Best of 2013 (So Far?)

Now that we’ve entered the second half of 2013, it’s only natural and cliché to create a “best of 2013 so far” list to reflect on some music releases that have stood out over the past six months (and to make things a bit easier for when I go back and cover the whole year at the end of the year). 

To be fair, this list simply reflects albums that have hit me or have been important to me on a very personal level – not so much objective analysis going on here. I’m sure there are other albums that are more notable or are even better than some of the ones listed below (for the record, I think the stuff Savages, Phoenix, The Knife, and Queens of the Stone Age have put out this year have also been stellar, but for stuff like that you can always go to Pitchfork, the Quietus, or Tiny Mix Tapes for more in-depth opinions…plus I was too lazy to write about those albums), but these are simply ones that have defined 2013 for me personally, and some that are more relevant to the stuff I write about for this blog.

mbv

My Bloody Valentine – MBV

The fact that MBV even exists is a miracle. The fact that it’s even remotely good is mind-boggling.

What makes MBV so brilliant is it’s self-awareness – this isn’t just an abandoned album from the late 90s. It’s been carefully constructed over the last two decades, being refined and tweaked to a tee, it’s maker completely aware of the sheer weight of the band’s legacy and built-up expectations.

It’s no accident that the album is split into three parts, each gradually building to the next. The album plays as if Kevin Shields is easing you in, with the familiar classic My Bloody Valentine-ish songs at the beginning, with things starting to get weirder and weirder, when in Part III we see the new My Bloody Valentine sound emerge with “In Another Way”, and finally culminate with “Wonder 2”, a track with a sound we had heard spoken about throughout the years, but never got a chance to hear.

Even things like the cover art and tracklisting seem self-referential – from the pixelated blue album cover (a new motif for a band traditionally associated with colors like white and pink and blurred images), which upon close inspection reveal various memorabilia and equipment related to My Bloody Valentine, to titles like “Only Tomorrow” (a riff on “Only Shallow”?) and “New You”. The album is called MBV for crying out loud.

It’s an album that is conscious of where its place is in the My Bloody Valentine canon. It’s the band being totally aware of what they had become in the last two decades, while at the same time not trying to live up to it, subvert it, or even deny it. This is the sound of a band who have embraced their past and their future, have crafted something so modern and yet so timeless, and have seemingly done something impossible.

This is My Bloody Valentine.

My Bloody Valentine – “In Another Way”

newbp

BP. – The New BP.

BP. were around in the late 90s in the Tokyo indie scene, playing alongside bands like Boat and Cowpers. The band is more known for being ex-Coaltar of the Deepers’ Ichimaki’s “other” band, but despite some similarities BP. definitely have their own thing going on.

BP. released just one recording while they were active; 1997’s Golden BP. Ichimaki joined Coaltar of the Deepers just shortly after, and stayed with the band for two albums, Come Over To The Deepend, and No Thank You. She dropped off the radar to raise some kids, effectively ending BP..

So imagine everyone’s surprise when BP. suddenly announced that they were returning at the beginning of 2012. After playing a string of shows with the likes of Natsumen, Dip, and yes, Coaltar of the Deepers, they released their second (!) EP, The New BP., at the beginning of this year.

Reflecting a more refined band, the record captures them in a way their recordings from the 90s never did. The band has always been about the co-existence of guitar pop and hardcore, and the EP displays that unique combination, proving that no matter how much time has past, you can get some people in a room together, and that sound is still there. A testament of a truly unique band.

BP. – “Goodbye, Love”

sunbather

Deafheaven – Sunbather

You know something is right when indie kids get upset because something is too metal, and metal kids get upset when something is too indie. That’s the dilemma Deafheaven present on Sunbather, an album infused with so many elements that it’s become a hot point of (arguably, irrelevant) discussion.

Fundamentally the album can be said to be a mix of black metal and shoegaze, and while that has been done by “blackgaze” (ugh) bands like Alcest or Les Discrets before, never has it been infused with so much heart-on-sleeve emotion. The strokes here are all sweeping and epic, with blast beats soaked in dense, melting guitars, and big, crashing breakdowns channeling behemoths of melancholy and nostalgia. 

The album reminds me a lot of Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Not necessarily in sonic terms (although it’s definitely another album caught in the cracks of metal and indie/alternative), but in terms of the range of emotions the album covers, not to mention sort of unashamed and unrestrained epic qualities the band displays, only updated for the post-Napster, indie-conscious, blogging, youth culture of today.

Deafheaven know that music can change the world, and they’re not unashamed of thinking that way either. With Sunbather, they’ve aimed sky high, and have absolutely 100% succeeded.

Deafheaven – “Sunbather”

5thdimensionnormalMomoiro Clover Z – 5th Dimension

I’ve written extensively about Momoiro Clover Z’s sophomore effort. And despite complaints about the lack of Hyadain songs, or the lack of quirkiness, it’s still a solid album, and worthy of mention. And it’s probably the most interesting J-Pop album released this year (although admittedly I haven’t been following that stuff so much lately).

The scope of the album is certainly something to take note of – you have epic shuffling metal like “Mouretsu Uchuu Kyosoukyoku” alongside with funky-soul tinged “Roudou Sanka”, and then the head-banging electro of “Birth Ø Birth”. And while that at times makes the album sound unfocused and all over the place, the fact that Momoiro Clover Z can get a wide range of musicians to contribute tracks for them speaks volumes about their worth as a subcultural entity (and of course, as a commercial one as well).

In a recent poll done by Nikkei Entertainment about the popularity of “female groups”, Momoiro Clover Z finally dethroned AKB48 and took second place (first place was Perfume). While the over-saturation of idols and idol music in current mainstream Japanese culture has definitely turned many of us off from the whole idol boom, the stances Momoiro Clover Z and AKB48 take on their image, music, and simply the idea of being an idol couldn’t be any more different. I know that I would prefer to have an interesting group like Momoiro Clover Z, who have strong musical talent behind the scenes and a management who seem to know what their doing, at the top of the charts, rather than a group who exploit femininity, ban romantic relationships, shave heads, and churn out the most horrid J-pop in recent memory.

Momoiro Clover Z – “Birth Ø Birth”

13Black Sabbath –13

The story of this album and the reunion of Black Sabbath is as tumultuous and complicated as the band’s line-up changes and discography. Talk of a new Black Sabbath album had been around since the late 90s, when the original line-up got back together for a full-fledged tour and a live album, appropriately titled Reunion. The album had two new studio tracks tacked onto the end, “Psycho Man” and “Selling My Soul”, which ended up being glimpses into what Black Sabbath were kicking around for their reunited studio effort.

Thank goodness it never materialized. “Psycho Man” and “Selling My Soul” were mediocre efforts, a lackluster effort of an attempt to modernize the Sabbath sound. The guitars sounded hyper-compressed, the drums were lined-up perfectly, and Ozzy’s voice was layered and seemed disconnected. The songs didn’t have – for lack of a better term – the “warmth” of the classic Sabbath sound.

And while there are definitely bits of modernization to be found on 13, the album is very much a Black Sabbath album in vein of the classic records throughout the 70s. Tony Iommi’s guitar tone has never sounded better – it’s a modern high-gain tone, but it’s not like his tone on the two reunion tracks, which sounded brittle and over-compressed – the warmth and thickness he was known for throughout the 70s is very much there. Even a long E-power chord will make your jaw drop in awe and your bones shiver.

Geezer Butler also brings his A-game with his intricate bass lines – much of the Sabbath sound is very much indebted to the interplay between Iommi and Butler, and the synchronization and intuitive connection they have between each other.

Guest drummer Brad Wilk of Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave does an admirable job behind the kit, to the point where you sort of forget about that other drummer with the initials “B.W.” , who was supposed to be on this album. Wilk is a natural fit, his groove locking in nicely with Iommi and Butler. Much of the “classic feel” can perhaps be attributed to Wilk’s drumming style – the album would have probably sounded more like the two songs on Reunion had touring drummer Tommy Clufetos been the man playing the sticks.

It’s Ozzy Osbourne’s vocals however, that makes this Black Sabbath. Osbourne’s voice has always been the signature of the band, with his seemingly monotonous and toneless vocals adding that extra bit of eeriness that makes the band so scary and intriguing. Osbourne has always been a fairly limited vocalist, but when he works he works, and in Black Sabbath, he’s right at home. Unfortunately, there aren’t any of his signature guitar-riff-unison melodies (like “Iron Man”, “N.I.B.”, “Electric Funeral”), and the melodies are perhaps not as catchy as say, “Paranoid” or “Snowblind”, but the presence of Osbourne certainly plays a big part in creating the feel of the album, reminding all of us that the only Black Sabbath is Black Sabbath with Ozzy Osbourne.

But ultimately the album is Iommi’s sweat and blood. After the loss of a dear friend in Ronnie James Dio, and then brushing with death himself by being diagnosed with lymphoma two years ago, the Father of Metal sounds like he’s giving it his all with his crushing guitar riffs and soaring guitar solos. As he said in a recent interview: “Fucking hell, that’s it – we’ve got to get a move on. I might pop off next year!”  That sense of danger and urgency comes through on the record, which is in a sense, what Black Sabbath has always been about.

Black Sabbath – “God Is Dead?”

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