FINALLY! My fellow Wastelanders, we have arrived at the official, final, spectacular installment of The Classy Award Countdown of 2013! At the end of this article, we will have finally discovered what the best album of 2013 is, was, and always will be. The Classy Award is not a GRAMMY Award; it’s far more personal, a tad more developed, and willing to include the popular and the obscure. Hopefully you all have enjoyed this ride as much as I have. It’s been a blast and now, it’s time to go out with a bang!
#5: Kanye West: Yeezus
Released: June 18th
Kanye West has always been one to outdo himself. And actually, on Yeezus, he sort of fails to outdo himself. Granted, it is leaps and bounds better than Watch the Throne or Cruel Summer, but it can’t compare to 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, arguably the best album he’s ever made.
Yeezus is definitely good: why else would it possibly be this high? Combining acid house, industrial music, and Daft Punk-influenced dance grooves, West actually made something that could be considered a dance album. Granted, if you decided to dance to these tracks, it would probably be a pretty violent looking one. “Black Skinhead,” “New Slaves,” and “On Sight” are all danceable, but damn are they angry. West certainly has an axe to grind here, with the white, rich women, and the people who, well, dislike Kanye West.
Most of the tracks here play out similarly: “Guilt Trip,” “Send It Up,” and “I Am a God” are all pretty similar, but each bring out a new side of West’s potential. “Blood On the Leaves” is one of the best songs he’s ever constructed, with his brilliant use of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” and his excellent auto-tuned scream. And “Bound 2” is actually an excellent beat, even if the lyrics and the video that embodies them is absolute tripe.
Unsurprisingly, Kanye West continues to piss off a great number of people while simultaneously pleasing music critics everywhere, myself included. Yeezus may not be his magnum opus, but it is certainly better than most of the music released this year.
#4: David Bowie: The Next Day
Released: March 8th
He may not have toured, held press conferences, or even really talked about the recording process, but David Bowie made one of the best albums of his nearly fifty year long career as a recording artist. While he has always been famous for creating new styles of rock music, The Next Day is the embodiment of the current alternative music scene as sung by the voice of Ziggy Stardust.
Rather than incorporating a really expansive sound, as he had done with his late 90’s and early 00’s work, Bowie and his producer, Tony Visconti, chose to break down The Next Day into a more simplistic album, and it worked beautifully. Take the title track, with its punk rock attitude and that infamous Bowie sneer in the vocals. Or try the ode to a school shooting, the piano-driven “Valentine’s Day.” Or even the extremely depressing “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die,” which just nails you with dirge-like depression.
Every song on this album is great, and that’s really rare, nowadays, when artist’s make albums for the single’s sake. But this is David Bowie and he doesn’t disappoint. The two first singles, “Where Are We Now?” and “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” combine the 70’s-styled acoustic music that made him famous with a modern alternative twist. “Love is Lost” has that crunchy guitar and powerful Bowie-vocal that just oozes rock ‘n’ roll. And the humor of the situation hasn’t been lost on Bowie: “I’d Rather Be High” and “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” are great rock songs with humorous bits.
The Next Day is easily one of the best albums of Bowie’s long and illustrious career. Any fan of Bowie would be remiss not to give this album a shot. He may be getting older, but an old dog can still throw out some new tricks.
#3: Elton John: The Diving Board
Released: September 13th
Elton John is like a fine wine; he only gets better with age. Sure, classics like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Tumbleweed Connection are still great, even in the 21st century, but The Union (his duets album with Leon Russell) and his newest work, The Diving Board, turn a page in a career that is no longer focused on pop music, as John himself as explicitly said. The Diving Board combines the lush, musical arrangements that have always defined John’s work with the wisdom of old age, something that neither John nor his songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, have ever really tried.
The Diving Board continues the musical journey that John embarked on in 2010 with fellow pianist-legend Russell. It’s a rootsy sound, much like The Band or Little Feat practiced back in the 70’s, only John’s voice furthers the album’s sound tremendously. Rather than pushing himself too hard, John prefers to sing comfortably in his lower range, perfectly balancing the beautiful key strokes and string arrangements that make The Diving Board into a classic Elton John record. “Voyeur” is the perfect example of this; a beautiful piano riff, John’s tuneful vocals, and Taupin’s mature lyrics are top-notch in this, one of the duo’s best songs ever.
The rest of the album is stunningly beautiful. The lead single, “Home Again,” plays like a continuation of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” the song about leaving home only to wind up back there again. His ode to a fallen soldier’s burial, “Ocean’s Away,” is chillingly moving. “Oscar Wilde Gets Out” and “The Ballad of Blind Tom” take the imagery of the 19th century into full swing, both musically and lyrically. “Mexican Vacation” and “Can’t Stay Alone Tonight” are the mature attempts at pop music; you know, the ones that couldn’t hope to top the Hot 100, but deserve it nonetheless. To sum up, this album is truly one of John’s best. If he continues in this fashion, he will soon outshine a good majority of his older material. Here’s to manner more happy years and albums with Sir Elton John.
#2: Fall Out Boy: Save Rock and Roll
Released: April 12th
Shock shock, surprise surprise. A vocal Fall Out Boy fan puts Save Rock and Roll close to the top of his favorite albums list. Is this bias? Sure, maybe a little bit. But I hold to the fact that, despite my initial reactions, Save Rock and Roll is one of the best albums Fall Out Boy has put out. It may shoot out into the realm of pop music, but the punk rock swagger (or at least as much swagger as they had before) shines through in most of this work.
Take the lead single, “Light’em Up.” It’s certainly not an instrumental-heavy track, since mostly all you can hear are the pounding of Andy Hurley’s drums and a few power chords from Patrick Stump and Joe Trohman, but it actually works as a hit single. It’s no real surprise to me that it did so well. It’s far from the best track on the album, and like usual, it’s the most successful. Their follow-up singles, “The Phoenix” and “Alone Together,” are lyrically more Wentz-like, but musically, they sound far more like Stump’s Soul Punk record. Dance music, combined with pop punk and a militaristic rhythm, makes up the majority of the “hit” songs on this record.
But Save Rock and Roll is so much more than the hit songs. “Miss Missing You” is one of the catchiest hooks in the band’s repertoire, while “Rat a Tat” is one of their most aggressively punk tracks, despite Stump’s soaring chorus. “Just One Yesterday” interestingly introduces a bluesy vibe – similar to the ending of “w.a.m.s.” off of Folie a Deux. “The Mighty Fall,” featuring up-and-coming rapper Big Sean, is one of the best examples of their turn to pop music, also echoed in “Death Valley.” But it’s “Save Rock and Roll,” the anthem that ends all FOB anthems, that secures the brilliance of this album. Beautifully illustrated by Elton John’s harmonies and piano runs, “Save Rock and Roll” is the best example of pop/punk on this record.
Truly, Save Rock and Roll is excellent. Old-school fans that say it just isn’t the same are right: bands mature, their sound expands, and they focus less on the childish aspects of life. Has Fall Out Boy truly succeeded in maturing? Not really, but this is certainly a good start.
#1: Josh Ritter: The Beast in Its Tracks
Released: March 5th
And here we have it, folks! The winner of the Classy Award, 2013 Edition goes to Josh Ritter’s The Beast in Its Tracks. So many of you are probably thinking… Who?
Josh Ritter is a singer-songwriter from Idaho that sees far more success in Ireland than he does back home. With folk, acoustic rock, and shades of classic rock ‘n’ roll, Ritter is the type of musician that, if I had any type of musical talent, I would want to emulate. He’s talented, smart, funny, and witty. And all of that comes across in his music.
The Beast in Its Tracks is a break-up album. From start to finish, Ritter plays out the schizophrenia that is a bad break-up and the recovery of life that happens afterward. Sarcasm, bitterness, sadness, and hope define the lyrics, as I think they should any album that truly embraces the loss of love in its most realistic and brutal moments. Saying that he wears his heart on his sleeve is too light; it’d be more accurate to say that he bears his soul for all to hear. And that soul is insightful, witty, humorous, and whimsical, with just a touch of heartbreak.
Every song on this album is necessary for making this record into something not dissimilar to a concept album. With the dueling lyrics of “A Certain Light” and “Hopeful” back-to-back, it becomes all the more clear that Ritter understands exactly how someone tries to move on after a devastating break up. Both detail the “rebound relationship,” that time in everyone’s life when they date someone new, very briefly, after a much more serious love. The lyricism is utterly perfect; this album is proof that songwriting makes the difference.
But the instrumentation shouldn’t be forgotten either. The acoustic guitar swirls in “New Lover” are beautiful, to say the least, while the ethereal sounds of “Joy to You, Baby” recall the days of the Postal Service. And the simple folk sound of “The Appleblossom Rag” is pure Dylan, but with a prettier voice and less sarcasm.
The Beast in Its Tracks differentiates itself from every other album this year because everything comes together so perfectly to create an interesting, provocative, and honest piece of art. The musicianship, lyricism, and concept of The Beast in Its Tracks are exquisite; Josh Ritter, impossibly, has outdone himself again.
Well, Wastelanders, there you have it. I declare Josh Ritter’s newest album, The Beast in Its Tracks, the best (and therefore, classiest) album of the year. It’s been a fun journey, my fiends, and I hope you all have enjoyed it as much as I have. Until next time, Wastelanders, stay classy!