There’s never been a better time to be a music fan.
There’s never been a better time to be a music fan, full stop. Each year brings an increasingly overflowing bounty of musical goodness that no mortal man (or woman) could ever hope to completely keep up with. You can’t hear it all! But I can sure as hell try. I certainly did my best, given the constraints of an adult life. As it is every year, I’m not claiming that these were the “best” albums of the year. Art is subjective, my friends. You can’t quantify it. Music is what moves you. But these were my favorites, my constant-rotation best pals that got me through one of the most on-balance relentlessly arduous years of my adult life. So, without further ado, here they are, the Top 10, in no specific order whatsoever.
(I’ve also curated a bonus, 100-plus-song-long Spotify playlist of my favorite tracks from my favorite records of 2013, the 30+ here plus all of the rest, should you wish to avail yourself of such things. A winner is you!)
- Chvrches: The Bones of What You Believe (Virgin/Goodbye) | Scottish retro-modern electro-pop with a soul that can barely be contained. Frontwoman Lauren Mayberry sings with an edge and passion that leaps forth out of her seemingly unassuming, tiny frame. There’s a concurrent aggression and tenderness to many of these songs, making it an album that can steel your resolve or move you to tears. Chvrches’ debut is the magnificent sound of a beating, bloody human heart encased in a vintage analog synthesizer.
- Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City (XL) | Each Vampire Weekend record is more finely wrought than the one that came before. Show me a young working band this slavishly devoted to and gifted in intricate songcraft. Go on, I dare you! Modern Vampires uses digital age technology to sculpt an analog-warm album, one to dive into and get lost in for weeks at a time, like a novel you can’t put down even though it’s now two hours past your bedtime. It’s thrillingly concentrated with indie-pop immediacy, snaking, subtle melody, challenging rhythms, and modern studio tricks, Vampire Weekend’s trademark white-boy Afro-pop tempered quite a bit with hip-hop samples and chamber pop. It’s a short story collection’s worth of wryly observant character sketches of urbane youth giving way to young adulthood, a third album that feels like the work of a band going on their tenth.
- Mount Moriah: Miracle Temple (Merge) | Appalachian torch songs, by way of Dolly Parton and Chapel Hill college rock, that slowly unwind and smolder. Wandering gospel ghosts ride shotgun down two-lane Southern highways alongside the faint strains of a Muscle Shoals rhythm section coming in over crackly AM radio.
- The National: Trouble Will Find Me (4AD) | The ultimate slow grower from a band that only makes slow growers. Truthfully, this is an album that’s content to utilize and graft minor updates onto the near-perfect build-and-release indie-noir template of 2010’s High Violet. But that’s a spinoff worth green-lighting. Trouble Will Find Me is a woozy walk home through a world of sharp-relief black and white photography, a sort of musical peering out at the world from behind a beard, knit cap, and upturned coat collar.
- Neko Case: The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight; the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You (Anti-) | After enduring grief-stricken depression and its attendant writer’s block, and essentially disappearing for several years, Case emerged intact, with a sense of relieved survival. Where her previous LP Middle Cyclone dealt heavily in themes of her—and other people—as forces of nature, as the barely concealed animals at our cores, The Worse Things Get is saturated with vibes of having weathered a storm, of being tossed about on someone else’s sea. It’s intensely personal and emotional, replete with Case’s versatile, trademark vocals: alternatively defiant and world-weary. Its songs are taut, and not afraid to mix power pop, evocative, brass-flecked country-folk, and adventurous, left-turn arrangements. (See: the a cappella “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” and the winding, horn-soaked finale “Ragtime.”) Dial up “I’m from Nowhere” to hear Case artfully capture the album’s wandering, yet somehow certain, vibe via thee spartan, acoustic guitar-and-voice minutes.
- Johnny Marr: The Messenger (Sire) | If anyone has ever deserved being bestowed the NME’s “Godlike Genius” award (as he was in 2013), it’s Johnny Marr. The Messenger not only lends credence to the idea that the prolific songwriter and session axeman extraordinaire has lead singer chops, but also handily and resoundingly erases the putrid aftertaste of Marr’s previous frontman experiment with the Healers. Marr serves up in spades chiming, winding, melodic guitar worthy of the best of the Smiths alongside angular lines influenced by his time spent in Modest Mouse. A work of finely crafted guitar art from the man who wrote the best-selling book on rhythm + melody.
- Son Volt: Honky Tonk (Rounder) | “There’s a world of wisdom inside a fiddle tune.” Jay Farrar has a knack for combining the impressionistic and plainspoken. Honky Tonk channels the classic, pedal-steel-and-fiddle–driven Bakersfield country sound into the most evocative, yet straight-ahead honest Son Volt record since its timeless debut. It’s trad, without almost any trace of the “alt,” but heartfelt and loving, and doubly powerful because of it.
- David Bowie: The Next Day (ISO/Columbia) | Surprise Bowie album is surprising! It would have been one thing had a brand new Bowie record simply materialized as it did, unexpected and almost completely devoid of promotion. But for him to also grab longtime producer Tony Visconti, swear him and the musicians to secrecy, record the thing without leaks, drop it on an unsuspecting world—and have it be one of his most vital recordings of the past 30 years? That takes confidence, and Bowie’s trademark one-step-ahead-of-the-game savvy. The Next Day is a compelling listen—a rocking, cacophonous, squonking spiritual descendant of his Berlin trilogy, dense with allusions to death, aging, familial bonds, and the afterlife (if any). It’s also wickedly, darkly humorous. The album is haunted by the specter of mortality, but isn’t ready to die. It’s the work of a man who’s always felt not quite of this earth, but also wholly, almost painfully, human.
- Kacey Musgraves: Same Trailer Different Park (Mercury Nashville) | This is hook-laden, slick mainstream country that knows how to simultaneously work and subvert the rigid, homogeneous pool it swims in. In the context of nearly any other genre, Musgraves would hardly rock the boat, but here she makes it sway. And this is a bold tightrope to walk—respecting baked-in conservative mores and production values, but also challenging them, and not being afraid to talk about drugs, premarital sex, cycles of poverty, and contradictory small-town thought processes—kitchen sink dramas for modern Middle America. Great twangy, pop-savvy songs that blend in and then branch out; ones that will satisfy your inner music snob and your radio-country listening parents.
- Kanye West: Yeezus (Def Jam) | Where 808s and Heartbreak expressed naked emotion from behind a veneer of icy machinery, and My Dark Twisted Fantasy was menacing yet organically earthy, Yeezus is industrial, abrasive, and frequently base, yet consistently fascinating, and even melodic. Here, Yeezy takes his Messianic obsessions to astonishing new heights while getting truly experimental—this is a record that makes you stop laughing after you learn he was giving university talks on architecture, and had relocated to Paris and claimed to visit the Louvre on breaks for inspiration. It’s easy to forgive and even celebrate this kind of egotism when it’s done this adventurously and with sharply evident talent.
Plus: 23 Honorable Mentions
I could easily give you a couple dozen more on top of these, but I’m trying to at least make an attempt at brevity here…ha!
- Manic Street Preachers: Rewind the Film (Columbia)
- Josh Rouse: The Happiness Waltz (Yep Roc)
- Rhye: Woman (Polydor)
- Arctic Monkeys: AM (Domino)
- Mark Kozelek & Desertshore: Mark Kozelek/Desertshore (Caldo Verde)
- Mark Kozelek & the Album Leaf: Perils From The Shore (Caldo Verde)
- Nine Inch Nails: Hesitation Marks (Columbia/Null)
- Elton John: The Diving Board (Capitol)
- Frightened Rabbit: Pedestrian Verse (Atlantic)
- Courtney Barnett: The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas (Marathon)
- Pet Shop Boys: Electric (x2)
- Daughter: If You Leave (4AD)
- Matthew Good: Arrows of Desire (FrostByte Media)
- Jason Isbell: Southeastern (Southeastern)
- Phoenix: Bankrupt! (Glassnote/Atlantic)
- Cut Copy: Free Your Mind (Modular)
- Arcade Fire: Reflektor (Merge)
- Night Beds: Country Sleep (Dead Oceans)
- Minor Alps: Get There (Barsuk)
- The Head and the Heart: Let’s Be Still (Sub Pop)
- The Mary Onettes: Hit the Waves (Labrador)
- Best Coast: Fade Away EP (Jewel City)
- Haim: Days Are Gone (Polydor)