02 January 2014

Best Music of 2013

Well, it’s finally happened. I wrote only two posts last year, the two that I write every year: my Top 10 music list and my Oscars preview/year in film recap. I write these annually not because anyone wants to read them but because it’s tradition. I wish I could say I’d been doing something more interesting or important instead, but unfortunately I’m a graduate student so that’s clearly not the case. The good news is that it’s only the second day of 2014, and I’m already halfway to my output from last year. In fact I’m feeling so confident that I hereby promise to post more times in 2014 than I did in 2013. I’m not saying how many more times, but it will be more.

But we should get on to the list. As you will see, this was not a consensus year for me, which is not to say it was a bad one. Even with a number of high-profile releases leaving me cold, 2013 was incredibly deep, so much so that none of the best-in-a-while albums from the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Boards of Canada, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Queens of the Stone Age, and Sigur Ros even managed an honorable mention. Scanning over the list below, I don’t see much in the way of overriding trends or patterns. My two favorite albums of the year were officially released on the same day back in early April and were never seriously challenged for the top two spots. So from that we can conclude…that April was a good month, I guess.

1. Kurt Vile—Wakin on a Pretty Daze
“Take your time is what they say/And that’s probably the best way to be,” sings Kurt Vile on “Too Hard,” one of the many highlights from his fourth solo album. And the man practices what he preaches, with songs that stretch out to six, eight, ten minutes while seeming to just glide by. Vile’s leisurely tempos and dry, affectless vocal stylings are not for everyone, but I loved this album immediately, and if anything my affection for it has only continued to increase. Wakin on a Pretty Daze seems to bend time itself; it wasn’t long before I had to stop listening to the album while trying to work because it becomes impossible to feel much of a sense of urgency while it plays. But still, the whole vibe is less stoner-chill (though I never, as they say, touch the stuff) than the product of a sense of peace with this whole business of life and death. On “Jesus Fever” from 2011’s Smoke Ring for My Halo, Vile repeated the words “I’m already gone,” as if even existence itself was not to be taken for granted. The entirety of Wakin on a Pretty Daze lives in that state of effortless, hard-earned contentment. Not necessarily stoned, but…beautiful. (“Goldtone” “Too Hard”)

2. The Knife—Shaking the Habitual
I suppose the highest compliment to be paid to the fourth album (and first in seven years) from the Swedish brother-sister duo The Knife is that it lives up to its title. Everything about Shaking the Habitual, from the packaging to singer Karin Dreijer’s vocals to the length of the album, is designed to disrupt standard ways of thinking about and listening to music. I’m not the first to note that the blotchy pink-and-green cover seems deliberately designed to look terrible as a thumbnail. The project scans as a sort of history of the present, right up to the dissolution of the Euro in, oh, let’s say the late 2010s. It’s a portrait of a world dominated by finance and technology, one where the title of “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” passes as a declaration of love. Many people seem inclined to wish “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized” off the album entirely, but its 19-minute drone is no less purposeful than anything else on Shaking the Habitual, another act of confrontation. I would say the only problem is that it’s too easy to skip, but even this requires some action from the listener, some break with passivity. The CD inserts include lyrics on one side and a comic entitled “End Extreme Wealth” on the other, which earnestly discusses strategies for doing just that. The whole project feels a bit like Metal Box, the legendary second Public Image Ltd. aIbum that was originally released as three 12-inch records packaged inside a metal film canister. In 2013, the act of insisting on the primacy of a physical object was provocation enough. (“Full of Fire” “Stay Out of Here”)

3. Tim Hecker—Virgins
Continuing an impressive winning streak, the Canadian electronic musician follows up his 2011 masterpiece Ravedeath, 1972 with a very different kind of record. While Ravedeath was all about technology-induced sonic decay, Virgins is focused on live performance to a degree unprecedented in Hecker’s work. The astonishing “Live Room” features both piano and an instrument called the virginal, an early form of the harpsichord capable of playing only one note at a time. The virgins of the title might also refer to the pure sounds of the virginal, piano, and organ, inevitably corrupted less by Hecker’s post-production manipulations than by the mere act of recording. (“Live Room” “Virginal II”)

4. The Field—Cupid’s Head
Axel Willner makes it four-for-four with his latest—and yes, darkest—album. You can tell it’s his darkest because the cover is black, a marked departure from the yellowish hues that have graced its predecessors. For an artist whose work is so consistent in every sense—in style, quality, presentation, even the amount of time between albums—any such change is obviously significant. This very consistency leaves The Field in perpetual danger of being taken for granted. Each album has built subtly on its predecessor without making a radical break, introducing new rhythmic and textural ideas into Willner’s electronic dance music (the real stuff, not “EDM”). Yet somehow we’ve arrived at a very different place than where we started with The Field’s 2007 debut From Here We Go Sublime. While that album could be described as minimal techno, Cupid’s Head feels like anything but. Droning synths and rumbling bass lines snake their way around the galloping beats of pieces like the opening “They Won’t See Me” and the title track, while the closing “20 Seconds of Affection” achieves a washed-out shoegazer sound. “Black Sea” hums along like a typical Field song for seven minutes before abruptly changing to something more sinister, with Willner’s synthesizers transforming into a cage trapping some unidentifiable yelping sample inside the mix. (“No No” “They Won’t See Me”)

5. Iceage—You’re Nothing
I remember hearing about this young Danish band back around the time of their 2011 debut album. I may have listened to one song before safely filing them away as mere punk revivalists and forgetting about them. For shame. Iceage’s sophomore effort was the best punk rock album—nay, best hard rock album period—that anyone’s made in ages. With 12 songs whizzing by in just 28 minutes, there is speed aplenty, but the real frisson here comes from the band’s sense of atmospherics and singer Elias Ronnenfelt’s vocals and lyrics. The portentous instrumental “Interlude” aside, walls of guitar noise dominate every track, but the loud-fast dynamic occasionally gives way to subtler shadings, often accompanied by ominous phrases like “We’re running out of time” or “Where’s your morals?” You’re Nothing hardly neglects politics, but the elliptical lyrics reach for something deeper, searching out moments of beauty in a world where “nature is violence.” So if you can’t tell the difference between these guys and your average 21st-century punk band, then I don’t know what to tell you. As no less an authority than Iggy Pop put it, they sound “dangerous.” (“Coalition” “Everything Drifts”)

6. Danny Brown—Old
So 31 is considered “old” now, I guess. Good to know. Aging is just one of many subjects on the mind of the Detroit rapper, along with drugs, sex, fatherhood, poverty, and more. Brown’s raspy voice recalls everything from the perils of going out for a loaf of Wonder bread as a child to whatever events might have led to the morning’s hangover. The whole album is a portrait of a life at a self-consciously induced cross roads, of a man who wants to grow up but can’t figure out how. (“Clean Up” “Side B (Dope Song)”)

7. Deafheaven—Sunbather
I made another of my periodic attempts to like metal this year, and it actually kind of took. Among other merits, it’s the only white American musical genre that deals regularly with issues of power, a theme that exists in the music itself as well as in the lyrics. Deafheaven sits somewhere on the edge of the “black metal” subgenre. There are apparently doubts about this classification, but I’ll leave such questions to the experts. The hour-long Sunbather consists of four principal songs ranging from nine to 15 minutes in length, linked by three shorter tracks, one of which includes a reading from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and another of which records a real-life drug deal juxtaposed with a street preacher’s hellfire-and-brimstone sermon. The longer pieces are all prog-inflected epics featuring thrashing crescendos of noise and emotion as well as quieter, more lyrical passages. A little bit of context helps with this one. (“Dream House” “Sunbather”)

8. My Bloody Valentine—mbv
After first hearing this back in February, I remember being glad that I had nearly a year to form an opinion on it. That may not have been enough time. This is a strange record, for reasons only partially related to the 22-year gap between albums for the Kevin Shields-led group. Much of the material sounds like it dates from the mid ’90s (because it does); the lyrics and song titles are cryptic to the point of opacity; most of the best tracks are stacked at the end of the album. Nearly 11 months later, I still don’t quite know what to make of it. But it does prove that, regardless of now influential they’ve been, My Bloody Valentine can still produce music that doesn’t sound quite like anyone else’s. (“In Another Way” “Wonder 2”)

9. Run the Jewels—Run the Jewels
Originally released as a free download, this collaboration between Killer Mike and El-P, who produced Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music (no. 8 on last year’s list), is a major work disguised as a lark, harking back to hip-hop’s golden age without coming across a bit dated or nostalgic. The two rappers seem to share a psychic connection, to the extent that the few guest shots from others, even luminaries like Big Boi, can do nothing but slow down the flow. The overall mode is street-smart battle rap, but even at 10 tracks in 33 minutes, Run the Jewels finds time for some left-field excursions, including the shrooming “No Come Down” and the Prince Paul-assisted comedy of “Twin Hype Back.” Also included: the definitive song of the Obama era. (“DDFH” “No Come Down”)

10. Forest Swords—Engravings
The first full-length album from English producer Matthew Barnes is a palimpsest of chiming guitar lines, dub echoes, trip-hop beats, and heavily processed vocal samples, layered into an instantly recognizable, original sound. The overall effect of this extended mood piece is to place the listener on some mysterious journey, with the guitars acting as our guide across unknown landscapes, even as the vocal samples evoke ghosts struggling to communicate their own secrets. (“Thor’s Stone” “The Weight of Gold”)

Five runners-up (in alphabetical order)

Burial—Rival Dealer
Making a sudden appearance well into December, Rival Dealer is the latest in series of excellent EPs from the dubstep master. While both of Burial’s full-length albums are quite good, he seems to have found the ideal format for his music here. The previous December’s Truant/Rough Sleeper EP, which I didn’t hear in time for Top 10 consideration for 2012, is highly recommended as well. (“Come Down to Us” “Rival Dealer”)

Chance the Rapper—Acid Rap
This alternately buoyant and contemplative mixtape from the 20-year-old Chance the Rapper, out of Chicago, is a reminder of the ever-shortening cycle of influence. It’s hard to imagine this album existing without Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, less than eight months old when Acid Rap first appeared in June. But while Lamar’s album is the work of an adult looking back at his teenage years, Chance is still very much the adolescent, oscillating wildly between childlike exuberance on “Cocoa Butter Kisses” and the grim sobriety of adulthood, as on the chilling second half of “Pusha Man.” (“Chain Smoker” “Pusha Man”)

Mikal Cronin—MC II
This is power pop at its best, the perfect summer soundtrack album. A sometime Ty Segall collaborator, Cronin writes catchy tunes and performs them well. Enough said. (“Weight” “Shout It Out”)

Nicolas Jaar’s Space Is Only Noise was one of the better debut albums of 2011, and this slice of psychedelic techno-blues from the now 23-year-old Jaar and guitarist Dave Harrington achieves a similar mood using a broader palette. (“Freak, Go Home” “Paper Trails”)

Oneohtrix Point Never—R Plus Seven
Largely eschewing the droning soundscapes of his early work or the fractured textures of 2011’s excellent Replica, the latest from Daniel Lopatin is yet another departure for the Brooklyn-based electronic musician. The focus here is on highly specific sounds, with tracks like “Americans” and “Chrome Country” seemingly designed to mimic the tone of synthesizers from the retro-futurist early ’80s. Another winner from an artist who refuses to repeat himself. (“Americans” “Zebra”)

Top 5 songs not on those albums

1. Jason Isbell—“Relatively Easy”

2. Sigur Ros—“Isjaki”

3. Savages—“Husbands”
This all-female British quartet evokes late-’70s postpunk in the best way, bringing a sense of menace and danger in addition to jagged guitar riffs.

4. Waxahatchee—“Swan Dive”

5. Parquet Courts—“Stoned and Starving”
This is what the word epic was invented for.