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Arts in Review

The Cascade’s Albums of the Year (2013)

The Cascade’s picks for the best musical albums released in 2013

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Contributors: Dessa Bayrock, Anthony Biondi, Christopher DeMarcus, Remington Fioraso, Joe Johnson, Nadine Moedt, Michael Scoular, Nick Ubels, Tim Ubels, Nathan ZaparillaEmail

Print Edition: January 15, 2014

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16. Phoenix – Bankrupt!

No one’s ever going to confuse Phoenix with Gang of Four, but Bankrupt! had Thomas Mars singing songs with titles like “Entertainment” and “Bourgeois” and making no secret of the subject of most of the band’s no longer only love-addled lyrics. Like Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, Phoenix, even as they out the robotic movements of those who always “care for more,” can’t help but find a flicker of romanticism as the album travels through “fanatic attitudes” and “fake rituals.” Even if they don’t say it outright, they’re dwelling in the same market of selling and upgrading senses, which is why the single’s central hook is an anthemic “I’d rather be alone!” Bankrupt! pivots from pop sparkle (it’s the band’s best-sequenced album) to critique and back again — a side-eye and a smile, rather than a scream, for the moment. — M.S.

15. Josh Ritter — The Beast In Its Tracks

Josh Ritter’s The Beast In Its Tracks comes roughly 14 years after his first release. Over that time his folk and alt-rock styling has only gotten better. The album is dynamic, never settling in on one sound but instead varying in cadence, tempo, and lyric. Still, Ritter doesn’t over-complicate and lets the album rest on its own acoustic airiness.  In many ways the album is quaint, with a sound reminiscent of an old cedar-floored performance house. — J.J.

14. Arcade Fire — Reflektor

Reflektor takes me back a few steps in the Arcade Fire canon. The sound of this album seems to revert back to their style from Funeral, mixed with a garage band twist. It isn’t my favourite, but a few lead titles always catch me and make me listen over and over. The lead song is both strange and inspiring. A few other songs on the two-disc set strike similar chords and hold a groovy bob-my-head-as-I-drive beat. Not only that, the cover of the album itself is super shiny and fancy, and I love super shiny and fancy things. Catches the eye. Maybe I’m really a crow. — A.B.

13. Arctic Monkeys — AM

When AM dropped this year, it was a pronounced departure from the band’s early “I bet you look good on the dance floor” Fratellis-esque pop-styling. AM proved the Arctic Monkeys are a band unscathed by thoughts of alienation as they pour their sexually dirtied rock all over that dance floor. Of course, through their catalogue of albums there have been hints of this progression. But AM is beyond that. Over the 12 tracks it slips through fast-paced grit, finds its way to be desperately wanton, and just shines as a thoroughly compelling album. — J.J.

12. Daft Punk — Random Access Memories

While everyone else in the world used their new-found digital mixing techniques to add dubstep to everything, Daft Punk took a chance and a giant step back in time to the era of disco. Damn, did it pay off — the result, Random Access Memories, became both the ironic and so-hipster-we-went-back-in-time-to-be-vintage summer anthem album. The disco elements work surprisingly well as a backdrop against more modern elements, and it somehow manages to lasso the catchiest elements of both eras into a single addictive collection of songs. — D.B.

11. My Bloody Valentine — mbv

My Bloody Valentine gets away with doing things that no other band can: droning guitar musical soundscapes that weave themselves between notes. I don’t think any song on mbv is in a specific key, yet somehow, the whole record plays out flawlessly. Why drink the whole bottle of whiskey when you can listen to this audio trip and feel the gravity swells pull you down into an audio coma? If you like taking too much NyQuil, you’ll enjoy listening to mbv. Warning: do not listen to while driving after dark, or in heavy traffic. — C.D.

10. Mikal Cronin — MCII

When I first reviewed Mikal Cronin’s sophomore effort MCII this past spring, I envisioned it “fitting the bill [as] this spring’s introduction to summer record.” I now view that statement as being severely short-sighted. As the summer drew to a close and the fall semester began, I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into this record. The multi-instrumental power pop-garage-rock ethos Cronin creates on MCII complements his questions about adjusting from youth to adulthood, as he asks on “Shout It Out,” “Do I shout it out? / Do I let it go? / Do I even know what I’m waiting for? / No, I want it now / Do I need it, though?” MCII is a great triumph for a young artist stepping out of the shadows of Ty Segall and into his own promising career. — T.U.

9. David Bowie — The Next Day

Bowie is a master. Raw, dirty, bombastic and smoothly carved all that the same time; The Next Day creates the impossible. No logic can explain how Bowie has been able to craft such a unbelievable set of tracks. Part of the answer lies in the technical production, which sounds like an expensive cigar and triple glass of rare rum — neat, of course. The drums snap, the horns slam, and vocals power across the speakers. This is the kind of record that musicians die to produce: quality composition paired with exquisite performance. David Bowie is a monument to character in this age of lazy reproduction. — C.D.

8. Kanye West — Yeezus

Coming off the high of his dazzlingly ornate magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West spent three years dabbling in singles, production, and a full-album collaboration with mentor Jay-Z before springing this latest monster loose. Left puzzling over where the divisive rap icon could go, fans were left the closest thing to a clue on the aforementioned collaboration with Jay-Z. Watch the Throne’s most ubiquitous single “Niggas in Paris” embodies the same raw, industrial groove that found wings on Yeezus. After an earth-shatteringly brilliant opening quartet, Yeezus struggles to reach the same heights consistently. But make no mistake: this is ground-breaking stuff already making its influence felt. — N.U.

7. Okkervil River — The Silver Gymnasium

After the release of their criminally underrated I Am Very Far in 2011, Okkervil River regrouped before recording The Silver Gymnasium. Singer-songwriter Will Sheff returned to his hometown and reflected on his small-town upbringing in Meriden before writing the songs that would later appear on the record. A healthy dose of retro keyboards and sunny horns to accompany their acoustic guitars and slight percussion transports the listener back to those sleepy weekends in New Hampshire where Sheff spent half his life. Despite their consistent output, Okkervil River was never lucky enough to catch the flavour-of-the-month wave that propelled groups like The National or Arcade Fire into the mainstream. The songs on the record reveal themselves gradually over multiple listens, as the The Silver Gymnasium gives back whatever you put into it. — T.U.

6. Eleanor Friedberger — Personal Record

One of the easy things to miss in Eleanor Friedberger’s control of verbal timing, from first twists of mundane details to final sentiments, is that through all the comic understatement (“Other Boys”) and overstatement (“I’m a disgrace,” cue guitar riff), Personal Record is anything but placid. It sounds even, but Friedberger’s second solo record is full of leisurely-paced responses to panicked scenarios, songs that live for wordplay threaded into narratives that fall apart. “Why don’t you give me all my time back,” Friedberger asks at her most direct, and Personal Record is at its best when spinning out variations, echoes, and encores of a kind Friedberger could only do in a formless tornadoed kind of way as a member of the Fiery Furnaces. Co-written with John Wesley Harding, Personal Record is a compendium of deadpan double meanings and flipping gender perspectives (“When I Knew” and “She’s a Mirror”), adding up to something that is, in its own limited way, all-encompassing. — M.S.

5. Janelle Monáe — The Electric Lady

I bought my first CD of Monáe’s, The Electric Lady, from a Starbucks, along with a mocha minus the whipped cream. The mocha was shit (the whipped cream is an essential part of a mocha; always get it with the whipped cream). The CD, however, was out of this world. Monáe has a huge range of sounds; she is pop, groovy funk, all sweet and love ballad and perfect rap all in one. Some favorites: “Q.U.E.E.N.,” “Primetime,” and “Ghetto Woman.” Her music is also political — Monáe is an activist of the arts — and impossible not to dance to. With appearances by Miguel, Prince, Erykah Badu, and Solange. — N.M.

4. Haim — Days Are Gone

Bursting onto the scene with their debut album, Days Are Gone, Haim leaves a lasting impression. A deft blend of folksy melodies, breezy hooks and devastatingly sure-handed riffs, Days Are Gone transcends the term “pop rock” and creates an experience hard to summarize. Its ‘80s influences are apparent in its vintage sound, but it doesn’t grow tiresome, as the slick production sounds bright and new. These three sisters from California are not lacking in confidence, attitude, sass, or skill, and if this impressive first studio effort is any indication of what we can expect from Haim in the future, we should consider ourselves lucky. — N.Z.

3. Chvrches — The Bones of What You Believe

As a musical outsider and ignoramus it says a lot that I find Chvrches to be an accessible band. They make techno pop an easy listen without making it too, you know, mainstream. Despite hearing “The Mother We Share” regularly in The Gap, I still feel cool. Chvrches is like the lovechild of Kate Bush and some obscure electro or techno or synthpop guy.  Neon Gold named them “a godless hurricane of kinetic pop energy,” and I think that about sums things up. Energetic, Scottish, non-religious despite the name, Chvrches is pretty rad. Have a listen. — N.M.

2. The National — Trouble Will Find Me

Undoubtedly, The National is the greatest indie band on the scene today. That’s a great feat to achieve given this is now their sixth album. While it’s not a major departure from their past few releases, it’s certainly enough to remain fresh. Remaining true to their past albums, this is an album that continually gets better with each consecutive listen. Every lowly trembling track is laden with depth, from the painfully melancholic lyrics, to the unique song structures, to Matt Berninger’s baritone voice. — J.J.

1. Vampire Weekend — Modern Vampires of the City

In their third studio effort, Vampire Weekend accomplishes the impossible. They not only capture a sound that is startlingly original (though certainly not unfamiliar to fans), but also immediately timeless. Despite delving deeper into themes of religion, mortality and self-discovery, Modern Vampires of the City succeeds in avoiding any sense of heavy-handedness in their messages. Vampire Weekend supplies no shortage of energetic whimsy, even amid dense and often brooding lyrical content. Upon each listen, one will find it exceedingly difficult to fight the urge to dance and sing along, specifically during the first half of the album. With twists of tone layered throughout, this collection of masterful productions is completely and utterly satisfying. Experimental, modern, catchy, and at times melancholy, Modern Vampires of the City is a rare achievement. — N.Z.

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