Sunday, December 29, 2013


It's been ages since I've posted anything, mainly because of an increasingly busy life, but, as Ian Malcolm said, life finds a way. I don't have time for separate posts, unfortunately, so my list will appear in one long post this time. There are other amazing releases that deserve recognition that aren't on the list--Tim Hecker's Virgins, Anthony Child's The Space Between People and Things, Karen Gwyer's Needs Continuum, Darkstar's News from Nowhere, Forest Swords' Engravings, The Black Dog's Tranklements, E.M.M.A.'s Blue Gardens, Pure X's Crawling up the Stairs, Rocketnumbernine's MeYouWeYou, Laura Veirs' Warp & Weft--and I strongly urge you to check them all out, too. Also, there were a number of albums that I never managed to get a handle on or that were disappointing in various ways that I would have expected to end up on this list: Boards of Canada's Tomorrow's Harvest (at times I think I love it, at others it just leaves me cold), Lee Ranaldo and the Dust's Last Night on Earth (dad rock in the worst possible way that got rid of almost everything I loved about Between the Tides and the Times), The Weeknd's Kiss Land (absolutely fascinating because of how unlikable Abel Tesfaye makes himself, but a little lacking in the hooks department), and the Besnard Lakes' Until in Excess, Imperceptible UFO ("People of the Sticks" remains phenomenal, but the album as a whole is a little too comfortable and midtempo for its own good). And now, on to the list!

Albums of the Year 2013

 10. Four Tet, Beautiful Rewind (Text)
The album starts strongly and finishes strongly, but Beautiful Rewind doesn’t quite have the same brilliance as 2010’s There Is Love in You. When it’s on--the rushing jungle of “Gong,” the motorik intensity of “Parallel Jalabi,” the disorienting takes on Four Tet’s wall-of-shimmer that are “Ba Teaches Yoga,” “Crush” (which should be at least twice as long, cutting off as soon as it starts to get really interesting), and “Unicorn,” and the surprisingly poignant “Your Body Feels”--Beautiful Rewind shows off just how good Kieran Hebden is at making a palette that is, in theory, limited seem too expansive to ever run out of new permutations, much like his friend Burial. Unfortunately, the middle stretch of the album (particularly “Kool FM,” “Buchla,” and “Aerial”) feels underdeveloped, lacking focus and relying on repetition that feels more grating than driving, taking the ideas from tracks like “Ocoras” and “128 Harps” from Pink and failing to do anything new with them. A flawed effort, then, but one shot through with, if not greatness, at least very goodness. 

9. Machinedrum, Vapor City (Ninja Tune)
Travis Stewart's last release, Room(s), passed me by. After hearing all the hype I checked it out, but it made no sense to me (I haven’t gone back to try it again, though I probably should). “As a Child,” though, my favourite track from Lone’s Galaxy Garden, convinced me that there was something to all this Machinedrum love. When “Eyesdontlie” dropped, I was enticed by the descriptions that people offered--jungle, footwork, Burial--and I understood them this time. Hearing “Gunshotta” was an entirely different experience. The tools are, at this point in 2013, painfully overfamiliar, but the execution is flawless. I can’t disagree with the assessment that the album is frontloaded, but when I hear the best Boards of Canada song to come out in 2013 (“Center Your Love”) in that first half and still have tracks like “Rise and Fall” (which could’ve stepped off of Black Secret Technology) or the warped, melting pop of closer “Baby Its U” (which in my brain splits the difference between Jai Paul and Jon Hopkins) on top of “Eyesdontlie” to look forward to, I don’t much care. 

8. These New Puritans, Field of Reeds (Infectious)
Nick Southall reckons that the “Talk Talk similarities are over-emphasised in some circles; this is something quantifiably different to that, even if the odd musical moment or the ethos as a whole feels redolent,” and I can sort of get on board with that. If there is Talk Talk here (and let’s not kid ourselves--there is), it is Talk Talk as reimagined by Bark Psychosis. Indeed, Hex (and maybe some of ://Codename: Dustsucker, like “400 Winters” and “Burning the City”) seems the better comparison all around than Laughing Stock. Actually, despite not sounding anything alike, the album that Field of Reeds most reminds me of is Trail of Dead’s Source Tags and Codes. Similarly, Elisa Rodrigues’ vocals on “Dream” (and elsewhere) call to mind Fovea Hex’s Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent project. Field of Reeds is more than good enough to stand on its own merits, though. “The Way I Do” earns the cliché of dreamy--I can’t imagine how it couldn’t haunt your sleep for weeks after you hear it--and it opens the album with a fairly conventional structure. What Field of Reeds delivers in spades, though, is dramatic, shifting pieces (like “The Light in Your Name,” “V (Island Song),” and “Field of Reeds”) songs that seem formless until you accept their internal logic, in which case they become magnificent, three-dimensional spaces for you to play in. This is difficult, challenging music that never feels trying, and it amply rewards every minute of attention you give it.

7. Mogwai, Les Revenants Soundtrack (Sub Pop)
It’s a cliché to say this, so I’ll get it out of the way now: this might be the best thing Mogwai’s released since Young Team. Seriously. Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will was a great Mogwai album, but it also has come to feel like something of a corner. At this point, Mogwai does Mogwai so well, what’s the point in really listening to their albums? That this soundtrack recasts their sound as one of frosty, unnerving beauty (the stretch from “Relative Hysteria” through “Modern” might be the best run on anything Mogwai’s ever released) is a subtle but necessary bit of evolution, and if the oscillations of “Modern” or “This Messiah Needs Watching” point the way toward Rave Tapes next year, I’m very excited (that someone tried to criticise the teaser for that album for sounding like Ghost Box with dodgy drum machines is hilariously misguided, because that sounds awesome). At other times, mainly in the first half, Les Revenants offers the sequel to Come On Die Young that I never knew I needed, and “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?” succeeds in all the ways that “Hound of Winter” fails. Mogwai feels due, after almost twenty years, for the kind of late career renaissance that a band of their quality deserves. Hopefully this is the start.

Context be damned, at its best m b v is stunning. Bilinda Butcher’s voice turning into a beam of light from the heart of a globular cluster on “only tomorrow,” Kevin Shields’ perfect half-sighed, half-sung vocal for “who sees you,” the synths and coos of “is this and yes” suggesting the sterile beauty of the moon soundtracked by a particularly austere Stereolab, the heavy-lidded sensuality of “if i am,” the pulsating guitar break of “in another way,” and the fire-breathing rollercoaster ride of “wonder 2” are the show stoppers, but there are little joys and surprises throughout. Even the missteps--the somnambulistic “she found now” is both too long and terribly out of place; the 80s-indebted synthpop of “new you” is faceless, even with the help of a voice that has burned into the brain of a generation of indie rock fans, a soundalike that vanishes from the brain as soon as it stops playing; the insistent chugging of “nothing is” is insistent, chugging filler--can’t detract from a surprising triumph: Kevin Shields released something, it’s not as good as Loveless, and the world (and My Bloody Valentine) didn’t end.

 5. Burial, Rival Dealer EP (Hyperdub)
I’ve been listening to this a lot since its release about two weeks ago and I’ve only just started to make any sense of it. It feels to me like the conclusion of the Burial 2.0 format started with Kindred and perfected, I’d thought, on the “Truant”/“Rough Sleeper” single from the end of last year. Some of the claims made for this release have been . . . large, I’ll say (to keep it polite), but it does offer some interesting points to chew on regarding the exact nature of its politics (and those who are denying the release any political substance are flat out wrong). Burial has never been as reliant on darkness on those championing the “his new turn toward the light” narrative; his music has been from the very beginning not just nakedly emotional, but aspirational toward a transcendental grandeur that was more than just the perfect distillation of end-of-the-night blues (“Forgive” samples “An Ending (Ascent)” for god’s sake!). I’m still not convinced by “Hiders”--not because those drumbeats are bad, but because I don’t think the song actually needs its triumphant second half: at half its length, it would have made a glorious call back to his very earliest work--but “Rival Dealer” and “Come Down To Us” are majestic in the best sense. The suite format that Burial has been toying with comes to breathtaking fruition on this EP. The ambient final third of the title track, the final return and beef up of the melody in “Come Down To Us” prior to the Lana Wachowski sample, the treatment of that (somewhat contentious) sample on its own, are all signs of Burial’s absolute command of his sound at this point. I have no idea what comes next and I can’t wait to hear it.

 4. Jon Hopkins, Immunity (Domino)
If you played the first half of this album for me as a kid (or even as a teenager), I’d have told you that it sounded like the future. The endlessly squelchy beats and the rubber band, oscillating melodies are only part of that, though. The feel of the first half just is futuristic to me, somehow. When I hear it, buildings stretch into the sky, lights streak by overhead, and spacewalks by Saturn's rings are a common vacation (of course, then my imagination turns dark and the future's all about fuel/food shortages, civil unrest, and techno-fascist dictatorships, but this is what I get for growing up on pulp science fiction). I never want it to end (indeed, both “Open Eye Signal” and “Collider” seem like they never do end--somewhere, in the ether, they just continue on and on to infinity, pulling and stretching themselves into ever finer strands of beats and melodies). Like Machinedrum’s Vapor City, this is a frontloaded album, with the more ambient second half certainly pretty (“Abandon Window” makes clear the reasons that Hopkins was Eno’s protégé by approaching the beatific grandeur of “An Ending (Ascent)”), but slightly too languid (“Form by Firelight”) or too featherweight (“Sun Harmonics”) to make quite the same impact on the listener. Even with its second half slowdown, though, Immunity is often breathtaking in a way that feels quietly original, despite all the comparisons to Actress, Burial, Border Community, Aphex Twin, et al.

An album that may not have been actually released (perhaps the perfect Internet-age album, in that sense?) that works as such a vital document of the times because it gives them a past: low bitrate streams, bad cellphone cam videos, the no-fi blasted at maximum volume as a substitute for quality, nuance, substance. The songs on this album are constantly dropping out, melting away, switching abruptly to the next sound on the playlist, the next video/picture/website you have to see. This is not just pseudo-experimental pretention, though. From the Bollywood blasts of “Track 2” to the gleeful information overload/sci-fi fantasy of “Track 10,” from the frenetic desperation of “Track 5” to the warped softness of “Track 9” (“Jasmine”), Jai Paul offers up whirling, colourful hooks that go straight to the brain’s pleasure centres only to disorient them. Ultimately, when someone asks me what the last five years felt like, when they need some kind of phenomenological sense of the grain and texture of the world, a glimpse into how it sounded and therefore how I experienced it, I’ll point them to this. If that’s not the sign of a future classic, I don’t know what is.

2. Waxahatchee, Cerulean Salt (Don Giovanni)
Much like with Neon Indian’s “Sleep Paralysist” a few years back, that Waxahatchee’s “Coast to Coast” was not an inescapable global mega hit this summer is clinching proof, in my book, that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Beyond that admittedly killer lead single, though Cerulean Salt offers a number of deep cut gems--from the bass-led slow dance of “Brother Bryan,” to the brief, never repeated ramp up of “Lively,” and to the gloriously tumbling chorus of “Peace and Quiet”--and perhaps the most consistent across-the-board songwriting all year. Katie Crutchfield’s lyrics are next level good, full of the kind of details that make a song like the humidly evocative “Hollow Bedroom” come to life and the entire album achingly poignant. More importantly, though, her voice and her arrangements take these songs into harrowing, unexpected directions: when Crutchfield lets go at full power in “You’re Damaged” the moment is arresting in the best possible way.

1. Mount Kimbie, Cold Spring Fault Less Youth (Warp)
I fell in love with Mount Kimbie's "Sketch on Glass" when I heard it four years ago. Indeed, along with Joy Orbison's "Hyph Mngo," it soundtracked quite a bit of that summer for me. I fell out of love with Mount Kimbie's debut album Crooks and Lovers, though, and we're still trying to patch things up. What a relief, then, to unashamedly fall back in love with them here. “Blood and Form,” a serious candidate for my favourite song of the year (for a long time every bus journey to campus ended with it), opens like some kind of cosmic bowling ball made out of black holes: its bass is so impossibly heavy that nothing can escape it. The spiraling synths that make up its second half cause my brain to see the same colours as a good game of Geometry Wars. “Made to Stray” feels exactly like the sun coming up. “So Many Times, So Many Ways” is the greatest Broken Social Scene song that BSS never wrote. King Krule’s guest appearances have gone from distracting to essential over the course of the year. All of this and none of this describes the charm of this album, which is so small and modest, such an obvious product of home and hand (opening with a song called “Home Recording” might actually be a little too on the nose), and so utterly bewitching. I listened to this more than anything else in 2013. 

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