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A Scott Pukos Pop-Ed: One for Your Ears —— My Favorite Albums of 2013

The air was laced with weed and farts, the floor was too sticky to dance on, and I was out of beer. As a crowd gathered around me, sweat collected under my arms, and a TV by the bar revealed that my favorite team, the Buffalo Bills, had once again fumbled away a victory.

None of this mattered though. This was the setting for one of my favorite musical moments of 2013.

It happened Dec. 1 at the Main Street Armory in Rochester, N.Y., and I have the lads from Vampire Weekend to thank for these few hours of musical mastery. I had seen them play at the Armory in late 2010, and their excellent live show escalated my — already high — opinion of the New York-based band.

During this most recent show, they ripped through hits like A-Punk, Oxford Comma and Cousins. They pulled out an old B-side, Ladies of Cambridge, and absolutely rocked their new material. This one Rochester date was sandwiched between a few France gigs and shows on the west coast, so it didn’t really make sense that they were even in Western New York. Whoever was responsible for making this happen, just know that you rock.

After a couple of hours of upper body dancing (I really can’t emphasize how sticky the floor was), screaming lyrics off-key as loudly as possible, and instagramming crowd shots, I was amped up. As I let that enthusiasm dissipate a little on the drive home, I began to think: Where does Vampire Weekend rank in my favorite bands list? That was a tough one to answer; however, I was more successful at my attempt to place their newest material, Modern Vampires of the City, in my 2013 favorites list.

For me, these lists are always fluid — they change constantly. In all likelihood I’ll regret at least one of these rankings as much as I regretted not asking the bartender to mix me up some horchata during the Vampire Weekend show. Nevertheless, here is my list of my favorite albums of 2013.

For some perspective, here are my past lists from 2011 and 2012.

Honorable mentions that you should still check out include records from: MGMT, Kings of Leon, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Foxygen, Surfer Blood, Wavves, Tegan and Sara, Foals, Saves the Day, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Daft Punk, Youth Lagoon, The Joy Formidable, The Neighbourhood, Atoms For Peace and Kanye West (I liked Yeezus quite a bit actually, but not nearly as much as 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It may be unfair, but those high expectations did not help Mr. West on this list). Also, apologies to Childish Gambino, whose new CD is streaming, but since I haven’t listened to it, didn’t make the cut.

10 (tie). Palma Violets — 180; The Strokes — Comedown Machine 

Yes, I’m cheating. The Strokes are one of my favorites, but I wasn’t planning on including them on this list. Despite the fact that Comedown Machine is my least favorite Strokes LP, it’s still somewhat charming. It’s goofy, weird, and maybe even a little uneven, still, I kind of loved it.

On the flip side was the Palma Violets debut. It featured a throwback rock sound and some catchy tracks. I’m going to demand that any movie that takes place in the 1980s or early 90s, stick Best of Friends on its soundtrack. You guys can dance, then thank me later.

9. Eminem — The Marshall Mathers LP2
Guess who’s back, back again.

I get why people don’t like Slim Shady, I do. Professional rapper is almost certainly the only job that allows you to go on multiple homophobic, misogynistic, violent, ultra profane diatribes, and get kudos from your bosses, co-workers, competitors and strangers. Eminem could just put “Bitch, please” on his LinkedIn profile, and be totally OK! And if any of you think his ballads with Rihanna are just assembly line radio hits that are actually pretty shitty, I agree with you.

Having said that, man, can this guy rap. The way he “spits lyrics” just does things for my ears. I wish I could say it’s just the technical rapping ability that impresses me, but it’s way more than that. His lyrics are clever and creative, and as someone who writes for a living, those qualities appeal to me. Plus, making a sequel to Stan — the Dido track on the first Marshall Mathers LP — is just brilliant.

8. Cage the Elephant — Melophobia
When Cage the Elephant’s breakthrough single Ain’t No Rest For the Wicked came out in 2009, I heard it all the time on the radio. As with most instances of radio overexposure, I got pretty sick of this tune. But I’m glad I didn’t give up on the band, because these guys are pretty great.

Melophobia conjures up memories of the Pixies, along with a sound that is uniquely Cage the Elephant’s. Stand out tracks include Spiderhead, Come a Little Closer and Cigarette Daydreams.

7. Iron & Wine — Ghost on Ghost
All you need to know, is that Sam Beam is the man. Aside from having a name that is way cooler than yours, he also knows how to get me to play the air trumpet while blasting “Caught in the Briars” in my car. That’s impressive. I found Ghost on Ghost to be livelier than some other Iron & Wine offerings, and it has some of Beam’s best individual songs on it.

6. Portugal. The Man — Evil Friends 
These guys make music that should rule college dorm rooms, or a friend’s road trip mix CD (I still make these, if you judge me, I will never make you one and you’ll feel awful). They’re not even close to being an obscure band, but damn it, they should be way more popular than they are.

Evil Friends has a very distinct feel throughout it. Along with similar themes, and repeated verses, the songs are all fantastic — there’s not one in the bunch that needs to be omitted from my summer mix disc. Standout songs include Evil Friends, Hip Hop Kid and Atomic Man.

5. Queens of the Stone Age — … Like Clockwork
These next four picks could have been placed in any order … In other words, there was an abundance of fantastic albums this year. While I’ve been clamoring for Queens lead singer Josh Homme to make another Them Crooked Vultures album, the 10 tracks on … Like Clockwork made me forget all about that wish.

I first realized these tunes were special during the promotional campaign before the album was released. On the band’s Facebook page, they slowly rolled out clips of songs — or entire tunes — in music video form. The animated graphics featured in the videos were fantastic, and fit each song really well. Additionally, the band streamed a couple live performances that included a good portion of … Like Clockwork. The song that immediately stuck out was Smooth Sailing. It’s funky riff sounded like something out of the Them Crooked Vulture playbook, and it features Homme confidently — and smirkingly — singing the line of the year: “I blow my load over the status quo.”

Other standouts include Keep Your Eyes Peeled, I Sat By the Ocean and I Appear Missing.

4. Arctic Monkeys — AM
If you’ve ever considered a guitar riff to be sexy, then you have an apt idea for the sound that kicks off the Arctic Monkeys fifth CD. The slow burning guitar is accompanied by a “blasting in your car with the windows down” stomping beat and lead singer Alex Turner’s brilliant opening line: “Have you got colour in your cheeks?”

This sets the tone for the rest of the album — these are songs about love, heartbreak, sex, lust and girls with a tendency to wear knee socks. Turner — as always — is on top of his game lyrically. Forget the War Pigs heavy metal guitar part in Arabella, it’s the story that Turner tells that elevates the tune. For anyone missing those awesome Oasis ballads of the 1990s — or, I’ll say it, some Beatles classics — definitely check out No. 1 Party Anthem. It’s a certified mindblower.

Other notable tracks include Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?, I Wanna Be Yours and R U Mine?, which was originally released as a single in early 2012.

Of course, this is the point in the program where I point out that Arctic Monkeys are my favorite band. And they’re only at number four! Again, it was just a great year for music. 

3. Vampire Weekend — Modern Vampires of the City
Speaking of impressive lyrics, Vampire Weekend singer Ezra Koenig, like Turner, really steps up his game here (bonus: his Twitter account is excellent). His sly sense of humor remains intact, but Koenig also tackles issues like aging and loneliness, and doesn’t even mention Oxford commas (probably because no one gives a … oh, wait).

Musically, these tracks exemplify an impressive evolution from the group. An evolution that indicates the band’s future remains exciting and quite bright. In terms of earworms, there are some great sing-a-longs here, including Step, Diane Young and Unbelievers.

And what about Hannah Hunt? This track is stunning in its storytelling, catchiness and build-up to its awesome conclusion (bonus points for tying with Arcade Fire’s Here Comes the Night Time for best piano part of 2013). Also, this song is definitely appearing on a future episode of Girls, right? 

2. The National — Trouble Will Find Me
I had the pleasure of also seeing The National live this year. It was in a small theater in Ithaca, N.Y. and the band played nearly every track from Trouble Will Find Me. The problem was that this was about a week before the album’s release. The tracks were streaming on iTunes, so I had heard them, but I was only familiar with a handful of them.

Even without familiarity, some songs — mainly Sea of Love, I Should Live in Salt and Demons — really popped live. It was clear this new material would end up ranking highly in The National’s impressive portfolio. More than any other collection in 2013, this album really grew on me. It escalated to the point where I had to ask, is this The National’s best record?

For me, that honor has always been reserved for Boxer. After all, how can you beat the opening one-two punch of Fake Empire and Mistaken For Strangers? Alligator has perhaps the best National song, Mr. November, and High Violet improved the group’s popularity. But as a whole, Trouble Will Find Me may have them all beat. For me, it’s probably too early to find a proper ranking in The National canon for the band’s 2013 release, just know that it’s a fantastic collection of songs.

1. Arcade Fire — Reflektor
Whoa. That was my initial reaction after listening to Reflektor in its entirety for the first time. Arcade Fire is just on a different level than everyone else right now.

The Suburbs was my favorite record of 2010, and there was a great chance that Reflektor — Arcade Fire’s fourth album — would be a letdown. But then you listen to the absolutely brilliant first track — also called Reflektor — and you’re just too busy dancing and singing to think about any sense of disappointment. The album continues from there with a gleeful weirdness that is just downright charming. With Here Comes the Night Time, You Already Know, Normal Person, Joan of Arc, Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) and Afterlife, the classics pile up quickly.

I read one takedown of this CD that claimed Arcade Fire is boring and uncreative, and of course it was written in the most unoriginal way. The author’s lede claimed the band members probably have boring sex lives. What?! You just listened to a modern classic, and all you can think to write about is speculation on Win Butler’s habits in the bedroom? Awful. I understand, and respect, that music is a very subjective thing and we all have different tastes, but if you don’t find anything enjoyable about Reflektor, I just feel sorry for you.
A Scott Pukos Pop-Ed: One for Your Ears —— My Favorite Albums of 2013 Reviewed by Scott Pukos on 12/06/2013 Rating: 5

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