Best Albums of 2013 (Part 1)

* Please note this list has how been superseded by the one on the Best Albums of the Years page *

Continuing my round-up of the best music of the year, here’s the first part of the most outstanding albums of 2013; part two will be coming tomorrow.

40 | Blue Hawaii – Untogether

Proving once again that much of the most imaginative poptronica comes from Canada, Blue Hawaii’s first full-length LP shows them to have attained a point of real maturity. Adopting a different approach from her other group Braids, singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston subjects her voice to far more experimental treatment here, enfolding it in on top of itself, slicing it up and dispersing it around the rock-solid layers of electronic firmament laid down by Alex Cowan. There’s dreaminess aplenty to be found in the mix, but the music here is working towards altogether more forthright ends.
[Arbutus | iTunes]

39 | Andrew Liles – INCOMMENSURABLE MAGNITUDES

One’s gut reaction, confronted with one of the longest albums ever recorded—exactly 24 hours’ duration—is to consider the herculean compositional effort it must have taken for Andrew Liles to create such a behemoth. But one of the most remarkable things about it—as with all Liles’ work—is how completely effortless and spontaneous it sounds. As one might expect for such an epic duration, the music takes its time, and events unfold at a pace that sometimes borders on the techtonic, yet this is entirely in keeping with the kind of musical encounter Liles is presenting. It goes way beyond mere immersion, turning the act of listening into a major event (which, as it turns out, is the only herculean part of the experience).
[Andrew Liles]

38 | Chubby Wolf – The Last Voices

One of the most beguilingly anonymous creations by the late Danielle Baquet-Long—it remains unclear whether it was even finished before her death—The Last Voices further demonstrates the subtlety of creative thinking that makes each Chubby Wolf such a deeply impressive artefact. Of course, music of such quality renews the call to mourn her desperately early passing, but we are at least fortunate that Baquet-Long’s talent was matched by her fecundity. This 3-hour release brings together what may or may not be three alternate approaches to her source materials, but regardless it presents some of her most beautiful and hypnotic work.
[Chubby Wolf]

37 | Shane Carruth – Upstream Color (Original Motion Picture Score)

One can only imagine what Shane Carruth would have come up with had he decided to compose a score that matched the radicality of his movie Upstream Color (my favourite film of 2013). As it is, Carruth has recognised that when you’re reinventing cinema from the inside out, there needs to be an element of security—comfort, even—in the soundtrack, and that’s what one finds in these 15 tracks. They integrate completely with the film’s slow-moving scenes, combining elements from different forms of ambient music to arrive at something appropriately mysterious and melancholic, echoing the film’s achingly fragile beauty.
[Amazon | iTunes]

36 | Chiyoko Szlavnics – Gradients of Detail

It’s high time Chiyoko Szlavnics’ sui generis music was committed to record, so kudos should be extended to musikFabrik and World Edition for this important release. It includes one of Szlavnics’ most captivating works, (a)long lines; we’ll draw our own lines; having directed the UK première of this piece a few years ago, i know all too well the endemic challenges it presents, particularly the dependence on just intonation. musikFabrik’s rendition of this and all three works on this disc is as close to flawless as one’s likely to get, demonstrating the lovely way Szlavnics melds acoustic and electronic timbres into a soundworld that’s somewhere in between.
[World Edition]

35 | Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe

While most contemporary pop is prepared to do little more than misappropriate tired tropes from an earlier time, Chvrches strike a perfect balance between past and future. 80s synth timbres and a fondness for strong, soaring melodies (borne aloft by Lauren Mayberry’s gorgeous voice) are as far as the throwbacks go; the rest is all new, songs so wonderfully exciting it’s as though the band were trying to outdo themselves with each new track.
[Amazon | iTunes]

34 | Ulver – Messe I.X-VI.X

Norway’s most relentless experimental band have turned to the Tromsø Chamber Orchestra to help realise their latest project. Like the soundtrack to some imaginary avant-garde noir movie, Messe I.X-VI.X conjures up a grayscale spectrum of dramatic spectres, some of which drag one along with them, while others are intent on surrounding the listener with a sense of dread. Perhaps a product of the group’s extensive post-production work, there’s a lightness of touch amidst the gloom that keeps the album fresh and aerated, allowing the strong emotion underpinning this heavily wrought music not just to emerge but to predominate.
[Amazon | iTunes]

33 | Roly Porter – Life Cycle of a Massive Star

Porter’s follow-up to his 2011 debut Aftertime goes a long way to consolidating his position as one of the more ambitious artists working in mainstream electronic music. The title itself says something of that ambition, and while the album could never live up to the insane prolixity of hype that surrounded its release, tracks like ‘Birth’ and ‘Giant’ create a soundworld that is both vast and overwhelming.
[Amazon | Boomkat]

32 | Tomas Phillips/Kenneth Kirschner – Five Transpositions

This fine collaboration utilises a large array of sounds and sources to create the album’s five pieces. Sometimes the music rattles through these sources at speed (though never seeming to be doing so at speed), while elsewhere semi-improvisatory gestures are allowed to play out in a relatively static way (those well acquainted with Kirschner’s solo work will recognise this behaviour). ‘Low Bells’ is the standout track, its assortment of textures cast in the shadow of massive bell resonances.
[Amazon | iTunes]

31 | James Newton Howard – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Original Motion Picture Score)

One of the main things that distinguishes James Newton Howard’s score for the recent Hunger Games sequel from the shedload of generic soundtracks is his subtle use of harmony. Whereas most orchestral film scores betray little beyond the most rudimentary knowledge, Howard here taps into the kind of oblique tonality upon which many a Shostakovich work was founded. It entirely suits the movie’s increasingly dark and conflicted character, and even when the action demands a more pugilistic kind of bombast, Howard undermines the familiarity through piled-up dissonances and strange electronic timbres.
[Amazon | iTunes]

30 | Marsheaux – Inhale

While Greek duo Marsheaux have often been hampered by their heroes, lacking a truly distinctive voice, Inhale emphatically displays what they’re capable of when standing on their own four feet. There are echoes of other acts (The Other Two in particular and a hint of Uh Huh Her) but what comes across most in these songs is the restless enthusiasm and talent the pair have for shining synthpop. They don’t even sound especially retro any longer, which is perhaps testimony enough to how far they’ve progressed.
[Undo | iTunes]

29 | Ben Lukas Boysen – Mother Nature

Boysen taps into a slightly more illuminated soundworld here than the one in his previous soundtrack, last year’s Restive. As they do in so much of his music (both as himself and as Hecq), sounds continue to resound within impossibly huge spaces and there are plenty of glowering deep bass notes and pounding drums. But there’s a brightness to many of these exquisitely crafted atmospheres that draws them into altogether more uplifted territory. The film is dark and threatening, though, and there are few composers better at finding bold new ways to capture a sense of inscrutable menace.
[Amazon | Hymen]

28 | Emmy Rossum – Sentimental Journey

Rossum’s first album focussed on original songs characterised by a sense of blissed out enchantment; her second turns to popular American standards from the 1920s onward. Each practically sparkles with the invigoratingly fresh approach Rossum brings to these well-known songs. The arrangements are quirky and sometimes deliciously unpredictable, whereas Rossum’s sublime voice is as predictably perfect as ever. Never a note out of place, she’s not just a delight to listen to, she’s a marvel.
[Amazon | iTunes]

27 | The Knife – Shaking The Habitual

The title of this breathtaking album sums up Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer’s entire approach to music-making. Nothing here is familiar or workaday: song structures become elastic in their hands, producing strange and capricious results; melodies wheeze and whine, meandering all over the place on a whim; accompaniments don’t so much develop as accrete materials around them; moods are established and then abruptly shrugged off in favour of something entirely different; and when it suits, lyrics are ejected entirely in favour of complex electronic textures. When the result is as sensational as this, it only makes you wonder why more artists aren’t as open-minded.
[Amazon | Boomkat]

26 | Cliff Martinez – Only God Forgives (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) [Deluxe Edition]

Blunt, brutish, ritualistic, occasionally mitigated by moments of forced and uncomfortable sensuality. That description could apply as much to Nicolas Winding Refn’s film (another of my favourites) as to Cliff Martinez’s superbly-judged score. Tribal drums are answered by a glass harmonica, soft strings by deep Tibetan horns, interspersed with performances of Thai karaoke—tense, jarring juxtapositions that find some kind of release in the synth-laden explosion of core track ‘Wanna Fight’. As soundtracks go, this is surely one of the most original and troublingly effective of recent years.
[Amazon | iTunes]

25 | Motion Sickness of Time Travel – Eclipse Studies

It’s been an almost absurdly productive 2013 for Rachel Evans (around 10 releases), somewhat militated against by their mixed and inconsistent quality. But Eclipse Studies would have made the year worthwhile by itself, a pair of equal-length, large-form pieces filled with a highly engaging and variegated collection of musical swatches. It’s a kind of compendium of ideas, by turns playful, distant, dogmatic, emulatory—all of it suffused with Evans’ characteristically light, whimsically effervescent style.
[Motion Sickness of Time Travel]

24 | Rashad Becker – Traditional Music of Notional Species Vol. I

Listening to this, it beggers belief that it’s a debut album. Yet Rashad Becker, renowned for his work as engineer at Berlin’s equally renowned Dubplates and Mastering, has clearly been formulating and honing his ideas about sound for some time. The results are as astonishing as they were highly anticipated; the way in which Becker contrives both to synthesise instrumental and vocal timbres from scratch and then make them jump through his own series of decidedly taxing and contorted hoops is one of the most unique things i’ve heard in a very long time.
[Boomkat | iTunes]

23 | Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks (Audiophile Mastered Version)

Being a lifelong fan of Nine Inch Nails, i’ll admit to having had misgivings about this album prior to listening. What now for the man who once felt little more than endless rage at the world, but is now clearly so happy and contented? Hesitation Marks doesn’t quite answer that question; the traces of anger are softened, the subject matter more wide-ranging and mellowed—in many ways this doesn’t seem like the NIN we’ve known and loved (and sympathised with). But Trent Reznor is a powerhouse of conceptual and technical ingenuity, and despite one’s reservations, this is a supremely impressive album that somehow keeps the NIN continuity intact.
[NIN]

22 | Flat Earth Society – 13

It’s tempting to ask yourself whether it’s jazz you’re hearing or if someone’s just taking the piss. In truth, it seems to be both and neither: by thumbing their nose to convention, Flat Earth Society create some the most bewildering but thrilling leftfield jazz homages you’ll ever hear. The sensibility of Zappa (think Make a Jazz Noise Here) seems to be the guiding light, causing the music to shift abruptly between big band tuttis, faux eastern melodic interludes, rock music outbursts and plenty of other stuff that defies any kind of meaningful description. Wonderful.
[Amazon | iTunes]

21 | CocoRosie – Tales of a Grass Widow

Those familiar with CocoRosie’s output know to expect the unexpected, but that didn’t prevent Tales of a Grass Widow from packing two fists’ worth of unseen punches. Introducing quirky sporadic use of autotune only makes the girls sound even more out there than usual, but the real surprise (for me at least) is how these songs nonetheless seem utterly grounded, rooted in a kind of seriousness belied by the all the timbral/textural/structural/vocal eccentricities. Never, in fact, have they sounded more pensive and developed than here; how they manage this while executing all manner of stylistic twirls and coquettish whispers is anyone’s guess.
[Amazon | iTunes]

Posted on by 5:4 in Best of the Year
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2 Responses to Best Albums of 2013 (Part 1)

  1. alan munro

    Hi. Great to see another fan of chiyoko szlavnics. J first heard her music at Tectonics in Glasgow earlier this year and have been looking out for her material since. I can’t find this album on Amazon Simon. Do you have a link?

    • 5:4

      Hi Alan – you’ll find the link to buy each album after my little summary. But here it is again: http://www.world-edition.com/. Doesn’t appear to be available from anywhere else at the moment.

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