Welcome to INAUDIBLE’s 5th annual end of year list!
Five years! Wow, it seems incredible that INAUDIBLE has been around for half a decade! In five years of doing nothing to promote this site it has received over 50,000 views, which I think is pretty damn cool, so cheers to everyone who has visited. And while I may not post as frequently as I did in the first few years, I still get a great satisfaction writing this blog for its three faithful readers and will continue to do so in the coming year.
2013 was a pretty huge year for music. There were so many great records released across all genres. My criteria this year was simple: which albums did I listen to the most and keep going back to even after I felt like I’d exhausted them, and as always, which albums made me FEEL things deep down in my heart and gut. So without further ado, let’s get on with this shit!
TOP 23 ALBUMS OF 2013
23. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II (Jagjaguwar)
Still riding the buzz from their 2011 self-titled debut, Ruban Nielson and company returned this year as Unknown Mortal Orchestra avec l’aptly titled II. Melding classic rock, 60’s psych, pop, and soul, Neilson has written a refreshingly lo-fi rock record devoid of ego or pretension. Like fellow throw backers Tame Impala, UMO are crafting some of the best “new classic rock” I have ever heard. Yet, where Tame Impala rely on their distortion pedals, UMO ride the reverb and even mess with tremolo, giving their guitars more of an early Jethro Tull meets The Byrds sound. That’s not to say they don’t rock out on occasion, but it’s a decidedly more murky affair, thanks to Nielson bouncing the tracks through several tape recorders in post-production trying to degrade or “un-focus” the sound.
Early single “So Good at Being in Trouble” showed the band at their most soulful, a playful track with a catchy hook and even catchier chorus, but it’s later tracks like “Monki” and “Faded in the Morning” that show off Neilson’s songwriting to its full potential. One could argue that II is not a groundbreaking record since just about everything sounds familiar, but Unknown Mortal Orchestra have crafted a tight, enjoyable sophomore album that sets them apart from their peers, and at the same time, gives a sly nod to their musical ancestors.
22. The Besnard Lakes – Until in Excess, Imperceptible UFO
Montreal’s The Besnard Lakes returned this year with their fourth full-length album, Until in Excess, Imperceptible UFO showcasing all that has made them revered by their fans for over a decade – amazing guitar work, driving bass lines, rock steady drums, and Jace Lacek’s preternatural voice. Rich White’s guitar solos in “46 Satires” and “People of the Sticks” harken back to the glory days of 90’s grunge while still managing to sound fresh and new, while Olga Goreas’ bass lines chug along in tandem with the rhythm section. Some critics were mildly disappointed with this record, arguing it lacked a bit from their last two albums, but after many listens I believe this album shows their continued maturity as songwriters, as seen in the song “The Specter”.
I saw them play twice this year in Montreal, and as always their live shows are incredible (and often sound even better than their albums). The Besnard Lakes are indeed still the Roaring Night, and Until in Excess, Imperceptible UFO is an underrated rock ‘n roll record that deserves way more recognition.
21. Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety (Mexican Summer)
I don’t think I could actually be friends with Arthur Ashin aka Autre Ne Veut but I sure like his weird hybrid of R&B future pop filtered through a Oneohtrix Point Never synthesizer.
Why couldn’t I be friends with him? Because dude seems a bit on the intense side – he seems like a man of extremes, where he’d either be the funniest guy at the party, doing blow and dancing and laughing and being witty and intelligent and awesome all at once OR just be a sad dark sack of shit. And I have a feeling he leans towards the latter extreme more than the fun one.
But on Anxiety, Ashin wears his emotions on his sleeve, seemingly giving so much of himself away with his over-singing, and getting so into his music, I think I’d feel embarassed for him if it didn’t work so goddamn well. “Counting” and “Play by Play” were already hits long before Anxiety came out, so it’s not surprising that they’re the album’s opening tracks, starting it off on the right note. The next two tracks are also highlights, with “Ego Free Sex Free” being a sort of mantra for the whole album, backdropped by a synth that sounds like it comes from an old Timbaland song. It’s a great track, and followed by the smooth comedown interlude “A Lie”.
After that, the next three tracks are a bit forgettable, featuring cheesy guitar work, and some intense uber-crooning that just doesn’t work for me (in fact, it kinda makes my skin crawl). However, the last two tracks are just as strong as the first two, but instead of being jams, they’re ballads, and Ashin ekes just the right amount of emotion out of himself and his listeners with “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and “World War” that he can be forgiven for the cathartic over-sharing in the album’s gratuitous middle section. Overall, Anxiety is a decent album with some very awesome songs on it, and even though “Counting” is now featured in a Victoria’s Secret commercial, I am still interested to see what he does next.
20. Local Natives – Hummingbird (Frenchkiss)
L.A. scenesters Local Natives returned this year with Hummingbird, the follow up to their smash hit debut Gorilla Manor, and gave fans a more mature and powerful set of songs. Yet, even though the songwriting is more complex and the vocal arrangements stronger and the rhythm section fuller than on their debut, there still feels like something’s missing here. Some critics have said they lost the playfulness that made Gorilla Manor so instantly accessible and enjoyable. If their debut tried to capture the feeling of 20-something lightheartedness, Hummingbird demands we go further. The halcyon days have gone by, the honeymoon stage is over, it isn’t always a sunny day, breakups actually hurt a lot, and loved ones are going to pass away – and all of this is evident in their new set of songs.
Once I got over my initial disappointment, the new songs began to wash over me, and I remember thinking to myself while listening to “Mt. Washington” on the way to work one grey morning, that this was the perfect break-up album, and that if I was nineteen with a broken heart I would wallow in this album, and listen to it over and over and over, and love how goddamn sad it made me feel. And in the end, it would help me get over that girl, and see through to the sunlight on the other side.
And to be sure, this album did make me cry, having to hide my face on the bus to work, and keep looking out that window, as I fought the emotions building up. (Hey, I’m a sap in the morn, aight?). There’s a line in “Three Months” where Kelcey Ayer is singing about his mother who recently died and he says: “I’ve got to go on now / having thought this wasn’t your last year”, and that shit just gets me every time. Penultimate track “Colombia” also deals with the passing of his mother and in that song he asks: “If you never felt all of my love / I pray now you do. Am I giving enough? Am I loving enough?” and the raw emotion in his voice is enough to break anyone in two or three. The album closes with the more upbeat “Bowery”, with tinkles of Rhodes and some great guitar work, and laments about the end of a relationship…
I think Local Natives had to write an album like this to get out all the emotions left behind from their youth. My friend Mike has dubbed them indie rock’s boy band, and it’s an apt assessment as girls flock to their shows and sing along to every track. In 2014 the boys will embark on a massive stadium tour with Kings of Leon. They’ll play the crap out of all their songs and be ready to kick it up a notch for their third album, and I’ll be one of the first fans to grab it.
19. Axel Boman – Family Vacation (Studio Barnhus)
Stockholm native Axel Boman had a breakthrough with his Holy Love EP in 2010, where the song “Purple Drank” became a hit in the house music scene. It wasn’t until autumn of this year that I was turned on to the young producer, but I’m glad I was, because Boman makes listening and dancing to house music a joyous experience. It’s good vibes all the time – the edges are never tinged with darkness or a minimal aesthetic, it’s just warm and soulful 4/4 beats. And I find it refreshing. One could say Axel Boman is similiar to Brazilian producer Gui Boratto, who’s philosophy on his 2005 album Chromophobia seemed to be: keep ’em smiling and keep ’em groovin’, and that’s exactly what he and Boman do, yet where Boratto veers off into more heavy hitting techno, Boman likes to be more playful and experimental.
Like DJ Koze, Boman is a bit eclectic in his tastes and on Family Vacation he mixes his 4/4 beats with Afrobeat, jazz, reggae, soul, disco, and deep house. Sure, he can still play it straight like the best of them (take the amazing deep house banger “Hello” as a prime example), but he likes to mix it up, he soon veers off into the warm comedown of “Barcelona”, and later onto the reggae-tinged “Animal Lovers”. Boman seems to still be ironing out his sound, content to jump from one groove to the next and is having a ton of fun doing it.
Expect big things from this young producer. With any luck he’ll be at this year’s MUTEK, so I can see him try his hand at capturing his playful aesthetic live in the club.
18. Jai Paul – Jai Paul (not-released)
London producer and man of mystery, Jai Paul, created quite a buzz two years ago with the Drake and Beyoncé approved track “BTSU”, a fractious R&B cut built on split-second notes, dynamic phasing, a sci-fi bridge and a barely there falsetto. This year he re-emerged from the internet ether with the similarly constructed, and equally awesome single “Jasmine”, and then an unfinished version of his debut record was put up on a fake Bandcamp site, purchased by many, and then taken down within 24 hours. Apparently, Jai Paul’s laptop had been stolen, and some joker put it out there on the beautiful internet for the world to hear before many of the samples had been cleared – and thank God s/he did, because the raw, unfinished tracks of varying bitrates and tinny beats make it one of the most dynamic (almost) releases of the year.
This is the new lo-fi. In Jai Paul’s case, his unique production traits include stuttering sounds, like they’ve been cut and pasted repeatedly, and a dynamic range that’s all over the map. If you want a familiar jumping off point, his cover of Jennifer Paige’s 90’s radio smash “Crush” morphs the innocently cheesy tune into a futuristic funk jam. Although, I feel bad that Jai Paul didn’t get to put out the album on his own terms, it’s one of the best musical mistakes of 2013. Check it.
17. Disclosure – Settle (PMR/Island Records)
The Brothers Lawrence arrived on the scene this year, fresh-faced and ready to become UK dance music’s newest hype makers, and by year’s end you could say they’ve done just that. Howard and Guy seem ridiculously young at just 21 and 18, especially considering how fully realized and tight their debut album Settle is. It’s easy to forget that this new generation of electronic musicians have grown up with the technology and kids start intuitively making loops or matching beats just as early as the kids from my generation picked up their first guitars.
And to be sure, Disclosure have released one hell of a fine house record, incorporating bass music and a bit of dubstep, grime and disco and filtering it all through a pop lens. The pop angle seems clear when you see the album is loaded with guest vocalists on just about every track from Jessie Ware on “Confess to Me” to AlunaGeorge on the infectious “White Noise”.
I realized how quickly they blasted to the top of the pops when I saw them play live this year at Osheaga and watched the crowd sing along to every track as if they were house classics and not just songs that had dropped a few months prior. And they’re coming back to Montreal in January and have already sold out that show as well. The boys know how to put together one hell of a dance party so it’s no wonder tons of people wanna go to their shows and get down.
Tracks like “Latch”, “You & Me” and “January” show the brothers at their tightest when working with vocalists and crafting a great and totally danceable pop song. In fact, there really isn’t a throwaway track on Settle, it’s a dance party from beginning to end. Expect much more from these young producers in the coming years…
16. Recondite – Hinterland (Ghostly International)
Lorenz Brunner aka Recondite follows up last year’s brilliant On Acid with Hinterland, his first full-length on Ghostly. Inspired by the part of Lower Bavaria where he spent his childhood, the album is as icy and desolate as the landscape its title evokes. This is late night music, but designed for an evening spent at home, instead of in the club.
I did not hear On Acid until this year, and was blown away by how Brunner was able to eke so much emotion out of a 303. I then began listening to all of his dance-floor ready Plangent EP’s, and soon after claimed that he was my fave new techno artist of the year. So you can imagine I was stoked that yet another album of all new material was coming out to coincide with the coming winter, but sadly, I feel Hinterland is a bit of a disappointment, because instead of innovating and furthering the amazing sounds he’d created with On Acid and his EP’s, Hinterland plays as a straightforward techno record with no real bangers and it feels like there’s less emotion coming through this new set of tracks.
Still, there’s lots to love on Hinterland. Tracks like “Riant” and “Absondence” are highlights, reminiscient of Pawel and Lawrence on Dial Records, and overall the album is deep and textured and really dark. I’ve listened to it many times and it keeps getting better with every spin, and as the deep freeze begins its icy texture becomes that much more relevant. Check it.
15. Mayer Hawthorne – Where Does This Door Go (Republic)
Neo-soul revivalist, Mayer Hawthorne, returned this year with Where Does This Door Go and changed up his game a bit – instead of writing and producing the songs himself, he invited a bunch of producers to come in and let them run free. The result is a much more varied sound, and a bit of a distance from the throwback stylings of his two earlier records. Instead of Marvin Gaye and The Delfonics, we see Hawthorne channeling Hall and Oates and Steely Dan and having a lot of fun doing it.
Of-the-moment guest musicians like Jessie Ware and Kendrick Lamar and Pharrell, all sound great on this record and may help Hawthorne extend his already large fan base, yet it’s telling that the best song on the album is the title track – the only time in which Hawthorne gives into his Motown leanings with an absolutely pitch perfect soul ditty.
Still, Where Does This Door Go is an album that plays out smooth from start to finish, from early hit “The Innocent” until the last track “All Better”, which shows Hawthorne trying his hand at a Paul McCartney ballad and succeeding without sounding corny, in fact, he comes off sounding more authentic than ever. Where Does This Door Go is a great album showing Hawthorne growing as a singer and a songwriter. Where will he go next?
14. Kanye West – Yeezus (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
Oh Yeezy, what can I say? This album is awesome, only problem is your insufferable ego overshadows all that’s good about. Yeezus would have been way higher on my list if ‘Ye woulda just shut the fuck up and let the music speak for him, instead of yammin’ on and on about how he’s a “creative genius”, and the best musician in the biz today, or how Kim is “more influential than Michelle Obama” or how he’s like “Walt Disney”. Seriously, shut the fuck up.
Things started off pretty well with the projections of “New Slaves” on 66 buildings in 25 different cities around the world, which I thought was some clever promotion. But by year’s end he dropped that video for “Bound 2” – and what a buncha tripe that was – Franco and Rogen’s spoof was inarguably the better version.
If Kanye would’ve released his album and said this was a hell of a collaboration between myself and 50 other people and thanked each and every one of them for helping him make the album the gritty gem that it is I would have cheered, but instead he simply goes off about how amazing he is, and I think that’s bullshit (we won’t even talk about what this record would have sounded like if Rick Rubin didn’t step in at the last minute and give it a major tweak).
Grievances aside, yeah, I dig this record – jogged to it probably more than any other, rapping out his ridiculous, monomaniacal, and misogynistic rhymes in step with my shoes on the pavement – and I fucking love the production. From the minimal grime of “New Slaves” to the pulsing “Hold My Liquor” and powerful highlight “Blood on the Leaves”, West has pieced together a great record, falling just short of 2010’s epic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
And of course, I’ll listen to his next record, and hope for a misstep, but knowing his track record I’ll probably be disappointed. Hurry up with my damn croissant, indeed.
13. Lusine – The Waiting Room (Ghostly International)
Jeff McIlwain aka Lusine is a true unsung legend in the world of electronica, and has been perfecting his visceral, melodic strain of electronic music for over a decade now. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Lusine has never been in the forefront of the scene, has never played huge venues or been super hyped about on music blogs, yet he is revered by those in the know, and this year he returned with The Waiting Room.
The first thing I noticed about this album was its production value – you can have it cranked to full and it still sounds so crisp and bright, with not a touch of distortion in the bass or beat. Tracks like “Lucky” and “On Telegraph” demonstrate his knack for tight songwriting, and seem to be exactly what Luke Abbott is currently striving to sound like. Although, McIlwain doesn’t break any new ground with The Waiting Room, the album does an excellent job of straddling the divide between electronica and pop music. The production is smooth and has been tediously tinkered and tweaked with, and in the end, is on my list because it epitomizes that type of melodic techno I like to listen to no matter what mood I happen to be in.
12. Kurt Vile – Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze (Matador)
Philly’s everyman, Kurt Vile followed up his breakout 2011 record Smoke Ring For My Halo, with Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze, an even stronger collection of songs, offering up the best of Americana, reminiscent of Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and lo-fi rock and roll. The beauty has always been in the subtlety and strength of his songwriting, yet here he’s kicked up the rock just a bit, showing a little less restraint than in his earlier recordings. Vile’s lyrics are dark and lonesome, yet occasionally funny, delivered in a laconic style that’s all his own. He tends to drag out words or syllables providing the perfect counterpart to his skilled finger-plucking or guitar strums.
Ten-minute opener, “Wakin on a Pretty Day” pretty much sums the entire album up. It’s perhaps Vile’s strongest song to date, showcasing all that he does well, he latches onto a few small gestures, riffs, and phrases, and gives ample space for your own thoughts to give the song concrete meaning. Tracks like “Girl Called Alex” and “Pure Pain” show Vile adeptly being playful and emotional at the same time. The entire album is buoyed by a pervasive lightness, it ambles along easily, sneers at you, shrugs, and yearns all in equal measure. The refrains and hooks will keep you coming back to the album time and again, and with each listen Vile seems to pull you a bit deeper into his slightly slanted yet inherently enchanted world.
See a pic of yours truly standing in front of Steve Power’s album cover mural in Philadelphia here.
11. Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience (RCA Records)
JT returned after a long musical hiatus and released two albums in 2013. Only one of them makes this list and it’s his first effort, the exciting soul-flecked The 20/20 Experience, which features some of the best dance moments of the year for me. Early single “Suit & Tie” put the funk front and centre, revealing Timberlake and Timbaland successfully looking backwards for their inspiration rather than forwards. And the throwback sound throughout the album absolutely works as the duo showcase soul, R&B, funk, motown, and of course the influence of MJ circa Off The Wall.
The rest of the album plays out a bit differently but is no less danceable. My favourite track is “Strawberry Bubblegum”, an 8-minute number that splits itself in two – the first half being a late-night groove that makes you wanna dance and the second half a bossanova slow jam that sounds so much like Jamiroquai he should be getting royalties. And even though the lyrics are as clichéd as they come: “If you’ll be my strawberry bubblegum, I’ll be your blueberry lollipop”, it’s all about the feeling Timberlake is able to eke out of it, and he comes off sounding authentic and true throughout.
Other hits are “Don’t Hold The Wall” and “Let The Groove In”, which sounds wildly familiar to Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”, especially the “mamase mamasa mamakusa” part, but hell if “Let The Groove In” ain’t a jam of a song that is just as infectious as the one that inspired it. I cannot help but dance when I hear it, especially during the song’s coda: “All night long / just let the groove get in…” And again, let me repeat myself, it’s cheesy, clichéd, hackneyed, overdone, but somehow in Timberlake and Timbaland’s hands, it’s a bona fide hit.
Timberlake’s second installment of The 20/20 Experience paled in comparison, and actually made me like the first record a little less. Contractual obligations be damned, Part 2 is the alternate reality version of the first disc – the version his haters wanted him to put out, so it kinda sucks, since the first album worked so damn well.
Ten years ago I did all that I could to stay clear of radio friendly music and now my end of year list is full of the shit! But at the end of the day, Justin Timberlake knows how to craft compelling songs and for that I applaud him, but like Kanye, too much of him is NOT a good thing. Still, I’ll be ready for his next album, which probably won’t drop until 2020.
10. Blue Hawaii – Untogether (Arbutus)
Montrealers Raphaelle Standell-Preston and Alexander Cowan formed Blue Hawaii back in 2010 when they were a young couple travelling through Central America – the result was their Blooming Summer EP, a poppy and much more sun-kissed affair than their sombre debut full-length Untogether. Called such, because the couple are no longer a couple, and made the album while being apart. Romantic differences aside, they still managed to keep their relationship alive through the music. And it’s good they did, because the duo’s full-length is a chilly and minimal affair, showcasing Raph’s vocal chops and Cowan’s growing skills as a producer.
Blue Hawaii share a lot in common with other acts that call and have called Montreal home over the last half-decade: Purity Ring, Braids (of which Raph plays guitar), Doldrums, Majical Cloudz, and of course last year’s it-girl, Claire Boucher. Most of them are connected through the Arbutus label and cut their teeth together playing the Montreal scene but have all expanded beyond la belle ville, setting their musical aspirations higher and further. And Blue Hawaii seem to be the next group in line to really make it, as they’ve already played mainstage at SXSW, have been hyped about courtesy of Pfork, and are currently recording a new album to capitalize on the exposure.
Untogether reveals a duo quietly emerging and still experimenting and developing their sound. The first five songs on the album flow together seamlessly, starting off slow with ethereal opener “Follow”, hooking us with earworm and hit track “Try To Be” and then teasing out the slow build of “In Two” and “In Two II” which morphs into an awesome 4/4 stomp, but not before Cowan does a great job of cutting and splicing Raph’s vocals and building the tension before the rhythmic release. The second half of the song features some excellent subterranean bass rumbles and would definitely be the dance floor starter of their live show.
The rest of the record is more of a slow burn as the tempo never kicks back in as powerfully as it does in “In Two II”, but instead features headier moments that one can enjoy best from a seated position, perhaps with a glass of wine and a puff puff pass or two. Closing track “The Other Day” is the most straightforward song on the album, featuring two or three vocal loops and a quivering synth. It’s a simple yet moving closer and shows the range this young duo are capable of, yet only hints at how far they’re able to push it. More please.
9. The Green Kingdom – Dustloops: Memory Fragments (SEM)
Michael Cottone has been consistently making music under The Green Kingdom moniker since 2006, and with each release he further refines his brand of introspective ambient bliss. Cottone skillfully uses digitally enhanced acoustic guitar, strings, and a myriad of samples and field recordings to create his compositions.
Within his arrangements, melody and space work in tandem in an attempt to manifest what Cottone has called an “optimistic nostalgia” for the listener – an aural experience that can provide a momentary reprieve from the frenetic, fast-paced world that surrounds us. And indeed his music is perfect for contemplative mornings and quiet evenings, where the vibe is to slow down and to reflect.
But with Dustloops, Cottone has gone even further, amped his ambience up a notch with the addition of 4/4 beats and a bit more of an electronic edge to his overall sound, and it results in his finest and most rhythmic work to date.
Tracks like “ambin5” and “Night Clatter” are reminiscent of Gas, while “On Golden Swamp” is downright sexy with its sleazy slap bass and smoove synth line – the song even has a sample of an owl hooting in it for Chrissake. How awesome is that? With twinkling loops, soft currents of static, great samples and fragmented melodies Dustloops: Memory Fragments is an album to bathe early mornings and frosted evenings in. Check it.
8. Danny Brown – Old (Fool’s Gold)
I’ve always had a bit of a tough time with Danny Brown. I love him but sometimes I have a hard time handling his voice. Sample “Handstand” as an example. So often on his debut XXX, this high-pitched, abrasive voice was his delivery of choice, but on sophomore album Old we see him scaling back a bit, and rapping in a deeper (dare I say, more natural) voice with a relaxed flow, and for me this is when Danny Brown shines. Sample the nod to OutKast “The Return” as an example.
The record is split into halves. The first section is the more laid back, lean sippin’, smooth flow Danny Brown, while the second half is the party record, the molly popping, blunt smoking B-side to the arguably more mature Danny Brown on the A-side. Guests like Purity Ring, Freddie Gibbs, Charli XCX, and A$AP Rocky are all most welcome, as they accentuate the tracks and compliment DB. The production is a highlight, coming from diverse producers like A-Trak, Rustie, Skywlkr, and Paul White and covering all sorts of sub-genres from bass music to trap to Dilla beats to throwback jams.
It’s true, I have trouble listening to Old all the way through, but damn if I haven’t had his tracks noodling through my head as soon as I wake up in the morning for the past four months. Lines like: “If I dip you dip if I dip you dip I dip” from the appropriately titled “Dip” and “Slow days fast days gettin’ paper anyways” from “Dubstep” seem to be my most popular recurring ear worms.
Old is a definitive leap forward for Danny Brown, and I have the same hope that he has for himself on the stirring album closer smooth jam “Float On”, where he sounds like Devin the Dude and says he prays he can get old so he can “see my influence in this genre of music”, because I think the older Danny gets, the better he’s gonna get. Namsayin?
Great track: “Red 2 Go”
7. DJ Koze – Amygdala (Pampa)
Wrapped in probably the worst cover art of the year, DJ Koze returned this year with the refreshing Amygdala, his first album in close to a decade. I was just falling in love with the Kompakt schaffel when I first heard Kosi Comes Around in 2004, a collection of 4/4 techno tracks. But if there’s anything I remember from my first listens to DJ Koze was that he was kinda weird, and a bit psychedelic, and instead of being dark and moody and minimal like sooo many German producers of the early 2000’s, DJ Koze seemed boisterous and happy.
And a decade later those characteristics are still intact, and what’s more, Koze reveals a knack a crafting what can almost be classified as pop songs, only through his warped lens. What makes Amygdala stand out is how every track has something that makes it special: an unusual yet welcomed noise, an unexpected tempo shift, an exciting bit of bass work, great guest vocals from Matthew Dear, Caribou, Milosh, Ada, and Apparat, and crisp production throughout.
Take “Magical Boy” as an example. It has Matthew Dear doing his distinctive drawn-out vocals, a wood-block snare, a nifty bass line, crooning horns, female vocal accompaniment, and this odd metallic twang that sounds like someone playing with a spring door stopper. Or the following track “Das Wort”, which features some vocals in German courtesy of Dirk von Lowtzow, what sounds like the bass line to “Angel” by Massive Attack, an airy piano scale, some extra funk bass thrown in for good measure, and near the song’s close, an ode to Marvin Gaye. Every song is different in execution, and every song has just that little eclectic twist that transports it higher.
The amygdala are nuclei located within the temporal lobes of the brain and perform a major role in processing emotional reactions in humans. And DJ Koze has attempted to do just that, create an emotional reaction in his listener and damn if he doesn’t succeed. Amygdala is a highly underrated album worthy of giving a few spins at the start of a fun Friday night.
Awesome tracks: “Homesick” ft. Ada and “Nices Wölkchen”
6. Machinedrum – Vapor City (Ninja Tune)
Travis Stewart aka Machinedrum returned this year with the follow up to Room(s), with the excellent Vapor City, a tight collection of bass heavy, hypnotic, drum ‘n bass tinged bangers. Machinedrum has made it something of a trademark throughout his career to snatch up the slickest sounds and deepest sub frequencies from across the electronic scene, styles like juke, jungle, deep house, and techno, and fuse them into his own elegant hybrid, and create a sound all his own.
Apparently, Vapor City was inspired by a recurring dream Stewart’s been having over the last few years of a strange city. Each track on the album is a representation of a district within the “Vapor City”, and each track flows smoothly into the next.
Album opener, “Gunshotta” is one of the year’s most exciting musical moments for me. Featuring filtered rave stabs, pattering hi-hats, blips of soulful vocals and a raspy ragga sample before the song’s big drop, Stewart has created a murky, frenzied club hit. Seeing him play this song live was incredible. He built the track to an intensity that had the crowd pretty much going bonkers, and by the time the song reached its climax, empty cups and bottles were flying overhead, some dude was crowd surfing, and a mosh pit started up in front of me. Machinedrum’s live show was a definite highlight of the year, as he (with the help of a live drummer) not only perfectly recreated his album but took it to new sonic heights. Before I saw his live show I liked the album but after, I loved it.
Tracks like “Center Your Love” with its soft drum patterns, BoC loop, and guitar show Stewart can do downtempo just as well as up, and “Eyesdontlie” showcases those deep bass frequencies he loves to exploit. Vapor City is an album that takes multiple listens to really seep in, but once it does it is an immersive listening experience and proof that Stewart is at the top of his game.
5. Killer Mike & El-P – Run the Jewels (Fool’s Gold)
“Killer Mike and El-P, fuck boys, the combination ain’t healthy!”
I first heard of El-P when his Def Jux label blew up in 2002 courtesy of Aesop Rock’s Daylight, Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein, and El-P’s own Fantastic Damage. On his debut, the beats were jarring, the production was abrasive, his lyrics were paranoid, and the whole thing felt completely frenetic. El-P eschewed all that I thought hip hop was and could be when he released Fantastic Damage, and even though I didn’t like all of it, I knew it was important because it radiated a sense of urgency in the still fresh post-9/11 world. Anti-cap, anti-corp, doomsday beckoning, conspiracy theorizing – it was almost too much for me to process at the time, it was scary and profound. I was hooked.
I’ll never forget seeing him at The Blind Pig in Ann Arbor with Mr. Lif and RJD2 in the fall of 2002. El-P got on stage and before he started his set, he said something like: “All y’all need to know, every word out of our president’s mouth is a lie. Fuck George W. Bush, cuz he’s out to ruin us!” and it was explosive for me to hear someone speak so candidly, especially at the ripe age of 23 when I was taking classes on social justice and seeing things through a new hyper-critical post 9/11 lens. My girlfriend at the time felt the same, and perhaps propelled by the joint we smoked, and the packed and sweaty crowd, and the Red Bull-vodka she chugged upon arriving, El-P’s statement was the the final link in the “I’m gonna faint” chain, and down she went. Boom. Out cold. Amazing.
I first heard Killer Mike on “Snappin & Trappin” from OutKast’s Stankonia and was impressed by his raw delivery – his style was not unlike Big Boi, but there was real anger underneath his flow – Killer Mike was out to kill the mic, and it showed. Fast forward a decade plus some (damn I’m getting old), and Run the Jewels comes out of nowhere, released as a free download, a gift, so I grabbed it and put it on and was immediately reminded why I fell in love with both of these artists in the first place, and was amazed at how well they jived together. A new super duo is born: Killer Mike and El-P.
El-P doubles as both producer and rapper and even though his flow and delivery has greatly improved since Fantastic Damage, it’s Killer Mike’s verses that steal the show. His boisterous, street-wise rhymes launch the album towards its lyrical climax on his verse in “No Come Down”, an old-skoool bit of storytelling that comes off as genuinely spontaneous and smooth. “Job Well Done” is also another Killer Mike highlight with his amazing line about Mike Tyson. Mike is truly a rapper’s rapper – prone to making his listeners say “Dayum!” upon hearing him spit his verses for the first time.
But don’t get me wrong, El-P shines on this record too. His production is gritty and his rhymes are dope, he just doesn’t take as many stylistic risks as Mike. And unlike Fantastic Damage and last year’s Cancer For Cure, there’s no overt political message on Run the Jewels. This record is more of a victory lap for the two musicians, filled with shit-talk, thoughtful rhymes, tight production, and it has a sense of humour too (see: the resurrection of Prince Paul’s Chest Rockwell on “Twin Hype Back” for proof). Run the Jewels is a celebration of two rappers who have been in the game for almost twenty years and both are still as relevant as ever. Ch-check it.
4. CFCF – Outside (Paper Bag Records)
Montreal musician Mike Silver aka CFCF had a busy 2013. In the summer he released his Music for Objects EP, which saw him continuing the fine trend he’d adopted on his beautiful 2012 Exercises EP. With these two records, Silver was working mainly with loops of piano or keyboard, and was influenced by the work of composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. These two short players are decidely cinematic and showcase Silver’s keen ear for simple melodies. He is able to consistently eke out emotion in his compositions, knowing that he only has to hit the right note once in a song to make his listeners feel the meditative vibe.
His second release of the year, the long player Outside, came out in the fall and revealed Silver switching gears, and trying his multi-faceted hand at 80’s soft rock. Silver finds inspiration from Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Toto, and Brian Eno, yet the biggest change is that almost every track features Silver on vocals. His voice is mixed so far ahead of everything else in the mix it’s clear that he wanted them to be the focal point of these songs. For what it’s worth, he’s not exactly a technically gifted singer, but his plaintive vocals work well, because they help emphasize the feelings he’s trying to convey.
The first few times I listened to this album it fell flat to my ears. I liked the overall 80’s feel to it, but I felt like maybe Silver was taking himself too seriously, however, with repeated listens Silver’s hypnotic grip began to strengthen, and overshadow his cheesier impulses. And of course, it was on a morning bus ride to work when Outside finally sunk in. The album’s middle section beginning with “Find” (in which I haven’t heard a guitar solo so cool in a long time), continuing with “This Breath”, and leading into “Feeling, Holding” is the album’s strongest suite of songs, each working that Peter Gabriel new-age vibe perfectly, with the Toto bass line and Phil Collins’ percussion of “Feeling, Holding” bringing it to its climax.
Other highlights are a great cover of Bonnie Prince Billy’s “Strange Form of Life” and penultimate track “The Crossing”, which again has him working that Toto vibe to great effect and is arguably the album’s best track. Silver is a musician who is not afraid to take risks and one who refuses to be pigeon-holed to any one genre or sub-genre. With each release, he seems to get a little closer to reaching his full potential, and with Outside, it’s clear he’s almost there.
3. Mount Kimbie – Cold Spring Fault Less Youth (Warp Records)
In 2010, Mount Kimbie established themselves as world-class electronic tinkerers with their debut full-length, Crooks & Lovers. It was a jumbled yet highly efficient fusion of bass, indie rock, R&B, and dubstep, and the album didn’t really sound like anything else at the time. This helped Mount Kimbie strike a chord in the electronic scene, but it was clear that Dom Maker and Kai Campos were still experimenting with what they really wanted to sound like. Three years later, and they release Cold Spring Fault Less Youth courtesy of Warp Records, and although the duo are still experimenting, it seems they’re much closer to achieving their aural vision.
It wasn’t until I saw their live show this year before I noticed the real leaps and bounds their sound has taken since the first time I saw them in 2010. Three years ago they were just two young blokes on stage, twiddling knobs, dropping mean bass, and flirting with a touch of live instrumentation – a guitar lick in one track, a snare drum in another – but Mount Kimbie’s show this year in support of Cold Spring saw them transform into a full-fledged band with a live drummer, and some amazing stage presence.
At times during their set they sounded like Joy Division, at others like Tortoise, and on the other side of the spectrum, at times they sounded like Aphex Twin. What a difference a few years and a couple tours make. This is also evident with the songs on Cold Spring, in which their electronic and analogue components meld seamlessly together. “Break Well”, is one such example, when an extended passage of murky ambience breaks apart in its final minutes to reveal a wholly un-electronic guitar and bass groove. And it totally works.
“Made to Stray” and “So Many Times, So Many Ways” are highlights, the first being a hip-swivelling dance track, while the latter has a bit of a Tortoise vibe to it with its strong bass line and crisp drum loops. Critics are divided over the two tracks that feature the gravel-voiced kid, King Krule, but I like his weird and at times spastic delivery, especially on “You Took Your Time”. Most of the other tracks feature vocals from both Dom and Kai, and their skills as vocalists have also taken a leap since Crooks. The duo are so much more comfortable in their own skin on this record and it shows, even if it comes off as nonchalance.
Mount Kimbie still have some growing to do, but if the musical advances they’ve made over the last three years are any indication, by the time their next album is prepped, I think they’ll be ready to knock it out of the park. Great stuff.
2. Forest Swords – Engravings (Tri Angle Records)
The musical recipe that UK producer Matthew Barnes uses in his one-man project Forest Swords is simple enough – pick some sparse rhythms and sounds, loop them at a slowed clip, and then add layers of texture and volume as each piece slowly gathers momentum. On Engravings, Barnes creates dense and mesmerizing atmospheres that truly defy classification. There’s been numerous times where I’ve been listening to this album and have wondered just what the hell I could possibly call his style? Sure, it evokes techno, dub, drone, rock, and maybe even R&B, but it also sounds like the soundtrack to a really bad (and by bad I mean good) horror film. In short, his compositions seem to be in a category all their own.
I played this album most often when I was writing at night, a sombre and hypnotic companion to my own creative pursuits. And what’s funny is, it took me the longest time to notice what an important role the guitar plays in all of his songs. It’s as if my brain didn’t register its prevalence. Upon first listens, these songs just sound like a bunch of disparate elements – dubby bass, sparse percussion, distant voices, blurry samples. But eventually, a bold guitar (and at times piano too) crafts a melody that sticks in your head rather than drifting away with all the echo and atmosphere. And the more you listen, the catchier these weird songs become.
I doubt Barnes ever thought his listeners would be walking around humming his songs, yet as odd as they are, they’re surprisingly hooky, thanks to the old guitar. Forest Swords music is labelled as “electronic”, but it’s far more organic than you’d think. It’s kinda hard to tell what is sampled and what is of his own making, and Barnes does a great job of blurring that line with his decayed production. Listen to the forlorn vocals and guitar lick of “An Hour” or the moody, almost metal sounding “The Plumes”, which has a small ray of light courtesy of a piano tinkle halfway through. Listen to the lonely dub of “The Weight of Gold” or the album’s stunning closer, “Friend, You Will Never Learn”, and try to classify this stuff.
Or do what I did, and just say fuck it, I like it, and simply listen. Engravings is an album that offers something new every time you spin it. Depending on your mood it can be winter bleak or shine with a radiant optimism, and with it, Barnes has quietly proven himself to be one of the most exciting musicians of any genre. Check it.
1. Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest (Warp Records)
Every year when I begin these end of year lists, I never know which album I’m going to end up selecting as the big winner. It’s as if the list is alive, and the more I listen to the music I want to put on the list, the more the order changes, albums end up moving up and down, and I keep finding new reasons to love them. But after I compiled my rough list in early December, it quickly became evident to me that there was a clear-cut winner this year. Boards of Canada. The brothers return after an eight-year hiatus and put out Tomorrow’s Harvest, a better album than I could have ever presumed, and their darkest and moodiest record to date . . . maybe even their strongest.
It’s a popular trend these days for bands that have broken up or stopped recording to regroup and put out new music or go on tours and relive the glory days, and the results vary. In many cases, the bands put out a new album and it’s good, maybe even really good, but it lacks a verve or timeliness, or doesn’t have the same energy, or worse, they just don’t sound as awesome as they used to. So it’s refreshing then when a group does return after a lengthy quiet spell and reveal themselves at the top of their game and as relevant as ever.
The pace at which Boards work always has been glacial, yet after 2005’s airy The Campfire Headphase, many fans wondered what the duo really had left to say. Boards of Canada created a whole style of music, a style of music that has been aped and imitated since Hi Scores came out in ’96 (fuck, we getting old, boys!). So it was a fair assumption then to wonder if Boards of Canada would still matter in 2013. Haha. Guess what? They really, really do.
I’ve been a fan of Boards of Canada for many a moon now, and like their long-time label mates Aphex Twin and Autechre, it’s best to never take them for granted. Where Campfire offered a set of songs that was like listening to Boards through rose-coloured lenses, Tomorrow’s Harvest strips away the lightness and embraces the dark, returning thematically to the emotions they conjured up on Geogaddi. It’s a bleak affair, but the listening experience is enlightening. Early track “Reach For The Dead” eschews the nostalgic feel they adopted on Campfire for a colder aesthetic and builds into a tense rhythm that offers no relief.
“Jacquard Causeway” is a good example of how well they can create mood with very little. It’s a song hinged to the same lick of synth and simple percussion, yet its emotion is developed on the periphery with layers of synth loops slowly building on top of one another, creating a moody track unlike any they’ve ever released before. It’s undoubtedly a Boards of Canada song, but its Steve Reich-like execution feels different, and that’s good.
But it’s not until the second half where Tomorrow’s Harvest really gets cooking. “Split Your Infinities”, with its harried synth and murky vocals, show why Boards are a cut above all their imitators – the track is down right scary. There are a few somewhat lighter moments in between like the soft “Sundown”, but the final three songs of the album offer the duo’s strongest and darkest suite of music to date beginning with the brilliant “New Seeds”, which leads into the hypnotic “Come to Dust” and ends with the backwards tape loop corrosion of “Semena Mertvych”. Wow.
Tomorrow’s Harvest is my favourite album of 2013, because it looked forward but also had its feet firmly planted in the past. It tapped into the deepest part of my heart and my gut and made me FEEL, goddammit. Boards of Canada melded the old with the new, the darkness with the light, the good feelings with the not so good, and make me think they’ll still be capable of surprising me again in the future…
Yes! I made it to the end!
Fuck, I just don’t have the time to do a Top 40 list, but these albums are also fantastic and worthy of praise and your ears! So click on an album to sample a track.
Andrew Ashong – Flowers
Autechre – Exai
Bibio – Silver
Deerhunter – Monomania
Foals – Holy Fire
Isolée – Allowance
Nosaj Thing – Home
Pan American – Cloud Room
Omar S – Thank You…
Son Lux – Lanterns
Suuns – Images
TM404 – TM404
The Song of the Summer of the Century
To steal a line from the great Stephen Colbert, Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” really may be the song of the summer of the century. Me and my baby shook our booties to this guilty pleasure of a song with reckless abandon more times than I can count. It has a timeless quality and its vibe is all about feeling good. Wanna dance, Katou?
R.I.P. Lou Reed (1942 – 2013)
VISIT THE ARCHIVES
INAUDIBLE’S BEST OF 2012
INAUDIBLE’S BEST OF 2011
INAUDIBLE’S BEST OF 2010
INAUDIBLE’S BEST OF 2009
Best wishes for 2014 and onward! Cheers to good muzik, friends, many laughs, and brief moments of (un)clarity.
Thanks for reading! Love, ml.