The Top 20 Albums of 2013

Hard to believe that another year has been crossed off. Much has changed since our last list, for HearFeel and otherwise, and I almost don’t want it to be over. 2013 has been a fine, very fine actually, year for music and it’s been a tough one hashing out the list this time. But I’ve struggled through all this excellent music to provide once more the official Best Of from HearFeel. This is purely subjective and personal, and you wont find too many of the year’s biggest albums on here, but everything on it is something I consider top quality.

As always, I just wanted to thank everyone who has taken the time to not only view the site but everyone who has subscribed and taken the time to message me their thoughts and especially music. It means a lot and if it weren’t for the feedback and the continued mails from some great labels and incredible artists, I doubt I would remain as enthusiastic about maintaining this little project. So, here’s to 2013, what a great year it’s been, and let’s all hope that next year can follow in its footsteps. Without further ado, the list.

(Links to HearFeel reviews under the album name where appropriate)

1. Lusine – The Waiting Room

No list of mine would have been complete without Lusine at the top. A powerful Ambient Pop meets Microhouse release which finally sees Lusine employ vocals and pulls it off superbly. One of my favourite all time artists and so accessible, perhaps one of the most underrated Electronic artists on Ghostly’s roster.

2. Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus

Pushing the boundaries of Neo-Pysch and alternative electronic dance, there is nobody out there that quite sounds like these guys right now. It’s their heaviest, thickest release to date, and certainly their most rhythmically driven. Alienating and metallic, but intoxicatingly brash. Some criticism to be levelled at their awkward segues but a very strong album nonetheless.

3. Tim Hecker – Virgins

Could anything ever top Ravedeath, 1972? It was a tough one to followup but Virgins manages to stand its ground by employing tonnes of startlingly clear live instrumentation in perhaps his most head-scratching and thought provoking release yet. The piano is the scalpel of choice this time round, dangerously sharp and harrowing.

4. Raffertie – Sleep of Reason

Perhaps one of the most surprising releases of the year for me; hovering on the edges of Dubstep and Art Pop, Raffertie’s debut is a bit nebulous and doesn’t quite know where to hold itself, but compensates with insatiable basslines, crooning vocals and lush guitars. Intelligently crafted, subtly experimental and utterly groove-inducing.

5. Julianna Barwick – Nepenthe

It truly was love at first sight for me. The way that Barwick manipulates her voice and interfingers it with vast clouds of indistinguishable drone makes for an album that can shift from warm and peaceful to anxious and fearful at the flip of a switch. It’s difficult not to get caught in its emotional fog but I cant imagine anything I would want to do more.

6. EUS – Sol Levit

Challenging the meaning, the purpose, of life and what it means to be alive is no mean feat, but EUS channels the hard realities of loss and musings on the afterlife in vast swathes of potent drone and lush violin and piano sequences. It wasn’t an easy pick but this album is so heartfelt and earnest it’s pretty difficult to ignore. Big, but in a refined and introspective way.

7. Roly Porter – Life Cycle of a Massive Star

“Big” isn’t the word that comes to mind when detailing the scope of this vast Noise and Dark Ambient behemoth. Spanning a mere 30 minutes, Porter expresses this vast astronomical cycle to perfection in that short time, from the calm drone tracts of deep time and stable periods, to the tumultuous, chaotic and noisy sequences following birth and destruction. Indescribable.

8. Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest

Another difficult pick, but who can deny BoC’s ability to create compelling and readily identifiable releases no matter the quality? Choosing to employ more percussion than any of their previous albums, TH creates a future nostalgic record centered in some post-apocalyptic universe, with bleary 60’s synth notes cutting through the more sophisticated modern electronica. Fascinating.

9. Witxes – A Fabric of Beliefs

An early album from this year that has managed to ride the wave and avoid demotion, saving itself thanks to its ability to juxtapose abrasive guitar and electronic dominated melodies against more ethereal synth drones and careful ambient sequences and field recordings. Incredibly detailed and texturally rich release touching on the nature and need for religion.

10. Jasper TX – An Index of Failure

Yet another one that has endured from the earliest parts of the year, Jasper TX’s final album under the alias is every bit as painful as you’d expect. Summoning deeply rooted Ambient melodies he places them in a Post-Rock framework to create powerfully poignant and expansive pieces that blossom with a slow and wistful sadness

11. 36 – Shadow Play

Sadly not able to breach the top 10 this year following Lithea’s success, Shadow Play is his most ambitious and intelligent release to date but suffers from an incoherent coherence in that, it tries so hard to be and mean something, that it just doesn’t quite achieve it. Some of his best Ambient singles and some incredible Drone sequences but could have kept it together better.

12. Grouper – The Man Who Died In His Boat

For those fans of Liz Harris and her continuing work as Ethereal Folk persona Grouper, I doubt this album will come as a surprise. It does however nicely straddle the divide from her older, more Lo-Fi and more Folk lead albums and her work like AIA which has a stronger Dream Pop focus. Perfect compromise between vocals and instrumentation.

13. Saåad Orbs & Channels

Saåad are beginning to define for me a particular brand of heart-wrenching Drone and Dark Ambient that involves the deep processing of growling guitars and the distant wailing of voices. Every track sounds like it’s suspended in some vast room with much unseen space hinting at the political and social undercurrents retained within. It’s thick and meaty and I love it.

14. Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus Seven

Taking a swipe at the homogeneity of Electronic Dance whilst avoiding criticism for aimlessness at the same time is tough, and OPN couldnt do it. But there is something in the torrent of MIDI samples and whirling miscellaneous electronica that’s thoroughly compelling and almost naive in its sound that I find interesting in its irony.

15. Kiln – meadow:watt

A remnant of Ghostly International’s old roster, Kiln have brought me hope that more unconventional music still remains somewhere in their heart. Kiln fans will be pleased to note that this follows very similar blueprints to their earlier releases, with lackadaisical and jovial minimal electronic and IDM to the max. Just fun, sunny and lightweight, perfect for Autumn listening.

16. Aaron Martin/Christoph Berg – Day Has Ended

The best splits are those that have two artists that are practically indistinguishable rather than totally disparate. Day Has Ended charts a beautiful procession from day to night from someone burdened with depression and desperate for alone time, reflected in the simply gorgeous minimal violin and piano seamlessly migrating from one artist to the next.

17. Daughter – If You Leave

First record I bought this year; while my enjoyment of this album has somewhat waned over recent months, I still do love the slightly lilted and accented vocals and their empowered but not dominating supporting Folk instrumentation. It knows when it needs to be stripped back and go one-on-one, forging more minimal and heartfelt soundscapes.

18. Jon Hopkins – Immunity

While I’ve never been entirely sold on the premise of this album and the fact it welds two very opposing Dance and Ambient electronic strands together rather awkwardly, I like a lot of the core aspects. Some of the big-beat tracks are positively club ready, whilst some of the latter, easier going tracks are just fantastically blissful.

19. Apparat – Krieg Und Frieden (Music For Theatre)

Soundtracks almost certainly work best in their given context, but that doesn’t stop them being great pieces of art alone. Apparat has created some amazing pieces of Modern Classical and Ambient music here, fusing piano with glitch, noise, synth and even some astonishing vocals right at the end.

20. CHVRCHES –  The Bones Of What You Believe

Don’t deny me this one guilty pleasure. Every year I have one; last year was Carly Rae, this year it’s the Scottish Electro-Pop of Chvrches. Ok, it’s not the most ambitious or progressive release but there’s a tonne of great singles in here that follow the same catchy blueprint that’s hard not to get caught up in. OH O-O-OH, OH OH OH, O-O-OH

Very honourable mention to Raum – Event Of Your Leaving, which I sadly have not had time to properly enjoy. Would certainly be a Top10 contender though I feel.

If that’s still not enough for you, here’s 80 more on my Rate Your Music page.

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Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus Seven (2013)

First release of the experienced electronic artist Daniel Lopatin on the exclusive Warp label, R Plus Seven.

cover

I’ve never been an OPN man personally; every album of his that I’ve heard has always been a confused jumble of sounds and ideas; piercing, emotionally deficient electronic/ambient that meanders along at its own weird pace. It was especially obvious in his collaborative album last year with Tim Hecker Instrumental Tourist, where Hecker’s neat, exacting dreamscapes collided disharmoniously with Lopatin’s crazed and illogical wafflings, dragging the entire album down in a confused haze of half-completed jams. I didn’t, therefore, have high hopes for this new album, but as it turns out I’ve found myself progressively falling in love with it.

Opener “Boring Angel” introduces itself on a bed of organ drone, something which makes its way into the fray on occasion throughout the album. Carefully it builds up, spreading its wings with synth arpeggios that suddenly jump in tempo and start strobing. It’s certainly far from boring as the track unwinds itself, slowly phasing out the electronic melodies and reverting back to the blissful organ ambience from the start. It moves a little awkwardly (admittedly this is a leak so there are some possible faults) into the tropical “Americans”, and it’s like something lifted out of a Secede album. Flashes and flutters of MIDI samples weave in and out of the mix, children’s voices and “ahhhhh”s propelled with jovial percussion, before the track bottoms out in the middle and grinds along in a rising haze of dark drone and glitch beats where it once again changes track and decides to return to the lightweight sampling from its start, with crazed and syncopated percussion fighting for its chance to be heard in a brilliant closing statement.

“He She” moves into somewhat more menacing territory during its 1:34 duration, cruising along at a relatively unadventurous pace before finally cutting off into “Inside World”. Some might find the sickeningly increasing frequency of MIDI samples here somewhat unappealing, but its quiet ambience interrupted with bursts of sporadic samples are like heartbeats or breaths of life into the track, introducing currents of music and trying to revive the dying organism. The disjointed snippets of violins, voices and songs are like the intermittent firings of neurons bridging and remembering, trying to reignite and restart themselves.

As we reach the mid album one of the better tracks appears, “Zebra”. A semblance of rhythm finally appears in this quasi-EDM piece with its strong synth attacks and smeared vocal cries. It comes and goes, cycling through these glitchy riffs and the more drone focused periods of calm, but there’s never a crossover; like the zebra’s stripes it’s always black and white, the delineation between dance and ambient, between calm and energetic, is a strong line in the sand. Interestingly it appears that calm wins out, as for most of the latter part of the track the vigourous electronica dies away and low-key ambience takes over.

This respite of calm thoughtfulness continues on in the especially quiet and introspective “Along”, cruising along effortlessly on a bed of unobtrusive drone for its first half and only slightly creeping out of its shell around 3 minutes in as chimes and panpipe samples cut through, and snippets of birdsong and water drips float in alongside. Again it has a strong Secede vibe to it, and almost a Balam Acab-esque attitude towards the very end as we get a few dark beats in the fray. But this peacefulness doesnt last long as we’re thrown right back into the deep end with chaser “Problem Areas”. Possibly the most driven piece of the album so far it sustains a repetitive wet synth riff going throughout, tacking on those MIDI vocal glitches and other spurious chunks of electronica as and when before flatlining into a wall of organ drone.

“Cryo” makes sure we have something to cool down to before the final two tracks, which is most definitely necessary. Its cold bells and drone and distal shimmering synths balance that energy out once more alongside thick, slowed down drum beats as we move into penultimate “Still Life”, a dark and oppressive track. It’s hard to get a bearing on what exactly OPN is trying to put across in any of his pieces really but in this one especially so; sometimes it crawls with a claustrophobic darkness filled with heavy bass beats, other times a more serene attitude is taken with droning vocals and light shimmers of synth. Then out of nowhere in the core of the track is a surprisingly rhythmic sequence of thick percussion and piercing minor key riffs. It’s a bit all over the place to tell the truth.

Finally we get to the last track of the album, and one of my favourites, “Chrome Country”. Its spacious 70’s synth introduction is gorgeous as it’s accompanied by pleasant piano skitterings and the blurry MIDI samples of child vocals, a nice cooldown at the end of a confusing and complex affair. It still feels extremely detailed and introspective though, relishing these moments of quiet as it languishes on intermittent beds of electronic sound, not planning on doing anything extravagant before it bows out to a brief interlude of impassioned organ playing to finally finish the album off where it started.

I guess this turned out somewhat lengthier and less emotionally resonant than I initially anticipated because R Plus Seven, like all of his other albums, still leaves me questioning what I’ve heard and somewhat dubious as to the cold precision of the electronic, and in many ways in a processing state as to the texture and sample barrage I’ve just been subjected to. The short conclusion is that I like this, a lot; it comes across a bit stark and meandering (very meandering at times), but there’s a cheekiness in the balance of energetic sampling and cool drone that makes this album extremely compelling at times as we have to wonder continuously just what he’s going to throw at us next.