Onomatopoeia's Best Music of 2013

Welcome to Onomatopoeia’s year-end best of 2013, a calendar year that seemingly followed the popular trends of 2012 and saw the music industry continue to focus on R&B and bridging the gap between commercial and underground sensibilities. As always I tired to present my point of view and offer an alternative to the increasingly limited choices being presented to us by the recording industry; some of my selections will be obvious while others may come as a surprise. It is with some hope that you will walk away with at least one new listening experience when the clock turns midnight and we begin 2014, let me know if that's the case.  

I’ve never been one to number my lists; my mood determines what my preferred listening is at any given time so here are my top 13 music releases in no particular order and maybe we will see you again at the same time and same place next year…

Best 13 Albums of 2013...

Chvrches – The Bones Of What You Believe

Although I don’t like highlighting my favorite albums of the year in any sort of order, Chvrches’ “Bones of What You Believe” might be my favorite if I had to pick. The trio of Scots drawn from disparate corners of the sonic spectrum do hook-loaded synthpop incredibly well. Taking the blueprint laid out by M83, Passion Pit, Purity Ring and others, Ian Cook, Martin Doherty and Lauren Mayberry offer a confidant and intoxicating experience in “The Bones of What You Believe” from start to finish.

Cook and Doherty handle the majority of the instrumentation and are long-time vets of Glasgow's indie scene, Cook most well known for Aereogramme, while Doherty spent time with the Twilight Sad. Together they have crafted some delightfully playful soundscapes filled with soaring sonics, processed effects, pitched vocal samples, synth-pad waves and charging beats.

Mayberry provides the vocals which often span a sea of emotions playing both a strong and vulnerable role depending on the story being told and despite the peppiness of the music, that story is one of pain of separation. “I’m in misery,” sings Mayberry on the opening track, “The Mother We Share.” “The way is long, but you can make it easy on me.” And then a track later, on the appropriately titled “We Sink,” this plea becomes a mantra of sorts, “I’ll be a thorn in your side till you die/ I’ll be a thorn in your side for always.”

I could go on about the brimming confidence of “Lies” and the take no prisoners approach of “Gun” or even the massive hooks on “The Mother We Share,” but for me the album hits home the most with emotional polar opposites “Recover” and “By The Throat” where Mayberry opens up about longing for someone to be her comfort only being too aware of the consequential resentment and fallback of when it goes wrong.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ 15th studio album “Push The Sky Away” stylistically falls in line with the other post-Mick Harvey offerings from the band in that it is a spacious affair most certainly influenced by the continued work with Warren Ellis. “Push the Sky Away” shares some ground with the Bad Seeds' early 00s output with a major difference being the role of his protagonist. Whereas in the past Cave played the role of participant, “Push The Sky Away” sees the crooner acting as an observer, opting to watch from the side and let us know what he’s thinking. The record is experimental, determined, haunting and yet the most subdued from the band.

Those expecting Nick Cave at the alter spitting fire & brimstone cloaked in noise best stick with “Grinderman.” “Push The Sky Away” acts as a slow-burning, nervous LP layered in textures made up of flutes, violin loops and other less rock ‘n’ roll instrumentation. Lead single “We No Who U R” begins gently bearing a gloomy melody that’s vaguely unsettling growing more palpable when Cave sings “We know who you are and we know where you live/ and we know there’s no need to forgive.”

A rich a vivid seduction takes place throughout with dreamlike imagery and the pairing of lyrics with sonics is both masterfully lighthearted and distressing when called for. Cave breaks from his observer role in the self -referential – “Jubilee Street” when it is followed, a few tracks later, by a track titled “Finishing Jubilee Street,” which details a turn of events that are supposed to have occurred after Cave finished the song in question, these are some of the more strange moments that occur during "Push The Sky Away" but that’s not a complaint especially for someone this deep into their career.

Deafheaven – Sunbather

Looking at music aggregate sites that list the top albums of the year simply based on their review scores, Deafheaven’s "Sunbather" was actually the most well-received album of 2013, a feat that is pretty mind-blowing considering the extreme lack of diversity that dominates the airwaves and sales charts.  On a deeper level this is quite important and deserves some exploration on its own.

It’s no secret that the information age has most certainly transformed the recording industry into a very different beast. Album sales have been plummeting now at a steady rate for the last half decade and many people simply want and get their entertainment for free. It’s pretty much destroyed the model of old and with it some of the magic of yesteryear like crate digging and collecting, but infinitely more important is that it has turned art into disposable commerce, something that is digested and spit out all within a short period of time, often drowned in much judgment and little effort.  For folks who live, breathe and die with the arts it’s been a little heartbreaking.

That being said what is truly fantastic in this age of the web is that such a small niche album gets more attention and listens by simply being weighed on its own merits, leaving out pesky debates about influence, popularity and sales figures. You have to admit that if you haven’t heard the album you will at least give it a spin now, right? That’s pretty awesome.

"Sunbather", the second album by San Francisco black metal act Deafheaven is a 60-minute tour de force complete with harrowing black metal riffs and post rock builds, something not necessarily new but Deafheaven do it extremely well. They achieve this effect, in part, by highlighting their reference points like a badge of honor instead of masking them. There are four major pieces, with an instrumental interlude between each one that twist and turn throughout, taking the listener through chaotic charges wrapped in pockets of soft ambient moments. Make no mistake about it—if you want heavy, you’ve got heavy - but with its attention to melody this might be described as a heavy record for those who don’t usually get into heavy records. No better place highlights this than the album’s title track. With its raw power and clever dynamics it ascends to places that are equal parts moving and magical, as they are dense and opaque which should be the headline for Sunbather as a whole.

Volcano Choir  - Repave 

Volcano Choir is essentially the post-rock group Collection of Colonies of Bees helmed by Bon Iver’s Vernon both bringing to the table their strengths to allow for an experimental partnership that at times outshines their day jobs. “Repave”, the second album from the group is filled with memorable hooks, hummable melodies and arena-worthy choruses, there is a sense of triumph and brotherly vibe throughout.

This is in part due to Vernon’s ghostly falsetto, which often soars, in majestic choruses with lyrics free of cynicism in their poet-like romanticism. This is music being played by friends on a beach or camp ground, they are songs you hum while waiting in line but with the addition and juxtaposition of electronic elements that flow seamlessly throughout, never overpowering, but in the case of the studio wizardry, adding a shine. The record is an easy listen in my opinion; one of the easier ones on this list and it’s in its simplicity that it shines, offering a sense of warmth.

The Knife - Shaking The Habitual

Records like The Knife’s “Shaking the Habitual” arrive more or less entrenched in hype, expectations, and adoration. The mysterious Swedish siblings seem to operate on a different playing field than most, not really following any type of model, including their own. “Shaking the Habitual” is a 98-minute 180-degree turn from their last groundbreaking LP, “Silent Shout” and it’s a very rewarding one if you give it the time it deserves.

Sometime between 2006 and now, Karin and Olof Dreijer decided that any new work they embarked on would have to merge their political interests with whatever music was created; political theory, gender issues, socioeconomics, and more serving as the inspiration that would grow into the driving force behind their new album.

But The Knife have no intention of making this change an easy one for you, gone is the pop sound that made them so famous and inspired a thousand lesser acts. Instead, they compose garish, conflicting polyrhythms backed by Karen’s chameleon-like howl. At “Shaking the Habitual’s” core lie ideas of deconstruction and rebuilding and it’s a transgressive state that you feel when listening to the record as elements are constantly being smashed into pieces only to be built up into something new and different by the minute.

Tracks like “A Tooth For An Eye’ might be a good place to start reacquainting yourself with this old friend with it’s memorable steel drum rhythms. “Full Of Fire” shows off a ferocious industrial techno sound that continues the theme of collapsing and rising anew from the ashes. Both the lyrics and music challenge plenty of perceived notions about extreme wealth, the patriarchy, the monarchy, environmental degradation and with its long run time, decreasing attention spans (six of its thirteen songs exceed eight minutes). Living up to its name, the exquisite “A Cherry on Top” is one of the creepiest songs out there and that’s saying a lot when talking about The Knife but it highlights with most importance that this duo still do have a wicked sense of humor.

James Blake - Overgrown

2013 saw James Blake return to the scene with his sophomore LP "Overgrown" and what we the listener got was a more radio friendly record that took the sparse exposed vocals of his debut and added some more meat to the production. Where the self-titled was all about those pockets in-between, the negative space, “Overgrown” is filled with a sense of majesty at times that was never even hinted on previous efforts. On the title track we are treated to an orchestral movement that would have been infinitely harder to create the first time around in his bedroom but with success comes opportunity and resources and “Overgrown” makes good use of both.

The music is wonderfully glitchy and at the same time soft. There is still a superb use of space and sonics mixed with gospel touches that make this some of the most delicate and fragile electronic music out there, if not some of the most ghostly.

The handclaps of “Retrograde” set up the perfect canvas to lay out the lines “Suddenly I’m hit/Is this darkness of the dawn/And your friends are gone/When you friends won’t come/So show me where you fit”. There is a sense of classic soul music being made with an affinity for someone like Stevie Wonder more so than those who are identified with the dub scene now and this is what has always made Blake’s music so successful, this time around it’s just more apparent.

San Fermin – San Fermin

Brooklyn composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone’s self-titled debut under the name San Fermin is a massive collection of tightly layered orchestral pop that lives in the same world as Sufjan Stevens and the Dirty Projectors. And like Sufjan or even moreso someone like Unkle’s James level Ludwig-Leone acts in a producer-like fashion for San Fermin, conducting and recruiting more than a dozen musicians and vocalists through his songs, only contributing piano and keyboards himself. The vocals are handled by Allen Tate and the duo of Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig. Tate's baritone is very reminiscent of The National’s Matt Berninger while Lucius' vocals add a catchy brightness.

Highlights include "Sonsick,"  a dream of melodic harmonies with a triumphant chorus that just doesn’t quit. “Deadalus (What We Have)” and “Bar” really are equally emotionally captivating pieces that will find themselves onto mixtapes in the future, but like many of the albums on this list it is best digested as a full work. Ellis wrote the record while holed up for six weeks in a studio in a Canadian mountain range and given his background is composition there is the sense of a larger story being told throughout the 17 track hour-long journey. I wouldn't call it a concept album but there is most certainly a theme running throughout and more often than not it is a very colorful and moving one worth your time.

Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

Remember when no one cared about Daft Punk? Neither do I because where I grew up everyone loved them yet somehow they have only just reached some sort of godlike worship in the world of music, especially in the U.S.

Random Access Memories” is actually the first new proper Daft Punk album to be released since this newfound love has reached a critical mass and by now you most probably have already heard the record and formed your own opinions on it. There most certainly was enough build up behind it and the end result had a lot to live up to. Did it? No way in hell, but what we were left with was something great in its own right.

Perhaps the French robots get a pass for being so hot right now, after all their fellow countrymen Justice did something similar not a year earlier and got panned by the critics and fans alike. Perhaps their album will be more loved in the future much like Daft Punk’s “Human After All,” which didn’t really get much love at all initially. Unlike Justice’s sophomore LP “Random Access Memories” has an army of guest spots from a myriad of genres that were all brought in to see the Punk’s vision through. The highlight for me is the Panda Bear driven “Doing It Right” which appears late in the album but most probably captures the Discovery era. Noah’s vocals are sunsoaked with Beach Boy goodness and laid over that signature retro-future-like beat that you just can’t help but move to. Elsewhere the listener is treated to an epic rock-opera that fittingly showcases Paul Williams, it’s an utter disaster that somehow completely works. Of course there was “Get Lucky” which was pretty much the song of the year as far as pop culture was concerned.  RAM seemingly elevated anyone’s star who was associated with it, giving new life to Niles Rogers, Giorgio Moroder, the aforementioned Williams and more.

What gets RAM on this list is that after all the hoopla had died down and the months had passed, I found myself returning to RAM and enjoying it, especially in it’s long entirety, from start to finish, as I always found something new and interesting that I hadn’t noticed last time that made me smile.

Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels

2012 was a big year for both El-P and Killer Mike and 2013 was no different as the duo was quick to act on their budding chemistry with a free collaborative effort entitled “Run the Jewels.” The ten-track half hour long album feels effortless, with never any filler and delivers the punches in both lyrics and beats that almost makes it a victory lap of sorts in its playful cockiness.

Of course the beats are all handled by El-P, and he's splitting the difference between his usual futuristic noise and the funky 808s he supplied Mike with on "R.A.P. Music" making this a less dense but no less imaginative journey than usual. An equal shift comes from Mike in his lyrical themes as he tones down the politics a tad but delivers his wisdom with the same poise and conviction.

What remains is an addictive and fun album that doesn't take its self too serious but is most certainly a seriously well-made piece of work. It’s supposed to be a good time so let’s not over analyze it, to quote Mike’s “R.A.P. Music

“This is jazz, this is funk, this is soul, this is gospel
This is sanctified sex, this is player pentecostal
This is church; front, pew, amen, pulpit

What my people need and the opposite of bullshit.”

Danny Brown – Old

Danny Brown made 2011's year-end list with “XXX” and has been having a ferocious time in music pretty much ever since but “Old” finds Danny at a fork in the road. The Detroit rapper is torn between two journeys, the old and the new, and as a result the record is subsequently divided into Side A and Side B. Side A calls to mind the more conventional styles of 2010’s street life portrayal, “The Hybrid.” The dope game and guns are the topic of conversation here.  With Side B the lyrics are from a current outlook, closer in sound and mentality to “XXX” with themes of sex and hallucinogens backed by thumping electronic beats.

In both cases, or both sides if you prefer, Brown has definitely grown as a rapper. His vocal range, speed, and ability to overcome complex time signatures is on display throughout and always captures much whimsy and Mad Hatter levels of insanity. The beats are innovative and genre bending, and come from a host of who’s who in “underground” rap in the last 14 months. The guest spots are welcome and never overwhelming, sometimes even surprising as was the case with Purity Ring, who have collaborated with Brown in the past but live in such a different space.

Old” marries complex, self-aware themes of self with rump shaking packaging like it’s the most natural thing ever, something few can do well and it’s fantastic to see more and more people jumping on the train because it’s a really fun one to be on. The choice track for me is the swamp fueled electronic “Smokin & Drinkin” where Brown is both menacing and paranoid in his delivery. It’s my get home from work anthem. I didn’t even know I needed one until hearing it but we haven’t been apart ever since.

Austra – Olympia

Toronto electropop act Austra has seen some significant changes since appearing on our 2011 “best of” list with “Feel It Break”, namely making the transition from trio to collaborative sextet.  Katie Stelmanis still is the driving force behind the group and her choice of lyrical topics remains firmly true to the past but "Olympia" is a little more dance floor oriented this time around and sounds more expansive and a little less removed. Think disco-downer like the Chomatics who also explore a hypnotic mixture of chimes, with striking gothic synthesizers wrapped in a haze.

Throughout "Olympia" heartbreak rules the day with themes of love, community and homophobia being addressed in its course. “Home” is the highlight, a somber affair that really touches, well, home and has some great transitions with its Detroit house-like structure. Musically it’s bigger and more orchestral than “Feel it Break” but doesn’t push boundaries in the same way, that being said it is a more mature and ultimately more revealing experience to connect with.


Kanye West – Yeezus

Outside of the extreme narcissism Kanye West has always had a remarkable ear for beats while mixing sometimes profound with equally lowbrow rhymes. “Yeezus,” his sixth studio album, focuses on those very characteristics and is arguably the only thing it has in common with past releases.  You see Kanye West does not make the same record twice. The very pop oriented “808s and Heartbreaks” was followed by 2010's high concept record “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”, arguably his most ambitious work to date and then 2011's joint album with Jay-Z, “Watch The Throne” which was on some dance floor hip-hop instant classic tip.  So those interested asked where was Kanye gonna go with Yeezus? The answer was dark and industrial.

To help him realize his new vision Rick Rubin famously stepped in as executive producer to keep a raw sparse feel throughout an album made up of jarring electro-acid house beats from elite production teams like Daft Punk, Mike Dean, Hudson Mohawke, Travi$ Scott, Arca and Gesaffelstein to name but a few. These are tunes built with the apocalypse in mind not the dance floor. Lyrically, Kanye lets the beat dictate his approach, for example “New Slaves,” contains few notes, but with each synth hit Kanye makes the venom he spits sting. On "I Am a God" he shows that lowbrow albeit genius touch I mentioned with a now famous line about croissants with a sense of conviction that might lead you to believe he was talking about the end of life as we know it. Primal squeals, data moshed outbursts act as the backing making me think if he is a god it's the god of war.

As his contemporaries and collaborators increasingly explore a more commercial sound and enlist telecommunication companies to springboard an album to commercial success, Kanye seems to be more defiant than ever rejecting the machine he feels has had a negative impact on his life. Luckily for us its had a great impact on his sound.

Baths – Obsidian

L.A. resident Will Wiesenfeld’s Baths project gave us “Obsidian” in 2013, a record born of some serious introspection, the kind that comes after the type of hurt that defines you. This is in part due to a debilitating bout with E. coli that rendered him incapable of eating or even moving around for a long time. The record acts as a rebirth of sorts and is heavy on ideas that are explored bravely throughout both sonically and lyrically.

"Obsidian" is as dense as dark matter and the listener is made fully aware from the get go with opener “Worsening” which lays down some jittery percussion that could be on a Xiu Xiu album, underneath a weightless vocal that creates the very essence of nervousness; midway through the song, when Wiesenfeld asks ..

“Where is God when you hate him most?
When the mouths in the earth come to bite at my robes
Hell that sits below, of you would do well to bellow
At the cold, the lifeless, the worsening souls.”

Things get heavy and stay there.

Incompatible” is the story of the first experience with a live-in boyfriend “You live in my house and we  share a toilet seat,” a sobering observation that deromanticizes any notions that this is a love song. “No Eyes” provides the perfect gyrating elctro-pulsating rhythm for the cold message he has for a partner...

“And it is not a matter of
If you need it
But it is only a matter of
Come and fuck me
And it is not a matter of
If you love me
But it is only a matter of
My fix”.

Like I said, heavy and provocative stuff built around some tight, abstract compositions but Will owns it and is not shy about sharing it with the listener which is a rare thing at this level.

Honorable Mentions
Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe
Underachievers –  Indigoism
Death Grips – Government Plates
Gesaffelstein – Aleph
Jai Paul –  Jai Paul
John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
Perfect Pussy - I Have Lost All Desire For Feeling
Woodkid – Golden Age
Twigs -EP2
These New Puritans – Field of Reeds
Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety
Son Lux – Lanterns
!!! - THR!!!ER
Lorde - Pure Heroin
Yellow Eyes - Hammer Of Night

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