Music has been en route to splintering, niche-ification or whatever you want to call it for a few years now. The reasons for it are all a little ambiguous but currently omnipresent—deemphasis of radio and albums, rise of specialty blogs, greater array of artists, more pressure to tour and release frequently, etc. But whatever is responsible for why, what we have left leaves it tough to parse what is “best” in a given year.
Unlike say 2012 (Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar) or the loaded 2011 (tUnE-yArDs, Adele, Bon Iver, M83, etc.), the consensus for music deserving mass adoption isn’t there in 2013. One list will slot Yeezus in the top spot, the next will drop it into the 30s. This leads to a landscape with an even heavier emphasis on lists being personal rather than best—this is no exception.
I was asked to help on some non-music year-enders (say Paste’s best breweries) and some non-list music recaps (Consequence of Sound/Aux Out’s writers’ poll), and those decisions reflect a mix of personal taste and professional insight (aka what do I like that has/deserves mass appeal). But the past 12 months were a professional transition period for me, meaning this was a year where my music Top 10 didn’t land with any specific outlet (the past two years of freelancing saw Wired and SF Weekly host previous selections). So while you can go anywhere and hear that Vampire Weekend’s latest is worth your time (and it sorta is), this list is aimed less at recognizing that blend of my taste and mass merit and focused solely on the former.
The usual caveats apply—no one can listen to every LP in a year, even if I try to have general tastes they skew in certain directions (indie rock, punk), etc. Rather than post straight reviews of each Top 10 selection, they’re a combination of single songs as microcosms, glimpses at how LPs fit into the 2013 music landscape and my own interpretations. Think of these as what I’d first reach for on a roadtrip, pass along to a friend the quickest, and just generally come back to for a listen the most.
First, a quick sentence on five that just missed the cut:
Foxygen—… 21st Century Ambassadors… The EP is better, but this still demonstrates super-interesting quilt-patch songwriting.
Mikal Cronin—MCII. Ben Kweller’s Sha, Sha reincarnated by a guy with a wider range of musicianship.
David Bowie—The Next Day. In a year with numerous notable comebacks, Bowie demonstrated he still has ideas worth sharing.
Perfect Pussy—I have lost desire for all feeling. Pure punk incubated in the tundra of Syracuse so it has that delightful northeast suburbia angst.
QOTSA—…Like Clockwork. Is Josh Homme the most reliable/consistent artist of the last decade?
The Top 10
10) Blood Orange—Cupid Deluxe
Singular moment: “On the line”
Dev Hynes has the voice that should define modern R&B, the kind that has seeped into the indie critical scenes through acts like Twin Shadow or Frank Ocean or Miguel. “On the line” starts with a repetitive electronic keyboard, a room-filling bass accented certain moments in the phrasing. But it’s Hynes’ voice that dominates your attention, effortlessly pulling you in while it eases back and forth between high register strength and breathless low register contrast. Somehow this makes the drum machine beat palatable, and it builds towards an infectious chorus where Hynes has a female vocalist playing off him in the background. Cupid Deluxe is filled with tracks like this—vehicles for a voice you wish you could sing along to. Settle for quietly bobbing your head instead.
9) The Love Language—Ruby Red
Context clues: Scott McLamb’s act is probably a familiar name. His self-titled debut was a feel good, lo-fi story (heartbroken makes an album about it but has actual talent) that snuck onto best-of lists. The follow-up, Libraries, went the complete opposite way—real studio production, massive instrumentations—but achieved the same critical response. Despite the pedigree, Ruby Red somehow fell under the radar. But here McLamb combines his deeply personal songwriting with the lushness of full production (he opted to rent a studio and invite 20+ local musicians to pass through) to produce his most approachable album to date. It sounds like Morrissey if he grew up in the online era.
8) Kurt Vile—Wakin On A Pretty Daze
One man’s opinion: Let me be the 3,765th critic to tell you Kurt Vile’s latest record has nothing to do with being a stoner. It’s obvious why the disclaimer comes about—Vile looks the part, he plays psychedelic inspired rock that can verge on jam and span 7+ minutes, it has “Daze” in the title. But Wakin sounds more like growing up. There’s a slight fatigue in Vile’s voice compared to his earlier works, and the music contains classical rock elements that will appease your parents until unleashing riffs that are entirely modern (and therefore make you feel less stiff for liking it). There’s a timelessness to this record that would somehow make it at home in 1975 and likely 2075 too. It’s unlike anything else the critical community has championed this year.
7) Palma Violets—180
Singular moment: “Best of Friends”
When someone teases the next big act from England, what do you think of? It’s that guitar-driven rock with the “fuck it all, tosser” attitude, tailor made for the jukebox at your favorite pub or for the song played the most during a roadtrip among friends. (See, depending on your tastes, The Clash, PJ Harvey, Artic Monkeys, Bloc Party, Oasis, Kasabian, Blur, etc.). Palma Violets is the latest iteration with “Best of Friends” as its official application. The vocals have the perfect amount of shoutiness, the guitars and keyboards create an anthemic atmosphere, and that chorus is undeniably addictive. Good luck not screaming “Don’t want you to be my girl” when the refrain comes around the second time.
One man’s opinion: I wanted to deny Deerhunter—a band I love that has produced three consensus Top 5 albums in a row and was probably due for a step back. On top of that, My Bloody Valentine came back this year and released the shoegaze album the world clamored for (and enlightened us to what Bradford Cox likely listened to as a kid). And there are other 2013 albums that better deal with the social identity topics Deerhunter subtlety embeds within their stuff routinely. However, regardless of Monomania not getting the Top 10 love of its predecessors, Deerhunter has put forth another must-own album. There are riffs that won’t leave your memory alongside messages that make you stop and think, and Cox’s flair permeates the entire thing (did you see the best TV performance of 2013?!?). It’s among the two or three albums I’ve come back to the most in 2013, so critics be damned… though it’ll likely end up among the cumulative Top 20 anyway. Not bad for a “down” release.
5) Arcade Fire—Reflektor
Singular moment: “Reflektor”
There are better songs on the latest Arcade Fire album, but none capture the band’s new musical point of view better than the title track. The first eight seconds or so are a series of low electronic voicings rumbling with one eventually beginning to sustain as it crescendos towards something. Next a syncopated snare breaks up the technology, crashing the bleeps and bloops before leaving the listener at the 15 second mark. We’re left with breathy vocals, some low-end electronics, a driving bass and accenting sax riffs. The Suburbs and its universal rock are long gone, forget about another Funeral and the anthemic joy it could bring. This is the extended groove, dance-inducing repetition, James Murphy-sensibilities period for Arcade Fire. It’s glorious. Meet the lone band that can produce eight-minute songs that are worth a damn in 2013.
4) Jai Paul—Demos
Context clues: Why does the Internet care so much about Jai Paul, the modern blogosphere unicorn? His name has been floating around for at least 3-4 years, attached to danceable singles, innovative 45-second snippets and the occasional album rumor. But Jai Paul does no press, doesn’t perform, doesn’t let fans in on time tables or updates. He is essentially a smaller scale myth like Bigfoot except hot tracks continually pull believers in rather than grainy YouTube videos. 2013 demonstrated while the attention has never waned. Whether or not this “album” was “released” by “Jai Paul” or not, these 10 unnamed tracks combine silky vocals ala Miguel with elements of Bhangra and undeniable mastery of beat. It’s dance music that makes you feel like you’re in on what’s sure to the biggest album of the decade, whenever it is that may or may not arrive.
3) Death—For The Whole World To See
Context clues: Technically, this album is from 2009. Well, technically technically, it’s from the early 1970s. But this year’s hot found music documentary, A Band Called Death, gave second or third life to this piece of punk history. On first listen, you’ve never heard a band fuse elements of funk and 70s glam rock with vintage punk or post-punk like this. And on the inevitable repeat listens, tracks like “Politicians In My Eye” still resonate today on both sonic and contextual levels. If we can all agree that soundtracks are viable Year-End List entrants (let’s call it the Drive precedent?), For The Whole World To See should be a consensus Top 10 album.
2) Chastity Belt—No Regerts
One man’s opinion: In a year when so many female-led acts are rightfully being championed—the power of Savages, the star power of Janelle Monae, Haim’s vivacity, Waxahatchee’s universality, etc.—No Regerts is painfully overlooked. Chastity Belt stands out from other indie rock acts with a knack for songwriting variety (the party-stopping power of “James Dean” is on an album with the most somber sounding song about nothing, “Nip Slip”) and a no fear attitude that can jump from insanity to clever on a track-to-track basis (interested in a B52’s sounding song about “Giant (Vagina)?” Maybe a relaxed-riff driven song about being an outsider sailing away, “Black Sail,” is more your speed?). There are female empowering themes, relatable ideas about youth, and a healthy dose of punk skepticism and absurdity. More than any other album I’ve heard this year, No Regerts is the one I come back to and share with others—regardless of their tastes—the most.
1) Chance The Rapper—Acid Rap
Singular moment: “Cocoa Butter Kisses”
In one song, Chance gives listeners the full array. There’s his unorthodox flow, emphasized by a catchy hook based on an awkward lyrical chorus (“Cigarettes on cigarettes, my mama think I stank…”). His lyrics are simultaneously universal (this is a song about his family being turned off that he smokes), referential (yes, he dropped a line about orange Nickelodeon VHS tapes of Rugrats), and poignant (lamenting how today’s kids smoke Chlorophyll and percentages meant he’d end up in jail). The fact that he can try so many things and still produce an insanely listenable track—whole album really—is a testament to Chance The Rapper’s ambition and talent.