[Introducing our first guest writer, Daniel Valencia! Enjoy.]
As 2013 comes to a close, listeners think back on the songs that carried us through the year. My Bloody Valentine made a bold return back in February and an AM, a Pure Heroine, and a Days Are Gone later, this last month winds down with either Reflektor or Christmas music in rotation. The year was full of important albums that brought much joy (and disappointment) to our listening ears, but what of the albums that did not get their due amount of attention or were ignored altogether? I offer a few humble suggestions:
5. Wire – Change Becomes Us
The first thing anyone should know about this reviewer before reading anything he writes is that he is an absolute punk rock junkie. That being said, how can any release by post-punk icons Wire be overlooked on such a list? After all, with so many great albums under their belt (Their debut, Pink Flag, is required listening for anyone who considers themselves a music fan), there is no justifiable excuse to not give Change Becomes Us a try. The beautiful thing about Wire, is the way they can make two seemingly opposite sounds or structures work well together in a song. This quality is on full display here. “Adore Your Island” is a suitable example, with its back and forth struggle between a droning punk chorus and dreamy rock verses. The robotic vocal delivery, thick bass hooks, and spacey guitar that we have come to expect is here in full form. Change Becomes Us is a truly engaging record, ready to hold you in its grip and pull you through its twists and turns. The album was released on vinyl for Record Store Day this year, about a month after its release on other formats.
4. The Strokes – Comedown Machine
At some point, The Strokes must have realized that they were never going to replicate Is This It. Unfortunately, the rest of the world has yet to come to the same conclusion, and I believe that Julian Casablancas and co. know this well. Suddenly, we have Comedown Machine which serves as both the redheaded stepchild of the band’s catalogue and a smug send off to The Strokes fans of 2001. The album’s artwork is a silhouetted version of Is This It’s, after all (and I will mention that the album art practically screams, “Buy me on vinyl”). This truly is the strangest of the band’s releases, in many ways. Not knowing who was playing, I could not tell that “One Way Trigger” was a The Strokes song until almost two minutes in. We have the pleasure of hearing the band try out 80’s pop anthems, falsetto-heavy vocals, ballads, more falsetto, and even something that sounds like the creepy song at the end of The Shining. Tracks like “Tap Out” and “Welcome to Japan” are irresistibly fun and the majority of Comedown Machine follows suit. There is no denying that this is who The Strokes are now, and somehow I do believe that their first few garage-y, Ramones-esque numbers have run their course. Honestly, Room on Fire was always my favorite, anyway.
3. Savages – Silence Yourself
Honestly, you may not have missed out on this one in particular. With the support of word of mouth, television appearances, and YouTube banners, one would have to be living under a rock (or distracted by Queens of the Stone Age) to not have at least heard about Silence Yourself. Post-punk has been coming in and out of the scene’s forefront in the last decade and a half, but not always as equally urgent and refreshing as it has this year with the release of the debut by Savages. The album may be a little more refined and well-produced than our revolutionaries, Joy Division and Bauhaus, but does not compromise a single ounce of raw talent or pristine passion. The squealing, treble-drenched guitars, the gloomy backdrop, Jehnny’s Beth’s haunting vocal performance – it all feels so real, that it can overwhelm at first listen. Silence Yourself may very well be to us now what Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights was to us a decade ago. I would consider it a serious contender for debut album of the year.
2. Franz Ferdinand – Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action
It is truly a shame. I was in high school the last time a Franz Ferdinand record emerged from the depths. I am a college graduate now and much like Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, the band’s latest release already seems to be on its way out of the limelight and headed to that place where music goes to be forgotten. This is only an opinion, but it seems to me like Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action was treated as nothing more than a reminder that “Take Me Out” happened ten years ago. Admittedly, the band does not bring much of anything new to the table, but rather build upon the style that is already very much their all their own, and it has never felt as close to perfection as it does here. For example, “Stand on the Horizon” features the beautiful blend of danceable avant-garde, psychedelic post-punk that we have come to expect from Franz, only this time with lyrics that sound like they mean something and flawlessly executed twists that eventually usher the irresistible melody into something of a surreal outro. What I find great about Right Thoughts is how fresh and natural everything here feels. Franz Ferdinand has always had such style about them that many bands have to work for (AM-era Alex Turner comes to mind), but all that fun and energy was not at the forefront back in 2009. Thankfully, that’s not the case here.
1. Jars of Clay – Inland
The presence of Inland solidifies this as being the list of talented rock bands that the media chewed up and spit out. When people think Jars of Clay they usually think 1. “Flood”, 2. “ChristianMingle” or 3. Spiritual soccer mom’s favorite band on the radio. Of course the perfect scores and #1 rankings from both faith-based and secular reviewers alike do not mean a thing when we can comfortably live according to the distorted perceptions of our many cool friends. It is frustrating, yet beautiful because that way a record as extremely personal as Inland can be personal on even greater levels. As with every great Jars record, this outing easily transcends the many distractions surrounding music today. For roughly fifty minutes the battle between indie and pop, the band member’s faith, the media, the critics, and even the fanbase do not matter. All that remains is talent, creativity, and twelve brutally honest expressions from five imperfect individuals. I had trouble responding to the album initially. The vast amount of influences ranging from folk to blues to new wave were all present (and improved from past efforts) but not always used in ways I was expecting. And where Jars of Clay has always had moderately accessible lyrics, Dan Haseltine’s work here ranges from surface level observations to the nearly impenetrable. Like many incredible records, Inland requires digging and perseverance, but is, ultimately, a ridiculously rewarding experience. Only after repeat listens did the lyrics come alive to me as poetic portrayals of feelings and ideas that only these particular individuals could write at this particular time. The music can be easy enough to swallow, but it flourishes with so many unique sounds and unrestrained creativity that it never becomes boring or predictable. Jars of Clay’s eleventh studio album is the most original (and possibly the best) album that I have listened to this year. As far as availability on vinyl, your best bet would be the band’s website. Buy and treasure this intimate collection of artful alt. pop and more importantly, do not be afraid of it.
Thank you for reading. Feel free to visit my blog for more reviews, top 10 lists, and other conversations about music, art, and life at http://danielvalencia-theblog.blogspot.com/