Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Best of 2013: Music Pt.1

We began the year with Justin Timberlake swaggering onto YouTube in a tux, and ended it with Beyonce quietly releasing a 17 video visual album on iTunes, as the music industry sought out new tactics to stay relevant in an internet world. Whilst the results were perhaps more novel than groundbreaking (though Sasha Fierce's little trick might just prove to be a game changer ahead of 2014), there's no denying that between the comebacks and the 'cloud', 2013 was the year when music regained a sense of theatre - something that brushed off the mainstream and found its way into more alternative releases in sometimes surprising ways (hello Jai Paul!). All told, it's been an exciting year.

This post is the first in our look at the year's best music, and first in our extended 'Spectrum 2013' series - enjoy.

Gesaffelstein - Aleph

There is a fantastic shot of Gesaffelstein at a recent Pitchfork gig in Miami, the Parisian producer impeccably turned out in a three piece suit, cigarette in hand, with a bottle of Jack Daniels casually nestled amongst his equipment. It's a stark contrast to the music the man born Mike Levy makes; all neon synthesisers and eerie squelches that wouldn't be out of place on Cliff Martinez's Drive soundtrack. There's a thematic consistency and sense of style to Levy's work, which is surely what drew Kanye West to enlist him to work on his fantastically horrible Yeezus. A similarity extends beyond the two records, not only in their EBM beats but also between the cover art, both released in transparent cases without sleeves, overlaid by sparse designs. If you enjoy West's music in 2013 but have an issue with his general vileness then perhaps Aleph is the record for you? (George Bate)

Toro Y Moi - Anything in Return

Chaz Bundick was unfortunate enough to enter the popular consciousness at the same time as a number of other similar, but less substantive, artists in the "chillwave" explosion of a few years ago. Fortunately for Bundick his talent keeps on shining through, not only in his releases under the Toro Y Moi moniker, but also in his extremely varied work as Shades of Chaz and Les Sins. It's of no surprise then that Bundick seems to have proven to have the most staying power of all of his contemporaries. There is depth too; his lyrics of mid 20s career frustration add a sense of unease in contrast with the joy of his music, epitomised by Bundick’s lyric on Blessa: “I found a job, I do it fine. Not what I want, but still I try”. A stonking 2013 live show was more evidence of Bundick's talent. (GB)

Laurel Halo - Behind the Green Door EP

Laurel Halo was much talked about in 2012 for her debut full length record, Quarantined, released on Kode 9's Hyperdub label. On Quarantined, Halo combined a slowed down, less beat-heavy version of her usual production with her own acquired-taste vocals. While some listeners raved about it, others found the record embarrassingly weak. Behind The Green Door was a much more consistent affair, yet another standout EP of Halo's dense organic techno. Always one to confound, Halo filled this EP with a series of cuts which almost trip over themselves with a sense of their own propulsion, each element of the music somehow not quite fitting with any other, yet still feeling complete as part of a whole. A sense of unease is present throughout, yet these four tracks still feel hypnotic and endlessly addictive, each new listen revealing something hidden deep within the mix. Another album followed this excellent EP, moving Halo's sound on elsewhere, but not quite matching this all too brief release for sheer allure. (GB)

Mount Kimbie - Cold Spring Fault Less Youth

Since the release of the wonderfully whimsical Maybes EP in 2009, Mount Kimbie have cut an odd pose at the more twee end of UK bass music (yes, UK bass music has a twee end, even if it consists solely of Mount Kimbie and James Blake). Here on their sophomore record they abandon that scene almost entirely, bringing in singer/songwriter Archie Marshall, aka King Krule/Zoo Kid, to provide vocals alongside their own. Guitars are also in, largely replacing the sampled sounds and electronic bleeps and bloops that previously formed the melodies in their productions. Elsewhere, the frenetic percussion is matched by jazzy basslines which in turn complement Marshall's snarled and spluttered vocals far better than the backing on his own 2013 debut. Another fine effort from the London pair. (GB)

Maya Jane Coles - Comfort

Maya Jane Coles has for some time been one of the biggest DJs in the world, regularly featuring near the top of lists by the most influential electronic music media sources. This was the year Coles stepped from outside of the booth and into the limelight with her excellent debut album Comfort. Taking cues from the house music scene in which she has made her name and combining them with pop sensibilities has proven, as for Disclosure, to be a great move for Coles. The record has opened up an entirely new sphere for its young and talented creator. A much-discussed BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix and a storming Ella Fitzgerald remix have proven to be the cherries atop the cake in another stellar year for Maya Jane Coles. (GB)

The Haxan Cloak - Excavation

Bobby Krlic could never be accused of looking on the brighter side of life; his second record as The Haxan Cloak is intended as an exploration of the idea of death and what comes after, the title of standout track "The Drop" being a reference to the sudden final fall into non-existence. Alongside recent records from Raime and Lustmord, this album forms the forefront of a seemingly buoyant (how ironic) UK dark ambient scene. In a recent interview with Resident Advisor, Krlic revealed that he had used no electronic instrumentation on Excavation, instead using his equipment to process the sounds of classical instruments, confounding one member of the London Symphony Orchestra apparently unable to work out how he had managed to coax a particular note from his cello. What this record lacks in cheer it certainly makes up for in moments of spine-tingling, sinister beauty. (GB)

These New Puritans - Field of Reeds

To label These New Puritans a band requires a definition of the term so loose and broad as to be practically visible from space. Essentially, it's the name given to a series of highly disparate musical projects masterminded by self-confessed perfectionist Jack Barnett. Whereas the previous release, Hidden, was an imposing, overwhelmingly metallic affair of post-punk squall and dancehall horns, if one were to assign a few kindred elements to Reeds, in ironically new-age fashion of course, it would be wood, earth and water.

Taking his cues from Eno's concept of ambient music, which should shape itself to an environment in order to enhance the experience of it, Barnett builds an imaginary pastoral landscape, apparently inspired by the Thames estuary near their hometown of Southend-on-sea. Often the core 'members' do not even play the instruments heard. Barnett, like some mad, maximalist, indie-rock version of Kanye West, is unafraid to incorporate as many incongruous components as he can get his hands on; so we're treated to lush vocals from Portuguese 'fado' singer Elisa Rodrigues and the first commercial usage of the magnetic resonator piano. As one would expect from its watery inspiration, Reeds is a largely placid and stately affair, its mellow surface only occasionally disturbed by a few rumbling krautrock stormclouds. It might recall the classically-informed arrangements of noughties Radiohead, and the bucolic experimentation of Talk Talk and Can, but really Field of Reeds sounds like nothing else except itself. And honestly, in 2013 how many albums can you say that of? (Nick Pierce)

Death Grips - Government Plates

In terms of ideological intent, Death Grips can perhaps be compared to early 80s punk projectiles like Black Flag: all inchoate, unfocused rage and mythologizing of self-destruction. But sonically they often strike me as the worthy successors of Aphex Twin (or at least the Aphex Twin of the Richard D. James Album and notorious 'Come to Daddy' single), consistently burying the needle with concussive, beat-dominated instrumental scribbles, and nightmarish vocals. Most of the tracks hit like homemade nail bombs, chucked through your browser window and detonating their payloads of heavily-compressed samples in no more than a couple of minutes each.

But there are also moments of unexpected prettiness: The banshee howls in the choruses of 'Birds' are repeatedly exorcised by a jaunty, gently glowing guitar riff, whilst 'Whatever I want (fuck who's watching)' veers magically from synth-illuminated neon psychedelia to an extremely slow-tempo drone come-down. (NP)

Jon Hopkins - Immunity

For someone who once had a hand in producing Coldplay (as Brian Eno's understudy no less), Jon Hopkins makes terribly interesting music. His exemplary work as a sound engineer and on film soundtracks is evidenced here by a series of writhing atmospheric textures, somehow formless yet full of substance. There are plenty of found sounds and audio created by unconventional methods on this record; the album begins with the sound of Hopkins opening his studio door. Supposedly there is also the sound of him drumming with salt shakers. All of the processing was done on analogue equipment, a trend we have seen amongst other producers on this list. This is surprising since everything on the record sounds so unreal, so android. It wasn't enough to win Hopkins the Mercury Prize on his second nomination, but I doubt very much whether he would mind. (GB)

James Holden - The Inheritors

James Holden has always been something of an enigma, producing bizarro techno made to confound minds, but often playing largely commercial crowd-pleasing DJ sets that contrast completely with his personal output. The Inheritors sees Holden continue his journey further into the realm of eclecticism with a jazzy, organic take on techno. The album was largely created on a single modular synthesiser, adapted to use with software written by Holden himself, his skills gained as an Oxford mathematician no doubt of some help in whatever experiments he is cooking up in his sonic lab. At times this album is punishing in the sheer number of directions it takes (sometimes all at once), at others it's haunting and beautiful, a fact acknowledged by Holden himself in his track titling (see "Some Respite"). Appropriately enough this was released on Holden's own Border Community label; whichever borders Holden finds himself at he's sure to be pushing them down. (GB)

Part 2 hits on Christmas Day (Merry bloody Christmas!), but you can get up to speed with almost all of our choices for the year with the Spectrum Best of 2013 Spotify playlist.