Among all the noise, these are the comebacks, the debuts and the dramatic statements that floored us in the first six months of this year.
Having seen director Marit Östberg’s contribution to Swedish feminist porno, Dirty Diaries, it’s easy to see the parallels between The Knife’s rude video for ‘Shaking the Habitual’’s Full of Fire and the subversive constabulary role play of Östberg’s ‘Authority’. Here’s a band no longer concerned with delicacy when turning feminist theory into a challenging, sometimes heavy-handed, return to the roots of political activism through camp provocation and garish dialectics against greed, misogyny and all forms of exclusion. Because when Karin Dreijer-Andersson bleats “the piss is territorial” over the ritualistic cross-stitch of primal gestures in Without You My Life Would be Boring, it’s hard not to be inflamed by the same agitated vigour that’s fast becoming the sound of an era. [Steph Kretowicz]
Whereas 2011's post-dubstep opus, the self-titled debut album 'James Blake', was what the artist himself describes as a "very insular diary", its follow-up 'Overgrown' looks out directly at its listener. With less vocal distortion than ever before, Blake used his second album as an opportunity to truly communicate with his listeners for the first time; there are hooks, verses and choruses, rather than just the spiralling refinement of musical ideas, and there's poetry and humanity woven into every track. From the electric tension (and frustratingly brief release) of Life Round Here to the traditional, romantic chimes of To The Last and the explicit pain of DLM, this is a record driven by emotional intensity as much as beats, making it a classic built to outlast the inevitable decay that Overgrown anticipates with bated breath. [Aimee Cliff]
Dean Blunt's 'The Redeemer' is a surprisingly conventional release from a camp known for being deliberately cryptic and obscure, but it's still not really that much of a clear progression from their past work. A break-up record pieced together with voicemail messages and rich with a beautiful - though hazy and off-kilter - musicality, you can claim it as an emotional breakthrough or another, even more sly joke, but that debate leaves out a lot of what makes this album special. Blunt's story is full of melodrama, from his damaged crooning to the heightened instrumentation and the trite song titles, and he treats it with a refined blend of sincerity, humour and disdain that goes past the question of truth-telling and into a pure, curious fascination. [Anthony Walker]
‘The Man Who Died In His Boat’ is a record to climb inside, providing shelter from the outside world - and the internal one. For these are songs that sprang from pain and therefore understand the language: quiet, insidious and ever-present. “I was so sick with depression and solitude then that the feelings just spilled over of their own accord,” Grouper’s Liz Harris told Dummy earlier this year about the period she recorded the songs on ‘The Man Who Died In His Boat’. For this is an album that almost wasn’t, compiled from material she wrote during the same period as her seminal 2008 album ‘Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill’ and yet, despite knowing this, it feels meant to be. While a song like Vital, that makes the simplest of guitar riffs sound like a prayer, stands on its own, ‘The Man Who Died In His Boat’ is an album that swallows you whole: the songs are all companions, like trees in a forest sharing sunlight and rain. Harris might’ve been singing to herself, but by expressing something so raw she extends a hand to the listener, too. [Ruth Saxelby]
South Londoner Deptford Goth made his debut album for Merok with “a few guitars, a couple of synths, a piano, various USB controllers, a laptop and an electronic cigarette”. Add to that list a depth and breadth of imagination, a quiet yet powerfully expressive voice and a brilliant ear for a pop hook, and you have a mental picture that inches close to what ‘Life After Defo’ achieves – but even that description does little to depict the very real passion that comes through this record. One of the most seamlessly cohesive releases of the year so far, the record is evidently a sum of its parts, as it riffs on the same sparse elements and motifs to build its own little sonic world. But that’s no criticism: this world is one so densely woven and ambitiously envisioned that, once you’ve climbed inside, you’ll want to stay there for a long time. [Aimee Cliff]
While this comparison might seem a little laboured, bear with it: listening to 'The Inheritors' is like watching a Werner Herzog film. Where Herzog captures vast, overwhelming landscapes that expand beyond your peripheral vision, James Holden does the same with sound. Where Herzog had a desire to capture new images, not the same stock snapshots that line the walls of travel agents, Holden wishes to capture new sounds, rather than rely on the same genre signifiers that have been reverentially recycled for since the 1980s. Where Herzog has a fascination with the wild, unpredictable and uncontrollable facets of the natural world, Holden is fascinated by the error and arbitrations of his modular synthesiser. Both refer to an old world not as naturally beautiful but as imposing and immense. And both do as much as they can to go against the grain as if it’s their duty as artists – although it’s unlikely either consider themselves “artists” in any traditional sense. Returning after a seven year absence, it’s hard to imagine that Holden could have come up with anything more satisfying than 'The Inheritors'. [Selim Bulut]
One of Devon Welsh’s strongest assets as a songwriter is his ability to effortlessly move between states of space and time. ‘Impersonator’ glides through past memories of pained adolescence (Childhood’s End), present anxieties about his position as a performer (Impersonator and I Do Sing For You), reflections on his own mortality (Notebook) and even to an envisaged afterlife (Silver Rings). This journeying is led along by the careful, considered, production of bandmate Matthew Otto, knowing when to dust up and when to polish off these intimate songs in all the right places; but looking too far beyond Welsh’s voice isn’t easy. Soaring and projecting out like a body reaching to the water’s surface, the vocal performance of 'Impersonator' is as commanding and truthful as they come, leading along that most satisfying of album experiences: witnessing realised potential in full flight. [Robert Darnell]
Slava’s debut LP is “raw” in more ways than one. Following up the more refined decadence of last year's ‘Soft Control’ EP, ‘Raw Solutions’ presents an autopsy of human perversion in all its lewd detail through the “girls on dick”, “hos” and panting Britney Spears samples that collide in a demented, footwork-informed, interrogation of the cracked American dream through the clear and cynical eyes of a Russian immigrant. As a realisation of Slava’s own polarised dispositions, from the perspective of a Chicago-raised Muscovite, the New York based producer, DJ, new media artist and software programmer presents a devastatingly incisive take on dance floor debauchery. [Steph Kretowicz]
Maxmillion Dunbar is a human encyclopaedia, a man who consumes records ravenously, and so it’s not a surprise that his second album is full of little nods to the sounds and rhythms of yesteryear – a cymbal crash here, the reverb of a snare, a Roland TR-909 drum pattern lifted from a classic house record – but 'House Of Woo' is, above all else, a very experimental record. These familiar references only sound more alien against the rest of Dunbar’s sounds, which are unlike much else out there right now. But as much as 'House Of Woo' is a triumph of originality, it’s also an absolute blast to listen to, jam packed with dance tracks, loose jams, psychedelic grooves and really great vibes. Not many other records this year have been as constantly rewarding as this – six months on from its release, each listen is still like receiving a shot of serotonin to the brain. [Selim Bulut]
The “Book Of Hours” concept occurred to singer Tom Clarke, one half of London-based duo Cloud Boat, on a trip to the British Library. “They have these Books of Hours,” he told Dummy back in May; “they’re small books that people used to write confessions and prayers in, and you used to decorate them and once they were finished you would always keep it on your person.” Cloud Boat’s stunning debut album reflects this sensibility by sounding like a patchwork of personal experiences, of generic influences (there's as much about their sound that could be called folk as there is post-dubstep) and of instrumentation. In places, such as the wistful Dréan, both Clarke and his partner in crime Sam Ricketts pluck guitars, and Clarke's beautiful voice weaves soft, gloomy tales; in others, distorted voices howl - such as throughout Bastion - and bass rumbles angrily in the belly of Amber Road. Somehow, Cloud Boat have achieved the feat of making a broadly diverse record that manages to have scarcely any definitive, constant features, and yet also is one of the most singular, distinctive releases of the year so far. [Aimee Cliff]
Gloomy producer and sound designer The Haxan Cloak, aka Bobby Krlic, doesn't see his work as necessarily depressing; as he put it succinctly in this Dummy film from a few months ago, "one man's poison is another man's medicine". His second album for Tri Angle, 'Excavation', isn't necessarily the doom-laden journey its noose-emblazoned artwork sets it out to be; a nuanced and curious - even playful - exploration of the idea of travelling to the afterlife, it's as much about Krlic being allowed to experiment with the sound of an eight foot gong as it is about exploring a personal relationship with life and death, and in that sense it's an incredibly affirmative and thrilling work of art from a very unique electronic composer. [Aimee Cliff]
Space Dimension Controller’s debut album is like watching a zero budget sci-fi film that has been taped off of a broadcast from a Soviet state television channel which itself was broadcast from a crap VHS transfer. It’s goofy, it’s cornball, and it’s excellent. Littered across the album are nods to all sorts of vintage sounds – p-funk, electro-rap like the Jonzun Crew, Captain Rapp and the Egyptian Lover, acid techno, Drexciyan electro – but it’s got a certain quality that prevents it from seeming purely retro pastiche. Maybe it’s the sense of humour on display, which is hilarious and yet totally straightfaced, preventing the album from falling into outright farce. Or maybe it’s because Space Dimension Controller has a deep understanding and command of this music, bending the references to fit his own vision in a way that goes beyond parody – hear the genuine funk of Welcome To Microsektor-50, or the authentic emotion of the otherwise porno-smooth The Love Quadrant. Maybe it’s not worth intellectualising – just enjoy the journey. [Selim Bulut]
You could see the coffee shop concept Zane Reynolds, aka SFV Acid, built his debut album around being handled really clumsily in other hands, but in his it's a treasure. His music, as his name suggests, has always been about evoking a geography in a distinct musical language and the specificity of 'The Dwell' allows him to keep close to his suburban aesthetic and make a structure at the same time. Well, a loose, patchy structure at least: beats and melodies build and rise throughout before quickly mutating or just stopping altogether. Some might find that frustrating but it makes perfect sense here, soundtracking all the little moments of euphoria and boredom you'd go through if you were writing and recording an album entirely in a local Starbucks. It's hyper-aware of its surroundings but very personal too, his view of the small world of caffeine, cash and convenience alternatively wide or cross-eyed but never cold. The fact that its grandest moment ends with a toilet break is one of the funniest and, oddly, most charming things we've heard this year.
As an aside, we really hope Reynolds finds or raises the funds to replace all the gear that was recently stolen from him soon. [Anthony Walker]
"I suddenly wanted to live very badly, to be as alive as fucking possible. For me this record reflects that," Nate Grace of Austin trio Pure X told Dummy earlier this year, talking about the band's second album 'Crawling Up The Stairs' and the intense circumstances that brought it to life. That idea breathes incredibly palpably throughout this overwhelmingly full-to-the-brim, close-to-the-bone album. 'C.U.T.S.' - that acronym just can't be an accident - is a painful record, sweeping the dust away from their distortion-fogged debut; the vocals are more challenging (the hopeless drawl of Someone Else is definitively painful/pleasurable listening), the melodies more solid (Thousand Year Old Child floats in your mind for days) and the sound in general is padded out with richer arrangements than the band have ever attempted before. 'Crawling Up The Stairs', with its momentous surge forwards, is the sound of forcing yourself to go on despite everything that stands in your way, and coming out a better person for it. [Aimee Cliff]
2013 will be remembered as the year of the trumpet-blowing event album, but one of its finest to date is but a whisper of a record. Darkstar’s second album ‘News From Nowhere’ is the calm after the dark synth pop storm of their debut, ‘North’; the lullabies after the war cries; the desire for micro after macro. On ‘News From Nowhere’ Darkstar find a different kind of drama in minute observation, but instrumentally and texturally, they go all out - creating vistas of sound that appear as pastoral dioramas. Timeaway, the record’s understated anthem, clicks and whirs like water trickling through a mill; Bed Music - North View unfurls wistfully, and Hold Me Down is simply the best sunrise song I’ve heard since Orbital’s Belfast. But it is Amplified Ease that finds Darkstar at the most personal they’ve got on record: “Lie on my own / Rise and shine on my own / I’m just fine on my own / Don’t complain”. It’s just one of many tender moments on an album that is overwhelmingly nurturing. Don’t expect a repeat performance, though: resistance and evolution are part and parcel of Darkstar’s DNA. Remember when everyone wanted an Aidy’s Girl album and they delivered ‘North’? They’ve already tweeted to expect some “bangers”. Contrary as ever: Darkstar, never change. [Ruth Saxelby]
Building on the lo-fi impressionism of his initial releases, Autre Ne Veut’s ‘Anxiety’ saw the Brooklyner deliver in high definition with crystal clarity and bucketloads of unblinking emotion. While the title referred to its more pronounced personal subject matters, the sound of ‘Anxiety’ was one charged by overcoming such uncertainties. It’s this gritty refusal to hold back – to pour everything out no matter what – that makes the garishness of the Prince-emulating guitar chugs on Warning, or A Lie’s pearly synthetic strings sound so glorious. Autre Ne Veut has spoken of how for this first release on Daniel Lopatin’s Software label his approach was far more as a singer-songwriter, and this really, really shows. While there’s a tendency to slap a “tragi-” or a “failure-” prefix onto the genre name for ANV's music, these can feel like superfluous descriptors: with Play by Play, Counting and particularly the dancefloor transcendence of Ego Free Sex Free, ‘Anxiety’ features some of the sharpest, straight-up pop the year has offered so far. [Robert Darnell]
"You can touch four walls in here while standing still,” sings Kai Campos on Home Recording, the opener to Mount Kimbie’s second album ‘Cold Spring Fault Less Youth’. While this metaphor neatly brings to life the drawback of bedroom producing, it’s tempting to also think of it as the walls put up by being pinned to a genre closing in. Certainly, ‘Cold Spring Fault Less Youth’ sounds like a breaking out of sorts: they seize instruments, find their voices, collaborate. The result is that, while the form has evolved, the big, uniting moments are as big as ever: Made To Stray takes their characteristic build-and-breakthrough flow to its pop conclusion and Meter, Pale, Tone is chaotically, poetically ecstatic. But things get really exciting where they veer off-road: So Many Times, So Many Ways is a country rock tinged slow burner; Lie Near wouldn't be out of place on a spaghetti western; Slow melts into space boogie; and Fall Out spins warm guitar riffs over a delicate, spiraling piano loop. There are slip-ups, notably Blood & Form which feels clumsy and a little lumpen - but not enough to dampen the mood. ‘Cold Spring Fault Less Youth’ has been shaped by growing pains, twisting and turning this way and that, but its stretch marks are its most beautiful bits: they are proof of the growth. [Ruth Saxelby]
"If you need to, you can get away from the sun" Ruban Nielson, the New Zealand-born artist behind Unknown Mortal Orchestra, sings listlessly on the opening track of his second album, 'II'. It's a deliberately lo-fi, bleached-out guitar track that, like the rest of the record, basks in a glorious wash of imperfect, soft-around-the-edges sound and simple tunes, with a summery result. That's all nice enough, but the really amazing thing about this album is the gritty, bitter and searingly honest undercurrent that defines its off-kilter tone. 'II' is a masterful record that depicts superficial markers of smiley-faced nostalgia failing to cover the cracks though which something much more sincere, and much more sinister, is stirring beneath. [Aimee Cliff]
It says a lot about Kanye West's restless innovation that 'Yeezus' manages to be one of the most significant and enjoyable releases of the year despite being far from the perfect record that everyone wanted it to be, and that its very title sets it up to be. Rick Rubin told press days before its release that Yeezy wrote and recorded much of his sixth album's vocals in an incredible rush of creativity a few weeks before its release - and, unfortunately, you can pretty much tell. In places he's more righteous and visceral than he's ever been, but certain lines - take that infamously gross one-liner about "sweet and sour sauce", for example - are disgusting not only for their offensive content but their sheer laziness, a crime which is only worsened by the fact that this is album is so flagrantly ambitious and exhilirating in its adventurous sonic palette. When 'Yeezus' hits the heights it reaches for, though, it's sublime in the way that a furious tantrum is sublime; it writhes, lashes out, screams and hyperventilates. The production - mined from, among others, the talented likes of Hudson Mohawke, Evian Christ and Arca - thrashes with an intensity and individuality matched by no other release yet this year. [Aimee Cliff]
An awful lot has changed in both the dance music and indie rock worlds since the release of the original ‘After Dark’ in 2007, yet six years and numerous delays on, its sequel seems as satisfactory as it could have ever been simply by doing what they’ve always done, and doing it well. There are a few stylistic departures on show, like Twisted Wires’ slo-mo piano house track Half Lives, or the vocoder acrobatics on Mirage’s Let’s Kiss, but the main difference between the two compilations is just how refined the IDIB aesthetic has become in the intervening years. Everything sounds a lot fuller and more robust – the synths are smoother, the vocals cleaner and more prominent, the drum machine kicks pack that extra punch. In-house producer Johnny Jewel, behind all 15 of 'After Dark 2'’s tracks, is probably one of the most recognisable producers around right now. [Selim Bulut]
There have been a dizzying number of high profile releases in the first half of 2013 - it's been explosive in the scope of its anticipation (Justin getting the whole world in a tizzy over a one minute trailer; Beyonce perpetually caught in a will-she-or-won't-she album announcement limbo), campaigns (Daft Punk holding a listening party at the top of the Shard; Boards of Canada holding one in an abandoned waterpark) and reunions (MKS, MKS, MKS!). Here at Dummy HQ we've been frazzled trying to keep up - but as it's all been unfolding, there have been 20 albums that have been constantly spinning in the background. There are the debuts, giving us that tingly feeling you get when you hear a bold, innovative new voice; the striking second albums, that have solidified our love for the artists and collectives who just continue to get better; the concept albums that weave new worlds around us and the dancefloor timebombs that have us itching for Friday night. There have been countless high impact releases in the first half of this year, it's true: but these are the ones we've still got on repeat as we move into the second.
Click on an album cover to launch the list.