November was the month of Rob Ford-gate, OutKast reunion rumors, and Bound 2 vs. 3 (depending on your alliances), and it seemed like things could be getting pretty bleak as we roll on in to Game of Thrones-style winter is coming. Not so, as it turns out, when all the music that we heard in November raised the bar to aid us through our winter glum, surprising us with both joy and depth with every turn. This month's list features a heavy dose of ambient and experimental—seasonal affective disorder, bro—but we ultimately had to give the Best Of to an album that got us out of bed and in fighting form for the coming month of egg nog, drunk uncles, and trees. It's time to deck the halls, so here are a few albums you could stand to put on your wishlist.
The Best Album of November 2013
Vex Ruffin is a self-anointed Beast Master. He's proven an aptitude in it with a series of experimental EPs on Stones Throw since signing to the label via demo – one of the only roster members to do so. There's just no pinning down Ruffin's sound, which can cause rifts as one EP could resonate, while the next grates the ears.
In a brief correspondence with Ruffin he stated, “I know this album is different than my previous work but I'm happy and proud of it.” The self-titled debut takes risks, but considering it was culled from roughly a hundred song options, there's this feeling that some wise tracking input from Peanut Butter Wolf, months (possibly years) of mutations, and a bit of luck all played significant roles in the final cut. By album closer “Ruined”, you'll have understood Ruffin as a bit of Roy Orbison giving way to the natural 80s synth-progression of Alan Vega and tossing in the down n' out punk of Wreckless Eric. It oscillates between angular Public Image Ltd. disaffection, posturing as callously visceral, only to retreat to a comfortable basement for a vulnerable demo that dwells on the loneliness of staying home on a Friday night. Whether the EPs inspired anticipation or you've been questioning Stones Throw's signing of Ruffin, the self-titled debut is possibly one of finest label debuts since James Pants' Welcome.
The Best Music of November 2013 (in no particular order):
Emerging from this aura of mystery, Stealth of Days' primary weapon is actually its pristine sound quality—mixed by the duo with mastering help from legend Rashad Becker, it's all watercolor washes and gently aerated textures, a warm fuzzy blanket for the ears. Stealth of Days, feels like it was long in gestation, boasting vibey composition reminiscent of both semi-serious MIDI freaks Ford & Lopatin, whose 2011 album Channel Pressure made a case for nostalgia’s catalytic power on the imagination, and the slinky atmospherics of producer Dev Hynes.
The Dorner vs Tookie mixtape unites the roster, particularly Open Mike Eagle, Busdriver, and Milo who could form a supergroup based on the collaborations scattered throughout the mixtape. The three operate like a hydra holding court over the direction of the label, while contributions like KAIL's "We On" and Rheteric Ramirez's "Fuck A Nightstalker" are strong solo outings from the less prolific members. To some degree, there's a nostalgia that comes with Dorner vs. Tookie. It brings to mind the Soundbombing mixtapes.
When three musical entities join to form one, there is always a risk that their styles won't be compatible or that the result will sound pasted together from their disparate individual tastes. In the case of Pelt Part Wild Gate—a collaboration between Pelt, Gate, and Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides—the result couldn't possibly feel more organic. Hung On Sunday is both calming and challenging, and will put you in a deep trance. One of the most stunning collaborations we've heard of late.
Delving into Battered Sphinx, the modern transmissions are met with the muffled sound of machine gun fire, but the texture is natural, possibly to a point that it shouldn't be. When the rain washes out the overture, a pergatory of a broken loop keeps the composition in awkward rest, until it is once again met with the cleansing power of another rain. NNA Tapes views Ahnnu as an musicial anthropologist – couldn't agree more. There's the lingering sense that he's challenging us for the sake of observation.
With their synth-driven soulful tunes, LA duo Skin Town fit snugly into the new R&B mold, but use the mold to craft uniquely mood-altering, candlelight-inducing, smoky numbers that stick between ears and inspire the hips. Skin Town definitely draw from The Weeknd’s moody, ethereal, and heavily produced approach to seductive tunes, yet the two cut down on the creep factor with a sexy and unbelievably talented female singer who sings more about 90s-era romantic lovemaking than the dystopian coke-addled stripper-banging that’s so popular these days. Though it might have softer edges, the band’s debut album, The Room, is still a record to lose yourself to, in the bedroom or in a slow-motion daydream.
Milo was so amused by Clams Casino's moniker he started a side project called Scallops Hotel, which became Milo's home recording refuge for experimenting with production. It was a year ago Milo opened cease & desist mail from Anticon for rapping over Baths' production. With guidance from Cavalcade collaborator Riley Lake, Milo crafted four of the instrumentals on his debut as Scallops Hotel, entitled Poplar Grove (Or How To Rap With A Hammer). The 9-song release feels insular and reclusive from the shaky hum of lo-fi mic levels, and when Milo finds his own work in inadequate he enlists the help of Busdriver, Iglooghost, ELOS, Jincallo, and Lee Bannon for production assistance.
Amherst fourpiece Pachangacha have been making music for a long, long time (some members from Chalk Talk find their home here), and their debut record, WEIRDHEAD, feels like a mix of Weezer, Hum, and that one good Midtown song (there was only one). Added in to the mix are the occasional Sifl and Olly-style vocals and Weird Al-level fucking around, and you've got the perfect blend to make WEIRDHEAD.
Särna, Sweden maverick Daniel Johnsson keeps a very elusive air about his sound, and after you hear Family Tapes Vol. 3, you too will find yourself talking cryptically about this homemade labor of love. Family Tapes Vol. 3 is an audio heirloom photo album you won't forget anytime soon.
Given the chance to compile an album's worth of material documenting the current state of the Bay Area garage scene, the compilation that would become I Need You Bad, singer/songwriter Sonny Smith did what he always does and thought bigger. In less capable hands, especially in the absence of resources, or a proper sounding board, this kind of mission creep can dilute or even derail the most modest of projects. Smith, however, curates with confidence.
Summer is long over in these parts of the East Coast, and though November's rankings find us listening to a lot of noise and experimental albums, we can't seem to let go of this Saralee/Giving Up split. Rooted deeply in summer and spontaneous group trips to the beach, the blend of Saralee's two-piece lofi and Giving Up's indiepop duality are like a one-way ticket to imaginary humidity and sand beneath the toes. Tape releases may be having their it moment, but this one warrants the ubiquitous plastic model if only to make it more resilient to fast bike rides and tossing into canvas bags packed with tuna sandwiches.
It is rare that this kind of gorgeous, subversive, dreampop makes it out of the image-obsessed, iron military grip of Israel. Good on Burger Records for making it happen Stateside, too. As guitarist/vocalist Juval Harring put it, "In this album all the lyrics in all the songs are about the same thing, because I wrote it as a whole. A sense of things being unreal around you."