Can we agree that this was a great year for music? There were a few surprises in 2013—was anyone expecting the return of Nine Inch Nails?—and I was also delighted to discover that two of my favorite LPs came from major artists who I had all but written off (Arcade Fire and Kanye).
Personally: 2013 will forever be know to me as the year I made my first record. I worked. A lot. When I wasn’t at my actual job (I’m an interactive designer for an agency in downtown Chicago, which I enjoy very much) I spent countless hours writing, then recording, then mixing the album. It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s made an LP before that it’s not easy, but this was the year that I learned exactly what that means. And I hope that the effort pays off in 2014.
I also moved in with my girlfriend—a first for me—and so far it’s been great. She’s pretty amazing, and her 3-year old Shiba Inu, named David Bowie, may be the greatest dog I’ve ever met.
Later this year you can expect the first City States LP (more on that in the coming weeks); I also hope to release full-length albums from two different electronic projects I’ve been chipping away at—Modal Voices is a Steve Reich-influenced project that I announced back in June; the second, which doesn’t have a name yet, is going to be noisier and more free-form, in the vein of Merzbow and the last Sam Prekop record.
Anyway, here’s my top 10, an extended version of the tweets I posted yesterday. My full top 30 is below.
10. Devendra Banhart - Mala: This is an album that seems to have gone largely unnoticed. That’s a shame: the low-fi Tascam 8-track recordings provide the subtlest hint of early Ween, while Banhart’s lyrics provide a degree of wit that I never would have expected from him (however: I just read that his backup band was for many years known as “Spiritual Bonerz,” a good indicator that my surprise over his sense of humor means that I really just haven’t been paying attention.).
09. Kanye West - Yeezus: All boorish misogyny aside, this is as gutsy of a record I’ve heard all year from an artist of West’s visibility. And even though a few mid-record tracks fall flat for me, the squelchy, industrial-influenced distortion of “On Sight” is an absolute stunner.
08. James Blake - Overgrown: To be honest, I had hoped for a bit more adventurousness from of Blake’s second LP. In spite of my expectations, however, Overgrown is a start-to-finish great record.
07. Jesu - Every Day I Get Closer To The Light From Which I Came: On a personal level, Justin K Broadrick is about as important of a musical influence as I can think of—I made my way through early high school with Godflesh, and it was through reading interviews with him that I discovered the likes of Swans, Throbbing Gristle, SPK, and Whitehouse; I also realized today that the debut album from his Final side project was likely the first ambient album I ever owned, another landmark.
So it’s actually kind of awesome that his musical evolution seems to have dovetailed with my taste—which is to say that he’s somewhat sidestepped the aggression of his early Godflesh albums in favor of Jesu’s sincerity. With specific respect to the Jesu catalog, Every Day ranks right up there with the early Heartache and Silver EPs (which, if I’m not mistaken, the former was the first album I wrote about as a track reviewer for Pitchfork back in 2004). Beautiful.
06. Arcade Fire - Reflektor: I went in to my first listen through Reflektor with some serious reservations—The Suburbs, to my ears, was a slog, and after reading that the LP was going to be 86 minutes long, I went in with low expectations.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered that virtually all of my expected criticisms of the album are, in fact, very much woven into the fabric of Reflektor—AND YET—I still think that is pretty fantastic. Is that the sign of a great record—an album that manages to not only survive, but transcend some serious flaws?
05. Sigur Ros - Kveikur: Jonsi and company have generally not lacked critical praise or commercial success in the last decade, and yet I still feel like the transformation Sigur Ros made for Kveikur has gone under-appreciated. These guys brought in some heavy Einsturzende Neubauten and King Crimson influence on this LP, and it works like magic. Moreover: much to my surprise, it may be my favorite album that they’ve ever made.
04. Roedelius & Schneider - Tiden: I’ve probably listened to this record more than any other released this year. In some ways it’s exactly what you’d expect from half of the electronic duo Cluster, paired with one of the members of To Rococo Rot—simple piano figures, subtle electronic textures, vamped melodies. Its charms may be par for the course, that doesn’t mean it’s not excellent.
03. Majical Cloudz - Impersonator: The creepy midnight-black inverse of James Blake’s boyish breeziness, Impersonator is simultaneously unsettling and breathtaking. “Childhoods End,” in particular, with its heart-stopping refrain, is my top song of 2013 (I wrote about the track at length earlier this year).
02. Serengeti - The Kenny Dennis LP: Equal parts hilarious, inventive, bizarre, and touching, Serengeti’s latest may feature his most effortless rhymes to date. For those unfamiliar, Kenny Dennis is the rapper’s jokey alter-ego, a Southside Chicago-born emcee who talks endlessly of burgers, brats, American Gladiators, and his ’90s glory days as a member of a rap group called Tha Grimm Teachaz.
Musically, The Kenny Dennis LP has Anticon written all over it (they released the album), with strange, off-kilter rhythms clashing with odd synth tones. And the lyrics are laugh-out-loud funny, especially for Chicagoans.
01. Deerhunter - Monomania: An obsessively-crafted LP about obsession, I never would’ve expected to enjoy this effort as much as I do. For as much as I’ve loved the last three Deerhunter albums, the idea of a garage-y, lo-fi left turn initially sounded like a mistake to me. But instead of betraying Bradford Cox’s incredible songwriting abilities, the lo-fi-ness of the album succeeds in incorporating the harsher elements of Deerhunter’s early work. And let’s not forget Lockett Pundt: “The Missing” is a song so good that upon my first listen I wish I had written it—it’s my #3 track of the year.
30. Boards of Canada - Tomorrow’s Harvest
29. David Bowie - The Next Day
28. The Flaming Lips - The Terror
27. The National - Trouble Will Find Me
26. Low - The Invisible Way
25. My Bloody Valentine - MBV
24. The Knife - Shaking The Habitual
23. The Necks - Open
22. Deafheaven - Sunbather
21. Tim Hecker - Virgins
20. Mountains - Centralia
19. Innode - Gridshifter
18. Disappears - Era
17. Yvette - Process
16. Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks
15. Matmos - Marriage of True Minds
14. Atoms for Peace - Amok
13. PVT - Homosapien
12. Braids - Flourish / Perish
11. John Vanderslice - Dagger Beach
10. Devendra Banhart - Mala
09. Kanye West - Yeezus
08. James Blake - Overgrown
07. Jesu - Every Day I Get Closer To The Light From Which I Came
06. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
05. Sigur Ros - Kveikur
04. Roedelius & Schneider - Tiden
03. Majical Cloudz - Impersonator
02. Serengeti - The Kenny Dennis LP
01. Deerhunter - Monomania