Last year was one in which retro ruled my musical life, from David Bowie reappearing on the public stage with his birthday record drop on the internet (a year prior to Beyoncé using the same tactic), to the release of Savages debut album—in which lead singer Jehnny Beth’s voice howls, rips, and seduces listeners as if she were the long lost child of Ian Curtis and Siouxsie Sioux. We are living in a era when genres and styles are recycled and rehashed at breakneck speed, but contained here in my best of 2013 list are records from many established originals and a few bands who are most certainly calling on the past, but have enough of a unique creative spark to make their music sound innovative and new.
Savages – Silence Yourself
Silence Yourself is a punch in the gut that you didn’t see coming, and what I think is the best album of the year. Savages create a stark, yet complex and intense, confrontational sound world filled with primal, raw power. Each member of the band oozes self-confidence and talent, based on solid skills as musicians. They are one of the tightest bands I’ve ever seen live and yet they create a mood that keeps one on edge, wondering what will happen next. Sure, there are all kinds of post-punk influences on the album, but Savages are uniquely themselves and urge listeners to strive to be the same.
David Bowie – The Next Day
Bowie has always been a master of picking up and putting together innovative styles such as glam and krautrock, jungle, and industrial. This most recent time around it seems he looked over the past decade and found that the best music out there to play with would be his own. Though there is an onslaught of self-referential moments, it never feels overtly nostalgic or like a rehashing of greatest hits. Rather, it is an album about reunification, pulling all the Bowies together, creating sharp witted, hard rocking, stripped down tunes that touch on topics Bowie has always been interested in—love, loss, religion, and mortality. Filled with riddles and layers to unfold, The Next Day takes time and patience. I have been called back to the album time and time again throughout the year, knowing that there is more to be unraveled and discovered each time I listen. This record, more than any other, gives the listener the feeling of an exposed Bowie, a vulnerable Bowie, but this nudity is only an illusion, as he never fully exposes David Jones, the man behind the layers of Bowie masks.
Ruby – Revert to Type EP
I have a tie at number three with two fantastic EPs.
First off, there is the return of the astounding Scottish vocal powerhouse Leslely Rankine as the creative force behind Ruby. Having taken a break from music for twelve years, her reemergence is a welcome, shining sonic wave of hope in a landscape of auto-tuned vocals and emotionless indie voices. Her lyrics cut to the chase, showing both strength and humility while helping “to embrace your inner fuck up.”
Burial – Rival Dealer EP
Next up there is the elusive Burial with his latest EP, Rival Dealer. “Rival Dealer” is a fast paced, sinister track that at once makes me want to hide under my bed and dance with joy. There is the vocal pitch shifting we are familiar with in Burial, but we get more complete samples, much less stuttering, and longer, longing stretches of vocal pleading throughout the EP. The most striking moment comes at the end of “Come Down to Us,” where we hear a clip of Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski’s Human Rights Campaign speech not pitch shifted or augmented with effects saying, ” . . . I find the courage to admit that I am transgendered, and that does not mean that I am unlovable.” Burial’s creativity has often been expressed through voices that have been stripped of their gender through pitch and speed shifting, thus there is a great deal that can be read into this small act of vocal clarity, but I will leave that aside for now and just say that this is an EP that becomes more addictive and moving with every listen.
Gary Numan – Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind)
I love Gary Numan. However, I’ve been waiting a long time for him to create another GREAT album that would keep me from constantly going back to Replicas, The Pleasure Principal, and Telekon. With Splinter, he has done just that. Still a master at pushing technology to its limits, Numan uses synths to overwhelm and envelop his listeners rather than alienate them, as in his earlier work. Depression and lamentation have never sounded so grandiose—Splinter is a cataclysmic onslaught of the dread, fear, and outrage at our realization that we are growing older, that life is fragile, and that dreams may not always come true.
Beady Eye – Be
In the battle waged between the Gallagher brothers since the Oasis split, Noel had definitely come out on top with his solo High Flying Birds debut over Beady Eye’s initial, lackluster release. Yet, with a little help from producer David Sitek (TV On The Radio), Beady Eye’s sophomore effort is fantastic and has the kind of depth, variety, and grooviness one expects from Liam and the rest of the Oasis gang. Don’t expect this to sound like Oasis without Noel. There are leaps of innovation and change found on this album, most strikingly the raw clarity of Liam’s vocals, which brings the listener closer rather than feeling pushed to arms length by reverb and distortion. This could be Liam’s most intimate singing yet.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away
Nick Cave isn’t doing anything new here, but what he does, he does so very well. He has actually taken a number of sonic steps back to his darker days of ominous, quiet, foreboding tunes versus his more recent loud moments with Grinderman and in Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!. This album, like Numan’s and Bowie’s on my list, hints at feelings of growing older and becoming a spectre. Sure, death and ghosts are nothing new to Cave’s repertoire, but the lush harmonies found on the album are linked with new horrors, most likely inspired by Cave’s current, often gloomy seaside residence in Brighton, making for an interesting new listen to dark spaces that don’t seem so far away.
Special Request – Soul Music
I’ve always had a soft spot for jungle and, with Soul Music, Special Request (Paul Woolford) puts jungle back into the dance conversation with an innovative twist that takes us back to the UK pirate radio of the 90s, while pushing new rhythms and breaks on the dance floor. Woolford is, with subtle intricacy, linking jungle rhythms to house and techno, allowing the analog breaks and ghostly vocals to provide a sense of warmth not found in early, straight up jungle. It’s an album I can enjoy dancing to or kicking back with a great set of headphones on while staring at the ceiling—the tracks providing a fantastic soundtrack to my imagination run wild.
Jagwar Ma – Howlin
Hailing from Austrailia, Jagwar Ma update the Madchester sound made famous by The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays by bringing more funk to their dance floor grooves than any of their forefathers. Where the Mondays and Roses made danceable rock, these boys are making dance music that rocks. They created a psychedelic-pop-rock-acid-house sound that transforms 60s pop and 90s Madchester into a musical moment of joyful-let-your-hair-down-and-wiggle-any-way-you-like-on-the-dance-floor, which feels refreshing, offering a much needed addition to contemporary dance music, much of which takes itself far too seriously these days.
Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats – Mind Control
An amazing blend of doom fuzz and catchy riffs, Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats’ sophomore effort holds tight to their 70s roots but loosens the grip of the Doom metal label they were given after their earlier releases. Their vocal harmonies are what make them stand out among the many making similar music these days. On this album they move from doom to prog to psych rock with an ease and flair that can please tripped out guitar freaks and mystic paisley love junkies equally.
Depeche Mode – Delta Machine
Sex, suffering, obsession, sin, and redemption are not new territories for Depeche Mode, but with their 13th album, 33 years on in their career, they successfully lead listeners through a wealth of desires, disasters, and revelations with new sounds and inventive rhythms and harmonies that make this their best album since Violator. There are beautiful guitar moments found between Dave Gahan’s baritone, and the massive rumbling, driving synths creating the uneasy feeling of a seedy world existing on the brink of destruction.
Tiffany Naiman is a PhD student in musicology at UCLA. She is a contributor to the forthcoming book David Bowie: Critical Perspectives (Routledge, 2014). Tiffany is also a producer of documentary films, her feature length works include The Glamour and the Squalor, Viva Cuba Libre: Rap is War, Exile Nation: The Plastic People, and The Mechanical Bride.