Best music 2013

Once it was that come December, the battles over lists would be all about who made it in and where. My Bloody Valentine fans would face off with Nirvana fans over which was the #1 record of 1991 in a flurry of flannel, while Massive Attack fans sat in a corner pulling cones and condescending to everyone.

But today, in this ridiculously post-modern artistic world where to belittle One Direction is to somehow demean an utterly nebulous idea of ‘taste’, the debate is now about whether we should do lists at all. And heaven forbid we attempt something so gauche as putting them in ranked order.

Well, suck it up and strap yourselves in, you tweed-wearing nebbishes, because this is an entirely subjective, numerically ordered, borderline autistic LIST, from 20 to one (plus some also-rans), of the best albums of 2013. If you’re one of those song-thieving spotify-types who doesn’t ‘do’ albums, you are not welcome here and please take it to Pinterest.

Also, my apologies to metal fans. None crossed my path that even remotely appealed to me, so feel free to complain about its absence in your various internet message boards.

First up, the also-rans

Dirty Beaches – Drifters/Love is the Devil

Dirty Beaches’ previous record, Badlands feels, in retrospect, what this gem should have been called. Through a fog of distortion, Alex Zhang Hungtai creates a dreamlike soundscape that evokes if nothing else the dirt, sand, highways and dive bars of the remote American midwest. Ostensibly a double album, the second half veers into the abstract, like the pulsating, multilingual ‘Aurevoir Mon Visage’, but at no point does the record lose its power to dazzle with its nightmarishly propulsive discotheque.

Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus

There is something incongruous about a band calling itself ‘Fuck Buttons’, then naming an album Slow Focus. But there is method there. Fuck Buttons’ survivalist electro – building thick, abrasive walls of sound with any and all instruments (musical or otherwise) that come to hand – are slow builds that demand attention to appreciate. But that attention is rewarded in spades as track after track pulverises you into blissful submission.  

Volcano Choir – Repave

Justin Vernon is notoriously celebrity shy, which explains the very existence of Volcano Choir. Had Vernon decided to release this under the Bon Iver label, it would have been accepted as a gentle turn to incorporating his more rhythmic tendencies he collected while touring For Emma, Forever Ago a few years back. In collaboration with  Collections of Colonies of Bees and All Tiny Creatures, this is a more accessible outing than the previous Unmap, and when tracks like ‘Acetate’ and ‘Byegone’ hit their straps, they’re as lushly impressive as anything Vernon has done under his more famous moniker.

Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Beyond being among the more delightful people in the known universe, Neko Case continues to make equally delightful music. The Worse Things Get… doesn’t veer far from the formula perfected on Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, but when the songwriting’s this good, and the words are emerging from what could be the world’s most golden throat, that hardly seems to matter.

Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe

Charming, youthful Glaswegian pop music may be the most eternal music in the world and Chvrches do a wonderful job of dragging it into the post-jangle era. With a talent for uplift and choruses with industrial-strength earworms, this deserves to feature on many Australian summertime playlists.

Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt

Recorded in a share house with the help of housemates and little else, Cerulean Salt’s nostalgic reach for early-90s indie DIY is an unintentional callback to the influence of Lou Reed. Instrumentally simple, with the idea of production being more of a concept than a reality, it is the ultra-tight songwriting and Katie Crutchfield’s restraint that make this a lo-fi revelation.

Iron and Wine – Ghost on Ghost

Perhaps unfairly, Iron and Wine dropped off the radar somewhat after being the explosively popular bearded folk sensation nearly a decade ago. As Sam Bean’s sound has fleshed out, Iron and Wine is no longer a minimalist, man-with-acoustic folk cliche, but a rich, lush celebration of soul and funk as interpreted by a bearded hippie. And the result, at its best remains glorious.

The Knife – Shaking the Habitual

Custom made for critical acclaim – semi anonymous Swedes who released a phenomenal, forward-looking record in 2006 (Silent Shout), then basically disappeared until emerging with this. Not as welcoming as its predecessor, Shaking the Habitual is unconcerned with making you tap your feet, but rather making you tilt your head and cock your eyebrow.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away

Of all Nick Cave’s various guises and personas over the years, world-weary barfly seems almost the most appropriate, yet it’s taken until his 50s, and a detour into sleazy middle-aged licentiousness, to get there.  Given the space, and the embrace of production techniques that the loss of Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey has necessitated, Cave has slowed things down, messed things up, and delivered. ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ remains far and away the best song ever to drink scotch to after 11pm.

Atoms for Peace – AMOK

Look, a Thom Yorke solo project is kind of doomed from the start as being labelled ‘Radiohead without Radiohead’, and while that is true, it is not to say that it is without merit. Yorke (with an all-star lineup including Flea and Nigel Godrich) has an unparalleled knack (well, perhaps paralleled by Johnny Greenwood) for creating sounds that are simultaneously beautiful and unsettling. His arrhythmic beats and glitchy arrangements somehow manage to reassure and unsettle, and that works just fine. 

Iceage – You’re Nothing

Furious Danish teen post-punks grow up (by two years) and remain furious and Danish. Like last year’s superb debut from Cloud Nothings, there is simply no way for adults to properly replicate the uncontained lashing out of young, angry men. And yet that anger is truly universal. If only we could keep these guys at about 21.

Arcade Fire – Reflektor

Since the glory that was Funeral, new Arcade Fire albums are greeted with an almost fundamental assumption that they are great. Because Arcade Fire are a Great Band. It remains uncertain whether they’re a good one.

While Reflektor is an undoubted improvement on the tepid The Suburbs, the whole thing smacks of an effort that was blissfully absent on the band’s first two releases. Whereas tracks like ‘Une Année Sans Lumiere’ gracefully segued from gentle French lilt to driving folk rock, here tracks slam and clunk between gears. The magician is still amazing people, but the sleight of hand is becoming ever-so-more obvious. I wish Arcade Fire didn’t make having fun sound like such hard work.

Mavis Staples – One True Vine

Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy come together to do an album of folky-soul, with a healthy dose of some standards reimagined. Enough said.

Julia Holter – Loud City Song

‘Baroque’ may be the most misused word in music, but if ever it was applicable, it is to Julia Holter. Her rich voice delivers the work of an overeducated arts school graduate, but in a way that never condescends, but rather invites the listener to join in. This, her first record done with a label, has more room to breathe – it feels like it was recorded somewhere larger than a cupboard – and the result is a quietly majestic thing; bedroom music for the pipe-and-brandy set.

Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus 7

Aphex Twin may be the Velvet Underground of 21st century electronic music. Never moving beyond a cult act, the banned clip for ‘Windowlicker’ eventually drew attention to the fact that glitchy, beat-heavy electronic music could have soul and ride a groove. But until Oneohtrix Point Never, there was never a true successor. While Daniel Lopatin’s clips are unlikely to feature the goblins and mutants of Aphex Twin, the sense of making the

HAIM – Days Are Gone

Sometimes a buzz band actually delivers. In the never-ending spin-cycle of popular music in the 21st century, the inevitable co-opting of 80s pop-rock (beyond the hair metal and the synth pop, obviously) emerged in the form of HAIM (pronounced like ‘time’, fyi), all rhythm sections and multitudinous hooks. Those hooks, however, wear a little over time, and a bit more patience to let songs pay off wouldn’t have hurt, but with songs like ‘The Wire’, it usually doesn’t seem to matter.

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