Friday, December 6, 2013

Our Top Album Picks of 2013 (Part 1)

As 2013 winds down, we want to take a quick glance back on the year in music that was, and maybe shine a little light on what we thought were the best albums of the year.  Ah, albums...a quaint idea, right?  WRONG.  Nothing in the world of recorded modern popular music makes a bigger statement than an album that plays from beginning to end, taking you on a voyage of emotion specifically plotted and created by the artists involved in making them.  Sure, you could cherry pick singles or tracks you like here and there, but not only would you be missing some of their most vibrant work, you are doing a disservice to yourself by stunting your musical growth by limiting the process of exploration.  There have been many albums with songs that may take a while to seep into our consciousness, and many times, those same songs will become our favorites in the long run because they wear better upon repeated playing.  This process of music discovery is a unique journey, and if it's all too familiar on first listen, what's left to gain? This is why so many of the pop kids sound completely interchangeable these days.  On that note...

Here are Jason's favorites of the year, and check back for Eryn's coming up soon.  Maybe you'll find something you wish to check out for yourself.


1) PRIMAL SCREAM--More Light
Bobby Gillespie and co. return with the best album of their 20+ year career, mixing the best of their past with dashes of Bowie, Can, Sun Ra, Stones, Zeppelin, dub reggae...and making it all their own.  This is the sound of a great rock & roll band effortlessly blending their best qualities, and what a feat it can be making something so difficult sound so easy to do. 

2) WOODKID--The Golden Age
A conceptual album of the highest artistic order, Yoann Lemoine aka Woodkid, released one of the most startling debuts of the year with an album detailing the tale of a young boy fighting against all odds and ultimately losing his tragic battle.  Mixing a little of Nick Cave, Antony Hegarty, and Marc Almond, Lemoine's baritone flexes against the pounding and tribal rhythms in the upbeat songs, while gently smoothing out the ballads with heartfelt tenderness.  While it's seriously difficult to believe this is his first album, one can only wonder where on earth he goes from here.  Brilliant.

3) JOHN GRANT--Pale Green Ghosts
Reading like pages of his diary, Grant's fearlessness comes full force on this album, his followup to 2010's Queen of Denmark (chosen by Mojo Magazine as it's 2010 album of the year).  Both humorous and heartbreaking, Grant's dark and brooding voice is set against downbeat folk rock and stark electronic textures courtesy of Iceland's Gus Gus.  While there is a fair amount of soapboxing going on here, funny songs like "GMF" and "Sensitive New Age Guy" lighten the mood.  Simultaneously, the closing "Glacier" is one of the most transcendent songs in recent memory.  

4) MOONFACE--Julia With Blue Jeans On
Just a guy and his piano, Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown) shows off some amazing talent on an album extolling the virtues of an ex-girlfriend in this modern song cycle.  Recalling a mixture of Nick Drake and Nick Cave, these highly personal songs were recorded live and feature no studio overdubs.  This was Krug's first album from all of his projects to be so stripped down, and it's all the better as the songs get the chance to breathe in direct ways.  An astonishing piece of work.

5) PET SHOP BOYS--Electric
Coming a mere 10 months after their previous album, the muted Elysium, this British duo have continued to create fantastic pop music for the past 30 years.  Their latest, Electric, is the first on their own record label (x2), and features production from master electronic producer Stuart Price (Madonna, The Killers).  Expanding some of their songs in a looser format than usual, Electric ultimately continues the trajectory of Tennant-Lowe's history of witty and emotional songwriting that, with such a rich career, should place them in the category with other past luminaries like Lennon and McCartney.

6) DAVID BOWIE--The Next Day
An album most of us never thought would be made, Bowie shocked and surprised at the beginning of the year with his first release in a decade, and what a release it was.  The Next Day is invigorating with a sound that recalls some of his best past work like Heroes or Scary Monsters (Tony Visconti returns as producer), but lyrically stares down the end of a life that sees the number of days ahead shrinking.  Fire and brimstone are the word of the day here, yet the cover belies a flippant reaction to this weighty subject.  In a year that lost Lou Reed, the return of Bowie was almost like a resurrection. 

7) THE KNIFE--Shaking the Habitual
Certainly one of the most dividing records of the year, the Swedish brother-sister duo that make up The Knife returned with their first album of new material in seven years (Fever Ray came in-between).  Most of the songs clock in around the 8-minute mark, as this record stretches over two CDs or three LPs.  There's even an ambient track in the middle running nearly 20 minutes.  Still, the grinding industrial rhythms clash against sounds that seem as though they were created at the bottom of an Asian sea, as these tracks don't always function as songs, more often as sound collages.  Not for the faint of heart.

8) JAGWAR MA--Howlin
A liberating mix of British Oasis-style psychedelic rock mixed with late-80's rave culture, Australia's Jagwar Ma manage to find a sound that sits somewhere between the Stone Roses' debut and Primal Scream's Screamadelica.  These are not shabby reference points, to be sure.  Guitars weave in and out as dubby drums smash against walls of sequencers and trippy looped vocals.  With their debut, JM have managed to create something that references specific sounds of the past while retaining a fair amount of indivuality and originality.  Plus, it's damned catchy.

9) TEGAN & SARA--Heartthrob
Twin sisters Tegan & Sara have been making music for a decade, but it took producer Greg Kurstin (Kylie Minogue, Bird & the Bee) to really turn them on to the poppier side of their sound.  They are all the better for it, making the best pop record of the year (the similar Haim was close, but there's room for both). Recalling 80's Fleetwood Mac at their most melodic (again, see Haim), Tegan & Sara took a chance on alienating their audience, but have found a larger new one in the process, and have shown growth potential while also showing their fans another side of themselves.  This was an album that kept giving all year.

10) NINE INCH NAILS--Hesitation Marks
Nine Inch Nails is no longer the new band it once was--Trent Reznor's project has been active off and on for nearly 25 years now, yet Hesitation Marks is one of his freshest releases to date.  Reznor has shaken some of the shackles of the expectations of what an industrial album must sound like in 2013, with his work on soundtracks like The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo an influence.  He doesn't seem to be trying so hard to please here, finding more space in between the sounds, allowing for more creative textural nuances.  It's a slow-burning album with much of the anger tucked under the surface rather than being thrown in your face, and because of that, rewards on repeated listenings.  After a long break, this was another welcome return.

11) NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS--Push the Sky Away
12) CUT COPY--Free Your Mind
13) M.I.A.--Matangi
14) VAMPIRE WEEKEND--Modern Vampires of the City
15) JANELLE MONAE--The Electric Lady
16) CHVRCHES--The Bones of What You Believe
17) EMPIRE OF THE SUN--Ice on the Dune
18) SUEDE--Bloodsports
19) PREFAB SPROUT--Crimson/Red
20) ARCADE FIRE--Reflektor
21) YEAH YEAH YEAHS--Mosquito
23) NEKO CASE--The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight...
24) GOLDFRAPP--Tales of Us
25) OMD--English Electric
26) ALISON MOYET--The Minutes
27) HOLY GHOST!--Dynamics
28) OH LAND--Wishbone
29) HAIM--Days Are Gone
30) VV BROWN--Samson & Delilah
32) JULIA HOLTER--Loud City Song
33) SIGUR ROS--Kveikur
34) THE VEILS--Time Stays, We Go
35) LAURA MARLING--Once I Was an Eagle
36) RHYE--Open
37) DAFT PUNK--Random Access Memories
38) ST. LUCIA--When the Night
40) SAVAGES--Silence Yourself
42) LORDE--Pure Heroine
43) LITTLE BOOTS--Nocturnes
44) LADY GAGA--Artpop
45) YOUNG GALAXY--Ultramarine
46) MARY ONETTES--Hit the Waves
47) DEPECHE MODE--Delta Machine
48) JOSEPH ARTHUR--Ballad of Boogie Christ
49) CAMERA OBSCURA--Desire Lines
50) IAMX--Unified Field


  1. Nice list, but surprised to not see any of Phosphorescent, My Bloody Valentine, Okkervil River, Bill Callahan or Yo La Tengo anywhere.

  2. Hey Sean! There were actually about 20-30 MORE titles I was prepared to add to this list! Phosphorescent was rather good, I just didn't play it all that much until later in the year. Bill Callahan grew on me, but isn't really my personal favorite style, which is what this list was aimed at for me. I've never been a Yo la Tengo hater or anything, just a little ambivalent, and while the Okkervil River was quite good, I actually preferred Midlake's "Antiphon", which I liked a lot, but it was still just edged out here (It has featured on many top 10 lists though).

    My Bloody Valentine and I have a love/hate relationship. As much as I always loved that general style of music, I wasn't really a fan until they had broken up the first time around, and the way they marketed this new record really angered me. They make us wait 20 years, released it themselves initially as a download or ordering only from their website, and did not even BOTHER to release domestic physical versions in the USA where THOUSANDS of their fans had been waiting for decades to get it. They were unprepared for the demand and their site crashed, and when we DID actually get a physical copy, it was a vinyl LP that sells for upwards of $40--and we still have not sold ONE of them in six months (what does that tell you...). I did not even bother ordering the CD for anybody since they wanted $30-$35 for that too! Then I actually HEARD the album, which was not bad, NOT better than Loveless either, and I do remember one song being entirely too repetitive to the point of annoyance. The rest of it, however, was pretty good, but I was so frustrated, I have only played it once. A long explanation as to why it was left out--I don't really find it to be an official release on American soil.

    I do think your suggestions illuminate the fact that there were so many great records in 2013, many of which people didn't hear much or didn't invest in enough. I believe they will regret that one day. 2014 is already looking busy...

    1. Thanks for your insights Jason! Speaking of 2014, what are a few releases that are around the corner that you're really looking forward to?

  3. Well Sean, for starters, there are new records coming by February from standbys like Beck, Drive By Truckers, Broken Bells, Stephen Malkmus, Suzanne Vega, and Neil Finn. Then there are some wild cards like The Horrors (LOVED their last album), Toy (another psychedelic rock UK band), Beth Gibbons (solo from Portishead), Nina Persson (solo from Cardigans), Asgeir (great new Icelandic singer), and Snowbird (Simon Raymonde from Cocteau Twins new project). Add in new records from Dum Dum Girls (great retro pop all girl band), Sia (excellent singer/songwriter turned writer-to-the-stars), Young the Giant (melodic alt-rock band), Warpaint (alt rock all girl band), Phantogram (indie-tronica), possible releases from Foxes and Banks (also indie electro girls), Imogen Heap (it's been a long time), John Cale (legend), U2 (possibly), and Foo Fighters with Butch Vig producing...this is just a small taste of what may be in store, and there are still lots of things that have not been confirmed. It's already looking like a more active year than 2013, and if more big releases get dropped on us the way David Bowie and Beyonce did without much advance notice (or none at all), you never know what tomorrow may bring!