The 8 Ball 1.17.14: Top 16 Albums of 2013 (#16 - 9)
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 01.18.2014
From Kanye West's Yeezus and Black Sabbath's 13 to Beyonce's self-titled album, Arcade Fire's Reflektor and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas begins his look at the top 16 albums of 2013 with #16 through 9!
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
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Hello boys and girls! Welcome, once again, to the Music Zone 8-Ball! The 8 Ball Year in Review continues, and this week we're moving from the worst onto the best. There was a lot of great music in 2013. Dance music became increasingly more prevalent in how it blended with popular genres and while that gave us some serious disasters, there were those artists who also used it to great effect. Rock continued to fight its way back into the mainstream while hip-hop saw the return of some of its greats alongside the rise of some new greats. This week we begin our look at the best albums that 2013 had to offer.
Caveat: All you had to do in order to qualify for this list was release an EP or LP in the year 2013 within the United States, and do a great job at it. Pretty straight-forward.
Just Missing The Cut
• The National - Trouble Will Find Me
• Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience Part 2
• CHVRCHES - The Bones of What You Believe
• J. Cole - Born Sinner
• The Strokes - Comedown Machine
#16: Beyonce - Beyonce
It's easy to forget how dominant Beyonce was in 2013. The reason is simple: she was very quiet for most of the year, both on the airwaves and in the headlines. But that was just a smokescreen as Mrs. Carter continued her path toward world domination (at least in the R&B/pop field). While she may not have been tossing out new singles as if they were going out of style a la Rihanna or hitting TMZ on a regular basis, Beyonce never once slowed down. She kicked off the year in grand fashion at the Super Bowl and then embarked on the Mrs. Carter World Tour. And just when we'd completely forgotten about her, she ended 2013 by blasting the world with a surprise album release that dominated the charts at the end of the year, especially considering that it had zero promotion and was digital only for the first week. But it wasn't just any album release. Beyonce went out of her way to deliver one of the best pop albums of the year. The album is a huge return to form for her after the decent-yet-underwhelming 4. The Queen of R&B took off the gloves and delivers a new side of herself, dipping into the shadows a bit for some weightier themes. Meanwhile her voice is as powerful as it's ever been here. But what makes Beyonce great isn't the power of her voice; we've seen a hundred and more failed reality show contestants who had powerful voices. Beyonce is able to take that power and shape it into emotion. From the first moments of her vocal work on opening track "Pretty Hurts," you know that's what you're getting here. In 2013 Beyonce stepped forward to take back the female pop/R&B crown and no one could stand in her way.
#15: Queens of the Stone Age - …Like Clockwork
It seems almost strange to consider Queens of the Stone Age as veterans of the alt-rock scene, but it's true. The Californian group has been in the public eye for a good fifteen years now and have slowly but surely built their reputations as heavyweights in the genre; critical darlings who can achieve on the commercial scale as well. While the band has never quite delivered an LP quite as powerful as their third set Songs of the Deaf, ...Like Clockwork is easily the closest that they've come yet. The band created this, their sixth album, during a very rocky time; frontman Josh Homme nearly died due to complications from a knee surgery and when the band set to making the album Joey Castillo was fired and replaced with Dave Grohl. Like many albums recorded during dark moments though, it only helped to make this one even stronger. It's a very focused album, taking the band's signature sound and zooming in like a laser pointer. Some have called this a return to the band's roots, but it is a bit more complex than that. Yes, there are certainly elements here that call back to the band's heyday, but Homme and company aren't just interested in capturing the past. They're trying to reconnect with that and use it as inspiration to move forward, which they do. Appearances by Mark Lanegan, Grohl, Trent Reznor and others bolster what is already a strong album and made QOTSA a clear choice for one of the top few rock albums of the year.
#14: Orphaned Land - All Is One
Orphaned Land was one of the most pleasant new discoveries for me in 2013. 411's resident metal scholar Robert Cooper of the Hammer of Death News Report passed the Israeli prog metal band's latest LP onto me at the middle of the year and I fell in love with it from the very first moments of the opening titular track "All is One." This isn't a band that a lot of people may find recognition in right off the bat, but they've been making music for nearly two decades, with All Is One being their fifth full studio album. This album sees the group, who have traditionally taken a bit more of a death metal bent, venture away from that and deeper into symphonic metal. The sound may not be quite as heavy and growly, but the album doesn't hold anything back on a thematic level. The lyrics are pointed and cover topics of faith, politics, war and all the things you might expect from an intellectual metal band out of the Middle East. And it's not just about the message, either. There is something truly sublime about the way that the group seamlessly melds Arabic string influences into their progressive metal style; they are not two sounds that you would expect to bleed smoothly into each other but they do. It's an incredibly unique piece of musical art with pointed, well-written lyrics that fit the operatic style of prog metal quite well and stand on their own. I truly love All Is One and Orphaned Land have earned a high spot on the list of acts I'm looking forward to hearing future music from.
#13: Arcade Fire - Reflektor
Arcade Fire is a band that was practically scripted to fall apart at this point. Seriously, all of the pieces seemed to be there at the beginning of 2013. They were an indie rock band who had become poster children for the genre, who found their breakout critical and commercial success with their last album in 2010's The Suburbs. Add in a confrontational, arrogant and often pretentious frontman in Win Butler, a three year gap between albums, the ambition of a double LP and unbelievable high expectations and you could almost begin writing the Behind the Music episode already. As it turned out though, the band defied all of the pitfalls and delivered big-time on Reflektor. Truth be told, I wasn't at all sure what to make of this one coming into it but I was intrigued, particularly after Butler called it a mix of "Studio 54 and Haitian voodoo music." Oddly, that one's not hyperbole and somehow it works even when it shouldn't. The idea of a double LP is a conceit that not many are interested in these days (it's a single-driven world) but the Canadian band set out with confidence and delivered in every aspect with an album that sounds like what fans want without standing still. Coming on the heels of your breakthrough success, that isn't an easy thing to accomplish and they pulled it off nicely.
#12: Kanye West - Yeezus
I predict that I've just lost approximately half of whoever I hadn't already lost yet. In all seriousness, I don't think any album has been discussed and analyzed more thoroughly than Yeezus. Kanye West delivered the single-most polarizing LP of the year and I have seen as many people call it the death of hip-hop as I've seen call is Kanye's best work to date. I don't think it's quite either of those, but (obviously) I definitely fall on the more positive side. But I certainly can't be surprised by or blame people on either side of the equation, because West's sixth studio album is his most drastic shift in sound yet. As a producer, Kanye has always wanted to explore new territory and he's taken very different directions from album to album but I don't think any of them have had quite the seismic jump that this one did. The bold production moves (and, admittedly, a few questionable lyrical moments) were pretty much guaranteed to turn some people off and fire up others. And it's certainly a challenging one; as much as I love the album, I had to listen to it several times before I could figure out my thoughts and went back and forth between love and hate with each run-through. The more I listened though, the more I grew to appreciate what West did here. Even if you don't feel he should be commended for veering well off the worn path that hip-hop travels sonically, you have to appreciate how well he melds his sound into the album. It stands as a cohesive piece of work and, while not his best album in terms of lyrical themes, still tackles topics much weightier than nearly all of his contemporaries. It says a lot about Yeezus that, as much as West has ingratiated himself into the pop culture consciousness for his personality, relationship and battles with the paparazzi, people still talk about this album more than they do his antics. For my money, it's a very positive statement about the LP.
#11: Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires Of The City
Vampire Weekend is one of a couple bands on this part of the list who did a lot to change my mind about them in 2013. I've always had respect for the New York indy rock group and recognized them as a quality band, but I've also felt that they were a bit overrated by some critics and fans. Modern Vampires of the City was the first LP by the band to bring me fully into their corner and turn me into a real fan. Ezra Koenig, Rostam Batmanglij, Chris Tomson and Chris Baio took some time off after their 2010 LP Contra to explore side projects, then regrouped for this and the result was their most mature and interesting album to date. The sound is certainly the trademark Vampire Weekend sound, but it comes off more refined by their experiences between Contra and now. They've all grown and particularly in a lyrical fashion; the songs on Modern Vampires tackle weightier topics and in a more effective way than any of their previous work has. There are thoughts on the United State's foreign policy, finding one's place within the world, faith and even a sense of mortality. None of the band's members have even crossed the thirty year-old mark but they address these topics with an approach that makes them seem much older without sacrificing any of their youthful energy. That's a rare accomplishment and it makes Modern Vampires their best work to date.
#10: Black Sabbath - 13
Black Sabbath roared back to life in 2013 with their first Ozzy Osbourne-led album since 1979's Never Say Die!. Sure, there have been other iterations of Black Sabbath throughout the years and I'm not going to insult them by suggesting that there is only one true Sabbath or anything like that, but anyone who's been a fan of the band has dreamed of the Godfather of Metal returning to the fold. That being said, dreams don't often end up as realist and there was no small amount of trepidation on my part that they wouldn't be able to deliver. Luckily one statement was firmly and thunderously delivered with 13: never doubt Sabbath. The masters of doom metal delivered an album that sounds like classic Black Sabbath but also doesn't seem outdated; rather, it shows that the metal band is still fully capable of showing the many acts that they inspired exactly how it's done. Starting off with the epic "End of the Beginning," the group propels through a mere eight songs, which would seem slight if not for the fact that over half of them are epics in length at seven minutes or more. The album resonates with an undeniable energy and is layered with thick overlays of doom; it works both as a throwback to the classic days of metal and a hopeful sign of the genre having a new rise to prominence. Mock them as geezers all you want, because that doesn't change the fact that when they strap on their instruments they still rock as hard as they ever have.
#9: Arctic Monkeys - AM
I had never had much appreciation for Arctic Monkeys before AM. And I'll admit, it was not anything that is probably fair to them; maybe I was in the wrong mood the first time I listened and never got past it. I still don't care much for Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not and I know that I stand in sparse company in that respect. AM sees the Sheffield foursome delivering the most listenable album of their career with ease. Really, it's not even close...and to be clear, I'm not delivering a backhanded compliment there. A band can be as technically good and talented, deliver poignant lyrics and do everything they need. But if the album doesn't appeal in an aural capacity than it is difficult to appreciate just how good it is. With AM, Alex Turner and company gave us an album that was not only good, it was a thoroughly enjoyable listen. The band takes a few cues from the greats of hip-hop and integrates them seamlessly into the music for some good, solid rocking numbers that don't stray from the AM sound; instead they refine the sound to something much better than they'd offered before. Maybe someday I will go back and try to give their past work a serious re-listen after I've cleared my mind, soothed my chakras or whatever it may take. Until then though, I have AM to listen to and enjoy the hell out of.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
For this week's Music Video-A-G-Go, here's yet another mash-up of the most popular songs of 2013 (with some 2012 releases mixed in as well, since they impacted the charts) courtesy of Andy Wu:
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.