This is the big one. Welcome to Faronheit’s Top 50 Albums of 2013 countdown! Over the next few days, I’ll be revealing my unveiling the full list, 10 albums at a time. We do this every year, and it’s always an adventure. Things are running just a little bit behind schedule at the moment, as I’d hoped to have this up before Christmas, but I appreciate your patience and promise to have everything posted before the end of the year. Did you happen to catch my Top 50 Songs of 2013 list from earlier this month? In case you missed it, all of those posts can be found simply by clicking this link. While I’m always excited to share tracks with you, as evidenced by the daily Pick Your Poison posts, albums hold a special place in my heart. This site was started with the intention of writing long form album reviews, and unfortunately in 2013 strayed further away from that than ever. A combination of factors, from having a really busy schedule to endless amounts of writing and rewriting to bouts of writer’s block prevented me from cranking out more than a few album reviews each month. It’s something I have a strong desire to get back to however, so that’s going to be a primary goal for 2014. As things stand now, all 50 of the albums in this countdown have short paragraph mini reviews to go along with them, so in a sense I’m packing a year’s worth into just a few entries. I hope you enjoy them, and maybe even discover some great records that you missed from this past year. Let’s get started then, shall we? Follow me after the jump for the first set of ten albums, with #50-41!
50. Death Grips – Government Plates
If you’re familiar with Death Grips, you probably strongly dislike or maybe even hate them. They’ve done very little to endear themselves to the music loving public. From their extremely abrasive, attack dog style of hip hop to the middle fingers they openly give to their former record label and fans who show up at their live shows expecting to actually witness a performance, it’s clear they’re operating on their own set of rules and don’t give a fuck what anyone else thinks. It’s annoying as all hell and I’m starting to think they’re just doing things with the explicit intention of stirring up controversy, but I wouldn’t stand for it or put up with it if the music wasn’t so insanely interesting and innovative. They’re bringing a punk rock ethos to the world of hip hop and electronica, and after three albums they continue to find new layers to expose and areas to explore in music. Government Plates was released on Nov. 13th without any pre-announcement or record label. Did I also mention that it’s a free download? For all the antics they hurt themselves with, this is an attempt to bandage that wound. The worst part is it kinda worked.
49. Courtney Barnett – The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas
For the uninitiated, Courtney Barnett is a 25 year old singer-songwriter from Melbourne, Australia. Her guitar playing is often impressive and tinged with psychedelia. Her lyrics are equal parts poetic and eloquent, not to mention effortlessly charming and frequently hilarious. Her vocals have an ineffably relaxed (bordering on lazy) quality to them, which is probably a great way to classify her personality as well. And her album The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, is as described – a combining of two separate EPs she released in 2012 and 2013. Together they function as one remarkable collection of music that’s perfect for an afternoon spent indoors hanging out with friends. Songs like “Avant Gardener” (one of my favorites from 2013) and “History Eraser” will crawl inside your brain and live there for days on end if you let them. This record goes a long way towards establishing her as a major talent, and it gets me really excited about what she’s going to do next!
Stream: “Avant Gardener”
48. Moonface – Julia With Blue Jeans On
I love Spencer Krug and his work in bands like Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown, but his solo efforts as Moonface have always seemed a little shaky to me. They’ve essentially been explorations of and focused on different individual instruments. There was the “marimba and shit-drums” EP from 2010, the all organ music LP from 2011, and the collaborative effort with the epic post-rock band Sinai to round out 2012. Though the instrument is not in the title, Julia With Blue Jeans On sees Krug returning to keyboarded instruments, this time writing and performing all of the songs on piano. I had low expectations going in, given the previous Moonface records, to the point of setting it aside for a month because I couldn’t be bothered with it. Well, I now feel like an idiot. This is a beautifully composed album, full of drama, heart and passion. The simplicity of just a piano and a vocal really brings these songs into focus. Krug is no longer forcing melodies to bend to his expository wordplay, but now giving them (and himself) plenty of space to breathe. That turns out to be the right move, because sometimes silence says more than any words can. When he is singing though, his unorthodox, often quivering vocals seem suited to the piano more than any other instrument. It makes a line like, “I have a way of bleeding dry anything you’d call a rose,” that much more devastating and rife with self-loathing. That’s ultimately this record’s biggest positive and negative as well, because you need to be in the right mood to truly connect and want to spend significant time with it. When you find that sweet spot though, you’ll absolutely understand why it’s one of the finest albums from 2013.
47. Los Campesinos! – No Blues
It’s been about six years since Los Campesinos! first burst onto the music scene, and so much has changed since then, from the lineup to the sound. With the exit of a few key members, the spotlight has been thrust firmly onto Gareth Campesinos!, who has taken the band down some very dark but still rewarding rabbit holes. A once youthful and hyperactive indie pop band allowed the darkness in, for what might best be described as an increasing level of emotional and sonic maturity. LC! have yet to put out a bad record, but that doesn’t mean the last couple were easy/fun listens. Their ambition was starting to get the better of them, and song arrangements could become overly busy, among other things. But as with any band that goes through phases, No Blues marks something of a return to form, or rather the next step on their evolutionary timeline. There’s still more than a fair share of desperation, depression and heartbreak on this record, but there’s a much leaner, more energized band behind the reins again, and the result is the best LC! record in a few years. Gareth continues to be a remarkably brilliant lyricist, and it’s a still a sincere pleasure to hear him turn a clever phrase, even if it’s soccer-related and I need to look it up to fully comprehend what he’s going for. Even though they’re one of the hardest working bands today and release a quality new album or EP almost every year, I’m starting to think that their fans are becoming complacent and starting to take them for granted. It’s easy enough to do, and I’m just judging based on the only small amount of hype I’ve heard and seen about this record since it came out. You might even call it overlooked. But as Joni Mitchell says, you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone. Don’t let this band fall by the wayside!
Stream: “Avocado, Baby”
46. AlunaGeorge – Body Music
In late 2012 I stumbled upon AlunaGeorge via a couple of singles they released, which earned them a coveted spot in my Class of 2013, which catalogues artists to watch over the course of the year. Not surprisingly, AlunaGeorge’s stock rose significantly this past year. While their collaboration with Disclosure earned a top ten slot in my Best Songs countdown for this year, it’s the Body Music record that truly is their finest accomplishment so far. It’s an explicit revival of a 90’s R&B sound I thought was gone forever, and they really gave it all they had. It’s an album packed to the brim with singles and potential singles, including “Your Drums, Your Love,” “You Know You Like It,” “Attracting Flies,” “Lost and Found” and “Best Be Believing,” just to name a few. These are almost entirely bouncy, fun and remarkably addictive tracks, which creates a problem mostly because there’s too many of them to go around. That, and at 14 tracks over 50 minutes it can feel slightly overlong and in need of some pruning. But those minor complaints are more superficial than anything, and when this record works, which is 90% of the time, it REALLY works. And that’s why I’m proud to include it among my favorites from this year.
Stream: “Attracting Flies”
45. Leverage Models – Leverage Models
After a couple of years spent releasing EPs, singles and covers, Shannon Fields finally unveiled his self-titled debut album under the name Leverage Models this past fall. While the record is first and foremost his, more than a dozen other musicians contributed by playing various instruments and adding vocals where needed to help bring Fields’ vision to life. That vision turned out to be the most fully realized and focused thing he’s done to date. Leverage Models is a record that’s incredibly indebted to 80’s dance acts, from Talking Heads to Neu! to Gary Numan and beyond, but also delivers a modern twist on many of those classic tropes. You can file it under the category of synth pop, but there’s a fair amount of electronica elements in the mixture, and the aforementioned guests add some great live instrumentation like bass and saxophone to keep you guessing about what will come next. It’s actually those random elements and an unerring commitment to oddities like vocal modulation and bipolar tempo shifts that really sets this album apart from everything else that sounded similar to it this year. Singles such as “Cooperative Extensions” and “Night Falls on the General Assembly” are pretty great examples of what this record manages to accomplish, and are also perfect starting points if you’re looking to find out more about Leverage Models.
Stream: “Cooperative Extensions”
44. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
Neko Case has perfected her craft. She’s reached a point where she can’t really do anything wrong, even though she’s been sticking with the same alt-country style for awhile now. One gets the feeling that if she were to write an album about any random or weird topic, she’d make it work somehow. As it stands, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight… is largely about her battles with depression. But she takes that dark subject matter and turns it into a collection of songs that are vulnerable and heartbreaking, but also uplifting and tough. She sings about the lessons she’s learned, and stands tall having conquered her demons. Her lyrics paint us a picture and tell stories with characters encountering hard times or various obstacles, all of them acting and reacting in a way that pours out humanity and compassion. Paired with her siren vocals, you’d have to be heartless not to connect with it on some level. “If I puke up some sonnets, would you call me a miracle?” she asks on “Night Still Comes.” The line is meant as an angry retort, but in all honesty she’s a miracle no matter what she does.
Stream: “Night Still Comes”
43. Speedy Ortiz – Major Arcana
The revival of the 90’s alt-rock sound has been going on for awhile now, with varying results and not a whole lot of artists and bands truly getting noticed because of it. Perhaps that’s because most are simply recreating what was great 20 years ago instead of making efforts to expand upon it. Speedy Ortiz is exactly the sort of band that knows better than to fall into such a trap, and in 2013 they’ve been rewarded because of it and their album Major Arcana. Falling somewhere on the spectrum between The Breeders (who Speedy Ortiz toured with at the end of this year), Chavez and Helium, this album features jagged, angular and riff-heavy guitar work that’s matched against the syrupy vocals and pop-laden hooks of Sadie Dupuis, who has quickly identified herself as somebody to keep an eye on for the future. Most of the songs on the record are anthemic and far-reaching in scope, but without being overt or showy. That sometimes means it takes a few listens to fully grasp the incredible things that are being thrown at you, but trust me when I say that the effort you’ll put in is more than worth it.
Stream: “No Below”
42. James Blake – Overgrown
For his second full-length effort, James Blake decided to go a little bipolar in an attempt to blend the more classical and R&B styles of his early EPs with the more electronic and soulful singer-songwriter piano work from his debut album. Okay, so maybe bipolar isn’t the right descriptor. While he is tasked with blending some disparate styles, the end results are anything but divisive and jarring, though there are certainly some moments that are taken to their extremes. As one of the originators of the dubstep genre (though in the pre-Skrillex and Deadmau5 days), he beefs up the beats and sub-bass thanks to tracks like “Digital Lion” and “Voyeur.” But you also get quiet piano pieces like “Dim” and gospel-tinged highlights like “Retrograde.” What anchors the entire record is Blake’s incredible vocal work, which is far more expansive and playful in terms of range and use compared to anything he’s done previously. It’s also extremely emotional stuff, and there’s something truly impressive about how he can repeat the same phrases over and over again but change his inflection ever so slightly each time to convey something different. So while there’s an unflinching sadness across many of the songs on Overgrown, you can’t help but be just a little turned on by it as well.
41. Grouper – The Man Who Died in His Boat
Perhaps the greatest asset that Liz Harris has going for her with her Grouper project is intimacy. There’s a certain closeness, a certain element of privacy and voyeurism if you will, that invades all the music she makes. Listening to a Grouper album is akin to walking into an abandoned warehouse and stumbling upon a woman playing acoustic guitar and singing, her voice echoing off the walls, intended to be heard by an audience of none. The songs found on The Man Who Died in His Boat were recorded in 2008 around the same time as the Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill album, which is considered by most to be Harris’s finest work under the Grouper moniker. Indeed, the two records are spiritual and sonic cousins, brimming with an ambience and sadness that’s heartbreaking and intensely beautiful at the same time. We all need records for the dark times in our lives when it feels like we’re all alone in the world. This was what I would put on in 2013 whenever I would fall into that sort of mood. Instead of pulling me further down into depression, it served as a comfort – a reminder that everybody experiences these sorts of emotions sometimes, and it’s all about perspective. This is a soundtrack to serenity, and you don’t even need a Seinfeld catchphrase to find it.