Even if you are the most casual follower of any music criticism other than NFOP, you will already have stumbled across multiple lists this month, lists that music writers use in order to tell you what you should have been listening to in 2013 – tracks, EPs, albums; maybe which album art you should take a closer look at, or which label you should have focused on. Trying to do things differently this time, we’ve asked Adam Harper-- music critic, musicologist, and DPhil candidate at Oxford, who writes for publications such as The Wire, Dummy, and Electronic Beats – to introduce his concept of ‘musical objects’. An idea first developed and elaborated in his 2011 book Infinite Music, he briefly explicates the notion below. His and our favourite musical objects of 2013 follow, before we close with a traditional list of our writers’ favourite albums and tracks.
Infinite Music is published by Zero Books.
VISUALS BY TONJE THILESEN, CODE BY DYLAN KHOTIN-FOOTE
WORDS BY ADAM HARPER, HENNING LAHMANN, EVELYN MALINOWSKI, TONJE THILESEN, KELSIE BROWN AND HENRY SCHILLER
In recent years some magazines have expanded from 'albums of the year' to 'releases of the year,' thus widening their perspective to EPs, mixtapes, boxed sets and singles. But even these lists still only prioritise certain musical forms and exclude others. What about that live show that made your year, or that musician who only released a string of tracks, none of which in themselves would make the list?
To widen the perspective to the ultimate level would entail a list incorporating all possible objects relating to the production of music, or what in Infinite Music I called 'musical objects.' Musical objects are the dramatis personae of music - they represent any and all possible subcategories of 'music.' Listing 'musical objects' of the year allows one to dip beneath the level of the individual track to pick melodies, basslines, timbres, lyrics, or to expand into the space between releases to pick instruments, genres and musicians themselves. Musical objects can be specific to times and places, and they don't even have to be sonic objects - locations, costumes, text and packaging are all objects relating to music, and often the result of considerable creative effort too.
Whether musical objects are actually-existing, objective entities or whether they're merely artifacts of the subjective mind (which isolates them from the wider tapestry of musical information based the way our nervous systems create experience and expectations) depends on your philosophical point of view. I tend towards the latter belief, which is especially apt as objects become more complex and widely distributed, like genres. Saying there is such an actually-existing object as a record or a piano might seem sensible enough, but scale it up and I'm not sure you could say there's such an actually-existing object as for example, 'punk music,' or at least, one that exists outside human interpretation and discourse. The generality of the term 'musical object,' however,' does help such human discourse to be more flexible about what music-making consists of, and better prepared for the forms that might crop up in the future.
Naturally, the wider the field of musical objects to be evaluated, the more difficult it is for best of lists to be truly objective. How can one seriously hope to judge Dean Blunt's The Redeemer against Drake's hairline or the entire music scene of New York City? But perhaps best-of-the-year lists were never really objective enough in the first place. Besides, a list of musical objects allows for more surprising and, in some cases, more symbolic choices.
Grouper’s Mix for FACT
If that happens to be your thing, you could spend your days listening to nothing but mixes. They are everywhere. Most mixes are totally fine in one way or the other, some stand for a certain degree of quality, usually if they are curated by a trusted source such as Fact Magazine or XLR8R; a few of them have been outstanding this year, like Ben UFO’s or Sandwell District’s contributions to the on-going Fabric Live series. What the majority of such mixes aims at is the transfer of a however conceived club experience to a non-cub setting, be it your bedroom, your workplace, or daily commute. So it's not exactly a surprise to note that just like electronic music as a whole, it is yet another male-dominated arena. Coincidence or not, then, that last year as well as in 2013, it was two women to challenge our expectations concerning genuine originality in a mix. In 2012, Julia Holter’s gentle ode to her hometown LA, “All My Love For You” truly stood out; and this year in April, Liz Harris aka Grouper stunned us with her contribution to the Fact mix series, the gorgeous and enchanting “Image Of True Death”. Instead of one additional hour loaded with tracks we could move our feet to if we weren’t standing in a packed U7 during rush hour, what Harris compiled is a marvellous collection of rare and traditional tunes, for once letting us forget our desolate surroundings for 35 precious minutes.
22:43 minutes into Arca’s &&&&&
Somewhat highbrow and pretentious, No Fear Of Pop’s subheading reads “Notes on the Future of Music”, while in fact we’re aware that almost all of the time, the music we cover is firmly rooted in the present, with your not so subtle dashes of flavours of the past thrown in for good measure. Only now and then, we stumble across tunes that at least taste like something that still lies ahead of us, that transport a hint of the idea that music is still capable of moving forward. The glacial sounds of grime’s new guard could be referred to as one of this year’s examples, as Adam pointed out on Dummy last week. For me, it was when those mellow piano chords came in at the end of Arca’s mixtape &&&&& while listening to it for the first time back in July that I sensed that I had just heard a piece of music which was really trying to look ahead. Maybe the experience did not amount to a true ‘future shock’, and maybe Simon Reynolds would still yawn with knowing discontent, but for me it was quite a refreshing and reassuring experience.
I usually don’t work from home, but when for whatever reason I did so this year on any day between mid-April and late September, the Marheinekeplatz right below my window was a constant reminder of why I shouldn’t. Not exactly blessed with the grace of a Florentine piazza, with its market hall, the trees, that curious fountain, and the late 19th century buildings on two sides the square is still pretty enough to attract myriads of tourists and idlers to spend their day in one of the outside cafés. Which in Berlin, as in any other European city, inevitably also means to drag in almost just as many street musicians. There’s music in the air; the problem is that you never asked for it. When you’re lucky, you’ll get that guy on his moving piano, who seems to know what he’s doing, at least if you hear his tunes filtered by 200 metres of dusty Kreuzberg air. Or the Turkish vibraphone player, who you can barely hear. That Dylan wannabe is at least tolerable for some twenty minutes. Most days however, the trumpet player will materialise, serving a ferocious 15-minute interpretation of “La Cucaracha”, a torture only outdone by anyone attempting to employ their voice. Maybe it's that I stay home on the wrong days. Maybe there is a hidden schedule at work, one that only members of the secret guild of Berlin’s street musicians may obtain knowledge of. I sense that trying to find out might be worth the effort.
Pharmakon at N≠E, Berghain, 29 November 2013
Judging by the crowd’s dominating looks, so unusual for a Friday night at Berghain, I assume most people had come to see Birmingham industrial legends Godflesh, whose relentless, dude-esque shredding quickly turned into the most boring club experience I’d had this year (no offence guys, I’m sure that was just me). But maybe the duo’s actual role that night had been to lull the crowd simply to intensify the shock and awe their follow-up’s show would later unleash on the mostly unsuspecting audience. Margaret Chardiet aka Pharmakon’s all too brief performance was the most searing and trenchant instance of unapologetic rage I have come across in a while, and her all-encompassing, forward-thinking take on noise may from now on serve as the ultimate proof that you don’t need a bunch of dudes with stale string instruments to leave a crowd of jaded metal fans thoroughly impressed.
Julia Brown at the Orchid Tapes Showcase, on a rooftop in Bushwick, 19 October 2013
Speaking of string instruments: upon arrival in Brooklyn during the latter half of this year’s CMJ Music Marathon, I was taken aback by the omnipresence of guitar bands in the most traditional sense of the term. Even more surprising, in a way, was the absence of those electronic music acts that Europe, or at least Berlin, teaches you to consider the norm nowadays. It’s not only that there weren’t that many techno artists. It was also the way they were received. I do not mean to suggest that New Yorkers generally don’t know what to do with that kind of music. But when Huerco S. handed down his perfectly fine set during the second night of Pitchfork’s unofficial showcase at 285 Kent, well, they really didn’t – which stood in stark contrast to the experience the night before, when everybody’s new darlings Perfect Pussy had practically torn down the place in a nonchalant coup de main.
All that however didn’t matter only a few hours earlier on an unassuming if heavenly rooftop in Bushwick, where Orchid Tapes staged their own unofficial CMJ showcase. Once Baltimore lo-fi favourites Julia Brown had managed to silence the giddily excited crowd of friends and followers in order to deliver a completely acoustic, deliberately fragile and muted performance of their forlorn pop gems, a performance that compromised any future Berghain experience in passing, for a transient but precious moment, synths and drum machines and Ableton Live had yet to be invented.
London producer patten’s work is all about casting doubt on our common perception of music being mainly a fixed and thus interchangeable matter put on artifacts that are the definite and necessary conclusion of a recording process, and his own cassette label Kaleidoscope is the ultimate execution of his disbelief: released in ridiculously small editions and recorded straight to tape with improvised elements supplied by various effects, every single cassette becomes a unique item. No further copies will be produced. Founded last year already, Kaleidoscope’s concept really came to fruition in 2013, with Orphan’s Retakes and ALAK’s Guardian Petted being its most remarkable releases to date.
Jabu’s “Move In Circles” b/w “You & I (Kahn Remix)”, 7”, No Corner
Bristol boutique imprint No Corner’s fifth release needs to be on this list because it’s the one acquired object that as yet remains unheard. I’m sure it’s great: of all exciting artists of the city’s Young Echo breed, vocalist Alex Rendall and producer Amos Childs’ project Jabu remains my favourite, not least thanks to last year’s split tape with Killing Sound on No Corner. Also, those brief Soundcloud snippets tell me it’s just as amazing as I'd expect those two tunes to be. Apart from these fragments however, there is no digital version available. You know, it’s cool to go with all-physical releases these days, whatever, but why put out a big-holed 7” when I don’t own an adaptor anymore since getting rid of my Denon turntable a year ago? I should just buy a puck but I keep forgetting, so this piece of delicate vinyl rests untouched on my shelf and is thus very much an object: nothing but dead matter. I enjoy looking at it though.
Hype Williams’ remix of Perera Elsewhere’s “Bizarre”
Hype Williams’ “gated community mix 2” of Perera Elsewhere’s fantastic single “Bizarre” not only stretches the two minutes and forty seconds of the original close to the ten-minute mark, most notably it challenges the conventional idea of the remix. Most of the time, what we hear has nothing to do with Perera’s song. Instead, we are confronted with quite a few standard features of the Hype Williams repertoire – or rather that of Dean Blunt, who’s most likely behind this piece: constant, unnerving rain; multiple police sirens; disjointed instrumental sounds. The few bars of “Bizarre” that finally set in appear to be not so much reinterpreted but plainly appropriated, just like any other sample in Blunt’s oeuvre (think Pink Floyd, K-Ci & JoJo, or Julee Cruise). Ultimately, when the track gets dominated by various cat-related vocal samples taken from Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it becomes clear that what we have before us is not really a remix of Perera’s single, but amounts to nothing more than a contemplation on the song’s title. Which really is something else for once.
Golden Pudel Club
Going to university in Hamburg, the dockside shack named Golden Pudel Club would often be the place where a night would end, or where the whole night be spent if nothing else could be found in town. Sure it was a thing; but we hardly were aware that it was or could ever become a real thing outside of the city’s boundaries. Rarely did we go because of the artists or DJs performing. If there were already famous ones performing at Pudel back then, we didn’t know or rather didn’t care. The place was fun, that was mostly it. And it took me until this year to realise that a lot of artists who play Berghain in Berlin will happily, and indeed enthusiastically, enter those shabby ruins up north. More generally speaking, something seems to have shifted recently regarding the club’s international recognition, most prominently demonstrated by Will Lynch’s great report on Resident Advisor in July. I made it only once this year, to join PAN’s Bill Kouligas for the first performance of his own new material, a show accompanied by a killer set by resident DJ Helena Hauff, who herself is one of the most remarkable musical discoveries of 2013 (and would deserve to be on this list). The crowd was a typically random Sunday night composition, with a group of overexcited Chinese exchange students as a special treat. I doubt many of them knew who Kouligas was, or PAN. They had come for the fun. To my delight, that still seems to suffice.
Stadiums & Shrines
After an extended and painful decline, serious music blogging finally passed away sometime in 2013. But even when you’ve realised that you cannot win the revolution anymore, you can still go and aestheticize its ruins. And that is something that Stadiums & Shrines does more elegantly than anyone else around. S&S is smarter than your blog, because it knows that no one really cares about your exclusive premiere anyway; the whole LP will be on Pitchfork Advance in a few days, and on Spotify next week. It knows that your latest discovery isn’t really all that relevant. Because there’s gonna be another buzzband tomorrow, just wait and see. S&S is also prettier than your blog, and it hints at the actual possibilities of that certain language which by now has become the fabric of our everyday existence. The web is not, or should not be, a plain transformation of paper to the virtual realm, a fact that we are only slowly learning, and that only now at least a few publications finally start to understand and implement. Most of all however, S&S is a musical object that deserves to be listed here because unlike all the other sources that try to gain our attention every day, the music presented on the site invariably makes sense: it is as thoughtful and contemplative as the blog’s overall concept. It is worth pausing for a second in order to take another listen. Stadiums & Shrines is still worth the effort, which is why I am grateful it exists.
Mutual Benefit's Love's Crushing Diamond, and the journey there
"You are going to die", Jordan Lee sings, in front of an audience of 10 people, scattered around a bonfire on one of the late nights spent at the blue house in Austin, Texas. It is SXSW 2012, and my second or-so live encounter with Jordan, the brainchild of Mutual Benefit. It's just him and us there in the garden— Jordan with his guitar, loop pedals and toy keyboards, and us, a mixture of old and new friends, quietly listening, as he performs a 40-minute set of stripped-down, tranquil versions of songs from Spider Heaven and I Saw The Sea, peculiarly detached from the psychedelic drench of the original recordings. It is also the first time I hear this 'hidden' side of Jordan's songwriting shine through the melodies, expressing an admiring perspective of reality; a wisdom few are lucky to be in the possession of.
There are no brightly painted colours in Jordan's universe, and neither does he come off as a dreamy or oblivious person, though the sketches of his music may come off as such — escaping, perhaps, but also quite the opposite, as fragments of his lyrics often tend to inspire some sort of advice on how to deal with inner or outer conflicts. However, what can also be seen as the cosmos around Mutual Benefit, is very much just a small fracture of a massive spectre of shades, colored by relationships and current events. And perhaps too, the collaborative community of young creatives, scattered around the continent, who inspire to continue— even through the darkest of shades, or going through some sort of inner, emotional journey. This is also why Love's Crushing Diamond, the first full-length (and 12" release) as Mutual Benefit, feels so much more like a final product of his — not only through the collaborative efforts with his band, or the always helping hands from his friends Lizard Kisses and other key people from people he met along the way, but rather determination, and finding the strength to continue even when you get stuck in a pattern of repetition, in the midst of an emotional maelstrom. Musical self-therapy, perhaps, as a product of inner growth — and in this context, an object of a musical journey from my personal experiences with Mutual Benefit, something that has in one way or the other taught me to not get too stuck in my own reality and perception of things, especially related to my own creative outlets.
Getting to know Majical Cloudz
This also applies for Devon Welsh, the somewhat "iconic" front figure of Majical Cloudz, and the force behind one of this year's most memorable records, Impersonator. A year of which I also happened, due to various work-related reasons, to spend quite some time in the company of Devon and Matthew Otto; either on tour from New York to Toronto (which ended up in a photo essay for Pitchfork), at the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago and Paris, by endlessly wandering through Montreal's Mile End, or watching Devon sing Creed's "Arms Wide Open" at a russian karaoke bar in Berlin, in company of Diana and Dent May, because we got denied entrance to Berghain. The same year as Emily Kai Bock directed one of the highlights in music videos, for Majical Cloudz' "Childhood's End", and the same year I saw Majical Cloudz play songs from Impersonator in front of a crying audience, at more occasions than my hands can count, and yet, on the 18th time I see them, at M for Montreal, I still struggle to hide my tears. And then all the moments in between, all the tiny pieces of a puzzle that builds up a friendship, with someone who have happened to write the most excellent piece of music you have heard in a long time. All of these little things, put next to Devon's piercing voice, his calm, but utterly wise approach, and the way that he looks over the audience with a look that will burn to your mind. We learn to hide our feelings, make them smaller, or word them in a way that make us liars about our own well beings. Majical Cloudz is in some way, and maybe even unaware to Devon Welsh, the opposition of this. "I feel like," he says in between the songs at their live show, and you can be damn sure that every word from there will be the most honest thing you'd hear all night.
Om Unit's The Road with Charlie Dark
Let's move back to our 'theme' of the year, musical objects. Personally, it does feel a bit vague to use the word "object" when describing a musical experience such as above, that is not just a single opinion formed by one individual after listening to a finished product of music, performed or perceived. Just a few years ago, the music I listened to was "just" the creative outlet of someone I had discovered on the internet, of whose music seemed meaningful at the time. By several occasions, that has changed. Many of those people that I respect and admire the most in music, are today also friends: I'm not necessarily saying that this, alone, will change the way you see the content of their creative product, but rather look at it differently, affecting your objective opinion about a piece of music. So allow me to re-phrase it — these were, for me, musical journeys, and not musical objects, and more importantly, they were moments of the year that taught me something valuable.
There are also other moments of the past year — more particular ones per se. Listening to Om Unit's "The Road", featuring words by the legendary urban poet and Run Dem Crew founder Charlie Dark — a love letter to urban running, pretty much, set in the atmosphere of an apocalyptic future: "The road is unaware of the numbers in your post code / doesn't care what you've achieved, seen or done (…) The road will not come to you as visions in the darkness / or send messages from above". Walking through the dark streets of Neukölln at night, with Charlie Dark's sharp voice rasping on the outside of your brain, loneliness is an inevitable feeling. But not necessarily a bad one.
Oneohtrix Point Never and Healing Music
Listening to Oneohtrix Point Never's "Boring Angel" and "Still Life", off the absolutely stellar R Plus Seven, a similar kind of this subtle loneliness was achieved. These tracks are also two of the very finest moments in experimental electronic music this year, and perhaps the only moment I can recall a feeling of my mind detaching from body; a meditative experience of sorts, stuck in the crowd during his set at Berghain. An experience similar to seeing Kassem Mosse live at Panorama Bar, shortly after my realization that Kassem Mosse's music in fact can be desrcribed as healing music. A friend pointed me in this direction, claiming he would regain physical and mental energy when listening to Kassem Mosse, and according to comments on youtube (particularly appearing on tracks from Workshop 8), he wasn't alone. And indeed, there is something beautifully hypnotizing about his repetitive harmonies and how he interacts with time in music, surprisingly similar to Ukrainian pianist and Erased Tapes resident Lubomyr Melnyk.
Few had previously taken note of Lubomyr Melnyk before the release of Corollaries on Erased Tapes earlier this year, being in fact his 18th official release since 1979. Much similar to our imagined term "healing music", Melnyk masters an incredibly complicated technique of playing the piano, as he personally describes as "continuous music". This certain technique results in a "tapestry of sound", acquired by playing rapid notes and note series, which allows the overtones to clash with the harmonic changes. But perhaps (and just perhaps), isn't the road from Lubomyr Melnyk's classical masterpieces to Kassem Mosse's healing techno as far as you'd imagine after all. They both perform, with different techniques and instruments, a minimalistic take on time that purges into a deep, meditative space, a space that only a few composers and musicians are able to attain. That night when Lubomyr Melnyk was performing Corollaries at Haus Ungarn in Berlin, I wasn't yet aware of Kassem Mosse's existence, but still felt a similar sense of harmonious 'healing', watching him perform. An hour after the audience had left the venue, I walk back inside to pick up some equipment. Nils Frahm sits alone on stage, playing the piano. The room is almost completely empty except for myself and NFOP editor Henning Lahmann, as well as a few other people and friends of Erased Tapes, as Frahm performs under a dim spotlight, obviously unaware of our presence. I think I teared up for a second, in a room filled with the same, inner loneliness, but thus I realised as I left, the kind that strengthens you.
The modern tape labels: 1080p and Opal Tapes
2013 also saw the birth of one of this year's most interesting DIY electronic labels, 1080p, a tape imprint founded by Rose Quartz's own Richard McFarlane, who introduced us to a wave of new, exciting producers: Young Braised, Mind Dynamics and Heartbeat(s), amongst others. Of course, let's not forget about the one and only Opal Tapes, who have probably seen one of their best years as a rising tape label, finally getting some well-deserved exposure for their hard work. The past year includes excellent releases from COIN, Dreamweapon, Patricia, PHORK and Bleaching Agent, and CTM Festival/Boiler Room Berlin/Leisure System magician Michail Stangl noticed so too, calling it "undoubtably the best label of the year". We agree.
Dean Blunt's album cover of The Redeemer and the mystery of Jai Paul
Dean Blunt's absolutely stellar The Redeemer made me want to tattoo the praying hands illustration on my right arm (something which I still intend to do, when I gain the courage to), while Jai Paul disappeared as mysteriously as he entered in 2010, with a string of demos that weren't perhaps "meant" to be perceived as a full album, but more like a statement, and (after some research), unlikely to have been a PR stunt from XL Recordings' side of things. On the other hand it seemed clear that this was a way for Jai Paul to put an end to his project, and at the same time give the middle finger to XL, for reasons unknown. If he will ever return? Who knows. Whatever the reason, his material spoke for itself: songs that could have been, just barely, the Prince of 2013. And may that be a lesson.
The First Listen to Burial's Rival Dealer
Listening to a new Burial release is about as close to a collective event as you can get in independent music today. In a year when so much of the UK dance underground - of which, let's face it, Burial is the most respected figure of the last decade - was strange, new, and even futuristic, it was easy to approach another Burial EP expecting, at best, a familiar and increasingly timeless friend up to his usual tricks. Instead, Rival Dealer was probably Burial's most surprising release since his debut eight long years ago, and discovering this upon first listen will, I'm pretty confident, prove unforgettable. The artist's famous nocturnal flights through the streets suddenly gave way to searing experimental hardcore ("Rival Dealer") and slow hip hop and R&B-like scenes saturated with open-hearted sentiment and brilliant shafts of white light, all connected by sound fragments much drier and stranger than before, so unapologetically fractured that they ceased to be deconstructions and became new abstractions.
The final track, "Come Down To Us," ends with three short samples from a speech given by transgendered filmmaker Lana Wachowski about coming out and privacy (which is very much worth watching all the way through). Burial himself has described the concept behind Rival Dealer as "anti-bullying tunes that could maybe help someone to believe in themselves, to not be afraid, and to not give up, and to know that someone out there cares and is looking out for them.” In the context of Burial's career, Rival Dealer has a humblingly brave character throughout, a lot like that of a person (the producer, the listener, Lana Wachowski, or some imagined oppressed character) who will no longer remain within a certain sound or image and no longer wants to hide doubtfully and melancholically in the emotional shadows, holding back. And in the context of Rival Dealer, that moment at the end of "Come Down to Us" crystallises and banishes a lifetime of alienation, doubt and shame, of self-censorship and hiding, of not knowing how or whether to accept that one is profoundly different from the expected norms of the society one is surrounded by. Having reached this understanding, having metamorphosed into something unashamed, the music stands proud against the potential for incomprehension and denial. The term 'transgendered' itself is a moment of startling explicitness from an artist whose use of vocal samples has hitherto remained emotive but unspecific. And then the final quote affirms that music - this music, in fact - is the medium through which ideals are imagined and realised. But I was already in tears.
The War Dubs
In the middle of September, when producer Bless Beats responded to taunts by uploading a new production to SoundCloud entitled War Dub, it sparked a spontaneous all-against-all competition among grime instrumentalists to produce the fiercest, strangest, most technically accomplished and most all-round grimey tracks. Dozens of producers got involved, including big names old (Wiley, Jammer) and new (Preditah, Visionist). Artists would pick out particular artists they wanted to spar with by name, and those artists would respond in kind. The War Dubs highlighted the disparate stylistic and aesthetic strands within the genre today, precipitating tensions over the recent influence of trap (on Wiley's This Ain't a Trap War and Inkke's own war dub), and gave a number of producers within grime's new wave a chance to shine (one of my favourites was Bloom's war dub). Fact were particularly good at covering the conflict (here, here, here and here ), but one of the best places to condense the whole atmosphere of the war is a video of a Kiss FM broadcast dedicated to the dubs (Logan Sama's KISSGrime Producer Special on KISS FM UK). Let's make it an annual event.
Lou Reed's vocals on "I Heard Her Call My Name" as played on 27th October 2013
Musical objects of 2013 don't have to be 'new' like an album released in 2013 is - they can be old things made new by new contexts. Lou Reed's death this October 27th will change, even if only subtly, the way we hear the recordings he left behind at an earlier age, and it seems like there is always something fresh they can bring to the present. Listening back that day heightened the musical effects in poignant and unexpected ways. There are many Lou Reeds, but the one I've long felt most fond of is Reed the vocalist, especially on White Light / White Heat. The Velvet Underground's legacy of being 'cool' belies one of the more attractively human aspects of their music, that it's awkward, imperfect, over-exuberant and freakish in its reflection of rock and roll. Youthful, even. Camp! Reed's vocal on "I Heard Her Call My Name" is the clearest example of this, especially the excitable "Ready ready ready ready!" at about nine seconds in. His voice, scrambling and gliding around like a rapturous dog on a frozen pond, is perfectly mirrored in his crazy guitar solos. This is Lou Reed as I'd like to remember him - less the cantankerous rock god than the playful, silly, charismatically over-confident trickster.
The Emergence of Pitch in Laurel Halo's Chance of Rain
Every Laurel Halo release is a new sonic game with new rules, and listening is a process of figuring out what feels good. I was particularly taken with the subtle relationship between noises and pitches (or particular singable 'notes') as one possible running theme on this year's Chance of Rain. It's not one of light and dark, or, as it so often is, of tuneful elements 'buried' in noise, it's one of growth along a continuum. Throughout the album, pitches seem to emerge from noise the way hot, hard planets congeal from the dust clouds of a protoplanetary disk. On "Oneiroi" and other tracks, this is achieved through minute moments of resonance. On "Serendip," jets of steam seem to be singing. Then there are the moments when keyboard instruments enter the fray, either penetrating the fog, being revealed as it clears, or appearing fully formed, creating periods of remarkable release and sensuality. The emergence of pitch from noise - and by extension the emergence of order, emotion and music itself from noise - is most plainly encapsulated in the opening seconds of the album, when analogue background noise suddenly springs into life as a gorgeous Rhodes broken chord, like a Big Bang or some other miraculous moment of genesis.
Janelle Monae's Performance in the video to "Q.U.E.E.N"
I can't think of anyone I enjoy seeing sing and dance more than Janelle Monáe. She moves the way I wish I could, and seems to do so on the viewer's behalf rather for their passive entertainment - her performance skills have put her videos among some of my all-time favourites, and it was brilliant to see them as charismatic as ever in the video to "Q.U.E.E.N." One thing that makes Monáe so compelling is her mythology, which tells fables of social justice through retro-futuristic science fiction, and as the core of all this, Monáe's on-camera energy is particularly rewarding. I don't know which moment I like more - the juddering out of deep freeze, her chin-up eyes-flaring hail to the viewer, the outraged thrashing of the shoulders (accentuated by those tassels), the hands on the hips. And then, donning her signature suit - both a vestige of servitude and a declaration of power - she raps, pinching her lapels and gesturing sternly. Electric Lady? Yep.
The Drop of Autre Ne Veut's "Ego Free Sex Free"
Autre ne Veut's album Anxiety had some amazingly cathartic moments of sonic and structural coming-together, but for me the beginning of "Ego Free Sex Fre"'s' chorus was an instant of pure transcendence. The term 'drop' comes from dance music and dubstep most famously, and while it isn't quite applicable in quite that way here, this object is hugely dance-oriented and certainly a culmination within the song. The opening of "Ego Free Sex Free" is manneristic, lumpen and extravagant, which makes the smooth, rolling syncopations of the chorus all the more perfect and fulfilling. To me it vividly evokes a club heaven.
James Ferraro's Live at Corsica Studios, Late in the Year
I'd heard great reports about James Ferraro's post-NYC Hell 3am live show, and when I was stood in London's Corsica Studios on November 12th, I kind of had to pinch myself. Not only was it utterly bizarre - a series of cold digital sounds and words whose sequence was apparently improvised - but I was struck by the contrast with the same scenario around three and a half years ago. Instead of the messy, analogue, retro sound dressed in vintage clothing that defined underground indie and Ferraro then, this was an artist - and an audience - grappling with weird new technological modernity. The room was completely dark save for a few swooping blue lights that aptly expressed the sounds, and the crowd was dressed either in black or strange kinds of sportswear. The experience was somewhere between having a dark future dictated to us by a dispassionate machine and seizing that future on our own terms - thrilling in ways I don't yet understand.
The Slight Drop in Pitch at the End of Each Line in Drake's "Started from the Bottom"
Drake's "Started From the Bottom," the first single released from his album Nothing Was the Same, is strangely mesmerising track, and the more mesmerised you get the more surreal it seems. Firstly, it's built upon a short loop assembled from fragments of a sentimentally blissful ambient track, which is quite a heavy mood for what's basically the standard career boast theme. But the thing that really hooks me is the way each of Drake's lines ends both with a slight drop in pitch, especially on the words "now we're here." It's delivered in a mixture of speech and song that already quite high-pitched, and with the slight dip at the end, as well as the pregnant pause that follows it, it gives an impression of vertigo, like briefly peering down from a long flight of stairs or a ladder to see how far up you've climbed - not a bad reflection of the lyrics, really. The instrumental loop, then, represents the same clouds Drake's head is in on the album's cover.
YEN TECH's voice in "Creature"
While pastiche has been an element in underground music for some time, it reached a particular level of intensity this year with releases from Gatekeeper, ADR, YEN TECH, Eyeliner and PrismCorp Virtual Enterprises, each of which were positioned at a considerable distance from the traditional folky-rocky authenticity of indie music. YEN TECH was the only one of them to incorporate singing, which was the dazzling icing on a lurid, thrilling and disquieting EDM pop cake. The one-off single "Creature" conflates sex drive with lizard-brain subhumanism and was provocatively ambiguous on whether 'freaks' and 'animals' were being celebrated or objectified and shamed. Appropriately released around Halloween, it was a particularly rich distillation of what YEN TECH does, and his boy-band, breathy voice, at the very opening and during the chorus, stood for its simultaneously seductive and sinister qualities.
The Press Shot of Chaz Allen that Headed Up a Chicago Reader Article on Vaporwave
Oh, hi there. Welcome to my world. As images of musicians go, this picture of Chaz "Metallic Ghosts" Allen for an article on the online movement Vaporwave was brash, cheeky and perfectly pitched. The cutesy pose and dreamy stare, together with the laptop (the instrument) and the bedroom (the stage) perfectly represented and rejoiced in - knowingly, I'm sure - everything that aging digital / internet naysayers are paranoid about: narcissistic amateur millennials and how their digital life spurns Real music and Real performance. The pink coloration also suggests that there's something light, casual and pretty about this milieu, when of course Real music should be challenging and macho. If vaporwave is the new punk, and that's not a bad analogy at all, this press shot was the perfect punk image. As the producer behind Metallic Ghosts and a co-founder of the TinyChat club night SPF420, Allen is one of the figureheads for a new surge of positivity, kitsch and DIY organisation in the online underground, and will hopefully carry on in that capacity next year.
Driving from Missoula, Montana to Seattle involves a lot of peaks and valleys, passes and plains, rain and sun. It's moody. Exiting the five river valley, climbing over Lookout Pass, and crawling through the bumpy hills of the Idaho panhandle, one remains unprepared for the density of landscape that lies ahead.
Post-Spokane, that industrial spew, there is a confusing, windswept plain, trafficked by a good share of bad drivers with Washington plates. After some long hours and only one Starbucks, eastern Washington collapses into the Columbia River Gorge. Before the road undulates according to the land (prairies often resemble the surface of the ocean), the Cascades are suddenly visible. They shoot and swirl terrifyingly out of the prairie, there, less than one hundred miles away, snowkissed. That's when Mt. Rainier can first be spotted, on clear days. It'll disappear around the bend, reappear with the wind turbines, and oscillate on the margins of the view ahead, all the way to Seattle. Like the bad drivers.
The Field's “No. No...” off his latest release Cupid's Head, contains similar kaleidoscopic beauty as well as desperate uncertainty as to whether that beauty can be handled. It clicks and sticks, and, every four bars, when the cycle completes before starting over again, reveals what it's trying to conceal: an indiscernible, mechanical sample, begging the way the body of the track does. Is this a chorus? Refrain? The Field often only produces refrain and collision, deeming the rest superfluous, with casual progression. About five and half minutes in, the pitch drops, which is its acquiescence, its caving after disinclination to change, more of the same, again. Milling over this reluctance to the frightening majesty of approaching Snoqualmie Pass are about one hundred wind turbines. They turn in uncertain circles (wind is inconstant) like the sample. Their bases planted into those sheered rocks around the gorge reinforce the tops that resist the wind, which is their job. Resistance is their job. Change. Wind. Resistance. While I wasn't dizzy, my imagination was spiraling toward glimpses of an unpremeditated future to a loud volume. Things that I hadn't thought of before presently gathered and stared back at me, mobilized. The Field's strange, stabbing audibility complemented the foreignness that approached. My perception of it all was fan-likeness, the slow gigantism of the turbines. For a moment, I passed other vehicles with the cataclysmic relentlessness of those with Washington plates, under the spell of the intersecting terrain. The sky was a grayish-yellow, and it must have been my tenth or eleventh time making that commitment.
Arca's mixtape &&&&&
New York producer Arca quickly rose to fame in summer 2013 after the release of his nearly half-hour mixtape &&&&&. Kanye associations aside, &&&&& was an incredibly fresh mix, and led the way for that experimental blend of electronic sounds to later define a large part of the year's output.
The hook in "Play by Play" by Autre ne Veut
Autre ne Veut knows how to write a pop song. When we speak of "indie" pop music released in the year 2013, there is arguably no better hook than that in the chorus of "Play by Play". Months after its release, people still continued to reference "that play by play by play" on Twitter, and at SXSW you would frequently hear references to wanting to hear that song live. Karaoke jokes aside, "Play by Play" is one of the catchiest damn songs of the year.
The ending of "Onward" by Forest Swords
If I were to have made a list of albums that defined my year in music, Engravings would have been very high on that list. I could speak of several things on Forest Swords' much awaited debut album that made a large impact on me upon the first (and subsequent) listen(s) – those compressed, distorted vocals on "The Weight of Gold", the way Matthew Barnes in "Gathering" utilizes the human voice as a sort of percussion, and many others – but what continues to make me pause is in "Onward". After the four-minute mark, the repetitiveness fades and what occurs is pure beauty in melody. When I listen to music I seek periods invoking extreme feelings, and in particular those reminiscent of the tension I feel every day, and it's in this moment that Forest Swords captures that melancholy calmness after the storm.
For me, a year-end list wouldn't be complete without a mention of Liz Harris. The Man Who Died In His Boat will be considered one of Grouper's classics. Every song is solid and showcases everything we love about her music.
"The Mirror Reflecting (Part 2) by The Haxan Cloak
"The Mirror Reflecting (Part 2)" is one of the best examples of the dark, heavy ambient-leaning electronic music that became more widespread this year, largely due to Tri Angle Records' consistent offerings. Heavily influenced by drone and veering on industrial at times in its intensity, The Haxan Cloak was a crucial artist of the year.
Dean Blunt's The Redeemer
The Redeemer is Dean Blunt's masterpiece, the incredibly cinematic offering we've been hoping he could deliver. It's a brutally honest tale of heartbreak, one where it seems Blunt knows he was in the wrong and is trying to figure out whether to beat himself up over it or not. Perhaps it's a more satirical look on break-up albums, or even more close to home, his own previous works – orchestral and verging on overly dramatic – but it does cement Dean Blunt's place as a crafter of songs, and a songwriter and producer of nearly any genre he desires.
Tim Hecker, in general
There is no better closing track I could have imagined on Virgins than "Stab Variation". It's all of the sounds we know to be signature to Tim Hecker's style, amplified both in volume and intensity. Like Dean Blunt's 2013 offering, Virgins could be considered Hecker's masterpiece. These are only some of the things that made 2013, for me, really, the year of Tim Hecker. In less release-centric events, Tim Hecker's Seattle performance on November 8 was a monumental concert. Hosted by Montreal-based shibui_oto, immersound_SEA showcased his performance in complete darkness and surround sound for a completely dissociative experience. For ambient music, there is no better way of experiencing sound.
The Record Label PC Music
This London-based record label came into play midway through the year with a string of hyperactive dance music. With hints of house music and vaporwave, but without sounding like any one genre on its own, PC Music rapidly showcased their internet-based aesthetic with artists like Princess Bambi and Danny L Harle.
Emily Reo's voice
Synth pop sweetheart Emily Reo's Olive Juice was one of the albums played most frequently in my apartment. Every time I started listening to her rolling synth melodies and twinkling, electric sound effects I felt an urge to finish it, and that's because Reo's voice is so comforting and vaguely familiar (but also uncommon) that it feels like a lullaby.
The arpeggiation in Married In Berdichev's "Caught"
In "Caught", Married in Berdichev's Brittany Gould repeats a simple, quiet arpeggiated motif in various keyboard or synthesizer sounds for a solid 15 minutes. It's over this hypnotizing melody that she projects solemn cries, and slowly builds levels of ambiance. It's this subtlety that lets the listener allow their deeper thoughts surface.
Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks
One of my current greatest fears is that this project will not amount to anything as substantial as an album. Avey Tare, Angel Deradoorian, and ex-Ponytail drummer Jeremy Hyman comprise the low-key hipster supergroup that seems to be soundtracking horror films from inside the minds of their villains. Slasher Flicks reminds me of early Animal Collective in that pop gems are buried masterfully beneath layers of terrifying scuzz. Check them out before they fade into oblivion (or star playing bigger venues).
The Cover (and title) of Milk Music’s Cruise Your Illusion
I had an inexplicably profound reaction to the cover of this album. Let me try and explicate: is it something about the demonoid’s hand wrapped around the back of that regal looking dog? Is it the crescent moon’s globby tears? Not since Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness has an album cover so captured exactly what I wanted an album to sound like (the album is actually pretty good, too). As to the title: not since Use Your Allusion have I appreciated Guns n’ Roses this much.
King Krule on Mount Kimbie’s Cold Spring Fault Less Youth
King Krule’s Six Feet Beneath the Moon skewed too straight and narrow for my taste. Archie Marshall deserves better, or at least weirder. The thuggish silk of his voice dripping off the sides of “You Took Your Time” is a great example of the standard Marshall should hold himself to. That and “Meter, Pale, Tone” are two of the heaviest hitters to swing out from London’s already heavy hitting post-dub scene.
Julia Holter at CCA in Glasgow
Julia Holter's November 20 set at Glasgow's Center for Contemporary Arts, the last show of a tour that started in July, was something of a shock to my system because as it turns out music sounds really good in rooms designed for playing music, as opposed to someone’s Bushwick apartment. Holter’s whole set was orchestrated in anxious, “holy shit my four month tour is going to be over in an hour” dialogue with the crowd. Almost smirking at us with an “I can’t believe that bands still do this either” look when the band reemerged for a one song encore of “Goddess Eyes.” Holter’s voice is an American musical treasure, and yes I had to go see her play in the UK to figure this out.
The music video for Beach House’s “Wishes”
I can’t say exactly what’s going on in this video, but I can say that it was directed by Eric Warheim of Tim and Eric fame, that it features Twin Peaks’ Ray Wise lip-synching to a Beach House song, and that takes place amidst some sort of college-level equestrian/kung fu/flag dancing demonstration. Straddling the line between self-explanatory and inexplicable, Warheim’s video does remarkable justice to the best track from last year’s Bloom LP.
Kanye West performing “New Slaves” on SNL
The philosopher Jacques Derrida allegedly once said that his theories were so needlessly extreme because he believed people are only ever willing to meet you halfway with your ideas. I sometimes think Kanye West might be operating under a similar assumption. As such, West’s recent spate of bad publicity has buried the fact that Kanye West kind of is the best pop musician in the world. His SNL performance contains seizury self-censoring and extreme closeups on his face projected on the screen behind him, both of which amplify a palpable, uncomfortable anger.
Grouper’s ode to America’s swamps
This was not, as far as I know, the explicit concept of The Man Who Died in His Boat. However, the album perfectly captures what I would imagine it feels like to be a tadpole fluttering peacefully amongst bottom of a southern bog. The Man Who Died in His Boat creates its own world for you to step into, and that world is fresh and new and it tastes like mud and it is liquid, vast, and it oscillates between different shades of green. Some albums make you wish you were born in a different decade; some albums make you wish you were a body of water filled with dead stuff.
The first third of Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Americans”
To be clear, I think the whole song (and album) is incredible. But the first third of “Americans” sounds like it could soundtrack the version of Donkey Kong Country 2 where Diddy and Dixie Kong turn out to be figments of each others’ imaginations.
The smell of Julian Lynch’s “Carios kelleyi I”
Not to get too abstract (haha just kidding I will get as abstract as I want), but this song by Julian Lynch reminds me of the smell of damp trees in a coastal forest and also the smell of burning the wood from those trees in a fireplace six months later. The song’s rhythm seems to be shaking off the dank remains of a summer’s rain, whereas Lynch’s voice has all the warmth of a log cabin’s hearth on a cold winter morning.
@Seinfeld2000’s video for “Here Comes the Night Time”
Like everyone else, I pretend to hate Arcade Fire because I want to seem cool; I’ll admit, however, that “Here Comes the Night Time” is a good song. @Seinfeld2000's video for “Here Comes the Night Time”, set to footage of the George/Suzanne engagement storyline from Seinfeld’s seventh season, is deranged, weird, fairly stupid, and fairly brilliant. Best music video of the next twenty years? Yes.