2013 In Rock: Comebacks, Returns To Form And Eurydice

by Benjamin Ray

­­­Yes, I know, I’m a little late to the party. 2013 is in the books and we now look to new music of this year to feed our soul, fill our brain and provide the soundtrack to our road trips, parties, after-work cocktails and reflections on life. But last year was an interesting one, filled with a number of comebacks (some expected, some not) and mid-career offerings from current rock bands we know and love, so it’s worth taking one final look back at the Year That Was (hey, sounds like a good name for a weekly feature…). This list mostly deals with rock music, so please check out the other 2013 lists to get the skinny on the best offerings in pop, rap and R&B, country and other genres.

The Great

Arcade Fire, Reflektor: A 75-minute double concept album revolving around a Greek myth, with an average song length of six minutes – sounds like the stuff of 1970s progressive rock overkill, right? Feeling artistic and commercial freedom after the success of 2011’s The Suburbs, Arcade Fire offered up an intense, heavy and experimental rock album that turned out to be the best of the year. Encompassing moments of beauty, monolithic rock and disco beats and a sense of ambition and grandeur that is mostly out of fashion these days, the disc is, simply, excellent.

Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires Of The City: Pretty much the opposite of Reflektor, this release confronts aging, religion and what matters in life with subtlety, poignancy and grace. It marks the moment when you hit 30 and thoughts of mortality arrive. The music is sparse, leaving space for the words, and the result is evocative and thought-provoking.

David Bowie, The Next Day: The first surprise album of the year, in which Bowie returned after 10 years and revealed he had been recording an album in secret. The cover art, a couple of the songs and the concept picks up where Heroes ended in 1978, but much of the music is prime late period Bowie, and the man brings it throughout. “(You Will) Set The World On Fire” was rightly nominated for a Best Rock Song Grammy. It may  be his last album, and if so, it’s a fabulous coda to a legendary career.

Robin Thicke, "Blurred Lines:" Guilty pleasure, and I'm not even sorry that this occupies the same space as Vampire Weekend, its total opposite. I didn't hear the rest of the album and probably won't, but this was probably the catchiest, second dumbest hit song of the year. And yet, as with all good pop music, you can't get it out of your head (By the way, the dumbest hit of the year was Ylvis’ "What The Fox Says," but you knew that).

The Good

Pearl Jam, Lightning Bolt: Another solid outing from a band that has been releasing solid albums since 2002’s Riot Act. There’s the obligatory neo-punk single, a handful of slower reflective songs, some good rock and little in the way of fire or change-your-life music, which has become a rarity from a band that used to do it like no other. Still, a mediocre Pearl Jam album is almost better than any other band’s best album.

Paul McCartney, New: Not much new about this one except how modern most of it sounds. As usual, Paul is having the time of his life, writing fun music that builds on his legacy without constantly revisiting it. An array of producers give the music a sheen that keeps it current, and although it’s not as good as 2007’s Memory Almost Full, it’s one of Paul’s better efforts of the last 25 years.

Kings Of Leon, Mechanical Bull: The Followills cut the smarmy pap dreck of “Use Somebody” and “Sex On Fire” and deliver a classic rock album updated for 2013. Strong flavors of U2, Springsteen and Neil Young enhance the songs, which are immediate but not long-lasting. No matter; it’s a great driving record and the best thing the Kings have done since before Only By The Night.

Black Sabbath, 13: Another surprising reunion of sorts, with three of the four original members (sans drummer Bill Ward) revisiting their glory days. Rather than focus on the experiments or pulse-racing riffs that fleshed out the band, the songs are mostly seven minute plods through the murk that may sound like classic Sabbath but don’t really offer a reason why we should care anymore. But when it all clicks, as on “Dear Father,” it’s proof that the men who pretty much invented metal can still deliver.

Queens Of The Stone Age, …Like Clockwork: I stopped paying attention to the Queens after 2002, so it was good to hear them return to form with this one, even bringing back Dave Grohl for a couple of songs. “My God Is The Sun” is one of the best rock songs of the year; too bad the second half of the album doesn’t quite live up to the first.

The National, Trouble Will Find Me: Similar to Vampire Weekend’s effort, this indie quintet focuses on love and loss and struggle, writing poetic lyrics backed with unobtrusive but quietly necessary music. It may take a few listens to get into the spirit, but a line here or hook there will grab you if you’re in a pensive mood.

Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You: The concept this time is loosely based on relationships, but as with all Neko Case music, the depth and attention to craft is unparalleled. Signature themes of yearning and questioning are present along with a welcome sense of humor and the usual flair for underplayed drama. This is her third good album in a row.

John Mayer, Paradise Valley: Continuing his apologies and soul searching, Mayer turns in a companion piece to last year's Born And Raised that mines a similar folk-country-rock territory and makes almost no concessions to pop or commercial viability. The immature swipe at ex Taylor Swift aside, much of this continues Mayer's public rehabilitation, though he's more interested in finding himself (and domestic happiness) than in what we think about him.

Jake Bugg, "Lightning Bolt:" Great song. Look forward to more from this guy.

U2: "Ordinary Love:" It won the Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar; moreover, it was the first new U2 song since 2009. As the song goes, it's pretty standard U2, but that's still a welcome sight.

The Forgettable

Arctic Monkeys, AM: Some knucklehead at NME called this the best rock album of both the year and the last decade. Not even close. This band, unable to decide on three genres they like, add another two and still don’t have songs that stack up to Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, which seems now like a fading dream. Sure, it sounds good at the time, but so does Taco Bell.

Deafheaven, Sunbather: I don’t get death metal. The concept of this is intriguing – four long, heavy songs, broken up by lighter passages, but there are no vocals at all, just some dude screaming. It completely ruins the music, which is a shame because these guys can play. How this was the top-ranked album of 2013 on Metacritic I’ll never know.

My Bloody Valentine, m b v: The second of three surprise albums of the year, this late-’80s alt-noise-rock group dropped their third actual album, coming 22 years after Only Shallow. It was not worth the wait except for fans of the band, as the sonic overkill and attention to noise takes away from much of the songwriting. As it turns out, there are a couple of quite good songs toward the end of the disc, but it’s not worth the effort to get there unless, as said above, you were a huge fan of the noise rock of the ’80s (Sonic Youth, Jesus And Mary Chain) and want to revisit those days. Me, I have things to do.

Daft Punk, Random Access Memories: Shocked that this is here? Yes, other critics raved about it, including Rolling Stone and the Grammy voters, but they are wrong. The hits off this one are great – that booming intro to "Lose Yourself To Dance," "Get Lucky," maybe the opener "Give Life Back To Music" – but much of this is uninspired and too slow and does not hold up as an album. Daft's two older albums (Discovery and Homework) remain their best.

Atoms for Peace, Amok: What didn't sound good on paper (Thom Yorke of Radiohead and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) sounds worse on CD, as this dull effort is a waste of both men's talents. Sounding like one long song, this tries for atmosphere or something but rarely rises above lifeless background music. Lovers of indie rock like Vampire Weekend and The National may enjoy this, but that's probably it.

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