35. 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. – John Grassi
34. 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. – Thomas Britt
33. The Lone Bellow – The Lone Bellow
These 11 tracks showcase a group that sounds fully developed on their 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. – Steve Leftridge
32. 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, droney 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. – David Bloom
31. 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. – Dave Heaton
30. 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. – Chris Conaton
29. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – 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, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark‘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 synthpop can be and of the difficulty of maintaining that humanity in a microchip-driven age. – John Bergstrom
28. Arctic Monkeys – AM
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 that have been done to death, time and time again, but Turner’s gorgeous lyrics mean 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. – Francesca D’Arcy-Orga
27. 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 their 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 as 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. – Thomas Britt
26. 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. – Dave Heaton