Monday, December 30, 2013

Top 13 Non-2013 Albums of the Year

I have regular segment called Fresh Produce on the MusicVox on Vocalo Public Radio in Chicago every Tuesday. I highlight three to five new albums that are out that week. As such, I listen to at least five and usually closer to ten new releases each week, most of which I never listen to a second time. Even with all of this time I spend keeping up with the torrent of new releases, I still find time to listen to great older albums. To honor some of these older albums that dominated my year, I put together this list of my top non-2013 albums of the year in no particular order. Some are albums I’ve been listening to for years, and others are ones I discovered for the first time in the last twelve months. All of them are excellent.

 #1: Mr. Lif - I Phantom (2002)

Mr. Lif was one of my first favorite rappers. Mo’ Mega and the Emergency Rations EP were so important to me in high school, and Mr. Lif was more instrumental than almost any other rapper in getting me to really plunge into the world of hip-hop, but I didn’t hear I Phantom until a couple of years into college. Spurred on by El-P’s phenomenal work last year, 2013 has found me listening to a ton of Def Jux stuff again, and I Phantom has gotten the most plays from me this year out of that crop of exceptional albums. It’s a great album that follows a loose multi-part concept, and Mr. Lif proves that he is a remarkably talented rapper, especially on tracks like the second half of “Return of the B-Boy.” More than anything, revisiting I Phantom reminded me why I got into hip-hop in the first place. And “Live from the Plantation” helped me get through a lot of drives to a shitty job.

#2: Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works Volume II (1994)

Insomnia has been a frustratingly recurring issue for me over the past ten years or so. Not too long ago, I started playing Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II to help me fall asleep. It worked. The two and a half hours of immaculately crafted ambient music lulled me to sleep so well that I rarely made it past track five of twenty-two. Then, after a few weeks of Selected Ambient Works Volume II being one of the most effective sleep aids I’ve ever tried, a funny thing happened. The album started keeping me awake. It’s such a hypnotic and intensely layered album that it demands attention in a way that no other ambient record I’ve ever heard has done. The high watermark of ambient, Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, drifts completely into the background, becoming a piece of sonic furniture in whatever room you’re sitting in. Selected Ambient Works Volume II imposes itself on your environment. Truly immerse yourself in the sounds that Aphex Twin conjured, and the album becomes so much more than furniture. It becomes the entire environment.

#3: Big Boys - Where's My Towel/Industry Standard (1981)

I stopped skating early in high school, when a ligament inflammation in my right knee made landing on a skateboard painful. I never really looked back, finding much more joy in comics and music, but Big Boys’ first album Where’s My Towel/Industry Standard made me yearn to start skating again for the first time in over a decade. It was one of the opening salvos of skate punk in the early ‘80s, an album seemingly tailor-made to soundtrack countless skate videos. Bits and pieces of the Dicks, Gang of Four, the Fall, and a bunch of other bands allowed Big Boys to find a funky punk sound that feels like a direct precursor to the Minutemen’s classic Double Nickels on the Dime. I listened to a lot of punk rock in 2013, and this album was easily my favorite new find of the year, hands down.

#4: John Coltrane - Interstellar Space (1974, recorded 1967)

There are a lot of Coltrane albums (both John and Alice) that I want to get my hands on, but for whatever reason I haven’t found any copies of some and haven’t gotten around to finally picking up the others. Interstellar Space, the final studio album that Trane recorded before his death in 1967, was the one I wanted most desperately, but I had never seen a vinyl copy until earlier this year. The album consists of four pieces, all named after planets, and they all start the same way, with Coltrane ringing bells to herald the arrival of Rashied Ali’s drumming. Trane joins him on tenor early on in each track, and the two improvise together within a loose framework of ideas. It’s incredible, with both musicians absolutely at the top of their game. Choosing to strip away bass and piano for this record was an inspired choice, as both musicians are afforded much more space to experiment. It’s a precursor to the unconventional smaller ensemble records of the loft jazz period in the ‘70s, where musicians shifted away from the standard ensemble configurations and began performing with strange lineups, in duos, or even solo (with Anthony Braxton’s incredible double album For Alto, recorded a year after Interstellar Space, leading the charge on the latter). John Coltrane died a few months after Interstellar Space, but this last studio album is one of the major tent poles holding up his towering legacy, and it’s one of the greatest free jazz albums of the ‘60s.
#5: Aceyalone - All Balls Don't Bounce (1995)

Whenever anyone starts getting into a genre or style of music, their first excursions tend to be piecemeal, missing major landmark albums while they check out lesser-known albums that they heard about from a friend or somewhere on the internet. At least that’s what happened to me when I started getting into hip-hop. Aesop Rock, an early favorite of mine, led me to Illogic and Blueprint, who pointed the way to RJD2, who had recently put out the album Magnificent City with Aceyalone. It’s a fine album, but it’s nothing groundbreaking. Thankfully, I went back and got Aceyalone’s amazing first two albums All Balls Don’t Bounce and A Book of Human Language. This put me in the odd position of having heard All Balls Don’t Bounce before I ever sat down and listened to Illmatic, or The Infamous, or 3 Feet High and Rising, or AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. It gave me a skewed perception of hip-hop history early on, where Aceyalone loomed much larger in my head than he ever actually did outside of it. In spite of his prodigious mic skills and his place as one of the four members of the Freestyle Fellowship (and the FF member who had the most successful solo career), he never got all that much shine. Even with four classic albums under his belt (the first two Freestyle Fellowship albums and his aforementioned first two solo albums), he remains a minor figure in hip-hop history. Still, I’m glad I revisited and spent a lot of time with All Balls Don’t Bounce early this past summer. With the exception of a few darker tracks, it fit the May-June climate perfectly.
 #6: Lindstrøm - Where You Go I Go Too (2008)
This album sounds like a damn monorail. Sleek, shiny, constantly in motion, it’s the most satisfying deep house record I’ve ever heard, and it’s the only one that’s kept me coming back over and over again for five years. It’s futurism at its finest, pointing the way toward a bright, magnificent future. In fact, this is probably the least dystopian futurist record I’ve ever heard, 55 minutes of ecstatic instrumental space disco. When Lindstrøm made Where You Go I Go Too, his first full-length album, he had grown tired of the constraints of standard song lengths, but his compositions more than justify running for 10-28 minutes. It’s an impressive feat within a genre that isn’t typically known for epic runtimes. It works so perfectly as a whole, and I never get tired of listening to it.


#7: The Fall - This Nation's Saving Grace (1985)

I read Simon Reynolds’ excellent survey of post-punk history Rip it Up and Start Again at the top of this year. It spurred me to revisit bands that I already loved, including Wire, Mission of Burma, and Public Image Ltd. (Light in the Attic’s reissue of PiL’s Metal Box certainly helped matters there). Even better though, it got me to check out a bunch of bands that I didn’t already know. The Raincoats, Swell Maps, and the Slits have been great finds for me this year, but the best has been the Fall. I already had their debut Live at the Witch Trials, but I had probably only listened to it four times in as many years. Reynolds helped me appreciate the Sheffield band’s incredible early ‘80s run, from Witch Trials in 1979 culminating in 1985 with This Nation’s Saving Grace. While there isn’t a weak album or EP in the bunch (suspect mixing on a few of them aside), that 1985 album remains the band’s crowning achievement. An acerbic, goofy, and occasionally serious album, it marks the apex of Mark E. Smith’s songwriting. I can’t believe it took me until this year to get really into the Fall, but at least now I recognize them as one of the best post-punk bands of all time.

#8: MC Eiht - We Come Strapped (1994)

I’ve always been an east coast guy when it comes to my hip-hop tastes. That’s not to say that I don’t dig west coast and southern rap (although I was later to the party than I’d care to admit on the latter region), but New York has appealed to me the most over my many years immersed in hip-hop. Over the summer though, I went through a few months where the only thing that whet my appetite was g-funk and dirty south rap. Cruising around listening to UGK and Eightball & M.J.G., sitting at home listening to Screw tapes, finally immersing myself in g-funk beyond Dre and Snoop, taking the time to form my own opinions on No Limit Records beyond the label’s generally negative reputation among east coast heads (more on that later), and otherwise digging into sounds that had previously been mostly outside my scope. While UGK’s Riding Dirty was the best of these albums that were new to my ears, it was an album that I already had that got the most plays this year. I got my hands on MC Eiht’s terrific solo debut We Come Strapped a few years ago, but I filed it away after a few listens and didn’t revisit it again until this summer, but I now recognize it as the best g-funk album behind The Chronic (Doggystyle is a close third). Where The Chronic is a widescreen, immaculately composed slab of west coast hip-hop, We Come Strapped is a decidedly low-key affair. In place of The Chronic’s full band sound, MC Eiht and DJ Slip built their sound on bass and synth strings, allowing the entire album to work as fifteen variations on one well-honed, stripped down sound. As such, the entire album floats by as a compulsively listenable 58 minutes. Eiht is a great rapper, with one of the most distinct and attention-commanding voices that California has ever given us. While his albums with Compton’s Most Wanted, and especially the great Music to Driveby, are truly excellent albums that did much to shape the sound that would dominate the west coast for the first half of the nineties, MC Eiht’s 1994 solo debut is a high water mark that he never quite topped and few others ever came close to reaching. And it sounds great in the car too.

#9: The Mars Volta - The Bedlam in Goliath (2008)

I’m usually quick to criticize an album for being an overstuffed mess, which is exactly what The Bedlam in Goliath is. Yet anything else would be a poor fit for a band like the Mars Volta (as their boring fifth album Octahedron proved), and what an exhilarating mess this album is. I loved this album when it came out in January 2008, but I have hardly listened to it since the druggy period I was in at the time ended. I was missing out. Who cares if the lyrics are incomprehensible? I certainly never listened to this album for the lyrics in spite of the overblown concepts behind each album. No, the appeal of the band is in its total commitment to being completely over the top. Prog rock hasn’t been so insane and self-indulgent since Tales from Topographic Oceans, but the Mars Volta packs so much sheer instrumental power and chaos into the whole record that it transcends the laughableness of Yes’ magnum opus/arguable nadir. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez is an elemental force on the guitar, pulling the music in every direction and transforming it seemingly on a whim. Every other band member is forced to keep up, which they accomplish with gusto. It’s an exhausting, immersive 75 minutes, and I’m disappointed it took so long for it to reenter my life.

#10: D'Angelo - Voodoo (2000)

Light in the Attic Records had a great year, reissuing material by Lee Hazlewood, Public Image Ltd., Roky Erickson, Big Boys, Mark Lanegan, and others. The two most exciting LITA reissues of the year were both beautifully packaged 2LP sets of albums that took me a woefully long time to fully wrap my head around. The first was D’Angelo’s Voodoo, which got a limited vinyl run when it came out in 2000 but had since been out of print in that format. I’ve loved “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” since the first time I heard it, but the rest of the album, which on early listens sounds more like a collection of sonically and thematically connected sketches rather than actual fully-formed songs, didn’t make sense to me right away. Every time I’ve listened to it since, it’s made a little bit more sense. I was talking to one of my cousins about Voodoo and Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun the other night, and both of us agreed that they are the two best soul albums of the 2000s, and they’re clearly two sides of the same Soulquarian coin. But Voodoo is definitely its own beast as well, and it doesn’t sound quite like any other album I’ve heard. D’Angelo has always been a true perfectionist and visionary, and Voodoo is the greatest proof we have of that. Now if he could just finish James River so I can get a studio version of “The Charade.”

#11: Digable Planets - Blowout Comb (1994)

I weirdly heard Digable Planets’ 1992 debut Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) before I heard The Low End Theory. Back in the summer of 2006, when a Jim Mahfood comic turned me on to that first Digable Planets record, my knowledge and understanding of jazz was limited to Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and the copy of John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things that my parents owned but rarely played. More than anything else, that first Digable Planets album opened me up to jazz, which has been perhaps the richest exploration of my adult life. So it’s strange that it took me so long to get into the group’s sophomore album Blowout Comb. It’s a considerably more muted affair, and the lyrics took a darker, more militant turn the second time around. Unlike Reachin’, whose charms are evident on the first listen, Blowout Comb is a much tougher nut to crack, but it slowly started making sense to me late last year. Light in the Attic put out a gorgeous 2LP reissue over the summer, and everything fully clicked the moment I put the needle on side one. It’s so much better and more mature than their incredible debut, making it one of the best unheralded rap albums of all time. Everything about it breathes New York and the city’s tremendous musical history, and it transports the listener to times and places that they never experienced with each track. The group folded before they put out a third album, but they built a tremendous legacy with Reachin’ and solidified it with Blowout Comb.

#12: Fiend - There's One in Every Family (1998)

This is my least defensible pick on this list. For many hip-hop heads, No Limit Records represents one of the genre’s lowest points in the late nineties. And while Master P never succeeded at his goal of becoming the next 2Pac (with the sub-“Changes” garbage of songs like “I Miss My Homies” and his substantially weaker rap skills not exactly helping him on his quest), Silkk the Shocker is still one of the worst rappers of all time, and No Limit albums tended to be overly long and overstocked with subpar guests, there is still a lot of gold to be found in the label’s catalog. First and foremost is Mystikal, who sounds excitingly like no other rapper who has ever existed or will ever exist, but there are great rappers that never reached his level of prominence, like Mia X and Fiend. The latter’s first No Limit album There’s One in Every Family is one of the best examples of what the label was capable of when it was firing on all cylinders. After the very weak and sappy “Take My Pain,” the album proceeds with twenty tracks of head knocking, bone crushing southern hip-hop. Fiend is a great rapper with a commanding voice that he mostly turned up to a ragged bark on this album, and Beats by the Pound were on their A game with this one supplying darkness (“Who Got the Fire”) and ghetto triumphalism (“Big Timer”) where necessary. The subject matter is limited and frankly a little clichéd, but Fiend’s presence on the mic sells even the most tired subject matter. If Mystikal’s vocal style is too intense and insane for you, There’s One in Every Family is the ideal starting point for a surprisingly underrated label.

#13: Meat Puppets - Meat Puppets II (1984)

David Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life is probably my favorite music book that I’ve ever read. Even though Azerrad only profiles thirteen bands, countless others float along the peripheries, and it’s a rich text for anyone seeking to explore American indie rock in the ‘80s. Yet there are several notable omissions in the book: Meat Puppets, the Descendants, Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, Naked Raygun, the Melvins, any female artists, and others. This is a problem Azerrad acknowledges in his introduction, saying that he wanted to include so many other bands but he also wanted to avoid turning in a book that was thousands of pages long. He instead implores the reader to pick up where he left off, filling in the gaps in his own book. I took this to heart. I worked on and off this year on a multipart feature that I’m calling “The Meat Puppets Could Be Your Life,”[1] compiling quotes, old zine articles, and all kinds of other source material to use in what will be my largest undertaking as a writer thus far. I’m far from done, but it gave me a great excuse to listen to the Meat Puppets constantly. This was the year of Meat Puppets II for me. Damaged is the quintessential SST album, and Zen Arcade and Double Nickels on the Dime, with their sprawling scopes and incredible songs, are probably the label’s peak. But Meat Puppets II is my favorite. Punk, country, and the Grateful Dead swirl together into one sunbaked whole, broken up into twelve of the catchiest tunes the band ever put to tape. It’s not a conceptual album like Zen Arcade or Double Nickels, but it captures the feel of living in the Arizona desert far away from the deteriorating factory towns and rapidly deindustrializing urban centers those other bands called home. Most of all, it’s just a blast to listen to. The Meat Puppets became my life in 2013. Give Meat Puppets II a listen and they could become your life in the new year.

[1] Depending on how this series of pieces goes, I hope to do similar things for some of the other bands I listed, with Bad Brains, the Descendants, Naked Raygun, and Dead Kennedys vying for the chance to be the second “…Could Be Your Life” feature I want to do.

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