365 Albums In 2013: February

[365 Albums In 2013 is a monthly feature in which I document the experience of trying to listen to 365 new albums released in 2013. It also features assorted accolades for the month’s best and worst music.]

FEBRUARY

Maybe this was a bad idea. In theory, listening to more albums every year is great. It allows you to open yourself up to new music and discover new things that you’d never have known about otherwise. I’ve already found a bundle of great artists that I would have never checked out otherwise. But I’ve also subjected myself to hours upon hours of watered down R&B, minimalist electronica, and reversed-out indie rock-lite. Not that it hasn’t been worth it. I may have slogged through Hilly Eye waiting for the sweet relief of silence, but every once and awhile, something like Widowspeak pops up and makes a permanent place in my nightly rotation. Part of it could also be the universal lull in late winter releases (see the previous entry in this series). The wheels really start turning in Spring, it seems, when the heavy hitters comes out of hibernation. But there are always good releases hiding in the cracks, even in the art world’s darkest hours. So with this (hopefully) being the last slow month before an avalanche of good, let’s take at look at February’s hidden gems.

Best Album

UMO II

Unknown Mortal Orchestra “II”

Allow me to make a bold claim: Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s “II” is the album that people thought Tame Impala’s “Lonerism” was. I know, I know, Tame Impala dominated the indie pop scene last year, topping many year-end lists (even ranking quite high on this blog’s own). While “Lonerism” has a great core sound, it sometimes felt a bit exhaustive with a few overlong, redundant jams. “II” has a similar sound, combining a retro vibe with modern indie pop sensibilities, but each song feels incredibly focused. The hooks are tight and the music never meanders, resulting in a remarkably tight pop record with no filler. Earworms like the soulful “So Good At Being In Trouble” or the infectiously cool “The Opposite of Afternoon” are sure to be kicking around in your skull long after you can even remember what half of “Lonerism” sounds like. (NOTE: “Lonerism” is still a solid record, no disrespect.)

Worst Album

Applescal

Applescal “Dreaming In Key”

You know, sometimes I’m thankful that I’m not a music critic. After a certain point, it seems like it’d become incredibly difficult to write about stunningly mediocre albums. Point in case: Applescal’s “Dreaming In Key.” Okay, there’s nothing ear-splittingly bad about it, per say. But it dips so far into electronic mediocrity that there’s simply nothing to say about it. The electronic world seems to be ablaze with minimalist producers, focusing on small ambience rather than creating the next big club banger. But Dreaming In Key, like many other recent albums of its kind, just kind of floats by sleepily. Does it take much skill to do what Applescal is doing here? I’m sure it does. But it sounds so effortless, as if the producer threw on a beat and left the room to make a sandwich.

Best Song

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds “Jubilee Street”

Last we heard from Nick Cave, he was kicking out some dirty, excellent garage rock tunes. But on his newest record with The Bad Seeds, Cave takes a U-turn, opting for a slower, more atmospheric tone. The result is lovely, with Cave busting out a great batch of moody, Neil Young-esque ballads. The best of the batch, however, is the album’s 6 and a half minute centerpiece, “Jubilee Street”. Cave weaves his oddball lyrics (“I got a foetus on the leash”) between a smooth guitar line. As the narrator reaches the end of his weepy tale, he exclaims, “I’m flying, look at me now,” and right on cue, the music elevates him to the heavens with a massive string section and choir. It’s a stunningly beautiful moment from a band who once made an entire album about gruesome murders.

Other Notable Tracks:

Album That Could Have Been Terrible, But Turned Out Mercifully Well

Kozelek Rats

Mark Kozelek “Like Rats”

Mark Kozelek’s track record is generally good. His project Sun Kil Moon has yielded a slew of solid albums, including last year’s “Among The Leaves.” But one of his mightiest flops came in the form of “Tiny Cities,” an entire cover album of Modest Mouse reinterpretations. The result was less than stellar. So the idea of Kozelek doing another cover album, including versions of songs by Bad Braids and Bruno Mars, is scary on paper. Fortunately, Like Rats is a much stronger effort than “Tiny Cities.” Perhaps that’s because the album is mostly just Kozelek and a single guitar, giving the entire affair an intimate mood. It feels like you’re sitting in a dimly lit bar with Kozelek as he rattles off 13 songs that he simply enjoys playing. There’s no irony or cheap jokes here; each song is treated with delicacy, using sparse production to maximum effect.

Reunion Album That Was Actually Pretty Damn Good

mbv

My Bloody Valentine “m b v”

When did reunion albums get good? I always thought it was an unspoken rule that when bands reunited, their inevitable comeback record was supposed to make us wish they’d stayed broken up. And yet, we’ve seen some brilliant albums over the years from reformed bands like Swans and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. And now, My Bloody Valentine can add themselves to the list of bands who’ve achieved the impossible, as their long awaited reunion album “m b v” not only impressed, but positioned itself as a serious Album of the Year contender for many. And it’s easy to see why. My Bloody Valentine showed the shoegaze world what it’s been missing for the last two decades, with mesmerizing fuzz rock. Perhaps it’s been a bit overhyped by rabid fans and critics stunned by its very existence, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is, indeed, pretty damn good.

Most Overused Album Title

KXP

Naming Your Album After The Number LP It Is In Your Discography, But In Roman Numerals

You’re a young band getting ready to drop your second album, but there’s a problem; you have no idea what to name it. You could go through the lyrics and find some recurring thematic element, or important, fitting phrase. But why put that effort in when you can just name it 2? No, 2’s a little obvious… How about II? That’s exactly what Unknown Mortal Orchestra and K-X-P seemed to settle on this month. Eat Skull, on the other hand, upped the ante a little bit, naming their third album III. Exciting. Listen, naming your album after its number in your discography isn’t inherently bad (See Portishead’s Third), but when did roman numerals become the hot new naming convention for albums? In three years, will we see She & Him drop Volume IV? Or will we be on to tally marks by then?

Most Likely To Permanently Damage Your Hearing

Friel Folklore

Dan Friel “Total Folklore”

If you’re looking for a quick way to go deaf, may I suggest the latest album from Dan Friel? The former Parts and Labor member’s new record turns up the noise past 11, with high pitched, squealing synths and exploding electronic drums bursting out of every track. Don’t mistake that as a criticism; Total Folklore is a blast of a record, mixing indie pop, noise rock, and chiptune into one glorious, fist-pumping experience. But be warned: No matter what you do, this will harm your sensitive, little ears. On first listen, I blasted it out of my Mac’s internal speakers. Once it became too loud, I tried to turn it down, but no level of volume would stop the throbbing in my skull. Perhaps it’s just that my brain couldn’t help but mosh, and fist-pump along, in which case I just can’t blame it.

The ‘Nice Try, Thom Yorke’ Award

Atoms Amok

Atoms For Peace “Amok”

No, really, it’s good Thom, really. You know, those first 3 tracks are really cool, I like what you’re doing there–huh? Oh, the rest? Oh… yeah, man it’s neat. You know, the whole beat heavy production with minimal synths… especially on those first few tracks– huh? What do I think of “Dropped”? I, uh, I don’t really remember how that one goes…what? “Useless?” Is that a song? Oh, I mean, right right of course “Useless”! That’s the one with the beat right? Yeah, man, “Before Your Very Eyes…” is just really great, man, keep it up. Soooo… how’re Radiohead doing? New album coming soon? Cool, cool man, well I can’t wait to hear it! Alright, I gotta go man, I’ve got this… thing. But really cool bumping into you, man. Take it easy, Thom.

Other Noteworthy February Albums:

  • Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds “Push The Sky Away”
  • Foals “Holy Fire”
  • Thao & The Get Down Stay Down “We The Common”
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