ACL 2013: The Top 20 Albums of the Year

A Closer Look!Over the course of the past year, we received thousands of albums and EPs to pore over, review and discuss.  Out of these, we reviewed approximately 500.  In this feature, we answer the Big Question: Which releases were the best?

The list below demonstrates the incredible variety of the music we cover.  In addition to orchestra and organ, you’ll encounter sample and spoken word, laptop and live performance.  You’ll read about an album featuring Turkish musicians and another inspired by a Garden of Monsters.  One is a score; another is a crossover hit.

We are grateful to every artist and label who continues to make music.  We feel a rush of anticipation whenever a new album or EP comes in.  These 20 albums stood out in a crowded year.  We hope that you’ll love them as well!

And now, in order of preference, A Closer Listen presents its Top 20 Albums of the Year.

1) Tim Hecker ~ Virgins (Kranky)
Virgins is an album of multitudes. It revels in the diversity of its sound types, bursting at every moment with the energy of a collapse, with the intensity of a sunlight that erases everything it touches.  It develops ever-so-slowly with a strength only achievable by a dying star. If it is a ‘theological’ album, then its purpose is reflective.  The elevation of organ tones into the heights signals the opening of the divine, allowing a sudden glimpse of the wholeness it comprises, a sudden mystical reflection of the subtle noise that grants an understanding of a world divided. Its ‘virginal’ qualities speak not of purity, but of the majestic impossibility of such a totality.  The album addresses the manner in which created sound carries a multitude of meanings.  It cannot help but reproduce itself as miracle, as self-extension, as a linguistic attempt to give everything a name, a place, an interwoven existence in which there is little space for things untouched by divine intent. Whether one believes or not is irrelevant: this album speaks of so many things, of so many moments, of so much love for the sounds it generates, no one who hears it will remain indifferent. (David Murrieta)

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2) Wrekmeister Harmonies ~ You’ve Always Meant So Much to Me (Thrill Jockey)
From the near-white, glacial artwork, to the violins and harp, through the epically slow ascension to the singular, cathartic climax, this album transforms the roots of  black metal and advances it somewhere new. While J.R. Robinson recruited some of the best in the business for this black opus, there is wide appeal in listening to this one-track album unfold. During all the sonic textures and the slow lifting of limbs that build this track up from its fungal beginnings, it’s clear that a big, explosive finish is going to arrive. And, no matter how many times we listen, it still gives us goosebumps! At nearly forty minutes, this is a gorgeous demonstration of tension and release as well as modern composition–one that must be taken in full. (Nayt Keane)

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3) EUS ~ Sol Levit (Contradicta)
Whether it’s his masterful use of harmonies or his programmatic/conceptual approach to making music, EUS will appeal to all fans of drone and similar experimental styles. Sol Levit provides as many thick, physically-imposing projections as moments of meditation, delving into ‘atmospherics’ at a level in which the mind cannot entirely grasp what is going on.  The mind struggles to impose a narrative form, to make sense of something that is in principle non-sensical. The beauty of the album resides in this contradiction, as an experience of something deeply within, awakened by music that is meant to describe nothing. “Levitate in solitude”, the liner notes say, suggesting a conceptual minimalization born of the urge to rid oneself of extraneous things in order to come to terms with the real. These collages shed layer upon layer of sound, revealing an essential silence underneath. (David Murrieta)

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4) Eluvium ~ Nightmare Ending (Temporary Residence)
Eluvium’s return did not disappoint: Nightmare Ending is an ambient blockbuster. Matthew Cooper’s emotionally-charged ambient project has all the weighty drones, beautiful swells and tranquil melodies, wrapped up in a double album. The looped piano of ‘Don’t Get Any Closer’, abiding in its major key, sets the musical tone. Running towards paradise, the music endures the rainy weather on the way to its beautiful haven. As the rain falls in Oregon, the rainy mood masks itself as a light guitar strum or an electronic loop. Nightmare Ending was highly anticipated, which for any other musician could’ve been its undoing. It was long in the making, but this only testifies to Cooper’s adoration and ambient expertise. ‘Covered In Writing’ is emotionally propulsive, igniting the soul’s flame. There are tears inside the kaleidoscope. Matthew Cooper pushes through the storm of negativity, the struggle, at full throttle, until he casts it aside, making it through to the other side and giving us hope that we, too, can pull ourselves out of the nightmare. While comparisons to his classic ‘Copia’ are close to the truth, Nightmare Ending tops it, taking its throne – it is his defining masterpiece. The piano pieces aren’t mere interludes – they take their place alongside the longer ambient movements. Chimes glow in the distant Pacific mist. Love pours out of the music; it is a labour of love. We made it out. The nightmare has ended.  (James Catchpole)

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5) Petrels ~ Onkalo (Denovali)
We pop Petrels in the Drone category at ACL which is a bit like describing Dylan as a folk singer; accurate to a certain extent but missing the bigger picture. Sure, there are drone passages on Onkalo but this is an album that sounds much more composed, and is all the more powerful for it. Certainly, this music is almost physically overwhelming at times, such is the intensity of the sound, but it is balanced with moments of delicacy and reflection, such as the two parts of “Trim Tab”. The combination of tribal drumming and choral singing that illuminates “On The Dark Great Sea” provides another contrast to the otherwise tenebrous tone of the album, which is inspired by the nuclear waste containment facility under construction in Finland. The subject of the documentary Into Eternity, the Onkalo repository is designed to protect the waste for 100,000 years; an unfeasibly long period of time. The weight of the unknown future bears down upon those responsible for designing it, expressly to prevent our descendants unwittingly opening the site up, and it’s this sense of scale that seems to dominate Petrels’ music, for the only word to describe Onkalo is immense. (Jeremy Bye)

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6) Daniel Bjarnason ~ Over Light Earth (Bedroom Community)
It was always going to be a monumental task for Daniel Bjarnason to follow up his debut, Processions. A lesser musician might have taken the easy way out, sticking to the same formula on his sophomore effort out of fear of not getting the same response. Not Bjarnason, who with Over Light Earth has extended his repertoire in the rightest of directions. While Processions went straight for the kill, Over Light Earth takes the scenic route, building tension slowly and releasing it even more slowly. In a way, it’s a more complete album, one that cements Bedroom Community’s status as the home of today’s most forward thinking contemporary classical music.  (Mohammed Ashraf)

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7) Human Pyramids ~ Planet Shhh! (Oxide Tones)
This is what post rock has been waiting for: an album that pumps us up and stays happy from start to finish. Planet Shhh! is more than a salve that soothes a burn; it’s a rainbow band-aid, a raspberry lemonade in a canoe, the vacation with endless surfing and a beach-side strut full of hope. UK-based mastermind Paul Russell gathered a big band together, wow they hit every mark with jubilance and supreme musicianship. Big drums, punk rock guitars, sun dappled arpeggios, choirs, horns, melodica, glockenspiel and picture perfect production make for an irrresistable life-affirming experience. Every track is an ace up your summer mix tape’s sleeve, and we highly encourage playing it in winter, as well! (Nayt Keane)

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8) Clorinde ~ The Gardens of Bomarzo (Self-released)
Italian-born Londoners Clorinde have taken their inimitable ‘avant-folk’ sound honed over two prior releases and set it free to roam through this sprawling concept album spanning two discs. Transported to the titular gardens, created in the 16th century by an Italian duke, the listener is guided through its many statues both abstract and grotesque. The first disc presents Clorinde’s renowned union of obscure stringed and percussive instruments, including citterns, dulcimers and kalimbas, to more traditional post-rock fare, calling to mind images as anachronistic as a troubadour with a loop pedal. The songs are intricately constructed and tightly controlled in length and development, with crescendos often limited to a braying guitar chord sustained with liberated abandon over the metronomic mutter of the supporting cast. The more internalised second disc offers moodier pieces in which atmosphere predominates, with acoustic guitars more prominent and percussion less so. Tracks such as “Glaucus” and “The Nymph” seem to portray the mind of the gardens’ recently widowed creator, from melancholy to anguish. As with the statues, the songs’ moods and titles offer just enough to make the listener feel that deeper meaning is within their grasp, but perhaps all we need to know of musical motive is that carved into one of the statues: ‘just to set the heart free’. (Chris Redfearn)

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9) Dan Friel ~ Total Folklore (Thrill Jockey)
If there is one 2013 album that has blown me away on every listen, Total Folklore is it. My first impression was that it sounded like an extension of Oneohtrix Point Never‘s  Returnal or Fuck Button‘s Street Horrrsing.  Over time, it has shown itself to be a completely different beast. Pleasant pop hooks surface from beneath a near deafening amount of indecipherable analogue noise and hiss to form an eerily enjoyable and intense album. In a better world, Dan Friel would be heralded as a pop music genius.  While this won’t be happening here anytime soon, he can find solace in that fact that he is unmatched in what he does; Total Folklore is a stroke of genius!  (Mohammed Ashraf)

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10) Matana Roberts ~ Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile (Constellation)
A mix of fleet-footed jazz, spoken word and operatic vocals, Mississippi Moonchile is the dazzling second instalment of Matana Roberts’ 12-part Coin Coin cycle. Inspired by her grandmother – the moonchile of the title – this album is a tour de force, distilling decades of jazz music into a single piece, a process Roberts likens to making a quilt. As with Chapter One (Gens de Couleur Libres), the spoken word passages are devastatingly powerful descriptions of the life of an African American woman in the southern United States, in this instance post-slavery but no less moving for all that. In contrast to the full-on big band assault of the previous outing however, Roberts has assembled a crack quintet of New York musicians who can seemingly play any style thrown at them, changing direction on a dime. Restrained at times, they can play up a storm when required; the combination of Roberts’ sax and Jason Palmer’s trumpet interweave to breath-taking effect. This is not merely one of the best albums of the year, it’s a singularly important document for this generation – listen to it, study it, treasure it, be inspired by it. (Jeremy Bye)

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11) Forest Swords ~ Engravings (Tri Angle Records)
Hip hop beats given the dub treatment with pitched vocal samples and memorable synth hooks might not exactly be mainstream, but it’s certainly more accessible than most of what we cover here at ACL.  Still, when it’s done this well we take notice.  Matt Barnes’ Forest Swords hasn’t shattered the mold, but he’s certainly raised the bar with this one. Not content to ride out a steady beat, Engravings’ surface traces a complex map of grooves.  Though his tunes are meticulously crafted and well-arranged, he’s unafraid of throwing in weird ambient breaks or disruptive codas that would leave lesser producers fumbling.  He’s also able to take the most minimal elements – a short vocal sample, a brief piano riff- and spit out a grade-A pop tune. Barnes draws on a wide variety of samples, even including liberal doses of guitar, crafting national anthems to countries that don’t exist, but that you’ll want to revisit again and again.  (Joseph Sannicandro)

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12) Secret Pyramid ~ Movements of Night (Students of Decay)
Few drone albums make such a strong impression on the first listen, let alone continue to unfold over time with repeat listens.  It is a special skill to create complexity this subtle, deceptively simple aural interactions rich with emotional weight.  These gently drifting compositions are like the soundtrack to a lonely walk through foggy streets.  No surprise that Amir Abbey hails from Canada’s rainiest city, though Secret Pyramid deserves more than the tired clichés of melancholic drone.   Cassette can be a really beautiful format for ambient-drone, with a rich mid-range and gentle high-end, but on his debut LP Abbey takes advantage of the dynamic range afforded by vinyl. Though the compositions themselves tend to drift along, the harmonics and textures convey emotion in a way that tired swells and crescendos can’t match.  (Joseph Sannicandro)

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13) Barn Owl ~ V (Thrill Jockey)
Barn Owl’s fifth album sees the ambient US duo delve into more textural composition with the addition of electronics and more refined integration of percussion. V presents a palpably less desolate sound that broadens its perspective from the panoramas of sandy wastelands presented in Lost in the Glare. This time, Barn Owl look down for a more studied examination of the earth’s constantly shifting surface, searching for signs of extant life amidst vacuity. These usually emerge as rhythms resounding far below – heartbeats of microscopic organisms or echoes of distant beings on the move. In opener “Void Redux”, a gentle bass synth undulates with the rise and fall of sand dunes but is then joined by the persistent pluck of guitar string and click of percussion – suggesting the more immediate and scuttling presence of life. With the addition of synths to their guitar-based sound, the duo also raise their gaze to the stars, offering an at times otherworldly view as chilling and dark as the night sky over a desert. Key to this broadened perspective is that the gaze is forever on the move, roving with the changing timbres and atmospheres but not in search of anything, merely content to observe and absorb. V strays close to being the musical equivalent of H. P. Lovecraft, presenting something familiar but porous, leaking traces of the unknown and the awesome. (Chris Redfearn)

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14) r+ (rotor plus) ~ dust (The Radiophonics Trading Company of New Zealand)
If a baby had listened to the first album of r+’s trilogy when it was released, that baby would now be a teenager.  Such is the distance traveled from the futuristic glitch of alleron to the elegant orchestrations of dust.  Those who listen to all three works in a row may say to themselves, what a long, strange trip it’s been.  And yet, it’s also been a good one, tracing the promise of future music from the very first days of the 21st century through today.  In one sense, dust is a requiem; in another, it’s a statement of belief.  New music comes and goes, but great ideas endure, and rotor plus has produced an epic trilogy of lasting quality.  (Richard Allen)

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15) Esmerine ~ Dalmak (Constellation)
The ever-evolving Esmerine delighted with a fourth LP not long in the wake of 2011’s La Lechuza. The now expanded line-up took inspiration from a temporary residency in Istanbul, and the city’s influence looms large, casting a richly woven pall over proceedings. A meditative atmosphere prevails across the nine tracks, most of which were recorded in Istanbul itself in collaboration with four local musicians. Eastern instruments such as the darbuka and saz add an exotic layer over the stalwart marimba and cello (plus the additions the extra members bring). Even at its most pulsating and layered, however, as in the intoxicating groove of “Barn Board Fire”, the composition is disciplined and the production spacious – somehow drawing from the many the band’s singular sense of minimalism; it is this controlled assimilation of such myriad and diverse instruments that begets the album’s richness and allure. As implied by the middle track, “Hayale Dalmak”, to listen to it is truly to fall into glorious daydream. Where to next, Esmerine? (Chris Redfearn)

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16) Pausal ~ Sky Margin (Own Records)
Harold Budd doesn’t like the term ambient music, favouring ‘lovely music’, particularly in reference to his own work. But he’d find himself in good company with Pausal the, erm, ambient duo of Alex Smalley and Simon Bainton, who have made some of the year’s loveliest music in the shape of Sky Margin. This is music that positively glows and sparkles, every note and tone bursting forth with a rich glow of heart-warmth – luminescent was a key word in our review and it’s too apt not to recycle here. Sky Margin is one of those rare moments where everything clicks together beautifully; Smalley and Bainton have both released fine albums this year (Olan Mill’s Hiraeth and Bainton’s Visiting Tides) and Own Records have released a startlingly good string of albums. But this is the peak for all concerned in 2013. Lovely.  (Jeremy Bye)

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17) Ruhe ~ Organs/Easing (Unknown Tone/Cotton Goods)
Organs and Easing are fine ambient gems. The former consists of organ (surprise!) and tape experiments, recorded on his beloved 1949 Hammond organ before they said their farewells and parted company. The music has that lovely vintage tone, cathedral-deep, looped to oblivion and back. The light oscillation of the tape and her imperfect crackle breeds the lost artefacts of nostalgia, bringing with it those long departed days that the sunshine left behind. A choir of ancient angels sing the words, ‘I never saw the sea’, but entrenched deeply is the faded stone of memory. The rich tone helps the music to remember its distant past, returning to the mind as if it were a spell of déjà vu, splashing along the shore of a joyful childhood. Easing is a lighter sheet of ambience that takes its time to brew. At times, the music is gritted with an ever-increasing distortion, but it still manages to sail along serenely. Cooler textures come from within, making the music incredibly warm and alive. It’s music that you won’t want to leave behind.  (James Catchpole)

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18) Public Service Broadcasting ~ Inform Educate Entertain (Self-released)
On paper, Inform-Educate-Entertain could have ended up being a case of “Jack of all trades, master of none”. In reality, it turned out to be one of the most beautifully realised, ambitious debuts in recent memory. A blend of almost everything we cover here in ACL done so well makes this one of the most difficult albums to pigeonhole. The songwriting and composition are excellent and the musicianship and sample choices are second to none. The set is memorable from start to finish, with every track unravelling yet another amazing facet of this duo’s abilities.Whether or not making a career out of albums built around archival samples will bear more fruit is to be seen, but for now, we should bask in its goodness. My biggest regret of 2013? Missing seeing these guys live on three occasions.  (Mohammed Ashraf)

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19) Botany ~ Lava Diviner (Truestory) (Western Vinyl)
Beats and samples didn’t die in the 90’s, folks. Although Spencer Stevenson’s Botany has many musical touchstones linking it to the sounds of early blissed-out electro-acoustic pioneers like Caribou and Four Tet, the tracks are modernized with big and delightful beats. Voices mutate rhythmically while an array of bells, whistles, chimes, woodblocks and other elements maintain a cheery atmosphere. Even if none of the samples’ origins jump out, the entire album feels like a cinematic journey somewhere in our own past. Teebs’ music is very similar, but where his tracks can really be arranged in any order, Lava Diviner (Truestory) behaves as a much more cohesive album from start to finish. (Nayt Keane)

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20)  Jayne Amara Ross, Frédéric Oberland and Gaspar Claus ~ The Freemartin Calf (Gizeh)
FareWell Poetry and its relatives fulfill the promise of early 2000’s GY!BE. “What promise?” one might ask.  The music is an instrumental extension of the tragedy of living in the end times, a clear sliver of light against a backdrop of shifting darkness. The Freemartin Calf is a multi-media project: a record and a movie, a poem and a performance.  It grows out of the chamber music disposition of its predecessors by pushing it further against the fringe of what most expect post-rock (and its chamber variation) to sound like, underlining it with electronics and overlaying it with spoken-word sections that thread the music into a dark, chaotic pulse of vitality. Every element of post-rock is still present, but it is made new, noisier, and more extreme, perhaps reflecting a stranger, more deceitful vision of the world. With The Freemartin Calf and its peers, we can see a ‘mature’ post-rock, all grown-up into formidable music, proof that the genre is very much alive. (David Murrieta) 

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4 comments

  1. Gianmarco

    Thank you all for all you hard work and dedication and for providing such a comprehensive overview of the year in music!

  2. Andrey

    You are great!

  3. After a year abroad without internet, i just bought 13 out of 20 of this albums. Thanks so much for summing things up so greatly !

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