Sometimes it feels like the glut of music on the internet is what keeps us from finding some great artists. I’ve said as much before. But maybe that’s not it. Maybe that immediate availability just makes a year’s worth of releases seem like too long a time. Or maybe there’s not enough time to digest all the great music that comes out. That’s not to say we miss all the good stuff. Lots of records that sold and got praised in 2013 deserve that attention. And it’s been a great year for music. No lulls, no blank spots. This year, music has consistently delivered. So now we go back and look at the records we maybe missed when we sped through the year, back to great dream-pop records from January, or great rock records from the spring, or great rap records we’re still figuring out, or great albums that just made their way out late in the year. These are some of the best albums that we should be talking about more. If you haven’t gotten into some of these yet, I have good news. These are the great records you just maybe hadn’t found yet, a way to look back at the year and slow down, to mine it for just a bit more gold. And it’s there, a lot of it, in these great records.
10Emily Jane White
Emily Jane White is a singer-songwriter that has spent her career in constant expansion. Her surprising shifts drove her best work on Victorian American and her last record Ode to Sentience. Blood/Lines not only continues to push the boundaries of her sound, but also presents her best set of songs to date. From the swaying, bittersweet strings of “Keeley” to the full-bodied piano and driving percussion of “Holiday Song” to her singing with Marissa Nadler on “Faster Than the Devil”, these songs are the perfect, wide-open spaces for White’s breathy vocals. Every phrase is as weighted with emotion as the last, but things never get too weighty. Instead, a guitar cuts through “Holiday Song” or twangs some faint light into “Dandelion Daze”. There’s no shortage of shadow here, but it feels so big, so all encompassing, because of the light White’s words frame them in. These songs meditate on each moment, making the most of each movement, and the results make for the finest, most daring set yet from a songwriter who has never been short on good songs or boldness. Blood/Lines is Emily Jane White’s crowning achievement. At least for now.
Marie Claire-Balabanian, who combines with Karl Briedrick to make up Speck Mountain, has one of the most beautiful singing voices you haven’t heard yet. It’s subtle but rangy, on key but unafraid to emote. And on the band’s third record, Badwater, their hazy, dream-pop take on American music is the perfect backdrop for her singing. Keys and guitars somehow both shimmer and coat themselves in dust on standouts like “Flares” and “Young Eyes”. But the band can also turn their gauzed-out Americana into faint industrial twists on the chilly epic “Slow So Long” or “Cold Point”, only to shift into swampy rock on “Badwater”. The album follows 2009’s Some Sweet Relief, a pensive and heartbreaking record, and this one ups the ante in every way with a confidence that never slips into self-indulgence. These songs are textured—seriously, you can just about feel the ripple here—but immediately tuneful. It’s a soft but strong set, never easing into simple fragility. Instead, it’s a bracing listen front to back, with each song building on the atmosphere of the last. Badwater is music from dreams set on hard-packed earth, and that combination is a volatile one. Winter’s coming on, folks, go get this one to warm yourselves by.
North Carolina’s Toddlers have had a great year. They hit with their ambitious, excellent 19 EP earlier in the year, and then on Halloween, they dropped a new, eponymous full-length record on us, and it builds on all the excellent sounds of its predecessor, making it one of the great power-pop records of the year. The album shines up the murky haze of 19 in favor of a cool shimmer that makes the keys stretch out while the guitars pull themselves into tightwires that nearly snap across the safety net of hammering rhythms. Expansive songs like “I Will Come Back” and “Little Man” ripple out into huge space, and swell around tighter moments like the shuffling bitterness of “You Can Keep the Wheels” or the solitary stillness of “Starlight”. The band’s mood and angles will remind you of the New Romantics, but this is nothing as easy as revivalism. Toddlers is a beautiful amalgamation of recent rock history. It links the sunburst of the ‘80s, the scuzz of the ‘90s, and the shape-shifting and genre-bending of those and other sounds in a new century, but it never pins them down, instead shaping them into the band’s own sound. In its mix of seething energy and cool texture, the album is a unique success, the kind of pop record that can, and should, resonate for quite a while. Toddlers are new, but they ain’t young. Or at least they don’t sound it on this polished gem of a record.
Denzel Curry is an 18-year-old rapper from Miami, and Nostalgia 64 is his first proper album. And, hearing it, you can almost understand why it might fly under the radar, why some might worry Curry is spending the record trying to find his signature flow. But then you remember that of course an 18-year-old is trying to figure out some things. More importantly, Curry is a dynamic and varied rapper. He can get grimy on “Zone 3” or pretend at being playful on “Parents”. He can shift from lyrical turns to trap hardness without losing his quick-fire wordplay. Hip-hop is a genre run by carefully built personas, personas that usually run out of gas. So the most refreshing thing about Nostalgia 64 is that Curry never does quite settle into one version of himself. Nor does he give us one version of his world, tempering rap braggadocio and violence with real questions about race and class and community, questions that feel wise beyond his years. And Nostalgia 64 isn’t about having answers, it’s about cracking up those flawed foundations one surprising verse at a time. So on this stunning rap album, one that outshines a lot of albums that sold more copies, it’s not that Curry hasn’t found himself, it’s that he’s got too many talents to pin himself down. Here’s hoping the surprise never goes away.
Label Paradise of Bachelors had a stellar year, putting out brilliant new records by the likes of Hiss Golden Messenger and Steve Gunn and reissuing lost gems like Chance’s In Search. But Chris Forsyth‘s Solar Motel may be the label’s strangest, most epic release of 2013. In four movements, Forsyth—a guitar virtuoso—revisits and reimagines the various forms of rock guitar and in doing so presents his own impressive opus. The album is restless in the most beautiful sense of the word, scouring the landscape with the Solar Motel Band to find, say, the shadow between pianos and lacerating guitars on “Solar Hotel II” or the whipped-up chaos of “III” and the immensely satisfying closer “IV”, in which Forsyth’s guitar rings out into a desert of space around him. It’s an album that never stands still but also never loses its place. It’s both finding and exploring at the same time, hearkening back and moving forward. It’s a brilliant guitar record, an excellent rock record, and a musical puzzle that is as fun to put together as it is to take apart. In short, it’s something more people should be talking about, even if they won’t know what to say at first. I’m still searching for better words. These will have to do for now.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.