[Gen Handley is a staff interviewer for Punknews.org.]
For me, 2013 was a year when there were a lot of highs (amazing new job, even more amazing new girlfriend, Edmonton Oilers) some lows (syphilis, Edmonton Oilers) and a lot of fun interviews for Punknews (Matt Caughthran, Joey Cape, Dan Yemin, Matt Skiba, Trevor Keith). But I think when I look back, I'll mostly remember the soundtrack to it all, the range of quality albums and songs I had playing when it all took place. 2013 was an exciting time of diversity and change, both inside and outside of the speakers, and I hope next year is the same.
Typically very British-sounding for most of their albums (which I loved by the way), the Arctic Monkeys released one of hell of a tribute to Americana this year, lead by Alex Turner's newfound Elvis-esque swagger and pompadour. But it isn't cheesy â it's a confident collection of noir, unapologetic short stories about late-night booty calls, drug-fed frustration and guilty admissions â crooned over Latin and hip hop-inspired beats and those ever-present signature falsetto background vocals. It's a pretty impressive record.
Ambient music is pretty hit-or-miss for me and Portland artist Eluvium's album this year was definitely a hit. Nightmare Ending strikes a chord because in spite of the simplicity and almost complete absence of vocals, the songs (like "Chime") are still able to evoke moods in me that no other album can. By reading my other write-ups on my favourite albums this year, you can tell I'm a big lyrics guy, but Eluvium shows me that song composition can create just as much beautiful imagery as any well-written verse or chorus.
Out of nowhere Have Mercy grabbed my attention with their 2013 release, with 11 really well-written songs and the best emo I've heard since Thursday's farewell album. The songs slowly swell and constrict, briefly hitting peaks just long enough to feel the dizzying height (check out "Let's Talk About Your Hair" and "Ancient West") Emotive and subtly aggressive, these songs sound like a band focused on expression and very much at ease with wearing their hurting hearts for everyone to see.
Earl Sweatshirt: Doris
Tan Cressida / Columbia
This album is an example of how good stories told over simple beats and instrumentals can paint a range of vibrant, intimate and brooding pictures in your head without any fancy/annoying bells and whistles. Doris covers the full gamut of moods from the sadness of a passed grandmother ("Burgundy") to the coming-of-age bravado as an artist ("Molasses," with the RZA). And no matter what scenario he's describing, they're all told in an addictive, weird cadence that has your head spinning after the first few songs.
While never a huge Nine Inch Nails fan, I have always thought Trent Reznor showed some brilliance once in a while and that includes this year's Hesitation Marks (the annoying thing is he knows it). Like the product of an obsessive, mad scientist (which is pretty accurate), every beat, every lyric, every echoing riff and vocal is calculated and precise while still emotive and organic. The songs constantly morph in tempo, sound and mood, keeping me guessing the entire way. Favorite tracks are "Find My Way" and "Came Back Haunted."
I never understood the comparisons of letlive. to Rage Against the Machine â if anything, I feel this band and album echos groups like Coheed and Cambria and prog-rock influences more than anything. Jason Aalon Butler's vocals transition from hardcore to hip-hop, from screams to clean vocals and rhymes seamlessly ("Banshee" and "The Priest and Used Cars"). But that's not the only dichotomy going on: the album sounds almost auto-tuned, overproduced and yet completely raw and primal at times, resulting in one of the most unique albums I heard all year.
Atoms for Peace: Amok
While Amok is a fairly short album (nine songs), each track has that hypnotizing jittery, twitchy quality that I gravitate towards in all of Thom Yorke's work. I know, I know, Atoms for Peace sounds like another latter-era Radiohead album and I'm totally fine with that. But with Flea slappin' da bass and some other new players with long credentials, Amok is a bit groovier, with some new colour that has me tapping my foot in a way that Radiohead doesn't (check out "Stuck Together Pieces" and "Before Your Very Eyes").
Neko Case: The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
This album is just the latest of Neko Case's to mesmerize me with not only that voice, but some pretty impressive songs as well ("Man," "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu"). Like much of her past work, this album is a resonating series of intimate snapshots of Neko's life â but these are tinged with a little more venom, making the album even more memorable. When I think of the Sirens in Greek mythology luring sailors with their irresistible and ultimately fatal songs, I think of Neko Case. My girlfriend should be worried.
The first time I listened to this album, I was really impressed by the surprising balance of raw metal vocals (which weirdly almost sound like whispers at times) and ethereal guitars. The second time I listened to it, I did so with the lyrics in front of me and was blown away again, but differently by the stirring narrative running ("Sunbather") throughout the album. Orchestral and cathartic, vocalist George Clarke eloquently describes certain struggles ("The Pecan Tree") I think most of us have had from time to time, screaming it all at the top of his lungs.
Touche Amore are one of the bands who've brought eloquence and some needed emotion to hardcore. The passion throughout Is Survived By is palpable, tangible and real â it's consistent with everything else they've released, but feels more focused and intense. I feel like every one of these songs is straight from the hurting heart, and it's pretty inspiring how they refuse to hold back. Not once, with songs like "To Write Content" or "Harbor," does singer Jeremy Bolm let you go of his emo death grip and it's awesome.
Swearin': Surfing Strange
Fervent, unpretentious and lyrically resonating, Philly's Swearin' released an album that took me back to the time when I first fell in love rock and roll, when Pixies were all I needed on a road trip to the city or while drinking beers with friends. The album easily shifts gears between melancholic and introspective ("Loretta's Flowers," "Echo Locate") to rambunctious and charging ("Dust in the Gold Sack," "Unwanted Place") â everything I want in a rock album.
Senses Fail used to be a guilty pleasure of mine, a band that grabbed me with pop-punky hooks, some aggressive vocals and OK lyrics. But over five albums that got better and better (Buddy Nielsen's voice included), I began looking forward to each release and being happy that I did so. Renacer is their heaviest album in a new sonic direction that works for them, feeling like a natural progression. The father issues and struggles with alcohol (which were fine for a while) have been replaced with their most creative, inspired lyrics demonstrating some refreshing maturity and evolution ("Holy Mountain," "Ancient Tombs").
Catchy, angsty, and oozing with blood-red allegory was what I was hoping for from one of my favourite bands with their latest album and it's absolutely what I got. Even compared to past Trio records that I still have on rotation, this album stands out lyrically with Matt (and sometimes Dan) shamelessly proclaiming all sorts of heartbrokenness and guilt over tight harmonies and hooks ("The Temptation of St. Anthony," "I Wanna Be a Warhol" and "Midnight Blue"). It's not a crazy new direction for the Trio, but it's exciting to see that they're still enjoying themselves, still writing great songs 20 years after Goddammit â this is what growing older should sound like.
I didn't want to like this album. Since Neon Bible, Arcade Fire had kind of lost steam for me, but this album has honestly made me excited about the band again and any other artist who has hit their peak and done something new and really fucking cool. While I think the double-album structure is a bit unnecessary, everything flows together really well â especially "Afterlife," "Porno" and "Joan of Arc" â making it feel complete and cohesive.
Foals were another band that entered my life this year with their amazing album Holy Fire. Confident, massive, atmospheric and a bit eccentric, the record is something I have never heard before, let alone this year, and because of it they're a band I'll always look for. There are lots of moments of foreign sounds throughout the album, when I'm like, "What the fuck was that?" But instead of creating distance, it's engaging, allowing me to enjoy the world they create. Highlights are "Inhaler" and "Bad Habit.".
Like a night of drinking whisky at a dark bar lit only with neon bathroom signs, this album will eventually have you stumbling around in a haze of fuck-you bliss. Silence Yourself is a writhing collection of primal, punk-art rock songs that continues to keep me stumbling (especially "She Will"), making it a clear standout this year. I had heard a lot of annoying comments and buzz about how great this band was and I say it's all warranted.
I can always depend on the Bronx to release a heavy, eye-opening dose of reality and good lyricism. And while this latest album is a bit lighter than the rest, like all Bronx records, it gets my blood going every time I listen to it. After taking a brief (but glorious) hiatus to make some mariachi music, IV is a solid return to the rock and roll roots they started with. While most songs are more straight-up rock (and even borderline pop - gasp!) than hardcore, the snarl and grit and sentiment are still present throughout and I love every moment of it. Favourite tracks are "Ribcage," "Too Many Devils" and "Torches."
When Tony Sly passed I was really sad because we'd lost an incredible songwriter. But the amazing thing about Tony was that he wrote timeless music that would continue to breathe and grow, and these covers are proof of that. I've loved many of these songs for a long time now, but how some of these artists have reinterpreted them is unique and heartfelt and at times, really incredible. From the haunting opener of Karina Denike's "The Biggest Lie" to Tony's pal Joey Cape singing "Discomfort Inn" to Rise Against's Tim McIlrath singing the tearjerker "For Fiona," they all come together into something truly special.
After Empty Days and Sleepless Nights I had pretty high expectations for the band who released one of my favourite albums of 2011. Letters Home has the aggression, depth and emotion that I wanted from this release. The anger and struggle of the backstory about a deteriorating family after World War II radiates from each of the songs, giving me those goosebumps moments ("No Saviour," "Bastards") I'm always in search of. More than just a hardcore record, Letters Home is a testament to inspired storytelling and how true passion can change the direction of a genre for the good.
A fucking gorgeous, absorbing album, Trouble Will Find Me came at a time when I needed to wallow in pretty songs about sorrow, regret and hangovers. But having moved past tough times, the songs are still relatable, still very much accessible and fun to listen to ("Humiliation" and "Swallow the Cap," in particular). Lead singer Matt Berninger's introspective observations on this album are never alienating and are accessible despite the images of him singing the words to himself in a dark corner with a half-empty bottle of scotch. For a few albums the National were a band I really liked â this album has taken them way above and beyond that.