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What I heard in 2013

This will be the first in a series of year-end posts about what I'll remember this year for. I'll start today with music, and work my way through books, movies (and television shows), and overall experiences. As far as music goes, I have to say this was an unusual year for me. For the past few years I've mainly just bought the latest album from my favorites, picked up whatever the new critical favorite was and left it at that. I still remember when I could count the number of albums I had on my fingers, and how I would listen to each of those CDs obsessively, pouring over the lyrics. I've more music now than I'll ever be able to listen to fully, every really appreciate. So the music that makes a year for me is the stuff that won't be denied, that cuts above the clutter and leaves a mark.

What I wanted this year was to hear a particular sound. I'm not sure where this sound came from. But early in the year I realized I didn't have any music that really expressed what I was feeling.

The best I could come up with was the soundtrack to Blade Runner, that haunting, silver and neon menacing pulse. So I looked for it. I heard it in My Bloody Valentine's long, long-delayed follow-up to 1991's Loveless MBV but buried under the gauze. I heard it here and there in movie soundtracks this year: Gravity, Upstream Color, and then most clearly on the 2011 movie Drive. After I heard it there, I started to see if anyone was producing it in contemporary music. I wasn't looking for electronica, precisely but that was often where I heard it most clearly. What makes my choice for the album of the year is that it does the best job capturing that sound that I had in my head, and even going beyond it in certain respects.

So the results of this quest are below. You'll notice that some of the songs I've put on my list don't quite fit what I just described above but that's okay, music is what moves you, regardless of whether you want to hear it or not.

5) Teeth of the Seas Master: This was one of my first big finds this year. I didn't know anything about this band before I read some buzz for it's Master album, but I liked the cover and the previews sounded epic and futuristic. I should be clear, the sound I was looking for isn't quite this, but there are enough tracks that sound like a demented Acela, off-the-rails, barreling through a barrage of laser fire, that I don't care. Stand-out track: "Reaper."

4) Boards of Canada Tomorrow's Harvest. I've heard the expression, 'like the soundtrack to a movie that never came out,' enough that I suspect it's a cliche, but nevermind - this is actually like the soundtrack that never came out and one one that I'd really like to have seen. It even starts out with this little moog squiggle suggesting one of the title cards for a sixties sci fi movie. In sound, it doesn't really resemble much of what's going on in today's music, reminding me more of the desolate synth washes of Eduard Artemiev's soundtrack for Tarkovsky's Solaris. Not exactly gripping but I wish I had stumbled onto it earlier in the year, it would've been the backdrop for a number of stories this year.

3) My Bloody Valentine m b v. The miracle isn't that My Bloody Valentine finally came out with a follow-up, it's that it's any good. And m b v is very good. I listened to it so much this past spring I didn't bother buying any music until summer. Each track seems to build on the next, weaving this huge towering tapestry of sound. But it's not brutal, it's soft. It's not loud, it's layered. Twenty years on and no one has really captured what makes MBV so amazing, which is an accomplishment in itself, I suppose.

2) Laura Marling Once I Was an Eagle. Like I said, not everything I listened to sounds like a sci-fi soundtrack. Marling is a relatively new folk artist from England and I'm really surprised she didn't explode more this year. Still there's whatever sequel she comes up with, her talents are astonishing, a clear taunt soulful voice that can dance, leap, soar, and stalk. For me, she was the Adele of 2013. Her songwriting is ambitious, the first four tracks of Once I Was forming a kind of tone poem, the same Zeppelinesque guitar riff stitching together her opaque meditations on lost love and shattered illusions. Stand-out song: "Master Hunter" which is more metal than anything on an acoustic guitar has any right to be.

1) Nils Frahm Spaces. A weird one in many respects. This was the sound of the year for me because of one song: "Says," which is the second track on this semi-live album, a seven-minute absolutely perfectly calibrated emotional roller-coaster. From a simple soft electronic beat, like the click of a watch, composer Nils Frahm carefully zooms out until an entire billowing universe stands revealed. Apparently Frahm suffered a broken hand last year and was forced to scale back his playing to a John Cage level minimalism. Now healed, his playing sounds like that scene in Amadeus when Mozart cuts loose on a harpsichord, letting a simple melody pile on top of itself in ever more intricate, filigreed patterns. Some of the pieces here are very spare, almost too drama-free for my taste, but never simple. Frahm always manages to find some complication in rhythm or tone that registers.
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