Best Music of 2013
Perhaps the Warrior’s Dilemma is not that there is no war, but rather that there is only war. For after all (and after part) “He can certainly be loved, but not thought. He can be taken and held by love but not by thought.”
1. Justin Walter – Lullabies & Nightmares
Tribal and roughed out electronically filtered sounds from analog sources that devolve into ambient bliss and eventually get to the point: Walter’s yearning and thoughtful trumpet lines amplified and framed by a magical forest of blips, and drones, and squawks. Centered between cool and minimal Euro jazz and Chicago free form (Anthony Braxton?), this is original music, expanding the limits of what any of its source genres do. Warmth where there is expected frost; chill where there potential chaos. Beats that reemerge at precisely the right moment. Composed music for blurring the lines and finding a New Land. A compass.
2. Mark Koselek & Jimmy Lavalle – Perils from the Sea
Koselek continues to develop his treacly narratives of the mundane details and solipsistic confusion of the sensitive troubadour. In this next chapter of life in the Bay Area – melancholy and stoned – we hear stories of tools in the garage, lonely concert tours in Scandinavia, boxing on the TV, airplanes, cancer and fatal car accidents ,absent fathers, dogs scratched behind ear,Thanksgiving in Orange County and undocumented immigrants. As his songs, relentless couplets hitting the ears like waves on a breakwater, dissolve into cut-and-paste from his Outlook calendar, the winsome and raspy baritone begins to wear very thin. He is more whiner or confessional poet than folk singer by this point (the morbid fixations so inward looking). He aims for the recognizable commonplace to convey transcendence (the dirge, the minor chord, the shimmering image). It’s an acquired taste that suckers me in over and over again. His project may continue to slip into terminal self-service and fern-bar open-mike kindliness. But here the wheels are greased by the saving graces of Lavalle’s friendly electronics, which emphasize the sweet melodies and keep the confessions not so horribly egocentric. Lavelle’s contributions are the bell that saves, and helps this to be my favorite of the year. The last song’s lyrics document the wonder of all life’s perils of our dying-animal selves, recognized from an airplane drifting high above the East Bay floating into SFO, the sunlight on the bay and heart-sickness of feeling too much opening up the first wound. A mirror.
3. The National –Trouble Will Find Me
God, this is boring music. Melancholy, trenchant, whining, mature, depressive, insightful, posturing, gloriously boring alt-countryish paeans to the struggle of adult life. Continued reverb atmospherics (equal Cure and My Morning Jacket’s approximated space). Lyrics that are overworked to their simplicity, but how many on the list have any memorable lyrics at all? This has more 80’s beats than their last couple, and so most of these songs wind up being foot-tapping hook-laden fern bar micro-brew soundtracks. But somebody’s gotta do this music. Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down cry? Apparently not, but here in their waiting room of mid-life, it’s nice to have the comfort of at least the footnotes of heartbreak. A chilly bottle of Blind Tiger Ale and a restraining order.
4. Charles Lloyd and Jason Moran - Hagar’s Song
His timbre still fresh and warm 50 years later, this is the real deal. Showing that “the tradition” is best known when played by “the tradition.” And it’s not that Lloyd’s rich sax sounds just like he did in the 70’s, 80’s or the gazillion ECM products since, rather his tradition is that every solo is a thoughtful (no, “mindful”, because this is, at its base, a spiritual music) exploration of the moment and its possibilities now. In that sense it’s beatnik music- saluting all our becoming buddhanesses Daddy-0. I prefer Moran to chug along under Lloyd rather than strike out on his own – there is a cocktail lounge danger in his facile chording (especially with the familiar starting lines of covers). Something powerful and sweet about a man well in his 70’s phrasing “any day now.” Again, great art always savages the mystery of mortality, and make no mistake, this great art. Two fingers of Glenfiddich, no chaser.
The slight psychedelic instrumentation and arrangements, the somber and unremittingly humorless vocals, and the syncopation that chugs along no matter how morose Gonzalez sounds – all these support the curious outcome of music that is both facile-easy listening, catchy, poppy and genuinely intense. Sounding like no other band (as familiar as the tunes are, and the hooks and choruses immediately seem familiar, I am lost to their progenitors) the Swedes calmly worm their into your regard from the first nylon-string
6. Heirlooms of August – Down at the 5-Star
The Red House Painters/Sun Kil Moon bassist offers elegant string quartets and rich pedal steel and tear-stained countrified vocals singing sweetly of black tar heroin and guns and Darjeeling tea (the Koselek gift and disease). Sophisticated Americana for those living the hip life in Williamsburg… VA. (Although in truth this is more likely a house-concert, garden party in Atherton, than any place with real rednecks). A GPS.
7. Bill Frissell – Big Sur
Song cycles/tone poems/evocations of place are problematic and often highly subjective. But Frissel’s strength and limitation for me has always been the cheery lack of subjectivity. The point of view waffles in the plein air and floats with any current. But this music (some original, some covers, some surf-guitar rock out) does seem Ventana prone. Far from wind chimes and sitars, there is a timeless lassitude of the sun, trees, shadows and microclimates of the central coast. Ambling arrangements that take their jazzy time. A dash of intensity that breaks and recedes like tide. The languid fiddle, roomy drumming and other instrumentation connect Big Sur more to the west of Ireland than the native American west. A bundle of white sage.
8. Lars Danielson – Libretto
Gentle figures of vaguely middle eastern flavors from the Turkish pianist who plays over the solid jazz bass lyricism of Danielson. And the emptying Scandinavian cool jazz of Arve Hendrikson’s trumpet – clearing out space. A train schedule.
9. Jay Farrar – Honky Tonk
Curated Bakersfield-sound tribute album, with a classicism framing the swing and sway of the salt of the earth. The poetry of what’s not remembered. The steel guitar and fiddle waltzing up the Kern River. Time to drink up and go home, there’s church tomorrow and your ex-wife made you promise to hide the dope before the kids come to visit you and Suze. Wisdom and respect, and since it’s Farrar, not a touch of irony nor humor. Can’t make country music better than this. A union card.
10. How to Destroy Angels – Oblivion
This is many things in not the usual order. Electronic rumbles and drones, dance beats and hip-hoppy momentum. Sweet euro-girl melodies – week on Mikonos stuff. But the whole is much more engrossing than those parts. Yeah, yeah, Reznor and post-industrial blah blah blah. But the unfinished quality of most of the composition, and the dirty-clean sound, thrown at the wall to see what sticks, means he’s matured and the sonic disjointed modern experience can surprise, even for the more mature. A subscription to AARP.
11. My Bloody Valentine
Great hopes for the “great murkiness” to return in all is power, but this evaporated before that last song… and even in this nebbish product-placement, they made this and it still pulls at the raveling strings of my heart. A therapist’s business card.
12. Oenehontrix Point Never –R Plus Seven
So of his sonic trickster schtick seems a little old, and not in the “old” way he might want. 40% sounds like a Vangelis record that is skipping (not surprising that he’s gone to soundtracks). I liked Replica, but this reminds me I really didn’t like Vangelis. Yeah, there’s a lot of perky visuals here (remember all those odd eastern European cartoons that would win “best animated” Oscars?). A broom.
13. Giovanni Guidi Trio – City of Broken Dreams
Starkly beautiful jazz piano breaking rhythms while breaking melodies while breaking hearts. Deceptively listenable, because in his intentionally quiet and simple phrasing he’s pushing some limits, and unintentional elegance (think early Keith Jarrett), he (they – Morgan the bassist is now the ECM go-to session bassist, and is the perfect foil for music than is/and isn’t “in the tradition) make luminous the very idea of jazz. A flashlight.
14. Califone – Stitches
Another solid outing by the great band that is ignored by most. Americana/Freak folk that falls apart in fragments rather than is meta-made or deconstructed. Stitches indeed. And this is as fragmented as any they’ve made, even as all the production tricks (acoustic technology, and technology hollowed out in lo fi and homemade recording) sort of settle in their expected place now rather than rile up or instigate. Earnest and yearning rasp by Riuli that quite actually completes anything, but seems to imply it would preach if it could. A scrapbook from your dead uncle’s keepsakes.
15. Julia Holter – Loud City Song
The post-millennial Laurie Anderson fabricates nerdy ditties, with plenty of non-digital soundscapes strewn about the cool studio.
A continental drift of winsome and melancholy songs, filled to all corners of its “ambient” space with “voice” trending more to Claudine Longet or going further back, Sylvie Vartan, than the Cocteau Twins. No, not winsome, wistful. Tender music, with “putting you on hold” rhythms. Your love is very important to us. Break your heart at the sound of the tone.
17. Arcade Fire – Reflector
I know I supposed to hate this, pivoting to dance music a la Talking Heads and not having any other place to go, and building tension from more traditional pop strategies rather than “artist collective” drivenness. But you know Butler’s voice (and lovely vocal stylings) are a good meaure against David Byrne. And what the hell some of the songs have a bass line that is more Brother’s Johnson than club.
18. Surfer Blood
Music like this (airy, pop melodies, and few retro-indie guitar washes, simple drumming, oh oh oh choruses) isn’t very geisty for zeit. A fuzz tone here, and missed beat there… refreshingly lo-fi without an ironic attempt to be lo-fi. Happy soundtrack for a film that wouldn’t have a chance in hell of getting funding these days.
19. Darkside- Psychic
Music from an abandoned ghost ship, floating among fatal icebergs north of the arctic sea. Chamber music if those chambers are huge and cool. Washes of chilly electronic noise, humanized by static and acoustic instrumentation. The child of Pink Floyd and Eno, somewhere under the numbness of the top layers is a melodic intention to rock.
20. Forest Swords
Friendly and lazy music – dub, reggae, and club nuggets sprinkled through a new agey mélange of acoustically referenced treated sounds. Easy listening in a thoughtful way, too chillwave to survive on a massage table, too rhythmic and fragmented to meditate with, but a nice pathway to simi-asian occult commercialist head hanging. Euro glitch and ex-pat soul chorus. Hmm, a gong?
21. Julia Hulsmann Quartet In Full View
So the blue note, right? Jazz in the classic mode where a theme is introduced, and while there is improvisation and rhythmic interplay of drums, bass (remember this is “classic”) and a Hubbardesque horn and Hulsmann’s careful but insistent piano chording and tinkling, pushing things forward, the blue note defines. And then Miles introduced the blue empty space. All these Europeans aren’t really angry enough to move to post-bop, or electronic shredding, and instead mine the blue space with total confidence there is something still there. All the relentless ECM/Eicher releases map out that space – where heart and brain help each other disappear. This is classic without quotes. This is the sound of a gloriously stated nothingness – but the rain is on le boulevard. An umbrella.
Question Mark and the Mysterians covering Fairport Convention with a dash of Cocteau Twins. Rich and intentional droning with a minimalist Germanic detachment (and the woman vocalist sometimes sounds like Nico), and the choices of timbre are so farfisa-on-Jupiter that there is joke lurking in the cloudy pensive pop figures. Romantic and silly and slow. A cooking spoon.
23. Boards of Canada
Maybe their best. Opens with a movie credits fanfare, and the whole piece seems like samples of movie soundtrack atmospherics with washes of sound and train track pace. Although a dance and hip hoppy rhythm implied here and there, the synths and compositional shape seem very retro. Half the tracks sound like something off the great lost Tangerine Dream LP. A touch more laughter and this could be really cheese, but the spacious and gracious pulling back to buttress the (unseen) cinema achieves a beauty that is timeless in part because it sound old. A cup of ayahuasco.
24. Ketil Bjornstadt La Notte
While it’s a Eurojazz suite inspired by Michelangelo Anotonioni, its roots are in the stark and wide shots of his cinematic language, not any Mediterranean and political thinking of the director. Languid and long melodic lines (even in the loping propulsion of Arnildsen’s powerful bassand Andy Sheppard’s anxious hunger-mongering sax) patiently building with arctic circle melancholy. Jazz from the continent and its above that doesn’t work the blue note cool, rather the western composition tradition. A cup of hot chocolate, slightly bitter.
25. For Now I am Winter Olafur Arnalds
In the neo-classical ambient school of Johann Johannsson and Max Richter, but there is something, not darker, but more regretful and mysterious in Arnalds’ very somber compositions. Although not as piercingly odd as his beautiful 2010 And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness, there is a maturity, even a gravity that makes this seem more serious than the “soundtrack” affect that most of this genre has. The guest vocals give it a song-cycle shape, with the theme, after a couple listens, seared into the consciousness. And while there is a wintry quality, this is to Bon Iver what Mahler is to a Muzak. This should be first on my list; I listened to it twice as much as anything else this year. I listened not because I heard something new each time, but rather I heard precisely the same thing each time. A solid rooting into a not-unpleasant detached and polite melancholy. Like clockwork. A smooth pebble from the shore near Reykjavik.
26. The Haxan Cloak - Excavation
Not all drones are equal. You’ve got your fog-drone, your industro-drone, your South Asian-drone, your New Age drone, your death metal drone, and your acid-trip-on-Stinson-Beach drone, to name just a few. Haxan Cloak have all of these in small doses, but for the most part sound like a mothership from the Empire (Asimov, not Lucas) coming into frame. All heavily seasoned by ghost fragments of the tortured or the emptied souls wandering for eternity in deep space. Yet somehow the sum of these parts is astonishingly serene music, making “ominous” a color of salvation. I resist the notion that this is headphones at skunk hour music – a comfortable buzzing drone with mechanistic and ritualistic setting, is good for driving, yoga, house cleaning or prayer. Less exhumation, and if not more exaltation, enough exhalation for the day. A flashlight.
27. Surfer Blood – Pythons
Simple and quaint alt-rock (college stations would play this in 1992) that makes a range of influences work. Periodic neo-punk screaming, sweet pop vocals, chunks of power chords, and lo-fi jangle. A touch of reverb, and muddy-by-intention mixes. All kinda reminding of the throwaway grandeur of the Pixies. A lighter.
28. San Fermin – San Fermin
The clever ivy-league burnished compositional art-pop notwithstanding (the connections to Sufjan Stevens are manifold), there is an urgency in these grooves. A baritone sax with Morphine-like grit, a string ensemble forcing the issue, the male vocals like Nick Cave and the female vocals like Sylvie Vartan and the ye-ye chorus. A wide horizon of soundscapes – serious music for the impatient and doubtful. A copy of the New Yorker.
29. James Plotkin and Paal Nilssenn-Love –Death Rattle
Although called “free jazz”, through my other-wised trained ears this sounds like acoustic, real time production of what a lot of processed, drone, (insert genre here) electronic music is. Angry by turns, then cerebral, then atavistic, then simply making a glorious noise to some God that no longer is there. The scandanavian drummer Elvin Jonesing in a real room, while Plotkin’s guitar rumbles and screeches with Jimmy Page timbre circumnavigating a leftover darkness. A pipe.
30. Kuniko – Cantus
A windchime a block away suddenly develops a melody and rhythm that roughly sounds like it’s Steve Reich – or Arvo Paart – minimalist and tubular, bittersweet and thoughtful. Japanese virtuoso makes the marimba sound like Aeolian harp catching the late 20th century’s westwind. Though more outside summer concert than Shelley’s revolution. A bookmark.
31. The Dowland Project /John Potter – Night Sessions
Pensive, challenging and hypnotic hybrid. Medieval fragments and full compositions washed in a jazz idiom of rubato and an occasional blue note. I would imagine that the musicians of the 13th century weren’t that studious and would have been intrigued by a tenor sax syncopating the chants. Potter’s careful tenor holds the many parts together – it never feels cluttered or forced, rather like open stone spaces, in whatever century. Turns out the shared space of medieval and jazz sounds middle eastern. A twig of burning juniper.
32. Friedman & Liebezeit – Secret Rhythms 5
The drummer from Can (still alive) chases the dragon through a hippie drum circle jamming in an austere laboratory in Cologne. Lots of metal and clang, cowbell and old school synth, and an occasional jazz guitar. Funny, if Can were still together, I guess this is what they would sound like. Each cut is short yet has the feel of an hour-long jam, improvisational and cold-sweaty. A tab of purple ohm.
33. Dean Blunt – The Redeemer
Odd music – heavily orchestrated (lush strings), alternative pop, found soundscapes, with an urgent narcotized R&B folkrock vocal singing lyrics of angst, poison, and hope. Artrock song psychos. Pretentious in all five senses, and although pretention scores well with me, this is far less than the sum of its parts. A rosary with a cooking spoon.
34. Autechre –Exai
The great blip, buzz, clip and clack continues – electronics from another star system (and let the volume cause the base tones to wedge nails out of boards and hair follicles to rejuvenate). Two CDs of interstellar church music – with perhaps a bit more of a solemn cadence than their previous 10 releases. I think this is better than most of the previous, but it also matters not at all. Rumbling off in the global climate change sunset. A pea shooter.
35. Heirlooms of August – Down at the 5-star
If there is a genre trad-country, new-age, drug music… this is it. Lovely pedal steel guitar figures backing ephemeral, tentative vocals (duets), seemingly wistful for a simple past, but whose melancholy opens up in the yawning great Darkness at the base of common-peoples lives. Maybe that as always the thread in country music… maybe it’s just some weird hybrid of modern displacement. Whatever, dude, the beauty of this music chills and astonishes and gets blown away quickly. A yearbook with forgotten inscriptions on the photos of kids, some now dead.
36. French Films – White Orchid
37. Life Coach – Alpha Waves
38. John – Wizards
39. Atoms for Peace - AMOK
40. Volcano Choir – Repave
41. Konstellaatio – Konstellaatio
42. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away
43. Washed Out – Paracosm
44. Dirty Beaches – Drifters
45. Yo La Tengo – Fade
46. The Field – Cupid’s Head
47. Deathaven – Sunbather
48. Aidan Baker – BBS
49. Bibio – Silver/Wilkenson
50. Phoenix – Bankrupt