Favorite popular music 2013

by on December 15, 2013 at 6:31 am in Music | Permalink

These are some favorites from some radically incomplete sampling, not a “best of” list:

1. Kanye West, Yeezus.  His best album by quite a bit.

2. MBV, by My Bloody Valentine, there is a good short review here.  If you had to ask who did better after a 20-year hiatus, Kevin Shields or Bobby Fischer, this is decisive evidence in favor of Shields.  A totally unexpected renaissance.

3. Acid Rap, by Chance the Rapper, available on YouTube here.

4. Wed 21, by Juana Molina.  Why isn’t she better known?

5. Matangi, by M.I.A.  Her first album had enough posturing that I figured that was it, but by now she has compiled an impressive streak.

I am also starting to like Churches, Bones of What You Believe.  My favorite jazz album of the year has been Charles Lloyd and Jason Moran, Hagar’s Song.  I have more on order.

Rsquared December 15, 2013 at 6:55 am

Agree on Yeezus.

Saturos December 15, 2013 at 8:48 am

No way, Late Registration! But the internet seems to agree that this has been the year of Kanye.

Peter December 15, 2013 at 8:52 am

“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is his best album.

Callum December 15, 2013 at 9:24 am

I agree with Peter. Yeezus has a few stand-out songs (Black Skinhead, Bound 2) but Twisted Fantasy was consistently good.

prognostication December 15, 2013 at 1:32 pm

Yeah, that is an immaculate record.

JVM December 15, 2013 at 1:57 pm

+1, it is exceedingly good, and in many ways it pushed the boundaries as much as Yeezus.

Kevin P. December 15, 2013 at 8:05 am

It’s refreshing not to see Lorde on such a list.

chriss1519 December 15, 2013 at 8:16 am

This is such a silly list.

Aging Hipster December 15, 2013 at 8:28 am

How many of these will be remembered 10 yrs. from now? Will any of these artists be regarded with the esteem now accorded to Beck, Radiohead, Pearl Jam, REM etc?

Frank Rizzo December 15, 2013 at 8:37 am

I have often thought the same question. Without a doubt, there is a lot more (and more disposable) music out there – but I think that’s a symptom of the cheap distribution and instant accessibility, rather than worse musicians.

I would say that people like Kanje, Beyonce – and to cater to your demographic (I’m assuming!) The Strokes, The White Stripes – will still be playing on the radio in 20 years time.

Claudia December 15, 2013 at 8:47 am

I never understand this argument about music’s permanence. I like pairing music to a moment … and I sure hope in 10 years I am enjoying some different moments than now. For example, if M.I.A.’s Bad Girls gets me through the last of my online Xmas shopping today, it was worth the musical experience. Enjoying music nows seems a sufficiently high bar for me. Of course, some artists do have staying power, I would be shocked and saddened if I (and my daughter) are not listening to (new) Beyonce music in 10 years but it won’t be the same songs I suspect.

dirk December 15, 2013 at 12:39 pm

The argument against the music of the moment is that the music of the moment may not be very good. As a teenager of the 80′s, I hated 80′s popular music but was very happy that popular music from the 60′s was still in high circulation.

Claudia December 15, 2013 at 1:26 pm

Does music of the moment need to be “good”? Timeless music can be pretty impersonal and forced? Still I see your point (and have certainly accommodated/been lectured by those with non-popular music tastes before), but I have been well served by a flexible view of good music and enjoy a lot of positive associations between songs and people and events.

prognostication December 15, 2013 at 1:34 pm

This is a ridiculous argument. Sometime look at what the number one Billboard singles were at any given time, even in periods you might think of as “better” times musically. You will be shocked at how many of them you’ve never heard of, and/or are terrible. Some things are fads, some things have staying power.

dirk December 15, 2013 at 1:53 pm

My argument is that if I’m motivated to purchase more music from one decade’s over another’s I probably like that music better. I don’t know much about Billboard singles but I’m confident that Dylan, the Stones, The Doors, the Beatles, The Kinks, The Mothers, the Who and Hendrix made much better music than whoever their counterparts in 80′s might have been. Who were their counterparts in the 80′s anyway? Was mostly crap, wasn’t it?

Claudia December 15, 2013 at 2:12 pm

Come on grumpy, err purist not all 80s popular music was crap. Plenty of good stuff from these and others: U2, Guns N’ Roses, Bruce Springstein, The Smiths, R.E.M, Metallica, The Clash, Depeche Mode. I stand by my initial argument that the music you are motivated to purchase says more about ‘you’ at that moment than the objective quality of the music.

Axa December 16, 2013 at 6:33 am

Music as a soundtrack for the present and that’s it. This is the most hedonist opinion about music I’ve heard for a while. Respect.

However, permanence provides pleasure to consumers in two ways, the old or geek guy having pleasure by telling others about how ignorant they are for not know X album and the pleasure a collector experiences by simply hoarding. Permanence is the “thing” collectors look for, no one hoards expecting things to have 0 value in the future.

Peter December 15, 2013 at 8:56 am

Kanye will be remembered more than any of the bands you mentioned, except maybe Radiohead. Also, is Pearl Jam really accorded a lot of esteem now? I like them, but I thought I was the only one.

Fallibilist December 16, 2013 at 9:13 am

I had precisely the same reaction to Beck. Seriously, nowadays, what does he matter?

Little Tripoli December 15, 2013 at 9:00 am

I just missed the grunge thing at school. I can barely remember Pearl Jam with esteem now.

I also doubt many teenagers are currently in thrall to Swan Swan Hummingbird, more’s the pity.

Though, counter-evidence: the one young man who I do know in a mildly successful band apes the mannerisms of Stipe and the dress sense of the very dregs of early 90s Seattle, so it is entirely likely I have lost my edge…

Trent December 15, 2013 at 10:22 am

Kanye and My Bloody Valentine are already held in higher esteem than all those bar Radiohead and possibly REM. Kanye will pretty easily eclipse all of them before he’s done (much as it pains me to admit, including Radiohead).

Unsolicited opinion: Virgins by Tim Hecker, Psychic by Darkside, and R Plus Seven by Oneohtrix Point Never are all very good releases from 2013.

Stan Oh December 15, 2013 at 11:59 am

Agreed on kanye and your 2013 list! New burial ep is so good. This year I also enjoyed polica, forest swords, drake, pusha t and savages.

Sean P. December 15, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Thinking back to my favorite albums of 2003…Sufjan Stevens and The Decemberists are both reasonably popular today. The Postal Service is Sub Pop’s #2 seller after Nirvana. In light of subsequent developments, that Chutes Too Narrow is an enjoyable pop album seems like a fluke. 2003 was the year that people other than college students and music journalists started to care about indie rock.

On the other hand, if you went back in time and told everyone that Death Cab for Cutie is now a Big Deal while Broken Social Scene’s biggest legacy is Feist’s The Reminder (due in part to its use in Apple commercials, no less), nobody would believe you.

Little Tripoli December 15, 2013 at 8:30 am

Of course, it’s not like Kevin Shields was doing nothing whilst away, just very little. He did contribute to two of the greatest songs of the late 90s:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbaOgKIUWXU

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3bEJxav4xo

The second in particular is spectacular.

Saturos December 15, 2013 at 9:37 pm

Also Fischer hardly did much during his comeback, whereas MBV have been touring for 6 years and put out an album to “universal acclaim” on Metacritic, probably followed by another EP and album.

Saturos December 15, 2013 at 8:49 am

Matangi is her best album now, isn’t it?

Jeff December 15, 2013 at 9:24 am

Best music of the last year, indeed at least the last decade is here

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHg5SJYRHA0

Beckett December 15, 2013 at 9:29 am

Has Tyler heard of Death Grips?????

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_Grips

Andy December 15, 2013 at 10:58 am

Death Grips is amazing but Government Plates was not as good as any of their earlier stuff.

Beckett December 15, 2013 at 2:38 pm

I had the same thought when I first heard it but after a couple more listens I can’t stop listening to the thing all the way through.

Anon. December 15, 2013 at 2:57 pm

/mu/ pls

Callum December 15, 2013 at 9:32 am

I’m also a huge fan of the Chvrches album, though I’m worried how they are going to follow it up without making more of the same.

Carl December 15, 2013 at 9:49 am

When people who don’t listen to much rap music proffer opinions on rap music things tend to go very wrong. Case in point…

L December 15, 2013 at 11:53 am

What’s controversial about these picks? I don’t care for Chance but folks I respect like him.

* A$AP Rocky had some elite songs but wasn’t a great album
* Joe Budden’s album (No Love Lost) was inferior to the mixtape (A Loose Quarter)
* Inspectah Deck + 7L & Esoteric’s Czarface was surprisingly meh
* Tyler and the whole OFWGKTA crew is terrible
* Ghostface’s Twelve Reasons to Die was hyped but only ok
* Kid Cudi’s album was underwelming
* R.A. the Rugged Man’s album was excellent at the top but seemed to have some filler
* I didn’t care for J. Cole’s album
* I don’t fault him for not listing Run the Jewels

I can’t speak for the recent releases like Shad, Black Milk, Cage, Bun B, Childish Gambino, Dice Raw so I can’t speak to them.

Tristan December 15, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Not really sure where you’re coming from…I listen to a fair amount of rap and Yeezus and Acid Rap are definitely respectable choices for top albums of the year. What did you have in mind?

Carl December 15, 2013 at 3:49 pm

I was referring to the comment that Yeezus is Kanye’s “best album by quite a bit”. Cringeworthy evaluation. It’s actually his worst by quite a bit.

Tristan December 15, 2013 at 7:11 pm

A reasonable opinion, but so is the converse. There’s definitely no consensus one way or the other in the hip hop community, with critics, or with his fans. Personally, I would rank the 808′s one and Graduation as having fewer enjoyable songs than Yeezus.

As evidence for the claim just check out the metacritic scores for the respective albums. While such a source is far from authoritative, that should confirm that Yeezus is at the very least in the same ballpark in terms of quality.

Norman Pfyster December 15, 2013 at 10:08 am

Popular where?!! #4 reminds me of a joke from “Cheers,” where Sam Malone says, “A lot of people don’t know it, but I’m really very famous.”

prognostication December 15, 2013 at 1:37 pm

Keep trolling.

Norman Pfyster December 15, 2013 at 4:54 pm

I stand by my comment (it wasn’t trolling). None of this (with the exception of Kanye) can remotely be called “popular.” It doesn’t mean it isn’t good, interesting or whatever…just that it isn’t popular. That’s why I thought Tyler’s comment on #4 was funny.

prognostication December 15, 2013 at 6:26 pm

But you’re hair-splitting. Popular music does not literally mean “the most popular music” and it hasn’t in a very long time. It means commercially marketed music that is intended to appeal to a mass audience. “She Found Now” from m b v has over a million plays on YouTube and is on year-end lists of all sorts of music publications and blogs. Acid Rap charted and rates highly on most best-of-rap lists for the year. Matangi charted in a bunch of countries including the US. Chvrhes charted. Juana Molina I’ll give you, although I think she still falls under the heading of “popular music.”

Jake December 16, 2013 at 5:35 pm

The two schools that Mr. Cowen normally refers to are classical and pop music. It has to do with the structure, not with the actual popularity.

Bill December 15, 2013 at 10:19 am

+1 on Acid Rap. It’s a very unique album, very warm and fun.

Joel December 15, 2013 at 10:34 am

I had never heard of Juana Molina, but I am very much enjoying her album on first listen, so thanks!

Andy December 15, 2013 at 10:57 am

Good list. Kanye is not a very good emcee but the production is top notch. I was underwhelmed by mbv but my expectations were too high

I would add

Deafheaven – Sunbather. It is rare to hear new sounds in black metal (or metal in general). This is a much better shoegaze album than mbv.
The Knife – Shaking the Habitual. Deconstructive electronica. My vote for the year’s most likely to end up being “important” in 25 years.

prognostication December 15, 2013 at 1:45 pm

How on earth can you even compare Sunbather and mbv? I like both, but they are apples and oranges. The Knife is also a good call.

Andy December 15, 2013 at 2:07 pm

Both released shoegaze albums this year!

prognostication December 15, 2013 at 2:23 pm

Right, but my point was that you might as well be comparing Yeezus to jazz. Shoegaze is one of those “genres” that has an extremely loose definition in the first place (what is it that Swervedriver and Slowdive have in common, one might wonder), and I just don’t see how Sunbather and m b v are similar enough to be directly comparable.

Andy December 15, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Fair enough. I think if someone asked me “what was the best shoegaze album released this year?” I would answer Sunbather without hesitation. And in forming best of lists I think we’re implicitly (and occasionally explicitly) asking those questions.

I should just be happy no one is arguing for Reflektor.

DanC December 15, 2013 at 11:27 am

RE Juana Molina, she looked like she was gaining some traction in around 2007 – the tour she did with Vashti Bunyan, Adem and Vetiver was fantastic, for example, and got terrific press, but then there were no further releases between 2008 and now; there’s not really a whole lot Domino could have done during that period to keep her in the spotlight.

Thor December 15, 2013 at 1:01 pm

I am not old, only approaching middle age in fact, but these names (of bands) mean nothing to me. Surely I can’t be alone in being unimpressed by most contemporary pop music.

Tristan December 15, 2013 at 1:11 pm

Well I would say the objective quality has only gone up (there’s more artists, greater experimentation and cross pollination of genres etc), but I understand why it would feel that way to you. The nostalgia factor is pretty strong on the stuff we grew up with, among other things. I’m sure I’ll feel that way about contemporary pop some day.

Sbard December 15, 2013 at 2:47 pm

Just imagine tuning into your local classic rock radio station in 30 years and hearing it play Nickelback.

Hoosier December 15, 2013 at 3:50 pm

Are there hooks or melodies to any of these songs? Anything catchy? I try to get into MBV or Radiohead but it just seems to drone on and on… I get that people are impressed by “the acoustical nature of music, and the creation of alternative sound worlds” as Tyler mentioned on a previous post but I wish there was more stuff that stuck in my head.

dirk December 16, 2013 at 4:24 am

You should give up because you don’t know the difference between analog and digital. Analog instruments — even electric guitars — pump air back and forth. All the great music ever made to date was analog. Digital doesn’t move air, it just says “nin, nin, nin.” It’s ready made for an era of queers but there’s not much beauty in it.

NPDX December 16, 2013 at 4:57 pm

Dirk: What you are describing is not, in fact, the difference between analog and digital. Analog instruments operate through continuous modulation of waveforms, while digital instruments generate sounds out of discrete steps, or bits. So, for, instance, earlier synthesizers (Moog, Buchla, Arp) were analog instruments, despite the fact that they don’t “pump air”.

On the other hand, you’re also wrong to describe electric guitars as “moving air” in a relevant sense. Playing an electric guitar does move air, but as an epiphenomenon: it doesn’t contribute to the sound. What electric guitars move is _steel_ —which generates a current in the magnetic pickups. Moving air doesn’t come into it until the sound emerges from an amplifier—which is equally true of digitally produced music.

Perhaps “mechanical” vs. “electronic” would be closer to the pair of concepts you’re looking for, though they don’t have quite the right connotations.

It’s perfectly valid to prefer the sound of analog instruments to digital instruments, or to prefer the sound of acoustic instruments to electric/electronic ones. (It’s not clear which position you are intending to take: possibly both.) But you’re wrong about the difference between analog and digital, you’re wrong about the way guitars operate, and you’re being insufferably moralistic about the whole thing.

I’m also curious as to how you feel about digital media in general: the sound of a digital software sampler playing a high-bitrate sample of a sustained note originally recorded from an acoustic instrument could in principle be exactly the same as the sound of a CD or FLAC recording of an acoustic instrument playing that note. In both cases an acoustic, analog sound is being played back digitally: would you claim to find no beauty in digital-format recordings, period? Or do you just feel that in practice most digitally produced music lacks nuance?

dirk December 15, 2013 at 4:26 pm

“there’s more artists, greater experimentation and cross pollination of genres”

What you mean to say is there’s more copying and pasting and less originality. Popular music hasn’t changed much in 30 years. There’s more fiddling around in post-production but that’s about it.

I’m not nostalgic about the contemporary pop of my day; in fact I didn’t even like it the first time around.

Get back to me when an artist experiments as much as Frank did on Uncle Meat.

prognostication December 15, 2013 at 4:43 pm

HEALTH – Get Color. St Vincent – Strange Mercy. Two albums from the past five years that really push at the edges of what “popular” music can do through major experimentation.

dirk December 15, 2013 at 7:00 pm

Thanks for the suggestions. I checked the first one out. Even though I came of age when synthesized music was becoming very popular, I still don’t like the sounds computers make. Computers might win at chess but nobody has yet figured out how to get a timbre out of a computer that sounds better than a real world instrument.

So, yeah, HEALTH — Get Color sounds like shit.

prognostication December 15, 2013 at 7:32 pm

So you only want people to innovate on the same old technology. Okay, that makes it clearer. If you’ll recall, Zappa, who you cite as an innovator upthread, thoroughly embraced synthesized music.

dirk December 15, 2013 at 8:27 pm

Zappa embraced it and it was a bold experiment but it ultimately wasn’t very good.

Referring to musical instruments as “old technology” when the topic is music is strange. Computers haven’t yet passed the Turing Test when it comes to music. Computers still sound like computers. To be clear, I’m not against the technology in theory but it sounds like shit.

dirk December 15, 2013 at 8:32 pm

“So you only want people to innovate on the same old technology.”

Innovation in music has little to do with technology. Perhaps thinking it does is the reason there has been so little innovation in music.

prognostication December 15, 2013 at 9:18 pm

I give up. Electronic instruments have been prominent in music since the 1970s and are here to stay, and a huge percentage of all innovation in popular music in the past half a century has been driven by technology of various kinds. The Beatles’ best records aren’t the same without multitracking. “Satisfaction” isn’t the same song without the distorted guitar. Rap likely wouldn’t exist without drum machines. And on and on.

Aidan December 15, 2013 at 2:25 pm

By all means say “I’ve googled the names of these musicians, listened to a couple of their songs and been seriously unimpressed” but don’t try to use the fact you know nothing about them to support your argument that they aren’t any good. Structurally, your argument is pretty much identical to the following: “I am not young, I am now entering my twenties, but the names Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mozart mean nothing to me. Surely I can’t be alone in being unimpressed by most classical music.”

Rafael G December 15, 2013 at 9:42 pm

There is an enormous difference in complexity between Beethoven and current North American pop music. In fact, most of what’s today considered mainstream American pop music is very similar to tribal rhythms. Well, they are sort of the rhythms in vogue by the American tribe and they are completely different thing from erudite music.

Aidan December 16, 2013 at 2:48 am

I wasn’t suggesting that Kanye West is comparable to Beethoven, I was just pointing out that basing a judgement of the quality of a piece of music on one’s not having heard it is a pretty clear logical fallacy. Also, I googled the albums I found here and was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

Steko December 16, 2013 at 10:37 pm

“There is an enormous difference in complexity between Beethoven and current North American pop music [which] is very similar to tribal rhythms.”

It appears the market has spoken: Beethoven is worse than tribal rhythms. Relevant fictional exchange:

Chef: “You stupid amateurs could never appreciate my noodles!”
Tampopo: “But people who eat noodles are all amateurs. So why make noodles amateurs can’t appreciate?”

Rafael G December 15, 2013 at 9:38 pm

I am in my middle 20′s and I don’t care at all about these famous North American music artists. Though I also probably don’t care about any of your favorite musicians as well. In terms of popular music I only care about Heavy Metal. I don’t have any favorite album from 2013 since I tend to not care about new releases instead I try to explore the past as well as the present.

MD December 16, 2013 at 1:54 pm

It’s not made for us. That’s okay, though. Metallica wasn’t made for my parents.

ummm December 15, 2013 at 1:41 pm

this present decade and the prior one have been pretty bad for pop music imho

Aging Hipster December 15, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Seven “popular music” releases of which only one that can be regarded as a “rock” album (and even that one is a “comeback” release).

Chris Lawnsby December 15, 2013 at 6:12 pm

If you are ever starved for an idea for a short blog post, I’d love to read about what makes Yeezus so good in your estimation. I enjoy it, but I’m not entirely sure why I do.

ww December 15, 2013 at 7:32 pm

“Hagar’s Song,” sure. Quite good. The rest is retread romp.

KK December 16, 2013 at 1:23 am

Atom™ – HD

sloppystack December 16, 2013 at 10:37 am

Don’t normally post but a big music fan. Here are some I have really liked this year:

Darkside – Psychic
Forest Swords – Engravings
FKA Twigs – EP2
The Field – Cupid’s Head
Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety

Also really liked Yeezus (agree this is Kanye’s best, though it is hard to compare to his other stuff), the new Arcade Fire (but for whatever reason not coming back to it like I did with Funeral and Suburbs, maybe because it is so long) and Death Grips Government Plates (again need to listen more but I think it was a big step forward from previous).

Herb Levy December 16, 2013 at 1:14 pm

Measuring someone else’s list of favorite music, books, movies, etc by how much you agree with it, seems like the least useful way to consider these kinds of lists.

Unless you’re really insecure about your own taste, aren’t these lists most productive as prompts to check out things you haven’t heard of?

Widmerpool December 16, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Amen Herb. These lists are always welcome from someone whose opinions you listen to.

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