Flaming Lips

Rust Is Just Right’s Best Albums of 2013

Today is April 15, and while the rest of the nation celebrates Tax Day, we here at Rust Is Just Right choose this occasion to release our Best Albums of the Year list.  To be technical, this is our first such list since the site was launched only a few months ago, but this is a practice that I’ve personally done for a few years now.  There are a few of reasons for this: 1) It allows some of the albums that are released at the end of the calendar year to get some recognition, since they usually get swallowed up in the attention of the flurry of year-end lists; 2) I get the chance to analyze other lists to pick up on albums that somehow escaped my attention during the course of the year; and 3) It provides a handy consumer guide for people to focus where to spend their tax refund.

The process that is used to determine this list is highly rigorous and hardly scientific.  That said, it is in the process of being patented and trademarked, so I can say that it’s not simply a look at my iTunes playcount for the year.  Actually, that is what it is exactly, but I’ll choose to believe in your good faith that you won’t steal The Process.  On to the list!

Note: Though the list is a Top 10, there are more albums than slots, because I don’t like breaking ties for the same play count.  If you’re really intent on focusing on only 10, I guess take the 10 highest performing albums from the list, but you really shouldn’t limit yourself like that if you can help it.

10). (6 plays) The Flaming Lips – The Terror!!! – Thr!!!erYeah Yeah Yeahs – Mosquito.

We already have a surprise courtesy of The Process, as I didn’t think that Mosquito would perform so well.  The first single “Sacrilege” had me really excited for the album, but there was no other song that really matched its heights.  It was a bit of a letdown after the great It’s Blitz!, so my response to it may be harsher than it should be.  The Terror on the other hand was a new high point for The Flaming Lips; with the band involved in so many projects and gimmicks, there were legitimate fears that the creative well may have been running a bit dry, but the Lips responded with an album that  showed that even after 30 years the band still has new directions to explore.  Long known for their happy outlook on life, the band channeled inner turmoil (Steve Drozd’s relapse, Wayne Coyne’s separation from his partner) and created a dark, disturbing album that often plays like an hour-long version of the horrifying “Frankie Teardrop”, incorporating new elements like krautrock influences and drum machines.  The only reason it’s not higher on the list is you really need to prepare yourself to handle the despair that is prevalent throughout the album (though there are moments of pure beauty).  With Th!!!er, !!! may have won Album Name of the Year, but they also back it up with some of the best songs of their career.  I’m a sucker for their dance-punk style, and I highly recommend seeing these guys live.  It’s fun to see a bunch of people who normally don’t dance groove to songs like “One Girl/One Boy”.

9). (7 plays) Foals – Holy FireThe Joy Formidable – Wolf’s LawLow – The Invisible WayNine Inch Nails – Hesitation MarksParquet Courts – Light Up GoldPearl Jam – Lightning BoltRun the Jewels – Run the Jewels.

Normally, I would say that Pearl Jam exists outside the scope of “lists”, but one cannot argue with The Process.  I haven’t delved deep into my love of the band since starting this site, so for those of you unfamiliar with my passion for the band, I’ll try to sum it up like this: I’ve been to hundreds of shows over the years, and when people ask me for my all-time greatest concerts, I tell them there’s a Pearl Jam list and a non-Pearl Jam list.

As for the others, I’ll offer a few quick thoughts.  Foals have been underrated for a while now, and by my calculations “My Number” should have been as big a summer hit as “Get Lucky”.  The Joy Formidable put on one of the best shows I saw last year, and I’m a big fan of how the sweetness of the vocals contrast with the heaviness of the music, but all done in a very melodic way.  There wasn’t a big hit like “Whirring” on this album, but “This Ladder Is Ours” should have been.  Nine Inch Nails returned with a very good comeback album–I loved the incorporation of more minimalist ideas, which made it an exceedingly interesting dance record.  And it’s amazing that Low once again produced an amazing album, and I hardly saw any mention of it on the year-end lists.  Invisible Way saw the band returning to the more delicate sounds pre-Drums and Guns, but it was definitely not a simple rehash.

Light Up Gold is a perfect example of reason number two up above, as I heard nothing about this album before I saw it on a few year-end lists.  This catchy and too-smart-for-probably-its-own-good soon became a go-to in my car stereo.  You have to love a band that makes the point that “Socrates died in the fucking gutter.”

As for Run The Jewels, I’ll say this: it’s hard to believe that one of the best albums of the year was given away for free earlier this year.  And it received a small fraction of the attention of Magna Carta Holy Grail.

8). (8 plays) Franz Ferdinand – Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right ActionKanye West – YeezusThe Thermals – Desperate Ground.

I was glad to see Franz Ferdinand return from hiatus alive and kicking.  After some experimentation with Tonight, the band decided to go back to their old sound and play to their own strengths–a lot of good, hook-filled rock songs (for the record, I was a fan of Tonight, but hey, I understand the calculus).  The Thermals made a similar return to their roots: after the reflective Personal Life, the band decided to keep the songs short and the tempos fast, with the furious Desperate Ground.

I’m sure Yeezus was the most analyzed album of the year, so my opinion shouldn’t add much to the conversation.  I think Lou Reed did an excellent job in explaining its genius, so you should probably take his word for it.  I will say that one of the things I enjoy most about Kanye records is that it always seems like we’re listening in on a therapy session, because he seems free to let his thoughts roam unfiltered.  I also love a person that embraces the dichotomy of the sacred and the profane; who else would follow a great line “close your eyes and let the word paint a thousand pictures” with “one good girl is worth a thousand bitches”?  The man knows exactly what he’s doing: “After all these long-ass verses, I’m tired, you’re tired.  Jesus wept.

7). (9 plays) The Men – New MoonSigur Rós – KveikurVampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the CityVolcano Choir – RepaveYuck – Glow & Behold.

We had an extensive piece already on Yuck, so we won’t rehash it here.  Volcano Choir is proof that Justin Vernon knows what he’s doing and that he doesn’t need the “Bon Iver” name to make great music.  The Men will continue to put great, solid rock albums from now until eternity it seems like; throwing in some classic rock and Americana touches like they did on New Moon just helps expand their sound.

Vampire Weekend got a lot of credit for their show of maturity on their third album, and a lot of it is deserved–Modern Vampires is an excellent rumination on love and faith.  That said, it wasn’t as great a leap as some critics made it out to be; I thought that Contra showed that the band was creative enough to find a way to connect their niche sound with other genres and still remain true to their identity.  So while this is a very good album, it’s not quite the “Album of the Year”.

I’m much more surprised about the latest album from Sigur Rós.  I found Valtari to be a real low point, an album that often struggled to find any semblance of creativity or inspiration, and it just seemed like an ambient mess.  So when the band released Kveikur so quickly after Valtari, I was pretty skeptical.  But holy shit, this sounds like a band reborn.  It’s a much more aggressive album, an adjective that is rarely associated with the band, and bears some (dare I say?) metal influences.

6). (10 plays) Cults – StaticSavages – Silence Yourself.

We had an extensive piece already on Cults, so we won’t rehash it here.  Savages end up with the highest-ranked debut on this chart, as I found their revival of post-punk thrilling, a brilliant mix of Joy Division and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

5). (11 plays) Arctic Monkeys – AMThe Besnard Lakes – Until in Excess, Imperceptible UFO.

The instant I heard “Do I Wanna Know?”, I knew I would love this album; I just didn’t know that it would turn out to revive their career here in the States.  It’s a huge improvement over the good-but-unmemorable Suck It And See and the completely forgettable Humbug, and it wins my coveted award of “Night Driver of the Year”.

I’ve been a longtime fan of The Besnard Lakes, a band far more deserving of some of the plaudits that another Canadian band whose absence you may notice from this list.  If there were actual justice in this world, they’d be headlining arenas, but I’m glad I get to see them perform spellbinding sets in tiny venues like the Doug Fir.  I initially was not impressed with the new album, mainly because I had been hoping that they could use some of the huge hooks from Roaring Night and hopefully catapult into the mainstream; but once I accepted the album for what it was, I was able to appreciate the subtle melodies and beautiful atmosphere.

4). (12 plays) Deafheaven – SunbatherMy Bloody Valentine – m b v.

My Bloody Valentine shocked the world when they announced that they were immediately releasing their long-awaited follow-up to Loveless.  Servers were in a constant state of crashing as music buffs around the world rushed to download the album, but eventually we all got our copy.  Was it worth the over two-decade wait?  If you based it on trash like “Nothing Is”, then you would say no, but then you hear the gorgeous “Only Tomorrow” with its monumental guitar solo, and all is forgiven, because you are reminded that while there are thousands of bands that were inspired by them, there is truly only one My Bloody Valentine.

Sunbather might be the most surprising album on my list, because while there is a lot of heavy metal that I do enjoy, it’s usually not of the black metal variety.  However, Deafheaven uses the banshee wail-type vocals to their advantage, as they blend in with the walls of guitar.  If I had my preference, it wouldn’t be the style I choose, if only because it becomes hard to distinguish what are actually some pretty decent lyrics (an exchange like “‘I’m dying.’  ‘Is it blissful?’  ‘It’s like a dream.’  ‘I want to dream.'” read great on the page, but impossible to pick out when sung).  That said, the actual music is pretty goddamn brilliant.  I’m going to explore them in a future Feats of Strength, but I’ll say that the last half of “The Pecan Tree” was probably the best music I heard all year, but to understand its full brilliance you need to hear the 55 minutes of brutality that came before it.

3. (16 plays) Wavves – Afraid of Heights.

Wavves received the best press and sales of their career with King of the Beach, and to follow it up they release an album filled with cynicism and paranoia and plain old depression.  But they made it fun as hell.  I have to give a lot of respect who released a single that got actual radio airplay whose chorus is “Holding a gun to my head, so send me an angel; or bury me deeply instead, with demons to lean on”.  And they played it on Letterman.

2. (17 plays) Queens of the Stone Age – ...Like Clockwork.

This one of the best albums of QOTSA’s career, and that’s saying something since they’ve released several classic albums already.  It’s a brilliant mix of their desert rock with gothic horror.  It’s hard for me to think of much more to say than that, because I’m still bitter thinking how not one person on the AV Club staff gave this album a single vote.

1. (20 plays) The National – Trouble Will Find Me.

In the end, the list was topped off by what I would have predicted at the beginning of the year, but when I first listened to Trouble Will Find Me this was not a foregone conclusion.  But like other albums from The National before it, what initially sounded like a shapeless bore gradually revealed its subtle strength and beauty.  Melodies become more apparent, and dynamics become more evident; often it’s not drastic loud-soft contrast, but a gradual intensity that builds throughout in a song.  Each listen brings about a new favorite; first it was “Sea of Love”, then it was “Pink Rabbits” followed by “Don’t Swallow the Cap”.  Lately, it’s been “Graceless”, a powerful look at attempts to shake the melancholy stemming from a past relationship, filled with great lines like “God loves everybody–don’t remind me” and “all of my thoughts of you: bullets through rotten fruit.”  After a few listens, you notice things like the shift halfway between “graceless” and “grace” that occurs in the lyrics, and the gradual buildup of intensity in Matt Berninger’s voice as he powers through the song.  It’s perfect that an album that rewards multiple listens takes the top spot.

Covered: “Pink Moon”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original.  If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before. 

For this edition, since we’re in the middle of “Beck Week” here at RIJR, we’re going to be using him as a pivot in this feature.  In other words, we’ll be examining both a cover done by Beck as well as another artist covering one of Beck’s songs.

Initially, I was going to analyze Beck’s cover of Dylan’s “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”.  I first heard this cover at a live show on the Modern Guilt tour, back when I was in New York.  I remember how energized Beck was for that particular song, which was a marked contrast to his demeanor for most of the rest of his set (I also want to pin some of the blame on the audience, who were pretty indifferent to much of the set, even when it dipped into Odelay-era rarities like “Minus”).  I wasn’t sure how much the lackluster performance could be blamed on doing a multi-night stand, or on the venue (the United Palace Theater is a pretty stunning venue, but while it’s perfect for acts like Sigur Ros, it’s not as conducive to a full-on rock show), or just general malaise from doing yet another tour.  In subsequent interviews, I learned that Beck had severe back pain during that era, which makes me feel a bit bad for being generally disappointed with the show.

To keep a long story from going any longer, I decided to go with a different cover, because while I enjoy Beck’s version, I feel that it’s a little too close to the original to be worth further analysis.  It’s pretty much how you would imagine a Beck cover of a Dylan song would go–it’s got the ragged feel of the original, slightly more uptempo, with a fuzzier bass and electro-country leads.  In other words, it’s not exactly like Death Grips taking a lyric from the song and going in a completely different direction.  Instead I’m going to look at a cover that I only learned existed recently, that of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon”.

Like many of my generation, I am not ashamed to admit that I first heard the song in a Volkswagen ad.  It’s not as if I had a huge knowledge of the English folk scene from the 70’s back in high school, so please pardon my ignorance.  But I was touched by just the pure beauty of the song, from the soft vocals, the churning acoustic guitar, and that delicate little piano melody that somehow in one line ties the whole thing together.  The album would soon hold a dear place in my heart, most notably as a soundtrack to my first couple of semesters of college.

Beck does a great job of capturing the same atmosphere and emotional feelings of the original, and is definitely faithful in that regard.  It’s interesting how it is distinctly Beck’s voice, but he is still able to evoke the memory of Nick Drake’s vocals.  The difference between the two comes from the guitar parts, which leads to a focus on different rhythms in each version.  Most people don’t realize the technical complexity of Nick Drake’s guitar playing; it is an example of how sometimes the most difficult things to do sometimes appear easy to the untrained eye.  He used a lot of alternate tunings that allowed him to play a lot of complex rhythmic and lead parts at the same time, often interacting with each other in the same measure.  That’s why there’s a consistent drive to the rhythm in the original.  Beck (wisely) chooses to not imitate the complexity of those guitar lines, and instead emphasizes certain beats with strummed chords, giving the song a more laid-back feel, and in turn making it somehow even more melancholy.  This even extends to the famous piano melody, which with this extra bit of drag conveys an even greater sense of longing.

Now we have the slightly more difficult task of looking at those who have attempted to cover Beck.  Surprisingly, there are not that many from which to choose.  On the one hand, Beck has composed hundreds of songs, dabbled in dozens of genres, and been around for over two decades now, so you’d think there would be a wide variety of artists that would attempt to cover his work.  But even through all those various detours and musical experiments, there is the singular persona of Beck that shines through, and he leaves a specific stamp on each song that he does.  But it makes sense that it’s from his album Sea Change, in many ways his most straight-forward singer/songwriter record, that we see at least an attempt by others to try out.

“The Golden Age” kicks off the record, and in many ways after those opening lines (“Put your hands on the wheel/Let the Golden Age begin”), it’s all downhill from there, at least emotionally speaking.  I’ll never forget that when the Boston Red Sox won the World Series back in 2004 that the network broadcasting their victory decided that this was an appropriate song to mark the occasion, making it one of the best examples of an executive green-lighting a song without ever hearing the whole thing.  Who doesn’t love celebrating with a song whose chorus goes “These days I barely get by/I don’t even try”?

It’s hard to even call this a cover, since the Flaming Lips toured with Beck shortly after Sea Change came out.  So you know they at least do a faithful job of covering the music.  I do appreciate the rumbling low-end that the Lips manage here, but I miss the slide guitar parts from the original, which added a great counterpoint to the melody.  Wayne Coyne adds a bit more fragility to his vocals, but he doesn’t get the same longing feel that Beck conveys in his part.  What I find most interesting though is the fact that they omit the second verse, which is actually the one that I prefer.  This may be due to the live nature of the performance for a radio show, but it’s an interesting comment if it’s intentional.

Another cover of a Beck song that I think is worth sharing is The Cinematics performing “Sunday Sun”, also from Sea Change.  Already one of the more uplifting songs on the album, The Cinematics turn it into a genuinely happy song.  It’s not just in the attitude and tempo, but through each part, from the drums (the sixteenth-note hi-hat rhythms help drive the song), to the guitar tones, to the vocals themselves which are simply cheerier.  Beck’s original is much more dramatic, and does a great job in building and building over the course of the song.  But even when the melody soars, Beck maintains a certain tension with his vocals over the course of the song, which makes the collapse at the end fit perfectly.

Over the Weekend (Feb. 24 Edition)

I don’t plan on mentioning the name “Miley Cyrus” very much on this site, but when I found out that she performed a cover of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1” with Wayne Coyne, I’m obligated to share that news.  Stereogum has the video of that performance, as well as her cover of OutKast’s “Hey Ya”, both of which were a lot better than I expected.  Also unexpected: the amount of times that Miley drops F-Bombs on her tween audience.

A highlight of any tour of Oklahoma City

We found it by total luck

Stereogum also has an inside look at the making of the new Fucked Up album.  I had recently been wondering about the status of the album, so it’s good to hear that it’s somewhat on track (less good to hear–the possibility that Stereogum may be reading my thoughts).  It’s an interesting look at the band’s unusual dynamic, where everyone kind of does their own thing, and reading about the internal tension between vocalist Damian Abraham and guitarist Mike Haliechuk is pretty fascinating.

Finally, if you’re stuck in a meeting, I recommend that you read up on a couple of old interviews.  The first one I have is an oral history of the making of the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) courtesy of SPIN.  As one would expect with any story concerning the Wu, there’s tons of great anecdotes about various members, including the ODB.  There is also a lot of revelatory discussion about the specific recording techniques that were used.  And finally, in preparation for the new Beck album that will be released tomorrow (and our upcoming retrospective on his career so far), it’s worth checking out this old wide-ranging interview with Pitchfork about his career.  You get a lot of insight into the early parts of Beck’s career and how he became an accidental superstar, and his attitude about the music business in general.  Towards the end of the interview, you also get a feel for Beck’s recording philosophy and techniques.