Some background: every year the proprietor of the blog and I trade top 10, or 15, or 20, or whatever lists. Then we argue and make fun of each other as if we could change the others’ mind. Here is my list (and here is his). If you like it, feel free to stop by my blog where I talk about libraries and beer, and occasionally post a link to a semi-relevant song. You can also follow me on twitter. If you don’t like it, as George Will says “Well…”
This year I’ve organized albums into four tiers, ranging from something like “excellent” to “good.” The top tier is in order, the others I’m listing just by tier, because hey, it’s my list, and because I thought there were semi-clear cut-off points between these groups of albums. Here goes…
Tier One, in order
Sigur Ros – Kveikur: This band spent the last two albums in the wilderness, mistaking pretty sounds for cohesive, coherent records. Perhaps shedding a band member provoked an identity crisis. Like a grade school student trying on new personas, wondering where they want to try to fit in, Sigur Ros cuts an album that shows they spent the ‘90s listening to the pop-industrial stylings of Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins. The band drops its most aggressive record to date, polished to a slick studio sheen as if Mutt Lange was behind the boards. Heavy percussion, prog-metal tendencies, and actual verse-chorus-verse song structure, albeit at 6/8 time, make this perhaps the most accessible Sigur Ros record as well as the most unexpected. This is as tight, compact, and mainstream as this band will get, and the result is their only album you could credibly play on a road trip.
Savages – Silence Yourself: Politicized without being political, Savages are a thrash band that happens to play post-punk in the vein of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Pornography-era Cure. Jagged, angular guitar riffs, a tight rhythm section, and a snarling beast of a lead singer add up to one of the better debut records in recent memory.
Deafheaven – Sunbathers: It’s black metal. It’s post-hardcore. It’s shoegaze. It’s post-rock. It’s screamo. It’s walls of guitar noise, piercing Neil Young-style solos, blast-beat drumming and then…. silence. It’s gravity-defying and earthbound. One of the best explorations of musical space from the new breed of smarty-pants metal groups out there. But mostly it’s uplifting.
Kanye West – Yeezus: Let’s get this out of the way right now: Kanye is the GOAT. There’s no one better, past or present. He’s not on the next level, he is the next level. There’s enough going on here to write a dissertation on, and I suspect that people will try. Yeezus is an album full of self-loathing that reminds me of the controversy around Guns ‘n Roses’ “One in a Million;” Kanye’s misogyny says so much more about him than it does about anything else. “Dude misses his mom and lashes out” is the pop-psychology take I subscribe to. “The plan was to drink until the pain’s over, but what’s worse, the pain or the hangover?” he asked on his last album. We still don’t have an answer. He writes some of the most fascinating lyrics around: “She Instagram herself like ‘bad bitch alert / the Instagrammers watch like ‘mad bitch alert’” sums up so much of 2013 in terms of race, class, celebrity, and gender, and the cultural tourism that stems from those cleavages. But there’s more. The trappiest, trunk-rattlingest, DJ Khaled- est, “We tha Best-est” song on the album, the one you’d like to bump the loudest? It features a Nina Simone sample about lynching. Elsewhere, dancehall menacingly interrupts songs, beats drop out, and the most soulful song on the record, “Bound 2,” was the subject of an embarrassing video/home movie leak. Absolutely fascinating, and the album spawned some of the best music writing of the year. To wit: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/9395729/kanye-west-yeezus-fatherhood http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/06/how-kanye-wests-i-yeezus-i-is-like-i-sgt-pepper-i-or-i-kid-a-i-or-i-riot-goin-on-i/277087/ http://thetalkhouse.com/reviews/view/lou-reed http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/06/18/yeezus_samples_stream_a_mixtape_of_samples_from_kanye_west_s_new_album.html
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City: The greatest trick VW ever played was their first, applying African compositions to preppies and being in on the joke while too many critics weren’t. Now they’ve gone and made their most challenging album, both musically and lyrically. A mediation on growing old that shouts out my late night falafel joint and borrows from Souls of Mischief’s “Step to My Girl.”
My Bloody Valentine – m b v: An album that has no right to exist that sits comfortably alongside the rest of their cannon, twenty years after the fact. “Touched” and “To Here Knows When” from Loveless are the precedents for this album, which is less “pop” than their others. Unlike this album, their live show has some rust.
Tier Two, in no particular order
Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.
Los Campesinos! – No Blues: Back to positivity for my favorite bunch of miserablists. It suits them well.
Atoms for Peace – Amok: This feels like a much more natural fit for Thom Yorke’s electronic- and percussion-based songs than Radiohead, as explored in this concert review.
Tricky – False Idols: One of the year’s most pleasant surprises, Tricky doesn’t attempt to reinvent the trip-hop wheel, but instead adds to it. This record would be ahead of its time in 1997, but it sounds just right in 2013, an interesting juxtaposition of the familiar with the challenging.
Besnard Lakes – Until in Excess, Imperceptible UFO.
Mogwai – Les Revenants: The late-career resurgence continues with this seething, slow-burn soundtrack work.
Run the Jewels – S/T: El-P, Killer Mike, and an 8-track.
Danny Brown – Old.
Tier Three, in no particular order
Wax Idols – Discipline + Desire.
Surfer Blood – Pythons.
The National – Trouble Will Find Me.
The Night Marchers – Allez! Allez!.
Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob: Pop suits them very well.
Waxatachee – Cerulean Salt: On the 20th anniversary of Exile in Guyville, we got this. We are very very fortunate.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away: A quiet, slow burn that threatens to, but never does, explode. By far the best album of Nick Cave’s career to rhyme “Hannah Montana” and “African Savannah” (your move, Vampire Weekend), but probably only the second- or third-best of Warren Ellis’ career, who takes a well-deserved bow here.
Chvrches – The Bones Of What You Believe: Synth-pop done smart.
Tier Four, in no particular order
Pusha T – My Name is My Name:
No Age – An Object: It’s hard for a two-piece to get more stripped-down, but consider this their Darklands. The songs hold up.
Cult of Luna – Vertikal: More smarty-pants metal, complete with a bass drop in the middle of an eighteen-minute long song.
Local Natives – Hummingbird.
Mazes – Ores and Minerals: Someone else has also been growing up with Yo La Tengo.
A$AP Rocky – LONG.LIVE.A$AP: This album is a death-knell for regionality and sense of place in hip hop, but if you’re going to kill it, this is how you do it, with syrup, bounce, and trap executed perfectly alongside ‘90s-style bangers.
Rhye – Woman: Easier to pronounce than Sade.
London Grammar – If You Wait.
MIA – Matangi: Much better than you think it is.
The Men – New Moon: The nominally post-hardcore band continues to mutate, winding its way through folk, americana, and alt-rock.
Touche Amore – Is Survived By.
Daft Punk – Get Lucky
RVIVR – Paper Thin
Pusha-T – Number on the Boards
Pusha-T f. Kendrick Lamar – Nosetalgia
Spotlight Kid – All is Real
Phosphorescent – Song for Zula
Jason Isbell – Elephant
A$AP Rocky – Goldie
Deerhunter – Leather Jacket II
The National – I Should Live in Salt
Suede – For the Strangers
Fuck Buttons – Brainfreeze
Youth Lagoon – Mute
Janelle Monae – PrimeTime feat. Miguel
Majical Cloudz – Childhood’s End
Cheers – Janelle Monae, for giving more of herself than in the past. Kendrick Lamar on “Control.”