If anyone cares, I should have included Skrillex’s Bangarang on my 2012 list. I’d been actively enjoying it all year, but for some reason I thought it was from 2011 — indeed, it was released online in late 2011, but the actual physical release date was January 4, 2012. Currently my list reads Ocean, Skrillex, Future, Pooja, Istanbul, Snider, Madonna, Minaj, Japandroids, and Goldfrapp’s greatest hits compilation The Singles. Fiona Apple comes in at 11. After that I don’t want to think about it anymore. Seriously, buy these albums.

Daft Punk: Random Access Memories


Columbia, 2013 [BUY]

It’s nice to have these eccentric French robots back after eight years. They were the first to popularize techno in modern commercial pop, which you should be grateful for even if you don’t like techno — I mean, this is the 21st century, it makes sense that machines have taken over music. So Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, I salute you. Even so, this record isn’t up to Discovery or Human After All; it never engages with their classic-bombastic synth style.

At their best, these guys make tense, bubbly, catchy, formalistic radio-sonics, at once uncompromising and outreaching. That it also functions as workout music doesn’t matter as long as you’re doing jumping jacks, and songs like “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” have been known to tone up people’s ears and brains as surely as Kraftwerk does your comprehension of technological form. Here they’re more subdued, pleasant rather than nasty, relying heavily on the vocoders as well as the vocals, especially when they can get famous friends like Julian Casablancas or Pharrell Williams to sing for them. Their pretty keyboard jingle and antiseptic electropatterns mesh into a hypnotic whole in the manner of the most tranquil elevatortronica, trickling along in the background with its filtered tunelets and drippy android voices. Only “Lose Yourself to Dance” will teach you anything new about how to dance, let alone technology or the 21st century.

Reveling in their own minimal groove, they have officially given up their funk. I’m also starting to wonder about the sanity of two recluses who are comfortable with concert performance only when they’re wearing big shiny space helmets. It’s true that all popular music is by definition artificial, and I appreciate the robot iconography, but give yourself up to formulaicism and you become the subject you’re trying to satirize.

The Knife: Shaking the Habitual


Mute, 2013 [BUY]

I liked this album a lot more having read the Philip Sherburne rave in Spin where he calls the record “musique concrète” among other things. Even if he was talking about the one track that’s not worth your time, it’s true that this group of Swedish counterculturalists have made some of the artiest, most ambitious electronica you can buy right now. This bothered me until I accepted it for what it was, whereupon I fell in love. For all its radical politics and warped gender relations, the real revolution here is what they do with their keyboards.

The lyrics here are outright hysterical — “I got the urge for penetration,” how’s that for a pickup line — but it’s worth tuning them out and concentrating on the sonics. Creaky, top-heavy beats lurch hissing and shrieking through pink, fuzzy clouds towards a distant electronic orgasm, the promise of which makes the distorted drums and flutes just howl at the sky. Violins and vocoders squeeze through dark hallways together, grazing against each other and starting to bleed. Karin Dreijer Andersson moans over the mix, her sharp, low voice presenting itself more as sound effect than carrier of meaning. On “Raging Lung,” there’s even a synth hook. When I play this at home, I sit down, stare into space, and obsess over how sounds like this can be made in the first place. I’d like to see some naughty DJ try to play the album in a club, where everyone would start screaming, clutching their heads, and falling to the floor in sheer aesthetic overload.

Half these tracks go on for way too long, especially the 19-minute one, and the authorial intent approaches self-parodic levels. The Wikipedia article on this album alone contains references to such keynotes as “feminist porn,” “queer theory,” “commercial homogenization,” “Judith Butler,” “Foucault.” But this is a break from commercial homogeny at the very least, a worthy feminist porn soundtrack. I can only imagine.

Matuto: The Devil & the Diamond


Motema, 2013 [BUY]

The Appalachian elements come out more strongly than the Brazilian ones on this supposed fusion, which is basically a long jam session for a number of well-traveled New York musicians. Clay Ross simply happens to think bluegrass and forró have a lot in common rhythmically, and that they sound cool together. The beat, a pulsating up-and-down vibration that sneakily zigzags forward, is suited both to Ross’s strummed guitar and Rob Curto’s wailing accordion, and the band has a lot of fun romping all over the place with its skillfully hyperactive fiddle solos. It all sounds like an exotic square dance, good-humored and communal and proudly corny. Like most Southern roots music, it makes too big of a deal out of its bona fides, manifested most prominently in the routinely traditional melodies. And like most Brazilian dance music, it’s flighty, airy, easy to space out to. The combination is goofy and humane, the kind of obscurely silly gift only authenticity freaks are obsessive enough to achieve.

Positioning itself as the heir to multiple folk traditions, this is one of those records that claims to combine nearly every genre known to humankind (“swing music, bebop piano, funk, rock, and blues”) and always winds up static, only this time it’s not static at all. Anyone who either likes or doesn’t like old-timey Americana will like at least one half or the other.

Paramore: Paramore


Atlantic, 2013 [BUY]

The members of Paramore grew up with punk-pop back in the golden days of Third Eye Blind and Avril Lavigne, and now that both punk and pop have moved on, they’re feeling wistful and, honestly, a little hurt. How better for this band, 2013’s answer to “We Are Young,” to lead a revival than to slip loud guitars and obnoxious whining into the adult contemporary blueprint?

Whether they’re actually having fun when they shout platitudes like “We just wanna have fun!” is questionable. With distorted guitars banging out the cheerful yet pleasureless melodies and karaoke whiz Hayley Williams throwing triumphant punch after triumphant punch, their noisy, vehement energy is certainly strong enough to reach the excited masses of youth in America. As Christian-identified adults, their harmless teen nostalgia is vivid enough to make the “mature” audience tear up a little. Their style is so generic it can bridge any two other bands, simply name them, just the thing for radio programmers with airtime to kill. In short, they’ve got all the bases covered. Or maybe none of them.

This band rocks harder than your standard instaballad machine, and they have all the joy and anger and passion needed to make compelling music. However, they’re also implausibly dull.

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Lucas Fagen

Lucas Fagen's favorite artform is popular music, and that means popular music—bland corporate trash and faceless functional product in addition to critically respectable touchstones and obscure...

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