If you think year-end music lists are about nailing down the best music of the year, you are doing it wrong. Music is intensely personal, so lists should be like fingerprints, not aggregations of taste. That’s why I’m particularly proud of Unwinnable’s Best Music of 2013. Sure, we put some hits up on the board, but I think our top ten reflects more than a little of our off-kilter sensibility. And if you really want to discover some new music keep reading (and listening to our Spotify playlist). Our nominees go deep, hard and weird.
– Gus Mastrapa
Orchid – The Mouths of Madness
Fearless Leader, Stu Horvath, has subjected me to a lot of doom metal this past year, but Orchid’s The Mouths of Madness is by far the best. The first Amazon review I saw for the album proclaimed, “More Sabbath than Sabbath!” While it’s clear that Orchid is heavily influenced by the first metal band, I’d say that emphatic review does Orchid a disservice. The doom rock band from San Francisco recorded most of this record in June of 2012, right after they returned from a European tour. The decision to go right from tour to the studio results in a record with low key and distorted guitar riffs, clanky bass, massive drums and vocals that invoke the blues. The record, while clearly influenced by 1970s acts like Black Sabbath, surpasses its predecessors’ most recent release. Simply put, Orchid’s The Mouths of Madness rocks hard.
– Ian Gonzales
Yo La Tengo – Fade
I lived in Hoboken for six years and would sometimes run into Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley. They were like part of the furniture of the Mile Square. By the time I skipped town after my roommate was deported to China for making terroristic threats, I had had enough of all the furniture in Hoboken, not just the couch and the blinds but the constant flooding and the St. Patrick’s Day tourists and the…but I digress. Yo La Tengo was an old friend, but listening to them reminded me of overstaying my welcome. Fade brought them back to life. The album isn’t a reinvention of their sound, but a reminder of why I fell in love with them in the first place. “I’ll Be Around” is my love song of the year, hands down. “Ohm” is Yo La Tengo’s mission statement, re-stated. “Is That Enough” and “The Point of It” are everything that’s always been so endearing about this band – Ira’s near spoken-word singing, and a quiet catchiness – and it all leads the album’s epic finale, “Before We Run.” Yo La Tengo has made more than a dozen records over its 30 years, but I wouldn’t hesitate to hand this one to a newbie.
– Matt Marrone
Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus Seven
R Plus Seven is a bold repurposing of the sounds that defined electronic music in the 1980s. Daniel Lopatin knows that by now his listeners have built-in associations for these default keyboard patches and old computer samples: they scream of public access television and retro quaintness. This makes his subversion of our expectations that much more inspiring, as he builds brilliant, expressive collages out of sounds we thought we were better than. The songs on R Plus Seven don’t have drum beats or follow any kind of traditional formula, instead shifting loosely from one texture to another, settling on moods for a few moments and then jumping somewhere else. It might sound disjointed at first, but Lopatin remains in control all the while. “Still Life” builds tension to a harsh, arpeggiated climax and then resolves it with album closer “Chrome Country,” a rich and honest track that embraces the plain falseness of its choir, piano and organ sounds. It doesn’t matter that their origin isn’t the real deal – the experience is as human as any live recording could be.
– Adam Boffa
David Bowie –The Next Day
In early 2013, David Bowie released his twenty-fourth studio album, The Next Day. Though he never stopped making music, it is nice when someone makes good work. Sometimes when heritage acts make new material they tend to follow the current trend, or style, and I find the album immediately sounds dated. The Next Day, thankfully, is lacking any millennial gimmicks.
The Next Day is a solid album with strange album cover art, an adapted version of the 1977 album Heroes. Maybe Bowie is forcing the listener to have a predisposition about where your head should be when you listen to this. This album is just modern enough modern has the right amount of maturity to keep it moving along nicely. The sound is decidedly more rock, which is good, because I started to really lose interest in David Bowie around the time he decided he was going to become his own ISP.
The Next Day is the kind of album I really enjoy getting from established musical acts. I feel confident recommending this album to people that might be wary of anything that isn’t a classic album. The attitude of “I prefer the older stuff” would be a disservice to this piece of work. Some months after The Next Day was released, an expanded version of the album came out with a few extra tracks and mixes. This is the version to get, it is like getting all the DLC game content in one package. Songs like “Valentine’s Day” and “Informer” might as well be songs recorded using a time machine. Considering it is David Bowie, they very well might have been.
– Charles Francis Moran VI
Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
I know Queens of the Stone Age are the heroes of desert rock and all, but when I listen to …Like Clockwork I keep coming back to the mellow moments that sort of pin the whole thing down. I mean it’s clear there’s some serious vamping here. The record opens on a dirty-ass groove (“Keep Your Eyes Peeled”) and hits hip-shaking heights reminiscent Bowie at his thin, white dukiest (“If I Had A Tail”). But the dirge-like “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” is where Homme starts to make his point. Dude is tired. But not so damn tired he can’t accentuate his downward spiral with the plaintive wail of a bent E string. Like all good records …Like Clockwork marks a turning point. For Homme that meant coming back from a botched surgery and finding a reason to live and make noise again. Being good at what you do is as good a reason as any to get back to work. But not believing your own hype is even more important. That’s why the record’s melancholic closing is my favorite track. “One thing that is clear,” Homme sings. “It’s all downhill from here.” Yeah, right.
– Gus Mastrapa
Burial – Rival Dealer
The acquisition of grace is a theme that gets bandied about a lot with Burial, the atmospheric-dubby-electronic-house musician from England. But Rival Dealer changes that perception by expanding its reach beyond cataloging urban desiccation and those who emerge from it. The album, which still sounds like the radio station you would make of your life while walking through a vaguely-populated urban area at night, is boosted by impactful uses of negative space and ambient sounds. In other words, the felt moments of frigid inconsequentiality are still very much here. But they’re lifted this time around – most notably in standout track “Come Down to Us” – by bursts of ebullient 2-step, like it came from a forgotten song from the 80s that was just found and remastered. These soaring moments, combined with samples and speeches dealing with identity and belief in oneself (including one by Lana Wachowski), posit a world where grace isn’t earned – it was already always there, just waiting to be discovered and nurtured.
– Nick Michal
Oblivians – Desperation
I ripped on a lot of reunion albums on the Worst of 2013 list. When I heard that Memphis garage punk legends the Oblivians were releasing their first new album in sixteen years, it’s safe to say that I was a little skeptical. By the end of the first track “Loving Cup” all that skepticism is thrown out the window, and I can’t help but nod my head and tap my feet! This is a collection of songs made by three accomplished rock and roll songwriters, and the input from Eric, Jack and Greg combine to make a satisfying barn burner of an album. It was beyond awesome seeing this material performed live back in September, and you can really see that these guys aren’t just cashing in but still enjoy playing on stage together. As long as they can make albums with this much energy and soul I will be on board for any future Oblivians releases, and on line for the next show.
– Michael Edwards
Ghost – Infestissumam
I admit it. I did my best to rig the voting so that Ghost’s sophomore album Infestissumam would win. It seemed time for Satan to get his due. He’s always the villain, so I thought it would be nice for the boys in Ghost (whoever they are) to win an award for the Dark One. It’s the holidays, everybody deserves a present this time of year.
Anyway, Ghost got beat out by Daft Punk and CHVRCHES (irony!). Infestissumam is still a great album, though, like a melodic 60s pop record turned inside out and filled with evil. Just check out the infernal catechism of “Year Zero,” the delirious stormy seas of “Secular Haze,” or the religious intonations of “Monstrance Clock” if you don’t believe me. And that isn’t even getting into the costumes and the anonymity that make Ghost the best kind of rock theater.
But it didn’t win. It doesn’t seem just, but votes are votes. What can you do, right? Well, I guess there are a lot of things you could do to Daft Punk and CHVRCHES with enough willpower and livestock to sacrifice. But if you hear about me doing any of those things, I just want to be clear: the Devil made me do it.
– Stu Horvath
CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe
It’s perfectly fine to dream up excuses for a party, but *reasons *to party are much more satisfying. Everyone loves a shin-dig, but endless celebrations of nothing at all can take a toll on your soul. CHVRCHES debut album, The Bones of What You Believe, is a dance album with weight. It provides reasons to dance, not excuses. Lauren Mayberry’s bright vocals retain a complexity that slowly unveils itself as subtle fear and bitterness. She knows too much, and so do you.
In an album all about sacrificial love and headstrong commitment, CHVRCHES gives zero time to self-preservation. There’s some dabbling in relational revenge, but most of this album is mere realism: committed relationships are murder. They’re roller coaster rides with unbearable troughs and horrifying climbs before the inevitable drop. “All that’s golden is never so, and I’ll be thankful when you let go,” concludes Mayberry. Is she thankful for the ride or the end of it? Both, probably. That sort of calculated sacrifice and commitment is infectious, because love is like dancing: best done with abandon.
– Richard Clark
Album of the Year: Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
“Let the music of your life / give life back to music” proclaims the opening salvo of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, a line that pretty much sums up the album that follows. The French robots made a name for themselves producing house music with a foundation in sampling, but here there is nary a sample to be found and the speed has slowed to a steady disco thump. Instead of paying tribute to their musical influences through sampling, they’ve just gone out and hired them as session players, resulting in an album that sounds like something late-90s Daft Punk would have excitedly pulled out of a record crate, eager to begin extracting snippets.
Though the production process for Random Access Memories is inextricable from the music itself, dedicating this entire blurb to the album’s backstory would do it a disservice. What’s here is a theme park ride ranging from vocoder slow jams to cinematic space operas to funkified crowd pleasers. It’s an album about longing –longing for the past and the way records used to be made, but also longing for the exciting possibilities the future may hold. More than anything, Random Access Memories is about the longing for human interaction: feeling the touch of another, reaching for the stars, and falling in love. What more could you ask from a couple robots?
– Dan Solberg
Best Hard Rock Album by Former Stoner Rock Godfathers that Weren’t Queens of the Stone Age: Vista Chino – Peace
Don’t think that I don’t love QOTSA, because I do! But I loved this album a little more. Fronted by John Garcia and Brant Bjork (the other two members of Kyuss with Josh Homme) and introducing new guitarist Bruno Fevery (formerly of a Belgian Kyuss cover band), Vista Chino is paving new ground in hard rock and stoner rock. After a nasty lawsuit with Homme and Scott Reeder (also of Kyuss), Bjork and Garcia decided to rename the outfit. Then they recorded Peace. This album blisters like the hot desert sun at noon o’clock. It opens with “Dargona Dragona” which harkens back to their Welcome to Sky Valley days. They pick up their own sound with “Sweet Remain” and “Acidize…The Gambling Moose” and fiddle with instrumentals with “Planets 1 & 2.” They were joined on tour by Mike Dean (Corrosion of Conformity) and blasted through an amazing set of Kyuss and Vista Chino anthems. Garcia never sounded better, Fevery is the Cool Hand Luke of guitarists, Dean rocked and it was an honor to witness the genius of Brant Bjork live. This album gets 5 out of 5 bong hits and is sure to transport you to the low desert.
– Ken Lucas
Best Serious Fucking Death Metal Record: Carcass – Surgical Steel
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t all that into Carcass until this year. I’ve spent much time over the last twelve months celebrating the band’s entire catalog. The thing that is really crazy about Surgical Steel is that it isn’t merely good for an old band. It’s fucking killer. Like maybe the best thing they’ve done. Brutal, complex riffs are accentuated by the kind of pitch bent guitar harmonies that make you want to raise your fist in the air. Relentless hammering drums never stand still and Jeff Walker’s sinister vocals snarl lyrics about body horror, jihad and the captive bolt pistol. These guys didn’t come back, they never fell off in the first place.
– Gus Mastrapa
Best 24-Disc Boxed Set: King Crimson – The Road To Red
King Crimson marked the 40th anniversary of its heaviest (and possibly most beloved) lineup by releasing a 13 disc set chronicling its formation and its first album, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. How do you follow up a project like that? With nearly twice as many discs chronicling the end of that lineup, and the band for nearly a decade. Containing a new stereo remix of the album Red and recordings of varying quality of the John Wetton/Bill Bruford/David Cross/Robert Fripp lineup’s final 16 shows, it is a mammoth undertaking to listen to, and only the most ardent fan would start with Disc 1 and work his way chronologically through the set. Over the 21 CDs, 2 Blu-Rays and a DVD, there are literally 10 different ways to hear the show they performed in Asbury Park on June 28, 1974. But the set provides a view of the band in the summer of 1974, when they were at the height of their powers and their discord, as violinist Cross would leave the band prior to the recording of Red. The average listener can cherry-pick individual performances. The patient listener is rewarded with a waking day’s worth of heaviness.
– Don Becker
Best Album by a Band that Didn’t Last the Year: Comadre – Comadre
This album came out on January 8 of this year, so it only barely manages to sneak onto this list, but it certainly deserves a mention. A much more coherent release than any of Comadre’s earlier efforts, this album wanders between noisy, dancy post-hardcore in the vein of early Blood Brothers, and a frank, honest sounding brand of ’90s-influenced emotive hardcore. There’s even some hooks in here that will make pop-punk fans rejoice, though vocalist Juan Gabe’s raspy, angry vocals make this a far cry from a standard pop-anything release. Unfortunately, these guys broke up shortly after this album came out, so it will be forced to serve as an excellent swan song from a great West Coast screamo band.
– Mitchell Bowman
Best Country/Folk/Punk Album Not Enough People Listened to this Year: Frank Turner – Tape Deck Heart
Frank Turner’s best work came this year in the form of Tape Deck Heart. With a little help from the Sleeping Souls the soulful and angsty Brit took listeners through a wave of emotions with some of his pop-iest and saddest works to date. Every time this guy cranks out a new album, I hear a track like “The Way I Tend To Be” and start bashing my skull against the hardest, nearest surface wondering, “When will this fucking guy be famous already?” His hooks are catchy, his melodies are of the ear worm variety, and his lyrical content and cadence is downright mesmerizing. The songs meant to make you smile and the songs meant to make you cry are spot on and illicit the intended emotions as your heart becomes an instrument for Frank to manipulate. I had the privilege of seeing him this fall touring on the record and was blown away by the reality of just how fucking good Frank and his band are. I know it didn’t make our top list, but do yourself a favor and give Frank some of your time.
– Erik Weinbrecht
Best Psych/Garage/Weird Shit that Sounds Like No One Else this Year: Thee Oh Sees – Floating Coffin
As a young Batman fan, I used to wonder what the Joker was like when he wasn’t terrorizing Gotham City. What does he like to eat? Which TV shows does he watch? What kind of music does he listen to? While I haven’t got an answer for the first two questions, I did come to the conclusion that, being a madman and all, the Joker might roll with his own demented soundtrack grooving in his head. I imagine it’s something strange, frantic, and explosively dynamic as if summoned by a shaman or cast like a sorcerer’s spell. It is relentless in it’s ability to burrow in your skull and move you to psychosis. It is primal and disturbing and weirdly familiar. It is Thee Oh Sees’ Floating Coffin. After five-or-so years of churning out great album after great album, Floating Coffin is a culmination of psychedelic frenzy and introspection. With every ambulatory guitar squeal, every cuckoo bird chirp, and every throbbing bass line, John Dwyer and co. have conjured that same effervescent madness that is the Joker’s calling card. And then there are the moments of utter clarity stamped with beautifully layered melodies and subdued vocals that are so lovely and accessible they lull you into a trance and make you wonder if you previously heard it in a car commercial. This contrast creates an anxiety and anticipation so palpable you can’t help but be thrilled with every new track. I mean, what could be more diabolical than the Joker posing as a simple car salesman?
– Jay Pullman
Best Album that I’m Assuming Nobody’s Talking About Because They’re So Busy Listening To It: Nils Frahm – Spaces
Spaces is unassuming and sincere and gorgeous. At the center of it is Nils Frahm’s trademark melancholic piano, but it’s surrounded by natural reverbs, digital manipulations and a little bit of synthesizer. Frahm constructs ten and fifteen minute pieces out of a few melodic phrases or a framework of a chord progression, but “Spaces” never meanders or feels unfocused. The best example is “Says,” which might just be the best god damn track I’ve heard all year. It twists and warps a fragile synthesizer motif around piano improvisations until the only place left to go is a big, thundering catharsis in the last minute. It’s a patient and earnest album, and it’s exactly what 2013 needed.
– Adam Boffa
The Best Album I Completely Forgot to Vote For: Kvelertak – Meir
When the singer of Kvelertak came on stage, his head was obscured by a taxidermy owl headdress, wings outspread, eyes glowing. The Norwegian six piece led off with the dramatic swells of “Appenbaring,” the first track on their sophomore album Meir. It is a huge song, but only hints at the metal treasures to be found on the rest of the album. Kvelertak knows heavy, but it knows hooks too – every song is stuffed full of them, some so brilliant, so catchy and so brief that you don’t realize what you’re listening to until it is past (“Evig Vandrar” is a great example of this. So is”Manelyst.” So is the entire album). Then you have to replay the song again and again, which is exactly what I’ve done since I saw them live in November.
So if Meir is so great, then, why did I forget to vote for it? Because it is easy to forget that metal this awesome could come out in 2013.
– Stu Horvath
The Album So Good We Wrote About It Twice: Mindless Self Indulgence – How I Learned To Stop Giving A Shit And Love Mindless Self Indulgence
#1: In the world of How I Learned To Stop Giving A Shit And Love Mindless Self Indulgence, the music industry comes out and admits their most guarded secrets. Macklemore and Eminem do high fives and sing along with “I Want To Be Black.” The likes of Rick Ross and Jay-Z are killed in a “Hip Hop Rage,” by the ghosts of past rappers who paved the way for their nonsense. Moments later they are resurrected and thankfully leave music to go and help out in homeless shelters because no matter what happens, ice cream will fix it. Lady Gaga stops her faux campaign of trying to empower everyone, and admits that things will suck for everyone because it only gets worse, unless you’ve got money or are pretty by default. Anonymous is rewarded by sexual favors from Casio keyboards because hacking is so goddamn cool. Mumford and Sons sings about growing old, bitterly to a crowd of five or six at a backwoods truck stop.
In the end MSI jumps into a time portal Donnie Darko-style having never actually existed, but the effects are still felt industry wide and their sound continues to influence but never be credited.
#2: Music is difficult for me to talk about because it’s so personal. I’d prefer to not tell anyone I what I think about How I Learned To Stop Giving A Shit And Love Mindless Self Indulgence because it’s a CD you’ll either find to be brilliant, or to be a pile of sonic garbage. So just listen to it and if you think it’s the worst thing ever… you’re wrong.
And shout outs to Run the Jewels by Killer Mike and El-P.
– Shawn Alexander Allen
The Rest of the Nominees
Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks, DJ Rashad – Double Cup, Haim – Days Are Gone, Deafheaven – Sunbather, Mogwai – Les Revenants, Kanye West – Yeezus, Black Angels – Indigo Meadow, Lady Gaga – ARTPOP, Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest, Liquor Store – In The Garden, ?-Ziq – Somerset Avenue Tracks (1992-1995), Zomby – With Love, John Carpenter – The Fog (Original Soundtrack Vinyl Reissue), The Night Birds – Born to Die in Suburbia, Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories), Frank Turner – Tape Deck Heart, Lorde – Pure Heroine, Killer Mike & El-P – Run the Jewels, Ghostface Killa – 12 Reasons To Die, Fuzz – Fuzz, John Hopkins – Immunity, Rob – Maniac (Original Soundtrack), Defeater – Letters Home, Toxic Holocaust – Chemistry of Consciousness, Sound of Contact – Dimensionaut, The White Mandingos – The Ghetto is Tryna Kill Me, La Luz – It’s Alive, My Bloody Valentine – MBV, Skinny Puppy – Weapon, Errata – L’autre Hemisphere, King Crimson – The Road to Red, Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City, Rodney Ascher – Room 237 (Original Soundtrack), Future of the Left – How To Stop Your Brain On Accident, Ty Segall – Sleeper, Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap, Janelle Monae – Electric Lady, James Blake – Overgrown, Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats – Mind Control, Goblin – 2013 Tour EP, Dads – Pretty Good, The Julie Ruin – Run Fast, Fish – A Feast of Consequences, Kavinsky – OutRun, Savages – Silence Yourself, Drake – Nothing Was The Same, Action Bronson – Blue Chips 2, A Place To Bury Strangers – Strange Moon EP, Darkthrone – The Underground Resistance, FaltyDL – Hardcourage, The Knife – Shaking the Habitual, Antoni Maiowi – Yellow: Original Music From the Short Film, Modern Life is War – Fever Hunting, Justin Timberlake – 20/20 Experience, Laura Veirs – Warp and Weft, Altar of Plagues – Teethed Glory and Injury, Cam’ron – Ghetto Heaven Vol. 1, Mikal Cronin – MC II, Mount Kimbie – Could Spring Fault Less Youth, Kadavar – Abra Kadavar, Octaves – Which Way the Wind Blows, Il Tempio Delle Clessidre – alieNatura, Earl Sweatshirt – Doris, Death Grips – Guv’t Plates, Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Daze, The Field – Cupid’s Head, Otto Von Schirach – Supermeng, Crash of Rhinos – Knots, Inspectah Deck with 7L and Esoteric – Czarface, John Steel Singers – Everything’s A Thread, Paul McCartney – New, Charlie XCX – True Romance, Oranssi Pazuzu – Valonielu, Deerhunter – Monomania, Machinedrum – Vapor City, Melvins – Everybody Loves Sausages, The World is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid To Die – Whenever, if Ever, Atoms For Peace – Amok, Jay Z – Magna Carta…Holy Grail, Rogue Wave – Nightingale Floors, Chelsea Wolfe – Pain is Beauty, Major Lazer – Free the Universe, Kurt Vile – It’s A Big World Out There (And I Am Scared), Pantha Du Prince and The Bell Laboratory – Elements of Light, Anais Mitchell – Child Ballads, Windhand – Soma, Bookhouse – Ghostwood, Loma Prieta/Raein – Split EP, Hugh Laurie – Didn’t It Rain, Sparks – Two Hands One Mouth, Various Artists – Son of Rogues Gallery, Arcade Fire – Reflector, Polkadot Cadaver – Last Call in Jonestown, CFCF – Music For Objects, Bibio – Silver Wilkinson, Purson – Circle and the Blue Door, Stolas – Living Creatures, Ramin Djawdi & Others – Pacific Rim (Original Soundtrack), Various Artists – Sound City: Real to Reel, Fall Out Boy – Save Rock n Roll, Derek Webb – I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry And I Love You.