Music

PopMatters Picks: The Best Music of 2013

The general consensus on 2013 is that it has been a banner year for music, one boasting a broader and deeper selection of standout performances across genres and generations than many a year in recent memory.

The general consensus on 2013 is that it has been a banner year for music, one boasting a broader and deeper selection of standout performances across genres and generations than many a year in recent memory. It was a year when the usual best-of suspects, from Neko Case to the Knife, could still surprise us with return engagements even more compelling than expected, while youth was being served with new artists like Lorde and John Newman coming on the scene sounding wise beyond their years. It was a year that could've been 1993 as easily as 2013 in a good way, with Yo La Tengo, Medicine, Kathleen Hanna, among many others, turning back the clock to their heydays, matched by new indie bands like Speedy Ortiz and Potty Mouth coming up with their own takes on flashback sounds. It was a year when those in their prime like Vampire Weekend and the National got so comfy there that it was almost easy to take them for granted, especially when so many talked-up newcomers from HAIM to Chvrches, Disclosure to Savages showed they could walk the walk. And it was a year when the boundaries between musical subcultures continued to be blurred and subverted, be it Deafheaven's dream-poppy black metal, John Wizards' polyglot world music-indie hybrid, or Caitlin Rose's version of an alt-Americana crossover.

And yet, in a year when acclaimed and heretofore unknown acts alike offered so much, it could feel like the music itself wasn't enough any more, often overshadowed by the hype and gimmickry that are supposed to get you to notice it. In 2013, you might've thought that a record release was about everything but the album itself, becoming an event, a spectacle, with what should be the focus of all the hoopla being only a small part of a bigger package. It sometimes seemed that too much of the oxygen about music in 2013 was sucked up by promotion and personality, with so much attention drawn by outsized publicity schemes that sought to one-up the last elaborate album launch that came before it.

Granted, some of these stunts did impress with their audacious creativity and for creating a sense of mystique for the artists they were touting, be it Daft Punk's brand-building teasers introducing Random Access Memories to the world or Kanye West projecting the "New Slaves" video on the sides of buildings worldwide in anticipation of (the leak of) Yeezus. Even underground faves got in on the act, whether intentionally, like when Boards of Canada debuted Tomorrow's Harvest with a virtual scavenger hunt that led up to a Mojave Desert listening party, or unintentionally, as My Bloody Valentine crashed the internet to make you wait just a little longer for its 22-years-in-the-making Loveless follow-up, m b v. Then there was the massive, ever-building rollout for Reflektor that confirmed that Arcade Fire had embraced being both a big-statement and a big-ticket rock band, which included guerrilla signage everywhere, a post-SNL infomercial, and a nationally broadcast radio performance from the roof of the Capitol Records building intended to unveil the new album.

Sure, these performers delivered music that more or less lived up the myths they were making for themselves, but the marketing junkets couldn't help but get out of hand and in the way of the music -- and we're not even talking about Justin Timberlake jumping the shark with a second 20/20 Experience or Drake setting up pop-up shops toasting the release of Nothing Was the Same or Katy Perry's golden 18-wheeler cruising the freeways announcing Prism. In particular, signals got crossed for West and Arcade Fire, artists who traded too much on the credit accruing to them as capital-A artists who are both popular and critically respected: You could argue that neither Yeezus nor Reflektor could be as fully absorbed as their previous works because the constant barrage of promotion and gossipy tidbits led people to make judgments on them before really listening to them, underselling the music by overexposing everything else. In some sense, they stepped on the point their music was trying to make with all the static around these new efforts, with Kanye beefing with anyone and everyone over leather track pants and Arcade Fire pushing a dressy dress code for their upcoming arena tour.

Suffusing more and more aspects of our everyday lives, music apps and social networking have only cranked up the hype machine at an ever accelerating pace: In and of itself, the way that the medium has increasingly become the message isn't exactly a brand new phenomenon, but the degree to which the online-oriented social experience of music has impacted and even altered our relationship with the art form seems unprecedented with each trending platform and as the ones (we think) we're familiar with develop new uses. With an information overload aided and abetted by technology, the way business is done has changed and, with it, so have listening habits: At this point, an album is past its expiration date by the time it hits the virtual shelves, with exclusive streams and file-sharing leaks, strategic or unplanned, making release schedules feel perfunctory and obsolete. It's as if an album is old news by the day of release, as you've already moved on to sampling tomorrow's music today.

But to revisit the premise we started with, you could look at the new normal from a glass-full perspective, that all the music that we have too much access to is precisely the product of structural conditions that encourage creativity from the bottom up and open up distribution networks that only continue to expand. Certainly, there has to be a more mutually beneficial give-and-take between respecting intellectual property, as the likes of Thom Yorke and David Lowery have been fighting for, and having everything literally at your fingertip on your Spotify app, but YouTube and Soundcloud, leaks and file sharing interfaces aren't just about making it easier to consume music at the expense of artists' livelihoods, but might also be considered as platforms that are bringing about not just more music, but more possibilities that we haven't even considered yet. As evidenced by the healthy number of the year's best received hip-hop releases circulating for free online, widely distributed mixtapes, for instance, offer a format that's growing more and more vital, allowing artists to short-circuit an unwieldy label system. Not so different is the way some of indie rock's most intriguing new acts have been using Bandcamp to ply their wares, going DIY in the digital age before signing on with an imprint -- if they do at all. Even the hype, when done right, can bring about greater -- and unpredictable -- connections between artists and fans, not to mention between fans and other fans.

In turn, perhaps a more constructive way to come to terms with our ever shortening attention spans is that they're the result of there being so much good music coming from so many quarters available in so many ways this year that a handful of albums couldn't monopolize our interest in 2013. Instead, it just might be that it's harder and harder to reach a consensus, and thank goodness for that. Our PopMatters year-end coverage and all the-behind-the-scenes work that went into it reflect that: Many a genre list included little overlap in the votes made by the staff, with debate abounding, while some albums deemed among the best of 2013 also ended up on our list of most disappointing offerings. All in all, though, the uptake from our discussion of the year-in-music should be that music didn't -- and couldn't -- get lost in all the noise, no matter how much of it there was. And that speaks volumes about 2013.

-- Arnold Pan, PopMatters Music Editor

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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