Ghost craft their sophomore LP Infestissumam as an outrageous lark filled with memorable odes to devilish matters.     

6.  Kylesa: Ultraviolet (7/10)

Sludge metal, a subgenre with origins in America's swampy South, shares the same genes as that early 90's subgenre from America's rainy North West - a soupy mix of Black Flag's punk rock indignation and Black Sabbath's monstrous riffs.  Kylesa, a coed five piece from Savannah, Georgia, best exemplify this patchwork of disparate rock influences on their sixth LP Ultraviolet.  Long time fans will recognize the woozy psychedelia the band perfected on 2010's breakout Spiral Shadow, but may be surprised by their bold new indie-rock fixation.  "Low Tide" plays like a screwed version of The Cure's "A Forest," while "Quicksand" pays homage to Smashing Pumpkins' "Hummer," and closer "Drifting" recalls Slowdive's "Sing" until vocalist Laura Pleasants explodes with riot grrrl fury.       

7.  Nine Inch Nails: Hesitation Marks (7/10)

Having missed NIN in their prime, as Trent Reznor's youthful histrionics seemed below my good taste, I finally saw them live in 2005.  I was thoroughly blown away, ate my hat, and immediately pledged allegiance.  They had entered a fervent period of output, releasing four albums in just three years before Reznor "retired" the band in 2009.  NIN finally returned this year with their eighth full length - a refreshingly minimal Hesitation Marks.  Reznor started out as an 80's synthpop dandy so Hesitation Marks comes to life best in that context - with subtle allusions to that decade evident throughout.  "Copy of A" riffs on primitive techno, while "Everything" employs The Cure's jangly guitar, and "Satellite" borrows its paranoid strip club funk from one-time Prince proteges Vanity 6.    

8.  Beastmilk: Climax (7/10)


Though Beastmilk's Climax was released only a month ago, few albums this year were so immediately enjoyable.  Beastmilk are a post-punk goth rock foursome from Finland fronted by British ex-pat "Kvohst" - a veteran of the pan-Scandinavian black metal scene.  The band shrewdly recorded their debut with American producer Kurt Ballou - fleshing out their natural proclivity for dramatic baritone, 80's hand-claps, echoey snares, and huge shimmering guitars.  Beastmilk synthesize equal parts Joy Division, Smiths, Cure, Echo & The Bunnymen, and Misfits to create an assortment of apocalyptic anthems broaching metal's dependable themes of death, war, mind control, and madness, deliberately filtered through the prism of goth's romantic notions of love and alienation.  

9.  My Bloody Valentine: mbv (7/10)

Irish shoegaze rock pioneers My Bloody Valentine put out two sleeper classics in their early career, the genre-defining Isn't Anything in 1988 and the monumental Loveless in 1991 - then went silent.  Whereas the crushing weight of expectation drove some of their contemporaries to untimely ends, My Bloody Valentine mastermind Kevin Shields simply went into hiding.  Few knew, or believed, that he would spend the next 22 years composing and recording a followup to Loveless, but it finally arrived with little fanfare as a download-only album, mbv, in February - and it's pretty damn good.  Flowing easily from the bands familiar, but inimitable, gauzy fuzz to uncharted waters of abrasive industrial cacophony and breakbeat rhythm, mbv is a surprisingly exceptional comeback.   

10.  Disclosure: Settle (6.5/10)

Since the skiffle craze of the mid 1950's up through Adele's breakout albums, UK youth culture has had a special way of appropriating and recycling African-American music.  Electronic dance music is no different, as now defunct British artists like Artful Dodger and MJ Cole borrowed heavily from American house and R&B producers like Todd Edwards and Timbaland to launch the brief UK/2-step garage trend of the late 90's.  This year young British siblings Disclosure brilliantly resurrect these Anglo-reinterpretations over a decade later with their Daft Punk-crushing LP Settle.  With massive ear-worm singles like "When A Fire Starts to Burn" and "White Noise," and some sizzling live performances in support, Settle is this year's best dance album on either side of the Atlantic.   

Happy New Year everybody!  Can't wait to see (and hear!) what 2014 brings.
*Edit - Album scores added on 5/20/14.

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