Sunday, December 29, 2013

Top 10 Albums of 2013

Just in time for the New Year, here's another list for you and another digression from my usual topics.

1. Flaming Lips / The Terror — the last two Flaming Lips albums have been excellent. They're dark, ragged affairs, not at all the polished weird pop of Yoshimi.

2. Jon Hopkins / Immunity — one of the best electronica albums in years. Crunchy, huge, pounding. Not exactly beat- or melody-driven, just amazing sounds.

3. Altar of Plagues / Teethed Glory and Injury — a black metal band that's coming full circle back around to riffs. There isn't as much tremolo picking here as tense atmosphere & well-timed brutality.

4. Kanye West / Yeezus — I liked My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy a lot, but Yeezus does everything that album did—staggering egotism—better, with a more cohesive sound. A friend, not having heard the album, described it as "industrial rap," a weird label for Kanye since he's always been a pop artist at heart. But the beats are as much NIN as Just Blaze. The fact that there's only 10 songs & that there are fewer grandiose digressions (e.g. "All of the Lights") makes it more focused. MBDTF was interesting for its sprawling, diverse nature, but Kanye would do well to limit the sheer number of ideas & contributors he packs into his albums. He has plenty of creativity on his own & Yeezus shines due to that.

5. James Blake / Overgrown — Blake has a tremendous voice which quivers with insecurity, love, & despair. It's a powerful instrument sorely lacking in the dubstep scene which makes his work stand out. Blake's last album was good but inconsistent: I listened to the superlative first three tracks ("Unluck", "The Wilhelm Scream", & "I Never Learnt to Share") over & over, skipping the rest of the album. Overgrown lacks obvious standouts & is better for it. It's a rich experience where songs fluidly intermingle, no abrupt drops in quality.

6. Earl Sweatshirt / Doris — Odd Future's output has been erratic. Even the good albums (mostly Tyler, the Creator's, but Frank Ocean's Channel Orange too) tend to have half-baked songs that shouldn't have made the cut. Doris is the first great album by the crew's most talented member. Sweatshirt's flows are dense & rhyme-laden. He isn't a fast rapper or witty, he's obsessed with the sound of language & it shows. That the songs tend to be moody productions with plaintive lyrics (e.g. "Chum" & it's "get up off the pavement, brush the dirt up off my psyche" refrain) is a bonus.

7. Windhand / Soma — very low, overwhelmingly distorted metal. A nice job with the "voice lost in the machine" dynamic which has always been a favorite of mine.

8. Daniel Avery / Drone Logic —  this album hit a sweet spot for me. I've missed acid techno so much (Aphex Twin, where are you? Come back to us.) & Drone Logic does it straightforward, no frills, well.

9. Sadgiqacea / False Prism — brutal metal with a healthy dose of dissonance. Combines slow droning with rapid black metal, often in the same song. Sadgiqacea change things up just enough to make the music interesting without reducing its molten impact. The shortest song, "False Prism", demonstrates these strengths well, starting with a few echoing, quiet notes from a clean guitar before diving into frantic picking, and then towards the end becoming a slow, chugging affair.

10. The Range / Nonfiction — is this what trip-hop is nowadays? I like it. The songs with looped vocal samples toward the beginning are the best, like "Metal Swing".

Honorable Mentions

Burial / Rival Dealer — I've cheated in the past by putting Burial EPs on what's supposed to be a list of albums (what's an album, anyways?) so I'll attempt to make up it for it by leaving Rival Dealer off. It's great, though. Burial's recent swing into anthemic, ≈10 minute songs on his last three EPs—Rival Dealer, Truant / Rough Sleeper, Kindred—is wonderful. He's always been a master of atmosphere & the two-minute interludes of rustling wind work better as slow-downs in otherwise intensely emotional music as opposed to separate tracks.

The Haxan Cloak / Excavation — creepy, dark, & consistent in its execution. It's a good album but a bit too slow-moving, the atmosphere too thin in places.

James Holden / The Inheritors — pretty weird electronic music, the sort that sounds like circuits being twisted & soldered together rather than keys on a synth being pushed. Organic electronic.

Moderat / II — solid mix of R&B & electronica, catchy without being too predictable.

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