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PopMatters Picks: The Best Music of 2013

The general consensus on 2013 is that it has been a banner year for music, one boasting a broader and deeper selection of standout performances across genres and generations than many a year in recent memory.

The general consensus on 2013 is that it has been a banner year for music, one boasting a broader and deeper selection of standout performances across genres and generations than many a year in recent memory. It was a year when the usual best-of suspects, from Neko Case to the Knife, could still surprise us with return engagements even more compelling than expected, while youth was being served with new artists like Lorde and John Newman coming on the scene sounding wise beyond their years. It was a year that could’ve been 1993 as easily as 2013 in a good way, with Yo La Tengo, Medicine, Kathleen Hanna, among many others, turning back the clock to their heydays, matched by new indie bands like Speedy Ortiz and Potty Mouth coming up with their own takes on flashback sounds. It was a year when those in their prime like Vampire Weekend and the National got so comfy there that it was almost easy to take them for granted, especially when so many talked-up newcomers from HAIM to Chvrches, Disclosure to Savages showed they could walk the walk. And it was a year when the boundaries between musical subcultures continued to be blurred and subverted, be it Deafheaven‘s dream-poppy black metal, John Wizards’ polyglot world music-indie hybrid, or Caitlin Rose‘s version of an alt-Americana crossover.


And yet, in a year when acclaimed and heretofore unknown acts alike offered so much, it could feel like the music itself wasn’t enough any more, often overshadowed by the hype and gimmickry that are supposed to get you to notice it. In 2013, you might’ve thought that a record release was about everything but the album itself, becoming an event, a spectacle, with what should be the focus of all the hoopla being only a small part of a bigger package. It sometimes seemed that too much of the oxygen about music in 2013 was sucked up by promotion and personality, with so much attention drawn by outsized publicity schemes that sought to one-up the last elaborate album launch that came before it.


Granted, some of these stunts did impress with their audacious creativity and for creating a sense of mystique for the artists they were touting, be it Daft Punk‘s brand-building teasers introducing Random Access Memories to the world or Kanye West projecting the “New Slaves” video on the sides of buildings worldwide in anticipation of (the leak of) Yeezus. Even underground faves got in on the act, whether intentionally, like when Boards of Canada debuted Tomorrow’s Harvest with a virtual scavenger hunt that led up to a Mojave Desert listening party, or unintentionally, as My Bloody Valentine crashed the internet to make you wait just a little longer for its 22-years-in-the-making Loveless follow-up, m b v. Then there was the massive, ever-building rollout for Reflektor that confirmed that Arcade Fire had embraced being both a big-statement and a big-ticket rock band, which included guerrilla signage everywhere, a post-SNL infomercial, and a nationally broadcast radio performance from the roof of the Capitol Records building intended to unveil the new album.


Sure, these performers delivered music that more or less lived up the myths they were making for themselves, but the marketing junkets couldn’t help but get out of hand and in the way of the music—and we’re not even talking about Justin Timberlake jumping the shark with a second 20/20 Experience or Drake setting up pop-up shops toasting the release of Nothing Was the Same or Katy Perry‘s golden 18-wheeler cruising the freeways announcing Prism. In particular, signals got crossed for West and Arcade Fire, artists who traded too much on the credit accruing to them as capital-A artists who are both popular and critically respected: You could argue that neither Yeezus nor Reflektor could be as fully absorbed as their previous works because the constant barrage of promotion and gossipy tidbits led people to make judgments on them before really listening to them, underselling the music by overexposing everything else. In some sense, they stepped on the point their music was trying to make with all the static around these new efforts, with Kanye beefing with anyone and everyone over leather track pants and Arcade Fire pushing a dressy dress code for their upcoming arena tour.


Suffusing more and more aspects of our everyday lives, music apps and social networking have only cranked up the hype machine at an ever accelerating pace: In and of itself, the way that the medium has increasingly become the message isn’t exactly a brand new phenomenon, but the degree to which the online-oriented social experience of music has impacted and even altered our relationship with the art form seems unprecedented with each trending platform and as the ones (we think) we’re familiar with develop new uses. With an information overload aided and abetted by technology, the way business is done has changed and, with it, so have listening habits: At this point, an album is past its expiration date by the time it hits the virtual shelves, with exclusive streams and file-sharing leaks, strategic or unplanned, making release schedules feel perfunctory and obsolete. It’s as if an album is old news by the day of release, as you’ve already moved on to sampling tomorrow’s music today.


But to revisit the premise we started with, you could look at the new normal from a glass-full perspective, that all the music that we have too much access to is precisely the product of structural conditions that encourage creativity from the bottom up and open up distribution networks that only continue to expand. Certainly, there has to be a more mutually beneficial give-and-take between respecting intellectual property, as the likes of Thom Yorke and David Lowery have been fighting for, and having everything literally at your fingertip on your Spotify app, but YouTube and Soundcloud, leaks and file sharing interfaces aren’t just about making it easier to consume music at the expense of artists’ livelihoods, but might also be considered as platforms that are bringing about not just more music, but more possibilities that we haven’t even considered yet. As evidenced by the healthy number of the year’s best received hip-hop releases circulating for free online, widely distributed mixtapes, for instance, offer a format that’s growing more and more vital, allowing artists to short-circuit an unwieldy label system. Not so different is the way some of indie rock’s most intriguing new acts have been using Bandcamp to ply their wares, going DIY in the digital age before signing on with an imprint—if they do at all. Even the hype, when done right, can bring about greater—and unpredictable—connections between artists and fans, not to mention between fans and other fans.


In turn, perhaps a more constructive way to come to terms with our ever shortening attention spans is that they’re the result of there being so much good music coming from so many quarters available in so many ways this year that a handful of albums couldn’t monopolize our interest in 2013. Instead, it just might be that it’s harder and harder to reach a consensus, and thank goodness for that. Our PopMatters year-end coverage and all the-behind-the-scenes work that went into it reflect that: Many a genre list included little overlap in the votes made by the staff, with debate abounding, while some albums deemed among the best of 2013 also ended up on our list of most disappointing offerings. All in all, though, the uptake from our discussion of the year-in-music should be that music didn’t—and couldn’t—get lost in all the noise, no matter how much of it there was. And that speaks volumes about 2013.


Arnold Pan, PopMatters Music Editor

Wednesday, January 15 2014

The Year of the Overnight Release: How Much Time Should a Critic Get?

Given the anticipation level and lack of pre-release availability, Yeezus offered a perfect test case for the nagging question: How has the model of digital media changed the amount of time music critics spend with the records they’re assessing?


Thursday, January 9 2014

The Best Hopes to Break Out in 2014

This year is already looking like it'll be filled with great music releases and new artists destined to push the boundaries of their respective genres.


Friday, January 3 2014

The 75 Best Albums of 2013

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs for the polygot that is "Americana"... from R&B to metal... from hip-hop to rockin' and poppin' indie... 2013 was a great year for new music.


The 75 Best Songs of 2013

From the electro-dance of Daft Punk, Disclosure and Rudimental and the boundary-pushing R&B of Janelle Monae and John Newman to the warm sounds of Americana blossoming into the hippest sounds in American music and the always-compelling Kanye West, PopMatters counts down 2013's 75 best songs.


Thursday, January 2 2014

The Best World Music of 2013

This year's best world music offers up evidence of the artist's confidence in the audience. Do they trust you to be interested in two discs of avant-garde Korean zither or vast archives of live Syrian party music? They do and they should.


The Best Noise Rock of 2013

From unforeseen comebacks to heretofore unknown new acts, much of 2013's best noise-rock often came out of nowhere.


Wednesday, January 1 2014

The Artists Pick the Best of 2013, Part 3

PopMatters lets the artists become the critics, giving them a chance to offer their picks from music and pop culture in 2013. Part 3 features PopMatters favorites the Pastels, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Windhand.


Tuesday, December 31 2013

The Artists Pick the Best of 2013, Part 2

PopMatters lets the artists become the critics, giving them a chance to offer their picks from music and pop culture in 2013. Part 2 features PopMatters favorites Ha Ha Tonka, Medicine, and the Notwist.


Monday, December 30 2013

The Best Mixtapes of 2013

In the four years since mixtapes became anything but a mix on tape, rap listeners have grown accustomed to the idea that not only should they feel like a brand new album, but also that they should probably be better than the product you pay for.


The Artists Pick the Best of 2013, Part 1

PopMatters lets the artists become the critics, giving them a chance to offer their picks from music and pop culture in 2013. Part 1 features PopMatters favorites Zachary Cale, Dum Dum Girls, and Robbie Fulks.


Friday, December 27 2013

The Artists of the Year: 2013 Edition

It was a year of thrilling comebacks from legends like My Blooody Valentine and David Bowie as well the launch of major new talents like Lorde and Kacey Musgraves. These artists had the biggest impact on the shape of music in 2013.


The Best Metal Albums of 2013

Bands across metal's subgenres reached their full potential, be they acts coming into their own, making crowd-pleasing comebacks, or even bowing out at the top of their game.


Thursday, December 26 2013

The Best Dance Singles of 2013

Spanning genres from electro/synth-pop, indie-dance, nu-disco, to house music territories, what's on the list of 2013's best dance singles isn't just a popularity contest.


Wednesday, December 25 2013

The Best Bluegrass of 2013

In bluegrass circles, 2013 was a year that welcomed the rise of talented upstarts, the return to form of masters, and collaborations among the best in the business.


Tuesday, December 24 2013

The Top 10 Pleasant Surprise Albums of 2013

To counterbalance the set of disappointing albums, there are those that you probably barely noticed at first, or ones that you thought nothing of upon release that slowly but surely knocked your socks off.


Monday, December 23 2013

The Most Disappointing Albums of 2013

This year's list of the most disappointing albums of 2013 reads like the "best of" list from four or five years ago. It shouldn't be surprising how these tides turn, but it always is.


Friday, December 20 2013

The Best Canadian Albums of 2013

There's a thrilling breadth of styles and approaches explored by the best albums hailing from Canada in 2013, ranging from good ol' garage rock to East-West "noh-wave", from traditionalist country to First Nations' EDM.


K-pop’s Generation

If 2013 has proved anything, it's that K-pop's worldwide appeal is much more than a passing fad like "Gangnam Style".


Thursday, December 19 2013

The Best Jazz of 2013

Jazz is all over the place, and that's the glorious point of it. When you add up all its little corners and areas of enjoyment in 2013, the music remains huge.


Wednesday, December 18 2013

The Best New / Emerging Artists of 2013

This was an incredibly fruitful year for new and emerging artists pointing their respective genre towards new directions and possibilities. From dance to R&B and country to indie, 2013 was a year for pushing boundaries.


Towards a (Redneck) Pleasure Principle: Or Why Luke Bryan Might Be This Year’s Best Artist

The idea of pleasure, of the loose swing and the obsessive grinding, becomes the central way that we talk about Luke Bryan, and often the central way that Bryan talks about himself, especially in 2013.


Tuesday, December 17 2013

Ragnarök: 2013 Gloomy Awards: The Most Interesting Metal Albums of 2013

Every year a slew of great albums from the louder spheres are missed, misplaced, or overlooked on those end of year lists. Ragnarök's Gloomy Awards seeks to redress that imbalance.


The Best Music Videos of 2013

When everything's said and done, 2013 will likely stand as a watershed moment for the resurgence of the music video as an art form, one that's worthy of discussion and debate.


Monday, December 16 2013

The 25 Best Album Re-Issues of 2013

From '90s-era defining musical heroes and legendary singer-songwriters to the great soul and jazz artists of the '60s and glorious '70s rock, 2013 was a great year for new re-issues and compilations.


Edging Toward the Mainstream: Extreme Music in 2013

By breaking previous genre constraints, Deafheaven and its peers have created a new template, with strangeness no longer the selling the point for extreme music.


Friday, December 13 2013

The Best Electronic Music of 2013

Above all, 2013 was a year when electronic music's cream of the crop did what they do best and left no one wanting for more.


Thursday, December 12 2013

The Top 10 Overlooked Albums of 2013

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.


The Best R&B of 2013

The best R&B albums of 2013 feature long-time stalwarts and compelling new voices.


Wednesday, December 11 2013

The Best Film Scores of 2013

This year saw no shortage of innovative, exciting film scores. Notes on Celluloid counts down the ten soundtracks that lingered the longest in our minds.


The Best Americana of 2013

Our list for 2013 is predictably diverse, ranging from progressive newgrass to tradition-minded country to old-time acoustic to California canyon rock to psych folk to singer-songwriter and all points between.


Tuesday, December 10 2013

The Best Country Music of 2013

What's going to be most often said or written about the year in country music, 2013? That it was the "year of the woman" in a Nashville that's still a man's world after all.


The Best Hip-Hop of 2013

Jewel running, megalomania, acid rap, and sasquatches -- hip-hop continues to surprise in 2013.


Thursday, December 5 2013

The Best Indie-Pop of 2013

In 2013, the best indie-pop felt like "secret music" meant for our ears only and, at the same time, like we're being pulled into a community.


Wednesday, December 4 2013

The Best Progressive Rock (and Metal) of 2013

This year saw the release of some of the best modern progressive music from a wide array of subgenres and idiosyncratic approaches.


Tuesday, December 3 2013

The Best Indie Rock of 2013

It's a generalization, but the year in indie rock saw a turn away from harmony-focused, gentle rock and back toward something a bit noisier, a bit more idiosyncratic, a little harder to ignore.


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