Any list implies criteria, but let’s eliminate some obvious candidates. This is not a list of the most original, or significant, or skilled, or successful releases of 2013. There is so much that I simply did not listen to that those kinds of judgments are out of reach (for me as for everyone else). Instead, I asked myself: if I were to be separated from my music for a month or two and could only keep 20 albums from my collection with me, all released in 2013, which would I choose? This approach keeps me from adding or skipping things because I somehow feel I ought to. Worthy or not in the ears of the world, this is what I liked most from this year’s releases. Listen in; who knows, you might like it too.
#1. Nils Frahm – Spaces
Any time Nils Frahm releases music I pay attention these days. This year’s Music for Wobbling wasn’t my favorite, but in this newest collection, the epic extended version of More (already one of my favorite pieces of music) would alone justify the price of admission – watch the remarkable video and see for yourself. After the fragile intimacy of Screws, Spaces puts the range of Frahm’s talent on display in a live setting and makes me long to have been there.
#2. Den Sorte Skole – Lektion III
Quite an amazing achievement, this free (!!) release is painstakingly and brilliantly constructed from samples taken from hundreds of old vinyl records. Much more than than simply a collage, the result is compelling music in its own right. The 90-minute album offers infectious rhythms, a range of musical styles, and fascinating vocal surprises, adding up to an epic adventure full of delightful twists and turns.
#3. Stephan Mathieu & David Sylvian – Wandermüde
Selling this as a David Sylvian release confused some listeners, judging by customer reviews; it’s really a Mathieu record. Sylvian’s music is taken as source material and transformed into rich, resonant drones and fragments of melody. The results are deeply absorbing, making this one of Mathieu’s most engaging outings.
#4. Dawn of Midi – Dysnomia
Built primarily upon gradually shifting rhythmic patterns, this unusual album (think roughly a jazz trio playing Eastern-tinged acoustic techno) works best listened to at one sitting. Slowly but surely it draws me deep into its rhythmic world until sitting still is virtually impossible. A stunning piece of work.
#5. Charles Lloyd – Hagar’s Song
Much of the jazz I bought and loved this year was not released in 2013, but Hagar’s Song is an outstanding recording. It marries Lloyd’s distinctive saxophone to Jason Moran’s excellent piano playing. The results are restrained and deep, at once stripped bare and full of presence. A very varied set, finely recorded and beautifully played.
#6. Amiina – The Lighthouse Project
Recorded during a series of shows performed in Icelandic lighthouses, this is simply a delightful record. Gently plaintive and always beautiful melodies carried by strings, chimes, and a deliciously warbling saw caress the air with musical grace.
#7. Illuha – Interstices
Drawing from and walking very closely in the steps of their remarkable and very distinctive debut Shizuku, Illuha offer a live take on their world of small glistering noises and resonances that together give a paradoxically active musical form to sheer peacefulness.
#8. Tamikrest – Chatma
Like their fellow Tuareg musicians Tinariwen, Tamikrest make a sinuous, bluesy, desert rock music that gradually worms its way under the skin and defies the body to keep still. Alternately driving and pensive, Chatma is an invigorating and life-affirming album.
#9. Andere – Waking Life
Two rich, long, cloudy ambient/drone pieces, lightly graced with found sounds, unfold slowly and majestically. It’s a pity this collaboration between Anduin and Radere was not more widely noticed (the more so as proceeds went to charity) – it greatly rewards close listening.
#10. Ian Boddy – Liverdelphia
Adding to his already considerable output of analog synth sequencing and cosmic swirls, Ian Boddy this year offered up an album that melds recordings from two concerts. This one is gently propulsive, very melodic, and altogether inviting.
#11. Antonymes – There Can Be No True Beauty Without Decay
Notable for being the fiftieth release from the excellent Hibernate label (be sure to check out their wonderful five-volume sampler, We Like Ambient, released to mark the milestone), this album extends earlier material by Antonymes and offers reworkings by related artists. It further demonstrates his mastery of quietly evocative, piano-led ambient music, with a darker edge here and there.
#12. Sam Thomas – Blind Theatre
This feels less like a collection of songs than like a picaresque journey through a mercurial array of moods and guitar styles that refuses to settle in any one place for very long. By turns playful, aggressive, triumphant, pensive, and exhilarating, this is an album full of joyful surprises that should appeal to fans of early Mike Oldfield.
#13. Severence – Hidden Ceilings
Severence takes gaseous dub techno along the lines of earlier releases by Deadbeat or Pole, and stretches it out even further into the ether. Rhythms are often present mainly as a pulsing implication, while the spacious rush of echoes chasing one another airily around the soundscape is foregrounded. This finely detailed release is definitely one for headphones.
#14. The Ashes of Piemonte – Winter’s Fire
A lush ambient meditation on John Milton’s poem about an early modern massacre. Drifting tones and watery field recordings paint hazy pictures of a dim past in the colors of regret and remembrance. Read the full Music is Good review here. Check out also this duo’s second 2013 release, Datura Notes.
#15. The Boats – Our Small Ideas
Our Small Ideas by The Boats is a much expanded reworking of a 200-copy CD release from 2008. This perfectly titled album charms with modest whimsy. If you are drawn by the thought of quaint and quavering sounds, mysterious music boxes found in antique stores, gentle, hesitant melodies that almost seem to ask permission to enter your listening space, and warm, soothing fragility (with the occasional subversive lyric), this is one worth spending time alone with.
#16. Savvas Ysatis & Taylor Deupree – Origin
Taylor Deupree’s Faint, appearing right at the end of 2012, has been one of my most-played albums since. To my ear this collaboration with Savvas Ysatis was the best of his multiple releases this year, somehow combining a deep, rich sound with a sense of austere precision and restraint.
#17. Emptywhale – Some Hollow Lullabies
An excellent free release, this album explores territory quite similar to the Antonymes album mentioned above. Slowly shifting textures, gently evocative piano, and an atmosphere of thoughtful melancholy are skilfully woven together into a patient and beautiful whole.
#18. Brokeback – Brokeback and the Black Rock
This took me a while to adjust to – it’s very different from earlier Brokeback releases from (can it be?) a decade ago. Once I could hear it in its own right, I discovered a personable and rather engaging collection of Western-tinged rock instrumentals with a pleasantly intimate feel. One to relax to.
#19. Greg Haines – Where We Were
Haines turns his musical gaze from strings to synthesizers, delivering a fascinating recording that joins the elegant, classically tinged ambience of his previous work with stomping beats and cosmic atmospheres.
#20. Tone Color – The Last Day
A largely unnoticed free release on a small netlabel, this debut album broke little new ground, but charmed me with its warm hues, homely environmental sounds, and unassuming, gentle melodies. Comforting and very pleasurable, with some lovely, resonant moments.
To any of these artists who happen to read this, a sincere thank you for sharing your gifts.
David Smith currently lives in the Midwestern United States, where he teaches, writes, and enjoys a very wide range of music, with regard to which he claims no expertise whatsoever beyond that of a dedicated and appreciative listener.
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