Sunday, December 29, 2013

Top Albums of 2013: #32-21

In his piece on his own top 10 albums of the year over at Grantland, Steven Hyden made the important distinction between the notion of best albums and of favorite albums. Trying to claim that your own list consists of the best albums of the year (as I did last year) is inherently dishonest, since no one has heard every album that came out in a given year, so every listener or critic’s personal scope is too limited to declare unequivocally that anything is the best. As such, Hyden appropriately labeled his article “My Top 10 Best (Favorite) Albums of 2013.” I’ve tried to take the same approach here. Forcing myself to ignore the impact, buzz, controversy, or acclaim that albums got this year and focusing just on the albums that I liked the most has really helped me put this list together. I’m still constantly reordering the albums on this list, and I’m sure I’ll regret almost everything about how I ranked these the second I put them up (which begs the question of why I bothered ranking them at all, but whatever). So before I keep changing my mind, without further ado here are my top 32 albums of the year.

#32: Darkside - Psychic

Pink Floyd’s post-Roger Waters output is fairly maligned by most fans. Who out there is really standing up for The Division Bell these days? Apparently guitarist Dave Harrington is. His guitar sound seems explicitly influenced by David Gilmour’s style from the eighties and early nineties, but Harrington works so much more effectively than Gilmour did at the time by removing it from its original context, the warmed-over prog of late period Pink Floyd, and into the realm of downtempo ambient electronica courtesy of Nicolas Jaar. Their duo, in an homage to Pink Floyd that I’m still not sure was conscious or not, is named Darkside, and their debut Psychic’s eleven minute opener “Golden Arrow” stands as the crowning achievement of both young artists’ careers. As genre boundaries continue to fall away and artists are finding value in even the most denigrated of sounds, the members of Darkside have firmly established themselves as leaders of this progression.
 #31: Willis Earl Beal - Nobody Knows
Willis Earl Beal’s mysterious South side bluesman crossed with Tom Waits thing got him a very good debut album, Acousmatic Sorcery, and a reputation as one of the most electrifying new live acts of last year, but it remained to be seen if he could leverage that into a long term career. It seems my concerns were unfounded, as Nobody Knows is even more satisfying and quite a bit less disjointed than his first record. Beal polished thing up a bit for his second album, with “Coming Through,” the collaboration with Cat Power serving as the high water mark for production value here, but that doesn’t diminish what made him so appealing. The Tom Waits-circa Bone Machine influence is still present on songs like “Too Dry to Cry,” and he still has several songs that sound like he’s sitting in a hot, underfurnished room singing along to music picked up from a too distant radio station.
 #30: Thee Oh Sees - Floating Coffin
A recent Pitchfork review of Thee Oh Sees’ Single Collection Volume 3 speaks of Thee Oh Sees diehards as if it’s the only band they’ll ever need, with the band’s insanely prolific output standing as one of the great achievements in modern garage rock. Even for people who aren’t die hard fans, it’s easy to see why someone can get so wrapped up in their sound. Floating Coffin isn’t the band’s best album—that would be last year’s Putrifiers II—but it’s close. Sporting the freakiest cover of 2013, a sea of sharp-toothed strawberry monsters, the album is another triumph for Thee Oh Sees. Breakneck tunes like opener “I Come from the Mountain” rest comfortably next to stomping psychedelic numbers like “Night Crawler.” This band works within such a narrow style that it’s amazing that their output continues to be one of the most consistently satisfying in rock. What’s wrong with a band basically making the same album over and over again if it’s so damn good every time?

#29: The Cyclist - Bones in Motion
Over the last few years, Stones Throw has branched out considerably, forging alliances with the futuristic dub scientists of Duppy Gun, the crate digging lo-fi electronic fiends of Minimal Wave, and the cassette-only label Leaving Records. The latter has brought us a great debut compilation along with winning albums by sunny psych singer-songwriter Salvia Plath and interstellar beat maker Ras G. But Leaving Records’ greatest find has been the Cyclist, whose debut tape Bones in Motion is a work of lo-fi house that is the closest thing I’ve heard in 2013 to those original minimal wave artists from three decades ago. It sounds like it was made on the cheapest synths and drum machines the Cyclist could find, and it was one of the best soundtracks for my many late night rides on old commuter trains around Chicago.
#28: King Krule - 6 Feet Beneath the Moon
King Krule’s 2012 single “Rock Bottom” is one of my favorite songs of the last few years. For a young man who looks like he’s just some punk kid, the pain in his remarkable voice and his songwriting was immediately disarming. Nothing on 6 Feet Beneath the Moon, Krule’s debut album, quite reaches the level of “Rock Bottom,” but it’s an impressive record all the same. Consisting of songs he had written over the last five or six years, with one dating back to when he was 12 years old, 6 Feet Beneath the Moon somehow manages to pull together Smiths-indebted songwriting with jazz, blues, lounge, and general portent. It’s not an ideal record for putting on in the company of others, but if you’re willing to wallow for 53 minutes, it’s a great choice.
 #27: Föllakzoid - II

The cover of Föllakzoid’s sophomore album, appropriately titled II, is some kind of nebula or pulsar or something. I’m not an astronomer. But it fits the Chilean band’s sound well. They trade in space rock, but the embrace of chaos that marks so many other bands of their ilk is replaced by steady motoric rhythms that are heavily indebted to the Krautrock greats. The result is a perfect soundtrack for a controlled, exploratory journey into the stars, with the horrifying dangers of space kept at bay by the top-notch Chilean engineering of the craft.

#26: Chelsea Light Moving - Chelsea Light Moving
The last two Sonic Youth records, 2006’s Rather Ripped and 2009’s The Eternal, were both pretty good, but they both seemed to be lacking some of the noisy intensity of the band’s best and formative work. In the wake of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s divorce and the resulting breakup of Sonic Youth, Moore dove headfirst back into his ‘80s post-punk roots with his new band Chelsea Light Moving. Not everything fully works, but there isn’t a skippable track on the band’s self-titled debut, and some of the songs (“Burroughs,” “Alighted,” “Groovy & Linda”) rank among the best of Sonic Youth’s latter day output.
#25: Thundercat - Apocalypse
Even if Thundercat couldn’t write a song to save his life, Apocalypse would still be worth a listen because holy shit can he play the bass. The album is a constant stream of impossibly fluid, liquid basslines amid synths that could soundtrack the nightlife on some distant planet. But Thundercat’s songwriting on Apocalypse is great and a noticeable improvement from his already excellent first album. Songs like “Heartbreaks + Setbacks” and “Oh Sheit It’s X” are among the best that R&B or neo-soul or future funk or whatever you want to call it offered this year. Brainfeeder is one of the most forward thinking labels on the planet right now, and Thundercat is one of the main artists bolstering that reputation.
#24: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Push the Sky Away
Mick Harvey, who had been faithfully at Nick Cave’s side since the pre-Bad Seeds, pre-Birthday Party band the Boys Next Door in the late ‘70s, left the Bad Seeds in 2009. The band’s first album without Harvey takes on an appropriately understated and frequently morose tone as Cave moves beyond the last original tie to his beginnings thirty-five years prior. Mostly driven by multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis’ recent obsession with looping instruments, the music on Push the Sky Away is both comforting and disjointed, like a pleasant dream that’s only a left turn away from nightmare.
#23: Power Trip - Manifest Decimation
I’ve been reading D.X. Ferris’s 33 1/3 book on Slayer’s masterpiece Reign in Blood, and it’s put me in the mood for thrash again. Like I said in my review of Power Trip’s Manifest Decimation from a few months ago, I’ve always liked my metal considerably slower and doomier than thrash offers, but every once in a while the relentless speed and intensity of thrash is the only thing that feels right. While it seems unlikely that anything from the thrash revival of the last five or so years will top classics like Reign in Blood, Master of Puppets, and Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?, out of the recent thrash records I’ve heard, Manifest Decimation comes the most tantalizingly close. Over 35 intense minutes, Power Trip proves the continued vitality of a subgenre that hasn’t been a dominant force in decades.
#22: Body/Head - Coming Apart
While Thurston Moore channeled his younger punk self on his first Chelsea Light Moving album, his ex-wife Kim Gordon opted for smoothing much spookier on her first post-Sonic Youth project Body/Head. A collaboration with avant-noise guitarist Bill Nace, Body/Head’s debut album Coming Apart is a textural exploration between the two guitarists and their many effects pedals. This kind of thing can often feel indulgent, but both are such masters at drawing compelling sounds out of their instruments that adding drums or any other instruments into the mix would feel superfluous. On top of the feedback-drenched guitar noise, Gordon sing-speaks portentous lyrics in a tone that is both tuneless and strangely bluesy. Coming Apart can be a tough listen, but those willing to brave the noise will find a lot to dig into here.
#21: Earl Sweatshirt - Doris
Our expectations were too high for Earl Sweatshirt. His debut album showcased a rapper too talented for his young age, and then he disappeared for two years amid conflicting rumors of his fate and whereabouts. An investigative Complex piece revealed that he was at a Samoan reform school moving beyond the shock value juvenilia of his early work. He returned being hailed by many as a savior of hip-hop (as if hip-hop has ever needed to be saved), and his second album Doris disappointed for not living up to absurd expectations. A few months of listening proved that while it wasn’t the album that a lot of listeners wanted, it’s a low key, dusky affair that ably shows that his talent for exciting lyricism and complex internal rhyming wasn’t remotely diminished by his time away. He’s still growing as an artist, but Doris makes it clear that he deserves the continued attention.

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