And so on to my top 20 albums of the year. Yes, there’s a bit of a spoiler above – Deafheaven’s Sunbather was the clear standout for me, one of the most thrilling metal albums I’ve heard in a long time. But there were plenty other surprises in store this year – read on to hear my favourites.
20. Mudhoney – Vanishing Point
Lost in the shadow of big-name grunge-era comebacks, Mudhoney have been consistently excellent for decades now, and their latest album is yet another career peak. Loud, fuzzy, and lacking any pretension, Mudhoney rip through a great set of tunes, with Mark Arm’s acerbic wit in evidence throughout.
19. Grave Miasma – Odori Sepulcrorum
Wow. I’ve heard some dark albums in my time, but this one is really something. Old-school death metal that sounds like it was recorded in a cavern in the bowels of hell, Grave Miasma intersperse no-frills riffs and blastbeats with twisted, screeching solos and atmospheric interludes. The result is one of the most interesting albums in what has been a particularly strong year for death metal.
18. Doomriders – Grand Blood
Grand Blood is a bit of a departure for Doomriders, darker and less anthemic than previous releases, but their trademark death n’ roll sound is still firmly in place. Songs like “Gone To Hell” even show a more melodic side to the band, yet never fail to kick ass in the process.
17. Clipping – Midcity
“It’s Clipping bitch!” So starts the self-released mixtape from underground hip hop trio Clipping. Brash and exhilarating, Clipping meld a traditional hip hop vocal style with subversive lyrics and instrumentals that owe more to noise legends Merzbow and Whitehouse than anyone else.
16. Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks
One of many big-name releases this year that seemed to come from nowhere, Hesitation Marks is the best thing I’ve heard from Trent Reznor in a long, long time. The album seems to be a more mature, at times surprisingly upbeat companion piece to its stylistic predecessor The Downward Spiral. Not that that really matters – the key thing to note is that the songs are fantastic, particularly album openers Copy Of A and Came Back Haunted.
15. Four Tet – Beautiful Rewind
Four Tet has made his name releasing densely-produced but emotionally resonant “folktronica”, but he’s also a respected DJ with an expert feel for what will work on the dancefloor. Beautiful Rewind is undoubtedly a more club-focussed album, with some of the most dance-worthy beats Four Tet has produced in years, and it’s uniformly brilliant.
14. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this remarkable album is that it’s essentially a collection of leftovers from two fantastic collaborations between Killer Mike and El-P that came out last year. Released for free as a mixtape, Run The Jewels pisses all over most of the big name rap releases this year.
13. Clutch – Earth Rocker
Clutch just keep getting better and better. Undoubtedly one of the finest live bands in existence, new album Earth Rocker is probably the closest they’ve come to capturing that awesome sound on tape. Needless to say it is the tits. Fucking badass.
12. Carcass – Surgical Steel
None more metal. This is perhaps the finest example of melodic death metal since Heartwork, all the more surprising given Carcass’s long absence from the scene (not to mention the disappointment that was Swansong, their last album before disbanding in 1996). Killer riffs, pounding drums, facepeeling solos, and Jeff Walker’s distinctive vocals make for one of the best comebacks in a year full of them.
11. Death Grips – Government Plates
Another year, another unannounced, free-to-download Death Grips mixtape. This one is a bit more patchy – several tracks in the second half feel more like sketches than fully fleshed songs – but at their best Death Grips are the most exciting force in music, and the first few tracks alone are some of the most innovative, mind-bending music you’ll hear this year in any genre. Mental.
10. Jon Hopkins – Immunity
I have to admit I didn’t pick this up on its release, in fact I only even heard about it when the “best of 2013” lists started trickling out, but it has quickly become one of my favourite things ever. Jon Hopkins is a producer who has worked with a host of artists including Coldplay, but don’t hold that against him – this solo release is dark, bass-driven techno of the highest order.
9. Tim Hecker – Virgins
Tim Hecker is an experimental musician who creates ambient noise soundscapes with surprising emotional depth and warmth. On Virgins, recordings of live musicians are deconstructed and reconstituted into more than the sum of their parts. This is an album that needs to be experienced in full, but is more than worth the effort.
8. Mark Lanegan & Duke Garwood – Black Pudding
Mark Lanegan’s recent collaboration with Duke Garwood is fast becoming one of my favourite releases of his. The pair fit together perfectly, creating contemporary blues songs with a range of stylistic influences that nevertheless work as a cohesive whole. This is mood music for sure, but when you’re in the mood there’s nothing better.
7. Kvelertak – Meir
This album is the perfect distillation of everything that kicks ass in metal. Every song, every riff, every fill is just balls-out amazing. So much fun.
6. Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady
Janelle Monáe is extremely talented. More than a little crazy, too, but without a doubt one of the most gifted and charismatic performers in mainstream music today. New album The Electric Lady develops the sci-fi concepts of her previous work, telling the story of android alter-ego Cindi Mayweather. Grand, ambitious, and stylistically diverse, The Electric Lady is a triumph.
5. Kelela – Cut 4 Me
Kelela’s debut is a free mix tape produced by a collective of producers from the Fade to Mind and Night Slugs labels. It’s a perfect marriage of innovative underground productions and strong R&B vocals, an album that manages to break new ground while still sounding catchy as fuck. Definitely one to watch.
4. Queens Of The Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
QOTSA are one of my favourite bands, but I haven’t really loved any of their albums since Songs For The Deaf. That is, until …Like Clockwork. In fact, this new album might be even better. It’s easily their most cohesive work, a strong, mature group of songs that flows incredibly well as an album. And the songs are really great, from the alt rock musings of “I Sat By The Ocean” to the pounding “My God Is The Sun” to the filthy funk of “Smooth Sailing”.
3. Gorguts – Colored Sands
Every so often I hear an album that completely changes my perceptions of metal as a genre. This is one of those albums. Dense, atonal riffs crush down over pounding drum beats, intricately technical without sounding needlessly flashy or pretentious. The songs are densely composed, making interesting use of dynamics and structure without ever letting slide on the brutality. Even the classical piece for string quintet that forms the centrepiece of the album, The Battle Of Chamdo, is dark and ominous. Intelligent, technical death metal at its absoulte best, Colored Sands is essential.
2. Melt-Banana – Fetch
Melt-Banana are possibly my favourite band of all time, and this might just be their best album. It’s a loud burst of wondrous joy from start to finish – an insane blend of grind, punk, noise, and J-pop that never lets up. Starting with the awesome Candy Gun, Yasuko and Agata tear through 11 tracks of high-octane madness before ending with the relatively sedate (but no less amazing) disco track Zero. Another perfect 10 album in a year that had several, this one is certainly the most fun. And if you ever get the chance to see them live, do it – they are the best live act I have ever seen!
1. Deafheaven – Sunbather
So, here we are at no. 1. While there are certainly reference points here, from the more adventurous black metal bands in the US to post-rock/shoegaze acts like mbv and Ride to Japanese hardcore legends Envy, I’ve never heard an album quite like it. Fast, tremolo-picked major chords swirl over uplifting blastbeats, creating a blissed-out sound that is both melancholic and yet strangely euphoric, crushing yet oddly beautiful. A truly wonderful album, and an easy pick for album of the year.