It’s the middle of the year, so that means… it’s list time! We’re celebrating National Patriotic Beer-Drinking Day by evaluating the year in culture to date, and as far as music goes, that means looking back on the best records that have been released during the last six months. Click through to count down with us from 25 to 1! And then amuse yourself by playing the whole lot at high volume to your barbecue guests/roommates/long-suffering neighbors!
25Scout Niblett — It’s Up to Emma
The constantly under-appreciated Scout Niblett channels her inner PJ Harvey on this record, with generally excellent results. Also contains a killer cover of TLC’s “No Scrubs.”
24Broadcast — Berbarian Sound Studio OST
This is sadly the last we’ll ever hear from Broadcast, but while it’s not quite up there with 2009’s wonderful Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age, it’s a pretty great spin on the sound of classic horror soundtracks, both playful and occasionally terrifying.
23These New Puritans — Field of Reeds
Avant-garde neo-medieval pastoral electronic music? Sure, why not?!
22Tricky — False Idols
Finally! It’s actually happened! After decades of false dawn after false dawn, Tricky has made a really good album! Seriously!
21Grouper — The Man Who Died in His Boat
Outtakes from the Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill sessions, and just as beautifully wistful and melancholy as everything else on that record. In the absence of any genuinely new material from Grouper, this’ll do just fine.
20The National — Trouble Will Find Me
One of the criticisms of The National is that they’ve essentially done the same thing for a decade now — three-piece-suit-and-red-wine melancholy, middle-class angst for white people. This isn’t untrue, but stil, the criticism isn’t entirely fair — ultimately, people write from their own experience, and The National do it damn well. Trouble Will Find Me provided exactly what you might want from a National album, and also at least one of the great lyrics of 2013 (viz. “When I walk into a room, I do not light it up/ Fuck”).
19Dean Blunt — The Redeemer
A couple of years back, when Dean Blunt was best known as half of consistently weird electronic experimentalists Hype Williams, it’d seem ridiculous to be mentioning him in the same breath as The National. But curiously, that’s exactly who this record recalls — it’s full of baritone heartbreak and late-night loneliness, and it’s beautiful.
18Torres — Torres
In a similarly melancholy vein, this reflective debut album from Nashville singer-songwriter Mackenzie Scott, aka Torres, is pretty much all you’ll need if you’ve been heartbroken this year.
17Boards of Canada — Tomorrow’s Harvest
The year’s most unexpected hypefest, but even once all the ongoing publicity stunts had played out, what we were left with was pretty exciting. Like m b v, of which we’ll speak in due course, this marked the long-awaited return of a band who suddenly seemed like they’d never been away. It sounded exactly how one might expect, but that’s entirely OK with me.
16Jenny Hval – Innocence is Kinky
I’m somewhat late to the party on this, but then again, I’m not the only one. The title track (above) is a fascinating exploration of both the nature and the perception of female sexuality, and the rest of the album channels a similar atmosphere, alternately sing-song seductivity and quietly sinister balladry. (The video is NSFW, by the way.)
1518+ — Mixta2e
Fascinating weird hip-hop mixtape of the year so far goes to… the mysterious 18+, about whom I know little more than the fact that they’re from LA and are, presumably, indeed 18+. Whatever their story, I’m fascinated to hear more from them.
14The Knife — Shaking the Habitual
As I noted a couple of weeks back, in retrospect it was pretty much impossible for this record to live up to sky-high expectations. But that doesn’t mean it’s not good — while it’s not the epochal masterpiece that perhaps we’d all talked ourselves into expecting, it’s still one of the most forward-thinking and occasionally startling albums of the year thus far.
13David Bowie — The Next Day
Meanwhile, this appeared with virtually no pre-release hype at all, for the simple reason that it came out of nowhere. Bowie’s ability to keep this quiet right up until he was ready to send it out into the world was impressive, but more importantly, so was the record. The mournful lead single “Where Are We Now?” (above) divided opinion, but its air of ennui was something of a bait-and-switch anyway, because elsewhere on this album — especially on the title track and the fabulous album closer “Heat” — Bowie sounded as vital as ever.
12Nmesh — Nu.wav Hallucinations
Fauxstalgia is a dangerous business — get it wrong and all of a sudden you’re making chillwave. But happily, for all that its aesthetic is very much rooted in reinterpreting the sounds of the 1980s, Nu.wav Hallucinations sounds both contemporary and vital. Whatever you call this sort of music — vaporwave, retro-futurism, or plain old electronic music — it’s beautiful and fascinating (and occasionally hilarious.)
11Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — Push the Sky Away
If ever an album was a grower, it’s this one. On first listen, it’s the awkward Miley Cyrus line and the fact that you really did just hear Nick Cave rhyme “catch,” “match,” and “snatch” that jump out at you. But the more you listen, the more you realize that this is an understated latter-day Cave masterpiece. The title track is one of the best things he’s written in years, and the rest of the record is pretty great too. (Except for “Mermaids,” aka the catch/match/snatch song. That does kinda suck.)
10Le1f — Fly Zone
Now, how’s about that debut album?
9Kirin J Callinan — Embracism
Strange, idiosyncratic, and fascinating… I’ve written plenty about this album already (including a long interview with its creator), so I’ll just say here that it’s probably the most interesting record you’ll hear all year, and one of the best.
8My Bloody Valentine — m b v
It seems an eternity ago that everyone was going batshit about this record, but six months later, it still stands up. When it comes to end-of-year list-making, I’m betting this suffers from the curse of the January/February release date, but for now, let’s just rejoice in the fact that 2013 brought us a My Bloody Valentine record, and it was good.
7Kanye West — Yeezus
I’ll defer to Lou Reed here.
6Savages — Silence Yourself
Are they reinventing the wheel? No. Are they overhyped? Maybe. Do either of these things matter? No. Not when the music’s this good.
5Pharmakon — Abandon
Look, no one said that worthy art had to be fun. And make no mistake, Abandon is No Fun At All. It’s like being locked in a damp, windowless basement and made to watch godawful horror movies on repeat. It’s terrifying and often horrifying. But as far as an ability to evoke and explore emotions like, well, terror and horror, there have been no more effective or well-crafted records all year. Unless you’re in a very bad place, this isn’t a record you’ll be listening to every day. But it’s still one of the best records of the year to date.
4Dirty Beaches — Drifters/Love Is the Devil
Not one but two records, and they’re both fantastic. Drifters is a sort of album-long exploration of the atmosphere of Tom Waits’s “Shore Leave,” stumbling drunk through crowded streets on long hot nights, while Love Is the Devil is more restrained and brooding, often venturing into ambient territory. Together, they’re one of the most evocative listening experiences of the year.
3The Drones — I See Seaweed
Sprawling, fascinating, challenging, thought-provoking, thrilling, and consistently brilliant, this is perhaps the best record The Drones have made, and considering how good their back catalog is, that’s pretty high praise. If you’re interested, you can read my thoughts on this record here — but really, if you like rock ‘n’ roll music, you should just start listening.
2Majical Cloudz — Impersonator
One of our new favorite bands, and hopefully one of yours as well. This is music at its most emotive and emotional, the sound of a man baring his soul in a way that’s both deeply, almost uncomfortably personal, and also universally relatable. “This Is Magic” is probably my single favorite song of the year thus far, and the rest of the album is just as good.
1Standish/Carlyon — Deleted Scenes
And my favorite record of the year so far? Honestly, it’s a toss-up between any of the top five, but this has been on my stereo pretty much constantly since it came out. It’s a beautifully produced, seductive, dark record whose sound touches on a strange and often apparently counterintuitive series of influences — R&B, minimal techno, dub, beach-resort pop music — and a great creative leap forward for its creators. Alternately playful and sinister, lovelorn and randy, dark and beautiful, this is a record that just keeps revealing its depths.