45. 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 their debut LP, Major Arcana, which has the DNA of the 1990s 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 asserting itself as an album that thrives on being informed by its influences rather than dominated by them. – Cole Waterman
44. James Blake – Overgrown
James Blake‘s songs always seem 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 in “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 the ways our emotions change, sometimes subtly and sometimes loudly, always without warning. – David Grossman
43. 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 pushes 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. – Adam Finley
42. 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 pin-drop-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. – Robin Smith
41. Alice Smith – She
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. – Christian John Wikane
40. Waxahatchee – 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. – Corey Beasley
39. Deafheaven – Sunbather
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 embrace 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, 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 the 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. – Brice Ezell
38. Rhye – Woman
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. – Kevin Korber
37. Jon Hopkins – Immunity
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 makes 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. – Sean McCarthy
36. Mikal Cronin – MCII
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. – Steven Spoerl