In no real particular order, though I will say that - on the whole - Anna Calvi’s One Breath does stand out. And if you find yourself curious about all the other songs/albums that tickled my fancy during 2013, then just type ‘best of 2013’ into the search @ vinyl confessions & her friends.
It’s been real, kids. And now we await the splendors of 2014.
Daughn Gibson was… stunning at Chapel Hill’s Local 506 recently. Playing to a surprisingly small crowd he still put in a ton of his own strange brew of energy. To paraphrase the missus: think equal parts Danzig, Depeche Mode and Stephen Merritt. Throw in a little Scott Walker and you’re getting close, but still not there. Note the Garth Brooks t-shirt… it’s not ironic, this dude is a strange and compelling breed.
I’m not moved to utter sadness by rock music or rap, or electronic. I feel emotional when I listen to country, and I could even be laughing – laughing is an emotion, too, and an essential one. And if something is inherently hilarious, whether I’m laughing with or at someone, it’s still moving me more than anything else.
A former punk and truck driver who now puts an art-rock spin on contemporary country music, Daughn Gibson visits the Morning Becomes Eclectic studios to perform songs from his new album, Me Moan. Watch Daughn Gibson and his band play “You Don’t Fade.”
“Fade Into You (Mazzy Star cover)” by Maximo Park // Too Much Information (Out Now // 2014)
Apparently, this little gem slipped past me upon it’s initial release a couple of months back . No matter, it’s never too late to fall in love with a new song. Maximo Park is most well known as a post punk / art rock band that makes frenetically paced songs with killer melodies. Perhaps it’s knowing their usual sound that makes this gem feel so different. Eschewing the jagged, playful guitar work of previous songs, the band’s take on Mazzy Star’s modern classic, “Fade Into You”, is a haunting acoustic beauty with a slightly ominous undertone. It’s really pretty incredible to hear. Personally, I haven’t really kept up with band beyond their debut, but hearing this, I’m wondering what other excellent b-sides they might have floating around.
Free of the constraints of her 60s-inspired debut, Melanie Fiona came out strong with her follow-up album. There’s a bit too much obvious covering of the bases going on (a requisite retro John Legend appearance, a club-ready T-Pain number, one that sounds like Jason Mraz wrote it) but Melanie sticks the landing when she’s really able to show off her singing chops (“Bones,” “Break Down These Walls”) and when material heads toward the darker, Drake-ier sides of R&B, like on the simmering standout, “4AM."
29. Bobby Womack - The Bravest Man in the Universe
Bobby Womack, probably the most underrated male vocalist in R&B history next to William Bell, cashes in the indie-cred he gained from the Gorillaz and delivers his own version of Johnny Cash’s Rick Rubin-produced final chapter. Minimal beats and weird sonic detours put the focus squarely on Womack’s voice and he seems energized by the unfamiliar territory, most notably on the title track and "Please Forgive My Heart,” two songs that sound like lost soul treasures from an alternate galaxy.
28. Holy Other - Held
Pneumatic beats and ghostly vocals are kind of the M.O. of Tri-Angle’s roster of downcast witch-house electronica (just ask Balam Acab), but Holy Other’s full-length debut is full of quiet intimacy, tension, and strangely moving bits of clarity in what would otherwise seem like an album made up of nothing but hazy clouds and dark rooms.
27. Hot Chip - In Our Heads
Having made stability and commitment exciting on 2010’s “One Life Stand,” the ever-reliable Hot Chip increase the tempo back to “Made in the Dark” levels while still pulling off the unusual task of making highly danceable songs about things like long-term relationships. Opener “Motion Sickness” is as buoyant of a pop music moment as you’ll get in 2012.
26. Ellie Goulding - Halcyon
Goulding’s sophomore album somehow manages to have it both ways; the hooks are big and the production often crescendos to heights that would fit in on a Florence + The Machine album, but the core of these tracks always remain insular and grounded in just enough weirdness that Goulding’s impulses feel unique and unexpected. “My Blood” is a stunner and a gorgeous reminder that pop doesn’t always have to follow a checklist.
25. Passion Pit - Gossamer
Pitchfork said it better than I could; Gossamer is an overwhelming album about being overwhelmed. As always is with Passion Pit highlights, the production recalls streams of sunlight and sparkle, but there’s panic and anxiety in this material that eventually makes all the relentless hyperactivity feel exhausting. It’s like the musical equivalent of the artifice of Paxil.
24. Evian Christ - Kings and Them
Drawing off influences from the UK bass scene, producer Evian Christ (who seems to have just stumbled into his talent as if by chance) put out a debut mixtape that’s striking in its uniform texture and hazy aesthetics. Beats come in hard and relentless and take turns with dead space in a way that’s nothing short of mesmerizing. “Fuck It None of Ya’ll Don’t Rap” is my miracle at the end of a grueling run song.
23. Theo Bleckmann - Hello Earth! (The Music of Kate Bush)
It’s hard to screw up Kate Bush (if you ask me, some of these are the finest songs ever written), but Bleckmann somehow manages to make her songs sound even more impressive in hindsight by creatively retooling them in ways that show just how sturdy the skeletons were in the first place. It helps that Bleckmann picks a bunch of Bush songs that are intensely personal to me (“And Dream of Sheep,” “All The Love,” “Suspended in Gaffa”), but you’d have to be crazy not to admire the sheer amount of talent and musicianship Bleckmann brings to this material, even when his craft and precision make complicated songs even more complicated.
22. SWV - I Missed Us
When I heard that my favorite girl group of all time was getting back together after 15 years, I never expected that the result would actually be this good. Wisely eschewing attempts to jump at radio trends, SWV play to their strengths with songs that recall their 90s heyday, which thankfully means no David Guetta club stompers or verses from 2 Chainz. I Missed Us feels genuine, and if that means it sounds like an album made by women approaching middle age and singing songs about divorce, so be it. So glad to have them back.
21. Beach House - Bloom
People seem to like Beach House. I do too! Again, I can’t seem to write about this band without using the word hazy so I’ll just stop now. It’s pretty! It’s transfixing! It’s good to write to, back when I did that.
20. The xx - Coexist
Having seemingly entered the sleepy portion of this list, The xx’s new album somehow manages to sound even more relaxed than their effortlessly cool debut. It’s not as good as that album was, but it’s charming in all the right ways - all sexy tones and rich rhythms that just make everything sound good. Much of this was elevated to me following a live show that brought these tracks to life in a way I hadn’t anticipated going into it.
19. Andy Stott - Luxury Problems
I admit I was drawn into this record because of it’s glamourous album cover, but I was instantly hooked by the lush textures and mysterious sense of atmosphere. A lot of this is ice-cold isolation and abstraction. It takes time to get to know but the results become more rewarding the further you sink into the music. If I get to use the word “ethereal” once this year, I want to use it here.
18. Brandy - Two Eleven
I love Brandy to the point of insanity. That’s never been a secret. Two Eleven is a return to form following 2008’s rather vanilla Human, and while it never quite reaches the genius of Afrodisiac, it sure sounds good to have her back. The album isn’t as dynamic as it could be, but there are tracks here that stand as tall as anything else in Ms. Norwood’s catalog, namely the beautiful “No Such Thing as Too Late,” and the haunting Frank Ocean-penned “Scared of Beautiful.” It’s on those tracks that Brandy takes a stab at the popular minimalist R&B trend, and it’s one that suits her husky timbre perfectly. Get Brandy teamed up with someone like Jamie xx and there’s no telling what type of material she’s capable of putting out. Meanwhile, I’ll just stay freaking out over the deep runs of “Wildest Dreams” and “Slower.”
17. Chairlift - Something
Breaking free of the overly precious kitsch of their debut, Chairlift emerged as a group rebirthed on their second album. Smart, silly, and full of elastic melodies and memorable vocal performances, Something is New Wave revival done perfectly. Few songs were as propulsive or as catchy as “I Belong in Your Arms” this year.
16. Azealia Banks - 1991 and Fantasea
Azealia Banks is in a lane all by herself. It just happens to be one that’s incredibly filthy, totally unapologetic and maybe en route to a drag ball. Azealia is probably the most exciting artist to watch out there right now, and while we’re still waiting on a proper debut that’s hopefully a little more focused, Banks has clearly made good promise on her dazzling “212” debut with weird 90s house beats and a distinctive and authoritative flow. I just can’t say no to a woman in menswear and plum lipstick.
15. Lana Del Rey - Born To Die
Certain people and their asinine arguments about Lana (We suddenly demand our pop stars to be authentic? When the fuck did that start?) made it feel like a mortal sin to admit to liking any of “Born To Die,” but I simply couldn’t care. These are well-crafted songs, full of memorable kitschy imagery, masterful musical arrangements, and vocal deliveries that are fascinating in their calculated indifference. Pop music and image have gone hand in hand since the genre’s inception, and while Lana will have to reinvent to risk parody on album 2, I can’t in good faith say that “Born To Die” wasn’t anything but a perfect snapshot of Tumblr’s blasé opulence and navel gazing. “Gangster Nancy Sinatra” will get a reaction out of you, no matter what. Lana won.
14. Perfume Genius - Put Your Back N 2 It
Arriving to me in the winter doldrums of a particularly depressing time in my life (I’m better now!), Perfume Genius’ album was like a miracle. Sparse piano arrangements, ghostly vocals and more raw nerve emotion than it almost humanely possible to take, Put Your Back N 2 It is an album for the sad gay boys in all of us. Made even better by the most intensely personal and heart-wrenching live performance I’ve ever had the honor of being a part of.
13. Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d. city
This is a weighty album, taking on the introspective and sensitive hip-hop of Drake and bringing it to a new level of honesty and purpose. Structured as a concept album about growing up in Compton, Kendrick brings almost everything it takes to the table to make this thing soar. My only complaint is that “Cartoon and Cereal” couldn’t find a place at the beginning.
12. Solange - True
This is the Solange I’ve been waiting over 4 years to see. I’ve attributed every cool/quirky thing Beyoncé has done in the past few years to her much more hip younger sister, and while I saw tons of potential in her underrated 2008 album, it’s nice to see Solange finally find her niche after years of searching. True is short and efficient, full of effervescent charm (“Losing You”) and powerful vocal displays (“Lovers in the Parking Lot”) that remain relaxed and laid-back without losing themselves too much in the groove. Keep proving them wrong, Solange.
11. How To Dress Well - Total Loss
Bedroom R&B revivalist delivers his first studio album and develops a more energized and full sound without losing the threadbare emotion of his dazzling and enveloping 2010 debut. Krell has a knack for honing in on the raw elements of influencers like Janet Jackson’s “janet” album and turning sex into sexless anguish and ruminations on death. Killer stuff.
10. The Tallest Man on Earth - There’s No Leaving Now
I’ve heard people say Kristian Matsson’s third LP is too much of the same but I can’t fathom not falling in love with these songs. Dylan comparisons are always inevitable with a voice like this but there’s just as much to admire in Matsson’s graceful phrasing, lyrical verbosity, and rambunctious guitar playing as there is his devastating gravel delivery. Matsson’s on his way to creating the new Great American Songboook. Just so happens it’s actually a Swedish one.
9. Jessie Ware - Devotion
Classy doesn’t have to be boring, and nobody proved that more than Jessie Ware in 2012. Ware’s songs are adult contemporary in nature, but they also have a cool sophistication to them that make them sound hip and effortlessly sexy. This is a powerhouse voice if there’s been one, but Ware’s phrasing is perfectly restrained, letting notes hit without fuss and allowing each and every word cut right to the bone. “Sweet Talk” is the best love letter to underappreciated 80s R&B I’ve ever heard. Impeccably cool, never dull.
8. Miguel - Kaleidoscope Dream
It’s been interesting watching R&B go indie considering it’s been my musical genre of choice since the first time I listened to music. There’s a lot to be excited about these days, but there’s always an uncomfortable lingering sense that R&B has to have qualifiers to be worthy, that it couldn’t possibly be exceptional without a “but” or in its undiluted form. Miguel’s album is R&B that doesn’t feel like it has to redefine the genre to legitimize it. The touchstones are clear - Marvin Gaye (on “Adorn,” a good case for song of the year), Prince, Donny Hathaway - and Miguel works within the classic parameters to deliver an album that’s smart, deceptively complicated and true to the genre at it’s very core.
7. Bat For Lashes - The Haunted Man
Bless Bat For Lashes for keeping art pop - real art pop, not the Lady Gaga kind - alive. The spirit of Kate Bush is in the blood of standout opener “Lilies,” a song that crackles with the vocal intensity and earthy sensuality of classic Bush. Bat for Lashes is no copycat though. This is an incredibly confident and dense album, full of tremendous intelligence and material that’ll take a full calendar year to process. Pop is more fun when it’s weird as hell.
6. Purity Ring - Shrines
Fantasy novel narratives and wobbly down-pitched vocals and sonic landscapes come together to create one of the most distinctive sounding debuts in recent memory. Shrines is uniform in sound but it never bores as so much of it feels like the entrance to a dark fairy tale portal. Purity Ring is both enchanting and a little bit scary. There’s as much wonderment here as there is the sense that something is a little off and a potential yellowbrick road to trauma. The effect is hallucinatory, both a dream and a nightmare.
5. Grimes - Visions
When the Terminator movies warned us about the rise of the machines, they forgot to mention that the upside was Grimes. Watching the musically untrained Claire Boucher live is like watching man (no, woman) and computer fuse into one nebulous whole. It’s easy to become entranced by the futuristic loops, the endless arpeggios of “Genesis, the Mariah whistle notes of "Circumambient. This doesn’t feel fully human, but how could that be the case when so much of Visions is about optimism and spirit? Much of what Boucher sings is unintelligible, but that’s not really the point. This is about finding humanity in progress, the soul of the cyber and the heart of the 808.
4. Daughn Gibson - All Hell
I laughed when I first heard Daughn Gibson described as "Country James Blake” because that just sounded like something so hilariously catered to my conflicting reference points that it had to be made up. Gibson sounds like the classic romantic baritone cowboys, but there’s fear in these tracks, a feeling that should be evident by all the guitars made to crack and bend with electronic distortion. All Hell, as the title implies, is more Killer Joe than High Noon; an album fixated on making the fucked up into a sort of homespun normalcy, a place where getting kicked in the teeth with a steel-toed boot is in the water supply. The title track is a nightmare - the embodiment of traditional meeting the modern and combusting in the darkest pockets of America.
3. Dawn Richard - Armor On/Whiteout EP
As a former member of Danity Kane, Dawn Richard has no business sounding like the future of R&B. This is futuristic R&B in the vein of what Timbaland was doing 15 years ago but with the added benefit of having someone who has a deep sense of humanity and unique introspection at her disposal. Richard has Brandy’s husk and it sounds like a dream traversing through dark soundscapes and tribal elements to deliver aching pleas like “I want to be human” and even managing to make the high-risk drama of lines like “think I’m color blind cause I’m bleeding black and grey” feel utterly monumental. Defenses and isolation are reoccurring themes in both EPs and Richard does a tremendous job of making music and lyric work in tandem to express the idea of being unable to establish real intimacy due to internal anguish and history. This is experimental, highly conceptual R&B from an unlikely source. It’s the best surprise of the year and a mark of woman willing to carve her own path, finally free to do what she wants and completely unafraid to be honest and confessional. The “oohs” of “Whiteout” feel like a soul left out on the ice, exposed to the elements but still beating.
2. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel…
Fiona Apple can make instability feel well-oiled. There’s a LOT going on in each track on The Idler Wheel but it never feels like something that’s not firmly within the artist’s grasp. There are risks everywhere - the seasick melodies of “Jonathan”, the guttural vocals of “Daredevil,” the lyrical audacity of “Regret,” the whole of “Hot Knife”- but they’re so assuredly crafted and so deeply tethered to Fiona’s mouth that they feel like extensions of her body. There’s risk of alienation as Fiona grows more complicated in age but The Idler Wheel simply doesn’t care, nor should it. This is Fiona’s best work yet and the mark of an artist without peers.
1. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange
Of all the things Channel Orange could have reminded me of, it reminded me of the cartoon “Bobby’s World.” On that show, Bobby was a quiet kid drawn to imaginary dreamworlds as an escape to a family that was much louder than him and much less likely to create elaborate internal narratives as a coping device. Channel Orange is about a lot of things. It’s about unrequited love. It’s about identity. It’s about class disparity. It’s about drugs. It’s about spirituality and existentialism. It’s about human connection, or at least the attempts at making them. Frank is an observer, just like Bobby. This isn’t the viewpoint of a Holden Caulfield looking at phonies, rather it’s the portrait of youth in constant question. The world is unfamiliar and it takes a lot of work to really understand people, something Ocean makes no qualms admitting he isn’t even close to an expert at. There’s wonder at surroundings here, attempts at making real connections, thread pulling at the nature of existence, basically everything that comes with figuring out the world at a young age. All of this happens to be occurring over songs that feel like well-worn classics, ripe with sentiments as simple and affecting as you’re likely to come across in any format. “I can never make him love me, ” is the killer line from “Bad Religion,” and while it has some personal reverence from me for being a truly honest same-sex love song, it’s a perfect encapsulation of what makes Ocean work so well. Ambition without pretense, meaning without artifice. You feel like you know Ocean when Channel Orange is done, even if you’re not completely sure what to make of him.
Meanwhile, Usher’s Climax and Cassie’s King of Hearts were my favorite tracks of the year not represented above.
The homemade solo country-noir of Daughn Gibson’s debut gets fleshed out by a real band, featuring pedal steel, cello, trombone and guitar work from members of Baroness and Brokeback. Remaining front and center, though, is Gibson’s voice, which remains as dark and thick as blackstrap molasses.