Sam Lefebvre’s Top Five Albums of 2013

Our critics recommend the best music of the year.

Kirin J. Callinan, Embracism

Kirin J. Callinan’s debut album, Embracism, combines the darkened pop of 1980s New Romantics with the startling clamor of the era’s industrial groups. But those influences are just starting points for the Australian musician. He’s got a strong command of his instruments, as well as engaging lyrics and hooks that demand repeated listening. “Victoria M.” is a buoyant soundscape of intersecting synthesizer melodies, with Callinan crooning lyrics that subtly suggest a narrative of infidelity. It’s the complete opposite of the title track, in which Callinan conjures swaths of noise and shouts about the nature of strength and physical power in the digital age. On “Come On USA,” he pays ironic homage to the United States via the claim that Bruce Springsteen makes him cry, and he sings emotionally on the sparse piano ballad “Landslide.” Throughout, Callinan’s eclectic sonic palette complements his strengths as a lyricist and singer. (XL/Siberia/Terrible)

Julia Holter, Loud City Song

Julia Holter’s third album, Loud City Song, is experimental, conceptual, and erudite, but it’s also beautiful and accessible. A classically trained musician, Holter uses her skills in electronic production and traditional composition to craft an atmosphere that’s harrowing and detailed. Opening track “World” is sparse, with only minimal string accompaniment and Holter’s slowly enunciating and poignantly sustained voice. Her intonation is precise, evocative, and mixed to the fore throughout. On “Maxim’s I,” which was inspired by a nightclub scene from the 1958 musical Gigi, Holter evokes the socialites’ dreamlike atmosphere of gossip and speculation, but “Maxim’s II” rearranges the song to twist the same scene into one of social anxiety. Holter’s songs are cinematic in the sense that they impart vivid scenarios with specific feelings. She’s a master at creating unique and immersive worlds. (Domino Records)

Lumerians, The High Frontier

East Bay act Lumerians make space-rock for the modern listener. The High Frontier deals in nebulous psychedelia and hypnotic grooves. The guitars sound warped and the keyboards warble, but a tight rhythm section grounds each track. If the aim of psychedelic music is to alter our perception of the world, the band’s impeccably smooth drums and low end channel each track to the most vulnerable corners of our mind. The six long tracks are heady but, refreshingly, devoid of nostalgia. Psychedelic bands, especially in the Bay Area, tend to favor a vintage and retro sound. By contrast, Lumerians embrace the clarity of modern recording and digital effects to create otherworldly music. Drugs are one way to travel through space; technology is another. Lumerians embrace the latter to advance the psychedelic form. (Partisan Records)

Screature, Screature

Upstart Sacramento quartet Screature successfully transposed its live ferocity to a recording this year. As likely to caravan to Oakland for a clandestine warehouse show as to open for fellow gloomy Sacramento outfit Chelsea Wolfe, Screature is carving a unique path. Its self-titled debut album’s eleven tracks feature menacing and bleak rock music and convey a penchant for macabre theatrics. Guitarist Christopher Orr is a versatile player who conjures an array of bizarre and serrated sounds from his instrument, while the rhythm section, which consists of organist Sarah Scherer and drummer Miranda Vera, is relentless. Vocalist Liz Mahoney’s husky delivery is a consummate force, whether she’s shouting, “I wish they were all dead!” or emitting a frightening, hysterical laugh at the terminus of a black dirge. Screature’s members have a sense of humor, a telling wink that they’re only performers after all — albeit skilled ones, draped in black veils and cabaret flair. (self-released)

Free Time, Free Time

New York-by-way-of-Australia quartet Free Time makes a compelling case for restraint on its eponymous debut. The drums offer the bare minimum required to keep the beat, the guitar supplies melancholy chords that softly ring out, and sparse guitar leads lumber lazily along in between verses. Each song offers deconstructed sketches of the elements that constitute pop chord progressions and melody. The approach extends to vocalist Dion Nania’s delivery as well: His breathy and light voice teeters between speaking and singing. “It’s Alright” uses the simplest expressions of romance to paint a moving portrait of passion: Nania sings about lovers bringing each other coffee and meeting at the airport. With Free Time’s tasteful rendering, seemingly mundane rituals assume epic significance. By the time Nania proclaims that everything is alright in the chorus, everything is more like bliss. (Underwater Peoples)

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