“Gonna Make a Record in the Month of May” — May 2013 and Why This Year Already Beats 2012
By Adam Ellsworth.
For weather, May 2013 was the worst. Cold and rainy. Then when the sun finally came out, at the very end of the month, there was too much of it, and everything was sticky and miserable.
Musically though, May was spectacular.
This shouldn’t really be a surprise, as January through April wasn’t too shabby either.
Kurt Vile and Atoms for Peace (the “super group” that includes Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea) both released albums in the year’s early months that should find their ways to the upper reaches of year end lists.
Mosquito, the April release from Yeah Yeah Yeahs, is a little uneven, but it’s hard to argue with first single, “Sacrilege.”
The Strokes’ Comedown Machine, released at the end of March, was naturally divisive (The Strokes, post-Is This It, always are), but at the very least people were talking about it.
And of course the first four months of 2013 brought standout debuts from Jake Bugg and Palma Violets, the rocking introductory EP from Deap Vally, and the first widely-distributed release from the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Texas “Stoned & Starving” rockers Parquet Courts.
(It should be noted that Jake Bugg’s self-titled debut was released in his native UK near the end of 2012, but wasn’t released in the US until April 2013, hence it’s inclusion here.)
Foxygen’s January release, We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, is either absolutely brilliant or an absolute mess. Maybe it’s both. Either way, the lyric “There’s no need to be an asshole/You’re not in Brooklyn anymore,” is a hoot.
Flying a little under the radar (but hardly underground) is Bombino and his April release, Nomad. Omara “Bombino” Moctar, or, as one YouTube commenter has called him, “The Jimi Hendrix of the Desert,” hails from Niger. Specifically, he is a member of the Tuareg tribe, so while you may not understand the lyrics (they’re sung in Bombino’s native Tamasheq), you’ll definitely understand the music. And if you hear a little bit of a Black Keys influence on Nomad, don’t be surprised: the Keys’ guitarist/singer Dan Auerbach served as the album’s producer.
As if the first third of 2013 didn’t already have enough going for it, even David Bowie got in on the act with the unexpected release of The Next Day, his first album of new material in a decade. The biggest surprise about disc though isn’t that it exists but that it’s legitimately terrific! So many highlights, but “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” takes top honors.
We haven’t even got to the May albums yet, and already 2013 puts the entirety of 2012 to shame.
What a bummer 2012 was! Clearly it wasn’t all bad. Frank Ocean released channel ORANGE to universal love and acclaim, while rock purists were treated to Japandroids and their sophomore album Celebration Rock. Jack White unleashed his first solo album, Blunderbuss, which combined the cranked up garage fury of early White Stripes with the country swoon of his recently adopted hometown of Nashville. And finally there was Tame Impala and Lonerism, which proved that even in 2012, psychedelia was alive and well.
There are no doubt one or two other albums that have unfairly been left off this list, but for the most part, that’s really it. Unless of course we start adding a few albums from some artists whose best years should have been behind them.
Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball was the one album that truly captured what it was like to be alive in the foul year of Our Lord 2012, while Tempest was Bob Dylan’s first “capital G” Great album since 2001’s Love and Theft. Neil Young teamed up with his longtime, sometime, backing band Crazy Horse for the two-disc Psychedelic Pill, which sounded just like its title would lead you to believe.
The biggest shock of 2012 though (assuming you aren’t Mitt Romney or his advisers), was that the album made by the reunited Beach Boys, That’s Why God Made the Radio, was really, really good. The title track was the worst kind of schlock, but the rest of the album was a joy, best summed up by these lyrics from “Spring Vacation”: “Spring vacation/ Good vibrations/Summer weather/We’re back together/Easy money/Ain’t life funny/Hey what’s it to ya?/Halleluiah.” Even the album’s (beautiful) concluding mini suite, which saw Brian Wilson reflect on his mortality and declare “summer’s gone,” couldn’t kill the mood.
These albums were (and are) wonderful, but they couldn’t save 2012. They, like the releases from Ocean, White, Japandroids, and Tame Impala, weren’t the norm but the exceptions that proved the rule. 2012 was a bust.
(2012 also saw the release of Celebration Day, a two-disc recording of the Led Zeppelin reunion concert. It’s a superb listen, but as the concert took place a full five years earlier, it feels like cheating to include it with the above.)
Thankfully, the first five months of 2013 were enough to restore your faith in rock and roll. As was already illustrated, January through April was filled with strong releases, but May might have been the best month of the year so far.
Savages kicked things off with Silence Yourself. While it’s the band’s first full-length release, Silence Yourself hardly came out of nowhere. Anticipation had been building for it since the all-female London quartet released their June 2012 debut single, the double A-sided “Husbands”/“Flying to Berlin.” The live EP, I Am Here, followed in October, and thanks to word of mouth and the music press, by the time Savages hit the Coachella stage this past April they were no longer an unknown quantity. Topping off the buildup, the week before Silence Yourself was released Pitchfork devoted their “Cover Story” to the band, and the day before the release, no less a “classy” magazine than The New Yorker gave it a review.
So is Silence Yourself worthy of the hype?
The label “post-punk” gets thrown around a bit too liberally these days, but it’s an appropriate tag for Savages and Silence Yourself. Think Joy Division at their most aggressive and add a dash of Siouxsie and the Banshees for good measure (and perhaps just the tiniest sprinkle of early U2). The individual songs, from “Husbands” to “She Will” to “City’s Full,” are all out live-wires, but the best thing about Silence Yourself is that it’s an actual “album,” in the old sense of the word. It’s not just a random collection of songs thrown together that you can rearrange however you want on your iPod. It’s a statement. As Savages know that we’re no longer predisposed to recognize a statement when we hear one, they’ve made things easy for us by including a written declaration of intent/poem right on the album’s cover.
“The world used to be silent,” the poem begins. “Now it has too many voices/And the noise/Is a constant distraction.” It goes on for another 20 lines from there before concluding, “If the world would shut up/Even for a while/Perhaps/We would start hearing/The distant rhythm/Of an angry young tune—/And recompose ourselves/Perhaps/Having deconstructed everything/We should be thinking about/Putting everything back together/Silence yourself.”
Some will no doubt find this pretentious, but to hell with them. Savages are the real deal and if anyone can put “everything back together,” it’s them.
The following week saw the release of Vampire Weekend’s third album, Modern Vampires of the City. I’ve already written extensively about the album and I have nothing more to add here, except to say that it’s still fantastic. It’s not only the best album to be released in May, but the best album to be released in 2013 so far.
And then there was week three.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013 was “Daft Punk Day” for most music fans. Even if you had no intention of buying the French electronic duo’s fourth studio album, Random Access Memories, you probably couldn’t escape knowing that it was soon to be released. Someday soon, someone will write a doctoral dissertation on the way this album was marketed. Whoever did do the marketing of the album should get a big raise, because that person really blew it out of the water.
First there was the very brief teaser played during the March 2 Saturday Night Live. The clip was only 15 seconds long, but it featured the riff to what the world would come to know as “Get Lucky.” If this doesn’t seem like much, go tell that to the person who took those 15 seconds and looped them continuously to create an entire song. Naturally, that song was 10 HOURS LONG! Obviously, there was a hunger for new Daft Punk music.
About a month later came a longer teaser video, unveiled on the big screens at Coachella (Friday night of Week One, right before Yeah Yeah Yeahs played). This video gave a longer airing of “Get Lucky,” complete with Pharrell’s guest vocals and footage of the masked Frenchmen themselves grooving out as Nile Rodgers (of Chic fame) brought the funk with his electric guitar. The video concluded with a listing of all the collaborators who appear on the album, an honor roll that included Julian Casablancas of The Strokes, disco king Giorgio Moroder, and even Paul Williams. Yes, the guy who wrote “Rainbow Connection” (and therefore, the guy who has been making grown men and women cry since 1979).
The video also included the new Daft Punk helmets and suits. Again, this might not seem like a big deal, but the new, sleek robot helmets the duo wears were a closely guarded secret, as were the new disco suits they now wear for promotional purposes.
Then, there was a series of videos called “The Collaborators” that were revealed in the weeks before the album was released. Basically, “The Collaborators” videos gave the guest artists featured on Random Access Memories the opportunity to look into the camera and tell the world JUST HOW AMAZING IT WAS TO WORK WITH DAFT PUNK.
By the time Random Access Memories started streaming, for free, on iTunes the week ahead of its release, it had gone from The Album We Didn’t Know We Wanted to THE ALBUM WE COULDN’T POSSIBLY LIVE WITHOUT EXCLAMATION POINT.
Well then, does Random Access Memories live up to its hype?
Of course not! Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds, and Blonde on Blonde combined couldn’t live up to that kind of hype.
But the buildup was fun. And hype aside, the album really is very good.
“Get Lucky” is Random Access Memories’ big hit, but it’s not necessarily the best introduction to the album’s overall sound. Whereas that song is immediately infectious, other parts of Random Access Memories have no doubt left the club kids and ravers of the world scratching their heads. Take the song “Giorgio by Moroder,” which consists entirely of Giorgio Moroder narrating the story of his life in music, while a Daft Punk created, Moroder-worthy, disco song plays in the background. “Touch” is the album’s centerpiece, but it will most likely not be playing on your radio anytime soon. The song is more than eight minutes long, utilizes a choir, orchestra, ondes martenot, a Dixieland jazz breakdown, and, oh yeah, it’s sung by 72-year-old Paul Williams, whose vocals don’t enter the picture until the two minute mark. The song is actually quite touching (no pun intended), but if you aren’t ready for it, it’s a little bizarre.
If you’re really looking to dance though, there’s “Lose Yourself to Dance,” which like “Get Lucky” features Nile Rodgers on guitar and Pharrell on vocals, and “Doin’ It Right,” which costars Panda Bear and has already been mashed up with a recent scene from Mad Men to hilarious results.
At 74 minutes, Random Access Memories is really too long, but it doesn’t necessarily drag. It’s just . . . long. Really, really long. Perhaps in the right setting, and with the right substances, its length would actually be a benefit, but we probably shouldn’t explore this idea any further.
On the same day Daft Punk released Random Access Memories, The National released their sixth full-length, Trouble Will Find Me. While the album didn’t have a historic marketing plan behind it, it was still highly anticipated, no doubt thanks to the success of the band’s 2010 album, High Violet.
But where High Violet contained instant classics like “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Runaway” and fan favorites like “England” and “Lemonworld,” Trouble Will Find Me’s pleasures are less obvious. It’s becoming something of a cliché to call the album “a grower,” but it kind of is. Not that first, second, or third listens to the album are not enjoyable, it’s just that on these initial spins no one song (or two or three songs) jumps out. As an old school record executive would put it, “I don’t hear a single.”
After spending some time with Trouble Will Find Me though, it really does grow on you. Songs like “Demons,” “Sea of Love,” “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” “I Should Live in Salt,” “Slipped,” and “Pink Rabbits” begin to shine. If anything, you start to realize that the “problem,” if we really have to call it that, is that all the songs on the album are strong. There’s no “Mr. November, Part 2” but there’s also no weak link. All 13 of the album’s songs work equally well. This is obviously a good thing, but it might take you a few listens to realize it.
Maybe you don’t care about any of this though. Maybe Savages, and Vampire Weekend, and Daft Punk, and The National are simply not your thing. Perhaps you’re more old school. Well, May had something for you too.
The same Beach Boys who pleasantly surprised us in 2012 released The Beach Boys Live: The 50th Anniversary Tour on the same day Daft Punk and The National put out their new albums. If you were lucky enough to see the reunited Beach Boys during their tour last year, then you know what a great show they put on. Live: The 50th Anniversary Tour isn’t as good as actually being there, but it’s still a fun time.
The album includes 41 songs over two CDs. Let’s stop for a moment to get out minds around that. 41 songs! Only a true Beach Boys fanatic would know all 41 of them (there are a few deep cuts), but more than one of your favorites are definitely included. The early highlight comes right at the end of disc one, as the band moves seamlessly from “Little Deuce Coupe” to “409” to “Shut Down” to “I Get Around,” while disc two climaxes with a one-two punch of “Good Vibrations” and “California Girls.” That’s about as infectious as pop music gets.
As if The Beach Boys weren’t enough, May brought us one more treat: the latest installment of the “Paul McCartney Archive Collection,” a remastered version of the live 1976 release Wings Over America.
Wings Over America marked an interesting time in the musician’s career. Whether he knew it or not, his greatest post-Beatles years were over, but he was still a huge concert draw (as he of course remains). As ludicrous as it seems today, in 1976, it wasn’t too crazy to ask the question “Is it true Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?” The guy had a lot of solo hits. Some of those hits were of course crap (“Silly Love Songs”), but some of them have stood the test of time (“Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Let Me Roll It,” “Jet,” “Band on the Run”). Wings Over America gives the good, the bad, and the ugly, and there are even a few Beatles songs thrown in for good measure. Admittedly though, it’s hard not to get discouraged near the end of disc two, when McCartney asks the audience, “Fancy a bit of rock and roll?” and then proceeds to play “Hi Hi Hi.” Did Paul still know the words to “I Saw Her Standing There” in 1976? That probably would have been a more appropriate choice.
So that was May 2013. Not bad, huh? Add that to what was released between January and April, and if the year ended right now, it would still have 2012 licked. But there are seven more months to go, with new releases from Kanye West, Beady Eye, Primal Scream, Queens of the Stone Age, and Black Sabbath lined up. There are also rumblings about new MGMT and Arctic Monkeys coming before the year is out, not to mention reports that The Black Keys, Pearl Jam, and Arcade Fire have been in the studio. Will anything be better than Modern Vampires of the City or more hyped than Random Access Memories?
Hard to believe either can be topped, but when it comes to greatness and hype, never count Kanye out.