We’ve hit the home stretch, my friends. Time to count your blessings and prepare for the end…of this countdown, which will be coming soon. In the meantime though, here’s the next set of ten albums in this Top 50 Albums of 2013 countdown. In case you missed the first few entries, let me help you out with links to those:
Part I [#50-41]
Part II [#40-31]
Part III [#30-21]
It’s been a lot of fun so far, and there’s a lot more fun still on the way. In today’s set, you’ll find a few psychedelic and experimental pop records, along with small touches of electronica and hip hop. Join me after the jump for #20-11. I hope you enjoy them!
20. Foxygen – We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic
The first time I listened to Foxygen’s We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic back in January, I was thoroughly unimpressed. I thought the entire album was just a flagrant attempt to mimic The Rolling Stones and other classic rock bands from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. It certainly didn’t help that singer Sam France can often sound like Mick Jagger when he gets excited. Then I put the album out of my mind for five months. Something happened to me during that time, and I don’t know what, except to say that I decided to give the record another try and wound up blown away. What I first heard as near copyright infringement became a delicately crafted homage to some incredible bands, and hooks suddenly appeared from out of nowhere to ensnare me even further. There came a time when I couldn’t even listen to a single song without getting sucked into the full record. In short, this probably isn’t an album for everybody, but if you do fall for it, count on falling HARD.
Video: “San Francisco”
19. Julia Holter – Loud City Song
Julia Holter has been relentlessly ambitious with every single album she’s put out so far, and her third Loud City Song is no exception. This one is loosely based around the 1958 film (and Best Picture winner) Gigi, taking inspiration from a handful of scenes and plot points as well as echoing some of the basic themes. You certainly don’t need to be an expert in classic cinema to enjoy the album though, and in fact it’s Holter’s most vivid, beautiful and accessible one to date. It’s absolutely best understood and digested in a single, start-to-finish dose, however it’s still enjoyable in pieces like “Maxim’s I” and the brilliantly rendered cover of Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger.” There’s a lot more jazz influence that bleeds through this record thanks to plenty of horns and strings, which also coincidentally makes the whole thing feel like a byproduct of the city referenced in the title. The volume is raised as well, creating a greater cacophony of noise like a bustling downtown street. Part of that might have to do with Holter breaking away from recording in her bedroom to making use of a real recording studio for the first time. If things like Loud City Song are a byproduct of that, I’m even more thrilled to hear what she’ll be doing next.
Stream: “Maxim’s I”
18. Youth Lagoon – Wondrous Bughouse
The Year of Hibernation, Trevor Powers’ 2011 debut record as Youth Lagoon, was a marvelous work of bedroom pop filled with muffled anthems that felt like secrets. In the time since then, Powers gained a whole lot of life experience and played a whole lot of live shows, both of which had a significant impact on how he approached his sophomore effort Wondrous Bughouse. The album radiates confidence, and not only is the production work now pristine, but the influences and instruments used have increased dramatically. Instead of songs slowly building to hooks and soaring skywards, now they start that way and try to go further, or take some creative detours that hold our attention anyways. This sort of leap forward is massive, wholly impressive and not as expected as you might think. Throughout it all Powers maintains a childlike curiosity that really puts each song into the perfect frame of mind for what it’s trying to accomplish. As somebody from Boise who’s still in his early 20’s, that small town innocence isn’t so much an act as it is a firm reality. For somebody still at the start of what’s hopefully a long career in music, let’s keep our fingers crossed that spirit remains fully intact.
17. Rhye – Woman
This is sexy music for a large collection of people who are really starting to experience their own sexual awakening. The xx have played a major role in bringing such sensuality in music to the forefront, and Rhye’s record Woman plays to that crowd perfectly with unabashed intimacy and pure, love-spiked intention. It wouldn’t work nearly as well if singer Mike Milosh didn’t have the voice of an angel that’s so syrupy and smooth you might mistake it for female if you knew nothing about the duo. But producer Robin Hannibal’s minimalist R&B arrangements play a significant factor in this album’s effectiveness as well. There’s something truly special about this record, and it’s an indefinable quality that only really grabs hold of you in the quieter or more intimate moments of your life. Often they are heartfelt and passionate, but sometimes they can be sad and heartbreaking too. Woman does a fantastic job finding just the right balance, so that weather you’re making out or breaking up, this is what you’ll want to hear as your soundtrack.
16. Jon Hopkins – Immunity
Jon Hopkins is the sort of guy who’s been around making music forever, but you’ve likely never heard of him since much of what he works on is for other artists. Still, his career as a solo electronica artist has yielded four albums to date, Immunity being the shot in the arm that finally brought with it attention and accolades. The winning formula is a strong blend of dark and organic dance tracks, matched with light and airy ambient piano pieces. Though they may seem like opposing forces, this carefully curated interplay also bears the pronounced fingerprints of their creator, which is not something that’s factored into the equation up until now. Hopkins clearly knows what he wants and does anything necessary to get it, including crafting beats using field recordings of salt shakers, rattling windows and fireworks. Immunity is an intense, beautiful and fun electronic record from start to finish, making it nearly impossible to be “immune” to its physical and emotional charms.
Stream: “Open Eye Signal”
15. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
What can I say about The National that hasn’t already been said? This is one band that has been putting out consistently great records for close to a decade. Seriously, listen to anything from 2005’s Alligator onward and you won’t find a bad track in the bunch. It’s interesting too, because their sound hasn’t changed very much in that span of time. Are they starting to get stale? Well, not really, though they’ve never been the sort of band that follows trends or tries something crazy to sound cooler than they are. The National exude confidence, even as their songs are mostly about loners, drunks and the heartbroken (sometimes they’re all the same person). I’d like to think there’s a little something in each of their songs that someone can relate to, and their ever-expanding fan base seems to be proof of that. Trouble Will Find Me is their most accessible record to date, a presumption I arrived at because it only took me 2 weeks to fall deeply in love with it, versus at least a month for their previous material. Or maybe it’s just a case of knowing what to expect.
14. Baths – Obsidian
The cover art for Baths’ Obsidian, which you can see directly to the left, features a color scheme of greys and blacks. It’s a perfect visual representation of the music you’ll find within, a sharp change from the whites and light blues of the previous Baths record Cerulean. The reason why darkness invaded Will Wiesenfeld’s music involves nearly dying after contracting E. coli. This album is in part about that experience, feeling helpless, unable to move, eat or control basic bodily functions. But he also made the conscious decision to start living according to his own rules, which meant exorcising his demons and unleashing all of his frustrations into the music. The results are a harrowing and uncompromising exercise in bleak pop, with cracked video game melodies working alongside aggressive, mean-spirited and obscenely sexual lyrics. It’s certainly subversive and occasionally shocking, though never to the point where you think Wiesenfeld is trying to be provocative just because. It’s all laid out bare in the notes, and you the listener are left with the choice of rejecting or embracing the madness.
Stream: “Miasma Sky”
13. Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe
In choosing Chvrches to be part of my Class of 2013 at the start of the year, I compared them to The Knife because they made synth pop with a dark and experimental edge to it. Hindsight being 20/20, and after hearing The Bones of What You Believe, I’m thinking that the work of Depeche Mode or maybe even The Cure are better ways to describe what this Glaswegian trio are going for. In the case of more modern counterparts, they’re operating in the same world as Purity Ring and Grimes, though the crystalline production and intensely addictive hooks of songs like “Recover,” “Gun” and “The Mother We Share” all suggest this band has a great shot at breaking out into mainstream culture. They’ve already made significant strides in that direction this year. But they’re also a remarkably ambitious band, seemingly too preoccupied with advancing their sound and connecting with audiences than they are pandering to them. That’s incredibly admirable, and a quality I sincerely hope they keep moving forwards.
Stream: “The Mother We Share”
12. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap
When it comes to hip hop, there are albums and then there are mixtapes. The difference between the two are often negligible, though mixtapes are often self-released for free, whereas albums come with record labels and price tags. In the case of Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap mixtape, it very much feels like he takes the “mix” part with an intense degree of sincerity. He attempts to integrate so many different and often disparate styles and genres that one minute you could be hearing elements of soul and gospel, then house music or even a touch of modern rock the next. Most people would be unable to make this ping-ponging work, but Chance the Rapper is not most people. The all-inclusive stylistic buffet is also the same way he operates with his words and subjects of his tracks. He’s not making hip hop for millionaires and talking about Bentleys, particularly since he’s barely out of his teens and isn’t rich beyond his wildest dreams (yet). This mixtape is relatable to anyone who has ever lived on the fringes of society, been persecuted for their beliefs or way of life, or simply knows the streets and its culture of shootings and gang violence. Much of it is life-affirming and upbeat, though he takes moments to remember a close friend who died in front of him as well as turn a critical eye against senseless killings. It’s hip hop with a social conscience, and reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city record from last year. Yet his influences are clearly rooted in the early days of 90’s hip hop, rebuilt with a modern twist. It’s great to hear, and sets him up as one of the most dynamic new voices in hip hop today.
Stream/Download: The full Acid Rap mixtape
11. Julianna Barwick – Nepenthe
In a year when Icelandic post-rock stalwarts Sigur Ros went noisey and aggressive, Julianna Barwick seemingly picked up the scraps left behind from their quietly gorgeous and ambient heydays. Journeying to Iceland with nothing prepared beforehand, she entered the studio with frequent Sigur Ros collaborator (and Jonsi boyfriend) Alex Somers and friends in Icelandic bands Amiina and mum to record Nepenthe. The results are the most expansive and jaw-droppingly beautiful record that Barwick has recorded to date. Her previous work placed dramatic emphasis on her often wordless vocals as she loops and adds effects to them to craft largely a capella tracks. While that remains somewhat the same on this album, there’s quite a few more working parts and instrumental elements for her to incorporate into her sound, which in turn adds better structure and a healthy dose of grandeur to everything. Put this on as your soundtrack to a quiet morning at home or to your next nature walk, be it in the summer or across some snowy terrain in the middle of winter. I promise it will enhance your life in some of the most magical and beautiful ways.
Stream: “One Half”