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.

Artist: Thee Oh Sees

Album: Floating Coffin

Label: Castle Face

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Thee Oh Sees
Floating Coffin

Jonathan Dwyer and his band, Thee Oh Sees, have been honing their rock craft to a fine edge over 15 albums and countless singles and EPs. Floating Coffin is their latest and best, a record that both continues their garage-rock formula while reminding us of how tough to pin down their sound is in practice. Songs like “I Came From the Mountain” and “No Spell” stretch their lean crunch out into epic space, while “Strawberries 1+2” drags it through the psychedelic mud. Dwyer and company also coat “Night Crawler” in space-aged keys and peel the distortion back on closer “Minotaur” to give us a soft (if still rocky) ending to an unpredictable journey. There is no shortage of garage rock bands out there, but compared to Thee Oh Sees they are mere pretenders to the crowd. Dwyer and his band remind us that the garage isn’t always a location, it’s an aesthetic. And it’s one that allows for experimentation, ambition, and surprise. Thee Oh Sees pack all three into a potent, fiery dose on Floating Coffin, an album that should be your favorite record from the band. At least until their next one comes out. img-1056 Matthew Fiander


Artist: The Uncluded

Album: Hokey Fright

Label: Rhymesayers

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The Uncluded
Hokey Fright

On paper, a full-length collaboration between one of the world’s most eclectic singer-songwriters and viciously cerebral indie hip-hop emcees should not work. It should be a novelty anomaly, a cash-grab unit shifter like Jay-Z‘s depressing collaborations with R. Kelly and Linkin Park. Yet, Hokey Fright melds the cutely framed soul-searching of Kimya Dawson and the socially aware character studies of Aesop Rock over beats that complement the acoustic whimsy of the former and the boom-bap snap of the latter so successfully that it feels like a necessary progression. The album succeeds largely due to its vibe fostered by its content. It’s an album made with the intention of making life easier for all those who hear it, but never sounds patronizing. “Organs” makes a compelling case for organ donation, turning an emotionally charged reminder of mortality into something whimsical as Kimya lists a string of animals giving their parts to other animals like a children’s story, while “Teleprompters” feeds a sense of self-actualization as Kimya talks encouragingly and honestly about self-image and Aesop Rock argues with himself about the need to get out more. Other times, you can hear them give a humorously thuggish shout-out to sandwiches and ruminate on the states of being tits up. A testament to their obvious rapport, Kimya and Aesop succeeded in merging their disparate worlds into a complimentary whole, a loving spoonful of good nature and naked truth that helps the bitterness of reality go down smooth. img-1056 Alan Ranta


Artist: Chelsea Wolfe

Album: Pain Is Beauty

Label: Sargent House

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Chelsea Wolfe
Pain Is Beauty

Once you’ve experienced the remarkable Pain Is Beauty, you’d be forgiven for imagining that singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe has been feasting on bloody horror, lost souls and broken hearts ‘Countess Elizabeth Báthory-style’. Her third and strongest album is awash with decay, disease and devilry. Oh and teeth. It bites hard. You should run away and never look back. But. It. Feels. So. Damn. Gooood. Impossible to resist, Pain Is Beauty‘s ravenous underworld is intoxicatingly hypnotic, burning bright with the twin fires of love and death. But mostly death. From the aching mouths of open graves on “We Built a House” and “Reins” to the heavenly electro hallucinations of “The Warden” to the heartwrenching, nine-minute epic “The Waves Had Come” and the desolate Godless afterlife of “Lone”, death abounds. If truth is beauty, Beauty is a fuckin’ scary truth. Children of the night let yourself be transfixed by Chelsea’s Medusa gaze and let this Wolfe feverishly devour your heart. Not for the faint hearted, but hey no Pain, no gain. img-1056 Matt James


Artist: Boards of Canada

Album: Tomorrow’s Harvest

Label: Warp

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Boards of Canada
Tomorrow’s Harvest

In a year riddled with comeback albums, few can stand toe-to-toe with Tomorrow’s Harvest. Vintage analog synths bring a flicker of nostalgia and help bring back the sound that Boards of Canada does best. The chilling retro ambiance makes Tomorrow’s Harvest feel like it could serve as the soundtrack to a remake of Super Metroid. The detail of the recording is vivid enough to feel modern, but packs enough retro-punch to give a peak through a window back in time. The album reflects both on the history of classic IDM albums and on Boards of Canada’s own acclaimed discography. True, the duo doesn’t reinvent their sound on Tomorrow’s Harvest, but they didn’t need to in order to make a great album. Boards of Canada was able to pay homage to their old work, while crafting new material that lives up to their legacy. img-1056 Logan Smithson


Artist: Josh Ritter

Album: The Beast in Its Tracks

Label: Pytheas Recordings

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Josh Ritter
The Beast in Its Tracks

This gifted singer-songwriter has penned countless fascinating tales within his musical narratives, which display a wide emotional range from heart-breaking to heart-warming. But when the storyteller goes autobiographical on The Beast in Its Tracks, he doesn’t shy away from exposing the pain that his divorce caused him. Josh Ritter created a deeply introspective album that moves from darkness and self-denial to the restoration of his spirit through love and hope. Take “A Certain Light” and “New Lover” as a song pair. Both utilize those phrases in their lyrics, but in the former Ritter sounds like he’s trying to convince himself he’s moved on, while by the latter he’s overjoyed with his new companion, but still biting back at his ex. Then in “Joy to You Baby”, his empathy returns and he moves on. If Ritter’s heartbreak hadn’t been so genuine, this lover’s tale would make for a great concept album. img-1056 Sachyn Mital


Artist: The Flaming Lips

Album: The Terror

Label: Warner Bros.

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The Flaming Lips
The Terror

The Flaming Lips are almost the Madonna of rock bands at this point. They’ve changed their style up many times since they started in 1983, all the while keeping the essence of what makes them the Flaming Lips. In 2009, the Lips dropped the neo-hippie electronic sound they’d been refining since 1999’s The Soft Bulletin and released the gothic rock-based double albumEmbryonic. This year they continue this dark sounding, bad vibes music, but lean more toward electronic textures and synthscapes to anchor the songs with their new album The Terror. The album is completely devoid of typical song structure, with each song floating along as Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd sing over sparse synthesizer layers, communicating desperation and hopelessness. One has to be in a specific mood when listening to The Terror, but upon listening the songs reveal themselves as nuanced, subtle, and well crafted. img-1056 Eric Goldberg


Artist: Jagwar Ma

Album: Howlin’

Label: Mom + Pop

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Jagwar Ma

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Manchester scene in England had rock bands combining guitars, psychedelia, funky rhythms, and dance music. Jagwar Ma is of a similar breed, but with a sound that is unmistakably of this era. The band completely blurs the line between a rock band and an electronic act. Jagwar Ma’s debut Howlin’ is chock full of epic dance rock sounds and, in particular, the first three songs on the album are some of the best songs written in 2013, as they could be the soundtrack to the greatest dance party of all time. The low-end grooves throughout and the group also throws in some 1960s indebted songs that recall the Byrds and the Kinks, following in the footsteps of Madchester forefathers the Stone Roses. The album falls off by the end, but with a debut that starts as strong as this one, Jagwar Ma should have a bright future ahead of them. img-1056 Eric Goldberg


Artist: John Grant

Album: Pale Green Ghosts

Label: Partisan

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John Grant
Pale Green Ghosts

John Grant‘s life was transformed in the time since his previous solo effort, 2010’s Queen of Denmark. The first kink was the dissolution of his relationship with Charlie, the partner he loved. Then Grant likely flipped when informed he had contracted HIV… after he sobered up. These reverberations impacted the once warm ’70s sound of his music. Now, on Pale Green Ghosts, the music convulses — spaced-out ’80s synths swim a current of murky, underground beats. Grant’s rich baritone adds warmth to his songs, but a closer listen will reveal diverse messages laden with sarcasm, sadness, and swear-words. There is the confessional (HIV is addressed in “Ernest Borgnine”) to the serene (listen to his voice shimmer on “Glacier”) to the boastful (“GMF” is an acronym for “greatest mother-fucker”). Ghosts is an acceptance of this altered life. Grant’s honest perspective illustrates his indomitable spirit and the musical world is more beautiful because of him. img-1056 Sachyn Mital


Artist: Washed Out

Album: Paracosm

Label: Sub Pop

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Washed Out

Ernest Greene, a.k.a. Washed Out, gave us his second full-length and most realized album in 2013. A “paracosm” is an imaginary world created during childhood and it’s a term that was coined in the ’70s, which is appropriate as the songs on Paracosm have strong links with the soft rock, disco, and soul of that decade. Merge those influences with the dense, lush production of shoegaze and you’ve got the soundtrack to this daydream. We enter a bucolic paradise of groovy vibes through the new-agey tones and bird sounds of a lead-off song called (what else?) “Entrance”. From then on, through to the last song “All Over Now”, we’re treated to a sound world of sunshine and hazy swirling synthesizer-based psych, a meticulously crafted warm caress of melodies and hooks. “It All Feels Right”, “Weightless”, “The Great Escape” — the track titles say it all. It’s the soundtrack to that perfect summer you had. Or wished you had. img-1056 Rob Caldwell


Artist: Superchunk

Album: I Hate Music

Label: Merge

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I Hate Music

If Superchunk‘s superb 2010 offering, Majesty Shredding, was a toe-dip back in the indie rock waters after a nine-year hiatus, then I Hate Music is a full-on cannonball into the pool. Deeper, yet every bit as immediate as the comparatively lightweight Shredding, I Hate Music pretty much sums up life for any music fan who has ever lost a loved one on album highlight “Me and You and Jackie Mittoo”: “I hate music / What is it worth? / Can’t bring anyone back to this earth.” Soldier on we must, though, and throughout the record, Mac McCaughan tries to find a way forward, whether it’s the truthseekers of “Void”; musing “Do you think the answer is love?” on “Low F”; or standing on the precipice of an unknown future with a loved one, ready to take the next step on gorgeous closer “What Can We Do?” (And, of course, if you just want to rock out, there’s power pop nugget nonpareil “FOH”.) With nearly a quarter-century of existence to their name, Superchunk are lifers and on I Hate Music that means exploring life in all its messy, frustrating, wonderful forms. img-1056 Stephen Haag

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Artist: The Icarus Line

Album: Slave Vows

Label: Agitated

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The Icarus Line
Slave Vows

In an alternate reality where whatever went wrong in American music history that led to the mainstream popularity of bands like Nickelback didn’t occur, the Icarus Line‘s Slave Vows is topping the rock charts. Boiled down to its core, it’s everything that once made rock great and also what it should be again. It’s dangerous and sexy, grimy and chaotic and just sinister as fuck. Opener “Dark Circles” defines slowly-mounting tension over its 11 minutes, building from a noisy dirgefest then snapping into a brooding, tide-rolling meditation. “Marathon Man” is a grinding rhythm of reveling in your chosen debauchery and nihilism, coalescing in feedback walls, barbaric yawps and strangled saxophone bleats. For immediate terror, the stimulant-addled “No Money Music” fits the bill and closer “Rats Ass” is a swampy mess of the best variety. For those rock aficionados grown cynical, Slave Vows is a salve for your disillusionment (though, that the record isn’t more recognized may have the adverse effect of further validating your jadedness). img-1057 Cole Waterman


Artist: Studio Killers

Album: Studio Killers

Label: Studio Killers Records

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Studio Killers
Studio Killers

It appears there’s a popular trend as of late, for a singer’s true identity to be initially shrouded in mystery, in order to garner attention. Swedish singer-songwriter Jonna Lee’s multimedia project/persona Iamamiwhoami is the perfect example, but electronic audio-visual collective Studio Killers win the prize for most enigmatic. Purportedly hailing from London and Hawaii, the lead singer, represented by a curvaceous, mascara-dripping femme fatale, sounds uncannily similar to Teemu William Brunila, the male former frontman of Finish band the Crash. Who knows? Who cares when the music is this delicious.

Arriving in 2011 with a paint-splattered animated video to accompany their blistering hot single “Ode to the Bouncer”, the virtual band (think Gorillaz) of Chubby Cherry, Goldie Foxx, and Dyna Mink finally released their debut, self-titled album this summer. It was well worth waiting two years for. Filled to the brim with philosophical and pop cultural lyrical references, the dance floor ready, scathingly witty collection of songs is devoid of any filler and dispels the notion that the pop album is a dying breed. Studio Killers have crafted one of 2013’s finest records, pop or otherwise. img-1057 Ryan Lathan


Artist: Lorde

Album: Pure Heroine

Label: Motown / Universal

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Pure Heroine

It seems as though recent dance music has been nothing but a bombardment of screeching vocals, pounding drums, and the loudest synthesizers ever known to humankind. Music trends always seem to swing back and forth with the next biggest fad being the zag to the mainstream established zig. Lorde‘s Pure Heroine is that zag. Touting influences from Fiona Apple and Lana Del Rey, Lorde has that waifish look accompanied by a powerhouse voice that seems completely unbefitting of such a small thing. Pure Heroine is the antithesis of the wannabe-anthem dance tracks that have permeated long enough. Every track is restrained, quietly executed and a complete pleasure to listen to. She manages all the power and punch with such minimal instrumentation that you forget there is very little going on. Pure Heroine is refreshing to tired ears. img-1057 Enio Chiola


Artist: The Haxan Cloak

Album: Excavation

Label: Tri Angle

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The Haxan Cloak

In a year where electronic music (Fuck Buttons, the extraordinary occult-themed Outer Church compilation) occasionally rivalled extreme metal for darkness and depravity, the most eldritch album was undoubtedly Excavation by the Haxan Cloak. Released as a thematic follow-up to 2011’s eponymous death-folk debut, the record saw gloom auteur Bobby Krlic expanding his sonic palate to construct a singular aural landscape representing the journey of the soul post-mortem. Beginning with “Consumed”‘s opening plummet-through-the-trapdoor sub-bass, before reaching an undulating, entirely ominous conclusion with “The Drop”, the album is relentlessly atmospheric in its imagining of the undiscovered country. With its churning percussion, and atonal pseudo-church organ meanwhile, the two-part “The Mirror Reflecting” may well be the single most relentlessly-oppressive piece of music released all year. Abandon hope… img-1057 Phil Mason


Artist: Justin Timberlake

Album: The 20/20 Experience

Label: RCA

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Justin Timberlake
The 20/20 Experience (Part 1)

After dropping the first half of The 20/20 Experience this spring, Justin Timberlake stood accused of practicing eight-minute songs without a permit, in addition to polymath likeability in the age of niche-marketing. Complainants propped their disdain on shifty metrics of formalism and authenticity, as if only such rigid standards — and a docile whipping boy — could erase the shame of loving pop. The rest of us, meanwhile, saw scant reason to resist the advances of 20/20‘s euphoric, thoroughly modern riff on the song-suite soul of Stevie Wonder and Isaac Hayes. Timbaland is once again Timberlake’s wingman of choice, and his 24-karat soundscapes are volubly yet shrewdly habit-forming. But it’s the triple-threat himself who closes the deal. When the same skinny white guy playing an urban faux-honky for the brothers Coen here extols the virtues of “thick” women, it’s charm that makes that posturing endearing. Timberlake’s, like his voice, might be thin, but it’s flexible and never quits, and some nights, that’s all you really need. img-1057 Benjamin Aspray


Artist: Icona Pop

Album: This Is… Icona Pop

Label: Big Beat

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Icona Pop
This Is… Icona Pop

Icona Pop is the hipster’s answer to Katy Perry. Not that there’s anything wrong with Katy Perry, but Icona Pop has this alterna-chick edge that no other mainstream pop artist seems to possess right now. Singing songs written almost entirely by other people, produced by other people and with an image that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was composed by other people, Icona Pop manage (somehow) to trudge through all the traditional credentials that would secure a “cool” place in music by backing themselves with some of the smartest and funnest (I know it’s not a word) tracks since Robyn’s Body Parts. From the scathing and reckless anthem “I Love It” (which is everywhere!) to the power pop “All Night” and “Light Me Up” you got to give it up for girls that sing: “I won’t hesitate / Even if I go down in flames / Light me up!” These girls came to party. img-1057 Enio Chiola


Artist: In Solitude

Album: Sister

Label: Metal Blade

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In Solitude

On their third record, Sister, In Solitude has found a way to absorb their influences and claim a sound of their own. The classic metal foundation laid down by their obsession with Mercyful Fate remains squarely in place. On top of that they’ve mixed post-punk, death rock, goth and more, opening doors into other modes of dark expression. But it isn’t just a broadening of the sound that makes this record so special. In Solitude have a new confidence. Singer Pelle Åhman frees himself from the constraints of aping Mercyful Fate’s King Diamond and finds a howling voice that is truly his. Guitarists Niklas Lindström and Henrik Palm stake a claim with their new palette, mixing a ’70s tone with a more modern attack. By removing the shackles of their singular influence, In Solitude step into a black light spot of their own. img-1057 Erik Highter


Artist: Paramore

Album: Paramore

Label: Fueled by Ramen

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After the success of 2007’s Riot!, being sucked into the vortex of Twilight cross-promotion, and releasing the underwhelming Brand New Eyes in 2009, Paramore had some serious growing up to do. Musically they were at a dead end, and brothers Zac and Josh Farro quit he band in bitter fashion. Freed of that excess weight, and backed up by superior musicians, Hayley Williams and guitarist Taylor York — the band’s best songwriter — finally had the freedom to flex their musical chops, and emerged triumphant on Paramore. Musically varied, vibrant, and mature, it ambitiously careens between edgy hard rock (“Fast in My Car”, “Now”, “Anklebiters”), ‘80s R&B (“Ain’t It Fun”), power pop (“Daydreaming”), tender balladry (“Hate to See Your Heart Break”), and lavish Spector-esque melodrama (“(One of Those) Crazy Girls”). At the heart of it all is Williams, who sounds liberated, injecting her ebullient personality into the music with gusto. Led by the irresistible “Still Into You”, Paramore is a wonderful moment of transcendence for Williams and her band. img-1057 Adrien Begrand


Artist: Suede

Album: Bloodsports

Label: Warner Music

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A decade in self-exile obviously lit one hell of a fire in Brett Anderson’s scrawny belly. There were scores to settle. The messy split that followed 2002’s underperforming A New Morning had all but sentenced this once-beloved band of outsiders to pop’s dumper of doom. From rags to riches to digging ditches. They were becoming a mere footnote to the ’90s falling somewhere below Tony Blair’s grin, NUTS magazine, Oasis and Blur’s playground bickering and Ginger Spice’s cleavage, though mercifully above Shed Seven. Bloodsports was their death-or-glory chance to pull their legacy from the fire and scale the museum walls leaving Dodgy, Cast and Toploader behind for good. In doing so they crafted this admirably heroic comeback which magically fused the snaked-hipped glitterpop of Coming Up with the melancholy martyrs and doomed devotion of Dog Man Star. A bittersweet and bruised record wrapped wise with scars, lust, secrets and lies. “I smile as the rope cuts through me,” barks Anderson defiantly as the brooding “Sabotage” descends. And the band played on! O Captain, My Captain our future is still unwritten! img-1057 Matt James


Artist: Popstrangers

Album: Antipodes

Label: Carpark

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Every day, you can find a new band that is co-opting the holy altar of ’90s alternative rock, and often it’s a very, very bad imitation of what came before, bands unsure if they want to be Pavement or Soul Asylum or some terrible iteration in-between. For this New Zealand trio, however, their debut album Antipodes isn’t a mere tribute, it’s an out-and-out synthesis. You can hear that dirty basement sweat percolate between reverberating guitar plucks, capable of dark atmospherics in songs like “Occasion” and then unleashing radio-ready pop hooks in the form of tracks like “Heaven”. The group is smart about song structures, the familiar sonic elements that immediately invoke nostalgia but not towards any one specific band, and best of all, their plan is never overthought. Antipodes reminds us of those great alt-rock albums because it never overplays its hand, going straight for flannel catharsis over visceral impact, Popstrangers the whole time being wise enough to remember that you can’t have one without the other. img-1057 Evan Sawdey

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Artist: London Grammar

Album: If You Wait

Label: Metal & Dust

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London Grammar
If You Wait

Sometimes you encounter a voice that stops you dead your in your tracks. It’s the kind of voice that instantly evokes a mood, a particular emotion or even an entire season within its timbre. Hannah Reid of the English art-pop rock trio London Grammar possesses such a staggering instrument. She smolders in her smoky mid-range and roars bright and clear in the upper end, recalling the brooding earthiness of a Marina Diamandis or Natasha Khan and the breathtaking folk soprano of a young Joni Mitchell. Pensive, melancholic ballads, nocturnal grooves and atmospheric laments on youth and matters of the heart form the core of London Grammar’s sound and the subject matters they explore. Perfectly suited for the falling of leaves and long winter nights, this is a record both fragile and full of exuberant hope. The inner life of the walking wounded and the angst of embracing adulthood haven’t been this well documented on record in quite a long time and I can say without hesitance that If You Wait is a classic in the making. img-1058 Ryan Lathan


Artist: Russian Circles

Album: Memorial

Label: Sargent House

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Russian Circles

The Chicago post-metal trio Russian Circles are one of those rare bands who, with each album, continually get better and better. Every studio LP these guys have made has done something significant to improve and refine their sound. The consequence of following a trajectory like this is that it leaves the listener wondering when that one crystallizing moment will arrive. 2011’s Empros seemed like that moment, and to this day it’s still an impressive achievement. But what a revelation Memorial is: though the shortest and in many ways most intimate release of the trio’s career, it’s also their most expansive and emotionally devastating. Memorial is a meditation, a tome poem about grief and departure — and, incredibly, it needs few words (check the jaw-dropping Chelsea Wolfe guest spot on the title track) to do so. In just under 40 minutes, Russian Circles lay to tape the first genuine post-metal masterpiece since Isis’ Panopticon. img-1058 Brice Ezell


Artist: Baths

Album: Obsidian

Label: Anticon

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With titles like “No Eyes”, “Worsening”, and “Earth Death”, Baths‘ Will Wiesenfeld isn’t cagey about tone on his second album of unsettlingly glitchy laptop pop. Obsidian is indeed a classic of sustained bleakness, a despairing monolith in the spirit of Marble Index and Closer, albeit one in which defeats aren’t somberly intoned, but softly exhaled through a lump in the throat. Wiesenfeld isn’t your average miserablist with a mic, though; he’s a formalist, and Obsidian is more sonic triumph than confessional purge. Instead of tapping into the well-worn tradition of leaning on electronics to establish chilliness or isolation, he makes this music breathe and beat irregularly, like a giant body under duress. On “Worsening”, loops are superimposed over each other into polyrhythms and off-time grooves as eerie voices fade in and out, and, on “No Past Lives”, the hook consists of a sprightly piano parts alternating with a noisy drone. It’s fragile and monstrous in equal measure, and the most addictive bummer of the year. img-1058 David Bloom


Artist: Caitlin Rose

Album: The Stand-In

Label: ATO

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Caitlin Rose
The Stand-In

On her third record, the most out-and-out pleasurable album I have heard this year, Caitlin Rose manages the rare feat of presenting a timeless melodic pop album without ever drifting into anachronism. A record that owes as much to the Travelling Wilburys as it does Linda Ronstadt, The Stand-In is remarkably unconcerned with genre, with the general expectation that this Nashville girl would make a commercial country record. Instead, we get what might finally be a genuine expression of that nebulous thing we call “Americana”: a record that eschews boundaries, and shoots, simply, for good songs played well. Opening with a fuzzy guitar riff that would be at home on a Japandroids album, and announcing “the songs I want to hear, they never play”, Rose makes her statement early and often. From the country-rock of “I Was Cruel” and “Dallas” to the irresistible pop of “Only a Clown” and “Menagerie” (among this year’s most persistent earworms, for me) this album has it all. Sharp, playful, and blessed with a voice that rivals Kelly Hogan’s in its expressiveness, its depth of character, Caitlin Rose has arrived. img-1058 Stuart Henderson


Artist: Mount Moriah

Album: Miracle Temple

Label: Merge

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Mount Moriah
Miracle Temple

It’s easy to mistake what Mount Moriah does for country. They hail from the South, the band has a front-porch sort of stomp to their rockers, Jenks Miller’s guitar is some viscous mix of dust and sweat, and Heather McEntire’s voice is the kind of clear beauty that can fill a field. And yet, this is too rooted in soul, in roots-rock, in folk and countless other touchstones to be just one thing, let alone country. Miracle Temple is a brilliant and deeply Southern set of songs that can be as energetic as they can be bittersweet. The local-dive comfort of “Younger Days” leads us into a record that mines place for inspiration and heartache. Songs like “Eureka Springs” sway and ripple out into space, while “Bright Light” and “Rosemary” tighten up into lean power-pop. The band moves through these dynamic, catchy tunes with patience and confidence, a surprising amount of both considering this is just their second record. Here, Mount Moriah realizes a fully-formed and unique sound, one that might be so hard to pin down because — first and foremost — it is so indescribably good. Intimate yet expansive, tear-stained yet resolute, Miracle Temple is a lot of things at once. But, above them all, it’s a flawless record. img-1058 Matthew Fiander


Artist: SubRosa

Album: More Constant Than the Gods

Label: Profound Lore

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More Constant Than the Gods

This year was described as something of a renaissance year for metal. Not only was good heavy music being released pretty much every week, but there was so much of it, too, from the kinds of young bands that should be finding their footing instead of turning out opuses. And while this is certainly true, since we got career-defining albums (Altar of Plagues) and promising first starts in the spotlight (Inter Arma), what went unsaid was that so much of what was released was, simply, forgettable. Call it the ‘king idiot’ rule: if bands know they can find success recycling the same riff for 12 tracks, they’re probably going to just play that riff. And that was the complaint I heard from metalheads about More Constant than the Gods: where were the riffs? Where was the comfort zone? Which is why, barring Teethed Glory and Injury, SubRosa made the best metal record of 2013, because the group incorporated honest-to-god songwriting (gasp!), melody (egad!) and dynamics (heavens no!) into its songs. Rebecca Vernon’s vocals tangle for space with dual violins as they all together reach for the heavens. It proves we, the audience, can receive for so much more in music if we’re simply willing to expect it. img-1058 Robert Rubsam


Artist: Los Campesinos!

Album: No Blues

Label: Wichita / Turnstile

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Los Campesinos!
No Blues

Los Campesinos! have never dipped below six members, but the core of the band has always been the sweet and sour marriage of guitarist Tom’s satisfyingly intricate songwriting and singer Gareth’s caustic, heartfelt lyrics. No Blues isn’t the reverse from 2011’s compellingly bleak Hello Sadness that the title suggests, but it does contain plenty of the band’s trademarked wit, pathos, and hooks. Probably the biggest surprise is when the normally self-deprecating Gareth full-on belts (especially on “As Lucerne/The Low”, and it’s great). It’s not that his voice has changed, he’s just operating at full throttle. The band follows suit. Los Campesinos! have yet to make a bad album but No Blues might be the first one that feels fully comfortable in its own skin, whether misanthropic or joyous. The Los Campesinos! that made their first few albums are, in many ways, dead. Long live Los Campesinos! img-1058 Ian Mathers


Artist: Eminem

Album: The Marshall Mathers LP2

Label: Aftermath

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The Marshall Mathers LP2

I don’t think anyone was expecting The Marshall Mathers LP 2 to be as good as it is. Eminem is one of the most successful artists in the history of rap, but his recent work has been a let down when weighed against his material of over a decade ago. It turns out that creating a sequel to his most famous album was more than just a marketing gimmick to shatter more sales records. Eminem ever so slighty recaptures the tone of 13 years ago. It’s a different album, but Eminem puts his heart into making MMLP2 one of the most personal rap albums in recent years. Who would’ve thought that we would see the day when Eminem makes a record apologizing to his mother? It’s been a fun ride, and MMLP2 is the album that brings Eminem’s career full circle. img-1058 Logan Smithson


Artist: David Bowie

Album: The Next Day

Label: Columbia

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David Bowie
The Next Day

“Here I am, not quite dying”, sings David Bowie on The Next Day‘s lacerating title cut. No shit. Not only is he not dying, Bowie sounds thrillingly alive on the comeback of the year: Bowie’s first album in a decade and his most consistently fine album in three. On a record at turns relentlessly melodic and blisteringly fierce, Bowie reappears to set his world on fire and to deliver his prettiest doomsday songs yet. Menacing and transcendent, the man achieves the vital duality that has long defined his best work — meticulously radiant craft and an unpredictable eccentricity that comes with the freedom that Bowie has always insisted on. And he does it loudly, with turbulent guitars, churning keyboards, and emotional singing. A surprise Bowie album is a major treat. That The Next Day is so brilliant and beautiful is a celebration that adds another remarkable chapter to a storied career. img-1058 Steve Leftridge


Artist: King Krule

Album: 6 Feet Beneath the Moon

Label: True Panther / XL

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King Krule
6 Feet Beneath the Moon

As King Krule, 19-year-old Archy Marshall makes bewitchingly dramatic nighttime music, a minimalist stew of jazzy guitar, deep wells of reverb, and his stunning, resonant croon. Before he’s even hit 20, Marshall already has a signature sound, something instantly recognizable and not quite like anything else. 6 Feet Beneath the Moon makes mood its m.o., a grayscale suite of variations on a melancholy tone. But it’s Marshall’s lyrics than pull Moon so high above the ground, as he sketches scenes and strings of evocative images with a rapper’s sense for rhythm and a poet’s eye for detail. Keep your eye on this one. img-1058 Corey Beasley

45 – 36

Artist: Speedy Ortiz

Album: Major Arcana

Label: Carpark

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Speedy Ortiz
Major Arcana

Recording an album that deliberately sounds so much like a throwback to a bygone era is a daring prospect, running the risk of sounding half-assed or ersatz. Yet it’s a risk Speedy Ortiz wins out on with debut LP, Major Arcana, which has the DNA of the ‘90s running throughout it, both in the lo-fi production and the fuzzy guitars. The poetic confessionalism in leader Sadie Dupuis’ lyrics has shades of Ani DiFranco, and the delivery of her indignation recalls Liz Phair. One minute, she’s spitting pissy defiance through a swamp of sludge (“Tiger Tank”), the next she’s reveling in gender-crossing sexuality (“Fun”), and later, with “Hitch”, she’s confident as a predator. Then, bubbling up in the middle of the heavy hooks and bluster, is the disarming “No Below”, one of the year’s most vulnerable and aching tunes, delicate to the point that it sounds like it could fracture with the lightest tap. What Major Arcana ends up doing with each repeated spin is assert itself as an album that thrives on being informed by its influences, rather than dominated by them. img-1059 Cole Waterman


Artist: James Blake

Album: Overgrown

Label: Polydor / Republic

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James Blake

James Blake‘s songs always seems silky smooth until they’re not, and suddenly you’re walking the line between clarity and dissonance, building and destruction. Each song uses approximately three sounds, one of them always being Blake’s high-pitched and calming falsetto. They sound like minimal loops playing on top of each other, but then you realize they’re all related and building towards something. What that something is, Blake isn’t sure — “we lay nocturnal, speculate what we feel”, as he says on “I Am Sold”. Blake’s music gets posited against EDM a lot, which is as bizarre as comparing Woody Guthrie to Def Leppard. Same instruments, sure, but completely different targets. The sounds of Overgrown change in the ways our emotions change, sometimes subtly and sometimes loudly, always without warning. img-1059 David Grossman


Artist: Killer Mike and El-P

Album: Run the Jewels

Label: Fool’s Gold

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Killer Mike and El-P
Run the Jewels

Killer Mike and El-P are both veteran MCs who, as recently as two years ago, were widely considered past their prime. For any other pair, a collaborative 33-minute album released for free would reek of desperation, but Run the Jewels feels exactly the opposite. It’s the most fluid hip-hop collaboration in, possibly, forever, and it proves that the late-career resurgence for both artists was no fluke. Savagely witty and impeccably produced, Run the Jewels is packed with songs too craftsmanlike to be experimental but that still push the envelope. El-P’s bang-a-lang production, its length, its price, and its egalitarian approach to divvying up lyrical real estate (check the seamless back and forth flow of “Banana Clipper”) all buck hip-hop trends. Front to back, the album is as tight and focused as any this year, hip-hop or otherwise. If there were a Top 10 Bangers of 2013 list, you’d probably find the tracklist for Run the Jewels in its entirety. img-1059 Adam Finley


Artist: Julia Holter

Album: Loud City Song

Label: Domino

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Julia Holter
Loud City Song

Loud City Song belongs to Julia Holter, but it’s best thought of as a borrowed masterpiece. It takes Gigi as its premise, the celebrity as its muse, and the bustling, newly ancient city of Los Angeles as its setting. Live, it plays off the sound a room full of people make, leading pindrop-silent songs like “World” to exist in reference to creaking floorboards and coughing audience members. Even its most significant moment formally belongs to someone else — “It seems like a mighty long time,” Holter sings on “Hello Stranger”, a blissful, droning cover of Barbara Lewis’ pop hit of the same name. These influences crackle with a physically manifested energy, as if Holter would rather capture than reproduce. Loud City Song, in this sense, is the compositional ancestor of field recordings; it is obsessed with the exact sounds of an oppressive city that treats one person as the property of every other citizen. The dissonance is a chaotic traffic jam, the jazzy instrumentation is an anxious ode to sidewalks, and Holter’s voice is the sound of the city itself, a narrator on the fifth floor, the whole ecosystem fighting in front of her eyes. img-1059 Robin Smith


Artist: Alice Smith

Album: She

Label: Rainwater Recordings

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Alice Smith

Alice Smith can pack more vocal might and more undiluted soul into three minutes and 30 seconds than the majority of vocalists — male and female — one’s likely to find on Top 40 playlists. She is exhibit one, where Smith socks “Cabaret” and “Another Love” will full-throttle performances. Witness her scale-defying vocalizing towards the end of “Fool For You” to truly behold the wonder of her talent. Smith smartly unleashes the top range of her vocal power in limited doses. In the more subdued moments of “Ocean” and “The One”, Smith’s voice is a compelling vessel of emotion. Such polarities have earned Smith a dedicated audience that only multiplied in the seven-year absence between her debut and She. During that time, Smith toured extensively and honed a tight musical unit. Her musicians give songs like “Shot” and “With You” an extra vigor. However it’s Smith’s voice that pierces the thunderous title track like lightning. All across She, that lightning sparks a radiant, hypnotizing flame. img-1059 Christian John Wikane


Artist: Waxahatchee

Album: Cerulean Salt

Label: Don Giovanni

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Cerulean Salt

Never once does Katie Crutchfield try to reinvent the wheel on Waxahatchee‘s Cerulean Salt. In fact, the singer-songwriter’s short, simple songs use their straightforward nature almost as a blunt instrument, those major and minor chords and minimal beats whittling excess away to lay down the sturdiest possible foundation for her powerful lyrics. By scouring away any unnecessary syllable or imprecise image, Crutchfield made a record quotable from top to bottom, each line a seemingly miraculous bolt of hard-earned, clear-eyed truth. She can open wounds in the same breath as she sutures them, and that’s always been the best catch-22 in pop music. img-1059 Corey Beasley


Artist: Deafheaven

Album: Sunbather

Label: Deathwish, Inc.

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Like or love it, one fact is undeniable about Sunbather, the sophomore LP by the Bay Area-based Deafheaven: this is “post-black metal” taken to the extreme. Whereas metalgaze pioneers Alcest have moved increasingly further away from the realm of metal and into the realms of 4AD dream pop, Deafheaven embraces that shimmering style of pop whilst maintaining a piercing harshness, particularly in the agony-drenched screams of frontman George Clarke. His vocals, which play off all the appropriate Norwegian reference points to signal that Sunbather is indeed black metal (of sorts), are a perfect counterpoint to the beautiful chords and melodies laid down by guitarist Kerry McCoy. Tags like “hipster metal” still get thrown around these days, but if nothing else Sunbather proves just how bleak sunlight on closed eyes truly is. “I want to dream!” Clarke famously bellows at the end of opener “Dream House”. If Deafheaven’s rise to the global metal scene’s forefront is any indication, he and the rest of the band are living it. img-1059 Brice Ezell


Artist: Rhye

Album: Woman

Label: Polydor

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The very existence of Rhye is shrouded in so much mystery that you wouldn’t expect their debut album to be so inviting. But Woman not only lets you in, it wraps its arms around you in a warm, seductive embrace. Mike Milosh’s gorgeous countertenor (which has probably fooled a few listeners already) is one of the great musical discoveries of 2013, and Woman puts him front and center with their killer singles (“Open” and “The Fall”) at the top. The rest of the album is a simple masterpiece, relying on sparse arrangements to rope the listener in. The Sade comparisons have been made, and they’re warranted, but not just for the vocals: Woman is so hook-laden that it could easily be paired alongside Sade’s chart-topping work. Sexy in a way that’s also tasteful, Woman is likely to be a boudoir standby for many years to come. img-1059 Kevin Korber


Artist: Jon Hopkins

Album: Immunity

Label: Domino

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Jon Hopkins

Like all great albums, Immunity unfolds like a story without overtly declaring its intentions. The first half of the London-based producer‘s fourth album feels like a soundtrack to an intense, chilly, hedonistic, and life-changing Saturday night. “Open Eye Signal” is a throbbing, seven-minute symphony that leads itself into the delicate piano touches on “Breathe This Air”. If Immunity‘s first half bounces, jars, and jolts like a party straight out of the nightclub scenes of Trainspotting, the second half is its reflective comedown. Taking cues from Brian Eno (with whom Hopkins has collaborated), the second half of Immunity is filled with beautiful tracks that could almost be dubbed as suites. Despite its length, “Sun Harmonics” never feels meandering. The calm, methodical pacing make the 11 minutes go by like a three-minute pop gem. The final title track brings Immunity to a fitting, almost mournful close. In a year dominated by solid electronic releases, Immunity was the most urgent, immediate, and vital of the bunch. img-1059 Sean McCarthy


Artist: Mikal Cronin

Album: MCII

Label: Merge

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Mikal Cronin

Mikal Cronin took a backseat in 2012 and lent his considerable talents to the Ty Segall tornado that ripped that year apart. 2013 was a much different story, with Segall’s understated but worthwhile acoustic dream, Sleeper, becoming a much less discussed affair than Cronin’s sophomore effort, MCII. In his Merge debut, Cronin let loose so much pop perfection that it ended up defining the summer season. There were hushed acoustic confessions, charged-up barn burners, and even a few moments of complete vulnerability. Whether it was the forward-thinking revivalism of “Weight”, the shape-shifting “Change”, or the anthemic “Shout It Out”, there was no shortage of enthralling moments. All of those moments were effortlessly folded into a myriad of genres and wound up sounding impossibly complete. Everything on display in MCII worked and it was handled with a stunning amount of grace. From the unreasonably strong songwriting to the perfect sequencing, Cronin surpassed every expectation and delivered a masterpiece. img-1059 Steven Spoerl

35 – 26

Artist: The Head and the Heart

Album: Let’s Be Still

Label: Sub Pop

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The Head and the Heart
Let’s Be Still

It may not matter to the casual listener that “Another Story” addresses the Sandy Hook massacre. What matters here is that the grief and hope expressed in that four-minute elegy is a rare gift. With Let’s Be Still, the Head and the Heart deliver a smart and gorgeous follow-up to their remarkable debut album. Given the banality of mainstream country music, it’s a relief that this Seattle band can showcase the depth and power of traditional American music. Brilliant songwriting coupled with the three-part harmonies of Johnson, Thielen, and Russell reveal a sonic alchemy. Just listen to “My Friends” and then sit back in awe at the unearthly beauty that’s rendered. Moments of bliss ring throughout Let’s Be Still. With two albums yielding two lightning strikes, the Head and the Heart have arrived, and not a moment too soon. img-1060 John Grassi


Artist: Pusha T

Album: My Name Is My Name

Label: GOOD Music / Def Jam

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Pusha T
My Name Is My Name

Brothers Gene and Terrence Thornton have taken divergent paths since Clipse began a vague hiatus in 2010. Gene, known professionally as “Malice”, embraced Christianity and changed his name to “No Malice”. Terrence aka “Pusha T” teamed up with GOOD Music and turned his name into a brand. In 2013, each man released a solo album. With Hear Ye Him, No Malice fuses his skill as a rapper with lyrics that reflect his newfound faith, while My Name Is My Name doubles down on Pusha T’s commitment to the street narratives that made him famous. Fellow Virginian Randy Blythe (of Lamb of God) makes a key observation about My Name Is My Name in his praising review for The Talkhouse: “while Pusha’s lyrics are undeniably well written, no matter how metaphorical they are, they’re still primarily about… dealing cocaine.” Blythe is right to identify the moral quandary involved in enjoying the often repellent lyrical content of trap music. But compared to the North American media’s puerile field day surrounding the crack-fueled exploits of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, My Name Is My Name is high art.

Pusha T is the album’s Odysseus-as-Noman, “slaying… by guile and not by force”. The producing roster is full of artists who bring their A-game (Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, The-Dream, Swizz Beats, Sebastian Sartor, Hudson Mohawke, and more), creating beats with mostly sharp corners and a few perfectly deployed melodies. The most effective characteristic of My Name Is My Name is that Pusha T turns an abundance of “guest features” — many hip-hop albums’ kiss of death — into a brilliant parallel line of counterpointing, consequence-laden storytelling. He pushes the weight of the album’s drama onto individuals like Rick Ross, The-Dream, Kendrick Lamar, and Pharrell Williams, all of whom are at the peak of their skill. To share the mic so much on one’s solo debut is a risky move, but Pusha T clearly understands that these stories require more voices and perspectives than his own. BRITT img-1060 Thomas Britt


Artist: The Lone Bellow

Album: The Lone Bellow

Label: Descendant

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The Lone Bellow
The Lone Bellow

These 11 tracks showcase a group that sounds fully developed on its first time out. Some of those moments reflect a gentler acoustic folk, but this is one band that can’t wait to go for the gusto—nearly every song finds them building to aorta-exploding vocal climaxes, the three singers pushing the top of their ranges in often-gorgeous harmonies. Every song here is a showstopper, but the gospel-soul heartbreak of “You Never Need Nobody” is one of the real ringers; starting with a placid piano and a round chorus, the song achieves carnal liftoff, making quite a racket before a gentle landing, although you can’t keep these kids from big-throated belting for long. It’s a terrifically sung affair, but the group also stretches out with country-picking flash and banjo-laced glory. Overall, the Lone Bellow may be tagged this year with inevitable comparisons, but the songs and the performances on their debut are simply too good to need any qualifying. Released in January, The Lone Bellow was the year’s first great Americana album, the one to beat. Nothing else in 2013 ever did. img-1060 Steve Leftridge


Artist: Laura Marling

Album: Once I Was an Eagle

Label: Virgin

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Laura Marling
Once I Was an Eagle

“It’s just about a woman with her clothes on / You take them off, and she’s a girl,” Laura Marling sings on “Where Can I Go?”. Her latest and greatest, Once I Was an Eagle, is effectively an album-length undressing or, more accurately, a removal of emotional armor. Kicking off with a four-song suite, Marling uses the first half of Eagle to flesh out the vague, symbolic theology of A Creature I Don’t Know. The devil turns up in regretted bedmates, mutually predatory relationships, and the defenses that keep us from connecting with others. The latter half is a struggle to banish cynicism and cast off those devilish relationships and tough exteriors. To underscore the transformation, Marling masterfully shifts midway from dark, drone-y alternate tunings and Celt-blues riffing to Laurel Canyon folk. In the five years since her debut, Marling hasn’t made a bad album, but she’s been so good from the outset that her progress has often been too subtle to note. Once I Was an Eagle represents an unmistakeable new high point, though; it’s her strongest set of songs yet, and a conceptually bold and accomplished work in total. img-1060 David Bloom


Artist: Eleanor Friedberger

Album: Personal Record

Label: Merge

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Eleanor Friedberger
Personal Record

The title is a clever play on words — it’s Eleanor Friedberger‘s best recording yet and an album of eccentric, well-told stories and anecdotes from a first-person perspective. It’s also deceptive, as it suggests a one-person show. Personal Record is an album-length collaboration between two songwriters, Friedberger and Wesley Stace (aka John Wesley Harding). It’s an interesting project on that level, especially since Stace’s 2013 album included his versions of some of the songs. Hearing those was illuminating, actually, as his solid but more sedate versions helped illustrate the smart performance decisions at work in making Personal Record the elegant pop-rock gem that it is. It’s a perfect synthesis of wit and emotion, packed full of melody-wrapped ideas about human relationships, memory, romantic illusions and delusions. An album that seems to know more than we do about life, even as the songs are so often about what we don’t and can never know. img-1060 Dave Heaton


Artist: The Devil Makes Three

Album: I’m a Stranger Here

Label: New West

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The Devil Makes Three
I’m a Stranger Here

The Devil Makes Three have been together since 2002, but it wasn’t until 2011’s excellent live album Stomp and Smash that the band really started to attract attention. Similarly, it wasn’t until this year’s I’m a Stranger Here that the band put together a great studio album. Their three previous studio records all featured good songwriting from frontman Pete Bernhard, but the production kept the band firmly mired in “you’ve really gotta see them live to understand” territory. With veteran roots musician Buddy Miller on board as producer, I’m a Stranger Here crackles with as much energy as the band’s live show.

The album runs through an array of acoustic styles, but Bernhard’s distinct vocals and lyrical outlook make the record feel cohesive. Thus the Preservation Hall Jazz Band-assisted call and response of “Forty Days” isn’t too far away from the classic country stomper “Hallelu”, since the two share a Biblical appreciation served with a side of suspicion for those who purport to follow its teachings. The down and dirty blues of “Worse or Better” sits comfortably next to the bright and bouncy “Spinning Like a Top” because both songs share a rueful nostalgia for being young and making bad decisions. For his part, Miller knows exactly when to sweeten the trio’s sound with touches both subtle (kick drum and snare doubling the bass and rhythm guitar) and overt (electric guitar and fiddle solos) without pulling the focus off of the band itself. The end result is an album that’s both smart and a hell of a lot of fun. img-1060 Chris Conaton


Artist: OMD

Album: English Electric

Label: BMG

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English Electric

The best OMD work has always combined ebullient, ultra-catchy pop songs with more somber experimental material. And it has also explored a paradox. The British act take a highly skeptical view of the technology wrought by the modern world. Yet they use that very technology to augment their live instruments with ethereal, often haunting pulses and tones. All of those key elements were evident on English Electric, the band’s second post-reunion album. It wasn’t perfect, sounding too digital at times, but with good songs, good ideas, and strong vocals from Andy McCluskey, it was the best OMD in nearly two decades. English Electric was a timely reminder of just how human synth-pop can be, and of the difficulty of maintaining that humanity in a microchip-driven age. img-1060 John Bergstrom


Artist: Arctic Monkeys

Album: AM

Label: Domino

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Arctic Monkeys

With AM Arctic Monkeys have rejuvenated their image, changing from teenage rockers, to a more mature sounding band. It’s clear from the songs that the band are in a different place, emotionally, musically and intellectually. The sound is bigger and more complex, and a wide range of influences shine through, from their time in America, the production of Josh Homme, and the music of Aaliyah. Yet with all this going on it still sounds effortless. While this album is a clear shift in style from their earlier albums, there are certain things that haven’t changed such as Alex Turner’s fixation on women and love, which are dominating themes in AM. They’re topics which have been done to death, time and time again, but Turner’s gorgeous lyrics means it sounds far from tiring. In all, this album is a stunning piece of work, and is arguably one of the best albums of 2013. img-1060 Francesca D’Arcy-Orga


Artist: Queens of the Stone Age

Album: …Like Clockwork

Label: Matador

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Queens of the Stone Age
…Like Clockwork

It’s about time… Queens of the Stone Age began recording …Like Clockwork just after the 20th anniversary of Blues for the Red Sun, the influential second album of Josh Homme’s former band Kyuss. While recording in an anniversary year might have no material significance, …Like Clockwork is the first QOTSA album that could be described (stylistically) as blues for the red sun. John Newton’s “While with Ceaseless Course the Sun” is among the least likely source material/precursors I would ever predict for an album by QOTSA, but …Like Clockwork is practically an extended meditation on that hymn’s themes. The album sheds the hard charging style of previous career highlight Songs for the Deaf, favoring introspection to speed and muscle. Homme closes the first song by intoning “Praise God / Nothing is as it seems”, which hints at the depth of the album to come. The layers of guitar are expressive as ever, but the production is considerably more haunted. Homme is unexpectedly open with his emotions, repeatedly invoking God and contemplating the meaning of time. Even a chorus of famous guests like Trent Reznor and Elton John are treated as ephemeral — momentarily distinguishable within the mix and then gone. There are traces of the recognizable QOTSA humor (see “Smooth Sailing”), yet it proves to be the weakest material on the album. The title of …Like Clockwork is also understood to be an ironic assessment of the album’s troubled recording history. But the album’s blues, and its view of the setting sun, are no jokes at all. img-1060 Thomas Britt


Artist: Ashley Monroe

Album: Like a Rose

Label: Warner Bros.

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Ashley Monroe
Like a Rose

Ashley Monroe’s 2007, make that 2009, debut album Satisfied was pushed back and then quietly released, digitally. It was a smart, funny collection of country songs traditional and modern at once. Two great albums with Pistol Annies solidified that impression while introducing her to new audiences. This year’s Like a Rose, to most listeners her solo debut, went beyond all of those in acquainting us with one of country music’s most exciting young artists. It’s a short, succinct album, but Like a Rose crosses a lot of territory. The songs are soaked in alcohol, desperation and moments of levity, like the song about wanting weed for Valentine’s Day instead of roses. Her heartbreaking ballads cut deepest, like the rueful “The Morning After” and “She’s Driving Me Out of Your Mind” — absolute classic country material delivered by a singer hitting her stride. img-1060 Dave Heaton

25 – 16

Artist: Palma Violets

Album: 180

Label: Rough Trade

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Palma Violets

It seems like every four to eight years Britain produces a new band full of youthful vigor that drops a debut record and sets the music world on fire. In 2002, it was the Libertines’ Up the Bracket, in 2006 in was Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever You Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, and now, in 2013, it’s Palma Violets180. There’s a lingering darkness running through these 11 tracks that’s reminiscent of early Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and ensures the songs don’t just get stuck in the listeners head but genuinely stay with them as well. From the brilliant opening track (one of last years best singles) “Best of Friends” to the defiantly ramshackle closing “14”, Palma Violets have crafted a stunning debut record that should put the world on notice. There’s a confident swagger permeating 180 that recalls the Replacements in their most drunken (and outrageously fun) state, a sound and style that hits all the sweet spots, and the chops to make it work against all odds. This is one of 2013’s most necessary debuts. Palma Violets have hit the ground running at full speed, it’ll be entertaining watching the world tripping over themselves in a vain effort to try and keep up. img-1061 Steven Spoerl


Artist: Tegan and Sara

Album: Heartthrob

Label: Warner Bros.

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Tegan and Sara

I don’t think anyone saw this big of a game-changing jump in sound and style from this Canadian duo on their 7th(!) studio album. Superbly executed and surprisingly divisive among the most loyal fanbase, Heartthrob sees a formerly alt-rock combo switch guitars in for synthesizers, honing their lyrics into more cohesive and understandable prose, and removing themselves from the comfort zones enough to produce their freshest sound ever. While Tegan and Sara never started out as a formidable act, they stuck with it, learned the game and how to improve their songwriting abilities, showcasing these ever-growing strengths with each new album. Heartthrob with its pounding rhythms, catchy, head-bopping riffs, and irresistible melodies, proves what a group can do when they don’t allow themselves to become too complacent. Not only is it their best album to date, but one of the best of the year. img-1061 Enio Chiola


Artist: Bastille

Album: Bad Blood

Label: EMI / Virgin

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Bad Blood

With the two parts of the cover mixtape Other People’s Heartache, Bastille wowed the world with its ability to craft a unique voice through the voices of others, transforming the works of Seal, Corona, and Lana Del Rey, amongst others, into micro-epic pop gems. Bad Blood finds Bastille establishing its own voice, spread across 12 songs that emphasize passionate vocals, stadium-echoing synths, and apocalyptic lyricism. There’s talk of decaying streets, ancient myth, and things being forever lost to the flames; if frontman Dan Smith’s sincerity is actually true, then by the sound of things we’ve only got a little bit longer in this world. But Bad Blood, more than anything else, reveals that in moments of desperation and despair, it’s the power of music that can transcend such struggle. That Bastille has connected with the public in such a big way following the album’s infectious lead single “Pompeii” is indicative of the fact that our world, plagued with recessionary economies and war-tired populaces, has found a way to channel its existential pains in these triumphant pop songs. There may still be reasons to be cynical about popular music in 2013, but if bands like Bastille continue to rise to prominence, one might not have reason to complain for much longer. img-1061 Brice Ezell


Artist: Chance the Rapper

Album: Acid Rap

Label: Self-released

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Chance the Rapper
Acid Rap

From the soul orgy of the wonderfully titled “Good Ass Intro”, you can tell Chance listens to The College Dropout, and from the bipartite “Pusha Man” to the family-oriented outro of closer “Everything’s Good,” you can tell he listens to good kid, m.A.A.d. city, but Chance the Rapper doesn’t have the grandiosity of Kanye West or the narrative power of Kendrick Lamar. He’s different. He strings rhymes together in a stream-of-consciousness style that have no business being next to each other (“Chuck E. Cheese’s pizzas, Jesus pieces, sing Jesus love me”) that seem to have no meaning other than sounding cool. He bounces off the walls in the recording studio, yipping randomly as if to showcase how happy or high he is that the music is happening. From the title, people will think it’s nothing more than drugged out rap, but they’ll miss all the lines pertinent to Gen-Y: “Put Visine inside my eyes so my grandma would fucking hug me,” “Daddy wouldn’t let you, if he ever met me / If he ever met you,” “Everybody’s dying in the summer, so pray to God for a little more spring,” “What’s better than following is falling in love,” etc. If this mixtape is his Section.80, one can only imagine what is good kid will be. img-1061 Marshall Gu


Artist: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Album: Push the Sky Away

Label: Bad Seed Ltd.

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Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Push the Sky Away

It’s hard to remember now, but between the dissolution of mustachioed alter-ego Grinderman and the exit of longtime guitarist Mick Harvey, the Bad Seeds’ future seemed entirely uncertain a year or two ago. So, taking Harvey’s departure as a mandate to refocus the project around Warren Ellis’s violin and sparse, insistent loops, Cave disappeared into a 19th century mansion in France and reemerged with Push the Sky Away, an eerie, latter-period masterpiece that pushes the Bad Seeds well into moodier textures without retreading the candid piano balladry of The Boatman’s Call and No More Shall We Part. A richly assembled patchwork of noir-rock buildups (“Jubilee Street”), menacing loops (“We Real Cool”, with a pounding bassline nicked from Your Funeral, My Trial), and vivid, babbling blues (“Higgs Boson Blues”), the LP bears hints of the Bad Seeds’ colorful discography (Barry Adamson, for one, has rejoined after 20-something years) without sounding quite like anything that has come before it, emboldened by Cave’s lyrical fixations with the mystical frontiers of the Internet. img-1061 Zach Schonfeld


Artist: Okkervil River

Album: The Silver Gymnasium

Label: ATO

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Okkervil River
The Silver Gymnasium

The story of The Silver Gymnasium is an interesting one: towards the end of recording I Am Very Far, frontman Will Sheff drove to his tiny hometown of Meriden, New Hampshire, turning up unannounced to the place he knew the best. What that solitary trip taught him, he told NPR, was to balance the uncertainty of death with a heavy dose of life. I Am Very Far, a statement of nothingness, looked at life’s final moments in the abstract, its demons of death out of sight and scarier for it, but The Silver Gymnasium is named for something real — the high-school Sheff attended — and looks at one’s earliest days with a keen and clear eye. It distills the walking dream that is being a kid as a chillier real-life story; it can be told, because it’s happened. That makes for no happier a story than the murder ballads we listen to. It remembers pain as it hit, or takes the glory of a perfect song by Hall & Oates and makes it sound like adulthood. The Silver Gymnasium is about death, in that way; it’s about the death of idealism. If it has a life-lesson to teach, it’s that a photograph is just an excuse for the phenomena: “We can never go back, we can only remember.” img-1061 Robin Smith


Artist: Arcade Fire

Album: Reflektor

Label: Merge

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Arcade Fire

Making a dance-rock album has become a commonplace indie band move, generally greeted with more polite approval than veering into disco in the ’70s. As such, Arcade Fire‘s Reflektor may not seem all that bold on first listen. Its first track, single, and title song sound like, well, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy producing Arcade Fire, with an extended running time, a stark groove, and repetitive lyrics. But the album sprawls out from there — fitting for a record that takes some of its cues from “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, a standout track from their Grammy-winning album The Suburbs. In fact, Reflektor sprawls across two discs, and doesn’t stick with dance epics. It sounds, by turns, like Neil Young (the second half of “Awful Sound”), punk rock (the first bit of “Joan of Arc”), reggae (“Here Comes the Night Time”), and sort of like the Arcade Fire of yore (“Afterlife”), itself a terrific synthesis of influences. If it’s less emotionally rich or evocative than Funeral, it seems by design. It’s more like a hall of mirrors: shimmering, weird, endless. img-1061 Jesse Hassenger


Artist: Phosphorescent

Album: Muchacho

Label: Dead Oceans

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Phosphorescent‘s Muchacho achieves the kind of spiritual transcendence promised in an Emerson poem. The album, Matthew Houck’s (aka Phosphorescent) first since 2010’s Here’s to Taking It Easy, is a magical collection of sounds. It chronicles Houck’s experiences promoting his 2010 album, and the pain, exhaustion, and confusion he felt afterward. “Song for Zula” is among the most heartbreaking laments in recent memory, full of regret, despair, and longing for love’s passing. It’s the standout track, and the most accomplished recording in Houck’s career. Much of Muchacho is intensely sad and personal as Houck came to terms with a break-up and drug and alcohol abuse. However, there is redemption to be found in the album’s bookend songs, “Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, An Introduction)” and “Sun’s Arising (A Koan, An Exit)”. It is clear that Houck finds healing in his music, and as listeners, we are better for it. img-1061 Jon Lisi


Artist: Autre Ne Veut

Album: Anxiety

Label: Mexican Summer

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Autre Ne Veut

Anxiety is like the weird, sweaty guy at a party who won’t stop talking to you. For some reason, you won’t stop listening. Arthur Ashin‘s sophomore release is audacious in its grasp for its listener’s attention, and all the more complimentary for it. At 37 minutes, Anxiety promises not to overstay its welcome, but what it has to say in that brief period is more impactful than many R&B releases of this day and age. An existentialist tract disguised as an eccentric slow jam album, Anxiety may defy expectations of what you’re wanting and expecting to hear (see fear-of-a-relative’s-mortality song “Counting” cloaked in booty call artifice), but it probably taps into your subconscious in a gloriously deceptive way. Anxiety may not have had the same impact as Frank Ocean’s 2012 masterpiece channel ORANGE, but it earns its own accolades as a gutsy and successful move in expanding the range of R&B. img-1061 Maria Schurr


Artist: Savages

Album: Silence Yourself

Label: Matador / Pop Noire

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Silence Yourself

Savages was a group that most people heard about before they actually heard their music. Or more fairly, people heard about hearing them before they heard them. The British band’s live show was legendary, almost as much for its anti-electronic missives as for its visceral power and magnetism. Like so many well-hyped new bands of the past, there was a risk that the actual debut album would turn out to be a letdown. This seemed specially likely given how firmly rooted in recognizable British post-punk touchstones Silence Yourself is. But while a cursory listen might smack heavily of last decade’s Wire and Joy Division fetishes, in reality those obvious influences are only a starting point. It’s hard to think of a recent album that’s a grippingly physical as Silence Yourself. Alyse Hassan’s bass steals the show with meaty, almost-gravitational riffs that draw Fay Milton’s pugilistic drums and Gemma Thompson’s excoriating guitar spasms inexorably into their orbit. On top of this, Jehnny Beth provides lyrics just as blunt or impact as the music. Whether it’s the subversive misdirection in “Hit Me”, the uncoiled societal angst of “Husbands” or the twisted playfulness of “Marshal Dear”, Beth consistently tweaks listener expectations. Though the Savages didn’t arrived fully-formed on Silence Yourself, on it they revealed the depths of both their ambition and potential. img-1061 John Tryneski

15 – 6

Artist: John Wizards

Album: John Wizards

Label: Planet Mu

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John Wizards
John Wizards

Loopy, buoyant, melancholy, joyous, playful, ecstatic are all appropriate adjectives to describe the glorious self-titled debut album from South African and Rwandan collective John Wizards. Although there are an abundance of distinctive tracks with personalities all of their own, John Wizards is a record that should be listened to from beginning until end. Indeed, I find it extremely difficult to press stop once this record gets going. Once you hit that play button, you are gone; swept away by some preternatural sub-Saharan zephyr, out into the imagination of these remarkable musicians. Falling in love with John Wizards is like meeting an actual human being, like getting to know a best friend you did not know you had until you meet them waiting for the bus one day. As delightfully bizarre and psychedelic as John Wizards often is, this record is simultaneously so deeply human, so warm and relatable. This record is about friendship and joy, and that message roils in the listener’s guts like good wine. img-1062 Benjamin Hedge Olson


Artist: Tim Hecker

Album: Virgins

Label: Kranky

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Tim Hecker

Virgins is an album based on space and contrast. That’s fairly common for an album that crosses the line between drone and ambient, but the way that Tim Hecker can create a song that seems to fill up grand halls only to give way to musical claustrophobia is remarkable. “Virginal” opens with clattering piano and is then overwhelmed by massive and rumbling bass bowings. “Stigmata I” rolls forth with fuzzy and cacophonous keyboard lines before its brother track “Stigmata II” puts forth strange and meditative pulses of sound. There are times, especially during album center piece “Live Room”, that Hecker’s alien production even seems to invade the other senses. In the space of 48 minutes Hecker creates something that is simultaneously beautiful and repulsive; a gorgeous album that is often defined by its most ugly moments. Above all it’s an album that, once it worms its way into your subconscious, will never let go. img-1062 Nathan Stevens


Artist: Kacey Musgraves

Album: Same Trailer, Different Park

Label: Mercury Nashville

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Kacey Musgraves
Same Trailer, Different Park

Where were you the first time you heard “Merry Go ‘Round”, the lead single from Kacey Musgraves’ first major label release? I certainly remember. I was at my desk, reading through my Facebook feed, and I saw that the terrific music writer Jody Rosen was rhapsodizing over the song. So, I clicked the link. And I sat back, as I expect everyone does, pulled in by that dreamy banjo theme. And then, she sang: “If you ain’t got two kids by 21 / You’re probably going to die alone / At least that’s what tradition told you.” By now I was leaning forward. This, I knew, was it. Perhaps the most thoughtful record to hit mainstream country this year — although high marks go to Brad Paisley for swinging at those fences, even if he fell a bit short — this deeply rewarding album matches one killer vocal and instrumental performance after another with compelling, biting, sometimes devastating social commentary. At every turn, these 12 songs (all co-written by Musgraves) take on trailer park commonsense with the sympathy of the insider and the clarity of the dispassionate observer. To borrow a phrase: Think Lucinda Williams. Think Randy Newman. Think Todd Snider. Think. img-1062 Stuart Henderson


Artist: The National

Album: Trouble Will Find Me

Label: 4AD

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The National
Trouble Will Find Me

How does a band follow-up an impressive record such as 2010’s High Violet, an album with such a definite arc to it (each successive song is usually better than the one before it) that it practically lords itself over the rest of the group’s discography? Well, maybe that task was impossible, but the National clearly didn’t lose the plot with Trouble Will Find Me, an arguably much darker affair than its predecessor. The record is a grower, but there’s much reward to be found, particularly on the harrowing first single “Sea of Love” and the Elliott Smith-quoting “Fireproof”. Trouble Will Find Me ultimately is fodder for another question: namely, have the National ever turned in a bad record? Trouble Will Find Me is yet another great album from a great band, and one can only wonder how the National will follow this one up. img-1062 Zachary Houle


Artist: Janelle Monáe

Album: The Electric Lady

Label: Atlantic

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Janelle Monáe
The Electric Lady

105.5 WDRD should be awarded “tastemaker of 2013”, for it’s the radio station that debuted “Dance Apocalyptic”. However, anyone plugged into The Electric Lady knows that WDRD is exclusive to the “electro-sophista-funky-cated” world that android #57821 Cindi Mayweather occupies in Metropolis. (They also know that it’s really the year 2719 in Mayweather’s reality.) Whether in the 21st or 28th centuries, The Electric Lady is a tour de force and an important benchmark in the career of an artist whose musical depth and artistic breadth grows with every new release. “Categorize me, I defy every label,” Janelle Monáe sings on “Q.U.E.E.N”. Indeed, it’s one of many true statements she makes on The Electric Lady. The rebel yell and incendiary guitar solo of “Give ‘Em What They Love” seem a galaxy apart from the cosmic, incandescent grooves on “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”. Even the interludes, usually the most interminable pieces of any long form album, are essential listening. They provide an amusing yet searing commentary on both the 28th and the 21st centuries. “Y’all make me so proud,” our heroine sings on the title track. Ms. Monáe, we’ve been following Cindi Mayweather since 2007 and we offer you the same praise in return. img-1062 Christian John Wikane


Artist: My Bloody Valentine

Album: m b v

Label: Self-released

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My Bloody Valentine
m b v

Everything is here, now, in its right place. Twenty-one years later, My Blood Valentine haven’t missed a step. Not a single dissonant chord, brittle tremolo riff, or glass encapsulated vocal line is out of sync. To call m b v the year’s most anticipated release is to diminish the mythology that accompanies it. Annually, we discard albums with the regularity of moldy fruit, but m b v won’t be denied its place in our heads. We can’t let it go so soon. We’ve waited too long for this. And it would have been easy to give m b v high marks just because it appeared, seemingly out of nowhere one Saturday night after decades of being written off as a ghost story. But Kevin Shields and company fulfilled our every belated promise, every unknown intention, every space in our hearts with their sound, and made good on their effort to give us a proper sequel to Loveless in m b v. Don’t stop now, guys and girls. We’ll wait here as long as it takes. img-1062 Scott Elingburg


Artist: Haim

Album: Days Are Gone

Label: Columbia

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Days Are Gone

With a healthy dose of power-pop punch and just the right sugary touch, Haim‘s tightly-crafted instrumentation and hook-driven harmonies are incredibly irresistible. But, what elevates the three sisters — Danielle, Este and Alana Haim — to the next level on their highly-anticipated debut LP, Days Are Gone, is that they exceed the sum of their parts. Este’s funky bass lines and freewheeling backing vocals give them an R&B edge, Danielle’s silvery guitar riffs and focused vocals evoke ’80s art pop, while little sister and jack-of-all-trades Alana provides serious depth. Drummer Dash Hutton acts as the glue, although all three sisters contribute percussion, which adds serious spine to their sound, reassuring listeners that they’re not afraid to flex a little muscle. And, for as intricate and calculated as they are, Haim has the cool and collected charisma — almost to the point of not knowing or caring how good they are — that make their personalities as affable as their music. img-1062 Scott Recker



Album: The Bones of What You Believe

Label: Glassnote / Virgin / Goodbye

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The Bones of What You Believe

It’s the kind of record that makes you excited about music again. After what seemed like years of waiting, this Scottish trio CHVRCHES offered up their debut full-length in 2013 and not a second of it disappointed. With more sugar than a Halloween bag and a lead singer as subversive as she is talented, The Bones of What You Believe was all anybody could ask: Interesting, fresh, simple and unforgettable. Picking best moments are impossible. “The Mother We Share” crosses over into a special type of accessibility while songs like “Recover”, “Lungs” and “Gun” are lost gems in a year filled with unforeseen stellar releases. Somebody wrote about the possibility of Bones being too much of a good thing, and that assessment couldn’t be more wrong. Because when you put out a record this promising, the only thing missing is more. Chalked full of pastry-chef hooks, moody undertones and a 95-pound Leader To Be Reckoned With, this record might be the most expectedly unexpected breakout set of 2013, the letter “u” be damned. It’s not great; it’s brilliant. img-1062 Colin McGuire


Artist: Daft Punk

Album: Random Access Memories

Label: Columbia

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Daft Punk
Random Access Memories

In Daft Punk‘s first non-soundtrack album since 2005’s Human After All, the robotic duo proposed, right up front, to “Give Life Back to Music”. And indeed they did. Scoring the biggest album of their career both commercially and critically, Random Access Memories is a big sopping love letter to the dance music sounds of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, roping in old guard names to perform on the disc such as Chic frontman Nile Rodgers, disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder, and singer-songwriter Paul Williams. However, as much as the disc is a vintage throwback, it also looks to the current indie, dance and alternative rock environment by featuring additional guests such as Panda Bear (Animal Collective), Chilly Gonzales, Julian Casablancas (The Strokes) and, of course, Pharrell Williams, whose vocals adorn “Get Lucky”, the ubiquitous single from the summer of 2013. Random Access Memories may be a departure in sound from previous outings, but it’s the “sound of the future”, to quote from Moroder’s spoken word bit on the biographical sketch “Giorgio by Moroder”, as much as it is of the past, and is both a work of art and something you can shake your money-maker to. That’s a feat that is quite astonishing and makes Random Access Memories not only one of the best dance music albums of the year, but one of the all-around best, period. img-1062 Zachary Houle


Artist: Kanye West

Album: Yeezus

Label: Def Jam

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Kanye West

Yeezus isn’t just an album. It’s an experience. Four minutes in and you know you’re listening to something unlike any other album this year: primal screams, electronic fuzz, schizophrenic synths, warm soul samples, human-breath percussion, and enough bass to set off any seismograph in a 10-mile radius, all over some of the most vicious bars Kanye West has spit in years. On Yeezus, Kanye raps with a hunger that shows he still feels he has something to prove, that he’s trying to make a self-fulfilling prophecy when he says he’s “the only rapper compared to Michael [Jackson]”. Yeezus is exhilarating, confounding, intriguing, and overwhelming in its artistry. It’s immaculately produced, incredibly entertaining, and a little bit controversial, but the day Kanye West releases an album without any controversy is the same day that his seemingly endless winning streak is finally over. img-1062 Adam Finley

5 – 1

Artist: Jason Isbell

Album: Southeastern

Label: Southeastern

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Jason Isbell

After cutting his teeth with celebrated Southern-rockers the Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell struck out on his own, releasing three respectable, well-received albums, but nothing that had the potent energy of his Drive-By Truckers-era gems like “Outfit” or “Decoration Day”. However, with his fourth album, Southeastern, a newly-sober Isbell gives us his best solo work yet. That sounds like a tried and true rock ‘n’ roll tale, but to describe Southeastern as his “sober” album is really to sell this first-rate collection short. In fact, it’s Isbell’s storytelling, not his sobriety, that has the spotlight here, as he slips deftly from one narrative voice another, from a killer on the lam in “Live Oak” to a man whose drinking buddy is dying of cancer in “Elephant”. And even the one song openly dealing with his addiction, “Cover Me Up”, sidesteps the pitfall of self-pity and ends up damn near close to perfect. img-1063 Taylor Coe


Artist: Disclosure

Album: Settle

Label: Island

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The instant-classic hype around brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence‘s full-length debut Settle places it next to Chemical Brothers’ Surrender, Basement Jaxx’s Rooty, and Daft Punk’s Discovery in the pantheon of that rarest of birds, the electronic crossover hit. But where those albums and their canonized kin were confrontations in a rockist world, Settle is cool and calm with no underarm wetness, a cocksure amalgam of 2-step textures, micro-house thrift, and furtively foolproof hooks. Since getting at the tailbone through the solar plexus is the club-rat lingua franca these days, it’s really only natural that the grazing of hipbones and undulant waists envisaged by Disclosure’s bass-first, drums-second method would hail a second coming. Whether or not it really is can be left to the chinstrokers; with dance tracks this deep, this funky, this finely tuned to mechanics of endorphin release, no ass will know the difference. img-1063 Benjamin Aspray


Artist: The Knife

Album: Shaking the Habitual

Label: Mute

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The Knife
Shaking the Habitual

Shaking the Habitual might be a complex, difficult, multi-layered listen, but there’s at least one way the Knife is being completely direct on its latest opus: the album’s title says everything that needs to be about the album’s raison d’être. Getting you out of your comfort zone — be it musically, politically, socially speaking — is the Knife’s stated intention, something the sibling duo of Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer accomplishes by combining theory and practice to make button-pushing theses potent as both manifestos and sing-along refrains. Indeed, Shaking the Habitual is a turn of phrase that applies equally to the listening experience the 90-minute set inspires and to the group that made it: Maybe you thought of the Knife as an electronic band before, so what do you make of the warm, natural elements (particularly the rich, tribal percussion) on an album where the organic parts stand out as much as its synthetic pleasures? And while pop isn’t a description that readily comes to mind with these iconoclastic experimenters, there’s no denying that there are moments here that grab you viscerally like chart-toppers from another dimension, especially the subliminal grooves of “Full of Fire” and the theatrical yearning of the Björk-ian “Wrap Your Arms Around Me”. What the Knife has achieved on Shaking the Habitual is not only to break down commonplaces, but also create a new vocabulary for a new musical syntax. img-1063 Arnold Pan


Artist: Neko Case

Album: The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You

Label: Anti-

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Neko Case
The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You

Whenever Neko Case finds time to put out a solo record, it’s a guarantee that it will be idiosyncratic and fascinating. The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You is no exception. Portions of the album reflect the gothic alt-country sound that she made her name on, while others are miles removed from that genre classification. The latter category includes songs like the fierce and funny “Man”, which approaches melodic punk. The a cappella story song “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” finds Case displaying disgust and sympathy in equal measure for a mother who was unspeakably mean to her child in public. The catchy “City Swans” is the closest Case has ever come to the baroque power-pop style of her other band, The New Pornographers, and excellent closer “Ragtime” rides a “Sweet Jane” bassline into a horn-laden celebration. Meanwhile, tracks like the contemplative opener “Wild Creatures” and the built-in sing along “Night Still Comes” find Case exploring different sides of her more traditional style. The quiet “I’m From Nowhere” is a hell of a country ballad, while the rousing “Bracing for Sunday” contains the album’s best couplet: “I only ever held one love / Her name was Mary Ann / She died having a child from her brother / He died because I murdered him.” This is top-notch material from a great musician. img-1063 Chris Conaton


Artist: Vampire Weekend

Album: Modern Vampires of the City

Label: XL

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Vampire Weekend
Modern Vampires of the City

Vampire Weekend‘s third album is mostly slow songs, thick with religious imagery — shut up, not like the Avett Brothers! Let’s try this: I defy you to find another album on this list with more beautiful drum sounds. Recall the explosive snare fills in semi-hit “Diane Young”. They’re worlds away from the dry gallop that propels “Worship You”, and neither song approaches the tape-manipulated boom-bap of “Step”. You could spend a lovely afternoon nodding your head to Chris Tomson’s drum parts, curled up with music tech magazines and horchata. But after a while, other elements would start creeping into your mind. “Step”, for instance, appropriates culture from Oakland rappers Souls of Mischief and Johann “the original Nuremberg trial” Pachelbel, an unexpected pairing that sounds great together, i.e. the story of this album, and that goes double for Ezra Koenig’s God lyrics. No doubt youth groups and/or music writers (**cough**) are hunkering down to write theological exegeses of Modern Vampires‘ spiritual themes, and God bless ‘em, but they oughtn’t neglect the precisely calculated musical effects of sonic mastermind Rostam Batmanglij. The album’s nine-ten punch of “Worship You” and “Ya Hey” mixes worship language, simple tunes, and unexpected timbres to trigger whichever brain center gets off on needing the divine. These guys probe brain lobes for a living, and they know exactly what they’re doing. img-1063 Josh Langhoff

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