Best Music of 2013

Top 50 Albums of 2013

on December 13, 2013, 12:01am
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albums Top 50 Albums of 2013

It’s been a great year for albums. Not since 2010 have we seen such a consistent stream of must-have releases, and from so many camps. Think about it: Salivating follow-ups were checked off crumpled wishlists, rookies left the dugouts with the nosebleeds in mind, veterans legitimized their medallions once more, and Daft Punk wrote another hit. Not too shabs, right?

For me, the trips to the record store have been frequent as of late, essentially taking a knife to my credit and personal savings, which should do wonders for my wedding budget next year. But hey, who’s to argue with a crippling addiction to vinyl, right? …right?  [Insert nervous laughter.] Christ, please don’t tell my fiance.

ANYWAYS, over two remarkably frosty weeks, we’ve wrapped ourselves in blankets and bathed our throats in green tea to assemble this year’s top stories, photos, videos, and songs, in addition to our picks for artistbandrookie, and festival of the year. Now, it’s time to finally hit the showers as the main events in our 2013 Annual Report come to a resounding end with our Top 50 Albums.

So, as we’re singing Elton John in the steam and suds, feel free to let us know how we did this year in the comments below. Of course, we’ll also gladly accept any packaged baked goods, holiday gift cards, DVD copies of Shame, and tickets to Norway.

Though, stay tuned next week for our supplemental reports, including this year’s top cover songs, late night performances, and music moments in television. We’ll also name our favorite comedian, share our individual staff lists, and publish a few editorials capping off the year in hip-hop, EDM, and folk.

To paraphrase our pal Chance the Rapper, we hope you love all our shit.

–Michael Roffman
President/Editor-in-Chief/The Worst

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so so glos blowout50. The So So Glos – Blowout

The So So Glos trace their origins back to 1991, when the Brooklyn rockers were barely out of diapers. “The spirit and the songs,” said the brothers Levine on a recent episode of Sirius XM host Jake Fogelnest’s podcast The Fogelnest Files, “came before the technical skills.” It shows, too, and that’s not a slam. The same sloppy, spit-in-yer-face spirit that launched Nirvana and The Clash into so many mangled hearts resides in the unkempt corridors of Blowout, a punk record that’s as remarkable for its hyperactive riffs as it is for its positive vibes, which, if bands like FIDLAR are any indication, wasn’t necessarily the trend in 2013. Good on ‘em. –Randall Colburn

Listen: Spotify | Rdio

Buy: Amazon

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Sky Ferreira - Night Time, My Time49. Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time

In a year’s time, I’ll probably mutter something like, “You know, we really should have put Sky Ferreira’s album higher.” Unfortunately, you really can’t argue for hindsight, though here’s my bratty attempt, anyhow: Ferreira’s an artist that’s not only going to sharpen her game, but capitalize upon her strengths. In my recent review of her Chicago gig, I questioned whether audiences will appreciate her alternative brand of pop when she hits the road with Miley Cyrus next year, concluding that it will. Maybe that’s too optimistic, but if teens are digging Night Time, My Time, they’re only a few steps removed from Suicide, Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Blondie. That’s an exciting prospect. –Michael Roffman

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Buy: Amazon

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Mutual Benefit48. Mutual Benefit – Love’s Crushing Diamond

There are existential crises throughout Mutual Benefit’s gorgeous Love’s Crushing Diamond. On “Let’s Play / Statue of a Man”, multi-instrumentalist Jordan Lee’s lilting voice sings, “And on a train through the Midwest/ I was trying to get reborn.” Referring to these seven serene and nostalgia-soaked folk songs as “dispatches from a year of notable absences,” Love’s Crushing Diamond was recorded in multiple cities, including Boston, Austin, and St. Louis. Ever the wandering soul, Lee approaches his songs with childlike wonder, giving them ornate compositions with plucky banjos and warm strings, as well as measured lyrical optimism like “we weren’t meant to be afraid” in “Golden Wake”. Though Mutual Benefit treads similar waters to artists like Freelance Whales and Patrick Watson, Love’s Crushing Diamond is an evocative, carefully hopeful record. –Josh Terry

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Buy: Amazon

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lorde pure heroine47. Lorde – Pure Heroine

Armed with minimal synth tracks, intelligent lyrics, and a voice years ahead of her, New Zealand’s Ella Yelich-O’Connor, aka Lorde, took the world by storm. What was it that made Pure Heroine so seductive to those of us with a few more heartbreaks and formative experiences under our skin? Feverishly, I played “Ribs” and “400 Lux” over and over again, and turned up “Royals” any time it happened to come on the radio. (The numbers prove I wasn’t the only one.) Somehow, O’Connor tapped into primal and basic insights about a time most of us still haven’t digested appropriately. “It drives you crazy getting old,” Yelich-O’Connor sings on “Ribs”, but with a debut like Pure Heroine, age and its wisdom should only enhance her already considerable gifts. –Katherine Flynn

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Buy: Amazon

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HAXAN_CLOAK_PACK1_medium_image46. The Haxan Cloak – Excavation

Enough music dances around the fear of death, landing vaguely on a compulsion to seize the moment for what it is, because after this, who knows? The Haxan Cloak dives into death as another experience, imagining the passage of a soul after it’s been severed from the machinations of the body. But this isn’t the afterlife folk songs hope for. Deep and surreal, Excavation works on living bodies in ways a lot of dark ambience only hints at. This is a full-body album, something to be blasted in the dark, something to be understood not as an object but as a series of vibrations felt in the ears and the skin. Bobby Krlic imagines death ina way that makes sure you know you’re alive. –Sasha Geffen

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Buy: Amazon

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Arctic Monkeys AM artwork45. Arctic Monkeys – AM

As Jon Hadusek put it in his review, Arctic Monkeys has never given in to the success trap of playing the same things that made you a star in the first place. In fact, they have fought tooth and nail against it. AM is a darker, more groovy and slinky album than anything they’ve done previously. Alex Turner is pushing the band into stranger sonic directions, but their inventive guitar work and lyricism never wane. Turner’s wordplay is some of the most clever and unexpected of any songwriter today. Arctic Monkeys have used AM as another incredible reminder that they have grown up, and 2006 was a long time ago. –Nick Freed

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pusha t my name is my name44. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name

I don’t pretend to relate to Pusha T. Not on a lyrical level. I’m white, I was raised middle class, and I’ve never dealt cocaine. And if there’s any truth to My Name Is My Name (which there’s lots), I’m not about to start. Not because it’s an anti-drug record—the album’s as morally ambiguous about the coke trade as anything by Clipse—but because it makes pushing blow sound hard. “Two beepers on me/ Starter jacket that was two-toned / Four lockers / Four different bitches got their mule on,” the younger Thornton brother explains in “Nosestalgia”. Complicated stuff, plus I was never good at math. This elaborate business model is a part of the M.O. of My Name Is My Name, an album that views narcotics strictly in terms of logistics, economics, and survival. Pusha T’s practicality makes him unique among his contemporaries—his material indulgence is moderate, and he never uses his own supply, if he even uses at all. –Dan Caffrey

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chelsea wolfe pain is beauty Top 50 Albums of 201343. Chelsea Wolfe – Pain Is Beauty

Prior to the release of Pain Is Beauty, fans were left speculating whether Chelsea Wolfe would return to the more volatile noise of Apokalypsis or continue in the direction of Unknown Rooms doom folk. The answer is a little bit of both, but really neither. On Pain Is Beauty, Wolfe conjures ominous drones and buildups as menacing as Swans’, and layers them with beats that creep and moody atmospherics. It’s nearly an hour of nuanced gloom and doom that’s as gorgeous as it is monstrous. Pain Is Beauty defies classification and establishes Wolfe as music’s true mistress of darkness. –Frank Mojica

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Buy: Amazon

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Mark Mulcahy42. Mark Mulcahy – Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You

While Daft Punk, David Bowie, and My Bloody Valentine all resurfaced with some of the most anticipated and celebrated records of 2013, cult singer-songwriter Mark Mulcahy quietly returned with a “comeback” album that rightly belongs in the same conversation. Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You plays like a love note to fans, blending Mulcahy’s singular solo sound with that sugarcoated Polaris vibe in 35 minutes of irresistible pop bursts. Mulcahy’s voice — the most dynamic and versatile instrument found in his music — remains finely tuned, delighting on everything from emphatic call-and-response shouts and zero-to-60 chorus blastoffs to hushed echoes and pulsating vocal flourishes. And irony-rich relationship reflections like “Poison Candy Heart” (a brutally one-sided relationship dipped in a confectioner’s glaze of strums, keys, and carefree whistles) and “The Rabbit” (an ambivalent portrait of a lover articulated with an elocutionist delivery) are as playful and insightful as anything heard this year. —Matt Melis

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 Top 50 Albums of 201341. Mountains – Centralia

The Brooklyn duo of Koen Holtkamp and Brendon Anderegg kept us warm last winter with Centralia, their third and strongest release to date. By combining acoustic instruments — guitars, piano, and strings — with a deck of electronics, the two bridged our world with the unknown. What came of the welding was a relaxing excursion over seven tracks that breathes in all the ways Brian Eno once intended with Music for Airports. You’ll sit in a lonely church pew out in the Salton Sea (“Sand”), breathe miraculously underwater (“Circular C”), and discover an icebreaker to tell David Bowman (“Propeller”). Admittedly, it isn’t too complicated to find an ambient album supercharged with emotion these days, but it says something that this didn’t get lost amidst new releases by Oneohtrix Point Never, Darkside, and Boards of Canada. –Michael Roffman

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Bowie The Next Day40. David Bowie – The Next Day

From his days as the stalking Thin White Duke to the glitter-clad Ziggy Stardust, part of David Bowie’s enduring legacy has been his adaptability and ability to embrace change. The luminary godfather of glam treads new territory on The Next Day, but never skimps on the bombastic rhythms, busty harmonies, or tales of love and loneliness that defined his early records as relatable classics. The Next Day is a record that rests on its promise to think forward and delivers. As Bowie continues to draw from his lifetime of experiences as an extraordinary artist, vocalist, film cameo extraordinaire, and excellent human being, listeners are in for a set of otherworldly treats. Who knows what tomorrow will bring. –Paula Mejia

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earl doris39. Earl Sweatshirt – Doris

In interviews, Earl Sweatshirt comes across as the most carefree guy in the world, deadpan but perfectly affable. So when, on “Chum”, the lead single from his debut album, he begins by noting his relationship with his MIA father, we know he’s a master of inward-looking versery, too. Generally, Doris is a laid-back affair. While away at boarding school in Samoa, his rap career on hold, Earl was painted as a messiah due to his obvious smarts. There’s nothing too heroic about Doris; instead, it finds Earl tweaking various left field rap tricks (heavily processed vocals, psychedelic beats) as he embraces his inimitable cool and vague nerdom in equal measure. One of the more appealing characteristics of Odd Future is that the collective has remained true to its roots as a basement-born nonentity. Doris, in spite of its high-stakes status, is a triumph of doing things for the fun of it. –Mike Madden

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daft punk random access memories38. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

Calling Random Access Memories Daft Punk’s best album is an exceedingly debatable statement, but it’s hard to question whether it belongs at the top of the duo’s catalog when it comes to pure mythos. The duo’s ambition — to return life to a lifeless genre — reeks of grandeur. “Today, electronic music is like an audio energy drink,” Thomas Bangalter lamented in a Rolling Stone interview. “Artists are overcompensating with this aggressive, energetic, hyper-stimulating music — it’s like someone shaking you. But it can’t move people on an emotional level.” And so Daft Punk set out to craft a fantastic EDM album that’s not even really EDM. It might not be their greatest work to date, but it’s certainly their grandest, as it switches from progressive (“Touch”, “Giorgio by Moroder”) to straight EDM thrills (“Motherboard”, “Contact”), never losing sight of its mission. There’s plenty of heart, and at its core, an immaculately produced display of fanboyism. –Brian Josephs

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James-Blake-Overgrown37. James Blake – Overgrown

After the release of his self-titled debut, Brit wunderkind James Blake was, in his own way, synonymous with the evolution of dubstep. Thankfully, Blake didn’t really care. Instead of exploiting his status as the Skrillex of post-dubstep, Blake collaborated with Brian Eno, Bon Iver, and RZA in an effort to expand his sound. And it shows on Overgrown, a smart, sexy album imbued with R&B influences (see the sultry “Retrograde”) and gospel leanings (“Digital Lion” climaxes in a sort of ecclesiastical fervor). Overgrown, winner of the 2013 Mercury Prize, is as good a follow-up as one could ask for after a smash debut. Sophomore slump this is not. –Randall Colburn

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Waxahatchee-Cerulean-Salt136. Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt

Katie Crutchfield’s solo project, Waxahatchee, began with American Weekend, an understated collection of lo-fi acoustic songs after she amicably split from P.S. Eliot, an Alabama-based punk band she co-founded with her twin sister, Allison (now of Swearin’). For Cerulean Salt, Crutchfield polishes up the recording techniques and employs a full band, making astoundingly affecting songs, from the bass-driven and downbeat “Brother Bryan” to the splash of pop punk on “Coast to Coast”. Crutchfield’s music is deliberately stripped down and simple on “Blue Pt. 2” and the acoustic “Tangled Envisioning”, shining a direct light on her vulnerable vocals and open-book, confessional lyrics. Cerulean Salt acts as a relatable road map for heartbroken and broke twentysomethings, telling substance-filled tales of sleeping on apartment floors, hooking up, and toxic relationships. –Josh Terry

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janelle monae electric lady35. Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady

The Electric Lady is where experimentation and freedom — two words that feel synonymous at times — diverge. Experimentation implies a tunnel vision to forward aural progress, risking being esoteric in favor of trailblazing. Janelle Monáe isn’t trying to do that. She’s trying to make your body move, and in order to do so, she took the orchestral grandeur of The ArchAndroid and condensed it into something that’s tighter and fiercer. So, what we get is a package that’s part funk, part sensual R&B, part sass, part space opera, part earthy realness, but altogether empowering (see: the single mother ode in “Ghetto Woman”). The Electric Lady is also notable for being more accessible than its predecessor without sacrificing any of Monáe’s trademark idiosyncrasies. As she told Pitchfork, “This time, I said, ‘Let’s try it and see what happens.’ I believe in these songs even if they don’t make it on the radio, but why not try?” Her radio hit-seeking ambitions are on a whim; it’s you who doesn’t have the choice. And so you dance. –Brian Josephs

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the men new moon e1357742335587 Top 50 Albums of 201334. The Men – New Moon

The Men have become a special type of machine. They’re a vehicle on cruise control at 30 over the speed limit, with a tag team of expert drivers on board who have all been awake for way too long, as well as a mechanic who’s constantly adding upgrades one at a time. In 2013, they added keys onto their loose ‘n’ gritty garage sound, and it would “Open the Door” for them to develop a whole new Americana game for their skill set. What began as a super-charged clunker not long ago has evolved into something of a midsize truck barreling down a countryside highway at sunset; on New Moon, The Men still sound reckless and over-caffeinated (“Electric”, “Supermoon”) yet never unable to savor the scenery (“High and Lonesome”, “Bird Song”). Now, their current perfect streak of one great LP per year over four (soon, probably, to be five) straight years speaks their case as the most efficient machine, if not the best, that you’ll find in rock music today. –Steven Arroyo

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OLE-1034-Majical-Cloudz-Impersonator-537x53733. Majical Cloudz – Impersonator

The icy minimalism of Impersonator prevails in a saturated music landscape. Majical Cloudz’ Devon Welsh exhibits a commanding performance of musical restraint and impassioned poetry. His signature baritone pours out conflicted, self-conscious compositions atop skittering drum tracks both stark and grave. There’s little to hide behind. Impersonator finds Welsh in a state of unhinged self-doubt and confusion. Is he a “songwriter?” Is it “music” he writes? Can this record truly capture any real emotions, or is just an excuse to pretend? In raising all of these questions flat-out, Welsh simultaneously answers them, and makes one of the best records of “music” to emerge in sometime. And there’s nothing phony about that. –Drew Litowitz

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Pissed Jeans32. Pissed Jeans – Honeys

Pissed Jeans have never made it their business to make you feel comfortable. Even for fans of the Allentown, PA band’s work, it’s a loud, dense, punishing pill that doesn’t go down easy. So, it’s difficult not to look at a title like Honeys as some sort of smart-ass goof, and for the most part, it is. But the record’s also their most accessible and streamlined offering to date, even if only incrementally. The arrangements are tighter and slightly straightforward, and the sound’s a bit cleaner, too. But don’t mistake that fine-tuning for a concession of power. Honeys is every bit as much of a bear as anything the band’s ever done, full of the same menacing energy and apocalyptic volume that cuts through your ear canals like a buzz saw. –Ryan Bray

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Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol 331. Colin Stetson – New History Warfare, Vol. 3

Few artists can orchestrate the endless arpeggios and mazy instrumentation of saxophonist Colin Stetson. What makes New History Warfare, Vol. 3 encapsulating is its power behind a breath and entire body. We could hear his paced breathing as a creepy texture, but it’s what makes his music humane and alive. His powerful techniques defeat what a computer could possibly do, as he relies strictly on his mouthpiece to fuel distorted bell hums and fingers to crack percussive pounding. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon allows the genre to transform further with his daring vocal contributions, whether he sings with his well-known falsetto or vicious death metal croak. Yeah, we didn’t see that coming either. For that, Colin Stetson sets a high bar for what experimental music can be when the body is the dominant force. –Sam Willett

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qotsa Top 50 Albums of 201330. Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork

It took Josh Homme dying on an operating table to record Queens of the Stone Age’s sixth album, …Like Clockwork. Even if his near-death experience isn’t readily apparent (though the LP’s stacked with references to all things death), it’s clear Homme’s not the same man from Era Vulgaris. His whole emotional outlook and worldview have changed, and he’s had to relearn how to love and appreciate music. But, even as we see new depths to Homme and Co., the band’s trademark intensity, that ability to snag you with one crunchy power cord, remains the same. That whole dynamic, of new ideas and emotions riding a wave of familiar sounds and explosiveness, immediately makes the LP a huge success both individually and canonically. Who said dying has to be all bad? –Chris Coplan

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Savages Silence Yourself29. Savages – Silence Yourself

“The noise is a constant distraction,” reads the manifesto that graces the cover of Savages‘ ferocious debut album. Few albums this year provided the visceral gut check of Silence Yourself, and no band came pre-packaged with such a concise vision. In a yelp equally indebted to Siouxsie Sioux and David Byrne, Jenny Beth delivers lines like “I took a beating tonight, and that was the best I ever had” and “I love the stretch marks on your thighs” with the intensity of a barracuda about to strike. With their sexualized take on post-punk and stone cold imagery, Savages aimed to get one sentiment across: shut up and listen, or else. –Bryant Kitching

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bluechips2cover Top 50 Albums of 201328. Action Bronson – Blue Chips 2

It’s rare for a sequel to top the original in any series, but with Blue Chips 2, Action Bronson and Party Supplies did just that, putting out a 19-track mixtape that exhibits the versatility of both artists in an ocean of obscure and entertaining samples and beats. No other album or mixtape had such a wide variety of samples all year, with Party Supplies mixing artists like Phil Collins and John Mellencamp on the same track (“Contemporary Man”) and legitimately crafting a category all his own. The Flushing rapper brings the fire over any backing track, even going a cappella for a few bars, and continues his reign over the foodie/wrestling/old school athlete name drops/copious amounts of wax smoking rap game. The album isn’t necessarily a game changer, but the two men behind it sure are. –Pat Levy

Stream

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Speedy-Ortiz-Major-Arcana27. Speedy Ortiz – Major Arcana

Nervous tics, snarky revenge quips, loneliness, and demon-hunting tales all slip into Massachusetts standout Speedy Ortiz’s stunning debut, Major Arcana. Heralded for instrumentation that resembles a chugging Polvo at the heaviest and a fuzzed-out Helium in the quieter corners, the true force of this band comes from the salient lyricism and sharp perception of frontwoman and chief songwriter Sadie Dupuis, who textures her words to mimic the syllables and structure of poetry one would never expect from a girl who was once in an all-female Pavement cover band named Babement. Cheeky smiles aside, Major Arcana intensifies with each listen, with memorable songs that cling tightly in your brain with no intention of ever leaving. –Paula Mejia

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okkervil river the silver gymnasium Top 50 Albums of 201326. Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium

Okkervil River have dealt plenty with nostalgia. Virtually all of their albums have, to some degree, examined how looking back and getting lost in the pop culture of yesteryear can be dangerous. It’s an old yet true viewpoint, the idea that the past was never as good as we make it out to be. So kudos to the band for presenting a completely opposite viewpoint on The Silver Gymnasium. Set in frontman Will Sheff‘s hometown of Meriden, New Hampshire, circa 1986, the band’s seventh studio album recognizes that the past is somewhat shitty (“Show me my best memory/ It’s probably super crappy,” Sheff sings on “Pink Slips”). But it also recognizes that only when we come to terms with this shittiness can we start celebrating the good parts.

For Sheff, the good parts come from his friends (see the positive mantra of “Stay Young”), his family (see his father comforting him after a friend’s death on “Down Down the Deep River”), and nature (see the Granite State landscapes of “Where the Spirit Left Us”). Retro keyboards signify the time period, while reality gets blended with the mysticism of solid ghosts, constantly in-flux seasons, and a parallel universe that may result from a 10-year-old Sheff’s love for The Last Starfighter. There’s plenty of darkness, too, but once again, because the musicians confront this darkness, the record helps them (and others) cope with it. Many artists decried nostalgia in 2013, but Okkervil River used it to look forward. –Dan Caffrey

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Run-The-Jewels-Cover25. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels

Superficially, Run the Jewels’ self-titled LP is the indie rap Watch the Throne. Leaving it at that, though, is an injustice to El-P and Killer Mike’s status as a dynamic duo. Sure, both had a similar kind of hype (two big names coming together as a superpower), but RTJ built on that whole dynamic. El-P and Killer Mike were more than talented friends who worked well together; they took their friendship to the next level, combining their skill sets and achieving a pronounced sense of cohesion and interplay (i.e., El’s raps feel less abstract, while Mike gains confidence from El’s backing.) The record was more than the sum of its parts, and wouldn’t be what it was if either man tried these tunes solo. Ain’t friendship grand?! –Chris Coplan

Buy: Amazon

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Phosphorescent24. Phosphorescent – Muchacho

There’s an innate, ignoble curiosity in watching someone fall apart before our eyes. On Muchacho, Matthew Houck (aka Phosphorescent) poignantly shifts the focus onto picking up the pieces. “Fix myself up, come and be with you,” muses Houck on “Muchacho’s Tune”, a song soaked in the low lights and libations of a cantina after closing, but never in self-pity. And therein lies Muchacho’s basic beauty: Houck’s revelation that he’s wounded but not broken, down but far from out. Whether recalling parting blows (“Terror in the Canyons”) or tallying life’s blessings and curses (“A Charm/A Blade”), Houck manages to find beauty and cause for celebration even at rock bottom. In the final verse of “Song for Zula” — six minutes of breathtaking tension between human frailty and fortitude — the “caged” lover mutters, “And I could kill you with my bare hands if I was free,” an animalistic, gritty sentiment that encapsulates why Muchacho belongs on year-end lists. In Houck’s hands, a record that would typically wallow instead speaks to an indomitable part of our spirit. —Matt Melis

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The Flaming Lps The Terrors23. The Flaming Lips – The Terror

The Flaming Lips burned away their unabashed optimism with what isn’t only the bleakest album in their discography, but possibly the bleakest album released by anyone this year. With the personal lives of band members in turmoil, albeit highly speculative, The Terror overwhelms with its relentless rhythms and Wayne Coyne’s repeated claim that “You Are Alone”, yet also manages to wrap its musical blanket around your cold shoulders during the beautiful “Try to Explain” and tribal “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die”. Of course, said musical blanket is more of a tinfoil cape attached to cables that Coyne performs with on live television, proving that although The Terror is the Lips devoid of hope, they’ll never be devoid of weird. —Justin Gerber

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GROUPER-THE-MAN-WHO-DIED-IN-HIS-BOAT1-575x57522. Grouper – The Man Who Died in His Boat

Where was there to go for Grouper after A I A: Alien Observer, a near-perfect collection of ambient drone and vocal ephemerality? The answer, it seems, was backwards, as The Man Who Died in His Boat incorporates unreleased cuts from 2008’s rustic Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill. And though they’re anchored in some placid backwoods loch, the songs feel stardusted in the translucent space grime of A I A, birthing a record that, like the actual man who died in his boat, drifts through sticks and water moccasins, eyes fixed on the hazy grey firmament. Where contemporaries like Julianna Barwick and Eluvium (both of whom released excellent records this year) seek transcendence in the celestial, Grouper keeps her feet planted firmly in the dirt. And, somehow, some way, she keeps releasing music that sounds, even in 2013, like absolutely no one else. –Randall Colburn

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jaar darkside21. Darkside – Psychic

If the epithet “guitarist” is, by now, enough to make you flinch, Darkside build up a globe where no one’s ever crunched through a mutilated “Stairway” through a discount amplifier. Psychic is shelter, a space bounded by Nicolas Jaar’s translucent electronic membranes, a space where Dave Harrington can rip notes out of a fretboard and instantly turn them to water. In between taking jabs at the year’s most transparently expensive record, this budding duo unearthed a debut of original music that unravels the traditions Daft Punk paid so much to preserve. Riffs here don’t work as templates for flexing skill or ornamenting rhythm; they’re part of a complex organism that writhes and writhes until every dark corner has been filled. By resisting referentiality in favor of motion, Darkside engineer an animal that’s firmly of the moment. Hiding from the signifiers of 2013 is 2013, and here Jaar shows again that nostalgia is only noise. –Sasha Geffen

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Deafheaven-Sunbather-cover220. Deafheaven – Sunbather

If anything, the vibrant, pink album art donning Deafheaven‘s Sunbather was the first sign that this was no ordinary metal record. On their debut, Roads to Judah, the band pushed the boundaries of black metal but never exactly broke them. With the expansive Sunbather, the amount of influences crammed in makes it nearly impossible to classify. It’s a crossover record that’s equal parts post-rock, shoegaze, and black metal, spreading resonant ideas over songs often 10 minutes or longer.

Sunbather’s lyrics are deeply immersive and paired with Kerry McCoy’s beautifully ferocious guitar playing that at times channels Weakling, Slowdive, and Godspeed! You Black Emperor creates a uniquely affecting experience. The standout title track has George Clarke’s harshly bitter screams detailing a powerful image of a wealthy woman sunbathing while other tracks offer vivid renderings of class, inadequacy, and despair like the booming opener “Dream House” and the epic “Vertigo”. The songs are spaced between lush instrumentals like “Irresistible” for nearly perfect sequencing. –Josh Terry

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drake nothing was19. Drake – Nothing Was the Same

Virtually all of rap’s biggest names released an album this year – Jay, Kanye, Em, 2 Chainz, J. Cole, the list goes on – but none of them had more to prove than Drake, previously a punching bag for those opposed to anything remotely emo in rap. If 2011’s Take Care was Drake drowning in compliments, then Nothing Was the Same is the sound of him making his way back to the surface on his own terms. “Worst Behavior” is menacing and colossal, “Too Much” is the emotional stunner with its wrenching refrain from London crooner Sampha, and on a handful of others, Drizzy shows out as his era’s smoothest rapper-R&B singer hybrid. He’s less concerned with the immediate past than he was on Take Care, revisiting his days as a young Wu-Tang fan in Toronto and deciding that his present might not be so tough after all. Nothing Was the Same is a toast to his success, and to success itself. –Mike Madden

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Lady Lamb Ripey Pine18. Lady Lamb the Beekeeper – Ripely Pine

In an era when a musician can post a track to Soundcloud and have a global tour booked days later, Aly Spaltro (aka Lady Lamb the Beekeeper) has remained remarkably patient. Ripely Pine began taking shape over four years ago in the basement of the video store where Spaltro worked, recording to a tape recorder after hours. “I’m in no rush,” Spaltro told us earlier this year. “The slow-going pace is really my way of trying for longevity because I don’t want to burn out.” It’s the precise antithesis of how music is generally done nowadays, and the results are stunning.

Almost entirely self-arranged, the tracks are a tour de force of soft-loud dynamics (“Hair to the Ferris Wheel”, “You Are the Apple”), full of earnest vocal imperfections that retain a DIY richness. Lyrically, it’s everything we privately scratched into our late-teen/early-20s journals, except with a poetic poignancy we only dreamed about (“you handled me like an infant skull/ And I cradled you like a newborn nightmare”). As much as we’d love more, these songs allow us to listen as patiently as she formed them. Here’s hoping Lady Lamb takes as much time as needed before following up this beautiful effort. –Ben Kaye

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mikal cronin mc2 e1360075845389 Top 50 Albums of 201317. Mikal Cronin – MCII

There was a magical time in the mid-’90 when household machinery lacked proper safety devices. The laser beam stopgaps put in place to prevent children from being crushed to death were so primitive that they might as well have been ornamental. The fondest right of passage in those post-Cold War glory days was pushing the garage door button and then charging through its clamping jaws. Escaping the garage was never easy, and certainly not safe. But it paid off. The brain rewarded your apprehensive heart with a jolt of achievement tinged by genuine grief over taking such an unnecessary risk. This swirling mix of emotions is also the best way to describe Mikal Cronin’s own mad dash from the world of psychedelic garage rock toward a lush garden of power pop beauty and sublime contemplation.

Cronin – best known for his membership in the Ty Segall Band and as a modern day McCartney to Segall’s Lennon – showcases a fun collection of tracks on MCII,  his sophomore solo release, that balances wonder and awe with a profound sense of loss. Like Jimmy Eat World’s Jim Adkins before him, Cronin adds an abysmal depth to even the most lighthearted melodies. Tracks like “Weight” and “Shout It Out” display some of the best instrumental sojourns and rock choruses of the year, while “Change” features  a beautiful string section that ends with violent sawing, like a mad lumberjack tying one on. —Dan Pfleegor

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rplusseven1 Top 50 Albums of 201316. Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus Seven

While other musicians simply work with computers and the Internet, none sound more as if they are coming symbiotically through that interconnected technology than Oneohtrix Point Never on R Plus Seven. The album captures the arching bursts of obtuse data and semi-comprehensible language that, when pieced altogether, produce dizzying thrills, intense paranoia, and everything in between. There are organic experiences in the machine, a human musicality guiding the way through the distressed snippets of voices, crystalline synths, and rime-crusted atmospheres.

With each Oneohtrix Point Never album, Daniel Lopatin pushes further into the void, but this time, that void is the one that we all face when we open the lid on the laptop or start up the smartphone. Though digitized, chopped, and reassembled, the wordless incantations and clanging strings of “He She” impact as a timeless religious rite. A melody attempts to reveal itself through the chilled wash of “Americans”, and “Still Life” dips in and out of the white noise deep end, calmly rising for deep breaths of air. R Plus Seven is the sound of Daniel Lopatin making his way through the Internet, assembling a mantle of meaning, language, and sound around him, and then gliding out of a speaker, putting a hand on your shoulder, and then fading back into the dark corners of data. –Adam Kivel

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humming Top 50 Albums of 201315. Local Natives – Hummingbird

Following the dismissal of founding bassist Andy Hamm and the death of singer Kelcey Ayer’s mother, Local NativesHummingbird was a decidedly more somber affair than their euphoric debut. Yet with the help of The National’s Aaron Dressner, who produced the record, the LA quartet managed to sidestep the dreaded sophomore slump while not straying too far from their comfort zone. They’ve always been sonically prone to comparisons with bands like Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear, and those parallels still hold true here.

But with Hummingbird, Local Natives added welcomed emotional depth and surprisingly heart-wrenching song craftsmanship. See: “Colombia”, where a bleary-eyed Ayer poses unanswerable questions to the heavens. The stunning torch song succeeds both as a private observance and mile-high tribute to his mother. “Am I giving enough?” “Am I loving enough?” he ruminates, and you can practically see him by the hospital bed as she takes her final breaths. –Bryant Kitching

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Danny Brown Old14. Danny Brown – Old

Danny Brown calls himself “old,” yet his technique improves with each record, his taste for beats honed to a science. Credit his flourishing relationship with go-to producers SKYWALKR and Paul White. When Brown wants a party banger (like the cheefing anthem “Kush Koma”), he’s given a trap beat that aligns perfectly with his fast, spastic flow. About half the tracks on Old fit this mold, while the rest see Brown in conscious mode, relating poignant anecdotes (“Wonderbread”) and ruminations (“Torture”, “25 Bucks”) about his harsh childhood in Detroit. Softer sounds and tamer rhyme schemes define these moments, with electro acts such as Purity Ring and Charli XCX making effective guest appearances. The striking thing about Old is how in touch it sounds. Its 19 tracks are a tour through contemporary pop and electronic music — from dubstep to smooth R&B. There’s really nowhere Danny Brown won’t go, no topic he won’t rap about, and that explosive uncertainty drives Old. –Jon Hadusek

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nick cave bad seeds push the sky away13. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away

Nick Cave sings a line in Push the Sky Aways penultimate track about “Miley Cyrus swimming in a pool.” A supposed free-form lyric in February became a reality this summer, when the former Disney princess shocked parents everywhere with her pool-party antics in the “We Can’t Stop” music video. The band’s 15th studio album is dark enough without this bizarre and accurate prediction, with the eerie siren calls of “Mermaids”, the destitute prostitutes and johns of “Jubilee Street”, and potentially soul-questioning scientific discoveries (“Higgs Boson Blues”). But while Cave and his Bad Seeds are no stranger to the darkness (Murder Ballads) and even subtle production (The Boatman’s Call), it is the combination of these two that make for a subdued and often uncomfortable record. Cave’s knife hasn’t dulled over the past three decades, and if Push the Sky Away is any indication, it could stay sharp for decades to come. —Justin Gerber

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JuliaHolter_LoudCitySong12. Julia Holter – Loud City Song

From Tragedy to Ekstasis to this year’s Loud City Song, Julia Holter has not only transitioned from one-woman bedroom show to touring with a large accompanying band, but also into acquiring multiple vocal and musical personalities. With these new facets, Holter intricately concocted a Gigi-inspired third record of intricate dreamscapes and cityscapes, all the while maintaining a horrifically beautiful atmosphere full of contradictory timidity and societally despairing nightmares.

“The feeling you get from the Gigi character is that she is trying to figure out why she doesn’t understand society, and you get the sense it is ‘loud’ to her, that she is bombarded by it and she is running away from it,” Holter told The Quietus. From the haste-laden footsteps of “Horns Surrounding Me” to the jazzy informality of “This Is a True Heart” to the observation-driven “World”, Holter has succeeded in making the depiction of this Gigi character a vicarious one, the record ultimately never ceasing to surprise your imagination. –Zander Porter

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HAIM Days Are Gone11. HAIM – Days Are Gone

What HAIM managed to accomplish on the sheer potential of Days Are Gone is astounding. When the record finally dropped, all the hype proved so very worth it. But besides undeniable tracks like “The Wire” and “Falling”, the album is remarkable for the way it simultaneously exemplifies and rewrites the typical indie pop-star story.

Infectious, relatable heartbreak songs that hearken as much to 70’s pop (“Honey & I”) as to millennial electro-noise (“My Song 5”) bridge the gap between mainstream megastar potential and blog darlings. Based solely on singles, they locked in a massive festival schedule, performed for the British Prime Minister, and signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation. Yet throughout all their success, no one talks about the fact that this is a girl group. I challenge you to think of an all-female band that has put out a record this attractive in the last decade.

That few mention gender when discussing HAIM is not an issue, though; it’s a testament to the talent encapsulated on Days Are Gone and the state of music in 2013. Borrowing styles from multiple eras, performed and written by the musicians on the cover: this is the modern pop album. –Ben Kaye

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chance the rapper acid rap10. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap

Not many hip-hop artists look scared on their album covers. In fact, I can’t think of a single one, save for Chance the Rapper. He stares at you from the front of Acid Rap, clad in a droopy wifebeater splattered with purple and blue. His eyes are wide and panicked, as if he’s just witnessed an army of Smurfs get gunned down in the woods. For it’s fear that’s at the core of this twitchy, half-weird mixtape. The anxiety springs from various sources: drug-fueled co-dependence (“Lost”), growing up (“Cocoa Butter Kisses “, “Acid Rain”), and dying before getting to grow up. That last one comes courtesy of “Paranoia”, an early-album hidden track where Chancelor dreads summer in his native Chicago because that’s when kids get shot.

But although fear is at the album’s core, it’s not the whole thing. Even the tense moments are wrapped in warm soul samples, and there’s still much joy to be found within the lyrics: in back-to-back tracks, Chance ponders his favorite songs and the importance of love, both romantic and familial. Acid Rap even ends on a similar note, with the rapper thanking his father over the phone for getting him a computer and some t-shirts. It might be hip-hop’s least intimidating conclusion to an album, but maybe that’s the point. At 20 years old, Chance the Rapper is still a kid, something he never shies away from. He rarely postures or self-aggrandizes, and even when he does, it feels humorous and earned, like a high schooler goofing around with his friends. It makes sense, given that not too long ago, that’s exactly what he was. Genuine, huh? Maybe he’s an adult after all. –Dan Caffrey

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The National Trouble Will Find9. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

The National have honed the idea of seemingly low-effort perfection. Their catalog is filled with razor-sharp albums that seem like wine-fueled spontaneity, but are precise and measured. Trouble Will Find Me is no exception, but there is something running underneath that’s different. There is a steadiness and an absolutely unshakeable confidence that coats every song. Lead singer Matt Berninger told our Michael Roffman, “The whole process of making this record was actually very fun for me. We spent more time on this than any of our records so far, but it was never a stressful struggle.”

That liberty and comfort is completely evident on Trouble Will Find Me. Berninger’s mumbled baritone slurs and bubbles from an honest pit inside him on tracks like “Don’t Swallow the Cap”, “I Need My Girl”, and “Pink Rabbits”, while the rest of the band creates a web of intricate guitar lines and concrete rhythm to hold Berninger upright.

The fun Berninger had making this album released the urgent tension of previous albums High Violet and Alligator. Those albums were the midnight drunk trying to explain to the person he loves that he loves her while standing on a cold street corner as she’s hailing a cab. It’s honest and beautiful, but uncorked.

Trouble Will Find Me then is the second glass in a quiet apartment. It’s maturity. It’s immediate. The National peered into the world of Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen to create an adult album in a year fully-stocked with young artistry. This isn’t twentysomething heartbreak and despondence. This is slow drags and deep sips at the end of the bar. It’s a light laugh with a heavy pause afterward. In those moments, we now have this. –Nick Freed

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disclosure settle album Top 50 Albums of 2013

8. Disclosure – Settle

First introduced to electronic music through Burial’s 2007 album, Untrue, and Joy Orbison’s 2009 single, “Hyph Mngo”, Guy and Howard Lawrence (ages 19 and 22, respectively) began making music and expanding their taste to increasingly retro fare from U.K. garage to Detroit and Chicago house. Though the Lawrence brothers are undoubtedly inspired by these genres, there’s an equal admiration for straightforward pop music. With their debut album, Settle, they’ve released a confident, cohesive, and progressive record.

Settle bounces between their bread and butter club fare and a series of vocal-driven pop tunes with guest spots featuring a veritable “who’s who” of U.K.-based up-and-comers. On their breakout single, “Latch”, Sam Smith’s upper register booms over the wub-wub of the electronic bass line. Other highlights include the two-step beat and Eliza Doolittle’s R&B-inflected vocal runs on the impressive “You & Me” and Friendly Fires’ Ed MacFarlane sounding particularly sultry on “Defeated No More”. There’s straight-up club fare here, too, backed by propulsive house beats and hypnotic samples: the zealous “hip-hop minister” Eric Thomas on “When a Fire Starts to Burn” and Lianne La Havas on “Stimulation”.

Like their spiritual predecessors Basement Jaxx, Disclosure’s debut is a crossover record that works as well on pop radio as it does in the sweaty nightclub. Dance music has never had a problem breaking into the mainstream, but with Disclosure, their brand of dance music is arguably more universal than the typical EDM standards, appealing both to house and U.K garage purists as well as America’s “frat boy” EDM market. Charting #1 in the U.K. and nominated for the Mercury Prize, Settle is deeply reverential to the Lawrence brothers’ influences, but the spotlessly crisp production and contagious melodies make it impossibly fresh. –Josh Terry

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reflektorac Top 50 Albums of 2013

7. Arcade Fire – Reflektor

Each Arcade Fire album acts as a sort of religious rite. Things started with a Funeral, Win Butler wanting you to join him to fight the darkness, the album full of we and our. Neon Bible neared a fire and brimstone sermon; the band recorded in an honest-to-goodness place of worship, and the stage show expanded to the likes of a megachurch, finding solace away from the lyrics’ depiction of impending danger (“Keep the Car Running”), frustrated questioning (“(Antichrist Television Blues)”), and pointless suffering (“Intervention”). The Suburbs further warned of “a millionaire quoting the Sermon on the Mount,” instead speaking in salvation terms for the “kids in buses longing to be free.” Reflektor, then, is the feast day; there’s fun, dancing, and costumes, but there’s still room for a few homilies amidst the celebration.

Though dressed up in his festive finest and down among the people, Win Butler still has plenty of lessons to impart. He’s concerned for us all, for the distancing and isolation of the Internet age (“Reflektor”), for the denigration of love by modern media (“Porno”), concerned that traditional religion doesn’t have a place for us (“Here Comes the Night Time”), concerned that we live in a world where the word normal holds any value (“Normal Person”).

The swirl of influences in Arcade Fire’s back pocket always included Springsteen, Bowie, and Byrne, but the latter two show up in larger proportion here (the Thin White Duke even making a cameo) after the Boss-heavy Suburbs. Those tropes get doused with a good bit of Haitian rhythm, sidelong references to their own back catalog, and a combination eye roll/reverent nod toward classic dance rock. That last point remains essential, the band themselves managing to produce a rock record that smirks at rock records, one that challenges that which it is without ever being disingenuous. Butler’s lyrical concern never comes across as pandering or condescending, but rather as a valid concern for society, the listener as an individual, and himself as well.

Reflektor is the sound of Arcade Fire defining a new part of their religion and exploring a small part of their sound without any sign of awkwardness in the self-analysis or discovery. –Adam Kivel

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The_Knife_-_Shaking_the_Habitual6. The Knife – Shaking the Habitual

When choosing songs for best of lists, one common strategy is going by what you listened to the most. Makes sense, right? If an album was the best, you’d want to listen to it repeatedly. Many things that result in pleasure, from smoking a cigarette to running five miles, are repeated to regain that initial pleasure. But is this an absolute metric of what is good?

The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual is unlikely to be the most played album in many iTunes libraries because it’s difficult, paranoia-inducing, at times plain unsettling, and relentlessly thought-provoking. The songs are long, demand attention, and Karin Dreijer Andersson sings in an exaggerated kink that makes her Swedish roots seem almost extraterrestrial. Yeah, it’s demanding. And, its subject matter is equally demanding, asking the listener to examine and abandon that which we do repeatedly, instinctually from conditioning, habitually. Like, say, listening to Yeezus.

The resulting album may not be the most enjoyable to all. It is, though, still experimenting with dance music and using pop-rooted Western melodies, directly and indirectly, with moments of fun (“Stay Out Here”, “Full of Fire”) and beauty (“Raging Lung”, “Ready to Lose”) not hard to find with a minimal effort.

But, beyond sonic pleasures, The Knife have created a useful and vital record, essentially calling everything from gender roles to religion to political traditions into question. That includes lists like this. Olof Dreijer told The Guardian, “We are constructed to like certain things. We’ve been teaching a bit at this summer camp for teenage girls who want to make electronic music, and there we often talk about this idea of quality in music and what informs our ideas of what is supposed to be good and bad music. You know that music history is written by privileged white men, so we can ask ourselves how important it is to repeat their ideas.” I think that means Yeezus is still cool. –Philip Cosores

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kurt vile wakin on a pretty daze Top 50 Albums of 20135. Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Daze

How Kurt Vile can make such on-point, complex, and beautiful music while still seeming perpetually stoned is anyone’s guess. Wakin on a Pretty Daze is a dreamy trip inside the Philadelphia raconteur’s head, and while the music that comes out on the other side is sometimes esoteric and sometimes shrouded in layers of ambiguity, it never comes off as navel-gazing.

When Vile tells us that he wants to live “in my fantasy infinity” on “Girl Named Alex”, all we can really do is be thankful that he’s taking the rest of us along for the ride. Drawing on ’70s influences and assistance from instruments like a Wurlitzer and lap steel guitar, Vile crafts a series of tunes that welcome the listener like a cozy Midwestern neighborhood.

While the album art suggests all the intrigue and adventurous promise of an inner-city street corner, with its possibilities for chance encounters with strangers and eclectic bus drivers ready to whisk you off to anywhere you want to go within the city grid, it all boils down to Vile alone on the curb, ready to be the main attraction and show you the sights himself.

The shaggy-haired songwriter’s excellent guitar stylings still run the show, of course—he never sacrifices his technical skills. But unlike the gloomy isolation of 2011’s Smoke Ring for My Halo, this body of work finds us opening our eyes in the morning with Vile on a day when the sun is shining and many things seem possible. –Katherine Flynn

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chvrches the bones of what you believe4. CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe

Too often we think of album titles as being devoid of meaning, and that practice has been reinforced by eons of bands plastering pleasantly evocative but ultimately meaningless phrases like “OK Computer” or “The Moon & Antarctica” or, hell, “Modern Vampires of the City” on album covers. The titular phrase of CHVRCHES’ triumphant debut record, The Bones of What You Believe, leaves a similar initial impression. But singer Lauren Mayberry slides into the lyric on bonus track “Strong Hands”: “Give me the bones of what you believe/ Maybe they’ll save you from me.” In the context of “Strong Hands”, the bones of what you believe become a chrysalis framework of the beliefs necessary to create self-reliance.

It’s an apt title for a debut record that earns every crescendo of its emotional ambitions. CHVRCHES spins together DNA from the silver screen synths of M83 and Passion Pit, from the ballistic bristling and frustrated fragility of countrymates like the Twilight Sad (with whom CHVRCHES shares a member) and Frightened Rabbit, from the riotous joy of Arcade Fire, from horror soundtracks and pop records in equal measure. In doing so, their album serves as those bones. It’s the necessary base from which the band builds emotional spearheads like “Recover”, “The Mother We Share”, and “Tether”.

The Bones of What You Believe is a record that finds resonance in exploring complexities and dichotomies. It’s big, thunderous music that doesn’t multi-track and reverb their singer’s powerful voice into a weapon, music that traffics in universal minutae– the little, intimate things that everyone remembers feeling. In making the enormous quantifiable and the minute important, CHVRCHES created a record that seems alive. It sits with you, sharing headphones, and helping you craft your own bones. –Chris Bosman

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mbv high res

3. My Bloody Valentine – m b v

Even when Kevin Shields announced at the end of January that the long, long awaited new album from My Bloody Valentine would be out in “two or three days,” it was easy to laugh it off. It seemed it was just the next breadcrumb that fans had been hungrily eating up for the last 17 or more years. However, against all expectation, just under a week later m b v was released, announced through the band’s Facebook. As thousands were met with errors from the site struggling under the traffic, it would have been difficult to say whether the overriding feeling was one of excitement or morbid curiosity. Twenty-two years after Loveless – and a long time since the excitement around it had calcified into its status as an all-time classic – could a new album really live up to what we’d dreamed?

Every person had those doubts immediately assuaged when they first found themselves caught amidst the rapturous deluge of opening track “She Found Now”. It’s not a direct continuation of Loveless, but it’s still undoubtedly My Bloody Valentine–as inimitable as ever. The inchoate guitars provide more texture than melody, but the majority of these songs aren’t smoldering and explosive like previous efforts; they have the rich warm embrace of molten lava. As the circular caress of “Only Tomorrow” takes root in your brain, you can feel your neurons being churned up into warm butter; “If I Am” couples sun-dappled swirls with Belinda Butcher’s mellifluous tones to produce the aural sensation of a love swoon; “New You” has the stately chug of an intergalactic cruise liner gracefully moving through space.

Closing couplet “Nothing Is” and “Wonder 2” showcase MBV’s ongoing affair with divine (and distressing) dissonance, possibly pointing to where the band may go next – for Kevin Shields promises more material in the not-too-distant future. While it’s hard to take the man at his word, it’s undoubtedly intriguing. Nevertheless, if we did have to sit with m b v for a few years, we wouldn’t mind at all. –Rob Hakimian

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Vampire Weekend Modern Vampires Of The City

2. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

In an interview with Shaw Connect, Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend talks about how before recording Modern Vampires of the City it was decided amongst the band that the piano would be the focal point of the album. It’s this dedication to a self-placed constraint that allowed for the four New Yorkers to reign in their talents and stick to the “warm, organic, and woody” concept. The end result was a remarkable maturation from 2010’s Contra, something that three years of relative downtime and outside projects allowed.

There’s a self-assured maturity at hand. They don’t necessarily outright abandon their earworm pop tendencies (see: “Diane Young”, “Everlasting Arms”), but they do impress upon their meditations (feel: “Don’t Lie”, “Hannah Hunt”). As a result, it’s a far more thought-provoking release than anything they’ve carved out prior, which says a lot given that their debut is a five-star album and its successor topped our year-end lists in 2010.

Startling enough, they’re only now acting confident. With flashes of classy pop and intrepid lyricism, which both manage to appeal to mainstream and indie circles, Modern Vampires of the City represents a turning point for the band–the jump from sprightly Oxford prepsters to sprightly justified musicians. If this list was instead the NBA year-end awards, Vampire Weekend would be a lock for Most Improved Player. –Pat Levy

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Kanye.Yeezus

1. Kanye West – Yeezus

There’s a moment about two minutes into “I Am A God” when I can no longer distinguish between breath and machinery. Kanye screams—I think he does—and then the scream fractures, quakes, falls apart. I don’t know if the sound is an outburst of anguish or aggression. On Yeezus, there’s really no difference.

This is an album that brandishes its own power from the title onward, and the whole thing’s tortured to the bone. On “Black Skinhead”, Kanye accents beats with human screams: pain as punctuation, corroding the voice in service of the song. “I’m In It” pixelates an orgasmic yelp, glitching it out to nothing. “Hold My Liquor” leaks breath everywhere; later, Nina Simone’s voice breaks in “Blood on the Leaves”, her words looped to the point where “breeze” almost sounds like a prayer for mercy: “please.

The title of what might be Kanye’s most powerful album to date doesn’t intend to blaspheme. People draw strength from the image of Christ on the cross, too—the picture of absolute power in a state of absolute vulnerability. There is awe in imagining the divine in the throes of human suffering. Kanye West isn’t God, but he gets how God works.

He gets celebrity, too, which works on some level like divinity. He knows the structures of power around him, the forces that both elevate and constrict him, the systems he adeptly manipulates to further his own vision. He released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as proof that he had mastered maximalist indie cred so that he could go on to unleash this thorny thing called Yeezus.

This record’s all bullets, flying at the media and the fashion industry and the government and anything else that stands in the way of the justice he imagines for the world. It’s a bulldozer “clearing a path for people to dream properly,” even though the music sounds more like a nightmare. But how else would you respond to the world that is the United States in 2013?

Yeezus gnashes its teeth at the dystopia deepening around it, at the CEOs who luxuriate in the Hamptons while their companies slash blue collar jobs from the bottom, at the NSA’s stranglehold of surveillance and the president who silently nods it forward. It bites at the mayor who closes schools in the most troubled parts of Chicago while funneling more and more black teens into prison. It broadcasts voices from parts of America that some would prefer to write off as a whole different country: “Chiraq”. Yeezus doesn’t let you hide from the uncomfortable edges of its reality. This is an album that wants you angry.

But Yeezus has no interest in standing as a broadly political work. West laces humanity into these industrial beats and glam rock guitars and samples dripped in from a past when music sounded nothing like it does here. The album spills over with a kind of deranged sympathy, because music, even dark, barbed music, is still a balm, a way to grapple with the violence that flies around in the world.

Deep in Yeezus glows the hope that there’s always a part of you power cannot reach. Even if all you can keep for yourself is your pain, it’s yours; no one else can claim it. Maybe you call that a soul and maybe you don’t; maybe it’s just the “you” that you don’t share on Facebook, that can’t be touched by advertising. Whatever its name, Yeezus insists it’s important—maybe the only thing that’s important.

If people want to call Kanye an egomaniac for knowing himself and his own potential, it’s their loss. Kanye West is a living example of the power of self-love when everything around you keeps urging you to collapse. Like he told Zane Lowe, “if you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re not a fan of me. You’re a fan of yourself.” Yeezus is not a vessel for Kanye’s power but a spark for yours. You are powerful because you are a part of it. –Sasha Geffen

Listen: Spotify | Rdio

Buy: Amazon
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1. Kanye West – Yeezus
2. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
3. My Bloody Valentine – m b v
4. CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe
5. Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Daze
6. The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
7. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
8. Disclosure – Settle
9. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
10. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap
11. HAIM – Days Are Gone
12. Julia Holter – Loud City Song
13. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away
14. Danny Brown – Old
15. Local Natives – Hummingbird
16. Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus Seven
17. Mikal Cronin – MCII
18. Lady Lamb the Beekeeper – Ripely Pine
19. Drake – Nothing Was the Same
20. Deafheaven – Sunbather
21. Darkside – Psychic
22. Grouper – The Man Who Died in His Boat
23. The Flaming Lips – The Terror
24. Phosphorescent – Muchacho
25. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels
26. Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium
27. Speedy Ortiz – Major Arcana
28. Action Bronson – Blue Chips 2
29. Savages – Silence Yourself
30. Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
31. Colin Stetson – New History Warfare, Vol. 3
32. Pissed Jeans – Honeys
33. Majical Cloudz – Impersonator
34. The Men – New Moon
35. Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady
36. Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt
37. James Blake – Overgrown
38. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
39. Earl Sweatshirt – Doris
40. David Bowie – The Next Day
41. Mountains – Centralia
42. Mark Mulcahy – Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You
43. Chelsea Wolfe – Pain Is Beauty
44. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name
45. Arctic Monkeys – AM
46. The Haxan Cloak – Excavation
47. Lorde – Pure Heroine
48. Mutual Benefit – Love’s Crushing Diamond
49. Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time
50. The So So Glos – Blowout

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