best albums of 2013

The 75 Best Albums of 2013

Jump back a decade and revisit the best albums of 2013, a year that saw the debuts of major female artists Kacey Musgraves, CHVRCHES, Haim, and Savages.

25. Palma Violets – 180

It seems like every four to eight years, Britain produces a new band full of youthful vigor that drops a debut record and sets the music world on fire. In 2002, it was the Libertines’ Up the Bracket; in 2006, it was Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever You Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. In 2013, it was Palma Violets180. There’s a lingering darkness running through these 11 tracks that’s reminiscent of early Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and ensures the songs don’t just get stuck in the listeners’ heads but genuinely stay with them as well. From the brilliant opening track (one of 2012’s best singles) “Best of Friends” to the defiantly ramshackle closing “14”, Palma Violets have crafted a stunning debut record that should put the world on notice.

There’s a confident swagger permeating 180 that recalls the Replacements in their most drunken (and outrageously fun) state, a sound and style that hits all the sweet spots, and the chops to make it work against all odds. This is one of 2013’s most necessary debuts. Palma Violets have hit the ground running at full speed, it’ll be entertaining watching the world tripping over themselves in a vain effort to try and keep up. – Steven Spoerl

24. Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob

I don’t think anyone saw this big of a game-changing jump in sound and style from this Canadian duo on their seventh studio album. Superbly executed and surprisingly divisive among the most loyal fanbase, Heartthrob sees a formerly alt-rock combo switch guitars in for synthesizers, honing their lyrics into more cohesive and understandable prose, and removing themselves from the comfort zones enough to produce their freshest sound ever. While Tegan and Sara never started out as a formidable act, they stuck with it, learned the game and how to improve their songwriting abilities, showcasing these ever-growing strengths with each new album. Heartthrob, with its pounding rhythms, catchy, head-bopping riffs, and irresistible melodies, proves what a group can do when they don’t allow themselves to become too complacent. Not only is it their best album to date, but one of the best of the year. – Enio Chiola

23. Bastille – Bad Blood

With the two parts of the cover mixtape Other People’s Heartache, Bastille wowed the world with its ability to craft a unique voice through the voices of others, transforming the works of Seal, Corona, and Lana Del Rey, amongst others, into micro-epic pop gems. Bad Blood finds Bastille establishing its own voice, spread across 12 songs that emphasize passionate vocals, stadium-echoing synths, and apocalyptic lyricism. There’s talk of decaying streets, ancient myth, and things being forever lost to the flames; if frontman Dan Smith’s sincerity is actually true, then by the sound of things, we’ve only got a little bit longer in this world.

But Bad Blood, more than anything else, reveals that in moments of desperation and despair, it’s the power of music that can transcend such struggle. That Bastille has connected with the public in such a big way following the album’s infectious lead single “Pompeii” is indicative of the fact that our world, plagued with recessionary economies and war-tired populaces, has found a way to channel its existential pains in these triumphant pop songs. There may still be reasons to be cynical about popular music in 2013, but if bands like Bastille continue to rise to prominence, one might not have reason to complain for much longer. – Brice Ezell

22. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap

From the soul orgy of the wonderfully titled “Good Ass Intro”, you can tell Chance listens to The College Dropout, and from the bipartite “Pusha Man” to the family-oriented outro of closer “Everything’s Good,” you can tell he listens to good kid, m.A.A.d. city, but Chance the Rapper doesn’t have the grandiosity of Kanye West or the narrative power of Kendrick Lamar. He’s different. He strings rhymes together in a stream-of-consciousness style that have no business being next to each other (“Chuck E. Cheese’s pizzas, Jesus pieces, sing Jesus love me”) that seem to have no meaning other than sounding cool.

He bounces off the walls in the recording studio, yipping randomly as if to showcase how happy or high he is that the music is happening. From the title, people will think it’s nothing more than drugged-out rap, but they’ll miss all the lines pertinent to Gen-Y: “Put Visine inside my eyes so my grandma would fucking hug me,” “Daddy wouldn’t let you if he ever met me / If he ever met you,” “Everybody’s dying in the summer, so pray to God for a little more spring,” “What’s better than following is falling in love,” etc. If this mixtape is his Section.80, one can only imagine what is good kid will be. – Marshall Gu

21. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away

It’s hard to remember now, but between the dissolution of mustachioed alter-ego Grinderman and the exit of longtime guitarist Mick Harvey, the Bad Seeds’ future seemed entirely uncertain a year or two ago. So, taking Harvey’s departure as a mandate to refocus the project around Warren Ellis’s violin and sparse, insistent loops, Cave disappeared into a 19th-century mansion in France and reemerged with Push the Sky Away, an eerie, latter-period masterpiece that pushes the Bad Seeds well into moodier textures without retreading the candid piano balladry of The Boatman’s Call and No More Shall We Part.

A richly assembled patchwork of noir-rock buildups (“Jubilee Street”), menacing loops (“We Real Cool”, with a pounding bassline nicked from Your Funeral, My Trial), and vivid, babbling blues (“Higgs Boson Blues”), the LP bears hints of the Bad Seeds’ colorful discography (Barry Adamson, for one, has rejoined after 20-something years) without sounding quite like anything that has come before it, emboldened by Cave’s lyrical fixations with the mystical frontiers of the Internet. – Zach Schonfeld

20. Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium

The story of The Silver Gymnasium is an interesting one: towards the end of recording I Am Very Far, frontman Will Sheff drove to his tiny hometown of Meriden, New Hampshire, turning up unannounced to the place he knew the best. What that solitary trip taught him, he told NPR, was to balance the uncertainty of death with a heavy dose of life. I Am Very Far, a statement of nothingness, looked at life’s final moments in the abstract, its demons of death out of sight and scarier for it, but The Silver Gymnasium is named for something real — the high school Sheff attended — and looks at one’s earliest days with a keen and clear eye.

It distills the walking dream that is being a kid as a chillier real-life story; it can be told because it’s happened. That makes for no happier a story than the murder ballads we listen to. It remembers pain as it hits or takes the glory of a perfect song by Hall & Oates and makes it sound like adulthood. The Silver Gymnasium is about death, in that way; it’s about the death of idealism. If it has a life lesson to teach, it’s that a photograph is just an excuse for the phenomena: “We can never go back; we can only remember.” – Robin Smith

19. Arcade Fire – Reflektor

Making a dance-rock album has become a commonplace indie band move, generally greeted with more polite approval than veering into disco in the 1970s. As such, Arcade Fire‘s Reflektor may not seem all that bold on first listen. Its first track, single, and title song sound like, well, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy producing Arcade Fire, with an extended running time, a stark groove, and repetitive lyrics. But the album sprawls out from there — fitting for a record that takes some of its cues from “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, a standout track from their Grammy-winning album The Suburbs.

In fact, Reflektor sprawls across two discs and doesn’t stick with dance epics. It sounds, by turns, like Neil Young (the second half of “Awful Sound”), punk rock (the first bit of “Joan of Arc”), reggae (“Here Comes the Night Time”), and sort of like the Arcade Fire of yore (“Afterlife”), itself a terrific synthesis of influences. If it’s less emotionally rich or evocative than Funeral, it seems by design. It’s more like a hall of mirrors: shimmering, weird, endless. – Jesse Hassenger

18. Phosphorescent – Muchacho

Phosphorescent‘s Muchacho achieves the kind of spiritual transcendence promised in an Emerson poem. The album, Matthew Houck’s (aka Phosphorescent) first since 2010’s Here’s to Taking It Easy, is a magical collection of sounds. It chronicles Houck’s experiences promoting his 2010 album and the pain, exhaustion, and confusion he felt afterward. “Song for Zula” is among the most heartbreaking laments in recent memory, full of regret, despair, and longing for love’s passing. It’s the standout track and the most accomplished recording in Houck’s career.

Much of Muchacho is intensely sad and personal as Houck comes to terms with a break-up and drug and alcohol abuse. However, there is redemption to be found in the album’s bookend songs, “Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, An Introduction)” and “Sun’s Arising (A Koan, An Exit)”. It is clear that Houck finds healing in his music, and as listeners, we are better for it. – Jon Lisi

17. Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety

Anxiety is like the weird, sweaty guy at a party who won’t stop talking to you. For some reason, you won’t stop listening. Arthur Ashin‘s sophomore release is audacious in its grasp for its listener’s attention and all the more complimentary for it. At 37 minutes, Anxiety promises not to overstay its welcome, but what it has to say in that brief period is more impactful than many R&B releases of this day and age. An existentialist tract disguised as an eccentric slow jam album, Anxiety may defy expectations of what you’re wanting and expecting to hear (see fear-of-a-relative’s-mortality song “Counting” cloaked in booty call artifice), but it probably taps into your subconscious in a gloriously deceptive way. Anxiety may not have had the same impact as Frank Ocean’s 2012 masterpiece channel ORANGE, but it earns its own accolades as a gutsy and successful move in expanding the range of R&B. – Maria Schurr

16. Savages – Silence Yourself

Savages are a group that most people heard about before they actually heard their music. Or, more fairly, people heard about hearing them before they heard them. The British band’s live show was legendary, almost as much for its anti-electronic missives as for its visceral power and magnetism. Like so many well-hyped new bands of the past, there was a risk that the actual debut album would turn out to be a letdown. This seemed especially likely given how firmly rooted in recognizable British post-punk touchstones Silence Yourself is.

But while a cursory listen might smack heavily of last decade’s Wire and Joy Division fetishes, in reality, those obvious influences are only a starting point. It’s hard to think of a recent album that’s as grippingly physical as Silence Yourself. Alyse Hassan’s bass steals the show with meaty, almost-gravitational riffs that draw Fay Milton’s pugilistic drums and Gemma Thompson’s excoriating guitar spasms inexorably into their orbit. On top of this, Jehnny Beth provides lyrics just as blunt or impact as the music. Whether it’s the subversive misdirection in “Hit Me”, the uncoiled societal angst of “Husbands”, or the twisted playfulness of “Marshal Dear”, Beth consistently tweaks listener expectations. Though the Savages didn’t arrive fully formed on Silence Yourself, on it, they revealed the depths of both their ambition and potential. – John Tryneski