Hello all! The bookmobile department’s Resident Music Nerd here- starting with this very post, I will be writing some music recommendations every couple of weeks. My musical taste attempts to cover the entire spectrum, so I will try to fill these posts with a little something for everyone to enjoy, often somewhat off the beaten path, but always something I love, and think you should hear.
With that in mind, I can’t think of a better way to start than giving you My Top Five Albums of 2013 (That I Think You Should Hear, And Are Available Through The Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library, In A Completely Arbitrary Order That I Chose While Writing This And That Will Probably Change By The Next Time Someone Asks (Not That Anyone Asks)).
1. The Next Day by David Bowie.
Full disclosure, I am a Bowie fanatic. I literally have body art commemorating my devotion to His Bowieness, so when the man puts out a new album after 10 years of relative radio silence, it’s pretty much a shoo-in for the top spot on my list. Fanaticism aside, this is a really solid album. It was announced almost fully formed on Bowie’s birthday last year, in a pretty brilliant bit of marketing. Up to this point, no one had heard anything about Bowie working on a new album, and then bam! There’s a new single, and he announces the album is almost finished, and will be out in a couple months.
That song, Where Are We Now, also happens to be one of my favorite tracks on the album. It’s almost a bit of a practical joke as a lead single, since there are no other songs like it on the album. A slower ballad, with Bowie singing in a very weary, (dare I say it) aged sounding voice, it’s a very affecting, slow-burning stock-take of a life several decades in. The rest of the album rocks quite a bit harder, and along the way finds space for groovy horn sections, psychedelic drum-n-bass freakouts, and Bowie’s classic Scott Walker impression. Honestly, if anybody but Bowie had made this album, I’d probably like it even more than I do. It’s only when it’s held up to the rest of his catalog that makes me think he can do better.
2. Random Access Memories by Daft Punk
This album is the least likely to need recommending on my list, considering how ubiquitous the track Get Lucky was this past summer (oh, and I guess they just won a Grammy or something?). That’s not without good reason though: that song is an absolutely perfect slice of dance pop. Nonetheless, I’d be remiss to write any list of my favorite music from last year and not include this gem. And maybe you heard that song on the radio, even enjoyed it, but weren’t inspired to check out the rest of the album. Let me now attempt to inspire you to check out the rest of the album.
Featuring guest stars as diverse as Nile Rodgers of Chic (who also played a major role on Bowie’sLet’s Dance album back in the 80s, just as a little Six Degrees of David Bowie trivia), Julian Casablancas of The Strokes, and Panda Bear of Animal Collective, and of course, Pharrell Williams, the two wacky French robots of Daft Punk set out to compose an album-length love letter to the music they grew up on. It’s late seventies/early eighties electro disco filtered through a modern lens. It has love ballads, space exploration, more dancefloor anthems than you can shake your booty at, and even what I can only describe as a musical documentary track, Giorgio by Moroder featuring the eponymous electronic production pioneer discussing his early career over a heavy funk groove. Now, granted, it may not be your type of music, but if you can’t at least acknowledge that everything in this paragraph so far sounds awesome, then, I’m sorry to be the one to break this to you, but you may not actually like having fun.
3. Trouble Will Find Me by The National
The National are another perennial favorite of mine, and this is another great album from them. It isn’t any kind of radical departure from what they usually do, more of a gradual evolution. That said, this may be their most accessible album yet–the lyrics are a little less abstract, the compositions a little more straightforward. If you don’t like this album the first time, wait a couple days and give it another listen; my experience with every album by The National so far has been that it grows on me.
In particular, I always connect with lead singer Matt Berninger’s lyrics. Sure, they can mostly be read as being about heartache (how original!) but his particularly literate, grown-up take on romantic pain always resonates with me. “I was a television version of a person with a broken heart” he sings on my favorite track Pink Rabbits, which to me is a key to unlocking the lyrics of the rest of this album: the singer knows he may come across clichéd, but he can’t help it. All this set to the churning, richly layered music provided by Berninger’s bandmates (many of them classically trained), makes for a thoroughly enjoyable wallow in the melancholy side of life.
A footnote to this entry: National guitarist Bryce Dessner is an accomplished player and composer in the classical sphere as well. Both also released in 2013, he composed the nervy, elegant Aheym for the Kronos Quartet, and played on David Lang’s incredibly haunting, painfully beautiful Death Speaks (
unavailable through the library, but worth requesting through Interlibrary Loan UPDATE: this album is now available in the library catalog! )–the two of which make up the entirety of my Top Classical Albums of 2013, and are both well worth a listen if you’re into contemporary classical composition at all.
These last two albums are not in our catalog on CD, but are both available through Hoopla, which is a great resource not only for new music, but also audiobooks, movies and TV shows. Everything you need to know to get started with Hoopla is available here.
4. The Silver Gymnasium by Okkervil River
At first blush, I’ll admit, it would be easy to lump Okkervil River in with the wave of five-plus-member indie rock bands with a slightly folkish bent that had such a big moment a few years back (of those, Arcade Fire are still doing pretty well for themselves, and they did release an album in 2013 which basically everybody else liked, but for whatever reason I just can’t get into). As with The National, what really sets them apart is the lyrics. For my money, Okkervil River’s Will Sheff is in serious competition with Matt Berninger for the title of best lyricist currently working in indie rock (John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats is the other major contender, but they didn’t put out an album in 2013, so that’s all I’ll say about them for now).
This release picks back up Sheff’s tendency to imbue the band’s albums with an overarching theme, after taking a one-themeless-album breather and suffering for it. It’s a loose concept album (loose enough that you don’t need to try to follow some story in the liner notes to enjoy the songs) centered around Sheff’s childhood memories of growing up in a small town in New Hampshire in the early 80s. If that sounds like it may veer too far into syrupy nostalgia for your taste, well, it does from time-to-time, but never for long enough to ruin it. This album doesn’t shy away from the darker side of life, lyrically, but from the opening piano chords of the first track, this music mostly just fills me with unmitigated joy; the sound of it is infectious and toe-tappable throughout. And though he also mines the melancholy to be found in reflecting on one’s childhood, Sheff remains as wary of that nostalgia as he knows you, the listener, are. “Show me my best memory,” he sings on album stand out Pink Slips, “it’s probably super crappy”
5. Overgrown by James Blake
On this album, James Blake successfully combined the two sides of his musical personality- the deep bass, post-dubstep beatmaker, and the soulful piano-based singer songwriter. Those influences collide beautifully on tracks like Retrograde, the sultry centerpiece of an all-round steamy album. When Blake croons “we’re alone now,” diving smoothly from his usual gently quivering tenor all the way down to the bottom of his vocal range, it gives me shivers every time. This album also features two high-profile guest musicians, though honestly neither is utilized as fully as I would have liked: RZA, the sonic architect of the Wu-Tang Clan contributes a rap to Take a Fall For Me. It’s not a bad rap, but it feels out of place on an album that is otherwise so singularly focused on Blake’s voice, and of course RZA isn’t as known for his flow as he is for his signature production style. He isn’t credited as a producer on this track, though from a textural standpoint it certainly feels informed by his work.
Completing our Six Degrees of David Bowie for this entry, Overgrown also features frequent Bowie collaborator (and fellow musical hero of mine) Brian Eno as producer on the track Digital Lion. It’s not my favorite track on the album, but hearing Eno’s textural sensibilities combine with Blake’s is very exciting; it makes me wonder what the whole album might sound like had the two produced it together. As it stands, there is a wonderfully consistent vibe of sexy melancholy to this album, and I especially recommend it for rainy afternoons or late nights.
So there you have five of my favorite albums released last year. If you’ve listened to any of these, let me know what you think! And of course, this list is by no means exhaustive. 2013 was one of the best years for new music in recent memory; I’ll be featuring many more of last year’s releases in upcoming posts.