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. 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