Back in 2011, I lamented the fact that I was not listening to music as much as I used to in my college radio days. As a remedy, I set out to listen to 365 albums I hadn’t heard before. It definitely made an impact on how often I seek out new songs and new artists. While I didn’t listen to 365 albums in 2013, I did (surprisingly) listen to enough new music to constitute my first ever top five album (and top ten song) list for the year!
My top 5 albums of 2013:
5. Welcome Oblivion – How to Destroy Angels
I am a huge Nine Inch Nails fan, but honestly, I was not blown away by this record when I first heard it. While it had top-notch production and was far better than the An Omen EP that proceeded it, it didn’t hook me at first. I wish it had, because I decided I didn’t want to take the risk on the band’s first ever live show in Pomona. Huge mistake. I kept coming back to this album through the course of 2013, and sure enough, it locked its claws into me. Mr. and Mrs. Reznor really gel on this, combining his abrasive synthesis and sound design with her sultry vocals. Yes, some of the themes tread close to NIN’s previous work, but over the course of the first two releases How To Destroy Angels has begun to establish their own identity. I very much look forward to what lies ahead for this band.
4. Yeezus – Kanye West
Unlike Welcome Oblivion, I really wanted to not like this album. “The Voice of a Generation”? Track titles like “I Am A God”? Who the hell does this guy think he is? In fact, I purposefully managed to avoid most everything written by him (save for “Power” and “Gold Digger”). So, it was with much reluctance and eye rolling I listened to Yeezus. West can make singles to be sure, but the hype about this record must surely be just a mass delusion. As the last “uh huh baby” of “Bound 2” rang out, I sighed and started Yeezus again from the top. Is it highly crass, racist, and misogynistic? Absolutely. Some of the things he says are appalling. But damn it, this record is really, really good. First off is the production. Between the hired guns (half of Daft Punk and Rick Rubin for starters) and his deep sample library, the record is a sonic assault like none other this year. “On Sight” tears into your ear drums from note one and doesn’t let up. Through the hole pours West’s acidic lyrics. This man is loosing his mind, and you have a front row seat. It is a true mix of insanity and brilliance that blends the immortal words of Martin Luther King with taking a woman’s top off, only to toss the metaphor aside with a remark about buying condoms in a gas station two lines later (“I’m In It”). You can’t keep up with the assault of sensation and sex, which is most certainly a relatable feeling nowadays (though I don’t think it makes him “the voice of a generation)”. Despite all my preconceptions, I willingly admit this is one of the best albums this year: a both exciting and uncomfortable listen.
3. Pure Heroine – Lorde
“Tennis Court” was my first introduction to both this record and to Lorde. Actually, the true first introduction was her brilliant video for the song, which beats the pants off the other, more star-studded stare-you-in-the-face video this year. After hearing the new single I immediately went back and listened to The Love Club EP, which unleashed “Royals” on the world. I got why Royals was popular, but it was tracks like “Bravado” and “Biting Down” that really told me something good was coming in the next release. I am proud to say, I was correct. Lorde’s album has been called “confessional bedroom pop“, and it certainly is. But it is done so well that it knocks you over. “400 Lux” is a song about doing nothing. Seriously – she comes right out and says it. It is a song about cruising block to block through tract housing while watching your high school fling sputter along. But within that simple idea is woven such a feeling of melancholy. The world of her music is slowly melting away each second, exposing the darker sides of her teenage soul. Though catchy, songs like “Glory and Gore” are pretty nihilistic for someone so young. In many ways, this album is gothic to its core (even more so than her press photos try to paint her to be). She’s not breaking new ground in music (yet), but she’s blowing away the teenage pop acts I grew up with (and pretty much all that came after).
2. Settle – Disclosure
It is impossible to deny that Disclosure had created one of the best dance records since, well, ever. While the duo draws heavily from early 2000’s Garage and 2-Step, their music is graced with both the euphoria of mid-90’s house and the R&B infused electronica that has come to the fore over the past few years. I found Disclosure through Joe Goddard’s remix of “Control”, but was completely blow away when “White Noise” dropped early this year. Settle is filed with fantastic cuts, from the hyper-falsetto of “Latch” to the incredibly catchy “You and Me”, which I had on loop for days. There is plenty of throwback nowadays, too much really. For much of the past decade music has been regurgitating previous forms and their knockoffs. But where Disclosure borrows, they do so in a way that is fresh and exciting. It is the mark of a great artist that can embody the music that came before them and push the genre forward. I put “Settle” on the same pedestal as Basement Jaxx’s “Remedy” and Leftfield’s “Leftism”: a must own for the fan of dance music.
1. Dysnomia – Dawn of MIDI
Let’s just start by saying there was no battle for number one this year. Dysnomia blew everything else out of the water. It is the work of not only incredibly talented musicians, but also an intense concentrated effort that breaks down barriers not only in music but in musicianship. The gentlemen in Dawn of Midi are first and foremost highly talented free jazzers. Where many would be content to live in this circle, Dawn of Midi sequestered themselves in their rehearsal space, digging deep into the Pakistani, Indian, and Moroccan folk music they grew up with, merged with African tribal music and electronic/IDM minimalism (ala Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92). Much attention has been paid to the electronica influences. As a consequence, there have been several comparisons to Dawn of Midi’s NYC neighbors: Jojo Mayer’s live electronica group Nerve. Honestly, I don’t believe those comparisons are entirely fair to either artist. The goal of Jojo Mayer (one of my favorite drummers) was to deconstruct electronic forms like Drum n’ Bass and use them as a basis for jazz improvisation. Dawn of Midi may share the jazz pedigree and penchant for mimicking electronic sounds on acoustic instruments, but their approach on Dysnomia could not be more different. While none of Dysnomia was written down, it was deliberately composed (unlike their previously releases and Nerve’s original jam sessions in the late 90’s). Dysnomia is neither jazz nor electronica, though it draws from much of the same source material. Additionally, it’s not the fault of Nerve that breakbeat inspired music isn’t as tight as what you hear on Dysnomia. In fact, I’ll throw down the gauntlet and say, in this context, that Dawn of Midi is the tightest sounding band I’ve ever heard. It is more akin to your grade school handbell ensemble than a jazz band. Each member isn’t just completing their bandmate’s sentences, but adding individual letters to each others words. Naturally, you have to give up the ability to improvise in this context. So what are you left with? Dysnomia lays across the dividers of you local record shop, recontextualizing folk and tribal music using the traditional instruments of jazz. I’ll say nothing of the discipline required to perform this 45 minute composition live, because even if it was unperformable it would still be groundbreaking. There is still another reason, however, why Dysnomia was a shoe in for number one this year. In short, this record has changed the way I think about drumming (and frankly composing in general). It directly influenced my playing on two new Beware of Safety tracks, and will continue to challenge the way I write and perform for years to come. Dysnomia isn’t just one of the most important albums this year: it is definitely in the running for one of my favorite albums of all time.
Just Movement – Robert DeLong
The Word as Power – Lustmord
My top 10 songs of 2013:
10. In Two – Nine Inch Nails (Hesitation Marks)
It’s always fun to watch an artist evolve through their career. On his latest release, Trent Reznor shows that he hasn’t lost his touch. While lacking some of the vitriol of his last EP, The Slip, Hesitation Marks still packs a healthy punch. “In Two” is certainly one of the album’s best tracks (and the highlight of the current live show), featuring a wily guitar lick from Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham and a driving, vocoded lyrics.
9. Babel – Lustmord (The Word As Power)
The deep groove and thoughtful lyrics of “Global Concepts” separate it from the majority of dance music you’ve heard. Like many of the younger artists on this list, Robert DeLong is poised to make a big impact in coming years.
7. How Long? – How to Destroy Angels (Welcome Oblivion)
This major key anthem off of Welcome Oblivion took me a little time to get used to. It’s bright chorus masks the dark heart of the song: a nuclear sheen on the post-apocalyptic wasteland of twisted metal synthesis (watch out for evil Michael Cera).
6. Memo – The Spinto Band (Cool Cocoon)
The Spinto Band has been around a long, long time, and it’s been such a joy to watch these gentlemen grow with each release. “Memo” is at first a pretty pop ballad, but the last 1:30 of this song is some of the most gorgeous sound I’ve heard all year.
5. All These Things – MMOTHS (Diaries EP)
The Diaries EP was released this year by a 19-year old Jack Colleran. “All These Things” is a delicate, haunting gem that showcases how his production shines when graced with a talented vocalist (here, Holly Miranda).
4. Hearts Like Ours – The Naked and Famous (In Rolling Waves)
The Naked and Famous writes euphoric music in general, but “Hearts Like Ours” is no doubt my pump-up jam of the year. This is some great songwriting.
3. I’m In It – Kanye West (Yeezus)
“I’m In It” has everything you’ll love and hate about Yeezus: abrasive minimalist instrumentation, sexually hyper-charged lyrics, but, most importantly, a little production flourish at 2:33 that sends a shiver down my spine every time I hear it.
2. White Noise – Disclosure (Settle)
“White Noise” has landed on my list of top dance songs of all time. The driving synth line is enough to get you out on the floor, but once Aluna Francis’ chorus explodes, it’s all over: sweaty mess.
1. Ribs – Lorde (Pure Heroine)
If you want to know why people are raving about Lorde, don’t listen to “Royals” or “Team”. Listen to “Ribs”. Its brutal honesty about aging sounds like it’s coming from someone twice her age, yet still mixed with the prescience of a youth she’s leaving behind. Joel Little’s minimalist production is immaculate and perfectly suited to O’Connor airy vocals. It’s songs like this that restore my faith in what pop music can be.
System of Unlimited Love – When Saints Go Machine (Infinity Pool)
Debris – Stephen Price (Gravity: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
You – Matmos (The Marriage of True Minds)