Without further adieu, here’s my top ten favorite albums of this year (in order), and then my favorite songs of the year (in no particular order).
Top Albums of 2013:
1. Jason Isbell – Southeastern
The story goes like this: Former Drive-By Trucker who regularly outshines his peers with his contributions leaves the band amidst a variety of personal issues. Spends the next few years cutting good-not-great solo records. Finally sobers up and puts out this collection of crystalline beauties that are not just a stone-cold classic this year, but in ANY year.
Check out: “Cover Me Up”, “Flying Over Water”, “Relatively Easy”
2. HAIM – Days Are Gone
Hearing “The Wire” for the first time was one of those fulcrum listens. Either it was going to be the best thing HAIM ever did, or it was just a taste of what the band was capable of.
Luckily, it was the latter – the sisters beat the hype and wrote a record of sun-kissed classics. Make no mistake, this is pure pop appropriated for an indie audience. You know that’s true. “I know, I know, I know, I know” that too.
Check out: “The Wire”, “Falling”, “Running If You Call My Name”
3. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels
El-P and Killer Mike took the hip-hop world by storm last year with their solo releases – El’s “Cancer For Cure” and Killer Mike’s “R.A.P. Music” (which El-P produced in its entirety). Both guested on each other’s records. Both also landed on many year-end lists.
So what to do for a victory lap? Join forces, obviously. The eponymous debut from Run the Jewels was released for free on the internet this June. What could have been phoned in with the cut-and-paste feel of a mixtape is instead a tight collection of straight-up bangers with monster beats. El-P and Killer Mike seamlessly flow into each other’s rhymes with bravado. No – scratch that. Gusto.
Check out: “Run the Jewels”, “36” Chain”, “Sea Legs”
4. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
The National – at least from “Alligator” and forward, have brilliantly constructed top to bottom classic records that give the air that they were furniture, they’d be refined from the most skilled of woodworkers. Every sound is considered before the final product. Allegedly, on an earlier release, they recorded the same drum sound an exhaustive number of times until it ‘sounded right’.
If anything, “Trouble Will Find Me” is a surprise. It’s the sound of a band loosening the reigns for the first time. The songs feel more organic. They have a sense of space that’s not part of any of the earlier releases. If there’s any knock on it, is that it sort of feels like a band in transition. What you get here is a band pushing the boundaries out just a little more. It’s exhilarating for them, and it’s exhilarating for the listener. But you can’t help but think what they’ll do next time.
Check out: “I Should Live In Salt”, “Sea Of Love”, “I Need My Girl”
5. John Moreland – In The Throes
Admittedly, this is a late addition to this year’s list, but a well-deserved one. Oklahoma-based Moreland delivers a thirty-eight minute gut punch. It’s intimate. It’s vulnerable. It’s big-hearted. It’s an album full of simply great songs delivered simply. No bullshit.
Check out: “I Need You To Tell Me Who I Am”, “Nobody Gives A Damn About Songs Anymore”, “Break My Heart Sweetly”
6. Kanye West – Yeezus
At this point, even giving a brief rundown of Kanye’s album-by-album trajectory is pointless. His public persona and his role of an artist are now so diametrically opposed that the thought he’s actually a working musician is an afterthought. Everyone has an opinion about Kanye West. He has many about himself. The amount of noise between the artist and the public is overwhelming, from fans to non-fans. That’s the best thing that ever happened to him – it freed him to do whatever he wants in the studio.
So, he does.
For as spontaneous as some of his other career moves seem, “Yeezus” is quite the opposite. It’s a carefully crafted, reductionist masterwork, laying waste the grandeur of much of his previous work. The beats are brutal, guest spots as brilliant as they are puzzling (Justin Vernon and Chief Keef on the same track?), and the message unfettered: he’s taking no prisoners.
We’re far past the point where a Kanye West album is a showcase of peerless production and top-notch talent. It’s art for art’s sake. He might even agree with that. Everyone else might too, if they stopped talking and listened for a change.
Check out: “On Sight”, “I Can’t Hold My Liquor”, “Bound 2”
7. Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle
The sense of insularity and delicate nature of Laura Marling’s fourth album leaves me fighting myself to compare it to the great early records of Joni Mitchell. Obviously by typing that sentence, I’ve failed. Perhaps the best way to put it is to suggest “Once I Was An Eagle” is its spiritual cousin. The four-song opening suite is startling and effortless, delivered with the maturity of a person far beyond her 23 years. From there it ebbs and flows, (“Master Hunter” is a definite highlight) one beautiful melody and texture after another. It’s an album best experienced in one sitting. You’ll know that as soon as it begins.
Check out: “Take The Night Off”, “I Was An Eagle”, “Master Hunter”
8. Deafheaven – Sunbather
We live in the time of the egregious usage of the word ‘epic’. Here’s an album worthy of the phrase. On “Sunbather” walls of whatever-brand-of-metal you call it and sweeping melodic passages combined with bridge effortlessly with vocalist George Clarke’s screams to create a whole that is like nothing else I’ve ever heard. I may not understand a damn word he’s saying, but the sheer ferocity of his vocals seize your attention. It’s metal for non-metalheads – beauty in a genre where you expect something ugly.
Check out: “Dream House”, “Irresistable”, “Vertigo”
9. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
In the summer of 2008 I watched Vampire Weekend perform selections from their debut album to a crowd of thousands at Pitchfork Music Festival. Then, they were a relatively unseasoned live act, a fine listen, but not quite capable of that knockout punch of the others that played the stage the same day. My feelings of their debut album and it’s follow up were similar to this – songs that were okay for the moment, but didn’t hold a whole lot of resonance. I figured they’d be fun to bring up for a laugh a few years down the road or to recapture that moment when we were just a little bit younger and thought we were a little bit hipper.
Instead, they grew up with us. “Modern Vampires of the City” is a headfirst plunge into uncharted territory. It’s a series of calculated risks for a group that treaded dangerous waters as a very (popular) one trick pony. Here, the band deals with heavier themes such as life and death. Look no further than the pitch-shifting prowess of “Diane Young” (Get it?) for example. The differences are also textural – the wispy “Step” and soothing synths of “Everlasting Arms” are obvious departures. The big takeaway though – there’s plenty of nuance here when none was ever really expected.
Check out: “Unbelievers”, “Step”, “Everlasting Arms”
10. Disclosure – Settle
The debut by English brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence kind of passed me by on first listen. I didn’t think much of it and shuffled it away pretty quickly.
Then I heard “Latch”, a perfect piece of elastic electro-pop. It turns out that’s just the gateway into the many gifts that this record holds. Jessie Ware drops in for the robot slink of “Confess To Me”, and “F For You” competes with London Grammar on “Help Me Lose My Mind” for the second best hook on the album. I’m going to stop now – play this album and get ready to dance.
Check out: “Latch”, “F For You”, “Confess To Me”
Top Songs of 2013:
HAIM – “The Wire”
Drake – “Hold On, We’re Going Home”
Disclosure – “Latch (feat. Sam Smith)”
Superchunk – “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo”
The National – “I Should Live In Salt”
Jason Isbell – “Cover Me Up”
Run the Jewels – “Run The Jewels”
CHVRCHES – “Gun”
John Moreland – “Break My Heart Sweetly”
Laura Marling – “Take The Night Off/I Was An Eagle/You Know/Breathe” (Opening suite)
Paramore – “Ain’t It Fun”
Zedd – “Clarity (feat. Foxes)”
Jai Paul – “Crush” (Jennifer Paige cover)
Kanye West – “On Sight”
Vampire Weekend – “Diane Young”
HAIM – “Forever”
Jason Isbell – “Relatively Easy”
Deafheaven – “Dream House”
Arcade Fire – “Afterlife”
Justin Timberlake – “Mirrors”
Jay-Z feat. Justin Timberlake – “Holy Grail”
The Replacements – “I’m Not Sayin” (Gordon Lightfoot cover)
The National – “Sea of Love”
CHVRCHES – “Recover”
Arcade Fire – “Reflektor”
HAIM – “Don’t Save Me”
Neko Case – “Man”
Paul McCartney – “New”
CHVRCHES – “The Mother We Share”
Jason Isbell – “Flying Over Water”
The Dismemberment Plan – “Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer”