25. Dâm-Funk and Snoopzilla — Seven Days of Funk
Just in time! It’s amusing that this was released in the middle of winter, because it’s the most summery record you could ever imagine, just made for cruising the freeway on a hot night with the top down and the wind in your hair. But then, it’s always summer in LA.
24. Jenny Hval — Innocence Is Kinky
This is certainly one of the most idiosyncratic releases of the year, traversing everything from Julianna Barwick-style vocal textures (“Oslo Oedipus”) through spoken word (“Is There Anything On Me That Doesn’t Speak?”) to PJ Harvey-esque guitar workouts (“I Called”). It’s strange, intimate, somewhat discomfiting, and constantly fascinating.
23. DJ Dog Dick — The Life Stains
And while we’re on idiosyncratic, here’s the debut record from Far Rockaway-based Baltimore experimentalist and general Flavorwire hero Max Eisenberg, aka DJ Dog Dick. He is, of course, not a DJ (nor, um, a dog dick), although this record does make out like a DJ set of sorts, one that’s constantly heading off on strange and unexpected tangents into the realm of sounds that shouldn’t ever fit together, but somehow do. It’s all topped off by Eisenberg’s distinctive vocal delivery, which veers as wildly as the music from sing-song crooning through something approximating rapping to straight-out screaming. Long may he prosper.
22. The Knife — Shaking the Habitual
Yes, this was also on our most overrated albums list. But as I noted there, I think Shaking the Habitual is great — it’s just not quite the overwhelming conceptual masterpiece that we all thought it might be before it was released. It’s a sprawling, fascinating, hugely ambitious record that does an admirable job of reaching for the stars and almost getting there. That’s more than enough.
21. Azar Swan — Dance Before the War
One of the great overlooked records of the year, this debut album by Brooklyn duo Azar Swan deserves a whole lot more recognition than it’s gotten — especially first single “Amrika,” which was a strong contender for my favorite song of the last year. It’s gotten called “goth” a lot, and there’s definitely something of a portentous swirl to its sound, but it also encompasses a wealth of other influences – from Afghan folk to, er, Phil Collins — and is always fascinating listening.
20. Scott & Charlene’s Wedding — Any Port in a Storm
Any Port in a Storm basically is NYC-based Australian expat Craig Dermody, its songs cataloging his love of basketball (“1993”), his friends in Australia (“Lesbian Wife,” “Jackie Boy”), his gammy leg (um, “Gammy Leg”), his heartbreak (“Spring St”), and his job as a doorman at an East Village nightclub (“Fakin’ NYC”) — but at the same time, there’s profundity and universal truth in all of them. After all, who else could deliver a line about the Chicago Bulls winning the 1993 NBA finals and turn it into an epiphany about hope: “I was 12 years old, watching from the other side of the world/ And I was old enough to know that you don’t always get what you want/ But when the champ scored 55 in Game 4, you thought… anything can happen!” Indeed it can.
19. Savages — Silence Yourself
In a year, Savages’ career managed to negotiate a trajectory that used to take decades: a wave of pre-release hype, laudatory reviews, a contrarian backlash, a heap of criticism, and finally, a bunch of reflective reevaluation. In amongst all this, the fact that Silence Yourself was so good seems almost beside the point — but shit, if you just forget about everything else and listen to the damn record, it’s still one of the best things that was released this year.
18. Chance the Rapper — Acid Rap
The psychedelic corner of the hip hop world has given rise to some of the genre’s most outlandish and impressive productions over recent years — Flying Lotus (and his alter ego Captain Murphy), Shabazz Palaces, THEEsatisfaction, etc. The genius of precocious Chicago 19-year-old Chance the Rapper’s mixtape Acid Rap is that it takes the hypercolor production of such records and roots it firmly back in a real-world lyrical base, creating a sound that’s both expansive and full of gritty reality. And now he’s on a track with Justin Bieber. The world is a strange old place at times.
17. Nmesh — Nu.wav Hallucinations
The sounds of the ’80s, refracted through a hypermodern filter and reinvented as atmospheric and curiously compelling electronic music. This is the sort of record that sends the boffins at Tiny Mix Tapes into a (post?)-vaporwave frenzy, and rightly so — it’s one of the most intriguing things you’ll hear this year.
16. David Bowie — The Next Day
Well hi there, David Bowie. It’s lovely to have you back.
15. The Julie Ruin — Run Fast
Well hi there, Kathleen Hanna. It’s lovely to have you back.
14. My Bloody Valentine — m b v
Well hi there… OK, OK. But seriously, for all that the unexpected renaissances of the two artists that preceded them on this list may have forced this album out of the spotlight, it was the return of My Bloody Valentine that was arguably the most pleasant surprise of the year. This record proved they still have a talent for getting outlandish sounds out of guitars, and allying those sounds to what are, when you strip them down, pleasantly melodic pop songs.
13. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — Push the Sky Away
In its own way, this is the perfect reconciliation of Cave’s mid-’90s piano ballad phase and his mid-’00s mustache crisis, a record that’s full of stately beauty but also carries an air of subtle menace. An unexpected late-career masterpiece.
12. Eluvium — Nightmare Ending
A double album by Eluvium! This record unfolds slowly over the course of an hour and a half, and the entire experience is not unlike its title — you’re left with the relief and calm that washes over you when you awaken from a nightmare and the first sun is finding its way through the blinds and you realize that, hey, everything’s OK after all.
11. Pharmakon — Abandon
… and this is basically the opposite, an album that sounds like a descent into some sort of horrible dream from which you can’t wake up, the musical equivalent of waking up in Jigsaw’s basement. It’s terrifying, and often distressing… and utterly compelling.
10. Dirty Beaches — Drifters/Love is the Devil
At some point this year, I read Dirty Beaches disparaged as “PBR Suicide.” As far as pithy epithets go, it’s actually a pretty good one — Suicide are clearly an influence on Alex Zhang Huntai — but it’s also reductive and ultimately misleading, because they’re only one aspect of the rich variety of sounds that inform Huntai’s music, all of which find full expression here. This double record revels in a sense of place — its song titles name-check Berlin, Belgrade, Lisbon, and the Danube, and Huntai sings in several languages — but if anything, its abiding atmosphere of seamy late-night claustrophobia evokes the way that, when the lights go down, the back streets of all the world’s cities feel like a window on the same place, a dark world of flickering neon signs and shadows and a drunken stagger back to the hotel.
9. Julianna Barwick — Nepenthe
All of the otherworldly beauty of Barwick’s music, now with actual intelligible lyrics! Nepenthe represents a subtle progression for Barwick, a way of expanding her musical horizons while losing none of the distinctive style that makes her music so instantly recognizable (and so beautiful).
8. Tim Hecker — Virgins
The best thing the website formerly known as Spin magazine did this year was run a giant feature on Tim Hecker, calling him “one of the most important musicians of our generation.” “Important” is always a dangerous word — it’s hard to imagine the swirling atmospherics of Virgins ever working their way into mainstream consciousness — but Spin are right about one thing: he’s a rare genius as far as production goes, able to conjure the richest of human emotion from the circuits of cold machines.
7. Kanye West — Yeezus
A bunch of commenters asked why this wasn’t on our list of the year’s most overrated albums, and the answer is this: it’s not overrated, because it’s fucking good. It’s not quite My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and maybe it’s not even quite Graduation, but as a darkly futuristic hip hop record, Yeezus is without peer: “Black Skinhead” sounds like something that emerged from some dark, glistening industrial machine, and “New Slaves” is simply the most coruscating blast of rage that 2013 had to give us. Love him, hate him, do both at once, but you can’t ignore Kanye West — and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
6. Kirin J Callinan — Embracism
Callinan’s fascinating persona looms large over this record — his studied awkwardness, his conceptual hyper-masculinity, his general weirdness. Indeed, it’s rare that performance and concept and recordings achieve the perfect synthesis seen on Callinan’s album. In particular, they come together most seamlessly in the title track to Embracism and the song’s accompanying video, a song that examines what it means to be a man in the 21st century, and also what it means to be human in the 21st century (watch the way he’s literally deconstructed by his own lyrics in the video).
5. Various Artists — SMM: Opiate
It seems strange and perhaps a little silly to speak about a largely instrumental ambient collection having an internal narrative, but there’s a real sense that this remarkable compilation is designed to take you on a journey, one whose trajectory rather reflects the record’s title. It hits you with a wash of warmth, then slowly descends into a quiet, cold stillness — and then, just when it seems like you’re submerged in stillness forever, in comes the sun. And you just want to listen again.
4. Standish/Carlyon — Deleted Scenes
I wrote about this album for our friends at the Quietus earlier this year, and I don’t have a huge amount to add to what I had to say then; this is a beautifully produced record that occupies a singular space somewhere between late-night pop music and the silence that lurks when the music stops. It’s defined as much by the spaces between sounds as the sounds themselves, and it’s as darkly seductive on the 20th listen as on the first.
3. Julia Holter — Loud City Song
All of Holter’s records are their own little rabbit holes, but even so, there’s something wonderfully immersive about Loud City Song. The production is both intimate and expansive, making it feel like watching a theatre production that’s being staged just for you. (Also, it’s proof in the year of Reflektor that you can make an album with high-concept inspirations — in this case Gigi and John Cage — without disappearing up your own ass.)
2. Majical Cloudz — Impersonator
“Emotional” is an another adjective that seems to be regarded with suspicion in this age of arched-eyebrow Internet cynicism, which makes it all the more admirable the way that Devon Welsh bares his soul on this album. Belying its title, perhaps, there’s no artifice at all about Impersonator — the music is stripped back and the lyrics are stripped bare, and the result is an album that’s awkward and ingenuous and confessional and searingly honest. And it’s all the more beautiful for all those things.
1. The Drones — I See Seaweed
The oceans are rising. The politicians are corrupt. Humanity is venal and cynical and short-sighted. Cameras watch us wherever we go. And Gareth Liddiard’s lyrics catalog it all. The Drones’ singer is one of the finest writers working in music today — his songs are unrelentingly morally demanding, but never at the expense of reality or subtlety. They approach the world from oblique angles, turning an unrelenting light on humanity. And as ever, we’re found wanting — “lockstepping in our billions,” as this album’s title track puts it, “lockstepping in our swarms/ Lockstepping in the certainty that more need to be born.” I See Seaweed encompasses subject matter as disparate as looking at your old hometown on Google Maps, the ennui of the perpetual traveller, and Laika the space dog, but as a whole, the result is a portrait of a human race racing headlong toward the edge of a cliff. As ever with The Drones, the experience of going along for the ride is harrowing, and visceral — and utterly imperative.