Watch+Listen: Favorite Albums Of 2013

by Kevin on December 13, 2013

arcadeWell, it’s that time of year: the time when all the magazines, blogs, and podcasts start cobbling together their year-end lists. Last year, I put together a series of “lists,” generally unranked, that attempted to catalog everything I thought worthwhile about the year. And once again, the exhausting futility of list-making drove me this year, resulting in a series of articles that will walk you through 2013 the way I heard it. We’ll start things off with albums, presented in alphabetical order.

Arcade Fire
Reflektor

None of this year’s highly-anticipated albums were as divisive as Reflektor—no, not even Yeezus—the sprawling new double album from Arcade Fire. It’s easy to see why: double albums rarely justify their lengths, typically the result of a surplus of ideas and a lack of oversight in how to implement them. Plus, this is Arcade Fire we’re talking about—a band that’s either one of the most innovative and dynamic working today or one of the hackiest and most overrated, depending on who you ask.

Me? I ride for Arcade Fire, unapologetically, and I think that for the most part Reflektor stands as one of the few modern double albums that makes a case for itself. The songs rarely get away from the band, thanks to the tight production from LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, so even potential missteps like “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” have the depth to keep the album moving toward the record’s greatest moments.

Chvrches
The Bones Of What You Believe

I became smitten with Chvrches, the nimble synthpop trio from Glasgow, from the moment I heard their early singles “The Mother We Share” and “Recover.” Everything about the band sounded jubilant yet deftly arranged, and singer Lauren Mayberry’s voice took Chvrches to the next level, with a mixture of deliberate confidence and a refreshing naïvety befitting an experienced vocalist. On the band’s debut, The Bones Of What You Believe, that talent combines with clever songwriting and joyous pop, and the results are an album that’s astonishingly fully realized for a debut.

While Chvrches’ secret weapon is easily Mayberry herself, the music works because of how easily the band can switch gears between bubbly tracks like “Gun” and “Night Sky” and the driving “Science/Visions,” in which the vocals soar over a Moroder-inspired theme while distorted vocals drift in reply. And take the Berlin-esque “Tether,” which begins like many a slow-dancing scene from an 80s movie before exploding into a triumphant anthem.The album is far from perfect, but what it lacks in skillful complexity it more than makes up in charm and potential.

Daft Punk
Random Access Memories

My complicated history with electronic music is well documented on this site, but even I admit there’s something undeniable about Daft Punk’s long-awaited proper follow-up to 2005’s Human After All (live albums, compilations, and soundtracks notwithstanding). The duo’s blend of cold, sterile robotics and human warmth has never been more fully realized, thanks to collaborations from the likes of Noah Lennox, Pharrell, Julian Casablancas, and Paul Williams. It’s an album that works as an album, not just a collection of dance songs, which is what normally keeps me at arm’s length when it comes to electronic music.

Sure, there are killer tracks, like the Lennox (Panda Bear) collab “Doin’ It Right” and the unstoppable monster “Get Lucky,” which deserves all its year-end accolades and more. But most of Random Access Memories’ tracks work best in the context of the record, particularly Paul Williams’ winding “Touch” and the loving tribute/oddball curiosity “Giorgio By Moroder.” The album’s length is perhaps both a detriment and one of its biggest strength, as it forces us to reckon with it on its terms, even in the digital age of playlists and shuffle. And that technological awareness is part of what makes Daft Punk leaders in their field and beyond.

Earl Sweatshirt
Doris

As the youngest member of the Odd Future collective, I might not have had much expectations for 19-year-old Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, a.k.a. Earl Sweatshirt. And after his budding career was sidetracked by his enrollment in a Samoan boarding school, Earl’s future was uncertain. But any doubts were erased in 2012 when new tracks began to surface, including spots on the Odd Future mixtape The OF Tape Vol. 2 and a verse on Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, followed by the disarmingly confessional future Doris track “Chum.”

Given this backdrop, Doris unsurprisingly sounds like the work of a much more mature artist. The grimy, druggy throwbacks like “Hive” and “Whoa” swim beside huge tracks like “Sasquatch” and the RZA-produced “Molasses,” most clocking in around 2-3 minutes each. What is surprising is how nostalgic Doris sounds, recalling the likes of Method Man and MF Doom while staying fresh and uniquely original. It’s a dark record for dark times, with a youthful flicker of hope that I hope remains unextinguished.

Foxygen
We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic

In an interview with Pitchfork.com, Foxygen’s Sam France explains the band’s vintage sound as completely earnest, confessing they “can’t really relate to modern music.” He continues, “Maybe we’re not intentionally trying to make something original.” This attitude supports my side of the debate with co-Planet Arbitrarian Joe, who balked when I first played him Foxygen’s third record We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic. “It sounds like a gimmick,” he said.

Whether Foxygen’s obsession with Nuggets garage rock, Beatles-esque pop, and dusty psychedelic grooves is a gimmick is, as far as I’m concerned, completely beside the point. Like other retro-minded bands like The Black Keys or Fleet Foxes, Foxygen’s love for the music they play shines throughout Peace & Magic, whether it’s on the wandering Lou Reed homage “No Destruction” or the explosive gospel-blues of “On Blue Mountain.” Foxygen does justice to the music that inspires them while successfully carving out their spot in modern music—whether they like it or not.

Frightened Rabbit
Pedestrian Verse

I can remember a time when a beloved indie band signing to a major label was a death knell, with fans convinced they were forsaking them and their catalog for piles of money and a tour sponsored by Pepsi and oil companies. In 2013, though, I don’t recall a single derogatory mention of how Frightened Rabbit signed to Atlantic for Pedestrian Verse, their fourth album; in fact, I’m not sure how many people even noticed.

Pedestrian Verse picks right up where 2010’s The Winter Of Mixed Drinks left off, with brooding pop-folk full of bright guitars and Scott Hutchison’s charming voice telling the same kind of arresting stories that got them there. Preceded by last falls State Hospital EP, featuring the gorgeous title track that also appears here, Pedestrian Verse is a solid, exemplary album with a big sound and tremendous heart. I hope that the days of grumbling about labels is over, because for a band like Frightened Rabbit, their talent trumps everything else.

HAIM
Days Are Gone

Does it say anything about the state of modern music that one of the most compelling, buzzed about records of the year comes from a trio steeped in Fleetwood Mac, AM Gold, and yacht rock? Has our perpetual nostalgia finally reached the point where breezy California AOR is no longer something to scoff at? Are we finally ready to admit Steve Winwood and Don Henley wrote some good fucking songs?

What makes HAIM’s Days Are Gone such a winsome record isn’t its influences, but rather how sincerely those influences are embraced. There’s no irony, no winking, no tongues in any cheeks (well, maybe on “My Song 5”). The earnestness of toe-tappers like “The Wire” and “Don’t Save Me” speak for themselves, and HAIM—three sisters from the San Fernando Valley—are a rock ’n roll success story in the making. Thank goodness music is still allowed to be fun once in a while.

Kanye West
Yeezus

Ah, Yeezus. Where to start? 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was one of my favorite albums of the last decade, a magnum opus of technical style and grandiose ambition perhaps not seen since Thriller. Meanwhile 2011’s Watch The Throne with Jay-Z was a similarly ambitious (if more traditional) rap album of celebrated excess and studio wizardry.

But if both of those albums seemed like definitive statements that invited listeners to see the world the way West sees it, Yeezus seems defiant, angry; a willfully obtuse, difficult listen that dares audiences to enjoy it. From the abrasive opening notes of “On Sight”—a practically tuneless (and mercifully brief) opening salvo if ever there was one—to the abrupt ending of (and deliriously corny video for) “Bound 2,” West takes listeners on a winding journey in which he plays each of the dozens of roles he’s played over the years: creative genius, megalomaniac, and lovestruck kid, to name a few.

Ultimately, Yeezus is another complicated chapter in The Kanye West Story, and I think its success primarily comes from West’s insistence on trying anything and everything to make his music unique. Obscure samples from the likes of Brenda Lee, TNGHT, and Nina Simone flesh out dark, intense productions from Daft Punk and others. No other album on this list demands so much of its listeners, and those willing to take the trip will find plenty to reward them.

Mikal Cronin
MCII

On his 2009 collaboration with psych-rock madman Ty Segall, Reverse Shark Attack, Mikal Cronin lets his freak flag fly, thrashing through a relatively brief set of noisy, urgent rockers. But Cronin’s second solo effort and first for Merge, MCII, is a different beast entirely: a skillful power pop record drenched in guitars but without the noise. MCII has more in common with punky pop revivalists King Tuff and Gentleman Jesse than with Ty Segall’s electric freakouts, and it makes for a surprising record in the vein of Matthew Sweet, The Raspberries, or even Big Star.

MCII breezes by with singalong choruses and ramshackle hooks, layering electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards, Cronin’s playful vocals, and an appropriate level of fuzz. And although Cronin is immensely talented, every song has an inspired, off-the-cuff quality, particularly for power pop and garage fans. Simple, catchy, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Neko Case
The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Neko Case is one of the most treasured singer-songwriters working today, and the generously-titled The Worse Things Get… continues the work that 2009’s Middle Cyclone began of rounding out Neko’s rustic Americana with effervescent pop. Songs like the defiant yet celebratory “Man” and the rumbling “Bracing For Sunday” wouldn’t sound out of place on a New Pornographers album, but The Worse Things Get is still undeniably Neko’s own creation, carried by her powerful voice and clever turn of phrase.

The album’s best song, “City Swan,” features subtly swelling strings and a sparkling guitar solo that slowly fades out, making way for a cover of Nico’s “Afraid” (from the breathtaking 1970 album Desertshore). This one-two punch underscores the album’s themes of frailty, alienation, and ferocious individuality, particularly as Neko delivers the line “You are beautiful and you are alone.” It’s a wonderful album that stands with the best in the catalog of a singular talent.

Vampire Weekend
Modern Vampires Of The City

On their self-titled debut, Vampire Weekend came out swinging with a sound so fused with its upper-class aesthetic, they turned off a lot of potential listeners immediately. But the kids could play, and they possessed such an innate pop sensibility, that I liked them right away, and excitedly followed them into their sophomore album, Contra, which introduced a few new elements while mostly focusing on tightening up what was already there.

Now, five years after that debut, Modern Vampires Of The City finds Vampire Weekend a force to be reckoned with. Seriously, there’s not a dud in the bunch, from the spastic bounce of “Diane Young” to the dense, dirge-like “Hudson.” It’s telling that as I browsed year-end lists on other sites, everyone agreed Vampire Weekend belonged at or near the top, but everyone seemed to highlight different tracks as the best the record had to offer. For a band that seems to rub so many people the wrong way, that’s a pretty big win that speaks volumes about what Vampire Weekend is capable of.

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