Music

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. 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. Alan Ranta

 
Artist: Chelsea Wolfe

Album: Pain Is Beauty

Label: Sargent House

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List number: 73

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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. 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. 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. 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. Eric Goldberg

 
Artist: Jagwar Ma

Album: Howlin'

Label: Mom + Pop

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Jagwar Ma
Howlin'

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. 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. Sachyn Mital

 
Artist: Washed Out

Album: Paracosm

Label: Sub Pop

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Washed Out
Paracosm

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. Rob Caldwell

 
Artist: Superchunk

Album: I Hate Music

Label: Merge

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Superchunk
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. Stephen Haag

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


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Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

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