Words by Beverly Bryan
Rock music keeps being fun and awesome no matter how many times a blogger declares it dead, irrelevant, and/or strictly for the olds. Maybe it’s the way its hybrid DNA makes it slippery and mutable — lending itself to endless reinventions and reclamations.
Dance music and other genres that only require a MacBook to produce might be more fashionable at the moment, but (and this may be the real key to the genre’s persistence) rock ‘n’ roll is never more enjoyable than when it is temporarily unpopular. Rock is always either culturally ascendant or a pleasurable secret shared by a cult of fans. So, as middle-aged Death Cab dads drive their young kids to soccer practice, someone else’s slightly older children are rooting through their parents’s vinyl collection looking for something the other kids at school haven’t heard of. Then they start bands. And so it goes.
So, while reason says rock music has run its course and should probably just stop, empirical evidence suggests it won’t, much like the Rolling Stones. In fact, we’ve got 24 LPs that say it had a record year. From grubby kids releasing their first blasts of untutored genius to venerable underground elites making ballyhooed returns, 2013 was a rewarding year to be a record-purchasing rocker, rendered even more so by the chorus of voices claiming you were super uncool.
24. Deafheaven – Sunbather
With influence from post-rock, noise rock, and black metal Deafheaven came up with something I feel driven to call gray metal. The resulting album Sunbather is sort of like a soothing white noise recording for people who will be driven to gouge out their eyes by regular soothing white noise. Deafheaven is providing a valuable public service.
23. Whatever Brains – S/T
This self-titled album is a like a haunted hay ride art directed by Mike Patton, but way cooler than that would be. Alternatively, given the all the lowing guitar tone and weird lyrics, it could be described as someone taking the last of the piss out of “mysterious guy” hardcore. Either way: aces.
22. Giuda – Let’s Do It Again
These soccer oriented Roman rockers posited a pub punk revival with their meat-headed but good-natured 2010 LP Racey Roller. This year, Giuda upped the glammy ante with Let’s Do It Again. Muscular tracks like “Get That Goal,” “Teenage Rebel,” and “Roller Skates Rule O.K.” could be the most fun you can get for your music dollars in 2013. It’s not too late. For a good time, DL from Bandcamp.
21. Bazooka – S/T
They’re from Greece, they have two drummers and a song called “Zed the Mythical Goat.” Bazooka’s self-titled album is a dark, nasty projectile of crap-fi psych punk that would make a great stocking stuffer.
20. Deap Vally – Sistrionix
Deap Vally makes Jon Spencer/Black Keys style blues rock, striped way back and calibrated to pierce your eardrums like a hot knife through butter. Between the two of them, singer/guitarist Lindsey Troy and drummer Julie Edwards weigh about 12 tons. “Walk of Shame” is the final, sexy retort to all slut shaming ever.
19. Nightmare Boyzzz – Bad Patterns
Listen just once to this perfect pile of miserableist power pop and it becomes very easy to overlook the z’s in their name.
18. Nobunny - Secret Songs
Rock music is a sacred mask with magical powers. Leaving right and wrong aside for now, anyone can put it on and make it theirs for a moment — generally, the briefer that moment the better. Nobunny makes this principle palpable, literal in fact, with his furry carapace. He erases his own identity, surrendering completely to the mask. Through this act of total submission he manages to do rock ‘n’ roll better than anyone else has for a long time. That’s his reward.
Speaking of rewards, Secret Songs is fourteen little nugs of love, lust, loathing and paranoia amounting to a fat wad of grace in record form to be bestowed on anyone who never turned their back on the cult and who also has $10.
17. Colornoise – Polychronic
Earlier in the year we called the debut full-length from Costa Rican duo Colornoise “raw, heavy yet strangely delectable” and said that “[Alison] Alvarado’s drumming is as wicked as anything in the noise-rock spectrum.” Good times.
Really though, Polychronic fits into the genre of “experimental noise-rock” but their music is many times more vivid and powerful than that genre tag usually implies these days. Encountering a great rock album like this without being warned in advance is worth having to wade through 20 hotly-tipped yet stultifying buzz bands.
16. Oblivians – Desperation
Broken hearts are for snot nosed kids. Hearts with some miles on them break down, which is what this collection of well-seasoned rock ‘n’ roll from Oblivians sounds like. I challenge any of you recent art school dropouts to beat it.
15. The Younger Lovers – Sugar in My Pocket
San Francisco’s Brontez Purnell writes and sings about boys and life with the tender truthfulness of Jonathan Richman. This second album from his project the The Younger Lovers is a pocketful of beautifully human, super lo-fi punk that will help you survive anything from a bad break up to a deadly boring day at work.
14. Boogarins – As Plantas Que Curam
The release of this tall drink of unhurried, smoldering psych rock was one of the year’s truly refreshing moments. Laced with Tropicalia, it manages to be elegant and subtle without being dull for even a second. Pleased to meet you, Boogarins.
13. Coffins – The Fleshland
Tokyo’s Coffins are so messed up. They’re the best. On their fifth album, out on Relapse, a bluesy undertow anchors the suffocating pollution of their filthy vocals and chainsaw-guitar attack. It’s a recipe for brilliant, doomy death metal made to stand the test of time.
12. Enemies – Embark, Embrace
Math rock, post-rock, call it what you want, but some of its practitioners can start to make the whole enterprise feel like a dry exercise in — well, it’s hard to say. Enemies is at the forefront of a passel of bands that approach complex time signatures and meandering song structures with the imagination and passion they deserve. On their sophomore album they play with dance tempos, melodies that wink at pop, and, occasionally, expressive vocals. Embark, Embrace hauls the genre out of the ’90s and forces air into its lungs.
11. Sepultura – The Mediator Between The Head And The Hand Must Be the Heart
The beast of Belo Horizonte isn’t the least bit tired. Their massively titled new album sounds like it could roll over a city, samba drum interludes and all. They haven’t run out of ideas or things to say either. Read our interview with them.
10. Jacuzzi Boys – S/T
The Miami trio put out a mature album this year. For a band like Jacuzzi Boys, that’s usually code for “they learned to write songs and play their instruments better and then released something formally well developed but soulless, probably to fulfill a contractual obligation.”
In this case, it means they built on their fuzzy garage punk roots while cutting themselves loose from its conventions. Untethered, they drifted up and out, recording an expansive, richly realized album that never loses its edge. It synthesizes mournful sixties psychedelia with the slickness of ’80s yacht rock while keeping a driving backbeat going under the hood. It sounds at times like The Dandy Warhols or Super Furry Animals and sometimes even like Tame Impala, but it’s for sure Jacuzzi Boys’s own thing. Songs like “Double Vision” and “Dust” could have been indie rock anthems in any decade.
9. Melt-Banana – Fetch
Melt Banana put out an album! It’s a Melt Banana album! This is wonderful! Really. It screams.
8. Miss Chain and the Broken Heels - The Dawn
Downshifting from the rambunctious pop punk/power pop formula of their debut On a Bittersweet Ride, Miss Chain and co. found a more classically vintage feel on The Dawn. The arrangements are complex and subtle, the songwriting is plaintive and nostalgic, and the lyrics sketch out intriguing narratives.
7. The Joy Formidable – Wolf’s Law
On their second album The Joy Formidable has blended their noise, shoegaze, emo, and post-punk influences into something eerily smooth and cooly poetic. The album is varied, with thrilling peaks and valleys, but a wintry silver pervades everything. It’s a little weird, and so so lovely.
6. HAIM – Days Are Gone
People are comparing this band to Fleetwood Mac because they don’t know what to do when they encounter melodically complex pop rock with evocative lyrics anymore. That, or they’re actually thinking of Heart.
Pretty much every one of the songs on HAIM’s debut could have been on Top 40 radio in the ’80s, but a lot of actual Top 40 singles in the era were provided by one-hit-wonders. It’s a pretty safe bet that HAIM have a lot more wonders like “The Wire” and “Honey & I” in them.
5. Shannon and the Clams – Dreams In The Rat House
I recently described Shannon and the Clams to someone as “fucked up doo-wop.” But this was, like, at a party. An expanded version would be to say that Shannon Shaw and friends have been trying for some time to reconstruct the saddest, strangest, most big-hearted of lost early rock ‘n’ roll, and R&B recordings, the way archaeologists try to reconstruct lost civilizations. With Dreams In The Rat House, they put forth their most compelling, and haunting, theories yet. It helps that, now more than ever, Shaw sings like Roy Orbison’s wandering shade has taken control of her body.
4. Joanna Gruesome – Weird Sister
For energy and urgency, nothing touched Weird Sister this year. Sour lyrics spiked Joanna Gruesome‘s headlong pop punk as it trailed ribbons of très on-trend shoegaze, and suddenly there was a reason to believe.
3. Ghost B.C. – Infestissumam
The second album from this nameless crew of Scandinavian ghouls sounds almost exactly like Blue Oyster Cult co-wrote an opera based on Paradise Lost with Andrew Lloyd Webber and then performed it themselves, only it’s more sublime than that. In their capable hands sulfur is transformed into the rarest perfume. Has evil ever sounded so pure and sweet? (Ed. Note: They’re not really evil, exactly. Read our interview.)
2. Savages – Silence Yourself
This one’s inclusion is sort of obligatory but no less warranted. With sinewy, churning post-punk that updated the baroque tradition of Television, Wire, and Mission of Burma, Silence Yourself was an ambitious and much needed kick in the head for the rock scene’s body politic, which responded with fervid ardor. It’s a paradoxical album: at once a burning personal document and a gorgeous but austere alien landscape. Part Siouxsie Sioux, part Ian Curtis, in frontwoman Jehnny Beth we got a new contrarian punk heroine in the grand British mold. Having lost both Poly Styrene and Ari Up in recent years, it was needed.
1. La Luz – It’s Alive
Though they take their inspiration from familiar sources, La Luz’s debut album was one of the year’s most original releases. They sanded down surf rock’s unruly edges with gothy girl-group vibes and then gave their Frankensteinian creation beautiful life. The secret: Like their ’60s touchstones, they know nothing tops memorable melodies and heartfelt lyrics delivered with verve.
Perfect Pussy – I Have Lost All Desire For Feeling
Not technically an album, I Have Lost All Desire For Feeling was more exciting than your average full-length debut is these days. Given the tendency great punk bands have toward flaming out — let’s toss them their roses while we can.
Magneta Lane – Witchrock
Dark, bluesy, feral, and bombastic, Witchrock was made for stadiums. The members of Magneta Lane were made to rock. The first track “Burn” is a modern power ballad that’s pretty impossible to get out of your head. It could crack the Top 40 if it wasn’t so thematically gloomy and doomy. Like Perfect Pussy, the only reason this is in an honorable mentions section is because it’s an EP.