Friday, January 03, 2014

The Top 50 Albums of 2013

Another great year of music. As always, there were many albums I missed. Some of the most important ones I missed because they were not available on Spotify (e.g., Bill Callahan, Florian Hecker, and Four Tet), which has become my source for music these days. Some very good albums did not make the cut, including Youth Lagoon’s Wondrous Bughouse, James Blake’s Overgrown, Grouper’s The Man Who Died in His Boat, and Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience. My most disappointing album has to be Kanye West’s Yeezus, which I found almost wholly unenjoyable—a sharp contrast to his last solo album, which remains an unqualified masterpiece.

In what follows I have also provided mini-reviews of the top 25 albums. Now onto the list.


1. David Lang, Death Speaks. Technically, David Lang is the composer, while the performers are Bryce Dessner (The National, but also a talented composer himself, see #10) on guitar, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) on vocals, Owen Pallett (formerly as Final Fantasy, works with Arcade Fire) on violin, and Nico Muhly (himself a well-known contemporary classical composer) on piano. Lang is one of the most compelling living composers, and this is surely one of his masterpieces. The project, commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Stanford Lively Arts, was inspired by the songs of Franz Schubert, specifically by the various ways in which Schubert personifies Death. Lang gathered together the various instances in which the dead (or Death) address the living, using pieces of 32 songs altogether. The other aspect of the project is the use of indie rock stars. As Lang states in his program notes, “I started thinking that many of the most interesting musicians in that scene made the same journey themselves, beginning as classical musicians and drifting over to indie rock when they bumped up against the limits of where classical music was most comfortable. What would it be like to put together an ensemble of successful indie composer-performers and invite them back into classical music, the world from which they sprang?” The result is something of a revelation. Worden’s embodiment of Death is both haunting and electrifying, cutting through the noise to pierce soul and marrow. The album closes with “Depart,” an 18-minute piece by cellist Maya Beiser, which was commissioned by a group of doctors in a French hospital with the help of the Fondation de France. According to Lang, it is a “meditation on death” inspired by the way in which “the doctors felt morally compelled to try everything in their powers to ease the suffering around them.” While oriented around death, the result is a work that brims with life. To borrow from Eberhard Jüngel, Death Speaks musically embodies the unity of life and death in favor of life.


2. Arcade Fire, Reflektor. What else is there to say about this remarkable double-album by the Radiohead of my generation? Any number of reviewers have compared Reflektor to Kid A—or, more accurately, to U2’s Achtung Baby. The comparisons are appropriate. This is a divisive and demanding album that pushes Arcade Fire into new territory. Some of the sounds on the first disc are ones we have never heard from them before, and that can be an unsettling experience for those of us who were enraptured with the opening strings of “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels).” The second disc settles into the sounds that were first intimated in The Suburbs, especially in “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” The second disc as a whole stands as some of their greatest work, climaxing in the emotionally gripping single, “Afterlife.” Some have argued that Reflektor is simply an album to be enjoyed. That is true in part—this is certainly one that demands to be played loud. But it is also much more than that. Many have already commented at length about the Kierkegaardian underpinning of Reflektor, and it enhances (rather than detracts from) the album to keep this in mind. According to Win Butler, the inspiration behind the album comes from Kierkegaard’s 1846 work, The Present Age, where we read that “the present age is an age of advertisement, or an age of publicity: nothing happens, but there is instant publicity about it.” Ours is a “passionless, reflective age,” in which people “only desire money, and money is an abstraction, a form of reflection.” And the driving agent of this “reflective age” is “the Media,” which “creates that abstraction.” And then we also find perhaps the most powerful line: “No person wishes to abandon Christian terminology, but they can secretly change it so that it doesn’t require decision or action.” The contrast to a media-controlled, reflective age of abstraction is passion, decision, and action. Writing as if he were alive today, Kierkegaard states: “A revolt in the present age is the most unthinkable act of all; such a display of strength would confuse the calculating cleverness of the times.” Indeed, is that not precisely our situation, in which the masses have been pacified by the love of money and consumable goods? What is needed is a revolt. Arcade Fire have not issued a manifesto, but they have given us the soundtrack to rouse us from our slumber.


3. Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady. If there was a better pop album this year, I did not hear it. Janelle Monáe is a massively intelligent songwriter. For the last several years, she has been developing an intricate narrative around her alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, a time-traveling android who is on a mission to rescue the people from the dystopian society of Metropolis. The first suite appeared in her 2007 EP, Metropolis; her critically-acclaimed 2010 album, The ArchAndroid comprised suites 2 and 3. Now, in The Electric Lady, we have suites 4 and 5. Monáe uses her fictional narrative to raise profound questions about race, gender, sex, inequality, and many other issues. In “Q.U.E.E.N.,” we hear her ask: “Hey sister am I good enough for your heaven? / Say will your God accept me in my black and white? / Will he approve the way I'm made? / Or should I reprogram the program and get down?” She goes on in her closing rap to declare, complete with a Philip K. Dick reference: “March to the streets ‘cause I’m willing and I’m able / Categorize me, I defy every label / And while you’re selling dope, we’re gonna keep selling hope / We rising up now, you gotta deal you gotta cope / Will you be electric sheep? / Electric ladies, will you sleep? / Or will you preach?” According to Monáe, the acronym stands for those who are marginalized and ostracized, the queer, untouchables, emigrants, the excommunicated, and those labeled negroid. If Arcade Fire criticized the present age in favor of action, Janelle Monáe has provided us with the soundtrack of the coming revolution. Of course, one does not need to know the storyline to appreciate the songs. This is pure pop gold—virtually every song is single-worthy. And the complete album compels one to echo the title of her closing track, “What an Experience”! I, for one, cannot wait for the final installment.


4. Thundercat, Apocalypse. Thundercat (AKA Stephen Bruner) first achieved recognition for his session work as a bass player, particularly with fellow Brainfeeder artist, Flying Lotus. He began his solo career in 2011 with the impressive debut, The Golden Age of Apocalypse. His new album reveals his maturation as an artist. The most noticeable and welcome development is the prominence of his voice, which features powerfully in many of the tracks, most of all in “Heartbreaks + Setbacks.” Unlike in his debut, this album has a real “apocalypse” at its center, namely, the death of former collaborator and Brainfeeder artist, Austin Peralta. In a way, the entire album is for him, concluding with the elegiac track, “A Message for Austin / Praise the Lord / Enter the Void.” But perhaps the emotional center is the closing line from “Evangelion” (Greek for “gospel”): “Heaven and earth are one in [sic] the same.”


5. The Haxan Cloak, Excavation. Clearly, death has emerged as a common theme. And few explored that theme more thoroughly in 2013 than the Haxan Cloak (AKA Bobby Krlic). In the doom-drone of Excavation, his second album, Krlic takes listeners on a Dantean tour of the underworld. But whereas Dante embarks on the Inferno at a safe remove from the horrors of hell—guided by Virgil in the knowledge that he is merely an observer who is destined for paradise—Krlic has created an epic sonic journey that elicits in the listener the existential terror of death. It is a dark and unsettling journey indeed, and no one is safe. But just as the listener is led to the brink of despair, Krlic cracks a shaft of light. In the 13-minute finale, “The Drop,” Krlic sounds a note of hope in the midst of death’s grasp. But even this is ambiguous, as the closing minutes preclude any easy resolution. For an experimental effort in noise electronica, Excavation is one of the most compelling musical narratives released this year. (NB: Be sure to listen to this with stereo equipment that will properly highlight the bass. This is music that rattles the bones. You should both hear and feel the excavation.)


6. Majical Cloudz, Impersonator. Majical Cloudz—Devon Walsh on vocals and Matthew Otto on the synthesizer—plays synth pop, but it is utterly unlike anything else out there. This is synth pop distilled into its pure minimalist essence. And in this case, thanks to the singular virtuoso performance of Walsh, that essence is a piercing, forthright, emotionally honest encounter. Every word is a direct confrontation that strikes at the heart of each person. There are no wasted words, no wasted sounds, no wasted silences. A perfectly executed album.


7. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories. Arguably the most anticipated release of the year (if anything, possibly behind the new Arcade Fire), Daft Punk’s return to the studio is a resounding success. Indeed, few albums compelled me from the very first listen. Everyone has heard the single, “Get Lucky,” but that is one of the least interesting tracks. The real highlights are the two longest tracks, “Giorgio by Moroder,” featuring Giovanni Giorgio Moroder, and “Touch,” featuring Paul Williams. Daft Punk have already made the music of the future. Here they resource the past in order to reveal the music that we need to hear right now in the present.


8. Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe. The Scottish electro-pop group Chvrches (or CHVRCHES) make addictive music of the highest order, the kind of melodies that worm their way into your subconscious and make you a happier person. They sound like a cross between Passion Pit and Charli XCX, or perhaps between The Postal Service and Ellie Goulding. Either way, it makes for an album that demands to be replayed. Highlights include: “The Mother We Share,” “We Sink,” and “Recover.”


9. Dawn of Midi, Dysnomia. The Brooklyn-based Dawn of Midi are a free jazz trio composed of piano, bass, and drums. Like Majical Cloudz with respect to pop, this is jazz distilled into its minimalist essence, resulting in something that is virtually impossible to categorize. Their sound evokes the looped techno music of the DJ underground, except it is played on real instruments. In a way, it is as if Philip Glass or Steve Reich were transposed into a jazz idiom. The album should be heard and enjoyed as a complete whole.


10. Bryce Dessner with Kronos Quartet, Aheym. We have already encountered Dessner above in our #1 album of the year, as one of the performers on David Lang’s new work. But Dessner is a composer in his own right, and his latest, the four-track Aheym, is a post-minimalist marvel. The opening title track was commissioned for a performance by the Kronos Quartet in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and its nervous, wild energy is just the opposite of the subdued sound of The National. Violins and cellos crash against each other in sharp staccatos and abrasive harmonies. The word “Aheym” means “homeward” in Yiddish, and Dessner wrote the work with his father’s family (Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia) in mind. The 15-minute “Tenebre” reverses the standard Good Friday tenebrae service, moving from darkness into light. The climax comes in the closing “Tour Eiffel,” featuring the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, which replaces the agitated violence of the earlier tracks with a poetic choral orchestration that is both mournful and stirring. A great album from one of the most talented musicians in the indie rock world.


11. Disclosure, Settle. The best dance album of the year. Period.


12. Fuck Buttons, Slow Focus. This is what I listened to when I needed to get pumped up. It still invigorates anew with every listen.


13. Jon Hopkins, Immunity. Not as good as his earlier albums, but still one of the very best electronic albums of the year. Hopkins is one of those underappreciated artists that anyone interested in electronic music should follow closely.


14. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City. Widely regarded as album of the year, and for good reason. Vampire Weekend is remarkably consistent—maybe a little too consistent for my taste—and this is their greatest work yet.


15. The Field, Cupid’s Head. Swedish DJ and producer, Axel Willner, has quietly established himself as one of the premier electronic artists in the world. His atmospheric minimalist techno is a sound he has made all his own. His previous efforts have all been impressive, and this may be his best. It is certainly the most complex and layered thus far.


16. Moonface, Julia With Blue Jeans On. Moonface is the latest stage name of Spencer Krug, famous for his previous work with Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, Frog Eyes, and Swan Lake. In contrast to those projects, Moonface is all Krug, and that freedom has allowed him to experiment with new sounds and new songwriting possibilities. Last year, he teamed up with Helsinki-based group, Siinai, for one of the best albums of 2012, With Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery. And this year’s album, Julia With Blue Jeans On, is his best so far as Moonface. Once again we have an artist perfecting a minimalist approach. In this case, the minimalism is instrumental: it is just Spencer Krug crooning over solo piano, in which he is classically trained. The result is an effect very similar to that of Majical Cloudz: a refreshing honesty and an often unsettling directness.


17. Tim Hecker, Virgins. Tim Hecker is a rock star in the world of ambient/noise electronic music, and justifiably so. He is also the intellectual star of this world, completing his PhD in urban noise music at McGill University in 2013. As he describes it, his thesis is “a history of loud sound at the turn of the 20th century.” He explored his trademark sound most successfully in Harmony in Ultraviolet (2006) and Ravedeath, 1972 (2011), but his new album, Virgins, ranks up there with his best work. Here he explores themes of mortality and death—there’s our leitmotif again—in songs that have an uncanny ability to evoke a situation or space. Hecker is one of the most cinematic musicians working today.


18. Rhye, Woman. The two musicians who make up Rhye, Canadian electronic musician and singer Michael Milosh and Danish instrumentalist Robin Hannibal, both put out albums in 2013 in other projects—a new solo album for Milosh and an album with the Danish group Quadron for Hannibal—but each does his most compelling work with the other on Woman, their debut album as Rhye. This is an expertly crafted R&B album, and it suggests Milosh and Hannibal have a bright future ahead.


19. The-Drum, Contact. The-Drum (AKA Jeremiah Chrome and Brandon Boom) have emerged as leaders in the underground electronic music scene in Chicago. Their debut album, Contact, is an exercise in sonic time travel, thrusting the listener into a strange but not-so-distant future.


20. Ólafur Arnalds, For Now I Am Winter. Why does so much great music come from Iceland? Whatever the reason, we can just be thankful. The latest is the stunningly gorgeous album by Ólafur Arnalds, a former drummer for various hardcore/metal bands. His solo work, by sharp contrast, is an experiment in neoclassical ambient electronica, complete with rich orchestration, looping beats, and ethereal vocals.


21. Marnie Stern, The Chronicles of Marnia. With her distinctive tapping guitar style and her unique voice, Marnie Stern is a bit of an acquired taste, but she’s also one of the most purely enjoyable indie rockers out there. Her latest is her best album since the 2008, This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That.


22. Colin Stetson, New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light. Colin Stetson is a wind instrument genius who tours with the likes of Arcade Fire and Bon Iver. The latter provides some guest vocals on his latest effort, which again finds Stetson doing things on reed instruments, especially the saxophone, that seem impossible and otherworldly.


23. Julianna Barwick, Nepenthe. Julianna Barwick makes experimental ambient music that transports listeners into mythical locations. It is entirely fitting that she recorded music in 2012 at the Sigur Ros studio in Iceland.


24. These New Puritans, Field of Reeds. In their third studio album, the London-based These New Puritans continue further down the road toward neoclassical indie rock that they hinted at in their 2010 Hidden. This is their most demanding work yet, but for those who put in the effort, also their most rewarding.


25. My Bloody Valentine, m b v. Twenty-two years after their flawless and legendary 1991 album, Loveless, My Bloody Valentine pick up right where they left off. It was worth the wait.


26. Daniel Avery, Drone Logic


27. Forest Swords, Engravings


28. Mutual Benefit, Love’s Crushing Diamond


29. Julia Holter, Loud City Song



30. Phosphorescent, Muchacho


31. Braids, Flourish // Perish


32. Burial, Rival Dealer


33. Darkside, Psychic


34. Autre Ne Veut, Anxiety


35. Boards of Canada, Tomorrow’s Harvest


36. DJ Koze, Amygdala


37. Gold Panda, Half of Where You Live


38. Zomby, With Love


39. Glasser, Interiors


40. The Necks, Open


41. Charli XCX, True Romance


42. Mala Rodríguez, Bruja


43. Roedelius Schneider, Tiden


44. Oneohtrix Point Never, R Plus Seven

45. William Tyler, Impossible Truth


46. Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time


47. Laura Mvula, Sing to the Moon


48. A Hawk and a Hacksaw, You Have Already Gone to the Other World


49. Washed Out, Paracosm


50. Lucius, Wildewoman