Ahnnu: World Music [Leaving Records]
Since his re-emergence in 2011, sample alchemist Ahnnu has been constantly redefining himself across a string of breathing, sometimes chaotic releases. Records like last year’s couch and pro habitat put him justifiably on the map, but World Music, his finest, was the kind of “eureka” moment that illuminated everything that came before. It’s a tight yet seemingly endless 20 minutes, distinguished not just for its tone—focused, serene, expertly blending snippets of vox, tropicalia, and uh, world music—but by how infinitely likable it is. The ingredients for that are all in the details: the crashing synth waves that propel “gala,” the dueling trumpet solos and lounge jazz that balloon a timid asking of “what would I do,” and the way molasses-soaked trap dovetails into a palindromic string section on album closer “Monica/Swept.” Ahnnu’s best moments have always been when he combines sources both lucid and warm, and here he does it twelve times over, resulting in a voyage that feels way too damn short at first, only to lend itself to continued, repeat listening three months later. --Brad Stabler
Alberich: Machine Gun Nest: Cassette Works Volume 0 [Hospital Productions]
If Hospital Records has done nothing else this year, it's clearly pegged the union of American noise and techno to the historical European moment that was power electronics. The label used three vinyl anthologies of Alberich's cassette work to paint the New York artist as the most ardent-- if not faithful-- proponent of that movement. Note his infatuation with the machinations of state power, employing marching beats and dressing like a dystopian cop on stage. Kris Lapke has been deeply embedded in Dominick Fernow's label for a good while now, helping with Fernow's Prurient work and mastering Hospital material for vinyl. As evidenced by the more abstract work on Fortification, Lapke has a strong affinity for noise, yet his love for subtle grooves and stadium-sized tonality betrays a sonic lineage from rock. Machine Gun Nest encapsulates the Alberich project best, with Lapke translating Esplendor Geometrico and Grey Wolves into a more contemporary language, broadly encompassing whatever falls between techno and black metal. This is nightmare music, culled from both sleep and waking consciousness. The other best album on Hospital this year, a reissue of Lussuria's American Babylon, is the better abstract release, but Machine Gun Nest stands out for the possibilities it provides to listeners and musicians alike. --Mike Sugarman
Arca: &&&&& [Hippos In Tanks]
Since the release of Yeezus, it'd be hard to find an article about Arca that doesn't namedrop Kanye. While the 'Ye mention does provide context for the uninitiated, it also legitimizes Arca as a relevant artist that maybe people should pay attention to. But by the time his &&&&& mixtape dropped in July, it became increasingly evident that it was the creative work of Arca and other producers like Evian Christ that ultimately legitimized Yeezus as an album for people who are interested in forward-thinking production. Yeezus doesn't really sound like any other hip-hop album out there, but there really aren't any other producers that push the envelope like Arca does. &&&&& is the place where he truly shines.
There are times when I can't help but feel like I've heard everything worth listening to. Over the years, I've grown to expect little from new music, succumbing to the post-modern suggestion that everything has been done before. But when I listen to something as wildly unpredictable as &&&&&, I can't help but feel like there could be something new around the corner. --Ric Leichtung
Bill Orcutt: A History of Every One [Editions Mego]
More than Orcutt’s other solo records-- all of which are caustically expressive-- A History of Every One is marked by its restraint and, in many cases, its whimsy. The cleaner guitar sound helps, but his playing is likewise cleaner, more deliberate, and a strange brand of tender. The album is comprised of twelve loose interpretations of ubiquitous American songs— enigmatically slotting tunes mythologizing the kitsch heroes of white American culture alongside sorrow songs, surveying and personalizing contradictory iterations of an ill-defined national identity.
Orcutt’s stark, non-linear pairing of guitar and voice makes for an experience that changes its emotional tune with every listen. On cowboy song “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue,” Orcutt leaves plenty of space for his plucks, allowing each demure note to fall in and out of tune with his joyous-yet-pained vocal hum. And then there’s the capitulary gravity and calm of the album’s final track, a cover of Stephen Foster’s “Massa’s In The Cold Cold Ground.” Pure, sparse, and devastatingly beautiful, it’s Orcutt’s idiosyncratic take on a minstrel song, thereby pointing to a major part of historical American culture we often choose to ignore but passively accept on a day-to-day basis. Though Orcutt’s music is obviously more in line with that of, say, Blind Lemon Jefferson than Bing Crosby, he’s worried, it seems, about authenticity-- and whether our listening and his playing are unwittingly informed by the racialized “traditional” music (i.e., “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”) ingrained in the American musical vernacular. What does it mean, then, that we lump all of these songs (“Black Snake Moan,” “White Christmas”) together as part of some grand American tradition? Can anyone play any of these songs? Should anyone? --Joe Bucciero
Body/Head: Coming Apart [Matador]
The specter of Sonic Youth’s disbanding and the marital rupture at its core looms heavily over Kim Gordon’s debut record with fellow Northampton noisnik Bill Nace-- not just because that album is called Coming Apart, which probably couldn’t be a more appropriate title for a breakup record, but also because it’s simply the first thing we’ve heard from her since the breakup. Thing is, every song on Coming Apart also sounds like something broken, like the shattered skeleton of a soul tune that would otherwise be quite comforting to the emotionally down-and-out listener. That’s literally the case with the “Aint” and “Black,” covers of Nina Simone classics “Aint Got No (I Got Life)” and “Black Is The Color (Of My True Love’s Hair)” respectively, but Body/Head’s originals sound equally blown open and distended, as though the sonic building blocks from which they arise (improvised noise guitar, minimal note patterns, aleatoric word salads) were still in the process of deciding whether to cohere into something hummable. Sometimes, things crystallize into something truly awe-inspiring-- such as at the beginning of “Actress,” when Nace’s tidal wave guitar drones seem to speak to something fathomless and pained beneath Gordon’s abstract phrasings (“desire”; “will you make me a star?”), even to fill in the gaps in what language cannot say. Mostly, though, Coming Apart is just a beautiful, beautiful mess, to the point that I feel stupid even asking whether this is a noise album or a rock album, because its warm-blooded, vulnerable humanity is the thing that stands out to me most. --Emilie Friedlander
David Kanaga: DYAD OGST [Software]
A lot albums go unnoticed. Even our readers, who probably listen to an obscene number of records every year, miss things. But it's not due to a lack of access. YouTube by itself probably has more than a lifetime of music to dig in to, not to mention file-sharing, which creates a situation where listeners are subconsciously coerced into a diplomatic decision-making process when they're trying to decide what to consume. Odds are that Kanaga's soundtrack for the game "DYAD" won't reach too many easily, purely because most listeners don't have the same easy access to the game the music was composed for. But the music of DYAD is more than just programme music-- you don't need the context of having played the game to hear that this is an excellent album, though it does enhance it and make you appreciate it way more. The record spans nearly 30 tracks but still stands on its own two legs and possesses the same attention to detail and painstaking production you'd find in the year's best releases. --Ric Leichtung
Dean Blunt: The Redeemer [Hippos In Tanks / World Music]
It’s hard to know why Dean Blunt chose the string prelude to K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life” as the opener to The Redeemer, but it clearly sets the album’s theme. Back then, the UK artist would seem to say, things used to be good: “And all my life I’ve prayed for someone like you / And I thank God that I, that I finally found you”. But ever since, they’ve gone downhill. So when the LP ends with wistful piano ballad “Brutal”, all that is left for Blunt to say is that “You have gone away / And I’m still here”. As many critics have pointed out, from start to finish, The Redeemer is an archetypical breakup album; but contrary to the assumptions of some, it does show Blunt at his most sincere and vulnerable yet. Midway into the title track, he even dares to employ Diddy’s famous last words from “Victory,” that most glaring instance of pre-millennial pop-cultural hubris: “It’s all fucked up now”. Apart from such occasional bursts of desperate outrage, however, the suppressed, apologetic aggression that permeated last year’s unsettling The Narcissist II has for the most part disappeared, leaving behind only alienating answering machine interventions and Blunt’s helpless sarcasm. Indeed, what ultimately makes The Redeemer his most powerful work to date is the implied knowledge that if he has any chance for of redemption in the aftermath of this lost relationship which keeps haunting him, he will first have to admit that he’s not yet ready to not give a fuck. So when Blunt croons “You bring out the best in me” on standout track “Papi,” it’s also the recognition that the best did not suffice. It hardly ever does. --Henning Lahmann
DJ Rashad: Double Cup [Hyperdub]
To any consistent Ad Hoc reader, this pick probably seems like a no-brainer. The friends, fam, and staff of AH enjoyed many things in 2012, but the one, truly unanimous joy throughout the year was DJ Rashad’s TEKLIFE VOL. 1: Welcome to the Chi. The Chicago-bred, NYC-trained footwork sound was, even then, far from some recent or regional thing-- but Welcome to the Chi really felt like the style’s coming-out party to the rest of the world. If that Lit City Trax release was the capstone of first-wave footwork, Rashad’s Hyperdub debut serves as the confirmation that there’s still so much more exploring to be done, even while everyone is busy boppin’.
Heavy on collaboration with the promising next class of Teklife (DJ Earl, DJ Phil, DJ Manny, many others), Double Cup seems to stretch out in all directions at once, acutely aware of the times while seemingly not giving a fuck about what time it is. The treated soul samples, the hyper-speed percussive interplay, and the turn-on-a-dime transitions that remind you that he always has the proverbial “real song” waiting up his sleeve are all still there; there’s even an homage to the past on “Feelin,” where he re-flips the same Roy Ayers sample that kicked off the epochal Welcome to the Chi. But things on Double Cup are higher off the ground. The change in tone is best exemplified by the album-closing Earl collab, “I’m Too Hiiiiii,” an unexpectedly bleak but scarily beautiful jungle ballad that feels all too much like the sick thrill of going too far down the rabbit hole. The mutated vocals swerve out of rhythmic control, echoing themselves in multiple registers over shuddering sub-frequencies and frantic drum breaks that, despite their speedy interplay, come off frail and distant by comparison. Though, in ways, it’s as tragic as losing your life to the lifestyle, as many good people did this year, it’s more a testament to how frighteningly talented Rashad is, and a fitting ending to the best electronic record of the year. --Matt Sullivan
Donato Dozzy: Plays Bee Mask [Spectrum Spools]
In hindsight, the miscegenation of electronic music's abstract and dance realms was inevitable. The cynic will point to noise “going disco” as the precise moment when this meld came to a head, but the two were never that far apart. From Scientist to Aphex Twin, from E2-E4 to Pop, the flirtation was always present. 2013, though, was the year that the beat/ambient binary finally collapsed into a beautiful music, one betraying a number of future potentials. While other albums on this list sprang out of this moment, Donato Dozzy's defined and refined this ideal. Across seven remixes of Bee Mask's “Vaporware,” Dozzy articulates questions that have been on the tip of our tongue for years now: when sampling, what separates a remix from a new original? What percussion transforms an ambient piece into an electronic song? If adding a metronomic kick drum makes anything a dance track, what happens when you just add sixteenth-note high hats? All this food for thought is offered, yet Dozzy never force feeds it. And what makes Donato Dozzy Plays Bee Mask exceptional is first and foremost the sound. Sure, the consistency of source material lends lends aesthetic cohesion, but the studiously well-tempered deviation from track to track is more so the work of Dozzy's hand and heart than his mind. This is an album best enjoyed while laying in bed or driving in a car or just drinking some coffee and reading the news. Oh sorry, it's basically good all of the time. --Mike Sugarman
Hair Police: Mercurial Rites [Type]
Mercurial Rites didn’t make quite as big a splash as many of its fellow 2013 “comeback” albums-- a fact that, in my mind, can be partly attributed to it being not only a difficult record, but a noted sonic departure for the group. Though the sparser, more muted approach employed on Mercurial Rites isn’t completely uncharted territory for Hair Police, it’s new for them to stay so spread out over the course of an entire album. That’s not to say, however, that Mercurial Rites is in any way calm or inviting. There’s space between the sharp bursts of feedback, mechanic’s shop clangs, and vocalist Mike Connelly’s stifled cantations-- but that space is pregnant with dread, forcing you to listen closer, perhaps making you hear things that aren’t there. It’s an experience that feels akin to listening to the silence of an old house and hearing “ghosts,” comforted only when you suddenly hear a louder, more tangible sound with a source you can actually locate. Mercurial Rites thrives, though, on never giving you that last part: the comfortable cadence note. And that the atmosphere is more “abandoned factory” than “creaky old house” makes it that much more alienating. Mercurial Rites is, like many of 2013’s notable noise releases, “industrial,” but less in that it takes musical cues from Nitzer Ebb or Ministry and more in that it’s decidedly inhuman. --Joe Bucciero
Huerco S.: Colonial Patterns [Software]
Huerco S. speaks of architecture. He speaks of natural landscapes and organic forms. He speaks of arcology, the study of hypothetical, self-sufficient superstructures. He speaks of all this and more in order to shed some light on his stunning debut, Colonial Patterns-- to provide a point of access into an admittedly dark and fractured work of experimental electronic music. The truth, however, is that the music speaks for itself. From the industrial clatter and dense, synthesized fragmentation of “Quivira” to scorched, half-remembered house anthems like “Ragtime U.S.A. (Warning)” and “Prinzif,” the soundworld Brian Leeds constructs is a defiantly original one. Colonial Patterns is a record of deep, fascinating contradictions, at once esoteric and weirdly accessible, by turns utterly claustrophobic and astonishingly expansive. While it's somewhat restrictive to limit one's engagement with this album to the architectural connections that have been hammered into its surrounding discourse, few other albums in 2013 felt so thoughtfully and lovingly constructed. --Sean Delanty
Julia Holter: Loud City Song [Domino]
Julia Holter's third album was the first she recorded in a professional studio, a fact reflected in its meticulous attention to detail, from those soft, hissing cymbals at the opening of "Maxim's I" to the sound of seagulls on her beautiful cover of "Hello Stranger.” On Loud City Song, it’s the little moments that surprise and satisfy, creating the feeling that she’s guiding the listener through a single dynamic landscape rather than separate sonic moods. Certainly, it’s proof of the ways that pop music and more traditional composition can be successfully melded, with the coexistence of catchy melodies and classically elegant instrumentation mirroring the album’s conceptual tension between old and new forms. Holter has always demonstrated a fascination for the past, and here she focuses on a dated film to make a statement about the present. Based loosely around the 1958 French film Gigi, Loud City Song is an exploration of the disconnect and loneliness experienced in a big city. Paris, which has long served as a backdrop for artists to express their alienation, works as a metaphor for Holter's native LA, where living amongst a large population is more likely to lead to loneliness than to connection. It's a contradiction best explored in album standout "Maxim's I," where Holter invokes the gossipy thoughts of restaurant-goers (recreating a scene from Gigi ) to communicate that dreadful feeling of being both surrounded by a crowd and alone with your thoughts. --Beth Tolmach
Joanna Gruesome: Weird Sister [Slumberland]
The opening riff of “Anti Parent Cowboy Killers” descends from above, launching us directly into the world of Weird Sister. With what follows, those initial two seconds seem like they might have been a mistake, a snippet of the band energetically warming-up before hitting the “record” button. Alanna McArdle’s voice is beautiful, but her emotional tone and curious words-- in combination with the layers of lo-fi guitars noodling behind her-- inform us that conjuring passive beauty is the last thing on Joanna Gruesome’s to-do list. And sure enough, after the verse, “Anti Parent Cowboy Killers” explodes into something irreverent to the possibility of delicate music, more informed by the tumbling rhythms of hardcore than the soft melodies of guitar pop.
Does this mean that the band can’t make up their mind on a sound? Not a chance. It’s an indication that Joanna Gruesome are unafraid to follow their impulses. The blend of harmony and dissonance on Weird Sister embraces the notion that if you want to make something beautiful, you should, and at the same time you can be loud, harsh, threatening. And if you don’t want to have to decide between male or female vocals, then you can have both (guitarist and songwriter Owen Williams joins McArdle here on a good number of the tracks), even have them sound out unison. And that if you want to explore your aggressive side in a song like “Secret Surprise,” that aggression doesn’t have to be limited to the song’s noisier moments-- “I dream of pulling out your teeth”-- but can carry over into passages of sonic sweetness, too: “I’ve been waiting to crush your fucking skull.” If early-to-mid-2000s indie pop is stuff of the past, along with ‘90s grrrl punk and the hardcore of the ‘80s, the current rise of an act like Joanna Gruesome helps illuminate our present musical moment. This young band is working to show that nostalgia can be a catalyst for something new and that musical trends never have to limit what you can express, or how you should express it. --Madeline Steinberg
Kelela: CUT 4 ME [Fade To Mind]
In a recent interview with Complex, when asked about engaging with underground audiences versus mass-market appeal, L.A. singer Kelela Mizanekristos replied that “ambiguity is the most comfortable thing, the space between is where I want to live.” Lyrically, CUT 4 ME reveals a similar affinity for contradiction, engaging the grey areas of love and intimacy in the evolution of a relationship, shuttling between heartache, desire, and disappointment. On the production end of the project, one of the more striking things discussed about this release was Kelela’s marriage of confessional R&B with avant-garde beatwork from the Fade to Mind/Night Slugs contingent, and her determination in taking the lead in the composition of each track, in effect changing the power dynamics between DJ and chanteuse. While that’s a topic to consider in determining this mixtape’s significance, I’m honestly more interested in her willingness to inhabit an in-between state within musical genres and to voice conflicting and disparate desires often within the same song, recognizing that they are often so absolutely intertwined, respectively, in being a contemporary artist and in articulating feelings. --Luis Polanco
KMFH: The Boat Party [Wild Oats]
Kyle Hall’s latest, his debut LP and first solo release in two years, is a fucking badass: a chest-beating, fiery sucker that throws Detroit's various traditions into a splicer and extracts only the hardest remains of what’s left. The young musician has subverted his city’s expectations at every turn, preferring to work from the outside in, dotting potential anthemic trots with M60-loaded drums and phasing, distorting, and overblowing his samples. His penchant for relentless assault is by no means a repellant one, and The Boat Party remains one of 2013’s most essential dance records, while doubling up as a statement of intent.
Prior to the Party, Hall often excavated the more melancholic aspects of Detroit techno, taking some of the best work of Theo Parrish and Omar-S and reflecting it onto a funhouse mirror of UK bass and broken dub. While that’s still there on this LP (such as on “Crushed”), Hall’s main mission is to drive a rhythm until it breaks. “Dr. Crunch” dirties a synth line and repeats it infinitely, subtly distorting it while bringing a pounding kick drum deafeningly to the forefront. “Finnapop” flips ghetto tech on its ass, replacing the spoken filth with an equally spiteful and profane musical vocabulary. Either way, Kyle Hall throws himself into each tune with concentrated abandon, letting a no-nonsense mindset push his sounds into the outer limits of what we thought Detroit was capable, all the while giving no quarter for anyone who doubts it. --Brad Stabler
Laurel Halo: Chance of Rain [Hyperdub]
Laurel Halo’s 2012 album Quarantine coolly skidded across an anxious digital plane, one riddled with the detritus of information technology and the fraught nature of connectivity. Halo’s uneasy vocals spoke to that dystopian sci-fi reality, charging it with the perils of dehumanization. On “Tumor” a distant background vocal proclaims, “The signal keeps cutting out but one thing is clear / Nothing grows in my heart, there is no one here.” But Halo is quick to note the contingency of her lyricism, it too being threatened by disconnection. Quarantine closed with a disquieting sentiment: “Words are just words / that you soon forget.”
On Chance of Rain, Halo distances herself from the frailty of language altogether. She has, in fact, voiced her discomfort with singing, instead exhibiting an unabashed preference for crafting dynamic instrumentals and primal beats. In that regard, Chance of Rain is a logical successor to Behind the Green Door, an EP she released earlier this year. Where Quarantine was a hazy, multimedia experiment in post-pop, Chance of Rain is more meat-and-potatoes techno, deeply indebted to the thumping rhythms of Detroit. But to limit Chance of Rain to the techno label would be to disregard the multifaceted grooves and textures that Halo is playing with, from lilting piano (“Dr. Echt”) and ambient choruses of synth (“Melt”) to hard-edged and industrial bangers like “Still/Dromos.” Chance of Rain isn’t an album to snuggle up with, nor does it want to be; it can be a challenging listen, skeletal and unnerving. But as the title suggests, Chance of Rain is an album of contingency. Whether Halo’s tracks are playful or hard-nosed, distant or inviting, we may never know, but embracing those uncertainties and contradictions makes our listening experience all the more rewarding. --Julia Selinger
Migrations In Rust: Two Shadows [NNA Tapes]
Funny year it's been for the Red Light District. The collective of musicians and friends went silent for a few months after Sandy hit their Far Rockaway venue in October 2012. Yet 2013 was the year that Pharmakon released her debut on Sacred Bones, Yellow Tears played for the first time since 2011, John Mannion bought a theremin, and Alberich enjoyed a comprehensive reissue campaign on his friend Dominick Fernow's Hospital Productions label. DJ Dog Dick even got the old venue off the ground again. Jesse Allen-- part of Cathode Terrer Secretion alongside Mannion-- also released his most high profile work yet as Migrations In Rust, enjoying the visibility of releasing vinyl alongside Nate Young on the tautologically cassette-centric NNA Tapes. At first taste, Two Shadows rang as some sort of distended hip-hop project, like the sounds DJ Screw heard as he robotripped over death's curb. But upon closer listen, the album revealed itself to be the definitive, capital-“D” Drone statement of the year, blending the hi-fi ambience of orchestral samples with vocal-crooned climaxes. For all the moments that nod toward hip-hop, there are also those steeped in a bizarre insinuation of a jazz band, such as on “Cradle Under Fern.” As Allen noted in our interview with him, the album took him years to make, which is probably why it sounds like it will take years to reveal its multitudes. Jesse Allen-- effectively a noise musician in all of his other projects-- reveals that noise is not 100% over, just that it was never 100% the point. --Mike Sugarman
My Bloody Valentine: m b v [Self-Released]
Upon m b v’s release, review after review emphasized the utter improbability of the album’s existence. For many of My Blood Valentine’s fans, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that whenever-- if ever at all-- the Loveless follow-up emerged, it would disappoint. But it didn’t. Aesthetically, most of m b v engages in direct conversation with its predecessor, employing that trademark Valentinian musical language of swirling, smeared guitars and hypnotic, breathy vocals. But-- as one might expect from an album over 22 years in the making, I suppose-- most of these songs feel joyously unhurried, reveling in their unique, understated majesty. There are so many moments on this album-- melodies, chord progressions, tiny little musical gestures-- that I feel like I could listen to on loop forever without ever growing bored: the main guitar lead on “only tomorrow,” which seems to be in a perpetual state of simultaneous disintegration and regeneration; the way that Shields' gorgeously simple melody on “who sees you” feels like it could circle around on itself endlessly; or the sublime interplay between the rising synth melody and Shields' relaxed, at times even behind-the-beat “doo doo”'s on “new you.”
And we musn't forget the visceral and intense, tonally distinct final third of the record. There were very few more genuinely thrilling musical WTFs this year than “wonder 2,” which closes the album with an overwhelming onslaught of guitar screeches, airplane engine noises, and drum & bass-inflected rhythms unlike anything the band has put to tape before. I'm too young to have heard Loveless when it was first released. Instead, like many others, I found the album through best-of-the-90s lists and years-old blog posts, and then built a relationship with the record on my own, deeply personal terms. As 2013 draws to a close, then, I feel so lucky to have been able to share in the communal celebration of yet another magnificent My Bloody Valentine album. --Sean Delanty
Oneohtrix Point Never: R Plus Seven [Warp]
Oneohtrix Point Never’s now-infamous video for “Still Life (Betamale)”-- one of the more arresting things I’ve seen this year-- begins with a distant, anonymous female voice that isn’t featured on the album. In a cold, husky tone, she says, “As you look at the screen it is possible to believe you are gazing into eternity […] You can see every detail clearly, but cannot grasp the meaning.” Such are the sobering thoughts that R Plus Seven provokes. Through the album’s bricolage of unsettling loops and swelling synthesizers, Lopatin brings to the forefront any and all fears about the simultaneously inviting and terrifying glow of cyberspace. To a certain degree, these are the same aural building blocks with which Lopatin created 2011’s Replica, but the intent this time is different. While Replica’s layered sounds created some semblance of, dare I say, grooviness, R Plus Seven is a far more jarring affair, its sounds more abruptly juxtaposed.
As a result, OPN’s confrontation with digitalism is all the more confusing. It is something that comforts and engulfs us (“You see the things that were inside you”), sometimes to the point of anxiety (“You cannot find your way out of the maze”). It is simultaneously transient and perennial, disconcerting and pleasant. Ultimately, R Plus Seven is anything we want it to be, be it a commentary on disconnection, a work of heightened emotionalism, or a surreal mélange of syncopations. It’s this dual effect of guided authorship and personal experience that makes R Plus Seven such an enduring listen. In the words of the “Still Life (Betamale)” video itself, “You are convinced it has been created solely for you.” --Julia Selinger
Pure X: Crawling Up The Stairs [Acephale]
It has been repeatedly noted how Pure X's second album differs from the first in its mode of production, its carefully constructed songs recorded over multiple months rather than executed in a single, flawless take. The most significant consequence of this evolution is a more complex emotional palette; Crawling Up The Stairs offers a confusing, beautiful journey through a psychic breakdown and its subsequent, meditative resolve. That this is a record of dualities is immediately evident from the album artwork, which pictures a black snake and white snake intertwined. That unity of dark and light-- and the rejection of false polarities between good and bad, future and past, ignorance and wisdom, is central to the Pure X aesthetic, as is the manipulation of formal elements that are rather ordinary in themselves-- swirling guitar lines, distant-sounding feedback-- but that, combined, speak to a certain, transcendent truth. It’s a truth full of painful yet potentially transformative contrasts, one we can hear coming through on tracks like "I Come From Nowhere," where individual ego balks against the rigid markers of identity. The speaker in "Thousand Year Old Child," meanwhile, knows what is is to grow up while still being stuck in the helpless mindset of a kid. In "Someone Else," Nate Grace sings, "Come on, break me / Like you've been done yourself / Come on, take me down / Deep into your hell." In Pure X's music, that hellish realm is a necessary stop before surfacing on the other side. --Beth Tolmach
Tony Molina: Dissed and Dismissed [Melters]
Dissed and Dismissed seems, at first glance, to be very much a product of its time, a record heavily immersed in the ‘90s guitar rock references that have experienced a revival in the past few years. But Tony Molina, a veteran of the San Francisco hardcore scene, doesn’t limit his musical vocabulary to the melodic sensibilities of Guided by Voices, Weezer or Teenage Fanclub. Instead, he reaches back further, playing with our reverence for ‘90s alt-rock and the perceived kitsch of their antecedents. After all, Molina probably loves the life-affirming guitar heroics of Thin Lizzy just as much as Rivers Cuomo does. At the same time, Dissed and Dismissed’s taut and infectious, minute-long songs can also feel like an exercise in Ramones-ian pop deconstruction, occupied as much by Molina’s meticulous, baroque guitar arrangements as they are by his vocal hooks. And yet somehow, for all their brevity and structural simplicity, Molina manages to make these songs sound decadent. It’s these juxtapositions-- of minimalism and excess, and of camp and cool-- and the apparent effortlessness with which Molina executes them, that make this an album worth returning to. --Miguel Gallego
Deafheaven: Sunbather [Deathwish]
Fuck genre. If you're thinking of music in terms of that then you're a total puke, and it will endanger your enjoyment of music in the longterm. Many will approach Deafheaven as a black metal band, but Sunbather isn't a black metal album, it's not loved by a lot of black metal devouts. Maybe it's because of the melodicism of its openers "Dream House" and "Irresistable", or the slide guitar of "Please Remember" and "The Pecan Tree". Or maybe it's the post-rock influences coming through on the GYBE!-ism of "Windows," but either way Sunbather doesn't exactly scream kvlt. Deafheaven are just too good and would be going totally out of their way to be willingly obscure, and the fact that they're on Converge-run label Deathwish shows that. And like Converge, they shred on their own terms— the epic scope of standouts like "Sunbather" and "Vertigo" probe those terms. It's unfortunate that a lot of these conservatives end up floating in pools of their own recycled piss, condemning and discounting those who use some elements of black metal, not entirely unlike an asshole boyfriend who freaks out at their girlfriend for flirting with a different, but probably better looking, more considerate guy. But the fact is that she left for a reason, man, and it's because of you. She's way happier without you. --Ric Leichtung
Dean Blunt: The Redeemer [Hippos In Tanks]
A few months back, Dummy reported on an art show by Dean Blunt in which he lay face-down on the floor and showed a copy of All Dogs Go To Heaven on VHS. The post concluded with the line, “As ever, any attempts to decode Blunt’s art will prove fruitless.” This is certainly one way of reading Blunt's work-- especially The Redeemer-- considering his constant juggling of the respective psycho, idiot, and troll personas. But denying meaning in his work seems to play exactly into Blunt's game. Cheesy crooning, narcissistic lyrics, bloated orchestral arrangements: these are all the hallmarks of music that should theoretically be dismissed wholesale as either schmaltz or bullshit. Yet, the bizarre car crash sounds, train wreck voicemails, and lounge lizard hooks have demanded attention for the artist either despite or because of his apparent self-indulgence. Dean Blunt invites us into the mind of this performance character and we can't help but check it out several times over.
Of course, a large part of the fascination has to do with Blunt's past as part of Hyperdub's Hype Williams. This collaboration with Inga Copeland saw-- perhaps will still see-- him making lo-fi dance music with an ubiquitously sinister undertone. The Redeemer manages to commute the menacing vacuousness of One Nation and Black Is Beautiful into an album which ostensibly resembles neither of these efforts. Yet herein lies the key that unlocks the mystery, and if it doesn't lend The Redeemer meaning, it at least provides a context. The entire concept behind this album is that it sounds as hi-fi as the Hype Williams work was lo-fi; it's as schmaltzy and confessional as the Hype Williams work was cool and distant. In the words of a wise religious figure, “the second they like you, make them unlike you.” The question Blunt makes his mission statement is, “how much sociopathic balladry does it take before they start pelting me with rotten fruit?” --Mike Sugarman
Knx.: Anthology [Leaving]
Knxwledge, aka Glen Boothe, or just Knx, has been around for so long that Leaving Records’ Anthology feels like a 53-track reminder of why it’s worth keeping up with the Los Angelino producer's work. His admittedly ludicrous output shows no signs of slowing-- hell, just yesterday he rolled out the fifth part of karma.loops. Boothe was the first of the pioneers of what is commonly referred to as the “beat scene,” a clique of post-Dilla and Fly Lo-inspired heads passing beats back and forth on MySpace before outposts like Bandcamp and SoundCloud launched. Knx also was part of the brief Klipm0de collective in Philadelphia-- alongside Mndsgn, Sir Froderick, and Suzi Analogue-- all but one of whom have since moved West and launched ear-catching solo careers.
All that history aside, there’s a reason why eyes haven’t ceased to wane on Knxwledge. At the core of each of his productions is the right blend of playfulness, gritty drums, and hiss-filled, bargain bin soul. Here’s a perfect example: “LakFaith,” taken from 2010’s K∆NN∆LOUPE.EP but crammed into the middle of Anthology, juggles Scott Pilgrim, Blaxploitation, and Zelda samples with an addictive, stoned groove, anchored by a crispy snare and a Quiet Storm keyboard.
Even considering its hefty tracklisting, it’s easier to discuss what’s missing on the comp than what isn’t: cuts from his WrapTaypes and HexualSealings projects, as well as his debut, 3P, and his stunning collab with Sir Froderick, are all sorely missed, but that’s not the point of Anthology. The whole feels less like a retrospective and more like a proper album, even if several of the cuts here are skirting past four years old. Anthology avoids several of the pitfalls of a “greatest hits” comp, for better or worse: tracks aren't arranged in chronological order, complete tapes aren't just slapped on lazily, and even their origins are left in the dark, waiting for the brave soul to dive into his Bandcamp to see where all these damn orphans came from. The true distinguishing mark, ultimately, is how cohesive and consistently listenable the whole thing is: at 78 minutes and 92 BPM, Anthology, like Boothe’s discography as whole, asks a lot of the first-timer. Those who brave it will discover not only one of the best producers in hip-hop, but in all of current electronic music, period. --Brad Stabler
Koreless: Yugen [Young Turks]
Over the course of a humble, 4-year career, Glasgow-via-London producer Koreless, aka Lewis Roberts, has been slowly letting go of the gas pedal, stripping back his percussion in favor of a weightless, gorgeous bed of synth exercises. Last year’s “Lost in Japan” single foreshadowed the growth that Roberts displays wonderfully on this year’s 5-track Yugen EP, a concise, polyrhythmic conversation between warm textures and melancholy.
The skittering, sloppily shuffled drums of a few years ago may be gone, but Roberts has found something even more surprising. Arrangement-wise, Yugen leans far more on Pygmalion-era Slowdive and the keyboard washes of A Sunny Day in Glasgow than a UK-bred electronic record. But his melodies still reflect the haunted after-hours of London’s best clubs. Yugen operates on time-release: the childish, hiccupping vocal sample that glides over the descending chords of “Ivana” leaps over into the beautiful, patient lead single “Sun,” forming a counterpoint against its glitchy, anthemic melody. Elsewhere, “Last Remnants” and “Never” see Koreless using toy box sounds and hollow synths. On the former, the lead is slowly swallowed by keyboard feedback and on the latter, Koreless clashes two melodies together until they gel beautifully at the tune’s end. It’s hard to tell where Yugen will ultimately lie on Koreless’ career path-- either this is the apex of Koreless’ drumless production or the beginning of something more abstract-- but either way, the EP is best uncovered over time, revealing a trippy, ponderous headspace that gradually turns into something resembling home. --Brad Stabler
KMFH: The Boat Party [Wild Oats]
The Boat Party is not an album of dance floor edits. Kyle Hall is a man of ideas, and those ideas rarely have similar conclusions. The most fun one-- the self-evident “Grungy Gloops”-- lasts one minute and 33 seconds, while his most beautiful idea-- the deep house cut , “Measure 2 Measure”-- closes the album and barely sniffs at around seven minutes long. You see, The Boat Party comes from an artist who clearly understands the binary of dance floor and headphones. This doesn't mean that Hall thinks the two should result in mutually exclusive musical forms, but he certainly comprehends that it's a lot more desirable to sit down and listen to a succinct electronic piece than an endless burner. The approach conflicts somewhat with the yarns spun about Hall's status as a boy-prince in the Detroit royal lineage. This tale will mention a mentorship under Rick Wilhite, a 12” on Hyperdub, and, inevitably, his young age. This is of course all a recipe for hype, and as is always the case with hype, it's nothing if there aren't good ideas to back it up.
The Boat Party suggests that true innovation is brewed from a mash of influences. Such a brew has blinded those who have gotten too intoxicated, who have a lesser temperance than Hall. Consider the ever-growing influence of Chicago footwork. “Finna Pop” is Hall's answer to this trend. On it, the producer apes the aesthetic's vocal chops while leaving the rest of the juke game to the guys who started playing it long before him. You'll also hear flecks of Flying Lotus. The two producers share a knack for complex, novel grooves-- I could write a separate review lauding Hall's refreshingly discerning use of the 4/4 kick pattern-- but also for an energizing combination of cosmic oneness and belligerent joy. --Mike Sugarman
Mount Kimbie: Cold Spring Fault Less Youth [Warp]
"Post-dubstep," however obnoxious it can sound in conversation, is actually one of the more useful made-up subgenres. There was a strange evolution at the turn of the last decade after dubstep finished its reign as an unexpectedly international influence, this fork in the road where the deep bass, brooding atmosphere, and trippy sound sourcing all began interacting in different ways, be it in the electronic singer-songwriter persona of James Blake's self-titled LP or in the bombastic future trax style of Night Slugs' entire roster. Mount Kimbie were major players in this development, and will probably be remembered as key artists in something of an electronic music renaissance-- a slew of brilliant "dance" records that proved that these tactics were never meant to be purely be for singles, or dancing, or any limits really.
Considering the possibly easy route of just cashing in on proven success, the fact that the duo toss away their history on Cold Spring Fault Less Youth is testament to their creative integrity-- outside of "Made To Stray" and "Sullen Ground," there's not much in the way of fan service here, and I mean that as a high compliment. It's their best record by a large margin. The heavy presence of Kai Campo's vocals (and King Krule's two heavy contributions), the acoustic warmth of the drum kit sounds, the endless stock of hypnotic basslines-- it just seems nuts that these are the same people that made Lovers & Crooks, when I feel like I'm listening to Ta Det Lugnt.
It totally makes a mockery of any artistic identity as childish lane-choosing, in a weirdly similar way that Toro Y Moi did with Underneath the Pine. In both cases-- Toro's transition from Causers to Pine and Kimbie's from Lovers to Cold Spring-- each had been pigeonholed into made up subgenres (chillwave / post-dubstep) by the predominant textures and processes they used on ONE set of songs (synths, samples, drum machines) only to make an extension of that work using the completely opposite palette (keys, vocals, and kits, from blue/green/grey to pink/orange/tan, digital ice into magnetic-stripped humidity). I also doubt that they care about any of that. With Cold Spring, the duo seems more concerned with delivering eleven distinct examples of melodic, inventive production that tears down walls rather than reinforce them. --Matt Sullivan
My Bloody Valentine: m b v [self-released]
How did this album end up arriving at the perfect time? It seems to defy all logic and precedent: a comeback record so heavily delayed that the legacy of its predecessor, Loveless, had debatably grown more powerful than that of the band itself. The uncertainty that MBV even existed was rivalled by a greater uncertainty that anything like it could exist-- how could they follow up their own magnum opus? What's most important is the music, but in exceptional circumstances such as these, where listeners have an unusually deep investment in a band, it's hard not to recall experiencing this album without getting too personal.
Needless to say, my faith was close to depleted by the time mbv suddenly appeared. Things were freezing, lonely, and it felt like I hadn't heard an amazing rock album in aeons. It's a complaint that I gave and heard throughout 2012, but that was inherently subjective and tough to prove outside of a glance at the top ten lists and, perhaps, the prevalence of EDM-related thinkpieces in mainstream media outlets. But for whatever reason, it felt very real-- people started saying things like "guitar music," as though it were some arcane, elusive breed. It felt like losing your roots; so when My Bloody Valentine just strolled through the door, I couldn't help but lash out and ask, "Where the fuck were you?!"
It didn't matter. In fact, most of the pretenses that were constructed around this album ended up being totally irrelevant. It didn't matter how long it took, it didn't matter what happened last year, it didn't matter that Loveless had a seemingly insurmountable legacy, it didn't matter what the songs were called, it didn't matter if they timed a press release a certain way, and it didn't matter when or how it was actually recorded. Somehow, a record that had already gone through a full lifespan as pure context effortlessly transcended that baggage by giving us exactly what we wanted in a completely unexpected way.
Many of the MBV trademarks were there-- the snapping snare roll that opens "who sees you," the Manchester psych breakbeat of "new you," the heartbeats-meets-glidey-guitars gauze of "she found now," all echoing things that we loved about "Come In Alone," "Soon," and "Sometimes," respectively-- but it hardly felt like a rehashing, particularly since it was interspersed with foreign, bizarro-even-for-them moments like the waw'ing organ progressions in "if i am," the dry-as-dust lone guitar melody that closes out "only tomorrow," and, of course, the pupil-shakingly loud wall-of-drum echo that makes listening to "wonder 2" feel like being torn apart in a turbine just as you lay first glance on the pearly gates. When all was said and done, and people concluded their initial group IRL listening parties (P.S. when was the last time we did that??), any pretense or hype was rightfully eroded, leaving behind an independently created masterpiece from old friends we thought we'd lost that I'm sure we'll still be listening to for as long as it takes to make the next one. --Matt Sullivan
Pure X: Crawling Up The Stairs [Acéphale]
A few months before it came out, we made the mistake of blasting an advance copy of Crawling Up the Stairs over the 285 Kent stereo system during one of our weekly editorial meetings. We had a lot on the agenda for the evening, so it was more of a treat to ourselves for staying late at the office than a focused listening session, but that didn’t stop Pure X’s second LP from slowly gnawing away at our conversation, like an itch. When Nate Grace turns out a line like “Come on, make me/Into someone else/You know I need it/Don’t keep it to yourself,” as he does on the skeletal love song “Someone Else,” his voice trembling as though the words aren’t a big enough container for the emotions they are meant to contain, it’s pretty hard to focus on anything else that’s going on in the room. I’m pretty sure that I was in the middle of saying something when I first heard it, but the bluntness and pain of Grace’s insight into the inner mechanics of romantic relationships made me trail off mid-sentence, just as the remainder of the album, with its clouds of textural ambience and pillowy, suspended rhythms, had us all continually spacing out mid-thought.
Beyond the facts surrounding Crawling Up the Stairs that have already been repeated to death-- that it splits songwriting duties between Grace and bass player Jesse Jenkins, that it’s the first Pure X release to prominently feature synths and the vocoder, that it was produced in a studio with the aim of recreating the fidelity of old country records-- I think it’s that balance between arresting detail and floaty diffuseness that makes this record so affecting and addicting. It’s slow and tuneful enough to be something you’d consider putting on while you’re doing something else, but like the most memorable dreams, it’s the kind of thing that feels vague and evanescent until the moment it gets so acutely painful that it wakes you up. --Emilie Friedlander
Steve Gunn: Time Off [Paradise of Bachelors]
The decade-long rise of music blog culture and the social web has drastically shortened the timeline of rock’s evolution. Instant nostalgia has stripped the romanticism out of music, so the opportunity to watch a musician evolve over time-- exploring different configurations and collaborators, revisiting and revising material-- is a rare and welcome one. When that process results in a "make good" release that embodies all of the efforts up to that moment, even better. Such is the case with Steve Gunn's Time Off, a sly title for an album that represents anything but.
The most striking thing about Time Off is Gunn's open and confident use of his voice. Although it featured prominently on previous releases for Three Lobed, there is a boldness and understated beauty to his vocal performance here, made all the more impactful because just a few years ago, Gunn's solo shows were almost exclusively instrumental. Relentless gigging has crystallized the chemistry between Gunn and his collaborators, John Truscinski on drums and Justin Tripp on bass. On record, the group is a veritable low-key power trio, each player locked in and playing with conviction in the service of the song. Time Off is one of the key records of the current traditional rock revival, a lasting testament to Gunn's tireless efforts and extraordinarily rapid growth as a performer and songwriter. --Max Burke
Various Artists: Ground Zero [Always Restrictions/Toxic State]
Inserting itself alongside a legacy of city-centric comps like New York Thrash, Washington D.C.'s Flex Your Head, and This Is Boston, Not L.A., Ground Zero is a stellar showcase of NYC's burgeoning punk scene right now, pegged around punk fest New York's Alright last April. There's certainly enough talent on the bill and around New York to make a solid comp with a few tracks from the big boys of the fest. But the aim wasn't to do another Blasting Concept comp, which had blocks of tracks from Black Flag, Minutemen, and the Meat Puppets mixed in with a few up-and-comers peppered in for good measure. That kind of thing could have been done with a collection of anthemic screeches from Crazy Spirit, d-beat heaviness from Perdition, and primal chaos from Dawn of Humans, but it wasn't.
Toxic State's foresight to give even the newest, uninitiated bands the spotlight is what makes this comp really special, and just how good these young'uns are is the cherry on top. A few bands, like the delay-laden Putrida and the baby-faced Murderer, are so new that their first material is premiered on this release. The comp so accurately captures Brooklyn's punk climate in the few months leading up to the festival that it already leads to nostalgia. Bortgang broke up before the comp was even released in May. And despite being around for more than six years, Perdition's entry ended up being their last as the band has since played their final show. The comp closes with a rarity from the also defunct Hank Wood and the Hammerheads, whose album, Go Home, was one of the best records of 2012. A harrowing testament to the appalling transience of music scenes looms over this record. And though not much time will have to pass until even more bands end are mourned, I'm reminded of the importance of now and never forgetting it. --Ric Leichtung
Wolf Eyes: No Answer: Lower Floors [De Stijl]
Everyone needs a cause, I guess, and mine has been weaseling No Answer: Lower Floors into conversation at all possible junctures. Sue me. Wolf Eyes manages to reiterate its mission with each major release, somehow getting better every time an integral member has left: first Aaron Dilloway, then Mike Connelly. Nate Young and John Olson talk about new member “Crazy Jim” Baljo as a bluesguitarist, and describe his union with the group as an opportunity to focus on executing plans as opposed to just freaking out and fucking around. This is to say that No Answer: Lower Floors has witnessed Wolf Eyes finish evolving from weirdos who dress like a biker gang to weirdos who dress like a biker gang and make rock-and-fucking-roll.
No Answer: Lower Floors inspires awe through its dedication to regiment. Wolf Eyes made an album of utmost brutality by making one of utmost precision. Just listen to those bass drums, which bust your lip wide open then resonate off the warehouse walls as you squirm on the ground. The album's most debilitating moments are culled from restraint, as evidenced by a genius track sequencing that sees “No Answer” chill you out before “Chattering Lead” transforms your head into Swiss cheese. And more than anything-- more significant than the sounds themselves-- is the fact that Wolf Eyes are bringing noise back to rock and roll at a time when the noise scene is atrophying in hermitage. Wolf Eyes went on a nearly-two decade journey to the edge and came back to show the world how to use this noise thing to keep rock and roll alive. It's as if Nate Young and company were trying show us what happens when you peel all of Neil Young's distortion away. --Mike Sugarman