This is a work of pure self-indulgence (this list and, now, this blog). I enjoyed writing it; I hope you enjoy reading it. I’m under no illusions either way. Also, I can’t think of a better, more representative way to kick off my new blog, a 2013 New Year’s Resolution brought to fruition a mere 12 months late. As ever, procrastination is my worst trait. What follows are individual lists of my favorite metal, non-metal music and stand-up comedy albums of 2013, followed by a fairly full write-up of my top 20 albums, independent of genre. It is long and it is far. Bring a snack and schedule sensible bathroom breaks. Caveat reador.
A little background: this post was the impetus for me to finally start this blog, because Facebook wouldn’t allow me to copy all those reams of text into one of its quaint little Note thingies, and because I wasn’t about to let multiple days of work on the monstrosity you’re about to tackle go to waste. So, first and foremost, thanks to Facebook! My semi-regular capsule reviews and musings are probably going to start migrating from there to this site as well. What I always wanted most was a place to put my writings. Writing is very personal and important to me, and I try to take it seriously. This should do nicely. I published the site URL on Facebook for my entire feed, but I also tagged a few people as well as an extra reminder. When I was dependent on Facebook notes, I used to just post it once and depend on the fickle hand of fate to do my heavy lifting for me. If I “invited” you to read this personally, it’s because I know you as someone that I’ve talked music with before and because I think this list might be something you’d find interesting and/or amusing. If I did not specifically invite you, please don’t take it personally, and welcome! I have a blog!
This post represents a ridiculous amount of work on my part (subsequent posts may be longish, but they’ll still be much, much shorter than this one). I’d selfishly like all kinds of people to read it, but I’m still not really in the business of inflicting myself on an unsuspecting public. Many have been the folks who, unsolicited, randomly or pointedly expressed an interest in reading what I write. It’s a very nice feeling, and I appreciate their compliments, well wishes and feedback. As you’ll see with the final list, I have no interest here in being exclusionary.
So, however you happened to reach the end of this sentence, thank you sincerely for reading. I do hope you’ll continue, and enjoy. Thing 1: Though it is not all I listen to by a longshot, I am, first and foremost, a metal fan. You will probably not know at least 50% of these bands, or, quite possibly, listen to metal at all. If you do and/or you do, we are very likely excellent friends offline. ‘Sup? If you don’t, no worries. The way I write is, I suppose, mildly evangelical, in that I tend to only describe what I’m most passionate about, and in florid terms that seek, overtly or not, to engage the reader directly in that passion, whether or not he/she shares it. What I am most passionate about, of course, is rock and roll music in general and heavy metal in particular, even though I purposely listen to tons of different stuff, always seeking the underlying connection. I’ve listened to metal almost as long as I’ve listened to any music, save ‘80s pop or piano at my grandmother’s house, and, darkness, warts and all, it is absolutely foundational to my love for and appreciation of music of many styles (many covered by the rock and roll umbrella). I’ll proceed from here with that as a given, and seek to sugarcoat little in the process, whilst still bearing in mind that our respective comfort levels, expertise and passion will almost certainly not mirror each other, and that I shouldn’t expect them to. That’s what message boards are for.
Thing 2: This is my list. If you agree with it, I’ll smile and nod. If you disagree with it, I’m interested in where/how we differ and very interested in what you recommend. If you crazily disagree with it, we’re probably not friends to begin with. If we are somehow, I welcome you to write your own list and I’ll critique it vigorously in turn. Please kindly note that, as I am no longer a 24-yo music snob, I no longer have vast knowledge of cutting edge anything, and that this list will reflect that. I hope you’ll comment, but civility is appreciated. My policy is that I don’t feed trolls when I’m standing in my own garden. Thing 3: Thanks again for reading, at least to the end of this sentence. That’s still progress! There’s a great big internet out there, I know, and competition for your increasingly fragmented attention is fierce. I appreciate both your patronage and your friendship, in reverse order. Happy 2014! Its predecessor, as you’ll read, was a pretty good year.
2013, though a bit top heavy, produced yet another bumper crop of notable metal releases, highlighted by the triumphant, shockingly unimpeachable comebacks of venerable death metal trailblazers Carcass and Gorguts. 2013 was kind of a witches brew of awesome across the board, really, a thick, heady mixture of young upstarts doing surprisingly mature work (Anciients, Deafheaven, Lord Dying, Church of Misery), established veterans doing perhaps their best work ever (Skeletonwitch, Gama Bomb, Revocation) and reliable genre stars approaching improbable old heights with new albums (Immolation, Black Dahlia Murder, Exhumed, Motorhead, Amon Amarth, Sepultura). Metal, as ever, is a carnival of craziness and dark beauty, divisive and inclusive depending on which side of the door you stand, a kaleidoscope of innumerable varied and (mostly) viable subgenres. So many of its practitioners burn with a desire to push the envelope (heavier, faster, more – more technical, more ambient, more experimental, etc. – sometimes within a single album, as you’ll see), to the delight of a fan base more mature and discerning than given credit for, and unparalleled in its passion and dependability. Metal is either in your blood or it isn’t. It remains for my money the most interesting and vibrant strain of music on the planet. 2013 might not have been its best year, but it was still strong.
- Anciients – Heart of Oak
- Carcass – Surgical Steel
- Skeletonwitch – Serpents Unleashed
- Gorguts – Colored Sands
- Gama Bomb – The Terror Tapes
- Deafheaven – Sunbather
- Kvelertak – Meir
- Immolation – Kingdom of Conspiracy
- In Solitude – Sister
- The Black Dahlia Murder – Everblack
- Exhumed – Necrocracy
- Lord Dying – Summon the Faithless
- Protest the Hero – Volition
- Revocation – Revocation
- Intronaut – Habitual Levitations
- Motorhead – Aftershock
- Church of Misery – Thy Kingdom Scum
- Amon Amarth – Deceiver of the Gods
- Sepultura – The Mediator Between the Head and Hands Must Be the Heart
- Dark Tranquillity – Construct
I realize how much personal bias I display by classifying my two preliminary year-end music lists as “Metal” and “Non-Metal”. I promise it’s not to be patronizing or to minimize any of the artists listed below, many of whom, indeed, stand toe-to-toe with the best from my preferred genre and, from time to time (as you’ll see) even come out on top. Here, the outliers from the master list are harder to lump together due to their stylistic differences, and made particular trouble for me when I decided to limit that list to twenty. A few examples: Alt-country chanteuse Neko Case, possessor of the indie world’s most WMD-like voice, made a loose and seriously beautiful record, her most personal ever; Grunge turned dad-rock standard bearers Pearl Jam showed skill and requisite fire on their first new album of the decade; The National continued its delicately textured, almost perfectly crafted winning ways, albeit while treading water; Speedy Ortiz channeled 1993 Alternative Nation and made it sound like something akin to fresh; J. Roddy Walston raised a mighty ruckus in a minor career breakthrough, and Eminem unleashed his most recent above average comeback album, which tried hard but didn’t quite meet the standards of his previous above average comeback.
Part of what I love about rock music is the myriad angles from which it originates and comes at its listener. There is never one single right answer. I do know what I like (hence no Kanye this year), but it’s a fairly fluid situation, and I’m always open to hearing my new favorite band for the first time. That’s what happened with Frightened Rabbit, in fact, who was in the process of celebrating a decade of consistency and critical acclaim without me by the time I finally sought them out this year. I realize that there are potential omissions here (Savages, Lorde, Arctic Monkeys, Sleigh Bells, that black hole of all things hype Vampire Weekend), but those are all either bands foundering but still visible on my radar or else albums heard too late in the year to give them a fair shake for inclusion. With such variety to pull from, there are always going to be hard choices and harder cuts, but the truth is that I just don’t listen to as much music as I used to. When I decided to commit to researching and putting together this project, it gave me the occasion to listen to as much new music in the course of a month as I might normally in a season. It was, predictably, a wonderful experience, and, in retrospect, a sort of Christmas gift to myself. I can already sense a New Year’s resolution forming.
- Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse
- Clutch – Earth Rocker
- Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe
- Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
- Bad Religion – True North
- David Bowie – The Next Day
- Purson – The Circle and the Blue Door
- Fall Out Boy – Save Rock And Roll
- Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks
- Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
- Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt
- The National – Trouble Will Find Me
- The Joy Formidable – Wolf’s Law
- Speedy Ortiz – Major Arcana
- Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP 2
- J Roddy Walston & The Business – Essential Tremors
- Phoenix – Bankrupt!
- Arcade Fire – Reflektor
- Alice in Chains – The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here
- Atlas Genius – When it Was Now
The list of comedy albums worthy of inclusion on any year-end cross-genre top 20 is necessarily short. We’re breathing rare air here, people. In recent years, when I have not dutifully curated full year-end lists, the party-crashers might have included Dan Telfer’s “Tendrils of Ruin” (2012), Louis C.K.’s “Hilarious”, Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk With Me” and Pete Holmes’ “Impregnated with Wonder” (all 2011) and Kyle Kinane’s “Death of the Party” (2010). That’s it. 2013 is more of a wonderfully odd outlier, in that its top seven comedy albums are to me all pretty darn golden, and worthy of at least year-end consideration. Excellent follow-ups from alt-comedy faves Anthony Jeselnik and freshly-minted talk show host Pete Holmes fell just short of the quality of their respective debuts, current “Bob’s Bugers” cast member Eugene Mirman and former “Simpsons” head writer Dana Gould continued to vie for the unofficial title of sharpest comedian in the world, while the odd couple of NC-17 poster child Doug Stanhope and Ira Glass storytelling protégé Mike Birbiglia dueled for the exotic title of most laughs gotten in a (figurative) confession booth. I’d be remiss to not also mention what may be the final official document of the late, great Patrice O’Neal, not essential per se, but as raw, raucous and incisive as you’d expect. But it was the inspired, otherworldly lunacy of Maria Bamford that made the greatest impact, not only cracking the list to begin with but almost crashing the top 10.
- Maria Bamford – Ask Me About My New God!
- Doug Stanhope – Beer Hall Putsch
- Mike Birbiglia – My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend
- Eugene Mirman – An Evening of Comedy in a Fake, Underground Laboratory
- Dana Gould – I Know It’s Wrong
- Anthony Jeselnik – Caligula
- Pete Holmes – Nice Try, The Devil
- Ron White – A Little Unprofessional
- Patrice O’Neal – Unreleased
- Craig Ferguson – I’m Here to Help
The Top 20 Albums of 2013
If I had expanded my top 20 albums list to 25, I’d probably either still be writing this opus right now, or you would have stopped reading it an hour ago. That way lies madness. And it wouldn’t have adequately captured all the best 2013 had to offer even then. Who wants to see a Neko Case/Black Dahlia Murder/Mike Birbiglia cage match? Yeah I know, me too. Not sure quite how that would all shake out, but I have to predict Neko would win, via probable TKO (severed head), Birbigs would defer/cower/play dead and the surviving BDM would hightail it for the refuge of the nearest bar almost immediately. Or maybe not. Those albums are all so close to each other, and all high quality, however ridiculously different. It’d be the most carnage-heavy episode in “This American Life” history. And then I’d still have to pick #24 and #25. Glad I didn’t expand the list.
1. Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse (Alternative/Indie) – Almost every year it seems I fall into a certain pattern, wherein I, an admittedly dyed in the wool metal guy, decide to finally investigate and listen to a non-metal band that has otherwise been known to me for years, usually due to critical acclaim. Generally the occasion is the release of a new album that gets eye-catching reviews. Past bands of this stripe include Muse, Porcupine Tree, The Decemberists and, especially, The New Pornographers, who ruled my 2010 with an especially harmonic iron fist. This year the band was epic Scottish indie quintet Frightened Rabbit, and its impact on my 2013 was seismic and inescapable. After spending roughly an entire season digesting then luxuriating in the band’s fourth and best album, Pedestrian Verse, I was ravenous for more, and eventually bought two more albums, both great in their own right. But I continued to return to the source throughout the year. FR has made a permanent impression on me. Scott Hutchison, as a band leader, as a powerful yet vulnerable singing voice, and as a hyper-talented, wounded romantic sort of songwriter with a working class poet’s soul, was a fair revelation to me, and this collection of rugged, dexterous, beautiful songs became the soundtrack to my year. Any of the album’s unimpeachable first five tracks might qualify as a song of the year contender, depending on my mood at the moment, but I was hooked on the band as a whole as soon as I heard the delicate, falsetto and piano-touched opener “Acts of Man”, where Hutchison puts his tunefulness and brazen earnestness front and center as the song swells behind him. The band picks up the pace from there wherever needed (and, tellingly, “Acts of Man” becomes a fearsome, altogether different animal in a live setting, where it closes the show instead of opens it) and is never less than compelling, even across several song types, even on seemingly throwaway tracks (like the companion “Housing” songs, built around different interpretations of the same chorus and limber guitar riff). Frightened Rabbit doesn’t waste tracks, or moments, however. It lives in them musically in a perfect distillation of Hutchison’s tough but tender vision, warts and all, and pulls the listener right in with them. The year’s best album is also its most intimate, even with its downstairs manners and occasional righteous ruckus. Its spirit lingers well after you stop listening.
2. Clutch – Earth Rocker (Hard Rock) – Maryland’s Clutch has been an idiosyncratic hard rock institution for close to two decades now, building a loyal and impressive semi-underground following out of the power of Tim Sult’s monolithic guitar riffs, a defiant DIY ethos, a commitment to thick and delicious groove, and a dependably invigorating live presence. Singer Neil Fallon still looks like a lumberjack and bellows like a distressed woodland creature, and drummer Jean Paul Gaster is, for my money, the best improvisational swingman in all of rock. For a band with so many unique weapons and methods of attack, consistency has been a struggle at times – not consistency as a band, or in writing standout individual songs, but rather in writing enough of them. Roaring back from two solid albums that wore their eclecticism on their sleeves, Earth Rocker delivers exactly what its name implies: rock and almost nothing but it. Fans may love Clutch’s various digressions, but to a man I’d wager they all agree the band is at its best the more focused it is on simply rocking. To that end, Earth Rocker delivers and then some. Whether stampeding (as on “Cyborg Bette” and the title track), careening (“Unto the Breach”), shuffling (“Book, Saddle and Go”) or building to explosion (“Crucial Velocity”), Earth Rocker is a ridiculously catchy, efficient, and highly impressive machine, by my count only the second perfect album in Clutch’s deep catalog. The first, 2004’s Blast Tyrant, was not only my album of that year but my favorite rock album of the last twenty, period. Earth Rocker has big shoes to fill, therefore, and does so ably. And what are such big shoes for, if not for kicking serious ass?
3. Ancients – Heart of Oak (Progressive Death Metal) – My top three albums of 2013 all come from the first third of the year. Historically, this is no coincidence. Earlier release date means more chance to listen to and absorb an album, and thus more theoretical chance for it to resonate when put up against its peers. 2013 was a particularly top-heavy year for metal, with two major comebacks (my #4 and #7) dominating the general conversation, and when it came down to selecting the best metal album of the year, that extra bit of history played a larger part than I’d imagined. Canada’s Anciients is a young, exceedingly hard to categorize (or, perhaps, pigeonhole) progressive/extreme metal band, whose wildly ambitious, expansive and eclectic debut Heart of Oak knocked me flat when I first heard it in April. Over the course of the year, as other albums began to worm their way into and then dominate my playlist, I made a point to return to it periodically with fresh ears, because I knew it was something special. I was still surprised, on the occasion of my last listen, at exactly how special. At first blush, Anciients seems like highly dynamic Methadone for former Opeth junkies who might have been left in a lurch when that band fully embraced prog, but beneath the surface Anciients is massively its own animal. Generally mid-tempo with clean singing (peppered throughout with well-considered and placed growls and screams), Anciients is hardly one note, incorporating death metal of multiple schools and whiffs of speed metal, hardcore and post metal into a rich sonic stew. They tend to embrace excess in all its forms. Nine-minute standout “The Longest River” is improbably the best point of entry for potential listeners, but “Flood and Fire” and “Faith and Oath” are also fairly magnificent. The album ends with the by turns jazzy and melancholy instrumental “For Lisa”, which sticks out like a sore thumb despite yet more of the exquisite playing that’s on display throughout Heart of Oak. By then this listener was exhausted in the best way. It was essentially a well-earned victory lap. I can barely conceptualize what album two might sound like.
4. Carcass – Surgical Steel (Melodic Death Metal) – When the definitive book on heavy metal is finally written, Liverpool, England’s Carcass will be one of the two dozen or so bands to deserve its own chapter rather than be lumped in with the history of a particular subgenre or scene. Here is a band that pioneered two separate movements – the goofy beast called Goregrind (where Carcass directly influenced almost every subsequent band) and, with 1993’s seminal album Heartwork, Melodic Death Metal (emboldening if not outright spawning Sweden’s At The Gates and a spigot/cavalcade of their mutant adherents that continues to this day). Heartwork would be the finest hour of practically every band in metal history, and it remains so for Carcass, who acrimoniously disbanded a little past their seeming zenith after attempting to broaden their sound for public consumption with 1995’s ill-conceived Swan Song. Then Carcass disappeared for twelve years. Resurrected as an occasional live nostalgia act in 2007, there was no reason to believe the band wasn’t still a mortally wounded victim of its own history playing out the string before sunset, and certainly no indication it would ever make new music, or that, if it did, it wouldn’t sound of a piece with the disastrous Swan Song. Those diminished expectations, festering and fermenting in the minds of fans for years, are at the heart of what makes Surgical Steel such a spectacular success – and the hype leading up to its release was indeed significant – but even they would mean nothing if the music didn’t hold up. Musically, Surgical Steel is absolutely monstrous, so precisely dialed into the feel and style of the Heartwork era that it isn’t almost as if the prior 19 years hadn’t happened, it is EXACTLY that way. Jeff Walker’s iconic growl and pointed lyrics have never sounded more vicious or purposeful, and Bill Steer’s guitar work shreds like a saw blade throughout, sounding to the seasoned listener oddly like home. Here is the rare modern metal album that gets stronger as it goes along, through galloping assaults like “Captive Bolt Pistol” and the unhinged “Unfit for Human Consumption” and ending at the appropriately colossal “Mount of Execution”. Carcass, once a titan which then fell and was condemned by some to ignominy, has, with Surgical Steel, has erased its most troublesome footnote and effectively rewritten history. It’s the comeback of this or almost any other year.
5. Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe (Electronic/Alternative) – Taking a 180-degree turn from my #3 and #4 albums of the year is the long player that refused to leave my car or computer speakers for any length of time over 2013’s final third: The Bones of What You Believe, by Scottish Electronic trio Chvrches. I’m not one for purely electronic music generally – I’m loath to classify the band as “Synthpop”, though technically it fits the bill – and first listens to what at times sounded like a waterfall of bright singing and brighter keys were difficult to process. Once I, through repetition, unlocked the door separating Chvrches’ impossibly shiny exterior from its considerable and more nuanced substance, I was along for the ride happily. Chvrches first reached public consciousness on the strength of rolling earworm “The Mother We Share”, which is one of the year’s best singles, and keeps terrific company with the insistent “Gun”, the simmering “We Sink” and the yearning “Recover”, any of which could be radio singles (or already have, or will be). The album’s high water mark for me is the stomping, relentless “Lungs”, which builds expertly through its verses into its wordless chorus, a wondrous, buzzing, multi-layered thing that awakened in me some of the feelings that first turned me on to Nine Inch Nails or Bomb Squad-era Public Enemy. Some songs fall flat (particularly if they feature prominent male vocals) but so many others soar. By turns beguiling and ethereal, then gritty and, if not exactly dark, dusky, the band’s strength is the juxtaposition of singer Lauren Mayberry’s clear, appealing, plaintive voice and those cleverly architected electronic soundscapes with songwriting that almost always falls outside the pop comfort zone thematically, tonally and/or structurally but is still rarely less catchy for doing so. In the end, this album also just sounds plain awesome when played loud. Thank goodness for long road trips.
6. Skeletonwitch – Serpents Unleashed (Thrash/Black Metal) – The well-regarded but underexposed Athens, Ohio road warriors unleash clearly their best album ever, featuring improved songwriting, perfectly balanced production (for once) and track after merciless track of their crisp, invigorating, seamless thrash/death/black metal hybrid. Excellent, fluid lead guitar work is ever present, with more melodic tendencies creeping to the fore (as in “Unending, Everliving”), deepening the songs without diluting the overall attack at all. With Serpents Unleashed, Skeletonwitch, a vital and still young band with years of dues paying behind them find their peak form and settle into a 31-minute sustained sweet spot that was, thankfully, recorded for posterity.
7. Gorguts – Colored Sands (Technical Death Metal) – Luc Lemay is a classically trained guitarist, violinist and musical theorist, and the considerable brain and outsized passion behind Quebec’s technical death metal pioneers Gorguts. Miles ahead of the curve in 2002, Gorguts’ quiet exit from the stage didn’t cause shockwaves or even really ripples, but in the intervening decade, renewed appreciation of their radical, divisive 1998 masterpiece “Obscura” became a catalyst for a new wave of dissonant, hyper-technical, borderline avant garde death metal and turned the Gorguts name into one approaching the cache of the aforementioned Carcass. Colored Sands is the result of three years of intensive study on Eastern culture and myth, meticulously written, arranged and performed by Lemay and an all-star team of studio pros (including bionic Origin drummer John Longstreth), and you can hear all that effort made manifest in a roar of bracing, blistering, next level confidence. Ferocious, effortlessly adventurous, the complex and ever-evolving document of a season in the life of its creator’s restless muse, Colored Sands at times seemingly reduces by comparison Gorguts’ long line of figurative progeny into just so many bands standing still and straightjacketed, waist high in quicksand. This is the headphone album of the year, turning what might sound needlessly chaotic, cacophonous and impenetrable otherwise into something thrilling that makes instant, delightful sense. Colored Sands is a true accomplishment by an already accomplished genre icon. If not for the existence of Surgical Steel, this would be the comeback of the year, hands down.
8. Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork (Hard Rock/Alternative) – Another institution back from hiatus (a break which included Josh Homme’s excellent Them Crooked Vultures side project with Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones) refreshed and ready for anything, QOTSA released perhaps their best top to bottom record in …Like Clockwork. Homme is in his finest voice ever (it’s one of modern rock’s most reliable secret weapons), and leads his merry band of outlaws through territory hard-driving (“My God is the Sun”), carefree (“Fairweather Friends”) and undeniably odd (“If I Had a Tail”), with detours into slanted torch songs, semi-lullabies, hazy merry-go-round rides and, above all, pure pop song craft with sky high guitars. Queen might well be proud of the Queens this time around, in my opinion. QOTSA, of course, has throughout its career delighted in flipping scripts and subverting the expectations that come tethered to any hard rock icon, though in this case such expectations could, if allowed, be an impediment to properly appreciating such a finely crafted collection where the needs and impact of the individual song are always of the utmost importance. …Like Clockwork can be hard to process intellectually, but it leaves the listener wanting another ride immediately. One of the year’s best.
9. Gama Bomb – The Terror Tapes (Thrash Metal) – Triumphant returns continue to be a theme with the 2013 list. Based on their blazingly fast, hysterically fun 2009 album Tales from the Grave in Space and “blink and you’ll miss it” 2010 EP Half Cut, I had already declared Northern Irish quintet Gama Bomb the best band of the millenium’s new Thrash Metal renaissance. After label trouble, the departure of a founding guitarist and the news that vocalist Philly Byrne needed throat surgery, however, it was fair to wonder in just what kind of shape the band would be able to bounce back. The question instead should’ve been how high they would bounce, because The Terror Tapes is tighter, funnier, better written and even more singularly manic than its predecessors. Byrne returns to his master of ceremonies role gleeful as ever, uncompromised and largely unscathed, although he doesn’t hit the high notes much anymore. It’s of no concern. Listen to pummeling ditties like “Wrecking Ball”, propulsive sing alongs like “Beverly Hills Robocop” or the rollicking good time fun of my favorite metal song of 2013, “The Cannibals Are in the Streets (Therefore) All Flesh Must be Eaten”, without a smile on your face. Can’t be done. The shining light of a disreputable genre (so branded by folks who aren’t having half the fun we are) is back, and not a moment too soon. Short, sweet and sugary, The Terror Tapes is the party album of the year.
10. Deafheaven – Sunbather (Black Metal) – California duo Deafheaven made a respectable splash on many a year-end metal list with their genre-bending opus Sunbather, but, surprisingly, an even bigger impact on non-metal mainstream/indie rock sites such as Pitchfork and AVClub. It’s easy to see why “Sunbather” would be at once so confounding but also immediate and enthralling to critical ears used to dissecting inert indie rock in terms that make me sound positively unpretentious by comparison. Sunbather burns the black metal rulebook, eschewing the genre’s self parody-level nihilism and using its conventions (screamed vocals, blast beats, icy guitar tone) as the foundation to spin something far more expansive, full of appealingly (to me) non-traditional lyrical content, constant musical digressions and numerous frankly beautiful passages/sections. It’s easy to imagine mainstream critics having no basis for comparison because I’d never really heard anything like it either. This is BM as mood music, full-bodied, lush and dynamic (imagine perhaps a moonlit beach with a near frozen but strangely pleasant surf washing over you), and, as on the aptly-named 14-minute epic “Vertigo”, dare I say, majestic. Polished, compelling, and unconcerned to a fault with adherence to genre convention, Sunbather makes a terrific argument for unabashed creativity within black metal’s usually straightjacketed strictures and stands on its own merits as a stirring musical journey, but when a majority of the most effective and memorable moments/passages of a metal album are not metal at all, what does that really say? Whereas a band like BM icon Enslaved has slipped its former restraints and evolved into something wonderfully other over time, Deafheaven has debuted already seemingly fully formed, flaunting genre restrictions in ways that seem celebratory and almost perversely reverent.
11. Maria Bamford – Ask Me About My New God! (Comedy) – At the beginning of her fourth and best album, Ask Me About My New God!, alt comedy mystic, chameleon and psych ward poetess Maria Bamford attempts in vain to relate to her rapt nightclub audience thusly: “Portland, I used to be like you…I used to know the difference between right and wrong. I could move here; I could grow my hair out into a cape. I’d get my bike that I made out of harpsichords, use the wind to power my artisanal crumpet factory…have horrible arguments on the street with people who have the exact same opinion that I do on every single issue… (HIM) ‘I think healthcare and education should be a priority! (HER) Me too!! (HIM) …Let’s go craft!’” As that passage illustrates, Bamford is, as ever, both unrelatable and universal, but she never stops trying to connect, and she never loses the crowd for a second. She also never stops talking to herself in a formidable, deftly observed array of voices – including, among others, her esoteric, self-involved parents, her overachieving sister, a snotty L.A. waitress, a randy eldercare resident, celebrity chef Paula Deen, whose list of recipe ingredients she reimagines as a particularly tasty suicide note, and former neighbor Ernesto Martinez, whom she had never met but nevertheless zealously impersonates to his telemarketing creditors. At once wildly absurdist and disarmingly personal, Bamford is unpredictable, fearless, and delightful, creating a rich comedy gumbo out of random left field musings, status quo inversions, and, particularly, her relationships with her loving but dysfunctional family and past issues with anxiety and depression. This, after all, is a woman who, in 2012, released much of this same material as The Special Special Special, an audacious stand up concert film recorded in her parents’ living room for a very special audience of two. After another year of honing that material before audiences devoid of family members, Bamford’s New God solidifies her place in the discussion of the very best stand ups working today. She is, to my mind, at least the most consistently surprising.
12. Bad Religion – True North (Punk) – When you’ve rattled for 30+ years around a scene that has made youthful rebellion its raison d’etre, each new album becomes not just a collection of hopefully strong songs but also a referendum on your continued existence. SoCal punk trailblazers Bad Religion were called dinosaurs by some almost two decades ago (not coincidentally in 1994 they released one of my favorite albums ever, Stranger Than Fiction), and they survive for new album after new album, relatively untouchable in the crosshairs, on the simple strength of their total musical package: expertly played, often 110-mph punk that both pummels and pogoes; Greg Graffin’s hyper-literate lyrics, equal parts full of play and bile; and disarming vocal harmonies that lend anthemic power to even the most routine foot soldiers of songs. Their bona fides now long established, the question with each album becomes “what sort of Bad Religion did the new year bring?” Are they ferocious or tepid? Focused or distracted? Bad Religion checks almost nothing but column A on their terrific latest “comeback” album, True North, and seem laser-focused, particularly on the existential struggle between the world’s haves and have-nots (see the blistering “Land of Endless Greed” and “Robin Hood in Reverse”), in a way the likes of which we haven’t seen since the drums of war powered 2004’s The Empire Strikes First. Despite powering ahead almost exclusively in fifth gear, song after song stands out, including would-be single “Past is Dead”, mosh pit sing-along “Nothing to Dismay” and, especially, the wallop of cheeky (and insanely catchy) punk/surf hybrid “Dharma and the Bomb”, which was perhaps my song of the year (including Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”). Bad Religion started 2013 shrouded in uncertainty, as if, after three decades of bearing a personal standard only few seemed to revere, their latest album might also be their last. Energized by the creation and release of True North, which spurred an exhaustive world tour and a fun, surprisingly straight EP of Christmas songs by year’s end, the band now seems as motivated and cohesive as at any point in its storied history.
13. David Bowie – The Next Day (Rock/Alternative) – The return of any renowned film, literary or musical artist is often justifiably treated like an event in our world full of pop culture insta-celebrities and increasingly thin gruel, and shape-shifting alt-rock godfather David Bowie certainly did his part as hype man, shrouding the recording of his 24th album, The Next Day, in mystery and building anticipation for its release with a textbook multi-platform modern ad campaign. Bowie has long been a center of inspirational gravity for not just established artists but several entire genres, despite conventional wisdom that his star had dimmed appreciably many years before his most recent album, Reality, which is itself already a decade old. With The Next Day, Bowie pulled off not only a marketing feat but also backed it with a relatable, very often exceptional album that at moments points back to his acclaimed “Berlin” trilogy of the late ‘70s (the album cover is a repurposed appropriation of his landmark Heroes, with a large white square overwriting the former’s artwork, though the edges of the image are still distinct and powerful) and at others charts an often thrilling path forward, one many were unsure he’d ever take, and one he seems consumed with engineering to his own exacting, ornate, often cryptic standards. At 14 songs in length, there is some bloat to the album, understandable from an icon’s first new statement in a decade, but numerous singles of wondrous variety (the purposeful title track, the airy escape of “I’d Rather Be High”, the hard charging “You’ll Set the World On Fire”, and the glorious dread romance of “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die”, among others) flower within the album’s delicate chaos. Bowie is in total command here, vocally, lyrically, and in terms of musical scope. Each new listen reveals new layers. The Next Day takes its unlikely place as a latter day signpost in the Bowie canon, uncompromising, invigorating, and, for perhaps the first time since Let’s Dance, a full on and worthy conversation starter.
14. Kvelertak – Meir (Metal) – The Norwegian firebrands unveil a second album of their signature mixture of garage rock, punk and black metal, a varied, endlessly appealing mixture that just keeps clanging and pounding jubilantly for 45 minutes. What begins sounding like a somewhat lateral move from the band’s excellent, self-titled debut begins growing in complexity without ever sacrificing or even really compromising its overall pedal to the metal aesthetic, placing it a notch above in my opinion. Meir is a celebration of the head-banging spirit alive in all metal fans, a studio album that properly conveys Kvelertak’s famous live intensity and is positively overrun with earworm guitar riffs, hysterical flights of fancy (see the Sergio Leone flourishes and epic hair metal solo section of raging album standout “Bruane Brenn”) and constant momentum, undulled by any hint of a language barrier. Indeed, the band at times seems hell bent on establishing itself as the first sing along Norwegian-language rock band, and closes the album appropriately with a steroidal AC/DC-style fist pumper named “Kvelertak”, which functions as a sort of a funhouse national anthem if you will. Meir translates as “More” in Kvelertak’s mother tongue, which is definitely no accident.
15. Purson – The Circle and the Blue Door (Psychedelic Rock) – Trafficking in psychedelic rock both tasteful and tasty, displaying a refined ear for both mood and melody and anchored by the intoxicating vocals of impossible-to-keep-secret weapon Rosalie Cunningham, British occult theater troupe Purson not only runs an impressive gauntlet of styles but seems to own them all with minimal visible effort on their lovely debut, The Circle and the Blue Door. Every time I listen to Blue Door, and in 2013 that was often, I hear new notes and digressions, and come away with a new favorite song. One moment it’s the brooding, lumbering “Spiderwood Farm”, another the playful, jaunty “Leaning on a Bear”, or the hushed, delicate “Tempest and the Tide”. With its insistent, ominous Manzarek-style organ and effortlessly building vocal lines to a satisfying chorus, “Well Spoiled Machine” is probably the band’s best encapsulation, although at every point on the map they seem defiant of falling into any sort of easy categorization. Sometimes I listen and I’m knocked out all over again by the fact that this is a debut album, so assured and attention grabbing, but mostly I just smile and picture Purson as the house band in a late-’60s haunted mansion, the kind of special guest stars the Scooby-Doo gang might run afoul of mid-mystery. I’m very much looking forward to their next episode.
16. Immolation – Kingdom of Conspiracy (Death Metal) – One of the enduring pillars of New York death metal, Immolation is a band whose quality, in spite of the band’s myriad quirks and slight variations on the form, is one of the few genre commodities that can be counted upon with utter confidence. Their ninth album, Kingdom of Conspiracy, is another showcase for the band’s trademark sound, grand but odd, melodic but angular, all built on the foundation of Robert Vigna’s insinuating, tastefully atonal guitar, Ross Dolan’s inimitable vocal phrasing and presence, and Steve Shalaty’s by turns traditionally blasting and overtly thundering drum work. Vigna’s ingenuity in constructing creative riffs routinely puts others to shame, and the band’s overall determination to innovate within genre confines again sets them apart from so many of their muck bound peers. “Bound to Order”, “The Great Sleep” and “A Spectacle of Lies” are all excellent mission statements, quick hit old school death metal fixes which stand out even in a collection with nary an ounce of fat to its name, let alone dead weight. Kingdom of Conspiracy rests comfortably among the top quarter of Immolation’s deep discography.
17. Fall Out Boy – Save Rock and Roll (Rock/Pop) – Still firmly ensconced as my #1 guilty pleasure (or, rather, they would be, if I felt actual guilt at enjoying them), are Chicago pop-punkers Fall Out Boy, who, after a mere 5-year gap between albums (a pittance in 2013 terms) returned with Save Rock and Roll, counterintuitively the most purely pop album of their career, which is saying something. This band sticks out like a sore thumb on a list like mine, let’s face it, but from the moment I first became the least bit open to Fall Out Boy’s charms, I also quickly became subject to them, and from that dark side there can be no return. In terms of songwriting smarts and Patrick Stump’s piercing, soaring, annoyingly versatile voice, this is, without a doubt, the finest pop band on the planet, but the real interest for me has always been that they still write and play and act like a full-blooded rock and roll band, with the swagger of a standard two guitar, bass and drum attack, like a bar band would if they only had limitless reservoirs of vocal talent and killer pop hooks from which to draw. With the end of the hiatus which followed Folie a Deux, Fall Out Boy seemed to concentrate more on song craft than song titles and apparently jettisoned much of their remaining snot-nosed attitude – save the sarcastic album title and a guest blather from Courtney Love on the otherwise great “Rat-a-Tat-Tat” – which one might think ups the risk of critically unbalancing their pop/punk equation but ends up working beautifully (see Save’s hideous companion “punk” EP Pax AM Days for definitive proof that “credibility” should be of no concern to this band). Opener “The Phoenix” is a stirring call to arms, the album already boasts a couple of #1 pop hits that are, perversely enough, also among its best songs, and even features an Elton John cameo on the cell/lighter-ready title track. Save Rock and Roll has exactly two easily skippable songs, but is otherwise a total pop gem, sorely needed for fans who might otherwise forget the existence of guitars in music altogether, and a nice sugar rush for a few of us who definitely haven’t.
18. Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks (Electronic/Alternative) – When last seen above ground in 2008, Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor seemed in a precarious headspace, by his own admission exhausted physically and hamstrung creatively. After releasing the jittery, directionless LP The Slip, he announced not only the band’s indefinite hiatus/probable end but its certain dissolution as a performing act. Reznor spent the early days of the rest of his musical life becoming an Oscar-winning composer and started an obtuse ambient electronic side project with his wife as singer. Then, after years of calm, came tantalizing fresh stirrings. Like his idol Bowie, from whom his adventurous tendencies and exacting nature are both channeled, Reznor owned the canny build up and protracted release cycle of NIN’s 9th studio album, Hesitation Marks, a generally understated exercise in sub-Pretty Hate Machine electronic minimalism that gives its best songs room to breathe and fully develop (as much as lab-grown cultures can) but consigns others to the scrapheap no sooner than they’ve begun. This is the complicated sound of Reznor’s muse reemerging from exile as something still of a piece but also somehow different than it was, and that coiled tension fuels the album. NIN is a rare musical entity simultaneously substantive and enigmatic enough to excite fans by the mere fact of its existence, its potential to explore, with minimal additional coddling offered or required, and while strong lead single “Came Back Haunted” would seem outwardly to play the part of comeback signifier to a tee, it also suggests, with its buzzing fly through line and muddled choral effects, the idiosyncratic path the album that surrounds it will take. “Copy of A” develops from a Casio keyboard project to a glorious cacophony; “Satellite” is sexy but understated, practically club-ready; “Various Methods of Escape” is all build up with no climax, beautiful and perfectly controlled; “Find My Way” is bleak and skeletal, the sound of a prisoner in solitary confinement bargaining with the dark. In some ways, this is NIN’s most difficult album to process, though I’ve also had a friend suggest it’s the band’s most cohesive. There is definitely clearer delineation to me between the better songs and also-rans, between the higher highs and more confounding lows. Whereas much of The Slip sounded creatively bankrupt and desperate, Hesitation Marks is a messy album positively bursting with ideas, by turns undercooked and overheated, but still gloriously alive beneath layers of meticulous electronic programming. It is good to hear Reznor this energized. The computer’s heart is beating again.
19. Doug Stanhope – Beer Hall Putsch (Comedy) – Of the fifty artists I mention in this list, boozy, vulgar, iconoclastic, vulgar, boundary-free comedian Doug Stanhope is far and away the one I least care to recommend you try out. I realize I said vulgar twice, but, hey, the shoe fits (and also smells a little). I would actively steer general audiences away from Stanhope, actually, with all the purpose of a highway patrolman directing traffic at the scene of a horrible accident. I’ve never encountered a comedian, or possibly a communicator of any kind, so unrestrained by societal pressures or quaint notions of propriety. In his commitment to free thought, provoking thought, challenging authority and social norms, and, not coincidentally and more than occasionally, being really frigging funny, Stanhope is to me a direct descendant of Bruce, Pryor, Carlin and Hicks. Completely untethered, rough-hewed, low spun, strikingly humanistic while also charmingly, gleefully misanthropic (and, again, vulgar), he’s the closest thing we have nowadays, but he’s also completely his own man and a unique, very cranky voice in the wilderness. Beer Hall Putsch (look it up, history buffs) is a clear high water mark in his very uneven deep end of a career. At no other comedy show are you likely to hear the evening’s entertainment recommend up front that you take up drinking as insurance against his comedic incompetence potentially ruining your night out, or review 92-year-old HOF boxer Jake La Motta’s off-off-off Broadway revue, or riff on the subtle hypocrisy of causes relentlessly “spreading awareness” in favor of doing something more tangible to solve a problem, or perform a sympathetic post-mortem of the “Occupy” movement complete with helpful tips for making the next protest a smash hit, or regale you with the surprisingly tender story of assisting his terminally ill mother’s suicide, or, in ridiculously graphic detail, render into text the unspoken homoerotic subtext of professional football and its relationship with the homophobes littering its fanbase. As Martin Kreese so aptly put it in 1984, “This is a karate dojo, not a knitting class.” Just know the wild ride you’re in for before you buy the ticket, drop your monocle, clutch your pearls, cross yourself repeatedly, all that. Doug Stanhope cares not for your protestations, nor anyone else’s. He has love only for the outsider, the misfit, the free-thinker, and the guy who’ll buy the next round at the bar and tell him the night’s craziest story. Beer Hall Putsch is both his best and funniest album in a decade, and functions well as a sort of introduction by fire for any uninitiated crazy enough to take the leap. It’s like a greatest hits album where every track is new. I still can’t in good conscience recommend it, though.
20. In Solitude – Sister (Metal) – Long-running Swedish heavy metal band In Solitude finally became known to me with this well-regarded expansion of its sonic palette from somewhat straightforward Mercyful Fate worship to something more nebulous and affecting. It seems I’ve missed this particular boat for years. Sister is alive with dark sort of ‘70s-style rock influence but never sounds bound to a specific time. It is an expert blend of vintage and modern feel with little thought or adherence to a set style, and accumulates momentum on a song by song basis until by its midsection it is on fire, which only lends additional currency to its emotional ending. Vocalist Pelle Ahman, who in his highly emotive but corn-free delivery reminded me consistently of former Nevermore vocalist Warrel Dane, is the star of this show, and the music, whether insistent (“Death Knows Where”), galloping (“Pallid Hands”) or insinuating (the outstanding title track), curls around his voice like tendrils of mist. Sister has a clinical Eastern European feel in spots, but never to any sort of detriment. This is expertly played and imagined heavy metal, unadorned and affecting. Among a handful of the year’s nicest surprises.