The Agit Reader

The Agit Reader Top 20 of 2013

December 30th, 2013  |  by Staff  |  1 Comment

Wooden Shjips, Back to Land#20
Wooden Shjips
Back to Land
Thrill Jockey

The title track, which leads off the Wooden Shjips fourth album, sets the stage for the rest of the record: groove, repeat. The keyboard and rhythm section lay down the mesmerizing foundation for such a groove, with Ripley Johnson’s vocals barely registering above the music before his guitar makes an appearance for an intricate interlude. As repetitive as this may sound on paper, each song is hypnotically beautiful, comprised of tightly woven melodies and rhythms that build upon the other. Meanwhile, the Shjips add just enough fuzz to keep things earthy and casual, so while the distortion at the beginning of “Everybody Knows” seems to belie the formula, the song quickly asserts a hypnotic pattern with the addition of an acoustic guitar—something new to the Shjips’ repertoire that pops up throughout the record. There’s also a nearly imperceptible croon and rise in urgency to Johnson’s vocals (by comparison, he usually makes Snoop Dogg sound like Busta Rhymes), and this record displays a slightly cleaner sound than its predecessors. With every track completely captivating, though, Back to Land is the Shjips’ best record yet. JR



Boards of Canada
Tomorrow’s Harvest

In case you didn’t get the memo, Boards of Canada are still a thing. After lurking in parts unknown for the last eight years, Scottish brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin resurfaced in 2013 with one of the year’s best releases. Considering the amount of time that has elapsed since we last heard from them, Tomorrow’s Harvest feels instantly recognizable; with its soft saturation of analog synthesizers and crisp hip-hop percussion, it has a nostalgic warmth that plays out like a cross-processed Polaroid of melting colors. Another noticeable quality that seeps into the production is a fondness for sci-fi scores from the late ’70s and early ’80s, as most of the tracks invoke some of the more intense action sequences of John Carpenter and Ridley Scott flicks from that time period. With so many emerging artists these days capitalizing on that specific sound, it’s nice to hear something fresh from one of the innovators for a change. CS



In the Red

Despite having released an album named Sleeper this year, it seems that Bay-area garage rock poster boy Ty Segall has very little time for catching some Zs. He’s been releasing records at a prolific clip, and the only thing more remarkable than the number of albums he’s amounted is their quality. While the aforementioned solo record was by no means shabby, the full-length debut by side project FUZZ, which sees him working once again with frequent collaborator Charlie Moonheart, took the cake. While self-described as a metal band, FUZZ is just as much the product of the psych influences that have long informed Segall’s work as a channeling of Sabbath and Deep Purple. The difference is simply a heavier amount of, well, heaviness, most notably on “What’s in My Head,” a cut of fat and furry basslines and riffs every bit as sharp as they are fuzzy. It would be too easy to label this “stoner rock,” especially since there is so much more to this trip. SS



Silence Yourself
Matador/Pop Noire

“Don’t let the fuckers get you down.” It’s inscribed twice on the LP’s packaging so there’s no chance you’ll miss the fact that Savages take their mission very seriously. This puts them out of step with the pop-crazed ironies of 2013, and that’s exactly the point. Remember when rock music had a purpose? Remember when the confusion was more than sex, but also was sex? This gang of four comes on with a calculatedly intense stage presence that brings to mind Ian Curtis, Robert Smith, and Lou Reed. But it’s the record that matters most. Silence Yourself is the sound of pissing a line in the sand. It’s the sound of openly defying everyone—male or otherwise—who would box you in.  It’s an articulate wail as written by Patti Smith, a derangement of the senses as demanded by Rimbaud, and a roaring proclamation that will have you dancing to spite the walls. MS




Of all the ’90s alt bands that have re-emerged in the past decade, Polvo has been one of the more redeemable resurrections, choosing to concentrate their efforts on writing strong material instead of falling into the daily grind of being just another washed-up act bankrolling on days gone by. Siberia is the quartet’s second album released since their return, and like 2009’s In Prism, it solidifies the group’s influence on modern indie music. Tunes such as “Anchoress” and “The Water Wheel” brandish the ensemble’s signature angular attack with a twin-guitar volley from Ash Bowie and Dave Brylawski that feels like it’s 1993 all over again, but more harnessed this time around. On “Light, Raking,” the song takes an unexpected turn with bright streaks of keyboards that soak into the group’s hard-rocking exterior. While Polvo’s unconventional songs have never been much of a surprise as to what form they may take, Siberia is one of the more extraordinary efforts from their repertoire. CS



David Bowie
The Next Day

Conventional wisdom and quite a few column inches were spent declaring the retirement of David Bowie. His last studio record came out in 2003, and other than some select guest spots on albums by TV On The Radio and, er, Scarlett Johansson, as well as pop-up live appearances with Arcade Fire, David Gilmore, and Alicia Keys, he largely faded into the background. Ten years without an album after a long career seemed to signal that Bowie was quietly pulling up his shingle. So it came as quite the shock when in January he announced his new album, The Next Day, was being released in March and oh, by the way, here’s the single. That single, “Where Are We Now,” was a bit misdirected, suggesting that Bowie was in an introspective, twilight mode. Instead, the record is full of tense guitars, elegant menace, and more attack than the single would suggest. Surrounded by much of his usual supporting cast, it’s a strong return without the weight of being a new reincarnation of the legendary singer. No asterisk needed, The Next Day is a worthy addition to the catalog. DSH



Days Are Gone

To many, “The Wire,” by the sisters Haim stands aside Miley’s “We Can’t Stop” as 2013’s guiltiest of pleasures. The over-exposure of lukewarm television appearances, the backhanded comparisons to Shania Twain singles, and the “bassface” surely make a case that Haim is strictly manufactured pop fluff. But on the other hand, there are some of us who want to hear attempts at gilding the radio with Tango in the Night–inspired luxuries and breathy choruses that rely on catchy, well-written earworms instead of EDM traps and folkish tropes. There were a handful of albums this year that used nostalgia wisely to resurrect the golden age of ’80s Top 40 radio, but Haim did it the best. Prefab or not, it’s pop crafted for pleasure that proceeds to push the right buttons. KJE



Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
English Electric

Best known for the iconic pop ballad “If You Leave” of Pretty in Pink fame, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, a.k.a. OMD, is still doing what they do best: making great pop music. In 2010, the band picked up where they left off as if no time had passed at all with the release of History of Modern, and with this year’s English Electric, the band once again asserts itself as masters of synth-pop, making the creation of catchy hooks and soaring melodies seem as effortless as breathing. It’s hard not to associate OMD with the ‘80s, yet the entire album is filled with references to the future—or rather, the disillusionment of the retro-future we were promised years ago, from the loopy beats of “The Future Will Be Silent” to the vocal samples featured in “Atomic Ranch,” where a disembodied voice asserts, “I want a house and a car and a robot wife.” But the album also looks to the past, with haunting, soulful samples of Abbey Lincoln’s “Lonely House” (from 1959) incorporated into “Final Song.” So while we may have been cheated of the flying cars and robot mates version of the future, for the present, at least we have OMD, a band that sounds oddly timeless. JR


Mordecai, College Rock

College Rock

Contrary to popular belief, 2013 was a year in which garage rock became tedious. I spent more time scouring the discography of guys like Dwight Twilley and Martin Newell than I did listening to any one record of the garage bent. Ty Segall’s great and all, but he made too many records. I was actually relieved when it was announced the Oh Sees were on indefinite hiatus, as it will give bands like Mordecai room to breathe. Strange, in a world where anything is at our fingertips, finding things as spectacularly ramshackle as College Rock becomes more of a hunt. The Montana introverts huff from a gas can of face-melting fumes. Whether it’s the vapor accumulating in another excavation of New Zealand treasures, the stank of Manchester circa This Nation’s Saving Grace, or second-hand sides of hardcore pilfered on infrequent trips outside of the big sky region, Mordecai are one of those bands that will tell you they play off nothing in particular and that the nebulous grind they produce is straight from the frazzled minds of a boozy Saturday night in the basement. KJE


Purling Hiss
Water on Mars
Drag City

Philadelphia’s Purling Hiss took an significant leap forward with Water on Mars, the band’s first album for Drag City. While the band, which has steadily released records and cassettes on a veritable who’s-who of underground labels, has consistently put out interesting music, it’s never been this, well, epic. If you don’t believe me, stop reading this right now, check out Mike Polizze’s mind-melting guitar work on the album’s title track, and finish reading once you’ve been fully converted. Whether it’s taking the best bits of Nirvana’s Bleach and sending them through a psychedelic sonic prism on “Lolita” and “Face Down,” throwing together top-notch guitar-driven pop-rock on “Mercury Retrograde” and “Rat Race,” or getting totally blissed-out for the dreamy “She Calms Me Down,” the songs on Water on Mars prove that Purling Hiss has tapped into something vital and exciting in contemporary rock. RW


Body Language

The debut LP from Connections, Private Airplane, got some significant buzz around the interwebs, frequently and unavoidably drawing comparisons to Guided By Voices. The parallel is appropriate but lazy, especially now that the band has moved beyond the debut. Body Language is a different beast from a different band: a lumbering, blunt-legged, sharp-edged juggernaut of power pop that draws more from Big Star than Uncle Bob. Where Private Airplane was the fast blast of pop everyone wants from a debut, Body Language takes its time leading the listener to a peak then back down before shoving them off the cliff. They haven’t gone soft, though, and at the speed they’re progressing, I wouldn’t put it past them to turn in their version of American Beauty in the next few years. MPO


Joanna Gruesome
Weird Sister

The members of Welsh quintet Joanna Gruesome were probably still in diapers for much of the ’90s, but it’s impossible not to hear the band’s debut album, Weird Sister, without drawing comparisons between the band’s vitriolic pop and the kind of noise being created during that decade. (It’s fitting that Slumberland has released the album.) But like the best music, Joanna Gruesome embraces its influences while at the same time moving past them to create something distinctly their own.  So while the noise-spiked pop of cuts like “Anti Parent Cowboy Killers” and “Lemonade Grrl” may recall everyone from A Catholic Education–era Teenage Fanclub to The Vaselines to The Primitives, this is an album of distinctive qualities capable of influencing offspring of its own. SS


Johnny Marr
The Messenger

It’s safe to say that neither Morrissey nor Johnny Marr will ever approach the heights they achieved together, but somehow The Smiths guitarist’s output has fallen particularly short over the years. While he has worked with such exceptional artists as Kirsty MacColl, Talking Heads, The The, The Pretenders, Modest Mouse, and Bernard Sumner (New Order), such collaborations never produced anything on par with the Moz’s solo work, let alone The Smiths.

Until now. With The Messenger, Marr will have you wondering how he’s been wasting his time all these years. It is a spectacular album that highlights not only his talents on the six-string, but his vocal prowess as well. “European Me” shows Marr’s distinct knack for jangle, and “New Town Velocity” is enticingly melancholy. And while the title track is wrapped in cracking beats and 21st century synth tones, he grounds the song with glimmering guitar lines and dreamily sung vocals. This is the album we’ve always wanted from Marr, but in many ways, it is also so much more. SS


Justin Timberlake
The 20/20 Experience (Parts 1 and 2)

Justin Timberlake’s boy-band roots and überpop image have always been two strikes against him when it comes to taking his music seriously. That’s where most listeners go wrong. On FutureSex/Lovesounds, he proved himself as a competent composer and lyricist, but it was apparent he didn’t need to sing the meaning of life in order to get his point across. The same goes for the two parts of The 20/20 Experience bookending 2013: don’t look for a message; it’s okay to just enjoy the rhythm and the melody. That said, Timbaland probably deserves just as much credit for making unforgettable hooks like “Suit and Tie,” and Jay-Z could take credit for coming up with an image for Timberlake after he got bored copping Michael Jackson’s. MPO


Liquor Store
In the Garden
Almost Ready

When Liquor Store’s debut album, Yeah Buddy, arrived in 2011, it was hard to imagine the New Jersey five-piece releasing anything better. The band was essentially a three-guitar-wielding classic-rock monster that had mastered its brand of snarling, snotty punk. So what did they do on their sophomore effort, In the Garden? Simple, they wiped off the snot and got their knuckles bloody. Yeah Buddy’s often lighthearted takes on the absurdities inherent in contemporary society are gone for the most part, replaced by rawer and ballsier fare with titles like “Keys to the Face” and “Lynchmob.” Vocalist Sarim Al-Rawi’s has fittingly changed up his singing voice for the occasion, abandoning his higher-pitched squeal that often sounded like David Thomas if he were raised in Jersey and hopped up on speed and opting instead for a sort of gritty, yet melodic, growl. In the Garden’s a tough, aggressive album, but these are tough times, and as the song “Vodka Beach” asks, “Who needs romance when you got a fist?” RW


Ghost Wave
Flying Nun

Aukland, New Zealand five-piece Ghost Wave seems to be a perfect fit with the resurrected Flying Nun label. More than just a shared heredity, the band combines the jangly pop of their Kiwi predecessors with a healthy dose of youthful vigor and psychedelic touches, with these elements coming together seamlessly on the band’s debut, Ages. Cuts like “I Don’t Mind” and “Here She Comes” are laced with Velveteen hooks and drawled vocals that impart the perfect amounts of slacked cool and deadeye adamancy, while elsewhere the band gets their collective dander up on “Mountain,” a five-minute excursion of racing rhythms and phased guitars that builds to a dizzying crescendo. All this proves the band to be a worthy successor to legends like The Clean, Tall Dwarfs, Verlaines, et al. and rightful torchbearers for Flying Nun’s storied legacy. SS


Kanye West
Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam

Say what you want about Kanye West—and Lord knows he’s generated enough column inches for a nice leather bound volume this year—one thing you have to admit is that he keeps things interesting. And Yeezus is, if nothing else, a lot to chew on. At various turns angry, militant, playful, filthy, soulful, and cold, it covers a lot of ground. The first indication that Yeezy was on some other other stuff was the twin debut of the industrial tinged “New Slaves” and “Black Skinheads.” But that was only part of the story. Sonically the album jumps and skips around with gleeful disregard. Anytime you combine diverse production from sources that range from No ID to Daft Punk you never know what to expect and the record follows through with that promise. It’s a messy, divisive whiplash of a ride, but it may also be the purest distillation you’ll get of Kanye in 2013. Yeezus isn’t a record for everyone, but it’s one you can’t ignore. DSH


Charles Bradley
Victim of Love

Ever the man to eschew convention, Charles Bradley’s ability to avoid the sophomore slump should come as no surprise. Victim of Love finds the 65 year-old Bradley matching the high level of quality of his 2011 debut, No Time For Dreaming. His soulful fusion of Otis Redding and James Brown has rightly brought the singer plenty of attention in recent years, but Bradley and the Menahan Street Band’s songwriting abilities and chemistry on Victim of Love prove that he’s not just a novelty act. Whereas No Time For Dreaming sounded a bit like a well-planned debut, Victim of Love feels more comfortable and is loaded with songs that showcase Bradley’s dynamic abilities, from the tender soul of “Strictly Reserved for You,” to the Motown throwback “You Put The Flame On It” and the sparse, acoustic guitar-accompanied title track. RW


Forest Swords
Tri Angle

Matthew Barnes has been sighting and selecting fragments from the ether. Each one is still gritty with the dirt from whence it started, a trace of which finds its way to your ear and leaves you unknowingly wistful, even nostalgic. Like a scent that stirs your emotions even though you can’t quite place it. This is music for prowling the streets you know by heart in a city you’ve never visited. And you can stare at the beautiful album art and see if it gives you any clues about the trip, but it’s impossible to know what the album is “about,” or if that’s even an issue. You can tell your friends, “It’s like the soundtrack to a movie that didn’t get made,” but what kind of cross-genre clusterfuck would that movie have to be? What kind of tableaus could be so harrowing and so majestic at the same time? Whatever kind of ineffable film that might be, it would not be for the faint of heart. MS


My Bloody Valentine

One would never think that the Beach Boys, Guns ‘N Roses, and the alternative nation would have something in common. But as Smile was for the Beach Boys and Chinese Democracy was to the long-suffering GNR fans so was the follow up to My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 album Loveless to the shoegaze fans of the ’90s. While Loveless wasn’t a monster seller, it was a well-respected album whose reputation and influence only grew in subsequent years. But no one would imagine that it would take the band 22 years to finally release the follow-up, simply titled MBV. There had been so many claims about the record being released over the years at various times that it seemed a safe bet it was never actually going to come out, despite the increased live activity of the band. Thus it was a shocker when bandleader Kevin Shields casually mentioned that the album would be out and then two days later it was. Does it live up to all the hype, expectation and fervor? Well, results may vary. But one thing that isn’t in doubt is that it’s an unabashed My Bloody Valentine record and a logical successor to Loveless. While the layers of gauzy production have thinned, it’s still an album for the headphones. And though it may not shift the paradigm like Loveless once did, MBV shows that there’s still plenty of juice left in the formula. DSH

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