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Best of 2013: Albums

December 29, 2013

I drew up a shortlist of about 50 albums I liked over the course of 2013, but decided to halve that number, and even then I probably could have halved it again.

There’s been a lot of great music made this year, but less properly good albums from start to finish in my opinion. Some of those which didn’t quite make the cut, mostly for that very reason, were:

Thr!!!er by !!!, Talib Kweli’s Prisoner of Consciousness, Mount Kimbie’s Cold Spring Faultless Youth, The North Borders by Bonobo, Deptford Goth’s Life After Defo, Modern Vampires of the City by Vampire Weekend,  Mathew Jonson’s Her Blurry Pictures, Blackbird by Fat Freddy’s Drop, Bankrupt! by Phoenix, Jagwar Ma’s Howlin, Silver Wilkinson by Bibio, Deltron 3030’s Event II, Half Of Where You Live by Gold Panda, Darkside’s Psychic, Feelin’ Good by Nightmares On Wax, and Queens of the Stone Age’s Like Clockwork.

But enough of the also rans, here are those long players that I did deem worthy of writing a few sentences about and scouring the internet for some album art.

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25. Nils Frahm – Spaces

As the album cover shows, Nils’ live shows are a dizzying combination of multiple pianos, synths and other bits of gadgetry. Spaces brings together recordings from his performances over the last couple of years, giving an insight into this incredibly talented man’s musical process.

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24. Washed Out – Paracosm

Ernest Greene’s follow-up to chillwave genre-definer Within and Without thankfully seems to have helped shrug off that terrible pigeon holing. Paracosm is still full of wistful whimsy, but on tracks like All I Know and Great Escape there’s a real musical and emotional heft.

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23. Kolsch – 1977

It almost feels unfair to include this album in a single year’s best of list as there are so many beezers here that have cropped up at some stage in the last few years, but the Danish producer’s roundup is so good it would be rude not to give it a mention. From the opening chimes of Goldfisch, straight onto the ubiquitous Opa, through textbook piano house on Der Alte, to the loopy Lorely; it really is all killer no filler.

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22. RJD2 – More Is Than Isn’t

I have a lot of time for Ramble John Krohn, more commonly know as RJD2, as he’s consistently produced some of the last decade’s finest instrumental hip hop. His latest effort thankfully continues this trend, although an absence of real stand out tracks prevent it getting any higher up my list. All would be forgiven though if he finally decided to tour on this side of the pond…

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21. Moderat – II

In similar fashion to their first outing, number II was a decent album with a few really standout tracks right at the start. This time substitute A New Error and Rusty Nails with Bad Kingdom and Versions. Frontloading aside, there’s still clearly a lot more gold to be mined from the combinations of Modeselektor’s filthy bass and Apparat’s melancholy melodies.

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20. Thundercat – Apocalypse 

Unfortunately my review for Dummy Mag was lost on their switchover to a new website, so I’ll just have to quote myself without a link. “Taking the baton from Toro Y Moi’s soulful pop masterpiece Anything in Return earlier in the year, Thundercat’s second album mixes just the right amount of jazz experimentation with commercial R&B populism. The record isn’t without its faults – the woozy west coast sound does meander a bit far at times and Brunder certainly plays bass better than he sings – but if you want a bit of California soul to soundtrack your summer, look no further.”

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19. Jon Hopkins – Immunity

Much like (spoiler alert) Lusine further down this list, Jon Hopkin’s widely-lauded new album is one I can happily listen to with no skipped tracks, but that doesn’t really throw off any one song I’d nominate amongst my favourites of the year. The man is a very talented producer, that much is obvious from the intricacy of musical architecture throughout the album, but after a few rather half-baked albums  earlier in his career, with Immunity Hopkins seems to have finally found his mojo.

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18. Le Carousel – Le Carousel

Phil Kieran is a man of many talents. Already a master of techno and having dabbled in punk with his Alloy Mental project, he’s now shown himself to be adept at an much smoother style. The album starts with the superb Lose Your Love and continues on that slow-mo house trip, his own vocals blending into a lifetime’s worth of musical influences.

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17. Public Service Broadcasting – Inform, Educate, Entertain

Willgoose and Wrigglesworth’s ode to the good old days is something of an outlier in my list, given that genre-wise it strays into areas I usually avoid vociferously. However, the combination of old public information and propaganda material with an impressively tuneful array of instruments really works. Kudos to Alexis Petridis on the Guardian’s Music Weekly pod for the tip.

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16. Machinedrum – Vapor City

The moustachioed American in Berlin has produced probably the finest work of his career with the grammatically irritating Vapor City. It’s not all to my tastes, but tracks like Infinite Us, Seesea and Center Your Love have never been far from my personal playlists in the latter half of this year.

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15. Tim Paris – Dancers

There’s always one late entrant to this list, and this year the album that got the most December air time was Tim Paris’ magnificent debut LP. It basically sounds like the record I was hoping Andy Weatherall and Timonthy Fairplay would make as The Asphodells; a genre-shifting mix of leftfield influences with one eye on the dancefloor. As the press release states, it “joins the dots between indie dance, post punk, electro and house music.”

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14. Atoms For Peace – Amok

I almost forgot about this one, as it feels like it really should have been on last year’s lists; the best song on it (Default) definitely being part of 2012’s favourite track countdown. Anyway, regardless of it being teased for many months beforehand, it was released in February, so deserves its place in this list. I’d have been surprised if any group consisting of Thom Yorke, Nigel Godrich, Flea, Joey Waronker and Mauro Refosco had produced something below par, but just how dense the sonic patchwork they weaved made for a nice confirmation of supergroup power.

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13. Delorean – Apar

Three years after Subiza, the Barcelona based band have returned with an even better record, more consistent and well rounded. Early on in the album Destitute Time is followed by Dominion, and despite being released just as the autumn was setting in, they engendered a sense of early summer positivity. Tracks like Walk High could easily sound-track scenes in late 80s teen dramas, but that’s meant completely as a complement. Lovely stuff.

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12. Trentemoller – Lost

Anders’ third album was better than his second, but not as good as his first. That’s the simplistic way of looking at Lost. If asked for a more nuanced view I would say that it continued his genre diversification, again with mixed results. But to back up my opening statement, I’d say that when he gets it right – with Still On Fire or Trails for instance – the music is among the best he’s ever made, and crucially when he dabbles in things less to my tastes, it still sounded pretty good; unlike on Into The Great Wide Yonder.

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11. Daniel Avery – Drone Logic

I’ve been a fan of this young man for a few years now, from the days of Stopmakingme productions, to the spree of Midas-like remixes and Soundcloud mixes, and that long overdue Fabric comp. By the point he released his debut LP on Phantasy (where else?) Dan had managed to whip up quite a commotion, so the fact that the music itself lived up to the hype was a great relief, if perhaps not a great surprise. From the beastly opener Water Jump through to the epic closer Knowing We’ll Be Here, it’s an assured mix of modern electronic music, inflected with a deep appreciation of acid house and psychedelic rock.

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10. FaltyDL – Hardcourage

I’ll admit that I hadn’t really followed Drew Lustman’s career up until this year, but as a first bit of work for Pulse Radio his new album was the best of a fairly motley bunch of options to review that week. To say I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement and over the rest of the year I’ve kept coming back to tracks like Bells and Korben Dallas. Full write up here.

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9. Lusine – The Waiting Room

Again, I can’t say I knew a great deal about Jeff McIlwain AKA Lusine until I gave his latest album a go, purely on the strength of the one track I’d previously heard of his; the sublime Two Dots. I’m glad I did though, because this is probably the most consistent electronic album of the year. By that I mean that I’d be hard pressed to pick one particular favourite song from the ten on offer, but as a whole it’s an album I’ve happily listened through without skipping on numerous occasions.

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8. Arcade Fire – Reflektor

One of a few big comebacks that actually came off pretty well this year, the crazy canucks pulled off one of 2013’s most enjoyable indie albums. Production from James Murphy certainly helped, and some canny viral marketing got t’interwebz in a frenzy, but crucially the finished product was just a really good rock’n’roll record. Of course there were some pretentious moments, but for the most part the album was notable for just how many great songs it contained – Reklektor, We Exist, Normal Person, etc.

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7. Cut Copy – Free Your Mind

Those Melbourne hipsters have done it again, this time by channelling a baggy Madchester rave. This could have been a terrible misstep, but thankfully while Dan Whitford and co. must have missed out on actually attending said early dance music marathons, they’ve managed to to a bang up job of melding all the best bits of that sound and scene into a coherent and compelling album.

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6. Ishome – Confession

Right out of nowhere this little Russian lady has gone and made the electronic album of the year. From the evidence of this fabulous album teaser video, 20-year-old Mirabella Ishome Kiryanova seems to be armed with just an AKAI machine, but the music she makes is so much more than the sum of its few parts. Icily precise machine music, fusing all the best bits of the bass genres, but with none of overblown drops or screechy noises. Tetra 94 parts 1 and 2 are particular favourites of mine.

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5. PVT – Homosapien

Last year it was Tame Impala, this year PVT are the Aussie band doing the best work of their careers. Their previous long player Church With No Magic was good, but this just seems to outdo it in every way. Each band member seems to be really on their game and there’s so much variety, from the rollicking title track, to the wistful Vertigo and synth-laden Evolution, everything they attempt seems to come off.

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4. Toro Y Moi – Anything in Return

It’s testament to this album that while released in January, it still managed to evoke the feeling of lounging in the Californian sunshine. The first two tracks, Harm in Change and Say That, have to go down as some of my favourite summertime jams of all time; just perfect soulful sunny sounds. I could witter on for many more paragraphs, but if you want the full review then head here.

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3. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

I put this album in my top three with some trepidation, as predictably enough the robots’ new direction split both fans and critics, but as a comeback statement I was pretty impressed. Yes, the pre-release hype got pretty grating after a while, yes Get Lucky inevitably got rinsed to the point of irritation, yes they may have gone overboard the guest collaborations, and yes I also miss Homework-era Daft Punk. But, the new record was a lot better than the last one, it revealed something new with every repeat listen, returning to the proper studio techniques of Nile Rodgers’ heyday was a refreshing counterpoint to today’s easily imitated laptop productions, and I really fell for tracks like Motherboard and Contact. So there.

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2. Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest

Not quite up to Music Has The Right To Children, but certainly worth the wait. The brothers Sandison proved they’ve still got it, weaving together a typically intricate hour of ambient electronics and nostalgic soundtrack sounds. For some it was too similar to previous work, for others not close enough to the good old days, but I’d say they got it just about right. Reach For The Dead is as memorable a track as anything in their extensive cannon and the rest of the album envelops you in a place as magically mysterious as the aura they’ve built up around themselves.

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1. Foals – Holy Fire

This is the second year in a row I’ve given top spot to a guitar band’s album, but then they do have a habit of producing better long players that electronic or hip hop artists. As ever, this wins because it was the album I came back to the most, as great to listen to in the background over dinner as through headphones on a night bus, this is the record that should have given them the profile they’ve long deserved. I defy you to find me an album with a better opening trio of tracks this year or in recent memory – Prelude, Inhaler and My Number really demonstrate just how much the quintet have to offer, and incredibly the remainder of the record barely tails of from there.

Mixes

So that’s the albums, but how about the compilations? Well, again it wasn’t a vintage year for proper mix CDs; Fabric had a few hits – Cassy and Apolonia spring to mind – amongst an increasing amount of misses, while Renaissance ploughed on with quality releases from Tiefschwarz and Francois K. Ministry made another bid for credibility by giving Carl Craig a Masterpiece mix over three discs, while Dave Seaman pushed things forward with his Kickstarter-funded Selador Sessions. 2013 was notable for the anniversary collections that came out, R&S Records celebrating 30 years at the top, DJ T mixing up a track from each of his 25 years in the industry and Kompakt marking 20 years in business.

Finally, a quick rundown of my favourite online/radio/podcast mixes this year. In no particular order:

For some reason DJ Koze’s brilliant FACT Mix wouldn’t embed, and I’ve never figured out how to successfully get the Mixcloud widget to work with my WordPress blog, so here’s a few links instead:

Rez – Mystics and Moonlight

Geddes – Eastern Electrics 006

WhoSampled – Addidas Originals Mix

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