Tuesday, 10 December 2013

An Ode to: 2013 Albums (Full List)

An Ode to: 2013 Albums

The prevailing sentiment from 2013 in terms of album releases is: so much good music, not enough time to listen and appreciate it all. Here are a few select cuts -

Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety

At first the bombast and histrionics of Anxiety was a bit overwhelming, especially since so much is happening within the tracks themselves.  After maybe the fourth listen, all the parts not so much seemed to come together, but distilled in my brain – parts of the whole collected, and after professing ‘not to get it’, found myself waking up with ‘Ego Free Sex Free’ stuck in my head on repeat, with its jarring synths and perplexing narrative (Ego Free Sex Free?).

Much has been made of the persona of Autre Ne Veut - the preoccupation with the man behind the alter-ego, Arthur Ashin and his training as a Clinical Psychologist; the Prince comparisons; the Whitney Houston nod. My own preconceptions were overturned by ‘Counting’ – a song seemingly about fearing the loss a lover – which is revealed by Ashin to be written after calling his sick grandmother and fear of her death (‘I’m counting on the idea that you’ll stay / I’m counting on the idea that you’ll stay alive’). On the back-half of Anxiety, ‘Gonna Die’ and ‘World War’ are compelling enough dig deeper into the guise. Those tracks subvert the R&B tropes revealing self-depreciation and existential despair.  Beyond the parallel and intersecting narratives, Anxiety at the end of the day is catchy, sonically dense and intriguing album.

Laurel Halo – Chance of Rain

Laurel Halo’s Chance of Rain is an intimidating listen. It’s like an assault on your awareness and perception of sounds. Whereas Quarantine was very much a studio album, meticulously written and then adapted for live shows, Chance of Rain takes the converse approach, with sequences born directly from live performance, and then captured and reconfigured into individual tracks and arranged as the album. In that way, the album feels ephemeral; just as quick as thuds, reverberations, and off-kilter beats are thrown into the digital soundscape, their distorted echoes rebound and ricochet into the ether where different sounds are born anew.

SZA – S (EP)

SZA is my latest obsession. Her own self-described sound is a “clusterfuck of my upbringing and life. Maybe like a Bar Mitzvah mixtape.” She goes on to explain that her conservative childhood (raised as an Orthodox Sunni Muslim) and a significant amount of time spent alone, isolated from ‘regular culture’ forced her hand in creativity. There’s an amazing little anecdote from this interview relating her childhood influences music-wise, and how she expanded her strictly regulated musical diet of her father's -

'The only thing he would let me listen to is what he would listen to; Coltrane, Miles Davis, Brazilian Jazz, Afro-Cuban jazz, that stuff. Eventually my first introduction to contemporary stuff was when my sister would be around and she listened to Cash Money and Wu-Tang Clan…. And once when I was at gymnastics camp, I found this iPod in the bathroom and I took it home with me, which is weird because I’m totally not a thief, but I snatched it and took it with me. On that iPod was the craziest stuff ever. There was like Bjork and Common and Jay-Z, and I would listen to it sometimes but I didn’t have a charger and it was broken so I couldn’t shuffle—I just had to let it play. All types of things were on it and that was like my little window to the outside, but I didn’t have it long enough to learn the words to any of these songs and really get into them, but I would pick it up myself. Just picking that up and going home and listening to the best of Ella Fitzgerald it took its own turn at this point.’

It feels strange having to put music into a context like this, and I think certainly in many cases, music can exist on its own merits as it is. But when I discover music I really enjoy and connect to, it compels me to find more about the artist/persona behind the music. There’s uniqueness to the worldview of SZA’s music that can never be quantified by a specific collection of influences, and perhaps that is part of the thrill of creating these sorts of artist narratives – to fill in those gaps.     

Certainly, there is an amazing intuitive sense in terms of sampling and mood; on ‘THE ODYSSEY’, the track begins with an excerpt taken from an Eartha Kitt interview on love and compromise (fabulously sourced and transcribed here):

'A man comes into my life and you have to compromise? For what? For what? (pause, demanding) For what? A relationship is a relationship that has to be earned! Not to compromise for. (pause) And I love relationships I think they're fantastically wonderful I think they're great. I think there's nothing in the world more beautiful than falling in love. (pause)  But falling in love for the right reasons, falling in love for the right purpose. Falling in love. Falling in love! When you fall in love…what is there to compromise about?'

It works well in the context of SZA’s music which seems to exist in the duality of being both repulsed and suspiciously enchanted(?) by romantic love. ‘TERROR DOME’ again nails the sampling, which takes from Polanski’s disturbing psychological horror film, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) -

'ROSEMARY: I know that sounds crazy. You’re probably thinking, “My God, this poor girl has really flipped,” But I haven’t flipped Dr-Dr.Hill. I swear, By all the saints I haven’t. There are plots against people, aren’t there?
DR.HILL: Yes, I suppose there are.'

The introduction merges perfectly with the rest of the single’s tone and themes (‘Picture yourself in a padded room, welcome to my terror dome’) and is revisited again in KISMET (Outro) -

‘ROSEMARY: What time did I go to sleep?
HER HUSBAND: You didn't go to sleep. You passed out. From now on you get cocktails or wine, not cocktails and wine, huh?
ROSEMARY: The dreams I had.
HUSBAND: Don't yell. I already filed them down.
I didn't want to miss baby night.
- A couple of nails were ragged. - 
ROSEMARY: While I was out?
HUSBAND: It was fun, in a necrophile sort of way.
ROSEMARY: I dreamed someone was...raping me.
- I don't know, someone inhuman.’

There is a very specific kind of melancholy and darkness which pervades S, which was also present in last year’s See.SZA.Run but seems to have stepped up a nothc. I cannot wait to see where she goes for her follow-up EPs Z and A, and delve further into SZA's extraordinary world.      

Austra – Olympia

Much like its predecessor, 2011’s Feel it Break, this one is a bit of a grower in the sense that the songs have their way of slowly finding a path into your consciousness. On Feel it Break, obvious album highlights such as ‘Lose It’ and ‘Darken Her Horse’ gave way to mid-album gems like ‘The Choke’ and ‘Shoot the Water’ with repeated listens. On Olympia, the sound is a lot cleaner and polished, and in some ways it feels more like the effort of a band rather than an experiment of Katie + synths. The opening trio of ‘What We Done’, ‘Forgive Me’ and ‘Painful Like’ are exquisite synth-pop, and I may have listened to those tracks exclusively for a couple of months before the rest of the album opened up to me (which probably says more about listening habits then the album itself). The Lightman sisters seem to have a greater presence this time around (c.f. tracks like 'We Become'), having toured with the three-piece band, and overall Olympia adds to the sonic palette of Austra, without veering too far from the formula which made Feel it Break a great album. 

Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium

Such a delightful return to form for Indie-Folk band Okkervil River in their seventh album, The Silver Gymnasium. This time around, songwriter Will Sheff’s preoccupation is with his childhood memories from the town where he grew up - Meriden, New Hampshire.
One of the strengths of Okkervil River’s music is the relationship their songs form with the listener (or the listener forms with the songs?). It’s like Sheff writes them so, to be consumed, to be picked apart, to comfort; he is, above all, a storyteller. ‘Tell me I'm always gonna be your best friend / Now you said it one time, why don't you say it again? / All the way down the line to where the telephone ends / come on and shout it on down the wire’ he pleads on ‘Down Down the Deep River’, knowing that while pledges of being ‘friends forever’ may be full of sincerity when made in high school, the sentiment is hopeful idealism at best. Anyone who has lived past high school knows this keenly – the passage of making and losing friends in one’s lifetime, but in the context of leaving your hometown with a 300-odd population, such concerns become very real. I love the line ‘Tell me about the greatest show or the greatest movie you know / or the greatest song that you taped from off the radio’, because isn’t always music and movies that connect us so strongly in our formative years, where so much of teenaged identity is hinged on? And I love that friendship, not romantic love, forms the heart of The Silver Gymnasium.

Each track in the album is so strong – from the rollicking bar jam ‘Pink Slips’ and its devastating final verse, to the sparse build of ‘Lido Pier Suicide Car’, to the rousing ‘All the time, Every Day’ - the every-person’s anti-apathy anthem, with Sheff posing a series of rhetorical failings to the listener (‘Do you fall so short of all that's in your heart / when your friends, that you should pull up /you instead pick apart? / Do you watch the world get cold, and crushed, and small? / And when you could do so much, do you do fuck-all?’) with the emphatic answer, ‘All the time! Every day, every day. All the time, all the time, every day, every day’ before affirming with the final lyric switch, ‘Don't be ashamed; I'm the same. Yeah, I'm that way. But I try, every day and all the time.’ Will Sheff is here for you. He gets it.

Julia Holter – Loud City Song

Like Ektasis, this seems to be the kind of album which gets more immersive and rewarding with repeated listens. The whole of Loud City Song pans out like acts in a play, perhaps not surprising given that it was inspired by Colette's 1944 novella Gigi, and the 1958 musical film of the same name. Holter has a knack for bringing together abstractions of a theme and running with it, with the Parisian high society translating perfectly into Holter’s approximations of her hometown of L.A. The trifecta of ‘Horns Surrounding Me / In the Green Wild / Hello Stranger’ is an album highlight, with the immediacy of ‘Horns’, the playfulness of ‘In the Green Wild’ and the sublime Barbara Lewis cover in which Holter completely makes her own.
Check out her brilliant performance on KEXP –

Julianna Barwick – Nepethene

Probably my favourite album of the year. A place I have never been, but have always known.

Charli XCX – True Romance

I’ve spoken about this elsewhere, so all I will say here is that I’m really surprised with the longevity of this album and how many months of the year it has been stuck on repeat. Even listening to True Romance now, it feels fresh, despite the long life span of some tracks which have been floating around the internet for a while.

Overdue  - Circuit des Yeux

So deliciously dark. The drone and distortion of ‘Nova 88’ is reminiscent of Grouper, with haunting Zola Jesus-esque howls, but in many ways, the output from Haley Fohr stands alone with its own distinct identity.

You can stream Side A from bandcamp, and purchase the whole thing if you like for whatever amount you think it is worth, nominal or otherwise. Certainly after reading this wholly fabulous interview with Tiny Mix Tapes, I felt more than compelled to buy --

Also see:

Janelle Monáe - Electric Lady
The Drones – I See Seaweed
James Blake – Overgrown
Bill Callahan – Dream River
Diana - Perpetual Surrender
Swimming – Yes, Tonight
Pure Bathing Culture – Moon Tides
Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap
Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob
The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
Perera Elsewhere - Everlast
Jai Paul – Everlasting (Demos)
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
Phosphorescent – Muchacho
Beyoncé - BEYONCÉ

Favourite Mixes

Julia Holter for Dazed Digital, NTS Summer Season: “People Dreaming in Church”

Arca - &&&&&

September – GvB

February – GvB

After Dark 2 - Various (Johnny Jewel's Italian's Do it Better compilation)

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