Sound Bites Favorite Albums of 2013
Well here we go, another fine year for records. It always is, and anyone who says different isn’t really trying to find the good stuff. I should say there were a lot other records from 2013 that I liked a lot too, but I guess these are the ones that stuck with me the most. (You may have seen my Top 20 already on BrooklynVegan, but here’s more and more blurbs.) My Top 3 are basically a three-way tie for 1st place — they’re all completely different — so feel free to take them as such. But I don’t believe in ties (Tys is a different story, see #38) so I pulled rank. No MP3s this year, but there are links to streams (Spotify, mostly) and where to buy a physical copy — there is a track from every one of these 50 albums on my year-end mixes. I also made a Spotify playlist of all of the albums on my list that are on the service.
Without any further ado, my Favorite Records of 2013:
1. Hookworms – Pearl Mystic (Gringo / Weird World)
This group from Leeds, UK practice a visceral blend of noise, drone, motorik rhythms and impassioned vocals that basically demands to be listened to at top volume. The parts are old but Hookworms’ electrifying energy makes it feel like they came up with the idea. Seeing them live during CMJ, where singer Matt Johnson seemed to leave his body on stage, nudged this record ahead just enough for me to name is at my favorite of 2013. For that matter, their non-LP single, “Radio Tokyo,” was my favorite track of the year. Hookworms win.
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2. Warm Soda – S/T (Castle Face)
Matthew Melton formed Warm Soda immediately after his previous band, Bare Wires, imploded onstage at SXSW. He doesn’t really alter the power-pop formula with his new band but the change has definitely made his creative juices more effervescent. Keeping with those late ’70s vibes, Warm Soda’s debut actually kind of sounds like it is coming out of a transistor radio: tinny and compressed (in a good way), but with giant hooks and choruses packed into 27-minute running time. It’s hit after hit after hit.
3. La Femme – Psycho Tropical Berlin (Born Bad)
The title of Parisian band La Femme’s debut album, Psycho Tropical Berlin, is a pretty good summation of what to expect: crazed psychedelic pop with a krautrock/coldwave backbone and an affinity for surf rock. Add to that the inherent French element (Ye-Ye enthusiasm and smoky Gainsbourg cool), you get an inventive, modern, highly entertaining album, unlike anything anything else I heard this year.
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4. Outfit – Performance (Double Denim)
After a few singles/EPs, UK group Outfit make their long-player bow and I wasn’t quite prepared for what a leap they made. This is sleek, elegant dancepop, endlessly inventive and a little nerdy/quirky — but not so much that it ever pulls you out of the groove. Comparisons to Hot Chip are pretty easy to make but Outfit have their own distinct style. This record remains a UK import. Somebody over here sign these guys!
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5. John Hopkins – Immunity (Domino)
Having helped create textural work with Imogen Heap, Brian Eno (and Coldplay), Jon Hopkins delves into dance music for the first time, with this concept album exploring, instrumentally, an epic night out. While it may not feature any Disclosure-style dancefloor bangers, Immunity is an absolute stunner, a record that needs to be heard as a whole, and one whose synthesizers throb like a beating heart.
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6. Cate Le Bon – Mug Museum (Turnstile / Wichita)
Written following the death of her maternal grandmother but recorded after moving from Wales to her new home of California, Cate Le Bon’s third album, Mug Museum, hits the happy/sad sweet spot like a ray of sunshine peaking through the grey. A little less skronky than last year’s CYRK, Cate Le Bon’s quirky Welsh charm, songwriting skills and bewitching voice remain.
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7. No Joy – Wait to Pleasure (Mexican Summer)
Working with Violens’ Jorge Elbrecht, Wait to Pleasure goes beyond the No Joy’s pummeling shoegaze start, showing off previously unheard textures, melody and beauty. They can still attain tinitus-level volume (just see them live), but they’ve now got other cards too and the ebbs, flows and crashing waves make for a great listen start-to-finish. One of the most pleasant surprises of 2013.
8. Factory Floor – S/T (DFA)
25 years since it’s Detroit birth, the sounds of techno and acid house are still inspiring new artists. UK trio Factory Floor take those squelchy 303s and filter them through krautrock and post-punk sensibilities for a near-relentless hour on their long-awaited-but-worth-it full-length debut. While using some of the same equipment Juan Atkins tinkered with in his bedroom in 1987, in Factory Floor’s hands, it still sounds like the phuture.
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9. Girls Names – The New Life (Slumberland)
For their second album, Girls Names dropped much of the murky gloom prevalent on their debut, instead opting for more crystalline production, driving basslines, propulsive drumming, prominent keyboards and markedly improved songwriting. It’s all a little early-’80s Bunnymen, but Girls Names bring their own style to the proceedings, and every little atmospheric detail works. You still wouldn’t call it happy, but you can dance to it.
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10. Ooga Boogas – S/T (Aarght)
Australian musician Mikey Young stays busy with a bunch of bands (Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Total Control, Lace Curtain), all of them excellent. And here’s another as part of Ooga Boogas. Their self-titled album genre hops from Fall-influenced indie rock to Stranglers-y new wave to the vaguely Talking Heads-ish groovers. (Also “Studio of My Mind” is the best LCD Soundsystem song they never wrote.) But damn if they aren’t all great.
11. Joanna Gruesome – Weird Sister (Slumberland)
Somewhere between Veronica Falls and Los Campesinos, Weird Sister takes great fantastic indiepop tunes and throws them in the mosh pit. One of the best album covers of the year too.
13. King Krule – 10 Feet Beneath the Moon (True Panther Sounds)
An old soul trapped in a teenager’s body, Archy Marshall really stepped up to the plate on his debut full-length, a pidgeonhole-defying record that melds the sounds he hears around him now (and a few from his mom’s record collection) for something truly modern.
15. Suede – Bloodsports (Suede LTD)
Suede return (with second guitarist Richard Oakes) to make a great new album, no “comeback” signifier needed. If Coming Up is your favorite Suede album, buy Bloodsports immediately.
16. Weekend – Jinx (Slumberland)
Reigning in the dissonance for gothy — and danceable — pop hooks, Weekend reimagine themselves just enough and show that they’ve got way more to offer than just sheer sonic blast.
17. Wax Idols – Discipline + Desire (Slumberland)
Savages (who I like, mind you) may have the image and super-intense live show, Wax Idols’ new album has something they don’t — the tunes. In the ’90s, you could put Weekend’s album on one side of a Maxell XLII C100 cassette and this album on the other.
18. Heaven’s Gate – Transmuting (Inflated Records)
Out of the ashes of Sweet Bulbs, Heaven’s Gate took some of their old band’s dreamy noise, but took it in a significantly different direction, playing to singer strengths and became more of punky rock band… while still using a lot of effects pedals. Their debut is a terrific representation of what Heaven’s Gate have become — confident, hooky, and pretty damn kick-ass.
19. Kurt Vile – Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze (Matador)
Olivia Newton John once asked, “Have You Ever Been Mellow?” Kurt is probably more like “Have you ever NOT been mellow” but has honed that vibe to perfection here while still letting it all hang out.
20. Heavenly Beat – Prominence (Captured Tracks)
Onetime Beach Fossils bassist Jon Pena works with a small palette — lightly plucked classical guitar, synth steel drums, skittering beats, whispered vocals, the occasional pizzicato strings — but make the absolute most of it, with lots of great little touches in the arrangements. Meticulous, yet has a shrugged off, sexy charm.
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21 – 50 are below…
21. Wire – Change Becomes Us (Pink Flag)
Wire dig through their archives and record a bunch of songs they wrote after 154 but never got around to recording (they went on hiatus in the early ’80s). But don’t mistake this for revisiting the past — Wire remain vital nearly 40 years into their existence.
22. Goldfrapp – Tales of Us (MUTE)
Drenched in the kind of strings that haven’t been in fashion since John Barry stopped scoring James Bond films, Goldfrapp’s Tales of Us is a gorgeous heartstopper of an album.
23. Mood Rings – VPI Harmony (Mexican Summer)
Like the baubles they’re named for, Mood Rings change color to fit how you’re feeling — be it jangly indiepop, ethereal dreampop, and Miami Vice textual vibey lushness. All of works like a dream.
24. Kelley Stoltz – Double Exposure (Third Man)
Moving from Sub Pop to Jack White’s label, Third Man, Stoltz continues to do what he does best — steal from five decades of modern pop, creating perfect little homemade symphonies that are all his own. It’s Kelley’s world of sound, but you’re invited to eavesdrop.
25. Still Corners – Strange Pleasures (Sub Pop)
Still ethereal but less shoegazy, this London band (now mainly a duo) refashion themselves as keyboard-heavy moodists. Despite rhyming “Desire” with “Fire” on one song, the spell remains unbroken.
26. Big Deal – June Gloom (MUTE)
Giant, crunchy riffs, male-female vocals, soaring choruses with just a hint of melancholy, this is one of the more underrated indie rock (in the trad sense) album of the year.
27. Elephant Stone – S/T (Reverberation Appreciation Society)
A sought-after sitar-player for almost every psych band that tours North America, Rishi Dir is also an accomplished songwriter and basically hits it out of the park on Elephant Stone’s second album. Like the Byrds, Big Star and all their descendents? Dig this.
28. World’s End Press – S/T (Liberation Music)
While most people were hyping the baggy sounds of Jagwar Ma and the supremely overrated Cut Copy, Melbourne quartet World’s End Press went and made the Australian Dance Rock Album of the Year. Imagine Sparkle in the Rain era Simple Minds with a remodel by DFA. (Tim Goldsworthy produced.) Ambitious, widescreen, floor-filling. Only bad thing — not on vinyl.
29. The Mantles – Long Enough to Leave (Slumberland)
Kelley Stoltz produced this one, which owes more than a little to California ’60s fringe rockers, this collection of shambolic pop threatens to have the wheels fall off at every turn. That it never does is a credit to the melodic and songwriting smarts of all involved. A very huggable album.
30. Public Service Broadcasting – Inform – Educate – Entertain (Test Card Recordings)
Concept of the highest order: Samples from UK educational films set against krautrock-y instrumentals. Not sure where they go from here, but that doesn’t make this record any less enjoyable.
31. Neon Neon – Praxis Makes Perfect (Lex)
Gruff Rhys and Boom Bip regroup for this second album, again a concept record, this time about Italian socialite and uber left-wing activist Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. You don’t need to know any of this to enjoy the record’s very catchy synthpop. But it definitely adds to the pleasure.
32. Jacco Gardner – Cabinet of Curiosities (Trouble in Mind)
With rolling bassline, harpsichords and mellotrons, Jacco Gardner turns the wayback machine to 1968 and the paisley-hued sounds of The Zombies, Billy Nichols and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Not bad for a 25-year-old.
34. Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe (Domino)
After years of genre hopping — and a good 2012 writing hits for Solange and Sky Ferreira — Dev Hynes has fully figured out his calling with his second album as Blood Orange. It’s all very Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, but also totally his own unique, modern style.
35. The Liminanas – Costa Blanca (Trouble in Mind)
This French band don’t really change things up for Costa Blanca, but their sound — part VU, part garage, part Serge Gainsbourg — still works magnifique.
37. Serafina Steer – The Moths are Real (Stolen Recordings)
Even more austere than her 2010 debut, The Moths are Real, with many songs just Steer’s voice and nimble harp-playing to guide you. Jarvis Cocker produced this spooky and spare record indebted to late-’60s britfolk. Instrument of choice aside, no comparisons to the more famous indie harp player are applicable.
38. Ty Segall – Sleeper (Drag City) / Fuzz – S/T (In the Red)
Ty Segall only made two albums this year, but both were winners and very different: Sleeper took him into acoustic psych-folk territory; he moved to drums for his proto-metal power trio, Fuzz. Dude’s winning streak continues.
40. Courtney Barnett – The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas (Milk Records)
As someone who’s been yelling “The Parquet Courts album was LAST year,” this is actually a bit of a cheat as A) it’s not really an album, just a combo of her two Australian-released EPs and B) one of those actually came out in 2012. But few records charmed me more than “Avant Gardner” this year, and the rest of the record is just about as good.
42. Pampers – S/T (In the Red)
Pampers are the kind of guys who who up at your upscale cocktail party uninvited, pour whiskey and pills in their champagne and hotbox cigarettes — even though you told them politely “no smoking” — all while arguing that Dragnet is the best Fall album. Punches are thrown, your priceless Steinway is destroyed. But you put on Dragnet while cleaning up the wreckage the next day.
43. La Luz – It’s Alive (Hardly Art)
Surf rock isn’t played out, it’s just not usually played very well or interestingly. This Seattle quartet show ’em how it’s done, and their exuberance is infectious. A great live show too.
44. Legs – Pass the Ringo (Log Lady)
There’s no shortage of bands making low-fi pop inspired by Flying Nun or NME’s famed C-86 cassette, but Bay Area band Legs are definitely making a superior product. Mind you the band’s Matt Bullimore is actually from New Zealand, so maybe it’s in their blood. Whatever the reason, Pass the Ringo is jam-packed with great songs and sunny melodies tempered with fuzz, ably maneuvering the delicate balancing act between “charmingly shambolic” and “can’t play their instruments.”
45. Shine 2009 – Our Nation (Cascine)
This Finnish duo skirt the line between indie pop and dance music, a tightrope act that Scandinavians seem particularly adept at. The late-’90s/early-00s seem to be of particular inspiration on Our Nation, to my ears at least, drawing from things like Kruder & Dorfmeister’s K&D Sessions, jungle breakbeats, and effervescent, acoustic-y Swedish pop. It’s a terrific LP.
46. Kisses – Kids in LA (Cascine)
Using Bret Easton Ellis as inspiration and Saint Etienne’s Pete Wiggs as producer, Kisses second album is the best ’80s soundtrack that never actually existed in the Reagan administration.
47. Gap Dream – Shine Your Light (Burger)
Gabe Fulvimar is a superstar, mark my words. On Gap Dream’s second album, he takes he mellow vibe style and adds Steve Miller/Alan Parsons synths and aims them at a disco is space. We haven’t heard his best records yet.
48. Gramme – Fascination (Tummy Touch)
Unexpectedly back from the dead, UK dance act Gramme return some 14 years after the mighty Pre-Release EP to finally deliver a debut album. While some of their rough edges have been cleaned up and vocals are less shouty, the rhythm section that made “Like You” is still a force.
50. The New Lines – Fall in Line (Moon Glyph)
On their second album, sonic theoreticians The New Lines further refine their icy, distant baroque psychedelia. Harpsichords, mellotrons, theremins, groovy basslines, all harmonious in pristine grandeur.