Top 50 of 2013: 10 - 1
10. Boards of Canada - Tomorrow's Harvest
Tomorrow’s Harvest starts with a trumpet, a fanfare-like sound that announces the entrance of electronic royalty. I think Boards of Canada know how important this release is. I think behind the smoke and mirrors, the hidden codes, the enveloping secrecy they are well aware that they didn’t just help define a genre, they shaped and moulded it. Electronic music could never be the same after Music Has the Right to Children. Universally applauded, it bucked the trend of synthetic sounds that were becoming the norm through acts like The Chemical Brothers, Moby, Daft Punk and Autechre by utilising analogue recording equipment and techniques to achieve a unique sound. This sound became legendary, not only for the uniqueness they achieved but the savant levels of attention to detail that clearly went in to each individual sound. I say sound, not song, because picking apart a Boards Of Canada track is like picking apart the back catalogue of every other artist. They love filling empty spaces.
The record is a triumph of circumstance. I am convinced they are so far removed from the contemporary music landscape that they are the only ones who can be relied upon to create something entirely unique. As the year has progressed I have fallen further in love with this piece of work. The desolation of White Cyclosa, the tempered, controlled pleasure of Gemini, the slow blossoming and explosion of beauty from Reach For The Dead. Whereas Autechre jam an entire world of sound in to 5 seconds of music, Boards have always been a less is more operation, which has allowed them to hone what they do use to such a level that it'd be mathematically impossible for that piece of music to be any better. Tomorrow's Harvest is actually almost a flourish for them, there are moments here where the sounds are not condensed at all, they are allowed to run around this dystopian iceland that they've created, and it's richer for the freedom. Don't assume this is a completely sparse ambient affair though. Jacquard Causeway matches it with their counterparts by shoving so many perfectly balanced elements in your ears your head blows up. Palace Posy could even be mistaked for early Aphex Twin.
I wrote originally it seemed like the fun was gone. Like they were done with the playfulness, done with the rumours of subliminal messages and cheeky games. They'd become a machine who had its final bit of free will removed. This isn't true at all. They remain cheeky. This album may be a desolate place, but it's home.
Best Tracks: Palace Posy, Reach For The Dead, Gemini
9. Janelle Monae - The Electric Lady
The classiest lady in R & B returns, with massive shoes to feel. The ArchAndroid was a complete trip of a record. A jazzed out funk fest infused with the most irrepressible and enigmatic personality we'd encountered on the charts in years. On the Big Boi track Tightrope she really announced herself as more than a one album weirdo, out-doing her experimental friend and forcing him to bring his A game with a hook that sounded like she was on speed and cocaine and amphetamines and ice and any other stimulant you can imagine. The Electric Lady is a continuation. 'Giving you what you love' she proclaims on the second track (enlisting her closest counterpart, Prince), before a dirty solo guitar riff is plucked out of mid air and joined by a superb horn section. This sets the tone. It's a slower beat, signalling a maturity and progression, yet it still harnesses that inherent weirdness that makes her so exciting. When others show up, like Solange, Miguel and even the iconic Erykah Badu, you can really see Monae show her chops. On the title track she trades off with Solange as the two sisters of the new school of R&B craft an uplifting clutch of horns and harmonising. There's still craziness, Dance Apocalytpic is a childish romp, 'you gotta laugh at the zombie in the front lawn'. Even these moments feel more grown, 'You're not afraid to freak out', implying that rather than being insanely freaked out all the time, like in her previous record, she has moments of clarity and lucidity. Overall? Brilliant.
Best Tracks: Q.U.E.E.N., Primetime, Dance Apocalyptic
8. Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band - TAKE ME TO THE LAND OF HELL
A lot of times I've turned on an Ono song, and immediately had to turn it off, because it just sounds like some crazy lady screaming in a mental asylum. She may not be the most stable of characters, but her commitment to art is well documented, and for the very first time I GET IT!! What a delightful collection of songs these are. From the James Brown FUNK of CHESHIRE CAT CRY to the 70s disco aspirations of 7TH FLOOR, and the crazy Spanish musical trance of LEAVING TIM. 'I'm leaving you Tim, though it's haaaaaaard to believe'. She is 80. on LITTLE BOY BLUE your daddy's gone she shows her age, chastising a younger male, possibly a tom boy lover, with wit and wisdom. Just the sheer weight of ideas and sounds is inspiring, it must be hell being Yoko her mind must be working at a million miles an hour. Of course there are still the orgasmic screams and blood curdling cries, even some sort of wolf mating call. But these are just amusing now when the package is so enticing.
Best Tracks: CHESHIRE CAT CRY, LITTLE BOY BLUE your daddy's gone, LEAVING TIM
7. Mac Miller - Watching Movies With The Sound Off
I discovered Mac Miller through that blessed (you can't see the face I'm pulling right now, it's called sarcasm) of music resources Pitchfork. They gave Blue Slide Park a 1/10, so I reasoned it must be good. It was, but in a totally frat boy let's get fucked up and fight people kind of way. Which was fantastic for me at the time, it became my running soundtrack. When I heard he had released a new record, I wasn't sure. I have gone through so many changes since Blue Slide Park, I wasn't sure I was in the right place to listen to happiness. Imagine my delight when I heard S.D.S., a glitchy, downbeat piece that Miller rapped over with metronomic boredom yet such vibrant personality. Turns out this is one of the records of the year. Miller is stunning, and I've since gone back and heard this potential through his mixtapes, but the way he rides a beat in to submission with sheer perserverence and dirty, aggressive barbs is reminiscient of early Eminem, if Eminem was ever addicted to valium (oh wait..). Some rappers, such as Buck 65, look him up he is BRILLIANT, seek to tone down their youthful sounding delivery. Not so Mac. He embraces it, and when he needs he just applies Tyler levels of fake bass to assume a new personality. On Avian he sounds positively cute, and you almost, almost! believe this is going to be a happy, uplifting record; 'This bird, up in the the sky, look at him fly'. But then he repeats 'why' over and over. Foreboding. Turns out Miller may very well have been on inhuman amounts of molly when he wrote Blue Slide Park, because WMWTSO is absolutely fucked. It's depraved, it's depressed, it's suicidal, it's aggressive and hopeless all at once. It's the worst hangover of all time. 'I used to give a fuck about success now I just wanna see Mila Kunis undress' is a sentiment that is echoed throughout the entire album. He only sounds interested when he is trading horrid verses with guys like Bronson, 'It must be the drugs, that got us thinking crazy shit, groupie bitches crazy nuff to suck a babies dick'. Not every punch lands, but that adds texture and balance. It adds authenticity. Miller is giving us his entire personality, and that is an invigorating experience.
Best Tracks: Avian, Red Dot Music, Watching Movies
6. 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
5. David Bowie - The Next Day Extra
The Next Day is not intended to make any statements, it doesn't exist as a testament to contemporary times nor does it house any revolutionary or even evolutionary content. For someone who has been instrumental in shaping pop music, this record is the perfect outward projection of a man contented and happy. Furthermore, it comes from a 66 year old man who has achieved all he surely set out to. There is no need for this record, but we thank the musical gods he was bitten by the bug again. Less rambunctious than his last LP Reality, Bowie is thoughtful and outwardly focused, only letting us in to his inner workings on the balladry of Where Are We Now? and once on If You Can See Me, claiming he has 'a fear of rear windows'. That's ok, his keen sense of history and thirst for knowledge mean he is never short on content, the brilliant I'd Rather Be High seeing him step in to the boots of a WWII infantryman and You Feel So Lonely You Could Die he displays a cold, emotionless honesty in describing how one reacts to the depression of someone close to them. Bowie is timeless, his most recent albums always seem to sit comfortably within the contemporary landscape without adhering to any rules or trends. The same is true of The Next Day.
Best Tracks: Where Are We Now?, I'd Rather Be High, You Feel So Lonely You Could Die
4. 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
3. 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
2. Lorde - Pure Heroine
A friend said to me 'hey check out Royals, it's amazing'. So I did, and it was. And I didn't think any more of it. Until listening to my usual radio program they were talking about who was going to cover for Frank Ocean at Splendour In The Grass. Lorde, that teenager from New Zealand? She only has one song! Once the album came out, it was instant love. Some records take their time, some come and then go, some don't even make it to the party. Pure Heroine IS the party, and the morning after, and the six months after that. Every single track is pretty close to perfect. As a (still relatively) young man, I relate to most of what Lorde is singing about. Young love, awkward social situations, total lack of funds, house parties and good mates. Royals may have been overplayed, but what a song to have to listen to every 3 minutes! 'I'm not proud of my address' 'Every song's like gold teeth grey goose' 'We don't care'. It's not a malicious swipe at today's music, yet it is. What I mean is, her innocence and naivety is pure (see the connection?), so her opinion holds more sway objectively. And she thinks Lil Wayne rapping about Bugatti's is lame. She also happens to be THE COOLEST New Zealander in the world, and as a country they happen to be fucking cool.
Royals is the tip of the iceberg. Tennis Court is a chilled early 00s electronic riff that explodes in to a beautiful melody on the chorus. Team is her 'crew love' moment, a hip hop inspired bump that is tempered by delicate synths as she explains the brilliance of her mates. White Teeth Teens is another classic cool, 'we wouldn't be seen her in the day'. Still Sane sees her voice crashing around your speakers, and her youthful exuberance is soberly presented, 'I still like hotels but I think that will change' ' I'm little but I'm coming for the crown'. There are these pockets of wisdom and insight littered all over Pure Heroine. The production almost eggs her on, urges her forwards when she is slightly unsure of where to go next. The explosion in Tennis Court in to the chorus is a wonderful light shining for her to jump in to. On A World Alone, the background noise is so complimentary of her lyrics you don't even notice it, you're right there on the train or at a corporate luncheon with her. This record deserves close to a 10/10. It's probably the best album of the year. But not quite..
Best Tracks: Royals, A World Alone, Team
1. Eminem - Marshall Mathers LP II
MMLP2 is brilliant. It is a fusion of absolutely everything that is defining of Eminem. He tackles his own shortcomings truthfully and often, he addresses his difficulty dealing with the seduction of drugs, he delves in to the contemporary landscape (although not as deeply as in previous years), and he brings bars. Days and fucking days of them. In fact not since the first installment of this series has a release been so firmly packed with punchlines, metaphors, internal rhymes, synocpations, alliterations, multisyllabic rhymes, block rhmes, free rhymes.. The list is endless. He manages to rhyme 'ain't one' with 'machine gun', he has your head racing back and forth like a tennis match with 'So step inside of dimension / The demented side of a mind / That’s like the inside of an engine / While I multiply your undivided attention / But be reminded that if I didn’t mention / I lose my mind and my temper', he even adopts an accurate Yoda accent on Rhyme or Reason, 'Back with the Yoda of rap in a spasm, Your music usually has them / But waned for the game your enthusiasm it hasn't / Follow you must, Rick Rubin my little Padawan'
Eminem has raised the bar. What rapper do you know could feature the hottest emcee of the last 5 years (Kendrick Lamar), allow him an absolute insane verse, then turn around and murder him on the home straight? And then back-handedly diss him on Rap God saying 'Why be a king, when you can be a god?'. For a man who has struggled for relevancy through a variety of personal demons, this impressive performance solidifies what us 'stans' always argued, that he deserves his place in the upper echelon of the genre.
After Relapse and Recovery I think we were all slightly apprehensive. In 2013, Kendrick Lamar has spear-headed a return to old school, old fashioned bars. And Eminem has risen to the challenge, emphatically.
Best Track: Love Game, Rap God, Evil Twin