[2 January 2014]
Most of the albums on this list are unexpected.
That’s not to suggest that they aren’t great, or from acts that are themselves quite great. It’s just that these picks would hardly have registered had you pointed them out to me a year ago. Some are debut records, records from bands whose names I’ve known for mere months or less. Others, reunion efforts, comeback releases from bands I’d long since assumed broken up or inactive. Others, new releases from bands I’d not have imagined releasing an album that could reasonably be categorized as noise-rock in 2013.
So if 2013 has been the year of the comeback—My Bloody Valentine, David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, and Daft Punk, to name several of the most distinguished—so has it been a remarkable 12 months for breakout bands with the confidence and swagger of acts twice their age and many times their prestige. Several of them pepper this list; far more go unmentioned.
Finally, honorable mention nods go out to Hunters’ Hunters, Crime & the City Solution‘s American Twilight, and Speedy Ortiz‘s Major Arcana—quality LPs that, for reasons of limited space or reluctant genre constraints, do not appear on the list below.
Baltimore’s Roomrunner supposedly carries a bit of a gripe regarding gratuitous Nirvana comparisons, but Bleach-y guitar tone and occasional quiet-loud dynamic aside, it’s a bit of a ruse. Singer Denny Bowen’s vocals bear no echoes of Kurt’s self-loathing seriousness; Ideal Cities is all snotty delivery and garage-fuzz riffs that lumber in and out of tune (“Bowlth” is about as easy to mimic as its title is to pronounce) and explode in tightly wound bursts of squealing feedback (“Wojtek”). None of which is to underplay the poppiness that’s at the core of the record. Ideal Cities’ nine tracks are curt, closely trimmed noise-pop nuggets that may well have been delivered in 1993, 2003, or 2013—needless evidence that noisiness need not necessitate self-indulgence.
In the hands of Pissed Jeans vocalist Matt Korvette, everything becomes so terribly, frighteningly urgent. Choosing a health plan, for instance: “You wanna know my secret? / I stay away from doctors!” he yowls on the aptly titled “Health Plan”. Or tedious manual labor, as on “Chain Worker”, which finds Korvette violently groaning out the plight of one such laborer who is “caught in an infinite loop / Like a compact disc.” Or playing dress-up: “It takes a disguise to reveal the real me,” the singer shouts on “Vain in Costume”. In conclusion, Honeys is the fourth and latest noise tantrum from the band that brought you “Caught Licking Leather” and “Human Upskirt”. You’ll like it if you liked the last few.
Recorded at home over a year’s span between January 2012 and January 2013, No Forever / I’m Ready Darling is the first full-length (or fullest length—it’s a curt 33 minutes) by House Party, the joining of Razor Edwards and siblings Tim and Jeff Rovinelli. They describe their work as having been “inspired by mutual love of auto castration and top 40 hits.” I can’t (and won’t) top that, so here’s a brief overview of what lays in store: (1) a muted, twitchy mumble of an electro-pop opener; (2) a thundering, near-satanic reimagining of Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” that will make you despise the Perri track if you’re fond of it or convert you wholeheartedly if you detest it; (3) a 15-minute blast of industrial cacophony marked by repeated screams of “I am scum! I am scum!”; (4) a humming ambient respite from the violence; and (5) two more minutes of squalling electronic feedback. Anyway, happy holidays.
I saw Iceage twice in 2013 (once in a college frathouse, once at Brooklyn’s Northside Festival), and each time I was thrown off by the quartet’s charmingly pubescent appearance. Four boyish, clean-shaven pals from Iceland made this racket? They did, and on You’re Nothing, there’s a youthful exuberance matching the band’s appearance and well suited to the songs’ messy aggression. Fuller and richer than the group’s 2011 debut New Brigade, You’re Nothing packs an impressive amount of sweat and passion into a mere 28-minute runtime, reaching screeching melodic peaks on the thundering “Morals” (practically an epic at three minutes, 20 seconds, this one finds singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt snarling “Where’s your morals?” repeatedly) and the closing “You’re Nothing”.
Sort of fitting that Yvette appears on this list alongside Polvo, considering the Brooklyn outfit’s full-length debut sounds a bit like the latter group’s ‘90s records if you chopped Ash Bowie’s riffs into jagged, terrifyingly precise splices, hired a member of Stomp to drum thunderously over the recordings, and overdubbed a few fire alarms into the mix for the hell of it. All of which is to say Yvette—a two-piece whose first album was produced by Godmode Records founder Nick Sylvester—present noise-rock that, even at its most screechingly cacophonous, is still tightly, even frighteningly, controlled, element-by-element. Recommended if you like Pere Ubu, early Liars, or perusing a hellishly industrial factory while new wave albums breathe aggressively into your headphones.
5My Bloody Valentine
The most astounding thing about m b v, of course, is simply that it exists—that a single promise proved true and more than two decades of false starts, myth-filled turmoil, and tortured perfectionism on Kevin Shields’ part came to fruition. My Bloody Valentine‘s audience and critical profile has, of course, increased massively in intervening years (enough in fact to bring down the band’s website for a full night), but the basic aesthetic that defined shoegaze in 1991 has remained remarkably consistent, even if m b v trades some of Loveless‘s dreaminess for rough-around-the-edges aggression. Simply hear the crushing closing trifecta—“In Another Way”, “Nothing Is”, “Wonder 2”—and the naked debt they owe to Shields’ one-time stint in Primal Scream. It’s neither, ultimately, a flawless masterpiece nor a disappointment, but a full-bodied and satisfying yowl from the void of inactivity.
Four years is a long time to wait between records with hardly an update, release, or even much touring to account for it, so you’d be forgiven for having given up or assumed, as I did, that 2009’s fantastic In Prism was some sort of odd fluke or one-time-only gift from the void. It wasn’t. Polvo, the Chapel Hill band that made its bones with fiercely intricate would-be classics Today’s Active Lifestyles and Celebrate the New Dark Ages, returned in October with Siberia, which combines In Prism‘s languorous psychedelic mood pieces with slight hints of Shapes’ eclectic turns: a fluttery acoustic number here (“Old Maps”), a genuine synth solo there (“Light, Raking”), and what even sounds like a clanging drum machine on album closer “Anchoress”. Ash Bowie’s guitar work has mellowed since the crushing hysterics of, say, “Stinger (Five Wigs)” and “Fractured (Like Chandeliers)”, but his knack for melody has only emboldened since Prism‘s dreamy latter half, highlighted here by the lengthy “The Water Wheel” and driving “Some Songs”.
3The Flaming Lips
Cut from the same damaged cloth as 2009’s Embryonic, The Terror is even more despairing a statement—possibly in response to the dissolution of Wayne Coyne’s marriage, the relapse of Steven Drozd’s heroin addiction, or both. In ways, it hearkens back to 1997’s Zaireeka more than anything you’ll find in the Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi decade—which is to say it is dark, sinister, and noisy, but it never quite rocks, at least not in the manner of “The W.A.N.D.” or “Turn It On”. Sure, “Look… The Sun Is Rising” and “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die” have their grooves, but a sense of panic overwhelms, the guitars buzz like saws (or PIL), and the album is ripe with plodding, dread-filled numbers like the desperate title track and eerily searching “You Are Alone”. If Yoshimi is where the Lips solidified their status as string-coated critical darlings, The Terror—just over a decade later—is where they pack up the furry animal costumes for good and crawl back into pop’s foggy underground.
It probably seems a little disingenuous to include this record here, considering its gorgeous, three-minute opening cut, “Open the Door”, sounds like a lost Crosby, Stills & Nash track misplaced sometime in 1974. And it’s not even such an outlier—the rest of New Moon, though admittedly much noisier, partakes in the same pastoral, sun-baked ‘70s vibes, running the gamut from yearning roots-rock (“The Seeds”) to pulsing guitar aggression (“Supermoon”). You can almost take New Moon as a warning: don’t go strumming around campfires in upstate New York, kids, or you’ll end with an album as hippie-fried as this one. Or you can catch the hints that have peppered the Men‘s previous LPs (three in three years—three shouts for productivity) and embrace New Moon‘s firm sense of self as an antidote to Open Your Heart‘s minor identity crisis. Really, by the time you make it to “I Saw Her Face”, the band’s stirring Crazy Horse tribute of a side-closer, you won’t have a choice.
Who are Savages and where did they come from? I mean, I know who they are—a London four-piece whose hype in the critical sphere far preceded the release of Silence Yourself, their debut, last spring—but why now? Why here? What did we do to deserve this record?
Silence Yourself is a product of 2013, but it’s not tied so tightly to any fleeting or current genre trends. The jagged-edge guitar squalls and asserting bass presence bear the proud marks of the ‘80s post-punk revolution. The blistering, overdriven production and remarkably forceful vocals from Jehnny Beth—shrieks, moans, and all—call to mind riot grrrl at its creative peak. (I can’t be the only one to have immediately thought of The Woods on my first listen.) Mostly, though, Silence Yourself could be from any year. From start to finish, its 11 tracks contain the intensity that’s at the core of literally any powerful rock record: those hiccupping shrieks that form the chorus of “Husbands”, the ghosts of guitar echoes that pad out “I Am Here”‘s steady atmospherics, the squalling instrumental chaos that is “Hit Me”. It’s searing, powerful stuff—a record that could have arrived any year, but could only have been recorded by Savages.