Best Of 2013 (So Far): Kevin's Picks

10. Kanye West – Yeezus

Dark. Aggressive. Complex. Offensive. Kanye West’s 5th album is all of these things, but most of all it’s his most creatively risky effort to date. Sonically, Yeezus is operating on a completely  other level then anything released this year — in fact it makes most records sound lazy in comparison. But a funny thing happened on the way Yeezus becoming the stuff of legend: Kanye got in the way. What could have been a juggernaut of an album is sidetracked by West’s overly misogynistic lyrics, and his continuing lack of self awareness. Social commentary is a hard trick to pull off in any arena, but when you present yourself as the American dream — because you pretty much ARE the American dream — and then attempt to attack that in any measure, the results are at best trite, and at worst laughable.

To be clear, this is an ongoing issue that West suffers, and he is at his best operation as the fairly unchallenged master of pop that he has made himself into. But for now (and this opinion is constantly shifting) Yeezus remains more Zooropa* and less Achtung Baby. It’s clear that there is a masterful artist at work here who is willing to sacrifice the end result for the sake of experimenting with his art, but the attempt is only half of the secret recipe: You’ve gotta stick the landing.

*For the record, I freaking LOVE Zooropa. LOVE. IT.

9. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer, Different Park  / Ashley Monroe – Like A Rose

Why two albums? Because both perfectly represent the struggle that “modern country music” faces in 2013. Deservedly maligned by the discerning music fan since the days when the thunder rolled, there’s been a shift over the last few years away from the assembly line nature of what hits the airwaves, back to the more personal, less manufactured music that is the bedrock of a large portion of the American songbook. Musgraves “Merry-Go-Round” and Monroe’s “Like A Rose” are at once eloquent and utilitarian in their assessment of small town living, and rivalJason Isbell’s acumen for commentary of the human experience.

Unlike Isbell though, both artists go slightly off the rails by the end of their song cycles, giving in to the machine’s need for a “hit.” And in doing so they both keep what might have been a duo of timeless, universal records tied to a genre that both artists very clearly can, and should, rise above. That having been said, if you can push past the autotune and the straight-from-the-80’s “redneck” power chorus singing that ultimately takes control of these records, you’ll be rewarded by the work of two of the finest songwriters working in popular music today.

8. Kingsley Flood – Battles

The holy grail for most bands is to be able to match massive performances with equally massive songwriting chops. On Battles, Kingsley Flood took that idea and injected their already successful formula of bar brawl Americana with a double shot of adrenaline to produce one of the most satisfying records of the year to date. Grounded in singer Naseem Khuri’s explorations of what it takes to get by in today’s America, this mostly Boston based five piece (Khuri resides right here in the District) walks the razor’s edge of serious and seriously entertaining, and they do it all with an ease normally reserved for bands twice their age. Successfully bridging the gulf between folk, power pop and punk, Battles finds its power in its unflinching honesty and sincerity, regardless of the delivery method. This is a new Americana, and one that, if this release is any indication, is very quickly going to take over the world.

7. Rhye – Woman

Headphone music for the bedroom. It’s not that words don’t do this R&B masterpiece justice, it’s that the less time you’re forced to read about it, the more sexy time is in store for you. Whether that’s time spent with your lady, your man, yourself or your cat is up to you, but whenever and however it happens, Woman is the one record this year that will stimulate your mind and your, well, everything else.

6. Jason Isbell – Southeastern   

It’s taken a while, but Jason Isbell has finally, finally hit his stride. Whether you choose to call this alt-country, new-country or Americana, the simple truth of Southeastern lies in the craft and quality of the songwriting. Over the course of two albums with his 400 Unit and one solo record, Isbell has quietly become the torchbearer for good, old fashioned, cut to the bone songwriting. His work with the Drive By Truckers (“Decoration Day”, “Goddamn Lonely Love”) was what first caused music fans sit up and take notice, but with Southeastern, the Alabama native shows that he didn’t just drown in his demons, he learned to swim with them. Songs “Travelling Alone”, “Super 8” and “Relatively Easy” aren’t just great stories, they strike the deepest of nerves, giving voice to some of our darkest insecurities, fears and fantasies — in other words the things that make us human.

5. Caveman – Caveman

Caveman’s haunting sound has always been their biggest hook. On their second record, the rawness of singer Matthew Iwanusa’s lyrics and delivery vault the band’s music over the over the line of  “effectively moody” into the stratosphere of deeply effecting. Delivering a set that is as sonically satisfying as it is emotionally moving and relatable, Caveman have taken what could have been a simple  collection of musings about who we are and how we relate to the world around us and crafted not just one of the year’s most emotionally resonant records, but one of the few records that will be worth talking about going forward.

4. Phosphorescent – Muchacho               

There’s a very specific joy in living through intense emotional pain, and on Muchacho, Matthew Houk managed to masterfully distill that experience into its most base components in a way we haven’t seen since possibly The Cure’s Disintegration. Beyond the peerless sonic craftsmanship there’s a wounded pulse beating in every measure of this broken man’s bible of a record. As the narrator whoops and hollers in breaths that seek to drain the very marrow of life itself, the album lives, breathes, dies and is reborn around him. To truly take in Muchacho is as much a ritual as it is a joyful YAWP to the lonely desert sky. In a career that has been on an upward trajectory from the start, Matthew Houk didn’t just knock this one out of the park, he set a new bar for breakup albums for years to come.

3. Mikal Cronin – MCII

One thing that the top four albums on this list share in common is an unbridled sense of joy and, if that was the sole criteria at play here, then Mikal Cronin’s stunning second album wouldn’t just tower above the rest, it would be on an entirely other plane. Part Matthew Sweet, part Phil Spector and all rock, Cronin stepped out from the “shadow” of friend and band mate Ty Segall and crafted what is easily one of the more perfect pop albums of the past decade. Drowning in hooks and overflowing with choruses that you’ll find yourself “Shouting Out”, MCII is a master class in loud, jubilant heartfelt rock and roll that already feels timeless.

2. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

Revisionism at its best. Its ACTUAL best. French duo Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo couldn’t be bothered with JUST paying tribute to the roots of the genre which they’ve largely defined. They had to go and not just reinvent themselves as artists but shift the public’s expectations of what electronic music can, and should be. Yea, you’ll find all of the “blips” and “bleeps” you’d expect, but there’s also disco legend Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Morodor, Animal Collective’s Panda Bear, Pharell and a whole host of other guest stars that aren’t just there to make an appearance, but to give the album a humanity that is unmatched by almost any other album this year.

1. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap

Imagine a world where an artist has total creative freedom, unlimited resources and veritable wells of inspiration. You might think that world is a thing of the past, but if Chicago’s Chancelor Bennet aka Chance the Rapper’s latest effort Acid Rap is any indication, those days are very VERY present. To compare Acid Rap to any other record released so far this year is like comparing a handful of grapes to a finely aged syrah. One has the potential to be something great. The other simply IS.

Technically speaking, Acid Rap is a mixtape. There’s no label involved here, only a collection of passionate artists rallying around Bennet’s vision. And oh what a vision it is. Part 90’s hip hop revival, part neo soul and wholly UNIVERSAL blow out Acid Rap reports on the horrors of life in modern day Chicago with the same joi de vivre it exhibits as when it’s playing with the listener’s conception of what hip hop can be. If after one listen you feel the need to throw around names like Prince or Stevie Wonder, then shout it to the rafters without shame, because this is, in fact, the next level shit.

Before the year is out, there will be plenty more to say about Acid Rap and what Bennet’s motherfucker of an “album” means to what constitutes a proper release in 2013 and beyond. For now just know, more than anything else, that this is the ONE thing you need to put in your fucking ears this year…and the fact that its FREE only sweetens the deal.