Mark Oliver’s (Cmn ineed yr hlp) Top Pick’s of 2013

Naturally, when James reached out to me to write a guest “Top 10” post, I was flattered and excited. Then alarmed: I had no idea what I would put on such a list. In a year of many tremendous releases, I had trouble picking out one, let alone ten, that were standout favorites. (As this runs, my friend and I will be posting our year end list on our music Tumblr, I’ll bet I have changed my mind somewhat by then.) Further, despite having listened to hundreds of new albums, they’re a mere drop in the enormous bucket of 2013 releases; it’s inevitable I’ll be omitting at least one record I’ll later discover to be a timeless classic.

This is the drawback to the blessing of being a music fan in the digital age. With Bandcamp, Spotify, Rdio, Mog, etc. there is so much (legal!) access to so many great albums coming out all over the world, it’s impossible to get to them all, or even a healthy fraction of them. This is why I find it so infuriating when I see such homogeneity in year-end top lists. With something as subjective as music, and such a vast ocean of choices, there is no excuse other than laziness and cowardice that we should see nearly the exact same group of albums appearing on list after list.

PostRockStar is doing it right, offering a bunch varying perspectives from inside and outside their staff. To my earlier point, I’ve had my eyes opened to a LOT of stuff I missed the boat on this year. And isn’t that supposed to be THE POINT to all of this?! I hope I can pay it forward. I’ve chosen ten albums that I find myself relistening to the most as the year has drawn to a close. Then I’m going to try to mention as many other worthwhile albums I can within the context of those choices. I’m also (mostly) going to stay away from the normal domain of PostRockStar, as clearly all of the writers and I suspect most of the readers are far better versed in that world than I am, I’m not going to insult you all by pretending otherwise.

TL;DR? Let’s get on with this then:

10. Popstrangers – Antipodes

Like I said, I had a very difficult time picking out ten records for this list. The clock is about to strike midnight before the “deadline” for this submission, and I’m only now settling on this kiwi trio for the final slot. Apologies to Charles Bradley, Obits, Pinkish Black, Soviet Soviet, The Leap Year, and a host of others mentioned in the other entries) that narrowly missed out.

But it is this debut from New Zealand that kicks off the list and I have no regrets. This is an extremely well-named band, they are poppy and comfortable with some cute hooks, but they have a fairly obtuse angle towards that end. Over a rumbling rhythm section, guitarist/frontman Joel Flyger toys with a variety of effects and minor key vocal melodies to create tightly crafted tunes. Popstrangers owe a wide variety of debt to some of the “alternative” rock of the late eighties and nineties, an exciting trend for us old fogeys that saw some great releases this year: Roomrunner, Furguson, Crash of Rhinos, Ovlov, Carpark labelmates Speedy Ortiz, and Mudhoney (who nobody can emulate, so they just have to do it themselves). But the New Zealanders are able to distill it down to a sound that’s somehow completely fresh and distinctly that of this decade, somewhere many of their peers fall short.

9. Lorde – Pure Heroine

Yeah yeah yeah, I know a large portion of my preamble was admonishing doing a list that just seems to draw from a predetermined pool of certified “best of 2013” records. Perhaps it’s a bit hypocritical for me to promptly drop the record that likely appears on more lists than any other. I don’t care; there may not have been more culturally important record to come out this year.

Let me put it this way; you may listen to the most obscure, challenging music you can get your hands on. But at the end of the day, you have to live in the world with everybody else. And I believe a world where Ella Yelich-O’Connor (aka Lorde) is elevated to pop superstardom is simply a better one. (Ditto goes for Janelle Monáe) Pure Heroine is simple and sophisticated, intelligent and introspective, heartfelt and some other h-word. The extended version closes with a freaking Replacements cover! (Admittedly a song I wish people would leave alone, but she does alright with it.) All created by a 17 year-old who is both an old soul and distinctly aware of what it means to be a teenager. Further, it would appear that she is capable of handling the attention being lavished upon her without losing sight of the humanity that made her capable of creating such a work in the first place. I could be wrong, and have been about these things in the past, but I think Lorde’s with us for the long haul, and our mass culture is going to be *that* much more intelligent and civil because of it.

8. Outfit – Performance

Another symptom I’ve discovered of this era of musical saturation is my ability to enjoy a record a couple of times, then move on, without really giving it time to set in just how good it was. Such was the case with this summer’s debut from Liverpool quintet Outfit. It wasn’t until I was reviewing my listening habits of the past year that I encountered the record again and the dopamine of pop familiarity was released into my brain.

Outfit comes off how I always wished Hot Chip would have sounded. The same kind of hooks and blend of electronic and organic sounds, but where the well-known Londoners opt for the saccharine, the rookie band has a tendency for soulful. Try listening to “No Fit State” and “I Want What’s Best” back to back for an example of what I mean. Outfit was borne out living out of an artist’s collective in the mansion of an eccentric millionaire, and Performance was recorded in an empty apartment complex. The result is an album that has the echoes of confined spaciousness and a canvas for a surprising amount of reflective listening. A record that’s just sneaky good.

7. Destruction Unit – Deep Trip

Over the last few years, there’s been something of a linear merge created in the world of garage rock, psychedelic and shoegaze. An army of excellent bands have emerged, falling in various spots along that spectrum, delivering some of the best records of the last two years (my two favorites from 2012, Goat’s World Music and Metz’s self-titled, fell under that banner). 2013 saw no shortage of great releases from that world as well, with great offerings from Hookworms, Sulk, Elephant Stone, The Black Angels, Weekend, Pink Frost, Psychic Teens, Suuns, Wolf People, Holograms, and a host of others I’m sure I’m forgetting. But none stuck with me quite like the hellacious full length from Destruction Unit.

Falling in the garage psych section of that realm, Destruction Unit lives up to their name with a furious barrage of punk fueled noise. Deploying a trio of guitars, the band is able to explore sonic possibilities without deviating from the push and fury of the song itself. The result is akin to being hit with a rock and roll tractor trailer and completely delightful. Front man Ryan Rosseau is a veteran of the Jay Reatard’s clan, and the take-no-prisoners approach to garage rock deployed by gone-too-soon Reatard is reflected in Rosseau’s performance on the record: reverb laden, menacing and ferocious. The band is comfortably the king of the hill of a very strong showing from the genre this year.

6. Foals – Holy Fire

I was introduced to Foals from two separate sources a little over five years ago when their debut Antidotes was released. One was my Brit-pop lovin’ friend Aubrey who I now blog with at Opinears, the other my post and math rock lovin’ friend Jeff. Both extremely reliable sources, but not an enormous overlap in the Venn diagram of their tastes. Yet, listening to Foals, I could see exactly why would appeal to both of them. Frontman Yannis Philippakis and drummer Jack Bevan brought significant math rock cred as veterans of The Edmund Fitzgerald, but the new band blended math rock noodles and rhythms with sing-a-long hooks, a dance-punk backbeat and atmospheric layering straight out of the post rock playbook.

With their third record, Foals has distilled that sound to something that can only be defined as “Foals”. Holy Fire stands as their biggest and most dynamic record yet, and I would argue their most solid front to back. Purists may increasingly dismiss Foals’ connection to the world of post and math rock and they wouldn’t be wrong for doing so. But you have to be a tremendous cynic to not be excited by the way Foals have been able to utilize their background in those worlds and infuse them into a sound that borders on arena rock (by the by, might not be a better big stage live rock act going right now.) This year saw nice comeback albums by Bowie and QOTSA also, but right now, for my money, there’s no better big rock band going right now than Foals.

5. Spectral Park – s/t

A lot of albums on this list confound me with their inability to grab wider traction, but perhaps none so more than the debut from Luke Donovan, aka Spectral Park. A release from very early in 2013 (some list as 2012, but are wrong), legend has it that the album started when Donovan encountered a crate of old records on a walk near his home in Southampton. He brought them home, fed them into his sampler, and then created a full length record tracking instruments along with them. The result is a particularly twisted piece of classic pop psychedelica.

So maybe there’s very little surprise that a member of Cmn ineed yr hlp would be charmed by creative use of found audio. But what Donovan has come up with is quite impressive. The distinct analog and rotating feel you get from utilizing worn out records ties the LP together and serve as a terrific foil for Donovan to write against. And the album sticks with you, Spectral Park features no shortage of dramatic hook and impassioned vocal (apparently the record was written on the heels of a difficult break-up). Maybe this one didn’t catch on at large as much as I thought, but I suspect we have not even begun to hear the last of this unique composer.

4. The Child of Lov – s/t

It is incredibly rare that I anticipate a debut release from anybody I don’t know personally. But the breadcrumbs The Child of Lov left leading up to his eponymous debut left me salivating. Hip hop production of a classic soul sound so deep that in its best moments it recalled spirituals and the early days of blues. Adding to that was the fascination with its anonymous creator and the multitude of rumors surrounding him: an alias for a famous artist? (His association with Blur’s Damon Albarn and rapper DOOM seemed to suggest as much.) Problems with his mental health? His physical health?

The album delivered on the promise of its early singles and then some, the sound found itself as least gently touched by every genre imaginable. Heartbreakingly, we also found out that rumors of Child’s physical ailments were true, when Martijn Teerlinck (his real name) passed away of complications from surgery at the criminally young age of 26.

As a fellow musician, I find great solace in the fact that Teerlinck was able to get his masterpiece out to the public before his untimely passing. I have little doubt that he found a great amount of peace in that. As (an admittedly selfish) music fan, his already potent album is made that much more powerful with the knowledge that it was created by a man in his mid 20’s coming to terms with his own mortality. Just try listening to Fly without getting a little shaken up. I know this gem will find more ears with time.

3. Bottomless Pit – Shade Perennial

I’m as guilty as any 120 Minutes lovin’ child of the 80’s and 90’s. One of our favorite alternative/college rock/indie/whatever –you-call-it artists will resurface and play a handful of shows and we’ll completely lose our minds. Yet, two members of one of the best, most underrated bands of that era, Silkworm, continue to churn out amazing records with their band Bottomless Pit and the indie rock world at large still doesn’t freak out to the degree that it should. Backed by Chris Manfrin (ex-Seam) on drums and Brian Orchard (.22) on bass, guitarist Andy Cohen and baritone guitarist Tim Midyett continue with the extremely personal and introspective songs that they have been writing for decades. More mature, surely, but composed and performed with every bit of sincerity, craftsmanship and passion that they ever have.

Shade Perennial might be my favorite from this band to date, which is really saying something as they don’t have a dud to their name. The interplay between the musicians on this record is so effortless you barely notice it behind Midyett and Cohen’s vulnerable vocal melodies.

And the extra wonderful thing about fellow Chicagoans Bottomless Pit releasing such a world class record is that since I don’t really know them personally, I can use them as a vehicle to not have to play favorites amongst the wide host of great releases my friends came out with this year (alphabetical, told you I hate to play favorites): The Book-Burners, The Columbines, Czar, Fake Limbs, The Heavy Bombers, Nonagon, Radiant Republic, Sirs, Tijuana Hercules, Tyranny is Tyranny, Victory and Associates, and Whales.

2. Shannon Wright – In Film Sound

I’m just over a year removed from becoming completely addicted to Shannon Wright (Captain Late-to-the-Party strikes again!) and this year was treated to quite possibly her best record yet. On In Film Sound, she’s backed by the rhythm section of one of my favorite bands, the late, great Shipping News (bass player Todd Cook’s new band Old Baby also put out a great record that just barely missed this list). Cook and drummer Kyle Crabtree form the perfect backdrop for Wright’s dark and cascading heavier compositions.

This was a great year for the axe yielding ladies with great albums being released by virtuoso Marnie Stern, genre bending Chelsea Wolfe, and the surf happy gals in La Luz, but even if she was just showcasing her chops on guitar songs, I think for my tastes, Wright would be tops on the year. But when she sits down at the piano for the hearth-aching “Bleed” in the dead center of this record, Wright showcases a dynamic and emotional range that few modern singer/songwriters are trading in right now.

I’m surely not the only one that was slow on the uptake with Wright, and with her roots so deeply entrenched in the Louisville origins of post-rock, I think readers of this site would be well served to have a listen.

1. And So I Watch You from Afar – All Hail Bright Futures

Yeah, I snuck one in here, I’m certainly not introducing anybody reading this site to ASIWYFA, but I can’t in good conscious make a list that doesn’t include them. The Belfastians rebounded nicely from the departure of Tony Wright, with an album much more upbeat and bouncy than their previous releases, featuring a bevy of external instruments and *gasp* extended vocal parts. For my dollar, this puts ASIWYFA in pretty rarified air under the broader umbrella of post rock (and truly popular music in general): three albums that chase markedly different directions than one another, with terrific results from each attempt. You could argue that And So I Watch You From Afar isn’t one of this generation’s best bands, but you would be wrong.

This album is also worth mentioning because, for me anyway, this is the cherry on top of Sargent House’s 2013, one of the best years we’ve seen from a label in a very long time. Don’t believe me? Aside from ASIWYFA the label was responsible for the records from Deafheaven, Native, Chelsea Wolfe, TTNG, Tera Melos, Russian Circles, Mylets, and Zorch. Pretty much any of those records would be right at home on a top list. And the label’s already reloading with releases from Adebisi Shank and Helms Alee early in 2014, it’s probably best we just bow down now in reverence to our new overlords.

Wow, I’m a talky guy for someone from an instrumental band. But there you have it, probably all sorts of records I’m going to regret not putting in here, and I’ll probably change my mind on this order in the next twenty minutes, but hopefully I was able to introduce you to something great that you might not have otherwise checked out.