10. DIANA – “Perpetual Surrender”: I wouldn’t even know about this group had they not opened up for Austra on their recent tour. Expecting nothing much, I was really impressed by what Diana put on display: an energetic, jazzy synth style, flirting with influences like Sade and 80s era Roxy Music. It’s only natural that we’d end up here, with electronic music of all sorts surging into an unprecedented era of critical acclaim on the back of repurposing older styles for a new century. We’ve done industrial, cold wave, techno, rave, house, and everything in between. Why not draw on the mellower, dare I say smoother, forms of the metagenre? That it’s done with such skill is what surprised me; this isn’t usually my thing but it’s a really good album. Vocalist Carmen Elle’s voice is strong, even when it’s mixed at the bottom of a hazy swirl of synth sounds and percussion; she really carries certain songs with the quality of her vocals. I’m also an absolute fool for saxophone solos on synthpop songs so “Perpetual Surrender” had me at hello.
9. Shifted – “Under A Single Banner”: Shifted is absurdly prolific and I’ve no idea how he keeps churning out great techno track after great techno track but he finds a way to. If anything, his 2013 output is even better than 2012. “Under A Single Banner” is bleak in all of the best ways, meant to evoke environmental decay and societal rot. It drones and buzzes while never losing its danceable core, as the best techno does.
It’s extremely good but it never strays far from its self-enforced bounds, which limits it a bit. You know what to expect if you listen to techno and the album won’t surprise you if you do. Sometimes it’s okay to really enjoy a well-crafted but predictable album and that’s what’s happening here. It’s a top notch genre album with the faintest hints of Shifted breaking things open a bit in the future.
8. Hypnoskull – “Electronic Music Means War to Us 2”: In 2003, I was absolutely convinced that power noise was going to be the next big thing in industrial music. And it was! For about five months, whereupon the bands disappeared or altered their sounds into more accessible forms. Converter decided to go program or whatever, Tumor became just another band trying to sound like Suicide Commando, Stefan from Mono No Aware presumably works at the same advertising agency Sina does. It was a massive bummer.
Still, I never got bored of it, even if everyone else (including most of the artists, themselves) did. So I was delighted when I heard that Hypnoskull’s latest was a return to form. And it very much is. It’s harsh, abrasive, a little bit stupid, and it probably stays within the lines of the coloring book they helped create years ago, but I don’t care. They even got Japanese noise grotesques Dissecting Table to collaborate on the new album. It’s 25 year old Ian’s dream album and it’s just accessible enough that I daresay it could serve as an intro to the older stuff.
7. Gesaffelstein – “Aleph”: You almost certainly saw the NSFW video for the track “Pursuit” if you follow any kind of revivalist electronic music, with its callbacks to early EBM and naked woman with a robot hand. As good as the video is, I almost wish they’d left that for the second track. I worry that Gesaffelstein is going to be “the guy with the naked lady in a factory video” to the uninitiated, rather than being the producer traversing styles over one album with a deft touch.
Because, seriously, it’s all here if you’re like me and enjoy a variety of bass synth heavy electronic styles. Older EBM and techno are all prominent, as might be expected by those familiar with his work, but there’s dark ambient and even one track owing mightily to mid-90s West Coast gangsta rap. You’d think that the quality might flag but, with the exception of the album maybe being a bit too well-produced, it never does.
6. The Knife – “Shaking the Habitual”: Oh, how I waited for this album. I’m frankly a little surprised that, making the list, it’s as low on it as it is but I frankly had six album of the year candidates with a hair’s breadth between all of them.
So, let me get out of the way: I think Karin Dreijer Andersson is the greatest vocalist of my generation. Not the most technically proficient. Not the most successful. The greatest, which is different. I also think her self-titled solo album as Fever Ray is the best album of the young century, a deceptively strident feminist work centering on topics like aging, alienation, and motherhood with the emotional precision of a scalpel.
I was primed for this and I wasn’t really disappointed. I was, however, surprised when I probably shouldn’t have been. This is a difficult album, clearly meant to jar and alienate fans who came on board because they heard that acoustic cover of “Heartbeats”. And I love it.
It’s undoubtedly the bands most political work in a body of political work. But here the scope is expanded. Gender as performance, what it means to be male or female, why we follow the people we follow, the slow death of the environment… it’s all here under a defiant umbrella seemingly saying “the experiment is over”. Which might leave people asking for an answer, since the trite thing to do is to ask where the solution is. But that’s not what The Knife want to do, nor is it what they should do. They’re observers only, and that’s fine.
It’s also probably going to be the most important album on my list. There’s an argument I’ve seen which runs that the synth revival is about chasing the dragon of The Knife’s first few albums, even if the creators don’t realize it. If that’s true, an entire second generation is liable to be lured by The Knife’s dystopian 2013 scream.
5. Dirty Beaches – “Drifters/Love Is the Devil”: I love everything about Dirty Beaches. I love the existence of Dirty Beaches, the working name of Alex Zhang Hungtai. Somewhere down in the man’s history, he started listening to lots of Suicide, watching lots of David Lynch movies, and picked up a jangly guitar.
In a Pitchfork interview, he chalked it up to his experience as a Taiwanese immigrant growing up in Montreal, using the media he discovered as sort of a grounding wire. That media was carried forward into adulthood, if his work is any indication. Certainly, I don’t recall too many artists who just put their influences out there in the open like Dirty Beaches does.
This isn’t a bad thing. It’s more homage than mimicry, much as Dirty Beaches’ albums sound like Suicide. “Drifters” opens things up a bit more than the debut. The samples are still there, as is the repetition, but the songs are fuller and less gimmicky. Speaking as someone who loved his debut, this is high praise. It’s music as both love letter and auditory film, a niche which Dirty Beaches is on the path toward mastering.
The second half of the double album, “Love Is the Devil”, is a far more experimental offering. Many of the tracks are barely songs at all, just ambient guitar fuzz and electronic chords wafting off into a void. This is soundtrack material, an inverse of “Drifters”, all mood and meandering. I’m not as much a fan of this back half, though it’s by no means bad. It’s just a bit too challenging and abstract when listened to alongside the greater structure of “Drifters”. That said, my hunch is that Dirty Beaches moves more in a “Love Is the Devil” direction in the future, maybe even scoring more and higher profile films. The man could do much worse for himself and his fans.
4. Savages – “Silence Yourself”: The hype was strong with Savages, with ads and reviews around long before their debut came out. When it finally did, it was like a bomb went off. Working from roughly the same post-punk canvas last year’s standouts, The Soft Moon did, Savages takes things several steps further to the punk end of the equation by conjuring a far grittier album than the former.
Frontwoman Jehnny Beth is immediately compared to Siouxsie Sioux or, less often, Patty Smith (particularly with the callback to “Horses” on Savages’ song “Husbands”), and this is true, but for all the sonic power in her vocals it’s the bass guitar which really carries the album for me. When I fell in love with Joy Division, Gang of Four, early New Order, The Stranglers, etc it was the bass guitar which caused me to fall. All that percussive, rumbly energy, set up in those bands (and in Savages and The Soft Moon) as the prominent sound even inspired me to pick one up and learn; I played bass in punk bands as a kid (I wasn’t very good) but what I really wanted to do was cover Joy Division. Bassist Ayse Hassan is an absolutely mammoth talent and the real driving force on the album.
The whole package ends up being raw, unvarnished rock n roll of a type you just don’t hear often anymore. It’s well-produced without being slick, the subject matter is claustrophobically personal, and it’s all just the good side of messy you want your rock albums to be.
3. CHVRCHES – “The Bones of What We Believe”: We all heard of CHVRCHES before we’d actually heard any of their music. This is absolutely a guarantee of disaster. Next big thing, corporate media fawning, possible co-opting of a smaller scene, and then the actual album drops and it’s terrible.
Except that didn’t happen. What we got, instead, is the best pure pop album of the year. Maybe the past few years.
What’s interesting to me about the album is that, for all its lifting of 80s motifs, it’s selective about precisely which motifs it goes for. It’s not always obvious. The synth and general structure are clear, sure, but it’s little things, like the background guitar on the album’s best track, “Gun”, or the backing vocals on “Night Sky”. They harken back to lesser lights of the 80s, dim memories I have of throwaway songs from teen movies. I can’t even tell you specifics. It’s just there, slightly beyond the reach of memory’s ability to elaborate. I hear the sounds and I think, “I remember that”, but I’m unable to pick out from where beyond it not being an obvious, big name source, more Leidenschaft than Berlin.
I have friends who hate this album and it’s completely flabbergasting to me. I think there’s a sense in a few places that CHVRCHES are interlopers on the synth scene, cashing in on the buzz. Which is fine, I suppose, but that doesn’t lessen how perfect a pop album this is. The notion that they can be big fakers (inasmuch as that charge has any weight in a post-grunge, web 2.0 world) doesn’t preclude their producing an excellent album.
Vocalist Lauren Mayberry is clearly the star here. That’s not to diminish the contributions from the rest of the band but she’s got that clichéd “it” that pop stars are made of (I hate myself for even typing that). It’s just true. She’s whip smart, a former journalist with a law degree, and takes absolutely no nonsense from anyone in interviews. Indeed, the lyrics fit the personality: every sung line on the album is rife with double meanings and sharp delivery, all with a faint Scottish burr at the end of every third word. Mayberry is clearly playing with expectations of what she, the slight, attractive woman as pop star, should be singing and doing. It’s every bit as delightful and subversive as the album’s contents.
2. Youth Code – “Self-Titled”: Now, this album. It all started so quietly. A demo tape. A video of their first live show. Two punk kids making industrial music because they felt like it. And then it exploded. Pitchfork is covering small label industrial seriously for the first time in as long as I can remember and established industrial acts are freaking out in a sour grapes induced orgy over these two intruders stomping on their turf.
I’ve got a piece written in my head on that last point which may or may not ever reach the internet. For now, let’s just leave it at Youth Code did precisely the wrong thing in the main branch of industrial: they bypassed the gatekeepers and made great industrial music while doing it. That’s not monolithic; a not insignificant number of scene outlets and groups (Caustic and FLA, notably) are very much fine with Youth Code. But the pushback is real from a lot of quarters. These two Los Angeles punks don’t wear the uniform and aren’t signed to Metropolis. They’re suspect.
But they came to industrial the same way I did. At some point, around 1994 or so, I was getting sick of punk rock. It came slowly but I discovered, first, Nitzer Ebb when I was 14 and it all coalesced that summer of my 17th year when I bought Skinny Puppy’s “Too Dark Park”. It was still a slow burn. I went to punk shows and had fun but it wasn’t the same. That said, punk rock and industrial were never different things to me. Moreover, they weren’t different things to the artists of the time. Like almost everything else worth listening to, industrial evolved from punk, though it did so early and went way further afield.
So I don’t see Youth Code as interlopers; I see them (and bands like By Any Means Necessary, //TENSE//, and 3 Teeth) as the real torchbearers and the EDM chasing bands that populate the scene as the intruders. Because industrial music was, up until the futurepop wave of the late 90s/early 00s, a little bit punk rock and a little bit messy. Then, seemingly overnight, the rawness on display in the genre disappeared, replaced by too slick production, a reliance on prepackaged beats, and a complete divorcing of style from substance, with all emphasis on the former.
But that’s all background. Setting aside all of that, Youth Code’s debut is really good. Unlike their peers in what some have sneeringly dubbed “hipster industrial”, there’s not a single drop-off or lapsed song. It’s all anger and fury, backed up by raw synths and driving percussion. The two members, Sara Taylor and Ryan George, trade vocal duties back and forth, eventually becoming nearly indistinguishable from one another as they shriek and threaten to tear their vocal chords apart.
The album clocks in at a tad over 30 minutes and 10 songs. That’s a good clip for a lot of punk bands, much less for an industrial album. It’s a lean, fast album, with no fat to be trimmed.
1. Austra – “Olympia”: My last two albums of the year have run like this: 2012 – Trust “TRST”, 2011 – Austra “Feel It Break”. While calling them an Austra sideproject does them an injustice (and isn’t really true, since it seems like Austra drummer Maya Postepski is done with the project), Trust has a deep Austra connection. So, with 2013 going back to Austra and a new Trust album next year, I reckon I might ping pong back and forth between these two for the next decade or more. I’d be okay with that.
“Olympia” is a different beast from its predecessor. It is, to slip back into cliché, a much more mature album than “Feel It Break”. For one, the programming is more or less gone, with everything that can be analog transitioning over. For another, the songs are bigger and more varied, with a distinct shift in emphasis from a singles model to a holistic approach.
It’s the latter that proved difficult at first listen. I’ve become a singles loving sort of guy as I’ve gotten deeper and deeper into varying shades of electronic music over the years. It’s a very short-form oriented style and “Feel It Break” slipped into that model. Live, Katie Stelmanis and company still work that, with the two big hits from “Feel It Break” (“Beat and the Pulse” and “Lose It”) serving as centerpieces to the live act.
“Olympia” doesn’t have a song which stands on its own in the same way, the sort of thing that immediately makes people “that’s my song, that right there”. Rather, the entire album interlocks in a way that any piece seems diminished if lifted from the whole. That is emphatically not to say that it’s a lesser album than “Olympia”; on the contrary, it’s clearly superior. It’s simply different.
Mostly everything feels big. I’m repeating myself but it really does. It’s the sort of album which can fill a room, large or small, and envelope you. That’s not just down to the sound but the lyrical content. The songs are complicated and earnest without being cloying. They’re about a significant other not coming home at night and growing up gay in a small town. Stelmanis, in interviews, repeatedly refers to the album as a confessional and it is, in the best sense of that style. It’s a very, for lack of a better word and at the risk of sounding condescending (though I really don’t mean it that way), adult album, about adult feelings, memories, and relationships.
All of it is backed by an expansive sense of what Austra can sound like. There are echoes of their debut’s synthpop tinged with goth vibe but there’s way more house and jazz. It takes a couple of listens to really “get”, but this is the most formidable release of the year for me.
In Aeternum Vale – “La Piscine”: Maybe the greatest thing Minimal Wave has done is to rescue In Aeternum Vale from probable obscurity as their in print releases disappeared. The label reissued what I think is far and away their best track, a mammoth proto-techno thumper which was so far ahead of its time at release that it only now sounds like it’s not made by space men from the future.
DJ Mix of the Year
A Friend In Need Deep Radio Sessions with MermaidS: This mix combines the smooth end of electro pop with deep house and a splash of nu-disco to remarkable effect. It’s flawless and over an hour long. Perfect for a car trip.
Front Line Assembly – “Echogenetic”: I am a huge FLA fan. They’re the band that really got me into industrial and are easily in my top five favorite bands of all time. Their early to mid period is packed with the greatest industrial albums ever made. And I hate this album.
All sorts of people I like and respect love it, rating it as one of the best albums of the year. I just can’t. I’ve never minded their experimentations with other electronic music genres before but they filled this damned thing with dubstep and I hate dubstep. There are so many tracks on here which would’ve been good if they’d just dropped the bass wobble. And because it’s so successful I’m absolutely positive that the next one will be chock full of dubstep, too. That’s a tragedy.
CREEP – “Self-titled”: This one isn’t bad but after being worked on and promised for three years it falls flat. Almost half of it is re-released singles from the past. The other half would have me going nuts if it had come out with its contemporaries in the witch house and trip-hop revival scene a couple of years ago. This all says more about me than the album. It’s not terrible. It’s just that in a year of great music and after this much wait I wanted a whole lot more.
Maya Jane Coles – “Comfort”
Glasser – “Interiors”
Soft Metals – “Lenses
Factory Floor – “Self-titled”
Zola Jesus & JG Thirlwell – “Versions”
The Klinik – “Eat Your Heart Out”
Estampie – “Secrets of the North”
Blood Orange – “Cupid Deluxe”
Jagwar Ma – “Howlin”
Chelsea Wolfe – “Pain is Beauty”
Tropic of Cancer – “Restless Idylls”
A Spotify list of most of this can be found here: Top Albums of 2013