The cover of my album of 2013, CRYPTO by All Urban Outfield
Last year everyone did ‘end of year’ charts. This year, so I hear, it’s considered a bit gauche. Well, fuck that. It’s been a great year for music and I have more to say about some of the stuff I reviewed and covered. Hope you find this entertaining, or at the very least, irritating enough to get into an argument with me in the comments.
2013 was the year we looked back and plundered the last 20 years of electronic music and hip-hop for lost gold. It was the year we traced the decline of Western civilisation while Miley swung naked on a wrecking ball, oblivious. 2013 was an important year for music and here are the records I consider its milestones… for what it’s worth.
Links to all the artists I’ve interviewed from this year’s list are included below.
1: All Urban Outfield - Crypto [All Urban Outfield]
CRYPTO became my album of the 2013 almost entirely because I became so utterly, helplessly addicted to it.
I play this album daily. It is a masterclass in abstract lyricism from p.WRECKS and K. Clifton, two emcees originally hailing from Spokane, Washington, rhyming together over brooding, melancholic hip-hop beats (also produced by K. Clifton). The duo launched their All Urban Outfield guise in 2013 with a mixtape, also collaborating under the name Solid Gold Forest (another outstanding project, with a more digital hip-hop bent), before unleashing CRYPTO.
AUO is a collective that will feature other artists, such as sometime p.WRECKS collaborators like Guttahface, Noventa and Sharkdentures. On this, the collective’s first album proper, we meet the two main identities behind the label, and if you haven’t come across either of them before, you are in for some treats.
Opener 222 is sheer perfection - laconic couplets traded over cloudy, ethereal beats that owe as much to tumblrwave as they do to 90s rap set the pace. K. Clifton’s lyrics are tightly-written and densely allusive: “Golden ratio / Celestial tongue, it shines / Suck it, it’s soft and leaks answers…” and later “Wolf head / I turn pages into cesspools / I turn cesspools to breast milk.” This is a rich and fecund imagistic vocabulary.
Spaulding High Bounce suggests the duo’s manifesto. “All I see is wannabe dreamers with their wallets open,” raps p.WRECKS, countering Bandcamp emcees’ wack dreams of stardom with clear-eyed realism.
There’s a strong element of imminent collapse and urban decay running through the lyrical themes - on Abundance of Flies, p.WRECKS begins a verse with: “Peace to those war-torn less fortunately / While we’re forced to retain a crooked knowledge calculated on silver scales they / Seek shelter in abandoned passages of abandoned low-traffic areas you / Walk past ever so often…” This is reportage from the sidelines of suburban decay, oral records of a hidden history of North America, written in densely technical broken lines and parallel rhymes.
The samples are placed with precision, from Meanwhile’s grin-inducing crib of a speech from Spring Breakers (“This is my fuckin’ dream y’all… all this shit…”) to the clever spin put on Nancy Sinatra’s played out Bang Bang, He Shot Me Down on Ghost Runner, which completely revitalises a sample so ubiquitous as to be defunct. The beats are solid, exploring 90s alt.hip-hop territory and reclaiming it for the 21st century. You can nod your head to this. Remember when hip-hop made you nod your head?
Look… I’ve talked a lot of smack about hip-hop this year in reviews and columns, some of it intentionally combative or provocative… by making CRYPTO my album of the year I’m nailing my colours to the mast. To me, this is hip-hop done properly, with no regard for fashion, and an open contempt for the avarice and conspicuous consumerism that characterise much mainstream and even alternative hip-hop.
This is outsider rap, earnest and well-crafted fringe activity, coming from the dark underbelly of suburban America, and in their understated way, p.WRECKS and K. Clifton manage to say say something meaningful and clear-eyed about the empire’s decline. Part elegy and part dystopian manifesto, CRYPTO is phenomenal.
2 Daniel Avery - Drone Logic [Phantasy]
Oh boy. If you’re old enough, like I am, to remember the vestigial, MDMA-spangled trails of acid house, then Drone Logic is pretty hard to resist. For this one, I stand by my original review - with the caveat that the album gets even better with each listen.
Daniel Avery has produced a complex, deeply satisfying debut – like James Holden’s The Inheritors, it offers a new blueprint for techno, a million miles from the commercial sounds extrapolated from the genre by so-called ‘superstar’ DJs.
Drone Logic shares more in common with the analogue synth experiments of Andrew Weatherall’s The Asphodells – a luscious, dynamic depth of sound, augmented with snatches of sampled speech and white noise. He nods to Leftfield, Underworld, Green Velvet; but creates a distinctive, polished sound all his own.
Synths are layered with an intricacy that belies their melodic purity – the basslines of opener Water Jump, or the tweaked acid line of the title track recall the roots of techno without sounding retro or nostalgic. Voices echo in and out, chanting elliptical phrases (“Noise flies high… no-one there to see it”) to powerful psychedelic effect. Captivating from start to finish, this is where the future of techno and its past meet in transcendent harmony.
3 The Asphodells - Ruled by Passion, Destroyed by Lust [Rotters Golf Club]
My original review of this record was completed in a bit of a hurry, and I feel like it didn’t get the 5-star, perfect rating it deserved. Fairplay and Weatherall’s concept is simple - using analogue gear, they recreate the sounds of acid house, early electro and post punk and transfigure them into one shimmering whole.
At the time, I said: Arguably, Passion / Lust is a record out of time, engaging more convincingly with the heritage of British dance music than its present or future. But as a masterclass in the marriage of guitars, synths and club beats it is virtually peerless, with an understated, fragile beauty.
Yeah, that still rings true… but it fails to take into account the record’s deep intelligence, with Weatherall turning a poem by John Betjeman into a towering slice of spectral house; or his own lyrical genius, as on the song Never There, where he croons: “A gas with a shell / A ghost with a skin / Ethyl scales and mercury fins…” The effect is bewitching.
Like Avery’s record, it is an album somewhat in thrall to the past. What it does, incredibly intelligently, is draw lines between important moments in electronic music’s history - and as such, it is perhaps the most inventive and least trend-driven album of the year. The sound of a maverick genius indulging both his passions and his lusts.
4 Death Grips - Government Plates [thirdworlds]
Nearly half way down the top ten, we come to the first album in this list that genuinely attempts to create its own, new paradigm of musicianship and lyricism. Death Grips, as they have been since their first record, are utterly unique. You could point to the sonic assault of The Bomb Squad as an antecedent. You could talk about how they appropriate the feral energy of punk, or cop the anarcho-miserablist political posturing of extreme noise artists with their polemical titles, show-jilting antics and record company-busting publicity stunts. But truly, there is nothing quite like the sheer lunacy of opener You might think he loves you for your money but I know what he really loves you for it’s your brand new leopard skin pillbox hat, with its anthemic refrain “Come, come, fuck apart in here, I.” Death Grips are the sound of disintegration. The last band to deliver that intensity was Nirvana. No arguments, please.
Defying logic and embracing chaos and madness, genuinely engaging with the idea and aesthetic of imminent social collapse and the scabrous effects of a living in a society rife with poverty, insanity and alienation… Nobody else is even trying to do that with the same aesthetic complexity - Death Grips sound like they are trying to embody it - as the track title says, This Is Violence Now.
Those in music with an apocalyptic bent to their thinking all too often lose themselves in a self-regarding darkness that is more personal than political. Self-proclaimed ‘political bands’ are often single-issue dullards with repetitive iterations of left-right dichotomies littering their lyrics. Other so-called futurists still dream of a wipe-clean future run by robots and genetic engineering. Death Grips are different. They live in the interstices. Their songs lurk under bridges.They are the only band that matters.
5 oOoOO - Without Your Love [Nihjgt Feelings]
I’ll stick with my original review on this one… Like fellow Tri-Angle associates Balam Acab and Holy Other, the ‘witch house’ tag simply doesn’t fit oOoOO’s debut album. It is better described as ethereal R&B – vocal samples from commercial 90s pop are used as melodic flourishes and rhythmic pad-hits. His melancholic songs, sung by oOoOO himself and collaborator ML, recall Rodney Jerkins at his best – plaintive, broken-hearted R&B, rather than the shiny, aggressively sexual noughties variant.
There are three tracks to rival previous highlights such as Burnout Eyess (Stay Here, the gorgeous 3:51 am, and the title track). But he couches these lo-fi perfect-pop moments with tape experiments, spectral vocal snatches and sound-sculpture on Sirens and the claustrophobic Crossed Wires; with narcotic dub techno on Mouchette and Misunderstood. On The South, ‘dirty south’ hip-hop patterns are twinned with overclocked, distressed synths. The crepuscular, menacing atmospherics, contrasted with slick, polished pop hooks half-obscured by abstract noise, are breathtaking.
I’ll add that having seen him perform the tracks live, I am even more in love with this album… the too-brief Misunderstood is one of my favourite tracks of the year. A phenomenal debut that more than fulfils the early promise, can’t wait to see what oOoOO brings us in 2014.
6 Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels [Fool’s Gold]
The Skinny posted an extended review of this online, and I stand by it. If anything, this album’s grown in my affections since its release, and I’ll definitely spring for the vinyl from Big Dada in the new year.
With Run The Jewels, El-P and Killer Mike deliver an object lesson in the first principles of hip-hop. The beats are a showcase in minimalist effectiveness – walking the line between sick, infectious loops, and breaks and bridges which mirror and emphasise the stress-points of the lyrical content. El’s production here is more restrained than on his synth-driven Cancer 4 Cure of last year, more akin to the template laid down on Mike’s R.A.P. Music.
Lyrically, the album is as devastating as expected, but with an added dose of futuristic battle-rap wit that seems to be El and Mike’s custom-engineered context as a duo. Its unique mixture is equal parts the darkest put-downs and lyrical body-slams of El-P’s work, and half the sophisticated, aggressively detailed domineering of Mike’s confrontational but intelligent take on Southern rap. It’s at its most convincing and sonically jaw-dropping when both rappers veer into intricately-laced double-time flows, as on the title track. They have clearly influenced each other, with Mike veering into surrealism, and El lacing his street vocabulary tighter than ever before.
In short, it sounds like the duo are having tremendous fun with this project. And yet, themes elevating the material to acutely-observed social commentary are not avoided on the album’s final track, A Christmas Fucking Miracle, which offers an unflinching depiction of poverty and struggle, and some rare notes of hope. “Don’t fret little man, don’t cry,” raps El-P, “they can never take the energy inside you were born with.” It’s a fable about overcoming adversity, and a compelling statement about an over-populated, recession-afflicted, conflict-ridden world.
Then there are moments like the bubbling, none-more-gangsta 36” Chain; the rambling, psychedelic tour journal Sea Legs; and the deceptively simple ‘mission statement’ raps of Get It, which are just incredibly good fun, and feel entirely unburdened by either artist’s long and expectation-loaded careers. These tracks are simply brilliant examples of what’s possible with a sick beat and some fly rhymes, with all the ruthless, beat-oriented efficiency of old-school New York crews like Ultramagnetic MCs and Boogie Down Productions.
The collaborations, with Outkast’s Big Boi on the 80s electro-bumping Banana Clipper; with up-and-coming producer Until The Ribbon Breaks on the ethereal R ‘n’ B-flavoured Job Well Done; and with Chest Rockwell (aka Prince Paul) add depth and texture. But it’s the sheer fun to be had listening to El-P and Killer Mike, the duo’s confident, too-future swagger, that puts Run The Jewels so many leagues ahead of most of this year’s crop of hip-hop. And it’s free to download, the band making their money from tours, branded herb grinders and other merch. El-P and Mike understand the future in which we live better than Jay-Z or Kanye ever could, and they have an album to match the depth of that understanding. It’s another career-defining moment for both of them, and one of this year’s finest thus far.
7 The Haxan Cloak - Excavation [Tri-Angle]
This is definitely a record that crawled inside the deepest recesses of my brain and curled up there, refusing to leave and putting down deep, complex roots. I spent more time than I can count writing or commuting with this on, and it now conjures a whole mess of images and moods and scenes when I listen. Like the best albums, it has become a part of me, a spectral suburb in the internal landscape of my thoughts.
Reading more about how the record was made, and Bobby Krlic’s experiments with processing sound through different resonant chambers, made me love it even more. It has a depth and complexity that more than equals last year’s Quarter Turns Over A Living Line, by Raime, which was my previous high watermark for this kind of music, at least in recent times. Excavation evokes the same mood of eerie reverence and bleak hope in the acceptance of darkness as Cormac McCarthy’s novels - and just as McCarthy’s prose has a rich and arcane beauty, so do Krlic’s dramatic, claustrophobic compositions.
I’ll finish by quoting a review of The Haxan Cloak live, supporting Fuck Buttons. He really blew them off the stage - sonically, it was the best-engineered, most intense auditory experience I’ve had at a gig in many, many years…
The Haxan Cloak is tuned in to the system and the space. His live set, performed on analogue gear, has been honed over months on the road. Where before, he focused on the crepuscular, largely beatless atmospherics of his stately, slowly coalescing compositions, tonight he brings brooding slabs of electro, dubstep and techno drum patterns into the mix.
The precision he achieves on tracks like Consumed and The Mirroring is astonishing – individual bass frequencies can be felt in the bones, seeming to emanate from the walls and the floor, leavened with echoing, sampled strings. There is a rich, organic feel to his music, underpinned with brutal industrial noise as blue laser lights sweep the crowd like scanner beams. His performance is jaw-dropping in its intensity, majestic in its scale, building to two successive peaks of focused, transcendental white noise.
8 Misty Conditions - D’Zzzz [Planet Mu]
In my original review, I wrote: The beats on D’Zzzz are often simple, with relatively little complexity or variation, but the loops here are killer, and when they hit home, as on the infectiously banging trap of Dusco, on D’mmmm’s hyperactive juke assault, in the loopy boom-bap of Death, or the pitch-dark Dank, they are devastatingly effective. More challenging cuts, like the beatless synth-wash of Drowning, or the scuzzy, static-laden dub techno of Dilute, have less broad appeal, but are just as intriguing.
It would probably be easier to explain why I love this album so much in fewer words. It is dirty. Irredeemably, unwashably, addictively dirty. It grabs you by the base of your brainstem and doesn’t let go. It’s like coming across a steaming jungle in the centre of a city block. It is, as the track says, fucking Dank.
9 The Underachievers - Indigoism [Datpiff / Brainfeeder]
Underachievers debut mixtape promised big and delivered, referencing classic 90s hip-hop like Souls of Mischief, managing to deliver a relentless and maniacal psychedelia and weed-rap vocabulary like cult leaders in near-flawless doubletime, and contrasting ice-cold street patter with far-flung cosmic speculation. It’s a giddy proposition, arguably it shouldn’t work, but it does, and as a taster menu for a full-length debut with an unnamed amount of Brainfeeder and LA beat scene producers, including FlyLo and Daedelus, involved in some way, Indigoism delivers in spades.
Their follow-up felt less original, more indebted to peers like the A$AP Mob and Flatbush Zombies, but Indigoism overachieves, if anything - serving up moments of speaker-destroying, club-aimed weed rap like Herb Shuttles and languid philosophical rambling like Gold Soul Theory in one expansive package. By a long chalk, the most exciting debut by a hip-hop group in 2013.
10 Factory Floor - Factory Floor [DFA]
Factory Floor have been written about extensively elsewhere on the web so I’ll keep this brief - combining stripped disco and techno and paring them down to their industrial bare bones, they constructed an album of phenomenal raw power. I still haven’t managed to catch them live, but you can feel the boiled-down intensity of each track on their debut album. It’s feral, the loops run and run as improv sketches and then chopped down to their most intense parts. The final mixdown by Q (the producer who finished off VCMG for Vince Clarke and Martin Gore - removes the final layer of scuzz and grime from their sound, leaving a lean, muscular framework, gloriously free of post-production embellishment or art school noise self-indulgence. This record feels like the start of something.
Here’s a run-down of the next ten on my list, fine albums all…
11 Baths - Obsidian [Anticon]
Gorgeous, widescreen, baroque songwriting - Will Wiesenfeld leaves behind lo-fi pop for a sweeping, magisterial vision of sickness and desire. Jaw-droppingly ambitious, full of visionary moments and exquisite lyrics.
12 David Lynch - The Big Dream [Sacred Bones]
Lynch finally makes an album that sounds like his films. Guitar noise is collaged from multiple takes, simplistic, archetypal blues and pop lyrics are delivered in a strange and FX-laden drawl, while the beats delve into funereal trip-hop and electronica. A dark-hued joy.
13 Oneohtrix Point Never - R Plus 7 [Warp]
An incredible album, stretching the definition of ‘music’ to accommodate serious sonic experimentation without sacrificing focus and structure, its constantly-morphing sonic palette draws on rave, commercial music, vaporwave, and myriad other genres to create something utterly unique, a rubberized, fluorescent alternative to the darkness of The Haxan Cloak.
14 Mount Kimbie - Cold Spring Fault Less Youth [Warp]
Transcending the useless ‘post-dubstep’ tag they were lumbered with early on, the duo explore motorik rhythms, psychedelic folk, languid neo-blues and altered house on this remarkable album. The true sound of intelligent British pop music.
15 James Holden - The Inheritors [Border Community]
Like Daniel Avery, Holden’s ambitious album sought to completely redefine techno, and although his take on it is more difficult and less instantly addictive, it is a rich and complex album, exquisitely produced, revealing greater depth with each listen.
16 Forest Swords - Engravings [Tri-Angle]
Incredible, timeless lo-fi instrumental hip-hop that, although released on Tri-Angle, could have found a home anywhere - incredibly exciting to see this on so many year-end best-of lists, I thought this kind of music had vanished into the internet, never to return. I’m so happy to be wrong.
17 Ela Orleans - Tumult In Clouds [Clan Destine]
Ela Orleans manages to be many things to many people in her music. Aside from this album, 2013 saw her collaborate on dark acid tracks, and become a go-to act as support for the likes of Julia Holter. Whether delivering exquisite Gainsbourg-esque pop delights or woozy, experimental sonic collage, she is a riveting performer and an incredible songwriter, with a mercurial approach to production that is utterly unique.
18 Mano Le Tough - Changing Days [Permanent Vacation]
Combining his gentle, folk-influenced vocals with slick, euphoric house and electro, Mano LeTough delivered an album of real beauty and complexity, with particular standouts Cannibalize and Dreaming Youth ranking with the year’s best tracks. This album was definitely under-valued on release.
19 Tricky - False Idols [False Idols]
A victorious return to form from Tricky, revisiting his 90s dark hip-hop roots and abandoning the R&B posturing, the grime manoeuvres, and the cod-gangsta trappings that marred his later career.
20 CHVRCHES - The Bones Of What You Believe [Virgin / Goodbye]
Utterly perfect pop with a vicious bite in the lyrics - this album will be hated by as many people that embrace it because of its unashamed roots in the polished songwriting of R&B and synth-pop. The intelligence of the lyrics and the undeniable hooks are a vital combination, making this the best Scottish album of the year (in my eyes, anyway).
Special mentions (disclaimer: a couple of these came out on my label): Jel’s Late Pass almost equalled the giddy heights of Soft Money, Hector Bizerk released a phenomenal sophomore album, Lapalux dropped a hazily psychedelic and urgently sexual full-length debut„ Atoms For Peace more than delivered with their complex art-pop, Boards Of Canada released an instant classic with nods to dozens of microgenres they no doubt inspired, Savages produced an undeniably thrilling retro post-punk album, Questionmark Embargo released a phenomenal and witty album of outsider rap, Tyler the Creator gave us six tracks of absolute fire and couched it in laziness and mediocrity, Loki delivered the coup de grace for Scottish hip-hop’s Year Zero, Mogwai’s soundtrack for Les Revenants had a strange and haunting beauty, Doldrums produced stadium pop for 6am rave kids, Team Ghost brought shoegaze kicking and screaming into the 21st century, Gasp delivered a phenomenal and emotionally raw album with some of Scottish hip-hop’s finest lyrics this year, Mild Maynyrd made a moving and heartfelt tribute to his mother in his inimitable cut-and-paste style, LUCIANBLOMKAMP delivered a short EP that effortlessly positioned him as one to watch for 2014.
As usual, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface, especially in terms of underlining what a banner year it’s been for Scottish hip-hop. I’ll maybe delve into that topic on another post.
Happy New Year!