Top Ten Albums of 2013
Best of 2013: Music
Trying to encapsulate a year in music in one Top Ten list is completely impossible. Most reputable music outlets do Top Fifty albums of the year list, and still leave a lot of great work on the table. This helps me to assuage, at least slightly, my guilt at maintaining three honorable mentions slots again this year. There was a lot of greatness in 2013, and even with this, I cannot hope to capture even much of it. That being said, here are my very favorite albums of 2013.
David Bowie, The Next Day
Essential Songs: “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” “Where Are We Now?,” “(You Will) Set the World On Fire)”
For most of his career, David Bowie has been the chameleonic king of pop music, a self-aware cipher who disappears into various personae to be not the pop star we want, but the pop star we need. He embodied glam rock as Ziggy Stardust, weathered mid-‘70s malaise as The Thin White Duke, and became one of the few ‘70s artists to thrive in the electronic artifice of the early ‘80s. He has been a balladeer, an industrial rocker, and an experimental composer. A year ago, it wasn’t clear if we’d ever hear another David Bowie album. And then The Next Day arrived, as vibrant and vital as anything Bowie has ever done, even after a decade in the darkness. The album is funky and jazzy, but perhaps most importantly, it feels new. Bowie isn’t resting on his laurels (has he ever?), he is pushing ceaselessly forward to new horizons. When he glances back, it is to refract our previous conceptions of him, to play with his former glories (“they can’t get enough of that doomsday song,” he sings on the title track, and he uses the brilliant “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” to play with his dual identity as pop icon and alien prophet). Throughout The Next Day, Bowie sings as an observer, much as he always has. Yet longtime fans will know Bowie says the most about himself when he’s singing about someone else.
Los Campesinos!, No Blues
Essential Songs: “What Death Leaves Behind,” “Cemetery Gaits,” “Glue Me”
Los Campesinos! have been champions of power-pop melancholia for years now, mixing their high-energy sound and lyrically acrobatic wit with stories of break-ups, depression, and general self-lacerating navel-gazing. The band is never one to miss a good wallow, but front man Gareth Campesinos is far too self-aware to take his own sadness all that seriously. After the “more mature” effort of Hello Sadness, which functionally dropped the cognitive dissonance of the group’s peppy exploration of depression and thus lost what made them unique, No Blues shows Los Campesinos! has learned what they do well. With wry turns of phrase like “they say you and me, a tautology” on “What Death Leaves Behind” or “I am a glutton but its good for my glutes” on “As Lucerne/The Low,” the group brings the wit back to their words and the fun back to the music. If Hello Sadness was more mature, No Blues sounds like Los Campesinos! has finally figured out that growing up doesn’t have to mean leaving the best parts of your youth behind.
Laura Marling, Once I Was An Eagle
Essential Songs: “I Was An Eagle,” “Devil’s Resting Place,” “Love Be Brave”
Laura Marling has mostly been known for her startling skill at a young age, but by the time she reached her fourth album, this year’s Once I Was An Eagle, and the age of 23, discussions of her youth have unsurprisingly shifted toward how mature she seems. The album is big in scope and ambition, opening with a four-song cycle that establishes the album’s message of artistic independence, creative freedom, and increased confidence. Marling is playing with various types of folk here, from the sweeping orchestrations of the opening cycle to the darker, moodier mid-section with murder-ballad “Little Love Caster,” and the sultry “Devil’s Resting Place,” to the softer, more introspective closing tracks, like the gorgeously well-written “Love Be Brave,” at times Once I Was An Eagle feels like it could be a career capping retrospective. At 23, Marling has already proven herself to be prolific, expansive in her range, and shocking in her depth and subtlety. For some, this collection of songs would be enough to sum up a career. For Marling, it sounds like just the beginning.
10. Mayer Hawthorne, Where Does This Door Go?
Essential Songs: “Backseat Lover,” “Where Does This Door Go?”, “All Better”
Mayer Hawthorne has struggled to leave behind his status as a novelty singer—being a nerdy white guy from Michigan who sings old-school Motown and retro R&B. Yet on Where Does This Door Go?, he finally becomes more than his premise, not only delivering another album chock full of solid riffs on the past, but one that also feels blessedly contemporary. Where much of his previous output has felt simply like a warmed over homage to the likes of Curtis Mayfield and even Marvin Gaye, Where Does This Door Go? feels like Hawthorne has finally found his own place in an ongoing cultural conversation between the past and future of R&B. He may not be the most natural entry into a Motown lexicon, but on tracks like “The Innocent,” “Allie Jones,” and the title track, he sounds like he’s finally figured how to follow not just the letter of the genre, but discovered its vibrant spirit as well.
9. Tegan and Sara, Heartthrob
Essential Songs: “Closer,” “How Come You Don’t Want Me,” “Love They Say”
Few albums are as endlessly catchy, ceaselessly upbeat, and outright fun as Heartthrob, a synth-heavy pop throwback that is virtually wall-to-wall bubblegum brilliance. Nearly every song is sing-along worthy, and many of them have just enough depth to sink into. The songwriting here is more sophisticated than Tegan and Sara have offered before, and despite its pop trappings, the album actually takes some interesting perspectives outside of the standard wheelhouse, from “How Come You Don’t Want Me” with its rejection blues, and “Goodbye Goodbye” with its triumphant decision to put the baggage behind you. Tegan and Sara have always excelled at telling compelling stories about the minutiae of romance, but on Heartthrob, the musical scaffolding on which their tales stand is far more constructed. It might sound restricting, but in actuality, it frees them to fill every track with a gleeful sense of reckless abandon.
8. Kanye West, Yeezus
Essential Songs: “Black Skinhead,” “I Am A God,” “Blood on the Leaves”
After the carefully controlled, almost hermetic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy offered us a journey to Kanye West’s tortured soul, Yeezus is a near perfect palate cleanser, a chaotic, loose, desperately energetic embrace of Ye’s public persona. If Fantasy is Kanye analyzing and challenging his self-conception, Yeezus is the artist celebrating the way the rest of the culture sees him. Usually, Kanye hides any imperfections, but on Yeezus the seams are more than just showing: they are, to a large extent, the point. Kanye singing “I Am A God,” on an album where he is completely letting go of his control is beautifully liberating, and the screams that accompany that liberation are perfectly mixed between jubilation and deep discontent. If Kanye is usually the Stanley Kubrick of rap, all meticulous planning and cold control, on Yeezus he’s Jean-Luc Godard, smash-cutting between samples and genres, pulling in everything he likes about music of all sorts with little regard for how they fit together—West has enough confidence and charm to pull together disparate elements with his sheer force of personality. Yeezus is an album of rough edges from an artist used to sanding them down until they shine, and its all the better for how it seems to burst all the chains Kanye had placed on himself with his previous albums. There may not be a better argument for this rap God’s omnipotence than his willingness to break all the rules in a way that proves they weren’t all that useful to begin with.
7. Phosphorescent, Muchacho
Essential Songs: “Song for Zula,” “Ride On, Right On,” “Terror in the Canyons (The Wounded Master)”
On his sixth album, Matthew Houck feels more assured than ever before, mixing his two most prominent flavors, the yearning and devastation of love and the joyous exultation of life until it becomes clear that they cannot be so cleanly separated as it might seem. There are few better songs in 2013 than “Song for Zula,” an open wound where Houck lets all of his pain flow free against a bass and strings backdrop. There’s pain here, to be sure, but Houck is more interested in what that pain means, and on Muchacho, it means, more than anything else, that he is truly, blessedly alive. The generally reticent Houck freely admitted Muchacho came about after his life fell apart, but rather than wallowing, the album tends toward the optimistic, moving always from mournful undercurrents and towards jubilation. The album opens with “Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, An Introduction)” and closes with “Sun’s Arising (A Koan, An Exit)” and the two serve as near perfect bookends for the exploration of life’s ups and downs that falls in between them. Life isn’t easy, Houck seems to be reminding us, but damn, is it worth the struggle.
6. Volcano Choir, Repave
Essential Songs: “Tiderays,” “Acetate,” “Byegone”
The party line on Repave is that it sounds like it could easily be the third Bon Iver album, but I just don’t think that’s right. Sure, Justin Vernon is more prominent here than he was on the group’s more decidedly avant garde Unmap, yet his collaborators (many of whom come from the group Collections of Colonies of Bees) assert themselves nearly equally. In fact, I’d say its possible Repave is actually better than it would be were it a Bon Iver affair, unshackled as it is from the expectations that instills, and free to find itself in some new and fascinating territory. Ultimately, Repave feels like a middle ground between the unfocused artistry of Unmap and the tightly tethered Bon Iver. Vernon has been open in his distaste for a lot of the fame and trappings that have come with his success as Bon Iver. The way Volcano Choir allows him to sidestep the spotlight even slightly seems to have freed him to find a new way to express himself alongside collaborators who exert a near equal amount of artistic control. Bon Iver moved from being a solo act, started in a cabin in the woods, to being a touring band in a studio, trying to recapture lightning in a bottle. Volcano Choir has always been about a multitude of artistic voices coming together and hoping something explosive results. On Repave, the group may just have rewritten their collective histories and found a new path forward for both of its halves.
5. Bill Callahan, Dream River
Essential Songs: “The Sing,” “Small Plane,” “Winter Road”
More than any other musician working today, Bill Callahan understands the power of delivery. On paper, the opening lines of Dream River play out straight as “Drinking while sleeping strangers unknowingly keep me company,” but in Callahan’s hands, the meaning shifts in ways that are completely unexpected and endlessly rewarding (seriously, just click below and here the spell he casts with just those lines). Callahan works on a canvas of silence, and every single element he adds to that has a purpose and a meaning, even if neither is ultimately clear on first listen. His most seemingly inconsequential lyrics often contain oceans of meaning, complete world views encapsulated in tiny, apparently trivial phrases (witness, for example, how much he wrings out of the words “fertile dirt” on “Spring,” or see how quietly titanic it feels when he calmly intones, “I really am a lucky man, flying this small plane” on “Small Plane”). On Dream River, Bill Callahan is painting a self-portrait as an impressionist might, and finding details he’d miss in the mirror. The album exists in a dreamscape of half-remembered thoughts and half-imagined hopes, yet it slowly crystallizes until it encapsulates Callahan’s full worldview. Between the silence and the noise, between the air of “Small Plane” and the sea of “Summer Painter,” between the man and the mystery he has wrapped himself in and slowly begun to unravel, Dream River winds ceaselessly toward truth.
4. Portugal. The Man, Evil Friends
Essential Songs: “Creep In A T-Shirt,” “Modern Jesus,” “Sea of Air”
When I reviewed Evil Friends earlier this year, I focused largely on the group’s sonic evolutions. With producer Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) at the helm, Portugal. The Man added a blues influence, allowing some of The Black Keys’ sound to suffuse their standard psychedelic haze. Yet over the months since its release, the album’s thematic innovations and resonance have assured it stuck with me. Portugal. The Man has always been interested in the foundations of imposed morality and whether they can possibly be sound, but this idea forms the crux of Evil Friends, which rebels at each turn against the idea of doctrine and dogma defining good and evil. The group decries the idea of us all becoming “plastic soldiers” in an ideology we do not control, fights the power of indoctrination (“Don’t pray for us, we don’t need no modern Jesus to roll with us, the only rule we need is never giving up, the only faith we have is faith in us,” they declare on “Modern Jesus”) and champions true existential freedom at every turn. If their previous album In The Mountain In The Cloud was about the joy of embracing this philosophy, Evil Friends is about the dark side of the opposition, the ideas and ideologies that paint opponents as hopelessly ethically compromised from the start, as inherently “evil” simply for asking certain questions.
3. Neko Case, The Worse Things Get The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight The More I Love You
Essential Songs: “Man,” “Bracing For Sunday,” “Local Girl”
Over the last decade, through both her work with The New Pornographers and her solo output, Neko Case has proved herself to be one of the most talented and accomplished singer-songwriters of the new century. The Worse Things Get is not just a savvy combination of her multiple styles, from power pop to balladic folk, from punkish influences to gospel rock, it is also arguably her most nakedly personal album to date. This variety of styles and forms creates Case’s most instantly accessible album to date, a stellar collection of songs that flow together smartly, forming an emotional journey even as each can stand confidently alone. This is an album of hidden depths and startling wit that grows increasingly powerful with each listen. Neko Case has evolved over the years, but in a lot of ways, she has remained consistent. She is still the hyper-literate jokester, the small town girl who can croon with the best of them; she is still as soulful and sweet, still as clever and deep. What she has added, though, is perspective. She is more than she has been before because she has seen more, survived more, and learned in the process. She has seen through the darkness and chosen the light, and on The Worse Things Get, she is doing her best to serve as a beacon to those still lost in the night.
2. Janelle Monae, The Electric Lady
Essential Songs: “Q.U.E.E.N.,” “Dance Apocalyptic,” “What An Experience”
Janelle Monae is many things: sonic pioneer, fusion of infinite influences, Bowie-like chameleon, and master of cinematic storytelling. Monae knows how to create a mood, and through that mood, a setting better than just about any artist currently working. On The Electric Lady, she continues her alluring blend of rock and funk, adding elements of R&B and psychedelia to her sonic stew. Monae’s music isn’t just simultaneously exotic and inviting, it creates an entire world and leaves the door open for you to follow her inside. Throughout the album, Monae celebrates the idea of letting go and abandoning yourself to a song, a sound, a movement, a party, even a person. Monae has made a career of cloaking herself in a futuristic persona, yet in the best moments of The Electric Lady, she reveals more of herself than ever before. Monae’s message is political and personal, artistic and philosophical, and her tale of a futuristic society fighting for equality feels blessedly relevant to our own times. Her message is clear: the march toward progress is slow, but it is inevitable, and it doesn’t have to be dour or furious. Throw the best party in town, and everybody is going to want to come.
1. Frightened Rabbit, Pedestrian Verse
Essential Songs: “Backyard Skulls,” “Late March, Death March,” “Nitrous Gas”
I have been a Frightened Rabbit fan for years now, but Pedestrian Verse is the first time I have loved them without reservation. This is the sort of album that forced me to revisit their entire discography and to see it with new eyes; this is a Rosetta Stone bound to convert new fans and remind old fans what they have always loved about the band. By distancing themselves from their self-ascribed “sad bastard” roots and searching out peppier, more complex and nuanced songs, the band finds its way back to old thoughts through new avenues. There’s sadness on the album (“Nitrous Gas,” for example, is as fine an example of Frightened Rabbit’s peculiar brand of desolation as anything they have done previously), but mostly, the group finds new angles from which to attack old problems. “Backyard Skulls” is about the futility of disguising emotional scars, but it’s also a pulse-pounding rocker. “Holy” feels as fast and energetic as anything off The Winter of Mixed Drinks, but with far more resonance. And “Late March, Death March,” is endearing miserableism with a snare drum that’ll knock even the most depressive out of their funk. I have listened to no album more than this one in 2013, and on each listen, it reveals more layers, more riffs, and more epiphanies. Pedestrian Verse isn’t the work of a different band, by any stretch. It still has that particularly Scottish brand of witty depression, and it has a lot of the upbeat melodies and pop construction of Frightened Rabbit’s last album. It has simply discovered that the two need not be mutually exclusive. The world is a more complex place than that. Happiness and tragedy, joy and depression, intermingle until they make up more than just the sum of their parts, more than just the seasons of a year. On Pedestrian Verse, they make up life itself. And it’s a marvelous thing to behold.