Okay so its the end of the year and all the Cool Kids are making lists. No, silly! I’m not talking about letters to Santa! I’m obviously talking about lists ranking the past years musical recordings! Yay, Hanukkah spirit! I’m really excited to be writing a list like this. I usually never try to rank music, but I wanna be a Cool Kid so I’m doing it. I feel like there’s a lot I left out from the last year. Oneohtrix Point Never, Daft Punk, Savages, Chvrches, Death Grips, a lot of others. Sorry, I still love you. Never change.
I’ve given the top spot to the new Vampire Weekend record. I wasn’t expecting this from the band who once sung about college hookups and the Colours of Benneton, but there’s a lot I wasn’t expecting this year. My top three albums are all incredibly existential works; if someone told me 6 years ago that these albums would all hit #1 on the Billboard top 40 chart, I would never have believed them. Pop music is becoming daring and, in a way, terrifying. Thousands of people are sitting and listening to these records, all united by their simultaneous crises of identity. Art is an amazing thing.
5) ClearSkies / Home by PrismCorp Virtual Enterprises
There was a genre that some of you may have heard of called Vaporwave. It’s a found sound sort of genre where artists take sounds typically associated with dated Muzak recordings and warp them through our own expectations. This year’s releases by one of the scene’s most prominent eSquatters, Vektroid (under one of their many PrismCorp aliases) both mock and sincerely celebrate the sounds of Capitalism. I listen to these records and think fondly of strip malls and Trotskyism simultaneously.
ClearSkies is the dreamier of the two while Home takes a somewhat more aggressive edge. The music on Home is quantized to the billisecond and frequently led by aggressively artificial instrument sounds. The environment is like having a dream while an infomercial or bad cop drama plays in the background, disturbing yet somehow delightfully surreal. On the contrary, ClearSkies takes a very ambient approach, luxuriating in the prismatic sunlight and processed sands of a digital landscape. Hopefully, this isn’t the last we hear from PrismCorp.
4) No Blues by Los Campesinos!
Los Campesinos! have been an incredibly reliable act for the last six years. Every album they release seems to develop upon their established sound without ever becoming complacent and static. On No Blues, their fifth album overall, finds a certain maturity in the arrangements as well as in the lyrical content. Singer/songwriter Gareth Campesinos! has grown into a unique narrative voice over the years. His lyrical style approaces Morrissey’s tales of miserablila and despair without the layers of flowery pretense (no disrespect to Morrissey, he’s watching me from my wall as I type).
Musically, the band has always been inspired by the music of Olympia, Washington. From Hold on Now, Youngster to now, the band has moved from Beat Happening’s twee-pop leanings to Sleater-Kinney’s dense, powerful anthems (due in no small part to the continued involvement of their producer, John Goodmason). No Blues is possibly the strongest album of their career so far, and it shall remain an enthralling prospect to find out where they go next.
3) Reflektor by Arcade Fire
When I read last year that James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem would be producing the new Arcade Fire record, I lost myself in breathless fanboyism and hype. Murphy is one of the most acclaimed musicians in recent history and his touch of danceable production to Arcade Fire’s anthemic sound was an incredible prospect. The most amazing thing about Reflektor is that it took me by surprise. I was expecting something more in the vein of “Sprawl II” from their last album, but that sort of brightness is largely absent here. The band has gained a new sense of seedy darkness to their aesthetic, to astounding effect.
The album here is largely concerned with loss, not of family and loved ones like their classic debut Funeral, but of the self. “If everything about our existence is false, how can we possibly connect to anyone else?” they seem to be asking. “I thought I found the connector/But it was just a reflektor” Win and Regine sing together on the title track’s chorus, alluding to Orpheus turning back to look at Eurydice only to watch her disappear forever. The album does lose its footing in a few places towards the middles of each disc, but every track seems to have a place in the record’s grand vision. Ideas and themes bounce between songs like a light being cast off of a disco ball. No concept on the record is treated as truth, just as a reflection.
2) Yeezus by Kanye West
Oh man, those pulse-width modulations at the start of “On Sight” really get to me. They’re this pure exaltation of ego like I’ve never heard before. Yeezus is Kanye’s most Kanye album. It does not give a fuck if you like it in the best way possible. The record is an incredibly minimal affair, relying frequently on just a few unadorned tracks of noise to express it’s creator’s soul. The overall effect of Yeezus is not unlike earlier effort 808s and Heartbreak, wielding a new set of musical tools to shout to the world “I am here”. As on 808s, the controversial Auto-Tune effect is applied in many creative ways, filtering Kanye’s voice and old soul samples alike and creating a profound sense of alienation from the modern world.
The album deals lyrically with themes of classism, heartbreak and masculine rage. Lead single “New Slaves” decries the prison industrial complex with a cry of “fuck you and your corporations, y’all niggas cant control me!”. Kanye’s use of dancehall samples from the Cruel Summer project continues with “I’m In It”, an expression of uncontrollable libido, spouting lines like “put my fist in her like a civil rights sign”, almost daring the listener to be shocked.
On the minimalist, immediately iconic packaging, the only featured performer listed is God. The track in question is “I Am A God”, one of a few tracks on the album to feature production from electronic duo Daft Punk. When questioned on the audacity of the track in an interview with W Magazine, Kanye responded “I made that song because I am a god, I don’t think there’s much more explanation. I’m not going to sit here and defend shit. That shit is rock ’n’ roll, man. That shit is rap music. I am a god. Now what?” The track is astoundingly spare, ending with only Kanye’s bone-chilling auto-tuned screams over silence.
Kanye West is the Kanye Best precisely because he insists on it. He completely subverts the expectation for black artists to be humble about their work both on record and in interviews. His overwhelming confidence is a large part of his charm as an artist even if it’s easy to resent him for it. His dedication to being completely true to himself as an artist and make few concessions to a pop market is so admirable in this day and age, and he’s managed to do this while releasing his sixth consecutive #1 album. It’s hard to be humble when you’re stunting on a Jumbotron.
1) Modern Vampires of the City by Vampire Weekend
I’ve been excited since this album came out to write about it. When the first singles were released in advance of the album, I played them on repeat for days. I was so amazed that Vampire Weekend, a great band but not necessarily one that seemed destined for longevity at the outset, had made something so emotionally arresting. First single “Step” is both witty and sentimental at the same time, an aesthetic that continues throughout the album. Lead singer Ezra Koeing has an incredible way of blending comedy and tragedy and is constantly dropping these sorts of lines. “You saw the stars when they hid from the world, you cursed the sun when it stepped to your girl.” “I took your council and came to ruin, leave me to myself.” “I hummed the Dies Irae while you played the Hallelujah.”
Modern Vampires of the City is largely concerned with the price of Atheism, and I personally love the way the album takes cues from sacred Baroque-era music to express this. Vampire Weekend is wrestling with the question of mortality in the absence of god. Almost every song deals in some way with the passing of time, the low click of the ticking clock. In front of every one of us, there’s a lifetime as well as a headstone. If there’s no god, then what comes next?
While no answer to the question can be given, the band finds much to fill up the emptiness of a godless existence in the meantime. They find solace in love and companionship up through the end of our time on this earth. On “Hannah Hunt”, the narrator is building a relationship with the titular character while traveling across the country from Providence, RI to Phoenix, AZ. “A man of faith said hidden eyes could see what I was thinking, but I just smiled and told him ‘that was only true of Hannah.’” The narrator finds meaning in life in the soul of another person, perhaps desperately. “If I can’t trust you, then dammit Hannah/There’s no future, there’s no answer,” Koeing sings powerfully in his uppermost register.
Elsewhere, on centerpiece “Ya Hey”, Vampire Weekend confronts the Creator directly. They acknowledge that God exists but posit that, much like Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he is no longer relevant to anyone living. “Oh good God/the faithless, they don’t love You/the zealous hearts don’t love You/and that’s not gonna change.” Over chipmunk chants of “Yahweh!” and “ut Deo!”, Koeing complains “Through the fire and through the flames, You won’t even say Your name/only ‘I am that I am.’”
Vampire Weekend has a major accomplishment on their hands with this album. They’ve managed to shake off the frivolous nature of their earlier music while retaining its charm and melodic chutzpah. Modern Vampires is a gorgeous, sprawling work of love and death, filtering all of existence through their pretentiously collegiate lens. Since its release, I was always pretty sure I’d be writing about it here and I wasn’t wrong. This album will outlive us all.