I didn’t write about music all that much in 2013, but I did set aside a bit of time to listen to music, so I thought I’d share the albums that I most enjoyed last year. Honourable mentions go to Future of the Left – How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident, which just missed the cut and Jeremy Neale – In Stranger Times which I disqualified from eligibility as it was an EP.
|20. James Blake – Overgrown
I had – and have – mixed feelings on Overgrown. In my review, I described some songs as “substantial, emotionally potent” but others as “suggesting an emotional truth without inducing it,” and I hold to that. The album’s chilly, crystalline beauty is inconsistent, but there’s enough power here to find me returning to it … even I might hover over the skip button for a couple of tracks.
|19. Arctic Monkeys – AM
Sure, AM drops off a little towards the back half, but it’s demonstration that Alex Turner’s finally found the best direction for his music after stumbling through some unsuccessful experiments following the potent, bratty Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. He’s retained the sneering charm that distinguished that debut but has left his ’60s pop aspirations behind to embrace ’70s-esque hard rock. It’s a better fit for the band and makes for a full-throated slab of music.
|18. The John Steel Singers – Everything’s a Thread
Everything’s a Thread really does try everything, dabbling in psychadelia, post-punk and krautrock on an album that’s not a complete success but resonates when they fall into the right groove. At its best, this Brisbane-based group’s second LP creates that trancelike escape of a good old-fashioned jam without ever wearing out its welcome. A welcome surprise.
|17. Los Campesinos! – No Blues
Los Campesinos! find the middle ground between the witty smarm of their first couple records and the melancholia of the disappointing Hello Sadness in No Blues, which mostly maintains lead singer Gareth’s pessimistic outlook on life and relationships amongst bubbly pop tunes and clever lyrics (though most of the soccer references sailed happily over my head). It’s not as danceable as their earliest stuff, but it’s an enjoyable little album nonetheless.
|16. Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus
The title of Slow Focus doubles as mission statement: Fuck Buttons’ third record is as interested in texture and atmosphere as its predecessors, but it lacks that sense of acceleration and release that elevated those two records. It makes for a less immediately rewarding album but a compelling one; Slow Focus doesn’t so much demand your attention as consume it inexorably like a lumbering, fascinating beast.
|15. Black Hippy – Black Hippy
Full disclaimer: I’m pretty sure (correct me if I’m wrong!) that this isn’t technically an album, but rather a loose collection of Black Hippy (Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock)’s 2013 tracks – about half of which are remixes of Kendrick Lamar’s excellent album from last year. But however it’s technically defined (I stumbled on it via Spotify, for what it’s worth), it’s a great demonstration of hip-hop talent and worth your time.
|14. Savages – Silence Yourself
Silence Yourself is a worn black leather jacket, smelling of sweat from countless mosh pits. It’s a glass of straight bourbon. It’s smokey and sinister, and throbbing and sneering and kicking down microphone stands. It’s the essence of pure rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a fucking great album.
|13. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
This isn’t what anyone was expecting from Daft Punk’s long-awaited return. Well, it sure as shit wasn’t what I was expecting, anyway. Abandoning the laptop-helmed robot rhythms of Human After All for sumptuous, velvet-lined disco melodies, Random Access Memories was the kind of album that doesn’t get made any more. It’s not just that it’s ambitious, danceable and eclectic, it’s that it feels expensive; big name musicians in big rooms spending big bucks. And the results are suitably immense.
|12. Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold
Okay, story time. While delving into post-punk (probably my favourite musical genre), I stumbled upon the John Peel-curated Perfect Unpop, which includes a bunch of post-punk tracks from the late ’70s: mostly from bands who’d subsequently disappeared into obscurity, often without producing a single album. It’s a great compilation, but the highlight for me was Tours’ “Language School,” a poppy, angular two minute ditty from a band that apparently never did anything else. I tell this story because Light Up Gold might as well be from a reborn Tours; it’s a wonderful, retro piece of poppy post-punk that’s both clever and a lot of fun.
|11. Wire – Change Becomes Us
Speaking of post-punk…Ever since I discovered Pink Flag, Wire has been my favourite band of all time, and despite the fact that they’ve been making music for more than 35 years now, they’re still cranking out fantastic records like Change Becomes Us. The album is built on ideas from their golden era in the late ’70s but feels modern, using the droning, distant sound that has defined the last few Wire releases. It may not be on the same level as Pink Flag or Chairs Missing, but what albums are?
|10. A$AP Rocky – LONG.LIVE.A$AP
LONG.LIVE.A$AP has a powerful combination of A$AP Rocky’s confident flow over the top of tracks that, at their best, find the middle ground between aggressive gangsta posturing and catchy pop, all consumed by thick, narcotic purple smoke. This was my favourite album of the year for a long stretch, and while it’s dropped off in my esteem a little (the back half isn’t as great as the first, and it lacks the personality that characterises great hip-hop records), it’s still one of those albums I keep coming back to. The album is both cohesive and diverse; the three best tracks are all distinct. There’s the thumping “Fuckin’ Problems,” the shimmering, almost-arty pop of “Fashion Killa” and, of course, the gloriously dumb dub-step dance track that is “Wild for the Night,” a song that made my top 10 list and appeared prominently in my favourite film of the year.
|9. CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe
There’s nothing particularly different or innovative in The Bones of What You Believe; this isn’t a revolutionary record, but it is a great deal of fun. Featuring great pop songs like “Gun,” and “Recover” – the latter having a good shot of doing well in the Hottest 100 – this is simply synth pop done right. The singer is distinct and charming, the songs are consistently well-written, and the production has the right balance of warmth and angularity. It’s a straightforward record, but straightforward doesn’t have to be a pejorative.
|8. Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks
Hesitation Marks has been curiously absent from, well, essentially every top X list of 2013 list I’ve read. It’s distinctly possible I just have shithouse taste, but I’ll stand up for the quality of Reznor’s return here. It’s not a crowdpleaser, with Reznor mostly stepping away from the black despair and fury that defined a lot of his earlier work for an album that’s almost ..sexy? It slinks and slithers through bass lines that bear a debt to hip-hop and R&B, all overlaid with NIN’s trademark textural soundscapes. Reznor is happy, but if he’s making great pop songs like “Everything” then I’m happy about that.
|7. Lorde – Pure Heroine
The breakout artist of the year, I’ve seen more than few people complain about Lorde’s “Royals” and the near-certainty that it will win Triple J’s Hottest 100 in a few weeks. I suppose I can understand disliking the ubiquity of a song like “Royals,” but honestly, how can you be upset at a spare, anti-consumerist anthem by a sixteen year old New Zealander being one of the most popular songs of the year? In what universe is that a bad thing?Uh, I got a little distracted there. Anyway, Pure Heroine doesn’t quite fit together as a record, but it is a great collection of intelligent, catchy songs. It holds up well on repeated listens and proves that popular music can be a little different and still succeed.
|6. Danny Brown – Old
I love “Dip,” but I don’t think the best tracks on Old are quite as good as the best tracks on LONG.LIVE.A$AP. Why, then, does it pip Mr Rocky by a few spots?Primarily because Danny Brown is fucking crazy; this is great and abundantly evident on this album. A molly-fuelled celebration, idiosyncratic and insane, Old resonates with Brown’s personality and a sense of kitchen sink excess that’s hard to ignore. The album is consistently interesting, mixing up aggressive rap with weirdly beautiful Purity Ring collaborations. It’s also just a really fun record.
|5. My Bloody Valentine – mbv
See Wire’s entry – this isn’t Loveless, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fantastic. My Bloody Valentine’s long awaited release seemed like an impossibility for so long, and it’s perfectly constructed for eager fans like me, opening with a half-dozen tracks that are reminiscent of the pitch-perfect shoegaze of Loveless but differentiated, and then ending with some thrilling experimentation. Hopefully it won’t be another two decades before the next one.
|4. Mikal Cronin – MCII
I’ll be honest, I don’t know the first thing about Mikal Cronin (it’s one guy, right?), but dude puts together some sweet pop music. MCII doesn’t have a bad song on it, but more importantly it finds a way to make an album of summery, pop-rock tunes memorable. The tracks are all clearly of a piece but there’s something different in all of them; it captures your attention and then rewards it. The songs are relaxing and pleasant but there’s a sense of artistic drive behind each and every track, a refusal to submit to complacency.
|3. Kanye West – Yeezus
I didn’t listen to Yeezus all that much in the back stretch of 2013, and in my head it was hovering somewhere towards the bottom of my top ten. It wasn’t until I revisited the record that I was reminded of its brutal potency; its confrontational power. Yeezus isn’t sophisticated, and maybe that’s a weakness occasionally, with clumsy lyrics here or there, but it allows Yeezy to channel his raw unfiltered, yes, fuck it, genius. This is an album that really fits together as an album; “Bound 2″ is a little silly out of context (especially with that video), but it works perfectly as a weird capper to a memorable, angry album.
|2. Washed Out – Paracosm
It’s hard for me to express why this album is one of my favourites from the year. It’s not necessarily sophisticated, I don’t really remember any of the tracks and I’m not sure I could recognise a single lyric. And I don’t expect anyone else to agree with me! But Washed Out have always been able to somehow connect directly to the pleasure centre of my brain, and Paracosm is no different. I can pop this album on and just float away in a dreamy haze, and, dammit, that’s something to be valued.
|1. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
I’m struggling to find anything particularly fresh to say about Reflektor, my favourite album of 2013 – click on the link above and you’ll get a good insight into my thoughts, and that review is not particularly old! – but, really, this is the kind of album that speaks for itself. This is a gloriously, ridiculously ambitious album, putting together Arcade Fire and James Murphy and just having a big silly party and waiting for the sun to go down.
7 thoughts on “Top 20 Albums of 2013”
Interesting list Dave. I didn’t actually listen to much new music in 2013 but the Haim and Drenge albums were probably amongst my favourites.
I’ve never heard of Drenge, I’ll have to look them up. I don’t mind Haim but I don’t love them either. Will definitely try to catch them live at some point this year. Thanks.
Nice picks man. Pure Heroine is one of my favorites of the year. I discovered it late, but I can’t stop playing it. I love “Ribs.”
Thanks man. It’s definitely a very “moreish” album.
Great list, Dave. I have a few of these. Big fan of Reflektor. Have yet to hear of if the NIN cd and I was very surprised by how much I enjoyed Lorde. I have to seek some of these out. Have you heard the new Broken Bells? (Well it isn’t that new but it is their latest) Also the new Bear Hands, Phantogram and Bastille cd’s are pretty cool. Thanks Dave! Nice work.
I’ve only heard a handful of Broken Bells tracks – I’m not really a big disco fan, so I don’t think it’s for me. Been pretty slack listening to music so far this year – watching too many movies!
Totally get you, Dave 🙂