Oh, oh, listen to the music
Oh, oh, listen to the music
Oh, oh, listen to the music
All the time
– The Doobie Brothers, 1972
Did you listen to the music this year? DID YOU? If not, you should have. In fact, if you didn’t listen to the music, stop what you’re doing and listen to every album, front to back, with a Metascore of 70 or higher that was released in 2013. Let me know when you finish.
Finished? Spectacular! Good stuff, 2013. And plenty different from its predecessor, 2012. While 2012 had several clear mainstream-ish standouts (Frank Ocean, Jack White, Kendrick Lamar…), 2013 was more a year for understated, under-the-radar musical brilliance and rampant critical liberty. It was also an insanely phenomenal year for emo and hardcore revivalism, if you’re into that sort of thing (spoilers: I am).
Because I’m insane, I kept an organized running list of my favorite albums of the year as they were released and as I familiarized myself with them, commencing with January’s fantastic Local Natives and Parquet Courts albums and ending with Beyonce’s mid-December surprise self-titled album. Overall in 2013, I’ve lent an ear (two, actually) to several hundred albums in their totality, giving repeated listens to the hundred or so that I particularly enjoyed. If this seems excessive, it’s because it definitely is.
MY “BEST” (favorite) ALBUMS OF 2013
Just missed: Honorable Mentions, in alphabetical order
The 1975 – The 1975
AlunaGeorge – Body Music
Ariana Grande – Yours Truly
Bad Rabbits – American Love
Balance and Composure – The Things We Think We’re Missing
Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba – Jama ko
Beyoncé – Beyoncé
CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe
The Civil Wars – The Civil Wars
Counterparts – The Difference Between Hell and Home
Drake – Nothing Was the Same
Inter Arma – Sky Burial
Iron & Wine – Ghost on Ghost
Jon Hopkins – Immunity
Laura Stevenson – Wheel
The Lone Bellow – The Lone Bellow
Mikal Cronin – MCII
Night Beds – Country Sleep
Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks
Patty Griffin – Silver Bell
Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time
Superchunk – I Hate Music
Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob
Toro Y Moi – Anything in Return
Violent Soho – Hungry Ghost
The Top 50
49. Czarface — Czarface
Throwback comic book inspired lyrical hip-hop from 7L & Esoteric with Inspectah Deck combines Wu Tang sensibility with comic book themes and Chewbacca samples.
48. FIDLAR — FIDLAR
The garage skate punk debut from LA’s FIDLAR is as fun as it is morally bankrupt.
46. Kvelertak — Meir
much NSFW album cover
43. Iron Chic — The Constant One
The crippling sense of mortality experienced in one’s twenties gets such a bad rap these days. Why not channel it into making an amazing indie punk shoutcore album like The Constant One?
37. All Pigs Must Die — Nothing Violates This Nature
As you might guess by their name, APMD’s violent brand of hardcore is 2 brutal 4 words. When you just need as much angry noise as possible, Nothing Violates This Nature is here for you.
35. The Story So Far — What You Don’t See
Some of the most melodically aggressive pop-punk around — think New Found Glory stylings with the oppressive angst of Taking Back Sunday — What You Don’t See is an entirely capable follow-up to 2011’s mind-blowingly good Under Soil and Dirt, and is also my most played album of the year.
31. My Bloody Valentine — m b v
The hypnotically overdriven jangle of guitars on m b v is some straight up ’90s fare. If we have to wait 22 more years for another My Bloody Valentine album, it’ll be worth it.
30. Parquet Courts — Light Up Gold
Andrew Savage and Austin Brown’s guitar interplay is reminiscent of early Strokes work on their debut, Light Up Gold, a self-assured midtempo instant punk classic that gets better with every listen.
29. Justin Timberlake — The 20/20 Experience, Part 1
Just think how good The 20/20 Experience could have been if “Don’t Hold the Wall,” “Spaceship Coupe,” and most of Part 2 were eliminated and the 10 good songs were combined into one regular-length album. Just think.
28. Run the Jewels — Run the Jewels
If it wasn’t apparent from 2012’s R.A.P. Music that Killer Mike and El-P make for a perfect tandem assault, please see Exhibit B, the sleazy but monstrous Run the Jewels. Look for a follow-up in 2014.
27. Darkside — Psychic
Nicholas Jaar and guitarist Dave Harrington team up for project Darkside on Psychic, an album whose opener builds for almost five full minutes before dropping into some of the most mystical, soulful, enchanting house music ever to be heard.
26. Qwel & Maker — Beautiful Raw
Lyrical Chicago MC Qwel teams up with producer Maker on Beautiful Raw, an under the radar release that’s jaw-dropping for its Talib-like spitfire flows and sick Outkast-meets-Roots beats.
25. Windhand — Soma
Here’s an album whose music matches the cover art completely. Yes, of course it’s a dark, grinding, Sabbath-inspired doom metal album. It’s also one of the best hard rock efforts of the year. Soma means business — its final track exceeds 30 minutes — but it’s an easy album to crank up and blow through again and again. Air drumming and head banging all the way, of course.
24. Disclosure — Settle
An album tailor made for dancing and for upscale clothing retail store playlists, Settle is one of the most impressive debuts to be found anywhere. Immaculately polished, undeniably luxurious, and stylistically diverse — the best straight up electronic album of 2013 not made by Daft Punk. “Latch” is a perfect song.
23. Kanye West — Yeezus
To say Yeezus is a challenging album is certainly understating quite a bit. Kanye flips the script on his first post-daddy record, trading in obsessive maximalism for a starkly minimalist approach and letting his id do the talking on most tracks. Despite Ye’s overblown irreverence and brashness operating at a higher level than ever before, there’s something inspiring about his ability to effortlessly draw meaning and provocation from just about everything. Yeezus isn’t Kanye’s best album — not by a long shot — but it might be his most necessary one. It’s the sound of one of the biggest creative geniuses of our generation blowing up the existing paradigm and marking a significant career shift.
22. Janelle Monae — The Electric Lady
If you want playfully seductive soul-pop from one of the best singers out there today, you could find easy entertainment in Beyoncé’s self-titled triumph. Or, you could be completely blown away by Janelle Monae’s The Electric Lady. Monae croons, belts, and even raps capably across the 19 tracks of this monster of a neo-Motown concept album. The production is top notch and there are too many highlights to count.
20. Chance the Rapper — Acid Rap
Bringing unconventionally groovy soul beats and as much character voice as Kendrick to the table, Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap is technically just a “mixtape,” but as far as I’m concerned, it was the best hip hop output of the year. Oh, and he’s only 20.
19. Kacey Musgraves — Same Trailer Different Park
It felt like a pretty awful year for country music, but Kacey Musgraves was one of the few bright spots. Musgraves has obvious talent, both for singing and songwriting (yes, she writes her own songs), but my favorite thing about her is that she’s not afraid to challenge the norm. This shows up in her lyrics (“Merry ‘Go Round,” “Follow Your Arrow”), but most importantly, in her refusal to conform to the idiotic pandering that contemporary pop country has descended to over the last decade. Sure, Same Trailer Different Park is clever, accessible, and varied; but it’s the originality that really leaves an impression.
18. Nils Frahm — Spaces
A beautiful, sophisticated classical piano album with modern flair, Spaces does for me this year what Bill Ryder-Jones’ If… did in 2012. It’s an extremely transportative, wanderlust-inducing album that makes me want to go somewhere in France on a train. Or bike through Holland. Or climb a volcano or something.
15. Arcade Fire — Reflektor
This is another choose-your-own-adventure album. If you decide up front that you’re going to hate it, you probably will. I’d instead recommend taking the time to delve into its nooks and crannies and discovering any of the several hidden treasures that lie within. The Suburbs sound of “You Already Know”. The little piano lead lines in “Reflektor” and “Here Comes the Night Time” that are basically “reflectors” of each other. The anti-social-web message of the title track. Reflektor is a great album, you just have to want it to be.
14. The Wonder Years — The Greatest Generation
Talk about maturing as a band. The Wonder Years’ latest has grown up, shaken off the hangover, sobered up, looked around, and is now questioning everything it was so sure about just two years ago when it was called Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing. Or, maybe more accurately, it wants to grow up but isn’t sure how to do it. It’s still broke and unmarried and on tour while its relatives are in the hospital (the “Guernica“-like “Dismantling Summer”) and what kind of man does that make it? Album closer “I Just Want to Sell Out My Funeral” reevaluates where it’s going with its life once more, pulling in bits and pieces of the album’s other songs to create an epic finale to a stunning album.
13. Queens of the Stone Age — …Like Clockwork
…Like Clockwork is a middle-of-the-pack QOTSA record. Fortunately, that makes it a top-20 record for 2013. Certainly more downtempo than any other Queens record, …Like Clockwork benefits from being quietly menacing and somehow still rocking quite hard. Why punch you in the face like Songs for the Deaf did over a decade ago, when it can just spit on your boots and walk away?
12. Frightened Rabbit — Pedestrian Verse
This was admittedly my first year to get into Frightened Rabbit, but I owe it entirely to Pedestrian Verse. What’s not to love? Sensible indie rock arrangements; morose Scottish vocals; poetic lyricism. Misery loves company; grab a set of headphones.
11. James Blake — Overgrown
James Blake brings his popular brand of electro chamber music back on sophomore LP Overgrown, a darkly enchanting album that’s perfect for night drives and features RZA (See? Wu-Tang was everywhere this year) on poetic “Speak Now” remake (not really, but basically) “Take a Fall for Me”. Every song on Overgrown has the potential to worm its way so far into your head that you’ll get cravings for them.
10. Atoms For Peace — Amok
Thom Yorke, Flea, Nigel Godrich, Joey Waronker, Mauro Refosco. Everyone’s hand is equally in the mix on supergroup Atoms For Peace’s debut, but at the same time, it’s clearly a Thom Yorke vehicle. Lacking some of the immediacy of Radiohead but somehow more earwormy, Amok is a seriously underrated album. Creativity that yields a product this progressive and this sonically pleasing needs to be rewarded.
9. Paramore — Paramore
Yes, Paramore. This is a new band making new music; the self-titled album signals a fresh start and powers through 17 tracks of survival, renewal, and maturity. Alongside Hayley Williams’ tireless vocals, hired hand Ilan Rubin’s drumming propels the energy of the album from beginning to end. Forays into uncharted territory (see the gospel-funk of “Ain’t It Fun”) are huge winners, and while Paramore haven’t lost their heart or soul, they’ve found new voice.
8. Patty Griffin — American Kid
American Kid is just another exercise in really wonderful songwriting by one of the most underappreciated songwriters out there. Griffin bookends the album with songs about her father, who recently passed away. When she wails “You don’t ever have to pay the bills no more!” on lead track “Go Wherever You Want to Go,” it should elicit some feelings.
7. Julianna Barwick — Nepenthe
I’ve talked this album up a lot this year, and every time I’m asked to explain what it sounds like, I describe it as a monastery choir where every monk is Enya. Just calling Nepenthe “ethereal” or “pretty” is reductive and insulting. It’s aural paradise.
6. Torres — Torres
The raw, vulnerable minimalism of “Jealousy and I”. The crushing melancholia of “November Baby”. The overdriven ’90s attitude of “When Winter’s Over”. The spine-snapping menace of “Chains”. The slap-in-the-face breakup letter “Come to Terms”. The resigned tension of “Waterfall.” The only negative about Torres is how unreasonably high the bar has been set for future albums.
5. Touché Amoré — Is Survived By
Perhaps the best sequenced album of the year, Is Survived By flows from one track to the next in theme, structure, and tone. This type of flow is perfect for the atypical conversational nature of the lyrics and makes the whole project feel like one huge song. It’s a blistering piece of work, replete with melodic guitar, fast drums, and scream vocals that are surprisingly intelligible and somehow feel like a warm post-hardcore blanket. Mmmm! Is Survived By is an album about character flaws, fame, and legacy that bears repeating again, and again, and again.
4. Daft Punk — Random Access Memories
I have had a roller coaster of a relationship with RAM since it came out in May. Being the first Daft Punk album since 2005, and attempting to tackle the weighty themes of “music” and “the human experience,” RAM had my attention from the moment the first promo ad aired during the Super Bowl. Although I’d be lying if I said I was blown away at first listen, it’s come to impress me more and more every time I take the long journey from “Give Life Back to Music” to “Contact”. Yes, it ends strong and takes an insanely long time to build, but there’s beauty in the slow rise. “Contact” is an exhilarating dancehall banger; and “Get Lucky,” my song of the year, is completely impervious to overplay. It’s just as good as the first time I heard it.
3. The National — Trouble Will Find Me
The National was another band I admittedly didn’t really get into until this year, but for good reason — Trouble Will Find Me is a grown up emotional masterpiece. Surprisingly perfect for long runs and parking garage views of the city, it’s an album that isn’t afraid to mine for uncomfortable feelings and make you feel a bit uneasy, like you’re perhaps at the precipice of some life-altering revelation you’d rather not face. From the 4/4-to-5/4 stutter step of “I Should Live in Salt” to the next-level harmonies at the end of “Sea of Love,” Trouble Will Find Me is a triumph of nuance and perfectionism.
2. Jason Isbell — Southeastern
The former Drive-By Trucker’s latest solo album is a testament to loss, recovery, and redemption. It’s beautiful in the most human way possible; universally relatable without a trace of pandering. Southeastern is as transparent as they come; more than willing to expose it’s author’s scars and permanent wounds. Nothing’s sugar-coated — take the intimately vulnerable “Cover Me Up,” or the bleak account of a dear friend’s cancer battle in “Elephant”. At its surface, Southeastern is superbly crafted folk country; its heart is even more beautiful.
1. Deafheaven — Sunbather
What to say about this album? Goodness. I’ll start by saying that if you don’t think you can get behind the idea of screamo-black-metal-meets-post-rock-meets-shoegaze, then there’s probably no way you’ll enjoy Sunbather. And that’s perfectly fine! It’s a lot to ask.
However, if you can calibrate your expectations accordingly, settle in and brace yourself for an hour of emotional assault and subsequent exhaustion, then buckle up (and maybe grab a lyrics printout in the meantime – the words are completely unintelligible).
I wish I could adequately summarize the impact that Sunbather has had over the past year on how I listen to music, how I enjoy art, how I define “beauty”. The best I can do is link to Steven Hyden’s account on Grantland (hint: scroll down to his #1 album) because I think he nails it.
I’ll just say that in an incredible year for music, Sunbather was an easy choice for #1. Wasn’t even close.