Dominated by media oversaturation, pop banality, and some of the most creative and exciting music in years, this past year has seen its fair share of polar opposite musical swings.
The following albums are my top 10 of 2013—though that's subject to change at a moment's notice. What were some of your favorite records from this year? Let me know in the comments section below.
The Haxan Cloak, "Excavation"
Mortality is an ever-present part of London-based producer Bobby Krlic’s (AKA The Haxan Cloak) musical ideology. On his latest record, "Excavation," Krlic is fixed firmly in the aftermath of death. His dark, almost gothic vision of electronic grief comes bathed in terrifyingly dense, thudding rhythms and the occasional bit of orchestral accompaniment. The idea of what it’s like to die is drawn out to an exacting degree through complicated musical turns and intimidating tonal shades. This album relishes in its ability to completely surround you and wrap you in oceanic bass and struggling synths. The songs on "Excavation" feel immense, full of peaks and bottomless valleys, always ready to pounce but cautiously keeping their distance—waiting for just the right moment to let you hear what waits in the darkness.
CHVRCHES, "The Bones of What You Believe"
There’s something very reassuring when an album that you hope is going to be good actually turns out to be better. Glasgow trio CHVRCHES’ debut album, "The Bones of What You Believe," is wall-to-wall pop exuberance, full of the glistening synth melodies and soaring vocal harmonies that would suggest the arrival of a truly remarkable band. This album fulfills the promise of their early singles by melding a heady pop ebullience with lyrics that betray a richer emotional trove than you might expect. CHVRCHES’ vibrant synth landscapes never feel gaudy or overstimulated simply for the sake of adding just one more thing to the mix. But all the imaginative and creative instrumentation wouldn’t mean a thing if the vocal melodies weren’t there.
Anchored by Matthew Houck’s plaintive and expressive voice and a band that could hold their own against any musicians from the golden age of country music, Phosphorescent’s songs chronicle the everyday lives of ordinary people. On "Muchacho," the band detours along bucolic roads and finds plenty of country stomps and rhythms to make their own. But it’s the absolute lack of pretense that makes these songs feel so honest and truthful. Plucking your heartstrings without feeling sentimental or manipulative, this album offers jagged emotion served up on a bed of gentrified country melodies of glistening slide guitar. And that voice will break your heart.
Arcade Fire, "Reflektor"
There’s not a lot of middle ground when it comes to Arcade Fire. You’re either firmly entrenched in the camp of AC devotees or sick of the hype of singer Win Butler. And on their latest album, they’ve once again polarized fans and critics alike. "Reflektor" is a sprawling, protracted look into the dense heart of indie rock—a feat that few bands would be willing to attempt, let alone succeed at. But they specialize in this kind of compactly thematic material.
Heavy music—not necessarily characterized as metal—has always had a tenuous grasp on the attention of mainstream music. But with their sophomore album, San Francisco thrashers Deafheaven are trying to make metal (or heavy music) relevant to those with no interest in the genre. That doesn't mean that they're softening their jagged riffs or howled vocals; they're simply incorporating a more varied rhythmic approach than most of their peers. On "Sunbather," they toss off lines of mammoth fretwork and cadences, but they use piano and acoustic guitar without sounding like they're simply cramming another instrument into an already-crowded mix. Never clinging to any one set of musical guidelines, "Sunbather" rarely stays still for very long. It's a metal curiosity and a masterpiece.
Kanye West, "Yeezus"
No one garnered more attention in the media this year than Kanye West—and not all for his music. Between his relationship with Kim Kardashian and the vigilante publicity of his latest album, West was front and center whenever excess was discussed in relation to pop culture. But after all the tabloids had their fill, there was a distinct lack of appreciation for Kanye West the musician. Maybe we had forgotten that he was one of the most relevant and creative minds working in mainstream music. And based on his latest record, "Yeezus," he continues to do just that. West deployed a series of stark synths and Death Grips-esque levels of anger and frustration to create one of the most vitriolic records of the year.
Vampire Weekend, "Modern Vampires of the City"
Three albums in and Vampire Weekend still has the capacity to surprise and make all other pop bands sound practically irrelevant. On "Modern Vampires of the City," the band crafts melodies so catchy and memorable that it's difficult to think that it's taken this long for any band to create and record them. Good pop feels timeless, but Vampire Weekend has stepped outside of pop's storied history into some vibrant musical ether where music seems to spring fully formed from the mind of the artist. "Modern Vampires of the City" is a glorious celebration of the possibilities of pop culture.
Daft Punk, "Random Access Memories"
Circuit board wizards Daft Punk have always looked toward the merger of pop and electronics as the future of their own development as a group. Their robotic attire and resolute ability to anonymously hide behind their music lent them a mysterious and often-otherworldly appearance. But on "Random Access Memories," we begin to see a bit more of the artists' personalities—albeit still behind those extravagant masks. Roping in some of pop music's biggest names, the duo produced an album of meticulously crafted songs. Daft Punk may shy away from the spotlight, but they created the perfect balance between mainstream pop acceptance and a sense of inclusive electronic superficiality.
Bill Callahan, "Dream River"
Bill Callahan has never been much for showy displays of technical skill or bombastic arrangements. His music is predisposed toward a quieter, more introspective methodology. And on his latest album, "Dream River," he shows us exactly why he's known for this kind of somber, folk-centric aesthetic. He has constructed an entire world of characters and individual motives, where each song feels like it could cover whole chapters in some grand novel. The acknowledgement of wonder is paramount in Callahan's oeuvre—the ability to define our lives by the smallest, seemingly insignificant details. As exceptionally textured and evocative as anything he's done, this album has an inherent warmth and need for companionship that allows it to work its way inside our head without us realizing what it's doing.
The Knife, "Shaking the Habitual"
Swedish duo The Knife has come a long way since "Silent Shout," allowing their multifaceted musical outlook to guide an impressive array of inspirations and influences. On "Shaking the Habitual," the band creates songs that revel in their prickliness and ability to alienate people. But The Knife isn't going out of their way to lose fans; they're continuing a line of artistic exploration that began with the release of their 2001 eponymous debut. Layers of drones and clacking percussion meld together and form The Knife's most cohesive and devastating musical statement yet. It's a decidedly difficult listen, but one that rewards patience with some of the most intricate sounds of the past decade.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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