The Best Music of 2013 has been defined by subtlety. I listened to the mass-market, marquee albums of the past six months (Kanye West, Daft Punk, Queens of the Stone Age) and they all hit a mental wall before I ignored them permanently. The bombast felt empty and unearned in the end. Conversely, the quiet and complex came to mind as I wrote this out. These were the audio experiences that unspooled over hours of headphone meditation and 4 AM projects.
Three of my favorite artists are female, British and mostly sing about their ex-boyfriends, and how much they miss them. As an adult Midwestern male, I have no clue what this says about me, except that I appreciate English women who have perfected the ambient breakup album. Deathheaven, which excels in larynx torture and abrasive static walls, might seem like the opposite end of that spectrum, but the duo still balances its melodic chaos with a cinematic dynamicism and the occasional instrumental. And on that topic, Jon Hopkins is his own minimalist electronica beast, concocting tracks that sound more like math equations than musical narratives. So my favorite music of 2013 (thus far) may not fuel any parties into the wee hours of the morning, but it does yield a challenging, diverse collection of audio innovation. Let’s hope the next six months can compete.
Click on the album art to listen on Spotify. In no particular order…
Strange Pleasures, Sub Pop
Still Corners secured my attention with the 2011 single “Endless Summer,” summoning a ’60s-flavored headtrip of reverb-drenched snare drums, antique synths, and lead singer Tessa Murray’s hypnotizing whispers. It’s the pop-psychedelic collage you get when an American expatriate meets his British muse on her way to chorus practice (all of this actually happened). Sophomore album “Strange Pleasures” is, subversively, all about restraint. The rabbit hole plunge behind debut “Creatures of an Hour” falls away to a seductive exploration of simple, dark melodies co-opted from early Cure and the nursery rhymes your mother sang to you as an infant. Strange Pleasures can sound facile, especially when the Europop influences creep in, but Murray colors her tracks with a confidence that makes this album incredibly hard to stop listening to.
Trouble Will Find Me, 4AD
I don’t adore Trouble Will Find Me like I did previous National chapters High Violet and The Boxer, but I like it quite a bit and I imagine there’s potential to like it more. Trouble doesn’t rock as much as it seethes and deflates. I have no clue what lead singer Matt Berenger has to be pissed about: he’s married, has a kid, and has produced music that’s only grown in popularity. “Park Slope Emo” and “Hipster Dad Crisis” come to mind when reviewing The National’s spelunking sonic moral. But it’s still great music. “This Is The Last Time” creeps along Berenger’s weepy baritone buzz-kill while secret percussive weapon Bryan Devendorf maintains a guttural tom-tom pulse. The rhythm thumps along militantly as the sobering melody tries it damndest to make sure it stops in its tracks. “Sea of Love” is one of the few throw-backs to The National of yesterday, with buoyant beats and some major-chord twists while “Graceless” snags the tight, creepy twist of The Cure’s “A Forest” (second Cure reference for those counting; I honestly haven’t listened to them for years). Trouble Will Find Me is further proof that The National hold a monopoly on intricate indie- pop tragedy.
If You Leave, 4AD
There will never be a time when the lyrics “I want you so much, but I hate your guts,” won’t be relevant to someone, somewhere. Daughter has the compelling power to make anyone feel like a 17-year-old girl: smitten, heart-broken, vulnerable, and more than slightly pissed off. Debut LP If You Leave channels its emotions with poise and grace, framed around Elena Tonra’s heavy melodies and guitarist Igor Haefeli’s wet, electric feedback. It’s all terribly impressive and, most importantly, authentic. There’s a mature appreciation of hope and disappointment wrapped around the neck of each track, whether Tonra’s describing her youth “stained on her sheets” on “Winter” or her self-imprisonment with a loathed coed in “Still.” Daughter’s uncut honesty might border on oversharing, but If You Leave is that magical record filled with the one ingredient sorely lacking in today’s commercial sonic landscape: empathy.
Jon Hopkins’s fourth full-length album defines excellence by omission. Hopkins takes a meshwork of overlapping snare jabs, synth washes, and sonic textures and distills it down to the most basic hook possible. This approach is reminiscent of when jazz legends like Davis or Monk spent two minutes of a solo ramming the same three notes before spiraling into a flutter of scales and tones. But unlike jazz improv, Hopkins maintains a taught, simple line on each of on his eight mesmerizing tracks, refusing to deviate from the base twist central to each concept. Comparions can be made to the armchair techno flirtation of the late ’90s/early aughties, when Moby, John Digweed, and Sasha mixed drum machines with orchestral movements and low-key dynamics, but Hopkins is his own man. He helped produce Coldplay’s Viva La Vida and also worked with Massive Attack and Herbie Hancock, but none of his collaborators’ styles trickle into his own work. Hopkins writes sonic tone poems that are just as interesting by yourself in the laundry room as in a warehouse full of throbbing bodies.
Specter At The Feast, V2
Folks tend to assume that Black Rebel Motorcycle’s soul lies in the trio’s 2001 single “Whatever Happened To My Rock ‘N’ Roll,” a prayer to the yesteryear of acoustic blues and early alternative with a British Invasion glimmer. Through the track we learned that Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been really, really miss the distorted 6-string rebellion co-opted by Clear Channel and Nascar Commercials. Keep in mind that the band’s name derives from this edgy little relic. Over the course of five LPs, I’m not convinced to let BRMC define themselves as sonic curators of the golden age of rock (get off their lawn/tube amps). They’re damn versatile and, aside from the primal blues of Howl, know how to cover a swath of music history, from post-punk eighties noise to taught marimba-infused pop. Specter At The Feast, even with its pre-distressed cover, doesn’t feel like a ’60s rockabilly homage: it sounds like relevant, barbed music that samples from a monumental genre’s layered history.
First off, let’s all thank the Deafheaven duo of George Clarke and Kerry McCoy for, a) naming an album Sunbather, and b) adorning that album with some lovely cover art. That solar gradient and minimalist typography make for inspired design. Second, let’s thank Deafheaven for recording a phenomenal album that shouldn’t be phenomenal at all. Wasn’t Death Metal supposed to be a technical drum orgy of never-ending scales and Norwegian church burning? Wasn’t Screamo the early 2000s war cry of lonely adolescent males unfortunate enough to discover eyeliner? These songs combine an odd array of clashing influences — screamo, metal, shoe-gaze, ambient — that merge together into something unholy, yet unified. Deafheaven sounds big in a way that music rarely is; a study in the way dynamics shrink and explode, fluctuating along a static thrum of cymbals and distortion. The end product is an intoxicating mantra that shifts and ebbs, educating the listener on how many genres can fit together snugly without devouring each other.
Wakin On A Pretty Daze, Matador
More than a musician, Kurt Vile is an illusionist. The Philadelphia native churns out mid-tempo acoustic rock, jangly electric riffs, and earworm hooks that sound like the embodiment of a hung-over Sunday afternoon, but are really the product of an 80-hour work week. Just because Vile sings about pretty dazes and snowflakes doesn’t mean that the he wasn’t on the cusp of a nervous breakdown making this album (apparently, he was). But that toil, sweat, and pathos made one hell of a rock experience. “Girl Called Alex” sounds magical for a song about a fantasy replacing an unspoken tragedy. More than the layered production and contemplative lead riff, the track’s rooted in excellent songcraft as each new instrument creeps in so subtly that you’d think it was there from the beginning. “Pure Pain” is another example of how versatile Vile is at matching vocal lines to his guitar, calibrated in an odd counterpoint that can run from monumental chords hammers to haunting arpeggios. Walking On A Pretty Daze’s complexity may be eclipsed by its chill exterior, but its innards are clock-work tight lo-fi brilliance.
Arrows doesn’t debut for another few months, but my preview copy quickly became my surprise record of the year (so far). My history with pixie electro-indie is admittedly limited, but Polly Scattergood’s (yes, that’s her real name) sophomore album is equal parts adorable and earnest. Arrows is oddly direct for an album based in electronica and all of its shiny, ornamental production; Scattergood has a powerful voice when she chooses to let it soar, but she often balances those moments with restrained poetry sessions (“Miss You”) and brittle asides (the bridge of “Cocoon”). The album is more the audio diary of a talented, theatric artist who just experienced an apocalyptic breakup than a collection of pop songs and it isn’t afraid to be more artistic than commercial. Scattergood hangs onto each lyric like its about to abandon her while the melodies bleed their way into your memory. In key track “Subsequently Lost,” Scattergood laments to an ex-lover that she was “the sunshine behind his destruction,” but if this album was the ultimate product, than the collateral damage was well worth it.