The Music or Space Shuttle? braintrust rolls out its top albums of 2013 this week! Today we unveil our individual picks for #2-4. We’ll reveal our top 10 throughout the week, culminating with our top pick on Friday, Dec. 20. Don’t miss our picks for #11-20, #8-10, and #5-7.
#4: Waxahatchee, Cerulean Salt
Waxahatchee is the solo project of songwriter Katie Crutchfield and is for the most part very simple. One vocal, one guitar and occasionally some drums. The songs ebb and flow from soft acoustic to droning distortion filled guitars and her vocals float effortlessly overtop all of them.
I started listening to Cerulean Salt a few weeks after the new My Bloody Valentine record was released. Like anything else that was released post m b v, I assumed I would be over it quickly and back listening to the masters of shoegaze. I was wrong. I was stuck on this album almost as long as I was on m b v.
Waxahatchee toured this year with Katie’s sister’s band, Swearin’, which you may remember had my #15 album of the year. Of course, they came nowhere close to were I live. I would urge the great folks at the Mission Creek Music Festival to book these two bands. Do whatever it takes to get them on a stage near me. Thanks in advance.
#3: Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City
Vampire Weekend’s 3rd album Modern Vampires of the City picks up right were they left off with 2010’s Contra which you may recall holds the #36 spot on my Undisputed Best albums of all time list. Both albums are full of songs that are incredibly intelligent lyrically, frequently comical and always catchy as hell. And just like previous Vampire Weekend releases, this one took me a few listens to get into it. Other than the instantly likable “Step”, every song took me awhile to truly enjoy. That was especially true with the rocker “Diane Young.” The machine gun drums and use of auto-tune kind of threw me at first. By the 3rd or 4th listen I was pitching up my sing along vocals to match the records.
One of my biggest regrets this year is not working out a way to catch Vampire Weekend in concert. They have been one of my favorite bands since their self titled debut album in 2008. I had a few chances. Kansas City, Chicago, the Twin Cities and St. Louis all hosted them this year. All within reasonable driving distance. The St. Louis show was even at my favorite venue, The Pageant. Unfortunately, work schedules and other commitments got in the way. Luckily, I got to live vicariously through Chris and his son who caught them in Kansas City. I am definitely going to catch them next time around.
After 3 excellent albums under their belts, I’m curious to know if Vampire Weekend can keep it up over a long career. If I had to lay money down I would bet on yes.
#2: Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe
The Glaswegian group with the weird spelling. Their name is pronounced “churches” (Cha-verches in my house) but spelled Chvrches to help with Google searches I would presume. Before the release of The Bones of What You Believe, Chvrches put out several excellent singles. “The Mother We Share” for instance, caught my attention right off. Lead vocalist Lauren Mayberry’s voice can both cut you to the bone and make you fall in love at the same time.
All of the songs I heard prior to the albums release featured Lauren on vocals, so when I eventually listened to the whole album I was surprised to find songs featuring male member (well, male band member, not an actual phallus), Martin Doherty on lead vocals. His songs “Under the Tide” and “You Caught the Light” are two of my favorites on the album.
This album had a real good chance at being my #1 album of the year but it lost points in my book for its length. There are 16 songs on it and I generally punch-out by song 12. Get rid of a few clunkers and remix/alternate versions of songs and they are looking at an album of the year win.
#4: My Bloody Valentine, m b v
It’s not unusual for a parent to have a panic attack at Chuck E. Cheese. The place is a fucking nuthouse. You cringe as you watch the juvenile behavior play out, with yelling and pushing and cursing and general disregard for decency everywhere around you. And that’s just the adults.
Although I try to avoid the Cheese house whenever possible, I felt obligated to honor my son’s birthday wishes to take two of his friends there for pizza and video games before a sleepover. I endured as much of the atmosphere and the pizza as I could before I finally fled for the sanctuary of my phone.
And there I found the announcement years (decades!) overdue: Hello, this is Kevin Shields, and even though I’ve hinted at a new album since 1997 with a straight face only to disappear again, I really put out a new record and you have to download it from our website, which currently uses something resembling a Commodore 64 as its server. Good luck with that!
It was time to go. Five hours of computer frustration later, I finally had permission to pay the Sam Goody-priced ($16!) new album and download the nine songs to my PC. Certainly worth the money, and so good that I pretty much forgive the 22-year gap in output.
The first three songs sound like a natural continuation of Loveless. The middle third reminds me of stuff the band released on the various EPs from 1988 to 1991. And the final third showed where the band could go if it damn well wanted: jungle beats, devilish swirls of guitar, soaring synths. A longer examination of an instant classic can be found in a post from February.
Just don’t take 22 more years to make and release the next album…
#3: Savages, Silence Yourself
It took about one minute for Silence Yourself to get its hooks into me. The first song begins with a sampling of dialogue from a John Cassavetes movie (paired with eerie squalls of guitar) before a rumbling bass line throws things into high gear. A stuttering guitar joins the proceedings, and at the 1:02 mark, the bass and guitar interlock perfectly and for about 39 minutes you race through a world of shadows and fear and anger and passion, all punctuated by sharp drum shots, gut-punching bass notes, fierce guitar, and the push-you-to-the-edge voice of Jehnny Beth.
While the music is tight and forceful, the lyrics give Savages that extra edge. A reader asked me in July why I thought Savages was getting so much good press, and more specifically, what about their lyrics set them apart. My response:
The lyrics are just an emotional purge, an astute observation without a turning point, but that’s OK—I think many people can identify. I know I admire emotional content regardless of whether a solution comes with it.
And it’s all done through the carefully crafted black-and-white lens that Savages uses as its identity. It’s a very consistent identity, from the shadowy album cover to the rather monochromatic tone of the music. The low rumble of the rhythm section provides the “black” image; the piercing guitar squalls and sneered vocals serve as the “white” part.
Perhaps it could be summed up as this: Savages are documentarians of the bleak, and they don’t pretend to have any answers.
In a year when I’ve seen some great live shows, one of my greatest regrets is not driving up to Madison to see these guys this fall. After this sort of debut, I’m guessing I’ll have plenty of chances to see them again.
#2: The Civil Wars, The Civil Wars
The day before the Civil Wars’ eponymous album came out, I remarked to friend and fellow CW fan Sondra that “I look forward to being emotionally destroyed tomorrow.” We had heard a couple of tracks in advance, giving us a taste of what we had in store. And the next day came, and the album came, and I was emotionally destroyed as predicted, and it was most excellent.
The music could have been buried by the soap opera of Joy Williams and John Paul White. And in much of the press around the album’s release, it kinda did. That’s truly sad. “The One That Got Away” has one of their best choruses to date, Joy’s voice taking the lead, her voice descending slowly before jumping to new heights, with John Paul punctuating certain words before harmonizing the second verse. “Same Old Same Old” has ever so slight instrumentation backing some of the most tender vocals (and lyrics) in their discography.
Not every moment is quiet and fragile. “I Had Me a Girl” is a rollicking tune that is tailor-made for singing along, especially the “ooooooooh-ooooooooh-oooooooooh” chorus. Not only is a it a great song, it provides one of those moments that the fans can grab hold of and say “See, you two can have fun making music together! Now get back together and play some live shows! And make some more albums! Please?!” And “Eavesdrop” might start off quietly, but it picks up steam by the first chorus and simply explodes by the second one. It’s nice to hear John Paul singing on this one too, as Joy does a lot of the vocal work on the album as a whole.
My favorite song? The one sung in French, “Sacred Heart.” I can’t decide if it is my top song of 2013 or not; “Step” by Vampire Weekend is the only competitor. The song is absolutely gorgeous on its face. On top of that, I found the lyrics online and plugged them into Google Translate, and for one reason or another, they melted my heart. Yes, it’s hard to sing along since I don’t speak the language, but that never stopped me with Sigur Ros, so, you know, why not?
(Lone criticism: their version of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm” doesn’t work.)