Arts Desk

Genre Dysphoria: The Best D.C. Music of 2013

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With Chuck Brown in his eternal resting place and Ian MacKaye settled down and playing only occasional dates with The Evens, how has D.C. music moved on?

In 2013, the answer was clearer: This is a hip-hop town, at least more than it was before. The area now has three significant hip-hop exports: trap-rap up-and-comer Fat Trel, surprise Def Jam signee Logic, and Wale. That three D.C. rappers have major-label deals is a state of affairs few would have predicted when go-go still ruled the roost.

In rock music, musicians with roots in hardcore or post-hardcore continue to redefine themselves with new bands—Deathfix, Paint Branch—but a big slice of the year’s best local rock didn’t come from anyone with close ties to Dischord. Bands like Priests, Borracho, and Drugs of Faith took care of the screaming, while Cigarette and Infinity Crush eked out quiet records that showed D.C. how to shut up.

Yet it’s another kind of sound that made even bigger strides this year: electronic music, both the straight-up kind and its close cousin, synthpop. Who really associates D.C. with anything like either one? Future Times (disclosure: it’s run by a few of my friends) is a local electronic imprint with heavily nonlocal followers, and when Nightmoves released his superlative LP Themes, the sound of crickets was deafening, at least here. The closest thing D.C. has to a synthy export is GEMS, a dream-pop duo in the process of getting really, really famous—among Brooklyn residents.

So what’s there to say about D.C. music in 2013, other than it’s not what it was in 2012? Well, this: It’s never been so unlike itself and simultaneously unsure of what that means. Here are Washington City Paper writers’ favorite local albums of 2013.—Ally Schweitzer

Ain’t Shit Changed
Yung Gleesh
Self-released

Yung Gleesh’s 21-track retail debut has lots of filler. Fortunately, it succeeds in spite of its bloated tracklist and lack of quality control. The singles were particularly stellar: “Lazyness,” “2 Thangs,” “Please,” and “Hard” are some of the rapper’s most impressive songs yet, because the production—handled by frequent collaborators MPA Wicced and Zaytoven—was almost as boisterous as Gleesh himself. —Harold Stallworth

Architectural Failures
Drugs of Faith
Malokul

Drugs of Faith’s recent EP Architectural Failures is short and aggressive, like many grindcore releases, but is set apart by the band’s grind ’n’ roll approach. At times, the band turns down the intensity and jams out, then quickly heads back into attack mode. The group even works in the kind of biting social commentary you’d expect from a D.C. hardcore band. —Metal Chris

Bad Brother
Two Inch Astronaut
Exploding in Sound

A close descendant of Shudder to Think, Faraquet, and Tiny Music-era Stone Temple Pilots, Silver Spring’s Two Inch Astronaut sounds thoroughly batshit on its debut full-length release. Combining frantic, start-stop melodies with math-rock riffs and blistering, melodic choruses, Bad Brother springs from the loins of D.C.’s experimental art-punk past, but still resembles no other local release this year. —Matt Cohen

Deathfix
Deathfix
Dischord

The remarkable thing about Deathfix—the debut from a legit D.C. supergroup made up of Brendan Canty, Rich Morel, Devin Ocampo, and Mark Cisneros—is how it combines outlandish ideas with accessible rock. On songs like “Mind Control,” the band throws back to ’70s funk, but it breaks bread with post-punk and arena rock just the same. It’s easy enough to get into Deathfix on the first listen, but its details draw you back. —Alan Zilberman

Brazil Dedication
Kev Brown
Low Budget

Last December, Brazilian promoters booked Landover native Kev Brown to perform in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. What was originally scheduled to be a short trip would blossom into a two-month-long adventure: While Brown traveled across east Brazil, natives hipped him to the local tunes. He mined their suggestions for samples on his Brazil Dedication EP, which captures a Brazilian spirit without deviating too far from Low Budget’s boom-bap aesthetic. —Harold Stallworth

The Distance Is So Big
Lemuria
Bridge 9

Lemuria mostly gets credited as a band from Buffalo, N.Y., where the trio formed. These days, though, guitarist and singer Sheena Ozzella lives in the District, and besides: What city wouldn’t want to claim this band? An indie-pop epic issued by a reputationally hardcore label, Lemuria’s 2013 full-length bridges the boy-harmonizes-with girl Midwest emo of the 1990s and the girl-harmonizes-with-boy twee of the even earlier 1990s. But where they land—thanks to cerebral lyrics charting rough relationship terrains, some compositional zags, and lots of gusto—is someplace squarely now. —Jonathan L. Fischer

Folk
Brian Settles Trio
Engine Studios

Sax-trio records are idiosyncratic beasts, and Settles fits proudly into that lineage. Folk fits precisely that title, a lyrical panorama done with a wide tonal palette. And its occasionally shambolic sound is actually its best asset: the musical adventurer straying to the jagged edges of his milieu. —Michael J. West

GOLD
Carolyn Malachi
Self-released

Carolyn Malachi stepped boldly toward adulthood on this year’s GOLD LP. She seemed at peace with herself, despite her alluded-to insecurities; there was tremendous growth from her previous work that shone throughout this sophisticated album. —Marcus J. Moore

Gush
Cigarette
Self-released

On this full-length, Northern Virginia slowcore band Cigarette sounds warm and otherworldly in the best way, with songs like the gorgeous “Medium Rare” immersed beneath generous layers of swirling reverb. Though released in May, the record’s blend of Pure X shoegaze and The War on Drugs–style Americana makes for one of the best winter soundtracks released this year. —Dean Essner

Haunted Head
Kid Congo & The Pink Monkey Birds
In the Red

Throughout his storied career, Kid Congo Powers’ music hasn’t changed much—he’s still cranking out bluesy garage rock—but that doesn’t matter. Why try to mess with the formula you’ve already mastered? On Haunted Head, Powers and his Pink Monkey Birds deliver 12 terrifically swampy, gothic garage tunes that remind us why he’s D.C.’s suavest punk. —Matt Cohen

House of Woo
Maxmillion Dunbar
RVNG Intl.

Few D.C. musicians had a year as busy as Max D, and no electronic-music maker anywhere released anything so groovily heartfelt. Kitchen-table hardware, bedroom software, psychedelic channel surfing, techno B-sides, train rides, bear hugs, arboreal mist—it’s all that and then some. —Joe Warminsky

I Wanna Live
Paint Branch
Self-released

Paint Branch is made up of former Q and Not U bandmates Chris Richards and John Davis, but the duo’s debut, I Wanna Live, is world’s away from both players’ post-emo past. Here, the duo trades in cutting riffs and jittery beats for a soft, deeply ’70s folk-inspired album that’s quietly one of the best of the year. —Matt Cohen

Law 2
Shy Glizzy
Self-released

Glizzy’s 37th Street SE neighborhood is a dark dot on D.C.’s ShotSpotter map, so when the rapper narrates about guns and death, it’s bona fide. And the uniquely melodic flow? It’s D.C.’s new indigenous blues, the unease of tucked-away blocks that probably won’t ever see the gold rush. —Joe Warminsky

Love
Reginald Cyntje
Self-released

Love isn’t a romantic record. It’s a manifesto of jazz trombonist Cyntje’s social-justice ideals, which he communicates with thoughtful passion. It also brings out his composerly chops, in terms of both melody and writing for his ensemble. The latter is a veritable who’s-who of D.C.’s best players, doing their stuff in top form. —Michael J. West

Medusa
GEMS
Self-released
GEMS, technically a local band, sounds like a product of the Brooklynized Internet: a dream-pop unicorn emerging from the mist to spear the hearts of Stereogum readers. But Lindsay Pitts and Cliff Usher also made some of the most touching love songs to go indie-viral this year, and “Medusa” and “Pegasus” rank among the best pop tunes to come out of D.C. in a long time. —Ally Schweitzer

New World Order
Louie V Mob
No Limit Forever

Al Capone
Master P
No Limit Forever

These two slabs of throwback Southern gutter rap had D.C.’s Fat Trel contributing about a third of the rhymes—and exuding a worthy level of charisma—alongside New Orleans mogul Master P and Atlanta’s gruff Alley Boy. Even with his signing to Maybach Music Group still months in the future, the Fat Fool buckled down and stood tall on both. —Joe Warminsky

Nightmonger
Midnight Eye
Self-released

Midnight Eye further develops its progressive thrash wizardry on its latest EP, Nightmonger. The two guitarists in this quartet battle riff against shredding riff, only occasionally slowing down to breathe before racing off again at breakneck speed. Nightmonger’s three songs overflow with ideas—and end way too soon. —Catherine P. Lewis

Oculus
Borracho
Strange Magic

For Oculus, D.C. metal outfit Borracho had lead guitarist Steve Fisher take over vocal duties after founding member Noah Greenberg relocated overseas for work. But even without Greenberg growling up front, the stoner outfit managed to sound thicker than ever on this EP. With fuzzy guitars straight out of a ’70s Black Sabbath tune and fat riffs reminiscent of Fu Manchu, this album delivers a modern take on classic heavy. —Metal Chris

Quadrants
Tereu Tereu
Bad Friend
Tereu Tereu is now a duo, but Quadrants doesn’t sound thinner than the group’s 2009 debut. At times catchy (“Gratitude”) and at times achingly tense (“The Body Unmade”), Quadrants blends post-punk and rock with electronic elements and noisy interludes, always embracing the unpredictable. —Catherine P. Lewis

Send the Night
The Walking Sticks
Self-released

I won’t pretend to understand the cryptic lyrics on The Walking Sticks’ track “Send the Night”—the chorus’ too-large question “What’s the meaning of American life?” precedes something about disposing of a corpse—but the tune’s silky production and smoky hook made it one of the best local pop songs of the year. Equally worthy is the EP’s dirty “Kissing You,” a brainsticker that sounds plucked from the diary of a kid who pops a boner in biology class. —Ally Schweitzer

Shat Shorts
Shat Shorts
Self-released

Shat Shorts may sound like a novelty or parody act, but this quintet is not messing around: The band’s post-hardcore sound comes from a deep appreciation of the genre, and its eponymous album—with cheeky song titles like “Liveblogging the Loss Of My Virginity”—reveals one gem after another. —Rohan Mahadevan

Son
Beautiful Swimmers
Future Times

Swerved-out fun from the flagship duo of a D.C. dance-music label with gratifyingly durable taste. Pick any element—the percussion, the synths, the samples, the references—and if it’s not messing with conventional musical wisdom, it’s giving you a semi-secret high five. —Joe Warminsky

Tangible Dream
Oddisee
Mello Music Group
Oddisee pulled out some pretty sharp knives on his 2013 mixtape Tangible Dream. On his first rap release since 2012’s People Hear What They See, the normally low-key musician knocked Jay Z and Kanye down to size while touting his own formula for success. The Largo native is a humble dude, but he can spit fire with the best of them. —Marcus J. Moore

Tape Two
Priests
Sister Polygon

With Tape Two, Priests finally bottles the raw power of its live shows. Opening track “Leave Me Alone” comes out swinging as Katie Alice Greer alternately coos and howls over guitar riffs that sound borrowed from some combination of The Cramps and The Cure. But the release also displays Priests’ versatility, featuring both incendiary spoken word and a brief nod to power-pop. —Rohan Mahadevan

Themes
Nitemoves
Moodgadget

The saturated atmospherics and poppy melodies on Nitemoves’ second LP cry out for comparisons to beachy chillwave of yesteryear. But on this largely excellent full-length from Columbia Heights electronic producer Rory O’Connor, references to Eno ambience, glitch, and—briefly—drum ’n’ bass make it tougher to box in. —Ally Schweitzer

The Truth
Allyn Johnson & Sonic Sanctuary
Self-released

The Truth is the year’s best jazz album, local or otherwise. Its dense musicality, beautiful detail, and writing and piano-trio arranging all astonish, but there’s a far more important aspect of the recording: Every second of it radiates joy. It makes you feel good, which some would say is the whole point of music in the first place. —Michael J. West

What’s Understood Don’t Need to Be Explained
New Impressionz
Self-released

As the title would suggest, the inspired live performances on What’s Understood Don’t Need To Be Explained—the mellow release from go-go band New Impressionz—speak for themselves. The clarity of its rappers, singers, and talkers is striking; the PA tape sounds like it could have been conceived in a pro recording studio. With odes to both “Angels” and “Strippers,” as well as a masterful cover of 2 Chainz’s “I’m Different,” its a must-hear for fans of D.C.’s homegrown genre. —Harold Stallworth

When We’re Snow
Infinity Crush
Birdtapes

College Park duo Infinity Crush’s When We’re Snow, with its minimalist formula of sullen, swooning vocals and acoustic guitar, radiates as pure musical catharsis. A tangible, relatable sense of sadness pervades in songwriter Caroline White’s lyrics. But on When We’re Snow, she sounds like she’s coping. And we can’t help but do the same. —Dean Essner

Young for a Moment
Ploy
Self-released

Feelings! Ploy has so many of them. Almost every cut on this glistening eight-track synthpop release sounds penned either precoitus or post-text breakup, but its earworms boast more longevity than your average freshman-year canoodling. —Ally Schweitzer

Young Sinatra: Welcome to Forever
Logic
Visionary Music Group

More interesting than its music is the story behind this tape: It’s the precursor to the major-label debut of the year’s most surprising hip-hop up-and-comer, Logic. Fairly unknown in the D.C. rap scene until he appeared on the cover of XXL’s 2013 Freshman Class issue, Logic used this tape to introduce himself to an audience that’s surely bigger than the one he had last year. His lyrics repeat the autobiography he’s reiterated again and again—grew up penniless with inattentive parents—but the crackling single “Nasty” gave listeners an idea of where the poor kid from the ’burbs is likely to head in 2014.—Ally Schweitzer

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  • SockPuppet

    Matt: Paint Branch is self released through Cricket Cemetary, a small label building a strong and diverse catalogue, and a love of quirky vinyl packages.

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