I dislike definitive lists and “best of” selections. Nobody has a definitive list. There’s no such thing. And no math exists that can produce a definitive inventory of great records from the average scores of a group of writers. It creates an order where none is needed and ends up turning apples into oranges.
But I enjoy checking out the records that people think deserve a special mention at the end of the year. To the extent that such lists are a personal account of what was “best” over the last 12 months, I think they’re helpful and fun. Plus some records leave stronger impressions than others, and I think those are worth giving extra time.
And that’s all the below is about. It’s a list of the records that left the strongest impression on me in 2013. With the exception of the first spot, everything mentioned here is basically in random order:
Album of the Year: Keith Rowe/Graham Lambkin, Making A (Erstwhile)
I’ve already written quite a lot about this album, so I’ll just add a few remarks that weren’t in my review, or in my notes posted here.
Keith Rowe was responsible for my favorite record of 2012 too. I spent a lot of time catching up with his solo work in 2013 and I jumped headfirst into whatever AMM I could get my hands on, which turned out to be a lot. Then this enigma of a record landed in my CD player and I couldn’t take it out. As I said in the 2013 Brainwashed reader’s poll, Making A perplexes and frustrates. It moves without the aid of conventional musical propellants and it inspires more questions about music than it answers, but that’s part of the reason I love it.
That it’s filled with compelling sounds and bizarrely intriguing contrasts deserves equal emphasis. Making A belongs to the ears just as much as it does to the head. How we listen and what we listen for is always a factor in how we hear the sounds around us: Making A helps draw that fact out, and it does so with great music, not just a great concept.
What I said in my review: “In the absence of melody and a solid rhythm, without clear structural markers, on a record that barely even demands its audience’s attention, the musicians all but disappear, along with the music. The thought of instruments goes out the window. We’re left with the fading image of two men travelling, drawing, cutting, maybe pouring a drink of water. No message comes through these events; just a sense of place, the passing of time, and movement. A trace. Making A does for its audience what Cardew’s Schooltime Compositions are meant to do for the performers: give them a chance to react and interpret on their own terms.”
Autechre, Exai (Warp)
A nasty recurring theme I noticed while reviewing and reading about Autechre’s 11th full-length record: some writers have little patience for music that makes even the smallest demand on their writing schedule. and they assume their audiences are as equally pressed for time and as equally impatient with new sounds. Over and over again, all I read about Exai was how challenging it sounded and how long it went on. Two full discs of abstracted beats and Autechre-like noise that’s “devoid of focus” and “completely random, offering nothing to grasp onto other than jagged shards of barely recognizable sound.”
Total bullshit from where I’m sitting. Maybe it was just one big collective gut reaction, the product of the squeeze writers feel when their instincts run up against their deadlines, but Exai hooked me from minute one. And it’s only grown stronger with time. Is it a bit dense in places? Sure. Does it meander through some odd , bottomless bits and dabble in formlessness? Absolutely. But anyone paying attention to Brown and Booth would know that they have traveled much further afield in the past and landed some fairly lifeless duds in the process. Not that there isn’t something to love in Draft 7.30 or Oversteps, but Exai blows them out of the water. It sounds confident, heavy, melodic, focused, even catchy. It’s the best thing Autechre has recorded since Confield and is in league with Tri Repetae and LP5.
What I said in my review: “Not everything on the album is equally excellent—the second disc is definitely the stronger of the two sets—but there’s nothing I’d want to cut. Digging into this music, stumbling on its nuances, and letting it work its magic is part of the fun. At two hours long, there’s plenty of time to get lost and forget about expectations and preconceived notions. Repeat listens offer up hidden patterns, previously unseen red threads, and a better lay of the land. Exai offers some upfront pleasures, but needs a little time to fully sink in. Once it does it sounds even better.”
Songs: Ohia, The Magnolia Electric Company (1oth Anniversary Deluxe Edition) (Secretly Canadian)
News that Jason Molina died on March 16th last year hit hard. He was my favorite songwriter of the past 10 or 15 years. Only a few other bands making rock ‘n’ roll mattered to me during that period, and none of them came close to touching the music made by Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. The numerous tribute albums that were released in 2013 say a lot about the influence Molina had on other writers, as do all the stories people shared about his kindness. I took seriously the advice he gave to friends about getting up early in the morning and writing from a dictionary—it had an immediately positive effect on me, and gave me a new appreciation for the work that writers do.
None of which says anything about how amazing the music on this album is. And it is stunning. In my Brainwashed.com review I said it belonged on a list of the best rock ‘n’ roll albums I’ve ever heard, next to records by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Jimi Hendrix. I know that looks like gushing, but it isn’t. I’ve lived with this album for ten years. I bought it the week it came out and played it hundreds of times in the months and years after. There were times I left it on repeat for weeks. And my enthusiasm for it hasn’t diminished an iota. I know it’s silly to rank things like that, but The Magnolia Electric Company hasn’t faded in the years since I first heard it, and I doubt that it ever will.
What I said in my review: “That spontaneity gives the music its loose, anything-could-happen feel; the sort of rambling, improvisational quality that causes listeners to draw connections to country and gospel music when they hear the album. Molina’s ideas, what he brought to the table as a writer, pull the record in the opposite direction. He’s the one that makes the music sound tightly wound; it’s his ability as a leader that makes it all sound inevitable.”
youAND:THEMACHINES, Behind (Ornaments)
House music. With vocals. About “deep” music. The sort of thing I’d normally ignore and never give a second thought. But I listened to Behind a ton last year, almost against my will at first. It’s catchy, filled with interesting production choices, and stacked with colorful passages more focused on texture and tone than on solid beats, thought it has those too. It rides a thin line between club music and something less obvious—not exactly experimental, but not in line with the usual party fare either. It’s smart, fun, and addicting. And even I ended up falling in love with the vocals, which must count as evidence for a minor miracle.
What I said in my review: “This is how Martin works. He hypnotizes first with hammering rhythms and catchy melodies, then woos with slick, but seriously deep textures and sound effects, wrapping them all together in a way that makes taking them apart impossible. Nearly every song proceeds that way: the beat provides the canvas and the textures provide the color, as well as the energy and intrigue. Müller pulls it all off by concentrating on the smallest units. He builds his songs thinking less about form and more about how and where sounds will mingle. All the repetitive passages, small variations, and mirrored rhythms, techno-flavored as they are, pay more homage to tone color, texture, and density than to the almighty beat.”
G*Park, Sub (23Five)
Marc Zeier’s take on electro-acoustic noise is microscopic, detail-rich, and unrelentingly dark. Sub’s 11 pieces combine grainy, heavily-processed surfaces and rough-hewn textures with recognizable scraps of field recordings and familiar noise, like bicycle bells and crows cawing from the trees. He works these elements into opaque sheets and then punctuates them with little blasts of noise and break-neck edits.
Despite the brief moments of familiarity, it all seems very mysterious, as if the record were the product of a field study from a remote location deep in the rain forest. The sense that G*Park brings something hidden into the light is a big part of Sub’s allure, but much of what I love about it consists in the fine details of its processed sounds. They’re distorted, dirty, and dust-strewn, as if they had been dug out of the earth and recorded from an old Victrola. You can feel them scratch against your ears and grate on your skin, and the often murky production only magnifies their tactile power.
Kevin Drumm, Earrach (Self-Released)
Another record so textured that it practically crawls with life, though this one is way more explosive. Kevin Drumm released a ton of music in 2013, much of it available on his Bandcamp page, but Earrach stood out. It’s messy, unrestrained, loud, persistent, and made from nothing but mangled tapes. The way Drumm uses that medium to reinforce the warped and wobbly sound of his recordings is absolutely brilliant. It has its subtler moments, but Earrach is a monster of an album. Push the volume way up for this one.
What I said in my review: “Earrach absolutely explodes with action. For nearly 90 minutes Kevin splices churning tape ruckus with slithering squeals, awkward gurgling, gooey mouth sounds, and other bizarre noises that have a rather wet, just-born quality about them… The tiny fluctuations in the tape’s surface, the variations in rhythm and color that emerge as it’s manipulated, the quiet music that bubbles out of apparently random interactions, all of it feels sculpted and palpable; physically present, like a cassette version of David Tudor’s Rainforest IV, but with the logic behind it, if it exists, totally obscured.”
Various Artists, EDM A2/EDM B2 (Electric Dance Music)
Two Rephlex-ian comps that don’t have the word Rephlex printed on them anywhere. Twenty-five songs that Jodey Kendrick probably produced, but who can be certain? There’s nothing but aliases listed on either album: Heidi Lord, Jidomatix, Alain Kepler, Rod Kidley, Trevor Dags, and so on. Could one of them be Richard D. James?
It’d be nice to know, but in the end it’s an irrelevant question. EDM A2 and B2 hit a teenage pleasure center in my brain that I’d forgotten I had. They wield the awesome nostalgic power of hearing Autechre and Squarepusher for the first time and put that power to good use by mixing it with a melange of other electronic styles, including a few that have nothing to do with dance. I only want someone to take responsibility for them so I can know where to get more of their music.
What I said in my review: “Maybe old man A-F-X shows up somewhere in the middle, or maybe that’s what Rephlex wants you to believe. Either way, it’s a frustrating game. Whether or not he’s releasing music is less interesting than the music itself. Does Heidi Lord have another record out there somewhere? Has TX81Z—aggravatingly named after a Yamaha synthesizer—produced anything else as trippy as “Googol?” Is Jodey Kendrick secretly one of the best electronic producers out there and the sole man behind this series? For now, nobody knows.”
FKA Twigs, EP2 (Young Turks)
Tahliah Barnett and Arca recorded my favorite pop record of 2013, if you can call it that. EP2 is a twisted and psychedelic album that bends and reflects the usual pop conventions without totally breaking them. A few writers called it an experimental outing, and though I disagree I can understand why. Its songs are ambiguous, sexy, and playful, and they totally lack conceit. Their looseness makes it seems like the whole thing fell out of the sky complete and ready to go.
But some of the little choices Twigs and Arca made, like the slow doubling of the strings on “Papi Pacify,” are so perfect that I have a hard time believing it could be so easy. And songs like “How’s That” and “Water Me” don’t just form out of thin air, no matter how effortless they sound. Those songs are thickly layered both lyrically and musically, and the videos for them complement their themes so perfectly—it’s all clearly the product of a determined and hard-working mind.
What I said in my review: “Nothing is as it seems, which is actually a nice summary of the EP. Twigs and Arca are working with a formula everyone knows. It’s pop music. But the way they handle their material disguises that fact. They know the shape and extent of their art, and rather than playing by the rules or trying to bust it wide open, they’re walking a middle path, finding smart ways to stretch, dye, and warp it. It’s tempting to call EP2 experimental, but it’s clear that FKA Twigs knows exactly what she’s doing.”
William Winant, Five American Percussion Pieces (Poon Village)
Full disclosure: I worked on some of the promotional material for this album and helped with a few of the handmade covers too. But I got involved because the music is exciting, and because Winant’s performances are amazing. I was introduced to Michael Byron’s work through this album and I think “Trackings I” is one of the more beautiful songs I heard this year. The artwork, the construction of the sleeve, the heavyweight vinyl, and the care taken in putting the whole thing together all add up to a phenomenal record. The LP might be sold out, but digital copies are available from the usual suspects.
Here’s an excerpt from the bio I wrote for the press kit: “William Winant is the single greatest living avant garde percussionist. Few musicians of any kind—popular, experimental, or otherwise—are like him. During his career he has worked with musical acts as diverse as Sonic Youth, Mr. Bungle, John Zorn, and Oingo Boingo. John Cage, Terry Riley, and Lou Harrison have written music for him. He has studied with James Tenney, Steve Reich, and John Bergamo, played music with The Kronos String Quartet, Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, Roscoe Mitchell, Keith Jarrett, and Yo-Yo Ma, and recorded music with Christian Wolff and Danny Elfman. He has performed on soundtracks for directors Tim Burton and Werner Herzog, and participated in numerous musical premieres throughout the world, including the American premiere of Luc Ferrari’s Cellule 75.
In the 20th century, America’s cup brimmed over with brilliant and legendary artists. But, as Peter Garland points out, William didn’t just play alongside them. Winant is a legend himself: ‘That’s why so many composers love working with Willie. Because he’s not just a performer. He’s a co-conspirator. He’s one of us.'”
Philippe Lamy, Drop Diary (Mystery Sea)
An effervescent and unassuming record that connects the sound of flowing water with the ineffable flowing of human consciousness. I had the chance to hear quite a few albums from Mystery Sea in 2013. Lamy’s album was the one that embodied the label’s mission statement in the most unexpected way.
Water figures heavily into the mix, but so does an unexpected stream of domestic and humble sounds, like those of a horse trotting down a brick road and the whoosh of wind blowing through the tress. One of the album’s most interesting qualities is the way it connects invisible places in a kind of four-dimensional photograph. Lamy’s studio is almost visible through the noise and the edits, as if it’s waiting somewhere beyond the album’s near-silent conclusion.
What I said in my review: “As the album progresses Philippe removes many of his sound sources. Instead of tumbling over one another, events start to come one and two at a time. Birds sing in the far distance, insects chirp and buzz with them, the sound of water echoes ever clearer. By the time it’s over, Lamy has slowed time down and reduced the music to an almost meditative hum. As the field recordings intermingle, an exciting sense of scope materializes; a feeling that the very smallest things in the world are all connected, and that something much bigger is waiting just over the horizon.”
Graham Lambkin/Jason Lescalleet, Photographs (Erstwhile)
I reviewed the entire Lambkin/Lescalleet trilogy on Erstwhile right at the end of 2013 and ended up listening to their music more than anybody else’s in December. All three records are stunning (The Breadwinner has been a favorite of mine for a long time), but Photographs takes the cake.
Everything about it—the packaging, the music, the concept—feels perfectly executed. Like Making A, it’s an eye-opening and mind-expanding album totally divorced from the usual musical conventions. Unlike Making A, it puts the artists’ private lives in the spotlight, or at least it pretends to. Part of the fun of listening if figuring out what exactly Graham and Jason have done by focusing the camera on themselves.
What I said in my review: “From that point forward the listener is subjected to the same kind of confusion. By way of sudden edits, seamless transitions, and invisible leaps, Lambkin and Lescalleet navigate the streets and sights of Folkestone, Kent in the United Kingdom, where disc one was recorded. They capture a morning church service in ‘Quested to St. Hilda,’ converse with unnamed participants at tea time, and in the absolutely brilliant second half, hitch a ride with a banjo player, talk with Graham’s sister about her new car, fill up their gas tank in a rain storm, and discuss walking along the harbor during winter. It’s a whirlwind of bewilderment and constant flux made all the more exciting by the voyeuristic thrill it inspires.”
Michael Pisaro/Oswald Egger/Julia Holter, The Middle of Life (Die Ganze Zeit) (Gravity Wave)
I wanted to write about this album immediately after I first heard it. There’s something spartan and alien about it that’s irresistible, but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is, and I’ve yet to find a satisfactory way of summing up what I think it’s all about. So in place of anything coherent, here are a couple of meandering thoughts I’ve had while listening to it, all of them reasons I keep coming back for more.
One, it’s composed by Michael Pisaro, but features contributions from a lot of people. And not just performance contributions, but material contributions too. The text comes from Oswald Egger, bits of a “home recording” are provided by Graham Lambkin, Pisaro inserts a portion of his own Ascending Series (5.2) into the mix (performed by the Dog Star Orchestra), and then he utilizes a recording of Julia Holter’s For One or More Voices near the end, which he performed himself. What any of these have to do with each other is well beyond me.
Two, the sentence Pisaro has his readers repeat throughout the album belongs to a poem by Egger, but it looks an awful lot like the beginning of Dante’s Inferno. Further complicating matters is the title of Egger’s poem, Diskrete Stetigkeit, Poesie und Mathematik (Discrete Continuity, Poetry and Mathematics). The artwork suggests something mathematical (though I can say why only vaguely), and two of the forms are so drawn that they appear to have no beginning and no end. How to tie that to the music, which avoids repetition despite the repeated poetic line, is something I’m still puzzling out, though I’m convinced it has something to do with the way the piece is organized. The translations that Pisaro has posted of Egger’s writing get me part of the way there, but only part. A mysterious and absolutely lovely record, even if it continues to frustrate my best investigative efforts.