Photo courtesy of Marc Ruxin
I'm not sure you need me to tell you about the 2013 records by Kanye, Daft Punk and Arcade Fire. They were unanimously fawned over, richly produced concept pieces that actually hang together. Instead, I'll focus on the handful of albums (yes I still tend to listen to albums -- albeit in a digital form) that stood out and made 2013 another great year. Perhaps I am getting set in my ways, but I consume music through the following devices and platforms: Spotify, Sonos, Songza, Rdio, Jambox, Pandora, Sirius/XM, an iPhone, car CD player and an ancient B&O turntable. Ultimately, as long as you are listening to music that makes you happy and discovering new music every once in a while, it doesn't matter how you consume it.
1) Junip - Junip
Swedish folkie Jose Gonzalez has long been a one of the best modern folk singers of our time, as a soloist, band leader (Junip) and occasional vocalist for bands like Zero 7. He has a beautifully calm and confident voice. His acoustic guitar playing is incredibly precise, almost Nick Drake -- like its complicated simplicity. But with Junip, Gonzalez's fully realized band, the results are sturdier, rockier, and generally serious songs filled with hypnotic grooves.
Although perhaps tapping into the Americana roots resurgence, Junip doesn't aspire towards Mumford; they seem to be mining a darker more introspective place, but somehow still in the same tradition. Standout tracks like "In Every Direction" have every bit the groove of their American peers, but without any of the rootsy whimsy. Almost nothing struck me like this record this year, but then again I expected greatness.
2) Midlake - Antiphon (Bella Union)
For those paying attention, for nearly a decade Midlake has been an unheralded giant in the renaissance of big Americana rock music. Like a younger, rangier My Morning Jacket, the Denton, TX band creates sprawling guitar rock that tends to be cut more from their jazz roots, than the blues.
"Antiphon" is the first record made after the departure of lead singer Tim Smith, and is both less precious than its prior effort "The Courage of Others" and perhaps more original sounding than their brilliant "Trials of Van Occupanther" Fleetwood Mac inspired masterpiece. What it is, however, is a deadly serious, mightily compelling roller coaster of an arena rock classic. Lushly produced and orchestrated, this is music to be savored as a complete record, not as songs to be tossed randomly into a playlist. This is something very special.
3) London Grammar - If You Wait (Warner)
I'm not sure how big "If You Wait" will be by the time you finally get around to reading this, but even if it doesn't end up filling the void left by an Adele/Florenceless year, I will still love it. It is the obvious bastard stepchild of The XX and Florence, with songwriting and production that is every bit as slick and seductive, but more than anything it all rides on the capable shoulders and vocals of Hannah Reid.
Even when you wean yourself off the hopelessly addictive "Hey Now" single, the rest of the album is a lush, sexy, smoky effort, reminiscent of the lovely trip hop of the early 90's (Zero 7, Morcheeba, and even the 90's 4AD roster). Driving music, head phone music, winter music, and summer music. A great record is always all of those, and so is this.
4) Portugal. The Man - Evil Friends (Atlantic)
Take all the anthemic brilliance that was the mid-90's Oasis, wrap it in Portlandia hipsterism, and let Danger Mouse spin the dials and you have one of the finest albums of the year. Almost every song here is some kind of infectious groove mixed with a chorus that causes the hairs on the back of your neck to take notice.
On "Plastic Soldiers," as with most of the songs on this album, things start innocently enough but eventually acoustic guitar strums morph into big chorus driven walls of melodic sound: "Could it be we got lost in the summer / I know you know that it's over ..." In the age of singles, it is great to hear albums created by bands that realize that singles are ephemeral, and that albums are forever.
5) Neko Case - The Worse Things Get, The harder I Fight, The More I Love You (Anti-)
There isn't a more distinctive straight-forward female voice in modern music than Neko Case. Perhaps PJ Harvey used to hold the torch, but Case has been making country-tinged solo records for years, and has been a card carrying new pornographer since the beginning. She is a legitimate force of nature with her long red hair and silky voice.
This time out Case is less country (which is good) and more good old fashioned rock, rounded out with a super group of guests from Calexico, Mudhoney, MMJ and others. Songs like "City Swans" showcase what she has been doing for a decade -- belting out endlessly catchy choruses and just letting her voice sail into some beautiful sunset. This is truly a special album.
6) Bonobo - The North Borders (Warp)
According to Spotify, I listened to Bonobo more than any other artist in 2013. I suppose that speaks to the versatility of the music, a good working vibe, my nostalgia for 90's trip-hop and acid jazz, and the fact that most recent electronic music tends to lack the nuance of "The North Borders." Bonobo (aka Simon Green) blends jazz rhythms, dubstep, trip-hop and tribal beats into something different than almost anything else in the genre.
In some ways "The North Borders" is kind of the electronic equivalent of what Miles was doing with "Bitches Brew." It is rich and otherworldly, but also weird enough to keep you focused. It also features a handful of great vocalists like Erykah Badu on "Heaven For the Sinner" and Szjerdene on a handful of standout tracks. This is deep stuff, but goes down super easy.
7) The National - Trouble Will Find Me (4AD)
It's hard to deny The National anything other than massively high praise. Certain bands are able to transcend all the hype, the rock stardom, the press, the over-indulgent bad behavior, and still stay focused on the music. The National take what they do very seriously, but not to an obnoxious degree. They write lyrics and explore themes of life through dark lenses, but never rely on melodrama or chill superficiality.
After more than a decade, The National hasn't pushed itself like U2 and Radiohead did after a while, but instead seem to prefer a kind of slow motion evolution. With every record they become more confident, more brooding, but also still youthful in how they approach making something that will become iconic.
8) Rhye - Woman (Ribbon Music)
Sure, Rhye singer Mike Milosh is a dude that sings like a lady. He has an angelic voice that sounds like Sade, and the ten songs on the ironically titled "Woman" are perfect. But despite the novelty effect of this gender bending, it is rare to hear an album that so effectively references the past and the present. Unlike so many dance records that lean hard on synthetic beats, and manipulated vocals, "Woman" is a fairly naturalistic effort, that asks little more than that you relax and let the songs pour over you.
9) San Fermin - San Fermin (Downtown)
Like fellow Brooklynite and Yale educated Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors, San Fermin impresario Ellis Ludwig-Leone has created one of the most sophisticated pop albums of the year. The self-titled debut features 17 orchestral rock songs that exist somewhere between precious and perfect. Like Dirty Projectors and Sufjan Stevens, the music is both a string brass adorned chamber affair as well as an indie pop masterpiece.
On songs like "Renaissance!", lead singer Allen Tate sings in a deep, lush baritone (think early Bryan Ferry) but shares the spotlight with the gals from Lucius whose songs 'Sonsick' tend to be more straight-forward pop classics. Records like this take a few listens to soak in, but when they do, you know that you have just mined gold.
10) Kurt Vile and the Violators - Walkin on a Pretty (Matador)
Kurt Vile makes warm and wonderful American guitar rock music. From the opening notes '"Walkin on a Pretty" glides along on a mellow stoney groove. Pristinely produced and decidedly unhurried, Vile is comfortable ambling through his own real or imagined countryside. It's as much 70's era Neil Young as it is 2013 indie rock, and as such resonates as easily with middle-aged rockers as with young urban hipsters.
Although it is easy to think of "Walkin on a Pretty Daze" as a solo project, this work is the product of a talented band. To single out any song here is to ignore the fact that unlike many artists today, Vile has written an "album," with songs that fit neatly together, meant to be listened to front to back, not extracted into playlists. Great records take you on a journey, and more than almost anything that I have listened to this year, Vile makes me long for vinyl and warm summer nights.
11) Jake Bugg - Jake Bugg (Mercury) / Jake Bugg - Shangri-La (Island-Def Jam)
The last real old school British folkie that sounded like 19 year-old Jake Bugg was Billy Bragg. Bugg has a kind of working class disposition, with a slightly nasal but smooth vocal style, and a strums his guitar with a 50/60's swagger that had all but disappeared half a century before he was born (think Buddy Holly, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan). His more stripped down self-titled debut has a handful of the best songs of its kind since Billy Bragg was in his prime: "Lightening Bolt," "Two Fingers," and "Seen It All.'"
Having seen him live a few times though, it seems incredible how confident he is playing this kind of music in this way as a teenager. On the Rick Rubin produced follow-up, instead of creating a lush and complex follow-up, the two stick to the original formula, mostly guitars and vocals with a bit of drums and the occasional bass. Perhaps not the revelation of his debut, it is a great record. Had he been raised in Canada on a steady diet of Celine Dion, he might have become Justin Bieber, but fortunately for us, he grew up on Dylan and the White Stripes. Some have argued he is the male Adele, and perhaps he is. Either way I am along for the ride.
12) Yo La Tengo - Fade (Matador)
For over 25 years, Hoboken's most endlessly creative band has been producing some of the subtlest, most expansive records of any group during that period. They haven't so much matured as they have evolved their unique brand melodic pop rock just a little bit every time. "Fade" might be their most consistently upbeat and melodic record yet. In the past these sweet pop meditations have been sharply juxtaposed against long, spacey walls of sound. Tunes like "Is That Enough'" showcase a sweet and sentimental side, while others like "I'll Be Around" take their trademark hypnotic grooves to a quiet tranquil place.
With husband and wife Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley trading vocal duties, and James McNew keeping the trains on the track with his hypnotic basslines, there is always something calming and subtley optimistic about their music. In an age of singles, fast hype cycles and YouTube virility, Yo La Tengo seems to be that rare band of professionals that will never compromise and as such will be able to play to a solid and adoring fan base.
13) Local Natives - Hummingbird (Frenchkiss)
Second albums are hard, especially when you have been shot out of the hype canon and onto the stages of every festival, music blog, and best of list imaginable. But Local Natives have not only managed to trump the spontaneous playfulness of their debut album, they have created a follow up filled with surprising polish and ambition. Although it might have been easy to classify the band as a crunchier more percussive step-child of bands like the National, this time around there is a more expansive sound, more reminiscent of selected Radiohead.
Produced by The National's Aaron Dessner, the sound is crystal clear, soaring and tends to build slowly ("Heavy Feet" and "Breakers") into anthemic explosions. The band also features multiple singers and guitarists so there is a kind of diverse moody/earnestness that meanders throughout the record. To say that "Hummingbird" is a serious work is to undersell how consistently joyful and free-spirited the band has become. Still, young and dead set on a long career, Local Natives seem prepared to take their time, but not so long we forget how much we love them.
14) Holy Ghost! - Dynamics (DFA) / Poolside - Pacific Standard Time (Day & Night)
The genre of indie dance music, not to be confused with EDM, can most simply be initially attributed to LCD Soundsystem, then perhaps commercialized by MGMT. There is quite a bit of it now but my recent favorites belong to Holy Ghost! and a record I somehow missed last year by Poolside.
Holy Ghost! is a Brooklyn based synth heavy dance band whose irresistible big beats reference every consequential 80's new wave beat from Blondie to Cabaret Voltaire. They make music for mustache wearing hipsters, as with "Do It Again," and for old 80's nostagists who might hear fragments of Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop Till I get Enough" mixed with the Human League "Wait and See.'"Obviously this is nothing new, but ultimately it doesn't really matter.
Poolside, whose 2012 debut is decidedly better, is an LA based DJ duo who has translated this East Coast mentality into a mellower West Coast affair. The beats are deeper, the vocals are cleaner, and the output feels like a stonier Cut Copy than it does NY or London in the 80's. Tunes like "California Sunset" are wonderfully addicting reminders that you should always take time to catch a sunset -- or at least listen to one great song every day.
15) Lucius - Wildewoman (Mom & Pop Music)
Lucius is the latest in a epic run of strong girl fronted groups (e.g., Dum Dum Girls, Warpaint, Vivian Girls, Haim, and the recent Luscious Jackson reunion). In some ways this album is less about something new, and more a perfection of everything that has come before it. Filled with seamless harmonizing and infectious melodies, vocalists Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe create dreamy pop songs grounded in something more earnest.
"Wildewomen" cover quite a bit of ground from quiet soulful ballads like "Go Home" to poppier standouts like "Until We Get There." It would be easy to merely listen to Lucius through the thin veil of Phil Spector "wall of sound" revisited, but this is a really great record that stands on its own.
16) Haim - Attack on Memory (Carpark Records)
In the age of the internet the hype machine is virtually unavoidable. There was perhaps no band more hyped coming into 2013 than Haim, three sisters from LA who had released a series of addictive singles over the past few years, before blowing up on XMU and then beginning an endless tour that had them at almost every relevant summer festival of consequence.
Their Fleetwood Mac meets Go-Go's sound makes you feel for a moment as if they should be a guilty pleasure, but to see them live is to realize that they are genuinely talented musicians as capable of big noisy jams as they are addictive pop. Listen to "Falling," "Forever," and "The Wire." More than anything it is the vocal harmonizing that makes them so special. These are sweet pop songs without all the mind numbing teeny-bop sugar of mainstream.
17) My Bloody Valentine - mbv (self released) Twenty years later, My Bloody Valentine picks up where it left off with nine fuzzy, shoegazey classics. The sound is a bit bigger, but everything else almost makes you forget twenty long years have gone by since "Loveless."
18) Danny Brown - Old (Fool's Gold) Believe the hype. Brown is absolutely my favorite MC, blending ultra smooth vocals and a bunch of unlikely but perfect collaborators (Purity Ring) with some mind-blowing storytelling.
19) Foals - Holy Fire (SubPop) Foals probably comes as close to harnessing the dark pop energy of mid-career Cure as any band I can think of. On their third full length, the band delivers a bouncy new wave jewel.
20) Okkervil River - The Silver Gymnasium (Jagjaguwar) The beautiful, warbling vocals of Will Sheff spinning strange and beautiful yarns about the perils of modern life is the perfect compliment to the band's infectious Americana rock.
21) King Krule - 6 Feet Beneath the Moon (Rough Trade) King Krule is a London teenager with a very old soul. Like Jake Bugg, Krule sounds like young Billy Bragg but with a keyboard to create a loungier more soulful sound. Lovely.
22) Laura Marling - Once I Was An Eagle (Ribbon) If Jake Bugg is the new Bob Dylan, then Laura Marking is new Joni Mitchell. She writes beautiful songs that just build effortlessly on top of of that incredible voice and a guitar strummed so confidently.
23) Pretty Lights - A Color Map (ATO) Perhaps it is that Pretty Lights both respects and incorporates jam-bandish elements into his expansive down tempo albums and shows that explains why I like it so much. This is warmest dance record of the year by far.
24) Austra - Olympia (Domino) A band of ethereal electronic chanteuses from Toronto churn out some of the most vocally accomplished and unique songs of the year.
25) Parquet Courts - Light Up Gold (What's Your Rupture) Scrappy, sarcastic, ironic, noisy, post punk from Brooklyn based Texas transplants.
26) To Kill A King - Cannibals With Cutlery (Xtra Mile Recordings) A criminally under heard record by a bunch of melodic moody Brits, who blend folk with rock but do so in a laid back way.
Here is the year's bestest in Playlist form.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly referred to Ellis Ludwig-Leone as the lead singer of San Fermin. The lead singer of San Fermin is Allen Tate, and Ellis Ludwig-Leone is the composer. The post has been updated to correct this.