BEST OF 2013: Kevin's Picks

10. Kanye West - Yeezus

The most undeniably beautiful mess of an album to come along in ages, Yeezus, by all rights, shouldn’t be mentioned anywhere near the words “Best of 2013.” Yet here we are and here it is. Anticipation was high, the hype even higher, for what the Chicago artist/producer would deliver as a follow up to 2011’s glorious My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and what we got was a confusing, aggressive, and aggressively risk-taking collection of songs that play more like a slo-mo, hi-fi train wreck than a work of staggering genius.

Sure, tracks like “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” are serviceable enough mixings of hip hop, new black-power politics and the cold, shock rock Marilyn Manson aesthetic that oozes out of the myriad of cracks to be found on Yeezus. More often than not, though, it’s those very “risks” he takes that ultimately prevent Yeezus from sounding like anything more than the prurient rants of some over-privileged adolescent, more concerned with convincing you that his dick really IS that big, than the soul searching thoughts of an expectant father (partner Kim Kardashian, uh, “dropped” the couple’s first child, North, not long after Yeezus dropped) and artist who has proven that he can, in fact, produce great, sometimes transcendent art. And therein lays the mystery. If this is simply West punking the world, then what’s the point? And if not, WHAT’S THE POINT? It’s that duality that makes Yeezus such a fascinating listen, an important document of an artist who may be about to go off the rails, and the one thing that keeps it clinging to the edge of the best albums of 2013.

That and “where my damn croissants” may be one of the funniest lines in music history. +1 Mr. West. 

9. Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer, Different Park

The country music scene has been long suffering since its merger with the ass rock aesthetic of the '70s and the sugary sweet pop of the '90s. Time was, country music stars wrote songs that hit because the experiences – family, drinking, country-ish livin’ – were not just universal, but they had a heart. Nelson, Haggard, Cash, Travis, Jones, Jennings...these were the true tellers of the American story, not some bearded folky. And onSame Trailer Different Park,newcomer Musgraves channeled the spirit of those past masters and produced one of the most surprising (to me, at least) left field hit of the year.

Yes, it still finds itself occasionally mired in neu-country – “Blowin Smoke” and “Stupid”, I’m looking at you - but those transgressions are thankfully rare and easily forgiven on a record that spends more time exploring the messiness of life and love in every small town across America than it does trying to fill arenas. That and “Merry Go Round” may be not just the best song written this year, but one of the sharpest takes on small town American life since Mellencamp’s  “Jack and Diane,” wrapped up in a perfect three minute and twenty nine second package. 

8. Kingsley Flood - Battles

Beard rock may be running its course (thankfully) but someone forgot to tell that to the guys in Kingsley Flood(again, thankfully). Replacing the void of weird Americana that has taken over the music space in the past few years with socially conscious songs that get to the heart of what it is to be downtrodden in America today, lead singer/songwriter Naseem Khuri and his cohorts built a concept album whose concept is really just a mirror to be held up to the everyday life around you. Close inspection of even the sunniest songs on Battles may reveal some vestigial glint in the eye of its characters, but every comforting thought is delivered with a clenched smile belying the pain underneath. It’s not hopeless, but it’s getting there and that gray area is where Battles spends the majority of its time. By smashing up traditional Americana with more protest/punky influences like the Clash and Billy Bragg, Kingsley Flood have created a tense, but ultimately triumphant musical narrative that sticks with you long after the first, or even hundredth, listen. And the fact that they also produced one of the very best videos of the year for the track “Sigh a While” is just sweet, sweet icing on this bittersweet cake. 

7. Neko Case - The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Dammmmmmmmmmit. I said that I wasn’t going to do this, but here we are. To critics/listeners of a certain age, serving up a Neko Case album in any given year is pretty much like laying out an emotional bear trap rigged with raw meat as bait. Which is to say that Case has been operating at the top of her game for a long time now, and there should be no surprise that her output is consistently and predictably great. Not a bad problem to have, but that predictability doesn’t typically produce much excitement…until now. Tearing down every barrier she’s ever put up, Case has delivered a raw, often bleak, document of her own personal struggles with depression, losing her family, and everything she found in the process. The Worse Things Get…, emotionally speaking, is the most personal record of her career, and sonically speaking, it’s the best thing she’s ever done.

What truly elevates the record, though, comes at the midway point with the song “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu.” An autobiographical account of a young child who is neglected and possibly abused by her mother, the track rips your heart out, smashes it on the floor, and shoves your face in the damage. The a capella track, with its chorus of “Get the fuck away from me” obliterates the line between storyteller and observer, and by the time you reach the triumphant horns of “Ragtime,” the albums closer, you feel like you’ve won some sort of fucking war with Case as your commander-in-chief.

Delicate, stunning, isolating and inviting at the same time, The Worse Things Get… is Neko Case’s masterstroke in a career that has already had pretty much nothing but highs.

6. Midlake - Antiphon

In 2006, Denton, Texas’ Midlake released The Trials of Van Occupanther to much critical praise, but its popularity never quite found the critical mass it deserved. Since then, the album has been a fairly open secret of sorts, handed down from one music nerd to the next, and it remains, for some - myself included - a high point of everything that indie rock could, and should, be in the past decade or so. The band followed it up in 2010 with The Courage of Others, a dud of a record that was supposed to be an exploration of folk music in the vein of Fairport Convention, but instead ended up being a dark, over-hobbity mess that was as un-enjoyable to take in as it was heartbreaking given the bands promising history.

After that, there was really no point to expect that Midlake had anything left in the tank, much less the masterful collections of songs that make up this year’s Antiphon. In 2013, Midlake has successfully returned from the brink, found their balance, and delivered the follow up that Van Occupanther deserved. While the band may have lost chief songwriter Tim Smith, the resultant regrouping and rethinking of what Midlake is has not only set them back on the path they started, but produced a looser, more exciting Midlake than has been heard before. There was never any chance of the group matching the airtight perfection of Van Occupanther, so instead the group went slightly sideways, leaning heavily on their jazz backgrounds to produce a record that appeals to folkies and space rockers alike. Reboot, reinvention, whatever you choose to call it, Antiphon is a grand statement from a band with all the odds stacked against them. Welcome back Midlake. Can’t wait to see what you do next.

5. Cass McCombs - Big Wheel and Others

Strip away all of the “mystery” and hype that surrounds singer/songwriter Cass McCombs and you’ll still find yourself left with not only one of this generation’s most ambitious songwriters, but one if its best. On 2011’s Humor Risk, McCombs played it relatively straight, especially compared to the dark, Lynchian turns he took on his OTHER 2011 release, Wit’s End. While there are some moments on Big Wheel and Others that skew slightly towards the “norm,” the sheer scope of the record – twenty two tracks over a whopping eighty five minutes - practically demands that the singer take a detour, or eight, and follow his muse wherever it aims to take him.

Where it took him was on a wildly poetic journey through modern Americana that finds McCombs just at home playing the part of the Laurel Canyon cowboy  on tracks like “Sooner Cheat Death Than Fool Love” and “Brighter!” as he is that of the shaman lizard king on “Everything Has To Be Just So” and “Joe Murder.”  This peyote trip of a record surely owes much to McCombs' collaborators this time out - drummer Joe Russo and Phish’s Mike Gordon feature prominently (possibly a by-product of this collaboration) - but at the end of the day, its McCombs' precise confidence and vision that pulls everything together into one giant super-jam of poetry, art, and music. Big Wheel and Others is a long, strange trip that demands you simply buy the ticket and take the ride…and rewards you mightily if you do.  

4. Phosphorescent - Muchacho

There’s not much else to say about Muchacho other than “fuck yea.” Matthew Houck has been steadily building on his base, producing killer album after killer album, and this may be his finest moment. I say "may" because as great an experience as Muchacho is, it does tend to be fairly one note… but oh what a note that is. Muchacho’s songs soar and bristle with an energy that many artists seek out their entire career and never find. Houck has crafted his perfect Phosphorescent album, one that is full of life, heart, and reckless, romantic youth. The air is rare up where he has carved out his territory, so it should be interesting to see where he goes from here. In the end though, does it really matter when on top of all his successes he drops a song like “Song For Zula” on the world?

3. Mikal Cronin - II

Not since the days of Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend has power pop felt this vital. Layer upon layer of harmonies and guitars is all well and good, but if you forget to write a good song to go along with all that noise, then pretty much all you're left with is, well, noise. That fact is clearly not lost on Mikal Cronin and on II, he takes the listener on a seemingly sunny journey through the early 20s of a dood, hitting as hard with his words as he does with his often gorgeous arrangements and shrieking guitars. Nearly every track on II juxtaposes honest, working-dood vulnerability with devil-horns-in-the-air guitar kicks and harmonies layered to infinity to provide a giant sugar rush of a record that flirts as much with girl group R&B as it does with Pixies-level distortion. On the surface, it’s the feel-good record of the year, but the triumph of II, and hoooo boy can it be triumphant, is that underneath lies the confusion, hurt, hope and triumph that being young is, or should be, all about.

2. Jason Isbell - Southeastern

If at the beginning of 2013 you had suggested to me that Jason Isbell would produce one of the finest albums of the year, I may have viewed you with a skeptical eye. Isbell has always been a great songwriter and storyteller, but nothing he’s done has ever quite hit, for me at least, in the way that Southeastern did. It’s unclear whether knowing so much of Isbell’s personal story factors into the weight that the songs on the album eventually carry – I dare anyone to not be emotionally crushed by the end of “Elephant” – but whatever the reason, these songs connect on a way that very few, if any records, did this year.

Much like Neko Case, Isbell turned the lens in on himself and fearlessly explored every soul-crushing and uplifting moment of his experience, which turns out to be the human experience that we all have in common. Songs like “Travelling Alone” or album closer “Relatively Easy” could have easily devolved into countrified schlock in lesser hands. Even “Super 8" -  a hilariously over the top cautionary tale of tour life, or life in general, gone wrong - somehow manages to ground itself, making perfect sense in the dusty, mostly empty, whiskey bottle reality that Isbell has willed into being. Southeastern is both a personal and professional triumph for Isbell, but most importantly, it’s a record that will stick with you for years to come.   

1. Chance The Rapper - Acid Rap

In 2013 Chancellor Bennet, aka Chance The Rapper, didn’t just take the scene by storm, he sprinted right to the front of the pack. Acid Rap, with its firecracker delivery and hip-hop-history-lesson worthy production balanced razor sharp social commentary with youthful braggadocio to gleefully trounce every other release this year in not just quality, but pure soul stirring satisfaction. Never mind being on the same playing field with Chance, nobody was even playing the same game.

Rather than spending time complaining that he couldn’t make a living doing his art, he made a killer album. Rather than worrying about label support or marketing, he made a great album. Rather than worrying about how much money he could make for his efforts, he made a great album...and he gave it to the world FOR FREE.

Then he doubled down and self-funded his own Social Experiment Tour, which sold out pretty much every single date booked.

The point I’m trying to make here is that while everyone else was trying to make a living making music this year, Bennet was simply DOING IT, and mainly by simply taking responsibility for his own damn career. So yes, Acid Rap is a stellar album across the board. It’s hip hop. It’s soul. It’s a raw confessional look at a young man’s life. But the real importance is that it’s a rallying cry to “indie” artists far and wide to just DO IT. Instead of being shocked that Beyoncé dropped an album with ZERO PR push - an album that is now the top selling iTunes record of ALL TIME - DROP YOUR OWN.  Don’t worry about the scale or what you have to sacrifice to do it, JUST DO IT. Sure, Chance had some high profile proponents of his work, but there’s no reason you can’t, too. Don’t wait for a label to tell you it’s OK for people to hear your art. Put it out yourself.

This year, while the music industry quibbled over fractions of fractions of pennies, a young hip hop artist from Chicago came, for all intents and purposes, out of nowhere to not just “win” the game that everyone sees fit to play these days…he may have just changed it forever.