AOT // ALBUMS OF THE YEAR 2013 / 20 – 6


20 // KELELA – CUT 4 ME

Debut mixtapes as intriguingly co-signed and exquisitely ambitious as that of Kelela Mizanekristos are few and far between. Whilst her vocals are elegant, coasting over her backing with subtlety and innate nous whilst proffering lyrics that are intimate and occasionally jarringly earnest, the real star here is the production. Drawn from the Fade to Mind and Night Slugs stable – with the likes of Nguzungzu, Kingdom and Jam City in particular shining – sonically Cut 4 Me is a constantly engaging listen, alternatively sparse and intricate, simple and dense, cold and lush.


As power plays go, surprise releasing your music as an iTunes only release accompanied by 17 music videos is about as patently obvious a move Mrs Carter could have made. In hindsight.  Dropping it in December is unorthodox, but exclusive releases are industry promotion bread-and-butter (though the monopolising hasn’t half hacked off Amazon and Target). She’s even done the video schtick before with B’Day, though this time round it’s even more in line with the way we consume music now – smartphones tilted landscape. Dropping it without any specific promotion at all though – 2014 additions to her world tour aside – is just not the kind of move popstars make. That doing so generated more fervent and immediate buzz than months of careful marketing could ensured that it paid dividends, with the result that Ghost’s ad-libbed line “Probably won’t make no money off this, oh well” seems rather hollow now that Beyoncé is the fastest selling album of all time on iTunes. Now that the surprise has faded and the din of digital tills has silenced somewhat though, the real power of Queen Bey’s fifth solo record becomes easier to discern. Its substance. Production from blockbusters (Pharrell Williams, Ryan Tedder) and relative unknowns (Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek and Boots) alike, attention-grabbing in its attentiveness, varying between idiosyncratic and enormous often with the same track. Even more pressing are the records themes though: romance, sex, female empowerment, beauty, children, the music industry, death and more dealt with – if not always the greatest refinement – brazenly unapologetic frankness. As Anderson Cooper put it “It is Beyoncé’s world and we are just living in it.” All hail.


The constantly refreshing timeline of new music – 5% of which you’ll actually get your teeth into, 15% you’ll do your darndest to, and 80% you’ll never/hopefully never realise ever existed  – can be exhausting, alienating, confusing and even tedious. Just when you’re about to pack it in and fire up Remain in Light for the umpteenth time though, a tonic is just round the corner. In case of emergency, smash the glass and reach for the debut record from Melt Yourself Down: a vibrant, exhilarating afro-jazz-punk-funk concoction that’s the perfect medicine for the new music greys. Whether going all out for the jugular on the blistering We Are Enough, or teasing you with the downtempo hand percussion driven funk of Free Walk, this is a highly intelligent, texturally diverse record capable of eliciting immediate primal gratification and careful rewarding close-analysis, fuelled by a consummate sense of merry abandon.


Fuck Buttons are two men who build acres of atmospheric playground. Slow Focus – with this level of consistency for the first time – makes that playground readily available for all who find the entrance. Though bludgeoning from the off – the first half of the record dominated by the likes of Brainfreeze, The Red Wing and Sentients: alien titans that crash and wallop across intergalactic mountain ranges – that bludgeoning’s function is to drag the listener into the state of ascendant otherness rather than simply numb submission. Music that can seem impossible to enter at first, ultimately proves seemingly impossible to leave. By the time the final transcendent, coursing notes of Hidden XS ring out you’ll never want to.


Factory Floor boasts ten tracks of glistening physicality: music which painstakingly builds a towering sonic Siduhe between forebears-cum-collaborators Carter Tutti and the legions of the DFA which Factory Floor now call family. Compositionally, the band thrive on propulsive, enervating structural assonance, trapping listeners in a mesmeric web, glued in place as the melancholy vocal arachnid that is Niki Void circles ever closer. Listen to this record until your ears bleed. Then dance until your feet match.



An expectation of intricacies of intimate, expansive dark space invariably has come to be bound up with the very name Nicolas Jaar, due to the impeccable body of work he’s turned his Midas fingers to over the last few years. This unexpectedly Americana-inflected, deeply groove-laden collaboration with Dave Harrington though, might well be his finest work to date though. An exercise in somnambulant urgency over canvases large (Golden Arrow), and small (Sitra), Psychic oozes a simultaneously ancient yet very modern sensibility, like the streetlights of a desert town impossibly nestled in amongst the canyons and plains. On the staggeringly gorgeous core one-two punch of Paper Trails and The Only Shrine I’ve Ever Seen, there’s a sense of primal ambience akin to the “evening redness” Cormac McCarthy made his name upon. It’s a record of carefully refined textures, tempos and moods, which reach out their tentacles, hook onto your neural tissue and hold you deep, just as mesmerising as the title suggests.


“Crucially, with this increasing repertoire and refinement comes a sparer use of any individual aesthetic. Facets of all the elements of their sound old and new, instead rise and fall to prominence throughout an album that operates like a Galileo thermometer, fluctuations in mood and temperature instigating appropriate shifts in song-writing and production. There’s a developing sense of freedom, and an artful awareness of their abilities and craft that marks Holy Fire out as highly-accomplished transmission – resounding if not necessarily earth-shattering – on the level of the instrumental in particular.”



“No amount of deference to post-punk influences like Joy Division and Bauhaus, or vocal evocations of Patti Smith or Siouxsie-Soux, could render this record unimaginative or irrelevant. The cacophony of guitars, the palpitating bass-line of Shut Up, even a sultry downtown venture into Marshal Dear, all collude to constitute a well-timed slap in the face to today’s buzz bands and their gaggle of fans, experiencing their live performances through the hi-res screens of their smartphones.”

Excerpt from Sophie Monk’s AN ANGRY YOUNG TUNE


Pearl Mystic feels like rising up out of the rain and through the troposphere. Grey to white to bright, hell, purgatory and heaven absorbed into a few short moments of confusion and blindness. Then clarity. Water droplets on windows suddenly filled with sunlight.

It’s a record of precision, perfectly structured and flowing and yet its fuelled by a sense of expansive freedom, capturing that very moment of emergence, and yet its fuelled by a sense of expansive freedom. It’s glistening and blistering in equal measure and utterly, brilliantly triumphant.


If they’ve stopped making rockstars – at least ones the ones who don’t start off on the very pretence of being a rockstar – the last off  the conveyor belt might well be Josh Homme. Though flanked, as-ever, with a band of stupidly talented musicians – typified by the capacity to replace long-term member Joey Castillo mid-recording with Dave Grohl as a stop-gap and then Jon Theodore as one hell of a touring drummer – QOTSA is, and always will be, the 6′ 5″ Carlo Von Sexron. Appropriately …Like Clockwork feels the most personal work of his career. Musically it encompasses and expands upon elements of the full-range of his musical output – from Screaming Trees and Arctic Monkeys to Eagles of Death Metal and Them Crooked Vultures – and then executing them to the utmost. It’s thematically though that the personal edge really strikes home though. My God Is The Sun is essentially a romantic manifesto of musical and personal being, whilst I Appear Missing and The Vampyre of Time and Memory take on depression and loneliness with a poetry, grandeur and gravitas that suits the band down to the ground – whilst simultaneously pushing them into veins they’ve never mined with such excellence before.  Stoner rock that’s sexy, dirty, gritty and utterly lucid.



“Enervating blood ties, romances won and lost, marital adversities, fading bonds of friendship: perhaps more than any other contemporary band The National’s very artistic make-up is predicated on the nuances of human relations. Such a nexus of interrelational trials and tribulations once again rears its head on their eagerly-anticipated sixth LP Trouble Will Find Me.

The build-up to this record saw the release of Mistaken for Strangers, a tour-documentary which inadvertently turned into an exhaustive portrait of the brothers Berninger, bringing another fraternal pairing into the band’s field of consciousness alongside founding sibling-sets the Dessners and Devendorfs.

It is in that vein that opener I Live In Salt arrives. Typically for the band it’s less of a kicking-down-the-door affair, more of an unexpected call at two in the morning. Wine bottle empty and heart full, the voice at the other end is possessed with the sort of earnest, deep-set confession to a loved one that ultimately came out of the documentary process: “I should live in salt for leaving you behind”. In their repertoire of album catalysts it’s not as enrapturing as Secret Meeting, as stately as Fake Empire, or as resoundingly titanic as Terrible Love, but even with the switch in tonal tact its measured, powerful build ensures that it’ll take a heart of stone not to ultimately melt.

This conflation of the subdued and gut-wrenching proves to be the underlying essence of the record. Where their peers might have been drawn towards the overblown – a concept album here, a gospel choir there – The National appear to have responded to their growing success by turning, more than ever, into and towards themselves.”



Most simply of all, even several months after listening to it for the first time, there are still layers and tiny revelations to be unearthed during repeat listens. Whether it’s a particularly sharp lyric suddenly making its significance felt, or the recognition of motifs and melodies being mirrored and reshaped, it’s extraordinary to witness just how seamlessly the album flows as a whole. It’s a cyclical, theatrical tale of power struggles, which gradually circles itself to form a satisfying arc, whose familiar, repeated elements serve to accentuate the gradual, subtle changes in both sound and style. (For one example, consider how the frantic guitar runs of Take the Night Off and I Was An Eagle compare to the closing passages of Little Bird and Saved These Words.)

But it’s not just an exercise in symmetry. There’s a whole host of devices at work here, with emotions swelling, dipping and soaring throughout with no real conclusions or blunt points. The revelatory moments which are painstakingly constructed are, in isolation, barely distinguishable. Yet upon arriving during a full listening experience, they are cause for true delight. The quaking chills of Devil’s Resting Place and the unity of Where Can I Go? are but two examples; their polar catharses crafted atop the groundwork laid by previous tracks. Yet even then, no one track is dull in of itself. Thanks to Marling’s ever-flowering literary nous and her ways of pulling potent melodies from skeletal components, Once I Was An Eagle is able to keep its listeners completely absorbed for its entire 63-minute runtime.



Post-punk was born to be this poetic. Throughout, whether delivered by Andrew Savage or Austin Brown, Light Up Gold’slyrics are droll and resonant – equally comfortable in realist romance (“My girl’s a borealis-lit fjord […] My girl is a beer, freshly poured”) or reflections on the dystopic contemporary employment landscape: (“There are no more roles on TV shows, there are no road-cone dispensing jobs […] but there are still careers in combat, my son”). They’re rich at their most prosaic (“I was debating Swedish Fish, roasted peanuts or licorice”) and abstract (“I saw, while squinting, the hidden layer in those lost-era grain elevators”), and they’re the main reason to bookmark this band and return to this record. Tracks like ‘N Dakota’ and ‘Yonder is Closer to the Heart’ are almost better read as prose poems in fact, managing to register an authentic experience of Americana in a style reminiscent of both Jonathon Richman and the Beat poets, but all the same strikingly current and refreshingly individualist.



Cindi Mayweather can’t be stopped.

Ambitious, imaginative and immaculately produced to the nines – from the cover art through to the harmonies, ukuleles and hand  percussion – The Electric Lady easily equals and even surpasses 2010’s The Archandroid. Case in point: accusations of a lack of direct human connection beneath the gorgeous layers of sheen (although this arguably speaks to an emotional incapacity on the part of critics. For serious, did you even listen to Cold War people!) are answered in spades. Suite V in particular seems to make the riposte to this criticism its very raison d’etre. A romantic, down-tempo but quietly experimental affair in the most-part, showcasing Monáe’s gorgeous panache for a slow jam (What An Experience and Can’t Live Without Your Love to name two) and ensuring it would hold up as an album in its own stead.

As it is though, it somehow stands only to serve as a delicious dessert to the real treats that make The Electric Lady so damn essential. Case in point: the entire opening half of Suite IV. In  particular, the run from the opening overture through to the Solange featuring title-track contains the finest work of Monáe’s career thus far. It’s an all-out, breathless declaration of her birth right to super-stardom: a series of feminist, queer, funk-ridden, poetic, intensively worked-through, Prince and Erykah Badu featuring excerpts of audacity.

The only real negative to the whole affair, is that it once again raises the ever-frustrating question of Monáe’s lack of enormity.  But as I say, Cindi Mayweather can’t and won’t be stopped. The scale and refined eclecticism on display are incomparable amongst her peers. She’s working towards Purple Rain, What’s Going On, Voodoo, Miseducation of Lauryn Hill status on a stupidly consistent basis. She’ll get there. She’ll dance on your desks. She’ll walk your tightropes. She’ll cut your rugs to shreds. She’ll be back with Suites VI and VII.


 Apparat, aka Sascha Ring, was approached in 2012 by German theatre director Sebastian Hartmann with the lofty task of soundtracking a stage adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Out came Krieg und Frieden, a forty-five minute landscape of rangy drone interspersed with Ring’s haunting vocal lines. All these whirs and clicks and little cuts of desolation don’t make for the easiest listening, but so far as atmosphere goes, Krieg und Frieden is a near-perfect exercise in scope, tension and continuity.


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