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.
Innocence Is Kinky
When she let the jacket slide off her shoulders, all that was left was her skin. She felt it prick, despite the mild air and the profuse sweat that betrayed her feelings. Her body quivered in anticipation and anxiety for what she was about to do. She needed, not wanted, to do this flagrant exhibition of her flesh amongst strangers. As it stood, every mask of being she was supposed to wear never fit: they all felt imposed, unnatural. So, she seeks something else. And as she lets her body, tense yet excited, anguish in a tease for a little more, she sees that something as herself, without anything, any mask or moral, concealing her being. Deciding to let her complete and sexual nakedness be her voice for now, she understood herself as an object, but an object that nobody, not even herself, can control. Such freedom strips away all mentality. All that is left is the body, nothing more. She bit her lip in pleasure at the thought, for there is something pure, perhaps innocent, in that: She desired being whole, which meant letting the body speak for her, satiating its desires. Thus, she opened the door and walked into the daylight, glistening and dripping, to her own willing perversion.
To fans and detractors alike, Chief Keef’s most frequent M.O. is “incomprehensible”: with his barely enunciated, Auto-Tune’d grumble of a vocal delivery, compounded by a shy and oblique interview demeanor, Sosa doesn’t care much for the “real rap” brand of transparency that earnest-as-fuck contemporaries like Lil Durk or Lil Bibby appear to fetishize. No matter how many haters overflow his YouTube uploads with whining comments, he doesn’t really give a fuck whether he ever makes another “Love Sosa,” and this year’s Almighty So mixtape found Keef ditching industry templates and the clichéd street truisms that confine the lyrical content of so many of his contemporaries. So much more than just a drill record, Almighty So was a queasy, Actavis-cured soup of surrealist rap ballads and overdriven, AK-riddled lurchers, a sonic realm sufficiently fucked to showcase Keef’s truly delirious flow. Flanked here by mercurial synth arpeggios only sporadically pinned down by the gravity of actual beats, Keef’s purposefully offbeat, singsong delivery never sounded more godlike. While he’s undoubtedly still coming into his own as a creative, when things really gelled on Almighty So, it was something completely unprecedented in hip-hop: violent yet delicate, clumsy yet effortless, a detuned, stumbling dystopia shot through the center with a heaping dose of Keef’s infectious rebel persona. To quote The Almighty himself: “They want that old Sosa/ For what, though?”
Unglue. Subdue. Renew. Ahnnu. World Music, by L.A. producer Leland Jackson as Ahnuu, was designed to distort the listener’s sense of time and cause a loss of focus on everything around us — even the music itself. Engineered to make the present feel infinite, the recent past ancient, and the future irrelevant, World Music was a fascinating experiment in the artistic capabilities of recontextualizing the world’s existing sound recordings, where minute-long tracks felt like hour-long daydreams. Less convoluted and spastic than previous work, World Music was at the same time less structured. The different bits of source material mingled with each other comfortably, with a less intrusive role of the creator. Cocktails of subdued jazz phrases and laidback organic percussion samples replaced the more hip-hop-oriented beat music that the artist had released throughout the last couple years — including TMT 2012 favorite pro habitat — to create a mood that was tranquil, natural, and left you meditating without you even knowing it.
New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light
Most people don’t love the cold, to be on a high mountaintop with your face to the wind and your exposure level acutely sensed. It’s likely more people love peppermint patties than the snow. But the cold, even the stinging, merciless chill that aches your eyeballs, can have its charm. Ever gaze up a tall building while it was snowing? Stand in a snowblurred forest and feel the stillness overtake you? Enjoy either of the first two Die Hard movies? There is as much value in experiencing an adverse element as there is defending one’s self against it. Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light ably dramatized the strain and pull against the elements and our place within and outside of them. It was almost like an action movie crossed with the human messiness of Leigh or Cassavetes. It was clammy and craven, but also as intimate as it was vast. It was some freezing cold sunshine that was easy to crush your weary bitter heart against, no less stark for the guest vocals and genre flirtations. Stetson continued to be both the warm, impervious coat and the shredding gales that inspired its existence, and we and 2013 were certainly better for it.
No Answer: Lower Floors
It can be pretty hard to render the abstractly terrifying more real, if the “realistic” Pokémon of deviantart are anything to go by. No Answer: Lower Floors was what happens when purely hypothetical kinds of fear and terror are made breathing, seething, and uncomfortably close. Wolf Eyes have been exploring this territory for a long time, but this album sung unrelentingly with horrible purpose, conjuring the kind of searing terror that renders you supplicant on the mere suggestion of it existing. When we listen to records, we are experiencing an art form that creates by corralling; the album necessarily creates an environment that divides for itself a parcel of territory, cordoned off and boundaried as something unique and limited. When we look for the new in music, we look for the uncovered ground, music that shows mental terrain that not only didn’t exist, but was also barely even theoretical. To experience No Answer was to learn a new word for the dark, to throw a new light on the concept, like staring down the deepest well possible and falling down it at the same time. Play it to your kids!
In the last 20 years, post-rock artists have relied heavily on a few specific pieces of electronic gear for their echoey, dramatic sound — mostly stompboxes intended for looping, reverb, and volume swelling. Inside oceans of guitar twiddling, soundscape-shifting, and fuzz-squalling, these devices typically elicit feelings of detachment, isolation, loneliness, ruin, and severity. Julianna Barwick co-opted one of the crown jewels in this cadre’s pantheon of effect boxes: the Boss RC-50, a gadget that allows users to create and combine live musical loops. Relying largely on this single machine and her voice, Barwick created experimental music of beauty and passion. While her 2011 debut The Magic Place certainly turned heads at the time, Nepenthe was clearly several steps ahead. The songs here sounded immense, ornate, and mature. Barwick was perhaps classifiable within ambient post-rock since she largely eschews traditional syncopated rock rhythms while still excavating some of its structure. But while more “traditional” members of the genre typically bluster forward with wheezing feedback and the roar of distant, rumbling trains, Barwick radiated outward with swirling strings and children’s choirs of celestial temples. She forwent loneliness for benevolence, severity for tender hope. When Nepenthe’s songs built up to their climaxes, they made for some of the most penetrating sonic moments of 2013. It’s especially remarkable, then, that all these otherworldly, transcendent sounds originated with Barwick’s solitary voice — looped repeatedly.
The Flaming Lips
With every kitschy toy and chocolate skull the band creates, an easy and potentially understandable response to The Flaming Lips would be to dismiss them outright. Yet the Oklahoma-based psychedelic wanderers manage to outrun all of our expectations and the expensive gewgaws. This year, it was with The Terror, both a final nail in the multi-colored coffin of their big rousing call-to-arms days of the 2000s and a beautiful melding of that period with the brash drones and attitude of their earliest incarnation. How that appeared on record was as synth-heavy burbles heavy on drone and atmospherics, with Wayne Coyne floating above it all, filtering the dying squalls of HAL 9000 through his apocalyptic and mournful lyrical visions. Don’t let the fall down this particular rabbit hole throw you off. Trust the whispering voice in your ear, and enjoy the colors and images that float into your field of vision.
In writing about Alvin Lucier’s I am Sitting In A Room, Peter T claimed that a big part of understanding lo-fi music comes through how we relate the music to its original space through “bits of sonic ephemera that were present at the site of recording.” In many ways, the role of space is also incredibly important in the world of ambient music, but the key difference is that space in ambient music is often synthetically constructed. One of the things that made Lee Noble’s Ruiner such an incredible feat was that he was able to combine lo-fi pop’s intimate space with the expanse of ambient music in an entirely streamlined, singular way. At times, Noble showed how easily these spaces could bleed into each other, as on album centerpiece “Demon Pond,” where dissonant layered field recordings bled into synths that eventually became accompanimental material for an apocalyptic folk song. However, Noble’s spatial interactions were often subtler, with “sonic ephemera” such as microphone feedback transforming itself into falling synth arpeggios on “Remind Me.” Throughout, Noble recasted his lo-fi songs as the catalyst for drone-based exploration, consequently rendering the intimate expansive, and vice versa.
Recovering from the last concussion. The worst nightmare scenario I’ve had. The sound of airplanes, a sweet beat of Days of Thunder’s big brother film. A VHS vision of Mariah Carey in another voice telling me that I need to relax. Johnny Marr carelessly playing his most identifiable riffs to an audience of only my brain damage. And there I was, again, in the arcade: Chun-Li in my Turtles in Time console, my family telling me over and over to “ΞAT THΞ ΞGGS”. Someone reaches into my ear and pulls out a Twizzlers Pull n’ Peel; mom and dad never told me that grandma took acid! And then, bursting through the screen: my older brother! He grabs me by the hair and says, “We’re into Barbie!” If I fell asleep here and woke up with a beard, would someone find me, take off the headphones, and hear, “eeeeeyyyeees wwwiiiitttthhhhouuuuut aaa faaaaccccceee,” “your hair looks like a sunrise,” “I LOVE POCKY STICKS!” But that’s the thing about these Nu.wav Hallucinations: the drug was freely available. I can now see how empty of substance my childhood really was! And you want to know the weirdest part? My remaining senses enjoyed it. It was heaven! I was told it belonged to that one genre, Whatchamacallit? I don’t remember anymore; there’s too much past to sort through.
COIN COIN Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile
“There are some things I just can’t tell you about, honey.” The words of Matana Roberts’s grandmother — from an interview that became a crux for the second chapter of her epic series — didn’t seem to keep COIN COIN from telling us about all kinds of things anyway. At least the important things. Over and over again, we heard the history of our families, our country, and our music. We heard the bustling honks and horns of our city streets, the mourning and memory of our passed loved ones, the richness of our culture, all of it told through the blues, the opera, and improvisation, patched together like a quilt rich with bright colors and soft textures. Roberts combined various artistic mediums and styles so seamlessly and, seemingly, effortlessly that its maddening mechanics and brilliant performance were ultimately transcended to give something as intimidating and opaque as free-jazz a certain kind of clarity that was digestible, listenable, and most importantly fun. And indeed, Mississippi Moonchile was also so powerful because where history lessons might normally inspire notions of sadness, shame, or regret, Roberts’s portraits, even while tracing tales of tragedy, couldn’t help but draw smiles.
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.
It’s been a banner year for Chicago’s footwork mainstay, DJ Rashad. His first EP of 2013, Rollin’, was a blazing four-song set that included an indispensable, next-level DJ Manny collaboration, “Drums Please,” which featured a spiraling onslaught of drum calls and chopped organ chords. However, none of the EP’s tracks appeared on Double Cup and, really, nor would they fit. Think of Rollin’ and Double Cup as companion pieces: Rollin’ was for the footwork circle, and Double Cup for our home stereos. And while the full-length didn’t display the EP’s staggering level of surprise (with the possible exception of the housed-up outlier “Acid Bit”), it was no less dextrous or ambitious. It still threw the manic trax our way, and it still expertly weaved them with R&B (“Show U How”), jazz (“She a Go”), and Juice samples (“I Don’t Give a Fuck”), but it grounded itself with a melody and beauty (“Let U No”) rarely heard in the genre. In this way, Double Cup managed to innovate yet remain footwork’s most accessible release to date, one that has provided even more international visibility to a genre that was once geographically defined.
To put it in Borgesian terms, Stone Island is a personal history of misanthropy. That Argentinean modernist is as good a reference point as any, for an artist as self-reflective and labyrinthine as Dean Blunt. Most of the meager coverage provided to the record focused on the recent events of the artist’s life, the album’s compulsive and unusual conception, and the literal construction of the music — samples, motifs and meanings. But context is, or at least should be, only of tangential interest, especially when the music was this nervy, magnetic, and halting. After all, why should one’s failure to identify a Pentangle sample or understand Cyrillic script preclude their ability to recognize the lurid potency of the whole? The title itself told you all you need to know about the stoic masculinism depicted within. Was it sincerity or pretense? Did either matter terribly? Despite any conjecture regarding Blunt’s artistic intentions, the matter was never definitively settled. Nevertheless, Stone Island continued to hold up to that presumptuous sort of scrutiny. And should you decide to check out this overlooked little record based on our recommendation, be warned: this is beauteous fiction. Believe nothing but that which you want to believe.
Shaking the Habitual
Seven years after the release of their career-defining Silent Shout, The Knife returned with Shaking the Habitual, an album that took the group’s signature dark electronic sound and locked it in a room with nothing but Scott Walker and Einstürzende Neubauten records, David Lynch’s more challenging films, and, like, a more pleasant and less face-eating version of what I assume that Russian drug Krokodil is like. Which is all to say that this record wasn’t the icy dance pop record anyone expected, but was instead something vastly weirder, darker, and more experimental. With thematic elements of deconstruction, inequality, and injustice, the heavily political packaging of Shaking the Habitual, with its comic book-styled admonishments to “End Extreme Wealth,” definitely made taking the record out for a Saturday afternoon spin a daunting prospect. But the genius of this record was how all its strangest, most incongruent aspects — its manic beats, operatic vocals, and aggressive electronics — created a world that was as hypnotic and intoxicating as it was agitating. Whether or not all of the enigmatic Scandinavian duo’s political intentions were as clear as intended, Shaking the Habitual was a record destined to shake listeners out of complacency.
NYC, HELL 3:00 AM
[Hippos In Tanks]
The idea of something being evocative, a road to the soul, is nothing new to art, even to music specifically. James Ferraro’s lengthy discography is littered with nods to violent hyperrealities, consumer culture nightmares, and R&B dystopias, but compared to earlier works, what drew me to NYC, HELL 3:00 AM was a different and more complex evocative experience. It’s hard to isolate a specific device that grants a glimpse into Ferraro’s “demons,” as the hallmarks of his previous releases were apparent, only here they were crushed, beaten, and left limp to wander through his desolate constructions, the only remaining companions being a fragile, distant Auto-Tune’d voice and sound clips from 9/11 news reports. To say that NYC, HELL 3:00 AM had subtlety is paradoxically right and wrong. Yes, it was minimal and slow with occasional flashes of the characteristic rogue we’ve become accustomed to, but by stripping back his compositions and shifting his gaze away from eliciting a listener’s response and moving himself to the forefront, Ferraro surprisingly achieved the most visceral and expressive creation in his career so far.
[Human Ear Music]
Anima: the nourishing soul, a fleeting female voice, the persuasive interconnection of Eros. Animus: raw physicality, a rational environment, the dominant presence of Logos. Syzygy: anima/animus, light/dark, life/word, levity/gravity, noise/silence, perception/judgment, an unexpected and fortuitous alignment of concepts exposing the illusory split between opposites. This album presented a conjunction of celestial sonic bodies whose timbral tissues were delicately unfolded through several unsettled landscapes: primeval tongues set against synthetic arpeggios in obsessive staccato, soothing murmurs and whispers magnified by dense rhythmic patterns and reverberant atmospheres. Lucrecia Dalt’s music was consistently contradictory and fugitive; it eluded common structures and approaches, and it functioned as a supplement, an aid to something unwitnessed. It never climaxed, evoking more than what it actually presented, thus revealing the inability of subjective memory to represent a concrete reality. Avoiding pretentiousness, Dalt managed to genuinely convey a plethora of transtextual references (e.g. vintage cinema, occultism, aesthetic theory, neorealism, postmodern metaphysics) carefully molded into a polysemous whole that privileged mood over style. By virtue of irresolute harmonic progressions, these pluralistic qualities left several unanswered questions, proving that the antithetical pairs lying at the core of Syzygy are still far from reaching an equilibrium. Lucrecia Dalt, instead of searching for a true self, acknowledged the existence of a crystallized one.
Sound number one on D/P/I’s Fresh Roses is Roy Orbison put through some extra warbly plugin from Alex Gray’s sound editor of choice. Orbison tells a little secret: in dreams, there are no rules. He then gets smacked in the mouth with some electrosquelch before he can double back to the original’s “but” about the “real world,” where there are “real goodbyes” and endings that “come to us in ways that we can’t rearrange.” From where Gray’s sitting on the other side of that sound editor, every ending (and beginning and middle) is rearrangeable. So, we swapped out real-world logic for dream logic, and accordingly, Fresh Roses’ breakneck skitter from traditional reference point to traditional reference point was, as Simon Chandler described it in his review, “much more immediate and indelible than anyone had any right to expect.” Despite (or maybe because of) that immediacy, Fresh Roses still did an awful lot to short circuit the received, to “shake the motherfucker out,” with its warped, scratched, and clickridden flicks at everything from off-kilter R&B, to pitched-down country, to motivational speaking. Turns out T. Swift was right again: we do end up dreaming instead of sleeping.
Chance Of Rain
Wait, now I’m confused. Are great artists supposed to suffuse every square inch of their work with a personal aesthetic vision and incredibly unique acumen and whatnot? Or should artists strive to obscure themselves completely and let the work stand alone as some sort of preexistent monolith to be discovered and interpreted after the fact? ‘Cause the way I figure it, Laurel Halo has gone and done it both ways, following 2012’s refreshingly gabby Quarantine with a slug-to-the-gut of stiff-lipped silence on this year’s Chance Of Rain. I’ll admit that the long, desolate stretches of stark and willfully impenetrable minimalist techno that followed Quarantine’s van Gogh-glowing after-party left me a little cold and confused at first. But then, well, I’ll tell you what: just let me know if you want me to spell out some metaphor involving solitary oysters keeping precious pearls locked away in icy secrecy down at the pitch-black depths of the ocean — and how it’s that very circumstance that comprises the condition of their being perceived as valuable by the human imagination — and I totally will. But I really think this whole blurb would be cooler if I just didn’t need to.
Music for Private Ensemble
If I may converse, for a moment, with Ransom, the sound, as well, “cannot be dispossessed of a primordial freshness, which ideas can never claim.” All year long, I’ve let words and music wrestle together in my mind. This entire enterprise, right here, is built upon the success of the former. More often than not, however, I think words stop short of saying anything meaningful about music at all. Perhaps this is a simple, stupid gesture of mystification. Perhaps it’s not. Because if there is a work that contains any amount of “primordial freshness,” what could I possibly have to say about it? Do I critique the stars exploding? Do I critique the rocks eroding? Do I critique the formations of clouds? The work of art is a composed thing, so yes, there are ideas at play insofar as certain sounds are organized. So there, then: Sean McCann’s Music for Private Ensemble is a stunning organization of sound. One of the year’s best. But today I have just as much, or rather as little, to say about it as when I first heard it. In that silence is the play of the world. Just listen and be amazed.
As the polarizing timbres of drone and noise seeped deeper into other genres, venues, and media outlets, “chamber music” trio Mohammad arose from the Greek experimental scene (by way of PAN honcho Bill Kouligas) to throw down the most physically exhaustive listening session of 2013: the 32 spellbinding minutes of Som Sakrifis. Cello (Nikos Veliotis), contrabass (Coti K.), and oscillators (ILIOS) locked into a state of immaculately synchronized sustain, sliding into each harmonic shift as if cresting isolated waves in a black Aegean Sea. Meanwhile, we floated alongside them, dog-paddling for our pathetic lives. Mohammad condensed the maximal low-end of Sunn 0))), the muted terror and tonal singularity of a Ligeti concerto, and Phill Niblock’s structural deliberation into their live conjurations, pouring forth a confident strain of drone music continents removed from the “misguided EBow experiments and ambient mediocrity” Birkut identified as the style’s status quo in his review. Divorced from conventional harmonies, form, and instrumentation, Som Sakrifis’s painstaking electro-acoustic intermodulations posed the most elemental questions to its listeners: “Is the volume high enough?” (No.) “Is my sound system accurately reproducing these tones?” (Maybe.) “So… What do I do now?” (Just sit, and listen.)
On Virgins, Tim Hecker gave us some of the most conflicted music of his career. The song titles said it all: “Stigmata” — hallowed pain; “Stab Variation” — an act of violence given classical form; “Incense at Abu Ghraib” — no parsing necessary. The word “virgins” itself signifies both innocence and its inevitable loss, and you could hear this same discord in the music: On “Live Room,” Hecker layered a simple repeating keyboard figure and cinematic undertones, only to pummel them with rusted-out shards of noise. In the opening moments of “Stigmata I,” bits of live recording were rearranged into a steady surge of throbbing sound, but eventually made way for the spare, glistening tones of the second half of “Stigmata II.” On the relentless and wild opening track “Prism,” Hecker employed veiled pianos and woozy speed-shifts; on the becalmed and gemlike “Black Refraction,” he channeled Satie. You get my point: Virgins was endlessly fascinating because of the internal conflicts, because of the careful details and surprising touches that Hecker and his collaborators so clearly labored over. It was persistent, spectral, and strange, a record we wanted to hear again the moment it ended.
Engravings is Matt Barnes a.k.a. Forest Swords’ debut album and his first release since 2010’s hugely acclaimed Dagger Paths EP to showcase more than a handful of his productions. The unhurried nature of that release schedule highlights Barnes’ working method of building multiple tracks in a piecemeal fashion, letting the results guide him toward the most appropriate format for their release. In this sense, Engravings crept up on its creator as much as it crept up on its listeners. On first encounter, it may have seemed rather bleak, but there was a real spark here, too, a genuine grasp of how to make sad sounds into twilight anthems. Hooks and riffs (there were plenty of them) were built from multiple decaying series of various distorted samples, while oblique, world-weary vocals were tweaked and smudged with dubwise studio flourishes. When a Lee Perry remix of “Thor’s Stone” dropped last month, it felt victoriously tautological: a conference of likeminds bringing the dub auteur nonpareil into the orbit of one of his more idiosyncratic disciples. (Engravings also brought out the best in critics: Rowan Savage’s review, a meditation upon the psychogeography of the Wirral, was one of the finest pieces of music writing I read all year.)
[Hippos In Tanks]
Jellyfish, Planetary Doom, and Other Trivia1: Arca permeated 2013. Within 30 seconds of &&&&&, he’d already colonized a spectrum of frequencies usually reserved for anti-rodent sonic repellents and malfunctioning bass amps. And everything in between. Maybe it’s reductive to say that the most interesting bit of the most interesting song on Yeezus was that noise — you know, the industrial clang of a printer-piston-sneezing-Guinea-Pig on “Hold My Liquor” — but it was Arca in split-second: aggressive yet intimate, emotive, disembodied from its productive context or sonic source yet inimitably him. In &&&&&, we got 26 minutes of such beguiling aural engagement, the Yeezus “black book” mentality turned on sounds, not names, with a millennial productivity. The Allee Effect, Trophic Cascades, and Shifting Baselines: While “the industry” continually sank like the hollow trawler we always knew it to be, mid-level big fish arguably got clogged like nuclear arteries, and prey turned to predator. &&&&&’s sounds alone were enough to make it feel enthrallingly contemporary, but its length, rapid disjunctions, and aesthetic accompaniments also felt removed from our expectations of a “mixtape.” The Rise of Slime: &&&&& was an ossification without bones. We adapt. And we love it.
1. Headings stolen from Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean, this year’s greatest real-world submarine dystopia.
Apparently we live in an increasingly sexualized world, a world infiltrated by a sex that has become the point of reference for all human worth and activity. At first I thought MIXTAP3 was just a continuation of this much-reported trend, a modish document of the various ways the young now mediate their selves and lives through the hormonal arts, or a detached exaggeration of how far culture has been debased in a media-saturated age. But something happened toward the end of my initial listen, in all defiance of the fact that it was late and I had my hi-fi set at a very neighbor-conscious level: I heard “Almostleaving,” and before the song was over, I fell in love, the mouth of “Sis” tracing both me and the bittersweet chorus through a shape that was as perfect as it was simple. Eventually, as the days wore on, I came to view MIXTAP3 not so much as part of the commodification of sex, but as its reverse, a voicing of the significance and sentiment that can be expressed even through “meaningless” carnality. But more than that, I came to view the album as pop music at its best.
Graham Lambkin / Jason Lescalleet
Since 2008, Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet have been dedicating their collaborative sonic worlds to the sounds, occurrences, and memories that make up our every day, the sort of mundanities that linger for a lifetime. Photographs, the final installment in their compendium, brought the listener there and back, exposing the subscriber to Lambkin’s and Lescalleet’s hometowns, as opposed to their respective residences on 2008’s The Breadwinner and 2010’s Air Supply. Just like with those releases, Photographs was primarily composed of the duos’ environment, this time adrift in their memories. Whereas The Breadwinner and Air Supply focused on the creaking doors and stirring ice teas that pervade their present lives, Photographs tackled their pasts, as heard through their present selves. We heard conversations with their families, turns signaled in Folkestone, UK, and traffic kvetching in Worcester, MA. We learned how they take their tea, how their towns have changed since their youths, what church was like. But we only heard fragments of their aural lives, only the background. We were sitting on a bench next to the duo, never quite making out the narrative. We were painted a detailed sonic picture of their daily lives, but it never quite added up. We left Photographs feeling as if we knew the two better, yet still there was a large enough void that we had to fill the audio with our own creaks, our own childhoods, our own truths.
Autre Ne Veut
Few things about music this year made me anxious like the continued depreciation of “making it.” There were plenty of artists who seemed to be doing everything right — starting with the art — but reaping shallow rewards: a couple months of heavy Tumblr reblogging here, a couple months of rent there. Few albums put this fear in me better than Anxiety. Autre Ne Veut’s second album featured gorgeous R&B melodies, Beautiful Dark Twisted-dense orchestration, lavishly brilliant songwriting, grooves seldom unfit for dancing, and a handful of stadium-sized hooks — plus ace production input from Ford & Lopatin. Critical acclaim was well-earned and everywhere, and I began to wonder why Arthur Ashin wasn’t headlining festivals or appearing in big-brand ad campaigns. But I suppose, upon reflection, that it makes some sense. These songs, generous as they are, expected a bit of commitment in return. Most of the brimming arrangements were finished with touches of Sun Ra skronk, galing noise, and other alien frictions. “Play By Play” and “World War,” the album’s masterful bookends, each built and teased the promise of chorus relief for nearly three minutes, before opting for a cathartic round instead. But it was never time wasted, and no one else this year reconciled such a cacophony of influences so beautifully. To give into Anxiety was to rediscover pop as a spiritual release.
Hip-hop’s first critic-proof album? There was little you could say about Yeezus that wasn’t already being said by Yeezus — the album spun circles around most contemporary positions on race. All its offenses — its narcissism, its sexual violence, its travesty of black power politics, its desecration of a Nina Simone classic — all of it was lit up by a singular moral vision, its dark extremes balanced against an impossible ideal. In fact, much of the hoopla surrounding Kanye seemed designed to miss his first and most serious point: his work is about “justice” — leveling the field, finding a balance, real standards, just awards. But this “justice” was as much artistic as it was personal and political, as much about Corbusier lamps as it was about the color line. Simply put, Yeezus was an achievement in minimalist architecture; its case was made by its own sensual design: equal distributions of weight and mass, the balance of light and dark, shrieking and silence, industrial noise and 1960s soul. Beyond all that, Yeezus was just plain hilarious, a comedy of delayed croissants, crashed Corollas, and cunnilingual condiments. Kanye hasn’t been this funny in years, and his laughter here affirmed as it softened the prickliness of his positions. With Yeezus, Kanye has earned his “mad reputation,” his “bad reputation,” and even his “Brad reputation,” proving once again that mainstream hip-hop can be a source of genuine innovation, political dissent, and even fun.
We first approached Pharmakon’s debut album Abandon with hopes it would numb the curiosity that followed “Crawling on Bruised Knees.” The track came as a warning rather than an introduction to Margaret Chardiet’s aesthetic, a warning that most of us chose to ignore because of how fierce, confrontational, and alive it sounded. Not only did Abandon then swallow us whole, charging us with the coldest blows of torment and naked honesty amidst a blood-curdling cocktail of power electronics and noise, but it also set us on a masochistic loop, where we kept going back to the music as though it could offer us something other than wretched agony. The return trip was sickening, because once you’ve already suffered Chardiet’s grit in splicing instances of unsettled quiet with nauseating unease, you were fully aware of what the experience entailed and already knew how the album made you feel. But a proneness for repeat listens didn’t clearly demarcate the sane from the depraved; Abandon might have been one of the most traumatic albums of the year, but it was also one of the most technically accomplished, where distress and delight were welded at the hip of this infernal creature, which kept dragging us back for more. And there was no respite. And there was no reprieve.
Loud City Song
An album about a film about a musical about a book — how charmingly postmodern! Yet Julia Holter’s experimentalism was, rather, coolly modernist and of the subtlest kind. Like the stack interchanges of L.A. — the city that forms the album’s other inspiration — Holter weaved Collette’s text together with those of the alluringly alliterative Loos, Lerner and Loewe. Loud City Song’s determined yet lightly-worn erudition allowed it to inhabit a pop realm without falling into the sin spoken of by Gigi’s Gaston: “The only people who make love all the time are liars.” In an invisible city somewhere between Paris and the City of Angels, horns surrounded one: brass or vehicular, both were transmuted into ethereal, crystalline gorgeousness that retained a paradoxically demanding immediacy. And here were strings, constructing not so much concrete as catgut jungles, Fantasia-style, with a leisurely cruise of a detour via Allegro Non Troppo. If Art Nouveau made sweetly incestuous love to Art Deco, their progeny might cry (but for milk only in un café noisette, or even for a flute of champagne) a little like this. Bienvenue chez Maxim’s, invited Holter, but, modifying the maxim, added: know that you can’t step into the same Maxim’s twice…
[Hippos in Tanks/World Music]
Same champagne, different pourer, different hotel. That was how Dean Blunt described the relationship between his two superb releases this year. On balance, Stone Island may well have been the tighter of the two. But for the staff here at TMT, it was The Redeemer that ultimately proved the more disorienting, that hit harder, that seemed to matter more in the end. In part, that was simply because it came first. This was the record that introduced us to Blunt’s strange, new, and eclectic sound, with its surprising rearticulation and extension of familiar conceptual concerns. Gone suddenly were the cool lo-fi veneer and sense of distance that had characterized his previous work. In its place, a newfound directness and apparent sincerity, even to the point of being sentimental: great tunes, heartfelt lyrics, lush strings, fluttering harps, fragile guitars, buttery vocals, all shot through with rampant religious references. Except that this is Blunt, and things are never quite as they seem. So much of what provided The Redeemer with its sense of weight turned out to have been shamelessly borrowed: from 16th-century Germany to 90s R&B. What was really remarkable though was just how little this seemed to matter, precisely that it failed to undermine any of the record’s peculiar emotional force. That, in the end, was The Redeemer’s great trick: to prove that neither Blunt nor his rampant appropriation were ever in need of redemption to begin with.
Oneohtrix Point Never
R Plus Seven
Even when arpeggiating himself into the bleak, endless vistas of his early releases, cradling his dusty Juno-60 synth like a baby, Oneohtrix Point Never was never a retro-futurist. Daniel Lopatin’s concerns were on a more semiotic level, excavating the tropes of New Age music and recasting them into dark, sinister voyages from an unknown origin to an undetermined destination. It was a rescue mission, in a way, but by the time Replica was released — which was aided in large part by the conceptual/formal breakthrough that was Eccojams Vol. 1 — Lopatin had abandoned his tautological explorations for an exhibition of sampled loops and arch textual investigations. The gaze was replaced by fetishistic representation, the synth key by a vast digital archive, the musical note by TV commercials. But Lopatin’s concerns were similar: sensual verticality, the appropriation of the forgotten, the articulation of despair forged by the very tools that originally shaped our tainted, imperfect worldview.
If Replica was Lopatin’s conceptual magnum opus, then R Plus Seven was his crowning perceptual achievement, the moment he switched from theory to sensation. The album, more than any since Far Side Virtual (James Ferraro, 2011) and 札幌コンテンポラリー (情報デスクVIRTUAL, 2012), focused our attention not only on the actual sounds — the timbres, their affects — but also on our preconceptions that had once led us to dismiss MIDI presets and simulated software as “cheesy,” “generic,” and “inauthentic.” Lopatin knew that the sound of church organs (“Boring Angel”), digital horns (“Zebra”), “world music” percussion (“Americans”), double bass (“Problem Areas”), and synthetic choirs (“Still Life”) were already weighed down by historical and cultural baggage, but his approach here was materialist: these are sound objects, no more “real” or “fake” than any other. This resulted in no less than an unravelling of entrenched musical constructions, the removal of needlessly negative associations, and the reinvigoration of an entire host of sounds, whose faceless plasticity was both accentuated and recontextualized by stark contrasts and odd juxtapositions. It was indeed “still life,” in a simulated, staged kind of way, arranged sonic material whose very dimensional essence was wrought by the space between musical events, time expressing their material existence by default.
But this was time according to Daniel Lopatin, and in Lopatonian time, the affect was characterized by gaseous exhales, angelic crescendos, and narrative carrot-dangling, all of which constituted an oblique momentum hinged on sonic inertia and tonal compression rather than rhythmic trajectory and melodic desire. The march was forward, but it was stuttered and unpredictable, oftentimes abruptly and unceremoniously short-circuited by chopped vocal samples (“Still Life”), emergency tones (“Americans”), and anonymous sweeps (“Inside World”), just before decay and decompression could finish the stories. This wormhole effect, especially to the degree that it was employed, was jarring, frustrating, completely manipulative. But it also meticulously reinforced the present, with our minds tuning out and our bodies attuning themselves to the jagged edits that stood in for an aesthetics of failure. The resulting environment was rigid and claustrophobic, but also surreal and exaggerated, where sax tones extended artificially long and choir voices scaled complex melodies in impossibly quick succession, where even the sounds of nature — ambient birdcalls, splashing water — were subjected to Lopatin’s warped touch. In the face of such aggressive production, the album’s peculiar geometry raised topological questions concerning boundary and continuity, with these sound objects liquefying, morphing, mutating, conjoining, pulsating, bubbling into and out of one another in an incestuous freakshow orgy of contoured tones. Nothing felt fixed or comfortable, and everything felt amorphous, fluid, implied. Everything felt slightly off.
And in 2013, slightly off was exactly what we needed. Let’s face it: Lopatin is an archaeological exploiter, a sound fetishist, an appropriation artist who so clearly understands music production and how audiences respond to sonic stimuli that one might be suspicious of his aims. But while there is nothing wrong with splashing cold water on your audience, Lopatin wasn’t interested in an antagonistic, conceptual critique here, and he certainly wasn’t launching an attack on the complacency of his audience. There was no front, no theoretical framework, no need to understand Schwizgebel, Oulipo, Latour, or speculative realism. His primary aim with R Plus Seven was to simply create something beautiful using a language that challenged and seduced him. The result? A swarm of listeners rallying around a digital saxophone preset, which programmatically rose to the occasion and programmatically affected us wholesale.
50. Lil Ugly Mane - Three Sided Tape [Volumes One and Two] (Self-Released)
49. Foodman - Shokuhin (Orange Milk)
48. Frog Eyes - Carey’s Cold Spring (Self-Released)
47. These New Puritans - Field Of Reeds (Infectious)
46. Paisley Parks - Бｈ○§† (Pan Pacific Playa)
45. Earn - Hell On Earth (Bathetic)
44. Grouper - Man Who Died In His Boat (Kranky)
43. The Dead C - Armed Courage (Ba Da Bing!)
42. Huerco S - Colonial Patterns (Software)
41. Death Grips - Government Plates (Self-Released)
40. Jenny Hval - Innocence Is Kinky (Rune Grammofon)
39. Chief Keef - Almighty So (Self-Released)
38. Ahnnu - World Music (Leaving)
37. Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light (Constellation)
36. Wolf Eyes - No Answer: Lower Floors (De Stijl)
35. Julianna Barwick - Nepenthe (Dead Oceans)
34. The Flaming Lips - The Terror (Warner Bros.)
33. Lee Noble - Ruiner (Bathetic)
32. Nmesh - Nu.wav Hallucinations (AMDISCS)
31. Matana Roberts - COIN COIN Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile (Constellation)
30. Bill Callahan - Dream River (Drag City)
29. The Body - Christs, Redeemers (Thrill Jockey)
28. Stara Rzeka - Cien chmury nad ukrytym polem (Instant Classic)
27. Danny Brown - Old (Fool’s Gold)
26. Inga Copeland - Higher Powers (Self-Released)
25. James Blake - Overgrown (Republic)
24. Dirty Beaches - Drifters/Love Is the Devil (Zoo Music)
23. My Bloody Valentine - m b v (Self-Released)
22. Bill Orcutt - History Of Every One (Editions Mego)
21. Andrew Pekler - Cover Versions (Senufo Editions)
20. DJ Rashad - Double Cup (Hyperdub)
19. Dean Blunt - Stone Island (Self-Released)
18. The Knife - Shaking Habitual (Mute)
17. James Ferraro - NYC, HELL 3:00 AM (Hippos in Tanks)
16. Lucrecia Dalt - Syzygy (Human Ear Music)
15. D/P/I - Fresh Roses (Chance Images)
14. Laurel Halo - Chance Of Rain (Hyperdub)
13. Sean Mccann - Music For Private Ensemble (Recital)
12. Mohammad - Som Sakrifis (PAN)
11. Tim Hecker - Virgins (Kranky)
10. Forest Swords - Engravings (Tri Angle)
09. Arca - &&&&& (Hippos in Tanks)
08. 18+ - MIXTAP3 (Self-Released)
07. Graham Lambkin / Jason Lescalleet - Photographs (Erstwhile)
06. Autre Ne Veut - Anxiety (Software)
05. Kanye West - Yeezus (Roc-A-Fella)
04. Pharmakon - Abandon (Sacred Bones)
03. Julia Holter - Loud City Song (Domino)
02. Dean Blunt - The Redeemer (Hippos in Tanks)
01. Oneohtrix Point Never - R Plus Seven (Warp)