15. John Wizards – John Wizards
Loopy, buoyant, melancholy, joyous, playful, and ecstatic are all appropriate adjectives to describe the glorious self-titled debut album from South African and Rwandan collective John Wizards. Although there is an abundance of distinctive tracks with personalities all of their own, John Wizards is a record that should be listened to from the beginning until the end. Indeed, I find it extremely difficult to press stop once this record gets going. Once you hit that play button, you are gone, swept away by some preternatural sub-Saharan zephyr, out into the imagination of these remarkable musicians.
Falling in love with John Wizards is like meeting an actual human being, like getting to know a best friend you did not know you had until you met them waiting for the bus one day. As delightfully bizarre and psychedelic as John Wizards often is, this record is simultaneously so deeply human, so warm and relatable. This record is about friendship and joy, and that message roils in the listener’s guts like good wine. – Benjamin Hedge Olson
14. Tim Hecker – Virgins
Virgins is based on space and contrast. That’s fairly common for an album that crosses the line between drone and ambient, but the way that Tim Hecker can create a song that seems to fill up grand halls only to give way to musical claustrophobia is remarkable. “Virginal” opens with a clattering piano and is then overwhelmed by massive and rumbling bass bowings. “Stigmata I” rolls forth with fuzzy and cacophonous keyboard lines before its brother track, “Stigmata II”, puts forth strange and meditative pulses of sound. There are times, especially during the album centerpiece “Live Room”, that Hecker’s alien production even seems to invade the other senses. In the space of 48 minutes, Hecker creates something that is simultaneously beautiful and repulsive; a gorgeous album that is often defined by its most ugly moments. Once it worms its way into your subconscious, will never let go. – Nathan Stevens
13. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer, Different Park
Where were you the first time you heard “Merry Go ‘Round”, the lead single from Kacey Musgraves‘ first major label release? I certainly remember. I was at my desk, reading through my Facebook feed, and I saw that the terrific music writer Jody Rosen was rhapsodizing over the song. So, I clicked the link. And I sat back, as I expect everyone does, pulled in by that dreamy banjo theme. And then, she sang: “If you ain’t got two kids by 21 / You’re probably going to die alone / At least that’s what tradition told you.” By now, I was leaning forward.
This, I knew, was it. Perhaps the most thoughtful record to hit mainstream country in 2013 — although high marks go to Brad Paisley for swinging at those fences, even if he fell a bit short — this deeply rewarding album matches one killer vocal and instrumental performance after another with compelling, biting, sometimes devastating social commentary. At every turn, these 12 songs (all co-written by Musgraves) take on trailer park commonsense with the sympathy of the insider and the clarity of the dispassionate observer. To borrow a phrase: Think Lucinda Williams. Think Randy Newman. Think Todd Snider. Think. – Stuart Henderson
12. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
How does a band follow up an impressive record such as 2010’s High Violet, an album with such a definite arc to it (each successive song is usually better than the one before it) that it practically lords itself over the rest of the group’s discography? Well, maybe that task was impossible, but the National clearly didn’t lose the plot with Trouble Will Find Me, an arguably much darker affair than its predecessor. The record is a grower, but there are many rewards to be found, particularly on the harrowing first single “Sea of Love” and the Elliott Smith-quoting “Fireproof”. Trouble Will Find Me ultimately is fodder for another question: namely, have the National ever turned in a bad record? Trouble Will Find Me is yet another great album from a great band, and one can only wonder how the National will follow this one up. – Zachary Houle
11. Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady
105.5 WDRD should be awarded “Tastemaker of 2013”, for it’s the radio station that debuted “Dance Apocalyptic”. However, anyone plugged into The Electric Lady knows that WDRD is exclusive to the “electro-sophista-funky-cated” world that android #57821 Cindi Mayweather occupies in Metropolis. (They also know that it’s really the year 2719 in Mayweather’s reality.) Whether in the 21st or 28th centuries, The Electric Lady is a tour de force and an important benchmark in the career of an artist whose musical depth and artistic breadth grow with every new release.
“Categorize me, I defy every label,” Janelle Monáe sings on “Q.U.E.E.N”. Indeed, it’s one of many true statements she makes on The Electric Lady. The rebel yell and incendiary guitar solo of “Give ‘Em What They Love” seem a galaxy apart from the cosmic, incandescent grooves on “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”. Even the interludes, usually the most interminable pieces of any long-form album, are essential listening. They provide an amusing yet searing commentary on both the 28th and the 21st centuries. “Y’all make me so proud,” our heroine sings on the title track. Ms. Monáe, we’ve been following Cindi Mayweather since 2007, and we offer you the same praise in return. – Christian John Wikane
10. My Bloody Valentine – m b v
Everything is here, now, in its right place. Twenty-one years later, My Blood Valentine haven’t missed a step. Not a single dissonant chord, brittle tremolo riff, or glass-encapsulated vocal line is out of sync. To call m b v the year’s most anticipated release is to diminish the mythology that accompanies it. Annually, we discard albums with the regularity of moldy fruit, but m b v won’t be denied its place in our heads.
We can’t let it go so soon. We’ve waited too long for this. And it would have been easy to give m b v high marks just because it appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, one Saturday night after decades of being written off as a ghost story. But Kevin Shields and company fulfilled our every belated promise, every unknown intention, every space in our hearts with their sound, and made good on their effort to give us a proper sequel to Loveless in m b v. Don’t stop now, guys and girls. We’ll wait here as long as it takes. – Scott Elingburg
9. Haim – Days Are Gone
With a healthy dose of power-pop punch and just the right sugary touch, Haim‘s tightly-crafted instrumentation and hook-driven harmonies are incredibly irresistible. But, what elevates the three sisters — Danielle, Este, and Alana Haim — to the next level on their highly-anticipated debut LP, Days Are Gone, is that they exceed the sum of their parts. Este’s funky bass lines and freewheeling backing vocals give them an R&B edge, Danielle’s silvery guitar riffs and focused vocals evoke 1980s art pop, while little sister and jack-of-all-trades Alana provides serious depth. Drummer Dash Hutton acts as the glue, although all three sisters contribute percussion, which adds a serious spine to their sound, reassuring listeners that they’re not afraid to flex a little muscle. And, for as intricate and calculated as they are, Haim has the cool and collected charisma — almost to the point of not knowing or caring how good they are — that makes their personalities as affable as their music. – Scott Recker
8. CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe
It’s the kind of record that makes you excited about music again. After what seemed like years of waiting, this Scottish trio CHVRCHES offered up their debut full-length in 2013, and not a second of it disappointed. With more sugar than a Halloween bag and a lead singer as subversive as she is talented, The Bones of What You Believe was all anybody could ask for: Interesting, fresh, simple, and unforgettable. Picking the best moments are impossible. “The Mother We Share” crosses over into a special type of accessibility, while “Recover”, “Lungs”, and “Gun” are lost gems in a year filled with unforeseen stellar releases.
Somebody wrote about the possibility of Bones being too much of a good thing, and that assessment couldn’t be more wrong. Because when you put out a record this promising, the only thing missing is more. Chalked full of pastry-chef hooks, moody undertones, and a 95-pound Leader to Be Reckoned With, this record might be the most expectedly unexpected breakout set of 2013, the letter “u” be damned. It’s not great; it’s brilliant. – Colin McGuire
7. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
In Daft Punk‘s first non-soundtrack album since 2005’s Human After All, the robotic duo proposed, right up front, to “Give Life Back to Music”. And indeed, they did. Scoring the biggest album of their career both commercially and critically, Random Access Memories is a big sopping love letter to the dance music sounds of the late 1970s and early 1980s, roping in old guard names to perform on the disc such as Chic frontman Nile Rodgers, disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder, and singer-songwriter Paul Williams. However, as much as the record is a vintage throwback, it also looks to the current indie, dance, and alternative rock environment by featuring additional guests such as Panda Bear (Animal Collective), Chilly Gonzales, Julian Casablancas (The Strokes), and Pharrell Williams, whose vocals adorn “Get Lucky”, the ubiquitous single from the summer of 2013.
Random Access Memories may be a departure in sound from previous outings, but it’s the “sound of the future”, to quote from Moroder’s spoken word bit on the biographical sketch “Giorgio by Moroder”, as much as it is of the past, and is both a work of art and something you can shake your money-maker to. That’s a feat that is quite astonishing and makes Random Access Memories not only one of the best dance music albums of the year but one of the all-around best, period. – Zachary Houle
6. Kanye West – Yeezus
Yeezus isn’t just an album. It’s an experience. Four minutes in, and you know you’re listening to something unlike any other album this year: primal screams, electronic fuzz, schizophrenic synths, warm soul samples, human-breath percussion, and enough bass to set off any seismograph in a ten-mile radius, all over some of the most vicious bars Kanye West has spit in years. On Yeezus, Kanye raps with a hunger that shows he still feels he has something to prove, that he’s trying to make a self-fulfilling prophecy when he says he’s “the only rapper compared to Michael [Jackson]”. Yeezus is exhilarating, confounding, intriguing, and overwhelming in its artistry. It’s immaculately produced, incredibly entertaining, and a little bit controversial, but the day Kanye West releases an album without any controversy is the same day that his seemingly endless winning streak is finally over. – Adam Finley