Anyone who has read my stuff over the years knows that I loathe lists. And more than that, I loathe “best music of” lists. But there were so many records worth noting in 2013 that itemizing is necessary, lest I forget what the hell happened.
Pundits continue to proclaim the death of the LP, and there may very well be no meaningful return on investment for releasing albums. Yet people keep doing it anyway, bless their precious hearts.
And so, going against all sense, reason and dignity, here is my non-hierarchical Best Music Releases of 2013 list. Would the last one to leave the cosmos please turn out the lights?
(Where possible, I’m using Spotify for linking. Haters gonna hate.)
Wolf People – Fain
2013 was the year of “occult rock.” This is amusing to me on a number of levels, not the least of which is the fact that The Contrarian (music artist, not magazine) has been mining this sound for the better part of a decade. Typically, all you need to make a splash in this sub-sub-sub genre is an attractive, witchy female singer and some vintage amplifiers. What’s unique about Wolf People is that they can also play (and there’s no lady vocalist). If you’ve ever spent time with Richard Thompson-era Fairport Convention, you know the vibe. But Fain is no forgery—knotty guitars and unvarnished vocals meet thrumming bass and drums that sound room mic’d and uncompressed. The result are the most legit 1970s jams I’ve heard since, well, the 1970s.
The Haxan Cloak – Excavation
Every other decade, electronic music goes moody and sparse, and everyone pretends it’s some kind of new thing. In actuality, it’s really the same spooky business that minimal house and dark ambient acts have gotten up to for years. Tri-Angle Records is home to the latest crop of digital doomriders, which includes The Haxan Cloak. A handful of years ago, this stuff was tagged “witch-house,” an unfortunate shoehorning that failed to acknowledge what came before while making the new acts seem more gimmicky than they actually are. Now we can just call it dark electronic again, yay. Like labelmates oOoOO and Balam Acab, The Haxan Cloak is gauzy and grey, but where the aforementioned favor the chopped-n-screwed approach of pitched vocals and codeine beats, THC’s gloaming sounds more like Photek and Lustmord collaborating in the haunting of an abandoned machinist shop.
Dawn of Midi – Dysnomia
You’ve never heard anything like Dawn of Midi. Thirsty Ear Recordings should get a medal for putting this out. I’d call it jazz, but that would be terribly limiting. It’s impossible to believe that these precision polyrhythmic permutations (alliteration alert!) are the product of just bass, piano and drums—the not-at-all-uncommon ingredients of a gajillion jazz trios. Here, the simple instrumentation is akin to an atomic clock, where attack and frequency comingle in absolute zero temperature, dividing and subdividing time into fragments that are recombined in complex yet coherent configurations. But these are just words. You really need to hear it for yourself.
Laura Marling – Once I Was an Eagle
It’s no secret that Led Zeppelin was obsessed with Joni Mitchell—their third album is practically a tribute to her folksy flights of fancy. But what would it sound like if Joni sang on Led Zeppelin’s most sylvan ditties? We still don’t know the answer, because Laura Marling frankly sounds more like Rickie Lee Jones. Still, the first half of Once I Was an Eagle is an acoustic vision quest, complete with Eastern tunings and Page–ian peaks and valleys. The remainder of the record falters, veering into the kind of shopworn strumming that you come across in countless coffeehouses. If I had to guess, I’d chalk up the album’s bipolarity to musical evolution captured over the course of the recording sessions. Which makes me even more inclined to bet on Laura Marling’s next record as her true masterpiece.
ASG – Blood Drive
This one almost didn’t make the list, because I’ve completely outgrown the style. Or rather, I thought I’d left it back in the 1990s with along with my ill-considered goatee. But ASG bring the meaty, mathy, Quicksand-meets-Kyuss riffageddon as well as anyone I’ve heard in the intervening years, and Blood Drive retains just enough post-hardcore swagger to appeal to punks and heshers alike. Unity, brah.
Purson – The Circle and the Blue Door
I am now old enough to have (potentially, not actually!) sired the kids making the kind music that I worshipped as a kid. Great Britain’s Purson—named after a demon, natch—are yet another “occult rock” act, but in my opinion, one more deserving of attention than fellow female-fronted groups like Blood Ceremony and Devil’s Blood (so much blood!). Why are they worthy? It isn’t just because singer Rosalie Cunningham is the epitome of attractive, witchy singer (she is). Purson possess a tunefulness that eludes others in a genre that too often prizes presentation over musicality. And their backstory—sour romance! Drugs! Sectioning!—gives their gimmick some teeth. It’s hard to predict whether they’ll evolve beyond the current trend, but Rosalie is a decent songwriter and guitarist, and she drops all the right names in interviews (pre-Belew King Crimson!). All I know is that I listened to this album a lot this year, and I don’t have to put them through college.
Julia Holter – Loud City Song
Perhaps the most beautifully arranged, exquisitely performed and harmonically realized record of 2013, Loud City Song is essentially uncategorizable. A truly dynamic singer, Julia Holter’s girlish pipes belie a profound authority across material ranging from the breathy to the bombastic. The musical accompaniment on Loud City Song matches her range, with superlative backing that is alternately hushed and hectic, intimate and ornate. Supposedly, the record is based on Gigi—both the 1958 musical and the even older French novella—a fact to which this uncultured cretin has little to add. To me, Loud City Song is simply a daring and delightful album that counters the conventional wisdom that nobody makes these kinds of recordings anymore.
Gorguts – Colored Sands
2013 was a stupid good year for metal. Everyone else will put Deafheaven on their best o’s, and that’s fine—Sunbather was a killer record, and a breath of fresh air for the genre in general. My pick might seem more conventional, particularly compared to newer flavors like Ulcerate and Revocation. Sure, Gorguts have been around the block. And yes, they play technical death like any number of bands who have made a much bigger name for themselves. Still, Colored Sands is special. Rarely has controlled chaos sounded this controlled or chaotic. Don’t get me wrong—if you want true atonality, you’re gonna go Deathspell Omega or Portal. But that’s what’s so awesome about Gorguts: they’re utterly malefic but also hooky in a spikes-through-the-earholes way. Colored Sands manages to push the envelope while still affixing the proper postage. Not bad for a band formed in 1989 in Quebec.
Anna Calvi – One Breath
I haven’t sat with this record for too long, being that it only came out a week or so ago. But her debut was one of the sleeper gems of 2011, and I’m digging One Breath quite a bit so far. To my ears, Calvi sounds like Siouxsie Sioux with proper vocal training, but it’s her guitar playing that really gets me going. Such a unique sound—deep and resonant, spiky and strange, sometimes on the verge of veering out-of-control; reigned in only by Calvi’s fierce musicality and commanding presence. This music is like freshly laundered sheets, a deep breath of fall air and the best pinot noir to ever pass your exquisitely kissable lips. How’s that for an endorsement?
Laura Mvula – Sing to the Moon
Another lady named Laura! This list is well-populated by women, and that makes me very happy. Also lots of genre representation, which makes me even happier. Actually, Laura Mvula is something of a genre to unto herself; Sing to the Moon is a kind of R&B/jazz/electropop hybrid, but ultimately the record resists hard-and-fast categorization. The densely-layered backing vocals owe something to the Andrews Sisters(!); the instrumentation ranges from lush orchestral to urban incandescent, and Mvula’s smoky vocals saturate the music’s every nook and cranny with sultry warmth and soulful conviction. The most uplifting breakup album I can recall at the moment, Sing to the Moon is tender and affecting, but there’s something so buoyant both the arrangements and Mvula’s delivery that the resulting feeling is one of joy and resilience. Looking to much, much more from this amazing talent.
SPECIAL MENTION: The Contrarian – Advanced Magick for Beginners
We released an album this year. Took a lot out of us.