Best Albums of The Fiddleback Years, Pg. 3 (10-1)


10.  Grizzly Bear | Shields (2012)


Like so many works of art, Shields explores themes of human relationships: connection and disconnection; togetherness and loneliness; abjection, dejection, rejection. Closing track “Sun in Your Eyes” feels as close to an anthem as Grizzly Bear are ever likely to produce, and it of all the ten songs is most likely to haunt you hours later. “Sun” feels like a direct response to the conundrum of “A Simple Answer,” which posits, “The light is long / But it’s not long before it’s gone.” Nothing’s permanent. Shit ends. But while “A Simple Answer” seems a dragging out of that end, “Sun in Your Eyes” is a quick, forced break. The track’s final line echoes the “light is long” of “A Simple Answer,” yet puns off it: “So bright, so long / I’m never coming back.” Yet we must question declarations delivered with such permanence. No one who says “I’m never coming back” stays gone because they leave too much unfinished. This rending apart and crashing back forms the thematic center of Shields, the continual threat of loss, the continual dread that each loss is permanent, and the violent reconnection bred of such anxiety. All of this is to say there is an immediacy to this album that Veckatimest, for all its beauty, seemed to overlook, which should lend Shields a much longer half-life, while sacrificing none of its predecessor’s careful, precise grandeur. While this album signals no seachange in Grizzly Bear’s sound, it suggests a perfection of the formula they have spent so many years poring over. —Joshua Cross


9.  Matana Roberts | Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres (2011)


The only thing that can really prepare the listener for Matana Roberts’ Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres is the entire scope of jazz history. Scratch that. African American musical expression. On a track like “Rise,” Albert Ayler comes to mind. “Kersaia” looks all the way back to Jelly Roll Morton. “How Much Would You Cost?” has touches of Charles Mingus. We could parse out the various influences on the work, but it would be at the expense of a fairly marvelous and totally ambitious piece of music. Roberts, an excellent saxophonist, is also blessed with a wonderful voices and a compositional style that draws off that of her avant-garde Chicagoan predecessors. It doesn’t recall the great female jazz singers of the past, but is something wholly new, a voice at once passionate and yet oddly detached, reminding me–in many ways–of Laurie Anderson. The narrative arc of Chapter One loosely follows the slave Coin Coin from childbirth. After that, Coin Coin’s story is blurred with the experiences of other slaves and free African Americans during the antebellum era. The touching final song, “How Much Would You Cost?” further blurs the lines as Coin Coin and “Matana Roberts” become merged (she does this as well on “I Am”). All in all, Roberts has created a rich, painful, and exalting piece of work with Coin Coin Chapter One. —Brian Flota


8.  Kendrick Lamar | Good Kid, m.A.A.d City (2012)


On Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, Kendrick Lamar tells a story about growing up in Compton surrounded by violence, death, and drugs. Despite the familiarity of this narrative, Good Kid never seems familiar, thanks primarily to the ways Lamar tells his story—most of the events are told through skits and voicemail messages between songs, while the songs themselves—with a few exceptions—are given over to reflection, analysis, and memory. By and large, the individual tracks aren’t beholden to a narrative, but every beat, every syllable, every sample is utterly necessary to building characters, setting scenes, and providing the story with an impressive authenticity. With Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, Lamar has created a rich, thriving world, rooted in an astonishing sense of place and engaging characters who are thoroughly realized even when they only appear for a line or two. But for all of this talk about craft and art, the core of what makes Good Kid, m.A.A.d City so successful is that its craft and artistry combine to tell a story that is both thoughtful and emotional. Here, Kendrick Lamar hasn’t just made a great album, he has made an evocative and compelling masterpiece, an instant classic that will resonate for years. —James Brubaker


7.  Body/Head | Coming Apart (2013)


Contrary to the band’s name, there is something completely disembodied about the purposeful noises that Body/Head generate. The duo of Kim Gordon, better known for her quarter-century tenure as the bassist in Sonic Youth, and Bill Nace, her lesser known collaborator (who has a solid noise-making pedigree himself, having worked with Michael Morley of The Dead C and free drummer Chris Corsano in Vampire Belt), forsake a rhythm section and the melodic qualities provided by keyboards, instead opting for an improvisational two-guitar attack. On their first full-length effort, the appropriately named double-LP Coming Apart, one gets the impression that the more traditional forms of songwriting and performance are, in fact, coming apart. Following the relatively conventional outings by her former SY peers Lee Ranaldo (last year’s Between the Times and the Tides) and ex-hubbie Thurston Moore (this year’s Chelsea Light Moving, his new group’s self-titled debut), Coming Apart is positively alien, more closely resembling her old group’s experimental SYR series of vanity EPs than, say, “Kool Thing.” On Coming Apart, Gordon and Nace use their guitars like most outfits use their vocals and drums—to generate rhythm and catharsis. Their approach to the instrument gives one the impression they are relearning it, reconfiguring it, maybe even completely forgetting it. This is not music for the masses. It is challenging, cinematic, even horrific, but not like a slasher flick: rather, like a German expressionist film with a malevolent antagonist whose knotty shadow stretches across the screen. —Brian Flota


6.  Japandroids | Celebration Rock (2012)


Japandroids’ second proper LP, Celebration Rock, could not be more aptly titled. This is pure, simple, fuzzed-out rock ’n’ roll that celebrates young adulthood and the newfound freedoms it brings. Celebration Rock opens strongly with “Nights of Wine and Roses,” another song, like many of the tracks on 2009’s Post-Nothing, that attempts to be an anthem for a generation. It’s a fun, raucous song about partying, excess, and “yell[ing] like hell to the heavens.” Other tracks like “Adrenaline Nightshift” and “The House that Heaven Built” find them continuing these themes of youthful exuberance or, to put it in the parlance of the day, #YOLO! No song better captures this theme than “Younger Us,” the best song Japandroids have recorded to date, and it puts a different, more interesting spin on these themes. Instead of a speaker caught up in the middle of the #YOLO lifestyle, the speaker of “Younger Us” is a bit older, and he looks back on those carefree days of excess with nostalgia and longing, feelings familiar to just about anyone old enough to have a real job and real responsibilities. —Joshua Cross


5.  Deerhunter | Halcyon Digest (2010)


Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest is a stirring and haunting album about memory and loss. Though brief, “Basement Scene” feels like the album’s thematic lynch-pin—after slyly echoing the opening of the Everly Brother’s “All I Have to do is Dream,” Cox narrates a series of vague, shifting memories that culminate, at first, with the plain but effective line, “I don’t want to get old.” By the song’s end, the sentiment transforms into “I want to get old.” This is the crux of Halcyon Digest—the songs are about how we remember, and how our remembering drives us. The end result is an album with a wistful tone and an urgent desire for human connection and community. “It will be the death of me/Knowing that my friends will not remember me,” Cox sings on “Basement Scene,” fearful and desperate to outwit life’s transience. With Halcyon Digest, Deerhunter have earned the right to become more than just another pretty good indie rock band—Halcyon Digest is the real deal, a dark and gorgeous artistic statement that will transcend its circumstances to remain an important, vital record for years to come. —James Brubaker


4.  Beach House | Bloom (2012)


Part of what makes Bloom so special is Beach House’s refusal to settle for good enough. They could have rested on the acclaim they received in 2010 for Teen Dream, their breakout album, and simply released a sequel, an album that sounded no different from Teen Dream. Or they could have, like so many indie darlings before them, used that success to become parodies of themselves by reducing their signature sound to a caricature and coupling it with production and sensibilities more suited to arena acts like U2 or Coldplay. But Beach House did neither. Bloom is easily recognizable as a Beach House album. It retains the dream-pop sound they had so carefully constructed on their three previous records, but they never settle for what got them here. Instead, Beach House explore new spaces within their music. The production is sharper, with the guitars and percussion brought to the front more clearly than on past releases. There is more space in the mix, which affords Victoria Legrand’s keyboards and smoky vocals the room needed to spread out and maneuver. The results are a haunting, gorgeous work of dream pop that reckons with the sublime and does not blush. The individual songs brim with pathos without becoming pathetic; they soar confidently and deftly without ever succumbing to hubris. The record as a whole was nearly a unanimous choice for Album of the Year, and an early candidate for best of the young decade. —Joshua Cross


3.  Frank Ocean | Channel Orange (2012)


While there are plenty of reasons to appreciate Channel Orange, what stands out most is Ocean’s empathy and clarity of vision. When Ocean examines the lives of wealthy, privileged young people on “Sweet Life,” and “Super Rich Kids,” he critiques his subjects with an acute eye for detail. On “Sweet Life,” Ocean wryly asks, “Why see the world/When you’ve got the beach.” On “Super Rich Kids,” the titular characters are depicted as drinking, “Too many bottles of this wine we can’t pronounce,” (a line playfully delivered by Earl Sweatshirt). In the spirit of Bret Easton Ellis, both of these lyrics point toward the insularity and bored hedonism of the wealthy youths in question. But simply making fun of the kids isn’t Ocean’s style. These songs go out of their respective ways to illuminate a real sadness in their subjects’ lives: in “Sweet Life,” Ocean tells his subject that he or she is only “catching that breeze ‘till you’re dead in the grave,” and on “Super Rich Kids,” Ocean’s subjects are surrounded by “fake friends,” their parent’s “ain’t around enough,” and they’re all left “searching for a real love.” Here, it is Ocean’s empathy for his characters and his willingness to see them as more than objects to critique, that elevates the songs from simple putdowns to elegant explorations of sadness and alienation. This same principle rings true throughout Channel Orange—Ocean’s characters are so well drawn that we ache for them, be it the struggling crack addict of “Crack Rock,” or the love struck dreamer of “Thinkin Bout You.” Add to this the album’s meticulous arrangements and nods to vintage soul production and Channel Orange is an easy pick for stone-cold classic status. —James Brubaker


2.  My Bloody Valentine | m b v  (2013)


Ever since the surprise release of m b v, I have listened to it more than any new album in the last five years. Though some listeners feel that its aesthetic hopelessly wreaks of the mid-1990s, I would beg to differ. Like The Beach Boys’ Smile if it was actually released in 1967, if m b v were released in its current form in 1996, listeners then would not know what to make of it. My Bloody Valentine’s post-Glider aesthetic is generally outside of time, not particularly grounded in any temporal musical moment. Sure, many acts have tried to duplicate their approach in the two-plus decades since, but usually they end up sounding either gauzy and dreamy (most “shoegaze” rock) or ear-bleedingly loud (most “shitgaze” rock). But none have managed to combine these two qualities in the manner My Bloody Valentine does. Additionally, m b v  is so good precisely because it largely avoids both the strongest and weakest “indie-rock” trends of the last decade. There are no hints of Radiohead, Animal Collective, Arcade Fire, A Place to Bury Strangers, or Grizzly Bear to be found here, save for when these acts attempt to implement aspects of My Bloody Valentine’s sound into their own. Kevin Shields’ singular vision once again manifests itself here in glorious Technicolor. If that vision happens to appeal to you, as it admittedly does to me, m b v has plenty to offer, even if falls just short of Loveless‘s greatness. —Brian Flota


1.  Kanye West | My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)


My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an album about excess and alienation. More specifically, MBDTW is an album about Kanye West’s alienation as he grapples with the excesses of fame and celebrity culture. And that’s why the album’s many excesses work. It doesn’t matter that West doesn’t have the best flow, or that the songs are all six-plus minutes long, or that the production is stupid-over-the-top, or that the Chris Rock skit at the end of “Blame Game” goes on a bit too long. Those are all details, ill-considered quibbles thrown against a juggernaut text that sets out to do nothing less than put Kanye West and the idea of pop spectacle in an outhouse together then blow them the fuck up. And that’s just what My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy does. West alternates between euphoria (“can we get much higher” from album opener “Dark Fantasy”) and self-hatred (“I’m a motherfucking monster” from, of course, “Monster”) in an exploration of fame and the entitlement with which it comes. One of the album’s more divisive moments, the extended vocoder outro on “Runaway,” also happens to serve as the album’s cathartic core as West’s digitized voice soulfully howls, hums, and heaves its way through four of the rawest minutes in recent pop history. Ultimately, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy will easily go down as one of the best albums of the decade because it finds West exposed and vulnerable, raw and quivering from the zeitgeist’s heart.—James Brubaker