Courtesy of soundisstyle.com

In the age of Pitchfork, hipsters, and TheNeedleDrop, 2013 was quite the happening year. Kanye West released an industrial hip-hop album, and the critics had a field day explaining why it was actually brilliant. Arcade Fire released a highly polarizing double album, and the critics had a field day explaining why it was actually not brilliant. Add to this Daft Punk’s cryptic ad campaign proceeding their highly-awaited fourth studio album, and you have red meat for hipster kids who love to find meaning in places where it doesn’t exist. Amid all the chaos, it’s hard to stick to your own opinion regarding music releases. As a music nerd, I tried to make sense of all the albums I heard this year and come up with a list of my favorites — not Pitchfork’s favorites, not TheNeedleDrop’s favorites, but my favorites. Here it is:

5) John Mayer – “Paradise Valley”

When John Mayer explored country-folk on 2011’s “Born and Raised,” it marked a welcome change from the lifeless pseudo-ambition of 2009’s “Battle Studies.” This year, John Mayer yet again proved his worthiness as a singer songwriter with “Paradise Valley” — his least ambitious album to date. At just over 40 minutes, the album tries everything not to be a masterpiece. In turn, it showcases Mayer at his most comfortable, loose, and earnest. From the reflective “Dear Marie” to the gentle groove of “Who You Love,” “Paradise Valley” proves there’s a beauty in settling down, looking inward, and conveying personal experience in a way that stadium-sized hooks cannot.

4) Daft Punk – “Random Access Memories”

Like “Paradise Valley,” “Random Access Memories” shows Daft Punk rejecting the idea of releasing the traditional musical masterpiece. Rather than come out with a two-disc epic or bust out a concept album, Daft Punk created their own formula for ambition. On “Random Access Memories,” the French electronic duo recruited a range of guest artists from Pharrell Williams to Gorgio Moroder, reinterpreted the sounds of ’70s and ’80s dance, and brought this all together into a forward-thinking package that breathed much-needed life into the uninspired state of modern dance. Add to this slick production and the unmistakable Daft Punk aesthetic, and you’ve got one of the most memorable albums of the year.

3) Arcade Fire – “Reflektor”

Just when you thought the band couldn’t go any further, Arcade Fire released its most emotive and unapologetically long-winded album this year with “Reflektor.” On it, frontman Win Butler cries out in confusion over smartphones, mainstream society, modern love, and life after death — all with the rage of a hormone-crazed teenager and the disenchanted wisdom of a 70-year-old man. It’s a hodgepodge of existential crises that’s so vague you almost want to roll your eyes, but that’s where the beauty of the album lies. As “Reflektor” rocks with monstrous disco beats and percussive polyrhythms, it calls out to the primal part of you that just wants to dance but also questions whether there’s a meaning to it all. With “Reflektor,” Arcade Fire reminds us that we’re all really the same. That’s a message we could use more than ever right now.

2) Queens of the Stone Age – “Like Clockwork…”

On “Like Clockwork…,” Queens of the Stone Age bring uncompressed guitars, bass lines that utilize all four strings, and dynamics back into modern rock. It’s a dramatic statement, but in a time where rock is dominated by bands as bleak as The Arctic Monkeys and head-throbbing as Linkin Park, it’s a necessary one. On the album, Queens of the Stone Age are unafraid to venture into unsettling lows and exhilarating highs, disproving the notion that pummeling guitars and delicate melodies can’t coexist.

On tracks like “The Vampyre of Time and Memory,” frontman Josh Homme exposes himself in his most vulnerable vocal performance, only to break out a menacing delivery on the subsequent track, “If I Had a Tail.”

Considering how producers like Danger Mouse have been squashing the dynamic spectrum of seemingly every indie release of the past few years, “Like Clockwork…” is one of the most important releases in recent memory for music of this mainstream caliber. Let’s hope it starts a movement to bring back complex emotions and captivating instrumentation into mainstream music.

1) Kanye West – “Yeezus”

Kanye West doesn’t care about sounding eloquent in interviews. He doesn’t give a damn about what constitutes good versus bad, beautiful versus ugly, low-brow versus high-brow. In fact, he gives so little damns it’s gorgeous.

This is what makes Kanye’s sixth solo album, “Yeezus,” such a triumph: It’s a temper tantrum of grossly epic proportions, proof that such a thing even exists. “Yeezus” displays the uninhibited psyche of a man who equates corporate power, bondage, and croissants with the highest form of spiritualism. Kanye raps over a backdrop of spastic synths, drum machines, and grotesquely auto-tuned vocals, making “Yeezus” confusing, uncomfortable, and upsetting — but ultimately rewarding in the way it embraces contradictions to unprecedented levels.

While “Yeezus” may not be for everyone, the album showcases Kanye West at his most real, and there’s no denying that. We need a figure who can expose us to scary new truths of the human mind, even if they make us squeamish and disgusted. Kanye West just might be our man.

Howard is a member of the class of 2017.



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