5. Jason Isbell – Southeastern
After cutting his teeth with celebrated Southern rockers the Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell struck out on his own, releasing three respectable, well-received albums, but nothing that had the potent energy of his Drive-By Truckers-era gems like “Outfit” or “Decoration Day”. However, with his fourth album, Southeastern, a newly-sober Isbell gives us his best solo work yet. That sounds like a tried and true rock ‘n’ roll tale, but to describe Southeastern as his “sober” album is really to sell this first-rate collection short. In fact, it’s Isbell’s storytelling, not his sobriety, that has the spotlight here, as he slips deftly from one narrative voice to another, from a killer on the lam in “Live Oak” to a man whose drinking buddy is dying of cancer in “Elephant”. Even the one song openly dealing with his addiction, “Cover Me Up”, sidesteps the pitfall of self-pity and ends up damn near close to perfect. – Taylor Coe
4. Disclosure – Settle
The instant-classic hype around brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence‘s full-length debut Settle places it next to the Chemical Brothers’ Surrender, Basement Jaxx’s Rooty, and Daft Punk’s Discovery in the pantheon of that rarest of birds, the electronic crossover hit. But where those albums and their canonized kin were confrontations in a rockist world, Settle is cool and calm with no underarm wetness, a cocksure amalgam of 2-step textures, micro-house thrift, and furtively foolproof hooks.
Since getting at the tailbone through the solar plexus is the club-rat lingua franca these days, it’s really only natural that the grazing of hipbones and undulant waists envisaged by Disclosure’s bass-first, drums-second method would hail a second coming. Whether or not it really is can be left to the chinstrokers; with dance tracks this deep, this funky, this finely tuned to mechanics of endorphin release, no ass will know the difference. – Benjamin Aspray
3. The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
Shaking the Habitual might be a complex, difficult, multi-layered listen, but there’s at least one way the Knife are being completely direct on their latest opus: the title says everything that needs to be about the album’s raison d’être. Getting you out of your comfort zone — be it musically, politically, or socially speaking — is the Knife’s stated intention, something the sibling duo of Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer accomplish by combining theory and practice to make button-pushing theses potent as both manifestos and sing-along refrains.
Indeed, Shaking the Habitual is a turn of phrase that applies equally to the listening experience the 90-minute set inspires and to the group that made it. Maybe you thought of the Knife as an electronic band before, so what do you make of the warm, natural elements (particularly the rich, tribal percussion) on an album where the organic parts stand out as much as its synthetic pleasures? While pop isn’t a description that readily comes to mind with these iconoclastic experimenters, there’s no denying that there are moments here that grab you viscerally like chart-toppers from another dimension, especially the subliminal grooves of “Full of Fire” and the theatrical yearning of the Björk-ian “Wrap Your Arms Around Me”. What the Knife has achieved in Shaking the Habitual is not only to break down commonplaces but also to create a new vocabulary for a new musical syntax. – Arnold Pan
2. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You
Whenever Neko Case finds time to put out a solo record, it’s a guarantee that it will be idiosyncratic and fascinating. The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You is no exception. Portions of the album reflect the gothic alt-country sound that she made her name on, while others are miles removed from that genre classification. The latter category includes songs like the fierce and funny “Man”, which approaches melodic punk. The a cappella story song “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” finds Case displaying disgust and sympathy in equal measure for a mother who was unspeakably mean to her child in public.
The catchy “City Swans” is the closest Case has ever come to the baroque power-pop style of her other band, the New Pornographers, and the excellent closer “Ragtime” rides a “Sweet Jane” bassline into a horn-laden celebration. Meanwhile, tracks like the contemplative opener “Wild Creatures” and the built-in sing-along “Night Still Comes” find Case exploring different sides of her more traditional style. The quiet “I’m From Nowhere” is a hell of a country ballad, while the rousing “Bracing for Sunday” contains the album’s best couplet: “I only ever held one love / Her name was Mary Ann / She died having a child from her brother / He died because I murdered him.” This is top-notch material from a great musician. – Chris Conaton
1. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
Vampire Weekend‘s third album is mostly slow songs, thick with religious imagery — shut up, not like the Avett Brothers! Let’s try this: I defy you to find another album on this list with more beautiful drum sounds. Recall the explosive snare fills in the semi-hit “Diane Young”. They’re worlds away from the dry gallop that propels “Worship You”, and neither song approaches the tape-manipulated boom-bap of “Step”. You could spend a lovely afternoon nodding your head to Chris Tomson’s drum parts, curled up with music tech magazines and horchata.
But after a while, other elements would start creeping into your mind. “Step”, for instance, appropriates culture from Oakland rappers Souls of Mischief and Johann “the original Nuremberg trial” Pachelbel, an unexpected pairing that sounds great together, i.e. the story of this album, and that goes double for Ezra Koenig’s God lyrics. No doubt youth groups and/or music writers (**cough**) are hunkering down to write theological exegeses of Modern Vampires of the City‘ spiritual themes, and God bless ‘em, but they shouldn’t neglect the precisely calculated musical effects of sonic mastermind Rostam Batmanglij. The album’s nine-ten punch of “Worship You” and “Ya Hey” mixes worship language, simple tunes, and unexpected timbres to trigger whichever brain center gets off on needing the divine. These guys probe brain lobes for a living, and they know exactly what they’re doing. – Josh Langhoff
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on 10 December 2013. It has been re-edited and re-formatted.