Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Countdown to 30: My Favorite Album From 2013


I only have four runners-up for 2013, but it's genuinely been one of the most difficult years to rank. So many albums in 2013 were able to warm or console my damaged soul, so the connection I have to them is incredibly deep. My original ranking for the albums of 2013 is once again not really in the same order as it is now because the impact of some of the albums has changed over time. I'm probably going to get more personal in this article than I've ever gotten about this year in my life, so...apologies I guess.

I gave Modern Vampires of the City by Vampire Weekend a hard time at first, but it might be my favorite of their albums now. In my defense, there were a lot of really good albums that year. I think some of the songs were just slow-burners though. Like you don't realize until months later that "Finger Back" has tunneled its weird way into your head. 

Until Modern Vampires, Vampire Weekend had been self-produced. For this album, however, they brought in producer Ariel Rechtshaid (formerly of The Hippos) who would go on to produce most tracks for their 2019 album Father of the Bride, and Haim's Grammy-nominated 2020 album Women in Music Pt. III. He brings a more commercial sound that is still indie enough to not drive away their old fanbase. The men in the band also spent some time apart, working on side projects before reconvening for Modern Vampires. They wanted the album to sound original and attempted to reject anything that sounded like their first two albums.

Modern Vampires of the City is a good album. It's different. The pitch-shifting they did made it interesting, Koenig's songwriting is on-point, and it shows a kind of maturity greater than that of their first two albums. 

My third and fourth favorite albums from 2013 are a tie. They are both very good albums for entirely different reasons. 

Electric by The Pet Shop Boys is one of the best electronic dance albums of all time in my opinion. I was disappointed by Daft Punk's Random Access Memories and I don't even know why I ended up buying Electric, but it was everything I wanted from electronic music that year. Everyone I've forced to listen to it has also really enjoyed it (or that's what they've told me with a knife to their throats. JK).

Electric was produced by Stuart Price, the producer behind their next two albums and The Killers' Day and Age. The Pet Shop Boys told Price that they wanted to make a dance record. He in turn tried to make every track sound euphoric and fresh, which I think he succeeded in doing. Electric reached #3 on the U.K. Albums Charts and #26 here in the U.S., making it the most successful Pet Shop Boys album in 20 years.

Apart from sounding great, the album features an unreliable narrator ("Love is a Bourgeois Construct"), an amazing and surprising Bruce Springsteen cover ("The Last to Die"), and a song about the pure, joyous love of music ("Vocal"). Despite the 20+ years of work by The Pet Shop Boys, Electric sounds new and vibrant.

She and Him released their third album of original material, aptly named Volume 3. Volume 3 is peak retro-pop. She and Him's first two albums were great, but this one was far more refined and complex, yet somehow also more accessible and relevant to the present day. The most interesting cover of the three on the album is "Sunday Girl," a cover of a Blondie song from Parallel Lines. Lead singer Zooey Deschanel's original material is flawless also. My favorite original tracks include "I Could've Been Your Girl," "I've Got Your Number, Son," and "Snow Queen." "I've Got Your Number, Son" is about learning that your significant other is a bit self-centered, and stringing you along while they figure out what they want. Not saying that sums up my 2013 but uh...it does. On the other end of the spectrum, "I Could've Been Your Girl" is almost (and quite possibly is actually) like the ending of the same relationship, realizing that they could have had a good relationship, but for whatever reason it wasn't what the guy wanted. 

The final two albums are almost a tie also, but since there can be only one on the leaderboard, I have to pick the one that just slightly pushed ahead in terms of relevance to my life.

Thus, the final runner-up has to be Heartthrob by Tegan and Sara. Heartthrob was originally my album of the year for 2013, but it had almost the whole year to marinate and I was still probably holding onto some of the "love-will-triumph" ideals of this album. 

Commercially, Heartthrob has been the most successful Tegan and Sara album to date in the U.S., reaching #3 on the Billboard Charts and #1 on the Alternative Charts. This is probably thanks in part to the #1 U.S. Dance hit, "Closer," which also received the "Glee bump." "Closer" has also been the band's best-performing single to date here in the U.S.

It is also just incredibly good. Tegan and Sara transitioned into '80s pop seamlessly, but continued to make the same sad, lovesick music that was expected of them. The great Greg Kurstin (whose name I'm sure you're tired of hearing by now) was brought on for the majority of the album, lending his magic touch. 

The aforementioned "Closer" kicks off the album with a punch. Co-written with producer Greg Kurstin, for once the twins are singing almost seductively about intimacy with a romantic partner. As the lyrics say, "It's not just all physical." I think the best part about the song is their promise to cherish this partner. Tegan Quin told Rolling Stone "all I intended was to write something sweet that reminded the listener of a time before complicated relationships, drama and heartbreak. I was writing about my youth, a time when we got closer by linking arms and walking down our school hallway, or talked all night on the telephone about every thought or experience we'd ever had." Like "Closer," "Drove Me Wild" is a nostalgic tale of a more innocent time. There's something incredibly personal about "Drove Me Wild." The imagery makes it more real. The concept of nostalgic tales of love would be fully realized on 2019's Hey, I'm Just Like You

"Goodbye, Goodbye" explores breakups in the age of text and social media, but also features the heartbreaking line that always cut me to the core, "You let me try//knowing there was nothing I could do//to change you." I'm not sure who I should feel worse for in that line, the narrator who feels misled when someone implied that they could change, or the recipient of the message who the narrator was attempting to change, only to get discouraged when they couldn't. I know who my heart does break for, but that is colored a bit by my own life around that time.

"I Was a Fool For Love" has to be my favorite on the album. I adore the metaphors throughout, as if they were some sort of knight in shining armor for the subject of the song, but I also love the piano and love the way the ladies' voices are produced. Most of all though, I enjoy the overall message. I was a fool for love. I stuck around when I shouldn't have, I tried to protect and save someone who didn't even care about my feelings. Hearing someone else verbalize that is very cathartic. So many breakup songs are about hating that person or missing that person, but this one is just about how foolish and broken you can feel after getting out of a relationship you shouldn't have invested so much in. The only song that came close around this time was "I Knew You Were Trouble" by Taylor Swift, but even that one is just about making a bad decision. "I Was a Fool For Love" is about really investing yourself into someone emotionally even though you probably shouldn't have, not just getting involved with someone who is emotionally unavailable. Much like "Goodbye, Goodbye," a big part of the plot in this one involves the fact that they kept convincing themselves that it was going to get better. The Quins based this one on "Umbrella" and "Unfaithful" by Rhianna. Greg Kurstin's ability to recognize what sound was possible for it was the primary reason he was chosen as the album's main producer.

"I'm Not Your Hero" ends up being about alienation not in the romantic way so much as alienated from peers in the music or political communities. Musically, critics compared it to "L.E.S. Atristes" by Santigold and "Sweet Disposition" by The Temper Trap. Another comparison it saw was to Fleetwood Mac. Originally, it was much slower, so I'm curious as to what it would have sounded like slower and with the synths replaced by a droning Lindsay Buckingham guitar part. Co-written with fun.'s Jack Antonoff, "How Come You Don't Want Me" is a song written primarily by Sara Quin. From my perspective, it seems to be about a low self-esteem driving a lover away and the narrator then feeling even more insecure when their lover is able to easily move on. I don't know if that's the correct interpretation, but it feels that way. I think "I Couldn't Be Your Friend" should have closed the album. Sonically, it might not be the obvious choice, but there's something very final about realizing you can't be friends with an ex that screams "end of the album!" to me. 

Even though "I Was a Fool For Love" is a ballad also, "Love They Say" felt like more of a ballad for me. Also, holy crap...this song was bad news for me. The only song that made me romanticize a bad situation as much as this one was "True Love" by P!nk and Lily Rose (Allen). This song was my mantra for every time it seemed like the relationship was going to pull through. "Forget the bad times! There's nothing love can't do!" "Now I'm All Messed Up" is another heartbreaking tale of abandonment and of imagining who your beloved is seeing now. If "How Come You Don't Want Me" is Joe Jackson's "Is She Really Going Out with Him?," this song is "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now." I always write off "Shock to Your System" until I hear it again and remember that it's about someone  remarkably damaged from a former relationship. Sara Quin has stated that she watched a great deal of movies during the writing process, and that Drive (2011) was a big inspiration. 

This album takes on love from many different angles. More than that though, it takes on relationships from many angles. That's why it feels one way when you're trying to repair something and another way when you're bemoaning the loss of a relationship. Stay tuned for my article on the music that makes up toxic relationships. It will of course contain this album and the next one.

You can't make this up. I took this next album into work to listen to for my review the morning after my breakup became official official. I normally save the personal stuff for the end on the album of the year itself, but this one is really hard to separate, so bear with me. 

In 2013, of Montreal went for a new sound again with Lousy With Sylvianbriar. Frontperson Kevin Barnes has always been known to switch up their sound regularly, but this time was a little bit different. As I've said in earlier articles, the band's early work was very independent-sounding. It saw a lot of comparisons to The Kinks and then the sound changed a couple more times, became electronic, dance-y, experimental. The album that came directly before this one, Paralytic Stalks, was a complete psychedelic soundscape. It was weird and jarring. It was unclear where the band were even going to go from there. 

...and then Lousy With Sylvianbriar came out and it was a relief that the sound was back to a normal realm. Sylvianbriar is incredibly acoustic, but beyond that, it is just excellent. Barnes was separating from their wife of ten years, the mother of their child (Barnes is nonbinary and genderqueer and goes by him/her/their pronouns, so even if it makes it a little harder to read, I'm going to use them/they/their out of respect). Barnes tends to have full creative control of their projects- writing, performing, producing, and in many cases firing the entire band Brendon Urie-style to suit their needs (or whims. I'm not in the band but I also don't judge).

Keep in mind that my definition of "acoustic" in this instance is clouded by how incredibly electronic and experimental the preceding album had been. Barnes continues their habit of being very verbose, to the point that the verboseness is more a measure of the band's genre than any musical element is.

"Obsidian Currents" contains heavy use of the pedal steel and is one of the slower songs on the album. "Belle Glade Missionaries" is faster and utilizes a walking guitar line, along with very old-school country percussion. The lyrics are some of the most poignant on the album, but more on that in a moment. Even slower than "Obsidian Currents" are "Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit" and "Raindrop in My Skull," the latter being possibly the only of Montreal song without Barnes as the lead vocalist. 

Barnes drew a great deal of inspiration from Sylvia Plath whilst working on the album, and "Colossus" is an example of her influence. More specifically, "Colossus" describes Plath's life. Barnes also offers up the idea that "your family are just losers," which he describes as a surmountable fact rather than an insult, as if accepting this statement is the first stage to moving on. "Triumph of Disintegration" is a track that acts as more advice for the audience. 

"She Ain't Speakin' Now" is one of the most simple premises on the album with some rocking guitar and percussion. "She Ain't Speakin' Now" was written when Barnes' wife and daughter were both incredibly sick with the flu.

"Hegira Émigré" is one of the most up-tempo songs on the album, strangely finding itself close to the close of the album between two slower songs.

Like I said, it's difficult to talk about this album without putting it through the filter of my own experiences, so let's just dive into that.

Taken in my ex's car, 2013.
In 2013, I was attempting to write reviews for most albums within a week of their release so I preordered a lot of albums I thought I would like and then tried to write the articles as fast as I could. There was no way this one wouldn't have gotten reviewed. The style of music Barnes chose for Lousy With Sylvianbriar was exactly my cup of tea. Considering when I listened to the album for the first time, I was also far too keen to get my feelings out (but in a far less personal way than this here). As I said earlier, I was going fresh through my breakup the day I first listened to this album, yet I still don't think that's why it hit so hard. I say that because certain parts of the album hit me in September of 2013 while other parts didn't strike me or resonate until months or even years later.

"Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit" is probably one of the first songs that struck me. There are breakup songs about missing the person and breakup songs that are kind of a middle finger to an ex, and then there's "Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit." Even the title sounds vitriolic. There has been a lot of talk in the past couple of years about toxic people and cutting them out of your life. Not only was this one ahead of the trend, it speaks of a toxic spirit. It condemns their entire soul's toxicity. This person isn't just rotten to the core, they are poisonous from the roots up. I'm going to have to present almost the full lyrics because they are incredibly well-written and were poignant to me in my situation.

What I recall
Remember best is the insanity
And the clatter

Misapprehensions are
Killing you but not
Fast enough to really matter

The flume of your struggle
Is flooded with sorrow and
Poisons everybody near it
I'm not a patron of yours anymore
Don't want to hear it
The sirens of your toxic spirit

Of your addictions and shiftiness
Inherited from your father
I know you struggle to keep them in check
But at this point why even bother

The flume of your struggle
Is flooded with sorrow and
Stifles everybody near it
I'm not a patron of yours anymore
Don't want to hear it
The sirens of your toxic spirit

What friendships you have left
Do not derive from love
They're just a warped form of charity
I've wounded you and you've wounded you too
At least we can feel good about the parity

"Sirens" isn't a hate letter, but it is a memory of a relationship you are glad to be out of. It's a message to that person that you will not be back, that you will not talk to them again. It's a sigh of relief that "I'm not a patron of yours anymore" and a statement that because of that fact, the narrator doesn't want to hear anything the antagonist has to say. So many of those statements seemed to apply to my situation, right down to the verse about "what friendships you have left."

The overall mood of "Colossus" (and the album as a whole) was a familiar one, but the idea that "my thoughts go dark and all out of focus//I have no peace in my mind" rang true as I suffered through some of the most confusing times of my life. 

"Raindrop in My Skull" is a fairly straightforward song about depression, even if it's not about your own depression. Barnes has a knack for expressing their mental health it a relatable and poetic form, and describing it as a "raindrop in my skull" that they're "too messed up now to get it out" might be the simplest way to describe depression I've ever heard. 

On that note, "Triumph of Disintegration" describes a time in which "the one thing that is good about me//Has begun to express itself in malicious ways." I'm going to need to point out quite a few things in these lyrics also. It kicks off with a brutally frank and explicit line about the last ten days being awful that really expresses the emotions of having a stretch of bad days. The lyrics go on to say "You had to forgive your enemy cause it was making you psychotic//To keep fighting him inside of your head." That line falls somewhere between good advice and just a brutal circumstance in which your hatred of someone is actually effecting the way you interact with other, unassociated people. But the song isn't even close to explaining that point, only a few lines later saying "I had to make myself a monster just to feel something ugly enough to be true." I related to that line in a sense that I will explain to you in a convoluted way. You know how people have theorized that the "Karen" real-life trope is caused by women who feel disenfranchised and want to make up for it by finding their power somewhere else? It's kind of like that. As a victim of emotional abuse and torment, I found myself being ruder and meaner to people who probably didn't deserve it, just so I could brush my sadness away with rage for a moment. More on that topic in a few. The final line I want to discuss is the unusually-structured chorus, "What is the flaw in just running away?//Running away fixes everything, how can I why should I stay?" Fight or flight can't be applied to every moment of your life. Being able to daydream about packing it all up and disappearing is absolutely a relief. Of course, the implication is that this would be no good at all, as you will eventually have to come back and fix the problems anyway.

That's a lot about a couple of songs. Let me tell you about the one that really changed my thought process a couple of years later. 

"Belle Glade Missionaries" has a few lines in it that I thought were fitting at the time. "It's your dysphoric mania that makes you so likable//And everybody wanna save you//Save you just for themself" is a front-runner. A couple of years after my breakup, there is a particular line that stood out to me- "all the evil in the universe//there are no victims, only participants." You see, the further I got from that relationship, the more I realized how messed up he had really been toward me, and the more I began to feel sorry for myself and the more I felt victimized. That line changed everything. Now I'm not saying that you can never feel sorry for yourself or that you can't accept and process the fact that you were victimized. For me though, that line was about owning up to the fact that you remained in the situation, and more importantly, that you did things that weren't so nice to other people as a way to regain your power. Yanno, that Karen stuff I was talking about. There are victims of evil all the time, but the kind of evil Barnes seems to be speaking of is within a relationship. The narrator is describing or speaking to a particular person. Sometimes it's healthy to realize that even if you are the victim of physical or emotional abuse, you have the power to change your situation. If that's not helpful to you, just ignore it. I'm not trying to victim blame, it's just that it helped me find my own power again.

Okay, that's about enough of that personal stuff, please show me the leaderboard so I can go back into hiding.

Join me tomorrow for my favorite album from 2014.

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