And just like that, we’ve reached the end of our Top 50 Albums countdown journey. It’s been interesting and a whole lot of fun to put together, and I sincerely hope that you’ve enjoyed this and the other Listmas entries that have helped to wrap up 2013 and start 2014. This has extended far later than I wanted it to go, and all the delays are due to a variety of factors that I don’t care to get into, but at this point I’m just glad we made it. Thank you for bearing with me, and I hope we can still be friends after this. In case you missed anything from this year’s Listmas, let me give you a quick rundown and direct links to the many posts that took over the site in December and this early part of January.
So here they are, my Top 10 Albums of 2013. I genuinely love each and every one of the records listed below, and strongly recommend that you give them a listen or buy copies of them should you have the chance. These albums also make up a great snapshot of 2013, featuring a wide variety of music styles and genres that I don’t want to hint at. Just take it all in after the jump, and by all means enjoy to the fullest extent allowed. Thanks! Drumroll please…
10. Mutual Benefit – Love’s Crushing Diamond
Remember when Sufjan Stevens used to make music that was complex, heartfelt and relatable? I’m talking the life-affirming compositions of Illinois and the spiritual acoustics on Seven Swans. There was something so special about those records, and it’s a real shame that I haven’t heard anything or anybody come close to capturing that sound and style over the last few years. Enter Mutual Benefit and Love’s Crushing Diamond. Upon my first listen to the album this past October, I was staring out my window watching the leaves on the trees change color and fall to the ground. It made for the perfect soundtrack, what with the lyrical imagery (and field recordings) of nature and the topics of suffering, depression and death being addressed. Though this record can be dramatically sad much of the time, it’s also undeniably the most beautiful collection of songs that I heard in 2013. Jordan Lee composed the album on his own, and the mixture of acoustic guitars, banjos, and pianos, among many other things, stuns with its fragility. You don’t need to hear a single word to be emotionally moved, though with an unabashed love song such as “Advanced Falconry” the lyrics only make your heart swell that much more. Many have said that an artist needs to truly suffer in order to create something great. This record feels like proof of that.
Stream: “Let’s Play/Statue of a Man”
9. Haim – Days Are Gone
Out of all the members of my Class of 2013, none had a better year than Haim. Those familiar with the Los Angeles-based trio of sisters from their previous EPs knew what powerhouses songs like “Falling” and “Forever” were way ahead of time, but it wasn’t until the late July unveiling of “The Wire” (aka my favorite song of the year) as the advance single for their debut album Days Are Gone that they landed on the radar of mainstream culture. The surge in popularity led to some radio airplay, profiles in prominent music publications, and even a much coveted musical guest slot on Saturday Night Live. Of course it’s all very much deserved, as this album is packed to the gills with hooks, and somehow manages to make soft rock and generalized pop rock seem cool again when every fiber of your being screams otherwise. They can get angry and vengeful towards a guy on the R&B/En Vogue inspired “My Song 5,” then express sorrow and regret over past mistakes in the 80’s-styled synth pop ballad “If I Could Change Your Mind.” Credit that balance and brilliance to how confident and serious of musicians the Haim sisters are, and they appear to have a blast along the way. Shove Haim into a category with somebody like Lorde and call them the future of popular music as we know it. So long as they’re creating records as great as this one, long may they reign.
8. Phosphorescent – Muchacho
One of my favorite things about Phosphorescent’s Muchacho is how it’s country music without being COUNTRY music (if that makes sense). For the most part there aren’t any songs about pickup trucks or heavy drinking, and Matthew Houck doesn’t sing in some disaffected accent that makes him sound like he’s a good ‘ol boy. But there’s plenty of slide guitar and barroom piano to give you that country feel, and there are some Biblical-type references in many of the lyrics relating to allegories about shepherds, lambs and rolling stones that have classic country origins as well. I suppose all of these things are nothing particularly new for Houck, this being his sixth full length as Phosphorescent and all, but never has he sounded so well-rounded and creatively inspired. This was a record born out of being world-weary and tired, reaching a state where you want to abandon your established life and escape to just about anything else. Houck did something similar by taking an extended trip to Mexico, which brought a new perspective and fuel for what we hear as the end product. There’s a sun-kissed grace and beauty to all of these country folk songs, but also an expansiveness and peace that shines through even as the lyrics are about heartbreak. The dense compositions, most of which were recorded by Houck with some assistance from friends, are never too showy or overwhelm the often subdued, aching vocals. To my ears, it sounds like Muchacho is the closing of one chapter and the start of a new one for Phosphorescent. Let’s hope what comes next is as smart and fruitful.
Stream: “Song For Zula”
7. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
To my ears, Reflektor is a transitional record for Arcade Fire. It signals their move away from one era and the revelation of a new one that’s far more dance oriented. Typically bands struggle to complete a metamorphosis and a redefining of their sound right away, though part of that has to do with what fans are expecting and willing to accept. Recruiting LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy to produce this double album should have been a sign very early on that this was going to be a beats-first dancefloor epic, and maybe that knowledge enabled fans to properly prepare and build anticipation. Travels through Haiti and Jamaica also brought tribal and reggae rhythms to create more of a world music disco perspective, which cool as it may be also feels overtly pretentious. But that’s a badge Arcade Fire wear proudly on their sleeves, content with what they’re attempting to the point where they’ll even request (and sometimes demand) audiences to wear costumes or formal attire to shows. There’s something incredibly invigorating about this approach, which you can hear it mirrored back (reflekted, if you will) at you in this collection of songs. Reflektor isn’t perfect, nor is it on the advanced level of The Suburbs or Funeral, but it’s still an incredibly satisfying addition to the Arcade Fire catalogue and quite the bold re-introduction to one of the most popular bands in the world these days.
6. Disclosure – Settle
Back in grade school during the late 90’s, I got really into electronica and dance music, specifically the R&B infused kind that was its own sort of genre back then. Technically speaking, that sound was my gateway into an intense love of music that persists to this very day. But as with any trend, that style of music didn’t last very long, and my tastes moved towards more guitar-based music. Thanks to Disclosure’s Settle, I’ve been able to jump into a time machine and relive those early days once more. The album is a straight mixture of UK garage and R&B tinged electronica, enhanced that much more by a stockpile of up-and-coming guest vocalists to bring potential hit after potential hit to life. Sam Smith shines and establishes himself on “Latch,” a strong preview of his skills that will be displayed on his solo debut in 2014. AlunaGeorge, having released their own fun and extremely danceable R&B record this year as well, make “White Noise” the massive hit it deserves to be. Other spots from Eliza Doolittle, Jessie Ware, Friendly Fires’ Ed Macfarlane and London Grammar all impress as well, though it’s worth mentioning that even the handful of guest-free cuts such as “When a Fire Starts to Burn,” “F for You” and “Stimulation” more than hold their own. The entire record sometimes feels like one big single, and I’m hard pressed to come up with a weak moment from start to finish. Settle is also the sort of album that plays well in the creative sandbox, thereby having the ability to unite a wide variety of music fans, from the pretentious geek to the clueless jock. It’s a truly impressive feat to have accomplished, particularly on a debut album.
Stream: “You & Me (ft. Eliza Doolittle)”
5. Darkside – Psychic
Darkside’s Psychic is an electronica album, but it’s not really a dance record per se. There are some solid, good tempo beats to be found on portions of it to be sure, but don’t fire it up at a party or club unless you’re looking to drive people away. What Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington work to accomplish on this album is a remarkably ambitious blending of different styles and genres, from psychedelia, drones and krautrock to disco, funk and soft pop. It all works thanks to their considerable talents, and hyper intelligent approach. More often than not, the calm atmospheric arrangements transport your mind into other worlds, even if you’re not high on something (though maybe you should be). Yet it’s also never too sleepy or ambient that it knocks you out. Most tracks feature minimalist arrangements, however there’s so much detail, invention and intention behind them that you’re consistently rewarded for close, analytical listens. While those seeking to connect emotionally with this album might be left out in the cold, its cerebral nature has the very real potential to change the way you think about music and life in general. Sometimes that’s just as, if not more meaningful.
Stream: “Golden Arrow”
4. My Bloody Valentine – m b v
Do you remember where you were when My Bloody Valentine released their first new album in 22 years? It’s a very vivid moment in my mind. I was at the movies, and decided to check my Twitter feed before shutting off my phone for 2 hours. Virtually the entire feed was of people freaking out on this cold February evening because m b v had finally been released and they couldn’t download it because the site was overloaded. By the time I arrived home hours later, the problems were fixed and shortly after that my mind was adrift in the sort of gloomy haze you can only get from a My Bloody Valentine record. With expectations sky high, particularly considering how long fans had to wait for a proper follow-up to the band’s landmark 1991 opus Loveless, the odds were definitely stacked against them. By some miracle however, this album actually satisfies fans old and new. That might be precisely because it sounds both like an extension of their work from the early 90’s, but also rooted in the present much of the time as well. Connecting the past with the present is no easy task, but then again My Bloody Valentine aren’t your average band. Over the course of these nine songs, the guitars consistently empty your head and damage your ears (you ARE listening with the volume at 11, right?), all while Kevin Shields and Belinda Butcher’s vocals echo with such reverb you can rarely make out what they’re saying. That’s perfect though, because above all else this album is about feeling and intuition. What else can I say, how can I feel too? All kinds of new you. Welcome back, MBV.
Stream: “She Found Now”
3. Savages – Silence Yourself
In my initial review of Savages’ Silence Yourself, the very first thing I noted was the band’s similarity to Joy Division. The sonic markers are all there, not to mention a few visual ones, bringing us back to the UK post-punk era of the late 70’s/early 80’s and reviving feelings I haven’t felt since listening to Unknown Pleasures for the very first time. It’s intense and aggressive, angry and deadly serious. These women do NOT mess around with their music, be it in the recording studio or on stage. Most of the songs on Silence Yourself were recorded live in the studio as part of an effort to capture the same energy and intensity of their shows, and the results are a powerhouse sonic punch to the face. Savages prove themselves to be the sort of band where every member is essential and extremely talented, be it Jehenny Beth’s confrontational wail and lyrics, Gemma Thompson’s rusty chainsaw guitar work, Ayse Hassan’s driving and dominating bass, or Fay Milton’s fierce pounding on her drum kit. You can focus on any one of them for any given track and will not only come away impressed, but likely having discovered something new. Not only that, but there’s an incredible mixture of songs on this album as well, from hot singles like “City’s Full,” “I Am Here” and “Husbands” to brooding mood pieces like “Waiting for a Sign” and closer “Marshall Dear.” It can be difficult to handle sometimes and might leave you drained from both an emotional and physical perspective, however that it demands so much from you is largely of what makes it so great. Savages have quickly become one of the most quietly powerful bands in music today, and I can’t wait to find out what they’re planning next.
Video: “Shut Up”
2. Kanye West – Yeezus
Let’s be honest here – Kanye West doesn’t make it easy to like him. In 2013 he made more headlines than ever before, almost always because he said or did something completely outrageous. In a sense, he’s managed to turn himself into a villain, or an even greater villain than he was before. Yeezus turns out to be a defining statement in that regard, addressing controversial and difficult topics with head-on immediacy, and challenging the listener to tag along for the ride. It’s a move that purposely puts some distance between himself and My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy, removing all the excess and ambition from the arrangements, as well as the large roster of guest. Instead of falling flat on his face or doing something that feels like a step downwards (or backwards), the abrupt change in direction embraces the tenets of minimalism and punk rock. This is a side of Kanye we’ve only seen glimpses of in the past, and also one who’s so completely comfortable and confident enough in who he is and what he’s doing that he doesn’t even blink for a second when creating a song called “I Am A God.” He cares so little about what his fans think or want that there’s not even technically a marketable single on the album, even though that didn’t stop his label from trying to push one. Sales of the record have also been less than great, and even though it debuted at #1 on the charts, it sank quickly from there. This is Kanye West purposely breaking away from the mainstream for the sake of making art on his own terms. And you know what? I’m incredibly impressed, and not just because what he’s doing takes serious chutzpah. This is the first record of his that has seriously connected with me, less because I can relate to the issues of slavery, alcoholism and divorce, but more because of its themes of freedom and a willingness to fight for what you believe in. Most of the beats and production work are pretty badass too. The guy may be an eccentric egomaniac who very clearly overestimates his own level of genius, however he’s also exactly the sort of innovator that’s going to push hip hop and music in general to greater levels of perfection. Above all else, I’m grateful for that.
Video: “Black Skinhead”
1. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
Remember when Vampire Weekend’s sound was defined as Afropop and drew plenty of comparisons to Paul Simon? How about those times when people labeled them as elitist because of their Ivy League backgrounds and fancy lyrics that referenced things and places like balaclavas and Dharamsala? Amazing how a few years and a couple of records can completely change things. It feels like this band has evolved and matured with each new album, and their third Modern Vampires of the City reaches a level of perfection unlike anything else released in 2013. This isn’t a concept record but does have a running thread through almost every song that explores the idea of growing older and death both of the physical body as well as youth itself. Hit single “Diane Young” was originally called “Dying Young” until the band changed it because it sounded too morbid, and “Don’t Lie” might well have been called “Don’t Die” in a different world. “I want to know, does it bother you / The low click of a ticking clock,” frontman Ezra Koenig sings on the latter track, and if you listen carefully enough you’ll hear that clock counting off the seconds in the background like the Sword of Damocles hanging over your head just waiting to fall. It’s just one of many similar moments on this record that genuinely surprises by taking a breezy pop melody and adding small complexities that might not even be detected by your ears until a few repeat listens in.
Think of it like a big Hollywood summer blockbuster film that has the extremely rare quality of working on multiple levels, satisfying both the casual movie fan as well as the hardcore cinephiles who tend to only like daring art house fare. If you love Top 40 radio and only pick up a handful of albums every year, there’s some great, fun and catchy songs on Modern Vampires of the City for you to love, including “Unbelievers,” “Ya Hey” and “Finger Back,” among others. At the same time, those of us who feel like innovation and experimentation should be part of any great song or record can find plenty of worthwhile moments on this album as well, be it Koenig’s occasionally odd vocal manipulation or multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij’s strikingly complex yet airy compositions.
The precarious balance of mood and tempo found in the album’s sequencing also allows for maximum impact. Instead of coming out of the gate with the strongest/catchiest tracks and tapering off with weaker ones as the record drifts to its inevitable conclusion, there’s a bell curve-like quality that unveils itself as you go along that keeps you invested from start to finish. It makes perfect sense then that the ballad “Hannah Hunt,” which sits comfortably right in the middle of the album, is not only the best thing on the record, but perhaps of Vampire Weekend’s entire output so far. The track details the dissolution and ultimately death of a relationship while taking a trip across the country. “You and me, we got our own sense of time,” Koenig sings mournfully as the final seconds of the couple’s romance tick off the clock.
As sad and ultimately scary as Modern Vampires of the City can be when it comes to themes of time running out and death, the real message here is that we need to live for today. Everything can be considered impermanent and in danger of vanishing in an instant, so try and make the most of any and every situation you find yourself in. Vampire Weekend certainly achieve that with this record, and prove without a doubt that time and experience can also bring us closer to true greatness.
Video: “Ya Hey“