Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best Music of 2013 (#10-1)

10. The Field - Cupid's Head LP
The Field is always top 10 material for me, and for more or less the same reasons each time. Axel Wilner has a style all his own, which has evolved over time but never stayed too far from the tight looping structures at its core. Cupid's Head is another one, and though it's technically darker in tone than The Field's previous albums, it's by no means dreary. The song linked above, "Black Sea," is evidence of this, beginning with the same vibrancy as any other of Wilner's openers, but the tracks final third descends into a gurgling chug. Dark? Perhaps, but it's not evil.

9. Russ Chimes - Turn Me Out
While not quite as strong as last year's "Back 2 You," Russ Chimes's "Turn Me Out" nonetheless continues his ascent into dance music prominence. I've been a fan of Russ Chimes since he was an active member of the Valerie collective, and adored his sythesizer solo breakdowns which were the signature of so many of his remixes. Now it feels like he's trying to push his music in a more grown-up direction, aiming for catchy hooks that can be repeated and built off of rather than going hog wild on the keys. Though I do miss the wizardry of those builds, he's got a good things going here too, and feels like he may be on the verge of coming full circle sometime soon. C'mon Russ, what say you really cut loose next time and call back to "Mulsanne?"

8. Ejeca - Different Rules
Ejeca is a real production workhorse these days, releasing 7(!) singles and EPs this past year. Stylistically, his sound isn't all that different from deep house genre contemporaries like Bicep and Dusky, but he trumped them all this year with "Different Rules." The track pumps along pleasantly enough for about 4 minutes, but then the "piano stab of the year" kicks in like a revelation. It's like you were already dancing your hardest, and may have even thought the track was winding down, but then Ejeca asks you to dig deep into your dance energy reserves and press on, full steam ahead. "Different Rules" is not genre defying, but it does raise the bar.

7. Zomby - With Love LP
Some say that Zomby's With Love could have been successfully pared down to one disc instead of two. Some say that the ordering and curation of the tracks is scrattershot and inconsistent. Some say that too many of the songs on With Love sound a lot the same. While there's merit to all of these claims, With Love wouldn't be the kind of album it is without them, which is to say, an album by Zomby. There is a careful carelessness on display here, a nonchalance in dropping all of the tracks in basic, alphabetical order. Or perhaps they named after already being arranged, meant to give only the impression of slapped-togetherness. The dynamic between Zomby's astute ability to craft harsh and beautiful mood pieces with great care and his instinct to, say, cut off a track mid-stride is part of what makes his music interesting. Sure, it plays into the mysterious anonymous persona that he's so intent on protecting, but his selective implementation of polish is a trend that's only getting bigger.

6. FaltyDL - Hardcourage LP
Hardcourage was probably my biggest surprise of the year. I've listened to FaltyDL records in the past, but didn't find anything particularly striking until the Atlantis EP a couple years ago, which showed promise. Hardcourage delivers on that promise, seamlessly weaving between different strands of chill electronic music. It makes for a very satisfying, well-rounded listen, as has probably held its own in my iPod rotation longer than anything else this year (and it's still there). It's a versatile record that doesn't push any one angle too far. I'd call it "downtempo" because that's the general vibe of the album, but that's not entirely accurate seeing as a good number of songs skitter past at a decent clip. If nothing else, it's easy on the ears and has some of my favorite album art this year.

5. DJ Rashad - Double Cup LP / Rollin' EP
I warmed up to footwork quite a bit last year, but this year it felt like footwork warmed up to me. DJ Rashad has been at the forefront of this movement, taking the core elements of footwork and turning them into rewarding listening experiences instead of pure dance battle fodder. I can appreciate the battle material to a certain extent, but it feels naked without the accompaniment of dancers to watch all the while. DJ Rashad's Rollin' EP got things started by playing around with panning stereo production that invited and rewarded headphone listening. Add to that, Rollin' featured some of Rashad's strongest work to date, including the title track, "Let It Go," and "Drums Please." When it came to putting out a new LP, DJ Rashad went big, inviting some of footwork's top producers to collaborate, and craft an album that feels as much a genuine expression of a "scene" as much as the product of a singular creative mind. For my money, nothing on Double Cup unseats Rollin's heavy hitters, but it does feel like a statement of footwork's arrival and it's assuredly profound impact on the future of electronic music.

4. µ-Ziq - Somerset Avenue Tracks (1992-1995) LP
Veteran producer Mike Paradinas has had quite the year. In addition to a fresh and exciting new EP and LP, he also put out Somerset Avenue Tracks (1992-1995), a double CD collection of old material produced during the aforementioned years that never saw proper release until now. The tracks have a very Select Ambient Works sound and feel to them, rooted in early 90s IDM, of which µ-Ziq was leading the charge along with Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. Backstory aside, these songs are so good, it's amazing they didn't see the light of day for 20 years. These are tracks that really go places, each it's own little science experiment that grows and mutates over time. Somerset Avenue Tracks is built to transport to you new places, and occasionally you can even forget you're listening to music. I feel like a lot of albums on this list purposefully call attention to their production through the music, but Somerset Avenue Tracks feels more discovered than produced. Perhaps lying dormant for 20 years actually did the material a favor.

3. Basement Jaxx - Mermaid Of Salinas
The Jaxx have had a pretty decent year for not putting out a new album. While all three of their 2013 singles were fantastic, "Mermaid of Salinas" steals the show with it's catchy chanting, shimmying Latin American rhythms, and general exuberance. What's here is classic Jaxx, and the formula still pays dividends. "Mermaid of Salinas" is a colorful arena stomper on the level of the duo's best tracks like "Romeo," "Raindrops," and "Bingo Bango" ("Mermaid"'s closest cousin). In typical Jaxx fashion, the production comes from all sides, filling your speakers with a bounty of rich sonic textures that sounds more like it was made by a live band than a couple house producers. One thing's for sure, 20 years running and Basement Jaxx haven't lost their touch.

2. Burial - Rival Dealer EP
Rival Dealer is Burial's "teenage" album. That's not to say it sounds like it was made by a teenager or or that it's part of an adolescent arc of Burial's career, but rather that there's a boldness and honesty in it's expression of discomfort and self-acceptance in the same way that you're told that your teen years are supposed to be when you figure out "what kind of person you are." "This is who I am" is a recurring sample throughout the EP, which might as well be a quote from Burial's William Bevan himself. What criticisms I've heard of this EP revolve around the extent to which Burial has changed up his signature sound here (not all that much, to be honest). Are the cascading synths and big 80s electro drum hits cheesy? Undoubtedly so, but that's the point. In many cases, "cheese" is off-putting not because of the actual music being made, but because of the cultural references we associate with it. And let's face it, anything with a decent sense of humor has some cheese in it. Accept it. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Burial has, and I'm right there with him.

1. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories LP
“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 want from a couple robots?

:this blurb also appeared on Unwinnable's Best Music of 2013 list:

Click HERE for a YouTube playlist containing all 50 of the links found across the three Best Music of 2013 posts.

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