I know, I know…..We’re well into 2014 and it’s a bit belated to be posting “Best of” lists, don’tchya think?!
Nonsense. The music-sphere of 2014 has gotten off to a slow start, so what’s a better time than now to reflect back on the great year of tunes that was 2013?
I enjoyed last year’s aural offering and would be delighted to share with you my 10 favorite LPs of the year along with prosaic descriptions that might make one drift into unconsciousness almost instantaneously. Some nice bedtime-reading material.
Self-deprecation aside, I hope you find something from this list that speaks to you profoundly in the way only music can.
So without further ado, let us start with #10…….
10) Altar of Plagues – Teethed Glory & Injury
It’s a shame Altar of Plagues disbanded almost immediately after their release of Teethed Glory & Injury, an album that savagely pummels the cochlea while simultaneously bringing preconceived notions of black metal to its knees with faint, choral moans of coarse harmonics and obsidian-shrouded synthesizers. It makes for an exhilarating effort that effectively composes and demonstrates the powerful juxtaposition AoP wishes to declare as a final statement: darkness and beauty are not mutually exclusive.
9) Disclosure – Settle
The precocious brother duo of Disclosure sure made a lot of noise in the dance scene during 2013. It’s flabbergasting at times how tightly constructed and polished their debut Settle sounds; like they’ve been doing this much longer than three years. Track by track, each song moves with progressive focus, always belonging to a complete thought while dually exhibiting the ability to function alone as a single. The LP features some fantastic vocal contributions from heavy-hitting UK dance-pop vocalists like AlunaGeorge, Jessica Ware and Jamie Woon. But the standout guest appearance, as well as the best track overall, belongs to Hannah Reid (London Grammar) on the excellent closer “Help Me Lose My Mind”, a track of stirring trance that trades much of the lush deep house anthems and soaring pop grandiose common throughout Settle for a more down-tempo and pensive sound that has staying power, an ability Disclosure themselves seem able to command with the potential of such great promise.
8) Mutual Benefit – Love’s Crushing Diamond
Jordan Lee’s Mutual Benefit follows the tilling bored by indie folk/baroque folk pioneers Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver, but the results aren’t as logical as one would expect. Love’s Crushing Diamond sets itself apart from its contemporaries by evoking a sound more naturalistic and unorthodox while remaining derivative in influence only. String arrangements, piano bursts and acoustic chords don’t feel like tropes here while the usage of wind chimes, kid toys, mechanically-sounded shakers, and human dialogue create a more homespun and comfortable space to absorb the gorgeous melodies throughout the 32-minute release. The lyrics are tender and sentient; “Golden Wake” contemplates at life ahead following the forfeiting of occupation; “Advanced Falconry” accounts of a woman who’s very presence has a dizzying effect on Lee; “The Light That’s Blinding” earnestly attempts at the notion of existential meaning in the face of mortality and the accompanying darkness that life seems to envelop. Folk music has always been attributed to being honest and pastoral, sometimes to the point of humdrum and laurel-resting. Love’s Crushing Diamond is neither redefining nor commemorative, but a progression of a genre that’s more complex than given credit for.
7) Death Grips – Government Plates
One thing should be apparent when first listening to Death Grips: they want you to feel uncomfortable. The sonic blistering of industrialized clanging, shearing electronics, schizophrenic percussion, guttural vocals; it’s all arranged into a formative chaos that’s carefully planned out by the perplexing trio. Their music sounds controversial, a virtue they’ve generously subjected to fans and record labels alike. And then, suddenly, Death Grips become bigger than their music in ways they probably didn’t intend. But what’s their motive? Is it actually their own doing? What are they trying to say? Government Plates is a simple remark to those still unconverted and cynical regarding their art and how they cast themselves: You’re missing the point. Nowadays, music is a commodity that Death Grips chooses not to engage in. They’ve released three of their four albums for free and all are exceptional. Death Grips is perplexing as well as exciting to spectate, and some can’t help but react to extracurricular occurrences. To this point, the only statement Death Grips wishes to make is that their sound is the only thing that has ever mattered to them. Going back to that first listen of them, it’s immediately plain to see how endlessly fascinating these guys are. Thankfully, their music manages to carry that same sentiment.
6) Darkside –Psychic
Psychic is a dense, psychedelic fog of a LP that takes multiple spins to fully traverse the contours and caverns that constitute the full-length debut by Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington. Nicolas Jaar, an already established musical savant who’s minimalist techno and label start-ups have amassed international acclaim, sees no end in his inspirational sight, and formed a side project with college friend Harrington while touring together in 2011. Harrington plays guitar while Jaar handles everything else, and the sound that’s emitted feels much larger than just two people. It takes five minutes into the bold eleven-minute opener “Golden Arrow” before your mind can start to piece together the swirling nuances that encompass your head space. And that’s a strong element of what makes this album so special: it’s headphone music at its best. It isolates as well as concentrates the mind while carrying you into a realm that few albums manage to even aspire to. Great albums are transportive. Psychic is an iron horse that sets out to accomplish music’s greatest ambition: entrancement.
5) Kanye West – Yeezus
There has certainly been a great deal said about the personage of Kanye West by many, many publications. Seriously, it’s ubiquitous and banal and ironically ends up being of no importance whatsoever. At this point, Kanye West isn’t campaigning for your admiration. Far from it. His campaigning for his art. Besides, I ultimately find what Kanye has to say about himself to be far more interesting than what other people’s takes are, simple because they’re boring and Kanye isn’t. Kanye certainly isn’t shy when talking about Kanye. He’s referred to himself as a genius, voice of this generation, and biggest rock star on the planet. I find none of these things controversial, nor, at this point, debatable. Kanye West is our greatest artist, and Yeezus, for all the expected reactions of verbose bickering and polarization, lands the final punch that serves to articulate the fact that there are no artists operating on Kanye’s level. Yeezus is, at its core, pure anti-pop. It wasn’t made to sell millions, it wasn’t made to be on the radio or appear in commercials, and it wasn’t crafted to garner trophies. And yet you still can hear Yeezus in Verizon commercials and movie trailers. It still got nominated for three Grammy’s. This is the power of Kanye, like it or not. He’s a true musician that’s determined to challenge and augment the pop music scene unlike anyone we’ve seen in decades without letting the pitfalls of fame and success diminish his art. But don’t just simply take my word for it. I’m just one individual in a sea of captivated millions.
4) Burial – Rival Dealer EP
It’s been over six years since Burial put out his last full-length, but with a steady stream of EP releases since 2011, it’s a withholding that’s become more bearable over time. His latest to pleasantly drop out of the sky, Rival Dealer, is his most stately and declarative release to date. No longer do his chopped and pitched vocal samples serve as an instrument for making an ambiguous and ghostly atmosphere. Actually, William Bevan wishes to make a direct and plain statement, one of self-acceptance regarding the LBGT community; and he does so by deploying samples of love and comfort to help convey this emotive, from Gavin DeGraw to Lana Wachowski’s 2012 HRC Visibility Award Speech. Only three songs total, Burial manages to create a varied and lavish landscape. “Rival Dealer” bursts off the line with his most rave-like sonance yet; “Hiders” uses delicate synths to create a levitational drift before an 80’s action movie cadence breaks through the ambiance. But it’s “Come Down to Us” that makes for perhaps Burial’s most remarkable effort yet. The signature crackles, white noises and indistinct voices are introduced before thin-stringed plucking precedes a gorgeous melody that I can only describe as downbeat, circular carnival music before shifting to a winter celestial pop movement. Just when it may have seemed Burial was starting to become slightly predictable, he throws a curveball that couldn’t make true fans more delighted. The quality was never in question, but Burial, once again, uses his great weapon of mystery to leave everyone unsure of what to expect next. In the mean time, we have his current benevolence to keep us appeased.
3) Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
So I’ll admit it: I totally judged Vampire Weekend during their breakthrough based on everything that had NOTHING to do with their music. You know, that viewpoint I just reprimanded in defense of Kanye and Death Grips. Yeah….I’m a hypocrite. From what little I HAD heard from Vampire Weekend back in ’08 (basically “A-Punk”), I just didn’t see it jiving linearly with their overprivileged, Ivy League, boat shoe-wearing persona. It’s stupid now that I’m thinking back on it, which is why I have such a flare for those who discount any musical act based on characteristics that do not pertain to their art. This opposition was eventually stripped away after picking up their second LP, Contra. I was quickly struck by how talented and assorted they were, and could no longer regard their intelligence as threatening or their fusing of punk rock and Afrobeat as pretentious. Tracks like “Run” and “Giving Up the Gun” served as turning points for how I view what is now one of the biggest and brightest bands going. Modern Vampires of the City is a gain in maturation indicated by virtues of poise and astuteness. There’s a calm moxie they carry throughout MVotC that’s quite evident. They still got the catchy riffs and refrains, intelligent lyrics, selective tracks; but this time they’re speaking with such heaviness and meaning that you can’t help but feel that tired narrative of showiness and youth just collapse into itself. The last song on the album is Ezra Koenig & Co. repeating the line: “You take your time, Young Lion.” Perhaps it’s self-serving; perhaps it’s a wishful mantra. At this juncture, Vampire Weekend is very much self-assured, and one can’t help but be excited for what’s next.
2) Deafheaven – Sunbather
I always love when an album’s cover can align and speak into the musical content it visually represents. In the case of Sunbather, it’s like lying down in the middle of the park and staring into the sun while your eyes are closed. There’s simply no album that sounded like Sunbather this year. The convergence of post-rock and black metal is a concoction that looks great on paper and sounds better in action. The results are absolutely stunning, and sonically it’s something I’ve felt like I’ve been waiting for since I got my first taste of Hardcore music. Right off the bat, they’re screaming their lungs out imperceptibly, ferociously hammering their drum kit to post-rock pickups like madmen (“Dream House”), a seismic effort that’s both jarring and poignant. Once that first track is finished, you’re suddenly lead into “Irresistible”, an instrumental of gently-strummed, melancholy guitars that gradually align with a steady piano chord that plays out the rest of the song. It’s one of the more gorgeous things I’ve ever heard, and as the album draws to a close, you’re left with an impression that’s felt long after you’re done listening. Like shutting your eyes & facing the sun, Sunbather‘s significance transcends the method we use to absorb it.
1) The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
Shaking the Habitual is a goliath of an album. It’s like scaling the side of a mountain under the most uncertain conditions with the least bit of knowledge as to what lies ahead. If the 97-minute length doesn’t wear you out, try immersing yourself in their lyrical influences, which is delivered with great vigor; Queer theory, gender theory, Marxism, structuralism, abolition of the Nuclear family, patriarchy, extreme wealth, and environmentalism. It’s heavy stuff, and it can be exhausting to get through. I won’t lie, this is a tough album to recommend because it’s just not for everyone. For crying out loud, it has a 19-minute track right smack in the middle of the album that my own Mother would refer to as inane cacophony. And I’m not exactly confident I can be a persuasive salesman at making a pitch for it, either. But what I can say is this: Shaking the Habitual not only usurped the 2013 music scene, but it sits up there as one of the best albums I’ve ever heard. Techno house, synthpop, drone, dark ambient, experimental electronic; the album is a grinning barrage of shifting styles and genres that keep you engaged and feeling connected throughout its entirety. The Knife’s boldness is daring in the sense that they know they’re doing something abnormal, but it serves as a means to an end. You don’t have to agree with everything The Knife preaches in order to understand and appreciate what they’re doing as having deliberate, passionate intention. Shaking the Habitual is an unprecedented work and the mastery of true artistic ability. It’s further proof that, in the sphere of music and sound, we still have yet to reach Déjà entendu.