2013: The ‘Year of the Establishment’

| Music Editor

It’s been a great year for music. So was last year, and the year before that. Next year will be a great year for music, as will the year after. With the seemingly infinite number of songs released every 12 months, there’s bound to be a number of great releases that find their way to the ears of casual listeners and critics alike. But if every year is “great,” how do we distinguish them? What separates one year’s instant classics from another’s? This is why we try to construct narratives around the year’s output. Any attempt to do so is inherently subjective and bound to oversimplify the wonderfully diverse array of sounds available at any given moment—still, we try. Because it’s fun. Because it allows us music nerds to reflect upon our obsessions and give them meaning. It’s the same reason we attempt to squeeze dozens of truly special records into top 10 lists. Yet some insist that these exercises reduce great works of art to numbers, diminishing them in the process.

To those who make such assertions, I say: calm down. No amount of ranking can take away the special bond we form with our favorite albums. In fact, top 10 lists only give them more meaning by allowing us to build consensus around those songs that grow richer with the 100th listen. Lists and score aggregators (like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes) elevate that which miraculously unites listeners above the clutter that characterizes our over-saturated generation. Similarly, over-arching narratives put it all in context, allowing us to pinpoint exactly what was special about any given year.

With that in mind, I declare 2013 the Year of the Establishment. I don’t mean that in a business sense. Streaming services and file-sharing sites continue to reduce the influence of the major label and physical media to the point of panic. Album sales are lower than ever, and it seems labels simply don’t know what to do about it. No, when I say this is the Year of the Establishment, I’m referring to the artists themselves, the ones who have proven themselves to be among the greatest of the past 20 years, the ones we were expecting great things from when they announced new releases.

Yes, there were scores of new faces (Rhye, Chance the Rapper, Autre Ne Veut, A$AP Ferg, Kelela and many, many more) that made me excited about the future, but what struck me most was the number of rapturously received comeback albums from artists we weren’t sure we’d hear from again (My Bloody Valentine, Boards of Canada, David Bowie, Dismemberment Plan, Nine Inch Nails, Justin Timberlake, Mazzy Star) and industry veterans burdened with enormous expectations (Drake, Kanye West, The National, Arcade Fire, Deerhunter, Daft Punk). Now, some of these albums were overrated—cough, Daft Punk, cough—but many of them managed to meet, or at least approach, our unreasonably high hopes.

It began with perhaps the least likely comeback candidate in recent memory, the ever-elusive My Bloody Valentine. Twenty-two years ago, MBV mastermind Kevin Shields released “Loveless,” a modern classic whose legend has grown exponentially in the years since. A follow-up was rumored for the next two decades, with Shields periodically asserting it was nearly finished. But time and again, he was wrong. The album eventually became a running joke amongst fans, many of whom believed it would never see the light of day.

Last November, Shields promised he would release an album by the end of the year. Yet once again, December passed and we still had no proof of the record’s existence. Shields had done it again, exasperating a perpetually frustrated fan base. Most of January passed before Shields told fans on tour that indie rock’s holy grail would become a reality in just a few short days. Finally, on Feb. 2, it arrived. It was almost surreal. But then came one final question: would it be any good? Would the years of pent-up anticipation all be for naught?

Thankfully, they weren’t. Though not as transcendently punishing as “Loveless,” “m b v” picked up where its predecessor left off. The textures were still thick as molasses; the guitars still coated in an army of effects pedals, the reverb still echoing into oblivion. Once again, we were reminded that no one does shoegaze quite like My Bloody Valentine. This was a minor miracle, kick-starting 2013 in high fashion. Little did we know, it was merely the beginning of an astounding string of surprise returns.

Next came David Bowie, with Justin Timberlake following just a week later. Timberlake’s year was among the most fascinating of any artist, but not in the way he intended. Twelve years removed from his boy-band days, Timberlake has grown into a cultural icon by flaunting his staggering versatility. Not only can he sing, dance and craft some of the sharpest singles of the young millennium (with the help of pop auteur Timbaland), he can be funny. So funny, he almost single-handedly kept “Saturday Night Live” relevant. It wasn’t fair. He was good at everything, and the world took notice. By the time he announced his return to music, anticipation had reached a fever pitch.

Though “The 20/20 Experience – 1 of 2” was generally well-received, it left a lingering sense of disappointment. Yes, Timberlake could still write catchy vocal hooks, and Timbaland could still make synths sound as if they were beamed directly from outer space, but the laser-sharp focus of their best songs had been dulled by their years apart. Each of Timberlake’s previous efforts (“Justified” (2002) and “FutureSex/LoveSounds” (2006)) had yielded a handful of true showstoppers, songs that cut like knives through the pop landscape. Sure, “Mirrors” is about as good as an eight-minute extended simile can get, but will it feel as vital as “Cry Me a River” or “SexyBack” five years from now?

By the time Timberlake-mania had begun to subside, he returned with his second full length of the year, “The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2.” While not nearly the stinker many have claimed it to be, it became clear there was no need to stretch “The 20/20 Experience” into two full albums. After months of relentless promotion, fatigue finally set in. What should have been a coronation of Timberlake as pop’s king became a lesson in tampering expectations.

The rest of the year saw a number of other satisfying comebacks—The Dismemberment Plan’s fizzy synth-funk, Nine Inch Nails’ pinpoint-precise industrial goth missiles and Mazzy Star’s slow-motion dream pop—but it was clear these artists were no longer at the heights of the their powers. While it was nice to have some old favorites back, one couldn’t help but measure these new records against the masterpieces they had produced in the past. Needless to say, former glories overshadowed even the best of the comeback albums. If anything, it made even clearer to whom this year belonged: our current crop of future legends.

Once an artist has released a career-defining album, it’s tough to avoid disappointment with subsequent releases. But time and again this year, my most anticipated LPs ended up among my favorites. This was due in large part to the creative restlessness the artists behind these albums displayed. Though Kanye West, The Flaming Lips and Arcade Fire had little to prove, by the end of 2013, they’d staked their claims among the all-time greats.

And no one had less to prove this year than West. After the unmitigated triumph of 2010’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” West could have ridden off into the sunset—a lock to be the defining artist of his generation. He’d spent the last decade two steps ahead of hip-hop and rhythm and blues, shaping each in his megalomaniacal image. But, as “Yeezus” proved, he’s not finished yet. Full of rage and spite and fury, “Yeezus” presented West as the sum of his worst qualities. He dared us to hate him, but we couldn’t because the sounds emitting from our headphones were so darn invigorating. Metallic clicks and clangs crashed into each other with terrifying ferocity, leaving a flaming heap of rubble from which West emerged, a god among men. There’s simply no one else in popular music who would have the gall to set a Billie Holiday sample against a thundering beat from trap duo TNGHT or think to feature an Auto-tuned Chief Keef and Justin Vernon on the same song. But West did. Because he’s fearless. Because he can’t help but be better than everyone else. Because he’s a genius.

The Flaming Lips have demonstrated similar courage in a career nearing its third decade. After spending much of the early 2000s polishing away their eccentricities, they decided to reverse course with their last two LPs: 2009’s “Embryonic” and this year’s “The Terror.” The Flaming Lips are at their best when they let their freaks flags fly, and “The Terror” does just that. Dense and insular, it sounds like the comedown from a bad acid trip. Static bursts and gurgling synths abound in songs that chase their own tails into black holes. It’s a heavy listen but an immensely rewarding one. This is not the type of record most bands make 27 years after their debut, but then again, The Flaming Lips are not like most bands. These are the same guys who put out an album meant to be played on four stereos simultaneously and have released singles on USB drives implanted in edible gummy fetuses. They’re genuine weirdos, and we’re lucky to have them.

Though not as eccentric as The Flaming Lips, the indie rockers of Arcade Fire certainly have their quirks (exhibit A: the gaudy costumes and face paint they’ve sported on their current tour). As soon as they announced their fourth album, “Reflektor,” near the beginning of this year, it immediately shot to the top of my list of most anticipated albums, where it remained until its October release. And it didn’t disappoint. From the opening moments of its leadoff titular track, “Reflektor” pulsates with the same life-affirming energy that marked Arcade Fire’s first three records. This is a band whose default setting is bombastic, who could be the most obnoxious artists in music today if they didn’t play with such conviction.

This time around, it took its sermonizing from the church to the disco, dancing the existential despair away until it was replaced by unfettered joy. With references to Greek mythology and several tracks extending well beyond the five-minute mark, “Reflektor” could have been a bloated mess. But co-producer James Murphy helps the band settle into grooves that more than justify their extended lengths. And anyway, what would an Arcade Fire album be without outsized ambition? It shoots for the stars not out of pretension but because it won’t settle for anything less than greatness.

If last year marked the rise of a new generation of hip-hop and R&B stars, this year showed us why our festival headliners are worthy of their stardom. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, but even the best of the comeback albums couldn’t approach the heights scaled by Kanye West or Arcade Fire. They gave us both what we wanted and what we needed—records that will stand the test of time.

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