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10 Best Cassettes of 2013

The greatest scrappy releases, oddities and half-baked side projects that logged quality time in Rob Sheffield’s Walkman

Griffin Lotz for Rollingstone.com

What a year for cassettes, the scrappy little format that refuses to die. Tapes had a resurgence in 2013, from dedicated cassette labels to bands selling them at shows. Why are cassettes back? It's easy. They're cheap and they make noise. They're quick. They're intimate. They have personality, not just another digital file. And they sound great, if you like the ambient hum of cassette sound. (I do.)

Most of my 2013 faves I bought at rock shows, feeding them to my trusty Walkman or my battered old boombox. Tapes are the ultimate DIY format – bands can crank out their homemade goodies fast, design a groovy cover, stack them on the merch table for $5 a pop. It's a way to indulge weird experiments or the drummer's side project. For fans, they're cheaper to gobble up than vinyl or CDs, not to mention more fun to share with friends.

They also have a bit of old-school mystery. You can't just click on a cassette and get the back story. You have to let the tape roll in real time, asking yourself questions like "Where did this come from?" or "How long does this stupid thing go on?" or "Why the hell did anyone spend an hour of their life making this?" You have to forget what you know and surrender to what you hear. It's a format that rewards the curious of ear and stout of heart.

And even though tapes are officially obsolete media, it's not like it's hard to play them. Any chain drugstore has an aisle where they sell cheapo Walkman knock-offs. (My most recent portable-cassette-player purchase was in October – my iPod died, so I popped into the nearest CVS. Ten minutes later I was listening to the dubbed C-90 Europe '72 I keep in my bag for emergencies. "Ramble on Rose," bitches!)

Some of my 2013 favorites are on labels, some are self-released. I'm not 100 per cent sure where some of these came from or when they came out. I can't even necessarily verify that these artists exist, beyond a one-off baked afternoon project while waiting for the pizza guy. All I know for sure is that all 10 of these tapes logged quality time in my Walkman this year. And all 10 served with honor. C-30, C-60, C-90 – go!

BY ROB SHEFFIELD

Griffin Lotz for RollingStone.com

10. Popular Music, ‘Popular Music’

This one I bought at a Perfect Pussy gig, so I assume it's a side project, heavy on the side. A boy sings punk sentiments in his Johnny Rotten yowl ("Long Live the Wolves") while the cheerleader-girl chorus chants "Boom boom baby, boom boom" or "rah rah rah!" "Popmusic Pep Rally" sounds like an Eighties teen movie right before the prom-massacre scene.

Griffin Lotz for RollingStone.com

9. Marshstepper, ‘Live at MATA’

Some mornings you just wake up with a strange tape in your Walkman and you're not sure how it got there. Side Two is an electro-murk psych-trance noise jam with tribal drums and distorted voices that repeat the nagging question, "How do you expect to live/If you don't let life in?" (They recorded it on July 13th, 2013. I was at a Taylor Swift show that night.)

Griffin Lotz for RollingStone.com

8. In School, ‘In School’

A demo of bang-bang-bang hardcore seething with feminist punk rage. I also purchased this digitally via Bandcamp, but I prefer the tape because part of the fun in a hardcore album is not being able to tell when one song ends and the next begins. Sample titles: "Apocryphal Scum," "Maggot Rot," "Acid Burn."

Griffin Lotz for RollingStone.com

7. JS Aurelius, ‘Music for Drinking Tea’

Now this lives up to the title – an ambient field recording that sounds like a kitchen full of people mumbling while they drink tea. Subtitled "Solo for Speakers and Kettle."

Griffin Lotz for RollingStone.com

6. Deep Pill, ‘High Dose’

Another fine project from Ascetic House, the enigmatic Arizona cassette/zine/art collective. (They have a Prison Outreach program, providing the incarcerated with free "screwless clear 'prison approved' cassette tapes."] Side 1 is a lo-fi tribute to vintage Chicago house music; Side 2 is instrumental Depeche-y synth-pop, with the cheap-ass production values adding pathos.

Griffin Lotz for RollingStone.com

5. Topless Juice, ‘Topless Juice’

A Parquet Courts side project, from the well-named label Animal Image Search. My copy is Number 79 from an edition of 100. It sounds like you're in the room with an extremely dazed young man, as he explores his inner space via lazy song fragments, guitar diddles, drum solos, overdubbed harmonies and cryptic musings on reality. ("I've been living my life like a vagabond. . .but you know, I don't even really think I know what that is." Harsh realness, dude!) And on Side 2 he delivers an inspirational pep talk over a loop of CCR's "Born on the Bayou."

Griffin Lotz for RollingStone.com

4. Yvette, ‘Process’

A suite of industrial grooves, perfect to slap on the boombox while you're doing dishes because it sounds like the plumbing is groaning along with the music. The NYC duo of Noah Kardos-Fein and Rick Daniel go for high-pitched guitar/synth shrieks that evoke a slap fight between R2D2 and Richard Simmons.

Griffin Lotz for RollingStone.com

3. Great Thunder, ‘Sounds of Great Thunder’

I bought this at a Waxahatchee show – I needed something to crank on the Walkman for my stroll home. The merch guy swore, "This one will blow your mind." Waxahatchee's Katie Crutchfield and Keith Spencer ramble through ragged psych-folk ("Tracy Chapman") and electric fuzz gospel ("Jesus Don't Mind") and surf punk ("All Fuk'd Up N Nowhere to Go") and the supremely bummed-out "Pack It In." There's also some funny Dylan-style beatnik jive: "My mother left me in a garbage can / That doesn't get me down none / I fell in love with rock & roll records / I pretend I live in one."

Griffin Lotz for RollingStone.com

2. (917) 471-2855

An orange mix tape mailed out to fans by Parquet Courts, with the message: "Please Share With the Rest of Humanity." It's amazingly replayable, especially two semi-psychotic postpunk rants, Mazes' "Skulking" and Priests' "Personal Planes." There's a Parquet Courts song, some bands I already like (Total Control, Tyvek), some bands I want to hear more from (Yuppies, Scraper) and a shitload of stoner babble. Plus a dude named Son of Salami doing the heartfelt ballad "Pretty Girls Is a Motherfucker." Feel you, Salami.

Griffin Lotz for RollingStone.com

1. Perfect Pussy, ‘I Have Lost All Desire for Feeling’

The Syracuse punks' raw four-song demo has a simple liner note: "We are dedicated to honoring the sacred in our brothers and sisters." They also released this as a floppy disk – for a mere $60, you can snag a 3.5-inch Maxell disk with an 8-bit version of "I." So this band wins 2013 in terms of aggressively retro packaging.

Krasner/Trebitz/Redferns

Honorable Mention: Stryper, ‘Always There for You’

Honorable mention: Stryper's "Always There for You," a cassingle from 1988 that I found at a sidewalk sale in my neighborhood. This is by far Styper's best song. It cost a quarter, or one cent for each year I've loved "Always There for You." My most successful Stryper-related cassingle purchase of 2013.

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