London Grammar – If You Wait
Dessa – Parts of Speech
Foxygen – We are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic
Barn Owl – V
Drowner – You’re Beautiful, I Forgive You
Gold Panda – Half of Where You Live
My Bloody Valentine – mbv
Vinnie Paz – Carry on Tradition
Hubble – Hubble Eagle
Deafheaven – Sunbather
20 Inspectah Deck + 7L & Esoteric – Czarface
Czarface is about what you’d expect it to be – a menacing, killer rap album punching with doomsday beats, and whether ironically or not, it’s great for the very reasons for which it resembles Uncontrolled. Check the rhymes though, check the flow – it’s all that tight, it will all “take you on a lyrical high,” as they say, hypnotic and soothing for anyone who goes into dangerous situations in life and takes risks.
19 Junip – Junip
Don’t let the ranking belie them, Junip is a proud kinfolk to My Morning Jacket, both in ability to convey haunting feelings and that to bewitch and inspire with sheer variety of instrumentation. Jose Gonzalez shares Jim James’ penchant for leaving off early in phrases, such as would Thom Yorke (“Dollars and Cents”), leaving space for the imagination, and for the crawling synths and bass to paint their own portrait on the canvas. As powerful in its quietude as it is warming in its wealth of botanic melody, Junip edifies upon each subsequent listen and provides background for a Grammy or VMA performance in the near future. Ok, maybe that’s pushing it.
18 Born Ruffians – Birthmarks
Born Ruffians singer Luke Lalonde sounds amazingly akin to Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes. But true to the ol’ rule of thumb, they’re from east of the Mississippi River (Toronto), so their music is full of heavy percussion. Such is the wont, these days, of mainstream pop, too, whether it’s Selena Gomez, Robin Thicke or HAIM, or whoever, and sure, it’s nauseating, but, appropriate especially since the band toured with Hot Chip, the Ruffians’ stuff just BREATHES so well, and it’s got a way of making itself scarce, maximizing Lalonde’s pipes, which are kinda the Midwest’s new thing, or at least almost as good as James Mercer’s. A little too poignant to be played on the radio or in a grocery store, the Ruffians fuse punk and electronic better than anyone I’ve ever heard, on “Rage Flows.”
17 Camera Obscura – Desire Lines
Desire Lines gives new meaning to the word “worn.” Going with the titular image of a face being chiseled by time’s unfortunate complications, the style is both “worn” and “time worn,” meaning time-honored. Thousands of bands have used these chords. Thousands of bands have used these tempos, instruments, studios, production techniques. So sure, Tracyanne Campbell’s Scottish accent is endearing, but the music lover at work will relish that the band’s growth manifests itself in the album’s nooks and crannies, most of all in the forerunner “William’s Heart,” which brandishes whip-like guitar flares and inflections of youthful resignation.
16 The Dodos – Carrier
Christopher Reimer of the now defunct Women had toured with Dodos in support of the lackluster No Color before his death, and you might say Carrier is the rehashing of the artistic energy Reimer brought. Most important of all, at work here, is the tension. Carrier is about as good as was Visiter’s follower Time to Die, but for opposite reasons – instead of being a repetition in which the band outdo themselves with melody and sympathy, the statements are private, spare and subtle, almost straddling the line between proud and melancholy, earnestness and disbelief.
15 Cut Copy – Free Your Mind
The cokemachineglow.com critic preferred Zonoscope to Free Your Mind, but I find something renewed here, personally, that was lacking on its predecessor – undeniable, incisive emotion contained in the vocal timbre. This may be why the band has the courage to stylistically scale back. Free Your Mind is nicely devoid of synth wankery, and, though it may be harder than ever to viably call them a dance quartet, with the band’s robust confidence in less-is-more emphasis on the clear artistic statements and the songs themselves, Free Your Mind still plays like a revelation, and Dan Whitford’s quips and struggles, tactile and pliable as ever, precipitate nicely the his status as a heroic, revoluationary dance emcee.
14 Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
Boards of Canada are a great example of a band making the most of the electronic genre. Everything seems new here, and the inspiration is channeled and galvanized through fresh, valiantly abrasive synths and drums, warped to interlock with the unique 2013 muse at hand. There is absolutely no better way to kill an hour. Which is a sad thing to have to do, but extant nonetheless.
13 Califone – Stitches
Califone is a band I’ve been calling my favorite since Roots and Crowns came out in 2006. The lead singer is Chicago’s Tim Rutilli, formerly of Red Red Meat, who’s apparently got a fixation on underwhelming titled tracks. I say this because, just as they prominently displayed this all-acoustic performance of “Funeral Singers” online, my first experience with Stitches was hearing its namesake song, which was the only one available pre-release, on the band’s website. Soothing, but ultimately a walk-through when pitted against other contenders here. I heard the slide guitar-heavy, harkening jangler of opener “Movie Music Kills a Kiss” at the show I saw, which was also before I’d heard the album, and this was a memorably keen experience. Which will make for a pleasant surprise when the listener notices that the album is filled with fully sovereign classics, like “Magdalene,” which stylistically nods to “Spider’s House” from Roots and Crowns, but vanquishes tension in 3 / 4, Rutilli summoning his most esoteric genius, nestling the titular character beneath the second verse, under soaked leaves and ancient, undeniable images.
12 Tricky – False Idols
Like all Tricky’s Best stuff, False Idols works because it carries the shining workhorse characteristics of hip-hop as, if not its primary draw, at least its most stalwart benchmark. There’s a freedom just oozing from dark and subtle tracks like “Bonnie & Clyde,” wherein tension is clearly made to be broken, and by the most inspirationally quirky voices of the postmodern era. As usual, Tricky’s tone comes across drowned in desperation and hopelessness, and, bless his heart, it all seems pretty genuine. Pair this with the punctilious care of restraint and space employed in False Idols’ production, and you have a masterpiece for, if not Christmastime, definitely the cold wind that blows around, say, January 9.
11 SAINT PEPSI – Hit Vibes
Transcendent dance music with a heavy disco influence but informed by contemporary guitar pop, Hit Vibes is clearly produced with an understanding for rock music, as well. The drums, for the majority of “Better” sound straight from Weezer’s garage, but HeatStroke, one of the album’s many producers, lets his expertise ooze through the cracks of fills and phrasing changes with an almost zen-like understanding of space and sound, so that the party surrounds you the way it should.
10 Deerhunter – Monomania
No matter how sick you are of crappy, formulaic new radio music, you can take that and multiply it by 10, and that’s how Deerhunter lead singer Bradford Cox is. You can hear this sense in Monomania’s obstinate defiance of sonic complacence. Each stab of the ornery, jerky, bad-hair guitar seems so self-sufficient in its Dadaist wizardry that you can’t help relaxing your fist and sticking your chest out a bit, knowing you’re safe under the idyllic canopy of a true, genuine madness. Aping Ty Segall’s move toward rockabilly on “Pensacola,” Cox does him one better by enforcing a rhythmic infrastructure with debris-addled tendrils of abrasive newness under every guitar and drum, so that a song so simple and catchy really sounds cathartic and rocks you out.
9 Kurt Vile – Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze
I wonder if Kurt Vile’s name is actually Kurt. He definitely resembles the Northwest grunge namesakes, so it would be quite the coincidence. And Daze most certainly isn’t hazy, like Smoke Ring for My Halo was. It sounds incredibly new though. Any true original guitarist of today is also a technician, and in order to achieve the perfect sound you have to really master your craft, and to master it you have to really love it, practically sleep with a guitar under your pillow, that kind of thing. He earns the moniker as remaining just his name, not because of any successful attention-grabbing as an individual, but for the way his tentacles stretch across Daze as vocalist and guitarist, each sharing the limelight and unpredictable.
8 Speedy Ortiz – Major Arcana
Speedy Ortiz’s stylistics themselves are the band’s primary draw, Sadie Dupuis bellowing in a rich Lucinda Williams tone over mammoth drums and snap-crackling guitar all evenly produced, but the reason it’s been so well-received is that it passes the most important time-honored test: it avoids wearing out its welcome and leaves you wanting more. Never fearfully veering from pop culture and brutal honesty, see song titles like “Cash Cab” and “Tiger Tank,” the quartet lets the songs themselves be the comfort food, the state-of-the-art backing band threshing out the cold reality there will be someone trying to steal this comfort.
7 Mount Eerie – Pre-Human Ideas
It’s hard for me to think of anything to write about Mount Eerie. I could see living up in the Northwest (a geographical region I sort of diss later in this post, actually), getting by more easily without a car, working here and there to afford $150/month rent, and dedicating a colossal amount of time to dissecting, understanding and reciting Phil Elverum’s entire discography, but as with all things, this is best left to the native. We as Americans spend so much time every week getting our intelligence thoroughly insulted by things like made-for-TV dramas, Velveeta cheese, jumbo automotive vehicles and well, Lewis Black, that when, at least I, hear another thoroughly well-crafted, unorthodox but clear LP from this guy, I’m sort of disarmed, and rendered putty in its hand. Not saying I wouldn’t like to meet someone someday who takes ardent scruple to all the thematic copouts in Pre-Human Ideas’ lyrics, but I don’t see this happening here in the Midwest, and it sure as hell won’t be me.
6 Ka – Night’s Gambit
I used to give this lecture that was real doomsday, basically about how music has progressed to the ultimate point – that is, people getting on the mic and not even singing, just yelling at you what their point is, and yet there’s still injustice and dismissal of the needy in our world. Whether or not starvation and humanitarian wrongdoing are ever vanquished, Night’s Gambit will always stand for the seasoned hip-hop fan as a stellar indication that, at least, music can keep getting better. It’s gritty as the New York streets (glad to see it made the VV’s top 10), but familiar and immediately enjoyable for any appreciator of the genre in the world at large. 2012 brought us R.A.P. Music, the epitome of what we think of us “hype,” so we should feel extra lucky that 2013 yielded such a subdued gem.
5 Phoenix – Bankrupt!
At a certain point, Phoenix is just Phoenix. Unlike Kanye, they don’t differ very much, stylistically, from their prior release for ol’ ’13. But it is the one minute difference, the headway-galvanizing synth opera that is the titled track, that cements Bankrupt! right around Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix for perennial playability. I still remember Pitchfork describing Amadeus as “breezy,” and that’s still what Phoenix is. They’re obviously painfully cool, so much so that the song that makes you tense up and look at your computer, iPod or whatever gadgetry you boast with a furrowed brow is the one that’s called “Trying to be Cool.” Which makes it all the more satisfying when they have the courage to get a little awkward and essentially dumb on “The Real Thing.”
4 Kanye West – Yeezus
There are times when I feel like the current generation of youngsters doesn’t really have a subversive, let-yourself-go iconic pop culture idol, the way Eminem was for me when I was in high school. Then I remember, he’s just old! He’s so… old! And so from on the I-94 rust belt, just like Michael Jackson, and Shady himself. But I guess he still is a new slave. Whadyu wanna know? If you hate Kanye, you’re going to hate Yeezus.
It’s funny, I read this live review on cokemachineglow.com of a Kanye show at Seattle’s domed arena, totally dissing the show. It’s like, dude, what do you expect? What kind of moron would go to a Kanye show, let alone one in the Pacific Northwest? “Where (he’s) from the dope boys is the rock stars.” Do you have excessive ear wax build up preventing you from absorbing his lyrics? He’s not rapping to people who can afford an $80 or whatever ticket, what’s more he’s primarily and quintessentially a master of the studio. Also anyone keen on music should have seen that his opening acts were overrated and played out – Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus. Say, Actress and Killer Mike would have been way better. I dunno, Northwest, I really hope you get what’s good for you, I hope all your qualms in life are absolved, your cravings met, I really hope you ever furnish a single powerful hip-hop emcee from your entire geographical region, but for now may I please be so bold as to assert that you’re not exactly experts on the genre.
3 Iceage – You’re Nothing
If 1991 was the year punk broke, 2013 is the year Iceage put it back together. Luckily for us, they’re sick and twisted, and Elias Bender Ronnenfelt sounds like he’s just spent the idyllic, jolly sunny afternoon rubbing his wrists against rusty nails and wearing a red dress and lipstick to the game-watching festivity held by his all-male dormitory at a conservative Catholic university. On You’re Nothing, a largely Pavement-influenced, somewhat Clash-influenced, 40-minute noise fest of a classic punk LP, Ronnenfelt himself drags his way along existentialism’s lonely, unbeaten path, where the sidewalk ends, where his dreams die, and where his vocal chords cackle, spewing the very last strain of frustration that will ever be relevant in 2013.
2 Ghostface Killah – Twelve Reasons to Die “The Brown Tape”
It’s hard to imagine GZA making a mixtape. Each of his albums seems to paint its own distinctive picture of the emcee’s current environment, and they’ve all, by now, come full circle: Liquid Swords a ground zero account of ghetto life, Legend of the Liquid Sword more of a bone to pick with industry, and Pro Tools looking back on that ghetto life from the perspective of third person, but with all but every bit the intensity of the first go-round.
Ghostface just gets on the mic and raps about fu**in’ people up. But who else could do it for this long, with so much tenacity, and so much entertaining slang flaring from his hip holsters? These beats are fun and playful, like Maximillion’s usually are, but nothing feels suffocated, and nothing feels like an excessive attempt to form a cohesive, album-long concept. I give props to Pretty Toney for knowing what he wanted to do here – create an inclusive party atmosphere on which he can showcase his chops, deified in their knack for maximizing temporal space.
1 DJ-Kicks: John Talabot
It took about three seconds of listening to the middle portion of a randomly selected song on DJ-Kicks: John Talabot, “Klinsmann,” for me to discern that it was my favorite album of this year. Dance is the most vital musical genre in today’s world, see Yeezus, and Talabot simply does it best. It’s debatable as to whether or not it’s ironic that those who try to do this exact thing – a very textbook HALA-like sort of balanced, melodic brand of IDM – like Talabot, fail miserably: see Disclosure. Whereas extreme departures from normalcy of meter and opacity level, a la Tomorrow’s Harvest, are always welcome, whether or not you, like me, take them as operative concessions to Talabot the current prominent champion.
Admittedly, I wasn’t that in tune with the functionality of a DJ-Kicks album – what actually went on that warranted the title, how seriously it were taken by the “compiler,” but I was made extremely skeptical of the whole operation by Four Tet’s installment, which featured Stereolab’s “Les Yper-Sound,” a pretty famous song, practically, to my by no means expert nor novice ear, completely unvarnished. Whether or not JT is likewise guilty of this sort of protozoa-like laziness, his sonic stamp seems to be all over this record, and he has chosen more arcane material sources. When the lights start strobing, and your conscience doesn’t give you anything but a “Let’s dance,” there’s no one you should hope for more than this guy, he’ll trip you out.