2013, from my narrow musical experience, seems to be the year that saw experimental music reign supreme. Which is something I’m certainly not complaining about. Whether it be because of the rocky political climate or the unceasingly turbulent meteorological climate, the past twelve months certainly begat a lot of dark, chaotic but ultimately beautiful music and I had a hell of a time listening to it all. As we’re settling into what’s already an abrasively cold winter, I would like to reflect on the music and albums that made 2013 a pretty wonderful year, not in spite of but BECAUSE of its darkness.
1. Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Volume 3: To See More Light
Alright, what can I say about this year’s most esteemed release on my little list? Colin Stetson is, above all else in my mind, a really talented musician. Stetson knows how to play a fucking saxophone, yet he never seems to overstep his own bounds as, essentially, a solo artist. The pieces and elements of all his songs are incredibly basic; his technique is consistent and unaltered song to song, but each peace has a very delicately crafted emotional statement under the instrumentation. He’s able to take the same basic raw materials and explore every single nuance of how those materials work together to create 11 really compelling songs.
But aside from the skill he clearly possesses in actually playing his instrument, the album itself feels almost poetically flawed and fractured in the specific way it’s executed. In each song, the instrument is being pushed to the point of distortion at all times. It’s as if the reed of the saxophone is about to crack in half at any moment. And the vocals are unlike anything I’ve ever heard: they’re primal and scary and strange and interesting and add an incredible richness to the already viscerally powerful music. For as technically impressive as this album is, its lack of form and sense of immediacy is what makes this album great.
I’ve loved Julia Holter since the first instant I heard her music. I actually had no idea who she was until last year’s gorgeous and expansive album Ekstasis, at which time my eyes turned to pinwheels. What Julia does here in Loud City Song that’s so successful, which is completely different than what made Ekstasis so successful, is the strange balance she teeters on between desolation and intimacy. This record feels very urban in a way that its predecessor did not, capturing a strange sense of coldness and loneliness in between moments of massive intensity. This is something that Julia Holter and Colin Stetson very much share: a stark sensibility of immediacy. Each murmur of her vocals feels unscripted, carrying a presence and honesty that couples beautifully with the sparse instrumentation. But some songs that start out with a quiet solitude can build into an exciting, baroque and even scary crescendo. And having seen Julia Holter perform live a number of times, her sets are all COMPLETELY different. So, needless to say, this woman has many sides, and each one is more interesting than the last.
Danny Brown’s latest album, Old, is a lot of fucking fun. The thing about that really stands out is its total sense of substantive confidence. “Side A” opens with a bang and delivers on every level possible from start to finish. The beat feels incredibly tight and fresh in a way that I don’t see in a lot in contemporary hip-hop, the lyrics are beautifully personal and the music ices off the cake with a dark but empowering underscore. It’s one of the most perfect album openers I’ve heard in a while. From that moment on, Old is just one delicious track after another. Danny Brown is in a bit of a class all his own here; he’s able to stay completely modern in his approach but crafts tracks that sound big, important but still elegantly simple. Each moment of this album is concisely constructed and completely enjoyable from beginning to end. No moment is wasted here.
Tim Hecker has had a pretty great career making music. He’s made what seems like a fuckload of music in the last decade and every single thing he’s put out has been completely amazing. However, 2011’s Ravedeath, 1972, while a total sonic and sensory orgasm as usual, was arguably “more of the same” when it comes to Tim Hecker’s catalog. I loved it and it was delightfully spontaneous and experimental but it wasn’t exactly a discovery to the world. But THEN he puts out Virgins, which could so easily have fallen into the same pattern but instead completely threw us all for a loop. From the first seconds of this album, Tim Hecker creates songs that are enormously complex, wild, and convoluted but in a way that we’ve never quite heard before. His music sounds like the soundtrack to a movie about a young boy who loses his virginity on top of the empire state building…to Lucifer…in a clown costume…during a rainstorm. It’s wild and unpredictable. It’s also notable that here he’s not afraid to be downright DARK. He really embraces the macabre on this release. But while playing with the usual conventions of avant garde, formless synth music, everything sounds somehow new. It sounds like a musician stepping a bit out of his comfort zone to create something that sounds labored over, but in the best possible way. It doesn’t have as much of a sense of layers flowing into one another but it sounds like elements bumping into one another creating a beautiful and tense musical experience. It’s good to know people can still surprise you in this day and age.
Hey, remember that time you realized that Morrissey didn’t release a new record this year and that it wasn’t Another Sunny Day you were listening to either but that it was a really a Girls Names record playing all along? Me too. Girls names are a kind of melancholy surf-rock, indiepop revival that really seemed to come out of nowhere a few years ago. Their breakout LP, Dead To Me, really tickled a lot of people’s fancy with its moody vocals, affected, twangy riffs and juicy melodies. This record is everything a follow up should be: it’s bigger, it has more attitude and is a little more mature but still very much carrying the same charm that won you over to begin with. The New Life feels a bit freer and more open though. The songwriting is still tight and full of tasty hooks, but it transcends the more conventional pop structure that dominated the last release. The lightness that previously helped keep their songs afloat has been dimmed because they’re not afraid to let something be exactly what it is for as long as it needs to be. In short, Girls Names have taken a beautiful picture and hung it on the wall in a big glassy frame over some flowers.
6. The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
I never liked The Knife (at all) until I heard Shaking the Habitual and now I don’t know how I ever lived without them. This record is fearless, huge, and provocatively well produced.
7. Skin Town – The Room
If any one of these songs doesn’t make you want to tear off your clothes and get into a hot tub with someone who turns you on but who scares you a little bit then there’s something wrong with you.
8. Liam Singer – Arc Iris
“The Astronaut” is perhaps the most impressive song I heard this year. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a musician with such strange, complex, tiring but beautiful melodies.
9. My Bloody Valentine – m b v
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. My Bloody Valentine have made another really great Shoegaze album.
10. Medicine – To The Happy Few
11. Dirty Beaches – Drifters/Love is the Devil
Dirty Beaches is like the movie score for your life that’s way better than the one you’d already written for yourself. Also, do you think he’s ever listened to Suicide before?
12. Julianna Barwick – Nepenthe
A really beautiful album made by a woman who knows how to make people feel like they want to take Ambien. Or that they maybe already did.
13. Forest Swords – Engravings
Not quite as obnoxious as Gang Gang Dance. This album suits a drive to work nicely if you fancy feeling like your life is more exciting than it really is.
14. Picnic – The Weather’s Fine
The best Indiepop record you never heard.
15. Speedy Ortiz – Major Arcana
Did someone say smoking dope and eating burritos? Yes please.
16. Disclosure – Settle
I don’t care if they’re like 15, they make me wanna dance!!!
17. Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt
Give me a lesbian (I’m assuming) and a guitar ANY day.
18. Marnie Stern – The Chronicles of Marnia
She’s weird. And fun. I like that.
19. Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus
So intense it’s just spooky.
20. Crocodiles – Crimes of Passion
There’s nothing wrong with being cool and fun and giving people what they want. Right?
Honorable Mention: Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus Seven