Thursday, July 28, 2011

Liturgy - Aesthethica

Few bands from the last year have drawn as much scrutiny from the music community as Brooklyn metal act Liturgy. Despite the critical success of their past work, the band has succeeded in the dual tasks of alienating itself from fans of its native genre while cultivating a following in the new indie culture. The former is admittedly not necessarily a Herculean feat; the black metal scene has for years been notoriously inaccessible to outsiders, and little breathing room is typically allowed for bands that attempt to stretch the boundaries of the style. However, that a band as sonically challenging as Liturgy has managed to find a new audience in a crowd that has only recently begun to accept metal as a legitimate musical entity is somewhat more surprising. Given the undeniably pretentious sound of their self-ascribed classification, transcendental black metal, one might expect Liturgy to become mired in the same overdramatic wasteland that has held back progressive metal for so long.

However, Liturgy’s latest release, the infuriatingly-spelled Aesthethica, manages to succeed in spite of all this. The album is comprised of 68 minutes of searing, high-register guitars and unflinching blast beats, featuring plenty of the speed of traditional black metal and none of the trudging grind that characterizes many works of the genre. That’s not to say Aesthethica is an easy listen; the album attacks at full strength from the outset, only rarely letting up from the furious energy of opener “High Gold.” Most of the album seems to burst forth fully developed, and the songs are sometimes more likely to settle into predestined patterns rather than evolve over time. As a result, the album is not always a terribly involved listening experience; one is more likely to appreciate its strengths as they wash over and grow in the ear over time rather than at the first try. Frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s vocals contribute to this attitude of atmosphere over detail. Never shifting away from its incomprehensible shriek, his voice is really more of a textural instrument than a device of musical exposition.

But it is this sense of elevated, nonspecific grandeur that allows Aesthethica to work. Pretentious underpinnings aside, the qualifier transcendental does seem to have some meaning here. Each song bears a feeling of almost colossal ambition, guitars and drums and vocals all striving to reach some unchallenged height with each shift in composition. There’s simply something about this album that feels fraught with a sense of glory, a kind of skyward drive that sends the music charging above the clouds. It feels like a work that knows exactly what it wants do to, made by a band that knows exactly what it wants to be.

Metal fans can and certainly will argue over whether or not Aesthethica is really black metal. The absence of melodramatic darkness will be a detriment for some, and others will take issue with the album’s apparent lack of traditional structure. But arguments of classification are hardly compelling when a band succeeds so readily in defying the standards of a genre that seldom ventures into such wild territory. Its crossover appeal means that Aesthethica could become something of a transitional work for many listeners, something that will draw attention to the often-ignored metal scene. However, it’s just as likely to be overlooked by music listeners because of its origins, and that’s unfortunate, because what Liturgy has created here is more than a mere gateway. It has marked lands all its own, new spaces where light and energy resonate more powerfully than cheap theatrics, and where new possibilities appear at every turn.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Writing Exercise: Dream Descriptions

A few days ago, I stumbled across a writing exercise that suggests you describe a couple of dreams as quickly as possible in as much detail as possible. I'm not sure how I feel about what I came up with, but I figured I'd post them anyway. As it happens, I have a number of recurring dreams that pop up every so often, and I happened to have variations on two of them the past couple nights. They are obviously absurd (especially the second one), but I'm not really interested in interpretation. I just wanted to see what I would get if I tried the exercise. Criticism is more than welcome. Here goes:

Last night:

There is a bus, of which I am either a passenger or the driver. Sometimes both. The bus moves too fast and it’s scaring me, like, seriously freaking me out. It drives down narrow city roads that roll like waves. Sometimes the world seems to undulate; the asphalt rolls up against the bus, but it keeps speeding on. Later, the bus is in a parking structure. There are other cars there, and I think a fuel tanker. I know what’s coming but I can’t stop it. I’m not driving anymore. It’s a man, middle-aged, white, and skinny. He has brown hair and a long face. He looks a bit like Bill Nye the Science Guy. I think he is crazy. He probably is. He’s driving way too fast and there’s no space anymore. The bus skids around the garage until it can’t miss the tanker anymore, and there’s an explosion. I wake up.

Night before last:

I’m in a forest. It’s cold and grey. The ground is moist and soft, and the air is so foggy that it wets my skin. There are huge trees, tops obscured in mist and trunks dripping dew. The forest should feel healthy and alive but it doesn’t. It’s still vaguely beautiful, though. At least there is no wind. The ground between the trees is brown and bare, and my feet twist and catch on the uneven clumps of dirt. It feels like I’m on a slope. It’s not steep, but I’m definitely looking downhill, for now. I’m walking between the trees, but I don’t know where I’m going. I’m wearing a watch, a black digital one with a rubber band that pulls at the hair on my arm. I look at the watch. It says something very precise, like 11:57 AM in flashing black digits. When I see the time, I realize that I am terribly late for something. Not the kind of late that you can play off by saying you were stuck in traffic or your car wouldn’t start or something harmless like that. It’s the kind of late where you know you overslept, and you’re going to be way too late to get away with it and you’re going to fucking get it. I turn and run, at first downhill but then uphill, like the ground is a seesaw that suddenly swings the other way. I’m trying to run but I’m wearing shoes I’m not used to, they’re heavy and I keep tripping on roots. I’m not running fast enough and there’s no way I’m going to make it on time. I wake up and check the time. It’s only 7:14 AM and I have time. I go back to sleep.

I’m on a hillside again, but this one is different. I can see down the slope for miles. There is a cobblestone road that weaves down between mounds of green and brown. The colors are pretty and bright but somehow flat and without texture, like someone spilled paint and just let it dry instead of brushing it. There are low brown fences, like the ones they put around pastures. It’s a beautiful day; the sky is blue and dry and I can see the sun when I shield my eyes just right. When I look up the hill behind me I can see thick patches of trees, with a few gaps through which I can see brown ground and more sky. For a few minutes, things are warm and peaceful and beautiful. I look downhill one more time. I begin to feel uneasy. The leaves twitch restlessly. I know there’s something behind me. I don’t want to look but I think I won’t live if I don’t, so I look. In a clearing of trees stands a huge dinosaur, looking away from me, for now. My pulse triples, and I turn downhill to run, hoping it won’t see me and I will get away. I don’t look again, but I hear a crunch of dirt and leaves and I know it has seen me. I run as fast as I can, but for some reason I’m not moving very fast. It feels like I’m running on like an astronaut. Each step takes an eternity to hit the ground, no matter how fast I push myself. I’m more falling down the hill than running. I turn to look and I see it chasing me. It is huge, and its skin is a dead green, like drying grass in fall. I try to keep running. I feel a primal terror, like a rabbit chased by a wolf. I’m going to be eaten and I can’t do anything about it. There is a short fence in front of me, so I jump over it. I hope the fence will stop it from coming, but it won’t. I’m in the yard of a farmhouse, but I don’t have time to get inside. I don’t even try. I turn and look at the monster. It is upon me before I can gasp in shock. It picks me up in its jaws. My head and chest are inside its mouth. Its tongue is red and wet and huge, bigger than me. It feels like raw chicken meat under my hand. Its teeth are the size of my arm, not sharp but it doesn’t matter because its jaws are too strong and I can’t move. The monster drops me. I look up and see its skin up close. It looks like the dry patches between my thumbs and forefingers. I think it roars at me but I can’t really tell, because it has picked me up again. I lay on the ground while it eats me in pieces. I wake up.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Radiohead - The King of Limbs

Announced out of the blue and arriving one day ahead of schedule, Radiohead’s newest release The King of Limbs seems like an attempt to sneak up and surprise the music community. For Radiohead, this has become par for the course. Like them or not, this is a band with a penchant for the unexpected, both musically and in terms of their reclusive image. The initial novelty of the pick-your-price scheme introduced with In Rainbows has long since worn off, and wisely, no such attention grab has been made here. As a result, the music-listening collective and I are forced to dig in to the music directly rather than distract ourselves with notions of industry-changing gimmicks, effective as they might be.

So, after a week or so of repeated listens, I can’t help but feel a bit confused by this album. Generally speaking, Radiohead seems to have momentarily abandoned the charged instrumentals of In Rainbows for a more electronically-focused approach, similar to the one they used for Kid A. The album’s opener, “Bloom,” feels constricted by Phil Selway’s trademark choppy rhythms, which are as proficient as ever but seem toothless under weak synthesizers and wandering vocals. The cluttered percussion samples of the first two tracks are as close as this album will get to the sound of In Rainbows, but “Bloom” feels like more of a downgrade than an evolution from the previous album’s opener, “15 Steps.” It’s not long, though, before the band switches gears, dropping the mash of rhythms for the more laid-back roll of “Little By Little.” This one is the most seamless blend of Radiohead’s sonic capabilities, mixing electronic percussion under organic melodies in the best hook the album has to offer.

If three tracks in feels like an early peak, that’s because it is. It would be a mistake to skip the rest of the album, but one can’t help but feel like everything tapers off a bit from here. “Lotus Flower,” the literal centerpiece of the album, is Thom Yorke’s best moment on the record. His falsetto is focused and precise here, an improvement over the textural vocals that pervade a good portion of the album. The song is close enough to the top of the slope that it is memorable enough to stand out from the rest of the music here. The pulsing piano chords of “Codex” are sonically gorgeous but lacking in direction or motivation. Beyond that, the album just kind of shuts itself down, running out its brief 38-minutes with two more tracks of pretty music that don’t really add anything substantial to the structure of the record. “Give Up the Ghost” is too subdued and fuzzy for its own good, and “Separator,” though an effective closer for this particular album, just sounds like something we’ve heard before.

And that’s the real problem with The King of Limbs. It is the rare album that will likely be enjoyed more by non-fans than by Radiohead devotees. On its own merits, it is perfectly listenable, and frequently enjoyable. It can be texturally and instrumentally beautiful at times, but there is little here that feels grand or musically daring. There is no tension and no anxiety. It too often sounds like an album put out by an excellent band that sat down and said, “Hey, we haven’t done anything in a while. Want to put out a record?” Radiohead’s characteristic music prowess is certainly here, and for many listeners, that will be more than enough. It’s just hard to see the band’s fans accepting this as an integral part of Radiohead’s catalogue. You just have to decide how it works for you.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Cut Copy - Zonoscope

Speaking from grossly limited experience as a music writer (read: unemployed blogger), it can be difficult to review a band that you know nothing about. This is true of music from all genres, but the effect seems amplified when writing about indie, partly due to the massive influx in popular artists from the genre in recent years. As quickly as the scene grows, so does the range of sounds encompassed under the descriptor, often resulting in combinations of influence that are simultaneously derivative and entirely inventive.

This phenomenon is most recently embodied in Zonoscope, the latest album from Australian indie outfit Cut Copy. In some ways, Cut Copy have here chosen to stick with their guns, following the sonic tropes of their obvious influences. Singer Dan Whitford prominently echoes Joy Division and other early electronic artists, even as far up to the present as LCD Soundsystem. The similarities can be difficult to ignore. Whitford sings with the same wistful tenor as many of his predecessors, but with none of the prerequisite angst and teenaged frustration that characterized so many early electro-pop artists.

It’s a marked similarity, but the resemblances more or less end there. Behind Zonoscope’s vocals lie such a vast array of sonic devices that you can’t help but feel that you’re hearing something entirely new. In “Take Me Over,” Cut Copy provide a lush arrangement of echoing percussion, prominent guitars, and electronic backdrops, all set around one of the best grooves to come out of the scene in recent memory. Next, the pounding drums of “Where I’m Going” lay out the frame for Whitford to do some of his most creative vocal work. He hits his stride here, harmonizing an excellent chorus melody that numbers among the best moments on the album.

That chorus also represents all that is best about the album. Each tune resounds with an enthusiasm for creation that is rare in all forms of music. Track for track, this might be one of the happier albums you’ll hear in months. The songs are almost uniformly upbeat, but in a way that never feels cheesy or less than genuine. For example, “Alisa” is really not much more than a good love song, but it is composed with such clarity and sung with such stylish grace that it becomes something more. The album does occasionally fall too far into its own patterns, as is the case with “Hanging Onto Every Heartbeat.” The track thumps along on the album’s most patient groove, relying on shimmering electronics and strummed acoustic guitars rather than huge dynamic bursts and polyrhythmic explorations. It’s not so much bad as uninteresting, given the immensely animated sound of the album as a whole. It’s a rare miss for an album that is otherwise entirely in charge of its own direction.

Speaking of structure, it’s impossible to talk about Zonoscope without mentioning its closer, the 15-minute electronic excursion that is “Sun God.” Lyrically, the song is nothing spectacular, but the sheer audacity of ending a pop album with a song over ten minutes long should not be ignored. “Sun God” is a trek through the best of Cut Copy’s electronic abilities, an entrancing showcase of pop sensibility and inventive instrumentation. It’s as effective a closer as it is a standalone work, a feat that is admirable in itself, and a testament to this band’s willingness to follow their creative urges. Ultimately, it is the album’s ending that provides its most resounding endorsement: when “Sun God” finally drew to a close my first time through, I just wanted it to keep going. It’s tough to get much better praise than that.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

New Story: Part 2

Here's the latest section. Still needs revision, but I like where it's going. Let me know what you think.

Tomas Barden opened his eyes to the dim light of midday. He raised his head an inch from his thin grey pillow. The sheet smelled like dirt and sweat and dreams unbegun. A breath creaked out between his dry lips. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep again.

Twelve minutes later, a harsh digital chirp sounded next to his head. Tomas glanced at the clock as the chirp accelerated. He forced his feet to touch the floor and reached to deactivate the alarm. Standing in front of his tiny window, Tomas looked out upon the world. The sun was only barely visible in the sky, and the street below was shrouded entirely. The fog was thick today.

He dressed and fed himself. Glancing outside again, Tomas noted that the sun was now completely hidden. He had overslept. He put on a grey rain jacket and prepared to leave. Before opening his door, Tomas paused to look at a photograph hung by the frame with a thumbtack. She was still smiling through brown hair and green leaves. He wondered where.

Tomas opened the door and stepped outside. The fog was thick enough today that he could not see to the other side of the street. He glanced at his watch. He was an hour late. It wasn’t safe to drive on a day like this, but he didn’t really have a choice, so he walked to the curb and unlocked his car. It was a 2009 Toyota Camry. How it had survived this long was beyond comprehension, but here it stood, defiant, if shabby, on the street before his doorstep. So many of its exterior parts had been replaced with scraps that it looked more like a kid’s half-painted model than a working vehicle.

The streets were mostly empty, thanks to the fog. Before he drove away from his home, Tomas tapped a device on the dash with a jury-rigged digital clock face. A small antenna sat on top of the instrument, pointing directly upward, seeking for objects in the sky above the fog. With a faint buzz, the screen lit with dim green zeroes. Nothing.

The drive was easy enough. The building where Tomas worked was a standard modern office, metallic grey on the outside with no windows. It was a small building, set on the fringes of a large cluster of buildings like it. The towers increased in size towards the middle, where a single massive cylinder loomed above the rest of the city. Unlike the boxes around it, the tower was smooth and black, with silvery windows stretching up to its top above the haze. Its walls seemed to shift around the glance of the eye, contorting and bulging out of focus. It looked weird, out of place among the standardized rectangles that surrounded it, as if it had drawn them together like scraps to a magnet.

Tomas left the car a block down from his building and walked to one of the side doors. He was almost two hours late by now, and he knew he would have to sneak in to avoid being disciplined. He entered the building and walked directly to the staircase in the corner of the lobby. Seeing no one on the stairs, Tomas began to sprint, taking the stairs in threes until he reached the twelfth floor. Panting, he stopped beside the entrance to the floor and leaned against the wall to compose himself. He glanced at his watch, trying to remember when they checked the floors for attendance. 9:58. Shit, he thought. Too close.

Suddenly, the air passing in and out of Tomas’ lungs changed. It grew tense, vibrating within his chest and around his face. Invisible molecules trembled violently, and his skin began to shiver, agitated by a gentle but persistent itch. Tomas pressed himself against the wall. He held his breath. He tried to stop the blood from pulsing through his veins. The vibration intensified into a clutching pressure, and he felt his skin turn white and then begin to bruise in spots, like a piece of fruit abused by a careless hand. He squeezed his eyes shut and prayed that it would not see him.

Finally, the vice loosened and the air calmed itself. Tomas opened his eyes and allowed himself to breathe again. Uttering a sigh of relief, he opened the staircase door and slid through onto the office floor, collapsing in the chair of his narrow stall.

Friday, January 7, 2011

New Story: Part 1

This is the introduction to a new story I've been working on. I have more coming, so let me know what you think.

When he was young, the man saw a shooting star streak across the night sky. He had been driving down an empty stretch of highway, carrying his girlfriend home. Tired and distracted, the young man stared into a patch of space above the horizon. The spot of light coalesced into existence and streaked across the unmarred navy heavens, disappearing without trail or trace. Years later, the man remembered what he felt at that sudden coincidence. Things were normal then. But he remembered the feeling, seeing that flying bulb. A sudden heaviness on his heart. An unconscious clutch of fear, unbearable dread that his rational mind soon replaced with the appropriate awe and wonder. Looking at his girlfriend, he realized that she saw the light too, and felt comforted by the shared gasp and surprised laughter.

Things are different now. When he goes outside at night into the vast indigo waste there is no upward stare. He does not hope for a flash and a streak of white. And when he looks up at long last, he sees the falling shards of heaven and can only remember when they meant just a gasp and a wish.

The first cases were barely noticed. They happened too far apart to be considered unusual. They sometimes happened around cities, but most of the cases occurred over oceans, empty fields, frozen wastes. A few scientists spoke up, but only to note a small rise in reported sightings in the past five, ten years. When someone happened to actually see one, they reacted normally. They told their friends and families the next day, and went on with their lives.

It wasn't until twenty years after the first cases that people began to notice the difference. Within a month's time, sightings increased a hundredfold. More were happening above cities, and more people began to wonder. When it became clear that something was happening, people started talking. They talked at first like they weren't afraid, with feigned scientific interest. Soon though, voices became hushed, and the cases became the default topic when people ran out of distractions. They talked about their own sightings, and how afraid they had been. They talked and admitted their fear because if everyone feared it then it was alright to be afraid.

Still, few people took the cases seriously. The impacts, when they actually happened, didn’t seem to have any effect on the land or the people living nearby. The objects were rarely found, and when they were, they were so small that it seemed impossible that they could be dangerous.

The world changes every day. On July 12, 2036, the world changed again. It began in the dusk hours around the globe, just as the light from the sun faded to a deep violet and the stars began to shimmer. Among the stationary points of light streaked small white lines that fell between the stars like raindrops between leaves. At first there were just a few, appearing every few minutes, then every ten seconds. By midnight, the news stations were reporting a surprise meteor shower, more intense than any other on record. As darkness moved across the planet, the meteors continued to fall, cascading over the unsuspecting Earth as onlookers watched in awe and mounting fear. Scientists had no explanation; it was later discovered that the meteors had been mostly concealed in the shadow of the moon. Strangest of all, however, was that the objects did not seem to make contact with Earth as a few of the early cases had. Scientists assumed that they simply burned off in the atmosphere, like any other asteroid would. That day is known as Cataclysm Zero. No physical consequences were observed, but the event became the topic of concern for the media worldwide. Scientists were disturbed by their inability to anticipate an event of such magnitude. People were scared for a while, but eventually forgot their fear and went on with their lives.

That was two years ago. The world has changed.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Top 10 Albums of 2010

10. The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang

One of the most surprising albums of the year, The Gaslight Anthem’s American Slang is a passionate, heartfelt ode to nostalgia, a collection of rough, throaty barroom rockers without pretension or gimmick. The guys from New Jersey are so powerfully connected to their roots that their music runs the risk of being derivative, even imitative; even writing about them is difficult without namedropping their obvious Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison influences (see?). But this set of twangy, contemplative tunes so keenly recreates the best parts of the band’s heroes that they manage to make their own meaning, even if you never quite clicked with the likes of the Boss. Between bouts of air guitar and toe-tapping, you can’t help but wish for the old days along with the boys, even if, as Gaslight suggests, those days weren’t all that great anyways.

9. Beach House – Teen Dream

Here is an album with the strange power to deceive through simplicity. Everything here is slow and lilting, seemingly written according to a formula of lazy beats and cloudy synth lines. Listen closely, though, and you find layers upon layers of texture and rhythm, all creating a sonic portrait under which Victoria Legrand sighs with grace. Her vocals actually take a back seat here, lying down under the weight of Beach House’s rich musical signature. Dream-pop leanings aside, there is an intense discomfort at work in these songs, seeking a fulfillment that always seems on the edge of vision. On “Real Love,” Legrand sings, “There’s something wrong with our hearts.” Doesn’t get much more honest than that.

8. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast

The Florida outfit’s shark-adorned debut album Astro Coast takes classic surf rock and pushes it into the bass age. From the beginning, the album rides guitar riffs as thick as marble, punctuated by screeching solo lines and the heavily echoed singing of frontman John Paul Pitts. His vocals feel so modern that they feel almost out of place among the power chords and driving rhythms that back them, but strangely, Astro Coast never seems conflicted or misguided. Immediately listenable and deceptively deep, these tracks have an upbeat presence that is largely absent in most of the year’s best (and worst) music, and chances are you’ll want to swim right to right to the album’s end and come back again.

7. Sleigh Bells – Treats

Speaking of musical conflicts, this Brooklyn-based band’s debut is a doozy. Sleigh Bells is the musical child of pop singer Alexis Krauss and hardcore guitarist Derek Miller, and it sounds exactly like you would expect an album of such disparate influence to sound. From the outset, Treats overwhelms the ear with pounding drums and overdriven guitars, set to a vaguely poppish beat that wouldn’t be out of place in a radio rap tune. The calamity of the opener, “Tell Em,” is so vicious that it seems almost unsalvageable, save for Krauss’ vocals. Amongst the noise, her chants are just beautiful enough to soften the blow without stopping the punch entirely. She maintains this balance throughout the album, keeping that synth-rock feel with just a touch of pop vocal sensibility. It’s a truly unique sound, making it one of the most original albums of the year.

6. Cee-Lo – The Lady Killer

In truth, this album is nearly impossible to review with any kind of honesty. The success of its lead single, the hilarious and deservedly sensational “Fuck You,” could tempt many to ignore the album the Cee-Lo created around it. Listening to the record though, one can say that this would be a terrible mistake. On The Lady Killer, Cee-Lo prudently takes a moment to warm up the listener before jumping into “Fuck You” with the appropriately titled “Bright Lights Bigger City,” a funky anthem based on a chorus synth line that is nothing short of massive. Later, Cee-Lo cedes the spotlight to Lauren Bennett in “Love Gun,” which attempts and nearly succeeds at replicating the defiance and sexual pulse of “Fuck You.” Cee-Lo deftly brings out the funk on The Lady Killer, melding his feel for pop hitmaking with his classical soul. Surprisingly, he often abandons the romantic persona of the album’s hit, but the music is so damn good that you can’t help but love him anyway.

5. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor

My strategy when writing lists like this, and reviews in general, is to listen to the album that I’m reviewing while I write. Sadly, I seem to have hit a roadblock. That is the virtue of Titus Andronicus’ sophomore album, The Monitor. It has a pure rock ‘n roll attitude that refuses to let me focus on anything else. The album’s opener, “A More Perfect Union,” may be the best rock song of the year. It begins with a snippet of an Abraham Lincoln speech, introducing the album’s Civil War theme, and then launches into a barrage of rolling drums and buzzing guitars. When vocalist Patrick Stickles rouses the troops with his slightly off-key holler, one wonders how he got to be a singer, and how this band can possibly be so damned good. Now, let me get back to rocking.

4. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

And now we come to the album that I’ve been afraid to review for weeks. Out of his depression, online rants, and awkward television interviews, Kanye has managed to come up with the most challenging set of his career and of the year. True, Kanye’s music has lately become so difficult to separate from his questionable persona that anything he releases is likely to be confusing, at best. Behind all the attention-whoring, though, Kanye remains an incredibly talented hip-hop artist. In terms of production, this album is wildly different from his previous work, using less blatant sampling in favor of a darker atmosphere. Technically, Fantasy is far from Kanye’s best rap work; his rhyming is often ragged and unpleasant, forcing the listener to turn to his supporting cast, which is considerable. Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Pusha T, and Nicki Minaj all make notable contributions, filling the gaps where Kanye himself seems unable to say what really needs to be said. Despite her infuriating public presence, Minaj proves herself an extremely capable rapper on “Monster,” the album’s rap-battle ego-fest. However, everything on both ends of the album seems to lead to one point. “Runaway,” Kanye’s self-conscious tribute to assholes, is by far the best track here, combining a brilliant verse by Clipse MC Pusha T with surprising humility from Kanye. It’s a stark moment on an album that may not even be Kanye’s best album ever, but is certainly his most memorable.

3. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening

For a humble-looking nerd, James Murphy sure is tricky. In “Dance Yrself Clean,” the album’s opener, he taps and clicks with almost frustrating patience, waiting over three minutes before launching into the electro-pop beast that is the next six minutes. This Is Happening is strange in its organization alone, with all but one song clocking in at over five minutes, and three at over eight. Despite its generous track times, the album is starkly minimalist for most of its duration, featuring synth patterns that sometimes sound like they were made with a cheap loop creator. Give him time, though, and Murphy will make you rock out in original and unexpected ways. The crushing pulse of “One Touch” roars with unstoppable energy, rocking so hard it will make you wish it kept going past the nearly eight minutes that it bores into your skull. Have no fear, though; Murphy provides plenty here to get you dancing. Just don’t let him fool you.

2. Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty

More than three years overdue, OutKast MC Big Boi has finally released an album that proves he is just as worthy of the spotlight as his somewhat crazier counterpart. Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty is the best hip-hop album in years, more creative than anything OutKast ever did and more straight-up entertaining than anything anyone did this year. The album is produced by a variety of guests along with Big Boi’s own team, leading to a varied mix of sound that constantly keeps the listener guessing. Chico Dusty is never predictable, always good, and often brilliant. Three songs form the album’s strongest set, starting with “Shutterbugg,” the best hip-hop track of the year. Based on a chugging vocal loop, the song leans and pops with funky vigor, while Big Boi brings his signature rhyming style between a sick chorus line. “Tangerine” is darker, dirtier; a distorted guitar line reverberates over tribal drum samples that bounce with filthy energy. “Hustle Blood,” the most surprising track on the album, features a shockingly good performance by Jaime Foxx and deeply sexy production from Lil’ Jon, booming around a chorus so soulful it’ll reverberate for years.

1. The National – High Violet

And so we arrive here, at an album released by a band that is notoriously difficult to praise. Unlike many of the year’s best albums, High Violet is neither particularly creative nor immediately approachable. Had it been released sooner than a month or two ago, it may not have cracked my top ten. That’s just how the National are. Their music grows on you, creeping up from unremarkable mediocrity to something that is crushingly honest and deeply evocative. Their last album, Boxer, holds a place very dear to me, and it is difficult to compartmentalize High Violet and recognize its virtues apart from the latter album. After months of struggling, it now feels like an album that is altogether more cohesive, layered, and mature than Boxer. Unlike its predecessor, High Violet is a unified statement, commenting on the nature of manhood in the modern age, with all its expectations and disappointments. Despite its subdued tone, it manages to feel ambitious. “Terrible Love” opens with slow grandeur, only to fall into the bitter reflection that is “Sorrow.” Singer Matt Berninger hums with depression that feels all too genuine: “I don’t wanna get over you.” Later, his voice expands to encompass the scope of the album’s centerpiece, “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” a driving track that captures all the stress and complication of adulthood when Berninger laments, “I still owe money, to the money, to the money I owe.” High Violet never rises out of its lyrical doldrums, speaking in “Lemonworld” of class confusion and social fatigue, and trying to fake adulthood in “England.” Taken together, High Violet is sometimes uplifting, always heartbreaking, and so, so, beautiful.