January top ten
1. Alisa Weilerstein/Daniel Barenboim: Elgar & Carter Cello Concertos (2012)
Weilerstein plays with the authority of a MacArthur-winning Columbia grad (hey, at least it’s not Oberlin). It would go too far to suggest the working-class Tory and the belated hypermodernist were doing the same thing, but Barenboim, who knows this shit, shows the greatest cello concerto of the early 20th century at least gestures toward the more raucous future inhabited by the greatest cello concerto of the 21st, which in its synthesis of Eastern and Central European ways of making it new, has its own kind of lyricism. Bruch’s Kol Nidrei provides a nostalgic finish.
2. Mary Halvorson Septet: Illusionary Sea (2013)
Adding a tenor and trombone to her ensemble, Halvorson plays with her new toys like an offensive coordinator with two first-round picks, while the performers retain considerable freedom within her strange progressions. Check out the decent into the uncanny valley in “Smiles of Great Men” and the intricate work on “Nairam” while the leader plucks treated arpeggios.
3. William Parker: Wood Flute Songs (2013)
I was at the first Yoshi’s show included in this box, and if much of it went over my head at the time I don’t claim to get it all now. Nine hours is a lot of music even for the guy who’s played on more good albums than anyone else this decade, but every disc has many moments of interest. If you are time-constrained, pick hits are Creation, the ensemble disc, Kalaparusha on the Edge of the Horizon, from 2012’s Vision Festival, and “Malachi’s Mode” and “Hopi’s Spirit” from the Yoshi’s shows.
4. Elizabeth Morris: Optimism EP (2013)
If you’re going to sing accompanied only by your own after-school piano and guitar, you’d better be writing at a Joni Mitchell-circa-Blue level, and with the aid of bathroom graffiti, she is. “Optimism” comes from a pre-Tumblr tradition of evoking big feelings with small gestures. Determined not to lose her true lover by courting too slow, the happiest moment of her life is over before the chorus begins, and the song ends in uncertainty ninety seconds after that.
5. Tal National: Kaani (2013)
The rock of these Nigeriens-with-an-E is close to Malian, as you’d expect from geography, but there are Nigerian-with-an-A moments of roll, without the Nigerian-with-an-A lackadaisical attitude toward playing in tune. Almost every cut feels like it could go on forever, so thank them for keeping the average at six minutes. The rotating vocalists are strong throughout, but you’re here for the repeated guitar figures on “Nouvelles” and the talking drums on “Tchana.” The single “Wongharey” is fantastic.
6. Angel Haze: Dirty Gold (2013)
I was initially disconcerted that she made a stadium-rock-goes-self-help album a la almost-grown Eminem, but got over the “is this what it is?” feeling much more quickly than I did with Pink Friday, in part because Sia is a more human Rihanna than Rihanna but more because she’s blunt about her trauma. If her anti-religious schtick is very early-twenties, her greatest-love-of-all solution is better at dissipating angst than either gay jokes or anything Vampire Weekend came up with.
7. Revolutionary Ensemble: Counterparts (2013)
Leroy Jenkins (RIP), Sirone (RIP), and Jerome Cooper (still with us, phew). Jenkins takes his usually clean-toned violin along scales ancient and modern; as the concert proceeds, he ups his skronking along with a rhythm section that’s light-footed even when Cooper switches to balafon. Recording quality is a bit off, but what a way to go out.
8. Eric Revis 11:11: Parallax (2012)
This all-star lineup hasn’t put the hours in to match Revis’ trio album City of Asylum, though you can drop Ken Vandermark into any setting and he’ll not only turn on a dime, he’ll contribute the most rollicking tune (on an album with a Fats Waller number, no less). The leader tirelessly holds the record together, yet sounds best unaccompanied.
9. Lobi Traore: Bamako Nights: Live at Bar Bozo 1995 (2013)
I have no idea how easy it is to get weed in Mali, but this record reeks of it, which is a negative only on the comparatively meandering opener and closer. In between, “Dunuya” sounds like an audition for Josh Homme, which he fails by raising the BPM in the moshable “Sigui Nyongon son fo.” In the same class as Bwati Kono.
10. Against Me!: Transgender Dysphoria Blues
Like the Dismemberment Plan’s Uncanney Valley, it’s about finding yourself confused by a new stage of your life, and reverting to the same bag of tricks you relied on to deal with adolescence. If the shortcomings of the rhythm section make this less enjoyable than it could be, that’s not going to stop this album from saving people, one hopes starting with Grace. Note to Macklemore, Sara Bareilles, etc.: this is how you be brave.
Childish Gambino: “Telegraph Ave. (Oakland by Lloyd)”
Rosanne Cash: “When the Master Calls the Roll”
Inaya Day Allstars: “Good Feeling (A Director’s Cut Master)” (at 13:27)
Charles Lloyd/Jason Moran: “God Only Knows”
DJ Snake & Lil Jon: “Turn Down for What”
Albert “Tootie” Heath: “The Charleston”
Claire Chase: “Vermont Counterpoint”
31 albums I loved this year
1. Tegan and Sara: Heartthrob: About the only case I could see against the album is that individually they’re not outstanding singers, but I’d counter that they play off each other better (the Shakespearean as in Marcella-and-Siobhan contest between “go” and “please stay” on “Now I’m All Messed Up”) than any other vocal duo at the moment, what with Brooks & Dunn splitting and all. Clearly, they sing in service to their songs rather than vice versa. Take Tegan’s rising final syllable in “Closer.” It’s a hook in itself, one too shameless for her to have sung three albums ago, but it also emphasises that the song conveys an attraction that’s very college-freshman, a time of not only freedom from parents but also freedom from one’s own adolescence — it’s physical, not just physical. I’m not saying that all of this consciously goes through Tegan’s mind when her “errrrr” turns into a yelp, but with countless good decisions like this on the album, i wouldn’t rule it out. And then there are the pre-choruses that build logically from verses and are effortlessly topped by giant choruses; the abundance of telling details (“where you’re leaving your makeup”); the Greg Kurstin million-little-hooks production job that finally proves he has talents beyond knowing the limits of plagiarism law (though he certainly still has that). All this lets T&S engage in the human-scale drama that’s their bag; the overall effect is edifyingly melancholy. If this makes Heartthrob sound like a better-written Carly Rae Jepsen album, (i) as everyone on Tumblr knows Kiss was pretty good darn it, and (ii) the only 2013 album I’ve heard that might have more consistent songwriting than Heartthrob is Modern Vampires, and really, T&S know more about break-ups than Ez & Ros know about the Lord.
2. Brandy Clark: 12 Stories: Worst you can say is the lyrics are the only way to tell the songs apart, but why wouldn’t you listen to these lyrics? She’s a smart singer who understands how narrative and melody works, and she has as many angles on her chosen milieu as Lives of Girls and Women-era Alice Munro — and Munro took decades to get jokes down.
3. Rilo Kiley: Rkives: After spending a few plays moaning about how it didn’t flow, i gave in and accepted that song for song, it was their second-best album after More Adventurous, which flows. If the break-up has been harder on him than her, it’s not like rock’s best singer (listen to the way she places the adverb “aimlessly” in “A Town Called Luckey”) has written five songs as good as the median Under the Blacklight outtake since.
4. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba: Jama Ko: The tightest and most professional live act i saw all year. Kouyate arrived with this tiny instrument which looks like a kid’s toy, and then got all kinds of tones out of it, often at blazing speed but also sometimes laying back and letting his family show off. And here i acknowledge i wouldn’t know an ngoni from a kora if it weren’t for (still) our greatest reviewer of Afropop championing a plethora of the music while insisting on the resemblances between its pleasures and those of, say, rap. Get that book done, Christgau.
5. M.I.A.: Matangi: I would say we’re taking our greatest creator of fight songs since Public Enemy for granted except i found the abrasions on Maya weren’t much fun, exceptions like “Born Free” aside. Here, the abrasions come with tunes, her singing is tougher, and her ideas on everything besides reincarnation are pretty much right. If you think this is how political music should work then occupy Pitchfork.
6. Roswell Rudd: Trombone for Lovers: A metric shitload of fun for the four Steven Bernstein tracks alone, esp. the evolutionarily-paced “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” the best version of the song possible at this point in history (no lyrics). Then when the NYC Labor Chorus show up (with lyrics) it’s righteous.
7. Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City: It’s impossible to not be annoyed by something on this; me, i find “Hannah Hunt” as deadfishy as the worst of Noah Baumbach. But if staring into the abyss isn’t too tough, the arrangements and Koenig’s singing continually play tricks on the words, throwing an ambiguity party because they R who they R.
8. Pet Shop Boys: Electric: Just when Random Access Memories made you wonder if disco really did suck, these guys came out from behind the cricket pavilion and made their most danceable record in decades. Both bourgie and bolshy, like the best of the old New Left.
9. DJ Koze: Amygdala: Michael Tatum jibed that “we’re all sensitive people” wouldn’t be his “Let’s Get It On” quote of choice, but this fucking year asmidgen of sensitivity was worth a million sledgehammer licks. Koze’s psychedelic minimalism punctuated by song snippets and Motown lifts seemed exactly right during a spring addled by unrecreational cough syrup.
10. Home Brew (2012): The best-written rap record since XXX, sez i. They’re Aucklanders and I don’t know how much home field advantage I’m giving them (though it’s not like i liked Pure Heroine), but if you value clarity, a lot of cheek, and occasional honest-to-goodness wisdom you might agree. What I like best is how well the first disc evokes the classic milieu of New Zealand musicians — the dealings with the officers of the welfare state, the substance abuse, the smorgasbord of music coming from all sides (Yellow Moon! Voodoo! Eric Clapton ft. Babyface! The music absorbs these influences (well, not “Change the World”) while anchoring itself the present) — before the second disc gets analytical and resultingly enraged in a way that your favourite Flying Nun band would never dare — hard to imagine Martin Phillipps telling the Prime Minister to suck his dick as in “Listen to Us” or make an argument for atheism as vituperatively as in “Good God.” Still, it’s the first disc that’s more replayable — try “Benefit,” which shows that while the social safety net has developed holes since all those Dunedin bands lived on the dole, the doledrums remain.
11. Chance the Rapper: Acid Rap: It’s Kendrick’s era, but the Black Hippy has still yet to make a full-length as compelling as this reminder that rap can be light and serious and witty and heartbreaking.
12. Big Bang: Alive (2012): U.S. critics treat K-pop as cultishly any other kind of teenpop, so G-Dragon, the guy with the abs, and the other three will have to settle for massive sales and huge acclaim in Asia, the poor fuckers.
13. Jeremy Denk: Ligeti/Beethoven (2012): The notoriously difficult Ligeti etudes are played with precision and panache. Beethoven 32 is Beethoven 32.
14. Oneohtrix Point Never: R Plus Seven: Distancing himself from the “my vintage Moog is moogier than yours” arms race, he embraced MIDI and squashed and stretched like he was Bob Clampett. This ’trix is for kids.
15. Parquet Courts: Light Up Gold: Why do these millennials draw comparisons to pre-Pitchfork mainstays like Pavement and the Fall? Because i’m not the only one who misses bands that give a shit about musicianship.
16. Rachid Taha: Zoom: Rai king teams with the other last rockers standing — Mick Jones and Eric Cantona — and makes another outstanding album, ho-hum.
17. Le Grand Kalle: His Life, His Music: The first disc is Kabasele creating a musical identity for a new nation if not a continent. The second disc has some good songs too!
18. Eric Revis Trio: City of Asylum: Bassist with Cecilians old and young Andrew Cyrille and Kris Davis try to be everywhere and everywhen, sound best doing Monk like everyone else does.
19. My Bloody Valentine: m b v: In a wretched year for guitars, they cared about beauty as much as ever. Only a bit worse than Loveless!
20. Epik High: 99 (2012): Aging K-rappers make their seventh-yes-seventh album in the tunetastic YG house style, pre-emptively saying fuck-the-haters.
21. Future: Pluto 3D (2012): Mike Will Making the Same Beat Over and Over hit diminishing returns months before Miley, but that doesn’t stop this collection from sounding like last year’s future.
22. The Group: Live (1986/2012): Billy Bang triumphant! A crazy-hot rhythm section! A twenty-five minute version of a Miriam Makeba song! No really, a fucking great twenty-five minute version of a Miriam Makeba song!
23. Khaled: Liberte (2009): After a summer of rai, he became my distant second-favourite (see #16). These hits recycled with the help of a proper Egyptian orchestra are what i’ll play when i want to hear him.
24. The Knife: Shaking the Habitual: It clicked when i learned “Fracking Fluid Injection” was made from a bedspring: it’s a Tom Ze album! I still skip the nineteen minute one though.
25. Ciara: If cunnilingus, undersinging, and Nicki’s guest swag make this the rockist’s R&B album of choice, they’re welcome to be late to the body party if they bring dessert.
26. Evoken: Atra Mors (2012): Let the eloquent-not-grim Deafheaven play for collegiate respectability. Having visited Jersey this year, i can say that if i lived there, i’d make funeral doom too.
27. Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Slippery Rock!: Vies with Forty Fort as their most party-rocking set. Peter Evans needs to have a late-night brass duel with Steven Bernstein for jazz MVP.
28. Ashley Monroe: Like a Rose: If having the biz behind you gets crack session musicians and production, then it’s worth putting up with Blake Shelton, though Miranda might no longer agree.
29. Kevin Gates: Stranger Than Fiction: His redneck twang (“Careful”) and fake patois (“Tiger”) illustrate the multitudes in his interior life — amidst the bullets and programmed orchestras, he’s loyal, introverted, needy. “The worst thing you can give any nigga or bitch is rejection,” he says, before denouncing men who crave the attention of other men as hoes. He’s working on the border between masculine and feminine codes, dangerous territory for a rapper. Gates isn’t worried about sleeping with the fishes. He’s worried about ending up as alone as Michael Corleone.
30. G-Dragon: Coup d’Etat: Appropriating American sounds (chief beatmaker Teddy can fake anything from pop dubstep to Blood Orange) and language (guap guap guap) without scruple, all he got for his efforts was a Complex Magazine digital cover and a U.S. #161 album. He’ll never be a trans-Pacific star even after he passes his TOEFL. Off-peak Missy shows up and cuts him, and he lacks the expressive range to become a go-to foreign weirdo like Robyn. But top 40 listeners who realize they deserve better than 2013 Timberlake should try “Crooked,” in which he gets over a broken pinky promise by rocking eyeliner and a whole can of hairspray.
31. Ryan Maffei: Country Town: Christgau-approved termite made this solo teaser on his way to a better-dressed, better-tuned collaborator. I miss the Pozniaks’ shredding, but the sound is fuller thanks to keyboards and, just once, ersatz strings, and it’s more assured, not least because this time he doesn’t sound like he’s about to burn his last bridge or die of tuberculosis. The Stephen Foster lift is the best melody, but not by much; the best hook is the obscene one on old favourite “Every Single Test”. It’s the Heartthrob to Pozniak Street's Sainthood!
Ten comics I liked this year
1. Walt Kelly: Pogo: We already knew he was the GOAT at using words in comic strips, but as the complete dailies come out he’s looking more the GOAT period.
2. Hikaru No Go: Distinctive super-stylin’ characters plus it makes dudes putting stones on a board like 5-5 OH MY GOD HE PLAYED 5-5
3. Love and Rockets: New Stories #4: Speaking of GOAT candidates i’m a couple of years behind on: Jaime plays out the endgame of three decades of punk intersectionality, and the end doesn’t come.
4. Kate Beaton: obvs
5. Fraction/Aja/Hollingsworth: Hawkeye: Minor Avengers as agents of gentrification.
6. Michael DeForge: Ant Comic: What do Tex Avery spiders and centipede cars have in common? Death. Always death.
7. Joseph Lambert: Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller: Exceptionally good at representing thoughts visually.
8. Derf Backderf: My Friend Dahmer: No glory, only as morbid as necessary.
9. Dorothy Gambrell: Cat and Girl: Sick of “hipster”? tune in for the ideas that will be devalued to the point of uselessness in ten years!
10. Alison Bechdel: Are You My Mother?: Psychoanalysis (What Is It?)
Department of Time Management Failures
"Oh, this Fela comp is only 12 tracks, I’ll have plenty of time to listen to other stuff tonight."
Songs I like right now
Mykki Blanco: “Ace Bougie Chick”: early ‘90s lite-rap was a bourgeois construct
Spoek Mathambo: “Radio Gaga”: distinguishing between what you lived through and what the nostalgia industry tells you to remember requires serious math
Ellie Goulding: “Burn”: Ryan Tedder and Greg Kurstin sound better with a singer incapable of bursting your eardrums
Xenia Rubinos: “Whirlwind”: two chords is one too many to win a Pulitzer
Lady Lykez: “I Love My Butt”: Miley’s diary: “my best friend Lesley isn’t speaking to me anymore”
Personal songs of the summer
I spent most of the summer playing 250 levels of Candy Crush* but I listened to some music as well.
Vampire Weekend: “Ya Hey”: outthinking Richard Dawkins is still an achievement, being less of an asshole isn’t even if you went to Columbia
M.I.A.: “Bring the Noize”: do Anthrax have a lot of free time these days?
Kevin Gates: “4:30am”: saying his life’s a movie forces him to have feelings
Khaled: “La Liberte”: liberte is hard, as French and Algerians alike know
Shola Ama: “Boyfriend”: a reasonable response to temptation: “don’t fuck this up”
Vincent Nguini & Maloko: “In the Midnight Hour”: Elwood reunites the band, hires Syran Mbenza
Pet Shop Boys: “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct”: BOORZWA-BOORZWA-ZEE
Mariah Carey ft. Miguel: “Beautiful”: disguising this as Mariah’s lead single couldn’t get Miguel top ten
Afro 70: “Week End”: rumba made its way east before Congolese musicians did
The Mavericks: “Born to Be Blue”: these days it’s immensely pleasurable to hear a real middle eight (okay, nine)
Angel Haze: “No Bueno”
Gary Allan: “Pieces”
Home Brew: “Benefit”
Gwen Sebastian: “Suitcase”
Kanye West: “On Sight”
Roger Knox & the Pine Valley Cosmonauts: “Home in the Valley”
Mariem Hassan: “Almalhfa”
Chance the Rapper ft. Saba & BJ the Chicago Kid: “Everybody’s Something”
Ciara: “Body Party”
Mario Diaz de Leon: “Oneirogen”
Maria Magdalena: “Cada Vez Mas Cerca”
Carly Rae Jepsen: “Take a Picture”
Jenny Hval: “Innocence Is Kinky”
*General strategy for jelly levels, which are most of the ones people get stuck on: Destroy chocolate and bombs; manufacture a Colour Bomb +
Wrapped Striped Combo to hit those hard to reach areas; repeat if necessary; when you’re down to half a dozen jelly squares, map out the end game. Works except on boards with very small playing areas (those ones are mostly luck anyway) and liquorice-crazy levels (have to get help from my wife, who started playing at the same time as me and is now 100 levels ahead, on those).