Every year, a few great albums slip through the cracks. That’s sad but inevitable — you just can’t hear ’em all, especially when more than 75,000 albums are released every year. But musicians get exposed to a lot of music that the rest of us don’t. So we asked some of our favorite Talkhouse writers to tell us about a great, overlooked album that came out in 2013. Here’s what they came up with.
— Michael Azerrad, Talkhouse editor-in-chief
Devendra Banhardt — Mala
Mala is my musical surprise of last year. It came to me via YouTube one fateful day, when a wormhole led me to a live video of Devendra Banhart playing “Never Seen Such Good Things,” the lead single from Mala, during a solo performance. I was a bit shocked, yet drawn in, by his new makeover. He was no longer the hairy, shirtless “freak” I remembered from my teens. Anyway, I had really lost touch with his career over the years, and this song was so good that I almost thought it was a cover, because if it was a new song that he had written, then surely there’d be a new album, and if there was a new album, then surely I would have heard about it, right? Wrong. There was a new album! I just hadn’t heard anything via word of mouth, which surprised me, because once I found my way inside of Mala, I stayed there, and am in fact still there. But where are all my friends?! The door is wide open, so come check it out, you can always leave if you don’t like it. Mala, his eight album, is effortlessly cool, seductive, and calm, but still carries its own electricity. Something that holds its own both in the background, and on my headphones, which is rare. For the movie of my life in which I am the lead role, Devendra Banhart, whom I had lost long ago, reappeared on screen in 2013, bearing Mala.
— Kevin Morby (The Babies, Woods)
Kelela — Cut 4 Me
The first time I heard this album I felt it. You know it, right? That thing that music is supposed to make you feel, which is something emotive. As I have said before, nothing is more insulting to a musician than when someone says what you created made them feel nothing, like it’s wind through one ear and out the other. Nothing about Los Angeles-based Kelela’s mixtape Cut 4 Me (available for free here) flew through my brain unnoticed. This album challenges the traditions of r&b while seeping in the angelic trance of gospel vocals. The woman can sing. Sometimes she’s cooing love moments and other phrases translate like an angry voicemail left with conviction and ending with a “fuck-you” slam. Cut 4 Me sounds like nothing else I heard this year, and every time I replay it, I discover another nuanced and totally rich move between the beat.
— Mish Way (White Lung)
Matt Kivel — Double Exposure
Olde English Spelling Bee is a label I’ve come to trust over the past few years — they’ve put out amazing albums from Autre Ne Veut, Rangers and Julian Lynch to name a few, but this first album from Matt Kivel might be my favourite of their output yet. The songs are rarely more than just Matt’s delayed acoustic guitar and his voice, but while so many similarly set-up songwriters collapse in on their lonely selves, the songs on Double Exposure always seem emphatically outward-looking and way more than the sum of their beautiful parts.
— Gareth David (Los Campesinos!)
Joachim Kühn Trio — Voodoo Sense
At nearly 70 years of age Joachim Kuhn plays the piano with as much freshness and vibrancy as ever. He continues to find new inspiration and sound palettes, evoking an enticing brew out of the piano that is a mix of a classic Euro jazz sensibility mixed with his love of the freedom inherent in free jazz — and on this album, because of the heavy Afro drum element, they do the voodoo also. Kühn’s improvisations are beguiling and masterful koans of logic/illogic, with the playful spirit of someone who is a master but who rediscovers the instrument every time he sits down at it. An unconventional trio with Ramon Lopez on drums and Majid Bekkas on djembe, kalimba and vocals, they reach their apotheosis on “Kulu Sé Mama,” a remake of the Juno Lewis tune from the Coltrane album of the same name. Iconic saxophonist Archie Shepp guests on a few cuts, as well as some other percussionists and vocalists. Everyone sounds inspired on this life-affirming record.
— Matthew Shipp
Matana Roberts — Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile
This fall I was lying in bed, on a sunny morning, one of those luxurious days of lying and reading, an especially significant day because I knew I was going to finish this long-ass novel that I had been reading, the second part of a massive fictional memoir by this Norwegian man named Karl Ove Knausgård. I made my coffee, plugged the computer into the stereo, and scrolled through the days of digitized music. I wasn’t familiar with everything on there, as a friend had just transferred some music onto my hard drive, and I was very anxious to go sip my coffee in bed and finish this book, and I put on someone named Matana Roberts, for no other reason than her name sounded unobtrusive and easy to tune out. I started reading, tuning her the fuck out, trying to finish this novel, this “Proustian” tiptoe into one’s memory, and increasingly I had to put the book to my chest and let the music do what it wanted to do, which was to grab my attention. And soon, to quote myself on that day, “I was almost writhing in bed, in an apotheosized rapture of appreciation for both the novel and the music; I had to forcibly tune the music out at points, and at points I had to stop reading and drink it in with me ears.” What a ponce!
But I read, and I listened, and I read, and listened, and it took me three times longer than it should have to finish the novel, and I listened to Matana’s 2011 album Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libresthree times in a row, and once I was done the novel, with psychic tears in my third eye, and sonic tears in my ears, and real tears on my face, I plunked her name into Google and read that on that very day her latest album was released by Constellation Records, so I asked a friend of mine and a labelmate of hers, Frankie Sparo aka Chad Jones from a band called the Witchies, if he had heard her records, and he was like, “Oh my God! She’s so great! And she even covered a song of mine!” So I felt odd, like, as Sting once sung, a kind of synchronicity was taking place, and though Knausgård’s books and Matana’s records are so different, they are also both about “memory,” and both specifically about (I think) where individual and cultural histories intermingle, where the sweet-sad fragrances of one’s micro-story and one’s familial history gets caught up in the often sinister and tragic larger stories of a culture. “Memory” as a theme is kind of “hot” right now, but I think this is silly, only because it shows how “silly” a state of unmemory is; it’s only because our own culture has so much vested in the great white-out, the great re-(un)imagining, that the act of going forward by looking backwards seems especially profound.
Anyways, I bought her second record, this year’s Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile , and I’m better because of it. I love the way if flits in and out of melody, I salute its noise and its grunts and bellows and especially Matana’s singing voice; I think “Woman Red Racked” is the most moving piece of music I heard all year. This is “foreground music,” music that you can’t read over, or sip coffee to while chattin’ with your mate, or get your hair cut to. This is music that asks me to sit down in the nexus zone between the speakers. Anyway, be like me. Buy it.
— Carey Mercer (Frog Eyes, Swam Lake)
Tullycraft — Lost in Light Rotation
I’ve been waiting for Lost in Light Rotation for a long time. I don’t just mean because it’s Tullycraft’s first album in six years, although it is partly that — it’s fucking great to have the long-running Seattle indie-pop institution back to active duty. I mean because it’s been so long since a band tied lyrics about fanzine culture, charity shops, forming a band, and being an awkward indie person in a world of over-produced bland guitar music, to such incredible pop melodies. This is a record to be filed alongside other indie-pop classics like Helen Love’s Love and Glitter Hot Days and Music (2000), Kenickie’s Get In (1998), or Urusei Yatura’s Slain by Urusei Yatsura (1998). Lost in Light Rotation is the type of heartfelt, wonky indie music that I loved as a teen, still love now and thought I’d never hear created again. It’s not only that Tullycraft attack their songs with such gusto it makes the entire scene I grew up adoring seem vital again, but this album made me want to start a cut-and-paste fanzine and make my own t-shirts.
You shouldn’t just listen to this album for this reason though; lyrical themes aside, it was hands-down the best pop album of 2013. The lead single (and my favourite single of the year), which is the title track, gives Icona Pop’s “I Love It” (my second favourite single of last year) a run for its money, and it’s not even the best song on the album. I’m presuming the only reason this album wasn’t on everybody else’s 2013 year-end list is because they haven’t heard it yet. A fact that all of you should immediately go and rectify now.
— Eddie Argos (Art Brut)
His Electro Blue Voice — Ruthless Sperm
I started this blurb with an extended riff on how His Electro Blue Voice were to the ’90s revival what Dee-Lite was to the ’70s revival, a band that captured the era’s energy and aesthetic without actually sounding like any of the bands that served as inspiration. But I had to take a step back and realize that not every band is going take what I consider a compliment as praise at all. I made the same mistake earlier this year when I compared Sub Pop’s other 2013 sleeper album, Daughn Gibson’s Me Moan, to a Bette Midler in a Wheelchair high camp novelty record and expected Gibson and Jonathan Poneman to shower me in hugs of gratitude. But sometimes people just want the high-concept criticism left in the Lester Bangs fan fiction blog shed and would rather just be told that their album is very fun to listen to and emotionally not entirely false. Fair enough. Both Daughn Gibson and His Electro Blue Voice made some of my favorite music of 2013.
After putting out a number of EPs on such fine post-punk labels as Bat Shit and S-S, Italy’s His Electro Blue Voice put out their first full-length on Sub Pop. And it’s fantastic. In an era when various goons are laying claim to Kurt Cobain’s mantel without having the presence of mind to be talented, it’s nice to hear a nihilistic krautrock take on Incesticide. The album is driving and passionate and straight-up creepy; basically all I wanted so badly from all the other Dope, Guns, and Fucking in the Streetsers taking up space in the collective false flannel memory. Why wasn’t Ruthless Sperm on every critic’s year-end list? Got me, man. I can only assume Sub Pop’s check bounced.
— Zachary Lipez (Freshkills)