Thursday, December 26, 2013

Demeter's Bountiful Harvest: The Ten Best Albums of 2013

And here we are, the day after Sol Invictus, and it seems as good a time as any to discuss the albums that made my year. Last year was easy, with the release of a new Swans album, a new Scott Walker album, and some fantastic works from groups like Goat and Ty Segall. I was worried at first that this year would be tougher, with no absolute obvious standouts, but starting in September the record industry proved it was just saving its best for later in the year, and some jaw-dropping moments started arriving with amazing frequency. So as you're all calming down from your Sun-worship (that's why everything was closed yesterday, right?) enjoy some wonderful music, and hopefully use some of those iTunes gift cards you picked up to grab some of these amazing works! And don't forget, the REAL best album of the year is free!

10. Fuzz - Fuzz

The ever-prolific Ty Segall is amazing not just in his prodigious output, which rivals any artist this side of Ergo Phizmiz, but in the very quality of the work he releases, which is all the more incredible when he manages several releases a year. In addition to his stripped-down, acoustic Sleeper, which missed this list by only the narrowest of margins, Ty went full band mode with the release of Fuzz, an acid-scarred rock behemoth which embraces his innate Sabbath-worship. Ty, along with cohorts Charles Moothart and Roland Cosio, offers a suite of tunes absolutely drenched in reverb and fuzz, with unintelligible vocals, all-encompassing guitar squall, and paper-thin drums making Fuzz a Blue Cheer for the new century.

9. Forest Swords - Engravings 

Matthew Barnes of Forest Swords has given us something special in Engravings: a dub album which has nothing at all to do musically with reggae. Barnes' productions are drowning in echo, vocal samples intoning wordlessly over beats that sound like distant thunder. There's a trip-hop vibe not unlike Massive Attack or Portishead hidden in here, but Barnes has removed the smoky, sultry vocals that make trip-hop so unique, and replaced them with nothing but his occasional apocalyptic samples, and a repetition almost reminiscent of drone artists from the '60s. Engravings must be among 2013's most rich productions from a sonic standpoint, and will reward repeated listenings with new tidbits for a long time to come.

8. Steve Mason - Monkey Minds in the Devil's Time

Slowly, we lumber on toward the inevitable date in December of next year, when The Beta Band will have been defunct for a decade. Yet though we can rightly mourn this sad notion, we should still celebrate the fact that Steve Mason is making solo records as necessary and awe-inspiring as his more famous former band. Mason's Monkey Minds is a blend of the Beta Band's dub-heavy, experimental older work and their laser-sharp, pop focused final albums, a glorious mess that skips from field recordings of street buskers to choral pop that reaches for the Heavens. The Betas may be gone, but Steve Mason keeps the giddy rush alive in his own work.

7. Lightning Dust - Fantasy

2013 was the year for the Black Mountain side projects. First, head Mountain Stephen McBean gave us Grim Towers, a collection of spaced-out folk rock recorded with Imaad Wasif, and now we have the third album from Amber Webber and Joshua Wells' Lightning Dust, Fantasy. Whereas first two Lightning Dust albums were spare, haunting folk, bringing to mind Sandy Denny's solo records from the early '70s, Fantasy adds dark, cavernous synthesizer, feeling like a mix between Kendra Smith's work with Opal and Stevie Nicks' most austere '80s material. And on top of it all is Amber Webber's achingly gorgeous voice, a husky warble that sounds like nobody else is the business now. Lightning Dust's boomy synths evoke heartbreak effortlessly, and the whole album offers a glacial beauty which I can't recommend enough.

6. Adam Green & Binki Shapiro - Adam Green & Binki Shapiro

I've dreamed for years now of recording an album similar to the absolutely seminal first album by Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. Song-stories with trading male/female vocals over quintessential '60s orchestration is such an impressive formula that it always confused me as to why nobody else has really done it, and it took until 2013 before a pair pulled it off so perfectly. Adam Green's work with the Moldy Peaches was uniformly embarrassing, juvenile, and really just straight-up awful, but since then he's matured into a smart-ass pop maverick, this generation's Todd Rundgren, writing lyrics that are snarky and borderline offensive while couched in music that is undeniably catchy and remains stuck in your head for days on end. On this album, however, he drops the satyrlike sense of humor, and turns in a set of tales about love and loss, sung to perfection by Binki Shapiro's sweet, honey-like voice, blended with Green's own hopeless baritone. The result is an album for romantics that hate romance, with Green and Shapiro's storm-tossed tales giving giving us bittersweet hope and doomed regret.

5. Grumbling Fur - Glynnaestra

(For reasons known but to god, Blogger won't let me link to The Ballad of Roy Batty. So go watch it here. Go watch it!)

Alexander Tucker is, in many ways, the Ty Segall from across the pond. Maddeningly prolific and willing to collaborate with anyone who comes within a ten-foot radius, Tucker's Syd Barrett-informed oeuvre has grown exponentially in the last few years, and gave us two towering collaborations in 2013: the cracked, slippery Metafather with Daniel Beban as Imbogodom, and the lysergic beauty of Grumbling Fur's Glynnaestra with Daniel O'Sullivan. Glynnaestra is another towering production, this one a mix of Tucker's dreamlike, cyclical folk and O'Sullivan's dense, hypnotic electronica, a blend that gives us songs of immense beauty, with waves of guitars and coloring atmospherics giving a stage to both men muttering through Roy Batty's final soliloquy from Blade Runner. I've heard that Glynnaetra is the perfect album to take drugs to and I don't doubt it, but even stone sober and boring like me, this is a work of impossible, unusual, all-devouring majesty.

4. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Push the Sky Away

Even nearly 25 years in, Nick Cave's greatest ability is that you never know which way he will jump. For about a decade now, Cave has embraced his inner Iggy Pop, delivering two albums of cracked skronk as Grinderman and an album of dirty Christian funk in Dig, Lazarus, Dig!! before releasing Push the Sky Away, which very well could be the quietest, mellowest album of his career. Backed by the Bad Seeds compressing their work into gentle loops, even as Cave's lyrics belie the soft, aristocratic menace beating within. The whole work drifts like a boat on a sea, the languid pieces congealing into a haze whole in which each sparse instrument is nearly swallowed by the ether surrounding them. Cave understands that the album format can be true art, and his impressionistic brush strokes here give us an album at once placelessly malevolent and yet comforting as the womb.

3. Grant Hart - The Argument

As a literature nerd, it is perhaps unsurprising that I give Grant Hart's take on Paradise Lost such high praise, but even beyond the concept it's a fantastic album, one worthy of Grant's affirmed masterworks with Hüsker Dü like Zen Arcade. Similar to that earlier album, The Argument is a musical kaleidoscope, moving from pop to punk to avant-garde and back again with a zeal, giving us the rock-solid cabaret of "Sin" to the '30s radio pop of "Underneath the Apple Tree," and Hart has the musical chops to make it feel like more that just a collection of genre exercises. Among the best simple songs of the year, The Argument shows that one of the premier storytellers of the punk generation hasn't lost the spark in the intervening decades.

2. Stara Rzeka - Cień Chmury Nad Ukrytym Polem 

To anyone who is willing to listen, I have never been shy in extolling the virtues of Swans' masterpiece Soundtracks for the Blind. To me, Michael Gira's two-disc monolith is the perfect album; relentlessly experimental and yet effortlessly capable of evoking such rushes of emotion, displaying the best of what is now termed 'post-rock' without collapsing under its own pretensions (so I think, at least). It's an album that sounds like little else that came before it or since, with the exception of the first couple Godspeed You Black Emperor! releases, and now we can add this incredible LP from Polish band Stara Rzeka to the list. Cień Chmury Nad Ukrytym Polem understands Soundtracks and the tracks are awash in sonic grandeur similar to what Michael Gira did back in 1996, but it gives its own take on the matter, infusing the towering synth washes with both clean, exacting, picked acoustic guitar and an occasional foray down into buzzy black metal, both of which seem to be influenced by the earlier albums of Portland's Agalloch. The songs are long and twisting, working their way through suites of signal and noise, typically ending up far where they began. At once melancholy and labyrinthine, Cień Chmury Nad Ukrytym Polem is a classic that recalls avenues otherwise forgotten about in music, and deserves far more listens than it will likely get.

1. Arp - More

And at last we make it to number 1...the best album of the year. And what's most surprising is that, at the beginning of the year, you'd never guess it would even exist. Arp is Alexis Georgopoulos, a New York producer who, until now, made albums of glacial, skeletal synth compositions, deep and subtle like La Monte Young or Charlemagne Palestine would have done decades ago. With the exception of a single vocal piece buried far at the end of 2010's The Soft Wave, Alexis never hinted at the slightest predisposition toward pop music, which makes More all the more stunning: an album composed almost entirely of achingly beautiful, Eno and Cale-inspired pop tunes. Georgopoulos has barely any vocal range at all, and yet that makes his songs all the more lovely, similar to how LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy could infuse his limited range into moments of tender vulnerability. The songs are simple, mostly piano, spare guitar, and a quick drum loop, but that minimalism brings out the gorgeous, naive melodies in the same way that Nick Cave was able to in his album. Everybody who has a taste for vocal pop music should pick up this album, especially if Here Come the Warm Jets or Paris 1919 are your preferred way of digesting said genre. Sweet, simple, and heart-rendingly gorgeous, More is my album of the year.

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