As the year draws to a close, music fans will inevitably be flooded with a bevy of best-of lists far and wide that will likely ring with very different accolades, but potentially over very similar releases.
It’s only natural. Given that everything from the biggest unit-shifting albums to the smaller, obscure records inhabit the same digital sphere, and are only ever a few clicks away from a full listen; it makes sense that large herds of listeners will flock towards the same quality releases.
But this list isn’t about those albums – as great and deserving as the majority of them may be.
There’s just as many records here as there are reasons that they slipped the limelight.
Some simply didn’t have the big marketing budgets of your Daft Punks and QOTSAs to hold the music world hostage, others just found themselves overshadowed by the same blockbuster releases (pity anyone trying to get a word in during the week Lorde and Haim released their debuts). Some, just misunderstood, overlooked, or slipped under the radar.
Whatever the case, there’s a stack of great music here just waiting to be discovered and explored.
Zeahorse – Pools (HUB The Label)
Are you missing that unique sense of satisfaction from your life that only swampy rock riffs and the rattle of distortion-abused amps can provide?
Well then, whether you simply need more of it, or worse, never experienced it; you need to introduce yourself to the debut LP from Sydney’s Zeahorse, by way of its opening, ‘Career’ which soon detain the corners of your mouth with a sly grin and your ears with a new fix.
With stoner rock riffs to burn Pools’ 36-ish minutes keeps the quality bar very high even as it keeps its ambitions and complexity very low.
But even though they operate on the same Americanised modes as other sallow rock outfits content to recycle the best of the 90s’ guitar rock golden era, Zeahorse isn’t so easily dismissed.
For example, it might peddle the well-trodden Pixies-via-Nirvana quiet/loud trick but ‘Familiar Faeces’ is not the same old shit.
Its grunge symptoms – like the rest of the album’s – are filtered through a vaguely hypnotic haze that oozes from lolling tempos and Morgan Anthony’s brooding drawl.
These same shadowy dynamics also lend themselves well to surges of energy, on the serrated ‘Onion’ and ‘Tugboat’s piston punches, or ditched entirely – as on the bonkers banjo fuzz of ‘Junktown Train’.
Pools also takes a crafty segue in its final tracks, fusing the aggravated with the ascendant, on the extended ‘Kathie’s Makeover’ (complete with twit ranting about nail glamour) and simmering yet spectral ‘Pesto’
Zeahorse have been touted as ones to watch long before Pools rolled around, but it’s always nice when a band with buzz not only validates expectations, but exceeds them. (Al Newstead)
Deafheaven – Sunbather (Deathwish Records)
OK, I can understand why this gem may have slipped many listeners by. Replete with incomprehensible, screamed vocals and furious double-kick drumming, Deafheaven’s is not a sound that’s easily accessible.
So if you simply cannot stand metal, hardcore, or similarly heavy styles of music, then perhaps continue to disregard this record. However, if you are an open-minded auditor, able to appreciate beautiful music of any genre, please give this album the chance it so richly deserves!
Released in June, Sunbather is the San Franciscan group’s sophomore LP and stands head and shoulders above their 2011 debut Roads To Judah, as it does when compared to most 2013 releases of any genre. There is an incredible depth to the album, which works best when considered as one continual piece, allowing all of its sonic and emotional movements to wash over you.
If the tags ‘black-metal,’ ‘post-hardcore’ and ‘heavy shoegaze’ put you off, take comfort in the fact that Sunbather doesn’t fit neatly into any of these categories, nor any other for that matter.
In fact, I urge you: throw out all preconceptions and give yourself over to this truly moving work of art and you won’t be disappointed. (Will Van de Pol)
Deap Vally – Sistrionix (Island Records)
You might have seen Deap Vally at this year’s Splendour in the Grass. Lucky you. The rock ‘n’ roll duo have become renowned for their explosive live shows, and if you ever have a chance to see them in a more intimate venue – preferably somewhere grimy and smoky, where whiskey is the drink of choice – make sure you go.
Then buy their debut album. Sistrionix is bursting with squealing riffs, generous use of the kick drum, and don’t-give-a-fuck lyrics. (Except for one track, ‘End of the World’, in which peace and love are espoused against a backdrop of menacing guitar.)
Deap Vally aren’t trying to be clever or groundbreaking; frequent comparisons to The White Stripes are well-founded. They’re just out to make fun, defiant, bluesy rock, and to do it better than pretty much everyone else with the same idea. At this, they whole-heartedly succeed. (Frances Vinall)
Young Dreams – Between Places (Modular)
It may be the release of Cut Copy’s Free Your Mind this month that’s been pegged as Modular’s ‘Album of the Summer’, but it’s actually a release from back in March during the dawn of Autumn that needs to be dethroned to earn that accolade.
There’s a beautiful irony too that the dreamiest summertime soundtrack imaginable came from a pack of Norwegians.
Mixing electronic craft and ingenuity with an unbridled passion for pop’s gleeful spectrum – all vibrant melodies and Beach Boys harmonies – Young Dreams’ debut is positively beaming with energy and imagination. Sure, iTunes will file them under ‘Pop’, but there’s so much more to Young Dreams than that.
Rather than succumb to its saccharine tendencies, Between Places forgoes any sunny sacred cows, including radio-friendly economy – most tracks average five-six minutes in length (while ‘The Girl That Taught Me To Drink And Fight’ is a stunning 11 minute epic), but the extra wriggle room allows for some grand moments.
Sampled, symphonic flourishes brighten every corner of ‘Wounded Hearts Forever’; ‘First Days of Something’ warms like a sunbeam, dappled with darting guitars and calypso rhythms, while ‘When Kisses Are Salty’ occupies that same rare, pastoral territory that XTC grazed in the mid-70s, albeit it re-imagined by Animal Collective.
Considering this confident collection is Young Dreams’ debut album, the thought of what kind of future summer soundtracks they might conjure is exciting, until then Between Places will more than do the job. (Al Newstead)
Torres -Torres (Self-released)
The decision to recommend this Nashville singer-songwriter’s exquisite self-titled debut was easy given her next to nothing exposure here in Australia.
Even still, the few positive reviews that Mackenzie Scott, under the alias Torres, received from international publications like Pitchfork or Pretty Much Amazing does little to justify just how brilliant this raw and poignant release is.
First discovered through this live performance of album cut ‘Jealousy And I’ – which sounds strikingly similar on record – around the time of the self-titled’s January release Torres leans exclusively on her electric guitar to emit a restrained yet vulnerable depiction of her introspection.
Elsewhere on ‘Mother Earth, Father God’ and highlight ‘Moon & Back’ the 22 year-old takes that same sentimentality and surrounds it with southern blues textures.
However as ‘Chains’ and ‘November Baby’ reiterate, at the core of Torres is a deeply intimate and cathartic form of storytelling that you can connect to.
Be that as it may this album can only be so powerful if you give it the necessary time for it to latch onto you. Which is probably the major factor in its status as an underappreciated and underrated gem of 2013. (Corey Tonkin)
Los Campesinos! – No Blues (Wichita / Turnstile)
I can’t help but think that Los Campesinos! are severely underrated, especially in Australia.
They finally had the opportunity to tour the country as part of Harvest Festival last year, but the release of the Brit’s fifth album was received with very little fanfare and recognition here. For the uninitiated, Los Campesinos! are a six-piece indie pop/rock/punk band that make catchy, layered and infectious music with an array of instruments, and No Blues, is a bloody fantastic album.
It’s constantly interesting, swapping between soothing acoustic pop almost immediately to screamed and highly energetic punk rock. ‘Avocado, Baby’ is the centre-piece, displaying everything that is so damn good about the band, combining catchy, simple and irresistible melodies with inventive and witty lyrics, including the brilliant line of “A heart of stone / Rind so tough it’s crazy / That’s why they call me the avocado”.
Hopefully they’ll return to our shores soon, this album is more than good enough to tour the world on. (Denham Sadler)
Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Perils From The Sea (Caldo Verde Records)
If your heart is prone to breaking, you may want to skip over this collection of narrative-based songs that are minimal in execution, maximal in devastatingly emotional impact.
Mark Kozelek’s lyrics, filled with everyday minutiae yet delivered with poetic grace in gentle, persistent husky tones that heave with worldly experience, remain as potent as they have in his tenures with Red House Painters to Sun Kil Moon. The striking difference however, is the musical backing; the dour plucking of the troubadour’s nylon string guitar replaced by the unfussy drum machines and beautifully spare keys of Jimmy LaValle (aka The Album Leaf).
The change in sonic scenery breathes new life into Kozelek’s musical world, and rather than distract (as singer-songwriter purists might fret) instead perfectly frames and supports his poignant homespun tales of love, life, and loss.
It makes the singer’s writerly prose all the more pointed in stories of unrequited love (‘Caroline’), befriending a Mexican immigrant over a failed residential development (‘Gustavo’), and the world’s most romantic murder ballad (‘You Missed My Heart’).
Across all the globe-trotting narratives (and there are more cities name-checked in these songs than a Lonely Planet guide), Perils From The Sea gravitates around the stark, universal truths it conjures. That these bold, sentimental epiphanies often arrive in the middle of a stream-of-consciousness style makes their impact all the more devastating, their details lingering like a cracked tear at the corner of your eye.
Against church organ arpeggios, ‘Ceiling Gazing’ finds Kozelek’s jet-lagged mind wandering from the passing of his grandfather to his sister’s “rough divorce”. It’s a similarly winding road of introspection on the 10-minute stretch of the closing ‘Somehow the Wonder Of Life Still Prevails’. But even as its narrator closely recounts the tragic deaths of close friends in plain but powerful poetics, it manages – like the rest of the album – to balance tragedy with triumph.
If Perils From The Sea only turns out to be a one-off in the bodies of work of the musicians that made it, they can be proud in knowing that they crafted such a rare, intimate artefact. (Al Newstead)
Mikal Cronin –MCII (Merge)
Mikal Cronin has been shamefully overlooked (or worse, at times blatantly ignored) due to the world’s spotlight beaming on his counterpart Ty Segall. However, Cronin’s sophomore solo release has catapulted the bassist from Segall’s shadowy garage and into his well-earned bourgeoning stardom.
Cronin’s instrumental endowment is the linchpin to MCII, spanning from scuzzy garage trips to personal bittersweet ballads. The San Fran Man recorded almost every sound pressed to this fine piece of wax, much like the classic manoeuvre of Billy Corgan circa Siamese Dream.
MCII is your classic broken heart-inspired record to which Cronin bares no fear in revealing his inner torment of separation as he begrudgingly moves forward. Poetic gems such as: “faith is just a lover I don’t own/ love is just an answer I don’t know” are laced with melancholic confessions that theme the album.
The climatic closer to the record, ‘Piano Mantra’ is the perfect polarisation of Cronin’s sound and lyric. The track plays a shadowy progression of nostalgic keys and grieving strings that could rest on any given Bad Seeds record. Cronin sees the light and makes his mark with a kick into a garage inspired blur of fuzz as his voice wistfully cracks “now overdrawn, I’m coming back home/ sink my roots and I’ll be gold/ the open arms are giving me hope”.
What makes MCII second to none is Cronin’s ability to articulate genuine feeling into a multitude of platforms musically and lyrically. It’s blatant that Cronin has dripped every piece of himself into this forward thinking release.
MCII belongs nowhere but the top of 2013’s list. (Joseph Harris)
Teeth Of The Sea – Master (Rocket Recordings)
Teeth Of The Sea’s list of influences reads like a landmine-fuelled field for the musically conservative.
It ranges from Goblin, Liars, Slayer, Throbbing Gristle and Slayer through spanning genres from ambient to industrial, neo-classical, kraut, and psychedelia.
That the quartet manage to actually sound like the synthesis of that highbrow mix and not blow off the proverbial limb in the process is Master’s greatest achievement.
Predominantly instrumental (save a few snatches of spoken word), Teeth Of The Sea regularly chart the kind of sonic journeys that have awestruck music journos reaching for genre-mashing shorthand or ‘band x band =’ comparisons (guilty as charged, strap in).
The lengthy ‘Reaper’ and ‘Black Strategy’ sound like Kraftwerk as if reverse-engineered by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Dictated by sleek, mechanical tones and motorik pulses welded to the building grandiosity that is post-rock’s primary vocabulary.
Other unpredictable turns include ‘Siren Spectre’, a Tangerine Dream blanket of dated synths and soundscapes until muted trumpets peal through the atmosphere, and ‘Pleiades Underground / Inexorable Master’, where leering metal guitar browbeats glistening descending bells astride gothic piano.
In the 10-minute epic closer ‘Responder’, it’s clear that these are musicians that are not only voracious listeners but equally insatiable students of their craft.
Well, they were, as well, as their cockily titled third album clearly telegraphs, they’re now ready to show off their collective skill. (Al Newstead)
School Of Night –School Of Night (Transgressive/Minus Green Records)
Certain records change your life and yes, a lot of people say that about a lot of things. But there are few seconds in the span of existence that aren’t entirely about your own perception of yourself and they usually leave you awestruck.
These moments usually happen for me because of music, and this year one of them was thanks to School Of Night.
The solo project of Antlers member Darby Cicci is a near-perfect debut that manages to both sonically stretch the mind and drip like honey in your insides.
One thing the producer does well in his solo endeavour that was never quite accomplished in his primary musical focus, it to make seductive love songs.
(In ‘Fire Escape – which must be listened to with eyes closed – Cicci’s haunting vocals and layered instrumentation allow the song to sound exactly how sentimental make-up sex feels.)
If you like your ambient-pop clean and shiny though, this one might not be for you. As fantastic as the record is, it sounds like a home job and doesn’t reek of perfection production wise, but that’s all part of its personable, DIY charm.
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to have someone write a piece of music for you, School Of Night will evoke the feeling of first hearing something intended for you for the first time. If you haven’t had that fortune yet, well… pretend Cicci’s singing for you. (Esther Semo)
Yeo – Sell Out (Self-Released)
Whether you’ve just picked up on this Melbourne music maverick’s ace new jam ‘Girl’ or never heard of the one-man DIY pop machine, you really it owe it to yourself to investigate Sell Out.
As that title suggests, this 13-track collection is both a humorous pat to Yeo’s unapologetic tilt towards mainstream styles and techniques (chain compression, ahoy!) but also a seriously smart culmination of the 25-year-old’s multi-tasking skills as a songwriter and producer across three bedroom-honed releases.
It’s written all over the playful way he charmingly fuses the playful with the polished so effortlessly, cherry-picking all manner of genres along the way.
Lashing jazz with plastic funk (opening duet ‘Art Of A Ghost’, ‘Bottom Of The 9th), tender soultronica balladry (‘Burden’, ‘Jacob’s Ladder’), widescreen electro (‘Covered In Gold’, ‘Expedit’) and even a biting rap-rock indictment of the music industry (‘Like I Don’t Already Know’) – Yeo throws himself many curveballs and smashes each out of the park with songs that are as sonically engaging as the stories they tale.
In an alternate history, this kind of distinctive fizzing neo-pop would top the charts and see Yeo rubbing shoulders with Prince or Pharrell… but maybe it’s just a matter of time. (Al Newstead)
Nat Baldwin –Dome Branches: The MVP Demos (Western Vinyl)
After the faultless release of his acid-jazz covers of Arthur Russell classics, Dirty Projectors’ bassist Nat Baldwin released his second solo effort: this time a work of originals.
His jazz-roots are clear, and he hasn’t let go of them, but Baldwin seems less afraid of living in the shadow of the band that made him famous even inviting Dave Longstrethon as a producer and collaborator on some of the tracks.
Don’t get me wrong though, this isn’t just a Dirty Projectors redux, Dome Branches serves as a welcome and justified reminder that experimentation and innovation aren’t dead, and never will be.
Also, handclaps are mega cool. (Esther Semo)
Ainslie Wills – You Go Your Way, I’ll Go Mine (Self-Released)
If patience is a virtue, then Ainslie Wills is a saint.
It’s been a near half decade journey to her debut album and even those that have traced her journey year by year, song by promising song, couldn’t really have predicted what a beautifully rendered release You Go Your Way, I’ll Go Mine would be.
Though recorded during a winter spell on the Mornington Peninsula, the lush production and gorgeous arrangements belie its homespun creation. One listen to the elegant ‘Satellite’ or the mercurial ‘Ocean’ is proof of that.
But more striking even than the verdant framework is what it’s pillowing: Wills’ velvety, dynamic singing.
As expressive with a drifting, enduring melody as Jeff Buckley or Regina Spektor when she’s flaunting, but also as economically emotive as Thom Yorke when she’s restrained.
A talented writer and guitarist to boot, Wills’ obvious aptitudes are enhanced by creative foil, Lawrence Folvig, who co-wrote half the record and whose measured, inventive guitar is a consistent supportive highlight throughout.
Together, they draw the lovingly haunted (‘Mary’, ‘Lemon Japan’) and the brassy (‘Fighting Kind’) with consistently full dimensions.
Put simply, this is one of the most criminally underrated local releases of the year. (Al Newstead)
Little Scout – Are You Life (Little Scout Music)
The fact that dreamy indie-pop is now as common as a sniffle in Sweden makes Little Scout’s sophomore release, Are You Life, all the more impressive.
The band’s strength lies in timing. Most dream-pop proprietors often overplay the ‘breezy’ element, leading to a nice sounding but ultimately yawn-inducing spin. Little Scout execute with deftness and never overplay the hook, making it a much more cohesive and constantly surprising listen.
As such, the album works better as a collective listen as each song is as engaging as the last. Still, for straight-up accessibility, don’t go past the summery, stinkin’ hot bitumen vibes of ‘Flash In A Pan’. ‘March Over To Me’ also trots out in a similar vein. Yum.
Along with this excellent release, Little Scout is also heavily involved in promoting music and community engagement, making them the single best thing to ever come out of Queensland. Quite easily. (Paul Bonadio)
Adam Green & Binki Shapiro – Adam Green & Binki Shapiro (Rounder)
It’s strikes me as weird that while a huge proportion of music is about romantic love, which by definition has to involve more than one person, it’s almost never a vocally collaborative effort.
Because of that, the often-dreaded ‘relationship album’ can come across indulgent and one-sided.
On their first collaborative effort, Adam “I’m medium serious” Green of The Mouldy Peaches and Binki Shapiro, the VERY under-utilized third of Little Joy, make music to get sympathetic about.
Replete with ‘60s boy-girl harmonies and retro-aesthetics to boot, the duo draw a clear distinction between summoning nostalgia and succumbing to reductive tendencies, and cement themselves firmly on the right side of that line.
Unlike failed attempts at throwback mid-century pop that have ended up sounding overly saccharine and cheesy (see: She & Him), Shapiro and Green’s release manages to avoid that by providing something that most love songs struggle to: painfully unabashed sincerity.
Ultimately this is an album of conversations; those had between brokenhearted friends, ex lovers, and the important kind you have with yourself. You get the sense that this record truly was cathartic for the two exceptionally talented musicians, and as a result, it ends up providing the same sort of musical therapy for the listener.
Wonderfully and truthfully punctuated, here is a record of the most heartfelt kind that deserves to be listened to, because ardency is nothing to sneeze at. (Esther Semo)