With the heroic returns of My Bloody Valentine and The Knife, 2013 became something unexpected, almost dangerous: the Year of Living Up to Expectations. Nothing sinks the spirits of a music fan quite like disappointment, and Lucky Number '13 has been remarkably free of it thus far. Some would say that, after My Bloody Valentine have return from two decades in the wilderness, everything else this year offers is gravy. Well, gladly, the gravy has, thus far, been plentiful. And delicious!
It's impossible to hear Broadcast's Berberian Sound Studio soundtrack as anything but an album haunted by the presence of Trish Keenan, the singer who tragically passed away two years before its release. Which is, of course, its power. Though the score to a film, Berberian Sound Studio further explores the band's obsession with Radiophonic-Workshop-inspired storytelling-in-sound. In many ways, Broadcast's soundtrack is more successful than Peter Strickland's picture (which chronicles a sound engineer at work with foley on an Italian gialli in the '70s) at its own goal: creating a sense of the uneasy, uncanny, and unexplainable. In Berberian Sound Studio, there's the cinematic approximation of a haunting; but when Keenan carols on "Teresa, Lark of Ascension" in a voice of unearthly beauty, the haunting feels far more literal.
19. Misfit Mod 'Islands & Islands'
Were this a countdown of 2013's most overlooked records, the debut LP for Misfit Mod might sit atop it. Sarah Kelleher —the London-based, Auckland-raised ex-pat behind the project— makes swoony synth-pop songs (like "Valleys") that are stark, repetitive, and hypnotic, singing her lyrical refrains as if incantations. Like El Perro del Mar, she turns repetition into revelation, achieving a state of transcendence and grace with, say, every utterance of the phrase "let's get higher." It's as if, faced with the ephemeral nature of existence, Kelleher sings these things, plays these same beats, over and over in hopes of achieving a feeling of fleeting permanence. Terms like simple or repetitive are conditioned to be critical pejoratives, but Kelleher uses them as powerful compositional tools.
Club 8's last LP, The People's Record, was one of 2010's best albums, and three years on, the Swedish duo return with a follow-up every bit its equal. Above the City, the band's eighth album, continues their giddy devotion to melody and harmony, hook and refrain. Like so many Swedes, Club 8 are pop obsessives, with Johan Angergård a PHD student in the history of twee, and Karolina Komstedt having one of those melted-snow voices, pure and clear. After The People's Record was summery, Balearic, and tinged with Highlife-like guitar, Above the City turns more windswept and synthy; the change effectively marking the difference between indie-pop from 2010 to 2013. As pop purists, what really matter are the songs, though; and jams like the romantic "A Small Piece of Heaven" and the string-swept "I'm Not Gonna Grow Old" are amongst the best Club 8 have ever penned.
17. Young Dreams 'Between Places'
Young Dreams announced their existence, back in 2011, with their eponymous anthem, a jam yearning for the bright lights and big hopes beyond hometowns, beyond today, beyond the grave. "We'll live forever," Matias Tellez and his big band sing; conversing in sentiments of daydreamers immemorial. On "Dream Alone, Wake Together," they dare to carol: "we'll make a new declaration/so maybe the next generation/will see this worthless history/turn into obscurity/words will form of symphony/of things that we don't get around to." They're grand, Arcade-Fire-wins-a-Grammy sentiments given a grand treatment: stadium-sized synths, cascading choral parts, twittering woodwinds, fluttering harps, borrowed Mozart motifs, Beach Boys harmonies. Their dreams are young, and big, and thus far colored with giddy optimism.
Jim James has been free to cavort through whatever genres he pleases out front of My Morning Jacket, but what he gets to do on his solo debut is make a concept LP of definite theme and sustained narrative. Regions of Light and Sound of God owes its genesis to James falling off a stage in Iowa, then having someone give up a copy of Lynd Ward's wordless 1929 novel-in-woodcuts, God's Man, whilst he was recuperating. Inspired, James sets out to score the book as an imaginary film, and it becomes a synth-heavy, retrofuturist, psychedelic soul opus. Unexpectedly, it also harbors some of James most sincere songwriting in aeons; his identification with the graphic novel extended to its love story, which makes for songs like the touching devotional "A New Life."
Ducktails was always just the 'solo' project for Real Estate's Matt Mondanile, with the tacit assumption that it would always be just him, at essence. The fourth Ducktails LP, The Flower Lane, changes that perception, even if Mondanile remains unalterably at its core. Exchanging chillwave's haze for the gloss of early '80s pop, Mondanile ropes in Cults' Madeline Follin, Jersey power-poppers Big Troubles, and Software nerds Ford & Lopatin, polishes the sax and gleams the synths, and sets out to summon Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout et al. "Letter of Intent" stands as single symbolic: Mondanile letting Future Shuttles' Jessa Farkas and Big Trouble bro Ian Drennan knock out a duet. In the space of five minutes, Ducktails becomes something completely new, sounding better than it ever has.
Floridian punks who cut their teeth in DIY noise, Merchandise's evolution towards epic, Goth-tinged new-wave was already its own minor revolution. And revelation: their 2012 LP, Children of Desire arrived seemingly out of nowhere, armed with a CD booklet whose artwork showed more thematic thought than most bands do in their entire careers. Totale Nite, the band's third LP, completes the transition: Carson Cox's croon cast out out front and draped in cavernous echo; the band's misty, shadowy epics feeling ever more bold, more confident, more accessible. These still scan as swear-words to some punks, but here they merely suggest the joys of hearing Cox verily belt out "I guess I miss the old shit/but that's it/I'll never forget" at Morrisseyan tenor during the dark, dreamy, death-obsessed "Winter's Dream," the album's last —and best— song.
Deerhunter's 2010 opus Halcyon Digest and Atlas Sound's gorgeous Parallax were an elegant set of sister records; twin longplaying studies in temporality and mortality. Bradford Cox sung about the unstoppable march of time, and it was symbolized by the fact that the guy who once wore dresses on stage and titled an LP Turn It Up, Faggot was growing up. Only here comes Monomania, swinging wildly in the other direction: its press shot showing the entire band in dresses. Musically, its 'nocturnal garage' shows a love of magnetic tape, of noisiness, of dissonance; and scans as occasionally obstreperous in comparison to its predecessor. Here, Deerhunter get ragged; the fried squalls of "Leather Jacket II," gnarly skiffle of "Pensacola," and throttling metal machine music of "Monomania" cranking up the amps and frolicking in the tape hiss.
In 2013, the traditional four-piece-rockband set-up —young men on two guitars, bass, and drums— is cultural kitsch; a coming-of-age cliché whose one-time tenor of rebellion is long forgotten. Yet, then you hear Iceage, Danish teens turning tired instruments into righteous tools of protest; their songs all wanton klang, molten rage, and coiled desperation. Their second LP, You're Nothing, loses none of the ragged passion of 2011's raucous New Brigade, even if the quartet are obviously in increasing command of their instruments, their sound, their fury. There's more of a sense of songcraft at play —"Morals"' minor-keys match lingering piano figures to an Elias Bender Rønnenfelt vocal trending soulful— but Iceage's great gift is an extension of their youthful passion. Here, more clearly than the first time around, they make anger, hostility, and darkness sound vital, alive, and somehow joyous.
There's always the suspicion with buzz bands that, beyond the hype, there's little substance, much contrivance. Savages instantly vaulted to buzz-band status when their debut single "Husbands" dropped, but they are the antithesis of the archetype. They're thoughtful and meaningful, and treat the very act of performing in a group as something due reverence and seriousness. With their scratchy guitars, stalking bass, and unavowed politics, Savages have earned comparisons to countless post-punk legends. But they're anything but a nostalgia act. Instead, Silence Yourself is alive to the here-and-how, an album that, from the moment first salvo "Shut Up" is fired, suggests that the Twitter generation needs to rediscover restraint in regards to disclosure. Rockbands, on the contrary, should actually say something; a thesis that singer Jehnny Beth ably explicates on across an oft-thrilling debut.