I know I’m at least a month late with this, so let me explain. First of all, nobody reads this website so I feel free to publish this whenever I want. Secondly, the December (or worse, November) wrap ups always felt a little incomplete since they miss anything that gets released on at the year’s end, and if you look at my Album of the Year, that can be significant. Realistically, you need about a month to get a good bearing on whether or not an album is going to stick with you. I see a lot of year-end lists and I often find myself wondering how many of those albums the authors are going to be listening to even one year later. Granted, this list is going to make pretty much all the same mistakes; I don’t listen to nearly as much new music as most other music writers. According to last.fm, my top ten artists of the year include P-Model (disbanded in 1999), the Black Dog (my most recent Black Dog album is 1995’s Spanners), and Genesis (last album 1997, began to suck some time in the late 80’s). Outside of that live Underworld album I kicked this site off with, the latest album written about on Critter Jams thus far was released in 1998 (and I didn’t even write that one!) Point being I’m generally the kind of guy who spends more time discovering old albums than listening to current ones.
Thus, if you’re wondering why a certain album didn’t make the list, chances are it’s because I simply haven’t heard it. There was an awful lot to take on in 2013, which may just be remembered as the year of the comeback, as David Bowie, My Bloody Valentine, Boards of Canada, Daft Punk, Black Sabbath (with Ozzy!), and Justin Timberlake dropped albums out of nowhere. Beyoncé did too, but she just performed at a Super Bowl so I don’t think “comeback” is quite applicable. Still – those first two are artists many thought we’d never hear from again, while the next two built up quite an insane level of anticipation by sitting around and doing nothing. By the way, did you know that WordPress automatically adds the accent mark for Beyoncé, but not for Janelle Monáe? I guess we see who really made it. Anyway, let’s get on with it:
2013 Album of the Year: Turquoise Jeep Records, Existing Musical Beings
Released about a week and a half before the end of the year, it’s no surprise why so many critics overlooked this one. I mean, besides the whole “no record label” thing. But if I’m being honest with myself, this is what takes it. Before you wonder why I’m picking something released so close to the end of the year as my favorite of 2013, keep in mind that four of its singles were released throughout the year (“Treat Me Like a Pirate”, “Taste You Like Yogurt”, “I Want Pie”, “Naughty Farmer”), and all four became major obsessions for me at some point. The new Slick Mahoney joint “Crotch Rock That, Girl” is my most played song of the year thus far, even given it’s December release date. More on this one later – an “Album of the Week” feature is coming. Let’s just say that this is what the radio should be playing in 2014.
Other albums I enjoyed:
Setna – Guerison
Setna is a French Zeuhl revival band whose 2008 album Cycle I became something of a critic’s favorite among those who run in proggier circles. Unlike most modern Zeuhl bands, the music of Setna is relatively low-key; it runs much closer to the jazzy, mathematical approach of Kohntarkosz than it does the bombast of Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh, What bothered me about Cycle I however was that it never quite had that release of tension, the moment where we get to hear what everything was leading to (something Kohntarkosz absolutely nails). It’s particularly strange given how young all these guys are. Guerison doesn’t really have that either, but it’s looser and more euphoric, which combined with the excellent playing and production makes this feel like a modern classic. There aren’t really a lot of bands playing this type of music right now which makes them feel all the more special.
Gary Numan – Splinter
I wrote about this album for The Quietus, in which I claimed it was his “best album in about three decades”. I didn’t mean to imply that it’s his best since 1983’s Warriors; just that it’s about as good as his classic albums, and better than all of his other “career resurgence” albums that he’s been pumping out since Sacrifice. I was worried about being hyperbolic when I said that, given that I’d only really had 10 days or so to listen to the full album. But re-listening to this throughout the year, I really think that it’s true; his other recent albums have plenty of good songs, but none of them are as varied or as solid as this one. Producer Ade Fenton really throws his weight around here, capturing the desolate sound palette of classic Numan albums like Replicas while giving some of the songs powerful, modern arrangements; single-worthy anthems like “I Am Dust” and “Love Hurt Bleed” are crushing at high volumes, while “A Shadow Falls On Me” as an excellent, spastic coda that shows off the type of innovation that a lot of post-Dance Numan albums really lacked. But Splinter gets the brooding stuff right too, and track-for-track this is one of the strongest albums of his career. Lets hope we don’t have to wait another 7 years for the next one.
Har Mar Superstar – Bye Bye 17
Another one I wrote about. My uncle introduced me to Har Mar Superstar a while ago. I thought he was funny but I wasn’t sure if his music would rise above the level of novelty for me, and his current album at the time (2004’s The Handler) wasn’t exactly going to change my mind. Man, people hated this guy back then, even though he obviously had a lot of talent. Trouble is he could hardly write a decent tune in his first few albums, unless he was ripping off Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson. He’s only done two albums since then, but both of them show big leaps in his songwriting skill. 2009’s Dark Touches was a nice summation of everything the man did do well, but Bye Bye 17 was something totally unexpected; a full-on retro-soul album, and I do mean retro – it sounds like a lost mid-60’s Sam Cooke album. This was something truly exciting – when I heard “Lady, You Shot Me” for the first time I thought it was an awesome sound for him, and was thrilled to find the whole album was done the same way. Also similar to those mid-60’s soul albums it tops things off with ten songs in under half an hour; skimpy perhaps, but it hits its target so dead-on that you don’t really need for it to go on any longer. My only issue with his last two is the inexplicable absence of Dirty Preston. Bring back Preston!!!
Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady
Well, at least I’ll have one in common with the other year-end lists. Monáe’s Archandroid is one of those epic, all-encompassing albums that’s so obviously great (similar to say, Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois) that it’s no surprise that it became a breakout hit. I don’t feel The Electric Lady quite lives up to that album, but if anything it’s truer to her R&B roots and less gimmicky, and definitely something I’ll be listening to a lot this year and beyond. The first half of this is excellent, with a great collaboration with Prince (who is perhaps Monáe’s biggest booster), a single-of-the-year candidate (“Q.U.E.E.N.”), and the insanely catchy “Dance Apocalyptic”. It’s that last one that shows off what is frustrating about this album – watching her do this song live shows her as such a dynamic, exciting performer that it’s disappointing to see that level of energy mostly absent from this album. I will say that I’ve liked this one more with every listen, and maybe the knee-jerk “not as good as ArchAndroid” reaction will look silly in a year or two.
They Might be Giants – Nanobots
Similar to the Gary Numan album, this is an example of a musical act suddenly realizing what made their early work so endearing. Not that this was totally unexpected – 2011’s Join Us felt like the sort of album that they would’ve made had they not gotten so derailed after Factory Showroom, and was one of my most listened to albums that year. Nanobots is a good deal weirder than Join Us, with some of the wildest arrangements they’ve ever attempted (“Darlings of Lumberland”), and a bunch of welcome oddness on nearly every song (some of which are “Fingertips”-like fragments, which makes the middle of this album mighty disorienting). What’s more important is that both of these guys are writing great songs again. Flansburgh certainly pulls his weight, but Linnell’s muse for off-kilter power pop has rarely been better (“Stone Cold Coup d’Etat”, “Lost My Mind”, “Icky”, “Call You Mom”). Most importantly, it has that brisk, addictive, “play me on repeat” feel to it that all the best TMBG albums had.
Karl Hyde – Edgeland
I also blah blah blah on this one. 2013 was the year of Underworld solo projects, as Hyde released his first solo album while Rick Smith scored another Danny Boyle film. Anyone familiar with Hyde’s work will likely recognize the themes he’s trafficking in here, as he’s still following those with broken dreams at the edge of town and finding the beauty in the mundane. This is maybe the most arty album I’ve heard this year; it’s something of a cross between Four Tet and contemporary Eno, with sputtering sounds and cut-n-paste production all over the place. But a lot of these sounds resonate awfully hard, and the songs themselves are often well-crafted; they’re often bluesy in spirit, a far cry from the “shouty techno” that most know him for. In fact, very little of this is danceable; the most upbeat, driven track was relegated as a bonus (“Dancing on the Graves of Le Corbusier’s Dreams”). The presence of so many bonus tracks is puzzling – there are six, only two of which are remixes. I wonder what the difference really is between a bonus track and an album track on a brand new album in the digital age. Either way, all these songs are worth your time; gorgeous, cinematic, and only as deep as they need to be. Still, I would love to hear Underworld release some new music in the coming year…
Cornelius – NHK Design Ah
This one was kind of a surprise. Cornelius has a well-earned reputation as a perfectionist – both Fantasma and Point are so ludicrously crafted and focused that it’s no wonder that he rarely attempts to better them; after Fantasma he abandoned the Shibuya-kei style completely, and thus far the only follow-up he’s done to Point was refined so far that it’s tough to wring the same levels of enjoyment out of it. Since then, he’s done some production work (the very Cornelius-in-disguise salyu x salyu) and his usual surfeit of remixes, but nothing in the area of another album. NHK Design Ah is close, however; a soundtrack to an educational Japanese TV show, allowing Cornelius the opportunity to try out a wealth of sonic ideas, but enough restrictions to keep things snappy and upbeat. The 25 tracks here span 37 and a half minutes; the “extended” compositions are only three minutes long. Each one Is based around some sort of sonic idea, often playing with pared-down wordless vocal samples (an entire library of “aah” and “ooh” noises), or manufacturing a certain atmosphere out of disparate, easily tracked elements. Most tracks consist of only a few noises; the beats are crisp and simple, and in true Cornelius fashion the only interjections come from his usual array of sound effects. This should be disorienting given how much of a whirlwind it can be, but if anyone knows how to work magic out of a limited palette, it’s Cornelius, who’s spent the last decade reinventing himself as less a musician and more an arranger of sound. As such, you get to hear a lot of cool sound experiments, including lots of neat moments where he demonstrates how the same sound can produce contrasting feelings when played at different points of a chord sequence. Very modern, but it also feels rooted in the works of Terry Riley. Fascinating in a way very few albums I’ve heard can reproduce.
Rip Slyme – Golden Time
This one was kind of a late bloomer for me. I was concerned after their last album Star – many of the individual tracks were good, but it was the first Rip Slyme album where I didn’t really like the singles much, and even the better stuff sounded like throwbacks to things they used to do well. Simply put the fun factor wasn’t quite where it used to be. Golden Time reminds me a bit of Journey, another recent album of theirs that I liked a lot; really tongue-in-cheek in spots, fast-paced enough to cover up the stuff that doesn’t work as well, and contains a handful of nice singles to tie everything together. While the somber “Long Vacation” is probably the one that will stick with me the most (similar to “Stairs” on Journey), it’s been a while since they put out something as brilliantly goofy as “SLY” or as off-the-wall as “Ah! Yeah!”. They’re even distancing themselves a bit from hip-hop, which is probably a good thing at this stage in their career. The pogoing “Road Map” is probably my favorite right now, though like the best Rip Slyme albums I’m finding new highlights on each spin.
Denki Groove – Human Beings and Animals
After a period of being somewhat inactive (they’d still play a festival or two each year), Denki Groove went on a roll, releasing three albums and a single between 2008 and 2009. From there they unfortunately fell silent again, but Human Beings and Animals was worth the wait. Nothing here is revolutionary; it continues the recent DG trend of paring things down a bit, but this album is much more pop, to the point that the Monkees cover that caps things off actually feels natural. Sure, one of the nine tracks is a cheap shot (a remake of the 2009 single “Upside Down”), but it’s still exciting, as Denki Groove are at a spot in their career where it’s usually difficult to write concise, effective singles. Here, we get several – both “Shameless” and “Missing Beatz” use driving bass sequencers, “Prof. Radio” includes an excellent, Fatboy Slim-style breakdown, and the remake of “Upside Down” doubles down on the violin bridge that was so great the first time. But the extended tracks are the highlight – “P” features a long beatboxing section that has to be heard to be believed, and “Oyster” has a thick, enveloping synth that resonates harder than anything they’ve done since “Reaktion”. Like my choice for Album of the Year, stringing a bunch of great songs in a row is generally enough for me. I find myself playing this a lot as there’s just so much to look forward to, and unlike the last couple they never really lose the plot. Special mention goes to their live set Tour Panda which I imported; they seem to have more energy than ever, and handedly outlast the crowd that likely consists mostly of people half their age.
Albums that were good, but probably won’t get a lot of play in the future:
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
I suspect this one is going to remain in a similar category for most people. This year, Daft Punk were one of several groups that proved that “staying relevant” hardly matters anymore; the last two Daft Punk studio releases were 2005’s awful Human After All and a Tron soundtrack that was not exactly well received. The excellent Alive 2007 may explain their sudden resurgence, but the commotion that these guys caused simply by playing 30 seconds of new music on SNL really took me be surprise. I mean nobody I knew really liked them much when Homework or Discovery came out (granted, I was pretty young back then), and it seemed like only certain circles would boost those albums; their critical reputation seems to be a lot higher now, even though their flaws are even more glaring now than they were then. Random Access Memories is not really the album anyone was expecting out of these guys; it sounded like the obscure 70’s smooth grooves that they lifted wholesale for Discovery, and chances are most of the millions of people who bought or downloaded this didn’t get exactly what they were referencing. To be fair, I don’t think I do either. So here’s my impression of the album; it’s obviously been slaved over for a long time, and sounds better/more expensive than anything else on the airwaves right now. It’s designed to be a grower, which I think explains a lot of the lukewarm initial reactions (outside of those who immediately declared this the best album of the decade for some reason). The songwriting feels suspect, though I suppose it’s always been, and the devil so obviously is in the details this time around. My first impression was that it was dull, but probably would go down as their strongest album. That said, I’m not sure if I’m going to be giving this the time of day much more in the future, unless I hear a song out in the wild from it that really hooks me (as “Lose Yourself to Dance” nearly did a couple weeks ago). If I do it’s because the album’s sound is so precise and stylized that it stands apart, providing a great example of how music should sound in 2013. If I don’t it’s because, well, there’s only one “Get Lucky” to go around amist a bunch of slow bending synth notes that fill the 74+ minute runtime, and hell I haven’t had the desire to listen to ANY full Daft Punk album in years. I know this album is better than I’m giving it credit for, but I just don’t have the motivation to discover why.
Sparks – Two Hands, One Mouth
The first Sparks live album came nearly 45 years into the Maelmen’s incredible career, and it’s an interesting concept – for the first time ever, they’d perform as just a duo, nothing but Ron’s keyboard and Russell’s voice. There’s a couple of challenges here; first, they’d have to rearrange most rather dense tunes into a stripped down form without losing the spirit of the original, and secondly, they’d have to perform it flawlessly, as there’s nothing to cover up a bum note or a bad pitch. I think they handled both these challenges well; the new arrangements lose all the neat harmonization but they feel more focused than ever, and there are virtually no mistakes in the entire performance. This leaves Two Hands One Mouth as one of those rare live albums that’s less a “live” showcase and more a reimagining of various points in their catalog. Some of this is astounding – the “plugged in” versions of No. 1 in Heaven is sort of like Tangerine Dream-meets-the-disco, but in a not-sucky way. At the end of the day though these songs were so good in their original form that I’m not sure if this is something I’ll want to hear very often.
Who is William Onyebar?
Here we have a compilation of Nigerian synth-funk that’s somewhere between Fela Kuti and Flow Motion-era Can. It seems like every couple of years someone discovers something out of the woodwork that becomes a new “look how forward thinking and unappreciated this was” phenomenon; first it was Black Devil Disco Club (definitely futuristic but not quite as much so as Moroder’s From Here to Eternity, much of which was stolen wholesale for that album), then it was the discovery of acid house elements way back in 1982 on Charanjit Singh’s Ten Ragas To a Disco Beat (legitimately years ahead of anyone else, though the intention was hardly that). Now it’s the enigmatic figure of William Onyebar, who you can read a lot of interesting things about. The music here is trancey and driving, but isn’t recorded very well and feels rather repetitive to me. The standout is “When the Going is Smooth and Good” which is hooky and boppy and sounds like proto-LCD Soundsystem (which you could say about three dozen other bands, of course). Outside of “Good Name” the other songs haven’t quite connected though I imagine I’ll spin this a few more times at some point. I’m always fascinated with stuff like this.
Klaus Dinger’s a music legend, but it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by a sense of frustration when you venture beyond the man’s last really acclaimed work, La Dusseldorf’s 1978 album Viva. He’s done some good stuff since, mostly in the two albums that were intended to be follow up’s to La-D’s Individuellos but legally couldn’t be released under that name (Neondian was released as “Klaus Dinger + Rhenita Bella”, even though Rhenita Bella was not an actual person but rather a reference to “Rhenita”, La-D’s biggest hit). Since then, he took on the 9-album La! Neu? project which was mostly a collection of improvised noodling, with the only real highlights being retreads of past work (the double-disc live “Cha Cha 2000” extravaganza), and attempted to release the ill-advised fourth Neu! album, despite the fact that Rother hadn’t signed off on it – what came out (as Neu! 4) was mostly a jumbled mess of variants on the same four-chord theme. Despite the fact that he always seemed to have something in the works, he mostly fell silent up to his unexpected passing in 2008. Japandorf was compiled by his wife Miki Yui, and by the sound of it, he found a lot of inspiration from living in Japan. I’ve only given this album a few spins – it didn’t quite blow me away, and like all his post-Viva work it borrows heavily from the man’s past (another take on “Cha Cha 2000”, for Christ’s sake). But it is better than all those La! Neu? albums (sans the unreleased 5th La Dusseldorf album Blue) and if I get on a Dinger kick again I’ll probably want to hear this one as well.
Fantastic Plastic Machine – Scale
Like most recent FPM albums, this is clearly made by someone who knows what he’s doing, but it often suffers by not being able to see the forest for the trees; too many times he’s on autopilot. I really liked parts of this – “Curiosity”, “Bring Dat Noise”, and “I Was in Love”…was a bit lukewarm on everything else.
Karl Bartos – Off the Record
Karl Bartos was one of the members of the legendary Kraftwerk, who quit in 1990 due to frustration with the band moving at such a glacial pace. He didn’t know the half of it. Off the Record is a collection of songs that were mostly composed in his Kraftwerk days, but not recorded until recently. These songs sure sound like Kraftwerk – sure, there are slightly updated synths, better vocoders, and crisper beats, but the actual sounds are mostly the same. Of course you may wonder where this exactly fits in the landscape of 2013 – lots of Kraftwerk tributes have sprung up with sounds very similar to this (think Komputer) and I’m not sure if the fact that some of these could’ve been actual Kraftwerk songs makes up too much difference. Still, I did find this plenty entertaining – “Atomium” is a rather menacing single, “Instant Bayreuth” is gorgeous, sounding like outtakes from Radio-Activity and Autobahn, respectively. Meanwhile “Rhythmus” is like an alternate take on “Computer World”. Lots of vintage synths, and one song has co-writing credits by Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner. As a one-off this is a neat album; both this and his 2003 album Communication shows off the sense of melody that was so instrumental in his Kraftwerk years. But as a full album this feels a bit insubstantial.
Albums I didn’t like:
The Orb – More Tales From the Orbservatory
I think it’s fair to say that the Orb lost favor with their audience with Cydonia, and it seems they never quite recovered it. I actually think that Cydonia holds up well, even if the albums after it sometimes didn’t. When they go for a minimal, Fehlmann dominated sound such as on Okie Dokie It’s the Orb on Kompakt or Baghdad Batteries, things tend to work well, but simply channeling their past isn’t working for them anymore. Lately, they’ve cluttered their discography with soundtrack stuff and collabs with geriatrics such as Dave Gilmour or Lee “Scratch” Perry, and it’s safe to say a lot of that stuff can be ignored. I like Lee Perry fine, but there’s just too much of him on last year’s Orbserver in the Star House (and too little of anything else), and this album, consisting of the outtakes from those sessions, is even worse. Let’s hear something proper, guys!
Mike Doughty – Circles Super Bon Bon Sleepless…
There are so many things that I dislike about this project that I don’t even know where to start. Doughty, as all his fans likely know, recently disavowed the most acclaimed and successful part of his career (his years as the frontman of Soul Coughing), even going as far to write an entire book that purports to be about drug addiction but actually spends over half its time complaining about his ex-bandmates. After making most of his fanbase feel awful whenever they asked him about Soul Coughing or requested their songs in concert, he releases this collection of re-recorded Soul Coughing songs, done the way he “originally envisioned them”; as limp, acoustic alt-pop that de-emphasizes everything but Doughty’s guitar (Soul Coughing’s instrumental weak point) and his voice. But there’s so much more to dislike – the fact that he asked his fans to fund the recording (the same ones he’s been blowing up at for years), or the fact that he basically bribed them (via a “free ticket” drawing) to write surreal reviews on Amazon and iTunes, which of course had the side effect of driving the “average rating” way up. I don’t think any of this stuff is despicable on its own; Kickstarter and Pledgemusic have been around for years, and I know that nobody cares about the sanctity of “average customer reviews” on amazon.com. But given that it seems like it’s all being done to erase the contributions of his ex-bandmates, whose talent elevated the band from certain failure, it’s hard not to have a real bad taste in your mouth from this. The album itself being boring and useless is just gravy.
Albums that I thought were good, but haven’t listened to enough:
Melt Yourself Down
Sons of Kemet – Burn
Albums that I haven’t heard yet, but want to:
KAKU P-Model – Gipnoza
Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
Perfume – LEVEL3
Sting – The Last Ship
Steven Wilson – The Raven Who Refused to Sing
Primal Scream – More Light
Pet Shop Boys – Electric
Mostly new albums by artists I already like that I haven’t gotten around to yet. Zletovsko is a new sort of Zeuhl band, including the always entertaining Tatsuya Yoshida. Granted Yoshida doesn’t write the music this time around but there have been good reviews all around. Boards of Canada is supposed to be a good one but I process BoC albums about as fast as they make ’em. Steven Wilson’s been getting credit for making a progressive masterpiece that stands up with the classics he so obviously worshipped, so I’ll be sure to give that a listen. The Sting album I’m just morbidly curious about.
Well, guess that’s it for this year. Tune back in Feburary 2015! (actually, tune back in next week for another stellar overwrought “album of the week” feature!)