The Top 10 Pleasant Surprise Albums of 2013

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

With every year, there are the records that you look forward to most, and inevitably, there are some that fail to live up to your expectations. To counterbalance the set of disappointing albums, there are those that you probably barely noticed at first, or ones that you thought nothing of upon release that slowly but surely knocked your socks off. Compiled by the staff at PopMatters, here is the list of the most surprising albums of 2013. Enio Chiola

Artist: Hayden

Album: Us Alone

Label: Arts & Crafts


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List Number: 10

Us Alone

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

Artist: My Bloody Valentine

Album: m b v

Label: self-released


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List Number: 9

My Bloody Valentine
m b v

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

Artist: Vampire Weekend

Album: Modern Vampires of the City

Label: XL


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List Number: 8

Vampire Weekend
Modern Vampires of the City

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

Artist: Icona Pop

Album: This Is Icona Pop

Label: Big Beat/WEA


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List Number: 7

Icona Pop
This Is Icona Pop

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

Artist: Darkstar

Album: News from Nowhere

Label: Warp


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List Number: 6

News from Nowhere

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

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