Best Albums of The Fiddleback Years, Pg. 1 (30-20)


As you probably heard, this is the last issue of The Fiddleback. This is some sad shit for the guys who write and curate the music section. Over the last three years, we’ve had a lot of fun listening to, arguing about, and writing about our favorite—and least favorite—records and songs. We feel pretty lucky that Jeff asked us to hop on board his Fiddletrain to write about whatever we wanted. It isn’t often one gets the opportunity to enter a music writing situation with so much freedom. I’ll miss it. Since it’s all coming to something of an end, the music section’s three remaining editors—Brian Flota, Joshua Cross, and myself—decided to make a list of our thirty favorite albums from The Fiddleback Era. I hope you enjoy our nostalgic look back at some of our favorite albums from The Fiddleback’s all too brief tenure.

This list is not intended to be a “best of” list. Based on its methodology, the list is more of a representative look at what the three of us liked and enjoyed for the last three years. As for that methodology, here’s what we did: we drafted records, one at a time, to build a list of thirty. Once we had a raw list of thirty records, each of us had 10 up/down-votes that we took turns applying to shape the list. Then, we let Fiddleback Editor-in-Chief Jeff Simpson select a few honorable mentions to tack on. As for the dates—astute readers might notice that there are a few albums on this list from 2010, from before The Fiddleback’s first issue was published. We decided to set the start point for the list at September 2010, around the time we were beginning to think about and write for the journal’s first issue. Without further ado, then, here it is, The Fiddleback Editors Presents, the 30 (something) Best Albums From the Last 3 Years:




M83 | Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (2011)


M83’s glorious 2011 Double LP was originally in this list’s top 30. Then Arcade Fire released Reflektor and I made the executive decision to replace Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming with that more recent album. Was it a mistake? Maybe. I’m already doubting my decision, but I’m glad I made it, especially as I see how many votes Reflektor is currently racking up in our 2013 Album of the Year poll. Still, there’s something about Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming that will make me always love it. It’s a majestic, dramatic, and playful album, as wistful as it is heartbroken, and filled-to-bursting with catchy hooks. Lingerie ads be damned, “Midnight City” will easily go down as one of the best songs of the decade, and the almost-as-catchy “Claudia Lewis,” “New Map,” and “Steve McQueen” shouldn’t be far behind. –James Brubaker


Colin Stetson | New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light (2013)


After Stetson released Judges in 2011, I wasn’t exactly sure where he could go next. As much as I loved that album, I worried that Stetson’s saxophone chops were too much of the story and once everyone got used to those chops there wouldn’t be anything left to get excited about. Thankfully, with To See More Light, Stetson grew his sound by complicating his ideas and providing a more dramatic and emotional record in the process. To See More Light also does a nice job of recontextualizing Stetson’s earlier New History Warfare volumes by making them part of a musical narrative—Judges isn’t just an album from a horn player with massive chops anymore, it’s the reflective calm before the cathartic storm that is To See More Light. With his New History Warfare trilogy, then, Stetson has made a major work that is innovative and thrilling, and will probably end up being more influential than any of us have yet to realize. –James Brubaker


Dirty Beaches | Badlands (2011)


Here’s why Badlands is such an exciting record—despite the artist’s lack of American ties, this music sounds oddly American, in that it is rooted in our country’s Rock and Roll past. But these songs are just as interested in the decay that has—for better or worse—overtaken that past. Badlands isn’t just a scuzzed-out rock and roll road record, then, it’s an album about memory and sound, about people and beauty and the distance between the two, about a particular nostalgic conception of romance that we can never, and should never return to. –James Brubaker


The Men | Open Your Heart (2012)


The Men open their third full length album, Open Your Heart, with a guitar riff that nods toward the opening of Stiff Little Fingers’ “Suspect Device,” then launches into raucous and wild, punk-inflected power pop that sounds kind of like Big Star on a handful of uppers.  As an opening statement, “Turn it Around,” says much of what there is to say about Open Your Heart.  In the album’s first song, The Men set the tone for an album that is steeped in punk, pop, and psychadelia, with plenty of garage rock swagger to go around.  By the time the punk-inflected vocals sear their way through “Animal,” the album’s second track, The Men have left little doubt that theirs is a music that intends to be both raw and volatile. –James Brubaker




30.  Arcade Fire | Reflektor (2013)


Among the easier critiques lobbied at Reflektor upon its release is that it was too long and/or unfocused. This is not inaccurate. The album is around eighty-five minutes long, with most of its songs clocking in around the six-minute mark. Aesthetically, the album is a bit scatter-shot, with stylistic nods to disco, punk, arena rock, dub, and world beat. In these terms, Reflektor is a bit of a mess. But the way it all comes together—a first disc of more traditionally, dance-oriented rock songs, followed by a slightly slower set of slightly less dancey songs—is inspired. It is in this exploration of dance music that Reflektor finds its through-thread. As we peel back each song’s layers, we begin to hear Caribbean and South American rhythms and textures running through and butting up against more conventional disco dance beats, producing an album that seems primarily concerned with rhythm. Even in Reflektor’s most low-key moments Arcade Fire embrace an approach to rhythm that we might as well go ahead and describe as transcendent. Both of these songs could have been typical Arcade Fire slogs, but the introduction of subtle guitar arpeggios at the end of the prior, and the super-chill, shuffling rhythms of the latter give the songs a sense of motion that feels downright revelatory for Arcade Fire. —James Brubaker


29.  James Blake | James Blake (2011)


In 2010, James Blake made his presence know with three exceptional EP’s. His songs were a little bit glitchy, a little bit melodic, and a little bit haunted, each piece an oddly quiet mixture of dance and headphone music. With as oddly quiet as Blake’s work got in 2010, though, none of it really prepared us for Blake’s self-titled full length. On James Blake, Blake pushes his minimalist impulses to surprising extremes, resulting in a delicate, ruminative album that manages to sound both contemporary and timeless. One of the more interesting trends in pop music of the last few years is for songs to explicitly explore the intersection of technology and natural performance. Blake’s compositions subtly push this relationship into engaging new territory—the beats and keyboards are sharp and crisp, the vocals, at times drip with effects but often come through in a pure, untouched warble, resulting in an effortless push-and-pull between Blake’s natural voice and the technology surrounding it. —James Brubaker


28.  St. Vincent | Strange Mercy (2011)


One mild gripe I make from time to time is that indie-rock in the post-Kid A era lacks many truly inventive and muscular lead guitarists. We can find at least one exception on Wilco’s A Ghost is Born (2003)—Jeff Tweedy’s inventive, adventurous guitar work is generally overlooked, especially after Wilco admitted guitar-whiz Nels Cline into their lineup. Another exception can be found on Dinosaur Jr.’s second post-comeback effort Farm (2009)—J. Mascis’ bona fides as a rock guitar god are well-documented, so I need not comment further. Annie Clark, the Tulsa, Oklahoma native who goes by the moniker St. Vincent, can now add her name to this relatively short list with her third album, Strange Mercy. The opening moments of the album’s opener, “Chloe in the Afternoon,” announce her intention to give her guitar a central role on the album. Peppered throughout the album are moments when it’s clear she has complete control over her instrument, and she does so in fresh ways, avoiding sloppy skronk and cock-rock cliches. In short, Strange Mercy is a provocative, well-executed album that is daring without being alienating. St. Vincent has announced her arrival as a formidable artist to be reckoned with. —Brian Flota


27.  Destroyer | Kaputt (2011)


Kaputt kicked off 2011 with a surprise: Dan Bejar, the king of drawn-out indie folk ballads and anthems, an artist whose work always seemed to aspire to be Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” released an album of beautiful pop songs steeped in the sounds of late seventies and early eighties radio pop. By layering his songs with retro keyboards, backing vocals, saxophones, and trumpets, Bejar opened up his songwriting in ways both unexpected and thrilling. The album’s slick production gives the songs a sense of grown up-ness, which only makes the actions and attitudes of Bejar’s characters that much more surprising. The end result comes off as more an exploration than a critique of the excesses with which Bejar is working—of retro, adult contemporary pop, and its contemporary adults. Rather than openly critiquing the sounds or the characters inhabiting those sounds, Bejar embraces them both, treating them with a rare empathy that other songwriters would do well to study. Add to this mix Bejar’s stunning vocal performance—certainly one of the year’s best—and an astonishing sense of unity, and Kaputt is a force with which to be reckoned. Much was made in 2011 about the number of albums and bands mining previous decades for aesthetic resonance. While some dismiss the trend as easy nostalgia, Bejar’s work exemplifies, better than anyone else’s, why the re-appropriation of past-sounds can be so effective—we’ve taken the old songs for granted and treated them as jokes for so long that it has become too easy to forget how those sounds can signify entire worlds of memory simply by hinting at what came before. —James Brubaker


26.  Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti | Mature Themes (2012)


I would like to think that Mature Themes, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti’s second studio album on the 4AD Records label, is the fifty-minute planetary anthem for Bizarro Earth. Each of the songs on the record, save for a few exceptions, sounds instantly familiar, conjuring up comparisons to pop trends scattered across the last fifty years. More compellingly, though, is that Pink and Haunted Graffiti manage this while simultaneously generating, hands-down, one of the strangest song cycles I have ever heard. Have you ever listened to an album the first time through and thought, “Huh?” only later to be compelled to listen again and again? I have. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band’s Trout Mask Replica (1969) and Dr. Octagon’s Dr. Octagonecologyst (1996) are two that come to mind. Mature Themes has joined their ranks. Because of its adventurousness, unpredictability, and quirky variety, Mature Themes is Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti’s best album to date, and the one that most closely matches Pink’s distinct musical vision.—Brian Flota


25.  Haim | Days Are Gone (2013)


I first heard Haim (rhymes with “time”) nearly a year ago when their debut single, “Forever,” began earning sporadic satellite radio airplay. That one listen and I was hooked on this band of sisters from southern California. Haim have gained so much momentum over the past year, I found myself anticipating this debut album more than any record in years. When Days Are Gone finally saw the light of day, more than half of the album’s eleven tracks—“Falling,” “Forever,” “The Wire,” “Honey & I,” “Don’t Save Me,” “Go Slow,” and “Let Me Go”—featured among the series of singles and EPs leading up to the album’s release. Because Days Are Gone collects so many previously released songs, the album feels like a throwback to the LPs of the 1960s—think the Beatles’ early U.S. releases—which collected and repackaged the singles and b-sides that many fans had already purchased. In a way, Haim move us closer to our rock & roll roots, though their sound is such a fantastic blend of disparate eras and musical styles that they are nothing if not contemporary, defining our musical future by examining the past through the lens of the present in a fresh pastiche that would give Tarantino a boner.—Joshua Cross


24.  Julianna Barwick | The Magic Place  (2011)


The fact that Julianna Barwick’s second full-length LP, The Magic Place, was released within a few months of Grouper’s double-sized A I A collection illustrates an exciting growing interest by female artists in ambient, minimal, drone-like approaches to recording, a terrain usually dominated by male performers. Barwick’s vocal arrangements are haunting and ethereal, resulting in an aesthetic not too dissimilar from the music found on Slowdive’s final album, Pygmalion. In fact, they rather sound like a slightly stoned version of The Beach Boys—as overly romantic wallflowers—at Goth Dance Party Night. Barwick’s music relies on carefully manicured and developed loops; however, she occasionally adds flourishes, such as pianos, bass, and drums, to her predominantly choral backdrop. As a result, the tracks build quite nicely. Barwick effectively draws from older influences like Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports while maintaining a distinctly fresh approach to her music. The Magic Place is a cinematic set-piece as seen through a soft-focus lens in slow motion. —Brian Flota


23.  Perfume Genius | Put Your Back N 2 It (2012)


The tension between the lyrical content and music on Perfume Genius’ Put Your Back N 2 It provides the album’s driving conflict. While Mark Hadreas’s lyrics are heavy to the point of threatening to crush the listener, many of the songs are musically so light and thin they feel like they could snap at any moment. From opening track “AWOL Marine,” to the appropriately named “Dirge,” to the agonized falsetto of “All Waters,” to closer “Sister Song,” many of these tracks are so light that you can hardly understand how they can support such heavy lyrics, while being unable to imagine it any other way. These dark tensions make Put Your Back N 2 It a remarkable album. But what makes it a great album verging on masterpiece is the small glimpse of hope Hadreas lets into his songs. —Joshua Cross


22.  Danny Brown | Old (2013)


Old track “Lonely” opens with an insightful line: “Hipster by heart but I can tell you how the streets feel/Everybody thirsty and they looking for a refill.” The line does a nice job of summing up Danny Brown—a street-smart MC with strong curatorial impulses and a desperate thirst for something that might look like stability, but ultimately ends up just being shitloads of drugs and sex. Danny Brown’s Old is one part low-key, psychedelic hip hop album, one part reflective manifesto about growing “old” in hip hop—a genre notorious for its obsession with youth—one part wild party-banger album, and one part litany of regret. Add it all up and Old begins to sound like what is: an utterly devastating album. Even when Brown’s wildly unhinged voice is unleashing torrents of graphic sexual imagery, Old thrives on a surprising pathos; as Brown describes himself—or his protagonist—as strung out, not having slept in four days, “smelling like seaweed,” crushing up pills and feeling up a woman he doesn’t know, he pauses to tell us that his “Daughter sending me messages saying ‘Daddy, I miss you’/But in this condition I don’t think she need to see me.” The moment is gutting, and gets to the central tension not just of Old but of Brown’s entire career. —James Brubaker


21.  Vampire Weekend | Modern Vampires of the City (2013)


After years of Paul Simon comparisons, Modern Vampires of the City finds Vampire Weekend expanding their sonic palette to combine their familiar, world-beat appropriations with more straight-up pop (which, to be fair, was always in the mix) and hints of reggae, soul, folk (all of which were also always in the mix, but to a lesser extent), baroque (um, also always there), and Danny Elfman soundtracks (listen to “Hudson,” you’ll see). Even more surprising, though, than Vampire Weekend’s broader approach to their sound, this time, is the new weight in Ezra Koenig’s lyrics, which are predominantly about such trifling concerns as aging, death, and finding meaning in a cold, hard world. From the cold comfort of album opener “Obvious Bicycle,” in which Koenig advises a friend “to spare your face the razor, because no one’s going to spare the time for you,” only to later celebrate that friend for his simple willingness to listen, all the way to the concise pep-talk that closes the album in the form of “Young Lion,” Modern Vampires of the City is an honest and earnest (and fun, and catchy, and perfectly sequenced) record about growing up and growing old without losing your shit in the process. —James Brubaker


20.  Dirty Beaches | Drifters/Love is the Devil (2013)


Dirty Beaches’ Drifters/Love is the Devil is a bifurcated effort that explores the same structure found on David Bowie’s experimental pop-rock classics Low (1977) and “Heroes” (1977). The tracks on the first half of the album, dubbed Drifters, appropriately enough, all feature Alex Zhang Hungtai’s minimal compositions and breath-y, Alan Vega-inspired vocals, while those on the second half, Love is the Devil, are instrumentals that, for the most part, explore a variety of moods and ambient textures. The end result is, in some ways, more satisfying than Low or “Heroes”. I say this because I always felt that the ambient portions of those two albums sounded like exercises, a sort of “let’s see what happens” experiment rather than a wholehearted attempt to integrate these exciting new pop possibilities with the more traditional rock material on their respective Side Ones. On Drifters / Love is the Devil, Dirty Beaches have successfully wed these two approaches into a single, sprawling, cohesive unit that is equal parts lovely, disquieting, vertiginous, and meditative, one that appeals more to the heart than to the intellect. —Brian Flota