Happy Holidays and welcome to the second edition of Stuff We Listened To. As bewildered as we are that a whole year has passed, we wanted to thank you for reading, supporting, and following along this year by offering a sweet Guide To Awesome Music You May Have Missed In 2013. Keep in mind that what follows is not a summary of the year’s best music, but a rundown of the music we liked and listened to most. If there are any huge 2013 acts missing — and there are — it just means one of the following: 1) that we deem those acts to be no-brainers and therefore not worth mentioning, 2) that we don’t like those acts, or 3) that we’re snobs and didn’t even listen to those acts this year. You, dear readers, get to choose which of the three it is. OK, away we go.
My personal pick for album of the year — keep in mind that you’re currently in the dance-centric realm of SlackPost — goes to Disclosure’s debut Settle. I listened to it a ton, both at work and in transit. Interestingly enough, I didn’t hear much of it while out at night, which is to say I didn’t spend that much time dancing to it (except for when I saw Disclosure in concert). This is odd, because, you know, it’s a dance record.
But that’s part of the beauty of it: even if you’re just listening on the subway, Settle’s pop-oriented mixtures of garage, house, dubstep, and disco allow you to get lost in it — in such a way that, at the very least, you’re dancing along in your own head. And that might be my favorite kind of dancing anyway.
All of the tracks on Settle adhere to many of the same structures and elements — awesome guest vocalists, retro UK garage and 2-step roots, wobbly synths. But each also provides a unique soundscape to explore. The good stuff lies in the subtleties. That’s what’s so disarming about the fact that Guy and Howard Lawrence are 22 and 19. It makes no sense that they’re so young and their material is so polished. This is one of the most mature, self-assured (dance) debuts I can remember. The fact that 2012 gems “What’s In Your Head” and “Boiling” weren’t even included on the album speaks to its strength.
Disclosure has gotten some flak for recycling established UK dance styles from the 90s and early 2000s, and for lowering them to the level of mainstream pop. But none of that matters if you consider just how shockingly well-executed their final products are. That’s applicable to their pre-Settle stuff too: the Brothers Lawrence (no, not those ones) have been active since 2010, and even some of their earliest releases are favorites of mine, from “London Town” and “My Intention is War!” to “Flow” and “Lividup” to their remixes of Janet Jackson and Jessie Ware. (And then there’s other artists’ remixes of Disclosure’s work. Hot damn I’m feeling generous!)
The few times I did hear some of Disclosure’s material while out, I was surprised by how good it sounded — both because it was played through a legitimate sound system and because it served as the perfect soundtrack to a fun night of (real, not-inside-your-head) dancing. If you know anything about me, that’s the highest praise I can give.
I’ve mentioned London Grammar before (“Florence + The Machine mixed with the xx”), and my fandom has only increased in the past few months. I saw them live in October and was amazed by how good Hannah Reid sounded live. I recall reading somewhere that their music is best listened to in the dark, which sounds depressing and emo, but I can assure you that it somehow comes off as uplifting, thanks in large part to carefully placed percussion/keyboard work (courtesy of Dot Major) and guitar flourishes (courtesy of Dan Rothman). Of course, Reid’s voice remains both the highlight and the heart of each song.
All of their best material came out before 2002, and that’s fine. I’d heard all of their major hits before, but 2013’s strangely sudden obsession with funk and disco led me to really dig deep into their discography. Why? Because that’s what douchey music snobs like me do: when everyone’s into the cool mainstream shit, you listen to the older, even cooler versions of that shit! Jamiroquai was returning to and reinterpreting funk and disco WAY before Daft Punk was! [Joel: “Little L” was a banger. As a preteen it was one of the few songs that could get me to abandon all inhibitions and just dance like a fool.] In all seriousness though, Jamiroquai is an awesome band, even when you take away Jay Kay’s silky dance moves. At their peak, they were effortlessly, spectacularly funky, especially when performing live. (Please check out that last video, because 1) those crazy Italians won’t let the pouring rain get in the way of their acid jazz joy, 2) Jamiroquai was clearly an enormous deal in 2002, and 3) the clip solidifies how great the early 2000s were.) Jamiroquai’s earliest material contains completely instrumental jams featuring unusual instruments like the didgeridoo and pipeau, highlighting their musicianship and creative desires to build on and add to the jazz and funk traditions. And despite how some have written them off as “that group that Napoleon Dynamite danced to,” they’re really just a talented modern-day funk band. And I love me some funk music.
The Majestic Casual channel on YouTube
This “music blog,” if you can call it that, has been around since 2011. Like me, you’d probably come across it at some point during the last few years while on a random Internet journey; each video features a filtered, hipstery photo showcasing a landscape or an incredibly attractive (female) model. Today, a bunch of crappy imitators are all over YouTube, but the good news is that all you need to look for is a big “MAJESTIC” plastered across the hipstery photo in question. (Or you can just subscribe to the channel.) Anyway, say what you want about the forced trendiness of the whole thing, but I started actively listening to Majestic Casual this year and I am very, very grateful for it. Thanks to Majestic, I have discovered tons of new indie, alternative, and dance songs/remixes from both established and little-known artists. (Favorite discovery of the year: Chela’s “Romanticise.”) There are inevitably some misses on Majestic’s part, but the number of jams far surpasses that of flops. Enough people seem to have taken notice too: Majestic recently took a step toward becoming a real-life label/non-Internet entity by releasing its first-ever compilation.
This Swiss/German pop duo has been developing a sizable European following for a few years now, but their debut album Mutual Friends wasn’t released in North America until early 2013. Even though they’re native German speakers, Valeska Steiner and Sonja Glass sing entirely in English with surprising lyrical prowess. Their most popular song, “Little Numbers,” is undeniably catchy and also boasts the cutest BFF-themed video I saw this year. Often compared to Feist, Steiner and Glass have managed to create a charming pop sound of their own, one that is founded in Steiner’s slightly accented but effortlessly composed vocals, Glass’s on-point harmonies and understated guitar figures, and their backing band’s driving rhythms. Mutual Friends features simple but intelligent production, with little flourishes of horns or strings peppered in to mix things up. The two frontwomen are good playing with a full band or playing an acoustic set by themselves. Fellow Slacker Avinash and I sadly arrived late to their performance at New York’s Webster Hall in October, but in the little time we were there, we were struck by how swept up the crowd was in everything BOY did. Put simply, they’re a very impressive live act. By show’s end, everyone was imploring them to stay onstage even though they’d already played two encores and, as Glass commented in semi-broken English, “Well, we’d love to stay, but we have only 12 songs.”
Alt-J (∆) – An Awesome Wave
Albums feel increasingly like an outdated way to release music. Nowadays we usually only download singles, we rarely buy CDs, and we satisfy our hankerings for a specific band by just shuffling their entire discography. That said, I listened to this album in order, start to finish, 37 times this year. I cannot tell you why, but I can offer you this: it’s a really nice experience. Between the nasally, accent-y vocals, the complete lack of cymbals, and the super nerdy references to geometric concepts, Macbook shortcuts and Where The Wild Things Are, the record is also a pretty unique experience. It’s mostly mellow, but the bass drops on “Intro” and “Fitzpleasure” are memorable demands for attention. “Ripe & Ruin,” an a capella interlude written about obsessive compulsive disorder, is at first weird, then catchy, then beautiful. “Breezeblocks” and “Tessellate” are modest radio hits that probably deserve to have the “modest” removed. It may be music to solve math problems to, but I love what this band has recorded, and there’s nobody I’m more excited to hear from in 2014.
I probably listen to Drake more than any other rapper, but I don’t feel good about it. And I don’t want people to know.
— Joel Oblizalo (@JoelOblizalo) September 19, 2013
…That’s all I have to say about that.
Bad Books – Forest Whitaker
A real cool, real simple song by a couple of dudes who have written their fair share with other projects. Although this is the biggest hit from an album that came out in the summer of 2012, it wasn’t until 2013 that I started listening to it constantly. Great songs are built on great melodies, and this one is a memorable, unique earworm. The lyrics are quirky and awesome: “I bought a bird / That repeats what I say but ‘I’m lonely’ is all that it’s heard.” I also love the guitar solo. And the whistling. I like whistling.
Arctic Monkeys – R U Mine?
My favorite song on the new record, despite that horrible text-speak title. While most of the (very solid) album burns slow with a sexy, lounge-rock feel, “R U Mine?” absolutely rips right from the first measure. Alex Turner’s trademark rapid-fire, slightly syncopated vocals are at their best, and the guitar riff is the tastiest on an album full of sweet licks. It just sounds like a really, really fun song to play. Also, I listened to Arctic Monkeys’ entire catalog a lot in 2013, and it just made me wonder how everyone on this side of the pond has managed to sleep on this band for so long. I mean, how “When The Sun Goes Down” didn’t completely set the world on fire, I’ll never understand.
[Avinash: I love the way “When The Sun Goes Down” starts slow with “So who’s that girl there?” sandwiched between guitar strums. It plods along, with Alex Turner kind of sing-talking for a bit until “he’s a scumbag, don’t you know?” before the guitars and bass unleash their full fury. Unbelievable. And apparently someone a short film based on the song. Shows how big an impression it made when it came out.
Joel: That song is solidly in my top 10 favorite songs ever. OF ALL TIME. The intro (and similar outro) is a masterpiece of rock writing.]
Lana Del Rey – Young and Beautiful
There’s something about Lana Del Rey’s aloof style that really makes this song haunting. The chorus’s frank, heavy question is thematically perfect for The Great Gatsby (whose soundtrack this song appears on). But, like Baz Lurhman’s visually over-the-top film, Lana’s glitz undercuts a little of the otherwise powerful song: everything is just too sparkly to be emotional. Which is why a plea to God for the eternal soul of Lana’s lover is butted up against “all that grace / all that body / all that face / makes me want to party.” Nevertheless, there is no killing that chorus. For a while there, I would often catch myself walking around falsetto-ing “WILL YOU STILL LOVE ME WHEN I’M NO LONGER YOUNG AND BEAUTIFULLLL?” before realizing there might be other people within earshot. It’s irresistible.
Moon Hooch – Mega Tubes
I wrote about Moon Hooch last year, but I simply have to take all opportunities to push this band. I mean, feel that all-natural woodwind bass! This is the second track they’ve recorded with vocalist Alena Spanger, and it’s got all the sex appeal of the first, “Contra,” except they’ve gone and exaggerated the heaviness. The result is an absolute banger. I stand by my claim that they are the coolest, most inspirational band I’ve ever seen. They’ve added a fourth member behind the sound boards, who adds effects to the live shows and recordings. It’s a much more psychedelic show than it once was, for better and for worse. They sound more polished and imposing, but also weirder and less accessible. They are certainly a long way from the simple offbeat-driven grooves of the first album. But tracks like “Mega Tubes” show just how exciting three dudes, two saxes and a drum kit can be.
I don’t know why it took me until 2013 to check out this band, but they immediately became one of my all-time favorites. The Sheffield, England outfit has churned out kickass, guitar-driven rock from their 2005 debut EP to this year’s AM. And like Joel, I can’t get enough of it. Even the B-Sides hold gems, like the blue-eyed soul cover of Barbara Lewis’s “Baby I’m Yours” or the Street Fighter homage, “Chun Li’s Spinning Bird Kick.” [Joel: YES, that little instrumental could never live up to its name, but still, so happy you mentioned it.] Arctic Monkeys combine a strong sense of melody with punk attitude, dark humor, and charisma. I spent hours this year rocking out to tracks like “Fluorescent Adolescent,” “Black Treacle,” “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” and “Mardy Bum.”
I can’t understand how this other guy from Sheffield isn’t a bigger deal. Richard Hawley’s music feels perfectly crafted. He writes captivating lyrics, plays guitar exceptionally, sings like the lovechild of Johnny Cash and Morrissey, and doesn’t give a damn that rockabilly hasn’t been popular since the mid-1900s. And he’s got great hair. There’s nothing ironic about Richard Hawley’s retro style; you can hear the sincerity in his performance. It’s hard to recommend specific songs from Hawley’s catalog when I consider so many to be masterpieces. “Tonight the Streets Are Ours” made the perfect opening theme for the innovative Banksy documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop. The original song is already beautiful, and its acoustic version is just… enchanting. I’m sure Johnny Cash would have loved to cover “(Wading Through) The Waters of My Time” in his American series. Other standout Hawley tracks include “Just Like the Rain,” “Hotel Room,” “Serious,” and “Don’t Get Hung Up in Your Soul.” If you dig the sound, make sure to check out the acoustic versions and live performances for an even more earnest vibe. When Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not won the Mercury Prize over Coles Corner in 2006, Alex Turner joked, “Someone call 999 [the UK 911], Richard Hawley’s been robbed!” Real recognize real, I suppose.
An Important Note on Hair: You may notice that Alex Turner’s more recent hairstyle (keep clicking on the photo to see how cool Turner truly is) looks a lot like Richard Hawley’s quiff. Only the gods can judge who wears it better, but Hawley definitely wore it first. I wonder if Turner asked his fellow Sheffielder how to rock that hairdo. Whatever the story, people from Sheffield just seem to be cooler than the rest of us.
I’ve never been that into The Shins, but their lead singer, James Mercer, sounds awesome collaborating with Brian Burton (better known as Danger Mouse). Broken Bells plays melodic yet experimental indie rock, with Mercer’s soft voice floating over Burton’s cinematic soundscapes. Unlike those whiny songs on the Garden State soundtrack, these belong in fantastical sci-fi visions. Attractive redheads in outer space, in fact, seem to form a common theme in Broken Bells’ music videos. Can’t wait for After the Disco to drop in early 2014. If you’re interested, Broken Bells has a great video series called Tough Set of Judges, where adorable English kids critique their songs.
My Morning Jacket
I never gave this band a chance before because I assumed they were emo like My Chemical Romance or Bullet for My Valentine or something. But then I saw an American Dad (super underrated show, by the way) episode where Stan becomes obsessed with MMJ and starts having feelings for the first time. I soon found out My Morning Jacket doesn’t play anything even remotely emo. They play sweet Southern rock drawing influence from all over the place. Jim James may sing about metal on “Holdin On To Black Metal,” but the song is more psychedelic soul, complete with a piercing horn section and backup singers you can picture stepping in sync. MMJ messes around with reggae on “Off the Record” and something more spaced out on “Wordless Chorus.” “I’m Amazed,” on the other hand, is traditional Southern rock. Lesson learned: don’t judge a band by its name.
Run the Jewels
Killer Mike and El-P teamed up to drop the hip-hop album of the year… FOR FREE. El-P produced the shit out of Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music — my favorite record of 2012. Not only does he do the same on Run the Jewels’ self-titled debut, but he also holds his own on the mic trading verses with Killer Mike. Run the Jewels is a 33-minute hurricane of hard-hitting beats and dope rhymes with no filler. If you yell “ohhh” after a clever punchline, you’ve already missed the next one. Killer Mike and El-P love hanging out together, and their best bro chemistry makes them really fun to watch. The show at Webster Hall to close out their North American tour might be the best rap concert I’ve ever seen. Run the Jewels embodies the sacred-profane duality central to hip-hop with extreme self-awareness and sincerity.
Who knew a kid from Wichita, Kansas could have so much funky soul. “Like Duke Ellington said: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. I like music that makes you feel something, music that works on more than one level,” says Shawn Lee on his website. Considering how many times I’ve listened to “Kiss the Sky” this year, I should be sick of it. But I don’t think that’s possible with Lee’s harpsichord riff and Nino Moschella’s falsetto soulscream. Shawn Lee is prolific; the dude seems to collaborate with everyone he knows. There’s Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra, AM & Shawn Lee, and Shawn Lee & Clutchy Hopkins to name a few. He’s even scored movies and video games, including Rockstar’s tremendously underrated Bully. Shawn Lee is a master of the instrumental groove.
After seeing Prince effortlessly being cooler than everyone at the Grammys, I explored his non-Purple Rain catalog for the first time. I listened to nothing else for an entire month. Seriously, an entire month. With the genre and gender-bending singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, “genius” is not an overstatement. I don’t even know where to begin. So many absolute jams. “Raspberry Beret,” “Somebody’s Somebody,” “Billy Jack Bitch,” “Slow Love,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Lady Cab Driver,” the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, Prince guards his music like Smaug guards his treasure. So you’ll have to use Spotify (or iTunes if you’re feeling generous). With his recent single, Prince seems to have come around to this whole YouTube sharing thing. “Breakfast Can Wait” impresses on so many levels. Its official cover art features Dave Chappelle as Prince from the famous Chappelle’s Show sketch. The Purple One isn’t even in the video. Instead, the video’s director and world’s greatest 18-year-old, Danielle Curiel, appears dressed as Prince (In reverse drag? Or… just regular drag?). Toward the end of the song, one side of the call and response goes Alvin and the Chipmunks — for an entire minute. Why? Prince, that’s why.
It’s hard to define Bibio’s music. Some call it folk-meets-electronica. The self-taught English producer indeed captures the pastoral feel and jangling guitar of folk music, but his sound goes much deeper. Bibio’s early work wanders through vivid, dreamlike worlds. It’s great music for studying, relaxing, falling asleep, and probably putting yourself in a trance. Since 2009, Bibio has picked up the energy and added poppier melodies and vocals, as on “À Toute à l’Heure” and “Lovers’ Carvings.” He even ventures into funk on tracks like “Jealous of Roses.” Much of this year’s Silver Wilkinson, however, returned to the kind of music I imagine flows through the Elysian Fields.
Well, there you have it. Happy listening, SlackFans, and thanks for reading. Here’s to a great 2014!