JOPLIN, Mo. — On this first Friday of 2014, I look back on my favorite albums of 2013 and remind everyone that people who grouse that music isn't good anymore just aren't paying attention.
1. Vampire Weekend: 'Modern Vampires of the City'
The first time I heard Vampire Weekend's astonishing third album, via an iTunes preview, I knew it would be my favorite release of the year.
For decades bands have emulated "Pet Sounds," releasing pale imitations of Brian Wilson's pocket symphonies. Like trying to recreate the Dutch painter Veermer's masterpiece "Girl With a Pearl Earring" by focusing on just the earring, we've endured countless "Pet Sounds" homages that reduce the Beach Boys to "vocal harmonies, orchestral swells, weird instruments."
Vampire Weekend has made a modern "Pet Sounds" that sounds nothing like "Pet Sounds."
The band takes the same approach Wilson did: writing pop compositions rather than songs, never settling for a conventional approach, ensuring each track possesses its own unique sound, always maintaining warmth and melody. Frontman Ezra Koenig even updates the "teenage symphony to God" angle, as he struggles throughout "Modern Vampires of the City" with mortality, faith and the terrifying narrowing of adulthood.
"The result," I wrote earlier this year, "is a beautifully weird pop album, colored by a blending of discursive musical influences, from hip-hop to '70s pop to world music, all filtered through Vampire Weekend's distinct sensibility." Or, in other words, it's a top-to-bottom masterpiece.
2. Kanye West: 'Yeezus'
"Yeezus" begins with an alienating industrial squall, and that thrilling toxicity, both musical and lyrical, never abates for the next 40 minutes. The more I listen to "Yeezus," the more convinced I am that there's a deliberate vision guiding even in its crassest, seemingly thoughtless moments.
West, on the verge of fatherhood while making "Yeezus," seems intent on exposing and critiquing the thumping tarred black heart of late capitalism, while simultaneously realizing that same tell-tale heart beats inside himself -- an epiphany that terrifies him. (Check the screams and horror-movie effects throughout.) For where else could Kanye West be a god except America?
In a recent interview, West said "Yeezus" was his "Nebraska," and his next album would be his "Born in the U.S.A." I can't wait.