By aurahack 66 Comments
BOY HAVE I BEEN ACTIVE RECENTLY
Sorry. I guess I’m making the same apology I do every time. I’ve been really busy on the count of getting a job in late June and being knee-deep in game development since. It’s astonishing how little free time you have when you’re one of five people trying to make a game!
Early next year I hope to post my Game of the Year… well, I won’t call it a list, because it isn’t one. I mean it is, but it isn’t. You’ll see. It’s awesome, but I need some time to work on it. Not like posting it NOW!!! is all that critical anyway.
In the mean time, I present to you a list of my favorite albums released this year. In January, I gave myself the goal of listening to 100 albums released within the year and I’ve managed to listen to 103. It’s… a lot of music. And that’s not even counting, like, stuff I listened to that wasn’t from this year. It’s a lot but it’s made me discover a ton of really awesome stuff that I’d like to share a part of. Hopefully you can discover something awesome from this, too!
Talking with a friend earlier in the year who was versed enough in Chinese pop music led me to being somewhat interested but never enough to actively seek out anything on my own. Not long after, Hebe Tien’s new album, Insignificance, showed up in the Recommendations area of the tracker I get my music from, so I decided to check out. Couldn’t hurt, and I wanted something new to listen to at the time. I was rather surprised, then, that my first jump into C-pop would end up being one of my favorite releases of the year.
My limited exposure to C-pop really shortens the amount of what I can say regarding Insignificance but despite it’s slow pace, it’s an album that has a great amount of variety in sound and in emotion. Hebe Tien’s echoing vocals in the title song gorgeously contrast against the eerie, mystical instrumentals backing her, flipping on a dime in the rock-heavy, harmonised vocals of “终身大事” without ever dropping the album’s actual pace.
Though I wish the album’s end was as strong as its start, Insignificance is still a beautiful album that establishes a mood worth getting engrossed in. I found it to be the perfect companion when drawing at work, letting Hebe Tien’s vocals blank out the world around me.
You can purchase Insignificance on iTunes here.
I am typically one to shy away from ballad albums because… well, they’re typically pretty boring. I haven’t really come across an artist that was able to carry an entire release in a genre that relies so heavily on its vocals over the production of the tracks themselves. Fortunately, @onimonkii pressured the shit out of me to listen to Younha’s Subsonic and while I don’t think my opinion on ballads has drastically changed, I found myself completely floored by how strong the album is.
Right out of the gate, Younha’s voice powers through the opening track and controls it perfectly to match the intensity and mood of the instrumentals backing her. Regardless of the song’s pace, like the upbeat “Subsonic” or the more relaxed “Home”, you can instantly connect with the song’s emotion and let yourself be carried by her voice.
The mini-album’s structure is worth admiring, too. The insanely fast turnaround of Korean music releases has kind of neutralised my appreciation of a properly composed and structured album but it’s present in Subsonic and that makes it so much more enjoyable. The powerfully crescendoing start of “시간을 믿었어” to the calm, composed end of “Home” is a wonderful journey, especially when it lets you upbeatedly catch your breath in the middle with “없어” and its amazing cameo from Eluphant.
Subsonic is a terrific album well worth listening to, even if you might not have a penchant for the slower stuff. Words do little justice to how strong Younha’s voice is and how terrific the instrumentals are.
I really, really wanted to set myself a rule of “no K-pop albums” in my top 10 list because while I really, really enjoy K-pop, I also know that the reasons why I enjoy it make it so that it doesn’t necessarily fit into a proper ‘Best of’ list. But whatever, it’s a personal list and you know what, f(x)’s Pink Tape is legitimately terrific. Instead of being a bunch of previously released singles repackaged into a full album, Pink Tape is a non-stop assault of new, terrific material from a group that desperately needed a strong release.
I’ve never been super into f(x)’s past releases because they’ve always been… well, pretty lacking. There was just that “spark” in them that I never felt and it made most of their singles fall flat to me. Like they didn’t have a distinct sound I could get into. Pink Tape has completely changed that, though. Its a barrage of groovy and punchy beats that rarely slows down and they last all the way to its end. The album instantly fires in every direction with the addictive “Rum Pum Pum Pum” as its start and only lets off the throttle a bit mid-way with “Goodbye Summer” for a ballad break, which even despite being a ballad, I completely love.
Personal highlights from the album are “Kick” and “Signal”, with my favorite being “Step” for how relentless it is in its pace and for how addictive its chorus is. It’s terrifying how often I’ll unknowingly say out loud “HEY, GET OUT THE WAY, PLEASE” in tandem when when listening to it. If anything, I feel like “Step” is the perfect example of why Pink Tape is such a great album. The vocals are terrific, the beat is unflinchingly catchy, and the instrumental track is unique and fun. The repeating horn is so bizarre when you hear it the first time but it’s impossible not to love it by the time the song’s over.
More importantly though, Step (like the rest of the album) has a sound. There’s a signature sound that I think f(x) has found in Pink Tape that it was completely lacking in any of their previous songs. The heavily electronic hip hop-paced beats, the groovy swings and pacing, and Amber-powered breakdowns define this album and make it the best K-pop release I’ve heard since T-ARA’s astonishing 2009 Absolute First Album.
Even if you’re averse to K-pop, or anything that isn’t in your own language, I encourage you to check it out if you like fun, catchy, and well produced music. I included Pink Tape not because I wanted a K-pop release on here, but because I legitimately believe it stands as one of the best musical releases of the year. In the company that it has on this list, I hope that stands to mean something.
If there’s one name I feel like you should pay attention to, it’s Mat Zo. Apart from having my favorite Twitter account, he’s also the underrated genius behind last year’s “Easy” and his fucking brilliant Mat Zo Mix show that airs on Sirius XM. (Which you can listen to on his Soundcloud, where he uploads them for free.)
He’s released numerous singles and EPs through Anjunabeats that have always been very trance-heavy, so I admittedly got a little skeptical when I saw signs of Damage Control, his debut album, exploring different and more upbeat territory. Thankfully, my worries were immediately washed away when hearing the full album. Damage Control is terrific from start to finish and has some of the most high-quality production I’ve heard in electronic music.
Singles “The Sky” and “Easy”, older tracks of his, make their way onto the album but are buried amidst a panoply of new material that is as varied as it is great. The slow, head-nodding pace of “Only For You” is matched by the complex, bass-thumping, IDM-like composition of “Caller ID”. The clubby rhythm of “Pyramid Scheme” is also great fun, as its the throwback sound of “Lucid Dream”. Even interludes like “Little Damage” and “Moderate Stimulation” have a ton of impact despite their passive role in the album’s structure.
Mat Zo’s unique, open sound combined with his terrific synth work makes Damage Control a wonderful and enjoyable album. Behind his jokester, silly personality lies a musical genius. Damage Control is clearly just the beginning for him and I am dying to see what’s next.
I have a very love-hate relationship with Yasutaka Nakata, the production mind behind Capsule and pretty much every other electronic-pop act ever in Japan. I really felt like having his hands in so many different places (Perfume, MEG, and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, to name a few) has diluted his sound beyond rescue. As someone who greatly likes Capsule, his personal project, I was worried about the impending release of CAPS LOCK because what came before it has been a really uneven series of releases. STEREO WORXXX was alright, albeit very repetitive, and PLAYER and WORLD of FANTASY were both completely dreadful.
There’s nothing but sighs of relief on my end, thankfully. Not only is CAPS LOCK a great album, but it’s easily Yasutaka Nakata’s best work since Capsule’s 2007 album Sugarless GiRL. I’d be thrilled if the reason was because it was a good Capsule album but it’s even more than that. It’s an album that strays from the typical Capsule formula and replaces it instead with a personal approach to composition and structure, ditching predictable and punchy electro beats for avant-garde and experimental sounds.
CAPS LOCK might actually be a pretty divisive album for Capsule fans as it contains very little vocals from Toshiko Koshijima, a trait completely opposite to all other Capsule albums to date. Furthermore, Toshiko’s minor presence in the album is heavily edited and synthesized (more so than previous Capsule releases) providing a distinctly different sound than long-time fans might welcome. She’s been such an essential part of Capsule’s best songs and releases that I could easily see why a fan would oppose and dislike an album that features so little of her.
Personally though, I welcome it. Instead of saturating Toshiko’s vocals throughout the album like past releases, Yasutaka instead opted to carefully pace her voice across the album’s length, emphasizing them when necessary and removing them completely when useless. The end result is an album that is much more coherent, like it has a story to tell, instead of sounding like a disjointed collection of singles.
The cohesiveness of CAPS LOCK is also why I enjoy it so much. The majority, if not all, of Capsule’s previous releases have always felt like an assault on the senses. It worked more often than not, but there’s only so far that pounding synths accompanied by edited and randomized vocals can take you. CAPS LOCK feels so much more like a journey of sounds, occasionally hinting at what you’ve always appreciated in Capsule’s music, but diverging out into different areas that Yasutaka’s production skills can take him. Despite “CONTROL” and “SHIFT” providing far more Capsule-like experiences, they fit well into the more interesting and structured progression of “HOME”’s introduction, diving into the jarringly experimental “12345678” halfway through the album.
All of it leads to one of the most satisfying ends I’ve heard to an album this year, being the combined closure of “SPACE” and “RETURN”. “ESC” provides a terrific interlude into the ambient, atmospheric sound of “SPACE” that sends chills down my spine every time I hear it. The minimalist use of Toshiko’s vocals as a secondary synth to the song’s chorus is engaging, as is the choice to let the calm structure of the song take center stage instead of Capsule’s traditional “let’s shibuya-kei this motherfucker up” formula.
Really, CAPS LOCK is just barely a Capsule album, and that’s why I enjoy it so much. Though my appreciation for their older work remains, I don’t know if I could have withstood another traditional Capsule album. Seeing Yasutaka Nakata explore different territory and pull it off so well is encouraging, and the product that came out of it is easily one of the best albums this year. It’s certainly my favorite album he’s produced to date.
Pop-rock/shoegaze is definitely not my strong suit. Often being more bored than anything else with the genre has taught me that, so I am pretty surprised to enjoy Akai Ko-en’s Ko-en Debut as much as I do. It has such charming melodies and wonderful performances from the individual members that it’s impossible not to love.
The all-over-the-place intro of “今更” introduces the band perfectly, from Chiaki pouring her heart into the vocals to Maisa’s ability to go from slow-rock strumming to full-on crazy guitar. Nao’s drums and Hikari’s bass are also terrific, with the entire band’s roles being critical to how enjoyable every song on the album is. You could single them all out and have super interesting parts to listen to no matter the track. The true star for me is Chiaki’s vocals, though.
Although the entire band’s performance in “交信” is stellar, Chiaki’s voice accompanies the keyboard so perfectly and she powerfully carries the emotion of the song through to its climactic and satisfying end. Having the song be immediately followed by “体温計” is a pretty much a double-treat, with her vocals and piano skills being the only force at work here. I’ve rarely heard a vocalist exert her voice to such an extent that you can hear it fall apart in front of you… and still have it be as powerful of an experience, if not more so, than something more composed and controlled.
Of course, the rest of the album is an absolute blast. The chaotic “急げ” is as exciting to hear as the uplifting end of “くい”, and the chants of children to accompany Chiaki in “カウンター” are good fun. It’s a unique, upbeat, and engaging rock album that is far more reliant on melody than anything else. There’s a ton of depth in each track to be found but that didn’t stop it from being the perfect album for me to put on when I had nothing particular to listen to in mind. Ko-en Debut is easy to jump into and you’ll be rewarded with some really interesting music when you do.
I wish I didn’t have to put this here. This album started at the top spot and continuously fell down the list because the more I listen to it, the more its shortcomings jumped out at me. I wish it ended better, and I wish its middle were more interesting, but fortunately that’s just about the only faults I have with The M Machine’s Metropolis Pt. 2, which is an otherwise stellar album.
Like last year’s Metropolis Pt. 1, Pt. 2 true strength lies in its atmosphere. The M Machine is, if anything, exceedingly talented at creating a true sense of atmosphere to their music. Right out the gate, “The Palace”’s blasting synths drop you deep into its underwater-like world of carefully constructed music. The vocal work in both “The Palace” and “Ghosts in the Machine” is so brilliant, as is the production and editing applied to them.
The middle half of the album is where I have a bit of an issue, though. “Ghosts in the Machine” sets such a great atmosphere and pace, yet I feel like every time, “Tiny Anthem” throws me off course. It’s a decent song but it fits awkwardly between “Ghosts in the Machine” and “Moon Song”. It’s pacing is so different and its sound is not as coherent as the rest of the album is. “Moon Song” isn’t the strongest of tracks either, but it picks up the pace from “Tiny Anthem” well enough to lead into the mini-album’s highlight, “Schadenfreude”.
I imagine this is a very subjective opinion, given how aggressive “Schadenfreude” is, but it embodies what I value so highly in Metropolis Pt. 2: atmosphere. The echoing drums and reverberating sounds, the distant vocals, the oscillating synths… all of it is as captivating as it is chilling, building up to its mind-blowing and siren-blasting chorus that throws you neck deep into the world The M Machine has imagined.
Though “Luma” is a fitting end, I do find it to be a little anti-climatic after “Schadenfreude”’s powerful production. But despite my problems with the EP as a whole, I continue to value it highly. Metropolis Pt. 2 is the only album I’ve listened to this year where I can close my eyes for its duration and just see the music unfold in front of me. The production on all of the tracks is genius beyond reason, not for how catchy the rhythms are, but for the picture they paint. That’s something I feel is well worth appreciating, even if all the pieces don’t entirely align at times.
I’m almost tempted to simply write “It’s a Feed Me album. It’s fucking brilliant. This isn’t news to anyone and that’s why it’s ranked here.” but I suppose I owe Calamari Tuesday more of an explanation than that.
From his debut Feed Me’s Big Adventure album to his most recent EPs like To The Stars and Escape from Electric Mountain, Feed Me’s music has always been incredibly relevant to whatever style is popular without ever cheapening its production to be as mass-appealing as possible. It’s always felt like it came from his heart and that’s why it always shone above the rest. Calamari Tuesday is no exception to this rule, arguably being his best work to date.
Though the start of the album doesn’t flow together as well as the latter half, Calamari Tuesday is 15 tracks of pure electronic bliss. Take “Lonely Mountain” for example: a track so varied, groovy, and well-composed that it might be deserving of a spot amongst electro-house’s greats. Or “Rat Trap”, a song so well produced that its bass and sampling is almost oppressive from how angry they sound.
Calamari Tuesday shines in its second half, though. From “Chinchilla” up to the very end of “Last Requests”, it’s like a veritable showcase of how talented and skilled a composer and producer Feed Me has become. “Short Skirt”, “No Grip”, and “Onstuh” is a true triple-threat of variety and bangers, from the swinging sampling and editing of “Short Skirt”, to the trip-hop-like beats of “No Grip”, finally into the relentless pace of “Onstuh” that throws such a jump-worthy beat into Feed Me’s classic funky synths. And, of course, the triple-threat being closed out by the impeccable vocals and climax of “Last Requests”, which is such a brilliant way of ending the album that I can’t help but withhold from saying how it does so. It’s too perfect to spoil—seek it out yourself.
If you’re a fan of electronic music of any kind, you owe it to yourself to check out Calamari Tuesday. It’s a spectacular album. Feed Me’s production is so excellent and precise, I really have nothing more to say. It’s a Feed Me album. It’s fucking brilliant. This isn’t news to anyone and that’s why I ranked it third.
Although they arguably have the hardest name to Google, Charisma.com might just be the most exciting act I’ve discovered. The duo consisting of vocalist/rapper MC Itsuka and producer DJ Gonchi and their debut album, Ai-Ai Syndrome, are arguably the most fun I’ve had listening to any musical release this year. And I’m not talking about like, “Oh, yes, this is well made so I enjoy it.” kind of fun. I’m talking about smile from ear-to-ear, head-bobbing, and feet movin’ kind of fun.
Ai-Ai Syndrome packs so much attitude, fun, and variety into its album that I found myself putting it on repeat for days at a time, unable to escape how addictive it is. DJ Gonchi, the production side of the duo, is astonishingly skilled at composing and producing beats that are not only catchy and fun, but also stand alone without any vocals whatsoever. Of course, it goes without saying that each track compliment Itsuka’s vocals with aplomb.
MC Itsuka’s vocals shine as brightly as the instrumentals, as she delivers them with such impeccable timing and a captivating, if not vicious, attitude. The absolute spite for everything in the album’s lyrics, from fashion-crazed and kawaii-obsessing girls in “HATE” to people staring at their phones every day in “LIFEFULL”, truly shows in how impeccably Itsuka delivers all of her lyrics. It’s such a breath of fresh air, even. For how obsessively joyful and excited all of Japanese pop music, or any Japanese genre really, sounds, it’s refreshing to hear something that’s so catchy and enjoyable while still packing such a strong attitude.
Ai-Ai Syndrome might not have the best production or the best vocals I’ve heard this year, but they’re both pretty terrific. It towers above the rest, however, for being simply fun. I can put it on any time and enjoy it like it was the first time I heard it. It’s an album that gives so little fucks and just does what it does, having a blast the entire way through while totally not giving a shit if you dislike it or not. I love it.
Earlier this year, I discovered Oliver Schories and his Herzensangelegenheit album. It’s a 2012 release that, had I discovered then, would probably have taken the top spot. … Well, 2nd spot. I guess you'll find out what was my 2012 album of 2013.
Point being: Oliver Schories is a terrific producer and composer. His most recent album Exit, blows every other album this year out of the water so hard I can barely justify it through words. Instead, here is a link to a continuous mix of the entire album. It’s mixed by Oliver himself and is featured on the album as an alternate way of listening to it. Listen to it.
I like Exit for similar reasons to why I like Metropolis Pt. 2, which is that it sets a mood and atmosphere. While not as graphic and vivid as Metropolis Pt. 2, Exit’s mood is still rich and captivating. Oliver’s masterful use of soft synths and subtle percussions create a zone to get completely lost in. The pounding, yet vacant, bass of “Intro (State of)”, the quiet and repetitive synths that perfectly fit around the vocals of “But Maybe”, the upbeat bass strums of “Another Day”... it’s engrossing in a way no other album this year was for me.
Even better is the Continuous DJ Mix, which runs for an hour and 21 minutes. Oliver mixed the entirety of Exit into a single mix, something I would have loved for Herzensangelegenheit, and is easily the best way to enjoy the album. His DJ skills are as impeccable as his production ones.
Exit is one of those rare albums. The type I can put on and then before I know it, it’s over and an hour has passed by. It’s transports me to a completely other world and I exit (HA HA HA) on the other end from a captivating and engrossing ride. It’s such a tight, intricate, well-composed album that I can truly listen to it when I want to enjoy it, in addition to being calm and passive enough that it can act as the perfect background music to reading or something similar.
More than anything, I adore an album that I can put on and forget everything exists around me. That the only thing between me and my headphones is nothing but pure escapism. That is what Exit is, and it’s why it’s my favorite album of the year.
Of course, I just had to listen to this album a few days after I posted my 2012 Best Of list. Of course.
Igorrr’s Hallelujah is fucking impossible to describe to anyone. The baroque, breakcore, IDM, abstract, grind/deathmetal sounds that populate his music is so chaotic and frightening at first glance that I can rarely let someone listen to it without them immediately twitching their ears away in fear.
Once you get past the initial shock of how insane his music is, the door to the a precisely constructed album opens to you. The opera chant of “Tout Petit Moineau” that progresses into screams into unfathomable yelling in tune to the breakneck speed of its instrumentals is haunting.
Yet like all other tracks on Hallelujah, it’s precise in its insanity. If you pay attention to it all, it’s not random insanity. It’s perfectly timed, in synch with each other, every sound interacting with the other to create a harmony of insanity that is as detailed as it is overwhelming. The daunting complexity of Hallelujah is hard not to admire and even when it’s at its most insane, it’s still so enjoyable and listenable that I find myself going back to it time after time. Had I waited to post my list after listening to it, it’d easily have taken the top spot.
And that's it! Woo! Hopefully you discover something new, and like last year I'd love to hear what are some of your favorites! I'm always open to anything new.
Addtionally, if you want to see a ranked list that I kept up to date throughout the year of the 103 releases I listened to, you can check it out on my Rateyourmusic list! There's some stuff in there that's also definitely worth checking out. Pretty much anything between 1 and 30~ is like... a must listen to me.