Top Five: Albums of 2013

For the second part of our glance back at 2013, we jump right in with the best albums of the year. Just like last year, we present only five of them per person, and in no particular order. And just like last year, I brought Dave and Jeff in for a little help on the lists, because a) the guys have great taste and lots of music knowledge, and b) it is always good to sit down with good friends while looking back at the year and reminisce.

Summary

Henje’s Top Five:

  • DJ Koze “Amygdala”
  • Jon Hopkins “Immunity”
  • Young Galaxy “Ultramarine”
  • Gold Panda “Half Of Where You Live”
  • Oneohtrix Point Never “R Plus Seven”

Dave’s Top Five:

  • James Blake “Overgrown”
  • Classixx “Hanging Gardens”
  • Toro Y Moi “Anything In Return”
  • Rhye “Woman”
  • Bonobo “The North Borders”

Jeffrey’s Top Five:

  • Disclosure “Settle”
  • Blood Orange “Cupid Deluxe”
  • Burial “Rival Dealer EP”
  • Blue Hawaii “Untogether”
  • Julia Holter “Loud City Song”

Henje’ Top Five

As I wrote on the Top Five genre post, 2013 was a good year for music. Over the year, I did my best to present the most exciting albums to you when I found them, but sometimes music fatigue overcame me, or I was busy with my music journalism articles – you know, the stuff where you actually get paid to write about music. As a result, only two of the records below were reviewed on B/B before, so hopefully you’ll find something still new and exciting for you in the list. Enjoy!

DJ Koze “Amygdala”

German Deep House DJ Stefan Kozalla, better known as DJ Koze, has been making music since the Nineties. Starting out with weird German Hip Hop, he turned towards House in the early 2K’s, but never has his sound been better than in 2013. On Amygdala, he reigned in most of his funny moods, and the result is a sometimes cute, sometimes soulful, but always accessible Deep House record. His strange kind of humor is still audible at times, but mostly restricted to the album cover.

Jon Hopkins “Immunity”

Jon Hopkins gets my newcomer award of 2013. Well, he is making music for more than ten years now, including work with Brian Eno and the “Monster” soundtrack, but he showed up on my personal radar just this year. Mea culpa! His Ambient Techno style manages to be thrustful and chill at the same time, good for losing yourself in, in the club as well as in your living room. It is one of those albums you feel at home in after a while, by creating an airy space in your head that you can go to anytime you want, simply by putting on the record.

Young Galaxy “Ultramarine”

Is there still such a thing as guilty pleasure? If there is, you won’t find it in mainstream pop anymore these days, but in the self-indulgent, introspective and emotional genre that used to be called Indie. Young Galaxy’s “Ultramarine” was my guilty pleasure of 2013, with sweet synths, cheesy lyrics and an air of heartbreak and melancholia around it. I loved their 2011 release “Shapeshifting”, but this year’s follow up was smoother, more leveled and more professional. An album without a single miss, one that you could put on and rely on to get you through the next 40 minutes of your life, no matter what.

Gold Panda “Half Of Where You Live”

I interviewed Derwin aka Gold Panda this year, and it was one of the highlights of my 2013. (But shhh, don’t tell him that. I am trying to be cool about it.) He is such a sweet, modest person, and his music shows it, with cute synths and samples interweaving in intricate patterns. He told me that he is the happiest when he is all alone, right in the middle of the production of a track, getting lost in the process. And that is something that the album can do for you too: Help you to get lost in what you are doing while listening to it. Granted, “Half Of Where You Live” it is not up there with his debut “Lucky Shiner” (next to nothing is), but it is one of the most underrated albums of 2013, if you ask me.

Oneohtrix Point Never “R Plus Seven”

Daniel Lopatin is a genius. There is no way around that fact. I won’t list his accomplishments all over again, but let’s just say that he is always on the frontlines of the development of experimental electronic music, and “R Plus Seven” is his cleanest and most futuristic record to date. A fragmented but never random exercise in what sounds like contemporary church music to me, with organs and choirs dominating it. But Lopatin chopped them up, turned them into stuttering hybrids and somehow makes them seem hyperreal that way. I have never been a religious person, but if there is a church somewhere that is preaching to these sounds, I might convert after all.

Dave’s Top Five

Another year comes to a close and as I reflect on the music that I played (admittedly over and over again) I completely agree with Henje that this year was a great year in music.  As I reflect and relish the time spent rediscovering 2013 I came to a realization.  In his previous post, Henje had mentioned that 2013 was all about disco but I found that the albums that stood out for me were those that leaned towards R&B.  Don’t get me wrong though, there were a lot of albums that utilized disco this year, but the albums that I enjoyed and had repeat value leaned towards R&B and it’s at least a close second in the genre wars and could continue to be the top genre next year.  With that said, on to the list!

James Blake “Overgrown”

The multi-talented James Blake continues where he left off from his 2011 self titled debut by crafting more beautiful electronic soundscapes layering them with his emotive piano and angelic voice.  However, I feel that where Overgrown really shines is through James’ embracing of R&B and scaling back on the abstractedness which I found was more on his first album.  The track that I feel perfectly displays this move towards R&B is the single “Retrograde.”    It’s a beautiful ballad that has some gorgeous synth swells but has a wonderfully smooth beat.  Check it out!

Classixx “Hanging Gardens”

Although this is Classixx’s first full length debut LP, Tyler Blake and Michael David have been hard at work touring and remixing their warm dancey beats for some time.  I know I was hooked with their 2009 flashy synth track “I’ll Get You” featuring awesome vocals by Junior Senior frontman Jeppe Laursen and is re-featured at the tail end of the album.  But if you’re thinking that this is just simply a dance album,  Hanging Gardens goes much deeper.  Blake and David have created an album structure that is exceptional by pairing lush instrumental tracks like “A Fax from the Beach” with tracks that have awesome guests like “Long Lost” featuring Active Child.  Thus highlighting their strengths in the production booth and as singer/songwriters.  For those of you needing a reprieve this winter, I highly recommend getting lost in Classixx’s sunny grooves.

Toro y Moi “Anything in Return”

Toro y Moi aka Chaz Bundick is another artist with whom I found to have spanned across genres this year.  Albeit subtly.  It was also at this point upon writing, that I began to notice a growing trend of my affinity for multi-instrumental producers this year.  With the album Anything in Return, Bundick continues with a synth-funk 80’s sound but makes some subtle tweaks of the beats and gets closer towards the borders of dance music.  And that’s what what makes Toro y Moi great for me.  Bundick, as an artist, continuing to progress and experiment (I’m pretty sure this is his longest album to date) but also content to just quietly groove in a sound/genre that he continues to perfect.

Rhye “Woman”

I know Henje likes Jon Hopkins for the newcomer award but my vote goes towards the duo Rhye.  Granted, there are two strong singles on Woman which were released in 2012 but there are so many other wonderful tracks that come with this album and it pushed me over the edge.  Just the idea that I’m writing about a silky sexy record is perplexing.  I mean, it’s been a longtime since I’ve listened to an album that is so sultry and have me craving more at the end but instead be content to hit the repeat button.  The way that Mike Milosh’s beautiful vocals gently caress the listener while gliding through Robin Hannibal’s masterful production is fantastic.  While some may find that “The Fall” and “Open” are Woman’s strongest tracks I’d also suggest checking out “3 Days.” I find it to be a great showcasing of the duo’s creamy synth sound filled with electro horns and a jazzy beat all while Milosh’s sultry vocals makes your heart swoon.

Bonobo “The North Borders”

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that I would end with Bonobo aka Simon Green.  I’ve been a longtime fan of his and he’s one of the few artists that I’ve written about for the blog.  So, while I guess he gets my sentimental vote, I find that Green has such a great album from start to finish with The North Borders that it should not be missed.  Like Classixx, Green creates a strong album structure with some wonderful guest tracks peppered throughout the album i.e. the emotional opener “First Fires” featuring Grey Reverend and then pairs them with slick multi-layered instrumental tracks like the chime/bell filled “Cirrus” showing off his production prowess.  For those of you looking for that perfect for that late night groovy chillout, The North Borders is it.

Jeffrey’s Top Five

The albums released in 2013 can be roughly divided into two groups – those that look forward, pushing the envelope of innovation into new sonic territory; and those that look back to the past to find inspiration for a deeper personal connection on the grounds of shared nostalgiac rememberance.  It seems that many artists acknowledged this year that we love what we love, and sometimes that’s ok.

Of those albums that looked forward, some were inevitably heralded as genius (Oneohtrix Point Never), while others currently underappreciated may yet still develop a reputation years down the line as ahead of their time (Autechre, Gesaffelstein).  For me, a serial nostalgiast, I found myself immersed in the albums that looked back, reveling in the unique and personal ways that artists put twists on familiar and beloved sounds of the past.  The textbook example of an album on a nostalgia trip was Daft Punk’s epic release, incorporating a wide range of styles and collaborators to chronicle the history of dance music (sometimes a little too on-the-nose, as was the case on tracks like “Giorgio by Morodor”).  Other styles were re-invigorated as well, from St. Lucia’s full immersion into the synthpop sounds of the 80s to Jagwar Ma’s Primal Scream-era acid rock revival.  Henje has already elaborated on the further exploration of vintage R&B and disco sounds, and within the R&B genre there was even a division of camps.  Jenn Wasner of the alt-rock band Wye Oak pursued her love of 90s R&B girl bands under the Dungeonesse moniker, Robin Hannibal and Michael Milosh joined together in an epic ode to the silky-smooth Sade as Rhye, while Solange chided millennial hipster R&B enthusiasts for thinking they’ve discovered something newly hip by taking to Twitter with the hashtag #deepbrandycuts.  Still others pushed the boundaries further and further, creating warped and evocative sonic textures designed to accentuate emotive vocals (Kelela, Autre Ne Veut).

In the end, there were many great and interesting albums released in 2013, and compiling a list of just 5 inevitably gives short shrift to numerous others that could just as easily be given equal acclaim.  For me, personally, here are 5 complete albums that I spent the greatest amount of time listening to this year:

Disclosure “Settle”

Other than Daft Punk’s aforementioned magnus opus to the evolution of dance from Chic to Animal Collective, no other album this year treaded so much nostalgiac territory as Disclosure. The two brothers from Surrey are impossibly young (just 19 and 22 at this writing), but possess a remarkable affinity for the sounds and styles of the recent past. Over the course of 14 tracks on their debut album, the Lawrence brothers unfurl odes to Garage, 2-Step, Deep House, Synthpop, R&B, and straight bass music, all while working with many of the most sought-after vocal collaborators in Britain. In any other hands it would be a mess, but Disclosure tie everything together by producing a sound across genres that is unmistakably them, making Settle not only one of the most diverse offerings of the year but the one of the tightest as well.

Blood Orange “Cupid Deluxe”

A number of artists released wonderful moody atmospheric R&B albums this year (Rhye, Saint Heron, Jessie Ware, Sampha, etc.), but this offering from Devonté Hynes stands apart for its emotional substance. Hynes is perhaps better known for his work under the Lightspeed Champion name, and for many his productions as Blood Orange are quite a departure. But Hynes has been perfecting this sound for some time, having produced tracks for Solange (“Losing You”) and Sky Ferreira (“Everything is Embarrassing”) that are full of emotional resonance.  He’s saved some of his best work for himself on this LP, with “Chamakay” in particular hitting very hard. The last minute of “Uncle Ace” is among the grooviest moments in music of the entire year, and wonderful vocal cameos by Caroline Polachek (Chairlift), Samantha Urbani (Friends) and Dave Longstreth (Dirty Projectors) all accentuate but never overshadow the production work. This is a solid album, full of deep ruminations on social issues, remembrances, and pop hooks.

Burial “Rival Dealer EP”

A surprise end-of-year addition, this EP came out after I’d already mentally locked-in my Top 5. Sorry, Machinedrum, as lovely as your dubby IDM album Vapor City was this year (and it was truly excellent), Burial came along and blew me away unlike he has since 2007’s landmark Untrue. In listening to this EP, which sprawls over just 3 tracks, it feels as diverse and cohesive as an entire album. At 28 minutes, Burial stops and starts in new configurations to chop 10 minute+ burners “Rival Dealers” and “Come Down to Us” feel like epic sagas complete with separate and distinct movements. Musically, Burial treads some familiar territory (the irrepressible gloomy rave of “Rival Dealers”) and some new: namely, pop hooks. “Hiders” has been termed a Christmas anthem given the timing of its release and the chiming of bells that pervades throughout. Tying it all together is Burial’s longest track on the EP, “Come Down to Us”, a sprawling epic whose title also serves as a sampled vocal snippet on both preceding tracks. Thematically, this EP is as forward a statement as Burial has ever made, with sampled lyrics and speech throughout all three tracks alluding to questions of identity and acceptance. It’s a brutal listen that gets more contemplative and haunting with each repetition. Though released without much notice at the end of the year, I suspect Rival Dealer will spur just as much discussion and fanfare as Untrue has for the past six years.

Blue Hawaii “Untogether”

Much of the Montreal scene owes a lot of its recent continental success to the emergence of Grimes on the American scene in 2012, but no other Quebecois group follows her blueprint quite so closely as the duo behind Blue Hawaii. On Untogether, airy synths and light percussion surround chopped up vocals that ebb and flow throughout the productions. Many of the ideas, such as on leadoff track “Follow” evolve and unfurl organically and end up in entirely different directions than they started. The vocals of Raphaelle Standell-Preston are ethereally edited so that they don’t tower above but accentuate the synth work. The highlight of the album is the one-two punch of In Two, which starts as a quiet exercise in melodic harmonization and ends in a club-ready big beat flourish. These dichotomies make Untogether just as rewarding with repeat listens and one of the most aesthetically-pleasing releases of the year.

Julia Holter “Loud City Song”

Continuing a trend of beautiful ethereal releases in 2013 (Julianna Barwick, Mountains, Grouper), Julia Holter’s most recent record saw her simultaneously expand her ambient, atmospheric sound (she now has a full backing band that was absent on earlier albums like Ekstasis) while narrowing her focus. Loosely grouped around the themes of the 1944 French novella Gigi by Colette, the songs of Loud City Song portray a world and society that has simply grown too loud for comfort. Retreating into the cozy comfort of quiet and solitude among the crowds, Holter’s protagonist wanders a cityscape where she draws more comfort from anonymity than the attention of the masses. The effect is almost noir-ish, with Holter’s lyrics taking on the persona of not only the titular Gigi, but the faceless crowds that surround her, at one point going so far as to issue gossipy admonishments amidst a flurry of horns. This album is highly intellectual and introspective, but nevertheless engrossing on an emotional level. It’s also a beautiful recording, and worthy of full immersion.

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Top Five: Genres of 2013

So let’s start this year’s end list mania. Looking back on 2013 reveals at first glance that it was a good year for music. The lamenting about the decline of the music industry and what that does to the creative output is over, as the artists as well as the labels have found their new place and new ways of revenue in a (financially) smaller, but now again growing market – 2013 was a year of newfound optimism. The smaller labels, it seems, even thrived under this development, as they were quicker to adapt and were able to profit from the advantage digital distribution or the growing numbers of vinyl collectors present to smaller releases.

The music quality was strong in 2013, with many well known artists delivering good albums and some new artists breaking through to the surface, but it was lacking genre-hypes. But genres are silly anyway, right? So, the same as last year, please take the following list too seriously. By the way: Whatever happened to last year’s genres? Trap was creatively dead since February, the latest, and Seapunk is diluted, but surviving in it’s niche. And Vaporwave? Was publicly humiliated and denounced, but as long as the internet music festival #spf420 is happenening, it lives on in spirit. Most of this year’s genres are much more grown up than those, anyway. Or is that just me?

Disco

More than any other genre, 2013 was about Disco. While the year before had some mellow NuDisco (horrible genre tag, btw) by Poolside and Goldroom, coming out of the L.A. dance scene, this year it was the Europeans that set the course. There was Daft Punk, of course, tying up the attention of the music fans for weeks with their late Seventies retro Disco style. Their “Random Access Memories” alone could justify declaring Disco one of the most prominent genres this year, but musically, they were topped by the Norwegian producer Todd Terje and his collab partner Lindstrom. They didn’t release much this year, but what came out was deeply influencial, and last year’s albums still lingered.

Footwork

Developing out of the Chicago Juke dance scene, footwork gained more and more attention over the past few years, culminating in this year’s release of DJ Rashad’s “Double Cup” on Hyperdub, which received widespread critical acclaim. Without being an expert in what is still pretty much an underground phenomenon, I can tell that it has been a haven for those looking for fresh sounds in 2013. With its fast beat patterns blending into a carpet of tranquility, it is Hip Hop’s equivalent of Liquid Drum and Bass, inviting to dance to it as much as giving the opportunity to chill.

Deep House

House music was sometimes hard hitting, sometimes cute or ambient in 2013, but almost always deep. With DJ Koze, Axel Boman and other Pampa Records-related acts on the one end of the spectrum and British producers like Daniel Avery, Factory Floor and Lone on the other, House was the most versatile genre this year. It was a very wide and open genre to begin with, to be honest, and anytime you wouldn’t be sure where to put an electronic dance track, you would call it House by default. But this year saw the genre getting even more varied, widespread and, well, deeper. One notable exception was Disclosure, of course, who were floating on the surface of it all.

R&B

R&B continued to be strong this year. After Frank Ocean and How To Dress Well last year, it was Autre Ne Veut and Blood Orange that continued the legacy this year, offering a more pop oriented approach that was nontheless pretty interesting, and most of all beautiful to listen to. This genre is far from being a guilty pleasure anymore, even for the indie kids. R&B Vocals are this genre’s strongsuit of course, but those bass lines weren’t too shabby either.

Experimental Electronics

In 2013, there was a contant stream of great electronic music for the more adventurous at heart, as most of the established artists in this field released new albums: Tim Hecker, Oneohtrix Point Never, James Ferraro, The Field, Pantha Du Prince, and so on. Not all of them did their best work ever in the past months, but none of them disappointed either. With Jon Hopkins there was one stellar breakthrough artist though, who delivered one of the most immersive experiences of 2013. As he will be featured in our upcoming top lists, here is another favorite of mine who was stronger than ever this year: Dirty Beaches.

Track: Todd Terje “Spiral” / “Q”

Did you make your top track list of 2013 yet? Hold on a second, here is one of the hottest contenders, bound to kick one or even two other poor artists off that list. Norwegian disco genius Todd Terje released “Spiral” today, only his second track this year. But then again, each of Terje’s tracks is worth several tracks by other artists – not only by length, but by quality, too. While “Strandbar” earlier this year was delightful and had a spot on my list for sure, he now has gone and did one better. “Spiral” is as dancey as we are used to by Terje, but most of all has a wonderful hypnotic quality to it. “Q”, the B-side (if you want to call it that) explores this quality even further, and gets you to space out completely in the second half of its runtime of twelve minutes. Enjoy. It doesn’t get much better than this in 2013.

Album: Kallisti “Arc of Fire”

kallisti-arc-of-fireMaybe you remember d’Eon’s Kallisti remix of Kuhrye-oo’s “Give In (For The Fame)” from last year, or maybe you don’t. Back then, Canadian producer Chris d’Eon used the name Kallisti (the Greek mythological “Apple of Discord”) for a Nineties breakbeat and rave-reminiscent style that was not completely out of touch with the synth and keyboard based tunes he featured on his d’Eon-albums or the “Music For Keyboards” series, but which was definitely more out there and prone to the dancefloor than the keyboard studies or musings about the apocalypse on the internet he previously did. It now turns out that he not only did the remix in the summer of 2012, but a whole white label album worth of material which he is now releasing under the moniker “Kallisti” via UNO NYC‘s imprint NORELATION.

You can come to this album from both sides, and still find something that you like: From the experimental to sometimes cheezy d’Eon stuff as well as from the 90ies retro dancefloor. It mostly runs pretty smoothly through the breakbeats, but has enough hiccups and playful changes to offer to justify an attentive at-home listen. “Arc Of Fire” is only the second release on this imprint, following the belated publication of LOL Boys’ Moments in Heartbreak last year. It is a worthy follow, breathing the same odd retro-but-oh-so-modern air as the internet music pioneers did a few years ago. Listen to the whole album at Pitchfork Advance prior to its official release next week.

Album: Session Victim “Can’t Help It” EP

One of Berlin’s finest house DJ-duos, Session Victim, released a new EP this week, therefore returning to their favorite style of publication this year after The Haunted House Of House LP from 2012. “Can’t Help It” is released on their co-owned vinyl-only label Retreat, and they only put snippets online. Because of that, I can post no complete review here, but judging by those snippets, the three tracks seem to be super lush, even by their standards – coming close to being lounge or chill, and will surely be magnificent in full length. You can order the vinyl on their website.

Album: Axel Boman “Family Vacation”

axel-boman-family-vacationSometimes it is about managing expectations – expectations only set up for disappointment and scare people away. So please don’t expect too much from Axel Boman’s first full length, out on his own label Studio Barnhus this week, as it is a delicate creature. The Swedish producer released some EPs on different labels before, with DJ Koze’s Pampa Records being the best known among them. It also is the most significant label for being able to understand where Boman’s approach to house music is coming from. Just like DJ Koze, he deals in cute and mellow house, where it is less about hooks, builds or effects, but about feeling good and being taken care of. “Family Vacation” is the house equivalent of a light hug, or a summer breeze.

Listening to one of the album highlights “Fantastic Piano”, above, kind of shows how this gem of an easy listening house album is working, with the instrument that gave the track its title carefully running its course while different other elements fade in and out – promising to the listener that this might go into full percussion mode at any time. But instead, Boman is restraining those additions to the being the quirks and sparks of the track – its character. That is what is meant by managing expectations: As a listener, you need to approach this album with an open ear, trusting it to take good care of you. And you can trust it – trust it to never blow up in your face or go into full dance mode, but instead to take you by your hand and engulf you with its charming personality and its cute ideas. I promise that it will put a smile on your face.

Album: The Range “Nonfiction”

the-range-nonfictionSome albums are all over the place, or better yet: all over the places. Providence artist The Range’s debut album “Nonfiction” is one of those records, at home in the club as much as in the bedroom, in the gym or while walking through the city. This is mainly due to the fact that it takes up a lot of influences, from British jungle and rave to US footwork and hip hop, but is dominated by heavy synths and a superb feel for melodies. As you can see, he is all over the place geographically, too. How fitting, that James Hinton, as is his real name, has released two EPs so far on Brighton label Donky Pitch, and his new album is on their Bandcamp too, but is being issued on vinyl via Berlin label Project: Mooncircle.

The Range is on the verge of his breakthrough with this album, playing showcases for Gorilla vs. Bear and Pitchfork with the likes of Blue Sky Black Death and Ryan Hemsworth. And it is truely deserved, as the learned drummer has the rare talent of combining fast rhythmic patterns with smooth melodies. And with this talent, he not only holds the different styles together, but melds them into something beautiful. Hinton uses samples he rips off of random Youtube videos, as he told Pitchfork, but the sound is bright and clear, almost glistening. If the slow burning, hypnotic album closer “Metal Swing” intruiges you, listen to the whole album below, courtesy of Dazed Digital.