We’ve now reached the halfway point of this Top 50 Albums of 2013 countdown. In case you missed them, here are links to Part I [#50-41] and Part II [#40-31]. Let me just say that this third part may be the most interesting section of the entire list. I don’t mean to put any other of the sets of ten to shame, but there are just so many oddities and flight of fancy records here that I suspect you may have missed at least a couple of them this year. There’s a lot more obvious stuff as we get towards the finish line, and some relatively popular indie records came before this, so this is the gooey middle where anything goes. We’re talking weird electronica, neo-classical post-rock and gothic drones among the fare you’ll find below. It wasn’t planned this way, I just wrote the Top 50 list and it worked out like this. So please enjoy this bit of strange after the jump, as we continue to forge onward chronicling the year’s best records!
30. Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus
The album title says it all: Slow Focus. It’s taken Fuck Buttons a good five years to get to the level of perfection they’re operating on throughout this record, and the long wait was definitely worth it. In that time, the duo of Benjamin Power and Andrew Hung have gone from screeching, distorted vocals set against chopped together electronics to pristine, clear-cut visionary minimalist soundscapes, and boy does it sound good on them. The first thing you’ll notice on any single track on this album is how truly expansive and anthemic they’ve gotten – certainly more than ever before. Just when you think something has become so big it can’t get any bigger, Power & Hung find a way to go even more skyward. But the real reward of Slow Focus comes in the repeat listens. Keep your ears open and pay extra close attention, and you’ll start discovering new elements and moving parts on these tracks. Just like that, the big things become tiny once again, and the blurry, far away viewpoint steadily creeps in to reveal an incredible clarity…or should I say slow focus.
Stream: “The Red Wing ”
29. These New Puritans – Field of Reeds
These New Puritans sure can’t sit still in one place for very long. They seem to have a compulsion to sound vastly different with each new record, and now over the course of three full lengths have succeeded at doing so. Field of Reeds marks their venture into more classical and post-rock territories, as every composition feels adrift with beauty, darkness and urgency. It’s intense and haunting, but also natural and warm. Strings, horns and piano are all primary instruments in this journey that isn’t explicitly split but logically makes sense as three distinct movements. The theme of loss is prevalent throughout the record, at first in connection with death but eventually spilling out into trust and the ensuing paranoia. This album is one of the strangest works to come out of 2013, but if you’re able to devote the time and care to listening to it from start to finish, you’ll reap remarkable rewards that will find you coming back to it again and again.
Stream: “Fragment Two”
28. Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
Nobody expected a new Boards of Canada record in 2013, mostly because they had been dormant since 2006, but after a number of cryptic clues and treasure hunts Tomorrow’s Harvest was revealed. BoC have always been the sort of electronica artists that explored new territories and changed the direction of music to one degree or another, and perhaps some were disappointed that this new record didn’t do a whole lot of that. Instead, they looked inward and crafted what feels like a greatest hits collection featuring all new tracks. Though almost everything sounds like it could be placed somewhere in their back catalogue, there are new and interesting emotional shades that do keep things richly interesting, not to mention a couple of experiments that suggest a probable path forwards should they choose to take them. Mostly though, you can sit back, put on some headphones and let Tomorrow’s Harvest wash over you. There’s just so much about it that feels absolutely right.
Stream: “Reach for the Dead”
27. Deerhunter – Monomania
No matter what Deerhunter choose to do with their sound, it’s always going to turn out interesting. That’s a lesson that can be learned from their back catalogue, and Monomania presents yet another crazy wrinkle to thoroughly enjoy. In a sense it seems like bassist Josh Fauver kept the band in check and their feet on the ground, because this is the first record since he left and the band goes a bit off the rails (in a good way). Bradford Cox steps more confidently than ever into the role of frontman, a ubiquitous title in this band that he often shared with Lockett Pundt who only gets a single turn behind the microphone on this album. The fuzz and white noise pedals get cranked way up for much of Monomania, and many of Deerhunter’s previously established roots in psychedelia get put on the back burner except for a couple tracks in the middle of the record. To my ears it sounds a lot like The Jesus and Mary Chain mixed with The Velvet Underground, as Cox works through a pretty traumatic break-up with a great doses of depression and insight. Maybe not the band’s best to date, but still absolutely worth writing home about.
Video: “Back to the Middle”
26. A$AP Rocky – LongLiveA$AP
LongLiveA$AP was the first album I heard in 2013. It came out right at the start of the year, after several months of delays and changes in release dates. What was the hold up? There were so many excuses given that I don’t know which one(s) to believe. My thoughts are that RCA gave A$AP Rocky a check for $3 million in 2011, and they just wanted to make sure everything was right when his big moment in the spotlight finally arrived. Thankfully, the final product did live up to the hype, and this record wound up setting the standard for great hip hop this year. So much about it seems carefully constructed and meticulously smoothed over, but the delivery is so effortless and of-the-moment that you barely notice. A$AP Rocky himself is cool and confident on every single track, which turns out to be pretty great actually, and the collection of guests from Drake to Kendrick Lamar and Santigold is dynamite too. Everyone, including producers like Clams Casino and Skrillex are allowed to shine in their own ways, though none more brightly than Rocky himself. This is his record through and through, and the real start to a hopefully great career that’s been a long time coming.
Video: “Fashion Killa”
25. The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
Shaking the Habitual would feel like a much more appropriate title for The Knife’s double album opus had they actually developed any sonic habits from which to shake. Instead, their main modus operandi has been to provoke, duck and dodge their way around expectations. That’s yielded somewhat mixed results, via something brilliant like Silent Shout or something so impenetrable and crazy like the found sound collages of Tomorrow, in a Year. On Shaking the Habitual they find steady footing once again, though their approach is anything but orthodox. Be it extended drones or consistently evolving techno, everything on this 90+ minute epic adventure serves a larger purpose tied to a concept about breaking down barriers and challenging what we’ve come to know about the world around us, from wealth inequality to political systems to even gender divisions. With such a length and so many tracks extending beyond the eight minute mark, this certainly isn’t a record for the timid or unadventurous. In fact, it tries pretty hard to avoid being accessible in the very least. Only in very rare occasions such as this one is the uphill struggle worth the final reward.
Stream: “Full of Fire”
24. The Haxan Cloak – Excavation
The dictionary defines the word “excavate” as “to remove earth carefully and systematically from an area in order to find buried remains.” Naturally then, The Haxan Cloak’s record Excavation is all about death. It seeks to examine the journey we take once our bodies are buried beneath the soil, and doesn’t particularly consider heaven or hell to be options. Instead, the whole thing plays out like a much more complex scenario that feels like the soundtrack to a horror film or something from science fiction about the cold, dark recesses of outer space. Mainly though, the album doesn’t feel like it’s earthbound, or at least made by somebody who has seen sunlight or interacted with people in the last decade. This record often sends chills through my body while listening to it, which is incredible considering I have very few physical (but plenty of emotional) reactions to music. It’s not something that’s easy to absorb casually, but with the right circumstances or the right mood it can be just as powerful and incredible of an experience as your favorite upbeat pop record. Now THAT is scary to think about.
Stream: “The Mirror Reflecting (Part 2)”
23. Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time
Sky Ferreira refuses to play by anyone’s rules. She may have major label backing and has been working with producer du jour Ariel Rechtshaid, but that doesn’t mean she’s sold out or lost control of her own image. In fact, many of the songs on her debut full length Night Time, My Time are about that very subject. This album was delayed for awhile, potentially indefinitely, as she fought to get the songs she wanted included and put together in just the right way. Everything worked out in the end, and it’s rather thrilling to hear Ferreira’s innovative take on pop music. She does a fantastic job blending the past and present, particularly with the 80’s synth-infused “24 Hours” and the jangly throwback guitars of “You’re Not the One.” There are hooks galore and really intelligent/insightful lyrics as well, yet it seems strange that she hasn’t had quite the same impact or achieved a level of popularity that would endear her to teens the world over. Then again, maybe that’s not what she’s going for. At the moment, Night Time, My Time feels like a secret pop masterpiece, and I’d be more than content if it were to stay that way.
Video: “You’re Not the One”
22. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels
The basic idea behind Run the Jewels was just a fun little collaboration between good friends Killer Mike and El-P. Instead of sticking with some of the political and issue-based hip hop of their individual records from 2012, they chose to battle rap one another in the most comically over-the-top fashion possible. The self-titled Run the Jewels record turned out to be 33 minutes of highly entertaining insanity, given away as a free download to anyone who wanted to listen. While many of the beats felt like they were cut from the same cloth as El-P’s last couple solo albums, the primary change on Run the Jewels is how their individual delivery styles changed as a result of their collaboration. Killer Mike picked up a little more throat-tearing savagery on most of his verses, while El-P slowed down and smoothed out just enough to reveal deeper layers of personality that weren’t noticeable before. Things went so well, it’s looking like there’s going to be another RtJ record in 2014. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait.
Video: “36″ Chain”
21. Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety
There are certain people in everyone’s lives, and you might actually be that person to your friends/family, who fully wear their emotions on their sleeves. If you see a sad-looking puppy, you burst into tears. When your boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with you, it feels like the end of the world. Those sorts of emotional extremes are explored throughout Anxiety, which isn’t so much a record about feelings, but a record about FEELINGS. These R&B songs from Autre Ne Veut aren’t crafted with the idea of sounding pretty, though they often end up that way, nor do they ever feel like overreactions. Instead, they’re firmly rooted in reality and passion, and are built around hooks that hammer you into submission and addiction. When Arthur Ashin screams, “Don’t ever leave me alone!” on “Play By Play,” it genuinely seems like he’s directing that desperation right at the listener, begging you to stay in this space and song with him forever. Thanks to everything that Anxiety dishes out, it’s quite the tempting offer.
Stream: “Play By Play”