2013: Favorite 50 Albums of 2013
Does awakening require an adventure? Does it require riding across land where existential anxieties grow like wildflowers, rambling toward some gem of independence? Does it require an apocalypse? On Dream River, Bill Callahan sang of awakenings. Not answers mined along a journey. Rather, impressions discovered in moments of wandering and observing and reflecting. How a few beers in a hotel bar could create an opportunity for meditation, solitude and sound providing grounding for a still and open mind. How sharing the controls of a small plane could inspire reverence for the simplicity of love, the pure and deep joy felt sheerly by spending time together. How heading home along a snowy road could dissolve memories of yesterday and plans for tomorrow to draw awareness into present beauty. Still, seasons will change and boats will sink and we will all pass away, and Bill Callahan has made peace with this ephemeral essence. He will keep on shooting the breeze, all the while reminding us that living is like dreaming.
It is the peculiar province of metal to serve as sacrament to the faithless, and there are few so faithless as Chip King and Lee Buford, collectively known as The Body. Christs, Redeemers was a celebration of despair, an ode etched in King’s bludgeoning riffs and sepulchral shrieks. The Providence-based duo once again assembled a diverse cast to give dimension to their blasted sonic landscapes: Work/Death’s electronic atmospherics, Chrissy Wolpert’s sorrowful witness, The Assembly of Light Choir’s angelic harmonies. But over the course of the album’s 44 minutes, The Body created a hole so black that no particle of light could escape. Every lovely and transcendent thing was caught in the gravitational pull of Buford’s funereal beats, until they served to only further heighten the album’s sense of dread, until at last they acted as a mocking reminder of all the good and the beautiful things that were forever out of reach. As this list demonstrates, 2013 saw some damn fine releases in the world of noise and noise rock, but none packed so much richness and complexity into such a devastating gut-punch as Christs, Redeemers.
Cien chmury nad ukrytym polem
Even stone is not eternal. Carving a message into rock propels those signs into a new scale of durability, but like all things, time and the river wash it away. It’s easy to forget that a life exists, outside the thrumming urban sprawl, that stretches towards permanence, day by day, carving rituals into the stone of tradition. It’s easy to forget that machines roll asphalt over the pastoral landscape, where beasts once ranged. The indifferent sun continues on its course. Protect us from evil, Kuba Ziolek importuned, through the clangor of electronics and the hum of his guitar. At once disarmingly personal and dispassionately vast, Cien chmury nad ukrytym polem unified the pastoral and the cosmic, the synthetic and the void. Ziolek’s genre-obliterating methodology, combining elements of folk music, black metal, kosmische, and ambient, forged a work encompassing the vast breadth of experience that lies open in his homeland’s countryside. Beauty and terror, progress and tradition, birth and decay, life and death, night and day, water and rock; it’s here, inscribed in a raw, honest script on the stone of 2013’s history.
Last year, Danny Brown announced that he was “Grown Up.” By the time fall rolled around again, he was downright Old. On his third studio album, the squawky-voiced MC scaled back his typical happy-go-lucky hedonism to show us the real Daniel Dewan Sewell: a man haunted by dope fiends, by guilt, by the sacrifices made by his family to make ends meet. Less than three months after the City of Detroit filed for bankruptcy, Brown’s bittersweet love letter to the Motor City of his youth felt especially timely, showcasing the disparity between hope and reality on standout cuts like “Wonderbread” and “The Return.” Much of Old consisted of the new: team-ups with Freddie Gibbs and Purity Ring, gruffer vocals, even krauty instrumentals; but just when we thought the rapper’s Adderall-addled antics were over, he sucker-punched us with a Side B that screamed rager-ready. Death, desolation, decadence: all in a day’s work for one of rap’s biggest goofballs, and yet, he barely broke a sweat.
There’s no doubt that Hype Williams’ entanglement of purpose, their rare smoke-ring sound-bites, make it difficult to talk about a solo Copeland or Blunt: a post-Williams artist living it up would completely contradict the zero or selective bullshit rule that the collective has cultivated with regard to their personal identities. So it’s not surprising that the A.D. albums following the split from Copeland were both coyly named in Christian/AA fashion after those untraceable, transcendent “higher powers.” And yet from this point on, the road to recovery diverged completely. While Blunt rifled obsessively through collections of samples and clipped bonsai instrumentals, Copeland wandered idly through a city of space and tidal rhythms, dependable yet indifferent. Lyrically, it was a silky Stygian blues you felt you’ve heard countless times before. But Higher Powers wasn’t without its statement of intent: a high-pitched tone cut into the opening track like a vandal keying car doors; a rustle of conversation was followed by a woman asking for something — hope? (“Please, sir”) — and paying for it with an audible exchange of coins. The songs were rooms, easy to pass into and out of, but there was a price of entry: it was that sonic wake-up call, which said if you can’t get past this, the comedown isn’t for you.
You might question whether James Blake 2013 belongs on a list dedicated to difficult but rewarding new music. Overgrown could easily be taken as graphic design studio music, mixing nicely with good-taste boredoms like The xx or Frank Ocean. At Blake’s Hollywood Cemetery show, the chatty, texty girls in front of me would occasionally reach an arm out in his direction and do the frosting-the-cake hand motion, soon to return to the chatosphere. But Overgrown was a deep and complex work, bold and inspired in the jagged, cloudy, and otherwise unwieldy elements that went into making a smoothly listenable whole. Falling in love and meeting Joni Mitchell inspired Blake to make a soul album: he took the kind of strange forms and samples that sprawled across his earlier work and condensed them into intricate decoupages, interspersed with pared-back voice and piano pieces. Simple lyrics diffracted and bent back on themselves: a line like “show me where you fit” was earnestly delivered and heartfelt, but also cast a funny/dirty shadow. “We’re going to the last, you and I” was a line that could express devotion or doom or a suicide pact, and in any case, just as you surrendered to its swoon, Blake took it all back: “If only, if only…”
Drifters/Love Is The Devil
Call it the province of a drifter, but few musicians seem as keenly aware of space as Alex Zhang Hungtai. Whether it’s the jetlag-warped twilight of an empty hotel lobby or the chlorine-bleached sheen of the world’s largest indoor waterpark, Hungtai finds a way of parsing out the uncanny beauty of unusual spaces and resculpting these perplexing places in noise. In this respect, Drifters/Love Is The Devil felt like the culmination of the Dirty Beaches project — a masterful merger of form and content, producing a series of 16 warped spaces within the context of an equally spatial, equally disjointed framework. Like the inarticulable punctuation in the title, Drifters/Love Is The Devil oriented itself around a profoundly disorienting splice. It was a haunting space we found ourselves in, bounded between the humid, paranoid reek of Drifters and the heartrending emptiness of Love Is The Devil. 2013 was the year that Alex Zhang Hungtai laid bare the true devastation of liminality, the unfathomable loneliness of the spaces between. And with it, their unimaginable beauty.
My Bloody Valentine
m b v
There are few equivalents to the 22-year wait between My Bloody Valentine’s seminal, genre-defining masterpiece Loveless and its follow-up m b v, an album that all but the most hopelessly naïve of us had stopped wishing for years ago. It seemed like the weight of this prolonged absence and the ever-looming shadow of Loveless — whose status had seemed to only grow with each passing year — were destined to eclipse any follow-up. Luckily, the actual content of m b v and the obvious care Kevin Shields took with his legendarily meticulous production assuaged those fears. While unmistakably building off the sonic palette they created with Loveless, m b v sounded exactly like the album everyone expected them to release in 1993, and yet it still found a home in 2013. Perhaps it was the resurgence of the shoegaze aesthetic and swirling, distorted guitars in recent years that made it play so well, or perhaps it was simply an album that was strange and beautiful in ways that only Shields & Co. have mastered. Whether it was the shimmering staccato of “New You,” the whirling cacophony of “Wonder 2,” or the classic MBV-sounding “She Found Now,” m b v proved that My Bloody Valentine were not only a sonic signpost for a generation of upcoming musicians, but also capable of creating space for their own aesthetic alongside the 21st-century greats.
A History Of Every One
Assume the inerrancy of what's written down in history books, and you'll be assuming the infallibility of human interpretation, to which nearly everything is subject. Meanderings away from truth arise regardless of dedication or individual integrity, but for Bill Orcutt on A History Of Every One, the distortion, both figurative and auditory, happened by intent. This album of self-described covers took as its inspiration songs of decades (and decades) past, but removed from their relatively well-known titles, Orcutt's renditions offered an obscured, to say the least, recollection of the originals — hints notwithstanding. The interrupting twang on Orcutt's "Black Betty" mimicked the "whoaaaa" belted by James "Iron Head" Baker initially in 1933 and Myke Scavone of Ram Jam more popularly. "Ten Thousand Men of Harvard" offered a rare instance of sort-of synchronization, as you could actually strain to sing the first line (fourth verse) of the Crimson fight song before Orcutt confused and thus, postponed, the "vict'ry." Insofar as the tracks of History were interpretations, they compounded the subjectivity of listener experience. The familiar guitar spasms obfuscated toward an intriguing mental exercise; traces of the past revealed themselves only as one happened to notice.
My reference points for Cover Versions were Colleen's Everyone Alive Wants Answers, which was on my best-of-2000s list, and Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II, which would be on my best-of-90s list. This record captivated me less immediately than the other two, but it fulfilled as fully the promise of ambient music. What I visualized as its swooning, insinuating repetitions spinning in tight circles I could equally tune out as noise or listen to as organized, aestheticized sound. As I listened or didn’t listen, I thought of, or rather felt, walls. I thought about what it means to cover a song; Pekler covered neglected lounge tunes in at least these senses: of affording them protection, of commanding them, of obstructing them, of answering on behalf of them, of concealing them, of overlaying them, of copulating with them, of upstaging them, of treating them, of commenting on them, of traversing them, of replacing them. I came to regard Cover Versions as the CV of a genre I’d never have known otherwise and couldn’t afterward hear otherwise. Cover Versions was all over the surface of the appropriated record covers, the vinyl records, my room, etc. It became, slowly and assiduously, gorgeous. And good god, the last track ended as suddenly and sadly as desire.