(We are not, I repeat NOT, finished with 2013 LISTMANIA. How could we finish without BadWolf’s reprise of this list that he has done in years past?)
They said we were crazy.
They said it couldn’t be done.
Well ladies and gentlemen, they were right. We are crazy—but we’ve done it anyway.
Listmania is even bigger than last year (60+ lists as I write this), and lasting into January. What on earth is wrong with us?
NoCleanSinging will resume its normal functioning soon enough, but first we need to get these fucking lists off our desks.
Long-time readers, you know what that means; my favorite article of the year; my top 10 most metal not-metal albums of the year. I’ve rustled up an eclectic mix, featuring anarchic emcees, satanic songstresses, and even a few ex-metalheads exercising the weirder bones in their musical bodies.
Without further ado, ten albums that are totally music, but totally not-metal. You should listen to them anyway.
10) Haim – Days are Gone
Admittedly, there is approximately nothing metal about Haim (aside from bassist Este’s incredible performance face, hence why these three Californian sisters are at the bottom of the list. This record is definitely the breakout pop-rock album of the year, and I would expect to see the sisters Haim splattered all over top-40 radio in 2014. On album, their music hits a bizarre sweet spot between 90’s Santana and 80’s Michael Jackson. Live, however, their percussive, rocky sensibilities come out from under the studio lacquer, and they feel more reminiscent of the Tom Tom Club—see them if you get the chance. What Haim’s music lacks in depth it makes up for in replay ability.
9) Tyler the Creator – Wolf
I’ve shouted Tyler’s name from the rooftops for the past three years, even though the young emcee/producer’s ridiculous internet babble and occasional woman-bashing make him harder and harder to love. When Wolf dropped in March, the hip-hop press rejected it—it’s a long, winding, and surprisingly mellow concept album with a ridiculous summer camp massacre storyline. It took months for me to come around to Wolf, but now I adore it. From the blasting power-anthem of lead single “Domo 23,” to the apocalyptic posse track “Trashwang” (featuring vocals by Trash Talk front man Lee Spielman, natch), Tyler still knows how to bring the ruckus. That said, some of the mellower tracks, like “Slater” and “Colossus”, show off Tyler’s ability to set a mood and tell a story. Multiple listens will yield great results.
8) Jason Isbell – Southeastern
Jason Isbell used to party… a great deal. A cursory listen to Southeastern will show you a man who has been through the hell of dependency and come out stronger, albeit damaged, on the other side. Isbell was once the third songwriter in seminal rock band The Drive By Truckers, who discharged him for his partying, even though he was writing honest-to-god soul crushers like “Decoration Day.”
At this point in time I need to tell you that if you’ve never listened to The Drive By Truckers, you’re missing one of the finest rock bands since the 70’s, and you should go listen to all of their stuff right now.
OK, so this is Isbell’s big post-sobriety album, and it’s a jet-black hour of beautiful-but-depressive folk rock, mostly acoustic and seemingly autobiographical. Isbell frequently shines a small, hopeful light in the dark, but his demons haunt every track of Southeastern. Do you want to cry? Listen to “Elephant.” And then hold someone you love as tight as you can.
7) Johnny Azari – The Tropic of Entropy
Full disclosure: I wrote my first musician profile ever about Johnny Azari, a blues and folk-rock guitarist from NYC (veteran of glam-metal group The Dirty Pearls), as well as poet, philosopher, and all-around professional badass. I’m proud to call him a friend, and even helped him book a gig on the solo tour he embarked on earlier this year.
All of that aside, Azari’s 2013 solo album—a completely independent and free-to-download affair—is a caterwauling beast of a record. Azari’s lyrics harken back to classical mythology, and also to esoteric subjects, which inject a little class into his booze-powered hangover blues. Careful listening reveals a little revolutionary philosophy tucked away in the gritty pockets of his songs. Azari’s voice, husky and raw, reminds me of Tom Waits or a later Leonard Cohen. The Tropic of Entropy covers a lot of stylistic ground, from the epic poetics of “O Ye” to the yodeling of “FireRose,” but there’s bound to be one song here that will put a chokehold on you—I know I’ve played the shit out of the slathering bluster that is “Rabid Bitch Blues.”
6) YC the Cynic – GNK
“We all got a goddamn cross to bear,” raps young Bronx native YC on the track “The Heaviest Cross.” Though he’s a young man, YC shows off his old-soul wisdom on his philosophical and introspective hip-hop gem. The beats, percussive and jazzy, have an almost hypnotic effect, as does YC’s occasional lisp and rich, oaky speaking voice. His lyrics, however, are full of political and spiritual vitriol, aimed at young intellectuals on songs like “Know It Alls” and at god himself many times (“God Complex,” “Being God”). My one complaint is that YC seldom puts the pedal to the metal, but occasionally — such as the jaw-dropping album centerpiece “Molotovs at Poseidon” — GNK reaches a fiver pitch, and when it does it’s one of the strongest hip-hop albums of the year. Shamefully, most of the hip internet press slept on it, but those people don’t know who they’re fucking with.
5) Chelsea Wolfe – Pain is Beauty
I have the biggest crush on Ms. Wolfe. Can you blame me? She’s beautiful and a class-act songwriter who’s down with emotions and black magic. If you’re reading this, Chelsea, let me take you out on a date. I’ll even take your last name and write as BadWolfe!
Personal biases aside, Wolfe is a prolific songwriter, releasing an album every twelve months for the past four years, each to increasing press attention both inside and outside the metal sphere (Wolfe has some connection with the cult-satanic axis of The Ajna Offensive). But none of her prior albums has had the push of Pain is Beauty, her most clear and eclectic release to date. Wolfe sings in a subdued, melodious fashion, seldom focusing so much on individual syllables, much like her obvious influences in The Cocteau Twins, or Dead Can Dance. It’s not an easy style of music to love, but in the right head-space it carries all the shamanic mystique of post-black metal. “We hit a Wall,” the only obvious single on the disc, is an ideal place to start, but it doesn’t hold a satanic candle to mid-point highlight “Destruction Makes the World Burn Brighter.”
Actually, Ms. Wolfe is in the middle of a tour (which of course is not coming near me) supporting…
4) Queens of the Stone Age – Like Clockwork
Josh Homme, once the mastermind behind classic stoner metal outfit Kyuss, found mainstream success in the early aughts with Queens of the Stone Age. After a six-year hiatus, he revived the Queens (on legendary indie label Matador no less), with contirb unions from Dave Grohl, Trent Reznor, and Sir Elton John (!?), and released Like Clockwork. It’s the most low-key and mellow album Homme’s ever penned. As such, I felt lukewarm on it at first, but give the album a few listens and it will reveal itself as one of the finest hard rock discs of recent memory. The entire first side of this album burns through an incredibly solid set of singles — “I Sat by the Ocean” feels like the halfway point between The Beatles and AC/DC, with a hint of Eliminator-era ZZ Top; while “My God is the Sun” comes with the frantic freak-out quality of Rush but with early Metallica riffs. The second side, heavier on the piano and lighter on guitar… leaves a bit to de desired, honestly. Or maybe I’ve yet to uncork its secret contents. Still, this is a monster of a hard rock album, well worth a few spins.
3) Man’s Gin – Rebellion Hymns
Erik Wunder, multi-instrumentalist, drum prodigy, and songwriter, has done it again. Wunder is best known in this corner of the internet as half of black metal behemoths Cobalt, but his solo-ish folk rock project Man’s Gin is, realistically speaking, just as excellent a band. The second Man’s Gin record, Rebellion Hymns, prominently features a burning keyboard on the cover, and for good reason. Piano, not acoustic guitar, leads Wunder and friends through a set of songs sporting lusher, and more intricate, arrangements than before. The expanded sound palate blooms on songs like “The Shores of Sicily,” which sinks into a dismal tango with backing vocals from ex-Swans songstress Jarboe. Lyrically, however, it’s more of Wunder’s usual tears-in-your-beer-plus-existential-despair fare, albeit with a greater focus on imagery. Together, the psychedelia and lyrics make for an album to get lost in and explore. At this point I’m as much a fan of Wunder’s solo work as his contributions to metal. Also, stick around for a hilarious cover of The Beatles’ “Let it Be” at the end of the record.
2) Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels
Last year, my top 10 not-metal list was dominated by two artists: LA-based emcee Killer Mike, and New York producer/rapper/ne’er-do-well El-P. Each had a guest spot on the other’s (excellent) album. This summer, the two dropped a collaboration album as Run the Jewels (it’s free, by the way), and for a half hour of hip-hop, it’s an absolute monster. Taking a page out of Busta Rhymes’ book, Run the Jewels want one thing from you — to break your motherf***ing neck. Both emcees, talented in their own rights, bring out the best (and I mean the worst) in one another, playing a constant game of bad cop vs. worse cop. El-P’s beats are full of digital sludge and speedy drum lines, making for a roller coaster ride both noisy and catchy. Experientially, this is about the closest I have come to a hip-hop Reign in Blood, from the breakneck opener (“Run the Jewels”) to the dramatic, jaw-dropping closer (“A Christmas Fucking Miracle”). Run the Jewels feels both complete and intense, and leaves me thirsty for more. Run the Jewels 2 is coming this year, but you’ll have to pay for it, so get on this quick.
1) The Weeknd – Kiss Land
I didn’t see this one coming. At no point in time would I expect that an artist recommendation from my little sister would make my non-metal album of the year, but here I sit, having listened to Kiss Land more than virtually any other release this year with the exception of Surgical Steel.
The Weeknd, a dark and progressive R ‘n’B artist from Toronto, captivated me with the juxtaposition of his self-destructive worldview and his angelic singing voice. The Devil and God rage inside his heart. Born Abel Tesfaye, the Weeknd rose to prominence two years ago under the tutelage of mainstream pop star Drake (whom I despise) after three free mixtapes of his made waves on the blogosphere. Oddly enough this, his debut album, got mixed reviews when it dropped back in September.
Of course, I feel Kiss Land is a masterpiece. Succinctly, the record sounds like a Depeche Mode and Michael Jackson collaboration: Abel’s falsetto could crack glass, while his arrangements consist of throbbing synthesized hums and buzzes over bass-heavy percussion. The mood comes across haunted, both by his emotional turmoil and his bad behavior. My favorite example of his antics comes from the title track, a two-acted Prog ‘n’ B epic:
“All I want is that smoke, give me all of that smoke / Last week was my rough week, I’m still drippin’ down from my nose / And I don’t know how to drive, I make my driver get high / But If he goes under that 110, believe my driver get fired.”
These tales of drug-adled debauchery come with creepy vocal samples and numerous references to Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner; for example, the last song is called “Tears in the Rain.” Overall, this kind of debauched, creep-tastic take on a played-out genre is exactly the kind of thing music needs in 2013, and this upcoming year.
…though it ain’t nothing to relate to.