The 2013 Album of the Year

band01

Paramore, Paramore


Back in 2006 I volunteered to review that year’s Warped Tour compilation for PopMatters. Compilations like that were always fun, with loads of variety it was easy to put together 700+ words. Of all 51 tracks on the two disc comp was a song featuring a then-17 year-old mopped with red hair called “Emergency”, and it was far and away the most interesting there. The girl was named Hayley, the band bore the cutesy name Paramore, and the way they combined pop hooks with straightforward post-punk was extraordinary, especially when you compared it to the sheer volume of sound-alikes and young hacks that permeate the Warped Tour every year. The Nashville band was still a bit rough around the edges, but you could hear something in the music that was unique, vibrant, and fun.

12 months later Paramore released Riot!, a record that saw the young band’s formula starting to coalesce beautifully, but in its singles – “Misery Business’, “crushcrushcrush”, the glorious “That’s What it Takes” – you could envision the kids transcending the whole post-punk thing completely. It also became glaringly obvious that Hayley Williams could easily eclipse her bandmates if the wanted. Here was a five-foot-nothing girl with a powerhouse voice, tremendous charisma, and a knack for some really unique vocal phrasing, and you could tell that the pop world could be hers to dominate if she wanted.

That creative momentum came to a dead halt on 2009’s Brand New Eyes. Despite a few strong tracks, it severely lacked the energy of Riot!, the typical portrait of a young, exhausted band trying desperately to make a strong statement on the follow-up to a breakthrough record and sounding fatigued in the process. Whether it was the whole Twilight soundtrack connection – did it ever take Paramore a long time to shake that stigma – or a lack of new ideas, the band had painted itself into a corner.

When brothers and original members Zac and Josh Farro left the band in December 2010 and posted a bitter, long-winded rant about how Paramore was a major label vehicle for Williams since day one, how she was the only one signed to Atlantic, and the rest of the band were treated as hired hands. This was the tipping point, the line being drawn in the sand between “rockism” and “poptimism”, resurrecting an age-old question: Can an act that is manufactured to come across as a “band” still have artistic merit? The Farros were practically claiming Williams had sold her soul to make Paramore a brand more than a band, questioning the integrity of the whole operation. What they were unwilling, or unable to admit, however, was that they were the ones holding the band back creatively. Josh Farro’s co-songwriting had hit the wall on Brand New Eyes, and if you look a little closer, intermittent member Taylor York had a hand in two of the band’s best songs, “That’s What You Get” and “Playing God”.

Which leads us to 2013’s Paramore. If there were any doubts as to whether the Farros were dead weights in this band, they have been erased completely. Paramore is an extraordinary transformation, an emancipation of sorts for Hayley Williams, the kind of redefinition from budding young talent to legitimate star that you do not see very often. Allmusic boldly declared the album “a landmark, a genre-breaking masterwork that, like Madonna’s Like a Prayer or U2’s Achtung Baby,” and once you get over the initial “huh?” upon reading that statement and spend time with the album, the more appropriate, nay, dead-on it turns out to be. In one fell swoop Paramore reduces its previous work to more two-dimensional snapsots, as this record is so rich, so varied, built completely around the unpredictable, eclectic personality of Williams. And most importantly, it’s a prime example of how hiring genuinely skilled, professional musicians to help craft a big, grandiose pop album – instead of a bunch of inexperienced young rockers – can work exceptionally well when done properly and tastefully.

It’s so typical of Williams The Reluctant Pop Star that the album cover features her not between York and Jeremy Davis, but on the right, looking away while her bandmates stare piercingly into the camera. She’s trying to make herself invisible, but the lighting is on her. The guys look drab and greenly lit, while her alabaster face shimmers. Is it a put-on? Of course it is. Of course she wants to be a pop star. But the contrivance of the cover also hints at a certain humility in Williams’ persona. She is going to knock your socks off, but instead of doing a photo spread like her pal Taylor Swift, this 24 year-old who looked so awkward on the cover of Cosmo is much more comfortable letting the music do the talking, which it does for 63 revelatory, exhilarating minutes.

Co-written solely by Williams and York – with the exception of two tracks – and produced by Justin Meidal-Johnsen, who did such brilliant work on M83’s career-defining 2011 double album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, what Paramore does so brilliantly is simply clear room for Williams. For all the efforts of York, Davis, and Meidal-Johnsen, this album is all about Hayley. Her personality carries the entire record, as she puts on display after display of stunning versatility. She can rock the hell out as well as anyone on “Fast in My Car”, “Now”, “Proof”, and “Anklebiters”. She goes all ‘80s R&B on “Ain’t it Fun” and sells it with pure joy (“So whaddya gonna do when the world don’t open uh around you?”) while a gospel choir, a freaking gospel choir, the dumbest, most pandering gimmick in pop music, brings the song to a sensational, ebullient climax. She does the whole “adorkable” thing on the ukulele interludes interspersed throughout the record. She does Go-Go’s power pop “Daydreaming”), The Cure’s influence looms over the icy, melancholic “Part II”, “Last Chance” shamelessly goes for Coldplay stadium-friendly “crescendo rock”, while she displays the tenderness of a country chanteuse on the understated “Hate to See Your Heart Break”. “(One of Those) Crazy Girls” has a classic, Phil Spector-era girl group feel to it, sold beautifully by Hayley, and as a final, jaw-dropping coup de grace, “Future” has her sounding stripped down before giving way to her bandmates, who morph the track into a near-eight-minute exercise in heavy drone that rivals Isis. Yeah, that’s right.

The album’s true shining moment is its second single, “Still Into You”. Giddy, bouncy, and adorned with little touches that gleefully hearken back to the 1980s – the new wave-ish funk beat, the muted guitar accents, that bassline, those clapclap handclaps – it’s a classic, pitch-perfect execution of the bubblegum pop formula featuring a powerhouse vocal performance by Williams. “Can’t count the years on one hand, that we’ve been together,” she sings, adding ingeniously, “I need the other one to hold you, make you feel, make you feel better.” Strife and slight self-doubt, followed by a confession over a hushed bridge (“After all this time…”), and then an explosion of emotion in one of the most adorable lines I’ve ever heard in a pop tune: “I should be over all the butterflies.” Sung with pure, unadulterated joy. Now buoyed by that admission, Williams becomes more playful – just listen to her phrasing as she sings, “Recount the night that I first met your mother” – and the song climaxes in a joyous, disco-beat driven break in which Williams sums up her sentiment so succinctly it’s oddly poetic: “Some things just, some things just make sense and one of those is you and I.”

Unlike so many mainstream American pop and rock releases, Paramore is anything but top-heavy. Sure, the first half is sensational, but the deep cuts later on is plenty rewarding, with “Proof”, “Hate to See Your Heart Break”, and “(One of Those) Crazy Girld” forming a great little trifecta. And thanks to Meidal-Johnsen, plenty of subtle touches are smattered throughout the entire record, a great example being the glockenspiel that creeps into “Anklebiters”, lending the track lightness, a putdown delivered with a cheeky smile.

Because the band started off when its members were so young, Paramore still has the stigma of being a kids’ band, and therefore not deserving of praise from music tastemakers, but make no mistake, for all its emphasis on teen-pleasing pop hooks, this is a brave, surprisingly mature album that invites instead of panders. Throughout the album are smattered lyrical references to the Farros – and note the “grow up’ written on Williams’ jacket inside the album – but Paramore is nevertheless careful to take the high road. In the end, all the drama of three years ago will be a distant memory, left in the dust of this lovable, vital, career-defining piece of work. Is it major label “product”? Of course it is. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not great art, a potential classic work of pop rock, and an easy choice as my Album of the Year.

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The 2013 Single of the Year

band01Paramore, “Still Into You”

The lead single from Paramore’s fourth album, the dark “Now”, was an odd choice, one that left many wondering if that was the best the new record had to offer. All fears were tossed aside as soon as the follow-up debuted in the weeks prior to the album’s release. Giddy, bouncy, and adorned with little touches that gleefully hearken back to the 1980s – the new wave-ish funk beat, the muted guitar accents, that bassline, those clapclap handclaps – “Still Into You” is a classic, pitch-perfect execution of the bubblegum pop formula featuring a powerhouse vocal performance by singer Hayley Williams. “Can’t count the years on one hand, that we’ve been together,” she sings, adding whimsically yet sincerely, “I need the other one to hold you, make you feel, make you feel better.” Strife and slight self-doubt, followed by a confession over a hushed bridge (“After all this time…”), and then an explosion of emotion in one of the most adorable lines I’ve ever heard in a pop tune: “I should be over all the butterflies.” Sung with pure, unadulterated joy. Now buoyed by that admission, Williams becomes more playful – just listen to her phrasing as she sings, “Recount the night that I first met your mother” – and the song climaxes in a joyous, disco-beat driven break in which Williams sums up her sentiment so succinctly it’s oddly poetic: “Some things just, some things just make sense and one of those is you and I.” By far the band’s most successful single to date, this shamelessly sweet song was a slam dunk choice as Single of the Year.

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The Best Albums of 2013, #2

001tagChvrches,
The Bones of What You Believe

Glasgow trio Chvrches was the one band that got in my head, burrowed in and didn’t leave, for the entirety of 2013. I first learned about them when the BBC announced their Sound of 2013 nominees late last year, and starting with “The Mother We Share” right before New Year’s, “Recover” not long after, and “Gun” in spring, I gradually warmed to their simple but very clever sound. If there was ever a band perfectly designed to break out in 2013, it’s this one. They play icy yet wickedly hooky electropop in the vein of The Knife, Royksopp, and Robyn, while their arrangements are just artsy enough to echo the quirkiness of Grimes and Purity Ring. But the kicker, the thing that many on the indie side are willing to admit, there’s a commitment to unabashed emotion and pop melodrama that totally parallels the approach of Paramore. While some might say Lauren Mayberry’s lyrics venture a little too uncomfortably toward overkill, it’s that very element that gives this music much-needed humanity and sincerity – is there anything that makes hipsters more uncomfortable than sincerity? – and is why so many mainstream listeners have gravitated toward it. A great deal of credit goes to Mayberry, whose singing sounds both alluring, caustic, and vulnerable at the same time, and she dominates the bulk of the record, especially the menacing “Lies”, the tender “The Mother We Share”, the rosy-hued “Night Sky”, and the deceptive “Gun”. Meanwhile, her collaborators Martin Doherty and Iain Cook (formerly of post-rock band Aereogramme, much to my great surprise) create a minimal yet very rich and lively backdrop that proves to be every bit as charming as Mayberry’s singing, the best example being the climactic synth break near the end of “Tether”, a gentle explosion of stabbed notes that pop like little fireworks atop a ferocious dance beat. And even the two tracks sung by Doherty, which initially stuck in my craw because I so love Mayberry’s voice, have grown on me a great deal to the point where they’re no longer sticking points but well-timed respites from the visceral intensity of her songs. Loaded with phenomenal singles and more potentially great ones, The Bones of What You Believe is a beautiful marriage of the mainstream and the avant-garde, indie coolness and shameless romanticism. Were it not for the perfection of my chosen Album of the Year, this would have wound up at the top of the heap.

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The Best Singles of 2013, #2

band01Chvrches, “Recover”

I could have easily chosen any of Chvrches’ four 2013 singles for this spot on my list – they were all that good – but in the end I decided to go with the second song I ever heard them do, one that’s hung around and hung around all year long to the point that I’ve become quite attached to the thing. It might seem like fairly rote electropop, but it’s smarter than you think, which is reflected in the clever arrangement, which starts with stuttering synth stabs and glitch beats, moves to a more insistent beats and more graceful synth notes in the bridge, to big, sweeping, cascading, sustained chords in the chorus. But it’s Lauren Mayberry who provides the track with gutwrenching humanity, the monosyllabic way she spits out those words sounding like a girl trying to speak in between sobs: “I’ll give you one. More. Chance. To say we can change. Or. Part. Ways. And you take. What. You. Need. And you don’t. Need. Me.” Your heart bleeds for her.

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The Best Albums of 2013, #3

band01In Solitude, Sister

As strong as In Solitude’s critically acclaimed 2011 album The World. The Flesh. The Devil was, one thing people had to remember was this Swedish band is still a work in progress. Their devotion to classic heavy metal aesthetic was endearing on their first two records, but there was still plenty of room for improvement. After all, a band can only play Mercyful Fate homages for so long until people start saying, “Enough already.” While they could nail that circa-1983 aesthetic as well as anyone, if they truly wanted to make a lasting impression they’d start to take those influences and actually do something original with it. What makes Sister so exciting is just how they do so in much more striking, mature fashion than I ever expected. Songs might meander past the six, seven, eight-minute mark, but there’s a sense of purpose in the arrangements. Controlled and restrained, songs like “Lavender” and “Sister” slither around listeners rather than attack. The guitar tones are dialed down yet still very striking, hearkening back to the rich sounds of Uli Roth-era Scorpions and at the same time daring to echo a little vintage gothic rock on “Pallid Hands” and “A Buried Sun”, whose last half is an incredible exercise in discipline and mood. And Pelle Åhman steps a little further out of King Diamond’s shadow with a much more confident vocal performance than ever before. You feel his persona coming out vividly in the music, and the same can be said for the rest of the band, as they truly come into their own before your very eyes. At heart In Solitude embodies all the best elements of heavy metal: flamboyance, melody, theater, escapism, menace, power. All are on masterful display on Sister, and the rest of the metal world has been served notice.

(The above review appeared, in less rambling form, in issue #110 of Decibel magazine.)

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The Best Singles of 2013, #3

band01Katy B, “5 A.M.”

The debut album by British singer-songwriter Kathleen Anne Brien remains one of my favourite pop albums of the last couple years, and judging by the several tracks that have surfaced in anticipation of her 2014 follow-up Little Red, the new record just might be even better. “5 A.M.” is the best of the lot, a pulsating house thumper which, despite the energy of the track and Katy’s beguiling delivery, overflows with sadness and loneliness: “I lost my friends, I check my phone / Still searching for someone to walk with me… I need somebody to calm me down / A little loving like Valium / I need somebody to knock me out.” It’s the perfect after-hours song, permeated with nocturnal bleakness, with the sobering sunrise starting to lighten the sky.

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The Best Albums of 2013, #4

band01The Knife, Shaking the Habitual

Every year it seems there’s one album so dark, weird, and impenetrable that it sticks with me throughout the entire year, where I might not even yet have a grasp on the music yet, but the way it reveals more of itself with every listen compels me to place it high on my list because I know it’s going to become an enduring album in my collection. This year that album comes courtesy The Knife, who after three albums of developing a highly unique and creative take on modern electropop completely inverted their sound, abandoning all trace of formula in favor of a more free-form, experimental approach. For those who were attached to Deep Cuts, Silent Shout, and Karin Dreijer Andersson’s Fever Ray project, it was easy to see how Shaking the Habitual was so difficult to get used to. Instead of a focused, clear approach she and her brother Olof Dreijer throw everything at the wall. It’s like moving from the precision of Roy Lichtenstein to the chaos of Jackson Pollock. As such, it requires a different mindset, an openness from the listener. I suppose years of listening to the more experimental side of metal and extreme music had me a little more mentally prepared to take in this record, but like I always say, experimentation doesn’t mean squat if there’s no song there, and for all of this record’s lack of structure, this is an incredibly engaging piece of work, a nightmarish pastiche of tribal beats, chanted vocals, clattering synths, and odd hooks that wriggle their way into your head. “Full of Fire” and “Raging Lung” are especially nasty that way, while “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” is oddly endearing, “Stay Out Here’s is creepily enthralling and the stuttering “Networking” manages to nervously captivate. And “Fracking Fluid Injection” is just plain terrifying. I’ll readily admit, I loved the way The Knife worked within the confines of conventional song structure, but the way they’ve thrown all that away and went completely off the map, daring to join the likes of Can and Scott Walker, and much to my great surprise, succeeding.

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The Best Singles of 2013, #4

band01Haim, “The Wire”

It’s been so much fun seeing sisters Alana, Este, and Danielle Haim evolve from intriguing upstarts to a heavily-hyped band over the course of the last couple years. As good as their early songs were, “The Wire” saw the trio stepping up their game in a big way. Featuring a snappy little riff that echoes Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen”, a thunderous shuffling glam rock beat, and the wonderful vocal interplay of the sisters, it’s the kind of hybrid that record labels must drool over: it’s inventive enough to attract attention from the indie press – which it has – yet has such a buoyant, effervescent hook that can easily appeal to mainstream listeners. “The Wire”, like the rest of the album Days Are Gone, is so assured in the way it so creatively blends R&B, rock, doo wop, and big ‘80s pop, that it’s easy to forget that this is just Haim’s debut full-length.

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The Best Albums of 2013, #5

band01Carcass, Surgical Steel

I listened to somewhere between 500 and 600 metal albums in 2013, and for someone who hungers for diversity in a music collection, listening to nothing but extreme metal can get very monotonous, especially when the genre hasn’t experienced a decided sea change in the last 15 years or so. You start to see through the extremity, and become very intolerant of mediocrity. I enjoy death metal, I know what makes a great death metal album, and seeing it played well live can be an exciting, punishing experience, but I am not sentimental about the genre as other writers my age are. I’m much more discerning. A death metal album has to be extraordinary to compel me to review it glowingly, let alone rank it alongside everything else I’ve heard on an all-genre list. 2013 in death metal was better than average, highlighted by excellent releases by Portal, Grave Miasma, and Bölzer, but nothing came close to the first new Carcass album in 18 years.

I can never call myself a proper “fan” of Carcass – I do greatly prefer the classic Heartwork to any other death metal album from the early-1990s –  and I approached their comeback album with a great deal of caution and skepticism. So it wasn’t because I was a slavering fan or a nostalgic 43 year-old that I was immediately awestruck by what I heard on Surgical Steel. Instead, it was on a much more visceral level: of all the metal albums I heard in 2013, this was one of only two that innately made me feel like I was 15 or 16 again, a reminder of why heavy metal was my first love to begin with. It’s a ferocious record, by all means, but it is so musically adept, so confident in the way it balances instrumental savagery and genuine hooks that it had me wondering why more death metal bands aren’t making more music as vital-sounding and inspired as this. “Mount of Execution”, “Unfit For Human Consumption”, “The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills”, “Captive Bolt Pistol” highlight an album that prioritizes musicality and songwriting skill more than sounding brutal for the sake of sounding brutal, to the point where it transcends subgenre and becomes a true, honest-to-goodness great heavy metal record. In fact it’s a rather depressing sign that it took a band that was dormant for nearly two decades to come along and shame a scene that has lost its way trying to out-extreme, out-shred, out-blast each other (“Dulled, blunted, low tensile dearth metal,” Jeff Walker sneers sardonically at one point). Power and extremity have been the most crucial elements of heavy metal since day one – all heavy metal, be it melodic or aggressive, has always been extreme in one form or another – but it means nothing, absolutely nothing if whatever music you create doesn’t make an immediate and lasting impression on the listener. Every single song on Surgical Steel does that. While it easily stands out as a defining work of heavy metal in 2013, the fact that it’s one of just a tiny handful albums to do just that, out of hundreds and hundreds, also speaks volumes about the troubling period of stasis metal is in today.

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The Best Singles of 2013, #5

band01Daft Punk, “Get Lucky”

How cool was it to see a song by Daft Punk blow up and “go viral” this past summer? Usually viral success is centred around novelty, some weird blend of self-aware humour and total ridiculousness that people immediately share the hell out of on social media. In the case of “Get Lucky”, it was much simpler: it’s an instant classic song, it’s as simple as that. A collaboration between Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, funk great Nile Rodgers, and singer/producer Pharrell Williams, “Get Lucky” is a great single Chic never made, an irresistible blend of late-‘70s disco, gentle funk, and soul. An incessant, handclap-punctuated dance beat drives the track insistently but not obnoxiously, as Rodgers contributes some wonderfully subtle funk guitar and Williams sings with more feeling and charisma than anyone could have expected. And that typical Daft Punk production is so lavish in its warmth. It’s pure magic, and the fact that millions worldwide gravitated to this song was one of the best music stories of the year.

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