2013 has been a really, really strong year for music.
2012: Death Grips – Hacker
2011: Frank Turner – One Foot Before The Other
2010: In Strict Confidence – Silver Bullets
2009: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Zero
2008: Mind.in.a.box – What Used To Be (Short Storm)
2007: Prometheus Burning – Battery Drain
2006: No tracks of the year list
2005: Grendel – Soilbleed /
Rotersand – Exterminate Annihilate Destroy
2004: No tracks of the year list
I know this because of the sheer amount of music I had to consider for this week and next, and how much in the end that didn’t make it into this list. What was interesting, though, was there seemed to be a resurgence in a number of genres, with exceptional music by new and old hands being released all over the place.
This is also the tenth year that I’ve done these rundowns, as I registered amodelofcontrol.com in February 2004, and did the first yearly rundown in late 2004 – although now I look back I didn’t cover tracks every year. Either way, a reminder of what topped my list in past years can be seen in the side box. My tastes have certainly changed over time, that’s for sure. But then, I’m not sure I’d have it any other way – I’d get bored if I kept listening to the same stuff all the time, and I have always had that craving to hear something new. So, in this list this week, there are bands I’ve listened to for years, new bands I’d never heard before, new incarnations of the old, and new discoveries.
Here’s to 2014 being as awesome for music, eh? On with the best tracks of 2013…
I’d Rather Be High
The Next Day
After all the rumours and suggestion that Bowie had called it a day, the sudden announcement that a new album was imminent – and that he’d somehow managed to keep work on the album secret for two years, some feat in the internet age – was received with all the excitement that it deserved. The return of a genuinely innovative superstar after such a gap was part of the reason, but I think also before we’d heard any of the music there was the intrigue over what was to come. And he even wrongfooted everyone there, too – there was no attempt to co-opt new styles, just a solid set of rock songs that maybe wasn’t quite as great as some of his past, but it was certainly worth multiple listens. This song, though – since reworked intriguingly for an expensive-looking advert – is the peak, with a lovely guitar sound at the core from Gerry Leonard, and a wonderfully melodic chorus that showcases a relaxed Bowie, someone making music because he can, rather because he must. He’s earned that position, for sure.
March of the Yeti
I wasn’t all that taken with the EP et9 returned with last year, so the opening track on IV restored my faith rather brilliantly, as if I should ever have dared to doubt them. A five minute stampede of et9’s oh-so-slightly off-kilter metal, propelled by a complex drum rhythm and a typically cryptic vocal, it roars through it’s allotted time and reminds that the band were always that bit more interesting than their peers.
Of all the things I was expecting from a new Kanye album, I really wasn’t expecting him to be borrowing from the darker side of industrial and rock. But then getting producers in like Gesaffelstein to assist perhaps should have given a pointer to where he was going, but even so the results were pretty amazing…at times. Like this track – a thundering drum rhythm dominates the track (that I couldn’t help but feel sounded a bit like a Marilyn Manson steal), but Kanye’s breathless vocals help ratchet up the tension to near unbearable levels.
The Machinists of Joy
Something of an ironic title, really, in that this advance single for the band’s first album in some years was anything but. Not that this is a problem, mind – stompy, groovy industrial with jagged guitars, metal percussion and a kick-ass hook (in other words, everything I’d expect from Die Krupps at the top of their game) that proves that even after over thirty years as part of the EBM/industrial scene, Die Krupps still can teach younger bands a thing or two.
It Don’t Work
Good Politics: Your Role As An Active Citizen in Civil Society
The finest socialist R’n’B band in existence (they have to be seen live to be believed, seriously, they are that good) released another album this year, and it is once again another short, sharp shock of searing rock’n’roll, soul, rhythm and of course left-wing politics. Much the same as before, then, but it was with tracks like this that they really grabbed my attention this time around, moving out of their usual comfort zone to bring in a James Brown-style tight-as-hell funk groove, similarly ass-kicking backing vocals and a general sense of fighting for a cause.
We Hate It When You Get What You Want
The Sun Comes Out Tonight
I’ll be honest – I was deeply sceptical when I saw that there was a new Filter album coming. They had long since gone from being a band where I’d automatically pick up their new album, and indeed avoided a few for a while went they went in a more ballad-led direction. But man, this track got my interest back straight off. Basically, Richard Patrick had noted that he was aiming for a stylistic return to his early material, and this delivers in spades – thundering, electronic-driven rock with a chorus roared from the rooftops. Ok, so the whole album wasn’t as brilliant as this, but at least half of it was, and that’ll do for me.
Revert To Type
Not the only unexpected return this year, Lesley Rankine resurrected her Ruby project after some years off (with a different collaborator this time, as Mark Walk isn’t involved), but sound-wise it still treads similar ground. That is, quasi-industrial electronics meshed with elegaic torch songs (with the odd exception, like the jovial rock-out that is Last Life), all dominated by Rankine’s extraordinary voice, and Fireweed demonstrates all of this well. The EP title is perhaps deliberate, even down to intelligent use of remixers to bring interesting new sounds to the new songs, much as before. Welcome back, Ruby.
A song that had me hooked from the first listen to that blistering starburst of a chorus. But before that, this is nicely built up – the distorted beats and synths give way to an unexpectedly fragile, vulnerable vocal, before it simply explodes into a chorus that comes out of nowhere and rips the song into another realm entirely. Other artists this year have explored this realm – kinda industrial-meets-pop-hooks – but none have done it with the class of this.
Of the fair number of great new industrial bands to appear recently – many of whom are at least trying to twist the genres into some new shapes, or at worst using influences we haven’t had too much of in a while – 3 TEETH seem to me to be one of the most promising prospects. OK, so starting with a sound not a million miles from Skinny Puppy is hardly unusual, but it’s what they do with it that is of intrigue. They aren’t starting with Assimilate, they are picking up from the murkier, freakier corners of SP’s history, and injecting it with a nightmarish, unsettling malevolence. The hulking, stomping NIHIL is the best track so far, although the recently released Mr Skeleton remix of Pearls 2 Swine is pretty staggering too. As well as that, I know nothing about them other than the music I’ve heard, which sometimes piques the interest that bit more.
Piece by Piece
I adored (and still love it now) Anna Calvi’s first album – a flamboyant, different sound to the multitude of female singer-songwriters around at the same time, and I was curious as to how she was going to follow it up. The answer was, with broadly more of the same, but perhaps without quite the impact that her sound made the first time around. Call that a curse of familiarity, maybe – or that simply we knew what to expect. That wasn’t to say that there were some brilliant moments, though, and Piece By Piece‘s slinky, minimal electronics really stood out as one of them. With much of the vocals delivered in a sensual purr, this had something about it that hooked me from the off. If more of the album had shown the invention that this track crammed into it’s three minutes…
Break Shins To This
RJ have been drip feeding singles for a while now, with the promise of a new album in 2014. Style-wise JP Anderson has been all over the place, too, with his singles – with a distinct lean into poppier territories at points – but this bruising track returns us squarely to the white-hot, seething fury of what got us hooked in the first place. Sum Grrl provides much of the vocals, but JP takes over for the monstrous, fist-pumping chorus that is as much thrash metal as it is industrial, and all of a sudden that new album can’t come soon enough.
A well-funded crowd-sourcing helped to ensure that this album made it to release, and the work was worth it – in my opinion far better than Drop The Mask was, and a return to the quality of The Art of Revenge in many places. Night Run leapt out immediately as the best track on the album, with XP8 sticking to their strengths. That is: lush synths, thumping beats and crucially a sense of melody and a way with a tune that many of their contemporaries seem to treat as an afterthought.
It has been a quiet year for Rebekah, after a busy 2012 that saw a great debut album and some truly brilliant shows. A recent, small-scale gig saw the begin of a return to activity, and released quietly the following day was this quite wonderful new song, a sad-eyed waltz that drips with regret (judging on the other new song debuted, this theme seems to run through her new material). Rebekah has so far been great at writing lovely songs that get under the skin, but with a darker undercurrent that isn’t always immediately obvious and an ability to skip across genres to create a sound that is her own. Music Box simply reinforces that and suggests that album number two has even more potential than the first.
The Puppy’s return this year was, frankly, unexpectedly good (particularly after the last couple of underwhelming albums), with a politically fire absolutely burning through much of it. The best track from the off, though, was this searing attack on US politics (“this is the criminal age“) that has electronics and rhythms that fizz and bounce out of the speakers, with Nivek Ogre’s best vocal performance in aeons, too. And just in time for this list came an equally brutal video (that you should probably avoid if you aren’t keen on imagery of self-harm) that helped to bring this track back to the attention.
As various festival headliners, tours and new releases seem to attest, futurepop (or whatever you want to call it nowadays) seems to be A Thing again, which is absolutely fine by me. One of the smaller artists deserving of more attention is what is becoming a crowded field again are this Italian band, who were fairly impressive last year supporting Seabound in London, and the lead single for their second album for me has thrust them right up the field. Seriously, this is wonderful. Delicate, danceable synthpop with a vocal that has a sense of immense gravitas as he considers no less than the subject of Western civilisation on the wane.
This was the first song released that qualified for this list, as I recall – dropping just before Christmas last year (I effectively run December->November, ish, for these annual rundowns, if you’re a new reader), and it deserved better exposure, that’s for sure. I:Scintilla were always an interesting band – industrial rock, of a sort, but never afraid to experiment with different styles and in Brittany Bindrim, they have a supremely talented lead singer who really does make them sound unique. This track, though, felt like a line in the sand – where, after a period of acoustic experiments, they roared back with the best song they’ve yet released. A blistering industrial track that had a fiery passion at it’s heart, and a cracking video too.
The name Batillus brings to mind the monstrous supertankers Royal Dutch Shell had built in the seventies, and sheer bulk and heaviness of those ships is especially apt here. Batillus do slow, thunderously heavy metal, at points not unlike Neurosis (as here), but with an industrial undercurrent that is more overt, a vocal that is more outright aggressive. And this track…it’s, as Pitchfork put it, almost funky. That is, a funky beat nearly steamrollered by the brutal, chugging riffs that dominate here and will have you nodding along at least.
Come On Now
Rather frustratingly Marsheaux’s return after a few years away this year didn’t get the attention it deserved, being as it was probably the best synthpop album I heard all year. In amongst the general brilliance, though, were a clutch of wonderful pop songs that continue the duo’s effortless conveyor belt of such songs. My favourite, though, of the new ones was this, a surging, pulsating electro anthem that packs quite a punch, with stabbing synth chords adding wonderful dramatic effect to the confrontational lyrics.
This Is The Time
Grittier. Happier? More Productive. The Mesh of new, if you will, have taken their sound into new areas while staying true to their melodic synthpop routes, but most of all their newer material (say, the last two albums) has a harder edge that has translated brilliantly. From the new album, this is the centrepiece – five minutes of defiance, self-awareness and yet another example of the band’s talent for writing an absolutely killer chorus.
Push The Sky Away
The glorious second single from The Bad Seeds’ fifteenth album, this track summed up the feel of the album nicely. Measured, wistful and generally laid back, this album had none of the hellraising of recent Grinderman material, or even Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, but actually was all the better for it. Apparently named after a street in the heart of Cave’s current home of Brighton, it’s a character sketch of the underbelly of a late-night city, one of sadness and regret with no real hope of redemption – and the video does the remarkable job of Ray Winstone looking utterly bereft and pathetic. Despite the sadness, though, this is Cave at his best lyrically, and the Bad Seeds provide an appropriately awesome musical backing – and the result is a song that I now consider one of their finest, ever.
Copy of A
Ok, so Hesitation Marks wasn’t quite as awesome as some of us maybe dared hope, but it certainly had a few jaw-dropping moments, and for me this track was the real killer here. A mastery of a build takes the track from one simple electronic drum pattern via layer after layer after layer to end up with one of the most densely produced – and best – Nine Inch Nails tracks in years, with lyrics that appear to suggest an artist trying to fight the urge to have to look back to his past for inspiration, something that Trent Reznor clearly did here despite that, even if it wasn’t quite the way we might have expected him to.
Ok, so hands up who thought there was even a chance of a)Neuroticfish returning and b)the new material being so brilliant? Seriously: aside from the remix (which I could take or leave) there were three glorious synthpop anthems that all could have been the lead track, and all three were aired at their Resistanz show without any complaint from the crowd. This track was the lead one, and picks up where Sasha left off with Gelb – that sense of intense melancholy and resignation at the heart of his lyrics and vocal delivery, somehow transformed into utter euphoria thanks to the sounds created behind him. Definitely A Sign of Life, but we’ll have to wait for the album itself…
It’s A Diamond Life
The Ghost List EP
Aww, man, I can’t describe how fantastic it is to be including GVSB in this list. This track appeared out of nowhere in the summer, heralding one of the most unexpected returns from hiatus in a long, long time. The band were also honest in that the new material – as it ended up being released properly on a five-track EP – was a hark back to their nineties heyday, but after the torrid experiences they had with major labels and general disinterest, returning to their peak was a smart move. Especially as it has all the elements it should – Scott McCloud’s growled, half-spoken vocals, Eli Janney’s wonderful backing vocals, Johnny Temple’s down-and-dirty basslines, and Alexis Fleisig’s powerhouse drumming. But also, there is a sense of a band loving what they do once again, and it shows clearly through the near-exuberant chorus.
OVERLAND (IN MY MIND)
A phenomenal, retro-EBM track with modern techno touches, and a monstrous hook that made this a cast-iron dancefloor smash from the first play. Also, a wicked video that riffs on classic industrial, cyberpunk and style tips from Front 242 – oh yes, this was the first sign that 2013 was absolutely going to be a good year for industrial and EBM. More material from this Australian act keenly awaited…
Youth Code’s success this year was something of a curveball. How was it a punk-influenced, old-school EBM act fresh out of Los Angeles ended up with an album being covered heavily by Pitchfork, amongst others? Some might say simply good connections, but I’d like to think that part of the reason was that it was simply really fucking good. The original demo was good, if a bit rough around the edges, but the album when it arrived demonstrated that the band had learned – and crucially, applied – an awful lot in the meantime. The track that really had most of us sitting up and taking notice, and talking about it at length was this track. Starting off with an irresistable synth loop, before the punching rhythm kicks in and a primal roar lifts us off. EBM hurled out from the heart of a maelstrom, this just edges out FORCES for the best pure EBM track of 2013.
Last year’s Airmech – an album that took me months to get into and to finally realise it’s brilliance – was bettered by the release this year of Echogenetic, where guitars were again shunned for a purely electronic album. And my god, it was good. Best moment was this, a pulverising, multi-layered tale of mechanized vengeance, composed of such complex and advance programming that it is hard to believe that it hasn’t been beamed in from the future. Their best track since anything from Hard Wired, at least, maybe even longer.
Last One Dies
Last One Dies EP
I’ve followed this band for a few years now – their debut single Confessions being in this list a few years back now – and this track was an obvious future single from the first time I heard it live. A searing, bubbling charge from the moment the first stabbing guitar riff rips out of the speakers, this is three minutes of hyper-controlled aggression – from a band that specialise in electronic-tinged rock that carries a knife behind it’s back while offering a concillatory gesture. It was this darker edge that attracted me to the band in the first place, and even after a few years the shadows are getting longer and the anger barely disguised. If they keep releasing songs of this brilliance, mind, these are developments that are fine by me.
The Bones of What You Believe
The BBC’s annual “Sound of…” list has not really done a lot for me in the past, and I’ve generally ignored it. But one chance listen to this band, who were in the 2013 list, and I had that funny feeling that they might be onto something. I was totally hooked, however, by this track – pristine, seething synthpop with a saccharine edge that is quite frankly one of the greatest pop songs I’ve heard in recent years. Catchy synths, thundering beats and a chorus that bores into your brain from the very first listen, and won’t let go. The album was great, too, but this track frankly towers over the rest of it.
LOVE AND PEACE AND SYMPATHY
The return of Six By Seven was officially heralded by this nine-minute monster. Ok, so songs from what became this album had been around for a while in various forms, as Chris Olley was releasing material left, right and centre in various guises, but the clearest pointer came from his (The Death of) Six By Seven project releases the previous year, which pretty much glowered in the corner (with no drums), but really suggested the old intensity was still there. And so it proved here – the addition of Steve Hewitt as drummer was perhaps the masterstroke, a powerhouse of a drummer that really helped to eke out the fury – and this track had that in spades. It doesn’t start like that, though. Chris Olley instead allows the tension to gradually build, until letting Hewitt loose with a thundering drum section that John Bonham would be proud of…and the best bit is, the track repeats all of this, before closing with a monumental freakout that is even more astonishing live. A worthy return for a previously underappreciated band.
Nothing But Love
I knew from the moment I heard this song live in summer 2012 that the return of Seabound was going to be something special, and the recorded version of it is even better. Those years away – new album Speak In Storms, finally due in the new year, comes well over seven years since Double-Crosser – have perhaps seen a slightly more positive outlook sneak into Seabound’s intricate tales of regret, jealousy and lost love. How? Well, this is nothing short of utterly euphoric – the electronics are washed in bright, primary colours, and once the chorus kicks in, the images of dancing through the storm without a care in world come to mind. Seabound are back, and apparently all is right with the world once more: there is no better band making synthpop right now, and this is Seabound at the peak of their considerable powers.