Because we at Open Letter value deadlines and all things timely, I’m going to keep this short and sweet1 and over a month late to bring to you my ten Best Of 2013 album/song/music picks. As I mentioned on the podcast, I had a particularly hard time choosing 10 albums as a whole (which I cheat on anyway) because there were so few albums that had an effect on me. There just didn’t seem to be anything, dare I say, dynamic enough for me in 2013 music wise. But here, in no particular order, are ten albums from good ol’ 2013 that got to me in some way. We start now.
The Secretly NSFW, Yet Productivity-Inducing (Phrasing) Album
Baths, a.k.a. Will Wiesenfeld, was one of several “new” artists for me this year. I knew nothing about him, and basically still remain clueless. But Obsidian was one of the coolest things I was introduced to this year, and was also the album I listened to on loop for the entire week or so I was in Riga last fall working on a new translation (SHAMELESS SELF-PLUG: Flesh-Coloured Dominoes, forthcoming Fall 2014 from Arcadia Books) and on getting my dual citizenship (which was made OFFICIAL AS OF JANUARY 2014, BABY!). It’s the perfect passive-agressive background music; you can move to it, you can sing along, you can just let it filter through your peripherals. I like Obsidian’s glockenspiel lilts and rolling synth, and Wiesenfeld’s voice, which is innocent and suggestive, molasses-y and restrained, like he’s fighting against the tempo of his own music. He is also master of slipping these phrases and images into his lyrics that are, honestly, quite graphic at times, but that are at the same time almost impossible to catch if you’re not paying attention. He does this with a tact that would put any Disney cartoonist-pervert to shame. In the song “No Eyes,” a ditty essentially about sexual selfishness, he drops the F-bomb in the perfect place. I once had a playwriting professor who wisely said, “If your actors are going to swear, have them do it right. One perfectly placed fuck’ will resonate more and make a greater impact than a hundred other expletives.” Wiesenfeld/Baths does this. In an album of repressed sexuality and emotions, of loaded imagery and sensations, he has one, and only one “fuck,” and he couldn’t have used it in any better way.
The First Album of 2013 I Remember Hearing and Loving Instantly Album
Buke and Gase, General Dome
Oh lord do I love Buke and Gase. Yet another of several groups I had no idea about, what caught my attention immediately was Arone Dyer’s voice paired with that gritty, buzzing bass. Or gase. Buke = baritone ukelele; gase = guitar-bass hybrid. The vocal upswings are so damn cool, and the first time I heard “Houdini Crush” I was hooked. This is an album whose lyrics are more or less incomprehensible to me, but I find myself not really caring that much. With Buke and Gase, it’s the overall effect that makes me happy. She could be singing “Apple melon band-aids, terra cotta warriors,” and I would love them just as much. This was my go-to for borderline grungy sounds in 2013. Great for sawing sheet-metal to.
The Token Latvian Band Album
Let me preface this by saying that, even if Instrumenti weren’t Latvian, I would still always have them on my yearly list. They made my 2012 list with their album Tru, and keep progressing and evolving to do greater and more interesting things. They have really started finding themselves with this album: it’s far more interconnected from song to song and works better as a “grand piece,” but still retains that sense of near-cheeky Instrumenti attitude. In Procrastination, the guys keep experimenting with unique vocals, layers, genres, and themes, but in a style that has been and forever will be their own. Another aspect I loved about this album is that it is way darker than Tru, though without losing any of their trademark energy. Instrumenti are one of the groups whose work I am always excited to see and experience, and have remained two of the most talented individuals in the Latvian music world. The video for “Don’t Hold Onto Me” was also one of the weirdest, harold-and-the-purple-crayon-meets-clockwork-orangiest, things I saw in 2013.
The I Was Hoping For More and Wound Up Disappointed But for Three Songs Album
Haim, Days Are Gone
When I first heard “The Wire,” I was instantly excited. Here was a laid-back group of three Californian sisters with just the right amount of non-committal female empowerment in the mix. And though I may be the only one who feels this way, I know I’m not the only one who was captured by this song. Countless friends’ Spotify feeds (oh, technology) had the song popping up over and over after it first came out. Unfortunately, once the entire album became available, it was disappointing. Sure, there are about three songs (“My Song 5” and “Falling” in addition to “The Wire”) that were noticeable, but the rest of the album fizzled. What I do like about Haim are the way the vocals sound fuzzy, a little beachy, a little summer vacation, without trying too hard. Listen for purposely stilted or swallowed lyrics, one of the particularly charming aspects of these songs.
The Discovered on a Work Trip Album
Ásgeir Trausti, Dýrð í dauðaþögn
I don’t like Bon Iver. Bon Iver makes me feel empty inside. For the easiest comparison, Ásgeir Trausti falls into that Bon Iver/Fleet Foxes camp of musicians, but in non-empty feeling ways. While sitting in a van one day during last fall’s trip to the Reykjavik International Literature Festival, I found myself at first wary, and then super, super into Trausti’s music and vocals. Maybe because, HEY!, I don’t (yet) speak Icelandic, but something his music has seemed to offer my soul and innards what Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes never could. I still don’t know what that is. But it’s a thing and it is there. It’s warmer, grander, closer, snugglier. Like an Icelandic
pony horse. This is also an album that is kind of a cheat, since I’m not entirely sure if it came out in 2012 or 2013 (I seem to remember there being conflicting information somewhere), but we’re all going to ignore that. You also can’t listen to the Icelandic original on Spotify, but YouTube has links all over the place.
The Non-Vocal Church Bells Album
Pantha Du Prince & the Bell Laboratory, Elements of Light
Yet another artist I had previously never heard of or been exposed to, Pantha Du Prince was one of my big 2013 favorites. I love the handbells, the way all the tracks bleed into one another, and the way two of the tracks are over 17 minutes long. Another thing I frequently found myself doing in 2013 was backtracking through an artist’s history and enjoying everything leading up to their respective 2013 releases. I did it with Buke, I did it with Baths, and I did it with Pantha. I DID IT ALL.
The One of the Only Two or Three Physical Albums I Bought in 2013 Album
Cold War Kids, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts
And definitely one of the last CDs I’ve ever bought at a store. Best Buy, to be exact, because I have little to no shame. Anyway, I don’t like Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts2, at all, ever, but I was pretty down with this album. I love that the album starts out with “Miracle Mile,” and I love the lyrics. This was a song I blasted (within reason) with the windows down in my car. It’s a great song with great energy, regardless if you’re a Cold War Kids fan or not. I’m admittedly a fickle fan, but I liked a handful of songs from this album, includng, ironically, “Dear Miss Lonelyhearts,” which tonally is the complete opposite of “Miracle Mile.” I enjoyed the up and down the album had to offer.
The I Just Like it Because Album
Ivan & Aloysha, All the Times We Had
One of several albums my dad recommended to me over the course of 2013, I don’t think I actually listened to All the Times We Had until well into summer (the album came out in February). And I liked it. It’s a simple, harmony-driven, folk-poppy album, and apparently I needed a little twang in my 2013 list. This is an album I can have playing while I read or work, and enjoy that it doesn’t necessarily require too much concentration to enjoy. I also know nothing about these guys other than that they’re from Seattle and that I originally assumed they were a band from Eastern Europe/Latvia/Russia—not just because of the “Ivan and Aloysha” name, but but because the majority of music my dad recommends comes from the other side of the pond. For real, if you want good European or Eastern Hemisphere music rec’s, talk to my dad. He knows it all.
The I Thought This Was a 2012 Album Album
Sin Fang, Flowers
I feel like Chad and Willsconsin listened to and talked about this album so much that it should belong in the 2012 batch of things. But nay, nay. Sin Fang (Sindri Már Sigfússon) is the second Icelandic artist on my 2013 list, and rightfully so. This is another album I don’t have that much to say in terms of how or why I liked it, whether or not it made me stop my car in a busy traffic area to give the track my full attention, etc. It’s more or less a “good clean fun” record, one to turn to when you’re not quite sure what you want to listen to, but want something a little different, a little familiar.
The I Still Get Chills When I Hear It Today Album
The Naked and Famous, In Rolling Waves
One of the main reasons I had such a hard time narrowing my 2013 picks to 10 albums is because of The Naked and Famous. The second I heard “Hearts Like Ours” was the second I fell in love with these New Zealanders. I love the feeling I get when I listen to this album—every last second of it. I love playing it loudly and jumping and head-banging around the house, the office, the car. It makes my skin tingle, it gives me chills; it gives me what I call “a sense of the feeling of nostalgia” (Chad’s word is “expansive”). I don’t mean I remember specific things or places when listening to The Naked and Famous, but I do get the feeling I would get were I remembering specifics from the past. And I love it. I love the nebulous, ambiguous past every one of these tracks brings up into my mind and body. I love the melancholy, the energy, the definitiveness every lyric and note has to offer. I love the juvenile whining some songs carry, like “The Mess,” which on the surface is a mutually “I told you so, jerk” breakup song, but underneath it all carries such adult tensions that it makes me want to smash things—safe things, like lemons or apples. I will see The Naked and Famous in concert one day. I will see them and I will rock out until I am woogy and numb from happiness and dancing. It has been years upon years since I can remember an album making me feel this way, an album that I enjoy with every cell in my body. In Rolling Waves is an album to be listened to any time, anywhere. Jesus I love these guys. I even love the video for Hearts Like Ours, which I totally don’t get.
1 We all know this is a dirty lie and that I would write FOREVER if I could and if it paid me in fine coffees and parmesan cheeses.
2 I don’t care what you say—I could be the absolute worst reader of Nathanael West ever to walk the earth, I could have missed every point or theme or allusion or reference or other finer literary nuance, but it doesn’t, nor will it ever, change the fact that I hated this book.
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .
Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .