Well, it looks like it’s going to be me against the world again when it comes to Kanye West.
Three years ago, I took the unpopular stance that West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a bloated, self-indulgent mess, a waste of the man’s prodigious talents. I’ve mellowed on it since then, but I still wouldn’t put it anywhere near my 2010 top 10 list. And I watched with dismay as critic after critic vaulted Fantasy to the top of their lists, ignoring all the faults I saw in it, and giving West carte blanche to let his ego run wild.
And now the same thing is happening with Yeezus, West’s sloppy, over-loved sixth album. Despite the imaginative production, I found most of the record repulsive. West wrote the lyrics quickly, which means they’re his unfiltered thoughts, and man, they paint him as a repugnant individual. His lyrics not only ruined this record, they defiled it, like spray-painting dicks on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. West remains a fascinating, polarizing figure, but this strange and ugly record is the worst kind of indulgence.
And yet, here’s Pitchfork and Entertainment Weekly and the AV Club lauding it as the year’s best album. I really don’t get it. I mean, I understand what they’re hearing – an iconoclast delivering yet another surprise in a career full of them – but the record itself just doesn’t deserve all the praise it’s getting. Suffice it to say that Yeezus is not on my top 10 list. As you can see by scrolling down a bit, it didn’t even rate an honorable mention. So don’t be surprised when it’s not there.
But enough about what I didn’t like in 2013. Let’s talk about the best stuff I heard.
Next week I’m going to post the top 10 list. This week, though, I’m going to give shout-outs to the 14 albums that earned honorable mentions. That’s down a little from 2012, but that’s largely because 2013 was a more consistently good year. I know that doesn’t seem to make sense, but it does – the highs of last year were higher, but the lows were also lower. 2013 was generally very good. Not outstanding – nothing walloped me quite like Lost in the Trees did last year – but very good. That means fewer records rose above the curve.
Before we get to the honorables, let’s talk about a few that would have made my list, if they were eligible. Two of them are covers records – Shearwater’s Fellow Travelers felt like a new record from this extraordinary band, so elegant were its adaptations, and Peter Gabriel’s And I’ll Scratch Yours rose above its “tribute album to myself” concept to deliver a dozen diverse takes on Gabriel’s exquisite catalog. The third, Quiet Company’s A Dead Man On My Back, was more of a reinvention, as the amazing Austin band re-recorded its debut album, bringing it to new life.
So, on to the honorable mentions.
I never got around to reviewing James Blake’s Overgrown, but I really should have. On his second album, the British wunderkind refined his sparse electronic sound, and gave us another helping of his spectral, haunting voice. I shouldn’t have ignored it. I also slept on Harper Simon’s sophomore album, Division Street, quite a bit too long. Simon boldly broke free from the folk-pop of his debut (and from the shadow of his famous father), crafting a loud, splendid slice of melodic rock. Don’t let my negligence keep you from buying either of these.
The Joy Formidable stormed onto early drafts of the top 10 list with Wolf’s Law. The trio went even bigger and fuller on their second album, crafting a thick guitar symphony. Justin Timberlake, believe it or not, made one of 2013’s best pop records with the original 20/20 Experience. (Let’s pretend the sequel doesn’t exist.) Laura Marling ripped her soul open on Once I Was an Eagle, her astoundingly accomplished fourth record. And the other Laura of 2013, Laura Mvula, stormed out of the gate with a unique soul record called Sing to the Moon. She was one of my favorite discoveries this year.
Neko Case made her strongest (ahem) case with the impressively titled The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You. The Feeling staged a comeback after their dismal third album, issuing the organic and winning Boy Cried Wolf. Speaking of comebacks, Vampire Weekend stomped all over their disappointing second effort with their third, Modern Vampires of the City. Rolling Stone called Modern Vampires the album of the year, and for a while there, I agreed with them.
2013 was a year of returns after long absences. Toad the Wet Sprocket turned to Kickstarter to fund their first record in 16 years, New Constellation. Although much of it reminded me more of Glen Phillips’ solo work, it was worth the wait. Mazzy Star returned after 17 years with Seasons of Your Day, picking up right where they left off, hazy dream-pop intact. But the big prize goes to My Bloody Valentine, who waited 21 years to bring us m b v, an album that remarkably pushes their iconic sound forward in ways no one could have anticipated.
And finally, 2013 saw old-school geniuses recapturing some of that old spark and delivering their best records in ages. Paul McCartney’s New is better than it has any right to be, having been assembled from various sessions. What unifies it is McCartney’s songwriting, at its strongest in many years. But the biggest surprise came from Elton John, who gave us the glorious gift of The Diving Board, his best album in about 40 years. Sir Elton is back on piano, writing as if he were in his 20s again, and the result is marvelous.
Those are the ones that didn’t make the list. Come back next week to see the ten best. And feel free to send me your lists as well. Even if they include Yeezus.
See you in line Tuesday morning.