Sunday, December 29, 2013

Top 13 Albums of 2013

And finally right before 2013 comes to a close, we've got our Top 13 Albums of 2013. In recent years, we've managed to do Top 20 to 50 albums as part of our year-end lists but this year we've condensed things a bit. These are the 13 albums that have annoyed those around me because of how much play they've gotten. The 13 albums whose vinyl versions may be a bit worn out due to overplay. But mostly, the 13 albums that made the last calendar year as good, if not better than any that preceded it. Narrowing the list down to only 13 was tough. Many great releases were left off; great stuff from bands like Bleeding Rainbow, to the fuzzy psych rock of Boston's Ghost Box Orchestra or Copenhagen's Shiny Darkly, the dark post punk of In Death It Ends, and glitchy industrial pop of Azar Swan are just a handful of albums that could have easily made this list. But as tough as it was to come up with the Lucky 13, once it came down to deciding on the final list it was perfectly clear what would make the final cut. So let's get to it.

13. Youth Code - Youth Code
It's a bit of a surprise that this LA duo got as much hype as they did in the underground. Mainly because industrial music never struck me as a having any sort of hipster following. Whatever the case may be, it's a good thing that Youth Code was at the receiving end of all the attention. Their brand of pissed-off EBM couldn't come at a better time. Heavily influenced by old-school Wax Trax!-era industrial and angry hardcore, the duo produced an album of seething aggression. It's a reminder of just how in-your-face electro-industrial is capable of being. 

12. High In The Lasers - Nightmare Air
Keeping things out in LA, Nightmare Air aims big with their first full-length album, High In The Lasers. Touching on shoegaze and dreampop, the trio works best when they let their songs skyrocket towards the heavens as guitars soar while the vocals of Swaan Miller and Dave Dupuis offer up a dreamy and unhinged duality that keeps songs like "Icy Daggers" going skyward while remaining heartfelt.

11. Sex Static EP - Ell V Gore
Judging a band by their name can be a bit unfair. But in the case of Toronto's Ell V Gore, the name is almost an invitation to guess what they sound like. My guess would have been horror punk. One listen to the Sex Static EP and it's quickly evident that the guess isn't far off. But what further listens reveal is that Ell V Gore's music isn't just horror movie shock value, but also elements of death rock, goth, and post-punk. It may only be a 4-song EP but it's an undeniably energetic burst that recalls the likes of The Birthday Party or even Joy Division at their most guttural. 

10. Reflektor - Arcade Fire
Choosing to ignore all the flak that Arcade Fire got for the Anchorman 2-like roll-out of their 4th album, Reflektor is a tough task. Haters came out of of the woodwork, accusing the band of lacking a sense of humor and pointing out their pretentiousness. But was their biggest crime of all requiring concert-goers to dress in formal attire or costumes for their upcoming US Tour? Or was it how they quickly back-pedaled and issued a statement to their fans to "please relax"? Or maybe the finger should be pointed at ourselves for taking the easy route and bashing Arcade Fire forgetting that the band always had an artsy streak. That being said, Reflektor is a great album. They could have taken an easy route themselves and spit out another collection of folk-inflected indie rock anthems hot on the heels of lesser acts like Mumford and Sons or The Lumineers or Imagine Dragons, all of whom reduced Arcade Fire's sound to a sure-fire hit-making formula. Instead, Arcade Fire pulled an unexpected turn aligning themselves with former LCD Soundsystem head honcho, James Murphy and coming up with an album that shows a band that has loosened up, musically, and swaggers with a bit more confidence. Sure there are Talking Heads-like disco excursions like the album's title track, and the single, "Afterlife" but there is still enough of the anthemic Arcade Fire sound here to warrant its appearance in year-end lists everywhere. 

9. Jinx - Weekend
Bay Area noise-pop trio, Weekend sheds some of the feedback and hollow echoes of their awesome 2010 debut, Sports, moves to Brooklyn and comes up with a worthy successor to Sports. Taking influence in some of the darker edges of post-punk and New Wave, the band's new-found focus on stronger song structures that was hinted at with their stopgap 2011 EP, Red, come into fruition here with songs like "Mirror," "Scream Queen," and the grinding "It's Alright." 

8. No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers - Var
Comprised of two prolific members of the Danish hardcore/punk scene, Var, began as a side-project of Loke Rahbek of Sexdrome and Elias Bender Ronnenfelt of Iceage. And while Iceage has produced two excellent albums of visceral post-punk, Var comes at the listener from every direction. No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers is a challenging listen as Rahbek and Ronnenfelt give in to their experimental urges going from the death march of album opener, "Begin To Remember" to the atmospheric, spoken word dirge of the title track (featuring noise artist and label-mate Pharamakon) to the dark EBM of the album's highlight, "The World Fell." 

7. The Bones Of What You Believe - CHVRCHES
At the tail end of 2012, Glasgow trio, CHVRCHES released their first two singles, "The Mother We Share" and "Lies." Both laid the groundwork for what was to become a great debut year for this electro-pop band. The Bones Of What You Believe followed through on the promise of their initial singles. Sweetened by overflowing synth flourishes that nod to New Wave and the occasional R&B-by-way-of-Prince groove and featuring the fluttering voice of Lauren Mayberry, it was easy to overlook the underlying lyrical darkness. Still, there's no denying the power of a good sing-along chorus; and luckily Bones has plenty of them.

6. Hesitation Marks - Nine Inch Nails
Four years after putting Nine Inch Nails on hold, Trent Reznor resurrects his most-known project. It was a busy year for Reznor creatively, as he had released an album with his other band, How to destroy angels with longtime collaborators, Atticus Ross and Rob Sheffield, and his wife, Mariqueen Maandig-Reznor on vocals. But with Hesitation Marks he comes back with his best work since The Downward Spiral. It's a different NIN as most of Hesitation Marks pulls away from the sonic ragers that have become the NIN calling card. Instead, the result is a more subdued, more electronic affair. It shows how well Trent has aged as a musician and a songwriter, lyrically opening up as much as he once did in the past, and musically relying more on texture than aggression even diving into unknown terrain for NIN with the peppy pop-punk of "Everything" and the slithering robo-funk of "Satellite."

5. mbv - My Bloody Valentine
Easily the most surprising comeback of 2013 was the arrival of mbv. Over two decades after the release of the highly influential album, Loveless, My Bloody Valentine finally returned. The album dropped on a Saturday night and nearly broke the internet. But once everyone finally took a listen it was clear that this wasn't the shoegaze-Chinese Democracy. All of those benchmarks were still there and even better, still intact. It felt like a continuation of a story that began with Loveless picking up where that seminal album left off. But it took the left turns where little surprises awaited us: the lush dreampop of "New You," the wailing guitars of "In Another Way," the whirring jet engines of "Nothing Is." Sometimes the exact album we'd expect is exactly what we'd want to hear. That's what mbv is and will always be.

4. Weapon - Skinny Puppy
Four albums into an already unlikely comeback, and industrial pioneers, Skinny Puppy come up with an album that fans can consider essential. Standing tall alongside industrial music landmarks like Too Dark Park and VIVI sect VI, Weapon finds Ogre and cEvin Key exploring dark themes-- this time out the human as a weapon. With Ogre pulling back the vocal distortion, some of lyrics are a bit exposed but the delivery is as acidic as ever. And then there is the meticulously sculpted sound structures of cEvin Key melding together stabbing beats and razor-sharp synths. If there was any doubt that 2013 saw a resurgence in industrial music then the fact that Skinny Puppy is as vital as ever is proof that the death disco marches on.


3. True Romance - Charli XCX
Charli XCX is no stranger to the Random Ramblings and Mixtapes year-end lists. She's had singles appear in the last 3 countdowns. So it's no surprise that her debut full-length would land in our Top Albums of 2013. What's shocking is that even with her previous singles appearing on True Romance, there is still material on here that exudes a confidence and swagger that artists twice her age have yet to to hone in on. She seamlessly goes from heartbroken regret ("How Can I"), to the bratty kiss-offs of "You (Ha Ha Ha)" to drugged up dance pop binges ("Take My Hand.") True Romance isn't without imperfections but what pop music isn't?

2. Factory Floor - Factory Floor
UK trio, Factory Floor have been plying their trade for the last few years, releasing a number of singles and EPs along the way while refining their sound. This year finally saw their self-titled debut album and it did not disappoint. What once began as standard brooding post-punk that owes a debt to Joy Division has blossomed into a style whose fractured electronic textures seem to be made up of jagged metal pieces borrowing equally from minimal techno, EBM, and old-school industrial. This album is as anti-EDM as it gets, trading in mindless hands-in-the-air laptop DJs in favor of actual instruments and musicianship. Tracks like "Turn It Up" and "How You Say" show that when electronic music is done right, it can maintain an edge without resorting to brainless bass drops and Molly OD's. This is the real intelligent dance music.

1. Silence Yourself - Savages
Easily my favorite album of the year, Savages' debut-full length, Silence Yourself grabs the listener by the throat and doesn't let up. It's the kind of album that demands to be played at high volumes. The best part of Savages is that they are difficult to pin down. When friends ask me what they sound like I find myself going with "Joy Division if they were fronted by Siouxsie Sioux" but that's only part of the equation. Every element of the band is essential in coming up with their sound from the fluid basslines to the bashing drums to the spiraling guitars to Jehnny's primal screams. It's visceral, blood-curdling, and life-affirming all at once. And let's not forget the live experience. Seeing this band live has the power of changing lives. 

There you have it. Our condensed year-end lists for 2013. Take a listen to the full albums above and turn it up. Another year with a ton of great music; I'm expecting nothing less from 2014. 

Oh and here's a shorter mixtape that offers up selections from our Top 13 Albums of 2013:


13. Youth Code, "First & Last" (from Youth Code)
12. Nightmare Air, "Icy Daggers" (from High In The Lasers)
11. Ell V Gore, "Her Vicious" (from Sex Static EP)
10. Arcade Fire, "Afterlife" (from Reflektor)
09. Weekend, "Mirror" (from Jinx)
08. Var, "Motionless Duties" (from No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers)
07. CHVRCHES, "Science/Visions" (from The Bones Of What You Believe)
06. Nine Inch Nails, "Copy of a" (from Hesitation Marks)
05. My Bloody Valentine, "In Another Way" (from mbv)
04. Skinny Puppy, "Illisit" (from Weapon)
03. Charli XCX, "Take My Hand" (from True Romance)
02. Factory Floor, "How You Say" (from Factory Floor)
01. Savages, "She Will" (from Silence Yourself)

Bring on 2014. And as always, listen loud and become immersed.

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