Best of 2013: Six Great Albums

People of the internet, behold! It is the end of Saturnalia for another year, so cease your gambling, take your Phrygian caps outside and burn them, and then get back to work slaves, for it is time for the best albums of 2013 AD.

Last year I opted out of writing a top 10 album list which I have traditionally done at this time of year, simply because it was an off-year for me, musically. This year I’ve caught up on last year, and listened to a ton more new stuff, so I thought I would go back to list-making for the end of the year. That being said, I’m tired of placing things in a pointless hierarchy or artificially inflating things, so in no particular order, here’s five six great records from this year that I think everyone ought to know about. Why six? Because.

Sarah Neufeld – Hero Brother

That looks like a cave to me, Barry.
That looks like a cave to me, Barry.

Hero Brother is the debut solo album by Sarah Neufeld, a Canadian violinist who is a member of Arcade Fire. I’ve never really felt any need to listen to Arcade Fire (because as a hipster among hipsters, I am too cool for all this mainstream hipster stuff) but when Constellation Records puts out something, it almost always warrants my attention.

Sure enough, Hero Brother turns out to follow a similar conceit to Colin Stetson’s acclaimed New History Warfare series, namely that it is a largely instrumental album consisting chiefly of solo performances on a given instrument, here the violin. Neufeld draws from various folk and minimalist traditions. Several tracks here have a healthy debt to Steve Reich, which is good in my book.

This record is achingly beautiful. The violin perhaps more than any other instrument has the capability to illicit a full range of human emotion. The magical thing about this album is how that emotion seems to resonate not just in the violin, but in the room, in the space it was recorded in. The result is a production enveloping the listener in an intimate and masterful use of natural reverb, which, like sonar, sketches out the acoustic shape, texture, and substance of walls, floors, and ceilings. Even a sense of colour and temperature.

Every track here is wonderful, but They Live On stands out for me, with its gentle pizzicato playing and soft voice accompaniment. It’s wintry, little drops of melting snow dripping from a tree branch.

I know I said at the start I didn’t want to create an ordered list, but this is almost certainly the best album of the year for me, and I find myself surprised to say that.

Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Volume 3: To See More Light

Bird over cloud and geometric explosion of light? I think?
Bird over cloud and geometric explosion of light? I think?

Speaking of Colin Stetson, this year saw the release of the third in his New History Warfare series, his second major release on Constellation. More solo saxophone material, with occasional guest vocals, provided this time by the distinctive voice box of one Justin Vernon, better known for his work with Bon Iver.

The Colin Stetson “thing” still applies. These are single takes of solo performances on the saxophone, using a variety extended techniques to play rhythm, melody and harmony parts simultaneously,  captured from all angles by a comprehensive microphone array.

This release seems to focus largely on his signature bass saxophone, more so than Volume 2. That being said, Among the Sef (Righteous II), a sequel to Volume 2’s The Righteous Wrath of an Honorable Man, focuses on the higher registers, and is simply a GORGEOUS, unbelievably wonderful piece of music. Seriously, drop whatever it is you are doing and just listen for four minutes.

Justin Vernon’s vocal contributions range from his usual Bon Iver style on the opening track, to his stunning multi-tracked take on blues piece What Are They Doing in Heaven Today, to Brute where he employs a surprisingly angry heavy metal snarl. It’s a good marriage and it lends the album a distinctly masculine quality, though I do miss Laurie Anderson’s poetic spoken word contributions to the previous volume.

Sigur Rós – Kveikur

Not the KKK. Still terrifying.
Not the KKK. Still terrifying.

I enjoy Sigur Rós quite a lot, but it occurs to me that I’ve never really engaged with any of their records as much as I have with ( ). Kveikur changes that. I remember when I heard the brief trailer opening track Brennisteinn, my first reaction was “Wait, Sigur Rós remixed by Nadja?” I mean seriously, listen to this, it is NUTS:

The opening snippet of this track seemed like the heaviest, most crunched-up and downright angriest thing Sigur Rós had ever recorded. The full track eventually reveals a far broader gamut of emotions, and serves as a dynamic manifesto of sorts. After all, Sigur Rós’ last record as a four piece Valtari was a nebulous and ambient sort of affair. Yet having shed one member, only one year after Valtari, they seem to have gone back to the drawing board and then ceremoniously thrown that drawing board into a volcano, of which there are many to choose from in Iceland…

The rest of the record doesn’t consistently match the furious snarl of the opening track, but unlike Valtari, these are things you might legitimately call songs, without the compromise of writing pop tunes as on Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust. Make no mistake, Ísjaki has as catchy a chorus as they’ve ever recorded, but it also bears a grittier, earthier sound than ever.

It almost feels elemental, reflecting the Icelandic landscape of volcanoes and glaciers and waterfalls and waves crashing against a rocky coastline. As the sustained blistering fury of the title-track shows, this is Sigur Rós  mark 2, and they’re not filing off the edges any more. Or if they are, they’re sort of doing it hastily with a rusty knife .

The National – Trouble Will Find Me

I don't really know what this is supposed to mean, if anything, but it's cool.
I don’t really know what this is supposed to mean, if anything, but it’s cool.
I don’t really know what this is supposed to mean, if anything, but it’s cool.

I listened to this album a lot walking around North Vancouver in a malaise, as I am wont to do wherever I go on this Earth. I wrote a review here, so I won’t repeat myself too much.

The thing about The National for me, is that they’re perhaps the most “mainstream” contemporary band that I listen to. It’s nice to have a common ground with people. I worked with a guy when I was washing dishes for minimum wage in Canada, and he was into a bunch of indie rock bands I have no real interest in. The one band we shared was The National. Of course, he wasn’t sold on the new record, as he heard High Violet first and never really got over it. One of those types. You know, normal people.

Trouble Will Find Me is definitely an evolution of High Violet, which itself is an evolution of Boxer, and that’s fine. The band keep moving forward, maturing in a middle-class wine and cheese sort of way, and they keep doing new variations on the things that I love about them.

In most cases I’d probably be bored with a band like this by now, but I think because I regularly listen to a bunch of weird incomprehensible nonsense The National fill up a place in my mind that saves me from the horrible fate of having to listen to Mumford and Sons or Imagine Dragons. Ugh.

As a side note, I understand Imagine Dragons put out a single called Demons this year. I briefly listened to it and I’m not super into it because, you know, Imagine Dragons, yuck. I am however super into The National’s song Demons also from this year. So check it out, it is fabulously morose:

Delightful!

Big Business – Battlefields Forever

Crazy scary lion made of cut-up paper? Nice!
Crazy scary lion made of cut-up paper? Nice!

Big Business are still cool as shit. All muscular distorted bass riffage and furious drum battery and big  bellowed vocals. On their last full-length Mind the Drift they also added guitar, but it tended to stand out as a bit ornamental and dainty. The guitar on Battlefields actually blends quite seamlessly into Business as usual, shifting the texture slightly without upsetting the wonderful cohesion of their past works as power-duo.

I guess this makes the list because as much as I vocally reject the standard tropes of rock and roll (all while being a pretentious nerd about it), sometimes I do just like to “rock out” like all the cool kids are doing here on the Infographic Superjetway. After all these years The Big Biz continue to make strong masculine rock music suggestive of burly hairy-chested men wrestling bears and chopping wood in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, smoking pipes on the porches of their self-built cabins and eating fresh venison steak that they shot that afternoon for dinner.

Doomsday, Today! has a quality that I should say is particularly beardy and pine-scented. Hey, you can listen to the whole thing on Bandcamp while unscrewing the lids of all the jars in your kitchen. Something manly.

And isn’t that the Biggest Business of all?

Akron/Family – Sub Verses

A crack badly photocopied?
A crack badly photocopied?

Akron/Family are psychedelic and weird in a modern hippyish fashion. Which is not to call them naïve, they’re just optimists who meet the inherent frustration and rage of contemporary life with noisily ebullient reveries exploding with joyous messy light…

What’s unusual about this record is how they have seemed to have crossed over to the Pacific Northwest and worked with my favourite producer Randall Dunn (deep breath… Sunn O))), Kayo Dot, Secret Chiefs 3, Asva, Earth, The Stares, Master Musicians of Bukkake, Mamiffer, Fontanelle…), soliciting artwork from Sunn O)))’s own Stephen O’Malley. This seems a confluence of two hitherto unrelated “scenes”.

The result is pure Akron/Family though, all chanting and feedback and a million tons of sound wrangled into somehow-coherent form. Controlled chaos is what it is. It’s maybe a little less exciting this time around because it’s a known quantity. They’re not breaking any moulds here, they’re just working deeper than ever.

Highlights here are Way Up and Until the Morning. Kicking of with Sand Talk, the second half of the album seems to go off in a different direction, which I am marginally less excited about. But that might be because those earlier tracks are as good as any songs Akron/Family have ever done. Until the Morning would be single material, if we lived in a world where great songs were always successful on their own merits.

I listened to this album a lot while I was in Portland, Oregon, a city I am in actual love with. So although it’s not a Portlandian album, I guess I’ll always have that association with it. Thanks Obama.

Honourable Mentions

So there you have it. There’s some stuff that didn’t make the list that was still cool, along with stuff I just haven’t fully digested yet like Flaming Lips, Dillinger Escape Plan, Autechre, Saltland, Land of Kush, Kayo Dot, etc. Maybe if I wasn’t such a lazy bastard, I’d revisit this in a few months to mop up all that stuff.

I find myself less excited by Steven Wilson’s latest than I have been before. I love him as a songwriter and producer, but I find his last two records are too derivative of the classic prog rock he used to eschew but has recently embraced.

I also finally got last year’s Scott Walker record, Bish Bosch, which is probably my favourite of his yet. It is terrifying and wonderful.

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