Tuesday, 10 December 2013

2013: Joe Sherwood's Favourite Albums

When it comes to making these year-end lists, I always try to pick out trends in my listening habits, and I always come up with nothing. I'm not trying to say I have an amazingly diverse taste in music, because I don't particularly; only a few rock albums have made it onto my top 50, and unbelievably there are no representatives for metal. The lack of any real dominant focus in my music listening most likely owes to the increasingly fragmented state of music. We live in the age of information, and pretty much any record of one's choosing is available to stream, purchase or (perhaps) download for nothing within a few clicks. Moreover, a lot of the best records this year are available for free at the artist's choice, and it's telling that 3 of my top 10 albums can be downloaded legally without charge. And, the definition of what exactly an "album" is has become hazy of late, with mixtapes and EPs slotting alongside commercially available, full-length releases. The point I'm trying to make here is that this top 50 isn't some sort of vanity exercise to show how unique my tastes are, nor is it an overblown advertisement for independent labels. It's simply a showcase of my personal favourites from the past year, and any diversity is most likely down to the prominence of the internet rather than a conscious decision on my part to appear on trend.

As ever, there was some unpleasant culling that had to be done to keep this list at 50 records, and some really rather good albums are missing from this list. I would honor them here, but there are far too many to reel off, so I may make a separate post for the honorable mentions. I'll also include a Spotify playlist at the foot of this post with some of my favourite tracks from each album (provided the album is actually on Spotify, of course). Please, don't dwell on the rankings too much, because every single one of these 50 records is absolutely worth checking out.

Thanks for reading //APEX this year, and I hope you can find something you enjoy from this list.

50. Ahnnu Battered Sphinx (NNA Tapes)
49. Jerusalem In My Heart Mo7it-Al-Mo7it (Constellation)
48. LAMPGOD & **Ł_RD//$M$ **$$EXT8PE (Bootleg Tapes)
47. DonChristian The Wayfarer (Greedhead)
46. Friendzone DX (Self-released)
45. Joe Panzner and Greg Stuart Dystonia Duos (ErstAEU)
44. Lumigraph Nautically Inclined (Opal Tapes)
43. Forest Swords Engravings (Tri Angle)
42. Ensemble Pearl Ensemble Pearl (Drag City)
41. Lieven Martens Moana Music From the Guardhouse (KRAAK)
40. Lucrecia Dalt Syzygy (HEM)
39. Fat White Family Champagne Holocaust (Trashmouth)
38. The House In the Woods Bucolica (Exotic Pylon)
37. William Basinski Nocturnes (2062)
36. Heatsick Re-Engineering (PAN)
35. D/P/I Espresso Digital (Chance Images)
34. Death Grips Government Plates (Third Worlds)
33. Cream Juice Man Feelings (Orange Milk)
32. Inga Copeland Higher Powers (Self-released)
31. Boards of Canada Tomorrow's Harvest (Warp)

30. Ryoji Ikeda Supercodex (Raster-Noton)

The third and final installment in his Datamatics series sees Ryoji Ikeda re-use sounds from Dataplex and Test Pattern to a shockingly abrasive effect. Although it's the most self-referential of Ikeda's records, it would be very difficult to pinpoint what is borrowed from where, to the point where Supercodex sounds like a completely new composition. There's a stomach-churning quality to the mangled digital waves that are emitted in stabbing staccato bursts, and in keeping the Datamatics series it still sounds like a million computers breaking at once, albeit a little nastier than ever before.

29. C Spencer Yeh / Okkyung Lee / Lasse Marhaug Wake Up Awesome (Software)

The second release in the SSTUDIOS series is a meeting of three eminent noise artists in C Spencer Yeh (of Burning Star Core), Okkyung Lee and Lasse Marhaug, and it's about as unhinged as a collaborative improvisation could get. It would be a mistake to isolate moments, since the album is best appreciated in its entirety, but whenever I hear the ridiculous ragtime piano chords crash into waves of electro-acoustic sludge on "Anise Tongue and Durian Wet Dream", I cannot help but crack a huge grin. It's one of many masterstrokes within the whole of the masterstroke that is Wake Up Awesome, and it serves as a timely reminder that sometimes, the all-too-serious world of experimental music can be plain old fun.

28. Tim Hecker Virgins (Kranky)

Can Tim Hecker do no wrong? It certainly seems that way, and Virgins upholds this trend nicely. This record sees Hecker explore some of his harshest textures yet, but the overriding sense of majesty always manages to shine through. His manipulation and utilisation of live instrumentation is used to a greatly haunting effect here, and although the end product is not quite as elegiac as, say, Radio Amor, there is a real sense of beauty and grace in every glitch and loop within Virgins.

27. Le1f Fly Zone (Greedhead)

2013 was the year that everybody stopped being so hung up about "queer" rap, and starting accepting LGBT rappers on purely musical terms. Perhaps the most vividly realised release from the scene came from NY rapper Le1f, who has had his own little breakout moment this year in Fly Zone. His liquid flow is matched by murky beats typical of the LGBT scene, and his tales of promiscuity from his city's underground provides some of the most engrossing commentary of any rapper this year.

26. RP Boo Legacy (Planet Mu)

If footwork has a starting point, it would surely be RP Boo, who up until 2013 hadn't a proper full length to his name. Legacy, then, duly fulfills its titular promise of displaying just how important Boo is to the genre at large, with complete complete control over his smorgasbordic selection of sampled sounds, and indeed over his drum kits, with every kick, snare and hi-hat as precisely deployed as the last. It's a testament to the man that even the noticeably older tracks still sound soulful, fresh and exciting at a time when the realms of footwork are overcrowded with pretenders and imitators.

25. Matana Roberts COIN COIN Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile (Constellation)

There's something transformative about well-executed free jazz, and Matana Roberts' COIN COIN series has thus far provided listeners with some thrilling, visceral music. While Chapter Two is decidedly less "free" than the inaugural chapter, it's still a powerful experience, possibly down to the juxtaposition of the operatic singer with Roberts' own inward-looking voice. It's also an immensely personal one, as Roberts focuses on the struggles of her immediate family in the post-war era, as America gradually moved towards the black civil rights movement. Although it lacks some of the more intense moments present in Chapter One, Mississippi Moonchile is a dynamic, compelling record, and it's a worthy successor.

24. Factory Floor Factory Floor (DFA)

Factory Floor have spent the best part of the past few years carving out their own niche, adopting a "post-industrial" approach to their own sonic (de)constructions. Their self-titled debut is the band's most crystalline outing yet, with sparse instrumentation and rhythmic repetition at the album's core. It's a startlingly singular achievement with some truly great songs ("Fall Back", "Two Different Ways", etc.), and it's indicative of even greater things to come from an already accomplished outfit.

23. The Haxan Cloak Excavation (Tri Angle)

In previous ventures as The Haxan Cloak, Bobby Krlic has distilled a very potent sense of fear into musical form. His second album under the moniker, Excavation, is less reliant on live instruments than the eponymous debut record and instead occupies the deepest, darkest crevices of digitally reproduced sound. There are some genuinely shocking moments, most notably the abrupt beginning of "Miste", and as an exercise in terrifying atmospherics, Excavation is one of the finest of this year.

22. Danny Brown Old (Fool's Gold)

Self-professed "hipster nigga" Danny Brown has had a barnstorming year, with some promising singles and excellent guest spots, culminating in the release of Old, his follow-up to the widely acclaimed XXX. Listeners who had only jumped onboard around XXX might initially be shocked by the album's first half, which is a throwback to a more introspective "Gangster" Danny Brown, but they'll be sure to feel at home when the adderall admiral starts reeling off the bangers in the latter stages. So, not a cohesive album by any means, but that is indeed what makes Old so intriguing; it's an album that will cater to just about any hip-hop fan, in an amalgamation of the conscious and the ridiculous.

21. Rashad Becker Traditional Music of Notional Species Vol. I (PAN)

If you've ever bought a record from the PAN label, or indeed from the Boomkat website, there's a very real possibility it was cut and mastered by the legendary Rashad Becker, of Dubplates & Mastering. Traditional Music of Notional Species, Vol. 1 is his first set of recorded material, and his meticulous attention to detail is easy to hear. This is an album in constant flux, with microscopic sonic detailing and some extraordinarily complex structures. Traditional Music is visceral, exciting and explores completely new avenues in the science of sound; anyone with even a fleeting interest in noise music should seek it out.

20. Mark Templeton Jealous Heart (Under the Spire)

Having heard nothing from Canadian sound artist Mark Templeton prior to Jealous Heart, I went in rather interested in his "glitchy" sound which has drawn comparisons to the work of Tim Hecker and James Kirby's Caretaker project. Indeed, these are worthy comparisons, but Jealous Heart still has to go down as an impressively unique achievement that harbors a real affection for its source material, which is chopped up, stretched out, and turned into something magical. It's a beautifully transfixing affair from start to finish, and even the uninitiated in electro-acoustic music could find wonder in the haze of Jealous Heart.

19. Burial Truant / Rough Sleeper (Hyperdub)

As long as Burial keeps releasing music, he will be something of an omnipresence within these year-end lists of mine. Truant / Rough Sleeper is but another fantastic release, with two sprawling side-long tracks that feature all the hallmarks of Burial's now-classic sound: choppy drum patterns, subtle use of bass, treated vocals and warming vinyl crackle. A characteristically beautiful document, Burial's craft at this stage needs no further honing, for he sounds at the height of his powers with every new release.

18. Pharmakon Abandon (Sacred Bones)

It all begins with a blood-curdling shriek, and from there on in one is plunged into an abyssal world of rattling chains and bleak, desperate voices. Abandon is as intensely personal as a harsh noise record could get, with Pharmakon (real name Margaret Chardiet) deploying crushing waves of feedback and metallic percussion against her tormented vocals. The record feels like some kind of exorcism, a purging of the soul, and as such it's unthinkably deep, dark and unsettling.

17. Logos Cold Mission (Keysound)

Jam City's Classical Curves was something of a watershed moment for the burgeoning UK (post?) bass scene, spearheaded by the Night Slugs and Fade to Mind labels. Over the past year, Keysound has entered the collective consciousness of the scene with their wonderful showcase album This Is How We Roll, but the label's zenith came in the form of Logos' Cold Mission. Just as Classical Curves provided the angular soundtrack to a dystopian garage night, Cold Mission is a painstakingly sparse yet brilliantly executed record, recalling the ghosts of jungle and grime. Glass breaks, gunshots fly and horns go off, but these nods to previous producers never feels trite or misguided: this is grime deconstructed and re-framed for the future, sounding at once familiar yet otherworldly.

16. DJ Rashad Double Cup (Hyperdub)

Double Cup didn't prove to be the revelation that TEKLIFE Vol. 1: Welcome to the Chi was for me last year, but at this stage it didn't really need to be; in my opinion, DJ Rashad is the best producer in footwork right now. It would be wrong to describe his approach as 'workmanlike', for his unbelievable efficiency is matched by his creativity, and Double Cup proves once again that business-as-usual is a concept Rashad clearly doesn't buy into. There are clearly many influences on this record, from soul and RnB (injected by TEKLIFE stablemate DJ Spinn) to jungle and acid house, and it makes for an eclectic potpourri of sounds and styles. 2013 has been a flagship year for footwork, and with Double Cup, Rashad demonstrates exactly why he is arguably the genre's figurehead.

15. These New Puritans Field of Reeds (Infectious) 

There is something distinctly pastoral about the constituent parts of Field of Reeds. I've talked of "beauty" (or words to that effect) for a number of albums in this list, but pretty much no other record this year can boast the sheer elegance of this album. Much like the shift in style Talk Talk made before them, These New Puritans have seemingly removed the angsty post-punk tendencies of Beat Pyramid and Hidden and have aimed for something altogether more ambitious. Sure, it's less immediate for it, but part of the joy of Field of Reeds is unraveling its ethereal exterior and spending time with it, and like all good records there is plenty to be found.

14. The Knife Shaking the Habitual (Mute)

Of course, the real reason to listen to Shaking the Habitual is for the stellar pop numbers that litter the tracklist: "Raging Lung", "Full of Fire", "A Tooth for an Eye", "Without You My Life Would Be Boring"... need I go on? Much has been made of the Knife's experimental bent on this record, and indeed it is interesting to see a 20-or-so minute ambient track stuffed into the middle of it all. But while many choose to focus on the noise pieces and the overly ambitious concepts behind the record, it'd be easy to forget that Shaking the Habitual is a creative, playful collection of fantastic songs, with some interesting social commentary to boot.

13. Tape Loop Orchestra In a Lonely Place (Fracture)

As the bleak winter takes hold, I know I can seek solace within the realms of In a Lonely Place. Music constructed using tape loops has been plentiful this past year, but perhaps the most poignant, affecting statement has come from Andrew Hargreaves' Tape Loop Orchestra project. Just as William Basinski did with his Disintegration Loops, the three long compositions on In a Lonely Place explore tape's capacity to decay in a touching, memorable fashion, but while Basinski's pieces are set against the melancholy backdrop of New York's singed skyline following the 9/11 attacks, Hargreaves instead allows light to glimmer through the crackling surface of the music. It's a glacial, deeply moving experience, matched by few other records from this past year.

12. The Dead C Armed Courage (Ba Da Bing!)

The Dead C are hardly a household name, but their influence on experimental rock is difficult to deny. Armed Courage could've been just another uninspired release in a year of uninspired rock albums, but these restless innovators would simply not have it that way: these two side-long movements drift and glide just as much as they crush and destroy. As ever, improvisation is a central factor of The Dead C's sound, and while an improvisational approach in lesser hands could lead to dull passages of sludgy guitar, Armed Courage is a positively vital incision into rock's rather lifeless lull here in 2013.

11. Autechre Exai (Warp)

Autechre had shifted towards a warm, almost human, approach to electronics on Oversteps and Move of Ten, but they are never ones to rest on their laurels, as their experimental past demonstrates. Exai, then, is an interesting mixture of Oversteps-style user friendliness and the angularity of Confield, and at around 2 hours long it can be a fatiguing listen. Patience is a virtue when exploring Exai, but an attentive listen is a rewarding one, with all the tics and minuscule details one could expect from an Autechre album. Ultimately, Exai is a layered, impenetrably arranged record, but a careful examination will reveal some of the most wonderfully crafted electronic music this year.

10. Kanye West Yeezus (Def Jam)

I've listened to Yeezus on and off throughout the past few months, and it's clear to me that Yeezy is being as deliberately off-putting as he possibly can. Everything about this album is ugly: there isn't a cover, some of the lyrics are jarring (for want of a better word), and it combines a rather abrasive electro-industrial sound with Kanye's usual pop-rap tropes. I'm sure you'll be able to tell within the first few seconds of "On Sight" whether on not this is a record for you, as the Daft Punk-produced skronk sets in and Kanye spits about putting his "black dick all in your spouse again". And yet, Yeezus is an album filled with impeccable, peerless moments that remind me exactly why Kanye is as revered as he is; the Nina Simone-sampling "Blood on the Leaves" is, to my mind, six minutes of complete artistic realisation. Whatever you think may think of his persona, Yeezus is proof that Kanye West is one of the greatest minds in popular music, willing to take risks to push himself, and indeed the whole genre, forward.

9. 18+ MIXTAP3 (Self-released)

Jean Baudrillard wrote that a simulacrum isn't a mere reflection of reality, but instead takes on an existence in its own right. This description feels especially apt when exploring 18+'s narcotic-fuelled haze of a hyperreal dreamscape, aka MIXTAP3. Just like their previous mixtapes, MIXTAP3 is steeped in the sterility of a Second Life-esque existence. Promiscuity and sexuality once again defines this delightfully perverted set, but what sets MIXTAP3 apart from the rest of 18+'s back catalogue is the crystallisation of the music itself, which is pitched in a dark place somewhere between witch house and cloud rap. Their commitment to refining their already uniquely post-internet, post-human sound is what makes MIXTAP3 their most engaging release to date.

8. James Ferraro NYC, Hell 3:00 AM (Hippos In Tanks)

In my original review of NYC, Hell 3:00 AM [via WhatCulture!], I considered how unremittingly bleak the whole affair was. James Ferraro's albums post-Far Side Virtual have always had an uneasy sense of humour about them, but NYC, Hell 3:00 AM is just plain uneasy. By taking his cues from "Manhattan's sinister skyline", Ferraro has created a record that's deeply personal yet cold to the touch, painfully human yet mechanical in its construction. As contradictory as it is, NYC, Hell 3:00 AM is also one of this year's most absorbing records, and it proves to be a substantial culmination of his many experiments and flirtations with hip-hop and RnB.

7. John Butcher / Thomas Lehn / John Tilbury Exta (Fataka)

My whole-hearted recommendation of Exta comes with a little prerequisite; you needn't apply if you require music to adhere to structure and form. Indeed, this is an experimental album, but that's not to say it's amateurish in performance. The exact opposite is true of Exta, with three of free improvisation's finest artists meeting head-to-head in a fantastically executed recording. The interplay between Butcher's sax, Lehn's synthesiser and Tilbury's piano is totally and utterly mesmerising, swinging from sparse, haunting notes to unhinged instrumental chaos in sections. It's a unique, immensely powerful document from some of the very best in their respective fields, and it also serves as proof that collaborations can result in some truly arresting music.

6. Arca &&&&& (Self-released)

It has been a memorable 2013 for Arca, who captured my attention last year with his fantastic Stretch EPs. Not only has he worked on the subtle underbelly of Yeezus, but he's also significantly widened his audience. I say that's an extremely good thing, because the more people who hear &&&&&, the better. Simply put, nothing else out there sounds quite like Arca's mutated brand of hip-hop, complete with more ridiculous sampling and all kinds of alien sonics. This is outsider music done absolutely right, and at 25 minutes in length it's a matter of conciseness as well.

5. Laurel Halo Chance of Rain (Hyperdub)

I didn't think she could do it for the second year running, but Laurel Halo has bowled me over once again with Chance of Rain, a stunningly beautiful all-instrumental suite. I would hesitate to call it a straight-up techno album, as while it certainly takes its cues from the Detroit sound, Chance of Rain never embraces any particular tradition or concept of what a techno record should be. It floats above and beyond genre classification, and should only really be accepted on its own terms; as a remarkable, elegant and fully-formed work from one of the best artists in electronic music right now.

4. Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet Photographs (Erstwhile)

Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet's collaborative works have always had a fascinatingly approachable angle about them. You see, the realms of electro-acoustic improvisation and musique concrète can be cold and inaccessible, but the Lambkin/Lescalleet partnership has always resulted in some touchingly personal material, as if they are inviting one into the inner workings of their respective existences. Photographs is another album that transforms the mundanities of life (conversations at the dinner table, driving around the neighbourhood, visiting church) into a dramatic, gripping work of art. It's an insightful experience, and taken as it whole it is a truly transcendental sonic document.

3. Ahnnu World Music (Leaving)

World Music is comfortably my most-played album of 2013, and I imagine I will still be listening to it well into next year, and indeed the years to come. Sure, it's a tantalisingly brief album, clocking in at under 20 minutes in length, but the most obvious reason for the playcount is simply how good it is. World Music is a piece of molecular sonic tapestry, a true testament to Ahnnu's surgeon-like precision regarding sample splicing and beat deployment. Serenity is central to the album's sound, and it can be taken in as a fully-focused listening session or as a gentle piece of ambience, and while I would encourage the former approach, it is telling that this cassette retains its vitality in both the background and the forefront of the mind. It's a reminder of just how magnificent sample-based music can be, delivered by one of the most promising producers around.

2. Dean Blunt The Redeemer / Stone Island (Hippos In Tanks/World Music)

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In what is an ever-confusing web of intrigue and mystery, Dean Blunt's agonising road to redemption is told through two of the past year's most vividly realised pieces of avant-pop. The Redeemer and Stone Island are shrouded in Blunt's self-styled fog, but for all of Blunt's dislocated personal tangles and manic-depressive storylines, these two releases are strangely approachable, and, dare I say, relatable on some levels. Perhaps the key to this lies in his ingenious use of samples, ranging from Kate Bush to Pink Floyd to K-Ci & JoJo. While it's still difficult to decipher exactly what the hell is going on here, these are two albums of immeasurable depth, and although Blunt still performs with cloak-and-dagger bravado, his music has reached new levels of crisp clarity thanks to the use of unobscured MIDI, marking these albums as bizzare entries into his already baffling back-catalogue. As you can see by this description, it is difficult to articulate the allure of Dean Blunt, but perhaps we should call his bluff and, in his own words, "stop trying to make sense of things", and just enjoy the damn music. It happens to be very, very special.

1. Oneohtrix Point Never R Plus Seven (Warp)

"Mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual."
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction. 1935.

Art, says Walter Benjamin, has always been reproducible. Here in the year 2013 this sentiment feels especially appropriate, with sample-based music littering not only the corners of the world wide web, but also some of the most commercially successful music of the year. Indeed, we have a microgenre called vaporwave, which is heavily reliant on methods of dismemberment - looping, pitch-shifting, tempo-altering, changing - for an established readymade, most prominently soul/RnB or boardroom ambience. It's a fascinating style, but it is by very definition a case of mechanical reproduction, taking something and replicating it, albeit in a splintered form. It begs the question: does this devalue any artistic merit that it may possess? 

If vaporwave can be traced back to one starting point, it would probably be Chuck Person's Eccojams, a cassette released by an artist by the name of Dan Lopatin in 2010. It was nothing short of an intrusion into well-known songs, with the likes of Fleetwood Mac and JoJo having their art dismembered and transformed into a looping, decaying penumbra of its former self. One year later, Lopatin released an album called Replica, under the Oneohtrix Point Never moniker. His definition of what constitutes an ecco/echo jam would appear to be in constant flux; in 2009, it was the sound of his arpeggiated, reverberated Juno-60 synthesiser, while two years later it became the claustrophobic sighs of a soda commercial, doomed to spend the rest of eternity within 3 minutes of looped "Ah!"s. Replica breathed life into mundanity, and all of a sudden mechanical reproduction became an approach that opened up possibilities for exciting music to be created (or indeed re-created).

So, a couple of years divorced from Replica and we arrive at R Plus Seven. While looped commercials don't reappear this time around, appropriation of sound remains at the beating heart of Lopatin's music. R Plus Seven takes all the chintz of MIDI presets, as well as garbled streams of sonic information, and rearranges them into an exquisite, unnerving work of art. It is very easy to read into Lopatin's aesthetic choices, as well as his fantastic music videos, but if all traces of concept and thematics are removed, it remains that R Plus Seven still sounds absolutely amazing: the epic "Americans" is a voyage into the tropics sound-wise, and the record is bookended by the solemn sounds of a church organ, hinting at religious overtones. Then, there's the strangely wide-eyed, euphoric "Still Life", and the shattered centrepiece "Zebra", with shards of dislocated vocal cuts and abrupt, savaged synths.

In short, R Plus Seven is magical. It's a delicate balancing act of hyperreality and ultra-aesthetics, but with a master's touch Lopatin makes it work. Maybe, just maybe, it is the strongest case yet for mechanical reproduction as a serious, fully-fledged way of performing and creating a work of art. There is no "dependence on ritual" to be found in R Plus Seven. It is precisely everything I think an album should be in 2013; engaging, exciting, disturbing, angularly humorous and forward-thinking-yet-whimsical, all through the scope of a man, his samplers and his trusty Juno-60.


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