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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