My life is a comedy or errors sometimes. You set aside 10 hours to write most of your Top 50 Albums entries, and then somehow come down with food poisoning, which eliminates that window entirely. What are the chances, right? Well, excuses aside, I’m pleased to bring you this second installment in my Top 50 Albums of 2013 series. In case you missed Part 1, which covered #50-41, you absolutely should check that out here. Today’s set of ten albums covers a pretty good variety of genres, from garage rock to folk to electronica to funk, pop and post-rock. The main thing I’d say about these records? Almost all of them are really fun to listen to. So let’s get right on it, and join me after the jump for #40-31!
40. Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt
Katie Crutchfield has been part of a number of different bands and music projects over the last several years, and those experiences have all contributed to the work she’s now doing under the Waxahatchee moniker. Traveling the world, sleeping on couches and floors, partying a little too hard with friends, doing some drugs, playing some guitar, falling in love, falling out of love…these are all topics that are dealt with on Cerulean Salt. It’s a record that full of life, which means there are dizzying highs and rock-bottom lows. Chances are you can relate to at least some if not all of it, and that’s the point. It’s not only what she’s singing about, but the way that she does it that’s so compelling too. A lyric you glossed over the first couple of listens through a particular song might suddenly stand out as particularly emotional once you think about it in context. Though Crutchfield doesn’t really share a sonic or genre connection with artists like Elliott Smith and early Liz Phair, her writing feels like an immediate extension of theirs. With any luck, Waxahatchee will only get better from here.
Stream: “Coast to Coast”
39. Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Daze
To the casual Kurt Vile fan, listening to his music may have become a somewhat frustrating ordeal. The guy comes across as so easygoing and lackadaisical that most of the time it seems like he can’t be bothered to stretch his creative legs or even get out of bed to write new material. Yet he still manages to churn out a new full length every couple of years, even if he halfway mumbles through almost every song like he’s high on something. On Wakin on a Pretty Daze, that signature style gets taken to new extremes, as Vile extends tracks out to 9 and 10 minutes, oftentimes offering very little beyond some basic guitar melodies and that singular serpentine electric guitar that often slips in and out of the background without you noticing. Yet it’s these apparent flaws and sameness in which these songs are rooted that actually hides what’s most amazing and special about them. This is an album that drifts past like a sunny summer day spent floating down a calm river in an inner tube, but the more you listen to it and the closer you listen to it, you’ll find amazing things to love about it. Whether it’s Vile’s often wisecracking and funny lyrics, or the little things that happen on any given song (a drum fill here, a cowbell there), his confidence with everything he does is also a display of mastery.
MP3: “Wakin on a Pretty Day”
38. Mikal Cronin – MCII
On Mikal Cronin’s second album MCII, he’s not sure what he wants. Or rather, he knows what he wants but every attempt to achieve it results in some sort of trouble or outright disaster. There are worse things to be than clumsily fumbling your way through life, but since it happens to all of us every now and then, of course we can relate. Helping things along tremendously is Cronin’s incredible confidence and ability to craft memorable hooks that sound effortless. You can classify this record as garage rock, but thanks to the generous use of acoustic guitar and careful moderation when it comes to the fuzz pedal, sometimes it feels more like power pop than anything else. More than anything, MCII proves that Cronin is so much more than just a long-haired guitarist in the Ty Segall Band – he’s a star in his own right.
Stream: “Shout It Out”
37. Majical Cloudz – Impersonator
There’s something about Majical Cloudz’s album Impersonator that feels intensely personal. Whether or not it truly is could be the subject of some debate. But whether or not Devon Welsh is singing autobiographical lyrics or not, it certainly SOUNDS like he is. His deep baritone, paired with the sparse electronic elements provided by Matthew Otto, really came together this year to create one of the most intense and powerful listening experiences I had this year. Every single moment is frought with emotion and drama to the point where it feels like a life or death situation, and in the case of a song like “Childhood’s End,” about a father who gets shot and killed in front of his child, it is. But then you get “I Do Sing for You,” in which Welsh comforts an audience member who is having trouble connecting at a live show. And that’s really the goal Majical Cloudz are after: to connect with you on an emotional level. Give a close, headphones listen to this record when you’re home alone one evening and try to tell me it doesn’t move you. If that’s the case, maybe you need to have your heart and head checked.
MP3: “Childhood’s End”
36. Eleanor Friedberger – Personal Record
Eleanor Friedberger’s 2011 solo debut Last Summer was just about everything I hoped it would be – a collection of wordy, sing-speak story songs just like her work with her brother in The Fiery Furnaces, but without the remarkably anti-commercial and often weird compositional style. The tracks on that album were also intensely personal, offering highly detailed descriptions of adventures she had in New York during the summer of 2010. That marked new territory for someone who had never really looked inward before. With Personal Record, the idea was similar however many of the specifics have been left out in favor of generalizations and platitudes. That was done purposely, less to “dumb it down” and more to make the songs more relatable and allow the listener to connect even better than before. Besides the wordplay is so clever and charming, and the songs so effortlessly catchy that you can’t help but be drawn into this album’s web of delights.
Stream: “Stare at the Sun”
35. Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus Seven
Daniel Lopatin’s Oneohtrix Point Never project has never been one to stagnate on any particular sound or style for very long, and R Plus Seven continues that trend of trying to find new territory to explore. For this record, he decided to closely examine the early days of computer technology, and the often strange and interesting sounds that came along with it. When you think back to those days of the green screened desktop computers, text-based software on floppy disks and dot matrix printers, it all seems so primitive compared to what we’re dealing with today. Yet Lopatin manages to compose a lot of the sounds from back then in such a way that not only makes sense, but sounds oddly modern as well. Using machines as the primary instruments on your record can easily give the impression of something cold and lifeless, but to his credit Lopatin also finds an unexpected warmth that permeates the entire album. I’d like to think that stems from the love and fondness he has for that era, those devices and the output of spiritually similar artists like Brian Eno and Terry Riley.
34. Charli XCX – True Romance
It’s crazy to think that Icona Pop are far more popular than Charli XCX is these days, even though Charli is the one who wrote their mega hit song “I Love It.” A few songs on Charli’s debut album True Romance seem like would-be hits, from “Nuclear Seasons” to “You (Ha Ha Ha)” and “What I Like,” but sadly none seem to have fully caught on quite yet – in America at least. Her effortless blending of 80’s synth pop, 90’s girl groups and modern day pop sheen is inventive and just slightly left of center to be sure, but it’s also instantly familiar and packed with the sort of hooks that become embedded in your brain the moment you first hear them. The record is one part Cyndi Lauper, one part Spice Girls and one part Lily Allen, which is to say that a majority of the songs deal with falling into and out of love in a very honest and direct way. Influences and similar artists aside, at the end of the day Charli XCX is truly one of a kind, and her unique perspective is something that will hopefully keep people coming back, whether it’s now or in the near future.
Stream: “You’re the One”
33. Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe
After years of experimenting with different styles of music and working behind the scenes with a wide variety of artists to help them realize their visions, Devonte Hynes finally found his niche on Cupid Deluxe. Playing virtually every instrument on the record himself, though with generous contributions from fellow musicians and vocalists, Hynes crafted an incredible set of songs that detail heartbreak and heartache through an 80’s-style lens. His previous Blood Orange record Coastal Grooves may be similar in nature, but it didn’t have the outright humanity and emotion that this album does. The guest stars, including Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth, Charlift’s Caroline Polachek, rapper Despot and Friends frontwoman Samantha Urbani, really show off how great a collaboration with other artists can be when done properly. Hynes always cedes the spotlight to any artist he’s working with, whether it’s on their records or his own, and that humility has resulted in the strongest thing he’s done to date.
Stream: “You’re Not Good Enough”
32. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady
You’ve got to admire Janelle Monae’s ambition. From the outset of her music career, she’s sought to elevate the level of discourse by using her funk, soul and R&B songs to tell complex science fiction stories about the relationships between robots and humans. The whole thing is really symbolic in nature, intended to have a deeper meaning about the class system, race and politics. Impressive as it may be, it’s also not the easiest narrative to understand. On The Electric Lady, she continues in that same vein, however does some incredible work simplifying the core concepts and creating larger generalizations that have greater real world applications. In other words, it’s easier than ever to enjoy a Janelle Monae song without having to know about the ideas and storylines behind it. You can take it in for all of it’s funky, fun goodness, or dive deeper and learn about social injustice and inequality. For somebody who writes songs about androids, this record represents Monae model 2.0. They’re rebuilt her, and she’s bigger, better and stronger than ever before.
Stream: “Q.U.E.E.N. (ft. Erykah Badu)”
31. Sigur Ros – Kveikur
Sigur Ros have never released new albums on back-to-back years before, but I can understand why they did with Valtari and Kveikur. Where the former album was devoted to largely revisiting their earliest, most ambient and slow compositions, the latter album changed the game for the band. Much of the serenity and beauty was snatched out of these new compositions, in favor of loud and aggressive songs that was unlike anything they’d ever done or tried before. The pitch black cover art pretty much tells you what to expect. To those who had written Sigur Ros off as complacent and trapped in a sound that had worn out its welcome, this was the thing to wake everybody up and get the fires of passion burning once again. I can’t say it’s my favorite thing that they’ve ever done, but I admire the hell out of it and above all else am glad they’ve retained their epic, widescreen perspective.