2013: Favorite 50 Albums of 2013
If 2012 saw an unprecedented confrontation with, and then expansion of, our taste profiles, then a 2013 could be read as an expansion in artistic ambition. For us, this saw expression in various ways, the most obvious of which resulted in big musical statements: Dean Blunt released a conceptually bold, unexpectedly heartbreaking album; James Ferraro plunged into American decay, nihilism, and alienation; and Oneohtrix Point Never forged an entirely new dimensionality to his work. Vaporwave was made epic by Nmesh, while footwork danced further into the international spotlight with DJ Rashad. Rappers like Chief Keef, Lil Ugly Mane, and Death Grips capitalized on the mixtape format to produce wild experiments in form and content, while avant producers like Arca, 18+, and D/P/I took the medium to a new level of sophistication by each releasing their most incisive full-lengths yet. Meanwhile, Andrew Pekler embarked on a 300-album art project; The Knife and Dirty Beaches unveiled massive double albums; and Pharmakon took noise onto a plane of aggression that nearly devoured us whole.
But we also saw this ambition expressed through contraction and reduction, through turning down the volume and emphasizing space. Artists like Forest Swords, Wolf Eyes, and Ahnnu, for instance, bravely streamlined the excess and adopted a comparatively minimal approach. And for every artist like The Dead C, Stara Rzeka, and The Body filling the void with noise, there were artists like Lucrecia Dalt, Lee Noble, and Mohammad stripping things down, playing with structure to more fluid, indeterminate ends. In fact, balance could be found everywhere: While Autre Ne Veut embellished his sophisticated pop sensibility, Kanye West scaled back his pop considerably. While Julia Holter left her bedroom to record with an ensemble of musicians, Sean McCann stayed in to record with his own private ensemble (himself). And while Matana Roberts continued her multi-album conceptual project in dramatic fashion, Colin Stetson and Graham Lambkin/Jason Lescalleet finished their respective trilogies not with a bang, but with a calm, quiet ease.
Ambition in 2013, then, could be seen as multifarious, shapeless, fractured. While this lack of a unified trajectory reflects in part our varied tastes, it also shows how our old-school narrating ways are at odds with how we currently experience media: as instantaneous, real-time negotiations of an exclusive present. This is not exactly a choice. In an age of digital accumulation and excess, where memory is a digital database and nostalgia is for last week’s click-bait article, where listening to music is wholly mediated by the technologies that enable its transmission and retrieval, we increasingly play the role of information manipulators, endlessly mining musical data for patterns and anomalies, creating taste algorithms, reorienting for SEO purposes, finding mathematical models for discovery. We become, in other words, part of a computational process.
But even if 2013, like any other year, can be interpreted in endlessly varying ways, aren’t we really just creating different forms of value? If digitizing implies a forfeiture of traditional socio-political and geographical contexts, a loss of body, then what’s left to do but find ways to re-embody that information by aligning them with our shabby, clumsy myth-making ways? And why shouldn’t we be decoupling symbols, parsing data, and telling cute, anecdotal stories about affect, movement, and sensation? After all, if we don’t tell our stories, someone else will tell them, right?
Maybe some day our opinions will become too inefficient to coexist alongside an increasingly automatized, computerized society. And, who knows, maybe someday we’ll find value in letting go. But for now: here’s another fucking list.
This list is dedicated to the memory of Collin Anderson.
Lil Ugly Mane
Three Sided Tape [Volumes One and Two]
The sorcerer apothecary methodically tinkers in his musty laboratory, a growing mob of bloodthirsty sycophants howling demented praise at his door. Although mostly deaf to their cries, he occasionally hurls a “Mystical Virus” “Higher Than Fuck” up the chimney to satiate the legion’s fiendish palates. It’s been over a year since Mista Thug Isolation reared his ugly head, so what is it that has these savages bellowing for more of that haunted trap zombie bap? It’s the Three Sided Tapes and the “Instrumentals and Unreleased Shit 2008-2011” therein of course. Part beat tapes, part odd-and-ends compilations, all dope, these collections covered all the ingredients in Ugly’s supersonic cauldron, from noise-based experimentation to flat-out brilliant feats of lyricism (recorded through computer microphone) to found cassette samples, from cocaine-cowboy-era funk-driven Fruity Loops beats to one-man black metal band practice. In fact, one could find all that and more on just “Side Two” of Volume One, but I digress. It’s a joyous wonder that more rappers haven’t yet lifted beats from these tapes for their own purposes. Whatever their reasoning or lack thereof, here’s to hoping that Prelude to Panopticon/Exit to Euphoria (Patriotic Dryheave) is every bit as ingenious as “On Doing An Evil Deed Blues” promises, if not more so.
Foodman’s Shokuhin was an awesome pre-emptive synopsis of the periodic flow of cassettes, SoundCloud tracks, and Bandcamp releases he produced throughout 2013, signalling everything to come and more in a phantasmagoria of miniaturized soundworlds. Although nominally associated with footwork, this affiliation seemed less a matter of identity than a vehicle for Foodman to explore a fascination with sonic juxtaposition and peculiar rhythms, each track propelled only briefly by its own inner inertia before the next would twist free in some entirely unexpected direction. Interspersed with — maybe even composed entirely of — disorienting interludes and spells of unexpected levity, Shokuhin had a perplexing (and captivating) ability to evade easy assimilation to any particular mood or conceptual apparatus. But what could have felt disjointed with a more uncertain touch ended up curiously coherent in the coincidence of its elements, each creating a whole in its image instead of being subordinated to a greater organic vision — the sound of goddamn inorganic life if ever I’ve heard it. TMT has been pretty enthusiastic about various Japanese footwork/juke artists recently, but I find Foodman the most compelling of the lot, and Shokuhin was his rawest and — yeah I’ll say it — best release so far.
Carey’s Cold Spring
Engine block is dead; long live trendy frock. It’s easy (and fun) to give indie rock these nonsense funerals each year — and here we give requisite nods to the death specters surrounding Carey’s Cold Spring — but then, how can the genre’s true masters, people like Carey Mercer, keep on? Frog Eyes can be nothing but indie rock, as tacking on further descriptors rarely illuminates much about their wide-eyed, feelings-spew visions. Never a patient band, Frog Eyes this time made a remarkably measured and slow-burning album, the group’s previous eruptions eased into a constantly rolling boil-over. If Mercer was previously a raving street-preacher, then the Mercer of this record was a, well, raving street-motivational-speaker, confident that evil is a neutral force, that your dreams are worth keeping, and that your boyfriend sucks. In an interview with this very site, Mercer articulated the record’s central question: “How can a person exist?” Like much of Frog Eyes’ work, it was a great everything-and-nothing question without a simple answer. And big non-questions with big non-answers: wasn’t that the point of this whole indie rock thing in the first place?
These New Puritans
Field of Reeds
These New Puritans’ previous album, 2010’s Hidden, was a difficult record to navigate: at times confrontational, militaristic, and jagged, while at others jarringly, arrestingly beautiful, it was — as Alex Griffin noted in his review of Field of Reeds — an album that was easy to admire, to marvel at, but rather difficult to settle down with. With Field of Reeds, the diametrical opposite held true: this album, perhaps more than any other for me this year, warmly invited listen after listen after listen. Much like its predecessor, there were plenty of reasons to marvel, from the intricate, ever-ornate orchestration, to the hyper-clear production value, and even to the sheer breadth of instrumentation — appearing alongside strings, piano, and winds was a Magnetic Resonator Piano and a guest feature from Adrian Peacock, a basso profundo with one of the lowest voices in Britain. But the sheer emotionality, the unbridled expressivity of songs such as “Fragment Two” and “Organ Eternal,” guaranteed this album’s unique, bucolic resonance. The stunning piano chord progressions, the expansive orchestral interludes, even singer Jack Barnett’s endearing warble — all of it came together to deliver an intensely captivating experience for the listener unlike anything else from 2013, or, for that matter, any other calendar year.
[Pan Pacific Playa]
Like how dentists try to get their patients to smile, Paisley Parks too thrived on shaking up grins, even noxious laughter in listeners everywhere with Бｈ○§†. Straight from Yokohama, Japan to the WORLD, trio Paisley Parks changed the face of funny/serious music. They’re beyond footwork. Twitchier than the sampler. Everything that is stuttered. With 2012’s GETO GALAXY, they convinced audiences that with enough Sony Walkmans, anyone could create their own dirty DIY footwork album. This year’s Бｈ○§† proved all that and more. As soon as it dropped, footwork was placed on a pedestal for the rest of 2013, with the hope that someone could surpass the Paisley Parks level of music trollery. Shit, peepz made coin mixes. And the hype didn’t stop. So don’t let it. Listen to Бｈ○§†, and overwhelm your senses into one giant smile.
Hell on Earth
We are all living our own misery. Fiscal collapse. Disease. Famine. Incorrect grammar. ‘Tis the season of pestilence. Thankfully, Matthew Sullivan was in a giving mood this year, transferring grief into momentary bliss. Hell on Earth was the center of our universe, demanding quiet reflection amid life chaotic. It encompassed no other journey than that of the listener. Cares won’t melt away but rather be put into perspective, no matter the pit you currently occupy. You wouldn’t imagine the hushed bows and sways of Hell on Earth to equate to a rallying cry, but turn your baseball cap inside out, stomp your feet three times, and face your fears head-on. Knowing where we are and how we’re living is a battlefield advantage. Spit in the devil’s face and laugh. You’re going to beat the odds in this and every lifetime. Casey strikes out only so much.
The Man Who Died In His Boat
For me, there has always been something manifestly therapeutic about Liz Harris’s music as Grouper. Not that it inspires a narcotic docility, for The Man Who Died In His Boat was neither a coping mechanism nor a means of self-medication; it was an inoculation that took us through the motions of uncertainty in order for us to come to terms with all that we couldn’t come to know. It would be a mistake to interpret the ebb and flow of The Man Who Died In His Boat’s hazy resonance as calm or vacant; it was a cure in the form of the illness, a sonic vaccine for an unidentifiable pain, a reminder of what it means to be present and aware in a way that doesn’t amplify the presence of apprehension. It was a lesson in being “Vital” without being volatile, an illustration of feeling without entirely falling off the deep-end. And maybe that’s why something composed more than five years ago still felt so essential and current: discomfort doesn’t have a date, and there simply isn’t anyone else offering effective medication for the human condition.
The Dead C
[Ba Da Bing!]
It was impressive enough that new work from the 26-years-strong trio of Michael Morley, Bruce Russell, and Robbie Yeats could sound so vital and mysterious, but it was all the more remarkable that they demanded such careful listening while still mining the same ideas at which they began chipping away in 1987. When Russell wrote his Free Noise Manifesto years ago to answer “What is Free?,” part of his answer was, “Free mirrors reality, while structured musics reflect the vain attempts of human subjectivity to impose itself on the blind flood of faciticity.” Armed Courage made its mark on both The Dead C catalog and the year by staying true to this guiding principle of stripping conceptions through a disciplined free-ness and confusion, a journey into said blind flood. These two side-long explorations took the band’s two buzzy guitars and one drum kit somehow even further away from any traditional sonic signposts, eschewing the jam-logic and build-release familiar to anyone who has listened to improvised rock — the kind that pops up from time to time even on The Dead C records — for the sharper, stranger, subtler tensions possible in complete exploration and total trust among admirably aware sound artists. Armed Courage was heartening and riveting for those of us looking for new travels with old tools.
The louder we played Colonial Patterns, the better it sounded. With volume, the album picked up a kind of nondescript gravity from all the surface-level (tape?) noise. Fizzling, crackling, hissing. Huerco S. imbued the album with a tangible warmth, similar to the effect of listening to Basic Channel or GAS, both antecedents to this strain of electronic music. Whereas Wolfgang Voigt looked out into the Germanic forest, Huerco S. unintentionally took us to the factory floor, a place where the exploitation of the workers was essentially expected. Sure, Huerco S. had Pre-Columbian-era midwestern natives on his mind, those who worked constantly, shaping and reshaping the soil into giant mounds to create a physical representation of the time period’s social hierarchy. But to my ears, Colonial Patterns hit the ear with an abundance of industrial textures — clinks, rattles, scrapes — the album’s insistent throb and muffled bass carrying us increasingly farther from the past, yet still keeping in step with the present. Any way you want to look at it, Colonial Patterns was consistently rewarding in a way that points to a possibly even brighter future for Huerco S.
Don’t bother telling me that I’m a romantic, I already know. I’m one of those annoying people who really believes that the things we create can change us, that listening to a record with the right ears or watching a movie with the right eyes can alter how we see and move through the world. The band that first instilled this belief in me was Throbbing Gristle, holding up their black mirror with a wink and a cheeky grin, reflecting the rotten core of humanity, knowing we wouldn’t like what we saw but that it was our responsibility to look. One of the bands that strengthens that belief is Death Grips. This year’s out-of-nowhere release of Government Plates proved they still have their fingers on the vein, demonstrating strength in vulnerability, humanity squeezed through the tube of technology, coming out the other side in wracked sobs of desperation and the cracked yelps of those who believe they are well and truly fucked. Even the name “Death Grips” sounds macho and violent. Ever look up what a “death grip” is? It’s the desperate, final scrabbling of a drowning person that causes their rescuer to drown as well. Think about it.