Best Music of the Year

Here’s my top 10  list, in randomized order:

BT – A Song Across Wires

The mixing and flow in BT’s latest is exquisite, as always with his stuff.

The album actually digs into the minutiae of EDM that elevated BT in the first place.  There aren’t as many cinematic anthems with bold vocals as Emotional Technology or Hopeful Machines.    Most of the pieces are a blend of micro breakbeats, dubstep jolts, dainty feminine voices chopped robotic, riding on a bed of precise orchestral strings.

I’ve always thought of BT as algorithmic music.  Listening to his stuff lets you hear iteration, recursion, sorting methods.  The call and response of network connections.

Most of the melodies actually feel like upgrades of past work, refactored with new equipment and algorithms, ESCM 2.0.  That record was all about transporting the listener to other realms of sound – a lush rainforest, or a dreamy sea of bubbles.  A Song Across Wires has that same transporting effect, pulling the listener down into the very electrons jolting along chains of soldered copper.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – Gone Girl Soundtrack

Reznor and Ross continue their collaboration with David Fincher, and this is probably the best work yet.

One of the underlying threads of Gone Girl was the resentment Amy feels for her husband’s aesthetic choices.  Leaving New York City for a McMansion in the midwest.  Opening a dive bar, writing magazine fluff, collecting sports equipment.  That aesthetic disgust was subtly evident in the film’s quick cuts of mindless suburbia, and the soundtrack’s gauzy elevator music.

The record alternates between genteel piano and orchestral arrangements, evoking imagery of polite suburban comfort, upper middle class contentment, with just a dash of melancholy.  A period after the honeymoon: forced smiles, coordinating schedules, balancing checkbooks.

The police procedural moments (Clue One, Clue Two, Procedural) are built of plodding increments.  There’s a curiosity to the melody, plucky plinks that are distinct and hopeful, dancing before a vast background of ambient menace.

But the best parts are when Amy removes her mask and revels in her raw psychotic drive.  The monologue halfway through the film (Technically, Missing), faking the murder, driving off into the sunset.  Her mouth furrowed into determination even as her lips drip with disgust for the lower insects of humanity.  The piece starts with the same scheming pluck of the earlier stuff, but the background ambient comes to the fore, Reznor’s signature industrial roar.

Consummation is one of the darkest instrumentals of NIN’s repertoire, a blood drenched digitized scream, like that last gasp from the downward spiral.  And still there’s that hint of the suburban marriage, that piano motif riding beneath the violence.

Reznor’s catalog of horrors was always full in the face.  His protagonists and tortured souls look directly into the camera, and they understand the moral calculus of the universe – sin and pain and death and punishment.  There’s a balance to the darkness.

Fincher (and Ross/Reznor’s work for him) isn’t so monochrome.  The director is fascinated with avatars and representations.  Strange and distorted mirror images.  Tyler Durden and Mark Zuckerburg and Amy Dunne.  Ross/Reznor embrace that binary with the soundtrack, and it makes it even stronger.

Neighbors – Failure

I think I came across this band through Spotify radio, or maybe it was 88.5 before it was consumed by NPR.  Brooklyn-based indie pop band that makes breathy sing alongs, with lots of allusions to young love and university.  The outlook – privileged emo kids moan about love and friendships in a finely tuned blend of hope and melancholy – remind me of Stars, Metric, maybe some Naked and Famous.  But the music so perfectly captures that mood – shaggy sweaters, fallen leaves on the quad – that you can’t fault them for conjuring a particular image.  The songs are catchy and built well, but eventually they bleed together into a colorful blur, like warm recollections of freshman year, most of it fading, leaving isolated bits of bright light.

Alcest – Shelter

I first heard this record on some fancy web 2.0 site, complete with high resolution photos of the band on a sunshine drenched beach.  The tearing chord that opens Opale was perfectly synched to a hail of lensflares and blinding rays, so that visual metaphor is forever linked to these songs.  There’s a religious feel to the record, as if the towering pipe organ of cathedral’s past was switched out for an amped out guitar and a heavy metal virtuoso.  The backlash was an interesting aside.  Metal has lots of religious qualities – the chanting, the (often ironic) devilish imagery.  Alcest has simply switched the balance on the scale, trading the hellish for the celestial.  Instead of demonic frog-croaks, there’s angelic harmonizing.  Instead of choppy violent guitars, there’s soaring strings.  The same passion and skill is there, even if you’re left contemplating visions of puffy clouds and toga-clad angels instead of nuclear holocaust hellscapes.

Real Estate – Atlas

The follow-up to 2011’s Days is a continuation of a formula, even if it’s one that’s been perfected by the band.  The recording experience has noticeably improved: the sound is a bit deeper, the vocals smoother.  But the same rhythm and guitar riffs evoke a soothing minimalist soundscape, sitting alone and looking out on a snowy landscape, or a dusty desert.  The vocals allude to regret and distance, but it’s the distinctive plinking of melody on the reverbed guitar that tells the narrative of each song.

Pink Floyd – The Endless River

Pink Floyd has always used its own mythology as fertile grounds for songwriting.  Shine on Your Crazy Diamond, the bookends of Wish You Were Here, is an ode to Syd Barrett.  Barrett is the very definition of the 60s burnout, his brain so fried on drugs and psychedelic experiences that he retreated from the world to live as a shut-in with his mother until his death in 2006, never to make music again.

Roger Waters, who drove the most popular records of the 70s (The Wall, Dark Side of the Moon), had an even more spectacular flameout with Gilmour / Mason, mostly over money and artistic control.  Division Bell was somewhat of a mournful epitaph for that relationship, just as WYWH was for Barrett.

Endless River is even more reflective.  This is their last record, the end of a long and varied career. The guys are old. They started making music in the early 60s.  They’ve lived a lifetime of studios and concerts and jam sessions.

Endless River is a mournful journey through their history, touching on the signature guitar riffs of the 70s, some of the psychedelic beats and experimental studio squawks of the 60s, the polished soundscapes of the 80s.  Water’s politics are absent, as is Barrett’s interstellar weirdness.  The record is mostly instrumental.  Gilmour, Mason and Wright stick to their instruments.  Waters was the literate one, the guy who aimed his sights at money and time and war government and madness.

The remainder of Pink sees the music itself as Louder Than Words. The song of that title has strong ties to 94’s Division Bell – the same tempo, the same xylophone chimes, the same lyrical outlook of sour nostalgia.  But the refrain cuts through the melancholy with a bold defiance.  “This thing that we do, louder than words.”  All the fighting and sadness, for what?  All of us will be gone, our bodies consumed by drugs or cancer, and our fights will be footnotes.  But the songs will last, sailing on, an endless river.

Spoon – They Want My Soul

There’s a street somewhere in the Lower East Side that the tourists have not yet found, and the expensive boutiques have not yet colonized, and there are still neon signs for homeless missions and needle donations, and local kids sit on skateboards and share a cigarette, and last night’s liquor bottles lie smashed in a puddle of vomit in the gutter.

Maybe that street doesn’t exist anymore, but Spoon writes a fitting epitaph for a certain image of New York that’s been disappearing for years.  The bowery and CBGB and gutter punks and nicotine rasped desperation.  But the record is chilled out a bit too.  In between the grating guitars there are mellow drum bits, or tripped out harmonizing.  That’s the thrill of New York that will never fade: amidst the glamour and grime, finding a hint of the sublime.

Porter Robinson – Worlds2

Anamanaguchi released one of my top records of 2013, and Porter Robinson was my go-to chiptunes fix this year.  The record isn’t exactly chiptunes, but there are enough 8-bit video game flourishes to satisfy the craving.  Divinity is a multi-layered opening, the intro screen fading into the cutscene, some faerie spirit singing out of the mist, promising forgotten realms, hidden secrets, queued quests.  Then the base drops, the heroic motif returns, backed by amplified kickdrums and trilling algorithmic bleeps.

Chiptunes aren’t defined by the software settings used to generate crunchy waveforms.  It’s about an allusion to a certain early 90s style of video game, and in turn a time of life now drenched in nostalgia.  The regimentation of school, the threat of bullying, the promise of young love.  The best JRPGs of the era had those same threads dressed up in swords and armor.  There was always hope inherent in the pixel art and the music itself, uplifting chord progressions synching to larger numbers and unlocked criticals, till the big bad met his end and the credits rolled, already crystalizing into a particular flavor of smiling sad nostalgia.

Aphex Twin – Syro

Richard James has always eschewed the traditional formula of music.  Not just the verse-chorus-verse structure, but even the attempt to connect with the listener and carry them along some form of melody.  He mocked the formats of hip hop and industrial music with Windowlicker and Come to Daddy.  But most of his catalog consists of minimalist soundscapes, alien chirps and tweets brought to life on garage-built experimental electronics.  He has a classical gift for composition (Avril 14th), and the new record has a nice homage with aisatana [102], a contemplative piano solo on a birdsong morning.

But most of the record is cold, calculated electronica, complete with titles that look like filenames in an obscure operating system.  Minipops and Xmas_Eve feature melancholy little minor chord progression, clothed in layers of atonal percussion, occasionally broken up by ghostly vocal flourishes.  produk 29 samples commentary from snooty eurodance party girls, and 180db picks up the pace, and could be featured in a nightmarish dancehall.  The remarkable thing about the record is how listenable it is, given the odd time signatures, minor key progressions and glitchy samples.

The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream

Lost in the Dream sounds like a bestselling album from 1985, something that’s been played on the radio for ages, the singers now crusty and featured in VH1 documentaries with grainy footage of hotel debauchery.

Their sound – an amalgamation of Tom Petty’s smoky jamming and Springsteen’s driving beat – feels both classic and refreshing.  There’s a sadness and a breezy freedom to the vocals, the guitar riffs crisp but pleading.

An Ocean In Between the Waves highlights all the key points, an eight minute epic complete with screaming guitar solos and woeful tales of life on the road.

Perhaps the record struck a chord, not only for its high caliber musicianship, but the way it harkens back to an older time, the mythic past of rock bands, before all the meta-gaming of social media or the remashing of endless YouTube clips.  When a single studio mix came out of nowhere and rode the airwaves, unifying and transformative. A band ascending the stage to the roar of applause. The dream of rock and roll.

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