Friday, December 27, 2013

Beasts of the Best of 2013: Pitchfork’s Top 50

By: Ben Johnson

Among the people in my life who I regularly talk to about music, Pitchfork’s suckiness is something like a running joke on its last legs, no longer enthusiastically engaged in so much as referenced out of a sense of obligation, akin to a 20th hour “third base” refrain in some postmodern 24 hour performance art version of the “Who’s On First” routine. Pitchfork is a wind-up toy on its side. Its owners have already gotten rich from writing about music, which is an astonishing and historic thing to have happened, and the website is sitting there, still, sucking in roughly the same way, its payola-reeking banner ads gone in favor of even more sinister unseen revenue sources. All that.

You might have heard the gripes. You run an independent label (that’s like an “indie” label but actually independent) these days, your releases are gonna top out at a 7.2, and that’s just a cold-ass fact of life, man. Nothing you can do about it. Sux cuz they got the mindless sheep herd of weekend warrior music fans by the short and hairies. That place (which is not an actual place in the actual world) is a behemoth uncaring internet moneyprinting machine, and it does NOT care about music.

This is at least as tiresome as Pitchfork itself. Pitchfork was created by humans, and what one man can do, another can do. Anybody can build something. All it takes is timing and financing and toiling in obscurity for years and years to figure out how to do what you’re doing, and working and working and working and working for seemingly no reason at all with no idea that you’re getting any better or any clue that you’ll ever arrive anywhere. Anybody who does those simple things can author another Pitchfork. So the rest of us really have nothing to complain about. Of course if you want to build a Pitchfork, one potential road block is the prior existence of a Pitchfork (in this case Pitchfork), so that idea is kind of taken. But doing things yourself because they’re not impossible is the general idea of the bear-killing speech scene from The Edge that I just linked to.

Trying to do your own thing is probably a better way to bash your head up against the wall than trying to crack the code on P’fork’s latent fishiness. You’ll never catch them in the act. They can spin their bullshit any way they want. They can use the word “indie” to describe bands like The National, which bums me out more as a fan of words (words work best if they mean something) than as a fan of music. It’s their world that they built and live in. Pitchfork for all its many faults at least has a fairly consistent critical line of reasoning about who’s got the talent and the chops and the charisma and who doesn’t. It’s all very scholarly and sourced and vetted and well-informed, and you can almost hear it if you squint while listening to this stuff, so long as you ignore the pounding in your gut demanding that you turn off Passion Pit. These albums are “better” than other albums in certain ways which you could care about if you wanted to, which renders the Pitchfork line of thought perfectly defendable.

The “real problem” (this is my Slate pitch moment) with Pitchfork is musicians have long been treating them like the primary audience, and, worse, it’s likely that aspiring critics are doing so as well. They’re so successful they set both the market and the tone of discourse within it. That means the rest of us are getting nonstop synth-heavy new wave singles bands who trace their musical heritage to the great hallowed fountainhead of Human League (not a bad band per se, just not fountainhead-worthy), and we’re getting nonstop thinkpieces by writers who treat each track these bands fart out like it’s a new definitive translation of Proust.

But hey, you can’t get too mad about it. If this horseshit of theirs is believable enough for people to fall for and the resultant checks do not bounce, well, I have to say, good for Pitchfork. If you worked your ass off to build something as successful as the ‘fork, you’d cash those checks too, and you probably wouldn’t give a shit that the central argument against the work you’ve done boils down to “it’s your fault that millions of people are gullible enough to believe you when you tell them Fleet Foxes is a good idea.”

All that being said, this list sucks. It’s a sucky list of sucky music for sucky people posted on a sucky website. Nyeh nyeh. Now let’s have some fun.

50. Pusha T, My Name Is My Name

Oh man. There’s fucking 50 of these. That’s an album a week for a year with two weeks paid vacation. That bears no resemblance to human scale music enjoyment. If you can name 50 albums you genuinely like in any given year, no offense, but you are operating on the autism spectrum somewhere.

Let’s see, Pusha T. You may be familiar with the lead single “Numbers on the Boards,” a subtle masterpiece of sneering sonic understatement that sounds like a postmillennial reimagining of “Come Clean.” What Pusta T brings in terms of flow to this collection of sparing beats can most aptly be compared to La Comédie Humane era Honoré de Balzac in that… oh shit, my fucking back. I heard a pop. Oh God. Oh no. Not right away like this. How do these assholes do it?

49. Julia Holter, Loud City Song

Here I am all full of piss and vinegar, ready to rip into some jugulars, and sections of this Julia Holter album, an urban nymph song-cycle chanteuse thing very far removed from my wheelhouse, are actually doing it for me. I must be depressed. I just Googled to make sure she’s not one of the singers from Dirty Projectors. She is not. That would have made sense because this also sounds like somebody’s college a capella group run amok.

48. Speedy Ortiz, Major Arcana

Has anybody tried to explain the 2013 reemergence of 90’s Up Records also-ran northwestern emotional sludge-twee girl band music by making an Ariel Castro joke about Calvin Johnson? If not I call dibs.

47. The Range, Nonfiction

Chicago has these street fests everywhere during the summer. I usually stop by the one that’s nearest my house every year, and that one has a “dance” stage where DJ’s play whatever brand of ridiculously hyper-specific EDM subsubsubgenre they specialize in (“romantic deepdub”), and usually that’s a good place to people-watch because open-ass city streets as a dance venue tend to have a pretty strict “weirdos only” admissions policy. I always used to wonder if the crazily joyful undulating berserkers at the street fest dance area are actual fans of the specific music and/or the DJ spinning those sounds, or if they’re totally oblivious to those concerns and are only there because they’re naturally drawn to any situation where they’re most likely to become some young person’s biggest lifetime sexual regret. I decided there’s no effective difference, and that this music is the soundtrack of good ideas metamorphosing into bad ideas through repetitive overindulgence.

46. M.I.A., Matangi

I still can’t shake the feeling that M.I.A. is Peaches but multicultural and political and with probably twice the talent and four times the tastefulness. Otherwise, though, Peaches. That’s not a knock on M.I.A. so much as just a comment on how I sometimes miss Peaches.

45. Fuck Buttons, Slow Focus

Maybe I just haven’t experienced the right context to be impressed by this. It’s probably great to listen to when you’re driving your Scion home from a barn rave while trying to come down smoothly from bath salts.

44. Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience

I think we can all agree that was a really really good Bud Light commercial. It was like “oh this is exciting, this is a good night out on the town, these people are attractive and probably very well off” and then “Bud Light,” which was like “Bud Light? Okay, I guess, Bud Light.”

43. The National, Trouble Will Find Me

This is music for people who think they’re so interesting they need to listen to boring music in order to be able to relate to other people.

42. Rhye, Woman

Acts like this should just have a Kate Bush number.

41. Mutual Benefit, Love’s Crushing Diamond

Here’s a fun game: mix up any combination of the five words “Mutual Benefit Love’s Crushing Diamond” into an artist and an album title and still get this exact album. I like this, but Crushing Love’s Mutual Diamond Benefit is just as good.

Side note: my mom just heard me listening to this and she said, “Nobody’s going to be singing this in ten years.” Mom is the goods.

40. Parquet Courts, Light Up Gold

I wonder what already good current limited release microlabel album is going to end up on next year’s best of the year list because some guy with a publicity budget reissued it? My money’s on Exhaustion Future Eaters, but you never know.

39. A$AP Rocky, LongLiveA$AP

We’re at a point in hip hop where the emcee’s entire job is to project their personality. We’re going to have a silent rapper by 2020, and he is going to be the BEST.

38. Boards of Canada, Tomorrow’s Harvest

It’s weird that there’s so many new LP’s at Half Price Books now and all of them are $24.99 and all of them are this.

37. Jon Hopkins, Immunity

This Hopkins guy has worked with Eno, and that’s like the big thing with him, and working with Eno these days means you’re not making music so much as designing theoretical noninvasive cochlear surgery procedures.

36. Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe

The first time I listened to this was when I made fun of the Rolling Stone list three weeks ago and it has not aged well. It's got music Progeria.

No need to get involved in this.
35. Phosphorescent, Muchacho

This guy’s already doing fine. He’s trying on hats with skinny naked women. He doesn’t need our help.

34. Forest Swords, Engravings

If you hear this kind of “ambient chillwave” in a public place, run. You are about to spend a lot of money for something that has herpes all over it.

33. Burial, Truant/Rough Sleeper

Oh man, 34 stole 33’s joke :(

32. DJ Koze, Amygdala

I love how every year there’s the one person who gets all of the exact picks correct in the NCAA basketball tournament pool. Can you imagine the one person alive whose brain is actually wired to listen to all of these albums and like them in exactly this order, and not just because Pitchfork said so? Whenever such a person talked it would be like hypnosis but for rage blackouts.

31. Autre Ne Veut, Anxiety

It’s a run of electronic shit. Somebody needs to start Pitchfork Beatz so these people can leave the rest of us alone. Oh no, wait. Pitchfork is Pitchfork Beatz. Somebody needs to start Pitchfork Not Beatz.

30. Deerhunter, Monomania

After the rest of the 30’s I’m so excited to hear guitars it’s like reverse Stockholm Syndrome. You know, where somebody keeps you captive and you just fucking hate it the whole time.

29. The Haxan Cloak, Excavation

This is the kind of music people listen to while talking themselves into an intentionally botched suicide attempt with the rationale that they need to be the most dramatic person in their circle of friends or else they’ll be completely ignored by Kim, who loves gossip. Kim is a man named Kim.

28. Run The Jewels, Run The Jewels

Killer Mike and El-P are not necessarily Aristotle, but they’re a little too self-aware for my taste. They grade out to like a C- on the Tutti Frutti curve.

27. Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, The More I Listen To This Neko Case Album

Jeez louise, Neko Case. Lighten up a little.

26. James Blake, Overgrown

It was funny how either this guy got introduced as James Blunt or James Blunt got introduced as this guy. Whoever made that announcement cared as much as I do.

Drake's old boss.
25. Drake, Nothing Was The Same

Every time I see Drake, still, it’s like “How did the guy from the T-Mobile store get courtside seats? That guy just sold me a phone last week.” His only defining skill is being super phone-store-salesman-guy-confident-for-no-reason confident. One of those guys whose smile seems like it’s going to somehow spray designer cologne on you.

24. Oneohtrix Point Never, R Plus Seven

Do other people have that thing where you have to do something you don’t like and you go “no no no no no fuck this fuck this” and you have to take a mini break or else you’ll go insane because now since you’ve allowed yourself to feel like “fuck this” about it, continuing to do this stupid thing feels like torture? That’s how I feel about listening to this right now. It’s great. It’s a modern… great… fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.

23. DJ Rashad, Double Cup

Footworkin’ needs a Saturday Night Fever. A group of best friends trying to negotiate a Chicago summer together, and they do a flash mob robbery, and one of them is really good at Footworkin’, and he falls in love with a girl and gets her pregnant, and one of the friends is the tough one who stops the Footworkin’ kid from getting murdered by a rival gang but then gets murdered and with his last breath he tells Footworkin’ kid to Footwork extra hard for him, and then the guy gets some big triumphant dance scholarship that solves all his problems by removing him from his community. If handled correctly, such a film would double or triple its modest budget for some collection of already rich white guys. Of course you’d have to shoot most of it in Vancouver. Chicago taxes are prohibitive.

22. Waxahatchee, Cerulean Salt

Cerulean Salt reminds me of being ass-tired and obnoxious at a Nowheresville Denny’s with a bunch of the Pennsylvania kids I used to visit sometimes as a teenager. I would have loved this back then, probably going so far as to sing it earnestly over the phone long distance to a justifiably underwhelmed girl who is absolutely going to draw the line at second base when I drive up there in a month. Being in high school is like having a major industrial accident at an emotion factory. Thinking about it makes me wince.

21. Blood Orange, Cupid Deluxe

This guy is our current Quinciest Jones. This album has David Longstreth on one track trying to sound like Robin Thicke. I listened to it. It’s odd. His voice does the audio equivalent of a gawky child at a bar mitzvah trying to be nonchalant about dancing while wearing a suit.

20. Jai Paul, Jai Paul

Oh, so this is an album that “leaked” and isn’t actually an album that somebody released for real on purpose, and the idea of putting it on here is some kind of a wisenheimer critique of the music industry slash running commentary on audio delivery methods in the digital age. Get this, everybody, the 20th best album of the year was not even an album, if you can believe it. Anyway, me and some other people are gonna go break in to this underground swimming pool in the financial district if you want to come along.

19. Earl Sweatshirt, Doris

The narrative Pitchfork is pushing about this kid is he’s talented but reluctant. I don’t care if this dude ever raps again or not, but I always like it when people are talented but reluctant. It bothers the fuck out of people who are talentless but motivated, a.k.a. ruiners of everything ever.

18. Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady

This album is 67 minutes, which is really not that insanely long. It’s longer than I personally want to spend listening to a Janelle Monáe album. It’s long enough that I just started Googling classic albums with long run times. It’s long enough that I had an out of body experience while doing this. I was sitting over there, reading a magazine, watching myself Google classic albums with long run times. Then I re-entered my body and told it to stop Googling album run times while listening to Janelle Monáe. It listened. True story.

Try not to ever look like this.
17. Haim, Days Are Gone

I guess it’s pronounced “hime.” Weird. It’s like poor Corey Haim is failing to book gigs from beyond the grave.

16. Bill Callahan, Dream River

Bill Callahan can’t wait for Leonard Cohen to die so he can finally be the best living Leonard Cohen.

15. Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time

Maybe the lasting legacy of the The Strokes is they inserted simple, hooky riffs and Lou Reed/Iggy Pop disaffected vocal melodies into a self-replicating pop music environment that has no rootedness in any music that isn’t commercially successful. It’s weird. You get stuff like this that sounds kind of almost like a thing you love, but doesn’t sound like it’s trying to be that way on purpose. This whole area of pop music is like some mega-producer asked the singer what their favorite rock band is and they said Jet.

14. The Knife, Shaking the Habitual

I can see where Pitchfork is going with this one. It’s mesmerizingly pointless.

13. Kurt Vile, Wakin on a Pretty Daze

Compared to all these other acts, Kurt Vile is basically Neil Young in terms of how little you’re mad at him for doing what he does. He should fuck with that more. Test the waters. Do his version of “Like An Inca.” Am I mad at Neil Young for writing and recording “Like An Inca?” No I am not. I’m maybe a little peeved at his coke dealer for being Johnny On The Spot that year.

12. Chance the Rapper, Acid Rap

Chance The Rapper gets the 2013 Frank Ocean Award for most difficult album to make multiple jokes about. This is a good time to check in: when was the last time anybody listened to that one Frank Ocean album? Be honest. Never, right?

11. Darkside, Psychic

If your favorite genre of music is “forgot I was listening to it,” this is definitely the album of the year.

10. Arcade Fire, Reflektor

These guys are alright with me. I got a polite notice in the mail reminding me to please wear a suit when I call them frauds.

9. Savages, Silence Yourself

This is the album this year that I spent money to own which most completely erases itself from my brain every time I listen to it. I must have listened a dozen times. I haven’t heard it once. I’m listening to it right now. I couldn’t tell you what is happening.

8. Majical Cloudz, Impersonator

Oh give me a break. The first song is “Childhood’s End” and the first lyric is “someone died.” Who are the gleefully happy all the time people out there who can handle something like this? Like “Oh man, I have a surge of excess energy and am feeling too profoundly grateful to be alive, what should I do? I know, I’ll put that new Majical Cloudz album on. That’ll fix my wagon.” Somebody needs to tell the Majical Cloudz how hard I had to convince myself to get out of bed this morning before they make any more music like this. This is no way to reward people for their effort.

7. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories

Giorgio Moroder did an NPR interview where he said these guys told him they wanted to collaborate with him, and he was probably pretty psyched because they’re huge, and thought he would be playing some music or something, and instead they asked him to tell his life story. Like, “No, you’re done. You’re nostalgia now. You’ve already done enough. Just talk about the things you’ve already done.” I love that Daft Punk did this to Giorgio Moroder. Somebody should do it to Morrissey.

6. Deafheaven, Sunbather

Sometimes the “related videos” side panel in YouTube can be instructive. Like I’m listening to the Sunbather “full album” YouTube and here are the other “full album” YouTubes it recommends to me: Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, Swans, The Seer, Year of No Light, Ausserwelt, A Perfect Circle, Mer De Noms, Agalloch, The Mantle, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, Palms, Palms, My Bloody Valentine, Loveless, Neil Young, Harvest, Russian Circles, Geneva and Station, Tool, Lateralus, Deftones, Diamond Eyes, The Ocean, Pelagial, Wolves in the Throne Room, Black Cascade, The Antlers, Hospice, and Opeth, Still Life. If this was all the information I had to triangulate Sunbather, I’d say it’s very likely a progressive-type heavy metalish album with some pretty dark themes which is both pretentious and cynical at the same time. It’s located about halfway between high art and low cunning. And there’s evidently a fuck ton of other things like it. Sounds accurate to me. Man. Better living through algorithms. This is way easier than listening to music.

5. Danny Brown, Old

This is as good a time as any to mention that Yo Gotti “King Shit” was my favorite single track of the year. I like to listen to it on repeat while doing chores. I have a weakness for monolithic bangers. “King Shit” joins the "secretly I love them more than any other kind of song" elite bangers club with “A Milli” by Lil’ Wayne, “What You Know” by T.I., and “Love Fuzz” by Ty Segall. I don’t see why I can’t throw Ty Segall in there with those other dudes. That track is tight as a drum. Somebody could rap on it. That would be SPECTACULAR. Anyway, this Danny Brown album is okay, I guess. Not a single track on it gets me off my lazy ass or helps me do the dishes.

4. My Bloody Valentine, mbv

It’s weird to listen to 45 albums that came out this year which are not this one and then go, “Oh yeah, My Bloody Valentine put out an album this year.” I like it. My Bloody Valentine might not be the best band ever, but they’re goddamn heroic if you consider them as an afterthought. They’re like history’s greatest afterthought. Like “Sidebar: My Bloody Valentine album” in between Danny Brown and whatever’s next on this list. They’re like a channel your dad flips past and you go “wait wait wait, go back” and he doesn’t want to so you don’t get to watch it and you don’t put up a stink because it’s his tv in his house and you know whatever thing that was is probably not all that great, but you still make a mental note not to let Dad have the remote next time. That mental note is more important than the thing itself.

3. Disclosure, Settle

I did own a pair of Jncos. I went with the khakis. They weren’t the insanest possible version of Jncos. They let me act like a rave poser and a hardcore poser with equal alacrity. I had an outfit that was Adidas sweatshirt, Jnco khakis, and Adidas shelltops. It was comfortable and it let me snoop around just about any subculture I felt like investigating in 1996. Once it became obvious that I wasn’t gonna get laid in any of them without putting in more work than I wanted to, I settled on more of a regular human being look. This album reminds me of late night viewings of Mtv Amp which I partook in to be more conversant in rave culture on the off chance it would help me with my virginity problem. These guys are like Orbital meets The Orb, which is a reference about two feet beyond my Peter Principle limits which I just pulled a neck muscle trying to make. The good news is I don’t give a shit. My dalliances in raves always made me sad, like I was in the middle of a bunch of people all trying too hard to dance away their broken homes. Don’t get me wrong, there’s beauty in that, but it’s a sad beauty.

2. Kanye West, Yeezus

One of the more unfair aspect of year-end lists is they serve as an official last time we’re going to talk about any of the music that happened this year. There are so many albums nobody’s talking about in these lists, some of which are likely to scratch and claw through word of mouth into a much more accurate future revisionist history versions of “Best of 2013” lists. These future growers are unfortunately in for some rough sledding now that we’re ending the annual hype cycle and turning the page. But there are some pretty big silver linings here. At least now we can all finally start the process of being dead wrong about 2013 in retrospect. And the very very good news about this is we're now witnessing the official last time we all have to talk about Yeezus like it’s a more important thing than an album of music that exists. When’s the last time you had a big long conversation about My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy? Two or three years ago, right? See? There’s light at the end of the tunnel.

1. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City

When I say I’m looking forward to everybody being dead wrong about 2013, this is what I’m talking about. There’s just no way this album is the best album of the year we were just in. It’s like how some years the Pulitzer goes to some shitty pandering book with a good publicity campaign and/or references to a politically expedient cause célèbre. Because everybody who has to do the voting throws the pandering book a token “yeah, it’s alright” second or third place vote and the actually really good books that year caused arguments and divisions, the final tally says “Martin Dressler: The Tale Of An American Dreamer” is the best book that year even though it’s rubbish. Then the voting body goes back and recounts the vote and says “this can’t be right,” and they start arguing all over again until finally they’re so exhausted from yelling about it they go “fuck it.” This Vampire Weekend album is the Karl Malone MVP of albums of the year.