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best of pop, 2013!

March 18th, 2014 by slewfoot

Well, this blog is not QUITE dead yet!

All year I listen, ravenously, to pop music with a little daemon in my head that sometimes says, “listen closer, this could make your best of the year list.” And so it is a shame to have the little mental beast monitoring my ear so tirelessly only to be ignored—but 2014 was born and life rushed by, and new albums are inspiring even more mental chatter. So I better get this out before it’s drowned by the Dum Dum Girl’s latest delicious disc. Better late than not at all, too, right? Actually, I wrote this weeks ago and forgot to post!

Since the aughts there hasn’t been a bad year for popular music, and this is primarily because the Internet has proliferated self-publishing and distribution. 2013 was so full of treats it’s difficult to limit myself to a top ten to devour (there are so many honorable mentions, and the more I think about my list the more I debate what to add and subtract). One way to winnow is to exclude popular acts with major label support and suggest bands that I suspect some folks may have not yet heard of, which means I will pass over reviews of Miley Cyrus’ +Bangers+—the brilliant marketing of which no one could escape—a good, slickly produced and solid pop album, and Nine Inch Nail’s +Hesitation Marks+, with Reznor returning to a more layered and nuanced 90s sound (I love the album, although Reznor’s lyrical prowess has yet to graduate from high school). Here are ten albums that you might consider, if your tastes run my way (I’m a kid of the 80s), in alphabetical order:

1. Darkside: +Psychic+: Long, hypnotic, addictive, Darkside create a “minimalist” groove with mumbled falsetto lyrics that meld psychedelia and . . . well, Sébastien Tellier. What I absolutely adore about this album is that each song is as long as it needs to be—the band is not in a hurry. From the brilliant, eleven-minute opener “Golden Arrow” that takes you long into the night of contemplative groove only to dump you into two minutes of keyboard doodling, to the insistent patient synth flares of the spaced out “Metatron,” +Psychic+ is the late night album of the year.


2. The Eden House: +Half Life+: Something of a super-group of goth-rock and darkwave legends—they’re anchored by the unmistakable bass work of Tony Pettitt (of the Fields of the Nephilim)—The Eden House’s second full-length is a masterful blend of Monica Richard’s-style vocals and epic guitar riffs. It’s goth gone adult-contemporary, in a sense (we’re all middle-aged now, after all), but a delightful listen nonetheless with crisp production. The album sustains a good, often hypnotic mood from one side to the other. I could do without the spoken lyrics on a few tracks; I’m just happy this kind of music is not relegated to the cut-out bins at CD and record shops that are, increasingly, also getting cut.


3. Go Fight: +Music for Military Torture+: The title of the newest album to showcase the remarkable talents of Jim Marcus is apparently an oblique reference to fellow electronic pioneers Skinny Puppy, who demanded $666,000 in royalties from the U.S. government after learning their music was used in a detention center. The title captures the lyrical focus of the album, which is a left-leaning series of rants against hatred, homophobia, organized religion, and corporate greed as well as a celebration of human sexuality. The sensibility is less “heavy” fare than the club-favored Die Warzau (now de-funked), more electro or “EBM” and very danceable. This is fun industrial music, sometimes with sing-a-long choruses that may initially seem crude; a study of the lyrics reveals, however, the refrain “eff like a movie star” is not really an imperative Marcus means, but a critique of the “erectile dysfunction” industry. The creative programming of each track demands multiple listens (it’s great music to dance to, but it lends itself very nicely to earphones while working out). The track that seems to divide fans is “White Guys,” a hilarious (and catchy) read of those guys at the club we all make fun of . . . .

Video (not on the album, but a good cause):

4. I Break Horses: +Chiaroscuro+: I’m not sure what we call the genre of electronic based music that draws a line from The Knife through to Lorde, but Sweden’s Maria Lindén and Fredrik Balck’s debut is more richly textured than the lot. From the backward, choral flourishes that punctuate the complex rhythms of “Faith” to the soaring, treated vocals of the closer, “Heart to Know,” the jam-packed layers of each track demand earphones. This is richly rewarding, touching electronic music that makes me smile inside. It’s just so damn clever (and pretty).


4. LowCityRain: +self-titled+: Known more for his post-metal work, Markus Siegenhort’s “solo” project is a moody, riff-ready, jangly slab of baritone vocals and shoe-gaze soaring with tightly, woven bass-lines so popular in the late 80s era. The stand out track here is “Grey View,” which touches on a Red Lorry, Yellow Lorry sensibility as the credits role to some tragic John Hughes teen angst. Siegenhort doesn’t quite know how to end a song with anything other than a “fade to silence,” but every track is as delicious as they are too short.


5. Connan Mockasin: +Caramel+: If Prince and Ween made a baby while dropping acid and taking shots of cough syrup in between bong hits . . . I’d not really want to see or hear that baby. But I bet they’d be playing this new Mockasin album on vinyl. This is the strangest album I’ve heard in many years, a kind of smarmy groove with guitars played underwater and vocals treated to sound like nude chipmunks trying to seduce smurfs. I know that’s not a ringing endorsement, but really, it’s so very weird that is should not work at all. But it does. You can listen to this on a Sunday afternoon while reading the paper. THIS is why the album is amazing. Test out “Do I Make You Feel Shy?” on iTunes or something, you’ll hear what I mean (this is, by the way, the least bizarre track).


6. Night Sins: +To London or the Lake+: It’s Philadelphia synth-and-guitar goth music. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else, and these guys do it very, very well. Brooding bass lines, baritone harmonies, soaring guitar riffs, a driving beat. Sisters fans, this is your contemporary fix on an old idiom done well.


7. Agnes Obel: +Aventine+: While Obel is widely known and celebrated in her home country of Denmark, few stateside will have had the fortune to hear her sweet, dark, piano-anchored compositions. Her voice is soft and expressive, and while her range is impressive its her restraint that deserves celebrating here: while the U.S. is dominated by screams or flights of impassioned grandiloquence, Obel croons, she woos. And her moods smell like a Danish forest in the snow. It’s dark, but not “goth”—more like, well, winter. Beautiful and strange.


8. Rhye: +Woman+: So, this is a very soft, sweet, sensual album that brings to mind, immediately, Sade. It’s not so adult contemporary as all that, and certainly has much more of a hipster vibe without the overproduced lushness of Sade. But goddamn, it’s a pretty amazing instance of a man who sounds like a woman; his voice is gentle, plaintive, and false in all the good ways. It’s a soulful, relaxing album. If Darkside made the late night album of the year, Rhye made the one to put on for some sexy time.

9. Weekend: +Jinx+: A lo-fi shoegaze outfit from the San Fran, Weedend’s debut album was so fuzzed out it was hard to hear the brilliant chord changes. Their follow-up peels back the reverb and gives Shaun Durkan’s sweet voice more of a melodic role (very much in the tradition of Brit-gaze delivery). Fans the Horrors or of earlier Charlatans will find these arrangements familiar, but it’s done so very well (and better, frankly). A beautiful, driving album—both because of the pounding drum work and because of the way this album yearns its way into your car stereo.

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