Published on December 18th, 2013 | by Dave Scaddan0
The Feedback Society’s Top 20 Albums of 2013
As Realized by Dave Scaddan
My annual Top Albums List began as a series of shopping lists of sorts, about ten years ago, when vinyl availability (my preferred format) started to enjoy a surge that hasn’t slacked off since. I would use online sources to listen to bands I’d heard about until there just wasn’t enough time in a week to properly indulge in all the music I wanted to hear. Quality was abandoned in the name of quantity and I wasn’t buying as much music as I used to. I was an unprofessional appreciator of music, consuming it in too much of a frenzy to be satisfied, not buying many CDs, but still nursing a tremendous appetite for my next favourite band. I had to be stopped.
So I started making ‘Best of the Year’ album lists each summer, moving, adding, and removing items throughout the winter until I arrived at about 20 by mid-December. At that point, I’d say, “if this is one of my 20 favourite albums of the year, I should own it in my favourite physical format,” like some spoiled rotten hipster handing down my patronage. Then I’d buy a lot of records, all at once, and over time, I’d place them all on the turntable lovingly, and appreciate them more, for reasons that can be explained sonically or otherwise. I almost never regretted any of these purchases, because I’d loved these albums so much before buying them, and a few of each year’s 20 would be inevitably hard to find, adding a challenge to my obsessive shopping list completionism.
I started sharing the lists with friends and asking them for theirs. When I did so, I’d write a casual little blurb under each title so as to pique interest and guide choices (I was never so vain as to expect that anyone would ever exhaustively investigate all 20) and over the years the blurbs got bigger as I struggled to contain my excitement about sharing musical tips and suggestions. Now the list is like a critic/writer’s self-dared challenge, and seems fit for public consumption except for how pompous it is — who am I to tell you what albums to listen to, or to assume you care about what calendar year they fit into according to release date? Why would I assume that anyone would want to see my shopping list?
The answer is that good music is a gift and our tastes are all that stop us from giving and receiving it. It’s pretty likely that you’ll see some music on this list that you’ve loved also, and if you do, and if you also see some stuff here you’ve never heard of, (and my wordy blurb piques your interest) then some of those unknowns are probably worth checking out, because we likely share some of the same appetites. Post replies with your own lists if you please, and the giving needn’t ever end, at least until next year’s lists become actualized. I hope that here you’ll find some stuff you like enough to spin in your own space.
#20 The Flaming Lips – The Terror
Lips fans have so many albums now to banter over, considering, “which is best?” and “which is worst?” There are certainly more people calling ‘The Terror’ their worst, but it sounds to me like the album they needed to make this year. As on ‘Embryonic,’ which I felt was their best release in a long time, there is nothing approaching a mainstream (even for them) vibe here. The music suggests that this may be their ‘Ummagumma,’ where their attempts to take turns supporting each others’ ideas turn into attempts to out-weird each other. And still, they manage to make an album that sounds unmistakably like The Flaming Lips without rehashing any phase of their thick back catalogue. ‘The Terror’ starts with plenty of sunny, scraping jams and lots of high pitched, light-as-air vocals, but by the finish, the listener has been let in on a much darker, more ‘down’ album than we’re used to hearing from the creators of ‘Do You Realize?’ To last as long as they have, you have to keep expanding in different directions, and really, who does that better than the fearless freaks?
#19 Death Grips – Government Plates
This mostly makes the list for the sheer punch-to-the-face effect of the leadoff track, titled, ‘You might think he loves you for your money but I know what he really loves you for it’s your brand new leopard skin pillbox hat.’ This track combines flourished metal drumming with brash, distorted bass blasts and the kind of hip-hop yelling we used to hear in the angriest of Geto Boys songs, except this is way less sane. This track never lets the listener get settled — forcing tempo shifts and unintelligible lines of lyric into a framework that’s not really hip-hop, metal, industrial, or house. It just bangs heads apart. The rest of the album is good also.
#18 The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
After recording one of the most forward-looking and influential albums of last decade, The Knife waited a very long time before releasing this, their longest, strangest, most complicated, most political album. There is definitely not the same instant hit of genius here that there was on ‘Silent Shout,’ but despite the time between these albums, they don’t sound entirely dissimilar. The Knife are still the most distinct, defined, courageous electronic musical outfit going.
#17 Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats – Mind Control
This album stays in the same heavy groove that was established two years ago with this band’s limited-to-only-100-copies (at first) album, ‘Bloodlust.’ This is not the doom metal of this millennium, this is the doom metal of demons and witches, fires and spells. It wasn’t until I heard this album that I realized why the vocals sounded so familiar on the previous album. This time it hit me — this dude sounds like John Lennon. Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats are Blue Cheer with John on vocals, but he’s not sitting on a cornflake, he’s holding a poisoned Frankenberry between his teeth and crunching down on it like a communion wafer.
#16 shxcxchcxsh – STRGTHS
Don’t ask. Just listen. This is Swedish techno with a distinct sound that’s stuck somewhere between party and chill, or somewhere between rave and Reznor.
#15 The Good Family – The Good Family Album
The stylistic outcast on this list, this album is a golden nugget in the mighty riverbed of traditional Canadian country music. Dallas and Travis Good of The Sadies bring together a tributary of bloodlines that reach way, way back. There is a banjo on this record that sounds like it’s just straight-up soloing through almost the whole album without ever breaking tone, melody, or tempo. And speaking of tempo, if you like your traditional country family jam breakdowns at 140+ BPM so that your boot heels hit the porch at a rate that melts your plastic knee, ‘The Good Family Album’ will melt said knee.
#14 7 Days of Funk – 7 days of funk
No album featuring Snoop would ever have made one of these lists (for me) at any point in the past, so how weird is it that it should now happen for the first time in 2013? This is commensurate (in my world) to Bret Michaels putting out an album I really like. I don’t care enough about him to dislike him, and his music has always seemed silly to me. Now calling himself Snoopzilla, he is paired here with Dam-Funk featuring guest spots from Bootsy Collins. Dam-Funk does some of his most fun, most funky work yet on this album, letting his fingers hit his wonky keys like molasses sliding off a pork chop into the peas. This is the album that Snoop was born to make, really. His repetitions of hook-lines are still cheese, but paired with such fine wine, they hit the palette in a way that’s just — finally — right.
#13 Shooting Guns – Brotherhood of the Ram
There’s a little more of a seventies-spacey vibe here than on ‘Born To Deal In Magic,’ yet no heaviness is sacrificed. I think this statement needs no other proof than their equipment’s failure to sustain the assault of their album launch show. This band’s component parts compliment each other like no other band on this list except for The Good Family, and while The Good Family are related by blood, Shooting Guns are related by a different kind of brotherhood — The Brotherhood of the Ram. Whether like a steam engine or a thirsty headbanger, this album chugs.
#12 Pond – Hobo Rocket
Fellow Australians Cut Copy should’ve looked to their countrymen in Tame Impala this year for a lesson in how to add a (not so) New Age, ‘trippy’ vibe to their music. Don’t flush your whole band down a Madchester rave toilet, just nurture a side project that lets your hippie style run loose a little. Pond (who share three members with Tame Impala) keep things very loose on ‘Hobo Rocket,’ letting a variety of decades-old styles infiltrate like a sludgier version of Foxygen. Apart from the almost-unlistenable title track, this is a really fun, free, loud album that’s loaded with classic rock influence and not much pretension.
#11 Candy Claws – Ceres and Calypso in the Deep Time
Candy Claws are an impossible-to-categorize outfit playing totally non-traditional music with mostly traditional instruments. This album sounds more like a collection of songs than their fantastic 2010 album, ‘Hidden Lands,’ but the dreamy, found-sound menagerie is still whistling on the breeze. ‘Ceres and Calypso’ is old-timey in the sense that seven band members are going at it at once, and accordions and strings (I think) can be heard now and again; but it’s new-timey in its production, with reverb galore, washed-out mixing, and vaseline vocals.
#10 California X
I read a review of this before hearing it that promised J Mascis guitar and Japandroids vocal energy. That promise was not reneged by anything I later heard on this, the second-best true debut album of 2013. California X play guitar rock that makes you wish your speakers were bigger, and makes your speakers wish you’d never heard of California X.
#9 Kavinsky – Outrun
If you’ve never heard this guy, he’s a French artist who has made a career of flawlessly recreating the kinds of electronic jams that used to score hip TV shows in the mid-to-late eighties. Remember, you could buy the soundtracks to major network TV shows in the eighties. ‘Nightcall,’ one of the best tracks on offer here was used in the seven-coats-of-the-gloss-slick title sequence of the movie Drive, and that’s exactly the kind of thing Kavinsky does well — he scores the experience of being in a car that’s going way too fast, or sitting still at a light in one that looks way too cool. ‘Outrun’ has all the right French disco production tags as well, with a single produced by Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of Daft Punk, and one produced by SebastiAn as well. It doesn’t really matter if some of these tracks are from singles that are three years old, they’re all almost thirty years old, right at home in the neons and pastels of the mid-eighties. The detraction from the slickness caused by some of the vocal tracks only remind the listener of how great the vast number of instrumentals are. P.S. Drive Safely.
#8 Forest Swords – Engravings
If I were to say that Forest Swords is the combination of instrumental hip-hop with traditional Asian instrumentation, you might think, RZA, but even though that description fits them both, they don’t really sound that similar. ‘Engravings’ would probably make an interesting re-score source for Ghost Dog, and the moods of the two producers’ music might have some things in common, but this album is stylistically more along the lines of something like Burial or Tim Hecker, perhaps even Peter Gabriel in his work on ‘Passion.’ Scraping noises, tribal drums, and jazzy hi-hats are used to percuss while airy synths mellow out the sound. This is a welcome follow-up to ‘Dagger Paths’ from 2010 — both albums give the impression of foggy walks through darkened groves, alone.
#7 Foxygen – We are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic
Sadly, recent reports suggest that this duo’s future together may be on shaky ground, but much like a few other duos I’ve been fond of, (The White Stripes, Fiery Furnaces, Death From Above 1979, Japandroids, Ween, Crocodiles) one always has to ask, how long can these two keep moving forward as a pairing without either imploding or needing a larger band to keep innovating and performing? ‘21st Century Ambassadors,’ while only their first full-length, may already be the high-water mark for what two musicians (playing a bevy of varied instruments) can do with a mish-mash/homage to so many styles. This album walks the line of identity theft more deftly than anything that doesn’t require sampling to recall the sounds of the past. So many monsters of rock music are imitated (perhaps even parodied?) here that one barely has time to think, this sounds like The Velvet Underground, no wait, it’s like Bowie, no wait, it’s like Elvis, no wait, it’s like Zeppelin. The results are so energized and catchy that in a world where the word ‘theft’ is as subjective as the word ‘art,’ who cares as long as we can dance around the bedroom to it?
#6 Man Man – On Oni Pond
You can read my now-three-months-old review of this here and note how this album is defined by the conscious attempt to put frontman Honus Honus into the spotlight more. He’s a great singer/songwriter with a uniquely styled band behind him, one that has often leaned on insanity more than skill to produce their sound (though they possess ample quantities of both). This record has really grown on me, and let’s face it, if you have to choose between zany and serious, it doesn’t mean you’re problematically conflicted, it might just mean that you’re not boring.
#5 Youth Lagoon – Wondrous Bughouse
Sophomore jinxes be damned — this album, and the next one on this list, are brilliant examples of how it’s possible to produce a stylistically unique offering on a debut album, and then improve on that sound without making album two a retread of the first. Trevor Powers beautifully captured the anxious and broken-hearted psyche of the millennial generation on ‘The Year of Hibernation’ in 2011, and ‘Wondrous Bughouse’ finds him pushing that fragility into more brash and confident songs. The soft, wavering talking-to-himself energy is still present, nothing one might have loved before is gone, but there’s a more ambitious production reach this time, with so many sounds twinkling and swooshing through the album that it probably can’t be appreciated properly without headphones. This seems appropriate anyway, since a listening device that lends itself to isolation, reflection, and introspection won’t ever be at odds with Powers’ work.
#4 Yamantaka // Sonic Titan – Uzu
Again, a band that doesn’t need to innovate further to stand out does anyway because they can. This is my blown-away-after-two-and-a-half-listens review from October, and it speaks the truth — this is a group that needs more attention than it has and gets more attention than it needs. Yamantaka // Sonic Titan are ‘artists’ in the sense that they don’t need an audience in front of them to make amazing music, but should they appear in front of one, whether on a stage or a screen, they’ll put on a live show you’ll never forget. You try blending oriental opera, First Nations tribal music, and prog-rock together into a palatable recipe — if you can, then you should move to Toronto and convince this band to take you on as an understudy.
#3 Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels
Here’s another duo I hope never splits. El-P and Killer Mike each have more hip-hop cred than just about anyone still recording music in this genre that’s been all-but-lost to marketing and braggadocio. The very nature of most rap music in 2013 is such that if you aren’t a vainglorious wanna-be mogul or a conglomerate of perpetually reinforced stereotypes, you aren’t breaking through to the mainstream. Third-millennium above-ground hip-hop is about as genuine as WWE wrestling, and easily as transparent. The model for both is simple: convey an unachievable image/lifestyle wrought with objectification and materialism and lord that extravagance over admirers who can never become you, because not even you are. Killer Mike said as much last year on ‘Reagan’ from his R.A.P. Music album, produced by El-P, tearing down the poisonous framework of hip-hop idolatry and comparing it to the corruption of conservative eighties governments. A lyrical sample: “We are advertisements for agony and pain / we exploit the youth, we tell them to join a gang / we tell them dope stories, introduce them to the game / just like Oliver North introduced us to cocaine / in the 80s when them bricks came on military planes.” Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the sound of spoken truths, of whistle-blowing, of shouting down while others can only shout out.
So what do you do for an encore after ripping down the entire framework of a poisoned musical genre that was once the ultimate vehicle for freedom of expression and social rebellion? You run the jewels. You forge a moniker for a duo that was already gathering steam on ‘R.A.P. Music’ and ‘Cancer 4 Cure,’ (El-P’s last solo release, where Mike was also featured) and you create a new hip-hop, one that’s honest, pushy, profane, manic, where the lyrics and beats come at the listener like rounds from a machine gun, and where every boast is justified in the moment it is delivered. This record sounds like hope to me, not just the hope that hip-hop can still be an accusatory, intelligent, socially-aware, self-powered artistic vehicle, but also the hope that there will be more, at least from this pairing. On ‘Banana Clippers’, Mike spits, “Producer gave me a beat / said it’s the beat of the year / I said El-P didn’t do it / so get the fuck outta here.” So perhaps there’s a loyalty being forged here that promises more. Run the Jewels. Run the tools. Run, fools. (Craig Silliphant’s full review).
#2 Crocodiles – Crimes of Passion
This was my first review for The Feedback Society when I was still trying to figure out how to separate this band’s sound from the sounds of bands that they and I both obviously adore. The sonic links to The Jesus and Mary Chain, OMD, and Echo and the Bunnymen are still around, but not as prominent as on Crocodiles first two albums, and not as lost as they were in the expanse of their third. Much like the albums on either side of ‘Crimes of Passion’ on this list, the newest Crocodiles offering looks back and forward at the same time, finding the crux of the tug-of-war between tradition and rebellion.
#1 Savages – Silence Yourself
Shut up. Put your phone down. Turn your eyes away from the blackly mirrored screens that preoccupy your every waking moment and actually wake up to the moments and the sounds that are there for you to experience in the present. This is the stern reminder that Savages offer in their biting, ever-present post-punk ensemble. ‘Silence Yourself’ is as a bold a debut as we’re likely to hear, and hopefully this London-based four-piece will regale us with its energy again very soon. Watching this band perform four of these songs on Seattle radio station KEXP’s live stage will give you a solid idea of what they have to offer.
Jehnny Beth should not be compared to the late-seventies/early eighties Siouxie Sioux as much as she is, because Jehnny is a much better singer (sorry, Siouxie — I still love you). Instead, I’d liken her to someone like Patti Smith or even Bjork — singers who belie their physical statures with powerful, piercing, emotionally charged vocals. Every vocal syllable on ‘Silence Yourself’ is loaded with feeling and oomph, and the lyrical content is rich and thought-provoking, often conveying messages that our societies badly need.
Jemma Thompson’s guitar is what really brings the work of bands like Bauhaus, Joy Division, U2 (the early stuff), and Siouxie and the Banshees to mind — she reminds us what a cool instrument the electric guitar can be in the hands of someone who uses it to compliment her band and not herself. She picks out melodies, she scrapes out effects, she shakes the neck and lets the pickups read her howling leftovers, making it all look and sound effortless.
Ayse Hassan’s bass seems just as effortless when you watch her play, but just turn up the lows on any Savages song, live or in the studio, and you will hear low-lines that are, by turns, melodic, discordant, thumping, tumbling, and precise. Hassan makes everything on this record work — she is right there with drummer Fay Milton in every shifting phase of rhythm and power. Songs that could easily plod along just fine with bass that simply accents the guitar, instead find their footing in baselines that are like entire songs of their own, layered perfectly overtop (or underneath) the leads, until they must be heard as leads themselves.
Fay Milton just pounds. It’s the drumming (and sometimes the percussive quality of Jehnny’s shrieks) that provides most of Savages force, anger, and energy. Watching her hold this striking young band together from behind the kit reminds the viewer (and the listener) of what was lost when drum machines began to power so many of the British groups that sprung from the dregs of punk. They lost their rage, their visceral punch, their heart. Savages have defibrillated that heart, and it beats again with its natural rhythm.