Top 10 Albums of the Year
2013 was the year of “Get Lucky.” Daft Punk’s disco jam hit No. 1 in 28 countries and sold more than 7.3 million copies, bringing the French duo back to the mainstream and inspiring a horde of covers that included ones by U2 and, no joke, the Russian police choir (If you haven’t seen it, you have to find it on YouTube). It wasn’t, however, the year of “Random Access Memories,” the woefully one-dimensional album that spawned the infectious single. Sometimes when I was listening to “R.A.M.,” I thought, much like Sascha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker, this is “some of the worst music I’ve ever heard.” It definitely has its champions, count The Telegraph and Entertainment Weekly among them, but you won’t find it on my list.
What you will find in my Top Ten is an eclectic mix that doesn’t reveal any real narrative of 2013. My list doesn’t stand as evidence for a certain argument about what defined 2013, but rather exists as a highly personal jumble of stuff that has connected with me the most. So, without further ado, here’s my picks for the best albums of the year.
10. Juana Molina – “Wed 21”
The standout single “Eras,” with its eerie video that features a masked creature with three eyes sewing lettuce to kill people (yep), will draw you in, but in order to get the most out of this headphones-necessary LP, you have to pay close attention. It’s easy to get used to Molina’s sound and to fall into the trap that all the songs sound the same. But they really don’t. Molina always has some weird sound in her back pocket that keeps things interesting. You just have to be actively listening.
9. Mudhoney – “Vanishing Point”
Eternally under-appreciated, Mudhoney consistently puts out better music than any of the grunge survivors they inspired. The group’s 2008 record, “The Lucky Ones,” was the defining post-grunge rock record. It featured lyrics like “The lucky ones have already gone down. The Lucky ones are lucky they’re not around.” What’s more grunge than that? Anyway, “Vanishing Point” continues their hot streak with punk bursts like “Chardonnay,” a 1:40-long rant about why Mark Arm hates the “soccer mom’s favorite sipper.” It’s hilarious, raucous, and better than anything on Pearl Jam’s “Lightning Bolt.”
8. Laura Marling – “Once I Was an Eagle”
When I first heard this record, I was disappointed. It seemed like Marling had traded in her the silly quirks and creative spirit for minimalism and atmospherics and had lost the essence of what made her music interesting. But then I kept listening. And sure, these songs are less short story-like than “Ghosts,” but, in the end, they’re no less effective. There’s just as much insight here and perhaps even more emotional power. Her sound has matured, but it’s not boring yet.
7. The Field –
The most exciting recent records for me, artistically speaking, have been electronic albums. The realm of dance music seems to be the only place where musicians are still succeeding in trying to fulfill the The Beatles’ promise that rock ‘n’ roll can be art. “Cupid’s Head” is a great example of this. Listening to it is a journey, one that goes from the stormy dynamics of “They Won’t See Me” through the techno persistence of the title track to the transcendent, grinding progression of “No. No” Just put it on, let it play and it will take you places.
6. Elvis Costello and The Roots – “Wise Up Ghost”
I’ve never listened to Elvis Costello or The Roots that much, but after hearing this album, I definitely should. “Wise Up Ghost” is like a how-to for pop rock albums. It’s filled with smart lyrics, great hooks and beats that make you move your feet. But make no mistake, it’s definitely a Costello album featuring The Roots – these songs are structured like ’80s pop songs and have the pop troubador’s mark all over them.
5. Tegan and Sara – “Heartthrob”
Speaking of the ’80s, Tegan and Sara was, along with Haim, one of the groups leading the yearly ’80s revival in 2013. The former indie duo embraced their inner Go-Go’s with seductive results. In my opinion, besides “Get Lucky,” no pop song in the past year was as effective as “Closer.” Every time I hear that beginning, “All I wanna get is/ a little bit closer,” accompanied by the synthesizer, I get giddy. It’s such a fun song to, like they do in the wonderful video, jump on the bed and sing-along to. The naysayers (or haters, if you will) say their indie stuff was better. But just like in R.E.M.’s case, I always find it more impressive when indie groups risk their cred to get in touch with their inner pop star.
4. Blood Orange – “Cupid Deluxe”
Continuing the ’80s theme, I’ve been indulging in this pseudo-Prince, pop funk bliss almost every day since I downloaded the album. I never get tired of hearing Dev Hynes’ falsetto soar in “No Right Thing,” feeling the heartbreak of “You’re Not Good Enough,” or rocking out to the towering beat of “Time Will Tell.” Several of my friends on Facebook, who are pretty tough critics, were pretty dismissive of this music. But I say they’re missing out on some great pop.
3. Arcade Fire –
Suddenly, it’s not cool to like Arcade Fire. But I guess the backlash was inevitable – they’ve been considered indie royalty for nearly a decade now and after their superb last record, “The Suburbs,” won Grammy album of the year, the chorus of boos was bound to come through.
In spite of this, Arcade Fire has made one of their best albums – “Reflektor” has all the grand gestures of “Funeral,” but is fueled by livelier beats and production tweaks that give a little more to the listener who isn’t particularly interested in hearing Win Butler complain about technology or talk about God.
2. Jenny Hval –
“Innocence is Kinky”
It completely makes sense that John Parish, a favorite collaborator of PJ Harvey, would produce Jenny Hval’s “Innocence is Kinky.” Sometimes the album is so intimate, so emotionally charged, that it would put you in mind of Harvey and some of her best whisperings. Parish also makes use of the grungey, soft-loud dynamic here as well, of which Harvey is a master. But Hval is no Harvey clone – she’s got Bjork’s love for the unexpected, the curve ball and the punishing sound that pushes you out, which keeps listeners on their toes and makes for a very exciting experience. One never knows where a song will go and even upon repeated listens, the tension is somehow always there.
1. Jon Hopkins – “Immunity”
My introduction to Jon Hopkins came through the sprawling video for “Open Eye Signal,” directed by Aoife McArdle. It features a kid on a skateboard going from one visually stunning landscape to another. We see suburbs, a desert, people on fire, and a monstrous, “Lord of the Rings”-like tree as well. All the while, he’s squinting into the sun with a black eye and a dirty face. It feels like a great, minimalist, indie short film and is a perfect representation of the type of feeling Hopkins’ electronic music evokes.