Top Albums of 2013: # 3, 2, 1

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3. Sam Phillips, PUSH ANY BUTTON

In the five years between this and her last proper album, Don’t Do Anything, Phillips instituted a project, The Long Play, which was a series of digital EPs, singles and one LP only available via a subscription. It was a unique forum for her to hash out ideas and experiments, but it came off as a continual work-in-progress. This set of songs, written directly after it, seems more fully formed, perhaps because it appears that Phillips has unabashedly fallen in love with pop music again. I love everything she’s done since she reinvented herself on 2001’s better-with-every-year Fan Dance, but this record also reminds me why I fell in love with her in the first place. Think of it as an older-and-wiser Martinis and Bikinis and marvel at how lithe and youthful she still sounds on gems like “You Know I Won’t” or “When I’m Alone”.

Best tracks: “Can’t See Straight”, “No Time Like Now”, “Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You”, “When I’m Alone”, “You Know I Won’t”

Video for “You Know I Won’t”:

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2. Tegan and Sara, HEARTTHROB

The mere idea that this alt-rock duo would go pop over a decade into their career likely irritated many of their fans—did the Quin sisters really need to make their own Liz Phair? The first thing you notice here is the big, bold, undeniably produced sound, full of synths and other sonics that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Katy Perry record (although knob-twiddler Greg Kurstin of The Bird and The Bee has better taste). Then, you detect the undeniable strength of these songs—catchy but not too obvious, smart but not self-indulgent—and you realize just how much T&G have upped the ante. They’re writing lyrics and melodies of a caliber they weren’t capable of ten years ago and the music’s Technicolor scope perfectly complements their newfound ambition. In other words, Heartthrob consists of ten good-to-great potential singles—what more could one ask of an album?

Best tracks: “Closer”, “Drove Me Wild”, “I Was A Fool”, “I’m Not Your Hero”, “Now I’m All Messed Up”

Video for “I Was A Fool”:

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1. Daft Punk, RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES

Six weeks after this album’s release, I likened it to one of my all-time favorite records, The Avalanches’ Since I Left You; nearly six months later, although separated by time (13 years) and aesthetics (The Avalanches construct their songs entirely by sampling existing songs, Random Access Memories contains but one sample amongst its 13 tracks), the two records seem like mirror images of each other, both celebrating and interpreting the past but also integrating it within the present. RAM is a music obsessive’s playground, as if the narrator of LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” finally got his shit together and simply made his masterpiece.

Beyond the deservedly inescapable, retro-disco hit “Get Lucky”, RAM has room for new wave (“Instant Crush”, my favorite single song of the year), piano balladry (“Within”), Steely Dan-like pop (“Fragments of Time”), the autobiographical musings of a techno pioneer (the epic “Giorgio By Moroder”, which sums up all of RAM’s ambitions and intentions in nine minutes) and ‘70s singer/songwriter Paul Williams (the ridiculous, sublime, emotional centerpiece “Touch”). As for the electronically processed robot vocals (the only thing Daft Punk has retained from their earlier records), they’ve never seemed more expressive or effective. Everything old is new again on RAM, where an inspired convergence of the past and the present spark some show of hope for the future.

Best tracks: “Fragments of Time”, “Get Lucky”, “Giorgio By Moroder”, “Give Life Back To Music”, “Instant Crush”, “Touch”

Video for “Instant Crush”:

MYSTERY ACHIEVEMENT, PART 1

What follows is a music mix (via youtube clips) and a corresponding short story that I recently made for a friend. Although the mix fits on one CD, the story has four parts. For brevity’s sake, here’s the first (with the other three to come)…

1. She wakes up, throws on a hoodie and sweatpants, puts her disheveled blonde hair into a ponytail and walks out the door. The West Village glistens in the morning sun. She’s confused—did she not stroll along the Seine the night before? How long did she sleep and, more importantly, how did she get from there to here?

2. Memories of last summer suddenly wash over her: the weekends along the coast, coasting from town to town, searching for the beach with the cleanest sand and the clearest water where she’d sprawl out without a blanket, an ever-looping Sinatra playlist on her iPod.

3. Now, it’s autumn, it’s cold, and after grabbing a coffee she returns to where she spent the night. He sits in the kitchen, a mug in one hand, the Times magazine in the other. She doesn’t acknowledge his presence as she swiftly turns around and leaves.

4. She takes the Amtrak all the way to Albuquerque, mulling over her night in the Village. At first, she obsesses over it but within a few hours, physically, she’s moved on (psychologically, well, that’s another story).

5. “Moving on to nowhere / holding on to no one” she sings to herself as the Railrunner she hopped on in Albuquerque pulls into Santa Fe. She’s so damn happy and honestly doesn’t know why.

6. Practically skipping down Guadalupe Street, she feels the rush of falling in love with life itself. She wants to take absolutely everything in, all the colors, shapes and sounds encircling her. By nightfall, however, she’s at the Rouge Cat Lounge, knocking back gimlets and chatting up a girl half her age.

Tegan and Sara, “Closer”

I first heard Tegan and Sara a decade ago, back when WERS (via their formerly daily Coffee House program) played the heck out of “Living Room” from their second album, If It Was You. Having tweaked their sound considerably since then, the ecstatic first single from their forthcoming new album, Heartthrob, further establishes them as the pop stars many of us always knew they could be. Some may see enlisting in-demand producer Greg Kurstin as them begging for a hit, but here they’ve written one that recalls the giddy joy of the best vintage Cyndi Lauper and Pink (circa “Get The Party Started”) tunes but still exudes that particular sensibility only the Quin twins deliver. On the basis of this track alone, Heartthrob is my most-anticipated new album of 2013.