5. Alex G – DSU
For a long time Death Cab for Cutie were my favourite band; Ben Gibbard had this great talent for conveying what were often pretty standard melancholy-dude-with-a-guitar tropes into something immediate and propulsive. Although I’ve grown out of a lot of those ideas (a recent Pitchfork piece summed up my thoughts), I still find myself pining for the same feelings those songs stirred up in me, but without any of that childish emotional baggage. Enter Alex G’s DSU. Alex G has the same sensibilities as Gibbard’s earliest work, albeit more fully formed than All-Time Quarterback, and DSU is the result of a shy and isolated artist fiercely confident in what these qualities should sound like.
Before we go any further let’s acknowledge that Alex G isn’t Ben Gibbard. It’s unlikely we’ll see him on our TV’s in the background of a California based soap any time soon. Alex G doesn’t have that same top 40 tendency Gibbard does, and DSU’s use of low-fi textures is much more playful and experimental than Gibbard or Death Cab ever were. ‘After Ur Gone’ starts the album with a hesitant, laconic guitar line with hushed vocals hiding amongst the other instruments. This is something Alex Giannascoli works with throughout the album, his voice is never the focal point, instead occasionally popping its head round the corner. In ‘Black Hair’ the vocal melody is easily pushed to one side by guitar feedback and in ‘Axesteel’, he’s struggling to fight off an especially dry, shrill guitar. What elevates DSU beyond a simple low-fi tapestry of sound is Giannascoli’s wonderful ear for melody. This album is 13 vignettes that all feature moments promising to ingrain themselves in your head – it could be a gleeful piano break, a staggered guitar line or Giannascoli singing something typically sad-sack like ‘I won’t remember who you are’.
DSU is a low-fi earworm, it’s short, with each song continuously exploring new ideas, but with so many memorable moments that hardly seems to matter.
4. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead
I’ve already wrote about You’re Dead on here, but the more I listen to it, the more I end up unpacking and noticing, for example I’ve been listening to a lot of Alice Coltrane recently, and her influence is all over Flying Lotus’ latest musical odyssey.
Like DSU, You’re Dead is brief, and initially, as someone who thinks Cosmogramma is probably the best thing Stephen Ellison will ever make – I was disappointed. I wanted him to go for that grand scale of album again but as it turns out, 39 minutes turns out to be just right for You’re Dead. It explores so many ideas, goes in so many different directions and completely envelops the listener in its meticulously crafted and layered sound.
You’re Dead is an exploration of death but at the same time it’s an exploration of the music behind Stephen Ellison the man: what influences him, how he sees genres fitting together, what he can communicate with the art form and where he can take listeners.
3. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib – Piñata
I must have listened to Piñata at least once a week since it was released in March – it’s easily my favourite hip-hop album of the year. Gibbs buttery smooth flow is as relentless as ever and there’s the perfect combination of self aware reflections on a life lived: ‘Maybe you a stank ho, maybe that’s a bit mean / Maybe you grew up and I’m still living like I’m sixteen’ along with the ridiculous images that make him such an engaging rapper beyond that effortless flow: ‘Took it in that, hit that wish I could say it was accidentally / Like I stepped on a banana peel and fell in that pussy’. But even though Gibbs is front and centre on this album, my favourite part of it doesn’t actually feature him. ‘Watts’ features Gibbs’ uncle Big Time Watts, and underneath his vocals, there’s a sample of this song by Bobby M; I tracked the sample down, got the album and have been listening to it ever since. This wasn’t the first time this has happened with this album, and definitely not with Madlib either. It reminded me that even after listening to this album to death, Madlib’s ear could lead me to new and previously unknown gems. Other albums were more lyrically dense, more politically aware and more diverse but Piñata was it’s own unique treasure. Cracking it open was fun, finding out what was inside was even better.
2. Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else
I would have been happy with just another Attack on Memory to be honest. Cloud Nothings’ second album, released in 2012 was one of my favourites from the year and one of the first things produced by Steve Albini that really clicked with me. The guitars all had this distinct scratchy, treble heavy tone to them, leaving only the bass and drums to make up the low end. Drummer Jayson Gerycz’s interplay with the guitars was another highlight, sounding like he was about to smash his kit into a thousand pieces on every song. As the release date for Here and Nowhere Else came closer I wondered if they would mine this particular sound for another record, which would have been fine by me, or try something different.
Here and Nowhere Else turned out to have the best of both worlds. It’s got a new production aesthetic the whole way through and there’s a much greater focus on blending the previously treble heavy guitar bass and drums, while having frontman Dylan Baldi’s vocals slot in between the instruments. Baldi’s voice has improved and he shows great variety here, going from a Greenday pop-punk inflection during the verses of highlight ‘Psychic Trauma’ before letting loose with hoarse screams for the chorus and outro. Album closer ‘I’m not part of me’ is has the kind of song writing genius that makes you think Baldi could easily write top 40 pop hits after Cloud Nothings.
Here are Nowhere Else does that rare and brilliant thing, it builds on its predecessor in every way, leaving me with a distinct feeling of deja vu – ‘Can it really get much better than this?’
1. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
I’ve already written about Benji and the snapshot of moments Kozelek offers, these are often sketches of characters combined with Kozelek’s own thoughts, both from the past and present. What’s remarkable about these is not the overarching themes that appear but the small details that this album is filled with. They help transform Benji from an essay on remembrance and death to something more personal and intimate. It’s an album that strikes the rare balance between universality and confessional journalling.
Even though later on in the year Mark would get involved in some pretty cringe worthy get-off-my-lawn type outbursts, it was a testament to how immediate and personal Benji was that I didn’t feel a need to tarnish the experience of the album itself. Benji is also such a clear portrait of the man that it all kind of makes sense. Of course the singer of a line like ‘There’s a thin line between a middle-aged guy with a backstage pass / And a guy with a gut hanging around like a jackass / Everybody there was twenty years younger than me’ would take a simple angry outburst too far. Of course the man who lamented ‘The Sopranos guy died at 51 / That’s the same age as the guy who’s coming to play drums / I don’t like this getting older stuff’ would hate The War on Drugs, a band full of members that evoke that image.
When I originally wrote about Benji, I compared it to Winesburg, Ohio and the way that both use vignettes of people to carry a greater narrative (fun fact, Winesburg, Ohio ends with George leaving Ohio and Benji begins with Mark returning to the town). With Anderson, it’s the story of a kid leaving a town to make something of themselves, with Benji Mark doesn’t have the same lofty goals, in fact Benji often borders on the mundane, it’s the story of a man coming to terms with death and the relationships he’s had over the years, but it’s so perfectly formed that it becomes this beautiful example of music’s transformative ability to turn the mundane into the captivating.