Quarterly Report Part 2: 10-1 top records from Q1 2013

So we've reached the end of Quarter 1 of 2013, and survived March Madness. Here are my picks for the top 1-10 records and mixtapes of the year so far.

1. Autechre - Exai (Autechre – Exai)

This dense, dark, industrial strength monster from the glitch kings proves to be the best record so far. It's such a never-ending well of ideas and thoughts you'd be forgiven for believing it can't ALL be good, but there isn't a single thought expressed that comes off as stale or ill-advised. There is weeks and months of intense listening hidden within these 2 hours, and each experience with it reveals further layers of noise. You can't help but appreciate the technical prowess and the sheer stamina that has gone in to crafting this colossus. From the soulful 80s synth of T ess xi to the pretty yet unnerving method similar synths are used on YJY UX, the intention is always to challenge, never to allow a settled rhythm of listening. There always exists that stabilising influence of yore, hip hop and dance, but it's buried behind manic levels of tampery. Even recks, sounding like something J Dilla produced, employs an odd staccato that disturbs the rhythm and turns the track in to some form of late 90s dance number.  Not for everyone, but if you are this way inclined, you'll find delight in every song everytime you revisit it, whether you choose to immerse yourself fully in the listening experience or prefer a background noise approach.
Best Tracks: T ess xi, recks on, jatevee C
Sounds Like?: Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Venetian Snares

2. John Grant - Pale Green Ghosts (John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts)

Stunning second solo LP from the witty renassiance man, Pale Green Ghosts builds beautifully on his debut via a plethora of new influences and a penchant for travelling down dark lyrical avenues. The Midlake-inspired subtlety is replaced by a confidence and electronic integrity that can only come from recording in Iceland, musics melting pot for beautiful sounds. As Grant's baritone addresses everything from addiction, love and AIDS to the dismissal of well forged vanity, producer Biggi Veira swirls around him like an electrical storm, soaring from stadium filling EDM to dense 4am balladry. The title track harks back to Kraftwerk, and fans of the journeyman approach will love Grant as he channels a weird, medicated Johnny Cash vibe. He still revists the astounding influence Midlake had on him during the recording process of his first record, on I Hate This Town his jaunty delivery matches a light and airey country bumpkin nutter. The balladry is also effective, hard-luck love stories and deep, thoughtful moods are explored on tracks like It Doesn't Matter To Him. For a man once so withdrawn that he wouldn't face the audience he was performing for, every track on here is bathed in personality. The album is an absolute must listen.
Best Tracks: Glacier, Ernest Borgnine, I Hate This Town
Sounds Like?: Matthew E. White, New Order, Depeche Mode

3. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Push The Sky Away (Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away)

The king of violence Nick Cave returns from Grinderman duties to hook up with his more subdued friends The Bad Seeds. At times he sounds like Alex from A Clockwork Orange, his calmness and serenity as he delivers his threats and slightly unnerving observations paints him as the perfect anti-hero. Not so much a stylistic left-turn as a general reduction in volume, the band who wrote Murder Ballads still has teeth, they're just slightly withdrawn. The menacing We Real Cool and the sprawling, rising Higgs Boson Blues prove these guys can still ROCK, but their judgement on when to do so and when to soften makes this a stunning exercise in restriction and restraint, and allows Cave to take centre stage, which is where he belongs. He even references Miley Cyrus on a long and winding road of thoughts and musings. On Jubilee Street he even addresses his moral shortcomings rather than embracing them, with lines like 'The problem was she had a little black book / And my name was written on every page' and 'I ought to practice what I preach'. On the same track, he transforms in to some form of demonic being though. Such is the weird and wonderful way of Nick Cave. Push The Sky Away will intrigue and shock.
Best Tracks: We Real Cool, Higgs Boson Blues, Jubilee Street
Sounds Like?: Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Dirty Three

4. The Drones - I See Seaweed (The Drones – I See Seaweed)

Australia's most complex and technically gifted lyrical purveyor Gareth Liddiard paints swathes of meaning over the top of some barely bridled aggression provided by his talented bandmates. The man likes to be taken seriously, and you'll do just that as he walks us through his reflections on subjects as varied as moats, Google street view and The Vatican. Happiness is absent, and Liddiards punk drawl blends perfectly with the latent aggression that regularly spills over in to full blown war. The enormity of the man's subject matter comes to the fore on Laika, a song about the first dog in space, propelled by the Russians. If that feels overwhelming, the stunning closer Why Write A Letter You'll Never Send is Liddiard's ticket to the madhouse, a rolling traipse through his inner musings that hides the best lyric of the year, 'each headland masks the next'. It embodies the desperation and untamed despair of the record. The delicious intent of Kitschin and co escapes its flimsy cage on A Moat You Can Stand In, and for 4:23 everyone in the Annandale Hotel will go absolutely ballistic until there is blood on the floor and a plenitude of brain cells lost to the night. It's downright punk insanity, yet Liddiard adds a touch of Cloud Nothings to ensure madness doesn't reduce that melody. This record is a future Aussie classic.
Best Tracks: How To See Through Fog, I See Seaweed, Laika
Sounds Like?: Grinderman, Black Flag, The Stooges

5. Bilal - A Love Surreal (Bilal – A Love Surreal)

Half D'Angelo chill-neo-soul, half Prince guitar-based funkery tinged with Bobby Womack levels of loss, A Love Surreal can be enjoyed or experienced, but nothing less. I wrote on Beardfood.com: 'Bilal channels his inner Prince to deliver neo-soul drenched in lo-fi grooves. Halting jazz gives way to 70s funk and smooth contemporary balladry, but laid-back turns to soul stomp in a blink. Not always the main event, Bilal croons, roars and at times soars, varying styles to enhance his subject matter. Authentic, smooth, good for the soul.' It's such a refreshing feeling to know that in 2013 music like this is still being made, a throwback to the roots of neo-soul propelled by a production process harnessing the fresh edge of live band instrumentation and a soul-man who finally finds his voice after 4 albums. How Do We Get Back To Love is a sensual dream, and the drum and bass sounds so fresh you'd swear The Roots were in the studio with him. The funk infusion of West Side Girl betrays Bilal's attempted portrayal of a lad not in the same class bracket as his target woman, his smooth, supple tones can't hide his inherent quality and upper-east side demeanour. Slipping Away is the stunner of the year, and showcases that not only can the man entertain, he can inform and relate as well. The second half of the record brilliantly deals with loss and desperation, but Bilal rescues us on occasion with an unbridled optimism that belies his age. Stunning, smooth, beautiful.
Best Tracks: Slipping Away, Back To Love, West Side Girl
Sounds Like?: Jamiroquai, D'Angelo, Prince

6. Problem & IAMSU! - Million Dollar Afro (Problem & IAMSU! - Million Dollar Afro) free mixtape

Mixtapes, really good ones, have been as rare as quality hip-hop LPs so far this year, but thankfully these two have come along with a relaxed attitude and an absolutely beasting production list. In a world where quality control has taken a distant backseat to vast quantity, Problem & Iamsu actually sound like they've taken their time on this. Problem in particular sounds fresher than I've ever heard, dropping calmly on to every beat and destroying it. The production steers clear of the EDM synths littering the airwaves and allows free reign to the duo who duly respond. Understand Me gleams like a brand new Bentley, the Juvenile featured 100 Grand harks back to Southern raps rise in the late 90s and even Wiz Khalifa gets bodied, IAMSU! delivers the choice line 'hit the dick before I give the bitch my Government'. Don't miss the AWESOME Wassup with legendary Too $hort, the beat will blow your speakers and $hort's verse will.. well, what every $hort verse does 'I tell a bitch exactly what I want, lick my dick from round the back to the front'. IAMSU and Problem match him sick line for sick line, 'plus I got bread and cheese like a calzone'. The whole record smacks of confidence and rewindable one-liners. You need a pen and a pad listening to this. Don't forget Problem & IAMSU! were on that killer E-40 classic Function. Think of this as a whole fucking album of that. The production steers clear of the EDM synths littering the airwaves and allows free reign to the duo who duly respond.
Best Tracks: Understand Me, 100 Grand, That Nigga
Sounds Like: Too $hort, E-40, Juvenile

7. Serengeti - Saal (Serengeti – Saal)

The reigning master of mope, Serengeti returns with a piece that veers away from traditional hip hop definition and more towards desperate poet mixed with soft folk singer. The spoken word moments punctuate his admirable melodic capabilities with doses of sobering reality. We're dealing with the difficult side of life. Serengeti strikes you as more than just a struggling soul. He may deal in frank observation, but behind those despairing eyes lies a mind working overtime to manufacture ways out of the rabbit hole. Still, his subject matter deals with experience and reality. On Karate Serengeti is battling an aggressive and overwrought older woman, on Wedding he hauntingly sings about attending the wedding of his lost love in disguise, and on Erotic City he digs in the murky depths of the stories that make up a cities underbelly, 'she was crying in the abortion clinic, her pimps name was British, he was a mean son of a bitch, who always hated tennis'. The production is stellar, ducking and weaving between morose, downbeat tempos to fleetingly poppy synth structures, such as on Seasons, a rare ray of sunshine, and the pulsing synths driving the relentless Friends. It's no beach soundtrack, but you'll experience moments that will have you desperately reaching for it.
Best Tracks: Karate, Seasons, Friends
Sounds Like: Destroyer, Sage Francis, Casiotone For The Painfully Alone

8. Birds Of Tokyo - March Fires (Birds Of Tokyo – March Fires)

Smooth edged, stadium level pop rock hasn't come in a better package this year. Australian slammers Birds Of Tokyo have again dialled back their heavier tendencies, but the result is such a good one you can't criticise. The explosions of This Fire, a jaded man considering a dramatic removal from the city he has grown irritated and tired with, the melancholic opener Liquid Arms, an ode to the sweet healing embrace of alcohol, and the call to arms of Lanterns, a stunning journey of a man energised and envigorated by an inner passion to change an unhealthy and degrading mindset forge a brilliant pop landscape. Then, there os density of Boy, a lost and helpless middle aged man searching fruitlessly for a wondrous and enchanting childhood, and intricacy of Blume, a left-field number with shades of Snow Patrol's You Could Be Happy we're treated to a verdant array of sounds and emotions. Tormented though he may be, Kenny's efforts to change and take control are valiant and admirable. Melody is always at the forefront, and even the sing-along choruses refuse to feel tacky, they just enhance the enjoyment. Added to all of this is the ride that singer Ian Kenny takes us on through his at times tortured mind. His mood swings border on manic, and it's hard not to get dragged in to his world despite the relatively toothless sonics. Definitely an album of layers, just pick your mood and interact accordingly.
Best Tracks: This Fire, Lanterns, Boy
Sounds Like?: Cursive, The Killers, Dappled Cities

9. Atoms For Peace - AMOK (Atoms For Peace – AMOK)

It's a new Radiohead album. Plain and simple. Thom Yorke may be incapable of shaking the iconic sound of the band, but thankfully those around him mould and shape it in to an edgy, concise package that delivers a surprising amount of groove (thank you Flea) and a bounty of rolling synthesizer work from Godrich that bleeds in to infectious rhythm. You'd be surprised that driving along listening to this, you may occasionally break in to spontaneous, slow limb flailing, like Peter Garrett on valium, the mastery and trickery of Yorke and Godrich's electronic work is such you'll not even notice till the end of the song. Added on to this is Yorke's trademark lyrical brilliance, his anxious, self-deprecating, self-doubting emotions are sometimes lost amongst the noise, a blatant and effective technique, but when you do focus on his content, especially on tracks like Default, ' 'I'm still hanging on / Bird upon the wires / I fall between the waves', the mood elevates those twitchy, math rock building blocks the band uses to really forge a strong song-writing platform. AMOK is not a varied release, but when viewed amongst it's contemporaries, Grimes, How To Dress Well, Toro Y Moi, it sparkles.
Best Tracks: Best Tracks: Default, Unless, Stuck Together Pieces
Sounds Like: Grimes,  James Blake, Radiohead 

10. Free Energy - Love Sign (Free Energy – Love Sign)

Love Sign delivers on the promise housed within that band name. First impressions were fun (the band) without the belting, grating vocals and overwrought melodies injected with steroids to appeal to the Glee generation. Rather, Love Sign promises a more laid-back listen, there's no cynicism or blatant cash-grabbing super-stage, and yet if you heard these tracks on the radio you'd be forgiven for thinking they're a solid gold pop band. Guitar based pop rock, that blends uncomplicated riffs with conventional drum and bass and the delightful licks, solos and general padding that Scott Wells provides on lead, the entire album is constantly moving forward. Even the less than impressive capacity of vocalist Sprangers adds to the energy of the songs, his exuberance more than makes up for lack of technique. Dance All Night showcases his story telling, morose side with a piercing number about (what else?) lost love and moving on, whilst Hangin is just awesome jock rock, chanelling KISS Sprangers takes us back to carefree college, when girls were all that mattered. The whole record personifies that relaxed nature towards everything but love, and celebrates the way our happiness can be tied to something as simple as your crush saying yes.
Best Tracks: Dance All Night, Hey Tonight, Hangin
Sounds Like: Fun, KISS, Kings Of Leon, anything indie rock

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