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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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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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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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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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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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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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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