Today, we bring you part two of an annual poll among our DJs that we like to call the “Best Music No One Told You to Listen to” in the last year. You can click here to find part one.
Music Editor, Host of Biology of the Blog, co-host of Music Digest.
1. It’s Up to Emma – Scout Niblett [Drag City]
DJ Margaret wasn’t the only DJ who gave the 40-year-old songwriter props for her gaunt yet stunningly accessible (for her) It’s Up to Emma. But don’t call it a ‘break through’… No pun intended.
“I’ve loved Scout Niblett for a long time now. She has an incredible voice and a very steady, impressive career,” writes Margaret. “This album is a powerful release, touching upon the stages of grief, while also recognizing the duplicity of any situation. Its undercurrent theme is the idea of strength in often confusing situations muddled by emotion. Perfect break up album.”
2. Indiogoism – The Underachievers [Self-released]
What happens when one guy in your crew drops the best sleeper hit of 2012? Your next record probably is going to end up on our list this year. “Loose members of the Brooklyn Beast Collective that gained so much notoriety when Joey Bada$$’s 1999 came out,” writes the Top of the Dome DJ. “This album, which comes from rappers AK and Issa Gold, showcases druggy psychedelic rap with intelligent lyrics and fucking awesome beats. This is definitely one of my favorite rap albums of the year.”
3. Half Way Home – Angel Olsen [Bathetic]
Angel Olsen’s debut cassette, Strange Cacti is as sterling and warped as an introduction can get, marking one of the few times since the ‘cassette tape revival’ an artist has been able to transcend the medium. Meanwhile, Half Way Home shows her talent shines even through polished Pro Tools sessions, leaving nothing to be obfuscated even through the lush and pristinely recorded arrangements.
“Can’t say enough good things about this album and Angel Olsen,” writes Margaret. “Her voice, full of twang and expression, is chilling, haunting, and beautiful.”
4. Pat Waggy – North Dakota [Self-Released]
If you’ve never heard of North Dakota, start paying attention. Should 2014 carry the same air of rawk revivalism as this year did, then expect to see this trio top ‘Break Out Artist’ lists in twelve months. Shortly before releasing Pat Waggy, it looked like North Dakota was about to go on hiatus, losing instrumentalist Michelle Blades to the lure of an expatriate existence in Paris, France. Luckily, growing hype for the group allowed their debut to see a warm reception on release.
“This is probably the most fun album I’ve come across this year,” writes Margaret. “North Dakota became a band one night when they were all just goofing around playing music together. Their antics on stage and off have followed suit – they switch instruments between sets and have invited strangers off the street into their practice space to play and get inspired. Basically, I really just wish I could be part of their friend group.”
You can read more about this band on #TuneUp.
5. Cruise Your Illusion – Milk Music [Fat Possum]
“Randomly stumbled upon this band when they opened up for Merchandise. They, hands down, stole the show,” says Margaret, proving once again that there’s one sure fire way to succeed in music: Blow the headlining act out of the water. Though while not outright trying to defy every convention of rock and roll, Cruise Your Illusion documents a band walking the delicate balancing act of sounding unique and familiar all at once, with second helpings of charisma to help the recipe go down smoothly.
As DJ Margaret describes them, “Not quite hard enough to be straight-forward punk, not quite melodic enough to be classic or psych rock. This is a new sound. The band offers a modern take on nostalgic sounds with fuzzy feedback, churning guitars, raw vocal melodies, and great grooves.”
Host of In the Den, the Synapse, Dapper Fitting Drinking Hour, and The Music Digest
1. Cassette – Viet Cong [Self-released]
Hi-end stratocasters, jumping bass lines, and the occasional minimal synth lead accentuate Viet Cong’s brand of power pop, leaving Cassette sounding like the child of Big Star’s Radio City crossed with ETC’s Black Sea. Beyonce may have reinvented the album release this year through her ‘innovative’ out-of-nowhere social media strategy, but the tactic is hardly foreign to the zilch-hype, cassette label indie act. “
Viet Cong released Cassette with no announcement and zero promotion, which boggles my mind because rock music of this caliber deserves the ears of every rock and roll fan on planet Earth,” writes Latola.
2. This Hopeful – Zula [Inflated Records]
“I’ve seen Zula play at least six different shows over the past year (always with a completely different setlist) and gotten goosebumps from each experience,” says the senior BTR DJ. Luckily, the attention to detail paid to crafting their latest release, This Hopeful, managed to maintain the energy of the quartet’s captivating stage presence while allowing for healthy doses of studio trickery. The tremolo guitars and broad soundscapes give the LP an atmosphere strangely reminiscent of Radiohead’s The Bends, if it was performed by younger, more spastic musicians.
You can catch Zula on BTR Live Studio here.
3. Yuppies – Yuppies [Dull Tools]
Yes, the name is meant to be ironic. It’s a little difficult imagining how the band could succeed otherwise, though the tour-de-force of deadpan delivered curt spurts of spoken word, decorated in spastic swells, and hairpin creative turns would find an audience among freaks of any stripe.
“It’s the only record I’ve ever heard that reminds me of the energy, focus, and balls found on the first Liars LP,” writes Latola. One would assume fans of Deerhoof’s ADHD masterpiece The Runner’s Four, The Modern Lovers, and Captain Beefheart would also feel right home with Yuppies in their headphones.
4. meadow:watt – KILN [Ghostly International]
Perhaps more than any other ‘ambient’ album this year, KILN’s meadow:watt genuinely evoked memorable tracks and hooks out of the least melodic elements of the genre. The record bounces and grooves with the best of hip-hop and dance music released this year, yet doesn’t contain a singular hummable phrase. For DJ Latola, such music can serve a multitude of purposes and occasions. “It’s as if a warmth radiates from meadow:watt,” he says. “Like how a lighthouse must have looked to whalers back in the 18th century.”
5. Criminal Hygiene – Criminal Hygiene [Self-released]
Apparently in the world of crowdfunding, there will be a sequel to the film SLC Punk titled “Punk’s Dead”. If that’s true, then don’t tell this vowel-challenged, capital-L Loud punk outfit — the cream of the crop among the misfits of the Small Smile Records scene who somehow call the bright lights and sunny boulevards of Los Angeles home.
The contradiction could not matter less to DJ Latola, who writes how their self-titled record makes for “A perfect example of a tight power trio playing a flavor of rock music that simply isn’t fashionable at press time.”
BTR Editorial Intern
1. White Poppy – White Poppy [Not Not Fun Records]
Crystal Dorval, the one-woman show from British Columbia, has released her most realized and lush-sounding release to date. The self-titled album weaves a dream around the listener with seemingly endless psychedelic layers and textures. The songs border on the paradox between dense beyond reason and light enough to float. It’s ethereal, and most importantly emotionally invested; steeped in some of the songwriter’s own struggles with mental illness. Working remotely at a Canadian castle for the next few months, it will be interesting to see what this sweet and eccentric girl dreams up for 2014.
2. The Streets of Baltimore – The Del McCoury Band [Sugar Hill]
Del McCoury celebrates sixty years of making good ole fashioned bluegrass since the early days he first cut his teeth on the music playing clubs around the city. The band includes his two sons Ronnie and Rob, who play mandolin and banjo respectively. Even if you didn’t know it, the warm intimacy on this recording shines through. It’s a great mix of old and new, with plenty of hat tips to classics, new-grass originals, and a tight band of musicians that understand both tasteful restraint and when to really let it loose.
3. Out of View – The History of Apple Pie [Marshall Teller]
Only a couple of years ago they were a bedroom pop project, now the Brit shoegazers are churning out catchy and well crafted singles that manage to be equal parts pretty and noisy. At the center of the group is a charming romance between guitarist Jerome Watson and vocalist Stephanie Minn, the former supplying a variety of sounds culled from his custom built pedal board while the singer’s voice floats over the mix.
4. Victim of Love – Charles Bradley [Daptone Records]
Overwhelming sincerity, sweat, and tears that you can almost taste in every love-drenched song, this is surely the soul event of 2013. Victim of Love picks up right where 2012’s career revitalizing No Time for Dreaming left off, hardly skipping a beat in the one-time James Brown impersonator’s inspiring climb to the top. Bradley’s voice effortlessly crackles with an electrical blues current that would make Otis Redding smile.
5. Dusk to Dawn – Emancipator [LOCI Records]
A laid-back, trip-hop offering that skirts being mere background music. The transitions from samples to live instrumentation are so fluid that they can glide right past you if not listening carefully. Emancipator, otherwise known as Doug Appling, has this down to a science. Some of the violin solos contributed by Ilya Goldberg are breathtaking.
BTR Editorial Intern
1. Weird Sister – Joanna Gruesome [Slumberland]
True to their ingenious band name, definitely the finest of 2013, Joanna Gruesome makes “indie-pop on speed and opiates, the energy here could shatter car windows,” writes BTR’s #TuneUp correspondent. Lots of youth, hooks, and hardcore drum beats, the lead singer Alanna emphatically screams, yells, stomps and croons, to the point where you can feel the vocal cords in her neck tightening to breaking point.
2. The Rusty Guns – The Rusty Guns [Self-released]
Who says banjos and gang vocals are mainstream? When courting The Rusty Guns’ brand of folk rock in your headphones, leave your Mumford & Sons-dulled preconceptions of the genre at the door. “A sexy blend of White Stripes rock and Old Crow Medicine Show sensibility, the album is just good ol’ foot-stomping fun,” writes Jess. “Fantastic banjo and harmonica work – take some shots of whiskey and check out Chain Gang, I dare you to stand still!”
3. Pythons – Surfer Blood [Warner Bros.]
If you’re surprised that the trendy blog favorites of yesteryear even put out a record this year, don’t worry, so were we. Which is a shame since Pythons made good on every promise laid out by 2010’s buzz-worthy Astro Coast while bearing the hefty baggage of being the band’s major label debut.
“They’re not re-inventing the indie-rock wheel, but their hooks are catchy as hell. Beach Boy harmonies and intricate arrangements smooth talk their way into your head,” says Jess. “You can almost hear those gentle waves in songs like ‘Demon Dance’, sure to have you singing ‘la di da di da/ba dum dum da di’ for hours on end.”
4. Feast/Beast – Clark [Warp Records]
Chris Clark may be the hardest working man in ambient music, with six albums to his name since 2006, his latest is his first double-LP — a format very much in the cultural vogue of 2013, and one not many other artists in the genre thought to attempt. “This is a marathon, not a sprint,” cautions Jess. “Clocking in at 29 tracks, this album solemnly aggfrandizes the art of the re-mix. A texturally complex journey through contrasting sounds and styles, be sure to check out the Bibio remix of Absence, because it’s magic.”
5. Life in the Midwater – Aisha Burns [Western Vinyl]
Aisha Burns is not your brainy older sister’s acoustic chanteuse. Life in the Midwater shows the sometime instrumentalist for Texas-based BTR Discovery Artist Balmorhea stretching her stylistic powers without sounding like a hapless genre-jumper. The stark arrangements keep Midwater, or its auteur, from stretching too far beyond the emotional punch that stand-outs like “Shelly” and “Requiem”. Or as Jess describes her, “A conscious lyricist with this kind of range and technique is rare and quite stunning. Her powerful voice will pull you through love, loss, madness, and redemption.”
Managing Editor and co-host of Restricted Audience Required
1. Just Movement – Robert DeLong [Glassnote Records]
The would-be pop charter may have a sponsorship gig from Budweiser, but that doesn’t mean Just Movement was made with only commercial sleekness in mind. Had anyone bothered to pay attention in the first place, we might be talking about this record along side Random Access Memories as one of the most infectious and meticulously crafted moments in pop this year. “Lyrically speaking, the album is really emotional, beginning immediately with introversion and escapism. But the beats carry on into elaborate electronica and yields a sonic symphony,” writes DJ Dillon. “DeLong’s appel lies in how he can hook your body while your mind is occupied.”
2. Ghost Boy – Sanders Bohlke [Communicating Vessels]
“Sanders Bohlke was someone I told everyone about the moment I heard his album,” writes DJ Dillon. The former folky hasn’t quite traded in his acoustic guitar for flat out ethereal synth pop, or at least just yet. Ghost Boy brims with the later while peppered by the former. “The texture of his voice and the rhythms lull and captivate you until longer after the album has finished,” says Dillon. “Definitely one I kept on repeat for a while.”
3. Limits of Desire – Small Black
“I have to give a shout out to a local band that make great music true to itself, despite the fact they are from Brooklyn,” writes DJ Dillon. Chillwave as a genre may be a bad inside joke for the Portlandia crowd but its flagship acts are proving they still have lots to say, whether the internet could care or not.
“I’ve been a sucker for albums like Limits of Desire since I heard the Drive soundtrack,” says the co-host of BTR’s movie podcast, Restricted Audience Required. “But what is rewarding with Small Black is they don’t try to beat you over the head with their themes.”
4. Bye Bye 17 – Har Mar Superstar
Sean Matthew Tillman, a.k.a. Har Mar Superstar, sure can groove. The Ron Jeremy doppelganger fills Bye Bye 17 that can took the Eli “Paperboy” Reeds of the world to school. As far as stand-out tracks go for DJ Dillon, “‘Lady, You Shot Me’ in particular is indicative of his talent as a songwriter, and now, as a big-band leader.”
5. Glacier – Teen Daze
“Teen Daze manages to capitalize on a really friendly approach to painting elaborate scenes with synthesizers and soft poignant lyrics that I feel like you can very naturally replace with your own experience. It is the malleability of Teen Daze that surprised me and keeps me coming back for more,” writes DJ Dillon. True to its album title and band name, Teen Daze’s latest is a youthful ode to coping with mountainous emotions with equally overwhelming textures.
Matthew DeMello Editorial Director and co-host of Third Eye Weekly
1. In Focus? – Shugo Tokumaru — In Focus? [Polyvinyl]
“A Japanese Sufjan Stevens-style pop composer who is obsessed with Pet Sounds? What’s not to love?” Asks our humble Editorial Director. The question mark in the title for In Focus? is well deserved, as the record is at once as hyperactive as the theme song to an anime epic, as intricate as a tapestry, and as beautiful as a pastoral. “I’m a sucker for anything with one foot planted in a familiar past,” writes DeMello. “Which here, means near-psychadelic chamber 60s pop, and another foot in something else entirely.”
2. Pearl Mystic – Hookworms [Gringo Records]
As DeMello has written for BTR in the past, 2013 might be to the psych revival what 2003 was to garage rock. “So I guess that would make Hookworms my Hives? Pearl Mystic doubles down on velvet-y jams wrapped in howling ‘90s shoegaze and brit-pop reverb chambers.” True to that description, Pearl Mystic sounds like it was made with equal parts of U2’s Achtung Baby, the Stone Roses’ debut, and the Stooges’ Fun House in mind. The formula can be broken down without too much ease from the seasoned listener, but the one-of-a-kind chemistry between these elements helps this UK outfit take a determined step outside of outright retromania.
3. Lava Diviner (Truestory) Botany [Western Vinyl]
From Texas producer Spencer Stephenson comes these gentle yet engrossing electronica tracks, seamlessly flowing into one another so the listener stays swathed in mellowed bliss for the entire album. Chiming synth and quirky tricks add texture without being overwhelming, while a lulling beat keeps your pulse going despite the relaxing coma you slip into.
“For a while there, Shigeto was in the lead, once again, for my favorite electronica record of this year,” writes DeMello. “And then I heard this super. crunchy. shit. I mean, just look at Stephenson’s monicker. This album has ‘stoners’ delight’ written all over it.”
4. Images du Futur – Suuns [Secretly Canadian]
Mixed reviews mired Images du Futur’s release, and admittedly, it does take a few listens to sink your teeth into. Nevertheless, outstanding tracks like “2020” and “Mirror Mirror” made numerous appearances on BTR’s premier weekly news and culture podcast, Third Eye Weekly, which DeMello serves as both co-host and musical curator for.
“Suuns get my vote for the year in terms of ingenuity and inventiveness,” writes DeMello. “So many bands lose touch with their sense of voice and songwriting while trying to reinvent the wheel, since it’s always easier to just move with accepted form.” Suuns don’t sacrifice much from trying to do both at once, and the listener can reap the pay off in spades on Images du Futur. “They should just be willing to be patient,” advises our Editorial Director.
5. Ilp. – Kwes. [Warp Records]
Warp Records tends not to be the domain of unabashed hit-makers or even hit-seekers, but artists like Kwes are a rare exception. As DeMello puts it, “The longer I work here, the more I gain an appreciation for a this special would-be pop chart toppers. They may not be on the Top 40 but from the sounds of it, they wouldn’t mind if they were.”
True to the indie-mainstream paradigm, there’s still interesting rough edges — for Kwes, that means compelling song construction, subjects that trail from pop’s beaten path, and furtive nods to B.U.R.I.A.L.
DJ Wynn Host of DJ Wynn BTR on Mondays and the Worldwide Hour
(Editor’s Note: Since DJ Wynn sent us such lengthy and thoughtful descriptions for his choices this year, it feels disrespectful to try to whittle them down and muddle his prose with even the best synopses of our humble staff writers. With that in mind, the descriptions below come directly from DJ Wynn and we thank him for the time and effort he put into this list.)
1. Spaces – Nils Frahm
“As you get older it’s hard to find time to listen to music. Not playing it in the background while cleaning the bathroom or using it to pass the time on public transit, but really listening to it with your undivided attention. Nils Frahm’s Spaces deserves this. Frahm has culled together two years worth of live performances (keeping audience coughs and applause) and presents an audio diary of his compositions within different spaces. I can tell you that piano and synthesizer sounds are involved and that Frahm might be this generation’s Philip Glass, but any other kind of descriptions would diminish the power and inventiveness of Spaces.”
2. Flowers – Sin Fang
“The Flowers LP is brought to you by Sindri Mar Sigfusson, Sigur Ros producer Alex Somers, and Iceland. All are mysteries to me, but the indie pop spirit and plethora of jangles and twinkles are all familiar. Some songs encourage shouting along (‘Young Boys’ and ‘Sunbeam’), while others (‘Feel See’ and ‘Catcher’) envelop you in what reviewer Laurence Day calls ‘the freedom of youth.’ My favorite is the album closer “Weird Heart,” which starts off with a locomotive kick drum, but loses steam midway and changes to a tempo made for cloud watching on a soft patch of grass (yet another thing that is hard to find time for as you get older).”
3. Floating Coffin – Thee Oh Sees
“Three things you need to know about Thee Oh Sees and Floating Coffin: 1. It was written and recorded together by the band (frontman John Dwyer has stated that usually he brings songs that everybody forms around); 2. Dwyer has described the songs as occurring “in the mindset of a world that’s perpetually war-ridden;” and 3. shit has been known to go down at their shows, including (but not limited to) deepthroating the mic while singing and lobbing insults at the sound guy for texting during the performance. You could never repackage a Thee Oh Sees experience into an album, but Floating Coffin takes an admirable stab at it.”
4. Who is William Onyeabor – William Onyeabor
“Having a reissued album on this list might be cheating, but I’m still gonna do it. William Onyeabor is a Nigerian enigma who self-released 8 albums between 1978 and 1985. Not only was he ahead of the DIY curve, but he crafted synthesized funk gems that decryed war and preached love. Search for “Heaven and Hell” and get entangled in the myth.”
5. Cold Spring Fault Less Youth – Mount Kimbie
“This album is Mount Kimbie’s first release on Warp Records (a label with immaculate taste) and it fits into their roster perfectly. New touches to Mount Kimbie’s electro vignettes include live instrumentation, King Krule’s filthy delivery (that’s a good thing) and Dominic Maker and Kai Campos adding their own voices to the mix. This is a classic example of a can’t-wait-to-see-what-they-do-next album.”