Given how common cassette releases have become, charting the best tapes of 2013 is a massive task that breeds caveats galore. Kudos to the brave people who have attacked that in earnest. Instead, I’d like to offer up some essentials from the artists and labels whose releases have stuck with me all year long and have, to varying degrees, created the signposts that help me chart the mental landscape of 2013.
Let’s be clear on how this works, though. Cassette tapes are a physical means of delivering audio information. Beyond that, tapes are fundamentally a consumer product. The plastic that makes it all happen is created by gigantic conglomerates out of nasty chemicals that you wouldn’t otherwise want in your apartment. The magic of tapes isn’t in the tape itself, but in what’s recorded on them and how people exploit this touchy and loveable format. If your favorites didn’t make the list, then I still want to hear them. Please enjoy.
Aaron Dilloway & Tom Smith, Allein Zu Zweit
This tape is a unembellished “documentation” of a night at FSK Hamburg that culminated in a supposedly unplanned collaboration between Dilloway and Smith. I’m jealous I was not there and grateful that this taping of it exists. Careful when you play this tape, because your player might get some collaborative spirit jammed into it. That stuff is impossible to get out.
Buy it from Fragment Factory.
Beth Israel, self titled
Austin duo Beth Israel have been on their game this year, making moody postpunk guitar tunes with a penchant for precision that keeps them from straying into overly abstract territory. Consistently mid-tempo and often surprisingly heavy, this release covers a lot of ground stylistically, while staying sharp and on point at every turn. This is essential summer listening that's still a fresh as the day it was delivered.
You can find this and more from Dull Tools.
Boy Friend, Secret City EP
Boy Friend was sorely missed and their return, Secret City, was a highlight of last February’s that managed to stand out among Night-People’s excellent spectrum of releases, the whole year through. Uncanny harmonies and a carefully crafted sense of wonder permeate each track, which all seem to be constructed to leave the listener hanging on a next note that never comes. The band recently expanded their lineup, so it will be exciting to see what they get up to in 2014.
Get your copy of Secret City here.
By Coastal Café, Yvette
The fast and loose indie pop of Swedish duo By Coastal Café has found fresh life. Compiling recordings made between 1996 and 2000 in London and Växjö, Yvette is part archival piece, part argument for the continued viability of home taping. This music is at once inseparable from the times and places that produced it, but still has a raw appeal that stems from the fact that By Coastal Café is easily on par with many of their better known contemporaries.
By Coastal Café, Yvette is available from Zeon Light.
Cream Juice, Man Feelings
This is one of the best received cassette releases of the last year for a reason. Orange Milk Records masterminds Keith Rankin, also of Giant Claw, and Seth Graham flex their creative powers with electronic arrangements that are as energetic as they are complex. And wow, they are complex. Like precious antiquities import laws complex. Man Feelings rewards both repeated close listens and casual plays with expanded headspace, night vision, and fresh breath. More of this, please.
Buy it here, from Orange Milk Records.
Horselover Fats, Pierre
Audio collage is a term that’s used to talk about either produced to death sampler music or the kind of raw and stitched together experimentalism that reflects the fact that the artists involved were more focused on the tools at hand than achieving any particular result. This tape is definitely the latter of those two. Spoken words, ambient recordings, and intense guitar that slips into thrash and then disintegrates. To top it off, the B-side is just the A-side in reverse, so you’ve got the poison and the antidote in one package.
Grab it from GODMODE.
Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier, Those Vermillion Sands
Félicia Atkinson might be trying to brainwash us all, but that's ok. The combination of polyvalent synth textures and demure spoken word of Those Vermillion Sands is especially effective. This is music that infiltrates the subconscious, acting like a highbrow earworm. Not for everyone, but absolutely worth exploring.
Copies are still available from NNA Tapes.
Jerry Paper, Fuzzy Logic
The demise of Lucas Nathan's much beloved Zonotope™ project left a void that universal balance demanded Jerry Paper had to fill. Starting with trickle of songs on Soundcloud, culminating in the release of International Man of Misery on Orange Milk and finally the slightly more optimistic Fuzzy Logic. It's smart sad man pop music, along the lines of a less tech obsessed Thomas Dolby or an artful and inquisitive take on what plays when you hit the “demo” button on a Casio MT-540. Jerry Paper is also very good at Twitter.
Julia Brown, To Be Close to You
Sam Ray’s music tends to turn heads. His output as Ricky Eat Acid and (briefly) Teen Suicide have become staples of several music circles, both geographical and digital. Julia Brown represents a collaborative approach all around, boasting a long list of inspirations and contributors. The music itself is pure indie pop goodness, laced with just enough self awareness to keep things interesting. It’s complex human feeling translated directly to tape, which, for its part, is never short on hiss to remind you it's there. If you’re in the mood for an obtuse love song, To Be Close to You is a sure bet.
Copies of TBCTY are available from Birdtapes.
Los Cripis, Goldfish
Argentinian three piece Los Cripis consistently make guitar music that relies on short songs and surprising moments of dissonance to strike a charming balance. Concept driven simplicity keeps the songs self-contained, while very twee moments inevitably get pushed out of the way by heavy hooks, upping the kinetic energy of each track. In many ways, this is a model for how to create a memorable EP.
Goldfish is available from Fariscal Records.
Marie Davidson, Marie Davidson
Marie Davidson’s self titled EP is an unquestionably dark and often spare marriage of synth and the human voice. Stunning in its execution and puritanical in its devotion to a stark melodic economy, every composition holds a candle to a facet larger overriding aesthetic that remains elusive, though at some level always understood. This enigma demands study, though no real answers are required.
Tapes are still available from Holodeck Records.
PrismCorp Virtual Enterprises, Home™
MIDI is a language all its own. Its near supreme dominance is an ode to the modern musician’s passion for detail and overly pragmatic tendencies. That said, PrismCorp Virtual Enterprises’ MIDI fueled Home™ is anything but basic, cranking out passionate nostalgia for a past that never existed. The holy spirit of Web 1.0 descends, resulting in digital glossolalia. Witness as a cover of Scritti Politti's “Perfect Way” just about kills off all life on the planet, then resurrects everything as smiling blue spheres. If this is your thing, then you should also give PCVE's ClearSkies™ a listen, as well.
Home™ is available from Beer on the Rug.
Tereshkova, Intergalactic Letdown
Intergalactic Letdown is a prime example of how sophisticated home recorded music can be. It makes sense then that home taping advocates Lillerne Tapes and Teen River would team up to help push Tereshkova out into the world. Striding the well toed border between dream pop and shoegaze, Jeff Lane and Tyler King manage to show us their own lucid vision of that terrain. Have to love these guitar tones, especially how they negotiate their place alongside bright synthesizers and whole hearted vocals.
The tape edition is currently sold, out but Intergalactic Letdown is still available digitally.
The Slasher Film Festival Strategy, Wet Leather
A long time side project of hardcore journeyman Christopher Ashley, The Slasher Film Festival Strategy has found new life as a more explicit ode to horror film soundtracks in its last few releases. The notoriously bright DX-21 and Juno-60 mesh nicely with a little tape fuzz, helping to tame the heavy atmosphere of these tracks into a more manageable shape.
Wet Leather is available from Mirror Universe Tapes.
Riot Meadows, SIMULACRA
Riot Meadows takes it one long breath and one muddy beat at a time with SIMULACRA. Drawing on a universe of slowed, screwed, and otherwise distorted music, Riot Meadows uses digital weapons to carve out a sonic niche that’s ultimately intensely organic. That tends to manifest in some unexpected and unsettling ways that make it clear that not all is chill as it seems.
Watch for more copies from Purr Tapes.
José Cota’s Ssleeperhold has long been rumbling away in the background of the LA and Texas synth scene. After years of tracking his live performances and label hunting, his long overdue solo is finally here. While the pop sensibility of his work with Medio Mutante or, more recently, BOAN is still in play, Ssleeperhold is undeniably a slow drive through a rougher neighborhood. It’s all about the swung out bass rhythms and mechanical precision of the percussion grinding away the layers of fuzz to reveal the massive vein of body music beneath. The refined power of Ruleth cannot be denied.
Ruleth is now available from Holodeck Records.
Trabajo & Madrugapha, Split Tape
This split tape finds both bands flexing their chill out muscles in a big way. Between the transglobal synth and sample work of Trabajo and the psychedelic, semi-devotional sensibilities of Madrugapha, you’ve got enough mbira, gamelan, and other imported notions to outfit a small music shop. Much respect for how both groups treat these “exotic” elements as a cohesive element of their sonic toolkit, rather than a flourish, though. It’s prime music for deep thinking, or better yet, not thinking at all.
The tape is now available from No Kings.
Unkle Funkle, Picture of My Dick
Unkle Funkle seems to have a hand and various other body parts in many creative endeavors this year, with Picture of My Dick being the most . . . himself of them all. So much so that it took the combined might of Gnar Tapes and Burger Records to put this one out. Unapologetic and endearingly upfront, it’s easy to get lost in the stoner theatre of these tracks.
Vales, Unsolid State
It’s uncommon for a title to be so apt. Vales’s Unsolid State is a headlong rush through electronic ephemera that embraces both structure and repetition, but avidly manifests them on its own terms and expectations. Each basic framework reinvents itself effortlessly, while making use of a sonic palate is mostly built from elements that recall the muted, basic electronic signals that shape our everyday lives, tape error, and electronic interference. This tape is a strong argument for the brutal being beautiful.
Unsolid State is available from La Cohu.
Ventla's Smuggled is the number one micro pop album the year, in my opinion. With the longest track topping out at a minute and nine seconds, it's a hardcore songwriting approach to ear candy that emphasizes excerpts of abbreviations of introductions to fully realized fragments. It's 28 tracks and a thousand moments, purring, squelching, and tinkling past your head like a commercial for a good idea you haven't had yet. Gripping stuff, all around. Put it on and let it ride.
Orange Milk still has copies left.
Auris Apothacery’s NES Soundtrack Series
At a time when digital archiving is the norm and vintage technology is often a signifier of kitschy attempt to establish a unique identity, Auris Apothecary flipped the paradigm by releasing 10 classic NES game soundtracks on cassette tape. There’s a think piece in that instant collision of nostalgia and function, but I’ll leave that to you. In the meantime, definitely explore the one of a kind entity that is Auris Apothecary.
There are still some copies left here.
Burger Records, A Taste of Burger Records
The always prolific Burger Records has an output that’s easy to get lost in. Thankfully they saw fit to gift the world with a 57 track, double cassette primer. Part history lesson, part manifesto, and all fun, there’s so much here to love.
Chill Mega Chill, The Chiller III
The audio companion to Chill Mega Chill’s yearly “Hallowzine,” this comp features a wide variety of artists getting dark. It’s amazing what people will do with a little license to get strange. The results are completely unexpected and not to be missed.
There’s plenty more to love from Chill Mega Chill.
Crash Symbols (Emily Reo, Yohuna, Brown Bread, and MoonLasso), Clubhouse Split
This four-way split tape had a past life as a single album. You can’t convince me otherwise. While the points of unity between these 4 artists are interesting in their own way, the contrasts that come into focus. Definitely recommend digesting in a single sitting, if possible.
The Clubhouse Split is still available digitally from Crash Symbols.
Digitalis Recordings, The Isolatarium
The brainchild of Digitalis founder Brad Rose, The Isolatarium doubles as a high concept space epic and showcase for the talents of some of the key artists in that label’s orbit. Art by Giant Claw/Cream Juice/Orange Milk Records’ Keith Rankin nestles the comp gently in galactic grids and squiggles. On top of that, here’s also an accompanying eBook that I have not read, but need to.
Listen to more from Digitalis Recordings.
DZ Tapes, DYVNZMBR2
This comp was default summer listening for me. Varied and well arranged, this listens like an unguided tour of some of my favorite artists and tracks from the last year. Not something you can throw on and ignore. Headphones or big, loud speakers are required.
Listen to more from DZ Tapes.
Folktale Records, Smashed 40: Slummer Jams
40 tracks of music from some of the most twisted heads in the experimental pop game would be welcome in any season. This one happened to be vaguely related to summer, which is a nice kind of tape to make. The name of the compilation is also a pun. A great compilation for sparking ideas on a lazy afternoon.
Get the double cassette from Folktale Records.
Goldrush 2013 Compilation
The Goldrush Festival teamed up with Planted Tapes to create a compilation of the bands and artists who were playing the fest. The result is a stirring, coherent body of music that makes me a bit jealous I couldn't see all of this live.
Orchid Tapes Compilation, Angeltown
A limited compilation, featuring of some of Orchid Tapes' best doing what they do. Together, these audio scraps take on the feel of a more personal mixtape; one that you might make for yourself around a season, cleaning your house in slow motion or walking farther than you should in cold weather. Overall, and nice example of how tapes allow for a unique form of curation, paired with music that's up to the challenge.
You can listen to more on Orchid Tapes.
Otherworldly Mystics, Book One
The vintage sci-fi book jacket style artwork sets the tone for this unexpected and stylistically varied collection of. One of those things that you see around, forget to listen to, and then get completely lost in. Excellent commuter music, if your commute involves deep freeze hypersleep, in between bouts of occasional space piracy.
Find this tape and more from Otherworldly Mystics.