2013: 20-11

Haxan Cloak, The - Excavation20.  The Haxan Cloak – Excavation

Tri Angle

The Haxan Cloak is a tough nut to crack.  Producer Bobby Krlic’s sound is downright frightening, and, whereas most producers have a knack for getting people to dance, Excavation might be the only record to for a morgue/club.  The record could be dismissed as a horror movie soundtrack, but the production is too rich and layered; however, like a great horror movie there are some cheap thrills (think the jarring beginning to “Miste”), but, figuratively, Krlic’s production touch advances beyond the realm of slasher to psychological thriller.  Exhumation may have been a better name for the album as the tracks seem to gradually unearth themselves like unsettled souls and Excavation is as much a dream as it is a nightmare. – SHH

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Forest Swords - Engravings 19.  Forest Swords – Engravings

Tri Angle

Coincidentally, The Haxan Cloak’s Tri Angle lablemate, Forest Swords (producer Matthew Barnes), ranks one position ahead on this countdown.  Like Krlic, Barnes is also a dark ambient producer, though his work is more unsettling than nightmarish.  Barnes was forced to take his time after his well-regarded 2011 EP, Dagger Paths, due to a bout of tinnitus, but fortunately the slow and steady approach resulted in a superior product.

Engravings builds upon his earlier work; he once again shows a hip-hop influence in the way he structures his beats, but the tracks are more complex and have an almost world music feel with fractured vocal samples akin to Brian Eno & David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.  The core of Engravings (“Onward” through “Gathering”) could have been an altnernate, instrumental direction for Joy Division after the loss of Ian Curtis (nothing against New Order), and the outtro, “Friend, You Will Never Learn,” ties everything up neatly, playing like a montage of the rest of the album.  Engravings is a big bang and so let’s hope that Barnes’ tinnitus doesn’t keep up waiting another three years. – SHH

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San Fermin - San Fermin 18.  San Fermin – San Fermin

Downtown

San Fermin is the creation of Yale grad and Brooklyn resident Ellis Ludwig-Leone, a classically trained musician who thought it interesting to infuse his classical tunes with a twist of pop.  The resulting album is a 17-track compilation, employing 22 different musicians, with songs ranging from pop gems to beautiful horn and string interludes which lace the entire composition together.  Many of the standout tracks, including the insanely awesome “Sonsick” (I challenge anyone to listen to this song just once), are sung by Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius.  The album is a full and completely satisfying listen, a dazzling arrangement of classic instrumentation and extraordinary melodies.  It’s one of the most ambitious records of the year and baroque pop at its finest. – KDD

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Disclosure - Settle 17.  Disclosure – Settle

Cherrytree Records / Interscope

Brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence are one of the innumerable electronic acts to take advantage of the Age of the Internet.  In an industry where exposure is everything, all you need is a MySpace single to launch or a SoundCloud song of the day; the Surrey, England twosome benefited from the former.  Before long the brothers’ production skill had grown exponentially and they had a trio of singles that made a minor explosion (“spontaneous combustion I think is what they call it!”) across the pond and laid the foundation for Settle.  The album isn’t without a dud or two (think Daft Punk with training wheels “Grab Her!”), but as the opening “Intro”/“When a Fire Starts to Burn” forecasts, Settle contains some of the most incendiary dance tracks of the year and my most-played track of 2013, the incredible swan song, “Help Me Lose My Mind,” featuring London Grammar’s Hannah Reid, which does take a few listens to settle but stays with you once it does. – SHH

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Deerhunter - Monomania 16.  Deerhunter – Monomania

4AD

Deerhunter gained a load of recognition with the release of 2010’s Halcyon Digest, when yours truly picked up on them completely ignorant to their earlier work.  In comparison Monomania seems awfully raw in its minimalism.  I was more familiar with the solo projects of singer Bradford Cox and lead guitarist Lockett Pundt in Atlas Sound and Lotus Plaza respectively.

Whereas Halcyon Digest was a bipolar homogenization of the pared-down, lo-fi Cox rock and the dreamy, melodic tendencies of Pundt, Monomania is entirely polarized.  Pundt is only credited for one song: “The Missing.”  The remaining 11 tracks are attributed to Cox.  According to Wikipedia, monomania is defined as “a single pathological preoccupation in an otherwise sound mind.”  I can’t speak to the soundness of Cox’s mind, but he is certainly preoccupied with abandonment and the idea of being by oneself.  Nearly every one of his songs surround a protagonist that is in some way alone, be it by unrequited love, a suicidal brother or poverty and homelessness.  That being said, Monomania does contain some of Cox’s poppiest sounding material to date. – SHH

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Janelle Monae - The Electric Lady 15.  Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady

Bad Boy / Wondaland

Janelle Monáe is quite possibly the best thing to happen to R&B in the 2010s.  The Electric Lady is the third installment chronicling the adventures of Monáe’s android alter ego Cindi Mayweather: Electric Lady Number One.   Like its direct predecessor, The ArchandroidThe Electric Lady is an expansive collection of traditional R&B, soul, funk and pop separated by skits and instrumental suites, with a handful of collaborations and a quirky science fiction element.  Big Boi and Of Montreal appearances on The Archandroid were nothing to scoff at (and should also point to Monáe’s versatility), but this time around she’s attracted an enviable cast of collaborators including Prince, Erykah Badu and Solange.

Aside:  I pre-ordered the “Q.U.E.E.N. (feat. Erykah Badu)” 7” single and, although I love the song, I was more bowled over by the pre-pubescent Michael Jackson pop of the b-side “Dance Apocalyptic.”

Not every track on The Electric Lady is an absolute stunner, but Ms. Monáe’s stunners trump almost everything else out there currently in R&B. – SHH

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Waxahatchee - Cerulean Salt 14.  Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt

Don Giovanni

Waxahatchee is Katie Crutchfield, and Cerulean Salt, a pure basement punk record is her second album, an evolution in sound and attitude from her relatively simple debut, American Weekend.  The first comparisons that come to mind when trying to describe Waxahatchee are elementary, Crutchfield’s twin sister’s band Swearin’, as well as the sisters’ joint venture P.S. Eliot.  Like Swearin’ and P.S. Eliot’s output, Cerulean Salt is full of shorter tracks and as a result the album is a quick but satisfying ride through a landscape of youth and the trials of growing up.

There is another obvious comparison, or influence, hearkening back to the early days of one of my favorite artists, Liz Phair.  The simplicity of the arrangements and instrumentation with such a raw expenditure of emotional energy is a tribute to the writing and vocal talent possessed by Katie Crutchfield, and something that Liz Phair personified like no other on her stellar debut Exile in Guyville.  Crutchfield, just entering her mid twenties, has already released an impressive volume of work across multiple names; I for one hope Waxahatchee and the attitude that seems to come so naturally to the band sticks around for years to come. – KDD

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Julia Holter - Loud City Song 13.  Julia Holter – Loud City Song

Domino

Julia Holter is an artist that came to my attention via NPR a couple of years ago which 1) I’m grateful for, and 2) makes total sense as she fits the bill.  Loud City Song, Julia Holter’s third and most refined record surpasses the traditional definition of an “album;” it is almost like hearing a piece of performance art with the listener’s sole responsibility to create the visual.  Holter’s vocals have never sounded stronger and the instrumentation never broader, likely owed in part to Loud City Song’s comparatively professional production over her first two albums.  It’s a magnificently orchestrated, intellectual record that doesn’t just tell stories, it acts them out. – SHH

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Mutual Benefit - Love's Crushing Diamond 12.  Mutual Benefit – Love’s Crushing Diamond

Other Music Recording Company

Mutual Benefit’s Jordan Lee released a touchstone of indie folk with his first attempt at long play in Love’s Crushing Diamond.  Lee’s approach is somewhere in the spectrum between Andrew Bird’s rich, melodic musicianship and the dreamy, minimalist pop of Youth Lagoon.  From a lyrical standpoint Love’s Crushing Diamond is empathetic and carries with it the warmth of a friend’s embrace.  One of the only complaints to be had is the record’s December release as it is clearly an album to enjoy in the summer, dozing contemplatively on a hammock with a warm breeze tinkling distant wind chimes. – SHH

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Iceage - You're Nothing 11.  Iceage – You’re Nothing

Matador

Iceage’s second LP was the first album that I pre-ordered in 2013.  New Brigade was my No. 8 of 2011 and I was totally taken aback that a band from Copenhagen, Denmark could enliven the spirit and speed of late 80s D.C. punk.  I figured that total disappointment was out of the question.

I wasn’t sure what to make of You’re Nothing‘s first single, “Ecstasy,” which I caught the music video for after pre-ordering the album and prior to its proper release.  The gushing, live energy was still there but singer Elias Bender’s delivery was comparatively slowed down.  When I finally received You’re Nothing in the mail a few weeks later, I spun it three or four times immediately and it began to make sense.

Whereas New Brigade was almost purely punk with an emphasis on breakneck speed and throttling percussion, You’re Nothing is more grounded in post-punk: the lyrics are becoming more contemplative (“There’s a guilt / Deep within, / In divine soil / Blossomed into sins.”), songs are beginning to break the three-minute mark and Bender exhibits confidence in his vocal experimentation.  You’re Nothing is a solid second step for a band that is clearly evolving ahead of the curve.  It may not be as dramatic as John Lydon’s shift from The Sex Pistols to PiL, but think of the difference between Wire’s Pink Flag and Chairs Missing, or later on in Washington D.C., Fugazi’s collaborative efforts of Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto versus their early work in Minor Threat and Rites of Spring respectively. – SHH

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50-41     40-31     30-21     20-11     Next >>The Top 10

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