My tiny musical slice of 2013

First, a word from our sponsor. In 2013, my band Lisa's Hotcakes released a six-song EP called Hotter. In a just world, or at least in my world, it would be on "favourite" lists everywhere. Is it one of the great records of all time? Probably not. Is it really good? Hell yeah. Is it better than some of the records on this list? I think so. If you listen to it, you might think so too.

Year of Team Slumber

This was the year that Slumberland Records took over my hard drive. Slumberland is a tiny label based in the Bay Area. It's the epitome of a small, indie label in that it reflects the taste of its owner. As it so happens, I think his taste is great. I don't love all Slumberland releases, but chances are pretty good that I will like whatever they like enough to release.

The second album from Veronica Falls, Waiting for something to Happen, came out early in the year. I love Veronica Falls. I love this album more than I love their debut. If I had bought vinyl, I would have worn the grooves out by now. The album is not groundbreaking, but I don't care. It's Veronica Falls, and it makes me feel good. I can't think of anything I don't like on this album.

Next came Discipline & Desire from Wax Idols. I had loved the Wax Idols debut, No Future, a variant on lo-fi garage surf punk. The singles released between albums indicated a shift in direction, and I wasn't sure about that. But when I heard Discipline & Desire, I was won over completely. And the best part was that it didn't blow me away from the start. It drew me in more and more with each listen, and that's usually a sign of something that will stay with me for a long time. Another album with one great song after another and that really creates a powerful, beautiful whole, something that should be listened to completely and in sequence. And by everyone.

After those two, I started digging into the Slumberland catalogue and watching for new releases. The New Life from Girls Names was OK, if perhaps a bit dull compared to their previous (and very different) Dead to Me. Long Enough to Leave by the Mantles gave me my fix of lo-fi garage pop. Weird Sister, the debut album from Joanna Gruesome, was a delightful discovery—energetic lo-fi pop rock with flashes of dissonance. But it was Jinx from Bay-area band Weekend (not to be confused with the Weekend or the Weeknd) that really grabbed me. "Mirror," the opening song, has become one of my favourite lead-off songs, and the rest of the album flows over and through me in a very pleasing way. For me, there are echoes of my favourite periods of the Cure and Radiohead in this album.

Big deal releases

Last year, I was lured into the world of electronica by the siren song of Katie Stelmanis. I love her voice. I liked Austra's first album. I like Olympia even more. I'm hoping we will sing one of her songs in our choir. I was also lured into liking dance music by Arcade Fire. I have always liked Arcade Fire even if I didn't love them, and I was very impressed by the previous album, The Suburbs. Reflektor doesn't blow me away, but I quite like it, and I was prepared not to like it after all the ridiculous hype that accompanied its release. And further on the semi-electronic-dance front, it took a long time for me to get around to buying Synthetica by Metric, a band I love, because I kept thinking I might buy a CD (yes, sometimes I buy CDs). When I finally downloaded it, I liked it as I like all Metric, but for me it's not at the level of Fantasies, their previous release. I do love "Breathing Underwater," which reminds me of the beautiful song they did for one of the Twilight soundtracks, "Eclipse (I'm All Yours)."

Arcade Fire seems to have turned on its own crazy hype machine. In the case of Savages, I think the hype came more from their label and from the indie media. Before they had made any studio recordings, they were being hailed as the second coming of post-punk. An edgy, all-female, post-punk band, gushed the media, as though that were noteworthy any longer (and as though Wax Idols hadn't already claimed that honour). I went to see the Savages show at the Biltmore because I had to find out if they were as good as their hype. And what I experienced was a powerful, memorable show from a band that most certainly did live up to all that hype. On record, however, not quite as much, despite Silence Yourself having won a Mercury Prize in the UK. The music is great, the lyrics much less so, and all the overwrought repetition in refrains doesn't make the lyrics better. But it's still a good record and a reminder that I would see the band live again if I got the chance. Funnily enough, the band reminds me less of Siouxsie and the Banshees, to whom they are often compared, than a kind of edgy U2—ringing guitar, driving bass, massive drums, and fervent vocals.

Guitarist Marnie Stern was also hyped pretty heavily by Pitchfork and others. As it happens, The Chronicles of Marnia is more than just a clever title. Stern is a virtuoso finger-tapper who dialled it back somewhat for this album, which features strong songwriting and playing. The only thing that bugs me are her non-verbal vocalizations.

Sneaking up

Away from the hype, there were other treasures to be found. I don't generally go for quiet, country-flavoured folk music, but another voice drew me in, that of my friend Leah Abramson. The second Abramson Singers album, Late Riser, deserves to be heard far and wide. Leah is a wonderful songwriter, and this album is both beautifully crafted and filled with joy and pain. "Jack of Diamonds" could be a hit single somewhere. "Marguerite" is a gorgeous bilingual historical ballad, an original that sounds traditional. And "How To Love a Drowning Man" is quietly heartbreaking.

I made some discoveries as well. I read about La Luz, a surf band from Seattle, in She Shreds magazine. At the time, they had not released their first album, but they did shortly afterward, and It's Alive is very enjoyable. While on tour they and their van got crunched by a semi. They were OK, but their equipment was destroyed. I see they are now back in action, so maybe they will come north soon. I also found a band from Toronto called Magneta Lane, who released a four-song EP called Witchrock after having issued three full-length albums previously. The lead song, "Burn," is as incendiary as the title implies. I don't think the rest quite lives up to that song, but it's still good.

There were some old favourites too. Bleached released their first full-length record after a few singles. Ride Your Heart surprised me by being better than the singles that came before, which I had liked. Crocodiles released Crimes of Passion, which isn't as passionate as its title would imply but is still good. On my list, just not near the top.

And then there is the return of Throwing Muses with Purgatory / Paradise, their first album in 10 years. I like to listen to works as a whole, but at over an hour (about twice my usual attention span), Purgatory / Paradise is something I don't take on casually. But each time I listen to its fragmented, tormented songs, the album grows on me more and more. At first I thought it was really a Kristin Hersh solo album with Dave Narcizo and Bernard Georges backing her up, but slowly I realized just how brilliantly collaborative it is. It's beautiful, it makes you tap your feet, and it hurts like reality. What more could you ask for?

Stuff other people gave a shit about

But I didn't, at least not very much. I don't much like Foxygen. I think Tegan and Sara are way overrated. I really don't like the new dance pop direction, and I cringe a little when I hear "Closer" on the radio. I appreciate the return of My Bloody Valentine, and I appreciate their innovation, but I can't listen for very long. I have never understood the appeal of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and I know I'm very uncool for thinking so. I might like Johnny Marr's first solo album, but I haven't prioritized buying it. I was a Yeah Yeah Yeahs fan back when they were more artsy and abrasive. Now, not so much. And I really could not care less about Daft Fucking Punk polluting the airwaves with light dance pop crap. People really take that stuff seriously?

Chacun à son goût

My list is not even close to complete. I like what I like. There are genres I don't know well. There are genres that don't get me off. Pop music is either extremely fragmented or wonderfully diverse, depending on how you look at it, but the fact is that we all listen to different things. I gravitate toward rock music, and specifically post-punk, garage, punk-pop, basically any music made with guitars, bass, and drums—with some exceptions. So my list is skewed compared to an aggregator list that I looked at.

My favourite record of 2013 out of all of these listed (other than Hotter), one I love and appreciate more with each listening, is Discipline & Desire by Wax Idols. It's number 431 on the aggregator chart, with many albums rated higher (several of which are on my list) that I think are inferior. My second favourite is Waiting for Something to Happen by Veronica Falls. That one comes in at 450 on the aggregator. So it goes. At least they rated higher than Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus.

I'm always up for expanding my horizons, but I'm willing to argue that the shit I like is better than the shit that critics like. And if you check out something on my list that you didn't know about before, then my work is done.

1 comment:

holly said...

awesome! checking out veronica falls and wax idols right now. yay new music!