I’m sorry this is a little late. December was very busy for Ina and I. I thought I was going to have more time to write this up on our cross-country tour this holiday season. It was a good year for music, 2013. lots of good stuff dropped this year- a lot of albums by some of my favorites. I got turned onto a lot this September working on Station To Station. I wonder if in 2033 we’ll look back on 2013, like I do 1993.
Anyway, it is a long list, I realize. Many of them are on the darker and shoegaze-y side (including Honorable Mentions). Although not terribly surprising looking at my record collection. It’s also a list heavy on returning greats. I mean, a list of 5 doesn’t give you much to work with, but what good is a music list if there isn’t a Championship Vinyl reference?
5. The Flaming Lips – The Terror
This record was a slow burn for me. It was not for any of the standard complaints of this record (noisiness, bleakness, or “it’s no Yoshimi“); it was a little hard to get into as the weather was turning bright, but that just helped me find it’s niche- headphones at night. This record wins for the best headphones record of the year (surprise, surprise). I bought this record on vinyl with a handful of others. Of the batch, this is the only one that didn’t come with a download- which shuffled it a little towards the bottom of the pile for a while (I don’t often get to listen to my vinyl as much as I’d like). Although when I bought the download, it came with a track of the entire record with no breaks which is an ideal way to listen to The Terror. I like to listen to whole albums consecutively, anyway. As far as the sound goes, not only do I think it is a logical progression from Embryonic or even At War With The Mystics. Where those albums are in the phrenetic gravitational pull towards a psychedelic planet, At War With The Mystics on the approach- Embryonic in the heat of the atmosphere, The Terror has landed on the dark side and the dust is settling. There is something to be said that a lot of the adjectives used to pan this record are the same ones many, myself included, use to praise it. I am reminded of a spirited debate I once had with a die-hard Flaming Lips fan who hated The Lips for taking the turn at The Soft Bulletin. She hated the (to her) clean and polished sound. But this is the very reason I like these guys. You get reinvention and there are ties to the past, and they try something new. While I see what she was saying, I wouldn’t call the latter generation of Flaming Lips music polished, exactly. As far as the tone, psychedelia IS dark. There is always a dark side to it, why not explore it? Do I want to listen to this record on a sunny afternoon? No, but that’s why I like it, it’s a departure. Also, fuck what D-Ro says. While I do agree with the distaste of seeing music I like in corporate ads – bands are people and need to put food on the table…..However I don’t pay attention to cell-phone commercials to tell me about a band’s new record. And if Wayne Coyne and the boys are on TV a little more, doesn’t that make TV a little more interesting?
4. Phosphorescent – Muchacho
You know how there are “untranslatable” words in other languages that coalesce an idea of a very unique situation that would take a sentence to describe in English? I want to find/make on that describes how you might listen to a record and literally hate it- it grates on every nerve. But on the next listen YOU GET IT. This happens to me frequently enough that I need this word to exist. The funny thing about these albums is that when I do ‘get it’, they often become my favorite records- the ones that will always be favorite records. While it may be too early to tell with Phosphorescent’s Muchacho, it certainly was a favorite for the year. Right down to the artwork. I heard an early stream of Muchacho on NPR Music, I believe, and was looking forward to its release. I don’t know if I was in the wrong mood, or if I wasn’t paying enough attention, but as soon as the last track finished I completely wrote off this record. Thankfully, a few months later I was at a friend’s studio who was playing it; and not only did I not recognize this as being the same album- I couldn’t get it out of my head. That’s why it made it to my Top-5. I’ve not followed Phosphorescent as much as I would like. I liked his (Matthew Houck) debut (to me) Pride, although it sounded a little too influenced by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Though the albums in-between somehow fell through the cracks. It happens. On Muchacho Houck has certainly found his own voice. The sounds and production on this record are amazing. Houck’s use of reverb on his voice is wonderful. Where on Pride he sounded somewhat frail, on Muchacho he wails like a wounded animal. I love the opener and coda of Sun, Arise (An Invocation, An Introduction) and Sun’s Arising (A Koan, An Exit), respectively. It’s hard not to throw around terms like ‘country’ when you listen Houck’s ouvre (he wrote an album to Willie Nelson), but his sound is clearly different. It’s dream-like, shimmery, and haunting. And yes has some twang to it. There are fiddles and pedal-steels all over this record (and you know how much I love pedal-steel), but the one thing I love about Muchacho is the tasteful use of loops and beats. It’s tasteful, interesting, and clever. Nearly every song on Muchacho is a winner. Early on, Song For Zula pulls you in. Ride On/Right On continues with the beats and loops, then it jumps, tastefully, into the more traditional Bakersfield-esque Terror In The Canyons (The Wounded Master). Later follows the jaunty Latin-influenced Muchacho’s Tune, and even later, the album climaxes with the Dead-sounding jam The Quotidian Beasts, but the denouement is hardly forgettable.
3. The Besnard Lakes – Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO
There’s not much to say about The Besnard Lakes‘ new effort Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO other than it’s a great record and listened the shit out of it this year. The Canadian quartet are continuing to hone their brand of layered dreamy Beach Boys vocals + prog + shoegaze, and that formula is working for them. I’ve been a fan of theirs since accidentally (thankfully) catching them play The Empty Bottle on tour for their second album The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse (helluva good album title, no?) and loved the follow-up The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night (an even better album title!). With Until In Excess… they hit hard right out of the gate with the soaring 46 Satires. Singer Olga Goreas’ voice pleasantly reminds me of the Cocteau Twins‘ Elizabeth Fraser. Guitarist/singer Jace Lasek’s recording and engineering (at his space Breakglass) is elegantly layered – taking the ‘wall of sound’ idea and creating a wonderfully unique sound, equally dark and anthemic. Standout tracks are the opener 46 Satires, the epic People of the Sticks (that chorus!), The Spectre (while I’ve always used the Beach Boys to describe The Besnard Lakes this song is the perfect example of their influence), At Midnight (that keyboard melody that cuts through the guitar sludge gets stuck in my head, as well as the guitar refrain out of the chorus into the verse) and Catalina. My only complaint with this record, is that I could stand to hear (feel) Kevin Laing’s drums a bit more. Yes people, it is possible to still rock.
2. Speck Mountain – Badwater
I had the pleasure of discovering Speck Mountain at the Downtown Sound series in Millennium Park this past summer. They were opening for Sharon Van Etten (who appeared in my 2012 Best-of). Where Sharon Van Etten did put on a good show that day- Speck Mountain put on a great show. Perhaps some of it was a Van Etten heckler that was messing with her flow, or perhaps she sacrificed some arrangements to the space (her music can be very intimate); but Speck Mountain took their clearly nervous energy and powered through a tight set of what I recall was mainly from this album. You can see highlights from their performance here. Speck Mountain’s music, at least on Badwater is a mellow, sultry, slow burn of a band. Singer/guitarist Marie-Claire Balabanian and lead-guitarist Karl Briedrick are made for each other musically-speaking, sometimes it’s hard to tell who is playing when- in a good way. The Speck Mountain sound is almost like taking a shoegaze band and taking much of the echo and reverb away- and there are still good songs as a foundation. Balabanian’s voice is beautiful and reserved in a way that I like, but I would love to hear her belt one out. You can hear she has it in her. But it’s her control and reserve that I find compelling, almost like I’m waiting to hear her wail, and when she doesn’t it keeps me wanting more. Badwater opens with Caught Up, which I love. Flares reminds me of some of the good things of the sounds of the 90s in a good way. Slow So Long takes it back to the 80s a bit, again, in a good way. I love the organ parts- a subtle aspect to Speck Mountain which I think you’d miss if it were gone, but you might not notice it’s there. The title-track is a fun Side A closer. It’s hard not to use the term smokey when describing this band, and this song is a good example of why. I can’t wait to see where they go next.
1. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
I don’t think many fans of The National were expecting a record out this year, including The National. Don’t get me wrong, as one of my favorite bands of the last 10 years, I’m glad to have it- I just hope this doesn’t mean there will be a longer hiatus in-between the next one. I barely had time to gather expectations when this one dropped. Alligator and Boxer were strong and confident statements of a coalesced sound. High Violet was a slight expansion on the theme (oh those horn sections!). Where to go from there? It comes back to reinvention. I think if you’re going to be a great band, imho like R.E.M. (to a point), or U2 (to a similar point), or Wilco (presently reaching said point?). You first need to develop a unique sound (Murmur, War, or Being There) then you need to come up with a way to hone that new sound (Life’s Rich Pageant, Achtung Baby, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) which may take a few records to get right…..Then you explore different avenues. Sometimes that works out, sometimes it doesn’t. I hope I’m not jinxing my Cincinnati-native brethren by including them with these comparisons, or maybe I’m contrasting them out of hopes that they won’t make the same mistakes of my heroes-passed (Reveal, Zooropa, or Wilco (The Album)). Trouble Will Find Me is different, and sometimes uncomfortable, and unsure. And I like that. Only one song is a skip-over for me, Heavenfaced; there’s something about the singing on the chorus that gets to me. It sounds like it should be on u2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. But I can’t get too bent out of shape, it’s them trying something new- and I appreciate that. Despite the one track, it’s a record like this that makes me think, the next one is going to be a killer. The production is subtle and somehow different from the earlier albums despite being, essentially, the same team. Perhaps it’s Aaron Dessner coming more into his own as a producer (he’s credited as the main producer as opposed to Peter Katis who only did the mixing). As far as the songs, I love the layered vocals on the second track, Demons. Don’t Swallow The Cap, Graceless, and Sea of Love are the kind of songs that make The National who they are- Bryan Devendorf is a beast. Highlights for me being This Is The Last Time, Humiliation, and Pink Rabbits, but the rest are juicy slow-burns worth the time to listen.
This list should really be a lot longer, there are some great albums listed below. Some of these I didn’t get to listen to these as much as I had hoped, though what I heard I really liked. The others maybe just didn’t get the rotation that the above 5 did.
Eiren Caffall / Slipping The Holdfast – A beautifully written and recorded effort by some friends of mine. Had this album been released earlier in the year, it’d surely be in my Top-5.
Colorlist / Sky Song – I was lucky enough to be at the recording of this album. I was photographing for Colorlist and they invited me to stop down to their recording session at HFT Studios. It is a stunningly beautiful record, arguably my favorite so far. Produced by Josh Eustis (Telefon Tel Aviv, NIN) and John Hughes (Hefty Records). I think this didn’t get enough plays as I got the album before I went out of town for 5 weeks and only just rediscovered it.
Stirrup / Sewn – Another album from Charles Rumback (Colorlist). Not only do I love this album, I love the story- that the rhythm section of The Horse’s Ha (yet another great band) wanted to continue writing and playing outside of the main songwriters’ schedules (hence the name ‘Stirrup’, horse-stirrup).
Disappears / Era – I really dug this record. I’ve liked this band since I first caught them in Portland a few years back. I think this is one of their tightest records yet.
Yo La Tengo / Fade – I actually bumped into Ira and Georgia at my local taqueria while they were recording this. Overall a good record, it just didn’t hasn’t reached heavy rotation.
No Age / An Object – I’ve been wanting to check these guys out for a bit. I saw them play a lot at the Station To Station events. Though I like this record, the ambient stuff I saw them do live is really what I love about them….And they’re incredibly nice dudes.
Run The Jewels / Run The Jewels – One of the more compelling hip-hop records I’ve heard in a while. It took me a while to get into it- but once I did, I was hooked.
Sigur Rós / Kveikur – Remember how I was saying you need to reinvent yourself? While I’ve never quite gotten as bored with the formula Sigur Rós has been working with as others, this more aggressive album is a welcome change. I wonder how they will continue without Kjartan Sveinsson, his keyboard work was integral to some of my favorite pieces of theirs.
My Bloody Valentine / m b v – This record. This almost needs a post of it’s own. While not a groundbreaking new release (how could it be), I think it is the best album it could be. They advanced their sound, they used a live drummer, and they made it sound new (if not fresh). I am very happy it’s in the world and not lost to history……But nothing will ever be me hearing Loveless for the first time.
Wooden Shjips / Back To Land – Got turned onto these guys by a friend of mine. Really enjoying this album.
I took a break from listening to music this year (ironic in a year with so much good music) to work on recording my band’s first full-length LP. Sometime early this year, Labors will release Blue Funk. We spent months demoing songs, and in July went into Strobe Recording to track the record. In August, I sat down with Jim Becker (Califone, Iron & Wine) while he mixed the record. While this album didn’t come out in 2013, it was certainly born in 2013. We are very happy with this record and excited for its release. Again, many thanks to the people who donated to help make it a reality.