I know, I know, just what you need – another list of great albums that you feel compelled to ignore. Well, here’s what I have to say about that: suit yourself. But, by not giving these albums a listen you are doing yourself (and the world… perhaps the universe) a terrible injustice. In case you are wondering, the vast majority of these were not listed by Rolling Stone nor Mojo nor npr . Dave Matthews is not on the list, nor is John Mayer. So if that is what you are interested in you will be sorely disappointed, incredibly puzzled, or positively irate that my taste is so different from yours. Thus, without further ado, here is some of the most sublime music from 2013:
In alphabetical order by the last letter of the title:
Jim Haynes – The Wires Cracked
One of my favorite cultural philosophers, Jean Gebser, theorizes that a prerequisite for the unfolding of human consciousness into what he terms The Integral Structure is the process of making all “previous” structures – archaic, magical, mythical, mental/rational – transparent to one another. One of the most interesting symptoms of the current structure (mental/rational) is our relationship with technology. Look no further than the analogy that the human brain is somehow akin to a computer… the metaphors abound. Technology has integrated itself with music to such a degree that it is no longer really feasible to delineate the two. Glitch was an interesting moment in modern musical history in that it forced the listener to gaze through the lens of faulty technology in order to perceive the music that was lying underneath. In my mind, Jim Haynes has taken this idea to its most fruitful and beautiful extreme. Jim taps into the invisible yet ultimately pervasive realm of electric current, magnetism, radio waves, and decay. As Jim says, he “rusts things”. The Wires Cracked is a soundtrack to a world we would rather ignore, a world we would rather peer through than at. Stunning.
Wrekmeister Harmonies – You’ve always meant so much to me
I cannot get enough of this album. At every listen, more is revealed. What at first listen appeared as an amorphous mass of sound has transmogrified into a delicate balance of bows, plucks, scrapes, drones, and bubbling electronics. Little melodies begin to emerge that mysteriously vanish back onto the wash of tone clusters. Here is a confession… I pray to the little tiny healing hands of baby Jesus that I’ll be forgiven for my transgression… but I enjoyed the downloaded version better. Crap! I said those words. Here’s why. This album is a slow burn, not unlike God Speed You Black Emperor at their most patient. Just as Side 1 begins to build I had to get up and flip the record. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do love me that vinyl but this recording deserves to be heard as a piece, uninterrupted. Because: as Side 2 hits the midway it busts into the most finest of black metal riffs. Oddly, it does not feel out of place on this otherwise drone oriented work. On the contrary, it feels like a most well earned orgasm. This is a ridiculously well conceived record. Highly recommended. (Though I do feel that it would be better served on cd.)
Teho Teardo and Blixa Bargeld – Still Smiling
I vividly remember the first time I heard Einsturzende Neubauten. It was 1985. I was in a little record shop in Picadilly in London. I was searching them out because of a track on a Fad Gadget 12″ called Collapsing New People. Neubauten was accompanying Frank Tovey with all kinds of industrial noise that I instantly fell in love with. Nobody, but nobody had even heard of Neubauten in St. Louis (where I grew up) so I had high hopes for London. So while Then Girlfriend (see my post Hooray For Hollywood for a thorough explication on the matter of Then Girlfriend) was perusing the streets for shoes and tacky outerwear, I was filling my greedy little mitts with Fad Gadget singles and searching for the elusive Neubauten. When lo and behold, I found it. I approached the small counter gripping this forbidding looking record bordered with photos of bad sets of teeth… turns out that you could actually listen to stuff before you bought it there! The last thing I heard the clerk say before I slipped on the headphones, in his somewhat cockney accent, was, “Be careful, they are very loud.” The first sound to emerge on the headphones was a drill hitting a metal plate. He was right. It was loud. I fell in love. I’ve been following Neubauten rabidly ever since. They have never done me wrong. Now, in case you are trying desperately to figure out why in the hell I am prattling on about Einsturzende Neubauten when this post is supposed to be about Teho Teardo and Blixa Bargeld, let me continue. Blixa is the front man for Neubauten. (He also played guitar in Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds for a long stint.) A close friend of mine described him as “a messiah, possibly the best front man ever.” Still Smiling is an absolute masterpiece. Subtle, poetic, and stunningly musical. It is a long way from Halber Mensch but still retains that unwavering devotion to plumbing the depths of genre-defying music. Listen to this one late at night over a nice glass of port. Won’t do ya wrong.
Esmerine – Dalmak
Esmerine is a band out of Montreal – a city with an absolutely staggering music scene. (Consider: Godspeed, Sam Shalabi, Silver Mount Zion, and every collective offshoot thereof.) Their previous record La Lechuza (2011), was an absolutely heart-wrenching tribute to Llasa de Sela (1972-2010) – an artist who left this world far too soon. The last track on Lechuza contains a haunting vocal… one of her last performances before she was taken by breast cancer. If this did not seal Esmerine’s pedigree, then Dalmak surely will. For this record, they’ve decamped to Istanbul to collaborate with a frighteningly talented group of Turkish musicians. What they’ve ended up with is an album that skirts along the borders of classicism, experimental, pop, and tradition but never lingers long enough to live there. Despite the melodic interplays of east and west and the addictive textural feel of the record, it is the sheer energy of location (Istanbul) that gives the record its magic. Don’t pass this one up.
Kingdom of Not – Journey to the Far Side of the Room
I’m about to use a word that has become anathema to cultural academics. So if you are a cultural academic, close your eyes as you skim past the next sentence or two. I’ll wait… ( )… Ok, here goes. Dan Carbone, the man/personality/mind behind the project that is The Kingdom of Not is a genius. Alright, I said it. All of you cultural academics out there can open your eyes now. As I spun this cd for the first few times several months back, I could not shake a certain feeling. The feeling was the one I felt the first time I heard Pere Ubu’s -The Modern Dance back in 1978. It’s the same sensation I would imagine one would experience if they jumped out of a plane. Now, I would never be foolish enough to jump out of a plane, so I don’t really know what that feels like. Nor will I ever find out because I will never, of my own accord, jump out of a plane. I don’t even like being on my roof. It’s also the feeling that I imagine Alice felt as she strolled through Wonderland. I had been exposed to Dan Carbone before I met Dan Carbone. The front man/poet, Daniel Ari (another genius), from the band I was in for a while (Bass Line Dada) used to burst into a Carbone monologue during rehearsals. Said monologue included the utterly brilliant line – “The pig is thinkin’!” If memory serves it was some kind of surreal barnyard fantasy. But it was brilliant. Now I know Dan. And I’m glad I do. Because he is not only a genius but a real swell dude. And he has put out, in my opinion, one of the finest records of 2013. Buy it dammit! And if you still aren’t convinced, read my lengthy treatise hyah: Thanks For That Cigarette. And there it is.
Son of the Velvet Rat – Firedancer
A very special guy turned me on to SoVR: Mr. Richard McGraw. Remember him? He’s the guy I interviewed a while back. Remember? You rushed out and bought all of his cd’s because you were so impressed with that article. Well Mr. McGraw has some fine taste in music. Firedancer is SoVR’s 11th release. Songwriter, Georg Altziebler, falls into the ranks of Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, and Will Oldham, with a touch of Tom Waits and a dash of Jacques Brel. Altziebler hails from Austria and you can tell. His songs have that timeless feel that I’d associate with the Black Forest. A sense of silence that falls behind the song. A voice from the back of a lonely bar that you simply can’t ignore, a voice that begets a hush. The arrangements are complex and textural with horns, hurdy gurdy, strings, things that pluck and things that scrape. The instruments are used tastefully so as not to interfere, but perhaps augment (fill the empty spaces of meaning) the well chosen words: you can’t be with the dead and the living/& make a bed in the middle of nowhere/try & bridge that gap in your dreams/in the long long night. Pure poetry. This is a hauntingly beautiful album that no one in their right mind should ignore.
Dan Cantrell – Orphaned Anthems
I must say that this record is impossibly good. Dan is one of the most musical people I know. He lives it and breathes it. He is also one of the most humble and like-able guys around. The tunes on this cd are Compositions with a capital C. They are meticulously arranged, impeccably performed, and beautifully recorded. Ranging from Balkan inflected symphonettes, to Carl Stalling inspired cartoon themes, to abstract film scores, Orphaned Anthems is nothing short of an adventure. I could not put it better than my friend Roger Andris, whom I quote, “Compiling an album is a tricky thing. Each song serves as a tectonic plate resting beneath the final soundscape, with the capacity to wreak havoc. Attention must be paid to the smallest detail and movement. There is a lot of music on this recording but you never get the feeling that Dan was simply throwing things at the wall to see what would stick or shying away from the editing process. Nor was he heeding the winds of prevailing popularity. This work smacks of a collection of people who fell in love with music at an early age, studied it seriously and elected to give back to it versus get rich from it . . . and we are the richer for it.”
Tim Hecker – Virgins
Karlheinz Stockhausen influenced more modern musicians and artists than anyone would care to mention. His goal, in the beginning, was to bring an end to Romanticism, which had fully flowered in the early 19th century and become fully decadent by the early 2oth. Romanticism in philosophy was said to have met its maker as Ernst Cassirer famously lost the philosophical Davos debate to Martin Heidegger in 1929. Emmanuel Levinas was reported to have claimed that “a young student could have had the impression that he was witness to the creation and the end of the world.” In a way it was, as this debate marked the beginning of Post-Modernism and the end of a long tradition of Romanticism which colored the entire output of Western art and music. In this age of such intense dis-integration it really should come as no surprise that the Romantic tradition has wormed its way back into the humanities and the arts. Humans crave meaning – something at which Post-Modernism turned up its brandy-stained schnoz. Tim Hecker’s latest release has not eschewed beauty and meaning for the sake of modernism. Through the cracks of damaged electronics lies a music in love with consonant harmony. This appears to be a very personal album, very intimate, made from the heart but kept at a slight distance so as to avoid the maudlin trappings which Stockhausen so successfully stamped out. The cover art is captivating, alluding simultaneously to the haunting photos from Abu-Ghraib and Christian iconography, which of course is echoed in the song titles. This will be a recording that begs repeated listenings as it reveals more of itself at each spin. Gorgeous.
Date Palms – The Dusted Sessions
Marielle Jakobsons and Gregg Kowalsky have tapped into something so indelibly West and colored it with something so unmistakably East. I have no other apt comparison except to say that this record may be something akin to Ry Cooder being interpreted by Pandit Pran Nath… or vice versa. It is an incredibly patient record, allowing meditative melodies to unfold slowly over dusty drones. Distorted guitars provide an undergirding to these plaintive tunes, but also give them a slightly sinister feeling of something wanting to burst free. Though Marielle’s violin is a stand out instrument on the record.. her playing is positively sublime… Michael Cormier’s pedal steel is a show stealer. His contributions to the Yuba River trilogy are magnificent. I think what stands out most on this fine record is the subtle sense of composition. What could have turned out to be aimless but beautiful melodic drones reveal themselves to be highly structured, intelligently conceived constructions. Side 2 opens with Night Riding the Skyline, a fractured Mettle era Pink Floyd study in tension. It is challenging to avoid slipping into imaginings of the film to which this could be a soundtrack. But it is ultimately satisfying to simply stay with the music as it is – its texture, its loneliness, and its beauty. Perfect.
Kaboom Karavan – Hokus Fokus
There is something just a little bit scary about Bram Bosteel’s Kaboom Karavan project. When I first picked up his previous release, Barra Barra, with its tweaky little bird/human on the cover, I was mesmerized for weeks. On the one hand it was one of the strangest things I had ever heard (brings to mind hearing The Residents’ Eskimo for the first time in the late 70’s… with that what-the-fuck? kind of reaction) and yet utterly beguiling. David Lynch comes to mind. I kept hearing some kind of otherworldly folk music , not otherworldly, that’s the wrong word, this music comes from some underground cavernous community of Morlocks improvising on long dead Eastern European folk melodies. It’s the future and the past living simultaneously in the same music. Hokus Fokus travels the same ground, thank heavens. How he makes most of these sounds is utterly beyond me. Most of the instrumentation sounds acoustic in origin, with creaky little voices created by toothless little trolls. Each piece is a perfect slice of weirdness. Just long enough to sink into its exotic fabric and just brief enough to want more. All in all, I’d say this is a near perfect record. I’m overjoyed that Bram Bosteel is on this planet. This is a singular recording by a very unique artist. A+++
The Parlour Trick – A Blessed Unrest
Good Lord a’ mighty but this is a damn fine record. Dan Cantrell and Meredith Yayanos have unleashed a doozy of an album to an oblivious world. I was happy to see it on Carnacki’s list for KALX. It’s also shown up on a couple of blogs here and there, mostly due to a Twitter post by author William Gibson for their Kickstarter campaign, to which I proudly contributed. Dan Cantrell is the only artist that has made two, count ’em two, appearances on this here list. Something to be proud of, I’d say. Seeing as how I have such a populous readership on this fine interweb (I think I’m up to six now!), I’m hoping to bring more attention to this BRILLIANT project. These two artists have more talent and intelligence and artistry than anyone really deserves to have, and they have crafted an album so delectably bewitching and charming and with such depth, that I think everyone needs to shout it from the rooftops. Ranging from austere homages to Erik Satie to rusted Hungarian folk tunes to sincere classicism and round the bend to exotic ambient soundtracks, this is a record to grow old with. Five million stars.
Howe Gelb – The Coincidentalist
Ah, Howe. I confess to you dear reader that Howe Gelb is one of my most absolute favoritest artists in this wide world of sound makers. In my humble opinion, he has done no wrong. From his work with Giant Sand to, well, basically everything the guy touches, I have been utterly smitten. Howe is one of those artists that just oozes creativity and playfulness. His new album is certainly no exception and might I say that it is another little masterpiece in a long line of little masterpieces. Howe is considered the godfather of that Southwest Tucson sound. Calexico was spawned from Giant Sand. Lord knows how many have been influenced by Howe’s left-field genius. He has this way of combining elements of Americana, jazz, blues, barrelhouse bar rock, and just good old fashioned song into a blend that is at once intimate and confounding. As one reviewer said, if it weren’t confusing, it wouldn’t be a Howe Gelb record. For this one Howe is joined by M. Ward, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Steve Shelley, Thorger Lund, and KT Tunstall. It is a record that will leave you with a smile on your little face.
David Sylvian – Do You Know Me Now?
Earlier this year Sylvian was asked to participate in an installation by visual artist Phil Collins (not the drummer) called “My heart’s in my hand, and my hand is pierced, and my hand’s in the bag, and the bag is shut, and my heart is caught” (after Genet). Each artist was given access to anonymously recorded telephone conversations from a booth in a homeless shelter in Cologne. The pieces were then played back in listening booths specially designed for the exhibit. I can only imagine how powerful the installation would have been. Sylvian’s lyrics are, as usual, poetic and emotionally provocative without descending into cliched sentimentalism. “The planets high above you/Spun in houses of their own/You were dropped and hit the ground running/But they failed to lead you home”. The two songs on this finely packaged 10″ vinyl release are both absolutely gorgeous, bridging the gap, as Sylvian so brilliantly does, between experimentalism and traditional ballad. Highly recommended.
Ulver/ with Tromso Chamber Orchestra – Messe I.X – VI.X
For those of you that are unfamiliar with Ulver, I say with no hesitation – get thee to a record store! This has to be one of the most interesting bands to come out of the Norwegian black metal scene. Ulver has been nothing if not unpredictable and has never disappointed. Their latest release is absolutely stunning. With more allegiance to Arvo Part or Ligeti than Allagoch or Wolves in the Throne Room, Messe is a study in slow burning symphonic texture. Don’t expect some kind of hybrid beast that attempts to juxtapose symphonic music and metal; this is pure classicism, but with that undeniably Ulver touch of pathos and visceral charge. Gorgeous album.
Nick Cave – Push the Sky Away
To my mind, Nick Cave is the musical equivalent to William Faulkner or Denis Johnson. Since he turned the page on his musical career with Henry’s Dream, Cave has been relentlessly pursuing his particular brand of literary lyricism. Yet we can always count on him to defy expectation. This album, not unlike PJ Harvey’s from last year, is a beguiling tapestry of texture. With a mostly spacious approach, Cave, Ellis, Casey, and Wydler weave beautiful accompaniments to Cave’s lyrics that are quite different from anything we’ve heard before. In fact I might go so far as to say that this may be the most cohesive release in Cave’s long career. There is not time or space here to go into the lyrical content or the fact that Cave’s inspiration came from Wikipedia. I’ll leave that to more capable hands. Leave it at this: this is a spectacular album well deserving of the critical acclaim.
Big Blood – Radio Valkyrie + 1905 + 1917 +
Last but certainly not least comes this fine, fine double vinyl release by a favorite of this here blogger, Big Blood. Colleen Kinsella and Caleb Mulkerin do this particular thing that absolutely no one else does, thus comparison is fruitless. Think what happens at the crossroads of dark appalachia, dream, experimentalism, ritual, and myth. Here is where you may begin to taste a flavor of their voluminous output. Radio Valkyrie, and I do not say this lightly, may just be their most realized album to date. And this is coming from someone who has listened to absolutely everything they’ve released. Perhaps there is a reason that they finally decided to put out a real bonafide Record. They must have surely been aware of the power and perfection of this last recording. Well, they were right. Absolutely brilliant.