Rockin' My Turntable In 2013: Tankboy
By Tankboy in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 9, 2014 7:15PM
Photo by Travis Wiens
This seems to be the year all music started to really suffer from listeners drowned in a deluge of good but not great offerings. I liked a lot of music in 2013 but I loved very little of it. And I've listened to a LOT of music from every corner of the audio spectrum ... which actually leads me to the obvious question; is nothing standing out because there is so much to take in?
The answer is yes—though in that yes is also the answer as to why so many others are going on and on about all the great music this years and I'm not. Simply, with so much music out there, there truly is something for everyone. Don't be fooled by the major publications' groupthink lists that spit out many of the same albums in the same order, I think when most talk about 2013 being a great year for music they mean they've found lots of albums that appeal to their individual tastes. 2013 was a great year for you to discover music you loved without having to depend on anything other than getting lost in a labyrinth of Bandcamp or Soundcloud links to discover stuff best suited to you.
All of this is my roundabout way of saying that the list that follows is the music I could play over and over again in the last few months. And while it's a personal list I also feel pretty confident that most folks willing to give these albums a spin might also find them on repeat. Unlike other lists this is based on passion and not a committee and if you've read through this entire intro chances are you're familiar enough with my writing to have a little trust in my recommendations so I hope this doesn't let you down. I know it's what kept me up and optimistic about the music scene throughout the last 12 months.
Free Energy - Love Sign
This was probably the first 2014 album I listened to oh so many months ago, and it still is one I can listen to over and over again without ever growing tired of it. On one hand it's good time rock and/or roll that's certainly looking back at the music that drove prom dance floors in the late '70s and early '80s, but on the other it's got a layer of true yearning that could only be supplied by guys making music who never quite worked up the nerve to invite someone to prom themselves. Luckily for us that early heartbreak translates into some of the best guitar based dance party music you could ask for. Hell, even their b-sides are amazing. You can't go wrong with Free Energy.
Warm Soda - Someone For You
Warm Soda was my genuine surprise find of the year. I'd never heard of them and had no idea what to expect but within seconds of putting on Someone For You I found myself fervently hoping the whole album had this much punch and vivacious spirit driven by unforgettable melodies. And all while being buried under a layer of lo-fi fuzz that for once works in a band's favor instead of functioning as an excuse to mask a songs' shortcomings. If you're looking for a guitar pop album that is sweet without being wimpy and makes galloping drums work perfectly alongside buzzy guitars and sing-along chorus then you should probably drop what you're doing and find Someone For You right now.
Sky Ferriera - Night Time, My Time
This was one of the albums I was most looking forward to since I've been a Sky Ferriera fan for a while now and was hoping that all the promise her previous EPs and singles held would pay off on her debut full length and boy did it ever. I'd say this was possibly my favorite pop album of 2013 if it fell easily into that category, but it doesn't. There's a guitar rawkin' heart in Ferriera's music and her lyrics prove she's more capable of putting complicated feelings into excellent turns of phrase better than most folks twice her age. For a woman who's been groomed to be a pop diva since her teens this is a remarkably confident and adult record.
Mixtapes - Ordinary Silence
I still love pop-punk when it's done well and right now no one does it better than Mixtapes. Lyrically they have a ton of heart but they make even their angriest, most combative stances into something that you can't resist wanting to shout along to. In my opinion the best punk should fill you with joy because it's supposed to thrum with the joy of being alive and feeling; it doesn't matter what you're feeling. If you can make that catchy as hell, then in my humble opinion that's all the better. Ordinary Silence is filled with songs that I've seen played in spaces both tiny and large and every time the results have been anthemic.
Dead Gaze - Brain Holiday
You don't know how many times in the last year I've sat down to write a review of this album only to abandon it because my words couldn't quite capture what it was that made this so special. So let me try again. Cole Furlow is Dead Gaze and on this album he takes a recording studio and twists it to the singular purpose of making a massive sounding record that sounds immediately classic. In some ways it reminds me of World Party's Goodbye Jumbo—one of my favorite albums in the world for reasons I still can't fully articulate though they may be deeply rooted in sentimentality—in its ambition and ability to jump around stylistically yet still pull the entire album into a cohesive whole. This is weird and noisy and will definitely make your ears happy.
David Bowie - The Next Day
Let's forget about David Bowie's surprise return or that most artists his age are more than content to pump out middling (at best) albums and coast along past glories to keep their career afloat. Let's just put that aside and marvel at just how incredibly The Next Day is as an album that isn't afraid to take chances while searching through some pretty personal, dark material. If some twenty-somethings put out this album I'd be in awe, but I admit I'm even more in awe that someone with Bowie's pedigree still pushes himself to try new things and create fresh music that is still occasionally ahead of its time. I think Bowie gained a whole new generation of fans with this and reminded the rest of us that art does not grow weaker as you move further away from the fires of youth; those fires can still blaze late into the next day.
Superchunk - I Hate Music
After an extended hiatus Superchunk came back a few years ago with a surprisingly good album. This year they had the audacity to follow that up with an even better album. The quartet still has all the buzz and adrenaline driving their songs that was there when they were actually young brats in the '80s, but now it's tempered by lyrics that, instead of being angry with "the man" for trying to make them conform are now angry with The Man who has imposed mortality on them and their friends. I Hate Music is a band of grown ups who never gave up being teenagers at heart coming to terms with reconciling those two states of mind. And it ends up being oh so life-affirming and worth the introspection.
Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
This could have been a disaster. On Random Access Memories Daft Punk really reached for the sky and pulled out all the stops. For instance they utilize numerous big name guest vocalists but there's no feeling of stunt casting on any song. Each singer seems perfectly suited to and slips into, instead of dominating, their assignment. Hell, even Paul Williams is elevated to the level of sublime with his vocals on the operatic "Touch." And Todd Edwards additions to the jaunty "Fragment Of Time" is one of those understated moments of gloriousness I don't hear often enough on albums any more. A lot of people seemed to react negatively to this album when it came out, I guess they were planning on robot rock and not a resurrection of late '70 disco and soul, but I'm pleased to see many of those same people have fallen under the album's spell with time. You see Daft Punk are excellent songwriters, and I think that when those songs are built out of samples that sometimes that can be overlooked, but by building most of the music from the ground up on Random Access Memories I think Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo have proven their bonafide as composers with a deft (not daft) touch.
Diarrhea Planet - I'm Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams
Every year some band with an insane amount of guitars onstage and a wild sense of abandon in their songwriting make their way into my heart. These bands tend to be somewhat cartoonish but that's outweighed by them being a ridiculous amount of fun. Whilst Diarrhea Planet is unfortunately named when it comes time to try and talk your friends into checking them out—no really, forget the name, they're great (cue friend rolling their eyes)—their music is dead serious about having a good time.
Janelle Monáe - The Electric Lady
I've always enjoyed Janelle Monáe's live shows but I found her debut just too fractured and unevenly paced to measure up to the critical prose being heaped on it. On The Electric Lady she's learned how to reign herself in when necessary without sacrificing her restless sense of musical adventure. There is no one genre large enough to capture her attention for too long, but here she at least learns how to make transitions that seem organic instead of jarring. To be honest, while I was impressed with this album from the start, I presumed that was merely because it was such a big step forward for Monáe. I'm actually a little surprised it is on this list though, but for some reason I keep coming back to this disc again and again to try and unwrap all the delicious new layers that appear every single time. Also, this is the best Prince album the man himself hasn't been able to produce for a good 25 years.
Primal Scream - More Light
Wherein some Scottish weirdos who had lost their way and were quickly on the path to mediocrity rediscovered their inner freaks without the aid of drugs and turned out an absolutely insane album that returned the band to doing what they were best at: writing acid drenched dance anthems thrown in front of a funhouse mirror. And then shot through with lasers. And slapped around by Bootsy Collins' bass. And then dipped in a nightmare. The result? More Light!
The Thermals - Desperate Ground
I saw The Thermals in a tiny club last summer and it was possibly the best show I saw all year. It was certainly one of the few I danced my ass off at. And that's because while the band is always great onstage, this time they were touring behind an album so urgent, so desperate they literally vibrated as they delivered its tunes. You can file this trio under punk rock that only gets better and louder and angrier as it gets older. There's nothing contrived here, but The Thermals know that in order to deliver their message they also need to win you over and the contents of this electric surge do just that. Desperate Ground lives up to its name so don't be surprised if you find yourself edging forward in your seat or driving fast or moshing in a pit; it's all good.
Beyoncé - Beyoncé
Beyoncé Knowles emerged as the poster girl for why you don't write a "Best Of" list until the year is actually over when she dropped this self-titled album with zero warning in late December. I find that incredibly exciting and look forward to more artists following suit but this isn't a list about the most genius marketing moves of 2013. Beyoncé could have been a train wreck, especially since she had reportedly been working on and then completely scrapped an album already. But instead of being also-rans, the songs on this album create the strongest cohesive work Beyoncé has produced. There're no surefire hits here, but there is a solid sense of song-craft and an adventurousness in production that doesn't always stay in the safe pop diva zone. It also shows that even as a mom Beyoncé is still Beyoncé and that having kids doesn't mean slowing down or covering up your sexuality even if it does mean occasionally questioning your relationship. This album proves the artist is bigger than the diva inside of Beyonce, but they still come together to create music that is uniquely hers.
Foxygen - We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
Dianne Coffee - My Friend Fish
Jonathan Rado - Law And Order
This may seem like cheating but I can't help seeing a few of these albums as strung together. It's like Foxygen is the mothership but it's members are totally unafraid to ride kick-ass shuttle of their own making in close orbit, and that's just what Foxygen drummer Shaun Fleming does with Dianne Coffee and Foxygen co-founder Rado does on his solo debut. While Foxygen mines '60s Flower Power to drive it's music, Dianne Coffee veers closer to that era's Sunset Strip and adds a dash of booze to the haze of pot smoke. Rado adopts a bi-coastal approach and just digs into anything in that era to supply the inspiration for his songs that bounce between go-go beats, crooner come-ons and shredded psych sideways glances. All three groups are inextricably entwined though and in my opinion while each album is a blazing flash of brilliance, when you take them all in together the sound alone can start a group quake of mammoth proportions. These guys may be dabbling in the sounds of the past but they're making their mark on today.
Chance the Rapper - Acid Rap
Kanye West's Yeezus might have gotten lots of attention for its attempt at agit-prop, but the true exploratory spirit belonged to another young Chicagoan. Acid Rap is easily the best hip-hop record of the year, and not just because its creator is both incredibly young and impossibly gifted. While other albums caught my ear, Acid Rap was the only one to maintain my interest for months, due to Chance's amazing delivery and the density of the musical beds he floats his lyrics over. And Chance is the rarest of lyricists who can crack you up one second and have you in tears the next. There's no hit singles in here but there is a ton of densely layered songs that continue to surprise and delight me more and more every time I listen to it. Much hip-hop grows stale as it ages, and today stuff can seem aged in the space of a week, but Chance the Rapper has genuine staying power.
Saint Rich - Beyond The Drone
Beyond the Drone was a creeper; it kept wending its way into my playlists until I realized I was falling for it's simple charms built on some weird amalgam of glammy guitars, a hint of southern swagger and the occasional folky aside. Which is even weirder when you find out the music is created by two dudes from New Jersey. Beyond the Drone is pretty without being wimpy and it ain't afraid to flex its muscles when necessary. That's exactly what they do on one of the best songs of the year, the swinging "Young Vultures," and it's that balancing act that draws me back to this record over and over again, even though it took me a while to realize that was even happening.
Daniel Wade - Hyperconnector EP / Stronger Machines EP
Chicago was full of great music this year, but my favorite local personal discovery was Daniel Wade. His two EPs are full of the kind of power-pop that gives the genre a good name and doesn't float by painting the tunes by numbers. Instead he shreds, he sings, he screams, he parties and he creates the kind of music that always sounds fresh and never gets old. It's the sound of high school strained through years of experience and amped up to a wattage that drives the blood from joy to ecstasy. What I'm trying to say is that this is damn fine music that's ultra catchy and worth your ear.
Sleigh Bells - Bitter Rivals
I'll admit that by limiting myself to 20 albums that this entry knocked out a hipper choice—[artist name redacted]—but fuck it, this album's great. 2013 was the year Sleigh Bells returned to their tried and true formula of just huge massive crunching playground chants instead of trying to plumb anything "deeper." And they were much better off for it. This was also the year the duo finally added a full band to their live show so that when I saw them at Metro they finally delivered on the full promise of their music to completely soak a room in sound. I'll go the extra step and say they were louder and a lot more fun than (and almost as mesmerizing as) seeing My Bloody Valentine. If rock and/or roll is built upon youthful rebellion, sex and a punch in the face I think that Bitter Rivals digs for the simplest explorations of those components and in the end create something I can dance along to mindlessly that's more rewarding than an empty beat and a deep bass drop.
Tegan And Sara - Hearthrob
I certainly didn't expect one of the most giddily enjoyable electropop albums to come from the Canadian twins whose past had more in common with tear streaked folky emo, but that's probably why this album knocked me over. The duo has always had a way with a hook, but most of their previous work only had one or two songs per disc that really stuck with me after a few spins, but Hearthrob is jam-packed with winner after winner. And even more amazing is how they turn out this hit parade without dumbing down their lyrics or stripping the emotional layers out to make the tunes more palatable.
The Sounds - Weekend
In an era when so many dance rock bands sound exactly like other dance rock bands—the new new wave, if you will—The Sounds continue to crank out fresh music that stands above the genre. Weekend is a little bit more of a serious affair for the band message-wise but they, as usual, wrap even angst and anger in a cloak of driving rhythms and choruses that work equally well on the dance floor as in the rock club. I admit this isn't a challenging record, but it is a rewarding one and I largely think that's even more important.