Every time I put together these end-of-the-year lists, I find that doing the “Best EPs” is my favorite task. EPs are just long enough to give listeners a flavor of the style and creativity of the band without overstaying its welcome the way LPs do. Nearly every good LP has a straggler or two, the weak tracks we skip over on our music players in order to hear the better stuff. So, ultimately, despite being much shorter than an LP, EPs feel tighter, cleaner, more compact, like hard-shaped diamonds or music-concentrate. Below are my selections for the 15 best EPs of 2013, with what I think is the best track. — David D. Robbins Jr.
15. Parquet Courts “Tally All the Things You Broke EP”
High octane. “Seasick’s better than heartsick, baby!” That’s just one memorable line from Parquet Court’s punk Velvet-y thrash out, “You Got Me Wonderin’ Now”. The record is a cool junkshop of weirdo stylings. There’s a kind of rap, arcade-game bleeps — it’s a cuisinart mash of the Minutemen, The Ramones, King Tuff, and the Beasties. It’s hard not to love the band’s gift for quirky strangeness and herky-jerky fun.
14. BANKS “London EP”
Los Angeles vocalist BANKS sounds like Lorde’s “The Love Club EP” all grown up. It’s easy to get hooked by the pop-infused, R&B aspects of the music — but in the end it’s something else entirely that keeps you on that hook. There’s a loneliness and true sexuality in these tracks, especially in a song like “This Is What It Feels Like”. There’s also a darker, electronic current there, presumably from some of the influence of artists like Lil Silva and Jamie Woon. The 3:10 mark of “This Is What It Feels Like” is a bomb drop. It’s a heat check. Imagine all the heads bobbin’ in the club, both hands extended in the air, each person eying the next with a shared glance that says a wordless, “Hell, yeah.” Listen for yourself. You know I’m right.
13. Painted Palms “Nothing Lasts Long EP”
When I first heard the EP opener, “Hypnotic”, I couldn’t help but smile and remember back to a record like Charlatans UK’s “Between 10th and 11th” (1992) with its chaotic mix of vocals, repeated guitar lines, keyboard, and all that glorious pop-rock that seemed to be built especially for the headphone conscious.
12. Ô Paon “Quatorze/Quinze Ans EP”
This record is alienated and very dark. At its center is singer Geneviève Castrée who brought friend Gus Franklin and Canadian artist Nicholas Krgovich into the mix. She says that the songwriting was “inspired by the most surrealistic times in the life of a teenager”. Listening to one of the standout tracks, “Hors-Terre” (which is sung in French), feels like the onset of the mother of all thunderstorms.
11. FKA Twigs “EP2”
If BANKS is Lorde all grown up, then FKA Twigs’ “EP2” is the maturation of both. At the foundation of this four-track record is a trip-hop feel for mood, elegiac and sullen, like a touch of Martina Topley Bird with James Blake. “Papi Pacify” is the best example of this style. It’s hushed and hurting, sultry songstress vocals blend slowly and smoothly as caramel with dark, broken percussion and dusky electronics.
10. Kurt Vile “It’s a Big World Out There (And I Am Scared) EP”
If “Wakin On A Pretty Daze” wasn’t enough, the prolific Kurt Vile also released an EP in 2013. It’s spaced-out, ’70s guitar rock, hazy and devoid of all artifice. In a way, these are refreshingly simple ditties. The best song on the seven-song EP is “The Ghost of Freddie Roach”, showcasing Vile’s ability to infuse warm-guitar melodies with a countering slacker-cool vocal delivery. Listening to the song may inspire trips down memory lane, like opening a wormhole to more carefree and long-gone days.
09. Annie “The A&R EP”
I was a bit surprised that “The A&R EP” seemed to come and go with little fanfare. It’s not that critics didn’t like it. They did. But it’s an EP (a format which gets passed over a lot) — and in it’s own unique way, the beauty of this record is its unabashed celebration of popular music. This lean machine, created by Norwegian pop-alt princess Annie and her producer Richard X, pushes hard-thumping ’90s house beats, catchy choruses, and even contains a track that works like a love ode from a teenaged girl to former teen film idol Ralph Macchio. But the best track is probably “Invisible”, with a percussive beat that can’t be beat and that distorted evil-sounding vocal that harkens back to the prime days of My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult and “Sexplosion”.
08. Phantogram “Phantogram”
Okay, so this EP is really meant as a kind of weigh station for fans until the next full-length release. Which also might be part of the reason little effort was put into the title. (Too busy doing work with the Flaming Lips.) But there’s a lot of effort put into the four songs on the EP. “Black Out Days” is one standout, along with “Celebrating Nothing”. These newer Phantogram songs find the duo in familiar form, but with stronger presence all around — heavier lead vocals, pointed lyricism (“How many times will I burn it down?”) with dark and pulsating synth.
07. Tennis “Small Sound”
The best track on this EP, “Mean Streets”, is worth the EP making this list all by itself. The creamy vocals of Alaina Moore (accompanied by husband Patrick Riley), the overly sugary melodies, and doo-wop delivery are like cotton candy for the ear. Yes, as with all pop-influenced music, there’s a certain patience level demanded of the exacting music listener. In other words, too many sweets can leave you with a stomach ache. But that’s what EPs are made for. And this one is a tasty listen.
06. Burial “Truant/Rough Sleeper EP”
How does Burial continue to make music this good? Burial just released the “Rival Dealer EP”, which is three songs, one at four minutes, and two over 10 minutes long. But I prefer the other two-song split release, “Truant/Rough Sleeper”. There’s a reason why Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke is on William Emmanuel Bevan’s jock, shadowing his every utterance, picking up tips and hints like dropped coins. “Truant” begins with some kind of vocal-pitch distortion that makes it sound like a horn, eerie warped synth, the strings sample is clipped from a song called “Crazy Trip to the Tropics”, and then there’s the brooding dub, the tribal rhythms, and the mantra-like lyrical one-line chorus “I fell in love with you …” It’s all gloriously reminiscent of the higher-quality Massive Attack tracks. It’s gorgeous.
05. RY X “Berlin EP”
Australia-via-Los Angeles artist RY X released a four-track debut EP on Dumont Dumont late this year, and it’s beautiful, absorbing and melancholic. The record has a sound that would be right in the wheelhouse of fans of Volcano Choir, Justin Vernon, and Jose Gonzalez. RY X sings in high falsetto over hushed instrumentation that ebbs and flows in volume between heightened crescendos and whispered lullabies.
04. The Removalists “Semi-Professional EP”
The cheekily entitled, “Semi-Professional EP”, hints at the garage quality of the work. But it’s more than lo-fi dabbling. (I’m so glad they’ve left these songs just as they are, without any digital clean-up.) These four tiny bursts are like little diamonds — tight, angular, casting light at each turn. The music is fueled by a great sense of pop-rock guitar melody. The reverberations on the guitar strings are allowed to play out, floating off into the air. There’s a type of old-school genius to the record, that at full-length would fit in any discerning listener’s personal “Top 25” records of the year list. “Better With Age” (below) is one of the best songs I listened to all year. The guitar riff at the 1:40 mark is just fantastic. I wished it lingered on for minutes.
03. Rivka “Faded EP”
The Pittsburgh-based electronic duo of Reggie Wilkins and Rivka Rose unleashed six dark, compressed tracks, filled with glitches, dub, dirty beats, dream-pop vapors, minimalist percussion, all enveloped in a sauntering style thick as smoke haze. The record starts with the airily-named “Drift”, a song opening with a galloping clatter and a whistled tune, like the soundtrack to some weirdo cinematic futuristic tale of android-love meets Western bravado.
02. FTHRSN “Middle School Swag EP”
“Middle School Swag” is an album about loneliness, introspection, being young, searching for yourself, and finding love. Think Simply Red, Boy George, Dirty Projectors. But ultimately it exists in its own stylistic, musically dreamy world. There’s a bedroom aesthetic here, but there’s also electronic soul, an island easiness, 80s synth-pop, all complementing each other so well under the sharp ear of an artist clearly skilled at finding real emotion underneath it all. The best song is “Middle School Dance”, which immediately made me think of the pretty Simply Red song, “Picture Book”. “Middle School Dance”, at the 2:07 mark and beyond is too good to believe. The beat change is one thing, but the vocal splaying and overlaying is tremendous.
01. Butterclock “First Prom EP”
Butterclock’s five-song EP, “First Prom”, is an eclectic mix of styles and sultry moods. It weaves pop, surrealist club and trance into odes of lovelorn beauty. Her pretty phrases seem to enter the consciousness of the listener only seconds before the music transforms, with subtlety, through minor rhythm changes, nuanced touches, finally dissipating into the ether. In the album intro, Butterclock (aka Berlin-based Laura Clock) whispers of “sweet sweet” crystal eyes, while the fluttery club pulsations of “Dont” blend into an enchantment about touch-and-go attraction and simmering sexuality. But the album masterpiece is a song called “Milky Words” (below), that combines oddly alluring warped samples with dreamy whispers and criss-crossing ghostly incantations. It’s scary and sexy as hell.