The Top 10 Pleasant Surprise Albums of 2013

[24 December 2013]

By PopMatters Staff

With every year, there are the records that you look forward to most, and inevitably, there are some that fail to live up to your expectations. 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. Compiled by the staff at PopMatters, here is the list of the most surprising albums of 2013. Enio Chiola

 


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Hayden

Us Alone

(Arts & Crafts)

10

Hayden
Us Alone

The most surprising thing about Hayden‘s latest long player might just be that it exists at all, considering that the artist was reportedly dead to begin with. Hayden’s Wikipedia page had in recent years listed him as deceased for a period, but the rumor has been around for quite some time: despite making records and touring, since at least 2002, Hayden’s friends have jokingly referred to his concert dates as the “Hayden’s Not Dead Tour”. However, if anything, Us Alone shows the artist alive and well, despite its overtures of death—closing track “Instructions” tells listeners what to do with his body after he passes on. Still, Us Alone was a remarkable return to form that saw Hayden get rejuvenated after doing absolutely nothing to promote his previous record, 2009’s The Place Where We Lived. He’s now touring again, and even made a video, albeit a fairly low-budget one, for “Rainy Saturday” and is feted by now being added to the roster of Toronto’s trendy Arts & Crafts label. Beyond that, Us Alone shines with consistently great songs, such as the ‘70s soft-rock borrowing “Motel” and the lyrical retrospective of his career, the bouncy “Almost Everything”. Us Alone is a reminder of how good Hayden could be, and should do a great deal to quell the speculation on whether he’s actually alive or not. He is. Oh, how he is. Zachary Houle

 


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My Bloody Valentine

m b v

(self-released)

9

My Bloody Valentine
m b v

What’s most surprising about My Bloody Valentine‘s m b v is that it even exists at all—at least in the world, on vinyl and in cyberspace, outside the realm of Kevin Shields’ presumably padlocked hard drive. Beyond that, another pleasant (if altogether less shocking) discovery: it’s quite good, updating without upending Loveless‘s shoegaze bible. Crushingly noisy (“Wonder 2”) and sweetly dreamy (“Is This and Yes”) in equal measure, m b v also contains hints of where the band has been in the intervening 22 years, including nods to Primal Scream (“Nothing Is”) and groove-driven trip-hop (“New You”). The final surprise, then, is that Shields, Butcher, and co. have been able to reproduce it all live throughout a recent tour. Zach Schonfeld

 


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Vampire Weekend

Modern Vampires of the City

(XL)

8

Vampire Weekend
Modern Vampires of the City

The indie community, in general, prides itself on nurturing originality, embracing the DIY ethos, and almost obsessively looking for the next breakout artist. As laudable as these traits are, they don’t bode well for establishing artist loyalty. What was celebrated in 2006 is now fodder for the next I Love the ‘00s compilation. Vampire Weekend should have fit in that “breakout smash turned musical punchline” storyline. After all, they sustained a backlash before their first album was even released. Their follow-up, Contra, probably frustrated detractors because, while it was a follow-up that took almost no risks, it was far from an embarrassment. All Vampire Weekend had to do was release a third album that would either make their act sound tired, or be such a jumbled mess (see Sleigh Bells or MGMT) that the music press could finally write their obit. Instead, Modern Vampires in the City is the best type of “silence the critics” album you could ask for. “Obvious Bicycle” opens with an irresistible chorus, setting the listener up for 45 minutes of near-perfect pop/rock songs. “Hannah Hunt” and “Diane Young” show Vampire Weekend putting more humanity into their songs, making them more friendly in your car than in an art museum (something that plagued their past recordings). Industry hype burns out quickly, but from those ashes, Vampire Weekend has emerged as a band who’s in it for the long haul. Sean McCarthy

 


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Icona Pop

This Is Icona Pop

(Big Beat/WEA)

7

Icona Pop
This Is Icona Pop

More than 15 years ago, an album like This is Icona Pop would have been flagged as conglomerate-produced dribble. However, about 15 years of pop becoming the mainstay in mainstream music helped to change perceptions and develop artists whose main influences probably include anything from Britney Spears to Prodigy. Consequently, Icona Pop‘s debut album, instead of being mindless bass-thumping dance music, is instead one of the most surprising and fun albums of the year. “I Love It” transforms the ditzy “Oops, I did it again” female pop presence and flips it on its head. Icona Pop is an unapologetic, unabashed, and gregarious duo that never ceases to push its weight around. This is Icona Pop takes female-led dance pop into a new dimension of kick-ass superpower women artists. Enio Chiola

 


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Darkstar

News from Nowhere

(Warp)

6

Darkstar
News from Nowhere

Before 2013 Darkstar‘s work could be explained by listening to their single “Aidy’s Girl’s Computer”, a clacking and simple song built around snapping percussion and synthesized vocals. It was a thoroughly enjoyable track, but as the title suggested Darkstar’s music didn’t seem very human. It was a shocking turn when News from Nowhere opened with gently cooed vocals over elegant keyboard. It was a sharp break from the bleakness of their last album North. News is a lush and beautiful record, mashing up the most accessible moments of Animal Collective and Aphex Twin. From the music box intro of “Timeaway” to the cascading singing on “Amplified ease” it’s clear that Darkstar placed a great amount of joy into this project. It’s amazing what warmth and beautiful harmonies can do for an album. Nathan Stevens

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HAIM

Days Are Gone

(Columbia)

5

HAIM
Days Are Gone

Where in the hell did HAIM come from? I think I learned about them from a friend who casually recommended them one day. Ostensibly, HAIM presents as a brooding hippie loving free-fest. Instead, what you get from Days Are Gone is a meld of some of the best music of the past 30 years that most people forgot ever existed. Most impressive about HAIM’s auspicious debut full-length are the crafty and intricate songwriting techniques that add layer after layer of melodic structure over some of the best licks ever. These girls are poised to be really big if they can keep the game going. From seemingly out of nowhere these sisters managed to change the musical playing field with a wink and a nod. Enio Chiola

 


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Tegan and Sara

Heartthrob

(Warner Bros.)

4

Tegan and Sara
Heartthrob

Tegan and Sara grew into a fairly solid act with their last few records prior to Heartthrob. Keeping up with learning their craft and teaming with producers and musicians that managed to elevate their sound with each new release served them well. However, I don’t think anyone expected them to make this drastic of a game-changer, and on top of that, have it pay off so freakin’ well. From lead-in single “Closer”, it’s clear that these alt-sisters still had some tricks up their sleeve. The duo switched out producers they were in were in a comfort zone with in exchange for brand new collaborators that forced them to tighten their sound and hone their songwriting abilities into their best album. Most artists peak somewhere in their first bunch of albums, but Tegan and Sara surprised us all with a wonderfully infectious record that came this late in their career. Enio Chiola

 


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Sky Ferreira

Night Time, My Time

(Capitol)

3

Sky Ferreira
Night Time, My Time

Sky Ferreira has been on a few people’s radar. With a few fun pop tracks off of her Ghost EP, Ferreira had gained some interest. She managed to bring herself into the periphery of up-and-comers—many knew she was there and would be interested to hear what she brought, but there were some other artists who stole her limelight. Well, with Night Time, My Time she managed to smoke the competition of fresh new pop artistes. Each track off of this incredibly surprising gem of a debut full-length plays like a “best-of” collection of Madonna’s golden years crossed with sprinkles of My Bloody Valentine. Most records in the pop genre manage a handful of tracks that carry the rest of this album. With Night Time, My Time, you’ll be floored by how each track is better than the next. Sky Ferreira managed to blow away all (lower than they should have been) expectations with a record that set a new standard of sing-along pop that doesn’t rely on the standard 130 BPM trademark. Enio Chiola

 


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Justin Timberlake

The 20/20 Experience (1 of 2)

(RCA)

2

Justin Timberlake
The 20/20 Experience, 1 of 2

After a seven-year hiatus, Justin Timberlake has returned to the music scene, well-dressed as ever and well-timed to the recent re-emergence of R&B. The quality of the album should not be surprising, as I’m sure you’re familiar with the futuristic vision of FutureSex/LoveSounds and the well-constructed singles from Justified. What’s surprising, however, is how broad Timberlake’s stroke is here. It’s as catchy as you’d expect pop to be, but longtime confidant Timbaland supplies beats that are decidedly more complex than what we’re used to from either artist—as if tailored to cynical music critics, for whom catchiness is not enough. Songs touch on the past (“Suit & Tie”) to the present (“Mirrors”), familiar sounds (“That Girl”) to other worldly rhythms (“Don’t Hold the Wall”), sensitive theatrics (“Pusher Love Girl”) to ambient washes (“Blue Ocean Floor”). Detractors will point out that the lyrics are often vapid. Dancers won’t be able to hear them over the unstoppable grooves. Marshall Gu

 


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Kanye West

Yeezus

(Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)

1

Kanye West
Yeezus

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West‘s ornate, grandiose 2010 magnum opus, was the kind of career event that few artists ever come close to tasting. String arrangements! All-star guest list! King Crimson samples! Curiously (or perhaps tellingly) enough, however, Fantasy‘s ambition is inversely proportional to its sales, which mark the lowest of West’s career. His unbridled id and anger on the haughtily titled Yeezus, then, are perhaps not so surprising. Returning to the simple-and-spare ingredients formula of 808s & Heartbreak, West crafts the opposite side of that album’s coin. 808s is minimalist, moody R&B; Yeezus is raw, unfiltered hip-hop incorporating elements of dissonance like harsh synth squelches (“On Sight”) and manic cries (“I Am a God”). He does return to the 808s sonic in an unforgettable way with “Blood on the Leaves”, but on the whole Yeezus marks his devolution from the maximalism of Fantasy. It’s a surprising move, to be sure, but a sensible, daring, and successful one, at that. In upstaging what most consider to be his masterpiece, not to mention creating a batch of songs best described as “growers” (see the Auto-tune heavy “Hold My Liquor”), West demonstrates that even as he comfortably rests atop hip-hop’s stratosphere, he hasn’t lost the ability to surprise at all. Brice Ezell

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/177217-the-top-10-pleasant-surprise-albums-of-2013/